Timothy Keller on Thanks and Rest

“Cosmic ingratitude is living in the illusion that you are spiritually self-sufficient. It is taking credit for something that was a gift. It is the belief that you know best how to live, that you have the power and ability to keep your life on the right path and protect yourself from danger. That is a delusion, and a dangerous one. We did not create ourselves, and we can’t keep our lives going one second without his upholding power. Yet we hate that knowledge, Paul says, and we repress it. We hate the idea that we are utterly and completely dependent upon God, because then we would be obligated to him and would not be able to live as we wish. We would have to defer to the one who gives us everything.

“Therefore, because the sin in our hearts makes us desperate to keep control of our lives and to live the way we want, we cannot acknowledge the magnitude and scope of what we owe him. We are never as thankful as we should be. When good things come to us, we do everything possible to tell ourselves we accomplished that or at least deserve it. We take the credit. And when our lives simply are going along pretty smoothly, without a lot of difficulties, we don’t live in quiet, amazed, thankful consciousness of it. In the end, we not only rob God of the glory due him, but the assumption that we are keeping our lives going robs us of the joy and relief that constant gratitude to an all powerful God brings.”

Timothy Keller, Prayer (196-197)

Why does he preach such weird sermons?

On Sunday I preached what was, perhaps for some of you, an unusual sermon.  For those of you who didn’t hear the sermon it was a survey of story of Scripture as a story of the restlessness of Israel, and humanity more broadly, and the offer of rest through Jesus Christ. It was prompted by the topic of “rest” in Hebrews 3-4. You can listen to it here.

If you have been at Union for any length of time (which is rare here, of course), you have probably heard me do this type of sermon a few times. I thought it might be helpful for me to explain briefly why I do this from time to time.

First, I want you to know that I don’t do it because I think many of the congregation don’t know the main storyline of Scripture. Some may not and I hope it benefits them. But I don’t really imagine that I am telling most of you something you don’t already know.

However, I do think that it is good for us to get a review every now and then. Sometimes our study of Scripture gets very fragmented. We look in detail at isolated passages for practical application or doctrinal defense and can sometimes lose the proverbial forest for the trees. A reminder of the overall storyline helps contextualize our study of specific passages.

Another goal of such a reminder is to help us remember what story it is that we are a part of. We understand ourselves and our world through stories, narratives. We are offered a variety of prepackaged story lines through which to understand our lives. I believe that Scripture offers the best comprehensive story to interpret ourselves and the world. I also believe that we need to have it repeated frequently to draw us away from the inferior stories on offer.

Finally, I do this as an aid for evangelism. The basic story line of Scripture can be told a variety of ways. Perhaps before yesterday’s sermon you had never thought of it as a story about rest. But it is a legitimate way to tell the story and a particularly relevant one for our contemporary world. The story can also be told from the angle of identity, of slavery and freedom, death and life, the presence of God in the world, etc. Knowing various ways to tell the Biblical story assists us in evangelism because we can tell the story of the gospel to people in ways that connect specifically with their need.

I have found this way of thinking about Scripture extremely helpful for my own theological and spiritual development. I hope it helps you too.

The Rest of the Story

In today’s passage (Hebrews 2:5-18) the author of Hebrews claims that Scripture prophecies that ‘the world to come’ was not promised to angels but rather to humanity. This is part of a biblical story-line that we don’t pay much attention to.

Deuteronomy 32:8 suggests that when God divvied out the land to nations, he gave some measure of governance over those lands to spiritual beings. These may be the beings with whom he consorts in Psalm 82:1 “in the midst of the gods He holds judgement.” Furthermore, these spiritual beings may be those behind the various New Testament references to principalities, powers, rulers, forces, etc.

From Psalm 82:2 we infer that most of these forces, which seem to be something more than just merely demons, failed in their oversight of their lands, perhaps even welcoming worship of themselves through the idolatrous practices of the people.

If Psalm 8 indicates that it is God’s plan to pass authority of all things in the cosmos to humanity, and if Hebrews 2 implies that he has decisively done this in Christ, than it would be understandable if spiritual forces were actively opposed to Christ and his followers.  Against such a background, Paul’s claim that Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame” makes sense (Col. 2:15). Additionally, the claim that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, etc.” makes perfect sense, too. In and through Christ, we are direct threat to their existence and authority.       Remarkably, Paul even insists that we will sit in judgment over these spiritual beings (1 Cor. 6:3).

What might this mean for daily life and ministry? Well, we’re out of space so I guess we’ll have to leave that question for a later article!


Donne in

This is the Holy Sonnet by John Donne that I used to shape my prayer on Sunday.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Of pigs and pearls

The final verse of Matthew 7:1-6 seems to be completely unrelated to what precedes and follows. Not surprisingly it has generated many different interpretations. Throughout church history it has been interpreted as a prohibition against serving communion to heretics or the unbaptized, as a principle concerning how much energy to spend evangelizing those most resistant to the gospel, and even not interpreted as all because there is not enough context for it to make sense. There is no simple solution.

There is one approach that tries to relate it to the previous section by reading it as a sort of counterpoint to the message about judgment. David Allison summarizes the relationship between the passages this way: “Matt. 7:1-5 has commanded that there be not too much severity. Matt. 7:6 follows up by saying that there should not be too much laxity.” The kingdom and its principles are things of value like the sacrificial meat and pearls in the illustration. On this reading, Jesus is saying, “Don’t treat the kingdom and its principles casually.” The focus is not on trying to identify specific people with the dogs and swine (e.g. Gentiles, heretics) but rather on the action that shows a lack of treasuring something precious.

In a way, in judgmentalism we misuse the kingdom principles by overvaluing them. We wield them as weapons to judge and rank others according to their adherence to the kingdom life. This is a danger.

But there is an opposite danger: we can regard the kingdom principles too lightly. We can treat behaviors and attitudes that are contrary to the kingdom ethic as insignificant, matters such as honesty, sexual morality, economic practices.

Both of these dangers are present and even prevalent in the church today. Some groups use their faithful adherence to the kingdom way as justification for pride and judgment of others less faithful. These groups fail the judgmentalism test and have missed the point of the kingdom.

Other religious groups have evacuated the Christian message of virtually all moral content except, usually, for a few of the shibboleths of the contemporary culture such as environmentalism or intolerance. But the passage makes clear that we are to be involved in helping our kingdom siblings with the splinters in their eyes, not blithely denying the existence of them. Interestingly, those who treat kingdom purity so lightly often find that, as the passage predicts, it comes back to bite them in some way.

Taken together, then, the instructions in this section direct us toward a balanced way of thinking about and applying kingdom principles and purity.

Refreshing Prepositional (Re)Phrase

I found myself singing one of the worship songs from yesterday while I was driving today.

Holiness, Holiness is what I long for,
Holiness is what I need.
Holiness, holiness is what you want from me.*

It’s a simple song, easy to remember and a good reminder. Then my mind made a little leap that I hadn’t made with this song before.

The final line rightly stresses that God desires holiness from us (and in ensuing verses–faithfulness and righteousness). But we get a lot of reminders of what God wants from us. So many, in fact, that they can become overwhelming when we realize just how far short of holiness, faithfulness and righteousness we fall.

The leap my mind made was this: it occurred to me that the line is no less true if we change the preposition “from” to “for.” “Holiness is what you want for me.” This changes the tone so much! God doesn’t just desire holiness, faithfulness and righteousness from us because his justice or Christ’s sacrifice demands it of us. Rather, the Father desires these things for us as his children because he knows that they are what are best for us.

I’m not suggesting that we change the way we sing the song. But expanding the way we think about it might not be bad.


* Scott Underwood, Mercy/Vineyard Publishing

Sermon Summary – “Truth Decay”

Swear bibleThe next in Jesus’s series of 6 interactions with the OT law has to do with oaths. In this section Jesus pulls two phrases from the OT which interpreters of his day may have been combining (Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2). The phrases warn against swearing by God’s name but not fulfilling what you vow.

In order to protect themselves against breaking this law and incurring judgment, the people took to swearing their oaths by other things: the earth, Jerusalem, the temple, the gold of the temple (Mt. 23:16), and even their own heads. They could make an oath that sounded important but if they failed to complete it they were in no danger. Or so they thought.

In his response, Jesus makes two moves. First, he shows that failing their new vows is just as damning because they infringe upon God just as swearing by his name does. The earth is God’s throne. Jerusalem belongs to the King. So just by changing the words they have not succeeded in escaping through a lexical loophole.

But just as we have seen him do in the previous passages, he goes a step further. He says not to swear at all (34). Why not?

Oaths exist because honesty does not. Oaths are either an attempt to secure honesty from others through threat of judgment (e.g. court witnesses swearing on a Bible), or to convince others of our sincerity (“I didn’t wreck the car! I swear to God!”). We swear because we lie. What Jesus envisions is a world where people can be taken at their word. A world where we speak unequivocally. Where yes means yes and no, no. A world where we don’t have to add words to undergird the accuracy of our other words.

The kingdom of God is founded on the Truth-speaking and Word-keeping of God. Jesus is saying that people of the Word should be people of their word.

Prayer Lingo – Intercession

Recently someone asked about the difference between “prayer” and “intercessory prayer.” They questioned whether “intercessory prayer” is a specific form of prayer that is somehow more powerful or if the word “intercessory” is only used to make the prayer sound more serious, as if there is “praying” and then “really praying.”
To “intercede” or to make “intercession” is to make an appeal on behalf of someone, usually if they are in difficulty. There really isn’t anything more to it than that. Accordingly, any time we pray something for someone we are “interceding” for them.
From a biblical standpoint, the remarkable thing about intercession is that both Christ (Heb. 7:25) and the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:26) are said to intercede for us. Now that is a prayer with some power behind it.

Mocking the Maimed

In this past week’s sermon on Jesus’s teaching concerning adultery and lust (Mt. 5:27-30) we made connections between that teaching and a couple of the beatitudes: purity of heart and hungering for righteousness (Mt. 5:6, 8).

In his study of the Sermon on the Mount, John Stott makes one further connection between this teaching and the beatitudes. he suggests that if we take decisive action against our sin and desires it may lead to a form of persecution.

To obey this command of Jesus will involve for many of us a certain ‘maiming.’ We shall have to eliminate from our lives certain things which (though some may be innocent in themselves) either are, or could easily become, sources of temptation. In his own metaphorical language we may find ourselves without eyes, hands or feet. That is, we shall deliberately decline to read certain literature, see certain films, visit certain exhibitions. If we do this, we shall be regarded by some of our contemporaries as narrow-minded, untaught Philistines. ‘What?’ they will say to us incredulously, ‘you’ve not read such and such a book? You’ve not seen such and such a film? Why, you’re not educated, man!’ They may be right. We may have had to become culturally ‘maimed’ in order to preserve our purity of mind. The only question is whether, for the sake of this gain, we are willing to bear that loss and endure that ridicule…It is better to forgo some experiences this life offers in order to enter the life which is life indeed; it is better to accept some cultural amputation in this world than risk final destruction in the next.

John R. W. Stott, The Sermon on the Mount, 91.