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The Folly of Christ

“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

This is Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 1:20. In the surrounding verses, Paul highlights a truth that runs all throughout Scripture. There are two kinds of wisdom: God’s wisdom and the wisdom of this world. And they are incompatible with each other.

In either kind of wisdom, we seek to make the best choices to obtain what is valuable. But these are aimed at different values. Worldly wisdom concerns itself with the good things of this world. Those who prize worldly wisdom aim to acquire possessions, for instance. They are deeply concerned with seeking justice for themselves.

In summary, worldly wisdom is consumed with living one’s best life now.

But the life and teachings of Christ compel Christians to have an entirely reoriented set of values. Consider Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount: he tells us that, when slapped and insulted, not only to take it, but to be willing to take it again. He tells his followers that if an occupying soldier compels them to carry his bag for a mile, they should carry it two.

He tells us to love not only our friends, but to love people who hate us and want to harm us. Indeed, it’s at this point that Jesus notes the uniqueness of this way of living. Normal people, he says, love people who love them back. He’s calling us to a way of life that goes well beyond that.

Now, this kind of living seems to make no sense: be willing to be struck again? Love our enemies? If we’re living for our best life now, Jesus’s words are insanity.

This is why Paul calls the cross folly: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

And Paul is reminding us that it is the cross of Christ that becomes the center of the conflict between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this world. From an earthly point of view, the cross signals the defeat of Christ. But from the wisdom from above, the cross accomplishes Christ’s great victory: the redemption of a people for his own possession.

The wisdom of Christ makes sense only if we believe that there is a life beyond this one we’re currently living. It makes sense only if we believe that God really will do justice to all people, so that I am liberated from seeking my own vengeance. It makes sense only if we take seriously Jesus’s words: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

These two wisdoms are utterly at odds with one another. From a Christian point of view, a life lived according to the wisdom of this world is being thrown away. And from a worldly point of view, a life lived according to the wisdom of Christ is being thrown away.

Gambling and My Neighbor

Certainly, not every branch of Christianity takes a dim view of gambling, but some have. I belong to a segment of Christendom that has historically opposed gambling. Here, I simply want to offer a brief case, from a Christian perspective, against gambling. My hope is that professing believers will give this argument a fair hearing.

First, we need to get some handle on what we mean by gambling. Too often, discussions about the morality of gambling are sidetracked because the essential nature of gambling is misunderstood.

Gambling is not primarily about risk. All of life is full of risk, and so it makes no sense to oppose gambling simply because it involves uncertainty.

Further, gambling is not wrong merely because it is motivated by profit. It is no sin to acquire wealth, particularly from honest labor. A person who begins a business risks his capital to buy tools and stock and hopes to turn that capital into greater profit. In and of itself, there is nothing morally questionable about this. Indeed, the book of Proverbs encourages just this kind of industriousness.

What separates gambling from other activities is this: when we gamble, we hope to make a financial gain at the expense of another person. That is to say, gambling is a violation of Jesus’s command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In gambling, we can only profit if someone else is harmed. This is a lack of love.

Paul gives us a striking description of the generous heart of a Christian: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). Christian love provokes us to work hard, to turn a profit, so that we might share with others. Seeking gain through gambling turns this instruction on its head.

We can illustrate the point by comparing gambling to investing in a stock. Both gambling and stocks involve risk with the hope of financial reward. But if my stock goes up, it doesn’t at all demand that your stock sinks. The stock market as a whole can increase in value. My profit does not demand your loss.

And in normal business, my hope of financial profit is not at the expense of my neighbor. Rather, I give a customer something of value, whether a product or a service, in exchange for his money. My hope for a profit and my love for my neighbor exist simultaneously.

By contrast, with gambling, if I win, I only gain because I’ve removed money from someone else’s pocket, giving him nothing of value in return. And this remains true even if my winnings come from a casino or the government lottery. The prizes offered by governments and casinos are directly funded by those who played and lost. In every case, that money that I hope to win has come from my neighbor’s pocket. My hope of winning inevitably demands a hope that ill would come to someone else, even if I would never say so.

“Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).

Loving Our Enemies

Love is the distinctively Christian virtue.

Such an assertion requires explanation, for we live in days in which love is universally lauded. Indeed, the greatest black mark on person’s character today is to be, in the vernacular, a hater. So to say that love, genuine love, belongs exclusively to Christians is an audacious claim.

In Matthew 5, Jesus preaches a sermon on the Law. In each section, he reveals that the commandment is not kept by mere external obedience, but by an obedience of the heart.

The culmination of his argument is found in verses 43–48. There, he says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” Don’t misunderstand: Jesus isn’t teaching that we become God’s children by loving our enemies. Rather, he’s working on the principle of “like father, like son.” If God gives good gifts (like sunshine and rain, both needed in an agricultural setting) to the evil and the good alike, we show our family resemblance to our Father if we too love both friends and enemies.

And then he makes this point: if you don’t love your enemies, you’re just like those who aren’t God’s people. Even the Gentiles love people who love them back. That is to say: loving your enemies is a defining mark of whether you’re a child of God.

But how in the world are we supposed to love our enemies? How can we ever desire good for people who desire our hurt? How can we forgive those who have wounded us? How can be for the very people who stand against us?

From the perspective of this world, this kind of love can only be counted foolishness. How often are we told that we must love ourselves before anyone else will love us? The relentless message of this world is that you have to protect yourself. If you want justice, you have to go get it yourself.

Do you see that this is precisely the opposite of what Jesus demands of his disciples? And do you see why this opens a deep chasm, then, between genuine Christianity and all else? Christians are commanded to love their enemies, and this makes no sense to those of this world.

We are to love those who desire to harm us. But note: we do not give up justice here. Jesus’s own words indicate this: we love our enemies. We are not simply pretending their evil away. We love them, even while recognizing the evil as evil.

But we love them, because we are to have perfect confidence that, in the end of all things, Jesus Christ will judge in the world in perfect justice. I can love my enemies, I can seek good for those who seek my evil, not because I’ve gone squishy on justice. I can do this because I know the one before whom all people will one day give account. They do not answer to me.

Such love is the true test of whether we trust the goodness and justice of Jesus. I trust him to do right, and then I love—even my enemies—as he has commanded.

Jesus Is Lord

As our church has been studying the early chapters of Acts, I’ve been struck with the content of the sermons recorded there. Both Acts 2 and 3 are dominated by sermons of the Apostle Peter. I’m fascinated by what Peter says—and what he doesn’t.

Let’s set a bit of context. Jesus had been crucified, raised, and had ascended. The followers of Jesus, following his instructions, had remained in Jerusalem. At the feast of Pentecost, the Spirit is poured out on them in such a way as to draw a large crowd.

Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is an explanation of those things that the crowd has witnessed. But note this: it is also a gospel sermon. This is important, because the gospel is the core message that we are to proclaim.

What I want us to notice is that the core of the Peter’s message has to do with the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.

Peter doesn’t tell the crowd that God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their life. He doesn’t even explain how Jesus’s death pays the penalty for their sins. These things may be true, but they don’t form the core of this early apostolic preaching.

Rather, Peter makes clear that God the Father has exalted Jesus, both in his earthly ministry and now in the Ascension. The climax of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is this: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

The question that Peter places before us, then, is this: “Who is Jesus?” Peter gives a clear and unyielding answer: he is Lord.

This is the same answer we see in Paul’s great hymn in Philippians 2. Jesus, though in very nature God, humbled himself by taking on a human nature. And he humbled himself yet lower by dying a degrading death on the cross. Paul’s conclusion: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul’s point here is worth contemplating: every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. On the whole, Scripture teaches that not everyone is finally saved. In fact, Jesus tells us that the way is narrow that leads to life.

So if not everyone is redeemed, how is it that everyone will confess that Jesus is Lord? The answer is that it is possible for us to acknowledge a truth, even while hating it. There will be those who make the confession that Jesus is Lord, but through clenched teeth.

The redeemed, however, have a different heart toward this confession. It is with delight that they acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And this becomes evident in their lives, as they gratefully acknowledge his right to rule them.

Jesus is Lord. Do you rejoice in this truth, or resent it?

Being a Disciple of Jesus

The final words of Jesus before his Ascension give the Christian church its marching orders: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20).

Pardon some nerdiness for a moment, but the grammar of Jesus’s command is worth our attention. In English, we might read Jesus’s instruction as four commands: go, make disciples, baptize, and teach.

In the original language of the New Testament, though, there is only one command here: make disciples. The other three phrases explain how this task of making disciples is to be accomplished.

Obviously, if we’re going to make disciples of the nations, we must go. So that instruction is clear enough.

What intrigues me is that Jesus commands his followers to make disciples by baptizing and teaching. That is to say, if we are going to obey Jesus’s commission, we only do so if we’re seeking to see people baptized and taught. This is how our Lord instructs us to make disciples.

The flipside of this is that, if you want to become a disciple of Jesus, you do so by being baptized and taught.

Given Jesus’s instructions here, then, we should not be surprised at all by what happens in Acts 2. In this chapter, Peter preaches the inaugural sermon of the church. He is explaining the Spirit-given phenomena that the crowd has witnessed.

The core of his explanation is Jesus Christ. Peter’s message is that his audience had rejected their Messiah, crucifying him. God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, exalted him to heaven, and given him the promised Holy Spirit. It is Jesus, then, who has poured out the Spirit on the apostles.

The crowd is conscious-smitten, and they cry out, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter’s answer: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

We are then told that three thousand people obeyed Peter’s word. They were baptized and added to the church. And what was this new body of believers known for? “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

Let’s tie this together: Jesus commands his followers to make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them all that he commanded. In Acts 2, Peter preaches and people repent. These people are baptized and then devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching. This is no accident. The apostles were doing exactly what Jesus commanded them to do.

The final command of Jesus remains our mission. We are to go into this world, making disciples. But if we take Jesus’s words seriously, we cannot make disciples without baptizing people and teaching them all that Jesus commanded. And we cannot claim to be disciples without being baptized and being taught the apostolic doctrine.

Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain

What does it mean to take the Lord’s name in vain? In common understanding, the Commandment forbids using the word God as a profanity. And ultimately, this ends up being a legitimate concern, although I have come to believe that it misses the central point of the prohibition.

The challenge we have here is that the Bible doesn’t define taking the Lord’s name in vain. And there are several very reasonable alternatives as to what it might mean.

Here, I want to offer my understanding of this Commandment, with the biblical reasons for it.

The Ten Commandments (both in Exodus and Deuteronomy) form the core of God’s covenant with his chosen people. As his covenant people, they were to swear their loyalty to God and God alone: “It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear” (Deuteronomy 6:13).

By swearing their covenant allegiance to God, they became identified as the people of the Lord. The prophet Micah says it this way: “For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever and ever” (Micah 4:5).

This means that the people of God bear his name. They have taken the name of their God. In this sense, “taking the name of the Lord” is not primarily about saying the name itself. It is rather a statement of identification.

The New Testament people of God also bear the name of the Lord. Just before his ascension, Jesus commanded his disciples to go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded them. In true Christian baptism, as we publicly swear our allegiance to the one true God, we take upon ourselves the Triune name. We bear the Lord’s name.

The question, then, is whether we bear the name in vain. We take the Lord’s name in vain, I believe, not simply by saying it lightly. We take the Lord’s name in vain when we, who claim to be his people, live in a way indistinguishable from those who do not bear the Lord’s name.

When we do this, we make God trivial in our churches and in our culture at large. When those who bear the name of the Lord seem essentially the same as those who don’t, who could blame people for coming to the conclusion that God himself is inconsequential?

Yes, there are other ways of making light of God, and using the Lord’s name as profanity is one of them. It is right, I believe, to consider such talk a violation of this Commandment.

But Christian, while you might be bothered by the flippant use of the Lord’s name by an unbeliever, the more pressing question is this: how are you bearing the Lord’s name? You, not the unbeliever, bear the name of the Father and Son and Spirit. Are you bearing that name in vain?

Jesus and the Ten Commandments

All of us are familiar with the Ten Commandments: no other gods, do not murder, etc. But what I want us to consider here is how Jesus read the Commandments.

Matthew 5–7 records Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount.” A significant portion of that sermon (5:17–48) gives us Jesus’s view of the Law. Jesus begins by telling us that he has not “come to abolish the Law or the Prophets.” In fact, he offers a condemnation to anyone who “relaxes one of the least of these commandments.”

Too often, we have the idea that the Old Testament is full of rules, but that in the New Testament, God drops the rules in favor of grace. Careful attention to Jesus’s preaching should disabuse us of that notion.

The rest of Jesus’s sermon follows a pattern. He begins by citing an element of the Old Testament Law, using the phrase “You have heard that it was said.” He then pivots: “But I say to you.”

Now, are we supposed to think of Jesus as adjusting God’s Law? Is Jesus coming along and revising what God has said? This is very unlikely. Indeed, he has just told us that he didn’t come to set the Law aside.

Instead, Jesus is telling us what the Law meant all along. And when we read his sermon, we find that the actual requirements of the Law are harder than we ever imagined.

We know that the Law says that we are not to murder, and most of us feel confident that we’ve kept that Law. But not according to Jesus. Jesus tells us that hatred in our hearts is forbidden by the Law. Those moments in which someone has provoked us to the point that we would harm them (if we could get away with it), we have violated the Commandment.

The same is true with adultery: the standard is not merely physical fidelity to your spouse. Jesus condemns a lustful look as adultery of the heart. Our hearts make us lawbreakers.

What Jesus does here is no accident. He bookends his discussion of the law with two impossible statements. He says, “Unless you righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And then, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

That is Jesus’s understanding of the Law. And if we understand him rightly, this should terrify us. If perfect obedience to the Law is the standard, and the Law includes our hearts, we all fall short.

That is the point of Galatians 3:10–11: “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”

The Law exists, not so that we might keep it and earn God’s favor, but that we might see that we fall short and seek God’s mercy. And the mercy is found in Jesus Christ, who alone kept God’s Law, earning life, and took our punishment, that we might be forgiven.

What Does the Gospel Do?

The gospel is the absolute core of true Christianity. Paul himself tells us this. Writing to the Corinthians, he says, “I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you…. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received” (1 Corinthians 15:1–3).

In other words, for Paul, the gospel was that which is the highest priority. It has first importance.

If the gospel is so important, we must make sure that we get it right. Most anyone who has spent time in church knows that the word gospel means “good news.”

But what is this good news? Or, to ask it another way, what is the problem that the gospel offers to solve?

I happen to think that that last question is immensely important. Let’s be honest: each of us has problems in our lives we’d like to see solved. Some of us are wrestling with financial problems, or relationship problems, or health problems. On the bigger stage, there are world conflicts and economic hardships.

These are all real problems, and I would never want to minimize their importance.

But when the Bible talks about the gospel, when it tells us why Jesus died, it doesn’t address those problems—at least not directly. The central problem that the gospel seeks to solve is the problem of sin.

Here’s another way of thinking about this. All of the problems I mentioned above are horizontal problems. They are problems that we have with each other, or with the world around us. They involve the problems of this life.

But the gospel aims to address a problem that is primarily vertical: the sin problem that alienates me from God. Consider here Ephesians 2: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world…, among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

This is our ultimate problem. We are sinners, and so by nature (and by choice!) we are “children of wrath.” That phrase means that we have earned our judgment before God. And that is a real problem.

But notice how Paul continues: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

You see, God himself has dealt with the sin problem. God the Son has died in our place, taking the penalty that our sin deserves, so that we might receive acceptance from God the Father. This is the gospel; this is the grace of God on display!

Receiving the gospel is not a solution to every human problem. Indeed, there are times that faithfulness to Jesus will increase our horizontal problems. But receiving the gospel solves our most important problem, making us right with God through Jesus Christ.

God’s Perfect Presence

The Lord is present already in the year ahead of us.

This is one of the central truths of Psalm 139. Here, David meditates on God’s attributes. The psalm divides neatly into four stanzas of six verses each.

In the first stanza, David stands in awe of God’s complete knowledge of all things. But David’s words are more devotional than academic. He is not reflecting on God’s knowledge in the abstract, but God’s knowledge of him.

In keeping with this personal tone, I want you to know that God knows you. He knows your very thoughts (v. 2), and the words that you will speak, even before you say them (v. 4). This knowledge is greater than we can ever fathom (v. 6).

In the second stanza, David marvels at God’s inescapable presence. Truly, there is nowhere to which you might go where God would be absent. David poetically runs from heaven to hell, from east to west, and confesses that in all places, God is there.

The third stanza gives us the foundation for God’s perfect knowledge and pervasive presence. God is the Creator of all things. In David’s poem, he stresses God’s purposeful creation of him. God knit David together in the womb of his mother.

Holding the entire poem together is verse 16: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”

The reason that God knows everything David does, and everything we do, is that he is the Creator. The reason that God is present always and everywhere with us is that he is the Creator. God made you, and that means more than your physical being. God has planned your life.

David’s analogy works like this: God is the author of creation. Creation is his book. His book is created, quite literally, by his words. We know that in the book of Genesis, God creates all things by speaking.

A human author of a book simultaneously is not part of his book while also being fully present in every part of his book. This is the kind of analogy that David is presenting for us. Because God has written all our days even before we have lived them, he knows all about us. Because God has written all our days, he is fully present in them. Nothing escapes his attention.

For some people, these truths about God are terrifying. Indeed, even for those of us who love God, the idea that he is always aware of each detail of our lives is intimidating. We are driven, like Adam in the Garden, to seek to hide from God. We must not hide from God, but invite his searching gaze, seeking forgiveness for our sins in Jesus Christ.

For those of us who love God, his unbreakable, unshakable presence with us, even in these uncertain days, is the source of all our comfort. Because a good God has written all our days, even when we are most perplexed, we can trust him.

Why Did Jesus Come?

The Incarnation is at the very center of the Christian faith. In fact, if a person denies the Incarnation, he has denied Christianity itself. Listen to the words of John: “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 7).

That’s quite strong. It would be hard to given more importance to the Incarnation than John does here.

Why is the Incarnation such a big deal? Why does it matter that God the Son took a human nature?

The Bible actually has a couple dozen or so passages that specifically say things like “Jesus Christ came to” do this or that. That is say, we don’t have to speculate about why Jesus came. We can actually hear God’s own Word on the matter.

The vast majority of these references tell us that Jesus came to save us from sin. For instance, Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). He came to give his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45), which means we needed to be ransomed.

He came “seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

The rest of the New Testament writers taught this as well. Peter preached that God sent Jesus “to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness” (Acts 3:26). Paul tells us that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). The writer of Hebrews says that “he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).

And John says that God the Father “loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). A “propitiation” is a sacrifice that satisfies God’s just wrath.

All of these verses mean this: Jesus’s coming will mean nothing to us if we don’t view ourselves as sinners who need saving. To say that we are sinners demands that God has ultimate authority in the world. His standards of righteous apply to us, and we acknowledge that we have fallen short of them.

To say that we need to be saved means that our sin has a just penalty. We deserve punishment from God. We’ve earned it. If we refuse to say these things, we are denying that Jesus came to save us from our sin. We are denying that we need to be saved at all. There was no need for Jesus to come.

There are many for whom the celebration of birth of Christ is an exercise of sentimentality. And there is nothing amiss about the celebration of the season, the enjoyment of friends and family, and the exchange of gifts.

For those of us, however, who confess that Jesus is the Savior, our rejoicing at Christmas is that the salvation we need has come in the person of Jesus Christ!