Thursday, December 1, 2011

Christians and Evolution

Forerunner, "WorldWatch," November-December 2011

Most Bible-believing Christians are not particularly interested in—and perhaps not even aware of—the fact that February 12 is the birthday of Charles Darwin, originator of the Theory of Evolution. To honor him for his "vast contribution to science," an atheist named Robert Stephens concocted what he called "Darwin Day," to be kept on Darwin's birthday each year. In 2006, evolutionary biologist Michael Zimmerman began what was then known as "Evolution Sunday," but which is now called "Evolution Weekend" to accommodate those who do not keep Sunday as a day of worship.

Backing Evolution Weekend is an organization called the Clergy Letter Project. This effort encourages clergy from all religious faiths to sign a letter stating that they have accepted "evolutionary theory and have embraced it as a core component of human knowledge, fully harmonious with religious faith." Now for the potentially dismaying part of all this: 13,000 clergy—mostly American and mostly from Christian denominations—have signed the letter, and about 550 churches have planned to participate in Evolution Weekend this year.

While this may seem to some like the downfall of Christianity, it is not as bad as it looks. However, it does show that secular humanism—pushed as it is in the public schools and universities—is slithering into nominal Christianity and creating in too many minds a false synthesis of evolution and Scripture.

As many expositors have shown, the observable principles and facts of science are compatible with biblical Christianity, but evolution contradicts the Bible at nearly every juncture. Pure science is based on the pursuit of knowledge—call them "facts" or "truth"—but unfortunately, what scientists observe must be interpreted by fallible human beings, all of whom, Christian or secular, are biased and limited in knowledge, experience, and time.

In particular, to be confirmed, the science of origins requires the acceptance of reliable eyewitness testimony—which is available only in the Bible, if one believes it—along with expertise in comparing that testimony with present, observable scientific findings. But humanists do not accept the Bible, dismissing divine testimony and relying on their own suppositions and reason, and thus we have evolution.

In this vein, Dr. Jeffrey DeYoe, a clergyman, states:
If it is through literal devotion to stories such as these [Bible accounts] that we believe we are going to find true knowledge of our Creator, we are going to be sadly disappointed. This is the sin of Creationism (aka Intelligent Design) in Church and Society today: The belief that through the limited storytelling of an ancient people we think we have in our possession everything God wants us to know.
This hardly sounds like something a Christian minister would say!

Of course, creationists do not believe that the Bible contains all knowledge, but what it does contain about science and the origin of all things is true. Christians accept what the Bible says because Jesus tells us to live by God's every word (Matthew 4:4) and because "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God" (II Timothy 3:16). We can also easily see that Jesus, being the Creator (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2), believed and taught the seven-day creation (Matthew 19:4-6) and the account of Noah's Flood (Luke 17:27).

To believe evolution, then, is to deny Christ, His mission, and His message. In fact, the account of Adam and Eve and their sin has a direct correlation with the reason Jesus had to come as a Man and die to redeem us from our sins. In that account, in Genesis 3:15, is the first prophecy recorded in the Bible, foretelling the coming of a Savior to defeat the serpent, Satan the Devil. Therefore, Christians who believe in evolution have no excuse (see Romans 1:18-20).

Earlier, we saw that 13,000 members of the clergy have signed the Clergy Letter Project statement, but it is really not as bad as that number seems to suggest. While 13,000 men and women of the cloth professing their devotion to evolution seems high, there are well over a half-million clergy in the U.S. alone. Thus, these humanist ministers represent no more than 2.6% of all ministers in the nation.

Additionally, the roughly 550 churches planning to participate in Evolution Weekend is down nearly 50% from the high of 1049 in 2009. There are about 270,000 congregations in America, so 550 churches represent only 0.2% of churches, a quite insignificant number.

Further, we should note the kind of churches these 550 are: the most liberal, leftist, and humanist churches in the nation. Most hail from the liberal wings of the mainline Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches. Seventy-nine of them list Unitarian Universalist as their umbrella denomination, and 74, United Church of Christ. Three are Metropolitan Community churches, a sect built upon homosexuality. Forty-four are not even Christian! Of these, one is Muslim and the remainder claim Reform Judaism, the most liberal branch of Judaism, as their denomination.

Other non-church organizations plan to celebrate Evolution Weekend too. These include the Gardenia Center ("bringing the metaphysical community together"), the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism, and the Officers of Avalon ("providing a community and network for Pagan first responders").

How true the adage, "You are known by the company you keep"!

Evolution Weekend is confined, thankfully, to a small number of ultra-liberal churches and secular humanistic organizations. However, we need to be aware that anti-God groups are always pushing to advance their agendas, and clearly, they have made significant headway over the past few generations in America and abroad. Their influence will only increase as Christ's return nears, so God's people must stand firm (Ephesians 6:13).

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Seven Billion and Counting

Forerunner, "WorldWatch," September-October 2011

Back in 1968, author Paul Ehrlich, along with his wife, Anne, wrote a book, The Population Bomb, which became the seminal work for population alarmists all over the world. The book posits that human population is increasing so rapidly that the earth will soon be unable to provide enough food to feed everyone. Ehrlich simplistically suggests, "We must rapidly bring the world population under control, reducing the growth rate to zero or making it negative. Conscious regulation of human numbers must be achieved. Simultaneously we must, at least temporarily, greatly increase our food production." Much of the book covers population-reduction schemes, including progressively taxing families for having additional children, giving tax incentives for men to agree to sterilization, adding "temporary sterilants" to municipal water or staple foods, increasing and improving contraceptives, advocating prenatal sex discernment, and legalizing abortion.

In 1968, world population stood at 3.5 billion people. When first published, Ehrlich's book began, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate." (This opening was changed in later editions.) Yet, just this fall, the planet's current population crossed the seven billion mark, double the figure that made Ehrlich's knees quiver in fear of imminent famine and mass death. Somehow, the world has found a way to feed twice as many people as were alive in the late '60s.

About India in particular, he writes, "I don't see how India could possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980." Even so, India now has nearly 1.2 billion people, three times the number counted in the 1960 census. The reasons for the nation's increased ability to feed many millions more are simple: 1) India's political situation stabilized; 2) the stable government rooted out the most egregious forms of corruption; and 3) Western agronomists figured out how to increase crop yields, which they shared with developing nations. No population-reduction plans were necessary.

Even so, fears about over-population still exist, particularly in liberal, globalist institutions, led by the United Nations. As Stratfor explains in a recent "Geopolitical Diary" on the world's demography:

Conventional wisdom tells us that the increase in population is putting pressure on the global ecosystem and threatening the balance of power in the world. As the story goes, the poorer states are breeding so rapidly that within a few generations they will overwhelm the West and Japan—assuming the environment survives the rising tide of people. ("The Earth at Population Seven Billion")
Singing this same tune, The New York Times published a front-page story on world population on May 4, 2011, titled "UN Forecasts 10.1 Billion People by Century's End." It begins, "The population of the world, long expected to stabilize just above 9 billion in the middle of the century, will instead keep growing and may hit 10.1 billion by the year 2100, the United Nations projected in a report released Tuesday." The lead is intended to startle or even to scare the reader into believing that world population must be reduced immediately. Deeper into the article, it soothingly reports that "well-designed programs" of birth control are bringing birth rates down in the developing world, "but at a snail's pace."

However, what the Times is not saying is that this frightening article is based on a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report that presents a statistical worst-case scenario. The nose-counters at UNFPA and its sister agency, the UN Population Division, actually developed three different population scenarios—high-, middle-, and low-variant projections. The graph printed in the published report reflects the high-variant forecast, while the wording of the press release, summarized by the Times article, echoes the middle-variant. Totally ignored is the low-variant model.

Yet, it is this low-variant projection that most closely resembles reality. It shows world population rising to about 8.5 billion by 2040 and then declining to around 7 billion by the end of the century. Why is this projection more likely? Because it assumes that birthrates will continue to fall, as they have been doing for more than a century as industrialization and urbanization have spread around the globe. As the Population Research Institute reports:

Some 80 countries representing over half the world's population suffer from below replacement fertility—defined as less than 2.1 children per woman. The populations of the developed nations today are static or declining. . . . Europe and Japan are projected to lose half their population by 2100. . . . Even in the developing world family size has shrunk, from around 5 children per woman in 1960 to less than 3 today. . . . High fertility rates are becoming rare. The UN numbers for 2010 show only 10 countries with population increase rates at or above 3.0 percent.
Thus, while population continues to rise, it is rising more slowly, and in a generation, it will level off and begin to fall. The long-range problem, then, is not over-population but under-population. If these trends continue, after 2050, there will be increasingly too few people to maintain the world's economies at their accustomed levels. With human lifespans increasing, a far smaller number of young adults will be asked to support a huge mass of senior citizens, resulting in a vastly lowered standard of living for everyone.

However accurate their assumptions, these are only forecasts—ones that leave God and the prophecies of His Word out of the picture. Should Christ return in the next few years or decades, all of this angst over population will be for naught, since the Bible predicts that, because "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), the troubles of the end time will reduce humanity to a remnant, perhaps a tithe. But who knows what devilry population control advocates will do in the meantime?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Greece, America--Whatever

When we think of Greece—and frankly, most of us do not think of the small Mediterranean nation very often—we are more likely to think about My Big, Fat Greek Wedding; Troy; or 300 before we consider the ins and outs of international finance. More than 2,000 years ago, Greece was indeed a major player in the world, ruling over an empire that stretched eastward to India thanks to the military might of the Greek army led by Alexander the Great. However, since Greece's absorption into the Roman Empire, its influence has been cultural, not political.

Yet, the summer of 2011 has seen the eyes of the powerful turn their gaze on poor, little Greece. The nation belongs to an unfortunate subset of the European Union (EU) called the PIGS, named after Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain (recently, Ireland has frequently replaced or joined Italy in this group, making the acronym read "PIIGS"). These four or five countries are the economically soft underbelly of the EU, having high social spending, large public-sector workforces, and extremely high debt. Greece has become the poster-child of this group, being the first to succumb to the heavy weight of its liabilities.

Last year, Greece was loaned 110 billion euros ($156 billion) to rescue its faltering economy, and it now needs another infusion of cash to stave off going into default. Its current debt is around 340 billion euros ($483 billion). The latest EU plan is to give Greece more time to pay off its debts to banks and private investors, while the Eurozone and the IMF feed it new rescue loans. This partial renege on its loans will result in a "selective default" rating, meaning that the terms of the Greek bond have been altered, which will allow Athens to avoid actual default, although it will lower the country's financial rating still further and complicate future rescue plans. In reality, it is a last-ditch effort that will hold off inevitable default for a short while.

Greece may be a small nation—in fact, its economy is only about two percent of America's—but its recent experience in rising debt and near-default is a cautionary tale for the United States and any other nation in the same financial straits. And as the saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. If America wants to avoid following Greece down the economic drain, actions must be taken now to stop the money leak.

Former Nixon speechwriter and current political pundit, Pat Buchanan, combines the debt crisis in Greece with demographic trends across the West in a recent column. In a nutshell, people in the developed nations of European ancestry (as well as others) are not reproducing at a high enough rate to replace their populations. Buchanan uses Greece as an example:

According to the most recent revision of the U.N.'s "World Population Prospects," Greece in 2010 had 11.2 million people.

More than 24 percent were 60 or above, more than 18 percent 65 or older. Three percent were 80 or above. And, every year, for every nine Greeks who are born, 10 Greeks die.

Greece is slowly passing away.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Greece's fertility rate is 1.38. A fertility rate of 2.1 births per woman is considered even replacement. As the reference work explains:
Rates below two children indicate populations decreasing in size and growing older. Global fertility rates are in general decline and this trend is most pronounced in industrialized countries, especially Western Europe, where populations are projected to decline dramatically over the next 50 years.
Buchanan echoes this:
[By 2050] Greece's population will have fallen by 300,000 to 10.8 million. The median age will have risen by eight years to 49.5. Half the population will be 50 or older. More critically, the share of Greece's population 60 or older will be 37.4 percent, with 31.3 percent over 65. One in nine Greeks will be over 80.
Therefore, if Athens is struggling to pay the pensions of its retirees now, it is only going to get worse—much worse. The larger point is that Greece is far from alone in this predicament, and the one nation that may be hit the hardest is none other than the United States of America, which of debtor nations is the largest and most heavily indebted. And who among the nations of the world will bail America out of its mess?

America's fertility rate teeters at 2.1 births per woman. However, as Buchanan notes, by 2041, Americans of European descent will comprise only half of the population. The combined populations of America's minorities—whose birthrates far outstrip European Americans'—will soon surge into majority status (see Deuteronomy 28:43-44). Some might shrug and say, "No matter! America is still growing! Unlike Europe, we will continue our dominance!"

But when other factors are figured in, this argument proves hollow. Unfortunately, American minorities lack the education or skills to compete for jobs in our cutting-edge industries—the ones that keep America at the forefront of technology, efficiency, and productivity. While that could change, the trends say otherwise; the education gap remains the same and in some areas is even widening. In other words, the U.S. will not be able to maintain its dominance in most areas that matter, a fact that is already being seen as other nations take the lead in major technological, industrial, and manufacturing sectors.

In addition, nearly half of America's citizens pay no taxes. The unemployment rate is creeping toward ten percent, and it measures only those who are still looking for work. Forty-four million people—nearly fifteen percent—receive food stamps. Social Security already pays out more than it takes in, and the boondoggle of Obamacare looms. Nor can we forget that the U.S. owes a national debt upwards of $14.5 trillion, which does not include about the same amount of private debt, not to mention student loan debt, state indebtedness, unfunded pension plans, etc.

On top of all this, we need to remember that the largest generation of Americans ever, the Baby Boomers, is beginning to retire, expecting to receive large sums from the government, corporations, pension funds, and investment firms for their many years of labor, saving, and investing. It sounds suspiciously like the problem Greece faces. Sadly, American "leaders" are acting like children in their laughable attempts to solve the debt problem politically (see Isaiah 3:4).

Now we are beginning to see the wisdom in the Bible's well-known but oft-neglected proverb: "The borrower is servant to the lender" (Proverbs 22:7).

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Battle Group for Eastern Europe

Forerunner, "WorldWatch," May-June 2011

Visegrád is certainly not a household name in the United States—and likely nowhere else outside of Europe. It is the name of a medieval castle and its surrounding town situated in what is now Hungary, where two fourteenth-century meetings were held among the monarchs of the kingdoms of Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia. In the 1300s, Visegrád was the royal seat of Hungary, and in both 1335 and 1338, King Charles I hosted the Bohemian king, John of Luxembourg, and the Polish king, Casimir III, at his castle to hammer out a peace among the three kingdoms and to secure their alliance against Habsburg Austria.

This tidbit of Eastern European history was mere trivia until the late twentieth century, when the name of the alliance, the Visegrád Three, was revived by the modern nations of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. Leaders of these states met in Visegrád in February 1991 to band together to enhance their economies and their chances of joining the European Union (EU). Later, after Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1993, forming the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the group became known as the Visegrád Group or the Visegrád Four (V4). All four nations were accepted into the EU in 2004.

Until 2011, the Visegrád Group concentrated on economic growth and cooperation, and out of the stagnation of their former Communist systems have arisen vibrant free-market economies. Together, their 65 million people now comprise Europe's seventh-largest economy and the world's thirteenth-largest. While the citizens of these four nations may not have the per capita incomes of some of their wealthy neighbors to the west, both the United Nations and the world Bank consider them highly developed and high-income states.

Now that they have achieved a modicum of economic prosperity, the Group is moving forward. On May 12, 2011, the Visegrád Group announced that its four nations are forming a "battle group," which will be ready by the first half of 2016 and be commanded by Poland. In addition, it will be an independent force, that is, not under the authority of NATO. However, beginning in 2013, the four countries will participate together in regular military exercises with the support of the NATO Response Force.

What would make these V4 nations—Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary—take such independent action? Two major factors—one constant, the other ever-changing—have forced them to act on their own initiative to take on the costly burden of militarization during an economic downturn.

The first factor is geography. The Visegrád nations are tightly wedged between European powerhouse Germany to the west and a resurgent Russia on the east. Poland, especially, has seen armies from both east and west transit and fight on its wide plains for centuries, so it is always well aware that it has few natural impediments to its stronger neighbors' armed forces. Like Poland, the other states of the V4, despite their more rugged terrain, have long histories of being the bloody buffer zones between hostile major powers.

The second factor, which makes the first relevant, is the flow of recent trends within Europe. From its low days after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has significantly grown in influence among its former satellite states like Belarus and Ukraine. This can easily be seen in its successful 2008 campaign against Georgia. With its energy wealth to back it, Moscow is suddenly a frightening bogeyman again.

This growing concern to the east is not helped by events in the west. The economic woes of just about every EU nation except Germany have diminished the luster of further economic integration, particularly joining the Eurozone. Moreover, the plight of the EU has had the effect of strengthening the V4 nations' other historical nemesis, Germany. It would be an understatement to say that they are uneasy with the idea of having to take orders from Berlin. It is also possible that the V4 nations view their new battle group as a wise precaution should the EU fracture under the strains of mounting debt and almost certain future defaults by one or more of its member states.

Finally, the Visegrád Group obviously questions NATO's ability to defend it from Russian or any other power's aggression. The new NATO strategic concept, publicized in the last quarter of 2010, indicates that the United States, stretched thin by its handful of ongoing wars, is ratcheting back its commitment to European security. Under the new plan, should Poland come under attack across the North European Plain, the U.S. would send only one brigade to defend it. Aggravating this is the pitiful state of European military forces after more than six decades of reliance on American might.

The V4 nations are not alone in their pessimism. Since 2008, a Nordic Battle Group, consisting of a few thousand troops from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Ireland, and Estonia, has also been active. These northern nations also fear the rising strength of Germany and Russia, the instability of the EU, and the distraction of America by its economic and military crises. Clearly, these states believe that regional military alliances, as weak as they are at present, will provide a framework for larger defense forces just in case their fears become realities.

There are already signs that the Visegrád Group is seeking to expand its alliance southward to Romania and Bulgaria, and perhaps it will also make overtures northward to Lithuania and Latvia (or these Baltic countries could join the Nordic Battle Group). In any event, the nations of Eastern Europe are nervous enough to form a sub-alliance against the instability around them. Could this be the formation of an eastern "foot and toes" of the final kingdom of Nebuchnezzar's great image, as mentioned in Daniel 2:40-43? Time will tell, yet even if it is not, these new alliances presage a break with the familiar post-Cold War pattern and hint that major instability lies just over the horizon.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Bin Laden's Death and Our Response

This week has seen the announcement of the death of terrorist mastermind and al-Qaida head Osama bin Laden at the hand of American commandos at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. While details about the raid have been changing since the late-Sunday night announcement by President Obama, the consistently reported facts have been that Navy Seals dropped in by helicopter into the compound, putting down all resistance, and killing the terror chief with shots to the head and chest when he refused to surrender. His body was photographed at the scene and then taken to a U.S. army base in Afghanistan before being transported to the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, for burial in the Arabian Sea.

In immediate response, large crowds gathered in Washington, DC, and in New York City, both cities that bore the brunt of the September 11, 2001, attacks by bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorists. Students from nearby universities gathered in front of the White House on Sunday night to celebrate the death of America's number-one enemy. A similar gathering of predominantly young people took place at Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center towers once stood. There, the crowd recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang "The Star-Spangled Banner." One man climbed a light pole and popped open a bottle of champagne to celebrate, while another waved an American flag. Bagpipers played "Amazing Grace" to the emotional bystanders, who immediately responded by chanting, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"

For their part, reporters and pundits have been dancing a fine line in their coverage of this story. While it is obvious that they are pleased that bin Laden is no longer a threat to America and her people here and around the world, many of them seem unsure how to react. Do they appear gleeful and proud of their country and armed forces? Or, not wanting to appear too jingoistic and offensive to Muslims, do they take a matter-of-fact approach, staid and serious? Most have opted for the latter.

Ordinary citizens have also expressed some confusion over the matter, especially those who are more religious. They know that Jesus teaches, "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). How are Christians supposed to react to news of this nature? Should we cheer and pump our fists into the air, saying, "Yeah! Got him!" or should we express sympathy for the "victim"—or somewhere in between? What is the godly approach?

Scripture presents a variety of examples of reactions to the fall of enemies without a great deal of commentary to guide us in our own responses. For instance, in pursuing the Israelites across the Red Sea, thousands of Egyptian soldiers died when the walls of water crashed down upon them. Exodus 14:30 reports, "So the LORD saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore," and the following chapter chronicles the jubilation of the Israelites as they sang and danced in victory.

Another example can be found in the story of the reign of King Jehoshaphat of Judah in II Chronicles 20. Reports came to him that a huge army of Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites were marching on Judah. In faith, the king gathered his army and positioned them where the allied column would most likely strike, but in the morning, when they went forward to meet the enemy, they found a corpse-strewn battlefield. The troops of Ammon and Moab had attacked the Edomites among them, and the two sides had destroyed each other! II Chronicles 20:27-28 reports, "Then they returned, every man of Judah and Jerusalem, with Jehoshaphat in front of them, to go back to Jerusalem with joy, for the LORD had made them rejoice over their enemies. So they came to Jerusalem, with stringed instruments and harps and trumpets, to the house of the LORD."

It should be noted that in each of these cases God was responsible for the deaths of their enemies. He was the one who had given them victory, and their praises, celebrations, music, and dancing were directed toward Him. They were not glorying in themselves or even in their nation or their armed forces, but in God and His deliverance of them from their enemies. This is a crucial point in determining how we should react: Praise belongs to God.

A few verses specifically comment on rejoicing over a fallen enemy. Proverbs 24:17 is probably the clearest of them: "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; lest the LORD see it, and it displease Him, and He turn away His wrath from him." What he describes is a kind of malignant pleasure over an enemy's misfortune. The proverb suggests that God may be more inclined to punish the callousness of His people than to continue meting out His wrath against their enemies.

Obadiah 1:12 provides similar warning in the example of the Edomites' perfidy when Judah fell to Nebuchadnezzar: "But you should not have gazed on [margin: gloated over] the day of your brother in the day of his captivity; nor should you have rejoiced over the children of Judah in the day of their destruction; nor should you have spoken proudly in the day of distress." God sees this sort of gloating as particularly evil. A reading of Amos 1 confirms that God deals severely with those who treat their enemies cruelly.

In his defense of himself, Job cites the fact that he did not participate in any kind of dancing on an enemy's grave: "If I have rejoiced at the destruction of him who hated me, or lifted myself up when evil found him (indeed I have not allowed my mouth to sin by asking for a curse on his soul) . . ." (Job 31:29-30). To him at this point in his life, it was a mark of pride that he had not stooped to this level of evil jubilation. He saw it as a sinful act.

Finally, David's example at the death of his enemy, Saul, found in II Samuel 1, is quite poignant and instructive: He wept and composed "The Song of the Bow" in honor of Saul and his son Jonathan, commanding the song to be taught to the children of Judah. David had a famously tender heart—a characteristic that set him apart (I Samuel 16:7) and mirrored God's own heart (I Samuel 13:14)—and at the death of his enemy, he considered all of Saul's past wrongs as paid for in the justice of death.

Perhaps the sense of justice served is the balance we should aim for. Rather than rejoice that he is dead and curse him to the Lake of Fire, we should thank God that He has allowed justice to be done and beseech Him to deliver His people from further acts of wicked men. In this way, we will overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

Friday, April 29, 2011

Raising Our Conception of the Resurrection

This past Sunday, the day after the Sabbath during the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:10-11), was the day of the Wavesheaf offering, which typifies the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. It also happened to be the same day that most of this world's Christians observed Easter, on which they celebrate His resurrection. Churches held sunrise services because this is when they suppose Jesus to have risen from the grave, and they joyously proclaimed, "He is risen!" (Mark 16:6). Churchgoers wore their finest new, spring clothes, with many ladies sporting the modern, stylish version of the Easter bonnet. Later, children hunted for Easter eggs and gorged themselves on chocolate bunnies, chocolate eggs, sugared marshmallow chicks, and other goodies. It was all great fun.

But is this the extent of today's understanding of the resurrection of our Savior? Has His awesome overcoming of death become little more than a trite service, new clothes, and candy? Do we realize the profound implications of what happened in that new, rock-hewn tomb just outside of Jerusalem all those years ago? From the way many people treat the holiday, it would seem that they have not truly—deeply—considered what it means.

First, if they had studied the gospels on the subject, comparing the various biblical accounts with the traditional teaching, they would have realized that the Bible's accounts make it clear that Jesus could not have risen with the sunrise on Sunday morning. Notice John 20:1: "Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb" (our emphasis throughout). Jesus had already been resurrected! If this part of the "Easter story" is incorrect, what else is wrong? Taking all the clues together, we find that the Bible indicates a Wednesday crucifixion and a late Sabbath—Saturday—resurrection, since, to fulfill the sign of His Messiahship, He had to remain in the tomb a full three days and three nights or 72 hours (for a complete explanation, see our booklet, "After Three Days").

Second, most professing Christians believe that Christ's resurrection focuses on the fact that, having suffered crucifixion and then being buried in the tomb, He was dead, but three days later, He was alive again. As far as it goes, this is true. Jesus Himself writes to the church at Smyrna in Revelation 2:8: "These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life." However, we must be careful not to be satisfied with the basic truth that He returned to life, for if we do, it does a grave injustice to the spiritual magnificence and significance of the event.

His was no ordinary resurrection, if any resurrection could be considered so. Other resuscitations down through history have been shown to be what we would call "reviving from clinical death": The person's heart stops, his breathing halts, and in effect, he appears dead, yet suddenly, he returns to life. In a similar way, just a short time before His own death, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11), and later, at Christ's death, "many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many" (Matthew 27:52-53). These people were all returned to physical life, and while they are astonishing miracles and must have caused untold wonder and joy among their grieving relatives, their mortality was merely postponed. They would die again.

Jesus' resurrection was something altogether different: He was raised to everlasting life; He would live forever! In his first sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter informs the gathered crowd, "God [the Father] raised up [Jesus], having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it" (Acts 2:24). Paul explains what happened in a similar way in II Corinthians 13:4, "For though He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God." Finally, the risen Christ Himself says to the apostle John, "I am He who lives, and who was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen." (Revelation 1:18). The life that the Father returned to Him was not mere physical life but the immortal spirit life of God.

Third, because He has passed from death to life, He makes our salvation and eternal life possible. Paul writes in Romans 6:8-9, "Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more." He puts it succinctly in Romans 5:10, ". . . we shall be saved by His life," that is, the life He now lives as our Savior and High Priest. Hebrews 7:24-25 tells us, "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." In His final prayer with His disciples, Jesus begins with this thought: "Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him" (John 17:1-2).

In these verses, we see hints of a fourth momentous product of Christ's resurrection that contains weighty implications for us. Paul writes in Hebrews 1:3, ". . . when He had by Himself purged our sins, [Jesus] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high." Peter also mentions this in his Pentecost sermon: "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" (Acts 2:32-33).

Because He was raised from the dead, having paid for our sins in His sinless body, the Father has exalted Him to sit with Him on His throne, where He has the power and the authority to "pour out" the Holy Spirit on the elect, giving them the ability to have a relationship with God and to have eternal life through a similar resurrection. Paul writes in Philippians 3:8, 10-11: "Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, . . . that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, . . . if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead."

In this way, He is "the captain of [our] salvation" (Hebrews 2:10), the archegos, the Forerunner and Trailblazer, who opens the way before God's people and makes it possible for them to attain what He has. And this potential is not limited to some kind of quasi-angelic existence, for the apostle John writes, ". . . when He is revealed, we shall be like Him" (I John 3:2). Paul concurs in I Corinthians 15:49: "As we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man [Jesus]." Man's potential reaches to the divine!

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is nothing to be taken lightly. We would do well to consider it deeply, since it is so vital to God's purpose and to the eternal future of God's elect.

Friday, April 15, 2011

*Why Passover and Not Easter?

While most professing Christians consider the Passover to be a Jewish festival, it should also be a sacred observance for all Christians. The apostle Paul writes to the predominantly Gentile church in Corinth:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same manner, He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (I Corinthians 11:23-25)
This is not, as is commonly believed, the command to take communion as often as one likes. In reality, this is Jesus’ own command, communicated through the apostle Paul, for the church to celebrate the Passover “on the same night in which He was betrayed,” which was the evening of the Passover, Nisan 14 on the Hebrew calendar (see Leviticus 23:5). This was the practice of the New Testament church—in fact, it kept all of the holy days of Leviticus 23—as long as the original apostles lived.

However, like all men, the apostles died one by one until only the apostle John was left, an old man living in or near the city of Ephesus. Around the turn of the second century, John died at an advanced age. For a few generations under the leadership of John’s disciple, Polycarp (AD 69-155), and a successor, Polycrates (c. 130-196), the Ephesian church remained faithful to the teachings and traditions of the early church, including the keeping of the Passover on Nisan 14.

Those few who stubbornly resisted the change to the celebration of Easter, which had supplanted Passover throughout most of Christendom, were called Quartodecimans (“fourteenthers”) and Judaizers. By Origin’s day (c. 185-254), they were, he wrote, “a mere handful” among the millions living in the Empire. Even so, the Roman Church did not effectively ban the practice of keeping the Passover on Nisan 14 until AD 325 at the Council of Nicea, when rules were set down to calculate the date of Easter for the entire Church. Canon 29 of the Council of Laodicea (held in 363-364) later anathematized those Judaizers who kept the seventh-day Sabbath, many of whom were also Quartodecimans.

The controversy over Passover or Easter boils down to following Scripture versus following Roman Catholic tradition. Frankly, the reason that the Roman Church chose to keep Easter rests on two faulty pillars: 1) an intense prejudice against “the perfidy of the Jews” in the crucifixion of Christ (which has come to be known as the “blood libel”) and 2) the widespread celebration of Easter among pagan cultures throughout the Empire. The convoluted theological arguments that have come down from the so-called apostolic fathers, repeated endlessly by their successors, are window dressing to obscure these unpleasant factors.

Even during the first-century, an anti-Jewish element had begun to creep into the church of God. In his epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians, the apostle Paul had attempted to explain the place of God’s law under the New Covenant, but as Peter later testified, in Paul’s epistles “are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction” (II Peter 3:16). And twist them they did, moving the church away from the truths written in the Old Testament and expounded by Christ and His apostles. Soon, many Greek-speaking Christians, not wanting to be constrained by the “Hebrew” law, entertained Gnostic ideas that encouraged spiritual license. Finally, the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 ratcheted up anti-Jewish fervor to a fever pitch, and across the Empire, association with Jews and things Jewish was generally avoided.

In this way, the church that appears in second-century history is quite different from its first-century counterpart. It is largely Gentile, keeping Sunday (which it calls “the Lord’s Day”) rather than the Sabbath, and growing in power and political influence. It is also attracting new converts, not only out of Greco-Roman paganism, but also from the gods and goddesses of the frontier areas like Britain, Germany, and Dacia. This church found it easier to assimilate these new converts by syncretizing the “Christian” Easter celebration with their pagan spring festivals, often called after the name of the widely worshipped fertility goddess, Ishtar (or some close variation: Astarte, Eoster, Ostara, Isis, Aphrodite, etc.). It is from these heathen influences that the Easter Bunny, dyeing eggs, giving candy, and other non-biblical Easter traditions have sprung.

Conversely, the Christian Passover is not a celebration but a solemn observance that commemorates the agonizing blood-sacrifice of Jesus Christ to pay for our sins (Matthew 26:28; Romans 4:25; I Corinthians 15:3; Ephesians 1:7; Titus 2:14; I John 1:7), to redeem us from spiritual bondage (Matthew 20:28; Galatians 1:4; Ephesians 2:1-3; Hebrews 2:14-15; I Peter 1:18-19; Revelation 5:9), and to open the way to fellowship with the Father (Romans 8:34; Ephesians 2:18; Hebrews 7:25; 10:19-22). Each year in the Passover ceremony, baptized Christians wash one another’s feet to follow Christ’s example of selfless service (John 13:1-17), as well as partake of the bread and the wine, recommitting themselves to the everlasting covenant that they have made with God. As Paul writes in I Corinthians 11:26, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.”

Easter, however, celebrates, not the Savior’s death, but His resurrection, which most professing Christians believe occurred at sunrise on the Sunday morning after His death (please see “After Three Days” which explains from the Bible that this is not the case). Neither Jesus nor His apostles mention anything about observing or memorializing His resurrection. In fact, His death is the only event of His life that the Bible consistently commands us to remember (Luke 22:19; I Corinthians 11:24-25; see the principle in Psalm 116:15; Ecclesiastes 7:1).

And, yes, this excludes His birth too, making Christmas another non-biblical addition to the liturgical calendar. Despite the human desire to mark such times, Christians must be careful to do only what God’s Word commands lest they be guilty of adding to or taking away from it (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Joshua 1:7; Proverbs 30:5-6; Revelation 22:18-19). When we add to or take from what God has said, we alter His revelation to us and are sure to veer from His way.

If you are interested in further information regarding God’s Sabbath and holy days, please visit our website on this subject,

Friday, April 8, 2011

Repentance: The Genuine Article (Part Six)

John the Baptist is the first of God’s messengers to address repentance in the New Testament:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! . . . Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance. . . . And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:1-2, 8, 10)
John prepared the way for Christ’s coming by preaching a message of repentance because, in order for righteousness to be developed in the people, they first had to repent. They could not accept Jesus’ teachings until they had been convicted of their sins and turned from them. The proof, John says, that a person has truly made a change of heart and lifestyle appears when his life begins to show him doing what is right. Right living is the fruit of repentance.

If we think that we have repented but are still walking the old road leading to death, then we probably have not fully repented. If that is the case, we need to do so right away! As Peter writes in I Peter 4:17, judgment is on us now, and whoever fails to live righteously—fails to show godly fruit—will be, in John the Baptist’s words, “cut down and thrown into the fire.” Stiff words, indeed, but necessary to motivate us toward the goal.

So, having gone through all of this, how do we repent? Have we ever considered that Jesus could not show us how to do it? Though He is our perfect example in how to live, He can never Himself show us how to repent because He never had a sin to repent of. To whom do we look as an example of true repentance?

Jesus left that job to “a man after His own heart” (I Samuel 13:14), His own ancestor, David, whose attitude was one of going on to perfection (Hebrews 6:1). God loved him so much because he had a heart that always tried to do what was right, and when he slipped and fell, being humble and teachable, he repented and moved forward.

Psalm 51 is David's well-known and well-loved Psalm of Repentance. We will observe only the highlights—twelve in all—that focus on the most critical aspects of genuine repentance:

First, David simply throws himself on God’s mercy when he asks for forgiveness. He does not try to justify himself or explain away his sin. He pleads, “Do to me what You think is right, but please be merciful.”

Second, he confesses his sins unequivocally—he admits that he did them—and does not attempt to hide himself or his sins from God.

Third, he acknowledges that his sins are against God, as all sin is. Every sin we commit affects our relationship with Him, since sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2). Thus, David acknowledges that he has wronged God primarily (II Samuel 12:13). Of course, he had hurt others in the process and caused the whole nation great distress, but of all these, God is by far the most important.

Fourth, David acknowledges that his entire nature is sinful, and that sin is a fact of human existence. However, he also accepts that God requires us to overcome it with His help.

Fifth, he recognizes that God and God alone can cleanse him of sin. By using the word “hyssop” (Psalm 51:7; see Exodus 12:22), He hints that only the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, can remit our sins and make the passing over of our sins possible. Only by washing in the blood of the Lamb of God can we be whiter than snow.

Sixth, he asks God to change his heart and to grant him true repentance. Paul teaches in Romans 2:4, “. . . the goodness of God leads you to repentance,” and in II Timothy 2:25, “God perhaps will grant them repentance.” Because we have a part to play in it too, repentance is a cooperative act with God to change our hearts.

Seventh, he appeals to God to renew His Holy Spirit in him. He begs, “Please, do not take it away from me! Please do not cast me away from your Presence. Help me to overcome this by Your power because by my own strength I can do nothing.”

Eighth, by saying, “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,” he asks God to return him to the path toward His Kingdom. He had discovered that the way of sin leading to condemnation and death was a dark, dreary, hopeless road. He needed God to set his feet on the right path again.

Ninth, he requests that God help him to become a good example to others and to teach them His way of life. He wanted, not only to repent of this sin, but also to pursue righteousness to the point that others could follow his example and learn from him. No half-measures for David!

Tenth, he praises God for His goodness and mercy. Showing Him our sincere gratitude for His grace and forbearance does wonders for our attitude, as it acknowledges our reliance on Him.

Eleventh, David lets God know that he understands that no physical act will ever atone for his sins. He can do nothing—no amount of sacrifice—to make up for them. What God desires is a change of heart and mind, asking for a humble spirit that will transform one’s way of life. He respects the person who is submissive and willing to change.

Finally, he asks God to show favor to Zion—in our case, the church, the people of God—implying, “Please do not let my sin cause others harm or bring dishonor to You or Your people. Please intervene so that the effects of my sin do not ripple out to affect others—in fact, turn this to good.” With the assurance that God has covered our sins, our sacrifices and acts of righteousness and love toward God and man can have real meaning and produce pleasing fruit.

Paul writes in Romans 6:22-23: “But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Consider the slavery and redemption of the Israelites. Like them, we have been redeemed from Egypt, a type of the world. Also like them, the ungodly things that we learned during our enslavement remain in our minds. God does not just make all those habits, attitudes, and inclinations disappear. Certainly, He has cleansed us from our sins, but we are always in need of repentance. We must still turn off the dusty, crowded highway that leads to death and walk the sunlit path to eternal life in God’s Kingdom.

Doing this takes time and a great deal of hard work, but it all begins with deep, earnest repentance—a thorough conversion of mind and attitude and a change in conduct to what is right and godly. Then and only then will we truly be preparing for the Kingdom of God.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Repentance: The Genuine Article (Part Five)

We can learn a great deal from the sore trial of Job, particularly what God did to bring him to the point of repentance. Notice Job 40:1-4, where we begin to see a marked change in the man:

Moreover the LORD answered Job, and said: "Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it." Then Job answered the LORD and said: "Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer You? I lay my hand over my mouth."

Job is a different person now. Something had produced a change in him between his assertion of unimpeachable integrity in chapter 27 and his humble admission of vileness in chapter 40. In the speech of Elihu in Job 32-37, a new line of reasoning enters the argument, and God, speaking out of a whirlwind in Job 38-41, lays Job's self-righteousness bare. God exposes Job for what he really was, despite his careful lawkeeping. Job responds in Job 42:1-6:

Then Job answered the LORD and said: "I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You. You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?' Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Listen, please, and let me speak; You said, ‘I will question you, and you shall answer Me.' I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes."

In listening to God primarily, Job had entered the rā'āh stage, where he deeply considered himself and what he had done, and suddenly, he had an entirely different view of himself: He was not the man he thought he was. Now, in his own estimation, he was not righteous but abhorrent and vile—a wholesale change!

What we see in Job 38-41 is that God leads the man through a process in which He reveals Himself to Job. He does not directly reveal Job to himself, but He helps Job to realize just who and what God is—and this is a major key to true repentance. We truly recognize our need to change when we see, not necessarily how we are, but how we compare to and fall woefully short of the perfect righteousness of God.

A simple illustration may help us understand how this works. Since the United States dollar is the world's reserve currency, there is a considerable problem with counterfeiting here and around the world. U.S. Treasury officials who are specially trained to seek out and identify counterfeit money study, not the counterfeit notes, but the real U.S. currency. They study it until they know it perfectly. Once they do, it becomes relatively easy for them to distinguish a true dollar from a counterfeit: Any bill that does not exactly conform to the real dollar is a fake.

In a similar fashion, God says the same thing to Job as well as to us. If we compare ourselves with the true righteousness and holiness that is in God, we will recognize just how counterfeit—imperfect, false, and sinful—we are. If we are sincere, we will fling ourselves on God's mercy and repent because we do not want to be sinful but righteous and holy like God. We will want to prove to God that we have turned from our old, evil way and will henceforth live His way forever.

Notice that Job says, "I . . . repent in dust and ashes." His wording expresses ideas of humiliation, mourning, burial, and death. Donning sackcloth and ashes was a common Hebrew act of humility and grief (Esther 4:1; Isaiah 58:5; Jeremiah 6:26). In his affliction, the psalmist writes in Psalm 102:9, "For I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping." When God informs Adam that he would die because of sin, He says, "For dust you are, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). The traditional funeral sermon from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer includes the memorable line, "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

Job's turn of phrase reveals the depth of his sorrow, shame, and determination to change. By saying this, he conveys his resolve to put the old, sinful Job to death and become a new man living a life of righteousness. We see this "old man of sin, new man of righteousness" in several places in the New Testament, including Romans 6:1-14, where the subject is repentance leading to a life of righteousness:

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

Repentance and righteousness are virtually inseparable. Without repentance, righteousness has no beginning. It is impossible for a person to be righteous while still on the old path that leads to death. One must turn away from that path and then begin living righteously. In the same way, without righteousness, repentance has no fruit, nothing to show for a person's contrition. Thus, one without the other is nothing. They must be done together.

This work in tandem is illustrated in the first occurrence of the word "repentance" (metanoia) in the New Testament, Matthew 3:8, in the preaching of John the Baptist: "Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance." What is repentance without righteousness? Nothing. True repentance is only verified by its fruit, right conduct.

We will conclude this series next time by briefly studying David's Psalm of Repentance.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Repentance: The Genuine Article (Part Four)

Now that we have considered the two main Old Testament words for "repentance," we can look at the New Testament Greek word metanoia. It literally means "an afterthought," and this can help us understand why the writers of the New Testament used this word to convey the godly idea of repentance. Simply, it is an afterthought because we do not repent before we sin, do we? A person cannot repent before he sins; that would be averting sin, not repenting of it.

The popular saying, "Hindsight is 20/20," also comes into play in terms of metanoia. When we look back and realize what we have done, we are led to think deeply about our actions, which can lead us into changing our future actions. Our "afterthought" results in changed behavior.

Metanoia complements the Hebrew terms rā'āh and shûb quite nicely, and in fact, it combines the meanings of these two Hebrew words. A strict dictionary definition of metanoia is "a change of mind that results in a change of direction." Note that both actions are contemplated: both a change of mind and a turn away from destructive to improved behavior. A mere change of mind would be useless without corresponding positive conduct.

In II Peter 3:9, the apostle's use of metanoia helps us to understand its spiritual connotations: "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance." Peter explains that God is patient with us, willing to work with us for a long while to bring us to the point that we leave the path that leads to death. A Christian does not just repent once and that is all that is needed. We must continue repenting throughout our Christian lives because, not only do our bad habits produce the same sins that we sought forgiveness for before, but we are constantly made aware of new sins too. Clearly, repentance is a long-term process, not a one-time decision, and God works closely with us for the duration.

Some have taken God's longsuffering to be slackness on His part—that He lets us linger in our sins over such a long time. However, Peter's argument is that those who think this way are looking at it backwards: It is not slackness but divine mercy! On the one hand, if He punished us for our sins with unyielding justice, we would all be decaying in pine boxes awaiting the judgment. On the other, if He did not require real change in behavior and character—just a quick and instant "repentance"—we would be no better for it. The kind of repentance that lasts for all eternity, the kind that leads to eternal life, is a life-long, deep-down, hard-won, blood-sweat-and-tears change in our way of living. It is an alteration in the course of our lives that we have felt deeply, considered deeply, and maintained rigorously throughout our lives. God's mercy allows us to take the time to do it right.

This kind of repentance takes us off the Satan-inspired path of death and puts us on God's path of life, on which we begin to think like, act and react like, and generally live like God as much as is humanly possible. Because this is the lofty goal of true Christianity, and as human nature is always battling to regain control over us, we must be in a repentant frame of mind at all times.

Not everyone, however, is receptive to repentance. Luke 5 contains the narrative of Jesus calling the tax collector, Matthew, called Levi by Luke, after which they go to Matthew's house.
Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them. And their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, "Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" Jesus answered and said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance." (Luke 5:29-32)
The scribes and Pharisees, who lived in constant fear of spiritual defilement, ask Jesus why He spends so much time with sinners. His answer is simple: It is His mission to come to this world and to change people's minds so that He can change their lives—to bring them to spiritual health. Recall that all have sinned (Romans 3:23). Every human being—including the scribes and Pharisees—needs the services of the Great Physician. We all need to change our minds so that we experience a positive change of life.

Taken literally, though, Luke 5:32 sounds as if some people need repentance while others do not. However, Jesus never intended His words here to be understood literally. Remember that He is answering the scribes and Pharisees, so what Jesus tells these self-righteous know-it-alls is coated with a heavy layer of sarcasm: "Certainly, you, being so righteous, have no need to repent! I just go where I am most needed!"

The scribes and Pharisees did not consider themselves to be sinners; in fact, they had come nowhere near the point where they could repent. Their hearts were so hard and they were so convinced of their own goodness that they had closed their minds even to the suggestion that they needed to change in any way. They were blind to their own depravity. However, Jesus went to the ones who knew that they were sinners and needed and wanted His help, people He could work with.

God had to bring even righteous Job to this point as well. He held onto his integrity as if it were a bar of gold, and it took a great deal of effort for God to pry it from him. In Job 27:1-6, Job is speaking with his three friends:
Moreover Job continued his discourse, and said: "As God lives, who has taken away my justice, and the Almighty, who has made my soul bitter, as long as my breath is in me, and the breath of God in my nostrils, my lips will not speak wickedness, nor my tongue utter deceit. Far be it from me that I should say you are right; till I die I will not put away my integrity from me. My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go; my heart shall not reproach me as long as I live."
What a hard heart Job had! When he looked in the mirror, he saw a paragon of virtue, the ultimate in righteousness. In introducing him, God calls him "blameless and upright" (Job 1:1), but a deeper study into his character shows that, while he may have stuck fastidiously to the letter of the law, he was terribly proud of how righteous he was. He was so uber-righteous that he offered sacrifices for his children, just in case they may have sinned (Job 1:5).

All things considered, Job was indeed a good man, but when God looked at him, He saw something that Job missed. Next time, we will learn how God brought him to repentance.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Repentance: The Genuine Article (Part Three)

Last time, while discussing the Hebrew word naham, frequently translated as "repentance" in the Old Testament, we saw that sorrow for sin may be nothing more than self-pity. A person may be sorry that he did something that will have harmful repercussions. He may feel shame that his dirty laundry has been exposed or fear for his reputation among his fellows. But does his emotion produce anything good—actions that bring about godly change? We learned that emotion is not the essence of repentance but only part of it. Change is the heart of repentance.

Here, the second Hebrew word that underlies "repentance" becomes important. It is shûb, which means "to turn" or "to return." In English, we might use a more colorful term such as "about face," bringing to mind soldiers marching in a column and suddenly turning around and heading back the way they had come. In modern lingo, we might speak of "doing a one-eighty." When we repent, we are turning off the path that leads to destruction and onto the narrow path—through the strait gate—that leads to life in the Kingdom of God (see Matthew 7:13-14). Thus, on the heels of godly sorrow must proceed the act of turning onto the path of righteousness.

In Ezekiel 33, the well-known chapter on the Watchman and his message, we find a typical use of the word shûb. Each time "turn" or "return" appears in this passage, it is a form of this word:
So you, son of man: I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore you shall hear a word from My mouth and warn them for Me. When I say to the wicked, "O wicked man, you shall surely die!" and you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. Nevertheless if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul.

Therefore you, O son of man, say to the house of Israel: "Thus you say, ‘If our transgressions and our sins lie upon us, and we pine away in them, how can we then live?'" Say to them: "As I live," says the Lord GOD, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezekiel 33:7-11)
God describes the Israelite's way of life as evil, wicked, and leading to death, and He implores them to leave it and turn onto the path that leads to life. He tells them, "If you live the way that I live, you will truly live!" God lives forever in peace and joy. However, they had to turn from their destructive ways and begin walking the path that God approves.

The churches of God also use Ezekiel 18 to explain repentance. The chapter begins with the false proverb about a father who eats sour grapes, yet it is his children's teeth that are set on edge. This encapsulates the idea that children receive the penalties for their fathers' sins. God, however, says that it does not work that way. The fathers' sins may affect their children, but God certainly does not hold the children responsible for them. Those sins lay squarely on the fathers' own heads. As before, "turn" and "repent" translate shûb:
"Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness which he committed, and does what is lawful and right, he preserves himself alive. Because he considers and turns away from all the transgressions which he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. . . . Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies," says the Lord GOD. "Therefore turn and live!" (Ezekiel 18:27-28, 30-32)
Notice that God says, "Because he considers and turns away . . ." (verse 28). This should help us better understand the process of repentance. We have seen the necessity of emotion and action, but this brings in another element: a rational, mental factor. Not only are our hearts and feet to be involved, but our minds must also be engaged in the process.

Believe it or not, a person can claim to be repentant without really thinking about it. This sometimes happens when the penalty for a sin descends immediately, and the sinner instantly regrets what he has done. He feels the pain of a loss. But is this true repentance? Sorrow without consideration is mere reaction, not godly repentance. It is turning without understanding what one is turning toward and what this change will require.

As an illustration, suppose an argument rages between a man and his wife, and he shoots and kills her. He sees her lying in her blood on the floor and immediately regrets what he has done. Has he really repented of his murder? His reaction is entirely emotional at this point; he has not truly considered the ramifications of his crime. He may wish he were dead and wail that he will never kill anyone again, but he still has not produced any real change.

Godly repentance requires deep thought. When doing so, a sinner considers what he has done and the whole process of his sin: what tempted him to start down the road to sin, what led him onward, and how he reached the point where he could see it was not good. He thinks about how his sin has hurt him and others, feeling sorrow and regret for his actions and their consequences and pledging never to do it again. Finally, he diligently embarks on a program of doing what he knows to be good, right, and pleasing to God.

This entire process is concentrated in the Hebrew word translated "considers" in Ezekiel 18:28: rā'āh, which typically means "to see" or "to observe." However, like our verb "to see," it has many metaphorical meanings, such as "to understand," "to realize," "to examine," "to search," "to witness," etc. It can also mean "to admit" or "to accept," as we might say, "I see that I have a problem." All of these actions are contemplated in rā'āh.

These Hebrew words help us to understand how repentance works. When we sin, we must seek to understand what we have done as fully as possible and then admit our guilt. The Bible commands us to confess what we have done to Him and to seek forgiveness (I John 1:9; Psalm 32:5; 51:2-4). Once we truly comprehend what we have done and what we are, we should be motivated, with "a new heart and a new spirit" (Ezekiel 18:31), to turn, to change—to choose to forsake evil and to pursue what is good. With God's help, we can do it!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Repentance: The Genuine Article (Part Two)

In Part One, we saw that, while people can make positive changes in their lives, true repentance—the kind that counts toward salvation—only occurs after God has invited a person into a relationship with Him. Human beings are full of sin, and our natures compel us away from the path that God has revealed to lead to the Kingdom of God. Once God initiates the relationship, and we believe and vow to seek Him and His Kingdom, then real change for the better can commence and continue throughout the rest of our lives.

Knowing that we need to repent, however, still does not tell us what true repentance is. Repent and repentance are words that we have a vague understanding of what they mean, but like many theological terms, they stand for a great deal more than their simple definitions tell. It will take a little digging to come to a full understanding of the concept.

The English word repentance derives from a Latin word, penitēre meaning "to make sorry." It is closely related to penitence, which means "contrition leading to change of behavior," and is a distant relation of the word pain. Its native English equivalent is rue, "regret, sorrow, remorse." Other than its association with penitence, repentance can strike an English speaker as a mere feeling of sorrow, regret, or contrition. However, we realize that biblical repentance goes beyond mere feeling.

Even so, this etymology provides a clue about an element of true repentance: It involves pain, particularly emotional pain. To repent is wrenching to the psyche. It really hurts because it is difficult to do. Oftentimes, what we must do is a bitter pill to swallow because it means changing ingrained attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that have set hard like concrete in our lives. From this, we can conclude that any repentance that comes easily is probably not true repentance. If we have not felt some measure of pain in repenting, it is likely that we have not seen the depths of our sinful ways.

The writers of the Old Testament used two different words to convey the idea of repentance. The first is naham, which means "to be sorry" or "to rue." The Hebrew writers use this word to describe God's "repentance" in the few instances when He decides against an intended action. In this case, "repent" is an unfortunate translation of naham, as it would be better translated as "relent" or perhaps "regret." Being perfect, God has no need to repent.

For instance, in I Samuel 15, Samuel orders Saul to attack the Amalekites and utterly destroy them and their livestock. However, Saul disobeys, sparing the life of Agag, the Amalekite king, and the best of the animals. Because he did not obey God's command explicitly, Samuel writes, ". . . the LORD regretted [naham] that He had made Saul king over Israel" (I Samuel 15:35). Here, God was sorry that He had raised Saul to be king over His people; He rued that decision. However, God made it work out for good ultimately.

The essence of the meaning of naham lies in the action of breathing strongly. A person will often display this kind of behavior when something has gone wrong and he is sorry for it. In his regret, he may try to control his emotions by taking deep breaths that may descend into sobbing or even painful wails of remorse. This sort of repentance contains a strong emotional character.

Nevertheless, we need to remember that true repentance is not an entirely emotional experience. It is not just feeling sorry, not just an emotional outburst about something one regrets. There is more to it than that. Matthew 27:3-5 contains an account of an emotional, regretful repentance, but Scripture makes it clear that it is not a true one:
Then Judas [Iscariot], His betrayer, seeing that [Jesus] had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood." And they said, "What is that to us? You see to it!" Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself.
Judas experienced a deeply emotional reaction to what he had done. He felt regret and remorse about betraying an innocent Man to His cruel death. But, instead of seeking forgiveness and changing his behavior, what did he do? He immediately compounded his sin by committing suicide! In no way could this be considered true repentance because it led only to sin and death (see Proverbs 14:12).

Obviously, any person under the influence of human nature will sin after he repents, but his sin should decrease in both the level of iniquity and frequency. Matthew's use of "remorseful" in Matthew 27:3 is similar to the Hebrew use of naham, suggesting not repentance but only emotional regret. It can be part of true repentance, but alone, it is not biblical repentance, lacking the vital element of character growth.

In II Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul makes a distinction between regret or remorse and true repentance. The Corinthian church had allowed a great sin to continue unopposed, and Paul had written to them in a stern, corrective manner (see I Corinthians 5:1-13). He had told the whole congregation that they had been sinful in this matter, having become proud of their "love" toward the sinner, which was really an extreme tolerance of sin. After some time elapsed, Paul writes another letter, having heard of their subsequent repentance:
For I perceive that the same epistle [I Corinthians] made you sorry, though only for a while. Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter. (II Corinthians 7:8-11)
While Judas may have been sorry, it led only to his death. The Corinthian example, though, shows us what godly sorrow really is. The strong emotion produces a determination to clear matters up, to clear oneself of guilt. It gives way to new emotions like anger at sin and fear of punishment for their transgressions. All that the truly repentant person wants to do is to attack the problem and overcome it in order to be vindicated through Christ. Repentance does include regret, but it must produce these other qualities to complete the process.

In Part Three, we will consider the second Hebrew word rendered as "repent."