The Cross as Perversion

“When the falsely innocent Christlike figure of pure suffering and sacrifice for our sake tells us, ‘I don’t want anything from you!’ we can be sure that this statement conceals a qualification, ‘…except your very soul.’ When somebody insists that he wants nothing that we have, it simply means that he has his eye on what we are, on the very core of our being.”

-Slavoj Žižek  

I stumbled across this quote reading Mona Siddiqui, a Muslim scholar, in her writings on the cross of Jesus. Having seen what the cross can mean for Christians, Siddiqui explains that that cross creates no desire in her. She protests that the cross can have other meanings than sacrifice for sin, which is flatly offensive to her, and offers up the above quote from Žižek as an example of how the death of Jesus can be construed as “an act of perversion.”

What is perverse about it? Apparently, at least in part, its dishonesty. It claims to ask for nothing yet asks for everything; it claims to be easy, but is actually impossible. But dishonesty itself is not perverse. Where perversity comes in is that what it asks is immoral or indecent. It is too high of a demand to give your whole self to someone else.

I was so refreshed to see that Žižek understood clearly what the call of Jesus Christ really is—a call to complete surrender. Would that every Christian understood that call with the same open eyes!

At the same time, I reject that this understanding of the gospel is dishonest, much less perverse. Was not Jesus brutally honest about the cost of following him? What else is it supposed to mean, when he declares that it is only that person who will lose their life for Jesus that will find it? Or when he teaches that a true disciple must take up their own instrument of execution, with their very hands and will, in order to walk behind Jesus.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who famously gave his life trying to stop Nazism, understood this. He wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The life of a Christian has never been less than Galatians 2:20.

It is only because of two other dishonesties that the call to give your full self to Jesus can be construed as a bait and switch.

The first is easy-believeism, that poisonous yeast that has long worked its way through evangelicalism. There is no life in a prayer offered once in fear or ecstasy, which is followed by no relationship with Jesus, no fruit of the abundant life that always flows from that connection. To be surprised at the totality of Jesus’s claim on you is to have never heard it. Someone lied to you—and it may have been you yourself.

The second dishonesty is that it is impossible and perverse to give your whole self to someone or something outside of you. Our worship of the autonomous individual makes us hate the idea of any source of authority outside the authentic self. It preaches that the only way to be true to oneself is to be able to fully construct the self, independently of any external constraints. But this is madness; no one lives like this.

We cannot escape our birth, our cultural moment. We can tell ourselves that we are bold prophetic voices, when all we are doing is marching to the drum of the faddish new theological impulse.

But even apart from this, our most powerful love stories continue to be about the complete giving of ourselves, willfully, to someone else. The allure of being wooed, of possessing our beloved and being possessed, fills our songs and movies, our fanfiction and TV. It takes a million specific forms, it constitutes the air we breathe. Even causes like environmentalism and social justice can catch up our hearts in entire surrender, and we feel the goodness of it.

Let’s not lie to ourselves. It is not impossible to give the core of ourselves to something else—it is impossible not to. Perhaps what is impossible, though, is to give ourselves to the truly good and beautiful. After all no one has lied to you more than you about what would make you happy and fulfilled.

But nothing is impossible for God. Jesus Christ woos us, desiring to possess us and even to be possessed. He calls us into passion, into great adventure, and to lose ourselves in all of it, only to find ourselves again. He has never lied about this, and his call still stands.



Israel's Labor, God's Delivery

In Spring 2017 I had the pleasure of spending a lot of quality time with Isaiah 26:16-19, a unique passage of lament and miraculous reversal. What drew me initially to the passage was the preponderance of birth imagery, which Isaiah navigates brilliantly, building suspense and then transforming the metaphor to reveal the spiritual reality.

It’s helpful to note that the background of this passage is political distress and failure. Israel was unfortunately susceptible to relying on alliances and strategy for their national survival, as opposed to looking to the LORD, and as often as not, their schemes failed. When Isaiah enters in to 26:16 (where the Hebrew is difficult and disputed), he is beginning a corporate lament for just such a political situation. We enter in to imagery of discipline, distress, and desperation, but the details of the situation are unspecified.

In 26:17 the Isaiah introduces a metaphor that will carry us to the end of the movement. We are confronted with a woman in labor, and her anguish and pain are fronted. This is not the cute, round belly stage of pregnancy, but the imminently dangerous stage, the moment where no one is sure who, if any, will come out alive. Labor and delivery is cursed in Genesis 3, and it relates not just to the pain of intense cramping, but the blood and specter of death involved.

Isaiah wants his hearers to inhabit this space mentally, and then he owns the image in 26:18. The first person plural becomes the laboring woman; all Israel is implicated together. They are shown in all stages: they were pregnant, they writhed, they gave birth. That is, the nation was responsible for the conception of their misery, they took into themselves the consequence, and they were faced with what it brought into the world. And what was it? Nothing but wind.

To labor, in danger, for nothing but air! The futility is palpable, miserable. Part of the covenantal blessings of Sinai was the promise of healthy children; the Scriptures of Israel celebrate the birthing of children as a beautiful, flowering vitality of their people in God’s eyes. By employing the potent imagery of pregnancy and birth in service of lament, Isaiah communicates the disgrace of their impotent maneuvering. It was not just political, it was covenant failure.

The end of verse 18 carries a tone of dejection as the metaphor breaks apart. For all their labor, they have not worked deliverance. And starkly, Isaiah spells it out: the inhabitants of the world, their foes in this case, have not fallen. While the NIV continues the birth imagery up to the end because of the role that the Hebrew verb behind the word “fall” plays in the broader passage, it is much better to take it as the ESV does, which is to communicate that the Israelites failed to fell their enemies, and they are still in danger. The tone is sorrow, helplessness.

And suddenly, there is rejoicing. How? Why? Verse 19 brings an utter reversal, and more. Three different words for dead people are used, and three different images for coming back to life, all reinforcing an idea that is scarcely whispered in the Old Testament: bodily resurrection. And indeed, each triad of images becomes livelier as it progresses. From the simple dead, to the specific corpses, to the living-while-dying dust dwellers. Similarly, they are described as living, then rise, and then even commanded to sing for joy, surely one of the most vibrant actions a human can take. The word resurrection is not used, but it is not needed.

The passage concludes with God producing birth without labor, in strong contrast to his people. The metaphor of dew is used to communicate morning, newness, and life, as it was an important water source in Palestine. By connecting it with light, Isaiah clarifies that this isn’t merely water, but an image of spiritual nourishment and production. The result is that the earth gives birth, a mother paired to God as father, and brings back those long dead, and the original metaphor is returned and transformed. 

They had dreamed of the death the enemy; their covenant LORD promised them in response life unknown, life refreshed, life beyond death. Israel struggled and did not accomplish a normal human goal; the God of Israel without working produced an unthinkable, unhuman accomplishment.

In the New Covenant established by Jesus, resurrection has become so prominent as to be thematic. This might dim our ability to see the shock of Isaiah 26:19. But let it not dim our hope in the God of Isaiah 26:16-19. We worship that same God today, who is overflowing with life, who stoops to untangle sinners in the midst of destroying themselves, who plots for us joyful singing in a world undreamed of. There is a sure reality, a true inheritance waiting for us. Let’s run for it.

God and the Transgender Debate

I've been reading about and processing what the Bible says about homosexuality for all 13 years of my Christian life.  Coming to Christ with a full-blown experience of same-sex sexuality and recognizing that the gospel demanded sacrifices of me, I've had to know what I was talking about.  It is only in the last year that I’ve turned my attention to issues around transgenderism. In this respect, I’m like Evangelicalism in general: we are woefully behind on the T in LGBT, and I regret it.

As a starting point, I read Mark Yarhouse’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria and Vaughan Roberts’s Transgender.  These books were good introductions and formed much of the background I brought with me when I picked up Andrew Walker’s new entry into the field, God and the Transgender Debate.

There are some things I really like about Walker’s book. For one, he begins and ends with Jesus, who is the only hope we have in any of this. Jesus is smarter and kinder and better than all of us, and available to help. Second, Walker doesn’t downplay that experiencing gender dysphoria is hard, and that this issue is thick and heavy. What I especially appreciated was his insistence that experiencing GD is not sinful, but a pastoral issue requiring our support and help. Third, I appreciated that Walker didn’t lean into jargon, but created a book that was in fact quite easy to read. And finally, I appreciated his pattern of grounding his thoughts and statements in the Scriptures.

However, there are also places where I felt let down by this book. The least important was that it didn’t really break new ground; it felt like Roberts’s book, just longer. If I needed to recommend a helpful primer to a friend, I would choose Roberts book right now, as it is shorter and achieves a very similar end.

But I also noticed two other weaknesses which I believe handicap this book. The first is that, in the heart of Walker’s defense of God’s design for humanity being gendered as male and female, he wanders from Scripture and resorts to generalizations. On page 54, he asserts that “femaleness isn’t only anatomy, but anatomy shows that there is femaleness.” Fine, but, naturally one asks then, what is maleness and femaleness apart from anatomy?

He starts with general physical trends, noting the broader shoulders of men and the wider hips of women. These things are provable and known, but don’t truly give us more information than genitalia on some level. So in the same paragraph, as if it is the same level of truthful as secondary sex characteristics, he writes “the protective instinct that men are often able to harness at a moment’s notice…issues from the way that God made men. Much in the same way, women tend to enjoy what we sometimes call ‘motherly’ instincts, such as nurturing.”

I found this statement simplistic and general to the point of distraction. Are mothers not famous for their protective instinct? Does not St. Paul, a man, talk of nurturing the Thessalonians like he was a nursing mother among them (1 Thess 2:7)? This is not the time or place to be sloppy with what gender means, it damages our whole appeal to the goodness and complementarity of gender. It also undermines his corrective appeal on the next page that the church has often over-played Western gender roles.

The problems continue on page 56 when Walker generalizes again, saying “A man’s calling to lead and protect is…no more important than a woman’s design to nurture and mother. In both instances, men and women are called to joyfully submit to the unique callings that God has made for men and women.” He says all of this without appealing to the Bible once. Not anywhere. What in the world does he mean by callings? Does he mean marriage roles a la Ephesians 5? Does he mean qualified male eldership in the church? If so, he should say so. If he believes that unmarried men and women, as well as men not serving as elders, also have specific callings related to their gender, he needs to make that case Biblically—in this of all books he must do so. To elide that, to assume it, is to shoot the project in the foot.

The second weakness is Walker's confusion around chosen vocabulary. Some conservatives reject the idea that sex and gender are different realities, which is unhelpful. So I was heartened to see that Walker follows the APA in recognizing that gender is related to “attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex” (APA, quoted by Walker on page 31). He insists, as I do, that our gender should follow our sex as God designed, and resists the Gnosticism which celebrates an idea of the mind as the truer self than the body, such that sex would follow gender.

But then on 74, Walker seems to muddy this distinction. He writes, “In truth, there is no such thing as ‘transgender,’ because you cannot change your gender. The word exists, but not the reality that it seeks to describe.” Here he seems to very unhelpfully conflate sex and gender. If gender is about attitudes, feelings and behavior, of course a person can experience these things apart from their sex, or experience them change over time. What I believe Walker means to say is that there is no way that embracing or rejecting a particular gender can truly change your sex. By losing his clear vocabulary here, he confuses where he could convict.

These weaknesses, particularly the first, are not incidental. They damage the structure and heart of the book itself, and its argument. We as evangelicals can and must do better in articulating God’s design and purpose for gender and sex, for the sake of our transgendered neighbors, for the sake of representing Jesus well and clearly to the watching world.


I came late to the Sapiens party. Published in 2015 by Yuval Noah Harari, this work, subtitled A Brief History of Humankind, is massive in scope and ambition. He traces our species from our differentiation from ancestral primates up until today, all in just over 400 pages. His theories and observations were interesting, bold, over-generalized and certainly prone to exaggeration.

What I loved most was the quality of his story-telling, which moved me along and made me want to buy everything he was selling. And this despite the fact that I find his worldview impoverished. Harari espouses an extreme materialism, and he pushes that view to its logical ends. If he can’t find a biological explanation for something, he labels it imaginary or worse. Not all imagined things are “unreal” in his eyes; he argues for the power and productivity of artificial systems such as money and the modern state. Most of the force of his work is his unleashing of raw materialism to declare every ideology and religion as fiction parading as truth. As he states on page 28, “there are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

Harari seems to position himself as unassailable in his critiques, taking refuge in the fact that if you can’t prove your ideology (such as human rights or Islam) with raw physical science, you have nothing to stand on. Given the confidence of his stance and the swoon of the book’s reception, I think a detailed rebuttal of materialism would be an excellent response to Sapiens. But I’m currently more interested in noticing where his worldview leads, and where it starts to break down.

The one that stood out to me the most was his ambiguity on the moral value of life. On the one hand, in chapter three Harari devotes pages to presenting the dynamic life of pre-agricultural humans. He extols their varied diet, their supple bodies, and their high-quality relationships. Naming this chapter, “A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve,” he paints these early humans as living in the Garden. As he puts it, “on the whole foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, labourers and office clerks who followed in their footsteps” (49,50).

It’s disconcerting to then arrive at his description of how these foragers almost certainly practiced the brutal killing of unwanted or deformed children, invalids, and the elderly. Harari cautions the reader from jumping to judgment of these practices, since these humans also were friendly, gregarious, and egalitarian. The logic is that a human lives and suffering should not outweigh the delightful life that most otherwise lived.

On the other hand, Harari seems to be highly disturbed about modern agricultural abuse of animals for human consumption. He complains that “farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead came to be treated as machines” (342) in the midst of pages of detail about these practices. In fact, in his afterword which sums up the heart of his thoughts about Homo sapiens, he laments that we are “self-made gods…accountable to no one…wreaking havoc on our fellow animals” (416).

So, is life to be valued or not? If yes, which life? Harari postures throughout the volume as if the answer is obviously no, with a devastating casualness, and yet he gets worked up over chickens and rebukes us that we “are seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction” (416). If biology is all there is, if evolution is the master of meaning, where is the authority for such rebuke grounded?

It’s all arbitrary; there is no authority. Why should Harari’s voice have power to set the agenda, if no authority can exist? And this I think is the point that has been rattling in my mind since I finished the book. Many people of the materialist worldview turn up their noses at the idea of authority, especially a metaphysical authority, all-encompassing authority. Yet they are not shy about exerting some themselves.

I don’t want to throw stones. After all, none of us perfectly inhabit our worldviews. I just want to invite us to ponder why and how it is that right and wrong feel so intrinsically real, how they can break through even at the seams of an ideology designed to shut them out. Is it inescapable because it exists? I think so. And because it does, we will grab at authority over it for ourselves with both hands, even as we put others off the trail. God help us all.

Single, Gay, Christian

Below is a slightly edited version of what I posted originally on Sept. 10, 2017. This new version was published by the Gospel Coalition on Oct. 6, 2017:

I eagerly read Gregory Coles’s Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity as soon as I received it. In some respects, Coles and I have a lot in common: we’re both Christians who have a same-sex orientation but believe that we honor Jesus best by denying that desire. In other respects, our lives are incredibly different. He’s male; I’m female. He grew up in the church and overseas with a full-throttled, homeschooled evangelical upbringing; I grew up as an atheist in America. Later he lived in culturally conservative places in America, while I’ve always been enmeshed in bicoastal liberality.

Despite those differences, I deeply resonated with his description of his attractions: how natural they are, how unthinkable to change them. He uses a thought experiment for straight people that I’ve often employed with friends: Imagine being told by the church that you must feel sexually aroused by your best same-sex friend. It’s effective—it helps straight Christians understand how intractable orientation can feel.

Failed by Christians

Exercises like these are necessary because the church has often failed people struggling in this way—by encouraging revulsion toward gay people and suggesting they must become straight to fulfill God’s command. Coles has been mistreated by some Christians, and he describes what it was like to grow up feeling ashamed of the feelings that well up within him. He was closeted for a long time. 

This is hard for me to fathom, since I never experienced shame about my feelings. They arose before I became a Christian, and when I entered the church, I learned that while my attractions were a part of the fall, their persistence after my rebirth didn’t condemn me. I never had to wonder what people would think of me, since everyone has always known I’m attracted to women and has treated me well. If anything, I’m sometimes treated like a hero among conservatives for becoming a Christian, when I certainly don’t deserve it. 


Because of those different experiences, Coles and I diverge on label preferences. We both aim for honesty and clarity, which I find heartening. He, however, balks at the term “same-sex attracted” due to its connection with the ex-gay movement. He prefers “gay” because it doesn’t gloss over what he experiences, even though he’s aware that in the church it can carry the connotation of one who acts on their desires. I’ve never preferred “lesbian” for myself, because it seems to encompass far more than the simple attraction I feel. I actually like “same-sex attracted”; I don’t feel, like Coles, that it makes my orientation a passing phase. 

Need for Clarity

There is so much that I loved about this book. Coles and I agree on what the Bible says about sexuality, and he writes about his choice of obedience with grace and good humor.

But the one place where I felt disappointed was the section beginning on page 108, where he leaves space for this to be an agree-to-disagree issue—where we could “share pews with people whose understanding of God differs from ours” (109)—and compares it to the disagreement about modes of baptism. He writes, “[I]f I’m honest, there are issues I consider more theologically straightforward than gay marriage that sincere Christians have disagreed on for centuries” (108).

Of course sincere Christians disagree on baptism, but on that question there are arguments on both sides that make sense of the Bible as a whole whole. By contrast, Scripture’s witness on sexuality is painfully clear. Rather than hold out the possibility that the Bible might be okay with homosexual relationships—which I believe is likely to damage those in the thick of same-sex desires—I’d rather affirm in the strongest terms that God is clear, and plead that his Word be read.

If we allow the new affirming view as a valid option for the Christian, even if inferior to the traditional view, I believe, with Don Carson, that we make a disastrous pastoral and theological move, because we end up allowing some of those who claim Christ to persist in sin.

We see Coles begin down this path a bit when he compares a same-sex married Christian to a straight, sexually impure Christian woman. He lines up theologically with the second woman, but then asks, “But whose life is most honoring to God? Who really loves Jesus more? Who am I going to see in heaven?” These questions are beside the point. Why should we ask which professed believer loves Jesus more? We don’t need to compare these women’s sins; we need to plead with both to repent and move forward in obedience.

He moves on from this comparison by saying, “Other people’s hearts are none of my business” (110). And that’s where my heart broke. Let me explain why.

Coles ends that episode with a call to Romans 14:4: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” Yes and amen, let’s live that Scripture. But we also need to live Hebrews 3:12–13: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

These verses plead for us to care about how sin destroys our brother and sister’s heart. How can that be none of our business? 

It took a lot of courage to write this book, and I admire Coles for that. I’ve prayed more than once for his spiritual protection. And I would even encourage people to buy and read this book, as the core of it is moving and helpful. But I wish our generation as a whole would show courage in clearly calling out sin, and exhorting each other to flee it—all types, all kinds.





The Sellout

I don’t think I’ve ever been as uncomfortable enjoying a book as I was while reading Paul Beatty’s 2016 Booker Prize winning novel The Sellout. I picked it up simply because it won the award, without any notion of its author or topic, without any notion of what I was in for.

But I was on my guard from the opening sentence: “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.” Was I supposed to laugh? Wince? But the electric ferocity of Beatty’s sentences pulled me along past my self-consciousness, and I gulped his words down. Beatty produces a biting satire of race in America today, through the lens of a contemporary urban black farmer who owns a black slave and actively works to segregate his local middle school. Crazy, right? You have no idea.

Of course, this work has numerous references and allusions that I’m sure I didn’t get, since I’m not a black American, and probably many that I misunderstood for the same reason. But Beatty’s humor is accessible and outlandish. He easily moves between high brow and low brow, and is amazing with deadpan. His cheekiness is delightful, like when his character Foy Cheshire invents “EmpowerPoint, a slide presentation ‘African-American software’ package…not much different than the Microsoft product except that the fonts have names like Timbuktu, Harlem Renaissance, and Pittsburgh Courier” (99).

He also loves to take racial pot-shots, like when he writes “some kids were just too white to get wet. Try to imagine Winston Churchill, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, or the Lone Ranger soaked from head to toe, and you’ll get the idea.” (171).

All that to say, it was a somewhat complicated read as a white lady. And even as a white Christian, since the book deals with sometimes vulgar and explicit images and ideas. At the same time, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a satire that felt so brutally honest. There was an earnestness in tone even while he kept his tongue in his cheek. It was powerful.

One of the driving themes in the novel is a pair of questions originally asked by the narrator’s father, and asked again by the main character in the climax of the book: “Who am I? and How may I become myself?”

These questions are held out as beacons of hope: they promise that that the characters, under-valued black Americans, are indeed someone-s, someone-s worth identifying. Each of them is worth the investment of thinking through what would help them grow into their fullest selves. They underline a dignity that is present and needs to be revealed, not a dignity that was lacking and needs to be given.

I happened to read this book in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests, where white nationalists spewed their wicked ideology as they clung to a symbol of the Confederacy, and while the highest elected official in our country blamed the violence and death at the scene on “both sides.” I want to be clear: while I don’t think either side is perfect, there is no righteousness on the side of white supremacy, no light, no life, no hope. Only death, evil, wickedness, depravity. The book made me pause and consider that we are all, as Americans, answering Beatty’s questions so differently, that we end up worlds away from each other. Who are we as a country? And How may we become ourselves?   

To our great shame, White Americans have too often sought to rip away from Americans of color their ability to own and answer that question for themselves individually, for themselves as communities, and we've certainly suppressed their voice in answering those questions together for our more perfect union. I’m sure “rip away” isn’t even strong enough language, given the variety and ferocity of means that have been employed against people of color in the United States.

I want to believe that we in the church can help change this. After all, we have the most compelling answers to these two questions, and we are grafted into Love Himself. Those of us who are white need to speak more, act more, and convince more white people of the importance of this conversation. I’m not saying I’d start with The Sellout—but if you’re a reader, maybe something like Waking Up White, or Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America would be a good start. I found the first book very helpful personally, and though I haven’t read the second, it was given as assigned reading by Cru this summer to emerging team leaders, and I know it was impactful for many of my friends.

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works”
— Hebrews 10:24

Who is Rest?

Jesus IS our peace. So says Ephesians 2:14.

Peace as a concept has an incredibly rich heritage biblically. In both its Hebrew and Greek forms, it means far more than cessation of war. Instead, it denotes a fullness of order, joy, and rightness. It is also fundamentally relational, working in both human-human and human-divine realms.

In Ephesians 2:14-16, Jesus is incredibly active for the sake of relationship. He kills, he makes, he breaks down, he abolishes. Yet the main clause is that stative verb. In all this acting, the bigger point is that He is. And out of what He is flows a world of possibility for us. Look and see: separation from God nullified by his propitiation, even the historic and formidable separation between Jews and Gentiles turned into unity by his work alone.

And even though it was achieved by work, it was achieved because of who He is, work only Jesus could perform.

Peace is something that exists first and primarily in Heaven, in the Trinity. It is part of that overflowing goodness of that relationship, a defining characteristic. It is heavenly. We know in the new heavens, there will be no more war, but peace.

We also know that peace can be earthly. Before sin, there was harmony and unity, joyous order in peace. Even after the Fall, we can experience the break-ins of peace, feeling their power in moments across family, friendships, cultures. We know it is ultimately possible for us, because we are promised that we have experienced it in the past and will experience it again—in the new heavens and the new earth, there will be no more war, but peace.

Jesus too is heavenly and earthly. He is Peace; as a member of the Trinity he is the origin of joyful wholeness. And he came into Creation and planted that flag, and is working it out today even here, even now.

And he is the only one who could have done it. As fully God and fully Man, he was the only Person who could act in mediation, destroying in his own flesh the barrier between God and man, and between humans to each other. Sin was the barrier between God and us, and in his body he fulfilled the law and absorbed the wrath against lawlessness, removing the threat of condemnation over us. In Christ, we are not pursued like wanted criminals, but like wanted children, or like wanted lovers, because wrath is replaced by desire.

This creates profound equality before God, Jesus’s blood being our only badge of merit, over against class, race, education, charisma, or whatever. Everywhere we look, we see equality of need and equality of access in Jesus, in the incomparable Christ. I don’t have to struggle for worth, I have it. I don’t have to suffer in comparison, because I and my sister share equal value, beautifully expressed in multiplicity of gifts for making much of Jesus and blessing the people he made.

Let’s fully embody this peace. Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” His half-brother James agreed, saying “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” Peace is a person; let’s befriend him, and introduce him.

What is Rest?

Dating is not about the activities we choose to do, but about the person we choose to pursue. The dinners or movies or long walks serve the function of connecting us to someone desirable. Sometimes even difficult conversations, non-fun moments, are weathered by us as well, because we trust that the bonding they will produce is worth it.

But what would those activities be without the person? In our productivity-driven world, it would be hard to justify them regularly. Where does real rest fit in?  Is it only resigned to guilty pleasure, show binging, with repentance or sloth in tow?

The lure of productivity is that it will buy us security, happiness. Produce accomplished children, high-paid work, healthy ministry, a skinny version of ourselves? The pressure and expectations can feel crushing.

God understands and provides for this universal human condition by commanding rest in him. Yet when we hear this, we can feel the burden of still having all the demands, but now in less time! And then we may feel guilty that we feel that way about something we know is from God. What can be done?

We must remember, we were redeemed for wonderful things, not because of our “wonderful” selves.

This warm blanket of grace is at the heart of Sabbath. By the time of Jesus, the most religious Jews were taking Sabbath, a complete day off from all types of work, very seriously. Their ancestors had been exiled for their syncretism and Sabbath-breaking, so they determined to not offend God like that again. But they over-corrected: they added to God’s laws, and decided to police each other in their observance as opposed to letting God be the judge.

Into this stepped Jesus, to declare that the Sabbath was made for us, not the other way around (Mark 2:27). It is meant as a blessing, not as another crushing expectation.

The original command came in the context of Israelites who were dependent on farming. I have never been a farmer, but my impression is that it would be unwise to take off one day a week, and downright insane to not work entire years. The only justification to do that is the word and promise of God, and the only way they would ever obey is to trust God’s character to back up his promises—even more than they trusted the wisdom of hard work and diligence. It was a huge risk.

The Sabbath to me is a is a place to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:7). Can God be trusted to take care of me? Am I willing embrace that I am weak, even where I appear the strongest? Am I willing to take the risk of rest in each season of my life?

Sabbath is not about a thing we do; it’s about a person we are learning to trust, because he has always been faithful. He asks us to rest, not because he wants to watch us squirm, but so that we can better receive the gift of knowing that He is God and we are not.

This is why the New Testament declares that Jesus is our Sabbath rest. He earned my salvation, I never could have, and I can rest from my striving for approval. This resting in salvation’s beginning then expands outward into my growing rest in him in my life.

I am free to approach the throne of grace and ask for a transformed heart, a hear that choose to rest in God; I am free to rest from my attempts to earn anything from him; I am free to rest from finding my security in things or people; I am free to rest from other people’s expectations, knowing that only God is my judge.

I’m no longer dating, now I’m married. I’m not having to wonder if he’s worth not-working for, because I experience the dual edge of enjoying the rest I find in spending time with my husband, and knowing that that time I spent is a good investment in the health of our relationship. And because I am married to an excellent man, he carves out time for me to get my work done, so I can rest without worry in his presence.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  As Augustine put it, “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

Waterless Places

Twice in the gospels, Jesus tells a story about a spirit, banished from a person, who wanders waterless places, and then returns to its previous host with seven other spirits even more evil. This parable had always perplexed me. So when I took Exegesis of Matthew, I decided to write my paper about it, and these are some things I discovered.

Most importantly, it must be understood based on its location. It functions differently in Matthew than it does in Luke, and this is only looking at Matthew. Jesus sums up the story by saying that the image describes “this evil generation,” the same words he uses in the pericope directly before it. The point of the spirit story is to say something about his opponents; it’s not simply a teaching on exorcism gone wrong.

In the sign of Jonah passage (Matt. 12:38-42), the religious elite were smarting from Jesus’s rebukes, and so they demand a sign from him, to prove himself authoritative. Jesus finds this request ridiculous, and so he begins to shame them, threefold. The spirit story, then, is the third shame pronounced. That is how it must be understood.

The first shame is that their request is denied. No special sign, only the one which God has chosen for them: the death and resurrection of Jesus. Why is this a shame? For many reasons, but especially that it is a sign of judgment: they are so wicked and sinful that they need the death of Life to cleanse them. Now, if they were to accept this assessment and repent, it would not linger in shame but move to their forgiveness and glory. But the subsequent lines of Jesus reveal that this will not be the path they walk.

We see this next, where Jesus uses two Gentile examples of correct response to a lower revelation of God to humiliate the religious leaders. These scribes were Jewish, and possessed the oracles of God, and here stood before them the Promised One, God himself. But they were blind, hard hearted, and stupid even with their overwhelming advantages. Meanwhile, the men of Nineveh and the Queen of the South were distinctly foreign, and saw only the outskirts of God, yet they marveled and humbled themselves. It’s as if Jesus asked, You think you’re better than them? Look at the evidence.

Which is where we finally come to the wandering spirit. Even though the man in this parable receives a spiritually beneficial act, the benefit comes to no lasting profit. He ends up, in fact worse. That is what these Jewish leaders were like. They had the immense spiritual benefit of Jesus Christ ministering in their midst, and he would offer himself as an atoning sacrifice for their cleansing. But it would, for many of them, not turn to profit. Rejecting him, they would forfeit their advantages and end up worse than they began, judged and condemned by the God they claimed to serve.

So what about us? We stand in an even greater place of privilege than those Jews. The Christ-event is accomplished in history behind us and interpreted for us in both the authoritative New Testament and in church history. The warning is clear: unless we hide under the protection of the atoning death of the humiliated Son of Man, Jesus as triumphant Son of Man will justly judge us condemned. We have no other ground to stand on: no personal righteousness pure enough, no spiritual experience fantastic enough, no church background robust enough to make us right with God outside of his Son.

Jesus spoke to “this generation” knowing that their hearts were hardened and that the majority of them would not turn to him but would instead participate in judging and rejecting him. However, there is hope held out to every person alive today that mercy can triumph over judgment. We see this in Hebrews 3, as that author reflected on the stubbornness of the archetypical Jewish generation, they who rebelled in the wilderness under Moses. Quoting Psalm 95, he tells his New Covenant readers to be unlike them: “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”

You do not have to be like the rebellious generations, even though rebellion lives in your own heart. Matthew 12:38-45 is a stern warning; let it awaken in you repentance and obedience to the risen Lord Jesus Christ, he who was in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights, and was raised victorious for you.

Tegan and Sara and Me

Tegan and Sara’s masterpiece, The Con, debuted on July 24, 2007, less than a month before I said my marriage vows.  Its beauty was the soundtrack of the life I’d said yes to.

Which is ironic, when you consider that the album’s opening track and one of my favorites, “I Was Married,” specifically celebrates the life I had said no to.

This song is delicate, inviting, warm; it eases you in to the pulsing of the rest of the album. The narrator faces crowds of people telling her that her marriage is evil; as Tegan and Sara are both lesbians the implications are clear.

One line resonates to this day in my heart: “Try to control the pull of one magnet/ to another/ magnet.”  They declare their love as natural, unstoppable, as magnetism, and I believed them.  I had felt that pull many times myself. My attraction to other women sprang up from within me, springs up from within me. It does feel like a magnet.

The joys, the stresses, and the awkwardness of my early marriage were a spiritual journey for me. Those days existed against many backgrounds of my early adulthood, but most starkly against the questions of Tegan and Sara, and the call to trust issued to me by my God. I can’t adequately say how many lines of this album felt shockingly personal.

“I’m not unfaithful but I’ll stray / when I get a little scared.”

One track on the album, “Back in Your Head” includes some lines that haunted me. They sing, “I’m not unfaithful but I’ll stray/when I get a little scared.” What they referenced was a romantic relationship, but what primarily worried me was my faithfulness to God. Hadn’t I committed adultery before, God my husband, when I got a little scared, when I got unsettled? Indeed, I had. There had been numerous times after giving my life to Christ that I had run back to the perceived joy, safety, of other women.

Would I be able to stop it in the future, now that he had given me a human husband as well? What would preserve me from double infidelity?

“Burn Your Life Down” also felt ominous, even as I couldn’t stop playing it. How often had I felt the car crash they spoke of, “I drive around the block and I'm not looking to my right/I feel the glass against my cheek and I can't see you in the light/I break my heart around it, break my heart around it.” I had been surprised enough times by my own sins, I had lost sight of Jesus in the destruction caused by my choices. I had broken my own heart.

“Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything” 1 John 3:20. I didn’t have answers to the questions. What I had was a living God. My heart was accusing me, pressing me, but again and again I returned to Jesus who loved not some future better version of me, but the me sitting in questions and fear. He knows everything, and he is great. He overcame death and sin and shame. I could trust him; he called me into marriage and he would provide day by day.

I’m listening to The Con as I write; the album is ending as she says “I’ll start/ to wonder/ if this was the thing to do.” After ten years, both The Con and my marriage have weathered well. The first because of excellent production and musicality, the second by the grace and kindness of God. I don’t wonder anymore if trusting God over myself is the thing to do, he has proven himself more beautiful than the life I would have made, and he has the power to sustain me.

Interesting and Fun

“We will assess the success of our lives in accordance not with whether they were righteous, but whether they were interesting and fun.”

So said Lionel Shriver, quoted at length in an Atlantic article from April 17, 2015 titled, “Why Women Choose Not to Have Children.” The article was a very sober outworking of what life apart from God looks like, even for someone like me who thinks she is done at just one child.

I’m sympathetic to the desire to not have children. Maybe the authors of the article would argue that is because of my education level. It’s at least because I have experienced how much work rearing a child is. Any parent can affirm that saying yes to children means saying no to some things that one would otherwise embrace.

But as this article cuts to, every decision we make is in relationship to what we think life is for. And these authors are saying life is for their comfort and convenience and diversion.  I have no desire to demean the people who are represented by the article—what they’re saying is what they have, absent God. It’s the logical outworking.

At the same time, it is deeply sad, and I say that as someone who is lured by it. I have a constant bent towards isolation, towards caring only for myself, in pursuing the interesting and fun. Many of my goals have been achieved because I watch so carefully to meet my needs and desires. This is the way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way of death.

Other people are work, most especially children; they include pain. Best to avoid it?

But God, in the Trinity, has always existed in relationship. There is no alone-ness in the Godhead, but overflowing knowing and known-ness, overflowing love. There is no sin, either, and therefore no pain. We humans are steeped in sin. We hurt ourselves and others—but we are still created for God and for each other.

If you spend your life chasing the interesting and fun, you might find it for little spurts. But it can’t fill your heart the way relationships with God and others can; even committed atheists find they want to share their vacations with someone they love. Interesting and fun, as a life goal, is a lie. It can’t bear the burden of what makes for meaning.

It’s not that children are the be all, end all. Not at all. But it’s the heart that profoundly cries ME, at the expense of others, that chafes against who we were created to be, how God designed us to flourish. And by the way, I am writing this post to myself.

Christendom Kills

Two born and bred Southern Baptist women wrote books about keeping the “best” of their faith and discarding the rest. I don’t know if their readership overlaps at all. Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love is a folksy, funny plea to moms and burnt out church ladies to be kind and activated. Macy Halford’s My Utmost is a literary, scholarly wrestling for the beauty of grace from the arms of churchiness, accessible more to the coastal elite in its style, though perhaps not its context.

Halford’s feels like an inversion of my story. She and I were both history majors at elite colleges, desperately love ideas and literature, and are comfortable in these contexts. These things modified her experience of her childhood faith, changed it. It’s not like she gives a statement of faith, but she sees in Oswald Chambers an expression of full blooded life, life which chooses risk for the sake being truly alive, finding love and purpose. This is her center of Christianity. Her faith ends up with no place for any tenets that would offend her New Yorker friends.

Hatmaker is relatable more broadly because of her warmth, her humor, and her insight into real life. While Halford reads like a literary prize winner, Hatmaker sticks to her blogger roots. Yet she too has a faith that has been modified by exposure to the world. This makes sense, of course. It would be unreasonable for 40 year old women to have the faith of their 10 year old selves.

These women ended up in similar places, despite their ostensible differences. They champion a faith that emphasizes action, love of people, discovery of self, and freedom from religious chains.  They shun rules, and the full Jesus. Hatmaker is pleased to declare Jesus beautiful and give him credit for our freedom in For the Love, though he is not much discussed beyond that fact that the he really loved people.  Halford, on the other hand, skirts Jesus and his role in the faith he founded.

Both call themselves Christians, yet both reject outworkings of their faith that are historical and, more importantly, biblical. How did this happen?

It happened because they found it a successful coping mechanism for the scars of cultural Christianity. At this point, I write as an outsider. Growing up in California, and spending my adult life in New England, I have no meaningful personal relationship with the Bible Belt. But these two women lived and breathed the Southern Baptist machine of the 1980’s and 90’s. Church meetings, abstinence pledges, conferences, Christian music, and the Religious Right. A Church culture wed to a conservative political posture, that unified the will of the Lord with the platform of the Republican Party.

Both call themselves Christians, yet both reject outworkings of their faith that are historical and, more importantly, biblical. How did this happen?

This is Christendom. This is Church which saturates society, but doesn’t communicate the whole gospel. They saw the holes in their traditions, the ways that their churches didn’t reflect Jesus, and they over-corrected. The Bible Belt has not stewarded the gospel well, and its children are susceptible to syncretism.

In every culture there are priorities that line up with the gospel; we are made in his image, and so we reflect him. It is easy to affirm the parts of culture that line up with God’s words. In the 1950’s, that was things like sexual purity. Today, it’s love for those on the margins.

But every culture has things that directly contradict the gospel; we are sinners who break his image. It is terribly hard to reject what feels normal culturally because of God’s Word; we bristle against it, justify it using logic and emotion. In the 1950’s, that was racism. Today, it is sexual purity.

Halford and Hatmaker have adult faiths that have changed emphases, but ultimately mimic their childhood faiths. Both stages of faith affirmed where the Bible agreed with cultural priorities and dismissed or reinterpreted the culturally gauche parts. The only thing that shifted between now and then was a whole chunk of cultural priorities. Let’s not throw stones though; this struggle belongs to all of us who want to relate to the Bible.

My encounter with the gospel changed my childhood faith, too—my childhood faith in the salvific power of ideas and literature. Jesus shows me, continually, that He is, and things only come together in him—especially the things which make no sense to my current culture.  I’m certain I don’t know everything, I’m certain on some things I’m wrong. I’m also certain that we need to read the Scriptures together, and expect that God will say things that we dislike. I pray he will give us faith to trust him where he does.

We’re all in this together.

Warfield and Hatmaker

“If you have the truth of Jesus without the way of Jesus, you get fundamentalism. If you have the way of Jesus without the truth of Jesus, you get liberalism. We need the way of Jesus and the truth of Jesus together.”

This is what a missionary spoke me yesterday morning, and I can’t get it out of my head. I just finished two wildly different books: Jen Hatmaker’s Interrupted and Benjamin Warfield’s The Person and Work of Christ, and their interplay with this missionary’s statement is rolling around in my brain.

Warfield was dealing with the liberalism that was overtaking the Protestant world in the early twentieth century, and his work labors to show from Scripture who Christ is, and that Christian religion is profoundly one of propitiation. He declared, “He who looks to be perfected through his own assumption of what he calls a Christlike attitude towards what he calls a Christlike superhuman reality—though he considers that the term “Christlike” may without fatal loss be a merely conventional designation—is of a totally different religion from him who feels himself a sinner redeemed by the blood of a divine Saviour dying for him on the Cross.” There is something beautiful about Christ’s attitude, indeed. Yet why do movements that seek to embody his attitude toward the oppressed often move away from the full gospel? In my heart, I don’t understand, but I see Warfield proved over time, that these two religions become fundamentally different.

Why do movements that seek to embody Christ’s attitude toward the oppressed often move away from the full gospel?

Hatmaker’s Interrupted is a relatively early work of hers, and it recounts her journey from Christian subculture to the mission of Jesus to the poor and marginalized. There is so much in this book that is a good and right rebuttal to conservative Christianity; she draws out Matthew 25 and Isaiah 58 as a corrective. But you can already see the seeds of drift from full gospel. In this work, the death of Jesus is affirmed as salvific, yet sin is nowhere mentioned. There were great moments to give a nod to propitiation, but she settled more for the “we aren’t perfect, we’re all in this together, Jesus is beautiful.” Warfield’s inscription is “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Hatmaker seems to pull up just shy of declaring this, ostensibly for the sake of getting there eventually.

I am agitated by this. I don’t want to be a fundamentalist or a liberal; I want to have the way AND the truth of Jesus. I feel my weakness, the weakness of my church in this. I feel the tension and the complexity, and my own sin in wanting to just reject Hatmaker outright because of slippery slope principles.

This is a good place for me to be, because I need Jesus, and I need his Spirit. As my friend once said, if dependence is the goal, weakness is an asset. None of us can stay where we are, and we need to evaluate where both growth and danger lies. We need to do it in community, and we need the Spirit. Let’s replace fear with shrewdness, and move forward.

Abel's Evangelical Offering

We evangelicals don’t burn animals on altars, but we still like the language of offerings. I was thinking recently on the cheesy and sincere “offerings of praise” during congregational singing that are occasionally encouraged. They are always framed as a good thing, holy even.

So, how are we to evaluate if any particular “offering” is good or not? Should we evaluate it? Is showing up enough, is sincerity enough? Lifting our hands, thanking God…this is good, right?

In Genesis 4, both Cain and Abel bring an offering to God. God accepts Abel and his offering, and has no regard for Cain and his. I’ve read this in the past and wondered about it. After all, in later Israelite religion, offerings of the land, like Cain’s, are commanded, so it can’t just be that produce makes God unhappy. What’s the difference? Does the difference mean anything for us?

What's the Difference?

While reading The Person and Work of Christ by B.B. Warfield, this question was raised for me again. Warfield argued that the “by faith” element for Abel, brought up in Hebrews, seems to be the key ingredient of difference, that “what seems to be implied is that Cain’s offering was an act of mere homage; Abel’s embodied a sense of sin, an act of contrition, a cry for succor, a plea for pardon.”

What’s striking is that in some sense, Cain’s offering was legit—what I mean is, it’s not like he was totally blowing off God. He recognized God as deserving an offering, and he brought it. From this you can draw a troubling conclusion: the act of offering, even in the direction of the true God, can be deficient. What’s the deficiency? It stops at homage, it stops at honor. It does not proceed all the way to confession of sin, of unworthiness.

It turns out, if you only have half the ingredients, you can’t make the full cake. You need recognition of God and of self, in truth.  We need to say God is God, and we are not, and that an atoning sacrifice is needed to right the relationship between us. These first sacrifices are offered “side by side in the earliest Hebrew tradition,” making their contrast explicit.  

 Abel’s sacrifice is a precursor to Jesus Christ. When we pray in Jesus’s name, it should be to bind up our “offering of praise” specifically in agreeing that without his death to substitute for mine, I’ve got nothing sufficient to bring. Without my evil being covered, my religious activity, even when pointed in the true God’s direction, is useless. If over time my church, my own ministry, forgets the centrality of Jesus’s ransom, stops stating it explicitly and often, our praise could drift to meaninglessness. We could start preaching about a “God who is crazy about you” without equipping for all the implications of that, like holiness.

In the aftermath of God’s lack of regard for Cain’s offering, Cain gets angry—but he doesn’t get dismissed. God doesn’t declare that Cain blew his one shot. He approaches Cain and speaks of a better way—implicitly, that Cain can have access to Abel’s way. But God makes it clear that there is no neutral; to not choose the offering that pleases God is to link arms with sin, even if that sin looks itself like an offering.

God speaks to all of us like this.

God speaks to all of us like this.  We want to do our duty to God, to bring an offering, to recognize him. And because of the perfect sacrificial offering of Jesus, we have a perfect and permanent way to approach him; we don’t have to invent our own, and indeed we shouldn’t. Even and especially if something “feels” holy or right, we should check it against what God has commended.

Let’s not neglect that which is perfectly regarded by God, the offering of Jesus. Instead, let us embrace it, and all that it means.

The Surprising Wisdom of God

Tucked into the beginning of the book of Daniel is a poem, tight and energetic, praising the wisdom of God.

“He reveals deep and hidden things”
— Daniel 2:22a, ESV

It begins with a command to bless God’s name (that is, to honor his whole person), because “wisdom and might” belong to him. What does this mean? Daniel explains that God has power over all the natural world and history (times and seasons), as well as the political and social worlds (removal and setting up of kings). Here is no unsure, inept leader, but the One who has always directed everything on earth, intelligently and effectively. It seems fully apart from us, inaccessible, because it is completely outside of us. 

Yet He doesn’t keep this wisdom to himself alone, a lonely mastermind focused on running the universe. Daniel praises God for being the reason that the wise and understanding have what they do; the whole context of the poem is that Daniel received from the LORD knowledge that only could have come from him, which saved the lives of many! God uses his wisdom to bless humanity, generally and specifically.

Even these things are not the limit of his wisdom. In verse 22 Daniel declares that God “reveals deep and hidden things.” He is not limited to technical knowledge, to interesting facts and strategies. His is the deepest mind, the deepest soul. He owns wisdom, the proper application of knowledge; this makes the difference between being a know-it-all tool and a Person you want to linger with for hours.

God is not naïve, either, about evil: “he knows what is in the darkness.” Notice he is separate from it, yet fully aware of it. It doesn’t call to him mysteriously, or intrigue him. He knows it completely and it does not tempt him, for “the light dwells with him.”

Have you known this God? All that Daniel described was fully displayed in Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, in whom “all the fullness of God”—including his wisdom—“was pleased to dwell”(Col. 1:19). To be in relationship with Jesus is not drudgery, it is to have intimate access to, and the intimate affection of, the one who knows all things about your life, and about the world you live in. It is to draw near to the one who is never confused, or unsure, or misguided.

This is a God you can surrender to. Do you presume to know more of what you need than he does? More of what would cause you to thrive? Do you believe that you know better what the “real world” is like than the God who sustains it by the Word of his power? Impossible. Draw near to him, he promises to give wisdom to everyone who asks (James 1:5). He is able to console, to comfort and to guide, through the Scriptures, and his Spirit and his people. Today is an excellent day to explore where his wisdom can meet you in all of those places; don’t hesitate to seek out help if you’re not sure how!

Review of Pennington's Heaven and Earth

Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew. Jonathan T. Pennington. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009. 399 pp.

Rarely has an academic text felt as revelatory and immediately applicable as Jonathan Pennington’s Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew. As a scholar and professor of biblical Greek with an undergraduate major in history, Dr. Pennington is well equipped to examine the linguistic, historical and theological themes of Matthew’s gospel.

The thrust of the work makes a bold claim: that the Matthean phrase “kingdom of heaven” has been misunderstood and misrepresented for over 100 years. Pennington explains in an orderly and even devastating manner that Matthew was highly intentional in his use of heaven language, emphasizing important theological themes for his readers, as opposed to piously avoiding the phrase “kingdom of God.” His thesis argues “that by describing this kingdom as heavenly or from heaven...Matthew highlights and heightens the tension between God’s kingdom and all earthly kingdoms”(322, emphasis original).

Pennington makes this destination clear throughout his work, and he also makes clear the vehicle he uses to get there: “The question must be answered based on… evidence within Matthew itself”(130). He returns again and again to the actual text of Matthew, as well as trimly yet exhaustively examining the other primary sources which come to bear upon Matthew, most notably the Old Testament, Jewish works of the intertestamental period, and the Mishnah.

One of the greatest strengths of this work is its orderly and methodical arrangement. Pennington lays his groundwork so carefully that reading through his smaller arguments on the way to his larger point feels like listening to a tightly constructed piece of music coursing towards its climax. He begins by dismantling the old “reverential circumlocution” argument which had come to reign “through the magic of publication, repetition, and elapsed time”(36), showing persuasively from Matthew itself that this old thesis cannot be true. Next he provides his reader with neat summaries of how heaven language was actually used in the Old Testament, Second Temple Literature, and Matthew, giving the raw data which he will later interpret. He also helpfully gives an overview of the other recognized themes in Matthew, which his heaven and earth theme will interact with.

The meat of Pennington’s book comes into view in Part Two, where he makes his arguments regarding the whats and whys of Matthew’s heaven usage. He divides this heaven usage into four discrete categories: the use of the singular and plural forms of οὐρανὸς, the heaven and earth diad, the image of God as Father, and the image of God’s kingdom. With each topic, he alternates examinations of the Old Testament and Second Temple works in their own chapters, followed by chapters showing how Matthew’s usage of heaven language is both continuous with his traditions and also brilliant innovation for his new formulations.

For section one, he demonstrates that Matthew picked up on the two interpretive poles of οὐρανὸς—the physical sky and the heavenly realm--and made their meanings more distinct by using the singular for the earthly meaning and the plural for more heavenly meanings. Next he shows that while “heaven and earth” was a normal stock phrase in Matthew’s tradition which could be used merismatically or antithetically, Matthew deliberately chose to both use the phrase a lot, and bring its antithetical usage to the forefront. Pennington’s third examination, that of the Father in heaven image, is the one that felt the most scattered and thus least persuasive.  Here he shows that this image is most prominent in the Sermon on the Mount, is equal to the Father who sees in secret, and that the image is often contrasted with negative earthly fathers. Here his arguments felt reasonable but not as immediately meaningful as the other three sections.  His fourth section shows how Matthew’s kingdom of heaven concerns both the reign of God and the idea of physical territory related to the kingdom, and how the dramatic repetition of the phrase and its force underlines the difference between God’s ways and humanity’s ways.

In his conclusion, Pennington summarizes the importance of his contribution by rehearsing again how many functions Matthew’s heaven language performs in his gospel: that it shows the superiority of what Jesus offers contra what the world offers, that it importantly links the gospel to its Old Testament roots, that it emphasizes Jesus as Messiah and his radical teachings, and that it deeply encourages the disciples in the worth of their new identity in Christ. And, of course, by highlighting the tension between God’s heavenly kingdom to the earthly kingdoms, Matthew causes his readers to long for “the eschaton in which the kingdom of heaven will come to earth”(343).

On the whole, Pennington’s arguments are immensely persuasive, precisely because they are based rigorously on data and not on authorial assumptions. One could say that his points are even elegant, for while he builds towards saying something profoundly new in Matthean studies, he does it all the while making it seem so patently obvious; one reads his interpretations and almost wants to exclaim aloud, “of course!” By showing that Matthew’s use of heaven language emphasizes the tension between God’s kingdom and those of the earth, the reader experiences the tension anew for herself. The pieces of his argument fit neatly together without feeling forced.

Especially helpful are his discourses on the debt of Matthew to Genesis (211ff) and Daniel 2-7 (268ff). These sections were illuminating for how thoughtfully Matthew sought to connect his work to the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as how God’s previous words were inspiring and helpful to the apostle as an author. Contact with these sections heightened my appreciation for Matthew’s Gospel and what he was seeking to accomplish, as well as especially increasing my understanding and appreciation of Daniel. Equally profitable was Pennington’s explanation of how Matthew 6:1-21 should be seen as one interpretive unit which fully fleshes out the importance of Matthew’s heaven and earth tensions. I felt ministered to and encouraged as a Christian reading this section to pursue the things of God over against what the world offers.

I would have no hesitations recommending this book to every minister and student of the Word, for its personal encouragement in Jesus as well as its help in rightly teaching the first gospel to those under our care. Perhaps especially for seminarians, it stands as example of what first rate, faithful scholarship looks like, in both its academic strength and pastoral care. I look forward to seeking out other works by Dr. Pennington.