29 December 2013

Desolate and Blessed

Yes, that's me with the enormous belt buckle.
I don't know what it's like to have adopted siblings.  In my family, there were only three of us growing up - me, the oldest; Richmond, the second; Shelby, the third.  My wife's family, by contrast, consists of eight children, but they all came from the same mother (God bless her, and no thank you!).  Especially now that my little brother is well on his way to a Bachelor's in Psychology and my baby sister is almost a legal adult, it would be especially awkward for my parents to adopt another child into the family.  It would be a tremendous adjustment, perhaps even seem unfair to those of us who grew up as a closed unit.  Ironically, that's exactly what God has done with His family.  And furthermore, for the vast majority of those of us who comprise the church global today, we are that adopted family member.

Revelation 7 contains what may be perhaps one of the most moving depictions of corporate worship in the Bible.  Beginning in verse 9, John records, "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'"  The absolute wonder of this scene is breathtaking: the children of God gathered in countless masses, all differences of opinion and sinful plights removed, giving wholehearted and unanimous adoration to the One who is worthy of all honor, glory, and praise.

Matthew Henry's commentary (one of my favorite resources, especially when studying complex passages of Scripture) includes the observation that "God will have a greater harvest of souls among the Gentiles than he had among the Jews."  Immediately prior to this scene, the 144,000 Jews to be rescued from the Tribulation are numbered according to their tribes.  This tangible number seems so small in comparison to the innumerable masses gathered before the throne, and yet it is not insignificant because God's grace is specific.  We think about words like "sufficient" or "satisfactory" with negative connotations, largely due to the grading systems of our schools: work that is "satisfactory" is not as good as work that "exceeds expectations."  However, these words applied to God's grace mean that it was perfect to meet the need.  Exactly this much grace was needed; exactly this much grace was expended.  The comparison John makes in Revelation 7 is in no way a statement as to the superior righteousness of the Gentile nations, nor does it contain the implication that God favors them more than the Jews: it is simply a matter of the sufficiency of God's grace to cover the needs of both peoples, both of which have become parts of His family - certainly equal despite the difference in numbers, but also different from one another.

What really struck me about this passage, however, came through the lens of another of Henry's statements pertaining to this idea.

Throughout the Scriptures, one of God's primary concerns is for the poor, the underprivileged, the outsider.  God made provisions in the law He gave to Moses for outsiders - people whom the Jews were to treat with hospitality, love, and prayer.  In the New Testament, James describes true religion as ministry from the heart to widows and orphans in affliction, while at the same time remaining unstained by worldly influence.  God hates hands that shed innocent blood, and He is angered when individuals with means offer no assistance to those in need.  All of this contributes to our understanding of God as the merciful judge, the One who punishes sin but delights to show compassion upon the repentant.  His mercy is richest in the lives of the downtrodden, the weary who have come to Him for rest.

Another figure to whom this idea of mercy applies is the barren woman.  This plight is viewed even in Scripture as an unnatural injustice.  Any woman unable to bear children is a victim of the fallen world in which we live.  God makes almost as much special mention of the childless woman as He does the widow and the orphan.  Time and again, He supernaturally blessed barren women with offspring: Sarai, Abram's wife, who became the mother of Isaac well past the child-bearing age; Rachel, Jacob's wife, who - although the desired wife of her husband - remained envious of her sister Leah, who had child after child while Rachel could have none; Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who beseeched the Lord bitterly for a son, and then dedicated him to temple service as a sign of her gratitude; and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who was also past the age for becoming pregnant.  In fact, God even blessed a virgin who had never slept with a man - a young woman named Mary who, although not barren, would bear and raise the Savior of the world through the supernatural interaction of the Holy Spirit.

Henry's statement, drawing from Isaiah 54.1: "More are the children of the desolate than of the married woman."

In other words, the offspring of the underprivileged, abandoned, and impoverished woman (the Gentile) will be more plentiful than those of the woman married to the Prince (the Jew).  Here's the point.  As Gentiles, we are the children of that desolate woman.  We are the descendants of spiritually dead nations, children brought into the fold and adopted into heirdom with Christ.  It's not a perfect metaphor, obviously, because each of us is individually responsible for the sins we've committed, but the idea is simply that God has opened the doors and continues to add to His family from outside of the fold.  Regardless of where we've been or what we've done, His grace remains sufficient to cover our debt and bring us into the blessings of His Kingdom.

Reading Henry's simple statement suddenly cast the following passage from Psalm 113 and others like it in a new light: "He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children."  This is so much more than a statement of God's provision for individual women of faith, and yet it is certainly not less.  God has adopted entire nations into His family.  He has given new life to a world that was dead in its trespasses.  Until this age ends and Christ returns, He has offered hope to all future generations.

27 November 2013

Traveling Companions & Destinations for Blockheads

Tara and I have officially been in the process of house-hunting for a month.  In other words, we've been in the game not quite long enough to fully understand the depth of the plight which afflicts many would-be home-owners in the state of New Jersey, but certainly long enough to taste just how frustrating the process can be.  In fact, it's easy when facing inspection fees, renovation costs, and other up-front buyer expenses, to lose heart at the base of what can seem like an insurmountable mountain.

As we stand in this place -- uncertain yet determined travelers with our necks craning to see the peak, invisible behind a layer of fog -- another hiker comes up beside us.  His name is Anxiety, and the task we face is the kind for which he likes to invite himself -- even though we have not asked for his company.  His face is careworn, the kind that cries victim while surreptitiously demanding sympathy, but beneath this martyr's skin is a darker nature.  Jesus would equate Anxiety with Pride -- a perfectionistic type of legalism that doggedly insists, "I must make the perfect decision because this is all on my shoulders" -- all while He, shaking His head, reminds us yet again that worrying doesn't add any extra hours to the length of our lives.

Anxiety has taken it upon himself to bring along another partner in crime, if only to entrench us in a protective layer of justification when things inevitably go downhill.  This second traveler's name is Expectations.  His face is young, naive and angular, with scrupulous eyes full of eager demands for the road -- dreams that will be easily crushed.  Anxiety plays the pessimistic uncle to this opportunistic nephew.  Being the more experienced, Anxiety wants to introduce Expectations to the cruel, ever-present governess known Reality, but Expectations doesn't see the need for instruction.  Because of his jaded nature, Anxiety steels himself for what's around the corner, fearing the potential, while Expectations prepares for the great things he is certain are forthcoming.

Forgive me for waxing allegorical, but I think we can all insert ourselves into that place.  We've all reached (or will inevitably reach) the fork in the road where the stakes have never been higher, and all our other traveling buddies -- Reason, Faith, Good Humor, and the rest -- have disappeared, leaving behind the less desirable companions.

When we find ourselves there, looking up at the mountain, arm-in-arm with our overwhelming anxieties on one side and our unfair expectations on the other, we begin to behave a lot like Peppermint Patty in the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special.  We are inevitably disappointed when we come to the table of life and find that God has placed a plate of jellybeans, popcorn, and toast in front of us.  We are taken aback by this dish, because we came across town with Marcy expecting turkey with all the trimmings, but Charlie Brown had something else in mind.  In our eyes, this alternative is degrading.  Tears of frustration well up in Expectations' eyes, and Anxiety begins fretting about how he will fix this situation.

Instead of recognizing that God is all-wise, all-knowing, and all-benevolent, we post our fists on our hips and allow ourselves the indignant pleasure of thinking that we know best.  Being offended is so delicious when we are so very righteous.

"What kind of Thanksgiving dinner is this?" we demand, because our expectations have not been met, and - furthermore - have not been surpassed.  Why is this mountain here?  We want to know where the turkey is, because in order for life to be reasonable and fair, we have to have mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce on the side, and pumpkin pie for dessert.  We want flat roads and plateaus, not valleys and foothills.

"Don't you know anything about Thanksgiving dinners?" we demand of our Father, forgetting the fact that not only does He completely sustain all life, but that He also knows how to give good and perfect gifts to His children - the gravy on top of it all.

And yet, we remain unsatisfied.

Tara and I have barely begun our journey up the mountain, but we are choosing to reflect on God's goodness to us in the past and to place our trust anew in His perfect provision for the future.  With that perspective in mind, I find myself so immensely grateful for the fact that, even if we find the perfect home tomorrow that fits into our narrow mortgage window and meets all of the needs we think must be met, we will still not yet be home.  Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we are sojourners in a land that will never be anything but a tent, a rental.  This world is just the less-than-adequate bed & breakfast on the way to our final destination.

Through this process, Tara and I are learning anew to trust that our Good Shepherd will continue to lead us in the same patient and instructive way in which He has always lead His people -- through the waters and through the flames.  We are trusting that He will lead us to the perfect living situation by the end of February when our current lease expires, and ultimately that He will lead us all the way to our final home in His very presence.

Therefore, this Thanksgiving, I am leaving Anxiety and Expectations at the wayside and am consciously choosing to be thankful instead -- not only for the fact that I know God will continue to provide, but also for the fact that He alone is our fulfillment, in this life and the next.

04 November 2013

Why Christians should stop boycotting Halloween

When I was a kid, my family exercised a number of different options each time Halloween had the audacity to roll around once again.

For several years, we tried trick-or-treating with friends and innocent costumes, each year to the increasing detriment of my mother's conscience.  After that, we tried going to Chuck-E-Cheese's with other families from our church, but the place was always filled with as many greedy, be-costumed trick-or-treaters as were the streets, which defeated the original purpose.  Every few years, there would be a harvest party or some similar gathering, and then there were the dreaded 31sts when we made no plans and simply sat in the darkness while muffled voices passed by, dangerously close to our front door.

If you grew up in a Christian home, your experience with Halloween probably falls somewhere into those brackets.  It's understandably awkward for parents who are sensitive to worldly influences upon their children, who can appreciate the innocence of going to neighbors' houses for candy, but who also know the morbid realities that surround the holiday.  Christian witch-hunts (pun intended) have made the 31st of October into a celebration of the dead, citing instances of child sacrifice and demon worship as the main reason Christians should not participate in trick-or-treating.  I'm not about to get into a discussion of the sullied history of Halloween, because you can do that research for yourself.  For this post, it's negligible.  The reality is that while such horrific things might be true, they are not the norm.  Halloween might be the night of the year where terrible horror movies make a resurgence on Netflix and stores sell out of masks and fake blood, but the general temperature of the communities in which we live is that it is a fun evening to dress up as a family and go around the neighborhood in the cold, filling old sacks with candy.

This year on October 31st, instead of finding a safe place to hide, my wife and I and several of our friends camped out on their front lawn with hot chocolate and apple cider for adults and a bowl of candy for the kids.  We didn't hand out tracts.  We didn't announce (unless asked, or the opportunity arose organically) that we were even from a church.  What we did was purely about reaching out to families in the neighborhood with kindness.  We weren't recruiting, and we weren't moving stacks of literature -- both things people hate about the church.  What we were doing was simply turning on the porch light to say, "We are also people in your community."

Some of the biggest complaints about the church is that Christians are out of touch with reality, that we are snobbish, judgmental, and detached.  Passing out tracts communicates the fact that I don't have the time or the desire to discuss what I believe with you on as an individual, or I don't fully understand my own faith.  Recruiting members tells people that all the church cares about is attendance, padding pews with bodies as well as new velvet -- thanks to the increase in monthly tithing.  While that mountain isn't one we can demolish with such a simple gesture, taking the opportunity to reach out in the midst of a holiday which Christians are particularly known to reject says something to a skeptical community.  What we did was small, insignificant on its own, but if it becomes one of many different and repeated gestures, all of a sudden that reputation which applies to the church as a whole no longer applies to us, and people begin to question whether or not their notions of God and His people are fully accurate.

I understand the sensitivity surrounding Halloween.  It's not a bad thing.  We are told to take no part in darkness, because children of light cannot have fellowship with those who are in the darkness (2 Cor 6.14).  We are told to be holy as God is holy, and to keep ourselves unsullied by affiliation with the world.  But what we communicate when we turn off the porch light and pretend not to be home on October 31st is not preserving our holiness, but imposing distance and implying superiority.  We read James 1.27 and think that somehow by participating in a worldly holiday that we are somehow staining our righteousness.  But Jesus said that the ones who need doctors aren't the healthy, and doctors are required to get their hands dirty.  Besides, "participation" in Halloween doesn't mean donning a mask and fake blood.  Participation isn't about making ourselves blend in so that we can perform some type of covert operation.  Participation looks like reaching out boldly into the community in which you live.  That's why the porch light should remain on: because we have a responsibility.

What I'm getting at is the greatest commandment (Mark 12.30).  Christ told us it was to love God first and then others -- vertical love and then horizontal love.  One naturally follows the other.  True horizontal love doesn't just apply to your family and maybe the elderly couple who sits in the same pew as you on Sunday mornings.  Horizontal love necessarily includes the community, the people on your block and the next one over.  Horizontal love means taking the initiative to love, in word and in deed, anyone who might cross our paths -- even if they're dressed like zombies, geeks, or escaped convicts.

18 September 2013

You don't have to be a leader to be a leader

...okay, this has almost nothing to do with what I'm writing about.  Just wanted an excuse to throw it in there anyway.The leadership books our culture promotes are tomes full of management techniques, suggestions for maximum efficiency, and quotes about the benefit of humility.  Kevin Kruse of Forbes.com defines leadership in this way:
"Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal."
Here's the thing.  Good leadership does originate from the ability to instruct, direct, and influence, but it is predicated on more than simply action.  Good leadership is about achieving a goal, but that goal is more than simply meeting a quota or overcoming an obstacle.  Humility is essential for leadership, but it is more than simply rolling up your sleeves in order to share the workload of your subordinates.  It is more than simply seeing yourself the way others see you.  In other words, the philosophy on leadership which the modern corporate world embraces isn't necessarily wrong.  It's just incomplete.

The qualifications Paul lists in Titus 1 for Elders and Pastors (overseers) are listed below.  An Elder must be:
  • above reproach - a man who is "without fault": in other words, a man who - while imperfect - is unable to be accused of ongoing sinful conduct
  • the husband of one wife - a man of "conjugal chastity" (Matthew Henry); a man who practices godly sexuality, whose heart and body are satisfied with the wife of his youth (Proverbs 5.18)
  • the father of godly children - a man who raises his children to avoid sexual promiscuity (debauchery), who encourages them to aspire to commendable character, who teaches them to submit to authority
  • a steward - a man who recognizes that the role he fills is merely one of a shepherd, understanding that he boasts no ownership; a man who is set apart for ministry
  • patient - a man who is not quick-tempered, who is able both to endure disagreeable circumstances with faith and to extend grace to difficult people
  • temperate - a man who is not a drunkard, not prone to violence, and not greedy for monetary or physical gain
  • hospitable - a man who is less concerned about expense and inconvenience than the comfort and needs of others
  • a lover of good - a purveyor of righteousness and justice; a man whose heart breaks for the same reasons as the Lord's
  • upright and holy - a man who genuinely pursues God's command to be holy as He is holy with every facet of his life (1 Peter 1.16)
  • disciplined - a man of practiced routine, of spiritual and physical exercise, of hard work
  • given to sound doctrine - a man dedicated to both a). the teaching of correct theology and b). the sharp rebuke of faulty theology
I'm not making the argument that every person in any position of authority must fulfill each of these characteristics, possess an M.Div., and boast hours of community service.  That's not the reason Paul, by the direction of the Holy Spirit, made this list.  However, I am submitting this a challenge.

We should all be pastors in our own way - leaders of men no matter what our profession.  Reading through this impressive list of character traits convicted me of the fact that, regardless of my occupation and social status, I want these qualities to be indicative of my life and my character.  Whether or not I find myself in church leadership now or in the future, I want to aspire to be a leader of men.  I owe this not only to those who look up to me, but to the One who sacrificed so much to enable me to walk in such holiness - the very One who desires the best for me, whose glorification is not only my greatest privilege but also my greatest responsibility.

Social leadership values gain, advancement, efficiency, and the benefit of the whole, but it lacks the motivation of righteousness.  Godly social leadership values the same exact things, but interpreted via the light of the Kingdom.  Godly social leadership says, "Let me make sure my life is in order (advancement; efficiency) so that I can a). bring the most glory to God through my decisions (gain) and b). simultaneously have the maximum amount of positive influence on the lives with which I am in direct conjunction (benefit of the whole)."

Isn't that what this is all about?

08 September 2013

Public Speaking 1.0

We took our 4-month-old puppy to the city today to visit Tara's sister.  I'd been prepared for the passersby to react positively toward her (the puppy, I mean): let's face it, she's adorable.  She has the type of face that attracts everyone's attention - even those gruff, middle-aged men who don't want to admit that they have a sensitive side.  Of course, Kaylee's a terrible flirt too, because she comes up to give kisses and then immediately runs away after whatever smell/sound/sight has attracted her two-second attention span.  Naturally, I was prepared to show her off to all the pedestrians of Philadelphia.

What got me thinking is the fact that, had it not been for innocent little Kaylee, bouncing obliviously around my ankles, perhaps not one of the people I spoke to today would have otherwise even made eye-contact.  The typical tunnel-vision mentality of people these days apparently can sometimes broaden.  It seems that the normal hangups of strangerhood can be temporarily suspended when there's a puppy involved.  We can exchange smiles, or maybe even trade salutations.

I guess everyone needs some type of buffer for intimacy to take place - at least initially.  We go to restaurants on first dates because we don't want to introduce the potential Mr. or Mrs. Right to the dirty laundry sitting in our living rooms just yet.  We like the internet because it means we can edit our review and our comments before we make them, and choose the best possible profile picture to highlight our more attractive physical qualities.  On the street, in broad daylight, it's an entirely different story.  Are we all so afraid of rejection that we don't want to risk the possibility of receiving a mildly gruff "hello?"  Or maybe we just worship this god called time so much that we can't risk losing a few seconds to trivial conversation.

But is conversation really trivial?  Sure, maybe we just shoot the breeze and talk about the weather (see what I did there?), but maybe that two-minute conversation was the most pleasant, most peaceful moment of someone's otherwise stressful day.  Maybe that brief chat about the glorious afternoon was the one break in an individual's anxious thoughts.  Maybe those brief words we shared comprised the only in-person conversation that individual had all day long.

But we don't think about that in the moment, do we?  We only think about where we have to go and how weird it is when someone's gaze lingers on us for longer than a cursory glance.

The point is this.  I'm just as guilty as the next person of averting my eyes when someone I don't know passes me on the street.  It takes courage in this age to address a stranger without the barrier of a computer screen or the respectable distance of a phone call to protect us.  This generation needs an absolute, unmistakeable, honest-to-God reason to approach a stranger.  Wouldn't life be so much easier if we just had everyone's number and screen name and e-mail address, so that we could just talk via text, IM or even phone call?  Wouldn't life be so much simpler if we never again had to speak face-to-face to another person we didn't know?

Thank God that's not the way this life works.

Maybe none of this strikes anyone else the way it did me.  I was simply amazed by how easy it was to strike up a conversation with a total stranger about dogs, about pets in general, or even about absolutely nothing, with Kaylee there to lighten the mood.  It was something that I took advantage of, because despite my reservations, I believe that investing in one another's lives is part of the reason we're still here on this planet.  It's why Jesus said, "Go and make disciples," rather than commissioning the 12 with building monasteries.  We are a people not meant for isolation, but fellowship and communion.  In fact, Christianity is about deep spiritual intimacy with one another - confessing our sins to one another and praying for one another.  Of course it seems uncomfortable, because we've become so antisocial that we're no good at doing that!  But it has to start somewhere.  It has to start with letting down our armor and letting people in.  Love can't operate under any other circumstances.

In all reality, it shouldn't take the company of a 4-month-old puppy for me to interact with people - or for them to interact with me for that matter, but I'm only responsible for one half of that equation.  It's something, like anything, that requires practice to do with ease and confidence, and I'm not always going to have Kaylee with me to make it easy.  But with a face like she has, it's certainly a great advantage.

15 August 2013

Eliminating the "Feel-Good" Gospel

    "The typical gospel," wrote Dr. Scott Johnson in 2006, "that most churches set forth in America is [best defined as follows]: 1. popular, 2. does not offend the sinner, 3. would be considered 'politically correct,' 4. will not violate any hate crime legislation, 5. will usually assure job stability for the Pastor and line his pockets nicely as he is a hireling and has no true love for the sheep.  It will usually manifest itself as 'The Jesus Loves You' gospel and/or 'A loving Jesus would never send one of his children to hell' gospel." (Beware of the Feel Good Gospel).

    Seven years have not seen much change.  If anything, the proclamation of such false gospels has only increased.  The sad reality is that this is not a counter- or anti-Christian movement aimed at reforming the religion.  This is a problem coming from within the assembly of God.  This is about trying to make the faith more acceptable and more inclusive by propagating a "God loves you just the way you are" doctrine to a spiritually hungry generation.  This is about wolves in sheep's clothing taking chisels to the narrow gate in an attempt to widen its restrictive parameters - just a little bit at a time.

    We fool ourselves and others when we attempt to make the gospel palatable by softening its defining edges.  Things like the fact that we are helplessly terrible people and that we need a Savior to sacrifice Himself on our behalf, or things like the fact that God enacts salvation and we have nothing to do with it rub people the wrong way.  We dislike everything about the gospel that reveals how weak and needy we truly are.  And so we invent an alternative - one that cleans up all the bloodstains so that everyone wins and no one is ever sad again.

    The real root of the problem is our inflated sense of self-worth.  We think about the gospel in terms of what it gets us, and so that's what we sell to unbelievers: "Accept Jesus so you don't have to go to hell" or "Accept Jesus so you don't have to feel guilty anymore."  Sure, that's all well and good, but is that enough?  When we make the giving of grace all about us, those who receive it, then the answer is yes - that is enough.  Why bother including anything else when the gospel is all about taking our sip from the fountain?  We effectively divorce the gift from the Giver in an attempt to allow ourselves the slack we need to continue living the way we want while still playing it safe.  In this line of thinking, we grossly misunderstand the gospel.

    Let's recall that our salvation wasn't the primary reason Christ came.  Lifting us out of our sinful condition was his goal, absolutely, but the primary reason God chose to extend grace to miserable, sinful human beings is because it pleased Him to do so and brought Him glory.  Redeeming our corrupt race through the death and resurrection of His Son was the ultimate means of magnifying His perfect love and His perfect forgiveness, and we who believe merely benefit from His lovingkindness.  We are absolutely marginal in the story of redemption.

    But the Bible tells us that God came for sinners because He loved us!  Right?

    A good friend of mine was sharing with me recently that we misunderstand the "so" in John 3.16.  We read "For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son" and think the "so" means "extravagantly," "deeply," "equivocally."  And while it is absolutely true that the Father's love for us is vast beyond all measure (1 John 4.7, 19; Luke 15), we change the original meaning of John 3.16 when we improperly place such an emphasis on this little adverb.  How it should read is as follows:
    "13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 For God [in this way; in the same manner] loved the world[:] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
    The "so" in the verse is comparative, not emphatic.  For just as God provided salvation to Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness, so He offers salvation to the rest of the world by lifting up His Son for all to receive.  We have nothing to do with that.  God's motivation includes us, but it is not about us.  So why do we feel at liberty to make ourselves the focal point of the gospel?  We are merely the recipients of a great gift, and not any way the cause of it.

    When we elevate ourselves to such a place of priority, it is only natural that the next thing we should do is change the requirements the gospel places on us.  If we are the glorified party in salvation, then Christ did all the hard work for my benefit so that I can live a stress-free, white-collar, American Christian life.  But that's not at all what the Bible teaches.  In fact, Scripture points to the hard work that Jesus did accomplish on our behalf and tells us that we should do likewise.  Christ told His disciples that if they truly desired to follow Him, they would need to get behind Him in line with their own crosses on their shoulders (Matt 16.24).  This means that, far from granting us a glorified and comfortable life, the gospel instead grants us the potential privilege of suffering.

    Yes, you read that correctly.

    The gospel enables us to participate in the suffering of Christ because it is our opportunity not only to identify ourselves with our Savior, but also to pare back the worthless things in our lives and truly hone in on righteous living.  If sin is the elevation of our desires above God's, then suffering for righteousness decreases our drive to pursue sinful things.  Peter teaches us that when we live righteously and suffer for it, instead of discouraging us from continuing down that path, the suffering will actually help us cease from sinning (1 Peter 4.12.21).  It's a dose of reality - the reality that we are called to suffer with Christ and that the things we used to chase in this life really aren't worth the time when there is something more rewarding in store.

    But once again, we need to be careful, because even the suffering is not about us.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the Lord's grace is sufficient to sustain us, and His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor 12.9).  Suffering, therefore becomes all about what God is doing, not what we are capable of withstanding.  We think self-centeredly about our problems, but God has a much bigger plan for our lives, and suffering reveals it.  Therefore, suffering for a Christian is certain.  It should not give us pause to wonder why when terrible things are happening in our lives.   When Jesus sent out his 72 followers, he warned them that He was “sending us as lambs in the midst of wolves,” and His instructions to us contain the same (Luke 10.3).  Our Savior never called us into a "state of uncertainty, but to one of supreme certainty" (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship).  When we possess a true understanding of the gospel, we know with supreme certainty that believing in Christ and living for Him will result in a suffering.  But we also know that it is purposeful.  Suffering is both testing and refining, and when we continue patiently through it, we will become more like Christ in the end.

    That's what the gospel is all about.

    The gospel is a life-changing message that has absolutely nothing to do with us.  It was delivered for our benefit, to fully satisfy the impossible debt our wanton living had rung up - but not because our situation demanded that God rectify it.  Rather, it was purely His will to crush the Messiah on our behalf, because it would magnify His fathomless love and mercy (Isa 53.10).  Ultimately, the gospel was given so that we could use that gift of freedom, which we did nothing to deserve, to turn around and give all glory and praise and thanksgiving back to the Redeemer.

    The gospel is all about Jesus.

    14 August 2013

    Biblical Inerrancy (cont.)

    Perhaps the biggest cause for questioning the Bible's authenticity in our modern era is the mystery surrounding the "lost gospels," or those works that have been more recently discovered which are not considered part of the Scriptures.  The secular community points to these "alternate" texts as evidence of the fact that the Bible is either a). incomplete, b). inaccurate, or c). narrow-minded because these texts have been excluded from the canon.

    Let's talk a bit about these so-called "lost" or "Gnostic" gospels.

    Contrary to popular claims, there weren't hundreds of these gospels written about Jesus in the first century.  The early church only had four first century gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Church leaders didn't select these four from hundreds of available resources.  There simply weren't any other gospels.  The actual New Testament gospels were written far earlier than any of the "lost" gospels -- sometime within 30 to 60 years of Jesus' death when witnesses of his life and resurrection were still alive and able to contradict any fallacious claims.  When these alternate texts began to appear, some more than a hundred years following the death of Christ, the reason they were not considered canonical is because the teachings they contained were blatantly inaccurate.  Many of them adhered to docetism which taught that Jesus was God, but not man -- the complete opposite of the Arianistic Jesus-was-just-a-great-teacher philosophy which remains popular today.  To include these texts as supplemental to the existing canon would have been to contradict every fundamental teaching of Jesus concerning Himself, and the doctrine of the church would have been utterly conflicted.

    Not too long ago I wrote a response to an argument from a professing Christian who stated that the Bible isn't inerrant and that's what God intended so that we would exercise faith.  Let me be absolutely clear that my faith and -- therefore -- my life are informed by the understanding that the Bible is God's inspired Word, delivered through man's pen, and is 100% accurate.  The reason I take such an adamant stance on the issue of biblical inerrancy is perfectly surmised by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:
    “The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if... total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible's own.”
    In other words, if we begin to question the totality of God's Word, then we limit its authority over our lives.  We certainly don't change the Word of God, but we can limit its effectiveness.  Therefore, as believers, we have a biblical command to be diligent in learning and understanding the Scriptures so that we are not led astray by any false doctrine (Col 2.8; 2 Pet 3.14).

    In writing this follow-up post, I thought it might be beneficial to take a more particular look into inerrancy from an outside perspective.  As Christians, it is easy for us to accept this principle because we have placed our trust in Jesus Christ and trust that the Bible is His fulfilled Word.  We'll look at three common objections to the notion of an infallible Bible.

    Objection #1: The Bible is man-made, not God-breathed

    A common misconception even in classroom settings is that the early church simply picked the gospel accounts which were in accordance with their particular theological beliefs.  In other words, because it was these early pastor's preference to only include "approved" books into the canon of Scripture, the Bible cannot be considered complete or accurate because other vital writings are missing.

    The reason this claim is difficult to refute is because it's true: the early church did only allow books into the canon which accorded with their beliefs.  However, their beliefs weren't informed merely by personal opinion, and no one individual had any particular say on the issue.  The early church was not arbitrary in their decision making.  It was not simply, "I disagree with that, exclude it."  The testimonies in the alternate books conflicted with the existing canon of Scripture, and this was the real reason for their exclusion: it wasn't simply a matter of the author having a different opinion than the church leaders, but an entirely different gospel (Gal 1.6).

    The word "canon" comes from the Greek "kanwn" and most likely from the Hebrew "qaneh," which literally mean (a) a straight rod or bar; (b) a measuring rule as a ruler used by masons and carpenters; then (c) a rule or standard for testing straightness.  The idea was that there was a standard for inclusion -- a standard God Himself had ordained.  For this reason, there were three specific criteria which the early Church used to discover which books were from God.  I use the word "discover," which perhaps sounds awkward in context, but it is important to note that no canonical books of the Bible were ever "commissioned" by any church council.  Perhaps the most infamous misconception is that the Council of Nicea (325 AD) convened in order to determine which books should be in the New Testament.  However, the Nicean Council did not deal with the issue of canon at all, but with the Arian heresy, which taught that Jesus was a man, but not God.  The bottom line is this: religious authorities at no time had any power to cause books to be inspired, but simply took painstaking steps to carefully recognize the message which God had breathed into written form through the apostles.

    It is also important to note that the church's recognition of a book as canonical doesn't mean that they made it so: such is the case with the Catholic Bible, which includes apocryphal books such as The Tobit, Judith, and the books of the Maccabees.  A book is only canonical because of the intrinsic inspiration of the Spirit.  Man truly has no say over this matter.

    So.  The three specific criteria which the early Church used to establish the books of the scriptural canon.

    The first and most important was apostolicity.  In other words, in order for a book to be considered scripture, it had to be written by an apostle or associate of an apostle of Jesus (i.e. Mark was an associate of Peter and Luke was an associate of Paul).  However, not everything an apostle wrote was inspired.  Even if another letter of Paul's were discovered, it would not be canonical or inspired.  By the way, the an apostle was a). someone who had seen the resurrected Christ and/or b). who had close fellowship with Jesus (1 Cor 9.1).  Since the last apostle who lived was John, who died around 100 AD, if a book was written over a hundred years after Jesus' death it obviously could not have not been written by an apostle.  Therefore, it also could not be included in the canon.

    The second criterion was consistency.  Did the book in question agree with undoubtedly authentic writings?  For example, the book of James was initially questioned because there was some doubt whether it concurred with Paul's writings (faith versus works -- Jas 2 and Rom 3; deeper study reveals that James is not teaching works-based salvation, but that works prove salvation as a result of life-changing faith).  The process of eliminating heretical texts was based on the core list of undisputed New Testament books, such as the four gospels containing the direct words of Jesus and the letters of Paul.  Furthermore, the church was also in possession of the Old Testament writings which had existed in totality for centuries.  The New Testament references the Old, and the Old prophesies the New because they are part of the same Word of God.  The message is unified and unanimous.  Therefore, the painstaking process of study and comparison was undertaken not so that new ideas about Christianity could be stamped out, but so that the original gospel message was preserved, untarnished. 

    The third criterion was Catholicity or universality.  In other words, was the book already circulated amongst various churches?  This would help the church leaders to know where the Gospel or letter originated so they could trace its roots and determine if the book was apostolic.  However, this criterion was secondary, because there were churches who claimed heretical texts as canon and needed to be corrected.  Used in conjunction with the other criteria, however, the need for universality made it difficult for non-canonical texts to remain in circulation without being cast into suspicion.

    Before we move on to the next objection, let's consider the fact that part of the reason for doubting divine authorship is the problem of circular reasoning.  We see this fallacy in the established fossil record: archaeologists date fossils by the geologic layers in which they are found, and then proceed to date the geologic layers by the fossils that they contain.  It's silly, and it's a known problem.  However, to an unbeliever, the same issue apparently exists in terms of biblical infallibility due to the fact that the Bible is self-affirming:
    2 Timothy 3.16: "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work."
    1 Peter 1.16: "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,' 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit."
    In an academic setting, you aren't allowed to cite yourself.  You also can't use a word to define itself.  So to someone who has grown up in a generation so steeped in academia, a simple "the Bible says so"  answer just isn't enough of a reason to believe it.  How do we logically rectify this objection without a  generic "join the club, then you'll understand" type of response?

    Ultimately, the issue boils down to the source of authority.  As Christians, it is no stretch of faith for us to say, "God said it, so it's true," because we believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God.  For a skeptic who doubts the existence of God however, that doesn't quite make the grade.  He or she needs more than a book which claims its own perfection.  That's why the priority of convincing someone of the infallibility of the Bible should always take a back-seat to convincing them of the love and purpose Jesus Christ has for them.

    Objection #2: There are numerous contradictions in the Bible

    It is true that there are difficulties within the Word of God.  Despite every precaution taken by the Nicean scribes and other copyists and translators of God's Word throughout the centuries (see below), copyediting problems have arisen over centuries of replicating biblical texts.  It is important to note that these discrepancies are only due to copying and translational errors throughout the centuries and not due to outside influence.  Furthermore, as more historical and archaeological evidence is uncovered, the fewer Bible difficulties there are.

    For the sake of discussion, let's consider a few examples.

    1). Ishmaelites/Midianites discrepancy in Genesis.
    Genesis 37.28: "Then some Midianite traders passed by, so they pulled him up and lifted Joseph out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. Thus they brought Joseph into Egypt."
    Genesis 37.36: "Meanwhile, the Midianites sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s officer, the captain of the bodyguard."
    Genesis 39.1: "Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an Egyptian officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the bodyguard, bought him from the Ishmaelites, who had taken him down there."
    According to Paul John Achtemeier, the terms "Ishamelite" and "Midianite" were "synonymous and referenced the same general ethnic group known to have descended from Abraham through Ishmael," and "the term 'Midianite' probably identified a confederation of tribes that roamed far beyond their ancestral homeland."  Therefore, the apparent problem is merely in the relative name of the people group, not in determining which people group was responsible for purchasing Joseph's life.

    2). God has never been seen, or He has been seen?

    There are a number of passages which suggest that God has been seen by men:
    Genesis 17.1: "Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, 'I am God Almighty ; Walk before Me, and be blameless.'"
    Genesis 18.1: "Now the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day."
    Exodus 6.2: "God spoke further to Moses and said to him, 'I am the LORD; 3 and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name, LORD, I did not make Myself known to them.'"
    Exodus 24.9: "Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. 11 Yet He did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel; and they saw God, and they ate and drank."
    Numbers 12.6: "He said, "Hear now My words: if there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, shall make Myself known to him in a vision. I shall speak with him in a dream. 7 Not so, with My servant Moses, he is faithful in all My household; 8 With him I speak mouth to mouth, even openly, and not in dark sayings, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid To speak against My servant, against Moses?'" 
    Acts 7.2: "And he [Stephen] said, 'Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran...'"
    The verses cited above do not say that the individuals involved witnessed a vision (with the exception of the Numbers 12 passage) or a dream.  They say that people saw God and that He appeared as God Almighty, which means it was not simply an appearance of an angel or a hallucination.

    However, the following verses all contain the opposite claim that God has not been seen by men:
    Exodus 33.20: “But He [God] said, "You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!"

    John 1.18: “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” 
    John 5.37: "And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form."
    John 6.46: "Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father."
    1 Timothy 6.15: "He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen."
    So we've got an apparent contradiction within the Bible.  It's instances such as these which give critics pause, but there are a couple of reasons why these two apparently oppositional ideas are actually harmonious.

    First of all, none of the individuals who saw God witnessed His full majesty.  In the instance recorded in Exodus 33 of Moses seeing God, God actually hides him in a crack in the mountain and only allows Moses a glimpse - because "no man can see Me and live."  God's holiness is too much for sinful human eyes to look upon without consequence.  Therefore, in each of these instances of men seeing an appearance of God, it was only a veiled glimpse -- not a full look.

    Additionally, Jesus makes note that it is specifically the Father who has never been seen.  So it was someone else in the triune Godhead who has appeared to men in the past.  In all likelihood, each of these instances of the Lord appearing were appearances of the pre-incarnate Word: the Son of God before He came to earth as Jesus.  In other words, they were seeing Jesus (a Christophany)!

    There are many other examples we could look at, but contradictions in the Bible boil down to one of two things: a). difficulty in translation, usually pertaining to names and numbers, or b). difficult theological concepts which can be explained through careful study.

    Objection #3: The Bible is no longer authentic due to centuries of human “maintenance”

    As I mentioned earlier, the canonical gospels were written in close proximity to the death of Jesus -- within 30 to 60 years of His resurrection.  Therefore, these original texts were affirmed by the public -- by both believers and skeptics alike -- on the basis of firsthand experience.  One of the best analogies I've heard is that publishing an inaccurate gospel would be like publishing a book about George Jones and his extra-terrestrial life.  Because people are alive today who knew George Jones, such an erroneous claim would be easily refuted.  So it was with accounts of Jesus' miraculous life, death, and resurrection: they could be neither denied nor enhanced with that number of eye-witnesses.

    It is true that the Old Testament writings were preserved by the Niceans through meticulous copying and care.  It is true that, in preparing to write the name of the Lord, a scribe would break his old quill and get a fresh one -- each of the approximately 7000 times the name YHWH appears in the Hebrew texts.  It is also true that a scribe could make no more than six grammatical or spelling mistakes in a text he was copying.  If he made six mistakes, the entire document was burned.  It didn't matter if the sixth mistake occurred in Exodus or Zechariah: the entire book was destroyed and the scribe would start over again from Genesis.  This is due to the fact that they fully understood the importance of perfectly copying God's word.   More errors in modern texts have occurred through translational errors between Greek and English than from copying errors.

    The reliability of the New Testament is further enforced by the following fact:
    “there are now more than 5300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament... [in addition to] over 10,000 Latin Vulgate and at least 9300 other early versions and... more than 24000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament. This means that no other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, Iliad by Homer is second with only 643 manuscripts that still survive.  The first complete preserved text of Homer dates from the 13th century.” (“The Bible: The Holy Canon of Scripture,” J. Hampton Keathley)
    Think about how revered the Iliad is by the educated community.  There are fewer original copies of Homer's epic than original copies of the Bible.  There are fewer original records on Alexander the Great than there are on Jesus Christ.

    All of these factors aside, there is one more to consider.

    Those of us who have committed our lives to Christ have an adoration for the Word of God that is more than simply enjoying a good read.  To us, the preservation of God's Word is not dependent upon a specific number of physical copies or hiring the best proofreaders to fix typographical errors.  The preservation of God's Word is dependent upon proclaiming Him to future generations.  Just as the psalmist has hidden the Lords' words away in his heart, so must we (Psa 119.11).  Preservation of God's Word remains a duty faithfully carried out by those who believe in the authority of the Scriptures.

    A former professor of mine made the astute observation that faith is its own defense.  So while I've written this post in an argumentative format, let me be absolutely clear: the Bible has and will continue to stand the test of time without needing any kind of defense from man.  If, as I believe, it is the inspired word of God, then it was breathed out by the One who created all things.  Therefore, God's Word is perfect and will endure forever (Isa 40.8), no matter how badly we might damage it in the printed format.

    08 July 2013

    Observations from Roatán

    From the 29th of June through the 6th of July, I spent a week doing ministry in Roatán, Honduras.  The trip was a fantastic learning experience, and represented some significant firsts in my life.  For starters, it was my first time leaving the U.S. (which also meant it was my first time being a minority).  It was also the first opportunity I've had to truly attempt communicating in a foreign language.  Unfortunately, the three years of high school Spanish molding under my belt accounted for very little.  This was my first time being away from my wife for longer than a weekend, which was less a challenge than a disappointment that she couldn't go and minister beside me.  Finally, it was also my first real missions trip, and I am truly blessed that it was such a positive introduction to ministry abroad (despite numerous complications, including a teen losing his passport and a last-minute school cancellation on the island; God is sovereign!).  Contrary to popular opinion, it was not my first time driving a stick, but we'll leave that matter be.

    In a nutshell, we flew 20 students and 8 adults including myself down to the island where we partnered with Peter and Sandi Silseth, and Jerry and Mildred Peterson - all missionaries serving via HRGS Radio.  During the week, we ran a sports-themed VBS for the local children, which averaged between 60-85 kids each day.  However, while our ministry specifically targeted the children, it was also a unique tool for building relationships between our team and the community as well.

    From my all-too-short experience in Roatán, I gathered a couple observations.  The first strikes me as both introspective and a bit ethnocentric.  In America, we have a deep-seated sense of entitlement.  We're all about getting our due and making sure no one takes advantage of us.  However, we also appreciate fairness and equality.  Just last week, we celebrated Independence Day, commemorating ancestors who fought for the fundamental rights of men.  It's in our blood to root for the underdog and to desire fair playing fields.  There's a little bit of a humanitarian in each of us.  In that regard, if there was one thing I struggled to communicate to the Honduran children, it was this principle of fairness – of sharing.  They don't understand it because life has been unfair to them.  The poverty line in Roatán is fascinating because it doesn't exist geometrically.  There are no rich communities and poor communities, separated by fences or highways.  In the Flowers Bay area alone, there are sprawling mansions with white-washed walls dominating hillsides, surrounded within 15-20 feet on all sides by bungalows and shacks, with yards demarcated by broken automobiles and odd assortments of trash.  It's difficult to get boys and girls who have literally been forced to live in the cold shadow of privilege their entire lives - while they themselves own only a single shirt and pair of pants - to let someone else go first.  In their experience, if they don't seize something for themselves and claim it as their own, they might not get another chance later.

    My second observation came to me in light of John 4.  In Roatán, the water is undrinkable.   Every resort, hotel, and private residence that can afford it purchases filtered water in 5-gallon containers.  What we take for granted – turning on the spigot for safe drinking water – they can't rely upon.  It was an inconvenience for me just brushing my teeth in a water bottle during the week.  But through that minor aggravation, the realization struck me that the Hondurans are a lot like the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well.   Jesus offered her living water, and her mind immediately went to excitement over the fact that she would have one less chore if she accepted – not needing to go through the drudgery of gathering the day's water supply.  We brought living water to Honduras.  We brought the gospel.   I praise God for the children who professed to love Jesus on the last day of VBS, and I praise God for the opportunity we had to be His vessels in such a thirsty environment, but I also recall Jesus' words to His disciples later in that same chapter of John: “the fields are white for harvest.”  While I'm deeply blessed by the experiences we were privileged to have and humbled to have been used by God even in a small way, I'm also sobered by how great a need still exists.  The harvest is indeed plentiful, but the laborers are few (Matt 9.37).

    Going on a missions trip designed for teenagers meant my role was slightly different than simply going as a worker.  I was ministering on two fronts - on one hand to the children of Roatán  certainly, but also to the teens I brought along for the ride.  In that regard, my role looked a little different than simply managing the baseball diamond (by the end of the week, my favorite thing to do was emphatically yelling "Fuera!" [Out!] whenever the opportunity presented itself; the kids loved it).  I was also responsible for twenty teenagers - for their safety, their encouragement, and their spiritual growth.  In that regard, my favorite part of the week was having the the opportunity to teach them through evening devotions, spending time with them during off-hours,  and ministering to the Honduran children beside them.  I'm fairly confident that not a lot of youth leaders out there can boast the same level of pride in, and adoration for, their teens that I can for mine.  Without exaggeration, it was an absolute joy to get to know each one of them a little better during our week together.  In fact, there were times when the other leaders and myself would eat together or send the kids to the beach in their own groups, and I'd be disappointed to be staying with the other “grownups” and not going with them.

    The pride I have in them came primarily during VBS hours.  Whether I was umping the makeshift baseball diamond with Nathanael; acting as Katie's dastardly sidekick in our group skit; seeing Tori, Annie, and Mikaela playing with little girls on their laps; playing fun kids' songs on the guitar with Nick; or watching Sammy serve water while clad in a boot cast (and the list goes on), I was both deeply impressed and emboldened by the level of enthusiasm each of them brought to the ministry we came to do.  Their love for the children surpassed mere obligation.  There was never any reluctance in what they did.  It was always all about making sure a). that the kids were having fun every second, and ultimately b). that they were aware of the reason why we'd come.

    All that being said, the real challenge comes with returning home.  I'd term it "back to the grind," but that's exactly the type of mentality I want to avoid.  One of the things my teens all had in common upon returning home was the desire to bring the ministry mindset back with them.  They come from a home church full of its own children, and it would be inexcusable for them to ignore those opportunities to serve when they are so prevalent.  What they all embrace is the understanding that missions work doesn't begin overseas, and the type of spiritual high that comes from doing the Lord's work abroad isn't our motivation for living a life of godliness.  Our motivation is to glorify our Savior in everything we do, all the time, because of what He gave for us.

    With that as the focus, a ministry mindset isn't difficult to maintain at all.

    31 May 2013

    RE: Zack Hunt -- Biblical Inerrancy and Why It's Important

    Prior to Charles Darwin's 1859 publication, On the Origin of Species, there was never a need to "defend the faith" the way that there is today.  In the 150 years since that monumental release, there has been a slow burn of anti-Bible sentiment -- ripples of the bitter stone hurled into the lake of religious worldview.  Since the snowball began, the modern scientific community has grown up refining the evolutionary theory, and their collective doubt has led other schools of thought to similarly challenge the authority of the Bible.  A&E specials on the Gnostic Gospels, The Bible, Dan Brown thrillers, and even 80's rock operas have all called into question the legitimacy of the Scriptures by presenting alternate interpretations and "disregarded" information.

    All of these factors combined have contributed to the cloud of "reasonable doubt" which sneers in the face of Christianity.  The agnostic-flavored question, "How do you know that the version of the Bible you have is the correct one?" is perhaps one of the most common objection to any discussion of the divine authority of Scriptures.  In fact, most people aren't opposed to the idea of a Bible handed down from on high, but they are concerned with getting the right one -- the one that's fair, reasonable, and cutting-edge culturally speaking.

    Unfortunately, there are structural problems from within the Christian faith as well.  This article appeared today on the Red Letter Movement website: a post by Zack Hunt, a student of Yale Divinity.  Sardonically establishing himself as a martyr for his claims, Hunt dives into his argument concerning the imperfections of the Bible, how they are self-proclaimed, and how the incompleteness of the Scriptures is the foundation for faith.  His concluding statement is the most painful section of all to read -- not because it is convicting as intended, but because it is so grossly mistaken:

    When we affirm inerrancy, we create an idol fashioned out of the same need for certainty and control that drove Adam and Eve to snatch divinity away from God.  Simply put, Biblical inerrancy isn’t Biblical.  Now, I’m not naive enough to think that someone who believes in BIblical inerrancy will read this post and suddenly "see the light."   Our fear and ingrained need for control are not overcome that easily.  So, if you are reading this post and you do affirm Biblical inerrancy, please know that not only are you breaking away from Church tradition, you are also rejecting the imperfection the Bible claims for itself, the very imperfection that is necessary for faith.

    Great.  So, by esteeming the Bible as the inspired, infallible Word of God, I've made it an idol?  Might as well put my ESV study Bible on a pedestal and start wringing birds' necks in front of it.

    Unfair, perhaps, but the punishment fits the crime.

    The biggest problem with Hunt's assertions lies in his misconceptions.  First of all, he is writing under the assumption that it is okay to question the Bible in terms of literal interpretation.  Halfway through his article, he questions the logical reasoning behind the story of Noah's ark and how childish it is to believe in a literal interpretation of the account as an educated adult.  In so doing, he opens the door for all kinds of literal/metaphoric interpretation problems:

    "So if Noah's story is dubious, then what about Jonah in the belly of the whale?  It's certainly improbable, so let's say that one's a kid's tale also, simply included in the Biblical texts to remind us not to disobey God's will.  Well, what about Peter pulling a coin out of a fish's mouth at Jesus' command?  Nothing more than an allegory about God's provision, nothing more.  How about Jesus on the cross?  What about His resurrection?  Is the Holy Spirit even a real thing/entity/being?"

    Honestly, where does the line of questioning stop?  By questioning the authenticity of one account, you absolutely question the authenticity of the rest.  That's the way trustworthiness works.  That's the way our judicial system works.  One lie invalidates a testimony.

    Dangerous footholds aside, Hunt further invalidates his own argument through the following non sequitur.  Because, he claims, our mothers gave us good instructions but aren't perfect, we can therefore conclude that the Bible (somehow equated with motherhood?) -- since it also gives good advice -- likewise can't be regarded as infallible.  I understand that he's establishing a metaphor to make a point, but it's a faulty one at best.  Motherly instruction may teach a lesson about faith, but we're talking about the Scriptures, not parenting style.

    Hunt's second misconception arises partly from a misunderstanding of the word "perfect" and partly from a shallow understanding of the way God interacts with man.  Operating under the premise that there are only two things "God-breathed" in Scripture -- Scripture itself (2 Tim 3.16) and man (Gen 2.7) -- Hunt argues that a). because God is perfect, He b). couldn't create anything else that is perfect (because it would therefore be the same as Him), so c). Scripture (God-breathed like man) must therefore also be imperfect the same way man is imperfect.  The presumption of this part of his argument is that, in order for God to create something "perfect," He would have to duplicate Himself.  However, the fact of the matter is that God didn't create another God.  He created a human - an entirely different class, unlike anything He had yet created.

    Apples and oranges.

    Furthermore, as Hunt testifies, the Bible records that all of creation was "good" -- unfallen, unsullied, untainted.  MacArthur defines the usage of the word as "sufficient for the purposes it was intended to serve" -- which, by the way, is virtually synonymous with "perfect."  Something doesn't have to possess divine quality to be flawless.  Of course, there is no longer anything flawless in our world today, but in the beginning, God created our world itself in a state of absolute perfection - to His own specifications and standards.  To doubt that God, in all His power and wisdom, could create a perfect human being (simply because the Spirit moved Moses to use the word "good" instead of "perfect") is to doubt His sovereignty and omnipotence.

    Furthermore, despite the fact that man, now broken by the sin he chose, became once again the vessel for God to breathe life into, does not mean that the Word came out imperfect as a result.  In fact, Scripture proclaims that God chose to use "earthen vessels" so that His glory might be revealed by contrast (2 Cor 4.71 Cor 1.18-31).  How could we be so arrogant as to presume that we could mess up God's Word?  How could man possibly distort the will of God, because it was clearly God's will to share His gospel with us?  How could the Word that became flesh, the perfect Son of God, misrepresent himself in His own autobiography?  Furthermore, as Peter records, the prophetic Word of God is "more fully confirmed" than even His own presence here on earth.  That doesn't lend itself to a fallible interpretation of Scripture.  The bottom line is that God, because of His nature as God, simply would not give an imperfect, incomplete, man-stained picture of Himself.  As our Shepherd, He would not mislead us.  As our Heavenly Father, He would not give evil gifts to His children (Luke 11.13; Jas 1.17).

    Mr. Hunt, we don't need faith to believe that the Bible - despite its "inadequacies" -- is God's Word, because there are no inadequacies.  On the contrary, a biblical definition of faith is not synonymous with "hope" in the sense that it invokes an element of uncertainty.  Biblical faith is necessary to believe in things expected and unseen, not things that are uncertain (Heb 11.1-3).  Mr. Tillich is correct in his claim that faith "requires an element of doubt," but it's not because we don't have confidence, but because we a). cannot prove by logical standards the claims that we uphold, and b). because we -- as fallen human beings -- can't fully understand the perfect wisdom of Almighty God.  Paul wrote that we only "see in part" now because we are limited, not because the Word of God is (1 Cor 13.12)  We need faith not because God didn't communicate His Word perfectly, but because our understanding is so limited, shackled by our own damning pride and intrinsic fallibility.

    Contrary to what you may think, biblical faith leaves no room for doubt.  Biblical faith is absolute confidence -- "conviction" as the writer of Hebrews termed it - derived from the absolute perfect Word of God alone.

    Faith in anything less than that isn't much faith at all.

    15 May 2013

    Sown Amongst Thorns

    If it weren't for the fact that everyone and their mother is apparently watching Dr. Who, I'd apologize for the nerdy discussion to follow, but the show could almost be considered mainstream now.  At any rate, there are are two characters in the universe of the Doctor that I want to talk about - older characters, as neither has reappeared since the third season.  They are juxtaposed perhaps obviously, as they appear in two separate episodes together, both times as opposing forces offering definitive counterpoints.

    This may come across as silly, but bear with me - there's an application buried in here somewhere.  I promise.


    We first encounter Lady Cassandra O'Brien Δ17  in the second episode of the Dr. Who relaunch ("The End of the World").  Without beating around the bush, she is the epitome of vanity and all the shallowness that comes with delusions of bloated self-worth.  She is also termed "the last human," a decidedly questionable status which she nevertheless flaunts, boasting that she is the last pure human to be born.  In a word, she embodies ambition, and also fear, because it is her terror of age that has led to her altered physical state, and her terror of death that has led her to sacrifice her body in order to obtain immortality - or the nearest thing to it.  Ultimately, as Rose scathingly remarks, any truly human qualities Cassandra might have once possessed were "chucked in the bin" during her 708 plastic surgeries, and nothing remains but "skin and lipstick."  In "The End of the World," Cassandra and several other prestigious individuals have gathered on Space Platform 1 in the year 5 billion to watch the earth burn.

    The Face of Boe

    The Face of Boe's first appearance is in the same episode, but the full weight of his character is only gradually revealed as the show progresses.  He comes to represent wisdom, silence, longevity, and - ultimately - self-sacrifice.  His solemnity is undergirded by the Doctor's respect for him, not to mention the role he will play later in the series (as River Song would term it, "Spoilers!").  He is synonymous with the weariness of the universe, with watchfulness, with responsibility.  His past is a mystery (some hints are scattered in later episodes, but nothing explicit is given) it is clear that he has seen and experienced much - both joy and suffering - and while he, like Cassandra, has surrendered his body to unfathomable age, Boe carries his status less as a trophy than as a duty with which he has been entrusted.

    The point I want to make is this.  At the end of the world - the real end of the world - there will likewise be two types of people represented.  The sheep and the goats, if you will.  There will be those who bear a sense of privilege, entitlement, and they will be ultimately humiliated by the worst rejection they will ever experience - and will continue to experience for all of eternity. And then there will be the other type: the people who labored through life intentionally, with a goal and a purpose that was external to themselves.  Perhaps Russel Davies had something like this in mind when he wrote the episode.  Regardless, the end of the world is a considerable enigma on the human radar: we all recognize that our earth and our linear existence must come to an inevitable conclusion, and we therefore must choose what we do with our lives in order to make that end matter.

    Unfortunately, in the here and now, I often find myself behaving more like Cassandra than I'd like to admit.  I'm concerned with what other people think.  I'm concerned with success.  I'm concerned with meeting my own needs, not necessarily the needs of others.  That's self-preservation, and it's antithetical to the message Jesus came to preach.  In fact, in the parable of the sower, the Savior warned that the Word can easily be choked out of the believer by the "cares of the world" and the "deceitfulness of riches."  It's an all-or-nothing, either-or type of message.  It's an absolute, and maybe that rubs us the wrong way because we want to have our cake and eat it too, but the bottom line is that we cannot serve two masters.  Even on a practical level, if I want to become proficient in a given skill, then I have to abandon the other skills I'm pursuing in order to devote time and effort to the one I want to really develop.  Faith works the same way in our life.  If we care more about reputation and success, then our relationship with Christ will suffer as a result.  James was the one who pointed out that we are led astray by our own desires.  In order to grow into strong, faithful believers, we've got to weed the garden of our heart of anything that might hinder us from pursuing Christ.

    What I desire is to conduct myself with grace and poise - not so that the world can see and applaud, but so that I can present myself as a good and faithful steward at the end of my life.  I've said it before on Häxprocess that my goal is to proclaim as did Job that my heart does not reproach me for any of my days (Job 27.6).  In that regard, I want to be more like Jesus.  I want to be patient and devoted, safeguarding an ancient truth like the Face of Boe.  Albeit, preferably with more legs and less tentacles.