Friday, March 25, 2016

What's So Good About Good Friday?

Good Friday is a paradoxical holiday, in that it labels something that is unquestionably horrific and evil as “good.”  After all, when we think of the events of Good Friday, we should think about spitting, beating, blood, torture, flesh being ripped and torn, hands and feet being nailed to wood, stabbing, and the most intense physical suffering that a human being can endure.  Indeed the Bible says of Jesus: “his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind…” (Isaiah 52.14)  In other words, Jesus was beaten so badly that you had seen him you’d have to do a double take just to know that he was, in fact, a human being.  To make matters even more undignified and horrible, some believe that when Jesus asked for a drink, the soaked sponge that was given to him to suck on was serving double duty from its regular job of being used as toilet paper.  
But when we move beyond the physical abuse that Jesus suffered and look toward the spiritual side of this day’s proceedings, things begin to seem even less “good.”  One of the thieves that was crucified with Jesus noted that he (the thief) was getting what he deserved: “…we are receiving the due rewards of our deeds.”  The shocking part is what he says next: “but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23.41)  Not only did Jesus suffer all of the horrible abuse noted above, but he did so as an innocent.  He never sinned.  He was perfect in thought, word, and deed.  He never did anything that would warrant any kind of punishment or discipline, let alone disfigurement and torture.  
Good Friday?  Really?
Well, maybe we’re misunderstanding the word “good.”  Maybe it’s supposed to mean something else in this context.  Wikipedia says that the use of the word “good” in regards to this holiday is meant to imply the sense of “pious” or “holy.”  It also reports that some Christian traditions use the terms “Holy Friday,” “Great Friday”, or “Black Friday” for their remembrance of this holiday.  But considering that “Black Friday” in our culture is a day devoted to materialism and excess, that’s probably not a good choice for us.  Similarly, “Great Friday” seems to have as many paradoxical problems as “Good Friday.”  But I’m going to stick with “Good Friday,” and I’m going to use a definition of “good” that implies “advantageous” or “beneficial” or even “morally right,” and I’ll tell you why.
If we look to the pages of scripture, the paradox is stripped away and we can begin to understand how something so bad could, in fact, be “good.”  In fact, the reality of Jesus’ suffering and death is an occasion for joy for Christians.  Not that we take pleasure in his suffering, or that we sadistically enjoy the thought of violence and torture of the innocent – by no means.  Instead, we exult in the result of what Jesus accomplished on behalf of those who would believe through his suffering and death.  2 Corinthians 5.21 says: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Jesus took the sins of those who would believe upon himself.  That is, all of the times a believer has broken God’s law were transferred from himself to Jesus.  
The one who was sinless became sinful; the one who was perfect became corrupt; the one who was pure became vile.  Jesus went from never having told a lie, to having told all of the lies of all people who would ever trust in him; Jesus went from never having stolen a thing in his life, to having stolen all things that anyone who would trust in him, had stolen; Jesus went from never having had a lustful thought, to having all of the lustful thoughts of his people placed upon him; Jesus went from never having an angry thought toward anyone else to having the murderous intentions of his people placed upon him.  This is how he “became sin” – he took the sins of all those who would believe upon himself.  
And the logical result of “being sin” is obvious: punishment.  A good judge punishes criminals who have committed crimes, and a good God punishes sinners who have committed sins.  To not punish sin would be just as evil as a human judge not punishing a murderer.  But in the case of Jesus, he took all the sins of all the people who would ever trust in him, on himself.  Therefore it says in Isaiah 53.10 that it “pleased” the Lord to crush him.  How could God be pleased about punishing his perfect Son who had the sins of others thrust upon him?  Because, in God’s great mercy, this was his divine plan, and the Jesus submitted to it willingly out of love.  And since sin must be punished, and since Jesus bore the weight of sin, it was good and right that the punishment fell upon him.
But it doesn’t end there.  Jesus didn’t just take sin and die.  He also transferred his righteousness – his perfect sinlessness – to all those who would believe in him.  So that when a believer stands before God, he sees the righteousness of Christ.  And when God looked at Jesus on the cross, he sees the sins of his people.  And beyond that, he rose from the dead, demonstrating his power over death and sin.  This, my friends, is good news.  It is, in fact, the best news.
So should we call Good Friday “good?”  Yes, by all means.  But with a serious, somber, and sober recognition that it was my sin that brought this holiday about.  But we should also celebrate this holiday and rejoice that there is a God who is loving and merciful so as to sacrifice his only Son in my place, and who would give me his righteousness so that I might have eternal life.  So call it “Good Friday,” or “Wonderful Friday,” or “Fantastic Friday,” or whatever you want to call it, as long as you know why it’s “good.”

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?

In 1 Corinthians 15.20 Paul asserts the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ as an historical certainty.  There were many in his time who disagreed with him, however, just as there are many in our time who do not hold that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  It is interesting that when Paul asserts the resurrection as historical fact, he doesn’t ask his readers to believe him in blind faith – rather, he gives them evidence for the historical reality of the resurrection.  As time has gone on, the evidence in favor of a historical, physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ has piled up and we, like Paul, can confidently assert that Jesus Christ is risen.  In our Easter Sunday message at Riverview, I briefly shared two pieces of evidence for the resurrection.  John Piper and Matt Chandler have done a good job in outlining several other pieces of evidence that are worthy of consideration.  What follows is a merely a sampling of the streams of evidence that they and others have put forth in favor of the historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

1. The Bible predicted and testifies to the resurrection.  See Isaiah 53 for an Old Testament prediction of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah.  Jesus also predicted his own death and resurrection long before it actually happened (see, for example, Mark 8.31, 9.30-32, and 10.32-34).  Moreover, the entire New Testament is based on the presupposition that Jesus rose from the dead – an idea firmly planted in the worldview of New Testament writers by the solid evidence of actual eyewitnesses (some of whom were contributors to the New Testament themselves – for instance, Matthew, John, Paul, James, and Peter) to the resurrection.  There are very few plausible arguments for doubting the historicity of the Bible when it speaks of the resurrection. 

2. The tomb was empty.  The Bible contains four historical accounts that declare the tomb in which Jesus was buried was empty.  How did the occupant of the tomb vacate its premises?  There are several theories as to how this could have occurred naturally or by the power of man, but they are very problematic (a few of these counterarguments were addressed in our Easter Sunday message).  The best explanation is that the tomb was empty because God raised Jesus from the dead – just like the Bible says. 

3. Hundreds of people saw the resurrected Christ. The gospels report that an unknown number of people saw Jesus after his resurrection.  It gives us some numbers here and there (see Luke 24, John 20-21 and Matthew 28), but never a definite count.  The Apostle Paul gives a general number of more than 500 who saw him at one time (1 Corinthians 15.6), and that many of them were alive at the time of his writing.  In citing these 500 witnesses, Paul is encouraging his readers to go and ask those witnesses about what they saw.  He’s saying, “Don’t take my word for it – ask them yourself.”  Arguments attempting to explain away the testimony of hundreds of people (such as simultaneous hallucination) are very weak.  Put simply, hundreds of people claim to have seen Jesus back from the dead because…hundreds of people saw Jesus back from the dead. 

4. The disciples were transformed from cowards to gospel-warriors.  The picture of the disciples that the Bible paints is not a very flattering one: they are consistently depicted as men who are not very intellectual, scared of their own shadow, hypocritical, and self-centered.  But within the span of two months, the disciples went from cowards who denied Jesus at the time of his death (Mark 15), to emboldened preachers who preached the resurrection under penalty of death (Acts 4).  If the disciples didn’t actually see a resurrected Christ, then what could have inspired such a transformational change?  If they had stolen Jesus’ corpse (as some believe) they surely would not have had the gospel-boldness they demonstrated in the book of Acts. 

5. Jesus’ family believed he was God.  The Bible records Jesus’ mother and brother as believing in his deity (it doesn’t tell us whether or not other members of his family believed)  This piece of evidence may seem inconsequential on its face, but think about it: how successful would you be in proving to your family that you are God?  They would probably laugh you out of the room because they know enough about you to know that you are, without a doubt, not God.  The same would have been true of Jesus’ family, but they were convinced.  What did they see that convinced them?  How about coming back from the dead?

6. Women were the first witnesses of the resurrection, and the first to deliver the news.  This piece of evidence doesn’t seem very weighty to us, but it would have been at the time.  The word of women in the first century was seen as unreliable.  In fact, women weren’t allowed to testify in first century court proceedings because their testimony wasn’t reliable.  So then, if the resurrection were a myth, choosing women to perpetuate it would have been very unwise.  Why were women the first to deliver the news of the resurrection?  Because that’s the way it happened.

7. The primary day of worship moved from Saturday to Sunday.  For thousands of years, God’s people worshiped him on the Sabbath day – the last day of the week – in accordance with the 10 Commandments.  In the New Testament, however, there is evidence that God’s people began to gather for worship on Sundays because it was the day associated with Jesus’ resurrection (see Acts 20, 1 Cor. 16.1-2, Rev. 1.10-11, etc.).  This change is not insignificant.  Believers had kept the Sabbath (worship on Saturdays) for thousands of years, and then – rather suddenly – their tradition changed.  The historical reality of the resurrection explains that change.   

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Minions, Ironman, and Jesus

Easter is a big deal for churches, and rightly so.

Recently, my Facebook feed has blown up with advertisements from local churches trying to entice people to attend their Easter services.  Seeing as Easter is often one of only two times in a year that many people attend a church, many churches want to make the most of it.  So in order to draw people in, there are all kinds of promotions and gimmicks that churches use.  Here are a couple examples from my Facebook feed:

Our Good Friday service is going to be EPIC!  Huh.  I can think of a lot of adjectives to describe a Good Friday service (such as serious, sober, somber, etc.), but "EPIC" isn't one of them.

This Easter, experience something different.  Um, like what, exactly?  Something other than the glory and power of the resurrection?  No thanks.

Finally, one advertisement in my feed is for a church whose Easter service boasts 75,000 eggs | 4 Easter Bunnies | Princess Anna & Elsa | Ironman | Kaboom the Robot | Minions | and tons more! Well, you've definitely got my daughter's attention at the mention of Anna and Elsa, and although my son doesn't know who Ironman is, I'm sure he'd be excited when he saw him.  That's quite a guest list, although one name is conspicuously absent.  I'm sure you can guess who.

Let me be clear: I'm not trying to besmirch the reputation and work of other churches for their Easter services - on the contrary, I hope thousands of people are drawn and come and hear the gospel (assuming the gospel makes its way into the mix after Kaboom the Robot leaves the platform).  Rather, I'm pointing out the apparent reality that the culture in general, and the church in specific, does not seem to be amazed by the glory of the resurrection anymore.  It certainly seems that we don't think the resurrection of the Son of God is "enough" to draw people to church, and that is demonstrated by the gimmicks, themes, and marketing strategies that many churches employ in order to draw people.  Instead, now it has to be the resurrection of the Son of God plus Minions, or the resurrection plus Ironman, or have the guarantee that our service will be "EPIC" in some way.  What has happened?

I think there are two primary things that have happened that have caused our celebration of the resurrection to be lackluster, or to at least be ordinary enough that we have to dress it up with appearances by Disney princesses.

First, I think we've lost sight of the resurrection as an actual, historical event.  Is it possible that we believe in the resurrection more so as a story rather than something that actually occurred?  Let's be frank: most people have heard the resurrection story, and hear it year after year (and, at good churches, week after week).  I think it's possible, and even likely, that the resurrection has become just another thing that we know by heart.  And when we become familiar with a thing, its tendency to amaze us is diminished, and maybe even to the extent that we forget that Jesus actually, physically rose from the dead.  Seriously.  Jesus was dead - killed by God because of the sin of all those who would believe that he took upon himself.  He was buried in a tomb and stayed there for three days.  On the third day, his dead body was reanimated and he came alive again.  It wasn't just his spirit that resurrected; it wasn't a symbolic resurrection; it was an actual, physical resurrection that involved his whole body.  His heart started beating again; his brain began to once again send signals to his body.  And unlike Lazarus and others who were raised to life from death - but died again later in life - Jesus still lives.  He has never died again, and he is living at this very moment, as you read this, making intercession before the Father on behalf of all those who will trust in him (Hebrews 7.25).  This isn't just a story.  It's what actually happened, and is happening at this very moment.  If you need pop culture icons to help you get excited about the reality of what took place at the resurrection (and what is taking place right now as a result), you may have lost sight of what the resurrection actually entails.

Second, I think we try to gussy up our Easter celebrations because we've lost sight of resurrection power.  In Philippians 3 Paul talks about desperately wanting to know the power of the resurrection, and doing whatever it takes to get a taste of that power.  What Paul means by the "power of his resurrection" is the ability to tap into the implications of what Jesus' resurrection accomplished.  What did the resurrection accomplish?  For one, it broke the power of sin.  Death is the final enemy (1 Corinthians 15.26), the final and ultimate consequence of sin.  By rising from the dead, Jesus proved that he has power over sin and its disastrous effects in our lives.  This is what Paul saw as the resurrection power that he wanted a piece of: the ability to kill sin in his life and gain freedom from it and its horrible effects - both temporal and eternal.  This freedom would not have been possible had Jesus not risen from the dead.  No amount of effort, good behavior, positive thinking, or anything else can give you power over sin and its effects - only the resurrection of Christ can do that.  So because Jesus rose from the dead, believers have power.  Do I share Paul's desperation for tapping into that resurrection power?

For some reason, we have lost sight of these two realities: that of an actual, physical resurrection, and the power associated with it that is accessible by all believers.  And so now, in order to motivate us to celebrate the resurrection, we need epic services with pop culture characters.  My brothers and sisters, this should not be so.

This Easter I would urge you to put aside all of the external things that might draw your attention away from the glory of the resurrection and its power.  Thankfully, at Riverview, we're not clever enough to come up with marketing slogans and gimmicks for our Easter service.  We figure, Jesus rose from the dead, and that's more than enough reason to be excited.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Speaking with Authority

In Luke 54.31-44 Jesus goes throughout Galilee preaching, healing, and casting out demons.  Throughout the three narratives in this section, one particular characteristic of Jesus' ministry rises to the top: his word has authority.  The sermon at Riverview this past week explored what it means that Jesus' word had authority (listen to the sermon here).  In short, this means that the words Jesus uses in his ministry demonstrate that he is a man of unusual, other-worldly power.  Jesus had authority in knowledge and wisdom, over evil, and over the effects of sin - and he still does.

You see, not only were these things true when Jesus was alive and ministering in Israel, but they are still true today: Jesus' word still has authority in wisdom and knowledge, his word still has authority over evil, and his word still has authority over the effects of sin in this world.  And believers are able to tap into that power, if you will, and can use their own words with a similar kind of authority.

But first, we have to understand what makes a word authoritative.  Think of a baseball game: only one person on the field gets to make authoritative statements - the umpire.  He alone can speak words that carry weight.  And what does he say?  "Safe!"  "Out!  "Strike!"  "Ball!"  If an umpire calls a runner out it doesn't matter if the runner disagrees and says "No, safe!" in retaliation.  Only the words of the umpire carry any weight of authority because of the position the umpire is in.  He is in charge.

The same is true with our words.  There is nothing special about the words in particular, but the weight of authority they carry depends on the person uttering them.  In this sense, my words do not carry as much weight as the president's, nor do my children's words carry as much weight as mine.  And when it comes to the ultimate authority of the spoken word, nobody's words carry as much authoritative weight as God's.  His words carry the most authority because of who he is - the supreme sovereign of the universe.

It is in this sense that the Bible is the most authoritative set of words in existence.  Not because there is anything special about the words themselves, but because there is something about the one who has spoken the words - God himself.  It is also in this sense that we as human beings are able to use words authoritatively when we read, understand, and speak the word of God, and it is also in this sense that we can experience and be ministers of the power and authority of God's word in a similar way that Jesus was.

First, when Jesus spoke to the crowds in Israel, his words demonstrated that he had authority over all knowledge and wisdom (see Luke 4.31-32).  When Jesus taught, nobody demanded he present them with a bibliography; no one made him cite his sources; no one could (successfully) challenge his truth claims.  Why not?  Because he possessed authority over all knowledge and wisdom.  He didn't cite any sources, because because he was the source of the sources.  When we have questions, or when we want to encourage others, the best way to do it is by using the authoritative word of God.  We tap into God's authority over all knowledge and wisdom when we use his word to address any and all matters and questions that arise.

Second, God's word has power over evil (see Luke 4.33-36 and 41).  We tap into that power when we trust it and obey it.  This is exactly how Jesus experienced the power of God's word while he was in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.  God's word had the power to help him overcome temptation and the devil, and Jesus accessed this power by believing it and acting on it.  Likewise, we can use the authority of God's word to overcome evil and temptation in our lives by believing and obeying what God has said.  Moreover, we can be ministers of this power and authority by speaking the truth of God's word to those who are battling evil in their lives.  When people around us are struggling in sin and evil, the best thing we can do for them is to tell them what God has said and encourage them to believe it and do what it says.  His word has power, and if they will trust and obey it, they will gain victory over evil.

Finally, Jesus' word had authority over the effects of sin (see Luke 4.38-39), and it still does.  All illness and suffering in this world are indirect results of the fall into sin.  Since the Garden of Eden, mankind has been suffering under the weight of living in a world that has been damaged by sin.  Therefore, people get sick; people get injured; people are heartbroken and depressed; people die.  None of this would happen if the world were not a sinful, fallen place.  But Jesus' word has authority over the sin that causes these things, and we tap into that power when we remember his word in the Bible that reveals this truth.  Jesus suffered the ultimate effects of living in a sinful, fallen world: he took the sin of all who would believe upon himself and died as a result.  But he has power over the effects of sin - even the most vile effect - death itself.  And he demonstrated this power when he rose from death after three days.  When we trust in the word of God that says that Jesus has authority over the effects of sin, and that he will have the final word when it comes to sin, we tap into his power over sin's effects, and we gain victory over it - no matter what we're going through at the time.  In this sense, those who are ill, suffering, depressed, in mourning, etc., must remember the truth of the promise of God's victory over sin.  While this will not cause the pain and suffering to stop, we can take courage that our circumstances - and the broken world that caused them - will not have the final word.

In Luke 4.43 Jesus says that he needs to go and use his authoritative words all throughout the region so that people can experience the power and authority of his word.  This is a call for us to do likewise - to bring the authoritative word of God with us wherever we go.  Think about it: how could you be a minister of the authoritative word of God in the lives of others?  Do you know someone who is struggling with a certain sin?  Study the Bible with them, and encourage them to tap into God's authority over evil by believing and obeying his authoritative word.  Do you know someone who is suffering from the effects of living in a sinful, fallen world?  Consider visiting them and reminding them from the Bible that God has authority over the effects of sin - even the effects that they are experiencing in their illness or suffering.  Remind them that God's word says that God wins.

Jesus spoke with power and authority, and we access that power and authority when we know, understand, believe, and obey the word of God.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Same Old Minnesota Winter

My last utterance on this site regarding so-called climate change was quite a while ago.  Having perused that post, my opinions haven't changed.  I stand by everything I wrote at that time.  Interestingly, that post was inspired by an article written by local meteorologist Paul Douglas who made several of what I considered to be unfounded statements about drastic climate changes.  Well, another article has come to bear this week, entitled "The New Minnesota Winter?" citing Douglas as its main source, which has similarly raised questions in my mind, both stemming from what he said in the article, and also from new information I've learned in my layman's study of climate science.  By all accounts, Paul Douglas is a wonderful, conservative Christian man, and I have no desire to berate him or be uncharitable to his opinions.  Nevertheless, I have several thoughts and questions based on his most recent submission to the climate change conversation.

Before I get into my questions (and statements) about climate change, I want to state a couple things about where I'm coming from: 1) I am not a climate scientist, nor do I pretend to fully grasp the mechanics and workings of climate science.  The conclusions I draw here could very well be based on ignorance.  If you think so, please correct me or show me how I have erred.  I would welcome dialogue.  2) I completely and unequivocally reject the label of "climate-denier" or any other such title that asserts that I reject climate science out of pure ignorance, or because I have some sort of stock in the lack of a belief in climate change.  I hold no stock or interest in any energy companies that would be negatively impacted by new policy set forth in order to protect the planet.  Nor do I have any political reasons to doubt climate change theory.  My doubts about climate change theory are, as far as I can tell, based on the evidence (or lack thereof).  In fact, I would challenge those who say "the science is clear" when it comes to climate change theory to consider the potential need for a bit more self-awareness about how they evaluate and interpret scientific data.  Can we at least agree that the science is, in fact, not clear, and that we can have a dialogue about this?  I hope so.  If we can't agree on that, then there can be no dialogue.  There can be no tolerance (yes, I use that word intentionally).

One of the things I have learned about climate science - actually it's not so much new information to me, but rather that I have learned more about it - is that there are different types of climate data that inform climate change theory.  These different types of data, however, do not necessarily agree.  For instance, there is surface temperature data, satellite data, ice core data, polar ice cap data, and so on, with several more types of data of which I'm not even aware.  The point is that these different types of data each present unique pictures of climate change and how it is allegedly affecting our planet.  The difficulty is that these different types of data are difficult - if not impossible - to synthesize.  That is, they don't work together very well.  To make matters more confusing, many climate change theorists assert that only one type of data does not tell the entire climate change story.  For instance, climate change theory cannot stand on surface temperature data alone, as surface temperature data does not necessarily support climate change theory - it must be synthesized with another type of climate data.  One of my questions, then, is as follows: how do we know which climate data supports climate change theory and which does not?  How do we know which sets of data are appropriate to synthesize and which are not?  Is it possible for one set of data to "cancel out" another set of data?  Why, or why not? (For instance, does the fact that polar ice has been increasing work as evidence against supposed increases in global surface temperatures?)  These are genuine questions that I have, and they potentially expose my ignorance in how climate science "works."  If someone could help me figure out these apparent contradictions in my own analysis of the data, I would appreciate it.

One example of this difficulty in interpreting data that supposedly supports climate change theory was demonstrated recently in Leonard DiCaprio's Oscar-acceptance speech.  In it, DiCaprio cites surface temperature data as to why climate change is an imminent global threat.  But, a careful analysis of the data he cites seems to indicate that no such threat exists - at least based on that data, and when considered in light of other types of climate data (such as satellite data, in this instance).  For a moderately thorough analysis of DiCaprio's claims with links to data, read this article.  So the question is, who is right?  DiCaprio's interpretation of and conclusion from surface temperature data, or the author's interpretation of satellite data?  How are the two types of data synthesized?  I genuinely would like to know.

Paul Douglas makes similar claims, citing similar evidence, and I honestly just don't see how the evidence he uses can be interpreted in such a way as to make these claims.  In the article, Douglas comments that the winter season Minnesota has had in 2015-16 (which has been unseasonably warm and lacking in snow) is, perhaps, the new norm for Minnesota winters.  In other words, Douglas asserts that a warm winter like we've just experienced, will be the norm from now on.  In order to back this claim, Douglas cites surface temperature data, particularly that Minnesota averages 23 sub-zero nights per winter, but this winter has only seen 10 sub-zero nights.  Douglas further asserts that average Twin Cities snowfall is around 54 inches, whereas this winter's snowfall has only been around 30 inches.  On March 8, 2014, there was 16 inches of snow on the ground, whereas on March 8, 2016, people were wearing shorts and flip-flops.  These shorter, warmer winters will become the new norm, Douglas says.  We'll still have the cold snowy winters of old, but they will be much fewer and farther between.  Douglas says, "It's not a theory, you don't have to like it, but can we acknowledge it's not your grandfather's weather?"

No.  I can't.  And the reason I can't is that the evidence Douglas cites does not seem to (to me, at least) at all support his conclusion.  In fact, if anything, Twin Cities surface temperature data seems to overwhelmingly support the notion that this weather is exactly identical to my "grandfather's weather."

The Minnesota DNR's website has surface temperature data records that go back to 1872, and snowfall data that goes back to 1884.  Just skim the data from both pages and try to form an argument that the winter of 2016 is a statistical aberration.  As far as I can see, it can't be done.  Here are just a few examples that jumped out to me, but a more in depth analysis of the data shows that these examples are the norm, rather than the exception.  For example, the snowfall totals for the years 1887-1893 were: 62.3, 47.2, 14.7, 37.0, 11.1, 32.7, and 59.1 inches, respectively.   (Note that this is during an age when all of the alleged causes of climate change didn't even exist, such as automobiles).  Look at those totals over seven years - that's amazing!  Can you imagine a winter in Minnesnowta with only 11 inches of snow?!  Were the Minnesotans in 1890 predicting a "new norm" for Minnesota winters based on that data?  Certainly not.  Then, why are we?

Want some more-recent evidence?  Here are the snowfall totals from 2011-2015: 86.6, 22.3, 67.7, 69.8, and 32.4 inches, respectively.  And if all continues as it probably will in 2016, we'll probably end up with 30-34 inches.  From what I can tell, this warm, snowless Minnesota winter of 2016 is a lot like my grandfather's winter.

And if you're thinking that I picked the one aberration in the data to support my theory, think again, and analyze the data for yourself.  You'll find aberrations like this throughout the whole time that surface temperature data has been recorded.  And you'll find similar aberrations in temperature data - not just in snowfall totals.  Based on these patterns, why should we conclude that the supposed warming pattern we find ourselves in right now is any different than warming patterns of 100 years ago?  I would love to have a conversation about this with someone in the know.

Some will certainly argue in response to my claims that my view is too narrow - that I shouldn't be making assertions based on one type of evidence (surface temperature data), in such a small sample area (the state of Minnesota).  OK.  I'll agree with that.  But then somebody needs to tell Paul Douglas to play by those same rules.  If I can't make conclusions about climate change using one data source from a small sample area, then neither can he.  The problem is that those rules and limitations don't apply to those who would advocate for climate change theory - they only seem to apply to those of us who haven't drunk this particular batch of kool aid.  Why is that?  Again, this is a genuine question, and I would love to hear a response.

So there it is, at least in part: based on the way the evidence is interpreted and reported by the media, I just don't see how it proves climate change theory.  To be sure, what I've touched on here is only part of the story, but I think my observations here apply to other types of data that supposedly support climate change theory.

One of the points I made in a previous post on climate change is that it is impossible to interpret data and analyze evidence in a vacuum.  That is, none of us looks at data completely objectively - we are always being influenced by outside factors that color our interpretation of data.  To deny this reality is to be intellectually dishonest, and I think that's also a part of the friction that is caused by this debate. So then, has this been a warm and snowless winter?  Sure.  Is it due to climate change?  Well, based on the evidence that Paul Douglas likes to cite, no more so than it was in 1968 when we had similarly high temperatures and only half the snow (17.5 inches!) we had this year.

Finally, let me reiterate my desire for an open dialogue on this issue.  As I've noted earlier, I am hardly the last word on this topic, nor am I particularly qualified to be commenting on it, as there are many ways in which my analysis could be off, most of which I'm probably not even aware.  I am very open to correction and would welcome interaction, either in the comments or by email.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Jesus, Dogs, and Racial Slurs

This past Wednesday our adult Bible study looked at Mark 7.14-30.  Verses 14-23 expound upon verses 1-13, in which Jesus declares that man-centered traditions have no bearing on the commandment of God, and usually serve to muddy the waters when it comes to actually obeying what God has said to do.  He then goes on to declare that "There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him."  This principle is illustrated by verses 24-30 when he has an encounter with a gentile woman and heals her daughter of a demon possession.

This is one of Jesus' lesser-known miracles, and one that contains an odd saying.  When the woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter he says, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs" (verse 27)  This is an odd saying, and its proper interpretation is significant.  What is clear is that the "children" in Jesus' statement refers to the children of Israel.  What is less clear is whether or not Jesus was referring to this gentile woman - and all gentiles - as dogs.

If the latter is what Jesus was intending, then he was using what was akin to a racial slur, as dogs were lowly, bothersome pests in first century Jewish culture.  They certainly were not the domesticated animals that we enjoy today.  To refer to someone as a dog would have been highly offensive.

A second option for interpretation of this phrase is that Jesus is referring to an order in his ministry - that he came, first, to seek and to save that which was lost (the children of Israel) and that his primary ministry is to them, and to gentiles secondarily.  This, to me, is the preferred and more likely interpretation.

Unfortunately there are many Christians who have entertained the notion of Jesus using racial slurs (and therefore sinning by being a racist) in perceived attempts to accentuate his humanity, presuming that Jesus was so human that he was even caught up in cultural racial snares.  Surprisingly, they don't realize the drastic effects this has on the rest of their theology, and how it essentially negates the sufficiency of his atonement.  Put simply, if Jesus was a racist (a sinner) then his sacrifice was not sufficient, nor was his righteousness pure.  Put even more simply, if Jesus was a racist, he can't be the Messiah nor the Son of God.  (For an unfortunate analysis that affirms an interpretation identifying Jesus as a racist in this situation, see this treatment of this text)

But there are, I think, good reasons to not interpret Jesus' statement as a racial slur but instead a statement of the order of his ministry.  Those reasons are as follows:

1. It is clear throughout scripture that Jesus has come first and foremost for the Jews.  Indeed, his appearance on the scene at all was in fulfillment of a promise to Abraham and the Jewish nation - that Jesus would bless Israel, and the world, through her (see Genesis 12).  And when Jesus says that he has come to seek and to save that which was lost, he is referring to the nation of Israel (see Luke 19).  Furthermore, Jesus speaks about Israel as his sheep, and as himself as their shepherd (see John 10).  The examples go on and on.  Put simply, it is clear from both testaments that the primary ministry of the Messiah was to reconcile God's people to himself.  And it is also clear that gentiles were a secondary concern in his earthly ministry.  This fact is easily observed throughout the gospels.  The rest of the context of the narrative between Jesus and this woman exposes this - and the woman gets it.  In fact, it's her grasp of this reality that exposes her faith in him.  What Jesus means by this expression is that his primary purpose is to feed his children (Israelites).  His secondary purpose will be to feed others. (In the example he used, this would refer to "dogs."  Note: there is some question as to the Greek word translated "dogs," in that it might be better translated "puppies."  If nothing else, this should lessen the effect of the use of the word for those who think that Jesus was using a racial epithet.)

2. The notion that Jesus would be prejudiced against gentiles flies in the face of his actual interaction with gentiles in the gospels - including his treatment of the Syrophoenician woman.  In other words, it is clearly observable that Jesus was not prejudiced against gentiles because his interaction with them says differently.  If he didn't like them, then why did he go to such great lengths to serve and minister to them?  The testimony of Jesus' interaction with gentiles adequately argues against the perception that he was prejudiced against them.

3. Finally, as I've already alluded to, if Jesus was a racist, then Christian theology and the message of the gospel is doomed and is not salvific.  In other words, if Jesus sinned by being a racist, then I have no hope of salvation through his life and death.  He cannot give me his righteousness, because it is stained with sin.  He cannot pay my sin debt, because he would have to pay for his own.  If Jesus is a racist, the gospel goes away.  But this notion is so unbiblical (and by "unbiblical" I mean that it flies in the face of the rest of the Bible) as to be absurd.  If anyone thinks that Jesus has sinned, then they haven't read the rest of the Bible or even the rest of the gospels.

So no, Jesus was not a racist, and he didn't use a racial slur against the Syrophoenician woman.  There is a mountain of evidence (and common sense) to support that.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Living Life in Crisis Mode

Being the pastor of a church, it is common for me to encounter people in crisis.  Most people (rightly) turn to the church when life gets difficult and when they are in need.  At least once a week, I would say, I talk to someone - either over the phone or in person - who is the midst of a crisis.  Many of these people are from our own church, but many also come in for help from outside of the church.

Experiencing a crisis is a unique challenge, because in general, it can't be prepared for.  There's not much we can do to get ready for it.  Unexpected difficulties wouldn't be unexpected if we could prepare and plan for them to happen.  For instance, people don't usually anticipate being laid off from their job or being diagnosed with a debilitating illness, so we don't typically plan for those kinds of things in our regular, daily lives.  And so, when a crisis hits, we are usually left feeling like we're standing on the edge of a cliff, getting ready to be pushed off, all the while struggling to find answers and resources to help.

While it is certainly true that we don't know what is coming up around the bend on the road of our lives, the Bible tells us that it is wise to prepare for unexpected and difficult times in life.  We may not be able to anticipate the physical resources we will need to navigate difficult waters, but the Bible gives us more than enough to prepare our hearts and minds for uncharted territories.

Jesus experiences something of a crisis in Luke 4 when the Spirit leads him out into the wilderness.  (Listen to the sermon on this text here) He's there for 40 days, in an inhospitable place having not had any food.  To top it all off the devil is there, pestering him with temptations.  Considering the desolate landscape of the wilderness, the fact that he hasn't eaten for 40 days, and the temptations of the devil, Jesus must have been miserable.

But there's a significant way in which Jesus deals with this crisis - he calls to mind the word of God.  Three separate times in this narrative Jesus remembers things that God has said in his word.  This knowledge helps him to overcome temptation and deal with the generally bad circumstances of his condition.  Specifically, the scripture that Jesus recalls to mind reminds him of God's provision, God's faithfulness, and God's presence.  Incidentally, these are the main aspects of God's character that we are likewise tempted to doubt when we find ourselves "in the wilderness" or in a time of crisis: we are tempted to doubt that God will provide for us, that God will do what he has said, and that God is actually there with us in the midst of our difficulty.  And as Jesus demonstrates in Luke 4, knowing God's word can help us to fight that temptation.

But here's the rub: in order for God's word to be most beneficial during a time of crisis, we have to know it before the crisis occurs.  Knowing God's word will help us to look at times of crisis through a biblical filter that will help us to see that God is faithful and will provide even in difficult times.  Waiting until the crisis happens to study what the Bible says about God's providence is faithfulness is, quite frankly, too late.

Think of it like this: if I'm going on a camping trip, I will anticipate my needs that will arise during the trip by packing accordingly.  I'll bring a tent, some extra blankets, sufficient food and water, and also a first aid kit in case of any accidents.  I prepare now for what I will need later.  This is very similar to how Christians should be preparing for hard times and crises: we should be getting ready now for when life gets harder down the road.  And the way we do that is to study what the Bible says about God's provision now so that in lean times we can fight the temptation to think that God will not provide.  We should study what the Bible says about God's faithfulness now so that when things get difficult we can know that, no matter what, God will always keep his word.

Also, it behooves Christians to perform some thought experiments about future difficulties.  What I mean is that it is perhaps a beneficial and healthy thing to think about what I would do if the unthinkable happened.  For instance, how would I respond if I were diagnosed with a fatal disease?  What scriptures would I turn to?  What if I lost my job?  What scriptures could I turn to in order to be assured that God will provide?  Think of it like military training: soldiers train, and train, and train so that they will know how to react in a given situation (and most times, those situations never even happen, but at least they're ready).  This is a picture of how Christians should be "training" to handle the crises that are likely to rise in life.

The key to all of this is to start your training now.  Don't wait for the crisis to occur before you start training (that would be like an army just beginning to train after the war started!).  Unfortunately, many Christians wait for the crisis to occur before they ever begin studying the Bible intently.  Instead, immerse yourself in the Bible so that you'll be able to remind yourself of the truth of God when life gets hard.  You'll be able to weather the storm and simultaneously fight off any temptations to fight the provision, faithfulness, and goodness of God.