Nabeel Qureshi and the Song of God

As I reflected this week on what it meant to “live between the songs,” I saw Sunday morning that Nabeel Qureshi had passed away. If you don’t know who Nabeel is, he was a wonderful apologist, a medical doctor, a New York Times bestselling author, a husband, and a father.

And he was 34 when he died after a yearlong battle with cancer.

Photo Credit:  Marina Khrapova

I remember hearing Nabeel last year when the ministry I work for hosted Together 2016. Nabeel spoke to more than a hundred thousand people that day on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

A few weeks after Nabeel spoke at our event, he learned he had stage 4 stomach cancer. Yet I don’t think he would have changed the words he spoke that day:

If you are a Christian, it means you are going to live for eternity. It means you are taken care of. If you trust in what Jesus did on the cross for you, you will be fine forever. But your neighbor who does not know Christ, his needs or her needs are infinitely greater than yours.

Thousands prayed for his healing. Yet in the last video he published, he wanted everyone to know his motivation for his life was the love of God. His heart was set on loving and serving others until the end.

When the Song Ends

How are Christians supposed to take Nabeel’s death? As a cosmic misstep? As the result of too little faith? No, but instead as a confirmation of two realities: God has delivered us from sin and death, and God has not yet fully delivered us from sin and death.

On one hand, we have limitless rejoicing, knowing God has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus, who “abolished death and brought life and immortality through the Gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).

But death is the enemy that hasn’t yet been fully destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26), and we groan with creation as we wait for fulfillment of all of God’s promises (Romans 8:19-23).

This is what it means to live between the songs.

  • We’ve been adopted by God, but we haven’t been brought home yet.
  • We’ve been promised a heavenly inheritance, but we haven’t received it yet.
  • We’ve been sealed with the Holy Spirit, but we haven’t been perfected yet.

[bluebox]So we hope. As Paul said, “If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25).

We wait patiently, knowing, “When He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2-3)

And in the meantime, we’re called to live. We’re called to embrace each moment as a note in the song God is singing through our lives—“For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).[/bluebox]

We live between the songs, a song of earthly deliverance and a song of heavenly deliverance. And here we are—caught between songs, caught between worlds. We hear the far off, distant, already-not-yet melodies of heaven. We see in a mirror dimly. We know in part, but then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known.

And so we sing. We hope. We live. And we love.

I don’t have that much time to talk, but this is what I want us to take home: God loves us that much—to die on the cross for our sins. But then He also says to us, ‘As I have loved You, so love one another.’

Thank you for pointing us back to our hope and call to live in Jesus, Nabeel. May we live lives worthy of the name we carry.

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Living Between the Songs

Before I reveal it, I wonder if you know: Where can you find the first song in the Bible?

Photo credit: Oscar Keys

First hint: It’s in the book of Exodus.

Second hint: It commemorates one of God’s greatest deeds.

Answer: Exodus 15:1-18

Exodus 15:1
I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.

The First Song

Imagine the triumph of this moment.

For 430 years, the Israelites lived in Egypt under severe oppression and slavery. After centuries of despair, God sent them deliverance. We read of Moses, the plagues, and the first passover. The people of Israel escaped out of Egypt—but they weren’t safe yet.

Pharaoh sends his chariots after the Israelites. In an incredible miracle, God parts the Red Sea, and the Israelites cross over on dry ground. God closes the sea in on the Egyptians, and everything dark about the Israelites’ past is literally washed away.

In celebration, the Israelites stand by the sea and sing a song of triumph.

Read the final third of the song and take in the elation of this moment:

You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed;
you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.
The peoples have heard; they tremble;
pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia.
Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed;
trembling seizes the leaders of Moab;
mall the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
Terror and dread fall upon them;
because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone,
till your people, O LORD, pass by,
till the people pass by whom you have purchased.
You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain,
the place, O LORD, which you have made for your abode,
the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established.
The LORD will reign forever and ever.

God’s people are referred to as “redeemed” and “purchased.” The nations tremble with fear because they see the amazing power of God. You see this promise—God has guided them by His strength to His holy abode, and God will plant them on His mountain, His sanctuary. And it ends with “The LORD will reign forever and ever.”

Exodus 15 is the first song of the Bible—and what a song!

The Final Song

If Exodus 15 is the first celebration, Revelation 15 is the true culmination.

Now, tracing the “final song” in the Bible is harder, but when I search the ESV for the last time the Bible directly mentions singing, it points to Revelation 15.

The scene is set in heaven. A large group of saints who have overcome the evil one are standing by the sea of glass. And in this picture from the future, it says these saints “sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb.” When I check my study Bible notes, the cross reference to “the song of Moses” cites Exodus 15.

Look at these words from Revelation 15:

Great and amazing are your deeds,
O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
O King of the nations!
Who will not fear, O Lord,
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.

Although the lyrics aren’t the same, the concepts are strikingly similar.

  1. God’s people have overcome an enemy and are standing by a sea.
  2. Both declare the awesome deeds of God.
  3. Both declare a holy fear of God upon every nation.
  4. Both present a people, the first with the promise of being in God’s sanctuary, and the final with the promise realized.

In Exodus 15, the people of God rejoiced because God delivered them from centuries of slavery to the Egyptians. But one day, the people of God will gather with Him and sing because He has delivered us from millennia of slavery to sin and death.

And for you and me, we live between the songs. These songs show us a picture of God’s salvation stretching far back into history and forward into all eternity. Every day, with our highs and lows, we get the chance to remember our place in the arc of history.

God has worked salvation for His people, and one day will bring salvation to culmination. And “the LORD will reign, forever and ever.”

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What Labor Day Teaches us about Encountering God

Our spiritual lives reflect the shape of our natural lives.

Photo Credit:  Tim Wright

We anticipate holidays like Labor Day for weeks on end. Then it passes, and we step into our daily fall routine. We switch between the extraordinary and the ordinary, and our spiritual lives follow suit.

As a kid I went to a youth conference that changed my life. After the conference, I couldn’t wait to go back. When I learned I couldn’t go to the next one, I was devastated. I wanted God in a specific time and place. I was living the ordinary but longing for the extraordinary.

Breaking God out of Sunday

Whether it’s a conference or Sunday morning, we live our lives often looking to encounter God at a specific time and place. In many ways, this habit is right—these times set up a healthy rhythm and “spiritual highs” can lead to breakthrough.

But our weekly rhythms can create an unhealthy mindset. We begin to believe God belongs on Sunday and special occasions, and we miss the everyday supernatural.

Now, when I say, “everyday supernatural,” I promise I’m not trying to sound super spiritual. In fact, just the opposite.

The miracle of the Christian faith is how ordinary it is. Every religion prescribes practices and mindsets to reach God; Christianity tells how God reached us and wants to invade every part of our natural, ordinary lives.

Because of Jesus, the transcendent has become immanent.

The Natural, the Supernatural, and You

Think about it. Before Jesus, the supernatural was strictly supernatural.

  • If you want to be right with God, you offer sacrifices for sin.
  • If you want to hear God’s Word, you read the scroll God gave by fire.
  • If you want to access God’s presence—good luck! You can go only as close as the temple courts.

But in Jesus, everything changes. The supernatural becomes natural.

  • God becomes man.
  • Reconciliation to God becomes available to every person.
  • God tears the temple veil, and the Spirit is accessible to every person.
  • God gives us His Word in full, everything we need to know Him.

God is no longer hidden behind the temple curtain. He’s no longer consigned to Sunday morning. Why do we live like He is?

God doesn’t want 1/7th of your week; He wants all of it. He wants to be over it and under it and in it and through it. He wants to be the cause, the motivation, and the outcome of your life—the starting point, the end goal, and every step in-between.

And if that’s true—if that’s what God wants from us—then we need to learn to see the supernatural in the natural.

  • Our everyday Bible reading becomes a chance to listen to God.
  • Our everyday prayers reach the ears of heaven, and God moves in, through, for, and with us.
  • Our everyday work becomes the chance to glorify God.
  • Our everyday encounters opportunities to exude the love of Jesus.
  • Our everyday Sunday becomes a chance to encourage one another with gifts given by God.

Because of Jesus, the natural becomes supernatural. We may look forward to holidays for weeks on end, but today you can meet the living God in your ordinary, everyday life.

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Quitting to the Glory of God

Sometimes saying “yes” to God’s will for our lives means saying “no” to good opportunities.

For the last two years my wife and I have served in a ministry to local high school students. I love being part of it—getting to know students, hearing their stories, and helping them process how Jesus relates to their lives.

And tonight I decided—I’m not going back.

Stepping Away from Ministry for the sake of Ministry

The early Church was booming. Day after day, their numbers grew (Acts 2:47). But as their numbers grew, so did their need for infrastructure. The open system of sharing had holes, and certain widows suffered.

Aware of their need, the twelve Apostles summoned the leaders of the early Church and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2).

I fully expected the Apostles to say, “We have to work together to get this fixed!”

But they realized something I’m only now learning: Saying yes to good opportunities at the expense of God’s call is just as bad as saying no to God.

Like Jonah, God isn’t satisfied with, “I’ll take Your message anywhere except where You call me.”

The Apostles understood that diverting their attention to feed the hungry would solve one problem but create many more. They knew their purpose; God had called them “to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (6:4).

Knowing Good from Great

I’m terrible at saying no to good opportunities (just ask my wife). I need her to help me see what I can (and more often, can’t) handle. Without her help, I would commit to too many good things and burn out.

And herein lies the principle: Knowing what you could do for God and what you should do for God is the difference between good and great.

This isn’t only a principle for following Jesus but for all of life. Jim Collins writes in his book Good to Great, “Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great…. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”

The Apostles’ concrete sense of calling (God’s great for their lives) directed them to say yes and no to many good opportunities. Without realizing it, they were living out Paul’s later words to the Romans: “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function” (Romans 12:4).

In the same way, we need to learn to say no to good opportunities that impede God’s great for our lives.

Knowing what you could do for God and what you should do for God is the difference between good and great.

Time to Quit to the Glory of God

I’ll be honest: I’m still wrestling with my decision to step away from high school ministry so I can pursue writing.

“Lord, is this right? Is this really Your will for my life?”

I want to be honest about the questions because I’m sure if God calls you to something similar, you’ll feel the same.

Growing up in the Church, I heard about the importance of self-denial. But I didn’t think until tonight, perhaps God calls us to deny good things for the sake of great things.

But this seems to be what Paul is saying:

Ephesians 5:15-17
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

Be intentional about your steps. Don’t waste time darting from thing to thing; understand what God has called you to do.

Or I think about Martha, preparing food for Jesus and twelve hungry men. We’re told Martha was “distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40), and I wonder how many of us are, too.

Maybe for you, there’s a direction God is leading you, but you haven’t been able to pursue it because you’re distracted by good things. Serving God isn’t the problem; being distracted with serving is.

What can you give up—even a good thing—so you can more fully pursue God’s gifts in your life?

For others who are doing faithful work, I don’t want this post to discourage you. It took me two years of serving at my church to even realize that maybe God was calling me to something else. Your time spent serving God is not wasted. But, “having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (Romans 12:6).

Keep pursuing good until you get a sense of God’s great for your life. Seek wisdom from God and seek counsel from others. Then commit to quit to the glory of God.

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Read the Hard Parts of the Bible, Too

It’s funny how easy it is to forget the vegetables.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

I don’t hate vegetables; I’m just exceptional at forgetting them. More often than not, my wife and I sit down for dinner and then comment, “We really should have prepared a few vegetables with this.”

Why do we tend to forget vegetables? Perhaps because, of all the things we eat, vegetables are what we enjoy least.

I can honestly say I’ve had a hard time with Bible reading the last few weeks. I got stuck in Ezekiel, which felt like one more long book in the Bible about judgment and Israel’s corruption.

Not every part of the Bible is easy to understand. The people of Israel and Judah are being thrown into exile for their idolatry and pride, and I’m sitting at my desk in Minnesota thinking, “Why do I need to read this?”

Reading the Parts of the Bible we Don’t Enjoy

A while ago I wrote about how to read awkward Bible stories. However, when it comes to vegetables, we know we need them, we’re just hesitant to dish them up.

I believe part of the Bible’s design is to contain portions we don’t like reading. I’ve never met anyone who (at least at first) enjoys reading the prophetic warnings of the Bible.

And yet, 2 Timothy 3:16 says the Bible is good for “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.” In practice, I usually stop after “teaching.”

Let’s be honest: How many of us open our Bibles at any given time, looking to be reproved or corrected? Most if not all of the time, we’re looking to be encouraged. It’s like we have a plate filled with everything we need for a healthy life and we’re only eating the pasta.

The only people who read their Bible for the purpose of being reproved or corrected are those who are

  • humble enough to admit their weakness,
  • faithful enough to seek strength in God, and
  • courageous enough to move toward a place of greater vulnerability.

I believe part of the Bible’s design is to contain portions we don’t like reading.

By only paying attention to the parts of the Bible we want to hear, we might be overlooking exactly what God wants to speak into our lives through His Word. Plenty of Scripture doesn’t taste good, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need it.

Finding a Place for Scriptural Reproof

I’m talking about personal Bible reading here, but this principle also applies on Sunday morning. I wish I heard more pastors reprove and correct in their teaching—not because I enjoy it, but because I know I need it.

We need to get over the mental hump of associating words like “reproof” and “correction” with meanness. These words were never meant to be motivated by hate but by love. If we truly desire for ourselves and others to spiritually thrive, then we will speak words of loving rebuke and correction, not out of personal superiority but out of Scriptural authority.

Honestly, ask yourself: Do you have a place in your spirituality for loving rebuke?

The Word of God is a fire. We excel at gathering and worshipping around the fire, but perhaps we’ve forgotten the fire is also meant to refine us.

We need Scripture we enjoy and Scripture we don’t in order to have a healthy spiritual diet. Sometimes the passages hardest to digest are the passages we need most. By approaching with humility to listen, faithfulness to examine ourselves, and courage to speak, we can turn the hard parts of the Bible into essential nutrients for our souls.

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