An Open Letter on Education Options

Dear Countryside Parents:

As a father, and as a pastor in our church, I share with you the weighty responsibility of raising our children to the glory of God, both for their salvation and for their vocation.  Child-rearing involves many things, but I am writing this letter to you about one topic.  May I speak with you about the education, or future education, of your child?

In education, it is good to have options.  Each child is unique.  What may be right for one child may not be right for another child, or even for the same child the following year.

In Michigan, we have four options—public school, charter school, private school, and home school.  Each option has its advantages and disadvantages.

The public school is free, has some excellent teachers, and excels in activities, but its environment is often ungodly and its curriculum is literally God-less, lacking the acknowledgement of God.  Some Christian students are able to shine and make it their mission field; many, however, struggle socially and morally.  And even if their integrity remains intact, their education lacks its foundation in the fear of God, which is “the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).  At the very least, it is a missed opportunity.  Sometimes, it is a tragedy.

Both charter schools and private schools allow more Christian content in their curriculum, but since charter schools are state-funded, I suspect the curriculum is limited to morality and lacks the authoritative teaching of the gospel.  Private schools require tuition payments, but this funding gives them the freedom to be explicitly religious—even biblical—in their content.  For some private schools, this freedom means weekly chapel and perhaps a Bible class.  In a thorough-going Christian school, a biblical worldview permeates all classes with the goals of worship and wisdom—knowing God for salvation and for all of life (2 Timothy 3:15-17).

Home school gives the most freedom.  Parents can teach their children whatever they want, using diverse methods such as unit study, so-called “unschooling,” or the classical trivium.  Perhaps the biggest advantage involves time together, with parents and children knowing each other better.  The biggest disadvantage is the burden of responsibility.  It all hangs on you!  As a result, I once heard some educators call homeschooling “no schooling,” due to parental delinquency.  Another risk involves social isolation.  Although often overblown, the risk does exist if the family itself is reclusive and if the children are not involved in a variety of social settings, such as community athletics, employment, and church involvement.  Done well, homeschooling gives young people a significant amount of interaction with a variety of adults, which can help the transition to adult responsibilities.

Which option would be the best for your child?

This is a decision you alone must make before the Lord; however, since decisions should be made with counsel, here are some thoughts for consideration.

First, while only some of us will home school, all of us must home educate.

As Christian parents, we must bring up our children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).  God commands it, and we owe it to them.  Primarily, this duty involves saturating our home with a godly example and with persistent instruction in the word of God, just as the Jews were taught in the Law to love God fully, to have His words on their own heart, and (only then) to teach these words diligently to their children (Deuteronomy 6:5-7).

As one of the pastors at Countryside, I urge you in the Lord to take home education seriously.  If your child is in a public or charter school, you will need extra diligence, both to prepare your child to be openly faithful to Christ and to supply what is lacking in his or her knowledge of God regarding the natural and social worlds.  I would be happy

to supply resources or to give counsel in this area, as would the other pastors.  Also, you should know that Michigan schools must allow up to two hours per week of released time for religious education.  Please consider dual enrollment in a theology class—something I can describe in more detail, if you are interested.  Again, as one of the pastors, I share the responsibility to equip you to do the work of the ministry in your own home (Ephesians 4:11-12).

Second, if you choose to home school, please consider how homeschooling changes as your child matures. 

Many families start well and then struggle.  The oldest child is thoroughly taught, when the younger siblings are napping and the curriculum is simple.  In time, however, the number and diversity of the children often burden the homeschooling mom with multiple tasks; consequently, children do more and more independent study.  Then comes high school, when the child yearns to be with peers and to be more independent.  The curriculum also gets harder, so online or video courses meet the need for a good presentation of material, but supply little interaction.

In my opinion, homeschooling is optimal in the grade school years, coupled with extracurricular activities in the community and at church.  In high school, parents should seriously consider incremental steps towards independence, such as outside employment and formal schooling.  Jesus Himself interacted with the temple teachers at age twelve, while He continued in submission to His parents (Luke 2:41-52).  Young men, in particular, need these steps; without them, young men can give their homeschooling moms increased grief in high school.

As a pastor, it gives me great pleasure to offer to you a fifth option.  You may not be aware that our church sponsors an educational option for high school, called Spring Branch Academy.  This blend of private school and home school meets two or three times per week for classroom interaction; the rest of the week remains free for homework, employment, socializing, and ministry.  Each year, five core classes are offered—math, science, language, theology, and humanities (history and literature).  These five classes cover the basic requirements for graduation; families add their own electives.  The academy is now in its fourth year, with over twenty students and thirteen families involved.

The curriculum is centered on the work of God through history.  Students begin with pagan Greece and trace the spread of Christianity in the West down through modern America.  Books and ideas are evaluated for their worldview in the light of biblical revelation.  Theology examines some of our culture’s foundational assumptions, including evolution and postmodern multiculturalism.  Theology also covers Scripture, God, the covenants and salvation, and trains students how to view their future vocation, finances, marriage, and parenting.  Even the math and science classes aim to give a vocabulary for understanding and expressing the glory of God in this world.  In each class, students have the opportunity to express their opinions and to ask their questions.

Will you consider your son or daughter for future enrollment?  The academy’s mixture of form and freedom has really helped students to manage their own lives—at first, a painful adjustment, but after a while, a settled habit of independence.  Interestingly, I have seen this process occur for students from both home-school and public-school backgrounds.  As a pastor, I have been so pleased to see students grow in the Lord and in maturity.  The Bible says, “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth” (Lamentations 3:27).  God be praised!

If you are interested in Spring Branch Academy, please visit our website at  It is our desire to serve you, so please contact us, if you think we can be of any help.

Thank you for reading.  May the Lord Jesus direct us all in this very important responsibility!

Pastor Bob Snyder

Expository Preaching Is Not Enough

“The Word of God is preached too often in a way that will not transform listeners because it fails to discriminate and fails to apply.”

—Joel Beeke, “The Lasting Power of Reformed Experiential Preaching”

This past summer, I participated in a conference on expository preaching, where principles of exposition were followed by models of expository preaching.  The aim was to expose the meaning of the text for the sake of our listeners.  In other words, to borrow lingo from Leadership Resources International, the main idea and intended response of the biblical passage must become the main idea and intended response of the sermon.  The strength of this method lies in its authority.  The listener can see for himself that the Bible actually makes the statement, not just the preacher.  Instead of a “truth balloon” suspended above the text—something true, but not in that text—the truth extends from the text.  The meaning is exposed.

Now, depending on the preacher, the particular text, and, of course, the heart of the listener, transformation may or may not result from an expository sermon.  Transformation occurs when the Holy Spirit Himself applies the meaning of a particular text to a particular person in a particular way.  The listener somehow senses that this text is for me and for this purpose.  In contrast, a general message, even when its meaning is faithfully derived and delivered, often fails to impress the listener with its particular importance.  At times, it might succeed—even as John Piper learned once in preaching Isaiah 6 without an application—but that is the exception, not the norm.  Most listeners need discrimination (specifying to whom the text speaks) and application (for what purpose).

The Sermon on the Mount definitely exhibits all three traits—exposition, discrimination, and application.  As exposition, the sermon explains the real meaning of the law and drives the commandment back to the heart.  As discrimination, the sermon tests for hypocrisy and ends with lots of twos—two gates, two roads, two destinations, and two builders.  As application, the sermon exhorts disciples to trust rather than to worry, and to pray rather than to judge.  What a sermon!  Even the book of Matthew presents it as a model of how Jesus preached when He went from village to village (Matthew 4:23).  And because the Spirit of Jesus Himself lives in us, it is not unreasonable to expect Spirit-filled preaching to resemble the preaching of Jesus Himself.

At least two apostolic texts remind us of the importance of this kind of preaching.  First, in his second letter, Peter tells his readers twice that he aims “to stir [them] up by way of reminder” (2 Peter 1:13; cf. 3:1).  Much of pulpit ministry is reminder—rarely, do we preachers tell forty-year veterans something new—but it is reminder with a purpose.  Somehow, we must stir them up, and this will require diligence (1:15, “I will make every effort”).  Second, in his open letter to a younger preacher, Paul tells us the goal of the pulpit: “The aim of our charge is love” (1 Timothy 1:5).  Love, however, does not arise automatically from hearing the text; on the contrary, love “issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1:5; cf. 2 Peter 1:5-7).  All of this involves discrimination and application.  In other words, the text must be closely applied to matters of purity, guilt, and sincerity.

Knowing how the text applies involves more than exegetical skill and doctrinal formulation.  Somehow, the preacher himself must live out the text, wrestling with its implications and submitting to its promises in a real-life context.  By necessity, the preacher is part of the equation of success: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.  Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the preacher himself continually needs wisdom from the sacred text for ultimate salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15).  The pulpit ministry needs wisdom and wisdom involves experience in applying the text personally.

Therefore, if these premises are true, we need more than expository preaching.  We also need insight into living that comes from applying to our experiences the broad scope of Scripture—not just one paragraph at a time, in piecemeal fashion.  Yes, we can preach from a particular passage—perhaps, we even should preach from a particular passage—but the application will draw from the broad wisdom of Scripture learned through the rich experience of endured trials of faith and discerning love.  The Puritans called such preaching experimental, because it involves “examining experience in the light of the teaching of the Word of God” (Beeke).  In modern times, we would more likely call it experiential.  Perhaps we could combine all the words into one statement:

We need preaching that is expository, experimental, and experiential—all three.

As expository preaching, the sermon will expose the main idea and intended response of the original text.  As experimental preaching, the sermon will test listeners and their behavior, leading to proper identification and classification.  As experiential preaching, the sermon will apply the text to the heart and life of the listeners in such a way that making a choice is unmistakable and believers are stirred up unto love and good deeds.  In an Old Testament framework, these three traits of good preaching correspond well to knowledge, discernment, and wisdom.  In a New Testament framework, these three traits correspond well to faith, hope, and love.  The first set has the preacher in mind; the second, his listeners.  Expository, experimental, and experiential preaching.  That is what we need in our pulpits today.

Source: Beeke, Joel. Puritan Reformed Spirituality. Webster, NY: Evangelical Press USA, 2006 [2004], 428, 427.

Contextualizing the Gospel

The idea of contextualizing the gospel is not new to me.  In his book Center Church, Timothy Keller cites a wonderful example of contextualization from the gospel narratives.  In Matthew, the sower casts his mustard seed in a “field” (Mt 13:31); in Luke, the seed is sown in a “garden” (Lk 13:19); and in Mark, the seed is cast on the “ground” (Mk 4:31).  According to scholar Craig Blomberg, the Jews grew mustard on the farm, while the Mediterranean Greeks grew mustard in gardens.  Both Matthew and Luke were apparently contextualizing the generic wording of Jesus (“ground”) for their specific audiences, so that they received the “same impact as the original audience” (Keller 95).

When I site this example with college students, I often ask them, “What did Jesus actually say—field, garden, or ground?”  The answer, of course, is none of the above.  Jesus spoke in Aramaic and all those words from the gospel narratives are Greek words.  Yes, the New Testament has accurate translation; and yes, the ipsissima vox of Jesus is present; but there is also cultural flexibility for different audiences, even if that meant that Jesus spoke the same parable at different times using different words and the gospel writers chose which version best suited their purpose. 

The point to learn here is that the Gospel message—and even its very narrative—is not language-bound or culture-bound.  While given to us in words, even inspired words, both from the lips of Jesus in Aramaic and from the gospel writers themselves, the gospel message itself is bigger than words.  The transcendence of the gospel is necessary for the mission of the gospel.  Jesus Christ is for all peoples and all languages.  Even the inspired writings of the New Testament bear witness to this universal scope and transcultural ability of the gospel, which will ultimately triumph.

Surprisingly, this contextualizing flexibility is also found in the New Testament epistles.  The apostle Paul, missionary to the Gentile par excellence, tailored his message for different thought worlds.  We definitely see this practice in the book of Acts, where Paul speaks narratively in the Jewish synagogue but dialectically on Mars Hill; but until recently, I had not noticed the same thing happening in his letters.  Please consider the following examples.

When the Judaizers were troubling the pagan converts from Galatia, Paul penned the letter to the Galatians.  The style and emphases reflect the Jewish concerns for law, covenant, history, and righteousness.  Later, Paul seems to have generalized this approach in writing a systematic and logical gospel to the Jewish-and-Gentile church at Rome.  Here we have a specific letter (Galatians) followed by a generalized treatment of the same gospel (Romans), written in the same thought world or system of symbols.

Similarly, late in Paul’s career, he heard from Epaphras that the small church planted by this faithful pastor was troubled with Gnostic teachings about cosmic layers of deities in contrast to the one Christ, Jesus the Lord.  In writing the letter to the Colossians, Paul appears to have utilized some Gnostic language of invisible powers to present “the cosmic Christ” (as one book, When Helping Hurts, labels Him).  As with Galatians and Romans, Paul then took this specific letter of Colossians and generalized it into the letter of Ephesians, which may have been a circular letter (the opening address has some manuscript variants).  What flexibility!  Given two different thought worlds confronting the church—the Jewish world of the Judaizers and the pagan world of the Gnostics—Paul was enabled in the Spirit to articulate the same gospel using two different sets of language symbols.  In fact, and this may be the most remarkable trait here, the same author accomplished this feat, and even systematized or generalized the message, but without changing the gospel one bit.  Again, this flexibility in the gospel wording is necessary for the gospel mission, because it will triumph in all languages with all their thought worlds.

These examples from the New Testament challenge us to preach better.  As pastors, do we know what thought worlds are troubling our people?  Can we articulate the gospel using the language of those thought worlds?  The Reformers did.  The Bible does not speak of merit, but the Roman Catholics certainly did in the era of Trent, especially when they applied the “extra credit” from the treasury of the saints to the release of temporal punishment through indulgences.  Ironically, such a transaction is a pure imputation; therefore, the Reformers could assert that we are saved eternally through the imputation of the merits of Christ.  This is not the language of the New Testament, but it is the fundamental message of the New Testament gospel.  We have an exciting challenge awaiting us in the pulpit this Sunday morning!

East versus West (Part 2)

In preparing for the trip to Singapore, I read a recommended book on cross-cultural missions.  Wisely, the author warned of many differences between cultures, often between the West (in writing to a North American audience) and the rest of the world.  Among the differences, two stand out for discussion. 

First, the West has a linear view of life more than the East.  Interestingly, Charles Norris Cochrane, in his book Christianity and Classical Culture,points out that the West used to have a very cyclical view of history, viewed either as a pattern of repeated history or very literally as a repetition of events.  Christianity, however, especially seen in Augustine’s City of God, despised this view and presented the biblical view of historical progression, based on prophetic Scripture.  Even if this has now been twisted in the West into a cult of progression or a tyranny of efficiency, its roots are nonetheless Christian in nature.  Therefore, a missionary should not be ashamed of teaching a linear view of history as if it were merely western—it is biblical.

Second, regarding the famous individualism of the West versus the collectivism of the East, certainly both sides could claim some aspect of biblical worldview.  The church is a collective, but conversion is individualistic.  As Luther quipped, just as a person must die alone, so each must have his own faith—and woe to the one who dies without faith!  The New Covenant, as well, is very individualistic, in comparison to the tribal emphasis of the Old Covenant (Jeremiah 31:27-34), as delineated recently by Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum in their large book, Kingdom through Covenant.  And if Cochrane is correct, Christianity contributed much to the development of individual personality in the West, both through its emphasis on the persons of the Trinity and its debates over free will.  The residue effects of this emphasis lingered through the Second World War, when a submarine came to the rescue of one “flyboy” downed at Chichi Jima, the future president of the United States, George H. W. Bush.  As told by a Japanese eyewitness years later, Japan would have never sent a submarine after one pilot (see James Bradley, Flyboys).

Therefore, two tasks present themselves.  First, I would like to know the relationship between Christianity and classical culture.  In some sense, the relationship between Christianity and classical culture is the key to understanding the West, just as the relationship between the Old Testament and New Testament is the key to understanding the Bible.  Second, for my own sake—since I live in the West—and for the sake of missions, I would like to know what aspects of western culture are due to Christianity and then to discern how these aspects have been distorted and perverted in modern times due to secularism.  Without this discernment, missions will be hampered by the bald objection, “You are imposing your western ways on the rest of the world.”  Perhaps we are, but if I can say that these aspects are biblical and that’s why they are now also western, I will have my defense.

Note: In addition to linear history, free will, and personality, Christianity also brought to western culture an emphasis on compassion in contrast to Caesar’s clemency (see Peter G. Bolt, The Cross from a Distance).  If I remember correctly, this emphasis on mercy was one aspect of Christianity that Nietzsche hated in his desire to bring the West back to pagan strength.  Herbert Schlossberg reports that both Arnold Toynbee and Christopher Dawson regarded this western incorporation of paganism as a sign of cultural decay (Idols for Destruction, p. 269).  Regarding free will, Thomistic scholar Etienne Gilson asserted, “It remains a fact that Aristotle spoke neither of liberty nor of free will…Among Christians, on the contrary, and especially among the Latins, liberty at once comes to the forefront” (The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, trans. A H. C. Downes [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936], 307).  Gilson attributes the rise of debates over liberty of exercise to the “moral preoccupation” of Christians (ibid., 308).

East versus West (Part 1)

“You are imposing your western ways on the East!”

This charge of imperialism was recently waged against my colleague, after we returned from training Asian pastors in expository preaching.  It was not a surprise.  In fact, before I spoke, I myself had been thinking, “How can I teach pastors how to preach, when I have such a little idea of their cultural context?”

My personal response to my own question was twofold.  Subsequent reflection has added a third idea about East and West in general.

First, I believe in parity in the body of Christ.  As fellow disciples of Jesus Christ, we have only “one teacher” and we are “all brothers” (Mt 23:8).  As one body with many members, the church universal and local has a diversity of gifts, spread unevenly by the Spirit according to His will, in order that we would be mutually interdependent on one another.  “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor 12:21).  We each bring our special gifts to share.  And even if we were as gifted in teaching and preaching as the apostle Paul himself, eager to “impart…some spiritual gift to strengthen” other believers, we could still purpose in all honesty “that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:11-12).

In general, while the West may offer training in academics, the East offers experience in persecution.  Each set of gifts can build faith, if offered in love.  Both need each other.  And both should respect each other heartily.  The book When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, was a big encouragement to me in this perspective.

Second, I believe that the Bible is the common property and heritage of all Christians.  If I do not know a culture, at least I know the Bible and can teach the Bible.  After all, as Gentiles, we have all been “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [our] forefathers” (1 Pt 1:18) and have brought into the household of God with Abraham—the “father of many nations”—as our father (Rom 4:11, 16-17).  This is not to say, however, that we should adopt Jewish customs, any more than a believing, ethnic Jew today should cling to outdated customs of the Old Covenant.  While the gospel allows for cultural diversity held in faith and love (Rom 14), the ideal is actually a cultural flexibility to be “all things to all people” for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor 12:22).  Another book encouraged me greatly in this perspective: Conscience, by Andrew David Naselli and J. D. Crowley.

Now, with regard to expository preaching specifically, we do have to be careful.  As a concept, expository preaching—to expose the meaning of the text in a sermon (cf. Ps 119:130)—is non-negotiable.  The New Testament commands regarding gifts, “Whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Pt 4:10-11).  A pastor must “preach the word,” a message based (in context) on the inspired and profitable Scriptures, the sacred writings “able to make [one] wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15-4:2).  In its basic idea, this is what expository preaching does.  The main idea of the sermon is the main idea of the text.

As commonly practiced, however, the concept is often narrowed to a particular method of verse-by-verse exposition through a book of the Bible.  Personally, I believe that any text, of any size and in any order, if handled rightly and in context, can provide the basis of an expository message.  Those preachers, however, like C. H. Spurgeon, who rely on the textual sermon should probably broaden their context at times to preach whole books in one message, otherwise the congregation will become familiar with a lot of trees but never the forest.  Similarly, those preachers, like D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who rely a lot of verse-by-verse exposition through a book should be wary of misapplying books (especially Hebrews, as if the congregation was dull and drifting), keeping application far off in the future (getting to Ephesians 4 next year), and lacking theological depth (there are few chapters on the Trinity).  A lack of variety often accompanies these pulpits and one searches in vain throughout the New Testament to find such an approach in the epistles.  The closest may be the series of expositions from the messianic Psalms in the book of Hebrews.

Perhaps the book of Acts is most helpful.  The same apostle—the apostle Paul—varied his approach based on his audience, preaching narratively in the Jewish synagogue and discursively on Mar’s Hill to the Gentiles (Acts 17).  In both approaches, Paul preached Christ.  Evangelism, of course, differs from pulpit ministry, but we see again the principle of cultural flexibility.  Within the church, however, the writings of Luke clearly show that the word of God is the authority.  Even arguments from experience, such as the resurrection of Christ (Luke 24) or the conversion of the Gentiles (Acts 10-11, 15), were ultimately resolved through recourse to the word of God.  The Bible is the authority.  Its message must be preached.

Therefore, in addressing an audience of Philippine pastors, I could not presume to understand their cultural context, but I could appeal to our common roots.  As Gentiles, we both have to relinquish our “futile ways inherited from [our] forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18) and now accept Abraham—the father of many nations—as our heritage.  Graciously, we have been incorporated into the household of God and are reckoned Jews (Galatians 3:29)—but as Romans 14 shows, this does not remove the need for discernment, because many aspects of Jewish culture were removed by the Cross and are tolerated as acceptable differences under the gospel.

Our American cities are losing their American identity—perhaps not good for America, but good for the gospel.  A secular globalism resembles the first century.  Chinese communism prepared the ground for the gospel.  We have the only true world-religion—Christianity is transcultural.

Singapore and Western Culture

How much should the Chinese in Singapore retain of their ancient culture?  As an immigrant population on the Malaysian peninsula, earlier arrivals—the Peranakan—have often retained their ancestral religion.  On a recent visit, I saw paper money being burned for ancestors to use in the netherworld.  “Hell notes,” said one of my hosts.  And yet, according to another host, when Chinese from mainland China visit, they dismiss these ancestral ways as outdated.  “A result of communism,” I was told.  What should I think about this loss of religion?

For one, Singapore is a unique place.  Situated between the Free West and the Communist East, the small nation has made itself the banking capital of Asia and the host of many multinational corporations.  As a democratic socialist state, it politically embraces both the socialism of the East and the democracy of the West.  Its time zone is actually one hour off the true time, in order to align with Hong Kong.  Having gone from an underdeveloped nation to a developed nation within one generation of its birth in 1965, Singapore in one sense epitomizes the secular globalization of many modern cities.  Like the Chinese from mainland China or many urbanites in America, the city in its orientation is very secular—literally, of this age.

The secularism strikes me as a Western encroachment on the East.  The founders of the nation were British trained—the city was founded in 1819 as a British colony by Stamford Raffles—and even today, the top graduates are often sent, government-paid, to study at “Oxbridge” in England or Ivy League schools in America.  Are East and West drawing closer together, or is the West “winning” over the East?

Posing the question this way is very Gentile-like.  The myth of East and West goes back at least to Herodotus, the so-called “father of history,” who pictured the Persian invasions of Greece as the balancing corrective of an east-versus-west pendulum.  Had he lived to see Alexander the Great, Herodotus may have pictured the pendulum in its opposite extreme.  Such a view of history is very Gentile-centered and arrogant.  In the apostle Paul’s inspired letter to Christians in the capital of the Roman Empire, the apostle Paul warned Gentile believers three times not to be arrogant toward the Jews, as if God had forgotten His chosen ethnic people (Romans 11).  History is truly a story of “the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16); and it will culminate with the salvation of the Jews (Romans 11:25-26).  Here is the fundamental ethnic polarity.

The church is composed of both Jews and Gentiles.  Among the Gentiles, the church incorporates both East and West.  In the providence of God, Christianity first succeeded in the Gentile West but failed in the Gentile East, as witnessed by the Sigan-Fu Stone, an over nine-foot-high slab of black limestone, discovered early in the seventeenth century.  The stone, set up in A.D. 781, told of the missionary monk from Syria, known to the Chinese as A-lo-pen, who brought a Nestorian gospel to northwest China in the early eighth century, but the emperors suppressed all testimony and worship in Jesus’ name (as told in Sinclair Ferguson, In the Year of Our Lord). In contrast, the Gentile West became nominally Christian under Constantine and then very Christianized in the early Middle Ages, even among the Germanic barbarians.  According to Charles Norris Cochrane, in his excellent book Christianity and Classical Culture, the gospel changed the way Westerners thought, especially in the areas of personality (an emphasis on the individual’s will) and history (an emphasis on linear progression).  Therefore, when a person complains that western missionaries are imposing their “western” ways on the East or on other cultures, I would like to know whether the opposition is due to West-versus-East, a very Gentile-centered question, or Christian-versus-pagan, a very Christian question.

Discerningly, how much of Western culture is due to Christianity?  And even among those elements, how have they been perverted due to current secularism?

As Gentiles, both East and West should approach each other with parity—equally open to criticism and equally eager to speak the truth in love.  Because the biblical culture is foreign to both of us, neither side should consider it with exclusive ownership, as if there is a giving-and-receiving relationship here (Romans 1:14).  Even if the West has had the gospel longer, western culture has perverted and distorted its biblical heritage, so that it needs correction all over again.


Singapore.  The Lion City.  A tiny island-nation, just thirty-one miles east-to-west and seventeen miles north-to-south—less than half the size of the county I now live in—and yet the home of over five million people.

Understandably, the city is very vertical.  When I visited the city, I walked on bridges that connected seven fifty-story high-rise apartment buildings.  Bridges were on the twenty-fifth floor and fiftieth floor.  In contrast, the highest building in Minneapolis, the big city of my home state, stands only fifty-three stories tall!  It was dizzying to walk open-air on the fiftieth floor and look down on a jogger on the twenty-fifth floor.

The city is very green.  Plants have been imported from tropical regions all over the world.  In the memoirs of the founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, it was told that about 8000 plants were imported and about 2000 survived.  Buildings often have trees on lofty floors in open air.  Of course, the island also has some natural habitat, complete with monkeys and other wildlife.  At the Singapore Quarry, a place with true cliffs across a small like, I saw a white-bellied sea eagle flying and a monitor lizard swimming.  I even saw many of the “houseplants” of my youth! 

The city is also quite clean.  Even chewing gum is illegal, as is spitting—apparently, a cultural habit of the Chinese.  And although it is very humid, situated on the equator at sea level, Singaporeans often find their “air-con” nearby.

The city is also safe.  On the weekend of National Day, when schools were off the next day, I saw children riding around on bikes or scooters in public places at ten at night.  Women can walk alone down the street.  The reason?  Cameras are everywhere—for example, on every floor of government-built high rises, which comprise eighty percent of the housing.  The promise is that within twenty-four hours, a criminal would be caught.  Sentencing is swift.  Trial by jury has been eliminated, I believe, for all crimes except murder.  Even having drugs brings the death sentence.  And lesser crimes are still punished by whipping (“caning”).

But the city is not free.  The joke, only half in jest, goes, “Singapore is a fine city.  You can be fined for anything.”  The price of bringing a so-called “third-world” city to first-world status within one generation was the loss of freedom.  One shanty town first had roads built through it, then the residents were moved to government-built housing.  One family, for ten years, still kept chickens in their apartment “flat”, with the children bringing in grubs every day for feed.  This scene epitomizes for me the abruptness of the change, which did not allow time for much of the populace to adjust culturally.  Street vendors were also moved into food courts, where each vendor received a storage-shed area with a pull-down door for preparing food.  I found the food well-made and relatively cheap, with roasted duck on rice and a bowl of soup costing less than five Singaporean dollars.

Apparently, the churches are also monitored.  An unidentified man may visit a service with a camera and take pictures of the premises.  Words against other religions are outlawed.  The reason?  With an ethnically-diverse population inhabiting a tiny island together, Singapore is very jealous to maintain a sense of national unity.  Not unlike America at its founding, Singapore found itself in a volatile situation with people identifying more with their subgroup than the nation.  Tensions especially occurred over ethnicity and religion.  The native Malays—honored with the national language, although English is the functional language (except in the military)—are Muslim, but a minority.  Also present are Hindus of Indian origin.  The entire population is three-fourth Chinese, speaking Mandarin—and each housing development maintains this same distribution, so as to prevent (for example) Muslim neighborhoods.  Shrewdly, the national police are actually from Nepal and live separately and secretly, until an altercation ensues, in which case none of the major ethnicities can blame the other for the use of police force.

The Muslim presence is interesting.  Surrounded by Malaysia and Indonesia, both Muslim nations, Singapore appears tiny and vulnerable.  When the British were pulling out their forces around 1970, Singapore solicited and received help from the Israelis—also surrounded by Muslim nations, but even more hostile—whom they called “Mexicans”.  Even today, a Singaporean can receive a separate passport to go to Israel, so that visits there are not seen by the neighboring Muslim nations.  A clever nation indeed.

In readying the nation for battle, Singapore not only developed its military arsenal, it also encouraged its populace to own their own home—often a government-built flat purchased with government loans—to build up the will to defend the nation.  Each young man also does two years of “national service” in the military.  Apparently, missiles in Malaysia (just to the north) are pointed at Singapore, so that every high-rise flat has its own bomb shelter.  Of course, attacking Singapore would draw ire from many nations who have a vested interest, even tall skyscrapers, in Singapore—a point not left unnoticed by my host.

The city owes its origins to its location.  On the famed Straits of Melaka, one of the world’s true bottlenecks for shipping, it is a strategic port—the reason that Great Britain established a colony there in 1819 under Stamford Raffles.  Standing on the eastern shore on my last day in Singapore, I counted seventy ships anchored in the sea.  Truly an awesome sight!

The price of quick prosperity has been taken in the area of freedom.  In one sense, the government breaks my paradigms.  It is democratic and socialist.  Of course, for all practical purposes, there has only been one party (the PAP) in its fifty-four years, so voting can have a hollow ring.  Although not a “benevolent dictatorship,” because dictators are not truly up for election, Singapore is (as one citizen described it) a “nanny state.”  The socialism is real.  The government provides most services and has solicited much business—and yet, this socialism has not created a welfare state.  Citizens of Singapore, both men and women, work.  To not work, such as a being a stay-at-home mom, would be countercultural.  The nation strongly pushes its economy forward through education and government incentives.

The God of Yosemite

Recently, I was told that riding a motorcycle into Yosemite Valley in California can be a philosophical experience.  On your left is El Capitan, one of the world’s largest granite cliffs, rising off the valley floor to a height of three thousand feet—truly, a “rock” in the old Hebrew sense of the phrase.  On the far end and to your right is Half Dome, with a sheer face on its left and the hint of an ancient volcano on its rounded remains.  In between are Yosemite Falls and Bridal Veil Falls and other wonders that impress the soul with a sense of grandeur—a small human in a tight and towering valley of beauty.  Surely such beauty points to a Maker yet more beautiful!

Or does it?  When I was told about the beauty of the valley, an off-handed remark reminded me of its glacial beginnings.  Scoured granite required a mighty force and bears witness to a violent past.  Even the granite itself—especially Half Dome—bears witness to a volcanic past.  Not necessarily idyllic, to say the least.

What then should we make of such beautiful grandeur after such a violent and volcanic past?  Normally, I might have taken a direct line of inference from the size and beauty of the valley to the power and wisdom of God, as if I were seeing the finished painting of the Artist’s original canvas.  But the valley was not part of God’s original creation.  Indeed, before the volcanoes and violence, there was no valley.  Yosemite Valley is not the result of God’s original creation, but rather the result of His judgment.  It is not the result of goodness, but of wrath.  And yet, it is so beautiful.  And that is the mystery.

This mystery is also seen in the Cross.  A bloodied man on the ancient wood is not a picture of beauty, and yet the church has loved this picture for centuries—not because the violence itself is beautiful, but because the hidden love of bearing our sin voluntarily and burying our sin eternally is beautiful.  And the results are bountiful.  Having been justified through faith by the blood of Christ, we now have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1, 9).  A peaceful river flows at the bottom of a majestic canyon.

Ironically, when we see the beauty of creation, we often directly infer from it the power and wisdom of God, as if such beauty came directly from the hand of creation rather than through the violence of judgment.  So too, when we see the Cross, we may see the love of Christ displayed in self-sacrifice, but miss the divine Judgment on our sin, which scours through the granite justice of God and opens for us a peaceful way into His holy presence.  In both pictures, the power and wisdom of God are displayed in His grace making judgment a means for peace and beauty.  Truly, when Christ is preached, those who are called of God see “the power of God and the wisdom of God” in that bloodied “Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24; 2:8).  Do you?

Deuteronomy – Strength Rejoices in the Challenge (and Fails)

Three times the apostle Paul says that the Law was added to increase sinning.

Now let that statement settle in.  To increase sinning.  Not stop it.  And added.  As if tacked-on to God’s program.

Really, the Old Testament and New Testament would have matched up well simply as Promise and Gospel.  In the Old Testament, God promised to bless the world; and in the New Testament, we have the gospel—the good news that God is now fulfilling His promises through the person and work of His Son Jesus Christ.  Promise, then Gospel.  However, over four hundred years after the Promise and well before the Son arrived, God added the Law, which increased our guilt by increasing our sinning (Galatians 3:17-24).  Why would God do that?  And how fair would that be to the original recipients of the Law?

Suppose you want to help a toddler tie his shoe.  Instead of letting you, he insists, “No, I do it!”  With a little roll of the eyes, you let him—only knowing that he will fail and that you will eventually need to help him.  Sometimes a human being needs to learn of his inability through trying.

God did just that.  He let us try to be good.  And instead of becoming good, we became worse.  “Our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death” and “through the commandment [sin] became sinful beyond measure” (Romans 7:4, 11).  The Law increases sin.  Not that the Law itself is bad—as with the toddler, the command is good—but the Law stirs up pride and tempts our lusts, and thus, by means of a good thing producing something bad, we learn that we must be the problem.  Something is wrong with us.  That something is called Sin.  It dwells in us and enslaves us, but we are often left unaware of its dominance until a command is given and we prove ourselves utterly incapable of doing good.  “Through the Law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).  And through the Law comes our appreciation for the gift of forgiveness and life in Christ.

Interestingly, God knew this would happen.  God knew His people would fail.  After Moses had given his pep talk that is now recorded in the first thirty chapters of Deuteronomy, God rolled His eyes and told Moses, “They will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant” (Deuteronomy 31:20).  The Law was never added as a means of life.  Theoretically, it would lead to life, if we would obey.  But we will not.  We will fail.

It is as if God enrolled us in a course and then told us on the first day, “No one will pass.”  We may ask, “Why am I taking this course?”  But learning can happen through failure, and strength is humiliated in the challenge.  Only then will some of us seek Christ.

Psalm 22 – The Cry of Dereliction

After three hours of midday darkness, the crowds heard the thunderous words of Jesus, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (Mark 15:34).  Some standing there misunderstood the Aramaic Eloi as a call for Elijah.  Even today, I wonder how well we understand the words, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  We often sing how “the Father turned His face away,” with “God estranged from God,” and yet the original psalm has the Messiah Himself singing how God has not “hidden His face” from the afflicted Messiah (Psalm 22:24; cf. Hebrews 2:12).  How can this be?  What is the meaning of this so-called cry of dereliction?

According to New Testament scholar Peter Bolt, modern theologians often sidestep the difficulty of Jesus’ cry.  Perhaps He felt abandoned by God, but was not.  Perhaps Jesus despaired at “human unresponsiveness” but remained optimistic about God’s responsiveness.  According to Schleiermacher, the father of liberalism, Jesus was calmly and cheerfully looking forward to His departure.  And yes, if Jesus has the rest of the psalm in mind, which would not be far-fetched for a quote (cf. John 10:34 and Psalm 82:6), He knows deliverance is coming—but at the beginning of the psalm, God is distant: “Far from My deliverance are the words of My groaning” (Psalm 22:1b).

This idea of distance occurs strategically in Psalm 22, with the word “far” dividing it neatly into three sections—past (vv. 1-10), present (vv. 11-18), and future (vv. 19-31), with time measured from the moment of the cross.  Regarding the past, just as the fathers trusted in God and were delivered, so the Messiah has trusted in God from birth.  Why then is He not delivered as well?  Regarding the present, He is surrounded by bulls and dogs, which apparently depict the Jewish leaders and the Roman soldiers, respectively.  The bulls mock Him, but the dogs have “pierced [His] hands and [His] feet” (v. 16).  They even divide His garments and cast lots for His clothing—a clear reference to the cross (v. 18; cf. Mark 15:24).  Again, we ask, where is God?  Why has He abandoned this One who is trusting in Him?  Then, just when we are left crying out with the Messiah, “Be not far off,” in statements that recount the bulls and the dogs, we hear Him announce, “You answered Me!” (vv. 19-21).  This English sentence is a single word in Hebrew and it is abrupt.  The rest of the psalm flows in exuberantly cheerful praise.  Truly, the sun has come out again!

In its context, what does this cry of dereliction mean?  Let us first consider its form and then its content.

First, in form, the cry is more of a protest than a question.  Similar in form to Acts 9:4, where Jesus says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” the cry acknowledges an external fact, but protests that there is no good reason for the fact.  Just as Job could find no reason in himself for the pain that he gratuitously experienced, so also here, the Messiah can find no reason in Himself for the distance and unresponsiveness He is experiencing.  After all, He has always trusted in God.  There is no good reason why He, of all people, should find God distant.

But wait a minutewe know the reason why Jesus suffered.  It was sin—our sin—that turned the Father’s face away!  In racing too quickly to the theological meaning, we miss the historical point.  Jesus Himself tells us to learn this lesson from the cross: “[God] has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has he hidden His face from him; but when he cried to Him for help, He heard” (v. 24).  Just as Job thought, due to his outward circumstances, that God was angry with him, when God was actually proud of Job, so we too must not conclude by God’s delay in answering the Messiah that God was somehow angry with Him personally or displeased.  God did not despise Him nor hide His face from the Messiah in His time of need.  On the contrary, God answered Him (v. 21).  And when we bear our cross, we too will need to recount this lesson and take it to heart.

All this, of course, still leaves the cry of protest unanswered.  Why did God abandon the Messiah?  As a protest, it is so human.  He asks, Why?  Is this not how we often respond in our grief—with a “why” question—albeit more with accusation than with trust?  Truly, the Messiah can sympathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 2:18; 4:15).  And this similarity, this solidarity, leads us to our second point regarding its content.  My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? is the cry of a human being to His God.  The cry of Golgotha is far different than the cry of Gethsemane, when Jesus prayed, “Abba!  Father!” (Mark 14:36).  Yes, the divine person of the Son is the same in both locations, but we should not imagine any disruption in the Trinity during the sufferings of Jesus on the cross.  Please bear with me as I recount a few things with you.

According to the gospel narrative, Jesus definitely experienced the wrath of God on the cross.  Peter Bolt detects in the gospel of Mark the following signs of God’s wrath: mockery (Psalms 22:6-8; 89:38-41), darkness (Deuteronomy 28:29; Isaiah 59:10), a cup and a baptism (Psalm 69), and crucifixion itself (Deuteronomy 21:23; cf. Galatians 3:13).  Even the opening of Psalm 22 speaks of God being distant and unresponsive to the Messiah’s roaring—a literal translation from the Hebrew (v. 1).  Both by day and by night, the cry is unanswered (v. 2).  Could this be a reference to both the hours of darkness, a midday night, along with the daylight that followed, when Jesus cried out twice “with a loud voice” (Mark 15:34, 37)?  So unusual was this loudness, apparently, that the Roman centurion concluded from “the way [Jesus] breathed His last” that “this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).  In crucifixion, breathing is labored.  The victim must push up to exhale—hence, breaking the legs would lead to death by suffocation.  This fact makes Jesus’ roaring even more remarkable!  Jesus loudly and believingly protested the divine distance in the midst of divine judgment.

In pondering this scene, we must not conclude that the Father was somehow angry with His Son personally, as if His eyes were too pure to behold His face.  On the contrary, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself through making Him who knew no sin to be sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:19, 21).  If the Father, because He is God, could not look at the Son bearing sin, then how could the Son Himself, also as God, bear it?  Surely, the Father and the Son were both working together to punish our sin on the cross.  Please note this union in our redemption.  If the Father delivered up His Son to crucifixion, so also the Son delivered up Himself (Romans 8:32; Galatians 2:20; cf. Titus 2:14).  If the Father was pleased to crush the Messiah due to our sin, so also the Messiah was pleased to render Himself as a guilt offering, which implies death (Isaiah 53:10).  If the Father loved us and sent His Son as a propitiation for our sin, so also the Son loved us and laid down His life for us (1 John 4:10; John 15:12-13).  It is an old theological adage that there is no division in the Godhead regarding any of His works done outside of Himself (ad extra).  The triune God is wholly united in all His works—the three Persons operate in perfect unity and union (cf. John 10:30).  Therefore, we must not imagine any disunity between God the Father and God the Son during the dark horrors of the cross.  Both the Father and the Son were punishing our sin in Christ.  Yes, the divine Jesus spoke to His Father in the cry of dereliction, but He addressed Him as “My God,” not “My Father.”  God was punishing human sin in the man Christ Jesus.

As Christians, it can become tempting for us to imagine that somehow the Father alone needed to be placated in His anger towards us, and the loving Jesus stood in the gap to represent us before the angry God.  In his excellent book, The Whole Christ, theologian-pastor Sinclair Ferguson rightly notes that this image of the Father needs to change.  Jesus said, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9).  As both the Word and Image of God, Jesus perfectly explains the invisible God to us on our level, in human terms (John 1:18).  Yes, the Father displays wrath towards our sin, but so does the Messiah, as the psalms rightly warn us (e.g. Psalm 2:12).  And yes, the Messiah stepped in the gap for us, but the Father sent Him in love to be our Mediator and propitiation.  We should then fear and love both the Father and the Son in power of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Them both (cf. John 14:17, 23).  We should not imagine any division between the Father and Son during the cross.

Having considered then both the form and the content of the cry of dereliction, let us face its force head on.  There is no reason in the Messiah Himself for this divine distance.  Later, we learn that His God had not hidden His face nor despised His suffering Servant.  The reason for the distance lay elsewhere.  Again, why did God abandon the Messiah on the cross?  Interestingly, Psalm 22 gives no answer to that question.  In Mark, however, as pointed out to me recently by one of our small group members, the text simply says that Jesus’ last breath immediately preceded “the veil of the temple [being] torn in two from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37-38).  Surely, this timing is significant.  The barrier between God and men—might we say the distance?—has been permanently destroyed by none other than God Himself, and the only reason lying close at hand for this permanent change in access involves the death of the Messiah.  If by the inspired text we hear “Why?” then by that same text we see why—a “new and living way” has been opened to us “through the veil, that it, His flesh” (Hebrews 10:20).  Hallelujah for the cross!

Sources: Peter G. Bolt, The Cross from a Distance: Atonement in Mark’s Gospel, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 116-45; Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).