Thursday, June 16, 2016

Life and Death in a Fallen World

Last week we buried a 25-year-old. Her three-year-old will grow up only knowing Mommy from stories and a few cellphone videos. Of course, she's not the only young person to die. There are a lot of people burying their babies — be they 4 or 54. Her mother (my cousin) is heartbroken. It's horrible when parents have to bury their children. It feels so wrong.

How do we deal with the pain and evil in this world? What can we say to the hurting?

There are lots of books about the problem of evil. CS Lewis' The Problem of Pain is the best I've found, but there are many good ones.

But they're all useless right now. When people are hurting, they don't want — or need — careful reasoned arguments. They aren't even capable of processing them. While the heart is hurting, the head has a hard time listening.

So what can we say?

It's ok to be sad, and it's ok to be angry. It feels wrong for parents to bury their children because it is wrong. That is not the way it's supposed to be. This isn't the way this world is supposed to be. The pain, the grief, the sin — it isn't supposed to be here.

This world is broken, and we all suffer because of it.

So what do we tell each other, and ourselves, when the pain threatens to overwhelm us?

God is good. You knew it before. It hasn't changed now.

God is good.
God is powerful.
God has a plan.

He has gone to a great deal of trouble to fix the mess we've made. The time has not yet come, but soon he will replace this world with one where everything is just the way it's supposed to be.

In the meantime, let the pain remind us that this world is broken. Hate this world. This is not the way it's supposed to be. Look forward to the day, long for the day, when all things will be made new. Right now we weep, and God weeps with us. But one day he will wipe away every tear.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Could the Holy Spirit Have Died on the Cross?

I want to say up front that this isn't original to me. I read it somewhere, and I'd love to give them credit, but I can't find where I saw it. But it was interesting, so I wanted to share it here.

The basic question is this: When God became a man to die on the cross, did it have to be the Son? Could the Father or the Spirit have been incarnated instead?

It's something to neat ponder, but it sounds like it might be a little too close to asking how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. The answer turns out to be much more profound than that, though.

The answer hinges on this: Why the cross?

Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins. He was crucified so that we could be justified, made right with God.

But that's not the only reason. It wasn't even the primary reason.

Saving us from our sins was a means to an end. It had to be done so that something else could be achieved:

"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 ..." (Eph 1:4-5).

This was the plan from the beginning: We were saved so that we could be adopted. Our sins are forgiven so that we can become children of God. We are made one with Christ so that we can share in his inheritance. We were not saved so that we could be servants or even courtiers. We are the children of the King.

The relationship we were meant to have with God was meant to be like that of the Father and the Son. So neither the Father nor the Spirit could have filled the role that the Son did.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Curses and Trees

One of the odder events of Passion Week was the cursing of the fig tree (Matt 21:18-22). TL;DR: Jesus looked for figs on a fig tree and, finding none, cursed it, causing it to wither.

People have been speculating ever since as to why he did that, what it was supposed to teach us. Maybe it was supposed to show us how unexpected the judgment would come (because "it was not the season for figs" per Mk 11:13). Maybe it was supposed to show us the power of faith. Maybe it was supposed to show us how high God's standard is.

Opponents have used it as proof that Jesus was an imperfect human who got mad at a stupid tree.

I would like to propose another possible purpose — one that in no way takes away from any other, except maybe that last one. This story of the fig tree gives us different glimpse at the raw power available to Christ.

In the gospels we frequently see the Master heal with just a word. We even see him raise people from the dead with a word (eg, Mk 5:41-42, John 11:43-44). Now, in case anyone had any doubts, we see the Lord of the universe kill with a word.

This is important because in less than a week, we're going to see Jesus looking powerless and frail. We're going to see Jesus beaten and mocked. He's going to be flogged half to death. He's going to be marched outside of the city. Then he's going to be nailed to another tree. All around him people will be hurling insults at him — daring him to get down from the cross, asking him why he can't save himself.

Abuse upon abuse will be heaped upon him. A word. That's all it would take. One word. "Die!" Everyone within the sound of his voice (maybe just everyone) would drop dead. The Son of God has at his command more than twelve legions of angels, but he doesn't need them. He has all the power he needs. All he has to do is speak.

And finally, he opens his mouth.

"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 23:34).


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Related:
What is Easter?
Silent Saturday

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Resurrection of the Son of God: A Summary and Review

The resurrection of Christ is frequently attacked as an event than cannot have occurred. Critics say it's completely impossible, unhistorical, a myth.

But there's another attack that it faces. Some will say it's "true" even though Jesus' body never moved after his death. His resurrection, they claim, was a "spiritual" resurrection — a statement of the continuation of his influence or of his elevation by God after his death. This is the kind of attack that N.T. Wright wrote The Resurrection of the Son of God to address.

Summary
The book is made up of five parts; the first three show that "resurrection" always means a bodily resurrection, not a spiritual one. Wright goes into exhausting exhaustive detail, examining pre-Christian pagan, pre-Christian Jewish, post-Christian Jewish, and post-apostolic Christian writings as well as addressing every possible reference to resurrection in the New Testament. He argues convincingly that modern claims that the resurrection was supposed to be a strictly spiritual experience are without basis:

"We cannot stress too strongly that from Homer onwards the language of ‘resurrection’ was not used to denote ‘life after death’ in general, or any of the phenomena supposed to occur within such a life. The great majority of the ancients believed in life after death; many of them developed ... complex and fascinating beliefs about it and practices in relation to it; but, other than within Judaism and Christianity, they did not believe in resurrection."
It's only when you come to the Gnostics in history that you begin to find this idea.

"These documents are attempting to retain a key Christian term while filling it with new content. ‘Resurrection’ and its cognates never meant, in either pagan or Jewish usage, what these documents make it mean; the only explanation is that they are loath to give up the word, because they want to seem to be some type of Christian, but are using it in a way for which there is no early warrant."
You might wonder if the same thing could be said about modern liberal Christians who use the term in similar fashion.

After putting to rest the idea of a non-physical resurrection, Wright turns to how the early Christians' belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus shaped their other beliefs about this — and how that constitutes "powerful supporting evidence" for what they believed happened to his body.

In short, "The early Christians believed Jesus was the Messiah; and they believed this because of his resurrection."

As a result, Wright says, the early Christians' regarded Jesus' death as a good thing and their own as inconsequential. Christian funerals became joyous occasions. And since death held no fear for them, the rulers of this world had no power over them.

Their worldview was shaped by their understanding of Jesus' resurrection and what it said about their own:
"Who are we? Resurrection people. ... Where are we? In God’s good creation, which is to be restored. ... What’s wrong? The work is incomplete. ... What time is it? In the overlap of the ages."
And that worldview "finds expression in early Christian beliefs, hopes and aims."

Ultimately, "if Jesus had been raised from the dead, if the new creation had begun, if they were themselves the citizens of the creator god’s new kingdom, then the claims of Jesus to Lordship on earth as well as heaven would ultimately come into conflict with those of Caesar."

Of course, all of our information about the resurrection comes from New Testament writings that, critics tell us, evolved over time as early Christian beliefs about Christ's exaltation became a belief in his resurrection. But is that true? Wright examines the gospel accounts in detail and concludes "we find in each of the stories not so much a sign of steady development from a primitive tradition to a form in which the evangelist simply wrote down what the tradition at that point had grown into, but rather a retelling of primitive stories by the evangelist himself in such a way as to form a fitting climax to his particular book."
"[E]arly Christian resurrection-belief has a remarkable consistency despite varieties of expression, and that this consistency includes both the location of Christianity at one point on the spectrum of Jewish belief (bodily resurrection) and four key modifications from within that point: (1) resurrection has moved from the circumference of belief to the centre; (2) ‘the resurrection’ is no longer a single event, but has split chronologically into two, the first part of which has already happened; (3) resurrection involves transformation, not mere resuscitation; and (4) when ‘resurrection’ language is used metaphorically, it no longer refers to the national restoration of Israel, but to baptism and holiness."
But couldn't this still be fiction, just one to which they were highly committed? "If you were a follower of a dead Jesus, in the middle of the first century, wanting to explain why you still thought he was important, and why some of your number had (inexplicably) begun to say that he had been raised from the dead, you would not have told stories like this. You would have done a better job."

The real question that skeptics and critics have to answer is, how do you explain early Christianity without a bodily resurrection? Wright says they can't:
"[T]hose who held the complex but remarkably consistent early Christian view gave as their reason that Jesus of Nazareth had himself been raised from the dead. And we have now seen what they meant by this: that on the third day after his execution by the Romans, his tomb was empty, and he was found to be alive, appearing on various occasions and in various places both to his followers and to some who, up to that point, had not been his followers or had not believed, convincing them that he was neither a ghost nor a hallucination but that he was truly and bodily raised from the dead. This belief about Jesus provides a historically complete, thorough and satisfying reason for the rise and development of the belief that he was Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true lord."

Review
So what should we say about this book? I think it's an extremely important book. Rev. Wright was definitely doing God's work when he created this thing.

But this thing is a monster. Weighing in a 700+ pages of fairly small print, even excepting the copious footnotes, this thing is a beast. I understand why he went into such detail examining every. single. reference. to resurrection in ancient history, but having done that chore, I think a "popular version" would be a great service to the church. Most people will simply never try to tackle a work this big.

However, you can create your own popular version. If you want to read it yourself — and I encourage you to do so — simply pick the parts you want to read. You don't have to read every pagan quote or follow him through every reference in the post-apostolic fathers. You don't even have to read every analysis of NT passages. Even the later sections on the resurrection's affect on the early church's understanding of Christ's identity, though much easier reading, can be picked through. Wright puts well-labeled summary sections all over the place, so you might read those and then, if interested in learning more, go back and read the appropriate sections.

Whether you read it for yourself or not, though, everyone needs to have any doubts about this matter put to rest: When the early church said Jesus rose from the dead, they meant that his body got up and walked around. That belief changed them, how they lived, and how they reacted to the world and to pain and suffering. And it can change us, too.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Fairy Tales

In the post-Christmas season, we tend to contemplate the earthly ministry of Christ. Let's start with how Luke begins the tale:
"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar — when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene — during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness" (Luke 3:1-2).
This story occurred during the period of time when the lives of seven different historical figures overlap. Why would someone waste ink and parchment on a detail like that?

Luke wanted to make sure we knew that the story he was about the tell is grounded in history. The story of Jesus didn't happen "once upon a time." It didn't happen "a long time ago, in a [place] far, far away." It happened "in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar ...."

Why is that important? So that you and I can know the apostles "did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power" (2Pet 1:16).

The Gospel is not just a nice story to tell sitting around the campfire; it is supposed to turn your life upside down. So it's important to know that this really happened.

Monday, January 11, 2016

On Human Trafficking

It's Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Not only does human trafficking still happen, it still happens in the West. There are slaves today in the United States of America. More than a dozen cases of human trafficking were reported in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex over the last eight years. Slavery is as much of a problem as it's ever been, but now it's under the radar.

In the past I reviewed and recommended the book Not for Sale. I'd like to encourage you again to read it. It will begin to reveal to you the depth and breadth of the problem. It will also give you some tips on how to identify forced labor in your own community because, as the author of the book found out, the closest slavery ring may be operating out of your favorite restaurant.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Johannine Christmas reading

St. John doesn't get much love at Christmas. Here's a little something from him on the subject:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. (1)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (2)

(1) 1 John 1:1-2
(2) John 1: 1, 14, 10-12

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What Does 'Believe in Jesus' Mean?

Evangelical Christians throw the phrases "believe in Jesus" and the more-or-less synonymous "ask Jesus into your heart" around freely, so much so that they've entered into American pop religion. The problem is we rarely take the time to explain what they really mean which can result in people having a very confused, un-biblical understanding.

So what does it really mean to "believe in Jesus?"

What it isn't
First, let's look at some things that are commonly mistaken for the real thing. Believing in Jesus isn't just believing that he's real or that he really was a historical person. It's not even believing that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

It's not believing Jesus cares about you. It's not praying to him. It's not believing he will heal you or help you with your problems with work, money, or family.

What it is
The New Testament word we translate as "believe" carries a lot of meaning with it. It includes trust, reliance, and dependence on the object of the belief.

An example would be believing a chair can hold you up. Standing there looking at it, saying it could hold you up isn't biblical belief. Sitting on the edge of the chair so that some of your weight is still on your feet isn't biblical belief. Sitting solidly in the chair with you feet in the air, so that you would fall if it broke, is believing the chair will hold you up.

How does this relate to Jesus? To believe in Jesus, you have to
1) agree that you need Jesus to forgive your sins
2) believe that his death was sufficient for the forgiveness of your sins
3) give up any notion of ever being good enough to please God/go to heaven/earn forgiveness on your own.

Additionally, Jesus always talked about belief paired with repentance. You aren't called to "believe" but "repent and believe." So along with the above, you also must decide to change the way you live — from doing it however you feel is best to living the way Jesus says.

So to "believe in Jesus" you have to trust solely in Jesus' work on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins and devote your life to following Jesus. It's a life with no other safety net; if Jesus fails you, you're doomed. But that's OK. Jesus won't fail.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Christian Caricatures 2

I can understand when people can't believe in some element or another of the Christian gospel. I hate it, however, when they reject the gospel because they've picked up a bad copy, and there are a lot of caricatures of the gospel out there.

One version I've seen looks something like this:

Why does Jesus have to pester you "worship me, worship me?" It's great how you saved us and all, thanks, but go away now.

After you get past the "oh my gosh I can't believe you actually said that" response, how would you reply to that?

The problem seems to be that this person sees Christian evangelism as Jesus saying "Worship me" as thanks for his past act of saving us. So the person making this error has picked up on the "Jesus died to save us from our sins" part of the message but is missing that you have to make a conscious decision to respond to that act.

My response would be to point out the part that is missing:

It's like someone saying that, because antibiotics were discovered, we no longer have to worry about that infection you've got. No! You still have to take the drug.

Yes, Jesus essentially "created" salvation. You still have to take him up on it.


This may have its root in how we talk about "believing" in Jesus. "Believe that Jesus died for your sins." OK, I do, great, see ya. There's so much more to it than we so often let on. More about that next time.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Christian Caricatures 1

I can understand when people can't believe in some element or another of the Christian gospel. I hate it, however, when they reject the gospel because they've picked up a bad copy, and there are a lot of caricatures of the gospel out there.

One I've seen a going around recently looks something like this:

"I love you so much, and if you don't love me back I will torture you for eternity."
Appalling, isn't it? Just enough contact with actual Christian teaching to sound (very, very superficially) like the gospel — for about three-tenths of a second. But some people actually see this and "Yeah, yeah, Christianity really is stupid!"

No, I don't think this kind of thing drives away Christians. But we have a large pseudo-Christian fringe society that knows some of the lingo and has a grasp of a few of the concepts, and they rely on that as their religious experience. Things like this only encourage them to not take Christianity more seriously, to not go deeper, closer and become actual Christians.

So I don't think we should let these caricatures stand. We should correct them when we can. But the people spouting (or reading) these things are probably not the deep, thoughtful conversation type — at least not about this topic, not right now. So we need sound-bite sized responses to give them a little something to chew on, a rock in their shoe.

So if you had to put the gospel into a sound-bite, how would you do it?

John 3:16 is a great summary but I wouldn't want to use it for two reasons: First, "believe" is a word that has been abused and misconstrued; in current English usage, it bears very little resemblance to what the word in that verse really means. Second, it's too familiar. When people see it, they don't really see it. It's like when you see a stop sign, you don't actually read the word "stop" every time.

So here's what I've come up with. 

You've rebelled against me and so must be punished, but I love you so much I'm willing to take the punishment for you.
What do you think? There's so much missing. I'd love to have a paragraph, but a compound sentence is probably the most we can get away with. I'd love a better summary if you've got one, though.

Are there any other caricatures of Christian teaching that you've come across?