About John Starke

John Starke is an editor at The Gospel Coalition and BibleMesh. You can find him on Twitter at twitter.com/john_starke.

Grace Changes What It Means to Be “In” and “Out”

Do you ever wonder why you often look down your nose at others who maybe don’t have it quite together as you do; who don’t dress like or talk like or associate with the people you do? Do you ever catch yourself and wonder, Why do I do that? Or possibly, do you always feel guilty, inadequate, or joyless when you are around people who are morally superior to you, who have it more together, who seem to give more of their time and money? Do you ever wonder, Why do I let myself be bothered?

In Luke 5, the Pharisees found the behavior of Jesus, who was eating and drinking with tax collectors, to be distasteful. Jesus was, so far, a rabbi in good standing with the religious community. But this conduct was threatening that good standing. Jesus was in, but He was associating with those who were out. 

“Why do you eat with and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” they asked the disciples.

Luke doesn’t want you to miss the irony, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance,” answered Jesus. In other words, they accused Jesus of eating and drinking with sinners, but it’s only sinners who can repent.

The religious leaders were calling tax collectors, “sinners,” but recognizing that you are a sinner with nothing good in and of yourself was the one thing that made the tax collectors fit for salvation, and it was the one thing the religious leaders lacked.

So back to my original questions: Have you ever wondered why you feel inadequate and joyless with those who are morally superior to you or look down your nose at those who don’t quite cut it the way you do?

If you base your relationship with God in what you do or your behavior, then you’ll likely feel guilty, inadequate, or joyless when you are around people who are morally superior than you, who have things more together, who seem to more give of their time and money.

And then, everything you do in response will be guilt-based; so you can feel better about yourself and relieve your conscience.

Or, you completely give up and say, “I can’t do this religious thing anymore.”

But if you live believing that grace is what gets you in—based on what Jesus did, not on what you do—then you’ll be quick to rejoice in the goodness of others and you’ll labor to honor God with your behavior out of thankfulness and joy, not out of guilt or to feel better about yourself.

Let’s answer the second question.

If you believe what gets you in is based on what you do and who you are associated with, then you’ll always look down your nose at those who don’t quite cut it the way you do. Why does that happen? Because if you base your worth on what you do and your behavior, then that is also how you will find worth in other people. When your relationship with God is not based on grace, then hardly anything else in life will be either.

 

BibleMesh aims to help people understand the big picture as well as important facts of the Bible. The first BibleMesh resource is “The Biblical Story,” a course that presents Scripture as a cohesive narrative of God’s work in the world from Genesis to Revelation. It utilizes an interactive quizzing tool that helps people remember what they have learned. And finally, it includes a social networking platform which will allow pastors and church leaders to host their own online Bible studies and contribute their own resources. Forthcoming content will include courses in Biblical Greek and Hebrew.

Did You See It?

There are passages in the Bible that should cause Christians to be especially glad. Many of them are ones that cause us to rejoice in God’s grace or be comforted by His shepherd-like care. But there are also moments where God decides to show the nature of who He is more clearly than other parts of Scripture; where God pulls back the clouds, so to speak, to give a glimpse of who He is for our joy.

One of those moments is Luke 3:21-22:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Now there are plenty of moments in the Bible where people recognize Jesus for who He is and call Him Lord or even the Son of God. But notice here that this is God identifying who Jesus is. “You are my beloved Son.” And the Holy Spirit descends upon the Son.

Now we shouldn’t rush over passages like these too quickly. This isn’t simply a passage where Jesus gets baptized, as if He’s just graduated from high school and the Father shows up to say something nice. There’s something wonderful here that every Christian should stop and notice.

You see, Christians believe in one God. But God is not simply an ultimate personality or one great man, but God is actually three persons. He’s not three gods, but one God in three persons; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And what’s unusual—but wonderful—about this passage is that all three persons are on active display here. The Father speaks, the Holy Spirit descends, and the Son is baptized and identified. These moments in Scripture are not as common and we should not rush past them.

Let me try to give a picture of what I mean. In the Spring, as you walk through a park the grass is green, the flowers are blooming, and the trees are getting their color back, but for good portions of the Spring season, it’s cloudy and rainy. You don’t quite see the beauty that’s really, truly there. But when the sun comes out and shines on everything, you see the gush of color. You see Spring! You see the green! And when those moments come, you pause and you take in all that is exposed.

In the same way, as you read the Bible, God is always there, showing himself—never fully, but truly. But there are moments in Scripture, like Luke 3:21-22, where God shows us a greater picture—a clearer picture—of who He is. He sheds light on what is not always seen clearly. And when we see it, we should pause.

This is our God—The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Bible Is To Be Believed & God Is To Be Adored

Madonna and Child

Giovanni Bellini's "Madonna and Child" (circa late 1480s) located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.

Dick Lucas, Rector of St. Helen’s Bishopgate Church in London from 1961-1998, once told a story about a man who walks into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, goes into the Renaissance exhibition and, with those who are alongside him, he begins to give critical remarks of the works: what the artist should have done, what would have brought more color to Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna and Child,” how Jean Fouquet could have been more discreet, and on and on and on. And, of course, this was about as much as the curator could handle and he walked straight up to the man and said, “Sir, these works are not up for evaluation, you are.”

It’s easy, especially today, with books like The Da Vinci Code or documentaries like James Cameron’s “Lost Tomb of Jesus” to come to the Bible with a skeptical eye.

Can we really trust it?

Isn’t it just a myth-filled book?

What in the world does the Bible, a book that’s over 2000 years old, have to do with me today?

But let’s assume for a moment that the Bible is indeed God’s Word just like 2 Timothy 3:16 says,

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

And let’s also assume that its contents are true because God does not lie, just like Numbers 23:19 says,

“God is not a man, that he should lie; nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.”

And since God is the Creator of this world, He has authority over you to direct your life and all authority is established by him (Romans 13:1). And since He’s kind, He’s provided a way of salvation to reconcile the world to Himself (Ephesians 2:5).

Let’s assume all that is true, that the God of the universe has revealed truth about Himself, guidelines to shape our lives, and grace for salvation.

Do you not see the audacity to come to the Bible with a critical eye, to judge whether you believe it’s true or not, whether it’s worthy of your attention or not? God has revealed Himself and His great salvation. It is not up for evaluation, we are.

But, even for Christians, who believe the Bible is true, we sometimes can make a similar mistake. We can treat the Bible as only a bunch of problems to be solved, questions to be answered, theological conundrums to work out—and that’s it. We spend all of our time excavating the contents of the Bible, without letting it excavate our hearts.

But God comes to us through His Word and says: I will not simply be analyzed; I will be adored.

Now, I am not against analyzing and close study of God’s Word. If we believe God’s Word is true, then every word, every phrase matters. And we should pay careful attention to all that it says.

But just like the author of Psalm 119 finds that the Lord is his portion (his delight, his joy, all that he needs) by meditating and pondering God’s Word (Psalm 119:57-64), so we also analyze—not as an end to itself—but in order to adore.

My Song is Love Unknown

For many Christians, the effort to love the way the Bible commands is tiresome—like driving a car with square wheels. How do we keep from holding grudges? How do we love our enemy? How do we rejoice when our co-worker gets the promotion we deserve?

I don’t think we’ll know how to really love until we understand a verse like John 1:14:

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we saw his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

A model of the tabernacle located in Timna Park outside of Eilat, Israel. (Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.)

You may not recognize the Old Testament allusion of God dwelling or “tabernacling” with his people, but for a Jew in John’s day, this text would bring tears to your eyes. And I’ll tell you why.

You see, the word “tabernacle” goes back in the history of Israel to the Exodus, where God’s presence would reside in a tabernacle or a tent. This is how God would “tabernacle,” pitch his tent with his people in the desert and he’d do the same in the temple of the Promise Land.

But as Israel began to abandon the Lord, going after false gods and breaking God’s commands, their disobedience would threatened God’s favor and soon, their rebellion would be complete and God’s presence would no longer dwell with his people.

Gone.

So when the apostle John writes that “The Word (God himself) became flesh and dwelt, tabernacled, among us,” for Jews and for all of us, it’s the best news in the world, that even if you didn’t believe it, you’d hope it was true.

But there’s more.

Later in his gospel, the apostle John will show how personal God’s love is. John 15:12-14, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” You begin to see that the love of God was a costly love.

For some, today, it’s tempting to believe that God is only loving, not wrathful against sin; only forgiving, not demanding a payment for our trespasses. But I wonder, did that love cost your god anything? Did he have to give up anything to love you in that way? You see, the Bible displays a God, a holy and just God, who will punish sin, but he made his way from heaven to earth in order to be punished on our behalf.

The love that doesn’t cost God anything, doesn’t cause us to sing. But the costly love of God makes music and causes Christians to sing that they have received what they don’t deserve. That God has come to earth and has exchanged his perfect and spotless standing for our cursed and sinful life. And he was crushed for it.

It’s only when you believe in this love, that you won’t hold your spouses’ sin against them, since God doesn’t hold your sin against you.

It’s only when this love makes you sing, that you’ll love your enemies, because Christ was crucified for us, his enemies.

It’s only when this love makes you weep for joy, that you can rejoice when your co-worker gets the promotion you deserve, since Christ, deserving the highest praise, made himself low, that we might be promoted to glory.

It’s only when this love is so precious, like the food we eat and water we drink, that we will stop looking down on others, because, as someone once puts it, we are all just beggars showing other beggars where bread is. Praise be to God for mercy.

 

BibleMesh aims to help people understand the big picture as well as important facts of the Bible. The first BibleMesh resource is “The Biblical Story,” a course that presents Scripture as a cohesive narrative of God’s work in the world from Genesis to Revelation. It utilizes an interactive quizzing tool that helps people remember what they have learned. And finally, it includes a social networking platform which will allow pastors and church leaders to host their own online Bible studies and contribute their own resources. Forthcoming content will include courses in Biblical Greek and Hebrew.

The Bible + Life: An Introduction

For most 21st century Americans, believer or unbeliever, the basic worldview of the Bible and the truth of the gospel seem like an ethereal, other-world reality. The Christian life is just one more thing to lop on top of work, family, and vacation. What’s worse, there is a tendency to believe that real spiritual folks are the pastors and missionaries and everyone are those who couldn’t quite commit to radical Christianity.

But the Bible and the Christian life doesn’t function that way. It doesn’t roll its eyes at us, as if to say, “Well, if you must work in advertising, rather than the mission field, at least do it this way…” No, rather than Christianity being something to lop onto everything else, the Bible explains the Christian life as something that informs all of life. Real biblical Christianity has a high view of vocation, family, and rest. The Bible, rather than take us out of those things, informs how we are to do them faithfully and under God’s sovereignty.

 

BibleMesh aims to help people understand the big picture as well as important facts of the Bible. The first BibleMesh resource is “The Biblical Story,” a course that presents Scripture as a cohesive narrative of God’s work in the world from Genesis to Revelation. It utilizes an interactive quizzing tool that helps people remember what they have learned. And finally, it includes a social networking platform which will allow pastors and church leaders to host their own online Bible studies and contribute their own resources. Forthcoming content will include courses in Biblical Greek and Hebrew.

The Bittersweet Rise of the At-Fault Divorce

Divorce is a complicated subject in the US today. And while we should never idolize the past, as if they did not have their own besetting sins, it is helpful to see trajectories that led to today’s culture of divorce. From the Kairos Journal vault is a peak into history.

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In 1788, when Abigail Strong sought a divorce from her abusive husband, the hard-fought Revolutionary War was fixed in her mind as she reasoned, “even Kings may forfeit or discharge the allegiance of their subjects.” Abigail was not alone in her thinking. Marriage, according to the Founders, “was a voluntary association of a man and woman, who contracted in liberty to create the independent legal and civic entity of the family.” According to Thomas Jefferson, if this “voluntary association” should suffer “a long train of abuses,” then it too can be severed. Such reasoning paved the path toward legalized divorce in America.

The burgeoning nation now had a new and complicated responsibility: legalizing divorce while exerting itself as the guardian of marriage. At the turn of the century America grew faster than the government. As a result, though most states required official ceremonies, self-marriages became common and, after them, self-divorces. Since wives tended to be the victims of these self-divorces, states lobbied for a legal divorce where blame could be assessed and the transmission of property clarified. In a sense, as historian Nancy Cott demonstrated, it was the rise of the at-fault divorce:

The plaintiff had to show that the defendant had broken the contract. Rather than aiming foremost at individuals’ freedom, or intending to alter the concept that marriage was lifelong, early divorce statutes aimed to perfect marriage by weeding out the contracts that had been breached. If a spouse was divorceable, it was because he or she had committed a public wrong against the marriage as much as a private one against the partner; the public wrong justified the state’s interposing its authority.

Courts were interested not only in assessing guilt but in perpetuating traditional gender roles; wives were servants; husbands, providers. In fact, even if a wife were to be found guilty of a divorceable offense, at least in the South, judges often required that the husband continue to provide support.

During the nineteenth century, state legislatures increasingly liberalized their divorce statutes. Whereas in the eighteenth century, adultery and desertion were the only recognized bases for a divorce, “states added grounds such as extreme cruelty, fraudulent marriage contract, gross neglect of duty, and habitual drunkenness. Most of them shortened the period of desertion necessary (from five years to one or two).” Some states gave the courts complete discretion to end a marriage. Connecticut, for example, could do so for “any such misconduct . . . as permanently destroys the happiness of the petitioner, and defeats the purposes of the marriage relation.” Indiana, Illinois, North Carolina, and Iowa had similar “omnibus” divorce clauses.

The history of divorce in the nineteenth century is bittersweet. No doubt all parties took divorce more seriously in this era when compared to the present age. Divorce was regulated by the state; courts assessed blame and penalties and, as a result, divorce rates were low (less than two divorces per thousand in 1870). Nonetheless, the trajectory was set. The more the state regulated divorce, the more individuals looked to the state to decide the parameters of marriage. The state did more than print up a license, it entered the business of “blessing” the dissolution of covenant relationships once considered sacred. Cott minced no words when she wrote, “Far from being an institution fixed by God, marriage was in the hands of the legislature . . . marriage was their political creation.”

Christians can debate the extent to which the state should be involved in recognizing and dissolving marriages. What is not debatable is the fact that the Church can never outsource the responsibility of being the conscience of the institution of marriage. Bureaucrats who have made marriage “legal” and divorce “final” for over 200 years in American history may think they have the last word, but they do not—the ultimate Word on marriage and divorce has been given by God to His Church. She is the guardian, the caretaker, and the conscience of marriage. May she not be silent.