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.

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).

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.

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."

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.