Re-post: When Jesus Was Twelve

Boy in suit. Photo credit: janvanderkerken (via flickr.com)I once said to my grandson, Zachary, when he was twelve years old, “Let’s go for a walk.” We started together down his lane and by the time we got to the sidewalk 300 yards away we were moving at a brisk pace, side by side. I looked down and suddenly realized that Zach was self-consciously matching my strides step for step. That had never happened before. I knew it was an early sign of approaching manhood.

We don’t make much of the age twelve in our culture. Sixteen is an important birthday because in many jurisdictions it means a person that age has the legal right to drive a car. Eighteen in some states means one is old enough to drink alcohol within the law. And 21 has long been regarded as the age of full maturity. Each is an important year, but not twelve.

It was different in Jesus’ culture. St. Luke tells us much about the birth of Jesus. Then he reports in great detail about his public appearances approximately 30 years later. As for the years between, they are sometimes called the silent years — except for one event. St. Luke breaks into the gap to report that Jesus attended his first passover in Jerusalem when he reached the age of twelve. Why does he tell us details of this and no other event during those years?

During Jesus’ times a Jewish boy became known as a “son of the commandment” (bar mitzvah) at the age of twelve. That is, a boy’s primary accountability was now to God through obedience to the Torah. The same transition to manhood is celebrated in some branches of Judaism in our day. The lad begins his speech saying, “Today I am a man.” He is now old enough to take part in religious services, to form binding contracts, and to testify before religious courts. Some say he has even reached the minimum age to marry. In Jesus’ times, a twelve-year-old, standing at the threshold of manhood, could attend his first passover in Jerusalem.

Despite the long years of silence, we can fill in some of the gaps about Jesus’ life by inference. We know God chose a devout young woman, Mary, to be his mother. When she received from the angel, Gabriel, the news of the coming miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit, she responded, “I belong to the Lord body and soul, let it happen as you say.” At the home of her cousin Elizabeth this expectant mother sang a song laced with Old Testament content: “My soul glorifies the Lord/ and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior …” She was in all likelihood not yet out of her teens when she gave birth to the baby Jesus.

And Joseph, the man who was to be Jesus’ earthly father, was a “righteous man,” a man of character. When he learned of Mary’s curious pregnant condition his first impulse was to cancel the engagement — actually to divorce her, though in a way that would not embarrass her unduly. However, an angel intervened and Joseph, apparently the kind of man who was open to the spiritual realm, got the angel’s message: It’s okay; God is in this.

We know that Mary and Joseph were serious practitioners of the faith of Israel. They brought the baby Jesus to be circumcised on the eighth day of his life. It was a ritual duty. Moreover, they made a trek of 70 or so miles from Nazareth to get Jesus to that first passover in Jerusalem. As well, they had an ordered family life in which, we are told, Jesus as a teen was obedient to them. And Luke tells us that many years later as an adult, Jesus went to the synagogue to worship on the sabbath, “as was his custom.” We can be quite sure he had been taught the custom in his home.

And as for his first Passover in Jerusalem, we learn something very important about Jesus. Recall that his parents were alarmed, at the end of their first day of trekking back to Nazareth, to discover that he was not among the pilgrim band of relatives and friends. They had to return to Jerusalem to search for him, finding the lad in the temple. What was he doing there? Listening to the teachers and asking them questions. Onlookers were amazed at his “understanding and his answers.”

Was this knowledge supernatural, setting Jesus apart from all other Jewish boys? Is that what it meant for him to be “the Incarnate God”? A passage in the ancient Jewish Talmud may hint at the answer. The essence of this passage reaches back before the times of Jesus, and it lays down these stages of a Jewish boy’s development: “At five he must begin the sacred studies; at ten he must set himself to learning the tradition; at thirteen he must know the whole of the law of Yahweh and practice its requirements . . .”

For Jesus to be in every respect human as well as in every respect divine he had to experience growing up as other boys of his times did. Twelve years of age must have been the time when he began to be aware of his unique relationship to his Heavenly Father. When he sat at the feet of the teachers he obviously surprised onlookers by his knowledge of the Jewish faith — likely learned in his home and from instruction at the local synagogue school.

How did Jesus respond when his parents finally found him in the temple and chided him for the inconvenience he had caused? In surprise he asks, “Didn’t you know I must be about my Father’s business?”

Think of it: All this at twelve years of age — a rich knowledge of God’s law and an awakening awareness of God as his Father in a unique way! It makes one think of the capacity a twelve-year-old must have for religious knowledge, understanding, and the experience of God! I surely think of it. I think of it when I recall that memorable walk with my twelve-year-old grandson and how he walked with me on the verge of his own manhood.

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Photo credit: janvanderkerken (via flickr.com)

How To Start Each Day With Heartfelt Prayers – Part 2 of 2

4931133631_a8ee225125_mDo you find that your prayers are sometimes labored and tedious, and do you repeat the same things over and over again? If so, here’s help; learn and practice the five main elements of prayer. From antiquity to the present they are considered to be essentials of prayer.

FIRST, ADORATION: This means to begin by revering God. Address him as the Almighty who is at the same time the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Psalms give us words we can borrow:

Not to us, O Lord, not to us / but to your name be the glory, / because of your love and faithfulness (Psalm 115:1). Or,

O Lord my God, you are very great; / you are clothed with splendor and majesty (Psalm 104:1).

Also, the very first words of the prayer our Lord taught us to pray begin with adoration: Our Father in heaven; hallowed (holy, honored, respected) be your name. (Matthew 6:9).

SECOND, CONFESSION: Thomas Oden writes, Taking personal responsibility for sin is the heart of evangelical repentance. We repent initially when we are stricken with conviction over our sins and by faith we become believers. But is there a place for repentance afterwards?

The Apostle Paul contends, “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:2). Also, the Apostle John says with certainty, “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin” (1 John 5:18). Being born of the Spirit, (Titus 3:5 — 7) our new aspirations are to please God, so sinning constantly and then needing to repent cannot be a normal healthy pattern.

But although sin is never necessary, it is always possible. Therefore, while the Apostle John assures us that we have broken with the life of sin, at the same time he provides for the confession of sins. He is speaking to Christians, when he says: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and will purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

So in our daily prayers we stay alert to the peril of pride, self-righteousness, untruthfulness, or other lapses. It is for such that John assures believers, “if we confess our sins …” forgiveness and cleansing will immediately be given.

THIRD, PETITION: Our petitions are requests for ourselves. We petition for grace to be stronger in the face of temptations, to overcome in ways we may have failed, claiming the blood of Christ to cover missteps and blunders as well as moments of conscious disobedience.

As the Hebrew letter says, “[Jesus is] …. a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God [to] make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). He is our advocate before God at all times.

FOURTH, INTERCESSION: Intercession refers to requests we bring before God on behalf of others, ranging from immediate family needs to struggles of the persecuted on the other side of our globe. The Apostle Paul calls us urgently to this ministry of intercession (Ephesians 6:18).

Moreover, Christians who take intercession seriously often develop a prayer list so that they don’t forget the needs of others for whom they intercede.

FIFTH, THANKSGIVING: If adoration is worshiping God for who he is, thanksgiving is worshiping him for what he has done, or even what we believe he will yet do.

Our thanksgiving is always first for the gift of salvation given to us through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. But we give thanks for life’s daily gifts too — for our food, for rest through the night, for loved ones, for God’s special favors we receive as his providences.

As believers we are to give thanks in every circumstance (Philippians 4:6); and to live thanklessly is to sin (Luke 17:16). We therefore offer prayers of thanksgiving to God through Christ even for what is difficult in our lives.

For example, of some difficult and perplexing situation we might pray, “I don’t understand it, and it is overwhelming me, but I am looking for your goodness and your grace through it, and for this I give thanks.”  (Colossians 3:17).

Take this five-part pattern for your guidance. Ponder its elements and incorporate them into your prayers. And to emphasize part five, keep in mind that when prayer seems hard, it can always be energized by an outpouring of thanksgiving.

 

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Photo credit: Vinoth Chandar (via flickr.com)

How To Start Each Day With Heartfelt Prayers – Part 1 of 2

4931133631_a8ee225125_mA young professional man asked me for help to make Bible reading and prayer a daily part of his life. With his permission I share the essence of my response with you, my reader.

SUGGESTION ONE. Between 15 and 30 minutes first thing in the morning is a good target time to aim for. But preparations must begin the night before. When and how we retire each night either supports or sabotages this devotional exercise in advance of the next day. Planning sleep time accordingly is just one element in a disciplined Christian life. In another context, the Apostle Peter exhorted, “Be self-controlled and alert” (1 Peter 5:8). Even try leaving your Bible open to the passage for the morning.

SUGGESTION TWO: Read the Bible according to a plan. Flipping aimlessly from place to place will not challenge your attention or hold your interest. And it is not likely to give you biblical patterns. I suggest you begin with the Gospel of Mark, the shortest Gospel, reading either a paragraph or a chapter at a time. Perhaps even say aloud at the beginning “This is the Word of the Lord.” And when you finish Mark, be prepared to begin another plan. For this morning time, I prefer to follow a Bible Reading Guide published by the Canadian or American Bible Societies. This prompts me to keep aware in an ordered way of all sections of the Bible. Copies can be ordered by a phone call: 416 417 1757.

SUGGESTION THREE: The time spent in prayer need not be long but should be active, countering any drowsiness that lingers after showering and making preliminary preparation for the day. Use the exercise to commit yourself and the new day to the Lord, declaring your trust in Him, and thanking him for his care. Ask him to grant mercy to family, friends, neighbors. Offer prayer for your church. If need be take extra time for specific needs, or to offer special words of gratitude, but don’t fixate on one matter alone.

SUGGESTION FOUR: Choose the posture for prayer that best enables you to remain concentrated. Kneeling reflects reverence but may invite sleepiness or wandering thoughts, especially early in the morning. Many pray sitting or standing. The late Oswald Smith walked back and forth in his study while he prayed. From that exercise he wrote the gospel song that begins, “I have walked alone with Jesus in a fellowship divine.”

SUGGESTION FIVE: Whenever possible, pray out loud. This will keep your mind alert to what you are doing. It is good to voice your prayers, even if only in a whisper. Hearing your words increases concentration.

For example, while sitting in silence next to a friend, your thoughts could go in several directions, but that is not as likely to happen if you are communing with that friend in conversation. Prayer can be conversation with God. It’s amazing how hearing one’s own words in prayer helps prayers to remain focused.

SUGGESTION SIX. Keep in mind that Bible reading and prayer at the outset of the day can set a tone for the whole day. Once the practice is fixed you will discover that the impulse to pray manifests itself at various times in the day. Call them flash prayers. They’re like spillover from the early morning’s prayers. Perhaps something like this is what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he exhorted, the Thessalonians, “Pray continually,” or “Never stop praying” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Remember that my suggestions are only starters. For many believers, prayer is a lifetime development. And beginners should be mindful of this: the establishment of a disciplined life of prayer may begin with a struggle against the flesh (prior habits, fatigue, distractibility) but if pursued will turn into one of the day’s great joys — communion with the Eternal God.

(Next week I’ll share the five elements of prayer)

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Photo credit: Vinoth Chandar (via flickr.com)

Re-post: Both Tender and Tough

Photo Credit: skedonk (via flickr.com)So, as we saw in my first post on this topic, the Apostle John knew how to address his people with tenderness at a time when heretical wolves were threatening the flock. Is that all? Does that mean that pastors’ main task today is to console their people like a nursemaid hovering over a sick child?

I note another characteristic of the Apostle in his first letter, one that I consider complementary to the first. Without this, in fact, he would not be John. On the one hand, when it came to caring for the flock and dealing directly with them, he was gentle. But, on the other hand, when it came to upholding sound doctrine and confronting the heresy threatening the integrity of the church, he was tough and unbending — a virtual warrior.

Here’s one of his strong declarations: “The man who says, ‘I know [Jesus Christ]’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (2:4). Here’s another, “No one who lives in [Jesus Christ] keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him” (3:6). There’s no give there. His epistle is marked with such statements.

Here’s the hint we need: All of John’s applied doctrine — that is, doctrine that calls his people to a certain manner of life — arises from the conviction with which he begins his epistle: that God, in Christ, actually came into human flesh! We call it the Incarnation. John writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at, and our hands have touched — this we proclaim” (1 John 1: 1). At this point, John reflects no give. Primary doctrine is a life and death matter. Loving pastors stake their lives on it.

This was necessary because heresies were beginning to threaten the young church before the first century closed.

There was a heretic named Nicolas whose followers believed and taught that in moral matters, anything goes. Antinomianism is the word for this position. John could not countenance this, because he knew that such teaching could permeate the church like yeast in an unbaked loaf of bread.

There was also a heretic named Cerinthus, with whom John himself apparently had doctrinal run-ins. Cerinthus believed that matter was evil and so denied that Christ actually came in the flesh.

In addition, gnosticism — a heresy that threatened the church in the second and even third centuries — was beginning to sprout as an enemy of the gospel. The church was under attack.

Pastors need both virtues today — tenderness and toughness. The saints today need to know that they are under pastors who care for them with a tender love. At the same time, they should sense that they are being guided by pastors who have a clear sense of doctrinal integrity and who will lay down their lives to guard against the heresies of today that threaten the minds and hearts of God’s people.

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Re-post: Tenderness Plus

Photo Credit: the bpp (via flicker.com)I recently taught seven lessons from that little gem of truth tucked away toward the end of the Bible called First John. Seven lessons by no means exhaust the richness lodged in this epistle, but amidst all the riches, two things about pastoring stand out to me each time I read the letter through.

Today, I’ll write about one of them, tomorrow about the other. The first one is about the writer’s loving tenderness for his flock.

First, some background. Tradition says that the writer is John the Apostle, aged and living now in Ephesus. But, aged or not, he continues his pastoral work. Perhaps the letter is written to a special congregation in Ephesus. More likely it is to a string of churches that he is superintending in that region of Western Asia.

One thing is obvious — the young church is besieged by false teachers (1 John 2:18,19, 26; 4:1-3). It needs inspired pastoral protection and guidance. That is what John’s first letter is about, delineating the truth that separates true believers from heretics. And how does he go about this task?

In the midst of an heretical attack on the church, he shows his tenderness toward his flock as reflected in his repeated words of address: “My dear children” (2:1); “Dear friends” (earlier translated, “Beloved”) (2:7); “Dear children” (2:18); “My brothers” (3:13). And on and on throughout the epistle, at least 15 times. The believers he addresses must have already been torn by uncertainty over the teachings of the antichrists who had come among the flock. They needed to feel the regard of a tender and loving shepherd.

Is pastoral tenderness, whether expressed openly or covertly, needed by congregations today?

Toward the end of the twentieth century, reports began to surface of some pastors who were treating their parishioners very roughly. At that time some leaders on the seminar circuit were promoting the idea that pastors should function more like CEOs do in the industrial world. The irony is that good CEOs don’t mistreat their employees. Even so, some pastors tried.

For example, one parishioner went to her pastor to speak of a concern. To her shock he responded: “If you don’t like my leadership, go somewhere else.” That was not an isolated case. It is reported that another pastor told a faithful parishioner bluntly: “This church has a front door and a back door.” The implications were clear.

It’s true that a church member may sometimes need to find a different place to fellowship. But in civility challenged times like ours, we could all stand to pray for the gift of gentle love such as the Apostle John displayed toward his flock as he taught them. Or that made Jesus be forever remembered as the “great shepherd of the sheep”
(Heb. 13:20).

But there’s a matching aspect to John’s leadership, and I’ll write about that in my next post.

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Raising Wholesome Children

tumblr_mcgll0TL1N1rt0kevo1_1280(Not necessarily brilliant, handsome, or talented, and certainly not perfect, but wholesome.)

In 1950 the Gallup organization gave a questionnaire to a large sampling of high school seniors. To the question: “Are you a very important person?” 12 percent said yes.

In 2005 Gallup administered the same question to another large sampling of high school seniors: 80 percent said yes.

The large increase in percentage may seem remarkable to some. Others will quickly relate the upsurge to the great increase in narcissism in our culture.

Remember Narcissus? He was the handsome young man of Greek mythology who gazed at the reflection of his image in a pool and fell in love with himself.

Narcissists are self-absorbed. They betray a sense of grandiosity and self-importance. They have a need for praise, and often show an explosive anger when their fragile sense of self-importance is in any way met with reserve or disbelief.

(Anyone who wants to know more will find a great deal of information by googling not only “narcissism,” but also terms such as “narcissistic injury,” and “narcissistic supply.”)

My understanding is that a majority of teenagers show narcissistic traits (as our generations before them did). But for most, the wear and tear of fighting their way into adulthood rubs away these traits or reduces them greatly.

Also, people of any age may have narcissistic moments or blind spots, but only a small percentage reach adulthood with full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Some experts suggest one percent.

What resources can Christian parents draw upon to assure that their children grow up with a wholesome sense of self-respect and at the same time a proper interest in and respect for others?

Perhaps a key insight is given us by Jesus when he said we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. There is apparently a proper sense of self-love — perhaps called self esteem. So parents should be concerned that children develop appropriate self-esteem but also neighbor-love. To encourage the development of a healthy sense of both, what practices should parents attempt to follow?

To begin with, we must recognize that children are a gift from God and that they bear God’s image. Therefore they are to be treated with respect even when we are correcting them. Sometimes we need to sit down and prayerfully review our child’s value to God so as to check and amend our own vexation over their slips.

At the same time, Christians believe their children (and they too) are members of a fallen race. So early in their lives they will show a “bent to evil” and this will manifest itself early and require parental alertness as well as readiness to instruct, restrain, and discipline.

Parents will be alert and respond in a correcting, teaching way, for example, to their child’s first intentional untruth, the first conscious disobedience, and the first unkindness to others or selfishness.

Parents will want to provide a home where there is lots of warmth, love, and laughter but never lose sight of the fact that moral instruction and Gospel claims are serious tasks.

The tendency to romanticize human nature, strong as it is in our culture, may cloud the minds of Christian parents, making them overlook or see as cute or charming the sinful conduct in the developing child. This laxity could easily plant early seeds for narcissism.

Countering the tendency for our children to be narcissistic calls for a 24/7 alertness so that we can show appropriate but not overblown approval when growing children do what’s right, and appropriate and pointed correction when selfishness creates trouble.

By these means parents help children to form a realistic sense of themselves — that they bear God’s image and have gracious gifts from Him, and at the same time along with all of humankind, they have a sin nature.

At the same time, the deepest remedy for curbing narcissistic tendencies is the embrace of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. That must mean true repentance — a turning away from sin; and faith — a deep turning to Jesus Christ, declaring him Lord and Savior.

Nothing short of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ can begin life’s transformation at the center.

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Image credit: John William Waterhouse

One War On Two Fronts

Imprimis_Share-250x235I’m a Canadian — born and raised in Saskatchewan. But Kathleen and I lived for 18 years in the United States where I went to college and seminary and where we served pastorates. We now live in Canada but spend five-and-a-half months each winter in Florida.

This means when we are home in Canada we listen to Canadian cultural and political news, and when we are in Florida we get American cultural and political news.

In both countries, it seems the news media we follow report the same culture war between sexual revolutionaries and Christianity.

The sexual revolution is not new, tracing its beginning to the years following the Second World War, intensifying in the sixties of the last century, but in recent years showing open and increasingly malicious opposition to the Judeo-Christian roots of the western world.

The April, 2015 issue of Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, reports a speech given there on this subject in April by David French, a writer for the National Review.

He says, “… the battle is not between gay rights and religious liberty … but between the sexual revolution and Christianity itself.” In his long piece he convincingly supports his contention.

Yet, there is a guarded optimism in his presentation. He contends that “From the grassroots to the intellectual elite, conservatives are girding themselves for the long war, and a long war it will be.”

Those who cast this conflict in favor of gay rights have come forth with fierce aggression. By attempting to overwhelm the culture they try to define committed same-sex relationships as equivalent to marriage.

But French casts a ray of hope. Pointing to the church, he writes, “not a single orthodox denomination is making or even contemplating such (doctrinal) changes” so as to support the same-sex “marriage” drive.

“This means,” he goes on, “that tens of millions of Americans will remain – indefinitely – opposed to the continuing expansion of the sexual revolution.”

At the same time as I read David French I read a news report from Christian Week here in Canada for the same month. It was headed, “Christian Worldview Under Fire.” Christian Week is a substantial and thoughtful evangelical paper published in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The Christian Week piece is about Craig McCartney, a member of the Canadian parliament from Vancouver Island, and his decision to leave the conservative party to sit as an independent. He does so, he says, to get greater freedom to speak out more effectively against what he calls an attempt by atheism to silence the Christian worldview.

With a federal election in view, he says, there exists a smear campaign “to undermine and discredit those who hold a Christian worldview in politics, law, medicine and academia.”

This threat can be documented from many incidents. Here are just two examples: On both sides of the border, heavy fines have been leveled against small businesses when, for reasons of conscience, proprietors refuse certain services intended for religious observances. And the legal establishment’s effort to keep a university from creating a law school simply because the university is a Christian institution.

If David French is right when he writes “a long war it will be” then Christians on both sides of the border must face the questions: Is it going to be a war worth fighting? How do we wage spiritual, not carnal, warfare in a conflict like this? In such an environment can the Judeo-Christian underpinnings of marriage be shored up, at least in the Christian community?

Here are three things Christians — whether nominal, Protestant, Charismatic, Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox, etc — can do to make our influence more clearly felt in the ensuing struggle. First, there is widespread need on both sides of the border to take the Christian faith more seriously at the personal level.

St. Peter wrote to Christians in deeply troubled times: “Therefore rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good (1 Peter 2:1-3). That could mean revival.

Second, we should commit ourselves by prayer and participation to strengthen the local church we are a part of. Congregations of all sizes are in need of a deepening in both pulpit and pew that will make them greater spiritual powerhouses in our world.

Third, there is need for Christians in greater numbers to make our voice heard more clearly in public life – via comments to or from the various media we have access to, in public discussions, and in private conversations.

May the prophetic words of the prophet, Amos, never apply to the present community of faith on this continent at this critical time: “Woe to you who are complacent in Zion” (Amos 6:1).

 

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Image credit: imprimis.hillsdale.edu