Where Do You Stand?

By Pastor David M. Choi

Mark 11:1-10; Matthew 21:1-11; Luke 19:28-40; John 12:12-19

Today is Palm Sunday! This day not only launches us into Holy Week, but it commemorates that day when Jesus entered into Jerusalem in triumph. The gospels tell us that large crowds have gathered together, and that the people have lined up, to see their King and their long-awaited Messiah. All around, they are celebrating with shouts of joy and chants of “Hosanna!,” while laying down on the road their cloaks and leafy branches in order to ease the path of the King who now comes riding on a colt.

When we celebrate Palm Sunday in our churches, however, I think we often forget that there is a startling question hidden beneath this story. We assume that where the crowd is is where we want to be. We think, “If only I was there, I, too, would be joining along in their celebratory chants, while laying down cloaks and branches next to them!” But I’m not convinced that this was the intention of the gospel writers.

To be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t commemorate Palm Sunday, nor observe the church’s traditions with respect to it. But what I am saying is perhaps we want to carefully rethink what it means for us to do so, because the question I think we’re being asked is this: Are you sure you want to be where the crowd is? Are you sure you want to join in what they’re doing?

Palm Sunday: The Triumphal Entry - Steve Bell

Don’t forget that this crowd shouting “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday is the same crowd who hands Jesus over to Pilate on Good Friday, shouting “Crucify Him!”. Indeed, they were right to say that Jesus is the Blessed and the Son of David, but they were wrong in what they thought that meant.

They thought Jesus was the one who would restore Israel’s political power and might. They believed that Jesus was the King who would raise up armies, conquer Israel’s enemies, and rule the land from a throne of gold, while wearing crowns of fine jewels and precious stones. So, can you imagine how disappointed they were once they found out what sort of King Jesus truly was? Jesus says, “I am the King, but let me tell you what sort of King I am.”

I am not a King who rules from fortified palaces, but a King who rules from a rugged cross. I do not wear crowns of precious jewels, but the crown I wear is a crown of thorns. I do not sit on thrones made by human hands, but I sit at the rand hand of my Father who is in heaven. I have not come to conquer and destroy, but through humiliation and suffering I have come to show you what it means to forgive your enemies and to love your neighbors.

You think I’ve come to raise up armies, when, in fact, I have come to bring lost sinners to myself. I am not in the business of raising up soldiers, but I am in the business of raising up disciples. You think I will restore Israel through political might, when the truth is my kingdom is not of this world. I will restore Israel, yes, but I will restore her through the new community I am now establishing by the grace of my Spirit, and she shall be called my church. She is my bride. She is the apple of my eye. And in her, my Father’s kingdom will be established.

The crowd’s disappointment lies in the fact that unlike earthly kingdoms Jesus’ kingdom is not based on deception and death but rather truth and life. And during Palm Sunday, the question we’re being asked is “Where do we stand?”. Do you stand among the crowds who belong to the world? Or, do you stand among disciples who belong to Christ and His kingdom?

Indeed, when we commemorate Palm Sunday, we should not be so quick to think we already know where we stand. That is, we shouldn’t deceive ourselves in thinking that we also wouldn’t have been there, shouting along with them, “Crucify Him!”. This day should be an occasion for us to solemnly reflect on the nature of this humble King, who defies all of our intuitions of what it would mean for God to rule the world. For Christ rules not by making other people suffer, but by taking all of our suffering upon Himself. Not what really comes to mind when we think of a King.

An Invitation to Lent

By Pastor David M. Choi

Image result for lent

Time Now Redeemed:

Calendars are a wonderful tool, are they not? We all know that calendars help us keep track of time, but something we may not always be aware of is that they also help us locate our existence within history. That for whatever reason we live in this particular moment, and not in any other. Indeed, earthly calendars are helpful. But they are only helpful to a certain extent. You see, while they might help us determine our historical location, what they can’t do is help us determine its meaning.

The early Christians had a very sophisticated understanding of the incarnation. Like us, they believed in the limitless God taking on the limitedness of human flesh in Jesus Christ. Yet, because of that, they also understood that that equally meant that the eternal God had entered into created time. In other words, the early church believed that by entering into a body God did not only come to redeem our bodies, but that by entering into a body he came to redeem time as well. After all, what good would it do to redeem our bodies if the time by which we make sense of those bodies were not also redeemed?

For this reason, the early church crafted the Christian calendar, precisely because God has redeemed time, and because the church now lives in the time that God has redeemed. You see, it points us to the reality that the gospel breathes new meaning and life into our earthly calendars and existence, and that the gospel now calls us to participate in the reality of God’s kingdom by living according to God’s time and not the world’s. This is why, unlike some today, Christians throughout the ages have never found the Christian calendar as decorative or superfluous. For them, it was the gospel coming to life, and that life helping them to better understand the gospel.

Though our church has never completely dismissed the Christian calendar, it wasn’t until recently that, by God’s grace, we were given the ability to rediscover the beauty and the significance of its full depth and breadth. Which is why we are doing something we’ve never done before, and that is having a morning Ash Wednesday prayer service. You see, by being here, what our church is really saying is that we want to better honor the incarnation of the Son, to be more faithful observers of the time now redeemed, and to be better participants of God’s kingdom reality. This is why we’re here, and this is why I am grateful.

Lent as Preparation:

So, after Advent, Lent is the next major season of the Christian year, the time now redeemed. If you don’t know, Lent is the forty-day period leading up to Easter, and what it represents is Jesus’ forty-day preparation for public ministry as he spent time alone in the wilderness. In the same way, Lent is a time when we Christians intentionally set aside the next forty days to deepen our relationship with God.

Now, obviously, this is something we should be doing throughout our entire lives, but we all know that we have a natural inclination to put our relationship with God on the backburner. Either because we get lost in the busyness of our professional lives and/or academic studies, or because we’ve just grown spiritually complacent and dull. Thus, Lent is a time for us to reposition ourselves again in Christ.

The tone of this season, however, is marked by penitence and solemnity. That is, to grow in our love for God and others, we are called to use this time to reflect on our own spiritual lives, by taking inventory of our sins, by praying and fasting, and by repenting and serving others. And as we do so, what we are doing throughout this season is we are preparing our hearts for what Christ has done on Easter morning.

So, this is a time when we focus our mind’s eye on what it means to be followers of Jesus, while resetting the compass of discipleship by training our hearts to press on after Christ. And as the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this penitent season.

Ash Wednesday (Remembering Who We Are):

To prepare our hearts for Lent, we gather here this morning for corporate prayer and repentance, and to receive what’s known as the imposition of the ashes. The ashes are a reminder of not only where we come from, but where we end up at the end of our lives: the dust. As God says in Genesis 3:19, “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” However, the shape of the cross stands as the sure reminder that death will not have the last word; that through repentance and faith in Christ our Lord we have eternal life.

As we bear these marks throughout the day, what it publicly signifies is that we have now entered into Lent. But the most obvious of all, it publicly signifies to our classmates and colleagues that we are Christians, and that we are not ashamed of the gospel, because as Paul says hope does not put us to shame (Rom. 5:5).

So, I now invite the Calvary Baptist Church of New Haven to observe this moment of holy prayer and corporate repentance to prepare our hearts for Lent, for the sake of growing closer to our holy and most wonderful God, in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Knowing Christ

By Pastor David M. Choi

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God. -Exodus 20:4-5 

Image result for Israel at mount sinai

When making observations of a natural phenomenon, such as the law of gravity, scientists seek to understand the phenomenon as it presents itself to them. Anything else would be improper science, not to mention vastly irresponsible. That is, to base scientific conclusions on what we want them to be rather than on what they factually are we would call pseudoscience. And this holds true for how we come to know God. 

In terms of the Christian faith, the specific activity by which we learn to think, speak, and reason about God correctly we call theology, and, as Karl Barth points out, theology, too, is a science in that it seeks to understand God as God presents Himself to us, which is why any conclusions drawn outside of these strict parameters directly results in pseudo-theology. Another word for that being idolatry.

The law of gravity and God, however, are clearly not the same things, that is, one is in nature, whereas the other is beyond nature, for God is spiritual and transcendent. Hence, we cannot reduce God down into a simple formula or mathematical equation. We must know Him through the manner in which He presents Himself to us, which is revelation, faith, and personal encounter.

In the Old Testament, we see that Israel was called to be a nation after God’s own heart, and God gives them the first commandment [i.e. to have no other gods besides Him] in order to help them live into that calling. Yet, God says if they are to truly know Him, namely, as the One who rescued them from Egyptian slavery, then it is also imperative that they do not confuse God for idols and created things. This is why the second commandment is given right after the first. 

Over these last few months, my students and I have been walking through the gospel of Matthew for our morning Sunday school. In the gospel, we see that God has now presented Himself to the world most clearly in Christ. However, we observed that, despite that being the case, there are still many within Israel who cannot recognize that fact, that God now stands literally before them. When I asked the class why that is, one student raised her hand and answered with this: “Because they already have a picture of who God should be.” Exactly that. 

We don’t miss out on God because He isn’t there. We miss out because we’ve already determined in our minds who God should be. We miss out because we refuse to accept the fact that God isn’t like us. We miss out because we can’t see past our puny imaginations. I’m using “we” in a general sense.

However, this is no time for Christians to all of a sudden get spiritually cocky because, unlike the crowd, “we know that Jesus is God.” Make no mistake, if we are not careful, Christians can actually be some of the worst idolaters. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once preached to his theological students at Finkenwalde: “There are many Christians who certainly bend their knees before the cross of Jesus Christ but who refuse and struggle against any affliction in their own lives. They think that they love the cross of Christ, but they hate the cross in their own lives. Thus in truth they also hate the cross of Jesus Christ; in truth they, who try to escape the cross by all means possible, are despisers of the cross.”

Indeed, many Christians like the eternal life He has to give, but they despise the fact that they are called to abandon everything for the sake of knowing and following Him. Many like the fact that He promises certain blessings, but they despise the fact that they are called to die so that they can live. Which is why despite all claims to knowing Jesus many still don’t know Him.

I have always made it known to the people I care for that they are free to accept or reject Christ. As a pastor, I have no business or interest in coercing them into faith. It is a personal decision they must make. That is the free choice that God gives them, which we see Christ do in the gospels. But whatever their choice may be, and this is now a note for all Christians, it must be made upon the basis of who God presents Himself to be in Jesus Christ, and not upon the basis of the carved images we have of Him in our minds.

But here’s the other thing. The science of knowing Jesus is not a static enterprise. Knowing Jesus requires one to say, “Jesus, admittedly, I don’t always understand you. But even so, I trust you. Therefore, I obey you.” In other words, knowing Jesus and what He’s all about requires full obedience. If we want to know God, we must follow Christ. That is the second commandment for disciples. There is no other way. That is why it is a steep risk. But a risk worth taking. Why? Because it is better to live in the life-giving reality of uncertainty and risk, than in the illusion of cheap thrills, false certainty, and short comforts. So, may we know Him. May we know this Christ, who is abundantly more than all we can ask for or imagine [Eph. 3:20].

Prayer: Dear Jesus, thank You for showing me who God is. In Your life, I see the Father’s heart for this world. In Your death, I see the Father’s unwavering love for all. In Your resurrection, I see spectacular hope for sinners like myself. I want to know You like this. So, please forgive me, Lord, for my idolatry and spiritual pride. Forgive me, Lord, for turning You into something You’re not. I desperately want to know You as the God beyond what I can imagine. So, give me the strength and courage to live a life of obedience. Though I don’t always understand You, I say to You again that I trust You, because You have given me Christ. Amen.

Weep No More

By Pastor David M. Choi

And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. -Revelation 5:2-4

Hundreds have died since the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China (still in counting), with an estimated million Turkic muslims currently imprisoned in the reeducation camps of Xinjiang. To their right in North Korea, millions have died, and are dying, due to famine and starvation, while to their south helpless infants are being left abandoned in the dumpsters of deserted alleyways, mainly due to birth defects.

In America, police brutality is claiming the lives of countless, innocent young black men, and the issues of poverty and gun violence don’t seem to be faring any better. Political turmoil has displaced thousands of families with young children in the Middle East, and the bodies of refugees are horrifically washing up on disparate shores. Across the world, countless young children – many having been sold into slavery by their parents out of economic desperation – are fighting to survive abuse and sexual exploitation.

Every twenty-four hours, one to two hundred animal and vegetative species are going extinct due to ecological catastrophe. Climate change and rising sea levels have already begun to plunge the world’s coastal cities, and, in California and Australia, unquenchable fires have exuberantly taken numerous lives and numerous homes.

We’ve been holding on to the modern hope of progress for so long, yet, to all of our plight and suffering, there seems to be no end in sight. For every fire that is put out, a thousand more erupt. For every marble that gets stored away, a thousand more slip out. If the optimism of progress promises an end to all of these things, then the question we demand an answer for is when. When will the world be made new? But this is a question we know the world cannot answer. So then what I think we’re really trying to ask is who. Who will make it new? In other words, as John has written, who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?

Our spirits are weeping, and our souls are crying out. Not for more technological advancements, not for the vague, precarious, and misguided promises of modern science, not for the morally inept dreams of progressive political agendas. Indeed, if world history has taught us anything, it’s that there is no hope in such things, and one does not need to be a scholar to see how true that is. Instead, what we are groaning for is perfect justice. Someone who will make the wicked suffer, right all wrongs, save humanity from sin, and make the world new. Who is worthy of such an awesome thing? It turns out no one is worthy to bring the world the hope it needs, and because of that John weeps: “I began to weep loudly because no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.” But then something out of the ordinary happens…

“And then one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals…’ And the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, and they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you [Christ] were slain…'” (Rev. 5:5, 8-9).

Indeed, we are longing for a hope that is real, yet we don’t know what could be worthy of such a hope since, it is clear, only an otherworldly hope can put an end to all our groaning. So with John we weep…

But like him, just when we thought such a hope couldn’t exist, we are given sight to see that God has abruptly entered into this war-torn and pestilence-stricken world, to extend to us the hope we’ve been so desperately longing for. Through his cross, God has brought forth perfect justice, and through his resurrection God has brought forth healing and perfect peace. The King has come. Creation has been reclaimed. Rebellious nations have been conquered. And now the Spirit of God bears witness to this truth: that Christ has not only done this, namely, the work of new creation, but that he who has begun this work will soon bring it to completion.

Though we feel the world is broken, we are not without hope. For in these things, Christ has shown himself to be worthy as the One who brings perfect justice and new life. Indeed, who is worthy but the spotless Lamb of God, sent to redeem us from our sins? Who is worthy but the root of David, who has perfectly done what we ought to have done but could not do? Who is worthy but the Lion of Judah, unleashed into this world to break every chain and to set the captives free? Who is worthy but him?

Weep no more. But if you must, do not weep as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). For there is One who has been found worthy to break the seven seals and open the scroll.

Who Do You Say That I Am?

By Pastor David M. Choi

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. -Mark 8:27-30

Image result for caesarea philippi jesus peter icon"

Being born into a Christian family was something I used to take for granted when I was much younger. Yet it wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I began to realize what an amazing gift that was. Of course, there are many people who would disagree. For instance, Richard Dawkins, an atheist evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, sees parents raising their children according to their own religious beliefs as a form of child abuse, and even goes so far as to call it malicious. Children are highly malleable and intellectually vulnerable, and thus it deprives them of their freedom to choose.

But when you bring this to Christian parents, you’ll notice that it comes to them as a surprise. It doesn’t quite register. Whether it be my own parents, or Christian friends I have who are themselves parents, I’ve heard them say that – contrary to abuse or freedom deprivation – it’s the greatest gift they could ever give to their children: “How could we not tell our children about what our God has done for us in Jesus Christ?” It is a parent’s heart to give good things to their children, and for them the gospel is the best thing they could ever give to their children.

Even so, doesn’t that deprive them of their freedom to choose? I don’t think it does. In fact, what is odd and intrinsic to the Christian faith is that we do not get to choose for others, even our own children (which is different from making your kids go to church). From my own personal upbringing, I’ve never once felt that I didn’t have the freedom to choose; only that I was better informed about what I would potentially be rejecting. Every parent knows that all they can do is guide their child and offer to her the gift of faith. But there comes a time when the child must choose for herself.

As a youth pastor, I am on the frontlines of helping young students understand the faith better, while watching them grow into making that decisive decision. It is beautiful and terrifying all at once, and it often keeps me up at night. Like our parents, though, I am utterly incapable of choosing faith for my students. But that’s the risk of genuine love, is it not? Christ will not impose himself on us. He simply offers us himself through the testimony of his word, and then we have to choose. For some reason, God finds the risk of rejection worth the freedom of his love.

My students are at an age where they are maturing and growing in their independence. As young children, they heard their parents tell them what God is like. But now as emerging adults, they must hear Christ for themselves, who is calling out to them, and personally answer that decisive question: “But who do you say that I am?” The extent of my capacity is simply to present the good news, again and again, and to pray for them, that they would be given the grace to confess in freedom what we’ve all had to confess in freedom for ourselves: “You are the Christ.”

Prayer: Dear Jesus, thank you for the gift of Christian parents, friends, and mentors. Help me, Lord, not to take such gifts for granted, but to see how you are calling me to yourself through their light and patient witness. Though you have guided me this far, I know that I need to make the faith my own. Give me strength to do so, day by day, moment by moment. Help me not to base my faith on what the world says you’re like, but what you have shown me of yourself through Christ and Christ alone, as he lived, died, and rose again for me. Amen.

Despair and Salvation

By Pastor David M. Choi

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. -Romans 7:15

Image result for christ in our despair"

There is certainly more to fear in enjoying a life of unrepentant sin than in despairing over a life of ongoing sin. With regards to the former, their happiness is unfounded, whereas with the latter their despair is leading to something real. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the weight of your sin, I simply say this: take heart.

When we continue to do what we know we should not do, we are tempted to believe that the despair born out of that means we are doing something wrong, which then leads us to believe that we are not cut out to be good Christians. However, was it not Jesus himself who said that it was the poor in spirit who would receive the kingdom of heaven?

Rather than being discouraged, be encouraged by your despair. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s true. Scripture tells us that sorrowing over sin is not a human possibility. That requires divine intervention, namely, for you to recognize your own fallenness, and for you to grieve over it in the way that Christ does. Only the Spirit of Christ can convict us of our sins. And for that reason, there is great encouragement in despair.

You’ll notice, though, that such encouragement is short lived if you refuse to go to where it leads: the cross of Jesus Christ. If despair draws you into yourself, then you’ll fall away. But if you follow its trail, by going to where Christ is, then you’ll discover that there is a marvelous power that awaits you. A power that helps you become what you otherwise could not become on your own.

God convicts us in order to help us. He would never do one without the other. So, in your despair, take heart.

Prayer: Dear Jesus, thank you for showing me my sin, and for allowing me to sorrow over it. In my sorrow, you are giving me glimpses into your heart, and because of that I see just how much I hurt you. Forgive me, Lord. In my despair, I ask that you bring me closer to the cross. Grant me your strength to live in obedience, and give me grace for moments when I do not. Remind me, Lord, once again, that it is your cross that defines me and not my greatest failures, that no matter how badly I fail you love me nonetheless. Amen.

Reflection/Response Questions: What sin in your life do you despair over (or need to begin despairing over)? And in what ways do you need Christ’s strength to help you in your battle against sin through spiritual and practical measures?

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.