What Has Straw in Common With Wheat?

August 30, 2013

Are you hungry? Why don’t you go collect grass clippings from your lawn, pile them up on your plate, and sit down to a sumptuous feast?

Doesn’t that sound appealing?

Which would you choose: That plate of grass clippings, or a loaf of piping hot bread, right from the oven?

Jeremiah tells us that the Word of God is like wheat, and any other words of advice, of counsel, of experience, are like grass, like straw. The Word of God is that much more valuable than all other words.

Does that image reflect the relative value you give the Word of God compared to other voices?

The image comes from the prophet Jeremiah. God gave him a difficult message to deliver to the nation: The Babylonians would come and destroy Jerusalem. The Lord God would bring about this punishment because of centuries of rebellion against Him.

Jeremiah faithfully delivered the message.

But many other false prophets were telling the people that all would be fine: They said the attacking Babylonian army would depart, the exiles who had been taken away to Babylon a few years earlier would return, and the kingdom would be secure. They claimed to have received dreams from God revealing these truths.

In response to these false dreams of the false prophets, God says through Jeremiah:

Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the LORD. Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? (Jeremiah 23:28-29)

The prophets’ dreams were like straw, like grass – like that plateful of grass clippings. Those dreams provided no nourishment. As God says a few verses later, “They do not profit this people at all” (Jeremiah 23:32).

In contrast, God’s Word is like wheat: Nourishing; satisfying; filling; sustaining.

And no one would mistake straw for wheat! No one would pick up grass clippings and think, “Oh, let me grind this up to make fresh flour!”

Just so – if we have eyes to see – there is a stark difference in value between the Word of God and other writings that claim authority.

Daily, hourly, minute by minute, words pound against our ears and messages present themselves to our eyes, saying: Buy this! Vote for that! Advocate this! Write a letter about that! Heal your relationships via this technique! Get your life together through that miracle cure! Make a million through this investment! Become attractive through these clothes! Become healthy via this exercise regime!

Among all those messages, some are totally false. Some are harmful. Some, on the other hand, are useful in one way or another.

But in comparison to the truths God graciously provides us in His Word, all of those are straw. All are a pile of grass clippings, compared to the satisfying, fragrant, filling bread of His Word.

And the bread is not just for our personal consumption! His Word, says the Lord, is like “a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces.” Picture a sledgehammer, shattering the concrete barriers we have erected between us and God. God’s Word breaks through those barriers, leaving us “exposed to the eyes of Him to Whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). Exposed, we can only fall on our faces before Him, humbly seeking the forgiveness He offers through Jesus Christ.

So we must proclaim that Word, so that it might have its intended, shattering effect.

Now, the effect of that proclamation is often not pleasant. Indeed, when the sledgehammer is at work, hearers may oppose the Word harshly. This was the case with Jeremiah. He was thrown in prison more than once for speaking God’s Word. He was even tempted to quit speaking. But God would not let him. Jeremiah writes,

If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot (Jeremiah 20:9).

God’s Word is like a fire. It burns within us. Like the Yosemite wildfire, it spreads and spreads. We can’t hold it in. We can’t contain it. We must speak it.

Many pastors have applied these verses to the preaching ministry. Indeed, my prayers prior to preaching almost always echo Jeremiah 23:29.

But the Word should be a fire in every one of God’s people. The Word is a hammer, breaking the rock into pieces, whenever any Christian faithfully speaks that Word to others.

So, first: value God’s Word above all the other voices you hear – consider it like a hot loaf of fresh bread compared to grass clippings. Second, remember that it is like a sledgehammer, which will break down the barriers we erect between ourselves and God. Finally: that Word is a fire within us – it must come out!

May we speak that Word faithfully and fully – so that all might know the difference between straw and wheat.

Reflections on Parenthood and Letting Go

August 23, 2013

On Saturday, Beth and I left Joel at Chapel Hill. We have now sent six children off to college. Our once rarely-quiet home has become mostly-quiet. Years of always being asked to read a book or rub a back or play “Dangerous Criminals” (or Uno or Quiddler or Knockout or Superfluous Ball or Friscup) have ended. We miss all our children – though at this point, we especially miss Joel. Oh, we miss what we would do with him; but we also miss just knowing he is in the house – knowing that at any moment we might smell his coffee or see him reading or hear him walk in the door. Yes, we can always call (and thankfully phone calls and Skype are so much easier than only a few years ago), but what we miss is not only talking, but, in part, just being. Being together.

For those of you who have not yet said goodbye to a child: It doesn’t get any easier. Daughters, perhaps, are harder than sons, but the fifth boy was as hard as the first.

Eleven years on from leaving our eldest at college, we see more clearly than ever the joys of having adult children: The continued partnership in life, the sharing of what we each learn about marriage and jobs and family, and especially the sweetness of a granddaughter asking, “Will you read Piggy in a Puddle to me, Papa?”

So we know that leaving Joel at Chapel Hill is a necessary and important step toward that future, deep relationship.

Nevertheless, no matter how much you tell yourself that this is a step you have been preparing your child for all his life, no matter how much you know that she is the Lord’s not yours, no matter how confident you are in his relative wisdom and solid faith, no matter how happy you are about her choice of college – sending a child off surprisingly feels like Mel Gibson at the end of Braveheart – your abdomen is open and someone is cutting away at your guts.

But as Michael Gerson recently wrote, one of the very best things about life is having “a short stage in another’s story:” The great privilege of watching elbows and feet poke against Mommy’s abdomen; the responsibility of feeding, protecting, and providing for a helpless infant; the joy of watching a toddler take a few steps, stumble and try again; the warmth of a sleepy child cuddling in your arms; the laughter of family gatherings; the mischievous smiles of boys, covered in mud, running toward their mother; the times day after day reading God’s Word, as well as reading One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and The Narnian Chronicles and The Lord of the Rings and The Tempest and David Copperfield. The struggle of disciplining in love; the confessions when discipline is too harsh; the long discussions with a teen struggling with the opening act of adulthood; the look of accomplishment the first time a boy beats his daddy (without handicaps!) in ping pong, or HORSE or running; the sweetness of porch time on a summers evening; the hours and hours over the years spent together in prayer.

We long for such days to continue. To never come to end. To be permanent.

C.S. Lewis suggests that this longing for permanence indicates that we are made for another existence: An existence which, indeed, will last forever and ever – where there will be no more time limits, no rush to go on to the next pressing responsibility.

Perhaps he’s right. But this week I’ve focused on a different possible parallel – a parallel between the parent’s pain of separation and God the Father’s pain. Is there a reflection, at least slight, in the parent’s pain of the pain the Father experienced at the cross? The Apostle John tells us, “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.” He loved – and so He gave. He gave up. He lost something.

We sometimes think that, while Jesus experienced pain at the cross, God the Father did not. He planned the event; He knew clearly the outcome of this mission. But as we’ve noted, parents often know that leaving home is the right decision, with all sorts of future joys conditional on that step – and yet we feel great pain. Is God the Father’s pain somewhat similar? Did He feel pain, seeing His Son suffer, seeing His Son take on Himself the wrath appropriate for punishing all the sins of all those who would ever believe in Him, seeing the mysterious separation between the Son and Himself – even though He knew this was His perfect plan to redeem a people for Himself?

I don’t know. But I do know that I am incredibly grateful to God – and to Beth, my superb partner in parenting – for the privilege of 30 years of raising children in our home. It does, at this point, seem a short stage in their lives. We say to them what Paul said to the Ephesian elders when he never expected to see them again: “Now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).

I look forward to those brief, future times when we can once again come together as a family. And I long all the more for the Final Day, when all God’s lost and separated children will be brought together to rejoice in Him, to delight in God’s work in one another, and to live out for eternity the joys of life in an intimate family – the true joy that was reflected in our intimate earthly family for a few, short decades.

Die to Self to Gain True Life

August 16, 2013

[In this Sunday’s sermon we’ll consider a key turning point in the Gospel of Mattew: Jesus tells His disciples for the first time that He will be put to death, and will rise again. He then commands His disciples similarly to take up the cross, to die to self, so that they might find true life. This devotion is taken from a sermon preached in 1999 on the parallel passage in Mark 8. Ponder and pray over our Lord’s words, and petition Him so to work on Sunday that we might follow Him wholeheartedly, and thereby become what He created us to be – Coty]

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:27-33)

Think about what Peter and Jesus are saying here: Peter says: “Jesus is the Messiah; He can’t be killed by the Jewish leaders.” But Jesus says: “Because I am the Messiah, I must be killed by the Jewish leaders. The role of the Messiah is not what you think. The Messiah comes into the world to die.” . . .

34 And He summoned the multitude with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 35 “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s shall save it. 36 “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? 37 “For what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mark 8:34-37)

Jesus here extends that principle to all of his disciples. What is true of the master is true of the disciples also. Jesus must die in order to become what God intended; his followers must die also, they too must take up a cross, they too must lose themselves in order to become what God intends them to be.

What does Jesus mean by these expressions: “deny himself. . . take up his cross . . . lose his life for My sake and the gospel’s . . . forfeit his soul”?

Through the last two millennia these expressions have been misunderstood time and again. Some have interpreted them to mean we should inflict pain on ourselves, and thus become more righteous. Living in a culture that goes to great lengths to avoid all types of pain, our particular temptation is rather different. We are tempted to interpret this in such a way that it applies to other people, but not ourselves. We might say that this means, “You must be willing to die physically for me, rather than deny me, when your life is threatened.” So theoretically we’re all willing to make the good confession like Cassie Bernall at Columbine High; but probably none of us here this morning will ever be in that particular position. So that’s a nice, safe way to interpret the verse.

But Jesus here is saying something that affects all of us, not only those who face intense persecution. And he certainly is not telling us to inflict pain on ourselves purposefully. What is he saying?

One key to understanding this passage is to recognize (as noted in the NIV textual footnote) that the same Greek word is used for both “life” and “soul” in verses 35-37. This is the word which is more commonly translated “soul;” it is not the usual word for “life,” for life in contrast to death. Instead, this word emphasizes your individual life, your particular needs and wants, what makes you you. The difference between these two words comes out in John 10:10-11, where Jesus says:

I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly.  I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.

In verse 10, “life” is the usual word; Jesus came to make alive those who are spiritually dead. He contrasts life with death. But in verse 11, Jesus says the good shepherd lays down his life — that is, his “soul,” all that he is, his personal self, his wants and desires — he lays down all this for his sheep. That is the idea in Mark 8.

So in Mark 8:34-37 Jesus says:

“If you want to follow Me, you must first deny yourself, and take up your cross — you must die to yourself; only then can you truly follow Me. 35 “For if you want to hold on to what makes you you in this world, you shall never become what God intends you to be; but if you give up what you think makes you you for My sake and the gospel’s, you shall become what God intends you to be. 36 “For what does it profit you to gain everything the world has to offer and to actualize what you think you should be, if you then forfeit what your Creator intends you to be? For what shall you give in exchange for the very thing that truly makes you you, the essence of who you are?

Jesus himself is headed toward a physical death – and then a resurrection to a glorious new life in a new body. Just so, He tells us to die to self – so that we can become what God intends us to be, perfect in Him.

The Clarity of Scripture and Postmodernism

August 9, 2013

[The following is an excerpt from “Is the Doctrine of Claritas Scripturae Still Relevant Today?” by D.A. Carson. Originally published in 1997, it was republished recently as chapter 5 of Carson’s Collected Writings on Scripture (Crossway, 2010). This is heavy going at points – but stick with it; you’ll benefit both from his analysis of what led to much in our present culture, and from his preliminary response to challenges to Scripture’s clarity – Coty]

Although “postmodernism” is now being applied to many areas of Western culture, at heart it pertains to epistemology. The rise of the Enlightenment, connected as it is with Cartesian thought, assured most Western intellectuals during the last three and a half centuries that objective truth could be discovered by unfettered human reason, that the best approach to doing so was bound up with foundationalism and rigorous method, that such truth was ahistorical and acultural, and that despite enormous difficulties and acknowledged differences of opinion, the discovery and articulation of such trans-cultural truth was the summum bonum of all rational and scientific enterprise. Over the centuries, cracks developed in this structure, but in large measure the structure held in most circles of Western higher education until a couple of decades ago. Gradually the Western world became more empirically pluralistic, lost many of its moorings in the foundational cultural presuppositions of Judaeo-Christian faith, became more secularistic (which permits lots of scope for religion so long as it is privatized and of little influence in the public discourse), and, in this century, increasingly committed itself to philosophical naturalism.

But now there has come about a shift in epistemology. In Germany this developed from the late 1930s to the 1960s, when the new hermeneutic became instrumental in moving the locus of meaning from the author to the text to the reader, and the model that describes the interpretive process became a hermeneutical circle. In France, inferences drawn from the fledgling discipline of linguistics developed by Ferdinand de Saussure came to be labeled deconstruction, with its various shadings (Derrida, Foucault, de Man, Lyotard) and its profound suspicion of “totalization.” In America, these developments developed into “radical hermeneutics” and were not only applied to central problems in theology but often shifted from the individual interpreter to the autonomy of the interpretive community.

The net effect of these developments is profound. In law, history, literature, theology, the philosophy of science, and much else besides, many of the leading younger scholars (and some not quite so young) are profoundly committed to the view that there is no such thing as public, objective, culture-transcending truth. All interpretations are necessarily constrained by the individual and/or the interpretive community to which he or she belongs. Texts are “open”; they do not convey one truth, but many truths, polyvalent meanings; the only heresy is the view that there is such a thing as heresy. Moreover, these developments, though not universal (history is always messy), have now reached through the media into the public marketplace. Millions who have never heard any form of the word postmodern are nevertheless postmodern in their epistemological approaches, because of the influences of the media. Many a scientist and technician, epistemologically still modernist in their own disciplines, are postmodernist in just about every other domain.

What we must see is the revolutionary nature, epistemologically speaking, of these proposals. By and large, children of the Enlightenment, i.e., epistemological modernists, found little reason to challenge claritas scripturae [that is, the doctrine that Scripture is clear]. So great was their confidence in reason, so deep their commitment to public and universal truth, that it was easier to doubt Scripture’s authority, inspiration, truthfulness, effectiveness, and power than it was to doubt its essential perspicuity. Reason could always find out what it truly meant. But that perspective is rapidly changing. If texts have no univocal meaning, still less their author’s meaning, it is far from clear what claritas scripturae might mean. In the epistemological universe of Luther and Calvin (and of the Middle Ages too, for that matter), the God of the Bible knows everything, and has revealed some things. Human beings come to know some small part of what God truly and exhaustively knows through the revelation that he has given. The question at issue is whether that revelation is “clear” or needs some special illumination or magisterium to comprehend it and make it known. In the epistemological universe of modernism, God may or may not exist, but so confident is the scholar of reason and intellectual effort and so assured is the view that there is public truth to pursue, that there is little sense in doubting claritas scripturae. But in the epistemological world of postmodernism, where reason is a culturally constrained phenomenon, where interpreters are culture-bound, where texts are polyvalent, where claims to universal interpretations are viewed as intrinsically manipulative and therefore evil, where language is perceived to be not something we use (“logocentrism”) but something into which we are born, it is far from clear that claritas scripturae is even a coherent concept, let alone a defensible one. . . .

A Preliminary Response . . .

One must begin by acknowledging that there is considerable truth in postmodern epistemology (if speaking of “truth” in this context is not an oxymoron!). It will aid no one if, alarmed by the sheer relativism that the most consistent forms of postmodernism open up, we retreat into modernism as if it were a sanctuary for the gospel. We may applaud modernism’s passion for truth, while doubting that its confidence in the neutrality, power, and supremacy of reason, and its reliance on appropriate methods, were unmitigated blessings. Similarly, we may applaud postmodernism’s recognition that we inevitably interpret texts (and everything else) out of a framework, that there is no escape from pre-understanding, while doubting its insistence that no knowledge of objective truth is possible. Even some correlative insights from postmodernism, such as the importance of the interpretive community, should be recognized for their value, even if they are pushed too hard. . . .

One of the most common devices in the postmodernist’s arsenal is the absolute antithesis: either we may know something absolutely and exhaustively, or our vaunted knowledge is necessarily relative and personal. Once that antithesis is established, it is so terribly easy to demonstrate that we do not and cannot have absolute and exhaustive knowledge about anything—after all, we are not God, and omniscience is an incommunicable attribute of God—that the alternative pole of the antithesis must be true. But in fact, the antithesis is false. It is easy enough to demonstrate the wide range of things we may know truly without knowing them exhaustively. When we speak of “certainty” or “confident knowledge,” we are not claiming what can properly belong only to omniscience. The falsity of the antithesis underlying so much of postmodernist theory must constantly be exposed. . . .

Modernist epistemology, springing from the foundationalism of Descartes, attempted to provide a secure basis of human knowing without reference to an absolute. The God-centered epistemology of the Middle Ages and of the Reformation era was displaced with a finite “I”: “I think, therefore I am.” . . . It was only a matter of time before the limitations of this “I” became apparent: different “I”s think different things, and eventually the subject-object tension, so pervasive a problem in Western epistemology, generated postmodern epistemology. But this latest turn of the epistemological wheel is profoundly challenged if there is a transcendent and omniscient God, a talking God, who chooses to disclose himself in words and linguistic structures that his image-bearers can understand, i.e., can understand truly even if not exhaustively.

What is at issue is a worldview clash of fundamental importance. If you buy into a postmodern worldview, then even if there is an omniscient talking God, you cannot possibly know it in any objective sense. But the talking God of the Bible not only communicates, but establishes a quite different metanarrative. A metanarrative is nothing more than a narrative that establishes the meaning of all other narratives. Postmodernism loves narratives, precisely because they are texts that tend to be more “open” than, say, discourse; but it hates metanarratives with a passion, seeing in them oppressive claims of totalization that manipulate people and control the open-endedness of the postmodern world. But the God of the Bible so discloses himself that he provides us with a metanarrative: the movement from creation, through fall, Abrahamic covenant, giving of the law, rise of the kingdom, exile, etc., climaxing in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and ultimately in the parousia and the onset of the new heaven and the new earth. This metanarrative is given in words; it explains and controls the interpretation of other narratives. To claim this is “totalization” and therefore to be rejected as oppressive exploitation is a useful category only if the metanarrative is untrue; if in fact it is true, to accuse it of totalization is nothing other than the resurfacing of human hubris, the shaking of one’s puny fist in the face of God, the apex of sinful rebellion.

In short, we are dealing with a worldview clash of cosmic proportions. If Christianity simply plays by the rules of postmodernists, it loses; biblically faithful Christianity must establish an alternative worldview, which overlaps with both the postmodern world and the modern world at various points, but is separate from both, critiques both, and succumbs to neither.

Again, the implications for claritas scripturae are striking. At issue is not whether this doctrine is defensible within a worldview that makes it indefensible, but whether it can be reestablished within a worldview of biblical theology that thoughtfully confronts and challenges an age that is departing from the Judaeo-Christian heritage with increasing speed. In other words, claritas scripturae is certainly still defensible, but only if set within a biblical-theological view of God and the Bible’s metanarrative, deployed in a contrastive matter with the philosophical postmodernism on offer.

[For a simple summary of the story of the Bible – the metanarrative – see Creation to Culmination.]

The Great Love With Which He Loved Me

August 2, 2013

[This is an excerpt from a post by John Piper on the DG Blog on July 30. I encourage you to follow the link to read the post in its entirety. To explore this issue further, I highly recommend Don Carson’s book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Note that Pastor John will preach at the DGCC 10th Anniversary Service on September 8 – Coty]

I want believers in Christ to enjoy being loved by God to the greatest degree possible. And I want God to be magnified to the greatest degree possible for loving us the way he does. This is why it matters to me what Jesus really accomplished for us when he died.

There is a common way of thinking about Christ’s death that diminishes our experience of his love. It involves thinking that the death of Christ expressed no more love for me than for anyone else in the human race. If that’s the way you think about God’s love for you in the death of Jesus, you will not enjoy being loved by God as greatly as you really are.

Feeling Specially Loved by God

I wonder if you have ever felt especially loved by God because of Ephesians 2:4–5? “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”

Six things stand out here in Ephesians 2:4–5.

1. The phrase “great love.”

“Because of the great love with which he loved us.” That phrase is used only here in the New Testament. Let it sink in. . . .

2. The peculiar greatness of this love that moves God to “make us alive.” . . .

3. Before he made us alive, we were “dead.”

“Even when we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive.” There is such a thing as the living dead. Jesus said, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Luke 9:60). Before God made us alive, we were the living dead.

We could breathe and think and feel and will. But we were spiritually dead. We were blind to the glory of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:3–4); we were stone-hearted to his law and could not submit to him (Ephesians 4:18; Romans 8:7–8); and we were not able to discern spiritual things (1 Corinthians 2:14). Only God could overcome this deadness so that we could see the glory of Christ and believe (2 Corinthians 4:6). That’s what he did when he “made us alive” (Ephesians 2:5).

4. God does not make everyone alive.

What happened to you, to bring you to faith, has not happened to everyone. And remember, you don’t deserve to be made alive. You were dead. You were “by nature a child of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3). You did not do anything to move God to make you alive. That’s what it means to be dead.

5. Therefore, God’s great love for you is really for you, particularly for you.

It is not a general love for everyone. Otherwise, everyone would be spiritually alive. He chose specifically to make you alive. You did not deserve this any more than anyone else. But for unfathomable reasons, he set his great love particularly on you.

6. He has wronged no one. For no one deserves to be saved. . . .

The Special Love of the New Covenant

Now here is the connection with the death of Christ. When Jesus died, he secured for us the removal of our deadness, and purchased for us the gift of life and faith. In other words, God’s “great love” could make us alive, because in Christ that same great love had provided the punishment of all our sins and the provision of all our righteousness.

We know this because Jesus said at the Last Supper, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). . . .

Jesus Purchased the Activation

This is what Jesus bought for us when he died. And this is what the great love of God did for us when he made us alive in Christ Jesus. Therefore, God’s specific purpose in the death of Jesus was not the same for everyone. The great love of God, shown for you in the death of Jesus, was the purchase of your faith when you were dead.

He did not merely purchase the possibility of your life that you then would activate. Dead people don’t activate. What he purchased was the activation. . . . Because of a great love for you in particular.

Feel the Greatness of His Love for You . . .

This is what I want every believer to enjoy. The great love of God for you is not the same as the love he has for the whole human race. The love God has for you moved him to make you alive when you could do nothing to make yourself alive. And that same love moved him to purchase your life by the death of his Son.

So when you say with the apostle Paul, “He loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20), feel the greatness of the words, “He loved me.” He loved me.