“Daddy,” my six-year-old leaned over and whispered in my ear, “should I change it to baseball? Because that’s what our family does”— and I was reminded that family discipleship can be far simpler than we sometimes think.
“The captain has turned off the seat belt sign.”
My wife and children are at home, but I am not. The conference has been long, the flight has been delayed, it is late, and I am longing to see the lights of Louisville.
Sparkling crystals of light unfurl beneath me, not evenly scattered across the midwestern plains but clumped and clustered like the time when I let my seven-year-old sprinkle the colored sugar on a cake. Each of these clusters is a place with a story and a gathering of people I will probably never meet. Beneath the belly of this aircraft, hospital patients are taking their first steps down the dark hallway of death; a new life is taking root in the warmth of a mother’s womb; people are marrying and burying, dreaming and despairing, making money and making love. Some of the souls in these clusters below me can hardly wait for the moment when they will be able to find a path to some other place; others have lived lives so entwined in one location that they could never dream of spending their lives anywhere else.
There are story lines that have uniquely formed each of these sprinklings of light, and each of these stories frames the lives of those who live there.Continue reading.
This week, in the year AD 461, Patrick of Ireland passed away. Ever since the early seventeenth century, churches have designated March 17 as St. Patrick’s Day. Prohibitions on feasting during the season of Lent were traditionally lifted on this day, and green had been associated with Ireland at least as early as the seventeenth century. The result has been a tradition of kisses and pinches, partying and wearing emerald hues on March 17.
But Patrick wasn’t actually Irish, and no pinches or parties or shades of green played any significant role in his story, as far as anyone knows. His story does, however, have much to do with forgiveness, faithfulness, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the words of Michael A.G. Haykin, this man’s
incredible understanding of the Great Commission and his passion for mission and evangelism [were] in western Christianity in the fifth century almost completely unique.
So who was Patrick? How and why should we celebrate his life? Or should we? Take a look at this two-minute video to find out!
Not a Saint, Not Irish, But a Faithful Proclaimer of God’s Good News
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Christianity, consider this book and video series. To learn more about Patrick in particular, I recommend this book by Michael A.G. Haykin.
Discuss in the Comments:
What did you learn about the history of Christianity that you may not have known before? How should Patrick’s choice to return to his captors with the gospel shape your life? Think about ways that your church or community group might celebrate this day in a way that focuses on Patrick’s gospel passion.
Imagine yourself as a follower of Jesus in the opening decades of the second century.
Nearly a century has passed since the first followers of Jesus claimed they saw their leader alive three days after they watched him die. The Christian faith has reached nearly every urban center in the Roman Empire. And yet, this faith—your faith—remains marginalized and despised. There is an ever-present risk that someone will accuse you of bearing the hated title “Christian.”
Despite this specter that shadows every segment of your daily life, you are deeply aware that your social position has improved since the days of Nero and Domitian. In many regions, allegiance to Jesus as your only God results in a death sentence only if you are accused of another crime as well. In Athens, there are even philosophers who openly pursue their love of wisdom from the foundation of their faith in Jesus. One of these philosophers is a man named Aristides of Athens.
In the winter of the year that we know as 125, it is Aristides who turns his philosophical capacities toward the goal of converting a king. The king is none other than Emperor Hadrian, lover of Greek culture and builder of the wall across Britain that is known by his name still today.
Words and writing matter.
In the opening chapter of the Scriptures, God speaks, and a cosmos bursts into being (Genesis 1:3). When he constitutes Israel as his people, God speaks and writes, and a covenant is born (Exodus 31:18). John described the incarnation of God in Christ by declaring, “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). Continue reading.
How can the Bible be inerrant if there are variations among the manuscripts and even between different accounts of the same events? That’s the question we’ll explore together in this post.
How Can We Have the Word of God If Some of the Words Are Different?
I slumped in an unpadded pew, half-listening to the morning Bible study. I wasn’t particularly interested in what the Bible teacher in this tiny Christian high school had to say. But, when the teacher commented that the New Testament Gospels always reported word-for-word what Jesus said, I perked up and lifted my hand. Continue reading.
Once upon a time, there was a season in the church year known as “Advent.” The word comes to us from the Latin for “coming.” The purpose of the season was to anticipate; the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting.
This research into the history of age-organized catechetical classes in the church is based on an academic paper that I presented to the practical theology section of the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Providence, Rhode Island, on November 16, 2017.
This post is the third in a three-part series.
“The Church of God Will Never Preserve Itself Without a Catechism”: Confirmation and Catechetical Instruction in the English Reformation
Following the death of King Henry VIII in 1547, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer grew a beard that suggested solidarity with the continental Reformers—but it was not merely in his pogonotrophic proclivities that the Archbishop of Canterbury imitated what was happening on the other side of the English Channel. Cranmer—not unlike Calvin—required catechesis of children in the context of the church.
This research into the history of age-organized ministries in the church is based on an academic paper that I presented to the practical theology section of the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Providence, Rhode Island, on November 16, 2017.
This post is the second in a three-part series.
“At Midday, There Is to Be Catechism”: Weekly Classes for Children in Sixteenth-Century Geneva
John Calvin provided instructions for catechesis in the same section of the ecclesiastical ordinances in which he described the frequency and locations for weekly pastoral proclamations of Scripture. He directed that each Sunday “at midday, there is to be catechism, that is, instruction of little children, in all the three churches.” The individual responsible for this instruction in each congregation was to be the pastor.
These weekly catechetical classes were designed as a distinct and separate gathering for children, and children’s attendance was not optional. Continue reading.
This research into the history of age-organized ministries in the church is based on an academic paper that I presented to the practical theology section of the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Providence, Rhode Island, on November 16, 2017. This post is the first in a three-part series.
In recent years, a small but vocal cluster of church leaders has contended that age-organized programs and ministries in the church should be eliminated. These proponents of “family-integrated church” have called for churches to dismantle programs that practice systematic “age-segregated discipleship.” In churches that follow this model, the congregation has no youth ministers, children’s ministers, or nursery. “We do not divide families into component parts,” writes one proponent of family-integrated churches. “We don’t even do it in Bible study.” The support claimed for family-integrated ministry is typically twofold, contending both that age-organized ministries are unwarranted by Scripture and that ministries for children and youth are a recent innovation that represents the imposition of “individualistic philosophies” in the church.
At least once or twice every year—usually around Christmas and Easter—popular magazines and blogs seem to go out of their way to locate some shocking fact that supposedly debunks what Christians believe about Jesus. In most cases, these supposedly-shocking data are recycled from one of the many failed quests for the historical Jesus that have ebbed and flowed since the nineteenth century.
But this pattern of false claims about Jesus isn’t anything new!
On October 31, 1517, a monk and professor named Martin Luther sent a document entitled Disputatio Pro Declaratione Virtutis Indulgentiarum to the archbishop of Mainz. This Disputatio consisted of ninety-five theses for theological debate. Perhaps on October 31 or more probably a week or two later, Luther hammered the theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Although the Protestant Reformation was a complex social movement with many causes, this event is frequently identified as the beginning of the Reformation.Continue reading.
“If only I could see God do something amazing, then it would be easier to follow him.” Has that thought ever occurred to you? It’s certainly crossed my mind from time to time! And yet, what we learn throughout the Scriptures is that, even when people did see God do something amazing, faithfulness wasn’t any easier for them.Continue reading.
I need your help! Here’s the challenge: I’m working on a video that summarizes the history of the Bible in six minutes. Below, I’ve posted the script so far—and I’d be interested to know what you think needs to be included and what might be left out. The narration for the video is already six minutes long, so nothing can be added without taking something out. What that means is that, if you suggest any additions, you’ll need to point out some possible deletions as well!Continue reading.
“Everyone in the entire community is holy, and the LORD is among them!” That’s what a band of rebels from the tribes of Reuben and Levi declared when they revolted against Moses and Aaron before going on to demand, “Why then do you exalt yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?” (Numbers 16:3). The rebels were consumed by earth and fire the next day, suggesting that God may not have agreed with their assessment of the situation. And yet, we must admit that their question made some sense. God had, after all, designated all of Israel as a royal people and a holy priesthood (Exodus 19:6; 22:31; Leviticus 20:7, 26). If all the people participated together in kingship and priesthood, why were leaders needed?
This question becomes even more acute in the New Testament, particularly in the letter that we know as 1 Peter. Continue reading.
Íñigo López de Loyola—better known to us as Ignatius of Loyola*—passed from this life on July 31, 1556. He was a Spanish priest and a leader in the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation. Roman Catholics have celebrated July 31 as his feast day since the seventeenth century.
As a Protestant, I may not celebrate the feast day of the founder of the Jesuit order, and I do not know whether or not he trusted wholly in the unearned merit of Jesus Christ to be made right with God. I have, however, found these words from his Spiritual Exercises to be helpful as a scholar and as a leader. Here’s what Ignatius had to say about responding to someone with whom you disagree:Continue reading.
This week, in the year AD 64, a fire began in the city of Rome that changed the course of history.
The fire raged six days before being brought under control. When the smoke cleared on July 23, seven of Rome’s fourteen districts had been partly destroyed and three districts were completely obliterated. Then came the rumors that changed everything.
How the Persecution Began
In the aftermath of the inferno, the Emperor Nero had—according to the Roman historian Tacitus—
food brought from Ostia and neighboring towns, and the price of corn was reduced. … Yet these measures, for all their popular character, earned no gratitude. For a rumor had spread that, while the city was burning, Nero had gone on his private stage and…had sung of the destruction of Troy.
Unable to stop the spread of rumors that he had sung about Troy while his henchmen torched the city, the Emperor Nero—again, in the words of Tacitus—
falsely charged … and punished … the persons commonly called “Christians,” who were already despised. … Those who confessed they were Christians were arrested; … a vast multitude was convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city as on the charge that they were “odious to the human race.” In their deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and mauled by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned as torches for the evening lights. … A feeling of compassion arose towards the sufferers because—though they were indeed guilty and deserving of exemplary capital punishment—they seemed to be being executed not for the good of the public but because of the ferocity of one man.
Why Nero Couldn’t Have Fiddled While Rome Burned (and Probably Didn’t Play the Lyre Either)
The saying that survives from the accusations leveled against Nero is that the emperor “fiddled while Rome burned.”
But Nero couldn’t have fiddled while Rome burned.
The violin wasn’t invented until the sixteenth century, so not even someone as crazy and corrupt as Nero could have played a violin while his city smoldered. He probably didn’t play the lyre or flute during these events either. According to the most reliable reports, Nero was miles away, in Antium, when the fire broke out. Soon after hearing about the fire, Nero headed to Rome. As soon as he reached the city, Nero “opened the Field of Mars and even his own gardens for the relief of the homeless,” according to Tacitus.
The persecution of Christians that resulted from Nero’s false accusation was severe—but it seems to have remained limited to the city of Rome. Later persecutions of Christians broke out in other areas of the Roman Empire for more than two centuries. These persecutions erupted and faded in a variety of places all the way into the fourth century AD. That’s when the Emperor Constantine claimed to have become a Christian. It was Constantine’s confirmation of Galerius’ edict of toleration that finally brought the Roman persecutions to an end.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Christianity, take a look at the book and video series Christian History Made Easy.
Discuss in the Comments:
Watch this video about Emperor Nero and the fire in Rome. What did you learn about the early history of Christianity that you didn’t know before?
Open your Bible to the table of contents and take a look at the list of books in the New Testament. There, you’ll find the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John leading the list. But did this quartet of early Christians actually have any connection with the books that bear their names? Were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John really the ones who wrote the Gospels? If so, how do we know?
Two years after the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, Macrina the Younger was born. She—as Coleman Michael Ford has pointed out—
lived between two worlds. One world was the age of Christian persecution by the likes of emperor Diocletian and others. For many Christians in the three centuries before Macrina’s birth, persecution leading to death was an ever-present reality. At best, Christians were merely tolerated. At worst, they were brutally executed. The second world was the emerging Roman empire of Constantine, an empire in which Christianity was officially recognized and privileges towards churches and leaders grew steadily.
Two of her brothers—Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa—became known, along with their friend Gregory of Nazianzus, as “the Great Cappadocians,” due to their contributions to the widespread establishment of an orthodox view of the Trinity in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Basil was a man of action, Nazianzus was a great orator, and Nyssa was a deep thinker—but Macrina is rightly revered alongside these three.
After the family’s wealth was divided among the children, Macrina convinced her mother to establish a religious community for women on the family’s property in rural Annesi in the province of Pontus, on the banks of the River Iris. The family’s slaves were freed and the former maidservants became members of the new religious community, where Macrina chose to work alongside them as an equal. In the words of her brother Gregory,
Now that all the distractions of the material life had been removed, Macrina persuaded her mother to give up her ordinary life and all showy style of living and the services of domestics to which she had been accustomed before, and bring her point of view down to that of the masses, and to share the life of the maids, treating all her slave girls as if they were sisters and belonged to the same rank as herself.
Basil established a men’s monastery across the river from Macrina’s community, but Macrina’s served as the spiritual leader of both communities. On July 19, in the year 379, Macrina died in the religious community that she and her mother had founded.
“Truth Is to Be Found Only In That Upon Which the Seal of the Witness of Scripture Is Set”
In the days leading up to Macrina’s death, her brother Gregory of Nyssa listened to her and learned much from her about life, death, and the resurrection. He later developed these dialogues into a treatise entitled On the Soul and the Resurrection. In one section of this treatise, Gregory and Macrina eloquently affirm the binding authority of Scripture in the life of the Christian. According to their dialogue, when determining what is true, believers in Jesus Christ
are not entitled to the liberty … of affirming whatever we please; instead, we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon Scripture, and approve Scripture alone and that which harmonizes with the meaning of Scripture. … Who could deny that truth is to be found only in that upon which the seal of the witness of Scripture is set?
If you’re interested in learning more about different personalities and events throughout the history of Christianity, take a look at my book and video series Christian History Made Easy.
Discuss in the Comments:
Read this article about Macrina. Consider carefully how, in light of her example, godly woman can use their gifts more effectively in their churches. How might you and your family celebrate the feast day of Saint Macrina on July 19?
With few exceptions, even the most skeptical scholars admit that Jesus was crucified—and with good reason. Not only the authors of the New Testament but also later Christian writers, the Roman historian Tacitus, and quite likely the Jewish historian Josephus mention the crucifixion of Jesus. And it’s highly unlikely that first-century Christians would have fabricated such a shameful fate for the founder of their faith. In the first century A.D., crucifixion represented the darkest possible path to death, after all.
In fact, it is almost impossible for contemporary people to comprehend the full obscenity of crucifixion in the ancient world.Continue reading.