Monday, December 17, 2018

The Greatest Miracle in the Bible

What is the greatest miracle recorded in the pages of scripture?  Certainly there are many from which to choose.  Depending on how you define what is or isn't a miracle, the Bible records more than 100 miracles performed by a small number of individuals, each of them displaying the glory of God to varying degrees.

Is it possible to classify or rank the miracles of the Bible?  Perhaps we could classify them by their perceived greatness, or the effort that it took to perform a particular miracle, or by the number of people affected by the miracle.  Is the parting of the Red Sea a greater miracle than Elisha parting the Jordan River, since the sea was bigger than the river?  Is Jesus' greatest miracle the feeding of the 5,000 because it affected so many people at one time?

If we define a miracle as a supernatural action or indecent that is unexplainable by natural processes, then it seems to me that one of, if not the greatest miracles of the Bible must be when the sun stood still in the sky, recorded in Joshua 10.  Joshua and the Israelites are in pursuit of their enemies, but once darkness falls they will be significantly inhibited from routing them entirely.  So Joshua prays that the sun would stand still in the sky, creating continuous daylight so that Israel can hunt down and destroy her enemies completely.  And it does.  The sun stands still in the sky!  Of course, we know that the sun did not stand still in the sky, but rather that the earth ceased its spinning for a period of time.  Imagine that: the earth stood still.

When we think about miracles as enlighten human beings, we want answers.  We want to be able to explain these unexplainable phenomena.  For instance, one scientist has attempted to show how the 10 plagues of Egypt could have been caused by global warming.  Many have attempted to do something similar in the case of the sun standing still by showing how, scientifically speaking, the earth could not possibly have stopped spinning without devastating and catastrophic consequences.  After all, the earth weighs 1000 trillion tons.  How can that much rock and water simply stop or slow down without falling apart?  What about life on earth?  How could it survive if the earth stoped spinning?  What about gravitational forces?  The moon?  There are serious scientific objections to the assertion that the earth miraculously stopped spinning.

In response to these objections, an 18th century Anglican minister named Bishop Watson said, "The machine of the universe is in the hand of God; he can stop the motion of any part, or of the whole, with less trouble than any of us can stop a watch."  In other words, of God is the Creator of the universe, and if he is sovereign over the universe, the notion that God either stopped or slowed the spinning of the earth in order to aid in Joshua's military actions is not only reasonable, but very believable.  Regardless, the halting of the earth's rotation at the request of Joshua must certainly be one of the greatest miracles of the Bible.

But it is not the greatest miracle, not by any measure.  There is one greater, although we don't usually think of it as a miracle.  The greatest miracle of the Bible must be the incarnation: God becoming man.  The incarnation is not just a miracle, but the miracle of miracles.  Because unlike the sun standing still in the sky, or the sick being healed, or even the dead being raised, there is no scientific theory or assertion that we can use to begin to explain how it happened.

Is it possible to make a square circle?  Of course not.  The question poses a logical impossibility, so the very notion of a square circle is nonsensical.  Yet that is similar to the incarnation.  Not that the incarnation is nonsense, but that it is beyond the ability of our minds to comprehend.  We cannot conceive of the infinite, let alone the infinite becoming finite.  How does the one who holds the stars in the palm of his hand, and who uses the earth as his footstool fit in the crook of his mother's arm?  How does the eternal God become bound by time in a human body that ages?  How does the one who created all plants and animals for food need to be fed?  How does spirit become flesh?  How do the invisible hands that created all life and matter become the flesh and blood hands nailed to the cross - the very wood and metal he himself created, nailed there by the very life he created?

These are questions that we can't even begin to answer.  They remain mysterious to us, so far above our capacity to understand that we can but wonder at the glory and power at work in the birth of Jesus Christ, the God-Man.  Just try to think about it for a few minutes, and then take a rest when your brain starts to hurt!

As you contemplate this greatest miracle of history this Christmas, allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the glory and power that God that was at work when God the Son became a human being.  And allow yourself to be overcome by the reality that God worked this miracle for you.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Did Jesus Go To Hell?

Tricky Bits
When my kids were young, they watched the wonderful "What's in the Bible?" series created by Phil Vischer.  One of the segments that was featured in the show was called "Tricky Bits with Buck Denver."  Buck Denver was one of the puppets on the show and he would explain some of the harder parts of the Bible to understand.

The book of 1 Peter has several "tricky bits."  In fact, in my estimation, there aren't too many other books of the New Testament with more tricky bits than Peter's first letter.  It's ironic that Peter describes Paul's writings as "hard to understand" when, in my opinion, Peter is easily more confusing than Paul!

There are two "tricky bits" in just three verses of 1 Peter 3 that have confused Christians for centuries, and have even been used as a justification for division between Christian denominations (just Google "Did Jesus go to hell?" and you will find dozens of answers and explanations!).  The goal of this post, and the following post, will be to try to give an explanation for these tricky bits.

The first tricky bit from 1 Peter 3 comes in verses 18-19: "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison..."  These verses make it sound as though after his death, Jesus went somewhere - a "prison" - and spent at least a bit of time preaching to people who were incarcerated in such a prison.  In the very next chapter, Peter also says that the gospel is preached to those who are dead.  Could this mean after his death, Jesus preached the gospel to dead souls presently in hell?  Seemingly in support of this notion, Paul says in Ephesians 4.9 that Jesus "descended into the lower parts of the earth."

These passages and one or two others have led some to believe that, after his death, Jesus spent at least some time in hell, doing something, although what exactly it was he was doing is still up for debate.  This idea became so prevalent that even the Apostle's Creed, embraced and recited in churches around the world, says, "...he was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell..."

So did Jesus go to hell and do something during the three days when he was "dead?"  That's definitely a "tricky bit," and we'll try to answer that question now, although it should be noted that the answer I'm going to give is my own, based on my personal study, and is by no means definitive or authoritative.  You are free to disagree.  Just make sure that scripture carries your thinking.  Also, note that this is far from a comprehensive study.  I'm only addressing the two sections of 1 Peter that speak to this question.

First, let's be clear that the Bible never explicitly teaches that Jesus went "to hell."  It might appear to imply or suggest it here and there, but it is never explicitly said.  

Second, there are words used in the verses noted above that are frequently used in a variety of ways in scripture.  Knowing how those words are translated and understood in the context of the passages they are in will determine our interpretation of these verses and help us to answer the question.

That being said, no, I don't believe Jesus ever went to hell.  Let's look at the two verses we've already noted.

1 Peter 3.18-19 - In these verses Peter notes Christ's death and resurrection, and seems to imply that in the interim he went and preached to "the spirits in prison."  In order to understand this verse, we need to know what Peter means by the words "spirits" and "prison."  It seems unlikely that the "spirits" mentioned in this verse refers to disembodied souls in hell, or even in a "place of the dead" such as the oft-mentioned Sheol, because of what verse 20 says: "...because they formerly did not obey..."  The idea of there being a second chance to hear and believe the gospel after death is contrary to every other teaching of scripture (see, for instance, Luke 16.19-31).  Scripture is clear that the time that we have to hear and respond to the gospel is the time between our natural birth and natural death.  The Bible never tells us that there is a second chance to hear and believe the gospel.  If this is what Jesus did for spirits that were imprisoned in hell, it would be in contradiction with the rest of scripture.

Rather, because of Peter's comparison of what Jesus did to what Noah did, it seems more likely that the "spirits in prison" refer to human beings alive at the time of Peter's writing.  The Bible describes Noah as a preacher of righteousness who preached God's judgment and salvation.  Noah's audience were "spirits in prison" (of sin) who "did not obey."  Jesus similarly came to preach God's judgment and salvation to "spirits in prison" who "did not obey" (us).  And Just as Noah was saved from God's judgment by the ark, we are saved from God's judgment by the Ark of God's Son.  Peter's readers were to see themselves as the people to whom Noah went and preached, and to see the ark that rescued Noah as the Ark that rescued them.

1 Peter 4.6 - In the next chapter, Peter says, "For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does."  Many have understood this to mean that Jesus traveled to hell to preach the gospel to its dead inhabitants.  Here again, we need to know what Peter means by the word "dead."  The Bible frequently refers to human beings as "dead" even though they are very much alive.  The implication is that the word "dead" describes their spiritual condition.  For example, Ephesians 2.1 describes unregenerate human beings as being "dead in...trespasses and sins..."  Paul clearly doesn't mean that we were dead and in hell in trespasses and sins, and we know that because he goes on to say that God made us spiritually alive.  So it is unlikely that when Peter says that "the gospel was preached even to those who are dead" that he is referring to actual dead people who are in hell.  Rather, it seems much more likely that Peter is referring to the dead spiritual condition of those to whom the gospel has been preached.

It is also possible that Peter is merely referring to a temporal distinction between those who are alive presently, and those who were alive in the past but are now dead.  The previous verses indicate that God is the judge of "the living an the dead."  The "living" certainly can hear the gospel presently, but the dead cannot.  That is why "the gospel was preached even to those who are dead," meaning that, when they were alive, the gospel was preached to them, but now they are dead an cannot hear the gospel.  It's just a temporal indication, not meaning that they were preached to while physically dead.

Does it really matter if Jesus went to hell or not?  
It is possible for Christians with differing opinions on this question to have unity with one another.  We need not separate ourselves over whether or not we believe that Jesus went to hell between his death and resurrection.  In fact, those who argue that Jesus did  go to hell have wonderful an gospel-affirming reasons for doing so.  It is my opinion, however, that the Bible simply does not support Jesus going to hell during the time of his death.

Apart from that, we can be encouraged that Jesus experienced everything that we have or will experience - including death.  And, like him, at our time of death, we will leave our bodies and join him in paradise, absent from the body but present with the Lord.  As Jesus cried out on the cross: "It is finished!"  There is no need for us to fear death or hell.  We can live in confidence that he has paid the price for our salvation in full, and we can live each one of our days with confidence in his victory over death.

Monday, August 27, 2018

My Bibles

About a month ago my wife and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary.  It has been my practice to follow the "traditional" anniversary gifts for my gifts to her.  This means that for our 15th anniversary I got her a crystal vase with our names engraved into it.  It was very nice, if I do say so myself.

But then, on the way to meet her at the restaurant to celebrate, I dropped the vase on the concrete sidewalk and it broke into a million pieces.  So much for that.

My anniversary gift for my wife didn't work out, but she got me a gift too: a new Bible.  It's a compact, yet large print, ESV Bible with my wife's nickname for me ("Hubbz") imprinted in gold on the front cover.  I was excited to receive it, and immediately moved my previous "go-to" Bible from its spot on my desk to a retirement position on my bookshelf.  It had gotten worn out over the past 10 years or so that I've had it, and it was time for a new one anyway.

That got me to thinking about the Bibles I've owned through different seasons of my life, all of which I still have in my possession.  Each one of those Bibles tells a story about my life at the time I was using it.

The first Bible I ever wanted for myself was a King James Version.  For some reason I don't recall, my friend and I were fascinated with the old-times feel of King James english so I asked my mom to get me a copy, and she did.  I was probably about 12 years old at the time.  It was a large print King James, with the words of Christ in red (which I don't recommend).  At the time I got this Bible, I wasn't a Christian, and the King James english proved to be more challenging than I thought it would be.  This Bible is still in great shape because it was almost never read.

The second Bible I remember having was given to me at some point in time when I was a teenager.  I don't remember who or why it was given to me, but it was.  This one was a NIV Student Bible.  Inside of this Bible are little explanatory notes that help the reader understand the context of scripture.  This is a special Bible to me.  In high school, I used to bring this Bible with me to school and place it on the top of the chest-high lockers in the school and read it before class started in the mornings.  As you can see from the picture, there are plenty of teenage indicators on the Bible: stickers, duct tape, and lots of highlighting and underlining and drawings in the margins (I don't highlight or underline anything in my Bibles anymore - you can, but it's not something that helps me).  This Bible is also special to me because it is the Bible I used when I read the Bible from cover to cover for the first time in my life.  According to a note I put in the margin, I finished my first read-through on August 4, 2002.  This Bible - by far - is the most-used one I've ever owned.  It went with me through my teenage years and also through college, and its pages are stuffed with notes, cards, and other mementos from that time in my life.

After I got married, I bought my next Bible: a New King James Version of the John MacArthur Study Bible.  This Bible got me through my first years of vocational ministry, and helped me immensely as a budding preacher in his mid-twenties.  MacArthur's commentary is wonderful, and the New King James translation is solid.  One of the significant factors of this Bible was the price tag, a hefty $70.00, which was a big deal for a newly married couple.  I remember that when I got home with it, I plopped into a hammock we had hanging outside and began to read.  These days the cover is frayed and torn a bit, and the bookmark was somehow cut off, but overall, it's still in good shape.

My next regular Bible is the one that I've just retired.  I've been using it regularly for about 10 years or so.  This is the Bible that could tell the most stories about ministry.  It's been to hospital rooms, to the bedside of the sick and dying, in broken homes, and and through many counseling sessions.  As I said earlier, I don't like to write in my Bibles, but this Bible has some writing in it.  But the writing all has to do with counseling sessions I've used it in.  If there is something underlined or written in it, it was done in order to show someone else what it was saying.  One of my favorite things about this Bible is the single-column text, which seems to be a rarity in Bibles these days.  I really love having the text in a single column for some reason.  I think it makes it easier to read.  There are some torn pages, and as you can see in the picture, the cover is well worn.

Finally, here's the new Bible my wife got me as an anniversary present.  Who knows where I'll go with it, or where it will take me.  Just as God used and directed my use of his word in throughout the seasons of my life, I know that he will do so again as I look to the future of studying and applying his word.  Truly, there is no greater gift than a new Bible.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Healing Power of Lament

It's hard for us to admit that things aren't going well in our lives.  When we see a friend or neighbor, they ask, "How's it going?" and we instinctively answer "Great!" without giving it a moment's thought, even if things in our lives aren't actually that great.  There's an unspoken cultural pressure for us to put on a front that our lives are happy, successful, and fun.

But often that's just not the case.

One of the common themes we see throughout the pages of scripture is that of lament.  A lament is an emotional and visceral response to the often sad state of reality in our lives.  Of the 150 psalms in the Bible, dozens of them are classified as "lament psalms," in which the author of the psalm mourns the ever present reality of living in a fallen world where difficult things happen.  The author asks big questions, like "Why did this bad thing happen, God?" and "Do you even still love me?  Do you care about me?  Are you really watching over me?  Because sometimes it doesn't seem like it."  In our society (and especially in the church) there's an unspoken pressure to come off as a happy, successful, fulfilled person, in which there isn't much room for lament.

But the reality is that bad things do happen, and we do have big questions about life and God and how he orders things because, sometimes, it just seems unfair and even malicious.  I was visited by a friend recently and he expressed to me that he was questioning God's love for him, because lately in his life, it sure didn't seem like God actually did love him.  He had been through the wringer, to put it mildly, and he was lamenting his circumstances.  He was lamenting that it seemed like God's love had been cut off from him, and that God's mercies weren't actually new every morning, as scripture says.  It was a difficult conversation, but I was so glad that he felt able to come and express these feelings to me.  Even though we all have questions and feelings like these, I think it's common for most of us to bottle them up and put on our happy face (especially when we go to church) and pretend that everything is great.  Lament allows us to put down our guard, admit that the smile we put on when we come to church is phony, to be open and honest with each other and with God.

We need to make room in our Christian lives for lament, because when we lament we ask good and deep questions about God and life.  Some people are afraid of asking those hard questions, because they feel that to ask them is to expose doubts in their hearts.  But the writers of scripture knew that God was big enough to handle their questions, their complaints, and even their doubts, and so they laid them all before God.  We should learn to do the same.  And in the process, we will discover that lament can be a healthy and even healing thing in our lives because, when we ask deep questions, we find satisfying answers in God's word.

A year or so ago, my friend Pam died of cancer.  She had been diagnosed a year previous, and went through the usual treatments and the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy.  She was miserable.  About a week before she passed away, she told me she had some questions for me and would like to talk, so I went to see her.  As we talked, she very honestly lamented to me, "Why me?  Why did God give me this cancer?"

Have you ever been asked that question?  It's not an easy one to answer.

All I could do was reaffirm to her what scripture tells us: We don't know the exact reason why God does what he does, but the Bible tells us that he is wise, kind and good.  It tells us that he watches over us, both in our best times and in our worst times.  It tells us that he cares for us, and he uses all things - even cancer - to make us more like Jesus.

Pam rejoiced and found peace in this answer.  To be clear, this wasn't my answer to her question, but it was the answer that God gives us through his word.  And in this answer, Pam found her hope.  She had lamented that it seemed that God was far from her, but in turning to scripture she could stand firm on the truth, even in the face of death.  We ended our visit together by singing her favorite worship song, "He Will Hold Me Fast," which she sang loudly and with a newfound confidence in her God.  A confidence which she may not have had, had she not brought before the Lord her lament.  We need to make room in our Christian lives for this kind of lament because it can lead us to truth and healing.

My favorite biblical example of the healing power of lament is in Psalm 77.  The first nine verses of this psalm are the author's lament.  In these verses he says things like, "I remembered you, God, and I groaned" (wow!), and "Will the Lord reject forever?  Will he never show his favor again?" and "Has God forgotten to be merciful?"  Those are pretty serious complaints.  Obviously the author of this psalm has been through something difficult, and he feels that God just simply doesn't care.  And so he honestly, openly, offers his lament.

But the psalm doesn't end there.  The psalmist's lament leads him to the healing truth of the testimony of what God has done.  In response to the deep and significant questions the psalmist has about life and God, he turns to the record of the testimony of what God has done: "Then I thought, 'To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.  I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.  I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.'  Your ways, God are holy.  What god is as great as our God?  You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples."

The answer to the psalmist's deep questions was the truth of God's word.  The healing to his pain came in the knowledge of what God has said and done throughout history, and the faith that he would act again.

It's OK to be sad.  It's OK to have questions.  It's OK to be angry (as long as your anger doesn't lead you into sin).  It's OK to lament.  And not only is it OK, but it's a good and healthy Christian practice.  So make room in your Christian life to lament.  Maybe the next time someone asks you how you're doing, instead of the usual "Great!" answer you can lament, and use that as a way to be a witness of how God has been working in your life.  Or maybe instead of wearing the typical "Perfect Christian Smile" the next time you go to church, share about the difficulties you've been struggling with.  Lament.  And be healed.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Top 10 List

This morning I participated in the graveside service of a spiritual giant in my life.  Virginia Ahlquist was a member at Riverview for decades and had a significant impact in my life.  In fact, as I said at her funeral service, of all the people in my life who have had an impact on me spiritually, Virginia would be high on my top 10 list.  No, we didn't have a special or even particularly close relationship, although I've known her all my life.  And no, I can't point to one single event or or dramatic experience in which Virginia was the difference maker or proclaimed to me some deep spiritual revelation.  Rather, it was in the ordinary ways that she served God that had such a monumental impact on my life and, I believe, my eternal destiny.

Although I grew up in the church and made a public profession of faith at the age of nine, I don't believe I actually came to genuine faith until later in my teenage years.  I can't pinpoint the day or time of my conversion as some people can.  Instead, I can point you to a season in my life in which I believe God saved me.  It wasn't dramatic, and there weren't any bright lights or voices from heaven.  It was a process over a long period of time.  But that process actually began much earlier in my life.

I grew up at Riverview, and as such, I still go to church with people who taught my Sunday School classes when I was a child.  Virginia was one of those teachers - a fact that she reminded me of almost every week she was at church during my tenure as Senior Pastor.  Each week I shake hands with people as they exited the sanctuary, and whenever it was Virginia's turn to shake hands, she'd do so, look at me, and say, "My little first grader!"  She said this because I was one of her first grade Sunday School students (or maybe it was kindergarten - or both!  I don't recall).  I think it was special for her to see one of her old Sunday School students serve as the pastor of her church, and it was special to me to serve one of my old Sunday School teachers from 30 years ago.

And that's mostly it.  Like I said, Virginia's influence in my life - from an outsider's perspective - would have seemed rather minimal.  Sure, she was my Sunday School teacher as a child, but we never had an exceptionally close relationship.  The reason I mark her as having such a monumental impact on my spiritual life is that it was the biblical foundation laid by her and others when I was young that God ultimately used to bring me to faith.

Even though I grew up in the church, I was rebellious, and I was really good at hiding it.  I'd put on one face for church, and another face for other interactions.  Most people thought I was a good kid, and I suppose that by some metrics I was.  But I, like most, had periods of deep rebellion.  And regardless of how things looked on the outside, on the inside I was lost.  I was at enmity with God.  I was bound for hell.

But in the midst of rebellious activity that I set my hand to before my conversion, there was always an inner voice that was appealing to the biblical foundation that had been laid in my childhood.  The Spirit used what so many faithful volunteers and teachers had put into my mind to convict me that what I was doing was wrong, that I knew better, and most importantly, I knew the truth: that I needed a Savior who could save me from my sin.  When I eventually listened to that conviction and began to act upon it, it was the biblical foundation that Virginia and others had laid that God used to bring me to salvation.  Where would I be had Virginia not invested in teaching me the foundations of the Christian faith so many years ago?  God only knows.

For this reason, I rank Virginia rather highly on my top 10 list of people who have had a significant spiritual impact on my life.  I'm sure that when Virginia said "Yes" to being a volunteer first grade Sunday School teacher, she probably had no conception of the monumental and eternity altering impact it would have on the young children she would be teaching.  Rather, she probably thought that it was something simple that she could do to use her time and talents to serve the Lord and glorify God.  But that's the point: God takes our simple acts of obedience (like teaching first grade Sunday School) and magnifies them into salvation-building events that change the course of eternity.  I praise God for the life and ministry of Virginia Ahlquist.  We don't often think of first grade Sunday School teachers as being world-changers, but Virginia certainly was.

The testimony of Virginia's simple acts of obedience provide all of us with a wonderful example to follow.  God doesn't need us to be dynamic preachers, to have international appeal or reach, to have limitless funding for ministry initiatives, or anything else.  All he needs is for us to say "Yes" when he calls us to do something.  The reality is that God probably won't call you to some dynamic international preaching ministry that will affect the hearts of millions.  But God probably will call you to do something small, something simple, and something ordinary.  And if you will say "Yes," to that small thing, God can and will do amazing things with your willingness to obey.

In what small way could God use your obedience to potentially change the eternity of someone else? Maybe, like Virginia, you could teach a Sunday School class.  Providentially, Virginia's husband, Al, who passed away several years ago, also occupies a spot on my top 10 list.  He was never a Sunday School teacher of mine, but when I was a teenager he offered to simply hang out with a group of boys from our youth group once a week during the school year.  Those times spent with him were deeply impactful to me.  And all we did was hang out.

I don't know if I'm on anyone's top 10 list the way that Virginia is on mine.  I hope I am, but not for any vainglorious reason.  Rather, I want to be found faithful in the little things.  I want to be used by God to be a part of his eternity-shaping work in this world.  I know that I serve a great and powerful God who can do remarkable things with my ordinary obedience.  My prayer is that God would lead each of us to say "Yes" to the simple and ordinary acts of obedience.  If we do that, God can use us to change the world.

Monday, July 2, 2018

But Ruth Clung to Her

July 26, 2018 will mark the fifteenth anniversary of the wedding between my wife and I.  Time seems to move faster as it goes on, I think, and it is remarkable to me that fifteen years will have gone by so quickly.  In just a few short years, I will have spent more of life with my wife than without her.

The vows that my wife and I chose for our wedding ceremony came from Ruth 1.16-17, which I just preached on this past Sunday: "...where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.  May the Lord deal with me if anything but death separates you and me."  As he was reciting these vows for my wife and I to repeat, my father-in-law (who performed the ceremony) had a slip of the tongue and said, "Where you die I will die, and there I will be married" instead of "buried."  Everyone had a good laugh.  I think every wedding ceremony needs a slip-up or two to remind us that nothing is perfect.

As I prepared to preach this text this past week, I read K. Lawson Younger Jr.'s commentary on Ruth.  Toward the end of his comments on chapter 1, he has a section that argues that the use of Ruth 1.16-17 as wedding vows is a misuse of this text, as the circumstances between Ruth's commitment to Naomi are completely different than those between a husband and wife.  Having read Younger's argument (and perhaps, much to the chagrin of my wife!), I am inclined to agree with his assessment.  The context of Ruth 1.16-17 is not at all similar to that of a marriage covenant between a man and a woman.  Moreover, it would be downright wrong for a person to commit to another that "your God will be my God," as though he or she would follow the lead of one spouse from god to god!  That being said, I do believe that the commitment of Ruth to Naomi is one that is admirable and which all husbands and wives should seek to emulate toward their spouses.

The broader context of the story of Ruth helps to illustrate this.  Naomi (Ruth's mother-in-law) saw herself as a marked woman, a target for the displeasure of God.  After all, her husband and both of her adult sons had died, leaving her a destitute woman.  As such a woman in a patriarchal society, Naomi had no prospects of joining the work force and providing for herself.  There was a very real danger of her facing death by starvation.  At best, she could be a beggar who subsisted on the leavings of and charity of others.  Needless to say, the outlook on her life was grim to say the least.

This is why Naomi encouraged her daughters-in-law (Ruth and Orpah) to go back to their hometowns, remarry, and live happy lives.  If they were to stay with Naomi, they would share a similar fate of destitution and even potentially death by starvation.  "And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her" (Ruth 1.14).

At her mother-in-law's insistence, Orpah takes off with a kiss goodbye.  But Ruth "clings" to Naomi.  What is pictured by these words is an embrace - an extended and passionate hug.  But there is much more that is going on.  By "clinging" to Naomi, Ruth is throwing in her lot with Naomi to the extent that they will share a common destiny, a common fate.  Whatever happens to Naomi will happen to Ruth; however Naomi suffers, Ruth will suffer; wherever Naomi goes, Ruth will go; wherever Naomi dies, that is where Ruth will die.

Just think about what Ruth was willingly accepting by "clinging" to Naomi: Naomi was too old to remarry, but Ruth wasn't.  By clinging to Naomi, Ruth was willfully giving up the prospect of remarrying and having children (note: this wasn't ultimately the case for Ruth, however - read Ruth 4!).

By clinging to Naomi, Ruth was giving up her cultural and social identity and taking on a new one: that of a destitute widow.

By clinging to Naomi, Ruth was accepting the fate of Naomi: most likely death by starvation.

By clinging to Naomi, Ruth's identity was wrapped up in Naomi's.  Whatever happened to Naomi would happen to Ruth.  If one suffered, they both suffered; if one rejoiced, they both rejoiced.

Compare Ruth's commitment to Naomi to the sentiment communicated by traditional vows that are used in wedding ceremonies: "I take you to be my husband/wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in scenes and in heath, to love and to cherish, till death do us part."  They sound pretty similar to me.

I imagine that Ruth wasn't excited about the prospect of becoming a destitute widow who faced starvation - especially when she had the opportunity to go back to her homeland, remarry, and live happily ever after - but that's what she chose to do.  Why?  Because she was clinging to Naomi.   I'm sure she also wasn't excited about moving from her homeland to go to Naomi's homeland where Ruth would be a foreigner.

What it meant for Ruth to "cling" to Naomi is exactly what it means for us to "cling" to our spouses: to take on a common destiny or fate.  To stand by each other regardless of the circumstances we face individually or as a couple.  Sometimes one spouse does something that creates difficulty and tension for the other spouse, or in the marriage, or even in the family in general.  And the results can be miserable: discontentedness, strife, emotional distress, and so on.  But still, we cling.  We have intertwined our fates together, our individual destinies have become one destiny together.  "Where you go, I will go; how you suffer, I will suffer; where you die, I will die."  Sometimes clinging to a spouse isn't very fun or enjoyable - indeed, sometimes it's downright miserable.  But still we cling.

It's important to note that this type of clinging in marriage doesn't give one spouse license to run roughshod over the other spouse, or to be intentionally harmful, manipulative, or abusive.  It's not as though one spouse can behave terribly and demand allegiance from the other spouse under the guise of clinging to one another.  This would be to completely misunderstand Ruth's commitment to Naomi.

Although Ruth's exact words to Naomi may not be appropriate to recite during a wedding ceremony, the principle behind her words are exactly the kind of commitment that husbands and wives should endeavor to display in their marriages.  Be like Ruth, and cling.

Monday, June 4, 2018

And Also Much Cattle

Although the book of Jonah is known primarily for its fantastic tale of a rebellious prophet who is swallowed by a fish, it has another distinction that it shares with only two other books of the Bible.  This distinction is that the book ends with a question.  Only the books of Nahum and Jeremiah also end with open-ended questions.

Not only that, the specific question that concludes the book of Jonah is kind of a strange one.  God asks Jonah, "And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?"  The confusing part of the question is the last four words: "and also much cattle."  It makes sense that God would certainly care about and pity the great city of Nineveh and the 120,000 inhabitants that he had made in his own image.  But why is God so concerned about the cattle?  Does God want to save the cattle? Certainly cattle can't repent of their sin, nor do they have immortal souls to save.  This is one of the few places in scripture where God is concerned with not just the human beings in the picture, but also animals.

This question - and particularly God's regard for cattle - has puzzled Bible scholars for some time.  But I don't think this verse is too tricky to understand when we consider the scope of the plan of redemption that God has in mind for the world - including cattle.  God's rescue plan includes not just people, but also the world which he has made, including everything in it and on it.  God is in the process of redeeming the world, including cattle!

A year or two after my wife and I were married we adopted a stray kitten that a neighbor friend had found.  It was just a tiny little thing that was discovered sleeping on the engine block of a car, huddled up for warmth during the winter.  We took this kitten in and named her Martha.  We still have her, but she has gotten old, and you can start to tell her age.  She's moving slowly, she has a bit of a limp, and she's becoming thin.  It's becoming more and more apparent that she probably doesn't have a lot of time left.

Does God care about my cat's life?  Much to the chagrin of dog lovers, the answer is, "Yes!"  Cats - and all animals, all living things - die because we live in a fallen world were sin affects every living thing.  God did not create cats to get old and thin, and to limp and die.  God created all things good and perfect, and he is int he process of redeeming the world to recreate it the way that it was.

So does God care about the cattle in Nineveh?  You better believe he does.  Not because he's a member of PETA or because he's a vegetarian, but because God created cattle to be good - not to die under his judgment.  And God is redeeming the world because he cares about all of his creation.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory fo the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together int he pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

God is in the process of redeeming the world and everything in it: cats, dogs, cattle, the ground, human beings, etc.  The heart of God is to redeem the world, including cattle - and cats!  As his people, we long fo the day when we will experience the redemption of our bodies and of this world, and we will live forever with our cats.

And all of God's cat-lovers said, "Amen!"

Monday, May 28, 2018


Today is Memorial Day.  Memorial Day was originally intended to honor soldiers of the Civil War who died in combat, and was first observed on May 30th, 1868.  Observance of Memorial Day gradually caught on throughout the country and every state was celebrating it by the end of World War I, in honor of all soldiers who had given their lives in war.  We celebrate Memorial Day to honor the dead, those who sacrificed their lives in war to ensure our freedom and liberty.  Memorial Day is a day of remembe

But we are not to remember for remembering's sake.  There is to be a purpose in our remembering.  Remembering the sacrifice of those who have died for our freedom would be worthless if it did not change our thinking and living in the present.  As we remember those who died, we remember them in gratefulness for their sacrifice, and so that we might be changed by our remembering.

Memorials point us to God.  Throughout scripture, certain monuments, historical events, songs, or histories served to remind the people of the greatness of God.  God commanded his people to remember not specific people, places, or events primarily, but that they should instead remember the God who orchestrated the events, used the people, and created the spaces.  The Bible teaches us that memorials exist to remind us of the God who is working in the world.  Even days like our American celebration of Memorial Day serve to point us to the God who uses people for his purposes in the world.  God has used people in our nation's history to accomplish his purposes.  And as we remember them we must remember him.  "Remember the Lord your God."  This was the command to God's people throughout scripture, and it is the command to us this day.

The Bible is replete with memorials that are designed to cause God's people to remember (Exodus 12.11-14, Leviticus 2.16, Acts 10.4, Joshua 4.1-7, Luke 22.14-21, 1 Corinthians 11.23-26).  But why are they to remember?  God does not tell his people to remember for the sake of remembering, or for the sake of living in the past, or even for the sake of honoring a memory.  Nor does he tell his people to remember as a sentimental or nostalgic notion.  Rather, God tells his people to remember the past in order to affect the present.  Remembering the past is worthless if it does nothing to affect the present.

In Psalm 78 we read about the Ephraimites who, on the day of battle, turned back in fear and timidity.  The author of Psalm 78 directly connects their retreat to having forgotten the works of God (Psalm 78.9-16).  God had proven himself to the Ephraimites throughout history, and he commanded them to remember his works.  But they forgot his works and they wonders he had shown them.  And so, on the day of battle, they turned back, running away and forgetting that God is a God who works in the world.  The purpose of remember the past is to affect the present.  If we will not remember, we will not trust in God or in his power.

In Psalm 77, a man named Asaph sits alone in the middle of the night, feeling as though his life were pressing in on him.  His depression was deep; his suffering was profound; nothing in his life was going right, and it felt as though God had left him.  So he said to himself, "Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?  Has his steadfast love forever ceased?  Are his promises at an end for all time?  Has God forgotten to be gracious?  Has he in anger shut up his compassion?" (Psalm 77.7-9)  To Asaph, it seemed as though the good ness of God was gone.  What could he do to convince himself that God truly cared?  What could he do to assure himself that God was present with him in his suffering?  What would lift his spirits?  Remembering.  Considering the memorials of the Lord.

"Then Asaph said, 'I will appeal to this to the years of the right hand of the Most High.  I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.  I will ponder all your work and meditate on your mighty deeds.  Your way, O God, is holy.  What god is great like our God?  You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples.'"

The remedy for Asaph's depression and suffering was remembering.  Its was in remembering the works of the Lord that Asaph knew that the goodness of God had not ceased.  It was in remembering the works of the Lord that Asaph knew that God had not left him.  It was in remembering the works of the Lord that Asaph knew that God would act again on his behalf.  It was in remembering the God who works wonders and who has made known his might among the peoples that this God would work wonders yet again, and make his might known among the peoples once more.  It is through remembering the past that God's people draw strength for the present.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul declares that the cross of Christ is the ultimate memorial that should speak to us of what God will do in the future.  He says, "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also along with him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8.32)  The cross of Christ is a memorial.  It speaks of the greatness of a God who created the world and its inhabitants, and who loved them and desired to show his glory among them.  But they rebelled against him.  They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1).  This rebellion separated them from God and made them worthy of the just and holy judgment of God.  But in his mercy, God desired to save his creation for his own glory.  So he sent his Son.  "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5.21).

And now, Paul says, "Look at that cross!  Look at the Son of God who died there and remember the love of God for you.  God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all.  That cross is a memorial of his great love and mercy.  And since he has given us the gift of greatest price - that of his only Son - know this: he will graciously give us all things!  IN all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  As you look to the future, look back to that memorial cross and know that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present northings to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from then love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

The cross is the ultimate memorial that points to God's continued faithfulness.

As you celebrate Memorial day, remember the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.  And remember the God who works in the world, who has shown his power through his mighty works, and who has made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of all those who will trust in him.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Come Sunday

Last night I logged onto Netflix and immediately saw a new release to the streaming service - a movie called "Come Sunday."  I watched the trailer for the movie and was intrigued.  It's a true story about a Pentecostal minister named Carlton Pearson who eventually adopted a universalistic theological stance and was subsequently excommunicated from his church and denomination.  I clicked "Play" and found the movie engaging and intriguing.  Although Pearson eventually comes to adopt what I would consider to be an unorthodox and heretical theology, I thought it was a good movie and one that is worthy of being watched.  In fact, I would recommend that parents of high school-aged children watch the movie and work together to think biblically about how Pearson comes to his conclusions outside of the guidance of the Bible and against the counsel of close and trusted godly friends.  If anything, the movie is a fantastic example of how man's wisdom fails and the wisdom of God as found in his word holds true.  (Note: the movie contains a couple of "mild" swear words and some discussion of homosexuality).

Pearson starts out as an orthodox Pentecostal minister who consistently and persuasively preaches the biblical gospel to his church and to all those who will hear.  As time goes on, however, he becomes increasingly disturbed by the plight of Africans - particularly Rwandans - who are dying as a result of war and atrocity.  He cannot bring himself to understand how God - a loving God - would condemn to hell those who have not heard the gospel due to no fault of their own, and who are condemned to perish forever in hell simply because they were unfortunate enough to be born in a country where Christianity is not prevalent, and ruthless violence is a regular part of life and death.  Pearson is torn by what the Bible teaches about the punishment of hell for unbelievers, and the plight of his unevangelized fellow human beings.

Later, Pearson tells his church that he has had a direct revelation from God - hearing a voice "as clear as my own" -  that those who die without ever hearing the gospel are already saved and in heaven.  In short, Pearson adopts a universalistic soteriology, meaning that he believes that all people will be saved, regardless of their knowledge or belief.  When members of his church - including trusted friends - push back against his newfound universalism, Pearson clings to the personal revelation he received as his reason for not being willing to recant.  After all, why would God have told him that all people would be saved if it weren't true?  Even when encouraged to consider the possibility that the devil told him this, and not God, Pearson balks, and holds that his personal revelation is from God and is true.

The rest of the film deals with the consequences of Pearson's new beliefs (such as losing his church, his excommunication, strained family relationships, etc.).  The movie is superbly acted, especially by its star (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was heretofore unknown to me, and is entertaining and engaging to the end.  I especially appreciated how the movie was fair and balanced to the different stripes of Christian belief that were present.  In other words, none of the characters were made to seem as Bible-thumping crazy religious people, even though they held very different views.  Additionally, the movie's treatment of homosexuality was good and balanced.  It's refreshing to watch a movie with religious themes that doesn't make you feel like your beliefs are getting picked on.

Although the movie is indeed entertaining and engaging, it is worth noting that the primary issue that it raises (Pearson's struggle over how God can allow people to go to hell who have never heard the name of Jesus, and his eventual embrace of universalism) is not new, nor is he the first to succumb to its draw.  This is a question that honest believers have wrestled with - and provided solid, biblical answers to - for centuries.  In fact, one of the characters in the movie (Pearson's closest friend and advisor, Henry) gives Pearson a solid biblical answer to his questions.  He says that everyone has exposure to God, regardless of their geographical location or cultural eccentricities (Romans 1.19-20) according to what has been made (creation), and are therefore responsible to seek him.  Indeed, even God's invisible attributes are made known to all people.  Those who seek God according to his natural revelation will find him, as Henry says, "...through a missionary, or through a dream or a vision."  This answer, however - both generated from scripture and from the mouth of a wise and godly friend - is not enough to persuade Pearson.

Perhaps the biggest warning given by the movie to Bible-believing Christians is the danger of so-called personal revelation.  After all, Pearson's persuasion to universalism is primarily and almost completely founded on "hearing God's voice."  The foundation for Pearson's move to universalism is that he allegedly heard God speak to him and tell him that all people are saved.  To be fair, Pearson does use 1 John 2.1-2 as a proof text for his newfound beliefs, but his argument from scripture for universalism takes a far back seat to the personal revelation he received from God (not to mention that 1 John 2.1-2 is not even close to teaching universal salvation, nor does the film portray Pearson dealing with the immensity of scripture that teaches individual salvation).

This is the danger of "hearing" from God outside of his word.  We have no objective way of knowing that the voices, impulses, or feelings that come and go in our hearts and minds are from God, or are from the undigested bit of pepperoni pizza I ate last night.  If we regard personal "revelation" and feelings from God to be authoritative in our lives, a large number of people would venture out on all sorts of crazy crusades.  Indeed, a brief observation of history yields a myriad of examples of people who have done just that!

Instead, we must trust that God has spoken to us through his word, and that his communication to his people in these last days is limited only to his word.  We know that God has spoken to us through the Bible; we are very much less certain about feelings and hearing voices in our heads.

Moreover, to suggest that in order to answer life's difficult questions we need personal revelation from God, the implication is that the Bible is not enough to answer those very same questions.  Pearson had a very legitimate and honest question: "What happens to people who die who have never heard the name of Jesus?  Will they go to hell?"  To find answers to that question, he relied on a "voice from God."  What Pearson apparently didn't know was that God has already answered this question with the voice of his word (see Romans 1.19-20).  If Pearson believed that he needed a personal revelation from God to answer his question, then he (either knowingly or unknowingly) implied that the Bible was not sufficient to answer his question.

Bible-believing Christians reject this notion.  In his word, God has given us everything we need for life and godliness.  If we were in need of additional revelation from God to be able to think, live, and answer difficult questions in life, then by necessity the Bible is insufficient.  And, as Pearson's story so vividly and painfully illustrates, when we elevate personal revelation above the revelation of God in his word, we are very easily drawn away from the true and saving message of the gospel.

The Bible is enough.  Know it.  Love it.  Live it.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Not the Kind of King We Want

This Sunday marks Palm Sunday, the day when the church remembers Jesus' triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem.  At Riverview, we mark this Sunday by singing triumphant hymns, and watching as cute preschoolers march down the center aisle, waiving palm branches and shouting "Hosanna!"  Additionally, Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week - the final week of Jesus' life - when we remember his crucifixion, death, and subsequent resurrection.

But the celebration of Palm Sunday has often confused me, and still does.  Aside from the fact that Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem fulfilled scripture (Zechariah 9.9, Psalm 118.25-26), and the fact that Israel's rightful king was entering into her capital city, I don't see much to celebrate.  If anything, the "celebration" that took place on the original Palm Sunday only served to show that Jesus is the kind of king the people don't really want.

There has been some scholarly debate recently over whether or not the crowd who cried "Hosanna!" on the day of Jesus' entry was the same crowd that cried "Crucify him!" just a week later.  John Ensor says that the two crowds were distinct, and that those who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday were not the same as those who called for his execution later in the week, whereas Dave Miller thinks the two groups were one in the same.

My opinion?  It doesn't really matter.  Regardless of which crowd you find yourself in - either the "Hosanna!" crowd, or the "Crucify!" crowd - when it all boils down, Jesus isn't the kind of king you want.

Obviously those in the "Crucify!" crowd didn't want Jesus to be their king.  If they did, they certainly wouldn't be calling for his execution.  But I would also argue that those who declared "Blessed is he who comes in name of the Lord!" also didn't really want Jesus to be their king.  The reason for this is that Jesus wasn't the kind of king they wanted.

The people wanted a national king - a king who would re-establish Israel as a world-power; a king who would release them from he tyrannical grip of Rome; a king who would bring them peace and prosperity; a king who would assert their dominance as an international force to be reckoned with, like in the days of king David; a king that would rule over the nations, with Israel as its head.  Israel wanted a king that would align himself with a predetermined political agenda.  That is who they thought he was, and that is what they thought he would do, and that is why they shouted, "Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"

Even Jesus' closest friends and followers - his disciples - were very confused on this issue.  They thought that Jesus' kingdom would be an earthly one - one over which they would help him rule.  This is why they asked to sit at his right and left hand when he came into his kingdom (Mark 10.37).  Presumably, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, his disciples probably thought that all they had imagined about his (supposedly earthly) kingdom was about to come true.  And even when Jesus was about to ascend into heaven after his resurrection, his disciples thought that he was still going to establish an earthly kingdom (Acts 1.6).  Put simply, the crowds who shouted "Hosanna!" - and even the disciples - didn't know what kind of king Jesus was.

But they would learn, and quickly.  Right after Jesus went into Jerusalem, he "cleansed" the temple by driving out all of the merchants and their wares, essentially condemning the corruption that had become a regular part of Jewish religious life.  To drive the point home, he declared Jerusalem spiritually bankrupt and publicly condemned its religious leaders and teachers.

"Wait a minute," the people say, "maybe this guy isn't who we thought he was..."

Jesus didn't enter Jerusalem to establish a new or continuing earthly kingdom in Israel.  He didn't come to defeat their enemies and set Israel up as a leader on the world stage.  He wasn't the kind of king they wanted.

We want a king who will do what we tell him to do, not the other way around.  Or, as my mentor Dave Wick used to say, "Most people want to serve God in an advisory capacity."  That is, we're happy to shout "Hosanna!" as long as the king does what we want him to do.  What we want is a king who thinks and does exactly like we do.  We want to be our own king.  I am the kind of king I want.

But this is not the kind of king Jesus is.  Jesus will not be forced into a political agenda; Jesus will not be subservient to your desire to obtain a prosperous life.  Instead, Jesus is the kind of king who is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church.  He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross" (Colossians 1. 15-20).

Is that the kind of king you want?  Because that's the kind of king Jesus is, and that is what he came to do.

If we will know Jesus for who he truly is, then we will not set him up on some man-made pedestal that he was never meant to be on (as many of even his own followers did in the first century), and then become angry when he doesn't live up to our selfish expectations of him.  Jesus came to fulfill his purposes, not mine.

Palm Sunday is a time for us to know who Jesus is, in truth.  It is a time for us to submit ourselves to Jesus' kingship, rule, and reign.  It is a time to remember the kind of King he is, and to worship him in spirit and in truth.  It is a time to remember that my own rulership of the world only leads to sin and sadness, and that his way leads to life.  It is a time to submit my own will and desires to his sovereign rule.  It is a time to repent of trying to force the will of God into my own agenda.  It is a time to trust and rejoice in our good King.

Monday, March 12, 2018

What Does it Mean to Take the Bible Literally?

Living Biblically? 
Last night I watched the first two episodes of a new sitcom on CBS called "Living Biblically."  The show tells the story of a man who recently lost a best friend to death, and who also recently received news that he and his wife were expecting their first child.  As a result of these two significant life-changing experiences, he decides to make a change in his life, and that change is to take the Bible "literally," word for word, for at least the next nine months until his child is born.  As you can probably guess, his commitment to the "literal" interpretation and application of the Bible leads to (supposedly) hilarious outcomes (although I watched the first two episodes and only snickered once).

But this isn't the first iteration of the culture's attempt to take the Bible literally.  10 years ago, author A.J. Jacobs wrote the book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible to rave reviews among secularists and Christians alike.  In the book, Jacobs describes what his life is like when he follows every command of the Bible to the letter.  And just a few years ago, Rachel Held-Evans wrote A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband 'Master', in which Held-Evans recounts her attempts to "literally" obey every biblical command directed toward women for the period of one year.  As you might expect, both Jacobs and Held-Evans have plenty of interesting and strange stories about what it's like to follow Old Testament laws and commands in a 21st century world.

If nothing else, these cultural excursions into the realm of biblical Christianity have served to show that people are generally very confused about what it means to take the Bible "literally."  The culture believes that taking the Bible literally means following each Old Testament command to the letter, and obeying every obscure Jewish ritual and tradition.  For instance, one of the first changes the character Chip makes in his life in the show "Living Biblically" is to make sure that he only wears clothes that are made of a single type of fabric.  After all, Leviticus 19.19 says "Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material" (NIV).  So if we take the Bible literally, we shouldn't mix fabrics, right?

Similarly, Christians are often maligned in the culture when they insist upon the Bible as an absolute source of moral authority.  Christians are charged with inconsistency at best, and hypocrisy at worst because, after all, there are plenty of laws in the Bible about not eating shell fish, and we don't follow those.  The accusation leveled against Christians is that we pick and choose which parts of the Bible we want to take "literally."

So what does it mean to take the Bible "literally?"  According to the culture (and even to some within Christendom), it means to follow every jot and tittle of every command in the Bible, irrespective of when the command was given, why it was given, and to whom it was given.  If the Bible says it, it must be obeyed, no matter what - shell fish, fabrics, and everything else.  And that's what it means to take the Bible "literally."

Except, no.  That's not it.  Not even close.  As with almost every attempt the culture makes to determine just what it is Christians believe about a particular doctrine, this one is a resounding swing and a miss.  To take the Bible literally does not mean to follow it word for word, or to obey commandments that were given to a nomadic people group three thousand years ago as they wandered around in the wilderness.

Well then, what does it mean to take the Bible literally?

First, it means to believe that God wrote the Bible.
Taking the Bible literally means believing that it is actually inspired by God, and that the Bible contains God's message to human beings.  The Bible is a revelation of God's character and nature (who he is and what he is like), and a message to human beings as to how we are to respond God's revelation of himself.  What does he want from us?  How are we to act towards him?  Can we live in relationship with him?  And if so, how?  God himself tells us these things in the Bible.  Did you catch that?  God himself tells us these things in the Bible.  The Bible was written by God - the Creator of the universe.  If we are believing that the Creator of the universe communicated with us personally, we will be far less likely to treat the Bible flippantly or in some silly manner.  The first step to taking the Bible literally is to believe the Creator of the universe wants to communicate with you, and he has done so through his word contained within the Bible.

Second, it means to receive what God has said in context.
The Bible wasn't written to you and I - it was written for you and I.  Over 70% of the Bible (the Old Testament) was written to the ancient Israelites who lived 3000 years ago in and around the nation of Israel as shepherds and farmers.  Thus, the commands were given to them in their specific time, geographic location, cultural context, etc.  It would be (and is) ridiculous to try to "literally" apply commands given to nomadic shepherds 3000 years ago to our modern day lives.

Put simply, there are a myriad of differences between us and the people to whom the Bible was written (time, culture, language, political, geographical, covenantal, etc.).  It would be ludicrous to not recognize these differences as we seek to understand and apply the Bible in our lives today.  However, this is exactly what A.J. Jacobs, Rachel Held-Evans, and the producers of "Living Biblically" are doing when they universally apply commands given to a specific people, in a specific geographic location, in a specific culture, etc. to our present circumstances.  It's no wonder that several Old Testament laws seem foreign to me: I'm not a wilderness-wandering shepherd living in 3000 B.C.

In order to take the Bible literally, we must understand it in its historical and grammatical context.  This means that in order to understand what God told his people, we first have to understand them: their history, their culture, their language, their socio-political circumstances, etc.  God's commands to them will only make sense to us if we know who they were, how they thought, how they lived, etc.

This does not mean, however that because I am not a wilderness-wandering ancient Israelite that the Old Testament is obsolete or irrelevant to me as a 21st century American.  Far from it!  Remember, the whole Bible shows us God's character and nature.  So although I don't apply the Old Testament purity and cleanliness laws (such as the laws regarding fabrics, shellfish, etc.), those laws tell me about a holy and righteous God who desires to live in relationship with his people.  I don't apply the laws literally, but I apply the principles communicated by the laws when understood in context, literally.

Also, we need to realize that the Bible contains different genres of literature.  This means that different parts of the Bible function differently from others.  For example, history books tell an historical story.  Poetry books contain poetry.  You wouldn't read a poetry book to learn history, nor a history book to learn poetry.  So then, we have to take the Bible "literally" according to the rules of interpreting literature.

Case Study: Exodus 21.28-29
Let's use an example to see how we can apply Old Testament commands literally.  Exodus 21.28-29 says, "When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable.  But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death."

This law was given to a vagabond nation of wanderers about 3500 years ago.  These people kept livestock as a regular part of everyday life, so God gave them rules and laws that would bring order to their society and help them to live in relationship with him.  Then how can I - a 21st century urban American who does not own livestock - apply this command "literally?"  By knowing the history of the people to whom the law was given, and the genre and grammar of the literature in which it was communicated.

According to our culture, in order to apply this command literally, I'd have to go out and buy some oxen and then make sure to keep them penned up securely.  But to do so would be just as ridiculous as wearing clothes of the same material or swearing off shellfish.  Instead, I can literally apply the principles of this command by interpreting what it is saying.  For instance, from this command we learn at least three things about God: 1) Human life is valuable to God.  God does not desire that men and women be killed by animals.  2) Personal responsibility is important to God.  God expects people to act responsibly so as to minimize any potential threat to others or to the community.  3) Justice is important to God.  In each scenario, punishment is meted out to fit the crime.

When we take this command literally, we don't go out and buy oxen and make sure to put up a sturdy fence around them, because this command was not given to us.  Instead, we interpret the command, and apply the principles the command teaches to our lives literally.  This means that we literally love and value life because God does; it means that we literally take responsibility for our actions for the betterment of ourselves and our communities; it means that we literally work and advocate for justice in our society.  If we do these things, we will have obeyed the command to keep our rambunctious ox penned up, literally.

*Note: for a great guide to how to read and apply the Bible literally in the ways briefly mentioned here, check out the book Grasping God's Word by Duvall and Hays.  

Monday, March 5, 2018

Fighting Spiritual Laziness

This summer my family will be going to the North American Baptist Triennial Conference in Edmonton, Alberta Canada.  It's a journey of more than 1,200 miles, and we're beginning to look into transportation options and costs.  Like most people, I find the process of shopping for and booking travel accommodations to be a tedious and frustrating process.  It's a pain to have to shop airlines, schedule departure and arrival dates, arrange rental cars, and everything else.  In light of this frustration, I've decided that my family will travel to Canada this summer by bike.  After all, each of us has a bike hanging on the wall in the garage.  We won't have to navigate airline websites and arrange for rental cars if we all ride our bikes.  All we have to do is take them off the wall and get going.

Obviously the above isn't true.  We aren't going to ride our bikes to Canada this summer.  But this is a great analogy for how Christians often treat their walk with Jesus: we neglect a source of immense power (an airplane) because it takes a little work to use it (booking travel), in favor of a more readily available, albeit much less powerful, way of doing things (a bike).

God has guaranteed that all those who belong to him will live in the power he provides through his Holy Spirit.  The Bible says that the one who is in us is greater than the one that is in the world, and that by his power, we can overcome (1 John 4.4).  Paul says that we are "more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8.37).  The power of Christ has overcome the world (John 16.33), and Christians have access to that very same power.

If all of that is true, then why do I so often feel like a spiritual loser?  Why do I so often feel spiritually beaten down, like a failure?  Why do I find it so hard to forgive?  Why is it such a challenge for me to love and honor my spouse?  Why do I so easily lose my patience with my children?  Shouldn't the power of God help me gain victory in those areas?

Yes, it can and it should.  But it doesn't.

Why not?  One of the primary reasons is that we are spiritually lazy.  There is an ocean of divine power at our fingertips that Christians are able to access, but most of the time we don't put in the necessary time and effort to access it and gain the victory that we desire.  We would rather just take the bike off the wall than go through the hassle of booking a flight on an airplane, even though we know full well that the airplane is more efficient and effective at meeting our needs.

In Mark 9, Jesus' disciples find themselves in an embarrassing situation: a father approaches them and asks them to heal his son who has been possessed by an unclean spirit.  But try as they might, they are not able to exorcize the demon.  This is awkward, because just a short time ago Jesus had given them authority over all demons (Luke 9.1).  So then, why couldn't they drive out this demon?  That's the question they want answered, so they ask Jesus, and his response is revealing: "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer" (Mark 9.29).

The disciples did have the power and authority to drive out this demon, but they failed to access the power.  They opted for the bike instead of the airplane.  Jesus says that this kind of demon could only be drive out by prayer, the implication being that the disciples weren't praying.  Well, why weren't they praying?  I'm suggesting to you it's because they were spiritually lazy.  Prayer takes time, effort, and intentionality, and for some reason the disciples didn't put that time and effort and intentionality into their dealing with this demon.

Access to God's power takes time.  It takes effort.  It takes intentionality.  Do you have a besetting sin that you struggle with, and you just can't seem to gain victory over it?  Do you find it difficult to forgive?  Do you find it hard to love and honor your spouse, or to be patient with your children?  How much time have you spent in prayer about it?  How much time have you spent studying the Bible about it?  How much time have you spent talking to others about it and asking them for support and accountability?

If you haven't done any of these things, then don't expect to tap into divine power to help your areas of weakness.  Spiritual laziness inhibits our access to God's power to transform our hearts, minds, and lives.  Just like the disciples power over demons was directly connected to their willingness to spend intentional time in prayer, so is our power to see transformation in our lives connected to our willingness to spend intentional time in prayer, study, fellowship, and host of other resources God has given us to tap into his power.

And if you don't feel up to the task, that's alright.  Neither did the disciples, and neither did most of the people Jesus came into contact with.  Jesus is eager to help those who want to experience the power of God in their lives.  He is eager to lend a hand to those who are spiritually lazy.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Questions and Answers

From time to time, something I say during a sermon generates questions from the congregation.  This week's sermon produced several questions that I'd like to answer in this blog post.  You can hear the sermon on Luke 9.1-9 here.

What is the "kingdom of God"?  
Throughout the gospels Jesus refers to the kingdom of God several times (more than 100 times, in fact).  And in Luke 9.2 Jesus sends his 12 apostles out specifically to "declare the kingdom of God."  Bible scholars have pondered the exact nature of what the kingdom of God actually refers to, and there are many nuanced interpretations that remain today.  As I see it, the kingdom of God represents the new reality brought forth by Jesus through his life, death, and resurrection.  Jesus came to destroy the works father devil that first began in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve fell into sin.  He came to redeem people from the effects of living in that fallen world, and to usher in a new reality of atonement, forgiveness, and righteousness.  Thus, when the 12 are sent out to "declare the kingdom of God," they are telling people that the destruction brought about by sin will be/has been remedied by the entrance of the Messiah onto the scene.  Jesus has come, and he will right the wrongs caused by sin and build a new kingdom of righteousness.

This kingdom is partially realized when we put our trust in Christ.  When we are saved from the consequences of sin and enter into the eternal life that God has prepared for those who trust in Christ, we become partakers (citizens) of this new kingdom.  We no longer live in a world where the eternal effects of sin are hanging over our head.  Instead, we live in a kingdom that is ruled by the righteousness of God in Christ, and we look forward to the full realization of that kingdom in this world when Jesus comes back.  Until then, Jesus builds his kingdom in the hearts and lives of those who will be his subjects.

Can we be witnesses for Jesus by how we live?
Yes.  The Bible clearly teaches that there is a marked difference between those who are living in the kingdom of God and those who are living outside of it (see Matthew 5.1-12, for example).  And when the world sees us living as citizens of the kingdom of God, they take notice.  They realize that we are different (Matthew 5.13-16).  Moreover, 1 Peter 3 says that wives are to win over their unbelieving husbands through their godly behavior.  So according to these scriptures and many more, we can be faithful, obedient witnesses for Jesus by exhibiting godly behaviors, actions, and attitudes for the rest of the world to see.

But it is important to note that this is only one part of our witness and/or testimony about the truth of the gospel.  The New Testament also clearly and explicitly says that faith comes by hearing, not by seeing.  In order for the message of the gospel to be communicated, it must be spoken.  After all, it would be difficult to "live out" the reality of the kingdom of God described above.  What kind of actions would you perform to communicate that the Messiah has come to rescue fallen sinners?  In order to communicate this message, we must speak.  The fruit of transformed lives and hearts bears witness to the truth of the gospel, but it does not explain the gospel.  In order to declare the gospel, we must speak.

The disciples worked powerful miracles when they preached the gospel.  Why don't we see those same kinds of miracles today?  
Luke 9.1 says that when Jesus sent the 12 out to declare the kingdom of God, he also gave them "power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases."  The reason the disciples had this power was not to wow the crowds with their abilities or to perform magic tricks for entertainment purposes, but to act as signs about the truth of their message.  Remember, they were sent to "declare the kingdom of God" - this new reality that was being ushered into the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The proof of this new reality was that the disciples had authority over demons and the power to heal diseases.  Jesus didn't give the disciples power for the sake of them being able to do cool miracles, but for the sake of authenticating their verbal message.

It is my belief that we don't see these kinds of miracles accompanying the declaration of the gospel today because we don't need to see them - we've seen them already.  The authenticating signs and wonders performed by the apostles prove to us - just as much as it did to the people who saw them - that the new reality of the kingdom of God in the hearts and lives of people who follow Jesus is actual, and that it is true.  To require additional signs and wonders on top of the ones already given to us as proof seems to me to be redundant.

That being said, the power of God is still evident in his word when it is declared and shared.  It brings the power of conviction, repentance, faith, obedience, and a host of other actions that are simply impossible for sinful human beings to perform.  We cannot respond to the truth of God's word without his power to strengthen us to turn from sin and believe.  We cannot obey God's word without the power of his Holy Spirit to empower our obedience.  We cannot join God in his mission to declare his kingdom without his power to energize our efforts and strengthen us to care for those who are perishing.  God's word today brings with it no less power than it did in the first century.  That power just doesn't manifest itself in signs and wonders anymore.

Do we need to ask for God's power, or do we have it automatically?
All those who are trusting in Christ are empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish whatever it is that God has called them to do.  This power is given to us at the time of our conversion.  The Holy Spirit empowers us to combat sin in our lives, obey God's word, venture into ministry endeavors, and a host of other activities.

As believers, this power is available to us on demand.  It does not require a special prayer or incantation in order for it to be accessed.  It is not forced upon us, however.  For example, although Christians have the power to battle against sin and temptation in our lives, there are many times when we neglect to access this power, and instead give into sinful temptations.  When this happens, it is not that we do not have the power to resist temptation, but rather that we have neglected to use it.  We are not slaves to our sinful nature, and we do not have to obey it.  We have power over it, and a free will to refuse its enticing demands.  This ability only exists because of the power of God.  Yet, there are many times when we choose to not exercise or take advantage of this God-given power, because we still struggle against our flesh.