the intersection of heaven and earth

As everyone knows from 8th grade English class, every piece of literature has a theme. The theme of a book is the sweeping idea it communicates; it’s that one impression that stayed with you from that one book you read eight years ago. You can trace its development from the book’s beginning to its end.

The Bible, in all its brilliance, contains sweeping ideas as well; Genesis-to-Revelation ideas. One of the cover-to-cover themes of the Bible is the idea of temple.

In biblical thought, the temple is the intersection of heaven and earth. Jesus said, “Whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it” (Matthew 23:21-22). In the same breath he said God “dwells” in the temple and in heaven; that is, the fullness of God’s glorious presence is in heaven, but it breaks into the physical, human world at the temple.

Tracing the temple through the Bible:

When he calls it “very good.” Eden, before humanity’s first act of rebellion: God requires no temple. He lives with the people  he has created without restriction. Their relationship to him requires no buildings, no rituals. Humankind enjoys blessed peace, and unashamed love, with each other, and with the God who made them. God calls it “very good.”

God pitches a tent. Mount Sinai, around 1500 B.C.: Humanity is now estranged from God because of sin; evil is in the world. Moses has led the Israelites out of slavery and into the Arabian Desert. In an epic scene on Sinai, God forms a special bond, a covenant, between himself and this primitive bunch of former slaves in the desert. He gives them his law for their community, including in it a command to build a tabernacle – in effect, pitch a tent – for him (Exodus 26). “I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God,” he says (Exodus 29:45).

God moves in. Jerusalem, around 900 B.C.: Israel is unified and prosperous. King Solomon builds the beautiful and iconic First Temple at Jerusalem (1 Kings 5-8), and God consecrates it “by putting [his] name there forever” (1 Kings 9:3). This is the temple the psalmists sing about, and Jews reminiscence about forever after.

For hundreds of years, Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem is the place where the Israelites come to praise, pray, offer sacrifices, and celebrate their holidays. It occupies the highest place of importance in Israelite thought, life, and worship, for at the temple, the promise of the Sinai covenant is realized: God dwells with his people. David expresses the longing for God’s presence in Psalm 27 when he says, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.”

The Temple goes on, but never lives up. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, especially in the books of Ezekiel, Haggai, and Ezra, the temple continues to play a central role. The Old Testament writers continue to understand it as the place where God’s glory breaks into the realm of humanity; however, the temple building itself never seems quite good enough (e.g. Ezra 3:11-13). Foreign conquerors destroy and rebuild it twice before the beginning of the New Testament. It never again reaches the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple, and never in its history does it give more than a taste of what it means to be in the presence of God.

The Old Testament is clear: God is infinite and stone walls cannot contain him (1 Chronicles 6:18, see also Acts 17:24). In all its genius, though, this is the foundation the Old Testament lays for how we are to understand the idea of temple, and why it matters to us.

When God comes down. Judea, c. 30 A.D.: The New Testament begins and Jesus the Messiah comes on the scene. He makes an absurd claim: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The Jewish leaders call him a blasphemer. They get him arrested and crucified. They think they’ve won until three days later when they discover to their horror – his tomb is empty.

Jesus was and is the true Temple, the real Intersection Between Heaven and Earth. He, God and man in one person, broke into our world as “the exact representation of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:3). In him, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). He, the divine Word, “became flesh and dwelt” – literally, pitched a tent – “among us” (John 1:14). He said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

After his resurrection, his followers understood that the temple he had spoken of was himself – his own body, crushed for us (John 2:21-22). Jesus was the Temple, the place at which God breaks into the world, because he is God, he is the glory of God, he is the revelation of God. He was Heaven, dwelling on earth.

Temples of the Holy Spirit. In these post-ascension days, Jesus is no longer on earth bodily, but he has not left the world without a temple – or more correctly, without temples. Here is a truth that will blow your mind: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). You, Christian, are, now, God’s temple on earth. You are the place where heaven and earth intersect, because the Holy Spirit dwells in you, if you can believe it. By faith in Jesus, you are not your own, you were bought at a price (1 Corinthians 6:20). You are holy and blessed (1 Corinthians 3:17). You are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). “God lives in you, believer, so don’t throw a tarp over a lighthouse” – to quote my favorite morning radio guy.

Buildings, churches, and cathedrals are not God’s house. The people belonging to Jesus are his house (1 Peter 2:4-6). Materials objects do not contain the Christian faith. “Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son” (Hebrews 3:5-6). Moses, the tabernacle, the temples of Jerusalem – all of it testified in advance to the truth that Jesus is Lord and Savior, and that the people redeemed by him are God’s house, and that God promises the people of his house unrestricted access and unashamed relationship with him, forever. That’s good news.

The culmination of it all. From the beginning to the end of God’s book, the idea of “temple” is there. Each time it resurfaces, it builds up our understanding of God and the grace he offers us. At the end of the book of Revelation, it comes up one last time: “I saw no temple in the city,” – that is, the New Jerusalem, John’s vision of the recreated world that is to come – “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22). When that world arrives, there will no longer be glimpses of God or foretastes of his glory. We will be with him, fully. No barriers. No processes. Eternal life, with our Creator – when heaven and earth are one.

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album review: “The Water and the Blood” by Sojourn

This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 1 John 5:6

I, and many I know, have an ambivalent relationship with contemporary Christian music. As a musician, I often feel frustrated with the boring music and thoughtless lyrics of “Christian pop/rock.” Amateur musicianship, coupled with the undefinable quest to be relevant, leaves much of it unattractive and unmoving for me. I do, however, occasionally find reason to get excited about Christian music: most often it’s because of the growing movement of musicians who combine centuries-old hymn lyrics with accessible modern music. And it usually comes with some soul.

This week I found such a reason to get excited. “The Water and the Blood,” produced by Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, is the second of two albums based on the hymns of prolific English hymn writer Isaac Watts (e.g. “Joy to the World,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed”).

The musicians of Sojourn took the lyrics of Watts’ hymns (with some liberties) and put them to the music of twelve original songs. The music is indie folk-rock with a big dose of soul, sung by male and female vocalists with voices reminiscent of singers such as Amos Lee and Adele. It is full of terrific harmonies and is instrumentally balanced; I especially appreciated the tasteful guitar licks which occasionally rise to the surface. Overall, it feels like live music. The artists of Sojourn thankfully avoided slick overproduction, and its authentic sound makes the album.

The album is worshipful, personal, and theological. Much of its lyrics come right out of scripture, especially the psalms. They express childlike wonder at the atonement of Jesus’ blood for sin and at God’s faithful nearness. Sometimes they touch on topics not usually heard in popular Christian music: track 11, for example, is almost certainly the only song I’ve heard based on Romans 7:9, and it’s one of my favorites on the album.

You can buy the album here . I downloaded the entire thing for only $6.

The track listing is:

1. Absent From Flesh
2. The Water and the Blood
3. From Deep Distress
4. Compel My Heart To Sing
5. Let the Seventh Angel Sounds
6. Oh God, Our Help In Ages Past
7. Deep In Our Hearts
8. Blest Be The Lamb
9. Death Has Lost Its Sting
10. Early, My God
11. Let Your Blood Plead For Me
12. The World Will Know

Worshiping God with songs of good music and thoughtful poetry is a beautiful and appropriate element of the Christian life, made even sweeter when we join our voices with the generations of saints who have come before us.

I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. Psalm 146:2

Lead Me To The Rock

Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.

I’ve been mountain climbing desperately;
out of breath, building stairs of stones to nowhere,
ebenezers to my neediness.
Like Moses you gave me a glimpse of what will be,
what should be, what must be. I ache for the promised land, Lord,

Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.

I want to bring the ark, I want to lead the band,
I want to build your name a temple with my hands,
in doing so I disregard your explicit commands
if you are not the rock upon which my feet are standing,
upon which my handiwork is built. My God,

Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.

You have made the point well:
a shaking is coming that will show what stones are sturdy,
a fire that will prove what wheat is worthy.
Anything I build not built on you will fall, I know.
You are the sole foundation, security, and hope.

Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.

Mountain climbing is irrelevant: stair-stepping,
rule-keeping, crowd-pleasing, all is vanity without you.
You save, and you justify, so I praise, and I glorify,
and it comes down to: I believe this work is worth it
because you are God, and you are good.

Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.

…and that rock was Christ. 1 Corinthians 10:4

class is in session

I will never forget my fourth grade teacher. He taught in a way that increased my love for reading and made me and each of my classmates feel uniquely special to him. My appreciation for him has grown over the years as I have come to better understand the unique difficulties of teaching. I think just about everyone can relate to knowing the impact a good teacher can have on his or her students. Teachers, whether in the classroom, the church, or informally in life, can open our minds to things that no one else can.

Every January, my youth pastor asks all the junior and senior high schoolers in our church to choose “target words” to focus throughout the year – love, discipline, humility, etc. This time I chose “disciple” as a concept to explore and mature in this year. Thinking about discipleship over the past five months has taught me not only about myself as a disciple, but Christ as teacher. He said, “You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers… Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah” (Matthew 23:8-10). That statement is amazing – indeed, the great part of the Christian life, whether you are a child in the faith or the apostle Paul, is simply sitting at Jesus’ feet saying, “teach me.”

Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30 KJV). Jesus is a gentle teacher. He knows our weaknesses, and the ways even our good intentions can get messed up. He forgives, and forgives again, and forgives again. He never stops saying, “Come to me and I will give you rest.” His nail-pierced hands are always stretched out to welcome and embrace the sinners who come to him.

He is gentle, but uncompromising. He says “my burden is light”; he also says “take up your cross and follow me” (Luke 14:33). That’s like a holocaust victim saying “walk into your gas chamber.” He says, “be free” (John 8:36); he also says “be a slave” (Mark 10:43-44). He promises “life to the full” (John 10:10), along with daily death (Luke 9:23). If we are to be his students – his disciples – we must open the textbook, examine the coursework, and understand his methods.

He turns our whole paradigm for life on its head. He, the author of the Torah, did not go to people who cared about the Torah. He went to people like prostitutes and lepers, people without a shred of hope in regard to morality or keeping commandments, people overwhelmed in every way by the evil of humans, in both other people and themselves. He taught that the most precious thing in life, the only significant reality worth living for, is something you cannot see. It involves a way of life that will cost you pain and rejection, even from the people you love the most. He said that our hatred of sin ought to be so great that we consider physical maiming preferable to a single glance that offends God. He said to be unafraid of terrorists and murderers, but terrified by the anger of God against sin; and he said the same God whose anger burns so fiercely against sin feels such great love for forgiven sinners, and identifies himself with them so closely, that he calls them his children and asks them to call him their father. He preached Judgment Day, and he preached love, forgiveness, and mercy.

He is like no other teacher who has ever lived, and yet he is more than a teacher. Many have claimed to be teachers; a few have claimed to be saviors; none have claimed to be God. He is all three. He came to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), because all of us, like prostitutes and lepers, have absolutely no hope in regard to morality and keeping commandments. We need his lessons; even more desperately, we need his salvation.

I know his salvation, therefore I say, “Lord, teach me” (see 2 Corinthians 4:13-14). He answers – through his Word, through my experiences, through his people, even through my failures, as amazing as that is – and I praise him for that.

Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes;
and I will keep it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it.
Incline my heart to your testimonies,
and not to selfish gain!
Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
and give me life in your ways.
Confirm to your servant your promise,
that you may be feared.
Turn away the reproach that I dread,
for your rules are good.
Behold, I long for your precepts;
in your righteousness give me life! Psalm 119:33-40

I Wish I Had The Metaphors

I wish I had the metaphors to
lend description to the love of God.
“A father throws his own son in front of a train…”
What an inadequate thought. You threw
him from heaven to earth – no.
More, he jumped.

I wish I could create a painting
that could capture the nature of his rescue mission.
It would need much red, white, and gold,
for the blood, the purity, and glory.
What pale colors they are, compared to his story.
Just flat colors.

I do not understand your choice of
loving us, Father. Why send him in the likeness
of our wicked brutal flesh? My God! What a wretch
I am, my heart and flesh at war within me.
In awe I am quiet, like a weaned child
in your arms.

I give up on trying to explain
your love. Surely it is surprising
when I feel the murder in my mind, the sloth in my soul.
Oh my God, had the contract not been signed in blood,
I could not believe it. But there it is, and now,
there I rest.

understanding the Bible: an introduction

Everyone, then, who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. Matthew 7:24-25

The Bible is the Christian’s greatest resource on this pilgrim journey. Anyone who wants a mature faith and an enduring love must get to know it well. Many people struggle with reading the Bible, though, and understandably so – it is a complex and ancient document (usually the oldest in anyone’s library). When thoughtfully approached, however, it is accessible to anyone.

Often, people read the Bible in order to:

  • get inspired
  • be a better person
  • find solutions to their problems
  • find the right rules to follow
  • discover hidden, mystical meaning behind every word
  • know everything God says about ____
  • get material for the next moral/theological debate
  • find nice sounding verses to post as Facebook statuses
  • feed their ego
  • stifle their guilt

Although each of these approaches contain some truth (except the last two), they totally miss the main point. Inevitably they lead to discouragement, confusion, and boredom.

1. Read the Bible on its own terms.
The Bible is absolutely not an encyclopedia, a self-help book for modern problems, a book of systematic theology, or an entertaining and easy-to-follow storybook. If you try to force it to be something it’s not, you will be quickly disappointed.

The Bible is a story about how God has redeemed, is redeeming, and will redeem his people and his world. It’s main subject matter is God interacting with humans in history; it’s main purpose is for humans to know God; it’s main message is the gospel of grace; and it’s main character is Jesus Christ (John 1:45, 5:46, 8:56, 12:41, Luke 24:27) .

2. Ask questions.
The key to understanding the Bible, therefore, is to understand how each of its parts contributes to this whole. Part of this is asking questions of every text, such as:

  • How does this passage relate to what comes immediately before and after it?
  • How does this passage fit into the overall story of the Bible?
  • What are the themes of this passage?
  • Why did the author write this?
  • What does this passage say about the character of God?
  • What does this passage say about the gospel and the work of Christ?
  • What does this passage say about humans? sinners? Christians?
  • What does this mean for me and how can I apply this to my life?

Use the resources provided by 2,000 years of church history and an Internet connection. In our day, scriptural insights and commentaries from the world’s greatest thinkers and saints are instantly available to anyone with a few clicks and couple bucks. Bible study has never been easier. My personal favorite resource is biblegateway.com and its ESV Bible cross-references (e.g. Hebrews 4:12).

3. Conform yourself to the Word; don’t try to conform the Word to you.
Watch out for reading the Bible with purely modern eyes, expecting Middle Eastern culture from thousands of years ago to match up with the values and standards of 21st century American culture. Also beware of reading your theological/philosophical assumptions into a text, or of stretching a text beyond what it is really saying in order for it to say what you want it to say. The purpose of the Bible is defeated if we become its authority.

The Word of God is amazing because it is both informing and transforming. It reveals God to us, and reveals us to ourselves. We have a faith, and a gospel, because God in his grace gave us a book. Not only does the Word inform the mind, but it transforms the heart. The Holy Spirit uses it to change us from the inside out by confronting us with our sin, teaching us God’s ways, and assuring us of his steady love. God, sin, love, gospel – there is in fact nothing more precious, more important or relevant to you and your life than God’s Word and its message, whether you realize it or not.

4. Pray
Paul says that the things of God must be spiritually discerned. The “natural man,” “human wisdom,” and the “spirit of this world” are unable to accept or understand the spiritual truths of God (1 Corinthians 2:12-14). Therefore, ask the Holy Spirit for his help, constantly. Pray without ceasing. He will not refuse (Luke 11:11-13, James 1:5).

I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation… How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Psalm 119:99, 103

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Colossians 3:16

Simon Peter answered [Jesus], “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68