Once and Always

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The work of Christ is finished. And it never stops.

At it’s heart, the message of Christianity is good news. Unlike other religions which claim to instruct us in the best way to save ourselves, the gospel offers us a salvation which we cannot achieve on our own, which comes to us as a gift from God to be received by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Our own works cannot save us; rather, we are saved by the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

The good news of Jesus centers on two events: the death of Jesus on the cross, and his bodily resurrection on the third day. This pair of events is what Christians around the world celebrate in Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

At various times, Christians have been tempted to make either the death or resurrection of Jesus subordinate to the other. Among some of the eastern church fathers, for example, there was a tendency to downplay the public crucifixion of Jesus as a mere prerequisite for his saving resurrection. Conversely, many protestants in recent years have treated the resurrection of Jesus as mere validation of his saving death.

These views fall short of the biblical message that we are saved by both the death and the resurrection of Jesus. Both-and. Thus the same Paul who begins his first letter to the Corinthians asserting that Christ crucified is the saving power of God  (1 Corinthians 1:17-18, 23; 2:2) closes by declaring that without Christ’s resurrection, our faith would be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). Jesus both died for our sins and was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). His death did not merely prepare the way for his resurrection, and his resurrection did not merely prove God’s acceptance of his death. Rather, each of these events has an essential and distinct role in our salvation.

Jesus’ death and resurrection both save us, but in different ways. One way of understanding the difference between these twin facets of Jesus’ work is through a reflection on two key biblical phrases: “once” and “always.”

Jesus’ death is described by several biblical authors as having occurred “once for all” (Romans 6:10; Hebrews 9:12; 10:10; 1 Peter 3:18). Unfortunately, this phrase is a confusingly translation for modern English speakers, who usually understand it as asserting two distinct things: 1) that Jesus died one time; and 2) that he died on behalf of all people (or all believers). Our focus often then turns to the universal offer and sufficiency of Christ’s death, leaving the fact that Jesus died on just one occasion on the sidelines. This is a complete misunderstanding. “Once for all” is actually an old-fashioned translation of a single Greek word – either hapax or ephapax, which both mean simply “once” or “on one occasion.”¹ Of course, there are places in the Bible where Christ’s death is described as having taken place “for all” (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15), but that is not what is being taught in the phrase “once for all.”

The death of Jesus occurred just once. It will never be repeated. For Paul, this means that death no longer has dominion over Jesus (Romans 6:9) and sin no longer has dominion over us (Romans 6:11). For Peter, it means that we also can have the courage to share in Christ’s suffering in expectation of the glory that follows it (1 Peter 3:17-4:1).

The book of Hebrews digs deepest into the theological significance of the fact that Jesus died “once.” More than anywhere else in the New Testament, Hebrews explains the saving power of Christ’s death through the sacrificial imagery of the Old Testament. It is this framework that makes the fact that Jesus died “once” so significant. Unlike the animal offerings of the old covenant which proved their insufficiency by the fact that they had to be repeated over and over again, Jesus’ sacrifice worked the first time (Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:10-14).

Christ’s suffering is finished because his sacrifice is complete. Nothing needs to be added to it. Our sins have been paid in full, cancelled out and washed away in the precious blood of Christ.

And yet, Hebrews joins the rest of Scripture in insisting that the saving work of Christ still continues through his risen life. This is not a mere add-on to the cross, but an absolute necessity. If we did not have the risen Jesus as our high priest, our mediator, our representative, we would have no hope of salvation. Why is Jesus “able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him”? Only because “he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). Always! Why are we secure from condemnation? Not only because it is Jesus who died — “more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34).

Right now, the living Jesus is interceding for you. Always. This means that you do not need to come to God on your own. It is not your job to make your own case, to remind God of what Jesus did on the cross. It is not up to you to somehow make a connection with an event that happened ages before you were born. The same Jesus who died on the cross is alive at this moment, and you come to God “through him” (Hebrews 7:25; John 14:6). He is the one who serves as your advocate with the Father on the basis of his own cleansing blood (1 John 2:1; 1:7). As eternal God and living, glorified man, he alone can act as the mediator between God and humanity (1 Timothy 2:5). Through his sacrificial blood and his never-ending priestly intercession, you can come to God with complete confidence (Hebrews 10:19-22; Ephesians 3:12).

Jesus is both sacrifice and high priest, both substitute and representative. His sacrifice never needs to be repeated; his substitutionary work is done. But his role as our representative lasts forever. By his death he took our place; by his risen life, he secures our place. So our faith both looks back to a finished salvation and looks up to a living Savior, enthroned at the right hand of God. And because that Savior lives forever, our faith looks forward with confidence to the day when we will share fully in his glorious life.

That is what this Holy Week is all about. This Friday, believers in Jesus commemorate his perfect sacrificial death, that single atoning work which has decisively and finally paid the penalty for our sins. Once. Just once. Never to be repeated again.

But on Sunday, we will celebrate with gladness and gloriously unspeakable joy that our Savior is alive, and evermore will be, that he never ceases to intercede for us, that his resurrected humanity provides us with access to God that can never be blocked off or taken away, that he serves as our representative and advocate and mediator and priest for all eternity. Always. Without fail. Yesterday, today – and forever.

 

¹ In other contexts, hapax is translated simply as “once,” such as when Paul asserts that he was stoned “one time” (2 Corinthians 11:25), or when he recalls how the Philippians sent him financial support more than “once” (Philippians 4:16), or when the author of Hebrews states the obvious fact that each person is destined to die “only once” (Hebrews 9:27). None of these statements have any suggestion that the action is undertaken “for all.”

 

Image credit: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/water-drop-2-1141077

 

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Not a Prophet, Priest, or King (Part 2)

Holman_Furniture_of_the_TabernacleIn my last post, I cautioned against using the biblical titles of Prophet, Priest, and King to describe the role of a pastor. My goal is not to quibble over terminology; I know most pastors who use those terms intend them to express the genuine pastoral tasks of teaching, caring, and leading. But I am convinced that such a use is confusing, both because it departs from the biblical meaning of those titles in some significant ways, and because it can reinforce some common misconceptions of what a pastor is.

I have already explained how it’s inappropriate to confuse pastoral ministry with the biblical office of Prophet. This post continues with an exploration of the differences between pastors and the offices of Priest and King.

A pastor is not a priest. A pastor certainly is called to attend to and care for the spiritual needs of his flock. But calling this “priestly” ministry is confusing on two counts. First, this work of caring for others was not the role of priests in the Old Testament. In biblical categories, a priest “is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Hebrews 5:1). A priest was an official mediator, representing and interceding for the people in the worship of the temple. The entire book of Hebrews is an explanation of how Jesus fulfills and surpasses the priesthood of the old covenant in this sense. This priestly role is then extended to all believers, as we offer ourselves to God (Romans 12:1) in lives of praise to God and service to others (Hebrew 13:15-16). This means that we all may approach God directly, both on our own behalf and on behalf of other believers. We have “confident access” to God in Christ (Ephesians 3:12).

So, calling a pastor a “priest” because he cares for people misses the biblical picture of what a priest is. This confusion may stem from the fact that Roman Catholic priests perform pastoral care, which brings us to the second kind of confusion that arises when an evangelical pastor calls himself a “priest.” Catholic pastors are called “priests” because of the traditional teaching that the Lord’s Supper is an atoning sacrifice which can only be performed through the miraculous grace bestowed on ordained clergy. This is taught nowhere in Scripture, which is why the reformers rejected “priest” as a special clerical title. Calling the caring work of a pastor “priestly” thus not only departs from biblical categories of priesthood, but it risks blurring the difference between the biblical model of pastoral elders and traditional conceptions of a special clerical caste distinct from ordinary, “lay” Christians.

Being a pastor does not make me a priest. Caring for the flock certainly is part of pastoral work, but that is not the biblical conception of priesthood. Ordination does not confer some special access to God which other believers do not have. Every believer is a priest before God through Christ.

Finally, a pastor is not a king. Too many pastors have failed to recognize this, and their arrogant abuse of authority has led to the wounding or even dissolution of too many churches. The elders of the church do indeed have real authority within the church, and believers are called to respect, submit to, and even obey those God has placed in those positions of leadership (1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Corinthians 16:16; Hebrews 13:17). But this authority – like all authority – must yield to the authority of God himself (Acts 4:19-20). In any case, the relationship between a pastor and other Christians is not that of king to subject, nor of father to child, nor even of teacher to student, but of brother to brother (Matthew 23:8-12). Pastors are to lead not by domination, but by example (1 Peter 5:3). My role as pastor does not place me above other believers, but below them as their servant.

I am not a prophet, nor a priest, nor a king. Those are Jesus’ job titles. He is the one through whom God has spoken his ultimate revelation (Hebrews 1:1-2). He is the one whose sacrifice gives us access to God (Ephesians 2:18). He is the one who rules over the church, enthroned at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:20-23).

But, as a pastor, I do share one title with Jesus. “Pastor” is just the Latin word for “shepherd.” Jesus, our Prophet, Priest, and King, does care for us as a shepherd cares for his sheep. He feeds us on his word, supports us in our struggles, and leads and directs us in obedience to him. As I serve as an elder and overseer of a local congregation, I also am called to feed, tend, and lead the flock of God in obedience to Christ, the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-4). In doing this I advance not my own kingdom, but his, as long as I preach not my own word, but the word of God’s grace, which alone is able to build up the church (Acts 20:32).

That’s what it means to be a pastor.

 

Image Credit: Furniture of the Tabernacle, By illustrators of the 1890 Holman Bible [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Blood and Water

Christmas 2010

 

 

I wrote this meditation a few years ago. May it bless you this season as we remember the messy, marvelous humility and love of the one who came “not in water only, but in water and in blood” (1 John 5:6).

 

 

 

Blood and water outward burst

a sudden stab – his mother cried

and felt again the pain that first

brought forth this man with punctured side

 

This pain, these tears, this bloody flow

that mark his dark and dreadful death

had filled that stable long ago

he cried with her with his first breath

 

Upon the cross again he wailed

the Son of God, of God forlorn

before his mother’s eyes impaled

as naked as when he was born

 

The heavenly host that hailed his birth

he would not call to end his pain

the angel choirs forget their mirth

as Bethlehem’s child is cruelly slain

 

Born his people to deliver

born to die, for sin to atone

slain to rise, to live forever,

his blood to plead before the Throne

 

In blood and water, grief and pain

in mortal flesh for mortal sin

he came to cleanse our nature’s stain

our guilty souls from death to win

 

Image credit: Rebecca Adeney © 2010

Hearing Jesus in the Psalms

Emmaus2

Right in the middle of most English Bibles, there is a collection of one hundred and fifty ancient Hebrew songs. Filled with emotion, imagery, and devotion to the Lord, they are a masterpiece of poetic expression as well as a profound source of encouragement, comfort, and guidance for believers in the midst of the trials of daily life.

But despite their beauty and transparent honesty, it is a mistake to think that reading the Psalms is a simple business. Very often when we read the Psalms, our natural impulse is to appropriate the experiences of the psalmists to ourselves. The “I” of the author becomes the “I” of the reader as we embrace their emotions and place ourselves in their shoes.

Unfortunately, it often becomes difficult to sustain this way of reading the Psalms. Sure, it works in Psalm 23. But what about when the psalmist calls for the destruction of his enemies, or asserts his blamelessness, or promises to offer a sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem? How do we apply these psalms to our lives? Do we try to force them into the categories of our own experience? Do we turn them into allegories? Or do we just ignore them and stick to our top ten favorites?

I think these sort of questions should prompt us to re-examine simplistic approaches to reading the Psalms. It’s not that we shouldn’t identify directly with the voice of the psalmist. But that isn’t the only way to read the Psalms, or even the first way we should be reading them.

There are multiple layers to reading the Psalms. The first is the historical context of each individual psalm. Before we rush to claim the words of a psalm as our own, we must first hear them as the voice of a particular person in a particular time and place. It’s vital for us to understand who the psalmist is, what the circumstances are which they are addressing, and what cultural, historical, and theological factors can help us understand the meaning of their words.

A second layer is each psalm’s place within the story of the book as a whole. As many biblical scholars have recognized, the five-book division of the Psalms is a reflection on the progression from the rise of David (Book 1, psalms 1-41), through the Davidic monarchy (Book 2, psalms 42-72), the fall of the Davidic kingdom (Book 3, psalms 73-89), and the life of the believing community in exile (Book 4, psalms 90-106), to the celebration of restoration and return (Book 5, psalms 107-150). Each book, of course, contains psalms written at other times than the period it reflects; but the overall mood of each book is implicit throughout, and each book’s place in the story is explicitly reflected in key psalms at the beginning and end.

Just as reading the psalms in light of the first layer enables us to hear the voice of the individual psalmist, recognizing this second layer enables us to hear the voice of the entire worshiping people of God. We approach the psalms not only as individual expressions of faith, but as the songs of a community spanning multiple generations and centuries united around the story of God’s faithfulness in the past.

Of course, if we leave the Psalms there, reading them will simply be an academic exercise, the study of the religious experiences of an ancient civilization. If we are to claim the Psalms as God’s word to us, we must have some way to bridge the gap between their original context and our own needs and concerns.

This brings us to the third layer to reading the Psalms. The story of God’s faithfulness does not end with the return from the Babylonian exile. So the psalms look forward to the complete fulfillment of his promises to Israel, and especially to the coming of another anointed King, another David – the Christ.

The idea of hearing the Psalms as the voice of Christ has a long history in the church, appearing in the thought of countless theologians from Augustine to Bonhoeffer. But its roots go back all the way to the earliest preaching of the apostles themselves. We see a great example in Acts 2. In his sermon on the day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter explains the resurrection and ascension of Jesus through an exposition of Psalms 16 and 110. Peter draws our attention to the fact that, though written by David, neither of these psalms was literally true of him. Thus he explains Psalm 16:10 (“You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay”) as follows:

Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact (Acts 2:29-32).

Peter here is making a remarkable assertion: that the voice celebrating God’s deliverance in Psalm 16 is not that of it’s author, but of someone else. This doesn’t mean that this Psalm is not rooted in David’s own experience – far from it. But writing as the Lord’s anointed, the sacred king of God’s people, he wrote words that were only figuratively true of himself, but found true and literal fulfillment in the experience of another king, the ultimate Anointed One, Jesus, the Son of David.

This is not a one-off, anomalous interpretation; it is the apostles’ customary approach to the Psalms. Thus in Acts 4:10-11, Peter applies Psalm 118:22 (“the stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone”) to Jesus’ rejection by the “rulers and elders of the people.” A little later in the same chapter (Acts 4:23-28) the church takes Psalm 2:1-2 – which describes “the rulers” conspiring “against the Lord and against his Christ [i.e. ‘Anointed’]” – as a prediction of the sufferings of Jesus, God’s anointed servant. Psalm 2 will reappear later in Acts along with Psalm 16 in the first recorded sermon of the apostle Paul (Acts 13:32-37).

The rest of the NT bears out this practice of seeing Jesus as the subject of the Psalms. Psalm 2, which we have already seen cited twice in Acts, appears everywhere from Matthew (3:17; 17:5) to Revelation (2:27; 11:15; 12:5; 19:15). Psalm 110, cited by Peter in Acts 2, is the most widely-quoted Psalm in the New Testament, appearing in nine different books and providing the central text for the sermon we call the book of Hebrews. Psalms 22 and 69 stand out for their use in the gospels, which see them fulfilled in the suffering and death of Christ (Matthew 27:34-48; Mark 15:24, 34; John 2:17; 15:25; 19:24, 28-29). Even psalms which speak of not of the Davidic king but of “the righteous man” (Psalm 34:19-20) or just “man” in general (Psalm 8:4) are explained as references to Jesus (John 19:36; 1 Corinthians 15:25-28; Ephesians 1:22; Hebrews 2:5-9).

In all this, the writers of the New Testament are only following Jesus’ own teaching and example. Jesus frequently presented himself as the subject of various psalms (Matthew 7:23; 21:9, 42-44; 23:39; 26:64; 27:46; John 13:18; 15:25). After his resurrection, he explained to his disciples how was the fulfillment of “things written … in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44-47).

It should come as no surprise, then, that when the writers of the New Testament read the Psalms, they neither left them as historical relics nor forced them into the framework of their own individual experiences. The voice they heard in the Psalms was neither a recording of long-dead heroes nor the echo of their own personalities, but the word of the living Christ in whom all the promises, prophecies, and pre-figurings of the Old Testament had finally reached their perfect fulfillment.

Reading the psalms this way makes a radical difference. Instead of laboring to make the psalmists’ words our own by trying to work ourselves up into the same emotional state as them, we can listen in as the Son of God embraces all the turmoil and mess of human experience for our sakes. Indeed, he experienced it all far more deeply than any other human ever has. David felt abandoned by God (Psalm 22:1), but Jesus actually was. David only imagined the joy of resurrection, which Jesus truly experienced (Psalm 16:9-11).

No part of human experience is alien to Jesus. He freely shared our pain, our weakness, our fear, our loneliness. And though he himself committed no sin, he bore our sins and took our guilt as his own, so that even our songs of confession can be taken on his lips (e.g. Psalm 40:12; compare verses 6-8 and Hebrews 10:5-10). And, as Augustine said, because he came to sing our song, we can sing his song.* Because we have been united with Christ by faith, his death becomes our death and his life our life (Romans 6:3-10; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 2:4-10). Because he joined in our lamentation, we can join in his song of victory.

It is in Christ alone that the words of the Psalms become truly ours. By entering into our fallen human experience, he is able to lead us out of it – out of our sin and lostness and into his glorious victory. Jesus thus becomes the bridge connecting our personal experience to the sometimes alien words of the psalms, so that in him we may claim them as our own. Despite our ongoing struggle with sin, in Christ we can boast of perfect righteousness (Psalm 18:20-24). Even when our own lives are a complete mess, in him we can celebrate a salvation worth proclaiming to every nation and generation (Psalm 22:25-31). Though this world sometimes beats down upon us, in Jesus we can look forward to sharing in his victorious exaltation (Psalm 2:9; Revelation 2:26-27).

Not only that, but even those psalms that seem straightforward and relatable to us take on new depths when we hear them as the words of Jesus. Not only the royal triumph of Psalm 21 and the righteous suffering of Psalm 22, but even the trusting intimacy with God of Psalm 23 can be fully ours only because it was first and most truly his. It is because he passed through the valley of the shadow of death for us that we can dare to walk there without fear. And it is because he eternally sits at the right hand of the Father that we know we have a dwelling place in his house, where we will join together at last with David and all the people of God in singing the new song of the Lamb forever and ever.

 

*Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 30(2).1.3. “He spoke our words so that we might speak his words.” The original Latin of Augustine’s second exposition of Psalm 31 is available here. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find an English translation online.

Image Credit: Supper at Emmaus by Hendrik Terbrugghen, circa 1621; http://the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=89555

Recognizing Almonzo

AlmanzoLrgEvery day, after the lunch dishes are cleared away and the baby and toddler are diapered and put down in their cribs, either my wife or I will sit down on the couch with our two older children for story time.

Our kids love story time. For me and Rebecca, it’s a joy to watch their imaginations expand as we share with them beautiful, powerful, and challenging narratives. We read from classic children’s books, a chapter every day, whether it be The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or Alice in Wonderland or The Secret Garden.

Our kids have especially enjoyed the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Beginning with Little House in the Big Woods and stretching through several more volumes, this series tells the (mostly) true story of Laura’s own childhood in a pioneer family in the 1870s and ’80s. It opens up a fascinating window into life on the frontier as the Ingalls family settles successively in Wisconsin, Kansas, and Minnesota, before finally establishing a permanent home in DeSmet, South Dakota.

But one of the books is different. Farmer Boy follows the daily life of nine-year-old Almanzo Wilder as he goes to school, works on his father’s farm, and dreams of being a farmer himself. Though it also presents daily life in rural nineteenth-century America through the eyes of a child, it appears at first glance to have little connection to the story of Laura Ingalls. Neither she nor any other member of the Ingalls family appears in the book, and the action is set in upstate New York, far from the woods and prairies of the frontier.

Nevertheless, Almanzo’s place in Laura’s story is clear from the beginning. Even without reading the later books, in which the two of them do meet, we know exactly who Almanzo is. We have been reading a story about a little girl named Laura Ingalls written by a woman name Laura Ingalls Wilder. It doesn’t take a deductive genius to see that Almanzo Wilder is clearly destined to be Laura’s husband. Farmer Boy really is part of Laura’s story – even though she hadn’t even been born at the time of the events it relates.

Then there’s this other book series that our kids love. We read from it every evening after supper. It’s a much longer and more complex series, but just like the “Little House” books, it also tells a single, true story. Though it can be a challenge at times to make sense of some of the characters or individual chapters and books, it all starts to fit together once you recognize who wrote the story, and who it’s all about.

I’m talking, of course, about the Bible. Especially when reading the Old Testament, it can be easy to come away scratching our heads and wondering what it’s all about. Why should I care about an ancient genealogy? What is the significance of a violent conflict between people who lived centuries ago and whose names I can’t even pronounce?

While taking the time to read the text carefully and study the historical background can certainly help with some of these things, the most important step we can take in making sense of the Bible is recognizing that the Bible, like the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder, is an autobiographical account. God is both the author and the main character of the entire Bible. And just as Laura’s story builds toward her marriage to the hero of Farmer Boy, the Bible builds to the coming of God’s eternal Son as a man, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David and Seed of Abraham.

When we recognize that the entire Bible is the story of God’s redeeming work through Jesus the Christ, we begin to see how all the characters, events, and themes of the Old Testament fit into that story. In the sacrifices of Leviticus, we see foreshadows of the true and final atonement of the cross of Christ. In the flawed heroes of Judges we see God’s pattern of raising up Spirit-empowered saviors for his people, and we learn to long for one who will not be in such obvious need of saving himself. In the stories of the escape from Egypt and the return from Babylon we find a promise of restored fellowship with God. In Moses and Aaron and David we meet prototypes of Prophet, Priest, and King which will find their perfect embodiment in Jesus.

Just like recognizing Almanzo as Laura’s future husband helps us make sense of Farmer Boy, so recognizing the Old Testament as the back-story to God’s saving work in Jesus helps us hear it as God’s word for us. As you read that word yourself or share it with your own family, may you hear his voice and find yourself caught up into his great and all-encompassing story.

 

Image credit: Almanzo Wilder, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1000355

Walking with Jesus: Devotional Readings for Lent and Eastertide

On March 1st, many Christians around the world will begin observing the season of Lent, a period of forty days of preparation (not counting Sundays) leading up to the greatest day of the church year – the feast of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This feast begins yet another forty day season – Eastertide, which commemorates the forty days Jesus spent on earth with his disciples before his ascension into heaven.

stained-glass-1234424As with Advent and Christmastide, our family takes a break from reading through the whole Bible in our daily devotions to follow a special reading plan for Lent and Eastertide. Every Sunday throughout these seasons, we read a psalm that depicts the Messiah’s sufferings (during Lent) and victory (during Eastertide). In addition, on the weekdays of Lent we read through the entire Gospel of Mark.

Of course, unlike Advent and Christmas, many evangelicals are wary of Lent, and with some reason. For much of Christian history, Lent has primarily been a time of mandatory fasting. Because the Bible nowhere commands such a practice, the protestant reformers rightly championed the freedom of Christians to ignore the ecclesiastical laws prohibiting the consumption of meat during Lent. Many of the churches that embraced their recovery of biblical teaching have thus downplayed or outright opposed the celebration of Lent.

I am in full agreement with this response to the imposition of extra-biblical requirements. After all, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration, or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). This means that, while fasting is a good and helpful spiritual discipline, no one can tell anyone else when and how they should fast. Observing a man-made festival does not make one a better Christian or more acceptable to God than someone who does not observe it.

All that to say, I don’t think observing Lent (or Easter, or Christmas, or any other traditional festival) is required of believers. But I do think that it can be a useful tool. In particular, I and my family have found the preparation time of Lent to be helpful in underlining the importance of Easter. This matters, because Easter really gets the short end of the stick. Whether it’s the fact that the date of Easter moves around in a wacky and arcane way (it depends on the calculation of “ecclesiastical new moons“) or because the birth of a baby is easier to incorporate into superficial religiosity than the death and resurrection of the Son of God, Christmas is a much bigger deal in our culture and our churches than Easter, which is much more central to our faith.

In our family, we treat Lent in somewhat the same way as Advent – a time of preparation. As with Advent, we light candles at dinnertime. Only this time, instead of lighting more candles as we draw near to the celebration of Christ’s incarnation, we begin with seven lit candles in the shape of a cross and then extinguish one each Friday, symbolizing Jesus’ willing laying aside of his glory and humbling himself unto death. Then, on Easter Sunday all the candles are lit again and continue to be lit each evening until Ascension. We also spread out the consumption of our Easter Candy throughout Eastertide to savor the joy of the resurrection. And, of course, we read the Gospel of Mark on the forty weekdays of Lent and Psalms on the Sundays.

We’ve been following this reading plan for the last few years, and we’ve really found it a great way to renew our focus on Jesus and to dig deeper as a family into knowing him through his word. Mark is probably the earliest and certainly the shortest and most action-oriented of the four gospels, and our kids really get into hearing the story of Jesus directly from the Bible. The readings from Mark are mostly fairly short (though they get longer during Holy Week), and I’ve endeavored to organize them into groups that reflect the structure and message of Mark. The Psalms are selected especially on the basis of their use in the New Testament as prophesies or foreshadowings of the Messiah. We would love to have you join us in this devotional journey, either as an individual or as a family. If you’d like to give it a try you can download it here.

It is my prayer that God would use his word to draw my family and yours into a deeper sense of gratitude for the person and work of Jesus and a greater joy in the salvation we have through his death and resurrection.

Image credit: matt coley, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/stained-glass-1234424

Christ is Born: A New Christmas Carol

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I love Christmas carols. From standards like “Joy to the World” and “What Child Is This” to lesser-known carols such as “The Wexford Carol” or “The Holly and the Ivy,” I love singing and listening to the traditional songs that celebrate the birth of Jesus.

This is a carol that I wrote a couple of years ago. Though the words are new, I tried to give it a traditional feel (the tune is from and old English drinking song), and I drew heavily on Scripture (mostly Luke 2, but also Isaiah and the Psalms). My hope is that it will move you to sing, celebrate, and rejoice in the amazing news of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.2013-christ-is-born

P.S. This carol is free to download. You may reproduce, use, perform, or distribute it as much as you like, provided that you do not charge for such services or make any changes without permission.

Image Credit: Rebecca Adeney, © 2013. Used by permission.

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