The On-Ramp to the Infinite Expanse

Probably one of the things most people notice early when they really begin to study the bible for themselves is how much the bible quotes itself. It might begin with the slow realization that what seems to be a collection of random half-words and numbers on the side or in the middle of the page is actually a bunch of bible verse references, and you might start to look them up. And if you do, you’ll find that nothing opens up your understanding of the Bible like seeing these connections and how they illuminate what the Bible is saying. The deeper you get into it, the more you might start wondering–how could someone even understand the bible at all if they didn’t know all these connections?

It’s really an interesting question to consider: how much biblical knowledge does someone need to understand the bible? Can we, for instance, just hand someone a Gospel of John and expect them to understand what they’re reading?

I recently found an interesting passage that addresses this question in a new book by Gary Schnittjer. He starts off quoting another author…

Ben Witherington III says,  “The Gospel story may be told in arcane language and may occasionally quote arcane texts but that language and those texts are now part of a new story…and must make sense without scurrying back to the OT again and again to get the full gist of the story because probably only a tiny minority of the audience…are learned enough and sophisticated enough to catch and then probe the allusions or echoes, or even for that matter to know where to look for the quotations.”

This is a great short answer to our question. at least when we’re discussing the Gospel story, it must be understandable in its essential elements, at face value, when it’s heard or read for the first time. So yes. Hand people the Gospel of John, cold, with no back story. Let God’s word do its work. But then, what of those center column references? This is how Schnittjer connects the dots:

Does not attention to scriptural allusions obstruct the simple gospel? It could, but that is not the point. The Scriptures, like anything else, can be understood in an initial manner without encyclopedic knowledge of backstory and context. Followers of the Messiah need to start somewhere.

At the same time, Scripture consistently advocates a life of meditating upon, studying, teaching, and obeying the Scriptures. The initial testimony of the Scriptures provides an on-ramp to a fuller understanding which necessarily includes interpreting exegesis within Scripture. First-time reading of Scripture offers much even while the Scriptures themselves welcome and invite close study including scriptural allusions by subtle devices.

So it’s both/and. And wouldn’t you expect God’s word to be this way? Understandable, clear, compelling, the first time you hear it–like jumping into a refreshing pond on a hot day–and also, bottomless, always fresh, infinite in depth and variety and complexity and expanse–like a pond that opens up into a shoreless ocean.

This book by Gary Schnittjer (who teaches at nearby Carin University) is Old Testament Use of Old Testament: A Book-by-Book Guide. It’s exactly what it claims to be: a guide to how the Old Testament authors quoted works by other authors, and other books they themselves had written. So, while many of us have noticed that (for instance) Matthew quotes Jeremiah, have we noticed how Jeremiah quotes Moses, or the Psalms? Realizing that the later Old Testament authors were reading and working with the parts of the Hebrew Bible they already had can be very helpful in understanding what is going on as the Old Testament unfolds. These are some of those on-ramps for getting the fuller picture, the deeper insight, into all God’s word holds for us.

Considering the Rights of My Neighbor

At our home groups, and in our large group meetings, we’re slowly studying our way through the book of Exodus. Everybody knows about the amazing stories of Egypt and the Red Sea and Moses and the Miracles, and those are indeed amazing things to study, but we been slowing down in the second half of the book to think deeply about the laws in the book of Exodus. Beginning with what we typically call the Ten Commandments, God gave Moses a series of detailed laws and directions that are recorded for us to read. A few weeks ago we took two weeks to discuss the Ten Commandments in chapter 20 in particular. I shared this quote from Daniel Block’s commentary on Deuteronomy as a way to help us think about this most familiar passage of sculpture. In case any of you wanted it, here it is:

This document functions as an Israelite bill of rights. However, unlike modern bills of rights, the document does not protect one’s own rights, but the rights of the next person. Each of the terms may be recast as a statement of another person’s rights and the adult males’ responsibility to guard the rights, first, of the covenant Lord, and second, of fellow Israelites. 

 The Divine Rights

    1. The Supreme Command: Yahweh has the right to exclusive allegiance. (Deut 5:7-10, Ex 20:1-4)
    2. Yahweh has the right to proper representation. (Deut 5:11, Ex 20:7)

 The Human Rights

    1. All in the household have the right to human treatment by the household head. (Dt 5:12-15, Ex 20:8-11)
    2. One’s parents have the right to respect. (Deut 5:16, Ex 20:12)
    3. One’s neighbor has the right to life. (Deut 5:17, Ex 20:13)
    4. One’s neighbor has the right to purity and fidelity in marriage. (Deut 5:18, Ex 20:14).
    5. One’s neighbor has the right to his property. (Deut 5:19, Ex 20:15).
    6. One’s neighbor has the right to honest and truthful testimony in court. (Deut 5:20, Ex 20:16).
    7. One’s neighbor has the right to security in marriage. (Deut 5:21a, Ex 20:17a).
    8. One’s neighbor has the right to his own household property. (Deut 5:21b, Ex 20:17b).

I noted this in our discussion directions, but…Block’s language about “adult males” might throw someone off. I would just offer two thoughts about this: First, his is reading of the text is accurate. This is what it says. Second, maybe this is a way to think our way in to what God was doing by speaking this way to Israel: How would our society, and many individual lives be much better off, if the adult males in their lives had always thought and lived the way Block is reading the ten commandments? What would our country be like if every man kept the ten commandments? Of course Israel understood that woman and children were also bound by the ten commandments, and that their lives were important–but this language calls the men to account in a specific way, and sets the tone for society with a certain strong clarity.

In general though, isn’t it amazing to think about what a society would be like if everyone saw things this way? And, doesn’t it make you realize how wise God’s commands really are?

Jesus summons us from anxiety.

In his book Confronted by Grace, John Webster has some great insight into the way Jesus’ famous teaching about worry and anxiety in Matthew 6 applies to our current situation:

“Do not be anxious,” Jesus tells us. What’s the anxiety in mind here? The anxiety which Jesus here exposes to the light of his judgement has two elements: It’s a state of the soul, and it’s a form of activity.

The anxiety of which the gospel speaks here is more than simply feeling worried; it’s more than the passing apprehension which all of us feel about going to the dentist or facing a difficult interview. Those kinds of apprehensions are a matter of fear; we know what troubles us, and with the right sort of determined effort to screw up our courage, we resolve to face them. But anxiety is a sickness. Anxiety is that sickness of the soul in which what might happen fills us with dread. When we’re anxious, our future as a whole, the possibilities which stretch out ahead of us, becomes a matter not of hope but of terror.

Anxiety is a terrifying shadow of our uniquely human capacity of hope. When we hope, we project ourselves into the future, imagining what it may be and stretching out toward it with longing. But when we’re anxious, our imaginations busy themselves with images of threats which the future has in store for us. We fill in the gap between now and the future with all sorts of disturbing possibilities, and they eat us up. Anxiety makes us feel that the world has somehow slipped through our fingers and that we have no control over our own destiny.

It’s this fear which drives anxiety into activity. Fear properly issues in resolution and courage; anxiety produces a sort of helpless, unfocused busyness. Courage is a gathering of myself and my resources so that I can face what makes me afraid with a kind of single-minded clarity of purpose. Courage, that is, clarifies and concentrates the soul. But anxiety does the opposite; it dissipates our energies. Above all, it makes us think we can survive only if we take charge. We have to be omni-competent if we are to shed our anxieties, and so we climb onto the merciless treadmill of working harder and harder, somehow to keep everything together. Above all, anxiety is bound up with our desperate need for security – the need to know that we will be OK, that we will survive intact, that at the end of the day we will be.

This sickness of the soul is, of course, not only a private grief. It takes cultural and political form, too: Societies and institutions can be anxious in their way, driven by a need for reassurance in the face of the uncertainties of the future. Institutional rigidity, the demarcation of the world into friends and enemies, competitiveness, and the elaboration of forms of social control, all express the same deep-seated worry that we may not have a future unless we make one for ourselves.

This was written in 1998. Doesn’t that last paragraph sound like it was written this week? Driven by a need for reassurance in the face of the uncertainties of the future. That’s our world, right? And it was Jesus’ world, too. Famine, plague, foreign occupation. And yet, there he sat, saying, Can you add even one hour to your life by worrying? Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. Like it was so obvious.

Webster continues:

…to those terrors, too, as well as to our personal nightmares, Jesus says: “Do not be anxious.”

How on earth can he say that? How on earth can he expect us to take him seriously? To answer these questions, we need to listen very carefully to what’s being said to us here in the gospel. Jesus isn’t reinforcing some bit of conventional human wisdom. He’s not, as it were, coming into the midst of the human situation and lending the weight of his authority to a truism which has been known all down the ages – that fussing and fretting damages the equilibrium of human life, that anxiety distracts and hurts us. No: He is telling us, his hearers, that what rules out anxiety is the sheer fact of himself. He himself, Jesus Christ, the presence of God’s kingdom, the rule of God in creation – that’s what finally shows the truth of our anxiety. In him, it’s finally shown to be the sickness which it is.

What is, then, the anxiety from which Jesus seeks to detach us? Very simply, it’s our failure to grasp and live out of the significance of Jesus Christ. Anxiety is our failure – sometimes from fear, sometimes from pride – to allow that, in and as the man Jesus, God rules all things in heaven and earth, and therefore that our lives are in God’s good hands. When Jesus summons us from anxiety, he injects into the world of our responsibilities something utterly new, utterly different. He breaks the world of anxiety apart by saying that this world – the world of daily life and care, the world of work and responsibility – isn’t a world in which we and we alone have to bear the burden of ensuring that we survive. This world is the place of God’s kingdom; here, God’s rule in Jesus Christ is the great new factor.

Because this is true, Jesus tells us, we may come to learn that daily life is not a place where we’re devoured by the need to shore ourselves up against disaster. Daily life is the place where we encounter God as the one whom he calls our “heavenly Father.” Who is this Father? He’s the one who knows our needs, because we are not hidden from him; and he’s the one who provides for our needs, because he loves what he has made in all its fragility and impermanence – because he desires that we should flourish. And if God is like that – God isn’t a threat hanging over us but the astonishing Father of lavish grace – then anxiety is a kind of illusion: It doesn’t match up to what reality is truly like.

What does match up to reality, Jesus tells us, is faith.

Faith sees the truth about God and God’s merciful, gracious kingdom which is embodied for us in Jesus Christ.

Faith is not just some crazy hope against evidence (indeed, when it becomes that it is itself a kind of sickness). Quite the opposite: Faith is that deeply healthy state of the soul in which we let God be God. It’s that free, unhesitating, joyful assent to the one in the midst of whose kingdom we stand secure.

Equality and Our Father

Around 1650 years ago, John Chrysostom taught verse by verse through the book of Matthew for the church he pastored. When he reached the famous beginning of the Lord’s prayer,

“In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven…”

…he said this:

He teaches, moreover, to make our prayer common, in behalf of our brethren also. For He says not, “my Father, which art in Heaven,” but, “our Father,” offering up his supplications for the body in common, and nowhere looking to his own, but everywhere to his neighbor’s good.

And by this He at once takes away hatred, and quells pride, and casts out envy, and brings in the mother of all good things (charity), and exterminates the inequality of human things, and shows how far the equality reaches between the king and the poor man, if at least in those things which are greatest and most indispensable, we are all of us fellows.

For what harm comes of our kindred below, when in that which is on high we are all of us knit together, and no one hath aught more than another; neither the rich more than the poor, nor the master than the servant, neither the ruler than the subject, nor the king than the common soldier, nor the philosopher than the barbarian, nor the skillful than the unlearned? For to all hath He given one nobility, having vouchsafed to be called the Father by all alike.

That’s a lot to get out of the opening to a prayer, but, doubtless, it’s all there. The words of Jesus have what we need. Followers of Christ all call God Father, so, we must all be His children. Equally.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in this sort of thing, you can find all these works, for free, in multiple downloadable formats, on this great website.

Being a Good Leader

Want to be a good leader, according to the Bible’s standards?

Daniel Block:

In keeping with a fundamental tenet of biblical leadership, the primary function of leaders is not defined in terms of the tasks they are expected to perform but in terms of the kind of persons they are to be.

If the primary function of the head of the nation was to embody the ethical and spiritual values of the community (Deuteronomy 17:14-20), the same was true for heads of households.

The household’s members should be able to observe the head and know what kinds of persons they were to be.

The Triumph of Grace, p. 232

I imagine this goes for every area of life, right? Family, Church, Business, Nation. And of course, Jesus was the ultimate example of this… being and embodying what he called his followers to. Jesus is the leaders of leaders.

We, the light.

“You are the light of the world,” said the Lord,  “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” 

You know the rest: “Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.” Jesus said so much, with so few words. Here’s some insightful thinking about this teaching:

Because they have committed themselves to follow Jesus and so to adopt the new values of the kingdom of heaven, [Jesus’ followers] are now going to stand out as different from other people.

This much we are familiar with. But there’s an important detail in the original (Greek) text that doesn’t come through well in the English translations. The word “you” is a plural form of the word you. When Jesus says “you” here, he’s not pointing at any specific person, or even directing everyone listening to him to think about himself or herself individually:

The address is in the second-person plural not only because more than one person is being addressed, but because it is the corporate impact of the disciple community, as an alternative society, which is here in view.

The hilltop town…is a symbol not of a conspicuous individual but of the collective impact of a whole community.

Modern Western individualism is such that we easily think of the light of the world as a variety of a little candles shining, “you in your small corner, and I in mine,” but it is the collective light of a whole community which draws the attention of the watching world.

When Jesus said these words, his main audience was the little group of followers he had collected—those specifically dedicated to being his students. In other words, Jesus said, “You all, this community, this group, this family…all of you, together, as one… this is the light of the world. This family is the city set on a hill.”

Corporate impact. Alternative society. Collective light. Whole community.

So… you can’t be the light. But we can.

The Fear that Conquers Anxiety

One of the confusing, troubling facts of life in the last decade or so has been the absolute sky-rocketing of anxiety all around us.

Here is a helpful, proactive thought. What if the answer to our anxiety was not less fear, but more? What if the problem is not that we have fear, but that we have the wrong kind of fear? What if it’s not that we get afraid, but that we fear the wrong things? What if, after all is said and done, our deepest pathology is that we don’t fear the One being in the world we need to fear, and that we don’t fear him in the one, right way, and that is why we’re so afraid of everything else?

I have to admit I had begun to wonder if the fear of God was the answer to all our anxieties. After all, a chief way to attack a problem is to find everything the Bible says about it (and then meditate on those things, and pray over them), and when you do that work, you can’t help but notice how much the Bible has to say about about fear in two directions. The Bible talks about letting go of fear of the future, and fear of man, and other fears like that, and also of embracing the fear of God.

And that is why I was excited when Dan Unger told me about Michael Reeve’s new book, Rejoice & Tremble, and especially about its subtitle: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It is both an accessible yet thorough study on this important Bible doctrine, but also a very practical guide to hearing what the scripture says about defeating Fear, our enemy. For instance:

Moral confusion is not the root of our anxiety: our moral confusion today and our general state of heightened anxiety are both the fallout of a cultural loss of God as the proper object of human fear. That fear of God (as I hope to show) was a happy and healthy fear that shaped and controlled other fears, thus reining in anxiety.

With society having lost God as the proper object of healthy fear, our culture is necessarily becoming ever more neurotic, ever more anxious about the unknown – indeed, ever more anxious about anything and everything. Without a kind and fatherly God’s providential care, we are left utterly uncertain about the shirting sands of both mortality and reality. In ousting God from our culture, other concerns – from personal heathy to the health of the planet – have assumed a divine ultimacy in our minds. Good things have become cruel and pitiless idols. And thus we feel helplessly fragile. No longer anchored, society fills with free-floating anxieties. (Where fear is a response to something specific, anxiety is more of a general condition, like something in the atmosphere. Anxiety can therefore latch on to anything and morph effortlessly in a moment: one minute we are concerned about knife crime, the next about climate change.)

A happy and healthy fear. If that sounds paradoxical to you, or just downright odd, I encourage you to grab this book and press into the truths Reeves unpacks. A few pages later, he goes further, discussing the idea of discomfort in general:

Where discomfort was once considered quite normal (and quite proper for certain situations), it is now deemed an essentially unhealthy thing. It means, for example, that a university student can say, “I am uncomfortable with your views,” and consider that a legitimate argument for shutting down further discussion. For it is not acceptable to make someone uncomfortable.

It means that in a culture awash with fear and anxiety, fear is increasingly seen as a wholly negative thing in society. And Christians have been swept along in that greater tide of opinion, adopting society’s negative assessment of all fear. Small wonder, then, that we shy away from talking about the fear of God, despite its prominence in Scripture and in Christian thought historically. It is completely understandable, but it is tragic: the loss of the fear of God is what ushered in our modern age of anxiety, but the fear of God is the very antidote to our fretfulness.

So here you go: Lose the fear of God, plunge into anxiety.  Find the fear of God, find the antidote to anxiety. 

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. You can pick it up at the bookstore, or online, or you can listen to it free on hoopla with a library card. (The author reads it himself, and he’s one of the best audiobook readers I’ve heard.) And…if you really don’t want to commit to the full 150-page version, there is also a scaled back, small, 60-page paperback version. It’s also free to listen to on hoopla. Enjoy.

And let me know how you like it.    

How to not destroy society, in ten simple steps

Have you ever wondered why the list of laws we know as the Ten Commandments is made up of those specific commandments? I recently found this very interesting explanation in Duane Garrett’s commentary on the Book of Exodus. They’re not random at all, he says, and in fact, their significance goes beyond even the ten areas they address. For instance, Exodus 20:12, commonly called the fifth commandment, reads: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” Are we just being told that there’s a connection between being a good kid and living a long time? Well, maybe that’s part of it, Garrett observes,

But even as a proverbial truth, how is it that respect for parents contributes to a long life? The answer, I believe, is that parents are the first and foremost representatives of the authority structures of life. That is, those who respect their parents will not have trouble dealing with another authority in life, be it in government, business, the military, or society in general. From a habit of respecting parental authority, one learns that there are rules that govern life and that there are people who rightly are in a position to enforce the rules. Such a person will respect laws, school rules, and company policies as well as the police, teachers, and employers. He will not have in his company file the notation “has trouble with authority,” and is therefore less likely to be fired. He will not be expelled from a university for disorderly behavior or cheating. More generally, such a person will understand that rules govern all of life, and will not do such things as truing to drive a car while intoxicated. In short, those who, out of their relationship to their parents, learn to respect for authority avoid the calamities that befall people who do not, and so are far more likely to be healthy, at peace, and to live long. [pg. 479]

Wow. From a simple command to honor your parents, to success in school, business, the military, and life in general. In other words, God knows how to do a lot with a few simple words. Learn well how to honor your father and mother, and you’ll experience blessings that stretch across your entire life.

Or consider Exodus 20:14, commonly known as the seventh commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” Again, is this saying that other sins of this nature ore OK, as long as you’re not married? Not at all:

We must…ask why the Decalogue explicitly forbids adultery as opposed to more generically forbidding sexual immortality. The reason, I believe, is that marriage is foundational for the survival of the family and of society. It is not that other forms of sexual immortality are less evil. Rather, it is that the focus of the text is not on describing generically every kind of sin; the focus is on sins that destroy the fabric of society among the covenant people. There are other sexual sins, but the pastor who expounds on this verse should give special attention to the special place of marriage in human society and to how adultery destroys that institution. [pg. 481]

So the simple command to not commit adultery is for nothing short of…the survival of society. God does not care only for individuals, but also the kinds of structures and networks and connections that individual men and women actually need in order live and flourish. So God warns us specifically against the kinds of sins, and even, the specific sins, which will destroy the fabric of society. 

This, says, Garrett, is the purpose of the Ten Commandments as a whole:

It is not simply a list of ten broad and generic types of evildoing.

It is ten specific sins that will destroy the covenant community.

And this is why we would do well to study it, to meditate on it, and in fact, to seek a deep understanding of all of God’s commands. God knows much better than we do the effects of misusing the world he made. He knew the thousands of years of pain wrapped up in the statement, “You shall surely die,” more than Adam ever could have. And when we find words as clear and simple as the Ten Commandments, we would do well to trust God, and hear. And then, with the Psalmist, we’ll find ourselves saying:

Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.

You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies;
For they are ever with me.

I have more understanding than all my teachers,
For Your testimonies are my meditation.

I understand more than the ancients, Because I keep Your precepts.

Can We Sing the Mean Psalms?

Ever notice how much of the material in the Psalms speaks about judgement, in a completely unapologetic way? Maybe, as you steep yourself in the teachings of Jesus, especially, Jesus the Gentle and Lowly, you might even think that these thoughts are somehow out of step with Jesus–like, they’re for the Old Testament, but not our New Testament. But no–they’re God’s word, just as much as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And besides, you know you love the Psalms as much as anything in the Bible, right? So, how can Christians learn to read, feel, and even sing all of the Bible–even the Psalms that sound, well, mean?

Peter Leithart offers some great thoughts on this these Psalms, which are often referred to as “Imprecatory Psalms.” He observes that these Psalms

…aren’t a barbaric residue, but express fundamental biblical convictions about God and the world. When we pray for justice, we’re praying for God to be what he truly is—Judge of all the earth.

Do you hunger for justice? Do you wish you could see evil eradicated? So does God. And so do the people of God. And so they have, for all of history. I encourage you to read the article, and even to look up the scripture references. It would make a great mini-bible study through these things. Leithart says these Psalms can even help ground us more fully in the real world, and the global plan of God:

Singing the “mean” psalms is thus part of the church’s mission. These psalms arouse a hunger and thirst for justice, as we take up the prayers of the destitute as our own. They expand the scope of our prayers. We may not be under threat, but these psalms keep before us the daily dangers of persecuted brothers and sisters. Imprecatory psalms ground us in the real world, counteracting our instinct for over-spiritualized, anodyne, Pollyannaish piety. They’re a form of church discipline, as we ask Jesus to uproot liars and predators from his field, the church. Through these prayers, we defend the house and kingdom of God, and participate in the Lord’s work of establishing justice, vindicating the innocent, defending the helpless. As we sing the “mean” psalms, Satan is trampled under our feet (Rom. 16:20).

Revelation. For Motivation.

I hope you’ve been able to join us as Pastor Joe has been teaching through the book of Revelation here on Sunday mornings. Recently, I read these encouraging thoughts on how helpful it is to study Revelation, from the preface to Buist Fanning’s commentary:

My grasp and appreciation of the other portions of Scripture have been amazingly enhanced by digging into Revelation. I thought I knew the Gospels and Romans and Hebrews well after teaching them in the church and in seminary classroom for over forty years, but I understand them so much more after studying Revelation. The same goes for Genesis, Samuel, Kings, the Psalms, and the prophets of the Old Testament – especially the prophets! And I don’t mean just an intellectual grasp of the Bible but deep appreciation and commitment to obey it and see others respond in the same way.

Revelation is a book that elicits a response of heart and life. In its pages one sees and this helps us read the whole Bible with a fresh intensity…

It makes sense that Revelation could bring such blessing even today. If ever the world needed a message about people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (5:9) formed by Christ’s redeeming work into a diverse community that bears witness to God’s ways in a broken world, it is today.

People need Revelation’s message about God bringing real justice to bear against evil and real restoration of his creatures and his creation, so that human life can flourish as he intended from the beginning.

They need to see that God is almighty yet seeks direct communion with his people, that he is faithful to his age-old promises to make things right, and that the godless ideologies of our day have nothing to offer compared to the pathways he has for us as humans.

They need to understand God’s desire for his people to engage faithfully with the world around them even now instead of yielding to assimilation, isolation or escapism.

When we grasp our real identity and what our future holds, we are better quipped and motivated to live different lives in the present.


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