The Joy of the Father: Luke 15.1-24

Who’s with Jesus?

This summer at Woodland we’re considering the parables of Jesus. With each spiritual lesson couched in a story from common life, there were (and are) those who “get” (understand, recognize, respond to) Jesus. And, there were those who miss Him.

Parables are like jokes. There’s the set-up, the punch line, and the smack-down. The irony of the art form (and Jesus was the best of artists) consists in getting the hearer leaning one way, and then —BOOM!—taking him down.

In Luke 15, Jesus responds to a group of Pharisees who reacted to Jesus when he “ate with,” (or, hosted) sinners. Three parables result, two and one-half of which carry the same point.

In The Lost Sheep (:1-7) A seeking shepherd restores his flock. There’s tight structure here. The little prose poem begins and ends with a flock of 100. Likewise, there’s parallel ideas of a lost sheep and a repentant sinner. At the center of the construction there’s the joy of the shepherd: Rejoice with me!

Similarly, in The Lost Coin (:8-10) a woman searches for a lost coin. Once again, the rhyming of ideas (so typical of Eastern and Hebrew thought) produces an idea at the center: Rejoice with me!

Both short parables push Jesus’ pharisaical hearers. They’re asked to compare themselves first to an (assumedly) ceremonially unclean shepherd and then a (culturally, in the day) socially-subordinate woman. There’s a cluster of themes: lostness … repentance … restoration … completion … the burden of restoration shown in the seeking. Both parables are virtually identical—except that the coin is lost, not in the wilderness, but in “the house,” a potentially significant detail.

In both parables, we must ask, Who’s the hero? Certainly not those lost, or having no need of being found, but the one doing the seeking. Hang on to that idea …

At last we arrive at the parable of the two(?) lost sons, commonly known as The Prodigal Son (:11-24). The very well-known story unfolds in five scenes:

The death wish (:11-13). Here, the younger of the two sons asks for his cut of his inheritance. New Testament commentator, Kenneth Bailey, long-time resident of the Middle East and author of Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes (1983, Eerdmans), reports that in hundreds of interviews with Middle Eastern noblemen the overwhelming response to the question, “What would you do if your son were to make such a request?” was “I’d beat him!” The son wishes for nothing short of his father’s death. Notice, the older son, standing to benefit by up to two-thirds of the estate, merely sticks out his hand.

The downward spiral (:14-16). The son goes to a distant land and divests his father’s wealth. Tempted as we are to see the son’s sins as only moral, the main idea here is that he was simply a spend-thrift, seeking to win friends and influence people with his father’s estate. Rather than seeing him going off with a rock band and a Volkswagen bus, we ought to see him seeking to establish himself among sinners apart from his father. But, “when he had spent everything,” famine strikes. The son attaches himself to a well-to-do resident of the land, who (politely) attempts to get rid of him by giving him the undesirable task of feeding pigs—repulsive for a Jewish boy.

The transition: coming to self (:17-19). “When he came to himself …” (ESV), the son makes up a speech. He’ll move back to his village and work as an independent contractor. Maybe, he can live in town. He won’t have to face his older brother, and he can start paying his father back. The absence of the proper word for servant (doulos) is conspicuous. He’ll be a misthos (hired man). And, as such, he’ll be his “own man”. Important to the story is that repentance does not necessarily take place here. He’s not necessarily sorry, he’s hungry.

The grace of the Father (:17-19). We see the son approach the village and ought to imagine children throwing sticks and stones and mud. This one has squandered the estate among Gentiles. In a Palestinian ritual known as kashasha (so, Bailey), the son has been cut off from his people. But then, “while he was till far off,” his father bares his legs like a schoolboy, and runs!

The joy of the Father (:22-24). At their meeting, the son attempts his prepared speech, but is interrupted. Attempts to kiss the hands of his father are pre-empted by his father’s embrace, and the kiss of Shalom. ” … bring the fattened calf and kill it,” his father orders,”And let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to celebrate” (:24).

And here, so we contend—at their joyful meeting—repentance takes place! The son can’t be anything but a son. And, the father hosts the son and the whole village (Think of Jesus’ immediate context and his accusers.)

The parable, at this point, leaves us hanging. (There’s still a smack-down in store.) Amidst the thematic cluster of lostness, repentance, restoration, home and celebration, we have yet to answer the question, Who ought the hero to have been? Who should have done the seeking? 

Even so, there’s much to be harvested at this point. From the younger son, we learn: we may always come to God, but we must come to Him on His terms, not ours. And, if we would come, we will only be sons, not hired men. 

From the Father, we learn the lesson that stands at the center the trilogy of parables in Luke 15 (so far): God’s terms for reconciliation include grace that pre-empts our efforts to establish ourselves in His favor. 

Both lessons cut against our pre-conceived notion of our character and God’s. “We’re able to engineer our relationship with God” …  “We’re our own men” …  “We’ll come back when we’re ready,” we might think with the son. But, as we learn from the Father, God’s grace, know to us in Jesus and His cross-work, pre-empts our plans. God rejoices in the work of His first Son that brings about reconciliation with His other sons.

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2.13, ESV) … Rejoice with me!


Circle up with a small group and ask and answer these questions from Luke 15: 

How do the three parables of Luke 15, when read together,  help you understand the main point of each? 


How is this reading of The Prodigal Son different from others you’ve heard? What do you see now that you’ve missed in the past? 


How are you yet like the younger son? 


What about the response of the Father in the parable surprises you the most? 


What’s missing now? Where do you think Jesus is going with the second half of the third parable? 


Shameless Service: John 13.1-17

Some years ago I was warming the bench in a church basketball league. (This should indicate something of my skill.) After watching one of our better players shoot and miss, shoot and miss, shoot and miss, my teammate next to me finally said, “You know he’s a shooter, because he’s shameless.”

Serving one another in the church is like that. It’s what we do, despite failure, difficulty and confusion. It’s a mark of healthy, local church partnership. We just keep going after it.

But, apart from Christ, it’s not natural, and it’s not what we do!

In John 13 Jesus shares a Passover-like meal with his disciples, the night before His death. This is the meal (also recorded in Mark 14 and Luke 22) where Jesus institutes the Lord’s Table. Jesus is the Passover lamb, and so will not share the usual feast with His disciples. Instead, He’s bringing the old order to a close. In John 13, Jesus shows His disciples His love, the way to remain in fellowship with Him during His absence, and how we’re all to serve one another until He returns.

Jesus … laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet … (:3-5).

We must be washed by Jesus (:1-11). This is the requirement for knowing Him and serving one another in His absence.

Especially here, there’s always a snake in the grass. Jesus’ shameless service takes place in the face of an enemy. Since the garden when Satan entered into the snake to deceive our first parents, Jesus’ enemy has always opposed the work of redemption. Now, Satan has poisoned the mind of Judas (:3) and will eventually enter him, as he did the serpent (:27). Jesus will send Judas from the room, this before teaching His true followers (chapters 14-17). But first, Jesus washes Judas along with the others.

Jesus’ washing is also necessary. In the culture of the day there ought to have been a servant to wash the guests’ feet. Perhaps the disciples had missed this detail while they were organizing the meal and shouldering their way up to the head of the table (Luke 22.24-30). It had to be awkward. Who is the least who will do the job? Finally, the host becomes the servant, as He’d always made Himself. But Jesus also radicalizes this washing. If I do not wash you, you have no share with me (:9). Jesus is talking about regeneration, the new birth by faith (chapter 3). It’s true of Peter and the others, but not of Judas (:11). This one-time washing will be necessary to know Jesus after His departure. Likewise, those who have been cleaned by Jesus will need to make confession of their sins to maintain fellowship with Jesus (:10; 1 John 1:7-8).

Finally, Jesus’ washing is simply shameless. John makes a point of noting that Jesus … laid aside his outer garments (:4). Jesus’ cloak might have been impressive, woven of one cloth, as we know from the cross scene. Luke 8 also informs us that Jesus had wealthy patrons. Then, He was a rabbi and might have worn the tassels befitting His office. All this went to the ground, replaced by a towel. Christ served shamelessly.

In response, we His disciples must wash each other (:12-17). If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.

As in Jesus’ washing of us, our service to one another will be shameless, necessary, and in the face of an enemy. Often, the enemy presents himself in the same kind of confusion we see in the Upper Room. We don’t know what to say … it’s awkward … we hope against hope that somebody else will take up the towel … it’s messy … we’re clearly not gifted for that sort of thing. Once more, there’s a snake in the grass.

And yet, serving one another shamelessly is to be our mode of operation till Jesus returns. So, we send the text when we’d rather stay unentangled. We pick up the prepared chicken from Sam’s and turn up on our friend’s doorstep to say, “I’m so sorry for your pain. I love you, and here’s something to keep you going a bit.”

We take up the towel, because it’s what we do, despite failure, difficulty and confusion. We keep going at it. We serve … shamelessly.


Circle up with someone you’re accountable to and think through the following questions:

What are the enemies to shameless Christian service with which you’re most familiar? 


What would be a contemporary equivalent to foot washing? 


Why might it be significant that Jesus washed Judas’ feet? 


What are the benefits to be “being washed by Jesus” and to “washing one another’s feet”?



Is there anybody who’s “feet” you need to wash? 


Leading and Following: 1 Peter 5.1-7

Who comes to mind when you think of a great leader? Could it be a uniter, like Abraham Lincoln? A model of compassion, like Mother Teresa? Or, a motivator and teacher, like our own (here in Wisconsin!) Vince Lombardi?

The Apostle Peter’s letter 1 Peter is about experiencing God’s grace in the midst of suffering. Prominent themes include rejoicing, But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed (4.13); judgment, For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God (4.17); and, humility, Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good (4.19). The letter, likely written in 63/64 AD and to churches founded by associates of the Apostle Paul in northern Asia Minor (Turkey today), was penned by Peter amidst Nero’s persecution. Nero’s purge of the early Christians had, very probably, taken Paul’s life. Who will lead the churches now? Peter wrote to address the consternation and fear of these churches.

In this critical juncture, Peter talks about leading and following. He exhorts elders first, then followers, as “a fellow elder,” as a “witness of the sufferings of Christ” and as a “partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed” (5.1). How strange. He might have mentioned that he had observed Jesus in His glory at the transfiguration. Or, he could have brought up the bit about his being given the “keys to the kingdom” (Matt 16.19) that indicated leadership in the early church. Instead, Peter speaks language of co-leadership with the rising generation of Christ-followers, and the language of witnessing Jesus in His humiliation, and the language of future glory.

And what about Peter’s witness to Christ’s sufferings? Was Peter a good witness? Hardly … He denied Christ three times and ran away, remember? Oh, but then Peter was restored. “Tend my sheep” (John 21, three times). It’s this picture of the humbled, restored, refined-by-suffering, and zealous for future grace servant that becomes Peter’s picture of the ideal church leader.

Peter’s instruction to appointed leaders being refined by trouble is to pastor God’s people (:1-4). These elders are to be those who lead the church through this time of humiliation between Christ’s two comings. They’re to serve “freely,” not as those who have gotten their arms twisted, so that they serve grudgingly. They’re to serve “eagerly,” not as those looking out for their own interests. And, they’re to model Christ, not domineering over those in their charge. Those who serve well receive the “unfading crown of glory” (5.4) at the appearing of the chief Shepherd, Jesus Himself.

Such an appeal cuts against much “wisdom” of our day. Often, we default to what we know best. As churches grow, we tend to replicate the corporate character many of us know from the work week: pastor as CEO, elders as a board of directors, associates as middle-managing project managers, membership as shareholders, unbelieving community members as customers. Such a business model is not in keeping with Peter’s exhortation. Instead, elders are pastors who shepherd the church through humility now, but toward the future glory of the Great Shepherd. Our profit and bottom-line are different. We’re to speak and think the currency of humility.

What about followers? Peter’s instruction to those following appointed leaders being refined by trouble is to follow with humility (:5a). Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. 

Why would those “younger” need a special word? Children can learn, through discipline, that they’re to respect and obey their mothers. And, cheeky disrespect from children should be met, probably, by a strong response from their fathers. This is because their fathers see a different side of things. Their fathers know, among other things, just how hard the child’s mother is working. The fathers appreciate—better than the child will ever imagine, until he is a parent himself—all the unique tensions of parenting through which his wife, the child’s mother, must navigate.

So it is in the church. Peter found occasion to address younger people, because they often don’t appreciate the tensions of leading people in the unique community that will be each church. Problems must be “pastored” through. While a board room (or the Oval Office today) might be a place to say, “You’re fired!”, this won’t be how the local church is run. Decisions will be made, but often “success” will be found only by coming out united on the other side. Progress like this will be made slowly, and with humility.

Peter ends his exhortations with a general word. Cloth yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (5.5). Peter’s instruction to everyone is to humble themselves before God till Christ lifts them up. Followers are not told when they will be lifted up. In this life? Maybe. In the life to come? Certainly. Important is that such a “lifting up” will come about through imitation of humbled, refined-by-suffering leaders who themselves have learned to imitate Christ.

So, who is your picture of a great leader now?


Find someone you can talk to about leading and following from 1 Peter 5.1-7. Discuss the following questions.

What character qualities does Peter state are most important in a church leader? 

Why should church leaders receive special honor? (1 Tim 5.17-19 and Heb 13.7 also address this question.)

What are some ways that you can protect the reputation of those in leadership in your church? 

How is the local church unlike a a business or any other kind of organization? 






Membership: Hebrews 10.19-25

The whole idea of membership is in trouble. For one thing, we aren’t “joiners” like we used to be in the days of our grandparents. Compare our grandparents with the Millennial generation—who soon will be just about everybody—and the younger group comes off looking just about post-institutional.

Then, we have the added burden of competing with lots of negative images. Ask around to find out what people really think about local church membership and you’ll likely get descriptions of an inner ring of especially holy people … an exclusive club with privileges … a business with a bottom line, competing for limited resources … or, a group of people who gather to take care of the business operations of the church. Hardly anything to aspire to.

What is local church membership, anyway? 

The biblical doctrine of church membership is an especially interesting one, in that we don’t have a passage or verse that says, “This is what membership is, and here’s how to do it in the 21st century.” It is, rather, like the doctrine of the Trinity—not found in chapter and verse, but found through the Scriptures in numerous pictures of God interacting as a unity and in His “Three-ness”. Take away this doctrine, and the whole system comes apart.

So it is with the Bible’s teaching on church membership. It comes to us in pictures of groups of God’s people in particular places committing to meet together under the Lordship of Christ. In Acts 2, we see local church life—teaching, fellowshipping, breaking bread and praying. In Philippians 3, there’s the picture of heavenly citizenship: “… our citizenship is in heaven, and we await a Savior from there.” First Timothy 5 gives us a picture of family: Treat “… older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity”. First Peter 5 describes the roll of appointed pastor-elders who lead particular groups of people. Matthew 18 describes the work of the local church in disciplining—excluding from membership a professing brother who doesn’t properly represent Jesus: “… whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”.

My recent favorite, among these pictures, is Hebrews 10.19-25. We often hear this passage preached to embolden us to come to God shamelessly and with confidence, as individuals. Less often, we hear it preached to describe what local church life should look like.

Hebrews 10.19-25 describes two things that are true: We have confidence to go to God (:19-20), and we have someone to take us to God (:21). All of this is set against the Day of Atonement we read about in Leviticus 16. The priest of the Old Testament would make himself ready for God’s presence through washings and sacrifices. He’d carry the blood of sacrifices through the curtain separating God from everyone else. And, he’d enter God’s presence with fear and trembling, lest his sacrifice be found wanting.

Ah, but here’s the good news! We go to God through the very body and blood of Jesus. And, He’s perfect! And, while the priest would tremble to enter God’s house, we’re ushered into God’s house by the Son Himself, who transforms us (to mix the image) into the very house of God: “… Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (3.6, ESV).

In light of this confidence, we have some things we need to do with other believers in our local fellowships. Notice how, in verses 22-25, the commands grow more specific, more relational, more corporate, and more local. These are local church responses describing what membership looks like.

We’re to draw near to God (:22). We do this in full assurance of faith, consciences cleaned, bodies set aside for God’s purposes. The image here is, likely, that of baptism. It reminds us that our churches should be places where we come without shame. Whatever pathway God has taken to bring us to Himself, we’re clean. “Past is prologue,” as Shakespeare wrote. The church is not a place for shaming. Draw near to God …

We hang on to the Gospel (:23). The local church is the place where we preach the Gospel to each other. It’s not the place where we perfect ourselves, but the place where we hang on to Jesus. And, not only is the Gospel powerful, but it includes all of life. Marriage in trouble? Struggle raising kids? Tempted to sin? Run toward the church where the Gospel is preached. Hang on to the Gospel …

We’re to motivate each other (:24). “Stir one another up” (ESV). We get our word “paroxysm” from the word behind this expression. Think: hydrogen peroxide, bubbling away. We’re to have a godly agenda for each other. Motivate each other …

We’re to meet regularly (:25), ” … not neglecting to meet together as some are in the habit of doing.” While the original readership was having trouble breaking from the synagogue, our modern equivalent is the family who can’t decide on Saturday night whether they’ll come to God with others the next morning. Healthy church partners make the gathering of God’s people a commitment. Meet regularly …

And, we’re to encourage each other till Christ comes (:25). The word “encourage” will be variously translated as urge, exhort, implore, summon, or comfort. Push each other toward the prize, till Christ returns. The local church is the home field of the Christian life. It’s where we remind each other of our victory through Christ and come to God … together.

Healthy church members commit to come to God with others in the local church.  


Find someone to talk to and work through the following questions of local church membership.

What is your picture of church membership? Negative? … Positive? … Necessary? Necessary, but for what? 

If the thought of joining a local church is negative for you, what objections do you have? 

Have you ever thought of Hebrews 10.19-25 as describing the life that we have in Christ together? How does this passage help you think about church membership? 

Have you ever heard a sermon on the need to join a church in membership? How has considering this passage in Hebrews changed your thoughts about what joining a church might look like for you? 




Baptism: Romans 6.3-4

This week at Woodland we return to our study of healthy church partners (members, that is). Since the last two weeks were all about making much of Jesus as we celebrated our participation in His death, burial and resurrection, this Sunday’s mark of the healthy church member is an appropriate follow-up to Easter.

We’ve been experiencing storms in the Northwoods. With each gusty mix of wind and rain I’ve lost another half-dozen spruce trees. In our old life, that would have been tragic. Now, we have hundred, maybe thousands, to spare. So, no real damage. An unearthed tree is a thing of wonder. There’s the trunk and branches we’ve always seen. But then, there’s the sub-terrainian tangle of roots and earthen matter formerly concealed. That  much of the tree has always been below the surface is a great discovery after a storm.

This week we’re thinking about baptism and the church partner: the healthy church partner makes the invisible work of God visible through baptism. In our understanding at Woodland, baptism functions, along with the Lord’s Table, as an ordinance. Together, they make visible the invisible work of God in the one who has trusted Jesus by faith. The spirit of the thing is that, soon after trusting Christ, the new believer makes a living picture of the Gospel through baptism, then reaffirms her participation with Christ at the Table throughout her life. It’s like a wedding that signifies the beginning of a marriage, but then an anniversary that reaffirms the ongoing permanence of the marriage as long as the marriage covenant lasts. Both ordinances serve to reveal the work of God that—like unseen roots connecting a great tree to the earth—connect the believer to God, through participation with Christ.

No passages makes this more clear than Romans 6.1-11. While the passage comes on the heals of Paul’s manifesto of justification by faith (3.21-5.21) and serves to demonstrate how the mastery of Christ leaves the believer forever changed in his self-estimation, it’s Paul’s picture of water baptism (verses 3-4) that illustrates all God has done in Christ.

Through faith (pictured by baptism) we participate in Christ’s death (verse 3). Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? There’s grammatical subtleties in these verses. Prepositions in the accusative case indicate movement: “into Christ” … “into his death”. Such movement indicates that, through faith, we’ve moved into the reign, the realm, the sphere where Christ is our representative. Then, there’s the “suv” prefixes attached to many of the verbs, which even a casual glance at the passage in the Greek New Testament makes obvious. The preposition means, simply, “with,” but, attached to each of the verbs, broadcasts our (with)burial, (with)uniting, (with) crucifixion and (with) living with Christ. All this brought about by faith.

While the thought of our participation in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection thousands of years before our birth might cause us to tilt our heads a bit in puzzlement, we’re not completely unfamiliar with the idea representation. We send representatives to our nations capitol to serve us in government. And, while we might find ourselves in the minority in voting and at odds with the final decisions of our lawmakers, it’s beyond dispute that we’re vicariously present in the halls of congress.

So it was at the cross. Credo-baptism (that is, “believers’ baptism”) serves especially to make a visible picture of our representation by Christ. We’re lowered into the water as Christ was lowered into the stormy waters of God’s wrath. (Think: Genesis 6-7, or Peter’s picture of Noah above the waters of wrath, 1 Peter 3.21). Ah, but here is the good news! Instead, of tasting God’s wrath, we don’t remain in God’s judgment …

Through faith we participate in Christ’ resurrection (:4). We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. Here again, in rising from the waters, baptism pictures our forgiveness for sins, in Christ (Col 2.11-13). And, as we rise, the cleansing, renewing work of the Spirit likewise is made visible (Titus 3.5).

The remainder of our passage serves to show that through faith we participate in Christ’s life (:5-11). We don’t have to sin anymore (:6). Just as a person who has died is finished doing things in the body that now lies in the casket, so we are done doing things in that old person who has died with Christ. Baptism, then, pictures the destruction of sin in the life of the believer. Likewise, we don’t have to go down to death anymore. The death Jesus died, he died once for all (1 Pet 3.18). Now, our inner-persons rest eternally with Christ.

All of this results in a new self-estimate (:11). Following Christ, not sin, is our new way of life, pictured in baptism.

A few implications follow form the powerful, multi-faceted picture of baptism. First, Baptism is really about Christ’s work, not us. And, while we might take joy in a new believer’s “decision” for Christ, that faith response is in response to something Jesus has done. It’s easy to see why the church, since ancient times, has celebrated its baptisms on Easter Sunday, together with its observance of the Lord’s work.

Second, the symbolism of water baptism reminds us that we don’t live the Christian life apart from Jesus. Jesus himself was baptized in preparation for his identification with us. It was at this identification with sinners that the three Persons of the Godhead met to rejoice. The Spirit descended as a dove and the Father applauded the Son: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased (Matt 3.17; Mk 1.11).

The healthy church partner, then, makes the invisible work of God visible by taking baptism seriously. 

Find a friend and answer a few questions about this mark of the healthy church partner:

How has our brief look at Romans 6.1-11 (verses 3-4 especially) changed your thinking about the significant of baptism? 

What questions do you have, perhaps coming form your own religious upbringing or family background, about baptism? 

Why is it important to remember that baptism is a picture of God’s work and not the means of salvation itself? 

What thoughts do you have about the way we should speak to our children about baptism? 


The Christ We Serve: Matthew 28.1-10; 16-20

Have you ever had a completely inadequate mental picture of something?

In my formative years my father believed with all his heart that he was from the Pacific Northwest. During these years he would take us on long family vacations across the western United States. On one of these trips I was told we would visit Tuscan, Arizona. And, somehow, I got it in my child mind that Tuscan, Arizona was a person—likely a mature woman with a tall, bouffant hairdo who lived in a dark, air-conditioned house with lots of colored glass and things children couldn’t touch. So, there we were, thundering across the desert on our way to see “Mrs. Arizona”.

Inadequate mental pictures are not consequential when a child. But, when we come to Christ, our picture of the kind of person he is today, right now, is very consequential. And, there’s danger in coming up with the wrong image. Ask your man on the street to describe his mental picture of the risen Christ, and you might get a description of anything from a Renaissance Christ surrounded with chubby, naked angels to a “buddy” Jesus who might hang with you, but who can’t do much to change your life, to a picture of Christ on the cross, though he isn’t anymore.

What is your mental picture of the Christ you serve?

When we turn to Matthew’s account of the resurrection, Jesus’ followers must get their minds around the Christ they’ll now serve. The Christ we now serve is powerful (:1-7). 

In the setting to the account Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary”, the wife of Clopas and likely Jesus’ aunt, go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. Before they arrive (the grammar suggests) there’s an earthquake. Since the New Testament records such quakes at Jesus’ death and at his future return, something enormous has taken place. They arrive to find an angel: … his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow (:3). The unbelieving guards seize up at the display of power: … for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men (:4). The angel instructs the women on how to respond to the power: … Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified … Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead … he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him (:5-7).

Jesus will demonstrate his power by doing what he promised (26.32). His plans will go forward, unabated. And, for all the display of power in Matthew’s account, Jesus has not yet appeared in the story! How awesome will be the power when he enters the account, we believe.

Does our mental picture of the Christ we serve include his power? And indeed, he is powerful, we must conclude. He’s powerful when we’re permitted to suffer hardship … he’s powerful. He’s powerful when we lack the will for obedience … he’s powerful. He’s powerful when we need strength to persevere … he’s powerful. And yet, there’s danger in seeing Jesus as only powerful.

The Christ we serve is also compassionate (:8-10). The women obey the angel and meet Jesus in the act of their obedience. Greetings! Jesus says (literally, “rejoice”). And, unlike the angel, Jesus permits the women to worship him. And, if it weren’t for his power, we wouldn’t recognize his compassion. Then Jesus repeats the command of the angel, Don’t be afraid … go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me (:10). The disciples had all abandoned him, but Jesus speaks of them with compassion. Still, if they want to see him, they’ll likewise have to exercise belief.

And we ask, does our mental picture of the Christ we serve include his compassion? And, he is compassionate. He’s compassionate when we feel crushed by our sins, and so come to him for the thousandth time in confession … he’s compassionate. He’s compassionate when we pray for a lost or rebellious family member … he’s compassionate. He’s compassionate when we are disappointed in life, and we simply want to be with him … he’s compassionate. And yet, there’s more to the Christ we serve than his compassion.

The Christ we serve is present with his church (:16-20). The disciples do obey, and they meet Jesus in Galilee. Some doubt, perhaps more from hesitation than from unbelief. Who wouldn’t? Their new understanding of the risen Christ had to be refined and completed. Jesus instructs them: All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me (:18). He tells them what to do: Go therefore and make disciples … (:19) He tells them how to do it: … baptizing them … teaching them (:19b-20). And then, perhaps the greatest news of all! He tells them that he will be present with his church, And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (:20b).

Notice how Matthew ends his account, not by focusing on the disciples’ task, but by focusing on Jesus’ attributes. And notice how Matthew forms a link back to the beginning of his gospel. Way back in 1:23, Matthew introduced Jesus, Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us). 

Does your mental picture of the Christ you serve include his presence with the church? The Christ we serve is present with his church. He’s present when we come together on Sunday mornings to open his Word … he’s present. He’s present when one in our churches is hurting immensely … he’s present. He’s present when we surround someone who has fallen into sin and needs to be restored … he’s present.

The Christ we serve is powerful, compassion and present with his church. 

We all start out with an inadequate picture of Christ. At first, we don’t know him at all. The solution for us is to recognize that we’ve missed the mark and run from him all our lives. Then, we understand that Jesus came for us, and those like us, to take our rebellion on himself and die, conquering sin and death. And then, we trust him by faith, transferring the dependence of our lives from ourselves to him. Only then do we begin to have an accurate picture of the Christ we serve.

This Easter we’ll gather. “Christ is risen!” someone will say. And then, we’ll respond, “He’s powerful. He’s compassionate. He’s present with his church. And, he is risen indeed!”


Forsaken: Mark 15.34

Some years ago, when returning to the States from some ministry training, Amanda and I shared an airplane aisle with a young, Indonesian software engineer named Bashir. Sharp, clean-cut, intelligent, Bashir turned out to be a devout Muslim and a ready apologist for Islam. Our own description of our work prompted lively discussion about God. We had a wonderful time! But, at each mention of the Christian Gospel, we’d smack an invisible wall: “God cannot sacrifice His majesty to become a man,” Bashir would repeat, endlessly. And so we reached our cordial impasse. We exchanged some emails later, but that was pretty much much that.

Looking back in reflection, I applaud Bashir for his conviction that God is bound by His own nature. But, unlike Bashir, my Christian understanding of God’s Person(s) allows me to approach God through Christ as One who is relational, personal, knowable; not distant, wholly other, or entirely transcendent.

Tonight at Woodland, we meet for Good Friday. We’ll meet to prepare for Sunday and will enrich our understanding of the death of Christ. In meeting, we’ll consider that transaction that took place between the Father and the Son at the cross that reflects the dynamic relationship between the Persons of the Godhead as—for one enormous, eternally weighted moment—the Father forsook the Son in our behalf. We’ll consider Mark 15.34, one of Christ’s Seven Last Words from the cross. My, God, my God, why have you forsaken me? 

This Word has troubled many. Jesus appears confused, and it’s understandable how liberal scholars have pointed to Jesus’ questioning as showing that Jesus, in His humanity, lost control, that He was a victim. We don’t believe this. And, let’s consider why by looking at the Word in its parts.

My God, my God … We’re given Jesus’ address to the Father by way of translation from the original, Eloi, Eloi. Here we remember that the New Testament comes to us through the Greek language, the cultural language of the eastern Roman Empire. But, Jesus and His Palestinian Jewish contemporaries spoke Aramaic, and sometimes the original soaks through. The Eloi of this verse finds its Hebrew equivalent in the Hebrew term Elohim, the term referring to God in His power and majesty.

Catch the backdrop here. Jesus is dying in the world his Father created by him, through him, for him. All this takes place against the backdrop of the eternal relationship of the Father and the Son. Jesus has prayed (John 17.24), Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, be with me where I am, so that they may see my glory which you have given me before the foundation of the world. 

It’s not that the cross is unexpected by Jesus. It’s that the cross is, so to speak, profoundly wrong!

My God, my God, Why … Here, we note that Jesus, far from actually asking a question, is actually quoting Psalm 22.1. That psalm takes the form of a lament. And, like a Shakespearean sonnet that has a certain rhythm and rhyme scheme, the Hebrew lament has a required shape that includes: a cry for help, a formal complaint, a confession of trust, a formal petition, a motivational element, a curse on enemies and concluding praise.

When Jesus quotes the cry for help from Psalm 22, he is referencing the psalm in its entirety. The psalm ends, amidst other declarations of triumph: … before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn that he has done it. 

In this Word from the cross, Jesus is identifying with those He came to save. This is not, in very fact, a question but a declaration of triumph!

And yet, there is real anguish at the cross. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Even more than unsurpassed physical anguish, there is unparalleled spiritual anguish as the wrath of the Father falls on the Son bringing about separation.

The forsakenness language describes this separation. Now, we find ourselves in the language of the Day of Atonement, originating in Leviticus 16. On that high day of Israel’s sacrificial year, the high priest entered the most holy place. He entered the presence of God to open the holy place, to bring cleansing and to provide final purification for any sins yet uncovered by sacrifice. As part of the sacrifice a “scapegoat” would be banished to carry the sins of the people outside the camp. To be “forsaken” is to be as the scapegoat who carried the sins of the people outside the camp. He made him who had no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5.21). This is Jesus’ work for us. As the goat identified with the people of Israel in their sin, so Jesus identifies with us at the cross. Forsaken!

What do we make of this? We see in this Last Word from the cross that Jesus laments his rejection by the Father in order to identify with those he had come to save.

It’s all horrific! And, by any account but God’s, wrong! But it’s the sacrifice God, in the Person of Jesus, could and did make for us … Praise Him! And, when we consider this Word of Christ, we come to God as One who is not unloving, distant, weak or small. We prepare ourselves for Sunday by enriching our understanding of the death of Christ when we will say, “He is risen! … He is risen, indeed!”



Undivided: 1 Corinthians 11.27-34

This week I picked up the phone. I picked up the phone over a matter that happened years ago—two people following Jesus, serving well and hard. Wires were crossed. Feelings were hurt. It happens. Was there sin? Maybe not, but there was division.

I picked up the phone, finally, in response to 1 Corinthians 11.27-34. There, we see that believers, when coming to the Table of the Lord rightly, make visible the invisible work of God. The work of Christ on the cross that unites God’s people to Him through faith (invisibly) becomes visible through the unity of His people at the table.

There’s a wrong way to come to the tableWhoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord (verse 27). For the Corinthians, coming in an unworthy manner was less about pious and personal introspection than it was about the way they were going about the table. The earlier part of the chapter  gives the picture (verses 17-22). First century church meetings took place in homes. Naturally, the wealthy, having bigger homes, would host the meetings. The observance of the Lord’s Table, New Testament scholars tell us, took place in tandem with the teaching of God’s Word and preceded a common meal. But, what a situation in Corinth! One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! … Apparently, the “haves” would push through the observance of the Lord to their own meal. The “have nots” would arrive later, and without their own food, to find their social betters tipsy and themselves excluded. Division followed. Hardly a picture of Christ and those united with Him.

Paul has hard words: these will be … guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord (verse 27b). Divisions do exists, Paul has earlier taught, because some in the community don’t belong to Christ (verse 19). But, when the table divides those who do belong to Christ, this division fails to show what it looks like to be united in Christ. Those guilty of the body and blood of the Lord behave as though they weren’t recognizing Christ at all. It’s not that they’ll lose their salvation. It’s that they’re sinning as though they were never saved in the first place. The one who comes to the table in the wrong way shares in the guilt of those who don’t recognize the significance of Christ’s death.

But, there is also a right way to come to the table. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. This examining is less about ones vertical relationship with God and more about ones horizontal relationship to others. Self-examination results in properly discerning the body, making God’s judgment unnecessary.

And, here we come to one of the twists of the passage. Up till now, it’s been about “eating the bread” and “drinking the cup” and the “body of the Lord” and the “blood of the Lord.” Now, suddenly, it’s just “the body”. What do we know about Paul’s imagery of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (10.17). And, again, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (12.27). Paul frequently talks about the church as “the body of Christ”. So, discerning the body means to look around. “Who’s not here?” “Are we undivided?” we’re to ask.

Verses 30-33 describe the particular situation in Corinth: … many of you are weak and ill, and some have died (verse 30). Such a verse is reminiscent of 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 where the man caught in gross immorality is to be delivered over to Satan … for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. In both instances, God is, through discipline, preserving the souls of those who truly belong to Him. In both instances, God is preserving the unity of the church.

This doesn’t mean that behind every sickness there is a sin to be confessed. It does mean that God is very serious about the undivided unity of His people. And, He has every tool He needs to preserve both our souls and the unity of His church.  He is, after all, not a safe God.

So, we come to the table together. Since the Early Church, churches have generally moved into buildings. Since the Industrial Age, the elements of bread and cup, at least in American Evangelicalism, have been reworked to serve as many people as possible within a seventy minute service. And, as we wait for the signal to take our little pinches of bread and thimbles of juice, we probably no longer have trouble waiting for one another. Egalitarianism has taken hold in a big way. But, we are infinitely creative in finding ways to divide. Are we not?

This week at Woodland we come to the Table. Maybe you’ll do the same elsewhere. The invisible truth is that we’re saved by faith in Christ. And, God knows who is His. How will we make this truth visible? We’ll do it at the table, locally and visibly, all around the world. Are we separated by distance? No matter. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ (1 Corinthians 12.12).

The healthy church member is united with Christ and undivided with His people. Is it true? Are there feelings hurt, a cooled relationship? Division? If so, it might be time to pick up the phone …


Find a friend and talk through the following questions:

First Corinthians 11.27-34 is a passage that poses lots of questions. As you read through the passage what questions do you have? What questions do you have that are not addressed by the post above? 


How does God show in this passage that He is very serious about the unity of His people? In your own words, why is this so? 


The Corinthians knew a rift between the rich and poor. What are some ways that we divide in our culture? 


Is there anybody you need to “pick up the phone” for before you go to the Table of the Lord again? 



Heart Repentance: 1 John 1.5-10

“Get Up” by Matt Anderson, on Flikr, CC BY 2.0

Let’s call him Johnny. I was teaching 7th grade, and Johnny totally thrashed me.

A young teacher, I’d work each night to developed my own Bible curriculum for the large, Christian day school where I taught. In the morning, Johnny and his buddies were there to blow the class apart. One day Johnny stood on his desk and launched himself across the room. That got him sent to the principal, but they sent him back. Something about me needing to work out a relationship with him. Got it …

Then, Johnny got “saved”. It happened over a weekend church retreat. Apparently, Johnny surrendered his life to Christ. Now, he was celebrated by lots of cute girls. I went to his baptismal service. Something like a thousand people turned up. Jesus was mentioned, but the service was mostly about Johnny.

Three years later, I was studying in a popular sandwich shop when Johnny, now a young teenager, pulled up and jumped from his Jeep Wrangler. “Hey, Reg!” he said. (I was Mr. Reg in those days). I bought him a sandwich. Johnny started boasting about old times—the hellion he’d been, what a great time he’d had making things hard.

“Tell me about your baptism and your decision for Christ,” I prodded. “I was there. What was going on then?”

“Oh, that …” Johnny said, “I was just screwing around with that [religious] stuff back then. Nothing big ever happened.” And that was that. The lunch ended, and—unless he pops up in my life again—so did the relationship. Heart-breaking.

We’ve all known Johnnies, people who make a grand show of change, but then, a few years later … nothing. Are they genuine converts to the faith? It’s hard to say, especially with a young person, since we can’t look into peoples’ hearts. But, the church is the place where the invisible work of God becomes visible. And, when we consider the relationship between faith and repentance, it’s clear that saving faith will look like something.

We’re talking about conversion—that is, what it looks like to other people when we place our dependance on Christ in a saving way. And, the Apostle John’s first epistle is a wonderful place to go, because the old, revered apostle and friend of Jesus’ was sorting out for others just what genuine faith amidst apostasy looked like in the waning days of the first century.

Genuine conversion requires faith. In John’s imagery, the genuine convert has received “the message” from Christ of God’s holiness and has responded by “walking in the light” (1:5-6). That person’s life matches his confession. He is one who has ” … believed in the Son of God” and now has assurance of eternal life (5:13). “Walking in the light” for that genuine convert involves personal dependance on the person and work of Jesus.

But, in the words of the old adage, we’re saved by faith alone, but saving faith is not alone. It has a companion.

Genuine conversion includes repentance. As faith is the positive turning to God in personal dependance, so repentance is the turning from sin—the change of mind with regards to God involving godly sorrow and a desire to live for God.

We’re often hesitant to emphasize repentance. Maybe, we don’t want to dilute pure faith as the means to salvation, or we don’t want to lead others to rest their salvation in being sorry for their sins. We’re right to be careful. But, Scripture makes much of this change of mind in regards to God.

There’s Peter on the day 3,000 were gathered in, “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit ‘”(Acts 2.37-38).

And, Paul, to the Ephesian elders, “You yourself know … how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ …” (Acts 20.18 … 21). Faith and repentance appear here together, so as to appear almost inseparable.

Perhaps the image of the baseball pitch helps. The ball leaving the pitcher’s hand catches the eye, but few would consider the release the sum total of the pitch. There’s also the wind-up. And, for those who know the game, it’s hard to imagine one without the other.

So it is with faith and repentance. We’re saved by faith alone—not crying about or feeling badly for sins. But, faith results, sooner or later, in godly sorrow. It looks like something!

When we gather in our local church communities we’re watching God’s invisible work become visible. This involves discerning who among us has experienced God’s work of conversion, as evidenced by a heart-felt desire to turn from sin toward God in repentance. In the language of Woodland, the healthy, growing church partner is a genuine convert who repents from the heart. 

Ten years ago, some ten years after I finished teaching, I received a phone call. It was from Ben, also a former student of mine. While not a hellion, he’d been a rascal. “Mr. Reg,” Ben said, “I want you to know that I love you, and I’m sorry for how I treated you.” Then, he told me of his life in Christ and how he’d found a godly girl to marry. And, how he thought that he just ought to get right with me so that we could celebrate God’s work in his life together.

We’re saved by faith alone that is not alone. And, the invisible work of God, when seen in the genuinely converted in Christ, really does look like something.

Find somebody to share with, and talk the questions below:

How does it help you to think about conversion as a positive turning toward God in faith and a negative turning from sin in repentance? 

If you’ve trusted in Christ, how is this similar to or different than what you’ve learned before?

Do you think we avoid talking about repentance? If so, why? 

Again, if you’ve trusted in Christ, when did you experience sadness at your sin and a desire to live for Christ? Was it right when you trusted Jesus by faith? Before? A long time later? 

What about these ideas is perplexing or confusing or needing more talking about? 

Expository Listening: 2 Timothy 3.14-4.4

Imagine you’ve come to the end of your life. You’ve poured yourself out, and now you’re giving that last bit of advice to a young person who will carry on your work. What will you say?

That was Paul’s situation in 2 Timothy 3-4. He’s just advised young protege Timothy, in light of last days apathy toward God’s Word, to continue in God’s Word—the message Timothy received from him, as well as the Scriptures he grew up with under his believing mother (Acts 16). Taken together, he’s likely referring to what we now call the New and Old Testaments. This Bible, described as “breathed out by God” (ESV), will accomplish God’s specific purpose for the hearer—this to include teaching and correcting those in error, as well as instructing new followers of Christ still learning the basic things of God. The result for the one who learns to listen well will be full qualification for every thing God has planned for that person.

“So, Timothy, young pastor,” Paul says: ” … PREACH. THE. WORD”! … Full stop.

This week at Woodland we begin a new series we call Healthy Church Partners. We’re asking “What are the marks of the healthy (not perfect, but growing!) church member?” And, while we’re not all called to stand behind a lectern, we are all called to be good listeners to God’s Word, which includes the embracing of God’s Word preached. Make this mark characteristic of our involvement in YOUR church family and all the other marks of healthy church life will take care of themselves.

We’ll see that listening (expositionally!) to God’s Word producing healthy, growing followers of Christ. There’s a Cadillac-Lamborghini word here. “Exposition” means “a setting forth of the meaning or purpose of a writing” (Websters). In the handling of Scripture, this means that the main point of the passage becomes the main point of the message. “So, Timothy, don’t just give your testimony, or lecture, or share good ideas, or even just preach. Preach THE WORD!”

We might think of the good message then as a rifled bullet, or an arrow hitting the target. The good message aims to expose the particular purpose and intent of God as laid out in the particular biblical passage that is then rifled into the particular church situation. The opposite image would be the shotgun blast where the speaker aims to hit something … anything. He will, but not but not the hearts of his listeners. And, over time, they will only hear noise.

The flip-side of expositional preaching is expositional listening. And, returning to 2 Timothy (now, 4.3-4), we learn that listening (expositionally!) to God’s Word protects God’s people from falsehood and false teachers.

In the times between Jesus’ two comings, Paul forecasts, people will be driven by their desires. (See also 3.1-9). They’ll want their “itching ears” scratched and their feelings messaged. They’ll find teachers who will do their market research and say things that people want to hear. In the end, they’ll start out with the truth, but as (expositional!) preaching diminishes, they’ll add Jesus to their pantheon of good ideas and so “wander” off into stories.

Instructive for us is to note that Paul holds people accountable. This implies that there’s desire and skill in listening for the main idea of a passage and expecting to find it in any pastoral exposition of Scripture. The healthy, growing church partner is a trained expositional listener to God’s Word. And, like Timothy’s listeners, we have plenty of myths and pseudo-gospels and false teachers to shank us wide of the mark of God’s truth, if we don’t preach and listen for the gospel-center in each proclamation of God’s Word.

Here’s five suggestions for listening (expositionally!):

  1. Get into the text ahead of each message. If you’re a Woodlander, you’ll find the passage on this site by the end of the week. This will put you on your toes and not your heels as you come into worship.
  2. While you’re reading or listening, summarize the main idea of the passage in one statement. So, for 2 Timothy 3.14-4.2, you might say: Old Paul’s last advice to the young pastor Timothy is to preach the Word. That’s got it.
  3. Then, rewrite the main idea of the message to include your own situation. So, the statement above becomes: The healthy, growing church partner is a trained expositional listener to God’s Word. Not an infallible statement, but it connects the passage to our situation and our series.
  4. Engage your pastor with the main ideas you’ve written out. If you want to say something nice, don’t say, “Great message!” He’ll only think he stunk it up, and now you’re trying to encourage him. Tell him something specific about the passage and how God is applying it to your life.
  5. Finally, find somebody to talk to about how God is helping you apply the main point of the sermon that comes from the main point of the passage.

Now, find that somebody you’re sharing with, and talk through these questions:

Which of the pointers above do you find to be the easiest to do? The hardest? 

Are any of them unclear, needing further explanation? 

How has the idea of targeted, expositional preaching changed the way you think about how you ought to listen? 

What are some additional ways that you can listen “expositionally”?