Category Archives: Meditations

The Gospel According to God the Father

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What is the Gospel? Even many Christians who’ve grown up in church their whole lives don’t understand what it is about the death of Jesus that rescues us from sin and hell. In order to understand the Gospel better, we ought to examine three pictures that come from the three times that God the Father spoke from Heaven during the ministry of Jesus Christ.

Water: The Baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3.17)

  • Baptism is for sinners (3.5-6)
  • Jesus came to be baptized (3.13-15)
  • God the Father declares Jesus as the Righteous One (3.16-17)
    • “this” – A specific person we must pay attention to.
    • “beloved” – A unique affection that the Father has for Jesus. Implication: the Chosen One.
    • “Son” – A special relation between the Father and Jesus. Implication: Davidic heir (Ps. 2.7).
    • “well pleased” – A righteous condition before God. See Isa. 42.1; Hebrews 10:5-10.
  • Water=Jesus Identified as the Righteous Chosen One+Jesus Identifies with Sinners.

Message: The Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17.5)

  • Jesus identifies as the divine message (i.e., logos) to mankind (17.2).
  • Jesus identifies with the great messengers of Israel’s past (17.3).
  • The Father calls us to hear and obey the Gospel message of Jesus (17.5).
  • Word=Hearing the Gospel Message+Obeying the Gospel Message

Cross: Jesus Ministers in the Temple (John 12.28-29)

  • Glory among the Gentiles (12.20-22)
  • Glory in death (12.23-24; 30-33)
  • Glory to the Father in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus (12.28-29).
  • Cross=Death of Jesus+Glory to the Father

Conclusion: God’s Silence in the Death of Jesus (Matthew 27.46)

  • Water: Jesus is left without vindication by himself and the Father so that he could identify with sinners (1 Pet. 3.18; Rom. 3.24-27; 2 Cor. 5.21).
  • Cross: Jesus brings glory to the Father by absorbing his wrath against sinners so that they might be reconciled to God (Col. 2.14).
  • Message: This Gospel of Jesus Christ must be heard and obeyed (2 Pet. 1.19, cf. vv. 16-18).
    • All people must hear and respond to this Good News in faith — that Jesus identifies with them and has paid their just penalty.
    • Christians must respond in meditation coupled with rejoicing, lifting up the Gospel in order to glorify God, and by identifying daily with the reality of the Gospel.

When I Got Mugged

July 18, 2004 — Prospect Avenue, Brooklyn, New York.

My summer internship at a Baptist church in Brooklyn was nearing its end. This particular Sunday evening, I picked up the metro from the Park Slope area and rode down to Bath Beach to play piano for a small Spanish church. After the service wrapped up for the evening, I proceeded into Manhattan for a walk around the city.

Although I knew the city well and had spent a number of years working in urban areas, I was still an immature 17 year-old freshly-minted high school graduate. So for some odd reason, I thought that exploring the city late at night was a prudent idea.

Around 3am, I exited the metro station at Prospect Avenue and walked West towards Prospect Park and my quarters for the summer. About a quarter of my way up the block I passed a guy and I saw another man about halfway up the block. I distinctly remember feeling that something wasn’t right, but I just kept walking. As I neared the second man, he jumped out and grabbed me by the shoulders; I shoved him back. He was back on me in a split-second and balled-up the front of my shirt in his fist. The man shouted that he had a knife and I saw the glint of a utility knife from the streetlights. I reached for my knife, but realizing that it wasn’t on me, I continued to push him back. Thankfully, I took a quick glance around and saw the man I first passed coming up behind me with a knife as well. Knowing that it was unlikely that I’d be able to handle two guys with knives on both sides of m, I threw my hands up and told him to relax and that I’d give him what he wanted.

As soon as I gave up, I was shoved backwards into a headlock by the man bringing up the rear. He held his knife to my throat as the guy who’d initially confronted me rifled through my pockets. I pulled out my wallet and extracted the cash. Covering my credit card with some papers, he moved past that. They took $40, my old watch, and my metro card, all the while complaining that I didn’t have what they considered the requisite cash or technology of a teenager of my ethnicity. Throughout the confrontation I distinctly remember the stench of body odor from the armpit that squashed against my cheek and the cold steel of the jittery knife against my jugular. But just seconds later, I was pushed away and told to keep moving. The two men continued toward the Prospect Avenue metro station and I went on my way. I saw two other men, probably lookouts, at the west end of the block scatter as well.

When I got to my room that night, I still felt like it was all a blur, or maybe my imagination. But my empty wallet (with the exception of my papers and credit card) and my missing watch spoke for themselves.

The next morning I awoke and proceeded with my Monday morning schedule. I showered and dressed to go move some furniture for an elderly woman in the church. As I was getting ready, a call came through on the land line. It was a friend of the pastor who called with a couple questions. As we were getting off the line, she mentioned that her brother had left his watch and wondered if I might need one. Stunned by this miraculous provision, I left for the furniture-moving appointment. On my way, I was about to hop the metro when I realized that I no longer had a metro card or cash to pay for one. I resolved to purchase a new one with my credit card. But when I got to the station, I fumbled with my wallet and out fell a metro card. I checked the total on this one and, to my surprise, realized that it was still loaded and that I had given the thieves my dead metro card by accident! Finally, I boarded the metro and arrived at the house where I had volunteered to assist with the furniture. Once there, a light day’s work was rewarded with an envelope. As I made my way back to the metro station at the end of the day, I opened the envelope. I could clearly see a $20 bill. Elated with the provision, I pulled the bill out of the envelope only to discover that there were two $20 bills in the envelope.

As I’ve reflected on this bizarre experience through the years, I’ve arrived at a number of conclusions:

  1. Life is short. A slip of a blade could have made a big difference in the intense situation that transpired. But how many times have I been spared from a driver’s misjudgment or a bird-strike on takeoff? Every day is a gift from God. I need to thank him and use each day for his glory.
  2. God is my Protector. Almost every day that summer, I carried a knife because most of my internship involved some sort of manual labor. Because of my ministry in the Spanish church that morning, I had left my knife behind. This little forgotten element probably saved my life. And I thank God for protecting me in this way.
  3. Wisdom is essential. A little bit of prudence goes a long way in keeping me from making similar mistakes again. Today I practice wisdom by avoiding dangerous places and times of night, listening to gut instincts, and learning how to protect myself and my family. I hope to pass these lessons along to the next generation when the time comes. I also aim to grow in wisdom. With 10 years behind me in the rearview mirror, I still see plenty of growth in this area ahead of me.
  4. God is my Provider. Even after I most of my resources due to a foolish mistake, God came through in a remarkable way. All of my losses were restored and my faith was increased.

Matterhorn: Pointing to God

May 19, 2013 — Zermatt, Switzerland.

On the vehicle train and headed toward the mountain tunnel.
On the vehicle train and headed toward the mountain tunnel.

Yesterday I drove into the Alps. The climbing road in required that the car be driven onto a train which, serpentine-like, carried the vehicles like a mechanical monster under the mountain, belching them out above a verdant expanse of some of the most beautiful countryside

The stark contrastive beauty of the Alps
The stark contrastive beauty of the Alps

I’ve ever seen. The switchbacks on the descent pushed the limits of the BMW rental. Occasionally I’d stop at one of the many pull-offs in order to take pictures of the scenery. The stark snow-covered mountain peaks contrasted sharply with the lush greenery in the valley below, brought to life by melting snow and incoming storm.

Beautiful countryside in the alpine valleys
Beautiful countryside in the alpine valleys

The nail-biting road ended in the sleepy town of Tasch, which is where my hotel was for the night. The trip into Zermatt would have to wait until the next morning, requiring a trip on an electric rail or vehicle. My room was nice, but a little warm (in Switzerland it is common for hotels to only have heat and no cooling). So I opened the window and went to sleep.

Shuttle to Zermatt
Shuttle to Zermatt

This morning I awoke to find snow drifting against my window and powdered across the floor beneath it. Mountain-blown snow was descending on the warm valley and left the ground covered with the beautiful steamy dust. The feeling was surreal. I had some tennis shoes for hiking, but I wasn’t prepared for the higher-elevation snow. So I geared up with what I had, ate a light European breakfast, and grabbed the first train into Zermatt.

Fresh snowfall outside my hotel
Fresh snowfall outside my hotel
IMG_0724
City of Zermatt. I took this picture looking down from one of the hiking trails.

This touristy and expensive Swiss town was bustling, even during the off-season. Families with children, adventure sports types, and the elderly crowded the streets. First thing on my list was to find some hiking boots. I needed something comfortable that could withstand the snowy ascent into the mountains. One fitting and 120 Swiss Francs later, I had my hiking boots and was off to the trails. Even before heading up into the mountains, it became immediately evident that an adverse effect from the morning snow was taking place. Clouds had moved in from the mountains and combined with the melting snow. The end result was a thick blanket of fog that only allowed me to see about 100 feet at a time. But that was sufficient to start.

Thick mountain fog
Thick mountain fog

Winding up the mountain, I stopped a couple miles up the trail in order to wait for the fog to clear. Not wanting to bite off more than I could chew, I took an ascent break and rode a cable car through the dense fog up to an overlook. At the overlook, I was surrounded by delighted skiers and hit by a blistering snow-driving mountain wind. It sliced through my clothes and chilled me to the bone. I had hoped to be able to see the Matterhorn from here and was largely disappointed. I still couldn’t see a thing! But before I

Clouds across the alps
Clouds across the alps

headed back to the cable car, I glanced behind me and saw that the wind had just moved out some of the thick white cover. And there it stood! The scimitar-curved finger pointing to the heavens. I stood and stared, took pictures, and stared some more.

The Matterhorn appears through the clouds!
The Matterhorn appears through the clouds!

When I finally turned to head down into the valley and resume my hike I was already stunned by the majesty of the massive mountain. But on the descent, the most amazing thing happened. The fog I had been fighting below had broken while I was at the overlook, but a thin layer of cloud lay between the mountain overlook and the valley below. As the cable car descended, we broke through the cloud and a jaw-dropping awe-inspiring expanse lay glittering below. The craggy mountains on my left and right stood out against

The cable car descending from the overlook.
The cable car descending from the overlook.

the fresh snow and grassy slopes below. There was something gut-wrenching about that moment. Something bigger and more meaningful than so many of the petty goals and achievements that I’ve vested with ultimate significance in over the years.

“Men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tides of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, yet pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought.” (St. Augustine)

One view from the cable car
One view from the cable car

Holding back tears, the immensity of what I’d seen moved me emotionally. It seemed like God had placed a mighty finger pointing to him on the mountaintop, and a rolling parchment below that told the story of his greatness. How could someone walk away from this beauty and wonder if there was a God? How could all this happen by accident — mere chance? Why is it that every person I know who looks out at a wonder of nature such as this and feels in their

Breaking through the clouds in the cable car
Breaking through the clouds in the cable car

heart a sense of gasping awe and yearning desire and inexpressible joy because of the beauty they see? But it isn’t like we can eat it or drink it — that it actually meets a material need of a purely physical body as it stands. It doesn’t do anything for us, but yet it meets a need of our souls — the immaterial part of our being. Perhaps the astounding beauty of the Alps is a crack in the wall of our materialistic dwelling, pointing us to something greater outward and upward. Simply stated: if I find in myself a craving for something unexplainable and immaterial, I must conclude that this is an echo of something even greater and more unexplainable that alone can fill that deep desire of my heart.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

(Psalm 121:1-2)

God's creative beauty on display throughout my hike.
God’s creative beauty on display throughout my hike.
This thought was one that I couldn’t shake throughout the remainder of my 10 mile meander through the Alps that afternoon. I dedicated this day as a visual reminder of the grandeur of God and my inborn desire to find revel in his unimaginable and unfathomable greatness.
By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness,
O God of our salvation,
the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas;
the one who by his strength established the mountains,
being girded with might;
who stills the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples,
so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs.
You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy.
(Psalm 65:5-8)

Meaningful Discipleship in the Local Church: 6 Correctives

Discipleship is the call of the Church (Matt. 28.19), but is the Church really doing this job well? Can we honestly say that at least the majority of those who claim the name of Christ and darken the doors of our churches are intentionally in discipleship relationships that are moving them toward greater and greater Christlikeness? Yesterday I read Building a Discipling Culture by Mike Breen, and I was impacted by a number of insights on how churches could be doing a better at this all-important task.

  1. We must commit to relationships of challenge and invitation. Relationships that are all about challenge and lack invitation will spiral towards legalism and burnout. Relationships that are all about invitation without any challenge will lead to warm and fuzzy friendships without any meaningful accountability. Many churches today lack both challenge and invitation; they’ve become little more than a social event. Meaningful discipleship requires direct confrontation over sin, and loving invitation into real-life Gospel living.
  2. We must vary our approach to discipleship. Churches I’ve served in are usually very strong in their lecture-oriented, fact-based instruction, but usually offer little in terms of apprenticeship or immersion learning structures (e.g., Matt. 5.1). But these methods of discipleship are proven and effective tools! If we’re going to up our game in this area, we’re going to have to be willing to dust off some of these tools that have been sitting in the back of our garage. Discipleship includes distribution of facts (what we’re good at), but it also includes connecting truth to life in apprenticeship and immersion scenarios (what we’re not good at). Several additional thoughts:
    • A Caveat: Assuming that showing up at church or in a small group will count as “immersion” is assuming that the majority of the people in the church or small group have been discipled themselves. I think this assumption is unwarranted. I know a number of adult believers who have never been engaged in a discipleship relationship.
    • An Expectation: Apprenticeship is a substantial investment for both parties. But in this process, the rewards are always greater than the buy-in.
    • A Warning: Apprenticeship and immersion aren’t synonymous with cloning. We’re not trying to make a bunch of people like ourselves, we’re trying to make disciples of Jesus Christ!
  3. We must admit that the current structures that we’re relying on for discipleship are fundamentally broken. Most churches I’ve served in have relied on a Sunday School or small group structure for engaging people in the discipleship process. But there are a number of reasons why this structure (as typically implemented) may not be the best method for discipling believers.
    • Small groups are (and should be) open to visitors. This limits the intimacy and openness of dialogue amongst the members. Baring our souls is often a very difficult task. This only becomes more difficult with a number of strangers in the room.
    • Small groups grow in a linear fashion. As months go by, people come and go based on their church attendance. They lack a stability in membership and can grow too large. They also lack a natural step for members to go and make disciples on their own. This inhibition is due to their linear nature.
    • Small groups require facilitators or teachers. This kind of relationship lacks the authoritative and intimate “follow me as I follow Christ” kind of call of discipleship.
    • Small groups are primarily easy to join and easy to leave. They aren’t effective accountability structures. Attendance isn’t often an expectation to which people are held.
    • Small groups often rely on administrated content. In other words, they’re going to cover what someone on the church staff thinks the groups need to be studying. This sometimes misses the challenges and hurdles that the members of the group may be experiencing.
  4. We have to adopt a sound structure for doing discipleship. One such structure is what Breen calls “The Huddle” (oddly, the same name of the odd band of misfits being discipled that I was a part of in junior high). This group is made up of 4-10 people who have committed to a mentoring relationship under one individual. This group commits for roughly a year, at which point they should be prepared to start “Huddles” of their own. More people aren’t discipled by making the groups bigger, but by individuals preparing to replicate the groups in turn.  First-time leaders can start with groups of 4 in order to make the challenge less daunting. This vehicle for discipleship is powerful because it combines a two critical components of biblical discipleship.
    • First, it is an admission that discipleship happens best in a group scenario. Many churches do discipleship whenever a new believer comes along or one-on-one with people in a counseling environment. But this avoids the power of group learning that is evident in the ministry of Jesus with his disciples.
    • Second, it is admission that the plausible scope of discipleship is limited. While Jesus ministered to crowds, significant portions of his ministry were invested in his band of 12.
  5. We must call our people to allow greater access for their brothers and sisters into their lives. Only by allowing people into our lives in a more intimate way will we be able to achieve the kind of discipleship that God has called us to. Leaders tend to sit back and complain that church members aren’t rising to meet the challenge, but this kind of critique is unhealthy for the body. Rather, servant-leaders must begin by modeling the kind of discipleship that they want to instill in others. Leaders who get out of the air-conditioned office and into the dirtiness of a handful of peoples’ lives and then call on them them to do the same.
  6. We need to develop a language of discipleship that lends purpose and clarity to what we do. Breen offers a suggested series of terms with associated images and applications that serve as a quasi-curriculum for their discipleship “Huddles.” While I don’t see the writer’s structure here as incredibly helpful, it did give me some ideas for engaging others in the process of discipleship. My takeaways:
    • First, discipleship language needs to be memorable. Using word pictures (or pictures in general) can communicate biblical truth in a discipleship context far better than a massive and detailed curriculum.
    • Second, discipleship language needs to be fully-orbed. In other words, many churches are really good at teaching doctrines or Bible study, but few do a great job at discipling others in a holistic Christian life (which includes doctrine and Bible study, but so much more as well).
    • Third, discipleship language needs to promote discussion and engagement. However you do discipleship, it needs to be more than you just sitting back and talking. It needs to be something that others can relate to and engage with applications and questions.