Greatest of men, least in the kingdom of God

john the baptist
john the baptist

John the Baptist, Preaching / Luca Giordano, ca. 1695

In Luke 7:28, Jesus summarized his description of John the Baptist and his ministry saying, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John, yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

What was so special about John? And how can the least in the kingdom of God be greater than John? Continue reading

Strength, courage, and adequacy

Moses blesses Joshua
Moses blesses Joshua

Moses Blesses Joshua Before the High Priest / James Tissot, late 19th century

God’s first words to Joshua are, “Moses my servant is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan.” Joshua had known that this moment would come.

Everyone knew that Moses would not lead the people into the Promised Land.

We have all experienced starting a new venture or getting a big promotion, something that we have prepared to do for a long time.

But when it comes time to actually start working, it’s only natural to have some jitters about our adequacy. Continue reading

Beans, ping-pong balls, and Jesus

esus at prayer in the desert

Christ in the desert / Ivan Kramskoi (1871)

Perhaps you have seen this object lesson: Before starting his sermon, a preacher asked for a volunteer from the congregation. He had a jar of beans and three ping-pong balls, and asked the volunteer to put the ping-pong balls into the jar. He couldn’t do it.

The preacher emptied the beans into a pitcher. The balls easily fit into the jar. Then the preacher asked the volunteer to see how many of the beans he could get into the jar. They all fit with some room to spare.

The ping-pong balls represented time with God. The beans represented all of the day’s activities. We cannot find time for God in the midst of all of the things we plan and all of the unplanned stuff that comes in a day. But if we make time by making it our first priority, everything else fits.

Jesus shows us the same lesson. In Mark 1, he taught in the synagogue, cast a demon out of a man, healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and then spent the entire evening healing all the sick people who flocked to him and casting out more demons.  Continue reading

Justification: by grace or works?

Saint Paul

Saint Paul / Bartolomeo Montagna (1481)

Does the Bible contain contradictions? It can appear so.

Paul wrote, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28), and a few lines later, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (Romans 4:2).

James, on the other hand, wrote, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? . . . You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:21, 24).

Upon close examination of these verses in context, however, the apparent contradiction disappears. Continue reading

Noah’s flood, God’s wrath?

construction of Noah's ark

Construction of the ark, from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

According to Romans 1:18, the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. It seems at first that Noah’s flood could be Exhibit A.

Except that a careful reading shows that nowhere in the Genesis account of the flood does “wrath,” “anger,” or any synonym occur!

The first time “anger” occurs in the King James Bible is Genesis 27:45 to describe Esau. “Wrath” first occurs is Genesis 39:19, which describes Potiphar after his wife accused Joseph of attempted rape. Abraham asked God not to be angry in Genesis 18:30 when the two were bargaining over the fate of Sodom.

The first time anger or wrath is ascribed to God is Exodus 4:14 when Moses was trying to beg off from his assignment.

God’s grief

If God’s wrath doesn’t explain the flood, what does?

The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth and his heart was filled with pain.

So the Lord said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air—for I am grieved I have made them. But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.—Genesis 6:5-8

God sent the flood out of grief. And why would he be grieved?

Take another look at the creation story. God made a man before the earth was fit to live on. Then he planted a garden. The man became God’s partner in creation, naming all of the beasts.

Then God made a woman, told the two of them to be fruitful and multiply, then he left. Contrary to centuries of foolish teaching, this is not a blame-the-woman story.

As soon as God left, the serpent showed up—”craftier than any of the wild animals God had made” (Genesis 3:1).

Notice. The serpent was not craftier than any of the other wild animals. The serpent was not one of them at all. The man had not named him.

The serpent’s name is Satan (Revelation 20:2). The devil comes immediately to take away the seed, God’s word (Mark 4:15). It would have been impossible to draw the man away from God after such a long and intimate relationship, but the woman was new and inexperienced.

If she had resisted the serpent’s suggestions, God’s Plan A (immediate destruction of the devil) could have gone into effect. As it was, God moved to Plan B (redeem humanity and then destroy the devil).

Fallen humanity became more and more evil. Genesis 6:4 makes cryptic reference to the Nephilim and sons of God. These appear to be fallen angelic beings (or demons) who had taken physical form and had sex with humans. In other words, the moral degradation of those days exceeds anything the world has seen since.

God decided to start over with Noah, of whom it is written that God favored him, and with his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law, of whom no such thing is recorded.

God’s mercy

Noah's ark

Noah’s Ark / Edward Hicks, 1846

God sent the flood in grief and accomplished the complete annihilation of the people of mixed human and demonic parentage. And he sent it with mercy.

  • From the time Noah was commanded to build the ark until the day the flood started was 120 years—plenty of time for anyone to repent if they were so inclined (Genesis 6:3).
  • God promised Noah a covenant—something like a contract. As with Adam in the garden, God took Noah as a partner (Genesis 6:18).
  • God told Noah to take a breeding pair of every animal on the ark with him (Genesis 6:17), but he didn’t have to round them up. They simply came to the ark at the same time Noah and his family entered (Genesis 7:8-9).
  • The flood did not begin until seven days after God closed the ark (Genesis 7:10), giving anyone so inclined one last chance to repent. The death of the body is not the end for a person. There is a second death, and anyone who repents avoids it.
  • After an unparalleled storm, everything on the surface of the earth was dead, but Noah and those with him on the ark were high above it, floating safely on the water.
  • Genesis 8:1 says that God remembered Noah. It’s not like he ever forgot. Whenever the Bible says that God remembers, it always implies movement toward and on behalf of whom he remembers. The word for “remember” in Hebrew combines the ideas of faithful love and timely intervention.
  • The water receded. It must have felt to Noah like it was receding painfully slowly, but after sending a dove out three times, it finally came back with an olive leaf (Genesis 8:11). The vegetation had all died, too, but it grew back quickly to provide food for the survivors before they left the ark.
  • Noah had taken along animals to sacrifice (Genesis 7:2), and when he offered the sacrifice in worship on dry land, God promised never to curse the ground or destroy all of life again—even though he knew that Noah’s descendants would be inclined to evil from childhood (Genesis 8:21-22).
  • God established the covenant promised before Noah began his work. As a sign of the covenant, he laid down his weapon (Genesis 9:8-17).

God’s covenant with Noah

Noah's flood subsiding

The Subsiding Waters of the Deluge / Thomas Cole, 1829

The covenant adds meat to appropriate food for humans. It institutes capital punishment, which, believe it or not, is a kind of divine mercy in providing clear consequences for sin.

It also somewhat hedges the promise never to destroy all life on earth again. God promised never to cut off all life with a flood.

When human wickedness again reaches its pre-flood level, God will destroy the earth with fire. And then make a new heaven and earth, having finally finished the work of redemption and destroying the devil.

Between this covenant with Noah and the end of this world, God initiated covenants with Abraham, Moses, and the risen Jesus. The latter can cleanse people from sin and make them perfect. All God requires in return is that a person want to be cleansed and restore the intimacy with God that existed in Eden.

I have written a book about them, Understanding Our  Covenants with God

The sign of the covenant is the rainbow. Modern translations specifically say “rainbow,” but the original Hebrew does not. God literally said, “I will set my bow in the cloud” (Genesis 9:13).

In every other instance of the Hebrew word means the kind of bow used to shoot arrows. An instrument of killing. An instrument of war.

As a sign of the covenant with Noah, God set his weapon in the cloud. Never again will he use it against the human race.

When Jesus returns to earth to claim his final victory, his weapon will be a sword. Not a physical sword, but his word. God spoke the universe into existence. Jesus will speak final destruction of evil.

And the bow? It surrounds the very throne of God, as much a sign to him as to Noah and his descendants (Revelation 4:3; 10:1). The Greek word means only “rainbow.” It has no hint of ever being a weapon.

So God sent the flood from grief, not wrath. It killed those worthy of death, and God’s mercy shines through the entire narrative for anyone who takes the time to notice.

God’s wrath is revealed against unrighteousness and ungodliness—not against people. He is not willing that any should perish, but all come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Be assured that when the final destruction of this world comes, it, too, will be accompanied by God’s grief over those who refused to repent.

Until then, there’s still time.

Photo credits:
Construction of the Ark / Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Noah’s Ark (Hicks 1846). Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.
Subsiding Waters of the Deluge. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

How to rejoice when it seems unreasonable

jumping for joyChristians know that the Bible says, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) and “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

In fact, those are the texts of two popular rounds that are probably going through your head right now.

We know what the Word says. That doesn’t make it easy for us to wrap our minds around what it really means or how to do it. Sometimes, life is so miserable that there doesn’t seem to be anything to rejoice about at all.

And yet Paul, the man who wrote those words, didn’t exactly have an easy life. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has struggled with those commands. Why else would David Young have written a book called Joy? Continue reading

The peril of pride in privilege or pampering: Ephraim and Manasseh

Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh (detail) / Benjamin West, 1766-68

Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh (detail) / Benjamin West, 1766-68

Perhaps nothing so starkly displays the fall more starkly than comparing the first verse in Genesis (which begins, “in the beginning”) and the last (which ends, “in a coffin in Egypt.) Unfortunately, the story gets worse from there.

Until his death, Joseph was Egypt’s prime minister and held nearly unlimited power. Lord Acton’s saying, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely” is only partly correct.

Power reveals and intensifies the level of corruption already present. Strong faith in God reduces that level substantially. If sons of godly people show themselves corrupt, it’s because they did not inherit faith. Continue reading

Who is that virtuous wife?

woman as wisdom

Wisdom portrayed as a woman

Proverbs 31 ends with a description of a virtuous wife. More than one Christian woman has confessed a love-hate relationship with that chapter. Men have their own frustrations with it.

Here is a caricature that captures the problem: this wonderful woman possesses every virtue. She effortlessly runs the household. And a prosperous business. Everyone respects her. Her husband adores her, but he spends all his time hanging around the city gate chattering with his buddies.

Many women look at her in frustration, because some of her stellar characteristics are completely absent from their lives. Many men look at her in frustration because their own wives fall so far short of that ideal.

Who is this ideal woman, really? And for that matter, who is her husband? Continue reading

Burning but not consumed : Moses, God, and a bush

Moses and the burning bush

Moses and the burning bush / Raphael, ca. 1515

Fire appears in the Bible a lot.

  • God is like a refining fire (Malachi 3:2).
  • His word is like a fire and like a hammer that breaks the rock (Jeremiah 23:29). Three friends of Daniel spent some time in a fiery furnace.
  • Elijah called down fire on the men sent to arrest him (2 Kings 1:10, 12).
  • James and John wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans (Luke 9:54).
  • Tongues of fire appeared over 120 people in the upper room on Pentecost (Acts 2:3).
  • And during the Exodus God appeared as a pillar of fire at night (Exodus 13:21-22).

Fire can symbolize destruction of evil, refinement of believers like gold, finishing of believers like pottery, the presence of God, the action of the Holy Spirit and much more. Continue reading

What’s a faithful Christian community?

Holy wisdom

Holy wisdom icon (Yaroslavl) / Russian, 17th century

Paul’s epistle to the Colossians is the only one he wrote where he hadn’t founded the church.

The church was rife with heresy, and its leader Epaphras visited Paul in prison to get some guidance. Paul addressed the epistle not to the church at Colossae, but to the saints and faithful there.

Paul’s opening prayer for the Colossian saints, and I’m sure for all Christians anywhere, was that they would “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9). Continue reading