This morning the verse jumped off the page once again: “And Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground” (1 Sam. 3:19). Every time I reach this part of the Bible I know it’s coming.
Here’s the problem: my words keep hitting the ground. Sometimes I’ll overstate, understate, or make obvious reversals of what I really believe. It feels clever in the moment but the words are often more inane than clever. At other times I’ll use clichés and frothy phrases to fill airspace. I’m only showing that I don’t know what to say in a given moment yet still feel compelled to talk. So the words fall to the ground with all but audible clunks and thuds.
Yet there are still Samuels in the world who only speak when they have something to say; and have a reason to offer their thoughts. Everyone with any sense listens when they speak.
As a reminder, sound words don’t call for special intellect or high social standing. A careful speaker is one who treasures honesty in every expression, and who lives a God-ordered life. So it’s available to all. An unschooled worker can be as careful in speaking as a brilliant scholar. And, on the other hand, very bright people can say things that sound good but really aren’t true.
As we return to the verse in 1 Samuel 3 we’re reminded that the pattern of maintaining sound words started during Samuel’s youth—as he “grew” to be an adult. And we also read of the LORD’s role—he was “with” Samuel as the one who “let” the young man’s words succeed.
So let’s think for a moment about dropped words. Do our politicians ever drop words? Listen for any thuds and clunks when they speak! And when we watch a movie or television show are we listening to men and women with eternal values? Is the program aiming to build up others? Does the plot draw us towards what James spoke of as “wisdom from above”—or is it “wisdom from below”?
The answer isn’t encouraging. We’re living in a post-Christian era and we can expect to hear the thuds, clunks, and clatter of wisdom from below. For many around us God is only an empty concept.
I’m not arguing here for a return to some golden age of faith we once had in the West. Biblical faith has always been a minority view. Yet the Bible was still honored as a moral touchstone in recent centuries.
But in recent days that’s changed dramatically. Today a young Bible reader faces an “either-or” dilemma: either embrace newly elevated cultural standards. Or hold onto what the Bible says and face the social fury that follows.
Why the change?
Part of the answer is the new profusion of dropped words. On a given day a hailstorm of words and images drop to the ground all around us. Some words still carry life—as when a mother coaches her daughter, or a teacher leads in a life-changing course. But these are too often drowned out with the steady pelting sound of empty words that come through our omnipresent media sources: what we watch and hear.
Compare this to earlier ages. God spoke to Elijah with a “low whisper.” Listen, too, to how Jesus came to us in John 1:1—“the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We realize that God is all about words. Words, especially, that reveal him; and that reflect his heart.
So today, as we’re flooded with words, some are innocuous. Learning how to navigate a new computer, for instance, may call for words from a specialist. And watching a documentary on Elephant migrations in Africa may not trouble us.
But what about the words—the dialogue—in a show about some poor orphan adopted by a cultivated and caring gay couple—who are then taken to court by some heartless religious zealots? Are there, perhaps, some words dropping to the ground as the show’s producers press their point of view?
Jesus made the point in John 8:31-32 that it’s crucial to “abide in my word” in order to know the truth. And only his truth will set us free from “the Lie” of the Liar (later in John 8). And what is this Lie of the Devil? If Genesis 3 tells us anything it’s that in sin we’ve been infected with an ambition to choose good and evil for ourselves—to do whatever is right in our own eyes.
So as words are dropping on us in all we do and wherever we go, isn’t it helpful to take a spiritual umbrella along? Can we avoid being saturated with post-Genesis 3 conversations?
Here’s a suggestion for the day: listen to as many sound words—words from God—in a day as you can. At least as many as you may be hearing from secular media sources. Filter your words. Read the Bible each day. Download a Christian talk or two. Enjoy some Christian music. Find some quiet moments. Talk with believers. And then share your own words after being with Christ.
Once you turn down the pattering thuds and clunks coming your way, and any you might be offering yourself, you may be able to hear what Elijah heard: words from a God who loves to whisper truth to us.
Have you ever lost sleep because your mind is still racing in the middle of the night? And your heart has a dull ache that won’t quit? When a rough conversation with your spouse, a friend, or a colleague is on constant replay. And you’re recycling an endless set of “I-should-haves” at 3 AM?
Then you need peace.
Have you ever found yourself trying to rearrange numbers when your wages won’t cover the bills? Or struggled as your job starts to wobble and no other opportunities are likely? Or felt the pain of a lost pregnancy? Or known the betrayal of an unfaithful spouse?
Then you need peace.
It doesn’t help to be told that peace is God’s fruit in a believer’s heart—as the Spirit brings “love, joy, and peace” and more. We all know that words by themselves can’t perform magic. And using guilt to prod someone—“C’mon, just get over it!” only makes things worse.
What does help is an embrace—some genuine love along with some caring arms. Think about the child who trips and lands badly. Loud tears immediately explode from a grimaced face while a parent rushes to the scene: “Let me see your hand!” After a quick check for broken skin or other signs of damage the parent wraps the child with an embrace for as long as needed. Call it a parent-to-child peace transfer. Somehow it works! And the child soon gets on with life.
But as adults we don’t have a parent to run to for a hug when the tears are streaming and when fears flood over the banks of our former security. All too often we’re left alone. We may even try to hide. But time doesn’t heal all wounds. Some hurts just stay and ache.
That’s when you need peace—the peace that comes with a long and healing embrace from one who loves you. From someone big enough, wise enough, and who loves you enough. Who can share his peace with you.
So let’s turn to what Jesus shared with his troubled disciples in their last supper just before he was betrayed and crucified. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
His words might seem empty if we race past them in our pain. Instead we need to sit with them for a time to let them unfold and enfold our hearts.
The context is important. Jesus had just told his group of beloved disciples that one of them would betray him—and Judas promptly went out and did exactly that. But Jesus then had a startling response—something very unlike what “the world” offers. “When he [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now is the Son of Man is glorified’” (John 13:31).
The lesson Jesus offers us is that we’re in the middle of an epic battle between God and his arch foe Satan. And Jesus was about to swallow death—and all the pain, aches, hurts, and tears that death unleashed in Eden—by becoming death on our behalf. And this was the Son’s great glory—coming by way of his crucifixion. Resurrection followed.
So for now we’re living in the time between our dying with Christ—as those united to him by faith—and our own coming day of physical resurrection. So, as Paul reminds us in Galatians 2:20, each of us is now, “crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
If we return to John’s gospel we get the promise of relationship—the embrace we need in times of pain, in 14:16—“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper [comforter, counselor], to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”
This is what Jesus did. The “fruit of the Spirit” comes as he offers us inward hugs—an embrace of our soul—that is as real as anything a parent can offer a child.
But how do we get it?
The first condition is that we need to have Christ’s Spirit dwelling in us. If he isn’t present then this blog amounts to so much nonsense. Because you “neither see him nor know him.” That’s solved by turning to Christ with the cry, “Lord, I need you! Please take your place as God in my life!”
And with the Spirit’s indwelling presence we simply need to find a quiet place and say, “Lord, I need you! Please comfort me—I’m really hurting right now!”
Then take some time in the Word to give him his voice in your life. And peace will come. I promise you. I’ve been there. It’s a peace that passes understanding.
“Joy to the world”—the title and refrain of a favorite Christmas carol—because “the Lord has come” is a profound invitation. Those who know Jesus celebrate him and call on others to receive the king!
Yet this isn’t a late-summer push for a premature holiday celebration—rather it’s a reflection on the fruit of the Spirit. The list in Galatians 5 starts with the triad of love, joy, and peace: the spontaneous delights of meeting and knowing God.
In this entry I’d like to focus on joy. And notice, too, how love is linked to the experience of joy.
God’s presence in us stirs a heart response. To know God is to respond to him with delight. He fills a place in us nothing and no one else can touch. We were made for him, and joy is his signature in the soul.
Joy, like love, is affective and transitive: heart-based and object-centered. So the quality of each term is found in its focus on God whom we love because he first loved us. Both joy and love are responses to his love poured out in our hearts by his Spirit. We hear this if we take Romans 5 and 1 John 4 together. So love and joy are two facets of one response. Love is our affective bond, and joy expresses the delight that comes with love.
Joy still has rhetorical power. Love is the weaker term. We might “love” a new phone or a photo, for instance, so that love is reduced to a soft pleasantry. Joy, on the other hand, has more life.
C.S. Lewis captured this in the account of his conversion in Surprised by Joy. He wrote of brief moments of joy that startled him from time to time. His instinct was to grab at joy—as if it was a commodity—but the joy evaporated as soon as he chased it. Finally he linked enduring joy to his meeting and trusting Jesus. It was a person and not a brief stir that brought lasting joy.
So what do we make of joy? Just this: we were made for it and our hearts chase it at every turn.
But apart from God’s presence in us we miss joy. We speak, for instance, of enjoyment—of moments that spark joy—as a goal in life. But enjoyments only point back to Adam’s fall—to his replacing the Creator with the creation—and to his efforts to find joy in his autonomy. But things—our toys, places, entertainments, and stimulants—are only devices that scratch at our itch for joy. Relationships, and nothing less, bring true joy.
On the other hand sin—self-love and pride—suffocates joy. Yet God grants glimpses of joy to all—even to sinners. Relational moments like a new friendship, a wedding, or the coming of a first-born child are lightning flashes. But even these fade as the friendships, the marriage, and the growing child are lost to the individual pursuits of lesser enjoyments.
Here’s a Trinitarian lesson, then. The joy of God’s eternal, mutual love is the source of our own ultimate joy. It represents God’s intrinsic delight spilling out to us as his beloved ones.
In John’s gospel, for instance, in his final discourse Jesus invited the disciples to step into his own sandals for a moment as his crucifixion and ascension to the Father drew near. “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father” (14:28). The Father—“greater” in his initiatives of love for the Son—was calling him back to share the glory of their mutual love. This vision also punctuated Christ’s prayer in John 17:24.
This was also the heart of Christ’s calling to his followers in the vine analogy of John 15. Notice verses 10-11: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
And we also recall joy as the motivation for both the incarnation and the atonement of the cross in Hebrews chapter 12: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God….”
In sum we always have God’s invitation to “taste and see” his goodness. And for any who are still missing his love and joy—by chasing self-concerns and passing enjoyments instead—the joy of the Lord can become the strength in life. Just set your eyes on Jesus and see what comes of it.
Jesus was very direct.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
This is in Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount. Just before this Jesus spoke of the “narrow gate” that leads to life, and “those who find it are few.” So it seems he wasn’t counting on throngs of followers.
Jesus applied the same warning about false followers in his parable of the weeds. A farmer sowed his field with good seed but an enemy came at night and overseeded the field with weeds. So the good seed grew up mixed with fruitless weeds until they were separated at harvest.
Paul, following Jesus, was just as blunt about unbelieving-“believers” when he warned the Ephesian elders in Miletus that “fierce wolves” were certain to emerge in the church “from among yourselves” in order to recruit their own form of disciples (Acts 20). And he pointed to this as an applied problem among the Galatians and the Corinthians.
He even warned the Corinthians that some among them were “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ”—just like Satan who at times “disguises himself as an angel of light.” Satan, in turn, has servants in the church who also “disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:14-15).
In sum, not everyone who claims to be a Christian is actually a Christian. Not even among church leaders. Yet in the Matthew 7 text Jesus reassured his audience that separating authentic believers from the knock-offs is easy: “You will recognize them by their fruits.”
Jesus elevated two such fruit in John 8 and 13: abiding in his word, and loving other believers. Jesus’ analogy of the vine pictured fruit as products of heartfelt devotion to him, with authentic disciples abiding in his love and, with that, following his lead—even if it means dying for others. Paul followed Jesus with his own list in Galatians 5: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control.”
But where are we today? In many churches and theological colleges we find a devotion to non-discrimination. It’s as if discreet signs are posted: “No fruit inspections, please.” Not referring to the treatment of unbelieving newcomers but to enduring members and leaders.
So here’s our question. When did the narrow gate become the wide gate? Did Jesus change his mind in favor of drawing crowds at some point? Or did the church drift in a new direction?
It’s a question church history helps to answer. Let’s consider, for instance, the 1st, 4th, and the 16th centuries. In the 1st century, in the book of Acts, we read of thousands of new converts filling Jerusalem after Christ’s resurrection. But not all the conversions were sound. Many, in fact—the “circumcision party”—remained devoted to synagogue-school demands and rejected the gospel of free grace; and their critique of Paul stirred him to write some of his major letters.
In the 4th century the church had throngs of recruits join up when the Roman Emperor Constantine endorsed Christianity. And with that shift new waves of fruitless “Christians” came on the scene with pragmatic ambitions in play.
Then in the 16th century both the Lutheran and the Reformed camps had to deal with the “magisterial” Christianity the Roman church had in place. Which is to say that anyone who lived in certain regions of Germany newly designated as Lutheran then had to become Lutherans because their local ruler said so. Or, in Geneva, they had to be Calvinists. It was a simple political reality; and only sometimes reflected a real change of heart. That brought along a host of fruitless Christians.
Today we still find quantity being valued over quality in most settings. The church habit of absorbing as many recruits as possible under the name of Christianity—even when authentic fruit is missing—has stuck.
A skeptical question might be asked here: “Aren’t the ‘wide-gate-promoters’ more compassionate by offering an all-comers version of faith? And isn’t that more Christ-like?”
It’s a question addressed by the texts already noted—and there are more—but let’s at least put to rest any question about the Son’s compassion by noting Luke 19:41 and Christ’s heart for Jerusalem in particular: “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!’”
It seems not everyone has ears to hear his calling to a living faith—and the fruit of peace it brings. It’s a hard reality we’ll never enjoy but must still embrace.
People enjoy being with their own kind. Beautiful people gravitate to beautiful people. Bright people like to be with bright people. The wealthy find others with wealth. Artists enjoy other artists. Like attracts like: it’s a fact of life.
But it not always a good fact of life. Especially if elitism forms and only the brightest and most beautiful are valued. Or when pecking orders disrupt friendships in a continuing reshuffle of who is the most able; or the brightest by a given measure; or the most beautiful for the day.
At worst it can be formalized as a religious caste system. Indian Dalits, for instance, know they will never be Brahmins no matter how much wealth or education they achieve: they’re always untouchable.
At school it may be the grade-point-average; or membership in an exclusive club or elevation to a team. We all know how it works—whether or not we were successful. Value is based on ranking, and rank always has its privileges.
In most cases status is earned. Outstanding athletes or scholars achieve a higher place on an exclusive team by displaying physical or cognitive skills. Yet in some cases a person’s standing only comes by birth into a high caste or into wealth. So it seems tragic when a person is born into poverty or when some are born with serious birth defects.
But let’s shift directions now. What binds Christians to each other—the “like attracts like”—in biblical terms? And we need mention the Bible here because many Christian communities may be closer to their non-Christian neighbors than to Jesus and his New Testament followers.
Jesus certainly catches our attention here. He didn’t climb the social ladders of his day: he was a true outsider. His education was minimal and mostly informal. He didn’t join any important clubs, religious denominations, or political parties. He even played a role in having a man born blind so that begging was the man’s only life option. And most of Jesus’ closest companions smelled like used fishnets. So what was there to like about Jesus?
Just this: he came to earth to save sinners. Even as God’s only Son. He came to find and heal the lame and the blind, rather than those who claimed they could walk and could see. He recruited fishermen and tax collectors to his ministry team rather than the stars of the academy. And even in the exception—in his calling Paul who studied in Jerusalem under Gamaliel—Paul dismissed his academic period as so much dung in comparison to meeting and following Christ.
And that brings us to the ultimate “like” that bonds authentic Christians together: Jesus as the one who loves us. His personal attractiveness, depth of insight, and his self-giving is all beyond measure. He has unsearchable depths as a person and offers that depth to all who seek him and follow him.
So, once again, the Christian life is upside-down and we’re reminded of Christ’s warning in the face of 1st century materialism, that “what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:17). Yet he abandoned this sort of critique among those who knew their status as sinners: the guilty and the shamed underside of society.
Instead he offered grace: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).
So the “like” in us that attracts Jesus to us and us to Jesus is not found in any claims of our being good, but in the power of his love that captures us. He is active in meeting our needs and in extending his mercy. And we, with God’s love now poured out in our hearts by his Spirit, start to act like him in caring for others.
And it allows us to relax because we don’t need to compete any longer with all the social stars we know. Instead we get to love them if and when they have time for us. We get to be like Jesus.
Bible reading has remarkable power for some. But for most people it’s a serious put-off.
On the positive side of things I met with a new Bible reading partner yesterday. Even after just one week of reading he was gushing—honestly delighted with the venture. His wife has also picked up on it and now shares verses with him.
But Jerry and his wife are exceptions. Over the years I’ve found different responses. When I mention I’m looking for a man to do a four-month Bible read-through the crowds quickly scatter. Athletes run for cover; slower men start thumbing through car magazines; and younger men focus on their iPhones. It’s not a lively prospect for most modern men!
I also know there’s no point in shaming or scolding guys into bold Bible reading. It has to come from the heart. Like it has with Jerry. “A year ago,” he told me, “I felt the Spirit nudging me when you talked about read-throughs … but I ignored him. Then when you mentioned it again in your sermon two weeks ago I felt the same nudge and I knew I had to give it a shot.”
But let’s think about it. Why is an appetite for bold Bible reading so rare today, even in Bible-centered churches? And by bold I only mean the time we might offer a friend over a quick coffee, or in a pause spent in texting, or in watching a favorite television program: about thirty minutes each day. And I mean actual reading and/or listening to the text itself. Journaling is an added feature for those who go there. My time each morning, including prayer, takes about 40 minutes.
I can’t speak about the motivations of others—about why such reading is so rare—but I can at least track some leads offered by Jesus in the gospels.
In John 8:31, for instance, he set a standard with the term “abide”—as in, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” It’s the same word he used in the branch-and-vine metaphor of John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
So Jesus treated time spent in his word—the Bible—as an identifier of his presence in us by the Spirit. The Spirit awakens our hearts to the Father’s Heart and that brings new desires. So apart from him a love for bold reading just won’t happen. Jerry’s “nudges” by the Spirit are a great example.
And that brings me to the point of this entry. If someone wants to be religious but doesn’t have the Spirit within—along with his nudges—he or she will need to recreate God. Even if a proposal to reconstruct God seems bizarre. The fact remains that we were made by God to have a God. He offers a basis for life and meaning. So we all need to have a God we can live with.
Let’s list some options.
Simple idolatry is one. I’ll never forget a visit to Kathmandu and driving by open-front shops that allowed us to watch wooden posts being carved, painted, and overlaid with precious metals. The objects themselves were not innately sacred but were avatars for less-than-divine spirits to come and own the owners of the objects. They offered gateways into a supernatural counterpart to God’s kingdom: a realm opposed by God’s word but with powers that could still change lives.
A Western alternative to such explicit idolatry is the muted worship of creation we find in most academic venues today. Westerners prefer this because it despises explicit icons and demonic practices but it still allows practitioners to navigate life. Irreligious science, for instance, adores nature as a closed system—without a Creator. As such it’s like a warm blanket that insulates worshippers from any explicit questions about the true God while at the same time justifying self-devotion—as beings at one with nature—to prosper. It also allows for a divinization of wealth as the basis for personal security.
Finally let’s touch on the most attractive Christian reconstruction: of turning God into a behaviorist. This offers a host of robust forms of religion that still keep the true God at a distance and self at the center.
Religious behaviorism was a preferred option in Christ’s time on earth. Today it appears in moralistic churches and in modern Islam among those who promote Sharia law. Leaders in such systems designate religious behaviors and creeds that must be followed in a carrot and stick arrangement. The carrot is the promise of eternal life. The stick is a social threat of some sort: of dismissal from the synagogue in the first century era; and, in modern times, a beating by the Sharia police, or ostracism from a local church.
While this reconstruction of God into a growling Behaviorist seems dark, it still allows him to be managed. His demands can be met with due diligence. And any oppressive features—his immense power and an ability to withhold eternal life—can be managed by feigned devotion. It allows, for instance, a certain autonomy to prosper as long as worshippers stay within well defined marks of orthodoxy. This was tangibly illustrated by the balustrade-wall around the temple when Paul was arrested in Acts 21—and dismissed by Paul in Ephesians 2.
Jesus, of course, made hash of this approach with his devastating set of “woes” in Matthew 23 as illustrated in verse 25: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
Which invites us to one sound option: to love the Triune God as revealed in Christ; who sends his Spirit to pour out his love in our hearts; and who shares all this in the Bible.
Jerry certainly likes him!
Isaiah 40:3, as cited in Matthew 3, was fulfilled by the ministry of John the Baptist. Isaiah promised a bulldozer of a man to build a proper road for the Messiah, “crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
In John’s day the imagery of carving a proper road might suggest leveling the dips and trimming the meandering corners. Not so—at least not in physical terms. Instead he faced a moral and spiritual challenge that called for strong words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The problem he and the Messiah, Jesus, faced were the meandering paths of religion in his day. Jewish hopes for the promised Messiah were still captured by wistful memories of David’s kingdom. David had been a pious and powerful king: famous for his Godly psalms; and for his ability to defeat all his enemies. So they longed for a Davidic king who could replace the Herodean and Roman rulers with God’s true kingdom. This was an easy aspiration to adopt since it represented security.
Memories of the glory days of Ezra and Nehemiah also would have defined that vision. These men had helped reestablish a temple-centered worship in Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. And later there had been a brief era of relative independence under the Hasmonean clan—the Maccabees. And all they needed now was another strong leader to overthrow Romans and obey God’s laws.
The spiritual reforms of Ezra came with this vision. The Bible-composing scholars of Ezra’s era set out clear distinctions between good and evil kings in the books of Kings and Chronicles.
Yet, despite the great benefits in these books, a problem emerged. Their call to God-centered worship was often heard to be a call to behavior-centered religion. Jeremiah, in 2:13, warned against this as he charged Israel with carving broken cisterns of social morality while ignoring the living water God offered.
So by the time of John and Jesus the moralistic tendencies of the Pharisees were dominant. Alternatively the Sadducees had accommodated the Jewish priesthood to the political realities of the day: chasing their love of power rather than living by the power of God’s love.
So John faced a spiritual and political mess when he took up his ministry. And one word applied to all: “Repent!” Which was his way of saying, “Abandon all your misguided notions, values, and ambitions—and change your direction in life!” Part of the warning was his call to abandon false visions of the coming Messiah.
The ministry of the Messiah, John warned, would not be that of a conquering king but more like a farmer at harvest. John used a vivid agricultural analogy from daily life: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Picture, then, a farmer piling crushed grain stalks on the upwind side of a smooth, swept threshing floor. When a proper breeze was blowing he would use a long pronged fork to throw the stalks into the air. The heavier seeds would drop out near his feet while the lighter chaff—the debris of broken stalks—would be blown farther along the threshing floor into a separate pile. Once the pair of piles formed—the useful grain and the useless chaff—the farmer gathered the grain into storage bins and then burned the chaff.
We get the burning part—the certainty of judgment—but what about John’s reference to the Spirit? A likely context would be the promise in Ezekiel’s prophecy to Israel of a new era to come, after the return from Babylon, when God “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. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ez. 36:26-27).
The plan, in other words, was for the Messiah to offer a ministry that featured an inward work of the Spirit to bring about changed hearts. Those who received the Spirit’s ministry would be the “wheat” while the chaff would consist in those who resisted or rejected the Spirit. The kingdom of heaven, then, would consist in the Father sending his Son and the Spirit to create and then to collect “wheat.” The Spirit’s work did the creating and the Son’s work was to separate those with the Spirit from those who dismissed him.
In the balance of Matthew, then, we see Jesus warning against “blaspheming” the Spirit. Such a dismissal or misattribution, he warned, was unforgiveable (in Mt. 12:31-32). The misattribution in this context was the charge by religious leaders that Jesus did his miracles by the demonic powers of Beelzebul rather than by the Spirit.
So what do we make of this today? For one it presents faith as the Spirit’s work of affirming Jesus as the Messiah: he calls hearts to believe. And Jesus, then, merely sifted the crowds around him to discover who would respond to the Spirit’s call. And he warned all who dismissed the Spirit’s wooing in the strongest terms possible.
Is this two-stage arrangement still at work in the church today? Is the Spirit still changing some hearts so that our work in evangelism calls for winnowing rather than winning converts?
Yes – it seems to be exactly what Jesus had in mind, both then and now.
I met Sam fifty years ago. My home church recruited us—a couple of newly minted high school graduates—to help with a church plant in Sechelt, British Columbia. Sam, the pastor, was a retired missionary; a Scotsman by birth who had served for much of his life in Africa.
Yet he was still up to planting a church, even in his retirement. “We moved here,” he told us, “because it’s such a great location. But there isn’t a sound church to be found in twenty miles. So we knew we had a job to do!” His reference to “we” included his wife of fifty years.
By July 1966 the young church they launched needed a place to meet. That’s where Steve and I came in: we were there to help with the construction. But there was more than a church building to be built. Sam was actually a relay racer in line with Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 2:2, “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
With Sam I was the much younger man, ready to receive what he had to offer. His real gift—as I’ve shared in an article on the Bible Read Through (available on the Spreading Goodness site)—was his easy familiarity with the entire Bible. He knew the Bible like I know my own neighborhood. And it was something I wanted for myself.
Yet there was more: I mostly wanted to have the bond with Christ I saw in Sam. He loved God. So when I pressed him about it he mentioned his habit of reading through the entire Bible between two and three times each year. He had been reading at that pace since he became a Christian at age twenty; and he was seventy when I met him that summer. So he had gone through the Bible between 100 and 150 times by then. And it showed. His relationship with Jesus was obvious in all he did.
I now see that summer as the passing of a baton—he handed me a treasure. So I started my own Bible reading that July, fifty years ago, and have been averaging three Bible readings each year since then. It takes about thirty minutes of reading each morning, often with my iPod audio Bible playing at double-speed, as I underline the text on my lap. It’s my time for companionship with the Lord as he shares his heart with me. And after the reading I pray in response to it.
Do I now have what Sam had? No. His obvious intimacy with Christ and his undiminished appetite for more still invites me to grow. I’m too flawed to offer myself as a model of faith to others. But I at least know where to turn in the face of my weaknesses. And I know enough to abide in his word and in his love as I ask for my soul to be washed. So I get to bring my weaknesses and celebrate Christ’s grace each new day.
I’m writing this—in my anniversary month—with a prayer that some young reader will take the baton I took from Sam. So that in another fifty years—if the Lord doesn’t return—a reader or two will carry Sam’s gift forward. So starting with July 2016 he or she will, in July 2066, offer this invitation to yet another era.
Once again, it’s the greatest gift—after my salvation—I’ve ever received. Please take it, carry it, and discover for yourself the joy that comes with abiding in God’s word. And then pass it along.
Only hours before his crucifixion Jesus was still reassuring his followers about the future. Twice over dinner he repeated his call, “Let not your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1&27). This even as he knew Judas Iscariot was arranging for his immanent arrest.
So, was Jesus having a Pollyanna moment? Or was he the ultimate promoter of positive thinking? Or maybe just emotionally disconnected?
No. He was, instead, the ultimate realist. And he was calling his followers to come to grips with the certainty that, come what may, the Triune God was still in charge of events. Jesus always had a bigger picture in view.
Notice what he told his men: “I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.”
The latter phrase is striking. Jesus loved to follow his Father’s lead no matter where it took him. Jesus announced the Father’s plan earlier in John’s account, in chapter 3: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
One verse earlier, in a set-up to this acclaimed text, Jesus told his listeners that he must first be “lifted up”—a euphemism for crucifixion—in order to provide this eternal life. So by the time we reach chapter 14 and the double reassurances, “don’t be troubled,” it’s clear that God’s plan to overcome death would come by way of his Son’s death. The cross offers life to all who believe.
There’s another critical feature here. While God loves the world, the world loves the darkness of sin rather than the light God offers (3:19). And that sets up the story of the gospel, both then and now: God’s Word—his Son and his teachings—tell us of the Father. He loves the world; but the world hates him; yet the Son’s words offer an open invitation to believe.
The reassurances of John 14 are for those who now believe in Jesus—who have embraced his narrative that he is God’s Son, ready to die for our sin. Jesus isn’t blind to the Devil’s power. But Jesus can also say, “He has no claim on me,” (14:30a) which is to say that Jesus isn’t facing death because of his own defection from the Father. Rebellion is Satan’s turf. He used the promise of a freedom to be like God to enslave Adam and all his offspring. Jesus never fell into his web of deceit.
So—picking up the implications of his message—Jesus came to the cross in full alignment with his Father’s purpose: “but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (14:30b).
The pathway here is clear: God loves the world. Jesus reveals that love in tangible terms by his life and teachings. The world hates what Jesus offers and eventually crucifies him. But some in the world listen to the Son’s words, see the light he offers, and come to love both the Father and the Son through the Spirit’s wooing ministry. This is to “believe” in him.
And with that faith comes the upside-down certainty that death to this world—to what the Devil offers as the “ruler of the world”—makes perfect sense. It means a realignment of the hearts and minds of all who believe in what God wants for us: the joy of knowing and loving his Son. This world is no longer our home!
Now the awkward but wonderful truth: we no longer need to be troubled because we no longer care for what this world offers! Personal security, social standing, career success—all the motivations that operate in this lifetime—can be set aside. We can, instead, understand Paul’s Spirit-led invitation to “be crucified with Christ” and, with that, to have freedom from the Devil’s false version of freedom.
Real freedom only comes to “whoever has my commandments and keeps them” as the fruit of a transforming love for the Father and the Son, by the Spirit. His commands are simple: not the myriad rules posted under the Mosaic regime—meant for a hard-hearted nation—but the ultimate call to love God and neighbor. To turn from a self-concerned life to a God-centered life.
Let’s wrap up this look at John 14 with another promise by Jesus in that dire dinner hour: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
And, just after that, Jesus went on: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.” It’s in this context that he offered the second invitation, “Let not your hearts be troubled…”
An amazing truth: God will make his home with us! We only need to respond to his love.
So never mind the disruptions crucifixion may bring in this lifetime. This world is no longer our home!
I’m revisiting Peter Sanlon’s helpful study, Augustine’s Theology of Preaching. One sentence caught me: “Augustine describes this life as a journey traveled by the affections” (p. 84). This link of outward journey and inner affections is what Pete offers as Augustine’s “interiority”—the realm of the soul’s longings and desires—that shapes “temporality.”
This statement reverses what most people take to be an ultimate truth: that we choose our own life journeys. So that our affections emerge on the journey as a product. Augustine turns this by treating the mind and will as followers rather than leaders of any soul. The heart, alone, guides our choosing—or, collectively, all our journeys.
Yet Augustine didn’t begin here. He started as we all do: presuming a free will. And then he moved to his affective stance, holding that our desires rule us. He believed God made us as responders. That conviction came with a corollary: love, then, shapes everything in every life.
The subject of Pete’s book—preaching—may seem odd in light of this soulish stuff. What’s the connection between preaching and how the soul operates? The answer is that Augustine’s preaching shaped his transition. His keen intellect formed his identity in his early years. But his conversion—described in his Confessions—started a change. Not instantly, but over time. And by way of his preaching.
In AD 391 Augustine requested relief from administrative roles to invest time in closer Bible study—with the fruit of his studies offered in his preaching. He felt he needed more depth in order to minister effectively. Bishop Valerius, his supervisor, agreed to the request. Changes in Augustine’s thought soon emerged from this pause. Sanlon notes one major shift during this period: Augustine began to take up the Bible’s language of “heart”—in place of intellect—to explain how the soul is motivated.
So the Bible changed his heart on how to view his mind. Augustine’s conversion was a key as he recognized God’s initiative in doing the converting. But expanding this insight to all of life took time and devoted Bible study—with the study done for the sake of his preaching.
This is not a switch between two equally valid options—in merely preferring one instead of the other—but a critical correction. Only one is true; so that if we claim to live in a mind-and-will directed life we are actually building a mythology that defends human autonomy. And all arrows point back to Adam in Eden as the first mythologist, defending his sin by pointing to both God and Eve as sources of his fault. And this distortion of sin is still inherent in all humanity.
Let’s turn now from reviewing Sanlon and ask how the interior life—this journey of the affections—works in a fallen world. The biblical imagery of Augustine’s affective journey presumes at least three elements: a pathway, partnership, and a destination.
The pathway consists in our unique time-space reality—what Augustine called temporality. Each of us has a daily setting—perhaps located in Australia, America, or Austria. Wherever we live we all need resources to make our way: food, drink, rest, shelter, and some basic equipment. Yet nothing in the Bible tells us that our location or resources define real life. Some of us may be well resourced and some of us are as poor as paupers; yet, whatever our circumstances, we have a specific journey to live out.
Caring partnership is far more important: our companionship shapes who we are—our interiority. Because a relational God created us to be relational: made in the Father-Son-and-Spirit’s “let us make man in our image” reality. God who “is love” made us to respond to his love and to share it with others. So we were birthed out of companionship for companionship.
But sin is antithetical to caring partnerships. Self-love displaces a proper love-for-others.
This has huge implications for any given traveler. If autonomy—being free from others—has primacy over love then the pathway becomes an end in itself. An affection for things, or for a higher status in the realm of time-and-space, stands in place of an affection for God and people. Cain can kill Able for self-centered reasons. People can be resources to use and discard.
And, finally, the destination is also crucial. In the mythology of self-defined existence we begin to treasure features of our time-and-space pathway. Our affections take the creation to be a replacement for the Creator.
But if our destination is a reunion with God—what Adam abandoned in Eden—we discover that every pathway, no matter how mean or difficult, allows us to live toward the end we were made for. God wants our companionship, a fellowship he offers to all whose affections are drawn to him through his Son and by his Spirit.
So, as transformed believers, we have a life with real direction. No matter how hard our given pathway may be for now, remember the interior presence of God, by his Spirit, who assures of both God’s love and our assured destination in Glory.
But, like Augustine, we need time in the Bible and some means to digest what we find there. For Augustine it was Bible study and preaching. For most of us it will be Bible reading and conversations with others who share our deepest affections.
Enjoy the journey!