Sunday, May 01, 2016

Great Is Thy Faithfulness

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God, my Father.
There is no shadow of turning with Thee.
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not.
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.

Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.
The immutable nature of God is a lost attribute to us today. It was easily forgotten in biblical times. Samuel had to remind Saul that God was not like us - not a man who changed His mind. (1 Sam. 15:27-29) In our ever-changing world and our shifting personal viewpoints we see God sometimes as capricious, unpredictable, certainly uncertain. We hardly know what to expect next, and we view each event as an obstacle. But God's faithfulness is a leading topic of Scripture. This hymn dwells on God's unchanging nature.

It is God's immutability that makes Him faithful, trustworthy. What God has purposed He will do. (Jer. 4:28) There is no promise He won't fulfill. God is completely reliable. With God, His immutability is absolute. There isn't a mere sense of faithfulness, but unwavering consistency. It is His unchanging nature that makes Him eternal. His constant nature ties into His omniscience, for God cannot change what He knows, since He knows all. His plans never fail because He is unchanging. The name "Rock" applied to God points to this attribute. (e.g., Isaiah 26:4) God is faithful beyond our comprehension.

God cannot change. That means nothing I do will cause Him to love me less - or more. His compassions never fail (Lam. 3:22,23), nor are they increased. My choices do not surprise Him, nor do my circumstances catch Him off guard. God is changeless.

"Great is Thy faithfulness." So immense is His faithfulness that I could never comprehend it. Every day a new aspect of His changeless perfection can be revealed new to me. He provides all I need, whether I know what that is or not. His constant care for me is part of His constancy. "Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me."
Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above,
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.
Don't let the meter of the poem cause you to lose the meaning of the words. Summer, winter, spring, fall, these join with all nature in witness to God's faithfulness. The consistency of the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars - which operate with such precision as to be standards for accurately keeping time - join with all nature in witness to God's faithfulness. These and more all point to an marvelously faithful God whose attention to detail and our needs despite our sin condition clearly demonstrates His mercy and love, themselves unchanging.

Several hymns point to nature as proof of God's attributes (e.g., "How Great Thou Art", "Fairest Lord Jesus", etc.). Scripture itself concurs. (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20) This particular selection of natural occurrences is used as specific evidence of God's faithfulness. As day goes into day, season into season, as constant as the stars, as consistent as all of nature, so faithful is God. We never question whether the sun will rise tomorrow. It always has. It will again. God is more faithful than the rising of the sun. It is this faithfulness of God that enabled David to fight Goliath. When Saul asked David why he should be able to handle the fight, David pointed back to God's prior faithfulness. (1 Sam. 17:33-37) If God did it before, surely He could do it again. If God has ever cared for my needs, He will always care for my needs because He is faithful. If He has ever enabled me to do His will, He will always do so because He is faithful. Experience proves it. Nature proves it. God is faithful.

(A note of caution here. Two terms often misunderstood that I used in the last paragraph are the terms "my needs" and "God's will." We have an exceedingly skewed view of our needs that God never obligates Himself to meet. And God's will does not conform to our twisted viewpoint. It is an opportunity to revise my thinking when God doesn't meet my "needs," because clearly my idea of needs must have been wrong. God cannot be wrong, nor can He fail to accomplish His will.)
Pardon for sin, and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide,
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine with ten thousand beside.
Look for a moment at the blessings outlined in this verse. "Pardon for sin . . ." It isn't until we realize our true sin condition that this becomes such a big deal, but when we see God and recognize our utter hopelessness, this suddenly becomes a monumental blessing. My sin is pardoned! ". . . a peace that endureth . . ." God promises peace to those who trust in Him. It is a natural result of being in His Spirit (called the "fruit of the Spirit"). His peace, like His faithfulness, doesn't waver. It endures. Regardless of the turmoil that necessarily surrounds our lives, His peace is there. (John 14:27; Phil. 4:6,7; Gal. 5:22,23) "Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide." Imagine that! God, Himself, is walking beside me. Beyond that, He is within me! That is marvelous! His presence brings real joy ("cheer"), another natural result of being in His Spirit. His constant company serves as a beacon, my source of sure direction. What better guide in life than the Author of life? (For a shining example of joy in turmoil, see 2 Cor. 8:1,2) "Strength for today . . ." God promises us His strength. If God is for us, who can be against us? What cannot be accomplished when operating in the strength of the Omnipotent? (Eph. 6:10) ". . . Bright hope for tomorrow . . ." In a convoluted world of hopelessness and chaos, God provides a hope. God's hope is not mere wishing. His hope is a sure thing. It is only a hope because it is not yet accomplished in our experience, but God is faithful, and it is certain. Someday we will be with Him. What a blessed hope! (Heb. 6:17-20)

God's faithfulness extends to me personally. In fact, the awesome faithfulness of God is the assurance I have of salvation and heaven. The list of blessings provided in my relationship with God is guaranteed in God's faithfulness. Since He is unalterable, He will do them. In Christ, Paul says, God's promises are "yes" (2 Cor. 1:18,19). Pardon for sin. God's unfathomable peace. God's presence in my everyday life. (God's presence in my everyday life! That should give me pause.) Strength, His strength. (It is God who works in you both to will and to do His good works. Phil. 2:13) (I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Phil. 4:13) A hope. (This is no small thing in today's world, but hope brings endurance, the ability to bear difficult circumstances, and knowing God brings that hope.) "Blessings all mine with ten thousand beside." Why would a Christian's life be characterized by anything but joy in view of God's faithfulness and the absolute certainty of His blessings?

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Prescriptive vs Descriptive

Perhaps you've heard. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has added about 2,000 new words to their unabridged dictionary. Why? Well, of course, because the language is changing. We've added so much to the English language that no self-respecting dictionary would be complete ("unabridged") without including "FOMO" (the fear of missing out), "Mx" (the gender-neutral term for Mr. or Mrs.), or "compassion fatigue" (apathy or indifference toward the suffering of others due to overexposure of news stories and the like) (Hey, isn't that a phrase, not a word?). I mean, I can see terms like "giclée", which refers to a new process for producing high quality inkjet prints, but do we really need "nomophobia", the fear of being without a cell phone?

Which brings us to the point of dictionaries. First, let me introduce you to two words: prescriptive and descriptive. There was a time when dictionaries were prescriptive. They were source books that ... get this ... defined things. You would go to a dictionary to find out the right spelling, definition, and use of a word. Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) was intended to be a prescriptive dictionary. It prescribed what words meant. It was motivated by a need to use language usefully in a common way. It was intended to provide instruction on the proper use of language.

Of course, these don't exist anymore. All that is available anymore are descriptive dictionaries. They describe how words are used which, oh, by the way, is an ever-changing thing since ... we don't have definitive definitions. So Merriam-Webster (ironic, since "Webster" was originally that prescriptive thing) is simply keeping up with the times, describing how words are used and defined. Oh, they wouldn't be so arrogant as to say, "This is what these words mean." No, no, they're humble. They just tell you how words are currently being used ... even if that means they are now the opposite of what they once meant. Because, after all, truth is relative, reality is fluid, and words, above all else, mean only what you want them to mean at the moment.

Well, enough about that. This same concept -- prescriptive vs descriptive -- comes in to play a lot of places. It used to be, for instance, that the moral codes by which we operated as a society were prescriptive. "These are the things we will do or not do." In the age of postmodernism these leeched away and we're now at a descriptive morality. "These values describe what we currently like or don't like ... and, oh, you can be sure that will change." Education used to be prescriptive. "These things are true and this is the way we do them." "New and improved" education has moved to "outcome-based education". "There is no right or wrong, correct or incorrect. We just want you to feel good about yourselves while you're doing it." Descriptive.

Which all seems to point to one thing. We don't really want anyone telling us what is true or false, right or wrong, what we can or cannot do, what we should or should not do. It's okay if you describe that kind of stuff because, hey, it's what we're doing, but don't try to tell us how to use "they're", "their", and "there" or whether or not a particular behavior is wrong or whether or not the Bible actually says "this" because you don't get to do that anymore. Life these days is only allowed to be descriptive. Because no one has the right to tell you what to do ... not even God.

Friday, April 29, 2016

No Justice, No Peace

You've seen the signs, I'm sure. You know the situations, I'm sure. "We're outraged because bad things have happened and we don't think we've received justice!" Well, I'm not going to talk about those situations. I'm going to talk about a different one.

It isn't really hard to go through Scripture and find a host of reasons to complain about justice. I mean, just start with the concept of Hell. Hey, what's up with that? We're looking at some not-too-bad people who just don't "accept Christ as their personal savior" and, boom, they're going to eternal damnation? Hey! Some of them never heard about Jesus. What's up with that? At church we looked recently at the Ananias and Sapphira story (Acts 5:1-13). They sold some property, kept some of the price back, and told the Apostles, "This is what we sold it for." Struck dead. On the spot. For what? Not for keeping money back. That was fine. No, it was for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3). Really? I mean, wouldn't we classify this as a "little white lie"? Or how about the mysterious story of Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-3). These were Aaron's sons, the high priests at the time. They suffered the ignominious death of being consumed by fire before the Lord. Wow. Their sin? They "offered unauthorized fire." (Lev 10:1) Wait ... what? In what sense was fire authorized or not? What distinguished between authorized and unauthorized fire? From all appearances they didn't actually do anything wrong; they just did something that was not commanded. And that gave them an up-close-and-personal demonstration of "Our God is a consuming fire." (Heb 12:29) Seems harsh. Another disturbing incident is the great Uzzah incident. Well, maybe not so great. I wouldn't doubt that some of you never heard about it. But right there in 2nd Samuel we find the story of Uzzah (2 Sam 6:1-10). The Ark of God, stolen earlier, was being returned to Israel. So David got a couple of brothers to help him get it back to Jerusalem. One brother was in front and the other alongside the cart with the ark on it when it started to tip. Uzzah, out of sheer reverence, put his hand up to keep God's Ark from falling into the mud and instantly God struck him down (2 Sam 6:7). How is that justice? So upset was David (2 Sam 6:8) that he didn't even take the Ark back (2 Sam 6:9-10). Oh, and who doesn't remember that quaint little story when Elisha was walking along and was insulted by a gang of boys (the text says "small boys") (2 Kings 2:23-25). That's right, insulted. They called him "baldhead". For that he cursed them in the name of the Lord ... and "two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys." Whoa, now, hold on! That's a bit of an overkill isn't it? (And a bad pun, I suppose.) Now, some have argued that it wasn't "small boys", but possibly adolescents or even servants (a possible translation of the word used for "children") and "little" refers to their character, not their size. Big deal. Insults produced ... death. "Sticks and stones my break my bones but words will never hurt me. On the other hand, you might be in a lot of trouble."

We, of course, could go on and on. The Flood (killed all but 8 humans on the planet), the capture of both Israel and Judah, or how about the classic "kill 'em all" edict from God against the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:3)? Lots of examples. We get it. Looks tough for God. To Abraham's question, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" (Gen 18:25), some might be tempted to suggest, "Good question" or, worse, "No, apparently not." Many have come to the "aid of God" by simply assuring us that "That stuff never actually happened and you who take the Bible as true and, worse, infallible will have to admit that your God is a moral monster." I mean, seriously, when God strikes dead a man whose name means "God is gracious" for a little white lie, what else can you conclude? ("Ananias" means "God is gracious".)

Looks tough for God. Or, does it? We have two possible approaches here. One is the ever-popular "plausible deniability" approach. "Never happened. You guys are reading as history things that were never meant to be historical. They may have been myth or legend or parable or allegory or maybe even pure twaddle, but it never actually happened." Or there is the "Okay, it happened" approach where you, you know, go with what the Bible says. Is it necessary to conclude that, if the Bible is accurate on these things, God is a moral monster? I don't think so.

Let's try it from another direction. Assuming that God did strike Nadab and Abihu dead for "strange fire" and Uzzah for touching the ark and Ananias and Sapphira for a "white lie", here's the question. Was He just in doing so? Your answer is determined by your view of God (not vice versa). You might answer, "No, He was not just" and your view starts with a diminished "God" who is subject -- subject to you and your personal code of justice. You might answer, "Yes, He was just in doing so" even if you're having trouble with it, because your view begins with "God is right." I would answer, "How can we even ask such a question?" because my view begins with a Holy God who is above our evaluations, values, and standards and is always right. (That, of course, is a "Yes" answer -- God is always perfectly just.)

It puts a new twist on "No justice, no peace." If God is not just -- if He is not just in the way He has responded to His creation as Lord and Master -- then He is not God and we are without peace. If God is unjust in giving eternal torment to those who have earned it, we are without peace. On the other hand, if God is just in all of this, then we who squirm at stories and concepts like these have some readjustment to do in our thinking. Either He is the Righteous Lord and His Word is reliable ... or not.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Is That "Christian"?

See? This is the kind of thing I avoid and despise because this is the kind of thing that 1) I do not believe Christians are called to and 2) this is the kind of thing about which I am complaining today from the other side.

Apparently American Family Association has called for a boycott of Target to coerce them to make sure that guys who think they're girls use men's bathrooms and girls who think they're guys use women's bathrooms. Well, look, you can find this right here in the pages of your Bible. "Thou shalt use the privy of thy birth." Right there in Hezekiah 3. Look it up!

No, seriously, it's not in there. Further, when Jesus lived in sinful Israel under decadent Rome, He commanded "Boycott those evil Romans wherever you can so we can hurt them in the pocketbook until they surrender to our superior moral code" ... not once. He did say, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Mark 12:17) He did say, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." (Luke 6:27-28) But these don't even begin to approach "Organize a boycott against those you classify as evil."

Worse, it is precisely the methods used by the other side. I am standing here saying, "You guys go ahead and sin all you want, but do not require it of me. Leave me to obey my God. I'll leave you to answer to Him on your own." They say, "You will surrender your free exercise of religion and your beliefs and agree, nay, embrace the sin we endorse or suffer the consequences!" I hate that idea. And yet, here we have large numbers of people jumping on the "American Family Association" bandwagon expecting to coerce Target to be their kind of moral. Because if they can force Target to knuckle under, they'll make it a more godly organization and make ours a more Christian world.

Really? Is that what we're called to do? Can you find a New Testament example of that anywhere? I ask for a New Testament example because there are Old Testament examples ... based on the theocratic nation of Israel. Israel ceased to be a theocracy and we've never been one. So what makes us think that it's our job to make the world a place more aligned to our way of thinking? Suggest it? Sure. Argue it? Yes. Live it? Absolutely. But force it? On what basis? Yet here we have the USA Today assuring us that "a conservative Christian activist group" is doing this. What has "Christian" to do with this? In what way is this following Christ? And when did the failure of rational thinking ("I was born this gender, but I feel like I'm that gender, so you need to let me be that gender" as if that's rational, healthy, or real) become an issue of Christianity? Because if that's what we're supposed to address, there is a lot of boycotting to get onto. Perhaps starting with the American Family Association. Can we take away their "conservative Christian" card?

Look, I'm not in favor of allowing perverts who decide "I can say I feel like I'm a woman and get into the ladies' bathroom" to get into the ladies' bathroom. (Note that this is not about "transgender". I don't think "transgender", regardless of how irrational I consider that condition to be, is the "sneak into the other bathroom to get a peak" kind of issue.) I consider it a safety and security issue for my wife and children. So I might choose not to go to a place that encourages that kind of possible outcome. But it isn't a "Christian" or moral issue. I'm not in favor of redefining marriage to include "what we think it is" (currently "It should include two people of the same gender but not more than two or less than two (other forms of perversion)."), but, again, that is not a "Christian" or moral issue, either. These two are other issues. Lumping them into "Christian" is a disservice to Christ and to Christianity. So, please, for those of you who classify yourselves as Christian and wish to coerce others to your point of view, leave me out. The Gospel that I understand from Scripture is "saved by grace through faith in Christ" (Eph 2:8-9), not "coerced to be more moral", and the message of the Bible is that of the exchanged life -- my dead one for His live one (Gal 2:20) -- not a more moral existence by whatever means we can accomplish it. That would simply produce a less foul-smelling corpse (Eph 2:1-3). The message of the Cross is that we are sinners in need of salvation and Christ died and rose again for that purpose. Repent and believe. Not "be a better person". Now, if you'd like to bless Target, pray for them. You know, like Jesus said.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Future

Listen to any modern praise music and you'll likely see a running theme. "We really love God." And that's fine. Some are the shallow "Jesus is my boyfriend" kind of songs. Others are much better about what God means to me and what He has done for me. Okay. But when you compare modern praise music with older hymns, you might notice a missing component. It is what the world scornfully refers to as "pie in the sky" and what all of the New Testament writers seem to embrace with joy and wonder. It is the future.

Paul said, "For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." (Phil 1:21) Perhaps that most succinctly expresses what I'm trying to say. "To live is Christ" is here and now. It is the every day, the walk, where the rubber meets the road. And, indeed, it is good. But "to die" ... now that's future. That's not today, not this moment, not here and now. And, yet, it is gain. In the passage where Paul says this sentence he wrestles with his preference. "I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account." (Phil 1:23-24) And it seems to me that we in the Church have largely lost this taste for the "then" in favor of the "here and now".

The hymns are full of this future look. Consider.
How Great Thou Art
When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration
And there proclaim, "My God, how great Thou art!"

Be Still, My Soul
Be still, my soul! The hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone -
Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul! When change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

Rock of Ages
While I draw this final breath, when my eyes shall close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown, And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.

Be Thou My Vision
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven's joys, O bright Heaven's Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Hallelujah! What a Savior!
When He comes, our glorious King,
All His ransomed home to bring,
Then anew His song we’ll sing:
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

The Solid Rock
When He shall come with trumpet sound, O may I then in Him be found,
Dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.

It Is Well With My Soul
And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll:
The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend,
"Even so" - it is well with my soul.
A running theme. So many of the hymns had this forward look, this longing for the day when "we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is." (1 John 3:2) Sure, there is a lot of "here and now" and there ought to be. But have we lost a sense of what's to come? Do we still love His appearing? Are we so enamored with life here that we're not particularly keen to get to that new place, that end of this life that is the beginning of eternity with Him? I fear it is so. I hope it is not. Because for me to die is gain. And for us there is a special crown of righteousness for "all who love His appearing" (2 Tim 4:8). And, hey, who doesn't love crowns?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Women's Rights

In the Old Testament (specifically, the Pentateuch), God covers a lot of situations with His laws. He covers homosexual behavior (Lev 18:22) and bestiality (Lev 18:23) and divorce (Deut 24:1-4) and even polygamy (Exo 21:10-11). Now, be careful here. When God says, "If you do this act, you need to follow these rules", this cannot be understood to be a tacit approval of an act. For instance, that passage in Deuteronomy explains the rules of divorce, but Jesus clarifies, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so." (Matt 19:8) That is, "Here are the rules of divorce ... but if you do it you do it out of a hard heart. God did not intend that."

There is, here, an interesting lesson, however, to be drawn from the polygamy verses. No, not about polygamy. Clearly God's ideal was monogamy (which, by the way, means "one spouse", not the modern "one sex partner"). Note, for instance, that Adam (God's original design) had one wife, Eve. Note that kings were prohibited from acquiring multiple wives (Deut 17:17). In the New Testament, a prerequisite for leadership in the church is "the husband of one wife" (1 Tim 3:2). And, of course, Christ has only one Bride (Eph 5:31-32). The correct version, then, is clearly monogamy, not multiple marriages. So, if we're not going for polygamy, what can we learn from a verse about polygamy? Take a look.
If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. (Exo 21:10)
Yeah, I know, I can hear it now. "Oooo, Stan, really ... helpful." But wait. Look at this. It tells all husbands their expected responsibilities toward their wives. He is expected to provide for his wife food, clothing, and "marital rights". (I'm sure you understand the euphemism there.)

Did you know that, husbands? Did you know that God prescribes that husbands are required to fill her pantry and her closet? Did you know that God considers that your basic minimum requirements? (Trust me; there are more.) Oh, and her "marital rights". Don't forget that.

Actually, that last one is a bit dicey. One set of people argue that it simply means you have to give her a place to live.The word appears only here and is basically translated "cohabitation", so, they argue, it's just a place to live. That doesn't really seem to hold water, since it entirely dismisses the "co" of "cohabitation". Paul tells the Corinthian church that "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights ..." (1 Cor 7:3). Same concept. But "cohabitation" might mean "living in the same place at the same time" or "the state of living together and having a sexual relationship". You choose. Most of Christendom has fallen on the side of the latter and understand both Paul's reference to the Corinthians and God's reference to the Jews as a command for sexual relations.

Now, hold on a minute. The language of the text (Exo 21:10) sounds like these things are her right. She has the right to food, clothing, and marital rights -- sex. Now isn't that odd? At least in today's world? Because I think there are actually a relatively large number of women in this world (or, at least, in this country) who do not want their "marital rights". In fact, sex typically ranks high on the list of reasons for divorce. So what's up with that? Apparently there has been a disconnect between then and now. In biblical times women longed for children and considered it a curse if they failed to produce them. There was never a question of "Should we have kids?" Yes, yes indeed. It was the fulfillment of the woman. Children were a good thing. They were not "in the way", "an impediment to a career", "too much trouble", "too expensive", or whatever other popular objection you'll find today. In those days a woman's "greatest achievement" was her children.

It begs the question. Have we progressed to something better, or have we progressed to something worse? Many, even Christians, will tell you, "It's better now." We no longer need to "be fruitful and fill the earth" (Gen 1:28). Check that off the human race's bucket list. Others point to careers, self-fulfillment, even environment. You know, "too many people means a dying planet." But if this is true, apparently God's Word does not remain (Matt 5:18) because the Scriptures are replete with praises for having kids (e.g., Prov 17:6; Psa 113:9; Psa 127:3-5; 1 Tim 2:15). So I'm thinking that it could be that the reason "marital rights" is no longer on the top of what many women demand from their husbands anymore is that we've diminished children, child-bearing, procreation, and the joy God promises for having kids. If that was still the view, I would think that "marital rights" would be included on their list of "must haves". This does not seem like progress. Yes, we've come a long way, baby ... just not in the right direction.

Monday, April 25, 2016

No Place for Teachers

I went to a church some years ago where the pastor seemed to preach from the Bible, but everything else was not. They had classes on finances and studies on books about the Bible, but very little in the way of actual Bible studies. I asked the pastor, "Do you have anything that teaches your congregation to dig deeper into the Bible?" He showed me this array of "book clubs". "No," I said, "I mean where they actually dig into the Bible." He looked at me and said, "I don't know what you mean." I took a different tack. "In your interaction with other churches in the area, do you find that they're all like this, or do others have things like Bible studies and the like?" "They're all pretty much the same," he answered.

It's a strange time. I remember there once was a day when we had home Bible studies and we had teachers. I ask people today who are leading these groups and they tell me, "I'm not the teacher; I'm the facilitator." One might think that they had taken James to heart where he said "Let not many of you become teachers" (James 3:1) if it wasn't for the fact that so few seem to know the Scriptures anymore. I suppose it's because it sounds so humble. "Oh, I don't teach; I facilitate." Interesting, since I do find references to people who are gifted as teachers, but nothing like "facilitators" (in the sense they're using it). All of the churches I've attended for the past 10 years have had a "Ladies' Bible Study" which was book club rather than a Bible study. They would have a book of interest to women that would teach Christian things. Some even taught about things in the Bible. But I can't remember the last time I saw a "Women's Bible Study" where women studied the Bible. And the pastor at that church I spoke of said that this is the norm, not the exception.

We seem to have arrived at a "kinder, gentler" Christianity where only the extreme few actually deign to teach the Word. Lots of reasons, I'm sure. "I don't have enough education" or "I don't want to appear proud" or "No one wants to hear what I see in Scripture." Most commonly I think it is the fear of appearing arrogant. So we step down to allow other teachers, teachers not actually present, teachers from books or study guides or both, and we make sure that we get "good teaching" without actually engaging teacher to learner, discipler to discipled, those gifted with the gift of teaching with those desperately in need of knowing the Word.

Scripture says that God gives the Church teachers (among other roles) "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes." (Eph 4:12-14) Given the current state of the Body of Christ where we are marked as those tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, immature in the faith, subject to human cunning and schemes, I would suggest that the Church today isn't making use of those teachers.

If you are a teacher of the Word, you are a teacher by way of a gift from the Holy Spirit. Do it. If you have a good teacher of the Word in your life, thank God. If you don't have such a teacher, find one. They're not easy to find these days, what, with all the humility going around that argues that "I'm not good enough to be a teacher" despite the Holy Spirit's gifting. I personally think it takes more arrogance to question the Holy Spirit's gifting than it does to thank Him for giving that gift to some. Most importantly, we need to love the Word that God has given us. Anything less than sincere, lifelong study and learning of that Word is a slap in the face of the One who gave it. And we need teachers for that.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

How Great Thou Art

I'm writing about one of my all-time favorite hymns this Sunday.

The famous hymn, How Great Thou Art, was originally a poem entitled "O Store Gud" written by a Swedish pastor after experiencing the might of God's nature in a thunderstorm and the beauty of God's nature in the forest and stream he speaks of in the second verse. He wrote it in 1886, but it was translated in the 1930's by a missionary to Russia, Reverend Stuart K. Hine. Reverend Hine added the third verse in Russia, and the fourth in England.
O Lord, my God, when I, in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to Thee,
"How great Thou art! How great Thou art!"
Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to Thee,
"How great Thou art! How great Thou art!"
The song is a prayer. One of the fascinating aspects of this prayer is that there are no requests. It is a prayer of adoration. This is almost unheard of in our time. We are a generation of self-centered people who defend and encourage self-centered attitudes and actions. We are the focal point of our own universe. Even in our prayers we are asking God for what we want, for what would make us happy. This prayer focuses entirely on God and His greatness.

Let's listen in as the hymnist talks to God. Note first the address: "O Lord, my God." "Lord" speaks of God's sovereignty, His lordship. In theological terms, it speaks of the transcendence of God, the God above all.

"Lord" isn't a familiar term to modern day Americans. We are an independent nation that worships freedom and independence. We prefer not to recognize anyone as master over us. We have no present-day role to use as an example of the meaning of the term. But we must learn to recognize -- "realize" (that is, to make that which is true real to ourselves) -- that God is Lord. This isn't an opinion. This isn't an option. Any view that strays from the position of God's absolute sovereignty is in error.

The second aspect of the address, "O Lord, my God," is the term "my". To call Him God is correct. There is none other. He is the one and only God. But the term "my" personalizes the relationship between God, the Sovereign, and me. Theologically, this speaks to His immanence.

Martin Luther said that Christianity is a religion of personal pronouns. We constantly read expressions like "my God," "My people," "my Lord." This points to the personal facet of God, the amazing truth that God is interested in me. No other religion in the world carries this concept of personal relationship. But Jesus said that God knows the number of hairs on my head. That's personal. He wants us to know Him. That's astonishing. We can pray with Moses, "Teach me Thy ways, O Lord, that I might know Thee." (Exo. 33:18-23)

The prayer goes on to recognize God through creation. This is a common occurrence in Scripture (e.g., Psa. 19; Rom. 1:20). All of creation points to its Maker. All created things bear the fingerprints of their Creator.

One consideration of nature is "worlds". The word covers many concepts. Above us there are a myriad of galaxies, stars, solar systems -- worlds. But in the microscopic level there are chemical structures made up of molecular structures comprised of atomic structures -- worlds. In our world there are food chains, life cycles, ecosystems, weather patterns -- worlds. God’s hands, the hymnist says, made each of these. (This takes us back to the personal God.) And each of these, as in the thunderstorm, is a picture of God's power.

The only reasonable response to a glimpse of this sovereign, yet personal, transcendent, yet immanent God is, "How great Thou art!" The hymnist sings it with his innermost being, his soul. The soul encompasses one's mind, will, and emotions. A glimpse of God must impact us at these deepest of levels, or it wasn't real. The soul turned toward God has no room for self.
And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
Paul says "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8) The recurring theme of God's love appears all through Scripture (e.g., John 3:16; Phil. 2:5-11; Rom. 8:32). It seems, however, that we have taken that grace for granted, as if we somehow deserve God's love. The hymnist didn't see it that way. "I scarce can take it in," was his thought.

Romans says that God was perfectly willing to reveal His glory by demonstrating His wrath (Rom. 9:22). We have gone to great effort to earn His wrath (Romans 6:23). We are, according to Scripture, God-haters (Rom. 8:7; James 4:4). Yet, Christ demonstrated grace - unmerited favor - on the cross. If I have personal worth, intrinsic value, then there is no grace. He merely practiced wise economy. But the fact is Christ died for us because He wanted to, not because I was so valuable.

"On the cross . . . He bled and died." Crucifixion was the worst way to die. Physically, it was designed for the utmost in pain and torture without immediate death. The whipping, the nails, the continuous physical torture of merely breathing while every bone came out of joint, all designed for slow death. Emotionally, it was devised to humiliate. It was a public torture in which the criminal carried his own instrument of death. He hung naked on the cross in front of all that watched. But the only record of Christ crying out was at the spiritual torment of the cross. At the moment of separation from His Father, He cried, "My God, why have You forsaken Me?" He had never been separated from God. He had never known sin. Yet He became sin for us.

Perhaps most remarkable about that day on the cross was the simple, inescapable fact that Jesus chose to do it. No one required it of Him. He could have said, "No." The hymnist recognized this fact. "My burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin."

How can we see this and not answer with the writer, "Then sings my soul, 'How great Thou art!'" When we take for granted the immense love and grace demonstrated on the cross, we display our ignorance and self-centeredness.
When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration
And there proclaim, "My God, how great Thou art!"
The last verse is a common concept among hymn-writers. Many hymns looked to the return of Christ, to the day that we would be with Him. It was a joyous thought. The prospect of being in the presence of the Almighty God, the company of our Lord and Savior, was too wonderful to imagine.

We were designed for that condition. It was Adam's original condition in the garden, walking with God. We are incomplete here without that fellowship, so we immerse ourselves in spurious pursuits to fill that void. Meanwhile, Jesus promised to prepare for our arrival (John 14:2,3). What delight to know that He is anticipating our coming! Would that we would see it with such joy.

Hine had no misconceptions about that day. We have ideas of sightseeing in heaven or visiting with biblical characters. He saw his proper response to God's presence as bowing in "humble adoration." Bowing to anyone is not a popular concept in our culture. We are proud people who defer to no one. But Scripture readily reveals that this is the most common position of anyone who came in contact with God. We have failed to see the difference between coming boldly into the presence of God and coming arrogantly into the presence of God. That we can stand in His proximity at all should utterly amaze us. Somehow we have contracted a cavalier attitude that God is some "big guy" upstairs who winks at our sin because He loves us. We mustn't fall into that thought trap.

The hymn is aptly titled, "How Great Thou Art!" It speaks of God's sovereignty as Lord -- His transcendence -- as well as his personal care for us -- His immanence. In it we see Him as the joy of our souls and the sole worthy focus of our hearts. And we see ourselves as needy, sinful people. We see the need to turn the eyes of our souls to Him. He must increase, and I must decrease.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

How Times Have Changed

My brother-in-law likes to refer to himself as "the out-law" at family gatherings. We laugh. It's intended to be humorous. But there are specific folk who are becoming the "outlaws" among Christians. Let's see if you qualify.

1. You concur with historical Christianity that the Bible is God's Word, breathed by God, infallible and inerrant.

2. You believe that the Holy Spirit teaches His followers the truth and, therefore, you can know the truth.

3. You stand on the position that Jesus is pro-life (based on the notion that humans are made in the image of God).

4. You hold the archaic belief that God is not three Gods or three modes of God, but one essence in three persons.

5. You actually believe that God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them.

6. You believe there actually is orthodoxy ... and heresy (required if you claim there is orthodoxy).

7. Worse, you actually think it's possible to know which is which.

8. You derive your view of reality from the Bible.

When large and clear portions of yesterday's biblical orthodoxy becomes today's heresy, something is wrong ... and it's not with yesterday.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Sola Scriptura

The cry of the Reformation was "Sola Scriptura!" Okay, maybe not, but it was certainly the undergirding concept. Among all the other "solas", the other "only" references (sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria) were based on this one. That is, the claims that we are saved by faith apart from works, saved by grace apart from works, saved by Christ alone, and that God alone deserves glory are all predicated on the notion that Scripture alone is the authority on matters of faith and practice. It was held over against the world's "reason" or "perceptions" and even the Roman Catholic three-part structure of Scripture, Church, and Traditions. Scripture alone was the authority in matters of faith and practice.

Of course, everyone knows that this was a "new thing", an invention of the Reformers. It's not biblical and it's not historical. And, as I often suggest, new things are suspect. But, is it true? Is it true that it was a new thing, that it was not historical? As it turns out, it ain't necessarily so. As it turns out, sola scriptura is historical.

When the Church stood against Arius and the Arian Heresy (the claim that Jesus was not God), the Council of Nicaea stood on the basis of Scripture. Gregory of Nyssa wrote,
What then is our reply? We do not think that it is right to make their prevailing custom the law and rule of sound doctrine. For if custom is to avail for proof of soundness, we too, surely, may advance our prevailing custom; and if they reject this, we are surely not bound to follow theirs. Let the inspired Scripture, then, be our umpire, and the vote of truth will surely be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the Divine words. (Dogmatic Treatises, Book 12. On the Trinity, To Eustathius.)
Arius was wrong not because he disagreed with the Council, but because he disagreed with Scripture.

In fact, a host of early Church fathers wrote of the authority of Scripture over against which everything must be weighed. Writings from Irenaeus of Lyons (died 202 A.D.), Tertullian (died 235 A.D.), Hippolytus (died 235 A.D.), Dionysius of Alexandria (circa 265 A.D.), Athanasius of Alexandria (died 373 A.D.) -- the list goes on and on -- all contain the same claims long before the Reformation. As Augustine put it,
Whereas, therefore, in every question, which relates to life and conduct, not only teaching, but exhortation also is necessary; in order that by teaching we may know what is to be done, and by exhortation may be incited not to think it irksome to do what we already know is to be done; what more can I teach you, than what we read in the Apostle? For holy Scripture establishes a rule to our teaching, that we dare not “be wiser than we ought;” but be wise, as he himself says, “unto soberness, according as unto each God hath allotted the measure of faith.” Be it not therefore for me to teach you any other thing, save to expound to you the words of the Teacher, and to treat of them as the Lord shall have given to me. (The Good of Widowhood, 2)
As it turns out, the doctrine that Scripture is the sole authority in matters of faith and practice was around from the beginning, based on the authority of God, the source of Scripture.

And, as it turns out, "It's not biblical" is equally false. Paul warned the Corinthians to "not go beyond what is written" (1 Cor 4:6). You see, it is in our nature to think of our logic and reason as the ultimate authority, but Paul was concerned that "your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God." (1 Cor 2:5) The psalmist wrote, "The sum of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous rules endures forever." (Psa 119:160) The Bible claims, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." (2 Tim 3:16-17) Get that? Under God's authority, being sourced by God, "all Scripture" is profitable "that the man of God may be complete." What higher authority than God? What other authority is needed? Not human philosophy or human traditions or even the elemental spirits of the world (Col 2:8), but God is our sole authority and His Word is His revealed will. Does the Bible say, "Scripture is the sole authority in matters of faith and practice"? No, of course not. You won't find that text. Nor does it mention the word "Trinity" even once. But based on what the Bible says about the Bible (which, by definition, makes it "biblical"), it is the only reasonable conclusion. It is the conclusion that the early Church fathers came to. It has been the historical conclusion of the Church. It is my conclusion. As always, you're free to conclude otherwise. I just wonder about the wisdom of doing so.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Self-Centered

It seems like every day of being out in public is a constant and even growing confirmation that people are, in general, self-centered. Drivers who don't care how close you came to hitting them when they cut you off, shoppers who don't care if you can't get by because they're blocking the aisle while they browse, coworkers that appear to believe their mothers must work there because they make no effort to clean up after themselves ... lots and lots of illustrations.

The truth is people "in general" are not self-centered. All people are self-centered. It is the basic problem of the sin nature. "I will be like the Most High." Sure, most people learn, as they mature, that it's better not to appear too self-centered, but this is what is called by philosophers "enlightened self-interest". In this "highest morality" a wise person learns that assisting others to obtain their interests will serve to satisfy his own self-interest. In the end, of course, it is self-interest. Most consider altruism, regard for others without regard for yourself, a high moral value, but most will admit that in general this boils down to "I do it because it makes me feel good." Maybe it's neurological, where the act affects the pleasure centers of the brain. Maybe it's biological, where the act is an unconscious desire to protect the genetic line. Maybe it's a social expectation, where "If I help you in your time of need, you might help me later." Whatever the case, underlying the selflessness ... is selfishness. It's a human condition. It's just the way it is.

There is, as it turns out, only one means by which this can be changed. That is found in Jesus. Oh, sure, that sounds trite. And, to be sure, lots of Christians are not free of self-centeredness. (Hey, let's be honest ... not one of us is completely free of it.) But the means is available in Christ.

Obstacle 1: Sin Nature

The first problem to overcome to arrive at selflessness over selfishness is human nature. Specifically, the sin nature. In the flesh, that doesn't happen. In this life, it won't be ultimately achieved. But the Christian life consists of the process of making that happen. Of course, for the non-believer, that doesn't even start, because it can only begin if you have died with Christ (Rom 6:8). "With Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world." (Col 2:20) "You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (Col 3:3) Then, "You who were dead in your trespasses ... God made alive together with Him." (Col 2:13) A new life. If the first obstacle is the sin nature, the solution is dying and rising to new life with Christ. "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." (2 Cor 5:17)

Obstacle 2: Motive Force

Dying to self and alive with Christ, we still have a sin nature. So now we have to move, to change, to be transformed. How does that work? We have that sin nature, but we also have the Holy Spirit in us. "It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." (Phil 2:13) We have God working in us to "be conformed to the image of His Son" (Rom 8:29), the process known as sanctification.

Obstacle 3: Needs

So, in Christ we are new. We are capable of no longer serving just self. Further, we have the power to do so, the power of God Himself at work in us, giving us both the will and ability. Nothing more is needed to change from selfish to selfless. Nothing ... but the problem of needs. Because, look, we all have needs, right? We have physical and emotional and social and economic and ... lots of needs. We have to look out for those, don't we? And here we are, as denizens of these bodies on this planet, self-centered again. We have to meet our needs. But is that true? Jesus said, "Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him." (Matt 6:8) Jesus told His disciples, "All the nations of the world seek after these things [food, shelter, clothing, etc.], and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." (Luke 12:30-32) Interestingly this is one of those places that Jesus tells His disciples to "Sell your possession" (Luke 12:33) because, you see, the Father will be supplying your needs.

Conclusion

We all suffer from self-centeredness. It's a human, sin problem. And on our own there is no solution. Indeed, the Natural Man wouldn't even call it a problem. "Hey," they will tell you, "you have to look out for #1." In Christ, however, there is an answer. We can die to self and have our life in Christ. We can be activated by God at work in us to change our natural inclinations (self-centeredness) to selflessness. We can operate without fear in this mode because we have the confidence that our Father has the ability and desire to meet our needs. That is, with all my needs met, I don't have to concern myself with my needs and can simply focus on God and those around me. Because, as Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Luke 12:34) The better we understand and incorporate that, the less self-centered we will be.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Love Discarded

We can learn a lot from an old book. Take, for instance, the Book of Revelation, right there at the end of the Bible. I know, I know, it can be a tough book, so let's just try a small part. Let's just look at Jesus's letter to the Church at Ephesus. (Imagine that. Jesus sent letters to churches.)
"To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this: 'I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name's sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place--unless you repent. Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.'" (Rev 2:1-7)
Short letter, sure, but it is full of useful stuff for you and me.

Almost all of the seven letters follow a standard template. 1) Who is talking? 2) What are you doing right? 3) What do I have against you? 4) How do you fix it? 5) "He who has ears to hear ...".

First, the introduction. In the first chapter of Revelation Jesus is introduced to us holding the seven stars and standing among the seven lampstands. Jesus explains these so we don't have to guess. "The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches." (Rev 1:20) So, here we have Jesus reminding Ephesus that He holds the angels of these churches and walks in the midst of them. (We're not entirely sure about the angels. The term means "messenger". It may refer to a messenger that was being sent, the one already there giving them God's message, or a literal angel.) What we know, then, is that the One sending this letter is sovereign over the messenger and intimately involved with the recipient.

Christ commends Ephesus for doing everything right. No, seriously, you would think that they're doing everything right. They're doing the right deeds. They're working hard. They're persevering. They do not tolerate evil and they do not tolerate false doctrine. Right down the line. (An extra one is stuck in down in verse 6 where they do not tolerate the deeds of the Nicolaitans whose deeds Christ hates, too.) I'll tell you what; it all looks good for the church at Ephesus.

And then the other shoe drops. One thing. One little thing. One little thing that, if it isn't remedied, will cost them everything. "You have left your first love." It's interesting that Jesus did not say that they "fell out of love" or "lost your first love". No. They left it. They didn't lose it. They let it go. They gave it up. They sent it away.

What is the literally God-given solution? It takes three parts: 1) remember, 2) repent, and 3) return. Remember where you came from--the sin from which you were saved--and repent, turning away from "left love" and back to the Savior, back to the One who saved you from that sin. Return, then, to those early deeds, those motivated by loving gratitude from the beginning rather than stale, if correct, duty. Or "I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand." The church in Ephesus would end.

It ends with the "ears to hear" part where the one who overcomes will be granted to eat from the tree of life in the Paradise of God.

The text is clear and understandable, but, more importantly, it is immediately applicable. We all suffer from this from time to time. We know what's right and we try to do what's right and believe what's right, but ... sometimes our heart is just not in it. We're doing it because we ought to do it. And, to be fair, doing it because we ought is better than not doing it at all. Ephesus was commended for doing what they ought. Still, Jesus says that love matters. Duty only takes us so far. Love is absolutely necessary.

So check the remedy for yourself. Have you left your first love? Maybe it's love for Christ. Maybe it's love for a spouse. Maybe a family member. It works the same for all of these. Remember where you fell from. Turn from your failure to love and to loving Christ, the One who saved you from where you were before. Now, perform those deeds that this kind of grateful love produces. You'll be surprised at how effective this is. You shouldn't be. It is the prescription of Christ Himself.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The New Agnostics

Around the start of the 21st century we saw the rise of the "New Atheists". They're "brighter" and louder and more "anti" than merely "not" theists. Now, they can discuss among themselves whether this is really new or whether the term is even applicable, but in the same sense I think we can see a rise of the "New Agnostics".

First, as a matter of basis, we need to define "agnostic". While "atheist" refers to those who are making a positive claim -- "There is no God" -- the "agnostic" term refers to those who make no such claim. They simply say "We don't or can't know if there is or isn't a God." The word is based on the Greek which starts with the "a" prefix for "not" and is followed by the "gnosis" term meaning "to know" -- to "not know". I, then, am suggesting a "New Agnostic" in this more literal sense, those who claim "we cannot know" about other things.

These "New Agnostics" are not "outside". The original atheists and agnostics are "outside". That is, they aren't claiming to be Christians because they either don't know if there is a God or they are sure there isn't. By definition, then, these would have to be outside the realm of believers ... because they don't believe. Seems simple enough. But we've largely shoved ordinary logic aside far enough that we can in this day and age have a pastor in good standing in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who is a self-professed atheist and considers himself a Christian. He would be an extreme example. Don't worry. There are lots more and far less extreme.

Most popular among these "insiders", these "New Agnostics" within Christendom (using the term loosely), are those who argue precisely what agnostics argue: "You cannot know." These, of course, cannot argue "You cannot know if there is a God." Not that. But they're happy to tell you, "You cannot know the truth of Scripture." And they are insidious. They make themselves out to be the "humble" ones. "Look," they'll tell you, "there is disagreement about most of Scripture. Are you so arrogant as to believe you know what's true or not when there is so much disagreement? Can't you see that it's pure egotism?" The unspoken suggestion (unspoken because as soon as it is spoken it becomes ludicrous) is "You should be more humble like I am."

These "New Agnostics" wend their way into churches (or, perhaps, are part of church-looking places already converted to this) to assure believers "You don't know what to believe." They argue, "It's not 'Did God say ...?' That's just Satan-talk. It's that you can't know for sure what God said." (It's amusing, too, because, generally speaking, these types will deny that the incident of "Did God say ...?" ever actually took place.) They'll protest, "You can't say 'God says this' just because you read it in the Bible. You have to be humble and say, 'It's just my opinion.'"

These "New Agnostics" are perhaps more destructive than the Atheists, new or old. The atheist attack is clear. It's easy to see and we can take a stand knowing that we do know there is a God. But these others are in among us urging biblical-sounding virtues like "humility" and "tolerance" while they assure us that, in other words, Jesus was wrong when He said that His Spirit would lead us into all truth. And that, to me, is neither humble nor tolerant. They so twist the Word of God that they require doubt. Confidence in the Word is wrong. Doubt is a virtue even though James says, "The one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind" (James 1:6), claiming that the doubter is "a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways." (James 1:8) They love to prey on the weak -- the new Christian or the young Christian or especially that new college-bound Christian no longer tied to his family moorings, but they also like trying to take down the confident Christians. Confidence, to them, is a pretty big sin, at least when it is a confidence that they're wrong and the Word is knowable. Like waves against the shore, they lap away at the rocks, hoping to erode confidence in God and His Word and leave you without foundation, but feeling superior because you're humble.

You probably know some of these "New Agnostics". They may be in your family, in your church, at work, in your neighborhood. They're certainly in your social media. Rest assured that a "superior thinking" of "doubting everything" is not superior. In a vacuum, I suppose, it might be, but we live in a theistic world where Christ promised to send His Spirit to lead His own into all truth. Truth, then, can be known. And it will be known by all whom the Spirit leads. So you can be reasonably sure you are in the truth if you are diligent with the Scriptures (2 Tim 2:15), practicing the Scriptures (Heb 5:14), and of course, seeking first God and His righteousness (Matt 6:33) rather than the world's (1 John 2:15). Despite their denials, the voice of the "New Agnostics" that asks, "Did God say ...?" is not a superior voice; it is a voice from the father of lies.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Moral Relativism is Dead

Hey, good news! Did you know that moral relativism is dead? Or so we are told. Once touted as the biggest threat of postmodernism, they're now saying that it's no longer the case. As evidence, look at our "shame culture" where social media and social commentary is used to shame offenders into "being good". Look at the "Black Lives Matter", "Occupy Wall Street", and other movements. Look at Pay Pal, Springsteen, Ringo Starr, and Cirque de Soleil's refusal to show up in North Carolina because their law is standing on the science that says that your gender is a matter of genes, not feelings. Oh, no, moral relativism is not alive and well. It's dead.

The Atlantic is pretty sure that moral relativism is dead because people are taking firm stands on what they believe is right. That means that it's not relative, right? Easy mistake, I suppose, except that this new version of morality is tethered purely to the feelings of the crowd and, therefore, by definition it is relative. Relative to the feelings of the crowd.

Take the North Carolina law. That one is tied to science. Science defines gender. They go with science. End of story. Take the Freedom of Religion laws passed lately. These are tied to the Constitution. The Bill of Rights says that Americans have a guaranteed free exercise of religion, so they go with the Constitution. End of story. The protesters in both of these cases are standing firmly on "That violates how we feel about the issue!" Relativism. One view says, "There are some things we can know (e.g., science, the Constitution, etc.), so we will stand on what we can know and question how we feel." The other view says, "We put ultimate confidence in the human ability to feel the truth and we will question claims that counter that." The first is empiricism; the second is relativism. Relativism makes "personhood" murky. "You can't define a fetus as a person ... but we can't exactly say when that changes ... so go ahead and kill that non-person if you want." Relativism makes the standard, longstanding, historically unchallenged definition of marriage foggy. "It is not only a man and a woman ... but it is also not a man and two (or more) women. It is what we feel like it is right now." The opposite of moral relativism might look to what we can know -- say, God's law -- and say, "The unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." (1 Cor 6:9-10) The moral relativist will argue, "That's not what it means, you can't know what that means, and it is not in alignment with how we currently feel as a society, so it's wrong."

Moral relativism is not dead. It's actually just louder, more insistent, less tolerant. Instead of "right for you, not for me" like the older version, this one is going to require you to surrender your differing view, your science, your Bible, your historic context, your Constitution, and to knuckle under. "You don't want to participate? Too bad. We will strip you of your flower shop and your job and your freedoms because we are no longer wishy washy in our morality. We feel you're wrong, so you are."

Moral relativism is dead, long live moral relativism.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Be Still, My Soul!

Be still, my soul! The Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide,
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul! Thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Written by Katharina von Schlegel in 1752, the hymn displays a trust in a God almost unheard of today. Why? What did she know that we have lost?

One of the most common commands to action in Scripture is "Wait." "Stand firm." "Be still." These are all the same concept. Why? "Be still, and know that I am God." In knowing God there is peace. Why? Because of who He is, but also because He is at your side.

How did Katharina von Schlegel view God? To her He was present and personal. She saw order and provision, and she saw Him as the sole source of order and provision. She saw Him as immutable and faithful, an anchor in a stormy world. She saw Him as the best possible choice, as a real friend, and wise enough to know the course to true joy.

Just as important as her view of God was her view of life. How she saw God directly impacted how she saw life. She saw that life was difficult, painful -- in her terms, a cross. But to her it was nothing to either deny or shrink from. Because her all-wise, all-powerful, all-loving God was at her side, she could bear patiently and allow God to order her world and provide for her needs.

Even here we lose our way. Of course, we say, God will provide for our needs. But we mean something entirely different than God does in His promise for provision. We have turned to a God who will give us what we want rather than to a God to whom we must surrender ourselves. We believe that He is there to satisfy us. David Wells says that we have learned this in our American consumer mentality. "In the marketplace, everything is for us, for our pleasure, for our satisfaction, and we have come to assume that it must be so in the church as well."1 The current prevalent belief is that God is there for our indulgence, and when he fails to give us what we want, He is no longer our friend. "We imagine that for those who love God and are called according to his purpose, all things work together for their satisfaction and the inner tranquility of their lives." But the fact is that God has promised suffering - because He loves us and wants the best for us. He will meet the needs He knows we have. He will use difficult circumstances to provide for our good. But it is only when we recognize the loving character of God that we can face harsh conditions with joy, knowing that He has our utmost in mind.

Katharina's viewpoints are vastly different from the average Christian today. While we speak of an omnipotent, omniscient, loving, wise God, we tremble at the slightest disturbance in life. It is said that you are motivated by what you believe, and our motivation is self-preservation because we don't really believe that God is capable or reliable. It seems that most of us don't know the God that Katharina knew. We need to. We need to see Him in history, see Him in our experience, see Him in His Word, and see Him in others. We will be unable to reflect Him if we never view Him, never see Him as He is. It is the reflection of Him that is our goal. And when we view Him as He is, we can choose to proceed through painful circumstances, standing on His capabilities and love, and obtaining the prize He had in mind for us, perfection.
Be still, my soul! Thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake.
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul! The waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.
The question of God's sovereignty has been a raging debate in the church throughout the years. Is God really in charge? What about predestination? Where does man's free will come into play? The real question is, is God truly sovereign?

The hymnist looks to His sovereignty as an ultimate anchor. "Be still, my soul! Thy God doth undertake to guide the future as He has the past." A key to the confidence we can have in God is in that simple sentence. How can we be sure God will "guide the future?" Because He has guided the past (Isa. 25:1). We see it in history. We see it in Scripture. We see it in our own lives. The fact is God's track record, whether we recognize it or not, is absolutely perfect.

It is God who we trust. It is His character, His proven character, in which we have confidence. We trust His goodness to do good. We trust His omniscience to know what that is and all that it entails. We trust His omnipotence to carry out His plans. When we fear anything or anyone other than God, we are saying, "I'm not sure You can be trusted here, God."

The author had another source of confidence in God. She looked to the scriptural record. We can be still in our souls because of the proof in Scripture. Her prime example is Jesus calming the storm (Mark 4:35-41). The passage says Jesus rebuked the wind and sea, and it became perfectly calm. The reaction of the disciples was increased fear, for real terror is the presence of the Holy with the unholy. If we know God, circumstances are inconsequential because they are in His hands. It is God we must fear (Deut. 4:10; Psa. 111:10; Eccl. 8:12; 12:13; Heb. 10:31).
Be still, my soul! The hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone -
Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul! When change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.
It is fascinating to me the consistent forward look of hymn writers. A majority of their songs and poems look to our ultimate union with God, either in His return or our death. Is this because of their great sorrow in life? Are they all suicidal? I don't think so. I think it is because of the immense joy set before them in the presence of God.

Most hymns point to God at work. There is great confidence in His work here and now. But to be with Him, united, perfect! Indeed, I believe it is this forward look that helped them toward their views of God. To recognize the here and now as satisfactory is possible because of who God is (Phil. 4:11-13). To see this as temporary makes it all the more enjoyable (Phil. 1:21-24). And anticipating being in God's presence in the future prevents too great an attachment to the present (Matt. 6:19-21). What cause to rejoice - to be someday in the presence of God!

Katharina ties it all together in this last verse. "Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored." Why be still? Because then, ultimately, the uncertainties and pains of life will be gone. We will know safety and blessing. "Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known." (1 Cor. 13:12)

What cause to be still? In a word, God. His faithfulness and providence, His love and sovereignty, and the absolute certainty of being with Him. Be still, my soul!

________
1 David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland, pp. 114 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Choices

The world tells us, with warmth and a smile,


The Bible tells us "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jer 17:9)

Hmmm ... I wonder which to go with.

Friday, April 15, 2016

That's Not Biblical!

It's the argument that, frankly, makes me laugh. You see, I'm operating from the historical, orthodox view that the Bible is God's Word, inerrant and infallible, right all the time. As such, it is, as God's Word, the authority on matters of faith and practice. It forms my worldview, my entire thinking structure that correlates all things in a coherent pattern. And, as such, it is incumbent upon me to transform my thinking to align with God's Word. "It's biblical" is something I need to pay attention to. (Mind you, I need to check whether the claim that "it's biblical" is correct, but I need to pay attention.)

So it makes me laugh when someone who doesn't actually care what is biblical or not will tell me, "That's not biblical!" Typically, someone like this has devoted time to carefully, piece by piece, stripping off adherence to "biblical" at all. "This part is myth. That part is fiction. That other part is cultural and no longer relevant to our time. Oh, and that part ... right there ... where you have you finger ... that part is just plain wrong." In other words, "I don't care what is biblical ... but what your claiming isn't."

The criteria are somewhat vague as to what constitutes "biblical". Often it is so rigid as to be ridiculous. "It doesn't actually say that" (whatever that happens to be) "so it's not biblical." As such, the Trinity (as a common example) is not "biblical" by this criterion because the word itself does not appear in Scripture anywhere. Often the "that's not biblical" cry, sounding so definitive and assured, is just an argument from personal position. "Sure, you've made your arguments. You've shown where the texts say something and the context argues something and the rest of Scripture argues something, but I disagree, so 'that's not biblical'." Why? Perhaps it's not explicit enough. (I think often it's because the position is not one they're willing to allow.) The fact is that more often than not people choose to disregard biblical arguments on the basis of preference rather than the Bible. So if all of Christendom agrees (as an example) that you can see Civil, Ceremonial, and Moral laws in the Old Testament and the Bible teaches that some Old Testament laws are either replaced or removed and Christians are, therefore, no longer obligated to keep the whole Law, the fact that no such explicit text exists -- disregarding all the supporting texts and all the relevant logic and the long history of this idea -- means that it isn't biblical. There are more oddly applied criteria, but none are applied evenly or even rationally.

What really makes me laugh is that these people who shout these accusations are not particularly interested in what is biblical and therefore, not intending to submit to the Bible. That is, "You're wrong because that's not biblical ... but I wouldn't submit to it if it was." They're not working at a better understanding of Scripture; they're aiming at removing your objection to their preferences. For instance, if you explain how, biblically, "there appears to be three types of laws in the Old Testament and here in Scripture is why we don't need to follow all three types anymore", they might argue that your argument isn't biblical (ignoring the fact that your argument was based on the Bible). Does that mean that they intend for us to keep all the Old Testament laws? Absolutely not! No, they just want you to stop saying that homosexual behavior is a sin because it says so in Leviticus (as if that's the only reason we say it) or whatever other truths or moral values you're pulling from Scripture. "No, we disagree that your explanation for not keeping the whole Old Testament Law is biblical ... but neither will we seek to keep the whole Old Testament Law." Leaving us with "I do what I want and you can't say otherwise", as if that trumps "biblical".

They'll keep arguing, "That's not biblical." On very rare occasion, they may actually be right. (For instance, "Cleanliness is next to godliness" is actually not biblical.) Most of the time, however, you can be fairly sure that they just want to diminish your faith, decrease your connection to Scripture, and deny God's Word as authoritative or even real. All of which are not biblical. Note to readers: If you derive your argument from the Bible, it is by definition biblical. Your argument may be false (because you improperly derived it from Scripture), but it is "biblical". Just to be clear.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Archaic

Suggest to most anyone around you that it's good and right to remain celibate until you marry and they'll consider you an anachronism, a throwback, archaic. That's old stuff. We've moved on. We know better now. "Come join the 21st century."

Just an example, of course, because, as it turns out, if you argue for the bulk of Christian moral values, you're going to find yourself out of sync with the rest of the world. Indeed, a large portion of Christianity. Clearly the world has rejected Christian values in realms of sexual morality and marriage, divorce, work ethics, views on authority, and much, much more. But Christians are right behind. It is common for self-identified Christians in church settings to admit to living together without being married. Divorce is perfectly acceptable in most churches. The overarching biblical command to love God and love your neighbor is barely grasped among believers because "love" is barely grasped anymore. Let's face it. Genuine, Bible-believing Christians are on their way out.

It's not like this is a new thing. The first century Christians counted themselves genuine Jews following the Jewish Messiah. They weren't deviating; it was the rest of Judaism that was leaving. It wasn't long before they were being arrested, tortured, and killed. Luke records that Herod had Peter arrested and sentenced for execution because, when he beheaded James, the brother of John, "it pleased the Jews." (Acts 12:1-4) The first Christians didn't move; the rest of Israel did.

So it is today. America was founded on Christian principles with Christian guidance. It was these principles that made America strong and guided her through the pitfalls of a government built on the will of the people. As is inevitably the case, though, the farther we got from the roots, the less the roots were visible. America, now, has moved on. From the 1950's when the president of the country prayed openly to Christ on a Christmas radio broadcast, we've now moved to an America where God isn't welcome anywhere near government. From "Freedom of Religion" to "Freedom from Religion." Institutions like Princeton and Harvard, founded by Christians, are now Christianity's foes. And so goes the nation. When "freedom of religion" is consigned to "hate", you can rest assured that your faith will be classified as archaic.

That it is happening is without doubt. It is, in fact, to be expected. Jesus promised it. Not a big deal. The question is what will you do with it? Will you allow yourself to be "archaic" when it means siding with God, His Word, and the values and views found there? Dr. Mohler refers to us as the "moral minority" today. He's right. The question is, will you stand there? Or will you follow the tide? I suspect too many of us already are, possibly without even recognizing it. So the question is large because it will require greater strength and diligence. Will you view "archaic" as a good thing in this case? "As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." (Josh 24:15) Archaic.

The Bible tells us to "hold fast" many things. "Hold fast to what is good." (Rom 12:9; 1 Thess 5:21) "Hold fast to the Word." (1 Cor 15:2) "Hold fast our confidence." (Heb 3:6) "Hold fast our confession." (Heb 10:23) "Hold fast to the hope set before us." (Heb 6:18) "Hold fast My name." (Rev 2:13) "Hold fast what you have." (Rev 2:25; Rev 3:11) Hold fast, Christian. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Red Letter Jesus

The Jesus Seminar in the 1980's and 90's claimed to be the search for the "real Jesus". Of course, they failed miserably. But too many today are failing just as miserably. Perhaps you've seen the "laughing Jesus" thing? (I could have included an example picture, but find it all too disturbing.) Sure, Jesus laughed ... no question. But describing Him as "laughing" misses the real Jesus. The more common suggestion of many is this "Jesus Meek and Mild" image. He's sweet and loving, full of grace, never judgmental; a really nice guy. The "turn the other cheek" guy. The "silent lamb" guy. And we ought to be, too. These folks, for instance, typically dismiss the Jesus in the Temple with a whip because that doesn't fit.

There is a sense in which people like to rely on their "Red Letter Jesus". You know, we use Bibles with Jesus's words in red letters so we know what He said as opposed to everyone else. And that, the theory goes, gives a better picture of the truth and of who Jesus is.

Well, I came across this version of Jesus recently. Oh, it isn't recent. It's just that I came across it recently. It isn't recent because it's a biblical picture. You can find it in your Bible, too. It's from John's The Revelation of Jesus Christ. Did you know that's what Revelation is about? Did you realize that the book is specifically a revelation of Christ (Rev 1:1)? And it's right there in the "Red Letter Jesus" stuff. So what did John see of the real Jesus?
I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around His chest. The hairs of His head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters. In His right hand he held seven stars, from His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead. But He laid His right hand on me, saying, "Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades." (Rev 1:12-18)
"Now, Stan," I can hear some gearing up to disagree, "you're not actually saying that Jesus had white hair, eyes of fire, and a sword in His mouth, are you?" So, I'll tell you what. Let's grant that this isn't literal. The fact is much of Revelation is not literal. John repeatedly includes "like" in his descriptions. "Hair like white wool, like snow", "eyes like a flame of fire", that sort of thing. I'm okay with that. But what do we know here?

Well, we know that John saw something (most accurately, someone). We know that this person was Jesus. We know that His appearance was dazzling. Maybe John waxed eloquent. Maybe John gave his best description of something he had no real terms to describe. Fine. Maybe the "sharp two-edged sword" here is a reference to the Word of God (cp Heb 4:12). Surely His feet weren't actually bronze. It stands for something. But here's one thing we know for sure. John did not see a laughing, friendly, non-judgmental, "turn the other cheek" kind of Jesus. What John saw, whatever you think that might be, terrified him ... literally nearly to death. "When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead."

Now, Jesus was certainly loving and gracious. He was surely the silent Lamb. But to leave the impression that this is the real Jesus is to miss out on many important aspects of the real Jesus. He said, "I have the keys of Death and Hades." That's not a laughing matter. He did chase people out of the Temple. That wasn't a "Jesus Meek and Mild". And the image so many hold of a simple, easy-going, nice fellow who wouldn't judge a fly doesn't fit with the biblical image. Which, in the end, makes it a caricature, not a portrait.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Jonah's Tale

One of the prime examples people will point to in the Bible for "allegory" is the book of Jonah. Here we have the story of a prophet (2 Kings 14:25) who is tasked by God to go preach repentance to Ninevah. Knowing that God was gracious and Ninevah would probably repent, Jonah decided instead to run. God stopped him on his escape boat with a storm and the sailors threw him overboard to save their lives. A "great fish" prepared by God swallowed him where he spent 3 days praying until the fish spewed him on shore (conveniently close to Ninevah, apparently). Jonah obeys, Ninevah repents, and Jonah is angry that God let them off. End of story.

This obviously is allegory. I mean, who is going to believe that a prophet got swallowed by a big fish (the translations uniformly say fish, not whale), survives for three days in this fish, then gets spit up on the shore? Clearly never happened. No, no, this is just an allegory. Let's see. Jonah represents Israel. Israel was unwilling to listen to God's instructions. The storm references the political turmoil of the day. The fish is Babylon and Israel spends time "in the belly of the fish". Judea is restored -- "vomited up". Israel is tasked again with obeying God. They do, but they're not happy about it. In case you think I made that stuff up, it's the explanation I found on several Jewish sites. Not my idea.

This doesn't actually work, you see. It makes no sense, for instance, for Jesus to reference Jonah (Matt 12:40) if Jonah is a reference to Israel. Besides, as the "Jonah = Israel" version illustrates, this allegory includes no instructions as to its meaning. Lacking any notes at the end to say something like, "So just as Jonah fled God, Israel flees God", allegory becomes meaningless because there is no definition. It's all up to you. Purely relative truth.

So maybe it's not allegory. Maybe it's parable. (The difference is that "allegory" requires every salient point to be significant while "parable" just tries to convey an idea. Take, for instance, the parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10). Who the woman was and what she lost was irrelevant. The joy at finding what was lost was the point.) Jewish scholars suggest that the story is a parable of Israel in exile (Judah, actually). The fish, Ninevah, the worm and the vine (Jonah 4:7) ... these are not individually significant. Just a parable about the state of Israel in exile. It's unpleasant and they're unhappy. Maybe they shouldn't keep to themselves? Maybe they should share God's love with others? It's a morality play warning Jews (and, thus, Christians as well) not to be so stingy with the good news. That sort of thing.

Again, this doesn't seem to actually work. How does this correlate to Jesus's reference to Jonah? And, while many parables of Christ remain up to His listeners and the rest of us readers through time to figure out, there is no explanation of Jonah as parable and, thus, no actual consensus.

Now, to be clear, the Bible does include allegory and parable. Claiming that something in Scripture is one of these doesn't negate Scripture. So the issue is not the reliability of Scripture here. The issue is the question, "Is this allegory, parable, or historical?" What's the problem about it being historical? Well, of course, it's madness. Storms don't chase people, large fish don't swallow people and people don't survive inside large fish1, fish don't deposit people onshore, entire cities don't repent, vines don't grow overnight then get eaten by a worm overnight ... it's all too ... miraculous. No scientific-minded person could swallow (pardon the pun) this story as historical.

But, you see, this is not a biblical reason to void the historical view. This is a prior commitment to an anti-supernatural bias. It is clear that if there is a God, it is certain that this God will, on occasion for whatever reason He might have, intervene in the natural world. We call these "miracles". That is, if there is a God, it is certain that miracles will occur. Thus, a prior commitment by a theist to an anti-theist perspective makes no sense. Further, assuming that "because there is the miraculous, it must be allegory or parable" would require that all the rest of the Old and New Testaments containing the miraculous would be suspect ... including the biggest miracle of all, the Resurrection. Balaam never talked to his donkey, the Red Sea never parted, there was no Flood. It gets really murky really fast.

There is, in fact, nothing in the text itself that requires or suggests allegory or parable. It is laid out without explanation or interpretation, a basic telling of a story. It is undeniable that the book is written in the form of an historical narrative. Sure, that doesn't mean that it is. I'm just saying that the text doesn't require something other than narrative. It is offered in just as historical approach as the stories of prophets like Elijah and Elisha in 1st and 2nd Kings. These are clearly intended as historical accounts. The account of Jonah reads the same.

There are arguments for allegory and parable approaches, but they don't seem to hold up under scrutiny and there is nothing in the text that requires or suggests a non-historical narrative. Is there any reason why we should prefer a narrative approach over the allegorical? Actually, there are a couple. First, the original Jewish understanding was that it was an event in history, not an allegory. The second is Jesus Himself.
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered Him, saying, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from You." But He answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish2, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here." (Matt 12:38-42)
If Jonah is allegory or parable, not history, then what must we conclude from Jesus's reference here?

1. No actual Jonah spent time in the belly of any great fish. If Jesus would spend time in the grave "as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish", He would only do so metaphorically.

2. The repentance of Ninevah was allegory. They won't actually rise up and condemn this generation. Jesus's words have no weight or meaning.

3. If Jonah was allegory, the stories of the queen of the South and Solomon are also likely allegory or parable, certainly not historical. Thus, Jesus is only claiming to be greater than an allegory, not an actual person.

It is assumed by the skeptic that Jonah is a fictional story. It does not appear to be so from the early Jewish understanding or from Jesus's reference to the event as a prophecy and a threat. The problems with taking the approach of allegory or parable seem to make these options less likely. The text itself contains nothing that demands anything other than an historical understanding. I would suggest that the only reason to dispute that the book of Jonah is about an actual, historical event would be the argument that God doesn't exist, at least insofar as affecting our world is concerned. This would seem an odd position for a Christian to take.
________
1 Here's an interesting fact. There is an actual story from 1927 (A. J. Wilson, ‘The Sign of the Prophet Jonah,’ Princeton Theological Review, vol. xxv. p. 636) of a sailor off the Falkland Islands who was swallowed by a sperm whale. They caught and killed the whale three days later, cut him open, and found the missing sailor unconcious but alive. He was revived and was bleached, but his health was otherwise unaffected.

2 Some have argued that Jonah was actually dead in the belly of the fish, making the connection between his experience and Christ's death and burial much tighter. The problem is that Scripture records that Jonah prayed while he was in the belly of the fish (Jonah 2). That's quite difficult when you're dead.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Fired for Jesus

Perusing the news, we find some odd things of late. For instance, did you know that it is unconstitutional to be allowed to work? Apparently, at least in Wisconsin, it is a constitutional right for businesses and unions to reach agreements that require all workers, not just union members, to pay union dues. Who would have thought? Businesses and unions have rights. Workers don't. Or how about this one? China, leading the world in executions, as it turns out favors Donald Trump for President. Is that a good thing?

This one, though, might get your ire up. The story goes that Indiana State Police Officer Brian Hamilton was "fired after asking drivers he pulled over if they had been saved by Jesus Christ." It was the second complaint. The first was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union because, after all, "Freedom of Religion" is fast on its way out as an American civil liberty. As it turns out, Officer Hamilton had been ordered back in 2014 not to "question others regarding their religious beliefs nor provide religious pamphlets or similar advertisements" while on duty. Officer Hamilton did not abide by that order.

I'd like to point out a couple of misconceptions here, not to those about whom the story is written or those who think Mr. Hamilton was in the wrong, but to those Christians who are concerned or even outraged. First, it is not true that Hamilton was fired for preaching the Gospel. Mr. Hamilton was fired for violating the 2014 order. He was fired for failing to follow the requirements of his superiors. That is a viable and legal reason to fire someone. Oh, and note, when the Apostles were beaten for failing to follow the commands of the Sandhedrin, they didn't file a countersuit or go to court to right that wrong. "They went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name." (Acts 5:41) I would be pleasantly surprised to hear that Brian Hamilton is rejoicing that he had been considered worthy to suffer shame for Jesus's name.

One other point. There is no question that we are commanded to share the Gospel. When the Apostles were ordered to stop sharing the Gospel, they responded, "We must obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29) However, there is a difference between what the Council ordered the Apostles to do (not do) and what the Indiana State Police ordered Brian Hamilton to not do. Mr. Hamilton was told not to share the Gospel on duty. The Apostles were ordered to cease and desist sharing the Gospel at all. So I'll leave it to you to consider. Does the command to share the Gospel require that we do it at all times in all situations regardless of the instructions of the authority over us? Or is it only the command to stop sharing the Gospel at all that we would necessarily need to ignore? I ask because I suspect that most of us are not in the habit of sharing the Gospel everywhere we go. So if you think that the officer was right in disobeying his superiors because the command is to share Jesus everywhere and you are not doing so, you are sinning, are you not? Either it is not a blanket order that requires us always and everywhere to share the Gospel and the state was justified in restricting him from sharing on duty, or it is a blanket order for Christians and most of us are failing. You decide.

In our current climate where our society is taking a dimmer view of religious freedom, at least for Christians, and it looks like our "rights will be violated" more and more, it's easy to jump at a story like this as an example of why we need to fight. I would suggest that this is not our calling. Our calling is to love God and love our neighbors, to model and share Christ, to make disciples. Not force the culture to accede to our demands. Jesus didn't do it. Peter and Paul didn't do it. The New Testament Church didn't do it. I'd suggest we take another lesson from this story rather than a call to fight. Now, maybe it's a call to pray (1 Tim 2:1-2).