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Category: discipleship

What Does The Baptism of Christ Mean?

Image sources: DesiringGod.org, Bonnellart.com. Artist: Daniel Bonnell

I was reading my Bible plan on youversion the other day when it led me to the baptism of Christ. I’d never thought much of the event before, but this time it stood out.

Why did Jesus submit to baptism? There are two parts to this answer we should explore: the role of baptism in Jewish life; and what baptism seems to represent in the New Testament Scripture. We will look only at the second for now.

Baptism represents several things. I believe that baptism is representative of repentance from sin, and it prepares our souls for public affiliation with Christ. But why would Christ himself need to be baptized? Is he not sinless? Is he not our master, the one by whom we are named? What is the significance of his act?

While thinking about this and reading a couple articles about this passage, I think that baptism is representative of work that is public and work that is private. Or maybe I’m more correct to say that Christ’s baptism reflected both private and public reality simultaneously. More than this, it referred to Christ’s present and future work, simultaneously.

In Matthew when Jesus says that his baptism fulfills all righteousness, that is a present reality. The reality of the death of Christ is already present to him and he is already working in the task he has been prepared for. It is like a war. When we speak of World War II, or Haiti’s War of Independence, we can think of it as a series of battles, but it is all one event historically. All of these events come together as a unified whole. This is how God sees the work of Christ. In submitting to baptism, Christ also indicates-privately since no one else has knowledge of the event at the time-his obedience to the Father’s plan for redemption of man. This is why He says He is well pleased with His Son. His Son has accepted the cross, and descending and ascending into and from the waters symbolizes his descent to and resurrection from death on the cross.

It is public because everyone witnesses these events. The completion and fulfillment of God’s plan is announced. But it is also indicative of future work. It points in human time to a future reality that will be fulfilled 3.5 years later at the conclusion of his public ministry. The baptism is a symbol that promises the completion of a future reality.

Therefore, the baptism is important because it is yet another testimony of God’s faithfulness to Himself and His promises. To Him, He has already completed His work in you, and your salvation and glorification is one complete and unified event. But he is also promising the fulfillment of a future reality. That you will be presented along with His Son faultless before the throne. It is private because your baptism indicates your obedient acceptance and participation in His plan. But it is public because you declare your identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.

Present and future, public and private.

Peace and blessings.

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From Sacred Space to Public Grace

I was at a Christmas party with my kids this past holiday season and I was conflicted. The music was hot, the kids were eating well, and everyone was merry. Problem was, I wasn’t enjoying myself. I was trying to figure out why. I mean, I like rap, I like R&B, I like Bruno mars and Beyonce, but today I was unable to enjoy their music. Why? Because this party was in church.

I was trying to figure out why I couldn’t enjoy myself:
-Was I taking a holier than thou attitude?
-Was I being hypocritcal?
-Don’t I hear this music in other places, like the gym?
-Would Jesus even care? Would he be that offended?

Then it hit me: this is supposed to be a sacred space. Then I had to think to myself, what is the role of the sacred in our lives? Why do we distinguish the sacred from the everyday, quotidan, profane?

The sacred is a display of public grace.

What do we mean when we say something is a public grace? Grace is displayed:
-because the sacred indicates our sense of God’s existence
-because the sacred indicates our need for God’s presence
-the sacred displays our desire to know and experience God
-the sacred expresses our submission to His perfections
-the sacred indicates our awareness of sin and need for purity
-the sacred reinforces our hope in the transcendent

When we say that something is profane, on the other hand, we mean to prioritize the lowly over the heavenly, the immediate over the right, the tangible over transcendent. Profanity obscures God, while the sacred is meant to reveal Him.

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Spiritual Calisthenics

Have you ever tried to do something that flat-out humiliates you? Something you have absolutely no idea how to do and is so far beyond your abilities? Don’t stop because thats a perfect metaphor for the spiritual life.

Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

1 Timothy 4:7b-8, NIV84

In fact, that’s exactly how I feel–that hopelessness and embarrassment–about calisthenics skills. Most other physical pursuits I’ve tried have seemed attainable if only I’d put more effort in. I’d either already mastered the movements, or at least have been familiar enough with appropriate foundational movement patterns that I was able to do it in a small number of tries. Basketball, soccer, weightlifting, and marathon running are simply not that difficult. They are all composed of very basic movement patterns that literally everyone uses every day of their lives. The coordination takes only a modest amount of training and practice to become proficient. You just add weight or try to move faster.

Body weight calisthenics skills are something else altogether. Instead of standing on your feet and legs-your strongest body parts-you stand on your hands and arms-much less strong. Instead of using your legs to perform explosive movements with your arms, you use your arms to perform explosive pull-ups and muscle ups. Your anterior core (abs) become no less important than your posterior core and shoulders for stabilizing body movements and isometrics. And almost none of the skills-planche, levers, handstands, crosses, etc.-have equivalent movement patterns commonly used in everyday life. It is embarrassing trying to learn skills that your body has literally never had to perform.

If we are honest, this is exactly what the life of the Spirit is like. In our everyday lives-especially in the US-our survival depends on our ability to be materialistic and self seeking. We have no need or practical experience with (so-called) esoteric spiritual practices that place a sense of the transcendent over our sense of self. We have no practical or useful experience prioritizing our ability to anticipate spiritual movements. We literally have no understanding of how to perform miracles or communicate in the unseen world using unlearned languages. It is exceedingly difficult for us to fight demons because we have been told from birth that they don’t exist. Therefore we live under curses and demonic possession unaware. We do not expect healing because we believe healing only happens in stories. Like in a handstand, our world is turned upside down.

Unfortunately, while you don’t need a handstand to face reality, you do need faith. If you want to live in God’s world, you must have faith in Him and know what pleases Him. You must learn to recognize his activity and learn to join what He is doing.

What can we do when our experience is wholly inadequate to reality? Well, we have some tips from the physical challenges posed by calisthenics skills. Notice that there is some level of baseline strength that one must have in order to turn your world on its head. You cannot attempt a handstand if you cannot do a push-up. And there are disciplines that start from where one is to progress them to the more advanced activities. You may not be able to perform a front lever raise today, but a number of exercises performed consistently over time can help you bridge the gap.

While there is much about our spiritual lives that is beyond our ability to control, there are basic disciplines we should pursue in obedience while our spiritual strength grows. Do you pray? Do you read and meditate on Scripture? Do you cultivate a heart of worship? You cannot expect to perform miracles or even be other-centered if you don’t consistently engage these basics first! Work on the basics and make room, by faith, for God to move in your life.

Build your spiritual core.

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The Creative Power of Forgiveness

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The irreversibility of action is one of the most profound truths of life. When we act, we interact with others from our position of human plurality to accomplish something more creative and powerful than we could ever accomplish on our own. Action is always an inter-action with others, and action is always resulting in an outcome that exceeds our own creativity and personal power. When we act, the consequences of our actions out live our selves. However, forgiveness can reverse the power of destructive action.

The inter-active, inter-personal reality of action is remarkable to consider. Because of our fallen nature and our lack of foreknowledge of future events, our actions can be creatively productive or creatively destructive. For example, we routinely see the creative power of action at work in politics. When DeRay McKesson asserts that #BlackLivesMatter, his actions are multiplied beyond his own power because others subject their personal will to the ideal that other Americans are willing to productively confront the structural devaluing of minority lives in our justice system. When President Donald J. Trump asserts that only he can #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, i.e., #MAGA, his actions are multiplied beyond his own power because others subject their personal will to the creative destruction of the American-dominated world order in favor of re-creating another domestic future.

We saw the irreversibility of action this past week in profoundly destructive and profoundly redeeming ways in Las Vegas. While the shooter may have had (yet unknown) plans effected in his own actions, the destructive power of his actions has been greatly multiplied beyond anything beyond his own power as the losses of life and health ripple through all of the families and communities affected. At the same time, his actions released the creatively redeeming actions of others who sacrificed themselves to protect others, risked their lives to keep the company of the dying, and provide immediate physical and spiritual relief to those who were suffering in the moment. While on the one hand, there was one irreversibly destructive act, on the other hand there were many irreversibly redeeming acts that negated the power of one’s rebellion against the sanctity of life.

In fact, action is so powerful that the only thing that can reverse or undo destructive acts is forgiveness. Forgiveness is the sole personal action that can release the actor and the one who is acted upon from the irreversible consequences of action. This is because forgiveness is so unexpected in the wake of actions with creatively destructive actions. Most of the time, when the circumstance demands forgiveness, it is because the hurt and pain caused by the original action is so deep that it creates a cycle of retribution in which the one acted upon is obligated to reciprocate the original action. Thus, the original action attains its destructive power. But forgiveness can have redemptive power, because it destroys the cycle of retribution while re-configuring the relation between the actor and the one acted upon. Ideally, forgiveness re-configures this relationship so that both parties can proceed as if the original act had never happened. In our human world, this is obviously not true since some of the artifacts of originally destructive acts cannot be reversed or restored (e.g., a man is paralyzed because he was struck by a drunk driver). However, future actions are no longer predetermined by the original act of destruction.

Have the events of the past week made you reconsider the meaning of life? The meaning of our actions? The power of forgiveness?

Peace and Blessings.

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Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community

It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.

Let me say that this statement contains a useful summary of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer believes to be the essence of Christian life, lived for the purpose of building up others in Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes this in the first chapter of his book, Life Together, which crystallizes his theology of Christian community. As time permits, I will try to share a few reflections from this book that I believe are encouraging. I have finished reading the book for some time, but it is difficult to write a review so I will share a few thoughts over the next week or two as I have opportunity. Let us start by discussing the quote above.

We see his emphasis on grace. If you have read more than one paragraph of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writing–in most cases even only one paragraph–you will know that Bonhoeffer believes that the grace of God in Christ is the reason for living. It is the rationale and motivation of our ethics. It is the breath of life and the substance of what we call death. To Bonhoeffer, grace is everything, and so it is fitting that this quote from his book, Life Together, begins with grace.

We see that his focus on grace yields to his acknowledgment that God allows us to live in community with other Christians. I’ve written recently about how much I am disappointed and dissatisfied by church. I think that Bonhoeffer, even if he saw exactly the same data that I experience, he would conclude that even the church experiences that I have had are a supreme gift of grace that must prompt a response of praise and gratitude and not one of self-righteous complaint. When Bonhoeffer wrote this book–one of his last–he was writing as a pastor who was a leader of a non-sanctioned non-denominational seminary in Germany during the Third Reich. Communities of authentic Christianity were not common. So he wrote this with the understanding that the enjoyment of Christian community for many could be abridged at any moment by the governing authorities. Thus, not only is it grace, but it is a privilege if God calls you to live in Christian community with others. If He calls you to respond to Truth in Christ, He does so without respect for your external circumstances. Many are called to labor alone. That is not my call in Christ, thank God. He allows me to live in community with other Christians.

And this brings us to the third thing we see here: community. If we are in Christ, our lives are not our own. Bonhoeffer understood that our lives are lived in Christ, through Christ, expressly for others and not for ourselves. To me, this truth is tricky because, of course, it is only possible for me to be self-aware, physiologically. I can only be aware of things that are revealed to me, speaking from what I understand of our cognitive processes. However, in Christ, our lives are not our own. Starting in my own household, since I am married my body belongs to my wife and not to myself. The desires of my children often come before my own, discipline notwithstanding. Choices that I can make, even if I do want to satisfy my own desires, are circumscribed by household resources that do not belong to me but to my household as a unit. And this is before I leave my doors. If I read the Scripture, yes I am transformed but my transformation affects my brothers and sisters. And much about my spiritual journey cannot be accomplished if I am isolated from my brothers and sisters. How can I experience grace if I never need to ask for forgiveness? How can I experience kindness if I am never put in a position to rely on the sovereign choices of others? I cannot develop self-control or patience if I am never subject to the will of another. I cannot exercise love or be loved if I am not in any relationships. It quickly becomes clear that what Christians call the fruit of the Spirit cannot be cultivated outside of community. It also becomes clear that these fruit are not produced for our own sustenance, but for the sustenance of the entire body.

How is God calling to you to live for the Body? In what ways can you thank God for the Christian communities around you?

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run the race to win

What does it mean to “run in such a way as to get the prize”? (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Whatever it means, it is not just talking about the race. While the race is the focus and the ultimate goal of one’s training and attention, the race is simply the part of the athlete’s life that is seen by all. The race is much more about the preparation coming beforehand.

Ever since I’ve started taking up distance running as an amateur pursuit, and not just as an accessory to basketball and soccer training, I’ve been struck by how much my race times are predictable once I take a look back at my training log. There is so much truth to this that if I’d truly understood this in high school, I’d have been a much different–and much better–track and field athlete. (I would have been an excellent 300m/400m hurdler, or a decent 200m sprinter). This is because I’d have taken much more care to steward my training and my body very carefully. The goal would be the peak at the conference and regional championships (as a sophomore or junior) or regional and state championships (as a junior or senior). Every moment before then would be taken in light of the ultimate goal of winning one of these races.

In the middle distance events, I found that there is still much more variability than in distances exceeding 10k. Between 1500 to 10,000m, there is a delicate balance between tactics and talent that reveals what is in the heart of the most talented runners. If you are one who is head and shoulders above the rest of the field–and believe that is true–then you can run a fast, honest pace from the gun. This reminds me of Genzebe Dibaba and Sifan Hassan racing to break the world record at 5000m. They knew the race was among only two runners, and from the gun ran with such confident assurance. However, when the best racers equivocate, it leaves room for the less talented runners to steal a victory. As much as I love Leo Manzano, he has no business with an Olympic bronze medal at 1500m. In this case, the less talented runners race with grit and faith, while the more talented runners race with doubt and fear. At its essence, this is what makes a tactical race fun to watch–despite the often pedestrian paces.

For the longer distances, however, it is very much like the sprints. Everyone knows the one or two individuals who will have a real shot at winning. This is because there is very, very little room for error. While these races are given somewhat to tactics, they are principally determined by the condition of the physiological systems of the racers. Therefore, the training is an accurate indicator of the fitness and race capability of the racers. For sprints and distance events exceeding 10 miles, there is very little left to chance barring injury or other accident.

This is where we return to the statement above: “run in such a way as to get the prize.” You cannot run to get the price starting with the gun. The racing begins in the training so that the athlete is transformed into one who is able to get the prize. Your physiological systems must be different when the gun goes off than they were when you started training towards the event. World class athletes know this, and approach their training with the same methodical precision as a world class researcher. While the effort is not the same in each session, every session has a purpose. Each moment has a place in the athlete’s teleological transformation. This is how our lives with God should be viewed. Each moment is not the same. However, we must approach each of our days with God intending to be transformed into one who thinks His thoughts and knows His ways. We do not run the race once we enter His presence, because that is the end, the peak, not the race itself. The race is to be transformed into Christ’s likeness by having our minds renewed daily through interaction with Him, His Word, and His people.

We must run the race so as to win the prize. How will you run your race for the glory of God today?

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What’s behind the door?

Imagine that you were standing in front of a door that had everything you have ever desired or wanted behind it. If you were told you could have everything behind the door, would you be able to open it?

This is one of the illustrations James K.A. Smith uses when he tries to convince us that we are fundamentally lovers, not thinkers. In his lecture “You Are What You Love,” he makes a compelling case that we are creatures of desire. The narratives that arouse the most desire in us are the ones that direct our thoughts and actions. These desires are so deep that we are not always aware of them. So, while we know what we should say when someone asks us what we should desire, chances are that we love something altogether different. For most people, this should be a harrowing idea.

I’m not sure I would have the courage to open the door. 

I know what I should say when someone asks me what I love. I love the Lord Jesus Christ and want to see Him glorified. I love my wife and my kids and want to give selflessly to them. I love other people and want to see their lives improved. But when I actually reflect on what my actions say about who I love, I love myself. I want to be king over my life, unconditionally. I want my kids to do what I say as soon as I say it. I want my wife to do what I want. I want to be served and not to serve anyone else.

In light of Christ’s commands, I don’t want to open that door. Especially not in front of Him.

I know that my inner life needs to be renovated and re-created. I want my desires to truly be re-made before I come to see Him. If I can be honest, the thought of divine judgment is terrifying because I know that I would hesitate to open that door.

It’s a good thing that God knows we would hesitate. James K.A. Smith paraphrases an important Biblical command by saying “The beginning of all wisdom is to know we don’t desire God.” At this point, it is clear to us that we cannot do this on our own–we need the Holy Sprit’s intervention. We need Him to help us imitate the desires of Christ. Ultimately, this is the goal of Christian discipleship, that our desires would be the same as those of the Lord Jesus Christ. The loves that drive us would be the same as His loves. Our deepest unconscious desires would glorify Him by second-nature.

While I would be absolutely terrified to open the door today, the song “Just Want You” by Travis Greene is my prayer today. Would you make it yours?

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