Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Doxology Rule

When reading the Bible, you'll occasionally come across places where the author stops what he's doing to just worship for a minute. These moments range from very brief, almost off-hand (eg, Lam 3:23b) to kind of lengthy (eg, Rom 11:33-36). These doxologies are beautiful, much-loved passages in their own right, but they don't exist just to be admired. They are flashing lights letting us know something big just happened.

That's why I've established for myself what I call the Doxology Rule: I don't move beyond one of these passages until I've been grabbed by the truth that made the author's heart sing.

My procedure has been to back up and find the beginning of the section that the doxology is responding to. Then, I move through the passage slowly and repeatedly, meditating on what I'm seeing there, until I have grasped, and been grasped by, the truth that has driven the writer to worship.

What's that look like?

I was recently reading 1 Timothy. In the first chapter, I generally spend time reflecting on verse 15: "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst."

But when I got to verse 17, I saw "Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever."

Doxology. Stop. Examine. Verse 15 is clearly not what's triggering Paul's worship, so what is?

The subject headings that editors put in to the text were helpful here. The NIV calls it "The Lord's Grace to Paul," and that seemed like a good place to look, so I backed up to verse 12. In v13 Paul says, "Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief."

I think we're getting somewhere.

"But for that very reason I was shown mercy 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" (1:16).

Yeah, he does that. God has used Moses the murderer, Augustine the hedonist, John Newton the slave trader to show that he specializes in forgiving — and using — the worst he can find.

And Paul? Jesus didn't have much nice to say about the Pharisees. He called them "whitewashed tombs," "blind guides" who left people "a child of hell" (Matt 23). This is what Paul was as a Pharisee. He was also "a persecutor and a violent man." He didn't just approve of Stephen's death; he set out to make more martyrs. He wanted to kill Christians and stamp out the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So God, showing both his power and the depths of his mercy, made him a servant of that gospel to the praise of his glorious grace in Christ Jesus. Because that is what he does.

God saves the worst to show that he saves the worst. So we can go to the man in prison for doing heinous things and tell him that God specializes in saving men just like him. And we can tell every human being that, whether their sins are horrific or more mundane, the grace of God can and will cover them all through the blood of Christ Jesus.

"Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen."

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Related resources:
A useful article elsewhere on the web: 11 Questions to Ask of a Bible Passage
An article about a new book: The Simple Questions to Ask Every Time You Open the Bible

An oldie of mine: 5 Questions to Help Your Devotions

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

What Does It Mean to Fear the LORD?


The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Prov 9:10)
The Bible repeatedly tells us to fear the Lord, but it never clearly defines it. Is it as reverence or awe of God? I don’t think that really covers it. Is it living in abject terror of God? That doesn’t match up with what we see in the Bible, either. There is a passage of the Bible that I think neatly sums up what it means to fear the Lord, and that what I want to examine.

Moses has asked God to show him his glory, and God has agreed to do so and to “proclaim his name.”

Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Ex 34:5-8)
The LORD
The very first thing we need to see is that the text says “the LORD” not just “the Lord.” What’s the difference? Most Bible translations use “LORD” in place of the proper name of God — YHWH.

This name is related to the name God originally gave Moses. In Exodus 3 Moses asks what name he should give the Israelites when that ask who sent him. God replies, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

So God’s name YHWH means something like “I AM.” It means that God is the one who is self-existent. He, and only he, simply is. Everything else is dependent — specifically, it is dependent on him.

God made everything that exists. Therefore, everything that exists belongs to him, and he can do with it as he pleases. At this point in the Bible, God has given Israel the Ten Commandments, and he is going to give them many more rules. When they wonder, as people do today, why God has any right to make rules, the first answer is “I made you, and you are mine.”

Compassionate and gracious
Now this is what the Great I AM says about himself: “the compassionate and gracious God.” After telling Moses HE IS, he wants him to know that he is compassionate and gracious.

God is compassionate. Some translations render it merciful. Matthew Henry said it speaks of God’s father-like concern for the well-being of his creatures. This is the compassionate God Jesus taught about: The God who knows that we need food and drink and clothes and is happy to give them to us.

God is also “gracious.” Grace is described as undeserved favor. Closely related to his compassion, it’s God’s tendency to give us far better than we deserve. Grace is God seeing nothing of value in us and valuing us still.

It’s been said that God’s people are not choice, just chosen. God takes people who are utterly unlovable — rebellious and filthy — and chooses to love them anyway. That’s just who he is.

Slow to anger
The next thing God says about himself is that he is “slow to anger.” If there were only one thing the Bible showed clearly about God, this would be it.

It’s worth noting that this passage takes place after the golden calf incident: God had just brought these people out of Egypt, showing miracle after miracle and then speaking to them audibly. And as soon as Moses is gone for a few days they make a golden calf saying “this is the God that brought you out of Egypt.” That they were not barbecued on the spot is testimony to God’s great patience.

The Lord “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2Pet 3.9). God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and is instead pleased when they repent and live (Ez 18:23, 32).

Abounding in love and faithfulness
Next God tells Moses he is “abounding in love.” This is the first of two contrasts that are highlighted in this passage. God is slow to anger but abounding in love. Another way to put it is God is stingy with punishment but lavish with love. In the OT, even brief periods of obedience brought rest from their enemies and great wealth. In the NT, God’s lavish love is even more apparent: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God” (1John 3:1)!

God also says he is “abounding in ... faithfulness.” He keeps his promises, and not stingily but lavishly. God promises Judah that if they will just obey he will “throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it” (Mal 3:10, see also Lev 26:3-13).

New Testament believers don’t live under the covenant with Israel, so we’re not promised material blessings for obedience. We’re promised something better: Him. Just obey, Jesus says, and he’ll make himself known to you (John 14:21, 23, Luke 11:13). Much like he promised the Levites, he is our inheritance and that is better than any material wealth. He is a God who keeps his promises in spades.

Forgiving wickedness ...
Now I want to skip around a little, for a reason. The next thing I want us to see is that God describes himself as “forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” It’s said that there are two kinds of “sin” in the Bible — one is falling short, unintentionally missing the mark, and the other is outright rebellion. This list clearly covers both of those. God isn’t just saying that he forgives mistakes. He forgives wickedness and rebellion, too.

He’s not just saying he forgives those little slips we make when we choose poorly in the heat of the moment. He’s saying he will forgive those who look God in the eye and say, “I’m going to do what I want to do.” And when he does punish, it is to bring us to repentance (Lev 26).

The guilty
And yet God’s patience has its limits. He says he “does not leave the guilty unpunished.” If we refuse to repent, the time for punishment will come. “The Lord is ... patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief” (2Pet 3:9-10). When we’re not expecting it, when people have convinced themselves that God will never judge, he judges.

God eventually punished Israel for years of idolatry, removing them from the promised land. He removed Ananias and Sapphira from this world (Acts 5) and punished many Corinthian Christians for taking part of the Lord’s supper in an unworthy manner (1Cor 11:27-30) — some, apparently, even unto death.

The children and their children
Which leads us to the most difficult part of this passage. Sometimes when God is punishing the guilty, “he punishes the children and their children ... to the third and fourth generation.” That understandably gives people pause, but God is not saying that he will punish the children for their parents’ sins. Rather “the one who sins is the one who will die.” (Ez 18:1-4)

So what is the passage saying then? God does not punish the child in place of the parent, but he does sometimes punish the child with the parent.

The covenant between God and Israel was a corporate agreement. When the people at large disobeyed, the people at large were punished. When the Jews refused to obey God and invade Canaan, the whole nation, young and old, wandered in the desert for forty years. When Israel persisted in their idolatry, the whole nation, young and old, was taken into captivity.

Today we do not have that kind of collective agreement with God. But the people around us still suffer for our sins. The children of adulterers or abusers will suffer both immediately from their parent’s sin and later in damaged relationships. The children of convicted criminals suffer during their parent’s incarceration and probably before. Our sins are visited on our children and their children, but it is our fault, not God’s.

Maintaining love to thousands
And here we need to double back to earlier in the passage and look at the other contrast that is painted. God says he maintains “love to thousands.” Pretty much every translator and commentator agrees that there is an implied “generations.” So God maintains love “to a thousand generations” but punishment for sin falls “to the third and fourth generation.” The wandering in the wilderness lasted forty years. The exile from Judah lasted seventy. God says if they will obey, his blessing will flow for a thousand generations.

So the message is that God will eventually punish the unrepentant, but he will not be angry forever. His punishments are designed to lead to repentance, and when we repent he delights in forgiving and restoring his people.

The fear of the LORD
So what does this have to do with “fearing the Lord?” The fear of the Lord first of all obeys. It recognizes that God has a right to make demands of us and desires to meet them. We revere him as our Creator and King by obeying him.

Next, the fear of the Lord will rely on God to provide. He is compassionate and faithful, abounding love. He knows what we need and wants to give it to us. And it responds to his love with love.

Then the fear of the Lord will trust God when we sin. We know he is patient and forgiving. We should honor and respond to God’s patience and love with prompt repentance.

Next the fear of the Lord really does fear. When we sin, or even are tempted to sin, we know that God’s patience is not infinite. We should not presume upon his patience because God may decide to punish.

Finally, the fear of the Lord has hope. It knows that God does not stay angry forever. It knows that he responds to repentance, casting our sins into a sea of forgetfulness. The one who fears the Lord knows that, like the prodigal, he can go home.

So:

Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon. (Is 55:7)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review: What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Quran

Islam is said to be the fastest growing religion today. Western Christians can expect to find Muslims in their daily lives — neighbors, coworkers, and even relatives. So we have questions. What do Muslims believe? Do they really worship the same God as Christians? Why do they react like they do to insults to the Qur'an (or Koran) or Mohammed?

James R. White has given the Church a great gift with his What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur'an. In it he answers many of our questions and more using extensive quotes from Muslim scriptures and other religious writings.

He explains why Muslims object to the doctrine of the Trinity — and how it's based on the Qur'an completely misunderstanding it. He shows why they think the Jewish and Christian scriptures are corrupted — even while the Qur'an claims otherwise, which calls into question their claims that the crucifixion is a lie. He shows that the alleged biblical prophecies of Mohammed cannot be talking about him. And more. And he does this all using their own writings.

He doesn't approach this as a way to beat Muslims over the head but in hopes of gently opening conversations with them about places where their scriptures go wrong. That's something we should all be able to do.

This book isn't perfect by any means (I think the organization should be re-thought, for starters), but it is well worth your time if you want to learn more about Islam and engaging with our Muslim neighbors.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What Difference Does Easter Make?

Even if we believe Jesus was raised from the dead, so what? What difference does the resurrection make? Why does Easter matter?

Fortunately, we don't have to guess; Jesus told us.

During his ministry, people kept asking Jesus for a sign to validate his authority to teach what he was teaching. He always pointed them to his resurrection (eg, Matt 12:38-40, John 2:18-19). The resurrection was Christ's vindication.

What did he teach that concerns us today?

First, he taught that there will be a day when we will all be judged by God. And we will be judged according to three things:

We will be judged according to our works — the deeds we have done (eg, Matt 5:17-20). We will be judged according to our heart — why we did what we did (eg, Matt 5:21-30). And we will be judged according to how we responded to Christ (eg, Matt 7:21-23). The good news is that responding to Jesus — ie, choosing to trust in and follow him — will mean that you won't be judged according to your actions but his (eg, John 3:16).

Second, he taught that the end is coming. A time will come when people will no longer have a chance to decide what they want to do with Jesus. The choice will have been made. Everyone will, based on how they are judged, experience either everlasting life or everlasting punishment (eg, Matt 13:36-43).

If Christ was really raised from the dead, then how we live our lives matters, and we will be held accountable.

But trusting Jesus means that we are safe from the judgment — Christ has already been held accountable for my sin. Now I will be given credit for his righteousness.

And for those who have trusted in Christ, the resurrection means something else. It means death has been defeated. Death doesn't have to be permanent any more. One day Jesus' people will again live in physical bodies, bodies that will no longer be plagued by the limits of our bodies like age, sickness, or disability. The resurrection means he won, and because he won, we will too.

Sin, where are your shackles?
Death, where is your sting?
Hell has been defeated
The grave could not hold the King! 1


1 from Arise My Love by Eddie Carswell, cf 1Cor 15:54-55.

You may also be interested in:
What is Easter?
Why Do I Believe in the Resurrection of Christ?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Is Your Bible "Translated and Re-Translated?"

"The Bible's been translated and re-translated so many times, no one knows what it means."

I was in college the first time I heard those words. The accusations went on: "Modern Bibles just change the King James into modern English, and it was translated from Latin. No one knows what the Bible said when it was written."

It's hard to believe someone can fit so many inaccuracies into such a small space.

While I'd grown up in church, I had only recently started reading the Bible for myself. Being the nerd that I am, I had read a very under-read section of the Bible: the preface.

The first sentence reads, "The New International Version is a completely new translation of the Holy Bible made by over a hundred scholars working directly from the best available Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts." Every modern (protestant*) version has similar verbiage.

Once upon a time Bibles were translated from the Latin because that was what they had available. Since then, thousands of copies of the New Testament in Greek have been discovered. We also are better able to translate those Greek texts. (Finding people who still speak ancient Hebrew is comparatively easy.)

But in truth the Bible has been translated and re-translated many, many times. And that's a good thing. We don't just have Greek texts and research showing what those Greek words mean. We have translations into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and many other languages made by people who spoke Koine Greek like a native. When they translated the Greek into Latin, they told us what they thought that Greek word meant. The rich tradition of translating the Bible into local tongues is a priceless gift to Bible translators.

Don't let people snow you. Any mainstream Bible you can put your hands on is a good translation of (to a high degree of certainty) what the prophets and apostles wrote into our modern languages.

If you want to go into more detail on the subject, I recommend How We Got the Bible, which goes into the history of how we got the manuscripts used for modern translations, how we use them to reconstruct the original text, and how we translate them into modern tongues.

* Roman Catholic Bibles are apparently still translated from the Latin Vulgate (which was translated from the Greek texts).

Friday, December 23, 2016

You Shall Call His Name


An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."

Our chief need was not for a teacher.

Our chief need was not for an example.

We were lost in sin, rebellious and prone to evil. So he sent a savior.

Yes, Jesus was a teacher, and he lived a life we should try to follow. But most of all he came to save, to "give his life as a ransom for many."

There are those who, as Spurgeon said, "cry up Jesus as Messiah, sent of God, to exhibit a grand example and supply a pure code of morals, but they cannot endure Jesus as a Saviour, redeeming us by his blood, and by his death delivering us from sin." They "speak only of him as a prophet, a teacher, or a leader, and care not for him as a Saviour ...." These people do not know him.

To know him is to take him as God has revealed him. "You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matt 1:21).

Let us rejoice that God saw our true need and met it.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Liberal Christianity

There is more than one kind of "liberal."

You know about political liberals. They probably vote for a Democrat or Green in an election. They disagree with political conservatives over how much taxes should be or how to address poverty or education.

I'm not interested in them. I want to talk about religious liberals.

Political liberals will read the same Bible as you or me and come away with more or less the same message; they may apply it differently, they may see different ways it should be put into practice, but we're reading the same Bible.

Religious liberals aren't reading the same Bible.

These are people who are uncomfortable with the supernatural. And so the Bible can't really be anything special. It's not inspired; it's merely the product of flawed men. And we probably don't even have what they really wrote.

So they feel free to pick and choose what parts matter.

They'll say religious conservatives do the same thing, but we have a reason, a system even, for "picking and choosing" — it's based on the work of Christ. (I recommend this video of a lecture by Voddie Baucham on the topic.)

They just throw out the parts they don't like.

So liberals will discount anything that suggests God is going to judge us. And, really, without judgment, who needs that whole "Jesus saves" thing? It's not like he died for anything; his life was simply cut short by people who didn't understand his message of peace. That's if he actually lived at all, not that it really matters.

Are homosexual relationships sinful? Of course not! Neither is pre-marital sex. Nothing that doesn't hurt other people is wrong. Hurt by their definition of hurt. As to why it's wrong to hurt other people, well, they'll hand wave why that's bad.

The only thing that matters to them is that God is love. Which is crazy. If you were going to throw out parts of the Bible, why would you keep the hardest part to believe? God is love? What in the world would make you think that apart from the Bible?

The problem with religious liberals is they claim to be Christians. They reject pretty much everything Christians believe. They say there is no sin, or if there is, it's not that big a deal (so long as you're nice). There's no repentance and no judgment to escape. There's no call to a life of holiness or sacrifice (except giving up fossil fuels). They say there's nothing special about Jesus. All while claiming to follow him.

If they called themselves Elbonians, it wouldn't be a problem. But they don't. They claim to be Christians. And we've got to figure out what to do about it.

Friday, November 11, 2016

He's Not Wicked, He's My Friend

For many people, the thing that makes Christianity hard to believe is the miracle stories — talking donkeys, burning bushes, and walking dead people.

But for another group of people the hard thing is the people they meet. This can be true for both non-Christians and Christians, and it's the latter that I want to talk about.

For Christians, likable non-Christians can be a strong anti-apologetic. Once we leave our Christian enclaves, we run into nice Muslims, homosexuals, and atheists, and it's hard to think that these people are "wicked sinners" who deserve hell. I've been there. Some of the nicest people I've ever met were Mormons. I've got friends and family living a gay lifestyle. I care about a number of people whose philosophy of religion can be summed up as "meh."

These people make us want to believe that big chunks of Christianity aren't true. Jesus rose from the dead? Sure, fine. God is love? Cool. There will be a judgment after which the unbelievers will be cast away and punished forever? Whoa, wait a minute, I don't like that one.

There are two very important things that we have to keep in mind when we struggle with this.

First, we didn't just come up with this. People ask how we can believe in terrible things like hell. I counter that I believe it for the same reason I believe if you step off a cliff you'll fall to your death — it's true. The truth isn't always nice. Important truths frequently aren't.

We didn't just sit around making up a theology and decided we needed something to do with the "others." We didn't decide that Jesus is the only way to God. We didn't decide that there would be a judgment. We didn't just make up everlasting punishment for unbelievers. Jesus said that.

If we believe Jesus rose from the dead we have to accept that he pointed to that as a vindication of all of his work and teaching. And he taught that one day he would have to tell many people, "Depart from me, I never knew you."

Secondly, we have to remember that, as much as we hate this truth, God hates it more.

CS Lewis put it this way: "I said glibly a moment ago that i would pay 'any price' to remove this doctrine [of hell]. I lied. I could not pay one-thousandth part of the price that God has already paid to remove the fact [of it]" (The Problem of Pain, emphasis added).

God paid a high price to keep people from going to hell. And then he told us to go tell everybody about it.

So don't let your love of your non-Christian friends and family make you shy away from the truth of the gospel. Make it make you determined to share with them the good news:

We're all wicked sinners, but while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Let's Stop Pretending We Believe in Jesus

Do you believe in Santa Claus? Of course not. But you kind of act like you do.

You've told your kids about Santa Claus. You've told stories about him. You've sang songs about him. You probably even left him cookies at one time or another.

But kids? They stay up late trying to catch sight of him. They write him letters. They change their behavior because he's watching. They believe in Santa Claus.

So do you believe in Jesus? Do you depend on the fact that Jesus is Lord of all and that he died for your sins and rose from the dead? Do you live like his rules matter?

Do you believe, or do you just act like you do?

Are you good to your family? Kind to your neighbor? Do you work hard? "Do not even pagans do that?"

What does belief look like? "By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice ... even though God had said to him, 'It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.' Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead" (Heb 11:17-19). Abraham acted on his belief.

Or take Rahab, who helped the spies and gave up her city because she believed what God has said — that the land was being given to Israel (Josh 2).

Belief is doing the hard stuff because you believe what God has said is true.

Is it true that Jesus said lust was sexual immorality? How has this affected your magazine subscriptions or movie tickets?

Is it true that "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil"? How has this affected your attitude toward your job?

Are we to "lend" without expecting to be repaid and submit to one another out of reverence to Christ? How has this affected how you live your life?

If all of these things are true, and if we say, "Jesus is Lord," do we act like he is our Lord?

"You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder." Don't "believe." Don't pretend the gospel is true. Act on it.

James 2

Friday, July 22, 2016

Jesus is Lord

It's the first and most basic creed of the Christian faith: Jesus is Lord.

It's our answer to sin. Specifically, Jesus is my Lord. Jesus is the king of my life. I believe what he says — about me and everything else. I'm agreeing to live my life his way to the best of my ability.

It's the answer to the pain of this world, too.

When we are abused because of our faith, when we're faced with temptation or trial, when the storms of life seem like they're going to overwhelm us "in your hearts revere Christ as Lord" (1 Pet 3:15).

If saving faith comes from "Jesus is Lord of my life," living faith comes from "Jesus is Lord of everything." He doesn't just direct our lives. He orders the universe.

We may not always understand what is going on. We may wonder why God is allowing it. When we feel adrift, alone, and abandoned, we have to remind ourselves "Jesus is Lord."

If we can do that, we can remain calm in the midst of the storm. And people will notice. That's why the next sentence is "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have."

When people see our hope, our faith, our ability to rely on the fact that Jesus rules the universe, they'll want to know why we can be so calm in the midst of the storm. At that point they're asking us to tell them about Jesus. It doesn't get any better than that.