How Do Paul and Jesus Fit Together?

In contrast to those who argue that Paul’s theology and Jesus’ teaching are at odds, the answer to the question is this: Paul is showing us how to interpret Jesus — especially Jesus’ hard sayings.

Consider one example: Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler to sell all that he has. “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22).

Is this something that God commands every Christian to do?

Many are puzzled by that question, because if we say “yes,” it immediately seems impractical. On the other hand, if we say “no,” we seem to be diminishing the force of Jesus’ command.

Fortunately, Paul himself shows us how to interpret this passage for the post-resurrection church: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future” (1 Timothy 6:17 – 19).

Paul’s command to Christians who are rich in this age is not to give away all that they have, but rather two main things: (1) Don’t set your hope in your money and (2) be extremely generous with your money.

This corresponds to what Jesus was getting at with the rich young ruler. It confirms, as a close look at the passage in Luke also shows, that the likely reason Jesus commanded him to sell everything was because he was putting his ultimate hope in his money rather than God.

Paul also makes this same demand. But in Paul, we see that this demand doesn’t always require giving away everything you have. In the case of the rich young ruler, Jesus was literally calling him to follow him — that is, to be with him during his ministry. So Jesus would have provided for any of his needs resulting from his having nothing.

Today, that’s just not going to happen — and it’s not God’s will. God’s will is that we earn our own living (1 Thessalonians 4:10-11).

Now, that said, of course there are still times when a Christian indeed must give up all that they have. This is necessary when one must choose between obedience to Christ and maintaining their money and possessions. In those cases, you let it all go. Paul also demonstrated this through his example, accepting imprisonment and even death due to his testimony for the gospel.

And so the spirit of Christ’s call to the rich young ruler continues in Paul’s teaching as well. At the same time, Paul’s teaching also fleshes out Jesus’ teaching more fully, by showing that Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler was a specific strategy that was aimed at implementing this universally valid truth in the specific life and situation of the rich young ruler.

Since it was a specific strategy, it is not necessarily God’s literal call to every Christian. For most Christians, it is to be translated by means of radical generosity with their possessions — while also acknowledging that all that we have is God’s, holding our possessions loosely, and being willing to sacrifice all when the needs of the gospel require it.

November 28, 2014 | Filed Under Theology | Leave a Comment 

Why Christian Bale is Wrong About Moses

Christian Bale, the actor who plays Moses in the upcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings, reportedly said this of Moses: “I think the man was likely schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.”

That is quite something to say about one of the greatest figures in at least two major world religions (Christianity and Judaism). It also contrasts with the Bible’s own description of Moses, which says that he was “a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).

While a lot could be said in response to Bale’s comment, here are two very significant — but often overlooked — events in Moses’ life that show that, in contrast to being barbaric, Moses was actually marked by a radical commitment to defend the oppressed and stand up for those in need.

First, notice how Moses found his wife. In Exodus 2:16-22 we read that, after fleeing Egypt, Moses sat down by a well in the land of Midian. Shortly after that, the seven daughters of the priest of Midian came to draw water for their flock — only to be obstructed by some self-centered shepherds.

What did Moses do? We read: “But Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock” (Exodus 2:17). Moses didn’t sit idly by and let the shepherds run over the women. He stood up for them. Then, he even went one step further by watering their flocks for them himself.

This is something we easily overlook. But it is not something to skim over lightly, nor is it something just anyone would have done in this situation. It is recorded in Scripture to show the greatness of Moses’ character. He is hard-wired to defend the cause of the oppressed and act on their behalf. He was, like Jesus, a person radically committed to the welfare of others — even at sacrifice to himself.

Second, consider the event that led Moses to flee Egypt in the first place. Much is made of the fact that Moses was a murder. But did you notice that, once again, this happened in the midst of Moses acting to defend the oppressed? We read: “One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:11-12).

Granted, killing the Egyptian was not the right action to take. But Moses was not acting out of vengeance or selfish interests. He was over reacting in the midst of the very good action of defending one of his people who was being beaten by the Egyptian.

So once again, we see that Moses was a radically other-oriented individual, quick to identify the needs of others and stand up for the oppressed.

Far from being “barbaric and schizophrenic,” Moses was a helper of the helpless and defender of the weak. But this is something we fail to see if we don’t read Scripture carefully and actually pay attention to it.

And, of course, let’s not forgot one of Moses’ greatest acts: leading an entire nation out of slavery. It’s easy to overlook what is right in front of us. It reminds me of the people who used to argue that the Bible is OK with slavery. Really? Isn’t the defining event of the entire Old Testament the liberation from slavery of God’s people? How can you see that and still think that slavery is OK?

So it is with Moses: like the two smaller events of defending his fellow Hebrew who was being beaten and standing up against the shepherds who were casting aside the women at the well, his leadership in delivering Israel from Egyptian oppression tells us something about his character.

Liberating a nation from slavery is not the act of a barbarian; it’s the act of a great man who has compassion on people’s suffering and puts their interests ahead of his own.

Thus we see why the Scriptures and two major religions are very well justified in regarding Moses as one of the greatest individuals to have ever lived.

More than that, we see that in all these things Moses is a model for each of us. For he exemplified what it means to obey God’s commands to “seek justice, correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17) and “defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9).

November 24, 2014 | Filed Under Theology | 2 Comments 

How Satan Can Set Himself Up as the Guide and Oracle of God’s People

Jonathan Edwards:

One erroneous principle, than which scarce any has proved more mischievous to the present glorious work of God, is a notion that it is God’s manner in these days, to guide his saints, at least some that are more eminent, by inspiration, or immediate revelation.

They suppose he makes known to them what shall come to pass hereafter, or what it is his will that they should do, by impressions made upon their minds, either with or without texts of Scripture; whereby something is made known to them, that is not taught in Scripture.

By such a notion the devil has a great door opened for him; and if once this opinion should come to be fully yielded to, and established in the church of God, Satan would have opportunity to set up himself as the guide and oracle of God’s people, and to have his word regarded as their infallible rule, and so to lead them where he would, and to introduce what he pleased, and soon to bring the Bible into neglect and contempt.

(From Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England, part 4, section 2, page 404 in volume 2 of the Banner edition of Edwards’ works.)

November 21, 2014 | Filed Under Theology | Leave a Comment 

Why Did Jesus Let Judas Carry the Moneybag?

Why did Jesus let Judas carry the money bag during his ministry, knowing in his omniscience that he was stealing from it (John 12:6)? One blogger humorously points out “one is tempted to offer the Lord some consulting on good stewardship.”

It’s a provocative question. I’ve seen a few posts on this over the last few years that make some good points. But they don’t always get at why Jesus had the right to do this, and we don’t — and what this implies for what it means to follow Christ’s example. In relation to this question, I think the best answer is from Jonathan Edwards:

[Judas] had been treated by Jesus himself, in all external things, as if he had truly been a disciple, even investing him with the character of apostle, sending him forth to preach the gospel, and enduing him with miraculous gifts of the Spirit.

For though Christ knew him [that is, knew that he was a fraud], yet he did not then clothe himself with the character of omniscient Judge, and searcher of hearts, but acted the part of a minister of the visible church; (for he was his Father’s minister;) and therefore rejected him not, till he had discovered himself by his scandalous practice; thereby giving an example to guides and rulers of the visible church, not to take it upon them to act the part of searcher of hearts, but to be influenced in their administrations by what is visible and open.

Here are a few additional thoughts to flesh this out.

First, if it’s surprising that Jesus would have let Judas carry the money bag, it should be even more shocking that he let Judas be an apostle at all. For the task of going out and preaching the gospel, which Judas participated in, is even more significant than carrying the moneybag.

Second, Edwards’ point here is right on: Jesus was acting according to what would have been evident in his human nature, not what he knew from his omniscient divine nature, as it was not yet time for him to exercise the role of judge.

Thus, if Jesus had, in his human nature, actually seen Judas stealing from the money bag, I think he would have taken it away. Jesus was not intending to set an example for us here that we should knowingly appoint dishonest people to important positions. He was acting in accord with the knowledge he had not as omniscient judge, but according to the ordinary operations of his human nature. And on that basis there were likely no concerns with Judas yet.

In acting according to what was evident according to his role as minister of the visible church, Jesus was seeking to show, as Edwards points out, that we aren’t to act as though we know a person’s heart unless there are clear and obvious outward signs that reveal otherwise. In that sense, then, Jesus is modeling something for us here.

Third, obviously Jesus did have reasons in his sovereign will for appointing this task to Jesus. Perhaps it was to show all the more fully Judas’ sin and apostasy over the long-term (or, as Jon Bloom argues, to give an acted parable warning us against the love of money). However, Jesus’ sovereign will is never something we are to model. He has rights that we don’t. As the best Calvinists have always pointed out, we are to make the moral will of Christ our guide — not his sovereign will.

Fourth, it is a sobering thing that there are some people seeming to follow Christ that are not truly following him. That is a scary, shocking thing! It should lead us all to be all the more diligent to “make your calling and election sure” by constantly growing in grace (2 Peter 1:10).

November 20, 2014 | Filed Under Theology | 1 Comment 

Tim Challies on Taming the Email Beast

Tim Challies’ series on productivity has him talking about email today. This part towards the beginning is hilarious, and does a good job of showing just how bad some of our email practices are by drawing a comparison with the physical mail:

DOING EMAIL BADLY

To better understand why so many of us do email so badly, let’s draw a comparison to a real-world object: your mailbox. Imagine if you treated your actual, physical mailbox like you treat your email. Here’s how it would go:

You walk outside to check your mail and reach into your mailbox. Sure enough, you’ve got some new mail. You take out one of your letters, open it up and begin to read it. You get about halfway through, realize it is not that interesting, stuff it back inside the envelope, and put it back in the mailbox. “I’ll deal with this one later.” You open the next letter and find that it is a little bit more interesting, but you do the same thing—stuff it back into the envelope and put it back inside the mailbox. Other mail you pull out and don’t even bother reading—it just goes straight back inside the mailbox. And sure enough, your mailbox is soon crammed full of a combination of hundreds of unopened and unread letters plus hundreds of opened and read or partially-read letters.

But it gets worse. You don’t just use your mailbox to receive and hold letters, but also to track your calendar items. You reach in deep and pull out a handful of papers with important dates and events written on them, including a few that have come and gone without you even noticing or remembering. And, of course, you also use your mailbox as a task list, so you’ve got all kinds of post-it notes in there with your to-do items scrawled all over them.

But we aren’t done yet. Even though you feel guilty and kind of sick every time you open your mailbox, you still find yourself checking your mail constantly. Fifty or sixty times a day you stop whatever else you are doing, you venture down the driveway, and reach your hand inside to see if there is anything new.

It is absurd, right? Your life would be total chaos. And yet that is exactly how most people treat their email. It is chaotic with no rules or procedures to control it. What do you need? You need a system.

He then goes on to give a simple but highly effective system for managing your email. He nails all of the core principles, such as the fact that an inbox is only for receiving email — not storing it –, the basic email workflow, and more.

Read the whole thing.

November 12, 2014 | Filed Under Email | Leave a Comment 

Practical Usability: Why Most Websites Frustrate Their Users and How to Make Your Site Enjoyable

This is my message from the Biola Digital Ministry Conference 2012.

First I discuss why usability matters (giving both the practical case and the biblical case, which is very interesting). Then I go into the nuts and bolts of how to make your website usable, focusing especially on how to create good information architecture (the key to usability).

And here are my slides for the message (which you can use to follow along on the message, or just click through all on their own):

November 5, 2014 | Filed Under Usability | Leave a Comment 

Why Do People Like John Piper Put an Emphasis on Being Radical, Rather than Ordinary?

I’m still looking forward to reading Michael Horton’s Ordinary. As I’ve mentioned before, the title makes me wonder a bit, but I am expecting Horton to get the balance right between the “ordinary” and “radical” themes in the Bible.

I tend to gravitate more to the “radical” theme, because I think the Scriptures do. However, the affirmation of the ordinary is nonetheless essential and a wonderful thing. For example, when the crowds asked John the Baptist what it means to repent, he didn’t command them to leave their jobs and vocations. Rather, he told them to act faithfully in the roles they already had (Luke 3:10-14).

The apostle Paul later affirms this as a key part of the Christian ethic as well (Acts 20:34-35; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12).

Given the importance of the ordinary, why then do we need to emphasize the radical dimension of Christianity so much? Why, for example, does John Piper emphasize this so strongly in his book Don’t Waste Your Life, or why does David Platt do so in Radical?

The reason is stated well in the ESV Study Bible notes on the parable in Luke 14:15-24. In that parable, people make excuses for why they will not attend the great banquet they had been invited to (representing those who refuse to participate in God’s kingdom). What kind of excuses do they make? They all use “ordinary” things as their excuses. One had just bought a field, another had just bought some oxen, another had just gotten married.

The notes make the point of the parable very well: “These people have put the business of everyday life ahead of the claims of God and his kingdom, and they are therefore not worthy to enter it.”

This is a recurring theme in Jesus’ teaching (see also Luke 9:57-62, another key spot where very reasonable “ordinary” things get in the way of following the kingdom; Luke 12:22-34; 14:25-33; 9:23-27; etc.).

Why is this?

It is because the ordinary business of life — though highly important and affirmed by God — often becomes an excuse to avoid the other demands of discipleship, such as evangelism and following Christ even when it involves sacrifice and persecution.

God affirms the ordinary. But not when it gets in the way of his other commands, above all which is to seek him and his kingdom first.

There can be a wrong-headed tendency to glamorize sacrifice and the radical dimension of Christianity. But I don’t think that is the main temptation in the church; most who end up going through great sacrifice realize how painful it really is. The greatest temptation is to allow the ordinary to get in the way of the non-ordinary, more sacrificial demands of discipleship.

The reason for this is that it seems so reasonable to make the “ordinary” our main thing. Everyone needs to engage in the business of everyday life, and if we don’t do this well, it can make things fairly difficult or even be life threatening. So it seems very reasonable to prioritize the ordinary and think we are just being “faithful” in doing so, when in reality we are letting it crowd out other crucial gospel demands.

In other words, the ordinary business of everyday life seems so reasonable and important that it can begin to take precedence without us even being aware of it. The radical demands of the gospels and NT are designed to wake us up from that slumber.

The biblical balance is to recognize that ordinary things are important things, but not ultimate things. We are to affirm the ordinary, while also being willing to let those things take lower priority when obedience to Christ’s other commands (such as getting the gospel to all nations) requires it.

November 5, 2014 | Filed Under Christian Living | 4 Comments 

The Meaning of Usability for Ministry Websites – Why It Matters and How to Do It

Note: Building on Matt Heerema’s post on the importance of usability for good websites, I’m posting this document, which was originally created to outline the usability strategy my team and I developed at Desiring God. My aim was essentially to give a clinic on the most important aspects of usability and information architecture in about 8 pages. I believe I wrote this in 2009.

Though it applies these principles specifically to DG, the broader principles that are applicable to any website should remain clear. Hopefully seeing their specific application to the DG website will help reinforce and illustrate them.

It would be great if every ministry began to make usability and good information architecture a top priority — and therefore learned the principles to effectively implement these priorities. It would make an absolutely huge difference. 

For more on usability and how I see it as not only central to website effectiveness, but also grounded in the Christian command to love our neighbor, see my messages from the Biola Digital Ministry Conference How the Gospel Should Shape Your Web Strategy and Practical Usability.

 

History of the Site Development

At the very start, we identified that usability would be our governing principle in the site redesign. The goal of the site redesign was: “To redesign the Desiring God website in accord with sound principles of usability and design.”

So we researched in detail what made for good usability. This involved not only studying the best books on the subject, but also user testing on our current site to determine what worked and what didn’t, and user testing on some other sites.

It also involved detailed analysis of the best sites out there (almost all of which were secular). We analyzed in detail how sites like Amazon and others organized their content and created an optimal user experience.

Last of all, we researched the principles of sound classification and categorization. This is because the site not only required that we create a good macro organizational structure, but also required the effective grouping of 2,000 plus resources into several different types of categories, including resource type, topic, and more. We wanted to know the principles of how to effectively categorize things so that we weren’t just making decisions on the basis of what we thought would be right. We wanted to know what we were doing.

To synthesize all of this information, we created several documents: “Usability & Design Principles for Desiring God,” “Usability, Our Basic Philosophy of Web Design,” “DesiringGod.org Classification Principles,” “DesiringGod.org Category Schemes,” and “The Vision for Our Website.”

 

The Importance of Usability

Its Priority

As mentioned above, usability is the central principle of our site design and presentation. This means that:

  1. We prioritize it above looks.
  2. We prioritize it above cool functionality.

We want a good graphic look for the site, but when we have to make a call between what looks better and what is more usable, usability wins. Likewise, we don’t have a problem with cool functionality, but if it creates an interesting experience at the cost of making the site harder to use, we are not interested.

Tie to Mission

The centrality of usability to the site flows from our mission. Our mission is to spread. But a hard to use site creates friction, which thus reduces spreading. An easy-to-use site reduces friction, thus serving the cause of spreading.

Good Usability Makes Everything Seem Better

Good usability makes everything about a site more effective. “Making pages self-evident is like having good lighting in a store: It just makes everything seem better. Using a site that doesn’t make us think about unimportant things feels effortless, whereas puzzling over things that don’t matter to us tends to sap our energy and enthusiasm—and time” (Krug, 19).

The importance of usability will be discussed in more detail below, when we discuss the need to be content-centered behind being user-centered.

Read more

November 4, 2014 | Filed Under Usability | Leave a Comment 

Why Most Websites Are Hard to Use — And What to Do About It

This is an excellent post at Challies.com by my friend Matt Heerema.

Most websites are hard to use because the designers paid insufficient attention to information architecture. Information architecture has to do with how the site is structured and organized.

So, how do you fix this? By giving usability the priority it deserves and learning principles of sound information architecture.

You can do this by reading a book like Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think – still the best book out there on web usability.

Or, if you are engaged in a web redesign or soon to start one, I would highly suggest contacting Matt and his company, Mere Agency, to see what they might be able to do for you.

You would find it to be well worth your time and investment. The impact of good usability is huge. When we first redesigned the Desiring God website on the basis of sound usability principles back in 2006, within four months page views increased 356%, audio listens increased 359%, and visits increased 99%.

Matt’s company understands and specializes in those same information architecture principles that we developed at Desiring God. In fact, before starting his current company, Matt came and worked with us at Desiring God and led subsequent redesigns of the site. If you work with Matt, you will be putting your website in great hands.

November 4, 2014 | Filed Under Usability | Leave a Comment 

What Does the Reformation Mean for Today?

I believe the need for the Reformation, which began on this day in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Church of All Saints, continues today.

It continues on at least two fronts. First, the need for the Reformation continues because the Roman Catholic church has never turned from its rejection of the Christian doctrine of justification by faith alone. (You can learn more on this doctrine here, which is one of the first articles I wrote when I started learning about theology.) I say this respectfully, because I know that there are many solid Christians within the Roman Catholic church. I don’t want to offend. At the same time, there are real differences between the Protestant and Catholic churches which must not be ignored or minimized.

Second, the need for the Reformation continues in that it reminds us that all Christians everywhere are to stand up against tyranny in all its forms. Martin Luther stood up against the spiritual tyranny of his day. Spiritual tyranny continues today as well (in Protestant churches as well as non-Protestant). It occurs any time a spiritual authority sets itself up as lord over another person and claims to be a ruler over their life — whether explicitly or, as is more common, implicitly by requiring obedience to rules and traditions that are not taught in the Bible. As Luther pointed out, such actions are contrary to the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, as well as sola Scriptura and the primacy of Scripture over human rules and tradition. God alone is Lord of the conscience, and Scripture always trumps tradition and human requirements.

There are many other forms of tyranny as well, such as the tyranny of corrupt political and law enforcement systems in the developing world which perpetuate injustice against the poor for the sake of their own material gain. These forms of tyranny are to be opposed by Christians as well, because Christians care about all suffering and all distortions of God’s work. In my view, there are many organizations doing an excellent job here (such as International Justice Mission), and we have much hope for continuing progress in the years ahead.

In sum, the Reformation is a call for all Christians to (respectfully and appropriately) stand up against tyranny in all forms, wherever they encounter it. It is also a call to use our critical judgment to become educated and think for ourselves, recognizing that we all have a responsibility to ensure that leaders both within the church and without are truly leading according to what is right and true.

October 31, 2014 | Filed Under Christian Living | Leave a Comment 

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