What is your only comfort in life and death?

I can’t recall where or when it was that I first encountered Q & A #1 from the Heidelberg Catechism but I know it instantly struck a deep chord. Some truths resonate not just because they’re true but because you so desire them to be true of you.

1. Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

Why a virgin birth?

The top three answers are on the board, Evangel family. Why was the Messiah born of a virgin?

Christian: to fulfill the prophecy from Isa 7:14. {ding!}
Christiana: Uhhhhhh… {buzz! X}
Junior: Hmmm… {buzz! XX}
Jonny: Because . . . Mary was a virgin. {buzz! XXX}

Kitson family, you have a chance to steal. Why was the Messiah born of a virgin?

Jake: Jesus? {buzz! X}

I suspect many of us could offer several reasons why the incarnation was necessary (Gal 4:4-5 & Heb 2:14-18), but most of us would begin to sweat profusely if we had to explain the point of the virgin birth. The difficulty, of course, lies in the fact that both Matthew and Luke assert Christ’s supernatural birth but neither of them explains the significance of the miracle. Some might infer that a virgin birth was required for the Son’s incarnation and/or for his sinless incarnation, but those explanations are far from certain.

So why the virgin birth? In The Person of Christ, Donald Macleod acknowledges that like all the miracles in Jesus’ life, the virgin birth functions as a sign and draws from Karl Barth to offer three theological reflections on the virgin birth:

First, it is highlighting the essentially supernatural character of Jesus and the gospel. Alluding to Barth again, the virgin birth is posted on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas; and none of us must think of hurrying past it. It stands on the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further. If our faith staggers at the virgin birth what is it going to make of the feeding of the five thousand, the stilling of the tempest, the raising of Lazarus, the transfiguration, the resurrection and, above all, the astonishing self-consciousness of Jesus? . . .

Secondly, the virgin birth is a sign of God’s judgment on human nature. The race needs a redeemer, but cannot itself produce one: not by its own decision or desire, not by the processes of education and civilization, not as a precipitate of its own evolution. The redeemer must come from the outside. Here, as elsewhere, ‘all things are of God.’ He provides the lamb (Gn 22:8). Barth is exactly right: ‘Human nature possesses no capacity for becoming the human nature of Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, the virgin birth is a sign that Jesus Christ is a new beginning. He is not a development of anything that has gone before. He is a divine intrusion: the last, great, culminating eruption of the power of God into the plight of man: ‘Man is involved only in the form of non-willing, non-achieving, non-creative, non-sovereign man, only in the form of man who can merely receive, merely be ready, merely let something be done to and with himself.’

Come and worship.

Newton’s words of comfort to an unexpected widow

“Mrs. Talbot was the wife of the Rev. W. Talbot, vicar of St. Giles’, Reading. In the midst of his devoted labors and in the prime of life this good man was suddenly cut off by a contagious fever caught in the discharge of his ministerial duties. . .”

Though every stream must fail, the fountain is still full and still flowing. All the comfort you ever received in your dear friend was from the Lord, who is abundantly able to comfort you still; and he is gone but a little before you. May your faith anticipate the joyful and glorious meeting you will shortly have in a better world. Then your worship and converse together will be to unspeakable advantage, without imperfection, interruption, abatement, or end. Then all tears shall be wiped away, and every cloud removed; and then you will see, that all your concernments here below (the late afflicting dispensation not excepted), were appointed and adjusted by infinite wisdom and infinite love.

The Lord, who knows our frame, does not expect or require that we should aim at a stoical indifference under his visitations. He allows that afflictions are at present not joyous, but grievous; yea, He was pleased when upon earth to weep with his mourning friends when Lazarus died. But he has graciously provided for the prevention of that anguish and bittereness of sorrow, which is, upon such occasions, the portion of such as live without God in the world; and has engaged that all shall work together for good, and yield the peaceable fruits of righteousness. May He bless you with a sweet serenity of spirit, and a cheerful hope of the glory that shall shortly be revealed. . . .

Will it be a consolation to you, madam, to know that you do not mourn alone? A character so exemplary as a friend, a counsellor, a Christian, and a minister, will be long and deeply regretted; and many will join me in praying, that you, who are most nearly interested, may be signally supported, and feel the propriety of Mrs. Rowe’s acknowledgment,

Thou dost but take the dying lamp away
To bless me with thine own unclouded day.

We join in most affectionate respects and condolence. May the Lord bless you and keep you, lift up the light of his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Letters of John Newton, “To Mrs. Talbot” (Letter 1)

Was Joseph’s bloodline under a curse?

Jehoiachin-Jeconiah‘Tis the season to be reading the nativity passages found in Matthew and Luke. One of the more perplexing features of these narrative sections is the presence of two different genealogies for Jesus in Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 when we might expect to find matching records. Recently, one of our church members asked for my thoughts on an interpretation that addresses these genealogical anomalies and since I thought others would be interested in the discussion I decided to share it here.

First an overview of the interpretation in question followed by my (emailed) response to the inquisitor.

Jeremiah 22:30 records a curse on King Jehoiachin (referred to as “Coniah” in Jer 22:28 and “Jeconiah” in Mat 1:11-12). The pronouncement reads “Thus says the LORD, ‘Write this man down childless / A man who will not prosper in his days / For no man of his descendants will prosper / Sitting on the throne of David / Or ruling again in Judah’.” Interestingly, it turns out that Jeconiah is included in Matthew’s genealogy but omited from Luke’s, a variant some suggest is due to the Jeconiah curse. The thinking goes something like this:

  • The reason we have two genealogies is that the gospels record two ancestral lines: Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestry through Joseph but Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry through Mary.
  • The respective genealogies are identical from Abraham–David. At that point, Matthew moves from David to Solomon but Luke moves from David to Nathan. Jeconiah descended from Solomon (not Nathan) which is why he appears in Matthew (1:11-12) but not in Luke.
  • Jeconiah was cursed to be without a Davidic heir. Jesus is a Davidic heir through Joseph and Mary; however, the virgin birth preserved Jesus from Jeconiah’s curse which would have been passed down through Joseph but not Mary.

[Name]: I spent a good part of my morning re-reading the paper(s) you passed on to me and doing some additional reading on my own. I feel like my head is about to explode and I still don’t think I can offer much clarity.  In short, several interpretations exist concerning the differences between Matthew & Luke’s genealogies, but I’m not convinced the differences are due to the curse on Jeconiah in Jer 22:30 because:

  1. If descent from Jeconiah disqualified someone from being the promised Messiah, we have to explain why Matthew would include Jeconiah in the Messiah’s genealogy at all. Remember, there would be a period of time when Matthew might be the only gospel account people had access to—they wouldn’t have been able to compare Matthew to Luke—and it must be that Matthew saw no problem with presenting the Messiah as descended from Jeconiah. Also, since Matthew’s gospel is more “Jewish” in nature, I would expect Matthew to be the one to drop Jeconiah from the genealogy on account of an OT curse.
  2. It’s doubtful that Luke’s genealogy is actually a record of Mary’s line since we have no clear indication of that in the text. Anyone who read Luke on its own would naturally assume that the genealogy is through Joseph since he’s the parent who’s mentioned at the start. The comment in 3:23 that Jesus was “as supposed, the son of Joseph” is an unlikely way to point to Mary’s genealogy (as some have inferred); the simplest explanation is that Luke was reminding his readers that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit & was the son of God (Lk 1:35). Luke wasn’t alluding to any problems in the Davidic line.
  3. We may need to allow for a little poetic license (i.e. hyperbole) in the Jeconiah curse in Jer 22:30. First, the curse says “Write this man down childless” but Jeconiah obviously wasn’t childless (1Chr 3:17). Second, the curse may be limited in scope since Jeconiah “would not prosper in his days.” A limited curse makes good sense contextually since many people would have preferred to see Jeconiah restored to the throne in place of Zedekiah his uncle whom the Babylonians installed. Third, a narrow time frame for the curse makes sense because the curse would be oriented to the coming exile. The curse was a promise that no one in Jeremiah’s day (young or old) would see a rightful Davidic king on the throne again because Jerusalem would be conquered & the people would go into exile.

The Jeconiah curse is a good observation and it’s worth considering if it played a part in the way Jesus’ genealogy was presented in the Gospels. However, the more I look into it the more convinced I am that we should consider other options. I’m afraid this only muddies the water but it’s the best I can do at this point.

Sorry it took me so long to get back to you on this. Keep reading! –JM

All that’s fit to sing

“Let me write the songs of a nation–I don’t care who writes its laws.” -Andrew Fletcher

From time to time a member of the Merritt brood will make a comment or ask a question that gives rise to a 10-15 minute family colloquy. The most recent one arose when one of the teenagers called into question the biblical accuracy of a (currently) popular Christian song and the appropriateness of using said song in a music set at church.

While we took the time to address specific lines in the song, we also used it as an opportunity to talk more broadly about how we ought to think about music in the church. I don’t remember everything that was said but the discussion set me to thinking on a verse that ought to play a larger role in these friendly music critiques.

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

Two observations are in order. First, “teaching and admonishing one another . . .” helps to explain the command “let the word of Christ richly dwell within you.” Most likely we’re to understand this teaching/admonishing either as the command’s result (i.e. what happens when the word dwells in us) or as its means (i.e. how we let the word dwell in us). Either way, the point is that the teaching & correction Paul has in mind is decidedly Word-based. Second, this Word-based teaching & correction is done in the church’s singing.

Certain implications follow when we consider the relationship of singing to biblical instruction:

  1. Our songs ought to articulate biblical truth. By this I do not mean that the only viable songs consist of Scripture set to music (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Rather, our songs should be more like a good sermon, declaring and expounding what God has revealed in his word. Practically, this means avoiding songs that are so theologically impoverished that we can only commend them on the ground that “there’s nothing wrong with it.” We need more than “not wrong” for teaching and correction. [Try this thought experiment: if you removed the sermon from your church service, how deeply and how clearly would your singing preach the glory of God and His saving work in Christ?]
  2. We sing to each other. “Singing for an audience of One” turns out to be too narrow a view of what the church is doing when it sings together. Yes, we’re singing to the Lord but we’re also singing to one another. In this light, the relative merit of a song turns not only on what it says to me but on what it says to the member next to me. And if I’m singing for the other’s instruction an unmistakably clear message should be the order of the day. Let’s drop the ambiguous and innocuous and clamor for something with definition and depth. If our songs leave every man to interpret what is right in his own eyes we’re missing the mark.
  3. Our singing is formative. Good teaching is more concerned with long term results than momentary effects and we need more of this perspective as we sift and select our church music. Too much singing these days is short-sighted and one dimensional as if our main concern is setting a positive tone for this particular gathering. If even a good song can ring hollow when confronted by the vagaries of a sojourning life, we ought to consider the benefits of diversifying our music catalog. Otherwise, how will we sing under the shadow of death? What songs will give us a meaningful response to spiritual (or clinical) depression? When will we sing of the cost of discipleship?

Say the Word. Pray the Word. Sing the Word.

Marriage is for work

husband_wifeJudging by the influx of distraught fan mail, it’s no secret that I’ve been off the Script for a little over a  month now. Rest assured, I have not withdrawn from public life. The energy required to maintain my typically torrid production here had to be diverted to other projects–namely, a marriage seminar–but having passed through that arduous season we now return to our regularly scheduled program.

Speaking of marriage, a couple months ago I offered a quote from a marriage book on the meaning of Genesis 2:18 — “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” The gist of the explanation was that it was not good for Adam to be alone without a companion. The “companionate interpretation” espoused in the book is so widely accepted these days that we count it as a truism as we quickly skim on in our reading.

But the “companionate interpretation” has three problems.

First, if 2:18 was about the need for a meaningful relationship, it’s not entirely clear why the solution should be a (single) woman and not another man or even a gaggle of people for instant community.

Second, helper is an unlikely term for someone who will be created for companionship. If the man’s relational solitude was the problem shouldn’t we expect to hear God say “I will make a companion/friend/lover suitable for him”?

Third, and most importantly, the contextual cues indicate that what the man needs is a co-worker:

1:28 God creates man & woman as his image bearers and gives them a job to do: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

2:5 The state of nature is incomplete (i.e. no plants of the field) because “there was no man to cultivate the ground.”

2:15 God creates the man and places him in the garden “to cultivate it and keep it.”

2:18 God declares Adam to be in need of a helper.

Small wonder that, charged with caring for his newly created world, God would look on the man’s solitary state as “not good” and set about creating a suitable helper for filling, subduing, and ruling the earth. At the risk of sounding thoroughly unromantic, marriage was created for work. [Unromantic? Noooo. -The Wife]

It’s not that Scripture doesn’t consider the relational good of marriage, it’s just that it doesn’t do so at Gen 2:18–at least not in the way we often think. In fact, when the Bible does point to the personal rewards of marriage it’s interesting to note how closely those blessings are associated with fruitful labor (Psa 128). It may just be that orienting our marriages toward “the joyful shared service of God,”¹ would actually prove far more satisfying than so many of the self-serving models now in vogue.

¹Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God. Ash’s work was a paradigm shift for me in my view of marriage. His book should be required reading for all pastors.

That is, literally, not the way language works

Boy 1 & 2 are reading through a textbook on worldviews which includes this, uh, embellishment of Gen 1:31.

After creating humans and imbuing them with purpose, God said it was “very good” (v 31). In Hebrew, the phrase is “meod tob.” It is almost impossible to exaggerate the resonant awesomeness this phrase is meant to convey. It literally means “exceedingly, heartbreakingly, abundantly, richly, loudly, immeasurably good in a festive, generous, happy, intelligent, charming, splendid way.

To paraphrase Alice’s response to Humpty Dumpty: that’s a great deal to make one phrase mean.

Assumptions are hard to break

In what looks to be an otherwise solid book for those preparing for marriage, I found a curious explanation of the meaning behind God’s declaration that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). In fairness, the author’s presentation falls comfortably within the bounds of popular consensus in spite of the broad assumptions:

Here is my question: in light of all we just said, why is it not good for the man to be alone? What is God seeing and talking about?

The problem that God identifies, and wants us to see, is that Adam has no one of his nature and substance to think about. He has no one in his likeness to love, serve, and honor. Left alone, his thoughts would be too wrapped around himself. This was a problem. This is what God called “not good.” In his alone state, Adam could not reflect the complete image that God wanted him to reflect. He was not as full an image-bearer of God’s glory as God desired.

Two questions. First, where is the support for this interpretation in the text? Second, if this is the problem that God identifies in 2:18, what does this mean for the singles in our midst?

Maybe we assume too much in this verse.

The idolization of Eros

“We must do the works of Eros when Eros is not present.”

Eros2I’ve been reading through some marriage books lately and, since most of the material was on the current end of the timeline, I thought it would be good to go back and hear Lewis in The Four Loves. I’m nearly certain that my first reading of the book was over 20 years ago, before marriage and pastoral ministry, so this fresh reading has been immensely rewarding.

Two quick observations before I get out of the way. First, although the “Eros” chapter has the most to do with marriage, Lewis’ “Friendship” chapter is surprisingly relevant for married couples. I couldn’t help but think that all the talk we hear these days about “marrying one’s best friend” is a good thing so far as it goes, although I suspect we have a pretty weak grasp on what that actually means (or ought to mean). Second, Lewis’ dissection of Eros deserves a broader audience not only because he gets so much right (I speak as a husband) but because it exposes the shallowness of so much of our post-modern romanticism (I speak as a husband and a pastor). That said, here is Lewis describing the ebb and flow of Eros:

In one high bound it has overleaped the massive wall of our selfhood; it has made appetite itself altruistic, tossed personal happiness aside as a triviality and planted the interests of another in the center of our being. Spontaneously and without effort we have fulfilled the law (towards one person) by loving our neighbor as ourselves.


Can we be in this selfless liberation for a lifetime? Hardly for a week. Between the best possible lovers this high condition is intermittent. The old self soon turns out to be not so dead as he pretended–as after a religious conversion. . .

But these lapses will not destroy a marriage between two “decent and sensible” people. The couple whose marriage will certainly be endangered by them, and possibly ruined, are those who have idolized Eros. They thought he had the power and truthfulness of a god. They expected that mere feeling would do for them, and permanently, all that was necessary. When this expectation is disappointed they throw the blame on Eros or, more usually, on their partners. In reality, however, Eros, having made his gigantic promise and shown you in glimpses what its performance would be like, has “done his stuff.” He, like a godparent, makes the vows; it is we who must keep them. It is we who must labor to bring our daily life into even closer accordance with what the glimpses have revealed. We must do the works of Eros when Eros is not present. . . And all good Christian lovers know that this program, modest as it sounds, will not be carried out except by humility, charity, and divine grace; that it is indeed the whole Christian life seen from one particular angle.

An egghead says “sorites”

Perhaps this isn’t the best time to profess my love, admiration, and (occasional) envy of academic elites. That kind of sentimentality could get you tarred and feathered in these days of fervent populism. But as Dave Shive said after being told that his eclectic theology would cripple his chances for fame and renown: What have I got to lose?

Admittedly, we are neither worse if we do not attain an academic degree, nor the better if we do. Even so, ignorance is no virtue for the Christian which is at least one reason why we need our egghead brothers and sisters. Their knowledge lends precision to our understanding and stokes our love for the Scriptures and, ultimately, God.

Consider 2 Pet 1:5-7 and its seemingly random list of Christian character traits:

Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence,
[by] your faith supply moral excellence,
and [by] your moral excellence, knowledge,
and [by] your knowledge, self-control,
and [by] your self-control, perseverance,
and [by] your perseverance, godliness,
and [by] your godliness, brotherly kindness,
and [by] your brotherly kindness, love.{NAS}

Most of us probably read this passage and find ourselves unable to get beyond two related questions: (a) why these characteristics? (b) what, if any, logic lies behind the chain? Speaking for myself, I found that my inability to discern any meaningful significance beyond the bare text actually dissuaded me from lingering over the text.

Enter Richard Bauckham and his research in NT and early Christian literature. His expertise uncovered so many features of the text that I felt as if I had been granted access to a previously hidden venue for meditation:

  • on the structure — 2Pet 1:5-7 uses a literary device known as sorites, a set of statements that progress, step by step, to a climactic conclusion. Not only was it “widely used and recognized in the early Christian period” but “there is some evidence that a catalogue of virtues beginning with pistis (“faith”) and ending with agape (“love”) was an established Christian form.”
  • on the significance of faith being listed first — By occupying first place in the list, faith represents “the root of all the virtues.” [Me: I couldn’t help but notice that Peter already referred to our faith as something we have received (1:1), which means that even the root of our virtue has its origin outside of us.]
  • on the (dis)placement of knowledge — “. . . in the non-Christian lists [knowledge] was usually first or last in the list [i.e. the root or the climax of all the virtues]. In most Christian lists it has been displaced from these positions by “faith” and “love.”
  • on the significance of love being listed last  — “the last, climactic term of a sorites is not of equal weight with the others” which means that Peter has preserved “very faithfully the place of love in Jesus’ ethical teaching, as the virtue which encompasses, coordinates, and perfects the others.”
  • on similarities with non-Christian philosophy — Although some of the virtues are found in Stoicism, in Peter’s list they “are not only rooted in Christian faith but also encompassed by Christian love. The borrowings testify to the fact that Christian ethics cannot be totally discontinuous with the moral ideals of non-Christian society, but the new context in which they are set ensures that they are subordinated to and to be interpreted by reference to the central Christian ethical principle of love.”

So if you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and befriend a Christian egghead even if vicariously through a book. Though shy and perhaps socially awkward, the best of them labor as technicians for the soul.