How to Avoid Apostasy? Belong to a Good Church.


“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:12-13)

One of the recurring themes in the book of Hebrews is the caution against apostasy. Believers are admonished over and over again to guard themselves, to persevere, and to not abandon the faith (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:14-29). These “warning passages” confront us with the reality of our own weakness and remind us that the new birth is not a one-time prayer or easy-believism. The Christian life is a daily war.

Christ freed us from the dungeon of death and set us on a pilgrimage to the homeland we forgot about. But our former captor, bitter and scheming, is still trying to drag us back into chains every step of the way. Although Scripture elsewhere assures us that God will preserve His true church until the end, Hebrews makes it clear that many who claim to profess the name of Jesus can, and have, and will, abandon the journey.

This results from what Hebrews 3:12 calls “an evil, unbelieving heart”, which causes us to “fall away from the living God.” “Evil” and “unbelieving” are connected here. Unbelief isn’t a simple disbelief in the existence of God but a lack of trust in the promises of God, particularly those found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Trust and obedience are knitted together. A lack of trust in God produces a lack of obedience to God. Back when our enemy first sought to enslave mankind, he provoked rebellion by getting our first parents to doubt what God said (Gen. 3:1-6). That is the sequence of the serpent’s seduction. Doubt what God promises, and we neglect what God commands.

Fortunately, the author follows up the warning with the solution. Christ has divine means by which He guards and sanctifies His church, and the text encourages us to stay aligned with those means. Hebrews isn’t meant to leave us in a state of eternal uncertainty. It’s meant to challenge us, and then equip us with the tools we need to be victorious.

So what are these tools? How do we keep our faith strong and vibrant? Verse 14 provides the answer: we need to be reminded, rewashed, and refreshed in this faith “every day.” A body without food becomes sick. A building without upkeep falls into disrepair. A flower with no water or sunshine will shrivel up and die. Our faith, likewise, must be nurtured on a regular basis.

And the conduit of this nurturing is found in the author’s charge to “exhort one another” (vs. 14). Faith is more than just me and Jesus walking together down the beach. It’s more than a one-on-one dinner date with divinity. Faith in Christ puts us in the context of a community, the people of God, and it’s through the corporate community that each individual is kept strong.

The perseverance of our faith is tethered to our involvement with the people of God, the church. The church is where the gospel is preached, praises are sung, prayer is offered, the sacraments are received, discipline is administered, and confession is made. Each of these resharpens our focus on the object of our faith, Jesus Christ, and brings us into closer relation to Him both corporately and individually. Through preaching, the truth of Jesus is taught. Through worship, the beauty of Jesus is adored. Through prayer, the intercession and provision of Jesus is pleaded. Through the sacraments, the gospel of Jesus is dramatized and the presence of Jesus is manifest. Through discipline and confession, the people of Jesus are kept from straying towards the cliffs of apostasy and rerouted back onto the straight and narrow.

Through the ministry of the church, the Holy Spirit continually immerses us in “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude :3). It keeps us grounded. It keeps us strengthened. It keeps our hearts from straying into unbelief and sin. As long as it is called “today”, which is every day until Christ returns, we must “stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25)

If you want to avoid apostasy, join a biblical church. Be involved. Regularly participate in its services, outreaches, events, Bible studies, and home fellowships. Be a part of the beauty and blessing that is the local church so that you will not “fall away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12).


Zerubbabel: A Picture of Christ


The Bible is full of names most of us would instantly recognize, like Noah, Moses, David, Mary, or Peter. But here’s one person you probably won’t hear about in Sunday school anytime soon: Zerubbabel. I know, I know, that name doesn’t exactly conjure up images of divine heroism, but Zerubbabel actually plays quite an important role in the overarching story of redemption. His historical contribution, his bloodline, and his salvific foreshadowing all make this man with the zany name quite the herald of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Kingly Descendent of David

In 2 Samuel 7:12-16 God promised King David that one of his own descendants would be the special, Messianic ruler of God’s kingdom. Almost five hundred years later that royal line was jeopardized when Babylon captured Jerusalem and hauled off King Jehoiachin, David’s offspring, into captivity (2 Ki. 24:15). It would have been customary for the king of Babylon to kill Jehoiachin as a sign of victory, but for some reason, he didn’t. He threw him in prison instead, and for decades the flame of God’s covenant seemed ready to be snuffed out at any moment. Finally, after thirty seven years of imprisonment, Jehoiachin was mysteriously freed by the new king of Babylon. He was treated kindly, he was given a place of honor, and he was taken care of for the rest of life (2 Ki. 25:27-30).

Jehoiachin went on to have a son named Shealtiel, and Shealtiel had a son named, you guessed it, Zerubbabel. He was living proof that God would not let the Davidic line go extinct. In Zerubbabel’s blood he carried not just the royalty of Israel, but the hope of the entire world. After King Cyrus allowed Israel to return to their homeland, Zerubbabel was leading the way. The prophet Zechariah proclaimed that God would use Zerubbabel to lay low the mountains (Zech. 4:6-8), while the prophet Haggai announced that God would vanquish the kingdoms of the world and Zerubbabel was the “signet ring”, the chosen sign, of this promise (Hag. 2:21-23). Zerubbabel carried the torch of God’s covenant. God was about to do a great work in Israel, one that would ripple through all mankind, and He would use Zerubbabel to play a vital part.

Many years later, when the promised King of kings was finally born, the Gospel writers provided the genealogies of both His biological mother and legal father, both of whom were descended from David. And there on both sides, smack dab in the middle of the Messianic family tree, blazes a name we should now be very familiar with: Zerubbabel (Mt. 1:12-13; Lk. 3:27).

Leading the Exiles

God’s people had been dispersed through Babylon, and then Medo-Persia. Their sin had resulted in captivity. Their rebellion against the law of God had separated them from the land, city and temple that God had promised as a reward for their obedience. They were no longer a people. They were slaves. But in God’s perfect timing He raised up Zerubbabel to lead them back to the Promised Land (Ezra 2:2; 3:1-2). He was the conquering hero who led the captives back into their heritage as God’s people.

Similarly, all mankind has broken God’s law (Rom. 3:9-20), has been banished from the land of paradise (Gen. 3:23-24), and has gone into the captivity of sin and Satan (Jn. 8:34; Titus 3:3). We are not a people (1 Pet. 2:10), but a fractured, scattered, desolate race of rebels who are cut off from the presence and holiness of God. But in God’s perfect timing (Gal. 4:4) He sent the offspring of Zerubbabel, Jesus Christ, to free the captives (Lk. 4:18), reassemble them as a people (1 Pet. 2:10), and lead them as a conquering hero (Eph. 4:8) away from the spiritual whoredom of Babylon (Rev. 17:4-6) and into the freedom of the true Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:22).

Rebuilding the Temple

The first priority of Zerubbabel’s mission was to rebuild the temple that had been smashed to pieces (Ezra 3:8; 5:2; Hag. 1:1-11). That was where God’s holiness dwelled, where sin was atoned for, and where men met with God. But this new temple couldn’t measure up to the glory of Solomon’s original temple (Ezra 3:12-13; Hag. 2:2-3), so God promised that another, better temple was still to come (Hag. 2:6-9).

Jesus also came to repair the temple, the middle ground between man and God. But He surpassed Zerubbabel by establishing the true temple that had been promised: Himself. In His broken body, Christ offered a once-and-for-all sacrifice to atone for the sins of men by shedding His own blood (Heb. 9:11-14). The pierced, slaughtered temple was raised again in His resurrection (Jn. 2:19-21) so that man can once again fellowship with the Creator through the living temple of the risen Christ. For all eternity, the earthly temple is done away with and is replaced by Jesus Himself, mediating God’s glory and God’s presence to us (Rev. 21:22).

Protecting the Purity of God’s People

In Ezra 4, as Israel began to work on the temple, they were approached by the people who had taken up residency in the land during their captivity. These residents seemed friendly at first, professing to worship the God of Israel and offering to help build the temple (Ezra 4:2). Yet Zerubbabel quickly declined the offer and ran them off (4:3). Why the harsh response?

Because even though these inhabitants had indeed learned to worship the Lord (2 Ki. 17:24-28), they had also continued in their former idolatry (2 Ki. 17:29-41). They didn’t repent of their false religion and turn to the living God; they simply incorporated Him into their diet as one of many gods. If Zerubbabel had accepted their offer, he would have put Israel into an alliance with the very idolatry, paganism and false doctrine that had gotten them exiled in the first place. By driving them away, Zerubbabel protected the flock of God from spiritual and moral compromise.

Similarly, Jesus is the great Shepherd who drives away the wolves in sheepskin. The church has been historically bombarded with an onslaught of teachers, sects, cults and religions that try to claim an alliance with Christianity. Jesus is the one who not only builds His church but protects it from the volleys of hell (Mt. 16:18). It’s through His lordship, teaching, Spirit, doctrine, and discipline that all imposters are called out and chased away (Acts 8:18-23; 20:28-30; Rom. 16:17-19; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 11:3-4, 12-15; Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Pet. 2:1-3; Jude :4-23) in order to present the church to Himself as a pure and spotless bride (Eph. 5:25-27).

When we read about Zerubbabel in the Old Testament we’re not just learning a dry history lesson; we’re seeing a picture of God’s story for mankind—our own story—which finds its climax in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is the descendent of David who brings back the rebellious exiles, who establishes the temple where the sacrifice is made to reconcile God and man, and who protects His people until the very end. He is our King, our Savior, our Mediator, and our Shepherd.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Four Reasons to Stay Out of ‘The Shack.’


If you’re reading this, you probably already have an opinion about The Shack, the film adaption of William P. Young’s best-selling novel of the same name that hit theaters last weekend. Most Christians I know fall into one of three categories: they think it’s inspirational and they love it; they think it’s heretical and they hate it; or they think it’s a flawed yet potentially edifying story that we shouldn’t be too quick to endorse or condemn.

I’m going to admit up front that I haven’t seen the movie and I don’t plan to. I’ve seen enough trailers, clips, and reviews to know that it’s a pretty faithful adaption of the book, and that is not a good thing. I read the book and I think it’s dangerously wrong about many things, four of which I’d like to elaborate on here.

#1. It Gets God Wrong.

The Shack’s initial problem is its initial premise: a man named Mack has a personal encounter with all three members of the Holy Trinity, with God the Father as a matronly African-American woman named “Papa,” God the Son as a middle-eastern handyman, still called Jesus, and God the Spirit as a gentle Asian woman named “Sarayu.” All gender arguments aside, this portrayal of the Godhead is deeply problematic.

God is spirit (John 4:24). He is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17). To see Him with mortal eyes would be instant death (Ex. 33:20), and no human has ever done it (1 Jn. 4:12). He does not have a physical, material body like we do, nor can He be contained within any spatial radius (1 Kings 8:27). It is inappropriate, irreverent and impossible to portray Him as a man, woman, beast, or object.

This is a basic doctrine, and God warned against violating it in the second commandment by forbidding the making and worshipping of images (Ex. 20:4-5). Although this specifically forbids the worship of false, graven gods, it also forbids the casting of God Himself into any material form. We see this application in the story of the golden calf, when Israel molded an idol but believed by worshipping its image they were actually worshipping the Lord (Ex. 32:4-6). This was a blasphemous insult to God.

There is only one true, accurate and acceptable image of God and that is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), His Son, Jesus Christ. In Him alone does the deity dwell bodily (Col. 2:9). In Him alone can the radiance of God’s glory be tangibly seen and felt (Heb. 1:3). No mortal can see the Father except by seeing Jesus (Jn. 14:8-9). Although no man has ever seen God the Father, He is made known through the incarnate image of God the Son (Jn. 1:18). Even when prophets in the Old Testament saw visions of God (Isa. 6:1; Ez. 1:26-28), the New Testament reveals that they were actually seeing the image of the invisible God, Jesus Himself (Jn. 12:41).

God the Son is the only visual by which God has revealed Himself to man. He is the infinite taking on the finite. No one on this side of eternity can accurately depict the mystery of the Godhead in all its fullness or precision, and we’re commanded to not even try. To portray God the Father or God the Spirit undercuts the significance of Jesus and disobeys God’s own commandment about Himself. What you end up with is a confused and confusing depiction that oversimplifies and misrepresents the incomprehensible reality of the triune God.

#2. It Gets Suffering Wrong.

In this story, God is a helpless bystander limited by human freedom. He (or is it she?) weeps and grieves over the pain in the world, yet can’t really do anything except try to make some good out of it. Fallen mankind is driving the train and God is stuck laying down the tracks as we barge along, trying to ensure a safe destination without intruding on our free will.

This seems well-intentioned, but it comes up short. The Book of Job offers a very different view of suffering: that all things are given and taken away by God (Job 1:20-21), that God does no evil in His dealings with mankind (Job 1:22), and that God’s purposes can never be thwarted (Job 42:2). The rest of Scripture teaches that God is actively involved in every aspect of creation (Ps. 104:5-30; Mt. 10:29-30), that He is the one writing history (Ex. 9:16; Prov. 16:33; 19:21; 20:1; Isa. 14:24; Dan. 2:21; 4:35; Acts 4:27-28; Jam. 4:13-15), that He ordains everything that comes to pass including tragedy (Gen. 45:7-8; Isa. 45:7), yet without being the author of sin (Jam. 1:13), and that He has predestined every detail for the good of His people (Rom. 8:28-30).

In an attempt to display God’s goodness, The Shack tosses out God’s sovereignty. It tries to offer comfort by saying that suffering is never God’s plan or intention, but for those who experience constant suffering that’s actually quite disheartening. That would mean God is removed from the majority of our experiences in this life, and all He can really do is give us a pat on the back and tell us to hang in there. But the Bible teaches something better: that even suffering falls beneath the reign of God’s dominion, and every little thing that He brings to pass serves His holy, perfect purpose, even if we can’t understand it right now. He is Lord even over our deepest pain. The child of God, living in a world of tribulation, can trustingly proclaim along with King David, “Behold, here I am, let Him do to me what seems good to Him” (2 Sam. 15:26).

#3. It Gets Sin (and therefore salvation) Wrong.

The Shack makes light of sin when Papa states, “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.”

This contradicts Scripture’s constant warnings against the wrath of God. This wrath isn’t passive, but active. God doesn’t just sit back and leave us to our own sad choice, but He will eternally inflict sinners with punishment for their cosmic treason (Mt. 13:42; 25:41; Lk. 12:5; Jn. 3:36; Rom. 2:5; 2 Cor. 5:10; Col. 3:6; Heb. 10:26-27; Jam. 3:6; Jude 1:7; Rev. 20:11-15). Certainly it is an act of judgment when God hands someone over to their own devices, and the results are always tragic. But The Shack takes this idea too far by suggesting that no future judgment will be required outside of sin’s natural consequences within this world.

If that were true, then there wasn’t a whole lot riding on Christ’s death. If an eternity of divine punishment was not at stake, then Jesus was not actually our “propitiation” (Rom. 3:25; 1 Jn. 4:10), He did not give His life “as a ransom” (Mk. 10:45), and He did not need to be “pierced for our transgressions” (Isa. 53:5). If wrath and judgment are non-existent, Christ’s bloody death at Calvary doesn’t do much of anything. When you downplay sin, you downplay the Savior.

Once again, in an attempt to soften the blow and administer comfort, The Shack actually removes the very foundation of hope we so desperately need. If God doesn’t punish sinners, then no one needed to be punished in our place. If no one needed to be punished in our place, then Christ’s death was for nothing. And if Christ’s death was for nothing, then the entire foundation of our faith falls apart. By trying to highlight God’s love, The Shack actually eradicates its greatest triumph.

#4. It Gets Scripture Wrong.

At one point the book observes, “In seminary [Mack] had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects…Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book.”

The Shack assumes that deriving our understanding of God chiefly from Scripture is a bad thing. It limits Him. Puts Him in a box. Instead, our knowledge of Him should come through personal, subjective experiences and the Bible should be read through the filter of those experiences rather than vice versa. Throughout the book, God makes remarks that catch Mack by surprise precisely because they contradict many traditional biblical teachings. The point is that God works in unconventional ways that defy our religious limitations, specifically the limitations of a dry, impersonal Bible.

That’s a tragic view of God’s word. In direct contrast, Scripture describes itself as “living and active”, sharper than a sword and piercing to the deepest parts of a man (Heb. 4:12). Every jot and tittle is the breath of God, beneficial for all areas of life (2 Tim. 3:16-17). It never fails to accomplish God’s grand purpose (Isa. 55:10-11). It’s eternally enduring (Mt. 24:35). It indwells us (Col. 3:16). It’s more delightful than riches (Ps. 119:14), it’s a wellspring of wonder (Ps. 119:19), it gives life to the soul (Ps. 119:28), and it’s sweeter than honey (Ps. 119:103). The Bible is presented as a vibrant, dynamic channel of intimacy with God. It’s spoken about as though it were a living, engaging, relational being. If we want to encounter God, we encounter Him through the power of His revealed Word. He’s in every line of every page.

By trying to take God out of the objective, theological box of Scripture, The Shack puts Him in the foggy box of subjectivism. Instead of the clarity we’re given in Scripture, God is actually reduced to an imprecise mystery that we can only discover through an esoteric encounter. In an attempt to free God, The Shack binds Him. In attempt to bring Him closer, The Shack makes Him more distant than ever.

I’m not interested in ripping apart The Shack’s author, readers, or viewers. It’s a heartfelt attempt to deal with the question we all wrestle with at some point: how do you reconcile the reality of evil with the goodness of God? Many people who appreciate the story (including the author himself) have been bruised by this fallen world and they desperately seek answers. I have no desire to insult or ridicule them.

But I am concerned with making sure we get the right answer to that question, and from the right source. We must redirect our opinions and sentiments to be in line with what God has revealed about Himself. When we do, we find that the triune God in all His sovereign, wonderful, terrifying, transcendent holiness is far better than any softened-down version we can create for a novel. The Shack may warm our hearts, but a God-honoring story must do more than that—it must fill our hearts with truth. Comfort is only valuable when it’s rooted in truth, and the truth of God’s word is better than any emotionally-charged tale we can concoct.

How aliens and grammar made me appreciate the Bible.


Last week my wife and I watched Arrival, a critically-acclaimed sci-fi drama about a group of people trying to communicate with aliens. Okay, I admit, that doesn’t sound like a very riveting synopsis. If you want an alien blockbuster with lots of explosions, go rent the new Independence Day sequel. But Arrival is a smart, well-crafted film with a few surprises along the way, and the whole bit about people trying to talk with aliens is actually what makes the story so profound.

Why? Because language matters. That’s true no matter who you are or what you believe, but Christians should believe it more than anyone. Our entire religion is hinged on it. Our eternal hope is predicated on the faith that God has truly and accurately communicated Himself to us through His word. And that need for accurate communication is what drives the whole plot of Arrival.

The story centers on Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), a linguist who is recruited by the U.S. Army to communicate with one of the twelve UFO’s that have landed at various spots across the globe. The process is slow and frustrating. How do you begin to understand the linguistic basics of a species that is literally from another world?

At one point in the film Banks and her physicist partner Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) trade jabs about which is more central to human civilization: language or science? The whole thrust of the film seems to side with Banks. After all, the humans and aliens are both intelligent life forms who have cultivated science to great benefit, but science can’t produce a meaningful exchange between the two species—only language can do that. The gap between the two sides is unbreachable as long as a language barrier exists. This reminds us of the necessity of communication, of the transmission of meaning from one party to another. Without an exchange of some kind between two sides there is no possibility of moving forward in a relational sense.

Banks tries talking to the aliens, but the noise is just babble to them. The aliens write out their language, but it looks like gibberish to the humans. There cannot be just hollow sounds or random symbols—there must be a clear, comprehensible sharing of ideas. So what do they do? They learn to understand the meaning behind the sounds and symbols. They must grasp the structure of the other’s language and then communicate at their level, in their terms, in a way they can understand. This is the only way to bridge the relational gap between the two foreign parties.

But what if we took the same idea and swapped aliens with God? Since the beginning of time man has wrestled with how to have meaningful interaction with the divine. How can we communicate with someone so foreign to us, so “otherly”? Like Banks and Donnelly, countless men and women have felt confused and frustrated in their attempts to reach up to heaven. Without real communication between man and God, you’re left with two alien sides staring at each other and no relationship to show for it.

Arrival reminded me that if indeed God exists, and if we are to know Him who is so other-worldly, there would need to be some bridging of the language barrier between our two sides. If He is a spiritual, infinite Being, how could we know the mind of someone so unlike us unless there was a clear impartation of information from one side to the other? As the apostle Paul pointed out, “Who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:11).

Just as the aliens in Arrival are concealed behind a wall of fog in their spaceship, God often feels hidden. Perhaps general revelation allows a peak or an outline, but there seems no way to truly see Him, know Him, or have a meaningful point of contact with Him. As the Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin supposedly said of his experience in outer space, “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” God is an incomprehensible mystery. So He would have to talk down to us. He would have to communicate with us in our terms and in a way we could understand. He would have to express the truth about Himself within the limited framework of our language and our comprehension. We cannot ascend to God, so He would have to descend to us. We cannot find Him, so He must reveal Himself to us.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what the Bible claims to be. Our knowledge of God doesn’t come through sensationalism, emotionalism, or mystical spirituality. It comes to us by God transmitting truth about Himself through words. Paul went on to make the point, “If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played?…So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?” (1 Cor. 14:7-9) That’s why Scripture refers to itself over and over again as the word of God—not the energy of God or the force of God, but the clear and specific articulation of God’s communication through language. The word makes it possible to bridge the relational gap between man and God. Language matters.

The Bible is God’s self-revelation, communing with us through human authors and in human terms to explain Himself at our level. We can understand God because God has spoken our tongue and made Himself understandable. That doesn’t mean we can know everything there is to know about God, but it does mean that He’s articulated to us everything we need to know and everything He desires us to know, and He’s done it in way that is clear and comprehensible. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:29).

Arrival was a great piece of filmmaking, but it was more than that. It was a reminder to me that language matters, and that God uses language to meaningfully communicate with us every time we open His word. If we neglect Scripture, God will continue to feel like an alien hidden behind a foggy wall of uncertainty. But when we trust in His self-disclosure we can know who He is, what He is like, what He has done, what He expects, and how we can enjoy a meaningful relation to Him through the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

Revival is good. Reform is better.


I hear the word “revival” thrown around in a lot of churches. Seeking revival. Praying for revival. Singing about revival. Even trying to schedule revival. It’s one of those buzz words that gets people excited and makes them feel like they’re doing big things for Jesus, and it’s often made to seem like “revival” is the pinnacle of the church’s effectiveness.

But I can’t help but think that if we want genuine cultural change, revival alone isn’t the answer. Most “revivals” suffer from being a flash in the pan—an electrifying encounter or movement that burns really bright but quickly fizzles. It gets a lot of attention and gets a lot of people pumped up, but often fails to do much more than that.

“Revival” is the initial act of bringing something back to consciousness, or back to life. Like when a lady is revived after fainting. Or when doctors revive a man whose heart stopped beating. Similarly, a spiritual revival is meant to bring dead sinners to life in Christ. Which is a wonderful thing, and something we should strive for.

But Jesus didn’t just send us to make converts, He sent us to make disciples (Mt. 28:19). The Great Commission calls us to train people in a whole walk of life; to build men, women and children on a gospel that infiltrates every area of thought, emotion and practice. Revival is a good thing. But it’s only the starting point—what we really need is something deeper. Something that moves beyond a fleeting moment or one-time experience. We need something that transforms the entire way people see life and alters the whole of their worldview.

What we need is reform.

While revival is an act of resuscitation, reform is a thorough and ongoing change. It is, in its technical sense, “the amendment of conduct, belief, etc.” Reform is a total overhaul of the way we see life. The issues in the world, and even in the church, are not magically fixed by getting people to say the sinner’s prayer. That starting point of revival and conversion must lead to an all-around transformation in the way we perceive things, the way we think about things, and the way we respond to things. In order to see real, lasting change, our theology, politics, personal conduct, work ethic, family structure, priorities, entertainment choices, and day-to-day habits must all be conformed to the image of God’s Son.

This is called reform. It’s to reshape the way we look at life, thus reshaping the way we live. That’s why the work of men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 16th century is known as the Reformation. These men didn’t just seek converts (which, I cannot stress enough, is a good thing), but they went above and beyond that by biblically reshaping the whole of how the church viewed every area of life.

Scripture says, “Turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.” (Jeremiah 18:11) Scripture also discusses the reforms of King Josiah (2 Kings 23:1), King Asa (2 Chr. 15:1), King Jehoiada (2 Chr. 23:16), and others who led the people in a godly shift that called for loving God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. And when Jesus sent His apostles to advance the kingdom of God, He did not just send them to revive people, but to reform their lives.

Was there revival? Certainly. But it was a part of a much greater process. It was a part of reform. Today, as the kingdom of God continues to spread, He calls us to do the same.

Why Sunday?


Christmas fell on a Sunday this year, which means that on a holiday when everything usually shuts down, churches had to decide whether or not they would still assemble. Not everyone came to the same conclusion. Some churches cancelled their services. Some held a Christmas Eve service. Some held normal services just like they do every Sunday. I also observed different reactions from different believers, as some indignantly asked, “Why would we go to church on Christmas?” while others incredulously wondered, “Why wouldn’t we?”

I’m actually grateful for this, because it’s opened the door over these past few weeks for some very important points of discussion: Is there ever an appropriate time to cancel church on Sunday in observance of another holiday? Must services always be held on Sunday? Why do we hold church on Sunday? Is it a binding practice, a preferred practice, or just an optional practice? Is there any real biblical basis for it, or is it simply a man-made date that can be subject to our changing schedules? Although most Christians acknowledge that, yes, we’re generally supposed to go to church on Sunday, I’ve observed over this holiday season that perhaps it’s seen as more of a general guideline than a rule.

I hope to challenge the church on that point. Starting with myself. I was actually in support of moving our Sunday morning service back to Saturday night so that our Christmas calendar would be free. But in hindsight, as I thought and prayed and studied the opinions of older, wiser men in the faith, I believe I was wrong. Having church on Sunday is a biblically ordained practice that deserves our attention and honor, and I’d like to take some time to examine why. And like most areas of theology, we’ve got to start with the beginning:

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all His work that He had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:1-3)

Sometimes we wrongly assume that the “Sabbath” is only a part of the Mosaic Law. But according to Genesis, the seventh day was set apart as holy right from the start. Indeed, the Ten Commandments (also called “the moral law” or “natural law”) were not invented with the Mosaic covenant. They were instituted from the start, before the Law was even given. The apostle Paul said this natural law is written on the hearts of even the most heathen Gentiles (Rom. 2:14-15). That includes the Sabbath. Certainly there were stipulations for the Sabbath that came with the administration of the Mosaic Law, but it was already stitched into the fabric of creation long before the establishment of Israel or the giving of the Law.

Saturday, the Sabbath, marked the completion of God’s creative work. It was finished, and God rested. Of course God does not get tired, so to say He “rested” simply shows the finality of His work. As an expression of this rest, God called the physical descendants of Abraham under the Mosaic Law to cease from physical labor (Ex. 20:8-11; Mk. 2:27) and dedicate the day to worship, teaching, the reading of God’s word, and fellowship (Ps. 92:1; Ez. 46:1-4; Mk. 6:2; Lk. 4:16; Acts 13:27, 44).

But the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday, the “first day of the week” (Mt. 28:1; Mk. 16:2; Lk. 24:1; Jn. 20:1, 19), marked the completion of God’s redemptive work. In the words of Jesus, it is finished (Jn. 19:30), and just as God “rested” upon the completion of His work, Christ sat down at the Father’s right hand upon the completion of His (Heb. 1:3; 10:12). We can now cease trying to earn God’s favor by our works and rest in the work of Christ (Mt. 11:28-29; Heb. 4:1-11). As an expression of this rest, God now invites the spiritual descendants of Abraham to also dedicate the day to worship, teaching, the reading of God’s word, and fellowship, as we’ll see the texts below.

So the Sabbath was originally on Saturday, as a picture of God’s finished creation work. But it is now on Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead, as a picture of God’s finished salvific work. The Apostolic Constitutions, written in 390 AD, describe it like this: “Keep the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day festival. The first is the memorial of the creation; the second is the memorial of the resurrection.”

And according to the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689: “He hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a sabbath to be kept holy unto Him, which from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ was the last day of the week, and from the resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week, which is called the Lord’s day: and is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath, the observation of the last day of the week being abolished.” (2LBC, 22.7)

If this is correct, we would expect to see it played out in the New Testament. Do we have any examples of the early church treating “the first day of the week” with such importance? Do we see Christians treating Sunday as a special, set-apart day? The answer is a definitive “yes.”

In Acts 20:7, Luke informs us that it was “on the first day of the week” that the early church “gathered together to break bread” and to receive a sermon. The term “break bread” is a reference to taking communion, and we see earlier in Acts that it was typically accompanied by “teaching”, “fellowship”, and “prayers” (Acts 2:42). So on the first day of the week we see the early church sharing communion, being taught from Scripture, praying together, and fellowshipping with one another. That’s a church service if ever I’ve seen one.

Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 16 Paul is addressing “the collection for the saints” (vs. 1), which was the charity taken up for Christians in need. It would be the equivalent of our tithes and offerings today. We should not be surprised to learn that this designated time of giving was also to be “on the first day of the week” (vs. 2), which makes sense, since believers were already assembled on that day to hear Scripture, worship, pray, and take communion.

We also find out a bit more about this day from the first chapter of Revelation, where the apostle John comments that he “was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (vs. 10). This first day of the week came to be known as “the Lord’s day” because it was His day, even as Jesus referred to Himself as “the Lord of the Sabbath” (Lk. 6:5). Of course Jesus is the Lord of every day, but on the day that He rose there is a special prominence given to Him. It’s a highlighted day where believers set aside their affairs from the rest of the week and focus chiefly on the risen Lord. The context of Revelation 1 supports this, as John says that on this Lord’s day he “was in the Spirit.” He was communing with the Lord in a special, set apart way on a special, set apart day.

Of course, both the Sabbath and the Lord’s day are pictures of the true, eternal Sabbath rest awaiting the church (Heb. 4:9), when all Christ’s enemies are finally defeated, His people are gathered into paradise, and He declares once and for all, “It is done!” (Rev. 21:6)

Until then, let us faithfully assemble on the Lord’s day as we rest in His completed work. May we heed God’s command to His people in Old Testament times: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8); and may we honor God’s encouragement to His people in New Testament times: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25).

Why Sunday? Because what started as a sacred day instituted at creation, and what was observed by the Old Testament church through the Mosaic Law, is now celebrated by the New Testament church across the globe on the first day of every week. As we gather to hear Christ’s word, sing His praise, offer Him prayer, partake in His sacraments, give to His people, and fellowship with His people,we rejoice in His resurrection and the rest we have in Him.

I think, upon weighing what Scripture says, that the questions I asked at the beginning of this post are pretty self-evident. I encourage you, make church a priority. Especially on Sunday. Even when other man-made festivities seem more appealing. May we realize that it is not a burden, but a blessing, and may our hearts echo that of the Psalmist; “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps.84:10).

That Christmas Passage You Never Hear About.


There are plenty of well-known Bible verses that tell the Christmas story. Most of them include references to Bethlehem, or shepherds, or the virgin, but there’s one passage you probably won’t hear at a candlelight service anytime soon. It may not have the charm or nostalgia of some of the classics, but it’s just as deep and powerful:

“1 And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. 5 She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.” (Revelation 12:1-6)

Perhaps it’s the complexity of Revelation–or maybe the controversy it inevitably creates–that keeps this from appearing on many Christmas cards. After all, the holidays are a time for warm, fuzzy feelings and hot cocoa, not interpretive confusion and apocalyptic imagery. Yet packed within the layers of this passage we find Christmas depth beyond measure.

The “woman” is the people of God, including believers in both Old Testament Israel (see Gen. 37:9-10) and the New Testament Church (or “the Israel of God”; Gal. 6:16). Together, these saints are the offspring of Abraham and the recipients of the promise (Gal. 3:29). They cried out in labor pains for many years as they awaited their coming Messiah (Mic. 5:2-3), who was the biological descendant of ethnic Israel (Rom. 9:5).

Yet even as they anticipated redemption, Satan (“the dragon”; see verse 9) was determined to foil such plans. He stood poised and ready for a monstrous volley of assaults on Christ’s quest–from Herod slaughtering the infant boys (Mt. 2), to the devil’s tempting of Jesus in the wilderness (Mt. 4:1-11), to Peter trying to keep Him from the cross (Mt. 16:21-23). The dragon was ready to devour the Christ and bring His mission to futility.

But in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, the dragon-crusher was indeed born of a woman (Gen. 3:15; Isa. 9:6) and perfectly fulfilled all that He was sent to do. He lived a sinless life, died a substitutionary death, rose again on the third day, and “was caught up to God and to His throne” (vs. 5) in triumph (see Phil. 2:6-11). By doing so, He dealt the devil a crippling defeat.

Now Satan has been “thrown down” (12:9) and is enraged with “great wrath, because he knows that his time is short” (12:12). His reaction resembles a child on the playground throwing a temper tantrum: “He pursued the woman…and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring” (12:13, 17). Having failed in his attack on Christ, he is now swinging a desperate, clawed fist at Christ’s people. He could not get Jesus so he’s coming for us.

How does he do that? The Bible calls Satan the accuser (Rev. 12:10), the deceiver (Rev. 12:9), and the tempter (Mt. 4:3). Maybe the dragon is chasing you with accusations of past guilt. Maybe he’s deceiving you with false doctrine or a twisted view of God. Maybe he’s tempting you with an addiction or habit that you just can’t seem to shake.

But for all those attacks, he is little more than a desperate dog backed into a corner. As the old Christmas song remind us, “Remember Christ our Savior/ Was born on Christmas day/ To save us all from Satan’s power/ When we were gone astray/ O tidings of comfort and joy.”

Verse 6 says the woman is given a place of safety by God, and verses 13-17 go on to show God’s protection for her and her offspring; that is, the whole of His people. Not only has He defeated Satan, but in Him we share the victory, as “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20). The dragon has been bound (Mt. 12:26-29; Rev. 20:2) and we  have “conquered him by the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 12:11). The Messiah will sustain His people all the way until the end in keeping with His promise of Matthew 16:18: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

This Christmas season, may we look to that “male child,” the one born of a woman, “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (vs. 5). May we find tidings of comfort and joy in His triumph over the dragon and the triumph we can now share. Sometimes the most complex passages contain the deepest truths. Revelation 12 is no exception, and we can all appreciate its depth this Christmas as we celebrate its truth.

What Did Mary Know?


For a while it was the darling of Christmas songs. Now, over the last couple years, I’ve noticed a lot of backlash over the popular song, “Mary, Did You Know?” It’s become a Santa’s sleigh-sized target for rebuttals, jokes and internet memes insisting that yes, Mary did know all those things about Jesus, and the song is silly (if not heretical) for suggesting otherwise.

So what’s the deal? Is the song a beautiful Christmas masterpiece, or a hoaky piece of theological nonsense? A couple things have come to mind as I’ve contemplated that this week.

On one hand, the Gospel of Luke reveals that she did know quite a lot about Jesus beforehand:

  • That He would save His people from their sins (1:31; compare with Mt. 1:21).
  • That He would be the Son of God (1:32, 35).
  • That He would reign on the Messianic throne of David (1:32).
  • That His kingdom would be eternal (1:33).
  • That He would be conceived of the Holy Spirit (1:35).
  • That He would be holy (1:35).
  • That He would be the Lord (1:43).
  • That He would be the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Israel (1:54-55).
  • That He was worthy of worship from both men and angels (2:10-20).
  • That He would be a light to the Gentiles (2:32).

In addition, after Jesus was a grown man but before He had done any miracles, Mary told the servants at Cana to “do whatever [Jesus] tells you” (Jn. 2:5). These all show an explicit awareness of Christ’s identity and a trust in His person.

On the other hand, Scripture seems to imply that there were aspects of Christ’s mission and ministry that Mary didn’t grasp. In Luke 2, Mary questioned young Jesus for staying in the temple and “did not understand” what He was saying (2:50). In Mark 3, “His family…went out to seize Him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’ ” (3:21), and so “His mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to Him and called Him” (3:31).

Despite everything that Mary knew about her son, and despite having received divine revelation from angels and prophets, Mary’s humanity still got in the way. She didn’t always have a detailed, theological understanding of Christ’s mission, and at times she didn’t seem to agree with the way He was going about His quest. Mark 3 even seems to suggest that she struggled with a bit of doubt.

That’s where lovers and skeptics of the song need to be careful. We shouldn’t think that Mary was oblivious to the identity of her child, but neither should we think she had all the answers, either. And besides, I don’t believe the main point of the song is so much Mary’s insight as it is comparing Christ’s divinity and humanity. I think it’s meant to contrast that He was both delivered and Deliverer, helpless and Helper, infant and Infinite. That’s a truth we should all know a little better.

So what did Mary know? Quite a lot, actually. But not everything. She certainly didn’t grasp all the specifics, at least not right away. Like us, Mary had to take certain things on faith. But she knew that the Son of God, the fulfillment of God’s promises, had come to save her from her sins. And even when human doubt got in the way, that was more than enough.

Five Reasons Why the New ‘Jungle Book’ is Profound


Like most people, I grew up watching Disney’s 1967 animated classic, The Jungle Book. It was one of my favorites. I’m also incredibly skeptical of all the remakes/reboots/spin-offs/sequels/prequels/everything-elsequels that have bombarded moviegoers the last couple of years (which aren’t stopping anytime soon), and a skeptic of excessive CGI. Imagine my horror, then, when one year ago Disney released the trailer for their live-action, CGI-soaked Jungle Book remake. I admit, I died a little inside.

But this week we watched it with our youth group at church and I’ve had a metanoeō, a change of heart. It’s good. Shockingly good. Not just good in the sense that it’s well-done filmmaking or creative entertainment, although it’s certainly both those things. The CGI is beautiful, the scale is breath-taking, and the voice actors are perfect. But what surprised me the most is its Judeo-Christian worldview on the nature of man and his role in creation.

I can’t speak on behalf of the filmmakers or their intent, but the implications are hard to miss. These implications were not minor points or subtle references, but the heartbeat of the film itself. This is a film that deserves to be watched and discussed for five Jungle-sized reasons.

#1. The uniqueness, ingenuity, and authority of man over creation.

Most false religions fall into one of two camps: they either make too much of man or too little. Either they equate man with God, give man the authority of God, or promise man he can become like God; or they minimize man as an insignificant part of nature where he either shares a spiritual brotherhood with the plants or animals or he evolved from slime and is no better than monkeys. Either way, man’s relationship to the divine is confused.

The Jungle Book rightly nails the balance. On one hand, man is a part of creation. Mowgli is flesh and blood and bone and interacts with the rest of nature as a fellow created being. Man is not God. This Creator-creature distinction is one of the fundamental doctrines of biblical Christianity (Ps. 8:3-4).

Yet at the same time, man stands apart from the rest of creation (Ps. 8:5-8). He is different.  Although Mowgli tries to act like a wolf, there is no denying his humanness. At one point Bagheera even tells Mowgli, “The elephants created this jungle…but they did not make you.” This is not just a biological difference, as though man were simply another breed of animal, but an ontological one. Man is neither pure beast nor pure spirit, but as theologian Michael Horton puts it, “…we are created as psychosomatic (soul-body) whole, as persons. Our bodies (including our brain) and souls are not separate compartments, but interactive aspects of our personal existence and activity.”

Echoing the words of Genesis 1:28, Mowgli is also endowed with the ability to subdue and cultivate creation like no one else. Bagheera constantly chides him for his “tricks”—inventions that seem like magic to the other creatures. King Louie, wanting more power, goes to Mowgli to learn man’s secret. Shere Khan hates man precisely because he knows what mankind is capable of. All nature recognizes the power, intelligence, ingenuity, and otherness of Mowgli. I almost stood up and cheered when, at the movie’s climax, Mowgli tells Bagheera he wants to fight Shere Khan like a wolf, to which Bagheera responds, “Fight him like a man.”

The Jungle Book, then, is the anti-Brother Bear (“the story of a boy who became a man, by becoming a bear”) or Tarzan (“We’re exactly the same”). Yes, man is mortal. But he is also a living soul made in the image of God, and he is invested with authority as God’s viceroy on earth.

#2. Man’s unique position can be used for great evil or for great good.

One of the coolest things about The Jungle Book is its treatment of fire. What was a convenient plot device in the cartoon takes center stage in this adaption, as the “red flower” represents all the good or evil that mankind is capable of.  When used wrongly, his position enables him to kill, abuse, and destroy.

But it also gives him the ability to think, build, creative, cultivate, and help. Mowgli’s “tricks” are used to collect food and water, save a baby elephant, and defeat a foe. Man’s authority does not need to be a bad thing. It can be utilized to improve, enhance and even protect the world of which he has been made a steward.

This is very different from most nature-loving Disney films, which often portray men as the villains who mess everything up. It also avoids any sort of environmentalist overtones or save-the-planet propaganda. In the end, Mowgli’s “tricks” are just as capable of good as they are of evil.

Certainly man’s abuse of the world has led to city slums, worldwide war, and even nuclear threats. But man’s rightful utilization has led to beautiful art, helpful inventions, stunning cities, life-saving medicine, and prosperous societies. Man’s prominence in creation, and his cultivation of it, is not an evil—it is designed to be something beneficial.

Ultimately, a happy ending does not come from Mowgli ceasing to be man or becoming more one with nature, but embracing his special role as a man and using it for good.

#3. Man faces temptation from the serpent who promises pleasure but delivers only death.

One of the film’s most frightening and delightful scenes is when Mowgli encounters Kaa, the ginormous python. As our human hero pursues fruit to eat, the serpent slinks out of the shadows and soothingly sympathizes with all the supposed injustice inflicted upon the man by his authority figure. Then the serpent lures the man into a false sense of trust by promising all the comforts and pleasures of his heart’s desire, if only he’ll trust in the serpent…not realizing that the coils of death are actually closing in around him. Sound familiar?

The similarities to Genesis 3 are too strong to miss.

Some reviewers disliked the use of Scarlett Johansson’s soft, seductive voice in the role of Kaa, but I loved it for the same reason that I loved Mel Gibson’s decision to have a woman play Satan in The Passion of the Christ: sin does not always appear as a raging, roaring tiger (or a lion, to borrow a biblical example), but often tempts us with the beautiful allure of an adulteress. Evil has appeal to it. Yet behind the superficial beauty lies an enemy more powerful and more deadly than we often realize. Just ask Adam and Eve.

#4. Even a beautiful, breathtaking world is fallen and corrupt and needs saving.

It’s hard to tell what parts of The Jungle Book ’s cinematography are real and which are CGI, but either way they’re stunning. As someone who loves the great outdoors, I was breathless on more than one occasion at the magnitude and majesty of the jungle’s terrain. Our Father’s world is truly a grand place.

Yet for all that, the world is still fallen. For all the wonders of nature, there is always danger and death lurking around every corner. The Disney studio who put out movies like Pocahontas, Tarzan, and Brother Bear would have you believe that nature is a perfect, blissful Eden all on its own, were it not for the meddling destruction of mankind. But this Jungle Book, from that same Disney studio, holds no such view. Predators. Stampedes. Avalanches. Weather. Injury.  Nature, left to its own devices, is hardly a peaceful utopia. Yes, it is beautiful and captivating, and yet even without man’s interference it is also harsh and cruel, and in need of redemption.

The late Michael Crichton, an outspoken opponent of environmentalism, put it so well: “In short, the romantic view of the natural world as a blissful Eden is only held by people who have no actual experience of nature…Take a trek through the jungles of Borneo, and in short order you will have festering sores on your skin, you’ll have bugs all over your body, biting in your hair, crawling up your nose and into your ears, you’ll have infections and sickness and if you’re not with somebody who knows what they’re doing, you’ll quickly starve to death…It is a harsh, powerful, and unforgiving world, that most urban westerners have never experienced.”

The apostle Paul would agree with that: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:20-22). All creation has been affected by sin, and all creation is waiting for renewal.

#5. Creation’s savior is a man who overcomes the failures of all men before him.

As we’ve already discussed, man is capable of great evil or great good, and it’s implied throughout the movie that the animals have encountered man’s evil in the past. Mowgli, as the hero of the film, faces the same possibility of corruption. He is susceptible to the weaknesses of the men who came before him. Yet he succeeds where others have failed. He resists the temptation to abuse power. He does in the flesh what his forefathers could not do.

It was through a man that sin entered the world. But it would also be through a man that the world would be redeemed. As Aslan said in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, “A force of evil has already entered [the world]; waked and brought hither by this Son of Adam…And as Adam’s race has done the harm, Adam’s race shall help to heal it.”

This ultimate victory is found, of course, in the incarnate Son of God. Jesus Christ became fully man and faced all the same temptations that every man before Him had faced, yet by His active obedience He kept God’s law on our behalf and was victorious where all others had been defeated. He accomplished what Adam, and all Adam’s offspring, could not. He is humanity’s champion and the sovereign Ruler of all creation.

In the end, this Hero throws the roaring jungle cat into the flames, crushes the head of the seductive serpent, restores life to those He loves, and establishes an incorruptible peace across the redeemed realm of creation.

Now that’s a story worth retelling again and again.

A Million Little Popes


One of the great tragedies of medieval Roman Catholicism is that it claimed the church was the true interpreter of Scripture. Individuals didn’t need to read the Bible because they would probably misunderstand it and get the whole thing wrong. No, no, better to leave it to the clergy and let them dictate the Bible’s meaning to the laity.

But the Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, and even the pre-Reformers such as John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, challenged this doctrine. They believed that Scripture was meant to be read and understood by all Christ’s people, not just the ecclesiastical elite.

As Tyndale famously said, “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he dost.” And according to Luther, “A simple man with Scripture has more authority than the Pope or a council.”

Now, almost 500 years later, most of us would consider that a given. The Bible is the best-selling book in the world. New English translations come out every year. You can find a Bible in every hotel room and in almost every home. Bible apps on our phone allow us to carry the entire canon around in our pocket. Within Christian circles we constantly highlight the importance of “quiet time” when we, all by ourselves, free of distraction, open the pages of Scripture and read. The Bible is more available than it’s ever been, and we, for the most part, understand the importance of personally taking the time to study it.

Praise God.

And yet, for all that, we’ve reverted back to Rome.

What do I mean? Catholicism said the church possessed the authority to decipher Scripture without challenge. And although we’ve seemingly gotten away from that error we’ve fallen into a similar trap, for now the individual possesses that same unquestioned authority. We now treat the Bible as a subjective document in which the individual determines its meaning. If I think or feel that a passage means something in particular, surely it must be so!

We see this on display when people talk about “what this verse is saying to me”, or through the countless Bible devotions I’ve seen that ask questions like, “What does this verse mean to you?”  I remember a Bible study some years ago where one of the ladies attending became quite emotional because I suggested that perhaps she was misunderstanding one of Christ’s parables. “I know this is what it means!” she insisted. “It just speaks to me so much!”

In other words, we’ve made self the new Pope. Instead of Rome, the meaning of Scripture is determined by the papal authority of me.

That’s not what the Reformers had in mind. They didn’t envision a million Christians coming up with a million interpretations of the Bible. They believed that God has objectively spoken through Scripture and each reader has the blessed and individual opportunity to understand that truth. It’s not that each person has the authority to interpret Scripture, but that each individual has the ability to understand Scripture. It’s not that we subject Scripture to our opinions, but that we subject our opinions before the clarity of Scripture.

That’s not to say the personal application of Scripture is always the same. Different people in different phases of life may be convicted or encouraged by different things. Application may vary, but meaning–the doctrine behind the application–is always concrete.

I was recently discussing a piece of literature with a lady at work when she made the comment, “I think one meaning you could get from it is…” I can’t help but fundamentally disagree with that approach to any piece of writing. The written word is not meant to be a vague canvas splattered with paint, prone to the privies of its beholder. Words mean something. The question is not, “What do I think this means?” but “But what did the author intend this to mean?” What does it actually mean?

We have to ask the same question when approaching the Bible. Personal devotion is not the time to formulate what we think the Bible says but rather what God intends the Bible to say. The Pope does not have the authority to interpret Scripture because he’s the supposed Vicar of Christ, nor does the plow boy have the authority to interpret Scripture based on his subjective feelings. All may interpret Scripture because God has revealed it, God has a meaning behind it, and God has made that meaning understandable. The authority of Scripture does not rest in any church councils or individual opinions, but in God Himself.

How do we counteract this tendency in ourselves? Here’s a few helpful ways:

  • Read the passages in context. Instead of taking an isolated verse on its own, read the verses before and after to gain a better understanding of the author’s intention.
  • Cross-reference. If a passage seems difficult to understand, interpret Scripture with Scripture by studying other clearer passages that deal with the same topic.
  • Read both old and new commentaries. There is so much treasure to be gleaned from the research and wisdom of pastors and theologians. Of course their opinions are not divinely inspired, but they can be profound and helpful.
  • Pray. Pray again. Then pray some more. Ask Jesus to open your eyes to the truth of Scripture by the illumination of the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 24:45; 1 Cor. 2:11-13).

Despite how far we’ve come from medieval Roman Catholicism, perhaps we’re repeating many of the same mistakes. The Pope is not our authority, but neither is our own self-understanding. The Word of God stands on its own two feet, and our job is not to decide what it says but learn what it says and submit to it.