Warriors in Luke-Acts

Continuing the discussion from the last post, this is a look at the soldiers and Roman centurions found in the Luke-Acts narratives. There is much to be learned for the contemporary combatant through these texts.

Receiving the kingdom of God and living a life of repentance does not include repudiating life in the military. Rather, embracing the path of God transforms how a warfighter must operate within the confines of his vocation. To the godly warrior belongs the imperatives, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation and be content with your wages” (Lk 3:14).[1] Self-control, vocational discipline, and resting in the promise of the provision of daily bread are essential for the combatant who would please God.

The narratives of Luke-Acts reveal many soldiers who please God. The man who stunned Jesus with his faith and put the Israelites to shame was a Roman centurion, a high ranking commander with a large troop underneath him (Lk 7:1-10; Matt 8:5-13).[2] His experience in the military provided him a profound understanding of authority, obedience, and submission. His pursuit of Jesus conveys his sense of compassionate responsibility for the weak. This warfighter is held up as a model of humble faith, strong trust in God’s capability, and care for those under his charge.

In Luke’s crucifixion narrative, the hand that held the hammer was a Roman soldier. He was at the bottom of the chain of command, fulfilling the order of Pilate as a man who was under orders, but who was also a moral agent. Duane Larson points out that his statement, “certainly this man was innocent” (Lk 23:46), is an unsanctioned acknowledgement that “his victim was right and the cause for which he killed him was wrong.”[3]

Here, the reader finds an unexpected example of navigating moral dissonance, owning heinous actions and publicly declaring what is true and right no matter the consequence. Larson further states, “The centurion’s words are expressed in the context of his participation in what he considers an unjust act, and a candid expression of his conscience sorting out the conflict between his values and the performance of his duty—from the point of view of his victim.”[4]

In Acts, the centurion Cornelius is described as a devout man, a God-fearer, a spiritual leader of his household, a man of generosity and regular prayer (Acts 10:2). Apparently, his piety garners divine attention (Acts 10:5).[5] The narrative focuses on the reception of a vision, which reveals a warrior who is sensitive to God’s voice and direction (Acts 10:3-6).

Cornelius was a man who understood the chain of command and submission to orders: he responded with instantaneous obedience to God’s command (Acts 10:7).[6] Furthermore, the narrative points to Cornelius’s humble reception of God’s word and obedience in baptism (Acts 10:33, 48). Cornelius demonstrates that robust faith and spiritual discipline are not contrary to vocational warfighting. He models the critical link between family health and warrior health, and exemplifies humility, obedience, generosity, and prayer.

Centurions and soldiers show up again in Acts 23:10-35 where Paul’s life is at risk on two occasions (Acts 23:10,12). In both scenarios, warriors stepped up to protect and defend Paul (Acts 23:10, 17-18, 31). The point to draw out is that warriors served “as moral agents of justice, and competently did their jobs regardless of whether their motivations were ‘perfect.’ They didn’t allow the violent robbing of another life when they could have turned away.”[7]

In Acts 27:1-43, a Roman centurion becomes the main focus of the story during the narrative that describes a shipwreck and survival. The centurion’s role was to escort Paul and a number of prisoners to Rome. He treated Paul with kindness (Acts 27:3), responded to Paul’s word from God with respect (Acts 27:31-32), and saved the lives of Paul and others when they were in peril (Acts 27:42-44).” The centurion was valiant in the face of the shipwreck, risking life and limb to fulfill his duty. “His actions reflect what soldiers do; they accept risk and find a way to succeed under duress in the midst of chaos.”[8]

Luke-Acts provides important glimpses into the intersection of faith and the vocational warfighter. More than providing mere examples of godly warriors, “these texts are much better understood … as narratives whereby soldiers’ moral senses and the Bible’s transcending symbols become interactive partners that guide soldiers’ moral reasoning and conscience.”[9] Within these stories, warriors find guidance for applying their craft alongside their faith. From the key centurion/soldier texts in Luke-Acts, Duane Larson suggests four parameters or guidelines for conscientious military service captured in the table below.

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[1]“This is the only place in the Bible where soldiers ask existential questions about vocation, ‘What does God require from us?’ and receive a direct answer from God’s messenger.” John the Baptist “makes soldiers’ rights and duties to the military force subject to God’s transforming, reconciling and visible kingdom. This subjection includes how soldiers view themselves and how they practice their craft.” Duane Larson and Jeff Zust, Care for the Sorrowing Soul: Healing Moral Injuries from Military Service and Implications for the Rest of Us (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2017), 170-171.

[2]“The centurion texts in Luke and Acts convey a treasure trove of meaning for modern soldiers concerned with how most responsibly to steward their vocation. These texts parlay vital biblical concepts into narratives that can illumine anew one’s own situation and provide means for understanding the whole canon. Some interpreters may be tempted to use the centurions of Luke/Acts as character studies to provide ideal, prescriptive examples for conduct. These texts are much better understood, however, as narratives whereby soldiers’ moral senses and the Bible’s transcending symbols become interactive partners that guide soldiers’ moral reasoning and conscience.” Luke-Acts provides important insight into the warfighter’s spiritual responsibilities as “each engagement is a ‘snapshot’ of the spiritual dimension of vocational military practice…these Roman soldiers provide a transformative word to any modern soldier who seeks to understand stewardship of service to God and service to nation.” Larson and Zust, Care for the Sorrowing Soul, 166-167.

[3]Larson and Zust, Care for the Sorrowing Soul, 184.

[4]Ibid., 187. It is noteworthy that the warrior’s self-condemnation and declaration of Christ’s innocence is framed as an expression of “praise” (Lk 23:47). The term ἐδόξαζεν is characteristic for the act of glorifying and worshipping God (Lk 5:25-26). Calvin comments, “When Luke represents him as saying no more than certainly this was a righteous man, the meaning is the same as if he had plainly said that he was the Son of God, as it is expressed by the other two Evangelists. For it had been universally reported that Christ was put to death, because he declared himself to be the Son of God. Now when the centurion bestows on him the praise of righteousness, and pronounces him to be innocent, he likewise acknowledges him to be the Son of God; not that he understood distinctly how Christ was begotten by God the Father, but because he entertains no doubt that there is some divinity in him, and, convinced by proofs, holds it to be certain that Christ was not an ordinary man, but had been raised up by God.” John Calvin, Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1999), 227. Christopher B. Zeichmann, The Roman Army and the New Testament (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018), xix. Zeichmann would challenge taking anything positive from this narrative and character. He argues that the New Testament posture toward Roman soldiers is primarily “ambivalent” although he concedes that there is complexity in the narratives. The fact that there are clearly positive and negative portrayals creates an inescapable tension in the New Testament.

[5]“The angel responded by noting that God was aware of his piety. His prayer and his acts of charity had gone up as a ‘memorial offering’ in the presence of God. The term ‘memorial’ (literally, ‘remembrance,’ mnemosynon) is Old Testament sacrificial language. Cornelius’s prayers and works of charity had risen like the sweet savor of a sincerely offered sacrifice, well-pleasing to God (cf. Phil 4:18). The importance of Cornelius’s piety is reiterated throughout the narrative (vv. 2, 4, 22, 35).” John B. Polhill, The New American Commentary: Acts (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 253.

[6]Of note, Cornelius the devout centurion obeys God’s instruction to send for Peter by sending a devout soldier under his authority (Acts 10:7).

[7]Larson and Zust, Care for the Sorrowing Soul, 189.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Ibid, 166.

The Bible and the Warrior

As a military chaplain, I have been thinking hard on what the Bible has to say to the warfighter. I have found that Scripture is replete with instruction, perspective, and guidance for the warrior. Here are a few observations from a paper I have been working on regarding the topic.

Scholars agree, war is no tertiary theme in Scripture.[1] The theme can be viewed from various angles. First, through a biblical-theological lens the drama of redemption is a war story. The serpent’s assault on Eden was an attack on God’s home soil. Satan’s Pearl Harbor incursion is met with a divine declaration of war, a promise that drives the storyline of Scripture.[2] Redemptive history unpacks God the Warrior on an extended military campaign to rescue his people and demolish his enemies. This theme climaxes in the divine warfighter who comes in the flesh, Jesus the serpent-crusher who wins victory through the cross and the empty tomb.[3]

Second, the theme of war can be viewed through the lens of the biblical-historical narratives provided in the Old and New Testament.[4] Scripture bears out the reality that “war was not a peripheral concern in Ancient Israel…it was a normal state in the ancient world in the Near East.”[5] Substantial biblical data speaks to the causes, rationale, strategy and rituals of the wars engaged by ancient Israel.[6] In addition, the New Testament provides data on soldiering in the Roman world and information on the interface of Christianity with the warfighting vocation.[7] Though primarily descriptive, these portions of Scripture shed light on warfighting in scriptural times.

Third, the theme of war can be viewed through a biblical-ethical perspective. Scripture provides explicit and implicit moral guidance to those in the warfighting vocation.[8] This angle explores didactic literature that addresses warriors, draws from model biblical warfighters, and pulls together other relevant scriptural data that informs the profession of arms.[9] Distinct from the descriptive nature of the other two viewpoints, this approach looks to the prescriptive nature of Scripture as it pertains to the warrior.

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[1]“Because of the sheer amount of attention given to war, anyone interested in studying the Bible must deal with this issue. Millar Burrows was correct when he observed years ago that the Bible is concerned with three subjects: religion, agriculture and war.” John Wood, Perspectives on War in the Bible (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1998), 2-3. Charles Trimm, “Recent Research on Warfare in the Old Testament,” Currents in Biblical Research (2011): 1-22.

[2]Gen 3:16; Ex 15:1-12; Is 42:10-13, 59:14-19; Zeph 3:14-20; Col 2:13-15; Heb 2:14-18; 1 Jn 3:8; Rev 12:1-12, 19:11-21.

[3]Tremper Longman III and Daniel G. Reid, God is a Warrior (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 1-27; James Hamilton, “The Skull Crushing Seed of the Woman: Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Genesis 3:15,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 10, no. 2 (2006), 30-54; Phillip Ross Bethancourt, “Christ the Warrior King: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Analysis of the Divine Warrior Theme in Christology,” (PhD dis., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2011), 1-320; Matthew Lynch, “Zion’s Warrior and the Nations: Isaiah 59:15b-63:6 in Isaiah’s Zion Traditions,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 70 (2008); Patrick Miller Jr., “God the Warrior: A Problem in Biblical Interpretation and Apologetics,” Interpretation (1965); Scott W. Bullard, “Peace and the Divine Warrior,” Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University (2004); Susan M. Pigott, “The Kingdom of the Warrior God: The Old Testament and the Kingdom of Yahweh,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 40, no. 2 (1998); Paul Brooks Duff, “The March of the Divine Warrior and the Advent of the Greco Roman King: Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem,” Journal of Biblical Literature 111, no. 1 (1992). Andrew R. Angel, “Crucifixus Vincens: The ‘Son of God’ as Divine Warrior in Matthew,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73 (2011).

[4]Deut 20; Josh 6-8; Jdg 7-8; 1 Sam 4, 15-19; 2 Sam 23:8-39; 1 Chron 11-12.

[5]Wood, Perspectives on War in the Bible, 9.

[6]David Kidner, “Old Testament Perspectives on War,” The Evangelical Quarterly 57, no. 2 (1985), 99-113; Paul D. Hanson, “War and Peace in the Hebrew Bible,” Interpretation 38, no. 4 (1984), 347; Andrew J. Dearman, “The Problem of War in the Old Testament: War, Peace and Justice,” Austin Seminary Bulletin 99 (1983), 7; Marvin E. Tate, “War and Peacemaking in the Old Testament,” Review and Expositor 79, no. 4 (1982), 592-595. Alexander Rofe, “The Laws of Warfare in the Book of Deuteronomy: Their Origins, Intent and Positivity,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 32 (1985), 23-44; Vernon S. McCasland, “Soldiers on Service: The Draft among the Hebrews,” Journal of Biblical Literature 62, no. 2 (1943), 61-65; Reuven Firestone, “A Brief History of War in the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish Interpretive Tradition” in Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts, ed. John Renard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 29-54; Charlie Trimm, Fighting for the King and the Gods: A Survey of Warfare in the Ancient Near East (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2017).

[7]Paul Victor Furnish, “War and Peace in the New Testament,” Interpretation 38 (1994), 363-371; J. Punt, “Paul, Military Imagery and Social Disadvantage,” Acta Theologica 23 (2016), 201-224.

[8]Dan Cantey, “Can the Christian Serve in the Military? A Veteran Reflects on the Commensurability of the Christian Life and the Military Ethic,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 32, no. 2 (2012), 39-55; Jonathan E. Shaw, “Moral Warriors: A Contradiction in Terms?” Concordia Theological Quarterly 82 (2018), 247-280; Martin Luther, Christians Can Be Soldiers (Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2010), 7-99.

[9]James D. Roecker, “Use of the Davidic Psalms is an Effective Way to Counsel Military Personnel with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (MDiv thesis, Wisconsin Luther Seminary, 2015), 3-44.

God’s Mercy for Messed Up Families

Jon Bloom wrote an excellent article on this topic—it brought hope to my soul as a broken husband, father and human being who is well too familiar with the mess of family. Be encouraged, you are not alone. The remainder of this post is from Bloom.

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to find an example of what we would call a “healthy family” in the Bible? It’s a lot easier to find families with a lot of sin and a lot of pain than to find families with a lot of harmony. For example, here’s just a sampling from Genesis:

  • The first recorded husband and wife calamitously disobey God (Genesis 3).
  • Their firstborn commits fratricide (Genesis 4:8).
  • Sarah’s grief over infertility moves her to give her servant, Hagar, to Abraham as a concubine to bear a surrogate child (Genesis 16). When it happens, Sarah abuses Hagar in jealous anger. Abraham is passive in the whole affair.
  • Lot, reluctant to leave sexually perverse Sodom, his home, has to be dragged out by angels and then weeks later his daughters seduce him into drunken incest (Genesis 19).
  • Isaac and Rebecca play favorites with their twin boys, whose sibling rivalry becomes one of the worst in history (Genesis 25).
  • Esau has no discernment. He sells his birthright for soup (Genesis 25), grieves his parents by marrying Canaanite women (Genesis 26), and nurses a 20-year murderous grudge against his conniving younger brother.
  • Jacob (said conniver) manipulates and deceives his brother out of his birthright (Genesis 25) and blessing (Genesis 27).
  • Uncle Laban deceives nephew Jacob by somehow smuggling Leah in as Jacob’s bride instead of Rachel (Genesis 29). This results in Jacob marrying sisters — a horrible situation (see Leviticus 18:18). This births another nasty sibling rivalry where the sisters’ competition for children (including giving their servants to Jacob as concubines) produce the twelve patriarchs of Israel (Genesis 30).
  • Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, is raped by the pagan, Shechem, who then wants to marry her. Simeon and Levi respond by massacring all the men of Shechem’s town (Genesis 34).
  • Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben, can’t resist his incestuous desires and sleeps with one of his father’s concubines, the mother of some of his brothers (Genesis 35).
  • Ten of Jacob’s sons contemplate fratricide, but sell brother Joseph into slavery instead. Then they lie about it to their father for 22 years until Joseph exposes them (Genesis 37, 45).
  • Judah, as a widower, frequented prostitutes. This occurred frequently enough that his daughter-in-law, Tamar, whom he had dishonored, knew that if she disguised herself as one, he’d sleep with her. He did and got her pregnant (Genesis 38).

That’s just the beginning. Time would fail me to talk of:

  • Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10),
  • Gideon’s murderous son, Abimelech (Judges 9),
  • Samson’s un-Nazirite immorality (Judges 14–16),
  • Eli’s worthless sons (1 Samuel –2-4),
  • Samuel’s worthless sons (1 Samuel 8),
  • David’s sordid family (2 Samuel 11–18),
  • Wise Solomon who unwisely married 1,000 women, turned from God, and whose proverbial instruction went essentially unheeded by most of his heirs (1 Kings 11–12),
  • Etc., etc.

Why is the Bible loud on sinfully dysfunctional families and quiet on harmonious families?

Well, for one thing, most families aren’t harmonious. Humanity is not harmonious. We are alienated — alienated from God and each other. So put alienated, selfish sinners together in a home, sharing possessions and the most intimate aspects of life, having different personalities and interests, and a disparate distribution of power, abilities, and opportunities, and you have a recipe for a sin-mess.

But there’s a deeper purpose at work in this mess. The Bible’s main theme is God’s gracious plan to redeem needy sinners. It teaches us that what God wants most for us is that we 1) become aware of our sinfulness and 2) our powerlessness to save ourselves, as we 3) believe and love his Son and the gospel he preached, and 4) graciously love one another. And it turns out that the family is an ideal place for all of these to occur.

But what we often fail to remember is that the mess is usually required for these things to occur. Sin must be seen and powerlessness must be experienced before we really turn to Jesus and embrace his gospel. And offenses must be committed if gracious love is to be demonstrated. So if we’re praying for our family members to experience these things, we should expect trouble.

Family harmony is a good desire and something to work toward. But in God’s plan, it may not be what is most needed. What may be most needed is for our family to be a crucible of grace, a place where the heat of pressure forces sin to surface providing opportunities for the gospel to be understood and applied. And when this happens the messes become mercies.

My point is this: if your family is not the epitome of harmony, take heart. God specializes in redeeming messes. See yours as an opportunity for God’s grace to become visible to your loved ones and pray hard that God will make it happen.

Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague

Gospel & Gratitude

Here is a must read gem from Martin Luther’s life and ministry. This entire post is taken from T.F. Lull’s book Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings.

Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague (1527)

On August 2, 1527 a case of the plague was discovered in Wittenberg. The university was closed and the students sent home, but Luther remained in the city and was busy with the pastoral and practical care of the sick. He was urged by correspondents from various places to give advice on what a Christian’s responsibility is at such a time. In November Luther finally got around to responding to a pastor in Breslau in what was published as an open letter to all.

Luther fought against the notion that faith would protect one against the plague, and he urged those who could rightly do so to leave. But some must stay, including doctors, pastors, public…

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Running from Death

Christ came for those chained to the “fear of death” (Heb 2:15). We all lie under this death sentence. Death produces fear and this fear becomes lifelong bondage (Heb 2:14-15). Richard Beck wrote a book on this very topic, he argues that our fear of death drives us to fierce avoidance of our mortality. He states,

“Every American is thus ingrained with the duty to look well, to seem fine, to exclude from the fabric of his or her normal life any evidence of decay and death and helplessness. The ethic I have outlined here is often called the ethic of success. I prefer to call it the ethic of avoidance. . . . Persons are considered a success not because they attain some remarkable goal, but because their lives do not betray marks of failure or depression, helplessness or sickness. When they are asked how they are, they really can say and really do say, “Fine . . . fine.”

In spite of this avoidance and believing that “our deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation” (Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death) we cannot escape it. Death is personified in Scripture as a ferocious monster that consumes everyone and everything in front of it (1 Cor 15:26, Rom 7:24, 8:1, Rev 6:7-8). 

Death must be looked in the face. Wisdom requires it (Ps 90:12). Without this, we run the risking of not taking our mortality to heart (Eccl 7:2). Just as sin drives us to the cross for forgiveness, death pushes to the empty tomb for hope and assurance. The gospel is the only good news in the face of death.

Jesus buried, this is one of the most critical yet overlooked facets of the gospel (1 Cor 15:1-4). The sting of death was full absorbed by Christ. He lay lifeless in a tomb for three days. Yet, as he lay there he was unraveling death itself. He came that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14). Death was his instrument of undoing our sin, undoing the evil one and destroying death itself. The third day was the death knell of death itself.

Running from death will not help us. We must face it and run toward the gospel. The buried Lord and the resurrected King tell us that all will be okay, we do not need to be controlled by the fear of death.

Dear Fellow Struggling Parent

I cannot think of one time in the last 16 years of parenting where I have thought: “Oh man I am absolutely crushing this parenting thing.” If anything, parenting has been a constant exposure of my shortcomings, failures and inability to be who I want to be as a Dad. If parenting is an anvil and children are hammers, then I’m getting absolutely pounded.

Parenting has been a constant mirror. It has shown me the stubborn patterns, attitudes and thoughts in my soul. The things that I cannot rid myself of…the things that make me see that I need strength, wisdom, patience and help that can only come from outside of me. Parenting makes me desperate for Christ.

I have always loved the bizarre story of Enoch in Genesis 5. He’s that weird dude who never died for some crazy reason. He was known for walking with God. But the catalyst for his walk with God is rarely highlighted. In Genesis 5:21, we read that Enoch was 65 years old when he had his first son Methuselah and “then he walked with God.” The “then” is the money word—kids came along and Enoch stretched out for God. I connect with that.

Parenting is hard. How are you doing with it? I know, success is not what chases us down and tackles us in our parenting journeys. If there is one thing that chases us, rather haunts us—at least if you are anything like me— it’s guilt. Guilt for what I have failed to do, guilt for what I have done. Guilt for not being enough, not giving enough, not doing enough. Nagging guilt, it chases me.

It’s guilt that teams up with fear in my soul, the fear of failing as a Dad. That’s a biggy for me—a cardinal fear. I don’t want to fail my kids, my wife, my family. But guilt tells me, “man, that ship has already sailed.” This nagging guilt and paralyzing fear can lead me to a downward spiral (which it does plenty of the time) or it can fuel my desperation for Christ (which I pray it will do more of the time).

Gospel means “good news.” Parenting has plenty of bad news, good news is very welcome in this arena. Into this constant exposure, guilt, fear, sense of failure and shame comes news that is so good.

The good news is this: God’s posture toward us is not based on what we have done or have failed to do—it’s not contingent in any way on our performance. He does not assess me on the basis of how good I am as a husband, father or human being. He deals with me and you much differently.

I call Psalm 103 the Parent’s Psalm—this is good news. Take a look.

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. 10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. 13 As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. 14 For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:8-14)

The character of God is constant, his posture unchanging. He is filled with compassion which equates to understanding and the willingness to suffer with us. He is marked by grace, which means he gives us what we don’t deserve. He is always patient, which means he is slow to be frustrated and slow to get angry. He is marked by love, which means he looks at us with fondness and great care.

This is how he engages tired, guilt-ridden, fearful parents—this is how he treats me. He doesn’t give me what I deserve. He gives me the opposite. He forgives me and forgets my failure. If there is one thing parents need, it’s endless access to a clean slate. I need the strength, energy and perseverance to get up again and again and again after I have screwed it up. This is what a clean slate from God does—it enables me to know forgiveness and to go again.

God knows my frame, he knows I’m made of dust—he doesn’t look down on me for my frailty, instead he has compassion on me. This is comforting my fellow struggler. God is not frustrated at you, he is understanding. Never do we see this more clearly than in Jesus Christ. Look at how he treats struggling people.

How does he treat the head-hanging parent?  He comes to us with grace, compassion, love and patience. He weeps with us in our sorrow. He grieves with us in our pain. He bleeds for us in our sin. The cross and empty tomb mean a clean slate for us. The gospel means good news for struggling parents. Jesus is the hope of the parent. He is my hope and yours.

God’s Thoughts Toward You

“How precious are your thoughts about me,O God. They cannot be numbered! I can’t even count them; they outnumber the grains of sand!” (Psalm 139:17-18)

The thought of God’s intricate involvement in the Psalmist’s day to day leads to worship—he is overwhelmed by God’s thoughts toward him. They are too great, too many! They are like sand on the seashore. Sit in this for a minute—God’s thoughts toward us are beyond number.

This summer our family went to California for vacation. We spent one week on the beach in San Diego. The beach went for miles, it was gorgeous and overwhelming—my friends God’s thoughts toward you are beyond every piece of sand on this beach, on every beach, every desert.

We camped on the beach on this vacation and there was sand every where you looked. Open the tent and there was piles of sand on the floor, it was in the sleeping bag…it was everywhere. Everyone around us was in RV’s and we were roughing it in our tents. Every morning we would wake up with sand in our hair, on our bodies—there was no escaping it. For weeks we found sand in our ears, in our bags, car, clothing.

I think this is exactly what we need when it comes to God’s thoughts toward us—we need to camp out on his beach. We need to build sand castles on his beach—let his kindness get stuck between our toes, let his mercy get lodged in our clothes, let his compassion and love cling to our hair. We need to go for long walks on this beach, his thoughts toward us change us, they lead to assurance, comfort, worship and gratitude. How precious are your thoughts toward us O God!

He’s Coming Back

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is one of the key passages in the New Testament that speaks to the second coming of Christ. Check out what it says:

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

The return of the Lord is certain: the text says he will return and no one on the planet will miss it: He will descend with a cry of command, the voice of an archangel and a trumpet—it’s gonna be loud and unmistakable. This is happening. His return means four things in the text.

 The Return Means Hope in Loss

The church in Thessalonica had experienced a series of losses and deaths—they missed their loved ones, fellow believers and were grieved. Paul, being the pastor he is, speaks into their pain and loss with tremendous hope. He points them to the return of Jesus. He believes that right information will inform their grief…it won’t take it away, but it will change how they grieve. Grief without hope…is grief without Jesus, it’s grief without his promised return and promise of resurrection. This is true for all grief, loss, and pain—grief may always be present with us, but hope is never absent as long as the King is coming back. The second coming is stubborn hope, one that changes the game.

The Return Means Resurrection

Paul uses the terminology asleep 3x in the passage—he is driving home the Christian reality that death is truly not the end. His logic is this: Jesus rose from the dead, his people will also rise from the dead—Jesus conquered death, so will his followers. The NT calls Jesus the “firstfruits” of the resurrection ensuring a harvest will follow. Believers who have already died are in the presence of Christ—Paul tells us they will accompany Jesus when he returns and that they will be the first to receive their resurrected bodies. The dead in Christ will rise first. Following this, those who are alive will be caught up with the Lord and be changed—they will receive their new bodies.

The Return Will be a Reunion

Notice that one of Paul’s main concerns in this passage is how believer’s are thinking about their loved one’s who have passed on before them. He wants them to know first off that those who trusted Jesus are with Jesus. He wants them to know that when Jesus comes back, he is bringing them with him. He wants them to know that when we are caught up in the air with Jesus, we will be caught up with them. The return of Jesus is the great reunion—when we will all be together. We were made for community—we will not lose that at the return of Christ, it will only get better.

The Return is Fuel for Encouragement

Finally, note Paul’s final statement—“encourage one another with these words.” These words are power-packed, these are words to put in each other’s ears, to remind one another of regularly.  My friends, this hope is certain and concrete. His return is something we can rest our hope fully upon. This reality, is fuel for the journey. This provides profound encouragement if we sit with it and live upon it.

 

The Return of the King

In the early 1900’s, an ad was run in the paper that stated: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

Ernest Shackleton, British explorer was forming a team to attempt a sea to sea crossing of Antartica. The ship they sailed was called the Endurance. Not long into their journey, the ship was entrapped in ice and had to be abandoned.The crew camped on the frozen ice until it melted and then launched lifeboats to Elephant Island (720 miles away from their capsized boat).

Once they reached Elephant Island—Shackleton left 22 of his men, with only two boats upturned to create shelter, only penguins and seals to eat and a dark oppressive winter to face. He left them a promise: “I will come back for you.” Shackleton led 5 other crew members in a tiny 22 foot boat and launched out on a 750 mile journey for help. Miraculously the crew made the trip, upon arrival Shackleton immediately set plans to return.

 

Four months later after three failed attempts, the 22 men were huddled around a fire eating their daily portion of seal, one looked up and in the distance…he saw it, the ship named Yelcho. The day one survivor would call in his journal, the “day of wonders.” Abandoning their meal the men rushed toward the shore filling the air with cheers. As the ship grew closer, the men could make out a figure in the distance—Shackleton.

Shackleton recalls: “I hurried the party aboard with all possible speed,” he writes, “taking also the records of the Expedition and essential portions of equipment. Everybody was aboard the Yelcho within an hour, and we steamed north at the little steamer’s best speed…not a life lost, and we have been through hell.”

Jesus made some precious precious promises, among the most wonderful are the words that come from his mouth assuring us he will not forget about us here, he will come to us. Listen to these three:

  • “I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you.” (John 14:18)
  • “I will come back and take you with me.” (John 14:3)
  • “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:24)

We are a waiting people, living on the promise of Christ, “I am coming for you.” Hold fast, hold tight…I am absolutely going to return. Waiting forms our identity, it is that which we are called to do and its how we survive…listen to this text.

“For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10)

In 1 Peter 1:13, we are called to place all our eggs in one basket: “set your hope fully on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:13).

This is one place where you can actually do that—hope in people, hope in money, hope in health, hope in a career, hope in our abilities—all of these will ultimately come up empty. But hope in Christ, in his return and his promises—oh friends this is a hope that will truly deliver and will not disappoint.

 

Love serves our neighbor, sin uses them

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” -Matthew 7:12

This text contains an imperative regarding how we are to view and treat all other people. It is a command not limited to our family members or to our immediate neighbors or to our coworkers, but to all people. It is a command so important that the entirety of the law and prophets are summed up in this one imperative.

It is an imperative that demands the hard work of placing ourselves in the shoes of others and acting for their good.  It requires us to imagine ourselves in other peoples situations and from that position to think through how we would desire people to be toward us and what we would desire people to do on our behalf. Once this has been done we are to do the very thing we believe we would desire be done to us.

This is a command and expectation of the believer that requires energy and intentionality. It is a call to kill the apathy that so often characterizes our interaction with our fellow man. It is a call to live outside of ourselves for the sake of our neighbor. It is a command to other-centeredness.

The fact that in this command is the law and the prophets helps us understand that sin does the very opposite. Sin manifests itself on a horizontal level in the singular devotion to the self and the utter lack of concern for others. Often an apparent concern for another is in actuality the pursuit of benefit received by another for the self. Sin does not serve other people it uses them as a means to another end. All sin of a horizontal nature can be understood within this light.

For example, stealing is taking advantage of another person by taking their goods with no concern for the owner. Adultery is of a similar nature. Stealing a person and enslaving them, hurting a person or murdering them; these are direct assaults on another person. This is a direct disregard for the person. This type of offense manifests a gross elevation of the self over the very life of another human being.

Jesus was the revelation of God as He is and the revelation of man as he was intended to be. In the person of Jesus we thus see a God who empties himself for the sake of serving his neighbor and a man who perfectly obeys the golden rule. The cross is the greatest manifestation of self-abasing service for the good of one’s neighbor. God does not command what He himself does not do. By the aid of the Spirit and in obedience to this command we seek to imitate the love of Jesus for all people.

What then will obedience to this imperative look like at different times and in different circumstances with the people in our lives. What will it look like to love…

  • Parents…
  • Spouse…
  • Children…
  • Friends….
  • Co-workers…
  • Church body…
  • Homeless…
  • Slaves…
  • Poor…
  • Prisoners…
  • Widows…
  • Orphans…
  • Elderly…