Go and Tell it On the Mountain

The Christmas story is simply the best story ever told and this for many reasons. 

First, it was written when the fullness of time had finally come round, and all the very best stories of humankind that had been told and retold throughout the ages found their fulfillment in it.  Then too, it was told in a language that all people could understand.  Its glorious message was proclaimed in the heavens by a star of unusual wonder that spoke through divine light to the small, still point in every person’s heart, deep calling unto deep.  The Christmas story came first to the descendants of Abraham who carried its essence in their hearts for hundreds of years, but its promises were for every person of good will, the nations who would find their true blessing through the seed of Abraham.

The first murmurings were heard in Paradise, its veiled glimmer of hope spoken in mercy to a fallen man and his wife as they passed the cherubim with the flaming sword.  It was repeated in the thunder on the cloud on Sinai and echoed in the ram’s horns of the priests and shouts of the people and the rumble of Jericho’s walls falling in upon themselves.  It was given a clear, jubilant voice in the psalms of David and gravely intoned in the halls of Solomon the wise.  It became a melancholy sigh in the breasts of the elders of Israel as they sat by the rivers of Babylon and thought on Jerusalem, their harps hanging still at their side.

The length and width and depth of the Christmas story were established in the highest courts of heaven, yet its working out was upon the earth as thrones and dominions and principalities were moved by the hand of God as characters in its plot.  Angels longed to look into it, and demons trembled at its telling.  Sometimes it was faint, as a small still voice might be upon the winds, other times strong and vibrant as the glory of the Lord bent near to touch the earth.  Yet it was always the same, the glorious promises of restoration, reconciliation, and deliverance. 

It was chanted into the whole world at its creation as the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.  Yet its universal message was somehow personal, it was as if each man’s, woman’s, and child’s name was somehow written into its telling.

And that brings me to the whole point of what I am trying to say.  If it remains only a story, even the best story which has ever been put into words by the inspiration of the divine Spirit, its words can all too soon fade away as the Christmas season turns, as the wonderment of light and evergreen and celebration gives way to the more pressing concerns of our lives.  It is just then that we must shake ourselves and remember that what gives this story an enduring meaning is the fact that it is true, and that somehow we were always meant to be a part of it. 

The Apostle John said it this way:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled concerning the word of life….that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you may also have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.  And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.”

-1 John 1:1, 3-4

Only when we wrestle with our doubts and expectations in this season, only when we search to find our own names written by God’s hand in His book of life wherein this story is fully told, only when we empty our hearts and turn them expectantly towards Bethlehem do we begin to grasp the magnificence of God’s promises to us in this season.  Emmanuel is come to us, and He bears gifts for us the like of which we have never imagined.  It is then, on that road to Bethlehem, bathed in a divine light that streams from the very presence of God that we must hear again the message the angels proclaim, “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.  For there is born to YOU this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord…Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward me.”  We have no choice but to go with the shepherds to see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.

And having seen, let us believe.  And having believed, let us handle, and touch, and receive all that this Word of Life offers.  Let us share it with our families, let us instruct our children in its telling with reverence.  And then, when the season draws to a close and we must turn from its glory, let us go on, not forgetting, but carrying the story with us as a word of hope to a world in desperate need of its message.  And so we will become yet another chapter of the story, proclaimed this year with everlasting hope and peace into this time and place in which we live.

Washing Your Hands Isn’t Enough

The following post is Pastor Josh’s sermon manuscript from August, 16th, 2020. The text he preached from was Matthew 15:1-20 which is copied below (out of the ESV).

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

-Matthew 15:1-20

Introduction

To start our message today I want to bring up an ongoing issue in our home. 

Some of you who are parents will no doubt understand what I’m talking about here.

Here’s the issue: we make rules, but there are sometimes differences about how those rules are interpreted.  So take for instance, “no jumping on the couch.” 

Some of our more obedient ones in our home, take this rule as implying that there should be no standing at all on the couch… because if you stand, then you are inevitably going to jump or make a bouncing motion that resembles jumping.  So the “no jumping” rule also means “no standing on the couch.”  This additional rule was added to help people obey the no jumping rule.  Because if you are standing on the couch, you are probably going to be tempted to jump.

Some of our other little ones like to stretch the boundaries.  They think that this rule means that you can basically do anything on the couch that you want to, except jump.  You can run.  You can cartwheel.  You slam your brother or sister… Just so long as you are not jumping. This group will passionately insist that they were obeying the literal letter of the law and not being the rule breakers that the other group says they are.

Who is right? 

I think most of us would say that both groups are right about some things and wrong about some things. 

The Tradition of the Elders

As silly as this example that I’ve chosen this morning might seem, it actually is not too far from the way things were in Jesus’ day. 

For instance, take Sabbath observance.  God commanded that we work six days and that the seventh day be given to rest.  What does it look like to obey the Sabbath?  Is absolutely all work forbidden? Can you leave your house on the Sabbath day?  Can you perform a good deed on the Sabbath day? 

Much like the couch example in my home, there were respected and pious Jewish scholars who came up with their own interpretations about what Sabbath observance meant and over time these interpretations became a tradition.  This is what Jesus refers to here in verse 2 when he says the “tradition of the elders.” 

One example that I stumbled across in my study this past week dealt with the situation where someone wanted to give a gift to a poor person on the Sabbath day.  Given the command in Exodus 16 where it says that a person is not to leave their home on the Sabbath day, how would you give a gift to a poor person in need?  How can do this good deed without leaving your home and thus breaking the Sabbath command?  In the Mishna, which is a Jewish holy book, where much of this teaching is recorded, it wrestles with how exactly this transaction can happen. 

Leon Morris writes:

“If the householder stood inside his house and put his gift outside or if the poor person, standing outside, reached inside and took up the gift, in either case there was a transgression because a person had carried something out of a house on the Sabbath.” 

-Leon Morris in his commentary The Gospel According to Matthew, (PNTC, Eerdmans), p. 388

So these Rabbis came up with a solution. Morris continues:

“Neither person should cross the boundary carrying the gift.  But if the poor man stood outside and reached his hand inside and if the householder than placed his gift into the poor man’s hand, the poor man could withdraw his hand and neither had transgressed.  The same result of course was obtained if the householder stood inside and held his hand containing the gift outside so that the poor man, standing outside, could simply receive the gift… In this case there is no transgression: neither man has carried the burden across the line.” 

-Morris, Matthew, 388.

If you do this for the entire Pentateuch, those first five books of the bible, what you have is the “tradition of the elders.”

Now of course, here in our passage before us today, Jesus is not taking issue with their understanding of the Sabbath (though he does do that in other places), here he is taking issue with their teachings about the washing of hands. 

But maybe you’re asking what’s with the washing of the hands?

Hand Washing: Not About Hygiene

Now at the time, washing of hands was not something that was done for personal hygiene, it was done to prevent a person from becoming ceremonially unclean.  What that basically means is that these washings were to prepare a person to enter into God’s presence.  It was a way of acknowledging that a person was not worthy to be in the presence of the perfect Creator.  These washings were symbolic–not hygienic. 

We do these kinds of things all the time.  When I open the door for my wife, it is a symbolic act of love and respect and honor.  It’s not something I do because I don’t think that she is incapable of opening the door.  I do it to recognize that she has a special place in my life and as an act of service and love to her.  It’s an acknowledgment of something.

And so too these ritual washings were not actually about removing dirt or removing bad things from a person (they weren’t actually doing anything).  It was a symbolic acknowledgment that one was sinful and dirty and unworthy of entering into the presence of God which was a clean and holy and special place.  If one was to enter into the presence of the Creator, one must be clean.

In the book of Exodus (30:17-21) it was required for priests to wash their hands (and their feet) when they were ministering at the altar. In other words, washing of the hands was a ritual done at the altar to prepare the priest for his priestly service. If a priest failed to do this, he would be considered unclean and thus unable to minister at the altar.

But the tradition established by these ancient Jewish interpreters took this law and extended it to all people and into the realm of daily life requiring people to wash their hands before they eat.

In the Mishnah which is one of the places where these traditions are recorded, there is an entire section devoted to these laws that is just titled “hands.”  It talks about how this spiritual uncleanness can only be removed by running water so it must be poured over the hands and it discusses which parts of the hands are involved.  Some argue it’s up to the wrists while others believe only fingers are in view.

At first these many teachings were useful but over the centuries as more and more teachers added their contributions, some of whom were less wise, it had become an unhelpful and burdensome body of teaching. 

For most common people, all of this was just too much. 

So Jesus here in this story is going to address this group that has come all the way out to Galilee to speak to him about his disciple’s failure to wash their hands before eating.

This is Important

Now to us, on the surface, we see all of this as somewhat ridiculous.  Hair splitting nonsense.  We probably at first glance look at something like this and struggle to see the significance.  But if we are to really appreciate what is happening here, we must try and understand how this would have been perceived at the time. 

This was a very serious matter to pious Jews.  And there are a few things that Matthew records for us that give us indicators of just how serious this was.

Observe a few details with me in verses 1 and 2.

Notice how it says that the Pharisees and scribes came from Jerusalem.  In rural Galilee, to have religious leaders from Jerusalem, the holy city, the capital, would have been quite the ordeal. Their appearance would have been very noticeable and they would have been viewed by the locals as people of great authority.  Today, it would probably be something of the equivalent of a bunch of government officials from Washington coming to South Royalton to confront someone right on the street.  You know everyone would be out there with their smartphones out recording and taking pictures and it would be all over Facebook.  

Notice also that it says that they came to Jesus.  One commentator writes that it was not as though they came for a pastoral visit and happened to bump into Jesus.  No, they came with the exclusive purpose of confronting Jesus.  The fact that they would come so far outside of the capital to speak to Christ, tells us a little bit about the reputation of Jesus and also maybe just how opposed to Jesus they were.

Now finally observe with me in verse 2 that their critique is of Jesus’ disciples, not directly of Jesus himself.  “Your disciples break the tradition…” they say.  Of course, the critique of the disciples would indirectly be a kind of accusation directed at Jesus because he would have been the one teaching them to not regard the traditions of the elders.  This was more serious than just an occasional transgression of the tradition—someone accidentally not washing their hands for one reason or another or just some laziness…  (Just too tired at the end of the day to get up off the couch and wash your hands before shoveling down the pizza…)

Because Jesus was teaching his disciples to break the tradition, this was no accident, this was a systematic, principled practice.  So in the history and culture of the time, this was a serious infraction and we must try and keep the seriousness of this in front of us as we talk about something that to 21st century modernized people on the surface looks like a waste of breath.

So this was a big deal.

How Does Jesus Respond?

And Jesus’ response here is going to help us to see why all of this is so important.  Let’s look at how Jesus responds to their question in verses 3 through 6:

He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 

-Matthew 15:3-6

Notice in this response that Jesus totally ignores the handwashing issue—he makes no reference to it at all. Instead, Jesus goes much deeper.

Jesus wants to show them that in their zeal to help people obey God’s law, they end up breaking that very same law.  And he doesn’t point out how they do that exactly in the case of handwashing but instead uses this other example about honoring one’s father and mother. 

Why does he do that?

Well some suggest that Jesus does this because the command to honor one’s father and mother, was greater and more weighty than these minor regulations about the washing of hands.  Some rabbis would have even considered this command to be one of the most significant in all of the law.

So Jesus here is using the argument of the greater to the lessor and showing how the Pharisees need to stop pointing the finger at others for minor infractions and start looking at their own lives and how they have broken serious commands of God.  And in the history and culture of the time it would have been expected that a child care for their parents in their old age—this was a part of what it meant to honor them.  But what the Pharisees did was allow people to dedicate money to God that would have been used to care for their aging parents… and then the parents suffer. 

Morris writes:

“The tradition about the rash vow is honored, but the commandment of God is not kept.”

-Morris, Matthew, 393.

So what has happened is the Pharisees are enforcing laws that actually allow people to participate in the breaking of God’s laws.  The result is that they care more about the laws of men than they do the laws of God.  Which is more important?  God’s laws or man’s laws?

Some of us are so guilty of this too.  Oh how we look down at others for minor infractions and yet all the while are not fulfilling the more significant, weightier matters of God’s law.  We scoff because of the clothes someone wears or because of the music someone listens to or because they shop at Starbucks or vote in a way that irritates us.  Yet all the while, we are neglecting prayer and we are being unfaithful to our spouse or harboring hate in our hearts towards our neighbors. Oh, how guilty we are of this too.

Jesus says in verses 7, 8 and 9 that when we do that we are hypocrites:

You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

-Jesus in Matthew 15:7-9, quoting Isaiah 29:13

And Jesus says that is exactly what is happening here in this instance with the hand washing.

How so?

Real Defilement Comes from Within

Jesus is now going to explain to us how the tradition of the elders was not helping people to obey God but was actually leading people into disobedience.

So, back to the couch example from the beginning of the sermon. Those kids who want to create new laws like “don’t stand on the couch” to help the other kids obey the “don’t jump on the couch” rule, actually end up creating more problems in the end. Fights are breaking out and people are getting angry and other things that are more important are being ignored.  The intention might be good at first but the end result is really bad.

And I want you to listen carefully because this is where the rubber meets the road for us too.  This is not just about what was going on in that time and place, this has to do with us also.

Look at verses 10 and 11 now.  This is kind of a transition moment in the passage.  Jesus has been addressing the Pharisees and now he calls the common people up to talk to him.  Far from being an irrelevant triviality, this is something that everyone needs to know:

And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 

So before I get into the meat of what Jesus is saying here, let me quickly talk about this word “defile.”  That’s not a word that we use today very much.  It’s an archaic sounding word.  Most of us probably think about pollution or something when we hear that word.  You know like a factory dumping chemicals into a river.  That’s polluting or defiling the river.  It’s no longer pure and clean.  And that’s actually pretty close to the biblical meaning as well.

To defile here in this text is speaking of making something impure and unfit for God. So a person that is defiled cannot come before God and cannot touch anything that is dedicated to God until they have performed the necessary purification rites. Those might be washing or waiting a certain amount of time or presenting a particular animal to the priest to be sacrificed.

Okay, so now, with that in view, what is Jesus saying in verses 10 and 11? 

He’s saying that it’s not things like food and unclean hands and such that make us unfit for God.  It’s the stuff that comes out of the heart. 

Defilement was not something that happened from the outside of oneself but was something that originated on the inside of a person.

Think about the implications of that for a moment. 

[Pause]

Jesus continues in verses 15 and following:

But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

-Matthew 15:15-20

This would have been mind-blowing to the Jews of the day.  This is so different from the common teaching and practice of the day that Peter can’t even get his mind around it.

Maybe most concerning of all is that everyone does these things.  Everyone has committed at least one of the sins on that list.  If you haven’t you are way better than I am. 

And what this means is that we are all defiled, all of us are unfit for God.  All of us are unclean.  All of us have fallen short of God’s standard are not worthy to be in his holy presence. 

And no hand washing can take away the uncleanness in our hearts.  Just as eating with unwashed hands does not defile, neither does pouring water over the hands and wrists clean off the evil deeds that you and I have done.

How Does a Person Become Clean in the Sight of God?

But if we can’t just wash our hands or present an animal to the priest to be sacrificed.  What can we do?  How does one become clean?

We need a more powerful agent.  Something that goes deeper than water.  Our sins are like scarlet which cannot be washed away with mere water.  We need something greater.  The Old Testament prophets foretold a way that God would somehow remove the stains of our sins.  Isaiah 1:18 says:

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:

though your sins are like scarlet,

    they shall be as white as snow;

though they are red like crimson,

    they shall become like wool.

-Isaiah 1:18

But how?  How is this dirt and sin to be cleansed?

Not through rule keeping and rituals.  Not through a perfect obedience to all the commands of God and doing the right things.  God has made another way. 

There’s a great hymn that says it well:

There is a fountain filled with blood

Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins

and sinners plunged beneath that flood

lose all their guilty stains.

-Cowper, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”

A modern rendition of that hymns says

        Hallelujah fountain full of love for us

        Poured out on us

-Shane & Shane

This same Jesus who taught that mere washing with water would not prevent one from becoming unclean went on to offer his life as a sacrifice for you and for me, in love.  And anyone who would put their faith and trust in Him will be cleansed from their sins and granted eternal fellowship with God.

So God is inviting you into relationship with himself today and the way is not through washings and rule keeping, it’s through Jesus. 

If you haven’t already I invite you to put your faith in Jesus Christ today.

Amen.

A Parable for Today

Sometimes I hear God speak in parables to me, not in words but in the things that surround me.  Recently I had one of those moments as I was mowing my lawn.  You see, I have one of those “typical” Vermont lawns that are a mix of four varieties of actual grass (none of which match), at least that many kinds of broadleaf weeds, some well-established clover, the perennial dandelions, a smattering of Indian paintbrush, an occasional nettle, and other things that I don’t even recognize.  And this lawn could be a source of frustration to me if I was a perfectionist who was obsessed with fertilizing and reseeding it, digging out everything that I thought did not belong, setting its exact limits and layout, and never being satisfied until it was uniform and manicured, a lawn that met all of my expectations and preferences.  But I am no longer that person.  I look at the lawn and I have a certain satisfaction in its variety and content…it always grows and needs frequent mowing, it is mostly green, there are very few bare spots, and it seems to tolerate seasons of both rain and dryness without dying out.

And it was at that moment that I recognized that what was true of my lawn, was true of my community, my nation, my world, my church.  None of these venues will ever fully meet my expectations, I will never find a uniformity of belief, or opinion, or lifestyle.  And that diversity could continuously vex my soul, or it could simply be the reality that I have to live in by the grace of God and to the best of my abilities, trying, as the Apostle Paul said, to live at peace with every person so far as that possibility is present in me.  As Jesus taught in the gospel, I cannot seek to justify myself by asking the question “And just who is my neighbor?”  I have no other option than to love each and every neighbor as I love myself, regardless of whether I agree with them, like them, or even have anything in common with them.  They do not answer to me anyway, they belong to Jesus and He has already warned us that there are wheat and tares growing up side by side but that this does not bother God as much as it seems to bother me.  I have come to realize that I no longer wish to be fighting a constant war with a world that Jesus came to save.  There will come a day when all things are made clear and when the final sorting out takes place, but that task is given to Jesus, not me.  My part is simply to love my neighbor as myself; in doing that I find that I find that I also love and honor God with every part of my life and being.

Did Jesus Appear to the Apostles?

Did Jesus’ disciples claim that he rose from the dead? If they did, were they sincere in this proclamation? This area is something else that many critics of the resurrection of Jesus often attack and it is an area I will address in this post. Do we have reasons to think that the disciples claimed Jesus rose from the dead and do we have reasons to think that they believed it?

They Claimed It

In order to figure whether they claimed it we will look at nine early and independent sources that fall into three categories: the testimony of Paul about the disciples; the oral tradition that passed through the early church; and the written works of the early church.

Paul’s Testimony

Why should we trust the apostle Paul? Paul claims that his own authority in the church was equal to that of the other apostles.1 That authority was acknowledged by a number of the apostolic fathers soon after the completion of the New Testament.2 Paul reported that he knew at least some of the other disciples, even the big three, Peter, James, and John.3

Acts reports that the disciples and Paul knew and fellowshipped with one another.4 It’s because of all this that we should take Paul seriously on what he says about the other disciples.

After writing on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul said he worked harder than all of the other apostles, but that whether “it was I or they, this [i.e., Jesus’ resurrection appearances] is what we preach.” Thus, Paul knew the apostles personally and reports that they claimed that Jesus rose from the dead.

Oral Tradition

Throughout the New Testament, specifically in the letters of Paul, are oral creeds or summaries that predate Paul’s letters. One that is of special interest is 1 Corinthians 15:3-5:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”

There are many factors scholars have noted why this is an oral creed and that it predates Paul’s letter. In addition, many critical scholars believe that Paul received this creed from the disciples Peter and James when he visited Jerusalem three years after his conversion. If true, we have source material within 5 years of the resurrection showing that the disciples experienced appearances of Jesus.

Since tape recorders were unavailable in the first century, recorded dialogues, such as the sermons of Jesus and his apostles, had to have been summaries prepared after the fact by those who had heard them. Most sermons last longer than five minutes. Yet most of the sermons of the New Testament can be read in that amount of time or less. For these reasons and others, most scholars agree that many of the sermons in Acts contain oral summaries included in the text that can be traced to the earliest teachings of the church and possibly to the disciples themselves.

At minimum, these appear to have been standard sermons preached during the earliest times of the church, that are contemporary with the apostles, attributed to the apostles, and in agreement with Paul’s eyewitness testimony that this is what they were preaching. Admittedly, this does not prove that these sermons proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection and appearances were coming from the apostles. But if we are not there then we’re awfully close.

Written Tradition

In regards to written sources, we have to consider the Gospels. No matter what you think of them, they are ancient biographies written within the first century and attests to the resurrection of Jesus as well.

In addition we must consider the writings of the apostolic fathers, Clement, Bishop of Rome (c. 30-100 AD) and Polycarp (c. 69-155). These two specifically taught that the apostles were dramatically impacted by Jesus’ resurrection.

In regards to Clement of Rome, he wrote 1 Clement which is dated to 95AD but probably written earlier than that. Irenaeus5 (185 AD) and Tertullian6 (200 AD) mention in their own letters that Clement had seen the apostles and had fellowshipped with them, particularly Peter. This should render great historical value to Clement’s writings concerning the apostles and their teachings. In 1 Clement, Clement wrote that they were assured of Jesus’ resurrection and went out and spread the news of it.7

In regards to Polycarp, Irenaeus tells us that Polycarp was taught by the apostles, taught others what he had learned from them, appointed by the apostles as bishop of the church in Smyrna, and had talked with many who had seen Jesus.8 Tertullian further wrote that it was the apostle John who appointed Polycarp as bishop in Smyrna.9 Similarly with Clement, Polycarp talks about in his own letters about Jesus’ resurrection and the apostles witnessing Jesus after his crucifixion.10

So in conclusion we have nine early eyewitness testimonies to the disciples’ claims of witnessing the risen Jesus. The late New Testament critic of the University of Chicago, Norman Perrin (who rejected Jesus’ resurrection), wrote, “The more we study the tradition with regard to the appearances, the firmer the rock begins to appear upon which they are based.”11

The Believed It

Well how do we know that the disciples’ were willing to suffer and even die for their proclamation that Jesus rose from the dead for the forgiveness of their sins. This blog post is running long already so I’ll keep everything in the end notes for those interested. We have the accounts in Acts and the testimonies of Polycarp,12 Tertullian13 (200 AD), Clement of Rome14 (95 AD), Ignatius15 (110 AD), Origen16 (185-254 AD), and Dionysius of Corinth17 (writing about 170 AD but cited by Eusebius around 325 AD).

  1. 2 Corinthians 10:8; 11:5; 13:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:6; 4:2; Philemon 1:21; 2 Thessalonians 3:4.
  2. Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 51.
  3. Galatians 1:18-19; 2:2-20.
  4. Acts 9:26-30; 15:1-35.
  5. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.3.
  6. Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, 32.
  7. Clement, First Clement, 42:3.
  8. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.4.
  9. Tertullian, Prescription Against Heresies, 32.
  10. Polycarp, To the Philippians 9:2.
  11. Norman Perrin, The Resurrection According to Matthew, Mark and Luke (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 80.
  12. To the Philippians 9:2.
  13. Scorpiace, 15.
  14. 1 Clement 5:2-7.
  15. To the Smyrnaeans 3:2.
  16. Origen, Contra Celsum, 2:56.
  17. Ecclesiastical History 2.25.8; 3.1.

The Good News We Must Never Neglect

Every once in a while, someone gives you the great gift of feedback – thoughtful, constructive, and timely.  It happened this week when a friend said, “You don’t preach the gospel.”

Most of the feedback I get on sermons is…well…silence.  Most who listen to my sermons don’t say anything at all.  I learned a long time ago not to base my professional self-esteem, or my sense of call, on the comment-o-meter.  If I did, I’d quit most weeks.

The responses I get are generally positive and brief – everything from “I enjoyed that” to “you were speaking right to me.”  Often the most appreciated response is an e-mail or comment that comes days or weeks later as I learn how God’s word has touched and changed someone’s life.  I had no idea at the time.

Rarely does someone do what a friend had the courage and wisdom to do this week.  After weeks, if not months, of careful consideration, he came to me in person with his critique.

His words took me somewhat off guard.  When he said, “You don’t preach the gospel,”  I don’t think he meant I never do.  He just doesn’t hear enough gospel in my sermons.

We talked about what he means by the gospel, and he gave me a book to read:  The Transforming Power of the Gospel, a 2012 publication by Jerry Bridges of the Navigators.  I went home and read it immediately, cover to cover.

Reading the book took me back about 35 years.  It’s Bible College 101.  I don’t say that pejoratively.  Bridges is a long-time staff member and author with the Navigators, an evangelism and discipleship ministry primarily geared toward college students who have little Christian training.  He systematically lays out the basics of the core of our faith:

God is holy.  Sin is sinful.  Jesus gave his life for us in “the great exchange.’  This gospel needs our daily embrace.  It motivates us to live a life of gratitude.  [Bridges’ use of the Heidelberg Catechism in this chapter caught my attention in this section.]  The Holy Spirit transforms us through the instruments of grace, including our active disciplines of Scripture and prayer, our faithful response to adversity, so that we are conformed to the image of Christ.

I am surprised to hear from one of my listeners that this message is not coming through in my preaching.  My friend was raised in a church that did not deny the gospel message – but neglected and obscured it.  I think he fears I’m doing the same.

The church of my adolescence, by contrast to his, was a place where “the gospel” was the theme of every sermon, an altar call was the climax of every worship service, and the “sinner’s prayer” is what every person must sincerely say in order to go to heaven.  I am grateful for my spiritual roots, and do not disdain them.  The Christian journey does begin with repentance and trusting Christ.

My own Christian life and teaching ministry, however, have become intentionally broader than the church of my youth.

The Gospel.  The word “gospel” means “good news.”  It is the central and familiar message of Christianity – that God has entered our world in the person of Jesus Christ.  By his incarnation, death, and resurrection alone we are saved.  The gospel is so much more, however, than just how bad sin is, what Christ did to pay for sin, and the response of faith and repentance.  As Bridges says, the process of becoming like Christ is Gospel as well.  Paul, who practically coined the word “gospel” in its New Testament sense, spends as much if not more time on the practical application of the gospel in our lives than he does expounding the central message itself.

The Bible.  The Bible invests most of its ink on subjects other than “the gospel,” at least the way that word is narrowly defined.  The first 2/3 of the Bible has an occasional hint of the gospel, but most of it is what I like to call a “setup” for Jesus’ coming.  The books we call “the gospels” only rarely expound “the gospel.”  Those who heard most of Jesus’ sermons would not know “how to be saved” (in the way many evangelicals mean that phrase) after hearing them.  That is also true of the bulk of content in Paul’s letters.   Ephesians, for example, certainly lays out the heart of the gospel clearly in 2:1-10.  All of chapters 1-3 support that central message in one way or the other – but not as explicitly as 2:8-9.  In chapters 4-6 Paul spells out what “a life worthy” of this gospel looks like – but he doesn’t “preach the gospel” again.

Clichés.  I work hard in my preaching not to say the same things we’ve all heard in the same ways.  This is part of the “golden rule” applied to preaching.  When I hear other preachers using proverbial phrases – or even reverting to the same Scripture verses and familiar themes – I tend to tune them out.  In preaching I try hard not to say things I often heard and said decades ago, like ….

    • Justification means ‘just as if I’d never sinned.’
    • Grace is an acronym for ‘God’s riches at Christ’s expense.’
    • Whenever you find the word ‘therefore’ in the Bible, find out what it’s there for.
    • Jesus is the reason for the season of Christmas.

It’s not because these phrases are untrue but because they seem to me like salt that has lost its flavor.  I’m aware that for others these phrases may seem fresh and memorable – maybe even a sort of spiritual comfort food – but if they seem overused to me, the words will limp out of my mouth.  The word preached needs to be fresh in my own heart.

Omissions.  I have often said that while I am grateful for my evangelical heritage, I believe I’m a better Christian for having broadened my exposure and relationships in the Body of Christ.  The Reformed faith has given me a deeper appreciation of the sacraments than I was taught growing up.  Anglicans like C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright helped me filter out sectarianism from “mere Christianity.”  Richard Foster pushed me to appreciate spiritual disciplines other than reading the Bible and ticking off a prayer list.  The United Church of Christ has taught me to pray Jesus’ prayer for a visible unity of his church and has also given me a greater concern for compassion and justice.  Pentecostal Christians make me realize how dry my experience of worship can be.  The African American heritage exposes the dangers of power and privilege.  Philip Schaff reminds me that there was a church faithful to Christ between the first and sixteenth centuries.  A Lutheran minister named Stephen Haugk taught me again that sometimes the gospel has more to do with listening than talking. All those themes were largely omitted as an application of the gospel in my early Christian training.  Jerry Bridges’ three primary points of gospel application (integrity, sexual purity, and interpersonal relationships) while important, are far from the only ways the Gospel needs to be applied.

Humility.  In my observation, most expressions of the church, ancient and modern, eastern and western, foster arrogance.  I’m most aware of my own culture and time, but it seems to me contemporary American Christianity is the guiltiest of all on this point.  In the same way that our political views have fostered what author Bill Bishop calls “The Big Sort,” freedom of religion in America allows and even encourages us to gather with the like-minded who simply reinforce our insights and ignore our collective blind spots.  We become critical of those who don’t believe or behave as we do, completely ignoring a fundamental biblical theme that is essential to the gospel – both in terms of conversion and the Christian life:  humility.  There’s something about intentional exposure to believers outside my circle and visible expressions of the unity of Christ’s body across racial, denominational, political, and class barriers that humbles me before God and others.  That’s a gospel theme that needs preaching as well, especially in response to a culture of sectarian arrogance.

Holiness and Love.  Part of what my friend said to me was that he doesn’t hear me expound enough the holiness of God – which includes God’s perfection, his wrath, and his justice.  God hates sin and cannot look upon it, which is why the cross was necessary and why salvation comes only through Jesus Christ.  The criticism is fair, and God’s holiness is a theme that doesn’t come through with clarity and consistency in my preaching.  Our Heidelberg Catechism, after its introduction and overview, strongly words its section on guilt as foundation before moving on to grace and gratitude.  Without going back and doing a thorough analysis, however, I would say God’s grace is overwhelmingly more dominant as a biblical theme than his justice, especially in the New Testament.  This is why I say the Old Testament is a setup for grace.  While the New certainly doesn’t neglect the wrath of God, neither does it dwell long or frequently on the subject.  Paul and John can write long letters with little or no mention of judgment on sin, preferring love as our primary motivator.  John perhaps says it most succinctly, just after a reference to “the day of judgment”:  “There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:18, NIV).  Paul’s primary motivation is also Christ’s love (2 Corinthians 5:14).

There is much more to preaching the gospel than “the gospel.” Even when I preach it, I try to find a fresh way to tell “the old, old story.”  But if I’m to practice what I preach on humility, I need to receive humbly the sincere assessment of a friend.

I am so grateful for my friend’s courage in coming to me in person and in love.  He did me a ginormous (one of my daughter’s words of choice) favor on more than one level.  First, I have been asking myself all week whether I make the gospel clear in my ministry.  I assume a knowledge of the gospel – do I explicitly proclaim it?  My friend is right when he tells me that there are people there every Sunday who need to hear the gospel again – some perhaps for the first time.  Jesus is still “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and my number one job is to point people to the Father through Christ.

If someone who knows the gospel well sits in the pew in front of me week after week and says he doesn’t hear a simple explanation and invitation to faith in Christ for salvation, I need to listen humbly and receive his reminder as from the Lord.  Paul would speak of many things in his letters, but throughout his correspondence he would also include what he called in 1 Corinthians 15:4 “of first importance” – that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”  This gospel we must never neglect.

Fruit of Following God #13: Sacrificial Living for Christ

Frans Floris painting, The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ Son of God Gathering and Protecting Mankind

Eventually a growing disciple realizes that not only does Christ call His followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23), but he also calls them to live sacrificially. The self-life must die and Christ must live. Christ Himself was a sacrifice for us. Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).

In daily living, believers are to sacrifice themselves as an act of worship. Paul lived out this admonition in his own life and ministry. Writing to the believers at Philippi he says, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (Philippians 2:17). The author of the book of Hebrews also states, “Through [Jesus] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:15-16).  Giving up ourselves, our possessions, our time, our personal rights and perceived privileges should be part of the Christian life. Each disciple must understand the will of the Lord in such personal matters and decisions but each disciple must also ask himself, “What am I giving up in order to serve Christ and/or help fulfill the Great Commission?” C.T. Studd, the missionary pioneer to Belgian Congo in the early 1900’s, once made this compelling statement, “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him” (Grubb, 141). A growing disciple becomes sensitive to what he can give up for the Savior who gave Himself for His own.

It’s All In the Details

When the gospels and Acts are seen as eyewitness testimony, they gain a lot of credibility in the eyes of nonbelievers which makes it all the more easier for us as followers of Christ to tell them about Jesus and the offer of salvation by placing their trust in him. In my last post, I’ve talked about the principle of embarrassment as evidence of the gospels being reliable eyewitness testimony. There is another way to tell if an historical document is generally reliable and that is when it has numerous, verified details within the text.

Suppose someone wrote a book describing your hometown as it was in 1950. In this book, the author correctly identifies the local industry, the laws and penal codes, the town’s roads and geography, the politicians of that time, local houses of worship, town statues and sculptures, area hotels, the depth of the water in the town harbor and numerous other unique details about your town of that year. Here’s a question to ponder over: If this author claimed he had visited your town that year, or at least said he had gotten information from people who lived in that town, would you think he was telling the truth? Of course, because he provides details only an eyewitness could provide. That’s the type of testimony we have in Acts and John.

Luke, Paul’s physician and companion, wrote the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. In addition, Luke was an eyewitness of many of the things that happened in Acts. In the second half of that work, Luke displays an incredible array of knowledge of local places, environmental conditions, names, customs, and other circumstances that make sense only if he was an eyewitness or had access to eyewitness testimony. In his work, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, the classical scholar and historian Colin Hemer combs through the second half of Acts and sorts out incredible historical details that are confirmed by epigraphical, paleographical, archeological, and historical evidence from the first century. Hemer was able to find up to 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts. Let’s look at some of the details Luke drops in Acts that are confirmed by outside testimony:

  1. The correct language spoken in Lystra, which is Lycaonian (Acts 14:11)
  2. The correct order of approach to Derbe and then Lystra from the Cilician Gates (16:1; 15:41)
  3. The presence of a synagogue in Thessalonica (17:1)
  4. An alter to an “unknown god” (17:23)
  5. The proper term for those holding court (19:38)
  6. The common way to obtain Roman citizenship at this time (22:28)
  7. The best shipping lanes at the time (27:5)
  8. The right route to sail, in view of the winds (27:12)
  9. The precise place and name of this island (27:16)
  10. The local people and the superstitions of the day (28:4-6)

Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White has stated:

“For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming…Any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.” 1

The classical scholar and archaeologist Sir William Ramsey has said:

“Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness…Luke is an historian of the first rank…He should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.” 2

If Luke is this accurate with Acts, could he not also be trusted when it comes to his own gospel that he authored? I don’t see why not. And if Luke can be trusted to give accurate information in his own gospel, then Matthew and Mark can be trusted for accuracy as well because they tell the same basic story.

What about the Gospel of John? Is it reliable? On the face of it, the author has inserted himself into the gospel as “the disciple” or “the beloved disciple” and so in effect the author is claiming to be an eyewitness of the events of Jesus. Could we find the same kind of details in John that we find in Acts? Like the work Colin Hemer did in Acts, the New Testament and Johanine scholar, Craig Blomberg has set out to do just that in his book, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel where he examines John’s Gospel verse by verse and identifies numerous historical details. In all, he has identified 59 details in the Gospel of John that have been confirmed by literary works and archaeology or are historically probable. The events John describes in his gospel are restricted to Israel so it doesn’t contain quite as many geographical, topographical, and political items as the book of Acts. Despite the limitation, there is a remarkable amount of details that either confirmed by outside sources or are historically probable given that early Christians would most likely not invent them. Here I’ll list a small sample to give you an idea of how reliable John’s gospel is when looked at in depth:

  1. Archaeology confirms the use of stone water jars in New Testament times (John 2:6)
  2. Given the early Christian tendency towards asceticism, the wine miracle is an unlikely invention (2:8)
  3. Josephus (War of the Jews 2.232) confirms there was significant hostility between Jews and Samaritans during Jesus’ time (4:9)
  4. Jesus’ own testimony being invalid without the Father is an unlikely invention (5:31); a later redactor would be eager to highlight Jesus’ divinity and would probably make his witness self-authenticating.
  5. Archeology confirms the existence and location of the Pool of Siloam (9:7)

When we couple John’s knowledge of Jesus’ personal conversations with these nearly sixty historically confirmed/historically probable details, could there be any reasonable doubt that John was an eyewitness or at least had access to eyewitness testimony? 

  1.  A.N. Sherman-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 189.
  2.  Quoted in The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 90-91.

Wow, That’s Really Embarrassing

Imagine working outside trimming the bushes in your front yard on a hot sunny day. After much trimming you enter your house so you can get an ice cold glass of water. You enter the kitchen where you find the cookie jar shattered on the floor with the cookies scattered everywhere. You call your six-year-old son to come into the kitchen.

You ask him: Did you knock over the cookie jar?

Your son looks down and mutters: Yes, I thought I could get a cookie without dropping the cookie jar.

Here’s an interesting question: Why would you believe him? Maybe because he has nothing to gain by telling the truth and everything to gain by telling a lie.

This is one of many ways historians use to verify whether a historical document is speaking truth on a particular subject or is truthful as a whole. Historians refer to this as the principle of embarrassment. This principle assumes that any details embarrassing to the author or embarrassing to their goal in writing a document are probably true. Why is that? It’s because the tendency of most people is to leave out anything that makes them look bad or make their cause look bad. What do the gospels look like in light of this revelation?

The gospel writers include embarrassing details about themselves and the other disciples:

They are dim-witted: Mark 9:32; Luke 18:34; John 12:16

They are uncaring: They fall asleep on Jesus twice when he asks them to pray for him in his time of need (Mark 14:32-41). Moreover, they don’t even have the courage to give their rabbi a proper burial and instead it was a member of the Sanhedrin (Joseph of Arimathea) who is in the very court that sentenced him to death.

They are rebuked: Peter is called Satan by Jesus (Mark 8:33). Can you imagine Mark saying to Peter: Hey Pete! I’m going to have the Lord call you Satan, what do you think about that? Peter would rightly say back, Have him call you Satan, why do I got to be called Satan! This is certainly not something you would make up off the top of your head.

They are cowards: All of the disciples abandoned Jesus (except one) when he was crucified. Peter denies him three times after saying to Jesus’ face he would never disown him (Matthew 26:33-35). While the male disciples were hiding for fear of the Jews, the brave female disciples stood by Jesus at the cross, during his burial, and visited the tomb on Sunday morning.

They are doubters: Despite being taught several times that Jesus would rise from the dead, they still doubted after being told by the women that he resurrected. Thomas doubted until he saw Jesus for himself and some even doubted after he was risen (Matthew 28:17).

The gospel writers included embarrassing details about Jesus:

Jesus:

  • is considered out of his mind by his family (Mark 3)
  • is thought to be a deceiver (John 7:5)
  • is deserted by many of his followers (John 6:66)
  • turns off Jews who had believed in him to the point that they want to stone him (John 8:30-31, 59).
  • is called a drunkard (Matthew 11:19)
  • is called demon-possessed (Mark 3:22; John 7:20; 8:48)
  • is called a madman (John 10:20)
  • has his feet wiped with the hair of a prostitute (an event that had the potential to be perceived as a sexual advance – Luke 7:36-39)
  • is crucified by the Jews and Romans despite the fact that anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse (Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13)

The gospel writers include difficult sayings of Jesus:

Jesus:

  • declares “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28)
  • says no one, including himself, knows the time of his second coming (Matthew 24:36)
  • is seen cursing a fig tree for not having figs even though it was not the season for figs to be on the tree (Matthew 21:18)
  • seems unable to do many miracles in his hometown (Mark 6:5)
  • makes a morbid claim about how eating the Son of Man’s flesh and drinking his blood will give you eternal life (John 6:53)

While there are reasonable explanations for these sayings and others 1, it doesn’t make much sense that the gospel writers would complicate things by leaving these statements (and many others) in there.

The gospel writers left in many demanding sayings of Jesus:

  • Jesus speaks about just having sexual thoughts about someone is equal to committing adultery against your spouse (Matthew 5:28)
  • Jesus talks about not divorcing your spouse unless it’s because of sexual infidelity. (Matthew 5:32)
  • Jesus talks about when someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek to him. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:39-41)
  • I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matthew 5:44-45)

I’ve only highlighted some of the many embarrassing moments in the gospels.2 It would appear that there is a lot of embarrassing material in the gospels and so that should tell us that the gospel writers are habitually truth tellers and that we should give them the benefit of the doubt when talking on subjects we aren’t able to verify. This is one of many reasons why the gospels are considered to be eyewitness testimony.

  1.  When trying to understand alleged contradictions or errors, books like The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation (formerly known as When Critics Ask) by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe and the New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason Archer.
  2.  A lot of the content from this post was taken from the book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be An Atheist by Frank Turek and Norman Geisler (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004).

The Fruit of Following God – Part 12: Walks by Faith

Hebrews 11 is the chapter that summarizes so many demonstrations of faith in the Bible. In some ways, it is amazing that the author of Hebrews wrote such a short compilation since evidence of faith is seen throughout Scripture. Of course, the author did write:

“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets…” (verse 32).

One might even ask, “What about Job?!” Nevertheless, God’s people indeed “walk by faith, not by sight,” (2 Corinthians 5:7). And we cannot walk by feelings either, although the presence of feelings and emotions about the Lord are not to be dismissed as inappropriate in the Christian life.  As we trusted Christ for our salvation from sin and hell, so we must continue to trust the Lord through our entire lives.

“This is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1 John 5:4).

The disciple of Christ learns to trust God though the good and the bad, during the blessings and the trials. In his prayer life, the disciple is able to express desires and hopes and to cast his every care and worry upon Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). Jesus exhorts the burdened in His day and assures them of His help when He says,

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

As growing disciples, we gradually learn that God has a plan for us and that He also has the power to provide for us. And He answers prayer. We can give Him our worries (Luke 12:22-26) and our future (Matthew 6:34) as He knows every need of our lives (Matthew 6:25-34). The disciple lives a life of faith even when the feelings and the sense of the presence of God is missing. Habakkuk learned this lesson as Babylon hovered over Israel and the threat of losing everything loomed large. The Lord told him, “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Habakkuk finally reached a point of resolution, recognizing that even if he were to lose everything, He would still have God and he could rejoice in that assurance:

16 I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. 17 Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. 19 God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. (Habakkuk 3:16-19)

This is the walk of faith: trusting God when all that you have is God.

I still recall working on a construction site in west Fort Lauderdale, Florida as a new Christian back in the summer of 1973. There was a Hispanic worker named Louie serving on the same site with a crew separate from ours. But he found out that a lot of our crew were Christians, as we were serving together during the summer with a Navigator ministry summer beach project. He was excited to know this, since he had just recently become a Christian. The joy in his salvation was evident and although his English was somewhat limited, he and I could both talk together about our newfound faith. But one day Louie came to work and it was obvious that he was “in the dumps” emotionally. His joy and happiness were missing – he was a young man who wore his heart on his sleeve. When I asked him what was wrong, in his simple English he replied, “God seems gone. I don’t feel Him with me.” I had been there before, so I explained to Louie that sometimes God intentionally removes His presence (or a sense of His presence) to test us and to strengthen our faith. He wants to see if we love Him or His blessings more. Louis seemed to understand and in time he was back to his “old/new” self. The Westminster Confession of Faith states that sometimes

“God withdraws the light of His countenance”; yet believers are “never truly destitute of that seed of God” in their lives (18:4).

This is what it means to walk by faith, clinging to Him and trusting Him even when the darkness appears to be prevailing!