Thursday, October 12, 2017

No Such Thing As Bible Heroes

When I was a kid I went to Sunday School and learned all about the heroes of the Bible.  People like David, Moses, Gideon, Samson, and many others, and all of the amazing things they did through the power of God were brought to life through flannel graph.  I marveled with childish wonder at the strength of Samson, the deadly accuracy of David, and the strategy of Gideon.

The first time I ever read through the Bible cover-to-cover I was around 20 years old.  I remember being shocked that many of the "heroes" I had learned about as a kid weren't really very heroic.  In fact, most of they seemed like downright scumbags!  The picture I had learned about them in Sunday School as a kid was very incomplete.  Yes, Samson was physically strong, but he was also a womanizer, liar, and a vengeful jerk.  Sure, Gideon trusted the Lord and took on more than a hundred thousand Midianites with just 300 men, but he was also narcissistic and bloodthirsty and bent on revenge.  And yes, David did defeat the giant Goliath, vanquish the Philistines, and lead Israel into its golden age, but his personal life was a shambles, consisting of womanizing, adultery, lies, and murder.  

Why was I ever taught that these guys were heroes?  It's no wonder that some people who, like myself, grew up in the church and learned all their Bible stories became disenchanted with the Bible after having read it as adults.  All of those men and women we were told were heroes and who were worthy of emulation seem to be anything but.  In my opinion, the people whom God used in the Bible are decidedly not heroes.  A quick look at the accounts of their lives easily disqualifies them from heroic status.  

The problem is that, in trying to find human heroes throughout the pages of scripture, we have inadvertently overlooked the one true Hero of the Bible, the only One worthy of admiration or emulation: God.  God is the hero of the Bible.  The Bible shows us no other hero but Him.  All of the other characters in the story of the Bible are broken, flawed, damaged, sinful human beings who are empowered by God to perform heroic deeds in spite of their very significant personal moral failings.  If we look to the Bible for human heroes, we won't find many, because human heroes will always have flaws.  But that's not the point of the Bible.  The point of the Bible is to focus our attention on the only Hero who is worthy of praise.   

One of the amazing things about the Bible is its transparency.  "History is written by the victors," as the saying goes, and usually the victors write their history in such a way as to magnify their own strength, courage, power, and glory.  This is not the case when it comes to the Bible, however.  In almost every instance of the Bible's portrayal of a person whom God used for his purposes, you not only get a sense of their God-empowered courageous actions, but also of their significant personal shortcomings.  The Bible bares all when it comes to its heroes: their glorious victories, and their most depraved failings.  

But this reality should not cause us to despair that all of our childhood Sunday School heroes are frauds.  Instead, this reality should serve to magnify God's amazing grace, and leave us in awe and wonder that God can even extend his saving grace and use the scumbags recorded in the pages of scripture for his purposes.  

Think about it: Samson was a man who was only concerned with his own selfish desires.  This led him to womanizing and the loss of innocent life.  But God extended his grace to him, and even used him in the process of delivering the Israelites from their oppressors.  What kind of God does such a thing for such a lowlife as Samson?  Only a truly heroic God could do such a thing.  Or consider Gideon: fueled by bloodlust and a sinful desire for revenge, he went on a rampage and ultimately led his people away from God by creating a false object of worship.  What kind of God could reach down and rescue such a wayward individual?  Only a truly heroic God could do such a thing.  And think about David: his power and lust led him from woman to woman, until he ultimately murdered a woman's husband so he could have her for himself, and then he tried to cover the whole thing up.  Certainly only the most amazing of grace could come into his sleazy, murderous heart and deliver him from such sin.  Finally, think about Jephthah, whom God raised up to deliver Israel from their oppressors, but who was also the barbaric thug that convinced himself that sacrificing his own daughter was the right thing to do.  The kind of grace that is required for his redemption is no doubt inconceivable to the human mind.  

No, there is no such thing as a Bible hero, and that's a good thing.  Because if there were, they wouldn't need grace.  Thank God that all of the people we read about in the Bible are failures.  Thank God that all of them have debilitating character flaws.  Because it is in the contrast between their failures and God's kindness towards them that his grace is most magnified.  In other words, because our Bible "heroes" were such louts, we can more clearly see the true Hero who rescued them through his amazing grace.  

So don't become disillusioned when you read about the failings of the people recorded in scripture, and don't try to fool yourself into thinking that they weren't actually as bad as they were.  These were first class losers.  But don't forget, they're just acting like sinful people, just like the rest of us.  It just so happens that their failings are different than yours and mine, but we are all on the same level when it comes to our need for grace.  

Unfortunately, we sometimes try to sugar-coat the characters of the Bible, especially when we teach their stories to our kids.  We shouldn't.  Instead, we should know them in the fullness of all of their magnificently sinful failures.  Because when we realize who the heroes of the Bible aren't, we'll know who the true Hero is.  The more we can know their (and our own) sin, the more we will know and appreciate God's amazing grace that saves them (and us).  

Monday, October 9, 2017

Digging Deeper: Daughters and Donkeys

Each Monday I try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper."  The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I preached the previous Sunday.  It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together.  Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor.  For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.  

The biblical concept of holiness is one that is being lost among American Christians, much to our detriment and shame.  Holiness speaks to an "other" quality.  For example, God is holy.  That means that he is utterly unlike anyone or anything else.  He is in a class all his own.  He is perfectly good and righteous, he is completely all-powerful, and his wisdom is unsearchable.  And we could go on and on talking about the ways that God is holy by listing his many attributes and counting all of the ways that he is completely "other."

Since God is holy, he calls his people to be holy as well (Leviticus 11.44-45, 1 Peter 1.16).  That is, God calls his people to be different, to be set apart from the rest - to be "other."  In the Old Testament, in order to make his people set apart or holy, God gave them several laws that they were to obey to show the world that they were different and that they were in a covenant with the true and living God.  In other words, Israel was to stand out from all the other peoples of the earth because of how they lived their relationship with the true God, and the purpose was for all the world to see that they were different - that they were holy like their God was holy.  If a foreign nation interacted with Israel, they could tell that Israel was different simply by the way they lived their lives.  Their holiness (their "otherness") was apparent by how they thought, lived, ate, acted, worshipped, and so on.

The opposite of holiness is what we'll call "worldliness:" an identification with and similarity to the world.  In the Old Testament, God's people - who had been called out, separated, and made holy through their covenant relationship with God - began to forsake holiness when they compromised the requirements of their relationship with God and began to think, look, and act like the world.  The more they looked like the world, the less holy they were.  In other words, the more they looked just like everyone else, the less they looked like God, and the less they fulfilled their duty of being a representative of God to the nations.

This temptation to conform to the world and to not be "other" is one of the main problems of the nation of Israel during the time of the Judges.  They seem to have compromised on everything, from worship, to culture, even to the very foods they ate.  Rather than being a people who have been separated for God, they were quickly turning into a people who looked, thought, acted, and lived just like everyone else - even pagans who worshiped false gods.  The focus of the sermon this past Sunday was to show how this was evident in the lives of Samson and both of his parents, and to warn us from following down the same path.  But there is even more evidence of Israel's tendency toward a lack of holiness that took place before the time of Samson.  Israel had been sliding down the slippery slope of worldliness for generations.  Indeed, as early as the time of Gideon we can begin to see that Israel doesn't look very different from all the other nations they're living with.  They're even worshipping the same gods as the pagan nations, and forsaking their cultural traditions and religious laws and ceremonies that had previously set them apart.

At the end of Judges 12 we read about three of Israel's judges who ruled over Israel and, unfortunately, didn't do much to bring Israel back to the holiness that God called them to.  Ibizan, Elon, and Abdon all judged Israel for a period of years.  There's not much known about these guys, and you probably didn't learn about them through a flannel-graph story in Sunday School when you were a kid.

When it comes to Elon, all we know about him is that he was of the tribe of Zebulun, that he judged Israel 10 years, and that he "died and was buried at Aijalon in the land of Zebulun" (Judges 12.11-12).  But with Ibzan and Abdon, there are some subtle clues in the text that show us that these two judges weren't too concerned about being "other," but instead were quite content with blending in with the rest of the world.

Since the time of Gideon, it seems that Israel's judges were not necessarily content with just holding the office of "Judge."  Rather, they wanted to be king.  Gideon lived as a king with a harem and had 70 sons by at least 14 women.  That is not how "common" people lived.  Rather, that was the lifestyle of a king.  His son, Abimilech (which means "Son of the King") also wanted to be king, and murdered his 70 brothers to eliminate any competing claims to the throne.  After him, Jephthah agreed to fight for Israel only if he could be its "head" (i.e. "king").  Ibzan and Abdon wanted the same.  They didn't want to be just a "Judge" and represent God's justice and righteousness to their people.  They wanted a bigger piece of the pie.  The whole pie, in fact.  They wanted to be king.

How do we know that?  Daughters and donkeys.

First, Judges 12.9 says that Ibzan "had thirty sons, and thirty daughters..."  Like Gideon, Ibzan had lots of kids.  And to have lots of kids you need, well, lots of wives.  And the only people who had lots of wives in those days were kings - at least supposed kings.  And, like Gideon, this may have even included a harem with concubines.  And in order to feed all of these mouths (wives and children), a person in Ibzan's position would have to have a healthy stream of resources coming in.  Only a king could have those kinds of resources.  Ibzan could have stood out and been holy by judging over his people with humility and justice and righteousness.  But instead he wanted power, so he gathered up as many wives as he could find and had as many children as he could - 60 in total.

Furthermore, when it came time for his children to be married, Ibzan went "outside" of his people.  That is, he gave his daughters in marriage to foreigners, and he brought in foreign women for his sons to marry.  It's not going to be easy to be separate and different from the rest of the world when you're bringing the rest of the world in for your children to put down roots and raise a family with.

Similarly, Abdon disregarded the call to be different and instead went the way of the world.  We know this because "He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys..." (Judges 12.14)  Not only did Abdon follow in Ibzan's footsteps of having lots of children with lots of wives (just like all of the pagan kings), but his sons and grandsons also rode on donkeys.  In the ancient near-east, it was common for kings and nobility to ride on the backs of donkeys for their main mode of transportation. Abdon wouldn't let his travel in just any fashion.  They were sons of the king, after all.  They "deserved" to ride on donkeys.  And the kicker is that they rode on donkeys - just like all the rest of the pagans who lived around them.

God called Ibzan and Abdon to be different, to be set apart from the rest, to be "other."  But when it came down to it, they looked just like the pagans.  You couldn't even tell that they were part of God's people.

Unfortunately, even the church has fallen prey to the temptation to be like the world.  Many churches try to emulate the music, dress, speech, and multiple other aspects of the world all for the sake of being "relevant."  In a very real sense, the modern American church has ceased to be "other."  How do our gatherings differentiate us from the world?  How does the way that we interact with people at home, school, and work differentiate us from everyone else?

Like the Israelites of the Old Testament, and like Ibzan and Abdon, and all the rest of the Judges, God has called us to be holy - to stand out from all the rest because we are like him.  No, we don't live under the Old Covenant as part of the nation of Israel, so we don't follow the laws that they did, or hold the same culture or traditions.  Instead, Christians are called to stand out and be "other" by following the way of Jesus: by obeying God and his word in all things, by loving our enemies, by reaching out to sinners, by helping the poor and sick and hungry.  Jesus has given us the perfect example of what it looks like to be "other."  By emulating his life and death we will surely stand out from the rest of the world.

God wanted Ibzan and Abdon to be different.  He didn't want them to go the same way that all of the other pagan kings of their time were going.  He didn't want them to ride donkeys.  It's not that there was anything inherently sinful about riding a donkey, but he called his people to be different, to be other, to be holy.  God calls you to be different, to be other, to be holy.

There is a tradition in Major League Baseball that when a pitcher takes the field, it is bad luck to step on the foul line.  Every pitcher who takes the field makes a point of stepping over the foul line so as not to incur the bad luck that such an action brings.  In his autobiography, Dave Dravecky, a former pitcher for the San Francisco Giants said that every time he took the field as a pitcher, he made sure that instead of stepping over the foul line, he mashed it with his foot.  He wanted to be different.  wanted to be "other."  He wanted to make a statement that he didn't believe in luck.  Sure, it was just a little thing, a minor statement in the grand scheme of things, but it set him apart.

Even the "little things" of holiness are important, and serve to set God's people apart in the way of Jesus from the rest of the world.  And it makes a difference.  We don't strive for holiness for its own sake, but we strive to be different because our God is different, and we want to be like him.  We want the world to see him through us, through our holiness.

So even if you can have 60 sons and daughters, don't.  God doesn't want you to.  Be different.  And even if your sons and grandsons can ride on donkeys, don't.  God doesn't want them to.  Be different. Be holy.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Calvinist

 About two months ago I saw a trailer for a yet-to-be-released documentary called "Calvinist."  As a Calvinist myself, and since the trailer was intriguing and looked well done, I preorder a copy of the DVD.  The movie was finally released and I received it and watched it earlier this week.

A Calvinist is a person who adheres to a Reformed understanding of salvation (also called the doctrines of grace, summarized by the acronym TULIP) and the complete sovereignty of God in all things - theology that was developed and propagated by Reformers such as John Calvin and many others.  The documentary does a great job in briefly explaining these doctrines in a creative, entertaining, and very well-produced way (in other words, learning about this theology through this documentary is anything but boring).

An additional purpose of the movie is to look at why Calvinist/Reformed theology has made such a resurgence in American Christianity over the past 20 years or so.  This is where I really connected with the documentary, as it seemed to be telling the story of my adult Christian life.  Almost every instance that led to this resurgence listed in the film has also been evident in my life.  Looking back on my life through the eyes of this film made me grateful to God how he awakened me to these life-giving, Christ-exalting doctrines in my spiritual journey.

First, the documentary says that one of the initiators of the Reformed resurgence was a preacher and teacher named R.C. Sproul.  Sproul, now 78, is a Presbyterian minister who has written countless books and taught on Reformed theology for decades.  In the year 2000 I was 20 years old and working as the janitor at Riverview.  The days of constant mopping, window washing, and vacuuming soon grew long and boring.  So I explored the church library for some listening options and came across a series of R.C. Sproul's teaching on cassette tape (yes, tape).  I began listening mostly just to pass the time while I cleaned the church, but soon became enraptured in what he was saying.  Later, I picked up one of Sproul's books, The Holiness of God which was a game-changer for me.  In this book, Sproul lays out God's holiness in a way that I had never heard before, elevating God to the position of supreme sovereign of the universe, and myself as a worm.  The contrast between his holiness and my own lowliness had never been clearer.  When we understand God's holiness, we get a new appreciation for his sovereignty and how and why he works in the world.  As I look back, this book was my entrance into Reformed theology.

Second, the documentary notes that a particular sermon by a preacher named Paul Washer was instrumental in drawing many people back to the authority of scripture and the call to continual repentance and Christian holiness.  Washer is a former missionary to Peru and is now the leader of a missionary society and itinerant preacher.  The untitled sermon has been unofficially regarded as the "Shocking Youth Message," as it was originally preached at a youth evangelism conference in 2002.  I don't recall how I was first turned on to listening to this sermon, but I do recall, however, sitting at my desk in my office, enraptured by what he was saying, almost in tears, feeling as though I was being punched in the gut over and over by what this man was preaching.  As one commentator I heard put it, "This sermon made me want to get saved - again."  I was so impacted by this sermon, I immediately purchased DVD copies and gave them out to as many people as I could - both Christian and non-Christian alike.  If you've never seen or heard the "Shocking Youth Message," you should stop what you're doing right now and take the next 59 minutes to watch it.  You will be changed by it.

Third, the documentary notes that one of the supreme reasons for the resurgence in Reformed theology over the last two decades or so has been because of the writing and preaching of John Piper. It wasn't until after I was married that I really got into Piper's writing and preaching.  I remember my first exposure to Piper's theology merely through the title of one of his books: The Pleasures of God: God's Delight in Being God.  The title intrigued me.  I had never before considered that God delighted in himself - that he delighted in being God, or that such a being as God had the right to delight in himself.  The content of the book had much more to offer, however, and I was hooked.  I have memories of washing dishes in the first apartment that my wife and I lived in, with John Piper's sermons in my ear buds (I had moved on from cassette tapes by then).  And Piper kept publishing books.  Books upon books.  And I ate them up.  The focus of Piper's writing and preaching, and his contribution to the Reformed resurgence has been to, I think, magnify the sovereignty of God, and how we as his children find our utmost satisfaction and fulfillment when we delight in his ultimate sovereignty.  This overarching message is probably most clearly communicated in Piper's seminal work Desiring God.  In this book you will most clearly read about Piper's flavor of Reformed theology.  Probably the most accessible representation of Piper's theology and its application to everyday life is his brief book Don't Waste Your Life.  If you want a taste of what delighting in the sovereignty of God looks like in your life, you should read this book.  It was significantly influential in my own life and thinking.

It has been interesting to see how my personal spiritual development has influenced my thinking in every day life.  My kids have recently gotten into the music of Petra - an 80's and 90's Christian rock band.  Their 1990 album Beyond Belief is truly a masterpiece and occupies a spot on my personal top 10 list (on cassette tape).  Recently, as I was listening to some of the songs from that album, my kids overheard and have since developed an appreciation for the music, to the extent that it's all they want to listen to nowadays.  Last week I told them that in conjunction with the album, Petra produced a 60 minute movie that told a story with music videos of their songs interspersed, and they wanted to watch it, so we did.  The movie tells the story of two brothers, the younger of which is an up and coming track and field star who is in the process of being recruited by universities and is receiving scholarship offers.  His older brother (who is also his running coach) reveals that he has been diagnosed with cancer.  This revelation infuriates the younger brother, who begins to blame God for all of his personal and family problems.  The older brother maintains his walk of faith, and tries to encourage his younger brother to continue to trust God.  As part of this process, the older brother tries to comfort his younger brother by saying, "God didn't give me this cancer."  This statement, regardless of how comforting a person might find it, is biblically inaccurate (and actually, I don't find it either comforting or encouraging).  This statement implies that God is not sovereign over cancer.  Rather, the Bible teaches that God is sovereign over all things - even horrible things like cancer - and that he either causes them or allows them to happen for his purposes, which, also according to scripture, are always for the good of those who love God and who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8.28).  God is sovereign over everything - even cancer.  And that should change how we think about cancer: it is not stronger than God; it is not out of his control; cancer is not sovereign - God is.  That truth is encouraging; that truth is comforting.  The idea that God is not sovereign over cancer is, to me, terrifying.  If God is not sovereign over cancer, then it is an unsolvable mystery that can only lead to fear and doom.  Praise the Lord that he is, indeed, sovereign over cancer.  (Note: to show how even cancer is under God's control and can be used for his purposes and for our good, John Piper has written an excellent article called "Don't Waste Your Cancer."  Even if you don't have cancer, you should read it.  It is an excellent example of how Reformed theology is practically applied to every day life.)

In this documentary I saw a lot of myself, and the journey I took to get to where I am today.  This is just a snippet of what it covers.  I'm glad for the release of this documentary, and I hope a lot of people will see it.  If a documentary on the resurgence of a theological stream doesn't sound very interesting to you, you'll be surprised at how engrossing this film is, and by how much you enjoy it.  You should see it (the film is available on DVD in the Riverview library), and come to know the doctrines of grace which most beautifully and gracefully describe our God and the sovereign, glorious salvation he offers.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Digging Deeper: Did Jephthah Really Sacrifice His Daughter?

Each Monday I'm going to try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper."  The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I just preached on the previous Sunday.  It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together.  Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor.  For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.  Hopefully this series will be helpful to some, and interesting to those who want to dig deeper into the text.

The first installment in this series will center around Judges 11.1-12.7.  These verses contain the story of Jephthah - one of the judges of Israel.  The most shocking and controversial portion of the story is verses 11.30-40.  In these verses Jephthah vows that if the Lord gives him victory over the Ammonites, then he will sacrifice as a burnt offering to the Lord the first thing that comes out of his house to meet him upon his return.  No doubt Jephthah assumed that one of his animals would be the first thing out of his house to meet him, but this was tragically not the case.  Instead, Jephthah's daughter was the first one to meet him.  Being a man of his word, Jephthah laments that he will now have to offer up his daughter as a burn offering to the Lord.  But does he, really?

Many people have interpreted this part of Jephthah's story differently.  Some scholars believe that, instead of sacrificing his daughter, Jephthah merely dedicated her to the service of the Lord, perhaps in some fashion at the Tabernacle or in some other means.  There are several reasons that many have arrived at this interpretation.

1. God does not honor human sacrifice.  The primary reason that some believe that Jephthah didn't actually kill his daughter as a sacrifice is because the Old Testament clearly prohibits the practice of human sacrifice.  "You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods." (Deuteronomy 12.31)  God hates human sacrifice.  He finds it to be "abominable."  Surely God would not have been pleased with Jephthah's vow, and the fulfillment of said vow.  Jephthah would have known that, and would have backed off when the first thing to come out of his house to greet him was not an animal, but instead a human being.  Or certainly God would have done something to prevent Jephthah from carrying out his vow literally.  But, still wanting to be faithful to his vow, Jephthah "sacrificed" his daughter to the Lord by dedicating her to his service for the rest of her life.

2. Jephthah's daughter mourns her virginity.  When Jephthah's pronouncement is made ("Alas, my daughter!  You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me.  For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow." Judges 11.35), his daughter's concern doesn't seem to be her impending death, but instead her virginity.  In fact, she asks her father to give her two months so she and her friends can go up into the mountains and weep not because of her impending demise, but because of her virginity.  Many have understood this as meaning that part of the service to which she would be dedicated (in place of being offered as a burnt sacrifice) would require life-long celibacy.  Thus the mourning she does is for her impending life-long commitment to celibacy (not being married, not having children, not having the same fulfillment that others might have, etc.), and not her death.

3. The occasion became a national holiday.  A third piece of evidence for this interpretation is that the Israelites used the occasion as a type of holiday.  Every year the "daughters of Israel" would remember Jephthah's daughter and her virginity (Judges 11.39-40).  Had Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering, it is very unlikely that Israel would have marked such a barbaric and godless occasion on their yearly calendars.  It seems more likely that this remembrance was of the occasion of her forced celibacy, not her death.

Others, however, have not found this evidence persuasive, and I count myself among them.  It is my opinion that Jephthah did actually sacrifice his daughter to the Lord as a burnt offering.  I affirm, however, that God abhors human sacrifice, and that it is prohibited in the Old Testament Law, and that the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter was not pleasing to God.  But this doesn't mean that Jephthah didn't do it.  Many people have committed heinous acts in God's name - both in the Bible and throughout history - and we should count Jephthah among them for burning his daughter on an altar.  In his wisdom and for his purposes, God did not stop them from doing the evil deeds they did in his name.  There are several reasons why I believe this to be the case with Jephthah.

1. The plain reading of the text indicates that Jephthah carried through with his original vow.  When interpreting the Bible, there's a rule of thumb that is almost always true: "the plain reading of the text is almost always the correct reading."  Nowhere in the story of Jephthah is it even ever intimated that Jephthah did something other with his daughter than what he said he would do.  In fact, it is stated overtly: "And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made."  Any attempt to posit that Jephthah did something else with his daughter other than sacrifice her as a burnt offering is speculation.  The most plain reading of the text is that Jephthah did indeed sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord.

2. Jephthah's spiritual life was syncretistic.  Religious life in Israel during the time of the judges was overwhelmingly dominated by syncretism.  Syncretism is the combining of ideas and beliefs into one.  Israel had become so influenced by other cultures and religions that their religion was virtually indistinguishable from other religions.  All of the "Gods" of the peoples looked pretty much the same.  This meant that the Israelites regarded Yahweh - the true God - as being pretty much one in the same, or at least on the same level, as all the other gods that "existed."  Other gods demanded human sacrifices, so it follows that the syncretistic thinking of the Israelites led them to believe that Yahweh also delighted in human sacrifice.  Thus, regarding God simply as a god, Jephthah makes the mistake of thinking that Yahweh desired human sacrifice.  There seems to be a good amount of contextual evidence for this.  First, Israel's main problem in the book of Judges is idolatry.  They mix themselves into other cultures and religious thinking all the time.  It is the perpetual thorn in their side.  Second, Gideon appears to make a religious symbol that, at least to some extent, is to represent God or his will (Judges 8.27).  This is blasphemy.  God is spirit, and is not represented in any symbol, statute, painting, or otherwise.  Third, Jephthah himself appears to equate Yahweh, the true God, with Chemosh, the false God of the Ammonites by intimating that both "Gods" have the power to bless their people with physical resources such as land.  In Jephthah's mind, Yahweh and Chemosh are on the same level, so then to him it stands to reason that Yahweh would approve of human sacrifice just like Chemosh did.  I believe that syncretistic thinking led Jephthah to make his tragic, profane, and detestable offering.

3. Human sacrifice fits with Jephthah's pattern of life and behavior.  When considered as a whole, there's not much (if anything) about Jephthah's life that is commendable or worthy of admiration or emulation.  Indeed, it is difficult to find a single redeeming quality in the man's story in scripture.  While of course serious and reprehensible, human sacrifice is not the only mark against Jephthah.  He has many other issues that would serve to condemn him in the eyes of God.  Jephthah's story in Judges appears to be characterized by self-centeredness, wickedness, and a lust for power.  If this is true, and if his thinking was so deluded so as to bring about his other sins recorded in scripture, then it certainly isn't that much of a leap to think that he was led by his faulty thinking to the sacrificing of his own daughter.  Is it really so surprising that a selfish, wicked, power-hungry warlord would sacrifice his own daughter if it served his self-centered purposes?

In Hebrews 11.32 we read that Jephthah's faith is commended.  It is my belief that many have attempted to explain away Jephthah's barbaric action of sacrificing his daughter in an attempt to justify him, or to make him seem not as bad as he looks, as though Jephthah would have been a stand-up fellow if it weren't for that human sacrifice business.  After all, how can God save such a vile, wicked human being?  How could God justify using Jephthah for his purposes when he has done such horrible things?  This kind of thinking is unnecessary, though, and in fact, diminishes the glory of the gospel.  The mystery of the gospel is that God is a God of infinite grace who pays for the debt of sinners - horrible sinners.  All sin is a horrendous offense against a holy God, from white lies, to pirating music or television from the internet, to human sacrifice.  And God's grace can and does cover them all through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin.  Rather than justify Jephthah by diminishing the severity of his sin, I think an honest accounting of this text rather serves to magnify the grace of God.  God's grace can cover any sin.  Even the sin of child sacrifice.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Popular Across Facebook

Over the past few weeks I've noticed that Facebook has a new feature.  Stories and videos pop up in my news feed with the title "Popular Across Facebook."  No doubt our internet overlords at Facebook have determined that these videos and stories are ones that I am likely to read or watch based on other links that I have clicked in my social media browsing history, so these stories and videos are supposedly tailored to my interests.

But rather than identifying with these stories and videos and their popularity "across Facebook," I find them repulsive.  I hate them.

The reason I hate them is that they are filled with messages designed to get me to believe in false gods.  They are videos of "pastors" and "preachers" of a false gospel that has nothing to do with the God of the Bible.  You see, based on my browsing history, I've been lumped into a culturally Christian sub-category, and internet codes have determined that the popular stories and videos that I will most likely watch and/or read are Christian ones.  And so Facebook has shown me videos that are popular amongst the Christian sub-category.  The only problem is that the Christianity peddled (and I use that word intentionally) and espoused by the majority of these preachers and their videos looks nothing like biblical Christianity.

Rather, they preach a gospel of prosperity.  They preach a gospel of healing - but only if your faith is good enough.  They preach a gospel of God as a life-enhancement program that will help you live up to your fullest potential so that you can get that promotion at work, get a new car and house, and finally have fulfillment in life.  They preach a gospel that makes God out to be a good luck charm, rather than the sovereign Lord of the universe.

In short, these videos that are so "popular across Facebook" are promoting false gospels and the worship of false gods.  Indeed, it is accurate to say that idolatry is popular across Facebook.

Ancient Israel was a people who struggled with idolatry.  They were surrounded by other nations and people-groups who had their own ethnic deities, and Israel began to regard those false gods of other nations as being on par with the one true God.  They had a low view of God.  They didn't regard him as the one true and living God of the universe who reigns and rules over all and to whom all submission is to be given.  Rather, they regarded him as a casual deity who could help them live their best life now.  And if he didn't help them live their best life now, then they didn't have to worry because there were a plethora of other gods waiting in the wings that they could look to for help.  To them, God was merely a good luck charm, or maybe a butler who they could rely on to help them and do nice things for them.

It's no wonder that they left him when they got a better offer from somewhere else.

This is why Israel fell into idolatry - not because there was some kind of better power in these false gods, but because they had a low view of the one true God.  They thought he was simply one god among many.  Sure, he could help you now and again, but next month you might get a better offer from a different god, and so you go where the winds of idol worship take you.

Don't be fooled into thinking that idolatry was an ancient Israelite problem.  It's just as prevalent today in our culture as ever it was, and it is even existent in the American church.  Many people who call themselves Christians treat God as their butler.  They're not going to submit to him, but instead they want God to submit himself to their desires.  Sure, they might call on him when they need him, but when things are going alright in their lives, then they're going to pursue their own desires.  They're not going to concern themselves with what he wants from them - at least not until they might need him to get out of a scrape.  And if God won't give them what they want, then they'll go and find someone or something who will.

That is idolatry.  And it is no different than the idolatry with which Israel struggled throughout the Old Testament, except maybe that our idolatry doesn't involve worshipping a statue made out of stone or metal.  I heard a pastor say once that the most idolatrous time of the week in this country is at 10:30 on Sunday mornings, because there are many people who go to church to worship a god of convenience, or a god who will be their good-luck charm, a god who serve them.

And the reason for 21st century American idolatry is the exact same as it was for Israel: we have a low view of God.  As evidenced by the videos that are popular across Facebook, so many people view Go as a life enhancement program, or as a good luck charm, or even as a butler who exists to serve their every need.  But that is a false god, not the God of the Bible.  And these false gods are peddled to the American Christian subculture, and people eat it up.

The reason that many people - even Christians - are prone to idolatry is that they have no knowledge of the God of the Bible because they have forsaken his word.  It's easy to see a slick, silver-tongued pastor on Facebook and fall in love with his message about how God wants you to be healthy and wealthy, because we are prideful creatures, and if we're honest, the idea of being healthy and wealthy is very attractive to us.  And such we have such a minuscule foundation of biblical truth in our heads and hearts we will quickly move our trust and devotion to whichever god can satisfy our selfish desires.  Put simply, because we do not know the true God according to his word, we will fall to any false god that we find attractive.

1 Peter 3.18 says that "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.  God wants nothing more than for all people to come to repentance and faith so that he can save them.  But he will not save them if they come to him as a good luck charm.  He will not save them if they are only coming to him to live their best life now.  He will not save them if they come to him to find health, wealth, and prosperity.  He calls people to repent and believe and to worship him in spirit and in truth, according to his word.

God will not compete with the false idols that are popular across Facebook.  He calls us to know him in truth, and in order to know him we must turn to his word.  It is easy to spot a false idol when we know the real thing.  Regardless of how "popular across Facebook" these idols are, they need to be smashed.

Know yourself.  Know the Bible.  Know God.