The Three Questions Behind the Question

Take almost any controversial issue these days, and there are three levels of questions being asked.

Question One: Does the Bible Trump My Opinions? The Authority Question

The first question is whether Scripture is authoritative or not. Will we allow Scripture to contradict us? This is the Stepford Wives test, as Tim Keller puts it:

Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? You won’t! You’ll have a Stepford God! A God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction.

Until we settle this question, it’s no use moving on to the second question. Once we agree on the Bible’s authority, though, we’re ready for question two.

Question Two: What Does the Bible Teach? The Interpretation Question

Once we’ve established that Scripture has authority, we still have to determine what Scripture says. While our interpretations are fallible, it’s still important to interpret Scripture as skillfully as we know how, and to allow Scripture to continually refine and shape our convictions.

Question Three: How Do We Apply the Bible’s Teachings? The Application Question

Applying the truth of Scripture also takes wisdom. It’s not enough to know what Scripture teaches; we also need to know how to apply the truth of Scripture in the context of messy lives and messy churches.

One issue; three questions. I’ve found this really helpful when thinking about addressing difficult topics with others. It’s important to know which of these questions people are really asking.

No Coasting

I’m now officially old enough to coast. I have been for a while. According to Crest Leadership, most leaders start well. Around the age of 40, most start to plateau and either end up maintaining or declining. Only a minority continue to grow, which is a shame. “The second half of life has the most potential,” they write.

I’ve done my share of coasting. I’m happy to be in a position now in which coasting is just not a possibility. It’s hard to coast and plant a church at the same time.

I spoke this week on Paul’s command to Timothy: “Fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5). This means to accomplish something thoroughly and completely. Leave nothing on the table. Give it everything you’ve got. Bring it to completion holding back nothing. Stay at it until the task is completed. That’s how I want to spend the next decades of my life. It’s much better than coasting.

Charles Simeon was the pastor of Trinity Church, Cambridge, England for 49 years. When Simeon was approaching 60, he decided to retire. He went to what he thought was his last visit to Scotland. His voice had been bad; he had been through the wringer. But while there, he had an encounter with God. He felt that God actually said to him:

I laid you aside, because you entertained with satisfaction the thought of resting from your labour; but that now you have arrived at the very period when you had promised yourself that satisfaction, and have determined instead to spend your strength for me to the latest hour of your life, I have doubled, trebled, quadrupled your strength, that you may execute your desire on a more extended plan.

At sixty years of age, Simeon renewed his commitment to his pulpit and the mission of the church and preached vigorously for 17 more years, until two months before his death. He gave himself with all his might to the work till he died.

It’s a good example: spending our strength for God to the latest hour of our lives, choosing not to coast but to fulfill our ministries to the end. I pray that God doubles, triples, or quadruples the strength of those who keep at it till the end.

The God Who Washes Feet

I find that I can fathom a lot of things about Jesus. When I think about it, I have a really hard time fathoming that Jesus did anything like washing feet.

“How aptly does it represent to us the whole tenor of his life!” writes Charles Simeon. That’s just the thing: I can pull off a stunt like this once in a while, but it wouldn’t characterize my life. It does, however, characterize God’s. Jesus — second person of the Trinity, the one who holds all things together — is on the floor washing feet.

It’s an action that anticipates the cross. The Jesus who humbles himself enough to wash dirty feet is the one who will lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).

It’s not a new thought, but it’s hitting me again with full force: that Jesus washing the feet of the disciples is representative of the nature of God himself. What kind of God would wash my feet? How can I ever absorb all that this means?

Answering Life's Two Most Haunting Questions

I’m in the middle of reading Russ Ramsey’s excellent book Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ as we come to Easter. It’s good, but I had a moment yesterday when I recognized myself in the book, and it wasn’t pretty.

Ramsey retells Jesus’ one of Jesus’ many confrontation with the Pharisees:

When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 14:8-11 ESV)

It’s a familiar story. Ramsey’s commentary, though, exposed a little of my own heart.

But they were not unlike the rest of the world who wanted so badly to know the answers to life’s two most haunting questions: “Am I valuable, and am I lovable?” The world has historically measured such things based on possessions, reputations, influence, or family name. When power tells the story of worth, everyone postures themselves for the best possible seats at the table of life. But Jesus proposed another way. What if people didn’t find their position in this world according to how they compared to others, but rather by what God said of them? What if this were all that mattered— the Father’s affection for his children?

A lot of life and a lot of ministry is spent trying to answer the questions, “Am I valuable, and am I lovable?” As a result, life and ministry can be about trying to establish our place before men, rather than joyfully accepting the lowest positions as we rest in what God has said about us.

This isn’t a new concept, but what’s new is recognizing how powerful this is in my own heart. I’ve long known the importance of living out of God’s approval rather than earning approval from others through my efforts. How quickly, though, I forget.

When it comes to the questions, “Am I valuable, and am I lovable?” we no longer have to look to our reputation or ministry success. Those question have been answered. We just have to remind the Pharisee within us of that daily. The gospel frees us from having to validate our worth through our ministries.

If We Are Faithless

I seem to dwell on certain Scriptures for a season. This past year, I’ve been dwelling on 2 Timothy 2:1-13. It’s a feast for anyone, and I haven’t been disappointed as I’ve meditated on it repeatedly. I commend this passage to you as well.

I seldom get to verses 11 and 12 without getting a bit nervous:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us…
(2 Timothy 2:11-12)

Paul ramps up the pressure in the areas of conversion, endurance, and apostasy. In a succession of statements, we’re called to do our part, expecting that God will respond appropriately. The first two promise divine blessings; the third stops me in my tracks with its severe warning. Disowning Christ has eternal consequences.

Not good.

The problem is that I know my track record. I would never want to deny Christ, but I get nervous when something as important as this is left up to my track record, which is spotty at best. That’s why Paul’s next line is so surprising and relieving:

…if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
(2 Timothy 2:13)

Paul breaks with the act-consequence pattern. There’s some debate about what he means. Some take it as a warning: God will be faithful in denying those who deny him. While that is possible, it sounds more like a note of hope to me: because God is who he is, he remains faithful despite our weakness. Apostasy is one thing; our faltering weakness is another.

This is not theory. This is the story of my life. I am often unfaithful; despite this, God persists in his faithfulness to me. Samuel Rutherford wrote in the 1600s:

Often and often, I have in my folly torn up my copy of God’s covenant with me; but, blessed be His name, He keeps it in heaven safe; and He stands by it always.

Our obedience is important. Our confidence, though, is ultimately not in our obedience, but in the faithfulness of the God who guards us. That’s good news indeed.