Monday, December 23, 2019

What the Angels Said About Jesus

Before John called Jesus the divine Word who "was with God and ... was God," before Paul called him "the image of the invisible God," even before Jesus ran around Judea and Galilee claiming divine prerogatives for himself, people were warned what to expect from this Jesus. The angel Gabriel did not just tell Mary, "You're going to have a son." The angelic visitations attending the birth of Jesus laid out the story for anyone who was ready to listen.

Luke 1:26-38
"You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.

"The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God."

Matt 1:20-21
"...what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. ... She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

Luke 2:11
"Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord."

"He will be called the Son of God." In the Old Testament, there are many "sons of God." There is whoever Gen 6:2 refers to, there are references to angels being sons of God, and kings and all Israel are called sons of God. So what makes this kid special? This son will be conceived when "the Holy Spirit will come upon" Mary. He will be no normal man. Many in the Bible were unable to conceive without God's help, but this time it will be without the involvement of a man. Furthermore "He will reign over Jacob's descendants forever." Forever. This is no mere mortal. He's not mortal at all.

He will be "holy." Holy, especially when talking about people, means to be set apart. Samson was set apart from birth. So was John the Baptist. You know about Samson's hair. Zechariah was told about John, "He is never to take wine or other fermented drink" (Luke 1:15). These restrictions highlighted that they were set apart for God's use. There are no special instructions for this child. He's not a Nazirite. He's not "set apart for a special work." He's intrinsically holy. Like God.

"He will save his people from their sins." Do you think Mary and Jospeh wondered how he would accomplish that? I doubt they could have imagined the form that would actually take, but besides that, how can a human being save anyone from their sins? A human being cannot. The blood of bulls and goats does not bring forgiveness of sins, and neither would the blood of any mere man.

"He is Christ the Lord." "Lord" in the New Testament means different things. It can mean as little as "sir." It can mean a servant's master or an exalted person. Or it can mean the king. Calling him "Christ the sir" makes no sense, so he's obviously exalted to some extent. To what extent? He's no mere mortal. He's the Son of David. He's the special Son of the Most High. He'll reign as king forever. He will not be a lord but the Lord.

The Savior that was born to them and to us was no mere man. To anyone who was listening, the angels spelled out that this baby was going to be God in the flesh, come down to save mankind and call the nations to himself. The shepherds "spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child" (Luke 2:17), and so should we. We worship him best by joining his mission to call all nations to be reconciled to God.

Of Sons and Promises
The Forever King

Wednesday, December 11, 2019


What's going to happen tomorrow?

There are lots of good reasons to spend less than we make: So we can give to charity; so we're not caught up in materialism and greed; so we can handle unforeseen expenses like car repairs; so we can handle foreseen expenses like retirement and college.

Here's another one: In the not too distant future, people you know may face the choice of giving up their careers to honor Christ.

In The Benedict Option, Rob Dreher argues the day is rapidly approaching when American Christians will have to pull together to help each other survive more than we have had to in centuries. We've already see bakers, florists, and photographers face the choice of giving up a huge chunk of their business or violate their consciences. The day may soon come when doctors, pharmacists, teachers, and other professionals may have to make the same choices, even to the point of going into a new career.

Could that happen to you? Would you be able to help a brother or sister in Christ who faced that situation? Would you be able to help your church make up the loss in giving? Would you be able to continue giving to your church if your contributions were no longer tax deductible?

How do we prepare for that rather likely eventuality? By learning to make do with less now. By learning to live simply. We can learn to ask whether we really need to buy that. We can ask how many streaming services we really need to subscribe to. We can re-evaluate our transportation choices.

We can decrease the pile of gifts under the Christmas tree. Christmas is the time of the year when we most clearly tell our children that piles of stuff is good. This year, cut back a little on what you spend on Christmas for you and yours. Instead, have your family do some buying for an angel tree. Or gather around the World Vision, Heifer International, or Samaritan's Purse Christmas catalog and together pick out some gifts to give people who can't give back to you. Start getting your family used to spending less on yourselves.

Fancy clothes, fancy cars, and fancy houses filled with latest electronic gadgets are just things that moth and rust destroy. Storing up treasures in heaven is a far better use of our money.

Let's learn to live simply and give lavishly before the world makes us.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Review: The Fallacy Detective

I buy books at a faster rate than I can actually read them. As such, I've had The Fallacy Detective on my shelf for a few years, intending to read it and have my kids read it. Then I came across an offer from the authors for a free review copy of their new Audible edition. "Reading" in my car is my primary form of reading these days, so I jumped on it.

The Fallacy Detective: Thirty-Six Lessons on How to Recognize Bad Reasoning is a logic primer aimed at middle schoolers and up.

"Hold on," you say, "logic primer?!" Two things you need to know:

1) Logic is simply clear thinking. Christians need to know logic. We need to know how to think clearly, and we really need to know how to identify shoddy reasoning from the world around us, because it is everywhere, and the world uses it to try to influence us and our children.

2) This "logic primer" is no stuffy text book or pseudo-Puritan handbook. It handles the material in short sections with the occasional joke and light-hearted examples that none the less illustrate the skills in question. It has a breezy tone and presents the material clearly.

The book covers all the typical reasoning errors with examples, then it gives exercises (with answers provided) for practice in recognizing the fallacies. Finally, the authors offer a game to help you and yours (they recommend 3+ players) sharpen your skills. Each chapter could probably be covered in less than 10 minutes, including exercises.

About the Audible version: The narrator does a fine job of reading the material, and he uses different voices to make the example conversations easier to follow. There are weaknesses. It's hard to do the exercises that way at first, and sometimes he has to describe a figure in the text (it really doesn't work). The authors recommend the Audible as a supplement to the hard copy (or maybe as the parent's version), but if this is all you have, you can make it work.

Again, every Christian — especially young Christians who are about to enter college and then the "real" world — need to know basic logic. This is about as painless textbook as I can imagine. Logic is not hard, and you (and your children) can use any book, but this is the gentlest of all the books I've come across. Of the best of the rest, A Rulebook for Arguments is shorter, but less clear, and Come, Let Us Reason is quite clear, but longer and less ... friendly. I think The Fallacy Detective will serve you and your family well.

(links are affiliate links)

Monday, November 11, 2019

Blog update: Sharing posts

After all these years I've finally managed to fix the buttons to share posts to Facebook, Twitter, and such. Yes, I am quite the luddite. I wonder what I broke while fixing this.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Right to Remain Silent

Are you getting tired of seeing stories about people who post something on social media and then get upset at the 100% predictable response?
Twitter logo

It's not just movie stars or athletes. It happens to everyday people, too. And it's been happening to some high-profile Christians. Israel Folau, the Australian rugby player, was only the latest example.

Let's get some things out in the open. Yes, it's a shame that people are only allowed to express "approved" opinions in our society. Yes, the scriptures say homosexual relations are immoral, along with a host of other things.

But this is our world right now. How do you want to live in it?

We should be willing to stand up for the truth. But we should do it in a winsome manner. And we have to pick our battles.

Ray Comfort teaches folks to use the Law of Moses to show people that they are sinners. He also teaches people not to bring up people's "favorite" sins. You don't bring up adultery to an adulterer. He knows he's an adulterer. He doesn't realize he's also a lying blasphemous thief with the seeds of murder in his heart. Talking about adultery will make him defensive. Showing him that his sin goes far deeper than he imagines may make him receptive to the gospel.

Gay people know that traditional Christianity teaches that homosexuality is wrong. We don't have to tell them that. No one is going to repent in dust and ashes because you post about it on Twitter.

The only thing that will happen is you'll be flamed. And possibly fired.

We are called to give a reason for the hope that is in us. We are called to be ready, willing, and able to share the gospel.

Our beliefs on same-sex marriage, etc. are not the gospel.

If someone asks you, one on one, what the Bible says on a topic, don't shy away from the truth. Be gentle, but be honest.

But don't go looking for opportunities to cause offense. Christ calls us to be "as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matt 10:16). Paul said, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Rom 12:18).

In modern terms, you have the right to remain silent. You are not required to broadcast your opinion for all to see. And keeping it to yourself will probably make your life a bit more pleasant.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Standing on the Promises

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed recently and saw two posts right next to each other.

The first: "Virtually Wiped Out": 95 Christians Killed in Mali Village

The second: "The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still" (Ex 14:14).

I couldn't help but ask "What happened? Did God forget to fight for them?" What's going on here? Of course God didn't "forget" to fight for them. But he also didn't promise to fight for them.

Christians love to quote the promises of God, and there are lots of books containing such promises. It's common in certain circles to hear that "all the promises of the Bible are for you."

No they're not.

For some reason, I never hear people try to claim this promise:

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3).
Everyone knows that was God's promise to Abram, and no one tries to appropriate it. But for some reason they try to appropriate promises made specifically to other people.

Many, maybe most, promises in the Old Testament are made as part of the old covenant. The beloved Jeremiah 29:11 ("For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD...) was made to people under the Law, in the context of the Law. These promises do not apply to you unless you are under the Law of Moses. (Hint: You don't want to be.)

Many promises were made only to specific people and/or only for specific occasions. Ex 14:14 above ("The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still") was made to Israel as they were leaving Egypt when they found themselves trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army. It wasn't even a blanket promise to Israel. On some occasions God expected Israel to fight. On some occasions he left them to their own devices (eg, Josh 7) — which didn't go well for them. It certainly was not a promise to modern Christians.

Why does this matter? I'll simply point to the example I gave above. If you tell people "God will fight for you" and he doesn't:
A. You have lied about God.
B. You have caused the people to whom you lied to now doubt God.
C. You may destroy the faith of weaker brothers and sisters by doing this.
D. You make Christianity look ridiculous to outsiders.
On a related note, when prosperity preachers use OT "promises" to tell people that God will make them rich and/or healthy and he doesn't, it drives people away from the gospel (while making these preachers rich).

There are lots of promises in the Bible that apply to the NT believer. Most of them are in the NT.

God's word to us today is good. He said, "Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." He said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." He said, "neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." He has given us "his very great and precious promises" in Christ Jesus. We don't need to steal old promises from the old covenant.

If you're going to "stand on the promises," make sure they're promises God actually made to you.

Related: Never Read a Bible Verse

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

A Life Verse for the American Church

"... To boldly go where no one has gone before."

A mission statement can help you filter ideas, activities, and choices based on how they correspond to your priorities. Remember when "life verses" were popular? I suppose some people still do that, but there was a time when it seemed like everyone had a life verse — basically a mission statement or philosophy of life. It's not a bad idea.

In fact, I think the church in America needs one. We need this one:

... make every effort to add to your faith goodness;
and to goodness, knowledge;
and to knowledge, self-control;
and to self-control, perseverance;
and to perseverance, godliness;
and to godliness, brotherly kindness;
and to brotherly kindness, love. (2Pet 1:5-7)
These verses are important because they highlight for us that we're supposed to striving to be characterized by more than one thing.

Let's back up and look at the context. Verse three is very important: "His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness." Jesus has given us what we need. We have the tools at our disposal. We have the power at our disposal.

"Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature ..." (v4). He has also given us great gifts. He has blessed us beyond comprehension.

"For this very reason ...." Because Christ has given us all the tools and power we need, and because he has blessed us so richly. God always seems to remind us of what he's done before asking us to do anything. So, in light of what Christ has given us ...

"make every effort to add to your faith goodness"
Make every effort. I kind of like the King James version: "giving all diligence." This reminds me of "train yourself for godliness." He's telling us to work. To work hard.

What are we working hard at? "Add to your faith goodness." Faith is vital to the Christian life. But we can't stop at faith. Too many churches preach faith to the exclusion of all else. Peter says we have to add goodness to our faith.

Some versions translate this "virtue." Commentators tend to agree that this is referring to a horizontal goodness. Or, as Peter put it elsewhere, "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (1Pet 2:12). Or as someone else put it, "Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matt 5:16).

Someone will object that we're saved by faith. Yes! But a faith that produces results. "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds" (James 2:18).

"and to goodness, knowledge;"
Faith and virtue are not enough to be a mature Christian. You need knowledge. This is anathema to much of Evangelicalism, but I didn't write it. Talk to the apostle.

What knowledge? Definitely knowledge of God. "This is what the LORD says: 'Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom/or the strong man boast of his strength/or the rich man boast of his riches,/but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me ..." (Jer 9:23-24). Knowledge of God is more than knowing about God, but it is not less. We have lots of alleged Christians who acknowledge that God is love without understanding that he is holy and just. Or they acknowledge that he is all-powerful without seeing that he must also be all-knowing. Bad theology kills. We cannot afford it.

But this is more than just knowing about God. We cannot "contend for the faith" (Jude 1:3) or "be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Pet 3:15) without knowledge. Christians today have more access to the collective wisdom of our brothers in Christ, both from this century and generations past, than any other generation ever. We have no excuse for the ignorance so many are proud of. Ignorance is not godliness. Ignorance is laziness and pride.

"and to knowledge, self-control;"
Paul spent a lot of ink telling us to be self-controlled. He even talked about fighting with his own body to keep it under control (1 Cor 9:27). Because "Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control" (Proverbs 25:28).

Temptation is going to come. Can you control yourself? This fruit of the spirit (Gal 5:23) is also something you have to strive to add to yourself.

"and to self-control, perseverance;"
The prosperity gospel is a cancer on Christianity and every land it touches. This verse will fight that.

If someone told you that becoming a Christian would make all your problems go away, they lied to you. The Master himself said, "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33). Paul said, "Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Tim 3:13). Don't expect all sunshine and rainbows. Expect trouble. Set your heart for it so that when it comes, you'll be able to "suffer long."

And don't tell people this lie that they shouldn't have trouble so that they don't fall away when trouble comes. Hmm. That reminds me of a parable.

"and to perseverance, godliness;"
Godliness? Like "goodness?" The commentators say you could translate this "reverence" or "piety." Where "goodness" was being right with people, this is being right with God. What does God value? Besides love, faith, and kindness, humility gets a lot of press (Micah 6:8, James 4:10). He is the Creator; you are the created. Respond appropriately.

"and to godliness, brotherly kindness;"
"Brotherly kindness"—the Greek is a word you may be familiar with: philadelphia. The idea is simple: "As I have loved you, so you must love one another" (John 13:34). This command shows up in some form throughout the New Testament. It's echoed by Peter, Paul, James, John, and whoever wrote Hebrews. "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

"and to brotherly kindness, love."
This one is agape. Besides being devoted to the body of Christ, we must show love to God and to neighbor. Did you think we'd get through instructions on godly living without hitting the Great Commandments? But in a sense, this just sums up what came before. If we love God and everyone else the way he told us to, we'll do everything else in this list.

This doesn't sound easy or fun. Why should we do this, Peter? "For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ" (v8).

Who wants to be useful? Does anyone aspire to walking into heaven with nothing to show for their time on earth? This is your time to serve your Lord and Savior. This is your time to earn your rewards. This is your chance to show the people in your life what it looks like when someone really follows Jesus. One day you will stand before your Lord. It will be a blessed time, but the time for working will be over. Send treasure on ahead.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

A Trustworthy Saying on Discipline

"Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."

Every culture has sayings that become maxims or even mantras. "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." "A penny saved is a penny earned."

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

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. (1 Tim 4:7-10 ESV)
Paul didn't follow his usual format here, so it's hard to tell exactly where the "trustworthy saying" begins, but my money's on "train yourself for godliness." But it's instructive to see what he's contrasting that to. "Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths." Don't spend time spreading them, discussing them, or even fighting them. Spend your energy training yourself for godliness, because godliness — unlike physical fitness — has everlasting value.

Godliness doesn't just happen. It takes work. It takes discipline.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Cor 9:24-27).
If you want to win a marathon, you're going to do things you don't want to do and skip things you want. Your goal will change your behavior, the choices you make, how you spend your time.

Godliness is no different. It requires daily deciding to kill the flash. It requires daily deciding to follow Christ, to walk in step with the Spirit. It's not for nothing that Jesus said to "take up your cross" and follow him.

Why put yourself through all that? We do what it take because we have hope "set on the living God" in Christ Jesus. He has promised that what we give up here will be more than made up later: "godliness ... holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come" when we will see “what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived."

Our goal is worth the effort. We should strive to be like Christ because we will be with Christ.

So "let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb 12:1-2).

Friday, June 28, 2019

Review: Confronting Christianity

Confronting Christianity
I got a free review copy of Confronting Christianity. It's hard for me to pass up a free apologetics book, but before I pass it on to you, I want to know if it's really got anything to offer that every other apologetics book doesn't have. I think this one does.

First, the author, Rebecca McLaughlin, holds a PhD in renaissance literature from Cambridge University. No offense is intended to the other authors in the field, but she writes really well. The book is a pleasure to read.

Second, this is an "issue" book rather than a fundamentals book. So she addresses the questions that are getting flung in Christians' faces these days. Namely:

Chapter 1: Aren’t we better off without religion?
Chapter 2: Doesn’t Christianity crush diversity?
Chapter 3: How can you say there is only one true faith?
Chapter 4: Doesn’t religion hinder morality?
Chapter 5: Doesn’t religion cause violence?
Chapter 6: How can you take the Bible literally?
Chapter 7: Hasn’t science disproved Christianity?
Chapter 8: Doesn’t Christianity denigrate women?
Chapter 9: Isn’t Christianity homophobic?
Chapter 10: Doesn’t the Bible condone slavery?
Chapter 11: How could a loving God allow so much suffering?
Chapter 12: How could a loving God send people to hell?
She answers these questions using, variously, social science data, personal experience, history, philosophy, and theology. She also speaks "from the other side" on some of these issues. Does Christianity subjugate women? Isn't it nice when it's a woman saying "no?" Is Christianity homophobic? She's open about her own struggles with that world while answering the question in the negative.

All of the chapters aren't equally strong, but by and large she gives good answers to these questions in a gracious and eloquence manner.

My goal is to present my kids with a small apologetics library when I send them off to college. This book is a strong contender for that shelf. I think it will do well on yours, too. I enthusiastically recommend it.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Pleading for Sodom

Smite button
Is God a monster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A Trustworthy Saying on Ambition

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

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

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

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

It's OK to desire to do more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Review: Interpreting Eden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NB: I received a free review copy.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Rest of the Gospel

Are we selling the gospel short?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Trusting God for the Consequences of Obedience

I hate admitting when I'm wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fact: Refugees.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Trustworthy Saying on Salvation

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

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

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

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

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

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

And somehow we manage to get prideful anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Some Book Recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Stories and Scenes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come, Lord Jesus!

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Tale of the Faithless Bride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The New Testament Out of Order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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