The Three Questions

I have been a Christian long enough to know that none of my own ideas are very good. That is to say, if I know something really important, or if I say something that’s deep, I didn’t come up with it. My growth as a follower of Jesus Christ has been dependent on two things: listening very carefully to what the Holy Spirit says in Scripture, and listening very carefully to what he tells me through other people. In short, everything I have, I’ve received (1 Corinthians 4:7).

One thing I thank God for receiving more than most is a particular set of questions. It’s more of an idea, really. And this is the idea: we expose ourselves to a lot more goodness when we read the Bible with other people. Whatever we lack in understanding (and it’s always a lot) can be shored up by the people around us, especially those who, through their faith in Christ, have the Holy Spirit at work in their hearts to help us. Instead of trusting ourselves to know it all, believe it all, and obey it all on our own, why don’t we humble ourselves enough to let other people help us?

If you can admit that much at least is a good idea, you’ll wonder exactly what that looks like. It certainly happens when faithful and wise Christians teach the Bible to us, whether as part of our worship together on Sundays or otherwise. But knowing that the Holy Spirit is present and working in all who know Christ (Ephesians 1:13-14), and knowing that everyone who believes the gospel has knowledge of the truth (1 John 2:20), doesn’t it make sense that you don’t have to be a capital-T Teacher in order to be a good teacher? Don’t you have some insight, some wisdom, some example in your life that could really help me?

But where do you start? Enter: the Three Questions.

Technically, the Three Questions have a collective name: the Swedish Method. If you’d like to read much more about the Three Questions (including how they acquired such a weird name), this article will tell you all you need to know. (I really do recommend reading it—it’s fascinating.) But suffice it to say that, for a number of reasons, I prefer my own (highly boring and non-creative) phrase of “the Three Questions.”

What are the Three Questions? They’re three simple things to ask yourself and others whenever you read the Bible:

  1. What’s interesting about this?
  2. What’s confusing about this?
  3. What should I do with this?

Of course, you can use the Three Questions to guide your personal Bible reading to make sure that you’re doing more than running your eyes over the page. But I get much more mileage out of them when someone else asks me the questions as part of a normal conversation.

There’s no need to come up with anything impressive-sounding as a response to the question. In fact, I actively discourage people from trying to do so! Be honest. Be simple. Just answer the questions!

Here’s one example of how the Three Questions can spur good conversations that go beyond the words on the page. Today I read Ecclesiastes 1-2 with a friend at a coffee shop. In no particular order, here are some of the ways the two of us answered the first question (“What’s interesting about this?”):

  • The book doesn’t have a named author—just someone named “the Teacher.” That strikes me as interesting, even strange.
  • The first chapter has a lot of poetic, philosophical language. That’s different from the stories of Jesus’ life or the teachings of Paul. I bet it would appeal to people who aren’t naturally into those parts of the Bible.
  • In fact, the first couple chapters really seem to directly challenge what the rest of the Old Testament (especially Genesis) teaches. The Preacher really slams some biblical ideas—that life has a purpose, that God is working out a plan in the world, that wisdom has eternal value, etc.
  • In Ecclesiastes 2:8, the Teacher says that he availed himself to “a harem”—and calls the women “the delights of the heart of man”! That’s interesting, to say the least!

As you can see, the interesting things lead to lots of questions. In this passage, some of the more confusing things we saw led to questions like these:

  • How did this book even make it into the Bible?! Can a biblical book also be un-biblical?
  • Is the rest of the book going to answer that question?
  • Who is the Teacher? Is it Solomon? Could someone else fit the self-description in Ecclesiastes 1:1?
  • What does the Teacher mean by “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:3 and elsewhere)?

Finally, we asked each other the final question: what should we do with these chapters?

  • We definitely need to read the rest of the book to see where the Teacher is going!
  • We need to examine our lives—are they really “meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)? We need to compare these chapters with the rest of the Bible to figure out what’s going on here.
  • The Teacher writes that chasing after wine, women, and song is a waste of time and totally pointless (Ecclesiastes 2:9-11). Am I chasing after pleasure like he did? Am I setting myself up for the same disappointment?

What answers would you add?

The questions are short and simple—there’s no rocket science that makes them so powerful. But ask yourself: how could you use them?

  1. What if you and your spouse picked a book of the Bible to read through together? You could meet up once a week—even nightly—to share your answers (and spur each other on to even better, more personal answers).
  2. What if you used the Three Questions to discuss a passage of Scripture with your kids or grandkids? That’s what I’ve been doing this year—using the questions to talk through the Gospel of Mark with my six- and five-year-old sons. Their answers are always surprising, frequently hilarious, and sometimes shocking. It is never boring or a waste of time.
  3. What if you used the Three Questions to invite a curious non-Christian to study the life and teachings of Jesus for herself? This is my favorite form of evangelism—instead of memorizing a script, get out of the way and let Jesus speak for himself!

At the end of the day, only the Spirit himself can help us grow and learn and experience more of the grace of Jesus. The Three Questions assume that, in prayer, you’re entrusting him to do the real work. But he uses tools to do that work, most especially the word of God—and other people.

Why not use a simple tool like the Three Questions to see what he would do for (and through) you?

I Will Never Divorce You

Have you ever been to an awkward wedding?

Recently I heard a story of a man who, despite his deep social anxiety, decided to write and memorize his own wedding vows. Unfortunately, the wedding was held in front of a very large group of people. Things went as expected—horribly! Cringe-worthy doesn’t begin to describe it. But after stumbling and fumbling with his words for what seemed like an eternity, he ditched what he’d memorized and began to speak off the top of his head and from the bottom of his heart. Because he was so nervous, he forced himself to stare deep into the eyes of his new bride,. His stare wasn’t romantic—it was desperate. In short and intense bursts, he professed his love for her. And his vows culminated with one sentence that got right to the point:

I will never divorce you.”

That kind of love is powerful. Do you think God loves you like that?

On the night before his death, Jesus was all too aware of what torment he would undergo at the hands of evil men. More terrifyingly, though, he knew the suffering the Father would lay on him as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. So it’s no wonder that he “was troubled in spirit” (John 13:21).

But the terror of the coming day didn’t dissuade the Lord Jesus from his plan. His love for us brought him into the world; his love for us sustained him in the world; and his love for us saw him through to the cross and the grave. As his beloved disciple John put it decades later, Jesus’ last night on earth shows the essence of his true feelings toward us: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love” (NIV). Or, as most other translations read, “he loved them to the end.”

Will Jesus stop loving you because of your deep discontentment over your job situation?
Will Jesus stop loving you because you know better than to do what you’re doing anyway?
Will Jesus stop loving you because your physical and mental weakness keep you from being productive (whatever you think that means)?

This brings us to one of the most important things for Christians to remember—and the more people I serve in pastoral ministry, the more people I think need to hear this—is that Jesus will not give up on you. Even if you are sick of yourself, he isn’t sick of you. And you don’t have to lean on wishes and empty hope. The cross, which actually happened whether we feel like it or not, shows that Jesus saw his love for us through to the bitter end. His love for us doesn’t depend on our fears or doubts—it never did.

The cross shows us something else, too. It proves that sin and abandonment and denial couldn’t end Jesus’ love for his people. It shows that love really is stronger than death. The cross reveals to us that there really is a God, and that he really doesn’t divorce those he’s committed to—even if it means he has to die for us. You can—you must—follow this Jesus, who will never leave or forsake you (Matthew 28:20), though he was forsaken for us (Mark 15:34).

This Easter, may you realize that Jesus, the Bridegroom of his church, will see you through to the end.

The Psychology of Self-Deception

It’s one thing to be clueless. But have you ever known someone who was clueless about being clueless?

Maybe she saw herself as a great cook, but anybody who tasted her food would strongly object.

Maybe they figured they were the picture of health—despite what their friends (and doctors) kept saying about their diet and exercise (or lack thereof!).

Or perhaps he considered himself a fine handyman who never had to call the professionals—until he’d created a much more expensive problem than he originally had.

In another post I wrote about the New Testament’s strong warning not to let ourselves be fooled. In Hebrews 3:7-4:13 the pastor-author warns his beloved friends that, like the ancient Israelites, they too would fall short of receiving God’s promise of a secure resting place without each other’s help and encouragement. Here are the key verses:

See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.  But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

—Hebrews 3:12-13

I’ve taught about the critical importance of the church in many contexts. I’ve used many different examples from Scripture and modern life to illustrate what the Bible’s saying. Like any teacher, I have a couple favorites. But as of today, they were all relegated to secondary status. You see, today I discovered the Dunning-Kruger effect.

For those (like me) who had no idea what the Dunning-Kruger effect is, here’s the briefest of explanations: a pair of researchers at Cornell University studied and described the phenomenon of highly incompetent individuals believing that they were, in fact, above-average at a given task. The researchers’ interest was inspired by the story of a man who was arrested after robbing two banks. The man was quickly apprehended because he had intentionally not worn a mask, only to have his face caught on security cameras. Why make such a huge mistake? Because the robber sincerely believed that rubbing lemon juice on his face would prevent the cameras inside the bank from recording any images of himself. When presented with the video evidence against him, he could only respond in disbelief: “But I used the juice!” This poor man’s mistake wasn’t that he was dumb; it was that he was dumb but truly considered himself to be clever. In other words: he was clueless about being clueless.

The researchers at Cornell found that this kind of behavior isn’t a disorder that’s unique to America’s dumbest criminals. In fact, all of us can have this cognitive bias. They convincingly showed that, in many cases, when incompetent people are asked how good they are at something, they don’t just fail to see their incompetency—they tend to think they’re absolutely great at it! The delusion is so powerful that, when another person performs the same task much better than they do, the incompetent person still can’t recognize the other person’s superior skill. It turns out that the worse we are at something, the more our deluded self-perception drives us to think we’re awesome at it. In fact, one of the researchers was saddened to realize that, no matter how inaccurate our view of ourselves is, we’re trapped in it. In order to see the truth about our lack of skill and self-delusion, we need someone else to point it out to us—and even then we might not see it. 1

I hope some of the applications of the Dunning-Kruger effect to our lives as Christians are clear:

  • It’s no coincidence that, before Paul instructs the Roman church in how to use their spiritual gifts, he first warns them, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3). He has to throw in that warning because it’s far too easy for us to do just that: think too highly of ourselves!
  • How amazingly well these findings line up with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount! As he told the earliest disciples, it’s much easier to see the minor flaws of others while overlooking our own massive failings (Matthew 7:1-5). Be careful about judging others: it’s a lot easier to be a hypocrite than to be a helper!
  • Notice what a scary position we find ourselves in a self-deceived sinners. We think we’re good, decent people. We sincerely believe we’re not as bad as the people God condemns throughout the Bible. We somehow trick ourselves into thinking that other people sin while we only “make mistakes” or occasionally “do things that are out of character.” On the contrary! Despite what we naturally believe, we are our own worst enemies. We can’t even grade ourselves accurately! How true, then, is the consistent message of both the Old and New Testaments: “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).

If all that is true, and we can’t even know how bad we are—let alone fix ourselves—what can we possibly do? Three thousand years before the Cornell researchers came to the same conclusion, God himself gave the answer: our only hope is to stop trusting our own understanding and to put all our chips on God’s word being true (Proverbs 3:5-6). We need—and we have—a Savior who sees us for who we are but isn’t ashamed to love us anyway (Hebrews 11:16). What self-deceived, blind, ignorant sinners need isn’t more information or (God forbid) more affirmation that we’re okay. We need someone to give us the gift of faith and make us believe the truth despite ourselves. And that’s exactly what the good news of Jesus does for us (Ephesians 2:8-9).

And what else does the good news of Jesus do? It doesn’t just create a relationship with a God who sees us perfectly and teaches us how to see ourselves through his word; it creates a global community of others to help us. The ultimate solution to the Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t becoming more mindful or self-aware; it’s choosing to be vulnerable and let others know us really well. It’s taking off our armor and handing other Christians a sword, knowing they can either defend us or run us through. God’s solution to our self-deception isn’t only giving us spiritual life from the dead—it’s the church.

Are you experiencing the encouragement of Hebrews 3:12-13? Are you practicing it yourself?

  1.  “Ignorance for Dummies,” This American Life 585. Accessed 25 April, 2016.

Disciple Your Wife

Men and women who believe in historic, orthodox Christianity won’t bat an eye when someone mentions the universal importance of Jesus’ “Great Commission”:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

—Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV)

Moreover, most of those people wouldn’t object to the the biblical teaching that, within marriage, husbands have a special opportunity and responsibility to care for their wives’ spiritual health:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

—Ephesians 5:25-27 (NIV)

But do you know what makes a Bible-believing, church-going man nervous? Ask him how he actually practices these commands in his own home. The reason for the nervousness is that, while we say we believe one thing, our lives show what we actually believe and what’s truly important to us. And when the truth is dumped on the table, it doesn’t make us look good.

How do I know that? It’s not just because I have served churches where the men have failed (sometimes for decades) to “wash” their wives with God’s word. And it’s not just because I’ve seen men—good, honorable, loving men—fail to transform their guilt into change.

How do I know the nervousness that question causes? It’s because I was that man.

I was raised by a single mother in a non-Christian home. I didn’t grow up seeing what it looked like for a husband to make a disciple of his wife. Amazingly, I got to marry a woman who did grow up in a solid Christian home. Did I feel lucky? Absolutely. But you know what else I felt? Intimidated. So whenever I read passages of Scripture that call men to manage and oversee the spiritual lives of their families (see also: Deuteronomy 6, Psalm 78, 1 Timothy 3), or whenever I heard sermons that challenged men to be the gentle and loving leaders of their homes, I developed a fool-proof plan to process them: I ignored them.

Over time, God’s powerful grace overcame my idiocy. I began teaching my children every night from a faithful catechism and leading the whole family in “Bible time” before bed, and I’m amazed with gratitude that God would even change me. As I began working at a church and teaching the Bible for a living, though, a sobering thought came to me: “Am I more interested in the spiritual lives of those outside my home more than the woman who shares my bed?” Spurred on by an excellent and challenging book, I realized that I functionally cared more about the spiritual health of relative strangers more than the wife who shares my bed. In that moment, I was hit with a ton of bricks by the realization that it just shouldn’t be like that. Following Jesus meant that I had to love my wife better than that.

If my story connects with yours, let me encourage you: there is tremendous hope for discouraged husbands. For starters, God is so full of love and power that he is more willing to forgive your sins than you are willing to be forgiven. More specifically, he is more interested in the health of your marriage than you are, since a healthy marriage illustrates the truth of his gospel in hi-def clarity (Ephesians 5:29-33). In the event it helps you, here’s a step-by-step explanation of how I changed and began to disciple my wonderful wife:

  1. I started with confession and repentance. Over dinner one night, I told my wife that I was mourning my lack of love for her and my failure to care for her spiritually. I asked her to forgive me (she did!), and I invited her to offer her own opinions about how I could love her better.
  2. Together we decided that we would set apart time every week to discuss a passage of Scripture that we had been reading on our own. I have trained men and women in several different methods to read the Bible together; we settled on the COMA method (outlined in this excellent booklet), which aims for a deep understanding of the passage’s context and background. It requires a couple hours of study for each passage (the worksheets are made available for free here), but both of us are highly motivated. (Plus, we’re both big nerds who just enjoy the work.)
  3. Several days a week, we make sure to read the passage we’ll be discussing later. My wife prefers to do a little bit of studying each day; I prefer to do it all at once the day before our meeting. What matters is that both of us are reading and praying about the same Scripture (usually a chapter in length) and spending time concentrating on it.
  4. We set a date on our family calendar to share the results of our studying. Sometimes it’s a local coffee shop on a morning when the kids are in school; sometimes it’s our living room after the kids are asleep. One of us opens in prayer, asking for God’s help to transform us as individuals and as a married couple. Then we go straight through the COMA worksheet. It’s not dramatic or flashy in the least. But over the course of a couple hours, we end up sharing our discoveries and (sometimes without planning on it) connecting the passage to our current anxieties, our kids, our world, our work, and any number of other things that, unbeknownst to us, we really needed to talk about. And it all happens around the Bible.

Over the past year, these humdrum conversations over coffee have changed my wife and me. We both understand Jesus, the gospel, and ourselves so much better. I learn from her at least as much as I teach her. And we’re nearly through our long journey through all 66 chapters of Isaiah. Now I wonder how I spent the first five years of our marriage missing the time that is now more precious than any other in my life. I can’t wait to see where we’ll go next.

My Friend Grant

Last week I reacquainted myself with an old friend. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years. But the time we spent together was the most important important time in my life. Without overselling it, this friend did more for me than anyone else I know. And now that we’ve reintroduced ourselves, I can’t wait to dive back in and pick up where we left off.

My friend isn’t an old work buddy or classmate. My friend isn’t even a person. It’s a set of bookmarks.

I call it “Grant.”

Let me back up.

I first heard of Grant in 2010. A blogger I follow recommended it as the best thing ever (that’s how it came across to me, anyway). In the article (you can read it here), he explains how he had come across a Bible reading plan that actually made him want to read the Bible. Every day. And he didn’t want to give up. I had to keep reading.

The beauty of the plan is its insanity. Here’s the gist: the Bible is divided into 10 sections, and you read a chapter from each section every day. Yes—you read 10 chapters of the Bible every day. And, as he explained, you actually like it.

This didn’t make any sense to me. I had become a Christian several years earlier but had never really read the Bible with any regularity outside of church services. I was on the up-and-down see-saw of guilt when it came to reading the Bible and learning more about the gospel. So it seemed insane to think that I would go from a starvation diet to a 7-course meal . . . every day.

The only thing more insane than this plan was how well it worked for me. If I read a chapter that didn’t jump out as particularly relevant or significant to me, no problem—there were plenty more opportunities that day. The time required to read everything meant that I couldn’t slow down and meditate too much on any passage. That turned out to be fine. Since I knew so little of the overall story of the Bible, my meditations often led me to thoughts and conclusions that sounded spiritual but (come to find out) were directly condemned in other parts of the Bible! By seeing the “big picture,” I became better and wiser at seeing how all of Scripture (even the “boring” parts) were essential to God’s plan to make me more like Jesus (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Why the name “Grant”? Because the plan was put together by Professor Grant Horner, an English professor and Christian who started using it in graduate school to keep himself connected to God’s word in all its beauty. (You can read his story as well as his explanation of the system here. There’s even a snazzy set of bookmarks to print out for yourself at the end.)

How does this work itself out in my day? When it’s time to sit down and read my Bible, I open up to the first section: Gospels. I read the chapter at a brisk pace, not pausing for too much reflection. When I finish, I try to summarize the chapter in my head with a sentence or two, aiming to use the passage to answer the questions “Who is God?”, “Who am I?”, and “What does God ask of me?” Then, without further ado, I turn straight to the second section (Pentateuch) with the help of bookmarks. (My wife printed out the ones above and laminated them for me. She’s the best.) And so it continues, until I read all 10 chapters or (as sometimes happens) I run out of time. In those cases, I pick up where I left off later in the day. (Note: I also spend time every day memorizing Scripture, since it’s the best way I know to meditate on truth and work it through my head into my heart. Read widely and deeply!)

Without fail, I read at least one thing every day that thrills me, intrigues me, jumps out to me, or obviously applies to me. It often happens in my favorite part of the Bible, the Old Testament’s wisdom literature (covered in sections 5, 6, and 7). But now that I’ve got more experience with the Bible’s overall story, it also happens when I’m reading Paul’s letters or the Old Testament prophets. I have even been moved to tears by Leviticus (really, no kidding), in part because reading the entire Bible helped me see how each of its parts connects to Jesus and to myself.

Take a peek at my friend Grant for yourself. Get to know it yourself. But more importantly, get to know the God and Savior he showcases.

Saddest Christmas Song Ever

Advent brings out an interesting mixture of emotions for me. On one hand, I remember the Decembers of my childhood and the anticipation of Christmas, presents, and an obscene number of cookies. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve been initiated into “grown-up Christmas.” Finances can pinch. Weather can threaten. But more than anything, Advent is a time when we remember what we’ve lost. We think about loved ones who won’t be attending the family Christmas party. Divorce, addiction, and death break the shiny image of our culture’s “perfect Christmas.” Loneliness is never more acute than when it seems everyone else isn’t suffering from it. The colder temperatures make it physically harder to bridge those emotional gaps. For large numbers of our neighbors—including our neighbors in the church—it really isn’t the most wonderful time of the year.

Thank God for the gift of music, which gives us a way to express the truth in a way that engages our hearts as well as our minds. I hope you don’t think it’s strange, then, that I’m so thankful for sad songs at Christmas. I need songs that help me express the sadness and longing that, to my surprise, sprout out of my heart during this season. Without them, I wouldn’t just feel cut off from the people around me—I’d feel cut off from God.

Perhaps the saddest song for this season is the medieval “Coventry Carol.” Set in a minor key to a haunting melody, the carol tells the saddest part of the Christmas story: Herod’s panicked order to kill every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13-15). The song, presented from the perspective of the women of Bethlehem, laments the impending doom of “the holy innocents,” as church history has remembered them. Here are the lyrics, which have been updated very little over the centuries:

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing
By, by, lully, lullay?

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child for thee!
And ever morn and day
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

(You can listen to a beautiful choral arrangement on YouTube here. For those with more eccentric tastes, Sufjan Stevens’ version is just as beautiful. You can find it here.)

Why do I love this song so much? First, it’s a beautifully bittersweet song of loss and mourning. But secondly, I’m comforted at the deepest level of my heart to know that I am not the first person to feel sad around the holidays. Far from it! In fact, the very first years following Christ’s birth were marked by pain in the holy family itself: the pain of out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancy; the pain of staying committed to your betrothed despite the shaming whispers; the pain of fleeing from violent authorities and sojourning in a foreign country. In other words, the song encourages me to remember that Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer at the holidays.

As a Christian, I am part of a big, timeless family that has always shed tears, not in spite of following Jesus, but precisely because of him. Jesus’ own mother would have her soul pierced to see the humiliation and death of her beloved firstborn (Luke 2:35). Our brothers and sisters around the world who are persecuted for Jesus’ sake in prisons and in slums simultaneously remember the unspeakable joy and the unspeakable sorrow that is theirs only because of Jesus. Those of us who feel abandoned by our friends and families, who have made decisions with devastating consequences, who have to bear the scars of sin within and without—Advent and Christmas are for us. They always have been. And, because our suffering Savior is now our triumphant King, they point to a time when no more children will die, and the sufferings of this present time won’t compare to the glory we enjoy—provided we suffer with him (Romans 8:17-18).

Image credit: “Sorrow” by Alexander Boden via Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0. Original was cropped to fit slider.

Help Needed

It’s difficult to write for an audience you don’t know. The pastor who penned the Letter to the Hebrews clearly knew his readers, since he is able to reference their circumstances and sufferings with some detail. But I don’t have that luxury in writing for you! However, I imagine that you, dear reader, know much more about deep snow than I (a Southern boy, born and bred) do. As you know (and as I’m told that), when walking through snow that’s above your knees, it’s exhausting to move over long distances. I have walked across soybean fields, where the plants grow very densely, causing me to “high-step” the whole way. After a hundred yards or so, it stops being fun!

I imagine, though, that there’s one thing that might make your walk easier. If someone has gone before you to tramp down the snow, and if you’re able to walk in their footsteps, it must make a night-and-day difference! There are still problems, but because someone else has already done the far harder work, you’d be able to make it pretty easily.

So it is with the Christian life:

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
—Hebrews 4:14-16

Being a Christian is meant to be a lifelong, dedicated game of follow the leader. Jesus is impeccably qualified to be our Savior—literally! That is, he’s perfectly suited to understand and feel for us, since he is one of us. There is no circumstance we go through that is foreign to Jesus. No one “gets” the human experience, with all its ups and downs, like him.

And to top it off, Jesus was impeccable (from the Latin peccare, “to sin”). Consider how amazing it is for Jesus, having slogged through the same life as us, without sinning at all. As a young child and teenager, he never failed to love God and people perfectly. He was tempted in every way—think about that: every way—that we are. But he never gave in and succumbed to disobedience or an unloving heart. And now, as he serves as God’s appointed mediator, he can beckon to us from heaven, as it were, saying, “Where I am, you can be, too” (see John 14:2-3).

What’s that mean for us? It means that the heavy trudging through a nasty and broken world—the really heavy trudging—is finished. What we face in this world really is hard, but it’s nothing compared to what the Son of God had to do—and did. So we can come to God. It really is possible for us to follow him all the way to the end, and we really must. We cannot give in to the pressures to loosen our grip on the gospel. And while we wait to reach heaven ourselves, it’s okay that we’re needy. In fact, only the needy find help, since only they know they can approach God with confidence (amazing!) and find undeserved grace and mercy when it’s needed.

Keep trudging. The way is clear.

The Power of the If

Do you find history interesting? If you think history is all about memorizing dates, I doubt it. But, as many people have pointed out, maybe the best reason to study history is that it is so full of good stories. I studied ancient Greek in college, and if there’s one period of history that’s chock full of daring deeds and notable quotes, it’s the five-hundred-or-so years when the Greek city-states were in their prime. In particular, the people of Sparta were famous for the bravery and brutal military discipline that pervaded their entire culture. Yet they were also known for their great (if deeply sarcastic) sense of humor. In fact, the English word “laconic” (which describes an answer that is amusingly clever and brutally blunt at the same time) comes from Laconia, the region where Sparta is found.

Just one example of the Spartans’ clever brevity comes from the late classical period, when Philip II of Macedonia attempted to invade Sparta. Having already conquered many of the Spartans’ neighbors, Philip sent a messenger with terms of peace—and a warning: “If I invade Laconia you will be destroyed, never to rise again.” The Spartans responded with a single word: “If.”1  As a result, neither Philip (nor his famous son, Alexander the Great) ever tried to conquer the Spartans.

In Hebrews 3:1-6, the author wraps up his argument for Jesus Christ’s superiority to Moses by saying that we experience the blessings of belonging to his family (literally “house”) “if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast” (3:6). In the next section of the letter (Hebrews 3:7-4:13), the author uses a great story from the history of God’s people to underline a very important point about faith and obedience.

So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice,  do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’ So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.'” See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. As has just been said: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.'” And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.” It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.

Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

In order for this passage to hit you like it should, it’s important to have a basic grasp of Israel’s timeline. In the period following their exodus from Egypt, the nation of Israel (led by Moses) wandered for forty years through the wilderness before ultimately arriving in Palestine. They were led into the Promised Land by Joshua, and after approximately four hundred years of chaos and disorder in the land, Israel began its all too brief golden age under David, who reflected on the wilderness period in Psalm 95 (quoted throughout this passage). After him, it would be another thousand years before Jesus’ earthly ministry. It looks something like this:

Moses —> Joshua —> David —> Jesus Christ [note: not to scale!]

The author poses this question: Who, out of all God’s people in history, have actually followed through with their commitment to follow God and experienced his promised rest? Looking at the wilderness period, the statistics are shocking: of the generation who left Egypt—a generation comprised of perhaps a million people or more—only two were allowed to experience a taste of God’s rest by entering the Promised Land.  And, the author points out, the “rest” experienced by those who continued to inhabit the land was fleeting and incomplete, to put it mildly!

What was the difference between those who rested (even if only superficially) and those who died before achieving it? Throughout this passage, the author divides those who followed God in this way: those who believed, and those who disobeyed. In the words of Martin Luther, the “sin behind the sin” of disobedience was unbelief. People either took God at his word (and acted accordingly) or they didn’t (and acted accordingly). The former group got rest; the latter died in their disobedience, experiencing the various consequences of sin before dying restless.

What’s the lesson for his audience (and for us)? First, be warned that sin is blinding. The people who died in the wilderness considered themselves to be faithful believers—even when their idolatry, blasphemy, and raw disobedience blatantly contradicted their words. Sin blinds us all. The question isn’t “Am I self-deluded?” but “What am I doing about my self-delusion?” Do you really believe that you’re that blind to yourself and your true obedience?

Secondly, the only remedy to the blinding effects of sin is to surround yourself with other believers who can see your heart better than you can.  Someone who claims to follow God but refuses to commit to a local group of believers isn’t just missing out; they’re out to sea without a compass or a sail, completely open to any number of dangers. Do you have a diverse group of Christians—that is, a local church—where you let others see the real you? Is there anyone in your life who knows you and God well enough to encourage (or “exhort,” 3:13) you where you really are?

If not, the threat is real. The full and final rest of God isn’t in a safe suburb in Palestine; it’s in the new heavens and earth, which we still await with patience. Are you going to make it to the finish line of life and experience that rest? You won’t if you don’t take Jesus at his word to save weak and weary sinners like us and live out of that faith. And you won’t if you don’t have a meaningful, practically challenging relationship with a local church.

Your sin may blind you, but it cannot throw off the all-seeing, all-knowing, searching Scriptures of God. Whatever lies we tell and walls we build up, God won’t judge us according to our own consciences but according to what he tells us in his word. Will you endure the hardships of the Christian life and receive the reward of living forever before God and his glory? You will if your faith is such that you take God at his word and repent of your sins. If.

  1.  Plutarch, “De garrulitate, 17.”

Making God’s House a Home

The Bible is a surprising book. When I first started reading it in high school, I regularly cocked an eyebrow at the things in it: stories of men and women doing shockingly ugly things— and of a God who loved them anyway. The Big Story of the Bible (and the thousands of smaller stories that feed into it and give it depth) just didn’t turn out like I expected. Skipping ahead to the present, my day-to-day work involves teaching the Bible to people, grinding away so that they would know and love that same God. But even the monotony of a full-time job hasn’t taken the surprise out of the Bible. Even a cynical guy like me can find something almost every day in its pages, a turn of phrase or an argument or a plot twist that makes me think, “Huh. Didn’t see that coming.”

Hebrews 3:1-6 is a paragraph that you could easily glance over without too much thought. Names like “God,” “Jesus,” and “Moses” are so common that they don’t even register as noteworthy to anyone who knows something about the Bible. The imagery of a house is so prevalent that you might be forgiven in thinking that the writer of Hebrews is simply copying and pasting stock phrases. But upon closer inspection, that’s not the case at all:

Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess. He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.
— Hebrews 3:1-6

As it turns out, there are several surprises in these verses. First, those who believe the gospel of Jesus are “holy brothers” (and sisters — the Greek word could include both) who share a grand invitation to a holy place, namely, heaven. That’s not how I tend to view the people in my church. Even though I truly love my congregation, it just seems too grand to address the people sitting with me in the pews like that. And in the middle of our sufferings and weaknesses — varied but common among all of us — I certainly don’t look around and say to myself, “This is some group of people: making a pilgrimage to heaven!” But such they are. Like I said: huh. Didn’t see that coming.

But there’s more. Look at what the writer calls Jesus: not the Son (as he did several times in the last couple chapters) or the Lord (Hebrews 2:3), but “the apostle and high priest whom we confess” (Hebrews 3:1). Of course, Jesus was just called “a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God” a couple verses earlier (Hebrews 2:17), so that’s not totally novel. Nevertheless, the writer is going to make much of Jesus’ priesthood in the rest of the letter, which fleshes out the idea more than any other part of the Bible. If you were a Christian during the apostles’ day and had access to only a fraction of the New Testament (say, the Gospel of Mark or some of Paul’s letters), the idea that Jesus was a priest— even a high priest— is interesting.

And speaking of the apostles — we confess Jesus to be an apostle? The idea that he was, like Paul and Peter, personally commissioned to do God’s will is pretty easy to find in the rest of the Bible once you know to look for it. For example, see John 3:17 or, to combine it with the idea of Jesus as a priest, John 17:18. But to give Jesus the explicit title of “apostle”? This is the only place in the Bible where that happens. Huh.

But the biggest “wow, really?” moment comes when he starts to describe what Jesus did (and is still doing) in the mission he was given. “He was faithful to the one who appointed him,” accomplishing what was asked of him by the Father. In that, he’s just like Moses, who was also given a mission that he accomplished (Hebrews 3:2). But, the writer argues, while Moses was good, Jesus is even better (a theme we’ve seen before, like here). How’s that?

The writer gives two reasons. First, Jesus’ mission was better than Moses’ mission. Both received their orders from God, who’s compared to the master of a great household. Who lives with him in his house? The community of people who share a common bond, centering their lives around God and his mission in the world. For Moses, his job was to serve the house like a butler, getting everyone in the house ready for what the master had planned (Hebrews 3:5). An amazing butler? No doubt— but a servant nonetheless. Jesus’ task, on the other hand, was to steward God’s household, not as the master’s hired hand, but as his own son (Hebrews 3:6). The relationship between Father and Son is so strong, so loving, that we who inhabit the space where they are— the church— can’t help but love them and the whole household for it. Sure, Moses put God’s house in order, but Jesus made his house into our home. Glorious!

And why else is Jesus better than Moses? Not just because their tasks were different. No, the writer says: Jesus himself is categorically better than Moses. Just like a great architect is better than any house she ever designed, so also Jesus deserves more honor than the home which he established (Hebrews 3:3). The only thing more amazing than a breath-taking piece of art is the person skilled and thoughtful enough to create it! For all its warts and unseemly parts, Jesus’ church is a marvelous and complex institution. Moses was tasked with overseeing it for a time, and he deserves a very healthy “‘Atta boy!” for the job he did. But Jesus? Well, what he does is nothing short of astounding.

What is Jesus doing in the church? He is bringing a little bit of heaven into our sad and dark world, right now, before our very eyes. We still long for its fullness to come, but wherever men and women and children fix their eyes on Jesus, God’s son over God’s house, there is a colony of heaven, the holy place to which we’re called. It’s still to come— yet it’s here.

Didn’t see that coming!