Friday, June 27, 2014

*Simple Faith

Two curly-haired children stood in front of their father as he knelt down to hug them. They were dressed in their best clothes: Jimmy in dark pants, white shirt, suspenders, and bowtie, and Jenny in a pink dress, white shoes, and ribbons in her golden hair. It was not every day that they went down to the train station to see their father off on a long trip.

Daddy was talking. "I'm going to be gone for a while—I don't know how long, but I'll be back before you know it. I have to take care of some business out of the country, and once that's done, I'm coming home to stay. So, mind your Momma and do your chores to help her out. You'll both probably be a foot taller when I get back, but I will be back, I promise."

He gave their mother a kiss and a long hug, and then he was gone. The train pulled out of the station, and they waved like mad as they watched it chug away. Soon, there was nothing else to see, so they sadly returned home, changed clothes, and went about their daily routine.

Days passed, then weeks, then months. Daddy's business overseas seemed to be taking longer than he had thought. Momma told them not to worry, that he would be back with them before they knew it. If they just kept themselves busy, the time would go faster, she said. So Jimmy and Jenny plunged into their school work, did all their chores, read long books, played with the neighbor kids, and grew like beansprouts.

Yet, Daddy still had not come home. As they often did, the children sat on the porch swing in the cool of the evening just before bedtime, watching the fireflies come out. Jenny suspected that Jimmy was down, and he proved it a few minutes later. "I don't think Daddy's coming back," he said. "If he was, he'd be here already. He's forgotten about us."

"That's not true!" said Jenny fiercely, almost shouting. "Daddy said he would come back, so he is coming back!"

Jimmy just shook his head, saying, "How do you know? You're just a little girl."

"So what if I'm a little girl!" she yelled. "Daddy promised! He'll be back soon, just you wait!"

They had similar arguments over the next weeks, Jimmy always doubting, Jenny always certain that their father would arrive home soon. She looked for him everywhere, expecting him to be walking up the drive when she peeked out the front window or be at the train station when they went into town. Jimmy mocked her for a silly goose, but she never wavered in her certainty that their Daddy would come back just as he had said.

Then, suddenly, he was home. They woke up one morning and stumbled out to the kitchen for breakfast, and Daddy was there, kneeling in front of them, giving them the biggest, longest hug that they had ever had! He told them how much he had missed them and how he had wanted to come home sooner, but things had just not worked out until the last few weeks. Then he had hurried back to be with them again for good.

Jenny shed tears of pure joy, refusing to let her father go, but Jimmy was bawling like a baby, choking out, "I'm sorry, Daddy! I'm sorry!"

"What do you mean?" Daddy asked, concerned. "There's nothing to be sorry about."

Wiping away tears, Jimmy said, "I didn't believe you were coming back. Jenny said you would, but it had been so long, and you weren't here, so I thought you would never come back to us."

"Well, here I am!" Daddy said. "Now you know you can trust my word."


While this may be just a story about a little girl's simple faith, it captures the essence of the biblical concept of faith. Sometimes, we tend to make things a bit too theological and difficult, wanting to know all the facets and permutations of a doctrine, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of faith, it is trusting Him, taking God at His word and believing it. In its most basic form, faith can be expressed in the sentiment, "If God said it, that's good enough for me!"

We grapple with the definition that the author of Hebrews pens in Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." We look in various Bible translations for one that will make it plain, something like "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see" (New English Translation). We delve into the Greek words for a clearer picture of the author's intent. We pore through commentaries for learned opinions about the verse—and we may still come away scratching our heads.

We know from verses like Hebrews 11:1 that faith is not simple in all its theological ramifications, but in its everyday use, it is not difficult. While He does not use the word "faith" on this occasion, it is what Jesus alludes to in Luke 11:28, "Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!" His declaration is reminiscent of the times when people—usually Gentiles—came to Him for healing and simply believed that, in saying the sick person would be healed, all was well. That was the case when the centurion asked Him to heal his servant, and Jesus "marveled, and said to those who followed, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel'" (Matthew 8:10).

The apostle Paul, speaking of the faith of Abraham, calls him "the father of us all" (Romans 4:16). What marked the greatness of Abraham's faith? Paul answers for us in Romans 4:3, quoting Genesis 15:6: "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." The patriarch trusted God's promise that his descendants from the then-unborn Isaac would be as the number of stars in the heavens (Genesis 15:3-5). God's promise was good enough for him. It would happen just as God had said.

His faith in God's Word sustained him when, years later, God tested him: "Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and . . . offer him . . . as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you" (Genesis 22:2). How could his offspring be as numerous as the stars if Isaac died before having children? So, when Isaac asked where the lamb for the offering was, Abraham answered in faith, "My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering" (verses 7-8). He went so far as to bind his son and raise the knife, knowing, in faith, that God would intervene or perform a resurrection so that His promise would not be broken.

Such is the simple faith God desires us to display in the course of our daily lives. Paul teaches that "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17). Faith comes and grows when we hear God's Word and believe it, trusting God to do as He has said. So David writes in Psalm 37:5: "Commit your way to the LORD, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass." That is a promise we can count on!

Friday, June 20, 2014

*Christian Obedience

It is commonly thought—if not commonly taught—that obedience plays little part in New Testament Christianity. People are urged, "Believe in Jesus Christ, and you will be saved." They are told to love the Lord and have faith. But obey? If the law of God has been done away, what need is there of obedience? If God's grace covers all sin and works avail us nothing, then what place does obedience fill? Did not Jesus remove lawkeeping from the salvation equation?

Many professing Christians reveal the deficiency of their theological knowledge by believing that such things are the end-all of Christianity. They have been hoodwinked by preachers who adhere to the "once saved, always saved" line of Protestant teaching, a false doctrine easily refuted (see, for example, Matthew 7:16-20; John 15:6Hebrews 6:4-810:26-31; etc.). The lure of "easy grace" has filled the pews of many a church with people eager for life after death but unwilling to change their present lives by living according to the teachings of God's Word.

It is true that the word "obey" is found just a few times in the gospels and never in a command such as "obey the law" or "obey God's commandments." But that does not mean that Jesus does not command us to obey—He just uses other words. For instance, He tells the rich young ruler, "But if you want to enter into life [eternal life], keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17). It does not get much clearer than that.

However, this instance is not the only time He says such a thing. In Luke 11:28, He tells a crowd gathered to hear Him, "Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!" In His final instructions to His disciples before His arrest, He appeals to their affection for Him, saying, "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15), and a little later, He restates this, taking it beyond them to Christians of all times:
If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father's who sent Me. (John 14:23-24)
Finally, in John 15:10, Jesus reveals that we have to be just as diligent in obeying Him as He was in obeying His Father in heaven: "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love."

From the mouth of our Savior Himself, obedience is plainly a very New Testament, very Christian, teaching.

In this handful of statements, He was quite pointed about what we must obey: the commandments, the word of God, His words (which are the Father's words), and His and His Father's commandments. Plus, He gives us incentive to do this! We should obey His teaching if we want to have eternal life, if we want to demonstrate our love for Christ, if we want to be blessed, if we want God and Christ to make their home with us by the Holy Spirit, and if we want to have and abide in the love of the Father and the Son. That is some healthy motivation!

It is worth looking at these from the negative side, just to see how disastrous it is to refuse to obey God and His Word. Thus, if we do not obey Him and His commands, we will not enter into life, we will not be blessed, we will not show love toward Christ, we will not have the Father and Son living in us by the Spirit of God, and we will not have the love of God in us. For a Christian to lack these things is utterly devastating! In fact, it would mean that he is not really a Christian! (Consider, for instance, Paul's statement in Romans 8:14, defining a true Christian.)

Even when people realize that they should obey God and His commands, they may still scratch their heads over why obedience is necessary to the salvation process. If we are saved by grace through faith—as Ephesians 2:8 makes obvious—and not justified by works of lawkeeping (Galatians 2:16), what good do they do? Is not obedience to God's law useless or at the best, merely dutiful or ceremonial?

Those who ask these kinds of questions have a limited understanding of what God is doing with humanity. In essence, they believe that God's sole purpose is to "save" people from their sins, for that is what Christ's sacrifice accomplishes—the shedding of His precious blood pays the penalty for sin, redeeming us from eternal death, and with His righteousness covering our corruption, provides us access to a relationship with the Father (see Romans 5:6-11). This is a wonderful divine act of grace because we do not deserve such merciful treatment.

The truth is, however, that salvation does not end there. One of the apostle Paul's comments in Romans 5 hints broadly at this: "Much more, having been reconciled [to the Father], we shall be saved by His life" (verse 10). Christ's death does not save us, but His resurrection to eternal life does! Not only does it make possible our future resurrection to eternal life (see I Corinthians 15:20-23), but it also gives Him the opportunity to work with those whom God calls to bring them to spiritual maturity. Notice how Paul describes Christ's ongoing work with the church:
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)
As Head of the church (Ephesians 1:22-23Colossians 1:18), Christ now works to bring us "to a perfect man," that is, He is completing a spiritual process to fashion us in His own image. Paul calls this "the new man" in Ephesians 4:22-24: "Put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness." Theologically, this process is called "sanctification."

This is where our obedience comes into play. Paul writes in Hebrews 5:9, "Having been perfected, [Christ] became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him." Keeping God's commandments—His instructions—will guide us in learning what God requires of us and in impressing His character image upon us. God's laws do not save us, but they provide a pattern of behavior that pleases Him because such behavior is a reflection of His own. Obedience, then, becomes a tool that we use in conjunction with Christ to grow in righteousness and prepare for the Kingdom of God.

Friday, June 13, 2014

*Called to Follow

If there is one great principle of Christian living, it is walking in Christ's footsteps (I John 2:6). Sounds easy, but putting it into practice is one of the most difficult tasks of a Christian's life. If we succeed, however, we will be one of those to whom He says in the resurrection, "Well done, good and faithful servant." We will have not only lived as He did, we will have put on His character image, the great goal of the Christian life (Romans 8:29).

In Matthew 4:18-22, Jesus begins to call His disciples, particularly the pairs of brothers, Peter and Andrew and James and John:
And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men." They immediately left their nets and followed Him. Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately, they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.
The sparse prose of the gospel account makes it seem as if the four of them just dropped their nets, jumped off the boats, and never looked back!

Evidently, this was Jesus' first command to each of His disciples. Maybe He did not say these exact words to each one, but it seems that Matthew gives this account as an example of Jesus' pattern in calling them: He commanded them, "Follow Me." And they immediately left what they were doing and followed Him.

On the surface, "Follow Me" may appear to mean simply, "Go where I go," but there is far more to it. The disciples would learn over the next three and a half years that "Follow Me" meant a great deal more than just "Walk behind Me." It also means "Do what I do," "Live as I do," and "Experience what I experience." Ultimately, it also means "Suffer and die like Me." Yet, on the other hand, it also means "Share eternal life and My rewards, too." That simple command runs the entire gamut of Christian life and potential.

From a negative perspective, Luke 9:57-62 considers the costs of being a follower of Christ:
Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, "Lord, I will follow You wherever You go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." Then He said to another, "Follow Me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God." And another also said, "Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house." But Jesus said to him, "No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."
Clearly, following Jesus is neither easy nor risk-free. Its sacrifices and hardships are sometimes severe. It involves a commitment that most people are just not willing to make because true discipleship involves absolute devotion and dedication to Christ Himself. Thus, Jesus said these things, testing these men, finding out what was really in their hearts—if they were willing to commit themselves to Him, to His way of life, and to His purposes.

In the final verse, He lets us know the bottom line of what is required: One who is fit for God's Kingdom is willing to give all. German clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lived under the Nazi regime, wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship. In it, he sums up the Christian calling with a now well-known quotation, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

In this passage, Luke records three instances in which someone gives an excuse to refuse Christ's calling to follow Him, illustrating three general areas in which people fail. The first reason is that the Christian life is one of discomfort. Jesus tells the man that He did not have a place to lay His head. In God's Word, Christians are often called "strangers" and "sojourners." We are travelers going through a land or residing only temporarily. In a spiritual sense, we are not citizens of the lands in which we live (Philippians 3:20). So, as travelers along the road of life toward the Kingdom of God, we cannot expect to have all the comforts of home.

We cannot allow the accoutrements of this world and of this life to hold us back in our devotion to Christ. Our homes, jobs, vacations, clothes, pastimes—none of these things compare to the importance of this Christian life. We must be willing to forsake all of these things if they inhibit our relationship with God. It may make life uncomfortable, but the rewards are wonderful.

The second reason some fail is because the Christian life is sacrificial. The man asks Jesus if he could first bury his father, but He answers, "No. You go and preach the Kingdom of God." We, because of our calling, must often forsake the customary duties, privileges, associations, and activities of normal life. The Christian's focus, Jesus says, is on the living, those whom God has called and given the truth, whose focus is also on God's work (see John 6:29).

When God calls a person, His will comes first. We may end up "missing out" on many of this world's activities. Some people miss them so much that they feel short-changed by God. Whether we pass or fail on this point depends on our priorities. If our ties to the world and its ways are too strong, we will be unwilling to sacrifice them to follow Christ. To be a true disciple, He says, we have to cut many or most of those ties.

The third reason people refuse Christ's call follows from the second: The Christian life demands new loyalties. The third man wanted to say farewell to his close friends and family. Jesus' reply is that once we commit to God's way, we cannot turn back, or we will be considered unfit. Many Christians are the only ones called from their particular families. They often find that, over time, they must forsake their own blood to a degree because they discover that they have little in common with them. Their ways of life are so dramatically divergent that separation becomes natural. In the church under a new and better way of life, they find a new identity, a new family, and a new purpose.

It is said that blood is thicker than water, but Jesus warns that our devotion to Him and God's way of life must be stronger. It requires an act of will to make our devotion to Him stronger than our blood ties. The Holy Spirit will not just infuse us to be totally committed to God. We have to set our wills to believe and follow through with making God our first priority in life, to go where He says to go. This is the new loyalty that Christ's calling demands.

In this way, we begin to live the life of Christ.

Friday, June 6, 2014

*Our Awesome Calling

"Hello, sir! This is Jane Doe from XYZ Vacations! How are you today? I'm calling to let you know that you've won a free three-day, two-night vacation at one of our gorgeous new condominiums on the fabulous Florida coast! Isn't that fantastic? We know you'll love these two-bedroom, two-bath condos with all the amenities that you've come to expect of luxury vacation homes. And, of course, our property is centrally located among all the area's exciting venues for shopping, eating, entertainment, and sports! When can we expect you here?"

Most adults have received such a call. Even more likely, we have received an invitation like this in the mail, printed on glossy paper and adorned with rich, full-color images of beautiful beach scenes. We are told, in fine print, that we are on the hook for all other expenses, including travel costs and food, and that we will be required to endure a two- or three-hour "presentation" (read: sales pitch), during which all manner of inducements will be used to get us to buy a couple of weeks of annual rentals. It is a classic advertising gimmick.

Christianity includes a much nobler invitation to a good deal: God calls each person to a relationship with His Son, Jesus Christ, and thus to Him through Christ. Jesus speaks of this in John 6:44: "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day." He essentially repeats this in verse 65: "Therefore I said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father."

When we parse what He says in these verses, we learn some amazing things. First is the remarkable fact that the Father Himself initiates the relationship. The great, almighty, and omniscient God, Ruler of the universe, decides to invite or summon a particular human being into fellowship with His Son. He does not consider such a task to be beneath Him, but He takes a personal interest in each individual called into His church. He knows each of them long before they ever thought of Him (consider Psalm 139:13Jeremiah 1:5Romans 8:29).

Second, Jesus explicitly asserts that no one can come to Him except through the Father's calling. While most people, even nominal Christians, believe that they can find God if they seek Him long and hard enough, the Bible disagrees. David tells us in Psalm 14:2-3: "The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God. They have all turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is none who does good, no, not one." The apostle Paul repeats this in Romans 3:11, "There is none who seeks after God." Human beings are milling about in a world of profound religious confusion—worshipping thousands of gods of their own making, seeking gods to please themselves—but to know and worship the true God, they must be granted access by the Father.

Third, our Savior uses an interesting word to picture what God does to summon us: The Father "draws" us. "Draws" is translated from the Greek wordhelkúö, which in its most literal sense can also mean "to drag" (see Acts 16:1921:30James 2:6)—and with some of us, it may well have happened with us kicking and screaming! A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament,Third Edition (BDAG) provides a helpful nuance of this word's meaning:
To move an object from one area to another in a pulling motion, draw, with implication that the object being moved is incapable of propelling itself or in the case of pers. [sic] is unwilling to do so voluntarily, in either case with implication of exertion on the part of the mover. . . .
This explanation reinforces the points we have already seen. When the Father initiates His calling, the individual does not have the capability to move himself into a relationship with Him, nor would he do so voluntarily, being at enmity with God (see Romans 8:7). God, therefore, must make the effort to reach out to the individual and open the way for fellowship with Him and His Son. But how does He do this?

In Hosea 11:3-4, God speaks of His treatment of Israel, "I taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by their arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I drew them with gentle cords, with bands of love, and I was to them as those who take the yoke from their neck." In a similar vein, Paul writes in Romans 11:5, "Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace." Here, the apostle uses the term "election" in a similar sense as Jesus speaks of few being chosen (Matthew 20:1622:14), an idea parallel to being drawn to Christ. The Father elects or selects only a few to understand the truth and have a relationship with Him and His Son, and He does this out of love by His grace. That is, His calling is a freely given gift; nothing that we are or have done compels God to draw us to Christ.

God's calling, then, is by grace, but what does He do to call a person? John 8:43, where Jesus is arguing with some Jews, provides a clue: "Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word." They were physically hearing His words, but they were incapable of spiritually comprehending His meaning. Yet, converted Christians can understand Him. Thus, part of the miracle of God's calling is that, through His Spirit (I Corinthians 2:10-16), the Father opens the mind to spiritual understanding, and as Paul explains it, "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17).

In this way, He gives us the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8), by which we can truly believe and then act upon what He says. We can see this in the calling of Lydia, whom Paul met in Philippi: "The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul" (Acts 16:14), and she was baptized soon thereafter.

The Bible tells us that God usually chooses the salt of the earth—the foolish, the weak, the base, and the despised of the world (I Corinthians 1:27-28), but our goal is to become "a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (I Peter 2:9). In other words, we have not been called to remain "just as we are." We have a "heavenly" (Hebrews 3:1) and "a holy calling" (II Timothy 1:9), one that we must "walk worthy of" (Ephesians 4:1).

Our calling is no gimmick. The Father has summoned, invited, us to the greatest purpose any human being can be asked to participate in: "to be conformed to the image of His Son" (Romans 8:29), to prepare to be firstfruits of His spiritual harvest (James 1:18Revelation 14:4), to be kings and priests in His Kingdom (Revelation 1:65:10), and to be the Bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7-9). As the author of Hebrews urges us, "See that you do not refuse Him who speaks" (Hebrews 12:25).

Friday, May 30, 2014

*The Bible's Claims About Itself

It is almost impossible for a Christian to have a meeting of minds with an atheist on any subject anywhere in the neighborhood of religion. As soon as the "conversation" moves to the source of the Christian's belief, the Bible, the atheist summarily rejects what the Christian says. In an incredulous voice, he will say something like, "You're telling me that you believe what you read in a book that is thousands of years old over the findings of modern science?" When the Christian answers, "Of course!" the atheist will ask, "Why?"

The only proper response is, "Because it is the Word of God," and the conversation can logically go no further. The determined atheist will accept no argument based on Scripture, and the faithful Christian will accept nothing that contradicts it. The conversation must end unresolved and unsatisfying—unless God Himself intervenes to open the atheist's mind or the unprepared Christian withers under the other's arguments.

In one sense, Christianity begins and ends with the Bible. All we truly know about God is found in its pages, as it is the only permanent record of God's revelation of Himself to mankind. In it, we find all of our instruction on doctrine, law, and morality. It reveals the standards by which human beings can live in harmony. It shows the miserable depths of man's depravity and the incomparable heights of his potential—and how God can take him from the former to the latter. In reality, a converted Christian bases every aspect of life on the words written in it.

Billions have seen the need to own this book we call the Holy Bible. It continues year after year to be the world's bestselling book, and millions of free copies are distributed around the globe. One would think that, with the Bible so accessible, humanity's moral fiber would be strong, but just the opposite is true. What a paradox! A major key to successful and abundant life lies in our hands, yet most reject it as quaint, outdated, and invalid for our times! The fact is, few people really study it, much less believe it. When polled, many give it lip-service, but increasingly, people do not consider it authoritative—it is just another possibility among many.

Accepting the Bible on faith may be noble, but God instructs us through the apostle Paul, "Test all things; hold fast what is good" (I Thessalonians 5:21). We must challenge the Bible to verify its claims, and conversely, we must take up the challenge to put its instructions to the test in our lives. We must make proving God's Word a personal matter that will forever erase all doubts about its validity. This takes time and work. It also takes the inspiration of God's Holy Spirit to open our minds to its richness and truth (I Corinthians 2:6-16John 14:16-17, 26; 16:13-14). Only then can we really understand and believe.

New Bible students are struck by the Bible's authoritative claims about itself. For instance, Paul writes in II Timothy 3:16, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God." The phrase "inspiration of God" is in Greek theopneustos, literally "God-breathed." Scripture, then, is a direct product of God's mind and being. The words "all Scripture" (pasa graphe) can be rendered "every text," "every scripture," "the whole scripture," "all the writings," etc., meaning the whole canon of Scripture. In other words, nothing crept into the Bible that God did not want there, and conversely, nothing He wanted to be in it has been left out.

This is backed up by II Peter 1:21: ". . . for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." God employed His Spirit to inspire His servants, the prophets and apostles. At some point, they wrote down what God had revealed through them, passing His Word on to successive generations.

Hebrews 1:1-2 informs us that God's inspiration occurred in a number of ways: "God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets has in these last days spoken to us by His Son." God is not limited to revealing Himself in any one manner. Sometimes, He spoke directly (see Genesis 12:716:7Exodus 3:2; etc.). At other times, He spoke in visions and dreams (see Isaiah 1:1Ezekiel 1:1Daniel 2:1, 19Acts 10:10; Revelation 1:10; etc.). He once even spoke through a donkey (Numbers 22:28)! On one occasion, He spoke through the casting of lots (Acts 1:23-26), much as He did through the Urim and Thummim to Israel (Numbers 27:21).

Most importantly, He spoke through His Son, Jesus Christ, who came to reveal the Father (see John 1:1814:7-1117:25-26). He is uniquely qualified to speak for God because, as the apostle John describes Him in John 1:1-2, 14, 17, He is God! As the Word (Greek logos), He is the Spokesman for God, communicating to humanity, and specifically to His people, the will of God and the way to live in a relationship with Him.

Since He came to reveal the Father, Jesus must have been the God Being that the Israelites worshipped in Old Testament times, who spoke to them and led them. In this vein, John 1:3 specifically claims that the Word is also the Creator (see also Colossians 1:16Ephesians 3:9). The Being, then, who made all that exists is the same One who inspired the words of Scripture! Since we owe our existence to Him, we also owe obedience to His Word in our Bibles.

As for its content, the Bible claims that it provides truth to humanity. Jesus Himself says in His great prayer to His Father on the night He was arrested, "Your word is truth" (John 17:17). This an echo of Psalm 119:160: "The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever." God considers every word He speaks or inspires to be true. It is His guarantee that we receive only the best instruction from Him. In fact, He would not be God if He spoke anything other than the truth (Numbers 23:19Titus 1:2Hebrews 6:18).

The Bible also claims, "Every word of God is pure" (Proverbs 30:5). David writes in Psalm 12:6, "The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times" (see Psalm 19:8119:140). The Hebrew word behind "pure" means "tested," "refined," or "proven of the highest quality." Our God has given us only the best information to propel us along the path to His Kingdom. We can take great confidence in that.

Jesus comments on the authority of Scripture in Matthew 5:18: "For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled." The jot (iota) and the tittle (keraia, "little horn" or "point") are the smallest parts of written Hebrew. Christ was so sure of Scripture that He claimed that all of it would be fulfilled—down to the minutest parts. He affirms in John 10:35 that "the Scripture cannot be broken," which means its authority cannot be "loosened," "unbound," "destroyed," "annulled," or "taken away." Our Lord and Savior says that no one can diminish the authority of God's Word!

The Bible presents many proofs of its validity and authority; what we have seen so far only scratches the surface. The most convincing and most lasting proof, however, resides in the relationship we build and foster with God. In a way, we can say that our proving of Scripture extends throughout our Christian lives as we see God in action, working in and through us to bring us into His Kingdom. The real proof is in the doing.

Friday, May 23, 2014

*How Human Nature Came to Be

Just this month, a longtime California politician, State Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), who is charged with gun trafficking and corruption for allegedly accepting bribes, suggested that money for political campaigns should come from state coffers because "money just simply corrupts." He went on to explain: "I think there's that old adage, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It's just human nature. After a while, you kind of feel that you deserve, you know, all the perks of office, because you've suffered so much, you've given up so much. You should have all of those kinds of trappings." So much for ethics.

In one sense, he is correct: Human nature—the fundamental dispositions and characteristics of human beings—is highly susceptible to corruption. We tend to be selfish, self-centered, and self-aggrandizing. We habitually follow behaviors and opportunities that promote or benefit us without thought to how they may affect others. Everyone covets what others have. Most will lie to deflect hurt or blame. Some will steal to line their pockets. A few will take another person's life to protect their self-interests. As David writes in Psalm 14:3, speaking of "the children of men," humanity, "They have together become corrupt; there is none who does good, no, not one."

Why is human nature so corrupt? Why is it so widespread? How did it come to be? Did God create it this way?

God did indeed create mankind, forming Adam "of the dust of the ground, and breath[ing] into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (Genesis 2:7). Job 32:8 informs us that "the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding," meaning that, not only did God give us life, but He also gave us intellect and faculties for language, logic, creativity, forethought, and many other cognitive abilities. However, the Creation account also records, "God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). The nature God created in man was originally, not just "good," but "very good." It was not corrupt.

When they were created, then, Adam and his wife Eve had pure minds. Certainly, as fleshly beings, they had physical drives that tend to pull in a selfish direction—drives to feed themselves, protect themselves, etc. They were innocent, however, in their pursuit to satisfy these drives. While in this state, God gave them a couple of very specific commands: to tend and keep the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15), but not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil upon pain of death (verse 17).

Their idyllic, innocent life ended with the temptation of Eve by the cunning serpent (Genesis 3:1-5), who was God's—and now humanity's—great adversary, Satan the Devil, in disguise (Revelation 12:9). God reveals the Devil's origin in Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:12-17: He was created as a marvelous and powerful angel, a cherub who covered God's throne with his wings, yet whose ambition and pride "corrupted his wisdom" and led him to attempt to attack God's throne and usurp His authority over all creation. As mighty as this archangel was, no mere creature can defeat God, so the Almighty cast this now-fallen angel down to earth in ruin, along with one-third of his fellows whom he had persuaded to his cause (Revelation 12:4). It was this being, speaking through a serpent, who was "in Eden, the garden of God" (Ezekiel 28:13), intent on corrupting God's newest creatures before they could even begin following God‘s way of life.

The serpent immediately sowed doubt and confusion in Eve's mind by questioning God's command. As she fumbled through her reply, he accused God of deceit, saying, "You will not surely die" (Genesis 3:4), if she ate the forbidden fruit. Then he threw his ace, as it were, contradicting God, urging her that just the opposite would happen: ". . . in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (verse 5).

Satan played the oldest trick in the book, stroking her vanity to desire to be equal with God through disobedience, and she ate of the fruit. Though not deceived (I Timothy 2:14), Adam weakly followed his wife's lead into sin. In this moment, carnal human nature—what all human beings now possess—was created.

Human nature generally follows the course that it took with Eve, as explained in Genesis 3:7: The fruit of the forbidden tree looked good, she desired to eat it, and she saw how it could benefit her, so she partook of it despite God's command. The apostle John calls this "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life" in I John 2:16, commenting that it is "not of the Father but is of the world." The apostle Paul reminds us of sin's penalty: "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), just as God had warned them.

The deed was done; they could not "unbite" the fruit. They had chosen to follow the lies of Satan rather than the commands of God, and the course of this world was set. God sent them out of Eden, blocking their way back should they ever desire to return to take of the Tree of Life and live eternally in sin (Genesis 3:22-24). Because of their rebellion, God let humanity go its own way, as Paul explains in Romans 1:28: "And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting."

Now all of humanity, except for those few whom God calls to redeem (John 6:44), are open to the selfish and rebellious attitudes of Satan the Devil, "the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others" (Ephesians 2:2-3). Because human beings have a spirit, they are able to "tune in" to the spirit broadcast by the Adversary, and without the resistance that only God's Holy Spirit can offer, all fall under its influence without exception. As they continue to listen to it as they grow up, it becomes their nature, a miniature copy of Satan's.

However, if we have been called, accepted Jesus Christ as Savior, and pledged ourselves to Him for His use through baptism, Paul writes, "Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God" (I Corinthians 2:12). Redemption through Christ is the only cure for corrupt human nature, and even then it takes a lifetime to learn to resist the pulls of that nature and instead do God's will (Galatians 5:16-25James 4:7-10). It can be done, for Jesus Himself said, "With God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26).

Monday, March 31, 2014

RBV: II Kings 10:26

And they brought the sacred pillars out of the temple of Baal and burned them.
—II Kings 10:26

The burning of the sacred pillars of Baal occurred during the coup and subsequent reforms of Jehu, who overthrew the House of Ahab and destroyed Baal worship in Israel. It was a violent, bloody era in both the northern and southern kingdoms' histories. After Jehu personally slew Joram, Ahab's son and heir (II Kings 9:24), he sent pursuers to kill the King of Judah, Ahaziah, who had married a daughter of Ahab and Jezebel (verse 27), and later, ordered Jezebel to be thrown from an upper-story window and trampled her body under his chariot (verses 30-33). He incited the inhabitants of Samaria to kill the seventy sons of Ahab living in the city (II Kings 10:1-7). "So Jehu killed all who remained of the house of Ahab in Jezreel, and all his great men and his close acquaintances and his priests, until he left him none remaining" (verse 11). For good measure, he killed all the sons of King Ahaziah (verses 12-14), "and when he came to Samaria, he killed all who remained to Ahab in Samaria, till he had destroyed them, according to the word of the LORD which He spoke to Elijah" (verse 17).

Once he was firmly established as king, Jehu went after the worshippers of Baal, using deception to lure them into the temple of Baal, where he had them all killed (verses 18-25). Evidently, the entire temple had been packed with Baalists ("the temple of Baal was full from one end to the other"; verse 21), and eighty of his most loyal guards and captains slaughtered them without mercy. Thus, Jehu brutally purged Baal-worship in Israel.

It was at this point that his men brought out the sacred pillars from the temple and burned them. The previous verse indicates that these pillars were in the inner sanctum, the "most holy place" of the temple. The Hebrew word for "pillars" is mashshebot, which can describe both wooden and stone pillars that can be either functional (like doorposts) or monumental and religious. These pillars stood for the presence of Baal in his temple, much as the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat stood for the true God's presence in the Tabernacle/Temple. If the pillars were of wood, they were burned to ash, and if they were of stone, they were fragmented by heating them in a bonfire and then pouring water on them. Sometimes, depending on the level of abhorrence, they were pulverized.

Not to leave anything undone, Jehu "tore down the temple of Baal and made it a refuse dump" (verse 27). Modern commentators believe that he actually redeveloped the area and made the site a public latrine. So he showed his contempt for Baal and his adherents.

Sadly, Jehu did not take the next step and renounce all paganism. Instead, he upheld the national religion represented by the golden calves that Jeroboam I had installed at Bethel and Dan during the tenth century (verse 29). For this, God limited his reward to rule over Israel for four generations (verse 30). While he did what God had asked of him in ridding the nation of Ahab and Jezebel's influence, he did not completely embrace God's way (verse 31). 

There lies the lesson. If God tells us to overthrow what is evil in our lives, those things that cause us to sinand He does command us to do sothen we had better do what we can to rid ourselves of those things completely. We cannot afford to leave any vestiges of evil lying around because they will return to haunt us.

Thankfully, we can do this through the sacrifice of Christ and the power of God's Spirit. God wants us to "go on to perfection" (Hebrews 6:1), or as James writes in terms of overcoming trials, ". . . that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing" (James 1:4). Our Father does not want a bunch of half-finished, partially loyal Jehus as children; He wants completely perfected sons and daughters who are wholly committed to His way of life.

Friday, March 28, 2014

RBV: I Chronicles 14:11

So they went up to Baal Perazim, and David defeated them there. Then David said, "God has broken through my enemies by my hand like a breakthrough of water." Therefore they called the name of that place Baal Perazim.
—I Chronicles 14:11

This chapter records the brief accounts of two encounters in the Valley of Rephaim, probably near Bethlehem, that King David had with the Philistines. Our verse is part of the concluding comments on the first battle (verses 8-12), while the second encounter is narrated in verses 13-16. Both clashes occurred just after David became king over all Israel, having united Judah and the northern tribes, and the Philistines were probing into Israelite territory to test his strength and perhaps divide and thus weaken the nation.

David's forces win both battles decisively, a severe setback for the Philistines, who had been consistently victorious over Saul's armies in the recent past. The stark contrast with Saul is deliberate, showing that the new king had God's support, unlike the old king. One of the clear differences is that, when David inquires of God whether he should meet the Philistines in battle, the Lord answers him: “Go up, for I will deliver them into your hand” (verse 10). Recall that in the last years of his reign, "when Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by the prophets" (I Samuel 28:6). And in desperation, facing the armies of Philistia in the Valley of Jezreel, Saul seeks a medium instead—leading to disastrous results. The chronicler is illustrating the good things that happen when the leader of the nation truly fears God.

The chief emphasis, however, is that God Himself is the main cause of the Israelites' victories; He fights their battles for them (Exodus 14:14). David is humble before God, not presuming to take the armies of Israel to war unless the true Ruler of Israel permits it (I Chronicles 14:10). Nor does he presume that just because he has God's permission that it will result in victory: David asks Him if He will allow him to conquer his adversaries. Both questions receive affirmative answers, giving the king and his soldiers great confidence—certainty—that they will emerge triumphant. All the credit goes to God.

In the picturesque way of the Hebrews, David depicts his first victory in Rephaim as a divine breakthrough of water, something like onrush of a flash-flood. He may have been thinking of the results of heavy rainfall in hilly country, when the water pours down the hillsides and the gullies cannot contain it but spill over, eroding under the torrent. In a similar way, armies can rush down upon their foes, who are unable to defend against the onslaught and break.

Thus, David calls the place Baal Perazim or "Lord of Outbursts." We do not normally think of God in this way, but we are instructed by this passage in Scripture to consider it. Our God has a multifaceted personality. He is not always calm and patient, treading softly and ruffling no feathers. Sometimes, He suddenly breaks out with an ear-splitting shout and an onrush of overwhelming power that nothing and no one can stand against! Fortunately, He does this against His and His people's enemies, sweeping them away with a stroke of His arm.

Do we wish for Him to act this way in our behalf? Perhaps He will not come to our aid as dramatically as He did for Israel in I Chronicles 14, but if we follow David's example of humble inquiry and faithful service, He will fight our battles for us. Our task will be to follow His lead and glorify Him for His wondrous intervention.

Friday, February 7, 2014

*Witness and Warning to the Powerful

The Bible contains an interesting phenomenon, one found especially in the Old Testament, in which God coordinates events to place one of His servants in a position of high visibility and sometimes great power at the center of world events. In this way, He sounds a warning and makes a witness of His will and His way among the "greats" of the time.

The Bible hints that such placements happened more often than we generally realize. A few of His servants may have held such positions or at least been highly visible to the powers that were then in control, but we are not given any Scriptural details. For instance, Noah, "a preacher of righteousness" (II Peter 2:5), may have done something of the sort before the Flood, warning the rulers of the pre-Flood world of their imminent doom. Early myth/history drops clues that his son, Shem, proved a thorn in the side of early Mesopotamian and Egyptian kings post-Flood.

Nevertheless, the Bible explicitly ties several of God's servants to rulers of kingdoms and great empires:
  • When Abram hears that Lot and his family have been taken captive by a host out of Mesopotamia, he gathers his 318 trained servants and goes in pursuit. He not only recovers his relatives, but he also brings back to Sodom all of the city's captives and their plundered goods. This earns him the boundless gratitude of the king of Sodom, but Abram and Melchizedek, priest of God Most High, give all the credit to the Almighty (see Genesis 14:14-24). His rescue of Lot and his refusal of reward make a witness to all of Sodom, which would soon be destroyed by God for its sins (Genesis 19).
  • Though his brothers cruelly sell young Joseph into slavery, he is eventually promoted to second-in-command over Egypt, the world's superpower of the day. The Pharaoh tells him in Genesis 41:40, "You shall be over my house, and all my people shall be ruled according to your word; only in regard to the throne will I be greater than you." When the prophesied great famine comes, he garners even more power as the one to whom all have to come if they want to buy grain. Significantly, Joseph gives God all the credit for his wisdom, telling Pharaoh, "It is not in me [to interpret your dream]; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace" (Genesis 41:16). Through Joseph, God saves Egypt and provides for Israel throughout the famine, as well as arranging for Israel's astounding growth in Goshen while "the iniquity of the Amorites" (Genesis 15:16) ran its course in Canaan.
  • A few generations later, God again manipulates events to allow Moses to be brought up by the crown princess in the very house of Pharaoh, giving him the title "son of Pharaoh's daughter" (Hebrews 11:24) and putting him in line for the throne of Egypt. He also has access to "all the wisdom of the Egyptians" so that he becomes "mighty in words and deeds" (Acts 7:22). When God later brings him out of the wilderness to confront Pharaoh and bring His people out of Egyptian slavery, Moses has both the access and stature to bring God's message directly to the king. Through ten terrible plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea, he delivers a tremendous warning and witness to Egypt.
  • We may not consider the prophet Jonah in this light, but his prophecy finds its way into a palace. Once the prophet finally arrives in Nineveh, the capital city of the mighty Assyrian empire, his preaching reaches the king's ears: "Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes" (Jonah 3:6). It is the king who decrees that everyone in the city—even all the animals!—are to fast, cry out to God, and repent of their evils. A great tragedy is delayed by their repentance and a great witness made of the power and mercy of the God of Israel.
  • In the story of Daniel, God takes a youth from among the captives of the Jews in Babylon, and by interpreting Nebuchadnezzar's dream, raises him to prominence in his court. "Then the king promoted Daniel and gave him many great gifts; and he made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief administrator over all the wise men of Babylon" (Daniel 2:48). Later, Belshazzar makes Daniel third ruler in the kingdom (Daniel 5:29), behind only himself and his father. Darius, the first ruler of Babylon under the Medes and Persians, appoints Daniel to be one of three governors over the entire empire (Daniel 6:1-2), a position he holds under Cyrus when he takes up the reins of power not long thereafter. For six or seven decades, the prophet witnesses constantly before the rulers of these powerful empires, giving all the credit to God (Daniel 2:28; 5:18; 6:22).
  • Less than a century later, another Persian king, Ahasuerus (most likely Xerxes I), appoints another Jew, Mordecai, to great power in the empire: "For Mordecai the Jew was second to King Ahasuerus, and was great among the Jews and well received by the multitude of his brethren, seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his countrymen" (Esther 10:3). The good service he gives to the king probably paves the way for both Ezra and Nehemiah to do their work in Jerusalem not long thereafter.
  • Nehemiah, as cupbearer to the Persian king, is a highly trusted confidant of Artaxerxes (successor to Xerxes I). The cupbearer is with the king at all meals, ensuring that the king's drink is not poisoned (and perhaps his food as well). As soon as Nehemiah asks permission to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, the king immediately appoints him governor of the region and sends forces with him to make sure he arrives safely. His every action shows him to be a trustworthy and godly servant.
  • Finally, among these examples should be included the apostle Paul, who appeals to Caesar while imprisoned in Caesarea on charges trumped up by the Jews (Acts 25:10-12). Through many trials, Paul is eventually delivered to Rome, where he spends two whole years "preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him" (Acts 28:31). Although we have no biblical record of it, he must have come to trial before Caesar and been acquitted of all charges, as he is released to continue his ministry after the two years are up. So, Paul witnesses before the greatest ruler of his day, the Roman emperor!

In the not-too-distant future, Christ will raise His Two Witnesses to preach and warn the whole world that He is coming to bring His Kingdom to this earth (see Revelation 11). God always ensures that no one—and especially those with real power in the world—can claim ignorance before Him in the Day of Judgment.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

RBV: Zephaniah 1:8

And it shall be,
In the day of the Lord’s sacrifice,
That I will punish the princes and the king’s children,
And all such as are clothed with foreign apparel.
—Zephaniah 1:8

Zephaniah makes no bones about the fact that his prophecy deals with the Day of the Lord and His anger at humanity for its hostility to Him: "'I will utterly consume everything from the face of the land,' says the Lord" (Zephaniah 1:2). It is clear that He is most disappointed with His chosen people, who should have known better because He had worked with them for many generations (Amos 3:1-2). Yet, even they had become idolaters, worshipping Baal and Milcom and "the whole host of heaven," turning away from God and no longer seeking Him (Zephaniah 1:4-6).

In verse 7, God calls for silence; He wants no more protests or excuses. He has decided to prepare a sacrifice and invited guests to partake of it. The modern Westerner has little notion of what this entails. Under the Levitical system, not all sacrifices were completely consumed in the altar's fire. Some burnt sacrifices, as they were called, were annihilated, but others were strictly divided: Certain parts went on the fire, another part was given to the priest to eat, and the remainder
the majority of the animalreturned to the offerer. Usually, with such a large amount of meat to consume in a short time, the offerer would call a feast for his family and close friends.

From this comes a major principle of the sacrificial system. The altar symbolized a table and the giving of an offering represented the sharing of a meal among God, the priest, and the offerer. The three were united in fellowship, solidifying and strengthening a relationship. For Christians, this three-way relationship exists among the Father, the Son (who is our High Priest), and the Christian. As the apostle Paul enjoins us in Romans 12:1, rather than giving our lives in death to Him, we are to be "living sacrifices," holy and acceptable to God, continuing the relationship in service to Him.

However, Zephaniah reveals that God has something different in mind for the Day of the Lord. For His sacrifice—or sacrificial meal—He has invited guests from afar, and the sacrifice of which they will partake is His people, Judah! In verse 8, He is particularly incensed against Judah's rulers, the corrupt descendants of David, who have led the nation further into sin. He expected the royal house to follow the examples of David and Josiah, but they had instead pursued carnal habits and political expediencies, bringing Judah to the brink of war, captivity, exile, and destruction.

As the verse closes, He highlights the particular failing of listening to foreign influence, seen in the wearing of "foreign apparel." It likely refers to a trend among the aristocrats of the time of wearing the clothing style of the foreign nation he supported in the power-struggle over the strategic land-bridge that was the Kingdom of Judah. (The conflict over that bit of territory is still ongoing today.) At the time, it was probably the distinctive styles of Egypt and Babylon, both of which were quite different from that of the Israelites. The verse suggests that the nation's leaders had stopped wearing Israelite-style clothing altogether—symbolizing their departure from God and what He had commanded (for instance, Numbers 15:38-40)—and by donning the clothing of these powerful, competing empires, they were pledging their loyalties to the nations rather than to God. It could also mean that these aristocrats were worshipping the idols of these nations.

Behind the NKJV's translation of "punish," the Hebrew literally reads that God will "visit" the royal sons of Judah, which, in its negative sense, is a common metaphor for coming in judgment. It should come as no surprise that, when Judah finally fell to the Babylonians, Zedekiah's sons were killed before the eyes of their father, just before he was blinded and taken off to Babylon (II Kings 25:2-7). In addition, many of the aristocrats were killed and their children were dragged off to Babylon as slaves, as was the case with Daniel and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego (Daniel 1:1-4).

Judah's destruction in the early-sixth century BC is just a type of the Day of the Lord that will be visited upon the world just before the return of Jesus Christ. God will be just as jealous for the loyalty of His people, true Christians, at that time as He was 2,600 years ago. We need to be asking ourselves if we have allowed ourselves to be "clothed with foreign apparel."