The Collision of the Primary and Secondary Worlds

Relevant Text: Acts 20:22-24
Full Text: Neh. 10; Acts 20

Worlds | According to Tolkien, the “Primary World” is the world that we live in and the “Secondary World” is the world that we enter into when we read great stories [1]. In the Primary World, we want to be rational. When we’re inside the Secondary World, however, rationality flies out the window. The fantastic can become true.

Collision | In Jesus, however, the Primary and Secondary Worlds collided. The most fantastic story became true when the Lord Jesus willingly died on the cross for all humanity and then conquered death itself by rising from the grave. And Paul never got over it. Prompted by the Spirit, he preached the supernatural grace of God poured out on natural sinners. As he told the Ephesian elders, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God[2].

Longing | Our life in the Primary World is meaningful because the Secondary World is true [3]. On the surface, our culture worships naturalism – the belief that reality is confined to the material and observable. Yet, our hearts long for something more. This is why we love stories like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings – for although our spiritual powers seem atrophied in the Primary World, we long for the Spirit’s supernatural powers of the Secondary World. And like Paul, we have Him in our hearts and in our midst, giving us the freedom and the discipline to testify to the gospel of the grace of God poured out on all the inhabitants of the Primary World who believe in Christ.

Prayer | Lord, Like children who read fairy-stories and ask with fullness of heart, “Is it true?”, we read the story of Jesus and ask, “Is it true?” The reality of the gospel seems almost too wonderful to believe because it reaches beyond our rational thinking. Therefore, open our imaginations and our eyes of faith to believe it so that we may have your Spirit within us. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] JRR Tolkien, On Fairy Stories.  |  [2] Acts 20:22-24 ESV  |  [3] See 1 Cor. 15:19

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What is the great tragedy of the Christian life?

Relevant Text: Neh. 9:17
Full Text: Neh. 9; Acts 19

Tragedy | The great tragedy of the Christian life is not our sin – for no matter what we have done, Jesus has dealt with it: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” [1]. The great tragedy is that the Evil One uses our guilt to make us feel small and insignificant. Rather than recognizing the awesome call upon our lives – to know God and enjoy Him forever [2] – we have a persistent sense of unworthiness. In other words, our biggest problem is not that we sin (that is to be expected!). Our biggest problem is that we don’t know how to deal with our sin so that we’re not coasting into spiritual mediocrity.

Hope | When Ezra read the Law, the people mourned because they had failed to obey God for a long time. Yet, Ezra said: “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” [3]. Then they fasted and worshiped, as Ezra prayed for them. Yes, he confessed their sin: “Our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments … and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed” [4]. But he also acknowledged that their sin was not the final word; God’s grace was: You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them. Even when they had made for themselves a golden calf … and had committed great blasphemies, you in your great mercies did not forsake them” [5]. They were great sinners; but the Lord their God was a great Savior.

Prayer | Lord, Your boundless grace is the basis of your covenantal love for us. Not only will you never forsake us because of our sin, you will forgive us with kindness and mercy again and again. Therefore, when the Evil One tries to exploit our sin through guilt, we can say to him: “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise … I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication” [6]. Jesus is your vindication and, in him, we rejoice! Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] 1 Peter 3:18 ESV. See also 2 Cor. 5:21.  |  [2] Wikipedia, Westminster Shorter Catechism.  |  [3] Neh. 8:10 ESV  |  [4] Neh. 9:16-17 ESV  |  [5] Neh. 9:17-19 ESV  |  [6] Mic. 7:8-9 ESV


The Joy of Understanding

Relevant Text: Neh. 8:12
Full Text: Neh. 8; Acts 18

Suspense | On Sunday night, my two preschool-age nephews and I gathered at the kitchen table to read The Magician’s Nephew. At first, they weren’t interested at all. I tried engaging them by having them say the characters’ names with me or by using my best British accent, but nothing seemed to work. Halfway through the first chapter, however, I realized what I needed to do – make the story more accessible. For example, instead of saying that Polly and Digory walked on “rafters” in an attic, I said that they stepped on “small pieces of wood through which they could fall at any moment.” After I changed a few more references like this, they got it. By the end of chapter one, they were hooked – so hooked, in fact, that neither one wanted to sleep alone that night because they were in suspense about what was going to happen to Polly!

Joy | Mere words on a page – spoken in an understandable and accessible way – can change how we feel about reality. After Ezra read from the Book of the Law, the Levites explained it, the people understood it, and everyone rejoiced: “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength’ … And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them[1].

Prayer | Lord, Your truth – followed by clear explanation – leads to great joy, which is our strength. Therefore, we praise you for your Word and for teachers of your Word. Thank you for making understanding and joy the path to salvation in you. Make us hope-filled saints who rejoice that we belong to you! Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] Neh. 8:8-10, 12 ESV

How to Proclaim “THE UNKNOWN GOD”

Relevant Text: Acts 17:23
Full Text: Neh. 7Acts 17

Audience | When I think about how to “go and make disciples” in New York [1], I often tell myself, “Think Paul in Athens, not Paul in Jerusalem.” In Jerusalem, Paul preached Jesus as the fulfillment of the Scriptures. In Athens, however, Paul knew that the Greeks could’ve cared less about Jewish prophecies; they were obsessed with philosophy.

Athens | As Paul toured Athens, the intellectual and cultural center of the ancient world, he saw idols and temples everywhere. Yet, instead of being impressed with their great architecture, he was “greatly distressed” [2]. So he decided to reason with their philosophers. His source material was their own imagery, not Scripture. He referenced an inscription he saw on one of their altars: “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD” [3], and he quoted their philosophers and poets [4]. His point? Just as Jesus fulfilled the Jewish Scriptures, he also fulfilled all wisdom and philosophy. As Paul concluded, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” [5].

New York | We may think our city is postmodern, but – like Athens – its icons reveal the truth. For example, in architecture, the New York Stock Exchange portico has a statuary tribute to Integrity, who protects “the works of men” [6]. Yet, as we all know by now, the stock market is hardly a protector. Jesus, on the other hand, “establishes the work of our hands” by protecting our eternal significance [7]. Also, in literature, no contemporary author compares with J.K. Rowling [8]. Yet, the immense popularity of her Harry Potter series reveals our longing for its gospel truths, e.g., substitutionary atonement, death and resurrection, and the victory of good over evil [9]. In the midst of our culture, therefore, we can say, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this we proclaim to you” [10].

Prayer | Lord, Teach us how to be faithful Christians in our culture – not condemning it, but engaging it and exploring its true longings. Today, as we pass by the icons of our culture, open our eyes to see how they reveal a deep longing for you so that we may creatively point to the all-satisfying joy of knowing you. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] See Matt. 28:19  [2] Acts 17:16 ESV [3] Acts 17:22-23 ESV [4] See Acts 17:28 [5] Acts 17:23 ESV [6] NYSE History (click: here)  [7]  See Ps. 90  

[8]  The 7 Harry Potter novels sold more than 375M copies and were translated into 60+ languages between the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (the original UK title) in 1997 and the end of 2007, when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published. The first 5 movies each set records for opening box office and the series as a whole had, by early 2008, already surpassed both the 21-film James Bond series and the 6 Star Wars films as the most successful movie franchise of all time. John Granger, How Harry Cast His Spell (2008).

[9] John Granger, in his book How Harry Cast His Spellargues, “’Why do readers young and old love Harry Potter?’ … The answer, believe it or not, is very simple, if frequently misunderstood. Readers love Harry Potter because of the spiritual meaning and Christian content of the books” (Introduction) (2008). See also Andrew Peterson, Harry Potter, Jesus and Me (July 11, 2011).  

[10] In J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay, On Fairy Stories, he argues that the great stories of all time are considered great because their truths are rooted in the Truth of Jesus. Thus, as children read fairy-stories and ask, “Is it true?” and, indeed, long for them to be true, we read the Gospel and our hearts leap with joy and ask, “Is it true?” and it is! As he concludes in his epilogue, “The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth. It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’ The answer to the question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): ‘If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.’ That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the ‘eucatastophe’ we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater – it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue … I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels – peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels if the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath” (1947).

Is the Church a Thermometer or a Thermostat?

Relevant Text: Acts 16:22-23
Full Text: Neh. 6; Acts 16

“The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison …” [1]

 Letter from a Birmingham Jail (excerpt)
Martin Luther King, Jr.
1963 [2]

“I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?’

“Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

“There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.'”

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Footnotes

[1] Acts 16:22-23 NIV1984  |  [2] Excerpt from a letter written by Martin Luther King, Jr., from a Birmingham Jail (1963) to eight fellow clergymen in Alabama who disagreed with his approach to injustice. You can find the full text of the letter: here. We also recommend his speech, “I Have a Dream”: here.