Understanding The Bible


I confess, I didn’t realize how many different ways people view the Bible until the Internet exposed me to a wide variety of perspectives. I knew there were higher critics who deconstructed Scripture, essentially shaping it into their own image. But apart from those liberal thinkers, I was unaware of the diverse beliefs about the Bible.

Since I’ve been on the internet, I’ve learned that there are people who see the Bible as myth that contains truth. Others think it is myth, and anyone who believes it is foolish. Others see some parts to be true—the gospels, primarily—but the other parts to be filled with false ideas created by the Jews or by Paul.

On the other side of the Bible equation are those who see Scripture as primarily rules to live by. But again, a good many of these are individuals or denominations which are selective in what they say the rules are. For instance, one blogger I encountered railed against an individual because of his departure from Scripture but saw no problem in treating him without love or even honor, regardless of the number of times commenters confronted him with direct commands in the Bible for Christians to love neighbors, enemies, brothers and to honor all men. Clearly that blogger was selective in the Biblical commandments he felt he needed to follow.

I realize I’ve been fortunate to attend a church my entire adult life that believes in the Bible in a different way. My first pastor, Chuck Swindoll, taught the Bible is the inspired word of God, which means through it God is speaking to me.

I learned it is inerrant and infallible—that there are no mistakes in its individual parts or in its overall message—so the places I see confusion or contradiction actually reveal my lack of understanding, not a problem with the Bible.

I was learned that the Bible is complete. We’re not waiting for a new or better or additional revelation. God didn’t send golden tablets for someone to unearth and translate. He doesn’t speak infallibly via the Pope or the church prophet.

I also learned the Bible is determinative—how we respond to what we hear determines our eternal destiny. Further, it is authoritative. Its truth propositions have the final say, and by them all other truth propositions are to be measured.

Finally, I learned that the Bible is sufficient. I don’t need any other revelation to lead me to God.

Those foundational principles actually undergird my understanding of the Bible, but there are other important essentials that go along with them. Some years ago another pastor, Mike Erre, laid out six questions he asks about passages of Scripture that bring forward the meaning of the text. These can be helpful, I think.

1. What is the historical meaning? What did this passage mean to the original audience? Before it was written for us, it was written for or spoken to them.

For example, when Jesus said, Come unto Me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest, to whom was He talking? And what were the circumstances that surrounded that statement? In other words, what was the context?

2. What is the literary setting? The Bible is a collection of various genres and as such, not all accomplish the same thing. Some are historical, some poetry, some prophecy, some letters. Understanding their genre helps uncover their intention.

3. How does a particular passage fit into the Big Story? It’s possible to pick and choose parts that make the Bible say something it never intended to say. For example, Scripture says more than once, “There is no God.” But without the context, a person will not know that this is the statement of a foolish person.

Pastor Mike gave an illustration of this. First he showed promo for the movie Mary Poppins, a musical, starred Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews that told the story of a magical nanny who taught a stuffy banker how to truly love and care for his children.

Next Pastor Mike revealed that someone made a movie called “Scary Mary” which edited the original musical to show Mary Poppins pushing the children, making mean faces and threatening gestures. The children responded with fright, and in the background soulful music played. Occasionally shots of a dark and bleak setting came on the screen.

So which is the “real” Mary Poppins? Every frame of “Scary Mary” is in the original, but large, large parts have been left out so that the re-cut version bears no resemblance to the original. In fact it so distorts the movie that someone who didn’t know the story could easily be so concerned by what they saw, they would refuse to see the actual movie.

In the same way, someone coming to the Bible must see how a passage fits into the big picture.

4. What is the gospel dimension? The Bible is the story of God coming near. It is not a self-help book or a list of do‘s and don’ts or a collection of religious traditions to follow in order to earn points in God’s estimation. Rather, the Bible reveals Jesus.

5. What is the subversive element? Every verse of Scripture is ahead of its time. The Bible isn’t merely culturally relevant, it subverts the world order which calls for people to watch out for number one, go for the gusto, get yours while you can. The Bible shows us God’s contrary approach to life—the last shall be first, you gain your life by losing it, you love your enemies, you do not return evil for evil, you take up your cross, and on and on.

6. What is the experiential dimension? The Bible is to be lived, not just learned. “American Christians have been educated far beyond our willingness to obey.” Whenever that is true, it’s to our shame. We may not understand everything in the Bible, but the main things that are plain, that don’t take a seminary degree to comprehend, ought to be our mission statement, our focus, our To Do list.

That point is the one that brings the Bible home. It is at the level of living out what the Bible says that a Christian shows himself or herself to be a Christian. Can we say we love God and hate our brother? No. Can we say Lord, Lord and not do the deeds of righteousness? No. Can we experience God’s forgiveness without turning around and forgiving others? No.

The Bible, for all the important foundational truths that undergird the reason we can and should rely on it, still boils down to a matter of trust—believing God, being reconciled with Him, and then learning all about His heart and what we can do to please Him.

This post is a revised edition of one that appeared here in May, 2014.

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And The First Commandment?


I can’t get the ongoing discussion prompted by Pastor John MacArthur’s Social Justice and the Gospel statement out of my head. What the discussion has reminded me of is a question I’ve asked myself from time to time

You see, I’ve heard any number of great messages about the second command, as Jesus labeled it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” These are excellent, Biblical, needed.

What I don’t recall hearing much are sermons about the first command:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “ ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ This is the great and foremost commandment.” (Matt. 22:36-38)

My thought is, if this is indeed the greatest command, shouldn’t we hear sermon after sermon about how we can actually love God with all of who we are?

Maybe that’s embedded in particular messages.

For instance, I heard one pastor whose sermons are on the radio, preach about abiding in Christ. Just recently I heard a message about being filled with the Holy Spirit, and a different pastor preached about the need for revival, in the Church but in our hearts first.

I’m not sure those are the same thing as the First Commandment. Isn’t loving God with our heart, with our soul, with our mind something we should do intentionally along with abiding in Christ and being filled with the Spirit?

Maybe having our relationship with God revived would address how, or to what extent, we love God. I’m not sure. The pastor made a good point that revival is for believers. You don’t revive dead people, and unbelievers are spiritually dead. We the Church need revival. The rest of the world needs to hear the gospel and respond for the very first time.

I’m thinking now that perhaps the angelic addresses to the seven churches in the book of Revelation were calls to revival. And to one of them the angel said, You have left your first love. In other words, you don’t love God with all your heart, soul, and mind any more.

Makes me think of what the prophet Joel said to the people of Judah:

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD,
“Return to Me with all your heart,
And with fasting, weeping and mourning;
And rend your heart and not your garments.”
Now return to the LORD your God,
For He is gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness
And relenting of evil. (Joel 2:12-13)

The chapter goes on to describe what can only be stated as sorrow for sins. Repentance.

So one part of loving God, I think, would have to include keeping short accounts with Him. Short and shorter. And when we sin, instead of just making it right with the person we have sinned against, perhaps above all we should make it right with God.

Not that our sins are somehow undoing our salvation. But they harm our fellowship. I don’t know how it works. God has removed our sins as far as the east is from the west. Not just past sins, but all sins. Then how can they harm our fellowship with God? I don’t know. Maybe because we remember them, because we need to bring them to the cross to know that yes, that too, God has forgiven. All I really know is, repentance restores my soul. It simply does. It’s not a psychological thing. Not a trick of the mind. When my sins are removed, the are removed! And it’s something that only other Christians understand.

What else does loving God with heart, soul, and mind entail? Jesus said we love Him if we keep His commandments. That’s kind of interesting. Usually we think of keeping commandments to be a physical thing: do this good deed, make this sacrifice, give up this thing, stop doing that thing. But the command to love God with our heart, soul, and mind, would seem to be saying that loving God starts inside. So extrapolating on that, keeping Christ’s commandments starts first in our hearts, souls, minds.

Now I know that the First Command is recorded in other gospel accounts, like Luke 10:27, which add “strength.” So yes, we’d have to say there is a physical component in loving God.

That makes me think of the parable that Jesus told about the King, after He separated the sheep from the goats, said for those on His right to come into His kingdom. Why? because they had fed him, give Him a drink, clothed Him, visited Him when He was a prisoner, taken Him in when He was a stranger, came to Him when He was sick. When did we do that, the people asked. The King answered, “‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” (Matt. 25:40b).

And therein lies social justice, I think. It’s tucked inside our love for God. We care for the lest, the lost, the left out, because we love God.

But we can’t leave out our heart, our soul, our mind. Loving God starts inside. It doesn’t start by what we do. Nor is what we do, the sum of our love for God.

Loving God isn’t measured by how high someone lifts their hands in worship, and it isn’t measured by how much food they provide for the homeless ministry. There’s more. And I want to learn what all that is.

Years ago, Christians talked about “practicing the presence” of God. I never really understood what that meant. Just like I’m not sure what it means to abide in Christ or be filled with the Holy Spirit.

In all this rhetoric, I keep thinking, it shouldn’t be that hard. I just want to be with God, to cling to Him, to depend on Him, to please Him, to rejoice in Him, to celebrate Him. I don’t want to fight Him or ignore Him or stray from Him. I don’t know that these things come naturally, so I wouldn’t mind hearing a sermon or two on the First Commandment.

Social Justice And The Gospel


There’s a bit of a kerfuffle in the cyberworld because of a statement Pastor John MacArthur made, and thousands of other evangelical Christians signed, about Social Justice and the Gospel.

In essence MacArthur’s statement is a call for Christians to hold fast to the teaching of God’s word and not get swept up in the rabbit trails the world would lead us down.

I’ve been listening to MacArthur most mornings for about the last six months or so. Maybe longer. I have to say, I often disagree with him. Not substantively, but in places where he is so absolute, so dogmatic, that he doesn’t leave room for honest disagreement by others who are just as serious and knowledgeable about God’s word as he is.

From my perspective, I think he comes across a little arrogantly. I say this with love, mind you. Because I do think he cares deeply for God’s word and makes a great effort to help people grasp the truths of Scripture. And hold on to them. Without error. But still, at times he can be abrasive and seemingly, callous. But he’s right more than not.

As anyone who is paying attention knows, error does and has and is creeping into some bodies of the Church. Hence, in a recent blog post, MacArthur states

The besetting sin of pragmatic, style-conscious evangelicals has always been that they shamelessly borrow fads and talking points from the unbelieving world.

I don’t disagree with him.

Our sin is no different from the people of Israel worshiping Yahweh and some Egyptian idol or Canaanite god. Sadly, we are just as prone to look around, see what people in the world are doing, and say, “Let’s do that!” Because, you know, people will like us better. People will come to Jesus more, and isn’t that our goal?

That actually puts in the best light the desire to do what the world is doing, but some groups have motives that aren’t that noble. Yet even the most upright of motive misses the point that we don’t save anyone. The Holy Spirit does. We are to do the works of righteousness, to be ambassadors for Christ, telling the world near and far that we have a Savior who will rescue us from the kingdom of darkness.

But recently we’ve headed down some of those cultural rabbit trails that MacArthur is warning us about. We’ve set the gospel aside to proclaim social justice instead.

The confusing thing is that the gospel is all about social justice, so by proclaiming it we are simultaneously, and more effectively, dealing with the glaring ills of society.

In some ways you could think of social justice as a subset of the gospel. I think it’s sort of like the Pharisees who locked on to the command to keep the Sabbath. After all, some of the prophets reamed the nation of Israel for not keeping the Sabbath—a contributing cause of God turning them over to Babylon and Assyria.

I suppose the Pharisees were determined that would never happen again, so they came up with an elaborate system of laws to make sure that someone didn’t work on the Sabbath. Their motive seems like it was good, but they were not dealing with a person’s heart. They were simply concerned about the outward appearance.

Social justice is like that in many respects. There are needs—homelessness, crises pregnancies, homosexual lifestyles, gender confusion, race relations, and more. So let’s clean up these problems, social justice seems to say.

But the real problem is in the heart. Cleaning the outside of the cup will only give a cup that looks clean, but all the germs are still on the inside and that’s what can cause real problems.

The Bible takes on the heart first, but also requires believers to take on the things that create confusion in our culture. Not by creating a Moral Majority or an evangelical voting block or some other system that copies the world. We already have our “system.” It’s called the Church.

And the Church is designed to equip the saints to go out into the highways and the byways and preach the gospel and love our neighbors and tell the world about Jesus.

Sadly, the poor we will always have with us. And yet we are to create a Church environment that makes room for the poor. We are to care for widows and orphans in their distress. We are to share Christ with the tax collectors and the Samaritan woman equally.

But we aren’t simply to clean the outside of the cup. That’s inadequate and doesn’t address eternal needs.

Back to the internet controversy about MacArthur’s statement, I think there is some disingenuous opposition and some genuine concern. Some people say, a lot of his statements give those who are racist a reason to hate and claim that they are doing so according to the Bible.

That’s a sad misreading of the text, of both Scripture and MacArhur’s. One can only reach that conclusion by ignoring the clear statements that present what the Bible actually says about Christian unity. Of course, there very well might be some people who want an excuse to hate. I don’t know that the Church can do anything to change that, apart from proclaiming the truth to them, too.

On the other hand, there are people who believe what the world is saying about feminism and homosexuality and gender, and they simply hate what the Bible says about those issues. Their criticism of MacArthur and his statement is disingenuous. They don’t really have a quarrel with him. Their quarrel is with the Bible because they don’t want women to accept roles that aren’t identical to men’s roles. They don’t want to bow to the authority of Scripture when it comes to sex.

They are like the children of Israel who made alliances with the nations they were to steer clear of, who later wanted a king rather than God to lead them, who drifted from worship until the temple was in a ruined state and the Law had been forgotten.

This is what John MacArthur is warning the Church about. When we follow in the footsteps of the people of Israel, we are jeopardizing our witness in the West.

No fear. The Church will flourish. The gates of hell won’t prevail against it. But maybe in the West, the lamp will go out. Like it did for a time in Ephesus and Laodecia and the other churches in Revelation. It just might depend on what this generation does.

Treasonous Prayer


“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” How many people have memorized that line from Matthew 6, along with the rest of Jesus’s prayer, and recited it routinely without grasping the traitorous implications? I’m one.

I listened to part of a radio message some years back from Pastor Philip De Courcy in which he made the point that this line from Jesus’s prayer is a radical, traitorous plea.

In His day, Rome’s kingdom ruled and Caesar’s will was to be done. For a good reason, the Jewish council stood before Pilate accusing Jesus of opposing Caesar (John 19:12).

Paul says in Philippians 3 that the believer’s citizenship is in Heaven. Meaning, if we think about it, that we are little more than guest workers here in the US or wherever else we might live.

Of course, we quickly explain, we actually have dual citizenship because God’s kingdom is spiritual. Jesus Himself said as much when He was answering Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18:36).

But how does dual citizenship work? In our spirits we obey God, but in our bodies we obey the government? We might draw that conclusion from Jesus’s answer to the question about paying taxes: “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).

Yet there’s that prayer—“Thy kingdom come.” It’s a plea for God to put an end to the machinations of Man and for Him to take His rightful place as Sovereign.

It’s also a statement of loyalty—I want You to prevail, Your kingdom to be triumphant, even over the kingdom in which I presently live.

I guess the biggest question is whether or not I mean the words I say when I’m quoting Jesus’s prayer. Is it His will I want? Am I passionate about His kingdom coming or would I prefer a cleaned up version of the one we have right here and now?

Honestly, it’s sobering to think what those words from the Lord’s prayer mean. I even thought about whether or not it was wise to title a post “Treasonous Prayer.” After all, the way the world is starting to look at Christians, we could well be accused of working against the “good of mankind,” and do I really want a written record about praying something treasonous?

Yes, actually I do because the real revolution that I am praying for must occur first in my heart, where I step off the throne and allow God to rule, to have His will prevail. How could I pray for His kingdom to come and then resist His takeover in me?

This article first appeared here in September, 2011.

Published in: on September 12, 2018 at 5:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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When There’s No Water


July officially started the new rainy season, though for SoCal, that is kind of like saying, each year we start with two months of 0 inches just so we can put down figures for 12 months. This kind of “dry spell” is actually normal. The problem manifests itself if November comes and goes and we still have not had significant rain. Or if January, February, and March don’t give us some meaningful moisture.

A good year for us is around 33 inches. Compare that to the Carolinas which likely received 33 inches in this last storm.

All this to say, I know what it’s like to live in a place with no water. Except, we have technology now that allows us to bring water in from places that have more than they’re using. Not everyone is happy with this arrangement. But that’s not the point of this post.

The real subject is waking up and realizing there is not enough water to, you know, live. Because water is one of those commodities that we actually can not do without.

The descendants of Jacob, the Hebrews newly escaped from Egypt, came to a place where there was no water. And they were well over 600,000 people. The men of the age to fight number 600,000, so add in the elderly, the women, and the children, and there are probably twice as many people, conservatively speaking—all without water. And don’t forget the animals. These folks were shepherds. They had their flocks and their cattle to take care of, too.

So when they’d been on the road for a while and they didn’t come upon any water, they were concerned. Rightly so. This was not a minor issue, a little inconvenience. This was a life-and-death matter.

So what did they do? You’d think they would cried out to God. What else could you do? I mean, He’s omniscient—He’d know where they could get water. And He’s omnipotent—He could bring rain at the drop of a hat. Crying out to God would seem like a wise, intelligent thing to do.

But the Hebrews? They decided to grumble against Moses instead. You should have left us in Egypt, they said. We told you this journey was not a good idea, they said. We want to choose another ruler, someone who will take us back to Egypt, they said.

Remember. Egypt was a mess. Dead army, dead firstborn sons, dead or diseased cattle, devastated crops, people who were afraid of Moses and had driven the people of Israel from their land.

Remember also. The Hebrews had cried to God because of the harsh treatment they were receiving. The Egyptians had ordered their baby boys to be killed. Not just the first born. All of them. For how long? We don’t know for sure, but obviously long enough that the people of Israel would no longer outnumber the Egyptians. They wanted zero population growth, at a minimum.

And most of all, remember that God had promised to take them out of Egypt, so clearly that Joseph charged his descendants with taking his bones, his mummified carcass, along with them when they went.

Not only did God give them this promise, but remember He gave them His protection. When darkness fell over Egypt, it did not fall in Goshen where the Hebrews lived. When hail wiped out two crops and killed the livestock left in the field, it didn’t fall in Goshen. When the locust came, when disease attacked the Egyptian animals, when their first born sons were taken, the Hebrews escaped unscathed. They saw God’s power first hand, and they experienced His protection.

I could go on. They were receiving manna every day, they had quail to eat when they asked for meat, they’d been without water before and God surprised them by giving them miraculously and then leading them to a place of abundance.

But none of it was enough.

When is enough evidence of God’s direction, provision, protection, ever enough? Sometimes the people who cry the loudest have the most evidence in front of their faces, but they simply choose to ignore it. Instead, they decide they want to go their own way, choose their own leader, deal with their own problems.

Seems silly to me, because if they had turned around at that point, they would have continued for days without water before they arrived at that place where God had taken them before. How many of them would have survived?

But God is so merciful. Despite their grumbling and complaining, God gave them what they needed. He did so miraculously and symbolically so that centuries later we could see the Rock who is Jesus, struck to provide Living Water to a wayward people.

God had a reason for testing the Hebrews. He had an example to paint for generations who would come after them. He wanted them to see His power and trust Him, but He also wants us to see His power and trust Him.

Their need for water was real and serious. Their reliance on their own “solutions” was foolish. But our God isn’t limited by weak people who keep on doing the wrong thing. Peter could deny Jesus three times, but God was able to turn him into a pillar of the Church. Paul could chase down Christians to persecute them, but God was able to turn him into a vibrant evangelist.

In fact, none of Christ’s followers can ever boast that we have life figured out, that we’re on the road to heave because we are clever enough or strong enough or good enough to make it on our own. Rather, we are the army of second chances. God saved us because we need to be saved. We are out of water, and we can’t make it on empty. So He does the impossible. He provides Living Water so that we will never thirst again.

Published in: on September 11, 2018 at 5:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Overzealous Faith?


smokestack-1402448-mA number of years ago I read a book that had me a bit steamed. There are lots of reasons, but not the least is the subtitle: “Avoiding . . . dangers of overzealous faith.”

Certainly we are to avoid the things listed where I typed an ellipsis—pride and exclusivity—but why would those be associated with “overzealous faith”? Why would any “danger” be linked to overzealous faith? For that matter, is it possible to be overzealous in our faith?

If you think about it, God’s word tells us the first command, the one that’s most important, is to love God “WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH” (Mark 12:30; the all caps indicate a quotation from the Old Testament). If this is what God commands of His followers, I don’t see much room for over-the-top zeal. Already what God asks is . . . well, everything.

He wants us to take up our cross, to die to ourselves, to lay down our lives, to be living sacrifices. I don’t see how this clear teaching of Scripture, that we as believers in Christ are to be all in, lends itself to zeal that goes beyond those requirements.

Rather, I expect this “plea for balance,” as many of the positive reviews of the book labeled it, is looking for wiggle room for comfortable American Christians who want to stay comfortable and still be “good Christians.”

Thankfully there is a counter thrust among evangelical pastors to the health-and-wealth message which distorts Scripture. But a look at the values which the Bible teaches in the areas of physical health and finances calls into question a lot of what Americans do and even preach as “best practices” or “good stewardship.”

Along comes this book, Accidental Pharisees, and most probably others like it, and we have an intentional reining in of concepts calling for a radical or crazy or counter-cultural approach to doing church.

The message I got from this book is, let’s be content with the status quo. After all, Paul said we should learn to live quiet lives, and that’s good, because then I can have my big house and my fancy cars and not feel like I’m a lesser Christian than brothers who have moved to the inner city or are giving away 90% of their income.

Honestly, the premise of this book makes me a little crazy. The idea is that Christians who “get out in front of the following-Jesus line” start to look around and compare where they’re at with where other Christians are at and then they start looking down on believers who aren’t up with them at the head of the line. So their “overzealous faith” has led them into pride.

I submit that anyone who is looking around and comparing his spiritual progress with others has already succumbed to pride.

I submit that someone afraid of crazy love or radical faith or sold-out evangelism or whatever else is the latest call for Christian devotion, is really afraid of the Bible. It’s more comfortable to be content with the status quo—the American Christianity that doesn’t demand too much, that lets us alone to do what we want, except for an hour or so on Sunday.

Scripture does call Christians to be content and to live quiet lives, but it’s in the context of sometimes going hungry or serving someone by going the extra mile or by thinking more highly of a fellow Christian than of myself.

The thing is, I understand it is possible to be overly zealous about all kinds of things, some dangerous, some merely silly. But faith? Genuine faith in Jesus Christ? I don’t think so.

Genuine faith in Jesus Christ is built on the Word of God. Consequently, a zealous Christian will know what Jesus thinks about looking down on others or about holding people to high standards for salvation (as if we set standards for salvation in the first place!) or any of the other “dangers” supposedly inherent in “overzealous faith.”

I suppose the best conclusion about this book is this: since Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites (7 or 8 times in Matt. 23), any “faith” of “Pharisees” isn’t real faith at all, so being overzealous for a hypocritical “see how spiritual I am” substitute for faith is definitely something to avoid.

OK, in that light, it’s a good book. 😉

This post is an edited version of one that appeared here in September, 2014.

A New Commandment


First I have to say how blessed I am because my church has an abundance of Bible-believing pastors who love God’s word and can communicate its truth.

So Sunday our executive pastor preached from a verse in John:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.(John 13:34)

He starts out by asking, Since Jesus said this was a new commandment, what was the old commandment?

That made me think. When someone asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment, He said, Love God, and a close second is love your neighbor as yourself.

We can logically conclude that since the New Commandment has to do with relationships on the horizontal plane—a human being with other human beings—the Old Commandment would have been the “love your neighbor as yourself” part.

As it stands, loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is a pretty demanding commandment. I mean we quite naturally take care of ourselves from birth. How many babies decide they’ll wait for breakfast until morning so their mom can get a good night of sleep? None! They are hungry, so they want to be fed.

Even the Yale baby studies reported on 60 Minutes some five years ago, admit to our natural love for us over others:

The youngest kids in the study will routinely choose to get fewer prizes for themselves just to get more than the other kid.

In other words, the Old Commandment was an admonition to bring others up to our status, to love them with the same kind of care that we provide for ourselves. Do we want to be first in line? Then we should also want our neighbor to be first in line. But what if there’s only one line, and we both need to be in it?

That’s where the New Commandment comes in: Jesus said we are to love other believers, not the way we love ourselves, but the way HE loves them. That would of necessity be self-sacrificially. In other words, I am willing to give up my place at the head of the line so that you can be first.

Well, that’s a bit shocking. But Jesus went on to say that this kind of sacrifice-love will set us apart from others, so much so that when this kind of sacrifice-love is observed, people will know: Yep, they are Christians.

One more cool thing from the message. In Colossians 3 Paul listed things Christians should “put on.” Seven of them:

put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other (vv 12b-13a)

Then Paul adds one more:

Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. (v 14)

The ESV says it this way

And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

That word for “binds” or “bond” also refers to ligaments. You know, the things that hold our bones together. So Pastor Jeff gave the illustration of a professional athlete who does these amazing things with his body—until he injures his ACL. Even the smallest tear in that ligament can shut down the athlete.

So Paul was saying that all the things the Christian should “wear” in his new life in Christ, is held in place by love. Kindness and humility and gentleness and forgiveness—all of it. Love holds them all together, helps them move in concert, as the ACL helps the parts of a knee function together.

And it is this love that will make Christians exhibit the New Commandment love Jesus was talking about.

One more vital thing. This kind of love doesn’t come from trying harder. It comes from the Holy Spirit. We need to allow Him to empower us, fill us, guide us. So if we want to love like Jesus told us to, we can’t accomplish that by deciding to do better. It actually comes from intentionally entering into a closer relationship with God. The more we know His heart, the less we will want to go our own way. Why should we hold a grudge against someone Jesus Christ loves so much He laid down His life to save him?

Christ died for him, but I’m going to remain angry because he was late and didn’t call? And is always late and never calls. As James says, “The anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. (1:20)”

It seems unjust. He’s getting away with being a jerk! And all I’m supposed to do is love him?

Yes, love him, which means you are willing to confront someone if they need to learn ways to relate to others that would glorify God. Confronting people is uncomfortable. Loving people is complicated. It’s not all smiles and flowers. A lot of times it’s forgiving people while they’re yet sinners.

But that’s the New Commandment, the one that will let others know we are Christians.

Published in: on September 5, 2018 at 5:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Walking With A Limp


I’ve walked with a limp from time to time. I injured a tendon when I was in Guatemala years ago, and walked with crutches. Before that I sprained an ankle playing basketball, and could hardly walk the next day. And after my stroke I didn’t exactly limp. More like lurched and then staggered, tottered, weaved, always moving closer to walking without any noticeable difficulty.

On the other hand, Jacob limped, for life.

Jacob, Isaac’s son. Isaac’s youngest son who duped his older brother out of his birthright and deceived his father into giving him the blessing that didn’t belong to him. He didn’t limp back in those early years, and he didn’t limp when he made the trek to his mother’s home town to search for a wife.

Irony of ironies, after he worked for seven years to marry the women he wanted, his uncle deceived him into marrying her sister. The uncle then offered him the right girl, too, if he’d work seven more years for her. After he completed that service, his uncle squeezed six additional years of labor from him, changing his wages ten different times. In other words, the deceiver met his match.

But still he wasn’t limping.

The limp didn’t come until Jacob headed home after the twenty-year hiatus with his uncle. He’d gained a fortune, two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, but he could tell his uncle and cousins were not as friendly as they had been. And what’s more, God told him to go. Not directly. He had a dream in which God said, leave. So he headed back home.

As he, his family, his servants, his livestock, got close to his destination, he had to solve one more problem: his angry brother had said he was going to kill him. Remember, the birthright issue, and the blessing issue.

But that was twenty years ago. Would his brother really carry a grudge that long? Jacob apparently thought he would. He did what he could to protect his family and his stuff, and he basically sent his apology to his brother in the form of a substantial gift. The night before he was to encounter his brother, he was alone.

Until an angel confronted him. Or as some scholars think, he encountered the pre-incarnate Christ. I have to admit, I have been confused about this event for many, many years. The angel, or Christ, didn’t sit down and have a nice talk with Jacob. He engaged him physically—got into a wrestling match with him.

Apparently they struggled together through the night, and Jacob was winning! How can that be? I haven’t understood how God could strive with a human and not win. Well, Jacob’s apparent victory was short lived. With one touch the angel/Christ threw his hip joint out of place and disabled him, so that he walked with a limp.

Still Jacob held onto his opponent, saying he wouldn’t let go until he received a blessing. Another odd thing. His father had blessed him twenty years earlier, and God had given him a blessing—the covenantal, Messianic blessing—when he left home. So why was he fighting for another blessing? Perhaps the blessing he wanted here was nothing more than that he would live, since his brother and 400 of his men were heading his way.

What’s interesting here is that the angel/Christ asked him his name. Years ago, when he stole his brother’s blessing, his father had asked him his name and he’d lied. He pretended to be his brother. But now, twenty years later, the same question—what’s your name?—and he answers truthfully. He’s Jacob.

But not for long. The angel/Christ told him he would now be Israel, he who strives with God.

It’s not a great name, I don’t think. It’s not like, father of nations, or beloved of the Lord, or any of the other cool names he could have been given.

And what’s the point? He wrestled God, and came out of it with a new name and a limp.

The limp, I think, is more important than I realized. One commentator pointed out that Jacob appeared to be winning in his fight against God, but with a simple touch, he was incapacitated, to the point that he limped, likely forever after.

That limp is a reminder who is really in charge. Too often we humans think we have God wrestled into a “manageable” Sovereign. But the truth is, all He has to do is bring one finger to bear on our lives, and we are at His mercy.

We really are at His mercy at all times, but we just don’t know it. We are deluded. We think we know, but we don’t know. We think we’re winning, but we aren’t because God is still working with us, renaming us, remaking our walk.

In the end, I have to ask, what does Jacob teach me here? Is striving with God a good thing? In one sense it is. Up to this point, Jacob’s encounters with God had been in dreams. Not so his grandfather Abraham. He had personal conversations, even an argument of sorts (though a really polite, respectful one), and that as part of a personal visit. So Jacob wrestling with the angel/Christ was a more intimate encounter with God, though a painful one, than any he’d had to date. I’d have to say, I’d take an intimate encounter with God any day.

Well, I have. I did. I do. As a believer I really do have the advantage Jesus said we’d have—the Holy Spirit with me and in me, reminding me of my new life in Christ.

My hope is, though, that I don’t wrestle with Him. Instead I want to be quick to say yes. That was Abraham. Quick to listen, quick to obey. And I don’t think he every limped.

God And His Mysterious Ways


Some people try to define God’s work, and therefore to define God—sort of like trying to photograph a double rainbow that stretches across the sky. If you could just snap the picture, then you’d have the rainbow for always.

God doesn’t operate in such a way that we can ever capture Him. Yet—and here’s one of the most mysterious of His Ways—He voluntarily, willfully declares my heart His home.

As far as “mysterious ways” is concerned, I think of Joseph resisting the sexual temptations Potiphar’s wife threw at him day after day, only to end up in prison. Well, not “end up” because he moved from the outhouse to the penthouse in a mere thirteen years. Thirteen years that undoubtedly had Joseph thinking nothing would ever change, that his life was going to continue on and on and on in the dungeon. But it didn’t. God had big things in store for Joseph.

I think of the little slave girl, an Israelite captive torn from her home, probably from her family, refusing to be bitter or to seek revenge but reaching out to bless the man she worked for by telling him of the prophet of God who could cure him of his leprosy. As a result, the mighty Aramean officer ended up declaring, “Behold now, I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel” (2 Kings 5:20).

Then there is Samson. What an amazing thing that God used that philanderer. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have chosen him. He was supposed to be a Nazarene from birth, but he broke the parameters more than once that defined that special relationship with God. He seemed self-absorbed and more inclined to use God than serve Him. But God was pleased to include him as a judge of Israel, pleased to make him a means to free His people from the oppressive rule of the Philistines.

Or how about the beauty pageant that ended up sparing the lives of hundreds of Jews? I remember when I first heard about Esther, I was horrified that Mordecai didn’t try to sequester her away or make a run for the hills. Instead, he truly seemed to be encouraging her, and she seemed to want to win the role as queen. Except, unlike the fairy tales, this was no monogamous happy-together-ever-after story. No! Esther got to be part of the kings harem (think of all the women he slept with before he slept with her and finally decided she was queen material). And yet, God used her in that place to save hundreds, maybe thousands.

What about in contemporary times? God used the death of five young husbands, some also fathers, to save a group of people who had never heard of Jesus, at the same time turning the hearts of countless believers to become involved in missions.

He used a spinster lady in the latter end of middle-aged through to her “golden years” to teach a generation what forgiveness really means, to spread the gospel of God’s incredible power over death and destruction and hatred and evil.

He is using the humble submission of an athletic teenage girl who suffered a catastrophic, debilitating accident, who has lived life for forty-five years as a quadriplegic and continues to tell of her love for her Lord.

I would have done things differently, I’m sure. Look how talented Joni Eareckson Tada is—as an artist, a writer, a speaker. How much more could she do if she weren’t in a wheelchair? What a silly person I am. Who would have heard of Joni if she hadn’t been the girl who drew holding her pen in her mouth? And what would she be talking about now or who would listen? Isn’t it her willing submission in the face of her adversity that makes her life so winsome?

God knows these things. He knows what it takes. But to us, because we don’t know what it takes, His ways will always appear mysterious.

God moves in a mysterious way
his wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
and rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
of never failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs
and works his sovereign will.

You fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
in blessings on your head.

His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
and scan his work in vain:
God is his own interpreter,
and he will make it plain.
– by William Cowper

– – – – –

This article is a reprint of one originally posted May 2011 and reprised in October 2014.

What’s The Take-Home


Writers of non-fiction generally are advised to answer the question, What’s the take-home value of your article or book? Behind this question is the belief that readers come to non-fiction to gain something—knowledge, insight, inspiration, instruction.

The fact is, the question fits Western culture. Generally speaking, we are a people asking, What’s in it for me? What can I get out of it?

Interestingly, John F. Kennedy moved a generation when he turned the question on its head: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” That may have been the last time any leader has challenged those of us in western society to altruistic behavior.

Most appeals come with a list of benefits: do this because you will gain x, y, and z.

No wonder, then, that this mindset has spilled into the Church. Come to Jesus, the appeal goes, and receive health and wealth. Or come to Jesus and your marital problems will be answered or your addictions will vanish or your fears will dissolve.

The truth is, God is a benefit-giving God. Throughout the Bible, He laid down choices—do this and you’ll be blessed, but do that and you’ll suffer the consequences of your sin.

The problem is, too many of us are missing the grand prize for coming to Jesus: Jesus. We’re like the man in the parable who found a treasure, then went and sold all he had so he could buy the field where it was hidden.

Except, once we have the field, instead of claiming the treasure, we’re busy collecting rocks. The rocks might be good and helpful, but they aren’t the treasure. They aren’t the reason we took up our cross.

Obeying Jesus and following Him does so often bring peace and joy; His ways are right and good. But those aren’t the Christian’s “take-home.” Jesus is. Peter, in a line that reminds me of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, said

Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. (1 Peter 3:13-14a – emphasis mine)

Hundreds of years earlier, Daniel’s three friends were faced with death if they didn’t worship an idol. They responded by saying

“If it be so [that we are sentenced to die], our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Dan. 3:17-18; emphasis mine)

He will, He is able, but even if He doesn’t, He’s still God. And in they went, only to find Jesus, the pre-incarnate Christ, there in the furnace with them. Their reward wasn’t status or protection or even deliverance from the furnace, though they eventually had those things too. But while they did not have them, they still had their relationship with God.

He is the treasure. Worshiping Him, enjoying fellowship with Him, walking with Him day by day—those are the delights that are ours no matter what our circumstances.

Paul said the same thing (in more words) in Colossians:

attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself (2:2b).

Christ Himself—the treasure, the reward, the take-home value of the Christian life.

This article is an edited version of one that first appeared here in September, 2012.

Published in: on August 27, 2018 at 5:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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