Page 3 of 11

Giving Thanks for Cancer?

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:18-21).

I hate cancer. It is a vicious disease, and it seems like it is everywhere. In our church family of around 250 people, over the last three years six different members have been treated for it, my wife among them. Three of those facing the disease have passed from this life. I hate cancer.

Yet when I read Paul’s description of what it is like to be under the control of the Holy Spirit – to “be filled with the Spirit” – among the list of Spirit-led actions is “giving thanks always and for everything.” How am I supposed to give thanks for the disease which has taken so many dear friends? How is it possible to be grateful for the pain, misery, and anguish cancer brings? How can I tell God, “Thank you that my wife has cancer”?

I don’t believe Paul is telling us to give thanks for cancer in the abstract – or to give thanks for any other disease, for that matter. “Lord, thank you for pneumonia” is not a prayer you can read about anywhere in Scripture! And the same is true for evil in the abstract. Nobody gathers around the table at Thanksgiving to reflect on the wonderful blessings of theft, rape, and murder.

So then what does Paul mean when he says that those led by the Spirit should be “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father”? The key is the next phrase, which qualifies this statement about gratitude – “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” A bank robber could not give thanks for a successful heist in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ because Christ doesn’t condone robbery. And we know how Jesus feels about all sin, about all disease, about all the evils in the world. He came to heal the sick, to forgive sins, and to set in motion God’s plan to put everything right (Luke 4:18-19; Acts 3:20-21; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26). So whatever Paul means here in Ephesians 5:20 about “giving thanks always and for everything,” we must bear in mind that this gratitude is offered in the name of Jesus.

 With that disclaimer in mind, what does Paul mean? Bear in mind that Paul was in prison when he wrote these words. He was “an ambassador in chains” (Ephesians 6:20). Paul wasn’t immune to the evil and suffering of this world. He experienced it to a degree most of us will not (2 Corinthians 11:23-28; 12:7-10; 2 Timothy 4:6-18). But even in his chains, Paul was grateful and called upon his readers to be grateful, to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

The key to the sort of gratitude Paul has in mind is looking at our suffering in the power and grace of Christ. For instance, Paul was not thankful for arrest, abuse, and imprisonment in the abstract. But he was thankful for what Christ accomplished through his imprisonment (Philippians 1:12). The proclamation of the name of Christ to soldiers normally off-limits (Philippians 1:13); faithful brethren emboldened to greater evangelism (Philippians 1:14); unscrupulous preachers who thought by preaching to as many people as they could that they would incite Paul to envious resentment (Philippians 1:15-17). But the joke was on them!

What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice (Philippians 1:18).

Paul wasn’t grateful for sins like selfish ambition, but he was grateful that God was working through those evil motives to bring about a greater good. And that’s what I think Paul means in Ephesians 5:20. We should be thankful for everything in the sense that we know God can accomplish amazing things through all circumstances – even evils like cancer.

Mrs Scott and I

I hate cancer, but in the name of Jesus I am grateful for Kristi’s cancer. Why? Because God has worked through this circumstance to bring us closer to Him in ways I can’t imagine would have happened otherwise. I can give thanks for this situation because God has used it to create a level of intimacy in our young life as a married couple it may have taken decades for us to reach  without it. And I can thank God because He has poured out His love through His people to a degree we would never have known had this disease not invaded our lives.

As one commentator puts it –

Believers are to be thankful during times of trial and suffering as we endure them patiently, not because we have lost all feelings of moral sensitivity or because we can no longer distinguish between good and evil. Rather, we humbly and gratefully submit to his sovereignty, knowing that he works in everything for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). This is not to claim that God is the author of evil or that we are praising him for what he abominates. But we recognize that he uses even the suffering which comes upon us to produce character, perseverance, and hope (Rom. 5:3–5). [Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, p. 398]

This doesn’t mean cancer is any less horrible. It doesn’t mean tears never fall. It doesn’t mean we are immune to grief. No, our heart breaks each time we receive bad news from a scan. But it does mean that broken hearts can also be grateful hearts, that through our tears we can also rejoice, that even as we suffer we are also blessed. This is what it looks like when we are “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Saturday Morning Links

Here are some cool links to browse through this weekend! And Happy Memorial Day!

JD Vance Interview. Great interview of the author of Hillbilly Elegy, which I reviewed this week.

Muslims Reported the Manchester Terrorist. Muslim associates of the Manchester bomber tried to warn the authorities, but no one paid attention.

Best Apps for Reading the News.

Trumpism without Trump in the UK. Theresa May shows how to challenge the status quo with savvy and sense.

Diversity and Tolerance, Yale Style. A damning documentary on the death of a great university.

Speaking of Which. Yale has honored the students who led the mob featured in the above story.

The Babylon Bee Skewers the Saudi Arms Sale!

You Are You Picking in the NBA Finals? I’m taking Golden State in 5.

If You Like Dave Ramsey, You Will LOVE This Bee!

Awesome Harmony! Enjoy this song from my friends in Forefront, the 2016 International Champions of Barbershop.



Hillbilly Elegy – Book Review and Personal Reflections

I ordered a copy of Hillbilly Elegy almost as soon as it was published, but it laid on my side table for a long time. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was emotionally up to reading it. From the reviews I had seen, I knew that the story told by its author, J.D. Vance, was very similar to my own story, and there’s lots about that story that is painful. But last weekend I decided to read it while flying back and forth to Columbus, Ohio (where Vance attended school at THE Ohio State), and I am glad that I did. It was tough to read – at many points I nearly burst into tears (which would have been awkward for the people sitting next to me on the plane!). But it was also cathartic. In this post I want to talk about the book, and about my own experience, and about the experience of the band of people I proudly lay claim to as my own – hillbillies.

J.D. Vance was born in Jackson, KY, the county seat of Breathitt County (or as we Kentuckians call it, “Bloody Breathitt”). His family had to make the choice of whether to stay in the hills to try to scratch out a living or move north to find work, and like many hillbillies, his people moved north to Ohio, finding good work in Middletown. Vance’s mother was in and out of many relationships, so the real stability in his life was provided by his grandparents, known to the family as “Mamaw and Papaw.” When drug addiction finally overwhelmed his mom, Vance moved in with his Mamaw, whom he credits for saving his life.

Vance uses the experience of his own family as a paradigm to describe the challenges facing hillbillies in general, and the statistical realities bear out the validity of this approach. Hillbilly culture is being decimated by drug addiction, by broken marriages and fatherless children, by failing schools, by lack of economic opportunity and – even worse – by a vanishing sense of personal responsibility. As Vance puts it,

There is a lack of agency here – a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself (p. 7).

For all of these reasons and more, hillbilly culture is the most pessimistic subculture in American society. Blacks and hispanics are more optimistic for the future of their children than are whites. And, as Vance frequently notes, hillbillies are often just plain mean.

But these are Vance’s people, and they are mine. My family came from Pike County, Kentucky – the easternmost county in the state. They lived on Joe’s Creek, an area just a little north of Pikeville. My grandparents were known as “Granny and Pop,” and like Vance’s family, they left the hills in search of work. And like his family, they found it in Ohio (in Dayton, just a few miles from Middletown). Later they lived in northern KY across the river from Cincinnati, and they finally settled in central Kentucky – in Winchester – where I was born and raised.

We hillbillies trace our roots back to Scotland and Ireland, to the clans that lived in the hills of the British Isles. The “clan” was the extended family, and it was the focal point of loyalty. Disputes often broke out between clans and were settled violently (the precursor to the feuding culture of us hillbillies). At its best, clan culture demanded great courage as well as devotion to the honor of the family. At its worst, it led to suspicion and distrust of anyone outside the clan.

The Scots-Irish migrated to America and settled in the Appalachian Mountains that resembled their homeland. They really had no choice – their wealthier and better established English counterparts had already claimed the lucrative land on the coast. This raises an important point. There is no such thing as a monolithic “white” experience. Even among people as closely related as the English and Scots-Irish there are dramatic differences. This is vividly displayed in the distinction between the mountain culture of eastern Kentucky and the horse culture of central Kentucky. The plantation south was very different from Appalachia (for a detailed look at the Scots-Irish, check out Jim Webb’s Born Fighting).

The Scots-Irish brought with them their penchant for violence. In its more noble manifestation this produced legions of hillbillies who volunteered to fight for the country (it’s why Tennessee – another hillbilly stronghold – is known as the “Volunteer State”). My Pop fought in World War 2, and my two uncles were career military men. But in its worst forms, this culture of violence led to blood feuds (my family is related to the McCoys from the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud), to verbal and physical abuse in the home, to hair-trigger tempers that will come to blows in an instant.

Vance frequently talks about how “mean” his people could be, especially his Mamaw. His Papaw came home drunk a lot, so his Mamaw warned him that the next time this happened, she would kill him.

A week later, he came home drunk again and fell asleep on the couch. Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest.  When Papaw burst into flames, their eleven-year-old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life. Miraculously, Papaw survived the episode with only mild burns (pp 43-44).


I have often joked with my wife that I was raised by the “two meanest hillbilly women who ever lived.” But I think Vance’s Mamaw takes the prize! My Mom and Granny could be mean – but they had to be. They had tough lives. My Pop had a drinking problem just like Vance’s Papaw. Granny had to be tough to keep the household going. One of my aunts told me she remembered a night when Pop came home so drunk he literally crawled to the front door, but Granny refused to let him in. Was that mean? Maybe. But Granny was determined to protect her family (and at least she didn’t set him on fire!).

My Pop

Pop never drank in front of me, but every once in a while I would find his whiskey bottle. Once, I snuck a drink of what I thought was Pop’s lemonade – it turned out to be lemonade spiked with Jack Daniels. That’s probably why I was never tempted to drink again! Like Vance’s Papaw, my Pop decided to stop drinking, and he did – cold turkey. I was so proud of him the day I saw him go forward at church to confess his problem and ask for prayers. I was only in the 8th grade at the time, and as I look back on what Pop did, my admiration for what he did grows more and more.

Mom at her desk as secretary to the administrator at our local hospital

The biggest difference between my story and Vance’s has to do with our mothers. His became addicted to painkillers, and throughout her life went through many marriages that crumbled due to her personal instability. My Mom was never married, and while she dated a couple of guys during my childhood, she shielded me from any romantic drama she may have experienced. And my Mom was a hard worker, holding two jobs for most of my growing up years. After I was born she started working at the local hospital, working her way up from being a cashier in the business office to being the administrative secretary – not too bad a for a woman with just a high school diploma! At nights she worked part-time jobs, as a clerk at a local liquor store, in the concession stand at our drive-in (where I first saw Star Wars!), and cleaning offices.

She was able to do this because we lived with her parents and Granny looked after me during the day. It is a great testimony to how stable and loving my home life was that it was several years before I realized that I didn’t have a dad like other kids did (or maybe just evidence of how slow I am!). And even then it was only when one of the neighbors told their son to call me an “illegitimate bastard” that I realized that some people didn’t like me because I didn’t have a father.

Stories like mine and Vance’s are all-too common among hillbillies, children in single-parent homes raised by their grandparents, facing environments in which alcohol and drugs are abundant. What many people don’t realize is how similar these dynamics are to what’s facing African-Americans. People from outside of these two cultures would never imagine that blacks in inner city Detroit or Chicago have anything in common with hillbillies on Joe’s Creek or in “Bloody Breathitt,” but the statistics show that the plights of each community are very similar. Vance mentions how much a book he read in high school by William Julius Wilson called The Truly Disadvantaged resonated with him, even though

he wasn’t writing about the hillbilly transplants from Appalachia – he was writing about black people in the inner cities (p. 144).

This reality is part of the reason the current fixation on “identity politics” infuriates me so much. Those who obsess over “white privilege” assume that the experience of white people is one-dimensional, which is absurd. And they also assume that white people cannot understand or empathize with what black Americans have faced. It is true that my people never encountered racism, slavery, and Jim Crow laws. But hillbilly people do know the sting of social stigma and ethnic prejudice. And due to economic realities, hillbillies face the same downward pressures on upward mobility that many African-Americans face.

When Granny and Pop moved to Winchester, the only place they could afford to live at first was an apartment house on Broadway. This was the part of Winchester where the “white section” ended and the “black section” began. Across the street lived a black family, led by its matriarch, Ms. Gracie. She and Granny became lifelong friends.  Socially and economically, we had far more in common with Mrs. Gracie and her people than we did with the folks who lived in the big houses on Boone Avenue and were members of the local country club. This reflects an observation noted in another book Vance cites, Appalachian Odyssey:

It was not simply that the Appalachian migrants, as rural strangers “out of place” in the city, were upsetting to Midwestern, urban whites. Rather, these migrants disrupted a broad set of assumptions held by northern whites about how white people appeared, spoke, and behaved…Ostensibly, they were of the same racial order (whites) as those who dominated economic, political, and social power in local and national arenas. But hillbillies shared many regional characteristics with the southern blacks arriving in Detroit (cited on p. 31).

This is why I chafe at the talk of “white privilege” and “identity politics.” “White privilege” for my band of hillbillies was digging for coins to scrape up enough money to buy bread and baloney. It was Granny breaking down her knees from years of scrubbing the floors of families she worked for to supplement Pop’s meager income. It was my Mom working two jobs. And it was doing this in the same neighborhood as black families facing a similar set of challenges. Folks from the hills and the hood have a lot more in common than the establishment realizes (a truth humorously and beautifully brought home by this “Black Jeopardy” skit on Saturday Night Live).

The most important part of Vance’s book is his reflection on why his story turned out so differently from the statistical expectations. Vance is a Yale law grad and a successful investor. How did that happen to a hillbilly from Breathitt County? As Vance reflects on all the pieces that fell into place for him, I can’t help but think of my own life:

When I look back at my life, what jumps out is how many variables had to fall in place in order to give me a chance. There was my grandparents’ constant presence. . . Even with her faults, Mom instilled in me a lifelong love of education and learning. My sister always protected me. . . There were teachers, distant relatives, and friends (p. 239).

My Mom and Pop were both voracious readers (and Pop never made it past elementary school). Granny loved crossword puzzles and word jumbles, and one of my treasured possessions is a notebook filled with handwritten notes she took in Bible class at church. Her father, my great-grandad “Pa Syck,” was a school teacher back in Pike County. So I was given a love for learning by my family, like Vance.

But the most important thing Vance and I were given was the belief that our choices matter. Lots of hillbillies feel trapped, that the deck is so stacked against them that it doesn’t make any difference what they do. They are hopeless, content to blame their problems on Bush or Obama or the establishment or the Chinese or…. It is what Vance refers to as “learned helplessness” (p. 163). But his Mamaw convinced him that even though life is unfair, and even though the rich and powerful have connections and advantages that people like us do not, that it is still possible to be successful, that his choices really mattered, and that he could make a better life.

My Mom, Granny, and Pop all believed the same thing about me. And I was blessed with many people in my life – teachers, neighbors, the preacher at my church – who told me the same thing. I know how fortunate I am that my story turned out differently than it does for most kids in my circumstances.

Vance’s family, like most hillbillies, was not big on organized religion. His Mamaw was a faithful Bible reader, but she had the same distrust of churches and preachers that lots of people from the hills share. As Vance points out, while hillbillies may live in the “Bible belt,” regular church attendance is actually very low (p. 93). This is another major difference in our stories. While my Mom was unfaithful to the Lord for many years, my grandparents were regular church attendees, and even when they didn’t want to go to Sunday school, they would make sure I got there. And that leads me to my final observation about the book.

The chief problem with hillbilly culture at its worst is its spiritual poverty, its allergy to accountability and its impulse toward isolation. Christ calls us to accept responsibility for our choices, to confront our faults, and to follow Him. And in the church, Christ gives us an extended family, a rich support system that provides accountability and encouragement. Vance is absolutely right that the solution to the crisis in hillbilly culture is ultimately not going to come from the government. It must come from within.

And the only way to truly change hearts is with the gospel.

(Final note – while I think this book contains a compelling story that needs to be heard, there is a great deal of profanity in the book. Use your best judgment as to whether you think you should read it).



Christ Is All, and In All

This past weekend I preached for a wonderful congregation in Chillicothe, Ohio. The church was planted by some friends of mine eleven years ago, which means that many of its members are first-generation Christians. Love abounds among these disciples, and I gained far more than I gave by being there.

At supper on Friday night I learned that one of the members was formerly a black militant. He hated white people – until he was confronted by the cross of Jesus Christ. He became a Christian, and the old hatreds vanished. He now divides his time between working with the church and working in the large prison system in Chillicothe.

After our assembly on Saturday, I chatted with another member, and in the course of that conversation he told me that he was once a member of the KKK. He used to hate black people (under the guise of the twisted view of “Christianity” held by groups like the Klan), until he learned the true gospel. Now, he is part of a racially diverse church and calls people from all races and backgrounds “brother.”

On my blog I have frequently expressed concern about the rise of “identity politics,” whether on the extreme left or the extreme right. I truly believe we are on the precipice of an ugly period in American culture. As the “black lives matter” and the “white nationalist” movements garner more followers, racial strife is only going to get worse. And I have little optimism that the political class on either side of the spectrum has the courage to confront the radicalism fomenting on its respective wings.

But my trip to Chillicothe has renewed my confidence in the gospel to subvert all of the racial, ethnic, and social hatreds of our age. In His personal ministry, the Lord Jesus called a government worker – Matthew the tax collector, and a violent insurgent against the government – Simon the Zealot, and they both followed Him. Jesus confronted a “Hebrew of Hebrews” named Saul and transformed him into “an apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13). As the gospel spread throughout the Roman world, it broke down all sorts of barriers.

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all (Colossians 3:11).

I love the New Living Translation rendering of that last phrase – “Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.”

Over the weekend I met two brothers for whom race was once all that mattered but who learned that grace is all that matters, the grace found in Christ. The only “identity” that counts for them now is that Christ lives in them. And as a result they are living graciously toward one another. That is the transforming power of Christ, power that our society desperately needs.

The only way to counter the ugliness of hatred is with the beauty of the love of Christ. I left Chillicothe with a renewed sense of hope and passion for what the gospel can do. Thank you for demonstrating how beautiful it is when “Christ is all, and in all.”

Richard Dawkins and His Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Argument Against the Existence of God

Richard Dawkins is a phenomenal zoologist but an abysmal philosopher. And nowhere are his inadequacies as a philosopher more apparent than in what he believes is a knock-down argument against belief in God. Here is the argument, proposed in detail in The God Delusion and summarized in this presentation (he lays out the argument starting at 44:27):

Complicated things come into the universe late, as a consequence of slow, gradual, incremental steps. God, if he exists, would have to be a very, very, very complicated thing indeed. So to postulate a God as the beginning of the universe, as the answer to the riddle of the first cause, is to shoot yourself in the conceptual foot because you are immediately postulating something far far more complicated than that which you are trying to explain…If you have problems seeing how matter could just come into existence – try thinking about how complex intelligent matter, or complex intelligent entities of any kind, could suddenly spring into existence, it’s many many orders of magnitude harder to understand.

What makes this argument so bad? Let’s start with the last sentence, where Dawkins questions how “complex intelligent entities of any kind could suddenly spring into existence.” This assumes that Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that God sprang into existence.This is the precise opposite of what Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe. The claim of the great monotheisms is that God did not come into existence but rather has always existed. And the arguments for this have a rich history. To summarize them in a very abbreviated fashion, the basic idea is that the universe and everything in it are finite and draw existence from something else. So there must be an ultimate reality that does not draw its existence from something else, but rather just is its existence – the idea behind the famous “I am who I am” declaration in Exodus 3:14. The classical arguments are actually far more detailed and nuanced (for an overview, check out my YouTube series on the five ways of Thomas Aquinas), but this summary is sufficient to show how completely Dawkins misunderstands the most basic claim of theism.

To propose an argument against belief in God that hinges on how improbable it is that such a being could “spring into existence” reflects appalling ignorance of the classical tradition about God. I am not suggesting that Dawkins should believe in God merely because of what monotheists claim about God. The real issue is whether the arguments that lead to such a conception of God are valid. But Dawkins should at least understand what the traditional faiths mean when they speak about God, and he clearly does not.

This leads to a second crucial mistake in Dawkins’s argument. He believes that if there is a God it must be a “very, very complicated thing indeed.” This is the precise opposite of what Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe. Monotheists do not believe God is “complicated” – that God consists of lots of intricate parts. And the reason for this ties in to the previous point. Since God doesn’t derive existence from anything else, that must mean He is not composed of parts. Otherwise, those parts would have existed before God (just as the parts of a model exist before the model is assembled), and someone or something would have had to assemble the parts (just as someone has to glue the pieces of a model together). Since God is existence, He doesn’t derive existence from prior parts or a prior maker. The technical term for this doctrine is divine simplicity, and it flows from the belief that God is the ultimate foundation of all reality and being.

By arguing that God cannot exist because such a complex being is improbable, when the uniform confession of monotheism is that God is not a complex being at all, reveals another gaping hole in Dawkins’s understanding of the most rudimentary claims of theism. Let me stress  – I don’t expect an atheist to accept the doctrine of divinely simplicity as true. But I would expect an atheist to at least understand what it is he is claiming when he says that “God” does not exist.

Compounding his error with a third crucial mistake, Dawkins believes that if God exists, he must have arisen through the same biological processes of evolution that produced every other complex structure in the universe. “Complicated things come into the universe late, as a consequence of slow, gradual, incremental steps.” For this to be the case, God would have to be just one more inhabitant of the universe made up of physical stuff subject to evolutionary processes. This is the precise opposite of what Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe. These faiths contend that God is the creator of the universe and therefore is not part of the universe. And since God is not composed of parts, He is not a physical being that can adapt over time in response to genetic mutation and natural selection.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how Dawkins’s argument could be worse. I suppose it could have some merit against belief in Zeus or Thor or the “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” but it is completely irrelevant to the view of God argued for and confessed by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. As many philosophers have pointed out, to argue like Dawkins is here would be like me arguing that evolution is “just a theory” and that Dawkins must believe “men came from apes.” No evolutionist believes that “men came from apes,” and when evolutionists use the word “theory” they are using it in a technical scientific sense rather than the more colloquial sense that we generally use the term. If I am going to challenge an evolutionist, I should try to understand what is meant by the theory of evolution (“a scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena,” like the wave theory of light), and I should try to understand the basics of evolutionary theory (man and ape evolved from a distant common ancestor).

But Dawkins has no real interest in understanding any of these things. He is blissfully content to continue making an argument that refutes a conception of God that no Jew, Christian, or Muslim believer has ever held. Ironically, for Dawkins, the “God delusion” is the deluded belief that his arguments have anything to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.


Put on the New Self…In Marriage

Yesterday marked 28 years for me as a preacher. My first work was with the Oak Hill church outside of Mount Sterling, Kentucky, and my first Sunday with them was May 14, 1989. I have many wonderful memories of the people there, and love seeing them every time I get the chance to go back and preach in the area. An added blessing for me during that time was the friendship of fellow minister John Smith, who preached nearby in my hometown of Winchester. We got together almost every week, sharing sermon ideas over lunch. In this post I want to pass along one of his ideas that I think is great. But first, some background.

In Ephesians 4:22-24 Paul reminds the Christians in Ephesus of what he taught them in Christ (v. 21):

to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).

Learning about Christ, in other words, necessarily involves a transformation. The old hymn says that God will take me “just as I am” – but He doesn’t leave me just as I am. He raises me from death to life and then calls upon me to reflect that change in status by a change in conduct. In the next several verses (4:25-5:2), Paul goes into detail as to what this transformation looks like, particularly in the context of our relationships with each other (“we are members one of another.” v. 25).

Now to John’s idea. He suggested looking at the vices we must lay aside and the virtues we must embrace in the context of marriage. This makes sense – after all, if the qualities found in Ephesians 4:25-5:2 are essential to good relationships between Christians, and marriage is the most intimate of all relationships, then it only stands to reason that what Paul says here would be doubly pertinent in marriage.

So what does it look like to “put on the new self” in marriage?

Be honest with each other.

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another (4:25).

Don’t let anger go unresolved.

Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,  and give no opportunity to the devil (4:26-27).

Work hard to give, not to get.

 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need (4:28).

Communicate in ways that build up rather than tear down.

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption (4:29-30).

Be tenderhearted and forgiving.

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (4:31-32).

Love like Christ.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (5:1-2).

If you are married, let me suggest that you take a few minutes each night this week and read this passage with your spouse. It will make an enormous difference in your relationship.

And John, thanks!



Typology (Categories) in the Bible (or, “And the Winner Is…”)

Commenting on the return from Egypt by Jesus and His family, Matthew says:

This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matthew 2:15).

This is a peculiar comment for a couple of reasons. In the first place, if you refer back to the passage Matthew says is fulfilled by the journey home from Egypt – Hosea 11:1 – the “son” in that text is not Jesus, but Israel. And in the second place, Hosea 11:1 is not a prediction about the future but a reflection on the past.

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
    and out of Egypt I called my son.
 The more they were called,
    the more they went away;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals
    and burning offerings to idols (Hosea 11:1-2).

Why, then, does Matthew quote this reflection on Israel’s past and say that in coming home from Egypt Jesus “fulfilled” this Scripture?

The key to understanding this passage is something biblical scholars call typology. Somewhere along the way I stumbled across what I think is a better term – categories. Think of your favorite awards show (the Oscars, the Grammies, or the Slammies from old WWF days!). Those awards programs features categories – Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Song, etc. In each category there are nominees, all reflecting various levels of excellence. But then there is one nominee that excels all the others and best captures the essence of that category. “And the winner is…!”

The Bible also uses categories. And one of those categories is “son of God.” There are many “nominees” in this category. Adam, “the son of God” (Luke 3:38). Israel, collectively described by God as “my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). The offspring of David, to whom God promised a special relationship – “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Samuel 7:14). And of course, Jesus. “This is my beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17).

But just as there is one nominee that best represents the category of Best Actor or Best Movie, in the biblical category of “son” there is one member that typifies the essence of the category better than all others – Christ. He fulfills (fills to the full) what that category is all about. In fact, if you think about the other nominees in the category of “son” – Adam, Israel, the Davidic kings – the New Testament draws on each of those members of the “son” category to explain the supremacy of Jesus. He is the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45); He experienced (triumphantly) hunger in the wilderness like Israel (Matthew 4:1-11); He is the great David’s greater Son (Matthew 22:41-45).

When Matthew says that Jesus “fulfilled” Hosea 11:1, he is not speaking about the fulfillment of a prophecy in the way that we normally think of it. Usually we think in terms of a prophet making a prediction of a future event and then some time later that prediction coming true. But Matthew is not claiming any sort of predictive fulfillment. He is saying that in Jesus there is typological (or categorical) fulfillment of the role of “son.” Israel was supposed to be a son but failed in disobedience. What Israel was supposed to be, Jesus is, in the the fullest way imaginable.

This also helps us to understand the logic of the first four chapters of Matthew. Matthew is consciously describing the story of Jesus in terms of a retelling of the story of Israel. Think of these experiences of Israel and the parallels Matthew draws in the life of Jesus:

  • The threat of murder at birth by a king
  • Exile in Egypt
  • A return from Egypt
  • A journey through water (the exodus and Jesus’ baptism)
  • A description as God’s son
  • A wilderness wandering filled with temptation

But of course, instead of forsaking God in disobedience like Israel did (Hosea 11:2), Jesus is perfectly obedient. That’s why He’s the winner of the “Best Son” category!

Some other great categories to think about are servant, temple, sacrifice, king, shepherd. Think of those categories in terms of the various examples of each, and then how Christ is the ultimate version of that category. Looking at the story of the Bible in these categorical or typological terms opens up a very fruitful way of grasping the biblical message, and especially of understanding how Jesus is the focal point of all of Scripture.


Preaching in Three Dimensions

A few years ago I saw a video featuring Tim Keller explaining his philosophy of preaching. He said that a preacher must exegete (interpret) three things. First, he must understand the Scriptures. After all, he is called upon to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). And for a lot of us, that’s where the sermon prep begins and ends. But Keller said that in addition to interpreting the word there are two other important dimensions to preaching. In the second place, we must interpret the times. In other words, what is our culture like, and what challenges/opportunities does the culture present to God’s people?  And third, we must understand the people we are preaching to. What is the background of the audience, what problems are they facing, what level of understanding do they possess?

I have pondered this description of preaching many times, but recently it came to the forefront of my mind while teaching First Corinthians 7. In this passage the apostle Paul answers various questions posed by the Corinthians about marriage and celibacy. Think of Keller’s three dimensions in light of Paul’s comments.

First, Paul interpreted Scripture to the Corinthians. Specifically, he applied the words of Jesus to their questions regarding divorce.

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife (7:10-11).

He did the same thing in the previous chapter when he discussed the purpose of sexual intimacy, reminding them that the one-flesh relationship is exclusively reserved for marriage according to Genesis 2:24 (1 Corinthians 6:16).

Second, Paul understood the times. He knew that the Corinthians were facing a crisis he calls “the present distress,” and on the basis of this cultural circumstance he advised single people to remain single and avoid  the added anxieties of marriage in such difficult circumstances.

I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife (7:26-27).

Third, Paul understood the Corinthians. Even though he preferred that those who were single remain unmarried because of the current crisis, he also understood that not everyone had that capacity. Paul was gifted with the ability to remain celibate, but he understood that many of the Corinthians were not.

But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that (7:28).

And of course, throughout the letter Paul expresses awareness of the level of spiritual maturity of the Corinthians and responds accordingly (as in 3:1-4).

So there you have it – preaching in three dimensions: the word, the times, and the audience. Approaching the ministry of the word in this way enables us to be true to Scripture while also being relevant to the audience in way that glorifies God and serves those we are teaching. And that is what preaching is all about (1 Peter 4:11).


Trinity Tuesday – An Ancient Analogy for the Trinity (Part 2)

One of my favorite definitions of the Trinity comes from Mike Reeves, who says that the Trinity is the Father, Son, and Spirit loving each other forever. It is beautiful, and it is simple. And from one point of view, the claim that the one true God is the Father, Son, and Spirit is a very straightforward teaching. It is complicated only when we try to harmonize the oneness of the doctrine (“one God”) with the threeness of the doctrine (“Father, Son, and Spirit”). But the fact that we may wrestle with just how it is that God’s inner life is this way doesn’t really present a major problem. After all, why would we ever think that we as limited and finite beings would ever fully grasp any aspect of the infinite and eternal God’s inner life? “Give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted” (Isaiah 12:4).

In an effort to better grasp the truth of the Trinity, teachers through the years have proposed various analogies. As I commented on previously, the trouble with analogies is that they use material things (eggs, apples, water) to illustrate something immaterial (the nature and life of God as Father, Son, and Spirit). Inevitably these analogies end up denying the oneness of God by dividing Him into parts, or else they deny the threeness of God by reducing eternal relationships to mere roles or modes that are periodically assumed but do no exist in a relationship with each other (like me being a husband, uncle, and son-in-law).

Last week I introduced an analogy that I think may be helpful, however, and it has a very ancient pedigree. It was proposed by Augustine in the fourth century, and developed by Aquinas in the thirteenth century. It is not perfect (no analogy can be), but it opens a window for us to contemplate the Trinity.

The analogy draws upon the passages that speak of the Son and the Spirit “proceeding” from the Father (like John 8:42 and John 15:26). In my previous post in this series I discussed how the Son proceeds from the Father. By way of review, the analogy goes like this: We have minds, and thoughts proceed from those minds. But until we communicate those thoughts to others, they remain internal to us. So thinking is a kind of internal procession. John 1:1 refers to the Son as “the Word,” the logos, the idea or thought of God. In a manner similar to thoughts proceeding from our minds, the Word proceeds from God. But until the Word became flesh (John 1:14), this procession was internal, just as our thoughts remain within us until we communicate them.

The big difference between the way thoughts proceed from our mind and the way the Word proceeds from God is this – AND THIS IS CRUCIAL (so crucial I violated blog etiquette and used all caps!)! Unlike our thoughts, which are temporary – they come and go – the Bible says that the Word has always existed (John 1:1). There was never a time that the Father existed that the Son did not. The Son proceeds from the Father and always has, as Fred Sanders likes to say (The Deep Things of God, first edition, p. 93).

Through the years, this concept has come to be known as the “eternal generation” of the Son. It captures the biblical teaching that the Son derives being from the Father while at the same time being equal to the Father in the eternal divine nature (Philippians 2:6; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3). Another venerable term used to describe this teaching is “begetting,” the Father eternally begets the Son. Again – AND I CAN’T STRESS THIS ENOUGH (sorry to yell again!) – the idea here is not that the Father existed by Himself for a few billion years and then decided to have a Son. Rather, the idea here is that the Father eternally begets a Son. This is how the ancient thinkers understood the biblical descriptions of Jesus as “the only begotten God” (John 1:18 NASB).

Just as you cannot have a son without a father or a father without a son, this doctrine also means that the Father and Son are inseparable. A clumsy way to put it is that there is the Begetter, the Begotten, and the eternal begetting. A more beautiful way to put it is the prayer of Jesus, “You loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).

But what about the Holy Spirit? So far I have only discussed the relationship of the Father and the Son. Is there a related analogy for the relationship between the Father and the Spirit? There is indeed.

In addition to the procession of thoughts from the mind, there is another sort of internal procession in our experience. When I think about my wife, my heart wells up in love for her – a desire to do good for her. But until that love is expressed to her (with flowers, or jewelry, or – her most treasured way – me emptying the dishwasher!), that love remains internal to me. So just as thoughts proceed from the mind, love proceeds from the will.

Ancient thinkers like Augustine suggested that this procession of love is a good way to picture the relationship of the Spirit to the Father. The Spirit proceeds from the Father in a way similar to (but infinitely greater than) love proceeds from the will. This illustration also draws upon the passages that associate the Spirit with love, such as the coming of the Spirit upon Jesus at His baptism as the Father says, “This is my beloved Son (Matthew 3:17).

Since the word in Greek for “Spirit” (pneuma) also means “breath,” another way to think of this is that God the Father eternally breathes out the Spirit. So just as there is the eternal begetting of the Son there is the eternal breathing of the Spirit. And, just as the Father is inseparable from the Son, the Spirit is inseparable from the Father as well. Again, to spell it out rather clunkily, there is the breather, the breath, and the eternal breathing.

Fred Sanders captures these concepts in this great diagram from the first edition of The Deep Things of God, p. 92-

Are these analogies perfect? Of course not. Our thoughts do not eternally proceed from our minds, nor does love from the will. And our thoughts do not have a reciprocal relationship with our minds, but the Son does have a relationship with the Father. The same is true of the Spirit. But insofar as these analogies preserve the oneness of God while at the same time illustrating the relationships of Father, Son, and Spirit, they are probably the best that we can do.

The important thing here is to bear in mind that these analogies are conveying a beautiful truth. The Father, Son, and Spirit have always existed in the perfect unity of love. God is love, and He always has been, and always will be. Such a God is worthy of praise!



Marriage, “From Here to Eternity”

Recently I have been teaching the book of First Corinthians in our adult Bible class at church. The seventh chapter contains Paul’s responses to various questions raised by the Corinthians regarding marriage, divorce, remarriage, and celibacy. Paul’s general recommendation is that in view of a crisis the Corinthians were facing – something he calls “the present distress” (v. 26) – that it is better to remain unmarried if a person is able to live in celibacy. But he also assures the Corinthians that if a person is not blessed with this capacity that marriage is not a sin.

In the midst of this chapter, Paul issues a shocking set of instructions:

This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).

I say “shocking” because, taken at face value, each of these admonitions contradicts things Paul says in other places. Marriage is good (1 Timothy 4:3-5), rejoicing and weeping with each other are mutual obligations (Romans 12:15),and honest business dealings are part of providing for one’s family (1 Timothy 5:8). So if these commands are not to be taken literally, what do they mean?

Paul cues us in by the phrases at the beginning and end of this passage. “The appointed time has grown very short” (“the time has been shortened” NASB), and “the present form of this world is passing away.” What does Paul mean by these statements? Did Paul believe that the end was about to take place? No. As Richard Oster points out,

Even though the time was short, Paul continued to talk to the Corinthians about his own future plans to visit them (4:19; 11:34; 16:5-8) and the need for them to make and execute plans for a donation to aid in relief work among churches in Judea (1 Cor 16:1-4; cf. 2 Cor 8-9), plans whose consummation was two or three years in the future (1 Corinthians p. 180).

What then does Paul mean when he says that “the time  has been shortened”? In the framework of the Old Testament, history had an objective – the coming of the Messiah and the restitution of all things. When the Messiah came, the evils and injustices of this age would be made right in the age to come, and even death itself would be undone by the resurrection from the dead. But in a surprising twist, God did not send the Messiah at the end of history but in the middle of history, and – even more astonishing – permitted the Messiah to suffer and die, and then raised him from the dead.

What this means is that the blessings of the age to come have broken into the present age. Christ’s death and resurrection mean that God has already inaugurated the restitution of all things, though this will not be final until the second coming. Notice Paul’s description of this process in 1 Corinthians 15:20-26:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

So the coming of the Messiah has launched the age to come. His resurrection in time is the firstfruits, the downpayment, of the general resurrection at the end of time. And what this means in practical terms is that we live in the tension of the blessings of the age to come that are already available, while looking forward to the final consummation of all things that has not yet occurred (theologians like to call this the already/not yet – theologians are very creative!).

Turning our attention back to 7:29-31, when Paul says that the “time has been shortened,” he is not making a quantitative statement about time (“there isn’t much time left”), but rather, he is making a qualitative statement about time (“we live in a new era”). In other words, the coming of Christ should have a profound effect on how we look at time, and how we prioritize our lives in view of this new reality. “Paul is not concerned about the duration of time…but the character of the time. He is talking not about how little time is left but about how Christ’s death and resurrection have changed how Christians should look at the time that is left” (David Garland, Baker Exegetical Commentary in the New Testament: 1 Corinthians, pp. 328-329).

Similarly, when Paul says that “the present form of the world is passing away” in 7:31, what he means is that the coming of Christ has set in motion the events that will reach their climax in the new heaven and earth, meaning that the present world’s days are numbered. The things of this world are therefore temporary.

Mr. and Mrs. Shane Scott

To put it all together, what Paul is saying in 7:29-31 is that Christians must evaluate all worldy concerns in light of the new age in which we live and the final destiny that awaits us as God’s people. So we feel sorrow and joy, but not as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We work to make money, but as  those who know life is a vapor and what matters most is the will of God (James 4:13-16). And – most especially relevant to 1 Corinthians 7 – we marry (or remain single), knowing that as great a blessing as marriage is, eternity will be a greater glory, in which “in the resurrection [we] neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).

Someone might imagine that prioritizing God’s kingdom and our future glory over marriage would make husbands and wives less loving and responsive to each other. But the opposite is the case. When we look at marriage as the pinnacle of all of human experience, we place a burden on our spouse that they are unable to bear. There’s an old Bryan Adams song called Heaven (!) that says:

And baby, you’re all that I want
When you’re lyin’ here in my arms
I’m findin’ it hard to believe
We’re in heaven

And love is all that I need
And I found it there in your heart
It isn’t too hard to see
We’re in heaven

Sounds great – until his lover makes a mistake, or fails to satisfy some need! By looking at his lover as someone who can do only what God can do – provide the eternally satisfying love of heaven – the person in this song is placing  crushing and unreasonable expectations on a mere mortal, and no relationship can withstand that kind of pressure.

But when we look at marriage as the means to an even greater end, eternity with God, then we do not hold our spouse to unreasonable and superhuman expectations. Instead, we realize that we are here to serve and glorify God, that marriage is a wonderful context in which to learn what Christlikeness is all about, but that there is a greater reality that awaits us and that we can help one another reach.

Several years ago one of our members here where I preach was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Normally, this is a grave diagnosis – most people don’t survive but a couple of years. Upon learning this, John and his family adopted the motto, “We shall be grateful for the gift of time.”  Whatever quantity of time John would have left, it would be reshaped by the quality of gratitude. As it turns out, John lived almost 15 years, years filled with thanksgiving. What Paul is saying here in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 is that we must look at the affairs of this world – especially marriage – in light of the qualities of the new age. And paradoxically, living with a view toward the world to come will make us better husbands and wives in the here and now. That is the blessing of marriage from here to eternity.