A Theology of Looking Over Your Shoulder

Have you ever been in a season of looking over your shoulder? For some, this is a season of pining over the things left behind or the things we wish were not drifting away. For others, it’s tremendous regret at things past. On occasion, it is the impulse of shame and guilt of what came before. It is the inability to look ahead because of the attachment to where you have come from.

The Bible is full of these moments. Lot’s wife is unnamed in Genesis. She is known only for her looking back, pining over a worldly city she was attached to as God destroyed it. This look was her last, and God cursed her for it as he said he would. The Israelites looked back at Pharaoh as he pursued them at the beginning of the Exodus and were filled with fear. Later, they would love back on their enslavement with the angst that only bitter nostalgia can produce: “We sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full (Exod. 16:3)!” Peter denies the Lord for the third time and hears the rooster crow. He looks back—Matthew 26:75 says he “remembered”—and he wept bitterly.

In Christian circles, looking back can often be met with scorn! The faithful don’t look back! We keep our eyes on the Heaven ahead! There’s something to that. Hebrews 11:10 tells us that Abraham looked forward to the city that had foundations, designed and built by God.

Not every look over the shoulder is like Lot’s wife. As Christians, we need to develop a theology of looking over our shoulder. We need to learn to see who was at work when all of our own works failed us.

We need to develop a theology of looking over our shoulder. We need to learn to see who was at work when all of our own works failed us.

What Jacob Saw

Genesis 46 is the one where your eyes glaze over. In the middle of one of the grandest narratives in Scripture—God’s salvation of Israel through the faithful suffering of Joseph—we stumble upon a genealogy. Nothing causes Bible readers to skip ahead like a genealogy. But if you skip this one, you’re going to miss something important.

The passage walks through all of Jacob’s descendants: 70 in all, plus his son’s wives. Like a good baseball game, the stats tell the story: Four women who bore him children. Two wives. Eleven children. Ten sons.

Not learning from Abraham’s mistake, Jacob has taken multiple wives. More than that, he has also had children by their female children. Jacob’s life is one of struggle with God. We do not have the space in this post to retell his story, full of failures, unfaithfulness, and grief. Now Jacob is leaving his home to take his people to another nation for salvation from a famine.

When Jacob looks over his shoulder, what does he see? The children born from his lust, his lack of self-control, and his lack of wisdom. Two of his sons are killers. All of them, with one exception, contributing to the “death” of Joseph. His past is full of blood, deception, and sin.

It would be easy to stop there—easy to stop in this moment where Jacob is fleeing to Egypt in desperation, hoping this man whom his sons met will save them. It would be easy to see Jacob looking over his shoulder and only seeing failure. But there’s more to the story.

When Jacob looks over his shoulder, what does he see? He sees 70 offspring. God’s promise to Abraham so many years before was to give him a land, to multiply his offspring, and to bless him. He told Abraham he would make his descendants like the sand on the shore.

When Jacob looks over his shoulder, it is difficult to miss his own unfaithfulness. At the same time, when Jacob looks over his shoulder, he cannot miss God’s faithfulness.

In the midst of Jacob’s failures, the starvation of his family, and the uncertainty ahead in Egypt, God inserts a genealogy to remind the readers that God is fulfilling his promises, just as he said he would.

What Do You See?

I find myself in a season of introspection. I’ve been doing a lot of looking over my shoulder. What mistakes have I made? Where could I have taken a different turn? What if _________ hadn’t happened? What if I had handled this or that differently? Where have I done well? What do I need to remember next time?

It is easy, in a season of looking back, to look at the past like a mirror. Mirror, mirror on the wall, have I really blown it all?

This is not how Christians are called to look back. In the middle of famines, God builds families. In the middle of pain, he keeps his promises. In the middle of tragedies: a genealogy.

For believers, a look over the shoulder is as far away as we can possibly look from our own navel. Robert Murray McCheyne says it best: “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.”

Yes, our look over the shoulder will come with reminders of our sins, our failures, and our faults. Christians don’t do evasive autobiography. We are sinners. But Christians also life their eyes. Christians don’t find the good news within. Jesus Christ came to the world to save sinners.

Our look over the shoulder means seeing God’s faithfulness. It does not mean the alleviation of pain or grief or necessarily even regret.

Those who put their faith in Christ can look over their shoulder and see the most true thing: God kept his promises.

A Warning on the Enticement to and Deadly Danger of Sarcasm

(HT: Steve Weaver)

My attention was directed to this old panel discussion (from the 2000 Ligonier National Conference) this weekend by a Facebook Post from Steve Weaver. I thought that Piper’s comments here were insightful and wanted to pass them along. More than insightful, they are incredibly relevant for how sarcastic, razor sharp dialogue has become a primary vehicle of disagreement among a large subset of Evangelicals who write publicly.

What’s the main difference between me and Jesus? I am a sinner.

Does Jesus use sarcasm? Yes.

Am I liable to savor my own cleverness while sinfully tearing down those I disagree with, no matter how wrong they are? Yes.

Piper sums up: “You can’t exalt Christ and commend yourself as clever… there need to be more obvious tears in [our corrections].”

Take give minutes and watch the video for yourself from 24:03 to around 29:25.

Seven Ways To Preach Christ From the Old Testament

It doesn’t take long in a conversation about preaching Christ before someone says “Are you just trying to find Jesus under every rock?” Arguably, the bigger problem in Evangelical preaching is finding no Christ where it turns out Christ was the rock (1 Cor 10:4). Nonetheless, it’s a good question at root: how do we preach Christ in the Old Testament? But there’s a bigger problem at stake.

Too many Christ-centered sermons are boring.

It’s not that Christ-centered preaching is boring inherently. Done well, Christ-centered preaching is some of the most thrilling preaching that any Christian can hear. However, Christ-centered, or gospel-centered, preaching can often be formulaic. No matter the text, it ultimately ends up being about sin and the need to forgive. Every sermon is just the prodigal son with new characters. Or, if you’re onto recent trends, every sermon is about the “truer and better Jesus”, to borrow from Tim Keller. Typology takes over. Preachers plug their text into their typology formula and out pops the same sermon week after week, only with a new text.

There are countless ways to preach Christ that protect us from formulas, fads, and unfaithfulness to the original text.

In his book Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes, Sidney Greidanus begins with a really helpful summary of how to preach Christ in 7 different ways. It’s an excellent volume for preachers. Referencing John 5:39-40, Greidanus writes, “We should not just preach the Old Testament scriptures but link them to Christ so that people can have life.” Greidanus says he became convinced that he church fathers were right: “A Christian sermon must preach Christ” (24).

Below I’ll list his 7 ways to preach Christ from the Old Testament and try to provide a short summary of each. Note: not every passage can be preached in every way, but there is no passage from which a preacher cannot or should not preach Christ.

  1. Redemptive-Historical Progression
    Preach Christ by connecting the Old Testament passage to the plan of redemption: from the Fall, through Israel’s history, to the incarnation and saving work of Christ and then the Second Coming. How does this fit into God’s cosmic work of redemption?
  2. Promise-Fulfillment
    When the Old Testament makes a direct messianic promise, preachers have a clear path to show how Christ fulfills that promise. Some books, like Ecclesiastes, have no messianic promises.
  3. Typology
    Redemptive events, persons or institutions can function as types of a greater Antitype: the person and work of Jesus. Typology points to the intentional pattern or implicit claims of New Testament authors to show how Jesus is foreshadowed. Examples are Joseph redeeming Israel, the way Galatians uses the narrative of Ishmael and Isaac, and the temple.
  4. Analogy
    On occasion, the teaching of the OT will connect to the teaching of Jesus through analogy. For example, Jesus teaches “do not store up treasures for yourself on earth”, where the book of Ecclesiastes shows the vanity of that very thing.
  5. Longitudinal Themes
    The Bible is rich with themes that run from the Old Testament to the New Testament. These are the themes that cover the arch, or metanarrative of scripture. These themes include fearing God, holiness, wisdom, etc. Christ is wisdom (1 Cor.), wisdom is with God at creation (Prov 8), extoled throughout Scripture as the way of salvation.
  6. New Testament References
    Oftentimes, an OT passage plays a significant, explicit role in New Testament teaching. In nearly every case, it is done to show how Christ is the culmination or fulfillment of that text. (A great resource on this is Carson and Beale’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.)
  7. Contrast
    Sometimes, Christ seems utterly absent from a passage. Where is Christ when the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “All is vain (Eccl 1:3)?” Where is Christ in the wickedness of the book of judges, as they divide up a concubine and send it around the nation? Where is Christ is the unfaithfulness of Saul? He is there by contrast. In the face of traps, lies, and death, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.

I believe that Greidanus provides a really excellent grid for pastors and preachers to use in preaching Christ. He cautions against allegorical interpretation; the irony is that so much of what he does here is precisely what early church authors would have called allegory: typology, analogy, and thematic readings! Nonetheless, preachers are helped to think about texts in this way.

Greidanus says it this way: “It’s not a matter of trying to find Christ under every rock but it’s a matter of connecting the dots… the dots that run from the periphery of the Old Testament to the center of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.”

For more from Greidanus, here’s an interview he did a while back with Eerdmans for his Preaching Christ in Daniel volume.

The Bereans Had No Bibles

Growing up in conservative Baptist churches, there was no trait a Christian could possess of more value than knowledge of the Bible. Children’s programs gave awards for Scripture memory. Sunday sermons came from the Scriptures. VBS was dedicated to teaching children Bible stories. In times of grief or seasons of celebration, we turned to the Bible for solace or exultation. In an environment like that, one group from the Scripture was held forth as our role model and example. We were told to be a Berean.

Of course, this was not a rousing call to adopt Macedonian culture. Read what Scripture says about the Bereans in Acts 17:10–12:

The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.

This conviction to be a Berean was ingrained in me from an early age. Even now, I can think of no greater exhortation to Christians than to know the Bible.

However, until very recently my fundamental understanding of what it meant to be a Berean was, I believe, flawed. At the very least, it was incomplete.

The picture was often painted for me as one where every Berean was actively searching through their Bibles. The Bereans, in my mind, were like an ultra-devoted group Bible study. Together they opened their Bibles and each of them refused to believe what was taught unless they could collectively flip to a certain page and attach a chapter and a verse to it. There’s only one problem with that image:

The Bereans had no Bibles.

This isn’t only true of the Bereans. It’s true of every single Christian church in the New Testament era. It was not common for average folks in the early church to have their own, personal copy of the Scriptures. It was nearly unheard of. It was not until the Reformation era that mass-production of the Scriptures was even possible. What they had instead was a community—in this case the synagogue, but also the temple—which had a collection of the writings we know as the Old Testament.

If that’s the case, and your conception of what it means to be a Berean is like mine was, then we would all benefit from re-conceiving what it means to search the Scripture as a Berean. There are three fundamental truths that I think can helps us form a more accurate conception of what it means to be a Berean and which can give us some insight into how theology was taught in the early church.

  1. Bereans receive the truth.

    I couldn’t help but notice the order of their seeking: the Bereans received, then examined, and finally believed the truth. In truth, this passage is a beautiful picture of the Reformation principle of Scripture as the norma normans. That means that while we have many norms of our own, Scripture is the ultimate norm that, so to speak, norms (or conforms) our norms. The Bereans hear the doctrinal truth through the apostolic preaching and verify it through the Scriptural truth. It is by the witness of the Scripture that they believe what they received.

    This is an important distinction. The truth was brought to them as a conclusion from interpretation. The apostles taught them that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. This truth they then verified according to Scripture (at this point, the Old Testament texts they had at the synagogue). Then they believed.

    There is an important application here. Christians today do not do theology ex nihilo (from nothing) or ex ratio (solely from ration, what can be observed and deduced in the world). Nor do we start from scratch, just man and his Bible, to do theology. Theology is received: a gift delivered to God’s people from the treasury of the church. This treasury is Scripture, but also its faithful interpretation handed down to us from the church in our creeds and confessions. We stand upon the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Our command is not to “make a deposit” but to “guard the good deposit” (2 Tim 1:14). Theology is not done without regard to what has been delivered to us. Instead, as good Bereans we search the Scriptures to learn verify and guard the deposit which was made before us.
  2. Bereans learn in the context of the gathered church.

    This point follows from the first point. It should not surprise us, but perhaps it will if for no other reason that because we live in such an individualistic age that the thought of studying theology brings to mind podcasts during commutes, private devotions, personal reading, and individual study.

    This was not the way of the Bereans. The text itself tells us they gathered daily in the synagogue to seek the Scriptures. This would have involved public readings of Scripture, debate and disputation of teachers, teaching and exposition, and conversation about teaching. This act of interpretation, whatever else it was in the granular details, was a communal act.

    This point is not incidental, but is fundamental to the very purpose of Scripture itself. The post-Reformation Reformed dogmatician Franciscus Junius is helpful here. Junius makes a distinction between the principal cause and the instrumental cause of Scripture. The principal purpose of Scripture is the revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The instrumental purpose of Scripture is God’s glory in the church through the wisdom of true righteousness—the lessening of our sinful nature and being brought to the full stature of Christ—which together constitutes the present and future good of the church. This is a foundational point for biblical interpretation: if the telos of Scripture is the revelation of God and the glory of God in the church, then the Scripture cannot be properly interpreted in abstraction from the community, wisdom, and mission of the church.

    If we are to be Bereans, we must not divorce the study of the Scriptures and doing of theology from the community. We need one another to discern the teaching of Scripture. Theology quite literally cannot be done apart from the church.
  3. Bereans believe the Christian faith from the Old Testament.

    There is perhaps no reality in the New Testament that makes me more uncomfortable than the fact that the early church did not have the full New Testament. It is hard to grasp what church would be like without Romans 8, Ephesians 2, or the Gospel of John.

    At the same time, this discomfort likely reveals in me—and maybe in you—a latent, false belief that the Old Testament is somehow materially different from the New Testament. Does the Old Testament teach the Trinity? Does it teach a Divine Messiah? How can they know Jesus is Lord without Romans 10:9? Can we believe what Christians believe from the Old Testament?

    Here’s the reality: the Scripture teaches a consistent gospel story from beginning to end. While the New Testament most often makes explicit what the Old Testament makes implicit, to be a Berean is to see that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God, eternally from the Father, sent to redeem his poeple from their sins.

    Here’s how B.B. Warfield describes it:

    The Old Testament may be likened to a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted; the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what is in it but was only dimly or even not at all perceived before. The mystery of the Trinity is not revealed in the Old Testament; but the mystery of the Trinity underlies the Old Testament revelation, and here and there almost comes into view. Thus the Old Testament revelation of God is not corrected by the fuller revelation that follows it, but only perfected, extended and enlarged.1

    Put more simply, Dr. Robert Smith, Jr. oftens says in his preaching that for every New Testament Doctrine there is an Old Testament picture.

    To be Bereans is not just to search the Scriptures as we now have them in full, but to search the Old Testament in particular and there see God’s plan of redemption in Christ through his death and resurrection. To be a Berean, to borrow from Warfield, is to read with the lights on. Reading this way we see the plan of salvation from the Old Testament to its revelation in the New Testament: “God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself.”

Being a Berean is a lost label for Christians. These days, most of the people who appeal to the term are bloggers on the internet, mostly engaged in heated polemics at best or vicious attacks on those they disagree with at worst. What we see here instead is that Bereans are those who receive the truth in the context of the church, and thereby together prove Christ is both Savior and Lord from the Scriptures. What is the end of all of this? It’s not to win debates or to fill our heads with knowledge for its own sake. The passage tells us: many believe.

The goal of emulating the Bereans is to bring about and strengthen faith. It is Christ’s work and who he is, preached from the Scriptures, that saves and sanctifies. The Bereans had no Bibles. But they did have Christ. We have the Bible. And together, we should seek to find Christ there, and thereby be transformed into his image (2 Cor 3:17-18)

1 Benjamin B. Warfied, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Biblical DoctrinesThe Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1932; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 141-42.

Should theology be innovative?

I was doing some research this week on the Trinity and the quote below stood out to me. It isn’t relevant to my research, but I thought I might share it here. Samuel Miller was professor of theology at Princeton Seminary in the early 1800s, and he’s writing in response to a unitarian theologian on this question: Should theology be innovative?

“Without stopping to inquire, whether, as you seem to anticipate, great discoveres and improvements are hereafter to be expected in the science of theology, and in the elucidation of the sacred Scriptures;—a. question which, indeed, from the nature of the case, we must be but ill qualified to decide—one thing is certain, that, neither as Protestants, nor as Christians, ought we to allow ourselves to shut our eyes against the light, or to be blindly governed by the authority of our fathers. I accede fully to the truth of your remark, that you and I, situated as we are, ought to consider ourselves as under double obligations, to inquire diligently, and to weigh well, what we teach.

And, allow me to add, that, as we evidently ought. to teach our Pupils, not to rely on the decisions of Councils or Synods, or on human authority in any shape, but to examine with solemn care the only infallible Rule of faith and practice; so, in my opinion, we are equally bound to guard them against that spirit of rash and hasty innovation, either in faith or practice, which has so often proved the bane of the church of Christ. I have long thought it my duty to inculcate on those theological students whose principles I have had any part in forming, that, while free inquiry is commendable, and a christian duty; a rage for novelty, an ardent love of originality, as such, is one of the most unhappy symptoms, in its bearing on the prospect of future usefulness in the church, that a candidate for the ministry can well exhibit. I would not, for my right hand, exhort a young man always to adhere, whatever new light he may receive, to the old theological landmarks which our fathers have set up; but I would certainly and most earnestly exhort him, if he saw good reason to depart from them, to do it slowly, cautiously, respectifully, and with the most solemn and prayerful deliberation.”

Miller, Samuel. Letters on the Eternal Sonship of Christ: Addressed to the Rev. Professor Stuart, of Andover. Philadelphia: W.W. Woodward., 1823. Read here.

I appreciated the subversive line or argumentation that Miller takes. His logic is this:

  1. We should not blindly follow those who came before us.
  2. We should teach our students to thoroughly examine the Scripture (here he calls it the Rule of Faith) to seek the truth.
  3. Free inquiry, which idealizes innovation and novelty, is of little lasting value. But instead we should freely inquire into the Scripture.

    Therefore, while we should not always follow those who came before, we better have a darn good reason if we do not. That reason comes from inquiry into the Rule of Faith, not philosophical novelty.

Should theology be innovate? No. Refined by the Scriptures? Yes.

Thursday Throwback: The ‘Religious People’ Boogeyman | Jared Wilson

There’s no blogger whose writing I have consumed or appreciated more over the last decade than Jared Wilson. I want to point back to an old post from Jared called “The ‘Religious People’ Boogeyman. Originally, Jared wrote this post in response to a controversy with Perry Noble in 2011. This was even before he was blogging at TGC, and when For The Church wasn’t yet a twinkle in his eye.

Now, it’s been edited and reposted at For the Church (which, if you don’t have FTC bookmarked, you should). You should take 10 minutes and go read the whole thing. Here’s a small snippet:

It is so common a rhetorical practice among the preachers and speakers that I fear it is a systemic dysfunction in the attractional church paradigm which has defined itself largely in contrast to the boring, irrelevant, “traditional” church. This is what I’m talking about: The warning that there are “religious people” in our churches threatening our contempo-casual culture.

First of all, there are people in every church, no matter what kind of church it is, who struggle with the distinction between law and gospel, who struggle with the driving place of grace in their pursuit of holiness, so it won’t do to deny that legalism looms in our churches. Legalism lurks in every heart, actually, mine and yours. But this constant invoking of the judgmental “religious people” is very often a boogeyman. It’s an imagined threat, a scare tactic employed to both justify dumb exercises in license and arouse the self-satisfied mockery of self-identified “grace people.”

Go read the whole thing for yourself.

Also, while you’re here, here’s a short and hilarious video from Jared that I found on a very old Vimeo playlist of mine. Enjoy!

A Prayer Before Study | St. Thomas Aquinas

The following is Thomas Aquinas’s prayer before studying. It is a helpful tool for students before study, pastors before sermon prep, or scholars before scholarship:

Creator of all things, true source of light and wisdom, origin of all being, graciously let a ray of your light penetrate the darkness of my understanding.

Take from me the double darkness in which I have been born, an obscurity of sin and ignorance.

Give me a keen understanding, a retentive memory, and the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally.

Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm.

Point out the beginning, direct the progress, and help in the completion.  I ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. 


Do You Know About Uyghur Persecution?

A while back, I wrote a twitter thread that went massively viral about Uyghur persecution. In total, the thread was viewed over 5 million times. I’m grateful for any good that came of it, and any that were inspired to speak up by it.

I was sitting in my office, procrastinating a paper due for a doctoral seminar when I began reading about Uyghur Muslims. Out of that moment, I wrote this thread to share what I learned and share my reflections on my own silence. I had no clue anyone would read it outside of my small circle.

You can read the thread below. I have embedded it and created a “Twitter moment” for posterity, as well as to aggregate some other resources to go with it. I am not an expert on Uyghur people. (Only part of that moment is here, due to embed rules. You’ll have to click through to twitter to see it all.) I do not know as much as I’d like to. But I know this: in the face of this grave human rights abuse, I can not be silent.

We can not be silent.

You’ll have to click through to view the whole thread. Also, take time for this webinar on the issue from the ERLC. I’m really grateful to Russell Moore and his team there for bringing this issue to the fore: