In our preaching and teaching this quarter, we are focusing on devotion to the apostles’ teaching. Last week, Clay observed—and correctly so—that the essence of the apostles’ teaching is that Jesus was raised from the dead. Through the early part of Acts, it seems like Peter and the rest can’t hardly get two words out of their mouths without referring to the resurrection in some way.
The apostles didn’t spend so much time on it because the resurrection was fun to talk about. Instead, it is nothing less than the most significant event in human history. It’s significant for the way we live. As Clay pointed out, we disciples live a resurrected life that is dramatically different from the life of the worldly.
However, the implications don’t stop there. The resurrection doesn’t only change our attitudes and behavior. It transforms the way we understand reality. Everything about human existence is different because of the resurrection. I know this is a huge claim, but the Scriptures bear it out. This morning, then, let’s consider only some of the implications if Christ is raised.
The first of these is that HE IS A TRUE PROPHET. Consider the test of Deuteronomy 18:18-22. Though this test is inspired, we could arrive at the same conclusion using common sense. We can know that a man speaks for God if he correctly predicts the future.
After all, we can’t do that. Weather forecasters with advanced degrees and massively complicated computer models can’t even tell us if it’s going to rain next Thursday! If somebody does correctly predict the future, especially in a specific and unlikely way, it validates his claim to be God’s prophet.
Jesus did exactly that when He predicted His own death, burial, and resurrection. We’ve talked about how prevalent the resurrection is in Acts. The funny thing is that it’s nearly as prevalent in the gospels. Jesus is constantly telling people that He is going to rise from the dead, directly, by implication, and by metaphor. Even His enemies knew that His own resurrection was a big part of His teaching.
In rising from the dead, Jesus confirms His own predictions, passes the Deuteronomy 18 test, and proves Himself to be a true prophet. Thus, the rest of Deuteronomy 18 applies. We must accept that Jesus speaks for God, and we also must hear God’s warning that He will hold accountable everyone who does not listen to Jesus.
This has immense significance for the way we read the gospels. The God who raised Jesus from the dead surely also would safeguard the words of His prophet, so we can be confident that the gospel accounts of Jesus’ teaching correctly represent that teaching. If Jesus said it, we are right to believe it, and we must obey it.
This has many implications, but one of the most important is that JUDGMENT, HEAVEN, AND HELL ARE REAL. We see this in many places in Jesus’ teaching, but Matthew 25:31-46 brings all three together. We don’t have time to delve into the subtleties of this passage, but its broad outlines are simple and clear. The day will come when Jesus will judge the nations according to their works. This judgment will vindicate the righteous, and He will invite them into eternal life. However, it will condemn the wicked, and He will send them away into eternal punishment. Because of the resurrection, we know that we can trust what Jesus says about the afterlife.
Brethren, this conviction transforms my life right now. Because I know that my time on earth is comparatively short, I naturally spend a lot of time thinking about what will happen next. Are the atheists right, and I am about to be as permanently dead as my grandfather’s dog? Is some other religion right, and I should have been giving my allegiance to Mohammed, Krishna, or some other mystical figure? Or, instead, can I continue to rely on the Lord I have served all my life?
The resurrection answers these questions for me. Because Jesus rose, I can know that what He has said will happen, will happen. Thus, even though I am dying, I can and must continue to live with purpose. I inevitably will stand before the throne of God and give an account, so I’d better get ready for it! Similarly, the most important thing I can do with my time is help others get ready to give their account. I can’t give up now because the resurrection fills every day I have left with profound meaning.
Finally, if Jesus rose, LIFE IS ONLY POSSIBLE THROUGH HIM. Consider His words in John 14:1-6. This passage reaffirms what we saw in Matthew 25. Currently, Jesus is preparing an eternal home for the righteous, where they will dwell eternally with God.
So far, so comforting, but Jesus’ next words are shocking. Indeed, billions of people would find them infuriating and offensive. The only way into eternal life is Jesus. Apart from Him, no one is going to reach that heavenly dwelling place with God. All those other holy figures are liars and frauds. They have nothing to offer us. Similarly, atheists are murderers. Everyone who listens to them will pass into eternal death instead.
Among other things, Jesus’ words here are an affront to our society that prizes tolerance above all else. No, you can’t be transgender and hope to inherit eternal life. Jesus says that God created them male and female. No, you can’t get unscripturally divorced, remarry, and pretend that you’re righteous. Jesus says that’s adultery. No, you can’t call Jesus “Lord”, refuse to obey Him, and act like it’ll be good enough. Jesus will tell you that He never knew you. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and there is no other.
In short, Jesus’ words allow no room for compromise. Either you are with Jesus in everything, or you are against Him and on the fast track to eternal disaster. This is a hard saying indeed! We don’t like people who say to us “My way or the highway,” but Jesus is the ultimate in my-way-or-the-highway. However, this ideologue, this tyrant who wants to control every aspect of our lives, is also the One who rose from the dead. We obey Him because of the resurrection. We have no other choice.
There is no surer sign of being a control freak than wanting to control things postmortem. I qualify. Though some of my anxiety is directed at the prospect of dying slow and ugly, most of it is aimed at what will happen after I’m gone.
What will happen to my family? What will happen to my congregation and all the other people I love? What will happen to the song worship of the church? In short, surely without indispensable me, all of the above will fall apart!
There’s a sense in which the above concerns are godly. We are supposed to love people and care about their welfare. We are supposed to be devoted to the things of God.
However, there’s also a sense in which they are not. They reveal that on some level, I have made the Lord’s work about me instead of Him. He’s indispensable. I’m not.
Mordecai’s warning to Esther in Esther 4:13-14 beautifully illustrates this principle. He informs her that if her courage fails and she refuses to approach the king on behalf of the Jews, deliverance will arise from someplace else, but she and her family will perish. God’s people were going to be saved no matter what. The only question was whether Esther would be involved in their salvation.
This seems counter-intuitive to us. Who could be as well placed to rescue the Jews from a Persian noble as the queen of Persia? However, even if Esther may have been Plan A, God’s Plans B, C, D, and so on would have been equally effective in accomplishing His will. Haman was not going to frustrate His eternal purpose, even if He had to squash him with an anvil from heaven!
I am not essential to any of God’s purposes either, especially if He allows my early exit. There are works that He has given me to do, and I have striven to perform them faithfully. However, the work will go on without me, and His desires will be accomplished 20 years from now as they were 2500 years ago.
This realization is important for two reasons, one negative, one positive. The first is that self-centered anxiety opens the door for fear. If I try to control the future from the present, Satan will use my fear to corrupt and taint everything I do. When we live by fear instead of faith and love, the usual result is that we bring about the thing we’re afraid of.
The second is even more important. God remains in control, so the good I want to do will be done without me. I won’t be able anymore to lead my children to God, but others will be. I won’t be preaching any more sermons for Jackson Heights, but other men of God will take the pulpit and carry forward the work. I won’t write any more hymns, but other brothers and sisters will give the church what it needs to worship. I find this thought deeply reassuring!
Ultimately, my decisions are the same as Esther’s. They aren’t about others. They’re about me. They will answer the lonely question of whether I will live with faith and courage or fall to fear and failure. If the former, I need only set my hand to the work before me as long as I am able. God will take care of the rest.
In Judges 8:12, during the aftermath of his crushing victory over the Midianites, the Israelite leader Gideon captures two Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna. Because they played hardball in those days, in v. 20, Gideon commands his son, Jether, to execute the captives. Jether, who is still young, shrinks back from the unpleasant task.
In response, the kings taunt Gideon. According to v. 21, they tell him, “Strike us down yourself, for a man is judged by his strength.” Gideon promptly complies, which seems like a counterproductive outcome for Zebah and Zalmunna.
Nonetheless, strength has been an essential attribute of masculinity ever since God created them male and female. Though there are exceptions, men generally are the ones with the big muscles. It changes the way we think and think of ourselves.
Though nobody ever would have confused me with Charles Atlas, I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to keep in shape. I’ve worked out regularly for years, even taking my exercise regimen on the road when I travel. It allowed me to do things that I valued: lifting heavy things for my wife, helping brethren move, and being able to throw my body into any task without fear of failing or getting hurt. Being strong and capable made me feel good.
Those days end for every man. For me, they ended early. I found myself unable to gain strength and muscle without halfway killing myself to get there. On the other hand, losing strength became very easy. Spend a week sitting on the couch, and boom! 98-pound weakling.
I figured it was middle age. It wasn’t. It was ALS.
Since my diagnosis, my decline has continued. I can stroll, but I can no longer walk briskly, much less jog or run. I’ve lost most of my pinch strength in both hands. I used to open stuck jars for Lauren; now she must open food wrappers for me. All the body-weight exercises I used to perform regularly are out of reach. Barring a miracle, whether medical or otherwise, my condition will worsen until I become a quadriplegic and eventually die.
There have been many lessons in this. First, it showed me how strength has shaped my worldview, even in matters not involving physical strength. If you are strong enough to rely on direct action and bulling your way through, that will affect the way you solve every problem. I spent 40 years of my life doing that without realizing why.
Conversely, my recent experiences have taught me greater sympathy for women. I simply didn’t understand what it was like to belong to “the weaker sex”. If you can’t rely on your own strength, if you are surrounded by people who are stronger than you are, and if you often have to ask for help, all that will shape the way you behave too. It will make you less direct, more cautious, and more concerned with maintaining relationships.
Being forced into a position of weakness is hard, especially if you are used to a position of strength. I hate, hate, hate having to ask Lauren for help when I’m getting dressed Sunday mornings. Buttoning a shirt used to be a trivial matter; now it is an exercise in hand-cramping agony. Any rational person would get somebody whose fingers still work right to do it, but if I have time, I will fight with those buttons for 20 minutes or more. My pinch strength has left me, but I apparently am determined to cling to my self-reliance.
Finally, of course, this experience has transformed the way I see my relationship with God. It is evident to me now that I’ve spent my preaching career not understanding 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. I knew what all the words meant and thought I understood it, but I didn’t get it. Yeah, yeah, thorn in the flesh. That’s like when your knee hurts, right?
Not exactly. It was a messenger of Satan. It tormented Paul. I believe that when Paul says he pleaded with the Lord three times to remove it, that doesn’t mean one-two-three prayers. It means praying about a subject so comprehensively that your prayer is complete in the same way that the triune God is complete. Paul prayed thus; Jesus said no.
Therefore, when Paul says in v. 9 that he intends to boast in his weaknesses, that’s not a well-OK-then-moving-on. It represents the wrenching acknowledgement that strength that mattered desperately to him is never going to be restored to him, and he is going to have to spend the rest of his life without it. Indeed, more subtly, the weakness that is the subject of Paul’s boasting is not only the thorn in the flesh. It is the pride that only could be defeated by the application of the thorn.
I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why God allowed me to have ALS. I know there’s a reason. Christ doesn’t keep us from suffering, but He does make our suffering meaningful if we seek Him through it. Is it because my ALS is supposed to teach me to be kinder and more compassionate to others? Is it because I’m supposed to use my writing about it to enlighten and inspire?
Those things may be true, but I must at least entertain the possibility that I needed to develop ALS for my own sake. When I was strong, it was awfully easy to trust in my own strength, not merely for the lifting of heavy objects but for making my way through life. ALS has rubbed my nose in the foolishness of such a delusion. It’s hard to be self-reliant when you can’t button your own shirt.
I must learn to boast in my own weaknesses too. I must learn to embrace them and the emptiness they leave in my life. As with Paul, only then can my weakness be filled with the strength of God.
Last summer, as the reality of my terminal diagnosis was dawning on me, I experienced a mental-health crisis. In response to this crisis, I began taking two antidepressants, Trazodone and Lexapro. Now that six months have passed, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit that decision and its consequences.
I’ve never had a problem with other Christians using mental-health meds, but it wasn’t something I had wanted for myself either. I’ve been prone to depression throughout my adult life; looking back, I count at least seven major depressive episodes. However, last July was the first time I sought professional help. Before that, I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge my struggles to anyone, and I’m strong-willed enough that I figured I could muscle through on my own. That worked OK until last summer, when it clearly wasn’t working anymore.
Once I started my medications, though, my improvement was swift and dramatic. I don’t think this is typical; I’m probably something of a poster child for chemical intervention. Nonetheless, the Trazodone quickly suppressed the nocturnal anxiety attacks that were depriving me of sleep. Because I was better rested, I was able to get a handle on the depression with the Lexapro’s help.
That help proved to be more modest than people often think it is. I’ve heard brethren say that they don’t want to take antidepressants because they don’t want to be numb inside. That’s not how I felt. Instead, the meds felt to me like touching something while wearing thin knit gloves. I still had the same sensations, but the edges weren’t as sharp.
On the flip side, the antidepressants didn’t do the work for me either. They gave me a ladder, but they didn’t haul me out of the pit. I had to redirect my own thoughts down healthier paths.
Interestingly, one of my most powerful tools in this was prayer, but not prayer for myself. When I caught myself dwelling on my dreadful future, I started praying my way through the roster of members at Jackson Heights in considerable length and detail. I found that my prayers benefited me as much as the recipients!
Conversely, if I had sat back and waited for the pills to do their thing, I don’t think I would have improved much if at all. Antidepressants aren’t magic potions, and when people take them expecting an easy fix, they’re going to be disappointed.
Today, despite my grim prognosis, I find that my mental health is as good as it has ever been. Looking back, I see that I didn’t realize how much depression was affecting me not just in the midst of emotional crashes, but all the time. If I had been willing to seek help 25 years ago, I think my life would have been much sunnier.
I’m certainly not going to dictate to anybody else what they should or should not do about their mental health, but I do believe that antidepressants can play a useful role in the emotional life of the child of God. Yes, Christians 2000 years ago got by without them, but those Christians also got by without eyeglasses, antibiotics, and knee replacements. When these blessings exist today, why not take advantage of them? All of us will experience more than enough suffering in this life without adding to it needlessly.
Marshal McLuhan, one of the greatest communications theorists of all time, is famous for saying, “The medium is the message.” In other words, the way in which you present information is fully as important as the information itself.
This would not have been news to our brethren in the early church, who adopted the new-to-them format of the codex for the gospels and epistles of the New Testament. Codices were different than scrolls (and both, of course, were equally different from oral tradition). Compare, for instance, the ease of flipping back and forth in a codex with the laborious unrolling and rerolling of a scroll. You’re a lot more likely to use a codex as a reference work, and Bible-as-reference work versus Bible-as-narrative was a truly titanic paradigm shift!
We live in a time that has focused attention on the medium as never before. During the late pandemic, many churches engaged with the Internet in a way that they never had before. If in lockdown, either you were livestreaming services somehow, or you weren’t feeding your people at all!
However, now that life has more or less gone back to normal, the impact of the livestream seems to have faded somewhat. There are still a dozen or so people who tune in regularly to the Jackson Heights livestream: shut-ins (who I’m sure are thrilled that they now have a robust connection to assemblies), the sick, people who are traveling but want to worship with the home folks, and so on. Most of us, though, have reset our assembly and worship experiences to 2019.
I tend to believe the livestream has had only a transitory impact because we weren’t asking what new and different thing we could do. We wanted to do the same old thing: church, except virtual and not quite as good. As we might expect, the medium of “in person” is ideal for many spiritual pursuits. The question that we ought to be asking, though, is whether there are things we can do better online, especially with online video.
I don’t claim to have the answers here, but I did have a fascinating recent experience that led me to conclude that some interesting answers exist. Throughout my adult life, I’ve been involved with a weeklong hymn-writing seminar called the Hymninar. My first year was 1997, and in the time since, I’ve gradually taken on a teaching and mentoring role in it.
This is something with which I am well familiar. I was teaching hymn theory and analyzing students’ hymns before I started preaching the gospel. However, like all other familiar things, the Hymninar got COVID-canceled in 2020, and in 2021, Sumphonia decided to hold the Hymninar virtually over Zoom.
In practice, though, Zoom Hymninar proved to be about as much like in-person Hymninar as a Bible codex was like a Bible scroll. More people participated, in many cases because time, health, or financial constraints would have prevented them from attending in person. Singing was inevitably nonexistent. Teaching was harder. I don’t know why, but it’s a lot harder to pull interaction out of faces on a screen than from people in a classroom.
The most significant differences, though, appeared in collaboration and critique. In an in-person Hymninar, after the class spends a couple of days going through a manual on how to write good hymns, each attendee is asked to write a quality original verse. They write where they please, either in the main classroom or smaller rooms elsewhere. Teachers circulate and offer suggestions. When a verse is far enough along, it gets projected on a screen in the main classroom, and the assembled class provides more critique. Hopefully, by the end of the week, the verse of each student attains the requisite level of quality.
As much as we could, we tried to imitate that format online, with a main Zoom room and breakout rooms where mentors waited for those who wanted help. However, the online version didn’t function like the real-life version. Rather than passively waiting for doom to descend, online attendees actively sought help. The main Zoom room, rather than being sepulchrally quiet like the brick-and-mortar main room, became a place where students engaged in reciprocal editing without prompting from instructors.
Normally, we expect the last day of the Hymninar to be a race against time, with a last few students struggling to finish verses. Some never get there. Not this year. All the writers were solidly done by early afternoon. They did so well, in fact, that they left us scrambling for things to fill the final few hours of the seminar!
Clearly, then, Zoom is a better venue for collaborative hymn editing and critique than a traditional classroom is. Of course, this breaks down spectacularly when it comes to testing hymn tunes, which must be sung, but for text editing, Zoom is superior to real life. Though I can’t say for sure, I suspect that the layer of unreality imposed by Zoom engages people but makes them less inhibited in sharing and receiving criticism.
I know that the intricacies of hymn production aren’t of interest to most Christians. However, this parable has a point. Rather than only asking how the Internet can solve our churches’ huge, pressing problems (like COVID), we should ask how it might solve our low-grade, frustrating problems too. Are there things we want to do that don’t seem to work very well in real life? Maybe they’ll work better in a virtual venue!
To put things another way, we spent 2020 using online media to do almost as good a job because we had to. In the years that follow, we should ask what we want to do with the electronic tools we have because of the very real possibility that they might be better than what we’re doing now. If the medium is the message, it’s time we started investing thought in the medium.
This article originally appeared in _Pressing On_.