Children Need Parents Who Are Parents, Not Friends

As most of my friends know, I am a lifelong fan of the sophisticated and erudite sport known as professional wrestling. I love the combination of athleticism and performance that it offers, especially the style that was popular during my childhood. When I was a kid, wrestling was primarily a regional rather than national business. There were various “territories” around the country, each with its own championship and superstar. In my case, I lived in the part of Kentucky included in the Memphis territory, and the top dog in that promotion was Jerry “the King” Lawler.

The Memphis territory was in the opinion of many old-school fans the most exciting and entertaining of the regional promotions. As of right now, there are four separate podcasts that focus on the golden years in Memphis, a testimony to its popularity. One of those is a podcast called Dinner with the King, featuring “the King” himself! It is always a fun show.

Until this morning.

This morning, the podcast was about the tragic and untimely passing of Lawler’s son, Brian. On July 29, Brian died after apparently taking his own life in a prison cell in west Tennessee. He had been arrested for DUI for the third time, leading to mandatory jail time. The plan was for him to cool off in prison and then enter rehab, but instead, he was found unconscious, and eventually pronounced dead. On the podcast this morning Lawler indicated that there were several irregularities in the case, and a further investigation is being made. But none of this will change the fact that the King had to bury his own son.

There is a part of me that feels very guilty about my obsession with professional wrestling because of the tremendous toll the sport has taken on the superstars I’ve enjoyed so much through the years. Many of the wrestlers that entertained me as a child are crippled, broke, or dead. Between the physical rigors of the work in the ring and the lifestyle on the road outside of the ring, professional wrestlers (especially from my generation) paid a steep price for their line of work.

And frequently, this cost was passed on to their families. The world of professional wrestling is filled with broken marriages and troubled children. Some of you may have watched the excellent 30 for 30 on another childhood favorite of mine, the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, in which he talked about the death of his son, Reid, from a drug overdose. In a poignant scene from the documentary, Flair said this:

“I say it every day: ‘God, I wish you were here. I had so much fun with you. And I regret the fact that I sometimes was your best friend instead of your dad.’ 

A best friend instead of a dad.

Lawler said much the same thing in his autobiography published several years ago. He acknowledged that he permitted life on the road to interfere with his commitment to his family, and admitted that he spent more time with Brian as a colleague than as a parent.

“It’s more like we’re a couple of boys in the business together rather than father and son.” (It’s Good to be the King…Sometimes, p. 96).

And now, both men – at the time in life when the relationship between a father and son should indeed blossom into a special sort of friendship – are instead grieving their sons.

“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Proverbs 13:24)

Parents, your children need you to be parents, not friends, so that someday you will reach that sweet spot in life where you can be best friends. But you cannot short-circuit this process. If you try to be a friend rather than a parent, your child will end up having neither.

In my lifetime I believe I have witnessed a profound shift in the way parents (at least in America) view their role as parents. I am old enough that I remember a time when if a child got in trouble at school, the child got in bigger trouble at home. Now, if a child gets reprimanded by a teacher (or a coach or a Scout leader or preacher), the reflexive impulse of parents is to defend their child and attack the disciplinarian. I recently met a retired high school teacher who told me she knew it was time to leave the English classroom because her administration told her she could no longer grade papers in red ink since it hurt the children’s feelings.


All of this is part of a much broader societal shift toward emotionalism and away from rationalism. How a person feels trumps the rational pursuit of objective truth. Applied to parental discipline, this mindset is toxic. And it is ultimately heartbreaking.

Children need limits. They need encouraging discipline. They need someone to teach them that how they feel is secondary to what is right. They need parents to do this, not friends. But when parents avoid or abandon this responsibility out of some ill-conceived desire to be their child’s best friend, they are causing harm to their child and robbing themselves of the unique blessing of friendship that mature children truly do offer.

Parents, don’t make excuses for your kids because you want to be a “buddy.” Don’t be afraid to discipline them because you fear you may lose them if you do. And don’t avoid the hard work of patient correction just because your child gets upset. Be a parent first, not a friend first. Too many grieving mothers and fathers have learned the truth of this ancient proverb the hard way.

Discipline your son, for there is hope;
    do not set your heart on putting him to death. (Proverbs 19:18)

God Is Our Origin and Destination

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:36)

Every worldview has to answer these questions:
-Where did we come from?
-Why are we here?
-Where are we going?

Christianity has a very simple answer to all three questions – GOD. Where did we come from? We came from God, “from whom are all things” (1 Corinthians 8:6). Why are we here? We are here “for him” (Colossians 1:16), since he is the one “for whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6). And our ultimate destination, the final goal of our existence, is God, “for from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36).

It is this last point that I think is especially worth serious reflection – at least, I need to think about it more. It is the truth I have most neglected in my own view of the world. The question of origins is so fundamental that I – like many Christians – have placed great emphasis on the role of God as Creator and on the serious weaknesses of a purely naturalistic view of the origin of the universe, life, and consciousness. And early in my preaching I encountered several authors who helped me see the crucial purpose for our lives as revealed in Scripture – to glorify God (as Jesus taught in Matthew 5:16).

But the answer to that third question – “where are we going” – is the one that I have failed to grasp for far too long. And yet, the Bible could not be clearer. Just as surely as God is the origin of our story, he is also the destination of our story. “To him are all things.” The end of the story for a child of God is God.

When the Bible speaks of heaven, it uses language like “many mansions” (John 14:2, KJV) and “streets of gold” (Revelation 21:21). And if our vision of eternity is not properly God-centered, then it is easy for these portraits to distract us, or even to mislead us, away from the true meaning of eternity. Heaven is not a celestial Disneyworld, where we can ride all the rides we want without waiting in line or have an endless supply of Mickey Mouse ice cream bars. For many years, if you had asked me if I would be satisfied to go to such a “heaven” even if God wasn’t there, I would have said, “YES!”

But what those biblical images are designed to convey is the much deeper truth that in heaven we will be reunited with God. The streets are said to be made of gold because heaven is the new and eternal temple of God – the dwelling place of God – and the most holy place of the temple in the Bible is always decorated with gold. This emphasis is found all throughout the glorious picture of heaven in Revelation 21-22. “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (21:3). Indeed, in this vision, there is no separate temple because the entire heavenly city is itself one enormous Holy of Holies, and “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (21:22). When this reunion is realized, we “will see his face” (22:4).

The same God-centeredness is true with the “many mansions” of John 14. Jesus was not promising that everyone in heaven gets their own personal Biltmore House! The word translated “mansions” in the King James Version is better rendered “many rooms,” which is how modern translations express the point. And the point of the many rooms is that there will be plenty of room for all of Christ’s disciples to abide with him. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3).

In the Christian tradition, the final goal of dwelling with God and seeing his face is called the “beatific vision.” But I am sad to say my own grasp of such a vision has been seriously impaired through the years. And there really is no excuse, since Scripture and reason so clearly point to this truth.

Why do I say that even reason pushes us to this conclusion? Because it speaks to universal human realities, such as truth, goodness, and beauty. Human beings have an innate desire for truth, fueled by the unique human capacity for reason. And we also have a yearning for goodness, and for its derivatives like justice and compassion. And we have a longing for beauty, that which is intrinsically deserving of adoration. And where can we find truth, goodness, and beauty? In the final and complete sense, only in the One who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

This to me explains the restless longing of those who do not seek God and therefore face frustration and disillusionment. In the words of Isaiah, they “labor for that which does not satisfy” (Isaiah 55:2). Even worse, those who accept the atheistic dogma of materialism undermine the very concepts of truth, goodness, and beauty by reducing human consciousness and rationality to purely physical processes.

But I am primarily writing this for fellow Christians who, like myself, need reminding that the goal is God, that the one ambition that counts is “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). This longing will indeed be completely and eternally fulfilled by the one who made us.

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)

Or as a more recent psalmist put it –

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise
Thou mine inheritance, now and always
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art

(“Be Thou My Vision,” Eleonore Hull 1912)

“Search Me, O God…”

Just a little bit ago I posted this video to Facebook. It is a “public service announcement” for your physical health and your spiritual health.

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
    Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23-24)

The Great Physician

One of the things I enjoy about summertime is the opportunity to speak in churches that do special series during the summer. It gives me the chance to step outside of the regular schedule of classes and sermons I’m working on for my own church and study something a little different. Earlier this summer I spoke for the Temple Terrace congregation, which asked me to do a lesson on Jesus as the Great Physician. Here are my sermon notes (which don’t read quite as smoothly as a typical blog post).

And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” (Matthew 8:14-17)

Jesus is the Great Physician because he can heal all physical sickness.

14 And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever.

Greek term (βάλλω) means to move from one location to another through a forceful motion, to throw, thrown on bed. “Knocked me out” “Wiped me out.”

“He saw” – Jesus noticed her. He took the initiative this time (unlike leper in 8:2, centurion in 8:5). Continue reading

Gospel Preaching Must Include Hope of Heaven

This quarter at my congregation we are studying the Book of Colossians. As many commentators point out, the opening section of the book (1:3-23) is framed by the use of the word gospel.

“since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel” (Colossians 1:4-5).

“if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard” (Colossians 1:23).

But as you look at these bookends more closely, there is a specific nuance of the gospel Paul has in mind. In 1:4-5, he says that the Colossians heard about “the hope laid up” in heaven when they heard the preaching of the gospel. And in 1:23, Paul says that what the Colossians heard was “the hope of the gospel.”

In other words, according to Paul, a fundamental aspect of gospel preaching is hope.

Yes, the preaching of the gospel looks to the past work of Jesus’ death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). And yes, the gospel applies that work to the present circumstances of every sinner, who is to unite himself with Christ’s death and resurrection through faith and in baptism (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:11-12). But gospel preaching as done by the apostles and their associates also included a future dimension, the hope of glory with God forever.

I must confess that this apostolic emphasis has been absent from much of my preaching. As I reflect on my sermons through the years, I’ve focused a lot on the work of Christ, and on the need for personal faith and the importance of baptism. But I have not preached very much about the hope for the resurrection from the dead, the new heavens and earth, and the divine glory that is ours to share as we are reunited with God.

Yet, when I look at the New Testament, I see this forward-looking, hope-filled message everywhere. For instance, according to Peter, it is part and parcel to being “born again.”

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1:3).

Here’s another example. When Paul commends the Thessalonians for the great reputation they have in Macedonia and Achaia, he says:

For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

There is a “turning from”, but there is also a “waiting for,” that is supposed to happen when the gospel is received.

In the systematic study of theology, scholars work with distinct categories like Christology (the person and work of Christ), soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), and eschatology (the doctrine of last things). But in the apostolic preaching, the work of Christ in his death and resurrection is seamlessly connected to the message of salvation and the future hope of glory. You can see this interplay at work in passages like Romans 6:5-11-

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

And in Philippians 3:8-11-

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

In light of all of these passages, it is a serious mistake to truncate the message of the gospel by diminishing (or completely ignoring) the future component of Christ’s saving work.

One last point. When Paul opens the letter to Colossae, he commends the Christians there for their faith in Christ and love for all the saints, which he says they possess “because of the hope laid up for” them (look at 1:4-5 again). Their faith and love were prompted by their hope. And if such faith and love are lacking in your life, may I suggest that the underlying cause is a lack of vibrant hope. And the way to get back on track is to “set your minds on things that are above” (Colossians 3:2).

Breaking Bread and Breaking Down Barriers

Last week, while traveling for a speaking engagement in Brentwood, Tennessee, I had a remarkable experience that I would like to share. My flight from Tampa was very early, so when I arrived in Nashville I was ready for breakfast. A short distance from the Nashville airport there is a fantastic place to eat called Monnell’s  at the Manor. It is one of several Monnell’s locations in town. Monnell’s offers classic southern cooking served family-style. That means that when you walk in, there are large tables that seat 12-16 people, and you may share your meal with several complete strangers. The food is brought out by the bowl and platter, and you just start passing everything around  (to the left!) until everyone is served. The staff keeps bringing the food out as long as you want to keep eating. Needless to say, it’s one of my favorite places to eat!

By the time I got there, it was right at 9 am. Most of the morning breakfast customers had already finished and left, so I was taken to a table and seated by myself. But after a few minutes, a large group of black customers walked in and were seated at the table with me. Over the course of the meal, I learned that my breakfast companions were a father, wife, daughter, sister-in-law, and older family friend. They had come down from Clarksville to Nashville and knew where the food was good!

On paper, we did not have a lot in common at first glance. But when they began to eat, one of the ladies gave thanks. So at that point, I knew that we shared certain beliefs, and we could “speak the same language.” As we passed around the biscuits, peach preserves, fried chicken (a breakfast delicacy!), eggs, grits, country ham, and – well, I could keep going! – we began to learn more about each other.

Food is a great leveler. Although our backgrounds were very different in many ways, it was clear that we all grew up eating the same kind of cooking. What one culture may call “soul food,” I call “Granny’s cooking.” That’s why we were all at the same place, enjoying the same meal.

Fellowship around a table is significant in our culture, but in Jesus’ day, it was taken even more seriously. That’s why his deliberate choice to share meals with the outcasts of his society triggered such strong condemnation from the Pharisees:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)

And when Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius and his family, what really upset the traditionalists was that Peter “went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (Acts 11:3).

As we talked, one of my breakfast companions asked if I was from Nashville. I explained that I used to live in Nashville, but that I currently lived in the Tampa area and was in town for work. They asked me what I did, and I explained that I was a preacher. This immediately led to a series of questions about the Bible, usually prefaced by, “Hey, Preacher…” We had a blast!

At one point, the older gentleman asked me why race relations seemed to be getting worse rather than better. It is a testimony to the comfort level we all felt at that table that he would ask me for my thoughts about that topic. I prefaced my response by acknowledging to him that he had experienced things in his life that I would never really fully understand. After all, a few years before I was born, he would not have been permitted to eat in a public restaurant in Nashville.

But he asked, and I answered. I explained my views (that had recently been part of a sermon I preached here at home) that Christianity brought together people from many racial, ethnic, and social strata,  and that as Christianity declines in our culture, people will default back to those superficial but powerful bonds of identity. I also suggested that some politicians in both parties have decided that it is to their advantage to keep people from these different demographics at odds with each other. and that many people have more in common than they think. I described what life was like for my grandparents, hillbillies from eastern Kentucky (and in case you don’t know, I use the term “hillbilly” with pride, not derision!) who lived at the edge of where the “white part” of town ended and the “black part” of town started. We joked that the color that matters most is green – money – and lots of people from my background and theirs didn’t have very much a generation ago.

As we were taking, it occurred to me that another ironic aspect of this conversation was that for many generations, black and white Christians did not worship together in the south. There were “black churches” and “white churches.” In some places, this is still the case. And while it is easy for me to criticize people who lived in a different time than my own, it is very difficult for me to understand how this kind of racial segregation is consistent with the gospel.

You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:9-11)

Where would race relations in the country be – especially in the south – if people who had so much in common had chosen to defy the prejudices of the world and share time together around the Lord’s table, where “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17)?

As we were finishing up our meal together, we came to two conclusions. First, the gospel is the only real solution to the problem of race relations. Second, America would be a nicer place if everyone had to eat at Monnell’s!

On the way out, one of the ladies at the table grabbed my ticket and paid for my meal. She just said for me to pass it on to someone else. And then, as we walked out together, she grabbed the older gentleman and insisted that we get a picture together. Here it is:

Thank you, Moody family from Clarksville, Tennessee, for one of the best meals of my life.


A Modest Win for Freedom

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a baker in Colorado who declined to create a wedding cake for a gay couple. The couple had filed charges with the Colorado state Civil Rights Commission, which ruled in the couple’s favor, leading to various appeals that brought the case to the United States Supreme Court. By a decisive 7-2 majority the Court ruled that the Colorado state Civil Rights Commission displayed “clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs” of the proprietor of the bakery.

What was never at issue in this case (or the many others like it) was whether the baker should serve homosexual customers. He had done so many times before. What this businessman objected to was using his creative skill to decorate a cake for an event that defied his religious convictions, namely, a same-sex wedding. Yet despite this clear distinction, the press has generally framed this as a case of anti-gay bigotry, as in this New York Times headline-

I prefer this headline (equally as factual) from The Babylon Bee

This is satire.

Nevertheless,  I bet that right now many of you still can’t see the difference between anti-gay bigotry and freedom of conscience. So let me offer three illustrations.

Imagine that you are a Jewish baker. You have many customers who come to your shop to grab pastries and desserts, which you gladly sell them to make a living. Imagine that one of your regular customers comes in and asks you to decorate a large cake for an event. You ask for details, and she explains that there is a gathering of  Holocaust skeptics that she’s responsible for catering, and wants you to decorate a cake for it. You may or may not have known she was sympathetic to this outlook, and for that matter, she may not have known that you were Jewish.

Should the state be able to compel you to use your talents to provide a cake for this event?

Now, imagine that you are a Muslim baker, living and working in Las Vegas. Every morning a woman comes by the bakery to grab breakfast, which you gladly sell to make a living. Over the course of time, you learn she is a prostitute who works for one of the legal brothels in Vegas. But she’s a paying customer, and while you disagree with her lifestyle, you are not in any way complicit with her immoral behavior by selling her a cupcake. Imagine, though, that one morning she comes in and says that her brothel wants you to decorate a cake celebrating the tenth anniversary of the brothel, an event that is obviously at odds with your religious beliefs.

Should the state be able to compel you to use your talents to provide a cake for this event?

Finally, imagine you are a Christian baker, and among your regular customers are a couple of gentlemen who always come in together. You gladly serve them as paying customers and even develop a casual friendship with them. But then one day they come in to ask you to decorate a cake for their wedding. Because you hold to the orthodox Christian position on these matters, you must explain to them that while you appreciate their business and friendship, you cannot in good conscience use your artistic skill in connection with an event that is profoundly at odds with your religious beliefs.

Should the state be able to compel you to use your talents to provide a cake for this event?

Some of you absolutely believe so. I hope that the Court’s decision will make you rethink just how radical your position actually is. Because if the state can compel the bakers in the three examples I just laid out to do business or close shop, then the rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech are in grave peril.

I get that some of you don’t care about freedom of religion. You are thoroughly secular, and you believe Orthodox Judaism, mainstream Islam, and traditional Christianity are just artifacts left over from a primitive and ignorant past. So as far as you’re concerned, religious scruples are always silly and often bigoted, and the state should not countenance such convictions for a moment. America’s robust legacy of freedom of religion is nonsense to you.

But there is an underlying issue here that you should care about – freedom of speech. If you believe the government has the right to force the bakers in the three examples I gave to decorate the cakes for the events I proposed (or close shop), then what you are saying is that the government can compel its citizens to say things that are contrary to their beliefs. Compelled speech is not free speech.

And if the state has the power to coerce other people to say things they don’t believe, it has the power to compel you to say things you don’t believe. So the issue here is ultimately not just about religious liberty. It is about liberty – period.

And thankfully, yesterday the Court ruled in favor of freedom.

A Sample Sermon- “You Must be Born Again”

Just now over on Facebook I did a live video about how to put a sermon together. I mentioned that I would post the notes for anyone interested. Here ya go!


You Must Be Born Again

John 3:1-15

June 3, 2018

Valrico FL


We are seven sermons in, so before I start the eighth let’s take stock of what we have looked at so far:

-The purpose of the gospel, 20:30-31, signs that lead to or shore up faith, and that leads to life.

-We’ve already seen two stories involving Jewish authorities snooping around and asking questions, in 1:19 with John and in 2:18 with Jesus.

-Jesus’ first two major actions (water to wine and the temple cleansing) had a common denominator –  the theme of transformation – from the Law and its system to something much better.

-Jesus is attracting a following, but he doesn’t trust this growing popularity – 2:24-25.

All of this background sets the stage for the first extensive conversation Jesus has with someone. Not exactly how long this conversation goes. 3:10? 3:15? 3:21? “Red letter” decides for you, but I am not definitive. And in the big picture, what John says is guided by the Spirit and is the same as hearing Jesus – see 13:20 (“whoever receives the one I send receives me”).

The topic of this conversation is the new birth, the idea of being “born again.” That’s not a phrase I’ve heard a lot in the churches I’ve been a part of, but certainly very common phrase in popular culture. So much so that this car dealer [SLIDE] took the phrase as its name – “Born Again Auto.” I guess they would specialize in conversion vans!

The popularity of this phrase has also bred a lot of cynicism by people in the world. For instance, The Atlantic magazine ran a story about the president ( [SLIDE] “Just Another Sinner, Born Again” with this subtitle –

“The claim that Donald Trump has come to Jesus follows a long pattern of redemption narratives among American evangelicals.”

So what are we to make of this idea? What does it really mean to born again? That’s what this conversation is all about. And it begins with Jesus laying out…

1. The Necessity of the New Birth

1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 

Ruler, according to v. 10 a famous teaching, and according to 7:4-52 a member of the Sanhedrin.

2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 

“Night” –  could be because of time of day typically used for study and conversation about the Bible. Could be because of fear of the rest of the Jewish leadership, which does play a role in the way others responded to Jesus.

I will say that in John’s gospel, “night” tends to have a dark spiritual connotation (as in 9:4).

Anyway, this formidable Jewish leader with a list of credentials comes to Jesus and extends the professional courtesy of calling him a colleague, “Rabbi.” That’s what Jesus’ early followers called him in 1:38, but they weren’t part of the elite. This is Nicodemus.

And how does Jesus respond? You have to become a completely new person!

3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Take the verse in reverse order.

“Kingdom of God” refers to God’s reign. And there is a tension in the way the Bible speaks of the reign of God. Sometimes it is a present reality, sometimes yet future. That’s because there is a sense that God reigns now, but there is an ultimate sense of God’s reign, when every knee bows. Mary liked to talk about the kingdom established and the kingdom perfected. And if you do not submit to God’s reign in Jesus, you will not enjoy the perfection of the eternal kingdom.

And that’s what Jesus means by “see.” It means to experience and share in something, cf. 3:36. And what Jesus says is that without experiencing something you CANNOT share in the perfected kingdom of God.

What is it? Being born again. Some of your Bibles have a footnote that this word in Greek can also be translated “above,” and as it turns out, this new birth is a heavenly one. But Nicodemus clearly understood Jesus to mean “again,” because he talks about being born a “second time” in the next verse.

But before I get to that verse, let me emphasize that what Jesus is saying here is that none of us can share in the glorious eternal reign of God unless we have a complete makeover, a fundamental change in our identity, new birth. That’s the necessity. So necessary that Jesus prefaces this with the solemn declaration, “Truly truly.”

But what does this mean? That’s what Nicodemus wanted to know.

2. The Meaning of the New Birth

4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 

I don’t think Nicodemus was a dunce and literally imagined that Jesus meant climbing back into your mom (my poor mom was 4 11 – that would have never happened!).

Rather, I think he is exasperated, “You can’t possibly mean this!”

5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 

So now Jesus explains. What does “water and the Spirit” mean?

The key is v. 10, where Jesus says that a teacher of the OT should know this.

Any passage that speaks of a transformation that gives new life through water and Spirit? Yes!

Prophet Ezekiel overlaps with Daniel, captivity. But God promises a different future:

Ezekiel 36

25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Jesus says that this is the transformation that is so profound and comprehensive it is like you are starting over as a new person, reborn!

When does this new birth take place? Well in the NT there is an obvious time at which there is a transformation that gives new life through water and Spirit – Acts 2:38-39 (notice – promise to your fathers).

And this is why earliest commentators on this passage connected it with baptism:

John Chrysostom (born AD 344)The first creation then, that is, that of Adam, was from earth; the next, that of the woman, from his rib; the next, that of Abel, from seed, yet we cannot comprehend any of these.… How then shall we be able to account for the unseen generation by baptism, which is far greater than these, or how can we require arguments for that strange and marvelous birth?… The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit do everything. Let us then believe the declaration of God. That is more trustworthy than actual seeing. Sight often is in error; it is impossible that God’s Word should fail. Let us then believe it. (Homilies on the Gospel of John 25.1–2)

So this is the meaning of the new birth. In baptism God transforms us to new life through the Spirit. [Back to SLIDE]

6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 

Nicodemus represents human achievement and excellent pedigree. Those things are irrelevant to the kingdom of God. What matters is not human parentage (“that which is born of the flesh”) but divine parentage (“that which is born of the Spirit”).

This is what John told us from the start – 1:12-13.

Nicodemus was amazed by this abrupt demand for spiritual renovation, but for no good reason according to Jesus:

7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 

To drive home the point that the work of the Spirit is different than the work of man, Jesus uses a down to earth analogy:

8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

In Hebrew and Greek, the same word for “wind” is also “Spirit.”

Really talking about the Spirit.

How much do we control the wind? Not at all. Where does it come from or go? You can see a car come and go, or a person, but not the wind. All you really see are the effects.

That’s the new birth through the Spirit. This is not engineered by man, manipulated by us. It is the Spirit that gives new life, out of our ability to see or comprehend, but we can see the result of the Spirit’s work.

But why is the Spirit going to give us life? Why does baptism make us new people? That leads to Nicodemus’ third comment:

3. The Means of the New Birth

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 

And here Jesus rebukes him for lack of comprehension.

10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 

What is true of Nicodemus was also true of many in Israel. They placed their confidence in their family tree, and ignored the OT teaching that in order to be in God’s restoration there must be internal transformation. And the next verse seems to confirm that Nicodemus is representative of many –

11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 

“You do not receive” – plural, y’all.

And the “we” could be Jesus speaking formally in response to Nicodemus’ “we” in v. 2, but it could also be Jesus and the disciples, especially by the time John wrote this gospel. 

12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 

Earthly things, two analogies of birth and wind, but these did not create faith and understanding. How will Nicodemus and fellow Jews believe when Jesus is more explicit about his own identity and other aspects of God’s work, the “heavenly things”?

And Jesus is certainly qualified to talk about heavenly things-

13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 

There isn’t a revolving door of people going back and forth from heaven to earth to reveal who God is and what he is doing. There is one who is unique, the “Son of Man”, who has come to make God known to us.

But Jesus isn’t finished with analogies to explain the means of the new birth. He draws one from the OT that Nicodemus knew and taught.

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 

Do you remember the story? It’s in Numbers 21-

So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Jesus picks up on two key details. First, the serpent was “lifted up,” and second, it gave life.

And just like the serpent was lifted up, Jesus – the Son of Man – mays be lifted up. This is John’s unique way of describing the crucifixion, as in 8:28.

Through the serpent lifted up on a pole the people were given life. And through Jesus, lifted up on the cross, we have life – ETERNAL life.

15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

In other words, the means by which the new birth takes place is the death of Jesus. Through our faith in his death, at baptism we are born of the water and Spirit and find new life, a new start, a new identity in Christ.


Nicodemus was perplexed by Jesus’ teaching on being “born again.” On the other hand [SLIDE], 29% of Americans claim to know what it means to be “born again,” but when surveyed, less than half believe what Jesus just said – that his death on the cross is the only means by which the new birth takes place. (

For them, being “born again” may just refer to an experience they have had, or a team they chose to be on. But according to Jesus, being born again is the vital, essential, work of the Father through the Spirit on the basis of the death of the Son.

So on the one hand, lots of people who claim to be “born again” but don’t understand much more than Nicodemus.

But on the other, there are lots of us who never use the expression, “born again.” We use different terms, like the package of HBRCB. And those are true enough, bullet point summaries of what the Bible says. But where in that list is is the emphasis on transformation that Jesus talks about? Becoming a new person?

Is it possible that the reason lots of people get immersed in water but don’t reflect any change at all in the sort of people they are is because we don’t talk about being “born again” enough?

Maybe we don’t emphasize this as we should, but Jesus did – and this morning we invite anyone here who is not born again to be born of the water and the Spirit, baptized on the basis of your faith in Christ and his death.

The Unraveling of Reality

A couple of months ago the Kentucky chapter of Planned Parenthood tweeted out this message:

Why would a pro-abortion rights organization insinuate itself into the transgender debate? Those seem like completely unrelated issues. To be sure, I know people who are pro-life but also pro-LGBT rights. But generally speaking, these issues do tend to attract the same supporters. Those who are pro-abortion rights also tend to be pro-LGBT rights, and vice versa. Why is this the case?

The answer to this question involves a philosophical issue that on the surface appears to be very trivial and esoteric, but in fact reflects the single greatest mistake ever made in the history of Western Civilization. How’s that for overselling?!? Except in this case, it is not an exaggeration to say that this philosophical issue undergirds the crisis facing western society.

How can one idea be so crucial, and what is this concept, anyway? In this brief post I hope to answer these questions.

This is a picture of the beautiful Hillsborough River nearby where we live. Here’s a simple question – was this river invented or discovered? Obviously, it was discovered. It is part of the natural environment. I don’t know who the first people were to find this waterway, or what they first called it. But the point is, human beings did not manufacture it – the river was a part of the natural order, and human beings simply found it.

Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation

The same is true with other natural forms and forces. Sir Isaac Newton did not “invent” gravity; he discovered it. The force of gravity existed long before Newton observed it and quantified it with his famous equation. All that he did (and he did it quite brilliantly!) was to observe that aspect of the natural order and structure of the world and then develop a mathematical formula that summarized this discovery.

Hanging in there with me so far? The big point here is that there is order and structure to reality that we as human beings discover rather than invent. We do not simply impose our own meaning on this order and structure; we discover and describe it.

And once you uncover what something is, you can also determine what something is for. Take a look at this picture, for instance:

What is this? It is an ear. And what is its purpose? Its purpose is to hear. The structure and order of the ear also reveal its purpose. Once you know what it is, you know what it is for.

So let’s summarize:

  • There is order and structure to reality.
  • Human beings discover rather than invent this reality.
  • Discovering what something is also reveals what something is for.

This all seems like so much common sense, and it is. This view of the nature of reality also has a technical name in the study of philosophy. It is called realism (snazzy, right?!). And this is the view of reality shared by the philosophical tradition of Plato and Aristotle, as well as the teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – in other words, all of the major streams of influence of Western Civilization. And it held sway until the 17th century when certain developments led to its abandonment.

By the time of the 1600s  the fruits of scientific study shifted the focus of attention  from discovery to invention. To be sure, all of the inventions that were developed depended on awareness of the structure and order of reality that were previously uncovered (especially the laws of mathematics and physics). But over time, the astonishing breakthroughs in technology and manufacturing led some philosophers to conclude that all of reality is nothing more than an invention of human beings. There is no structure and order in reality for us to discover. We simply impose our own reality on the world. And all of those forms of structure, order, and purpose that were previously held to be real were dismissed as nothing more than names we assigned rather that universal realities we discovered.

This view is called nominalism (think of nominating = naming a candidate). And as philosopher Edward Feser has written, the rejection of realism in favor of nominalism is “the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought” (The Last Superstition, p. 51). How so?

Think again with me about that Planned Parenthood tweet:

Realism says that there is order and structure to discover. On this view, a human being who has a uterus is a woman. But if there is no structure and order to discover, then we can impose on our meaning onto reality. And thus, a person with a uterus can be called a man.

Likewise, if there is structure and order to reality, then it is obvious what this is:

9-10 Weeks

This is a human being (it is a being, and it is human). But if there is no such reality to discover, only one to impose, then we can make this be anything we want it to be, such as a body part.

Similarly, if there is structure and order to reality, then just as it is obvious that the purpose of the ear is to hear and the purpose of the eye is to see, it is also clear that the purpose of male and female sexual anatomy is for men and women to be sexual complements of each other. And with a little more reasoning, we can see that they are to be complements in a permanent union suitable for raising children, i.e. marriage.

But if we are free to impose our own meaning on reality, then marriage can be anything we want it to be. It can be two people of the same sex. It can be groups of people.  It can be human beings and robots. It can even be one person marrying herself (although I’m not sure how you would go about getting a divorce in this situation!).

Maybe now you see what I meant when I said this rather academic question has profound implications for civilization. The rejection of realism in favor of nominalism explains why questions which were once agreed upon by the broad consensus of western society are now hotly contested. But what is at stake here are not a few hot-button moral issues. What is at stake is civilization itself.

If a society concludes that it merely imposes rather than recognizes natural order, then it no longer must afford human rights to all mankind. It can simply define certain people as subhuman, which is precisely what the radical ideologies of the 20th century did. For the Nazis, non-Aryans were Untermensch, “under-men,” subhuman. Jews, Poles, Slavs, homosexuals, anyone the Nazis determined to be unworthy of the status of full humanity. To the Nazis, people like the Jews were not human beings; they were lice, parasites that needed to be eradicated.


Once this premise is accepted, it just depends on the particular biases of the culture as to which group faces such dehumanization. Maybe it’s fetuses. After all, they drain resources, to the extent that this writer calls them “parasites.” And of course, fetuses aren’t the only human beings who drain resources. So do sick infants and the elderly. That’s why it is no surprise to see open advocacy for infanticide and euthanasia of the aged.

And as the metaphysical glue of realism dissolves, so does the belief in human dignity and equality across racial and ethnic lines. All that counts is race or tribe or class. So it is no mystery that as the philosophical underpinning of western values crumbles that racial animus, class warfare, and authoritarianism are on the rise. And this will only get worse.

What we are witnessing is the unraveling of reality.

So what are we who follow Jesus supposed to do in the face of the emerging Dark Ages? The key word is to love – to love God and to love our fellow man. There is a curious paradox about the way Christians were perceived in ancient times. On the one hand, pagans despised early Christians as “stubborn and obstinate” and as “haters of all mankind” because of their determined stand on the truth of the gospel in defiance to the pagan culture. But on the other hand, the charity of early Christians was so manifestly evident that even while condemning them, the pagans conceded that they were filled with love.

But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death.  (Tertullian, Apology 39).

As reality continues to unravel around us, the human toll will be enormous. That means it is vital that we remain committed to our faith and not succumb to the incoherent philosophy of the world. But it also means that we must live our faith and minister to those who are the victims of this dehumanizing age. Through this sort of compassionate conviction, just perhaps we can mend a few broken strands.

New American Standard Bible or English Standard Version? Here’s Why I Switched to the ESV

In the winter of 2004/2005 I was debating switching from the New American Standard Bible to the English Standard Version. After some comparison, I decided to make the switch. Here is my review  explaining why. 

In 2001 Crossway released a new translation, the English Standard Version (ESV). The purpose of this translation is to be more literal than the New International Version (NIV) – particularly the recent “gender neutral” edition – and to be more readable than the updated New American Standard Bible (NASB). Both the ESV and the NASB are on the literal end of the translation spectrum. The chief difference is that the ESV translators attempted to emulate the literary beauty and rhythm of the King James Version (KJV) and Revised Standard Version (RSV), while the NASB translators focused more on strict literalism.

For many years I have used the NASB and its 1995 updated edition. But recently I have been comparing the NASB with the ESV, and I would like to share the fruits of my research with you. Since I do not possess the linguistic or critical skills needed to evaluate translations, I have primarily relied on the reviews of others. In particular, I have used Jack Lewis’s The English Bible: From the KJV to the NIV (Baker, 1982), for a great deal of my research. Along with the help of several young people where I preach, I used Lewis’s chapter on the 1977 NASB as a framework for comparing the ESV and updated NASB.

The primary result of my study has been this: approximately two-thirds of Lewis’s criticisms of the NASB have been corrected by the ESV, while virtually none have been corrected by the updated NASB.

Less Literal

There are several instances in which the NASB is less literal than the ESV. Some examples:

  • Ezekiel 3:7 – “the whole house of Israel is stubborn and obstinate” (NASB) vs. “all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart” (ESV)
  • Psalm 88:18 – “My acquaintances are in darkness” (NASB) vs. “my companions have become darkness” (ESV)
  • Psalm 78:33 – “So He brought their days to an end in futility” (NASB) vs. “So he made their days vanish like a breath” (ESV)
  • 1 Peter 3:7 – “live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker” (NASB) vs. “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel” (ESV)


There are dozens of times where the NASB adds a word to the text that the ESV does not. Some examples:

  • Luke 1:17 – “It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him” (NASB) vs. “and he will go before him” (ESV)
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:21 – “But examine everything carefully” (NASB) vs. “but test everything” (ESV)
  • Luke 5:39 – “The old is good enough” (NASB) vs. “The old is good” (ESV)
  • 1 Timothy 5:22 – “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily” (NASB) vs.Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (ESV)
  • Mark 6:9 – “but to wear sandals; and He added, ‘Do not put on two tunics’” (NASB) vs. “but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics” (ESV)
  • Acts 7:59 – “as he called on the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus’” (NASB) vs. “he called out, ‘Lord Jesus’” (ESV)


There are several instances where the NASB translation is very poor, but the ESV is accurate. Notice a few examples:

  • Ecclesiastes 12:5 – “and the caperberry is ineffective” (NASB) vs. “and desire fails” (ESV)
  • Hebrews 9:16 – “For where a covenant is” (NASB) vs. “For where a will is involved” (ESV)
  • Acts 2:46 – “breaking bread from house to house” (NASB) vs. “breaking bread in their homes” (ESV)
  • Exodus 32:4 – “This is your god, O Israel” (NASB) vs. “These are your gods, O Israel” (ESV)
  • 2 Samuel 24:1 – “And it incited David” (NASB) vs. “And he incited David” (ESV)
  • 1 Corinthians 1:12 – “Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ’” (NASB) vs. “What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ’” (ESV).


The ESV is not entirely consistent, but does seem to exceed the NASB in this regard. Here are just a few examples:

  • The NASB translates porneia as either “fornication” or “immorality.” The ESV consistently uses “sexual immorality.”
  • The NASB uses renders mlk differently in Leviticus 1:15 (“wring off its head”) and 5:8 (“nip its head at the front of its neck”); the ESV is consistent (“wring off its head” and “wring its head from its neck”).
  • Genesis 1:24 and 2:7 use the same Hebrew term for man and animals. The NASB translates them “living creatures” and “living being”, while the ESV is consistent (“living creature”).
  • While the NASB translates teleios as “mature” (Eph. 4:13), “perfect” (Phil. 3:15), and “complete” (Col. 1:28), the ESV consistently uses “mature.”
  • The NASB dropped the archaic term “seed”, but often uses “descendant” or “descendants,” neither of which are collective nouns like “seed.” The ESV almost always uses “offspring,” which is a collective noun.
  • The NASB translates psyche as “life” in Mark 8:35, but as “soul” in the next two verses, while the ESV translates it consistently as “life.”
  • 1 Corinthians 16:22 reads “he is to be accursed. Maranatha” in the NASB. Why translate “anathema” (he is to be accursed) but not “Maranatha”? The ESV has “let him be accursed. Our Lord, come”
  • The NASB translates the same word as “wings” and “covering” in Ruth 2:12 and 3:9. The ESV uses “wings” in both cases.

Smoother English

The ESV’s primary goal was to use smoother English than the NASB while retaining the literal meaning of the text. Here are some examples:

  • John 1:43 – “The next day He purposed to go into Galilee” (NASB) vs. “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee” (ESV).
  • Luke 20:2 – “Tell us by what authority You are doing these things, or who is the one who gave You this authority?” (NASB) vs. “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority” (ESV)
  • Amos 1:1 – “which he envisioned in visions concerning Israel” (NASB) vs. “which he saw concerning Israel” (ESV)
  • Genesis 4:1 – “I have gotten a manchild” (NASB) vs. “I have gotten a man” (ESV)
  • Luke 23:45 – “because the sun was obscured” (NASB) vs. “while the sun’s light failed” (ESV)
  • Nehemiah 5:7 – “You are exacting usury” (NASB) vs. “You are exacting interest” (ESV)
  • 2 Corinthians 11:3 – “your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (NASB) vs. “your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (ESV)
  • Leviticus 19:27 – “You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads” (NASB) vs. “You shall not round off the hair on your temples” (ESV)

Criticisms of the ESV

The weakness of relying on Lewis’s critique of the NASB is that while we could easily check places where the NASB was poor and the ESV was better, I really have no way of knowing all the instances where the ESV is inferior to the NASB, or where both translations are weak. Based on very random research, here are some criticisms of the ESV:

  • The NASB italicizes added words; the ESV does not.
  • The ESV uses the literal Hebrew “Azazel” for “scapegoat” in Leviticus 16:10, with no note as to the meaning.
  • The ESV translates Matthew 16:18 as “the gates of hell,” although it does have “gates of Hades” in a footnote.
  • The ESV renders 2 Timothy 1:12, “I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” It does have the NASB rendering in a footnote.
  • The ESV renders Revelation 20:4 the same as the NASB: “They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” This translation is in keeping with premillennial interpretation, as opposed to “lived and reigned” in the KJV and ASV.
  • My sense is that the ESV has fewer notes about textual variation than the NASB or NIV.

Some Concluding Thoughts

It would be very helpful if someone with the linguistic and critical skills could measure the ESV against the Hebrew and Greek text rather than just comparing it to the NASB. However, based on these initial findings, it seems to me that the ESV has a clear edge over the NASB in accuracy and readability.