Sunday, December 30, 2018

A Different Kind of Bible Reading Plan

open Bible
It's the time of year when people go looking for a Bible reading plan. I have put together something different from the usual. It will in no way enable you to read the Bible in a year. Not even close.

This plan is geared toward three groups. The first is people who're new to the whole proposition. I created this primarily for my teenagers; it's time for them to put away the devotionals and just read the Bible. The second group is those who don't read the Bible because they don't know where to start or it's intimidating. The third is people for whom Bible reading has gotten a little stale.

This plan is made up of three sections. The first takes a reader through is a guided overview of the storyline of the Bible from creation to new creation in about a month (or if you want to do it all at once, a couple of hours). It includes some tips for digesting what you're reading.

The second part is a smorgasbord of beautiful passages, hard passages, favorite passages, and strange passages from all over the Bible. This group will take about three months to read in bites of one to three chapters a day. The idea is to get a sense of the variety that exists within the Bible, to make the experience enjoyable, and to get people in the habit of reading daily; by the time this section is complete, a total of four months will have passed, and hopefully that habit will be established.

The third section recommends some whole books to start reading — two gospels and then the easiest epistles. More suggestions are made to help folks get the most out of their reading. From there I hope people will continue the habit of thoughtful, reflective reading for the rest of their lives.

The reading plan can be found here. I think you need to download the pdf before you can print it. If it doesn't work, let me know, and I'll try to do something different.

You'll notice that there are no dates on the readings. Someone can start this on July 1 as easily as Jan 1. People shouldn't need to wait until the new year to start reading the Bible.

I hope someone out there will find this useful.

Photo credit: John Harris Pe

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Humility of God

C.S. Lewis' comments on "the Divine humility" from The Problem of Pain have been rattling around in my head for years now, and it's still such an amazing thing.
"[I]t is a poor thing to strike our colours to God when the ship is going down under us; a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, to offer up 'our own' when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer ...."
How well this describes how God deals with us.

God revealed himself to Jacob only when he was fleeing his brother's vengeance.

God did not choose a great nation for himself. He chose a nation of slaves who were groaning under their burden.

And when that nation rebelled against him, they never repented until they were beaten down by enemies, until they had nowhere else to turn — and God took them back. Again and again.

Naaman did not turn to the God of Israel until he had leprosy.

Paul did not bow the knee to Jesus until he was struck blind.

Jesus himself did not appear to a nation at its prime. He appeared to a people that had been subjugated again and again, who were groaning under the burden of Roman rule, who were starving for a word from God after centuries of silence. Only then, when pride was broken, did the Word become flesh and make his dwelling among us.

And God did not come as a conquering king, astride a great horse, leading a mighty army. The one who "measured the waters in the hollow of his hand," and "with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens" was born as a baby with a little wrinkly hand that couldn't reach around his mother's finger. The LORD of Hosts appeared in the flesh, not attended by armies but by a few shepherds.

But pride wasn't broken completely. So the God-Man allowed himself to be killed for the crime of claiming to be exactly who he was. In doing so he bought for us forgiveness of our sins.

And still, we choose him only because we have no choice. As Lewis said, "It is hardly complimentary to God that we should choose Him as an alternative to Hell: yet even this He accepts."

When we had no hope, God came to rescue us. When we realize we have no choice, God accepts our meager offerings of a torn, filthy life. And then he gives us everything, making us "heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ," not slaves, or even servants, but sons and daughters.

Take some time to marvel at the God who came to us because we had no hope. Give thanks to the God who accepts us even though we call to him, not from the mountain top, but the pit. Worship the Savior who gives us everything even when we have nothing to offer in return.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

When Ra Created the World

Illuminating the Old Testament

The Genesis 1 creation account bears a striking resemblance to other ancient creation myths, demonstrating that the author(s) simply copied from existing materials and chopped out the other gods.

At least, that's what we've been told.

Archaeology has discovered a number of ancient creation myths from the part of the world that produced the Bible. And there are some similarities between the stories. What does that mean for us?

I don't think it means anything until the similarities are examined with the differences.

When you want to compare the Bible to the Egyptian creation myth, you have to ask which one. There were several, and they were all different, though there were some similarities. One, though, is particularly telling. There are so many versions online, each a little different, and many omitting the most ... interesting part. Here is one that keeps it. And I'm sorry.

[These are] the words which the god Neb-er-tcher spoke after he had come into being: "I am he who came into being in the form of the god Khepera, and I am the creator of that which came into being, that is to say, I am the creator of everything which came into being. Now the things which I created, and which came forth out of my mouth after that I had come into being myself were exceedingly many. The sky (or heaven) had not come into being, the earth did not (exist, and the children of the earth, and the creeping things had not been made at that time. I myself raised them up from out of Nu, from a state of helpless inertness.

I found no place whereon I could stand. I worked a charm upon my own heart (or, will). I laid the foundation [of things] by Maat, and I made everything which had form. I was [then] one by myself, for I had not emitted from myself the god Shu, and I had not spit out from myself the goddess Tefnut; and there existed no other who could work with me. I laid the foundations [of things] in my own heart, and there came into being multitudes of created things, which came into being from the created things which were born from the created things which arose from what they brought forth.

I had union with my closed hand, and I embraced my shadow as a wife, and I poured seed into my own mouth, and I sent forth from myself issue in the form of the gods Shu and Tefnut.

Said my father Nu: 'My Eye was covered up behind them (i.e., Shu. and Tefnut), but after two hen periods had passed from the time when they departed from me, from being one god I became three gods, and I came into being in the earth.'
Yes you read that right. The god in question copulates with himself. After that, the new gods, Shu and Tefnut, mate and produce more gods who produce more gods, etc, etc.

Now, not all of the Egyptian creation myths include the self love mentioned above, but they all share the same general pattern: The first god or gods are created/create themselves. Then they create other gods. These gods are the personification of various aspects of the natural world — eg, the sun, the wind. So the creator god immediately makes more gods to help him create and run the world.

Read against this background, I think the differences between the Egyptian accounts and the Genesis 1 account are quite telling. The story of Genesis does not begin with the creation of YHWH. He is already there. He does not need help creating and running the world; he speaks and it simply happens. Unlike many ancient creation accounts (the Sumerian version is another popular "source" the Bible is alleged to have copied from), there is no epic battle wherein the victor uses the loser's body to create the world.

In the Egyptian accounts, humans just kind of happen. In the Sumerian account, they are created as slaves. In the Genesis account, they are created as stewards and friends.

It's been suggested that there is a polemic element to much of the Old Testament. If so, the similarities are supposed to highlight the differences. I think comparing the Bible's creation story to those of the Hebrews' neighbors makes it clear what the author was trying to say:

God did not begin; he is. God is eternal.

God created the world alone; the sun, moon, wind, and ocean are not gods. There are not multiple gods struggling against each other. There is one god, and he is sovereign.

God did not struggle to create the world; he spoke, and it was. God is almighty.

If the creation account is a polemic, the message to the hearers — the early Israelites — was that YHWH, the God who brought them out of Egypt, was far more powerful than either the Egyptians or anyone else had even dared to dream and that he had a plan, a purpose for humanity. This is the truth that they, and we, are given to give us strength as we face a world that desires to defeat us.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Remembering the Great Cloud of Witnesses

November 1st is All Saints' Day, the day set aside to honor "all the saints, known and unknown." We don't have to hold to the Roman Catholic idea of saints as special Christians to remember and respect those who have paved the way for us.

We should remember Abraham, the man of faith, the progenitor of the line of Christ. 

We should honor Moses who followed God into facing down the most powerful king of his day.

We should give thanks for the example of David who showed us that a man after God's own heart can still sin — and be forgiven.

We should honor 
Peter, the leader of the church who was still so very fallible, and Paul, the persecutor of the church who became its greatest apostle, and Stephen, who showed us that we can face death with the same attitude as Christ.

Let us learn from the example of Polycarp who preferred the arena or the flames to blasphemy saying, “86 years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

And Justin, the apologist who chose to lose his head rather than his soul, saying, "No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety."

And Jim Elliot who went into the jungle saying, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose," and never returned.

Let us remember Athanasius standing contra mundum, Luther at Worms, Latimer at the stake who taught us the truth was worth everything.

As we hold our Bibles, let us give thanks for Tyndale and Rogers who gave their lives so we could have it in English.

And for Brother Andrew and all those who have risked and even given their lives to take the scriptures to the world.

Honor Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm as well as Edwards, Lewis, and Schaeffer who taught us to think about the faith, and Spurgeon, Wesley, and Graham who taught us to share it.

Thank God for the legions of pastors and teachers who never made it into history books but devoted themselves to teaching the next generation about Jesus. 

Thank God for the white haired saints that have gone on to their reward who told you about Jesus, who showed you want it meant to live for him.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith."

Friday, October 19, 2018

Religion in Political Discourse

Does religion have any place in political discourse?

Tim Keller recently wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times: How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t. It's a great piece, and I recommend you read it. That's not what I want to talk about though.

In the comment section of the article, one of the "NYT picks" comments caught my attention. It's a reasonably well-written example of an attitude I've been seeing more and more in recent years, so I will paste it here:

“As a strong believer in the separation of Church and State, I believe that religion has no place in political discourse. I am sick and tired of so-called Christians and other faith-based groups, using their religious beliefs to influence public policy. You want to pray. Fine. Go to church. You want to live your life in accordance with some religious belief. Fine. Do it in the privacy of your home. But, do not use your religious belief to argue that your right to free speech is infringed upon when you are asked to bake a cake for a same sex couple, provide birth control under your company’s health insurance plan, deny science, etc. In short, do not use your religious beliefs to deny my right to live as I see fit. To influence public policy which denies millions of women, minorities, and children, access to health care, abortion, voting rights, civil rights. I am simply fed up with the hypocrisy to the so-called religious people in this country preaching to the rest of us who simply want to live our lives freely and openly without the burden of dealing with someone’s else’s gods foisted upon us.”
To an apparently growing segment of the population, the mere fact that your point of view is based in your religious beliefs renders it out of bounds.

Aside from the fact that "the separation of Church and State" isn't in the US Constitution, aside from the fact that this view is at odds with the actual text of the 1st Amendment and Article VI Clause 3 of the US Constitution, it's simply illogical.

The commentor's basic point is that my religious beliefs shouldn't have any affect on what I do outside my church or home. Do whatever you want in private, but don't let it affect how you live your life. Especially don't let it affect how she lives her life.

But she wants her ideas to affect how I live my life. She believes same-sex marriage is good and right, so I must act like it is too. She believes abortion is good and right, so I must act like it is.

Why? Because her ideas aren't based on a religion and mine are. That doesn't matter. But is that really even the case? There are millions who say they are "spiritual but not religious." You don't have to belong to an established religious organization to have "spiritual" beliefs. And in the same way, she has spiritual beliefs — whether her beliefs are that there is no god or that whatever god exists doesn't matter. Her religious beliefs may be different from mine, but they are really just as religious. And she not only wants to live her life based on them, she wants me to do so too.

She doesn't really want people to keep their religious beliefs in private. People acting on their religious beliefs open hospitals, run orphanages, and feed the hungry. They've opposed slavery, wars, and the abuse of women because of their religious beliefs.

And that's the way it's supposed to be. Jesus says if your beliefs don't affect the way you live your life, you don't really believe them.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Review: Scientism and Secularism

I don't want to become all book reviews all the time, but I think this book is important, so I decided to run another review already.

When I saw that JP Moreland's Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology was available for free review copies, my first reaction was that it sounded kind of heavy and I didn't want to read that right now. Then I thought about my teenage daughter and the questions she's been asking, the things she tells me about her classmates and teachers. Yeah, let's go ahead and read it now.

Scientism is variously defined, but it's safe to call it "the view that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of reality" (26). Anything else — such as moral or spiritual claims — is not true knowledge and is therefore subjective. In other words, if it's not "science" it's just opinion.

In this new paradigm, faith has been redefined. Instead of being trust based on what you know, it's belief without or even in spite of evidence.

Maybe that would be appropriate if scientism were true, but Moreland shows that the philosophy (for that is what it is) is self-refuting both on its face and because science rests on a foundation of unprovable but necessary building blocks (e.g., logic, mathematics). He goes into detail about some things that science cannot explain but theism can, and he explores ways to integrate Christianity and scientific exploration.

It sounds heavy, right?

It's really not that heavy. Chalk it up to Professor Moreland's excellent communication skills. Even when it gets deeper into the philosophy, it's pretty easy to read and follow his argument.

Is it a perfect book? Of course not. In particular, some of his examples are a little iffy. His background is in chemistry, but he draws them from physics, and sometimes they fall a bit flat. Also, I have trouble wrapping my head around the idea of doing science without methodological (as opposed to philosophical) naturalism.

But his arguments are sound and his warning is necessary. In just a few decades we've gotten to a place where anything that isn't measurable is treated as opinion. It will only get worse unless people push back.

Which is why I give this my rare five-star rating. I dearly wish everyone would read this book. This is another free ebook that I'll be picking up in hard copy.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Review: Christian Ethics

Mortimer Adler says, when you critique a book, you're supposed to critique the book the author intended to write not the book you wish he'd written. It's in that spirit I set out to review Wayne Grudem's Christian Ethics.

I was excited when I saw it was available for free review copies. This is an area in which I haven't read much, and there are so many moral issues either giving us trouble now or looming on the horizon, so I was eager to dive in.

Grudem says, "I have written this book for Christians who want to understand what the Bible teaches about how to obey God faithfully in their daily lives." It was written to serve as a textbook or a guide for the lay believer, and it can be read straight through or readers can dip into whichever chapters address their particular concerns. The format is very similar to his Systematic Theology. He gives his arguments in a cleanly laid out format, then he provides "questions for personal application," a list of special terms from the chapter that appear in the glossary, and a bibliography of other works that weigh in on the same topics, followed by a scripture memory passage and a hymn.

He lists six "distinctive features" of his book: a clear biblical basis for ethics, clarity in the explanation of ethical teachings, application to life, focus on the evangelical world, hope for progress int he unity of the church on ethical issues, and a sense of the urgent need for greater ethical understanding in the whole church. I totally agree that those features characterize the book, most especially the first.

The first part of the book lays down a foundation for the discussion of ethics: where do they come from, why do we care, how do we know God's will? Then he discusses the possibility of the impossible moral conundrum (ie, where the believer must choose between sinful options) and how to use the Old Testament for ethical guidance. After that he launches into the various ethical topics using the Ten Commandments as organizational headings. (For example, under "You shall not steal", he handles property rights, "work, rest, vacations, and retirement," increasing prosperity, poverty, business ethics, and more.)

Now it's time to "critique the book the author intended to write." So how'd he do? If you're familiar with his other work, it'll come as no surprise that he's thorough, thoughtful, and clear. You may not always agree with what he says, but he says it well. I think he let himself off a little too easy on the topic of impossible moral situations, but this is a very, very difficult area that most of us — thankfully — will never really experience.

On the individual issues he was, again, very thorough and, in my humble opinion, completely biblical — and honest when he's going beyond what the biblical text actually says. I do wish he gone into more detail on medical and/or genetic "improvements" on humans (one of the issues looming on the horizon), but it's hardly a classical problem at this point.

My only real complaint comes from the book I wish he'd written. I was hoping to get a more generalized methodology for approaching new issues. I expected something like that in his chapters on "factors to consider in making ethical decisions" and using the OT for guidance. I didn't really get what I was looking for. I don't know if such a thing doesn't exist or if I was just expecting too much. Or perhaps that's simply not the book he set out to write.

Judging the book he wrote on the grounds of what he says he intended to do, it's a good book. It's not the only such book (he lists many, many others), but it's well written, comprehensive, and thoroughly biblical. I got the electronic version for free, but some day I'll probably pick up a hard copy for the shelf.

I reserve that fifth star for only the most important books, but this one would easily be four stars. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the topic of biblical ethics and to everyone who's not.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Why Jesus Never Mentioned Homosexuality

Jesus never explicitly condemned homosexuality. To religious liberals, this means he had no problems with it.

Of course, he never condemned rape, and no one thinks he's OK with that. He never talked about health care reform or immigration, but people are sure his teachings should inform our views on that. But the fact that he never mentioned homosexuality is supposed to be a license to support it, legalize it, and bless it.

I recently came across an STR podcast that talks about this issue, claiming that Jesus' silence on the issue proves the conservative view. The argument is that Jesus modified Old Testament teachings (eg, Mark 7:14-19, Matt 5:31-32) and/or the contemporary understanding of OT teachings (eg, Matt 5:38-48) whenever he disagreed with them.

The fact that he said nothing about homosexuality means he agreed with their understanding of the OT rules on the subject.

I recommend checking out this podcast for Greg's discussion of the issue and their other podcasts — they've got a lot of great stuff on their website.

Did Jesus Say Nothing About Homosexuality?
One Among Many

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Legacy of Omri

Illuminating the Old Testament

My recent review of the ESV Archaeology Study Bible reminded me that I never came back to this idea. It's time to rectify that.

1 Kings 16:21-28 recounts Omri's reign over the northern kingdom of Israel. The text briefly mentions that he had to quash a competitor and that he moved the capital of Israel to Samaria. And that's all we would know about Omri's reign if we only had the biblical record.

Archaeology provides more detail. Omri didn't just pitch a tent and call it Samaria. He built a palace that has been compared to Solomon's work in Jerusalem. And he made Samaria a commercial power. Under his leadership, Israel prospered.

Part of that prosperity was due to the fact that he conquered Moab and forced them to pay tribute, a fact that the Bible only obliquely references later when the Moabites rebel against that tribute.

Omnri's wealth and military prowess so impressed outsiders that the Assyrians called future kings "son of Omri." He should, by all rights, have quite the legacy. He may not have been David or Solomon, but he was an impressive king.

God was not impressed. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, this is the legacy of Omri of Israel:

"Omri did evil in the eyes of the LORD and sinned more than all those before him. He followed completely the ways of Jeroboam son of Nebat, committing the same sin Jeroboam had caused Israel to commit, so that they aroused the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, by their worthless idols."

We must never forget that the Lord is not impressed by money, power, or success in the things of the world. The only question is "Did you follow God?"

A Covenant of One
The Bible and Archeology

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review: ESV Archaeology Study Bible

I received a (disclosure: free) review copy of the new ESV Archaeology Study Bible from Crossway, and then had to ask myself how I'm going to evaluate this thing. Ultimately I decided the only question I really wanted to ask is whether the notes actually illuminate the text in question. Trivia can be fun, apologetics are useful, but a study Bible should make a meaningful contribution to your understanding of the text. I didn't want "Oh, that's cool" but "Oh, that's what that means." While I was at it, I also compared the notes to the ESV Study Bible (Crossway) and NIV Archaeological Study Bible (Zondervan) because it'd be good know if this thing didn't contain anything new. (Yes, I am in possession of far too many study Bibles.)

First, the details as listed by the publisher:

The ESV Archaeology Study Bible roots the biblical text in its historical and cultural context .... The Archaeology Study Bible assembles a range of modern scholarship—pairing the biblical text with over 2,000 study notes, 400 full-color photographs, 200 maps and diagrams, 200 sidebars, 15 articles, and 4 timelines.
It also contains the usual kind of cross-references and textual footnotes. It's stuffed pretty full, and frankly it's a back-breaking monster that you aren't going to wag to church. But that's not what it's for. It's for study — whether you're just doing it for your own edification, or you're preparing a lesson or sermon.

So is it any good at that?

To answer that question I looked at sections of Genesis, Exodus, Nehemiah, 2 Kings, Malachi, and Matthew. One thing I appreciated is the editors largely resisted the urge to add non-archaeology comments (something that Zondervan failed to do). If archaeology didn't add much to a passage, there wasn't much in the way of notes. Now the notes themselves are not always golden. Malachi in particular had largely trivial notes — things that really didn't affect your understanding of the message of the text. I should add that each book has a brief introduction that includes a general summary of how archaeology has contributed to the understanding of that book. It says for Song of Songs, "Given the subject matter and poetic style ..., there is little archaeology can do to illumine the central message of the text." (Yet it still has some interesting bits about fruits and perfumes and locations mentioned in the text.) So I feel like they're trying to be honest and not waste your time.

In most of the sections I looked at, however, the notes really did add to the passage. I expected Genesis and Exodus to be full of useful information, and they were. Matthew as well. 2 Kings I didn't quite know what to expect. Every passage didn't have great notes, but many did. The simple truth is archaeology just doesn't have something to offer about every passage. The editors obviously had to flesh out the notes, but they were cautious about doing so with non-archaeology material.

So how does this study Bible compare to the ESV Study Bible? I saw very little of the note material from one in the other. Diagrams, pictures, and charts, though, were frequently re-used. Both have a number of articles and essays, and there wasn't a lot of overlap there, either. So already having the ESV Study Bible shouldn't make you rule this one out.

So how does this study Bible compare to the NIV Archaeological Study Bible? It shouldn't be surprising that there's more overlap here, but I found the notes to be more applicable and the essays to be (a little) more useful. Also, the ESV notes are theologically more conservative than the NIV notes (which frankly surprised me). If you have the NIV, I'm not sure you need a new one, but I do like Crossway's version better.

A quick note about the essays: They give you a thumbnail sketch in a few pages on topics about which whole books have been written. You can't take them as the end-all on the topic, but you can use them to make you aware of issues in archaeology that you may want to investigate further — perhaps in something like Hoerth's Archaeology and the Old Testament.

Now, study Bibles are not devotionals. They don't do the heavy lifting for you. They tell you about the text and leave it up to you to see how that should affect your life. So simply reading the notes in the ESV Archaeology Study Bible is not going to make you love Jesus more or live more like him. But it can help you see the text more clearly, and that can.

Rating: 4/5 — Recommended

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The God Who Wants Peculiar People

Deuteronomy 22-26 (and much of the rest of the Pentateuch) contains rules for Israel that are odd to modern eyes and ears. There rules about what you can eat, what you can wear, and how to style your beard. God tells them what they can plant and what animals they can yoke together. Why are these rules so weird, and why does God care about such minor things?

God desired his people to be a peculiar people. He wanted them to stick out. He wanted them to be separate from their neighbors. Many of these peculiarities seem pointless, but the "pointless" peculiarities call attention to (and protect) important peculiarities.

The word in and around Canaan would have been that these guys are weird. "They dress funny, they don't eat perfectly good food, and they take a whole year off from work every seven years." But once people started watching them, they should have seen even weirder things:

They treat the poor, women, and foreigners with kindness and respect. There are no murderers, thieves, or adulterers among them. They don't sacrifice their children to their gods. They don't even have shrine prostitutes or idols. In fact, they seem to only have one god. And their god seems to bless everything they do.
Of course, things didn't really shake out that way because they weren't very good at following rules.

So God made himself a new peculiar people. He took people from every tribe and made them his own, this time putting his law in their minds and hearts (cf Jer 31:33) so that they can be the holy people he desires (1 Pet 1:15-16).

We don't always follow the rules so well either, but when we do it can be glorious:

"Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred." — from the Epistle to Diognetus

Or another picture:

"Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are . . . not spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines or banished to the islands or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God's Church, they become the nurslings of their confession. But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another ..." — from the Apology of Tertullian

We are not perfect. We will not be perfect until Christ comes and makes us, finally, like him. But we can strive to imitate him. When we love like he loved us, that kind of peculiarity will stick out. The world cannot miss it. And then they will ask us the reason for the hope that is in us. And the lost will be saved. And Christ will be glorified.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The God Who Hates Slavery

God hates slavery.

I know, that's a hard statement to defend. Slavery was allowed in the Old Testament and in the New. The Bible condemns sexual immorality, gossip, and greed, but it never gets around to condemning slavery. But I still think the Bible, even the Old Testament, teaches us that God hates slavery.

We have to acknowledge that "slavery" is loaded with meaning now that it didn't have then. Slavery in ancient times was primarily related to financial debt and war. In the former case it was their version of bankruptcy — you could sell yourself for money to pay your bills. In the latter case it was simply part of their approach to war; you would take your enemies lands, treasure, livestock, and labor force. Taking their labor force took their young males (reducing their chance for a reprisal) and gave you workers for your own needs (whether you wanted them to build pyramids or work in fields).

Being a slave in ancient days wasn't fun; you were property with no more rights than a mule. But it wasn't the same thing as the more modern version that looked at a vast swath of humanity as sub-human. It was typical human might-makes-right, not colonial you-are-lucky-to-serve-us. So ancient slavery was not as odious as the Western version eventually became.

And God still hated it. He showed it in four rules he gave Israel:

1) No Israelite slaves
The Israelites weren't allowed to enslave each other. Their version of debt slavery was what we would call indentured servitude — with benefits (Deut 15:12-15).

How the Israelites were expected to treat each other was supposed to be a picture of proper behavior — this is what God wanted from everyone everywhere for everyone everywhere. What God's law teaches is that when people are poor, you should do whatever you can to help them help themselves and if necessary to just help them. You leave the corners of your fields unharvested, you don't charge them interest on loans. You give them food. And if things get so bad that they have to sell themselves for money, you don't treat them like slaves. They don't become your property, they become part of your family. You accept their labor for a few years and then you send them on their way with gifts to help them restart their life. They were supposed to show the world debt slavery didn't need to exist.

2) Shield the runaways
"If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them" (Deut 23:15-16).

Remember the stories of the Underground Railroad? Remember the stories of slave owners pursuing runaways hundreds of miles? Which side does it sound like God was on? Yearning for freedom is part of the human condition. When people can't take it anymore and work up the nerve to risk running away, God says to let them, shelter them.

3) Kill the kidnappers
One of the fundamental aspects of Western race-based slavery was the kidnapping of people to sell as slaves. This was a capital offense is Israel (Deut 24:7, Ex 21:16).

4) Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18)
Yeah, that one is still on the books. Was this applied as broadly as God desired? No. Jesus had to take them to task over that (cf, Luke 10:25-37). But knowing how God intended it to be applied, can we really argue that God was totally fine with people being treated as property?

Well, then, why did he permit some forms of it?

He modified what they were allowed to do, but he permitted pressed labor and debt slavery because, if I may borrow a phrase, their "hearts were hard" (Matt 19:8). This was a part of their world. He discouraged it — like divorce, like polygamy — but he didn't ban it outright. Why give them more rules they simply could not follow?

But the groundwork was there. Israel paid no attention to it. The early Christians waffled over it for the same reasons. It was a worldview shift that was hard for them to make.

It took centuries for our moral imagination to catch up with God. And yet there is still slavery in this world. There is still slavery in the United States. So what are we going to do about it?

See also:
Review: Not for Sale
On Human Trafficking

Monday, May 7, 2018

Review: The Gospel According to God

"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" (1 Cor 15:3).

It is important to know that Christ died for our sins. It's also important to know that this happened in accordance with prophecy.

In The Gospel According to God, John MacArthur takes us through one of those scriptures, what he calls "the most remarkable chapter in the Old Testament" — Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (usually referred to simply as Isaiah 53).

If you aren't familiar with this passage, simply read it and you will be shocked by its specificity. MacArthur then opens the scripture up to show just how specific it is.

And here even those who are familiar with the passage may be surprised. MacArthur will explain how it is far more specific than it appears at first glance. And he shows how catching all the verb tenses reveals the providence and grace of God that is still to come.

Isaiah 53 has long been one of my favorite parts of the Bible, but this book has given me a new love and admiration for this passage. Be prepared for your heart to sing.

Highly recommended.

I was provided a free review copy from Crossway, but the book's totally worth paying for.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The God Who Protects Women

God watches over the weak. We already saw that God watches over the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. His concern covers all women. In a world that regarded women as little more than a commodity, God expected Israel to treat them fairly.

This is displayed in one of the more controversial passages in Deuteronomy:

"If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives" (22:28-29).
The complaint is that this passage forces a woman to marry her rapist. (Language experts debate whether the word rendered "rape" in this verse means rape or should it be translated more like "seduce". The word in this verse is different from the one in the previous command that is clearly referring to rape. But it really doesn't matter for the purposes of this discussion.)

It sounds harsh until you think about the world they lived in. There are two important things to consider.

1. Like most ancient societies, Israelites valued female virginity. Not being a virgin would seriously damage a young woman's marriage prospects, and you dared not try to pull a fast one by keeping the young woman's situation a secret. (cf, Deut 22:13-21)

2. A woman really only had two ways to "make a living" in this time period, specifically, housewife or prostitute. If she didn't have a husband she was totally dependent on either family or community charity — or that ... other option.

So this man in verse 28 has done this young lady a terrible wrong, whether he forced her or simply seduced her. And now he is forced to provide for her for the rest of his life.

Is this an ideal situation? No. Ideal went out the window when the act happened. We are now making the best of a bad situation. As unpleasant as living with this cad might be, she's got a roof and food and hasn't been forced to resort to prostitution to survive. Also of note, this passage has a parallel of sorts in Ex 22:16-17. In it, the girl's father has veto power over the marriage (presumably if the culprit is too horrible, Dad won't permit it), so this passage is really more about the "he can never divorce her" part — that is, he has to provide for her for as long as he lives.

Also in this chapter, though adultery is a capital offense, the woman was to be given the benefit of the doubt if there was a real chance it wasn't consensual (v 25-27). Divorce was grudgingly permitted (cf Matt 19:8), but the woman was to be given a "certificate" (Deut 24:1-4) — preventing her from being labeled as an adulteress later.

In a perfect world, none of this would be necessary. In the world we actually live in, these people were expected to take pains to protect women from the abuses of men's sexual excesses. God watches over the weak. And he expects us to do the same.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The God Who Wants Your Children

The people of God have always struggled with building a multi-generational faith on the experiences of a few people.

"Remember today that your children were not the ones who saw and experienced the discipline of the LORD your God: his majesty, his mighty hand, his outstretched arm; the signs he performed and the things he did in the heart of Egypt ..." (Deut 11:2-3).

To our knowledge, Jacob's sons saw nothing like Jacob's vision. That was it until Moses. The generation of the Exodus saw many mighty works of God; their children less so. And their children saw few if any miracles until the time of Christ.

So how were the children of Israel to pass on their faith?

"Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth" (Deut 11:18-21).

Fix these words ... in your heart and mind
This chapter, like the whole book of Deuteronomy, says again and again "carefully observe all these commands I am giving you." First and foremost, your children need to see you following the word of God. Let them see it in action, see how it permeates your life.

Some Jews literally tie symbols on their hands and foreheads to remind them of the Law. Like the "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets so popular twenty years ago, the idea is to be reminded to live out what you believe. People say that character is caught more than taught; the Bible agrees. Your children will believe what you say only when it is also what you do.

Teach them to your children
But don't assume they'll "catch" the faith. Teach it to them, too. Surround them with it. Talk about what we believe and why. Often.

This particular passage doesn't mention telling them the stories of days gone by explicitly (though "these words" may include Genesis and Exodus and surely includes the beginning of Deuteronomy which recounts some of God's mighty acts). However Jewish society was built around the great feasts that remembered God's works (eg, Deut 16), and there were other reminders as well (eg, Josh 4).

For Christians, our "Passover" is obviously the cross and the resurrection. Our kids need to know that it really happened and why it matters. And then they need to know what difference it's supposed to make in our lives.

If your kids are like mine, this will be both easy and hard. Kids ask lots of questions. Sometimes it seems like they'll never stop. But Christianity can get lost in all the noise in their heads and lives. Some of their friends aren't Christians; some are "Christians" in name only. This seems unimportant at times; it seems mean at times. It can get crowded out by sports and friends and by Santa Claus and the Easter bunny. And they may wonder why the stories about Moses and Jesus are true but the stories about Hercules and Harry Potter are not. And we have to be able to steer them through that.

If we completely give up, Christianity will march on because God will always have his people. But I really believe God wants your children. And you want him to have them, too. So make sure they see and hear the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Easter: No Fooling

This year Easter will fall on April 1. I can't wait to hear the skeptics cluck about how appropriate it is for Easter to be April Fools' Day. Those ancient rubes thought miracles were everywhere, so of course it was easy to convince them a guy rose from the dead, but we're smarter, more discerning. There's no reason for us to believe some silly story made up to fake a religion.

Unless all of that is wrong.

Dead People Don't Do That
Ancient people did believe in miracles. They did believe the gods could act upon the world. Except for this: They didn't believe in resurrection (ie, someone being permanently returned from the dead).

As NT Wright has ably shown, ancient pagans universally believed that resurrection did not happen. Not only that, they thought it was a heinous idea. They didn't want to be resurrected. Matter (and therefore the body) was evil, and people were lucky that death could free them from that.

Some ancient Jews did believe in a bodily resurrection but with one caveat: There would be one mass resurrection at the end of time. The idea of one person being resurrected was a nonsense.

The Christian idea of a special resurrection for Christ was "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles," if I may borrow a phrase.

It was even nonsense to the first Christians. Jesus first appeared to a group of his female followers who reported to the Twelve. "But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense" (Luke 24:11).

Even after the other Apostles had seen the Lord, Thomas wouldn't believe until he saw it with his own eyes, nay, touched it with his own hands (John 20:24-28).

After the Twelve and even a great mass of disciples had seen the risen Christ, some still doubted (Matt 28:17). Even though they'd seen it with their own eyes, it was hard to believe something so contrary to everything they'd been taught, everything they knew.

Eye Witnesses
When they spread this story around the world, they did so with a very clear, "I was there, I saw it."

"For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Peter 1:16).

"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" (1 John 1:1).

If people didn't believe, they were told "he appeared to more than five hundred ... most of whom are still living" (1 Cor 15:6), feel free to check it out.

Not Simple Rubes
They were certainly less educated people than we are today, but they were not idiots. They knew the resurrection was too fantastic. But then they saw it with their own eyes, touched it with their own hands. And they told their stories to people who judged them trustworthy and left their stories to us.

It is an incredible story. But it is a story no one would make up.

Because this incredible story is true, we can have hope. Hope for forgiveness, for peace, for life everlasting in the house of a God who loves us as his own children.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The God Who Loves You Anyway

This morning I found myself thinking about this passage from Deuteronomy 7:
"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. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery ..." (v 7-8).
Today we seem to have two opposing self-esteem problems — both in our society at large and in the church. On the one hand we have people who think they are the lowest of the low, the stuff dirt looks down on. Maybe it's due to things in their past, or maybe it's just how they see themselves. These people cannot imagine they have any value and can't believe God could want them.

On the other hand we have people who think they are so fabulous that the stars themselves need to wear shades to look upon them. Their egos tend to be a little fragile, but they want to think they are reason the sun rises in the morning. And they seem to think God is lucky to have them.

God's message to his chosen people, to the nation he was giving "a land flowing with milk and honey," was that they were nothing special. "I didn't rescue you because you were so wonderful. I just loved you."

God's message to his redeemed people, to the nation he gave his Son for, is that we are nothing special, but he loves us: "Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong" (1Cor 1:26-27).

God takes things that aren't special and makes them special. He takes ashes and makes crowns, slaves and makes sons. God doesn't want anyone who thinks they're special. But he collects the worthless and counts himself richer because of them.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The God Who Sees The Poor

It was Hagar who first called him "the God who sees me" (Gen 16:13), and Deuteronomy 10 tells us that God still sees those of low estate:

"He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing" (Deut 10:18).

Because of his concern for the poor — be they orphan, widow, immigrant, or simply poor — God tells Israel to make sure they are kind, generous, and fair to them.

They were told to be kind to foreigners (10:19), to give the entire tithe to "the Levites ... the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows" every third year (14:29, 26:12), and to cancel debts every seven years (15:1). In general, "If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need" (15:7-11).

Also, they weren't to charge Israelites interest (23:19) or take any necessities in pledge for loans (24:6, 10-13). Instead they were supposed to be be careful to pay their workers promptly (24:14-15), to make sure the weak were protected in court (24:17-18), and to leave food for the poor to collect in the fields (24:19-22).

What God told the Jews in Deuteronomy is clearly meant to inform New Testament believers as well (eg, Matt 25:31-45, James 1:27).

If we remember that everything we have is from God, we cannot be selfish as if we somehow deserve what we have and the poor deserve their poverty. We have been blessed and therefore are expected to be a blessing.

Now most people don't hate the poor. Who wants to see starving children and widows? But it's easy to become so caught up in our own lives that we forget them, leaving them to their own devices. The lesson of Deuteronomy is that God expects us to be active in caring for the poor and that he will judge us based on how we respond.

Helping the Poor Biblically
Loving Neighbors 7000 Miles Away

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

5 Bible Study Tools

We all want to spend more time in the Bible, to get more out of the Bible — or at least we say we do. But it's hard and often confusing, and there are so many other demands on our time. And, frankly, we're not entirely sure how to do it.

So here are a few tools to help you make the most of your time in the scriptures.

If you haven't already, read Living by the Book. It will help you get going on Bible study, and it will introduce you to the usual Bible tools — commentaries, dictionaries, and the like. But we don't want to go to those usual Bible tools too quickly. We want to see what's in the passage for ourselves before we see what other people say about it.

To that end, here are some less usual Bible study tools.

Most of us today use the more modern translations, and I totally support that. Words change in meaning over time, and reading the King James Version can be confusing. But it can also be useful — specifically, those annoying "thee"s and "thou"s.

In King James English, thee and thou are singular; ye and you are plural. Without learning any Hebrew or Greek, we can see whether the "you" in the text in singular or plural. Why does that matter? Consider the LORD's command to Joshua: "Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful" (Josh 1:8 NIV).

Now read it in the KJV: "This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success."

This promise of prosperity and success was not made to Israel. It was made to Joshua. Does that matter? That's exactly the kind of thing you should wrestle with when you study a passage, but you can't unless you know it's there.

Everyone should read more than one translation when they study a passage. Make the KJV one of the ones you consult.

Maybe you've heard this before: "The Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible." What that means is the idea you're trying to understand in one passage is probably fleshed out in more detail somewhere else. Or maybe there is a concept or theme that appears through the scriptures, like the Son of David. Cross-references are places where someone has done the work of finding some of those places for you.

Many Bibles have a few cross-references. Some have a lot of cross-references. The more the better*, but sometimes you have to make do. *However the Bibles with the most are often those with study notes. That's not necessarily bad, but it's better to do as much as you can on your own before looking at commentaries or study Bible notes.

I recommend the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge — a book of nothing but cross-references. But if you don't want that, get a Bible with as many as you can. Maybe get a KJV and have it do double duty.

Language cheats
Cheats? Once upon a time I told myself I was going to learn Greek. Turns out I just don't have the time and/or energy to put into that project. And knowing a little Greek is probably more dangerous than knowing none.

But there are language tools that are helpful, even to the layman. Enter Greek for the Rest of Us and Hebrew for the Rest of Us. These books are designed to help you "cheat" — get the most out of those tools without actually having to learn the language. The Greek version even has a free online class you can take. Also, both the book and the class will introduce you to a study technique called "phrasing" that is quite helpful.

Bible backgrounds
The Bible is a product of the Holy Spirit working through men who lived in particular times, places, and cultures. Those times, places, and cultures are part of those writings, and learning about them can help us understand the scriptures better. Most people know how the Jews felt about Samaritans, and it informs our reading of the Good Samaritan story. Knowing how they felt about tax collectors, the ocean, and the Messiah will inform your reading of countless other passages. Yes, a good commentary will inform you about some of this, but the goal is to be able to see these things on your own, before you go to the commentaries.

I recommend New Testament Times and Old Testament Times, but there are many good resources out there. Another interesting work is Sketches of Jewish Social Life, but I wouldn't make that your only source for NT background.

There are resources that will ask you questions about the Bible. They're secondary tools in that someone else is guiding you, but they're guiding you to think about the text, not just telling you what it means.

One series I've found useful is the LifeChange series from NavPress. You might not find all the questions useful, but some will be. Other group Bible study resources may offer a good set of questions, too. The Explore by the Book series from The Good Book Company might be useful is this regard, though their selection is limited at this time. Look around and see what you can find to help you think deeply about the text.

After you've gone through your cross-references and language tools, check with your concordance and maybe an atlas to see what else you can learn. Then consult a Bible dictionary for any words that are still bothering you. Only after that should you consult a commentary or three.

And you should consult commentaries. We can learn a lot from the professionals, and they can keep us from going too far afield in our studies. But it's good for us to put the work in for ourselves before we listen to them. And you'll soon learn that the Bible is not as hard to understand as you once thought.