Why Parables?? (Devotional on Matthew 13:10-17)

Matthew 13 focuses primarily on Jesus teaching the people through the use of parables. A total of four parables are presented in this chapter. However, right in the middle of this section, there is a small excursus on why Jesus uses parables at all (vv.10-17). In simplest terms, Jesus says that he uses parables to fulfill the prophecy from Isaiah “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise, they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.”


This explanation, when taken in isolation, feels callous. It paints Jesus as someone intentionally trying to hide his message. As someone seemingly trying to mislead people. However, I do not believe this is the intent of this explanation or of Jesus’ fondness of parables in the first place. At the most basic level, what is a parable? It is a morality tale. It is a story told to impart a message of right and wrong or of good and evil. Perhaps, the best analogous modern example are fairy-tales and fables. What does the story of the tortoise and the hare tell us? That pride can be the downfall of the powerful. What about Hansel and Gretel? That greed and gluttony will harm you in the end.


Stories like these are how we take hard to understand and high concept ideas and make them more palatable for children. I believe that Jesus is doing the same thing with his use of parables. He is taking concepts that might be difficult to understand and putting them in terms and situations that virtually everyone around him could understand. He is making it as easy as possible for people to hear and understand his message.


With this idea in mind, then his explanation of why he uses parables shifts slightly. Now, his use of parables does not come off as an attempt to confuse people into ‘hearing but never understanding’ but rather as an earnest attempt to make his message easy to grasp. By using parables,  Jesus is trying to cast as wide a net as possible, to help as many people as possible understand his message of salvation. This understanding then puts the Isaiah quote in a different context. It becomes less a stance on Jesus gatekeeping and more a disheartened plea for people to just simply open up their hearts and hear the words that Jesus is saying.


Jesus uses parables to give us as much information as possible, in a way we can most easily understand. It is Jesus taking the theologically rich topics of salvation, faith, atonement, and divine judgment and framing them so that they make sense and are easy to remember. It is Jesus’ way of making sure that as few people as possible fall into the camp of those who ‘hear but never perceive.’ 


Answering the Call

Luke 2 beautifully tells of what we call the Christmas story. I love this passage. And it doesn’t seem like Christmas until we have heard this passage recited by Linus on Charlie Brown’s Christmas.

But today, let’s zoom in on something specific within this passage. Take a look at verse 15. When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

The shepherds who maintained a humble posture and kept their hearts open regardless of their lowly circumstances, received the first birth announcement of the long-awaited Savior, the Messiah!

And when the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger.

The Shepherds didn’t hesitate, and they immediately and obediently went. They heard a message from God. They received the message from God. And they acted on that message from God!

The supernatural angelic concert had concluded. The singers had disappeared in the deep silence from where they had come. The shepherds, gathering up their scattered thoughts, said one to another (as if their hearts were speaking all at once and all in unison), “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” The response was immediate! They do not shut out this heavenly truth by doubt and vain questioning. And neither do they keep it at a distance. No, they yield themselves up to it completely and entirely. And we have to wonder, as they immediately made their way to Bethlehem, in the quick step and in the rapid beating of their hearts, could one trace the vibrations of the angel-song? These shepherds are ready with such a perfect acceptance. Their hearts are practically leaping forward to meet and embrace this Gospel, and the Son of the God of the angels.

Do we have the same obedience to the extraordinary call that God calls us to? Do we expect to hear from God regularly? Even Frequently?  Do we have the courage to seek and expect the extraordinary?

May we find within us hearts like shepherds and voices like angels.  May we surrender to the beauty and glory of God born in a manger.  See how God loves us!


Move up a Conversational Gear

At RiverTree, when we speak of conversational gears, we are speaking to 4 different dimensions of conversation. 1.) Casual, 2.) Meaningful, 3.) Spiritual, 4.) Salvation.

As we get to know people, moving up conversational gears happens naturally. When you meet someone for the first time, your conversation typically revolves around what you have in common. The place at which you are in attendance, or maybe the organization that you are involved with, the job, the school, the project, etc. As you see this person regularly, you get to know them. You talk about your personal lives. You ask them non intimidating questions about their family, or pets, or other interests. And once we have a personal relationship with someone, when they know that we are a safe person and that we genuinely care, we can ask them spiritual questions.

 This often happens as we get to know them personally; we can talk about how we managed through a crisis or a particularly difficult time by talking about how it was through prayer and God’s strength that we got through. We can ask if they have ever experienced anything like that.

We don’t have to go overboard with starting “Jesus conversations”. These conversations really do happen naturally. However, we do have to be intentional. And we can’t chicken out when that moment occurs. And guess what, you can still do this even if you feel uncomfortable having “spiritual conversations”.  It’s ok. Read the latter half of the New Testament, even Paul had some anxiety about sharing spiritual truths.

I invite you to pray about this. Ask God to bring about the people that you are to speak with. And ask God for strength and courage in the moment. We have the Holy Spirt to guide and direct us. Rely on that power!

So, my question for you is, who are you having conversations with? And how can you move it up a gear? What is your next step?

Consider these words from 2 Corinthians 5:11-21:

Because we stand in awe of the one true Lord, we make it our aim to convince all people of the truth of the gospel; God sees who we really are, and I hope in some way that you’ll look deeply into your consciences to see us as well. But we hope you understand that we are not trying to prove ourselves to you or pull together a résumé that will impress you. We are simply hoping that you will find a sense of joy in connecting with us. And when you are approached by others (who may value appearances more than the heart) asking questions about us, you will be able to offer an answer for them. If we seem out of control or act like fanatics, it is for God. But if we act in a coherent and reasonable way, it is for you. You see, the controlling force in our lives is the love of the Anointed One. And our confession is this: One died for all; therefore, all have died. He died for us so that we will all live, not for ourselves, but for Him who died and rose from the dead. Because of all that God has done, we now have a new perspective. We used to show regard for people based on worldly standards and interests. No longer. We used to think of the Anointed the same way. No longer. Therefore, if anyone is united with the Anointed One, that person is a new creation. The old life is gone—and see—a new life has begun! All of this is a gift from our Creator God, who has pursued us and brought us into a restored and healthy relationship with Him through the Anointed. And He has given us the same mission, the ministry of reconciliation, to bring others back to Him. It is central to our good news that God was in the Anointed making things right between Himself and the world. This means He does not hold their sins against them. But it also means He charges us to proclaim the message that heals and restores our broken relationships with God and each other.

 So we are now representatives of the Anointed One, the Liberating King; God has given us a charge to carry through our lives—urging all people on behalf of the Anointed to become reconciled to the Creator God. He orchestrated this: the Anointed One, who had never experienced sin, became sin for us so that in Him we might embody the very righteousness of God



Connecting with God through the Prayer of Examen

For the next few blog posts, we are going to be talking about and reflecting on the 7 habits of plugged-in people that we introduced a few weeks ago. The first one we are going to be going over is “seeking Jesus Daily.” This is our only challenge on the ‘UP’ avenue of relationship (the relationship between us and God). This goal is extremely vague. While some might find that to be frustrating, it is intentional on our part. We want to make sure that everyone can achieve this goal/challenge. Someone who has not really developed a pattern of spending time with Jesus daily will approach this very differently than someone who already prays and reads the Bible for 60 minutes a day.

One thing I have incorporated into my daily routine is something called the Prayer of Examen. The basic idea is that you set aside time to reflect on your day (examen it) and see how Jesus and the Holy Spirit worked in you that day. There are lots of ways you can do this. Some people run through their day like a movie and look for one thing that gave them life (a highlight) and something that did not give life (a low-light). Other people think about all of the interactions they had with people and try to see ways the Holy Spirit was nudging them and reflecting on if they responded to that nudge or not. There are larger and more expansive ways to do the Prayer of Examen. My Alma mater Fuller Theological Seminary has a video walking through a 20ish version. You can check it out HERE (https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/prayer-of-examen).

Personally, I do some combination of all of the above. I start with 3-4 minutes of reflecting on the day looking for highlights and low-lights, then I use those moments as springboards for seeing how I was responding the Holy Spirit and how I could be more responsive in the coming days. I find it a great way of growing in my relationship and closeness with the Holy Spirit.

If you are looking for something new to try and expand the way you ‘Seek Jesus Daily’, give the Prayer of Examen a try. It is simple and can be made to fit your personality or needs. But this is just one example of the endless ways you can connect with Jesus every day. Try something new, rediscover a forgotten spiritual habit, double down on something you are currently doing. The choice is yours! If you are looking for something to try, please reach out. We have lots of different resources (books, apps, techniques, disciplines) that we would love to share with you. In the end, the only thing that matters with this goal is that you grow in your relationship with Jesus and grow closer to your Savior!


The Graveyard of Sin


  If a pastor preached in a graveyard, what would happen? What? What kind of a question is that, you may be thinking. But seriously think…what would happen if a pastor preached the Gospel in a graveyard? The obvious answer is nothing. Dead people cannot do anything, so they could not respond to a sermon. Again, you may be thinking, what does this have to do with anything. I merely want to use this common analogy to describe the state of our own souls before Christ comes in and rescues us from our spiritual deadness. Because when we understand the depth of our depravity can we explode in worship for the gift of salvation and regeneration.

   Throughout the Bible, we get a pretty clear picture of our total moral depravity. Psalm 51:5 reminds us that we are sinful at birth: Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Paul, speaking to believers, illustrates in Titus 3:3 the Christian life before Christ: For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. Romans 3:11-12 describes our unrighteousness and our refusal to seek God: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. I believe Ephesians 2:1-3 sums all of this up well: And you were dead in the trepasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 

   Those Scripture passages provide a good summary of the picture the Bible paints of the unsaved soul. So we may be physically alive, breathing and moving, but in regards to spiritual things and the things of God, we are dead and unresponsive. In our natural state, we don’t seek God; in fact, we run away from Him and His perfection. Our unregenerate heart does not love God; it does not want God. The unsaved soul does not, indeed cannot, delight in God’s holiness; the mind is set on the flesh and does not submit to God and His ways. Theologians use the word total depravity to describe how this sinfulness and falleness affects every aspect of human life. Now, a person will not commit every wicked thing under the sun or sin as much as they possibly could. Total depravity rather means that ever since the fall in the garden our human nature is completely and totally against God. After Adam and Eve sinned against God in the garden, humans are incapable of not sinning. Our natural bent is to do that which does not please God.

   Wow, that’s a very hopeless picture. But understanding the seriousness of our spiritual disease should make us run to our great physician. Jesus’ death on the cross and his sovereign saving grace is our only hope of coming to God because we don’t want God…we don’t seek after Him…we are children of His wrath. How does God rescue us from this and change our desires? 

   It is God’s sovereign grace alone that saves us from our sinful state. He takes our unresponsive heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh that loves Him. He mercifully regenerates us and gives us faith in Jesus. So, our morally hard hearts, darkened by sin, through the grace of God, become alive in respect to the things of God. This is good news because we do not deserve it and can do absolutely nothing to earn this gift. It is by this sovereign grace that we are saved through faith. He regenerates our dead hearts. Regeneration is a monergistic work, which basically means it is all God’s doing; it’s all His initiative. His regenerative grace is given freely with no mixture of human merit. Isn’t that amazing! And that’s just skimming the surface of everything God gives us through salvation! He has eternally loved us and chosen us so that we are no longer children of wrath but rather his own children. 

   I hope we can see how amazing this transformation is! Our sin requires a Savior. And Jesus through His death on the cross serves as God’s life changing, saving instrument. He takes us from our graveyard of sin and gives us everlasting life. Doesn’t this cause your heart to explode in worship! When we hear sermons and hear the Gospel we can respond with rejoicing because we have been forever changed by our omnipotent God. 


The King is on His Throne


“God is on the throne. No one is kicking Him off. And you can trust Him.” This is something I heard my theology professor say multiple times. And what an encouraging phrase it is! Jesus is in control and we can rest in His sovereignty. But, I know we live in a challenging time and it is hard to put that truth into practice. Sadly, we are tempted to seek encouragement and comfort from many sources. But, when we hear about God’s wonderful nature and His incredible power and immerse ourselves in Biblical truth, we find the encouragement we need. 

    Revelation 1:4-8 says: John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.  Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him. Even so. Amen.“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

   In the Bible, John, through the Holy Spirit, begins his words in the book of Revelation by encouraging believers not to succumb to fear in the midst of the challenges and hardships they were facing. And what encourages the soul more than turning our gaze upon God and learning about His character. Who God is and what He has accomplished on our behalf helps to give us a redirected perspective from our problems to the Lamb who has overcome. 

     So, John starts out his letter by greeting his recipients, the seven churches of Asia. Mentioning seven churches is symbolic; the number seven is really a way to indicate completeness, wholeness, and perfection. So, all churches, all believers throughout history benefit from this encouraging message. Then, John turns His attention to God’s nature, and in doing so proclaims the saving work of the Trinity. He starts with God the Father, the God who is and who was and who is to come. This statement reminds us that God is eternal. He rules over all of time, past, present, and future. Nothing is outside His realm. He is not bound by time or history; He is sovereign over all of time and history and human activity. After mentioning the Father, John turns to mention the Holy Spirit. He mentions the seven spirits before God’s throne, which again is his symbolic way of referring to the Holy Spirit. Here, John emphasizes the Holy Spirit’s glorious perfection. 

   John’s words then point to the Son, Jesus. He places a great deal of emphasis on Jesus and what He has done for believers. As a faithful witness, He preached God’s message and proclaimed His truth faithfully throughout His earthly life, remaining faithful to death.  John also mentions Jesus’ preeminence. Jesus is preeminent over every being. He is the firstborn of the dead. He is the One who has the authority and power to save those who believe in Him. He is our mighty Savior. John continues this theme by reminding us of Jesus’ power and love demonstrated on the cross. He showed us His love by removing our sin and freeing us from sins’ bondage, giving the ultimate sacrifice of His life by dying on the cross. And notice the word order here. It starts with God’s love. God’s love, like His being, is eternal. He loved us before the creation of the world, before there was time and space and matter. This changes the trajectory of our lives forever and ensures our future with God in Heaven. And through His power and saving work, Jesus makes believers priests. Priests have access to God, which allows them to offer sacrifices in His presence and give God all worship and glory and dominion. 

   John then shifts his focus to Jesus’ second coming. This promise is so amazing! Jesus will come to earth again, completely vanquish evil, consummate salvation, bring about the fullness of His kingdom, and restore all of creation. This will be a joyous, happy reality of those all over the world who have believed in Jesus. But for all who rejected His name and hated Him now wail and cry in fear as they behold King Jesus. Nothing will stop his event. In verse 8, John closes by referring once again to God’ eternality: He is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega over all things. He is almighty: completely supreme in power over everything, which erases the need to be fearful.

   What encouragement can we take away from this? By remembering God’s nature, we are encouraged not to fear or worry about the unknown things in our life or the crazy things happening in the world. God knows all of our moments and will perfectly carry out His good and loving plan in our lives. Second, Jesus’ faithfulness serves as a good reminder to us today, to stay true to the Gospel in all situations. Also, God is holy and perfect, very much unlike us. So, we can be thankful for Jesus shedding His blood and atoning for our sins. We can be thankful that the all knowing, all powerful, triune God made a way to bring restoration to this broken world and to our fallen, sinful souls. Also, while it is very true that God deserves our worship because of the things He has done for us, God warrants worship simply because of who He is. He is the almighty, faithful, triune, loving, perfect, holy, eternal, glorious King of the universe. So, let us be encouraged that: God is outside of time. God is all powerful. And we have every reason to trust Him.


Digging Deeper into the Bible

A Brief Introduction to Deeper Textual Engagement

A question I am frequently asked is, ‘how should I read the Bible?’ My glib answer is, ‘I don’t care, just as long as you are reading your Bible!’ However, that question is really getting at how should one approach the Biblical text? I think we have all heard sermons or someone talk about a Bible passage and thought, ‘how on Earth did they get that from the passage??’ So, I thought I would share some of the steps and considerations I take when approaching a Biblical text. Now, this is part of my personal process. It is by no means the best or only way to approach the text. This is just part of what I do. Try it out and see if any elements of it work for you. When I sit down to read a text, I have 5 things in mind: genre/form, context, text criticism, important words/themes, and structure/development of the text.

Genre/form Recognizing the genre of a text may have an impact on how we understand it. For example, we read a textbook differently than we read a recipe differently than we read a letter from our Gram. Perhaps the best example of this is the satire news website ‘The Onion.’ The Onion is a satire newspaper (both print and digital) that publishes made up ‘news’ stories. The intent is to make people laugh. Now, if you pick up a copy of The Onion and know it is a work of satire then you know how to read it. You know that what you are reading is not true but is poking fun at something. However, if you don’t know that The Onion is a satire work (if you don’t know its genre) then you will probably misread it and could take what it says as true.

The same is true of the Biblical text. Parables are a common example of this in the Bible. Jesus frequently used parables when teaching. Take the parable of the Prodigal Son: we understand that this story is not referring to a real family. There was no rich father, no son who wasted his inheritance, and no brother who was angry. We understand that parables are made up stories, intended to teach some lesson. The Bible is full of a wide variety of genres: creation stories, family histories, laws codes, courtroom scenes, prophecy, apocalyptic literature, gospel accounts, epistles, personal letters, and so many more! Understanding the genre of a text you are about to read can greatly change how you understand it. 

Context. The central aim of looking at context is to establish the bounds of the text. Is what I am reading self-contained? Or is it part of a larger discussion/tradition? When looking at context, I have three levels I explore. The first level is what I call local context (or literary context). This is reading a passage together with what has happened directly before it and sometimes what happens after it. For example, we are currently preaching through Matthew chapter 8. In this chapter, Jesus is performing various miracles and has interactions with various people. These stories are great to read by themselves. But they take on a different light when we realize that they are happening right after the Sermon on the Mount (on the same day with the same crowd of people). Now, we can almost view them as a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount, or object lessons of the things Jesus said in that sermon. This adds new meaning and depth to these stories.

The second level of context is canonical context (the text’s place within the larger biblical story). Our Bible is amazing. It is a work that is composed of 1000s of stories, told by 100s of authors, spanning 1000s of years. Yet, all of this comes together to tell one cohesive story: the story of God’s relationship to humanity. Because of this, sometimes a passage can reference an event, person, or story from elsewhere in the Bible. Picking up on this reference can impact how we understand the text we are currently reading. For example: in John chapter 1, Jesus speaks of angels ascending and descending from Heaven. There are some interesting things we could take from this illustration on its own. However, if we catch that this is a reference to Jacob’s dream of a ladder going up into Heaven (Gen. 28), then this statement of Jesus takes on a larger idea of promised hope and blessing.

The last level of context is social/historical context. The stories we read about in the Bible did not take place in a vacuumed environment. They happened to real people, living in a real time. That time was different than today. It can be easy for us to forget that and to impart our own personal context onto a text. For example, we read about taking ‘an eye for an eye’ and think it sounds barbaric. In our context today, that is not how things should work. That leaves little room for mercy! However, understanding the context of that text sheds some new light on it. Human nature is bent on taking revenge. If someone hits you, you are probably going to want to hit them back. And not only hit them but hit them hard, so they don’t hit you again. This is called escalation. Over time, a small harm can grow and grow to become a large crime (all because of continued escalation). Therefore, various law codes of the time (and before) put limits on how a person could retaliate to a wrong committed against them. ‘An eye for an eye’ now becomes the prime limit on how retaliation is doled out. It is to prevent a small offense to escalate to the point of murder. Rather than lacking mercy this law is extremely merciful! Something like that could be lost on us without proper historical context.

Important words or themes.  Identifying key words or themes in a text can give real insight into what the author wants us to get out of the text. These could be repeated words, the continuation of an earlier metaphor, or a concept that is important to the Biblical story as a whole. Sometimes looking at the passage in its original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek can help, but it is by no means absolutely necessary to identify many key words or themes.

Once you have identified an important word or theme, the next question you should ask is ‘why is this important?’ Being able to pick out important words or themes is great, but they are only able to provide meaningful insight if you can figure out why they are important. Asking probing questions can be a great way to start digging into their meaning.

Take I Corinthians 3:16-17 for example. In these two verses, Paul uses the word ‘temple’ a number of times. He tells us that we are a temple of God. Some questions we could ask include: why this particular word (why not palace or shrine or tabernacle)? Does Paul use this word in other places in I Corinthians? What role did temples play in the environment into which Paul wrote these words? How are temples presented or talked about in the Old Testament? What element of temples do we think the text is wanting us to focus on? You see how quickly you can start to build up a lot of (hopefully relevant) information that could relate to a particular passage.

Structure/Development of the Text. This textual aspect will be closely related to genre. Knowing the genre of the text can give us some idea of how it should be structured. For example, if you are looking at a parable, then most likely the text is building up to a one or two verse pithy conclusion that will act as the ‘elevator pitch’ for the entire passage. However, even if you do not know a text’s genre you can still notice elements of its structure. There are many formal writing styles and techniques Biblical writers used to convey meaning. One common example is called inclusios. The easiest way to think of an inclusio is to think of a sandwich. You have the bread (two similar- if not identical lines) surrounding the delicious peanut butter and pickles[1] (the main idea of the passage). This is a common technique seen in Hebrew Poetry.

Those are just a few examples of how the structure of a passage can help unlock some of its meaning. But do not think that you need to have a full encyclopedia of biblical writing styles to understand the text (although that would be awesome!).  A great way to engage with the development of a passage is to notice anytime you find yourself saying, ‘wait what?’ Often a question like this can lead you to find something important in the passage. The more you engage with the Bible the more you will notice patterns in how things are written. You will start to become familiar with how certain books are written and that will lead you to start identifying differences between books and that will lead you to ask questions about those differences, and before you know it you will be reading the Bible on a deeper level than you ever thought you could!

What is the Text About? Wow! You have done a lot of work on the text so far. You have engaged the text on its level by identifying its genre. You have determined the bounds of the text by looking at it in three different context levels. You have noticed important words and themes in the text. Not only that, but you have tried to figure out why they are important and what the author’s purpose was in using them. Lastly, you have looked at the structure of the text itself to see if that reveals any meaning. Now it’s time to put all of that together and summarize the main point of the passage. It is entirely possible that there will not be a single simple point to the passage. One of the amazing things about our Bible is that it speaks to us on many different levels. But a great practice to have when reading a passage is to see if you can summarize what that passage is saying to you at that time in one simple sentence. If you can distill the passage down to one central simple message, then you can use that as a springboard for reading the text as a whole.

This is what I do when I prepare sermons. I go through the steps above and try to come up with what the main take home message of this sermon is going to be. I think, “If people only remembered one sentence I said today, what would I want that sentence to be?” Then I take that sentence and work backwards constructing an argument that builds up to that one sentence conclusion. Obviously, most of you are not reading the Bible to prepare sermons all the time. But this practice of finding a one sentence ‘point’ of a passage can be a great way to remember key themes and ideas you read about in the Bible.


Now, I don’t expect everyone to do all of these steps each time you sit down to read the Bible (that would be so overwhelming!). I don’t do this entire process every time I sit down to read. Sometimes I do a few of these, sometimes I add in other elements of interpretation (we did not even talk about text criticism—that is a super fun topic!), and sometimes I do none of them and simply read the text as I would any novel. I don’t want you to feel like you should run down this checklist each and every time you crack open your Bible or fire up your Bible app. But I would encourage you to from time to time engage with some of these steps and see what they do for you. If you come across an especially difficult passage, or read something that does not feel quite right, or if you hear someone talk about a passage and you are not sure how they got that meaning out of the text, take time and follow some of these steps. See how your engagement with the text grows or changes. This is not a simple thing to just jump right into. It will be difficult at first. Ask questions. Seek out people’s help. Have a reference book or two. All of these things will get you walking down a path to amazing, insightful, and life-giving reading of God’s word.

[1] Don’t judge me! This is an amazing sandwich. Try it and you will see!


Always Choose Joy

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

No doubt these are favorite Bible verses of many. In fact they are often popular go tos on Christian t-shirts and coffee mugs. That is all well and good but it is important that we  simply not stop thinking of these verses as a quick “feel good” message. Paul, through the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, penned these words to the Thessalonian church to convey a specific message. Paul visited Thessalonica for a short time on one of his missionary journeys but, due to persecution, was forced to leave the city earlier than planned. Later, he wrote a letter to the church to help fix a few theological misunderstandings about Jesus’ second coming. He wrote to encourage the Christians to continue in the good work they were doing as well. Toward the end of his letter, Paul encourages the people of the church to continue in their godly behavior in three areas: loving one another, building each other up and seeking to do good to everyone. Then, Paul writes “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Let’s take a look at what this means for us today.

Rejoice always. First, this reminds us that our joy is not circumstantial. At the root, our joy comes from God. No matter what we face or what circumstances we experience, we can have joy in God. We can rejoice in who He is. We can rejoice in the blessing of salvation. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. To paraphrase Dr. John Greever, grumpiness is not a spiritual virtue. However, sometimes things can make us sad; sometimes joy is a process. As Psalm 30 reminds us, “Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” Sadness is a real emotion and we should not feel like failures when we experience that emotion. As Christians we can feel sadness over our ongoing sin. Also, anxiety, fear of the future, and health scares can all trouble our souls. So, we may experience a nighttime of sadness but gradually God can move in our hearts and bring us to a place of joy. Our joy in the present is rooted in knowing that God works all things for good for those who love Him. Our joy in the present grows as we commune more and more with God, and focus on who He is. Also, our joy can come as we look forward to our eternal joy with God in Heaven. So, even in this life, our eternal, constant, true joy is rooted in God.Our circumstances will always change, but God is unchangeable and God is always good, whether we see or understand His ways or not. 

Pray without ceasing. Spending time with God in prayer is a continual activity. Prayer implies that our hearts and minds are occupied and satisfied with God. In prayer, we engage in loving fellowship with our heavenly Father. Prayer is not something we should do exclusively before we eat or before we go to sleep. We should be communicating with God throughout our day. We should have a prayer-ward bent in our hearts. Before we undertake any activity, before we think, before we speak etc. we should say Lord help me, Lord empower me, Lord be with me in this. All of our daily tasks, no matter how small or time consuming or repetitive or frustrating, we can bring God into the moment. Prayer acknowledges our dependence on God. Honestly, can we think of one area of life where we don’t need Him? 

Give thanks in all circumstances. Notice what this verse does not say. It does not say give thanks FOR all circumstances, it says give thanks IN all circumstances. That’s a big difference. We may not be thankful for all circumstances. Some circumstances are not good. But we can be thankful in all circumstances. Like we have seen earlier in this passage, we can thank God for the blessings He gives us everyday. He gives us countless spiritual blessings. He gives us many temporal earthly blessings as well. We can thank Him for the situations He prevents. We can thank Him for His beautiful creation. We can thank Him for the people we love. We can thank Him for every breath and heartbeat. We can thank Him for things in the past, as we look back and see God’s sovereign hand graciously guiding us. We can see past challenges as ways God used to get us to joyful places. We can look to the future and thank God knowing that He is working out a perfect plan for us.We can also look to the future and think about the joys of Heaven. So, IN all things, we can give thanks to our loving Heavenly Father.

It would take a pretty big coffee mug to truly capture Paul”s message in this passage. However, Paul reminds us in 1 Thessalonians how prayer and rejoicing and thanksgiving are connected. The more we pray and focus on God, the more we can rejoice in how amazing God is. And the more we pray and rejoice, the more thankful we become. Maybe we face persecution or trials or maybe life is carefree; but no matter what, we always have a reason to rejoice, pray and be thankful. 


Living Hope


   Jesus is not dead. The grave does not hold Him. He is alive, seated victoriously in Heaven. What great news! Though it is always important to  reflect upon this gospel truth, around Easter, we need to remember and celebrate the resurrection and the hope we have through Jesus. When we turn to Scripture, we see that 1 Peter 1:3-5 sums up our resurrection hope well by saying:

   Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

   What an amazing truth! What an amazing hope! In Jesus, we have a living hope. We can see what this living hope implies by walking through the passage. Peter begins by describing God’s blessedness. Out of His eternal blessed happiness, God willingly gives the gift of salvation. We cannot save ourselves. There is a great chasm between us and God: He is perfectly holy and we are saturated in our falleness. God would be completely just to condemn us for our sins. But, out of His abundant mercy, He sent Jesus into the world to live and die and rise again to bring salvation.So,God in His mercy, provides the way of salvation.But, God’s mercy does not just stop there; God also gives us eyes to see the sweetness of the Gospel. He shines the light of His loving kindness in our hearts. Our regeneration, aka new birth, is the greatest gift. Through new birth, we are no longer dead in sin. We are alive in Christ. We have a living hope; this is our hope: Jesus died and rose again.

   What an amazing truth! What an amazing hope! In Jesus we have a living hope. We can see another aspect of this living hope when Peter talks about our heavenly inheritance.We know that as believers we will be with God forever in Heaven. Since Jesus rose from the grave victoriously,  His resurrection seals our inheritance. What is our inheritance as believers? It is eternal joy with God in Heaven forever. Nothing and no one can take that away. It is incorruptible…totally free from corruption, evil, and sin. It is eternal…it never fades away. As time bound creatures, it’s hard to imagine eternity; but we will enjoy a never ending succession of moments in Heaven delighting in our God. And this inheritance is kept, reserved, secured, and guarded for every believer; every child of God receives this precious inheritance. Through God’s power, He will sustain us through the end; we can never lose this precious gift of salvation or our heavenly inheritance.We can never lose our living hope.

   What an amazing truth! What an amazing hope! In Jesus Christ, our living, glorious Savior, we have a living hope.Jesus gives us the living hope of salvation: He is the one who sets us free from sin and death and the grave. He also is the one who guarantees the hope of our heavenly inheritance.  I pray this Easter season that we remember this truth and give thanks to God. I pray we will always lift our voices to sing of our living hope.


How St. Patrick should Influence our Daily Mission

This week is St. Patrick’s Day. Today, in America at least, the day has really become an excuse to wear green, pinch people, and drink Guinness. However, there is much more behind the day that celebrates the life of the real “Apostle of Ireland.” Even the person of Saint Patrick himself is wrapped in myth and legends. From Patrick banishing all the snakes in Ireland, to his walking stick growing into a magic tree; most of the ‘stories’ around St. Patrick lack any historic credibility. Even idea that St. Patrick used the shamrock to teach about the trinity is probably not true (because that is the heresy Partialism, Patrick!).

Luckily, what we do know about the person of St. Patrick is still worthy of remembering on his day. Patrick was born in Roman Britain (seemingly England). At the age of sixteen, Patrick was kidnapped by a group of Irish pirates. He spent the next six years enslaved in Ireland working as a slave. Eventually he was able to escape his captors and return home to Britain. In his autobiographical work Confessio, it was his time in captivity and his escape that cemented his love of Christ and his eventual decision to become a missionary. And the place he felt called to be his mission field was the very place of his captivity, Ireland.

Tradition has it that Patrick entered Ireland through the very same port he escaped from years earlier. Think about that choice. Could you go back the place you were held in captivity as a slave and try to minister? Could you go to the very people who kidnapped you and try to tell them of Jesus? I don’t know if I could. Patrick’s return to Ireland was not a joyous affair. He tells of being beaten on the road, robbed of his possessions, being chained up and imprisoned for weeks on end. Yet he remained faithful to bring the love of Christ to the people doing this to him.

So this St. Patrick’s Day, try and reflect on the courage, the love, the forgiveness, and the faithfulness of Patrick. Strive to forgive like Patrick forgave. Strive to remain as dedicated to God’s mission as Patrick was, even when it is no easy. Just imagine the kind of impact we could have if we all lived out our daily missional lives like Patrick. That should be our goal this St. Patrick’s Day. Let’s take that goal and run with it!