The Message of the Cross

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is the power of God to us who are being saved. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the intelligence of the intelligent.Where is the one who is wise? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of what is preached. For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (CSB).

What is the message that the church is to be proclaiming in our time, at the end of the twentieth century? What task should we be seeking to fulfill?

  • Some suggest that the church should be involved in liberating oppressed peoples.
  • Some suggest that the church should seek to correct social “wrongs”: poverty, illiteracy, racism, etc.
  • Some suggest that the church should lead the fight to restore morality. On the other hand, some having seen the failure of this, suggest an alternative escapism.
  • Some suggest that the church should be content with fulfilling ceremonial functions: birth, marriage, death, etc.
  • Some suggest that the church is hopelessly outdated and irrelevant, that it was beneficial in old times, but its best action would be to close its doors forever.

Obviously, if we listen to the opinions of people, we will be running in many directions and acting according to the latest fad. However, as followers of Christ, we have an absolute standard, the Holy Scriptures. What does the Bible, God’s word, teach about our message? It plainly says that the church’s message is the message of the cross.

The message of the cross is a message that the world considers foolishness. The world logically (though incorrectly) rejects it as foolish due to their basic assumptions. It may be terrifying to think about this, but people eventually will make their actions conform to their assumptions.

People of the world have a human-centered view of truth (1:20a, 22b). They assume that humans must verify anything and everything by the standards of human wisdom for it to be considered “true”, if they care to pretend that anything can be true. Humanity becomes its own measuring stick. They also presume that humans can solve all of humanity’s problems by our own wisdom and ability. This results in a very closed system. Mankind does not need God. Anything miraculous or supernatural is impossible by their starting assumptions of a uniformity of natural causes in a closed system. So they have an experiential view of truth (1:22a). Compare Matthew 12:38-39; Mark 8:11-12; John 6:30.

People of the world refuse to receive the knowledge of the truth (Romans 1:18; 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12). They suppress the facts that show mankind’s increasing failures. They aggressively suppress anything that teaches responsibility and accountability to God. The worldly-wise person can never really applaud the true Christian. If they do, either one or both has strayed from their basic principles.

The message of the cross is the message of salvation (1:18, 21).

The world does not mind hearing a mild message of reformation or restoration. (“Yes, we agree we should wash our hands and not shake hands. We need social distancing.”) Most people will admit that they and their society have a few problems. Many people go for counseling. They’ll listen to non-judgmental advice. Most people will admit that some changes need to be made in how their lives or their society has been operating.

But to worldly-minded, the message of salvation is intolerable.

  • It is intolerable because it exposes the depth of the human problem (1:18) The cross confronts a person with what they are, and not just what he or she does. By nature we have a sinful heart that produces sinful actions. The cross of Christ confronts a person with the necessity of God rescuing them. The problem is so critical that no one but God is able to solve it. This “insults” human pride.
  • It is intolerable because it speaks of guilt and blameworthiness. The worldly person wants to be seen as a victim, not as a guilty rebel against God. The worldly person does not want to acknowledge that he or she must answer to the Creator. So then, do not try to make God’s message pleasing to rebels against him.

The message of the cross is the message of Christ crucified (1:23)

Consider a striking contrast. If Christians would preach a certain type of Jesus, the world would be content to accept its message. They do not mind “Jesus the social worker” or “Jesus the mild morality teacher” or “Jesus the anti-establishment leader”. A false “Jesus” is readily accepted (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:4).

Back in the 1960s, Francis Shaeffer wrote, “Increasingly over the last few years the word ‘Jesus,’ separated from the content of the Scriptures, has become the enemy of the Jesus of history, the Jesus who died and rose and who is coming again and who is the eternal Son of God. So let us take care” (Schaeffer, Escape From Reason, p. 79).

But people reject the Christ who really lived among us (1:23b).

  • He is a stumbling block to the Jews. He didn’t measure up to what their ideas of what the Messiah should be. “How could someone who died the cursed death on a tree be God’s Messiah?”
  • He is foolishness to the Gentiles. “How could a man dying on a cross do anything for me?”

When we proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ and his saving work, then and only then do we proclaim God’s message.

  • Let us focus on Christ’s person. He is the Savior we humans need. He is able to rescue us from our sinful condition. He (not religion) has power to save. A sinner needs the Savior himself. The reality of what the Savior is explains what he is able to do. The question is not “What good can the death of a man 2,000 years ago do for me?” Instead, the question is “Who died on that cross?” And the answer is “he who is both eternal Son of God and perfect man.” His deity gives power to his work, and his manhood makes him an acceptable substitute.
  • Let us focus on Christ’s saving work. He became a curse for us (Galatians 3:10-13). He turned aside God’s wrath from us by satisfying it (Romans 3:23-26). He reconciled us to God (Romans 5:6-11).

In the proclamation of Jesus Christ crucified, we can see the greatness of God’s wisdom. Human wisdom deals only with the surface aspects of humanity’s problems. This is like useless repairs of potholes when the road needs a new base. But in Christ we can see how God in his wisdom provided a Deliverer who could truly fix the human problem at its core.

The way of salvation is to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior (1:21b). Why should you continue on your way? It is the way of destruction (1:18a,19). It is a way that cannot succeed (1:25). Turn from your sin and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will experience God’s power for salvation.

Grace and peace,

Profiting from Teachers (Part Two)

Ephesians 4:11-12

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up… (NIV).

The Lord Jesus uses God’s word to equip the church for her spiritual progress. Along with the word, he has given us the Spirit of God, whom he poured out on his people. The work of the Spirit is essential for anyone truly to profit spiritually. And along with the Spirit and the word, the Lord has given us gifted men. How can you profit from these gifted men?

Hopefully, you have a pastor-teacher that preaches and teaches regularly through entire books of the Bible. I will offer no objection to the occasional stand-alone message or even to occasional textual and topical messages. Sometimes there are glaring needs to be addressed in a local congregation. Sometimes a pastor and the congregation need a break from a long teaching series, like one through the book of Genesis or Acts. The people should not need to ask for a break. A pastor should be sensitive enough to lead his flock into other pastures for a short time. For example, I used to break from a regular teaching series in the summer, especially during July and August when people went on vacation. In the Bible studies I lead, we usually study an entire book of the Bible. For example, on Thursday mornings, we are going through the Gospel of John. But currently, we are looking at some of the Psalms during the summer months.

However, you may not have access to a sound teacher that leads you through whole books of the Book of books. And even if you do, you need to supplement such teaching with study on your own. To do that requires two actions that we might be reluctant to do: work and invest our time in the Scriptures. People use up too much time in “binge watching” TV shows and movies. I can understand the perceived need to escape from pressure by chilling in recreational activities. What would you do if you didn’t have such things and still had the pressure? Consider David’s thoughts in Psalm 19:7-11, in particular 19:8. The precepts of the Lord are right, making the heart glad; the command of the Lord is radiant, making the eyes light up (CSB).

So then, how can you profit? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Read the text of a Bible book at least five times. Always begin with your personal reading and read slowly, attentively, and carefully. Look for words or ideas that are repeated, like in Christ in Ephesians.  Pay attention to connecting words, such as but, for, therefore, if… then, if, so then. Read by paragraphs to gain entire thoughts. What is the main point the writer is making? Read like this with a friend to gain their insights.
  • Have a good study Bible, like the NIV Zondervan Study Bible. As a pastor, I accumulated many study Bibles, and the notes in most of them are not worthwhile or are theologically biased. Doctrinal bias affects everyone, but unless you are well-versed in where the editors are coming from, you can easily be misled. You need a worthwhile study Bible for its introductory material about the particular book you plan to study, and for a good outline of the book. A worthwhile Study Bible will not only have an outline, but will point you to the book’s purpose and to its major themes.
  • Read a worthwhile book on Biblical Theology. This will help you grasp the overall message of the Bible while you focus on a certain book. I will suggest three: According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ from Beginning to End by Trent Hunter and Stephen Wellum, and for the ambitious, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment by James Hamilton.

This is a starting place to give you access to teachers of the Bible. But you must invest time and work into reading them. I try to walk outside a lot, when the weather permits. (My doctors tell me to avoid extreme heat and cold.) After years of experience in walking, I will testify that the hardest steps to take are those first steps to get up and begin walking. I have climbed mountains, and the sight of the elevation of the peaks seemed too difficult to make the attempt. But for the good of your soul, I plead with you to invest the time and the work to study God’s word and to learn from the wisdom of teachers that the Lord Jesus has provided for you.

Grace and peace, David

Profiting from Teachers (Part One)

Ephesians 4:11-12

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up… (NIV).

The Lord Jesus cares for his people, the church. The letter to the Ephesians displays the Lord’s love for us in numerous ways; one of these is the giving of gifted people in the church to help them serve. As all the people serve, the spiritual body of Christ, his gathering of people saved by his grace, is built up. Today, we want to focus on benefiting from teachers that Christ has given to us all, including teachers profiting from teachers.

The NIV translation follows the structure of the Greek text, which speaks of four types of gifted men, the last mentioned being “pastor-teachers”. It is too easy for us to want to read this fourth type through the grid of 2,000 years of church history and our denominational views that rigidly control our thinking. I also know that some want to divide the last mentioned into two kinds, pastors and teachers. Without getting hopelessly tied up in such disputes, I want us to recognize that the Lord Christ has given us teachers for our benefit.

During much of church history, Christ’s people could be helped by teachers in one of two ways, which are still available to us. They could listen to the teacher in person or they could read what the teacher had written or spoken. Hearing skilled and Biblically faithful teachers was limited by transportation issues. Even by the time of Whitefield (1730- 1760), people had to walk or slowly ride distances of five to ten miles to hear the famous preacher. That required a tremendous investment of time and energy for hardworking subsistence farmers and shopkeepers. By the mid-1800s, it was much easier for preachers like Spurgeon to travel around Great Britain for people to hear him personally. Before the printing press, access to the written word was limited because books were expensive to produce in time and money. The invention of the printing press dramatically increased the spread of Biblical teaching. God also used the skill of notetakers to record the spoken words of men like Luther and Calvin in those days, so that their sermons, lectures, and “table talk” were spread across Europe and eventually North America.

We ought not to underestimate how all this contributed to healthy, critical thinking about our faith. People could read many teachers that they never had an opportunity to hear personally. Coupled with the regular teaching by pastors through books of the Bible, a store of knowledge gradually accumulated on many books of the Bible. This was, and remains, uneven in accuracy and usefulness, but it still has aided the church’s overall knowledge of God’s Word.

Another help has been the study of the three Biblical languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) since the time of the Reformation, coupled with the discovery of many more ancient manuscripts than were available for about 1,400 years. This has enabled teachers to better understand what God the Spirit actually says in his word. Historical and archaeological research have also aided teachers in learning the Biblical message. In addition, the rise of Biblical theology (knowing the storyline of God’s revelation of his glory in Christ) has helped the overall interpretation of the Biblical text.

In this digital age of information, we have enormous and fast access to Biblical teaching from the early church to the present day. This is a great help, if we are wise and discerning. We must know the faith once delivered to the faith to be able to process this information accurately. The question is, “How is the typical Christian able to profit from all this information?” To provide a starting point, we will provide some suggestions in the next post.

Grace and peace, David

Help for Reading the Bible

John 5:31-47

Let’s look at an overview of the message or story that God tells all people everywhere in his word, the Bible. It will focus on some of God’s ideas in his word about his word. Knowing these ideas will help shape and inform our approach to every book in the Book of books. I think this overview provides equipment needed for reading and learning and applying God’s word to our lives.

The Bible tells the story of God’s glory in Jesus Christ through salvation by judgment. God gives the written record of his word or message to people in what has proved to be an enduring and accessible resource that is better than merely hearing the spoken voice of God. The Sovereign God spoke this word through people he chose, and the Holy Spirit caused that message to be recorded by people in written form (2 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21). For example, God spoke to Abram (Genesis 12:1-3), and the Spirit of God had Moses write down those words (John 5:46).

The Bible is primarily made up of God’s narrative or story about his purpose to save and of his commentary upon that narrative. In this way, we read about God’s actions in history to save a people he chose through Christ’s person, word, and redemptive accomplishments. In his commentary on salvation history, God explains the significance and meaning of all this to us. Together they form our world and life view. For example, in the Four Gospels, we read the story of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, while in the letters of the apostles we learn the significance and meaning of those gospel events for our lives.

The story the Bible makes known is the message about God’s glory. It is his surpassing value and significance as the supreme and ultimate Being and the shining brilliance and magnificence of all that he is and does. Since God is the first and best, his glory is the ultimate purpose of his creation. For example, think of Psalm 19:1.

As God tells the story of his glory in Christ, he invites people to enter into his story. We enter through regeneration and conversion (Acts 20:21). And then our lives become worship. How we live proclaims and enables the enjoyment of God’s excellence. Consider Romans 11:36; 16:27; 1 Corinthians 10:31. What is God’s plan? Read Numbers 14:21; Isaiah 6:3; Habakkuk 2:14; Psalm 72:19; Revelation 4:11. In fact, our destiny is the experience of God’s glory (Revelation 21:1-4, 9-11, 23).

The main character in God’s story is the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. I see this point made in two general ways in the Holy Writings. First, it is made by direct statements of Jesus the Messiah. He tells us that God’s story is about him. The Scriptures testify about Christ (John 5:39, 46). The Bible is only understood correctly as we hear it telling us the good news of Christ (Luke 24:25-27, 44-47). Compare how Paul’s testimony was formed by this idea (Acts 26:9-23). This is why our theology, what we believe the Bible teaches, must be Christ-structured. God does not tell his story by talking about one of his attributes (like sovereignty or love) or about the covenants or promise-fulfillment or Israel or the new creation. These are part of the story, but the main idea is God’s glory in Christ in salvation through judgment. For example, how can sinners be saved? It is because Jesus took God’s wrath or judgment when he died on the cross, and in that way he rescues or saves all who trust in him.

Second, it is made by the content of the story. When you study how the story unfolds, you see four ideas: creation, fall, redemption, and renewal. All point in some way to the Lord Jesus Christ. For example, read Colossians 1:15-20. When you study how the story is told by men chosen by God to tell it, you hear the story proclaim Christ (Colossians 1:28; cf. Acts 2:22-36; 3:12-26; 17:16-31; Romans 1:1-4; 3:21-26).

God’s story should be heard according to the way God told it. At this point I could say a lot about such matters as progressive revelation, key people in God’s story (cf. Matthew 1:1; Romans 5:12-21), and important ideas like the seed, the temple, the Biblical covenants, God’s worldwide mission, etc. Instead, I want to focus on how the Bible was put together, so that you can better understand the storyline.

Concerning the Old Testament Scriptures (OTS), we are used to the order of the books in our English Bibles, but Jesus had a different view (cf. Luke 24:27, 44; Matthew 23:35). He presented a three-fold division of the OTS: Torah (Law), Neviim (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings).

  • Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
  • Neviim: The Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve)
  • Ketuvim: The Book of Truth (Psalms, Proverbs, Job), the Megilloth or Small Scrolls (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther), and other sacred Writings (Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles)

Notice in this arrangement there are 24 books but they have the same content as our English arrangement of 39 books. In both cases the Apocrypha are not considered part of the Bible. Notice also that the last book of the OTS in this arrangement is Chronicles.

When you read the OTS in this order, you see God’s narrative storyline, followed by his commentary, which is followed by narrative storyline.

  • First narrative storyline: the Torah and the Former Prophets
  • Poetic commentary: The Latter Prophets, the Book of Truth, and the Small Scrolls. For example, consider how Ruth functions as commentary about David’s kingship.
  • Second narrative storyline: the other sacred Writings.

The NTS are providentially put together in a similar way.

  • First narrative storyline: The Four Gospels and Acts
  • Commentary: The Letters (Romans through Jude)
  • Second narrative storyline: The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:1)

Reading the Bible in this sequence will help you to grasp the storyline more easily, and to find God’s own commentary about Christ’s person, word, and redemptive accomplishments. Enjoy reading God’s word!

Grace and peace, David

A Brief Guide to Romans

The letter to the Romans is a missionary letter to various gatherings of believers in Rome. The apostle Paul had not met most of these people (1:11-15), but he had heard of them (cf. 16:3-16). Paul was on his way to deliver the large gift from the Gentile believers to the believers in Judea that were struggling financially. After the gift was delivered, Paul planned to God to Spain, and he sought their help for that intended journey. (Paul was imprisoned when in Jerusalem, and he went to Rome in a way he did not plan. Read Acts 21:17-28:31.)

Most of Romans is like being in a Bible study with the apostle Paul. He teaches and raises questions that he had undoubtedly heard many times. After opening remarks in which he introduces himself and the gospel message (1:1-15), he sets forth his theme: the gospel and the righteousness that God provides through it (1:16-17). Next, he declares the sinful condition and need of all people for justification (1:18-3:20). When everyone seems doomed, Paul turns to the good news about how to be right with God by his surpassing grace (3:21-5:21). The key verses of the book are 3:21-26. Grace reigns in believers through union with Christ.

Next, he answers two objections. First, he tells us that grace leads to holiness not to sinfulness (6:1-7:6). The gospel does not provide “a license to sin”; instead, it overthrows the reign of sin. Second, he talks about the law covenant and the need for grace (7:7-8:4). What the law covenant could not do, God did in Christ. Paul then continues his main idea about the triumph of justifying grace (8:5-39). Here are some of the most loved teachings in the letter.

Next, Paul answers the third objection to his teaching about God’s purpose and Israel (9:1-11:32). He shows that God’s purposes were always to save a remnant from both Israel and the nations. He wraps up the section on justification with a doxology (11:33-36). Next, he returns to show that grace also transforms people (12:1-15:13). He then gives his missionary appeal (15:14-33). The letter ends with greetings, an appeal, and a prayer (16:1-27).

Obviously, there is much more to be said. But I hope this gives you a brief guide to what has been called “the greatest letter ever written!”

Grace and peace, David