The elusive Arisaema triphyllum

Photography by Mark Knox

Arisaema triphyllum, also known as a Jack-in-the-Pulpit, is a flowering plant found in the wooded areas of eastern North America, including the forest behind my back yard. They show up quickly in early May and stick around into June. This year, with a cold, rainy spell this past week, I saw a second wave of blooms.

Every year it’s a challenge for me, as my dogs playfully tread the mountain paths, to spot these plants when they first arrive. In the midst of May Apples, thorny sprouts, ferns, and other greenery, the Jacks hide tucked away in shady spots. Each evening as I return home, I announce how many new plants I spotted that day.

This search goes all the way back to my high school days, when in my sophomore or junior year, my science teacher whose name escapes me, assigned us to search the woods and dales of the north-central Ohio landscape for wild spring flowers. We were to collect, press, display, and describe as many as we could find. We would be graded on a sliding scale based on how many specimens we completed.

As one who woefully underachieved in high school and seldom did homework, ironically I really enjoyed this assignment. I even bought a little pocket guide to wildflowers to help me with the identification.

Unfortunately, my excitement for the assignment failed to overcome my inherent laziness and procrastination (something I struggle with to this day), so I ended up not turning in many examples. I probably got a “D” as I recall.

But near the due date, I summoned up some initiative and headed into the wood across the street from my house on Ohio Route 58, hoping to find enough to get me over the threshold of failure. For some reason, and I had no real scientific knowledge of this, I thought maybe I might find a Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

I spent the better part of an hour wandering through this small woodland. I don’t remember if I found any other specimens, but I continued to look for Jack. I didn’t know that most Jacks plants have an additional stem with 3 leaves; I was just looking for the familiar striped spathe – the pulpit – that housed the spadix – “Jack” – that I had seen somewhere before in some distant memory.

Suddenly, there he was! It was almost startling, kind of like the feeling you get when someone jumps out at you from behind a door. And then, where before I couldn’t find a one, now I was seeing dozens everywhere. Some were light green, and others had more of a purple-ish striped hue. I carefully broke one off at the base, took it home, and pressed it into my collection. I never went back to that woods.

Here in the temperate climes of western North Carolina, I began to walk the woods with Shadow the Dog, later adding the Amazing Roscoe Dog, I began to think about hunting for Jack anew.

Again, that nervous pursuit. Where might I find him? Looking, looking, looking. Peering, staring, studying. This time, he didn’t startle me; he was just there. I looked around; surely there are more of his mates. But no, he was a solo preacher. Maybe that first year I found three.

The next year there were more, and in additional places. Each year the numbers increase. Either they are spreading, or my powers of observation and discovery are hightened.

I’ve even found some variations beyond the coloring, green or purple. There are the early ones that are shorter and smaller with thinner stems. 3 leaves. There are some stalks with only leaves that grow. I look closely; they’re the same leaves, but no pulpit. I’ve found some with five leaves. Is this a new species? After all, they’re called tri-phyllum. Probably not, just a variation. Later in the season, I start to see a different kind. The base is a brown wrap giving way to thick stems, 3 in fact! One with the Jack and two stems of 3 leaves. Big leaves!

Today’s the first day of summer, and the Jack blooms are starting to wilt. With the cooler weather, we’ve had an extended season this year. so it’s been a gratifying adventure to take my nightly walk.

I like to think that this is something like what Adam must have felt in the Garden as he worked it and gave names to his discoveries. I believe my Father is pleased when I delight in what he has placed in this world. Through no fault of its own, the whole creation was subjected to corruption and eagerly awaits the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:19-23). But, though groaning, creation still tells a story.

Each spring, these Jacks step into their pulpits and preach the glory of God.

Is God unjust to save only some?

Whenever the topic of God’s saving of some while condemning others to hell comes up, the accusation is soon made that God is unjust to only save some and not all. Particularly if we look at salvation rightly as the sovereign work of God, we wonder, Why not all?

But, is it unjust to save only some? To have mercy on some and not all? How can God be just and save anyone for that matter? Let’s consider some of these issues.

1 God is not subject to our sense of justice.

As Sovereign Creator, God is not to be judged on our sense what is just. He himself is his own standard for justice, and our insight is both creaturely and fallen. God has revealed himself to be just (Deut. 43:4; Gen. 18:25), but rather than measure up to our understanding of what that means, we see in Scripture his revelation of how God is right and just. We can only begin to grasp it, but we are reminded that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

2 God is just to condemn sinners.

When Adam sinned, he plunged the entire human race into death (Romans 5:12). As a result there is not, nor has there ever been, nor will there ever be, a single human being who does not deserve death, condemnation, and hell (the one exception would be Jesus Christ, the perfect God-Man). If God had decided to save none of humanity but instead send us all to hell, he would be just. Habbakuk describes God as, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (1:13). A holy God is just to condemn sinners.

3 God in his mercy saves some.

God, for his glory and by his own good pleasure, ordained that he would save some out of a fallen humanity. Many would call this unjust. But rather than an injustice on God’s part, it is out of his mercy that he saves.

“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy.”

Romans 9:14-15

Mercy, by definition, is undeserved. And those whom God shows mercy are not the objects of mercy because they have earned it. This goes against our “fairness” grain. We want to ask, why this one and not that one? There is no answer to that question. “It depends not on human will or exertions, but on God who has mercy.” People assume that we think ourselves special by being a “chosen one.” Those whom God has chosen and saved are special, but not in the sense that they’ve done anything to merit salvation. Being a chosen child of God is not a cause for pride but a catalyst for humility.

4 When God saves, he does not forego his justice.

A simple (but erroneous) understanding of salvation is that God saves by simply forgiving and forgeting the sins of man. If this were the case, then indeed salvation of some would be unjust. But salvation is provided by the death of Jesus Christ, who took the punishment that we deserved in our place. God’s righteous justice is carried out in Jesus for those who believe, thus saving us from wrath. This is the biblical idea of propitiation [wrath satisfied] and it is at the heart of the gospel message.

“All [who believe] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This…was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:24, 25a, 26

Just and the justifier. This is how a holy God accepts the ungodly. Not through a spiritual wave of the forgiveness wand, but through enacting his just wrath on Jesus Christ in our place.

When I consider that I am a recipient of God’s sovereign mercy, and that the price of that was the death of his Son in my place, I am left aghast. I often think, why me? And I have no response but, Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! (2 Corinthians 9:15)

Preaching depth to a shallow generation, part 1

Deep part 1

It began in late April 1998.  It ended 8 years, 7 months and 28 days later, on Christmas Eve 2006.

It is John Piper’s sermon series on Romans, presented to his church during Sunday services.  225 messages.

Romans is probably my favorite book in the Bible, and I have been listening off and on to this remarkable series, especially his treatment of chapters 5-9.  I have repeatedly been amazed at Piper’s willingness to tackle tough theological issues and go deep into the text, sometimes spending three or four weeks on a particular passage.

But there’s something even more amazing.

His church let him do it.

A generation accustomed to the shallow end

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” –2 Timothy 4:3-4

It’s been well documented that “content” has been in decline all across the spectrum of our culture. As E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has pointed out in his book The Knowledge Deficit, “Disparagement of factual knowledge as found in books has been a strong current in American thought since the time of Emerson.” (p.9)

Unfortunately, this “disparagement of factual knowledge” is not exclusive to the mainstream; it has also infected the church. The modern church by and large has become a purveyor of practical principles and applications with a few Bible verses tacked on (from whichever translation or paraphrase says it just the right way) to give them credence. Some pastors have come to embrace the cultural disdain for content by discarding even the attempt to teach doctrine from the pulpit.

Thus, my amazement that Piper’s church stuck around for over 8½ years of deep, theological teaching from Romans. Many an elder board would have asked him to “tone it down,” or worse, asked him to leave and then counseled the next pastor to “keep it simple” or “be more practical.”  To be fair, Piper himself addresses this from time to time by intentionally bringing his current text to bear on the practical implications for the Christian life, or by frequently tying it to how it fits with the great “Therefore” of Romans 12. But he never shies from the hard truths of his text, even when there’s not an immediate “application.”

As a result, what we have in this archive of sermons is a true gift to the Church at large. Whether you agree or disagree with Piper’s theology is beside the point.  What he created there was not only a blessing for his congregation, but also a platform of influence to Christians everywhere.

May more pastors have the desire and the courage to go deep and take their flock with them.  And may many more congregations demand it.

[In subsequent parts of this series, I’ll examine the common approaches churches take on this matter, and how God uses his Word in our lives. Stay tuned.]

When God’s sovereignty intersects with time

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by Mark Knox

What follows is part of an ongoing series of articles that discuss places in Scripture where the sovereign plan and working of God are clearly seen to intersect with time.  Rather than trying to fit these descriptions into a pre-determined theological understanding, I aim to let these revealed descriptions stand for themselves.

“…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” – Acts 2:23 ESV

Acts 2:23 contains one of the clearest expressions of God’s sovereign working in history, yet ascribes guilt and responsibility to those committing those actions. As we let this passage speak for itself, what exactly is being said?

  1. It was God’s eternal plan to deliver his Son Jesus to be crucified. “…according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” By pairing these two powerful nouns (“plan” and “foreknowledge”), we know that the writer is not referring to a simple fore-seeing by God of what will take place, but is referencing his sovereign plan and determination of what will take place. This comes out clearly in other places in the book of Acts as well, notably 4:28.
  2. Those who, in time, committed these acts are held as responsible and guilty for them. “this Jesus…you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” This is an indictment on both the Jews (represented by their leaders) and the Roman authorities (“lawless men”). If you read the context in the early chapters of Acts, you will take note of this recurring theme in the Apostles’ preaching. It is highly accusatory, though not for the sake of stirring up guilt for guilt’s sake, but to bring them to the realization of their sin and Jesus’ status as the Anointed Messiah, so that they would repent and believe.

So then, this could lead us to a very perplexing question. How could a just God lay blame and pronounce judgment on men for an event that he pre-determined would happen?

What I find most interesting is that the passage doesn’t attempt to answer that question at all.  It simply moves on with the narrative, leaving the tension unanswered.

And I think that is the key to how we should treat passages such as this. Let the Bible speak, even as it affirms truths that are difficult for us to reconcile.

Later, Paul addresses this very question in the book of Romans, but even there, does not give an intellectually reconciling answer. After a discussion on the electing choice of God, he raises this objection,

“You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault (human responsibility)? For who can resist his will (human choice)?’”

And then notice Paul’s response to these questions:

“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” – Romans 9:19-20a

In other words, let God be God! The correct, humble response to tensions like this in Scripture is to let the Bible speak for itself. The fact that there is tension in our understanding should drive us to our knees in humble submission before the God whose ways and thoughts are higher than ours.