When the Chapters Obscure the Meaning

Open Bible

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.

So opens one of the most loved and well-known passages of Old Testament prophecy, as Isaiah foretells the birth of the one whose name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The messianic prophecy fills the first half of Isaiah 9, but then the reader suddenly finds himself in the middle of a harsh denunciation of the proud and unrepentant Israelites, warning of coming punishment in the form of Assyrian invasion. And then the chapter is over.

Flip over to the next chapter, and we find another, similar denunciation of Israel, once again prophesying Assyrian attack. Then the chapter turns into a denunciation of Assyria herself, warning this “axe” of God’s judgment not to think herself above “him who hews with it.” And with that, Isaiah 10 is complete as well.

If one is reading Isaiah chapter by chapter, it’s hard in this section to avoid a sense of fragmentary thoughts strung haphazardly together. Yet, if we were to simply erase the chapter division, suddenly Isaiah 9-10 reveals a fairly straightforward structure. There is the beautiful prophecy of the future Messiah, then a shift back to the present with a warning of judgment against arrogant Israel, which then flows naturally into a warning for Assyria as well.

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Losing Community, Losing Wisdom

Dinner party conversation

When political scientist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone in 2000, the evocative title neatly captured a social disintegration which Putnam traced back more than a generation. Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, essentially every form of civic engagement, from hanging out at a bar to volunteering with the PTA, declined significantly as American society became more atomized and Americans became more isolated.

In the nearly two decades since Bowling Alone came out, we have become more busy, more mobile, and more digital, but no more connected.

This social disconnection extends into American Christianity, as professed Christians are increasingly unlikely to regularly attend church and even less likely to be part of a church community where they experience meaningful discipleship and fellowship. Like most of our lives, religion is an increasingly do-it-yourself affair. And among a thousand other consequences, this shift has made it much harder for us to grapple with questions which require wisdom.

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What Mark’s Abrupt Ending Tells Us About Gospel Historicity

Empty tomb

The last few hundred years have revealed mountains of additional manuscript evidence for the New Testament, as archaeologists uncover more and more ancient scrolls and codices from the earliest centuries AD. This rich collection of manuscript evidence—far more than for any other ancient work—means that modern translators can draw on a clearer composite picture of what the original New Testament manuscripts said. Yet these new discoveries have changed almost nothing of substance between older versions of the Bible, like the KJV, and newer versions which are based on an older and broader collection of manuscripts.

One of the few revisions is the view among most modern Bible scholars that the final chapter of Mark contains verses which were not Mark’s original narrative. As many recent translations note, the best evidence suggests that Mark’s gospel actually concluded at verse 16:8, which records the response of the women to the words of the angel they encountered at Jesus’ empty tomb: “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

The remaining verses of Mark 16 were most likely added within a century after Mark wrote his gospel. They briefly describe some of the same appearances of Jesus (to Mary Magdalene, to the two on the road to Emmaus, and to all the disciples) which are recorded in other gospels.

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On Standing Up to Bullies

Fighter with boxing gloves

It’s been a while! When I shared the news last year that I was heading to seminary, I said I wasn’t sure how much time I’d have for writing between then and now, as I spent a year transitioning out of teaching, getting to know the little girl who joined our family last June, and starting work as a web developer to pay bills over the next few years of seminary. I wasn’t sure what the year would be like, and it turned out to be pretty challenging. I’ve written a good deal about the importance of putting family and the local church first when events start to pile up and overwhelm our other priorities, and at times it has felt like the Lord wanted to see if I could follow my own advice. The past year became something of a perfect storm of busyness, both in ways which I had expected and others which were quite unexpected. However, our Father saw us through and provided all we needed (though not, it turned out, enough time to do much writing on the side).

And now that season is behind us. I just taught my last class of the school year and I’m looking forward to a less intense summer schedule, then seminary in the fall. I told you last year that I planned to go to Reformed Theological Seminary in my hometown of Charlotte, but over the past year I’ve changed my mind and am now excited to be heading to Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary as a distance student. I look forward to doing more writing and recording over the summer, and I have fond aspirations of continuing on a somewhat regular schedule even during the school year. I suppose we’ll find out together whether that is realistic…

In the meantime, I thought I’d dive back into blogging with a response to an interview I came across recently which captures a sentiment which is very common in American Christianity, yet also quite dangerous to the health of the church.

It’s an interview with Anthony DeStefano, author of a new book titled, Inside the Atheist Mind: Unmasking the Religion of Those Who Say There Is No God. I’m not familiar with Mr. DeStefano or his work, and it would be unwise to base any broad conclusions on a few words, but I think there is something profoundly wrong with his explanation of why it is important “to frame the ‘new atheists’ as bullies.”

It’s important because it’s the truth. Bullies are usually cruel, arrogant, ignorant, intolerant, selfish, self-centered, often cowards and liars — and when you try to correct them, they usually throw temper tantrums. Well, that’s the perfect description of modern atheists. And these particular bullies are at war with us, plain and simple. For the last 20 years, they’ve been waging an all-out, media-driven attack on believers — especially Christians — in the form of anti-Christian books, movies, TV shows, articles, speeches, billboard campaigns, blogs, anti-religious civil litigation, and government legislation — and it’s been relentless. Their goal has been to totally eradicate religious beliefs from the public square. As I say in my book, there’s only one way to deal with bullies — and that is to stand up to them and fight them. Ultimately, that’s why it’s so important to define the “new atheists” as bullies right from the start — so we don’t waste any more time and start countering their attacks in the most effective way possible.

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The Problem of Not-So-Sinful Second-Generation Christians

Happy friends

Our church’s liturgy includes a confession of sin near the beginning of every Sunday morning worship service. This week, our pastor borrowed the words of John Calvin’s Strasbourg Liturgy. Calvin’s confession ends on a note of hope, asking God to “blot out our sins and stains… producing in us the fruits of righteousness and innocence which are pleasing to You,” but it takes a hard road to get there, mourning that “we are poor sinners, conceived and born in iniquity and corruption, prone to do evil, incapable of any good, and in our depravity we transgress Your holy commandments without end or ceasing.”

Such grim language feels out of touch with the cotton-candy religiosity of our culture, but we use it because it reflects how the Bible speaks of sin. It was not Calvin but God who warned through Jeremiah that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer 17:9). It was not Calvin but God who inspired Paul to declare that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). The Bible is not shy about calling us sinners, nor about declaring sin damnable apart from the grace of God, so Bible-believing churches teach the same. But unless we’re careful, these scriptural truths can make the gospel feel less urgent, less relevant, for those who grew up with all the advantages of a Christian family and a Christian community and struggle to see themselves as desperately wicked sinners.

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Thursday Roundup (9/7/17)

Thursday Roundup

It’s been awhile since I had a Thursday Roundup post! I’ve had some changes in the last few months, as Leah and I had our first child in June and we also started planning for me to go to seminary to pursue my M.Div. in Fall 2018. I’m excited about the potential of a seminary degree to enhance my ministry work, but for the moment I have less time for publishing here at DavidVogel.net as I work a second job to save up for seminary. I hope to settle into more regular (though significantly reduced) schedule here over the next few months, but in the meantime I hope you enjoy this somewhat abbreviated Thursday Roundup.

Nearly all cults somehow diminish or deny the divinity of Christ, and an effective response often requires a careful look at proof-texts we sometimes take for granted, so this week’s video digs into Paul’s teaching about the nature of Christ in Philippians 2:6. The links of the week include “fake news” about early Christianity, watching Game of Thrones, praying through trials, asking forgiveness, loving our gay neighbor, the importance of a pastor’s character, and more!

(If you receive these posts by email and aren’t seeing the video and podcast, just click the “Thursday Roundup” title to view the original post on my site.)

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An Internet Pastor Is Not All the Teaching You Need

Listening to a sermon on headphones

The Bible is quite clear in its expectation that being a Christian is a community experience. From the Lord’s Prayer’s appeal to “Our Father who is in heaven,” to Paul’s frequent references to the church as a single body with Christ as the head, to the institution of the Lord’s Supper as a shared, communal sacrament, the Scriptures take it for granted that our faith entails horizontal relationships as well as vertical. And not just any sort of relationships, but relationships within an organized local church. So Paul considered it a matter of utmost important to appoint elders over local congregations (cf Acts 14:23, I Tim 3, Titus 1); the same local congregations to which he collectively addressed his epistles. The author of Hebrews made it even more explicit, warning his readers against “forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some” (Heb 10:25).

The Bible expects—or rather, directs—that the normal Christian life is a life embedded within a local church body. That is particularly important for us to remember in our individualistic American context, with an internet full of rich, compelling, biblical preaching available for streaming to our heart’s content. When I can listen to Tim Keller or Sinclair Ferguson with the click of a button, why bother with a local church where the preaching is (let’s face it) probably not as good?

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Work Will Trump Family Time (Unless We Fight It)

Man with phone at work

My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talking ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say, I’m gonna be like you, dad
You know I’m gonna be like you

I first heard Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In The Cradle” when I was a young boy, and even then I felt the poignancy of the lyrics, with the understated sadness of the closing verse as the now-grandfather is brushed off by his grown son. “And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me / He’d grown up just like me / My boy was just like me.” As I’ve become a man, then a husband, and now a father, the song has stuck with me as a reminder of the terrible danger of prioritizing success in every area of life except the one which is especially my own to steward, to cultivate, and to love: my family.

I still vividly remember having lunch with a prominent figure in Christian publishing and asking him for any insights into how to care for one’s family while working in a ministry field where there is always one more good thing to be done before you wrap up for the night. This elderly, godly man replied, with tears in his eyes, “Don’t be like me.” He had learned his lesson the hard way, amid the ruins of his first marriage.

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Thursday Roundup (6/22/17)

Thursday Roundup

Today’s video takes a closer look at Paul’s odd statement in I Timothy 2:15 that women will be “saved through childbearing.” The final podcast episode on Dr. Willie Parker’s Life’s Work considers how a boy who wanted to be a pastor grew up to be an abortion apologist, and draws out some lessons for us all. And the links of the week cover singleness and intimacy, the dangers of ignoring God’s design for marriage, expository preaching, encouraging your pastor, understanding the Bible, and more!

(If you receive these posts by email and aren’t seeing the video and podcast, just click the “Thursday Roundup” title to view the original post on my site.)

“Some Christians seem to do little but pray for new spiritual blessings, apparently oblivious of the fact that God has already blessed them in Christ with every spiritual blessing. Others lay such emphasis on the undoubted truth that everything is already theirs in Christ, that they become complacent and appear to have no appetite to know or experience their Christian privileges more deeply. Both these groups must be declared unbalanced. They have created a polarization which Scripture will not tolerate. What Paul does in Ephesians 1, and therefore encourages us to copy, is both to keep praising God that in Christ all spiritual blessings are ours and to keep praying that we may know the fullness of what he has given us.”
~ John Stott

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Don’t Bring a Knife to a Gunfight

Raiders of the Lost Ark scene

There is a famous scene in the first Indiana Jones movie in which Jones, fresh off a fast-moving battle against a dozen attackers, is suddenly confronted by one more adversary: a massive, sword-wielding warrior. The director had planned a final, climatic fight with Indiana’s whip pitted against the sword of his opponent.

Instead, Harrison Ford simply pulled out a hidden pistol and shot the huge swordsman in the chest.

Ford knew his character was too tired to play around in that scene. He needed his best weapon against a dangerous adversary.

Being a Christian in a fallen world means you and I are also surrounded by dangerous adversaries, but too often we start the fight by tossing away our most powerful weapons. The problem is ultimately one of faith. The Bible calls us to arm ourselves with righteousness, faith, and prayer, but these don’t look very impressive arrayed against the world’s wisdom and power—so we throw down the weapons with “divine power to destroy strongholds” (II Cor 10:4) and snatch up the world’s shiny tin swords.

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