Friday, December 5, 2008

Biblical Finance

All the news that is fit to print these days seems to revolve around our hobbled economy. The constant drumbeat of bad financial news is so heavy and insistent that it has become oppressive and, frankly, excessive. Once again, the media are taking every opportunity to scream at us that the sky is falling—or perhaps more descriptively, that our civilization is plunging into a bottomless pit of debt—and the government has responded by going into full crisis-mode. Wall Street investors are behaving like lemmings, running en masse over the nearest cliff every time another bad report comes out. So much for the buy-and-hold strategy.

A few economists and pundits are not as gloomy as the media, the government, and Wall Street. For the most part, these more optimistic observers are of a conservative stripe, faithful to the tendency of markets to correct themselves over time. They believe that the government should keep its nose, fingers, hands, and arms out of the private sector, and stick to its Constitutional role to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." As for promoting the general welfare, the Founders would vehemently deny that they meant bailing out the banks and auto industry.

Obviously, Americans are caught between two rival and irreconcilable schools of economic thought. One side believes in increased governmental regulation, massive infusions of public monies, increased taxation, and a command-and-control economy commanded and controlled by Washington politicians and bureaucrats. The other side counters with decreased regulation, incentives for markets and businesses, decreased taxation, and allowing millions of consumers to choose how they will spend (or save) their hard-earned money. The former is essentially a European-style socialism, while the latter is trickle-down capitalism.

Neither approach is God-ordained, by any means. Both are human-devised systems of economic thought, but they begin with different premises. Socialism starts with the assumption that wealth should be divided equally among all but that the means of production and distribution of that wealth should be a function of the state. Capitalism, on the other hand, is founded on the principles of a person reaping—and keeping—what he has sown and of individual liberty. In the real world, socialism—especially its extreme form, communism—has failed every time it has been tried, while capitalism is responsible in part for the burgeoning economies of the British Empire, America in its heyday, the Asian Tigers, etc.

To repeat, neither of these systems has God's stamp of approval. What capitalism has going for it is that it incorporates several biblical principles into its basic structure, and further, it makes the most of certain elements of human nature. For instance, people like to win, to be "King of the Mountain." Capitalism unleashes the human competitive spirit, making the pursuit of wealth into something like a game—and may the best man or woman win.

However, it has downsides too. For example, perhaps its most egregious failing is that it inspires greed. Many supporters of capitalism fall for the well-known Gordon Gecko line, "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good," and they pursue the accumulation of wealth at all costs, leading to all sorts of grievous crimes in the name of profits.

This sin is certainly a factor in the present financial mess we are living through right now. Green-eyed investors gambled on bad home loans leveraged at 30 to 1. Corporations continued to expand beyond their means, even buying out struggling companies to pad their bottom lines. Thinking that the good times would never end, consumers continued to purchase whatever their hearts desired, maxing out their credit cards, signing on to new consumer loans, and taking out second mortgages. Now the piper must be paid, and the money is just not there.

What is God's take on all of this? Obviously, because of the sins involved—greed, dishonesty, theft, oppression, to name a few—He is not pleased, and in fact, we could say that the crisis itself is a predictable, inevitable judgment on the nation for breaking God's law in these areas. When men contravene a law of God, a penalty automatically goes into effect, and the only unknown factors are when and how hard it will fall. America's economic situation—not to mention what the rest of the world is experiencing too—is eliciting comparisons with at least the crisis in the early 1980s, and for some it resembles the Great Depression of the 1930s. Time will tell how severe it will be.

What does the Bible instruct us in these matters? Of course, the Bible is not an economic text, but it does include financial principles that all Christians should know and follow as well as they are able. Here are a few of them:

  • God commands that we tithe (Leviticus 27:30; Deuteronomy 14:22). Contrary to the worst aspects of capitalism, God's system is based on giving, not getting. Learning this principle, a part of God's very character, begins with giving Him one-tenth of our income to fund the work of His church. Doing this also helps us to realize what is most important.
  • In addition, God commands that we support the needy (Acts 20:35), particularly the widows and orphans, the disabled, the unemployed, and those who, due to circumstances out of their control, need a temporary hand up. This starts with our families, fellow members of the church, and as we are able, others in the world around us.
  • God instructs us to avoid debt. "The borrower is servant to the lender," counsels wise King Solomon (Proverbs 22:7). Debt makes us subject, not just to the lender, but also to misfortune and to the unscrupulous. If we have debts, we should have a plan to pay them down as soon as possible and resolve not to incur any new ones.
  • The Bible tells us to save so we can pass our wealth to our heirs. Solomon advises, "A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children," (Proverbs 13:22). While this is not always feasible, it should be a goal nevertheless, inspiring us—contrary to our fellow American's spendthrift ways—to put a little money aside as often as we can.

The Bible contains other principles, but these are all that space allows. In times like the present, it would make a good Bible study to search the Scripture for them and meditate on their applications to our lives. Perhaps then, we can avoid the worst of the ongoing financial crisis.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Telling Juxtaposition

The fourth Thursday in November, the holiday Americans call Thanksgiving Day, is always followed by an unofficial shopping holiday known as "Black Friday." It is also the unofficial beginning of the Christmas shopping season, although we realize with chagrin that, these days, retailers are already advertising in the Christmas theme at Halloween, a month earlier. Like the recent Presidential campaign, candidates for the public's holiday spending are getting out of the gate sooner every year in order to squeeze out the competition.

The term "Black Friday" sounds ominous, and it should. Originally, the name was coined in Philadelphia due to the massive vehicle and pedestrian traffic headaches that the rush to the malls and stores caused. Here in Charlotte, in addition to traffic conditions being broadcast on the radio every ten minutes, the announcers also notify drivers about how full the four major malls' parking lots are: "For those of you headed to Carolina Place this morning, the lots there are currently 90% full. There are no empty spaces at South Park Mall."

Every year, too, we hear news reports of die-hard shoppers camping out in line for the latest and greatest gismo that every child (or more often, adult, who has plans to put it up for sale at an inflated price on eBay) must have. Hundreds of people show up at Wal-Mart or a big box store, each hoping to get his hands on one of the few dozen of this year's Elmo dolls or whiz-bang game systems that the store has stocked for the Big Event Sale. Unless the guy who is first in line is a former college linebacker, he stands about a 75% chance of being pushed aside and/or trampled as the store's doors open for business, usually at some ungodly hour in the morning—or maybe even midnight.

In this year's Black Friday rush to consume, the New York Daily News reports that a Wal-Mart employee on Long Island was trampled and killed by a human stampede. A co-worker stated, "He was bum-rushed by 200 people. They took the doors off the hinges. He was trampled and killed in front of me. They took me down too. . . . I literally had to fight people off my back." While emergency workers tried valiantly to save the 34-year-old man's life, impatient shoppers flowed past them into the store, and only a few stopped or even seemed to notice that a human being's life was draining away. A disgusted onlooker commented on the crowd, "They're savages. It's sad. It's terrible."

To most retailers, the meaning of Black Friday has nothing to do with traffic congestion and everything to do with profits. They hope that this day will see their ledgers' bottom lines turn from red to black, since most of them depend on heavy Christmas sales to tip their books into positive territory. This year-end surge of income is the main reason why stores hawk their Christmas goodies earlier each year, for the earlier they make their profits, the more likely they are to have a banner year. They certainly do not want to have to depend on the Christmas Eve rush—or worse, after-Christmas clearance sales—to post a profit for the year.

From a spiritual point of view, the juxtaposition of Thanksgiving and Black Friday is significant. U.S. Presidents, beginning with its first, George Washington, have set aside this Thursday as a day of national thanksgiving and prayer to God for the wonderful bounty and favor that He has graciously bestowed upon America. Citizens are encouraged to take time to count their blessings and consider how much God has blessed them and this nation throughout its history. Each family or group devours a sumptuous feast that represents the best produce of the land. It is also family time, the one national holiday that brings families together without the burden of expected gifts and manufactured merriment.

Yet, the next day is almost entirely given over to consumerism, a day of unbridled, almost carnivorous acquisition. People prepare and gear up for it as if it were a sports competition: getting up early, putting on their best tennis shoes, donning their comfortable clothes, scheduling the day's stops, assigning certain purchases to various family members, synchronizing their cell phones, and checking the loads of their wallets and purses for the monetary firepower that they will need to win the day. Tempers flare over traffic snarls, and like hungry sharks, drivers circle the parking lots in search empty parking spaces. In the stores, people argue over their places in line and even tussle in the aisles over merchandise.

How soon the gratitude and humility of Thanksgiving disappears! One day we acknowledge the loving kindness of our Creator, and the next we engage in no-hold-barred materialism! It is a telling indication of the spiritual status of the average American.

However, it should come as no surprise. In reality, today's Thanksgiving has almost completely lost its spiritual overtones; it is in most respects another secular holiday. It is a time of near-gluttony and overindulgence, a day of parades sponsored by retail stores and of football games marred by countless commercials. In essence, Thanksgiving has become merely a day of consumption, a benign precursor to Black Friday's commercial consumption. Very few celebrate Thanksgiving in the grateful spirit of Washington's original decree or Abraham Lincoln's Civil War proclamation 74 years later.

The emphasis on consumption tells us that Americans do not want to give thanks but get things. The whole culture has become self-indulgent, and this insatiable desire for more blinds the people to their obligations to God and to each other. Jesus confronted this attitude in the Pharisees' ritualism: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence" (Matthew 23:25). In other words, they made a show of rectitude and charity, but in truth, they were only interested in the advantages such piety outward would give them. Jesus pronounced woe upon them for this, and He would certainly judge America's profligate greed in the same way.

As Christians—and especially in tough economic times like these—we must live counter to the trends of this society. We need to give thanks to God for everything (I Thessalonians 5:18) and focus on living the give way, the way of outgoing concern, as God does.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Back to the Future

"It's like déjà vu all over again," said legendary Yankees catcher and phrase-mangler, Yogi Berra, many years ago, and how right he was.

Every few presidential administrations, the country experiences a liberal Chief Executive who promises to change America, to restore her reputation in the world, and to help the poor and the downtrodden, who have sunk to such desperate straits through the greed and unconcern of the previous President and his cronies. At first, there is public euphoria and high hopes that, given a fresh face in the White House, America will become a kinder, gentler superpower abroad and fulfill its supposed role of promoting a cradle-to-the-grave general welfare here at home. As time passes, however, a crisis—oftentimes an economic one, sometimes a military one—reveals the grim truth about liberals in high office: They do not understand basic capitalism, and they lack the stomach for international hardball.

The election of Barack Obama as the nation's forty-fourth President may have set America up for another round of the same. There is no doubt that Obama is a liberal Democrat; by any measure, he was the most liberal Senator during his short tenure in that august body. Under his soaring campaign rhetoric lurked leftist—dare we say socialist, even communist?—principles and policies to the point of Obama, when speaking with Joe the Plumber, saying he wanted to "spread the wealth around." Such a policy is reminiscent of the last half of Karl Marx's famous dictum from his Communist Manifesto: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." Redistributionist economics will lead to national insolvency, just as it did in the Soviet Union.

In matters international, Obama's stated intention is to meet with world leaders—even such anti-American hotheads as Iran's President Ahmadinejad and Venezuela's President Chavez—"without preconditions." It sounds as if, as President of the world's strongest nation, he would make no demands nor expect the usual quid pro quo for either American assistance or conversely, non-involvement in their parts of the world. In other words, he would go into such meetings assuming equality with and goodwill from these tyrants, which is to say that he would engage them from a position of weakness. All good negotiators know that if they have the upper hand, it is usually good policy to use it to leverage the best deal. Yet, Obama wants to come before them, hat in hand, saying, "Why can't we all just get along?"

The question is, will the Obama years be a repeat of the Clinton administration or the Carter administration? Bill Clinton campaigned as a centrist, although it was well-known that his own beliefs fell to the left on the political spectrum. In his first years as President, he tried to ram through Congress various liberal bills, and watched as most of them either failed or were stripped of most of their left-wing items. Hillarycare, his and his wife's atrocious healthcare bill, failed miserably, teaching him an important lesson: The nation was not ready for massive government involvement, especially in one of the nation's largest economic sectors. From then on, he governed from the center-left, especially in economic matters.

His foreign policy successes were few and far between. He embroiled the U.S. in places as diverse as Bosnia and Somalia, where our military was either hogtied and bogged down or slaughtered and humiliated by second- or third-rate armies or even militias. Sudanese minister of state for defense, Major General Elfatih Erwa, insists that in 1996 he offered to hand over Osama bin Laden—who was a financial backer of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993—but Clinton did nothing. His primary reaction to terrorism was to shoot off a few cruise missiles into the offending nation and consider the matter closed. While he glad-handed heads of state and mesmerized his international fans, he did little or nothing to enhance America's standing in the world. In truth, most of America's foremost enemies thought the U.S. to be weak.

Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, ran as a centrist Christian Democrat and immediately began to govern as a leftist. All too soon, the nation's economy plunged into recession, and the public began to see their savings disappear. Interest rates lurched into the high-teens and low-twenties, and American prosperity ground to a near-halt. He signed into law a heavy increase in the Social Security tax and implemented a windfall-profits tax on oil companies. He also expanded the federal bureaucracy by establishing the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. The years of his Presidency were the worst economically since the Great Depression.

In terms of foreign policy, his administration is perhaps best remembered for the Iranian hostage crisis, when Iranian revolutionaries stormed the American embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. While he could negotiate a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt—the Camp David Accords, for which he later received a Nobel Peace Prize—he failed miserably to negotiate the hostages' release. An attempted rescue operation, on April 24, 1980, was aborted, but only after two aircraft crashed in the desert and eight soldiers died. In addition, in just his first month in office, Carter slashed the defense budget by $6 billion. He also relinquished control of the Panama Canal, one of the world's strategic sea gates, which the Panamanians have contracted the Chinese to manage. His record speaks for itself.

Which of these former Presidents will Obama resemble? It is hard to say, since so little is known about his governing style due to his lack of executive experience. However, from his rhetoric, he seems to lean toward the Carter mold rather than the Clinton one. With a majority of Democrats in both houses of Congress, he has the potential to move this country farther to the left than either. Only time will tell, of course, but the historical results of his liberal ideas presage a bleak next four years for those of a more conservative bent.

Nevertheless, the apostle Paul admonishes us, "Therefore, I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence" (I Timothy 2:1-2). In these times, this is advice well worth taking.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Rise (Again) of Nations

Forerunner, "WorldWatch," September-October 2008

British Prime Minister Henry Temple (1784-1865), known as Lord Palmerston, remarked in the House of Commons on March 1, 1848: "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow." In so many words, his statement encapsulates the age-old concept of the nation-state in relation to other nation-states. Nations are composed of large populations living within definable borders and having common governance, aims, and interests. Nations exist because humanity has splintered into hundreds of massive interest groups, each with its own idea of what is best for it.

However, since at least the Tower of Babel, it has been a dream of mankind to erase the lines that divide these human groups and create a one-world order. Empires—from Babylon to the Third Reich—have tried to impose worldwide rule and usher in a utopian Golden Age. In the last century, the idea of a new international system rose again in the League of Nations, in the United Nations, and finally in the post-Cold War New World Order, but each time an international union has been tried, those pesky nations and their interests have dashed it all to pieces.

And it is happening again.

Since the Cold War's end, globalism has been the watchword of international relations and economics. This has been made possible in part by the fact that, with the Soviet Union consigned to history's recycle bin, the United States has emerged as the lone superpower in the world. Being an economic powerhouse and in most cases benign in its foreign ambitions, America has created and fostered an environment of international amity and cooperation. To be sure, not all has been the proverbial sunshine and roses, but the U.S. has pushed and presided over many international institutions and initiatives, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, NATO, the G7, various military coalitions, and countless U.N. agencies.

Yet, cracks are appearing in the foundations of the present international system. Both of its main pilings—economic prosperity and peaceful relations—have been undermined to the point that the whole structure faces collapse. As Lord Palmerston clearly implied, when national interests are at stake, nations have a solemn duty to see to their own first—and both their allies and enemies be hanged!

The current economic woes and a handful of conflicts and foreign policy maneuvers reveal the instabilities of today's globalism. On the financial side, even with all the meetings of world leaders and the tremendous media coverage of the international economy, in reality only a rudimentary framework of a truly global system exists. While there is interconnectivity and cooperation, the world's sovereign nations are the system's players, each looking out for their own interests, using their own currencies, levying their own taxes, charging their own tariffs, and making their own deals.

In the current world credit crunch, each nation will act in its own best interests, and if, for instance, the cooperative efforts of the G20 put it at a disadvantage, it will simply not comply with and/or withdraw from the regime. No sovereign nation will take the chance of acting for the good of the world if it will be hurt by such altruism.

Something like this occurred in Europe when the credit crisis broke in early October. On October 12, the eurozone nations held a summit to coordinate their efforts to combat the swiftly developing financial disaster. Brussels, the hub of EU bureaucracy, did little but wring its hands and say that it lacked the power to make any significant moves. Picking up the slack were the finance ministries of the individual nations in Paris, Berlin, London, Rome, and the capitals of other sovereign states. They used the resources at their disposal to shore up their own lending institutions, protecting their own national interests. In other words, even within the EU, the international system began to splinter along nationalistic lines.

In terms of foreign policy, nationalism is also making a comeback. This can be seen most easily, perhaps, in Russia's recent maneuverings under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He and President Dmitri Medvedev are rebuilding an anti-U.S. bloc from the handful of non-aligned socialist governments around the world, particularly Venezuela and Cuba. The Kremlin is heralding Medvedev's upcoming trip to Latin America as a means for Russia to expand its economic markets in the region, but it is an open secret that his stops in Havana and Caracas will seek to coordinate the three nations' military and political alliance. It is no coincidence that Russia and Venezuela recently announced a joint naval exercise in Caribbean waters, a gesture of defiance toward U.S. hegemony.

In August, Russia invaded Georgia's sovereign territory, quickly overcoming the smaller nation's defenses and demanding that Georgia allow its breakaway province of South Ossetia to go its own way—that is, into Russia's embrace. Beyond rhetoric, the U.S. and NATO did nothing material to help their ally in the Caucasus region, revealing themselves to be practically incapable of unified action. Each member state criticized or mollified Russia in accordance with its own interests.

If we add into the mix Iran's belligerence, India's increasing confidence and autonomy, and China's expanding power, the world is devolving, as it were, into a dangerous, multi-polar configuration. A new Cold War—head-to-head, non-military confrontation among the world's most powerful nations—seems to be brewing. Hostilities of this kind can quickly turn into shooting wars.

In this vein, we would do well to remember Revelation 17 and 18, which contain several references to kings and nations, not cooperative international bodies. Perhaps the world is shaping up to fulfill these long-awaited prophecies.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Panicked Yet?

"The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" cried Chicken Little.

"Wolf! Wolf!" yelled the shepherd boy in Aesop's fable.

Both tales are cautionary and highly applicable to America and the world right now. Believing that the nation's economy will cave if it does nothing, the U.S. government is about to commit $700 billion dollars, at last estimate, to a bailout scheme for quasi-governmental mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. At the moment of this writing, the details of the plan are sketchy—in fact, in flux, as nothing has been agreed upon—but among the speculated results are a massive governmental takeover of America's financial sector, or at least the housing market; limited oversight of the Treasury Secretary, who will ramrod the effort; and very little blame for the political and financial actors who caused this mess in the first place. When the sky is falling, who cares about free markets, oversight, and responsibility?

We should beware when our leaders urge us that some action must be taken "immediately" to fend off some looming crisis. Every blue moon, there is an actual crisis that must be handled expediently, but most of the time, the crisis is either not as dire as advertised or entirely contrived. Such is the case with our health care "crisis." Candidates for office wring their hands and tell us how terrible it is that some forty million Americans do not have health insurance and that government should step in and give it to them for free.

While the U.S. Census Bureau reports that there may be forty million among us without health insurance, at least twelve million of them are illegal aliens, another ten million or so are young and healthy people who have voluntarily chosen not to buy health insurance, another few million are in some way self-insured, and a significant number are between jobs and only temporarily uninsured. In actuality, it is estimated that only 29% of this forty million figure are involuntarily uninsured, thus about twelve million people, a number that is in no way critical.

As mentioned above, the politicians say this government health insurance would be free. Free to whom? There are no free lunches. Someone must pay for the care given by hospitals, doctors, nurses, and other caregivers. That "someone" is the American taxpayer. Politicians often point to Canadian, British, or Nordic national health systems as models, but they never tell the voter how much the citizens of those nations pay in taxes for their "free" medical care. According to a March 2005 CBS News article, the average Canadian family spends about 48% of its income in taxes, and in Ontario, for instance, about 40% of that is used to fund health care. If an American "free" health care system followed Canada's lead, the taxpayer could see what he pays in taxes jump by as much as 20%. Suddenly, "free" health care is quite expensive!

This is not to mention the horror stories about long waiting lists, even for what might be considered critical care. Certainly, many of these are isolated anecdotes, but it has been shown that both service and quality of care diminish after a government takes over a health care system. Care becomes rationed, and even more than by HMOs, procedures are frequently denied on the basis of age, weight, or some other supposedly disqualifying factor such as alcohol, nicotine, or drug use. In addition, care is often sacrificed to pay for the huge bureaucracy needed to handle the new system. Beyond that, public sector agencies are notorious for creating an environment of conformity and lethargy, discouraging quality service and innovation (just go to the nearest Department of Motor Vehicles to see this at "work").

Now, we need to think about the current economic crisis in these same terms. Is it truly a crisis? What is hiding behind the statistics that the media are throwing at us? What are the politicians not telling us? What are the hidden costs? Will lawmakers load the bill with political "extras," adding yet more debt and overregulation? Can the government really provide better oversight than the market? Will this bailout create another monster bureaucracy run by unelected and essentially untouchable executives? Do the American people really have any say in the matter?

Let us assume that this particular "crisis" is all about sub-prime mortgages and nothing else. What is the best way to solve this problem? Long-time mortgage expert Roger Schlesinger, in a recent column titled "What Am I Missing?" makes the case that this is actually a banner opportunity for moneyed investors to buy up foreclosed homes on the cheap. The fly in the ointment, however, is that both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have restricted investors to a small number of loans, required large down payments, and tacked on punitive points, all of which discourages those with money from coming to the rescue of the housing market. In the end, Fannie and Freddie are actually extending the housing crisis rather than helping to solve it. This is government at its finest.

Time will tell if this financial mess is a true crisis or a manufactured calamity designed to amass governmental power, benefit a particular Presidential candidate, sell out the nation to the international system, shield the responsible parties from prosecution, or all of them combined. What is evident is the stirring of fear among the populace that could build to a fever-pitch—from concern to worry to alarm and finally to hysteria and panic. The rhetoric of fear is increasing with each news cycle.

While Franklin Roosevelt's famous dictum resonates in these unsettling times just as it did during the Great Depression ("[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance"), perhaps we really need to fear, not the illness, but the cure. If the politicians and the media are so eager to sell Americans this bailout, we should be worried about what is in store for us on the other side. As the saying goes, "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know."

The resurrected Christ tells the church of Smyrna, "Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer" (Revelation 2:10). If we are faithful and fear God rather than the distressing circumstances swirling about us, He will see us through them (Ecclesiastes 8:12).

Friday, September 12, 2008

At the Father's Right Hand

Down through the centuries since the lifetime of Jesus Christ, despite the Bible's injunction against making images of God, artists have depicted probably every scene from the gospels. However, many of them have chosen to portray one of two vignettes from His life: Jesus as a baby in His mother's arms or as crucified Savior. In each case, they depict Him as needy and powerless—either dependent on His mother or dying or dead.

Much of modern Christianity follows the same dual-themed template in its preaching and worship. Each year we are barraged by the imagery of the baby Jesus in the iconography of the interminable Christmas season. While it is certainly wonderful to realize that God came in the flesh to dwell among men (John 1:14), this world's Christianity and its prolonged emphasis on Christmas tends to "freeze" Him in the position of a cute little baby for all time, ignoring His greater purposes and works.

In addition, the constant refrain, especially of the evangelical set, is "Have you been saved?" Again, their question is undoubtedly sincere, and it is hard to fault their missionary zeal. Yet, it seems that their only goal is to call as many people forward as they can to pray the prayer of salvation, accepting the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. "Jesus Christ died to save you from your sins" is a true statement—and thank God that He did!—but He did not remain on the cross any more than He stayed in the manger. With those wonderful works accomplished, He has moved on to even better things.

The apostle Paul is eager to point this out in Romans 5:10: "For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life" (emphasis ours). Certainly, the Easter holiday—as paganized as it is with its use of fertility symbols like bunnies and eggs—proclaims the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, but its impact on society and nominal Christians is feeble. About the most that those who call themselves Christians get from it—and even this is only partly true—is that Christ's resurrection opens the way for them to get to heaven and enjoy eternal life. So much for the meek "shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5)!

But notice carefully what Paul writes: "We shall be saved by His life." Most people seem to think that we are saved by His death, but that is a false concept! We are justified by His death; our sins are forgiven and we are proclaimed righteous once covered by the blood of Christ. Our salvation, however, hangs on the fact that Jesus Christ is now alive forever!

Imagine that Jesus, sinless and perfect, had paid for our sins through the sacrifice of Himself in our stead, yet He did not rise from the dead. What would have been the result? We would still have payment for our past sins once we accepted Him as our Savior, but that would be all. There would be no hope of a resurrection, no chance of eternal life, because, in this scenario, Christ never opened the way, never having become "the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:29). He would never have conquered death and never have been crowned with glory and honor to share with other sons and daughters of God (see Hebrews 2:10-16).

Further, had Jesus remained dead in the tomb, never having risen to spiritual life or ascending to heaven to take His place at the Father's right hand (Hebrews 1:2-4; 10:12), mankind would still be cut off from God. We would have no opportunity to enjoy a relationship with the Father. Why? Because the living Jesus Christ is the Mediator between man and God (I Timothy 2:5). The author of Hebrews writes:

But He, because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood. Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens. . . . (Hebrews 7:24-26)

Later, he urges us to enter the Father's throne room with boldness and "in full assurance of faith" by Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:19-22) for the purpose of strengthening our relationship with the Father. Paul explains, "It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us" (Romans 8:34).

On the night of His arrest, Jesus tells His disciples, "It is to your advantage that I go away [to the Father]; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send [it] to you" (John 16:7). Among His many duties, Christ is responsible for dispensing the Holy Spirit to God's people, giving them the power to understand God's will and to put it into practice. Hand in hand with this is His position as "head of the body, the church" (Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 5:23). He directs and controls all the works of the church, raising up servants to further God's purpose and prepare a people as "firstfruits of His creatures" (James 1:18; Revelation 14:4).

As Head of the church and our sinless Savior, He is also the perfect Judge of all men (John 5:27; II Timothy 4:8; I Peter 4:5), and now "the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God" (I Peter 4:17). In the book of Revelation, Christ writes letters of evaluation to seven churches, representative of all His people down through the ages (Revelation 2-3). These letters are His judgment of the major attitudes of God's people, especially those in the time of the end, for He makes frequent allusions to His return (Revelation 2:5, 16, 25; 3:3, 11, 20).

He begins the body of each letter with the words, "I know your works." Being alive and in power at God's right hand, He is intimately aware of what we are doing. Since He desires greatly that we attain eternal life in His Kingdom, He warns us through these letters to make the changes necessary to please God. His primary job is to bring each of us into the Family of God to share endless years of loving companionship and creativity with Him and His Father. So we will be saved by His life—because He lives, we will be given salvation. Jesus assures us, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand" (John 10:27-28).

Now that is good news!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Jesus and Paul

Modern critical scholarship of the Bible tends to lean heavily toward skepticism. Those who ascribe to the principles and methods of this so-called scientific approach to Scripture begin with the premise that what is written is not exactly what happened or was said. Instead, they say that the authors, writing years later, recorded what they remembered, but fallible human memory is neither perfect nor immune to ulterior motives. In this way, they conclude, the texts we read today as the Gospels and Acts are not true eyewitness accounts but individual, biased interpretations. Ultimately, they were written to advance a cause rather than give accurate accounts of the life of Christ and the early history of the Christian church.

This inherent skepticism among many modern critical scholars also extends to the epistles of the apostle Paul. Rather than being sincere letters of instruction, encouragement, and sometimes correction to real congregations experiencing the turbulence of Christian life, his epistles are considered parts of the "Pauline agenda." So Paul, rather than being what he claimed—an apostle of Jesus Christ, the Founder of the way of life that bears His name—becomes, in effect, the creator and architect of what we know as Christianity. Essentially, these scholars believe that Paul took the raw materials of the sketchy narrative of Jesus' life and His radical teaching, and through cunning rhetoric transformed a Jewish itinerant preacher of apocalypticism into the transcendent Son of God.

It is easy to see how a skeptic might conclude this. Jesus left no written record of Himself or His teaching; what has been canonized as Scripture was written a generation or two or three later, long enough that memory and the accuracy of oral transmission can be questioned. Further, to some, the early years of the Christian movement appear from the book of Acts to have been an ad hoc effort of Jesus' disciples and converts doing their level best to spread the gospel. Only when Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, is stunningly converted on the road to Damascus does the fledgling church seem to become organized and energized to compete with the established religions for the souls of the world.

Paul, along with Barnabas, arranges lengthy and arduous missionary journeys to Asia Minor and southern Europe, in which they not only preach and convert thousands, but they also establish congregations in major cities, ordain elders and evangelists, organize famine relief for Judean Christians, and challenge Jews and pagans to defend their beliefs. Paul himself, returning to Jerusalem, sways a conference of apostles and elders to his way of thinking on the subject of circumcision and keeping Jewish ritual law. In his fourteen letters, he sets out the doctrines of the church, arguing vociferously against justification through the law or any kind of work. His letters also instruct congregations in accepted practices and show individuals how to apply Christianity to their everyday lives.

To some, steeped in human nature's way of working, this sounds right. A person of Paul's intellect and abilities could, if he were of such a mind, shape and remake a new religion in his own image. A shrewd, learned huckster could speak, write, and cajole a gullible people into accepting his version over others' that were less appealing. Modern televangelists do it all the time.

But why? Why would Paul, "a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee" (Acts 23:6; Philippians 3:5)—an avowed enemy and persecutor of the Way (Acts 8:1; 9:1-2; 22:4; I Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13)—want to make Jesus into the Son of God? Money? Fame? Security? If that were the case, he was tragically unsuccessful, having died a martyr's death in the AD mid-60s. Any other rationale for doing so borders on at least the egotistical and even encroaches on the maniacal. There is no sound reason for Paul's ministry of glorifying Jesus as God other than sincere belief, dedication, and zeal.

Although the modern critical scholars would deny its validity, being self-justifying, Paul's own words argue against any such ulterior motive or hidden agenda. In his earliest account of his conversion, in Galatians 1:15-17, written in the early AD 50s, he writes:

But when it pleased God, . . . to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and [after three years (verse 18)] returned again to Damascus.

The apostle's own testimony is that God converted him specifically to preach to non-Jews, and He did this by revealing the true nature of Jesus Christ as God's Son to him. In addition, he traveled to Arabia, a desert place, where he received a three-year spiritual re-education. This extended instruction in discipleship is perhaps what Paul means in I Corinthians 15:8, when he writes, "Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time." The several accounts of his conversion, in Acts 9, 22, and 26, as well as various remarks in his epistles, all make the same claim that Christ Himself chose him to preach the gospel, and further, opened Paul's eyes to the truth. In simple terms, Paul was merely a tool—albeit a significant one—that the resurrected Jesus used to help build and strengthen the church (see Ephesians 2:19-22; I Corinthians 3:6-9).

Besides, the Gospels and Acts, as well as certain Old Testament Messianic prophecies, proclaim the Son's divine nature, well before Paul came on the scene. Mark, considered by most to be the earliest of the gospel accounts, reads in its first verse, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1). Matthew, which may have been originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic earlier than the present Greek text, also claims divinity for Jesus in its first chapter by linking Him to the "Immanuel" prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, "which is translated, ‘God with us'" (Matthew 1:22-23). Earlier, Malachi had written: "'And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,' says the LORD of hosts" (Malachi 3:1). It is hard to deny that the prophet means that the God of the Old Testament would soon visit His people.

No, Paul did not "invent" Christianity or "transform" Jesus into Christ, the Son of God. God used him powerfully to write foundational texts to instruct Christians in God's way down through the centuries until Christ's return. He was, like Moses, a faithful servant in God's house, yet "this One [the Son] has been counted worthy of more glory . . ., inasmuch as He who built the house has more honor than the house" (Hebrews 3:3-5).

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Centrality of the Resurrection

The Apostles' Creed is thought to be the earliest formal Christian statement of belief, which the later Nicene Creed (AD 381) expanded. It is unlikely that the twelve apostles actually created and circulated this creed among the churches of God, as its origins are second century, but the Apostles' Creed is an early confirmation of what a majority of professing Christians believed in the first few centuries of the church's existence.

(As an aside, a glaring detail missing from the Apostles' Creed is any claim of Trinitarianism; it reads simply, in Latin, "Credo in Spiritum Sanctum"—"I believe in the Holy Spirit." The later Nicene Creed adds Personhood and the title "the Lord, the giver of life" to the Holy Spirit, as well as equality in worship and glory with the Father and Son. This is an indication that the Trinity doctrine was formulated and accepted by the Catholic Church in the fourth century and is not original to biblical Christianity.)

By far, the bulk of the Apostles' Creed concerns Jesus Christ:

I believe in Jesus Christ, [God the Father's] only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead. On the third day He rose again.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Central to the doctrine of Christianity is the resurrection of Christ from the dead. An even earlier, biblical statement by the apostle Paul attests to this fact:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. (I Corinthians 15:3-5)

Even earlier, the apostle Peter's first sermon builds to its crescendo of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and what it means:

[David], foreseeing [that his descendant, Messiah, would sit on his throne], spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption [Psalm 16:10]. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear. . . . Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. (Acts 2:31-33, 36)

We can go back even further, to Christ's ministry itself. Jesus gave only one sign to verify His Messiahship, and it was His resurrection from the dead. The scribes and Pharisees had demanded a sign from Him to prove His claims. He responded:

An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be give to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:39-40)

In harmonizing the four gospel narratives—of which about a quarter concerns His arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection—it is clear that this sign was fulfilled to the very second. He rose from the dead exactly three days and three nights—seventy-two hours—from His burial "in the heart of the earth." The amazing point about this is that, being dead, He had no power to effect either His burial or His resurrection! Far from being a "mere coincidence," it is proof that God the Father, in His sovereignty, brought this sign to pass in its every detail.

Doctrinally, why is His resurrection so vital to Christian belief? Beyond the fact that it fulfilled the sign, the resurrection of Jesus Christ opened the way to eternal life and glory for those who believe. While the sinless Jesus' crucifixion and death paid for all the past sins of those who accept Christ's blood for their forgiveness, it leaves them redeemed but without a future. A dead Savior leaves salvation incomplete. As the apostle Paul explains in I Corinthians 15:14, 19: "If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. . . . If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable."

Yet, by raising Jesus from the dead, restoring His glorious spirit-body, and exalting Him to His right hand, the Father made possible two crucial realities:

  1. Jesus became our Mediator and High Priest before the Father, giving us the opportunity to have a relationship with Him (Hebrews 8:6; 10:12-13, 19-22). Paul tells us, "For through [Christ] we both [Jews and Gentiles] have access by one Spirit to the Father" (Ephesians 2:18). As Jesus Himself says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6).

  2. Jesus became "the Firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:29) and "the firstborn from the dead" (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5). By overcoming death through the resurrection from the dead, He became the Archegos—the Forerunner, the Trailblazer—for everyone who faithfully follows Him as a disciple (Hebrews 2:10-16). Paul writes:

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep [died]. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming. (I Corinthians 15:20-23)

In this way, the resurrection from the dead is mankind's God-given "victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" over death, the last enemy (I Corinthians 15:57, 26). It provides us great comfort to know that death is but a step in God's plan to give eternal life to us in His Kingdom (Hebrews 9:27-28). Paul's reassuring words in I Thessalonians 4:14, 17 assert the Christian hope: "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. . . . And thus we shall always be with the Lord."

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Geopolitics: Scope and Limitations

Forerunner, "WorldWatch," July-August 2008

Politics among nations has been occurring since ancient times. Ever since one government needed to interact with another—whether because of a boundary dispute, rival claims to a resource, or fear of a powerful neighbor—some kind of intergovernmental relations have sought means to forge solutions for mutual benefit. These relations take various forms: exchanging diplomats, signing treaties, making alliances, voicing accusations and threats, or perhaps dispatching a hostile army or navy.

Philosophers have been studying such relations for many centuries. For instance, Plato's Republic is his vision of the perfect society and in part deals with how rulers should conduct the affairs of state. Scholars of every major empire and nation have weighed in on the subject, from Sun Tzu's Art of War to Machiavelli's The Prince and Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. Today, a steady stream of books and papers on foreign policy flows from the minds of pundits, politicians, and academics the world over.

While there are many theories of international relations, perhaps the most pragmatic and even scientific is what is known as geopolitics. The central idea of geopolitics is that geography—along with demography and economics—is the determining factor of any nation's relations. In other words, where a nation is, along with the composition of its population and its natural resources, will indicate how it will act and react on the world stage. In some cases, a nation will have no choice but to behave in a certain way simply because of its location on the globe.

Japan is a prime example of geopolitical reality. It is a mountainous island nation with a relatively large, well-educated population and a high standard of living. However, it is resource-poor, especially in mineral resources that form the basis of its high-tech industries. To feed and supply its people, then, it must rely on other nations to provide a great deal of food and resources.

Japan thus has two alternatives: It must either use force to take what it needs or trade peacefully with its neighbors. Imperial Japan tried the former method early in the twentieth century and ultimately failed, seeing two of its large cities evaporated by atomic weapons. Democratic Japan since World War II has been far more successful in employing peaceful trade. While the pendulum could swing back to militarism, it is far more likely that Japan's foreign policy decisions will continue to favor peaceful trade as long as it remains a viable means of prosperity. This is especially true due to its security guarantees with the United States and its formidable navy.

Biblically, the land of Israel is another example of practical geopolitics. In essence, it stands at the center of the world. The great Western civilizations of the past—Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome—ranged about it, and in order to expand their territories, these empires had to cross the narrow land-bridge of the land of Canaan. There, they would encounter the descendants of Israel.

Israel's history is in many ways a record of the rise and fall of these empires and their impact on God's people. When the dominant empire of the time was weak, Israel could strengthen itself and expand, but when the empire was strong, Israel usually suffered humiliating defeat and subjugation. In their carnality, many Israelite kings were trapped by geopolitics to reveal their real loyalties. God used this ebb and flow of international power to great effect in leaving good and bad examples of faithfulness for us.

Geopolitics even constrains a global superpower like the current United States. Despite having an overwhelmingly powerful military by several orders of magnitude, it can only project its power along the lines of its geopolitical advantages. As alluded to earlier, the United States is primarily a sea power—even its vaunted air power is dependent on the reach of its naval strength. This means that long-term military actions far from American shores pose a significant problem for shapers of U.S. foreign policy.

The geopolitical limitations of this became apparent in the Iraq War in 2003. American firepower made quick work of the Iraqi army and air force, but the subsequent Iraqi insurgency revealed the Achilles' heel of U.S. power. It was terribly effective at invasion but embarrassingly unprepared as an occupying force. Ultimately, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld lost his job due to miscalculating the geopolitics of invading a turbulent Middle Eastern nation like Iraq from 6,200 miles away.

Such geopolitical constraints help to predict the foreign policies of different administrations. In effect, policy differences will be minor from one President to another because the nation's geography, demography, and economy are either fixed or vary only marginally. In reality, basic American foreign policy has changed little since the Truman administration, no matter which political party happened to control the Oval Office.

Every Chief Executive is forced by geopolitical reality and entrenched State Department policies to protect and expand American power throughout the world against the same rogues' gallery of nations. Hence, only so much leeway to act exists, and it is usually revealed, not in policy, but in a President's resolve, as can be seen in the stark disparity between Jimmy Carter's pacifism and Ronald Reagan's intransigence. As this example indicates, a President's personality can make a huge difference.

Geopolitics, then, gives us a starting template to view the world and to attempt to predict the actions of nations. It is not perfect, and exceptional personalities can arise to shake the assumptions of even the most experienced observers. True Christians await the rise of just such a dominating and paradigm-shifting individual in the Beast (Revelation 13:1-10; 17:9-17). We can be certain that he will turn today's geopolitics on its head.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Ultimate Sacrifice

Sacrifice is not a concept that anyone really enjoys. Although we are hearing the word more often these days due to price inflation in such core areas as food and energy, most of us do everything we can to avoid having to make sacrifices. As ironic as it sounds, we will make sacrifices in one area to circumvent having to make a sacrifice in another! This points out the human tendency to hold some part of our lives closer and dearer than others—and we are loath to let go of even a small bit of what we love the most.

Jesus Christ did not live this way. In His human life, He was all about sacrifice—His whole life was a sacrifice. And His is the life that has been exalted as the perfect pattern for our own.

In terms of Jesus' sacrifice, anyone familiar with the Bible will first think of His sacrificial death at Calvary to atone for the sins of mankind. His crucifixion was indeed the greatest act of sacrifice in the history of the world, a perfect demonstration of His own teaching in John 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends." His supreme offering of His sinless life paid the terrible cost of all of mankind's sins for all time (see Hebrews 9:26-28; 10:10, 12, 14).

In John 3, speaking to Nicodemus, who later helped Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Him for burial, Jesus states a primary purpose of His incarnation: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up [signifying His crucifixion]. . . . For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved" (John 3:14, 17). He was, as described by John the Baptist, "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), who was "slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8). The apostle Peter makes it personal for us:

. . . knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you. . . ." (I Peter 1:18-20)

His sacrifice had been prophesied in many places in the Old Testament, as in the first recorded prophecy, Genesis 3:15: "And I will put enmity between you [the serpent, Satan] and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel." Isaiah 53:6 encapsulates the prophecy of the Suffering Servant: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all." Jesus Himself refers to the prophecy of His death in Psalm 22 with His cry from the cross, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46). Many places in the Old Testament show either a need for or a hope in a coming Redeemer (see, for instance, Job 19:25; Psalm 19:14; Isaiah 47:4; 59:20; 63:16).

It is difficult for short-sighted human beings to realize how the foreknowledge of His suffering and death must have weighed on His mind, perhaps from His childhood, since at the age of twelve, He told Joseph and Mary that He "must be about [His] Father's business" (Luke 2:49). Knowing He had come into the world to bear the sins of every man, woman, and child must have been an unimaginably heavy burden for Him. It was an obligation that was constantly before Him. Certainly, the expectation that on His shoulders rested the destinies of countless billions of people was a cup—His weighty lot—that He would gladly forgo if He could (see Luke 22:41-44). However, He was committed to doing God's will in everything (see John 6:38; 8:28-29), so He bore it in faith.

We must look further, deeper, beyond His sacrificial death to His equally sacrificial life. His daily walk was an example of the Golden Rule, doing for others what we would have them do for us (see Luke 6:31). As Jesus says of Himself, "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28). Thus, His life was dedicated to exhausting Himself through giving to others. The gospel accounts relate occasion after occasion when He preached or healed or cast out demons or comforted everyone who came to Him for help (see Mark 3:7-11; 6:54-56; Luke 4:40; etc.).

Yet, He made many other sacrifices, ones that we do not often consider. Perhaps the greatest one is that He never married and had children. Of course, His Father had already promised Him the church as His Bride (Ephesians 5:25-27, 32; Revelation 19:7), but He never experienced the joys and comforts of having His own family. He gained all His experience in family matters as an obedient Son and loving Elder Brother in the house of Joseph and Mary.

In addition, He sacrificed things that most people prize as good and worthy, like ambition, wealth, prestige, position, popularity, and many other such elements of "success." He had the wherewithal within Himself to attain any or all of these pinnacles of human achievement, but He shunned them all for the greater reward before Him: "Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, . . . for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2). He considered His many fleshly sacrifices as nothing compared to the tremendous future He would enjoy in the Kingdom of God.

This is the lesson that the apostle Paul teaches in Philippians 3. Using his own life as an example, he relates that he had just about anything a person could want: the right genes, the right social standing, the right education, the right enthusiasm, and the right reputation. "But," he writes:

what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things . . . as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, . . . that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)

So he advises in verse 15, "Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind." Like our Savior Jesus Christ, we must be willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to "press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (verse 14). The glorious life of the coming Kingdom of God is attained through sacrifice, and the way we know (John 14:4).

Monday, June 16, 2008

Scarcity Amid Plenty

Forerunner, "Prophecy Watch," March-April 2008

The U.S. Census Bureau's World Population Clock recently estimated that the earth's 6,666,666,666th child has been born somewhere on the planet. Despite the fact that the number of the Beast is 666, this population figure is relevant only because of its sheer enormity. The world's population seems to be exploding, causing many to wonder if the earth can sustain such a vast number of people. In a 2004 report, the United Nations projected earth's population to reach seven billion by 2013 and eight billion by 2028. . . .

To read more, please click here.

Friday, June 6, 2008

In the Presence of Enemies

David writes in Psalm 25:19, “Consider my enemies, for they are many; and they hate me with cruel hatred.” This verse applies equally well to Jesus of Nazareth, a Man who, because of His goodness and truth, attracted enemies like ants to honey. From His birth to His death, he was surrounded by antagonists, many of them out to kill Him for who He was and what He taught.

Just a list of His enemies would be fairly long, but there are several major people or groups who require a few lines of explanation, as a few of them are frequently confused.

The chief and most dogged adversary of Jesus Christ is, of course, Satan the Devil. Knowing that God had sent His Son to replace him as ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), Satan pulled out all the stops to destroy Jesus physically or to tempt Him into sin, destroying Him spiritually. From the killing of the Bethlehem innocents (Matthew 2:16-18) to rousing the rabble to choose Barabbas and condemn Jesus to crucifixion (Matthew 27:20-23)—and beyond—Satan was intent on manipulating people to obstruct and derail God’s purpose. He even personally confronted Jesus in the wilderness just prior to the beginning of His ministry (Matthew 4; Luke 4), but that ended in utter failure to tempt the Son of God into sin. Insanely, he still thinks he can win, seeking to “devour” the elect (I Peter 5:8), and at the end of this age (Revelation 13) and at the end of the Millennium (Revelation 20:7-10), he will again attempt to incite humanity against Christ.

Jesus’ earliest human enemy was none other than Herod the Great, King of Judea at the time He was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2). When the wise men from the East asked the whereabouts of the One born King of the Jews, Herod was troubled—a classic biblical understatement. Herod was paranoid about usurpers of his throne, having killed at least a half-dozen people—all of them relatives—whom he suspected of conspiring against him. A claim that a newborn was the real King of the Jews only fueled his paranoia, which was perhaps heightened by advancing years and failing health. He died soon after his attempt on Jesus’ life and his actual massacre of all boys two and under in Bethlehem and its environs.

Perhaps Jesus’ best-known adversaries were the Pharisees. These men belonged to a sect of Judaism that prided itself on its strict adherence to the traditions of the Jewish people. Their name, Pharisee, refers to being “separate” by means of their practice of religion—that they had separated themselves from all ritual impurity. They set themselves up as lay-interpreters of God’s law and vowed to follow the thousands of uninspired rules and regulations regarding proper conduct, particularly on the subjects of the Sabbath, tithing, purification, foods, and other various religious procedures, many of which Jesus criticizes in Matthew 23. They opposed Jesus so vehemently because He upset, not just their religious sensibilities, but also their popularity with and esteem of the people, as well as their political power under the Romans.

Closely linked to the Pharisees were the scribes or lawyers. Originally, they were simply writers or copyists of the law, but over time, due to the growing use of Aramaic rather than Hebrew among the people, their occupation had become a prominent, learned profession: They became doctors of the law whose job was to interpret biblical statements for the people. Thus, they became the jealous guardians of both the text and interpretation of Scripture. Jesus’ teachings frequently overthrew their rulings, and they did not take kindly to it.

Another sect of the Jews called themselves Sadducees. The name evidently derives from the Hebrew word tsadaq, which means “righteous.” As the party of the aristocracy and the priests, the Sadducees were the bitter rivals of the Pharisees, and other than at His trial, only once are they shown united with the Pharisees against Jesus (Matthew 16:1, 6). Jesus does not denounce them as vehemently as He does the Pharisees, yet He still warns His disciples against their doctrines (Matthew 16:12). They were the arch-conservatives of Judaism, clinging to their historical responsibilities and interpretations and rejecting the Oral Law touted by the Pharisees. The Sadducees were extensively involved in the politics of the time, and in fact, held many of the chief positions in Judea. The Herodians, also called Boethusians, were a sub-sect of the Sadducees and were political partisans of Herod. Their particular opposition to Jesus was almost entirely political. The chief priests were Sadducees of a handful of distinguished and wealthy families of the Levitical aristocracy.

Although the Zealots were not an organized political or religious party at the time, there were some zealous groups that were intent on overthrowing the Romans and installing a Jewish king on the throne of David. Early on, some of them probably had high hopes that Jesus, a Son of David, would fulfill the earthly Messianic role that they envisioned. However, He soon disappointed them by refusing to take the path of armed rebellion against the Romans. Some believe that Judas Iscariot, His betrayer, may have been the member of such a group, as his surname is thought to mean “dagger-man,” hinting at political skullduggery.

The Romans themselves in due course became His direct enemy through Pontius Pilate and his sentence of crucifixion. The Empire probably did not care what Jesus taught one way or another, but they were terribly concerned about two matters: treason and riot. The Jewish authorities tried to compel Pilate to convict Jesus on His assertion that He was a king, which Pilate found not to rise to treason (John 18:38). The Jews then switched the charge to “He made Himself the Son of God” (John 19:7). Pilate tried to release Him, but the Jewish leadership and the crowds forced his hand to crucify Jesus.

So Jew and Gentile, rulers and rabble, priestly and secular—all had a hand in opposing and ultimately killing our Savior Jesus Christ. This fact leads to the inescapable conclusion that they represented each one of us, for had we been in their shoes, we would have done the same. No matter how vociferously we deny that we also would have shouted with the crowd, “Crucify Him!” we cannot deny that we have sinned, making His atoning death necessary (see Isaiah 53:5-6, 10-12). Paul writes: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. . . . For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:8, 10; see Colossians 1:21-22).

So, though our names may appear on the list of His enemies, upon God’s calling and the acceptance of Christ’s blood in our behalf, they have been struck through, transferred to the list of God’s redeemed.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

God's Two Witnesses

Forerunner, "Prophecy Watch," May-June 2008

Over the past year, certain groups among the churches of God have brought the subject of the Two Witnesses to the fore once again. One minister is proclaiming that he and his wife are the pair of prophets that Revelation 11 foretells will appear in the last days to testify in God's behalf for the final time before Christ's return. Another minister has said that, no, he is not one of the Two Witnesses, but they will arise under his auspices. No doubt, many church members, seeing the worsening conditions around the globe, have privately speculated about who the Two Witnesses will be.

To read more, click here.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Signs and Wonders

It is hard to shrug off the impossible. Yet, when it comes to the miracles of Jesus Christ, many people do just that—and gladly. Millions, even a great many who call themselves Christians, are only too eager to avoid or ignore what they mean.

Miracles, signs, and wonders produce two simultaneous but contrary effects: They attract and repel. They attract us because they are rare and amazing, and in the case of Jesus’ miracles, they are also beneficial. People who had not walked for many years caper like goats. The blind can read the sacred scrolls at the local synagogue. The chronically ill regain their health and strength. Lepers, their skin pink and whole, can once again mingle with crowds and rejoin their families. And how many dead men, women, and children does Jesus raise to life? Jesus’ miracles are events that make us want to stand up and cheer.

But, at the same time, these same stupendous miracles repel us. We draw back in uncertainty and fear—perhaps doubtful of their authenticity, certainly terrified of the power of the Miracle Worker. Not only can He raise the dead, but He can also still a raging storm, stroll across a tossing sea, and with a word topple a whole company of soldiers. Demons—even Satan the Devil himself—leave the scene at His command. He feeds four and five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes, and without breaking a sweat, produces dozens of gallons of wine for a wedding party. Perhaps most personally terrifying of all, He knows what is in people’s hearts, almost as if He can read their thoughts.

So is Jesus of Nazareth to be praised or feared for His powerful miracles? Both, of course, for Scripture declares, “O LORD, how great are your works!” (Psalm 92:5), yet also, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). In the miraculous demonstrations of the power of God in Jesus Christ, we see “the goodness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22). Far from being some mere sideshow, His miracles were an integral part of His ministry, and their implications still resound to our day.

Some people consider the miracles of the gospel accounts as a kind of advertizing. The idea is that Jesus would blow into town, heal some well-known leper or cripple or maybe cast out a troublesome demon, and the crowds would gather, hoping to witness more wonders performed before their very eyes. Then, having caught them in His net, Jesus would preach the gospel to them, and many would believe in Him. While they made for an effective marketing technique—and the gospel narratives admit that crowds did gather to see Him perform miracles—there is an element of cynicism in this conjecture, as if Jesus healed the sick or cast out demons callously, calculatingly, just to draw an audience to hear His pitch. In it, He becomes merely a religious huckster, the original Elmer Gantry.

However, this is not the case in the least. Matthew, Mark, and Luke often bring out the fact that, upon seeing the sick and troubled folk brought before Him, “He was moved with compassion” (Matthew 9:36; see, for instance, Matthew 14:14; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 6:34; Luke 7:13). John is the only one who tells us that, at Lazarus’ resurrection, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) over the people’s grief, as well as over their ignorance and hopelessness. As the prophecy of Isaiah 53 informs us, He was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3), our Savior who cared for humanity so deeply that He offered Himself to redeem every last person from sin and death. Such a merciful and loving Person does not use parlor tricks, as it were, to gain a following. His concern and desire to help were real.

John’s gospel clues us in to the divine purpose for Jesus’ miracles. After narrating the miracle of the wine at the wedding feast, the apostle adds, “This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11). This verse gives us three purposes for the miracles Jesus did: 1) that they are signs; 2) that they “manifested His glory”; and 3) they helped His disciples to believe in Him. They did attract attention to Him, but ultimately, God had deeper, spiritual purposes for them.

John calls this and other miracles a “sign.” A sign is something that identifies or indicates. The Greek word he uses is semeíon, “a sign or distinguishing mark whereby something is known; an event that is an indication or confirmation of intervention by transcendent powers,” according to a leading Greek-English lexicon. Jesus performed this first miracle to identify or indicate something, and the most obvious answer to what that something was centers on who Jesus is. In turning water to wine, Jesus contrasts Himself to Moses, whose first plague turned water to blood (Exodus 7:14-25). In effect, the miracle indicates “a greater than Moses is here,” and that greater One could be none other than the promised Messiah.

This sign “manifested His glory.” In other words, the miracle declared or made known Christ’s special status. Through this wonder, certain people became aware that Jesus was no ordinary man but a higher Being, worthy of all honor and praise. We could go so far as to say that these people, whose eyes had been opened, could conclude that He was indeed God in the flesh, for only the Creator God had enough power over nature to change one substance into another and with such perfect results. The same could be said of His other miracles: No one but God could do what He did.

Finally, the apostle tells us that the miracle at Cana confirmed or strengthened His disciples’ faith. Turning water into wine was a proof that erased any doubt that they may still have had about His own or John the Baptist’s claims about Him. They not only believed who He was, but they could now fully believe what He said. They could trust Him to reveal the deep spiritual truths of God because they experienced His power in action producing excellence and good. If He would go to such lengths to make a wedding feast joyous and save the couple from embarrassment, what would He not do to save us and give us eternal life?

John does not say it, but mingled with this boosting of their faith must have been at least a twinge of the fear of the Lord. When we walk with God, He will certainly help us and bless us through the working of His power. But what form would His power take if we should cross Him and become His enemy? That sword has two edges, as Hebrews 4:12 attests.

Far more than some kind of “magic,” the miracles of Jesus Christ teach us profound lessons about Jesus, His mission, His message, and our responses to Him. We scoff at them or ignore them to our peril.