Here we are again. Reflections on Buffalo

Here we are again. Another person has decided to take a gun and kill a bunch of people. And it just so happens that this person is strikingly like a lot of other people who have done similar things: a male, white, and sharing a certain racial ideology of the world.

Is this a problem of race? Is this a problem of gender? Is this a problem of gun control? However we talk about and try to answer those questions—and I think that we do need to talk about them and try to answer them—there is some deeper issues that we need to not lose sight of.

The knee-jerk responses of gun-control activists and right-to-bear-arms activists around each mass shooting is to become further entrenched in their own position. To take the new data, integrate it into their existing belief set, and yell louder about how right they are.

The knee-jerk responses around issues of race are the same. Are people racist? Are racial disparities driving everything in our country? Some cry “yes,” and others cry “no,” and what happens in the meantime is more of the same.

The discussions which ensue following such a shooting as just happened in Buffalo (and, don’t forget, several other shootings around the country in that same time period) are predictable. All sides say the same things over and over again. In the clamor over gun control and race/racism, one wonders how much ever will change. How much is even heard?

What do we feel?

It is not my intention here to argue for or against gun control. Of course, if this young man in Buffalo was not able to buy the gun then he would not have been able to shoot so many people. That is self-evidently true, and an important point to wrestle with in forging local, state, and national policy on guns. Yet it is an underwhelming place to focus on.

It is not my intention here to tackle the protracted issue of race and racism. Assuming the reports about the shooter are accurate, it is easy to see he was fanatically racist.

But where does pointing out those self-evident truths leave us? With a pile of dead bodies, ever-growing, and no obvious way out of the course we are on.

As I think about the reports coming out of Buffalo, Southern California, and more, a few things cross my mind.

Sorrow. It pains me to think about the lives that have just been shattered. Those who died. Those who are dying. Those who will now be wrestling with the hurt stemming from a loss of innocence and hope.

Anger. I am angry that we live in a mass-shooting, rinse, and repeat culture. For a saddening list of mass shootings in the US this year, see here.  I am angry that we live in a culture where local kids make plans to go to their schools and shoot people they don’t like. I am angry that too often those plans materialize into reality. I am angry that hopelessness is so rife in our culture that killing others, or killing oneself, seem like good solutions to so many people.

Curiosity. I am curious where the disconnect is in the lives of so many. Where did this young man get the ideas of racial superiority and violence from which somehow made his life make sense? Where does hopelessness come from in the lives of many who take guns to others or to themselves? I wonder what it would be like to sit down with this young man who just killed so many people in Buffalo and have a heart-to-heart conversation asking, “What do you hate so much about yourself and your life that the only way you know to express your pain is in giving deep pain to others?

What do we do now?

I don’t know what to do.

I’m not sure that “doing something” will ever fix what is around us, though I suspect and hope there are lots of ways to improve the cycles of violence and racial ideology which the recent shooter in Buffalo put so clearly back in our view.

I suspect there are policy decisions that could lessen the frequency of gun violence. I suspect there are mental health services which could help. Those are discussions to be had.

Right now, I am more concerned with something deeper. Something whose lack is rather troubling.


The shooter’s racial ideology is completely devoid of empathy. There is no real attempt to consider the lives of black people as other people in the world trying to make their way. Or, if talking in terms of race is too bold for you, there is no real attempt to consider the lives of other human being as people in the world trying make their own way. In the moral imagination of the shooter, it seems these other human beings had little more significance than ants that might be stepped on.

How does one live with so little empathy?

The very act of taking up a gun to shoot other people displays a pronounced lack of empathy. Someone steeped in empathy may fight and kill at times, but understands that fighting and killing is not a way to escape your own pain. Shooting others is not a way out of troubles, not a way out of the prisons you already live in in your deepest being.

What do we do?

Gun control discussions and debates need to happen, and they will. Further discussion and debate about racial ideology needs to happen, and it will. Discussions of mental health, poverty, bullying, socio-economics, etc., need to happen, and will.

These are not, though, and won’t be quick solutions to the problems which lead us to Buffalo. The most recent in a long line of such shootings.

There are no quick solutions. No easy way to go from “here we are” to “there we want to be.”

As I look at the world around us, I am challenged to think of a different question than how do we get white racists to stop shooting black people. I am challenged to think of how we assault the world with the sort of compassionate empathy which Jesus showed, and still shows.

This kind of empathy can rock hearts to their rocky depths.

This is also the empathy that got Jesus killed.

Do not provoke your children to anger: the meaning of Ephesians 6.4, part 1

yelling child and frustrated father

My kids get mad at me. A lot. I don’t say that as a point of pride, merely an observation of the status of life in our household. Now, I am certain there are many times when their anger is a legitimate and healthy response to something I have done that is not right. One could say that I (more often than I care to) provoke my children to anger.

And all this happens in a context where I hold dear the admonition of Scripture as found in Ephesian 6.4:

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

What does my children getting angry at me mean? Am I sinning? Should I be avoiding all things that result in them getting angry? What exactly is “provoking them to anger,” anyway?

Not all anger is the same

It is worth establishing some basic ground rules from our experience. From life in the trenches, we know that anger happens a lot. Even in “healthy” households. We will start with our experience and then move back and consider the ideal that Scripture gives.

A simple observation to begin with: not all anger is the same. In other words, sometimes my children’s’ anger towards me is righteous anger. They are angry because I have acted toward them in a way that is sinful. When someone violates the integrity of our person, anger is a natural response. Just like we as adults get angry when people wrong us, so too our children. At the beginning, let’s just be honest that sometimes our kids get mad at us because we “provoke them to anger” by sinful actions towards them.

But what about when they get mad at me for things like:

  • making them brush their teeth instead of watching a show;
  • telling them that they don’t get to have candy right now;
  • disciplining a child for hurting another child;
  • insisting that they talk to their parents in a respectful way and not listening to them when they whine;
  • making them apologize for wrong behavior;
  • etc.

Wisdom from life tells us that this sort of anger is not the same as the first. I can affirm that my children are, in fact, angry and that my actions have provoked them to anger. After all, if I just let them watch the show there would be no anger right now. And yet, life experience and wisdom also tell us that these sorts of parental actions are necessary. When parents do not take it upon themselves to impose wise choices upon their children, the result is a disaster of a child that all too often turns into a disaster of an adult.

As I write this my children are still young, and it is easier to see that their anger is not justified (assuming that I am enforcing wise choices upon them in a loving way, which is not always the case). What happens as children get older? How do we understand when our actions are “provoking a teenager to anger,” for instance?

While I don’t have a definitive answer for the complexities of being a sinful parent raising sinful children, I can point us to a deeper understanding of what this passage in Ephesians 6 is saying. And the key here is a covenantal context.

Provoking to anger in covenantal context

To begin, let’s revisit Ephesians 6.4. Here is a smattering of ways it is translated:

  • “You fathers, don’t provoke your children to wrath, but nurture them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (WEB)
  • “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (NIV)
  • “Fathers, don’t frustrate your children with no-win scenarios. Take them by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master.” (MSG)
  • “Fathers, don’t stir up anger in your children, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (HCSB)
  • “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (ESV)

There is clear consensus on the last half of the verse: train and instruct. The first half of the verse describes something negative, with notions of wrath, exasperation, and anger. But what does that mean in real life?

“Fathers” or “parents”?

First, just note that the command to “fathers” is best understood today as a command to parents. We could delve into language and culture details as to why that is the case (and if you want some of that, just ask me!), but just know that it encompasses parents in general.

I would advocate translating this passage something like: “Parents—and especially you, fathers—do not provoke your children to anger.” This accounts for the fact that the text is primarily directed at men within its original context while also acknowledging the realities of the modern family, and the myriad of different authority structures which are present therein. From single-parent homes to homes with present but absentee fathers, etc. The point of the passage addresses a reality that parents are able to parent in such a way that they exasperate their children.

Covenantal context

To understand what “provoke to anger” refers to, we have to consider just what Paul is doing in this brief exchange. Starting from Ephesians 5.21, Paul is discussing the normal relationships of human life in his day in terms of gospel submission: wife and husband, child and parent, and slave and master.

Let’s look at Ephesians 6.1-4 a little closer:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

In this passage Paul cites directly from the 10 commandments regarding how children are to relate to their parents (Exodus 20.12). In v. 4, he alludes to Deuteronomy 6—the Shema and the immediately following verses—about the responsibility of parents to teach the words of the covenant to their children. In both parts of the child/parent relationship, then, the expectations laid out are grounded in terms of God’s covenant. That is, they are covenantal.

Said differently, Paul is not giving parenting advice or tips about how to deal with kids or parents like you would find in the self-help section. Instead, he is unpacking how the truth of God being a covenant God who reaches out to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ provides a framework for being a child or being a parent. While this passage is detail-sparse in terms of what boots-on-the-ground parenting looks like, it is profound in giving us a guiding vision.

But there is more we can say than just that it is a guiding vision.

Parenting and covenants

Paul shows us that being a child and being a parent is framed within God’s covenant. We might say that there is an implicit covenant between child and parent where each party has obligations to the other. When each party fulfills those obligations, the result is harmonious and mutually beneficial.

Since I have mentioned “covenant” a few times, it is worth defining. Covenants are formal relationships characterized by faithfulness and loyalty in love. There is clearly no “formal” covenant in families. However, in the biblical view, family is strongly covenantal. There is a stronger and a weaker party (the parents and children, respectively), with obligations placed upon each party. The stronger—parents—is to act for the benefit of the children in areas like provision, wise instruction, discipline, and so forth. The primary response of the weaker party—the child/children—is respectful obedience. For a good description of family dynamics as portrayed in the OT and NT, see God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, 2nd ed., chapters 5-6).

Setting aside the fact that our relationships with children are often full of disharmony and antagonism (thank you sin), the aim is for harmony and mutual benefit. This view stands behind Psalm 127.4-6:

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, / the fruit of the womb a reward. / Like arrows in the hand of a warrior / are the children of one’s youth. / Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! / He shall not be put to shame / when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

This passage shows an ideal: harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships between the parents and kids. No one counts it as a blessing when parents and children are characterized by mutual antagonism, violence, distrust, or other negative relational markers. But when all is well, both parents and children are blessed from the covenantal relationship of the family.

Provoking to anger is a covenant relationship phrase

Why am I bothering to talk about covenants? Well, it turns out that “provoke to anger” is used almost exclusively in covenant contexts in the Septuagint.

The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament which is freely used, alluded to, and cited in the NT.

The word translated variously as “provoke to anger, etc.” (it’s παροργίζω, if you want to know) is used 57 times in the Septuagint. Far and away the most common context is that the Israelites provoke the Lord to wrath by their sin. It is also used of general relational violations. We might summarize its dominant usage as follows: being “provoked to anger” is a result of the other party in the covenant failing to live up to the terms of the covenant.

Consider a concrete example. God, the covenant maker, tells the Israelites, “You shall have no other gods before me.” When the Israelites worship other gods, what happens? God is provoked to anger. Why? Because they are violating the terms of the covenant. The expected behavior of the covenant partner is not kept (the Israelites are worshipping other gods). The result is that God is “provoked to anger.”

From the side of the people of Israel, if they keep the covenant faithfully, they expect God’s blessing. If God were to withhold his blessing from them, even when they were being faithful, then God would be “provoking them to anger.” Of course, this doesn’t happen. But it is illustrative. In a covenant, both parties have responsibilities towards each other. The bulk of the responsibilities rest on the stronger party.

This I think is the heart of “provoking to anger:” it has to do with violation of justly held expectations and rights. God is angry with the people because they have broken the covenant terms. Provoking to anger is accomplished through treating the other party wrong in the very arenas of life where they have just expectations to be treated right.

And one more thing to note. The core purpose behind the covenant is to facilitate a relationship between parties characterized by faithfulness and loyalty in love.[1]

Non-provoking parenting

This post is already too long, but I want to briefly sketch out where we are going in the next post. If being a parent is like part of a covenant, then we are to understand “provoking to anger” in a specific sense. Parents “provoke their children to anger” not whenever they do something that their kids get mad about, but when parents violate the terms of the parent/child “covenant.” Making your child finish their homework before going out with their friends may make them get mad, but, if done rightly, falls within the purview of parents teaching their children the wisdom necessary to thrive in this world. That is not provoking your child to anger in the sense of Ephesians 6.4.

With all the anger responses which parents so regularly receive from children, though, what can guide where we aim in thinking about our relationship with our children. After all, sinful parents raising sinful kids means there are lots of opportunities for things to get gummed up. What should we aim at?

To that, we will turn in the next post.

[1] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 54.

Screaming photo created by karlyukav –

The Resurrection of Lazarus and the Resurrection of Jesus

resurrection of lazarus

Here is my short message from the Easter Sunrise service. It is based in Ezekiel 37.1-3 and John 11.17-27.


In Ezekiel’s vision he saw a valley of dry bones. A valley of death. And God asked him,

“Son of man, can these bones live?”

Ezekiel answers,

“O Lord God, you know.”

The vision continues with God having Ezekiel prophecy over the bones, and they receive flesh. Then he prophecies to the wind, and they receive the breath of life.

Of course, in Ezekiel, the prophecy concerns the people of Israel, who are like a valley of dried bones. Lifeless. In the prophetic vision, God shows himself as one able even to raise the dead, to rebuild bodies that had crumbled away into dust.

But then what? After all, Israel had died once already, becoming like a valley of dried bones. Of what good is a resurrection if it does not actually escape death. Resurrecting a valley of dried bones allows them to take a vacation from death, but it seems like death is once again the final destination.

Indeed, more than a few people are brought back from death as recorded in the OT. There is the son of the widow whom Elisha raises to life again. Or the rather random story where a dead body was hastily thrown into the tomb of Elisha. When the corpse touched his bones, the man came back to life again.

But nothing changed. The widow’s son lived to die another day. Likewise, the unnamed man whose corpse had the fortune—or misfortune—of touching Elisha’s body and revivifying, also died again.

Resurrection from the dead, you see, doesn’t actually change anything. All alike proceed on to Sheol.


Consider now the resurrection of Lazarus. He is the last named of various people Jesus raised from the dead in his ministry: Jairus’ daughter and the son of the Widow of Nain being the other two we are told about. Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, was dead some four days, and Jesus called him back. Back to what? To life, yes. But what sort of life? What had really changed for Lazarus? About him?

While the idea of resurrection from the dead has a certain appeal to it, perhaps a fleeting glimpse of the immortality that people long for and hope for, in truth, the resurrection of Lazarus is a cruel trick, if that is all you have to offer. To bring someone back from the dead is of no great advantage if they only will die again.

Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches that he has come to bring eternal life. What does he mean by that somewhat enigmatic phrase? That existence will keep going on? That our hair will grow grayer forever, are aches multiply, and our memories dwindle? That, if one of his followers happens to die, he will raise them back to life again?

An eternity of resurrection unto dying again is an endless cycle of pain, not a deliverance. With Lazarus we see death set aside for a time, but only for a time. He travelled into death, was pulled out again, but there was only one place for him to go: back into the arms of death again.

The question posed to Ezekiel is “can these dry bones live?” The question posed by the resurrection of Lazarus is, “What sort of ‘resurrection and life’ is Jesus, anyway?  Is resurrection worth it?”


In John 11.25-26 Jesus says,

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

As Jesus stands before the dead man Lazarus, he does not just claim to be able to bring back life—as he has done before and is about to do again. Lazarus will come forth from the tomb. The dead man will walk out alive. But that is not all Jesus is talking about. He claims to be life. He is the resurrection and the life.

In the death of Jesus, Life is killed. The Resurrection is sent to the grave. And it appears that all hope is lost. It appeared that Death had finally triumphed. That God’s creation was doomed forevermore to Sheol. For if even “The Life” is sent to Death, then what hope is left?

If Death is the enemy, the lord over us, and Jesus is The Life, the question to be answered is whether Death is, in the end, stronger than Life. After all, bringing people back from the dead does not deliver them from Death. So long as nothing changes, death is the only destination to which all or going.

But on Easter morning, everything changed.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not a vacation from death, as the resurrections before him. The resurrection of Jesus is a tear in the fabric of reality through which a newer, more real reality shines through. Through that tear, a whole new creation steps in, bright and clean, into the drab and dusty confines of this present world. A life everlasting. The Life which is stronger than death and cannot be contained in Sheol.

In Jesus, The Life is not just called back from death—this is no “near death experience” or “15 minutes in heaven.” This is not even Lazarus, the dead man, called back to life. It is Life which has gone down into Death and emerged triumphant. Jesus, the undead, the deathless, the dead who is dead no more, wields power over Death, the great enemy.

In the resurrection of Jesus, we see what is to come. We find hope. Hope that life is not just a one-way trip to death. Hope that, yes, the dry bones can live again. They can live because Jesus has an invincible life. Is Life Everlasting. All who believe in him, though they die, will live. Because Jesus can go down into death with them and bring them through it into True Reality. The New Creation where death has no place because Jesus has conquered it, banished it, and all who stand in Jesus’ hands are forever outside the reach of death.

Jesus is resurrection. Jesus is life.

As he stepped out from that tomb, everything had changed. Where, o Death is your sting? Jesus has taken it, tasted all your poison, and yet has walked out of you, triumphant.

Jesus says, “all who believe in me, though they die, they will live.” Death, the former end of all things, has become merely a waypoint along the journey to Life Everlasting. The hope of the follower of Jesus is that death is merely a vacation from life as we journey on in the trail blazed by Jesus—the trail through death into life. The Resurrection has triumphed and turned Death into a great doorway to Life Everlasting.


The picture at the top is an oil painting, Andrey Mironov, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bible-reading second-handers

The truth about books: there are a lot of them

Recently I came across an old article from the early 2000s (well I guess it’s not that old) about reading and literacy rates. The author pointed to a certain Pierre Bayard who wrote a book entitled How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book 😊. Maybe someday. Right now, I am busy reading books that I aim to talk about. All joking aside, it’s a funny sounding title and the idea of it is a little funny, though in practice it is not that strange. Many readers are second-hand readers.

Due to the sheer volume of things which are written and have been written and will be written, no one can read more than an infinitesimally tiny percentage of what is written and what is relevant for their interest. It is estimated that somewhere greater than 2 million new books are published every year around the world. A very dedicated reader may get through 100 or so books in a year, maybe a few more. Good luck.

In the academic context where I have been living the last several years, it’s actually quite common to discuss works one has either not read at all or read only in small part. Each subject matter and discipline has a sub-discipline within it that is devoted simply to keeping track of the history of the area of study. Whether you read theology, biology, the history of UFO hunting, or what have you, a huge portion of one’s knowledge about their subject matter comes from summaries of other books (or summaries of summaries of summaries, etc.). There’s only so much time to read, and more to read than could ever be read.

Talking about the (multitudinous) books you haven’t read

And so, part of me empathizes strongly with the basic point of this book (which I haven’t read). One who is generally knowledgeable about history, about current cultural trends, and about life, can talk about all kinds of books they haven’t read, movies they haven’t seen, TV shows they haven’t seen, places they’ve never been to, and other life experiences they’ve never had. It’s a rather peculiar aspect of humanity. We can persuasively and convincingly talk about and even coach other people through things that we have no practical experience with.

Are we “bible-reading” second-handers?

Setting academia, or hobby reading, or book clubs, or even schoolwork aside, does the habit of discussing things we haven’t read or seen seep into the life of following Jesus?

The world of Christian book publishing churns out an astonishing number of books. And, to be more honest with the way we engage with text, we have to consider blogs (like this one), magazines, YouTube channels, movies, podcasts, cartoons, etc. There is an entire swarming ecosystem of stories, information, and studies which promise to help you understand the bible, help with your Christian walk, improve your love life, improve your relationships, lessen your stress, make you happy, etc.

I don’t want to sound dismissive of the Christian literary apparatus which helps us understand the Bible and the Christian life. I myself have drunk deeply from many springs in this apparatus. It would be the height of arrogance to suggest that we don’t need to read what others have written and thought and taught, but should just read the bible and figure it out on our own. Yet a question calls for pondering: Have we become bible-reading second-handers?

That is, do we always engage the bible through a screen of someone else’s writing. We read someone else’s study, someone else’s blog post, etc. The default assumption in the information economy is that an answer, if not the answer, is already out there and someone has already figured it out. All you need to do is search for it online and it will pop up within the first 10 Google results.

The problem which I see in all of this is not that we don’t learn—one can learn an immense amount of information through second-hand reading engagement (or watching videos, listening to podcasts, etc.). The problem is that second-hander knowledge tends to be less transformative than first-hander knowledge.

An Illustration

Here’s the difference. I ran track and field in high school. I was phenomenally not good at anything in it, but I did do it. In one track meet my junior year, my coach decided to throw me into the high jump.

Up till that point, I had never competed in, or really practiced, high jump. However, I did know the theory of how you high jump. I know the sort of approach you’re supposed to take, the way you plant your feet, the way you jump up, the way you arch your back over the bar, the way you kick your feet up over top of the bar, and then how to land in the high jump pit. I could teach someone how to high jump. I know how it’s supposed to be done.

On top of that, at the time I was about 6 feet tall and had a solid 2-foot vertical. Starting height to clear was 4’ 8”. Just standing next to the bar and jumping up I could theoretically have stepped over top of the bar. Thus, in theory, clearing starting height posed zero difficulty to my high jump abilities, as lacking as they were. And that was all I needed to do. Clear starting height, and in doing so I would win points for our track team.

Well, as I presume you’ve guessed at this point, I didn’t clear starting height. The fact that I knew how to do it, and that I had all the physical abilities necessary to do it, didn’t add up to being able to do it. There’s a void which between knowledge on the theoretical level and knowledge in the experiential level. The only way to know how to high jump is to spend time high jumping. The only way to gain a deep knowledge of how to cook is to spend time cooking.

The only way to gain a deep knowledge of scripture is to spend time reading and living scripture.

Final thought

Should we read and listen to the thoughts of others on Scripture and life? Absolutely. After all, that is part of what the church is for. However, we need to be aware of the phenomenon of second-hand reading/consuming. Knowing about something is quite different from knowing something. Learning by reading what others write, or listening to what others say, helps us learn about the Scriptures. That is good.

I can’t help but wonder, though, how much we miss in terms of vital knowledge of God and life when we habitually turn to the database of knowledge from others for answers rather than seeking them in prayer and study in the Scriptures themselves.

Praying for Ukraine

On Sunday I was given the outline of notes about ways to be praying for Ukraine. These came from an International Ministries discussion of some sort. Two missionary families we support through International Ministries, Jon and Amanda Good and Nora and Pieter Kalkman, were involved. There was an update of ways that ministry is happening around the Ukraine crisis. Knowing some of what ministry is going on gives guidance for more specific prayers. Here are some things going on and ways to be praying:

  • Baptist churches are helping refugees with shelter and food
    • Pray for strength for those hosting and resources to use in helping
    • Pray that God’s Spirit would give the workers power
  • Pray for God’s wisdom and direction for those on the front line in seeking to help an overwhelming crisis
  • Pray for peace in Ukraine
  • Pray for peace in the hearts of people who are fleeing and people who are helping the refugees

As you pray, if you feel so led, International Ministries is one way that you can give financial support to help our missionaries and the churches they support to do work in this time of crisis. To learn more about International Ministries or to give, visit

Do you want eternal life…or the Kingdom of God?

There are two types of Gospels. We call the first type the Synoptic Gospels. The Synoptic Gospels are Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Synoptic means something like “looking with.” We call these three the Synoptics because they look at Jesus in a similar way. This leaves the Gospel of John as the other Gospel.

In fact, only about 8% of the Gospel of John overlaps with the Synoptic Gospels. The chronology is different, the few events are different order, and the style of Jesus’ ministry is different. Rather than showing Jesus performing many miracles like in the Synoptics, John focuses in on 7. Rather than short teachings grouped together with stories, John is mainly comprised of long discourses of Jesus, often in ongoing discussion with Jewish religious leaders.

One difference of interest: eternal life.

Kingdom of God vs. Eternal Life

Matthew, Mark, and Luke characterize Jesus as teaching about the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven, in Matthew). The summary statement of his ministry is “repent, for the Kingdom is at hand” (Matt 4.17 and parallels).

In John, by contrast, Jesus regularly speaks about eternal life.

What are we to make of this? Did Jesus have two different ministries? Why are John and the Synoptics so different from each other on this point?

Two sides of the same coin

Before answering this, consider for a moment the following two statements:

  1. I am a Christian.
  2. I am a follower of Jesus.

What is the difference between these two? While the language is distinct and they certainly have different emphases, they are basically equivalent. I prefer the second expression to the first because I think the identity “Christian” has too much cultural baggage associated with it to be useful in many contexts. But, both expressions are essentially synonymous.

I contend that this is what we see in kingdom of God and eternal life in the Synoptics and John. Two different ways of expressing the same basic idea. And ways that would make sense to different sorts of people.

Kingdom of God and eternal life in the same context

Consider John chapter 3. In John 3.3 and 5, Jesus is talking with Nicodemus about entering the Kingdom of God:

3.3 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.

3.5 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God

All well and good. This sounds like Jesus from the Synoptics. But note that as the conversation continues, suddenly the topic changes. In John 3.14-16 we read:

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

In this one conversation Jesus and Nicodemus move from discussing entering the Kingdom of God to having eternal life without any obvious break in the discussion. This suggests that these two phrases represent the same basic idea.

This suggestion is confirmed in Mark 9.42-10.31 where we again see kingdom of God and eternal life occurring in close connection.

Mark 9.47: And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell

Then again, the Rich Young Ruler comes and asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10.17). In the follow up discussion Jesus has with his disciples, he tells them,

“29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”

In between those two mentions of eternal life, Jesus says this:

23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!

The takeaway? The Kingdom of God and eternal life are two different ways of talking about the same central reality.

The Kingdom of Life, the eternal kingdom

There are a couple benefits from recognizing that “kingdom of God” and “eternal life” are similar concepts.

First, it helps us to see that although the Gospels are different from each other in a variety of ways, some of the differences are more cosmetic than actual. It appears that John, in writing his Gospel, used the “preacher’s prerogative” to shape his message to his audience. The language of eternal life requires less Jewish and OT background to understand what it means as part of God’s plan.

Second, it reminds us that the language and concepts we have for understanding humanity and God and the relationship we are created to have through Jesus is flexible. We are not stuck with just one idea.

Growing up, I don’t remember hearing much Kingdom of God theology, but lots about eternal life. I personally find “kingdom of God” more evocative and prefer that. Both are right ways to understand truths about what it means to follow Jesus. They bring distinct nuances.

As we think about our personal lives and about explaining and living gospel truths before others in our lives, it can pay to be flexible. We have more than one set of conceptual tools in our toolbox for understanding how we, and other people in our lives, are meant to relate to God in this life and in the life to come.

Covid ministry reset

The “reset” wish

One common wishful dream busy people have is to be able to stop everything. Stop all the ongoing projects. Stop all the demands and the work and the pressures of life. To stop it all, and to relax. And even more than relax, we just want time to think about what we are doing and why. We just want a little bit of time to think and reflect and strategize about what we really want to be doing, how we want to be spending our time, where we’re putting our effort in life.

Churches have these same sorts of pressure. Churches, like any organization, have incredible amounts of inertia. Projects, programs, and patterns all just keep going because they have been going and because it takes more effort to stop them than to keep them going.

Inertia: projects, programs, and patterns

Organizational inertia explains the all-too common experience in churches where the on-going projects, programs, and patterns don’t fit the church we are anymore, but we have to keep doing them. Whether to keep the traditions, to keep the bylaws, or just to keep with the familiar, we keep on keeping on. Doubtless, there is some time in the past when God used and blessed the projects, programs, and patterns we are now doing. All the more reason to keep doing them. We expect that blessing to return.

I suspect the biggest reason why we keep doing the things we’re doing is because it takes more effort to change than it does to keep doing them. Change requires thought and effort and planning. And a good deal of risk. On any given week, we are already using up most of our thoughts and efforts and planning just keeping the projects, programs, and patterns going.

It is not bad or wrong to keep doing what we have been doing. But, if we have options and opportunities to think about it and change, it might be worth exploring.

The COVID reset

I suggest that churches in general, and FBC in particular, are currently going through the sort of reset which many of us so often long for in our personal lives. Thank you COVID. Or maybe, thank you God? Of course, the COVID pandemic hasn’t been (and still isn’t) full of leisure time to think and reflect. Mostly we were scrambling around trying to figure things out on the fly. But here we are. We’ve come through a year and a half, two years, of change.

As the COVID pandemic and the various restrictions that it has placed on corporate worship come to an end (Lord willing), what benefit is there in it? Does coming out of the COVID pandemic mean a return to business as usual?

Ministry as usual?

Business as usual isn’t wrong. But it also may not be right. Now seems like an ideal time for us to consider in both our corporate and personal lives whether business as usual from two years ago is worth going back to. Perhaps the last two years have showed us some new things, taught us some new values, and prepared us for different ways of living and doing ministry.

There’s certainly no virtue in changing and destroying things just because. But there’s also no virtue in continuing to do things the same old way just because. Maybe now is a good time to challenge our imaginations about what faithfulness as a church looks like in the world we live in now, not the world we lived in before.

For our sanity and for consistency, we need to come to a new business as usual. However, that doesn’t mean we need to have the same old business as usual. The COVID pandemic can be the opportunity we’ve needed for years—maybe not wanted, but needed—to prompt some introspection. In no particular order, here are some questions I have been prayerfully considering:

  • Why do we do what we do?
  • What are we trying to accomplish as a church, anyway?
  • What could we do?
  • What should we do?
  • Why should we do it?
  • How are we involved in discipleship?
  • How are we thinking about the community that we’re serving in?
  • What is the purpose of gathering together on Sunday for worship?
  • What would be an ideal way to reach strengthen and equip people in our churches?

Seizing the reset

These questions, and many more, are worth asking. As business as usual becomes the norm again, it would be a shame if we passed up this opportunity we have been forced to have for the past two years. In this time, we have a God granted opportunity to ask ourselves if the business as usual we crave to return to is the business as usual that Jesus the Lord wants us to be doing.

What is a good interpretation of Scripture?

2x2 grid of accuracy and effectiveness

A common question which arises in Bible study is: what is the right interpretation of the Bible? Dealing with parables at church recently provides a germane point to address this question. What is the “right interpretation”? And, if I did not understand the text the “right” way, does that mean I am “wrong”?

Followers of Jesus find in the Bible the words of God, the words of life. So we put a premium on understanding them rightly. The more time and effort we spend with these words, the more they impact our thinking and actions. It makes sense to be concerned with “right” and “wrong” interpretations.

Interpretation in a different light

I want to introduce the category of “good” and “bad” rather than “right” and “wrong.” While these two sets of categories share a lot in common, “good” and “bad” is a more flexible taxonomy. One of the benefits of thinking about interpretations as “good” or “bad” is that we can think about interpretations on a sliding scale.

Consider the following illustration for a minute.

2x2 grid of accuracy and effectiveness

This typology of interpretations is simple. A lot could be said about it and about the thoughts behind it, but here I will offer just a few short comments. This 2×2 grid helps us think about the value of an interpretation.

On this 2×2, there are two parameters: accuracy and effectiveness. The obvious goal is for my interpretation to be both accurate and effective. Let’s briefly consider how this chart orients us to biblical interpretation.


By accuracy, I mean that the interpretation is plausible within the cultural, language, historical, literary, and theological context of the biblical passage.

One of my friends in high school cross country would chant Philippians 4.13 to himself all the time while running: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” While this verse is inspiring to cross country runners, dieters, and people changing habits the world over, those are all “inaccurate” interpretations of the text. In literary and theological context, Paul is not talking about being able to do “anything” through Jesus’ strength—like run a long way or loose weight—but about being able to bear up in his ministry in whatever situations he is in. This is a more accurate interpretation of Phil. 4.13 than as a promise that you can run a marathon, loose 20 pounds, or get up the courage to ask your boss for a raise.

The parameter of accuracy is the realm of interpretation associated most closely with academic work on the Bible: commentaries, original language study, literary analysis, historical backgrounds, and so forth. This aspect of Bible interpretation focuses on developing a more plausible understanding of any given passage.

Accuracy is important. But, accuracy is only part of the equation of good Bible interpretation. The second main component I call “effectiveness.”


While accuracy is a part of any good attempt at reading and understanding communication, the parameter of effectiveness deals more closely with the nature of Scripture. God’s word is meant to be heard and to transform the hearer. St. Augustine of Hippo hit upon a helpful way to communicate what effectiveness in biblical interpretation entails. He writes:

“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”

The basic insight is this: God has an intention for his communication in Scripture. God reveals himself with the intention of changing people who hear him. We are to grow in love for God and grow in love for neighbor. Augustine reasons that a good interpretation of Scripture is one that results in growing love for God and love for neighbor. After all, since that is the goal of God’s self-disclosure, it should be the result of rightly understanding it.

So what is a good interpretation?

This 2×2 graphic highlights the way the parameters of accuracy and effectiveness interact. The worst sort of interpretation is one that is neither accurate nor leads to growth in love for God and love of neighbor. An accurate but ineffective interpretation is better in that it at least understands the message of the text, even if the understanding does not result in any change.

I suggest that an inaccurate understanding of the text which results in effective life change in loving God and loving neighbor is better than an accurate but ineffective reading. Why? Because it grasps the big intention behind Scripture, even if it misses the details.

The best understanding is one that is both accurate and effective. One that both engages with and understands the message of the text in a plausible way and which directs the reader to deeper love of God and love of neighbor.

Hearing God in his word is meant to be transformative. There is much to commend in the saying—heard in many different forms and on many different lips—that the most important interpretation of Scripture is the one that you live. Accuracy safeguards the direction of our living and effectiveness refers to the motion in our lives toward God and toward others.

The guests at the parable of the banquet, part 2

undesired guests at the party

In part 1 of this two-part post we revisited the Old Testament (OT), with a special focus on the difference between sin (narrower category) and impurity (broader category). Now we will take this background and use it to enlighten what is going on in Jesus’ parable of the banquet as found in Luke 14.

What does Jesus do?

With this paradigm of purity, we have a different set of concepts for thinking about the significance of what Jesus did in his ministry.

Let’s briefly remind ourselves of how the parable works. In Jesus’ story, the invited guests miss out on the feast because they don’t respond when it is ready. In anger, the feast-giver has his servants go out and bring in the “poor and crippled and blind and lame” to share in the feast.

This guest list is what triggers a connection back to the passage in Lev 21. When we read the parable as a transparent description of the question, “who will be at the feast celebrating God’s fulfilling of his joyous promises,” we find that the people there are the very ones excluded from access to the holy in the priestly service. This is surprising: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Access to the holy is reworked in line with Jesus and his work, which shares both continuity and discontinuity with the Law from the OT.

This passage is by no means the only place such an emphasis appears in the Gospels. In fact, it is something of a theme running through Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Jesus’ Table Fellowship

Jesus shared regular table fellowship with “sinners” and other social outsiders. This is part of where he got his reputation of being a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

In the ancient world, who you ate with had significant implications. Sharing a meal in someone’s house meant social acceptance of the other people with whom you were dining. One author notes:

“a scrupulous Pharisee would not eat at the home of a common Israelite since he could not be sure that the food was ceremonially clean or that it had been properly tithed”

Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus: An Introduction to Jesus and the Gospels, 477.

Here we are with purity again. To remain ritually pure, and thus have symbolic access to the holy, required careful obedience. Since they could not control whether their host was doing the right things with their food, pious religious types only shared meals with others who were also pious on whom they could count to not bring impurity upon them through a failure to have ceremonially clean food.

Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners sets this view on its head. In fellowship with sinners Jesus was, of course, opening himself up to ceremonial impurity. What differed, though, is that Jesus came to bring access to God on a different plane. The coming Kingdom of God means free salvation to all who respond in faith. One might say that it brings open access to the holy that is no longer dependent on how pure/impure the individual is in their obedience to the Law. Jesus is able to “give purity” rather than to be defiled when he comes in contact with the impure. We see this, for example, in the way that Jesus heals people of skin diseases and raises the dead without ever becoming impure. Since Jesus has a super-abundance of purity, he is able to give it to all who will follow him. Therefore all alike, regardless of personal purity, are able to have access to the divine, that is, to God.

The Kingdom of God as restoration

One other point is worth brief mention here. On the guest list in Jesus’ parable are the blind and crippled. As pointed out in part 1, being blind and crippled was not in itself sinful. Though it results in being unclean for priestly work, it was not sin. However, during Jesus’ day we see evidence that thinking had developed linking physical ailments with sin. Consider the man born blind from John 9. The disciples ask Jesus,

“who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The association is that the state of being blind—though not inherently sinful—was punishment for sin. Of course, there is precedent for this way of thinking in the OT, but the record is complicated. For example, Job was stricken with various ailments, but that was not related to sin. But King Uzziah was struck with leprosy (some sort of skin condition, which may or may not have been what we now consider leprosy) for transgressing his boundaries and approaching the holy even though he was not a priest authorized to do so (2 Chronicles 26). While the precedents are mixed it is easy to see how people would take God’s promises to bless and curse the nation based on its sin and individualize that (see Deut 28, for example). If God brings punishment such as plagues, difficulties in childbirth, etc. for the sin of people groups, then the sin of individuals must also be expressed in their physical circumstances in life.

This line of thinking provides a second helpful background for understanding Jesus’ ministry and the import of the parable. Jesus regularly healed people with physical ailments: blind, lame, crippled hands, etc. These were people whose physical circumstances would have (in the case they were from the tribe of Levi) rendered them unfit for access to the holy in priestly duty. They were also hindrances to participation in community life. They were also interpreted as symbols of God’s judgment for sin. Taken together, the blind, lame, and crippled were symbolic of the downtrodden and outsiders who neither had access to the goods of society nor access to the holy.

Jesus comes with a ministry of healing and restoration. Quoting from Isaiah, he describes his ministry as follows:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4.18-19, ESV)

One of the ways in which Jesus demonstrated the Kingdom of God as restoration was in fellowshipping with and healing people whose physical infirmities placed them in various states of impurity, thus excluded from access to God, thus excluded from the expected blessings which God promised.

Tying it all together

Thinking about the parable of the banquet, we find that there is a multiplex of significance in the composition of the guests who end up at the banquet. More could be said on this front, as we have ignored the last stage in the parable where the servants go out to the hedges and highways to bring people in. The concept of purity turns out to be a helpful OT background for understanding why Jesus uses these categories as those who make it to the banquet.

The infirm map well onto the categories of priests who could not carry out temple work because their physical infirmities rendered them of insufficient purity to approach the holiness of God’s presence. The further theological implication that physical infirmity was tied up with sin added greater depth to the notion of people being impure. Jesus presents the very group assumed to be unworthy to enter into God’s presence as the one which gets to enjoy the joyous fulfillment of God’s promises to his people.

In Jesus’ parable, as well as in his ministry, he laid an example that access to the holy was being redefined in surprising ways. That is a call which we must never tire of hearing. In Jesus’ day, people who were certain that their approach to life was the one which led to access to the holy struggled with Jesus’ ministry. Jesus challenged them and pointed to a different way, as hinted at and promised in the OT—a way of faith and a way of God’s own making. Lest we be guilty of the same struggle, we must ourselves be aware of the human tendency to limit the path of access to God in ways that God doesn’t. We have a tendency to mix standards of our own behaviors and expectations in. We end up saying something like, “in order to come to God you have to do x, y, and z.” It is no coincidence that the steps we add tend to map onto the way that we live life.

Jesus is no more impressed by Christian versions of an “access to God through following prescribed purity codes” than he was of those of his day. While purity and holiness were and always will be important, Jesus challenges us to check where our hearts are at, because they can all too easily miss being at the place where God’s heart is at.

The guests at the parable of the banquet, part 1

undesired guests at the party

What on earth does having damaged testicles have to do with the message of the Kingdom of God? Or for that matter, running sores, being a hunchback, or having an eye defect? Perhaps you thought about this as we looked at the parable of the banquet from the Gospel of Luke.  Someone raised the question last week after the service about what connection the passage read from Leviticus has to the Parable of the Banquet in Luke. Here are some thoughts on this question.

These questions are raised from Leviticus 21.17-23. I suggest that this passage shows an important backdrop to understanding the profound nature of what Jesus came to do, did, and is still doing today. It fits within a larger pattern in Jesus’ ministry of sharing table fellowship with sinners and social outsiders. But it takes a little to work our way back into understanding how these hold together.

The place to start: Old Testament (OT) purity laws.

To avoid an over-lengthy post, I am splitting this discussion up into 2 parts. Part 2 can be accessed here.

OT purity

These OT purity laws are really important to help understand how novel, surprising, and meaningful Jesus’ actions of dining with the sinners were. To start with, here is the Leviticus text (21:17-23):

16 The Lord said to Moses, 17 “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. 18 No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; 19 no man with a crippled foot or hand, 20 or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the Lord. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. 22 He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; 23 yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the Lord, who makes them holy.’”

At issue in this text is the priests. No man in the priestly family with one of these defects could bring sacrifices in the the tabernacle or temple. While they could eat the food set aside for the priests, they did not get to serve in the temple. Why? Is God prejudiced against handicapped people or people who happened to receive a major injury at some point in their life?

While that may stand out as a reason, the explanation lies deeper than just “you look bad, so I don’t want to see you.”

Orienting ourselves to the Law

When Christians talk about the OT Law, we tend to talk about it in terms of sin. The Law prohibits certain things, breaking the Law is sinning, and Jesus is the savior from sin that God provides. This is all well and good, as far as it goes, but it is far from a complete picture. In the NT, the Law often is talked about in terms of sin, but the category of sin does not exhaust what the Law deals with. In fact, a lot of the laws in the Exodus-Deuteronomy chunk of Scripture do not deal with sin, but what would better be described as purity and impurity (or clean/unclean).

Consider this following brief description:

“On the basis of Levitical law, everything in life was either holy or common for the Hebrews. Those things determined common were subdivided into categories of clean and unclean. Clean things might become holy through sanctification or unclean through pollution. Holy things could be profaned and become common or even unclean. Unclean things could be cleansed and then consecrated or sanctified to be made holy.”

Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 3rd ed, 132.

Sin is only one way for a “common” or “holy” thing to become unclean. Disease, infection, contamination, etc. were other ways. There is an underlying logic standing behind laws about mildew in walls and on garments as well as laws on impurity caused by menstruation and ejaculation. They are not sin issues; rather, they are issues of clean/unclean. While an obvious and satisfactory reason uniting all the different purity laws is evasive, there are some major trends which run through them. Two of these are (1) life and death and (2) order/disorder.

Life and death

First, purity laws often relate to the categories of life and death. Semen and menstrual blood relate to the production of life, and thus result in being unclean, while sweat and breast milk do not, thus do not result in being unclean.  

Order and Disorder

Second, the concept of order and disorder stands behind such laws as dealing with mildew in a house or on fabric as well as laws about physical impediments.

Why bother with all this clean/unclean stuff?

Purity as access to the sacred

In short, purity and impurity have to do with access to the sacred. In practice, this means someone who was not clean could not go into the tabernacle or temple. The closer one came to the temple, the greater the purity requirements. For the average Israelite, maintaining a generic state of purity would probably not have been that difficult. Think more like the effort required to keep up with the rules in a Homeowners Association than the sort of herculean effort people often make keeping the Law out to be. While the rules for the HOA may look and sound onerous on the outside, when everyone around you is doing it to, it is just the way things are. For the Israelite, life was arranged to keep general purity and to deal with impurity when it came up.

However, purity/impurity was a constant factor in access to God. As God dwelt symbolically among his people in the tabernacle and then the temple, there was a geographical place at the center of relationship to God. Of course, people learned about, followed, and worshiped God more than just at the temple. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that attendance at the temple was a regular feature for most Israelites in their lives at any point in its history. But, the center point was a place. And to get to that place required ritual purity because only the pure could enter into the presence of the holy.

The priests are special

The passage in Leviticus cited above is about the priests. The priests have a special set of guidelines, because they have a special relationship to the holy. While an ordinary Israelite could maintain generic purity without too much effort, priests required a greater level of purity because their role kept them in more constant contact with the holy. And this higher stringency is reflected in the laws regarding physical health among priests.

There is nothing sinful about having a skin disease, or a hunchback, or even damaged testicles. Members of the priestly families with these health conditions and/or handicaps and/or injuries were not excluded from priestly service because they were sinful, but because they fell short of the requisite purity for their job. This sort of purity seems to operate under the logic of functionality and orderliness. An orderly and functional human body does not have a hunchback; thus a hunchback is a departure from the norm, thus unclean for the purpose of priestly work.

One might think of it this way. Physical handicaps and broken bodies are embodied representations of the marring effect of human rebellion against God. To have a physical handicap or injury or ailment is not itself sinful, but it is a lived-with mark that the world is broken. To approach God as a priest required a level of purity which did not allow bringing broken bodies into the service. That sounds harsh to us (even though in our society we tend to de facto segregate people with handicaps and physical ailments aside anyway), but that is the logic at work in the OT Law.

Summary on purity and the law

While the Law does deal with sin and morality, this is just one category within the broader paradigm of pure/impure, clean/unclean. A lot of the violations which render one unclean are not moral/sinful, they are just pure/impure. However, the very existence of purity and impurity is an embodied reminder that access to the holy—access to God—is ruptured. Adam and Eve, we are told, had access to God in the Garden of Eden. They talked with him, and it is implied that they regularly had interaction with him, in whatever form that would have taken. For everyone after the rebellion against God, we live in a constant state in which our access to God is (mercifully) cut off because if we were to come into contact with the holy in our impure state, we would die. The Law, among many other things, provides the means to stay pure/clean to a proficient degree in order that the people of Israel could bear God’s name and have him in their presence. Even this generic level of purity, though, is not sufficient to gain access to God. For that, people are too impure.

This paradigm of purity serves as a key background for understanding Jesus’ ministry. To that, we turn now in part 2.