Understanding the Vitality of the Letters of the New Testament

Paul writing his letters
Often times we open up the New Testament and read one of the letters thinking that Paul (or Peter, etc) wanted to write a theological pamphlet and send it to whoever would read. Maybe that day Paul was interested in atonement or communion or some other doctrine. So he got to writing his essay, put it in an envelope, and headed to his nearest post office.

While the authors certainly want to be clear on these deeply theological issues, what prompted the letters was very different.

Jesus Christ came to live among a fallen people. He revealed himself to be the Son of God who was ushering in the Kingdom. Jesus performed miracles and taught about new ways of living. He came fulfilling the law and the prophets. Then he went to the cross. Jesus died and then was raised on the third day and continued to open up his disciples minds to understand the Scriptures and how they relate to him. After forty days Jesus ascended to Heaven and gifted his people with the Holy Spirit.

Those early believers, if they truly believed this, must have had questions. It was a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles who wondered what practices of the Old Testament should continue? In what ways should new believers be brought into the community? How did Jesus fulfill the law–did he end it or make it more demanding? What does God want me to do? What if we aren’t good enough and sin? How do I treat others who sin against me? What does the future hold? Is Jesus coming back and if so, when? If Jesus has defeated sin and death why are people still dying? If Jesus has authority over all powers why do we still suffer? How do we relate to those who are making us suffer? What is our purpose?

When you start to understand the context of the early church the letters that were written to them become more energized. The letters weren’t textbooks. They were compassionately written messages to churches needing help and guidance. They were life-giving.

As you read them I hope you see how vital they were and how vital they still can be for the church, a church always in need of being reformed according to our Scripture.

Jesus Christ and the Big Reveal

The Sixth Sense

The movie the Sixth Sense is about a psychologist, Malcolm Crowe, who is trying to help a boy who can see and talk to dead people. It is a standard supernatural thriller, but what makes the movie so powerful is that at the end it is revealed that Crowe has himself been dead the whole time.[1] It is a fantastically surprising ending to the movie and it makes you want to go back and watch again. When I first saw it, I also wanted to take others to the movie so I could see their faces when they figured it out. People’s eyes would get big and their jaws would drop as their mind would try to immediately reprocess the story in light of the stunning reveal.

In watching the movie again you could go back and see all the clues that were there earlier in the movie. Without knowing that Crowe was dead, they hadn’t meant anything to you. But in light of how the story ends, it all seems so perfectly obvious.

As you read the gospels do you get the sense that this is God’s great revealing? God comes to us in Jesus Christ and lives a fully human life in our midst. Jesus reveals God to us and even says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”[2] As if this isn’t already too much for some to handle, Jesus then lives a life that people would never have expected the Messiah to live. Jesus would eventually do what no one ever saw coming, he submitted himself and suffered a criminal’s death on the cross. People, including his closest disciples, were distraught and in despair. Even though Christ had told them what was to come–what you might even call clues–they could not anticipate that God would come among them and then be crucified.

After three confusing days Jesus is raised. He comes and continues to teach his disciples and help them make sense of what had gone on. Jesus then sends us his Holy Spirit to open our eyes and lead us into all truth.

What Jesus did was so world-changing that the early church needed to look at all of life through new lenses. They needed to go back and reprocess their own story in light of the crucifixion and resurrection.

The story that had been handed down and preserved was what we call the Old Testament. So they went back to the beginning and studied it all seeing more clearly what God was doing because they could see by the light of Jesus Christ. The church began to see how everything pointed ahead to the one who would one day come and fulfill and the hopes and needs of the people.

Now that God had been made known in a greater way than ever before, now that the plans of God found their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and now that the church was living by the power of the Holy Spirit, they had to go back. If what Jesus Christ said about himself were true, if he really did all he said he did, then Jesus must be there in all of Scripture. People like Paul and the author of Hebrews helped the church to connect the dots and see how the story of God had its climax in Jesus Christ. It isn’t a new story but a continuation and fulfillment of the same story–the story of creation, of Israel, of redemption and forgiveness. But it now makes more sense because of what Jesus has done.

The story continues, though. We continue to look back to Jesus’ works, live for him today, and we await the thrilling conclusion when he will one day return.


  1. I’m sure by now that anyone who has desired to see the Sixth Sense has done so already, so I don’t need to fear spoilers.  ↩

  2. John 14:8–10  ↩

Why does Jesus perform miracles for some, but not for others?

FeedingMultitudes_Bernardo
In Matthew 15 Jesus walks around the Sea of Galilee and then goes up a mountain to sit. But many people have been following him and they bring to Jesus those who were lame, blind, crippled, mute, and many more. Although it seems Jesus is looking for rest, he heals them. Then seeing that these people were hungry, having followed him for three days, Jesus performs another miracle feeding thousands with just a handful of bread and fish.

Surely these were miraculous signs. Yet in Matthew 16 the Pharisees and Sadducees go to Jesus and test him asking for Jesus to show them a sign from heaven. Jesus doesn’t seem to have problem performing great works among the people as he goes about his public ministry. But there is purpose behind his actions. Jesus isn’t in the habit of performing party tricks. He heals people who are sick and miraculously feed those who are hungry. Jesus’ power is displayed with purpose and when the religious rulers want to test him and have him do something for their own purposes, Jesus won’t go along with it. He instead tells them that they only sign that they will see is the sign of Jonah. They want a sign of power from heaven, but they will see a surprised when what they see is Jesus dying on the cross and then three days later showing true power over death itself.

In the gospels Jesus is not aimless. He doesn’t drift about seeing which way the wind will take him. He has a mission with clear objectives and appeasing the religious elites is not a part of it. Jesus cares more for those on the outside and actually warns his own about the damaging influence of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Jesus’ perfection covers our deepest flaws

Sermon on the mount

Last night I was talking with my wife about this week’s readings from Matthew. There are some truly challenging teachings that Jesus has in Matthew 5 and in the following chapters. One line is particularly difficult, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I’ll speak for myself here and say that I don’t measure up.

So what do we make of such a a line? In the conversation I had, my wife looked at it a bit differently and was thinking about how else Jesus could’ve said that. What else was Jesus going to say? What else would Jesus desire for us?

That absolutely should be our aim. Thankfully, when we don’t measure up we have one who does. Jesus Christ fulfilled all the laws demands perfectly for us. His righteousness is all that we could ever need. Whenever we miss the mark we can find comfort knowing that when the Father looks at us we are found in his Son, Jesus Christ.

Even before the cross, pay attention to the suffering of Jesus

Jesus tempted in the desert.

Jesus tempted in the desert.

This last Sunday I preached on the topic of suffering, seeking to bring our attention to this simple point: We have a God who truly knows suffering himself.

This week we read the first half of Matthew and I’d ask that you pay close attention to the experiences of Jesus. What does he go through? What troubles does he face? What luxuries does he have? How is he tempted? What is he going through in order to accomplish his great work?

Jesus is the one who walked in our footsteps. Truly he walked the path that we should have walked–the path we deserved, the path up to the cross. Jesus came to earth and experienced all that we do and he did so in order to take our place. We now can know that our God is compassionate and he is not unaffected by suffering. God knows suffering in ways we can never understand and he did it all so we would not be left alone. Into this dark world Jesus brought us light and gives us hope.

We Are Too Quick to Judge by External Appearance and Thankfully God is Not

After King Saul rejects God’s ways Samuel is sent to anoint the one who would be the next king of Israel. Saul, the first king, was a man of great strength and stature. But God makes sure to instruct Samuel to look beyond those things. When Samuel goes to Jesse and searches among his sons and comes upon Eliab, God has specific instructions.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as mans sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart

We know we’re not supposed to judge by appearances. But we do, for as God says, “man looks on the outward appearance.” Too often appearances have significant influence in all sorts of areas–on who gets certain positions or how someone is treated in their role. Think about presidents, pastors, waiters or waitresses, spouses, friends, employees or employers. Can’t image dictate far too much?

We are too quick to judge books by their covers. And it’s hard to resist such a temptation. We (sinfully and lazily) prefer to make the easy judgments based on the externals: beauty, color, strength–even other external data like degrees, diction, or dress.

But what do we miss when we lean toward the external? Who have we overlooked? Do you feel that at times you’ve been overlooked? God sees beyond the superficial and sees the heart. And the good news is that even when God looks in our hearts and sees our sin, he still doesn’t treat us as we’d deserve. God is not swayed in judgment the way we are. He sees us for who we are and has a greater vision for our lives. God treats us differently from the ways of the world and differently from what we deserve and for that we can be thankful.

Knowing that is how he sees us, our prayer should be to have eyes like his. Our aim should be to see people as he does; to look more than skin deep and treat everyone with the dignity they deserve.

Like Sheep Without a Shepherd

5-saul-attacking-david-guercino

We are now in week six and that means we’ve just crossed the halfway point in our reading plan.

We’ve read about the promises God has made to Abraham and how he has remained faithful to a people who are often faithless. God brought them out of slavery to a land that he had prepared for them. But they turn from him again and again. He still blesses them and while Israel has no problem enjoying the promised land, they fail to be a blessing to others.

We’ve also seen how God has has been their king leading through the judges that he has brought up in Israel in times of need, but Israel rejects God and wants an earthly king. They want to be like the other nations. But no leader can compare with God. In fact, the leaders that rise up often do more harm than good. Those who are entrusted to watch over Israel have oppressed the people.

This week we will look closely at those failure of leadership in Israel and see what God plans to do to about it.