The Evils Of Idolatry


Most of us in the western world are unaccustomed to the idea of worshiping a statue. I mean the Psalms and the prophets pretty much put an end to the idea that carving a figure out of wood or precious metal and then praying to it, was a good thing.

Their idols are silver and gold,
The work of man’s hands.
They have mouths, but they cannot speak;
They have eyes, but they cannot see;
They have ears, but they cannot hear;
They have noses, but they cannot smell;
They have hands, but they cannot feel;
They have feet, but they cannot walk;
They cannot make a sound with their throat.
Those who make them will become like them,
Everyone who trusts in them. (Ps. 115:4-8)

Other passages refer to a person taking a log, using part of it to build a cooking fire, part to make a fire for warmth, part to make a god. Worshiping an inanimate object seems ludicrous in that light.

The temptation, then, is to think we “enlightened” people have idolatry licked. We can cross out “Have no other gods before you” from the list of Ten, because we’ve got that one under control. No golden calves for us! No little fertility statues, no household gods, no gods on some nearby high place.

I know some Protestants point fingers at Catholics and say they are idolatrous because they “worship” the images of saints and Mary. But I tend to think this issue of idolatry is much bigger than some statue.

I was thinking about the “rich young ruler” in connection with a couple sermons about the use of money. This Biblical figure is often referred to in such contexts as evidence that having money isn’t the problem; rather, loving money is.

But here’s the context: This ruler comes to Jesus and asks Him what he has to do to “inherit eternal life.” In other words, he’s concerned for his eternal destiny. Jesus answers in a surprising way.

You know the commandments, ‘DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, DO NOT MURDER, DO NOT STEAL, DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS, HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER.’” (Luke 18:29)

The other two synoptic gospels, Matthew and Mark, record this same event and Jesus answering the ruler in the same way.

The guy responds, I’ve done those ever since I was young.

At that point Jesus had him. I mean, I think the point of this exchange was to show the guy that he had need of a Savior, not need of more things to do. Jesus had purposefully referenced the part of the Ten Commandments that have to do with how we treat each other. He had not mentioned the first four that deal with how we are to relate to God.

The first one is pretty simple and straightforward:

‘You shall have no other gods before Me.’

This foundational command was followed by, Don’t make any idols, keep the Sabbath holy, don’t take the LORD’s name in vain.

In many respects, those three are subsets of the first command. Moses elaborated a little to make this point clear:

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:4-5

Israel was not to love God, plus any other god or any other idol.

So when Jesus called the ruler on the subject of keeping the commandments, the first four really centered on whether or not he loved God in an exclusive way.

Chances are, if Jesus had asked him if he kept the Sabbath or avoided using God’s name in vain, the guy probably would have said, Yep, I’ve kept those commandments, too.

What he needed to see was that he didn’t love God exclusively. In fact he loved his wealth more. So much more that he was willing to leave Jesus, knowing that his original question involved his eternity, that loving God first and best and only was the way to what he desired, and yet he was unwilling to give up his . . . idol.

Because clearly, what the man loved most was what he was actually worshiping.

We in the western world can sin in the exact same way. Our wealth might not be the thing we love more than God. We might love our reputation, or our education, or our good job, or our country, or our family, or our religious affiliation, or our boyfriend, or our community (race, ethnicity), or our sports team. Those are all things that aren’t sinful until we make them idols. Of course we can also love our sin more than we love God. We can love our pride or our porn, our lust, our prejudice, our dirty jokes, our selfishness, our laziness, our addiction.

The issue is really where we put God in our priority list. If I love God first and best, it will have a profound impact on what I do.

I can’t imagine telling a spouse, I love you, honey, but I really don’t want to spend time with you everyday. I don’t want to get you a present for your birthday. I’d rather spend Christmas with my buddies. And yet we say those types of things to God all the time: I love you, God, but I’m kinda busy right now. I’ll catch you later.

The problem is much more serious, because the more we make other things our priority, the more we look at the whole world through the gray glass of our skewed value system.

Over and over the Old Testament prophets warned the Hebrews that they needed to stop pretending to love God when in fact they had a stack of idols that they looked to. I can’t help but think that there might be a number of professing Christians who are in the same boat.

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Things Aren’t Always The Way They Seem


Jeremiah prophesied at the end of Jewish rule. Israel, the northern kingdom, had already suffered defeat and its citizens, for the most part, were forced into captivity by the Assyrians. Judah, by God’s grace, survived the Assyrian assaults and continued in the land, sometimes following God and sometimes succumbing to idolatry.

Finally, within the last fifty years of their existence, God sent Jeremiah with His final words of warning. This time, Babylon was the nation God designated as His instrument of judgment on His people. The people of Judah ignored the warnings.

At one point Babylon defeated Judah, deposed the rightful king, set up another king to be their puppet and to send them tribute, and carried into exile all the leaders—the priests and the army officials and the men of means.

Scholars suggest that Daniel ended up in Babylon because of this first, partial exile.

Eventually the puppet king rebelled against Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar sent his army to finish the job of defeating and removing Judah. So began a siege of Jerusalem that lasted for a year and a half.

Here’s the thing. When those first captives were taken from their homes and exiled to Babylon, I imagine that the people in Judah all felt like the lucky ones, the ones who experienced God’s favor (or the favor of whatever idol they might have been worshiping). That wasn’t actually true.

We know from the book of Daniel that the young men who showed promise were treated well, given an education, put in prominent positions in government. Sure they were exiled from their homeland, but they had their lives and had, as Daniel did, some amount of freedom to worship God, to work and earn a place of respect within the Babylonian system.

In truth, the people left in Judah were the casualties of the war, not the exiles.

They lived on meager provisions because God turned His back on them. They were living in their homeland, but they were not free. They paid a tax or tariff of some kind that undoubtedly further impoverished them. When they rebelled, they faced war again, and then the siege.

Babylon simply waited them out while food grew scarcer and scarcer. Things got so bad that people were eating the dung of birds. At one point a couple women agreed to eat each other’s children. How desperate did a person have to be to make such an agreement, let alone actually carry it out?

What was Jeremiah saying during this time? Stop fighting. Give yourself up to the Babylonians. The siege was from God. The destruction of Judah was from God, but the people who stopped fighting and surrendered would not die.

Sadly, the Jewish king refused to listen. As a result, he was forced to watch as the Babylonians killed all his sons and the other nobles. Then they blinded him and led him away to be imprisoned. Apparently that king and his advisors looked at exile as the worst possible evil. But it wasn’t. They didn’t realize things aren’t always as they seem.

Jeremiah experienced this truth in his own life. At one point people became angry at him, claiming he was discouraging the troops with his prophecies. One guy even lied about him, saying he was trying to go over to the Babylonians, when he was not. They arrested him and held him from that time on. And fed him a loaf of bread a day until the bread ran out.

What looked like a defeat for this prophet, actually turned into a means for his daily provision.

All these examples are a mere shadow of the most notable “not what you think” event, that being the death of Jesus Christ.

The disciples thought all their hopes for the Messiah were over. The end. The crucifixion finished any chance of Jesus taking the throne and fulfilling the promises of the prophets. But His death was not the way it seemed. The cross was actually a gateway to the resurrection.

I wonder how many times I miss what God is actually doing because I focus on what I think is happening. That tendency to rely on our own thinking is deadly and shows why it’s so important to hold fast to the word of God. If Scripture says He’s good, then He is, even though the circumstances around us might not seem as if He’s good.

God’s word is true, and it’s the anchor we can hold to so that we don’t get pulled under by the way things seem. Instead, we can know, things aren’t always the way them seem.

I know atheists who have a hard time accepting this idea. But it’s really simple. Our understanding comes down to the answer to this question: who’s in control? If the atheist things humans are, then they will always rely on their human perceptions of a thing. But if a Christian say, God is, they should always rely on what God reveals in His word. Unfortunately we Christians are fallible and weak and sometimes deceived, so we don’t always live the truth that is available to us, but we should.

We might not remember, the way things were not as they seemed for Jeremiah, but we should remember, the way things were not as they seemed for Jesus. Paul said, if God didn’t spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, why should we think He will not give us everything else we’ll need? In other words, Jesus is the One we should look to, not our own understanding.

Published in: on April 25, 2019 at 5:26 pm  Comments (3)  
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So, Fishing It Is, Then


Peter015You’d think that after the resurrection, once Peter and the other disciples really grasped the fact that Jesus was alive, they’d be ecstatic. Coronation plans back on. Messiah, about to plant His kingdom. Disciples, next in the chain of command.

Except, apparently the crucifixion had done a number on their thinking. Maybe the fact that Jesus had not stood up against the Romans but actually, in His dying hours, called on God to forgive them—maybe that fact upended their old plans. This rule of Messiah, if it was even going to be a rule, would have to be different from what they expected.

And if truth be told, Jesus was different from what they expected. I guess death and resurrection can make a person change like that.

Apparently at some point, Peter said he’d had enough. He’d done the evangelist/healer thing, and it hadn’t worked out. Not the way he wanted. So it was time to get back to what he knew best—fishing.

Since he apparently had some natural leadership ability tucked inside him, the other disciples did a “yeah, me too,” and off they all headed for the boats. Except the great return to fishing didn’t go so well, at least at first.

The disciples spent all that first night fishing and caught nothing.

I can imagine what Peter was thinking:

Wouldn’t you know it? First the Great Teacher I followed as the promised Messiah—the Son of God—gets arrested, and instead of defending Him, I deny I know Him. Not once, but three times! Which maybe kept me alive that night, though I’d told Him I was willing to die for Him. Instead I stood helplessly by and watched the Romans execute Him. Their governor said He wasn’t guilty of any crime, but they killed Him anyway.

For three days I couldn’t think of anything except my awful words. I didn’t know what to do, how to go on, because my purpose in life no longer existed.

When the women came back from the tombs with a crazy story about the rock rolled to the side, men in white, grave clothes in place, and no body, that Jesus is alive, I thought they were nuts.

John and I went to check out their story. Sure enough, just like they told us—no body. None of it made sense.

Until that day Jesus stood in front of us. He didn’t knock or open the door and walk into the room. He was just there. I couldn’t believe my own eyes, but it was Him. He had the nail-print scars from His crucifixion, and . . . He knew Scripture. Like old, He started teaching what the Law and the Prophets actually said about Him. Not what people thought the Scriptures said, but what they actually said and meant.

For a few days, I thought things would be like they had been before—except, I could hardly look Him in the face. I’d let Him down. After I’d claimed I’d follow to death, I’d sworn I didn’t know Him.

But now Jesus was back. Except, not like before. He pretty much came and went in a blink of an eye, when and wherever He chose. No following Him now.

I couldn’t hang around doing nothing, so fishing seemed like a good idea. After all, I’m a good fisherman. Or used to be. All night we stayed out and fished. In the end, we caught nothing. Figures.

How gracious and kind of Jesus to come to Peter when he had to be at his lowest point. By His omniscience He directed the men where to find a catch—or perhaps it was by His omnipotence that supplied the fish for them to catch. At any rate, He’d done that once before, and John immediately recognized Him. As they brought in the fish, Jesus sat before a fire cooking breakfast. They joined Him and ate. I wonder what the conversation around that meal was like. At some point, Jesus singled Peter out for some one-on-one time.

He asked Peter three times, do you love Me: Do you love Me more than these, do you love Me with self-sacrificing love, do you love me with brotherly affection? The declension grieved Peter, but he had at least learned one lesson—no more was he going to inflate his devotion to Jesus. He faced the truth that of himself all he could claim was a fond affection for this man He knew to be the Son of God.

Yet Jesus persisted in telling Him to shepherd His sheep and feed His lambs. He brought it home and said as He had three years earlier, Follow Me (see Matthew 4:18-20). This time, though, Peter knew what Jesus was asking and what it would cost him.

It all may have seemed like an impossible task. The one thing Peter didn’t yet know was that God would fill him with His Holy Spirit, and in His power he’d be able to do what heretofore he’d been incapable of doing. He was just beginning to learn about this gracious Christ he served.

This post is an edited version of one that appeared here in April, 2013.

A Good Man, Or God?


One of the remarkable facts about Christianity is the deity of Jesus. Well, that and His humanity. I’m sure Jesus’s dual (and yet not divided) nature is one of those issues that causes thinking people to do a double-take. After all, nothing else we know of is all one thing and at the same time all another. It would be like a caterpillar being a butterfly simultaneously.

We’re familiar with mixtures. Brass is an alloy consisting of copper and zinc. Mules are a cross between donkeys and horses. We have hybrid cars, hybrid roses, hybrid breeds of dogs. The tendency, then, is to think of Jesus as a kind of hybrid between God and Man, but that’s not what the Bible says.

That He was a man seems like a given. He walked and talked, ate and drank, lived and died. Rather, the sticking point for people today seems to be the idea that Jesus, while being a Man, was also and equally so, God. In the flesh.

Paul spelled it out a several times in his letter to the Colossians:

  • “He is the image of the invisible God” (1:15a – English Standard Version)
  • “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (1:19 – ESV)
  • “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (2:9 – ESV)

This is a hard one for many people to swallow. Since there are extra-Biblical records authenticating Jesus’s life, it’s pretty hard to deny that He existed, but to believe He is God? That’s where a lot of rational people draw the line. This idea of His deity, they say, was an invention of His followers. He Himself never claimed such a thing.

Really?

More than once He did just that. More than once the gospel of John records Jesus claiming to be the I AM–the very name of God which He revealed to Moses and which was recorded in Exodus. One of the clearest statements comes in John 8 when Jesus says to a group of Jewish religious leaders “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.”

Not only did He use the name the Jews considered holy, but He also said He predated their ancestor. Clearly, they understood precisely what Jesus was saying because they picked up stones to stone Him–the penalty for blaspheme.

Besides referring to Himself as I AM, Jesus also called Himself the Son of God. Some people have claimed that this is simply a Jewish reference to God being the Father of all Mankind, that Jesus was in no way claiming any special relationship to God.

But that isn’t consistent with the times Jesus expressly referred to God as His Father. For example, when He was twelve, He was in the temple schooling the religious leaders. When His parents came looking for Him, He said He had to be about His Father’s business. Not Joseph’s carpentry, clearly. He referred to God and the business was that of explaining the Scriptures.

He also said, at his last meal with His followers, that He and the Father were one. Clearly, this was a reference to God, not to Joseph, who may have died years earlier.

Then too, Jesus answered Philip’s request to show His disciples the Father, with this: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9b).

In addition to Jesus’s own clear statements, several times, God witnessed directly about Jesus’s identity. When He was baptized, for example, “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased'”(Matt. 3:17).

In the Jewish culture, a fact needed two or three witnesses to be established. Besides the testimony of the Father, Jesus said His works testified about who He was. I think these are often neglected. Jesus acted in ways that were consistent to the attributes of God revealed in the Old Testament.

For example, God the Father is omnipotent and Jesus showed Himself to be the same:

    • He raised a dead man back to life
    • He healed a blind man so that he could see
    • He multiplied five loaves of bread and a few fish so that they fed five thousand men and an untold number of women and children
    • He walked on water
    • He stopped a storm with a word

    At other times He demonstrated His power over the spirit world, casting out demons from various people. He also forgave sins.

    He showed that He was also omniscient, knowing at different times what those who judged Him were thinking, knowing that He would be handed over to godless men and crucified, also that He would raise from the dead on the third day, knowing all about the Samaritan woman’s past when He met her at the well, knowing who would betray Him and that Peter would deny Him three times.

    These instances are not exhaustive, but the key is this: while God made Man in His image, there are certain attributes that are termed incommunicable because God didn’t transmit those qualities to us–He reserved them for Himself. And yet, Jesus clearly demonstrates those traits time and time again.

    Besides His own word, His Father’s word, His works, Jesus had two other witnesses. One was John, a prophet of God, the forerunner of the Messiah. The other is Scripture. Jesus spelled this out: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39).

    In fact, the Old Testament is full of allusion and direct prophecy that reveals Jesus to be God. Interestingly, Jesus spent forty days here on earth after His resurrection. We know from the gospels that one of the things He did was explain Scripture to His disciples. So when Peter preached about Jesus in his first sermon, he peppered it with Scripture, quoting from the prophet Joel and from various Psalms. In his second sermon he quoted from Moses, from the book of Genesis, and again from one of the Psalms.

    Peter, remember, was a fisherman, not a rabbinical priest. He’d never been trained as a scholar, yet here he was laying open Scripture, explaining to others what undoubtedly Jesus had explained to him.

    The evidence is far from circumstantial. To disbelieve that Jesus is God, one would have to come to the question with the foregone conclusion that such a thing isn’t possible; that, in fact, there is no God; or that the documentation of the evidence is unreliable. The good news is, there is a God; Jesus is His Son, God incarnate; and the Scriptures that reveal His identity are reliable.

    This post originally appeared here in April, 2013.

The Triumphal Entry


This coming Sunday is commonly referred to as Palm Sunday, the day Christians commemorate Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. He rode on the colt of a donkey, something associated with the kings in Jewish culture, and his followers spread their cloaks before him, waved palm branches, and shouted Hosanna!

Those who went in front and those who followed were shouting: “Hosanna! BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD; blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David; Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-10)

According to some the translation of hosanna is, save, I pray. The term is linked to Psalm 118:25 which says,

O LORD, do save, we beseech You;
O LORD, we beseech You, do send prosperity!

Hosanna.

Most likely, in the eyes of Jesus’s followers and the Jews in Jerusalem suffering under Rome’s oppressive rule, Jesus was coming to the nation’s capital to establish His kingdom. They might well have been planning a coronation rather than a funeral.

Looking back through the lens of history, we know that Jesus did not take over the government of Judea. From a political standpoint he was hardly experiencing a triumphal entry, so why do Christians persist in calling it by that name? Why not, fated entry or doomed entry?

I don’t know what others think, but as far as I’m concerned, Triumphal Entry fits–not in the way those in the first century running ahead of him or coming along behind shouting Hosanna intended it, but in the way Jesus planned to fulfill His own purpose.

He had not left Heaven to come to Judea to establish a temporary earthly kingdom over that one small country. Rather, He had His sights set on the World.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Jesus entered Jerusalem, triumphant in the knowledge that the plan established before creation was nearly completed. He was on the last lap, coming down the home stretch with the cheers of the crowd echoing in His ears. No, they didn’t understand what His job was or what He yet had to face. They cheered from their ignorance for the hope of something temporal; He came to offer an imperishable, everlasting inheritance by triumphing over death and hell, over sin and guilt, even over the law.

So, yes, this step toward His crucifixion was His triumphal entry. His triumphal exit, when He broke free of the tomb, was still a few days away.

This post is the third reprint of an article that appeared here first in March, 2013, then again in March, 2016.

Published in: on April 9, 2019 at 5:37 pm  Comments (1)  
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Who’s Fault Was It?


Easter has become a somewhat divisive time of year. Some people simply ignore it as a “religious holiday” and they don’t do religion. Others enjoy it as a commemoration of New Beginnings—the start of spring and a time when children can do Easter egg hunts and receive Easter baskets filled with Easter candy. Sort of a light-side Trick or Treat.

Of course others will be in church rejoicing and celebrating and worshiping the risen King of Kings—Jesus.

But even for those of us who believe Jesus died to bring life, there’s some division. Some Christians, apparently, blame the Jews for crucifying Jesus, and they hold a grudge even to this day. Some blame the Father—He killed His Son to satisfy His wrath.

While Scripture is clear that God rightly and justly responded to sin with wrath, there’s a way in which this concept can be twisted to make God look as if He’s the bad guy.

In case anyone’s in doubt about God’s wrath, Scripture makes the point clear. Here’s what Paul said in Romans 5:

Much more then, having now been justified [fn]by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. (v 9)

The writer of Hebrews stressed the same point in chapter 3:

Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says,
“TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE,
DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS AS WHEN THEY PROVOKED ME,
AS IN THE DAY OF TRIAL IN THE WILDERNESS,
WHERE YOUR FATHERS TRIED Me BY TESTING Me,
AND SAW MY WORKS FOR FORTY YEARS.
“THEREFORE I WAS ANGRY WITH THIS GENERATION,
AND SAID, ‘THEY ALWAYS GO ASTRAY IN THEIR HEART,
AND THEY DID NOT KNOW MY WAYS’;
AS I SWORE IN MY WRATH,
‘THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST.’” (vv 7-11)

I quoted the whole passage because I wanted to show that it says this is from the Holy Spirit. The New Testament writer was actually quoting from Psalm 95, and clearly, throughout the New Testament the various individuals referred to the Psalms and the prophets as direct words from God. They referred to them as Scripture. And here he says the Holy Spirit said it. Which makes since because Peter tells us all the Scriptures were God-breathed, that they didn’t come from an act of human will, but God gave them through His Holy Spirit.

So essentially, from the mouth of God, we know of His wrath.

But did Jesus die because God was angry and vengeful?

Not in the least. First, God did not act in a fit of rage. Scripture tells us that Christ’s coming was “foreordained before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20). Nothing spur of the moment. Not something that God did because He flew off the handle. His plan all along was to love us to death—His death.

Secondly, God acted because He is just. Sin deserves punishment. He told Adam and Eve that from the beginning. He told each of the patriarchs that when He gave them His promise of blessing. They’d prosper if the obeyed and they’d fall under a curse if they disobeyed. He told Moses and the people of Israel the same thing.

So, guess what? When they hardened their hearts and basically told God they were determined to go their own way, not His, God said, essentially, Your actions triggered (or provoked) the curse I told you about.

So who’s fault was Jesus’s death on the cross?

Ours, and only ours. We are the ones who went astray, creating the need for redemption.

Christ, on the other hand, willingly gave Himself as a ransom for us all. He said, in fact, that it was the joy of thinking about us that got Him through the horrors of crucifixion.

The ironic thing that those who want to claim that God the Father turned His wrath on His Son, seem to forget is that God is One. We do not have three gods. Somehow in the beauty of the triune existence of God, He exhibits three persons, but they are all Him. All One. So the idea that God was angry at Jesus is just another way of saying that God was angry at God.

It’s kind of a nonsensical idea.

But it doesn’t change the facts. When we sinned, God’s righteous justice demanded His wrath. Jesus dying in our place satisfied that wrath.

We must not soften any of those truths, but we also must not impugn the lovely character of our good God. He has only and always treated us according to His character. He passes judgment upon us because He is just, but in love He redeems us, sacrifices for us, dies for us. Even if there were only one of us, He’d give Himself up in order that the one might be saved.

Truth Or Harmony?


When I was growing up, there was a game show on TV hosted by Bob Barker called “Truth or Consequences.” I don’t remember just how it worked, but without truth, contestants were left with consequences—usually involving something sticky or messy.

Interestingly, no one questioned this. No one asked, Whose truth do you want, mine or his? No one asked that the consequences be waved because truth was relative. Truth was viewed as a fixed point, not a sliding scale.

Clearly no one’s playing “Truth or Consequences” today. In fact truth has shrunk in stature.

No longer do our courts try to find out what the truth is in a case — they look now for “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” which might or might not lead to truth. How many people have been imprisoned based on “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” only to have DNA evidence turn up and disprove the previous “proof”? How many criminals have walked free because there wasn’t enough proof to convince a jury there was no reasonable doubt? Good (expensive) lawyers know how to insert that kind of doubt. The point is, our courts are now about winning, not about truth.

Our schools aren’t about truth either. They are about self-esteem and emergency training and anti-bullying and equality for all. Somehow truth has been shuffled down the playlist and may have actually fallen out of the top ten.

Truth disappeared on the athletic field years ago, aided perhaps by a World Cup soccer player scoring a winning goal with his hand or by basketball announcers declaring that whatever contact occurred wasn’t a foul as long as the ref didn’t call it a foul.

Truth is now in the eye of the beholder, or so says the postmodern culture. “Reality” depends on your “situated-ness.”

So the ref standing at mid-court didn’t blow the whistle because from his vantage point he didn’t see any contact; therefore, his reality is, There was no foul.

The guy with the broken nose, however, says, There was contact across my face, which most definitely is a foul.

So there are two truths, or four if you add in the other refs, or thirteen if you add in the other nine players on the court, or forty-three if you add in the bench players and the coaches, or 15,043 if you add in the fans in the stands, or … You get the idea.

What, then, is truth?

Our culture has reduced it to a shifting perspective.

Sadly, many Christians have fallen in line with this thinking. Just recently I heard a conversation in which a group of Christians decried all the disagreements about what to believe. Everyone should just learn to get along!

Well, yes, we should get along. We should learn to respect each other and treat one another as more important than ourselves. We should not enter into discussions to win. We should listen more than we speak. And yet …

Has harmony shoved truth further down the list? For Christians?

Clumping all the old divisive theological propositions into the vast unknown allows us to link arms and sing “Kumbaya.” After all, harmony is a higher value than truth.

Actually, Jesus did put great emphasis on unity, praying for this very thing:

“that they [those who believe in Jesus] may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one” (John 17:21-22)

Clearly if unity was a priority for Jesus, it should be a priority for His followers. But does it rank above truth?

Jesus, you may recall, said that He Himself is Truth. In fact, John identifies the Father as “full of grace and truth,” reports Jesus stating that He is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and declares the Holy Spirit to be “the Spirit of truth.”

Jesus also prayed for us regarding truth:

Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.

The unity that Jesus prayed for was predicated on the Truth. He did not consider this to be fuzzy ground. He saw a clear demarcation based on His person and His word. To the Pharisees who did not believe He was the Messiah, he said

“You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me.” (John 8:44-45 – emphases mine)

Truth first, and unity will follow.

Some professing Christians have this backwards. For them recreating the first century Areopagus where men gathered to discuss ideas, is the highest good. The goal of “finding truth,” or in today’s parlance, “answers,” is beside the point. Seeking is the great good, improved only by being in harmony with others in the process.

Few who don’t know Christ, I submit, will go to church on Easter looking for Truth, and sadly, too many pulpits around this country will be silent about the subject.

The subject is not a “feel good” message—this “choose whom you will serve,” drawing-of-the-line between truth and non-truth. It’s not conducive to harmony, which our culture values so highly these days. It demands Christians go against the flow, choose the unpopular side, be in the minority, be out of harmony with those who disagree.

It’s not comfortable. But I don’t think taking up my cross daily is supposed to be comfortable.

This article is a lightly revised version of one that appeared here in April, 2012.

My Take On Cloth And Wineskins


Have you every been bugged by a portion of Scripture? It just doesn’t seem to fit or make sense in light of what you know or in light of the context?

I’ve struggled in this way with a passage in the book of Matthew. Let me give you the context. Jesus began his public ministry and quickly incurred the ire of the Jewish religious leaders because more than once He healed people on the Sabbath. After calling Matthew to be His disciple, He went home with him for dinner. The Pharisees complained about Him eating and drinking with tax-collectors (corrupt government officials) and sinners (those who didn’t keep the Jewish law). Jesus told them to “go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE’…”

Soon after John’s disciples and those of the Pharisees observed a religious fast. John’s disciples asked Jesus why His disciples didn’t fast, too.

Now His answer.

And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. (9:15)

I get that. So far so good. But He continued:

“But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.” (9:16-17)

Huh?

How did we get from eating with sinners and not keeping a fast, to cloth and wineskins?

Well, obviously, as with the previous part of His answer about the bridegroom, Jesus is making an analogy, but what equals what?

I’ve heard sermons on this passage before and usually the point is this: the old is the Law, the new, the New Covenant. Set aside for the moment that those to whom Jesus was talking would not have understood that analogy at all. The idea of the New Covenant was still just that—an idea. Most people had no clue why the Messiah had actually come.

But the real problem I have here is that the new wine bursts the old wineskin, and both are lost. In addition, the new cloth patch on the old garment in Jesus’s analogies ruins what it was intended to repair.

Yet Jesus clearly said in the Sermon on the Mount that He did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matt. 5:17-18)

My thoughts about the cloth and wineskins analogy came clear to me as I read a passage in Mark where Jesus elaborates on the problem He had with the Pharisees:

(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:

‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:3-9 – emphasis mine)

The Pharisees were adding onto the Law, changing what God had given by adding in their new regulations. So back in Matthew, what if the old cloth and the old wineskins stand for God’s true Law? In the verses just prior to these analogies, remember, Jesus told the Pharisees to figure out what Scripture meant when it said God desired compassion rather than sacrifice.

God’s Law was actually to love Him and to love our neighbors.

The new patch of cloth, the new wine, then, represent the traditions the Pharisees heaped on top of what God had said. Their add-ons were tearing apart the fabric, bursting the skins, of God’s perfect Law.

I know this way of looking at these verses flies in the face of the traditional interpretation. Traditional … heh-hem. Maybe that’s not a bad thing because I think it fits the context of the passage and is consistent with what Jesus says about fulfilling God’s law and about the Pharisees’ perversion of it through their tradition.

In the end, I come away more mindful of the need to hold loosely things like worship styles and other extra-Biblical practices. Compassion must not be sacrificed on the altar of tradition.

This article is a reworking of one that first appeared here in May, 2012.

Published in: on April 3, 2019 at 5:55 pm  Comments (5)  
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To Please Or To Become Pleasing, That Is The Question



Photo: Three Crosses © Mellow Rapp | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The distinction I am making is between doing good works to become pleasing to God (works done because of law) and doing good works to please God (works done because of grace).

There’s nothing I can do to become pleasing to God. Not only would my motives be wrong in doing good, my efforts would be futile. My nature is sinful, and all the cleaning up I do amounts to rearranging dirt, not genuine washing.

For the person who believes, the work Christ did on the cross changes everything. Before, as Romans 7 says, the wanting to do good was in me, but the doing ended up being that which I hated—and that which God hates too, I might add.

Because of the new nature God gave me, because of the Holy Spirit in me, and because of the strength Christ provides me, I can now do the good I want to do. And why do I want to do good? To earn points with God? Get jewels for my future crown? Earn a spot closer to the throne?

No. The issue is still not about me becoming good or better or pleasing. Who I am in Christ is fixed. But because of what Christ has done, my response, as is true in any love relationship, is to want to give to Him in return for what He has been given to me.

In one of the most amazing aspects of God’s love for us, He who needs nothing from us, asks something of us so that we can joyously give to Him as an expression of our love. Hence, my desire—a growing desire, not a fully mature thing—is to please Jesus.

Here are some favorite verses that touch on pleasing God:

I Thessalonians 4:1 – “Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more.”

II Corinthians 5:9 – “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.”

Colossians 1:10 – “so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”

Ephesians 5:8-10 – “for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.”

Pleasing God, as I see it, is all about getting to know Him.

Young people in love do this same thing. Does he like his coffee black or with cream, pie for dessert or cake, the beach or the mountains, football or golf, Hondas or Chevys, and on and on.

Why learn all these things?

In order to provide him with what he wants, in order to choose his preferences, in order to please him as often as possible.

When I stand before God washed of my sins, that should spark in me a response—more and more I should like what He likes, do what He does, speak as He speaks. When I do, I am not more pleasing to God, but He is pleased.

From the archives: this post originally appeared here in August, 2015.

Published in: on April 2, 2019 at 4:54 pm  Comments (4)  
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God, The Same Yesterday, Today, And Forever


I think most who identify as Christians believe God is the same yesterday, today, and forever—which is how the Bible describes Him. But to listen to some talk about the Bible, it would be easy to think that the Old Testament shows God as different from the New Testament.

The natural conclusion would be to assume that only one testament or the other reveals the true nature of God.

The biggest mistake in that line of thinking comes in not seeing that the Old and New Testaments show the same God. Both show Him to be sovereign, loving, just, righteous, holy, omnipotent, merciful, omniscient, gracious, forgiving, patient, and on and on.

Some people have this snapshot of God as WRATH in the Old Testament and a contrasting snapshot of Jesus as LOVE in the New. It’s a false dichotomy, and a sincere look at what Jesus taught and what the prophets and the psalms reveal, should make that clear.

But why the Old and New Testaments? In theological terms, “testament” means “agreement,” specifically God’s agreement with His people. So, while God does not change, His agreement with His people does.

Until Jesus came, the agreements or covenants God established were most often (but not always) conditioned upon humankind’s response: if they did certain things, God would bless them, but if they did certain other things, they put themselves under God’s curse.

Adam and Eve essentially had such an agreement with God. If they obeyed Him, they would live, and if they disobeyed, they would die. Abraham had a covenant with God, and so did Jacob and Moses and David and Solomon. In truth the Abrahamic covenant was with his descendants, too; the Mosaic covenant was on behalf of the people of Israel; and God’s agreement with David was with those in his lineage, culminating in Jesus.

And Jesus initiated a new covenant, a new agreement.

And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. (Matt. 26:27-28)

Paul referenced the new covenant on more than one occasion. He wrote of it to the church in Corinth, for example:

Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant. (2 Cor. 3:4-6a)

The writer of the book of Hebrews went to some length to explain the new covenant (8:6-10; see also chapters 9 and 10) and how it differed from the old (I’ll let you read that for your homework).

I don’t want to get sidetracked with a long explanation about the old and new covenants, but what’s important to understand is that God’s character is exactly the same from everlasting to everlasting. But that doesn’t mean that He treats every person the same way or that He deals with every people group the same way.

I think in this age of “tolerance” we’re looking for uniformity. Nothing is “fair” unless we all have the exact same hand dealt to us. Then, and only then do we think it’s fair because it’s now up to us to do with that hand whatever we can.

Such a silly notion. If that were the accurate view of justice, then none of us could be smarter than any one else. We couldn’t be more athletic or better singers or taller or ambidextrous or more mechanical or . . . well, anything that could be perceived as an advantage. We have to have that same hand to play as the next guy.

In contrast to that silliness, God seems to delight in working with people that have a disadvantage. David was the youngest in his family, Abraham didn’t have any sons, Ruth was a widow, Joseph was a slave. The whole nation of Israel, in fact, God said was not His pick because they were more numerous or stronger or more righteous than the other nations. In fact, He said the opposite was true.

He used the small and weak in order that we could all see Him at work. It’s hard to take the credit for a victory when we’re outnumbered, when the other army has more advanced weapons, and when they have the tactical advantage. In those circumstances, when God brings the victory, we can only say, Praise God!

No matter what, though, God’s point and purpose is to make Himself known. He says it over and over again. He wanted Israel to display His glory to the nations. He wants His Church to make disciples of the nations. Always God has done what He’s done that we might know Him, even when what He did was to kick His children out of the garden He’d made to be their home, or to exile them from the Promised Land, or to give His Son as a sacrifice that all who believe might be reconciled with Him.

Our ways aren’t God’s ways, so we don’t always recognize what He’s doing, especially if we expect Him to treat everyone the same, or worse, if we expect Him to act the way we would act.

But no mistake: God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. However, we need to believe what He’s told us about Himself and stop looking for Him to behave the way we think He should. After all, He is God, not an idol we can move from place to place or dress up in purple if it suits us.

He is the sovereign, and He tells us what is righteous. How dare we shake our fists at Him or tell Him He was wrong to judge people whose heart He knew intimately. Who are we in comparison to who is He?

I’m not perfect in love or goodness. I don’t know all truth. I’m certainly not sovereign or all powerful. And if it comes right down to it, I am most certainly not the same yesterday, today, and forever. I’m more like a vapor that appears for a little while and them vanishes away.

Not God. He’s as sure as His word, and His word abides forever!

From the archives: this post is a revised version of one that appeared here in March, 2015.