Monday, June 10, 2019

Pleading for Sodom

Smite button
Is God a monster?

There are those in our society that look at the acts of judgment in the Bible (especially the Old Testament) and conclude that only a truly evil being would do things like that. Now some of that is simply people disliking the idea of anyone being held accountable for their actions, but I think we've done God a disservice in the way we teach some passages of the Bible.

Take the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. We know how God told Abraham that he was going to destroy the cities. Abe, being a stand up guy, immediately starts dickering with God to save them. He gets him to say he'd spare the cities if he could find 50 righteous people in them. Slowly he whittles him down to 10 — if he finds 10 righteous people, he won't kill everyone. God knows they're not there, but he makes this agreement to make Abraham feel better about God's justice.

For all that I'm being a bit flippant in that retelling, I have always heard that story presented as Abraham slowly working God down to a mere 10 righteous people. In our imaginations, we hear God's reply as "Sure, fine, if there are 10 I won't destroy the city. Leave me alone already."

But what in that story makes it seem like God is making Abraham work for it?

Let's look at some other passages in the Bible that touch on this theme.

In Ezekiel, God corrects Israel's understanding of how divine justice works. The son is not killed for the father's sin, nor is the righteous for the sinner's. In fact, even the sinner, if he turns from his wicked ways, will live: "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?" declares the Sovereign Lord. "Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?" (18:23).

Consider the story of Jonah. We focus more on the prophet who ran rather than doing what he was told. But what he was told to do was remarkable. He was sent to preach judgment and repentance to the people of Nineveh. Jonah didn't want to go because he knew God is prone to forgiving sinners. God's reply is telling: "Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left?" (4:11).

Remember the story of Jesus expounding on how terrible Israel and her leaders had become. He lists seven "woes", enumerating their sins. Then hear his voice crack as he says, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing" (Matt 23:37).

Finally, Luke tells us that after Christ's "Triumphal Entry," he stopped to consider the city that was about to reject him:

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace — but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (19:41-44)

Our God takes no pleasure in meeting out punishment. He would prefer that people repent.

So let's take that reminder back into the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Hear Abraham ask God to spare the city for the sake of 50, and there's no reason why we should think God hesitated at all. Abraham, knowing Sodom's reputation, wisely lowered his request to 45, then 40, and works his way down to 10.

Then hear God's reply: "Oh, Abraham, if only there were 10 righteous people in that city."

God is holy. God is just. God will judge wickedness. But he does not do it with a smile on his face. We should take care that we do not present him as rubbing his hands in glee. His love is holy. His justice is loving. The God who leaves the 99 does not delight in bringing punishment.


Yeah, but what about the Canaanites? Here's a great article from Stand to Reason on that topic.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A Trustworthy Saying on Ambition

"Early to rise and early to bed
Makes a man healthy but socially dead."

Every culture has sayings that become maxims or even mantras. "The early bird gets the worm." "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

In the pastoral letters, Paul shares what appear to have been common sayings in the early church that he found "trustworthy."

"Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task" (1 Tim 3:1).

It's OK to desire to do more.

Let me first admit that what this says is that the office of overseer is a noble one. Yes, absolutely. But Paul is talking about people who "desire" the office. He doesn't say that those who desire to be an overseer should cool their jets because the Spirit will let them know if he wants them to be one. Of course, he also doesn't say that anyone can be one. Paul expands on the nobility of the task by describing the fine character necessary in an overseer. It's not for everyone. They should be the best of us.

But if you're striving to have the character of an overseer, it's OK to want to be one.

This isn't the only place where Paul suggests we can want to do more. In the "spiritual gifts" passage 1 Cor 12, he says, "Now eagerly desire the greater gifts" (v31). Later he says, "... eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy" (14:1).

James cautions us, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly" (3:1), but even there he is not saying that the desire is wrong, merely that there are risks to be considered.

What is important is that we don't desire gifts or offices for our own glory. "Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good" (1 Cor 12:7). "Everything must be done so that the church may be built up" (14:26c). "Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:11-13). Our ambition should not be for glory or profit but to better serve our Lord and his church.

So sinful, worldly ambition says, "I want to be more." Godly ambition says, "I want to do more for Jesus." And that is something God smiles on.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Review: Interpreting Eden

How should we read Genesis 1-3? It might surprise you to know that this is not a new question. People were asking that centuries before Darwin came along. But now that we do have Darwin and Big Bang cosmology, everyone is asking. Vern Poythress' new book Interpreting Eden offers a thoughtful answer.
Interpreting Eden

He begins with "basic interpretive principles," and that means he begins with God because "interpreting Genesis 1–3 depends on who we think God is. We need to interpret it bearing in mind that there is one true God, who created everything, who rules everything, and who can work miracles whenever he chooses" (p35). If there is a God, he can do as he pleases: he can let things runs, or he can involve himself.

He then talks about how we should think about the Bible and scientific claims before showing that our modern, "scientific" language is just as phenomenological as the ancients'. After discussing the genre that Gen 1-3 belongs to, he provides a helpful summary of those first 6 chapters.

Then he's on to "exegetical concerns" where he builds his case that the events of creation correspond to God's normal providential work in the universe and therefore should not be taken as metaphorical.

In part 3 he brings it all together to tell us what he actually thinks about Gen 1-3. Then there is a very helpful conclusion that summarizes everything.

This work is not a lay commentary, nor is it a popular apologetic work. There is technical language and long, complex arguments. I began to despair in the chapter on "Time in Genesis 1" that he would never get to the point. But he did. Reading this book will require a bit of effort from the reader. However, he has provided us with graphics that visualize many of his points and two excellent summaries of his argument (chapter 7 and then the conclusion) that help you wrap your head around what he's been saying. (I really have to emphasize that, though the bulk of the text is hard work, the summaries are very clear and extremely helpful. Every book should be so clearly summarized.)

In the end you will be convinced that it is possible to believe that the first three chapters of Genesis are literally true and that modern scientific theories are essentially correct. This work is well worth your time if you're at all interested in the topic.

NB: I received a free review copy.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Rest of the Gospel

Are we selling the gospel short?

Ask a child what the gospel is, and she'll (hopefully) say something like, "It's God forgiving your sins so you can go to heaven." And all of that is true.

As adults we should know that it's about so much more than that. But I think we forget.

Here's a verse almost everyone knows: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

Here's one less well known: "Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (John 17:3).

"Eternal life" is more than going to heaven. We get to know God!

Here's another one: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: The old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them" (2Cor 5:17-19).

Through Christ's atoning death, through the forgiveness of our sins, "God was reconciling" us to himself. He was healing the broken relationship between us.

"To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col 1:27).

The mystery of the gospel is "Christ in you." We are united with Christ. God now lives in us.

"For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters" (Rom 8:29).

"For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will — to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves" (Eph 1:4-6).

And he has adopted us, rebellious sinners though we were and are, as his own children, "heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ" (Rom 8:17), and now "God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus" (Eph 2:6). This was the big plan. This isn't a fringe benefit. This is what God set out to do. We are forgiven, promised "eternal life", reconciled to God, and united with Christ so that we can be adopted.

So what is the gospel? It's God forgiving your sins through Christ so that he can make you his child.

I think this is the message our culture needs to hear today, partly because "heaven" seems to remote and far away, and partly because the child version of the gospel has become trite, I'm not sure people really listen to it anymore. But Christianity is not about an escape plan or a get-out-of-hell-free card. It's about becoming what God always intended us to be. 

Jesus died on the cross to make us like him. And that is very good news.

"How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!"

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Trusting God for the Consequences of Obedience

I hate admitting when I'm wrong.

Unless you're Rip Van Winkle, you're aware of the debates we've been having over immigration in the US in the last few years. The arguments have become vicious. Mostly they're over illegal immigration, but the effects have spilled over onto legal immigration as well. In the midst of this we have a number of humanitarian crises in the Middle East and in Latin America. People's homes have become unsafe, and they say they need somewhere to go — now!

And politically conservative evangelicals (not a completely redundant phrase) find themselves torn between two impulses.

On the one hand, care for the helpless — the widow and orphan, the alien, the refugee, "the least of these" — is frequently and strongly commanded in the Bible. God says again and again that he will judge people (and peoples) based on how they treat the weakest among them.

On the other hand, not only will helping these people be expensive for a nation that feels stretched too thin, this seems like it's just playing into the other (political) side's hands: namely, that these people will help tip American politics to the left for years to come (because the left seems to want to make all illegal immigrants citizens). The result of helping these people now may be to give up any chance of stopping the mass slaughter of unborn children for generations.

What do you do when you feel like you have to choose between obedience and ... obedience?

The first thing to do is recognize the difference between absolute facts and potentialities.

Fact: Refugees.

Potentiality: Maybe conservatives will eventually be able to put the right people on the courts to overturn Roe. Maybe every illegal alien granted citizenship will vote Democrat. Maybe that would let them keep stocking the courts with pro-abortion ideologues.
That's a lot of maybes.

Second, those maybes need to be met with one very important question: Do you believe in the providence of God?

That's the question that has slapped me in the face. I've joked that I believe in the providence of God until I'm stuck in traffic. Well, it's really not a joke. It's pretty true. I say I believe in the providence, even sovereignty, of God, but when push comes to shove, does my life look like it? Or do I let the illusion that I can control anything beyond my own decisions direct my actions?

So I will try to take to heart the message of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego: Just obey, and trust God is in charge of the consequences.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Trustworthy Saying on Salvation

"You can't turn a pickle back into a cucumber."

Every culture has sayings that become maxims or, occasionally, mantras. "A stitch in time saves nine." "A penny saved is a penny earned."

In the pastoral letters, Paul shares what appear to have been common sayings in the early church that he found "trustworthy." The first and probably the most commonly known today is:

"Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1Tim 1:15).
Amen and hallelujah!

This is the most basic statement of the gospel. It's not the whole of the gospel, but it is the foundation. Christ came to save sinners, and this is Good News because we're all sinners. God saw our sorry state and had pity on us. He came to rescue us from our rebellion.

We would have no hope if it weren't for God's grace. Not only did we have nothing to offer God, we aren't even capable of trusting him without his supernatural help. We weren't just broken, we were dead in our trespasses. Christ doesn't fix us; he gives us life!

And somehow we manage to get prideful anyway.

We tell the story of "the Pharisee and the Publican," but it's still so easy for us to believe that there are those who don't deserve salvation — as if we deserved it! "I may have been a drunkard, a serial adulterer, a blasphemer, and a tax cheat, but murderers can't be saved."

And that's why the best part of this trustworthy saying is the part that Paul almost certainly added himself:

"Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst."

I don't care if you actually were a drunkard, a serial adulterer, a blasphemer, and a tax cheat or if you were saved at six-years-old and the worst sin you'd ever committed was sticking your tongue out at your mommy, that "of whom I am the worst" is the attitude to plant into your heart.

We must never let ourselves believe there is one sin so terrible that someone doesn't deserve to be saved. Every sin is so terrible that we don't deserve to be saved. But God's desire is to save the vilest sinners so that "in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life" (1 Tim 1:16).

God can save a child molester. God can save a cannibal. God can save a terrorist. God can save a mass murderer.

I get teary-eyed listening to stories from prison ministries because there are few things more beautiful than telling a man who's been locked away, who's been told society is not a place for him, that God will welcome him into his family.

I tell you if Hitler had repented and trusted Christ, there would have been "rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God" because "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners."

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Some Book Recommendations

When I choose a book for leisure reading (as opposed to wanting to learn something), I look for those I hope will make me put the book down and worship for a bit at least once (and preferably more).

Here are three books that recently made me repeatedly stop and marvel at who God is and/or what he's done.

Paradoxology: Why Christianity Was Never Meant to Be Simple
Krish Kandiah says the truth about God is usually found in the tension between two opposing thoughts about God. He is a compassionate God who sanctions genocide, a God who owns everything yet demands so much from his followers. He looks at 13 episodes in the scriptures that reveal things we need to know about God's ways, his character. You will worship.

The Joy of Fearing God
I'm to the point of thinking all of Jerry Bridges books should be added to the must-read list. In this gem, Bridges explains what the fear of God is (spoiler: It does not mean a constant fear that God is about to smite you) and why it is the key to a closer, deeper relationship with God. He takes the reader through a discussion of God's greatness, holiness, wisdom, and love then explains how we ought to respond to all of that. I think I highlighted half the book.

Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God
Rankin Wilbourne takes a concept I was ... familiar with (the believer's union with Christ) and unpacks it in far more detail than I had imagined was possible. He tells us what it is, why we don't hear about it more, what it does for us, and how to live fully in it (sadly, he has no magic recipe, it requires work). This one really has the potential to be life-changing. I need to read it again.

If you pick up any or all of these, you will not be disappointed.

(Note: These aren't review copies. I paid for all of these.)

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Stories and Scenes

I want to expand on the idea behind my previous post, The Tale of the Faithless Bride. We say the keys to studying the Bible are context, context, and context. It is vitally important to read any scripture in the context of the surrounding text. A sentence can only be properly understood in its paragraph. A paragraph can only be understood in conjunction with neighboring paragraphs.

Then there is historical context — we can't try to make a text written in the 10th Century BC mean something that it could only have meant in the 1st Century AD. There is literary context — you don't interpret poetry like epistles or epistles like poetry.

There is also a narrative context. A story is made of scenes, and a scene can only be properly understood in terms of the story.

For example, the tale of Joseph and Potiphar's wife is a scene in Joseph's story. In isolation it is a story of virtue as Joseph honors God and his master by refusing her advances. That's not a bad story.

But it's really a scene in Joseph's story. First Joseph is betrayed by his brothers. Then he is betrayed by his master's wife and, ultimately, his master. But "the LORD was with Joseph" as the text reminds us repeatedly. In the context of Joseph's overall story, this episode is another example of, as Joseph later put it, God intending for good what people intended for evil. God uses this event to providentially maneuver Joseph to a place where he will be able to save Egypt and the covenant family from the coming famine.

In the same way, Joseph's life is a scene in the story of the founding of Israel. All of the events that happen to Joseph serve to explain how the covenant family got from Canaan to Egypt. It reveals God's providence in the creation of Israel along side the tales of Isaac's miraculous birth and the exodus from Egypt. Joseph's story, as interesting as it is, only exists because God was doing something bigger than that.

And the story of Israel (from Genesis 12 to Nehemiah 13) is a scene in the story of redemption. Genesis 1 and 2 tell how mankind was created. Gen 3 recounts the fall. Gen 4-11 tell just how bad things got (while also explaining some things about humanity). Then in Genesis 12 God starts his rescue plan; we meet Abram whom God has decided to set apart to create the line from which the Messiah will come so that "all peoples on earth will be blessed." Then the Israel "scene" takes us to the turning point of the story — the arrival of Christ.

And, yes, that means that the life and ministry of Jesus is a scene in the overall story of redemption. For all its immense value to us, it is not properly understood apart from the larger story.

The Bible is a story. It is the story of how humans fell and God rescued them. And even though we know how it will end, we are waiting to see exactly how the final chapter will play out. The climax is still to come when the Lion from the Tribe of Judah will return to claim what is his, punish the wicked, and restore what was lost. Then the story will be complete. But that won't be "the end." It will be a new beginning.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Tale of the Faithless Bride

The story of Hosea is one of the most difficult in the Old Testament. God told him to pick a woman of ... poor reputation and marry her. He gives her a good life. She cheats on him. A lot. She leaves him. She gets into trouble and gets sold into slavery. And God tells Hosea to buy her back and take her home with him again. How would you like to be that guy? Instructed to marry a woman who's going to cheat on you. But there was a reason for it:

All of this is a living allegory to show Israel how God feels about Israel.

Moses told them, "The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples" (Deut 7:7). In fact, God chose them before they even were a people. He took a barren old couple with no prospects and not only made them prosperous but gave them descendants. These descendants were slaves in Egypt with nothing to offer him; he freed them and gave everything they could ask for. They immediately start worshiping idols. He corrects them again and again, but each time they go back to whoring after other gods. Finally they get taken off into slavery. But there is a remnant that God brings back to him.

And all of this is a living allegory to show us how God feels about humanity.

God made special, unique creatures and put them in a literal paradise. They were charged with ruling the planet in his place. From dust to regents for no good reason. And they rebelled. God pursued them, and they rebelled again. Again and again. Though they were to be kings, they sold themselves into slavery to sin and the devil. So God bought them back at the cost of his own blood. Again there is a remnant, those he has kept for himself, who God brings to himself, making them now not regents but princes, children of God and the bride of Christ.

It's been asked why God put so much work, so much energy into caring about what happens in a tiny strip of land in a corner of the Middle East. But that tiny strip of land shows the whole world what God is like.

And somewhere, someone — perhaps angels, perhaps someone else* — may be wondering why God puts so much work into caring about what happens to a tiny pale blue dot orbiting an insignificant yellow dwarf on the edge of boring galaxy. But that pale blue dot shows the universe what God is like. He chooses to place his affection on the unworthy and pursues them until he has perfected them "in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace" (Eph 2:7).

*If you haven't, I highly recommend reading CS Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The New Testament Out of Order

After I put together a reading plan to introduce my kids to reading the Bible for themselves, our pastor asked the congregation to join together and read the New Testament in 90 days. [sigh] OK.

It's really doable. The plan (pdf) involves reading 3-4 chapters most days, and some days you only read one or two. We're talking 10 minutes a day or less for an average reader. I'm encouraging my kids to do this because the whole church will (hopefully) be participating.

Unfortunately, I hate reading the synoptic gospels back to back to back. It feels too repetitive (which is funny considering I read 2 Timothy straight through every day for the last week).

But there's nothing divine about the order in which the books of the Bible are arranged. In fact, we know that our order of OT books is different than the one used in Jesus' time. The traditional NT arrangement gives primacy of place to the gospels, but the remaining books are arranged more or less on size.

So I decided to work out a thematic arrangement of the NT books, groupings built around one of the gospels.

Group 1: Matthew, Hebrews, James, Romans, Ephesians
The first three are the most "Jewish" books in the NT, so it seems fitting to put them together. But they have a heavy emphasis on obedience, so the faith/grace emphasis of Romans (also written to a Jewish audience) and Ephesians provides a counterweight.

Group 2: Mark, 1-2 Peter, Jude, Galatians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy
Mark is traditionally seen as Peter's gospel, so I group it with Peter's letters. Then forming a group around persecution, false teachers, and the end times seems natural.

Group 3: Luke, Acts, 1-2 Corinthians
Luke and Acts go together like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. But they're huge, so this short list actually has the most chapters. The letters to the church at Corinth fit the "gentileness" of this section.

Group 4: John, Philippians, Colossians, 1 John, Titus, Philemon, 2-3 John, Revelation
Grouping John's gospel and letters is natural. And while all the gospels reveal that Jesus claimed to be divine, John's gospel puts it on giant billboards with flashing lights just like Philippians and Colossians (and Revelation, for that matter). Titus, also, calls Jesus God in the plainest of terms. I put Philemon here because it traditionally goes with Colossians. (Reading Philemon and 2-3 John on the same day helps keep this within the 90 days.)

So to anyone who's ever gotten to Mark or Luke and thought, "Ugh, this story again?", I offer this reading order as an alternative. And if you have never been bothered by it, reading them "out of order" still may make the familiar feel new again.