Scott Hubbard

The Other Side of the Race Debate: Four Ways to Disagree Christianly

Ten years ago, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2012, could you have predicted where we would be on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022? Some surely foresaw a number of our present sorrows. But who could have foreseen Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, and Charlottesville, and Confederate-monument debates, and Trump, and national-anthem kneeling, and George Floyd, and the outrage of 2020 — to name just a few of many tragedies and controversies? And who could have imagined that the events of these ten years would so severely tear the fabric of our Reformed world?

Even by 2017, John Piper could mourn the “improbable constellation of [racial] sorrows” unknown in 2012. The last five years have only added to the improbable constellation, splintering a once-unified Reformed evangelicalism into groups that often struggle not only to partner with one another but even to understand each other.

And that struggle to even understand touches on one of the many dysfunctions beneath our divisions: in our thinking and talking about race in recent years, many of us have failed to engage the issues and one another Christianly. Many conversations, especially online, have savored less of Solomonic wisdom and more of political savvy (no matter how apolitical we may feel otherwise). Too easily, many of us have adopted and advocated for positions not because we have thought through them carefully, prayerfully, with open Bibles and in thoughtful dialogue with Christians who think differently, but simply because these positions are not what the other side holds (whoever the other side may be).

The dysfunction would be easier to brush aside if it characterized only the most extreme among us, the most militantly “woke” and most virulently “anti-woke.” But too often, such a dynamic has characterized my own thought and talk. Even those who generally strive for patience and fair-mindedness are falling into these ditches. With a topic as fraught as race in the American church, almost everyone has an “other side,” a group whose thoughts and sentiments feel not only troublesome but threatening — and therefore a group we struggle to hear, much less learn from.

Healing such dysfunctional engagement would not heal all our divisions, not by a long shot. But it may soften our various prejudices, nurture deeper understanding, and (on the micro scale if not the macro) lead us toward a less fragile unity. Or, if nothing else, we may simply become better at talking when the temperature rises over other tense issues.

Talking in the Boxing Ring

In many ways, the deck of the last decade was stacked against Christian habits of thought and talk. Even as we faced the constellation of sorrows, information overload accelerated, social media colonized public discourse, and our society’s typical partisanship seemed to swallow steroids. Often, the context of our conversations has felt less like a living room and more like a boxing ring. And it’s hard to engage as Christians when the rules of the game are punch or be punched.

Many of us have learned to think and talk on the surface of things. Once, a phrase like systemic racism offered an invitation to ask, “What do you mean by that?” and then consider whether the description fits biblical and experiential reality. But our communicative climate rarely encourages such engagement. Now, systemic racism has become a badge for a particular team — one that, depending on your side, either cannot be questioned or cannot be considered. The phrase (and more like it) no longer spurs thought, but replaces thought. Meanwhile, we fall deeper into our own silos, less able to hear truths that might counterbalance our perspectives. We learn to parrot whatever voices are loudest or most immediately persuasive, and parroting, by nature, inevitably leads to partisanship and polarization.

The danger for many Christians is not that we will disown manifest biblical concerns, but that we will so underemphasize some biblical concerns (that is, the other side’s) that they become functionally denied in our theology and practice. Where we now stand, some of us don’t want to talk anymore about God’s care for the oppressed (Exodus 22:21–24; Psalm 103:6); others no longer want to discuss the necessity of due process (Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16). Some are nervous about acknowledging the prejudice that power can bring (Deuteronomy 16:18–20); others are wary of admitting the fallibility of wounded feelings (Proverbs 18:17). Some are slower to condemn American slavery and Jim Crow (1 Timothy 1:10; James 2:1–7); others are slower to denounce the unjustly disproportionate black-abortion rate (Psalm 139:13–16).

In each case, however, the balance and emphasis of Scripture is no longer setting our theological and ethical agenda. The other side is.

Four Postures for Christian Conversation

On one level, we cannot help but think and talk from our subjective perspectives. But by God’s grace, we can avoid thinking and talking more like political people than Christian people. We can unlearn the reflexes and rhetoric of the city of man. And to that end, we can pursue four Christian postures for thinking and talking about race (or any contentious subject), adapted from the framework creation-fall-redemption-restoration.

Embodied

To be human is to be wonderfully and inescapably embodied, a creature among creatures in God’s physical world. Most of our communication technologies, however, treat us as an avatar among avatars in man’s ethereal world. And much of the time, an avatar thinks and talks differently from a creature.

Martin Luther King, looking upon Southern segregation, once observed, “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they do not know each other; they do not know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated” (Free at Last?, 68).

Today, of course, we actually can communicate in real time while separated. But to King, our technological talk would hardly look like the kind of communication he had in mind — the kind that erases ignorance, eases fears, and melts hatred. To him, our social media platforms may seem more like anti-communication technologies.

When we take our complex racial conversations onto social media, we take them into an environment that forces three-dimensional topics into a two-dimensional mold, that rewards slander and belligerence, and that (contrary to James’s counsel) teaches us to be slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to anger (James 1:19). Image-bearers become little more than “mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate,” as Alan Jacobs puts it (How to Think, 98). And eradicate we try.

I know proximity is a buzzword in some circles. Even still, nothing has mitigated my own tendency toward unthinking aversion of “the other side” more than looking some of the other side in the face. Something changes when your ideological opponents are no longer two-dimensional representatives of a barbarous idea, but instead living, feeling, speaking beings — and perhaps even friends.

Fallen

The doctrine of the fall has not experienced the same neglect that the doctrine of creation has in recent years. Few doctrines have been so universally emphasized, even among non-Christians, than the fall of humanity. But too often, the emphasis has landed on the fall of other humans, of those humans over there.

“A pattern of hurling blame usually reveals more of our own fallenness than of the people we accuse.”

Ironically, a pattern of hurling blame usually reveals more of our own fallenness than of the people we accuse. Few instincts are less Christian and more devilish than turning the blade of God’s word against everyone’s sins but our own (Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 12:10). The doctrine of the fall, rightly grasped, does not put a spotlight in our hand so we can expose the sins of others; it reveals the spotlight in God’s hand, exposing us all (Hebrews 4:13).

Of course, to say “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23) is not to say all have sinned in the same way or to the same degree. And so, in conversations about race, we need not assume the same kind or same level of guilt on all sides. Some of us have more reason than others to suspect ourselves.

But all of us have some reason to suspect ourselves. Given all that God has said about sin, it would be astonishing indeed if anyone in these conversations had nothing to learn and, from time to time, no fault to confess. God’s regenerating work does not make fallen people flawless people. Therefore, we exercise not false humility but biblical realism when we enter most conversations assuming we don’t see everything clearly and that this other human, ideological opponent or not, has some truth to shine on us.

Redeemed

If the fall means we should expect to find our ignorance and sin exposed in conversations about race, redemption means we can. Those who wear the robe of righteousness can bear to see the stains beneath (Isaiah 61:10). Those who hear God’s pardoning voice can handle his reproofs (Hebrews 12:5–6). Those forgiven of much can go ahead and weep their repentance in public (Luke 7:36–50). If the fall compels us to suspect ourselves, redemption frees us to reveal ourselves: we are unafraid to be seen as the sinners we are.

“Every Christian conversation about race happens beside the spilled blood, torn flesh, and cursed cross of Jesus.”

We can easily feel like conversations about race happen beside the cliff edge of condemnation, with an admission of fault casting us over. But no: every Christian conversation about race happens beside the spilled blood, torn flesh, and cursed cross of Jesus (Ephesians 2:13–16). And all our guilt casts us onto him who preached peace to Jew and Gentile, privileged and oppressed, and whose gospel speaks a stronger word than all our racial sins (Ephesians 2:17–18).

Many of us would do well to briefly pause during tense interactions and remind ourselves of Psalm 130:4: “With you there is forgiveness.” With God there is forgiveness, even when there is none with man. A new humility may come from embracing such a promise. And humility has a way of opening doors for understanding that self-righteousness never can.

United

Through redemption, Jesus has united us — to himself, first and foremost, but also to all others in him, no matter how differently they understand race in America. And so, whatever team or tribe we affiliate with for practical purposes, let it never be forgotten that our true team and tribe reaches far as redemption is found.

What might happen if we began to identify more deeply with the whole church of Jesus Christ than with our particular pew? We might renounce the old Corinthian folly of finishing the sentence “I follow . . .” with any name other than Jesus (1 Corinthians 3:4). We might recover the true sense of the word prophetic and gain courage to reprove our own friends. We might find new freedom in pursuit of truth, knowing that a genuine win for “the other side” is a win for us all. We might live up to our identity as sons of a peacemaking Father (Matthew 5:9).

Joining the Needlessly Divided

The road of racial harmony still stretches far ahead of us — in our friendships and churches, in our denominations and broader networks. And if the last ten years have taught us anything, they have taught us that no one can really know where we’ll be a decade from now. But oh that John Wesley’s praise for John Newton might rest upon many in that day:

You appear to be designed by Divine Providence for an healer of breaches, a reconciler of honest but prejudiced men, and an uniter (happy work!) of the children of God that are needlessly divided from each other.

Such healers of breaches will not arise from the knee-jerk opposition that has become so common. They will carry the hope that “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) forms a stronger tie than the unity of political party, cultural similarity, or any ideological kinship. They will arise from the ground of Christian thought and Christian talk — embodied, fallen, redeemed, united.

Endangered Attention: How to Guard a Precious Gift

When we give someone our full attention — our patient, focused, self-forgetful gaze — we look a little like God. The glory of God consists partly in the fact that he, unlike the gods of wood and stone, pays attention to his people (1 Kings 18:29; 2 Chronicles 7:15; Psalm 34:15). No distraction averts his gaze; no interruption snaps his focus. The true God is a perfectly attentive God — and when we offer our full attention to others, we look a little like him.

At the same time, of course, our attention is amazingly unlike God’s. God can give his full focus ten trillion places at once; we must choose one among the trillions. God’s sight can range through all space and time; our two little forward-facing eyes frame our sight here and now. God can walk through the million-acre orchard of life and see every piece of fruit; we must stop before this tree, this branch, this apple.

Which means human attention is one of the most precious gifts we have to give. By it, we offer another creature the dignity of our loving regard. We humble ourselves to know and be known. We invite someone or something to stamp us, even for just a moment, with their unique, surprising existence.

And perhaps never more so than in an age like ours, when human attention is an endangered species.

Lessons for Stewarding Attention

Over half a century ago, the great Martyn Lloyd-Jones groaned,

The world and the organizations of life around and about us make things almost impossible; the most difficult thing in life is to order your own life and to manage it. . . . There are so many things that distract us. . . . Every one of us is fighting for his life at the present time, fighting to possess and master and live our own life. (Spiritual Depression, 209)

There are so many things that distract us. Lloyd-Jones had distractions like the morning newspaper in mind. What would he say of a society where most live with a newspaper-television-camera-telephone-radio-mailbox strapped to our hand? We are all fighting for our lives — and whether we realize it or not, fighting for our attention, fighting to possess and master and give our attention, rather than having it taken from us.

And fight is the right word, for the stakes are high. We cannot follow Jesus without giving him our attention (Mark 4:24; Hebrews 2:1). We cannot become like Jesus without attentively beholding him (2 Corinthians 3:18; Hebrews 12:1–3). And we cannot love like Jesus without offering others our unhurried, undistracted, calm, attentive regard.

How then can we steward our limited, precious, endangered attention? In short, by living as humans made in the image of God, rather than as gods made in the image of the Internet.

Simplify your inputs.

If you’re like most people in the digital age, you take in far too much information every day — at least, far too much information to process, much less store as long-term knowledge. You wake up every morning subtly tempted to attend to the world as God does. And as always, those who reach for deity forfeit their humanity: by trying to give our attention everywhere, we weaken our ability to give it meaningfully anywhere.

“By trying to give our attention everywhere, we weaken our ability to give it meaningfully anywhere.”

We could look for support from neuroscience, which assures us that an abundance of information, especially the kind shot at us from the Internet’s hundred firehoses, impoverishes memory and addicts us to distraction. In his landmark 2010 book The Shallows, for example, Nicholas Carr writes, “The influx of competing messages that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing” (194).

But neuroscience only confirms the anthropology we find in Scripture. Humans are far more tree-like than computer-like: information becomes knowledge and wisdom only as fast as water becomes fruit on the branch. Water cannot travel into roots and up trunks and through limbs in a moment; it takes time, and often requires the painfully slow process of meditation (Psalm 1:3). An abundance of information processed rapidly makes for distracted, superficial souls; a limited amount of information processed slowly makes for knowledge and that increasingly rare quality so lauded in Scripture: wisdom.

Consider, then, simplifying your inputs. Read less, but read better. Learn less, but learn better. Listen to less, but listen better. You cannot eat all the apples in life’s information orchard; you would be foolish to try. So make peace with your gloriously limited humanity, and learn to choose and savor just a few.

Prioritize near over far.

For most of history, humans had no choice but to give their attention to those people and things that lay near at hand. Adam and Eve not only did not know what was happening outside Eden; they could not know. There was no Ancient Near East Times back then. So, what could they do but spend their waking hours devoted to what they could see?

Today, we are just as limited as our first parents, with just as many hours in the day and just as much capacity for focus, but with billions more objects vying for our attention. We no longer need concern ourselves with people who can talk back or with the sensory world. We can spend all our time on the digital side of the globe.

Such availability, however, has not fundamentally changed our responsibility. Though we can know nowadays about matters far beyond the garden called home, God still holds us responsible, first and foremost, for how well we love, care for, and attend to those people and callings within arm’s reach.

What was once an inevitable fact of creaturely life now needs stating: proximity heightens responsibility. The Ephesians were to care for the whole church’s households, but especially for their own (1 Timothy 5:8). The Galatians were to do good to all, but especially to fellow believers (Galatians 6:10). Israel fell under judgment, not for neglecting Edom’s poor, but the poor within their own gates (Amos 8:4–6).

“What was once an inevitable fact of creaturely life now needs stating: proximity heightens responsibility.”

And if you are a normal, busy person, your nearest circles likely need all the attention you can give. Few of us can attend well to spouse and children, church members and neighbors, while also attending well to digital controversies, international news, and high-school friends’ Instagram posts. Something must give, and we need not feel guilty for prioritizing the near over the far.

Don’t just see, but notice.

The muscle of attention strengthens or atrophies, in part, during everyday, ordinary moments. What do you do when you arrive somewhere five minutes early, or when you wait in line at the grocery store? Like so many, I find myself reaching for my shiny pocket rectangle, that beloved window into distant realms. But this window is also a shutter, closing my eyes to the realm right in front of me.

Creation has grown dim to many. We see without seeing and hear without hearing. The world’s ecstasies have become a background hum; the color spectrum has turned to shades of gray. We have grown unrighteously unlike the God of Psalm 104, that Wonderer who never grows weary of gushing springs and valley beasts, branched birds and growing grass, schools of fish and the hidden deeps (Psalm 104:10–11, 12, 14, 25–26).

We have also become unlike the attentive Jesus, that Psalm-104 God made flesh. He had a way of noticing what others only saw, didn’t he? The disciples saw some birds and flowers; he noticed God’s fatherly hand (Luke 6:22–31). The crowds saw seeds and yeast; he noticed the coming kingdom (Matthew 13:31–33). The multitudes saw a blind beggar; Jesus noticed Bartimaeus himself, in all his desperate need (Mark 10:46–52).

In Jane Austen’s Emma, as the heroine finds herself waiting at a storefront with only a dull street outside, the narrator tells us, “A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer” (174). Yes, a mind lively and at ease — a mind attentive — need not reach compulsively for the pocket. It can do with seeing what seems like nothing, because in that “nothing” is the handiwork of God, ready to answer our gaze. Do you notice?

Live in the attention of God.

Scripture’s charge to “pay attention” almost always includes God or his words as the object. So, he calls his people to pay attention to “all that I have said to you” (Exodus 23:13), “my words” (Jeremiah 6:19), “the prophetic word” (2 Peter 1:19), or simply, “me” (Isaiah 51:4). Yet when we give him our attention, we find that he has already given us his (Psalm 34:15).

Perhaps many need a Hagar moment, a moment of waking up to the presence of El-Roi, the God who sees us (Genesis 16:13) — and in Christ, the God who sees us graciously, ever and always. We do not find, when we look to him, a God who gives us half his attention, or half of himself, but all: his full gaze, under his full grace, now and for endless ages.

Nothing so shapes our attention like living — daily, adoringly — in the loving attention of God. Turn your eyes upon him at first rising, and see his eyes turned to you. Speak to him in the day’s lulls, and find his ear open. Return to him before shutting your attention off for the night, and then lie down knowing his will not.

The Most Wonderful Books on Earth: Gospel Reading for a New Year

As many begin a new year of Bible reading, we would do well to remember one of the chief dangers: searching the Scriptures, and missing the Savior. Recall Jesus’s words to the Jewish leaders of John 5, those most devoted of Bible readers:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39–40)

Amazingly, it is possible to know your Bible and not know your God. It is possible to study the word and neglect the Word. It is possible to search the Scriptures and miss the Savior.

How can we guard ourselves from such a deadly yet subtle danger? Ultimately, we need the Holy Spirit to breathe Christ into the dry bones of our devotions. We need him to come, morning by morning, and turn our living room or desk into a Mount of Transfiguration. And so, we pray.

But alongside prayer, we can also resolve to keep one goal of Bible reading high above the rest: Catch as much of Jesus as you can. Know and enjoy him. See and savor him. Study and love him.

And to that end, let me offer a modest proposal for your consideration: as you read the Bible this year, plant your soul especially in the Gospels.

I am not proposing that you read only the Gospels this year, but that you consider finding some special way to plant (and keep) your soul in them. You could, for example, use the one-year Discipleship Journal Bible Reading Plan, which includes a Gospel reading for every day. Or you could memorize an extended portion of the Gospels, like the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) or the Upper Room Discourse (John 13–17). Or you could read and reread one of the Gospels, perhaps with journal and commentary in hand.

This proposal will not fit every reader. Some, perhaps, have spent most of their Christian life in the Gospels, and this may be the year to wander with Moses in the wilderness, or hear what Ezekiel has to say, or trace the logic of Romans.

But I suspect many, like myself, would benefit from the counsel of J.I. Packer and J.C. Ryle. First, hear Packer:

We could . . . correct woolliness of view as to what Christian commitment involves, by stressing the need for constant meditation on the four Gospels, over and above the rest of our Bible reading; for Gospel study enables us both to keep our Lord in clear view and to hold before our minds the relational frame of discipleship to him.

“We should never let ourselves forget,” Packer continues, “that the four Gospels are, as has often and rightly been said, the most wonderful books on earth” (Keep in Step with the Spirit, 61).

Now listen to Ryle:

It would be well if professing Christians in modern days studied the four Gospels more than they do. No doubt all Scripture is profitable. It is not wise to exalt one part of the Bible at the expense of another. But I think it should be good for some who are very familiar with the Epistles, if they knew a little more about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. (Holiness, 247)

Neither Packer nor Ryle sought to create red-letter Christians, who treat the words of Jesus as more inspired than the rest of Scripture. All the Bible is God-breathed, and the Son of God speaks as fully in the black syllables as he does in the red.

Why then would whole-Bible lovers like these two men counsel Christians to give themselves to the Gospels? Consider four reasons.

The Gospels give glory a texture.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John could have given us a summary of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection in their own words. Instead, the Gospels take us among the twelve, where we see and hear Jesus for ourselves. Why?

John tells us: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). For John and the other disciples, the glory of Christ was not a vague or summarized or paraphrased glory; it was a particular glory, a textured glory, a glory they had “seen and heard” (1 John 1:3) in the specific words, deeds, joys, heartaches, and sufferings of the Word made flesh. And by Gospel’s end, they want us to join them in saying, “We have seen his glory” (John 20:30–31).

“Sinners and strugglers like us need more than general notions of Jesus in our most desperate moments.”

Sinners and strugglers like us need more than general notions of Jesus in our most desperate moments; we need his particular glories. The fearful soul needs more than to remember that Jesus gives peace — it needs to hear him say in the upper room, “Let not your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1). The oppressed mind needs more than a vague idea of Jesus’s power over darkness — it needs to watch him send demons fleeing (Mark 1:25–26). The guilty heart needs more than to say, “Jesus forgives” — it needs to feel Calvary shake under the force of “It is finished” (John 19:30).

Sin is not vague. Sorrow is not vague. Satan is not vague. Therefore, we cannot allow Christ to be.

The Gospels shatter false Christs.

Ever since the real Jesus ascended, we have been in danger of embracing “another Jesus” (2 Corinthians 11:4) — or at least a distorted Jesus. Some do so deliberately, in search of a more convenient Messiah. Many, however, just struggle to faithfully uphold what Jonathan Edwards calls the “diverse excellencies” of Jesus Christ, the lamblike Lion and lionlike Lamb (Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ, 29). We understand lions, and we understand lambs, but what do we make of a Lion-Lamb?

Imagine yourself in Peter’s shoes. Just when you think you’ve discovered Jesus’s tenderness, he goes and calls someone a dog (Matthew 15:25–26). Just when you imagine you’ve grasped his toughness, he takes the children in his arms (Mark 10:16). Just when you pride yourself for seeing him clearly, he turns and says, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33). And just when you’re sure you’ve failed beyond forgiveness, he meets you with threefold mercy (John 21:15–19).

“We need our vision of Jesus regularly shattered — or at least refined — by the real, unexpected Jesus of the Gospels.”

“My idea of God is not a divine idea,” C.S. Lewis writes. “It has to be shattered time after time” (A Grief Observed, 66). So too with every one of us. We tend to remake the full, surprising, perfect humanity of Jesus in the image of our partial, predictable, distorted humanity. So, like Peter, we need our vision of Jesus regularly shattered — or at least refined — by the real, unexpected Jesus of the Gospels.

The Gospels make Bible reading Personal.

When we talk of “personal Bible study,” we may say more than we mean. The best Bible study is indeed Personal — centered on the Person of Jesus Christ. His presence rustles through every page of Scripture, Old Testament or New. All the prophets foretell him; all the apostles preach him. And the Gospel writers in particular display him.

Yet how easily Bible reading becomes an abstract, impersonal affair — even, at times, when we are reading about Christ. To know Christ doctrinally and theologically is not necessarily to know him personally. To follow old-covenant shadows to their substance is not necessarily to follow him. To grasp the logic of redemption is not necessarily to grasp his love. To be sure, we cannot commune with Christ without knowing something about him. But we can certainly know much about Christ without communing with him.

“It is well to be acquainted with the doctrines and principles of Christianity. It is better to be acquainted with Christ himself,” Ryle writes (Holiness, 247). And nowhere does the Bible acquaint us with Christ the Person better than in the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John especially are written for those who, like the visitors in John 12, come to Scripture saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21).

The Gospels are bigger than they look.

The four Gospels are relatively small compared to most of the books on our shelves. If we wanted, we could read through each in a single sitting. But like the Narnian stable in The Last Battle, the inside of the Gospels is bigger than the outside. Between their covers lies an infinite glory — a Jesus whose riches are not metaphorically but literally “unsearchable” (Ephesians 3:8).

We will never catch all there is to know and love about Jesus, but we can catch something more next year. So come again and walk with him on the waters. Come and watch a few loaves feed five thousand. Come and sing with Zechariah, rise with Lazarus, and walk with the women to the empty tomb. Come and remember why the Gospels are indeed “the most wonderful books on earth” — because they give us the most wonderful Person.

A Son Worthy to Be King

Many a new Bible reader have run into Matthew’s Gospel, eager and determined, only to trip over the first seventeen verses. We come expecting story, expecting drama, expecting angels and magi and a baby born in Bethlehem. What we find instead is this:

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David . . . (Matthew 1:1)

Had Matthew consulted us as editors, we may have suggested he begin at verse 18: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened in this way.” Here is a story.

But in truth, Matthew’s opening words tell a far better tale than appears at first glance. For ever since the days of David, God’s people had waited for a son of David. They had waited for David’s royal line to run, unbroken, until the Anointed One, the Christ, should be born in David’s city. They had waited for God to keep his ancient promise and fill their empty throne. They had waited, in other words, for a King to come and reign.

And here, in the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, Matthew says, “Wait no more.”

David’s Heir

From Genesis 3:15 on, God’s people had hoped for a son who would overthrow the serpent’s kingdom. Over time, that hope grew more defined: he would come from not just Noah, but Shem; not just Shem, but Abraham; not just Abraham, but Jacob; not just Jacob, but Judah; not just Judah, but David.

The climactic promise comes in 2 Samuel 7, where God makes a covenant with David:

When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. (2 Samuel 7:12–13)

Note the grand dimensions of this promise: When David dies, God will raise up a son of David who will build a house for God’s name. God will establish this son’s kingdom. And his kingdom will never end.

Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, this promise shines like the brightest of stars in the sky. Every other light may darken. Every other star may fall. But the light of this promise can never fail.

Stump of Jesse

At first, the promise seems fulfilled in Solomon, son of David and builder of God’s temple — until Solomon descends to sins far darker than his father’s (1 Kings 11:1–8). Something more than a physical house is needed, and someone greater than Solomon (Matthew 12:42).

Generations come, and generations pass; David’s sons reign, and David’s sons die. Many seem for a time to carry the government upon their shoulders (Isaiah 9:6): Jehoshaphat, Azariah, Uzziah, Hezekiah, Josiah. But they too fall from their thrones, and each fall swings another axe against the leaning tree of David. By the time Babylon takes a final hack, only a stump remains (Isaiah 6:13; 11:1).

As the Jews watched Nebuchadnezzar wrap David’s heir in chains (2 Kings 24:11–13), the ancient throne seemed forsaken by God. The star seemed black as night. The psalmist Ethan spoke for many:

You have cast off and rejected;     you are full of wrath against your anointed.You have renounced the covenant with your servant;     you have defiled his crown in the dust. (Psalm 89:38–39)

To which God patiently responds, through prophet after prophet, “I have not.” Far easier for the sun to fall from heaven than for David’s line to die (Jeremiah 33:19–22). The ruined city will be rebuilt, its breaches repaired and its walls strengthened (Amos 9:11–12). And in time, a shoot will sprout from the stump of Jesse, a righteous Branch to rise and rule (Isaiah 11:1).

“Far easier for the sun to fall from heaven than for David’s line to die.”

Even in exile, David’s genealogy remained unbroken. And from that line, God says, a child will be born, a son given. He will be the son of David — and far, far more: “His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

Great David’s Greater Son

We can understand, then, why Matthew begins his Gospel, his book of good news, with a family tree ending on one glorious Branch (Jeremiah 23:5–6). In Jesus, David’s son had come — and as it turns out, so had David’s Lord.

Jesus unveils the wonder in a famous exchange with the Pharisees. “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” Jesus asks. They’ve read 2 Samuel 7 and the Prophets; they know the answer to this one. “The son of David,” they say. So far, so good. But then Jesus turns to Psalm 110:1:

How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’”? If David then calls him Lord, how is he his son? (Matthew 22:42–45)

And there on the streets of Jerusalem, silence falls before the Mighty God — the Son and Lord of David (Matthew 22:46).

“In Jesus, David’s son had come — and as it turns out, so had David’s Lord.”

We always needed a son of David greater than David. One who would be anointed not with oil but with the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 3:21–22). One who would slay not Goliath but Death (Romans 1:3–4). One who would win his bride not by shedding another man’s blood but by spilling his own (Ephesians 5:25–27). One whose end wasn’t the grave but the throne (Acts 2:29–36).

And such a King we have in Christ.

Come and Reign

Among all the glorious titles of our glorious Lord, Jesus would have us remember him still as the Son of David. Hear his last recorded words in Scripture:

I am the root and descendant of David, the bright morning star. . . . Surely I am coming soon. (Revelation 22:16, 20)

When we say, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20), we ask not just for a Savior, but for a King. Or, to gather up some of the biblical hope surrounding David’s son, we say,

Come and rule “like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth” (2 Samuel 23:4).

Come and take “dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Psalm 72:8).

Come and reunite wolf and lamb, calf and lion, and let the little children play safely on your holy mountain (Isaiah 11:6–9).

Come and cure our waywardness, rule our inner rebel, and heal our aching hearts (Hosea 3:5; Ezekiel 34:20–24).

Come and clothe your enemies with shame, and wear your shining crown (Psalm 132:17–18).

Yes, Root of Jesse, Son of David, come and reign.

Someone Is Listening to Your Suffering

Singing in sorrow, then, is one more way God conforms us to the image of his beloved Son. Here, as we suffer with him in song, Jesus teaches us to say, “Our God still reigns. Our God will deliver. And someone needs to hear of his surpassing worth.”

In all likelihood, no song had ever touched the walls of this cell or drifted through its bars. Moaning, cursing, yelling — these were the usual sounds rising from the dark heart of the prison. Not singing.
And especially not at midnight. Here was the hour of gloom, the first long hallway in the mansion of night, darkness without the faintest shade of dawn.
The other prisoners couldn’t mistake the sound. Some had woken under the strange melody, certain they were lost in a dream. Others, catching the first notes, lay wondering whether madness had seized the two men. It had seized many a man in chains before. These, however, were not the howling strains of the mad.
Midnight made its lonely march, and still the men went on: beaten, bloodied, cuffed — and singing.
How Could They Sing?
The events of that day make the song of Paul and Silas all the more surprising. A mob had attacked the two missionaries after Paul cast out a demon from a slave girl (Acts 16:16–21). The city magistrates, dispensing with due process, stripped the men and oversaw their public beating before delivering them to the city’s jailer, who “put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks” (Acts 16:24).
Darkness fell, and then that strange sound rose:
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16:25)
Praying we can fathom. Who among us would not cry out for deliverance from such an unjust dungeon? Yet Paul and Silas not only prayed, but sang. They tuned their heartache with a hymn, and met the darkness of midnight with a melody.
And as they did, they joined a great chorus of saints who sung by faith and not by sight. They joined King Jehoshaphat, who walked into war with praises rising (2 Chronicles 20:20–21). They joined Jeremiah, who gave his most bitter lamentation a tune (Lamentations 1–5). They joined psalmist after psalmist who, though feeling afflicted and forgotten, raised a “song in the night” (Psalm 77:6).
Again and again, the saints of God meet sorrow not only with prayer, but with song. So what did Paul and Silas see that freed their hearts to sing?
Our God still reigns.
From one perspective, Paul and Silas’s day was a picture of perfect mayhem. Their spiritual power was slandered; their gospel trampled by a mob; their innocence silenced by injustice. They appeared like two victims caught in the chaos of a merciless, purposeless world.
But such was not their perspective. For Paul and Silas, all the day’s sorrows rested in the hand of a sovereign God. God had called them to Philippi through a midnight vision (Acts 16:9–10). Was he now any less sovereign in a midnight prison? God had used them in Philippi to save Lydia and her household (Acts 16:11–15). Had he discarded them now? No, prison could neither thwart the plans of God nor remove them from his sight; of this they were sure.
Years later, locked in yet another jail, Paul reminds the Philippian church of God’s surprising sovereignty:
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. (Philippians 1:12–13)
God had taught Paul and Silas to see his good purposes wherever they looked, even when they looked through the bars of a prison cell.
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There Is a Name: Our Exclusive and Precious Christ

In Jesus, we hear the only name that saves. We can, if we want, nurture offense or embarrassment about God’s giving only one name. Or we can thank God for that name, treasure that name, and join God himself in spreading that name wherever it is not sung. If we do, we join a mission that cannot fail. 

In a world of tolerance and pluralism, few truth claims taste as sour as this one: Jesus is the only way to God. Or as the apostle Peter so boldly says,
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
Just one name for eight billion people? Just one Savior for almost seven thousand people groups? Just one heavenward path for men and women, young and old, urban and rural, Asian and American and African and European?
Peter, apparently, felt unashamed of the claim. “Let it be known to all of you,” he began (Acts 4:10). But what Peter proclaimed, many of us whisper, especially among those who take offense. “No other name” may sound fine in small group, but our voices can crack at a neighbor’s kitchen table. Embarrassment, not boldness, might mark even the lovers of Jesus’s name.
Perhaps, then, we need help feeling the wonder that there is any name at all. Into this world of curse and sin, where half our house hangs over the cliff edge of judgment, God has given a name.
World with No Name
By all just reckonings, we ought to live in a world with no name.
We ought to walk east of Eden, with no promise of a coming son. We ought to toil under Pharaoh, with no outstretched arm to rescue. We ought to tremble before Goliath, with no David to sling his stones. We ought to hang our harps in Babylon, with no hope of a future song.
On our own, of course, we struggle to consent to such dismal oughts. We feel, even if we do not speak, not that we ought to perish, but that God ought to save. We sense that heaven, not hell, is humanity’s default destination. We talk of a hundred paths up the mountain because we assume, deep down, that most (if not all) deserve to reach the top.
Yet we feel, sense, and assume like this only when we feel, sense, and assume that our sin is smaller than God says. To those with slight views of sin, little could be more offensive than there being only one name. But for those who, like Job (Job 42:6), or Isaiah (Isaiah 6:5), or Peter (Luke 5:8), or John (Revelation 1:17), have found themselves thrust into the presence of the Holy One, little could be more wonderfully surprising.
Why should God send a sunrise to pierce our chosen darkness? Why should the Father rise and race to meet his wayward son? Why should Christ become our Hosea to redeem us from the brothel? Why should heaven’s blood be shed to win back heaven’s haters? Why should Jesus give his name to rescue crucifiers?
Only because the reckonings of heaven reach beyond mere justice.
There Is a Name
Now, hear again the words that so often offend or embarrass:
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
Read More

Someone Is Listening to Your Suffering

In all likelihood, no song had ever touched the walls of this cell or drifted through its bars. Moaning, cursing, yelling — these were the usual sounds rising from the dark heart of the prison. Not singing.

And especially not at midnight. Here was the hour of gloom, the first long hallway in the mansion of night, darkness without the faintest shade of dawn.

The other prisoners couldn’t mistake the sound. Some had woken under the strange melody, certain they were lost in a dream. Others, catching the first notes, lay wondering whether madness had seized the two men. It had seized many a man in chains before. These, however, were not the howling strains of the mad.

Midnight made its lonely march, and still the men went on: beaten, bloodied, cuffed — and singing.

How Could They Sing?

The events of that day make the song of Paul and Silas all the more surprising. A mob had attacked the two missionaries after Paul cast out a demon from a slave girl (Acts 16:16–21). The city magistrates, dispensing with due process, stripped the men and oversaw their public beating before delivering them to the city’s jailer, who “put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks” (Acts 16:24).

Darkness fell, and then that strange sound rose:

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16:25)

Praying we can fathom. Who among us would not cry out for deliverance from such an unjust dungeon? Yet Paul and Silas not only prayed, but sang. They tuned their heartache with a hymn, and met the darkness of midnight with a melody.

And as they did, they joined a great chorus of saints who sung by faith and not by sight. They joined King Jehoshaphat, who walked into war with praises rising (2 Chronicles 20:20–21). They joined Jeremiah, who gave his most bitter lamentation a tune (Lamentations 1–5). They joined psalmist after psalmist who, though feeling afflicted and forgotten, raised a “song in the night” (Psalm 77:6).

Again and again, the saints of God meet sorrow not only with prayer, but with song. So what did Paul and Silas see that freed their hearts to sing?

‘Our God still reigns.’

From one perspective, Paul and Silas’s day was a picture of perfect mayhem. Their spiritual power was slandered; their gospel trampled by a mob; their innocence silenced by injustice. They appeared like two victims caught in the chaos of a merciless, purposeless world.

But such was not their perspective. For Paul and Silas, all the day’s sorrows rested in the hand of a sovereign God. God had called them to Philippi through a midnight vision (Acts 16:9–10). Was he now any less sovereign in a midnight prison? God had used them in Philippi to save Lydia and her household (Acts 16:11–15). Had he discarded them now? No, prison could neither thwart the plans of God nor remove them from his sight; of this they were sure.

Years later, locked in yet another jail, Paul reminds the Philippian church of God’s surprising sovereignty:

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. (Philippians 1:12–13)

God had taught Paul and Silas to see his good purposes wherever they looked, even when they looked through the bars of a prison cell. And he taught them not only to see those purposes, but to sing of them. And so he does with us.

“Songs send rhythm and order, harmony and progression into the suffering we do not yet understand.”

Even apart from the words, the very act of singing in sorrow defies the unbelief that would see no meaning in such pain. Songs send rhythm and order, harmony and progression into the suffering we do not yet understand — and so they testify, even in our deepest confusion, that our God still reigns.

‘Our God will deliver.’

If God reigns, then he can also rescue, no matter how protected the prison or how fast the chains. “Suddenly,” in the middle of Paul and Silas’s song, “there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened” (Acts 16:26). The Philippian authorities did not know, it seems, that the God of Paul and Silas had once shattered a prison far stronger than theirs.

Notice, however, that the men sang not after God shook the earth, but before. Why? Because they had rooted their deepest joys in a deeper deliverance. Consider what the imprisoned Paul goes on to write to his Philippian brothers:

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. (Philippians 1:18–20)

Paul knows God will deliver him — but the deliverance he hopes for rests on something deeper than “life or . . . death.” What kind of deliverance does he have in mind? Not first and foremost deliverance from sorrow, but deliverance from dishonoring Christ in his sorrow. Whether freed or chained, exonerated or executed, Paul was sure of this: by the Spirit’s power, “Christ will be honored in my body.” Therefore, he says, “I will rejoice” — and even sing.

God can deliver us from the sorrows that wrap round us like chains. He can heal diseases, restore relationships, save loved ones, and bury depression once for all. Yes, he can, and we rightly pray that he would. But we need something greater than deliverance from our sorrows — we need deliverance from dishonoring him in our sorrows. And in Christ, this is the deliverance he ultimately promises us here. So in every lonely midnight, we can sing of certain rescue: whether with a sound or broken body, whether in happiness or heartache, whether through life or death, sorrow will not steal our satisfaction in Christ.

“One day, we will sing to Jesus, unchained from every sorrow. Today, we sound his worth by singing even in our chains.”

One day, we will sing to Jesus, unchained from every sorrow. Today, we sound his worth by singing even in our chains.

‘Someone is listening.’

As Paul and Silas prayed and sang, Luke tells us, “the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25). Perhaps they listened with annoyance, perhaps with surprise, perhaps even with wonder. Whatever the case, they listened. And soon, another person joins their song.

Once God shakes the prison, opens the doors, and unfastens the chains, the jailer falls down before Paul and Silas. “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). Paul and Silas reply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus.” Believe in the Savior worth singing to in sorrow. Believe in the Christ who gives midnight songs. Believe in the Lord who reigns and rescues. And so we read, “He rejoiced along with his entire household” (Acts 16:34). A new house sang Paul and Silas’s song.

Luke doesn’t tell us whether the jailer himself had heard the men singing, but the point is incidental. He could sense the men had singing hearts. And so with us: whether our literal songs reach the ears of others or not, they will hear what kind of hearts we have. Our friends and family, coworkers and neighbors will hear the difference between an inner grumble and a melody, between a sufferer caved in on himself and one who, miraculously, lifts his voice to God and his hand to others.

Everyone in the world knows something of sorrow. And oh how desperately they need to hear how God can fill our sorrows with song.

Suffer with Him in Song

Those who sing with Paul and Silas join a great chorus of saints, from Jehoshaphat and Jeremiah to Asaph and David. But the greatest in that chorus is Jesus.

On the night of his betrayal, after he had broken the bread and shared the cup, after he had washed his disciples’ feet and handed their hearts to the Father, he led the twelve in singing a hymn (Mark 14:26). He sent a melody into the darkest night; he wrapped his sorrow with a song. Nor did he stop singing, even as the mob cried “Crucify!” and injustice pierced his hands and feet. As he hung on the cross, he bled Psalms (Matthew 27:46; Luke 23:46; John 19:28).

Singing in sorrow, then, is one more way God conforms us to the image of his beloved Son. Here, as we suffer with him in song, Jesus teaches us to say, “Our God still reigns. Our God will deliver. And someone needs to hear of his surpassing worth.”

There Is a Name: Our Exclusive and Precious Christ

In a world of tolerance and pluralism, few truth claims taste as sour as this one: Jesus is the only way to God. Or as the apostle Peter so boldly says,

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

Just one name for eight billion people? Just one Savior for almost seven thousand people groups? Just one heavenward path for men and women, young and old, urban and rural, Asian and American and African and European?

Peter, apparently, felt unashamed of the claim. “Let it be known to all of you,” he began (Acts 4:10). But what Peter proclaimed, many of us whisper, especially among those who take offense. “No other name” may sound fine in small group, but our voices can crack at a neighbor’s kitchen table. Embarrassment, not boldness, might mark even the lovers of Jesus’s name.

“Into this world of curse and sin, where half our house hangs over the cliff edge of judgment, God has given a name.”

Perhaps, then, we need help feeling the wonder that there is any name at all. Into this world of curse and sin, where half our house hangs over the cliff edge of judgment, God has given a name.

World with No Name

By all just reckonings, we ought to live in a world with no name.

We ought to walk east of Eden, with no promise of a coming son. We ought to toil under Pharaoh, with no outstretched arm to rescue. We ought to tremble before Goliath, with no David to sling his stones. We ought to hang our harps in Babylon, with no hope of a future song.

On our own, of course, we struggle to consent to such dismal oughts. We feel, even if we do not speak, not that we ought to perish, but that God ought to save. We sense that heaven, not hell, is humanity’s default destination. We talk of a hundred paths up the mountain because we assume, deep down, that most (if not all) deserve to reach the top.

Yet we feel, sense, and assume like this only when we feel, sense, and assume that our sin is smaller than God says. To those with slight views of sin, little could be more offensive than there being only one name. But for those who, like Job (Job 42:6), or Isaiah (Isaiah 6:5), or Peter (Luke 5:8), or John (Revelation 1:17), have found themselves thrust into the presence of the Holy One, little could be more wonderfully surprising.

Why should God send a sunrise to pierce our chosen darkness? Why should the Father rise and race to meet his wayward son? Why should Christ become our Hosea to redeem us from the brothel? Why should heaven’s blood be shed to win back heaven’s haters? Why should Jesus give his name to rescue crucifiers?

Only because the reckonings of heaven reach beyond mere justice.

There Is a Name

Now, hear again the words that so often offend or embarrass:

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

The exclusivity of Jesus Christ does indeed sit at the center of Peter’s words, like a stone of stumbling or a rock of offense (Acts 4:11; Romans 9:33). Yet strewn around that stone are jewels so beautiful that Peter’s claim, so far from offending or embarrassing, ought to break the hearts of sinners and unloose the tongues of saints.

Name Given

There is . . . [a] name . . . given.

When the Son of God was born in Bethlehem, he was born into a world without a saving name. No name among Greece’s wise philosophers could save. No name in Rome’s expansive pantheon could save. Israel, of course, had long taken refuge in the name of Yahweh (Exodus 34:6–7). Yet even Yahweh waited for the day when he would give his name in a new way — and through it, a salvation far beyond the Jews’ imagination (Jeremiah 23:5–6; Joel 2:32).

Then on that lonely night, the God of heaven gave a name to lost and dying sinners. Unto us was born that day in the city of David a Savior, named Jesus Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11). Take heart, exiles of Eden. Have courage, slaves of Pharaoh. Lift up your heads, soldiers of Israel. Play your harps, prisoners of Babylon. Your God has come, and he has given you a name.

Under Heaven

There is . . . [a] name under heaven given among men.

God could have given this name to the Caesars and Herods of the world. He could have handed it to the wise and powerful. Or most likely of all, he could have entrusted it to the Jews alone. Instead, he gave a name under (all) heaven, among (all) men.

“Jesus’s name will meet the eastern sunrise. Jesus’s name will watch the western sunset.”

Wherever men and women live under heaven, however far the image of God has wandered, there this name must go. It must run beyond Jerusalem; it must reach past Judea; it must fly outside Samaria to find the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). As the psalmist sings, “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised!” (Psalm 113:3).

So it is and will be in Jesus. His name will meet the eastern sunrise. His name will watch the western sunset. And everywhere in between, all people “will be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed” (Psalm 72:17).

For Salvation

There is . . . [a] name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

God has given a name. This name is for everyone under heaven. And here is God’s purpose, God’s desire, in giving that universal name: my people must be saved (Acts 2:21).

God saw fit to wrap salvation in the syllables of this name. “You shall call his name Jesus,” the angel told Mary, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). “God sees,” “God sympathizes,” “God strengthens” — any of these names would have been wonderful. But Jesus, “God saves” — or more literally, “Yahweh saves”? No wonder Mary marveled (Luke 1:46–55).

God did not send this name into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through it (John 3:17).

What a Glorious Name

So then, in Jesus, we hear the only name that saves. We can, if we want, nurture offense or embarrassment about God’s giving only one name. Or we can thank God for that name, treasure that name, and join God himself in spreading that name wherever it is not sung.

If we do, we join a mission that cannot fail. Hear God Almighty take up the longing of Psalm 113:3 and turn it into a prophetic promise, sealed twice over:

From the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 1:11)

His name will be great: in Zambia and New Zealand, in India and Iceland, in China and Colombia, and in the darkened streets of our own cities. And to that end, God has made us stewards of his sacred name. In Christ, we can shine the light that splits the darkness (Luke 1:78–79), lower the hand that lifts the fallen (Psalm 40:2), raise the snake that heals the bitten (John 3:14–15), and say the name that saves the sinner.

There is no other name given among men by which we must be saved. And oh what a glorious name it is.

Food Rules: How God Reshapes Our Appetites

A graduate student sits at a booth with friends, his second drink near empty. “Can I refill you?” the waiter asks.

A mother sees the chocolate as she reaches for her youngest’s sippy cup. She tries not to eat sugar in the afternoons, but she’s tired and stressed, and the children aren’t looking.

A father comes back to the kitchen after putting the kids down. Dinner is done, but the leftover pizza is still sitting out. The day has drained him, and another few pieces seem harmless.

Compared to the battles many fight — against addiction, against pornography, against anger, against pride — scenarios such as these may seem too trivial for discussion. Don’t we have bigger sins to worry about than the gluttony of secret snacks and third helpings?

And yet, food is a bigger battleground than many recognize. Do you remember Moses’s terse description of the world’s first sin?

She took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:6)

Murder did not bar Adam and Eve from paradise — nor did adultery, theft, lying, or blasphemy. Eating did. Our first parents ate their way out of Eden. And in our own way, so do we.

Garden of Eating

Food problems, whether large (buffet binging) or small (hidden, uncontrolled snacking), go back to the beginning. Our own moments before the refrigerator or the cupboard can, in some small measure, reenact that moment by the tree. And apart from well-timed grace from God, we often respond in one of two ungodly ways.

“Our first parents ate their way out of Eden. And in our own way, so do we.”

Some, like Adam and Eve, choose to indulge. They sense, on some level, that to eat is to quiet the voice of conscience and weaken the walls of self-control (Proverbs 25:28). They would recognize, if they stopped to ponder and pray, that this “eating is not from faith” (Romans 14:23). But they neither stop, nor ponder, nor pray. Instead, they tip their glass for another drink, snatch and swallow the chocolate, grab a few more slices. Wisdom’s protest avails little against the suggestion of “just one more.”

“Since Eden,” Derek Kidner writes, “man has wanted the last ounce out of life, as though beyond God’s ‘enough’ lay ecstasy, not nausea” (Proverbs, 152). And so, the indulgent drink and grab and sip and snack, forgetting that their grasping leads them, not deeper into Eden’s heart, but farther outside Eden’s walls, where, nauseous and bloated, they bow to the god called “belly” (Philippians 3:19; see also Romans 16:18).

Meanwhile, others choose to deny. Their motto is not “Eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19), but “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (Colossians 2:21). They frantically count calories, buy scales, and build their lives on the first floor of the food pyramid. Though they may not impose their diets on others, at least for themselves they “require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:3) — as if one should see Eden’s lawful fruit and say, “I’m good with grass.”

If our God-given appetites are a stallion, some let the horse run unbridled, while others prefer to shut him up in a stable. Still others, of course, alternate (sometimes wildly) between the two. In Christ, however, God teaches us to ride.

Appetite Redeemed

Paul’s familiar command to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1) comes, surprisingly enough, in the context of food (see 1 Corinthians 8–10, especially 8:7–13 and 10:14–33). And the Gospels tell us why: in Jesus, we find appetite redeemed.

“The Son of Man came eating and drinking,” Jesus says of himself (Matthew 11:19) — and he wasn’t exaggerating. Have you ever noticed just how often the Gospels mention food? Jesus’s first miracle multiplied wine (John 2:1–11); two of his most famous multiplied bread (Matthew 14:13–21; 15:32–39). He regularly dined as a guest at others’ homes, whether with tax collectors or Pharisees (Mark 2:13–17; Luke 14:1). He told parables about seeds and leaven, feasts and fattened calves (Matthew 13:1–9, 33; Luke 14:7–11; 15:11–32). When he met his disciples after his resurrection, he asked, “Have you anything here to eat?” (Luke 24:41) — another time, he took the initiative and cooked them breakfast himself (John 21:12). No wonder he thought it good for us to remember him over a meal (Matthew 26:26–29).

And yet, for all of his freedom with food, he was no glutton or drunkard. Jesus could feast, but he could also fast — even for forty days and forty nights when necessary (Matthew 4:2). At meals, you never get the sense that he was preoccupied with his plate; rather, God and neighbor were his constant concern (Mark 2:13–17; Luke 7:36–50). And so, when the tempter found him in his weakness, and suggested he make bread to break his fast, our second Adam gave a resolute no (Matthew 4:3–4).

Here is a man who knows how to ride a stallion. While some indulged, and others denied, our Lord Jesus directed his appetite.

Meeting Eden’s Maker

If we are going to imitate Jesus in his eating, we will need more than the right food rules. Adam and Eve did not fall, you’ll remember, for lack of a diet.

No, we imitate Jesus’s eating only as we enjoy the kind of communion he had with the Father. This touches the root of the failure at the tree, doesn’t it? Before Eve reached for the fruit, she let the serpent cast a shadow over her Father’s face. She let him convince her that the God of paradise, as Sinclair Ferguson writes, “was possessed of a narrow and restrictive spirit bordering on the malign” (The Whole Christ, 80). The god of the serpent’s beguiling was a misanthrope deity, one who kept his best fruit on forbidden trees. And so, Eve reached.

But through Jesus Christ, we meet God again: the real Maker of Eden, and the only one who can break and tame our appetites. Here is the God who made all the earth’s food; who planted trees on a hundred hills and said, “Eat!” (Genesis 2:16); who feeds his people from “the abundance of [his] house,” and gives “them drink of the river of [his] delights” (Psalm 36:8); who does not withhold anything good from his own (Psalm 84:11); and who, in the fullness of time, withheld not even the greatest of all goods: his beloved Son (Romans 8:32).

“We eat, drink, and abstain to the glory of God only when we, like Jesus, taste God himself as our choicest food.”

Unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus ate (and abstained) in the presence of this unfathomably good God. And so, when he ate, he gave thanks to the Giver (Matthew 14:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24). When he ran up against his Father’s “You shall not eat,” he did not silence conscience or discard self-control, but feasted on something better than bread alone (Matthew 4:4). “My food,” he told his disciples, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). He knew there was a time to eat and a time to abstain, and that both times were governed by the goodness of God.

We eat, drink, and abstain to the glory of God only when we, like Jesus, taste God himself as our choicest food (1 Corinthians 10:31; Psalm 34:8).

Direct Your Appetite

Admittedly, the line between just enough and too much is a blurry one, and even the most mature can fail to notice that border until they’ve eaten beyond it. Even still, between the overflowing plate of indulgence and the empty plate of denial is a third plate, one we increasingly discern and choose as the Spirit refines our heart’s palate. Here, we neither indulge nor deny our appetites, but like our Lord Jesus, we direct them.

So then, there you are, ready to grab another portion, take another drink, down another handful, though your best spiritual wisdom dictates otherwise. You are ready, in other words, to reach past God’s “enough” once again. What restores your sanity in that moment? Not repeating the rules with greater fervor, but following the rules back to the mouth of an infinitely good God. When you sense that you have reached God’s “enough” — perhaps through briefly stopping, pondering, praying — you have reached the wall keeping you from leaving the Eden of communion with Christ, that Food better than all food (John 4:34).

And so, you walk away, perhaps humming a hymn to the God who is good:

Thou art giving and forgiving,Ever blessing, ever blest,Wellspring of the joy of living,Ocean depth of happy rest!

This is the Maker of Eden, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And if the real God is this good, then we need not grasp for what he has not given.

The Reformation of English: How Tyndale’s Bible Transformed Our Language

In the late summer or fall of 1525, sheets of thin sewn paper bounced across the English Channel, hidden in bales of cloth and sacks of flour. They passed silently, secretly, from the Channel to the London shipyards, from the shipyards to the hands of smiths and cooks, sailors and cobblers, priests and politicians, mothers and fathers and children. De-clothed and un-floured, the first lines read,

I have here translated (bretheren and sisters most dear and tenderly beloved in Christ) the new Testament for your spiritual edifying, consolation, and solace.

And then, a few pages later:

This is the book of the generation of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son also of Abraham . . .

Here was the Gospel of Matthew, translated from the original Greek into English for the very first time. The entire New Testament would soon follow, and then portions of the Old Testament, before its translator, William Tyndale (1494–1536), would be found and killed for his work.

Reforming English

For centuries past, a normal Englishman might have thought God spoke Latin. England’s only legal Bible was a Latin Bible, translated over a millennium prior by the church father Jerome (who died in 420). For them, the Psalms were simply the songs of a foreign land. The Ten Commandments rumbled toward them with no more clarity than Sinai’s thunder. They knew, perhaps, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us — but apart from bits and snatches, they had never heard him speak their language. Until now.

Over the following years, some would burn this book, and some would be burned for it. Some would smuggle this book into England, and some would cast it out. But the book itself, once translated, could not be forgotten. Illegal or not, the English Scriptures would find their way into English pulpits and English hearts, reforming England through its mother tongue.

And along the way, another reformation would take place — a reformation often overlooked, and yet, one could argue, just as far reaching. Tyndale’s translation would reform not only England, but English; it would shape the future not only of English religion, but of the English language. As biographer David Daniell writes, “Newspaper headlines still quote Tyndale, though unknowingly, and he has reached more people than even Shakespeare” (William Tyndale, 2).

Dangers of Translation

From a distance of five hundred years, we may struggle to grasp how the English Christian church could possibly oppose the English Christian Scriptures. For, amazingly enough, it was the church that banned and burned this book. The Catholic authorities of Tyndale’s day offered at least two reasons.

First, translation is inherently dangerous. In the early 1400s, a generation after John Wycliffe (1328–1384) had published the first English Bible (translated from the Latin Vulgate, however, rather than the Hebrew and Greek), the Constitutions of Oxford declared,

It is a dangerous thing, as witnesseth blessed St. Jerome, to translate the text of the Holy Scripture out of one tongue into another, for in the translation the same sense is not always easily kept. . . . We therefore decree and ordain, that no man, hereafter, by his own authority translate any text of the Scripture into English or any other tongue . . . and that no man can read any such book . . . in part or in whole. (God’s Bestseller, xxii)

“They could burn the book, and they could even burn the man, but they could not burn away the words so many heard.”

The priests and magistrates of Tyndale’s day enforced such laws with a vengeance, sometimes burning Christians alive simply for possessing the Lord’s Prayer in English. An English Bible, of course, posed more danger to a corrupt church than to a common Christian. Even still, such was their position: translation was simply too dangerous.

Our Rude and Rusty Tongue

Apart from translation itself being seen as dangerous, however, the idea of an English translation was considered “ridiculous.” “The English language, when Tyndale began to write,” says Daniell, “was a poor thing, spoken only by a few in an island off the shelf of Europe. . . . In 1500 it was as irrelevant to life in Europe as today’s Scots Gaelic is to the city of London” (The Bible in English, 248).

Though English sufficed for everyday communication, Latin dominated the highest spheres of life. Magistrates wrote in Latin. Professors wrote (and taught) in Latin. Literary works appeared in Latin. The clergy conducted their services in Latin. How then could the Bible be translated into English?

A poem from John Skelton, written in the early 1500s, captures the supposed absurdity of an English translation:

Our natural tong is rude,And hard to be enneude [revived]With pullyshed terms lusty;Our language is so rusty,So cankered and so fullOf frowardes [awkward words], and so dull,That if I wolde applyTo wryte ornately,I wot not where to fyndTerms to serve my mynde. (273)

Such a rude and rusty tongue could not carry the oracles of God. Or so the authorities thought.

Bible for Plowboys

William Tyndale grew up, along with every other boy his age, hearing the word of God in Latin. The Lord’s Prayer did not begin, “Our Father, which art in heaven,” but “Pater noster, qui es in caelis.” And like some other boys his age, he spent his school days preparing to speak that Latin word as a priest to the next generation.

But he never did — or at least not for long. We know few of the reasons Tyndale grew weary of a Latin-only religion and began to burn to read the Bible in English. Perhaps he noticed that, of all Europe in the 1520s, England alone had no legal vernacular translation (Bible in English, 249). Perhaps he heard about — and even read — Martin Luther’s groundbreaking German Bible, published in 1522. Perhaps he noticed all the Catholic corruption that only a mute Bible could endorse. And perhaps, as an extraordinary linguist himself, he heard far more potential in our English tongue than did the church of his day.

We do know, however, that when twentysomething Tyndale heard a certain man say, “We were better be without God’s law than the pope’s,” he answered, “I defy the Pope and all his laws. . . . If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the scripture than thou dost” (William Tyndale, 79). The gospel of the Scriptures, Tyndale knew, “maketh a man’s heart glad, and maketh him sing, dance, and leap for joy” (123). But how would the plowboy sing if he understood not a lick of that gospel?

And so, Tyndale began to translate. He went first to London, to see if he could find any support for his work close to home. Finding none, he left London for the continent, and there set to work on a translation that would give the plowboy not only the Bible, but the Bible clothed in an English so fair it would endure for centuries.

Tyndale’s Translation

In the judgment of one scholar, Tyndale “was responsible almost single-handedly for making the native language, which at the start of the sixteenth century was barely respectable in educated circles, into the supple, powerful, sensitive vehicle it had become by the time of Shakespeare” (The King James Version at 400, 316). Another goes so far as to say, “There is truth in the remark, ‘Without Tyndale, no Shakespeare’” (William Tyndale, 158). Under Tyndale’s pen, English grew from callow youth to mature man, capable of expressing the subtleties and profundities of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.

But how did he do it? By focusing all of his linguistic genius toward two great goals: “First,” Daniell writes, “to understand the Greek and Hebrew of the original Bible texts as well as it was then humanly possible to do. Secondly, to write in English that above all, and at all times, made sense” (92). Accuracy and clarity were Tyndale’s hallmarks, and they made for an English at once strangely new and strikingly familiar.

Moses Speaking English

First, Tyndale’s commitment to accuracy gave his English a strange newness. A foreign flavor clung to his English phrases, as if his language traveled abroad and came home with a new accent.

Sometimes, readers felt the change in the totally new words Tyndale coined to capture the meaning of the text. Intercession, atonement, Passover, mercy seat, scapegoat — these are all Tyndalisms, the work of a wordsmith in his forge. Alistair McGrath comments, “It can be seen immediately that biblical translation thus provided a major stimulus to the development of the English language, not least by creating new English words to accommodate biblical ideas” (The Word of God in English, 61).

Tyndale forged not only new words, however, but a new style, especially in his translations of the Old Testament. Striving for literalness, he crafted a kind of Hebraic English, as if Moses should speak English in the patterns of his native tongue. For example, strange as it may seem, the simple construction “the+noun+of+the+noun” — “the beasts of the field,” “the birds of the air” — came into English through Tyndale’s translation of a Hebrew form called the construct chain (William Tyndale, 285). Tyndale could have fitted this Hebrew form into existing English syntax; instead, he invented a new English form, and thus adorned our English with Hebrew robes.

“Following the syntactic contours of the Hebrew,” Robert Alter writes, “achieved a new kind of compelling effect, at once lofty and almost stark” (The King James Bible and the World It Made, 136). And more examples could be listed. The influence of Hebrew on our language (and to a lesser extent Greek), Daniell argues, is nothing short of “immense” (William Tyndale, 289) — and the credit is largely due to Tyndale. By grasping the original languages so tightly, he brought much of them back into English, to our great enrichment.

Scripture in Plain Language

Alongside that strange newness, however, was a striking familiarity, born from Tyndale’s commitment to clarity. His English may have traveled abroad, but it never lost touch with its roots — and particularly its Saxon roots.

Latin, as we’ve seen, dominated the respectable discourse of Tyndale’s England. Yet even when an author did write something important in English, he typically adopted a Latinate style, an English filled with abstract, polysyllabic words in complex syntax. As an example, Daniell offers the following excerpt from Lord Berner’s 1523 translation of a French history:

Thus, when I advertised and remembered the manifold commodities of history, how beneficial it is to mortal folk, and else how laudable and meritorious a deed it is to write histories . . . which I judged commodious, necessary, and profitable to be had in English . . . (Bible in English, 250)

Of the 46 words in this partial sentence, 11 consist of three syllables or more, 6 of those 11 reach into the four- or five-syllable range, and most of them lie under a fog of abstraction. Turn to Tyndale, either in his prose writings or his Bible translations, and you enter a different world — a world more Saxon than Latin, populated with short words and sentences that evoke images of real life. Here we find light, not illumination; eat, not ingest; grow, not cultivate; burn, not incinerate.

Latinate words have their place in English, of course, but Tyndale knew that “a homespun Anglo-Saxon vernacular” not only matched “the plain diction of the Hebrew,” but also that it spoke to the hearts of English readers and hearers (King James Bible, 137). He translated “in the language the people spoke, not as the scholars wrote” (William Tyndale, 3) — as, for example, in the familiar Christmas story of Luke 2:

And there were in the same region shepherds abiding in the field, and watching their flock by night. And lo: the angel of the Lord stood hard by them, and the brightness of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them: Be not afraid: Behold I bring you tidings of great joy, that shall come to all the people: for unto you is born this day in the city of David a saviour, which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:8–11)

Of the 87 words in this passage, only one reaches three syllables (abiding). Here was a language familiar and warm, a world of words where even a plowboy could feel at home. And yet, at the same time, here was a beautiful language, a “fountain from which flowed the lucidity, suppleness and expressive range of the greatest prose thereafter” (William Tyndale, 116).

Our Wonderful Tyndalian Tongue

In 1611, 86 years after Tyndale’s partial New Testament was smuggled into England, a new English Bible appeared, a Bible that would so win the hearts of English-speaking Christians that, for three centuries, you could almost call it the English Bible. And yet, remarkably, most of the King James Version belongs to Tyndale’s pen: 84 percent of the New Testament comes from his translation, along with 76 percent of the Old Testament books he finished before he died (God’s Bestseller, 1). The translators of 1611 were so indebted to his pioneering work that C.S. Lewis could say of the KJV, “Our Bible is substantially Tyndale” (Word of God in English, 60).

“With Tyndale’s Bible came reform — theologically and spiritually, but also linguistically.”

No wonder Daniell writes, “Tyndale’s gift to the English language is unmeasurable” (William Tyndale, 158). Through his own translation, and then through the KJV, Tyndale — a hunted, solitary translator eventually martyred for his work — would tutor poets and playwrights, politicians and pastors, in “the sounds and rhythms as well as the senses of English” (2). Tyndale gave us an English worth speaking and writing, and not only in everyday conversations and informal documents, but in the most precious matters of life and death.

Still today, we feel his driving influence whenever we read or hear the English Standard Version, whose translators note that “the words and phrases . . . grow out of the Tyndale–King James legacy.” But his influence goes far deeper, down into the instincts and thought worlds of all English speakers. We speak English like fish swim in water, rarely noticing the qualities of the language in which we live and move and have our being (there’s a Tyndale phrase, Acts 17:28). As David Norton writes, “It is difficult to imagine how our language would have been without the Tyndale tradition embodied in the KJV — in large part because we are so accustomed to the language we have and therefore find it difficult to observe” (King James Version, 21).

We do know, however, that English is no longer the rude and rusty tongue John Skelton thought it was. With Tyndale’s Bible came reform — theologically and spiritually, but also linguistically. They could burn the book, and they could even burn the man, but they could not burn away the words so many heard. Under God, Tyndale gave the English-speaking world the gospel of justification by faith alone, and in doing so, he gave us a new tongue to sing of it.

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