Cruel Christmas

3 Dec
Christmas Shopping

Christmas Shopping

There is a cruel side to Christmas. There it was under the tree: A Laser Blaster 2000! Nothing else mattered. You raced around the house gleefully saving the world from bug-eyed monsters from outer space, but then came that awful moment Christmas afternoon when you met your friends. You triumphantly held up your prize and pride, the Laser Blaster 2000 only to discover Billy got the Laser Blaster 3000 with battery powered sights and sound. The joy you had felt a moment before was snuffed out and you began to feel – perhaps for the first time – the spark of envy.

By the time we become adults that little spark has become the raging fire of “conspicuous consumption.” We begin buying things we don’t need to impress people we don’t know. The desire to be the envy of others often leads to overspending and consequent marital conflicts. (Arguments over money and spending is listed as one of the greatest causes of divorce in America.)  “A convincing case can be make that the entire free enterprise system is fueled by envy,” Harry Stein writes in his book, Ethics and Other Liabilities.

Envy isn’t just about material things. We envy successful people. We envy beautiful people. We envy powerful people and have you noticed the irony of it all? Envying someone causes them no inconvenience whatsoever. In fact, the object of our envy is likely to enjoy the envy of others! Stein continues, “No emotion is so corrosive of the system and the soul as acute envy” because, unlike hatred or lust or violent anger, it is internalized and there is nothing therapeutic about it. Envy can be debilitating to the point of paralysis and then there is the ugliness factor. It is nearly impossible to envy with style. Invariably we end up looking as small as we feel. In fact, at its base, envy is largely a matter of self-contempt – an intense dissatisfaction with what we are.

Anthony Campolo (The Seven Deadly Sins) observes, “Envy diminishes people’s enjoyment of life because they cannot be content with what they possess.” A man who covets another man’s wife becomes discontented with his own. A woman who envies another woman’s sexy appearance becomes a supporter of a cultural system which diminishes her own value and encourages her own unhappiness.

Envy isn’t just a sin of the world; I’ve seen it within the church. One minister is jealous of another staff member’s success and his envy leads him to say and do all kinds of horrible and hurtful things. The story is told of the devil. Once Satan was crossing the desert and came across some of his minions trying unsuccessfully to tempt a poor Christian pilgrim. They were trying every trick they knew – temptations of the flesh, doubts, fears – all to no avail. Satan smiled and asked them for a turn. The devil bent down and whispered in the man’s ear, “Your brother has just been made the Bishop of Alexandria.” The serene face of the pilgrim twisted into a scowl fueled by the fires of envy and jealousy.

So what can we do about envy? An attitude of gratitude can shield us. I like the wise observation, “If you think that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, it is probably because you are not properly caring for the grass on your own side.” When we count our blessings and are grateful for what God has given us, we are protected from envy. Likewise, learning to be happy for others is a mark of wisdom. Christians are urged to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” (Romans 12:15). It’s all part of learning to live unselfishly. Third, we need to “learn to let go.” One of the greatest joys – and perhaps one of the hardest challenges – is to give things away. How much do we really need to be happy? Finally, we need to commit to the common cause. The war we face is not with each other! We are in this world together.

Let’s go back and change that Christmas afternoon scenario. “Billy that Blaster 3000 is great! I am so happy for you. Now let’s go save the world from bug-eyed aliens together!”

Count Down to Christmas — Part 3

12 Nov

Matthew 1:1-17

Sunrise in Jerusalem

Sunrise in Jerusalem

It would be easy to dismiss the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke as so much trivia. Why do we need to know who the great, great, great, great grandfather of Jesus was? Do we need to memorize those genealogies to get into heaven? (No!) So why are they important? By studying them, we can catch a glimpse of what the Holy Spirit was trying to teach us when he inspired Matthew and Luke to write the first and third gospels in our Bible. I believe the genealogies are more than just a documentary footnote to the gospels. A careful study of them will show us Matthew and Luke’s purpose.

We’ve already seen how Matthew used the genealogy of Jesus to emphasize that the Christ was the son of David (Count Down to Christmas – part 1), and we’ve discovered another rich lesson tucked away in Matthew’s account when we looked at the five women included in Matthew’s genealogy (Count Down to Christmas – part 2). In this final lesson in the series, let’s look closely at the differences between the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew (1:1-17) and the genealogy of Jesus in Luke (3:23-38). Some teachers have tried to legitimize the differences between Matthew and Luke’s accounts by linking Matthew’s genealogy to Joseph and Luke’s genealogy to Mary. That may be true and partially solve the mystery, but the primary point of recounting the lineage of Jesus is not to provide an accurate family record. The point is to prove the story of Jesus is Gospel: Good News.

Let’s begin by observing the differences between the two accounts. The first contrast is, Matthew begins with Abraham and moves forward to Joseph, while Luke begins with Joseph and moves all the way back to Adam. Thus to compare the two, we need to begin with the end of Luke’s account and work backwards so we can lay the records side by side. (Note: this part can become tedious, but we need to sift though the names and the differences to find the jewels.)

In the series from Abraham to David (Matthew’s first grouping of 14), both lists line up fairly well:


































Ge 46:8 Now these are the names of the descendants of [Jacob], who came into Egypt, Jacob and his sons. … 12 The sons of Judah: Er, Onan, Shelah, Perez, and Zerah (but Er and Onan died in the land of Canaan); and the sons of Perez were Hezron and Hamul.


Ruth 4:18 Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, 19 Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, 20 Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, 21 Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, 22 Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.

Matthew lists “Ram” as the son of Hezron and Ram is the father of Amminadab. Ruth confirms this order, but Luke says Arni is the son of Hezron and Admin is the son of Arni. Neither Arni or Admin are mentioned elsewhere. The only other variation is between Nahshon and Boaz where Matthew reads “Salmon” and Luke reads “Sala.” Of course this could simply be a matter of spelling for the same man and should present no major problem.

The first major differences comes between David and Shealtiel. Matthew lists 14 individuals and Luke lists 20 and there are no matches between Matthew and Luke at this point. Note Matthew leaves out Joash, Amaziah and Azariah (see 1 Chronicles 3:11, 12). Matthew also leaves Jehoiakim off of the list and jumps to Jechoniah (a variation in spelling for Jehoiachin).




















































1 Chr. 3:10 The son of Solomon was Rehoboam, Abijah his son, Asa his son, Jehoshaphat his son, 11 Joram his son, Ahaziah his son, Joash his son, 12 Amaziah his son, Azariah his son, Jotham his son, 13 Ahaz his son, Hezekiah his son, Manasseh his son, 14 Amon his son, Josiah his son. 15 The sons of Josiah: Johanan the firstborn, the second Jehoiakim, the third Zedekiah, the fourth Shallum. 16 The descendants of Jehoiakim: Jeconiah his son, Zedekiah his son; 17 and the sons of Jeconiah, the captive: Shealtiel his son, 18 Malchiram, Pedaiah, Shenazzar, Jekamiah, Hoshama and Nedabiah; 19 and the sons of Pedaiah: Zerubbabel and Shimei

Then there are matches between both gospels for the next two generations: Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, but then the lists divide again. Matthew lists nine individuals between Zerubbabel and Joseph the stepfather of Jesus, while Luke counts twice as many (18) and none of names are the same in either list.













































As you can see, it all becomes very complicated very quickly. So is there a solution? Some people teach Matthew’s account lists the genealogy of Jesus’s stepfather, Joseph, while Luke’s account gives Jesus’s lineage through Mary his physical mother. That may very well be true, but I think a much more important question is to examine the purpose the genealogies serve in both gospels.

Why don’t Mark or John include a genealogy of Jesus in their books? Because it wasn’t necessary for their purposes. A genealogy wouldn’t have advanced their stories. They are included in Matthew and Luke because the genealogies do support the purposes of their gospels. What is their purpose?

The first purpose for both Gospels is obvious. It seems the critics of Christianity attacked the legitimacy of the faith by attacking the legitimacy of Jesus’s birth (see Origen, Against Celsus, 1.32). For example, the Jews taught Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier named “Pandera” or “Panthera” (a pun on the Greek word for virgin, “Parthenos.” See b. Shabbat 104b).  Matthew’s solution is to associate Mary with the four other women who had “tainted” backgrounds (See Countdown to Christmas – part 2). Luke’s solution is to trace the actual lineage of Jesus back to Adam “the son of God.”

Secondly, Matthew wants his readers to see Jesus as the “son of David,” the legitimate heir to the throne and as the Messiah, the promised Christ. Luke is far more interested in showing Jesus as the savior of the world – of all nations and peoples – again by portraying Jesus as the son of Adam, the son of God.

Why is all of this so important? Because nothing in the Bible is trivial. By spending our time studying the genealogies of Jesus we learn three things. First, from Matthew’s “14 generations, 14 generations, 14 generations,” we learn Jesus is the promised son of David, the Messiah. Second from the inclusion of the women in Matthew’s family tree of Jesus, we learn God loves everyone no matter what their background or race or gender. Finally, from the inclusion of the genealogies in the gospels, we can trace God’s eternal plan through each generation, back to the beginning, to the very creation of his first children. God’s eternal desire has been to save us through the gift of his Son and our Savior.



[1] Arni and Admin are only mentioned in Luke

[2] Is it possible Sala and Salmon are the same man?

[3] Are Asaph (Mt.) and Asa (1 Chr.) the same?

[4] According to 1 Chronicles, Matthew skips Joash, Amaziah, and Azariah between Uzziah (or Ahaziah) and Jotham.

[5] Are Asaph (Mt.) and Asa (1 Chr.) the same?

[6] According to 1 Chronicles, Matthew skips Joash, Amaziah, and Azariah between Uzziah (or Ahaziah) and Jotham.

[7] Arni and Admin are only mentioned in Luke

[8] Is it possible Sala and Salmon are the same man?

Count Down to Christmas — part 2

5 Nov

Matthew 1:1-17

boatyardIt’s easy to let your eye slide right over the genealogy of Jesus — those names are unfamiliar and hard to pronounce – but if you do, you’ll miss some rare jewels! It is common in a patristic society to list only the names of the fathers in a genealogy, so when Matthew includes five women, we should take note.

The first thing we see is that these women are not the sterling mothers of the Bible. Where is Sarah or the great queens of the kingdom? Instead, it’s almost like Matthew has gone out of his way to list the “shady women in the tree.”

The first, Tamar (v. 3), tricked her father-in-law, the patriarch Judah into fathering her son (Genesis 38). The second, Rahab (v. 5), had been a prostitute (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25). The third, Ruth (v. 5) was a woman of great virtue, but the circumstances of her proposal to Boaz were prone to suspicion (Ruth 3). The fourth woman in the tree, Bathsheba, isn’t even named directly because of the shame of her adulterous affair with David (v. 6; cf. 2 Samuel 11). She is “referred to only as ‘Uriah’s wife,’ perhaps to remind the reader of David’s adulterous and murderous behavior.”[1]

Finally, the fifth woman in the genealogy is Mary the mother of Jesus (v. 16), but what links Mary with the previous four “shady” women in tree? It must have been known that Mary was pregnant when Joseph married her and it was scandalous to become pregnant out of wedlock (Matthew 1:17, 18).

God’s love is not reserved for “perfect people.” He loves even the broken – perhaps especially the broken. David was an adulterer, murderer and many other things besides, but still he was called a “man after God’s own heart.” Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba were hardly perfect, but the Gospel of Matthew links them with Mary the mother of Jesus. Perhaps there’s hope for us!

[1] Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, p. 55). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Count Down to Christmas — part 1

29 Oct

Matthew 1:1-17

DSC_0086With Christmas so near, it is appropriate to re-tell the story again. In Matthew’s Gospel it begins with the genealogy of Jesus. The story fascinates me for three reasons: (1) the numbers don’t make sense to our Western minds, (2) five women are included in the genealogy – something that was very strange in a first century Jewish record, and (3) Matthew and Luke give two very different accounts of the lineage of Jesus. Over the next three articles, we’ll explore these three observations.

First, Matthew plays with the numbers to break the names down into three groups of 14 although the actual numbers he gives are 13, 14, and 13 – and Matthew actually leaves out several people to follow his scheme of 14-14-14. Our western, scientific minds balk at this. The Certified Public Accountant in our American hearts misses the point completely.

A common rabbinic method of interpreting the Bible[1], like numerology, uses the value of the letters of the alphabet to explain the meaning of the text. Each Hebrew letter also has a numeric value. It’s like counting in “Roman Numerals” in English. Don’t you remember doing this in elementary school? The letter “i” equals one. The letter “v” equals five. The letter “x” equals ten and so forth. The great gift of the Arabs were Arabic numerals: 1, 2, 3, 4 …. Before that people used their alphabets to count with. Conversely everyone’s name, when the value of the letters are added up, has a numeric value. In Hebrew (which has no vowels), King David’s name: DVD equals 4 + 6 + 4 which equals the number 14! Matthew goes out of his way to say Jesus is the “son of DaViD (14),” “son of DaViD (14),” “son of DaViD (14).”

In other words, God’s promise to King David is fulfilled in Jesus:

2 Samuel 7:11 the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’ ” 17 In accordance with all these words, and in accordance with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.



[1] This method is called “Gematria.” “One of the rabbinic hermeneutic rules for interpreting the OT. It consisted of explaining a word or group of words according to the numerical value of the letters or by substituting and rearranging certain letters according to a set system. By that rule of interpretation, for example, some rabbis have argued that Eliezer (Gn 15:2) was worth all the servants of Abraham put together, for Abraham had 318 servants and Eliezer’s name equaled 318 (Gn 14:14).”

Elwell, W. A., & Comfort, P. W. (2001). In Tyndale Bible dictionary (p. 517). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

Sacred Cows Make Good Hamburger

17 Oct
Moses' bronze serpent is still used as a symbol of healing today

Moses’ bronze serpent is still used as a symbol of healing today

Throughout the story of the Exodus, the Israelites were famous for complaining. “Why have you brought us out into the wilderness?” “We have no water.” “This food is terrible” and much worse. On one such occasion, as they set out from Mt. Hor skirting the land of Edom, and

Numbers 21:4 the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.

That got their attention!

Numbers 21:7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 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.

What I wonder about is what became of the bronze serpent after the snakes left? Apparently someone kept it for hundreds of years. Perhaps it was proudly displayed as we might do with something put in a museum. It might be that children took field trips to see this relic from the past. However, over time, something happened. The bronze serpent began to take on a legacy of its own. Hundreds of years later, it might be someone claimed they looked on the snake and were healed. From there it would be an easy step to ascribe healing power to the image. I can picture the light from an oil lamp dancing over the bronze image and frightening children. The snake was given the name “Nehustan” (which in Hebrew sounds like both the word “bronze” and “snake”). Before long, what had been a link to Moses and the Lord became an evil idol of itself for we read how good king Hezekiah:

2 Kings 18:4 [Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).

I wonder if we have any traditions that have outlived their usefulness? Is it possible that we do some things simply because we have always done it that way? I remember my grandfather telling me about the great “communion shroud” controversy. It seems in a little country church, it was their custom to put a white cloth over the bread and wine on the communion table to keep the flies away. Over time the ladies took great pride in starching and ironing that pure white cloth. It was an honor to be asked to prepare it. People began to think about the cloth as a funeral shroud and it added a new symbol to the communion celebration. Then, one day, someone brought in a new shiny communion set that held the cups and the bread protected by a tray with a fly proof lid. The cloth was no longer needed so someone served the communion without the “shroud.” A holy war broke out in the congregation. “We’ve always done it that way!” someone shouted. “The cloth is the shroud of Christ!” someone else explained quoting John’s Gospel (20:6, 7). My grandfather shook his head sadly and observed, “Johnny, that silly tradition nearly split the church.”

On occasion we need to think about the things we do and ask ourselves why we do them. It could be that sacred cows do make the best hamburger.


Buddy the Happy Hamster

14 Oct

I don’t always write serious blogs. This one is just for fun!

Thursday was “Kid’s Day” for Sally. Every year her father’s company invited their employees to bring their children with them to work. It was a very special time and Sally could barely sleep the night before. She looked across the room and talked to her little black hamster “Buddy.”

“Gee Buddy, I’m so excited to go to work with my Daddy!” she said. Buddy started climbing up his water bottle like excited hamsters do.

“Wow! I wish you could go with me. That would be so much fun! There is so much to see and daddy’s office looks like your hamster hotel. There are lots of little rooms and passageways. You would fit right in. Why I bet they would even give you a job. Daddy says he works with a mouse all day and his boss, Mr. Winter, looks kind of like Lisa Tilley’s ferret.”

Buddy started getting very excited and Sally drifted off to sleep thinking about Kid’s Day and Buddy.

“Sally! Sally! Wake up! You’re going to be late! Don’t make your father wait,” mother said. Sally jumped out of bed, washed her face and brushed her teeth and auburn hair. Her freckles were so cute! She chose a pretty red dress with white lace trim and as she was getting ready to run down the stairs she remembered Buddy. “Buddy! I can’t leave you! Do you promise to be good?”

Buddy wiggled his nose and whiskers like good hamsters do and then smiled a big yellow hamster smile that told Sally Buddy was going to be the best hamster that ever went to Kid’s day. Sally put Buddy in her pocket and away they went.

There was a big sign in front of a huge parking lot that said, “Outtasight Industries” and a little banner that said, “Welcome to Kid’s Day.” Father parked the car and they all went into the modern building. A nice lady met Sally and gave her a badge. Buddy didn’t get a badge, but he was being very good hiding in Sally’s pocket. They all pushed through the revolving door and suddenly there was a giant maze of cubicles. Sally’s father worked across the way and they wound their way around the little hallway till they found Sally’s father’s “cube.”

On the walls there were books and pictures of Sally and Buddy. On father’s desk was a big phone and a computer. Sally liked computers and her father told her to sit in his big chair while he went to get them some orange juice. Sally was being very good when Buddy decided to have a look too. He climbed out of her pocket and down her dress then hopped up on the key board. Buddy’s feet started pushing buttons and the computer came to life! It was very exciting! Sally had no idea Buddy was such a wonderful computer programmer. Buddy liked the sound of the keys and began to do a little hamster dance. The computer must have liked it because all kinds of numbers and pictures flashed by. Sally laughed and laughed at Buddy’s dance.

Then father returned with the orange juice but Buddy jumped into Sally’s pocket in just the nick of time. He was exhausted for all his work!

Father took one look at the screen and fainted. He must have been overjoyed with Buddy’s work because three nice men in uniforms came running in and carried father away with pretty silver bracelets. Buddy and Sally just smiled and drank their juice.

Leadership Communication

1 Oct
My grandmother who gave me such great advice

My grandmother who gave me such great advice

Communication and miscommunication seem to be universal issues among churches. People need to be informed, but the word often doesn’t get out. Leaders are misunderstood and members feel out of touch. How does this happen?

A common mistake is for leaders to believe that because they know, everyone else knows. At elders’ meeting issues are talked about over and over and over again. The shepherds know about issues and activities amongst themselves, but they fail to inform the congregation. An item might be put into the bulletin – but not everyone reads the weekly newsletter. Something might be announced, but announcements often fall short because people are thinking about what they are going to do after church rather than paying attention. What we need is what marketing people call “buzz.” A few people are excited and share the news repeatedly in every forum and in every format.

Unfortunately, most buzz is like a Twitter feed or a marketing pitch: it must be attention grabbing and especially short. Buzz doesn’t work well for complicated issues, issues that require education, or items that must be reviewed in depth. Here the “key man” concept may help.

In every church there are certain outspoken individuals that others listen to. If an idea can be effectively communicated to them, they will communicate it to the rest of the congregation. People naturally listen to what these people have to say and respect their conclusions. “If Brother Jones thinks it’s a good idea, I’m all for it.” Unfortunately, those key individuals, in my experience, are rarely the elders. Why?

It could be because elders only have a limited amount of time and that is generally spent with the other elders. The group becomes closed off from the rest of the congregation. This isn’t the case when the elders are leaders of smaller groups in the church like a Bible School class or a small group or they are diligent in exercising hospitality. But if the elders are only talking with other elders, a disconnect occurs.

Have you ever been to a store where the employees are all talking with each other and ignoring the customers? Do you feel like an outsider or like you are intruding if you try to interrupt them? Unfortunately, church leaders can be like that with their congregations. So how can we change that sad situation?

Paul says one of the qualifications for serving as an elder is “hospitality” (1 Timothy 3:2). That term includes being friendly and serving others, but it is much more familiar than that. When an elder and his wife open their home to others, it changes relationships from superficial social banter in the back of the church; it changes politeness into transparency, intimacy and love. No wonder the very first Christians met daily in the Temple and “in their homes” (Acts 2:46)!

However, whenever I have suggested this, the idea is met with a great deal of resistance. I think that’s because modern Americans have forgotten the difference between entertaining and hospitality. Entertaining mean setting out a formal dinner party that requires a great expenditure of effort and money. It means setting the table with the best china, polishing the silver, and arranging entertainment. Good old fashioned hospitality doesn’t care about clean houses and gourmet fare. TV trays and pizza are perfect! Laughing and telling stories is the stuff of intimacy and the foundation of hospitality. It also is the perfect setting for sharing dreams and visions and honest communication which raises another point.

Communication is a two-way process. Putting something in the bulletin or making an announcement involves only one direction and may or may not get the job done, but when you listen to what people think, it involves two directions and communication is much more likely to occur.

Maybe we should all listen to my grandmother’s advice: “God gave us two ears and one mouth Johnny so we need to listen twice as much as we speak.” The foundation of good leadership communication is listening as well as speaking.


24 Sep

boatyardI stood there in front of our storage unit with my hands on my hips and said it again, “We’ve got too much stuff!” Jan and I are changing jobs and all our worldly belongings were crammed into storage. Just eight years ago, we had disposed of everything (save a few family heirlooms) and moved onto a 40-foot boat. It felt so clean and unencumbered. Now we were wondering where we were going to put all this stuff we had accumulated.

The garage sale was a success, but, honestly, the most fun was giving it all away. People dreaded coming to my office because I sent them packing with double arm loads of books. We left the parsonage nearly furnished as we walked away from our living room furniture. The phone rang off the hook when Jan posted ads on Craig’s List for “Free Stuff.” They carted it all away and still we had too much stuff.

“I’ll need my table saw when we build the cabin,” I said. “I’ll need an outfit for our job interviews, and clothes for the island and the boat,” Jan replied. And there it all was – dining room table, grandma’s chest, lamps, box after box of kitchen equipment, dishes, office equipment, camping gear and clothes, sewing table, boat parts, TV trays, chest of drawers, beds and mattresses — boxes reaching back into the dark recesses of the storage unit. Things stacked floor to ceiling and not an inch to spare. Too much stuff!

So just how much do we really need? I desperately need the love of my wife. Without her, I would just be an empty shell. I need the love of my children and my grandchildren, but often they seem so far away. I need my friends for without them to share with, life wouldn’t be nearly so sweet. I need to walk in nature and feel the hand of God on my shoulder, but this stuff? No, Paul was right, “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content,” (1 Timothy 6:6-8). The stuff I really need fills my heart and not my pockets – or a storage unit.

Authentic Friendship

1 Sep

My dear friend, Gordon Gower, preaching in Colorado

Nothing hurts more than to have a “pretend friend.” Often we don’t know who our true friends are until trouble comes our way. My dear friend, Gordon Gower, recently reminded me, “Your REAL friends are coming in the door while the others are going out.”

Today let’s look at taking the 7th step up Peter’s Eight Rung Ladder:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love, (2 Peter 1:3-7).

In this passage of Scripture, Peter tells us to take the next step up from godliness to “brotherly affection.” Many English Bibles read “brotherly love” here. So what does “love” mean to you? I love apple pie. I love my grandmother. I make love to my wife and I love my Lord. Hopefully each of those loves has a different meaning, but they are actually related to each other. The love that we learn from our mother and father teaches us to love our friends and the love of our friends teaches us to love unselfishly. Here is another series of stepping stones!

I like to think about 2 Peter 1:3-7 as an eight rung ladder. Each step leads to the next. We began this series with the step of faith which led to excellence (virtue) and excellence led to understanding (knowledge) which led us to self-control and endurance (steadfastness), then godliness and now we begin to learn to love. Here Peter starts with friendship (brotherly love) which will teach us in our last lesson about the greatest love, agape.

As has been said many times, there are several Greek words that are translated “love” in English. There is a word for the love of possessions and there is a word for the love of family, but the two that are most often used in the New Testament can be translated “friendship” (“brotherly affection” in the English Standard Version) and a powerful, transcendent, godly love, Agape. In learning to love, we need to begin with friendship. From there we can climb the last step of our eight rung ladder and learn to love like God loves.

Paul told the Romans, “Love one another with brotherly affection,” (Romans 12:10). This too is an interesting progression for he begins with the word for “family love”* and then moves to “brotherly love.” Notice the Holman Christian Standard Version: “Show family affection to one another with brotherly love.” This is the only place in the New Testament where this word translated “family love/affection” is used. It is the kind of love we find mothers having for their children and then children having this love for their parents and siblings. In this sense, it is the most natural love. The ancients believed it was possessed even by animals. When family love is absent from a person, it is an anomaly – even a tragedy – but its presence is nothing extraordinary, so Paul moves on to describe a higher love that should be present in the Christian family: brotherly love.

One of the greatest losses of our modern age is the loss of friendship. Unfortunately, friendship is no longer necessary for survival. It is nice to have friends, but it is not necessary. C.S. Lewis once observed, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.”

Do you remember a time in your life when you had a buddy or a best friend? For most us of, we’ll need to go back to grade school or to our time in the military to remember when we had one. Paul said the Thessalonians were masters of the art of friendship: “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia,” (1 Thessalonians 4:9, 10). The Hebrew writer says brotherly love is a characteristic of all Christians (Hebrews 13:1), but it is in our current context of 1 Peter that we are given the key to learning this virtue:

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, (1 Peter 1:22).

Spend some time meditating on this text for a moment. Let the Holy Spirit instruct you. What do you see?

  1. Brotherly love must be “sincere.” Literally, it is not-hypocritical. Friendship can be faked. It happens all the time, but it must not be so with Christians! In Christ we become authentic – especially so in our friendships.
  2. The true source of brotherly love must be from a “purified” soul. In days gone by, that required cultic cleansing in the Temple (John 11:55; Acts 21:24, 26; 24:18). Today, figuratively we can cleanse our hearts (James 4:8) and our souls (1 Peter 1:22).
  3. Cleansing comes through “obedience to the truth.” That comes by drawing near to God (James 4:8).

Isn’t that interesting? We become genuine friends by becoming genuine Christians! As we learn to live under God’s rule, we become authentic Christians and thus we can become true friends. By cleansing our hearts and our hands, we rid ourselves of ulterior motives and so we elevate friendship through sincerity. Brotherly love means not seeking friends for what they can do for us, but simply because we sincerely want to be friends.

Christian friends are the best friends!

The Power of Preaching

25 Aug

Recently, one of my former elders called me and asked, “How’s the job search going?” I know he meant well, but we’ve gone round and round in the past about the difference between a “job” and a “calling.” A job pays the bill. In High School I cut fish for a living. It was my first job and, since I don’t have a sense of smell, I was ideally equipped for it. On the other hand, it was never my intension to spend the rest of my life hacking up halibut. I felt God had something else in mind for me.

My Grandfather, John D. McKeel

My Papa, John D. McKeel

My earliest memory is holding my Papa’s hand and climbing the stairs to Sunday School at the old 12th and Drexel church of Christ in Oklahoma City. Dad was in the Army in Korea and mom and my baby brother and I were living with my grandparents. I still have the card K.C. Moser gave my parents when I was born. From the earliest age, I wanted to be a preacher. Ministers were my heroes. Still I was mesmerized by those giants of old who so authoritatively preached the word. That’s what I wanted to be when I grew up! That was what God was calling me to do.

“I’m sending out resumes,” I answered, but what I am really doing is listening to stories – the stories of congregations around the country and I am worried. Not that I won’t be called to another church, but I am worried about the church itself.

“The average age here is 70,” he said as I listened. “We’re all getting up there so we need to do something quick!”

“And what do you feel like you need at X street?” I asked.

“Well, we’re going to hire a youth minister and we’re looking for a young man with a family to fill the pulpit,” he answered. I sighed and resisted the urge to ask, “And how many young people are there for that Youth Minister to minister to?”

Congregation after congregation believes the key is to hire someone young. “That’ll attract young families!” I hear over and over again. “If we add a contemporary service, the young people will come back!” They conclude. I had a vision of a bunch of 70-year old rockers with electric guitars and pounding drums – and shuddered.

Changing the music is probably a good idea in a lot of churches, but I don’t believe adding a band or a Youth Minister for that matter is the key to growing a church.

“Well, Brother McKeel, what do you think the key is?”

“Please, just call me John.” I said.

It’s no more about adding music and changing the role of women than it was about Pre-Millennialism, Cooperation, Speaking in Tongues or the Discipleship Movement in days gone by. There will always be a new program and there will always be a new controversy that threatens to divide us. A new program or a new method will not “save the church.”

“The Bible is the key,” I replied. “Jesus warned the Scribes, ‘Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge.’ (Luke 11:52) The Bible is the key!”

I got a puzzled look and he stammered, “But we preach the Bible!”

“Yes, but do you make it come alive?” I asked. “No one has the right to make the Bible boring! I know a lot of preachers who try, but the Word must be ‘living and active’ not ‘dead and dull.’”

“Our preacher works very hard to have a lesson that is strong on application,” he protested.

“I’m sure he does,” I answered. “But Preaching ‘Six Steps to a Happy Life’ isn’t going to change the world. Many of the sermon outlines I see look like a kidnapper’s ransom note,” I observed. “Six points with six Scriptures cut out of different contexts to prove a point. That’s not listening to God. That’s just cutting out passages and pasting them into your outline to prove your point. Your preacher may make a wonderful point, but he needs to let the text dictate the outline instead of using the text to illustrate his conclusions.”

[Think about that for a moment. On the one hand we begin with God (observation), study very hard to know what the text is saying (interpretation) and then apply it (application). On the other hand we begin with our application in mind and try to find supporting quotes for it from different, often unrelated, passages of Scripture. Those are two very different approaches to my mind.]

I got a sharp glance down a very long nose. “And what is preaching in your opinion?”


I let that sink in. “A rabbi once said, ‘God loves a good story. That’s why He created people.’”

Think about it. The first rule of good preaching is “Never yawn during your own sermon.” I’ve learned the way to hold people’s attention is by telling a good story and no story is better than the ones that come from the Good Book. First are the Bible Biographies. Yes, everyone may have heard the story of David and Goliath, but who tires of it let alone the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the Beggar at the Golden Gate; the Philippian Jailer – the prophets, the apostles – the list is nearly endless and the lessons are just as applicable today as they were when the Holy Spirit chose to include them in the Bible.

But suppose we do tire of those stories. We can move on to the stories Jesus told: the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Story of the Soils. And what happens when you get bored with those? Then let’s open up a text and make it come alive! Preachers need to learn the art of exegesis again. People are spell-bound and lives are changed when the letters of Paul, Peter, James and John are opened. When was the last time you heard a book brought to life from beginning to end? That’s preaching!

And the beautiful part of this plan is: The Bible touches everyone – old and young alike! Preaching on current events is divisive. Preaching pop psychology or even common sense won’t touch everyone. Using multi-media is clever, often entertaining, but it doesn’t begin to change lives unless it is used to open up the Scriptures.

Let’s get back to the Word of God. Let’s stand in awe and listen! If we are going to survive, much less grow, we need preachers.