How Do You Plead?

One of the challenges of old hymns is understanding what the words mean. I don’t mean the old-fashioned words that we just don’t use anymore, like “thou” or “surety” or “foe.” Those we can recognize as not part of our regular vocabulary. So we take a moment to figure out or look up or learn their meanings, and move on.

The tough words are the ones we still use, but with a different meaning from the one that was intended when the hymn was written centuries ago.

One of the most misunderstood words in some of the best hymns is the word “plead.” It shows up in several of my favorite hymns about Jesus’ ascension and intercession.

            Before the throne of God above

            I have a strong and perfect plea,

            a great high priest, whose name is love,

            who ever lives and pleads for me


             Five bleeding wounds he bears,

            received on Calvary,

            they pour effectual prayers,

            they strongly plead for me.


            Alleluia, Bread of Heaven, thou on earth our food, our stay,

            Alleluia, here the sinful flee to thee from day to day.

            Intercessor, Friend of sinners, earth’s Redeemer, plead for me

            where the songs of all the sinless sweep across the crystal sea.

These words sometimes raise objections, because in our normal usage, “pleading” means begging, imploring, piteously arguing with someone who is reluctant to grant our request. This, of course, is not a biblical picture of Jesus’ intercession with God. The Father is not unwilling to forgive us – he sent Jesus to die for us so that he could do just that! And the Risen Lord is not a beggar.

So it’s not surprising that some people have tried to change the wording of these hymns. In one hymnal I have, the second to last line of “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus,” has been changed to, “Intercessor, Friend of sinners, earth’s Redeemer, hear our plea.” This removes the offensive image of Jesus begging a vengeful God to let us off the hook, but at the cost of making us plead with Jesus himself.

Advokat,_Engelsk_advokatdräkt,_Nordisk_familjebokBut this is really unnecessary, simply because that’s not what “pleading” meant when these hymns were written. In the British legal tradition, “pleading” is the activity of a legal advocate arguing a case in court. It does not imply begging or imploring, but simply urging the judge to decide in favor of one’s client.

We still use “pleading” this way in the American court system when we are asked, “How do you plead?” The judge does not want to know what it sounds like for us to beg. He just wants to know whether we are going to maintain our innocence, or accept the charge against us.

The good news is that we don’t have to plead for ourselves. We don’t have to convince God that we are innocent, or deserving of forgiveness. We don’t argue our own case. Because Jesus, eternal God and glorified man, has ascended to the right hand of God the Father, we have an unfailing Advocate who never stops interceding for us before our Judge. There, in the heavenly courtroom, Jesus our High Priest, Mediator, and Advocate speaks on our behalf.

How do you plead? If you trust in Jesus as your Advocate, you don’t have to. He does it for you.

Not guilty.

            My God is reconciled, his pardoning voice I hear,

            he owns me for his child, I can no longer fear

            with confidence I now draw nigh,

            and “Father, Abba, Father!” cry.



Image credit: Public Domain,


Three Kinds of Legalism


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,

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,

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,

Who is this “God” person, anyway?


If you asked the average American on the street (or perhaps on the couch, the more natural habitat of the American) what God looks like, they would probably say a dude with a white robe, a white beard, and long white hair. It’s the stock image of God found in every corner of our culture, from The Simpsons to Existential Comics to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (pictured).

Unfortunately, this picture is profoundly misleading.

Now, granted, there is some biblical basis for this imagery; the prophet Daniel, for instance, said that the “Ancient of days” of his vision was dressed in “clothing … as white as snow,” and that “the hair of his head was white like wool” (Daniel 7:9). On the other hand, the Bible consistently warns against taking such imagery literally and forbids making any images of God (e.g. Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 4:15-20). This is because making a physical object to represent God presents him as finite, local, comprehensible, controllable. And God is none of those things. The problem is not so much an inaccurate view of God’s hairstyle as a fundamental category error about the kind of entity God is.

We tend to imagine God as a kind of superhero – basically like us, but with superpowers. This Superhero God can do all kinds of amazing, miraculous things, altering the physical world at will. But Superhero God’s powers, however great, are not essential to his being in any way. He can interfere with the world or not, as he chooses, or even, as in the movie Bruce Almighty, hand them over to someone else – a familiar superhero trope. In this view, being “God” is more of a job than an identity. Sure, it’s a really important job; as Jim Carrey’s character discovered, someone with unlimited power needs unlimited wisdom to know how to use his power for the good of everyone. (As Peter Parker might say, “With great power comes great responsibility.”) But the most this does is make Superhero God the caretaker of the universe. He is not its Sovereign or Lord, and we naturally rebel against the notion that must obey such a being just because he is more powerful than we are.

It needs to be said that this notion of God is very different from the one taught by historic, biblical Christianity. The God of the Bible is not merely the most powerful being in the universe; he is the foundation on which the universe depends for its existence. This does not merely mean that God existed before the universe and got it going; rather, it is only by the will and power of God that any particle of the universe continues to exist.

This version of God appears throughout the Christian Bible. So we find the prophet Isaiah declaring that it is God’s power that keeps the stars appearing night after night after night (Isaiah 40:26). In the final heavenly vision of Revelation, God is declared worthy of worship because he both created and sustains “all things” (Revelation 4:11). And then there is the Apostle Paul, who defines God as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” in a speech to the religious police in Greece (Acts 17:28) and as the one who “works all things according to the counsel of his will” in a letter to believers in Asia Minor (Ephesians 1:11). Even more emphatically, he declares that “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). This is paralleled by the statement in Hebrews 1:3 that God’s Son “upholds the universe by the word of his power.”

The God of the Bible does not stand apart from the world, observing and occasionally interfering. He upholds it, sustains it, contains it. If he were to step aside or let go or allow his mind to wander, the universe would cease to exist. We need God for each moment of our continued existence. But God does not need us. He existed in eternal joy before creating the world, and he will one day bring this world to an end.

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,

and the heavens are the work of your hands.

They will perish, but you will remain;

they will all wear out like a garment.

You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,

but you are the same, and your years have no end. (Psalm 102:25-27)

Classic Christian theology thus includes in the definition of God the fact that he is “necessary,” while all other being is contingent upon him. This is not pantheism; creation is real and distinct from God. But it cannot exist apart from him, any more than a shadow can exist without something solid.

Set against this biblical backdrop, the Superhero God flexing his muscles on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a ridiculously inadequate caricature. God is not like a man. He has no limitations, no weaknesses, no needs. He is the foundation on which all our contingent existence rests. The idea of God taking a break or handing over the management of the universe to someone else has all the absurdity of Elmer Fudd picking up the planks of the bridge he is walking across until he realizes his unsupported predicament and plummets to his doom.

Every moment is a gift from God. He not only planned it and created the laws and processes that would lead to it, but his direct action sustains and continues what his direct action began. Every move you make, every breath you take, every particle of your being is the outflow of the gracious power of a merciful and unfathomable Sustainer.

This is the answer to our objections to the biblical picture of God’s commands and judgments. When we think of God as just a more powerful version of ourselves, it is only natural that we would view his attempts to tell us what to do as arrogant bullying. Who does he think he is? Why doesn’t he mind his own business? But when we recognize the true nature of God, we cannot escape the conclusion that we are and must be his business if we are to be anything at all.

Asking God to leave us alone is like complaining that the air keeps pushing its way into our lungs or that the earth keeps holding us up. If God left us to our own devices, he would consign us to instant annihilation. And the miracle is that he does not. Even as we ignore him, deny him, reject his commands, misuse his gifts, abuse and harm his good creations, and mock his love, it is his long-suffering and merciful will that makes it possible for us to do so.

But there is more. God not only endures our rebellion and continually provides us with the existence we continually use to reject him; he offers us forgiveness and restoration to fellowship with him by taking the consequences of our sin on himself, dying on the cross in our place. And, as with all of God’s actions toward us, this incredible sacrifice was prompted not by necessity, but by love. The God who does not need us still wants us. The necessity which we reject in vain invites us to embrace him willingly and find in him an eternal and unquenchable source of life and joy.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not grow tired or weary,

and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary,

and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall,

but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)


Image Credit: Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (


The Sight is Glorious


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,

Star Wars and Seeds of Doubt

Jordan_Peters_Star_WarsA few weeks ago, before the rolling yellow opening credits of the latest Star Wars movie appeared in theaters across the land, the crazy theories began to fill my Facebook newsfeed.

I’m not just talking about theories about Episode VII. Before the movie came out, those were pretty much all just speculation, and could have been true. (Although – spoiler alert! – it turns out Kylo Ren is not actually Luke Skywalker.)

I’m talking about theories about the movies we had all already seen, particularly the original trilogy. Crazy, loopy, ridiculous theories seriously advanced on major news sites.  There were claims that the Empire were the good guys, or that Luke actually turned to the dark side in the climactic encounter with Vader and the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi. I even encountered the outrageous, meticulously-defended assertion that Revenge of the Sith (in case you’ve forgotten, that’s the name of Episode III) is a better movie than any of the original trilogy.

Like I said, crazy stuff. The Empire were the good guys? Tell that to Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. Luke turned to the dark side? Both he and the Emperor explicitly agreed that he remained a Jedi. Episode III was better than IV and V? Check out their relative ratings on

The thing is, as all these articles started popping up on our collective newsfeeds, you could see the seeds of doubt taking root in people’s minds. Like me, most of my Facebook friends (and friends-of-friends) grew up with Star Wars. We’ve loved it all our lives. But as people encountered these new theories, some would start to question their previous beliefs and interpretations. What if the Empire wasn’t as bad as we’d thought? What if Luke didn’t actually overcome the lure of the dark side? Most insidiously of all, what if the original movies weren’t actually all that good? What if we all just got hooked on them when we were kids, and that early exposure has biased us so much that we see greatness where there really isn’t any?

As I watched these seeds of doubt taking root in my social network, I had the weirdest sense of deja vu.

You see, I’m a Christian. Not only that, I grew up in a Christian home. So did my parents. And their parents. I don’t know how far back you would have to go to find my most recent non-Christian ancestor, but it’s a long ways. Suffice it to say, I grew up steeped in Christianity, church, and the Bible. From the schools my parents sacrificed to send me to, to the camp I attended every summer, to the books I read and the songs I listened to, I was thoroughly immersed in a context that taught me to believe that Jesus loves me (the Bible tells me so), and that I should love him too. And so I did.

And then I grew up and left home and encountered ideas and theories that regarded the claims of the Bible as completely unreliable. I came across perspectives that offered complex and sophisticated alternative explanations for how the Bible came to be written and how people came to believe the crazy idea that Jesus was anything more than an unusually gifted religious leader, explanations that claimed to explain away the Jesus I had always loved. And so I watched as friends who came from backgrounds like my own began to question and doubt what they had always accepted as good and true.

Fast forward a few years, and here I am watching the same doubts crop up, this time around a beloved movie franchise: “Is my love for this just an irrational bias that comes from being immersed in it as a child?”

As a matter of fact, I think the bias actually runs the other way. Take the case of Star Wars. I would argue that our familiarity with these movies is actually what makes it possible for us to forget just how good they really are. Because we grew up with these movies, watched them so many times, and know them so well, they don’t hit us with the full impact that they would if we were seeing them for the first time. The reality is that Star Wars: A New Hope didn’t just mesmerize a bunch of impressionable youngsters; it took the Hollywood establishment by storm, earning six Oscars, as well as nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role. (Revenge of the Sith, by contrast, was nominated for “Best Achievement in Makeup.”) And despite all the special-effects advances of subsequent decades, it continues to charm unbiased first-time viewers.

Star Wars is the real deal. And, as it turns out, so is Jesus. Despite a multi-generational campaign to discredit it, the evidence for the historical reliability of the New Testament really remains unparalleled in the ancient world. While reasonable scholars may continue to debate many details, that doesn’t affect the overall picture any more than Star Wars is ruined by Luke whining about power converters. The reason the gospel spread across the ancient world so quickly is that it was backed up by credible evidence. And to this day, the message of Christianity continues to amaze, convince, and convert more people around the world than any other idea or philosophy in the history of humanity.

And yet, not everyone believes. Not even everyone who grew up in a Christian home like mine holds onto the faith they apparently embraced as a child. Some even become active opponents of the gospel, attacking the Bible and Christianity publicly and doing their best to plant seeds of doubt in the hearts of those who still believe what they have abandoned. And sometimes they succeed in making some believers question their ability to evaluate the claims of the Bible objectively.

Let’s make this personal. Perhaps you grew up in a Christian context and are now questioning whether the gospel is really true. Or maybe you’re way past questioning; you simply don’t believe any more in the Jesus they told you about when you were a kid. Of course you believed in Jesus when Christianity was the only thing you knew. You accepted it because it was familiar, but now you know better.

May I suggest that it may actually be the other way around? That it is precisely because the gospel is familiar to you that you no longer believe it the way you did when it was fresh and new? That you no longer see the goodness of the good news because it is no longer news to you? That if you could somehow lay aside the baggage of your assumptions and associations and open up the Bible like any other book, you would be blown away all over again by the message of God responding to your rebellion by sending his Son as a real man in real history to save you and bring you back into relationship with him?

Before The Force Awakens came out, I sat down and watched the original trilogy with my wife. I hadn’t seen them in a while, and it was great to see them again with fresh eyes, to remember how funny and exciting and moving and powerful they really are.

Maybe it’s time you did the same thing with Jesus. Give him a fresh look; you might find yourself surprised by just how amazing his grace really is.


Image Credit: “Jordan Peters Star Wars” by Huỳnh Kim Chí – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons –