Sacrament or Ordinance

by Aaron

At our last Weekender (the new name for our Gospel Class), I got a question that I didn’t fully understand. I kept calling communion and baptism “sacraments” for Element. A person asked me if I meant “sacrament” or “ordinance” when talking about those two things. My response was that it wasn’t a hill I was going to die on and you could call it whatever you wanted; I said this because I didn’t understand what the person was getting at. I went home that night and thought about it and at about 2 AM, the light went on in my brain and I was like, “OH, I know what they were asking now.”

I was not raised in a religious environment. I could probably count on one hand (probably even 2 fingers) the number of times my family went to “church” while growing up. Because of my upbringing, I do not attach deep meaning to certain words or phrases that many people who have been raised in a church setting do. One of those words happens to be “sacrament.”

The word sacrament comes from the word for mystery; mystery was a word that was used for something that was once unclear and now is clear because of God’s work in Christ. The mystery of Christ is that: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. They called this “revealed mystery” because it was what the Old Testament had been saying all along and we now see the reality in Jesus. Where did we get the word sacrament from if the word meant mystery? The answer to that comes from when the Latin language was taking over the world.

People didn’t know what mystery (mysterium) meant, so when translators wanted to make this word clearer, they borrowed a word from the Roman Army. A recruit for the Roman army became a soldier by undergoing a “sacramentum.” The sacramentum had two parts:

  • The soldier took an oath of office
  • The Army branded him behind the ear with the number of his legion

The “sacramentum” brought about new advantages like acquiring social and legal benefits. Ancient Latin theologians used the word sacramentum because they thought it was the best Latin equivalent because the church rite is spiritual and physical (we get new responsibilities and a new spiritual status before God).

Back to the Weekender question…Catholics are taught that a sacrament is, “An outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” Meaning it is a MEANS OF GRACE and can be tied to salvation. There are many outward signs of inward grace that are not sacraments in Catholicism (like the benediction at the end of a service), but in 1545-1563 the Council of Trent said true sacraments were a means of grace (and there were 7 of them): Baptism, Confirmation, Penance (Confession), Communion (Eucharist), Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders (setting people aside as clergy), and Marriage.

Now, do we believe that marriage or communion is a means of grace being bestowed upon as believers? Not at all. We believe they are GIFTS of grace, but they do not affect our salvation. This is why, in order to not confuse people, the protestant church started to use the word “ordinance.” Ordination to the clergy can’t be a sacrament, because not every Christian is called to the ordained ministry. Marriage can’t be a sacrament, because it is not something only Christians do (and Jesus didn’t require it). Anointing the sick with oil can’t be a sacrament, because what happens to healthy Christians? Any time we try to make something a “means” of grace, other than Christ’s propitiating work for us, we shrink the Gospel.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church they still call certain things “The Holy Mysteries” which shows that the words can be used interchangeably. Essentially I use the word sacrament because communion and baptism at Element are sacred, but they are not a means of grace. We believe they hold great significance to our church and communal life, but should never be a substitute for the Gospel.

That’s a long way to say, “that is why I use the word sacrament; it is sacred, but it is not the Gospel.” 

True God, False Faith

by Aaron

This is my second blog where I wanted to delve a bit deeper into something I talked about in an updated Gospel Class that we called The Weekender. The original point of our Gospel Class was to give people who were considering making Element their home a quick primer on basic theology and the reasons Element functions the way it does (from our mission to our vision in how we accomplish God’s call as a church). This year we decided to streamline the course by holding a Friday night/Saturday morning class. In streamlining the class, there were certain things that became condensed, and one of those was a section we call “Creation and Sin.” I wanted to write a couple of short blogs to round out some of what may have gotten lost in the class. Since this is the second of these blogs, I want to write about what we call “The Fall.”

In Christian theology “the fall” references humankind’s rebellion against God by trying to “live our own truth” and ceasing to trust Him. Now you may be thinking…what? I wasn’t there! However, Scripture’s portrayal of Adam and Eve represents how all of humanity would respond in that situation. We all buy into lies about our identity and about God. In that sense, even though we were not there shortly after creation, we are responsible for the effects of the fall and can witness our own brokenness today. God had essentially given us the entire world as a gift, calling us to steward and take care of His creation, and we (in no time at all) did our best to destroy it. God called us to trust Him for what was good and true, and we bought into a lie that God was not as good as He claimed to be—that we could be more than we were created to be. We distrusted God (as we still distrust Him every day) and we did the one thing He commanded us not to do. In so doing we fell from relationship with Him into sin. As those who fell, there was/is nothing we could do to restore relationship with a holy and eternal God, so God Himself came to us to bring us back to Himself.

God coming for us ultimately leads to the proclamation of good news. The first proclamation is in Genesis 3:16 right after we fell. In Genesis 3:16 Jesus promises that He (Himself) would be the one to pay for the penalty of our rebellion…this is the essence of the Gospel. Jesus takes our death upon Himself and gives us His life; He takes our sin and rebellion and gives us His righteousness with God. In the Weekender I kind of blazed through this on the way to the session about salvation, but I want to take a step back and talk about what happened in the fall because it still relates to our lives today.

In the creation narrative, we see that God is creator and there is a distinction between Him and the creation. As I wrote in the last blog, God is self-contained. He is A SE (from Latin…this is where we get the word Aseity). He is dependent upon nothing, while creation (and humans particularly) is dependent upon our creator epistemologically (knowledge) and metaphysically (reality). This is why when God says we are to trust Him for what is good, there is no good that can be understood apart from Him. When the fall takes place in Genesis 3, there is a de-creation, a reversal, of what God did in Genesis 1-2. The order God created unravels and we are still living in the dysfunction that remains.

How? In Genesis 3 the serpent becomes humanity’s guide for the “good,” as humans eat fruit that was forbidden to them. Under the serpent’s advice, we dismissed the authority of God. In creation, the order (in terms of authority) went God, man, woman (who was created equal), creatures. In the de-creation of the fall, the serpent lies to and tempts the woman, the woman gives some fruit to her husband (who then eats) and we see a reverse cycle of whose authority we trust to determine our lives: serpent, woman, man, God. John Calvin wrote about how we turn aside from God’s truth to falsehoods: “…the first man revolted from God’s authority, not because of Satan’s blandishments, but also because, contemptuous of the truth, he turned aside to falsehood. And surely, once we hold God’s word in contempt, we shake off all reverence for Him.” The fall happened because we ceased to revere God for who He is; I would say that the same thing still happens in our world today.

In the fall we tried to shrink God from who He is. D. A. Carson wrote, “The true God is holy; He is unique, and cannot, by His very nature, tolerate those who try to relativize Him. We are not gods; and by death we learn we are only human.” In the fall God warned us that if we sin, we will die; part of what death does is blow away our pretentions. The most striking difference in today’s world is not between those who have “faith” and those who have none; it is between those who have true faith and those who have false faith. Adam and Eve didn’t become atheists and refuse to believe in God (God came walking in the garden, calling out to them). Instead, they left the true faith for a false faith that was centered on themselves and not God. Adam and Eve still sincerely believed in the existence of God, but in false faith, sincerity is not the issue—the truth of who God is is the issue. Mike Ovey writes, “…the truth or falsehood of the faith turns not on whether the person who has faith is sincere or not, but on whether the belief that person holds is true to the reality of the person of whom he or she believes it.” False faith believes lies about God. In this case, Adam and Eve chose to believe God wasn’t enough for them.

False faith today, culturally speaking, believes lies about God that are rationally and ethically justified by our own standards. False faith will treat what God does as bad, when He is clearly shown to be good. It argues that the legitimate sovereignty that God has over His creation is not legitimate. False faith treats God’s loving warnings as bad commands—calling His goodness into question. When we have false faith, it obscures and distorts who God made us to be; it continues to degrade our relationship with God and pushes us farther into the fall.

There are questions that we must ask that come out of the ways we diminish God:

  • In what ways are we listening to authorities, other than God, in our life?
  • In what ways are we adhering to false faith, rather than looking for who God has revealed Himself to be?
  • In what ways are we continuing to live in the lie that began the fall in the first place?

We naturally, because we are born into sin, run from God and toward false faith. It is why salvation comes from God’s hand alone. The Gospel is the good news of God’s rescue of us from our own lies and falsehoods we have adhered to. If God had not been for us, we would have never known restored relationship with Him again. Eugene Peterson translated Psalm 124:6 as Oh, blessed be God! He didn’t go off and leave us…when the entire world went against us, because of our own choices, God comes for us.

Psalm 124:8 Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  

Aseity, Unity, Simplicity, Trinity

by Aaron

A couple of weeks ago we led an updated Gospel Class that we called The Weekender. Our Gospel Class eventually grew from an original 7-week course to an 8-week course as we refined our vision over the years. The point of the Gospel Class was to give people who were considering making Element their home a quick primer on basic theology and why Element functions the way it does (from our mission to our vision in how we accomplish God’s call as a church). Since people tended to have “life” happen to them and couldn’t make all 8 weeks, this year we decided to try something new and streamline the course by doing a Friday night/Saturday morning class.

In streamlining the class, there were a couple topics that became condensed. One of those was who God is in His person and the other was the fall of humankind (into what we call sin). These two things have been running through my heart and head in the last couple of weeks, so I wanted to write a couple of short blogs to round out what may have been missed in the class. Let’s first talk about God (you know, because God is always first).

When we speak about God, we speak about God’s shared and unshared attributes. God’s shared attributes are the ones that He shares with His people. This includes Spirit (we have a spirit because God gave us life), Holiness (God gives us the gift of being set apart for His purposes), Love and Goodness (we love because He first loved us), Truth (we can know and live in the truth), Justice and Righteousness (we know true righteousness and just because they stem from God Himself), Mercy (God doesn’t give us what we deserve, He gives us grace and we are to show that same grace to others), and Beauty (God creates in beauty and allows His creatures to also create works of beauty).

God also has attributes that He does not share. These would be His Omnipresence (God is everywhere at all times), His Omniscience (He has complete and perfect knowledge of all things), His Omnipotence (He is all-powerful and able to do all that He wills unopposed), His Immutability (God does not change because He is perfect), His Eternality (God has no beginning or end and is not bound by time), His Sovereignty (God is supreme in rule and authority over all things), and His Aseity (God is sufficient in Himself and does not need anything from creation (including us) to complete Him.

All the above may be review and could lead you to ask the question, “Why this blog?” The answer is that there is another point I wanted to make regarding God and His attributes…all of this is only relatable to us when we understand that God is within a Trinity and His unity is correlative only to Himself. All the complexities of the attributes above stem from God’s person—which is unity in Trinity. I hope I am not confusing you.

While God Himself is unity in trinity, He made the world in diversity; sometimes that diversity causes us to misunderstand God’s Aseity. As created beings, we are dependent upon things outside of ourselves for life, but God Himself is not like us. Let’s take something as simple as love…if God were not a unity in Trinity, then what would be the object of God’s love? Us? The world? John Frame wrote, “…love in the fullest biblical sense by its very nature reaches out to another, not merely to the self.” That means if God was not a Trinity, He would then need someone or something else to love to be God. Frame writes, “On a Trinitarian basis…God’s love is both interpersonal and self-contained.” God’s love is a love among the Father, Son, and Spirit—it is not dependent upon anything else.

The reason the Trinity is so important a doctrine is that it guards God’s Aseity. Without God being a Triune God, He would be dependent upon the world. As Frame writes, “Trinity…guards the personality of God: He is not blank unity, which would be impersonal. Rather, He is a unity of persons.” Michelle, who I have proofread these blogs, responded with these words after reading the above paragraph, “And—if I’m understanding this correctly—He would HAVE to love us/creation, right? Which would not only compromise His omnipotence, but also detract from the goodness that…He actually chooses to love us of His own free will.” Correct, but it would compromise His Aseity as well.

This is a doctrine that theologians call God’s “Simplicity.” God is not made up of the attributes listed above because there is nothing in Him that is independent of His person…every good thing we know stems from who He is. If you take God’s goodness, for instance, that is not an external thing that God focuses on in order to be good. Goodness is not an attribute that God conforms Himself to; goodness comes from God Himself. If goodness came from outside of God, then goodness would essentially be another god (a second deity) that God would conform Himself to—He would cease to be God. Cornelius Van Til has been quoted as saying, “Denial of God’s unity of simplicity violates God’s unity of singularity.”

Hopefully you can see why I am sharing this in a blog. This whole discussion, while fascinating to me, could take us into the weeds if I were to do it in class. Suffice to say, a proper understanding of God’s simplicity, unity in Trinity, and Aseity tells us that there is not any “non-being” (attributes) that have/had any power over God. Logic, ethics, truth, mercy all come from His person and are just some reasons why we worship and ascribe worth to who He is. It is why we are a people who are lost and broken without the God who made us. We are dependent and He is sufficient in Himself yet chooses to love us; that is a great God!


Q&A: Watchman Nee

by Aaron

Question: I was hoping you could answer a quick question... Do you know anything about Watchman Nee? We are going to a new, very small church. The "what we believe” section looks good, but they are reading these Morning Revival books all together and the books give an almost cult vibe (95% seems biblical and 5% seems weird).

Answer: Sometimes when people ask about historical Christian figures, we tend to overlook the bad and only focus on what we perceive as the good. A.W. Tozer was a terrible husband who ignored his wife, yet his writings are quoted by the most devoted of husbands. David Livingston neglected his family and only met a couple of his children when they were older, yet he is still beloved by good fathers. Watchman Nee was a courageous man who taught the gospel as best he knew it…and yet his theology was not always the greatest.

This always becomes the problem when people fanatically follow any man other than Jesus Christ. Whatever “weeds” that idolized person got stuck in, those who follow too closely also get stuck in those weeds. Did Watchman Nee preach the Gospel? Yes, as he said in his book The Normal Christian Life, “Righteousness, the forgiveness of our sins, and peace with God are all ours by faith, and without faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ none can possess them.” There it is…we are forgiven and restored by the work of Jesus Christ alone, yet other writings of his (even in the same book!) confuse the issue.

The problems emerge the deeper you look, and I think this probably goes for any man or woman today. I am sure if I went through some of my old sermons, I would be thinking, “What did I even mean by that?” When you get deeper into Watchman Nee’s work, you find that his views of the Holy Spirit, sanctification, baptism, and sin have some serious errors. He believed church denominations were sinful, interpreted scripture as allegorical where he should not have, and seemed to teach perfection can be achieved in this life in what we do.

Some of the issues may be cultural. As a Chinese man, born and raised, there will always be some cultural distinctions that will look odd to us. If we were trying to put a label on Watch Nee, I think he would be described as a Christian seeking some form of mysticism (which again, could be cultural). He doesn’t come out and say that faith can cure sickness, but he gets very close to it in The Normal Christian Life. Many of the things he says should give us pause…consider the following: “One thing is certain, that any true experience of value in the sight of God must have been reached by way of a new discovery of the meaning of the Person and work of the Lord Jesus. That is a crucial test and a safe one.” What is a “new discovery” if the faith has been “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3)? How is it “safe” to go around thinking that only true experiences of value come finding something new, rather than delving deeper into what has been revealed? The person who edits my blog posts before we post them even questioned me on this saying that as they (personally) grow in Christ their greatest moments are when something comes that is “new.” I think the difference, based on Nee’s writings, is that his “new” borders on new revelation and not illumination of the Spirit.

In terms of baptism, he wrote, “What are the conditions to be fulfilled if we are to have forgiveness of sins? According to the Word they are two: repentance and baptism.” It seems sometimes his gospel message became clouded if baptism is also required for salvation (in his opinion). He then goes to explain, in a bizarre way, repentance and baptism: “Here then are two divinely appointed conditions of forgiveness—repentance, and faith publicly expressed. Have you repented? Have you testified publicly to your union with your Lord? …If you have fulfilled the conditions you are entitled to two gifts, not just one. You have already taken the one; why not just come and take the other now? Say to the Lord, ‘Lord, I have complied with the conditions for receiving remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost, but I have foolishly only taken the former. Now I have come back to take the gift of the Holy Ghost, and I praise Thee for it.” Again, he seems to understand salvation from the quote earlier, but here muddies it with pointing to our works and a mystical union with the Holy Spirit.

Personally, I think there are better people to read in terms of discipleship than Watchman Nee. If the church you are attending uses his book(s) as tool to grow together, but realizes Nee was only a flawed man, it could be fine. If, on the other hand, they have a fanatic zeal for Nee that deifies him and won’t critically look at his life, that becomes an issue.

Hope that helped.

What Happened to the 12 Tribes of Israel?

by Aaron

Currently, at Element, we are going through the minor prophets (the last 12 books of the Old Testament Scriptures). These 12 “Minor Prophets” are written during a (roughly) 500 year time frame that covers the fall of the northern 10 tribes of Israel (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, and Joseph, whose tribe was divided into the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh), the captivity of the 2 southern tribes of Israel (Judah and Benjamin), and their eventual return to rebuild their temple.

I gave a very brief summation of what happened when the Kingdom of Israel divided in 900BC last week. Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, comes to power and wants to tax and force labor upon all of the tribes, which causes the nation of Israel to split (10 northern tribes called “Israel” and 2 southern tribes called “Judah”). The question came up on Sunday as to what happened to those 10 northern tribes. We know the southern tribes returned to rebuild the temple and Jews were actually called “Jews” because of JUDAH, but what happened to those northern 10 tribes.

This question has been asked for a long while, some even call the northern 10 tribes the “Lost Tribes of Israel.” First, they are not lost as God knows where they are, the book of Revelation says they will give an account. What happened historically is that most of the people of the Northern Kingdom were killed in the Assyrian invasion or deported as slaves. The few that did escape remained in the land and intermarried with people from Cutha, Ava, Hamath, and Sepharvaim (peoples who had been sent by the Assyrian king to inhabit Samaria). This also led to a lot of animosity between Israel and Samaria where the Samaritans were considered “less than” Israelites and were outcasts for intermarrying.

There are some crazy stories (we would call them myths) of those northern 10 tribes. One says the Danube river was named for the tribe of Dan. There are those who teach what is known as British Israelism who say all Anglo-Saxons are actually Jews. There are people in India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Ethiopia who all claim Jewish ancestry of some sort. Mormons taught that Native Americans and Polynesians were from a lost tribe.

We don’t want to get into all the conspiracy theories, we want to look at the Bible. In looking at the bible we see that after the Babylonians conquered Assyria many northern tribes reunited with Judah (2 Chron 34:6-9). When the southern 2 tribes were deported to Babylon they most likely reunited with many of the northern tribes who were already in captivity. When Cyrus allowed the rebuilding of the temple, many from all 12 tribes would have returned under the banner of “Judah” or Jews.

Many Israelites never returned to Israel and stayed in foreign countries; they became known as the Diaspora. James 1:1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. John the baptizer, and his parents were from the tribe of Levi. The Apostle Paul was from the tribe of Benjamin. In Luke 2:36 you meet the prophetess Anna from the tribe of Asher.

The 12 tribes are out there, known to God, but the greater question is what is God doing with them? He fulfilled the law in Christ, He brought an end to temple sacrifice in Christ, and Jesus is now our great High Priest. The point of the Scriptures is not Israel or the 12 tribes, it is Jesus. I was talking to an Israeli believer last year and an American asked him what it would be like when Jesus returned and restored Israel’s borders (which is a very westernized Christian question to ask). My Israeli friend said, “when Jesus returns there will be no need for borders so there won’t be any.”

That’s a great perspective.

A Sad Epilogue

by Aaron

Last week we put out a blog explaining this word I used as a sermon title, but never explained: Nehushtan. Nehushtan means Bronze Serpent (the Great Brass); it is what the Israelites called the bronze serpent on the pole that Jesus references in John 3:14-15 that refers back to Numbers 21:8-9.

In the Old Testament book of Numbers, chapter 21, the Israelites begin to detest God’s daily provision over them in the form of food from heaven called Manna. As a result of their complaining God sends fiery serpents into Israel’s camp that bite the people, injecting them with venom, and they begin to die. The venom resembles our sin. The whole episode shows that what was happening in the Israelite’s bodies was what had already happened in their hearts. There are parallels to our own lives in that many times we only recognize what is killing us when we finally get sick.

What is killing us is our sin, but many times we do not even recognize our sin until our lives start to fall apart. This could be losing a job because we are not thankful for our job, only resentful. It could look like a relationship falling apart because we are too centered on ourselves and cease caring for others. It could be our walk with Jesus never seeming fulfilling because we are looking at our own fulfillment rather than worship of Christ. We tend not to notice the venom in our hearts until we get sick, just like the venom from the serpent.

When the Israelite’s recognize their sin, they ask Moses to intercede on their behalf to God. Numbers 21:8-9 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” God teaches His people that what is going on in their heart is reflected in their bodies by the venom running through their veins, but He will make a provision for them because He loves them. They did not believe God was all they needed until they realized He was all they ever truly had.

As I said last week, Jesus speaking the words of John 3:16 only makes sense in terms of the Bronze Serpent from Numbers 21. It really is a great story of God’s blessing and provision as it would ultimately be fulfilled in Jesus Himself. BUT…there is a sad epilogue. Rather than worshipping God for His provision, they started to worship the provision instead.

What I mean is that the Israelites started to worship and bow down to the bronze serpent, the one that was put on the pole by Moses.

Apparently, the Israelites kept it as a reminder of God’s provision, but then it morphed into something more. It morphed so much that in 2 Kings 18 it is another of one of the false images that Israel made offerings to and worshipped. In 2 Kings 18 a young man of 25 becomes King of Judah (the southern kingdom in Israel). He systematically went through the land and got rid of all the false places of worship, including the Nehushtan (2 Kings 18:4).

Today, we look back on the Israelites and their short-sightedness, but we still do exactly what they did, worship false things in place of God Almighty. Instead of trusting in God’s provision, many people today worship the symbol, like a cross (which was an instrument of death, just like the serpent). When God saves people there is an emotional outpouring of gratitude, but many continue to long and search for the next emotional outpouring rather than the God who saved them. I have been to Israel and have seen people worship, kiss, and cry over what they believe to be rock Jesus was laid upon in His tomb for those three days after the crucifixion. We so easily lose focus of the one who saved us for a mere symbol and that should not be.

I want to be positive and reassuring today, not simply pointing out our flaws. I want us to be encouraged to worship our God in Spirit and truth. May we be a people who trust in God’s provision and worship the One and Only True King. May we set aside our symbols and trust in the One who was lifted up, died, and rose again for us. 



by Aaron

If I asked you what the most well-known verse in the bible is, what would you say? Today, in our culture, it may be “judge not,…” but I would say the most well-known (if not cited in its entirety) is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (ESV). The sad part is that we have pulled that verse out of its surrounding context in such a way that we miss the deep theological background of it.

In our Bibles, the translators have broken up certain areas of scripture by sections, to help readers see what is taking place in the text. There are some places where this is VERY helpful, and some places where it is not helpful…at all.  And one of those places is in John 3:16.

Most modern translations break John 3:16 into a separate section, as if it is a new thought, but it is not!

In John 3, Jesus is having a discussion with Nicodemus about being born again in order to help Nicodemus understand that citizenship in the Kingdom of God (salvation) is not based upon our first birth, where our nationality lies, but a new birth, which we can’t bring about for ourselves.  He’s trying to show that no one gets to “heaven” on their pedigree or their merits. He says in John 3:13 “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man,” meaning “No one can make it on their own.”

Jesus then goes on to show who DOES “make” it: 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. THIS THEN moves to verse 16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” These verses show God’s provision in saving us, which is Jesus, lifted up on the Cross. The PROMISE is that we will not be condemned but saved as we look at the PROVISION (Jesus). We do not need to look at Jesus in the same way the Israelites had to look at the bronze serpent, but understanding this Bronze Serpent helps us to understand what it means to look to Jesus.

On Sunday, May 2, 2021 I spoke on these verses and called the message Nehushtan, but never once used the word. Someone texted and asked why I called the message Nehushtan, and I couldn’t believe I forgot to even say it. Simply enough, Nehushtan means Bronze Serpent (the Great Brass); it is what the Israelites called the bronze serpent on the pole, and what Jesus referenced in John 3. In Numbers 21. The Israelites were detesting God’s daily provision for them: the miraculous food from heaven called Manna. As a result of their complaining God sends fiery serpents into Israel’s camp. God is not over-reacting; He is trying to teach the people that what is going on in their heart is now reflected in their bodies by the venom running through their veins.

These serpents bite people and they begin to die. When they recognize their sin, they ask Moses to pray for them:  God’s answer and provision is in Numbers 21:8-9 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”

God uses this moment to teach them what their deeper condition is, the thing that is destroying them: the venom of sin. They have all been bitten by sin and as a result there is now a deep dissatisfaction with every aspect of their life. When they realize their condition, God provides a way for them to be saved, and it is simply by looking at this Nehushtan that Moses puts up on a pole…it is God’s provision. God is saying, “Here is a representation of your sin, and my remedy for it.  Whoever looks at MY provision will find deliverance from death, and healing from the venom”

In John 3, Jesus reminds us all that what God had Moses do with the serpent was a foreshadowing of what He would do to remove OUR venom of sin: He (Jesus) would be lifted up. Now, we must look to the Son who has been lifted up because there, on the cross, our own sin was placed and dealt with. We can’t be saved by our first birth or by any self-concocted remedies, any more than the Israelites could save themselves. But we can be saved, and our lives can be restored to relationship with our creator God because of Christ’s sacrifice in being lifted up. Nehushtan was/is a crazy story that shows what God does in order to save us all.

May we be a people who trust in God’s provision and may we never take Jesus for granted!


Celebrity (A Christmas Eve/Day Reading)

by Aaron

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been watching a lot more TV and movies this year. After all, what else is there to do during a global pandemic when you are stuck at home and have exhausted all other options (have you reached the end of Netflix yet)? Most of us, when out in the real world, would love the chance to meet someone from our favorite TV show or movie (or band). Maybe we’d even be fortunate enough to get a photo with them and raise our “wow” factor among our peers.

Today we have a word in our vocabulary we use called “celebrity.” Celebrity is of middle English origin and meant to celebrate something. Think of the word “celebration” in regard to some achievement (like...we made it through 2020 and get to gather together for Christmas Eve or when someone has a milestone birthday or anniversary). In earlier times, celebrity would refer to someone who was celebrated because of an accomplishment or achievement.

In our culture today celebrity simply means that someone is famous. We have people today who are famous for only being famous and yet we still call them celebrities. Many of these people have no accomplishments that stand out as noteworthy. Who can be a celebrity today? Piano-playing cats, surfboard-riding dogs, people who eat food on YouTube, kids who make up new dances, and little girls who cry about the environment. If you went back just a few centuries, however, before the internet or TV, there were very few celebrities: only monarchs, kings, and certain playwrights and artists. Celebrity tended to be rare, because it was not broadcast with photos or media; it was only broadcast with words.

Amidst the myriad of temptations our culture faces, there is a cult of celebrity. People seek fame by trying to do something that will get them noticed—whether it’s by millions of Instagram likes, Tik-Tok followers, or YouTube views. But, think about this...on Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus—a child born out of wedlock, who became a penniless preacher, who lived a simple life and died a criminal’s death in a backwater Roman colony.

Jesus didn’t seek fame. As a matter of fact, when He performed miracles, He told people not to go about proclaiming it (see Mark 5:43, for example). Now, 2000 years later, Christmas (for all of its faults of consumerism) is the most celebrated holiday in many parts of the world—a celebration of Jesus coming into the world. We sing songs of celebration that almost everyone knows by heart!


Because Jesus wasn’t just a penniless preacher. He wasn’t just the bastard child of a woman named Mary. He was God’s own son, God in the flesh. For millennia, God’s prophets promised a day they couldn’t even fully comprehend, when the savior of the world would be born. This savior eventually lived the life we should have lived and eventually died the death we deserved to die. By doing so, He exchanges His innocent life for our deserved death—all to bring a rebellious humanity back into relationship with God.

What we celebrate at Christmas is not only the birth of Jesus, but also the work He did to rescue us and restore us to relationship with God and one another. We call this the Good News, and one of the reasons Element loves celebrating Christmas is that we are reminded how the magic and mystery of God’s grace extends beyond this night. As wonderful as Christmas is, it’s not the holiday itself that needs to be celebrated around the globe, but the salvation and life given to us by God. Joy to the world, peace on earth, the reconciliation of humankind; what child is this? He is the only hope we have ever had...Christmas has come for us.

If we are going to give something celebrity status in our lives, something we get giddy and excited for, let it be the Good News of what Christmas represents. Let us make great the name of Jesus.



by Aaron

When I was a kid, there was one thing you had to have in order to be accepted by all the other kids…the right clothes. I don’t know whoever thought up the stupid ritual where kids gravitate toward fashion (while having no fashion sense) and then judge others based on some arbitrary standard. Case in point, when I was in elementary school and junior high, my mom swore by the jeans, made by the Sears Roebuck Company, called Toughskins (you can look at an ad for them here - if you are so inclined). They were the poor man’s Levis…and we were poor so they were my Levis. 

Granted, Toughskins had an ambitious marketing campaign--there is even one ad featuring the unstoppable Chuck Norris doing a high karate kick. If Chuck Norris can’t sell Toughskins to the masses, then no one can. Toughskins had large X’s sewn on the back pockets to proudly display the cancellation of dirt, grime, and holes that young boys so often got into. Unfortunately, the X’s also signaled the cancellation of “cool” status when other kids saw them. As a matter of fact, the X actually signaled an invitation to be made fun of…which happened to me on occasion. 

This phenomenon is an odd thing, the need to mock and belittle someone who you deem as less fortunate than you are. Why is it that we naturally pick on the most vulnerable instead of defending the most vulnerable? I was talking to a schoolteacher friend of mine this week, and she spoke about this young boy (3rd grade) who was living in the homeless shelter with his family. If you don’t already know this, the homeless shelter doesn’t have the best internet. As a result, this young man’s internet feed was glitching while trying to do class work with other children…and instantly, he started to be made fun of for having slow internet. “What’s wrong, your parents can’t get better internet?” The answer to that is “NO, I LIVE IN THE HOMELESS SHELTER.” These are nine and ten year-old kids we’re talking about, and they are able to hone in on a difference and exploit it. 

When Jesus speaks to people who think they are very religious, but really live very self-centered lives, He calls them out on it. We see Jesus say in Matthew 25:44-45 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. We tend to think the ‘least of these’ are people we have never encountered; they certainly are not those we would make fun of--and yet we all have. 

There is a hypocrisy, deep within our bones, that stems from unrealized and unacknowledged sin. No one is exempt--no one. Today if you watch the riots that break out over racial and societal injustice, oftentimes the crowd’s rage will turn against the vulnerable and not their oppressors. There are videos of singled-out shopkeepers, lone people walking down the street, and random people in cars who are attacked for no reason other than they are vulnerable and can’t stand against the mob. A protest that came together for justice can easily become a force for injustice, because human hearts are in the mix.

Yet on the other side, there are many who watch this hypocrisy and do not see it in themselves when they ignore the cry of the why behind the protests in the first place. Too many look at the incongruous actions of the protestors and use that as an excuse to write off everything that the movement is proclaiming. Our deep-rooted sin that makes us seek our own comfort, naturally wants to turn down the volume of what we perceive as Toughskins and not Levis, so to speak. Our sin nature makes us want to see people who either don’t agree with us, or don’t look like us, as the “other.”

And quite honestly, left to our own devices, this would never end. 

Some people have seen many of the problems in an honest way--not using the division for power or politics--and have come to a place of despair. Vox had a recent article detailing the 12 things most likely to destroy humanity, and most of them were brought about by humanity. Harvard scientist Abraham Avi’ Loeb believes that humanity will destroy itself long before the sun burns out. Dan Wells writes, “Humanity will destroy itself, body and soul, before it will learn a simple lesson.” If I could be so bold, I would say humanity already has destroyed itself in what we refer to in the Scriptures as “the Fall.” The greater question becomes then, “Why are we still here?”

And the answer is grace.  

Too often we think the answer to the human dilemma is our Levis (or our faster internet)--some sort of homogenous mass where everyone looks and likes the same thing. We are told that if we all just agreed that the problem is privilege, climate change, or something else, we would all get along, but that is untrue. Humanity, in its fallen state, will always find ways to make some people less than others. This is why we should stop solely advocating our favorite authors or causes without speaking the truth of the Gospel. So many dismiss our human condition while sitting in a pool of it, and that just makes no sense to me. The bad news is that humanity is destroying itself; the good news is that God has come to rescue us. 

In 2 Corinthians 5:21 the Apostle Paul (who once killed those who disagreed with him before coming to trust Jesus with his life) says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Paul doesn’t say, “God made Jesus sinful,” he says, “God made him sin…” What that means is on the cross, God laid all of humanity’s sin on Jesus, and Jesus willingly took that upon Himself to rescue us. For us, the beauty of God’s good news is that all of the evil within us was poured onto Jesus…and that becomes the beginning of our story. Paul says that message of grace was what changed him; it is this same message that offers us any possibility of meaningful, lasting change. 

The only way we will ever be able to look at others through a lens that sets our own Levi’s aside is to see the world as God does…and that only comes through a life surrendered to Jesus Himself. The answer is not humanity; humanity is the problem, but by the grace of God, we can truly become one people. The process is mysterious in that it is both instantaneous and slow. In trusting Jesus, we are immediately saved from ourselves and the wrath we deserve. At the same time, God also does His long work of molding and changing us to better reflect Him to the world. There’s a Greek proverb that says, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” It’s a beautiful image that speaks to a love that can only come from God, a love compassionate enough to care for those whom we would never meet—and some we would surely disagree with. We must plant trees of the Gospel that grow beyond ourselves, slowly but surely, if we are to live the diversity that is Toughskins and Levis…noticeably different, but cut from the same cloth.


Q&A 64,000 Missing Words

by Aaron

There was a recent Facebook post I was sent regarding the removal of (45) biblical texts from the NIV (New International Version) and the ESV (English Standard Version) translations of the Bible (and also 64,000 changed or missing words). I am not usually one who reacts to postings, however if there is any truth to this one, I would be grateful to know.  

This is mostly false and one hundred percent misleading. What is interesting is that I had thought this was a dead issue (as it has been answered so many times in the last few years), but then Facebook never seems to lose people who share a penchant for false or misleading information.

The Facebook post that was sent in (not linked here for space/time issues) was written on May 13, 2020, and makes it sound like the original poster did the research, however, they didn’t. The EXACT same post has been going around for years and traces originally to a poster, not even originally from Facebook, that is part of what is known as the King James Only Movement. The KJV (King James Version) movement wants everyone to go back the KJV of the Bible and not use any modern translations. They say it is the “authorized” translation, and sometimes the KJV is called that, but it is called that because it was authorized by….you guessed it…King James.

It is true that there are numerous word changes from the KJV to modern translations, but these could be as simple as ‘thee(s)’ and ‘thou(s)’ to ‘you’ and ‘them.’ Some change the words ‘Holy Ghost’ to ‘Holy Spirit.’ 64,000 is not a real number, and is a little over the top anyway as it is close to 10% of the 783,137 words IN the KJV. That is the only remotely true statement in the Facebook post.

It is important to understand that modern Bible translators are always going back to the earliest manuscripts so that we can have the most accurate translation possible. The Bibles we have today are not translations of translations; they are translated from the original to our language. The KJV, on the other hand, is a translation of a translation (it is a translation of what is known as the Latin Vulgate which came from a Church Father named Jerome).

When KJV-only people say that there are 45 texts missing form modern translation, that also is not true, because those verses are not IN the earliest manuscripts (as examples: John 5:4, Acts 8:37, and Acts 24:7 which we will talk about in next weeks Acts Part 2 message). These texts are present in some of the later manuscripts, so modern translations include them for reference, but as footnotes. In this way, we (as modern readers) can have access to these texts, but not recognize them as part of the canon of scripture due to the inconsistency.

The Facebook post also says that Harper Collins owns the NIV and is changing it to reflect their worldview. While it is true that the parent company of Zondervan is Harper Collins and they DO own the rights to the NIV, NIV editors emphatically state that they are a self-governing body of religious scholars and “no publisher or commercial entity can tell them how to translate Scripture.” Harper Collins publishes only--it doesn’t get any say on what the NIV contains. The ESV, which is the translation we use at Element, is put out by Crossway, which is a very diligent and Christian organization as well.

Biblica Ministry is the group that translated the NIV Bible from the original manuscripts (the textus receptus). It was founded in New York in the 1800s to translate Scriptures so that U.S. immigrants could study them. This is their statement: “The text of the NIV is entrusted to the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), a self-governing body of 15 evangelical Bible scholars. No outside group — no publisher or commercial entity — can decide how the NIV is translated. In keeping with the original NIV charter, the CBT meets every year to monitor developments in biblical scholarship, as well as changes in English usage. Every year, they solicit (and receive) input from scholars, pastors, missionaries, and laypeople.” 

When you see these Facebook posts, or internet memes, you can disregard them as far as removing verses from the Bible. It’s far more likely that the KJV’s translators were working off of manuscripts that added verses to the Bible. All of this said, it does not mean that the KJV is unreliable; it was a great translation for its time, but some of its additions might not have been penned by the New Testament authors. Jack Wilke writes, “Most of the verses are true statements, and some of them are even quotes from other parts of the New Testament. They just don’t fit where they have been placed in the text.” What this does mean, however, is that all of us should (before re-posting or believing everything we see on Facebook), do a little bit of digging as we may even enjoy the process of learning something new.


Pandemic Grocery Shopping

by Aaron

You are probably thinking that this blog, based on the title, has got to be a couple of months too late to connect to our current circumstances. I would disagree, because the last time I went to Costco, there still wasn’t any veggie lasagna (for my wife), diced tomatoes (for me to make salsa), or bananas. If you haven’t noticed, shopping is hard in the apocalypse.

Lately, whenever I go to the store, my wife will give me a list and say, “Don’t forget to look for toilet paper.” Honestly, I feel like I have PLENTY of toilet paper (except for when Phill and Jenna Heuchert come over and their daughter Annie decides to put a whole roll down the toilet). We have rolls and rolls, but my wife just says, “It’s the apocalypse and it’s ‘just in case.’”

Right now I have a humongous bag of rice, a 50-pound bag of sugar, three of those Costco-sized bags of frozen chicken, sixteen pounds of butter, and 12 packs of bacon (yes, the only one that is understandable is the bacon). You would think I was packing for the Oregon Trail. The cold items sit in the freezer in the garage. That’s not an invitation to help yourself…don’t even think about stealing my bacon. 

Maybe I am the guy who would end up starving in the apocalypse because I don’t hoard, worry, or buy twenty times what I actually need in a crisis. My wife would be the one eating food for years while I wondered why I couldn’t charge my newest electronic device that I thought was more important than food. I guess what I am saying is, we need each other to stay sane and not go too far overboard. I buy the food stuffs my wife wants because I love her, and she curbs some of her more pessimistic tendencies because I don’t freak out a lot (unless we run out of bacon…which again, won’t happen).

Right now our city, county, state, nation, and world are at a bizarre type of crossroads between people who are worried about the pandemic and those who don’t care or think it is a hoax. Much of the discourse has become political, especially in churches that have been ordered to shut down indoor, in-person gatherings again. One side sees it as a public health issue and the other sees it as a personal rights issue…and I feel like I am caught in the middle of it all because, for some bizarre reason, I can see both sides. 

I am frustrated about the inconsistency of government orders about masks, distancing, what they allow to open, and what they don’t. I wonder how we are supposed to eventually gain immunity to the virus if we refuse to engage in real life. I actually worry about the state of the economy, small businesses, and how people are meant to survive as our national debt climbs past 26 trillion dollars (a truly unfathomable number). But then I also look at the numbers of infections, the speed at which the virus spreads, the experts who speak about it (some of which are strong believers in Jesus), and my own lack of real understanding of the science of virology. I know that I must come to at least try to understand all sides of this if I ever hope to engage in a way that brings wisdom or peace to this situation.

All too often we focus on the problem, whether it is government overreach or the virus itself. As humans we tend absorb ourselves in what is right in front of us instead of what is eternal…and that is where part of my job comes in. Element, our focus should be first and foremost, Jesus. Only by the Gospel being central to what we do and say, will we ever be able to meaningfully engage in the world. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23 “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”

We don’t become all things to all people so that they would be angry at the government or fear the virus; we do it so that we can help them to share in the Gospel’s blessings. The scriptures are clear that we need each other—God made us that way. We will never share blessings with one another until we are able to understand one another. This is important to remember during a time when it’s common to throw memes and clichés at each other. Some people worry about the virus and stay home, some people think it’s a hoax—but why do each feel the way they do? Can we respect one another enough to listen? Maybe, as a result, we would be filled with compassion and have a broader perspective.

In the end, we must realize that our lives will not be saved by what we believe about the virus. The virus is not eternal—we as God’s people are. We are saved by God’s eternal work accomplished in the person of Christ. When our focus becomes God’s redeeming work in us, we can overlook how we differ from one another and still have meaningful fellowship and conversation…even while we disagree about how much toilet paper or bacon we need to buy.



by Aaron

You know how the kids these days say TL;DR (too long; didn’t read)? This one is SL;KR (super long; keep reading) as I want to address recent events in our nation and give us some biblical context for our own personal call to image Jesus. 

The Bible was not written in a vacuum. What I mean is that while the content of the Bible is timeless and God-breathed, it is informed by the time and place in which it was written. When Genesis, the very first book of the Old Testament, was penned, Israel was surrounded by other cultures. While each culture had its own religion and gods, they all had a hierarchal way of looking at life. At the top were the gods, followed by the king, the official court (including the priests), various tradesmen/academics, and then the peasants and slaves at the very bottom.

Because the king was the one closest to the gods, he was seen as divine or semi-divine. The king alone was understood to be made “in the image” of the god who created the king. This was/is a dividing line between the king and the rest of the human race--peasants and slaves were not made in the image of the gods (they were actually believed to have been created by inferior gods). The king was the mediator through whom the blessings of the gods flowed to everybody else. This was simply the way the world worked…and then God challenged this very structure when He spoke in Genesis of how creation actually happened. 

Genesis starts with God creating and ordering the world. At the pinnacle of His creation He makes humankind, and this is what it says in Gen 1:26-27: Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion…."So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." The word man would encompass all humankind. The word for image, as most scholars believe, is a word borrowed from these other cultures: Tselem

When every other culture used the word Tselem, it only referred to the king, the one and only person made in the image of the gods who created him. In Genesis, when God speaks, He is deliberately shown to be a King reigning by royal decree (i.e.,  “let there be light” and there was light), and Genesis has an entirely subversive (yet true) creation account. In Genesis, God is sovereign and generous to His creation. When it comes to human beings, He makes ALL people in His image, not just the king. In the image (Tselem) of God, God created all human beings.

This statement in Genesis should be the single most world-changing statement about human dignity, worth, and equality ever recorded. We should live and bet all of our lives, all of society, whether somebody thinks of themselves as a believer or not, on the truth that Genesis just spoke. Imagine what it would do to the hearts of peasants and slaves to be told that they too were created in the tselem, in the image, of the one great God.

Male and female.
Slaves and peasants.
All races.
Made in God's very image. 

This is why the Scriptures are so important for Christians to know and live out. In the wake of this pandemic, with all of us feeling on edge, acts of violence have again been perpetrated against those deemed “less than.” I struggle, as a middle-class, white, California male, to find any words that could help the situation our country finds itself in (again). A friend of mine reminded me today, though, that I don’t have to say anything, and when I do, I can speak for Element as a body of believers. God has allowed me to be a shepherd, under His leadership, of a body of people. As that Shepherd I will speak and remind us of the Gospel—the unchanging truths that are just as relevant to our confused world as when they were originally written. 

We are all made in the image of God. The word Tselem is also a word that is sometimes translated as images or idols. In every ancient religion, they would have images of their gods carved into stone, clay, bronze, and gold. The God of the Bible clearly says that His people were never to make images of Him because humankind was to be His image bearers. Whenever we see any person on this planet being abused, torn down, or humiliated, it should make us sick because the image of God is being desecrated. Think of how we feel when we see someone vandalize or loot a building during a riot, do we feel an infinitely deeper anguish when the image of God in others is destroyed before our very eyes?

I was listening to a couple people talk about what happened to George Floyd last weekend, and one of them said, “What makes it even more sad is that he was a Christian.” Why should George Floyd believing in Jesus make it more tragic? Is it because we start to think he deserved it less because he had qualities that we would define as redeeming? Until we realize it is tragic simply because an image bearer of God was treated this way, apart from color, lifestyle, or beliefs, these types of things will continue to happen because of color, lifestyle, or beliefs.

Most people who are racists don’t think they are racists. Most people who are intolerant of others don’t realize they are intolerant. I know people who think they are the epitome of peace and love and want our president to die (horribly). I know people who think they are levelheaded, compassionate, and able to fairly look at any issue, and yet they find those who disagree with them as shallow, shortsighted, and stupid. We all do it; we must be willing to see our own biases, and we also must be willing to stand up for the image of God in others or we are not acting as image bearers of God.

May we begin to live as a community of people who understand that our hope of salvation is not based upon how good, smart, or put together we are. Our only hope is in Jesus’ death to remove our sin-soaked, callous hearts and His resurrection that restores us to life. A people saved by His grace, not our own. A community that treats everyone else as image bearers of God. Nobody on top, nobody on the bottom. Where the richest person treats the poorest person with honor and respect simply because we see one another as God sees us. As Billy Graham said, “The ground is level at the foot of the Cross.” 

May we be a community where the powerful see those with no power and treat them like a child of a King. Where young and old, black and white, male and female, and everything in between come together in love. It must be more than Facebook posts, or Instagram memes, or blog posts on websites (like this one). We must be a people who truly understand who other people are because of creation. Frederick Buechner is now 93 and has loved Jesus most of his life. He writes many things that stick with me throughout the years that speak of compassion and understanding. He says, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It's the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” Too often we can look at the news as a spectacle but don’t allow it to touch us…and it must touch us if we are to understand the image of God in others.

We must at least try to understand why there is so much fear and anger that have lodged side-by-side in a community who feels they have not been given a voice. Buechner writes, “If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.” When Jesus speaks of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, He intended for us to identify with and to understand the racially outcast (it was how Israel viewed the Samaritans). Luke 10:36-37 Jesus asked “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

I really don’t know what it looks like for all of you, but Element must be a place where we honor the image of God in others, show mercy, identify with the outcast and marginalized, and stand for righteousness in the face of injustice. Again, Buechner writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” May our gladness be found in the Gospel and may that gladness feed the world’s hunger to comprehend that we are made by God, for His glory, and ultimately, we belong to Him. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. May we glorify God by processing these events deeply and seeking what He longs to teach us in moments like these. Let those moments then lead us to action on behalf of all image bearers.


Gospel Present

by Aaron

I am sitting in a hotel next to the Sea of Galilee in Israel as I write this short blog. Because of the time difference I tend to wake up at 3am every morning right now and today is no exception.

Aaron and Marianne in Israel

It is interesting that I am here in Israel because, while I love the history of what God did in the world, I also feel like we miss the point if we only focus on broken ruins of where God was and not what He is still actively doing in the world today. One of my friends has an uncle who led tours in Israel and invited my wife and I to go at cost, my wife said we should go, so we came (not that my jet lag is her fault).

On this tour we are mixed with a whole group of pastors from other churches, mostly from the southern United States. As the days have progressed, I have noticed a difference in how I view God’s promises and the call of Jesus differently, in a cultural context, than many of the other people on this expedition. As an example, someone asked our guide what the original borders of Israel were that were given to Abraham verses what they are today, a perfectly valid question with no ulterior motives. Our guide said, “further east and further south,” it was a nice dodge of not stepping on a landmine for American Christians (I almost applauded him). Another question came on the heals about Israel’s aspirations to reclaim all of that promised land, to which the guide said that he believes it would be impractical based on the political climate of the world. One last person then piped and said, “when Jesus returns, He’ll give it to you.” Our guide was gracious and said, “when Jesus returns there will be no borders.” 

I found the guide’s statement brilliant and the some of the responses by our group odd because it kind of missed the point of what Jesus said to do in the world.

The Gospel, in its raw form, is the GOOD NEWS of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Jesus lived the life we could have never lived, one of goodness and perfection. On the cross Jesus took our death upon Himself and gave us His life, He took our sin and gave us His own righteousness. We get to be reconciled to God because of what Jesus did and that is good news (the Gospel). Today people and churches tend to fall into one of 3 categories in regards to what the Gospel is and does.

  • Gospel Past – This would be where you hear phrases like “remember the good old days, we need to go back to when men were men, pews were long, and everyone loved the King James Version of the Bible.” I jest, but you get my meaning.
  • Gospel Future – This is when churches spend all their time talking about what God WILL do ONE DAY. He will come back, crush enemies, rapture us, and all sorts of other things.
  • Gospel Present – This is where I think we all NEED to be. A church that understands our rich and deep heritage that has been handed to us from the past, a hope of what God will truly do at the return of Jesus, but a present attitude that sees that the Gospel is good news for today and every day because it means reconciliation now.

When Jesus rises form the dead the disciples ask Him in Acts 1:6 “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” This is kind of like the guy’s statement in our tour group, “when Jesus returns you will get the land.” It is a Gospel future mixed with a gospel past attitude that misplaces Jesus work in the world to only be for our perceived benefit and not good news for all of the lost. When the disciples ask Jesus this question about their own borders He responds with (Acts 1:7) “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority.” That is a nice way of saying, “no, and you missed the point about the restoration of the true Kingdom of God.” So Jesus then says (Acts 1:8) “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

What Jesus does is reminds them what the Gospel will bring, relationship with God that results in God’s Spirit indwelling us. God’s Spirit will indwell for the purpose of speaking the Gospel as a present reality to all the world now. He is saying that the results of the Gospel in our lives is peace with God which can (and hopefully will) result in peace with one another. We need stop asking God, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel…make America great again…destroy the infidels…bring back family values?” And start to live in the present mission which will speak of God’s reconciliation of the world; it is WHY God gave us His Spirit and power. We do not need to have our focus be the ruins of an ancient society, or a future of bloody destruction where everyone finally realizes “we were right;” what we need is a present reality of the true and living God offering us hope and restoration to Himself by what He Himself did in the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It is not just for us, it is for all people.

The Tension of Truth

by Aaron

In a message a couple of weeks ago I mentioned that we are called to speak God’s truth as seen in the Gospel by speaking hope, grace, and truth to the world around us. I then received this question the next week and thought we could put it in a blog for everyone. Here is the question: How do we as believers balance the tension of not being judgmental with standing for God’s truth? If standing for truth requires we differentiate right from wrong, how do we keep ourselves from being judgmental or being perceived as judgmental (even if in our own hearts)?

The short answer is you can’t stop people from perceiving you a certain way when they are predisposed to do that…but what we can do is slowly change those preconceptions with a life of grace. The long answer is that sometimes people react poorly to a message of truth because those with the truth do not communicate it in a way that makes sense (and sometimes people have hardened hearts so our words only sound like judgment).

As an example, one of the greatest preachers in American history, Jonathan Edwards, spent most of his career preaching at the Congregational Church of Northampton. At the time this was considered one of the most important towns in Massachusetts. He had a disagreement with a church policy over communion (who should be allowed to partake) and was fired. He then went to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on the American frontier, where he started to minster to a congregation that had many Native Americans in it. When he spoke in the new congregation, he changed how he preached. His words didn’t lessen the Gospel message, but they became simpler.

He changed his way of reasoning and started to use more stories and metaphors. As Timothy Keller notes, “He preached more often on the accounts of Jesus’ life instead of on the propositions of the Pauline epistles.” I have been re-reading an excellent book by Keller called Center Church and it speaks at length about speaking into our given cultures in understandable ways. The truth without judgment. I will quote or rephrase the book at length because I think it is helpful to answer the question.

Center Church points out that “to enter a culture, another main task is to discern its dominant worldviews or belief systems, because contextualized gospel ministry should affirm the beliefs of the culture wherever it can be done with integrity.” The book shows that we should be able to determine 2 types of beliefs in a culture.

  • “A” beliefs are beliefs people already hold that, because of God’s grace, roughly correspond to some parts of biblical teaching.
  • “B” beliefs contradict Christian truth

With “A” beliefs people are already predisposed to latch onto many of the Scriptures teachings, but “B” beliefs are those a culture finds offensive or implausible. When speaking truth we should look for the “A” beliefs; these beliefs will differ from culture to culture. Keller states, “To use an obvious example, in Manhattan, what the Bible says about turning the other cheek is welcome (an “A” belief), but what it says about sexuality is resisted (a “B” belief). In the Middle East, we see the opposite—turning the other cheek seems unjust and impractical, but biblical prohibitions on sexuality make sense.”

What we want to do in speaking of the Gospel is point people to the overlapping beliefs they can easily affirm. Paul does this in his speech in Athens in Acts 17. We spend time building rapport and relationships with people because where truth is found we can affirm it whole heartedly. We can build people’s respect for biblical wisdom this way. “A culture that puts a high value on family relationships and community should be shown that there is a strong biblical basis for the family. A culture that puts a high value on individual human rights and justice should be shown how the biblical doctrine of the image of God is the historical and logical foundation for human rights.” We must take care to affirm “A” beliefs before engaging in the “B” beliefs. We don’t start with the challenge, we start with affirming truth. We show respect even when disagreeing on many “B” doctrines.

When Paul speaks in the book of Acts he doesn’t just go out and put down the Greeks’ love for the mind or Jews’ love for morality; he wants to help them see they are pursuing those things in defeating ways. Valuing morality (as the Jews did) was a good thing, but without Jesus that pursuit of morality leads to judgementalism and weakness. To the Jews, Christ seemed weak, but that weakness brought (and still brings) true power. “Paul does not simply dismiss a culture’s aspirations; rather, he both affirms and confronts, revealing the inner contradictions in people’s understanding.” It is so important for us to understand and enter a culture BEFORE challenging it. “Our criticism of the culture will have no power to persuade unless it is based on something that we can affirm in the beliefs and values of that culture.”

It is much different to challenge the wrong things a culture believes from the common ground of the things they say they already believe. Center Church states, “It is important to learn how to distinguish a culture’s “A” doctrines from its “B” doctrines because knowing which are which provides the key to compelling confrontation.”

Yes, we must be able to judge what culture around us deems as right vs wrong, but we do not need to become ‘judgmental’ in the process. No matter what, in areas where “B” doctrines collide there is always great opportunity for offense and anger, but starting in the common grace of common ground gives us a surer and more tactful approach presenting Gospel truths. Healthy confrontation can occur when relationships are built between people, and honestly human cultures are extremely inconsistent in conforming to what they say they believe…contrast that with God Himself, who stands above all culture, and is always consistent.


Lachrymatory (Some Thoughts on Mass Tragedy)

by Aaron

The last couple of years, my wife has been expecting her mother to pass, but her mother comes from hardy stock and continues to fight on. Almost fifteen years ago, the doctors told my wife’s mother that she had five years to live if she stopped smoking and started eating better--she did neither. About five years ago, her mother was mostly forced to stop smoking and could no longer make her own meals and she couldn’t remember a whole lot by then. Last year, the family decided to place her in a full-time care facility, so she didn’t hurt herself and could be looked after 24/7. It was at this time we thought that her death must truly be near.

When the realization hit of the seemingly imminent passing of her mother, I went online and bought my wife a lachrymatory that was made in the late 1700s. I know….a what?

A lachrymatory is a glass or metal vial that is used to store tears that have been shed in love, joy, sympathy, and remembrance. The tear bottle dates back more than 3000 years, when mourners would bury their tears with loved ones to express honor and devotion. Many people think that when King David penned what we now call Psalm 56, it was when he was hiding from Saul in Gath; while there, he says  “You have kept count of my tossings (‘tossings’ refers to restless slumber because we are so bothered by something in our lives); put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book? (Psalm 56:8) In Ancient Near Eastern societies, these bottles were well known.

She didn’t know that I bought her this gift. I was going to give it to her when her mother passed as a reminder of the joy and sorrow that was shared with her mother during her life. Instead, I gave it to my wife when she turned fifty a couple of weeks ago as her mother, being cared for by professionals, shows no sign of slowing down.

In ancient Roman times, mourners would not only fill small glass vials, but sometimes whole cups, and place them in burial tombs as symbols of love and respect. There were even masses of women who were paid to cry into "cups", as they walked along the mourning procession. Those who cried the loudest and produced the most tears received the most compensation.

Why do I tell you all of this?

I believe, right now, our nation is at a place where it needs to learn to collectively mourn. There have been mass shootings for senseless reasons (these can stem from ideologies on the right or the left), people breaking friendship and fellowship over political views, and there are those who put words into the mouth of God from all walks of life who may not even truly know Him. I was thinking about the lachrymatory this week and thought that it would be a good thing if we, collectively as a nation, could learn to mourn with one another. Instead of displaying visceral reactions to those we disagree with, what if we mourned the death of civility, respect, and ultimately, the lives of fellow human beings?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know what to say about the latest rounds of mass shootings in our country. My initial reaction is to tell everyone to stop with the rhetoric and reaction and first mourn this loss. When thinking clearly, we can respond with clarity. However, it often seems like another shooting interrupts our clarity. I do not have the answers to these tragedies, but the ultimate problem is not weapons, politics, mental health; it is with our hearts. Don’t take that as a political statement--it is not. What I am saying is we can ban everything that could potentially harm someone, and mankind would still find a way to hurt each other.

None of that is to say we shouldn’t critically examine our laws, but ultimately, we must understand where both the problem and solution lie. We are broken because of our rebellion against God. Humans react out of fear or blame. We try to understand, but until we grasp the magnitude of sin and evil, we have misplaced explanations, attempting to label the problem as a mental health issue, weapons issue, societal issue, religious issue, or any other reason we can find. In the book of Genesis, when Cain kills Abel, Cain is at first flippant and angry with God for chasing him down, but eventually, he changes, sees what he has done, and mourns the loss. Matthew 5:4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. This verse has many connotations about God’s care for the hurt and vulnerable, but it also talks about godly sorrow that leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). We must cry our tears individually and corporately over our sin—only then will we begin to come together.

What would it mean if we could collectively set aside our opinions about why certain tragedies have happened and come together to mourn the loss that strikes all of us at our core first? I would love for us to come to a place where together we would say, like David, “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle,” knowing that God remembers and that He truly does care—even when we forget to care for one another. God cares so much for us as humans He sent Jesus to be the sacrifice for sin—to be the only solution for the devastation sin leaves because God Himself grieves the effects of sin.  If we were able to grieve together, without first pointing fingers or espousing our solutions and judgments, we could be on the same page to begin to move forward. We could meet on the common ground of our own frailty and loss. As disciples of Jesus, we could mirror the way He enters into our brokenness and despair—offering hope, but also sitting with us in our grief.

In the midst of these tragedies, my encouragement for you is to not first look to manifestos, news commentators, and radio talk show hosts for answers; I encourage you to spend time praying and seeking God’s face. If there are tears to be cried, let them come. Then, seek out others to give voice to what is going on inside and pray corporately. It is from humble and broken hearts that we can receive guidance from God regarding where to put our efforts toward making a difference. Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."

Here is a post written by a mass shooting survivor on how to best pray for those who experience these tragedies.

The Faith of Samson

by Aaron

A few weeks ago I was out on the lake with my wife and some friends and broke my boat through my own stupidity. I had double gasket-ed the oil filter and blew all the oil out of the engine and essentially ruined many perfectly good summer days at the lake. We had a little vacation planned that got cut short because of my said stupidity, and decided to head out to Element’s plant in Colorado Springs for a visit. I was texting with Jonathan who leads the plant and he asked if I wanted to speak or help do music when I was here. I replied, “Whichever would make your life easier and more enjoyable.” His immediate response was, “great, you’re speaking about Samson.”

At Element CS they are going through Hebrews 11 looking at archetypes of faith based on the people listed in those verses. I thought it was a bit funny when talking about Samson because it says in Hebrew 11:32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets. The writer of Hebrews didn’t have time to talk about these other people, but Element CS does (it’s why that series is taking months to get through). I thought, if you are bored, I would give you a chance to listen to or watch what I said because I have a hard time with Samson.

You might have heard of Samson as a kid, seen a cartoon, fantasized about his great strength, but none of it does justice to how much of a knucklehead this guy was. I have a hard time even understanding why he would be talked about in Hebrews 11 as an archetype of faith…unless we can properly understand the word faith a bit better and who God is.

So, if you are so inclined, here ya go.

Listen to Aaron's Message on Samson Here

Simul Justus Et Peccator

by Aaron

If you are reading this blog you might think that the title of it is something that looks like the fake words that inexpensive website developers put in their templates (lorem ipsum). Miscellaneous dummy text to fill space…but it is not. The words Simul Justus Et Peccator were written by Martin Luther in an attempt to help people better understand the beauty of salvation and new life.

Last week Mike Harman sent me a really nice note about how he sees the preaching of God’s grace continually spoken at Element. Most of us aren’t fluent in German or Latin, and rather than have you read Luther’s treatise on the book of Galatians, I thought this would be a good concept to understand in our further understanding of the Gospel. Simul Justus Et Peccator means "At the same time righteous and a sinner."

It is the idea that we are righteous in God’s sight due to the blood of Jesus covering us, but we are also daily being conformed more to His image. Hebrews 10:14 says it like this “he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (ESV); the NIV translates it like this, “he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” RC Sproul once said, “…if any formula summarizes and captures the essence of the Reformation view, it is this little formula [Simul Justus Et Peccator].”

Let me explain:

  • Simul is the word from which we get the English word simultaneously, it could also mean “at the same time.” Like I am a husband and a pastor at the same time. Two things that can be mutually exclusive, but because of my position I am both.
  • Justus is the Latin word for just or righteous.
  • Et means “and.” (Yes, I took a whole line to say that).
  • Peccator means transgressor or sinner, it was originally a Latin legal term.

It can be a little hard to parse in our heads, It means that from God’s perspective, because of Jesus, we are justified or righteous (declared not guilty), but from another perspective (most likely those of the people around us) we still sin. Luther will point out that under the scrutiny of God we still have sin; it is not that God is purposefully naïve, it is that God chooses to see us through Christ’s righteousness. The heart of the Gospel is that by faith in Jesus, His righteousness is now transferred to us so that our Father sees us as righteous.

The point is that before God, we will either be judged on our righteousness or by the righteousness of Christ. If we only trust in our own righteousness there we be no possibility of redemption. Back when Luther first taught this, the Roman Church considered it a serious threat because they contended that “justification” means making a man righteous in his own person. They asked the question that some still do today, “How can God pronounce a man to be righteous in His sight unless he is actually righteous?” This is a question that leads many people to fear; they wonder if their salvation is certain. says it like this: “Righteousness through Christ is called an “alien” righteousness because it did not generate from us. It is not our righteousness; it is his.” What is our contribution to our salvation? Just our sin. Jesus gives us His righteousness as a gift and God chooses to see us covered in Christ’s righteousness. A person who trusts in Jesus is not declared righteous by virtue of their own merit, but on the basis of the merit of Jesus. His death and life for us.

Martin Luther was very cognizant of the fact that as followers of Jesus we may be new creations in Christ, but we still live in the world and still commit acts of sin. Sometimes there is an attempt to redefine what sin is to make it less severe. Luther does not shy away from what sin is and shows that there is no place for us to boast in our own righteousness because we have none. Christians must always rely on the finished work of Christ for our acceptance before God; it leaves us in a place of humble trust in Christ.

RC Sproul points out that, “at the heart of the gospel is a double-imputation. My sin is imputed to Jesus. His righteousness is imputed to me. And in this two-fold transaction we see that God…is both just and the justifier…my sin goes to Jesus, His righteousness comes to me in the sight of God.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith in Chapter 11 (which deals with justification) says it like this:

"Those whom, God effectually calls he also freely justifies, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them as their righteousness, but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith, which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God."

There is a lot of technical theology in this blog,  but it is important because there is a truth we get to carry with us every day. We cannot earn God’s favor or salvation. What we get to do is trust that Jesus took all of our sins: past, present and future, and covers us with His Righteous life. Believing that changes everything and will even start to change the way we relate to God Himself…with humbleness, love, and thankfulness.


All The Lost Things (an Acts part II blog)

by Aaron

I am currently writing the sermon series for next year, Acts part 2. Acts part 2 will take us from chapter 13 in Acts through the end of the book as it mainly focuses on Paul’s missionary journeys. As I go through it I occasionally have too many notes to fit into what I am talking about. Sometimes I try to take those notes and push them into another week, but there are times I just have to delete them all as they won’t fit…even though I like them. Michael Reed said, “Why don’t you just turn them into blogs?” Well, that’s what I guess I will do. 

I am reading tons of notes and commentaries by NT Wright, Kent Hughes, John Calvin, Craig Keener, compilations from Abingdon press and intervarsity. So much material, so little space, but it is a good problem to have I suppose (I would rather have something to say than nothing at all). 

In Acts 22 Paul enters into Jerusalem after his third missionary journey. A very strong sense of Jewish nationalism has over taken the Jerusalem church at this point because many people were “zealous for the law.” This means that a very good thing is happening, the Jewish nation is coming to trust Jesus in large numbers…but there is also the bad in that they are elevating their tradition over God’s grace in reaching people that aren’t Jewish. Paul has been out among the Gentiles (non-Jews) speaking of God’s grace in salvation, explaining that Gentiles didn’t need to become Jewish (in culture and practice) in order to be brought into relationship with God. This does not sit well with those who were “zealous for the law.”

God told Paul to go back into Jerusalem knowing full well what would happen to Paul when he got around the zealous people, but Paul goes because he trusts God even though he is aware of what will befall him. As he heads to Jerusalem people from every church on the way try to stop him from going, warning him what will take place. Prophets even show up to show Paul how he will be bound when he is there…he even says to these people in Acts 21:13 “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”

Everyone thought that the trouble they knew would befall Paul were warnings that he shouldn’t go, but Paul knew God was simply preparing him for what was to come. This doesn’t always mean all of our harebrained ideas are God telling us to do something. I had three things I found in one of my sources on Acts that I couldn’t work into my message about what we learn from Paul’s experience and thought I would share them here (I am pretty sure these were from Kent Hughes).

1) In our moments of highest spiritual motivation we need to especially beware of error or bad judgment. Sometimes we make decisions with the right heart that turn out to be very bad. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a professional athlete become a Christian and within days they are all over the circuit speaking about Jesus even though they have zero theological or deep understanding of God. It usually ends up doing more damage to the name of Jesus than anything else when their life falls apart and becomes a mess. When Paul became a believer he took time out to learn what God was calling him to before he ever did anything. It’s not that our hearts are necessarily wrong, it is that our enthusiasm can blur our judgment. Many people thought Paul going to Jerusalem was a bad idea because they were motivated by love for him.

2) We can be pressured toward questionable action by the sins of others. The sins of others may even seem like something that sounds godly. Think of the Jews who were zealous for the law, they wanted people to adhere to moralistic, nationalistic, and Kingship (governing) laws that had been laid down by God in the Torah. In their zeal they had pushed out God’s love and grace and so encouraged others to do the same. When Paul got to Jerusalem, instead of the church there fully defending him and his mission to spread the good news of Jesus everywhere, they allowed the legalists to have sway over their words and actions.

3) We need, like Paul, to have hearts full of passion for lost souls and for God’s glory where we are willing to run the risk of making people mad who would see our decisions as unwise. I know at this point some will point to Proverbs 3:10 and say that “wisdom is found in those who heed advice.” While true, it is also advantageous to see why Paul didn’t heed the advice…it wasn’t out of arrogance, but out of motivation for the lost. Everyone wanted to stop him from going into Jerusalem, but by going in and eventually being arrested he gets to speak the Gospel to those “zealous for the law,” to Roman soldiers, to tribunes, to rulers, to kings, and to make a difference while in his chains.

The only part of my lost notes that did make it into my message was a line that said, “Some hearts never risk anything. They strive neither for sin nor for sainthood. They desire a temperate zone free from the storms of sin and from the tempests that accompany a life of service. Never burn for the souls of others, and you will avoid rejection. Never suggest a plan to reach the community or the world, and you will never be criticized for it. Never give counsel to someone undergoing the pain of separation or divorce, and you will never give errant advice.” But in never risking we are never living for the Gospel…and we are called to live for Jesus no matter where we find ourselves. My hope is that we become a people who have the Gospel come first in all we decide to do in our lives.

The Struggles of Being the One in Four

by Aaron

On Easter this year we talked about The Miracle of Forgiveness. Whenever I hear the word for “forgiveness” my brain goes back to this old Don Henley song (he was in this band called the Eagles at one point…they were a big deal for a while). The song goes, “I've been trying to get down to the heart of the matter, but my will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter…but I think it's about forgiveness.” I think the words he wrote are true, even if he meant them in a different way: the heart of the matter is hard and our wills do not want to face it; instead we want to “scatter,” run another direction. A recent Barna study shows that 1 in 4 “practicing” Christians, people who claim to be born-again believers in Jesus, struggle or refuse to forgive others.

The good news here is that 75% of practicing Christians have offered forgiveness to someone else. The article actually says they offer, “joyful forgiveness to another person who had hurt, upset or sinned against them (or someone they love).” While awesome, the study also stated that only half of people said they remember someone offering them the same forgiveness they offered to someone else. There is a huge disparity in the results of the study where some can’t offer forgiveness, some do, and yet many people can’t accept it or even see it when it is offered to them. I believe this is all a result of not understanding the Gospel first. 

If you will indulge me I would like to talk about forgiveness (in a different way than I did on Easter) and see if I can’t give a bit of theological clarity that is useful.

In The Old Testament there are essentially three roots for where we get the word forgiveness. Two of the roots have a similar connotation that sit in conjunction with sacrifices and so are used with the word atonement, or covering our wrong before God. The coolest of the three is the root ns’; the word you see most often is nasa’ and it means to lift, to carry, to support, or to sustain. It is an incredible word that carries the picture of sin being lifted off of us and carried away by God’s provision; in the Old Testament this was through the temple, for us today it is all through Christ. 

Throughout the Old Testament the words for forgiveness are written in the connotation of awe and wonder. Our offenses before God merit punishment, but we are pardoned with His outstanding grace. The Intervarsity Press New Bible Dictionary states, “The OT knows nothing of a forgiveness wrung from an unwilling God…” meaning it is clear by the words that are used that God wants to forgive us our trespasses and sin before Him.

In the New Testament Jesus draws a connection in Luke 7:47 between those who have been forgiven, who understand that great forgiveness, and those who forgive others. The Barna study also bears this out when they ask people about forgiveness: of those who say they have received it 87% say they have given it in return (compared to 64% who say they have not received it). Can you imagine going through life and either thinking you have never needed to be forgiven or never experiencing forgiveness? Forgiveness is central to Christianity and reminds us who we are as people, a people who need God’s forgiveness because of how we have broken relationship with Him.

81% of practicing Christian believe offering undeserved mercy (extending forgiveness even before it is asked for) to someone else is something that God looks favorably upon (makes me wonder what the other 19% believe), but not everyone is willing to do it. 27% don’t want to, 23% “just can’t” offer that forgiveness and mercy. In one sense it is understandable--forgiveness is hard when hurt is so real and many offensives against us so heinous, but this is why we are reminded to look to Jesus as the “author and perfector of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). When our eyes no longer linger on our own hurt, but on the graciousness of a God who brings us to Himself, a God who calls us His children, and a God who removes the offenses that we have done to Him, it is meant to change us.

Brooke Hempell, speaking about forgiveness in the Barna study said, “It’s what distinguishes it from any other religious faith. We are reconciled to God through Jesus’ sacrifice, and in response, we should be agents of reconciliation in every aspect of our lives. If Christians struggle to extend or receive forgiveness, not only do their relationships suffer, the Church’s witness is marred.” This is why I titled this blog “The Struggles of Being the One in Four” because many times I can react like that 25% who has my eyes on myself and thinks forgiveness is beyond my ability to give. It is only when I honestly look at who I am with all my own personal flaws and failures, then look at Jesus in His perfection, that I can agree with God about my sin and live in light of His forgiveness of me. When we live out our lives with a view of God’s forgiveness of us as a meaningful part of our lives, it teaches me to also forgive others.

Forgiving others doesn’t mean other who hurt me always get let back into my life to cause destruction, but it does mean I can honestly pray for others and want the best for them (which is coming to know the saving grace of God). Christianity is unique in that we believe God has revealed Himself to us in the person of Jesus; in doing so He teaches us that forgiveness is central to who He is. We do not need to “work off” a debt before Him, he has paid the cost of our sin by sacrificing Himself, cancelling the debt and thereby enabling true forgiveness.

May we be a people who come to a place where we all are undone by God’s gracious forgiveness of us and learn to be imitators of Him.



Yo Tengo Gozo Gozo Gozo Gozo En Me Corazon

by Element Christian Church

Years ago we used to do these mission trips down into Mexico to work with orphanages and impoverished people. One of the things I tended to notice is that the children and adults were not as depressed as I would be as an American if I found myself in their same situation. It is all a matter of perspective on what they have and focus their lives upon. It was on one of these trips that a small church of poor laborers in Mexico taught me a song that went:

Yo tengo gozo gozo gozo en mi Corazon!
Donde? En me Corazon
Donde? En me Corazon
Yo tengo gozo gozo gozo en mi Corazon!

I never really learned Spanish and my memory of the song lyrics may not 100% correct, but that’s how my brain brings it back in recollection. They translated the song for me:

I’ve got the joy joy joy joy down in my heart!
Where? Down in my heart.
Where? Down in my heart.
I’ve got the joy joy joy joy down in my heart!

This is sung about Jesus saving us, bringing hope, and residing in us by His Spirit that brings a deep abiding joy “down in our hearts.” I was blown away by a people so in love with Jesus despite their circumstances that it has left a lasting impression on me ever since. 

Where does this deep joy actually come from and what is it (and by contrast, what is it not)? As all things do, I think it stems from God’s provision over us and His revelation of Himself in the person of Jesus. What we eventually see and understand about Jesus, even before His birth, is how the Prophets spoke about Him and His life: Isaiah 53:5 says “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” The words “as one whom men hide their faces” means He most likely was not a man of physical beauty as we would traditionally define it. Think about this: oral hygiene and dentists weren’t as popular as they are today. Can you imagine Jesus NOT having all of His teeth? I mean we hope He did, but most likely He didn’t. He was also rejected and despised by the very people He made. He experienced sorrow and brutality like none of us ever has…and yet He brings peace and joy to those who find their lives in Him.

Based upon what we know, it seems logical that joy and peace can’t stem from good looks, popularity, money, or having an easy life of leisure. We know this to be true because we can look around the world and see that those who have all of those things are just as messed up as we are. Then there’s the most glaring truth: Jesus had none of those things in His earthly life and yet experienced deep and abiding joy. Let me show you Hebrews 12:2 from a couple various translations:

  • We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God's throne. (New Living Translation)
  • fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (New International Version)
  • 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. (English Standard Version)

This verse is the writer of Hebrews telling us how to set aside everything that wants to entice and snare us and begin to run the race as Jesus did…and how did Jesus do it? With the joy set before Him. Jesus, we are told, endured the cross, with all of our sins placed upon Him, because of the joy set before Him. What this tells me is that our joy is too small and we probably don’t understand the meaning of it as He does.

We most often look at joy as a byproduct of getting or attaining something, but Jesus sees joy as something that is extended to us by God Himself. It is why Nehemiah 8:10 reminds the Israelites that the joy of God Himself is meant to be our strength. Joy does not mean never having hardship, sorrow, pain, or grief. Joy is the fact God has found us and delighted to rescue us in Himself. The prophet Habakkuk in 3:18 says that even if all the crops fail and nothing is left, “yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my savoir.” Throughout the Old Testament all of the most ecstatic expressions of joy are concentrated in worship; that people are able to celebrate apart from material blessings shows that there have only been two essential reasons for joy: God and His salvation.

In the New Testament the apostle Paul finds great joy when people grow in their trust of God. The entire book of Philippians details how we can have joy even during sorrow because we realize it produces something glorious in us. He also reminds us that joy is a gift God gives to us in Galatians 5:22. God gives joy because it makes us strong. Joy is not happiness, joy is an abiding understanding of God’s goodness, salvation, and sovereignty. One of the last words of the entire Bible is about our joy: Revelation 19:6-8 “Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.