Devotion of the heart

Luke 12:34

Luke writes, “For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also” (Lk. 12:34). May I ask you, where is your heart? If you happen to come across the little book Ezra in the Bible, you will know Ezra’s heart: “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statures and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). The Bible declares that David was a man after God’s own heart. I would say that Ezra was also a man after God’s own heart for that is clearly stated in Ezra 7:10. Are you a man/woman after God’s own heart?

When the text says that Ezra “had set his heart” that can be translated as “has devoted himself.” We know in Hebrew culture the heart represents the whole being. Ezra whole person was committed to studying the law of the LORD. In other words, Ezra committed his whole being to carefully search God’s word for his own benefit and for the benefit of Israel. He studied the writes to know God for himself so that he could put it into practice then teach the people of Israel. Do we carefully search God’s word for our own spiritual benefit?

Ezra did not stop at studying God’s word. He goes on to practice God’s word. Simply put, he put into action what he learned through the careful devotion of God’s word. He is a doer of God’s Word. He is the second man in the book of James. What type of man are we? The man who studies God’s word but not a doer or are we the man that studies and put it into action?

Lastly, Ezra taught God’s word to the children of Israel. Not many are called to be teachers, but if you are called, then you need to teach God’s word to your people. You cannot do this last step without the former two. Each step is interdependent upon one another. Faithfully teach God’s word. Do not water it down. Give theology to your people. Feed your sheep instead of giving them ten steps to a better relationship. Give them biblical truths instead of peddling how to date. Teach your people to live holy lives instead of confusing them with social agendas. Preach the Word!

“For where you treasures is, there your heart will be also” (Lk. 12:34). Is our treasure the Lord? If so will we set our hearts to study the Law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statures and ordinances to our people? May God help us.

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Reading Scripture, Remythologizing Love

God is Love

I recently picked up a copy of Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship. As an amateur reader, I’m not qualified to comment at length about his argument (I’m also barely 1/3 of the way through). Vanhoozer’s remythologizing is actually a response against certain strands of liberal theology, which “demythologize” God, debunking the idea that God is some supernatural being “out there.” To quote Rudolf Bultmann: “The question of God and the question of myself are identical.” Thus, liberal theology collapses the God/world distinction. In contrast to the demythologizers, Vanhoozer starts with the fact that God speaks. God is a God who communicates to us and says things about Himself. But Vanhoozer is not only serious about what God says, but also about how God says what He says.

At least, that’s what I’ve gathered so far (my apologies if you stumbled onto this blog expecting a review/critique of Vanhoozer’s work).

Well, all that heavy theologizing got me thinking about the relationship between God’s Word and my main area of service (youth group). In particular, I wonder whether the conscience of our upcoming youth takes its cues from culture or from the sound doctrine of Scripture. There is evidence, I think, that we’ve been lulled into thinking about God on our terms, rather than thinking about ourselves on His terms.

Take, for example, the way we talk about God’s love. As a volunteer in my church’s youth group (myself being a graduate of evangelical youth culture), I have seen how middle-school, high-school, even college age students latch onto the idea of love as the preferred way of thinking about, talking about, and relating to God. God loves us, we say, and we ought to love God back. Love is the catch-all term. No doubt, “God is Love,” as 1 John 4:16 says. Unfortunately, I fear that our concept of love is derived not from Scripture, but from our favorite worship song/band, Christian book, or (even worse) pop culture. Instead of seeking to understand the covenant-keeping love proclaimed in the Word, we content ourselves with speaking of God’s love in romantically-driven, politically-correct, or moralistic terms.

  • Romantically-driven: For example, how many of our favorite worship songs might as well be love songs? It’s a problem when replacing every occurrence of “God” or “Jesus” with your girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s name doesn’t really make a difference in the song.
  • Politically-correct: When we, in the name of love, condone lifestyles (not just homosexuality, mind you, but also, say, premarital sex) that are clearly prohibited in Scripture, we can be sure that our concept of love comes more from culture rather than from Christ.
  • Moralistic: Too often, our practice of Christianity amounts to being “nice” to each other so that we can all be “happy.”

This will not do. To quote Vanhoozer (quoting another author), “Projecting even our best thoughts about love falls short of the divine reality: ‘When we equate God simply with anything that is true, good, or beautiful, then it is those things which define God, rather than God who defines them’ ” (176). We must not make God in our own image, constructing a bigger version – an idol – of ourselves. Romantic love blown up to superhuman proportions is not the love of God. This is to commit the mistake of the Greeks, whose gods were merely humans, super-sized. It is to demythologize God, collapsing the distinction between Creator and creature.

Humans are prone to idolatry. To counteract this tendency, our patterns of thought must always be renewed by Scripture. Vanhoozer puts it well (161-2):

The solution is to focus on the form of Jesus Christ. While human individuals and societies image God inconsistently, the person of Jesus – and this includes his way of relating to others – is the “image of the invisible God” (Cor 1:15). The New Testament fills out with specific content what would otherwise remain abstract, identifying the image that Jesus makes visible with “true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24; cf. Col 3:10-15). Even these notions need to be “earthed,” and we do this by identifying them with the concrete pattern of action, reaction, and interaction that characterizes the life of Jesus. That means attending to the Biblical mythos that renders his identity.

To understand God’s love rightly, we must look at Jesus Christ, and this means paying attention to what God has said in the Bible. Again, this is not the Jesus of pop culture, the buddy Jesus, or anyone other than the Jesus attested to and revealed in Scripture. Vanhoozer takes God’s speaking seriously, and so should we. To speak truly of God, we must allow His way of speaking of Himself to shape our way of speaking of Him.

This is not to say that worship songs or other secondary sources are unhelpful. These should serve a ministerial (pointing us towards God) rather than a magisterial (defining God for us) function. Songs extolling God’s love will lead us into the heart of worship only if our knowledge of His love is constantly being informed and renewed by Scripture. There is no true worship without an understanding of His Word.

So I’ll end this post where Vanhoozer begins his book – with God speaking in the Scriptures. Working through Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing has reminded me of the importance of reading the Bible and reading it well. “All Scripture is God-breathed” and has the power to change the way we live, think, and act. That’s something we all need to hear. May God have mercy on us, for unless He first speaks to us, our best thoughts will still fall short of His glory.

Set apart, useful, and ready.

2 Timothy 2:21

As I have followed my Master for the past 9 years or so, I have come to see that my life is a daily learning of dying to self, and living in Him.  It has been a journey fraught with mistakes and sin and a daily falling short of His glory, but He has been faithful and ever picking me up and brushing off the dust from my knees and wiping the tears from my eyes… He continues to lead me forward towards His hope and completed promise.

Over the past 3.5 years as I have studied at Western Seminary and am finishing up my final classwork, I have been blessed with a wonderful season to learn and grow in the Word and to study and apply and practice the Gospel into different parts of my life and ministry.  Yet, the reality is now that I am about to be done… I am again at a crossroads of my life and unsure of the future.  Unlike the past, where I was not as well equipped or “trained”, the future is uncertain.  Perhaps I have more options now, but even with the education… the stories and experiences… I am not sure what the next steps will hold.  Do I wait and stay, or do I go? Where? When? How?

Lately, due to finishing up this final semester and some hard ministry experiences (external & internal), … my future seems to be even more cloudy.  As I pondered the advice of a few friends and mentors, and have been praying, I discovered Paul’s words to Timothy in 2nd Timothy near the end of Paul’s life.  In many ways, this epistle is not too far before Paul’s martyrdom and I cannot help but feel similar to Timothy at this time… Timothy…a gifted brother, but timid too… having problems with the church at Ephesus … yet Paul passes on the torch to Timothy in this letter, and is told to continue forth to “guard the good deposit entrusted to you.”

As my M.Div. stole was placed on my shoulder, Dr. Jeff Louie… my friend, teacher and mentor whispered to me: “Preach the Gospel, Helicon.” And I said, “I will.”  In many ways, how many generations of believers have gone forth and isn’t it awesome that we are able to participate in God’s work in this world?  I guess when I see Paul’s words to Timothy here in this book, it has greatly moved me to reflect and consider my life as I walk forward to do what has been passed generation after generation since Jesus entrusted His work to the Twelve… from Paul onto Timothy… and to all whom have passed it on to us today.

The words in Timothy that particularly caught my heart were these words:

20 Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. 21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.

Just from reading these words, I am sure there are quite a few ways to possibly interpret this passage… but rather than getting stuck in this at this point…I want you to turn to see that there is an element of a promise here… that if we cleanse ourselves from what is dishonorable… then we will be a vessel for honorable use.  We’ll be set apart as holy… useful to our Master… ready for every good work.

Let us avoid what is dishonorable … seeking to be cleansed from it… through the powerful work of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We are cleansed by the Gospel, and our active cleansing is our part to play in our growth and relationship with God that is not done out of guilt, but first always in grace.  It is in this promise that these words so powerfully speak to me.  This promise…  of being set apart… useful and ready…  What will happen next?  I know it isn’t by my gifts/my personality/my intellect/the # of FB friends I have, but by the grace of God… that I can be a vessel for honorable use.  Set apart as holy. Useful to my Master, Jesus.  Ready for every good work.  These are the things that are on my mind these past few weeks. Would you please pray for me?

Something for us all to consider

Psalm 119:105

After graduating from college and moving to Thousand Oaks for work, I spent a few years serving in the youth ministry at Chinese Christian Church of Thousand Oaks. If you have served in youth ministry, you know that the high school life is full of many things that make for wonderful illustrations that can be used for teaching. What we have to be careful of however is the tendency to take the truth that falls from these or any other illustrations and simply see it as a lesson for “those who are younger”.

Those who are younger can be those physically younger in terms of age, or those who we view as weaker or younger in their faith (regardless of age). With that said, something that has been on my mind recently is how we approach learning.

Something that I know is a struggle for students is preparing for college. Everything is built upon two things: the goal (“success”) and the steps required (grades, tests, etc.) to get there. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, sooner or later we all learn how to “game the system”. With the right grades and the right test scores, we can improve our chances of achieving the goal that we have set. But are we simply cramming to pass a test in order to get to our goal, or are we studying to learn? While there is definitely some overlap, the motivation behind our studying may indicate how important thing the things that we have learned are to us. I can say that half the things I “learned” in school simply got me through the tests. If I were to have to recall all of it today, the outcome would not be the same. The things I learned served their purpose, and now it’s on to other things.

This isn’t meant to be a critique of our education system, however I believe a similar concept can be applied to our spiritual lives. How important is the Word to us as we study it? Are we reading or taking notes on sermons so that we can pass them on to that friend “who needs to get their life together”? Maybe the motivation for reading the Word is to be able to fit in with others that are always talking about the Bible or to be able to engage in theological debates with others. Perhaps we like being the person who is always able to share something really deep during Bible study. But once we’ve “used” it in whatever setting we had planned for it, then it’s on to other things. The Bible simply becomes another thing we only use in front of or on others.

To be absolutely clear, I am not arguing that a person who desires to share God’s Word with others has it all wrong. After all, we are commanded to, “…always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). However, if we back up to the beginning of verse 15, we see that it begins with: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord.”

So instead of “using” the Word on others, let’s start by studying it with the desire and motivation to be reminded of the fact that Christ Jesus came to die for sinners such as ourselves. Remember that He came to rescue us and explode into doxology in response and revere Christ as Lord because of what has been done for us.

This is something for all of us to consider, whether we’re an attendee of a Bible study and especially if we have the responsibility of teaching and leading others. Sometimes the tendency is to immediately apply what we learn on others, however the Psalmist in Psalm 119:105 reminds us that, “Your word is a lamp to my feet. And a light to my path.” Allow it to light the steps immediately before you, and the path ahead of you.

For those in the Ventura County area feel free to join me and a few others at Element Coffee in Camarillo on Saturday mornings as we try and put this into practice. This isn’t a Bible study of any sort, simply a few folks studying on their own. I know how easily distracted I get at home. Having fellow brothers and sisters nearby to keep on me on track helps me get that running start I need sometimes.

Got a favorite spot that you spend time studying the Word at? Feel free to leave it in the comments (ahem…other contributors). Let’s start this 2nd half of the year off by resolving to commit ourselves to being honest with ourselves in how we approach the Word of God.