Come behold the wondrous mystery this Christmas

Come behold the wondrous mystery,
In the dawning of the king;
He the theme of heaven’s praises,
Robed in frail humanity.
In our longing, in our darkness,
Now the light of life has come;
Look to Christ who condescended,
Took on flesh to ransom us.

I’ve really grown to love this hymn, and the first verse is particularly apt for Christmas time. What a wondrous mystery it is that the infinite God would take on finite fallible flesh to ransom us!

Advertisements

Oratio, meditatio, tentatio

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. (Psalm 119:67)

I have recently finished reading John Piper’s short and superb little biography, Martin Luther: Lessons from His Life and Labour (free to download here). Piper focuses on the significance of Scripture to Luther’s life and ministry, drawing out certain lessons to exhort those in gospel ministry.

Many of the points from the Luther story are largely expected — the importance of keen study of the Scriptures; original languages as the key to understanding the text; the necessity of prayer and utter dependency on God; and so on.

But the bit which caught me off guard, and which left the deepest impression on me, is what Luther called the “touchstone” of understanding Scripture: trials.

Reflecting on Psalm 119, Luther said:

I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself […] The method of which I am speaking is the one which the holy king David teaches in Psalm 119 […] Here you will find three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout the psalm and run thus: Oratio, meditatio, tentatio (prayer, meditation, trial).

Oratio, meditatio, tentatio. Prayer, meditation, trial.

And trials Luther called the “touchstone”, for they

teach you not only to know and understand but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s word is: it is wisdom supreme.

And Luther again, reflecting on his own experiences, said:

For as soon as God’s Word becomes known through you, the devil will afflict you and will make a real doctor of you, and will teach you by his temptations to seek and to love God’s Word. For I myself […] owe my papists many thanks for so beating, pressing, and frightening me through the devil’s raging that they should have turned me into a fairly good theologian, driving me to a goal I should never have reached.

The language of “trials” or “afflictions” feels so foreign to many of us who live in the developed world. More so if we are in our 20s and 30s. Most of us have yet to encounter any real suffering; many of us still view ourselves as invincible.

And so it is for me, someone who lives a relatively comfortable life in 21st century London.

Lately, though, I’ve been going through quite a difficult period. I’ve been forced to strip away many things I held dear and placed my hope in. It’s been humbling and painful.

But in each painful instance, Jesus has welcomed me with outstretched arms, saying, “I’m enough for you; if you have me, you have everything“.

Much like when Eustace is “undragoned” by Aslan in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, this pain is the necessary restorative work of turning me back to my loving Saviour. Or much like Luther (above), this trial is teaching me to know my Lord Jesus more deeply. Indeed, I am becoming a better theologian.

By no means am I holding myself out to be an expert or “holier than thou”. I don’t even think I’ve fully come out of this trial as yet. And in any case, my pain does not even begin to compare to the ordeals some of my brothers and sisters in Christ have endured, let alone to the anguish my Saviour suffered.

But I can testify that in my state, His Words bring me great comfort. They are sweeter, truer, lovelier. He is the living water who truly satisfies my deepest thirst; he is the bread of life who truly satisfies my deepest hunger; he is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear?

His grace is sufficient for me, for his power is made perfect in my weakness.

He has a plan; He is sovereign and will bring it to pass; He who promised is faithful, He will surely do it.

Dear brother or sister, if you are going through a similarly difficult situation, don’t neglect the tentatio which God will no doubt use to deepen your knowledge of Him. May this fiery trial bring you closer to Him and fill you with inexpressible joy.

Let me find Your grace in the valley
Let me find Your life in my death
Let me find Your joy in my sorrow
Your wealth in my need
That You’re near with every breath
In the valley

How union with Christ changes our attempts to resist sin:

“Before being joined to Christ, when I resisted sin I was like a prisoner who tries to escape over the prison wall before his sentence is paid. When sin the jailer catches up with me and tells me to come back into prison, I have no choice but to go, because I am guilty and the penalty is not paid. But when the Christian resists sin he is like a prisoner who is released through the prison gate after serving his sentence. When the jailer threatens him and tells him to return to prison, he need not go. The only power that sin has over the Christian is the power of bluff.”

– Christopher Ash, Teaching Romans (2008) at 229.

“A Global Slaughter of Christians…”

The events of this past week or so have been harrowing. Kirsten Power’s article, A Global Slaughter of Christians, but America’s Churches Stay Silent, is a helpful – but uneasy – read. She calls for American churches to be galvanised into action. But non-American Christians alike must certainly do something; at the very least speak up to raise awareness, or simply pray for our brothers and sisters in the faith.

In light of these events I am reminded of Hebrews 11:35ff. In Hebrews 11, the writer to the Hebrews is talking about the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ to the faith (12:1), who chose to place their trust in God to keep His promise to them of eternal rest and fellowship with Him. Together with the “giants” of the faith such as Abraham and Moses, the writer to the Hebrews mentions some other unnamed heroes:

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” (Heb 11:35b-38)

The culmination of Hebrews 11 is the great statement of encouragement in the first verses of the next chapter:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and 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.” (Heb 12:1-2)

My brothers and sisters who have been ‘slaughtered, tortured, raped, kidnapped, beheaded’ (K. Powers) for Christ, thank you for witnessing to the faith. Thank you for giving me greater impetus to ‘run with endurance, […] looking to Jesus’. And for those who continue to suffer under intense persecution, I will be praying for you, everyday. 

“Hey Worship Leader, Are You a Theological Lightweight?”

Ronnie Martin, “Hey Worship Leader, Are You A Theological Lightweight?”

Why do we think it’s ok for someone who barely knows God’s Word to lead God’s people in singing the excellency of His Words? Too harsh? Or have we simply produced a generation of worship leaders who are musically adept at singing and playing but spiritually inept at reading and praying?

John Stott on the Mortification of Sin

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Rom 8:12-14)

In his commentary on the Epistle of Romans (The Message of Romans, IVP 1994), John Stott addresses verse 13, ‘a very significant verse on the neglected topic of “mortification” (the process of putting to death the body’s misdeeds).’ There are ‘at least three truths’ to be clarified:

First, what is mortification? Mortification is neither masochism (taking pleasure in self-inflicted pain), nor asceticism (resenting and rejecting the fact that we have bodies and natural bodily appetites). It is rather a clear-sighted recognition of evil as evil, leading to such a decisive and radical repudiation of it that no imagery can do it justice except ‘putting to death’. In fact, the verb Paul uses normally means to ‘kill someone, hand someone over to be killed, especially of the death sentence and its execution’ […] Elsewhere the apostle has called it a crucifixion of our fallen nature, with all its passions and desires (Gal 5:24). And this teaching is Paul’s elaboration of Jesus’ own summons: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ (Mk 8:34) Since the Romans compelled a condemned criminal to carry his cross to the site of crucifixion, to carry our cross is symbolic of following Jesus to the place of execution. And what we are to put to death there, Paul explains, is the misdeeds of the body, that is, every use of our body […] which serves ourselves instead of God and other people. […]

Secondly, how does mortification take place? We note at once that it is something that we have to do. It is not a question of dying or of being put to death, but of putting to death. In the work of mortification we are not passive, waiting for it to be done to us or for us. On the contrary, we are responsible for putting evil to death. True, Paul immediately adds that we can put to death the misdeeds of the body only by the Spirit, by his agency and power. For only he can give us the desire, determination and discipline to reject evil. Nevertheless, it is we who must take the initiative to act. Negatively, we must totally repudiate everything we know to be wrong, and not even ‘think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature’ (Rom 13:14). This is not an unhealthy form of repression, pretending that evil does not exist in us and refusing to face it. It is the opposite. We have to ‘pull it out, look at it, denounce it, hate it for what it is; then you have really dealt with it’ (Lloyd-Jones). Or, as Jesus graphically expressed it, we must gouge out our offending eye and cut off our offending hand or foot (Mt 5:29ff). That is, if temptation comes to us through what we see, handle or visit, then we must be ruthless in not looking, not touching, not going, and so in controlling the very approaches of sin. Positively, we are to set our minds on the things the Spirit desires (Rom 8:5), set our hearts on things above (Col 3:1f), and occupy our thoughts with what is noble, right, pure and lovely (Phil 4:8). In this way ‘mortification‘ (putting evil to death) and ‘aspiration‘ (hungering and thirsting for what is good) are counterparts. Both verbs […] are in the present tense, for they describe attitudes and activities which should be continuous, involving taking up the cross every day (Lk 9:23) and setting our minds on the things of the Spirit every day.

Thirdly, why should we practise mortification? It sounds an unpleasant, uncongenial, austere and even painful business. It runs counter to our natural tendency to soft and lazy self-indulgence. If we are to engage in it, we shall need strong motives. One is, as we have seen, that we have an obligation (Rom 8:12) to the indwelling Spirit of life. Another, on which Paul now insists, is that the death of mortification is the only road to life. Verse 13 contains he most marvellous promise, which is expressed in the single Greek verb zesesthe, you will live. Paul is not now contradicting himself. Having called eternal life a free and undeserved gift (Rom 6:23), he is not now making it a reward for self-denial. Nor by ‘life’ does he seem to be referring to the life of the world to come. He seems to be alluding to the life of God’s children, who are led by his Spirit and assured of his fatherly love, to which he comes in the next verses (14ff). This rich, abundant, satisfying life, he is saying, can be enjoyed only by those who put their misdeeds to death. Even the pain of mortification is worth while if it opens the door to fulness of life.

This is one of several ways in which the radical principle of ‘life through death’ lies at the heart of the gospel. According to Romans 6 it is only by dying with Christ to sin, its penalty thereby paid, that we rise to a new life of forgiveness and freedom. According to Romans 8 it is only by putting our evil deeds to death that we experience the full life of God’s children. So we need to redefine both life and death. What the world calls life (a desirable self-indulgence) leads to alienation from God which in reality is death, whereas the putting to death of all perceived evil within us, which the world sees as an undesirable self-abnegation, is in reality the way to authentic life.

Holy Spirit, would you indeed give us the ‘desire, determination and discipline’ to reject evil. May we actively reject sin and embrace life.

Poverty, it is manifest, was our Lord’s portion upon earth, from the days of His earliest infancy. He was nursed and tended as a babe, by a poor woman. He passed the first thirty years of His life on earth, under the roof of a poor man. We need not doubt that He ate a poor man’s food, and wore a poor man’s apparel, and worked a poor man’s work, and shared in all a poor man’s troubles. Such condescension is truly marvelous. Such an example of humility passes man’s understanding.

J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Luke, at 64

a beautiful consistency about the paradox of the incarnation

Wenham, Christ and the Bible (1984):

There is a beautiful consistency about the paradox [of the incarnation.] That the humanity of Christ is depicted in the Gospels as fully and clearly as his divinity needs no documentation. Jesus is seen as the Last Adam, as Ideal Man in perfect communion with God. God, on the one hand, is all powerful, all holy, all knowing; unable to fail, unable to sin, unable to err. Fallen man, on the other hand, fails, sins, errs. Ideal Man, however, could-but-does-not-fail, could-but-does-not-sin, could-but-does-not-err. Jesus tasted human weakness to the limit, but did not fail; experienced temptation at its fiercest, but did not sin; shared human ignorance to the full, but taught no error.