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3 Kinds of Churches
October 22, 2016

As we prepare to worship God tomorrow, it may do us good to pause for just a few moments to consider the local church. What is the church? Why has God called us into these little communities? Does the local church really matter? It does! The local church is foundational to God’s plan for his people. In their book Church in Hard Places, Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley offer 6 reasons that the local church matters.

The local church is the way God intends to accomplish his mission in the world. “It is primarily though the local church that God wants to make himself known.” Of all the evangelism strategies in the world, of all the ministries in the world, none is more central than the local church. It’s interesting to note that Paul considered his ministry in an area fulfilled not when every person was reached, but when churches had been planted (see Romans 15:19-20). “Paul knew that the churches there were how the gospel would spread into all of the individual neighborhoods. Local churches do local evangelism.” The church is God’s plan, it is God’s mission.

The local church should matter to us because it matters to God. The church is Jesus’ body on earth (see Ephesians 1:22-23) and it is made up of all kinds of people from all walks of life. “Together we represent Christ here on earth through our local body of believers. Therefore, the church is central to the purposes of God and is of benefit to the world around us—even today in our increasingly hostile culture.” The church exists for God’s glory and showcases it in a unique way. “The church is built for Jesus, by Jesus, and on Jesus. It is simply unthinkable then to separate Jesus from the local church. If the gospel is the diamond in the great salvific plan of God, then the church is the clasp that supports it, holds it up, and shows it in its greatest light for the world to see.” If it matters so much to God, it needs to matter to us just as much.

The local church is where the believer grows. It is primarily in the local church that Christians learn doctrine, receive reproof, and train in righteousness (see Ephesians 4:11-13). The local church provides opportunities for growth that are available nowhere else. McConnell says, “In a scheme [a neighborhood] like Niddrie, people need the concerted time and effort that only a local church can provide. Very often people will turn up on our doorstep having heard the gospel through some parachurch ministry. Yet they almost always have large gaps in their biblical knowledge and Christian behavior. Without a local church committed to patiently teaching and training them, these people will flounder indefinitely.” We all need a local church if we are to become like Christ.

The local church is the place where believers must submit themselves to spiritual authority. Many people from many walks of life struggle with issues of authority, though this problem is especially prevalent in the schemes of Scotland. Mez says, “they will not accept criticism or input from anybody they regard as an authority figure.” This attitude needs to be dealt with immediately. God calls Christians to submit to spiritual authority within the local church (see Hebrews 13:17). All believers are called by God to put themselves under the care and oversight of elders. “A culture that despises any kind of authority needs to see healthy models of leadership and submission. And the place for people to see this modeled is in the local church.”

The local church is the best place for spiritual accountability. We have probably all encountered people who believed they were called to ministry or who even carried out some kind of ministry even though their lives were a mess. This happens where people do not have proper spiritual accountability. “All Christians need the spiritual accountability and discipline that being a member of the local church brings. It stops us from drifting. It offers a context for encouragement and rebuke. It provides a community to stir one another on to love and good deeds.”

The local church is the place from which discipline is biblically administered. The task of disciplining disobedient or unruly Christians belongs to the local church. This is a difficult task but one given specifically to the church as a means to show the deepest love and concern for the spiritual care of believers (Matthew 18:15-17). Discipline belongs to the church as one of its important functions.

As you prepare to worship God tomorrow, consider his mercy and his grace in giving us the local church.

Set An Example
October 21, 2016

Today I want to scare you a little. At the very least I want to intimidate you. Actually, I want the Bible to scare and intimidate you, to set a challenge so difficult that you’ll know you can’t possibly meet it on your own. This is a challenge for any Christian, but I’m directing it particularly at younger Christians, at people in their teens or twenties.

I’ve been working on a series of articles that takes a look at some words Paul wrote to Timothy—the older mentor writing a letter to his younger protégé: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). We’ve already seen that Paul wants Timothy to make his life a work of art that other people will be able to see and imitate. Even as a young man, Timothy is to be exemplary, to be worthy of imitation. Last week we saw what it means for Timothy to set an example in his speech and today we want to see what it means for him to set an example in his conduct.

Set An Example In Your Conduct

I’m sure you know that as a Christian you are meant to live as an example in the way you behave. Older siblings are warned to be a good example to their younger brothers and sisters. Christian young people are told of the importance of living as Christians before a watching world of unbelievers. When you’re at school and work, when you’re interacting with neighbors and customers, even when you’re at a family reunion, you are to behave in distinctly Christian ways. You won’t do what unbelievers do, you won’t watch what unbelievers watch, you won’t laugh the things unbelievers laugh at. You are to live as salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16), standing out from the world around you. You know that. You’ve been told.

But did you know that you are also to stand as an example of Christian character and maturity before other Christians, even when those Christians are older, wiser, and godlier than you? That is a scary thought, an intimidating challenge. Yet this was exactly Paul’s challenge to Timothy. Timothy was a young man, young enough that older Christians might look down on him, convinced that they couldn’t possibly learn anything from such a young man. And still Paul told him that it was his responsibility to set them an example in his conduct.

“Conduct” is a very general word. It’s a broad word that refers to all of life. In all he does, in all his behavior, Timothy is to set an example. In every realm of life he is to be exemplary. There is no area of life that isn’t covered by “set the believers an example in conduct.” This was true for Timothy and it is true of you. You aren’t exempted from serving as an example of Christian conduct simply because you are young. You are to be an example “at home, at church, at the grocery store, on the freeway, on the playground, at the barber shop” (according to Philip Ryken). Kent Hughes says, “In the day-in, day-out humdrum of existence—at the gas station, in the grocery line, at the soccer game, washing the car—[you] must be an example to all who believe.” All the time, in every way, in all of life, God challenges you to be an example of godliness to other Christians.

Are you that example of godliness? Do other believers look to you as someone who models what it means to conduct yourself as a Christian? I will leave it to you to consider the entirety of your life because I want to focus on just one—the way you behave when you’re with your local church. When you gather with other Christians, do they see you modeling Christian conduct? Do other Christians, and even older Christians, see you as a model of godliness? This is your God-given task!

From the perspective of an older Christian, one who is just weeks away from hitting 40, I can attest that few things are more encouraging to me than being around young people who exemplify Christian character. I love to be challenged by seeing young people lead godly lives. So I want to challenge you to make a point of setting the believers an example in your conduct right there in your church family. Here are a few ways young Christians can do this:

  • Be there. Attend every service. Make church attendance a high priority that will only be interrupted in the most unusual circumstances. If a sport is going to keep you from church week after week, you need to think long and hard about whether that’s a fair trade. Don’t let every cough and sniffle keep you home on a Sunday morning. Get your homework done by Saturday so you can commit Sunday to the Lord. You can only be an example to other people if you are around other people!
  • Be all-in. Once you get to church, be all-in. One of the best ways to do this is to be friendly, to meet people and engage them in conversation. Your temptation will be to gravitate to people who are very similar to you. So challenge yourself to meet people who are different from you—much older or younger, a different ethnicity, people with disabilities. Look for people who are otherwise overlooked and get to know them.
  • Be a servant. Look for ways to serve in the church, and especially in those ministries that are low-visibility. Lots of people feel specially called and equipped to sing or play an instrument at the front of the room, but most of us are far better equipped to take out the trash or set up the chairs. Volunteer for the lowest jobs, the ones no one else wants to do. And then do those jobs with joy and without demanding gratitude.
  • Be visible. As you worship, set the believers an example in your joyful singing. As you listen to sermons, set the believers an example in your attentive listening. As you put what you’ve learned into practice, set the believers an example in your humility and diligence. As you fellowship, set the believers an example in your willingness to go outside your comfort zone.

This is only a start, just a few suggestions. In these ways and many more you can set an example to the believers in your conduct. This is God’s high and holy calling for you, the young Christian. Will you heed that call?

Questions to Consider

  1. Does it intimidate you to know that you’re called by God to serve as an example in your conduct, even (and especially!) before other Christians?
  2. In what ways do you think you are serving as a good example in your conduct. Pray and thank God for them. In what ways do you think you are setting a poor example in your conduct? Pray and ask God to forgive you and to give you the grace to change.
  3. What are some of the ways you serve in your local church? What are some of the ways you think you ought to serve in your local church?
  4. Do you find it difficult or unnatural to fellowship with people who are different from you? What will you do about it?

Gospel Weariness
October 20, 2016

Gospel weariness. It’s a little phrase I picked up from a friend when he preached at our church not too long ago. His text was James 1, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds…” As he began to preach he told of some of the difficulties his church had encountered in recent days. Most recently and most painfully, dear friends who had only one opportunity to have a child had experienced stillbirth at eight and a half months, just two weeks from delivery. What tragedy. What sorrow.

He and his friends are Christians so they know that suffering is not empty, it is not purposeless, it is not meaningless. But that doesn’t make it any less painful.

Why? Why do we experience such suffering? Why does God allow it? Just from these early verses in James we see something unexpected—trials do us good. Trials do us good by developing spiritual maturity, by developing the most precious character traits. “Trials don’t come about because of what you’ve done but because of who God wants you to be.” Trials generate humility, leveling the field as small and great alike experience pain, miscarriage, death. Trials develop compassion and dependence, teaching us to sympathize with others and be dependent upon God. Trials give us courage in forcing us to handle what we were sure we could never deal with. The couple that lost their child displayed all of this when they said, “We have nowhere to go. All we have is God and his character to lean on.” At the funeral they declared, “Though the fog will not lift and the pain will not go, we hold on.” That’s faith.

Trials do us good in at least one more way: Trials develop a gospel weariness, a weariness with this world. Reflecting on all he had seen and experienced my friend said, “I hate this world right now. All it has done is break my heart.” It had broken his heart and the hearts of the people he loves. “None of us want to stay here. We want to rise in the resurrection and be done with the pain. All this world does is fool you and fail you. It over-promises and under-delivers.”

All of this pain, all of this suffering, all of these trials had made him, had made them, weary. They were tired of suffering, tired of groaning under the weight of this world. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). Rising up within them was an increased desire for a time, for a place, when all trials will be over.

This is a gospel weariness, a weariness I’ve heard described by others, a weariness I’ve begun to feel within. Gospel weariness elevates our perspective from our feet to the horizon, from the trials of this world to the hope of the world to come. It stirs within us a holy longing to be done with this life and to enter into the life to come. It fixates on God’s promises, promises of deliverance, of restitution, of eternal peace. It is a weariness that rests on the promises of the gospel, that finds its hope in the God of the gospel. It does not wallow in despair but gazes with confidence to the future. It is a weariness that cries with the saints of all the ages, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

The Missing Elements of Modern Worship
October 19, 2016

I once paid a visit to one of the most mega of America’s megachurches. It’s a church whose pastor is well-known, a church known for its innovation, a church held up as a model for modern evangelicalism. I went in with as open a mind as I could muster. I left perplexed. I was perplexed not by what was said or done in the service as much as what was left unsaid and undone.

Since that visit I’ve had the opportunity to attend many more churches and, as often as not, they have been similar, missing a lot of the elements that used to be hallmarks of Christian worship. Here are some of the missing elements of modern worship.


That church I visited all those years ago was the first I had ever attended that was almost completely devoid of prayer. The only prayer in the entire service was a prayer of response following the sermon. “With every head bowed and every eye closed, pray these words with me…” There were no prayers of confession, of intercession, of thanksgiving. There was no pastoral prayer to bring the cares of the congregation before the Lord. This is a pattern I have seen again and again in modern worship services, with prayer becoming rare and minimal instead of common and prominent. Conspicuous by their absence are any prayers longer than 30 seconds or a minute in length.

Scripture Reading

Another element that has gone missing in modern worship is the scripture reading. There was a time when most services included a couple of lengthy readings, often one from the Old Testament and one from the New. But then it was trimmed to one and then the reading disappeared altogether in favor of mentioning individual verses as they came up in the sermon. But what of Paul’s command to Timothy that he devote himself to the public reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13)? In too many churches this element has gone missing. In too many churches the Word of God is almost an afterthought.

Already we do well to pause and ask the question: If a worship service includes no prayer and no Bible reading, can we even recognize it as Christian worship?

Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon

Traditionally, Protestant worship services included a confession of sin and an assurance of pardon. Sometimes the congregation would confess their sins by reading a text or a liturgy or by silent prayer. Other times the pastor would confess the sins of the congregation on their behalf. It was a solemn moment. But then there would be the assurance of pardon, where the pastor would bring God’s own assurance that those who confess their sins are forgiven. Solemnity was replaced by joy. This pattern of confession and assurance naturally led to thankful worship and a desire to grow in holiness by hearing from God through his Word as it was read and preached. These elements came early and set up the rest of the service. Yet it is rare to encounter them today.

Expositional Preaching

When Paul wrote to young pastor Timothy he instructed him to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:1-5). Christians have long understood that the best way to preach the word faithfully is to preach the word expositionally—to preach in such a way that the point of the sermon matches the point of the text. That is, the pastor needs to understand not just the wording of the passage, but the author’s intent in writing it. This leads to the most faithful interpretation and application. While there has been a great revival of expositional preaching in recent years, this element is still missing in so much of modern worship, replaced by topical sermons that wander from book to book, text to text, translation to translation. I am convinced that a congregation grows best when they are fed on a steady diet of expositional sermons.

Congregational Singing

An element sadly lacking from so many churches today is singing that is truly congregational. Ironically, modern worship services focus on music more than ever before, but little of it is congregational. Congregational singing is more than a crowd singing along to a band. It is singing dominated by the voices of the people—all of the people. The purpose of the band is to serve and facilitate, not perform and dominate. You know you are experiencing congregational worship when the voices of the people rise higher than the instruments and the lead worshippers. Churches have turned away from hymnody, songs that at their best had deep truth set to simple but beautiful melodies. Instead, they have adopted modern worship which, at its worst, is shallow, repetitive, and set to difficult melodies. Not every song—not even every good and biblical song—is suitable for congregational worship. Wall-shaking, roof-lifting, band-driven worship is no substitute for the beauty of the human voice singing praise to God.


It’s not that every one of these elements has to be prominent every week (and it’s not like these are the only elements that have gone missing). There is a time and place for topical sermons. A confession of sin and assurance of pardon may not be necessary every week. There can be a time for special music that is not well-suited to congregational singing. Well and good. But there was a time when each of these elements was prominent in Christian worship. Where have they gone? Or, perhaps more importantly, why have they gone?

I am convinced that most of these elements have gone missing for pragmatic reasons—they do not accomplish something the church leaders wish to accomplish in their services. Instead of searching God’s Word to determine what elements should or must be present in a worship service, leaders are judging elements by whether or not they work (according to their own standard of what works). Yet each of these elements represents a significant loss because each in its own way expresses obedience to God and brings encouragement to his people.

Lay Aside Every Suitcase
October 18, 2016

On August 3, 2016, Emirates airlines flight 521 crashed at Dubai International Airport. The pilots had just set down the plane when they received a warning that they had landed too late—they would run out of runway before the plane could come to a safe stop. They initiated the go-around procedure which would allow them to lift off, circle the airport, and try again. The plane rose off the runway and began to climb, but then suddenly sank back down and crashed into the ground. It skidded for 800 meters before coming to rest. The crew took immediate action and, remarkably, all 300 people safely evacuated the plane before it was consumed by flames.

Had you been an onlooker watching the evacuation, you would have noticed a troubling phenomenon. Many of the people pouring out of that plane and sliding down the emergency chutes were clutching bags and suitcases. A video taken aboard the plane shows the immediate aftermath of the crash and in the chaos passengers are seen opening the overhead luggage compartments and hauling down their luggage. Seconds later, as they exit the plane, flight attendants are yelling, “Leave your bags behind!” Yet photographs show dazed passengers wandering the tarmac with their bags in tow.

Flight 521 is not the only time this phenomenon has been observed. Photographs of the evacuation of a Cathay Pacific plane show passengers sliding down the chute with bags over their arms and shoulders. When Asiana flight 214 crashed in San Francisco, a number of passengers were photographed walking away from the burning wreckage clutching their suitcases. A police officer who arrived at the scene had to stop others from climbing back into the plane to retrieve their belongings. British Airways 2276 in Las Vegas and U.S. Airways 1702 continue to prove the pattern.

It hardly needs to be said that grabbing your suitcase during an evacuation is a bad idea. It may even be a deadly idea. To take your suitcase is bad for you and everyone around you. It blocks the aisle as you reach overhead to retrieve it, it slows you down as you make your way to and through the exit, it becomes a dangerous object hurtling down the evacuation slide. In a situation in which every second counts, a suitcase is a dangerous impediment that can kill you and the people around you. And still people can’t bear to be without them. A study by the National Transportation Safety Board found that almost half of passengers attempt to retrieve their bags during an emergency evacuation and that they do so primarily to secure their cash and credit cards. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?

As I see those photographs and watch those videos, I can’t help but be reminded of a Bible verse: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). The author of this letter compares the Christian life to a race and warns us that if we are going to run that race well, if we are to run it with endurance and make it to the end, we will need to get rid of every possible hindrance. We must get rid of everything that will slow us down, drag us down, keep us down. Kent Hughes says, “A hindrance is something, otherwise good, that weighs you down spiritually. It could be a friendship, an association, an event, a place, a habit, a pleasure, an entertainment, an honor. But if this otherwise good thing drags you down, you must strip it away.”

A suitcase is a perfectly good thing that may just kill you in an emergency evacuation. It is a perfectly good thing, but it isn’t good enough to risk your life for. And our lives are full of good things that may just slow us down, that may just hinder us from matters that are far more important—matters of eternal consequence. If you’re on a plane that is broken and burning, the best thing you can do is lay aside every weight and every hindrance so you can focus on just getting to safety. This is what’s best for you and what’s best for the people around you. And in a world that is broken and burning, it is even more important to lay aside every possible hindrance, to do it for the good of your own soul and the good of those around you.


3 Awful Features of Roman Sexual Morality
October 17, 2016

Whatever else you know about the Bible, I’m sure you know this: It lays out a sexual ethic that displays God’s intent in creating sexuality and that challenges humanity to live in ways consistent with it. Yet today we are experiencing a sexual revolution that has seen society deliberately throwing off the Christian sexual ethic. Things that were once forbidden are now celebrated. Things that were once considered unthinkable are now deemed natural and good. Christians are increasingly seen as backward, living out an ancient, repressive, irrelevant morality.

But this is hardly the first time Christians have lived out a sexual ethic that clashed with the world around them. In fact, the church was birthed and the New Testament delivered into a world utterly opposed to Christian morality. Almost all of the New Testament texts dealing with sexuality were written to Christians living in predominantly Roman cities. This Christian ethic did not come to a society that needed only a slight realignment or a society eager to hear its message. No, the Christian ethic clashed harshly with Roman sexual morality. Matthew Rueger writes about this in his fascinating work Sexual Morality in a Christless World and, based on his work, I want to point out 3 ugly features of Roman sexuality, how the Bible addressed them, and how this challenges us today.

Roman Sexuality Was About Dominance

Romans did not think in terms of sexual orientation. Rather, sexuality was tied to ideas of masculinity, male domination, and the adoption of the Greek pursuit of beauty. “In the Roman mind, the strong took what they wanted to take. It was socially acceptable for a strong Roman male to have intercourse with men or women alike, provided he was the aggressor. It was looked down upon to play the female ‘receptive’ role in homosexual liaisons.”

A real man dominated in the bedroom as he did on the battlefield. He would have sex with his slaves whether they were male or female; he would visit prostitutes; he would have homosexual encounters even while married; he would engage in pederasty (see below); even rape was generally acceptable as long as he only raped people of a lower status. “He was strong, muscular, and hard in both body and spirit. Society looked down on him only when he appeared weak or soft.” So Romans did not think of people as being oriented toward homosexuality or heterosexuality. Rather, they understood that a respectable man would express his dominance by having sex—consensual or forced—with men, women, and even children.

Roman Sexuality Accepted Pedophilia

The pursuit of beauty and the obsession with the masculine ideal led to the widespread practice of pederasty—a sexual relationship between an adult man and an adolescent boy. This had been a common feature of the Greek world and was adapted by the Romans who saw it as a natural expression of male privilege and domination. A Roman man would direct his sexual attention toward a slave boy or, at times, even a freeborn child, and would continue to do so until the boy reached puberty. These relationships were seen as an acceptable and even idealized form of love, the kind of love that expressed itself in poem, story, and song.

In the Roman world “a man’s wife was often seen as beneath him and less than him, but a sexual relationship with another male, boy or man, represented a higher form of intellectual love and engagement. It was a man joining with that which was his equal and who could therefore share experiences and ideas with him in a way he could not with a woman.” Pederasty—pedophilia—was understood to be good and acceptable.

Roman Sexuality Had a Low View of Womanhood

Women were not generally held in high regard in Roman culture. “Women were often seen as weak physically and mentally. They were inferior to men and existed to serve the men as little more than slaves at times.” A woman’s value was largely in her ability to bear children and if she could not do so, she was quickly cast off. Because lifespans were short and infant mortality high, women were often married off in their young teens to maximize the number of children they could bear.

When it came to sexual mores, women were held to a very different standard than men. Where men were free to carry on homosexual affairs and to commit adultery with slaves, prostitutes, and concubines, a woman caught in adultery could be charged with a crime. “The legal penalty for adultery allowed the husband to rape the male offender and then, if he desired, to kill his wife.” Under Augustus it even became illegal for a man to forgive his wife—he was forced to divorce her. “It is not enough to suggest that women were under-appreciated in Roman culture. There are many instances where they were treated as second-class human beings, slightly more honored than slaves.”

Sexual Promiscuity and Societal Stability

It becomes clear that Rome was a culture of extreme promiscuity and inequality. Those who had power—male citizens—were able to express their sexuality by taking who and what they wanted. Their culture’s brand of sexual morality was exemplified in the Caesars who, one after the other, “were living icons of immorality and cruelty,” using sex as a means of domination and self-gratification.

Yet this system, evil as it looks to our eyes, was accepted and even celebrated by Rome. It was foundational to Roman culture. To be a good Roman citizen a man needed to participate in it, or at least not protest against it. To be loyal to Rome, one had to be loyal to the morality of Rome. To the Romans, the biblical view “would have been seen as disruptive to the social fabric and demeaning of the Roman ideal of masculinity.” What we consider odious and exploitive, they considered necessary and good.

Christianity’s Condemnation

Christianity condemned the Roman system in its every part. According to the Roman ethic, a man displayed his masculinity in battlefield and bedroom dominance. In the Christian ethic, a man displayed his masculinity in chastity, in self-sacrifice, in deference to others, in joyfully refraining from all sexual activity except with his wife. The Roman understanding of virtue and love depended upon pederasty—the systematic rape of young boys. But the Christian sexual ethic limited intercourse to a married man and his wife. It protected children and gave them dignity. A Roman woman was accustomed to being treated as second-class human being but “in Christendom, a woman found a culture of genuine love that saw her as equally important as any man in the eyes of God. She was sexually equal with the man in the marriage union and had equal recourse under the law of God to demand marital fidelity.”

Do you see it? Christianity did not simply represent an alternate system of morality but one that condemned the existing system—the system that was foundational to Roman identity and stability. Christians were outsiders. Christians were traitors. Christians were dangerous. Their brand of morality threatened to destabilize all of society. No wonder, then, that they were scorned and even persecuted.

The Road From Rome

We can’t help but see connections between first century Rome and our twenty-first century world. “Our early Christian ancestors did not confess biblical chastity in a safe culture that naturally agreed with them. The sexual morality they taught and practiced stood out as unnatural to the Roman world… Christian sexual ethics that limited intercourse to the marriage of a man and a woman were not merely different from Roman ethics; they were utterly against Roman ideals of virtue and love.” This is exactly why Christians faced so much hostility. Their morality threatened society’s stability by loving and protecting the marginalized and disenfranchised while condemning (or even converting) those who took advantage of them.

Isn’t this the very thing happening again today? Our society is throwing off the last vestiges of the Christian sexual ethic and as it does so, we are once again outsiders and traitors who threaten to destabilize the whole system. As we insist that sex is to be limited to the marriage of one man to one woman we threaten the stability of a society hell-bent on permitting and celebrating nearly everything except sex within marriage. As we insist that people flourish only within God-given sexual boundaries, we threaten the ideals of virtue and love that demand no greater commitment than consent. As we live our moral lives according to a higher ethic, we silently condemn those who reject the whisper within.

Rueger says, “The first Christians were men and women of great courage. Confessing Christian morality always requires that spirit of bravery.” Indeed, confessing and practicing Christian morality today requires bravery, the willingness to obey God rather than men, even in the face of persecution. May God continue to instill that spirit within us.

The Writing Is On the Wall
October 16, 2016

In election season there are always many candidates who announce their intention to run for office. But inevitably, many of them come to realize that they stand no chance. They see the writing on the wall and drop out. In the fall, television networks debut many new shows. Some of them attract few viewers, little buzz, poor reviews. The actors see the writing on the wall and are not surprised to learn their show has been canceled. We all know this idiom, but do we know where it came from? It is yet another one that has entered the English language via the Bible and especially the King James Version of the Bible.

The Expression

The writing is on the wall is an ominous expression used to predict the inevitability of doom, failure, or another unwanted, unwelcome outcome. A May headline in the Washington Post declared “Bernie Sanders knows the writing is on the wall. Here’s the proof.” The article explained, “Sanders himself plainly knows that, once the voting is over, his argument for continuing to flip the super-delegates will lose whatever remaining force and coherence it currently has.” And sure enough, Sanders was forced to bow out. More recently, an article in the Christian Post asked, “Is the writing on the wall for religious freedom in this country? Just ask two Arizona calligraphers.” It tells how the city of Phoenix passed an ordinance which will force these Christian calligraphers to create invitations for same-sex weddings—an act that would violate their conscience, their freedom of speech, and their religious freedom. In both of these articles, an undesired outcome was considered inevitable and, hence, the writing is on the wall.

The Origin

The expression comes from the book of Daniel. In chapter 5 we read of a great feast thrown by the Babylonian king Belshazzar. He decides he will mock the Israelite God by drinking from cups taken from the temple in Jerusalem. Then this: “Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote” (5). Not surprisingly, the king is terrified and asks to have the writing translated and interpreted. Daniel, a Jew, is able to read and understand it: “This is the writing that was inscribed: Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin. This is the interpretation of the matter: Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; Peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (24-28). The writing on the wall was a prophecy of doom and destruction.

It seems that it was first used as an English idiom beginning in the eighteenth century. In 1720 we find Jonathan Swift writing: “A baited Banker thus desponds, / From his own Hand foresees his Fall; / They have his Soul who have his Bonds; / ‘Tis like the Writing on the Wall.” Since then it has come into common use, though most people have little knowledge of its origins. A search of just one week’s news stories turns up hundreds of uses.

The Application

Though the expression is used to predict doom, it is first an expression of confidence, at least to the Christian. The writing on the Babylonian wall was a prophecy, a predictor of what would happen in the future. This assures us of the providence of God. God is able to speak of the future because he is the one who holds the future. God has complete knowledge of what will happen because he has complete power over what will happen. And, sure enough, the prophecy proved true. God proved true. The writing on the wall was his inviolable word.

The idiom should also remind us that God has given his people a prophetic role in this world. We do not expect to speak new revelation or to see new handwriting appear on our walls. No, at this point God has spoken fully and inerrantly in his Word, the Bible. Our God-given task is to take the words God has already spoken and speak them to the world around us. For just as God prophesied doom against Babylon, he has spoken a sure word of doom for all who refuse to trust in his Son. For them, the writing is on the wall: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8). Daniel’s task as God’s representative was to fully and accurately speak what God has written. Our task as God’s representatives is to fully and accurately speak what God has spoken. Will we be found faithful as Daniel was found faithful?

Here are a couple of songs that come to mind when I think about all of this:

The Judge of All the Earth by Shai Linne, which declares that the judge of all the earth shall do right.

Speak, O Lord by Keith & Stuart Townend, which asks God to speak through his Word so we can live in his way.

The Provocative People of Proverbs
October 15, 2016

I feel sorry for those people who spend all day on social media snarking at others. Do they just sit there hour after hour, following people they despise, then throwing barbs their way? That must be an awful way to live. Some people seem to shrivel where there is peace and thrive where there is contention. The book of Proverbs warns us about people like that, people who love to incite conflict and hate to resolve it. Lou Priolo highlights a number of them in his excellent book Resolving Conflict. These are the provocative people of Proverbs.

The hot-tempered person. “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but the slow to anger calms a dispute” (15:18). The hot-tempered man is passionate about all kinds of things and allows that passion to well up into anger. He’s your classic hothead who so easily blows his top. His passion and anger incites him to stir up strife, to cause problems that could otherwise be avoided or resolved.

The perverse person. “A perverse man spreads strife, and a slanderer separates intimate friends” (16:28). Just like a computer hacker writes a virus and releases it to spread across the internet, this perverse person creates strife—bitter disagreement—and seeds it into his relationships. He may do this through slander, through gossip, and through backbiting, always with the design of turning other people against his victim. His perversity is aimed at harming others.

The lover of transgression. “He who loves transgression loves strife; he who raises his door seeks destruction” (17:19). Instead of loving and pursuing all that is good and lovely in the world, this person loves sin, he loves strife, he loves what is evil and ugly. “Who else would love strife besides a person who also loves sin? He enjoys a good fight, whether he is in the ring himself or is coaching from the corner. By raising his door (opening his mouth in pride) he finds what he is looking for—someone getting annihilated.”

The obstinate fool. “A fool’s lips bring strife, and his mouth calls for blows” (18:6). Proverbs identifies at least three different kinds of fool. This one is foolish not because of some mental deficiency but “because of his propensity to make wrong choices.” He brings strife with him wherever he goes simply because of his foolishness. Contention is part of who he is, part of what he does. This fool’s words provoke trouble, “calling for blows”—practically begging for a beating.

The morally deficient fool. “Keeping away from strife is an honor for a man, but any fool will quarrel” (20:3). This brand of fool is even worse than the obstinate one. This one outs himself the moment he opens his mouth because his words show him to be utterly deficient in goodness and grace. He is nearly intolerable and causes trouble wherever he goes.

The scoffer. “Drive out the scoffer, and contention will go out, even strife and dishonor will cease” (22:10). The scoffer makes repeated appearances in Proverbs and we learn not to tangle with him because he refuses to listen to rebuke, he lacks wisdom, he is full of pride, and he will not seek or heed counsel from others. He is so odious that eventually everyone turns away from him, refusing to even associate with him.

The contentious man. “As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife” (26:21). If you put a piece of wood near hot embers, it is only a matter of time before the wood bursts into flame. In the same way, if you remain too long in the presence of a contentious, quarrelsome person, it is only a matter of time before you end up in a battle. This contentious person is always up for a good argument and no issue is too big or too small.

The arrogant man. “An arrogant man stirs up strife” (28:25). Pride goes hand-in-hand with contention so it is no surprise that arrogance leads to strife. This is why proud people so often end up quarreling with others and this is why it is so difficult to resolve those conflicts. Peacemaking and peacekeeping require humility.

The angry man. “An angry man stirs up strife, and a hot-tempered man abounds in transgression” (29:22). The person whose life is characterized by anger is a person who constantly stirs up strife, creating it where it does not need to exist, maintaining it where it could easily be resolved. Proverbs warns us not to closely associate with this kind of angry person lest we unwittingly adopt his ways. Not only that, but this angry person has the ability, and perhaps even the desire, to stir up problems between others, to force his anger far beyond himself.

What do we do with such provocative people? How do we relate to them? “For the most part, you will know up front that your chances of bringing your conflict with such a person to a peaceful resolution are very slight. As a rule, the best thing you can do is to warn him of the consequences of his actions and stay out of his way.” But even more importantly, look for these provocative traits within yourself and put them to death!