Defining Gifts

I told the following story for our school assembly last Thursday afternoon.

Once upon time there was a boy named Ben Levite. Ben’s father, Jamin, was a scribe by trade. He worked long before computers or typewriters when every book was written by hand, including God’s Law. Ben’s dad enjoyed his job and took his job seriously because he didn’t want to make any mistakes with Scripture.

Ben loved that his dad had such a uncommon and privileged career. Most of Ben’s friends had dads who farmed or shepherded. Some of his friends’ fathers were soldiers in the King’s army, others worked at the palace cooking or in construction. A few of Ben’s cousins had dads who were priests. But Ben took pride in telling others what his dad did.

Copying the law was hard labor. Guiding an ox to plow a straight line in rocky soil takes one kind of strength and determination, but constant focus on jots (dots, small letters such as the Greek iota) and tittles (serifs or an small accent marks) takes all of another kind of muscle and backbone. Scribes worked six days a week and many hours each day. When possible they worked near windows but most of the time they toiled with only the light from candles or oil lamps.

Sometimes the manuscripts they worked from were ragged or faded. Other times the manuscripts were in fine condition but the previous scribes’ penmanship looked like a Kindergarten phonogram test. The work was also very difficult because writing supplies were limited. Papyrus (a sort of paper made out of plants) was not always available and papyrus (a thin material made out of animal skin) was very expensive. Because of these things, most writers used all the space possible and left very little margin. In Ben’s dad’s day the scribes used no punctuation; they didn’t even use spaces between words so that they could save room for more letters. All the sentences ran together making it easy to skip a letter, or words, or accidentally add extra ones.

The work also involved copying from scroll to scroll. Books with spines and numbered pages hadn’t been invented yet. So letter by letter, line by line, scribes paid close attention as they carefully, repetitively dipped pen in ink and stroked out a new copy.

Ben appreciated his dad’s diligence. Going to synagogue services each Sabbath he knew that the priest read from his dad’s handiwork. Most nights at dinner Jamin would tell the family stories from the section of Scripture he had transcribed that day. Ben heard the stories of Joseph in jail due to Potiphar’s lying wife, of Moses leading the people through the Red Sea out of Egypt, of David and Goliath, and of Daniel and the lions’ den. Many dads told their kids about the Passover, but few had read it for themselves in the ancient scrolls.

Ben’s family threw him a party for his 13th birthday. Many family traveled from out of town and all his neighbors came. When the evening was almost over Ben’s dad brought out one final present. Ben quickly untied the string and unwrapped the cloth covering. He could hardly believe what he held in his hands: his very own copy of “Solomon’s Book of Wisdom” (what we know as Proverbs). Ben’s dad had been saving since Ben was born to buy extra scraps of parchment and stayed a little longer at work a couple evenings each week to copy this special edition as a gift. He gave Ben something even he didn’t have himself.

Jamin gave his son a treasure. He also gave his son something transformative. Jamin knew that the word makes a young man wise. The word protects a man’s steps. The word strengthens a man’s hands. The word rejoices a man’s heart. The word lights a man’s path. Ben had been given a gift that would change his life. The whole community would know about this present. They would also see the effects of the book in his life.

Solomon described a similar gift in the first chapter of Proverbs:

Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching,
for they are a graceful garland for your head
and pendants for your neck.
(Proverbs 1:8–9, ESV)

The “garland” and “pendant” (or necklace) were symbols of health and prosperity. They were treasures worn, gifts from parents that adorned their kids. Solomon says listening to instruction and obeying teaching make a son look good. They are visible signs that your parents sacrificed to get you something expensive.

In our day, we do not need to handwrite copies of God’s Word to give to our kids. Buying Bibles is easy for us, and many of you will have multiple translations on your phones. Maybe some day your watches will shine holograms of the text in 3-D images. But all your parents and teachers are working hard to give you a great present just like Ben.

Ben’s copy of Proverbs was a costly gift. Your education at ECS is also, paid for with dollars, time, energy, and sacrifices. Your parents are working diligently, and most of the time with happy hearts, to give you something great, something more precious and more apparent then jewelry. We hope that one day you will graduate and that your worship of God will be obvious to the world. We are not copying literal pages of the Bible but we are copying Latin worksheets, science sound-offs, and teaching models for you to have. We are learning songs with you, singing Psalms with you, and stitching raggants onto sweaters for you.

All of this is to make you look good. We want you to listen (hear instruction) and obey (forsake not teaching) your parents (and the teachers your parents partner with). Then your life will be decorated with the gifts of wisdom and God’s blessing.

The Disciples Missionaries Made

A disciple-maker should know where he’s going. If he does, then he probably knows his end depends on starting in the right spot. He also won’t be surprised when he arrives at his goal.

John Piper wrote a concentrated post on missions two weeks ago pointing to the January/February cover story in Christianity Today, “The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries”. The CT article describes the findings of sociologist Robert Woodberry who spent a decade researching “the effect of missionaries on the health of the nations.” Piper quotes Woodberry:

Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.

When men “convert from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ” things start to change not only for them as individuals, but also in their community. That’s why a map showing First World, Second World, and Third World countries relates directly to the presence of the gospel in those places. Most of the First World knows, or at least once knew, gospel roots.

Woodberry observed, and Piper presses, that cultural change surprised the missionaries. Woodberry says, “Colonial reforms (came) through the back door” and “all these positive outcomes were somewhat unintended.” Piper concludes,

The implication is that the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the “conversion” of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life.

In other words, “Tree first, then fruit.”

But saying that we should “focus on…conversion” is similar to saying that farmers should “focus on planting.” Trees grow from seeds and seeds must first be sown. Sowing, however, is only the start. Farmers must also water, weed, fertilize, and cultivate the tree to health and strength. They expect and work for more than a successful plant. When buds turn into branches and branches bear fruit all across the field farmers don’t say “these positive outcomes were somewhat unintended.”

It is true that we won’t “achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation” without conversions but, brothers, we are not conversionists. Christ commissioned us to make disciples, not converts. Discipleship starts with conversion but it ends with “teaching them to observe all that [Christ] commanded.” We labor to present every man complete in Christ and that includes teaching them to think like Christ, to talk like Christ, to act like Christ. That kind of stuff gets out.

Why would we seek, and even expect, conversions by God’s sovereign grace but not also expect an entire culture to change as grace grows whole groups of men in their obedience to Christ? Why would we call men to repent and believe, then move on to other fields? Evangelism is only the opening stage of discipleship. What is surprising about believers obeying in obvious and coordinated ways? We don’t say that our arrival at the supermarket was unintended because we had to get out of the driveway first.

“The fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:11) only grows from new creations of the Spirit, but the fruit of transformation affects votes, vocation, parenting, medicine, schooling, economics, government, and every other lawful cultural activity on earth. If Christ cares about it, then image bearers can and should, too. If we’re supposed to make disciples of all men, but not all men are supposed to be teachers, then disciple-makers are responsible for knowing how to disciple Christians of every calling. That means we will need a plan for the many at some point down the road since, where two or three sheep are gathered together, they will need to learn how to get buy or sell car insurance from each other.

So, “missionaries that will do the most good for eternity and for time–for eternal salvation and temporal transformation–are the missionaries who focus on converting the nations to faith in Christ. And then on that basis and from that root teach them to bear fruit of all that Jesus commanded us.” But many missionaries and pastors want proselytes and then have nothing else for the proselytes to do except read their Bibles and make more proselytes while they wait for heaven. That’s why talking about our aim as making disciples helps us approach our work better than making converts. When we remember that conversion is the start, not the end, we won’t be surprised that God takes whole cultures to better places.

Go for It

The following post is my convocation address for ECS from Tuesday afternoon.


Or, Changing the World from a Basement, Part Two1

Today begins our second year of Evangel Classical School. We meet in a new location, a location that, we can be thankful, still falls under Christ’s lordship, seeing that He claims every square inch everywhere as His. The site is different but our goal remains the same: to fight the serpent, to fight our sin, and to change the world as image-bearers of Christ. This giant goal may be too tall or too far away from us, but we continue where we left off last June. We start year number two in basement number two.

On this first day we convoke the Raggants. Convoke or convocation comes from two Latin words, con – “together” and vocare – “to call.” We call together each worshiping-warrior in order to ask God to bless our work. Each student, parent, teacher, and board member sees a relentless stack of work ahead and needs God’s strength. At this convocation we dedicate each book and lesson plan and white board and soccer ball to God’s glory. We pray that He would make our labor fruitful, maybe even fun. We don’t do it because of tradition; two years of first days does not a heritage make. We don’t do it as a formal sacrifice, as if wearing our dress uniforms forces grace out of God’s hand. We do it both to remember and to rejoice that no part of our school could exist apart from God. We say it and we really mean it.

Solomon grounds this educational undertaking on a key pedagogical insight (found in Proverbs 2:6).

For the LORD gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

Note the three words: knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. These terms cover the wisdom books of the Old Testament just like wet grass soaks a boy’s shoes. Though they belong together and depend on each other, they can be distinguished. As a school we pursue all three, and now is a good time for us to consider why we need God for all of them.

Knowledge refers to the facts, to the data, the nuts and bolts, the ABCs. The knowledge of geography includes the names of cities and countries, locations of lakes and oceans and mountains, along with their latitude and longitude on a globe. The knowledge of science includes birds and bugs, vertebrates and volcanoes. The knowledge of music includes the lyrics, the notes, the tempo, the tune.

No byte of knowledge exists without God because He created all things. Two follows one when we count because God made the world and gave it order. Rivers flow into oceans, ocean water evaporates into clouds, and clouds carry showers of rain blessings back over us because it’s His business. He made the earth, put us on it, and gives us brains to collect what we see, hear, smell, and touch.

We stuff our student’s heads with knowledge, sometimes with knowledge that our younger students don’t fully understand. That’s okay because knowledge is true because God is true, and He understands. The knowledge of how to read, or knowledge gained from reading four thousand pages, or singing history timelines and Latin verb paradigms, won’t just evaporate some day because God is. All knowledge comes from God.

As students get older we work to develop understanding. It’s good to know things, then it’s good to figure out how those things fit together, or don’t, or explode when you try. Understanding is the ability to connect and distinguish. Understanding sorts things into piles of good and bad, right and unrighteous, beautiful and meaningless.

All understanding, like the knowledge it counts on, comes from God. The only way to know good is to know the standard of good. Many schools look to the government for that standard, or at least a Congressional Subcommittee. We know that God gives understanding because He is the ultimate judge, the eternal being with perfect taste, and He sets the scales out on the table for us to use.

Our older students must seek God as they seek to learn logic, as they begin to debate and argue and find the acceptable. Acceptable to whom? Acceptable why? Who says? All of this depends on God. From His mouth comes understanding.

This leads to the third term and the most mature stage: wisdom. Wisdom does more than rehearse details and win debates. Wisdom lives the right way. A wise man puts feet to the facts; he adds sweetness to his speech. A wise man refreshes others around him. He doesn’t only know about how the cardiovascular system functions, he also knows how to live loving God with all his heart.

Wisdom–a true grasp of the principles, priorities, and practice of life–is not conferred because you finish a book or a class or a year of school. Those may be part of the process, but “the LORD gives wisdom.” Wise men depend on God; only men who worship God are wise. So the “fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). ECS is not about graduating smart students who simply know more. We desire to know more to understand better to walk in wisdom. Each stage orbits around God. Without God there are no sentences, no science, no sense, and there is no reason for school.

These three make a trivium trifecta, and we wage supernatural war by them. The ancient serpent, Satan, would have us doubt God’s facts, abuse or at least be confused over what God says is good, and trash our opportunities to represent God’s glory.

So we begin this school year seeking His help and strength and favor. Education only happens by Him. And, Solomon says, it requires our work.

My son, if you receive my words
and treasure up my commandments with you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
yes, if you call out for insight
and raise your voice for understanding,
if you seek it like silver
and search for it as for hidden treasures,
then you will understand the fear of the LORD
and find the knowledge of God.
For the LORD gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
(Proverbs 2:1-6, ESV)

Receive, treasure, make attentive, incline your heart, call out, raise your voice, seek and search…then God will give it to you. You’ve got to go for it. If you don’t pursue God and go for wisdom then you will fall into foolishness. On this first day we gather to recognize our need for God and to ask His blessing. We also call you–students and parents and teachers–to give yourselves to the work.

Fear God, work hard, and He will make our year fruitful in knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.


  1. Last year’s convocation address referred to our meeting space as “our Christ’s Lordship worship boot camp in a basement, as little as it may be.”