Why We Pray

By Pastor David M. Choi

In his theological magnum opus, Karl Barth reminds us why we pray: “How can we understand [prayer] properly without perceiving at once that perhaps the very highest honour that God claims from man and man can pay Him is that man should seek and ask and accept at His hands, not just something, but everything he needs.”[1] What is Barth saying? He’s saying that when we come to God in prayer we magnify his greatness in our lives, and at the same time we glorify his name.

But some of you might be wondering, “How exactly do my prayers do that?” Our prayers glorify God because, when we pray, we are acknowledging God for who God is. So, when we neglect to pray because we think our prayers are an annoyance to him, we actually dishonor God, because what that’s saying is we don’t actually believe God cares, no matter how big or how small the thing we’re praying for is. When we neglect to pray because we think we can handle things on our own, we belittle God, not because we’re struggling to comprehend his power but because we think so little of it. And when we neglect to pray because we can’t fathom things will ever change or get better, we tarnish God’s name, because we don’t trust that God is indeed in control over all things.

We pray and cry out to God, because, by his grace, we’ve been given the gift to know wholeheartedly that there is nothing in this world that is insurmountable for God – or, on the flipside, no problem in our lives too small which he doesn’t care for. We pray because we know that only Christ has the power to effect change, and that, by our own strength, we can do absolutely nothing. We pray because we trust that God has been, is, and always will be in control over all things. For this reason, in Psalm 50:15, God says, “Call on me,” because when we do we glorify his name, by which God unleashes his power into the world.

[1] Karl Barth, CD III/4, 87. Italics added. 

Exceeding Righteousness

By Pastor David M. Choi

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. -Matthew 5:20

If you’ve been around the church for some time, you’ll have noticed, whether from the pastor’s preaching or from your small group bible studies, that the scribes and Pharisees are often portrayed in a negative light. And if that so happens to be you, then you know that one of the main reasons for such an unfavorable depiction is because they are the prototypical examples of religious hypocrisy. It is beyond dispute that the scribes and Pharisees were some of the most theologically well-educated and biblically well-trained people in the ancient world. They knew the ins and outs of God’s law, as they had devoted their entire lives to its correct teaching, interpretation, as well as implementation. Yet, despite their grand credentials, Jesus still calls them hypocrites.

Today when we call someone a ‘hypocrite’ what we usually mean by that is someone who says one thing at one moment but then goes on to do something completely different at another moment, something that contradicts what that person said before. And in the gospels, we see instances of the Pharisees doing just that. For example, the Pharisees instruct others to take care of the widow, the poor, the sick, and the orphaned, but they themselves are unwilling to heed their own instructions. For when it came to matters of social justice, they couldn’t be bothered – even though God had explicitly commanded it – because these social practices didn’t attract the attention of a wider audience. They wanted their righteousness to be seen.

So, instead of tending to the destitute as God had commanded them, the Pharisees geared their focus towards flashy religious performances. In this, we notice that it was not only important for them to be seen, but specifically to be seen as those who were righteous before God. But you and I both know that that’s not what they really cared about. To draw a current analogy, it’s kind of like going on a bunch of missions trips so that other people would see us as good Christians, even though we’re really okay with not spending time with God behind closed doors, or taking care of the least of these within our own communities back home when we’re out in public. For this reason, Jesus rebukes them. Not because of their strict observance of religious rituals per se, but because their ritual observances were not aimed at their proper end, namely, bringing glory to God, evinced by their neglect of God’s commands to take care of the poor. And so, by exposing their outward hypocrisy, Jesus exposes an inward kind as well.

When Jesus says that our righteousness ought to surpass that of the Pharisees our initial reaction may be one of perplexity, since some of us equate doing religious things with hypocrisy itself. But if you read the preceding verses, Jesus says, “[W]hoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, Jesus is saying you actually should obey God’s commands according to the strict manner of the Pharisees, but unlike the Pharisees you are to obey all of His commands [you don’t get to pick and choose!], and you do so for the sake of God’s glory. If all of this sounds daunting, that’s because it is. Thank God, however, that we don’t have to do this alone! So, how do I live according to His righteousness?

You start by having your heart changed and transformed by the gospel, by realizing that you can’t live in true righteousness apart from Christ. Only when the gospel begins to possess you in this way will you then be on your way towards becoming slightly less of a hypocrite and a person with a bit more integrity. You see, contrary to popular belief, God’s primary concern is not with your outward behavior. For if that were the case, then you’d remain a miserable hypocrite. Rather, His primary concern is with your heart, because what generates your hypocritical behavior is from what’s within. So, what you really need is invasive surgery, not the application of bandaids. Like a good surgeon, God doesn’t merely treat your outward symptoms, but rather goes to the very source of your illness. Which is why He says He has to remedy your sick heart by first pouring His grace into you, for only then will your righteousness surpass that of the Pharisees’.

Going back to where we started, we saw that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees consisted of two main things: (1) not living what they preach [hypocrisy in the outer life], and (2) deceiving others about their relationship with God [hypocrisy in the inner life]. So, when Christ says your righteousness ought to surpass theirs, what He’s saying is that you need to do better than hypocritical righteousness. You might fool others, but you’re certainly not fooling God! As we’ve seen, though, this can only happen with the help of God’s grace, which comes from serving others and from participating in the life of the church. As a result, what ends up happening is divine grace begins to consume you, upon which something miraculous happens: you start to obey what God has commanded, and all that God has commanded, with a righteous heart, so that who you are on Sundays now becomes who you are on weekdays. The possibility of genuine integrity opens up. Hence, only by developing this sort of grace-induced integrity can you root out hypocrisy in your life, and only by rooting out hypocrisy in your life will you then actually be a righteous person, able to enter the kingdom of heaven.

So, does your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? Assess your heart by reflecting on these questions: How do I see myself being a hypocrite? Does my character at church match my character at school and at home? When I’m at church am I merely putting on a religious show for my pastor, my leaders, and my parents? Is my life genuinely consistent in obeying all of God’s commands both in public and in private? When I worship does my heart truly seek to glorify God, or am I just mouthing the words, pretending to be better than I actually am? When I serve others, do I intentionally go out of my way to make sure other people can see me, or am I willing to serve without any recognition? Do I find myself serving others by my own free initiative, or does it always take someone else having to ask me?

As you think about the quality of your righteousness, alongside the level of your spiritual maturity, be honest. Besides, God already knows what’s in your heart. Afterwards, spend some time in prayer, and ask Christ to change you from the inside out.

Living Testimonies of the Living Christ

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead… -1 Peter 1:3

Yesterday, on Easter Sunday, Calvary had the immense privilege of witnessing four baptisms. They were the baptisms of two youth group students (Allen Liu and Daniel Xiao), one college student (Connie Xiao), and one graduate student (Sijin Ren). Apart from actually baptizing these students – which I was absolutely wrecked by – one of the most moving parts for me was listening to the students deliver their testimonies live in front of the entire congregation.

For in our sin and weakness, we have a tendency to think that God is aloof and far off, that is, living distantly somewhere up in heaven. But these testimonies functioned as powerful and subversive reminders that God is not finished with us yet. He has not abandoned us to our own devices, He has not given His creation over to death. These students are indeed living testimonies of that fact. God is alive and active. Over and against us, yes, but also nearer to us than we are to ourselves. He is immanent and close, moving among us, calling lost sinners to Himself, and transforming penitent hearts.

This is why I’ve always loved witnessing baptisms, especially on Easter Sundays, because it captures so clearly the love of God and the power of Christ’s resurrection, that is, in action and in real time. That death does not have the final word. That there is new life awaiting those who put their trust in Him. Though their testimonies are different, and though their lives are uniquely formed, the one hope of Christ is always the constant. These students remind us that without Christ we are left with nothing but nihilism and despair. Only because of Christ and the empty tomb are we opened up to new possibilities, possibilities born by the hope of God’s love. That is why for this week’s devotional I’ll let our newly baptized do the sharing. -Pastor David M. Choi

Connie Xiao’s Testimony

1.How did you become a Christian?

When I entered college, the trajectory of my life was headed in the opposite direction of Christ. I never swore off alcohol and parties. I reasoned that if the occasion came up, and if I thought it would be fun, I would let loose and live like every other college freshman.

My coming to Christ then started with a chance meeting with a group of girls in my dorm. We had finished a dorm-wide meeting on alcohol safety, and collectively all 500 residents wandered to one bus stop, awaiting the bus back to our dorms. I found myself standing next to three other girls, who quickly revealed to me that they were going to church that coming Sunday. With no other plans, I decided to tag along. The fellowship and ministry that I became a part of in college reversed my course. However, it was on one particular Sunday that I decided to become a Christian.

My college fellowship was on a retreat for the weekend in Connecticut. After the morning service, the pastors did an altar call, at which point I felt the Holy Spirit physically moving me. Others went forward, praying and pleading with God, but I stubbornly stayed behind. I resisted God with all of my might, and I could feel myself shaking from the effort. I was wringing my hands and squeezing my eyes shut. I didn’t want to give myself over to Him. In the eighteen years of my life, I had never wanted to do so. But in that moment, I felt the shame of my sin. I felt the depravity and the deadness of my own self. I could no longer resist, and so I stumbled to the altar and wept for my sin and my shame, and I wept for the renewal of Christ.

I am fortunate to say that I can pinpoint my coming to Christ with exactitude. Though I am also unfortunate enough to say that I needed it to happen this way. Had I not realized my sins in such a painful and revealing moment, I would not be here today declaring my candidacy for baptism. But for God’s grace and for His salvation, I am eternally blessed and grateful.

2. Why do you want to be baptized? What does this baptism mean for you?

I want to be baptized because it is finally time for me to put to death my former self of sin. God has planted this seed of movement within me, a movement that now calls me to Him. I’ve responded by repenting of my old and evil nature, by humbling myself before Christ, and by putting on a renewed and righteous nature by way of His grace. Knowing the wretchedness of my former self, I cannot live any longer without the cleansing of my sins in Christ. So baptism is, for me, the forgiveness of my sins as well as the promise of new life in Christ, which I’ve received through faith. 

3. Why do you want to follow Jesus? What about Jesus makes you want to follow him?

Only Jesus Christ can justify and sanctify me. He alone forgives and saves me from my sins. I want to join the one body of Christ because I long to rest in His promises for me. I need His promises to cleanse me of my sins and to renew my life. Jesus, fully human and fully divine, is the only one who can deliver me. He who did not sin sacrificed His own life in order to wipe my slate clean. Out of gratitude, I now give myself over to Him. And as I become a member of the body of Christ, I commit to walk with Him in discipleship.

Note: These are abridged versions of the students’ testimonies. Connie was not able to provide a video testimony due to her being away at school in Boston. Permission to share Sijin’s testimony is still pending.

Salt and Light

By Minister Emily Cui

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on the stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. -Matthew 5: 13-16

These verses come from a well-known discourse, called ‘The Sermon on the Mount’. In Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon begins with chapter 5 and ends with chapter 7. Here, Jesus is further unpacking the prior section, namely, the Beatitudes, for His listeners and His disciples. And as He often does, Jesus turns to common household objects to illustrate His points, in this case salt and light.

Salt is one of the most common seasonings we use on a daily basis. But apart from its culinary use, lesser known things about salt is that it’s also a disinfectant agent, an element for fertilization, as well as a preservative. In ancient times, due to the lack of refrigeration techniques salt was largely used to preserve meat and fish for weeks on end. Because of this, the Rabbis sometimes would refer to Yahweh’s covenant as the “Salt Covenant,” suggesting that the nature of such a covenant was to preserve God’s people as God’s people.

Notice that Jesus now refers to His disciples as the salt of the earth. As I’ve pondered its meaning, the Lord brought to mind another illuminating passage. Later in Matthew’s gospel, he recorded another one of Jesus’ teachings, where He warns them to “be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 16:5-12). When we place these two images, that is, salt and yeast, side by side, it makes more sense. For instance, yeast, like salt, is also a common kitchen product, which the ancients would’ve frequently used to make bread. Yeast, however, is a microorganism that ferments dough, whereas salt mitigates such processes by slowing down and eventually halting the process. So, what does this tell us?

In this passage, Jesus is calling His followers to act in a similar way. That is, as they walk according to grace and truth, disciples should mitigate and  counteract the fermentation of hypocrisy and false teaching, so to speak. “[For the Pharisees] tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them,” and “[they] shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. [They themselves] do not enter, nor will [they] let those enter who are trying to” (Matt. 23:4, 13b-14b).[1]

Disciples, though, are not only called to resist hypocrisy and false teaching, but they are also called to do good works before others so that God may receive glory and honor. Now I can imagine how this might sound to modern readers: “Do good works? Sure! To bring glory and honor to my Father who is in Heaven? Absolutely! Before others? Yes, Lord!? Now wait a minute! Jesus, I thought you exhorted us to guard against the ways of the Pharisees. After all, I mean, didn’t you warn us not to be like the hypocrites, who love to be seen by others in the synagogues and on the street corners when they do good works? Didn’t you just teach us not to let our right hand know what our left hand is doing?”  

At this point, we have to ask, is Jesus contradicting Himself? Short answer: No, He is not. On the one hand, we are called to go into our rooms and close the door when we pray to our Heavenly Father. In our daily obedience to Christ, there is undoubtedly a real need for alone time with Him, that is, in the form of quiet times/devotionals, meditation, and prayer. My relationship, and your relationship, with the Lord is a personal one, and no persons or objects can substitute for that relationship. Yet, on the other hand, Christian discipleship is not a private matter. It is not meant to be hidden behind closed doors. 

We see this when Jesus calls us to be light. When it is lit, a lamp is meant to give light to all those who are around it. And Christians are disciples who follow Him and walk in His divine light (Acts 11:26c). Thus, they are commissioned to carry God’s light into a world of darkness in and through their public obedience to Christ. But, again, it starts by first allowing the light of the Lordship of Christ to penetrate all the areas of darkness in our own lives. These areas include – but are not limited to – how we manage our time, how we budget our wealth and resources, how we decide which colleges to apply to, which careers to go into, which sort of person we consider marrying, and so forth.

Contrary to what some people believe, Jesus did not die as a motivator for us to study harder, to enter ivy league colleges, to go off living in the safety of middle-class suburbia, to then become banal law-abiding citizens. Of course, not that attending an ivy league school, living in the suburbs, and adhering to the governing authorities are inherently and always immoral. The point is that Jesus’ sacrifice calls us to dream bigger and to dream beyond worldly things. He calls us to something far better.

As Jesus’ disciples, we are called to enter into the world as salt and light, to bring blessings to those who are poor in sprit, to comfort those who mourn, to bless the meek who will inherit the earth, to fill those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, to show mercy to the merciful, to see God with the pure hearted, to be peacemakers as children of God, and to bless those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. 

Lastly, Christ calls us ‘blessed’ when we are insulted, falsely accused, and persecuted for His sake. What does that mean? Well, there’s a part of King David’s story that beautifully captures this. Recall, when David was freely given the threshing floor, how he intended to build God’s temple upon it: “But the king replied to Araunah, ‘No, I insist on paying you for it, for I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.’ So, David bought the threshing floor and the oxen and paid fifty shekels of silver for them” (2 Samuel 24:24).

As you are reading this at the start of Holy Week, remember that Jesus has triumphantly entered Jerusalem. Initially, the crowd received Him as their King, as their long awaited Messiah: “Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna to the Highest!” His light shined before human beings in such a way that they have seen His good works, and thereby glorified the Father. But only five days later, He was falsely accused, wrongfully arrested, illegally tried, brutally beaten, flogged and nailed to the Cross, by the very same crowd who welcomed Him into Jerusalem. We find ourselves standing in the midst of that crowd, welcoming Him but then rejecting Him right after. Nonetheless, by His sacrifice, we are now forgiven and made new. We have become salt and light. So, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Amen, Lord!

Emily Cui is the Campus Minister at the Calvary Baptist Church of New Haven. Commissioned by Ambassadors for Christ, she primarily works with graduate students at Yale University, sharing with them the good news of the gospel and helping them grow in discipleship.

[1]See Matthew 23 for more details regarding what Jesus had to say about the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.

Tempted and Tried

By Pastor David M. Choi

Read Matthew 4

Jesus was tempted by the Devil with three different offers. But the main offer, underlying all the other offers, was the offer to live independently from God. Satan was tempting Jesus to live only for Himself as he tried to isolate Jesus from the Father’s will and plan. With great cunning and seduction, the Devil whispered in His ears: “Jesus, I know how hungry you are. Feed yourself. No one knows you’ve been fasting anyways.” “Jesus, you are exhausted and undoubtedly lonely. Call your angels, and take up security and comfort instead.” “Jesus, what’re you doing? You’re the Son of God! Give in. Serve yourself. Claim the glory and power that is rightfully yours.” You see? The main temptation was getting Jesus to provide for Himself, so He could build up His own kingdom instead of building up God’s kingdom. Sound familiar? It should, since this is what we’re constantly tempted by on a daily basis.

To be clear, it’s not that Jesus’ desires were illegitimate, or that what was being offered to Him inherently evil. Such desires are legitimate (like the one for food), and surely all glory is rightfully His. The problem was that Satan wanted Him to seek these things outside of what God had prescribed. So, too, Satan tempts us (especially in our moments of weakness) by masterfully exploiting what are legitimate human needs and desires. That is, the Devil moves us to pursue such things according to our baser instincts, rather than the instincts given to us by the Holy Spirit. Justin Bailey helps us see how this gets worked out in our lives: “Temptation almost always involves legitimate desires – tangible things like a grade or a girlfriend or a boyfriend, as well as intangible things like belonging, acceptance and love. Satan holds out these good things and tempts us to take them in a way or at a time that you yourself choose rather than waiting in faith for God to give you what you are longing for in His own time and in His own way.”

So, how do we counteract the work of Satan in our lives? How do we fight temptation? “Well, we just have to do what Jesus did! We have to follow His example, memorize God’s word, and quote it to the Devil!” This sort of answer is typical. However, such an answer misses the point. Now don’t get me wrong. Yes, we should learn from Jesus’s example, and yes we should seek to know God’s word and to know it intimately in the way that He did. However, the gospel writer is not setting Jesus up as our moral exemplar; rather, Matthew is showing us how Jesus is our Savior. Last Sunday during Sunday school, some of my high school students and I discussed a common error people make when reading the gospels, which is to separate Christ’s work from His person. And we see this error being committed when we champion Jesus as our moral exemplar instead of recognizing Him as our Savior.

Thus, the point is not that Jesus quoted scripture to Satan. The point is that in denying Himself Jesus accepted the cross, and in accepting the cross Jesus saved us. Indeed, having Jesus as a moral exemplar doesn’t really mean much, since there is absolutely no way we can live up to Him. Matthew is actually pointing this out to his Jewish audience by drawing their attention to Israel. Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, and Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years. When faced with temptation, Israel failed again and again. But when Jesus was faced with temptation, He did not fail. Jesus never lost sight of the goal set before Him. He overcame. He passed the test.

Because of Jesus’ perfect record, we are made right with God, despite our past, present, and future failings. And praise God for that. That our righteousness before Him, and our acceptance into His kingdom, is not based on whether we pass or fail. For in Christ, we are already accepted, and in Christ we are made whole and brought into God’s kingdom. Because of that, we now have, by virtue of the Spirit who now lives within us, the power to fight sin. Because of that, we now have the power to resist and overcome any and every temptation set against us by the wily Devil and his demonic angels. Because of that, sin has lost its grip on you and me.

Reflection/Response Question: What can you learn from the way Jesus handles temptation in the wilderness, and how can you live it out this week?

Christ’s Baptism

By Pastor David M. Choi

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John [the Baptist], to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. -Matthew 3:13-17

This Easter we will be celebrating six baptisms. Indeed, for Christians, there is no better way of celebrating Jesus’ resurrection victory over sin and death than by experiencing its redemptive action afresh through those who are being baptized. But whether as baptismal participant or baptismal observer, if we are to be attune to the work of God’s Spirit, we should not go into that day unprepared. And so, we turn our attention to Jesus’ baptism, to see how it sets the Spirit’s agenda for the baptism of every believer.

To be sure, Jesus does not submit to baptism for the same reasons you and I submit to it. He is sinless; we are not. This is made plain by John’s remark: “I need to be baptized by you [Jesus], and do you come to me?” Nonetheless, Jesus consents, so that by His baptism He would “fulfill all righteousness,” and confer upon every subsequent baptism the covenantal benefits of forgiveness and grace, that is, by way of saving faith. Disciples, therefore, may receive God’s forgiveness and grace through baptism because Jesus made the reception of such things possible through His baptism.

Christ’s baptism at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, California.

Notice then how Jesus demonstrates the manner in which we are to approach baptism. First, Jesus goes to where John is, instead of having John come to where He is. This prefigures what it would mean for His disciples to follow after Him. That is, if followers are to receive new life in Christ, they must categorically reject and leave behind their life of sin, and go out to where He is. For Jesus did not come to affirm us in our sin, but rather He came to bring us out of sin by condemning sin. Second, though He is without sin, Jesus does not baptize Himself. John is required to do it for Him. By this, Jesus reveals how utterly incapable we are of cleansing ourselves from sin. We can only be cleansed by receiving it from God at the hands of another. Baptism, therefore, is undoubtedly a humiliating act, since it destroys our sinful presumption that we are capable of saving ourselves. It humbles us into the bitter recognition that there is only One who can truly save.

Immediately after His baptism, the gospel writer tells us that “the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on Him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'” For those who unite themselves to Christ in this manner – namely, through baptism – they are promised a similar anointing of the Holy Spirit. That the Spirit will not only give them the ability to hear God the Father call them His own, but will give them the supernatural assurance of it also. As Rowan Williams puts it, “And that is why, as we come up out of the waters of baptism with Jesus, we hear what He hears: ‘This is my son, this is my daughter, this is the one who has the right to call me Father.’ The Spirit… is always giving us the power to call God Father…”

We see how Jesus sets for us the path we must follow, as His life and death mark the reality of what His baptism previously foreshadowed. Through baptism, we now join Him in death by dying to sin, and we now join Him in life as we are raised to God by the power of His resurrection. This is what Jesus meant by saying in Matthew 16:25 that “whoever loses his [or her] life for my sake will find it.”

Thus, as we approach Easter Sunday, let us prepare by praying for these things. First and foremost, let us thank God for giving us His Son – for His life, death, and resurrection – and for giving us the sacramental means to participate in Christ’s life. Second, let us thank God for His redemptive work in the lives of our current baptismal candidates. Praise God for His great mercy in allowing them to reject a life of sin for a life of eternal glory. Third, let us ask God to mightily use the witness of these impending baptisms to bless His church: that the baptized would be encouraged; that those about to be would be comforted; and that those not yet called would be moved and inspired.

Pharisaical Self-Reliance

By Alexander Batson

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” -Matthew 3:7-10

Image result for pharisees

In the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist comes to prepare the way for the Son of God. In this passage, John confronts the Pharisees who come out to witness his ministry of baptism at the Jordan River. In the Gospels, the Pharisees are the representatives of moral pride and spiritual arrogance. In their quest to earn God’s favor, they cling to things besides Jesus Himself. While it can be easy to dismiss the Pharisees as the “bad guys” in the Gospel stories, I think it’s actually more helpful to look at them as a mirror of ourselves and our own pride in our own achievements and reluctance to submit fully to Jesus. In light of this, let’s see what John’s rebuke has to offer our often wayward hearts.

First, John points out the misguided motivations of the Jewish religious leaders. He asks, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He does not welcome them as he does the other people seeking baptism. They did not come to repent and be a part of the kingdom of God. John seems to think that they came because they were looking to avoid some sort of wrath – perhaps they were scared of missing out on something that God was doing, or perhaps they thought that this baptism would add to their religious credentials. Either way, we should take John’s warning and examine our own hearts – are we coming to Jesus because we see his beauty, grace, mercy, lordship, and love? Or are we merely coming to soothe our guilty consciences, find easy assurance that we won’t end up in hell, and add to our religious resumé?

Second, John admonishes the Pharisees for claiming Abraham as their ancestor. John rightly discerns that these men thought themselves worthy of God’s favor because of their religious pedigrees. They knew the Law and the Prophets and they kept the rules of the Torah. They lived morally upstanding lives. But John reminds them that this is not enough – only true repentance and turning to Jesus can save them. In what do we trust for salvation? Is it Jesus? Or is it good works, grades, career achievements, relationships, or even a good Christian family?

Finally, John warns the Pharisees that judgment is coming for those who do not “bear good fruit.” He urges them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” This statement may seem a little odd; after all, the Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious leaders of the day and the most morally upstanding people around. What does John mean by saying that they did not bear fruit? John’s warning shows us that we can live morally good lives yet still be far from repentance. It’s easy for us to go through the motions, going to church, being nice to people, doing well in school, and handling all of our responsibilities. However, this is not enough. We need to constantly search our hearts for opportunities to repent and constantly turn towards Jesus. And we need to always be reminded that the fruits of true repentance can never come from ourselves alone. We cannot produce them – only Jesus can transform our hearts and turn us towards Him day after day.

Dear Jesus, we pray that you would break us of any trust in ourselves – in our works, our talents, our relationships, our spiritual pedigrees. Let us not look to anything except You for salvation. You have delivered us by Your death and resurrection, and only Your person and work have the power to save. Help us take John’s warnings to heart as You humble our spiritual pride. Amen.

Alexander Batson is a PhD candidate (History of Christianity) at Yale University.

Light Born Into Darkness

By Rachel Rim

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” -Matthew 2:16-18

This isn’t a part of the Christmas narrative that we tend to talk a lot about. It isn’t displayed at Christmas pageants or depicted on wooden nativity sets. Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Christ, the coming of the Savior, the mystery and beauty of God made man – why spoil such an inspiring message with something as depressing as mass genocide? 

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Herod’s mass execution of innocent male infants.

I think the question to ask ourselves is what role this story plays within the greater story of Christ’s coming. Because if we take Scripture seriously, these three verses aren’t simply a fictional scene or a literary prologue – they are the stark facts of history. The coming of God in the flesh, the source of our salvation and the foundation of our faith, precipitated the slaughter of infants. And we who know the “end” of the story, the conclusion of Jesus’ life on earth, can read these verses in Matthew with an Easter mentality, but to be faithful to the narrative, we must imagine what this must have felt like to the Jews at the time.

Can you imagine being one of the wise men or the shepherds at the stable, realizing at least even a fraction of the joyful significance of what you’re seeing, only to turn around and hear of – or, perhaps witness with your own eyes – Herod’s mass genocide? How could such ugliness follow right on the heels of such beauty? Might it not have introduced doubt right at the witnesses’ most triumphant moment of faith? If the Savior of the world has come to make things right at last, how could it lead to this? 

Frederick Buechner writes that the Gospel comes in three parts: tragedy, comedy, and fairytale.[1] The tragedy of the Gospel is the absence of God, and I think that’s what we see in these few heavy verses. The absence of God is what we must call His seeming silence in the face of unspeakable cruelty. The absence of God is what we must call the fact that something so good led to something so evil. The absence of God is not, to be sure, His literal absence, for God is and has always been present with us, but it is the word we might use to acknowledge God’s self-restraint, the painful reality of the world we live in that no Good News can fully heal on this side of Heaven. 

And yet, it is precisely into this absence, this human experience of darkness and death that Christ is born into. If the events that surround the birth of our Savior are so bleak – and they truly are, when we consider not only this but the political tensions surrounding Jesus’ birth, his parents’ desperate flee to Egypt as refugees – then surely there is no reality too dark that the Gospel cannot break into with sudden, staggering light: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” is how another of our gospel writers puts it.

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Coptic icon of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt.

We know about the absence of God – we feel it in our strained friendships, in our parents’ broken marriage, in the violence against Muslim worshipers in New Zealand and the violence of our own, selfish hearts. We don’t need to be told about darkness; we, like Jesus, have been born into it.

And I think the paradoxical beauty of this account is that it is itself our assurance that God knows and has always known the bleak state of our lives and our hearts. When we bring to Him our pain, we are only telling Him what He already knows, showing Him what He has already experienced. The message of the Gospel is not meant for lives that feel like paradise; the message of the Gospel is meant for our messy, broken, everyday reality, the unexplainable ache that comes upon us in certain moments.

If we cannot sanitize the Christmas story of all the mess and evil it contains, we also cannot forget that the fact that the Good News came directly into such mess and evil is exactly the point. The absence of God is only one-third of the Gospel reality, because by his ministry, death, and resurrection, Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God and defeated the powers of darkness forever – the best and truest fairytale of all. 

Rachel Rim is an MDiv candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary.

[1 ] Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairytale (New York: Harper Collins, 1977). 

Hearing and Responding to the Voice of God

By Pastor David M. Choi

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying “Joseph, Son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet… When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. -Matthew 1:18-22, 24

“How do I discern the voice of God and what He’s calling me to do?” Joseph, father of Jesus and husband of Mary, is an important biblical figure often overlooked by many Christians. He sets for us, however, an important example of how to hear God’s voice and to respond in quick action.

The gospel writer tells us that Joseph was an upright man. He followed God, and to the best of his ability sought to do what was most pleasing to Him. And in this unique predicament, Joseph thought that that meant divorcing his wife, Mary. For she was pregnant, and certainly not by him. Yet “unwilling to put her to shame” he resolved to go about it quietly. Think about the level of self-control this requires, how Joseph had to temper his passion and jealousy! Indeed, all of this depicts Joseph’s integrity and righteous character. So, what might we glean from this?

When it comes to discerning God’s voice, that is, God’s will and God’s command, discernment needs to run parallel to a life of Christian integrity. Hearing God’s voice means you first allow your heart to match God’s own, as it takes on the shape of the cross by way of active discipleship (i.e. feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the poor) – not just rote memorizations of bible verses.

But we should be careful to notice the purpose and limit of our righteous living (or discipleship). That is, righteousness is to better prepare us to hear God’s voice for when He chooses to speak – implying God’s will is never made completely known to us. To be sure, it doesn’t guarantee that He will, as if we can force God’s hand and rush His plans by virtue of our good deeds. (That’s what the pharisees tried to do.) We need to remember that righteousness is for our sake, not His.

Because of Joseph’s humility and faithfulness, his spirit was so amenable to God’s command that unlike his namesake (from Genesis), who interpreted the dreams of other Egyptians, this Joseph was given the greater gift to not only receive his own dreams but to also trust in them as a clear revelation from God. A revelation he could not have discovered otherwise, since it is a revelation that wholly transcends human knowledge.

What sort of revelation does God wish to reveal to you? And have you made yourself susceptible to the Spirit of God’s revelation, by allowing Him to transform you in the manner of Christ? Do you have a relationship with God, like that of Joseph’s, that is so intense, so robust, so intimate, that God encounters you in your dreams, and you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is truly Him and not your own pious imagination?

After having received a clear word from God, how does Joseph respond in this passage? He obeys. Immediately. Melissa Bailey (i.e. the wife of my former youth pastor) writes, “When God calls you to obey there really isn’t a need to pray about it, to think about it or to ponder it over as you buy time to hopefully avoid the situation altogether. No, when God calls He desires immediate response, no hesitation required.”

Though it might not always be in the dramatic fashion of visions and dreams, there are times when we know very clearly what God is calling us to do. However, we hesitate to act, and we prolong obedience, because, if we’re honest, we sometimes do want the grand visions. Or, we may hesitate to act because we don’t like what God is calling us to do, and thereby look for ways to collapse His will into our own by saying things like, “I/We need to pray more about this.” But at this point, your prayers have turned into mere filibusters. If God’s called you to do something, stop praying about it and just do it, for “[w]hen Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.”

Laying it out in the way that I have risks making this ‘process’ of hearing God’s call and our response to that call overly simplistic and overly formulaic. Certainly, God cannot be reduced to a static formula (i.e. “If I do this, then God will do that”), and certainly all of this is much easier said than done. Even so, we often make things more complicated than they need to be. But no hesitation is necessary. When God calls, we obey.

On Lent

By Pastor David M. Choi

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! -Psalm 139:23-24

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which officially launches us into the Lenten season. After Advent, Lent is the next major season of the Christian calendar, and is the forty days leading up to Good Friday (when Jesus died on the cross) and Easter Sunday (when Jesus rose again from the grave). And during this time, Christians are invited to do three things: reflect, fast, and give.

 Lent as Reflection

As we approach Good Friday, we are forced to look at the ugly reality of sin in our own lives, since it was because of our sin that Christ died on the cross. “Here, our individual and corporate brokenness,” as Chuck Colson writes, “is on display as the Lord of glory dies under the weight of our just judgment, inspiring personal introspection.”

In other words, if we’re going to take the cross of grace seriously, then we need to begin by taking the ugliness of our own sin seriously. With everything going on in our busy lives, we easily forget just how sinful and messed up we really are. Lent, however, disrupts our busyness, and makes us reflect on how we’ve gone astray. The goal, of course, is not merely getting us to acknowledge our own brokenness; rather, it’s getting us to see once more our utter need of divine grace. In this, we are reminded of why Good Friday is indeed Good.

Lent as Fasting

Keeping with tradition, Christians usually fast during the Lenten season. Fasting is giving up, or cutting out, anything in your life that detracts you from God. So, ask yourself, “What distracts me from the Lord? What keeps me from giving Him the sort of time, love, energy, and attention He truly deserves?” Maybe it’s technology, video games, overwork, certain foods or drinks, or even an unhealthy relationship. Whatever it is, commit to fasting so that you can spend more time with God and deepen your relationship with Christ.

Here’s the caveat. Fasting doesn’t make you more spiritual than someone else who isn’t fasting, nor does God favor you more because of it. You are saved by grace alone, by faith alone. Moreover, fasting should not be turned into a sadistic game or competition. Often Christians ask other Christians (especially within youth groups) what they are giving up for Lent because they want to see who can go the longest without eating potato chips or going on instagram. That’s so far from the point, and indeed God will not accept that kind of sacrifice. (Having said that, though, you may ask people if your intention is to pray for them and to keep them accountable to their fasting commitments.)

In short, fasting is about giving up the trivial things you think your life is dependent upon, to be reminded again that there is only One thing your life is truly dependent upon.

Lent as Giving

Because Lent is about deepening our relationship with God, it’s also about deepening our relationships with our neighbors, that is, by blessing them. (If you don’t know who your neighbor is go and read Luke 10:25-37.)

The Spirit leads us to bless others by way of personal reflection and fasting observance. For instance, after having reflected on one’s sin, repentance invites God to pour His grace into one’s life. As God does this, God softens one’s heart and opens one’s eyes to see the reality of sin as it manifests itself in the spiritual, social, and economic struggles of those around us. In seeing this reality of sin, God moves us to prayer, and He moves us to join in solidarity with those who are suffering. Here we see how reflection, fasting, and giving are related to one another.

Thus, carving out time for God also means carving out time for others who we are called to minister to – for we cannot love God rightly without loving our neighbors rightly! Indeed, right next to you there are people who are suffering, people you would’ve otherwise overlooked perhaps because your eyes are constantly glued to a computer screen. So, during Lent, let God honor your fasting and consecrate your devotion by allowing Him to use you to bless others, whether it be through spending time with them, praying for them, or meeting their material needs.

When God finds us, He finds us stewing in the filth of our sins. But He looks on us with mercy, kindness, and love anyway. This Lent dwell on these things. Mourn in darkness for the sorrow of sin. And then take heart. For the joy of Easter morning is coming soon quickly.