Why Shepherds?


Two distinct groups of people received notification that Jesus was born.

The wisemen we understand because… they were wise! And they had something to give the infant King. Three somethings: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold, the fitting mineral for a king; frankincense, the fitting incense for worship; and myrrh, the fitting perfume for embalming a body. OK, the last one may have had Joseph and Mary wondering, but I digress.

In reality, despite the many manger scenes to the contrary, the wisemen, who had some distance to travel once they recognized that a king had been born in Judea, were late arriving. The first group to show up was a collection of local shepherds.

Shepherds in first century Judea were hired workers, poor men with little future. Which is precisely why the angel announced the Messiah’s birth to them, conventional wisdom says. They fit what we now understand as Jesus’s purpose for coming to earth. He’s for the Everyman.

Maybe. Maybe that’s why the shepherds received the angelic announcement that Christ had been born. Kind of a bookend from the poor side that, along with the opposite rich wisemen, would encompass people of every station in life. It’s a good theory.

The shepherds also represented the people who weren’t doing all the religious ceremonies to make themselves acceptable to God. So some scholars have speculated that’s why they got picked.

They were lowly, they were without pretense as to their standing before God, they were poor.

All this might be true, but I think there’s something else more important, and it has to do with why these shepherds received the announcement and not another set, say from Bethel: they believed.

The angel of the LORD stood in front of them and God’s Shekinah, His glory, shone around them. Needless to say, they reacted like virtually everyone else who had an encounter with an angel: they just about passed out with fear. They may have fallen on their faces, covered their heads with their arms, ducked behind the nearest boulder. Anything to ward off this person of obvious power.

Before anything else, the angel calmed them down. They didn’t have any reason to fear him or his message. In fact he’d come to give them great news. And not just for them, but for, well, everyone. Then the announcement:

today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

He didn’t stop there. He went on to give them a sign. A strange sign, I think. I mean, God’s glory shining around them seems like a pretty powerful sign.

    More of that, please. Aimed at those owners of the vineyard just the other side of the plateau who chased away our flocks last week. They need a good dose of God’s awesome power, I’d think! Let them quake in their sandals for a few minutes. Or an hour. Just saying.

But no. The sign the angel passed along provided identifying features that would allow them to find the newborn baby. What would mark Him as different from any other baby that might be born that same night? Well, for one thing, He would be wrapped in cloths.

Some scholars say that was normal—babies in those days were all wrapped in cloths; no cute little baby outfits for them. Some say the cloths were akin to the strips used to wrap a body in preparation for burial—definitely out of the ordinary. Not sure, but I tend to lean toward the idea that this was uncommon. Otherwise, why mention it as an identifying feature? It would be like saying today, you’ll find the baby wrapped in a baby blanket.

    Well, thanks very much for all that help distinguishing this baby from all other babies!!

No matter, the second part of the sign the angel gave is irrefutably unique. The baby they’d be looking for was in a manger. Clearly, a feeding trough was not the normal bed for a newborn. Find the manger holding an infant, wrapped in cloths, and you’ve found the Christ Child.

The_Shepherds011What does all this have to do with the shepherds believing?

I mean, they saw the angel and God’s glory and then a host of other angels praising God. They were eyewitnesses.

To the announcement.

They still had to respond to what they heard. They could have sat around and debated what they’d just experienced. They could have discussed whether or not the message was true or whether any parent in their right mind would put a baby in a feeding trough.

Apparently they did none of those things. Rather they made the decision to track down this baby. They knew exactly what to look for.

So they’d need to knock on a few doors, make a few inquiries and find out what woman may have just given birth. Then they’d stop by and check out the sleeping quarters of the little guy. Shouldn’t be too hard.

I wonder how many doors got slammed in their faces. How many times they got yelled at, or ignored. But they persisted.

No matter how many people they roused from their sleep or disturbed with their questions, they needed to go to see “this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15b).

They determined to “go straight to Bethlehem.” They did not doubt that “this thing” had really happened. They didn’t dismiss the announcement as something not intended for them.

    Some mistake. The angels got the wrong field. In fact they were probably looking for the palace. It’s a few miles west. Up the hill. Can’t miss it.

No, the shepherds believed that Messiah was born that very day, that God had made it known to them, and that they could find this baby based on the sign given them by the angel. So they went. No hesitation.

They put feet to their belief. And when they found Jesus, “they made know the statement which had been told them about this Child” (Luke 2:17).

Two reactions to their announcement: “all who heard it wondered.” Let the debate begin!

“Do you think they really saw an angel?”

“How else would they have known a baby was born?”

“But they’re shepherds!”

“Yeah, but what they said matches what we’re seeing here—a baby in a manger! Who would make that up?”

“Maybe they saw the baby first and decided to claim some oracle told them about it.”

“But why would they do that?”

And on and on.

The second reaction was Mary’s. She treasured what they said, pondering it all in her heart.

She’d take this one bit of evidence, this second declaration that her child was special, this account delivered by shepherds who said they saw an angel, just as she had when she first learned about this little boy she’d just brought into the world.

She’d think about it all, and as the years went by, in the end, after Christ’s resurrection, she’d add her faith to that of the shepherds.

Published in: on December 23, 2016 at 2:36 pm  Comments (8)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

A Cat Claim And The Existence Of God


savannah_cat_portraitEarlier this week I spent the better part of one day in a discussion in the Facebook group for theists and atheists. One person (who I will refer to by the generic pronoun he) wrote, “If someone told you they had a cat, yet there was no evidence they owned a cat wouldn’t that be evidence against their cat claim?”

My answer was simple: their claim that they owned a cat must be considered as evidence, unless they’ve proved themselves to be liars or delusional.

His response was simply this: produce the cat.

But there’s the problem. What if the cat is an indoor cat? Or what if, for safety reasons, the owner only wants the cat to be allowed in the backyard?

Anybody claiming that the cat doesn’t exist has to doubt the word of the owner. Some might even go so far as to doubt the existence of a backyard. Oh, you say he’s in your backyard, but I’ve never seen your backyard. In fact, you don’t actually have a backyard. It’s more likely a park that lots of people share, and any cat that might have been spotted back there is likely someone else’s cat, or it’s not a cat at all. It’s probably a small dog or maybe even a squirrel. I’ve seen squirrels in your tree before, so your supposed cat is probably just another squirrel.

Those who question the existence of God operate from the same premise: what is true must be verified by an approved method—either by first hand knowledge (because eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable) or by passing the hard-evidence test.

Therefore, since I have not seen your cat, you don’t own a cat. Or, since there is no litter box contents going into your trash can, since you never bring home a new bag of cat litter, since you don’t bundle your cat into a cage and drive him to the vet from time to time, and since there aren’t cat hairs clinging to your clothes, you don’t own a cat.

Even though you say you do.

This discussion can be frustrating, especially if the cat is somewhere else at present. Suppose the owner took it with her on a trip abroad, only to have it quarantined when she returned. Roughly thirty days, the customs officials said. So day after day the owner tells the neighbor she has a cat, one he’ll see when it gets home.

The neighbor, however, refuses to believe she has a cat because he says, “Faith is no path to truth as it can be used to justify anything.” In other words, he refuses to believe the owner’s word. That would not be evidence. That would be faith, and faith is just wishful thinking.

But what if the owner’s son also said, “Yes, we have a cat.” And the vet who gave the animal shots before the trip abroad said, “I know she owns a cat.” Are three eyewitnesses enough?

To complicate things, what if the discussion was about a former cat, not a current pet. What if she told her neighbor she once owned a prize-winning Savannah she sold for $30,000. The neighbor demands proof. “Produce the bill of sale or pictures,” he says.

But then he disqualifies the bill of sale she brings out because it is handwritten. “Anyone could have forged that document,” he says. The pictures could just as easily have been photo-shopped from ones on line. So how can she prove that she indeed owned the cat? Eyewitness accounts are out, documentation is out, and “faith” in the owner’s word is out.

I don’t want to belabor the analogy. The point is, the neighbor has decided he doesn’t believe the woman owned a cat which she sold for $30,000. It’s not in his experience that a cat could cost that much, and he never saw the cat himself. He’s not going to be so foolish as to believe the woman because she could tell him anything. Is he supposed to believe any old story that she or others choose to tell?

The fact is, the man does have faith: primarily in his own knowledge and experiences. If he had seen the cat, he’d believe. Others might believe once they see the bill of sale. Still others might be convinced by the pictures. But all of them have faith in something or someone.

Faith is nothing more than trusting a source.

When it comes to God and His existence, He is the primary source. He demonstrates His existence in what He has made. He tells us of His existence in His written revelation. Ultimately He exhibited His existence by taking on the likeness of humankind. Currently He verifies His existence by His presence in the lives of those who believe Him.

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said—
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled? (“How Firm A Foundation,” Timeless Truths)

Published in: on December 7, 2016 at 6:00 pm  Comments Off on A Cat Claim And The Existence Of God  
Tags: , , , ,

Is God’s Power Limited?


quail-2-703602-mI suspect if most Christians who believe the Bible were asked if God’s power is limited, we’d say, No, of course not. Some who identify as Christians but think Peter walking on water was symbolic and Daniel’s friends surviving a fiery furnace was myth, probably have some reservation about God’s power.

The thing is, whether we say God’s power is not limited or if we hedge the question, we mostly live as if we don’t think God has unlimited power. Not a surprise really. Even Moses wasn’t so sure about God’s power.

This would be Moses who saw a burning bush that didn’t burn up, who talked with God, who had his staff turn into a snake at God’s word, who initiated the plagues of Egypt, who parted the Red Sea, who met with God to receive His commandments.

Yes, that Moses wasn’t so sure about God’s unlimited power.

The situation was this: after more than a year of manna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the people of Israel started to complain. Seriously complain. There was a Back to Egypt faction, and a Down with Moses faction brewing. Already they were looking back at their old life with nostalgia. Things were better in Egypt. They could get good food for free. Never mind that they’d been slaves, so nothing from the Egyptians was free. Still, their complaints mounted.

Finally Moses brought the matter to God. The people were too much for him. He couldn’t handle the pressure alone. God gave him a group of elders to share the burden, but still there was the matter of food. The people specifically wanted meat.

God, as He so often does, said, Fine. They want meat, I’ll give them meat. In fact, I’ll give them so much meat they’ll be sick of it:

Therefore the LORD will give you meat and you shall eat. You shall eat, not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you; because you have rejected the LORD who is among you and have wept before Him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?” (Num. 11:18b-20)

Excuse me, God, Moses answered. You may be forgetting something. We’re talking about 600,000 people, and You’re saying You’re going to give them meat for an entire month? Actually it was Moses who was forgetting something. The rounded off number of 600,000 was the men listed in the census and did not count women and children. The total could easily have been a million and a half.

But even underestimating the number of people who needed meat, Moses didn’t see any way God could do what He said He’d do. No way, Moses said. If we killed off all our livestock, there wouldn’t be enough meat to satisfy the demand for a month. Even if we over fished the sea we’re camped beside, there wouldn’t be enough for the whole company.

Here was an odd situation: God said it; Moses didn’t believe it.

Some how, because Moses questioned the limitless power of God, I feel a little better about the times I question God’s ability to do what He says He’ll do. I shouldn’t feel better. My excuse is that Moses had the advantage over me because He got to see God turn water to blood and cause darkness to fall on the land for three straight days and to send locusts to eat up their crops and hail to strike any living thing left in the fields. He saw the angel of God pass over Israel and strike down the first born of Egypt. Of course He should have believed God could do the impossible. He’d already seen it. Advantage Moses.

Except, I have the advantage of the cross and the risen, resurrected Lord Jesus. I have God’s written revelation chronicling fulfilled prophecy. I have His Holy Spirit living in my life, guiding me into all truth, acting as my Advocate with the Father.

Advantage Becky.

The point is, Moses didn’t really have a more sure way of knowing that God would fulfill His word. He had to trust and I have to trust.

Moses, quite frankly, thought God couldn’t pull it off. But to his credit, he didn’t start painting Return To Egypt Or Bust signs. His questions went straight to God.

You’re kidding! Six hundred thousand people? Meat? For a month?

God simplified things:

The LORD said to Moses, “Is the LORD’S power limited? Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not.”

Somehow, miraculously, God sent quail up from the sea. The birds surrounded the camp within a day’s walk. There were so many of them they stacked up a yard deep.

summertime-wild-flower-meadow-2-1354217-mIs the Lord’s power limited? Yeah, that would be NO.

If He wants to send quail to teach a lesson to His people about craving more than what He’s given, then He can send an impossible number of quail. So, too, today. If God says He will not fail or forsake His people, we His people can know He won’t fail or forsake us.

His word is sure, settled in Heaven, and unlike the flower of the grass that withers, it will stand forever.

This post first appeared here in September 2014.

Believing What We Believe


Chris Ward, a guest preacher a number of years ago, spoke from Ephesians 4. He pointed out that Paul started this section of his letter about how a Christian should live by saying how a Christian should NOT live—like unbelievers.

Paul traced the problem that unbelievers have to hard hearts which spawn wrong thinking that leads to wrong actions (see Eph. 4:18-19).

He goes on to admonish the Church, not with a list of right things to do, but with how to think:

be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth. (Eph. 4:23-24)

This is the same renewal of the mind that Paul talked about in the book of Romans:

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:2)

The thing that stuck with me from this message is that this renewal of the mind must be a constant thing. We know what we believe, in theory, or at least we know what the Bible says, and we say we believe the Bible, but in practice, we too often believe a lie.

Chris used Eve as an example. She knew what God had said: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Enter Satan and his questions, and suddenly Eve is believing a lie instead of the truth.

When Satan in serpent’s guise asked, Has God really said … Eve could have answered, Yes, indeed God HAS said, and He would not lie or deceive us. The end of the story would have been very different.

So today we say, for example, that God answers prayer, but in practice we don’t pray much.

One of my favorite, favorite ministries illustrates this point. I’m listening to a great series of sermons on prayer, but at the end of each, instead of asking listeners for prayer, they ask for money because this, they say, is what keeps them on the air.

Really? Not God answering the prayer of His people? It’s actually promotional ploys and slick appeals?

I know these fine folk would never say that’s what they believe, yet that’s the way they act.

I do the same kind of thing.

Charles Blondin crossing Niagara Falls

Another illustration, possibly true, possibly apocryphal, is the story of tightrope walker Charles Blondin who was known for his stunts as he crossed dangerous terrain like Niagara Falls (See “Walking The Tight Rope.”) One of those feats was to push a wheelbarrow across the wire.

After successfully completing the trek, to thunderous applause from the hundreds of onlookers, so the story goes, he turned to the crowd and said, Do you think I can do it again?

Yes, absolutely, of course you can, they shouted, clapping and urging him to push the wheelbarrow across again. He waited for them to quiet.

I’m touched by your faith in me, he said, so I’ll make the return trip. I just need a volunteer, someone who will get into the wheelbarrow.

No one stepped forward. The crowd all believed in theory that he could push the wheelbarrow back to the other side, but they didn’t believe with their lives.

As Christians, we need to believe with our lives, and that comes as we renew our minds. We need to recall moment by moment the truth about God–who He is and what relationship we now have in Him–and bring it to bear in any and every circumstance.

We believe, for example, that God is good. Consequently, when I experience a disappointing result or a hurtful comment or a life-threatening situation, I need most of all to renew my mind and recall that these circumstances don’t mean God is not good. Rather, because He is good, I need to understand that He has allowed, in His goodness, what feels so hard to bear.

Why would He do that?

If I am to believe what I believe I must continue to search the Scriptures and to pray in order to think aright about what is difficult. The alternative would be something like shaking my fist at God and demanding that He fix things–essentially saying, He is not good, that He’s messed up, that I know better than He, and that He owes me better than what I’m getting. It would be to say with the people of Israel, I want to go back to Egypt.

Yet I say I believe God is good.

Only by renewing my mind can I live as if I believe what I believe, and jump into the wheelbarrow.

This post first appeared here in June 2012.

Published in: on July 14, 2016 at 6:00 pm  Comments Off on Believing What We Believe  
Tags: , , , , , ,

The Problem Is Sin


Seattle_AtheistsIn the Theist/Atheist Facebook group I’ve mentioned from time to time, a question came up about faith (is it a virtue). One thing led to another and one person involved in the discussion said he had four problems with faith in the “christian god.” The first area he mentioned was sin. He said, in essence, that he rejects the idea of sin.

I was shocked at first. This discussion took place just a week after the Florida shooting that killed 49 people at the Pulse, a gay bar in Orlando. I think, how can anyone watch the news and then turn around and say he doesn’t believe in sin?

My only answer is that Satan, who Jesus described as the father of lies, has blinded the eyes of unbelieving people. The problem is so obviously sin.

Society talks about love and tolerance, to the point that those topics have become almost trite. And yet, as if bringing an answer to the problem of violence or hatred or prejudice or terrorism—whatever was behind the actions of the Orland killer—several Broadway stars resurrected an old folk song from 1965 by Burt Bacharach: “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love.”

Before this cry for love, God gave us the Law that serves as our tutor—showing us how impossible it is for us to act in a morally upright way day in and day out, every hour of every day.

Jesus explained that God’s standard goes beyond the Law to include our attitudes as well as our actions. So lust makes us equivalent to adulterers, hate makes us as guilty as murderers. And yes, Jesus said, the law requiring an eye for an eye needs to be replace with love for our enemies.

So when the world tells us we need love, they’re right.

The problem is, they think love we somehow generate from within or already have but need to tap into, will be victorious over sin. If we love, we won’t be selfish any more. Or prideful. Or angry. Or greedy. Or lustful. Or power-hungry. Or jealous. Or vengeful.

If we had this love or could learn to love other people, if that was all we needed, then why do bad things still happen? Even if we just figured out the benefit of love fifty years ago when the song first came out, shouldn’t we see some progress, if that’s all we need?

In truth, the fact that we are still dealing with prejudice and hatred and corruption and all the other problems in our culture—abuse, pedophilia, sex trafficking, rape, identity theft, and more—is proof that sin is real. We should see some movement toward a better society, but what evidence is there for a positive change? We haven’t curbed alcoholism or drug addiction. We haven’t stemmed the growth and power of gangs. We haven’t replaced love for violence at any level. Kids still bully kids. Men still abuse women. Women still cheat on husbands. Takers continue to take.

Why is that, if not sin? There is no explanation.

Atheists have no explanation. I’ve asked before. Those who believe in evolution have no theory how society, which developed, they say, from the animal world, has taken on these evil tendencies.

Because that’s the prevailing view: humankind is good but society corrupts. The question remains: when there were just a handful of evolved humans, were did their evil tendencies come from? The atheist formula—good people create a bad society—simply does not compute.

The sad thing is, Christians have backed off from declaring the problem of sin. At some point the narrative accepted on most fronts was that “fire and brimstone” preaching was bad, that people shouldn’t be scared out of hell, that what would “win people to Christ” was to hear about His love and forgiveness.

There’s a lot of truth it that approach. Paul wrote to Titus, explaining the saving work of God:

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

So, yes, the catalyst for change is God’s kindness and love.

But the atheist I mentioned from the Facebook group went on to say that the third thing he had against faith in God was salvation. He apparently doesn’t want it because he believes he doesn’t need it.

That’s the place people end up if they believe they are good and don’t have a sin problem. Maybe we shouldn’t bring back fire and brimstone preachers, but we certainly should tell the truth about human nature.

It’s hard for me to believe that anyone in the world would ever stand up and say, I’ve never had a wrong thought or done a wrong deed in my entire life. I’ve loved others as much as I love myself. Any such person would most likely be guilty of lying and of pride, so there goes the idea of good. Because in God’s way of accounting, “good” means “without any bad.”

In our society we put good on a sliding scale. If we can say something is “mostly good,” then it’s good. Five stars. But even the best five-star people we know, still fall short of perfect. They know it. We know it.

So why aren’t we coming to the obvious conclusion: the problem our world has is sin.

Until we get a proper diagnosis, we’ll slap band-aids over incurable wounds.

One more thing. Telling someone he is a sinner is not hateful. That’s like saying a doctor is hateful for telling someone he has cancer. Uh, no. Not. Hateful. Try, honest.

We have spent too long in the faery land of Good Humanity, so we no longer recognize what stares us in the face every night on the local and national news: humans sin. We all sin. Everyone of us.

It’s not hateful to admit that sinners sin. It’s not hateful to tell people there’s a Savior—One declaring Himself to be Love—who wants to rescue us from the mess of our own making.

Published in: on June 22, 2016 at 6:16 pm  Comments (17)  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Grace And How It Really Works


Old_Testament008As often as I write about grace—and that’s pretty often—I can’t seem to exhaust the topic. I’m often struck by some of the same things I’ve written about, as if I’ve never heard them before. For example, I’m stunned every time I realize that Christianity is the only religion based on grace. In fact, it seems the word grace is hardly in the vocabulary of anyone who is not a Christian. It’s simply a Christ-attribute and therefore a word for Christ’s followers.

There are some people, however, ones I’ve called pretend Christians, converts of those who the Bible calls false teachers, who try to co-op grace and make it into something it is not.

For instance universalists freely admit to God’s grace, but their idea is that because God extends us grace, there is no justice. A summary of their position could be, Grace. The end. In fact, according to the universalist, all roads lead to God, including the road of unbelief. Whatever happens after death happens to all of humanity. No favorites, they would say.

On the opposite side of the continuum would be legalists. They don’t believe in grace, or if they do, they don’t believe that it’s enough. God, from their perspective, needs our help.

The sad and sometimes confusing thing is that these legalists aren’t too far off. They just have things backwards. They believe (though they may not articulate it this way, their actions indicate this is what they actually believe) that a person must clean up his act before he can receive God’s grace.

The book of James makes it clear that the things we do are important. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus that we are saved by grace through faith. James turns around and makes the case that faith isn’t faith unless it’s got some legs.

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. (James 2:14-17)

So faith, the kind that’s in action, combines with grace to free us from sin and guilt and the law and Satan’s power and our sin nature and spiritual death.

The Bible is filled with pictures of this process.

* The people of Israel are escaping Egypt, but they don’t have food for the long journey on foot to the home of their ancestor Abraham. They plead and complain to Moses, and he in turn asks God what’s to become of these people. God answers with His grace. He sends manna, a “bread of the angels,” that appeared first thing at dawn and was gone by the time the sun was fully up. A miraculous provision. One they had for forty years! But here’s the thing: they had to go pick it up. And cook it or prepare it.

God also sent them quail because they were starved for meat. When many didn’t take the time to do their part—to clean the birds and cook them–when their appetite took over their actions, God sent them a dire punishment.

God gives grace, no doubt, but the people have to appropriate it and not misappropriate it.

* Years later God gave Joshua instructions for defeating Jericho. First the priests were to walk the ark around the city with all the people following. Then seven days later after repeating this walk each day, they were to circle the city seven times and the walls would fall. They fell! God’s grace in action, remarkably! Who can imagine such a thing. But that still left all these enemy Canaanites trapped amid the rubble. The people of Israel had one less difficulty—a difficulty that made conquering the city seemed impossible—but they still had a battle to wage.

* David, fresh from the fields where he watched over his family’s sheep, faced a giant of a man named Goliath. He was over nine feet tall and he was a fearsome fighter. But David marched boldly to meet this champion of the Philistines:

Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted. This day the LORD will deliver you up into my hands, and I will strike you down and remove your head from you. (1 Samuel 17:45-46a)

As David said, God, by His grace, delivered David and David cut off Goliath’s head.

The point is simple. Grace can’t be misappropriated like the name-it-and-claim it folks want to do or like the universalists try to do. But at the same time it can’t be treated as the ugly step-sister to obeying a legalistic set of laws.

God’s grace is The Big Deal in our relationship with Him. In fact it is the Big Deal that separates Christianity from all other religions. God saves by supplying us with His grace through the faith He freely gives us. His grace is free. His faith is free. His salvation is free.

But we’ve got to own it. Claim it. Say, Yes, that grace has my name on it. It’s my free gift from God which is the means of my salvation.

It’s a narrow road, walking between two extremes. But at the same time, this amazing balance God has created helps us to spot false teachers and pretend Christians. Because people who don’t know the love of God aren’t really clear about grace. Not that any of us actually “knows how it works.” But we do trust God to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves, so that we in turn might show Him our love by doing what He asks.

Published in: on April 11, 2016 at 6:06 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , , , ,

Spiritual Eyes


Black Holes - Monsters in Space

Black Holes – Monsters in Space


Once when I had been lurking among a few atheist blogs, one thing stumped me. How is it that some people can’t see the nose on their face?

Serious. What seems so obvious and self-evident and true becomes a great puzzle to a group of people, or a myth to be debunked, or a superstition to be discounted.

Why is it that some people are so easily sucked into disbelief?

Children have no problem believing in what they cannot see. Monsters, Inc. was such a funny movie because we could all relate to the concept of believing in frightful creatures that popped out at night when we were alone in the dark.

Of course children stop believing in monsters because adults tell them they aren’t real and that they don’t need to be afraid. But how does the all wise adult know there are no monsters? He or she relies on what they can see.

They in turn crush something inside their child that recognizes the unseen world, teaching her to trust only in her physical senses, not her internal sense that this universe is greater and more complex than even science can know.

Am I saying there ARE monsters? Yes, there are. In religious terms we call them demons. Am I saying that every child afraid of a monster is seeing demons? No. I remember distinctly thinking something was in my room at night, only to realize it was the shadow of a tree moving with the wind or a pile of clothes I’d forgotten was on the chair.

Truly our imaginations can “make us” see things that aren’t there. But how foolish to use that as proof that spiritually evil creatures don’t exist.

Because I don’t see black holes when I look at space, am I going to say those scientists who acknowledge them are superstitious? that they are making things up? that they’re believing a myth? No. I’m going to acknowledge that they have equipment that allows them to see into space in a way I can’t see. I’m going to trust in their expertise, research, calculations, and conclusions.

Why don’t spiritual matters work the same way?

Well, they actually do. More than once the Bible records a person who is given spiritual sight so he can see what otherwise he could not. Elisha, for example, saw his master caught up by a whirlwind into heaven after a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated them.

We can poo poo such a thing, claim it never happened

But we can poo poo black holes too and say they don’t exist.

Oh, someone may counter, they do exist. You just have to infer its presence through its interaction with other matter and with electromagnetic radiation such as light.

But the same is true spiritually. God’s presence can be inferred through all kinds of evidences–Scripture, His miraculous work in the world, nature itself, the experiences of countless believers.

What about all the countless believers in a different god? Doesn’t that prove the myth aspect of the spiritual? No, actually not. All it proves is that there are counterfeits–that the spiritual world includes more than God, that as the Bible makes clear, there is a spiritual war going on between darkness and light.

Here’s what God told Paul when He revealed Himself and called the apostle to Him.

“For this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; rescuing you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:16b-18 – emphasis mine).

Some things require spiritual eyes to see. I’m pretty sure a person who says, The supernatural does not exist, isn’t a candidate for spiritual eyes.

That would be like saying, Prove to me the existence of black holes but don’t use inference. Well, you’d be told, you need to infer their existence from their interaction with matter and with light. Hypothetical, the doubter says, nothing more than indirect observation from which you’re finding what you hoped to find. You have no proof.

Well, actually, if I were a scientist and saw what they saw, calculated what they calculated, tested what they tested, I could reach the same conclusion. But the doubter unwilling to accept inference as proof will discount it all.

How odd that we so easily accept as true the fallible research of humans struggling to know that which is so distant from us, so other, and yet we do not accept the infallible record of God revealing Himself so that He will no longer be distant from us, so that we can comprehend, at least in part, His very otherness.

I can only conclude that seeing the spiritual requires spiritual eyes.

This post first appeared here in May 2013.

Published in: on March 15, 2016 at 6:32 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Promises


Adam_and_Eve019God keeps His word. He’s shown His integrity all through history. He told Adam and Eve that they’d die if they ate from the tree in the middle of the garden. Genesis 5 records that what God said came to pass.

God told Abraham He’d give him the land which became known as the Promised Land. Sure enough, within two generations his descendants had multiplied to the point that the people around were beginning to see them as a threat. Consequently, God led them to Egypt and shielded them there, only to bring them out in another three generations.

Forty years later, despite their rebellion, He brought them into the land He’d given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For five years Joshua led the people on campaigns to claim their land. When they finally dispersed, each tribe to its allotted territory, he said,

you know in all your hearts and in all your souls that not one word of all the good words which the LORD your God spoke concerning you has failed; all have been fulfilled for you, not one of them has failed. (Joshua 23:14b)

The same was true for David. The LORD directed Samuel to anoint him as king over Israel, but for years he was on the run, chased by the megalomaniac Saul who refused to believe God’s word. Samuel had told Saul that God would tear the kingdom from him because he didn’t obey God. Instead of bowing in humble submission, Saul did everything he could to kill David and to preserve his kingdom for his descendants.

Foolish man, to believe that God didn’t keep His word.

David himself had his doubts though. He went through a period where he basically said, I’m done. If I don’t get out of here, Saul is one day going to be successful and find me and kill me. Apparently David forgot that Samuel was God’s prophet, and he had anointed David according to God’s direction. It wasn’t Samuel’s idea, and David wasn’t even the man Samuel thought should be the king. It was God from start to finish, but David wavered in his trust that God would do what He said.

Nevertheless, the day came when David ascended to the throne, and God’s promise to him was fulfilled. Later, when David decided he wanted to build a temple for God, he received another promise. Through the prophet Nathan, God told him it was good that he desired to build a house for God, but it wasn’t going to be his job. Rather, God was going to build his house. His descendants would reign forever.

But surely, that seems like a promise God didn’t keep. Except, to think God failed to keep His world ignores who Jesus is. He, the descendant of David, is the Messiah, the Christ, the King immortal, invisible, the Only God. Nothing can or will remove Him from the throne.

God kept His word to David’s son Solomon, too. At the beginning of Solomon’s reign, God had told him to ask for whatever he wanted. Solomon asked for wisdom to rule. God then gave him His promise:

Behold, I have given you a wise and discerning heart, so that there has been no one like you before you, nor shall one like you arise after you. I have also given you what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that there will not be any among the kings like you all your days. (1 Kings 3:12b-13)

1 Kings is a book filled with facts and stories verifying that God gave Solomon what He promised. He gave him wisdom:

Now God gave Solomon wisdom and very great discernment and breadth of mind, like the sand that is on the seashore. Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the sons of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men, than Ethan the Ezrahite, Heman, Calcol and fnDarda, the sons of Mahol; and his fame was known in all the surrounding nations. He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even to the hyssop that grows on the wall; he spoke also of animals and birds and creeping things and fish. Men came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom. (1 Kings 4:29-34)

God gave him riches.

All King Solomon’s drinking vessels were of gold, and all the vessels of the house of the forest of Lebanon were of pure gold. None was of silver; it was not considered valuable in the days of Solomon. For the king had at sea the ships of Tarshish with the ships of Hiram; once every three years the ships of Tarshish came bringing gold and silver, ivory and apes and peacocks. So King Solomon became greater than all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. (1 Kings 10:21-23)

And God gave him honor.

Now when the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD, she came to test him with difficult questions. . . . Then she said to the king, “It was a true report which I heard in my own land about your words and your wisdom. Nevertheless I did not believe the reports, until I came and my eyes had seen it. And behold, the half was not told me. You exceed in wisdom and prosperity the report which I heard. (1 Kings 10:1, 6-7)

Clearly God fulfilled His promise to Solomon.

Throughout Scripture God’s word is confirmed, His prophecies fulfilled, whether it was Jeroboam becoming king over the Northern Kingdom or the wayward prophet from Judah dying because he didn’t obey what God told him to do.

The point is simple. God means what He says and He says what He means. We humans struggle to trust. Did God really say . . .? But that’s a line of thinking Satan introduced as long ago as the Garden of Eden when he suggested Eve rethink what God had said.

He’s been making the same suggestion ever since. But he is the father of lies, and a great liar himself. God, on the other hand, speaks the truth and fulfills His promises. We may not always agree with God’s timetable. The first century Christians expected Jesus to come back within their life time, so we’re not alone when it comes to thinking God’s timing is something it isn’t.

But the cool thing is, He said in His word that He delays because of His kindness and patience, not wanting any to perish. So we can trust God even when, like David, we think things are so bad and have no chance of getting any better.

God is a God of His word, and He will not fail us or forsake us. He will keep His promises, and He’ll do so perfectly. After all, He’s proved it throughout Scripture.

Published in: on November 9, 2015 at 6:19 pm  Comments (7)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

Do Christians Need To Obey The Mosaic Law?


The_Crucifixion011If you spend much time around Bible-believing Christians, you’ll undoubtedly hear something about grace. We’re saved by grace, not by works. And yet in any number of conversations, these same Christians will bring up something found in the Mosaic Law. Just this week I referenced a verse in the Law in regard to capital punishment.

So are Christians “cherry picking” when we say we’re to keep the Ten Commandments, but don’t have to worry about the dietary laws or about stoning people for breaking the Sabbath?

The notion that believers under grace are picking and choosing the parts of the Bible they want to follow is easy to understand. From the outside, it certainly looks inconsistent. But the truth is, there are passages of Scripture that are game changers.

The first of these is Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” Jesus fulfilled the Law. Peter explains it a bit more: “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18).

How does Jesus’s death fulfill the Law? On our own, we cannot fulfill the requirements of the Law. Jesus basically said as much in the Sermon on the Mount. Not just what we do falls under the law, but what we think—the anger or lust or covetousness in our hearts. Sin requires sacrifice. Christ’s death was the sacrifice “once for all” that fulfills the requirements of the Law. Paul fleshed this out in several of his letters. In Galatians he said,

nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. (2:16)

Paul explained that it is Christ’s work on the cross that saved us from the Law and its requirements.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE”—

Another game changer is the establishment of the Church. In the Old Testament God chose Israel to represent Him to the rest of the world, but after Christ came, His followers are God’s representatives on earth. The verses are 1 Peter 2:9-10.

But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY.

The Church, made up of peoples of every tribe and tongue and nation, isn’t under a single government as Israel was. Their national law was to be God’s Law. But not so the Church.

Then why do Christians go on about the Bible, including the books of the Law?

Game changer number three: 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

The Old Testament, just like the New is to teach, reprove, correct, train—not so that we can work our way into God’s good graces. Rather, Scripture equips us for every good work.

Paul, in Philippians, calls this the “righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” We are saved in order that we might do good. We don’t do good in order that we might be saved.

It’s an important distinction.

The Bible, then, from cover to cover, reveals God: His character, His qualities, His work, His plan. It’s not a list of rules. It’s a revelation.

We who have been saved by grace ought logically to be about God’s business, doing and living the way He wants us to. In fact, game changer number four shows us that “faith” isn’t alive unless it translates into a changed life that cares about what God cares about:

You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? (James 2:19-20)

So what about those dietary laws? Mark addressed this issue when he explained something Jesus said about the legalistic Pharisees:

And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) [Mark 7:18-19]

The issue came up later in the book of Acts, this time in the context of God making it clear that He was including Gentiles in the Church. Here’s the part of the passage that deals with the dietary laws:

Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he *saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air.

A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!”

But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” 1

Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” (Acts 10:9b-15)

God wasn’t just talking about food, as the rest of the story reveals, but He was nevertheless also talking about food.

The short answer to the question is this: God revealed His heart throughout the Bible, including through the Law. We aren’t under the Law, but it can and should inform our good works which we do as a reflection of the faith we have in Christ. Jesus summed the law up by saying we are to love God and love our neighbors.

Love means protecting some against predators. Are we also loving the predators when we do so? I think so. People who get away with murder don’t realize they are sinners in need of a Savior. They think they are the gods of their own world and can do whatever they want. God’s judgment reveals the truth: He is God and we are not. If we love our neighbor who is facing God’s judgment, we ought not be silent. (We also ought not be strident and mean spirited, but that’s another issue for another day.)

The Synergy Of God And Man


One of the things I find inexplicable is God’s choice to work in and through us humans. I mean, the infinite chooses to use the finite, the perfect, the imperfect, the omnipotent using the weak, the holy working through the sinful. It’s too transcendent for me to grasp, but apparently, according to Scripture, God is pleased to include us.

First He gave us the God-like responsibility of dominion over the rest of creation.

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:26-28 – emphasis mine)

After the Fall and the flood, He worked through individuals such as the judges He sent to liberate His people from their oppressors, and He worked through nations such as Egypt who provided a safe haven for His people as they grew stronger.

More astounding, He worked through prophets who relayed His messages, given through visions or direct communication. Similarly He worked through a variety of men to produce His word, the Bible, and this is perhaps the best illustration of the synergy of God and Man.

God inspired the Bible. Put another way, the Bible was God-breathed. According to one Biblical scholar,

inspiration is the act of the same Spirit controlling those who make that knowledge known to others
(see commentary from the Blue Letter Bible)

Peter had this to say:

As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. (1 Peter 1:9-10 – emphases mine)

The prophets prophesied but the Spirit of Christ predicted.

Each author retained his own personality and wrote from his own life experience, in his own style. Hence, the Bible is God’s word but Moses was the author or David or Joel or Paul or John.

This unique hand-in-glove way of working, stronger than “partnership,” gives us a picture of salvation, too. God gave His Son, imputes righteousness, provides grace and mercy, and yet Man is to repent and believe. He is to “lay hold of that for which also [he] was laid hold of by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12b).

(For more on how this synergism works in respect to salvation, see “Monergism, Synergism, and God’s Image, 2 of 2.”)

As believers we have the experience of having the Holy Spirit living in us, such that we are His temple, and yet we aren’t “possessed” by Him. We can quench Him (1 Thess. 5:19) or grieve Him (Eph. 4:30) and we’re commanded to be filled with Him (Eph. 5:18), as if this is a volitional thing on our part.

In addition, God gave us work to do. He commissioned us to go into all the world and make disciples. In much the same way, Jesus commissioned his disciples to go to the towns and villages where He Himself would come, but they went ahead, teaching and healing and casting out demons.

Our pastors will often say we are the hands and feet of Christ in our world. It’s an image Paul created in Colossians (see 2:19) and elsewhere — Christ is the head of the church, we are the “joints and ligaments,” the ears and nose. And the point is that we, as incredibly inefficient as it seems, are to do God’s work here and now.

In using the finite to show grace and forgiveness, the Infinite One receives glory. It’s an amazing plan, and I am so in awe that He would deign to use the weak, the marred bits of pottery, that He might even use me. What a great God!

Published in: on August 21, 2015 at 6:00 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , ,