Margin notes: Psalm 13

Psalm 13:1–6 (ESV) — 1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, 4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. 5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6 I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

David certainly had his enemies. And so do we. But no enemy is greater, more ruthless, more subtle, dangerous and relentless than our own indwelling sin. And when we read the Psalms that treat of David’s enemies, it is good for us to think in terms of our great enemy of sin in drawing from those Psalms something of the instruction and comfort they are meant to give us.

In this short Psalm, there is an interesting pattern: Three “how long”‘s followed by three counterpoints.

1. How long? / But I have trusted. 2. How long? / My heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 3. How long? I will sing to the Lord for He has dealt bountifully.

This is the prayer of one who has made sin and iniquity his enemy – and is engaged in their overthrow. When the battle against indwelling sin rages high, it may seem as though God has forgotten us in our struggle. And it can seem as though His presence is hidden. It can seem like an eternity we’ve been battling and that our inward dialog is one of perpetual sorrow. And that the enemy has triumphed over us. 

Yet once again, the Psalmist (like we) pleads for God to consider his case. He pleads for light in the darkness and deliverance from what is too strong for him. And that light comes immediately the counterpoints to his laments.

How long? I don’t know. But this I will remember – I’ve trusted in YOUR steadfast love, not my own.

How long? I don’t know. But I will direct my heart to rejoice in your salvation by grace nevertheless.

How long? I don’t know. But I will sing to you Lord, for battle or no, set-backs or no, trials or no, in Jesus Christ you have dealt bountifully with me. Your grace is greater than my sin. Jesus’ blood is sufficient for all my guilt. And so I will worship you – no matter how long this battle lasts.

Father God – give me David’s heart.


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9 Things You Should Know About the Communion Service on the Moon

This Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people in history to walk on the Moon. But it’s also the anniversary of the a lesser known event—the first celebration of the Lord’s Supper on the Moon.

Here’s are nine things you should know about the first communion service on the Moon.

1. In 1969, Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. was an elder at Webster Presbyterian Church, a congregation just outside of Houston, Texas. He told the lead pastor of his church, Dean Woodruff, that he had “been struggling to find the right symbol for the first lunar landing.”  “We wanted to express our feeling that what man was doing in this mission transcended electronics and computers and rockets,” Aldrin told Guideposts magazine in 1970. “One of the principal symbols,” Woodruff said, “is that God reveals himself in the common elements of everyday life.” Traditionally, these elements are bread and wine—common foods in Bible days and typical products of man’s labor.

2. Aldrin got the idea for the communion ceremony while at Cape Kennedy working with the “sophisticated tools of the space effort.” “It occurred to me that these tools were the typical elements of life today,” Aldrin said. “I wondered if it might be possible to take communion on the moon, symbolizing the thought that God was revealing himself there too, as man reached out into the universe. For there are many of us in the NASA program who do trust that what we are doing is part of God’s eternal plan for man.”

3. The communion bread was carried in a plastic packet, the way regular inflight food is wrapped. Because there was just enough gravity on the moon for liquid to pour, Aldrin wanted to pour the wine into a chalice from his church. Woodruff had presented him a silver cup that was small and light enough that it could be carried in the astronaut’s personal-preference kit.

4. Aldrin had originally planned to share the event with the world over the radio. But the atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair had recently sued NASA after Apollo 8 astronauts read the Book of Genesis during a broadcast made on Christmas Day 1968, when they became the first humans to orbit the moon. O’Hair’s case claiming that the astronauts had violated the constitutional separation between church and state was dismissed. Yet NASA was still wary of causing more controversy. Aldrin says his fellow astronaut Deke Slayton, who ran the Apollo 11 flight crew operations, told him to tone down his pre-communion message. “Go ahead and have communion, but keep your comments more general,” Slayton advised.

5. After unpacking the elements from their flight packets and laying them on a small table in front of the abort guidance system computer, Aldrin radioed back to NASA with this message:

Houston, this is Eagle. This is the LM Pilot speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to invite each person listening, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.

6. Before taking communion, Aldrin read from John 15:5, which he had handwritten on a scrap of paper—”I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit, for you can do nothing without me.”

7. After radioing in his message and reading the Scripture verse, Aldrin partook of the Supper. Fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong looked on quietly but did not participate. “I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me,” Aldrin says. “In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup.  It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.” After taking the elements, Aldrin says he “sensed especially strongly my unity with our church back home, and with the church everywhere.”

8. Every year, since the moon landing, the Webster Presbyterian Church of Houston, Texas, commemorates Aldrin’s moon communion service.  “It’s kind of a tradition around here,” Gene Fisseler said in 1999. “It’s still church. It’s not about the moon. It’s not about the astronauts. It’s still about church. But we feel like it’s an important tradition here in this church.”

9. The communion ceremony was dramatized in an episode of From the Earth to the Moon, a 12-part HBO television miniseries from 1998. Buzz Aldrin was played by actor Bryan Cranston.

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Margin notes: Psalm 11

Psalm 11:1–7 (ESV) — 1 In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to my soul, “Flee like a bird to your mountain, 2 for behold, the wicked bend the bow; they have fitted their arrow to the string to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart; 3 if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” 4 The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man. 5 The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. 6 Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. 7 For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.

Whether it is political discourse, the news media, advertising or some special interest group or fad, it seems as though today’s default means of motivating people is fear. Everything we eat or drink will kill us. Our medicines will make us ill. All businesses are out to destroy us. One political party wants to enslave us and the other wishes to manufacture crises to keep money and power. Nature is about to extinguish all life aliens are trying to invade and robots will soon take over the planet. And our only hope is in the voting booth, precious metals or Facebook posts. All unstable too.

But David has a word from the Lord for us.

Since God is my refuge – why (I ask myself) why do I counsel myself to run from trouble? Yes, the wicked are out there, doing their best to destroy in the dark. But my foundation, my refuge is in the Lord – and if I destroy THAT foundation, then what is a righteous person to do? Panic like everyone else? May it never be!

So what are we to do? Go back and reinspect our true foundation and surety in our God because of Christ Jesus. And what are those unshakeable foundation stones?

1. (4a) The Lord – the One who rules over all, rules in HOLINESS. Sin and injustice cannot prevail.

2. (4b) The Lord rules from Heaven. His reign is over all. He really does rule.

3. (4c) This holy, sovereign God – sees. He knows what is going on. He understands every detail.

4. (4c) His eyelids test the children of man – He examines each one with divine perception. No one escapes His observation and His observation is absolutely accurate.

5. (5) The righteous may indeed suffer testing. But the righteous He tests in love. The wicked and the ones who love violence – He is not acting on behalf of. He has a hatred of them.

6. (6) I can trust God to deal with them appropriately.

7. (7a) God is righteous Himself. He cannot act unrighteously because He IS righteous. It is His nature.

8. (7b) God loves righteous deeds. He will look favorably upon those who do things in accordance with His righteousness.

9. (7c) I WILL see Him. He will look upon me with love. That is my end. No matter what happens in the meantime. 

Take your refuge in the Lord beloved.


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Don’t Reduce Your Sheep to Their Usefulness

Church plants have needs. Lots of needs. It’s tempting, then, for planters to size up those who come through the door for their potential to meet those needs.

Families are meant to meet each others needs, and service in the body of Christ brings blessings. But pastors need to guard against the temptation to evaluate their members according to worldly standards of usefulness. People can sense when they are being valued more for their gifts than their souls.

Church planters John Onwuchekwa, Joe Rigney, and Kempton Turner sat down to talk about how they fight against the temptation to see people according to their usefulness. Onwuchekwa constantly reminds himself that he is a shepherd first, and seeks to communicate that to his church members by doing things like asking them how he can pray for them. Rigney points out that we need to take 1 Corinthians 12 to heart, recognizing that we should not privilege some parts of the body that seem more essential to us. And Turner recommends building a relationship before asking someone to serve.

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast or watch a video.


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The Book of Ruth – Part 1

As Al began to unfold for us some weeks back, Ruth is a wonderful and powerful account of the nature of “hesed” or kindness, blessedness and steadfast love. A love that obligates itself to its object in promises and acts of blessing and devotion.

That ‘hesed” shows itself in Ruth and in Boaz and in all points as a reminder of God’s own love for His Church.

That concept helps us understand the place of this little book in the larger canon of Scripture.

It has often been asked what role this book plays in regard to the Bible as a whole since it seems – as charming as it is – not to hold any major theological importance.

I would like to suggest to you yet another reason why this book earns its place in the canon: That is how it graphically demonstrates the doctrine we just had read for us in Ephesians chapter 2.

In Ephesians, Paul describes how it is that Gentile believers like the majority of us here today, can find inclusion in the household of faith which was promised only to the people of Israel as the offspring of Abraham.

As you well know, God had chosen the Jewish people alone from all the peoples on the earth to reveal Himself to, give His Word to, and bring the Messiah out of to earth.

When Paul is lamenting that so many of his fellow Jews do not believe in Jesus he says this about the Jewish nation in Romans 9:4-5

Romans 9:4–5 ESV

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

The negative then is also obvious: These things belong to THEM. So how then do you and I get to be a part of this?

Ruth shows us in this most sweet and charming way how this was always a part of God’s plan, and how by His grace it all comes about.

Ruth, this Moabitess, this Gentile woman to whom none of these promises belong – gets brought in, so as not just to be a partaker of God’s exclusive promises to Israel, but also to become the great-grandmother of King David himself, and part of the bloodline of Jesus the Messiah.


So it is with that backdrop in view, we can begin to mine out a host of truths, lessons and encouragements for the Church today.

Ruth 1:1–2 ESV / In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.

Verse 1 helps us locate the events of the book at a particular moment in Israel’s history. And not their finest moment by any means.

As the book of Judges just before Ruth closes, it does so on this note: Judges 21:25

Judges 21:25 ESV / In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

And if you are at all familiar with the book of Judges, you know it contains records of some of the darkest periods in all of Israel’s history.

It was a bizarre time. The wild wild west of Israel’s history. This idea that everyone just did what was right in their own eyes tells you how lawless and dangerous it was.

Ruth 1:1–2 ESV / In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.

So it is that during this time a famine came about in the region of Bethlehem where this family, Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their 2 sons Mahlon and Chilion lived.

Travel not being what it is today and the topography of Judah being what it is, it was possible for somewhat regional famines to occur. Agriculture was very regionalized. The family’s move from Bethlehem to Moab was only about 50 miles. But as we well know in upstate NY, weather conditions from say Rochester to Buffalo can vary in the extreme. So here.

Moab, although technically a foreign nation, was still a cousin nation to Israel. They had a mingled history. And relations between them at this point – at least among the common folk as neighbors – were friendly. This move was really no great shakes to anyone.

And as the word “sojourn” in vs. 1 indicates this was to be a temporary arrangement, not permanent.

So far, so good – until: Ruth 1:3-5

Ruth 1:3–5 ESV / But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Elimelech dies – we don’t know how or what of. And the 2 sons decide to take Moabite wives.

Contrary to popular thought, it was not against God’s law for Jewish men to marry Moabite women. There was a prohibition against Jewish women marrying  Moabite – or any foreign men – because the family inheritance of land was passed down through the male bloodline.

The passage often cited in this regard is Deut 23:3

Deuteronomy 23:3 ESV / “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the Lord forever,

The key to understanding this has to do with what it means that neither of these may “enter the assembly.” Jewish literature tells us that to “enter the assembly” meant to become part of the community leadership or have a voice in local politics.

All land owners had this privilege. But foreign men having no right to own land in Israel, they were not permitted to hold such a place in the local economy.

Ruth 1:3–5 ESV / But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

In any case, in time, Mahlon – whose name means weak or sickly – most likely named that because he had been a sickly child, and Chilion, whose name means failing or pining, both pass away as well.

Ruth 1:6–14 ESV / Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

At this point Naomi, having heard the famine back home was over, and having no husband or sons anymore decides to go home, accompanied by her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth.

But as they go, Naomi has second thoughts, and appeals to these 2 young women – apparently still of marriageable age – to go back to their people and find new husbands.

The dialog is very emotional and in the end, Orpah does return, but Ruth – as the text says: “clung to her.”

And here we encounter a powerfully poignant and important conversation: Ruth 1:15-18

Ruth 1:15–18 ESV / And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.

Ruth simply will not be persuaded. She has seen something in Naomi and perhaps in her exposure to the whole family, which has captured her. And there has grown a love between them that Ruth finds it unbearable to let go of. She makes a most impassioned plea and a series of vows we’ll come back to in a minute. And at last, Naomi relents and off they go to Bethlehem.

Ruth 1:19–22 ESV / So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.

So it is they arrive back in Naomi’s hometown, to the welcome – and by the word “stirred” in vs. 19 – also to the sympathies of her neighbors for her losses.

Well then, what are we to glean out of this so far? Let me make just 6 observations.

Observation 1:  When providence allows great suffering, it is easy to imagine that God has something against us.

That He is persecuting us in some way.

Look at Naomi’s language so far:

13 – The hand of the Lord has gone out against me

20 – The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me

21 – The Lord has brought me back empty

21 – The Lord has testified against me

21 – The Almighty has brought calamity upon me

This is a brokenhearted woman. And by her own admission, bitter. What emerges in these statements is that she has – at least for the moment – lost any sense of the kindness of God in the depths of her sorrow.

So it is with you and I; when we lose our confidence in God’s great love for us in Christ – we can easily begin to imagine our trials are the fruit of God having actually turned against us.

Naomi is not a bad woman, she is a broken one. She is sad, grieving, discouraged, lonely, perhaps perplexed, and hurting.

And I am so grateful that the narrative doesn’t have anyone showing up and saying: “Don’t feel that way!”

This is a condition God well understands.

When Moses was sent back to Egypt to free God’s people from slavery, Exodus 6:9 records

Exodus 6:9 ESV / Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.

It is at times like these that the admonition of Jude 20-21 becomes critically important to the Believer.

Jude 20–21 ESV / But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.

Keep yourself in the love of God beloved. Don’t let go of it. Remind yourself of it. Sing the songs and hymns that reiterate it to your soul. Go back to meditate on the Cross and those great passages that tell you of the love of God over and over and over.

It is all too easy to lose the reality of God’s love for us in times or great trial and suffering. We can easily become Naomi ourselves.

Observation 2: – In times of deep sorrow, it is hard to see the blessing God has placed even in the closest proximity to us.

  1. Ruth. Naomi discounts how lovingly devoted Ruth is to her. Ruth’s devotion doesn’t seem to impact her. In fact, she seems to treat it more like an unwelcome complication. That will change.
  2. Reversal of the famine. She has gone home because the famine is ended. God is blessing, but she is blind to it even though she knows it.
  3. A welcoming community. vs. 19 says the whole town was stirred at seeing them return. The women especially seemed to rally to Naomi and took notice of the toll the years had taken on her.

There is sympathy and love and concern, but she can neither feel it, nor take comfort from it.

Don’t be surprised if at times your brother or sister in Christ is overwhelmed by grief and confusion at. It is natural. God isn’t hindered by that at all, but how we can be.

Observation 3: – We do not know the end of the story while still in the midst of it.

Times of great trial and stress are not times to draw great theological conclusions – especially about the future.

And when going through great suffering, especially prolonged suffering, we can easily conclude as I already mentioned, that God is somehow or for some reason out to get us – or that this is all there is. This is the only way I will ever feel. Nothing will ever change and this is just my permanent lot.

And while that may be true to certain extent in the short term, it is never the full story for those in Christ.

And it is why Scripture calls us to weigh our present sufferings against the eternal weight of glory that will yet be ours. Scripture never tells us to ignore our sorrows or pretend like they are not there nor as serious as they really are.

What it DOES do is ask us to “compare” them to what God has promised so that they do not overwhelm us.

Romans 8:18 ESV / For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Observation 4: – Even at our worst, the glory of the Gospel can have an impact on others.

Isn’t God amazing? I am so grateful for this – that the power of salvation is in the Gospel and not in me.

Irrespective of Naomi’s bitterness and what some might consider a poor witness, something about her still attracts Ruth, and she will not abandon her only conduit to whatever that is.

This is how we witness the Spirit at work. At work in very brittle “jars of clay”. (2 Cor. 4:7)

Naomi was bitter, but she also wanted to go home. Back to God’s people and God’s place. There was something to her roots that Ruth was struck by even when her sister-in-law was not.

It reminds you of Job who had come to the place where he completely despaired of either relief or restoration during his lifetime – but who nonetheless could utter: Job 19:25-27

Job 19:25–27 ESV / For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!

Sometimes, the hope of the resurrection is the only hope we have left. And that is an astounding testimony to those around us, though it may seem lame to us.

Observation 5: – 2 people can be exposed to the very same spiritual truths, go through the same experiences, and yet one continues on while the other does not.

As in Jesus’ parable of the soils, some manifest something of the impact of the truth on them, but eventually, they stop “going.”

So it is with Orpah and Ruth. Both married into the same family.

Both observed the same lifestyle and faith in that family.

One is intrigued by it, drawn to it and will not stop until she partakes of it.

The other seems to share the same mind – but at last returns to her home, her family, the familiar.

This is how it is with the Gospel. The very same Gospel which draws one, does not draw the other. The same sun which nourishes one plant, withers another. The same rain which drowns one, feeds another.

Only the work of the Spirit in the heart of one makes that one-in-the-same seed of Gospel sprout deep and lasting roots.

Observation: 6 – The nature of a true commitment to Christ.

Ruth 1:16–17 ESV / But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

Where you go, I will go

Where you lodge, I will lodge

Your people, shall be my people

You God, shall be my God

Where you die, I will die

May God curse me if I mean any less than this

There is something powerfully parallel to the nature of true conversion in Ruth’s declaration to Naomi. In fact, it is a model for what it means to be joined to Christ in a saving way. Let’s unpack these vows Ruth makes.

  1. Where you go I will go: One cannot help but recall Jesus’ call to His disciples: “Follow me.”

But it was not just for them – following Christ is the very essence, a foundation stone of true Christianity: John 10:27

John 10:27 ESV / My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.

There is no better definition of a Christian than this – they follow Jesus Christ. 1 John 2:6

1 John 2:6 ESV / whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

Christians are those who follow Christ – who walk as He walked. A walk well detailed for us in Scripture and characterized by statements such as:

Eph. 5:2 – Walk in love

Eph. 5:8 – Walk as children of light

Eph. 5:15 – Walk, not as unwise, but as wise

Gal. 5:16 – Walk by The Spirit

2 Cor. 5:7 – Walk by faith, not by sight

Following Christ as He walked – always pleasing the Father.

Where you go, I will go.

Where you go, I will go

Where you lodge, I will lodge

Your people, shall be my people

You God, shall be my God

Where you die, I will die

May God curse me if I mean any less than this

2 – Where you lodge, I will lodge: And where does Christ lodge? Where does He make His home? but in His Church.

No man can claim to follow Christ and to be with Him if they are not where He is most manifest – in The Church.

The Christian finds his or her home in the Church and is never quite at home apart from her. Those who separate themselves from the Body of Believers are those who want to own Christ – but not to lodge where He lodges. They find this house not to their liking. And like Orpah, they choose instead to live back where they used to live – with the familiar. But alas, not with Christ. They want Christ on their terms, not His.

Ephesians 2:22 ESV / In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Where you go, I will go

Where you lodge, I will lodge

Your people, shall be my people

You God, shall be my God

Where you die, I will die

May God curse me if I mean any less than this

3 – Your people, shall be my people: When one is joined to Christ, we are necessarily joined to His people. We cannot have Him WITHOUT also embracing His people.

The true Christian owns the Body of Christ as his or her own – as broken, mixed up, messed up, and still sin-stained as we are.

Christ did not just die for individuals as individuals, but to make us His family. And we must receive all of His to BE His.

4 – Your God, shall be my God: For Ruth this meant a willingness to give up a certain measure of her culture, her background, and certainly part of her identity.

Moabites were known for their devotion to Chemosh “the destroyer.” But Ruth repudiates her old god. She rejects her idol. She does not intend to go with Naomi and bring her old life and old devotion with her – no, she is going to do exactly what Paul says the Thessalonians did and why he had such faith in their conversion: “how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” 1 Th 1:9–10.

Christians give up their former gods, to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead – Jesus.

5 – Where you die, I will die: This is no temporary change – this is a commitment to make her new home – her permanent home.

Ruth makes no plans to return once Naomi passes. She is determined to live and die in this new place as her very own. And for her it is a point of no return.

The true Christian is one who has said: There is no going back. I’ve committed to a course, to follow Jesus, to dwell where He dwells, to make His people my people, to serve His Father as my Father and to die where He does as well: To die to sin and self at the Cross in and with Him.

6 – May God curse me if I mean any less than this: Lastly, she binds herself to a solemn oath that all this is to be the case.

Many of the ancient Rabbis consider Ruth’s words here her formal act of becoming a proselyte – a full convert to Judaism and a part of the Jewish people.

It is what the Believer does today when we enter into the waters of Baptism. We take on the fullness of this same commitment.

And it follows Jesus’ own admonition to those who said they wanted to claim to be His in His day:

Luke 14:25–28 ESV / Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous little book “The Cost of Discipleship” had nothing on Ruth’s declaration here.

And here it is before us for our consideration today.

If you are not a Christian here today, I want you to know that this is what is being asked of you should you respond to the Gospel and to trust in Christ for your salvation.

He demands no less of you than what you read here in Ruth’s vows. Less than this is not Christianity – like Orpah’s genuine but temporary allegiance that does not prove to be saving in the end.

We do not want you to come to Christ under false pretenses. This is not some mere decision like choosing one item among many off of the religion menu. It is an all or nothing proposition.

And Believer, perhaps you’ve lost sight of these things and need to reconfirm them this morning. Maybe you’ve found yourself traveling back toward Moab from time to time. Thinking you can be His all by yourself, without the need for the Church or fellowship with His people.

Perhaps some other god of self, the culture, ease, pleasure, family, work, accomplishment or some other false idol has caught your eye once more.

I pray you will seek His face today and reaffirm your relationship in the fullness of what it really means.


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How Do I Discern if My Ambition Is Godly?

How do I discern when my ambition is godly? Is godly ambition only related to missions work? And does having concrete goals of “success” mean I’m not trusting God’s unseen hand?

“She’s ambitious,” my friend told me, describing someone we both knew. He didn’t mean it in a good way. I knew what he was seeing in her—a kind of grasping self-promotion that prioritized her own advancement.

On its face, ambition means we’re working hard to achieve something. As long as that desire and determination is wrapped up in God’s glory and not our own, it’s a good impulse. But in all of us, the lines can blur and cause a sort of whiplash. One day we work joyfully unto the Lord, and the next be dominated by the idol of self-made success.

Godly ambition requires both hustle and humility.

Though we shouldn’t be overly introspective—exhaustively questioning the motives of everything we do—it’s helpful to keep a pulse on our ambition. I’ve found one basic principle helpful: Godly ambition requires both hustle and humility.

Godly Ambition Hustles

God has made us to use our hands, our minds, and our time to love others through our labor. He’s blessed us with business savvy, or mathematical acuity, or teaching ability, or the patience to read through tax documents, or the organizational gifting to run an office. When driven by God-centered ambition, we will produce our best work.

We should work hard and take the classes, read the books, listen to the podcasts, seek the mentors, or whatever else seems helpful to accomplish our ambitions. We should grit our teeth and try and try again, instead of sitting around and waiting for God to “open a door.” Whatever our craft, success doesn’t just happen—laboring unto the Lord requires hustle.

The passive person who shuns personal effort because they “trust God” might sound spiritual, but the sentiment is an excuse for laziness and lack of responsibility. Trusting God for a harvest is worthless if you’re unwilling to plant and water seeds.

Like most other new writers, I wish I could “trust God” to hand me success on a silver platter and have a publisher come knocking at my door. I don’t want to worry about things like marketing and platform and book proposals—I just want to write! But it doesn’t work that way. Nobody pursues unknown writers with a book deal. If I expect an easy road, it shows I feel entitled to success, and entitlement is rooted in pride.

Trusting God doesn’t mean folding our hands, it means using the hands he’s given us to hustle.

Godly Ambition Is Humble

That said, countless people hustle for the wrong reasons. They build altars of wealth, fame, and admiration, and seek their worth in accomplishments. Such self-aggrandizement has no place in the kingdom of God.

We’ve each been given gifts to steward for the glory of God, the growth of the church, and the good of our neighbors. This isn’t just about formal ministry. A CEO, a chef, a stay-at-home mom, a writer, a teacher, a doctor, a waitress, a photographer, and a farmer can all incorporate these ambitions into their work.

The only way we can fight our thirst for glory is to be consumed with his.

When we’re humbly ambitious, we’ll be far more concerned with how our work reflects on God than how it reflects on us. We’ll be far more driven to develop our skills for the sake of our neighbors rather than ourselves. We’ll cultivate creatively because we love to imitate the Creator of all good things. We’ll strive to increase our profits with godly integrity and manage them as godly stewards. We’ll go for the promotion, because we want to better serve our families and employers. Our hustle won’t be for the honor of our name, but for the honor of God’s.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with my ambition to write and sell lots of books. I love writing, believe God has called me to it, and want my labor to be fruitful. Besides, books can’t yield fruit unless people actually read them! But I know that my ambition is tainted—I do crave affirmation from others besides God—and that’s what must be crucified.

We don’t crucify pride by stifling ambition, but by refining it. And the only way to fight our thirst for glory is to be consumed with his. Nothing keeps us humble like drawing near to the Holy One. The more we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, the more our work will be worship unto him.

You can read other installments in the Thorns & Thistles series.

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The Best Kind of Preaching

Jonathan Edwards believed the preacher is charged with a sacred duty: to communicate the awe of the Word. When the Word is so preached, listeners often “tremble at God’s word” (Isa. 66:2)—they find it “piercing, awful, and tremendous,” Edwards noted, and their hearts melt before it. “The Word in its powerful efficacy”—in mortifying sin and converting people to Christ—“does . . . cut the soul asunder.” As he wrote in the “Blank Bible”:

Lightning and thunder is a very lively image of the word of God. . . . ‘Tis exceeding quick, and exceeding piercing, and powerful to break in pieces, and scorch, and dissolve, and is full of majesty.

For Edwards, the effects of the Word can be felt by anyone whenever the Word is opened—which has significant ramifications for preachers and for preaching. Let’s consider Edwards’s counsel for preachers and its ongoing implications today.

To Spark Godly Tremors 

To some, the Word brings joy and fulfillment since it speaks the truths of salvation. To others, it terrifies since it lays bare their sin and the coming reality of God’s judgment. Trembling at the Word, then, could stem from either fear or sweet delight in the things of God.

To tremble at the Word isn’t to exhibit simple fanaticism or emotionalism. To help students identify God’s work amid the fervor of revival and distinguish it from Satan’s counterfeits, Edwards encouraged listeners to ground spiritual passion in biblical truth: “That spirit that operates in such a manner, as to cause in men a greater regard to the Holy Scriptures, and establishes them more in their truth and divinity, is certainly the Spirit of God.” Understanding the text is essential. Yet even in studying Scripture and preparing sermons, the preacher should be confronted by its beauty.

The best preaching is a public demonstration that the preacher himself has been enthralled by the Word. This kind of preaching fulfills that sacred duty to communicate what is divine about the Word.

And so preachers should do all they can, in Edwards’s estimation, to arouse godly tremors in the saints. To be sure, “impressing divine things on the hearts and affections of men” is one of the main reasons God ordained the preaching of the Word. Giving Christians good commentaries or theological works is not enough. While these may provide “a good doctrinal or speculative understanding” of the Bible, yet they “have not an equal tendency to impress [it] on men’s hearts and affections.”

To Thrill the Saints

While Edwards believed the Word’s power can penetrate all its hearers, he also believed the Christian is especially affected by it. Revelation “is a sweet sort of knowledge” to the believer:

He loves to view and behold the things of . . . God; they are to him the most pleasing and beautiful objects in the world. He can never satisfy his eyes with looking on them, because he beholds them as certain truths and as things of all the most excellent.

When Edwards’s congregation experienced revival in 1735, one consequence was that they grew to love God’s Word even more. Edwards wrote:

Their esteem of the holy Scriptures is exceedingly increased. . . . There have been some instances of persons that by only an accidental sight of the Bible, have been as much moved . . . as a lover by the sight of his sweetheart.

Scripture is sublime to the Christian; he can’t get his fill. The written Word, whether read or heard, is a unique source whereby the beauty of salvation through Jesus Christ continually appears. Edwards testified frequently that Word and Spirit do in fact enthrall the twice-born.

“Persons after their conversion often speak of things of religion as seeming new to them,” he noted. “It seems to them they never heard preaching before; that the Bible is a new book: they find there new chapters, new psalms, new histories, because they see them in a new light.”

Still True Today 

The preaching of the Word should cut through human hearts and make them tremble, Edwards thought. For believers in Jesus, the Word thrills them as they’re awakened to its life-giving glory.

In a time and situation far removed from his, these truths still stand. Scripture still remains divine. It still cuts the soul asunder. It still keeps “impressing divine things on the hearts and affections of men.”

And it has not ceased to enthrall the twice-born.

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How to Teach Your Kids to Study the Bible

While Christians say the Bible is God’s Word, few of us—even regular churchgoers—spend time reading it every day. That’s the finding of the 2019 Discipleship Pathway Assessment study from LifeWay Research. A third of Americans who attend a Protestant church regularly (32 percent) say they read the Bible personally every day, while a quarter (27 percent) say they read it a few times a week.

While there is no command in Scripture to read the Bible every day, there is much to gain from regular Bible intake. A previous study of churchgoing Protestant parents by LifeWay Research found regular Bible reading as a child was the biggest factor in predicting the spiritual health of young adults.

But while encouraging our children to read the Bible and teaching them how to do it well are necessary tasks, they are not sufficient for spiritual development. We also need to teach them how to study Scripture so that they “may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17).

Bible Reading Is Not Bible Study

Bible study is not the same thing as Bible reading,” David Mathis says. “If Bible reading is like raking for leaves, Bible study is like digging for diamonds. The Christian life calls for both.” (See also: How to Prepare a Child to Read the Bible.)

Two key difference between reading and study are pacing and focus. When we read the Bible, we generally do so at the quickest pace our comprehension will allow. We may consume large chunks at one time, such as reading an entire book. We also look for the broad outlines of the text to know what it’s about or to determine how it fits into the larger scope of God’s Word. Bible reading precedes Bible study because it provides the broad perspective we need before we narrow in on specific passages.

When we study the Bible, though, we slow down to focus on the meaning of the text. We read and reread shorter units of text and spend more time focusing on specific words, clauses, verses, and paragraphs. We also ask questions of the text: What does this word mean? Why did the author use this unique phrase? How does this apply to my own life?

The essence of Bible study is asking questions of the text to discover the meaning God intended. Of the many profitable ways to study the Bible, one that everyone from preteens to Old Testament scholars has found to be particularly helpful is the inductive Bible study method. The inductive study method is an investigative approach to the Bible using three basic components:

Observation: What does the text say?

Interpretation: What does the text mean?

Application: How does the meaning of the text apply to life?

In future articles we’ll drill down into interpretation and application of Scripture. But for now let’s focus on the observation component.

How to Observe a Text

Ask Basic Questions — Begin by showing them how to ask the basic questions that orient them to the text they are studying. For example, teach them to ask, Who wrote it? What is the genre (letter, narrative, history . . . )? When was it written? Where was the author when it was written? Why did the author write this letter? Study Bibles are helpful tools in answering these types of questions.

Words, Phrases, and Relationships Between Propositions — Show them how to ask about what the author meant by using specific words and phrases. Don’t assume the dictionary definition or our common understanding of terms is the same as the author’s. Have them look for words that are repeated or given special emphasis, and to pay special attention to connecting words (“but,” “if,” “and,” “therefore,” “in order that,” “because”). “Sometimes the major differences between whole theologies hang on these connections,” John Piper says.

Make Lists — In 2 Peter 1:5-9, we find a list of virtues we should combine:

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

When we read this passage, we can easily jumble the virtues together. To keep them straight so your child can reflect on them more carefully, have them put the terms in a list:

• Faith • Goodness • Knowledge • Self-control • Perseverance • Godliness • Mutual affection • Love

Using such lists in our note-taking can help us track keywords, phrases, and concepts.

Contrasts and Comparisons — Contrasts and comparisons are used throughout the Bible to focus our attention. Consider in the passage cited above how Peter compares people who possess those virtues (they are effective and productive) with those who don’t (they are nearsighted and blind).

Metaphors — When we come across metaphors in our study, we should stop and use our imagination to think through the meaning. For instance, how would lacking perseverance be similar to being nearsighted?

Expressions of Time and Terms of Conclusion  — Have them be on the lookout for words that mark expression of time, such as “before,” “after,” “during,” “since,” “for,” “already,” and so on. These terms can help you see the sequence or timing of events and lead to a more accurate interpretation of Scripture. Similarly, terms of conclusion, such as “therefore,” “thus,” and “for this reason,” point to an ending or a summary.

Connections to Other Parts of the Bible — Show them how to search for connections to other parts of Scripture. For example, where can the virtues on Peter’s list be found in other passages? What do other biblical authors say about the importance of those virtues?

Teach Them to Improve Their Observation Skills — These are just a few of the ways you can teach you child to engage the text during the observation phase of study. Look for other ways by carefully considering the questions that arise during study. When they identify a broader category, have them give it a name they will remember and use in the future. For example, when asking, “What emotional response is the author expecting to evoke?” you could use that to consider other questions about affections and emotions. Give it a label like “Emotion-provoking Questions” and add it in their Bible study tool kit.

Additional Tips for Training Children

Incorporate Prayer — Bible study is about looking for God’s meaning in his Word, so we need to constantly be talking to him, asking him to reveal his meaning to us. Next to the Bible itself, prayer is our most important tool for Bible study. Build a strong foundation in your child by encouraging them to be praying before, during, and after their study efforts.

A Special Bible for Studying — Teach your child that to show reverence to God’s Word often entails messing up the pages. We need to scribble notes, underline passages, and mark key words and phrases. Give them their own Bible they can mark up. Wide-margin and journaling Bibles are ideal, though just about any Bible you have around will serve the purpose.

Life of Study

If this sounds complex and time-consuming, it is. Studying the Bible is difficult work that requires focus and attention—two traits children often lack. Be patient with them and don’t expect too much over a brief time. If you pile on too much work for each study session, the child will get the impression that Bible study is drudgery.

Prepare them for the challenges of concerted study, but don’t expect them to suddenly become Bible scholars. Keep your expectations realistic and modest, and keep the long-term goal in focus—training your child to be a lifelong student of the Bible.

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Margin notes: What’s in a word?

Acts 14:21–23 (ESV) — 21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

This text is a snippet from the ministry of Barnabas and Paul. And you will notice in vs. 22 how in returning to cities where they had preached Christ previously, they strengthened “the souls of the disciples, encouraging them.” That word “encouraging” appears more in the book of Acts than it does in any other NT book. It is central to missionary endeavors of the early Chuch. But more, it indicates a perpetual and crying need within the Church – encouragement. A topic that is going to appear in nearly every NT letter.

Now in our text, this encouragement took on a very decided focus: Persevering in the faith in the face of tribulations which are certain to occur in the lives of Believers.

The truth is, we all face a host of tribulations of different species. Sickness and disease. Broken marriages and families. Battles with sin. Misunderstanding by those both in and outside the body of Christ. An anti-Christ culture. Personal failings. Economic uncertainty. War. Civil unrest. Personal spiritual apathy. Strained relationships. Loneliness. Feelings of inadequacy. Loss of meaning. Political turmoil. On and on. All which can contribute to distraction, discouragement, division, depression and despondency. And all of which point to why as Believers, we too need to be committed to the ministry of encouragement.

May I encourage you today to say a word to some brother or sister in the Lord to keep in the battle, to keep seeking the face of God, to remain steadfast in prayer, to get back into the Word, to offer up thanksgiving for blessings and to remind ourselves of the goodness of God’s grace in bringing into the knowledge of the saving grace of Jesus Christ, the promise of His return and the glory of the resurrection? Oh how we need one another to “lift up the drooping hands and strengthen the weak knees” (Heb. 12:12) of our brothers and sisters.

It is through many tribulations that we must enter the kingdom of God. But His Word is true, His promises certain, His indwelling Spirit available to rely upon and His people around us.

1 Thessalonians 4:18 (ESV) — 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.


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Jen Wilkin on Training a Child in the Way He Should Speak

“Perhaps the most powerful evangelistic phrase you can teach a child is this: ‘Do you want to come over to my house?’ Invitations to join the family of God often begin with invitations to join your family at the dinner table. Hospitality is so rare these days. If we raise hospitable children by modeling hospitality in our own home, then we develop a culture of invitation among our family.” — Jen Wilkin

Date: March 31, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Pre-Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast or watch a video.


Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.

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Margin notes: She has done what she could

Mark 14:8 (ESV) — 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.

Last evening as Ben Zwickl led us through a study of this portion of Mark, challenging us to consider what may make our own hearts dull at times – I was struck by the simplicity and power of this verse and its account.

Mary (if indeed that’s who it was) does what is misunderstood by some, scorned and questioned by others, and appreciated only by Jesus. But she did, what SHE could.

Two things stick out here:

a. She broke the flask which contained the costly perfumed oil with which she anointed Jesus for His burial. Her warm and not dull heart didn’t just uncork the vessel and dab a bit on Jesus, she “wasted” it all on Him. Oh that I had such a heart to lavishly waste all I have for Him. But she held nothing back. Breaking the flask meant there was no going back, no withholding and no thought of anything other than that this is what she had at hand, and that it was fitting to pour it all out on the Redeemer of her soul.

b. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought, it was what SHE could do. Nothing more, nothing less. Bishop Lightfoot notes that Rabbins thought it was unseemly for a man to be anointed with aromatic oils. It was foppish and indecent. Culturally unacceptable and done only by someone who was boorish and gauche. And Jesus not only endured it, He praised her for it. He made her extravagant, though outwardly awkward act of adoration an example to be celebrated perpetually.

How He accepts what we do on the basis of what WE can do, at that moment with our resources. God isn’t looking for what we can’t do – don’t be paralyzed by that – but dearly receives what we CAN do, however unseemly or misunderstood that might be perceived by others.

Let the heart warmed by His love and grace pour out naturally in response, without fear that some others will look down. Offer what you can to Him. He will receive it. And proper worship will be done.

Father, grant me Mary’s lavish impulse.


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Must Church Planters Be Entrepreneurs?

Church planters care about the gospel going to new and difficult-to-reach places. They long to see the light of Christ penetrate the darkest parts of the world—whether that be just down the road or far away in some remote place among the unreached.

In order to see this happen, church planters need to consider something we call “entrepreneurial aptitude.” Here’s what we mean: Entrepreneurial aptitude is the ability to imagine new ways of engaging cultures so that the unchanging truths of the gospel can be brought to bear on the lives of unbelievers.

People who have entrepreneurial skills will often be great at starting new endeavors and highly innovative; they tend to be strategic visionaries and self-starters. Further, people who are entrepreneurial are able to enlist others to invest in new ventures they start.

But what does this look like? It’s a less straightforward topic than some of the recent things we’ve discussed on the podcast, so it’s worth us unpacking what we mean (and don’t mean) when talk about entrepreneurial aptitude in church planting.

To help us think about this, I’m excited to have Brian Howard with me on the podcast today.

Listen to this episode of Churches Planting Churches.


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Margin notes: God is angry everyday day

Psalm 7:11 (ESV) — 11 God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.

One of the principles of sound Biblical interpretation is not to take every statement as an absolute, just as it sits. Often, other passages bring additional light so as to give a fuller, richer view of the larger truth. One thinks for instance of Paul’s citation that none seek after God, not even one. In and of itself, that is true. But we must also account for the fact that the Spirit is moving among men to generate a desire to seek God. So in the natural, left to themselves, no one seeks God. That is an absolute – as far as it goes. But we must not neglect the reality that the Spirit IS working and drawing and creating such a desire in some. So in that sense, some do indeed seek the Lord. You get the point.

The same is true in this short passage. Yes, God feels indignation every day. He is angry with the sinner every day. But that isn’t all He feels or is. I am reminded that while Ps. 7:11 is true, this, from Rober Murray McCheyne is also true: “Learn, 1. That he is a striving Spirit.—O! let those of you that are living in sin, learn what a loving Spirit is now striving with you. Some of you, who are living in sin, think that God is nothing but an angry God; therefore you do not turn to him. True, “he is angry with the wicked every day;” still he is striving with the wicked every day. He sends the Holy Spirit to strive with you. Oh! what a loving Spirit he is, that does not at once turn you into hell, but pleads and strives, saying: “Turn ye, turn ye; why will ye die?”

Oh what a great, angry and yet striving God He is!


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How a New Interpretation of Paul Misses the Mark

The apostle Paul lived, taught, and ministered in a world different from our own. If we’re to have a full grasp of his mission and message, we need to understand his world. Paula Fredriksen, a scholar of early Christianity and late antiquity, has undertaken that project in Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle. For Fredriksen, to see Paul in light of his first-century Mediterranean and Jewish worlds is to challenge many cherished conceptions of the apostle. Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle affords readers the opportunity to submit their own understandings of Paul to critical scrutiny.

For Fredriksen, Paul is a product of first-century Judaism. Looming over Paul and his fellow Jews were the apocalyptic, eschatological promises of the biblical prophets. The Day of the Lord would come, attended by “a final battle . . . the resurrection of the dead, the judgment of the wicked . . . the vindication of the righteous . . . [the] reassembl[ing of] Israel,” and “the entire world, human and divine, . . . acknowledg[ing] and worship[ing] the god of Israel” (27).

Within this matrix of expectation, Jesus had come proclaiming the “kinetic proximity” of the kingdom of God (6). That is to say, while the kingdom hadn’t yet arrived, its arrival was imminent. The conviction of Paul and other early Christians that Jesus had risen from the dead persuaded them that the kingdom was poised to break into the world. With the dawn of the kingdom, they believed, would come the return of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead (132). The early church fervently believed that Jesus’s return would take place in their own lifetimes (167). For this reason, the apostles determined “to spread Jesus’s message of the coming kingdom outside of the homeland to Israel in the Diaspora” (167). This movement carried the apostle Paul into the broader Mediterranean world.

Paul’s Homelands

If Scripture constituted Paul’s “textual homeland,” then the “multiethnic, thus multireligious, Greco-Roman city” constituted his “social homeland” (61). The Mediterranean world was inescapably religious. Each dimension of “civic life” served to “facilitat[e] the regular, vital, and necessary transactions” between “citizens” and “gods” (33). The “cult” of the gods and civically rooted “ethnicity” gave “expression” to one another (34).

Fredriksen argues that, as the apostolic mission made its way into the Greco-Roman cities of the Mediterranean basin, something surprising and unforeseen—but not unwelcome—happened. Gentiles began to respond favorably to the message of the impending kingdom. They “renounced their own gods and made an exclusive commitment to Israel’s god” (146). Paul saw these “ex-pagan pagans” as the “eschatological gentiles” of prophetic hope (147, 146).

This social movement occasioned persecution for Paul and other early Christians. Pagans were distraught at their neighbors’ renunciation of civic, ethnic, and cultic ties and their adherence to a god of another people, the Jews. Synagogues, attentive to these “disrupted . . . relations between heaven and earth” and consequent “alien[ation of] both local gods and their humans,” saw their “place within their cities . . . unsettl[ed]” (147, cf. 80–93). As a result, they too persecuted Jewish followers of Jesus.

Scripture and the Greco-Roman city are the two “homelands” that compose the terrain in which Paul’s epistles reside. According to Fredriksen, the distinction between Jews and Gentiles was one Paul labored to maintain within the church. He neither “erases” the distinction nor “redefines ‘Israel’ so that it means (and means only) the followers of Christ” (114). Paul did, however, expect ex-pagan pagans to “Judaize” by worshiping the Jewish God exclusively and by living, in the power of the Spirit, in keeping with at least some parts of the Jewish law (117). The Pauline formula “justification by faith” refers, according to Fredriksen, to this new lifestyle of law-keeping (121–2). For this reason, “‘law’ and ‘faithfulness’ . . . are complementary and synergistic, not contesting and contrary” (130).

Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle
Paula Fredriksen
Yale University Press (2017). 336 pp. $35.00.

Often seen as the author of timeless Christian theology, Paul himself heatedly maintained that he lived and worked in history’s closing hours. His letters propel his readers into two ancient worlds, one Jewish, one pagan. The first was incandescent with apocalyptic hopes. The second teemed with ancient actors, not only human but also divine. Both worlds are Paul’s, and his convictions about the first shaped his actions in the second. Only by situating Paul within this charged social context of gods and humans, pagans and Jews, cities, synagogues, and competing Christ-following assemblies can we begin to understand his mission and message. This original and provocative book offers a dramatically new perspective on one of history’s seminal figures.

The expectation that Jesus would return in Paul’s lifetime was unmet. In a brief concluding section, Fredriksen reflects how Paul’s teaching and, in particular, his stance towards Judaism was altered—and betrayed—by subsequent generations of Christian thinkers. The messages of Acts and of the disputed Epistles are said to have “de-Judaized” Paul (169). Law and gospel, works and grace became “polarized opposites” (173). Realized eschatology and a rationale for “the kingdom’s evident delay” made their way into these writings (169). It’s therefore only when we “move aside the veils of later ecclesiastical tradition” and place ourselves “into the full-hearted eschatological conviction” of the apostolic generation that we may appreciate Paul for the “visionary” he was (174).

Paul in Context

Frederiksen’s work is valuable in its efforts to set Paul within his literary, religious, and social context. Her overview of the prophetic passages that were particularly salient to Second Temple Jews is concise and insightful. Her account of the complexities of the relationship between ancient Jews and their pagan neighbors during the Second Temple period repays careful study. Her description of the place of cult or religion within the ancient city is especially instructive.

As a reading of Paul, however, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle is ultimately unsatisfactory. For the biblical Paul, the kingdom isn’t merely a future expectation; it’s already broken into history at the resurrection of Jesus. The kingdom realities of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” are presently experienced by each believer through faith in the crucified and risen Savior (Rom. 14:17; cf. Rom. 3:21–26; 5:1). In light of this reality we grasp how Paul can speak of the kingdom community of believers as eschatological Israel (Gal. 6:15–16).

Further, while Fredriksen’s account of Paul doesn’t deny that sin and salvation were concerns, it places those concerns at the periphery of Paul’s priorities. Fredriksen fails to explain why Paul himself could summarize his message in terms of the cross of Christ (1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 3:1; 6:14; 1 Cor. 15:1–4). Christ’s return surely lent urgency to Paul’s preaching. It did so because of his conviction that Christ’s return would lead immediately to the final judgment of all humanity. No human being can stand righteous, on his own, before that throne (Rom, 3:9–20). But the stunning news of the gospel is that sinners can stand righteous before God from the moment they put their faith in Christ, whose righteousness is counted to them for justification (Rom. 3:21–26). While believers must keep God’s law, their obedience in no way contributes to their justifying righteousness, which alone consists of Christ’s perfect obedience and full satisfaction for sin (Rom. 4:4–5; 5:12–21).

But Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle raises a more basic problem. Were one to grant that Paul expected Jesus to return in his own lifetime, then one is compelled to conclude that events proved Paul wrong. On this reading, not only was Paul mistaken in a matter central to his teaching, but his teaching was grossly misunderstood by those thought to be his immediate successors: the authors of the so-called Deutero-Pauline Epistles. Why, then, does Paul’s teaching merit more than a footnote in any account of the development of Christian thought?

But if Paul didn’t teach that Jesus would necessarily return in his own generation, and if the disputed letters aren’t only faithful to Paul’s teaching but are in fact his own compositions, we’re in a better position to appreciate his towering and constructive influence in the history of the church. We’re able not only to concur with Fredriksen’s summons to admire the apostle, but also to understand why the church in every age has thanked God for the “wisdom given . . . our beloved brother Paul” (2 Pet. 3:15).

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