Judges: Such a Great Salvation (Book Review)

Usually when I prepare to lead a group in Bible study, I try to go the extra mile.  Besides reading the Bible text that we’ll be looking at (that’s the necessary bare minimum!), and reading the same supplemental material I assign to the group, the extra step is consulting one more commentary.  That protects me from just parroting back what they’ve already read, and helps me to interact with a third perspective on the passage—the first being mine and the second being the shared supplemental resource.  Recently I taught a study on the Bible’s book of Judges and the extra-credit commentary I used was a hoot to read.  Not that it surprised me coming from the snarky, insightful, studious, persuasive, and best of all faithful pastor-teacher Dale Ralph Davis.  His commentary in the Focus on the Bible series is called Judges: Such a Great Salvation (hereafter JSGS).  My first introduction to Davis’s unique style was a year or so ago when I consulted his commentary on 1 Kings in preparation for a sermon.  The way he presented his interpretation of chapter 18 convinced me to change what I thought was the main point of the story.  While I didn’t have another paradigm-shifting epiphany this time around, his take on the book of Judges was invaluable.  What makes JSGS such an excellent Judges commentary?  I’m glad you asked! Continue reading

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Judges For You (Book Review)

“That’s the best Bible study I’ve ever done!”  Such praise is not something a Bible study leader hears very often.  I wish I could say it had a lot to do with my amazing exegetical insights, deft (daft?) use of humor, or thoroughly lovable personality.  Yeah, right.  Ha!  But this was the comment from more than one person in the group at my church that just recently wrapped up a study of the Bible book of Judges.  All things considered, the unique success of this particular study owes the lion’s share of credit to the resource we used: Tim Keller’s Judges For You (JFY; coupled with the accompanying study guide).

Now, I’m a firm believer in a quip I heard once uttered by a popular Bible teacher who responded to the compliment, “You make the Bible come alive!” with a bigger truth: “The Bible makes me come alive.”  I mention this because there is a notion some people hold that goes something like this—the Bible is a hard and tedious book that is difficult to enjoy unless it is mediated by the presentation of a gifted Bible teacher.  Admittedly there is an element of truth in this.  But what I like to believe is that a good author, teacher, or leader is able to help us see what is so inherently wonderful about the Bible.  Most of us need a little help to uncover the treasures throughout God’s Word.  Please understand I’m not tooting my own horn here.  What I’m saying is that I used Keller’s studies to lead our Bible study group to the rich, penetrating, and timeless truths that God placed in Judges.  And boy, did we discover that Judges is relevant for today’s American culture!  It’s a book about pluralism, religious syncretism, faithlessness, spiritual compromise, national apathy, moral depravity, revival, compromised leadership, idolatry, relativism, barbarism, war, sex, tribalism, etc.  The list goes on and on.  It’s especially about our groaning unmet need for a savior. Continue reading

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Family and Belonging

If there is one topic that everyone has settled opinions about, it’s family. Every single person has a family. And no family looks or acts the same. Most are basically loving, all are dysfunctional to some degree, but no family is worthless because families can begin to meet the universal human need for belonging. I can relate to the way Matt Groening, creator of the TV show The Simpsons, sums it up: “Families are about love overcoming emotional torture.” If I could put my finger on what he’s saying, it’s that family is wonderful and heartbreaking, sometimes in the same day.

How would you describe your relationship with your family? Do you feel like you truly belong in your family? Do you feel like you fit, are accepted for who you are, and are a vital contributing member? None of us is an island. We are all born to a father and mother, and we all come from a particular people who in many ways define and possess us. But there is also a competing message our culture tells us: while we should love our family, we must not be defined by our family, but instead must go find ourselves in a chosen tribe through individual accomplishments, shared values, or common interests. In this way we must define ourselves by looking within. But here’s the problem: we do not remain the same, and our chosen tribes are subject to the changing times, making us vulnerable to rejection. Can we fall back to find belonging in our family of origin? Many people do this, but some measure of disappointment, heartache, loneliness, loss, and possibly rejection awaits them.  Thankfully, the Bible has answers to these questions. And I hope to show you what God has to say in Romans 8:1-17 on the topic of family and belonging is deeply satisfying. Everyone longs and searches for the unconditional love and acceptance that one gains by belonging to a family. Only in the family of God will you find such a sure and unchangeable belonging, which is rooted in the Father adopting us by his Spirit as his own children alongside his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Continue reading

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Righteousness and Nakedness

It’s not common for a preacher to receive useful feedback on a sermon before Sunday. Here’s an exception. My dear mother, who continues to put up with my antics, texted these words to me upon hear the word “nakedness” in the title. “Brian!!! Naughty preacher! How are you going to talk about that? People might be wiggling in their seats.” If you’re wiggling already I hope to put you at ease, at least for a moment, because we’re not going to talk about nudity but about nakedness. They are closely related, and in the body they manifest themselves in the same way, but they are not the same thing. Let me try to explain by asking you a question: How are righteousness and nakedness related in your life? I know that sounds confusing, but here’s what I mean. Do you desire, even yearn for, someone who knows and loves the real you? You without the mask. You without the performance. You without any covering. Without makeup, pretension, awards, or status. You without hiding anything—personality quirks, bad habits, character flaws, past secrets, physical blemishes and deformities, besetting sins, lusts and addictions. Of course you do. Everyone does. It’s a human longing common to all of us. So why don’t you ever put your “nakedness” on display, as it were, fishing for someone out there who might come to know and love the real you? Could it be that your righteousness—that which you hope makes you not just likeable but lovable to others and to God—does not adequately cover your nakedness? When I look around, that’s the reason I see. We conclude that revealing our nakedness is simply too risky. And so we live in the lonely gap between the two (righteousness and nakedness), continuing to hide, yearning to be known and loved, but always putting up walls when someone, especially God, gets too close.

Why do we live in this gap between a pseudo-righteousness that never seems to suffice and our nakedness that drives us to erect all kinds of barriers shielding us from being truly known? The Bible’s answer is our guilt and shame. These are such delicate issues in our culture that we hardly ever mention them except reluctantly in private counseling. At least in the church we feel free to talk about the kind of guilt we share in common. Occasionally we even drum up the courage to confess a private sin in order to lose that guilty feeling. But our shame? Your shame? My shame? It’s like the proverbial elephant in the room—never acknowledged but ever present, because we hate to feel naked. It’s humiliating, terrifying, and soul-crushing! Are you beginning to feel the force of the problem? The weight of the elephant in the room? Again, how are righteousness and nakedness related in your life? Or as a cynic might put the question: “Is it even possible for humans to harmonize righteousness and nakedness?” The Bible’s answer is Yes, and we can find the first installment of the answer in the early chapters of the very first book of the Bible (Genesis 2:18-3:21). Nearly from the beginning, guilt and shame have been universal human problems. We feel the need to justify ourselves and to hide our sins because our hearts testify we are guilty and ashamed. But nothing we do removes the stain. Only God can give us the righteousness and covering we desperately need. Continue reading

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Image and Likeness

What image do you see in your reflection?

In this series on universal human longings, last time we considered “worship and sanctuary” and concluded our hearts yearn to worship, and that need every person has can only be satisfied by the living water Jesus gives. Now in this second post on Romans 1:16-32, which is the classic NT text explaining God’s wrath on a world that rejects him, we’ll explore another foundational issue: how the gospel speaks to us as human beings searching for who we really are.  But untangling all the questions people have about identity–God’s and ours–is difficult.  No less a theological giant as John Calvin observed:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. [Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, page 1]

Thankfully, Romans 1:16-32 helps us connect the knowledge we have of ourselves and of God.  It’s a passage that begs two questions: “Who are you? And how do you know who you are?” These are questions of identity, self-knowledge, and self-worth. Everyone builds their life on the answers to these identity questions. Why? Because you want to matter, to be important, to be significant, to be valuable for who you are. From the beginning of time every single person has tried to build his or her self-identity apart from the knowledge of God. But there is nothing you can get from other people, from other things, or even from yourself that can be a reliable basis of your core identity. All such attempts to craft our own identities ultimately fail us, because self-made identities are idols—they always crush us, judge us, and abandon us. Why? Because they are not based in reality. When people exchange the knowledge of God to make idols of human beings and other things, God reveals his wrath by turning them over to sin’s dehumanizing consequences which leave nothing uncorrupted: bodies, minds, and society. Return to your Creator who made you in his image and likeness. Continue reading

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Worship and Sanctuary

Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well

This post is the first in a new series that will explore key Bible passages illustrating how Christianity is beautiful, good, and best of all true. What I hope it that while looking at these our hearts will marvel at God and say, “And can it be?” I believe there is nothing more needful in our culture today than for believers to cry tears of joy “The gospel is true!” And for unbelievers to hope with all their heart that somehow it just might be. The method we’ll use is to look at the universal longings of the human heart—a few of which are family and belonging, righteousness and nakedness, home and place, work and rest, peace and flourishing, justice and judgment—and discover how only the God of the Bible can fulfill them. When it comes to life’s big topics, there’s no better place to start than the primary cause of our deep desires. God tells us that cause is our unending need for worship and sanctuary.

Which bring us to our foundational question: What are you living for? Whatever it is, it must be both transcendent (bigger and higher than you) and immanent (accessible and near you). But here’s the problem: the things we live for—in the Bible’s terminology, what we worship—always let us down. They are either too far from us and thus so foreign we cannot relate to them. Or they are too near to us and thus so much like us we cannot escape the smallness of ourselves.  The well-known story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42) is brimming with beautiful jewels of truth.  Of these, this is what I want to focus on: Jesus seeks true worshipers by breaking every kind of social and spiritual barrier, redeeming worshipers who are eternally satisfied in him and who joyfully share their satisfaction. You cannot help being a worshiper who spiritually thirsts. Only Jesus can quench that thirst forever, so drink of him.

Whenever we jump into a Bible passage in mid-stream is it necessary to survey where we are swimming.  When we look around, the text reminds us that at that time Jews and Samaritans hated and rejected each other. Their animosity was in one sense deeper than that between Jews and Gentiles. It was rooted in betrayal and perceived superiority, like a war between two former lovers who continue to attack each other. Samaritans were descendants of the ten northern tribes of Israel who intermarried with foreign pagans. But for several historical and theological reasons (which the Bible does not affirm), from their perspective Samaritans were the true worshipers and Jews were imposters. On the other end, the Jews had their own reasons justifying their hatred of their racial half-brothers. Both religious groups excommunicated each other and avoided any intimate contact with the enemy. Such hatred led to a customary geographic segregation.  Now we are ready to examine this wonderful story. Continue reading

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Theology of the Westminster Confession: Holy Scripture

My church is starting a new adult Sunday School class.  The topic is the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF).  I taught the first session of class and will probably teach a few more before we wrap up this study near the end of 2017.  The idea is that each teacher will develop a set of slides to aid in presentation and discussion.  We hope the completed set of slides (the goal is one for each of the 33 chapters of the WCF) is a valuable resource not only for our folks at church, but also for individuals, other churches and schools to use (and modify) for their own purposes.  Here is the first set of slides that introduce the class, and the slides that present chapter 1 of the WCF on “Holy Scripture.”  Enjoy and let me know what you think.  Are these helpful?  How could they be improved?

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