At one point in his ministry, Jesus drew a crowd of 5000 hungry people. Enamored by stories of Jesus healing the sick, they followed him. Desiring to feed the crowd, Jesus multiplied a little boy’s fish and bread, the disciples passed out lunch, and the crowd ate until satisfied. Enamored by yet another sign, they tried to “make him king by force” (John 6:15). When Jesus escaped, the crowds followed him to the other side of the sea, and he quickly determined what they were after: they wanted the food, the physical bread (John 6:26–27). Once again, they were more interested in what this man had to offer them instead of the man himself. Jesus patiently responded with a well-known declaration of his identity: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
Today my son found months-old Saltines at the bottom of a wicker basket. I pried his mouth open and begged him to spit them out, but he slipped away, swallowing his prize with a grin.
In the next room, strewn across the floor and his high chair, sat his half-eaten lunch. I’ll never understand what makes my toddler desire stale crackers instead of a freshly made sandwich, but he always eats the crumbs off the floor, the bread that seems lesser to me.
Often, I’d argue, when we’re reading the Gospels, we also eat the lesser bread.
At times I open a Gospel to wrestle over Jesus’ teaching, a parable or a specific teaching point, and I forget to see the One who’s teaching. I forget that, by reading the Gospels, we don’t just learn about Jesus, but we can know him.
The Gospel writer John emphasized repeatedly his desire for everyone to know Jesus—through teaching, pointed questions, and important events in Jesus’ life—and in the middle of the Gospel of John, he further emphasized why he wrote: “These [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in his name” (John 20:31). In other words, John didn’t write just because, or to provide loosely connected observations on Jesus’ life, but he had evangelism in mind. This is the heart of John’s Gospel: that we might believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that we might believe him.
John spent several years following Jesus, hearing him speak, watching his miracles, listening in on conversations. He witnessed Jesus weep, experience hunger and thirst, resurrect a dead man, die, and come back to life. John knew Jesus, and he wanted his reader to know Jesus too; he wanted his reader to really know Jesus—to experience a lasting relationship with Christ that only comes through belief in him.
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By John Beeson — 1 year ago
The gospel and God’s grace to us are not set aside in giving, but God himself, in his grace, is the one with the power to make this grace abound in us. God’s blessings result in good works.[v] And every good work is the work of generosity. In this, we return to Paul’s first reason for giving: it is a grace. Generosity is beautifully cyclical. When we actually cheer as money leaves our wallets, we are a place of delighting as God delights. It is then that we are experiencing the gift God intends to give us, the gift of generosity.
I worked for a few years in development and was trained in best practices for raising money. I was blessed to work for a Christian organization that was committed to raising money in a godly way, but the broader development industry doesn’t have many scruples in doing what they do best: separating people from their money. And they are clever! How does a development professional unlock the giving vault?
The secular handbook on getting people to give reveals a lot. There are three universal rules in development:[i]
1) Appeal to donors’ emotions, not their minds: tell a story that will move them;
2) Inflate a donor’s sense of importance and appeal to their interests;
3) Create urgency: donors need to feel as though the need is immediate and significant.
The Christian generosity handbook is very different. Having delivered his four strange reasons for giving. Paul is now going to five equally strange instructions for giving in his letter to the Corinthian church. Paul’s instructions contradict the development professional’s handbook at almost every turn. Paul tells us we should give this way:
2) Not reluctantly
3) Not under compulsion
5) Through the power of Christ
Paul explains his instructions this way in 2 Corinthians 9:7-8: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” It is staggering just how different this is from today’s secular handbook for giving.
Faux Christian Generosity
But shouldn’t we take tithing seriously? The LDS (Mormon) Church takes tithing very seriously. In an official publication, they state that a bishop may move forward with disciplinary action on that member including “information probation, temporarily restricting his privileges as a Church member – such as the right to partake of the sacrament, hold a Church position, or enter the temple.”[ii] That’s a far cry from our evangelical churches today. On the one hand, the LDS Church is to be commended for the seriousness with which they take stewardship and generosity. On the other hand, these guidelines draw very near overturning two of the ways in which Scripture calls us to give: “not reluctantly” and “not under compulsion.”
The Beautifully Strange Difference
Where today’s handbook tells one to appeal to the emotions, not reason, Paul tells us our giving must be thoughtful. Where the secular handbook tells us that any giver, even a reluctant giver is okay, Paul tells us that true generosity requires that there is an eagerness.
By Kendall Lankford — 12 months ago
The Christmas rags remind us that God has shown His greatest love in the most ignoble birth. In that, He can empathize with us He too was brought down low. He left the splendor of heaven to recline in a feeding trough made for pigs. Why? So that we would never wonder if God was too busy to notice us, too high and lofty to care for us, or too concerned with other matters to reach you. He proved His love for us when He left the highest places in heaven to dwell in the lowest parts of earth.
When our Lord visited the earth, He didn’t come in on a 1000-horsepower jet-fueled celestial chariot for everyone to see. He didn’t topple the world’s greatest empire with heaven’s version of the seal team six. And He did not sit down upon His rightful throne to reign. At least not at first. He came initially to the warm, quiet darkness of a poor virgin’s womb, just as He promised (Gen. 3:15).
In so doing, our Lord submitted to the same human gestation that He joyfully designed. He was fed from the same umbilical cord He artfully invented. And He became dependent upon the mother He wove together in his grandmother’s womb. The artist indeed painted Himself into His own masterpiece.
Upon His birth, the King of all glory wasn’t welcomed with festivals, celebrations, and feasting befitting His majesty. No heralds were sent out from Bethlehem that evening. There were no government holidays or observances sanctioned. Just the humble cry of a newborn babe wrapped in common rags. But why?
Here, we must lift our gaze above the Hallmark card nativity scenes to see the point of what was happening. Jesus wasn’t draped with a warm, cuddly, baby blanket his mother got at Target. He was not swallowed up in a plush baggy onesie because auntie Elizabeth bought him the wrong size. Instead, he was bound with tight strips of linen, making him look more like a miniature mummy than a precious moments model. But again, why?
At that time, such a tight and restrictive binding was used to simulate a mother’s womb. A newborn child had recently spent more than 9 months cramped in an ever-tightening uterus. So, bindings like this would have made the baby most comfortable as he adapted to a wide-open world. But for Jesus, the symbolism is far more profound and gets right at the heart of the Gospel. Let us explore.
First, we know from Scripture that the angels directed a group of herdsmen to go and find the child. He also told them to view these linen rags, wrapped around the body of Christ, as a great sign unto them, convincing them of who He is and what He had come to do. It says in Luke 2
“In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” – Luke 2:8-14
The rags upon Jesus’ body were a sign meant to be looked at, noticed, and pondered in such a way that they would come to believe these three specific truths.
He was born for their good news.
He was born for the world’s great joy.
He was born to be Savior, Christ, and Lord.
Born for Their Good News
When the Shepherds viewed those shabby rags, it was meant to be a sign unto them. It was to be a good message. A joyful message. It was a definitive statement from God that communicated eternally good news to His people. But there is more for us to consider here.
The word used in the text by the angelic fleet is the Greek word εὐαγγελίζω, which is where we get our verb “to evangelize” or, more accurately, “to proclaim the Gospel.” In those days, that word did not have a religious connotation. Instead, it was purely political. At that time, a “gospel” message was a good news report about a victory in battle, a call to celebrate an emperor’s birthday, or a declaration that a new child had been born into the royal family. When these good news events occurred, singing heralds would be sent throughout the empire to alert the people so they could celebrate together.
But, just because something was good news in Rome did not necessarily make it good news worth celebrating in Judah.
By Bill Fullilove — 2 years ago
The world we live in has changed, and the faster the church gets our heads around it, the better. And the past two and a half years of a global pandemic have only turbocharged the change. In a time of rapid, dislocating change, it becomes easy to want to get back to what we lost. Instead, we must embrace God’s call into what we are.
Last month Jacob Birch wrote a widely-viewed article at Christianity Today questioning the common use of Jeremiah 29 in the Western church. In short, Birch complains that the common refrain, “We live in a period of exile” in today’s Western church is an ill-advised framework to understand the church’s relationship to our broader culture.
We can understand the basic thrust of the article. In essence, Birch states, “It’s really not that bad to be a Christian in the West. And so, when the Western [and he presumably particularly means the American and Canadian] church starts talking this way, it cheapens people who really have been forced out of their homelands, experienced all sorts of horrors, and suffered mightily.” Birch raises a valid point. Those who have fled war, who have been forcibly deported, who will never see their homes again, those who have suffered, deeply – they may rightly take umbrage at comparisons which seem to imply, “Yes, we feel that too.” No, honestly, we don’t. We can agree with Birch’s concern at that level.
Yet, we shouldn’t entirely abandon the analogy. We shouldn’t abandon it because the bible itself talks this way. In fact, in 1 Peter 1.1, Peter calls God’s elect, Christians, exiles in the world:
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you. (1 Peter 1:1–2, ESV)
Other English translations render the ESV’s “exiles” as “scattered,” “sojourners,” “strangers,” and the like, so we should be careful to note the potential range of meaning in Peter’s description. Not every sojourner is an exile, nor are the terms identical, but they do have overlapping ranges of meaning and signification. In other words, the ESV, though not the only possible translation of the term, is a legitimate and defensible rendering of Peter’s meaning.
And why that designation? Those who read the New Testament know what it means to be elect, and verse 2 confirms what Peter means – the ones who were chosen in advance by God the Father, sanctified by the Spirit, for obedience to Christ, redeemed in his blood. Peter writes to Christians scattered through the Roman Empire, choosing imagery that links them to the dispersion and exile of the Judeans following the Babylonian conquest and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC.
According to Peter, the elect were scattered throughout the world. Why? They were scattered because of persecution. We should be careful not to read that too far – Birch has a point – the persecution wasn’t yet as bad as it could be…or would be. But Nero was probably already ruling when this letter was written, and it would keep getting worse. The Christians of the early church faced hardship and persecution – socially, economically, and eventually physically. And even when these early Christians experienced social and economic persecution, Peter wrote to them as “strangers in the world, scattered – exiled – among the nations.” They were in the same spot that the Jews in Judah had been centuries before – oppressed, harassed, living in the midst of a pagan culture that mocked all they stood for.
In other words, there’s nothing per se wrong with using the analogy of exile for Western Christians today. We simply must recognize that this is an analogy, and every analogy can be pushed too far. Our situation in the Western church is not nearly as bad as what many brothers and sisters around the world face daily, nor should we act like we have it so hard. Yet, we can still profitably look at and learn from the question of what it means to live as exiles in the world.
And whatever analogy we use, it is fair to say the Western church has moved and is moving towards a minority position in terms of its influence on culture. Now probably, from what all the statisticians say, the number of people who have really met Jesus, been born again, has not changed terribly much as a percentage of the population. Instead, the well-documented rise of the “nones” is driving this change. Christianity in America for a long time managed to live in a position of cultural hegemony, where the mainstream, whether or not it truly believed in Christian orthodoxy, still gave lip service, accepted many of its cultural claims, and voted with it, so to speak. We must remember that was often a hollow faith, but in many places in the West, including until recently in most of America, it was relatively easy, safe, and even socially helpful to say you were a Christian.
That, certainly, has changed in much of the West, somewhat earlier in Europe, then first in the American Northeast and West, then spreading more broadly to cultural centers across the nation; and we have no reason to think the trend will suddenly cease. The church is moving towards a position of less cultural influence, and whether we describe that as “occupation” (Birch’s preferred analogy) or “exile” (also valid), that requires rethinking how Christians relate to our world. And Jeremiah 29 remains not just helpful, but crucial in thinking through the question.
These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord. “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:1–14, ESV)
How did we get here, to this cultural moment? We might start with how Israel got there. This is a letter from Jeremiah the prophet, back in Jerusalem, to some of the exiles deported to Babylon, a letter written near the end of the history of Judah as an independent nation. After Solomon, God’s people split into two separate nations, sometimes allied, often fighting each other. A couple hundred years later, the northern nation, called Israel, had been wiped out by the Assyrian Empire. Now, a bit past one hundred years later, the southern nation, called Judah, was in the process of being wiped out by the Babylonian Empire. The Babylonian judgment happened in three stages, and in each of those three stages the Babylonians deported a portion of Judah’s elite, exiling them, taking them back to Babylon for what basically amounted to a forced reeducation campaign, one that made them into Babylonian civil servants. Jeremiah 29 occurs in the midst of those three stages. The prophet Jeremiah, still back in Judah, wrote to God’s people who had been exiled to Babylon.
To understand this situation correctly, we must recognize that Israel ended up in exile because of both injustice AND false worship. Jeremiah 7:1-7 says – and the OT prophets had been repeating both these themes for centuries – that God had exiled them because of both their religious apostasy and the rampant injustice of their society:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.” (Jeremiah 7:1–7, ESV)
One can almost open the preexilic prophets of the Old Testament at random and find these two themes.
First, as to idolatry, this remained a very religious people. Atheism was a much, much later cultural movement. Everyone at this time was religious; the only question was which god you followed. Further, this remained a people who said they were worshiping the Lord. If you had asked the people themselves, “Have you turned to other gods?” they would have answered, “No, this is how we worship the Lord.” Of course, God didn’t see it that way. In his eyes, they were “going after other gods.” In other words, they had a religion that claimed it was still the worship of the Lord and even formally looked like, at least in many ways, it was the worship of the Lord. It had the same ceremonies, the same sacrifices, the same patterns, yet it was a false worship of the Lord. It had much of the form of Yahwism, but in God’s mind it was something else entirely.
Second, as to justice, this remained an incredibly blind people. Their stated faith and their market and societal ethics simply did not match. As long as the Temple continued its work, as long as the sacrifices were made, people considered themselves to be good with God, well set, having done their religious duty. No matter if one then went out and slept with a prostitute, exploited the poor, oppressed the widow, the orphan, or the refugee. No matter if one’s business practices were technically legal but corrupt. No matter if one’s faith had no impact once he exited the Temple courts. Jeremiah critiques, standing in a long line of Old Testament prophets, the worst of legalistic, formalistic religion.
And, we might add, Jeremiah rejects their complacency in the light of all of that. They cry out, “This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord.” In other words, they cry out, “We’re good, so long as we meet the obligations of the Temple sacrificial system. We have nothing to worry about. God will always protect Jerusalem, because he has promised to.” To which Jeremiah says, “The Temple’s presence will not save you. Give me a true religion, one that rejects idolatrous religious compromise and one that seeks justice.”
If the Western church has moved into a position that is much more exilic, even if in a very light form, how did we get here? Interestingly, the two warring halves of the movement formerly known as evangelicalism each concentrate on one or the other of those causes.
One of the two halves often traces the roots of the church’s loss of influence to false worship, particularly to the rise of liberal theology in the early 20th century, which then really flowered with the 60’s and the sexual revolution and then more recent cultural moves on gender and sexuality. The narrative goes as follows: