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Author: Michael Bannon

For God’s Sake: Understanding God’s love for us

A child asks, “Can I go to Billy’s house?” “No,” his mother answers, “it’s almost dinnertime.” That small, two-letter word “no” makes all the difference in his mother’s answer. Remove it, and the child might interpret permission to go to Billy’s house until it is dinnertime. Reinsert it, and his mother’s intentions are clear.

I did not know Greek in my first eight years as a pastor, not yet having gone to seminary, but the pastor I served under was proficient in it. I suggested that he offer the church a Greek language class. “That would not be helpful,” he replied. Not helpful? How could it not be helpful to know the original language of the New Testament?

I eventually went to seminary and finally understood his reluctance. Learning Greek vocabulary is not enough, you must also learn Greek grammar. When I learned Greek grammar, my grasp of English grammar improved. Knowing Greek grammar is not essential for rightly understanding the Bible; knowing English grammar is.

Consider the most popular verse in the Bible, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” It is popularly understood to say, “God loved the world SO much that he gave his only Son,” the word “so” communicating the intensity of God’s love.

Certainly, God’s love is superlative for God is love, the very source of it. And, in certain contexts, “so” does serve to intensify; for example: “I was so hungry that I ate an early dinner.” However, this is likely not the use of “so” in the John 3:16 text.

In English, the word “so” can also mean “thus” or “in this way.” Using my earlier example, I might say, “I had an evening appointment, so I ate an early dinner.”

Similarly in Greek, the word translated “so” in John 3:16 can, in certain contexts, serve as an intensifier, but in this context, it means “in this way” or “in the following way.” Some Bible publications add a footnote clarifying the translation, “For this is how God loved the world, he gave his only Son…”

This understanding doesn’t diminish the greatness of God’s love for us, rather, it helps us better understand it.

The popular “God loved the world so much” understanding has led some to conclude that God loved us because we were so loveable.

In Romans 5, we learn that God loved us when we were weak and ungodly – unlovely – and that Christ the Son died for us while we were yet sinners.

In this way, God demonstrated the greatness of his love for us. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all,” wrote hymnist Isaac Watts. So, it does!

For God’s Sake: Put your trust in Him

The blank page, its pristine surface appearing to grow larger by the minute, silently mocks your inability to inscribe on it anything worth reading.

The future is like a blank page, a vast unknown sprawling before us. It becomes the present suddenly, in bits, in a quick series of “right now” moments that instantly recede into a reservoir of memories and past experiences.

We consider those past experiences, weigh in the reliable cycle of sunrises and sunsets, the faithful turning of seasons, and boldly map out our plans for the future writing them into the blank spaces on a calendar. This is our hopeful bid at realizing something yet to be, something that may never be, for the future sits outside our control.

God’s relationship to the future is different for He is its author. Unlike us temporal beings who have a beginning and an end, who are contingent beings dependent on God for our existence, God is self-existent and eternal, with no beginning and no end. He exists outside of time.

For God, “one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). God is sovereign over time and all that occurs within its confines. So, for God, the year ahead is not unknown, not a blank page for, in eternity past, He had already written on it what must be.

God’s pen strokes are both broad and finally detailed, confidently transcribing the epochs, the days, and even the moments. With divine authority, He has authored the lifespan of nations and of people. “Your eyes saw my unformed substance,” the psalmist wrote, “in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16). The days that lie before us all, be they many or few, He has ordained.

Motivational speakers tell us that we are the authors of our destiny, so get busy writing it! Such talk sells books. The shred of truth in their spiel is that industry is better than sloth. God’s Word advises a more realistic approach, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.

What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” (James 4:13-15).

We cannot know the future, but we can know its Author. As you consider the year ahead, call out to Him, and put your trust in Him.

For God’s Sake: Conflicted by popular Christmas hymn

An article on The Hymnology Archive website ( explains that it gained its association with Luther because it was written in 1883 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his birth. For a season, it was known as “Luther’s Cradle Song.”

It has at least four melodies. Growing up in Canada, I learned the “Cradle Song” melody. Americans seem most familiar with the “Mueller” melody. I just listened to a British choir sing it to the “Traditional Normandy Tune,” and a piece of sheet music I saw recommends the “St. Kilda” hymn tune.

I crafted a version myself, about 35 years ago playing guitar for a senior citizens’ Christmas sing-along. Somewhere in the middle of “Away in a Manger,” some jazzier chords popped into my head, and I began to slide them into the song. This jazz arrangement has made me want to play the song even more!

My difficulty with the song is in its lyrics. They are not theologically deep, more like a lullaby that entrusts sleeping children to Christ Jesus’ care, but one phrase misrepresents Christ. It is the last phrase in the line, “The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” What is wrong with a baby Jesus that does not cry?

The fifth century saw the birth of Monophysitism; the “mono” prefix gives us a clue as to what the heresy espoused. Eutyches, a church presbyter, taught that Christ’s divine nature was comingled with his human nature resulting in one nature that was neither truly divine nor truly human.

This heresy was condemned at the Council of Chalcedon and its correction codified in the Athanasian Creed. The council determined that the Scriptures portray Christ as “truly human and truly God…,” writes Dr. R.C. Sproul, “the two natures in their perfect unity coexisted in such a manner as to be without mixture, confusion, separation, or division, wherein each nature retained its own attributes.”

In my opinion, to say that the little Lord Jesus did not cry like every other infant would when suddenly awakened is to comingle the two natures. I am certain that he cried, threw up, and did in a diaper what every infant does in them.

My confidence lies in what Scripture says, “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”

I will sing the song, but only after explaining that the baby Jesus, as one acquainted with our griefs, cried. His humanity does not lessen his deity but is the reason he alone was fit to be our Savior.

For God’s Sake: Time is ripe; receive God’s gift of his Son

The agent reciprocated by putting my friend through a more thorough security screening.

My own usage of the language has been subject to his scrutiny. On several occasions, mid-conversation, he has corrected my grammar. It is difficult to have a casual conversation with someone who is obsessed with the proper use of grammar and compelled to correct infractions. Friends are saying, “Physician, heal thyself.”

Alas, I, too, am similarly obsessed. Hearing someone say “bedroom suit” instead of “bedroom suite,” or “exercise regime” instead of “exercise regimen” makes me cringe. Last week, I corrected a friend for saying “supposeably” instead of “supposedly.” “What?” he responded. “It is ‘supposedly’; ‘supposeably’ is not even a word,” I answered. “Whatever!” he retorted dismissively.

You must agree, it is a beautiful thing when words are employed properly, even artfully. One of my favorite expressions in Holy Scripture is found in the verse that reads, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” “When the fullness of time had come” is a beautiful and curious expression akin to “when the time was ripe.”

We don’t use that expression much anymore, favoring instead “when the time was right.” The several dictionaries I consulted agree that the expression conveys that it is the appropriate time for a particular action; that is the sense of “when the fullness of time had come.”

At the appropriate time, sovereign God having orchestrated the necessary placement of key people in key places at a preordained point in human history according to his sovereign plan, a long-promised son was born. He was God’s own Son, come in human flesh, born subject to God’s own law. This promised Son kept God’s law perfectly, then died to pay the penalty for our inability to keep God’s law. This was God’s plan for when the fullness of time had come.

My heart is stirred by thoughts of sovereign God meticulously working out his sovereign plan and the beauty of its unfolding in such an unexpected, even unassuming, way.

I am humbled to be a beneficiary of this promised Son’s redeeming work such that I have received the promised adoption as a son. In the fullness of time, sovereign God, by his grace and according to his purpose in election, brought this spiritually dead man to life and gave him the gift of faith that he might believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. This is what God’s gospel promises.

The best use I can make of the English language is to encourage you, even compel you, to repent and believe the gospel. The time is ripe; receive God’s gift of his Son.

For God’s Sake: Our hope is in Jesus Christ

I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before, that the United States is like ‘a gigantic boiler…Once the fire is lighted under it, there is no limit to the power it can generate.’  Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”

For the first time since the war began, Churchill had hope. His hope was not mere wishful thinking, a “hope-so” hope, nor was it the so-called power of positive thinking, “if I can picture it in my mind, it will be so.” He knew well the military might of Germany committed to crippling the spirit of the British people and bringing Great Britain to her knees. Churchill’s hope, that which afforded him “the sleep of the saved and thankful,” rested in the knowledge that a greater power, a prevailing power, had now joined the fight.

Who hasn’t said to a friend embarking on some new endeavor, “I sure hope it works out for you!” It is at best an expression of goodwill that thinly veils the reality that new endeavors sometimes go poorly. We might just as well have said, “Good luck!” In the Bible, the word “hope” is used synonymously with assurance, an assurance informed by the knowledge that a greater, prevailing power, one against which nothing can stand, is at work.

That is its meaning when the Bible assures the Christian, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

Our hope is in Jesus Christ, who fulfilled all the righteous demands of God’s Law, living a sinless life yet dying to fully pay the penalty against us for our sins. How can we be sure?

With great power, God raised Jesus from the dead, thus proving he is the One the Father sent to redeem a people for himself. By that same dead-raising power, those whose faith is in Christ alone are raised with him to a new life that is eternal, born again to a living hope.

Someone once asked if I thought I was going to heaven. “Absolutely!” I answered, which offended my interrogator who hotly countered, “Who do you think you are?” “A wretch,” I answered, then using the words of the hymn, The Solid Rock, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Amen!

For God’s Sake: Jesus is the reason for the season

A montage of warm, happy home gatherings followed as the voice-over blathered out the sales pitch. The message was clear, getting together with family and friends is the reason for the Christmas season. As a Christian, my first reaction was a mental protest, but then I realized that this was truth in advertising, people who do not believe in Christ gather simply for the joy of gathering.

The secular culture’s commercialization of Christmas has irritated Christians for decades. We bristled when it used “Merry Xmas,” believing it to be an attempt to shove Christ out of Christmas.

For the record, “X” is the first letter in the Greek spelling of Christ and has represented that title for millennia. Despite our protests, Santa Claus, not Jesus, is now the one whose coming is celebrated. So, Christians countered with this catchy slogan, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” We broadcast it on church sign boards and Christmas cards in an attempt to out-market the marketplace.

Despite its foundation in truth and its “catchiness,” the slogan has a fatal flaw: it does not explain why Jesus is the reason for the season. The answer to that question is essential. Even the assertion that Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of Jesus’ birth leaves the question unanswered. What is the significance of Jesus’ birth and why is it a cause for celebration? Jesus’ birth is the greatest promise of God fulfilled.

From the beginning, God’s Word promised in ever-increasing detail a remarkable future son who would eradicate the curse of sin wrought by Adam’s sin. He would be a son, God promised Abraham, in whom all nations would be blessed. The promise was later echoed in God’s assurance to King David that one of his sons would reign on his throne forever.

Finally, when the angel gave the yet-unmarried Mary the challenging news that she would bear a child by the Holy Spirit, he assured her, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his Father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” The angel told Jesus’ stepfather, Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Soon afterward, the child was born.

Angels celebrated his long-promised birth and startled some sleepy shepherds with the news, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Jesus is the Christ, the long-promised one sent to save us from sin.

This is the reason that Jesus is the reason for the season.

For God’s Sake: Prayer seems intended to change the one praying more than their circumstances

Tasks more mundane than these, if that is even possible, garner a “thank you!” and she is sincere.

The first time it happened, I was caught off guard because the task, in my evaluation, was so insignificant that a “thank you” wasn’t warranted. It wasn’t heroic, it wasn’t sacrificial, and it wasn’t thoughtful. Quite the opposite, it was routine, nonetheless, in her evaluation, it was worthy of a thank you.

One “unwarranted thank you” can be dismissed with a perfunctory, “You’re welcome.” My parents raised me right. Constantly being thanked for routine tasks will start you thinking, “What is the threshold for an action to warrant thanks?” Clearly, I had set my threshold high, but had I set it correctly?

No thinking person would disagree that helpful actions that are extraordinary, sacrificial, costly, or thoughtful, warrant a thank you. But why not helpful actions that are ordinary, routine, within our means, or done from habit? Should we not be thankful, since someone else has given of themselves for our benefit, even if in a small way? Our burden was lifted, our lot in life eased.

The Apostle Paul exhorted the church in Thessalonica, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” He had just encouraged them “to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and esteem them very highly in love because of their work…and admonish the idle.” A series of exhortations encouraging care for one another follows, and then the exhortation to rejoice, pray, and be thankful all the time in all circumstances.

In our culture where the norm is “piranha-posts” on social media that shred others for good deeds and mindless infractions alike, can we even imagine such a community in which genuine care and thanksgiving abound?

It is imaginable for the community in Christ because it is the will of God for us in Christ, and the indwelling Holy Spirit transforms our hearts to do God’s will if we diligently engage in the means of grace he has provided.

The starting place is to acknowledge that being uncaring, prayerless, and ungrateful are sins for the Christian and to initiate prayerfulness with a prayer of repentance. Then ponder the grace of God toward us in Christ and let prayers of thanksgiving to God for all things abound.

Prayer seems intended to change the one praying more than their circumstances. Genuine joy and thankfulness for all things will begin to grow and shape our attitude toward others and our circumstances.

I have much room for improvement, but I thank God for giving me a mentor.

For God’s Sake: Attitudes toward Halloween participation vary widely

Our doorbell rang only six times that evening. “Where are the kids?” we asked each other. I learned laterthat, in addition to candy, one neighbor was serving up chili and another was dishing out hotdogs. You can’t compete with that. We now have candy, a lot of candy, and it is all candy that I like.

We don’t “celebrate” Halloween. Ours was one of the few homes on our street this year without decorations. We participate in the candy-dispensing ritual because it is a great way to meet our neighbors and their kids’ costumes are often so very clever. One little girl wore a large box over her head as part of her costume and, at first, groped blindly for the candy. Determined, she lifted the box, snagged her allotment, then stuck her head back in the box, a dedicated performance artist!

The attitudes toward Halloween participation are widely varied among conservative Christians ranging from full participation to total abstention. To the former, Halloween is a harmless, fun outing where their children can express their imaginations in costumes and indulge their sweet tooths in candy. To the latter, any participation in Halloween is a participation in the occult.

The Apostle Paul addressed such issues in the Bible. Apparently, the carcasses of animals sacrificed in pagan temples ended up in the butcher’s stall in the local market. Some Christians had no misgivings about eating this meat, while others, their conscience troubled by the meat’s origin, could not. The former criticized the latter’s perceived legalism, the latter criticized the former’s perceived license.

Paul explained that some Christians know that there is only one God, that these idols are not gods, and all things have come from the one true God, so eating sacrificed meat did not trouble them. “But not everyone possesses this knowledge,” he added, “they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.” He warned the one who freely eats, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” Don’t press them into doing something they do not feel free to do. Elsewhere, he exhorts the weak not to judge or treat with contempt those who feel free to eat all things.

I think the same considerations can apply to Halloween participation. Christian parents who let their kids dress up and gather candy are not participating in occultic rituals any more than those eating sacrificed meat were participating in pagan rituals. But, they should not press the weaker brother whose conscience is troubled to join in, nor should the weaker brother judge their freedom.

As for me, I’ll continue as I have been, but next year, buy less candy.

For God’s Sake: God’s will is like a new car

We went out on a rainy weeknight thinking that car salesmen won’t want to get wet, and we can look at cars undisturbed. Sure enough, three of them peered longingly at us through the showroom window like guppies in a fish tank. Eventually, one of them found an umbrella and bravely joined us in the rain.

“Evening, folks,” he said, “What can I sell you?” “We’re looking for a used, low-mileage, 4-door, something roomy and comfy with a big trunk, and we’re not buying anything tonight.” “Follow me!” he replied. He brought us to a sporty, 2-door. “THIS is what you want!” then with a smarmy smile, “what’ll it take to put you in this car tonight?” “We’re not buying anything tonight,” we insisted. He adopted a pained, pensive expression, then gave a price, “That’s my lowest, I can’t take my pants down any further.” “Mister,” I said, “we don’t want to see you take your pants down at all.” We got in our car and left. My wife asked, “What about going to see Paul?”

Paul was a friend, who was an exotic car mechanic until arthritis forced a career change. He had been a car salesman for about 2 weeks. He was delighted to see us and after some friendly banter asked, “What are you looking for?” We told him. He thought for a moment then said, “Wait here,” and ran out into the rain.

Moments later he returned with a gleaming white, 4-door sedan under a covered area. “It just came in today.” We sat in the front. We sat in the back. We looked in the trunk. Then he gave us the keys, and said, “Take it home, test drive it, go shopping with it, then let’s talk tomorrow.” We test drove it. It was roomy, comfy, and the trunk was big! We bought that car.

The Apostle Paul exhorts the Christian, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Don’t pursue sin any longer, pursue God’s will instead. What makes this possible is God’s promise of ongoing transformation, the renewing of our minds, performed by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word, the Bible.

Sin is like our old car – familiar, even comfortable, but sure to leave us stranded. God’s will is like that new car – new to us, promising security and future satisfaction, but unfamiliar. We just need to take God’s will for a “test drive,” to do what it says. What we will find is that it is very good, and pleasing, and perfect.

For God’s Sake: Sending back the grammar-checking software

I downloaded grammar-checking software recently, and I am having regrets.

The software scrutinizes everything on my computer screen, and I mean EVERYTHING, highlighting what it deems to be grammatical errors. It is like having someone peering over your shoulder and constantly criticizing your work.

“That’s wrong, and that’s wrong, and so is that!” The software highlighted several words in that preceding sentence, but I don’t care, I’m standing my ground.

I downloaded the software hoping to polish my writing skills. What grammar I know, I learned from grammar-checking software back when televisions and computer monitors were big and blocky. My grammar was atrocious; the instruction I was given in elementary school had not stuck. The word processing software I was using had grammar checking. You chose how stringently you wanted it to scrutinize your documents. I steeled myself and chose the most stringent setting and thus began my education.

For months, the software and I argued over alleged infractions like my liberal use of the passive voice and run-on sentences. “If James Fenimore Cooper got away with paragraph-long sentences in his classic, The Last of the Mohicans, why can’t I?” I countered. The software stated that contemporary readers prefer a more terse style of writing. The software stood its ground, so I capitulated and adopted the terse style.

That choice put me in good stead as a writer.

My recently chosen software is sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong highlighting alleged grammatical errors in Bible verses in my Bible software and sermon notes. Its unsolicited advice is “reword for more clarity.” Not this time! I’m standing my ground.

A biblical doctrine is the clarity of the Bible, God’s Word, that it is not in need of clarification to be understood. People perceive it lacks clarity because their comprehension is impaired by sin-corrupted hearts and minds.

Following his well-known parable about the sower, the seed, and the four types of soil, Jesus’ disciples asked him to explain the parable. Jesus informed them that the seed is God’s Word and the people who reject it are the three unfruitful soils. The fourth, fruitful soil is those who do accept God’s Word. He explained, “You have been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.” God, by his grace through the regenerative work of salvation, transforms stony hearts into fertile soil and opens eyes and ears to perceive and understand his Word.

I have had well-meaning Christian friends suggest that I use parables like Jesus did to make the Bible’s message clearer for those who do not believe it. I point them to Jesus’ explanation of this parable. My responsibility is to carefully study God’s Word and then faithfully teach its message. Those in whom God has performed his regenerative work will receive it.

I am sending the grammar-checking software back.

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