Living by Faith is Hard

Living by faith is hard. Faithfulness means accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. Hence, it means obeying Him. We cannot say “No” to someone we acknowledge as “Lord.” But saying “Yes” to Jesus is never easy, because it means we must first say “No” to ourselves. We are making ourselves vulnerable to God’s will.

Perhaps we experience this struggle to varying degrees in life, but in Matthew 26, in the place called Gethsemane, Jesus faces a test of faithfulness beyond anything we can ever imagine, because in this moment, everything is at stake. Jesus knows that he is about to be “delivered up to be crucified” (Matt 26:2). He understands that his blood is “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). Not only that, he knows that he is going to be resurrected (Matt 16:21). Nevertheless, Jesus’ soul is “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt 26:38). Jesus understands his mission, but he also feels the gravity of the suffering he is about to endure.

Many of us know we can trust God. It is easy for us to say that we will submit ourselves to his will. But knowing that God is faithful does not prevent us from fearing that He will fail if we put our trust in Him. No matter how many times God has proven Himself in the past, we can’t help but wonder, “What if God doesn’t pull through this time”? That’s the scary thought. Jesus knows why he is going to be crucified, and he knows that the result will be, but with the reality of death staring him in the face, he falls on his face and prays, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt 26:39a).

Praise be to God, we know that this is not the end of the story. “Nevertheless,” continues Jesus, “not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39b). He submits to God. We shouldn’t dismiss this, thinking that it is easy for Jesus to obey since, after all, he is God. “The spirit indeed is willing,” says Jesus, “but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41). This is a hard thing for Jesus to do. It doesn’t seem that Jesus is speaking here of weakness due to sin; rather, he is simply referring to human weakness, the fact that even when we want to follow God, we just don’t know if we can handle it. We want to trust him, but what if it costs us our lives?

The truth is, the flesh is weak. Jesus went to the cross. He was bruised, crushed, and pierced. He was shamed in public, in front of his disciples, in front of his mother. He bled. He suffered. He died. This is real weakness.

But he was also resurrected on the third day, and not in spirit only. For we believe in a bodily resurrection; Jesus is alive in the flesh. Therein lies our hope. For those of us who are in Christ, we believe that if we die with him, we will also be raised up with him. And we will die, because the glory of following God is a burden too great for mortal flesh to bear. Being faithful as Christ is faithful means that we also take up our crosses and follow him–to death, yes, but even more so to the resurrection, to the new life.

Therefore, we can trust, follow, and obey God despite our fears and uncertainties. And even when it seems that God has forsaken us, as Jesus felt forsaken on the cross, we know that this is not the end of the story. True, it is hard to live by faith. It is hard to say “No” to ourselves and “Yes” to God. But our faith will not be disappointed. For by raising Jesus (and us with Him), God has proven Himself to be faithful and righteous and true, once for all.

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Look to Christ

Every once in a while, I’ll think to myself, “You’ve done a good, Tim. You’ve done good.” I think I have pretty good reasons to be happy with where I am. God has blessed me abundantly, and I think I’ve returned the favor by worshipping and serving Him. Overall, I’ve tried my best to be obedient. I’d even say I really do love God. What more could be asked of me?

And then, I’ll stumble. I’ll find myself falling back into petty sins. Normally, this serves to remind me that I’m not perfect. No big deal; nobody’s perfect. Lately, though, these mistakes have pointed me to a real problem in my soul, which is this: The whole attitude of being satisfied in my relationship with God is completely backwards.

What I’ve come to realize is that I don’t really love God, despite what I tell myself and others. Being complacent and self-satisfied shows that I don’t really love Him. If everything I’ve done up till now is what it means to love God–if I’m comfortable with where I am–then my love for Him really isn’t that impressive. In fact, it’s pathetic. God deserves a devotion that isn’t satisfied with anything less than Him. Having a true desire for God means that I should never think that I know what it means to love Him; it means that I should never think that I’ve grasped the fullness of who He is. A love that’s too easily satisfied is a love that’s too small for God.

And so, I’m forced to admit the shallowness of my desire for God. My cries for repentance are feeble, my heart is hard, my soul is dry. I think the only thing that can redeem my weakness is the power of Christ. In Christ and in him alone, I have what I lack in myself. Lancelot Andrewes, one of the original translators of the KJV, once wrote the following in one of his prayers: “At least give me some of the tears of Christ, which He shed plentifully in the days of His flesh. Bestow on me from that store; in Him there is superfluity for my deficiency.” Lancelot Andrewes recognizes his deficiency, but his response is not to make himself better; rather, he turns to Christ and falls more deeply in love with Him.

This all goes back to being complacent and self-satisfied vs. being deeply in love with God. A love that constantly reflects upon itself isn’t love at all. Being satisfied with my “relationship with God” means that I’m looking at my own performance; consequently, it means that I am looking at myself and not Christ. True love for God shouldn’t think about itself, because it is too busy thinking about Christ. To love Christ is to look to Him and Him alone–not to anyone else, not even myself.

Reflections on Missions

Since my return to the States from two weeks of short-term missions, the most common question I’ve been getting is “How was it?”

It is a question that I find impossible to answer.

I could talk about how my experience this time differed from past trips; but this trip isn’t about me.

I could talk about how God was faithful to provide for our every need; but this trip isn’t strictly about the team.

I could talk about the kids who accepted Christ. Yes, that seems to strike closer to the heart of things. But how do I talk about those who were saved without also talking about who they are? Beyond saying x number of people received Christ, what can I do except tell their story? And to tell their story…where does one even begin?

Thus, for the time being, I’ve decided to refrain from talking about the specifics of the trip. Instead, I will offer the general reflections I’ve had as a result of these past two weeks.

During the trip, I read through several of the minor prophets. A major theme that cuts through most (all?) of them is the promised restoration of suffering Israel. But restoration to what? Restoration in order that God’s holiness and righteousness might be vindicated among the nations:

“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” – Isaiah 2:2-3.

“Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD, I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it.” – Ezekiel 36:36

“Then the nations will know that I am the LORD who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.” – Ezekiel 37:28

“So I will show my greatness and my holiness and make myself known in the eyes of many nations. Then they will know that I am the LORD.” – Ezekiel 38:23

“For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord.” – Zephaniah 3:9

“Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the LORD” – Zechariah 8:22

These passages and many like them all talk about God’s promise to restore Israel and draw all the nations to Himself. That is His plan for the world. The crazy thing is that in 2 Corinthians 1:20, Paul writes, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him [Jesus].” That means that we are really living in the thick of things. For Jesus Messiah is the faithful Israelite; He is the recipient of God’s promise (see Gal 3:16). He is the one who suffered and died; He is the one whom God restored (resurrected). It is in Him that we are justified before God and our sins forgiven. It is in Him that the nations see the glory, “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). And He is the guarantee, the assurance that God is faithful to carry out His Word to the very end.

The 15 or so students who received Christ during this trip are the first-fruits of a nation that God is drawing to Himself through Jesus Messiah. God is fulfilling His promise to a nation, to the entire world, and all of us are in the midst of it. We, everyone, are all caught up in the action. This is the big picture, the meta-narrative of what missions is all about.

For most of my life, I’ve subconsciously ignored the significance of missions. To me, it was something we’re supposed to do because Jesus said so in the Great Commission. Or we’re supposed to do it because we love people or we love Jesus, or something like that. I thought of missions as another thing to tack onto my Christian to-do list. During this trip, God humbled me in that respect, showing me that missions is about the great story of what He is doing. The bigger story is what God is doing in the world; the smaller story (far smaller) is what God is doing in me. If I think of missions as the cool summer project that God is doing in the life of Tim Ip, then in my mind, I’ve diminished it into a secondary issue, whereas I’ve made myself the primary issue.

But if missions is really the meta-narrative of what God is doing, then I ought to structure my life around missions, to find my place within the story. Not vice-versa. I should not be structuring missions around my agenda and desires. Once again, God is asserting His supremacy over and against what I’ve made my life about (namely, myself).

At the end of the day, to make our lives about missions (whether at home or abroad) is to live and breath the Gospel. This is not because of anything we do, but because missions, by its very nature, is participation in the work of God, and what is the Gospel except the good news of God’s saving work? In this sense, we didn’t bring the Gospel to a foreign land; rather, the Gospel brought us deeper into a place where God is working.

So, I apologize. In a way, I’ve told you nothing of what the trip was about. I left out many particulars; I didn’t even say where we went.* Maybe one day, I will find the words to do justice to what actually happened during these past two weeks. As of now, my best answer to the question “How was it?” is “It was good.” Horrible answer, I know, and I’m sorry.

In another way, though, I’ve tried, to the best of my ability, to tell you what the trip was actually about. I can’t say that it’s the most accurate retelling, or even that other members of the team will agree with me. All I can say is that God (once again) came crashing into the world like a wrecking ball, and this is what remains. This is what has moved me to make my life about missions.

As a final request, please pray for kids who received Christ, for their continued growth in Him, and for His guidance and protection in their lives.

Adieu.

*Part of this is intentional, since we were in a country that isn’t friendly to the Gospel. Given that the Internet is a place where anyone can find anything, I decided to leave out as many details as possible.

On Reading the Old Testament

I was listening to a lecture recently, and the speaker pointed out that as Christians we often read our Bibles backward. That is, we start in the New Testament and work our way backwards to the Old Testament. When I thought about this, I realized that I did not only read my Bible backwards, but my knowledge of the Bible was backwards too! I seem to know a lot about Jesus, salvation through grace by faith, justification, etc. On the other hand, I really don’t know a lot about covenants, God’s promises, and the other big ideas of the OT. But if I don’t know my OT well, can I really say I know the NT? Can I say I know the Bible?

If you’re like me, then you’ll admit that our knowledge of the OT could use some vast improvement. But it’s not like we haven’t tried reading the OT. It’s just that whenever we approach it, it seems dry, esoteric, sometimes even irrelevant and inapplicable. We just don’t get it.

The following are some of the issues I’ve run into while trying to become a better reader of the OT. If you’re an NT-heavy believer like me, you may find some of these beneficial to your study of the OT.

How do we read the Old Testament well? The following three tips (really just variations on the same theme) have helped me in my reading of the Bible, but they are especially helpful when it comes to the OT.

  • It’s not about You. Most of the Bible (and especially the OT) is not written to individuals, much less 21st-century individuals; instead, God’s Word is delivered to large communities, specifically His Chosen People, the Israelites. Yes, God cares about us as individuals, but if our approach to the OT is us-centered–that is, if our focus is on what we as individuals can get out of it, rather than on what God is trying to communicate–then we will be utterly disappointed with what the OT has to say.
  • Direct, Personal Applications are few and far between. Most of us have grown up believing that every single verse of the Bible contains a direct application to us. At the end of every sermon, we expect a three point application that tells us what to do or what to think. But because the Bible isn’t written directly to us (we aren’t the original audience), it’s simply unfair to put personal applications as a priority. This is especially true of the Old Testament, where you’d often be hard-pressed to find the kind of life-changing, personal applications we’ve been conditioned to expect. So, don’t focus on “getting something out” of your reading of the OT; rather, listen to what God is saying to the Israelites, who were the direct recipients of the OT message. Resist the urge to allegorize their situation onto our modern times. Instead, learn to think like an Israelite. Pay attention to the story that God is building between Him and His Chosen People.
  • Grasp the Whole before dissecting the Part. When we talk about reading the context in our Bible studies, we often mean reading the immediate context, maybe the 5 verses around our text, or if we’re feeling real cool, the entire chapter. To put it bluntly, that is insufficient for most of the OT. Exceptions I can think of are maybe (but not really!) the Psalms and Proverbs. If we are serious about getting context, then we have to get the context of the whole book. That means reading and thinking through the entire book as a whole before we get into verse-by-verse studies. What is the main message or argument of the book? What are the big issues it is concerned about? Where does it fit in Israel’s history? What are recurrent themes? Questions like these prime us to think like the original audience, preparing us to receive the message that God is concerned about, rather than the message that we want to hear. The benefit of having the whole in mind is that, once we do get to studying the parts, we know how everything fits together in light of the overall message.

What does it take to read the Old Testament well? In my experience, the following three things (none of which are particularly popular in our fast-food culture) are essential to getting a good grip on an OT book.

  • Time. Unfortunately for us, OT books are relatively long compared to NT books. Any study of an OT book is going to take a long time, especially if we want to understand the book as a whole. In some ways though, this is comforting, because it means that we don’t have to rush our time with the Word. That, of course, is no excuse for being lazy.
  • Patience. Ultimately, the message that God speaks to the Israelites in the OT is also a message that speaks to us. But getting from what God says to Israel to what God says to us is a hard and narrow path. Most times, our first run through an OT book won’t be a satisfying read. We won’t get the pay-off right away, but that doesn’t mean we should just give up and move on to the next book. Wrestling with the Word takes patience and courage.
  • Humility. If our reading of the Word is to be fruitful, then we must approach it with humility, recognizing that our understanding depends on the Spirit’s revelation. Again, it’s not about what we can get out of it, but it’s about what God is giving to us. We need to put our agendas on hold and be willing to submit to the Word that God has revealed in the OT Law, Prophets, and Writings.

What’s the pay-off for reading the Old Testament well? Of course, there are plenty of benefits for reading the OT well, but here are a couple that have been on my mind lately.

  • We come to a deeper knowledge of the Person and Work of Christ. When Jesus said that the Scriptures testify about Him, He was referring to the Old Testament. The OT is the framework under which the NT operates. All the technical terminology of the NT is sourced in the OT. If we want to understand the NT, then we must understand the OT to an equal degree. Finally, if Christ is God’s fulfillment of all His promises to Israel, then knowing Christ means we must be familiar with the history of God’s relationship with his Chosen People.
  • It enriches our worship of God. A deep understanding of the OT enriches our worship by teaching us to approach God in accordance with the way He has revealed Himself. In this sense, our worship isn’t arbitrary. Our idea of God isn’t just something we’ve pulled together from philosophy and world religions. Instead, our worship of Yahweh God is grounded historically, in the work that He has done and the word that He has revealed.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)

The Gospel

I went into college thinking I knew more than most about Christianity. I knew I didn’t know everything, but I saw myself as “mature”, “knowledgeable”, “rooted”.

Then God began a series of humbling events and trials, revealing my sin and my superficial understanding of the gospel.

I had heard the gospel so many times. I learned to recite it as a kid. I was taught to preach the gospel to myself daily. I knew the facts.

I knew that I am a sinner and deserve hell, but a part of me still thought, “I am better than most.” “My sin is not that bad.”

Slowly, God changed my prideful heart. Over and over again this year, God revealed to me my sin, showing me how easily my heart wanders and seeks self instead of Him. I often felt helpless against my sin, as I seemed to have no ability or power to control my thoughts or actions. I felt disgusted at myself and thought in fear about how God must feel towards my sin.

But in these times of despair and helplessness, the gospel became so much greater and so much more necessary. In these times, I could do nothing but desperately turn to the cross, reminding myself of Ephesians 2:1-7

” 1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

The more I saw my own failures, the more victorious Christ’s death and resurrection became. The more I felt helpless in my ability to overcome sin, the more I thanked Christ for his sacrifice that freed me from the bondage of sin. The more hopeless my condition seemed, the more I rejoiced in the undeserved gift I received through Christ’s suffering.

I then realized that the things I am told to do at church like worship, service, prayer, reading my Bible, are all natural responses to the gift of the gospel. Knowing I have been saved from sin and can now have fellowship with the Creator God who loves me more than I can imagine, what could I do but praise this God and follow Him joyfully and obediently?

O, for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise
The glories of my God and King
The triumphs of His grace!

Jesus! the name that charms our fears
That bids our sorrows cease
‘Tis music in the sinner’s ears
‘Tis life and health and peace

He breaks the power of cancelled sin
He sets the prisoners free
His blood can make the foulest clean
His blood availed for me