This year my family moved houses and prepared to welcome a daughter. Preparing to sell our old house and preparing baby girl’s nursery, we sorted through photos and ticket stubs and trophies and T-shirts that stirred up cherished memories of past conquests and hopeful dreams. We gave thanks to God for answered prayers, wondered why we ever thought some things were so important, and remembered those moments that shaped our life to this turning point we would always remember.
Sifting through old memorabilia and clothing is a little like looking back on more than 1,000 resources planned, produced, and published by our editorial staff and bloggers in 2017. Articles I had nearly forgotten hit me in fresh ways in light of new ministry scenarios. Videos we recorded months ago drew out surprising emotions as if I were watching old home movies featuring friends and family. Interviews filled me with wonder as I appreciated a writer’s gift to make life-changing thoughts so clear and compelling.
This list reflects my choices as editorial director for our best resources from 2017. It’s not exhaustive, but it reflects our exhausting efforts in this tragedy-filled year to serve church leaders in shaping their life, doctrine, and teaching. As explained in The Gospel Coalition’s foundation documents, we pray that God would work in and through us “to renew the contemporary church in the ancient gospel of Christ so that we truly speak and live for him in a way that clearly communicates to our age.” In that spirit I hope you’ll read, watch, listen, and share these cherished mementos from the last year.Parenting Is Gospel Ministry
By Paul David Tripp
This was the most popular workshop at TGC’s 2017 National Conference, and it’s not hard to see why. Parenting is an avenue of grace to parents and not just to our children.Why the Reformation Should Make You More catholic
By Fred Sanders
Make you sure you notice the lower-case lettering in the title. Sanders invites us to appreciate the reformers’ work toward a universal church rooted in the gospel.Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of My Diving Accident
By Joni Eareckson Tada
Let Joni set the course of your life, too, no matter what may come: “God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.”How John Piper’s Seashells Swept Over a Generation
By Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra
I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to tell the story of Passion OneDay 2000. In my lifetime I’ve never seen a single moment or message deliver such a lasting effect. Don’t miss the related but equally compelling and more bizarre story behind Piper’s most famous attack on the prosperity gospel.Jesus Is Not Your American Patriot
By Ameen Hudson
You might think this statement is so obvious that it doesn’t need to be made. But this article struck a nerve at a time when so many churches seek to wrap the American flag around the cross.Better Than Your Best Life Now
Interview by Collin Hansenhttp://tgc-audio.s3.amazonaws.com/podcast/The_Cross_and_Human_Flourishing.mp3
Contributor Jen Pollock Michel demonstrates in her lucid, luminous answers why you should read her chapter, “Whose Will Be Done? Human Flourishing in the Secular Age,” in Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor.Rumors of Adam’s Demise: One More and Counting
Review by Hans Madueme
What more could you want from a book review? Timely, informative, spirited, incisive.I Was a Pastor Hooked on Porn
By Garrett Kell
If you think Christians write a lot about porn, realize that we’ve yet to scratch the surface on the depths of this problem, which plagues our pastors as much as anyone else.5 Principles for Disciplining Your Children
By Melissa Kruger
When it comes to the constantly evolving challenge of discipline, listen to experienced mother and math teacher.Meet the Pro-Life Group Cracking Planned Parenthood’s Favorite Market
By Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra
We read so often in the news about events and trends we despise. So get to know a ministry using creative means to shine light in the darkness and save the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors.What Does Washington Have to Do with Jerusalem?
By Sen. Ben Sasse
The junior U.S. senator from Nebraska is fond of saying that politics can’t fix what’s wrong with our politics. This talk from TGC’s 2017 National Conference will give you a sense for his rationale. But you’ll really want to dig in to his book, The Vanishing American Adult (read my review).Why Do Churches Wound Their Pastors?
By Dan Doriani
Do you really want to know what your pastors think? Read this article. If we laypeople learned from this perspective, we would honor our leaders in ways that would clearly communicate the grace of God to them.5 Principles for University Evangelism
By Tim Keller and Michael Keller
I agree with the Kellers, father and son: “There’s no greater mission field than the university today. Student evangelism has never been more challenged—or more needed.”Seattle Reboot: Life After Mars Hill
By Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra
Sometimes God delights to bring the greatest good from the most shocking follies. There’s no doubt Mars Hill left behind a trail of wreckage when it closed in 2014. But read in this feature how God raised up other churches and leaders to meet the challenge and need for healing and grace in Seattle.The god of William Paul Young
Review by Gavin Ortlund
When any dared criticize mega-bestseller The Shack by Young, we were told not to take a work of fiction so seriously. This new book by Young isn’t fiction. And this insightful review lays out the eternal consequences of such unbiblical doctrine.Her Dying Discipled Me
By Phil Letizia
Some things you just can’t learn when your church plant focuses on attracting the young. After all, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”Finding Your Identity in Christ Looks Like Death
By Blair Linne, Trillia Newbell, and Rosaria Butterfield
Identity is the great desire and confusion of our age. Where do we find it? How does it change? What looks to the world like death is actually life for Christians as we put off the old self and sin and put on the new self and Christ (Eph. 4:22-24).Do We Really Have to Politicize Everything?
By Trevin Wax
So insatiable is the American desire for tribal warfare that no sphere of life can escape from politics. It’s good vs. evil, red vs. blue, in every venue. Why should Christians forsake our hope for the latest outrage cable TV, talk radio, and social media want to sell us?I Married a Same-Sex Attracted Man. And I Am Blessed.
By Jaclyn S. Parrish
The author didn’t want this testimony to be anonymous. She wanted the story of her marriage told. Listen up, because we have a lot to learn from her perspective: “Without his past sin and present struggle, Sam and I might have plodded through our entire life together and missed the miracle.” Are you missing the miracle in your own life, the place of weakness where God intends to show you his strength?8 Signs Your Christianity Is Too Comfortable
By Brett McCracken
This article made me uncomfortable. Seems we all want the benefits of community without the reality. But God has a better plan for us in the local church, where he brings together people who share nothing but Jesus in common.The Life and Times of Redeemer Presbyterian Church
By Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra
As Tim Keller retired as senior pastor of this church he planted 28 years ago, it’s the perfect chance to look back on a remarkable work of God in one of the world’s most dynamic cities. Redeemer’s influence on public interest in Reformed theology and church planting cannot be ignored.Stop Photobombing Jesus
By Garrett Kell
We’re so eager to follow and serve Jesus that we can easily miss how we turn attention toward ourselves and away from our Savior. Our motives may always be somewhat mixed, but we can grow in godliness as we learn to celebrate God’s work in others.When Marriage Became About Me, Myself, and I
Review by René Breuel
The purpose and meaning of marriage has changed so much that most people don’t even realize it. But marriage cannot deliver on our modern expectations. The best marriages seek not mutual self-fulfillment but self-giving love and sacrifice.
If our theological convictions were a house, some books build the foundation, stabilizing the ideas we hold about God. Others paint the structure with brilliant and beautiful colors, giving what we believe about God a kind of vibrancy.
The trick, then, is to discern which books should build up the foundation, and which should be left for the painting. It’s not hard to imagine readers wondering where exactly to place Emmanuel Carrère’s latest book, The Kingdom, as they construct their own theological house.Genre-Blending
This book is nearly impossible to pin down in a particular genre. The Library of Congress deemed it fiction and biography, which, after having read it, seems to be about the best one can do, but how can it be both? One reason to pick up this book is to go about the adventure of trying to solve this mystery. Is The Kingdom a spiritual autobiography of one of France’s best writers? Yes. Is it a historical narrative of the life of Luke and Paul? Yes. Is it fiction? Yes. Is it history? Yes. And is it good? Very much so.
It’s the kind of genre-blending that should be expected of Carrère. Throughout his career as a novelist, screenwriter, and even a film director, Carrère has written a semi-fictional biography of Philip K. Dick, a semi-true psychological thriller mixed with personal memoir, and the appropriately titled book, My Life as a Russian Novel, which oscillates back-and-forth between a small, fictional Russian city in chaos and the author’s own relational turmoil in Paris. And that’s just some of his work.Investigating Faith
Now enter Carrère’s latest, The Kingdom. He begins with a sort of testimony in reverse. It’s apparent he doesn’t believe in Christ, or at least has massive reservations about Christianity itself, when he talks about working on “a project” on the biblical figures of Luke and Paul—a sort of biography of the men who started the church, for whom Carrère seems to have deep affection.
What Carrère does not have affection for are the simple. He wants reasons, not childlike faith. This, in the end, is what drew him away from his Catholicism. The more he worked on The Kingdom, “The clearer it has become to me that it’s very difficult to get people to talk about their faith, and that the question, ‘What exactly do you believe?’ is a bad one.” He wants to interview Christians, he states, “the way I’d interview people who’d survived a plane crash,” but he kept finding it fruitless because the questions were mostly unanswerable. But also “[b]ecause in fact I’ve had very close access to one Christian for several years, someone, indeed, you could hardly be close to, because it was me.”
From there, the tension of the book is set, and it pulls in multiple directions, always involving four characters: the author, the Gospel writer Luke, the apostle Paul, and Jesus Christ. It is divided into these sections: “A Crisis” (the biographical section), “Paul,” “the Investigation” (chronicling the formation of the four Gospels), and finally, “Luke.” Other characters come and go—his ex-wife, his best friend Hervè, Philip K. Dick, his daughter, St. Francis of Assisi, and a whole host of biblical characters including Philip, Timothy, John Mark, Mary, Peter, and James—but it’s be Carrère who is the center of this book. While inhabited by biblical figures, The Kingdom is ultimately about the author’s faith, his struggles, and his perceptions of Christianity.Autobiography
Most of the autobiographical section has one thread running through: Carrère’s devotional practice. He spent years—nearly every day—writing a commentary on the Gospel of John after his conversion to Catholicism. Most of those notes don’t appear in this section of The Kingdom, but they’d likely bore us anyway.
What Carrère does instead (which was a brilliant choice) is let us not into the words of the commentaries, but the feeling behind writing the words—the struggle beneath the product. This is by far more interesting.
“The encounter with God,” he writes referring to that process, “has changed my soul—and my opinions—but not my heart. I continue to love no one but myself, and badly at that. But even that is planned for.” He quotes Ezekiel as “the prayer I need,” saying, “I repeat it nonstop: ‘Lord, remove my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh.’” Most every Christian should be able to identify with this beautiful little passage.History
The more historical sections on Paul, Luke, and what he calls “the Investigation,” struggle to find their balance between historical criticism and historical fiction. Carrère’s writing is most inspired when imagining a scene from Scripture—like his rendering of Paul’s conversion (“What scared [Paul] wasn’t any external danger but what was stirring, like a beast, in his soul. . . . [I]t was no longer around him. It was crouched deep within him, ready to devour him from the inside”), or his telling of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (“They were no longer sad, not at all. And although it was strange, they admitted to each other that they thought they’d never be sad again. That sadness was over”).
While Carrère doesn’t affirm the infallibility of Scripture, he still possess a deep reverence for it, and I found myself challenged by his imagination for the potential within biblical stories. He doen’t treat them lightly, and the reader is left thinking, “Neither should I.”
The Kingdom is saturated with Scripture but also with its historical context. Carrère has done his homework. Still, readers will be disappointed to see that the book is severely limited by his obsessions (his overuse of the 19th-century historian Ernest Renan narrows his scholarly curiosities, and there’s a surprisingly long pornographic section that’s far too self-indulgent). The book is packed with remarkable observations that drove me back to Scripture itself, but also left me disappointed realizing Carrère has read very little modern scholarship, according to this book (someone hand him some Richard Bauckham!).Fresh Coat of Paint
The believers who criticize Carrère will be those trying to fit him into a particular genre. But one must approach this book for what it is—a creative and beautiful work of literature. To cast this as historical or fictional or biographical will be a mistake. It’s something entirely different. The Kingdom is not for those who need theological foundations, but rather for those whose theology has become drab and stale. A fresh coat of paint can do wonders to an already well-built house.
It’s all too easy to look up at the end of December and—poof—realize the opportunity for meaningful reflection has passed, vacuumed up or packed away for next year, like another decoration. So this Christmas, how can we truly be present and not just buy presents? We find the answer in the most fundamental (and perhaps surprising) of places—in singing traditional carols together.
Redemption drew a baby breath that first chilly Christmas night, offering hope to a forlorn world dying to be rescued. But even before Jesus lay in the manger, his miraculous story was already being told in song. Mary sang about him in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–51). Zechariah sang about him in the Benedictus (Luke 1:68–79). And of course, on the night of his birth, the skies over the shepherds’ field became a vertical stage for hosts of choiring angels.
We have each been created, compelled, and commanded to sing. It’s thus no surprise that the oldest Christmas traditions are the masterpieces of the carols. Our sixth annual Christmas event—Sing! An Irish Christmas Tour—features 10 timeless hymns none of us should ever forget.
1) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Penned by Charles Wesley and included in his 1739 Methodist hymnal, this theologically rich classic was later set to music by Felix Mendelssohn. It began as “Hark, How All the Welkin Rings,” but George Whitefield did us all a favor by changing the words to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” We conclude the first half of our Christmas concert with this song, including an Irish reel and cultural Irish dance, which I suspect would have pleased neither Wesley nor Mendelssohn!
2) Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus appeared in Charles Wesley’s book of 18 Christmas songs in 1745, and it’s one of my three favorite hymns today. The song captures how centuries of waiting, longing, and weeping find ultimate resolution in Christ: “Israel’s strength and consolation / Hope of all the earth thou art / Dear desire of every nation / Joy of every longing heart.”
3) O Come, All Ye Faithful is a Christmas call to worship, mostly likely written by John Francis Wade, a Catholic artist who created beautiful manuscripts decorated with exquisite floral images. His hymn “Adeste Fidelis,” remained a Latin masterpiece for 100 years before being translated into English by Frederick Oakeley. For congregational and a cappella purposes, this carol sings beautifully.
4) In the Bleak Midwinter is among our most plaintive carols, partly because of the haunting melody by Gustav Holst. Penned by English poet Christina Rossetti, the lyrics first appeared in 1872. The last stanza says it all: “What can I give him, poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd I would bring him a lamb; / If I were a wise man I would do my part, / Yet what I can I give him? Give my heart.”
5) Joy to the World, with its triumphant cadence and rousing spirit, was written by the man commonly called the “Father of the English Hymn,” Isaac Watts. This hymn was published in 1719 and wasn’t even originally considered a Christmas carol.
6) O Come, O Come Emmanuel is a medieval Latin hymn dating from the 800s. It was one of a series of antiphons sung each December, and it isn’t hard to imagine the mystical beauty of this hymn echoing off the walls of remote monasteries during the Middle Ages. This particular antiphon was discovered by an English minister and musician named John Mason Neale, who rendered it into English and published it in 1851.
7) Joy Has Dawned is a hymn Stuart Townend and I wrote back in 2004. Stuart wanted to draw out parts of the Christmas story, such as the gifts of the magi, that aren’t particularly present in other Christmas hymns. Melodically, we wanted to give this carol the same feel people might expect from the classic Christmas songs they grew up singing in church.
8) Angels We Have Heard On High is one of the most joyful and well-written choruses ever composed. The lyrical journey shines a light on the reality of incarnation in a way that refreshes the soul each time you sing it.
9) O Little Town of Bethlehem was inspired by Philadelphia pastor Phillips Brooks’s visit to Bethlehem. Around 1867, Brooks wrote the lyrics and passed them along to the church’s worship leader, Lewis Redner, who composed the melody. It was first sung by a group of six Sunday School teachers and 36 children.
10) Once in Royal David’s City might be the least known of these 10 carols, but we mustn’t lose its message or music. Cecil Frances Alexander was an Irish pastor’s wife who published this carol for children in 1848. Today, many consider her works too deep to sing in adult congregations. If ever we needed empirical evidence that the Irish actually did save civilization, this may actually be it.
These 10 carols—among many others—are treasures that remind us of the gospel joy we’ve to share with the world in the bleak midwinter. They remind us that hope has dawned in the little town of Bethlehem, in Royal David’s city, and that we should all join the triumph of the skies.
O come, let us adore him—Christ the Lord!
“Gospel-wakefulness is essentially revival on the personal scale.”
In this video, Jared Wilson—the director of content strategy for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary—discusses what the term ‘gospel-wakefulness’ and its place in the Christian experience.
Correction: Wilson quotes 1 Thessalonians 1:6, though he says 1 Thessalonians 1:3 in the video.
What just happened?
On Thursday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to roll back some of the ‘net neutrality’ regulations implemented by the Obama administration in 2015
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality (short for “network neutrality”) refers to both a design principle and laws that attempt to regulate and enforce that principle. The net neutrality principle is the idea that a public information network should aspire to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally. At its simplest, network neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally and that every website—from Google.com to TheGospelCoalition.com—should all be treated the same when it comes to giving users the bandwidth to reach the internet-connected services they prefer.
Net neutrality laws are legislation or regulations that prevent internet service providers (ISPs) from discriminating or charging different prices based on such criteria as user, content, site, platform, application, or type of attached equipment.
What is the basic argument in favor of net neutrality regulation?
Proponents of net neutrality regulation fear that without regulation ISPs will abuse their power. For example, an ISP like Comcast could charge users more to access services of their competitors. Since Comcast has it’s own video-on-demand service, they could charge an additional access fee for users who want to use Netflix and stream videos over their internet connection.
Another argument is that ISPs could stifle innovation by forcing its customers to use preferred services that have a contract with the ISP. Larger companies, for instance, would be able to pay higher fees to the ISPs, while new, smaller start-ups may not have the resources to pay for access to the ISPs customers.
What is the basic argument against net neutrality regulation?
Critics of net neutrality regulation argue that ISPs have a right to distribute their network differently among services, and that this is necessary for innovation. For instance, in the example of Comcast and Netflix, they point out that if Netflix is hogging up bandwidth, that company should be charged more for the necessary updates that Comcast’s systems will require.
Some opponents of the net neutrality note that the cost to provide bandwidth isn’t free, and that companies who provide such services should be able to recoup their costs. They also say that government regulation hinders competition and innovation and that the market will provide the best solution. For instance, as applied to the previous example, Comcast customers who are upset about having to pay more for Netflix could switch to another ISP, such as AT&T or Verizon.
How has the judicial branch affected net neutrality regulations?
The FCC had previously claimed that ISPs were “common carriers.” This meant they had to abide by the same rules as phone companies and not give special preference to one type of call (or traffic) over another. In 2014 a federal appeals court ruled that the FCC’s net neutrality rules were invalid. The court ruled that while the FCC has authority to regulate how internet traffic is managed, it couldn’t impose rules on ISPs based on how they classify the content.
What were the FCC’s net neutrality rules that were overturned?
Under President Obama, the FCC included three “bright line” rules:
- No Blocking: broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
- No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
- No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind—in other words, no “fast lanes.” This rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing content and services of their affiliates.
Why should Christians care about net neutrality laws?
Christians are divided on the issue of net neutrality regulation. Although some advocacy groups, (such as the Christian Coalition, Presbyterian Church (USA) Office of Public Witness, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, et al.) favor net neutrality laws, many others (such as American Values and CatholicVote.org), oppose the regulations.
Christian supporters fear that without the regulation political organizing and religious advocacy could be slowed by the handful of dominant internet providers who ask advocacy groups or candidates to pay a fee to join the “fast lane.”
Christian opponents claim that the regulations will only stop future innovation, including the types of filters and blocks that parents can use to prevent children from viewing pornography. The groups hope that internet providers will continue to be allowed to block content from some sites, which could be barred under net neutrality proposals.
Yet other opponents worry that rather than creating a neutral platform for all viewpoints, net neutrality regulation would empower ISPs to censor out viewpoints they don’t like as long it’ fits the FCC’s criteria of ‘reasonable network management.’
Some people claim that the repeal of net neutrality regulations will have little to no effect since it will merely return the Internet to the regulatory status quo that existed prior to 2015. Under this view, nothing much will change in the short run and ISPs will be hesitant to take actions that would prompt the government to oppose new net neutrality regulations.
In December 2015, the Star Wars franchise hit theaters after a 10-year sabbatical. The revival of the series was met with record-breaking ticket sales and enthusiastic critical praise. But a significant number of viewers were displeased. Was The Force Awakens merely a clone of the original 1977 film Star Wars (now Episode IV: A New Hope)?
The similarities were unmissable: the destruction of a massive spherical weapon through the exploitation of a weak point vulnerable only to X-wings—this time the planet Starkiller Base instead of the moon-sized Death Star; the presence of cute droids who provide whimsical comic relief—this time BB-8 instead of R2-D2; and so forth. Even many of the shots felt like replicas, as demonstrated in this side-by-side video comparison.
But is this a problem?Rhyming Poetry Stanzas of ‘Star Wars’
Star Wars creator George Lucas intended for the series to contain repetition. When he released The Phantom Menace in 1999 after 16-year gap since 1983’s The Return of the Jedi, he intentionally included elements that would remind viewers of the original trilogy.
“It’s like poetry. They rhyme. Every stanza rhymes with the last one,” Lucas said, referring to Anakin Skywalker destroying the droid control ship as a “rhyme” with Luke’s destruction of the Death Star.
With The Force Awakens, director J. J. Abrams and writers Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasden (writer of The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi) fully intended to write a new stanza in the same epic poem. Rather than lazily recycling ideas, the writers crafted a tale that would introduce new characters, integrate old ones, and continue the saga by creating a new stanza.
New stanzas in a poem build on what has come before, but they also introduce new language. While Starkiller Base intentionally reminds viewers of the Death Star, it is also something new. While capable of destroying whole systems rather than single planets, its most important new element is that it drains the life of a sun for its power. The symbolism of light and dark is not new to the Star Wars universe, but this is a new twist. Starkiller drains light. It drains hope. It drains life. It brings darkness and death. It is new, but also familiar.
Why would the writers not want to come up with something entirely new and original?
Because Star Wars is a unified, still-unfolding story. The writers are communicating important meaning, themes, and symbolism by repeating the same universal ideas that have compelled fans to follow this franchise for 40 years.Good Stories and the Best Story
The Star Wars world is one we understand: good versus evil; light breaking through darkness; political turmoil and warfare that wrecks lives; underdogs challenging indestructible powers; the desire for domination facing off against those who would sacrifice themselves for the good of others.
These stories are timeless. But humans are forgetful. We must be taught the most important lessons multiple times. That’s why the rhythm of repetition is essential.
In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien argued that all good stories contain elements and truths of the best story, the gospel.
All good stories are good stories because they contain elements and truths of the best story, the gospel.
George Lucas never set out to present the gospel, but the reality is every great storyteller tells this “best story” to some extent. The story of selfless love, of sacrifice, of good conquering evil, is the story that runs throughout the Scriptures—and throughout the literary canon. There is something embedded in our nature that draws us to these kinds of stories and these kinds of characters.
Like a poet repeating a refrain, the Star Wars films constantly revisit the major points of the franchise. When we begin to see this kind of repetition as beautiful and intentional rather than boring or lazy, we can begin to appreciate a new layer of artistry in the series.
Ultimately, what we love most about Star Wars—the powerfully relatable characters, the creativity of the universe, the heroes, the conflict—are all things we love because there is something truer about them than even Lucas realized. They remind us of our own world, our own Creator, and the Greatest Story Ever Told.Repetitious Faith
Christians need repetition. We must rehearse the gospel. We do this every week as we gather in worship. We do this in the repetition of the Lord’s Supper. We do this in the repetition of repenting and believing.
The Christian life is built upon repetition. And this is a beautiful thing.
Our age says newer is better, and thus we disdain repetition because it lacks that newness. But Christianity calls us to something ancient, something that has been practiced and repeated, Sunday after Sunday, day after day, decade after decade, for a very long time.
Though The Last Jedi has been praised as not just more of the same, if this or future Star Wars installments feel familiar or repetitive to us, is that such a bad thing? Maybe we should see the repetition for what it is: new stanzas that rhyme with the lines that came before, reinforcing and reminding us of eternal truths we are prone to forget.
They typically receive fourth billing in Christmas plays. Outfitted with oversized bathrobes and foil crowns, they present shoeboxes to the baby doll in the manger. Nearby are cattle-a-lowing, angels, and shepherds too young for speaking parts.
They are the “wise men.” Immortalized in Matthew 2:1–12 and seared into our collective consciousness by the song “We Three Kings,” these figures have been a mainstay in retellings of Jesus’s birth for centuries.
But what do we really know about these men? Narrative padding has tended to stifle their profound importance in Matthew’s Gospel. Yet by looking at things afresh—what they aren’t and what they are—we can better appreciate their role in heralding the gospel itself.
Indeed, God can use even pagan astrologers to inaugurate the worship of the world’s divine King.
Mental pictures of biblical stories can gain traction even if they don’t quite square with Scripture. Let us first, then, recalibrate some things about these “three kings of Orient” by asking six specific questions.1. How many were there?
Tradition pegs their number at three. One is hard-pressed, however, to find that detail in Matthew 2. Three, which dates back at least to Origen (AD 185–254), comes from ascribing the number of gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh) to the number of men bringing them.
But church history is not uniform here: Two men appear in the ancient catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus, four in the catacomb of Domitella, and eight or twelve in other medieval lists.
We simply do not know. Matthew just uses the plural.2. What were they?
The traditional “wise men” or “kings” are not found in Matthew’s account either. He simply calls them “Magi” (Greek magos).
Who are these mystery figures? Magos derives from a Persian word denoting a priestly caste, but it’s also used for interpreters of astrological signs or dreams. Philo uses magos for the Egyptian sorcerers of Exodus 7. Josephus uses it for dream interpreters. In the Greek of Daniel 2, magoi appear with the Babylonian enchanters and wise men consulted by Nebuchadnezzar to interpret his dream. Acts 13:6–8 describes Bar-Jesus/Elymas as a magos. Some believed magoi legitimately possessed supernatural abilities; others deemed them charlatans.
The Magi were likely specialists in dreams and astrological phenomena. . . . They were ‘wise men’ only in a secular sense, and it’s unlikely they were real kings.
Matthew’s magoi were likely specialists in dreams and astrological phenomena, as attested by their interpretation of the star. They were “wise men” only in a secular sense, and it’s unlikely they were real kings.3. Where were they from?
“Orient” is a largely outdated word for eastern Asia. In the hymnody it probably derives from the Latin oriens, which means “east” and is a fine translation of what Matthew actually says: “magoi from the East” (2:1). The English word “Orient,” however, confuses things.
These magoi were likely from Persia, Arabia (Syria/Jordan, not Saudi Arabia), or Babylonia. Some church fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria, favored Persia, since it was a hotbed of Zoroastrian astrology. Other fathers, such as Justin—partly based on the typical sources of the spices mentioned, partly based on Psalm 72:15—favored Arabia. Babylonia is also a great candidate, since its magoi would have come into contact with Israel’s Scriptures during the captivity.
Babylonia is a great candidate [for the Magis’ origin], since they would have come into contact with Israel’s Scriptures during the captivity.
They came “from the East” (2:1) and “went back to their territory” (2:12). We know little more—but they probably did not come from “the Orient.”4. When did they visit Jesus?
Traditional nativities place the magoi with the shepherds at the stable on the night of Jesus’s birth. This harmonization of Matthew 2 with Luke 2 is well-intended, but it misconstrues some details. In Matthew, the magoi apparently arrived some time after the birth—perhaps weeks, even months.
Matthew 2:1 reads, “Now after Jesus was born . . . magoi from the East came to Jerusalem”—implying a time gap. Word reached King Herod, who assembled his advisers, consulted the magoi, and dismissed them to Bethlehem (2:4–9). It would be nearly impossible to fit these proceedings in the gap between the birth and the angelic appearance to the shepherds that night (Luke 2:7–8).
Further, if the star appeared at or shortly before Jesus’s birth, it would have taken days or weeks for the magoi to travel from “the East.” Upon their arrival (2:9–11), Matthew describes Jesus as a “child,” not a “baby” as in Luke 2:12. And the magoi visit him in a house, where the family apparently relocated after the birth. Finally, Herod decrees the death of boys 2 years old or younger, “according to the time ascertained” from the magoi (2:16). The magoi weren’t there that first night but sometime later. The combined Matthew/Luke sequence runs: Jesus’s birth, angels/shepherds, circumcision, presentation at the temple, visit by the magoi, flight to Egypt, and resettlement in Nazareth (where the storylines reunite—Matthew 2:23 and Luke 2:39).
But, of course, that sequence makes for a complicated live nativity.5. Why did the star prompt them to go to Jerusalem?
Why did these magoi, upon seeing a star, go to Jerusalem looking for “he who has been born king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:1–2)?
The hymns envision the star floating along, “westward leading, still proceeding,” guiding the magoi from “the Orient” to Jerusalem. Matthew’s account does not actually say this. Something like that occurred on the short trip south to Bethlehem (Matt. 2:9), but Matthew is silent on the initial westward trip to Jerusalem. There’s a different explanation.
In antiquity, astrological wonders were understood to accompany political events, from the star landing in what becomes Rome to the star presaging the destruction of Jerusalem. Herod was no mere paranoid fool when he detected something politically amiss with the star’s appearing (Matt. 2:7).
Magoi were experts in such astral phenomena. But what about this star drew them to Jerusalem? The most plausible explanation lies in Israel’s Scriptures. As learned men who interacted with various religious literature, the magoi would have been familiar with Jewish political or messianic oracles. And one of the central political prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures is Balaam’s oracle.
In Numbers 22–24, Balak of Moab summoned the pagan Balaam to curse Israel. Balaam was a performer of incantations and divinations (Num. 23:23; Josh. 13:22). He came “from the east” (23:7), and was labeled a magos by Philo. But this pagan seer, otherwise a scoundrel (2 Pet. 2:15), blessed Israel by prophesying its deliverer-king via the symbol of a star:
I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star will arise out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab. (Num. 24:17)
This future figure is also described as “a man from [Jacob’s] seed who will rule many nations” (Num. 24:7).
Of great importance is the verb used in Numbers 24:17: the star “will arise.” Matthew alludes to it in 2:2 and 2:9, with the magoi seeing the star “in its rising,” which is derived from the word in Numbers 24:17. Matthew does not specify whether it was a supernova, comet, planetary conjunction, or other supernatural event—only that it “arose” and “appeared” (2:7, 16).
Balaam’s star oracle was read messianically in other early Jewish writings: Dead Sea Scrolls, Sibylline Oracles, Aramaic translations of Numbers (replacing “star” with “king”), and rabbinic tradition.
The star fulfilled a well-known Jewish messianic prophecy within a broader ancient sensitivity to astrological politics.
In short, the star fulfilled a well-known Jewish messianic prophecy within a broader ancient sensitivity to astrological politics. The magoi observed the star and recognized that the true king of Israel, the one promised by God of old—not the one appointed by Caesar, whose neurotic obsession for self-preservation was exacerbated by the star—had entered the world. It’s a fascinating collision of earthly revelation with divine revelation through the mouth of a pagan! That is what prompted the magoi to look for Jesus in Jerusalem.6. What is their significance for Matthew’s nativity?
What role, then, do the magoi play in Matthew 2?
Foreign dignitaries visiting new rulers was not uncommon. It happened to Herod the Great himself, and Pliny lists magoi in the entourage honoring Nero. So when the magoi “fall down and pay homage” to the boy Jesus (Matt. 2:11), it could simply signify respect for the one they believed to be Israel’s future earthly king.
This, by itself, is immensely significant in Matthew’s Gospel.
Matthew goes to great lengths to portray Jesus as embodying Israel’s entire history. Matthew’s genealogy places him in King David’s line (Matt. 1:1, 17). His father Joseph’s dream leads to Egypt to escape a murderous king—much like the patriarch Joseph’s dreams led to Egypt, where Moses would be born, escape a murderous pharaoh, and deliver the people. In this way God said “out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matt. 2:15; cf. Hos. 11:1): Israel as God’s firstborn culminates in Jesus as God’s true firstborn and deliverer.
But, as Matthew proceeds to recount, the bulk of Israel in Jesus’s day would reject him as their deliverer-king. The nativity anticipates death; the myrrh of the magoi points to that of the cross (Mark 15:23) and tomb (John 19:39). Israel’s leaders who knew the Scriptures (Matt. 2:6) wanted nothing to do with the “star arising from Jacob.”
Instead, it is thoroughly pagan Gentiles—perhaps from a nation that had held Israel captive, if the Babylon theory is right—who alone read the Scriptures rightly and came to herald the true King.
It is thoroughly pagan Gentiles—perhaps from a nation that had held Israel captive, if the Babylon theory is right—who alone read the Scriptures rightly and came to herald the true King.
But there’s more. By responding to a starry light and bringing gifts, these magoi fulfill Scripture in another way—every phrase of Isaiah 60:1–6 reads like a script for Matthew’s scene. The nations, here represented by the magoi, respond to the rising of the LORD with “gold and frankincense” and “good news.” When the magoi bow down, they implicitly signal what Matthew later makes explicit (28:19–20): Jesus is not just Israel’s king, but their king, possessing authority over all nations.
When the magoi “pay homage” to Jesus (2:11), the verb can also mean “worship,” as in many English translations. Matthew leaves it open-ended. But no doubt, as the full identity of Jesus unfolds, their instincts prove right. For this boy is not only “king of the Jews,” not only king of all nations, but the fully divine Son and Lord—Immanuel himself.
The wonder of Christmas, then, is that pagan astrologer magician-types are transformed to worship the incarnate divine Son through reading and responding to the ancient words of a pagan seer. Indeed, this is good news for lost sinners of all kinds throughout the world.
We need to move discipleship from the margins of our churches to the mainstream.
Date: April 9, 2013
Event: The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference, Orlando, Florida
Randy Pope is the founding pastor of Perimeter Church in North Atlanta. He is the founder of Life on Life Ministries and the author of several books, including Insourcing: Bringing Discipleship Back to the Local Church [interview | video].
You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.
I wanna talk about me; I wanna talk about I; I wanna talk number one, oh my me my; what I think, what I like, what I know, what I want, what I see! I like talkin’ bout you you you you usually, but occasionally . . . I wanna talk about me!
If we’re honest, is this the theme song humming beneath most of our day-to-day interactions? All I know is the 2001 Toby Keith hit played in my head for a few days after I read Sharon Hodde Miller’s book, Free of Me: Why Life is Better When It’s Not about You.
After experiencing painful insecurity and loneliness for several years, Miller realized she was walking around with a metaphorical mirror in front of her face. She found she’d been approaching many areas of life—family, friends, work, possessions, church, even God himself—as objects to be used for self-interest. She had turned them into mirrors, reflecting her own nature back to her, instead of opportunities to practice love and worship.
Miller—a pastor’s wife, mother of two small boys, and blogger at SheWorships.com—started searching for solutions, bumping first into a women’s book study whose message was less than helpful. She concluded this common Christian self-help solution to women’s insecurity wasn’t going to cut it:
The only path out of self-focus is self-forgetfulness, which is why Christian messages about “believing in myself” weren’t helping me. Instead of solving the problem, they were contributing to it. Rather than pry my gaze off of myself, they simply handed me a mirror with a Jesus tint. (34)Not About Sharon Miller, Either
Miller tells quite a bit of her own story throughout Free of Me. Given the theme of the book (“it’s not about you”), this might raise questions about her sincerity in wanting to take her eyes off herself. But the final chapters offer a clear vision of her message, which is about worship: you must worship God, she says, in order to get your eyes off yourself.
You must worship God in order to get your eyes off yourself.
Even though we hear a number of Miller’s own stories in order to reach that message, it’s a message worth hearing. Besides, her many anecdotes help us relate, and we begin to recognize the problem as our own.
In the middle of the book, she spends a chapter on each of the areas of life that we often commandeer to serve self: God, family, physical appearance, possessions, friendships, calling, and church. Here we find some helpful phrases such as “compassion over comparison” (referring to our attitude toward physical appearance), “image management” (as it relates to controlling our spouse’s reputation to protect our own), and “an attitude of gratitude” (to describe Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s solution for a critical spirit among church members).Only Antidote to Self-Focus
But it’s in the final four chapters—which Miller has alliterated “Praise,” “People,” Purpose,” and “Passion”—that we see true solutions taking shape.
Especially in the first of these, “Praise: Why Loving God Sets Us Free,” she outlines the strategy that helped her re-train herself out of panicky trips into self-absorption:
We can embrace the truth that God created us to praise. And the more praiseworthy the thing, the more joy we have in praising it, a principle that finds its ultimacy in God. . . . That’s also why my “strategy of praise” is more than a distraction or an escape. It’s what we were created to do. We were created to worship. It’s why we exist. When we take the time to meditate on God and praise him for who he is, our souls connect with their God-given design. (138)
And in the chapter on “People: Why Loving Others Unleashes Us,” she brings us to the logical outflow of worshiping God, which is serving others:
When insecurity strikes, the question we must ask ourselves is, How can I turn this into love? This question opens our eyes to the people we might have previously overlooked, and it prepares our hearts to care for them. Whether it’s a crushing grief or a slight pang of insecurity, this question pulls us out of our soul-killing self-focus, and it shows us the way to resurrection, no matter the size of the death. (151)Age of Self
Our contemporary age could be characterized as the Age of Self. Our social climate plays to the selfish tendencies already in our hearts. A book about why life is “not about you,” then, could not be more timely. And while it may feel ironic to read a book about yourself, and yet how you aren’t the center of the world, it’s certainly a place to start. Any word that directs the self onto the road of worship is a word well spent.
And any song that interrupts the Toby Keith anthem in our hearts is a song worth hearing.
We live in a fast-paced world that constantly demands our attention. The regular barrage of headlines makes it hard to remember last week’s breaking news, let alone the memories of a lifetime. In a world that moves so quickly, remembrance is often a liability, especially when our memories hurt. But that’s where Pixar’s newest release, Coco, offers a refreshing critique. It’s a film that reminds us of our need to remember, even the painful parts we’d prefer to forget.
The film tells the story of Miguel, an aspiring young musician and the progeny of a family of shoemakers. Years earlier, his great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and daughter, Coco, for a career in songwriting, leading Miguel’s family to outlaw music in their home. But that hasn’t stopped Miguel from learning how to play guitar in secret.
In a world that moves so quickly, remembrance is often a liability, especially when our memories hurt.
Coco’s story begins on Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Miguel’s family has devoted an entire room to a shrine where they have perched photos of departed family members, all in preparation for a visitation from their ancestors.
As evening approaches, Miguel sneaks away to perform in the community’s local talent show. In need of an instrument, he heads to the mausoleum of famed musician Ernesto de la Cruz and steals his guitar from its display. To celebrate, he strums a chord in victory, which immediately transports him to the realm of the dead.
When Miguel discovers his relatives, they whisk him away to the Land of the Dead, where they strategize about how to get him back to the living. Their decisions set in motion Miguel’s frenzied search for Ernesto de la Cruz, who he has come to believe is the great-great-grandfather who abandoned Coco and has the power to return him home.Imagination and Memory
Visually, Coco is one of Pixar’s most stunning accomplishments to date. The Land of the Dead appears in vibrant rippling colors, connected to the living by a luminescent bridge of cempasúchil petals—an orange flower that figures prominently in Mexican celebrations of the Day of the Dead. It’s hard to walk away from the film without an appreciation for its artistic imagination.
Although Coco does not pack the storytelling punch of some of the studio’s previous works, it provokes some thoughtful questions about the significance of memory. Why should we remember? What do we lose by forgetting? And perhaps most importantly, how do we remember the hard things of life without forgetting the beauty in the process? The film addresses each of these questions through the lens of family.
Remembrance and loss are central to the plot. Residents of the Land of the Dead depend on their living families to maintain their memory. If lost, the dead dissolve into ethereal dust and drift away, forgotten forever. Coco portrays forgetfulness as a powerful force both in the present and afterlife.
After her husband left, Miguel’s great-great-grandmother excised the man’s memory from her life. But in doing so, she also deprived her daughter, Coco, of recalling the brief joys she had with her father (as well as the presence of music). It’s an understandable decision. No one wants to live with that kind of pain, but removing all memory creates a pain of its own, one that carries consequences for the future.
In some ways, Miguel’s rebellion is one of those consequences. His decision to chase his dream of music at the expense of his family stems from a misunderstanding of his great-great-grandfather—one made possible by his family’s commitment to forget.
So how do we remember in a way that embraces both the pain and the joy of the past? Coco resolves the tension through the support of family and community. Remembering rightly will be hard, but we do not have to bear that weight alone.
Remembering rightly will be hard, but we do not have to bear that weight alone.
Coco made me think about relationships in my life that have helped me embrace my past in a way that is both true and also instructive. As Christians, we are called to bear one another’s burdens in a similar manner. But family alone cannot temper the pain of the past, especially when family itself is the problem. So what then?Biblical Remembrance
Scripture is filled with calls to remember. God regularly interacts with the Israelites by recounting their history as his people—both the good and the bad—and the New Testament commands us to remember our former lives as fuel for the wonder of our salvation (Eph. 2:11–13). We are called to remember, not because we can do so in our own strength or even that of our community, but because we do so in the strength of the Spirit who lives in us.
Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord promised to replace a heart of stone with a heart of flesh in those who would believe (Ezek. 36:26). To have a heart of stone is to exist separated from God, seeing self-sufficiency as the only escape from the troubles of this world. In contrast, a heart of flesh finds joy trusting in God rather than circumstances. That kind of trust enables us to remember rightly the pain and the joys of our past, since we’ve been set free from self-protection and guaranteed a future by the One who holds forever in his hands.
Coco’s conclusions about remembrance are not wrong. They are simply incomplete. We can and should invite others to help us carry whatever brokenness lies in our past. When we do, painful moments—like a husband’s abandonment—can be redeemed and even instructive, especially for future generations.
But beyond human relationships, we need the safety found in Christ to truly remember—both the reality of our former lives and also the beauty of transformation we enjoy by God’s grace.
The fact that joy will always be tinged with sorrow should neither crush us nor cause us to flee from painful memories.
The fact that joy will always be tinged with sorrow should neither crush us nor cause us to flee from painful memories. Christ has redeemed us such that we recognize this life for what it is—temporary. Together, we look toward the day when our sadness will expire.
R. C. Sproul (1939–2017) went home to be with his Savior today at the age of 78. (Read Justin Taylor’s obituary.) The former pastor of St. Andrews Chapel and founder of Ligonier Ministries was also a prolific author who had a way with words.
Here are 40 of my favorite R. C. quotes. Thank you, God, for his life and legacy.
“There are only two ways of dying. We can die in faith or we can die in our sins.”
“We are secure, not because we hold tightly to Jesus, but because he holds tightly to us.”
“To know that God knows everything about me and yet loves me is indeed my ultimate consolation.”
”There is no greater state than to get up from your knees knowing that God has forgiven every sin you’ve ever committed.”
“If God is not sovereign, then God is not God.”
“When God says something, the argument is over.”
“A god who is all love, all grace, all mercy, no sovereignty, no justice, no holiness, and no wrath is an idol.”
“As soon as we think God owes us mercy, we’re not thinking about mercy any more.”
“When there’s something in the Word of God that I don’t like, the problem is not with the Word of God. It’s with me.”By James Thompson from Louisville, KY, USA (R.C. Sproul) CC BY 2.0
“You are required to believe, to preach, and to teach what the Bible says is true, not what you want the Bible to say is true.”
“God does not always act with justice. Sometimes he acts with mercy. Mercy is not justice, but it also is not injustice. Injustice violates righteousness. Mercy manifests kindness and grace and does no violence to righteousness. We may see nonjustice in God, which is mercy, but we never see injustice in God.”
“People in awe never complain that church is boring.”
“I’ll retire when they pry my cold, dead fingers off of my Bible.”
“If ever a person had room to complain of injustice, it was Jesus. He was the only innocent man ever to be punished by God. If we stagger at the wrath of God, let us stagger at the cross. Here is where our astonishment should be focused. If we have cause for moral outrage, let it be directed at Golgotha.”
“No matter how much injustice I have suffered from the hands of other people, I have never suffered the slightest injustice from the hand of God.”
“God answered Job’s questions not with words but with himself.”
“The Christian life is a life of non-conformity.”
“Not only does Christ take our sins, our debts, and our demerits, but he also gives us his obedience, his assets, and his merits.”
“If there is no sanctification, it means that there never was any justification.”
“If we despise the justice of God, we are not Christians.”
“The only kind of God we can love by our sinful nature is an unholy god, an idol made by our own hands.”
“We are not really surprised that God has redeemed us. Somewhere deep inside, in the secret chambers of our hearts we harbor the notion that God owes us his mercy. Heaven would not be quite the same if we were excluded from it. We know that we are sinners, but we are surely not as bad as we could be. There are enough redeeming features to our personalities that if God is really just he will include us in salvation. What amazes us is justice, not grace.”
“There are no draws with God, no split decisions. When we wrestle with the Almighty, we lose. He is the undefeated champion of the universe.”Photo from My Morning Meditations
“The justice of God is always and ever an expression of his holy character. . . . What God does is always consistent with who God is.”
“When we sin, we not only commit treason against God, but we also do violence to each other. Sin violates people. There is nothing abstract about it. By my sin I hurt human beings. I injure their person; I despoil their goods; I impair their reputation; I rob from them a precious quality of life; I crush their dreams and aspirations for happiness. When I dishonor God, I dishonor all people who bear his image. Is it any wonder, then, that God takes sin so seriously?”
“The problem we face is that the word holy is foreign to all languages. No dictionary is adequate to the task.”
“Death reminds us that we are creatures. Yet as fearsome as death is, it is nothing compared with meeting a holy God. When we encounter him, the totality of our creatureliness breaks upon us and shatters the myth that we have believed about ourselves, the myth that we are demigods, junior-grade deities who will try to live forever.”
“Only once in sacred Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree. Only once is a characteristic of God mentioned three times in succession. The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy.”
“God has entrusted to us the ministry of the Word, not its results.”
”The cross was a glorious outworking of the grace of God, by which the Father commissioned the Son to make full satisfaction so that sinners might be saved with no sacrifice of God’s justice.”
“A Substitute has appeared in space and time, appointed by God himself, to bear the weight and the burden of our transgressions, to make expiation for our guilt, and to propitiate the wrath of God on our behalf. This is the gospel.”
“If I want the words of eternal life, there’s only one place I can go to get them—to the One who gave his life that we might live.”
“Nobody was ever saved by a profession of faith. You have to possess faith.”Photo from Reformation Theology
“God doesn’t want me to play with religion. He doesn’t want me to dabble in church. He wants me—body and soul.”
“We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.”
“The grounds of your justification are the perfect works of Jesus Christ. We’re saved by works, but they’re not our own.”
“Without the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the gospel is not merely compromised; it’s lost altogether.”
“We fail in our duty to study God’s Word not so much because it is difficult to understand, not so much because it is dull and boring, but because it is work. Our problem is not a lack of intelligence or a lack of passion. Our problem is that we are lazy.”
“You can’t open your eyes in this universe without seeing a theater of divine revelation.”
“You can’t love Jesus and not love his Word.”
What’s the first thought that comes to mind when you think of Beirut, Lebanon? War? Fashion? Refugees? Food?
There’s no place like Beirut. It’s one of the oldest cities in the world, continuously inhabited for the past 5,000 years.
Beirut is world-renowned for its food and hospitality. Food-and-culture authority Anthony Bourdain has highly recommended visiting the city. In the center of Beirut, you can find a church building and a mosque standing side by side. You can also see 2,000-year-old Roman ruins at the local mall.
Every Western country strongly warns against any travel to Lebanon—and not without reason. This place has a broken and violent past. Beirut has been destroyed and rebuilt seven times.
The effects and remnants of the 15-year civil war (1975–1990) are still seen today. We can’t walk more than two minutes without seeing a bullet-riddled building. Even our friends at the U.S. embassy can’t come over for dinner due to where we live in the city.
We can’t walk more than two minutes without seeing a bullet-riddled building. Even our friends at the U.S. embassy can’t come over for dinner due to where we live in the city.
So, then, what are my wife and I doing here? We’ve come to plant a church. We’ve been in Lebanon for a little more than a year, and in that time the country has been relatively stable. Sure, there are the occasional bomb threats or foiled attempts, along with the devastating nearby war in Syria. Yet for the most part, our life feels much as it did when we lived in Dubai or the States.
It seems a bit odd to highlight the lack of conflict, since tensions have risen recently. I understand a little better what a friend meant when he said, “Everything in Beirut is great until the moment it’s not.” Yet we press on.Hard Places
As my wife and I followed the call to serve Christ in Lebanon, we weren’t ignorant as to what life could look like. We knew the history of the country and the constant instability in the region. We considered the decision through prayer, counsel, and often with tears.
We moved to Lebanon understanding the situation and counting the cost. But it was not in spite of the situation that we chose to come; in fact, it would be more accurate to say we came because we understood the times—and were convinced that the costs of not coming were far greater.
Most of the unreached in our world remain unreached because they live in hard places: whether they’re in closed communities, hard-to-access villages, or other dangerous places. The biblical call to go to them is not void because of these challenges.
If anything, this ought to be a more urgent matter for the church. Christ calls us to take the gospel to hard places. And the gospel will always conflict and confront; the setting or location is irrelevant.
Christ calls us to take the gospel to hard places. And the gospel will always conflict and confront; the setting or location is irrelevant.
All church plants face conflict and opposition, since the church is the kingdom of light piercing the darkness. In our context, that opposition might manifest itself differently than it does in the West, but our battle isn’t finally against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12).Opportunity in a Dying World
Tim Keller has written much about the dynamics of cities and how they afford great opportunities for the sake of the gospel. The same is true in conflict zones. I’ve spent many hours in conversation with individuals who may have never spoken to me if it not for wars in the region or fighting in their homeland.
People are asking questions they never would’ve asked before—questions they didn’t even know they had. They’re considering things about their beliefs they never would’ve considered if not for the conflict they see and experience.
There’s something about being in a conflict zone that strips away all that is fleeting and confronts you with the big questions of life—questions of purpose, significance, and eternity.
There’s something about being in a conflict zone that strips away all that is fleeting and confronts you with the big questions of life—questions of purpose, significance, and eternity.
These are incredible opportunities for the church to show a hurting, dying world the sacrificial love of Christ.
From the day we arrived in Lebanon, we’ve carried Bonhoeffer’s example as a banner, and today it’s fresher than ever. He chose not to leave Nazi Germany during World War 2 because he believed he wouldn’t be able to minister to his people if he didn’t endure the same trials they were enduring:
I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.
We are thankful for this brother’s example of leadership and love, and we pray that God might grant us the strength—albeit on a much smaller scale—to do likewise.Anchor in the Unknown
There are so many unknowns in this part of the world, especially now. It’s quite possible we could wake up tomorrow and learn that Lebanon has been pulled into war. What’s been taking place in Syria for the past six years could be our next six years. And the cost weighs even more heavily when you have responsibility for a family.
But while the list of unknowns is much too long, we can’t live in a way that puts too much weight on temporal things. God’s promises in Christ are eternal and sure, and in Christ and his finished work we anchor our hope and trust.
The church has stood the test of time—through countless hard places and conflict zones, she has been kept standing because her Savior is strong.
We can trust a God who is sovereign over all lands and all peoples. He will accomplish his purposes, and he will continue to build his church (Matt. 16:18).
We pray and hope for peace in Lebanon, but in the meantime we have a commission from our King.
In his chapter in TGC’s 2017 book Our Secular Age, Mike Cosper writes about how music and the arts in a secular age can “push us to the edge of the immanent frame.” Cosper cites Kanye West’s 2016 song “Ultralight Beam” as an example of contemporary popular culture that straddles transcendence and immanence, religious hope and despair.
Like the Bible’s psalms, the best songs are personal and prayerful, covering the full range of life, loss, and longing. As Christians, we should seek to understand and engage these musical probings of the immanent frame. We should take note of where and how music is grappling with God and transcendence, celebrating the way it can disrupt and unsettle our assumptions about life within the immanent frame.
What were the songs released in 2017 that fall in this category?
The following is my (surely inexhaustive) attempt to gather a list of some of the best, most spiritually charged songs of the year. Some are explicitly worshipful. Others are implicitly theological. Some are just beautiful in their grasping for goodness and grace. All represent bright spots in the musical landscape of 2017.
Here they are, in alphabetical order.
“Are We Not One,” Young Oceans
The first single from Young Oceans’ recently released new album, this track (listen here) starts quietly and builds to a rousing chorus that celebrates the joy, hope, and peace that comes from union with Christ: “Have we not joy, in the midst of every shadow / Have we not hope, in the deepest of the dark / Have we not peace, that passes understanding.”
“At My Table,” J. J. Heller
“This is for the powerless, the wounded and the weak / This is for the immigrant, and those who cannot speak.” That’s how Nashville singer/songwriter J. J. Heller begins this song (listen here)—a beautiful reminder of Christ’s hospitality in inviting every one of us, however broken or fearful, to fellowship with him.
“Atlas: One,” Sleeping at Last
The first of a series of songs inspired by the nine Enneagram types, this track captures the “One” type beautifully and accurately (listen to this podcast episode about the making of the song). Hard-working, perfectionist Ones will resonate when Ryan O’Neal sings, “I’ve spent my whole life searching desperately / To find out that grace requires nothing of me.”
“Call on God,” Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings
Originally recorded in 2007 but just released this year, this beautiful Gospel tune takes on special weight given Sharon Jones’s death last year from pancreatic cancer. The song (watch official video here) finds the iconic soul singer crying out, posthumously: “To be like him is what I long to be / And to share his love to eternity.”
“Evening Prayer,” Jens Lekman
This strange song’s bouncy, disco-esque music (listen here) is a stark contrast to its weighty subject matter—about a friend of Lekman’s who’s had a tumor removed. In the midst of his friend’s pain, Lekman offers prayers: “How I pray that I could stop the pain / When the pain needed more than ibuprofen. / How I pray that I could take away your worries / When they ran deeper than the West Pacific Ocean.”
“Everything Now,” Arcade Fire
The title track off Arcade Fire’s fifth album is a prophetic anthem for our over-mediated moment (watch the official video here). With access to everything all the time via smartphones and Google, we can relate to the feeling Win Butler describes when he sings, “Every inch of space in your head / Is filled up with the things that you read. And every film that you’ve ever seen / Fills the spaces up in your dreams.”
“Fairest Lord Jesus,” Sara Groves
I usually don’t like when perfectly good melodies for old hymns are tampered with in new renditions, but Groves’s melodic variation on this 19th-century classic, from Abide With Me, is subtle and lovely (listen here). The music accentuates the elegance of the lyrics, which describe Jesus as fairer even than the fair meadows and woodlands “robed in the blooming garb of spring.”
“Father, Let Your Kingdom Come,” The Porter’s Gate featuring Urban Doxology, Liz Vice, and Latifah Alattas
This joyful song (watch performance video here) is a standout from the debut album of the Porter’s Gate Worship Project. The refrains are simple but powerful (“May the works of my hands bring You joy. . . . You make all things new”) and the chorus is pure praise: “Hallelu, hallelujah / Father, let Your kingdom come.”
“First Rain,” Teen Daze with S. Carey
The couplet of ambient albums this year from Canada’s Teen Daze—Themes for Dying Earth and Themes for a New Earth—are both worth checking out. Any of their (mostly instrumental) songs could have made this list, but “First Rain” from Dying Earth is especially beautiful (watch video here).
“First World Problems,” Chance the Rapper and Daniel Caesar
This subdued stunner from Chance the Rapper—debuted on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert in September (watch)—is thick with personal lament, confession, biblical allusions, and eschatological longing (“The day is on its way, it couldn’t wait no more. Here it comes. . .”).
“The Greatest Gift,” Sufjan Stevens
The title track off Sufjan’s 2017 The Greatest Gift mixtape (watch official video here), this song explores the love commands of Jesus, which in Sufjan’s lyrical rendering call us “To love your friends and lovers / To lay down your life for your brothers / As you abide in peace / So will your delight increase.”
“Happy to Be Here,” Julien Baker
In this song off Turn Out the Lights, Memphis singer/songwriter Julien Baker wonders whether the “engineer” can fix her “faulty circuitry.” She articulates a familiar obstacle to grace when she sings: “I know I should be being optimistic but I’m doubtful I can change / Grit my teeth and try to act deserving / When I know there is nowhere I can hide / From your humiliating grace.”
“If,” Beautiful Eulogy
The highlights come early in Worthy with the stunning “If.” The song (listen here) is a Scripture-soaked gem that invokes Philippians 3:7–8 to articulate the all-in cost of following Christ, no matter the cost: “I will praise your name / In the giving and taking away / If I have you I could lose everything / And still consider it gain.”
“I’ll Find You,” Lecrae and Tori Kelley
“I’m hanging on by a thread / And all I’m clinging to is prayers,” Lecrae begins in this powerful collaboration with Tori Kelly off 2017’s All Things Work Together. It’s a somber but ultimately hopeful song (watch video here) about being at the end of one’s rope and recognizing in those moments our need for help from beyond ourselves.
“I Promise,” Radiohead
This previously unreleased track from the recording sessions of Radiohead’s 1997 masterpiece OK Computer is a surprisingly straightforward song about committed love in a fidgety age (watch the video here). “I won’t run away no more, I promise,” Thom Yorke repeats. “Even when I get bored, I promise.”
“It’s Not Working (The Truth),” Propaganda, with Courtney Orlando
This track (listen here) from Crooked—Propaganda’s latest album from Humble Beast—finds the lyricist at the top of his game as he explores the need to ground our concern about systemic injustice in the reality of personal sin: “But fixing systemic issues, it ain’t the source of your rest. . . Hoping in a broken system to fix what’s broken in us / It’s not working, is it?”
“John, My Beloved (iPhone Demo),” Sufjan Stevens
What was one of the most beautiful ballads off Sufjan’s 2015 album Carrie & Lowell becomes even more beautiful in this newly released “iPhone Demo” version (listen here). Gorgeously low-fi, Sufjan sounds frail as he cries out to Jesus in the midst of pain and death: “Jesus, I need you, be near me, come shield me / From fossils that fall on my head.”
“Last of My Kind,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
This track from The Nashville Sound follows a familiar trope—the country boy feeling alienated and homesick in the big city: “Mama says God won’t give you too much to bear / That might be true in Arkansas / But I’m a long, long way from there.” While home may not be Arkansas for everyone, the laments and longings the song expresses are universal (listen here).
“LOVE,” Kendrick Lamar featuring Zacari
Kendrick Lamar’s latest album is full of dichotomies and dualities: wickedness and weakness, pride and humility, lust and love. Lamar explores these through companion tracks, like the hopeful and innocent “LOVE” (track 9) which follows—and provides something of a foil to—the dark and vice-ridden “LUST” (track 8).
“Mercury,” Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister
This gorgeous standout from Planetarium—an album inspired by the planets in our solar system as well as Greco-Roman mythology—is lyrically cryptic but musically stunning (listen here). It’s Sufjan Stevens at his best: introspective and poetic, yet humble in the face of wonders beyond his orbit.
“Messiah,” Beautiful Eulogy, featuring Citizens & Saints
The chorus of this Worthy standout (listen here) is perhaps the most concise articulation of the core problem of our Age of Authenticity: “I can’t always rely on my desires / But I treat them like the Messiah.” Odd Thomas expands on it with brilliant wordplay in his rapped verse: “When a good God gives good gifts we generally tend to twist the list / And take the list of good gifts that God tends to give and make general ‘gods’ out of gifts.”
“Night Has Passed / Morning Has Broken,” The Brilliance
This hopeful song (listen here) from All Is Not Lost brilliantly combines an original praise chorus (“We rejoice / In the gift of this day”) with the melody and some lyrics from the Cat Stevens classic about the new morning mercies of songbirds: “Praise for the singing / Praise for the morning / Praise for them springing fresh from the world.”
“No Country,” John Mark McMillan
One of the singles from McMillan’s 2017 album, Mercury & Lightning, “No Country” is an anthem for those (many) who feel increasingly alienated in today’s world. Evoking Matthew 8:20 and other biblical verses about feeling literally and symbolically homeless, McMillan sings: “Never saw it coming, never thought I’d wake up / With no place to call my country.”
“Pain,” The War On Drugs
One of the standout tracks on the rightly acclaimed A Deeper Understanding, “Pain” evokes a soundscape of personal struggle (“I resist what I cannot change / And I wanna find what can’t be found”) and longing for relationships that bring clarity (“Pull me close and let me hold you in / Give me the deeper understanding of who I am.”)
“Pedantic,” Sho Baraka
We need to be asking the questions this song asks (watch video here). From The Narrative, Volume 2, “Pedantic” explores the dangers of the speed and glut of information in today’s world, which often (wrongly) interprets slowness and silence as weakness or irrelevance. “I learn the value of silence when fools speak / In a culture of speed they will judge you when you’re slow.”
“Persevere,” Gang of Youths
Dave Le’aupepe, lead singer of Australian band Gang of Youths, wrestles with the problem of pain in “Persevere,” a song about his Christian friends whose baby, Emme, died (listen here; warning: explicit). Le’aupepe examines his own faith (or lack thereof) by observing his friends’ confident hope in the midst of unspeakable tragedy: “Nothing tuned me in to my failure as fast / As grieving for a friend with more belief than I possessed.”
“Pianos in Jericho,” Sho Baraka and Sean C. Johnson
The questions Sho Baraka asks in “Pianos in Jericho” (listen here) are timely and convicting: “Is God a magician to fulfill my mission? . . . Is he a lobbyist for my ambitions like a politician? . . . Do we believe when it’s not beneficial?” The song, off 2017’s The Narrative, Volume 2, strikes a prophetic but personal tone, as Baraka confesses what is true for many of us: “I’ve let my problems become my savior / I’ve taken focus off the Lord and focused on my anger.”
“Praise to the Lord,” Sara Groves
At a time of great cultural tension, with a world in flux, the hymns in Sara Groves’s Abide With Me are healing, grounding, steadying—both timeless and timely. Her rendition of the nearly 400-year-old hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” (listen here) is a case in point. Simply produced, flawlessly executed; this is how contemporary recordings of hymns should be.
“Pray,” Sam Smith
The lead single off Sam Smith’s latest album epitomizes the ways artists in a secular age push the boundaries of the immanent frame, invoking the soul and sounds of religion (gospel choirs!) while bypassing its institutional baggage. “I have never believed,” Smith sings. “But I’m gonna pray.”
“Real Death,” Mount Eerie
Phil Elverum (Mount Eerie) reflects on the death of his wife in “Real Death” (listen here), a song that captures as well as any the brutal, unnatural string of mortality: “Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art / When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb.”
“Singing in the Victory,” Austin Stone Worship
From their 2017 album, Everflow, this rousing track from Austin Stone Worship is one of the best new worship songs of the year (watch video here). The chorus is catchy and confident, calling us to sing in the victory of the cross, rest in Christ’s redeeming love, and stand in the promises of new life.
“Some Kind of Love,” The Killers
An ethereal, synth-heavy, Brian Eno-esque ballad, “Some Kind of Love” (listen here) praises a wife and mother for having “the faith of a child before the world gets in” and “the grace of the storm in the desert”—for being strong, resilient, and capable of love, even amid the darkness of life.
“Thinking of a Place,” The War On Drugs
Everything about this 11-minute opus—which might be the best overall song of 2017—is good, true, and beautiful. But the two-minute guitar solo in the middle is the song’s transcendent peak (listen here). It captures wordlessly what the song is all about: a transportive reverie of places, times, and loves we’ve lost—and to which we long to return.
“This Wild Earth,” Young Oceans
One of the standout tracks off the latest album from Young Oceans—who are making some of the most musically exciting worship today—this song (listen here) channels the creational groaning of Romans 8:22, calling out to God to “come as the fire, or come as the rain / O, let there be life, life here again.”
“Truth,” Kamasi Washington
The closing track on jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s latest album, Harmony of Difference, “Truth” is as ambitious and encompassing as its name implies. Clocking in at nearly 14 minutes, the instrumental epic includes a beautiful video that is Terrence Malick-esque in its attempts to capture the truth of life—both in its cosmic grandeur and everyday beauty—even when it seems chaotic.
“Watching from a Distance,” David Ramirez
From his album We’re Not Going Anywhere, this song from Texas-based singer/songwriter David Ramirez (listen here) contemplates how relational rupture and distance can become a source of spiritual haunting: “Just cause we can’t speak / Doesn’t mean you’re not on my mind / Like a ghost / Like the moon / Like a God / Like a truth.”
“We Don’t Deserve Love,” Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire have often explored themes of faith in their music, but this song (listen here) from Everything Now is especially direct about it. Invoking the story of Mary Magdalene and the empty tomb, lead singer Win Butler confesses guilt and sin but struggles to find comfort in the grace Jesus offers: “Mary, roll away the stone / The one that you love / Is gonna leave you alone / Particularly the Christ-types.”
“We Labor Unto Glory,” The Porter’s Gate featuring Liz Vice, Josh Garrels, and Madison Cunningham
From Work Songs, debut album of the Porter’s Gate Worship Project, this gorgeous song is surely one of the best worship recordings ever on the theme of vocation (watch video here). As Vice, Garrels, and Cunningham harmonize in the chorus, we work to God’s glory in the now-and-not-yet: “Oh, we labor unto glory / ‘Til heaven and earth are one / Oh, we labor unto glory / Until God’s kingdom comes.”
“We Will Feast in the House of Zion (Live),” Sandra McCracken
Sandra McCracken’s “We Will Feast” is quickly becoming a new worship standard, for good reason. The song’s joy-filled, eschatological longing is perfect for corporate worship, as demonstrated in this live recording of the song (from 2017’s Steadfast Live). Watch the beautiful video here.
“Witness,” Benjamin Booker
This song, from New Orleans artist Benjamin Booker (featuring a soulful sample of Mavis Staples), mixes gospel sounds with prophetic lyrics about race in 21st-century America (listen here; warning: explicit). The chorus is simply a repeated question: “Am I gonna be a witness? Just a witness?”
When I read Julius Kim’s Preaching the Whole Counsel of God: Design and Deliver Gospel-Centered Sermons, I read things that confirmed many of the things I do in communicating the Bible. But I also read a number of things that challenged me to make significant changes in regard to cherished ways of communicating.
I was just getting ready to leap away from working from a full manuscript in my teaching to working from an outline when I sat down with Kim at his office at Westminster Seminary California, where he teaches courses in homiletics, cross-cultural missions, pastoral ministry, and the history of preaching. If I wasn’t convinced before our conversation about the importance of being more listener-focused in my presentation of the Scriptures, I certainly was afterward.
You can listen to the episode here.
Editors’ note: Join us for our 2018 Women’s Conference, June 16 to 18 in Indianapolis, to hear Nancy Guthrie teach from God’s Word. Browse the list of 56 speakers, 51 talks, and 14 “listening in” discussions. Register soon!
With Advent in full swing and holiday parties on the calendar, my soul gets excited with anticipation—Christmas is just around the corner. Truth is, I typically start getting giddy in September at the thought of family sitting around the Thanksgiving table. And as Thanksgiving turns to Christmas, my excitement level only increases.
This was my yearly ritual—until suffering hit.
A few years ago I walked into the holiday season with fresh wounds, and I was blindsided by how a season I once found comforting brought additional pain. That calendar year had brought so much suffering: we had lost loved ones, our marriage had been through a rough season, our adoption plans had been halted, my husband was in the middle of a career change, and we were walking through a family crisis. I’d even been diagnosed with PTSD from all the shock and change. Sin, death, and brokenness seemed ever-present, and the raw grief prevented me from celebrating the holidays like I used to.Fighting for Gratitude
It’s easy to be thankful when God ordains seasons of joy and plenty, but it was an ugly fight for gratitude when he ordained suffering. Looking back, however, that holiday season is one of my favorites because I can see how suffering unveiled my eyes and enabled me to celebrate the holiday’s truest meaning.
It’s easy to be thankful when God ordains seasons of joy and plenty, but it was an ugly fight for gratitude when he ordained suffering.
The coming weeks can be excruciatingly painful for those in the midst of grief—whether due to a loved one’s death, job loss, infertility, infant loss, devastating diagnosis, or a family crisis. But rather than just getting through the holidays, might I offer another suggestion? What if instead of merely pushing through, you resolved to fixate on what really matters? Because although you can’t change what has been tainted, broken, or taken away, you can celebrate the holiday’s true meaning in the midst of your pain.
Here are three tips to help you focus on what matters this Christmas season.1. It’s Okay to Do Christmas Differently This Year
In the wake of grief, emotions are heightened and traditions that used to bring joy can produce deep sadness. Give yourself the freedom to let things go. Looking back on that difficult holiday season, I’m thankful for suffering, because it allowed me to strip away holiday excess and focus on its truest, simplest meaning. I didn’t realize it at the time, but suffering puts sentiment in its proper place.
Suffering puts sentiment in its proper place.
As the frills and fluff of the Christmas season grew strangely dim in light of my suffering, the holiday’s ultimate meaning was lifted out of the ashes of grief. Focus on those and let everything else that triggers despair fall to the wayside this year.2. Surround Yourself with Truth
Exhausted by physical side effects of grief, envy and discontentment slithered their way into my heart. I was jealous of people I normally would cheer on. I wanted their beautiful family stories, their flashy jobs, their amazing holiday traditions. I confessed my sin to close friends and a beloved counselor who advised me to be mindful of the images I was taking in.
Surround yourself with people and resources that will lovingly minister to you. Choose music, podcasts, and books that will edify and point your eyes to what you already have in Christ, rather than resources that tether your gaze to what you lack. To put it simply, fill your home, your mind, and your relationships with life-giving truth—truth that gives room for both pain and joy to sit together in the light of gospel grace.3. Step Away from Social Media
When suffering hit our family, I took a break from social media. It seemed silly at the time, but like I mentioned above, as family photos and holiday parties were being posted, I found my heart longing for things God had given others and taken from me. I compared the story God was writing in my own life to the highlight reels of others.
I compared the story God was writing in my own life to the highlight reels of others.
When used properly, social media are fantastic tools for communicating with family and friends around the globe. But if you find yourself critical of your friends on social media or dissatisfied with your life, take a break. Engage honestly and vulnerably with friends and family in real life, allowing your community to walk beside you this holiday season in person, not via a screen.
Believer, God came to earth to make broken things whole. It’s okay for you to be broken this holiday season because of the baby in the manger. It’s okay to walk through the holidays without denying your wound, but allowing your wound to point to a greater story. May you find great peace amid great sorrow, resting in the knowledge that the God of the universe sees your pain and draws near to the brokenhearted. May the celebration of the birth of Jesus, who came to earth for the broken, bring you comfort and hope in these sad days.
“The self-sufficient never make it to the manger. Christmas is a gift only experienced by those who know they need a savior and are humble enough to receive him.” — Art Azurdia
Text: Luke 2:1–7 and Matthew 2:1–7
Preached: December 22, 2013
Location: Trinity Church of Portland, Oregon
Art Azurdia is the founding pastor of Trinity Church Portland and an associate professor of pastoral and church ministry at Western Seminary, where he directs the doctor of ministry program. He is the author of Connected Christianity: Engaging Culture Without Compromise and Spirit Empowered Preaching.
You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.
Four years ago, I planted RefugeLA in the heart of my hood, North Hollywood. I am a Los Angeles thoroughbred, but not the Los Angeles portrayed in the tabloids.
To understand my Los Angeles, it would do you better to watch Boys in the Hood. Gangster rap was the soundtrack of my childhood. In my city, even the skateboarders were thugs. Joining a gang is the natural progression of troubled youth in Los Angeles.
So at the age of 14, I got jumped in.Craving Purpose
Over the next five years, things got progressively worse. I spent three years incarcerated, was stabbed, and got shot. It became a regular occurrence to lose friends to gang violence or a life sentence in prison. In retrospect, it’s not shocking that I experienced any of this.
When you get jumped into a gang, you know what you’re signing up for. It wasn’t until my friends betrayed me that I questioned anything. I believed in the lifestyle. It provided worth and value. It was a family. However, gangs are built on a foundation of sand.
Gangs are driven by the need to be noticed. I’m not speaking of the need for importance so much as I am the need for purpose. Being a member of a gang means that you matter and belong. It also protects you from feeling vulnerable. It’s terrifying to be exposed when you’ve been neglected or exploited.
Gangs are often made up of individuals whom family or society has failed. Joining a gang is appealing when it appears you don’t matter and seems as if no one will protect you.
What gangs cannot do, however, is protect you from pain. Every gang will eventually collapse. Like society, gangs are made up of sinful humans, and sin is a cancer that infects and destroys all things.
Like society, gangs are made up of sinful humans, and sin is a cancer that infects and destroys all things.
But it’s not only gang members who crave purpose. The American Dream sells all its converts down the river. It boasts that success, money, and power will protect us; but it doesn’t deliver.
Young actors and musicians move to North Hollywood in pursuit of fame and fortune, and many sell their souls to get there. Within a few years, they return home to rural America with less dignity and nightmares of compromise.
Immigrants from Latin America come here first. They cross through tunnels, hide in car trunks, and pack five families into a studio apartment. They work three jobs and cut the lawns of suburban professionals while their kids run the streets.
All the while, within a few miles, major production studios are setting the next trend in popular culture. Countless churches become enamored, perhaps without even knowing it. Meanwhile, my friends are getting shot, and young girls are having sex with producers to get the next gig.Burden for Christ
I planted a church in North Hollywood because of a deep burden to see Jesus glorified in my city. I never imagined I’d be a pastor. In fact, I’ve had many people visit my church just to see if it was true.
I’m the first Christian in my family, I didn’t grow up in the faith, and I have a high-school diploma from a juvenile hall. It’s only by God’s mercy I’m still alive. I’ve escaped death far more times than I deserve. Yet when God calls you, there is no telling the places he will take you to glorify his name. When you arrive, however, glorifying his name is your chief responsibility.
I never imagined I’d be a pastor. In fact, I’ve had many people visit my church just to see if it was true.
I planted a church because God gave me purpose. He took a child of dope fiends, a gang member, a street thug, and chose to use me for his glory. My story was set in concrete: I was going to prison or getting murdered. Yet I was reading from the wrong script. There was another narrative, one of which I was not yet aware.Power of Grace
I did not plant a church; God planted a church. I mess everything up; I say ridiculous things; I cannot even believe I get to do this work. I joined God in planting a church by saying, “Yes, I will go.” What I did not say yes to was a growth model or to strategic evangelism. I said yes to Jesus! I agreed to say whatever he asks me to whomever he asks me to say it. It wasn’t even my idea to plant a church; it was the idea of my wife, led by the Holy Spirit.
When God founds your ministry, you don’t carry the burden of sustaining it.
When God founds your ministry, you don’t carry the burden of sustaining it. North Hollywood possesses catalytic potential. It is one of the most influential communities in the world. We are anguished for this city, and we pray diligently for revival. I planted a church in my hood because I believe God is calling us to revive dead bones and train an army of missionaries for Jesus. For some ridiculous reason, he saw fit to send me.
This Sunday, a heroin addict got on his knees and begged Jesus to heal him. On the other side of the altar was an aspiring actor praying for courage to follow Jesus. But it’s not all rosy. I recently did a funeral for a gang member from my hood.
If I matter to God, so do they. If God called me, why not them? How might he enlist them for his glory, too?
To hear more from Kris Brossett on his life and ministry, listen to the latest episode of Churches Planting Churches, a podcast produced by Acts 29 in partnership with TGC.https://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-web/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/06073056/A29Podcast_RefugeLA.mp3
There has been a recent avalanche of books from a biblical and traditional perspective on same-sex attraction. Each brings a different viewpoint, with many writing from their own experiences of same-sex attraction. Both of us also experience same-sex attraction; we’ve benefited immensely from the variety books on this topic and trust that the church has as well.
The latest addition is from Nate Collins in All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality. Collins—a partner associate at The Sight Ministry, a Christian organization based in Nashville that provides resources and support for individuals, families, and Christian organizations regarding LGBT issues—likewise writes out of experience and from a traditional, biblical approach.
But what justifies yet another book on these subjects? More books are justified by the other, more powerful cultural avalanche that has nearly buried us all—the new attitudes and approach to gender and sexuality created by the sexual revolution of the last 50 years. More recently, acceptance of same-sex marriage has slipped in the evangelical church through the influential books of James Brownson (at an academic level) and Matthew Vines (at a popular one).Complex Differences
In response, those of us coming from a traditional perspective have had a lot of rescue work to do. But both avalanches have left us with a new landscape where some differences of opinion have emerged among those who espouse a traditional view on same-sex attraction. There has been friendly fire on issues like:
- Origins: What causes same-sex attraction—is it nature or nurture?
- Identity: What contemporary labels can—or should—a Christian use or avoid?
- Orientation: Is it just sexual acts and fantasy that are sinful, or is it every aspect of someone’s same-sex attraction?
- Change: What expectation of change is possible or necessary for the same-sex-attracted Christian?
These complex and subtle differences require deep thought, and Collins’s book is an important entry in this category. He provides new vistas in this conversation which deserve our attention. Though he lands in some different places than we do (for instance, in how we choose to label our sexual orientation), we both benefited from reading his book.
All But Invisible has some considerable strengths. Collins is well-read and engages with more secular texts (especially on gender and minority groups) than many of us have time or ability to. His description of the way church culture has encouraged the internalized shame of “nonstraight” brothers and sisters is crushing and highlights what we need to repent of and work against. Perhaps most helpful is his call for same-sex-attracted Christians to acknowledge—rather than hide or minimize—such attraction as a real part of their experience, and, like all truths about us, to put it into submission to who we are in Jesus Christ. It’s not erased; it’s transformed.Aesthetic Orientation?
The most important idea is Collins’s presentation of aesthetic orientation. He argues that viewing gayness and straightness through the primary lens of sex urges misrepresents the experience of gay people and furthers the stereotypes of gays and lesbians as sexual deviants. Instead, he proposes placing the locus of orientation in beauty, rather than sex. This move has at least two strong positives that are desperately needed in the conservative church.
First, it militates against both shame and stereotype: we don’t need to feel guilty when we notice God-given same-gender beauty; we do need to confess sin when we imagine having sex with the beautiful person in question. Moral culpability is rightly placed on our response to temptation, not on the presence of temptation itself.
Second, it rightly captures the nuance of attraction. That pull toward another human is so much more than physical, and those of us who experience same-sex attraction deal with this pull in many ways.
However, the label of “aesthetic orientation” also presents some mild problems. It relies heavily on the subjective experience of each person’s attraction, and may overemphasize the difference between straight and gay responses to beauty on this basis. Collins writes:
If we are to speak of an aesthetic orientation and use it to differentiate between gay and straight, we would say that both gay men and straight women are, for example, less aware (in general) of the beauty of feminine personhood than straight men or lesbian women. (150)
And it isn’t merely among females; straight males, too, can have a deep draw towards male beauty that manifests in joy, appreciation, and intimate friendship, though it’s true that the art of friendship has seemed to wane in the recent generations. Beauty itself doesn’t seem to be able to hold the key to what it means to be gay, because deep same-gender appreciation and draw exists across orientations. Though Collins has excellent reasons for wanting to disassociate the center of being gay from sexual and romantic feelings, those feelings are precisely the difference between those who are identified as gay and those who are not. Instead of taking up the mantle of aesthetic orientation, the church should become more nuanced in our discussion of what same-sex attraction is, recognizing that it’s not less than sexual attraction, but also more.
Notably, Collins acknowledges that “one of [his] main arguments in this book is that being gay (understood as an aesthetic orientation) is not sinful in itself” (303). This is also why he engages extensively with Denny Burk and Heath Lambert’s counterclaims in their recent volume Transforming Homosexuality. Pastors, theologians, and strugglers throughout the church are making good-faith efforts to parse this question.
We believe with Sam Allberry that “desires for things that God has forbidden are a reflection of how sin has distorted me, not how God has made me” (Is God Anti-Gay?, 30); that is, our sexualities are fallen. But ever since we responded to Christ in repentance and faith, our union to him has removed the need for any lasting guilt or shame about our sexual feelings. This leaves us free to unashamedly acknowledge any ongoing same-sex attraction and use all the tools of the Spirit to say no to temptation. Our moral responsibility concerns what we do with our attractions, which leaves us in a remarkably similar place to Collins, which needs to be underlined. This conversation is between brothers and sisters—it is no war.Weaknesses
The biggest weakness of All But Invisible is its academic tone. While we need well-researched, carefully argued books, the pace and language of this volume means that most won’t be able to get to the best parts or have the patience or time to digest its arguments fully. The temptation will be to soundbite it, which would be a travesty.
Though the structure of the book is clear, and Collins constantly references where he’s going, he often muddies the waters through digression and wordiness. A longer conclusion that drew together the different strands the book explored would’ve been much appreciated and would’ve help alleviate confusion. Because of these deficiencies, this work wouldn’t be our first recommendation for someone just beginning to explore these issues—they should start with Allberry, Butterfield, or Hill.
Still, Collins has provided us with a number of thoughtful reflections on some of the more puzzling and contentious aspects of the new landscape we’re living in today. Many of us writing on—and living out—this experience from a biblical and traditional perspective are actually closer to each other than we often think. We long for the same things: dignity, holiness, and fullness of life for all people in the church, but especially for nonstraight Christians who have experienced exclusion and shaming for too long. We’re grateful that Collins has joined this much-needed and continuing conversation.
A recent investigation by CNN uncovered slave auctions being conducted in Libya. Using concealed cameras, the media organization caught on tape migrants and refugees from other countries being sold for $400 to $800.Why is there a slave trade in Libya?
Two main factors have contributed to the Libyan slave trade: an abundance of vulnerable migrants and a fractured, failing government.
Libya is a key transit point for migrants and refugees in Africa—especially Algeria, Niger, Sudan, and Ethiopia—who are trying to relocate to Europe. Over the past three years about 450,000 people have made the dangerous crossing across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya. About 15,000 refugees have drowned over the past four years attempting to make the journey.
The Libyan Coast Guard, funded in part by the European Union, has been able to limit such crossings, causing many refugees and migrants to be trapped in Libya. An estimated 400,000 to 1 million people are stuck in Libyan detention camps where they are being robbed, raped, and murdered.
Because smugglers have a backlog of passengers, some smugglers have turned into slave masters, selling the defenseless migrants to be used for such tasks as farm labor.
The problem is exacerbated by Libya’s failed government. The country has been engaged in a civil war since 2014, and many areas of the country are out of reach of government influence. The areas controlled by Islamist and militia groups are especially likely to allow or endorse the slave trade.How has Libya responded?
A day after CNN International broke the story, President Trump tweeted, in an unrelated matter, “CNN International is still a major source of (Fake) news, and they represent our Nation to the WORLD very poorly. The outside world does not see the truth from them!”
Both the Libyan media and Libyan diplomats in Africa seized on the tweet to discredit CNN’s reporting. One media outlet in the country said, “Here the possibility arises that the channel has published the report of slavery in Libya to secure an as yet hidden political objective.” And some Libyan diplomats said the CNN report was designed to tarnish the image of Libya.
However, after protests in Europe the Libyan government promised an investigation into the human trafficking going on in their country.What is the response by the international community?
Last month African and European leaders meeting at a summit in the Ivory Coast agreed to attempt an imminent evacuation of migrants trapped in the camps.
The United Nations has also forcefully condemned the human trafficking going on in Libya. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the trade a crime against humanity. “I abhor these appalling acts and call upon all competent authorities to investigate these activities without delay and to bring the perpetrators to justice,” Guterres said. “I have asked the relevant United Nations actors to actively pursue this matter.”
Earlier this week the UN Security Council also condemned the acts and called for an investigation. U.S Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said the United States strongly supports the Security Council’s action to call attention to the atrocities, investigate the perpetrators, and care for the victims.
“It’s critical for the Security Council to speak up when human rights abuses threaten the lives of innocent civilians. Reports that people escaping violence are being sold into slavery in Libya are horrifying,” Haley said. “All countries must do everything they can to end this barbaric practice. Until that time, those committing these unspeakable crimes must be brought to justice, and the victims must be treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve.”
“You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.”
This aphorism by Charlie (“Tremendous”) Jones (1927–2008) has long been a favorite of mine, one that has often rung true in my experience. People and books shape us in significant ways—probably in more ways than we’re aware of—and that’s why publishing is a key part of what we do at The Gospel Coalition. Along with our local and national events, we labor to publish books, curriculum, articles, and reviews that
- offer gospel-centered argument and application;
- include faithful and foundational use of Scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament;
- foster spiritual discernment of contemporary trials and trends; and
- encourage efforts to unite and renew the church.
And this is the same criteria we use for our annual TGC Book Awards. Each year we review around 300 titles between our academic journal Themelios and our regular book reviews section, so at the end of the year it’s good to take stock of the most helpful titles from 2017.
Working with Council members and key contributors, our editors have each identified one winner and one runner-up book in an area they regularly cover for TGC. We solicited nominations from various publishers, considered them alongside other noteworthy titles, narrowed the finalists to four for each category, sent those titles to the judges, and awaited their decisions.
Congratulations to the winners of our TGC Book Awards in 2017. We encourage you to take up and read these books, then share them with family, friends, and fellow church members.Christian Living
Trevin Wax. This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel. Nashville: B&H Books. 240 pp. $16.99.
This is Our Time offers a thoughtful analysis of the myths pervading our culture—whether they’re about our smartphone habits, entertainment intake, or views of shopping, sex, marriage, politics, and life’s purpose—and then wisely applies the truth of the gospel to them. Wax not only enlightens believers by exposing the myths, but equips them to faithfully engage these and other myths with the longing-lie-light framework. In all, This Is Our Time is a valuable resource for faithful living that’s broadly applicable to believers of all ages, stages, and circumstances.
Brett McCracken. Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 224 pp. $15.99.
Judges: Ivan Mesa, Melissa Kruger, Winfree Brisley, Justin DillehayBible & Theology
Michael Allen. Sanctification (New Studies in Dogmatics). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 302 pp. $34.99.
The third installment in Zondervan’s promising New Studies in Dogmatics series, Sanctification is a needed and welcome contribution on a widely misunderstood topic. Michael Allen’s treatment is a tour de force: solidly researched, clearly structured, historically engaged, theologically rigorous, and pastorally helpful. His analysis is broad-ranging and penetrating without being overly technical or pedantic. Read and treasure God’s work not only for you in the past (transferring you positionally into the realm of the holy) but also in you in the present (transforming you progressively into the image of his beloved Son)—as you await the day your faith vanishes into sight.
James K. A. Smith. Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Cultural Liturgies). Ada, MI: Baker Academic. 256 pp. $22.99.
Judges: Matt Smethurst, Kirsten Birkett, Jarvis Williams, Andrew WilsonMinistry
Phil A. Newton. The Mentoring Church: How Pastors and Congregations Cultivate Leaders. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel. 240 pp. $18.99.
This volume is the product of more than three decades of identifying and training up leaders in the trenches of local church ministry. Newton—who has served in pastoral ministry for more than 35 years—weds biblical, theological, and pastoral wisdom with a thorough examination of church history. The result is a church-oriented manifesto and manual for raising up leaders within the local church. With theological education in crisis, Newton’s copiously-researched and well-written book is both timely and needed. Churches must be ready to step into the breach. This book will get them ready for that crucial task.
David Murray. Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 208 pp. $14.99.
Judges: Jeff Robinson, Jason Cook, David Schrock, Mike BullmoreHistory & Biography
Kenneth J. Stewart. In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity. Downers Grove, IL. 304 pp. $30.
Kenneth Stewart demonstrates that evangelical Christianity is far older than the modern evangelical movement—in fact, as old as the faith itself. Gospel-centered evangelicals who long for a richer sense of tradition and liturgy than contemporary evangelicalism so often manifests don’t have to leave evangelicalism for high church traditions that are often less clear when it comes to the supreme authority of Scripture or the gospel. The pathway to faithful catholicity is through our evangelical identity, into the Great Tradition, in pursuit of what Timothy George often calls retrieval for the sake of renewal.
John M. Perkins. Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker. 224 pp. $19.99.
Judges: Jeff Robinson, Nathan Finn, Diana Lynn Severance, Eric WashingtonEvangelism & Apologetics
Greg Koukl. The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important that Happens in Between. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 208 pp. $15.99.
From cavemen to cosmopolitans, who hasn’t sought answers to life’s deepest questions? We all want to know if there’s a method to the madness, if there’s a sense to our stories. Greg Koukl believes there is, which is why he wrote The Story of Reality. More than an intro to worldview studies, this book offers a surprisingly useful model for personal evangelism in our post-Christian, postmodern culture.
Andy Johnson. Missions: How the Local Church Goes Global. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 128 pp. $14.99.
Judges: Alex Duke, Sam Allberry, Dan DeWitt, Rosaria ButterfieldPublic Theology & Current Events
Andrew Walker. God and the Transgender Debate. Purcellville, VA: The Good Book Company. 144 pp. $14.99.
Over the past few years transgenderism has quickly become one of the most contentious and confusing subjects in American life. In God and the Transgender Debate, Andrew Walker has given us one of the most readable and immediately helpful books on this controversial topic. Walker helps us clearly understand the transgender issue and gives the clear biblical teaching needed to guide our thinking and actions. This book thoroughly explains what is meant by the new terminology of gender identity and equips Christians to engage the conversation in a respectful, Christ-like manner that accurately represents what the Bible says about human sexuality and gender roles. God and the Transgender Debate conveys the kind of loving tone and compassion that’s needed in how we practically interact with our transgender neighbors.
Tom Nelson. The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community’s Compassion and Capacity. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books. 192 pp. $16.
Judges: Joe Carter, Vermon Pierre, Jacqueline Isaacs, and Bruce AshfordChildren’s
Trillia Newbell, illustrated by Catalina Echeverri. God’s Very Good Idea: A True Story of God’s Delightfully Different Family. Purcellville, VA: The Good Book Company. 32 pp. $14.99.
Is any issue in our country more fraught than race? Trillia Newbell has thoughtfully taken the tragedy of racial division and set it in the context of God’s redemptive story. With delightful illustrations by Catalina Echeverri, the book skillfully walks through God’s original plan for diversity, showing that though the world has been dreadfully marred by sin, God has provided a remedy through the gospel. God’s Very Good Idea will help readers (young and old) appreciate God’s good design.
David Murray. Exploring the Bible: A Bible Reading Plan for Kids. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 224 pp. $14.99.
Judges: Betsy Howard, Megan Hill, Erik Raymond, Blair LinneFirst-Time Author
Jaquelle Crowe. This Changes Everything: How the Gospel Transforms the Teen Years. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 160 pp. $14.99.
With biblical fidelity, theological clarity, and compelling practicality, Jaquelle Crowe winsomely and wisely helps the teen (and adult!) see how the breathtaking gospel of Jesus changes every aspect of our lives. This book is evergreen: you’ll be able to share it with teens in your church and family for years to come. At a time when we’re tempted to complain about younger generations, Crowe shows us a better way to guide them in grace and truth as we walk together in the light of Christ.
Rich Perez. Mi Casa Uptown: Learning to Love Again. Nashville: B&H Books. 232 pp. $15.99.
Judges: Collin Hansen, Julius Kim, Gaye Clark, Trillia NewbellTGC Publications
Colin Hansen, ed. Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor. Deerfield, IL: The Gospel Coalition, 2017. 176 pp. $15.99.
How did faith go from assumed to assaulted?
Probably no book published in the last decade has been so ambitious as Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. He seeks nothing less than to account for the spread of secularism and decline of faith in the last 500 years.
Now a remarkable roster of writers—including Carl Trueman, Michael Horton, and Jen Pollock Michel—considers Taylor’s insights for the church’s life and mission, covering everything from healthcare to liturgy to pop culture and politics.
Nothing is easy about faith today. But endurance produces character, and character produces hope, even in our secular age.
The New City Catechism: 52 Questions and Answers for Our Hearts and Minds. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017. 128 pp. $7.99.
Throughout the history of the church, catechisms have been written to be memorized and used for Christian growth and training. The New City Catechism is a modern-day resource aimed at reintroducing this method of teaching to Christians in today’s culture.
This short book lays out fifty-two questions and answers in two versions—both a shorter children’s answer and an extended adult’s answer—about God, human nature, sin, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and more. The questions and answers can be used devotionally, recited orally, and memorized over the course of a year.
Families, churches, small groups, and Christian schools will find this to be a valuable resource for developing the building blocks of important concepts in the minds and hearts of youth and adults alike.
Collin Hansen, ed. The New City Catechism Devotional: God’s Truth for Our Hearts and Minds. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017. 240 pp. $19.99.
The New City Catechism Devotional is a gospel-centered resource that sets forth a summary of important Christian doctrine with related devotional content. Rooted in a method of teaching that has been significant to church throughout history, this resource is written in the form of fifty-two questions and answers meant to be memorized and recited over the course of a year.
Each question and answer is followed by a Scripture passage, historical and contemporary commentaries, and a short prayer. Families, churches, small groups, and Christian schools will find this to be a valuable resource for helping adults and children alike learn important Christian beliefs.
Courtney Reissig. Glory in the Ordinary: Why Your Work in the Home Matters to God. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017. 160 pp. $14.99.
For stay-at-home moms, it’s easy to view other people’s work as more valuable to God, dismissing the significance of seemingly mind-numbing, everyday tasks. In this life-giving book, Courtney Reissig encourages moms with the truth about God’s perspective on their work: what the world sees as mundane, he sees as magnificent. Discussing the changing nature of stay-at-home work and the ultimate meaning of our identity as image bearers, Reissig combats common misunderstandings about the significance of at-home work—helping us see how Christ infuses purpose into every facet of the ordinary.
D. A. Carson and C. Jeffrey Robinson, Sr., eds. Coming Home: Essays on the New Heaven and New Earth. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017. 176 pp. $18.99.
The Bible has a lot to say about Christ’s return—it is mentioned more than three hundred times throughout the New Testament. We often downplay this doctrine because the precise details are debated. However, these passages are in Scripture to build our hope and joy in the here and now.
This compilation of expository messages from eight leading Bible teachers, including Tim Keller, John Piper, and D. A. Carson, explores the theme of redemption from Genesis to Revelation—stirring up within us a longing for our future home and filling us with joyful hope in light of Jesus’s return.Curriculum
Stephen Um. Gospel Shaped Mercy. Purcellville, VA: The Good Book Company, 2017. $79.99.
How is mercy linked to the gospel and how should it effect the local church?
This seven-week track explores what it means to be a community engaging with the world with compassion and justice.
Albert Mohler, Kevin DeYoung, Trevin Wax, and Brandon Smith. Echoes of the Reformation: Five Truths That Shape the Christian Life. Nashville: Lifeway, 2017. 144 pp. $59.99.
It has been five hundred years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s theses called for the reform of the church and served as the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. Its impact is still felt today.
This Bible study examines the five core truths that came from the Reformation, now referred to as the solas. Group members will explore these essential convictions of the faith and emerge more immersed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.