Three Kinds of Legalism

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Nearly 500 years ago, a small-town professor accidentally ignited a controversy that would change Christianity forever. Martin Luther’s academic critique of the sale of “indulgences” – the promise of forgiveness of sins in exchange for money – expanded to a wide-ranging disagreement about the authority of the Pope, the importance of ecclesiastical rituals, and the relationship between tradition and Scripture.

At the root of Luther’s courageous stand against the abuses of his day was his recovery of the key biblical principle that there are two kinds of righteousness. One is the “proper righteousness” of actual good works in obedience to the law of God. The other is the “alien righteousness” which is ours through union with Christ by faith. Luther championed the biblical truth that our standing with God is based not on our proper righteousness, which is always inadequate, but only on the alien righteousness of Christ.

Luther’s insight had a profound impact on how his protestant heirs view the law of God. If there is one thing we protestants agree on, it is that we shouldn’t be legalists. But this agreement is a bit clouded by the fact that “legalism” isn’t a single phenomenon, but a general category for any kind of misuse of the law. Just as Luther distinguished between two kinds of righteousness, I think it is helpful for us to identify three distinct kinds of legalism.

1) Extra-biblical requirements. Often the first thing that springs to mind when we think of “legalism” is the practice of adding additional requirements to God’s law. This form of legalism appears in Mark 7:1-23, in which the Pharisees censured Jesus’ disciples for eating food without giving their hands a ceremonial washing.

The problem with the Pharisees’ attitude was that such a practice was nowhere commanded by God. It was “the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3, 5). The idea, it seems, was to guard against any possibility of contracting ceremonial defilement (which is a genuine concern of the Old Testament law). But by making their human traditions a requirement for themselves and others, they equated them with the very commandments of God, even to the point of setting aside those commands when they came into conflict with the tradition (Mark 7:8-13).

Everyone, of course, has extra-biblical practices; the problem comes when we make these extra-biblical requirements. The Bible doesn’t tell you that you must read the complete works of Jonathan Edwards, but it’s fine if you do. The problem comes if you look down on others (or yourself) for not reading them.

Extra-biblical requirements can be old traditions or new fads. If you consider yourself better than others or more acceptable to God if you fast during Lent or follow the Twelve Steps or read the One-Year Bible or complete the Forty Days of Purpose, you may be in bondage to the legalism of extra-biblical requirements.

2) Externalism. Jesus responded to the Pharisees with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrines the requirements of men” (Isaiah 29:13; Mark 7:6-7). The second part of this quote (“teaching as doctrines the requirements of men”) points us to the kind of legalism we’ve already discussed, the introduction of man-made, extra-biblical requirements to supplement or even supplant the commands of God.

But Jesus builds on the first part of this quotation to point out another problem with the Pharisees’ attitude to the law of God. It wasn’t just that they were adding extra requirements of their own (Mark 7:8-13). They were also leaving out the most important part of the law – the call to love the Lord with all our hearts – focusing instead on external behaviors and physical rituals (Mark 7:14-23). They were going “below the line” by reducing the law of God to something measurable, manageable, achievable.

The Pharisees were guilty both of adding man-made requirements to the law and of reducing the law’s scope to external behaviors and rituals. But we can sometimes be guilty of only one or the other of these forms of legalism. For example, some Christians seem to think that it is a sin ever to feel angry, lonely, or sad. This is not externalism – it rightly prioritizes the attitudes of the heart – but it imposes an unbiblical standard that Jesus himself did not meet (Mark 3:5; 14:35).

By the same token, we can be guilty of a legalistic focus on external behaviors even when we aren’t going beyond God’s commands. We may be doing what God says is right and avoiding what he says is wrong, but not out of desire to please and honor him. When I read my Bible without really seeking to hear from God, or bottle up my anger out of a fear of the consequences, or serve in ministry to demonstrate what a good person I am, I am not actually keeping God’s commands – I am only pretending to on the outside.

3) Works-Righteousness. This third kind of legalism is the deadliest of all – the attempt to be justified through keeping the law. It is the inherently futile quest to deserve the approval of God through one’s own behavior rather than through the perfect person and finished work of Jesus.

While extra-biblical requirements add to God’s law and externalism reduces it to a matter of outward behavior, works-righteousness fundamentally misrepresents the purpose of the law. It acts as if God gave us his law so that we could earn his approval.

Works-righteousness does not actually add anything to God’s word, because the law really does contain the promise that keeping it will amount to righteousness (Deuteronomy 6:25). But it also contains the prediction that those who received the law would not actually keep it (Deuteronomy 31:15-29). In fact, we all fall far short of the righteous standard of our holy God; it is only through the death and resurrection of Christ that we can be justified in his sight (Romans 3:9-24). Works-righteousness thus  goes “below the line” of God’s word by leaving out both the bad news (none of us meets the standard presented in the law) and the good news (Christ has met the standard for anyone who believes).

Though they can exist independently, these three kinds of legalism are often found together. After all, it’s a lot easier to think that you can be justified by your own works if you have reduced the law to a matter of external compliance, or if you have substituted your own achievable standard for the perfect law of God. On the other hand, if you recognize what the law actually requires, works-righteousness will either be accompanied by an extreme lack of self-awareness or a crushing consciousness of your failure to fulfill God’s commands.

As an earnest young monk, Luther keenly felt that burden of guilt. He knew how far he was from loving God with all his heart and soul, and none of the man-made penances he endured could make up for that fact. He was liberated from this legalism only by the biblical gospel that God justifies sinners who come to him by faith in Christ that. It was this message that went on revolutionize the lives of millions of others around the world and across five hundred years.

It was Luther’s commitment to God’s word that enabled him to hear this good news. This remains the only reliable remedy for all three forms of legalism. Whether we’re tempted to add to God’s commandments, reduce them to achievable externals, use them as a means to justify ourselves, or some combination of the three, we will keep from being legalists as we continually recommit ourselves to staying on the line of God’s word.

 

Image Credit: Ferdinand Pauwels – flickr, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3767049

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Hearing Jesus in the Psalms

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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

Seasonal Family Devotional Bookmark

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A couple of months ago, I posted a series of devotional readings for Advent and Christmastide, which walked through the highlights of the Old Testament and the Christmas narratives from the gospels. Then, just last week I shared a plan for reading through the Gospel of Mark throughout the season of Lent, supplemented by messianic psalms on the Sundays throughout Lent and Eastertide.

And now, here’s a printable bookmark that includes both these sets of readings in a handy format you can stick right in your Bible.  I hope you find it useful!

Also, I should note that I shortened some of the Advent readings, since they were potentially taxing on kids’ attention spans. So, if you found them too long, you might prefer this revised version.

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

Making Sense of the Bible (including the weird parts)

You need the Bible. If you’re a parent, your children need the Bible too. I’ve written before about the importance of personal and family devotions.

But let’s be honest: the Bible can sometimes be hard to understand. I mean, if you stick to easier parts (most of the New Testament), it’s not so bad. But try making sense of the dietary laws, genealogies, obscure prophecies, and ancient battle records that make up a significant chunk of the Old Testament.

bible-1417720Many Christians, of course, simply avoid those parts of the Bible. They have their favorite books (or maybe just their favorite verses) that they return to again and again. But in this way, they effectively deny that the hard parts are really God’s word. Others, convinced that they really ought to read every part of the Bible, dutifully grit their teeth and force their way through the Leviticus part of their read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan, thankful that they can mostly just pay attention to the New Testament and Psalms as they do so.

This isn’t how it is supposed to be. After all, Paul was talking about the Old Testament when he said that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, correcting, reproving, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). All Scripture – not just the parts modern, western Christians find interesting – is not only inspired, but directly beneficial for our daily living. Even Leviticus.

The key to profiting from the reading of each part of Scripture is learning to see how it all connects to the whole. As we see the big picture – the central point and main themes – we can begin to work out how particular details that seem strange and irrelevant connect to the gospel, and thus to our own lives.

Because, as it turns out, the gospel of Jesus is the unifying center of the Bible. He is the goal of every passage from Genesis to Revelation. In fact, he says so himself: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). “And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted for them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27).

Too, often, we approach the Bible as if it were centered on us. This not surprisingly makes much of the Old Testament seem irrelevant and out of place. But when we approach Scripture as the story of Jesus, we begin to see how things fit together. We see how the events and people of the Old Testament are part of the process of how God brought us salvation through Christ. We see how particular elements of the biblical story foreshadow and reflect the great story at their center. We see why the authors of the New Testament keep bringing in the imagery and categories of the Old Testament to explain the Christ who has finally come.

This switch doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, reading the whole Bible as one great story centered on Jesus is a skill that cannot be mastered in a lifetime. But there are some good tools to help you get started on your way. For adults, God’s Big Picture by Vaughn Roberts is an excellent and approachable road map that charts the major thoroughfares of the Bible’s message. For children and their parents, David Helm’s Big Picture Story Bible is the best guide I know.

But, of course, these are supplementary tools. There is no substitute for sitting down day after day with God’s great story about Jesus.

Image Credit: zizzy0104, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/bible-1417720

The Sight is Glorious

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Today is one of my favorite days of the year. No, I don’t mean Cinco de Mayo, important as the Battle of Puebla was in North American history. Today, with people around the world, I am celebrating a far greater triumph.

Today – forty days after Easter Sunday – is the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ. The book of Acts begins by declaring that, after Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples over a period of forty days before gathering them together to receive his final commission to be his witnesses once the Holy Spirit came upon them. Then he blessed them and visibly ascended into heaven (Acts 1:1-11).

The ascension of Jesus matters. It is the climax and completion of the rescue mission that brought the eternal Son of God to earth to share and redeem our fallen human nature. In his exaltation to the right hand of his Father, Jesus has brought the humanity he now shares with us into intimate and glorious fellowship with the Creator of the universe.

The New Testament is full of vivid illustrations of Jesus’ exaltation. In John’s gospel, Jesus declares that he is going away “to prepare a place for us” as the unique Way to the Father (John 14:1-6). Paul repeatedly celebrates Christ’s exaltation over “every rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that his named, not only in this age, but in the age to come,” an exalted status which he extends to his church, the members of his mystical body (Ephesians 1:18-23; 2:6; cf. Philippians 2:9-11; Colossians 3:1-4; Romans 8:34-39). Hebrews explains Jesus’ ascension as the entrance of the eternal high priest “not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the reality, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (Hebrews 9:24; cf. 6:19-20; 10:19-22). Revelation portrays him as both conquering Lion and sacrificed Lamb, who alone is worthy to approach the very throne of God to receive worship and honor from all creation, along with the authority to unseal the destiny of the world (Revelation 5).

The ascension is the moment of Jesus’ triumph, enthronement, and coronation. That makes this a day to celebrate and sing! Numerous great hymns have been written to help us do that, from “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” and “Jesus shall Reign” to “Before the Throne of God Above.” But one of my favorites is “Look, Ye Saints, the Sight is Glorious.” The words (below) were written in 1809 by the Irish preacher Thomas Kelly. Many hymnals set it to Regent Square (the same tune as “Angels from the Realms of Glory”), but I love the new tune written a few years ago by my friend David Jordan, which you can listen to here.

Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious!
See the Man of Sorrows now,
from the fight returned victorious.
Every knee to him shall bow:
Crown him! crown him! crown the Savior!
Crowns become the victor’s brow.

Crown the Savior; angels, crown him;
rich the trophies Jesus brings;
in the seat of power enthrone him,
while the vault of heaven rings:
Crown him! crown him! crown the Savior!
Crown the Savior, King of kings!

Sinners in derision crowned him,
mocking thus the Savior’s claim;
saints and angels crowd around him,
own his title, praise his name:
Crown him! crown him! crown the Savior!
Spread abroad the victor’s fame!

Hark! those bursts of acclamation,
hark! those loud triumphant chords!
Jesus takes the highest station:
O what joy the sight affords.
Crown him! crown him! crown the Savior!
King of kings and Lord of lords!

Image Credit: Giovanni vendramin, jacopo filippo argenta e fra evangelista da reggio, antifonario II, 1482 – Image by Sailko – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2865976