Is Evil Winning?


ElizabethElliotSome time ago, I wrote a post at Spec Faith about evil as I believe J. R. R. Tolkien understood it. One point stood out as I wrote the article—the world of Middle Earth which Tolkien created was faced with defeat. If the protagonist of the story didn’t succeed in his task, no matter what the other characters did, evil would win.

In other words, their efforts were largely meaningless. They continued to fight evil, though they understood it to be hopeless, because it was the right thing to do, because they believed they should stay the course, because it was all they could do unless they gave in to despair.

On another blog I read a post about whether or not Christians should bother with changing the world. As the author probed the question, he received answers that can best be described as fatalistic.

There seemed to be two threads—one that said God would do what God would do no matter how we voted or prayed, and the other that evil was on a downward spiral, as prophesied in Scripture, and there was nothing we could do to stop it or change it.

I’m not happy with these fatalistic approaches. Yes, I believe God is sovereign and in control. Yes, I believe that God will turn Humankind over to the depravity of our heart and there will be a day of reckoning.

However, I also know the true story about a boy king reigning in the last century of Judah’s existence as a nation. He came to the throne when he was eight. When he was sixteen, he began to seek “the God of his father David.” When he was twenty, he began to get rid of the idols all over the country. At twenty-six, with the idols all torn down, he decided to repair the temple.

During that process, the high priest found a copy of the book of the Law. The young king, Josiah, read it and realized how great God’s wrath must be because of all the years and years Judah had wandered from Him. As a result, he led the nation in a revival. He made a covenant with God to follow Him and to keep His commandments. Consequently, during his lifetime “they did not turn from following the Lord God of their fathers) (2 Chron. 34:33b).

Nevertheless, twenty-two years, six months later, Judah fell to Babylon.

Was all that Josiah did for naught?

I don’t think his contemporaries would say so. They were free of idols and enjoyed the blessing God bestowed on their king because of his humble heart and his repentance.

What I learn from Josiah is that it’s never too late to repent. It’s never too late to turn from evil and do good. Will it change the course of the world? Maybe. Much depends on those who come after.

Martin Luther might be considered a priest who changed the course of the world because he, like Josiah, sought God and believed His written revelation.

Elizabeth Elliot might be considered a missionary who changed the course of a culture when she went back into the rain forest of Ecuador to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the people who murdered her husband.

But long-term change is not guaranteed. God determined to bring the long-delayed judgment on Judah after Josiah’s death despite his godly rule. His faithfulness couldn’t reverse the fortunes of his nation, only delay them. Perhaps his sons, if they had been godly would have changed the fortunes of the nation for another generation. But they went their own way and didn’t follow in the steps of their father.

Isn’t that the point, though? Isn’t each person responsible for how we are to live our lives, how we are to affect those around us, not what happens after we’re gone?

The way we are to influence future generations is by teaching and training the next generation—those younger than we who stand right in front of us. They in turn are to teach and train the next generation, and that generation, the one after them.

Is evil winning? Ultimately, of course not. Christ already defeated the enemy at the cross.

And evil will not win on the temporal level as long as Christians are living what we say we believe, then turning around and teaching the next generation to go and do likewise.

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. (Deut. 6:4-7, emphasis added)

This post first appeared here in October 2012.

Food For Thought – Cloth And Wineskins


Have you every been bugged by a portion of Scripture that’s hard to understand? It just doesn’t seem to fit or make sense in light of what you know or in light of the context. I’ve struggled in this way with a passage in the book of Matthew.

Context, of course, is a key to Biblical interpretation. Someone studying the Bible today ought not make up something from his own mind or experience. Rather, it’s critical to look at an entire passage, an entire book, to find out what the circumstances were and what the audience likely understood.

Having said that, let me give you the context of the passage that’s given me difficulty over the years: After Jesus began his public ministry, He quickly incurred the ire of the Jewish religious leaders because more than once He healed people on the Sabbath—something these Pharisees viewed as breaking the law.

In the face of their displeasure, Jesus proceeded to call Matthew, a prominent tax-collector, to be His disciple, then went to the man’s home for dinner with a group of his friends—a group made up of other tax-collectors and people who didn’t keep the Jewish law. The Pharisees complained about Jesus eating and drinking with these corrupt government officials and sinners.

Jesus responded to His critics by saying, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE’…”

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

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

I get that—Jesus is the bridegroom and His followers are the attendants. So far so good. But He continued, and here is the troublesome passage:

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

Huh?

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

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

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

But the real problem I have with that interpretation is that the new-on-old in Jesus’s analogies destroys the old. Yet Jesus clearly said in the Sermon on the Mount that He did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.

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

WineskinsIs Jesus advocating for new wine to be put into new skins? I mean, isn’t it understood that old wine is better? Approaching the verse with the idea that Jesus is saying, new is better, doesn’t really fit the physical realities of the objects He was using to illustrate His point.

And what about the patch and the old garment? Clearly a new patch is incomplete, so it’s pretty hard to conclude that this analogy is saying new is better.

Interestingly Mark in his gospel elaborates on the problem Jesus had with the Pharisees. Take a look:

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

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

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

So here’s what I’m thinking. What if the old cloth and the old wineskins stand for God’s true Law? In the verses just prior to these analogies, remember, Jesus told the Pharisees to figure out what Scripture meant when it said God desired compassion rather than sacrifice.

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

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

In the end, I come away more mindful of the need to hold loosely things like worship styles and other extra-Biblical practices—the traditions of our day which we might be heaping on top of Scripture, particularly on top of what the Bible lays out as the nuts and bolts of what it means to be a Christian—loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Compassion must not be sacrificed on the altar of tradition.

This article is a revised version of a post first published here in May 2012.

Published in: on May 15, 2015 at 7:14 pm  Comments (10)  
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Accusations Against Christians


California_Drought_Dry_Riverbed_2009There’s quite a litany of accusations against Christians these days, from non-Christians and other Christians alike. Those charges include things such as Christians can’t do art or create good speculative fiction, are greedy and hypocritical and hateful.

Sadly a selection of very visible individuals or groups claiming to be Christians have reinforced some of these ideas–pastors who end up having affairs, televangelists who preach health-and-wealth rather than sacrificial giving, sign-waving funeral crashers who condemn rather than present the good news.

But then there are individuals like the owner of Chick-fil-A who became the brunt of accusations because of his stand for monogamous, heterosexual marriage. He too was accused of being hateful.

Recently, as I was reading Scripture, I realized, we might as well get used to these sorts of recriminations. All the way back in the Old Testament, people proclaiming the truth about God and man’s sinful condition were tarnished with the brush of accusation.

Even Elijah. He prophesied during the reign of one of the most sinful kings Israel would know. Ahab married a pagan and proceeded to lead his people into idolatry like no king before him. He built temples and altars and assigned priests and made sacrifices to these false gods, all the while persecuting those who were faithful to the Lord God who lead them out of Egypt.

As judgment on the nation, God, through the prayer of Elijah, withheld rain from them for over three years. Needless to say, they suffered severe drought and famine. Ahab apparently conducted an extensive search for Elijah, thinking perhaps to force him to beseech God for rain. His search failed because God kept Elijah safe and supplied with food and drink.

When at last God told Elijah to return to Ahab, his first assignment before dealing with the drought was to confront the prophets of Baal. But before he could propose a showdown, Ahab accused him of troubling Israel.

Elijah didn’t let the accusation stand. Rather, he turned it back on Ahab:

He said, “I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father’s house have, because you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and you have followed the Baals. (1 Kings 18:18)

Of course today such a statement would be seen as further evidence of a hateful, intolerant, unloving attitude.

I think this is why New Testament writers like Paul and Peter were instructing Christians about how to handle things like false accusations and suffering. Peter in his first letter makes a strong case for suffering for the sake of righteousness, not for wrong doing:

and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong. (1 Peter 3:16-17 – emphasis added)

In the end, it seems the only thing we as believers in Jesus Christ can do is live godly lives. Earlier Peter said

Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation . . . For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. (1 Peter 2:12, 15)

Hypocrites! Hateful! Greedy! The accusations will come. The key is to silence our critics, not by taking a defensive stand, even though that worked for Elijah, but by exhibiting good behavior with which the accusers cannot argue.

Published in: on November 30, 2012 at 6:54 pm  Comments (1)  
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Is Evil Winning?


Yesterday I wrote a post at Spec Faith about evil as I believe J. R. R. Tolkien understood it. One point stood out as I wrote the article–the world of Middle Earth which Tolkien created was faced with defeat. If the protagonist of the story didn’t succeed in his task, no matter what the other characters did, evil would win.

In other words, their efforts were largely meaningless. They continued to fight evil, though they understood it to be hopeless, because it was the right thing to do, because they believed they should stay the course, because it was all they could do unless they gave in to despair.

Also yesterday Mike Duran wrote a post about whether or not Christians should bother with changing the world. As he probed the question, he received answers that can best be described as fatalistic.

There seemed to be two threads–one that said God would do what God would do no matter how we voted or prayed, and the other that evil was on a downward spiral, as prophesied in Scripture, and there was nothing we could do to stop it or change it.

I’m not happy with these fatalistic approaches. Yes, I believe God is sovereign and in control. Yes, I believe that God will turn Mankind over to the depravity of his heart and there will be a day of reckoning.

However, I also know the story about a boy king reigning in the last century of Judah’s existence as a nation. He came to the throne when he was eight. When he was sixteen, he began to seek “the God of his father David.” When he was twenty he began to get rid of the idols all over the country. At twenty-six, with the idols all torn down, he decided to repair the temple.

During that process, the high priest found a copy of the book of the Law. Josiah read it and realized how great God’s wrath must be because of all the years and years Judah had wandered from Him. As a result, he led the nation in a revival. He made a covenant with God to follow Him and to keep His commandments. Consequently, during his lifetime “they did not turn from following the Lord God of their fathers) (2 Chron. 34:33b).

Nevertheless, twenty-two years, six months later, Judah fell to Babylon.

Was all that Josiah did for naught?

I don’t think his contemporaries would say so. They were free of idols and enjoyed the blessing God bestowed on their king because of his humble heart and his repentance.

What I learn from Josiah is that it’s never too late to repent. It’s never too late to turn from evil and do good. Will it change the course of the world? Maybe.

Martin Luther might be considered a priest who changed the course of the world because he, like Josiah, sought God and believed His written revelation.

Elizabeth Elliot might be considered a missionary who changed the course of a culture when she went back into the rain forest of Ecuador to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the people who murdered her husband.

But maybe not. God determined to bring the long-delayed judgment on Judah after Josiah’s death despite his godly rule. His faithfulness couldn’t reverse the fortunes of his nation, only delay them.

Isn’t that the point, though? Isn’t each person responsible for how we are to live our lives, how we are to affect those around us, not what happens after we’re gone?

The way we are to influence future generations is by teaching and training the next generation–those younger than we who stand right in front of us. They in turn are to teach and train the next generation, and that generation, the one after them.

Is evil winning? Ultimately, of course not. Christ already defeated the enemy at the cross.

And evil will not win on the temporal level as long as Christians are living what we say we believe, then turning around and teaching the next generation to go and do likewise.

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. (Deut. 6:4-7)

Stumbling Around In The Dark


A month or so ago I cut open my toe, which bled a lot, all because I was stumbling around in the dark. Granted, I was trying to get to a light to turn it on, but that doesn’t fit the metaphor I want to use. 😉

I thought about stumbling around in the dark when I read the story of Israel setting out to conquer the Promised Land. After Moses charged Joshua to lead the people, he died.

So there they were, on the wrong side of the Jordan, and lo and behold, as God had those past forty years, He came to their rescue First He gave them specific direction and then He worked a miracle so they could cross. More than that, He told them how to go about taking Jericho, and a week later He brought down the walls of that fortified city.

All this time God had appeared among them as a cloud in the day and a pillar of fire at night. This Presence either filled the tabernacle–the tent where they were to offer sacrifices and where the High Priest was to meet with God–or moved away, which meant they were to break camp and follow.

I haven’t found anywhere in Scripture that says when God no longer moved with them in this way. I wonder if He would have continued to do so until they finished conquering the land (a process that took at least five years). But apparently the people decided they no longer needed Him to tell them were to go.

Hence, Joshua sent spies to the little town of Ai, decided they could take it with a mere 3000 men, and sent them off. God, however, was not with them. Those Israelites were routed. Then and only then did Joshua and the elders of the tribes fall on their faces before God. Graciously He told them what the problem was: disobedience.

He even helped them determine who the disobedient person was and then passed judgment on him. Once again He was prepared to lead His people. This time he gave Joshua a battle plan. He was to put men in ambush, then draw the opposition away from the city.

The plan worked perfectly and Ai fell.

So why didn’t Israel continue to let God lead them?

After Ai, a group of people nearby decided they didn’t want to die and they didn’t want to leave their homes and they didn’t want to forsake their gods, so they came up with a plan to fool Israel into making a treaty with them.

Israel fell for it.

So all this time they’d lived in the light, guided by God’s pillar of cloud or fire, and now they couldn’t even seem to ask Him if making a treaty with these people was a good idea.

They abandoned the light in favor of stumbling in the dark.

Before we think too harshly of them, perhaps we should first think about our own prayer life and see exactly what we are asking God. Already I can hear a handful of people saying, Oh, but God doesn’t work in that way any more.

Really? You mean having the Holy Spirit living in my life is less advantageous than having God’s presence fill the tabernacle? I don’t think so. Rather, I think, just as the people of Israel did before Ai and before making that treaty, we ignore the light and stumble along in the dark. Scripture calls this quenching the Holy Spirit.

I can’t help but wonder how many Ai’s we would successfully conquer or how many treaties we would avoid if we walked in the light instead.

Published in: on October 25, 2012 at 5:35 pm  Comments (2)  
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