21 Oct 2014

Getting More Out of Your Bible Study

You don’t have to be a seminary-trained biblical scholar in order to read Scripture in a responsible way. Relevant Magazine published a really good article on “9 Things Everyone Should Do When Reading the Bible”. These easy-to-understand practical suggestions will go a long way toward making the most of your Bible study time. Here is a taste:

6. Realize That Prophecy is More Often FORTH-Telling Than FORE-Telling.

So often, our focus in approaching prophecy is to ask “what did they say about the future?” However, often the prophets weren’t talking about the future (foretelling), they were explaining and interpreting Israel’s history and current predicaments in light of their covenantal behavior (forth-telling), and had little to do with the future. Israel may have painfully aware that they had just suffered military defeat at the hands of the Babylonians, but it took the prophet’s words to explain from God’s perspective why this had happened and what lessons they were to learn from their experience. Poor old Jeremiah.

Take a few minutes to read the article; it is not long, and I think you will be blessed by doing so.

16 Oct 2014

The Paradox of Christianity

The Paradox of ChristianityThe other day while I was in the shower (I do a lot of thinking in the shower) it occurred to me that Christianity is somewhat of a paradox in that it is a religion which is incredibly inclusive and exclusive at the same time.

Inclusivity

Christianity is inclusive in the sense that it excludes no one on the basis of race, color, gender, nationality, or socioeconomic level.

Christianity is not tied to a specific geographical area: it thrives in incredibly diverse settings across the globe: places like West Africa, China, and South America are very very different, but all maintain large and growing Christian populations. Contrast that with most other world religions, which are either tied significantly to a certain place or follow a certain ethnic group as it migrates or expands.

Christianity is not tied to a specific language: Muslims believe that the Qur’an can only truly exist in Arabic (translations into other languages or not considered to be the Qur’an itself, but only a translation of the teachings of the Qur’an), so if you want to be able to read it, you better learn Arabic! On the other hand, for hundreds and hundreds of years, it has been an accepted belief among Christians that the Christian scriptures should be translated into as many languages as possible so that people could read about Jesus in their native tongues.

Christianity is not tied to a specific gender: it does not teach that women are inferior, or that they have some lesser or marginal role to play either now or in the afterlife. While I won’t claim that Christianity has a perfect track record on this, Jesus himself spent considerable time with women, and interacted with them in a way which showed concern and respect that was wholly out of place with the culture of his day. Clearly, women are valuable to God and have a place in his family.

Christianity is not tied to a specific ethnicity or culture: it took a lot of concerted effort and teaching from men like Paul and others to make this point, but it was not necessary for someone to be a Jew in order to become a Christian. Similarly, it was not necessary for someone to give up being a Jew in order to become a Christian. Over the years, certain Christian missionary efforts have at times lost sight of this truth, but generally speaking, it has been recognized that you don’t have to give up your cultural heritage in order to follow Christ (though certainly, the teachings of Christ critique certain aspects of all cultures and demand that we repudiate those).

Exclusivity

But for all of those inclusive characteristics, Christianity is fundamentally exclusive: its repeated teaching is that it is only through Jesus Christ that salvation can be obtained (emphasis added):

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3.16).

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6).

This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4.12).

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus… (1 Timothy 2.5).

And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life (1 John 5.11-12).

Of course, when viewed properly, this seeming paradox really isn’t one at all. Christianity is the most inclusive of all faiths in that it teaches that God invites all of humanity regardless of gender, ethnicity, language, or socioeconomic status into intimate relationship with him. However, that relationship is exclusively possible through his Son, Jesus Christ.

15 Oct 2014

Book Review: Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible

Oster, RevelationWhile on vacation, I was glad to be able to read Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible: A Commentary on Revelation 1-3 by Richard Oster.

Dr. Oster is one of the professors at Harding School of Theology, and is known for his extensive knowledge of New Testament backgrounds, particularly through the study of ancient inscriptions, artwork, and numismatics (coins). In Seven Congregations, Oster does a masterful job of using that knowledge to help better explain John’s letters to the seven churches of Asia in the early chapters of the Book of Revelation.

Oster’s commentary focuses on the Asian congregations, and the challenges they faced as they were forced to choose between faithfulness to Christ and assimilation to the surrounding Roman culture. Interpretatively, Seven Congregations emphasizes the relevance of Revelation to the churches to whom it was written, rather than being a series of predictions of what would happen some 2,000 years in the future (which is exactly how far too many people read it). In addition to this emphasis and the fascinating background information, one of my favorite things about the book is the way in which Oster does not shy away from presenting ideas that are a part of Revelation but are not popular in today’s culture (you’ll see some of this reflected in the excerpts below).

I’ve selected some quotations which I enjoyed and which I think provide a good feel for the book (I have bolded certain parts for emphasis):

“As surprising as it might seem in light of centuries of mistaken emphasis, a careful examination of these six specific verses reveals that there is in fact no explicit reference to a temporary millennial enthronement of Christ in Revelation (20:4, 6). Furthermore, if this traditional view were true, then this millennial interregnum of Christ would stand in clear contradiction to the teachings of the rest of the New Testament regarding Christ’s cosmic enthronement.” (p.11)

“…The prophetic message of John is not designed only to comfort the afflicted. John’s words were also clearly written to afflict those Christians who were guilty of assimilation to idolatry, immorality, and emperor worship, either in the present or future. Without doubt the letters destined for the seven churches of Asia contain the promise of blessings to the faithful, the overcomes, but with equal clarity they contain the assurance of divine punishment and retribution for those believers who surrendered themselves to the pressures of the surrounding culture and its mores.” (21)

“The christophany of Rev 1:12-16…contains powerful and horrific imagery and does not portray a Jesus into whose lap one can sit and be cuddled.” (21)

“Indeed, the relevance of prophetic books lies in their specific connection with their own historical setting and not in their predictions about remote history and the end of humankind.” (24)

“Although it might initially sound strange to some futurists, this mention of Jesus’s “coming with the clouds” is one of the few references to Christ’s Second Coming in the entire book of Revelation. Most of the references to impending punishment in Revelation are either against the seven churches or are plagues, bowls of wrath, and the like, against the Roman Empire. Rarely in Revelation is the wrath of God and the Lamb directed against the entire planet with all its inhabitants.” (64)

“Specifically, John’s sectarian outlook considers all synagogue attending Jews who did not accept the messiahship of Jesus as no longer the true Jews…Thus Revelation agrees with other New Testament writings in its support of a modified replacement understanding of Israel and the Christ based congregation (cf. 1 Cor 3:11) of God…According to John, identification as a real Jew is determined on the basis of devotion to the Lamb rather than upon traditional Jewish criteria, e.g., birth and upbringing, adherence to Jewish statues and ceremony.” (124)

“Even though spiritual intolerance is currently the “unforgivable sin” in most areas of contemporary culture, both sacred and secular, this prevailing Western perspective does not represent the outlook revealed to John by Christ.” (148)

“…Christ’s kingdom is always subversive and has appeared explicitly to destroy alternative nations, empires, and their values, until “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (11:15).” (158)

“…This scene presented to the Laodicean congregation is patently not a prototype of the evangelical “sinner’s prayer” where Jesus is invited into the heart of the unregenerate sinner.” (191)

“…The meaning of repentance in Scripture is to change the direction of one’s life, not merely changing elements of intellectual assent.” (192)

“Unless intercession is only artificial role playing, then God’s future actions may be altered by the intercession of his people.” (207)

The commentary is 276 pages including notes and appendices, and though very scholarly, is still written in an engaging way (I was able to read it in a few days). I think the background information Seven Congregations provides is invaluable, and I look forward to reading the next volume.

2 Oct 2014

Myths about Homosexuality, America, and the Kingdom of God

Myths

Introduction

It is with some hesitation that I share the following thoughts, because I am not really a very controversial guy and thus, like to avoid talking about hot-button topics. And homosexuality is certainly a hot-button topic in today’s society.

From a Christian perspective, I think homosexuality is a complicated issue, and part of the reason that it’s so complicated is because there are so many myths, so many false ideas floating around that confuse us and prevent us from making progress in any of this with people with whom we disagree.

So today, I want to look at several myths regarding homosexuality and to try to clarify our thinking on those, in the hopes that in the future, as we continue to deal with this issue (because it’s definitely not going away), we’ll be able to do so in a more productive and Biblically-accurate way.

Myth 1: The Bible Doesn’t Really Condemn Homosexuality.

Now, before we get into this one, I should note that there are a lot of people out there who don’t care what the Bible says, so with those folks, you’re going to have a lot of trouble finding common ground. But increasingly, there are people who call themselves Bible-believing Christians who will claim that the Bible doesn’t really condemn homosexuality. That claim is false. It is a myth.

I could spend a long time on this, but as you’ll see, this is going to be a long post already, so briefly:

In Genesis 2.18-25 we have the beautiful account of the creation of Eve, and the clear, direct idea is that woman was created for companionship with man. Man was incomplete without her. This fact has strong implications, and we’ll return to it later, but for now, the idea is that God had a plan, God had a design, and that design was for man and woman to be together.

Later in Genesis 19 we have the destruction of the city of Sodom. Now, people who claim that the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality will try to argue that the city of Sodom was destroyed because they showed a lack of hospitality toward the men/angels who visited Lot. And certainly that was true—it was not a hospitable place!—and I have no problem acknowledging that inhospitality was one of many sins that Sodom was destroyed for. Other sins include: violence, rape (or attempted rape), oppression of the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16.49), and, yes, homosexuality. If you were taking a multiple choice quiz about the sins of Sodom, the answer would be “E. All of the Above”. It was a wicked place.

Homosexuality is also explicitly condemned in the Law of Moses (Leviticus 18.22; 20.13).

Moving on to the New Testament, the Apostle Paul forcefully addresses the issue of homosexuality in Romans 1.18-32, and he also includes it in lists of sinful practices in 1 Corinthians 6.9-11 and 1 Timothy 1.8-10. Arguments that Paul is referring to some other practice in these texts and that he was unaware of consensual homosexual relationships like we have today are supported neither by the Greek text nor the testimony of history.

Sometimes you’ll hear people argue that Jesus never specifically condemned it, but even that is inaccurate. Jesus did condemn sexual immorality (Matthew 19.9) and fornication (Matthew 15.19), which would include any sexual intercourse outside of marriage…and Jesus defined marriage as being between one man and one woman (Matthew 19.4-6) just as God created it in the Garden of Eden and as it was described in Genesis 2.

If you study the Bible and are honest about what it says, you have to reach one of two conclusions: either homosexuality is wrong, or the Bible is wrong. You can’t claim that the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality.

Myth 2: Homosexuality is the Chief of Sins.

Now, you might not actually hear someone say this, but if we’re honest about it, this is how we act sometimes. We sure get a lot more worked up about this sin than a lot of other sins.

Those sin lists that Paul makes where he includes homosexuality in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 8? They also include sins like adultery, greed, drunkenness, lying, gossip, envy…When was the last time you saw a bunch of Christians up in arms on Facebook because of gossip or greed or envy?

Or even if you just want to narrow it to sexual sins, there are a lot more heterosexuals than homosexuals in this country who are violating God’s laws about sexual behavior. We don’t seem to get as upset about that for some reason. Maybe because that’s a temptation that many of us understand better, or maybe because our culture has already compromised on that sin a long time ago!

A lot of times, if you hold to the biblical teaching on homosexuality—that it is a sin—you are branded as a hateful bigot. And that’s too bad. I don’t hate homosexuals; I don’t think most Christians do either. But when we use all of our moral outrage on this one issue, and we’re not consistent in the way we oppose other kinds of sin (including the ones like gossip and greed and lying that we tend to wink at), I can understand how some gay people could think that we hate them, because to them it seems like we only focus on their sin.

But homosexuality is not the chief of sins. It’s just one of many that we need to oppose.

Myth 3: There is No Difference between Homosexual Attraction and the Practice of Homosexuality.

This is a huge myth, because there is a huge difference: it’s the difference between temptation and sin. It’s the difference between orientation and behavior.

When you go back and look at those sin lists that Paul writes which we’ve already referred to a couple of times, he talks about practicing homosexuality, the physical act of it. That is a sin. We need to distinguish that practice from the temptation. Temptations are not sin. I know that because the Bible teaches that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, and yet was without sin (you can read about some of those temptations in Matthew 4). So it’s not sinful to be tempted; it’s sinful to give in to your temptations.

Sometimes in these discussions I think we get on shaky ground when we try to argue about whether or not people are born with a homosexual orientation. And honestly, if you keep up with this stuff, the science is still out on this. Scientists don’t know; they argue it both ways. We do know that our genetic makeup greatly influences our lives, but that also the environment in which we are raised greatly influences us.

But I’ll be honest with you, if science came out and definitively said that yes, some people are born with an inclination toward homosexual feelings, it really wouldn’t bother me, because my experience already leads me to believe that some people are naturally more inclined towards certain temptations than others.

For some who are reading this, the temptation for greed is so high. It’s so easy to find yourself thinking about how you can get more money, more possessions. For others, the temptation to gossip is so strong. When you find out information about someone—maybe a brother or sister in Christ—it is such a struggle to not gleefully pass that on. For others, the temptation of drunkenness or lust is a strong one, while others may never feel those temptations at all.

The point is, we’re different! Sins that are really tempting for me may not be tempting for you. Sins that are really tempting for you may not be tempting for me.

But we need to realize that homosexual attraction is a temptation. It’s giving in to that temptation that is sin. Christians who struggle with this temptation—like all temptations—need our sympathy, our compassion, and support, not our derision, or our judgment, or our cruel jokes.

Myth 4: America is a Christian Nation.

The United States was established on certain Christian principles, and there is a respect for the sovereignty of God and the teachings of Scripture that run deep within the heritage of our country. And if that’s what you mean in saying that America is a Christian nation, I get your point, and I agree.

However…

The United States of America is not a Christian nation, because as a nation, we don’t live according to the principles of Christ.

If America was a Christian nation, we wouldn’t have an economy based largely on greed where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. If America was a Christian nation, we wouldn’t legally permit the slaughter of nearly one million of our own unborn children each year and call it a medical procedure. And yes, if America was a Christian nation, we wouldn’t be debating about whether or not we can “re-define” marriage when God has already clearly defined it. And we could go on and on.

But at an even more basic level, America is not a Christian nation because “Christian nations” do not exist. 

God doesn’t have a country; He has a kingdom. And by the way, if you are a Christian, that is where your primary allegiance should lie—not the United States! God’s Kingdom—or God’s reign, His rule—will one day extend over all that is. But for now, the Bible teaches that Satan is the ruler of this world. Sure, God is ultimately in charge and the Bible teaches that He is involved in the rise and fall of kings and nations…but right now, God’s Kingdom, His reign and His rule, is seen primarily in the Church and in the lives of individual Christians and the light that they shine.

It is not seen in our government or our laws. The United States is not the Kingdom of God.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t be upset over the direction that our country is going. If you care about the US (as I do), then that’s a natural response. And we see in Luke 13 and Matthew 23 that Jesus lamented over the city of Jerusalem because of the way that it rejected prophets and was going to reject Him and the punishment that would come as a result—the city was leveled in AD 70 by the Romans. It’s okay to be sad when our country makes decisions that go against God’s laws and desires.

It also doesn’t mean that we can’t desire or use our political voice to try and reflect Kingdom values in our country. But I think it does mean that we should quit expecting our country to look like the Kingdom of God. Because it’s not that. I think as Christians, we need to quit being surprised when lost people act like they’re lost. How else are they going to act? We should expect the world to act like the world.

To me, that means that engaging in culture wars and arguing with people about gay marriage shouldn’t be our primary concern. Don’t misunderstand me: if someone asks me my opinion on gay marriage, you better believe that I’ll tell them. If I have the chance to vote on it, you can rest assured that I will use my vote to reflect the values of the Kingdom.

But what I’m not going to do is obsess over the fact that the U.S. doesn’t look like the Kingdom of God, because why would it? It’s not that.

Instead, I need to focus on making and maturing disciples to be like Jesus Christ! That’s what my mission is. That’s how I expand the borders of God’s Kingdom; not by arguing with people on Facebook.

Myth 5: The Direction in which America is Heading is Bad for the Church.

Related somewhat to the last idea, I think there is a general feeling that the direction our country is headed—a direction away from the teachings of God and Scripture—is a bad thing for the church.But I’m not sure that’s true. Hear me out…

I expect that as time goes on, the policies and laws of our nation will increasingly stray form the teachings of Scripture. I expect that to happen. As a result, I think our country will increasingly become a hostile environment for Christians.

And I firmly believe that God will bless us in that environment.

For one thing, it says that in Scripture. Jesus says in Matthew 5.11: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

But also, this idea is borne out in history.

Starting in the Book of Acts we see that when the church was persecuted, it didn’t put an end to the church—it just enabled the church to spread! What began as a movement in Jerusalem spread throughout Judea, Samaria, Asia Minor, Greece, Rome and beyond when Saul of Tarsus and others like him began to persecute the church.

That continued later on. Emperors like Nero and Domitian persecuted Christianity and tried to stamp it out—they had Christians beheaded and burned at the stake—but the church continued to grow. Tertullian, a Christian of the 2nd century, said, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” When the church is persecuted, fair-weather lukewarm Christians are weeded out, and those who remain do great things!

But keeping our gaze on the past, we also see the reverse is true.

In 313 AD, the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity all across the Roman Empire—no longer would Christians be persecuted—and soon thereafter, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. And that sounds like a good thing to us, but really it wasn’t a healthy thing for the church at all! Christianity became trendy and popular; it was something that people signed up for like a social club.

Lukewarm faith, questionable motives, and pagan backgrounds combined to produce a lot of practices which led people away from the truth of Scripture. Christianity was a name they wore, but not a cross they carried daily.

Fast forward hundreds and hundreds of years…when I look around at our culture, our so-called “Christian nation”, that’s what I see; a nation of lukewarm Christianity filled with people who claim the name of Christ but don’t really follow Him. People who instead worship money, or success, or a flag.

An American government that has largely been friendly to the values and ideas of Christianity for the last couple of hundred years hasn’t really been great for the church; it’s just made it easy for Christians to get comfortable living in this world and to forget that we are supposed to be citizens of another.

If our country continues to turn away from God’s commandments and teachings, I think it will become increasingly hostile toward Christians. And maybe that’s exactly what we need to wake us up!

If what we care about is our comfort, then the direction in which our country is headed is certainly troubling. But if we care about the health and growth of the church, then I think we need to look to the future with a bold confidence in what lies ahead.

Conclusion

We’ve been talking about myths:

  • Is it true that the Bible doesn’t really condemn homosexuality? No, the Bible does condemn it. As Christians, we need to know this truth and be able to share it.
  • Is it true that homosexuality is the chief of sins? No, it isn’t. And if we want to have a witness that the world will listen to, we have got to be consistent. We have to speak out against all sins, not just this one.
  • Is it true that there is no difference between homosexual attraction and the practice of homosexuality? No, there’s a huge difference: the difference between temptation and sin. People who struggle with this temptation need our support and our prayer, not our condemnation and our disdain.
  • Is it true that America is a Christian nation? No, God has a Kingdom, not a country. The fact that our country doesn’t look like the Kingdom of God shouldn’t surprise us; it should make us seek to spread the borders of the Kingdom and look eagerly for our home with God.
  • Is it true that the direction in which America is heading is bad for the church? I don’t think so. The Bible teaches and history bears witness that when we are persecuted for the sake of Christ, the church is blessed. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, or comfortable, but it should fill us with courage and purpose.

This post has talked extensively about the Kingdom of God; it’s God’s mission to save the world through His Son Jesus, and as Christians—as citizens of God’s Kingdom—we join with Him on that mission. Inherently, that means that we don’t live hidden and cut off from our culture, but rather, actively engaged in it. I know this is a complicated and emotionally-charged issue, but I think it is incredibly important that we get the truth about these myths straight in our minds if we are going to be salt and light and engage our world in the proper tone and from the right perspective.

30 Sep 2014

A Week in Paradise

A couple of weeks ago, Caroline and I spent a week on vacation at St. Maarten. This was made possible by a church friend who generously gave us a great deal on a timeshare there, and Caroline’s mom and aunt who stayed with Kinsley for a week so the two of us could travel.

St. Maarten is a tiny island in the Caribbean, half owned by the Dutch (Sint Maarten) and half by the French (Saint Martin). It is a beautiful place, marked by great beaches, rugged hills, and beautiful waters of a variety of blues.

We had a great time together. My life can be pretty hectic at times, which means I don’t often get to relax, or to spend a lot of time with just Caroline. Both of those things happened in abundance while we were in St. Maarten, which made it a great week!

Below are some of the pictures I took (you should be able to click through to see larger versions).

St. Barts (?)

I loved the different blues of the ocean. In this picture, you can see St. Barts (I think) off in the distance.

Crazy Tree

On the French side of the island, we went to a place called Loterie Farms, where we hiked through a tropical rain forest. It was a tough, rugged hike, but we saw some cool things including this interesting tree.

IMG_6501

Here’s another view of the tree mentioned above.

Grand Case Catholic Church

I always enjoy taking pictures of church buildings. This was the Grand Case Catholic Church, on the French side of the island.

Pier Steps

Some pier steps at the beach in Grand Case (French side).

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There weren’t too many differences between the Dutch and French sides of the island, but in the French capital of Marigot, I noticed that the power lines looked a little overloaded.

Balcony View

This was the view from the back balcony of our condo. I wasn’t prepared for how rugged the landscape was. We drove around a lot of steep mountain roads.

The Bay

This is another view from near our condo. It really was a beautiful place.

From Ft. Amsterdam

Near our resort there was an old Dutch fort—Fort Amsterdam. This is a shot taken from atop the fort looking out onto the bay.

Cruise Ship

A view of a cruise ship further out in the bay.

Phillipsburg Methodist Church

Another church building: this is the Methodist Church in Phillipsburg (the Dutch capital).