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

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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.

Faithful, Where Are Ye?

By Pastor David M. Choi

Save, O Lord, for the godly one is gone; for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man. -Psalm 12:1

Group settings are always a dangerous place to be, as individuals often conform themselves to the larger group’s behavior. This is what social psychologists call a herd mentality, that is, when an individual’s behavior is largely driven by unchecked emotions rather than reason or logic.

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Reinhold Niebuhr, a twentieth century theologian, speaks to this in his early magnum opus, Moral Man and Immoral Society. There he observes how Christians are most inclined to sin and spiritual compromise once they come together as a group. Why? Because it’s easy to do what everyone else is doing, and to fall back on the group’s – or church’s – behavior as an excuse for their own (e.g. “Well everyone else is [or isn’t] doing it!”)

Indeed, we tend to view the church as a place of spiritual safety. Yet this insight tells us something different, namely, that the church can be a place of deep spiritual hazard as well. How so?

By allowing the current spiritual temperature of the church to dictate the spiritual temperature of our own individual lives. For instance, when we don’t show up to prayer meetings because no one else does; when we don’t desire to lift our hands in worship because no one else is raising their hands; when we don’t read scripture because we are without assurance that other people are doing so; and when we don’t care to become baptized because everyone else seems to be complacent with where they’re at. (Though it can also be the reverse, that is, when we do all these things simply because everyone else is doing them.)

Be honest. Is this what your faith looks like? That is, are you the sort of Christian whose walk with Christ solely depends on what everyone else is, or isn’t, doing? If so, either your faith is nonexistent or you desperately need to grow up.

For when we slip into this sort of herd mentality, the faithful begin to vanish. What we end up with is a church whose faith is based upon emotions and crowd conformity rather than Christ’s love and our obedience to Him. Here discipleship is premised on social acceptance and/or apathy, as opposed to the transformative work of the Holy Spirit within our hearts. And the reason why this is so dangerous is because we often can’t tell the difference, especially when things seem good on the surface: we may think we’re on the road to life when in reality we’re on the road to death.

Thus, joining the Psalmist, we ask God to save us. We ask God to help us become the sort of people who will choose to be faithful instead of crowd-conforming, while knowing the difference. Indeed, we want to be Christians who lead by way of prayer and obedience; who follow Christ in steadfastness, especially when it is inconvenient, unpopular, or hidden from view; who boldly risk our social standing for the sake of the cross; who forsake our pride in order to embody Christ’s love, knowing full well that we will not be appreciated nor understood.

Let us not forget that it was the mob, caught up in the herd mentality, that ended up killing Jesus. Pilate asked the crowd what he should do with Jesus. They shouted, “Crucify him!” Perplexed by this, he asked them why, for Jesus had done no evil. But without having any reason, the crowd kept shouting, “Crucify him!”

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Resisting the crowd may at times mean we also resist the church and its aberrant forms of behavior, or any attitude or practice that is spiritually and biblically disingenuous. For we must remember that we are not called to look like the church; we are first and foremost called to look like Christ, as we carry our cross and follow Him. So, will you pray when no one else prays? Will you serve when no one else serves? Will you love when no one else loves? Will you worship when no one else worships?

Ask yourself whether you’ve been crowd-conforming more than you’ve been Christ-conforming. Then consider what you specifically need to repent of (perhaps apathy, laziness, or complacency) so that you can be taken to greater heights of faithfulness and trust.

What Is Man

By Pastor David M. Choi

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? -Psalm 8:3-4

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The Whirlpool Galaxy, imaged above, stands about 23 million light years away, and inside it there are about 100 billion stars.
Here’s another one, called the Pinwheel Galaxy. It’s about 21 million light years away, and contains about 1 trillion stars.

How incredible are the Whirlpool and Pinwheel galaxies? Which are just two out of a trillion galaxies in the known universe! Yet what purpose do they actually serve? I know this seems like an odd question to ask, because typically we don’t think of far-off galaxies as serving a purpose – or, having a reason. Rather, we tend to think of them in terms of their astronomical functions (and often mistakenly conflate the two by saying their function is their purpose).

Yet scripture tells us there’s more to it than that, for God creates nothing by chance or accident. Everything has their place, function, and purpose, including the galaxies and all the stars within them (Rev. 4:11). How so?

When you look at these images, or better yet step outside on a clear brisk night and see with your own eyes the stars that litter the skies above, what do you feel? No doubt you are stricken with a deep sense of amazement, awe, and wonder, that is, by the beauty of their cosmic rays. No doubt you feel small, as tiny as a dust particle, in comparison to their vast size, incomprehensible distance, and sheer numbers. And no doubt you feel lighter, like you are somehow being lifted to otherworldly realms.

But why do we feel such things? What is meant to happen by doing so? Simply put, we feel such things because they are a testament to God’s glory – the work of His fingers – and by experiencing God’s glory in this way we are drawn to worship Him.

For this reason, God breathed out the stars and galaxies (Psalm 33:6), and we see it having its intended effect on the Psalmist as he magnifies the Lord. Thus, God creates and orders the constellations for our sake. Yes, you heard me correctly. The billions of galaxies, and the trillions of stars, are for us and for God’s pleasure. By establishing the starry hosts, the Lord gives us a small glimpse of His power, which in turn deepens the way we experience His great love toward us. Check it out.

The star-breathing God, who is more infinite than the infinite universe itself, is the same God who humbled Himself by taking on human flesh for our salvation. The star-breathing God, who upholds the galaxies and keeps the stars in their positions, is the same God who binds up our broken hearts. The star-breathing God, who stands over and against all of the interstellar pathways, is the same God who enters into time and space in order to bring home lost and weary sinners. Do you see? Such is their purpose.

John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist and theologian at the University of Cambridge, writes, “The universe required ten billion years of evolution before life was even possible; the evolution of the stars and the evolving of new chemical elements in the nuclear furnaces of the stars were indispensable prerequisites for the generation of life.” Isn’t that astounding? The way in which God breathes out stars. And isn’t that profoundly humbling? That the stars exist to enable our lives so that by them we would be led back to life itself through worship. What is man, O Lord, that you are mindful of him?