Monday, November 13, 2017

Digging Deeper: The Toilet Bowl of the Bible

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.

Some commentators have described Judges 19 as the "toilet bowl of the Bible."  While that may seem to you to be a rather crass description, it is accurate in the sense that the events described therein are utterly disgusting and vile: gang rape, murder, and mutilation are only the tip of the iceberg of depravity described in Judges 19.  

So then, why is it in the Bible at all?  As you can probably guess, many critics of the Bible believe that Judges 19 essentially disqualifies the entire Bible from believability.  Why does God allow these horrible actions to transpire?  Does he approve of this?  Why didn't he stop it?  Why should we believe and follow him if he allows something like this to happen?  How are we to understand Judges 19 and the brutality it describes? 

Over the years there have been several attempts to answer these questions and to either justify God or the characters in the story.  This has been particularly evident in more modern biblical scholarship, as some have interpreted this text from a feminist point of view, and also from a pro-homosexual viewpoint.  For instance, the feminist readings of Judges 19 have focused on the plight of the women in the story, and condemned the patriarchal society in which the events unfolded (and by implication and even explicit statement, God himself).  Homosexual readings of Judges 19 have determined that the primary sin of the men of Gibeah was not homosexuality, per se, but was instead a lack of hospitality towards strangers.  Each of these readings, however, force modern (and subjective and personal) sensibilities onto the text.  Instead, as interpreters, it is our job to remove as much of ourselves as possible when we interpret the text, and let it speak for itself.  We should not feel it necessary to attempt to justify God or anyone else as we read the Bible, and we should be very hesitant to force our own personal, cultural, or societal sensibilities onto the text - even when our sensibilities are righteous and good.

One of the most important things we need to remember when reading scripture - and especially hard parts like Judges 19 - is the genre of the literature we are reading.  The book of Judges is an historical narrative, and so the author of the book writes as a dutiful historian: just the facts, with very little - if any - personal commentary.  This is particularly true of the book of Judges.  Throughout its pages, you will find very few moral judgments made by the author.  That is, the author very rarely ever pauses to interject his own feelings about the morality of a given scenario.  For instance, when Samson marries a Philistine woman, the author does not say that it was the wrong thing to do - even though it was.  Later, when Samson visits a prostitute, he is not condemned by the author - even though he could have been.  The reason for this is that the author's primary purpose is to relay historical facts, and not necessarily to comment on the morality of a given situation.  We know, however, that the morality of the book of Judges is in the gutter because we know God.  We allow our knowledge of scripture and the character and nature of God interpret the events of the book of Judges.  Not what we think is right or wrong, but what God thinks is right and wrong.  

This is also true of Judges 19, and more generally, of Judges 17-21.  These chapters are filled with historical events of a dubious moral nature and, for the most part, the author remains silent about the morality of the events he describes.  For instance, there are only two moral judgments made by the author (that I can find, at least).  First, he calls the men of the town of Gibeah "worthless fellows."  Second, he says that the moral and spiritual climate of Israel at the time was one that could be characterized by the reality that "there was no king in Israel..."  Both earlier and later in this book, the moral and spiritual climate of Israel is more succinctly described as "everyone did what was right in their own eyes."  Aside from these somewhat abstract moral judgments, the author's main purpose is to record and communicate historical facts.  Most moral judgments that we make regarding the events described in this book come from outside of the actual text.  And as we've seen, we need to be careful about forcing our own sensibilities onto the text.  

Since the author is writing an historical account, we also need to remember that neither the human author - nor the spiritual author - necessarily condone what is being described.  We often make the mistake of thinking that God approves of the history that is recorded in the Bible.  In many cases, he does not.  Although the events are recorded for us to read, that doesn't mean that God approves of what unfolded.  We also should remember that just because the Bible records historical events, that doesn't mean that we should seek to duplicate or recreate those historical events.  History is history - not a direct command for us to obey.  Think of reading a history text book when you were in high school: you didn't interpret your history text book as being a direct command for your to follow or an event for you to recreate for yourself.  History describes things that have happened in the past - it doesn't prescribe things that should happen in the present or future.  The same is true of the Bible: it records history, and sometimes that history is brutal, unforgiving, and even barbaric.  

Then how should we read difficult texts like Judges 19?  We should read it for what it is: an historical narrative about a group of people at the depths of their depravity, doing wicked, vile, and evil things.  And we can make those judgments because we the rest of the testimony of scripture: we know that the character and nature of God is contrary to the events described in Judges 19.  God did not approve of it, nor desire for it to happen.  

But also, we know from the rest of scripture that even though mankind is at his most depraved in Judges 19, he has not moved so far away from God as to be unredeemable.  Yes, the events of this chapter are horrific and demand our condemnation and swift justice and punishment.  Indeed, God will see that justice is done for the nameless concubine who is horrifically raped, murdered, and mutilated.  Justice will be served for those responsible, either through an eternity of punishment in hell, or through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ.  Judges 19 is a picture of just how sinful we all truly are.  No, you may have never committed acts like those described in this chapter, but you certainly have fallen - and far - from God's grace, perhaps through murder of the heart by hating your brothers, or perhaps through sexually violating someone in the secret thoughts of your heart and mind.  Nevertheless, you are not too far away to be redeemed.  The scandal of grace - and the message of the book of Judges - is that God can even redeem rapists and murderers - even you.  

Monday, October 30, 2017

Digging Deeper: What Do We Do With Samson?

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.

Samson: childhood Sunday School hero, strongman, womanizer, sleaze ball, Judge of Israel, avenger, warrior, fornicator, Nazarite.  The list of descriptors for the man whose story we read about in Judges 13-16 could go on and on.  One thing is for sure: Samson was a man whose life was a big hot mess, and almost always not in a good way.

So what do we do with Samson?  Many have undertaken the difficult task of attempting to find some kind of redeeming element in the story of Samson, but any way you look at it, the guy's life was a shambles of disobedience, apathy, and selfishness.  It's hard to find something redeemable about someone so scummy.  Is there anything about this guy that is worthy of admiration or emulation?  No.  At least not from the account of him that we read about in Judges.

The answer changes, however, when we read Hebrews 11.32-34: "And what more shall I say?  For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets - who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight."

It's interesting: when you read the account of Samson's life in Judges 13-16, the author never commends any of Samson's actions as being faithful.  That is, the author never explicitly says that Samson performed any of his mighty deeds because of his faith.  In fact, the opposite is true: the overwhelming circumstantial evidence of Samson's actions points us to the conclusion that he instead performed his mighty deeds out of selfish ambition field by sinful desire.  The author of Hebrews, however, reveals that Samson's mighty deeds were, in fact, fueled by faith.  Although these faith-fueled deeds are not at the exclusion of all of the rotten things he did too.

For instance, of the qualifiers that are listed in Hebrews 11.32-34, Samson fits at least five of them.  In Samson's story we read about him 1) stopping the mouth of lions; 2) escaping the edge of the sword; 3) being made strong out of weakness; 4) becoming mighty in war; and 5) putting foreign armies to flight.  All of these, the author of Hebrews implies, Samson did with resolute faith in God, albeit with significant personal failings mixed in along the way.  Nevertheless, Samson was a man of faith.

It took faith for Samson to believe that God would give him the strength to overpower the lion; it took faith for Samson to believe that God would allow him to escape from the many enemies that wanted to kill him; it took faith for Samson to believe that God would make him strong in spite of his physical weakness; it took faith for Samson to believe that God would make him mighty in war, and faith to believe that God would use him to put the foreign army of the Philistines to flight.  Samson knew - at least at some level - that it was God who was empowering him and working through him to achieve God's purposes.

It is also true, however, that nearly all of the great things Samson did and victories he won were born out of the sins of pride and selfishness.  As I've stated previously, praise God that he can even work through our impure motives and desires - and even our sin - in order to achieve his purposes.  Even Samson's major-league-level bungling of every situation he was in couldn't stop God from achieving his intended ends.

So what do we do with Samson?  How does such a rotten guy end up being mentioned in the "Hall of Fame of Faith" (Hebrews 11)?  The answer is, as I've said before, there's no such thing as "Bible Heroes."  Everyone that we read about in scripture - including those mentioned in Hebrews 11 - were depraved sinners, saved by grace.  And if we will see them as such, God's grace in their lives will be all the more magnified.

Moreover, we need to understand that faith is a gift of God and does not come from us, but from him.  As such, God can do anything he wants with our faith, regardless of how large or small we might deem it to be.  As linear human beings, we have a tendency to gauge or categorize or evaluate the size of "faith" based on some man-centered objective.  God's categorization of faith, however, works on a different plane that we will never understand.  To us, Samson's faith appears small because he was such a lout during his life.  But what did Jesus say?  "If you have faith like a grain of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you'" (Matt. 17.20).  From our perspective, Samson's faith was small - smaller even than "a grain of mustard seed."  From God's perspective, however, Samson's faith was just the right size to accomplish what God wanted to accomplish.

To this extent, we can aspire to have a faith like Samson: that in the day when I am attacked by a lion, I will believe that God will give me the power to stop his mouth.  And if and when I am called on to put "foreign armies to flight," I will believe that God will make me "strong out of weakness."  This is what Samson believed, and this is what God did.

At the same time, we can and should aspire to avoid the mistakes that Samson made.  He serves us as an example of the damage that can be done when we are only looking to fulfill our own desires and serve our sinful passions - even in the midst of actively believing God.

What do we do with Samson?  We take the good and leave out the bad; eat the meat and spit out the bones; see the great things that he did in faith, and mourn the incredible damage caused by his sin; aspire to believe God like Samson, and desire to master the sin that he didn't.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Semper Reformanda

On October 31, 2017, the Protestant Church will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the doors of the Wittenberg church.  This event is commonly marked in history as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, although the seeds of the Reformation were planted years before.  Nevertheless, we intend to mark this momentous occasion at Riverview with a celebration this coming Tuesday, October 31 from 6:00-7:30 with our "Reformation Celebration."

While many great reforms were made to the church as a part of the Reformation, the most commonly known are the "Five Solas of the Reformation," Latin phrases that succinctly delineate the doctrine of salvation: Sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, sola scriptura, soli Deo gloria.  Translated into English these phrases state that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, according to scripture alone, for the glory of God alone.

Another Latin phrase that came from the Reformation is: "Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda."  Translated to English, this means, "The church reformed, always reforming."  When we think about the Reformation, we tend to think of historical events, such as Luther nailing his 95 Theses, or historical people, such as Luther and Calvin and Zwingli and many others.  But the spirit of the Reformation, I think, is encapsulated nicely in this latin phrase: Semper reformanda.

Semper Reformanda ("always reforming") reminds us that reformation is not an historical event - it is a continual process that never ends.  That is, we always need reformation.  The need for us to reform our thinking by submitting to the authority of the word of God and living and serving in God's grace is one that is continuous for Christians.  Indeed, we will be "reforming" until the day we die.

Our continual need for reformation has been brought to bear recently by way of a Christianity Today article, in which a Pew Research study recently revealed that 52% (!) of American Protestants believe that faith in God and good deeds are necessary for entrance into heaven.  52% also believe that scripture alone is not enough to know God - one must also have the traditions and teachings of the church.  Across the ocean in Europe (the birthplace of the Reformation), the numbers are similar amongst European Protestants.  For many protestants across the globe, the Reformation (and distinctly Protestant) doctrines of sola fide (faith alone) and sola scripture (scripture alone) have gone by the wayside

Not only do these percentages (and many more listed in the CT article) reveal that the majority of Protestants have no grasp on their Protestant heritage and history, but even more concerning is that these statistics reveal that the majority of Protestants have fallen into wrong thinking about the Bible and the gospel.  If 52% of American Protestants believe that faith and good deeds are necessary for salvation, then 52% of American Protestants aren't believing the biblical gospel.

Put simply, the majority of Protestants in America and Europe have stopped reforming.

As Christians, we are in a daily battle against the flesh and against spiritual forces to sin, doubt, and rethink our relationship with God through Christ.  We try to add to what he has done by keeping a tally of our good works, hoping that we can earn God's favor.  Or we are tempted to listen to spiritual gurus (or even pastors), or other man-centered spiritual wisdom as our authority on spiritual matters, instead of the Bible.  Our daily battle against these temptations to continually submit ourselves to the authority of scripture and rest in God's grace through faith - not through any merit of our own - is at the heart of semper reformanda.

We need to continually reform our thinking to know that we are saved by God's grace, and not by works.  We need to continually reform our thinking to know that salvation comes through faith, and not through any other means.  We need to continually reform our thinking to hold that faith in Christ is the only way of salvation.  We need to continually reform our submission to God's word as the only authority in all matters of life.  We need to continually reform our belief that God alone is sovereign, and that his glory is the chief end of man.

If and when we stop reforming, we fall into error.  If and when we stop reforming, we will be believing something less than the biblical gospel.

The battle for a pure and biblical faith and Christian life is a continuing one.  Although the Protestant Reformation is recognized to have started on October 31, 1517, it is not over.  We must continue to always reform our thinking, our churches, and our faith to come into line with what scripture teaches.  The moment we stop reforming, we begin to fall away from the truth of God's word and the biblical gospel.

Although we are celebrating an historical event on October 31, we are also celebrating the Reformation that is happening today in our churches and in our hearts, as we continue to submit ourselves to God and his word.

"Semper reformanda.  Soli Deo gloria."

Monday, October 23, 2017

Digging Deeper: Stop Wasting Time

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 story of Samson is tragic.  As we've gone through his story, recorded in Judges 13-16, we've seen that he has done things according to his own desires, or, as Samson says what "is right in my eyes."  Needless death, revenge, womanizing, betrayal, and more are all part of Samson's story.  But perhaps the most tragic and telling verse of Samson's story is Judges 15.20: "And he judged Israel in the days of the Philistines twenty years."

Samson never knew a single day of his life apart from Philistine oppression.  The Philistines had occupied Israelite land before Samson's birth, and their occupation continued even after his death.  Samson is the only leader of Israel in the book of Judges who did not release his people from the oppression of their enemies.  Even louts like Barak, Gideon, and even Jephthah (!) took up arms to follow God's lead and bring their people out from under the oppression of their enemies.  Samson, however, was too busy serving his own desires to be bothered to organize his people under the banner of God.  Never had a man with more God-given potential achieved so little.

In spite of Samson's disregard for God's program, God still used him to strike several blows against the Philistines' oppression and occupation of Israel (see, for example, 14.19, 15.4, 8, 15, etc.).  But the sad reality is that God worked in spite of Samson, rather than through his willing obedience.  At the end of Samson's brief life, Israel was still in the same predicament as when it began.

This is not to say that Samson's life was meaningless, and that God couldn't work through him.  Before Samson was born, God told his parents that he would use Samson to "begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines" (Judges 13.5, emphasis mine).  Israel wouldn't be free from Philistine influence until the time of king David.  Indeed, however, God did use Samson to begin to free his people from the Philistines.  But imagine what Samson could have done if he hadn't wasted his time pursuing his own desires!  Imagine what Samson could have done if he had dedicated himself to holiness and obedience instead of doing what was right in his own eyes.  Instead of investing his time and efforts into God's overarching purpose for his life, Samson invested his time and efforts into his own purpose for his life.

I cringe when I think about how much time I spend on frivolous pursuits that pique my interest: things that are not essential to my well-being; things that are not eternal or meaningful (Facebook, anyone?); things that are here today and gone tomorrow; things that seem enjoyable in the moment; things that I wish I hadn't done; things that are innocuous and only serve to fill/waste time.  If you do the math, you spend about 1/3 of your life sleeping.  I wonder how much of my life is spent doing pointless or even sinful things.  I shudder to think.

There's a cliche story about how, after your death, your tombstone will record the date of your birth and the date of your death.  And in between those two dates there is a dash - a mark that symbolizes everything that happened between those two dates.  That dash symbol is the story of your life.  Everything you've ever done will be characterized by that dash.  The dash that characterizes Samson's life does indeed include a few instances where God used him to help his people.  But the list could have been longer.  When people saw the date of Samson's death on his tombstone, they no doubt compared it to the date of the end of the Philistine oppression and remembered, sadly, that Samson's death came long before.  Samson wasted his time.  Even though he was set apart for the service of the Lord before he was even born (Judges 13.5), he never saw even a fraction of the potential of his special status as a Nazirite.

When we read that Samson "judged Israel in the days of the Philistines twenty years," it's a warning to us to get busy while the getting is good.  When we read Samson's story, it's an encouragement to us to not waste the time that we have here on frivolous and selfish pursuits; it's an encouragement to us to use the things that God has given to us for his plans and purposes in this world; it's an encouragement to us not to take the gifts and talents God has given to us for granted.

God has a purpose that he is working out in this world - a grand, universe-sized plan that is constantly unfolding, second by second.  It is the high calling and privilege of every Christian to be a part of what God is doing in the world.  God will still use us for his purposes even if we aren't willing, and even if we're too self-absorbed to get with his program, but I certainly don't want that to be the story of my "dash."  To an extent, Samson's legacy is as a man whom God gifted greatly, but who squandered those gifts on temporal - and even sinful - pleasures and pursuits.  I want my legacy to be the opposite: that I used everything that God has given me for his glory; that I partnered with God in what he is doing in the world so that his name might be known throughout the ends of the earth; that I used my very brief time on earth well; that I used the gifts God had given me to the utmost.

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).