The Advent Wreath is a War Flag

Advent-Wreath1The Advent wreath is a war flag. It is a reminder that Christmas is really about conflict. As 1 John 3:8 says, “The Son of God appeared to destroy the works of the devil.” All the world lies under the power of the devil (1 John 5:19). But Jesus has destroyed the works of the devil by removing Satan’s power: his ability to accuse Christians of their sin (Revelation 12:9-11). On the cross, Jesus paid the penalty of our sins, and at the same time, defeated the evil cosmic powers (Colossians 2:14-15).

The Advent Wreath, then, symbolizes God’s victory over Satan, sin, and death, which all began when a small baby was born in a dirty animal feed trough.

The Wreath

The circle of evergreen branch symbolizes the goal of God’s work: to give His creatures eternal life and freedom from Satan’s dominion. Just as the evergreen never fades and the circle never ends, so our eternal life is secure because of Jesus.

The First Purple Candle: Hope

The first purple candle symbolizes hope. When Adam and Eve sinned all the way back in the Garden, humanity was ruined and corrupted by sin. Now all people are under the dominion of the devil. But God did not let His creatures go their own way. He got involved. And from the very beginning, Scripture prophesied of a human descendent who would destroy Satan, sin, and death. We have hope in the Coming Savior.

Genesis 3:14-15
 The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this
Cursed are you more than all cattle
And more than every beast of the field;
On your belly you will go,
And dust you will eat
All the days of your life;
[15] And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.”

The Second Purple Candle: Love

The second purple candle symbolizes love. Why did God become a man? Why was Jesus born? Because of love. God could have left us to our own devices, destined for His judgment. But our God got involved. He loves His people, not because of anything that they do to earn His favor, but because of His overwhelming mercy and grace.

Romans 5:8
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

The Pink Candle: Joy

The third candle that is lit is usually the pink candle. The pink candle represents joy. We can have exceeding joy because the penalty for our sins have been paid. The power of Satan over us has been broken. And the fear of death has been abolished. All of that happen through Jesus entering our broken world as a baby. And God’s victory march culminated in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Luke 2:10-11
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; [11] for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

The Third Purple Candle: Peace

The third purple candle symbolizes peace. Because of Jesus, we can have peace with God. Our war with God is over. We can turn from our rebellion and become friends of God. Satan is defeated. And death is overthrown. Peace reigns through the Prince of Peace, Christ Jesus our Lord.

Isaiah 9:6
A child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.

Romans 5:1
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The White Candle

The final, white candle in the middle symbolizes Jesus. The candle is pure, just like Jesus was free from all sin (1 Peter 2:22). He was the perfect substitute for our sins (1 Peter 2:24). Although He never sinned, He died for sinners like us.

The Advent wreath is a war flag. It is a declaration that the powers of Satan, sin, and death have been crushed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The lyrics of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen sums up the meaning of the Advent wreath well:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

(Image Credit)

Don’t Lift up Goals, Lift Up Jesus

If you want to inspire people to the mission of God, you must lift up the Son. When we grasp the glory of Jesus, it becomes the sustaining inspiration that transform life. Isaiah was inspired by seeing Jesus in the temple (Isa. 6:1-8). Peter was inspired by seeing Jesus after his resurrection (Acts 1:1-11). Paul was inspired when he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:22). These men were changed when they saw the glory of Jesus. His mission become their mission. His glory was enough to change everything. Our apathy toward the mission of God is not because of a lack of knowing what to do. It is our blindness to his glory and grace that keeps us satisfied with nominal Christianity. If you want to light a fire under your church for the mission, don’t simply trot out your goals; life up Jesus.

Community by Brad House, p. 75.


What Should Be Worn to Church?

After disputes over worship music, possibly one of the most debated issues in conservative church culture is what should be worn to church. Are only suits for men and dresses for women acceptable? Are shorts too casual? In Part 1, I walked through the Bible’s storyline with special concern for its theology of clothing. Clothing testifies to the innocence lost  through sin, the covering of Christ’s sacrifice for sin, and the future of God’s people who will wear gleaming white garments.

Where is the line, then? The question of “the line” actually can cut both ways. Some Christians question, How casual is too casual? If a church stops expecting men to show up in suits, then where will it end up? But “the line” can also be raised: why not tuxedos? They are even more formal than suits. Who determines that suits are what’s best to wear to Sunday? In fact, the modern suit has not been around that long!

There is no direct command about what kinds of clothes we should wear today. But the Bible does give general principles about clothing.

First, God gives a certain amount of leeway for cultures to determine dress

Scripture does not give regulations for everything. In fact, the Bible actually allows each culture to determine what is “right” for itself in a lot of areas: food and shelter come quickly to mind. Since the old covenant is terminated with the coming of Christ, the food laws no longer apply. Thus, some culture value eating shellfish, while others don’t. Neither is more right than the other, it is merely a matter of preference. In addition, one type of house is not more godly than the other.

Similarly, clothing is largely a cultural preference. Many Arab countries  have a stricter view of women’s modesty than most Western countries. It doesn’t mean that women showing their calves is sinful, it is merely a preference option. So then, we should not be quick to judge other cultures for their standards of dress. What is tacky, or ugly, to us might be beautiful to another culture.

I’m pretty sure that when the apostle Paul taught in churches, he didn’t wear a suit. In fact, knowing Paul from Scripture, he probably only had one robe. It was probably ripped and torn from being beaten and pelted with stones. It probably smelled horribly from absorbing Paul’s sweat while walking along the desert roads in Palestine. That should at least give us pause when we try to mandate certain dress in our church services.

Second, God commands that men must dress like men, and women dress like women, according to  Scriptural standard and cultural expectations

God forbids cross-dressing under the old covenant because God has created both “male and female” in His image (Gen. 1:27; cf. Deut. 22:5). But we must be careful not to over-interpret the verses, because in the Ancient Near East, both men and women wore very similar clothes: long robes which looked like dresses! So yes, in our American culture which is trending away from the differentiation of the sexes, men must dress like men and women must dress like women. But this does not necessarily mean that women cannot wear pants just because  men wear pants. Women can wear the same kinds of clothing as men (t-shirts, pants, shorts), but they must be worn in a feminine way.

Third, God commands modesty in dress

Yet, everything is not relative in terms of dress. God commands modesty (1 Tim. 2:9). I would say that two senses of the term modesty are in play. The first sense means that we keep all the primarily sexually stimulating areas of the body covered. Second, modesty has the sense of “well-ordered, discreet, not drawing attention to oneself.” Both Paul and Peter exhort women to stay away from flashy outward appearances:

“I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as it proper for women making a claim to godliness” (1 Tim. 2:9-10)

“Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart” (1 Pet. 3:2).

The same principle applies to men as well. Men must not dress in a way which draws attention to themselves. Therefore, a man could be too flashy when wearing a suit, if he wears it in a way in which to draw attention to himself! The issue is modesty, not necessarily the types of clothes someone wears.

Fourth, God ALWAYS values heart worship over external appearances

A person in a suit who comes to church but doesn’t really worship God is an abomination. God hates that kind of worship. Jesus criticized the religious leaders of His day of having everything together on the outside, presuming the proper clothing too (cf. Matt. 23:5), and yet not having a true heart of worship:

You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me.” (Matt. 15:7)

Remember, Israel selected her first king based upon outward appearances (1 Sam. 9:2, 10:23-24). Saul did not work out too well. It was David, the one with the unassuming outward appearance but who was a man after God’s own heart, who was God’s true selection as king over Israel (1 Sam. 13:14).

Clothing does matter a little bit, for how you dress does say a little something about you. Just a little. Better to be like the tax collector who cried out to God “have mercy on me, a sinner!” than a well-dressed Pharisee.


So, what should you wear to church?

  • It should be culturally appropriate—both to your wider culture and church culture
  • It should be appropriate dress for your gender
  • It should be modest—keeping your “private areas” private, as well as not drawing attention to yourself
  • Most importantly, show up with a heart prepared for worship

Can someone in short, a t-shirt, and flip-flops meet all those requirements? I would say, yes.

Do you feel like a Loser?

Jim Hamilton commenting on Revelation 12 and how God works through weak things:

It’s almost as though God shows up on the playground to pick his team, and instead of picking guys who look like they can play, he picks the obviously inferior team…Do you ever look around your life and feel like God has dealt you a losing hand? If you’re a student of the Bible, when you see what looks like a losing hand, you know that God is about to triumph in a way that will give him all the credit for the victory. Isn’t that the kind of victory you want? So when everything in your life looks unimpressive, sure to lose, insignificant, trust Christ and watch for the glory of God to be demonstrated. (Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches, p. 249)

Great Walls of Fire! (Zechariah 2:1-5)

 “Will things ever turn around?” I think that’s a question all of us have asked ourselves at one time. Zechariah probably asked himself that question on a daily basis. At the time, things look bleak for the returned exiles. Their city lies in ruins. The city walls are torn down. Things seem hopeless. God, however, keeps surprising Zechariah with messages of hope and restoration. He promises to return to Jerusalem and restore her fortunes, and judge her enemies. (1:14-17, 18-21). In addition, God again gives Zechariah a vision of Jerusalem’s future restoration.

Zechariah 2:1-5

[1] When I looked again, I saw a man with a measuring line in his hand. [2] “Where are you going?” I asked. He replied, “I am going to measure Jerusalem, to see how wide and how long it is.” [3] Then the angel who was with me went to meet a second angel who was coming toward him. [4]The other angel said, “Hurry, and say to that young man, ‘Jerusalem will someday be so full of people and livestock that there won’t be room enough for everyone! Many will live outside the city walls. [5] Then I, myself, will be a protective wall of fire around Jerusalem, says the Lord. And I will be the glory inside the city!’”

The substance of the vision is found in verse 5: God will protect Jerusalem and be the glory in her midst. God will be a wall of fire around Jerusalem, which is symbolic of God’s protective presence.[1] The use of fire recalls Exodus where God led Israel by a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21). God also came down in the form of fire at Sinai (Exodus 19:18). In contrast to the helpless community of Zechariah’s day, God will protect His people so that they will never fear invasion.

Much more, God Himself “will be the glory inside the city!” (2:5). When the first temple was constructed, God’s glory filled it (2 Chronicles 5:14). Later, because of Israel’s sin, God’s glory vacated the temple (Ezekiel 10:18-19).

According to this vision, God’s glory would not be confined to the temple; it would fill the whole city! Zechariah 14 confirms this: common household pots and utensils in Jerusalem would be considered “holy”…the same designation of pots and utensils used in the temple. In other words, God’s glorious presence, which was at first confined to the temple, will encompass all of Jerusalem!

Beeline to Christ

Jesus the Christ is the hinge on which all of God’s work turns. His body is the true temple and those who are now united with Christ comprise God’s Last Days temple (John 2:21-22; Ephesians 2:11-22). In addition, God’s glorious temple presence will descend from the heavens and fill the whole new creation (Revelation 21-22). But all of God’s restorative purposes could only happen through the desolation of His Son. Only through His Son leaving the glories of heaven could God turn His affection toward sinners.

Present Humiliation, Future Glory

The story of Jerusalem is much like the story of any Christ-follower, because it is ultimately the story of Christ. Jesus lived a life of suffering and humiliation. He was a man of sorrows who was rejected by His own people. He had no place to lay His head. He marched to the cross to die the most dishonorable death of His day. But His suffering and humiliation was not the end of the story.

And it’s not the end of your story too. It is true that all Christians follow in Christ’s footsteps of suffering (1 Peter 2:21). But we also know that “the suffering of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glories which will be revealed to us!” (Romans 8:18).

So although your current situation may seem pretty pathetic, all is not lost. Just as God was working through the small community of Zechariah’s day, He can also work through you. Even if you are laboring under the strain of suffering, you have a more glorious future awaiting you than you can even imagine. It will be glorious that you won’t even remember the pain. That’s a hope worth holding on to.






[1] I think the vision makes clear that the wall of fire is not to be taken literally because Jerusalem is described as being inhabited “without walls”  (2:4, NASB). The New Living Translation obscures the meaning of this important phrase. Thus, if the walls of fire were to be taken literally, the author would be implying that Jerusalem doesn’t have walls, but has walls!  I don’t think that in the new Jerusalem that people will have to make it through a literal wall of fire in order to enter the city. It’s a symbol for God’s protective presence.

You Don’t Make A Decision To Join a Local Church

Steve Timmis and Tim Chester, in their book Total Church, speak on the true nature of church membership:

By becoming a Christian, I belong to God and I belong to my brothers and sisters. It is not that I belong to God and then make a decision to join a local church. My being in Christ means being in Christ with those others who are in Christ. This is my identity. This is our identity. To fail to live out our corporate identity in Christ is analogous to the act of adultery: we can be Christian and do it, but it is not what Christians should do. The loyalties of the new community supersede even the loyalties of biology (Matthew 10:34-37; Mark 3:33-35; Luke 11:27-28). If the church is the body of Christ, then we should not live as disembodied Christians. (p. 41)



The Trellis and the Vine–A Short Review

Six years ago I started a college ministry called SPUR with my best friend. I think about 15 people came to the first worship service we held. Our first ministry budget was $3,000 which covered about three months salary for us both as well as all our expenses. In the early days, we spent a lot of time with people. We spent a lot of time providing hands-on training, raising up leaders for the ministry.

But soon SPUR began to grow.

Eventually, more time was eaten up with nasty sounding things like “administration” and “expenses.” Planning meetings consisted no longer of answering questions like, “How many people can we reach with gospel?” but rather, “How much food do we have to buy for the summer retreat?”

Tony Payne and Colin Marshall, in their book The Trellis and the Vine, seek to help ministry leaders re-focus on what is truly important: discipling people.

Payne and Marshall liken ministry to a trellis and a vine. The “vine” is most important. The trellis is only the supporting structure for the vine. The “vine” in ministry is personal discipleship. Unfortunately, too many pastors and churches get wrapped up into maintaining the trellis, the supporting structures of ministry, rather than actually ministering!

The authors advocate, then, a return to “training”—personally discipling a few key leaders who will in turn begin disciple others. It is the 2 Timothy 2:2 dynamic at work:

“The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

One Big Takeaway

The one big takeaway I got from the book was this: people, people, people (or maybe now it’s three takeaways!). Focus on people, not programs. Focus on personal discipleship, that is, meet one-on-one with important leaders. Focus on mature and serious Christians. Wanting to minister to everyone often leads pastors to minister to no one. In other words, pastors have a finite amount of time, energy, and resources. How can the whole church be ministered to then? By raising up other mature leaders in the church who will minister to others!

Personal ministry is messy. It’s inefficient. It’s hard. But it’s worth it. Some people may not understand why they didn’t get a visit from a “real” pastor, but just another congregant instead. But the fact is that the congregation is doing the real work of ministry when the body of Christ ministers to one another.

Why the Hype?

I have one minor gripe with the book. The subtitle is The Ministry Mind-Set That Changes Everything. I’m sure that this had to be the work of the publishing company, because the sub-title makes it seem like this is a groundbreaking book. It is not. Which is absolutely a good thing! It stays true to Scripture and makes the case that people, not programs, matter. But I guess this title wouldn’t have been as interesting:

The Trellis and the Vine: Summarizing and Applying What Scripture Actually Teaches about Ministry

Buy, Borrow, or Bypass: Pastors should buy this book. Lay people should probably borrow it.