The build-up to Easter Sunday is always poignant and dramatic. We do our best to relive all the events leading up to the resurrection—Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, the betrayal, the trial, the scourging, the carrying of the cross, the crucifixion, the suffering, death and burial. Even though we already know the end of the story, we do what we can to get into the right headspace, letting the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice and the travesty of our sin penetrate as deep as possible.
Then, after simmering in all that negativity for an entire week, we show up on Easter Sunday ready to release it. We wear bright colors. We shout, announcing that he is risen. We sing our favorite hymns. We laugh when the worship leader makes some comment about the devil being foiled again. We cheer when the pastor talks about how God can redeem the most awful tragedies, using his unfathomable power to bring life to the lifeless, hope to the hopeless.
But after the service, while everyone is hurrying off with their families to take pictures, enjoy a big lunch, and hunt Easter eggs, I’m still sitting there trying to figure out why it was necessary for Jesus to actually come back from the dead. Continue reading
Maybe you can help me. I’m starting a new book project that’s going to take a lot of research and writing, so I need to take advantage of these relatively-free summer months to make a giant dent.
I plan to write a book about Leviticus for millennials. Hilarious, right? It can be for anyone, really. I want the writing to be fun and hard-hitting at the same time. I want to try to avoid any sense of judgment or bias. Never dry. Never slow. And always honest. Continue reading
$20 to the person that can tell me the shared context of these two verses:
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful. He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear, but when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. I Cor. 10:13
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4:12
Okay, fine. The $20 stays in my wallet.
These two verses seem to be covering very different topics. The first seems to assure believers that God will never allow them to be put in a situation that is too hard to handle. If the situation gets too dicey, he’ll find a way to get us out of it. Unless, of course, he doesn’t, and we all die. Which can happen, I guess.
The second seems to be telling us that the Bible is not some dead piece of literature. It is alive and active. It can expose our hearts, shining a holy flashlight on our thoughts and motives, urging us to take a hard look at ourselves and make better choices.
What if I told you that neither of those verses is saying either one of those things? Continue reading
We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Rom. 8:28
Do I love God? Check. Am I called according to his purpose? Check. Who’s up for a trip to Vegas?
If I’m going to take this verse seriously, I have to believe that genuinely-saved believers should expect to see things come together in a positive way before the end of their lives. If something bad happens along the way, God has promised to manipulate the cosmos to fix it, spinning every tragedy into a victory, flipping every curse into a blessing, redeeming every accident or mistake.
But when I see Christians getting their heads cut off, I have to wonder if I can trust this verse. How could literally losing your head ever be considered a good thing? And if so, what comfort can I take in this verse, if any? Continue reading
God wants to save the world. That’s his plan.
I teach college students the story of the Bible from beginning to end at least twice a year. The presentation is fairly simple—God made a good world, but his people rejected him, estranging themselves from him, ruining themselves. God has been working through the centuries, using groups and individuals in various ways, to redeem fallen humanity, always working to set things right.
To read the Bible outside of this context is to misread the Bible.
It is not God’s love letter to humanity. Love letters tend to have less genealogies and genocide. It is not some timeless treasury of promises and encouragements. Usually those kinds of treasuries have a lot less death threats.
Sure, God can use the Bible to speak to individuals, but we should not approach it like some kind of sanctified Ouija Board. It is a complicated and fascinating story about how God works to fulfill his plan despite the free actions of a persistently rebellious world. Continue reading
What kind of youth leader would look a kid in the eye and say, “Sorry, man. God does not have a plan for your life. He’s just watching over you, sort of like Santa. Try not to blow it, okay?”
No, most youth leaders I knew growing up told me how much God loved me, how he had a wonderful plan for my life, and was working everything together for my good, even the hard things. I was encouraged to maintain my relationship with God through prayer, daily devotions and sin management, and was challenged to discover his will for my life, asking him where I should go to college, what major to choose, who I should marry, and so on.
Naturally, with this mentality, Jeremiah 29:11 was one of my favorite verses:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
You may not have noticed this before, but look in my right hand. That’s right, I’m holding a giant can of worms.
The label? God’s Plan. The lid? About to come off. Continue reading
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. Gal. 2:20
I have always liked this verse. Something inside of me has always resonated with it, even if I didn’t fully understand it. It’s laced with a sense of mystery and irony. It has a bold flavor, but also a distinct sense of humility and grace. I just like it, okay?
If you had asked my younger self to explain what Paul meant in one sentence, I would have probably said, “Jesus died for me, so I will live for him.” My older self, however, tends to move a little slower through the text and look a little deeper, afraid that someone might ask me what it actually means and expect me to say something that makes sense. Continue reading
Philippians 4:13 may be the poster child for fortune cookie Christianity. If it’s not the poster child, it’s definitely battling for the top spot in the Youth Group T-shirt Contest with “I know the plans I have for you” and “All things work together for good.”
Let me just say up front that I don’t think that all popular verses are misused or taken out of context. I would argue that most verses mean pretty much what they say, though understanding things like context and culture can make a huge difference when we try to move verses into 21st century America, or try to move ourselves back into ancient Palestine. Continue reading
This is the kind of phrase that makes for a nice Christian wall decoration or the theme of a contemporary worship song or an encouraging forearm tattoo, but what does it actually mean?
If we were talking about Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, I could understand. They won the championship. If we were talking about God’s love, I could understand even more. But if we’re just talking about love in general, as in the emotion or the motivation, I’m not sure I get it.
Is Paul saying that everything that is motivated by love will succeed? If so, what do we do with loving parents that struggle to raise their children, or loving pastors that struggle to build their churches, or loving spouses that struggle to hold their marriages together?
Thankfully, we don’t have to answer this question. It’s the wrong question. Continue reading
Back in college, I played for a choir and orchestra my senior year. We must have had a song that repeated the word “hallelujah,” because I remember the conductor taking time to explain how “hallelujah,” in the original Hebrew, meant unrestrained praise, and how we needed to think about the kinds of things that restrain us from praising God.
Imagine my disappointment years later when I discovered that the Hebrew verb, Halal (הָלַל), means “to praise,” and Jah (or yah) is short for “Yahweh.” No emotional adjectives leading to meaningful song segues. No adjectives at all. Just a simple and straightforward declaration of praise.
When I was younger, I was a little intimidated by the original languages. Whenever a pastor would pull out the Greek or Hebrew to make a point, a part of me wondered if my English translation was not enough. What was I missing in translation? Continue reading