Is natural law the answer?

Is natural law the answer?

This article was updated on 07 February 2021

When Christians consider whether and how to legislate morality, we’re immediately confronted with the fact we’re actually asking two questions:

  1. What should inform the content of public morality in an ideal sense? That is, setting present geo-political realities aside and focusing only on transcendent values, what is “the public good,” how can we know it, and to what extent should we advocate for it in the public square?
  2. How does the Church apply this public morality in real life, within the geo-political, pluralist realities that are the real world?

One way some Christians have answered the first question is to turn to natural law theory; specifically, a broadly Christian form of natural law. Is this a fruitful path?

What is natural law theory?

When we say, “natural law,” we mean it is “natural” in the sense that it reflects the nature, essence or intended form of something (X). “Law” refers to a normative dictum that explains what X, in light of its nature, should do in certain circumstances.1 This means human beings can (1) observe the nature and intended purpose of something, and (2) these observations form the basis for moral values and obligations.

So, to bring this down to earth, consider human beings. Natural law is our perception (even unwittingly) of the divine order within ourselves, by which we’re inclined to right action. We can observe ourselves, draw conclusions about our meaning and purpose, and so learn how we ought to behave. If you’re ever bored enough to read legal statutes, you’ll find that human laws are the result of a society’s reasoned application of general principles to particular cases for the common good. This is why even something so esoteric as the Washington State insurance code can proclaim:2

The business of insurance is one affected by the public interest, requiring that all persons be actuated by good faith, abstain from deception, and practice honesty and equity in all insurance matters.

It’s doubtful the Washington State legislature wittingly relied on natural law theory to craft this statute. Yet, there is an implicit appeal to such a law in that text. There is a public interest. Good faith can be known, defined, and it is “good,” (etc.). Indeed, some form of natural law must be the foundation for human law.3 Or else, we’re cast into the morass of subjectivism and individualism.

Christian natural law theory says scripture presupposes this divine ordering. David Haines and Andrew Fulford advance three propositions to express this idea:4

  1. there is an objective order to the universe;
  2. this order is objectively visible, there for all to see, “whether one is wearing the spectacles of Scripture or not;” and
  3. at least some unbelievers perceive this order.

They explain:

the very fact of divine creation seems to point towards what has been traditionally called natural law: the notion that there is, because of the divine intellect, a natural order within the created world by which each and every created being’s goodness can be objectively judged, both on the level of being (ontological goodness), and, for human-beings specifically, on the level of human action (moral goodness). Ontological goodness is the foundation of moral goodness.5

In one of his famous five “proofs” for God’s existence, Thomas Aquinas explained we can perceive God from the observable order of the world:6

We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

God, as it were, created everything as a carpenter plans and creates a piece of furniture.7 He sees an image in His mind’s eye, then executes that plan. Thus, God has a moral standard to which men are accountable, and His mind contains that “ideal” purpose and end of everything in His creation.

Scripture presupposes that this natural ordering and purpose exists. Here are but a few examples:8

  • Jesus’ so-called “Golden Rule” (Mt 7:12) presupposes that everyone, regardless of their spiritual state, acknowledges it is “good” to treat others equitably. This is as close to a universal moral good that one can get.
  • Deuteronomy 4:5-6. If the Israelites obey God’s laws, pagan nations “will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people,’” (Deut 4:6). If unbelievers can look at God’s objective “good” and appreciate it, like it, acknowledge, want it—then there must be an objective “good” to define human flourishing. It isn’t a social convention; it actually exists and can be seen, known, appreciated.
  • In creation, God pronounced it all “very good,” which surely means there is an objective “good” to this world.

How, then, can we know right and wrong?

Well, first we need to understand that everything, including men, women, boys and girls, is made by God for a specific purpose or end. An ear is made to hear. A sock is made to fit on your foot. A book is meant to be read. A car is meant to transport you to and fro.

You can abuse the original design by using it in a way the designer didn’t foresee. For example, a neighbor of mine recently used his Jeep to prop up a section of fencing that had collapsed in his backyard. It “worked,” I guess, but it was crude. Why? Because the Jeep wasn’t designed to do that—it wasn’t its nature or raison d’être.

You could say there is a “fitness” and “unfitness” to everything, depending on its created purpose.

Thus fitness or unfitness may be affirmed, at every moment, of every object in existence, of the volition by which each object is controlled, and of every intelligent being, with regard to the exercise of his will toward or upon outward objects or his fellow-beings. Fitness and unfitness are the ultimate ideas that are involved in the terms right and wrong.9

So, consider marriage, children, government, attitudes towards elders, the sanctity of life, political society, political authorities—what are God’s purposes for these institutions? What is their nature? When you find that out—when you figure the ends for which God made them—then you have a secure base from which to understand and uphold these realities in the world.10

But, again, how can you figure out these ends? How can you know what they are?

Certainly, the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives one a new mind and a new heart, along with the illumination to understand divine revelation. Indeed, if God created a binding moral order, it seems He’d be remiss if He did not reveal Himself and this moral order to His creation.11

Not so fast?

However, natural law seems to not require this step. Instead, it asks one to reason from natural revelation—to extrapolate from the observable order to “think God’s thoughts after Him” in a whole host of modern contexts. Specifically, we can know right from wrong by considering various forms of the questions (1) what is the nature and purpose of the one doing the action,12 and (2) what is the purpose of the action, (3) what are the motivations behind the action, (4) what are the consequences, (5) what are the means by which we propose to accomplish this end, and (6) what are the circumstances surrounding the action?13

However, Haines and Fulford’s blanket assertion that when human beings observe human nature and draw conclusions about it, “we are thinking God’s thoughts after Him,” is not quite correct.14 Satan has thrown a dark cloak over people’s minds to “keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” (2 Cor 4:4). This a blindness to reality, including natural law, for which we must account. This means unbelievers will not always “see” the natural order flowing from a created order at all. Christians will usually have to do a three-step dance when pressing the reality of natural law; (1) it exists, (2) your sin stops you from seeing it in creation, and then (3) do you see it now?

Indeed, there are non-Christian theories about natural law predicated on secular bases. These contrasting theories “differ widely about what human nature is and, as a result, about the moral theory that can be derived from it.”15 Indeed, different schools of thought (even within Christian circles) disagree about the essence of human nature itself and, thus, the implications about the “ends” to be drawn from its nature. “Unless that picture can be firmly established in sufficient detail to warrant the moral inferences drawn from it, the theory as a whole will lack credibility.”16

So, for example, can we legitimately employ natural law theory to forbid birth control? After all, the reasoning goes, the “natural end” of marriage is procreation (or, is it!?), and birth control would impede this purpose, so it is morally wrong. It therefore seems that to be most persuasive, Christian natural law theory must function with some degree of abstraction.

Preliminary assessment

Nevertheless, does natural law theory provide the Church with a framework to understand the “public good” regarding legislation of morality in the public square? It does, but only obliquely. Simply put, why do Christians need natural law theory when they could just point to scripture? That, of course, is the rub—nobody wants to use scripture in the public square. Natural law theory, for all its promise, seems to be a method for reasoning “God’s way” while not actually pointing to anything God has said.  

Does it answer our second question? That is, does natural law theory help Christians “think God’s thoughts” via legislation in a pluralist society, in 2021? Haines and Fulford say it does:

The precisionists and the Anabaptists were wrong to deny that any just political order could be founded that did not submit to their own private and special revelation, since justice can be known from the wisdom in God’s creation.17

I am not yet convinced. To use just one example—people in the West simply do not acknowledge God’s justice or God’s objective order. Natural law theory appears to gravely underestimate the noetic effect of sin, which will inevitably prevent some people from agreeing with the specific implications of its general premises. In other words, while natural law theory supplies the Christian with some philosophical heft as a complement to a Reformed epistemology, I am not convinced it alone is a suitable vehicle for grounding moral values or legislation.  

I am very new to the concept of natural law theory, and perhaps I have misunderstood it here. But my assessment at this date is that it would be simpler to use scripture to advocate for God’s values in a pluralist society. In that respect, it reminds me of the debate between classical and presuppositional apologetics.


Notes

1 David Haines and Andrew Fulford, Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense (Lincoln: Davenant Press, 2017), pp. 4-5. 

2 Title 48, Revised Code of Washington; RCW 48.01.030. Emphasis added. 

3 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 8. 

4 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 51.

5 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. ii.

6 This is Thomas Aquinas’ “fifth way” of proving God’s existence from Summa Theologica, First Part, Q1 (“does God exist?”), A2.

7 “[T]he divine mind ‘contains,’ or is, the ideas of all created beings—what we call exemplar causes—in much the same way that the carpenter’s mind contains the idea of a finished table prior to beginning his work,” (Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 23).

8 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, pp. 52ff. 

9 Andrew Peabody, A Manual of Moral Philosophy (New York: Barnes, 1873), pp. 35-36. 

10 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, pp. 24-27. 

11 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 51. 

12 The Westminster Larger Catechism sums it up nicely when it says, “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him forever,” (Q1, A1).

13 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 38. 

14 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 44. 

15 Gerald Hughes, “Natural Law,” in Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, revised ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), p. 414.

16 Hughes, “Natural Law,” p. 414. 

17 Haines and Fulford, Natural Law, p. 111.  

Life matters

Life matters

Each year in January, our congregation celebrates the gift of life and focuses on some aspect of the sin of abortion in the United States. This year, we were honored to have the Executive Director of Options Pregnancy Clinic in Olympia, WA speak to our congregation:

I then followed with a short sermon challenging our congregation to look beyond a cardboard approach to the sin of abortion, and to consider what the Church’s attitude should be towards a people and society that celebrate abortion.

Is pluralism a dead end?

Is pluralism a dead end?

I have come to realize a defining issue for Christians is the Church’s relationship to the State, particularly in matters of morality. The Constitution is a pluralist document. It does not go “on the record” for or against one particular religion, though Christianity certainly loomed large in the philosophical and moral shaping of the founders by dint of their culture. Instead, it guarantees religious freedom of conscience for all.

That much isn’t too controversial. The controversy comes with this question: what moral values should therefore inform legislation?

Every piece of legislation, every value judgment by the State, comes from some objective or otherwise “authoritative” and recognized moral standard. The line that “we cannot legislate morality” is both true and false. It’s true in that we can’t change people’s hearts, but every criminal law on the books in local, State and Federal jurisdictions recognizes the deterrent value in having penalties to curb otherwise “immoral” actions (e.g. murder, sexual assault, etc.). As long as there was a broad, implicit consensus about the content of morality (in America’s case, a generic Christian-ish deism), then people could reasonably be on the same page. This is no longer the case.  

Morality is legislated all the time. It certainly was in Bostock v. Clayton County, this past summer—a decision akin to Roe v. Wade for the transgender issue. The difference is we have competing and antithetical moral value judgments in our society; judgments that come from very different philosophical worlds. In this sense, I’m not certain pluralism is really tenable. It seemed like it could be if people operated from a common moral and epistemological foundation, even something as generic as a Christian ceremonial deism. But, that isn’t the case today.

Consider this excerpt from the splendid book by Gaines M. Foster, Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865-1920. He recounts what ensued after yet another attempt by Christian lobbyists to amend the Constitution to proclaim explicit allegiance to Jesus as King in 1896 (p. 109):

For me, this is a true puzzle. I am doing research right now for a short book about the evolution of sexual mores in American society by examining key U.S. Supreme Court decisions from Roe v. Wade to Bostock v. Clayton County. I plan to examine each decision, and the accompanying transcripts of oral arguments and legal briefs, and provide a succinct analysis from a conservative Christian perspective. Of course, this means I’ll immediately come up against the Church’s relationship to the State regarding moral legislation.

I have much to read on Christian political philosophy and natural law. But, right now, these are my thoughts:

  1. Every State must identify a foundation from whence it draws its ideas about morality. After all, we will always legislate someone’s morality. We should be honest about that.
  2. Pluralism is a chimera unless the people have some shared epistemological foundation from which to argue, even if that foundation is something as generic as a Christian-ish deism.
  3. The United States used to have such a generally shared foundation, but no longer does. So, the public square arguments about morality will continue to escalate.
  4. Therefore, I am not certain an ostensible pluralism is a viable way forward in today’s Western culture, where morality is largely determined by majority consensus.
  5. But, I am uncertain what a Christian response to this environment ought to be. Here is where the concept of soul liberty clashes with the imperative to advocate for future kingdom values. Should Christians, for example, really be “for” something God hates (e.g. drag queen “story hour”) in order to uphold pluralism and religious liberty for all?

I don’t have answers to any of this. It’s some measure of comfort to me that Gaines Foster, author of Moral Reconstruction, didn’t have the answer, either. He ends his book with this line:

The fundamental tension built into the moral polity of the early republic thus persists two centuries later: a democratic republic needs a moral citizenry but cannot force its citizens to be moral.

Moral Reconstruction, p. 234

The man with no name

The man with no name

Cut-away drawings are interesting, because they show you what’s “underneath” the exterior. Here’s one of the Millennium Falcon, the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs:

This just isn’t the Millenium Falcon. The exterior is peeled away to reveal what lies beneath. You can even see Han Solo at the helm, ready to pilot the ship through an asteroid field to escape Imperial star destroyers:

In our passage, Zechariah 1:7-21, God is doing the same thing. He’s pulling back the “divine curtain.” He does this when He wants to comfort us, to give us perspective, to give us hope, to give us a glimpse of what’s going on beyond what we can see. And, when God does this, it’s always through extraordinary, mysterious and otherworldly visions.

In the vision from our passage, we encounter a mysterious Man With No Name, on a red horse. If we let Him, God will take us a few steps “behind the divine curtain” to see what message He has for us.

On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, which is the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying,

Zechariah 1:7

This is three months after Zechariah’s first message. When God speaks, He has a reason—what’s His reason? Something’s happening among God’s people to make this message necessary—what is it? That rebuke from Haggai 1:4 is a symptom, not the disease itself—what’s the disease?

We’ll only figure this out by reading what God has to say.

I saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen, and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses.

Zechariah 1:8

I once read a Lee Child novel in which a minor character, a pastor, explained to Jack Reacher that the Book of Revelation read like an acid trip.[1] Even if Christians wouldn’t put it quite so crudely, some would share the same sentiments. Why? Because of genre confusion!

The writer of Hebrews tells “long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,” (Heb 1:1). The Old Covenant shows us poetry, proverbs, narrative, prophecy … and a genre called “apocalyptic.”

When you find strange and otherworldly prophetic visions in scripture, then you’re probably looking at apocalyptic literature. This is a sub-genre of prophecy, and God uses it when He wants to peel back the divine curtain and show us something.

  • What’s this genre look like? You usually have an angelic guide[2]. Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah and John each have one. They need these guides because the visions are, well … confusing! You find “graphic visions filled with unexpected and often mysterious scenes of heaven and the future.”[3] So, for example, you see John introduce a pregnant woman; “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” (Rev 12:1). At the beginning of Ezekiel’s book, you see strange creatures, chariots, a vision of one like the Son of Man, jewels, fire … lots of odd things.
  • What’s it’s message? It’s often about “distant judgment and restoration: The final solution for the problems of this age is in the age to come, when God will reign and be recognized as the LORD of all.”[4] So, Daniel’s four beasts are slain by a stone that represents God’s kingdom (Dan 2). The Son of Man is crowned as King of the world, and His kingdom will never end. These are visions of a better future.
  • Why does God use it? When people feel hopeless and they need an awesome “window” into the future as a vehicle for hope—it’s an encouragement to persevere![5]. So, God shows His people a vision of a newer, better, massive temple (Ezek 40-48). And, of course, you have visions all over Zechariah. A surveyor takes measurements for a future Jerusalem (Zech 2). One day, the high priest and a king will be united in one person (Zech 4). Sin, personified by a woman (cf. Rev 17-18), is sealed into a container and cast into darkness (Zech 5). One day, a King will come to bring a new and better covenant (Zech 9).

It’s not that Zechariah, Ezekiel, John (etc.) are trying to describe strange things within the limitations of their language and experience. It’s that God communicates hope by way of fantastic images and visions of an eternal future. And apocalyptic is the genre for it, just as poetry/song is the genre for love.

After all, you don’t write essays to the one you love. You write songs, you write poetry, you write verse. Can you imagine writing a five-paragraph essay, complete with a thesis statement, and presenting it to your fiance? Of course not! You write poems. You sing songs.

For hope to persevere through crisis … God uses apocalyptic. It makes truth come alive. It makes you experience the events. It uses dramatic images, not data. God wants the powerful, otherworldly imagery to move you to action and shape your values.[6]

How do we interpret it?[7]

  1. God’s people are usually in some sort of crisis.
  2. It’s about hope for the future—not chronological info about the future.[8]
  3. It uses lots of non-literal, symbolic language to paint pictures.
  4. So, because the “big picture” is the point, not the details, you should be very humble when proposing interpretations!
  5. Don’t try to identify every single detail; focus on the bigger picture—akin to impressionist art[9] Take a look at this impressionist painting by Claude Monet:

In this picture, the details aren’t the point. It’s not about the ships, the sun, or what might be the city lost in the haze. It’s about the general impression. This is just a picture of a guy rowing his boat at sunset. It’d be a mistake to ask questions about the time of day, or about the names of the sailing ships in the harbor. It’s the same with apocalyptic literature.

What does all this have to do with the guy on the red horse? Well, you can tell it’s going to be “weird.” I’m showing you how to interpret the “weirdness!”

There’s a crisis. God wants to encourage us. Zechariah’s visions do that, in striking and mysterious ways.

So, what does Zechariah show us, here? He shows us the Man With No Name on a red horse. Behind him are three other horses.

Then I said, ‘What are these, my lord?’

Zechariah 1:9

Good question! It’s our question, too! Zechariah asks his guide. Remember I told you the prophets usually have one, in this type of literature? Zechariah needs a guide because he’s consistently just as clueless as we are (and so is Daniel, and Ezekiel, and John). So, if you’re confused about this, you’re in good company!

The angel who talked with me said to me, ‘I will show you what they are.’

Zechariah 1:9

It’s good to have a guide!

So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered,

Zechariah 1:10

The Man With No Name hears Zechariah’s question and answers, and you can picture the guide gesturing to him to get Zechariah’s attention. But, Zechariah wasn’t talking to him—so why does the guy on the horse answer?

Because this isn’t like A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge can only see, but not interact with the vision. Zechariah can see, and can interact.

These are they whom the LORD has sent to patrol the earth.

Zechariah 1:10

“These” are the three horsemen. The Man With No Name says, “Yahweh sent these guys out to patrol the whole earth!”

Who is this Man With No Name? Zechariah doesn’t know His name. The guy never tells us his name. But, he does differentiate Himself from Yahweh. We’ll have to wait to find out more.

Back to the three horsemen—why would they go out to patrol the earth? Patrol for what? It’s a reconnaissance—like imperial probe droids. These scouts have returned, and Zechariah parachutes in right when they’re about to make their report—what do they say?

And they answered the angel of the LORD who was standing among the myrtle trees, and said, ‘We have patrolled the earth, and behold, all the earth remains at rest.’

Zechariah 1:11

What kind of report is this? Good or bad? Well, because this is an apocalyptic genre, we can assume there is some kind of crisis going on, so the report likely isn’t positive at all—at least for Israel. But, the only way to find out is to see what the Man With No Name does with their report.

Then the angel of the LORD said, ‘O LORD of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?’

Zechariah 1:12

Before we answer the question we raised, we’re confronted with something else. Here is the first clue to the Man’s identity—He’s “the angel of the Lord.” Who is this angel of the Lord (LXX: ὁ ἄγγελος Κυρίου)?[10] The bible tells us this particular angel:

  • led the people from Egypt by fire and cloud (Ex 14:19),
  • comforted Hagar in the wilderness (Gen 16:17),
  • confronted Balaam and told him to prophesy to the Moabites (Num 21:22, 31f),
  • promised Samson’s parents they’d have a son who’d rescue them from the Philistines (Judges 13),
  • and was probably the commander of the Lord’s armies who meets Joshua outside Jericho (Josh 5:13-15)

As we look at one of these examples, we see the bible tells us He’s the angel who comforted Hagar (Gen 16:7), he refers to God in the third-person (Gen 16:11) but speaks as if He is God (Gen 16:10) and, after speaking to Him, Hagar thinks she’s seen God Himself (Gen 16:13). The Angel of the Lord, the Man With No Name, is Jesus.

Was the scout’s report good or bad? It was bad—He prays for His people immediately after hearing the report.

What’s so bad about the report? You can tell by what He prays. How long will you not have mercy? How long will you be so angry at your people? Why are our enemies happy and “at peace”?

The Man With No Name’s prayer tells us what the “crisis” is: “God doesn’t care!”

  • Why do the Persians prosper?
  • I thought God promised to curse His people’s enemies?
  • Can we even trust God?
  • Does He keep His word?
  • Will He be angry forever?
  • Does He have no mercy?

Haggai 1:4 (“Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?”) is the symptom, not the problem. People are asking themselves, “why should I go on, when God seems to have checked out?” It’s a fair question. They’ve endured sustained 16 years of local opposition. It’s easy and cheap to dismiss this as mere “disobedience.” 16 years ago it was 2005. That’s a long time to wait. It’s natural to suspect God has “checked out;” to suspect it implicitly even if you wouldn’t dare say so explicitly.

Have you ever felt the same way, as you survey your life? Do you feel the same way, right now? Is your life a mess? Is a crisis sapping your faith in God’s goodness? Are you wondering what God’s doing? Do you wonder if He cares? Wondering if He notices? Wondering if you should stay the course if God doesn’t care? Are you here physically, but “checked out” mentally and emotionally? Are you weary with unspoken frustrations about God’s goodness?

That’s the crisis that’s prompting God to peel the divine curtain back for Zechariah—so he can tell us what he sees! God is peeling that curtain back for us, too. For me, for you, for all of us. Because we need to be comforted, as well.

What does Zechariah see? What should we see? What’s behind the curtain? The vision isn’t finished yet, but we can already see this much:

  1. God hasn’t checked out—He’s arranged a reconnaissance patrol.
  2. God knows—He’s received a report from the scouts.
  3. Jesus prays for His people … and God hears Him!

What is God’s message through this vision?

And the LORD answered gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.

Zechariah 1:13

What does God say in His response? He speaks comforting words; God does care about our fears, hopes, dreams, terrors. He speaks gracious words; God does have mercy.

He wants us to know that He remembers, that He cares, that His Son prays for us, that He hasn’t abandoned us, and that He’ll fix this.

God wants us to know we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One (1 Jn 2:1).

He wants you to know it, too.

So the angel who talked with me said to me, ‘Cry out, Thus says the LORD of hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion.

Zechariah 1:14

God wants Zechariah to “cry out,” as if to say “this is what I want you to tell everybody!” God wants Zechariah to say this loudly.

  • they’re upset—tell them this!
  • they’re angry—tell them this!
  • they think I’ve forgotten about them—tell them this!
  • they think I deleted them like a bad smartphone app—tell them this!
  • they feel worn down by unspoken weariness about my goodness—tell them this!

He wants Zechariah to tell the people that He’s “exceedingly jealous.” He does care. He promises He cares. He remembers His promises. No matter what it looks like—he cares about His people. If you’re one of His people, He cares about you.

And I am exceedingly angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was angry but a little, they furthered the disaster.

Zechariah 1:15

He’s angry at the “nations at ease;” those nations at peace from the scout’s report (Zech 1:11). Why is God angry? Because of His promise from Genesis 12 to curse His people’s enemies (Gen 12:3).

Therefore, thus says the LORD, I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy; my house shall be built in it, declares the LORD of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem.

Zechariah 1:16

From the beginning, God’s desire has been to dwell among His people. It was that way in the beginning, for a short time. The tabernacle and then the temple were object lessons to show us, in part, He has a plan to fix that one day. Through those structures, as living parables, God shows Himself living with His people, among them. But, God left His people a long time ago (Ezek 8-10). He’s never physically returned. Jesus certainly went to the temple (Mal 3:1), but was rejected.

Even now, God hasn’t “returned” to Jerusalem and built a place to be physically with His people. His promise to Zechariah looks forward to eternity. The imagery of the measuring line brings to mind surveyors and grand re-building plans.

Cry out again, Thus says the LORD of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.’ ”

Zechariah 1:17

Again, God tells Zechariah to “cry out.” To tell the people about the hope for something better than the mess that is “now.”

And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four horns!

Zechariah 1:18

These horns are symbols of power—what do they mean?

And I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these?” And he said to me, “These are the horns that have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem.”

Zechariah 1:19

The horns are enemies in general, whoever they are, whenever they are. Four nations have not scattered Israel. These are not literal kingdoms.

Then the LORD showed me four craftsmen. And I said, “What are these coming to do?” He said, “These are the horns that scattered Judah, so that no one raised his head. And these have come to terrify them, to cast down the horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter it.”

Zechariah 1:20-21

These craftsmen are like a divine demolition crew. They’ve come to blast enemies off the face of the earth; to take the buildings down and leave nothing but rubble behind. Whoever His people’s enemies are, they’ll all be gone!

Exhortation

There are ups and downs in the Christian life. Zechariah is dealing with people whose lives are down. They’ve implicitly (but, perhaps not explicitly) “checked out.” Are you in the same place this morning?

This passage is about the angelic guide peeling back the divine curtain to show Zechariah that God does remember, and does have mercy, because Jesus is our advocate.

What is God doing, here? His aim is to assure His people to not be bitter with God or think He’s forgotten about His people—He hasn’t. So, when you feel bitter or angry with God at injustice in your life, know that Jesus prays for you.  

How do we specifically apply this truth to become more like Christ? This is what I suggest. Whenever you doubt God, peel back that same divine curtain in your mind and repeat to yourself, “I can go on, because Jesus prays for me!”

You may be asking yourself, just like Zechariah’s folks did:

  • does God care about my heartache?
  • does God remember me?
  • does God notice my struggles?
  • does God keep His promises?

Well, when God peels back that curtain for Zechariah, he shows us Jesus translating those thoughts from your heart and mind and asking them for you—”O LORD of hosts, how long will you have no mercy?” (Zech 1:12).

God responds and says to Zechariah: “Cry out, Thus says the LORD of hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion,” (Zech 1:14). He’s telling Zechariah (and us, too) “shout it on the rooftops, put it in CAPS, bold, underline, buy television airtime, launch social media campaigns—do whatever you gotta do to tell them, “I know, I care, and I’ll fix it!”

So, again, whenever you doubt God, I suggest you peel back that divine curtain in your mind, and repeat to yourself, “I can go on, because Jesus prays for me!”



[1] Lee Child, Nothing to Lose (New York: Dell, 2009), 435.  

[2] D. Brent Sandy and Martin G. Abegg, Jr., “Apocalyptic,” in Cracking Old Testament Codes: A Guide to Interpreting Literary Genres of the Old Testament, ed. D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Geise (Nashville: B&H, 1995), 185.   

[3] Ronald Giese, “Literary Forms of the Old Testament,” in Ibid, p. 22.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “… in apocalyptic the coming judgment is written to encourage the saints who are caught up in the crises of living in an evil world; they are encouraged to persevere and not give up hope, for God is truly in control and will “soon” intervene into world events in the person of the Son of Man,” (Ibid).

“When faced with severe adversity such as the Jews experienced at the hands of the Assyrians or Babylonians or Syrians (or the Nazis), the response of many was to call on God for salvation. When relief failed to come, patience became thin and doubts about God’s control and mercy arose. People understandably lost sight of the bigger picture of how God might be at work in the affairs of this world and became preoccupied with the immediacy of their own misfortunes.

Largely in response to this kind of crisis, apocalyptic literature gives its readers a roller-coaster ride through the heavens and into the future. There are thrills as those faced with crisis get a glimpse beyond the problems of the present. The heavenly journeys and descriptions of activities and creatures in the domain of heaven—all so unlike anything known on this earth—help the persecuted put their own misfortunes in perspective,” (D. Brent Sandy and Martin G. Abegg, Jr., “Apocalyptic,” in Ibid., p. 186).

[6] D. Brent Sandy and Martin G. Abegg, Jr., “Apocalyptic,” in Ibid., p. 177.

[7] Ibid, pp. 187-189.  

[8] The genre is “a literary shock treatment of bold and graphic images to take our attention away from the problems we currently face and give us hope,” (Ibid, p. 188).

[9] “Apocalyptic tends to be impressionistic, more like an abstract painting which communicates an overall impression. If you stand too close to the painting trying to examine the detail of the artist’s work, you fail to grasp what the picture is intended to present,” (Ibid, p. 189).    

[10] See a good overview of this issue in (1) “Angel of the Lord,” in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 90, and (2) Elke B. Speliopoulos and Douglas Mangum, “Angel of Yahweh,” in Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016).

Millard Erickson sums it up nicely when he writes, “There are three major interpretations of ‘the angel of the Lord:’ (1) he is merely an angel with a special commission; (2) he is God himself temporarily visible in a humanlike form; (3) he is the Logos, a temporary preincarnate visit by the Second Person of the Trinity. While none of these interpretations is fully satisfactory, in light of the clear statements of identity, either the second or the third seems more adequate than the first,” (Christian Theology, 3rd ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013; Kindle ed.], p. 413; KL 9090).

Plain vanilla is good

Plain vanilla is good

This is a review of Rolland McCune’s doctrine of scripture and God’s self-disclosure from his text, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity.

I read Rolland McCune’s systematic years ago, and still refer to it occasionally. It is an excellent representation of scholarly, second-stage[1] Northern Baptist fundamentalism. Tellingly, it is the only meaningful work of systematic theology a latter-day Baptist fundamentalist has yet produced in America.[2] I still treasure memories of reading the second volume of his systematic theology text regarding Christology.

In the doctrine of scripture from his first volume, McCune explains that general revelation acts through creation and conscience and reveals non-verbal information about God.[3] Preservation of scripture is providential, not miraculous. “Because of this, God does not miraculously prevent mistranslations or errant transmissions.”[4] God’s word is providentially preserved in the totality of manuscripts.[5] The Spirit assures us God’s word is true and provides “an ongoing capacity to understand the significance of scripture.”[6]

Accurate interpretation of Scripture is predicated on two pillars; (1) scripture is sufficiently clear about the Gospel, and (2) it is sufficient for life and godliness.[7] “It does not wait to be sufficient until it encounters the individual nor does it cease to be sufficient when rejected or ignored by the same.”[8]

In fact, the entire debate—both about inspiration and, even, inerrancy—boils down to whether or not one accepts Scripture’s origin and, subsequently, its claims about itself. Either these are accepted or rejected; there is no middle ground.[9]

McCune has excellent discussions about Jesus and the apostles’ testimony about the inspiration of the Old and New Covenant scripture.[10] His chart of the Old Testament miracles Jesus affirms is particularly helpful.[11]

McCune holds to a concursus kind of inspiration,[12] which he curiously files under the “dictation” heading.[13] He explains, “Concursive inspiration insists on the (miraculous) participation of both man and God in the writing process.”[14] He flippantly dismisses the dynamic theory in two short paragraphs, citing Augustus Strong as a proponent, falsely claiming this view believes scripture “merely records human reflections on historical encounters with God.”[15] Strong’s extensive discussion[16] deserved better than this, and McCune errs by imputing neo-orthodoxy to him—an anachronism if ever there was one!

Scripture is the result of God’s creative power—it is God-produced, not God-animated.[17] If “all” Scripture is produced by God, “then this production must extend to its very words.”[18] McCune does not deal with problem passages. As McCune left matters, the reader must conclude God moved the biblical writers to quote the LXX rather than the Hebrew, and produced Paul’s (shall we say) … creative re-purposing of Psalm 68:18 at Ephesians 4:8-10.

McCune believes inerrancy “argues for accuracy of statement, not necessarily exactness of statement.”[19] He declares, “[w]ithout question, the Bible teaches its own inerrancy by claiming its own truthfulness.”[20] Given that McCune goes on to pursue two lines of evidence for the Bible’s truthfulness,[21] one wonders why Michael Bird’s suggestion to re-package this concept as “divine truthfulness” has not caught on with Americans.[22]

McCune then draws a parallel to Christ’s dual nature incarnation to help us understand how God and man worked together to produce inspired scripture.[23] Troublingly, Strong has an excellent discussion on this very point just beyond where McCune last cited him,[24] but McCune never credits Strong (or, indeed, any theologian) with this insight.[25]

McCune closes the selection with a helpful survey of seven ways God reveals Himself to people.[26]

McCune does not interact with those even a bit to his left in any sustained way. For example, it would have been helpful if he had addressed criticism from the center-left of evangelicalism such as that of Donald Bloesch, who labeled positions like McCune’s an “epistemic bondage to Enlightenment rationalism.”[27] Bloesch was neither a liberal or a fundamentalist, and his observations are worth the effort to engage them. For example, “[b]iblical inerrancy has become a slogan masking a not-so-hidden antipathy to the historical-critical approach to Scripture.”[28]

But, McCune stays away from this. His is a solid, conservative systematic theology advancing views rather standard among second-stage Northern Baptist fundamentalists and their heirs. It’s a beginning text. It’s a “safe” place to get the “right” answers. That is not to say McCune’s answers are wrong. He just does not interact meaningfully with opposing views. Indeed, the student reading his text may not realize there are other views that hold sway in the broader stream of evangelicalism.


[1] This is Roger Olson’s term (Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology [Louisville: WJK, 2004]pp. 36-39). He accurately distinguishes first-stage fundamentalists who were concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy from second-stage fundamentalists whose rhetorical foe became conservatives who “compromised” on doctrine. First-stage fundamentalists are the modern conservative evangelicals (e.g. the GARBC). Second-stage fundamentalists are groups like the FBFI and the ACCC, who still fight the good fight of separation from evangelicals and other conservatives.

See also Tyler Robbins, “Fundys, Evangelicals, and the Eye of a Needle …” at eccentricfundamentalist.com (15 December 2019). Retrieved from https://eccentricfundamentalist.com/2019/12/15/fundys-evangelicals-and-the-eye-of-a-needle/.

[2] One possible exception is Emery Bancroft, Christian Theology, second revised ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976). Bancroft’s work began life in 1925 and went through several editions. Bancroft died in 1944, and was a co-founder of Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, PA. I hesitate to include Bancroft because I doubt he could be considered a “fundamentalist” in the second-stage sense of the term at all.

[3] Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit: DBTS, 2006-2009), 1: 42-43.  

[4] Ibid, p. 49.  

[5] Ibid, p. 54. 

[6] Ibid, pp. 56-57.  

[7] Ibid, pp. 58-62.  

[8] Ibid, p. 61.  

[9] Ibid, p. 63.  

[10] Ibid, pp. 65-77.  

[11] Ibid, pp. 67-68.  

[12] Ibid, pp. 37-39.  

[13] Ibid, pp. 80-81.  

[14] Ibid, p. 81.  

[15] Ibid, p. 80.     

[16] Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan: Revell, 1907), 211-222. McCune’s issue with the dynamic theory seems to be that it denies God’s direct agency in the choice of words (Systematic Theology, 1:80). Strong is inconsistent on this point. At the beginning of his discussion, he argues inspiration is plenary (Systematic, 211) but then remarks, “[t]hought is possible without words, and in the order of nature precedes words. The Scripture writers appear to have been so influenced by the Holy Spirit that they perceived and felt even the new truths they were to publish, as discoveries of their own minds, and were left to the action of their own minds in the expression of these truths, with the single exception that they were supernaturally held back from the selection of wrong words, and when needful were provided with the right ones,” (Ibid, p. 216).

[17] McCune, Systematic Theology, p. 83.  

[18] Ibid, p. 87.  

[19] Ibid, p. 90.  

[20] Ibid, p. 91.  

[21] Ibid, pp. 91-93.

[22] “Rather than ‘inerrancy,’ a better categorization of Scripture’s claims for itself would be ‘veracity,’ or ‘divine truthfulness.’ Instead of stating how or in what way the Bible is not untrue—which is an odd thing to say, when you think about it—we are better off simply asserting that God’s Word is true as it correlates with God’s intent for what Scripture is to achieve, because he is faithful to his world and to his Word,” (Michael Bird, “Inerrancy is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA,” in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, ed. Stanley Gundry [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013; Kindle ed.], KL 2655).

[23] Systematic Theology, 1:102-103.  

[24] Strong, Systematic, 212-222.  

[25] See McCune, Systematic Theology, 1:102-103 at footnotes 129-131.  

[26] Ibid, pp. 171-187.  

[27] Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), 33f.

[28] Ibid, p. 32.

Revenge of the strawmen

Revenge of the strawmen

This is a review of the first seven chapters of Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice.

J. Ligon Duncan opens the book with two chapters on the regulative principle (“RP”). This is the concept that corporate worship must only be based on positive commands from scripture. Duncan presents a familiar lament about contemporary worship services. You hear this so often that one wonders if these warnings are no more than recycled, plagiarized strawmen. Duncan presents the RP as the answer. “True Christian worship is by the book,”[1] he declares, and “there must be scriptural warrant for all we do.”[2]

So, Duncan presents a representative case for the RP, using sometimes questionable hermeneutics. He cites Exodus 20:5-6 to claim God is like a wronged husband who seeks revenge against “adulterous” believers who worship Him wrongly.[3] It is unclear what the that text has to do with the RP.

Duncan believes nearly every theme in scripture supports the RP.[4] The way we worship communicates how we think about God; “form impacts content.”[5] He asks, “what makes us think we can possibly fathom what would please God, apart from his telling us what to do in his word?”[6] We can only respond to what God has revealed,[7] and the Church has “derivative authority” to “administer his rule for worship, as set forth in the word.”[8]

Contra charges of legalism, “[t]he regulative principle is designed to secure the believer’s freedom from the dominion of human opinion in worship.”[9] Indeed, the Reformers “did not have the same interest in cultural accommodation as many modern evangelical worship theorists do.”[10]

Derek Thomas then weighs in with an angry article answering objections to the RP. He wastes time by arguing the Puritans did not misunderstand Calvin’s theology of worship,[11] presuming the reader will care about this burning question.

The RP is not legalistic at all—why shouldn’t God have rules? We only hate rules because of sin.[12] People who have different interpretations about the RP, Thomas warns, are likely motivated by prejudice.[13] In fact, Thomas suspects disagreement is merely a cloak for pragmaticism.[14]

Thomas dismisses John Frame’s objections by, ironically for a RP advocate, not quoting one passage of scripture![15] He acknowledges the charge that Jesus, by worshipping in a synagogue, did not practice the regulative principle.[16] Thomas never meaningfully responds to this, and again cites no scripture.[17]

Thomas likes strawmen, so much so that even at 19 years distance since its publication a fire marshal may well shut his essay down as a fire hazard. To abandon the RP, he declares, is the slippery slope to ruin.[18]

Edmund Clowney chimes in with an essay arguing corporate worship is a means of grace (ch. 5)—an issue I was not aware was in dispute. His contribution is unnecessary. Albert Mohler queues up to offer a workmanlike article on expository preaching. Like Duncan, he employs the same laments about the state of the contemporary church[19] and declares “the heart of Christian worship is the authentic preaching of the word of God.”[20]

Mark Dever offers an uninspired article about how to preach evangelistic sermons. It includes the immortal remark that an evangelistic sermon is one where the gospel is preached.[21]

Terry Johnson and Duncan team up to offer advice on reading and praying in corporate worship. They rightly call the Church back to corporate readings, but their advice can be too idealistic.[22] Johnson does not approve of non-pastors reading scripture in public but, irony of ironies for an RP man, he cannot provide scriptural support.[23] Crudely, he suggest having women read scripture in public is a sop to an egalitarian culture.[24]

All told, this is a collection of passionate essays from men who, to greater or lessor extent, minister in a very Reformed context. At times you get the feeling you’ve stumbled into the middle of a nasty family dispute, and start looking for the exit. Some essays exhibit inappropriate contempt and suspicion for those who disagree.


[1] Philip Ryken (ed.), Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003; Kindle ed.), KL 540-541.

[2] Ibid, KL 581-582.  

[3] “In other words, God is saying in this warning: ‘My people, if you commit spiritual adultery in your worship, I will righteously respond like the most fearsome wronged husband you have ever known.’” (Ibid, KL 802-804). Because “there is a double essence to the idolatry prohibited in the second command” (Ibid, KL 1179), we need the regulative principle.

[4] “[T]he doctrine of God, the Creator-creature distinction, the idea of revelation, the unchanging character of the moral law, the nature of faith, the doctrine of carefulness, the derivative nature of the church’s authority, the doctrine of Christian freedom, the true nature of biblical piety, and the reality of the fallen human nature’s tendency to idolatry,” (Ibid, KL 1103-1105).

[5] Ibid, KL 1122.  

[6] Ibid, KL 1148-1149.

[7] Ibid, KL 1192-1193. “Where God has not revealed Himself, there can be no faithful response, so “God cannot be pleased by worship that is not an obedient response to his revelation, because it is by definition ‘un-faith-full’ worship.”

[8] Ibid, KL 1215-1216.  

[9] Ibid, KL 1222-1223.

[10] Ibid, KL 1347.  

[11] “Is it the case that the seventeenth century took the regulative principle in a direction that Calvin, for example, did not intend?” (Ibid, KL 1626).

[12] Ibid, KL 1689.  

[13] “[I]t is sometimes apparent that this response is not an objection based on principle, but on prejudice,” (Ibid, KL 1698-1699).  

[14] “One suspects that reformation in attitude to sola scriptura is needed before progress can be made in advancing the cause of biblical worship practice,” (Ibid, KL 1700-1701).

[15] Ibid, KL 1725f.  

[16] Ibid, KL 1778.  

[17] “Of interest to us here is to know whether synagogue worship contained anything in it that would be deemed contrary to the regulative principle. Did it contain an element of worship that was not warranted by the Old Testament? The answer is definitely in the negative. What did a typical synagogue worship service look like? Nothing that will give devotees of greater freedom any joy! The fact is that synagogue worship was remarkably predictable, containing a call to worship, a cycle of prayers, the singing of psalms, the recitation of portions of Scripture (the Shema in particular), reading of Scripture, and something that we would now call preaching or exposition, followed by a blessing. It all sounds very similar to a traditional worship service!” (Ibid, KL 1811-1817).

[18] “… being at the mercy of a worship leader with the Outback Steakhouse approach to Sunday morning worship— no rules! What prevents our adding a ‘Pet consecration moment’ between the singing of ‘Jesus Is All the World to Me’ and the offering? Or a section called ‘Getting in Touch with Feelings’ led by Counselor Smith in place of the sermon? Or ‘Mrs. Beattie’s Bread Board: Cooking with Jesus’ as the closing facet of worship? The answer is ‘Nothing!’ Only cultural mores and prejudice can keep worship sane if there is no distinction between the worship service and the rest of life,” (Ibid, 1834-1839).

[19] The Church has been seduced by topical preaching (Ibid, KL 2065). Therapeutic concerns set the tone in many congregations (Ibid, 2065). “The appetite for serious preaching has virtually disappeared among many Christians,” (Ibid, 2084).

[20] Ibid, KL 2044.  

[21] “One thing and one thing alone determines whether a sermon can properly be said to be evangelistic, and that is its content. Is the evangel— the good news—present?” (Ibid, KL 2365-2367).

[22] They proclaim the public scripture reading “ought to be arresting to the congregation. It ought to grab their attention. It ought sometimes to make them tremble and other times rejoice,” (Ibid, KL 2631-2632). This sounds lovely. It likely will not do that. The authors appear to have been carried off into rapturous delight in their prose.

[23] Ibid, KL 2667f.  

[24] “Sometimes it is done (one suspects) to prove to a suspicious culture that conservative evangelical churches are not knee-jerk reactionaries in their stance against women preachers, and so sometimes women are invited to lead the church in this area, if not in proclamation,” (Ibid, KL 2664-2666).

The art of tacky preaching?

The art of tacky preaching?

Steven Mathewson’s work The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative[1]is a somewhat helpful but ultimately disappointing book. Curiously, only ch. 3-6 (pp. 43-78) deal with narrative.

Mathewson’s discussion of expository preaching as “more of a philosophy than a method” is quite good (pp. 21-22). He appropriately critiques pastors who preach all genres the same way. “The analytical outline approach presses the story into a mold that often works against it, especially when the outline points are alliterated or parallel,” (p. 26).  

His review of the building blocks of a narrative plot are adequete (pp. 57-78). However, a pastor will only be a competent interpreter if he is already a reader. So, attempts to explain nuts and bolts about the narrative genre are of limited value. It would be akin to me, the investigations manager for a WA-state agency, trying to explain the basics of ERISA health benefit plans to laypeople and expecting them to do something meaningful with this information. Unless you are already “in the know,” such an explanation would be a waste of time. I fear it is here, too.  

Mathewson suggests the pastor ask himself three functional questions when considering application; (1) what does it mean?, (2) is it true?, and (3) so what? (pp. 95ff). I do these during the sermon as rhetorical questions to engage the audience so we “discover” the story together.

His application suggestions are disappointing. He suggests the pastor “build application around the contours” of the vision of God and the “fallen condition factor” (a la Bryan Chapell) of the text (p. 101). I agree with Abraham Kuruvilla that such an approach is inherently generic and can be applied to many other passages—thus implicitly denigrating the concept of plenary inspiration.[2] If the inspired author’s intent with the passage, the action he wants the audience to take, does not drive our application then we are tacitly saying the text is useless. Christlikeness predicated on the theology of the passage is the better way.  

Mathewson follows Haddon Robinson’s “big idea” approach (ch. 9), which distills the theology into a memorable saying. This approach is an error. Did God really inspire 1 Samuel 17 so Mathewson could fashion a kitsch ditty like, “when God has big business, faith always gets the contract!” (p. 105)? We can distill the application; the author’s imperative from the passage’s context, but we ought not do it to the theology of the passage.   

Troublingly, Mathewson suggests our “purpose” for the sermon (again, following Robinson) can be different than the author’s purpose “as long as it is in line with the author’s purpose” (p. 109; emphasis added). His Father’s Day suggestion from Genesis 22 is tawdry and irrelevant.[3] Ironically, he doesn’t follow his own caveat; “Would the author be comfortable with the way I am using his story to address this particular situation?” (p. 109). Regarding Mathewson’s butchering of Genesis 22, Moses would perhaps be tempted to call down an 11th plague upon him.

He helpfully suggests pastors craft specific and measurable purpose statements, but his examples are crude and of dubious exegetical warrant (pp. 110-111). For example, applying Genesis 13 means people ought to set lunch appointments to resolve interpersonal conflicts.

Mathewson prefers an inductive, “telling the story” shape for the sermon (pp. 113-115). His discussion of outlines is fine (pp. 122-130), but I confess I have never used outlines. He provides troubling advice for “cold opens” involving first-person narrative, costumes, and triteness that veers well-nigh unto blasphemy.

  • He suggests pastors turn their backs on the congregation, then spin about and “become” the character for a brief period (p. 149).
  • Mathewson sums up Genesis 22 for an introduction by suggesting the immortal line, “There’s a story in Genesis 22 that helps us understand why God appears to eat our lunch when we’ve asked him for our daily bread,” (p. 148).
  • He also recommends pastors begin the sermon “as” the character to introduce the passage. “I always figured that the movie based on my life story would be called The Natural. But a more appropriate title would be The Jerk. My name is Samson,” (p. 150).

Mathewson’s book has some helpful but unremarkable advice recycled from better-known works by other authors. In that respect, his book is what generic Target-brand soda is to Coca-Cola. It’s not bad. It just isn’t particularly great. In addition, his rhetorical suggestions are tacky and cheap. His commendable passion to tell the biblical narrative “as story” has led him astray into irreverence.


[1] Steven D. Mathewson, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002).

[2] Abraham Kuruvilla, “Time to Kill the Big Idea? A Fresh Look at Preaching” JETS 61.4 (2018), pp. 833-834.

[3] “Fathers will write out a list of sacrifices they make for their children that steal time or money rightly belonging to God,” (109).  

Is anybody home?

Is anybody home?

The Bible tells us that, even though Abel is dead, his faith still speaks to us. Well, Zechariah is dead too, but God still speaks to us through his words.

God’s message for us, through Zechariah, is “return to me, and I’ll return to you!” (Zech 1:3). That’s the message of his entire book. It’s a message for covenant people to be more faithful to Him.

We might object, “But I haven’t left God!” That’s what Zechariah’s audience thought, too.

We might think, “This is for other people! It’s not for me!” Well, that’s what they thought, too.

It’s what we always think—and we’re always wrong.

Zechariah begins his book with an introduction:

In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying,

Zechariah 1:1

In order to express what’s happening in Zechariah’s day, I’ll ask and answer a few questions.

When is Zechariah preaching? Well, it’s about 519-520 B.C.

Where does Zechariah fit into the big picture of Israel’s history? For all practical purposes, the Babylonians conquered Judah in the last decade of the 7th century B.C. Jerusalem went through a brief period of passive resistance, but eventually rebelled and the Babylonians arrived in force to take the city. Jerusalem fell in 586 B.C. The Babylonians carted prisoners off into exile throughout this entire period. There they stayed for a long time.

  • About 18 years before Zechariah’s ministry, in 538 B.C., the Persian king Cyrus let a large delegation return to Jerusalem to re-build the temple (Ezra 1).
  • 17 years before, in about 537 B.C., Daniel died in exile in Babylon. I’m certain he would have wished to return, but he couldn’t.
  • Zechariah begins preaching in about 520-519 B.C., along with Haggai.
  • Three or four years later, in 516 B.C., the returned exiles finally completed the temple.
  • 50 years after Zechariah’s ministry began, in the 470s, the events in Esther take place.
  • 70 years on, sometime in the mid 440s B.C., Nehemiah arrives from Persia and sets himself the task of re-building the walls of Jerusalem.
  • 90 years later, in the early 430s B.C., Malachi’s preaching ministry begins.

What’s going on in Israel right now? Well, you have desolation, destruction, and ruin. The city has lain vacant lo these 90 years or so. What do you think will happen to a city left empty for that long? It’s why I chose this picture to express something of the mess the exiles inherited when they arrived:

Foreigners occupy the land and the Israelites have no autonomy at all.[1] Stale dates on paper make us forget that 90 years means a lot of water under the bridge. Think on it. Transport yourself to 1930 …

  • Mickey Mouse cartoons first appear in newspapers.
  • Herbert Hoover is President
  • Al Capone is active in Chicago
  • It’s illegal to produce, import, transport or sell alcohol!

How about a real example; one closer to home? Consider the 1930 census data for a residence near my church, in Olympia, WA. Specifically, 118 Cushing St. Here’s the actual page from the 1930 census to which I’ll be referring[2]:

At that address in 1930, there lived Andrew and Ido Lillis. They were both immigrants from Finland, and their native language was Swedish. Ido was a homemaker, and Andrew was a laborer at the “Verneer Plant.” They had two children. The son, Lawrence (age 22), worked with his father as a fellow laborer at the “Verneer Plant.” The daughter, Edith (age 17), stayed home with her mother.

The burning question on the 1930 census was “do you have a radio set?” I must report the Lillis family did not own such a device!

Here is that very same address, today:

But, the catch is that structure from the picture was built in 1937. The home that census worker visited in 1930 is gone! I say all that to say this—90 years is a lot of water under the bridge. Things change. Entire generations live and die. Many people in Jerusalem don’t know, care or remember what used to be.

What’s Israel’s job? It’s pretty simple; (1) build a temple for God to be with them, and (2) start over by following the law because they love Him—don’t make the mistakes their fathers did! Well, what were their mistakes? We ought to know that, so we can avoid repeating them. Zechariah tell us:

 The LORD was very angry with your fathers …”

Zechariah 1:2

This doesn’t sound good—nobody wants the Lord to be angry with them. What did their fathers do? Why did they go into exile in the first place? Isaiah has some hints for us. I’m reaching for Isaiah here because Zechariah alludes to him two years later in his ministry (Zech 7:7).

Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins.

Isaiah 58:1

God doesn’t want Isaiah to hold back. He obviously has a serious problem with his people. He explains:

Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness, and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.

Isaiah 58:2

The problems seem to be externalism and fakery. God now mocks what the people ask him:

‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’

Isaiah 58:3

They want to know why God is “ignoring” them when they pray, when they fast, when they bring sacrifices. So, God tells them why:

Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist.

Isaiah 58:3-4

There’s no brotherly love. No real covenant community.

Fasting like yours this day, will not make your voice to be heard on high.

Isaiah 58:4

When there’s no obedience, God ignores us.     

Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?

Isaiah 58:5

Of course not! God sees through externalism. If we really love God, we want to do what He says. Isaiah tells them to start showing love to their brothers and sisters; to show brotherly love to one another in the community (a la John the Baptist). God explains what will happen if they obey:

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’

Isaiah 58:9

None of this is news to many Christians. But let me ask you this—will God one day say speak to our grandchildren and say, “I was very angry with your fathers?”

We want to instinctively respond, “No, because we’re not like them!”

  • is that really true?
  • do you think Isaiah’s audience were a bunch of people who self-consciously hated God and wanted to be free from Him?
  • did they think God was angry with them?
  • or, did they think God was just fine with them?
  • did they deceive themselves?

Is the Lord angry with us? We want to reply, “I’m not like them, even if other Christians are!” But, God is dealing with groups, here. The churches in Revelation weren’t all full of “bad” people, you know. Sometimes the righteous suffer because of the sins of the larger group. Our individualism won’t save us.

So, I ask again—is the Lord angry with us? Let’s see what Zechariah has to say:

Therefore say to them, Thus declares the LORD of hosts: Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.

Zechariah 1:3

God says they’ve left Him behind, and they don’t even know it! How have they done that? It’s an important question, because right now (today!) we’re doing variations on the same thing. How have the folks in Zechariah’s day “left” God? Ezra and Haggai tell us how.

Ezra tells us they didn’t listen to God, and then rationalized their sins away. The first wave of exiles returned and built a makeshift altar to worship God “for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands,” (Ezra 3:3). They re-instituted proper worship and laid a new temple foundation (Ezra 3:8-13). They rejected help from the syncretistic locals (Ezra 4:3), who then discouraged them, made them afraid, and bribed officials to hinder their work (Ezra 4:4-5). So, they stop working on the temple.

Haggai then weighs in. He and Zechariah practically began their preaching ministries together. What does God think about their failure and their rationalizations? By the time Zechariah and Haggai roll up on the scene, it’s been 16 years—what does God think about this?

Well … God isn’t happy. Even worse, God doesn’t care about their reasons.

Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?

Haggai 1:4

What can they say to this? Not much. They had good reasons for being afraid. For being worried. For being scared. But, God doesn’t care. The time is never “right” to do what God wants. He told them:

Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD

Haggai 1:8

No matter what we think, we only honor and glorify God when we do things His way. And, in Zechariah and Haggai’s day, His way is to have a temple in which to dwell among His people. So, we do things His way or He takes no pleasure in us. We do things His way or we don’t honor Him.

God doesn’t care about our excuses. They might be real excuses, but He still doesn’t care. He wants us to get moving because He promises to help us along the way. The rest of Zechariah is full of encouragement to do just that. God has power over their circumstances.

He has power over ours, too.

But, now another question crops up in our minds as we mull this over. When you think about the real pressures Zechariah’s folks are facing, and the real obstacles in their way, and the fact that they’re probably not cartoon characters who self-consciously hate God … how did they “leave” Him in the first place?

Looking at what Ezra and Haggai said, it seems to go something like this:

  1. we chose to disobey (Hag 1:2-4)
  2. we rationalize our choice (Ezra 3,4)
  3. God doesn’t accept this—He rips our pious cloaks away (Hag 1:4)
  4. so, God takes no pleasure in us (Hag 1:8)
  5. and we dishonor Him (Hag 1:8)
  6. so, He calls us to return to Him (Zech 1:3)

Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the LORD.

Zechariah 1:4

This sounds so simple, so easy. Well, when Jeremiah tried to preach truth to Israelites, a mob of priests and angry folks seized him and declared he must die (Jer 26:7-11)! We read this and think, “what idiots!”

We forget that we’re very good at seeing ourselves in the best possible light— sometimes a very false light. The Pharisees didn’t think they were hypocrites—why not? How does this rationalization work? How do we deceive ourselves?

  1. You stop looking to Him to figure out His standards. You make your own standards—even with good intentions.
  2. Then, you begin to drift away, all while thinking God’s happy with you. With no guardrails, you begin to edge off the road and into the ditch.
  3. Eventually, God’s word sounds strange and offensive to you. But, you’ve been without it for so long that you can’t see that.
  4. So, when you do hear the real truth again, or a call to repentance, or a call to faithfulness … you get angry!
  5. So, you see, the messenger is always the bigot, the hater, the fundamentalist, the intolerant one, the legalist—we’re the “righteous” ones!

So, when we read Zechariah’s words, what do we think about them? He told his people their fathers “did not hear or pay attention to me,” (Zech 1:4). Will we hear or pay attention to God?

If we skip the introspection and immediately scoff and say, “Whaddya mean!? We’re all fine here!” then we’re making their same mistake. Can any of us bring our lives before the Word of God and say with a straight face that there are no problems? Can any of us really hear God say, “Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds,” then look inside our hearts and minds, and say, “I’m good! Nothing to see, here!”?

Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever?

Zechariah 1:5

Well, of course not! So, who should you listen to? Whose example is the best?

But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers?

Zechariah 1:6

They certainly did. Their fathers refused to listen, for whatever reason, because of whatever rationalization, because of whatever excuse. So, God did just what He said He would—He brought discipline!

God isn’t speaking to unbelievers, but to believers—to covenant people. If you’re a Christian, then you’re a covenant member and God is speaking to you just as surely as He spoke to Zechariah’s audience.

Picture that ruined building again:

As Zechariah’s audience surveyed a landscape that looked quite a bit like this, then thought about their duty to build a newer, cruder temple, they might have thought, “God isn’t here! Not in all this mess!” But, He is there … and He’d like to be there more often.

So, too, we Christians might look at our lives, which may look a bit like that picture. Ruined. Scarred. Messy. In need of some extensive renovation. Disobedient. We might mutter to ourselves, “God isn’t here! Not in the mess that’s my life!” But, He is there … and He’d like to be there more often!

So they repented and said, ‘As the LORD of hosts purposed to deal with us for pour ways and deeds, so has he dealt with us.’”

Zechariah 1:6

Eventually, some of their fathers repented, in the end—will we?

Zechariah’s message is deceptively simple. It’s a warning against externalism. So, return to God, and He’ll return to you. God says, in effect:

If you love me, then act like it—because I love you! Prepare your hearts to meet me, because first I’m gonna build my house, and then I’m gonna go to my house, and I want my people to serve me with right and loving hearts!

If you’ve a covenant member, a Christian, then your job is to consider how you’ve left God, and then return to Him—He’s full of mercy! But, how do you do that, exactly?

You do it by asking yourself two questions:

  1. What is one way in which I’ve left God?
  2. How will I return to Him today?

Zechariah spoke in general terms in this message. He meant for his people to raise their eyebrows, and consider their own lives. Whoever you are, there is at least one way in which you’re not being faithful to God. What is it? How will you return to Him?

Remember, we do things His way or He takes no pleasure in us. We do things His way, or we don’t honor Him. Remember the steps-towards self-delusion that Ezra and Haggai taught us:

  1. we choose to disobey (Hag 1:2-4)
  2. then, we rationalize our choices (Ezra 3, 4)
  3. and God doesn’t accept this—He sends His word to us to rip our pious cloaks away (Hag 1:4)
  4. so, He takes no pleasure in us (Hag 1:8),
  5. because we dishonor Him (Hag 1:8),
  6. so we must return to Him

So, I ask again:

  1. What is one way in which you’ve left God?
  2. How will you return to Him today?

Remember, it’s always the deceptively “simple things” that God cares about. Two years later, Zechariah will go on to chastise the people for their lack of brotherly love (Zech 7:8-10). These might seem like “little things,” but they’re actually the most important things.

What is “the thing” in your life? Zechariah says, “you guys don’t have to respond like our fathers did!” And neither do we. He told his people, “you guys don’t have to be self-deceived like they were!” And neither do we.

I say it again—God is speaking into our hearts and souls just as surely as He spoke to those folks in Jerusalem in 519 B.C. Zechariah says, “If you won’t hear God, then He won’t hear you!” And it’s the same for us.

So, again, I offer this challenge from this passage:

  1. What is one way in which you’ve left God?
  2. How will you return to Him today?

But, it’s harder than that. Answer the “how” question to the fourth level. Answer it four times in order to get a “real” answer.

I’ll demonstrate.

Let’s say I decide I’ve “left” God because I don’t show the right kind of love to my wife that scripture commands. I want to fix that. So, here goes:

  • Level one. “I’ll show better love to my wife.” This is cute, but worthless. There’s nothing specific here. It’s a well-meaning bit of nothingness, like a bite of cotton candy. That’s not good enough. I have to ask myself “yeah, and how will I do that?”
  • Level two. “I’ll show better love to my wife … by listening to her more.” That’s also cute. It’s only a bit less worthless than the first attempt. But, at least I’ve now identified a target. I can show better love by listening more. Great. So, what does that mean, exactly?
  • Level three. “I’ll show better love to my wife … by making dedicated time to talk with her more.” Getting better, but there’s still way too much wiggle room. What does that mean?
  • Level four. “I’ll show better love to my wife … by scheduling a 30-minute walk with her 2x per week and never breaking it.” Now we’re talking. Something specific, measurable, realistic … and real.

We each need to “return to God” in some way. What’s your way? How will you do it? Be specific! Answer the question four times in order to get a real answer that’ll actually mean something.

If we return to Him, then He’ll return to us.



[1] The exiles found themselves in a much-reduced geo-political situation. Even perhaps 130 years later under Nehemiah’s governorship, “Judah comprised an area covering roughly nine hundred square miles,” (Thomas V. Brisco, Holman Bible Atlas [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998], 171).

[2] “United States Census, 1930,” database with images. Retrieved from FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9RZX-99N?i=1&wc=QZFW-8V7%3A648803901%2C650883001%2C650323301%2C1589282463&cc=1810731) Washington > Thurston > Olympia > ED 32 > image 2 of 20; citing NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2002).

What I Read in 2020

What I Read in 2020

See also my lists from 2017, 2018, and 2019.

I read 42 books this year. This is a bit less than in 2019, likely because I spent much less time in the car and so didn’t listen to nearly as many audiobooks. A good minority of these were assigned reading for my doctoral program. A few brief thoughts:

  • I am increasingly frustrated with theological writing that is ponderous and just plain bad. This isn’t a unique observation, but I grow weary of passive voice and bloated writing that just can’t get to the point. It was a joy to discover Jurgen Moltmann is a jewel of clarity and conciseness.
  • The books I read to better understand the racial issues in American history were profoundly moving and sobering.
  • It was refreshing and paradigm-shattering to read theologians from outside (sometimes far outside) the normal conservative evangelical bubble.

I hope you find my brief notes on the following volumes helpful. There is some very good stuff here. You may disagree with my comments on some of these volumes, and you’re certainly welcome to. Reading thoughtful people is always rewarding, even if your basic takeaway is negative!

A ho-hum book of essays of varied quality. Al Mohler contributes a workmanlike chapter on the necessity of expository preaching. J. Ligon Duncan offers up two chapters making a representative, Reformed case for the regulative principle of worship. Derek Thomas presents an often angry response to common objections to the regulative principle, full of arcane insider-baseball discussions and so many strawmen that his chapter ought to come with a disclaimer from the fire marshal.

There is nothing new here for any pastor who received training from a decent seminary.

An unnecessary and ponderous text that sets out to prove the biblical authors were aware of and expanded upon previous revelation. There is nothing new here for any pastor who believes and holds to the three Chicago Statements on inerrancy, hermenutics and application. I suspect Chou’s intended audience is a bible major undergraduate. Pretend you just read 350 pages in which the author labors to prove to you the sky looks blue, and you may begin to understand the depth of my exasperation.

See my review.

A great book. An important book. Here is a worthy review.

Kaiser’s work is a good introductory book for a new pastor or a seminary student. I think Kaiser’s preaching methodology is mechanical and artificial. See my review.

I think Alexander needs to be read with caution. He falls victim to the siren song of parallel-o-mania. But, his basic framework in this biblical theology text was helpful to me. See my review.

A very great book. Kuruvilla is the best writer I’ve yet encountered on preaching. He has helped me greatly. I can’t recommend enough! See my review.

A very helpful book comparing different homiletical styles.

Burton wrote an outstanding book about the various replacements for religion that have cropped up in recent years. Very helpful. Frightening. It helps you better understand this mad, mad world.

A good book by the now-former Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia. Like Strange Rites, it’s a cultural analysis book that helpfully frames what’s happening in the West.

A provocative book by a rebel theologian. Moltmann explodes the categories of classical theism and advocates a social, relational framework for understanding the Trinity. In short, Moltmann’s theology proper is everything the classical Reformed theologians hate.

A good book, despite the fact Tripp is a more than a bit removed from the life of a “normal” pastor and this makes some of his anecdotes more annoying than helpful. See my review.

A wonderful little book which charts the history of the American flavor of this movement. Kidd offers some excellent pushback against the evangelical machine’s obsession with politics during the last two generations.

A disappointingly weak entry in an otherwise outstanding series from Oxford. White has a thematic arrangement, rather than a chronological focus. This makes his book hard to follow. I gave up about two-thirds of the way through. Disappointed.

A very important book. Essential for gaining a well-rounded understanding of an important and tragic time in our nation’s history.

Perhaps the saddest book I’ve ever read. Absolutely horrifying.

A helpful little book.

King earned a Pulitzer for this one. Shocking. Horrifying. Beautifully written. Sobering. Probably the best book I read in 2020.

A great book from the Oxford series. I learned a lot. One of the most enjoyable books I read in 2020.

The was just the worst book ever. Terrible. I can’t describe how awful it is. Read my review, if you dare.

Like Stott’s work (above), this is a helpful little book.

A great read. Nothing new here at all, but enjoyable. Atkinson’s specialty is exhaustively documented narrative history, and he doesn’t disappoint in this first entry in his Revolutionary War trilogy.

I read this to get Gregory’s opinion on the doctrine of eternal generation. I sure got it!

Outstanding book. The best thing I’ve ever read on teleology.

Great book. Allport attempts to rescue Chamberlain a bit, and does a persuasive job of it.

Good book. A bit breezy and light, but that’s what you get when you commission a historian to take a history text up to the year 2000.

Another wonderful book from the Oxford series. Great stuff. I learned a lot.

Frightening and sobering book.

A provocative little book by Jenson, a late Lutheran theologian. Again, this guy’s theology proper makes the Reformed crowd spit fire.

It’s a classic for a reason.

A helpful book. I corresponded with the author a bit. See my review.

An inspiring, classic missionary biography.

The best book on the Trinity I’ve ever read. Erickson imbibes a non-classical theology proper and a social, relational Trinitarian frame work from Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jurgen Moltmann and Leonardo Boff, then baptizes them in the laver of evangelical orthodoxy and presents it to the Church as a gift. I read this in 2019, and re-read it again this past year.

I re-read this book this year.

Good, thought-provoking theology from a theologian outside the American evangelical bubble.

A wonderful theology. It’s fair to say Brunner does not like classical theology proper. He presents a much more relational, personal, loving God than the typical Reformed works that come from a classical perspective. His translator was superb.

Brunner’s comments on the Church and the nature of faith and belief are excellent. His eschatology falls off a cliff into mysticism.

Thought-provoking and important book. See my review.

Helpful.

Good little book.

Another good little book.

I really hated this book. See my review.

Boff presents a social, relational framework for the Trinity and uses that as a platform for church government and society. Boff is a Roman Catholic, Marxist liberation theologian.

A basic little book that I found unnecessary and ultimately unhelpful.

This is Brunner’s eschatology, which is the genesis of what he later covers in volume three of his dogmatics. As I mentioned above, Brunner falls off the cliff into mysticism here. His constant refrain runs thus: “the New Testament says xxx, but modern man can’t accept that kind of thing, so it can’t mean xxx, but I don’t really know what it means … but when Jesus returns it’ll be wonderful!” That’s cute, but it’s a bit like eating a Rice Krispie treat. It might taste ok, but it’s pretty insubstantial and might even make you sick.

The Invasion

The Invasion

This is my 2020 Christmas Eve sermon. The video follows this text, below.

We don’t like intrusions into our world from outside. It makes us nervous. It makes us insecure. It makes us scared!

It’s why UFOs fascinate so many of us. Is it true? Could it be real? Is there actually life “out there?”

It’s why movies about Martians and aliens are so sinister. They always have better technology. They always want to hurt us, and they always scare us.

Those Martian movies are always variations on the same theme:

  1. The arrival—dark, mysterious, sinister, and especially scary music! What does it mean!?
  2. The confrontation—they present their demands, often at the point of a ray-gun, and their demands are usually evil. What do they want, and do they plan to hurt us!?
  3. The struggle—we reject their demands, and war begins. Will the invaders win?

In short, those Martian and alien narratives are pretty simple. We’re the good ones, and the extra-terrestrials are the evil ones. So … shall evil triumph over good? Of course not!

The Christmas story is also about an invasion from another world—but the script we’re used to has been flipped all upside down.

Jesus is that visitor from outside this system who’s come to our alien world. It didn’t used to be an alien world, but it’s become one because we’ve neglected it. We’ve ruined it. We and our world are like a garden that was once beautiful 500 years ago, but is now an overgrown mess of thorns, nettles, garbage and rats.

The bible tells us about Jesus’ arrival:

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Luke 2:8-14

This arrival isn’t dark, mysterious or sinister. There are no spaceships landing in dark cornfields or hovering over city skylines. No explosions. No otherworldly creatures. No exotic technology. And, no frightening music. There’s only an angelic choir, singing to shepherds in their fields at night about a special visitor from the world beyond. And there’s no mystery about what it means—God has come to bring perfect peace to those with whom He’s pleased!

Not just in its arrival, but also in its confrontation, God’s invasion is different from our expectations. Instead of entering this world and making demands at the point of a ray-gun, God has sent His Son to hold out His hand and say, “I’ve come to rescue you from yourself! Won’t you come with me?”

The script we’re so used to has been flipped because our roles are actually different than we think:

Though you wash yourself with lye, and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, declares the Lord GOD

Jeremiah 2:22

What God’s telling us is that we’re the ones who’ve gone rogue. We’re the ones who have the problem. We’re the ones who have invaded and taken over His world. We are the bad guys, and nothing we can do will ever wash that stain away from our hearts, souls and minds.

Think of an intervention. An intervention is when you, family and friends gather to tell someone you love the truth. To shake him out of his stupor and make him really see how he’s destroying himself and hurting those he loves.

This confrontation at Christmas is God’s intervention in all of our lives—in the world’s consciousness. To shake us awake. To make us see how we’re destroying ourselves. Jesus is the One who’s come to sit down on our couches, in our living rooms, to have this difficult conversation with every single one of us. And Christmas is when His journey to our couches and living rooms began.

  1. You’re not ok. You’re unclean and your guilt is like permanent marker on your souls—not a scarlet “A” but a black “C” for “criminal.”
  2. God’s intervention is when His Son came here to live and die for people who hate Him, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
  3. His Resurrection breaks the chain that binds you to Satan, and shines a light to us in darkness to lead us onto the path of perfect peace. It’s when He asks us, “you can be free, so won’t you come with me?”
  4. Pledge allegiance to Him by repenting and believing His message, and He’ll be a perfect and merciful Savior.

What will we do once we hear the message?  

In those Martian movies, the struggle is never quite one-sided. You have better technology wielded by soulless, faceless enemies from another world versus the heart and grit of real, ordinary people … and we somehow always win—against all odds! The enemy gets into his spaceship and flies away, never to be seen again.

But, in God’s eyes, we’re the bad guys and the struggle is one-sided. This isn’t a struggle or a war, because the outcome isn’t in doubt. It’s God lovingly reaching into His ruined world, telling everyone this Good News which is for all the people (ἔσται παντὶ τῷ λαῷ), beckoning them to come to Him and then plucking the millions of people who do come (whom He’s chosen) out of this world and into something better.

How does He do it?

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

Ezekiel 36:25

God’s spin cycle is the best spin cycle! We can’t scrub ourselves clean, but God can make us clean. He gives us His Son’s perfect righteousness. He renovates us; spiritually gutting us like a shabby house and then fixing us all up again.

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.

Ezekiel 36:26

A new heart, a new spirit—something better than that cheap, defective stock model we came with from the factory. God doesn’t renovate us so He can turn around and flip us to the highest bidder. He does it so He can keep us for Himself.

And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Ezekiel 36:27

He’ll change us so we’ll love Him and want to do what He says. He makes us new—born again, from above (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν; Jn 3:3).

When the men came from the East following the star, they dealt with Herod the Great that night when they passed through Jerusalem, so many years ago. Over 50 years later, the Apostle Paul told Herod’s great-grandson Agrippa II that God intended this Good News about His Son to open people’s eyes, so that they might turn from darkness to light—from the power of Satan to God, that they might receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who have purified[1] by faith and allegiance in Him (Acts 26:18).

That’s still God’s plan—and in His Son’s invasion, He really does “come in peace!” Repent and turn to God—His intervention is for your own good. Believe His message—we’re the bad guys, and He’s the one who’s come to rescue us despite ourselves. And then rejoice—“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”


Here is the Christmas Eve sermon:


[1] The participle τοῖς ἡγιασμένοις is the perfect tense-form, and ought to be translated that way (NASB, Jay Adams). Most EVV render it as a present of perfect state, as though there had been no antecedent action. Contextually, this is dubious. God moves new believers into his family so that (τοῦ λαβεῖν) they would receive a share or portion (κλῆρον) among those (ἐν) who have been purified (τοῖς ἡγιασμένοις).