Jeffrey Stivason

The Heart of Christ

Consider chapter three of Hebrews. In verse 12, the preacher has to say some hard things to some in the congregation. He must warn them of having an “unbelieving heart” which could lead them to “fall away from the living God.” But notice how he begins the verse. He writes, “Take care, brothers…” Brothers. He is charitable toward these people who are poised to desert the Faith. He has not prejudged them but instead stands ready to minister to them. But how is he able to do such a thing?

The book of Hebrews is an incredibly valuable book. It is a superb theological text. Of course, it’s not a complete theology, but the theology in the book is impeccable.  For example, in the first three verses of the first chapter, we learn that the Son of God shares in the effulgence of God’s glory because He too is God but, as Son, He is the exact representation of the Father and is therefore a different person. A wonderful and foundational text for building a Trinitarian theology. What is more, Hebrews teaches us about the priesthood of Christ and all that means for our salvation. It is theologically rich.   But this sermon is also packed full of pastoral lessons.
Before I mention one of those lessons, allow me to remind you of the problem. The context may deepen the impact of the lesson. Put bluntly, people were leaving the church at Rome. I don’t mean that they were leaving the First Reformed Church of Rome and going to the Second Reformed Church of Rome. No, these people were thinking seriously about leaving the Faith. They were poised to return to Judaism. That statement almost rolls off the proverbial tongue, but it shouldn’t. These people were flirting, even dating, apostasy. Some had ceased attending worship (Hebrews 10:25). The people who remained were dull of hearing and spiritually sluggish (Hebrews 5:11; 6:12). By now, these people should have been teachers but instead they were getting more out of their first grader’s church school material!
As a minister, it would be easy to think the worst of these people and act in a way unbecoming of the Lord’s Servant, who ought to be gentle, not quarrelsome, and patient to the point of enduring evil while correcting opponents. It would be far simpler to declare these spiritual vagrants as a lost cause and to invest the remainder of one’s spiritual capital in the remnant of the congregation.
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“One’s Own Fashions!”

The church has a culture and your feeling of “not being quite at home” is because you are trying to live independently and according to your own fashion. The church has a rhythm and a flow. It has patterns and practices and those who embrace them will feel cared for and safe. But those who remain aloof will not experience those blessings.

In Edith Wharton’s, The Age of Innocence, Newland Archer, the young man set in the ways of old New York, has a conversation with Countess Ellen Olenska, who has recently returned from Europe after leaving her wealthy husband for his many affairs. Olenska doesn’t fit into old New York for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is, she is unfamiliar with the customs of her new environment.
At one point, early in the novel, Archer and Ellen have a conversation. Archer speaks according to the form and fashion of the day while Ellen is free and full of candor.  At one point, Ellen does not understand why her house, situated on a respectable street, is not good enough, to which Archer replies, “It’s not fashionable.” This produces a striking and revealing reply from Ellen, “Fashionable! Do you all think so much of that? Why not make one’s own fashions? But I suppose I’ve lived too independently; at any rate, I want to do what you all do – I want to feel cared for and safe.”
I love the old literature for lines like these. Authors think deeply about the human condition and often draw insights that are pastoral in nature. For example, consider Ellen’s statement, “Why not make one’s own fashion?” In 1920 Wharton could only dream of what Sinatra would sing in 1969. “My Way” or “one’s own fashion” seems like the Adamic desire of the human heart. But even that desire understands that such a thing leads to loneliness and insecurity. In other words, fallen people want their independence so long as others are independent with them.
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The Psalms of Ascent

The Psalms of Ascent are a reminder of what we possess in Christ.  So, let us take up these Psalms.  Let us read and remember that Christ built His house, laying Himself as the chief cornerstone.  What is more, each of us are living stones situated one beside another creating a beautiful house temple to His glory. Therefore, let each psalm take us on a pilgrimage to our Christ.  And there let us be glad and rejoice for we are safe in Him who is our God!

The Psalms of Ascent is a collection of Psalms in the Psalter.  There are other collection or groupings of Psalms. This collection is not unique in that sense.  However, this collection was a well-worn collection.  This dog-eared collection was taken by pilgrims to Jerusalem three times per year on their pilgrimage, hence the title, Psalms of Ascent. These pilgrims were going up to Jerusalem! Some have viewed the 15 Psalms that make up this collection (Psalms 120-134) as the fifteen steps leading up to the temple in Jerusalem.[1]
What is more, this series of Psalms is finely structured.  Psalm 127 is the middle Psalm leaving seven on either side.  This middle Psalm is the only one in the collection written by Solomon.  It is as familiar as it is loved. This is the Psalm that reminds us that “unless the Lord builds the house, those how build labor in vain.” Advice Solomon himself should have paid close attention to during his reign.  Yet, the Psalm drives us beyond Solomon to think of Christ.
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Arendt, Totalitarianism, & the Gospel

The shadow of totalitarianism hangs over our country today.  But how should Christians respond?  In a way that is hopefully predictable.  We should respond with the gospel. We should take our resolute stand upon it. 

Hannah Arendt was a political philosopher.  She was the author of several books and was professor at New School for Social Research and was a visiting Fellow of the committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. I have been reading her 1951 book titled, The Origins of Totalitarianism.  It should be required reading for citizens of the United States. The lessons are as profound as they are simple. For instance, Arendt points up two illusions that plague democratically ruled countries. First, she contends that people believe that those actively involved in the government are in sympathy with that form of government. And second, the masses of people who are not involved are neutral and don’t really matter. These are two lessons we would have done well to learn long ago.
Now, among the many things I have learned while reading Arendt, I want to share one from which I think the church can benefit. It is the lesson on individualism. Had you asked me how totalitarianism succeeds before I read Arendt, I might have said that totalitarian governments flourish because of their use of propaganda. I was wrong. According to Arendt, totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals.[1] Earlier she wrote, “social atomization and extreme individualization preceded the mass movements.”[2] And “The truth is that the masses grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society…”[3]
Let’s think about this for a minute.  What does Arendt mean by “masses”?  The term applies, says Arendt,  when we deal with people “who either because of their sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest, into political parties or municipal governments or professional organizations or trade unions.”[4] These people, writes Arendt, exist in every country and are characterized by their political indifference and their scarcity at the polls.[5] Though these people are in a “group” loosely defined by their indifference they are by description self-centered.  They would never lay down their life for this group. They would not suffer for this group. They are self-interested.  It is not hard to see these as the lost sheep of which Jesus often spoke (Matthew 18:10-14).
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God is Incomprehensible

God is certainly bigger than we can possibly imagine.  Theologians call that bigness incomprehensibility.  What is more, the practical nature of this doctrine cannot be overestimated. The finite cannot contain the infinite means more than God’s knowledge is different from ours. It means that His wisdom and goodness are beyond us. Any time we are tempted to think that things are not as they ought to be we need to check our finitude. 

High school students love biology class for one simple reason. They get to dissect frogs, worms and other once living things. In addition to grossing out their weak stomached classmates they also learn a thing or two.  They learn things not otherwise gleaned if the subject of dissection were still living.  The student gets to look at the frog’s internals. He can see what the stomach, heart and lungs actually look like. His biology professor can point out things he would not otherwise know and see.
But all of this dissecting is an attempt to master the object of our study. It’s not enough to watch the frog hop, eat and even mate. The student needs to “get inside” in order to really master the topic of study. To speak proverbially, the student wants to know his topic inside and out.  How different it is for the theologian.
Yes, God is the object of our study. But he can never be mastered. It is impossible to dissect God like we would an animal.  An autopsy on God is impossible. In fact, the relationship that a human has to a frog is not even close to the same relationship that we have with God.  God is both the known object and the knowing subject! How different is that from a frog!  The object we are seeking to know actually knows us exhaustively! He is our master. In fact, the only way that we can know the object we desire to know is by His self-revelation.
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God is Great

God is simple and my conviction is that people need to know Him. It is not enough to assume that people know about God nor will it do to throw out a few words like communicable and incommunicable every now and again. As believers we must delight in God. Actually, “must” doesn’t seem like an appropriate word. I should say that we have the privilege of delighting in God. We get to delight in Him!  Personally, I love to preach on the doctrine of God. My heart literally thrills in the moment to proclaim God in all of His splendor. 

Many years ago I was listening to Christian radio. It was in the early 90s and there was a lot of talk about self-esteem. In fact, if you were raised in the 80s and 90s you probably remember the government, media, books and lingo associated with the self-esteem craze.  Maybe you were small enough to have been read, The Lovables in the Kingdom of Self-Esteem!  Maybe your mom read to you over and over again the inside cover, “I am lovable! I am lovable! I am Lovable! By using these magical words, the gates of the Kingdom of Self-Esteem swing open for readers of all ages.”
Yes, well, I remember listening to a radio program during those self absorbed years.  A preacher was preaching, though I don’t remember who it was, and he said something I have never forgotten.  He said if you want to improve self-esteem in a person, I think he used self-worth then you must teach them about the person and nature of God. He said that the only way a person will have any sort of self-worth to speak of is if they understand who God is.  I agreed then and I agree now.
Every once in a while in my preaching I take my congregation to theology proper.  I want them to look at God. I have even preached on the simplicity of God from the pulpit.  Why?  Because God is simple and my conviction is that people need to know Him. It is not enough to assume that people know about God nor will it do to throw out a few words like communicable and incommunicable every now and again. As believers we must delight in God. Actually, “must” doesn’t seem like an appropriate word. I should say that we have the privilege of delighting in God.
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Augustine, Justice & the SCOTUS

We began as a republic and slid to a democracy and perhaps now we are an oligarchy.  The United States is not immutable. However, what is true for every citizen of the city of God is clear, according to Augustine. He must serve giving God his utmost.  

Last night I finished my pilgrimage through Augustine’s City of God.  Considering it took Augustine almost a decade to finish book nineteen after starting I would say that I made better time on the reading than he did the writing. I wish that I could say all twenty-two books and eight hundred and sixty two pages in my volume were a joy, they were not. However, the end was worth traveling through some of the valleys in between. I thought in celebration of my completing the work I might share some lessons from the last few books.
First, Augustine has a good word for those of us struggling with our political climate in the United States. To put it tersely, we are to hold this world loosely. Augustine appears to be a political minimalist when it comes to thinking about what the world has to offer.  In other words, if you don’t expect much from the city of man you won’t be disappointed when you don’t get much.  There is a reason for that.  According to Augustine, the earthly city does not live by faith and so seeks an earthly peace.  However, this earthly peace can only be tentative and temporal. It is not lasting. It is not the peace for which the Christian seeks. Listen to Augustine speak about the two cities and their aims.
This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in manners, laws and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace….Even the heavenly city, therefore, while in its state of pilgrimage, avails itself of the peace of earth, and, so far as it can without injuring faith and godliness, desires and maintains a common agreement among men regarding the acquisition of the necessaries of life, and makes this earthly peace bear upon the peace of heaven…(book XIX. 17).
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Old Books & Present Problems

 I think it is about time we pick up an old book called the Bible. I have no doubt that old Book will give us the perspective we desperately need.

C. S. Lewis once wrote an essay to a very old book wherein he commended the practice of reading old books. He, as a modern writer, did not want people to stop reading modern books but to generously sprinkle their reading of modern books with old ones.  However, and this gets his point across, he said, “But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old.” Now, he gave that advice because he didn’t want the reader being carried away unprotected into modern perspectives. So, Lewis went on to commend the reading of old books. It is an excellent essay and I highly commend it and the practice that Lewis commends in it, that is, intentionally reading old books.
There are a variety of reasons for this practice but I think Lewis sums up an important one in the essay. He writes, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” I would like to illustrate this principle in this little essay.
But before I tell you about that experience let me give you some cultural background. Our present Western culture has not abandoned morality. It has changed morality. For example, homosexual practice was once viewed as sin (and even illegal).  But the orientation was something that was considered a psychological problem needing to be corrected. If a young man dressed up like a woman he too was considered a candidate for mental health services. In fact, even the church has capitulated to this new morality. Granted, some have not gone as far as mainline liberalism but there are even Reformed churches flirting with the idea of allowing candidates for ministry who identify as gay (as if it were a neutral orientation) but celibate. What is more, criticism of these practices and orientations is considered to be a sin of the worst kind.  Enter an old book.
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Let’s Study the Beatitudes! Part 1, Introduction

The Beatitudes, as a whole, share with us the Christian life.  They communicate what is already true but what is not yet consummated.  For example, notice how the first and the last Beatitude (vv. 3, 10) are in the present tense. And then notice how the middle six Beatitudes (vv. 4-9) are in the future tense.  We are in possession of salvation but the consummation is yet to be. This is the already but not yet of the Christian life. 

Some passages of Scripture are better known than others.  How can they not be?  The Lord’s Prayer is recited across the landscape of Christendom along with the Twenty-third Psalm and the Ten Commandments.  But there are others. In fact, it’s interesting how the popular conception of a passage can leave a scar on the psyche for years!  Who can forget the book called The Be Happy Attitudes?  I’ve never read it but the title is emblazoned on my mind!  It’s like when someone hums a song out of tune and then you can’t get the corruption out of your head.  But I digress.
The Beatitudes are another well-known and well-worn passage among Christians.  It should be.  It has that gravitas.  It has that ability to summarize a good deal of Christian teaching in a very small nucleus of words.  It was spoken to be remembered.  And on Theology for Everyone we are going to take a look at those Beatitudes.  We are going to unpack them and their meaning for the Christian life. However, before we do, I want us to get the lay of the land.  I want to give you a guided tour through some obvious and some not so obvious points that give the scope of the beatitudes.
First, the Beatitudes are part of a sermon, the Sermon on the Mount.  In fact, they are the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon is prefaced by Matthew 5:1, which tells us that Jesus went up on the mountain, sat down and opened his mouth to teach his disciples. The Sermon ends with chapter 7:28. There Jesus finished his sermon, got up from his seat and went down the mountain. What is more, the sermon is a beautifully structured message.  Too often we think of it as a stream of consciousness or the wise statements of a sage sprinkled about like seed on the ground.  However, that is a serious misunderstanding. But the structure of the Sermon is for a later time.
Second, these Beatitudes form a bridge between what has been said and what will be said. What has been said? Well, a lot has been said in the first four chapters of Matthew but the thing to notice is the baptism.  There John objects to baptizing Jesus.  But Jesus tells him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  We then find Jesus entering into temptation wherein He, as the Second Adam, did what the first Adam failed to do.  He obeyed.  He fulfilled the righteous requirement of the law.  So, why did Jesus undergo a baptism for repentance?  He did so as a representative substitute for the people He would save. Notice, the fourth beatitude, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled.  By whose righteousness will they be filled?  Obviously, by Christ who came to satisfy the righteous requirements of the law for his people that once forgiven they may an alien righteousness imputed to them.
Third, the Beatitudes, as a whole, share with us the Christian life.  They communicate what is already true but what is not yet consummated.  For example, notice how the first and the last Beatitude (vv. 3, 10) are in the present tense. And then notice how the middle six Beatitudes (vv. 4-9) are in the future tense.  We are in possession of salvation but the consummation is yet to be. This is the already but not yet of the Christian life.  And the Beatitudes speak about that life and we are eager to listen.
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Transgender or Pretendgender?

Christians are called to face reality and the reality is that God created people male and female (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:20-25). There is no Biblical (or common sense!) category to support a non-binary view of gender. Biological males cannot become females and females cannot become males. There may be drugs to suppress hormones or drugs to introduce hormones but it will be contrary to the body’s desires.  The body knows its own gender even if the mind suppresses the truth in sin (Romans 1:18ff).  The sad truth is that the person who pretends to be a different gender will always be at odds with self. However, this adversity with self is rooted in a person’s war with God.

I have fond memories of growing up in my neighborhood.  I was raised in a little country town with one stop light. My friends and I played cops and robbers and the only girl in the neighborhood was as tough as any of us! We would run through the woods with our toy guns yelling, “Bang, bang!” and the better guns would make their own laser-like sounds.  But sounds or no sounds you could always hear someone angrily shouting, “I got you! Now play dead! Sometimes the one who was supposed to be the corpse would argue his case usually while running away and at other times he would just fall down and play dead for the time we had allotted for a player to be dead, which was usually a sixty seconds. Most of us could only last ten seconds before pulling out death’s stinger and getting back into the action.
Of course, we were pretending.  We were engaged in the childhood practice of make believe.  Were acting as if what was not real was real.  We weren’t really cops or robbers. Our guns weren’t real. There were no bullets. No one was really dead.  It was all pretend. Now, you didn’t need me to explain the obvious. In fact, you might be thinking that I am treating you, my reader, inappropriately.  You might think I am condescending and insulting your intelligence.  But why not take me seriously?  The answer is simple. It is common sense. You know that we were pretending.
So, why isn’t all of this nonsensical talk about transgender just as obvious? Think for a minute about the basic etymology of the word.  The prefix trans- is from the Latin meaning across, over or beyond. We have all sorts of words using this prefix: transatlantic, transportation, transfer, transport, transition, translate, transparent, transcend etc. If you are going on a transatlantic flight then you are going across the Atlantic Ocean. If I transport something I carry it from point A to point B.
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