The Early Church And Problems


I’m amazed at some of the crazy ideas that atheists have regarding God’s word. Of course the standard idea that they repeat over and over—as if saying it a lot will make it true—is that the Bible is just a bunch of made up myths.

That concept is so full of holes, it could be a good colander.

One of the holes I have noticed lately is the fact that whoever the critiques are claiming “made up” the Bible, would have to be fairly dumb to include the stuff they did.

I mean, more than once Christians have pointed out that women, who were not accepted as witnesses in a Jewish court, were the first witnesses to report that Jesus had risen. Even further back, shepherds, we were considered the lowest in the social strata of the day, were the witnesses of the angelic announcement of Messiah’s birth.

Who does that? I mean, who makes up such a story with witnesses who had no standing in society?

But I’ve been thinking of late about the early Church and the idea that the Biblical account of its inception was fabricated.

I suppose the events recorded in Acts would sound exciting—I mean, conflict that led to near riots, arrests and beatings, miraculous earthquakes, and a prison break led by an angel. Some might think that, yes, a myth maker was behind such exciting and improbably stories.

But after Acts?

The following letters are filled with reproof and warning and censure. Take 1 Corinthians, for example. Paul wrote that letter to a church in Greece as a way of addressing problems that he’d heard about. There were divisions and immorality and church workers who weren’t being paid and the question about eating food that had come from an idol temple.

Add on a serious lack of love and some concern about pride resulting from the exercise of spiritual gifts. The scene was not pretty. This church had deep problems.

Would someone inventing a mythological letter about a mythological Savior have really created such a flawed, needy group?

The other letters aren’t much different. The New Testament writers warned about false teachers and “evil workers.” They warned against a “different gospel,” and against those who would come into the Church as wolves in sheep’s clothing.

The book of Hebrews has as its central theme the reasons someone who turned to Christ should not desert Him after empty years of waiting for His return and of increased persecution. James and Peter specifically address the suffering that the new churches were experiencing.

But would someone inventing a religion and writing mythical letters to pretend churches, ever come up with such negative content? Wouldn’t they be more apt to write about how joyful and loving and prosperous the new churches had become, how they were growing daily?

Why would they deal with the conflict between Jews and Gentiles and not simply paint over the fact that some Jewish Christians tried to force circumcision and dietary laws on the non-Jewish believers? Or that some were saying God’s grace meant Christians could “sin all the more.”

Really, if the New Testament is myth, the guys who made it up were pretty foolish. They made up the things that made Christianity look dangerous and risky. Nothing about those letters would win someone to Christ—unless they actually were written by God’s Holy Spirit, not for the sake of growing a church, but for the edification of it. The building up, not the building out.

But the way God works, as Christians matured and learned from the examples of Paul and Barnabas and Timothy and Peter and James and all the other first or second generation leaders, the Church also gained in numbers. Seemingly it didn’t matter how many Christians lost their lives in the Colosseum, more converts joined the persecuted Way.

That’s counter-intuitive, too. Why would anyone invent the stories and letters of the Bible, and not use the opportunity to declare how successful they were as they withstood Rome?

But of course the Bible doesn’t read like the mythology invented by humans for human ends, because it is actually God breathed and the historic events really happened, the letters were really circulated to real churches dealing with real problems.

Consequently, the Bible contains the unexpected, the “underbelly” of the early Church, the parts that most people would not include in their Christmas letter, let alone a letter that was accepted by others as Scripture.

And yes, Peter referred to Paul’s letters as Scripture, so from the beginning the leaders of the early Church knew the documents we now have collect as the Bible, to be inspired by God, profitable for teaching, correction, reproof, training.

Even though they contained a lot of dirty laundry.

Advertisements
Published in: on July 5, 2018 at 5:22 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , ,

A Personal Relationship With Jesus Christ


At my Facebook atheist/theist group, one of the atheists posted a question of sorts, asking Christians to describe their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, because, he said, if the thing is not demonstrable, then there’s some question it even exists.

I’ve thought about the question a bit. The thing is, I don’t think an atheist can understand my answer. How does a believer explain the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? Or the peace that passes understanding?

As I thought about my answer this morning, I left out the “demonstrable” part, as in, what I assume he was asking for—something other people can observe.

I can say that because of my relationship with Jesus, I read the Bible and pray. The Atheist Guy (AG) would likely answer that I was reading myths and saying words to the air. Because he can’t see Jesus.

My Christian friends, those in real life and on the web all know that reading God’s word is reading words of life and praying is the greatest expression of our thoughts and needs, or potentially can be so, to Him who loves us most. But how can those outside the faith knows this?

Another thing that is “demonstrable” is my going to church, but then people without a relationship with God through Christ might also attend some place of worship. That’s just a religious thing if you aren’t hearing the truth and if you aren’t meeting with God and with His people.

I could list service things or career things, but the atheist can once again point to people of other faiths or no faith who do good and some who even alter their career to serve others. So what does knowing Jesus do that nothing else does?

It’s not really something anyone else can witness. The first thing that came to my mind as I pondered the question is a tag line from a friend’s Christian fantasy: “Never alone.” Because the Spirit of the Living God dwells in my heart, I literally am never alone. He’s with me when I see the snow-capped mountains or a rosebush bursting with blossoms. He’s with me when my friend needs prayer because of a surprise medical condition or a death in her church family.

God is with me when I read His word or listen to the preaching of it. He nudges my heart into realization that the Bible is living and active. It’s not distant and irrelevant or old-fashioned and culturally flawed. It’s vibrant and powerful, and the Holy Spirit, who is with me, brings the truth of Scripture to bear in my life and my circumstances.

I know the AG won’t get any of that.

He won’t get how important it is for me to sit at the Lord’s table or how God gives me living water, how His presence comforts me in times of sorrow and grief. How He quiets my fears, and certainly not how I can turn to Him any time of any day and know He hears my cry.

The AG can’t know how God answers my cries for help, sometimes by sending godless strangers to bail me out of a pickle, sometimes by giving a friend words of wisdom, sometimes by directing my reading to a certain article or book, sometimes by speaking to me in my spirit.

Are these things that an atheist will be able to see and understand as God working in my life because we have a relationship? I doubt it. Most often I’ve heard, “coincidence” or “imagined” in conjunction to God’s answered prayer.

The thing is, whenever I think of living without God, I can’t imagine going on. I don’t mean that to sound moribund. But I don’t understand what an atheist does when they hear a loved one is sick or has been in an accident or if he loses his job. Who do you turn to for help, I wonder. How do you get through the death of a loved one, if you have no hope and no comfort? I can’t imagine going on.

I can’t imagine life without worship. What do atheists do during the proverbial “minute of silence” in a public gathering? Who do they thank for a glorious sunset? Who do they turn to when disaster devastates a community?

The old adage is, There are no atheists in foxholes, which is kind of true if we look at the response of Americans immediately following the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The problem is, as quickly as people turn to God for rescue in crisis, they turn from Him in times of security.

A real relationship with God means we aren’t foul-weather friends—we don’t just care about Him when times are tough.

I can hardly talk about a relationship with God through His Son Jesus without mentioning joy. But how can I explain that sense of well-being and contentment and satisfaction and an awareness of being completely loved, even at the most desperate times?

How can I explain how freeing it feels to be completely forgiven? How can I show AG how different Jesus Christ has made me and is making me as the years go by? How can I explain that my relationship with Him colors my whole worldview, and influences what I write, what I do, how I vote, what I watch on TV—all of it.

I guess what I’m really asking is, how can I make “demonstrable” new life in Christ?

I’m a new creature, I want to shout. Old things just aren’t appealing any more. I don’t have a certain set of ethics because I have to but because I want to. I serve God in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter of the Law.

None of this is “demonstrable,” but all of it marks me as God’s child, His heir, because I’ve been adopted into the beloved. It certainly is enough for me to be sure about my personal relationship with Jesus Christ, even though others may not see it.

God Helps Those Who Help Themselves?


888698_my_new_bicycleI’m not sure where the adage “God helps those who help themselves” got its start. It sounds very American, very responsible, very “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”—and God would approve of this, so He’ll lend a helping hand.

I picture a parent running along side his son or daughter who is learning to ride a bike. The dad has a hand just behind the seat, keeping the bike in balance until the child gets the hang of it and takes off. Then Dad lets go, stands back, applauds when Daughter weaves her way back to him.

God is like that, right?

No, He’s not.

First, He does not exist for our sake; we exist for Him. He isn’t our bodyguard, cheerleader, or fix-it man. He is God!

Amazingly, He wants a relationship with us—friendship, familial interaction, shared love. He also wants us to obey Him, worship Him, serve Him, glorify Him. He, in turn, wants to shepherd us, strengthen us, even exalt us at the proper time.

But help us?

Not surprisingly the Old Testament wisdom literature, particularly Job and Psalms has a great deal to say about God as our help. In any number of verses, the writer says he cries to God for help. In other passages, God is praised for being a help.

A number of different words are used, most conveying the idea of “succor”—assistance and support in times of hardship and distress. Psalm 27:9 is a good example:

Do not hide Your face from me,
Do not turn Your servant away in anger;
You have been my help;
Do not abandon me nor forsake me, O God of my salvation (emphasis mine)

There are also verses that state God’s intention to help His people:

“For I am the LORD your God, who upholds your right hand,
Who says to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you.’ ” (Isaiah 41:13)

Is it significant that this concept is almost non-existent in the New Testament? I think so. When Jesus walked on earth people asked Him for help—mostly to help a physical ailment, but even to help with the problem of unbelief.

He explained to His disciples that when He went away, He would send a Helper, a paraklētos. According to Strong’s, the term is used

of the Holy Spirit destined to take the place of Christ with the apostles (after his ascension to the Father), to lead them to a deeper knowledge of the gospel truth, and give them divine strength needed to enable them to undergo trials and persecutions on behalf of the divine kingdom

No longer, then, do those who are God’s own need to plead for Him to help. He already has, by giving us the Helper to live with us and in us.

It seems to me, the times I plead for God to help—and there have been times—I am less aware of God’s presence and provision. Of course, in emergencies, it’s hard to keep a level head, to think through the truths of God’s word. I suppose that’s the very reason it’s important to “practice the presence” of God daily.

I’m not sure I really like that phrase. It seems as if I have something to do with God being with me or not. The truth is, whether I am aware or not, He is with me. But my awareness influences my decisions and my attitude. I am much less inclined to worry, for example, when I remember that God is with me, that He is sovereign and omnipotent and good.

All this to say, God isn’t running along side me as I struggle on my own to accomplish whatever I wish, so He can be available if I cry out when I’m about to crash.

Rather, God has taken up residence in my life. I am His. I don’t need Him to help me—I need Him! He is sufficient no matter what my circumstances. In fact, because He is infinite God, limitless in His attributes, He loves and gives, provides and protects like no one else could.

That includes anything I could do for myself. 😉

This post is the final article in the short series of Evangelical Myths, first appearing here in June, 2013.

Published in: on February 6, 2018 at 4:38 pm  Comments (4)  
Tags: , , ,

What Does “Believe In Jesus” Mean?


woman-praying-840879-mI’m glad I didn’t sit under some of the Bible teaching as a young person that I’ve heard as an adult. Don’t get me wrong. I respect the preachers and I believe what they say, but it’s not what I needed to hear as a young, immature Christian who often doubted my salvation.

The message these pastors are giving is undoubtedly intended to counter “easy believe-ism.” This false teaching wasn’t familiar to me, but apparently some people claim that as long as you say “the sinner’s prayer” you’re going to heaven no matter what you do thereafter. It sounds sort of like a “works” salvation, with “works” reduced to one—saying a prayer “accepting Jesus into your heart.”

I understand why pastors are standing against this approach to salvation. There’s so much it leaves out. Where’s the part about repentance, about taking up our cross and following Christ, about entering into a relationship with Him, about obeying God, loving Him first and loving our neighbor more than we do ourselves?

The truth is, though, I became a Christian by asking Jesus into my heart.

I was young, a small child. I don’t remember the specific time I first prayed to receive Christ (yes, first—I’ll get to that in a bit), but I do remember asking a Sunday school teacher how Jesus, pictured as a man on a flannel graph, could fit into my heart.

Chuckle if you must, but I think that’s a good question. It’s not normal to invite a person “into your heart.” Anyone who does so without understanding what he’s doing, very well might not actually be doing it.

That poor, dear, wonderful teacher did her best to explain that it wasn’t Jesus’s body that would come live inside me but His Spirit. So, I wondered, why don’t we say we’re accepting the Holy Spirit, but I don’t think I actually asked that question, possibly because the teacher explained that it was Jesus who died for me, Jesus who paid for my sins.

I got it. But I had another question. Again, I don’t have a clear recollection of the sequence of these events, but at some point when I was six or seven, I wasn’t so sure if I agreed that all had sinned and come short of God’s standard. I knew a few Bible stories by this time, so I figured if I could just think of one person in the Bible who hadn’t sinned, then maybe I could be like him. (I shared a little more about this incident in this post: “My Deceitful Heart.”) I mean, what evil had I done at six? Obviously I hadn’t yet learned about pride and self-righteousness.

I was probably in fifth grade, maybe fourth, when I came across John 3:18. I was playing alone in my room, pretending to be a preacher (I hadn’t learned yet what the Bible says about women and teaching in the church, either 😉 ). I opened my Bible to about the only passage I knew by heart, John 3:16, and started in explaining what it all meant to my pretend congregation. But when I got through that verse, I had more sermon I wanted to preach, so I went on to verse 17, then verse 18. And when I explained the part about Jesus not coming to condemn but that those who didn’t believe in Him were condemned already because they didn’t believe, I got it.

Salvation wasn’t about toeing the line, because none of us could. We were all condemned. Believing in Jesus gave us a pardon.

I was still confused about a lot of things—most particularly why I continued to sin. It gave me no end of doubt about my salvation and contributed to my “accepting Jesus” any number of times because I just didn’t know if it was enough that I meant it when I said it but later acted like I didn’t.

What was it I meant? That I knew I was a sinner, that I knew Jesus had died in my place, that He would forgive me if I believed in Him, and that I would have everlasting life, which meant I’d go to heaven.

I didn’t want to go to heaven particularly. Everything I heard about it made it sound kind of boring, but I knew I didn’t want to go to hell, so I pretty much just wanted to keep living on earth.

That changed, many years later when I read C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and came to understand that eternal life is Real Life.

I could go on and tell how one by one God added to my understanding and corrected my misunderstanding. But the point is, my “faith journey”—actually my walk with Christ—started because someone asked me if I wanted to pray to accept Jesus into my heart.

Are there false conversions, people who prayed “the prayer” and who have not continued with Christ? I’m sure there are. That’s what Jesus said in the parable about the sower and the seed. Some seed sprang up, but weeds choked it. Some seed fell on the side of the road and was trampled or the birds snatched it away (Luke 8:5-7). Jesus explained it this way:

Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. (Luke 8:12-14)

So who, then, believes in Jesus? I’m convinced I was “born again” when I first put my trust in Him as a small child. My faith wasn’t grounded in theology and it wasn’t mature. It didn’t need to be. It only need to be, because the work wasn’t mine. It was and is Christ’s.

After all, that’s what Scripture says:

but these [signs] have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:31)

And after [the jailer] brought [Paul and Silas] out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved (Act 16:30-31a).

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in February 20011.

Wasn’t He Supposed To Wait Tables?


Stephen and Phillip lived in the first century when the Church had it’s beginning.

Generally Stephen is referred to as the first Christian martyr, and yet when you look at the Biblical account of his life, short though the record is, you discover that his position in the church, like Phillip’s, would have falling under the category of “helps.” I suppose the equivalent in my church would have been the now-defunct position of “deacon.”

Stephen was one of the seven men chosen to take care of a group of widows who were not receiving what they needed. When made aware of the problem, the apostles told the Church that they, tasked with teaching the fledgling believers, ought not “neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.”

The plan, then, was for the Church to choose seven men “of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.” The apostles would then be free to focus on “prayer and the ministry of the word.”

One of the seven was Philip, and yet somehow he ended up going to Samaria and preaching to crowds. At what must have seemed like the height of that ministry, however, the Spirit of God sent him back to Judea in order to explain Scripture to an Ethiopian traveling back home from Jerusalem.

After he baptized the man, the Spirit of the Lord “snatched” him away and he ended up near the Mediterranean Sea, in Azotus (present day Esdûd), one of the five chief cities of the Philistines, where he picked up his preaching again. On he went from there to Caesarea, proclaiming the gospel in all the cities along the way.

And this was one of those men chosen to serve tables.

Stephen did what Philip was doing, but more so. After Scripture notes that the apostles prayed for the seven chosen to care for the needs of the widows, it next states that Stephen performed “great wonders and signs among the people.”

Hmmm, sounds like more than serving tables.

As if that wasn’t enough, a bunch of Jews, some originally from Greece and some from Asia, began arguing with him. The problem was, they were no match for Stephen’s wisdom, not to mention the Spirit with which he spoke (see Acts 6:10).

In retaliation they persuaded a handful of men to lie and say that Stephen had blasphemed. They also stirred up the people and eventually dragged him before the Sanhedrin.

In front of this group of the most important Jewish leaders of the day, Stephen preached a sermon like few others, to the point that the hearts of those that heard him were pricked. You might say, in today’s parlance, their consciences were seared.

As a result, they attacked him and stoned him to death.

By point of reminder, Stephen was one of the seven chosen to serve tables.

Since when did serving tables become so dangerous?

Well, obviously they didn’t kill Stephen for serving tables. They killed him because he didn’t confine himself to just serving tables.

That’s the issue, I think. In today’s desire for efficiency and clarity and categorizing, we study the spiritual gifts the Bible talks about and we take tests to determine which gift we have. Then we know what our ministry focus should be and we pigeonhole ourselves into a slot.

Not that there isn’t value in discovering our spiritual gifts. But I tend to think today’s Western Christian, myself included, doesn’t think large enough. We think, I’ve got this little greeter job, or this class of seven-year-olds, or this newsletter to create. What if God wants us to preach to crowds even though the job the church has commissioned us for is to work the sound equipment Sunday morning?

Here’s the question: Why should we let our church job define our ministry? Philip didn’t and neither did Stephen, though it cost him his life.

I wonder if today we are too afraid of what preaching boldly would cost. Not our lives, but perhaps our reputation, our job, or peace in our little corner of the world.

Not that we should go out looking for a fight, but I don’t think that’s what Stephen did. Instead, he let the Holy Spirit use him how He wished, whether that meant serving tables or preaching in front of the religious elite, or dying for doing so.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in June 2012.

Joy And The Holy Spirit


Most Christians have probably heard or read that joy is not the same thing as happiness. I think we’re pretty clear about the distinction.

A quick study reveals that joy is grouped with patience, peace, love, faithfulness, and a few other traits to constitute the fruit of the Spirit.

Why, then, I ask myself, do I think I need to manufacture joy?

And since the Holy Spirit is the source of joy, wouldn’t it be fair to say, if I’m not experiencing joy, I must be quenching the Holy Spirit?

I mean, Galatians 5:22-23 doesn’t make joy an optional piece of fruit. If we have the Spirit, we have the fruit. It’s a matter, then, of walking by the Spirit (Gal. 5:25). Or not.

As I’m writing this, the little chorus “The joy of the Lord is our strength” comes to mind. The words simply repeat that line over and over — a line from Nehemiah 8:10.

The returned exiles, struggling to make a go of it in the homeland most of them had never seen before, asked Ezra, one of their leaders, to read the book of the law. He read from dawn to midday. A group of others then explained the text and taught the people what it all meant.

Their reaction? Nope, not joy.

They were weeping and mourning. The Law exposed their sin, and they were undone.

That’s when Nehemiah stepped in. Stop crying, he said. Today is a holy day, set aside for the Lord. Get up and let the feast begin. Don’t grieve. The joy of the Lord is your strength.

And the people calmed down, got up, and celebrated “because they understood the words which had been made known to them” (Neh. 8:12).

Except, two verses earlier, their understanding caused them to grieve. But now? Celebration. How can that be explained apart from the joy of the Lord?

The Spirit convicts of sin. The proper response should be sorrow leading to repentance. And then comes joy, not a manufactured joy or an inauthentic emotion.

The reality was, their circumstances hadn’t changed. They were still returned exiles struggling to get it together. In their own estimation, they were still slaves:

Behold, we are slaves today,
And as to the land which
You gave to our fathers to eat of its fruit and its bounty,
Behold, we are slaves in it.
Its abundant produce is for the kings
Whom You have set over us because of our sins;
They also rule over our bodies
And over our cattle as they please,
So we are in great distress. (Neh 9:36-37)

Under those circumstances, Nehemiah gave them that salient truth: The joy of the Lord is your strength. Not bitterness or complaining, certainly. But not continued grieving, either. And not what we rely on today, a can-do spirit.

Their strength came from what only the Spirit could provide — joy from the Lord.

Ironic, then, that quenching the Spirit leads to the opposite of what someone going through difficult circumstances needs — strength. The little recap of Jewish history in Nehemiah 9 spells it out:

You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them,
Your manna You did not withhold from their mouth,
And You gave them water for their thirst. (v. 20, emphasis mine)

Indeed, forty years You provided for them in the wilderness and they were not in want;
Their clothes did not wear out, nor did their feet swell. (v 21)

You also gave them kingdoms and peoples … (v. 22)

You made their sons numerous as the stars of heaven … (v. 23)

So their sons entered and possessed the land… (v. 24)

They captured fortified cities and a fertile land… (v. 25)

But they became disobedient and rebelled against You (v. 26, emphasis added)

Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their oppressors who oppressed them. (v. 27)

Listening to God’s Spirit strengthened the people; rebelling against Him, didn’t.

So what was it those Israelites Nehemiah addressed, understood that made it possible for them to calm down, stop grieving, and celebrate?

Not a change in their circumstances, as I’ve noted. Not the promise of a change in their circumstances either. Rather, I believe they understood how faithful the Lord is and how He had not left them or forsaken them, and that He would not. They had the Lord, so they had His joy which gave them strength.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in August 2011.

The Third Person


Christians agree—God is a triune person. The problem is, we often act as if He’s two in one, not three.

In some groups which claim the name of Christ, the Holy Spirit is elevated so much that you’d hardly think the Father was part of the Godhead, but in other groups, the very thought that the Holy Spirit has some part in giving the Christian guidance today, has them shouting, “Heresy.”

OK, both those sketches are somewhat exaggerated, but not by much. On one hand are those who believe the ecstatic gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially speaking in tongues, are the true evidence that a person is a Christian. On the other are Christians who believe that those particular gifts—speaking and interpreting tongues, prophecy, healing—have ceased. They were existent in the early church, but now that we have the Bible, no more.

There is even a segment of Christendom that apparently believes any inner leading of the Holy Spirit that can’t be confirmed by Scripture is evidence of Gnosticism.

In other words, if I pray and ask God for direction regarding a career change or for leading in ministry choices, the leading that I then might claim would be considered as some kind of esoteric knowledge that we can’t actually obtain. What, then, I ask, does the Holy Spirit do?

If we strip Him of His gifts and of His function to guide us, is His work as our Comforter next? Or as the Person who convicts of sin?

Ah, someone may well say, the Spirit does guide us—into Truth. He brings Scripture to mind, but He doesn’t tell us what toothpaste to buy. Fair enough. I believe that too. But I also believe when we pray something akin to the lines Jesus modeled for us—lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil—that the Holy Spirit answers quite specifically.

Why wouldn’t He? Jesus demonstrated great concern for the details of people’s lives—if they had enough food or wine, if they had a sick mother-in-law or daughter, if they had money for taxes or gave their last coin as an offering, if they were married or blind, if they had dirty feet, or an inappropriate desire to be first in His kingdom. He cared for the most marginalized members of society—lepers, women, children, the disabled, the demon possessed. He touched, cleansed, raised up, healed, and taught. And He told His disciples it would be better for them after He left.

Better?

But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. (John 16:7 — emphasis mine).

Honestly, I’m really ignorant about the Holy Spirit. But one thing I learned early on in my Christian life—that the presence of the Holy Spirit is one way we can be assured of our salvation: “We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us” (1 John 3:24b).

Of equal importance, John went on to say in the next chapter that we need to test the spirits: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

So there’s the dilemma with which the Christian lives—the Spirit might be guiding us, but what we think is of God might be false. The fact is, we need discernment.

We are told not to quench the Spirit. How do we not quench the Spirit if we don’t recognize His voice? And if we say He only speaks what He’s already spoken in Scripture, isn’t that already a form of quenching Him?

Jesus said something amazing to His disciples: If you want that mountain tossed into the sea, pray believing and it will happen (Mark 11:22-24). Except . . . how do I know if I should pray for the mountain to be tossed into the sea? Isn’t that sort of a Big Deal, one that could affect countless other people? Shouldn’t I be sure that moving the mountain is what God wants? Or do I just willy-nilly pray for whatever I think might be a solution to the things I’m concerned for and then see what sticks—the old spaghetti-against-the-wall trick. (When I was a kid, I did pray for a mountain to be moved, except I knew I didn’t really believe it would, so figured that was a failed experiment since I didn’t meet the condition 🙄 ).

My point here is this. Jesus gave a very specific something to pray, something we can’t know is His will by looking into Scripture. We can find principles that can guide us, but from that point is it up to us to make the decision what specifically we should pray, or ought we not expect the Holy Spirit to guide us, nudge us, disquiet us, urge us, focus us, wake us, stir us? Ultimately, do we not experience the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives more often because we’ve become so skeptical we aren’t looking for Him to be active?

This post is a reprint of an article that first appeared here November 2011.

Published in: on July 22, 2016 at 6:40 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , ,

Comfort


Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, an hour from the MK school where I taught


Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, an hour from the MK school where I taught

Of late I’ve railed against Christians in the West who seem more concerned about comfort and ease than about righteousness and godliness. It’s the I’d-rather-be-happy-than-holy syndrome. But the other day I read a response to 2 Corinthians 1—a chapter that talks a great deal about comfort—and realized that comfort, like so many words, has multiple meanings.

I’ve known about the Biblical kind of comfort that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, gives to believers way back when I was teaching at a missionary children’s boarding school in Guatemala. A few other teachers and I got together for a Bible study, and of all things we chose 2 Corinthians to study.

Right away we had to deal with the subject of comfort, and by extension, the reason we need comfort: suffering. Yep. Comfort that the Holy Spirit gives is the kind of arms-wrapped-around-a-grieving-person kind of empathy. An I’ve-got-you kind of presence. A lean-on-Me whisper to one about to collapse under the weight of anguish or despair or bereavement.

Here’s what Paul said after his intro:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (vv 3-4)

I admit, I was taken aback when I read the first lines of the response penned by a person in our church as part of our “Ears to Hear” read-through of the New Testament:

I guess that when I think of comfort, I first think of “ease and comfort.” This is like the easy life, or “the life of Riley” as people said a while back.

Somehow I’d divorced the word comfort from its dual meanings. It never crossed my mind that the Bible was talking about anything other than the empathetic care and concern God has for us when we are going through hardship. And as the next verses show, Paul was particularly thinking of the hardship Christians experienced because of their faith in Christ.

So, could the word refer to the ease and comfort notion, especially that which a group of professing Christians hold to be ours for the claiming? Was Paul saying that God greases the wheels for those dealing with affliction so that they’ll quickly move to a place of comfort and ease? That they’ll be relieved of their troubles and will soon embrace health, wealth, and happiness?

I think that’s a perverse interpretation. It cheapens what God actually promises. The original word which we translate as comfort is parakaleō, and it’s first meaning is “to call to one’s side, call for, summon.” Clearly, the promise God is giving to those suffering is His presence. It also means “to console, to encourage and strengthen by consolation, to comfort.” God’s promise, then, is that He will build up the suffering saint in the inner being.

This understanding fits particularly with Paul’s autobiographical illustration, when he and those with him were so hard pressed by the opposition that they “despaired even of life” (v 8b). They were either so overwhelmed they felt like giving up or they saw no way to escape those who were trying to kill them. Either way, Paul needed comfort.

The other thing that caught my attention in these verses about comfort is that God wants us to turn around and give to others what He gave to us. I’ve seen this principle at work often, and it is beautiful. Perhaps the first time I experienced it was when my dad died suddenly of a heart attack. He hadn’t been in the hospital a day in his life, and suddenly he was gone.

Needless to say, I was in need of comfort. One of my neighbors, who I knew only in passing, took the time to put his arm around me and say, I know what you’re going through. I lost my dad in the same way when I was young. Suddenly I was not alone. I could grieve with someone who understood, and it was . . . a great comfort.

Since then, I’ve been able to put my arm around others and say, I know what you’re going through. I lost my dad suddenly, too.

In God’s economy, He gives us comfort, not for us to hoard, but to share. We generously receive from His hand that we may in turn give to others in their time of need. This kind of comfort, by the way, is not the lie so many give: It’s OK.

It’s not OK that you lost a loved one. Death is the enemy, a result of sin, a foe that needed a Victorious Warrior to defeat it. It’s not OK that you’re suffering for your faith. That’s sin and Satan working to cover your light, to make your salt useless. It’s not OK that you lost your job or that your spouse cheated on you or that your son is on drugs. The sin of this world that affects us personally is not OK. It’s NOT! So why do people trying to bring comfort say that it is?

When we admit that the suffering we’re experiencing is wrong and that it hurts and that it changes all of life, then we can accept the comfort God offers for us. When we’re at a helpless state, God sends the Helper.

He won’t lie to us and tell us it’s OK. He will say, I’ll be with you when the waters overflow, I’ll never leave you or forsake you, I’ll walk with you through the valley of the shadow of death. And that’s the kind of comfort a sufferer needs.

Published in: on July 6, 2016 at 5:55 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , ,

The Problem With Salvation


In the previous three posts (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday), I addressed the reality of sin and the need each of us has for the good news, that God has rescued us from the mess of our own making. But that’s only part of the story. More than what God has saved us from is the reality of what God has saved us to.

I addressed this in a post a number of years ago, and I want to reprise that article today.

– – – – –

When I was a kid, growing up in a Christian home, I attended Sunday school regularly. My first recollection of an explanation about sin and salvation is tied to heaven and hell.

Later I attended a Bible club and received a Wordless Book that reinforced the concepts.

Clearly, I did not want to go to Hell. If Heaven was the only alternative, then that’s where I wanted to go, and if Jesus could get me there, then I wanted to accept Him “into my heart.”

I had to get past the idea of a shrunken version of Jesus fitting into my heart, and one Sunday school teacher was able to explain, the Holy Spirit was actually the One who would live in my heart.

Why didn’t they just say so, I thought. I had a vague understanding of the Holy Spirit because a lot of hymns called Him the Holy Ghost. Ghosts didn’t sound holy to me, so I had already asked my parents about that one. I don’t remember what they told me, but it must have been adequate for a child’s understanding because I wasn’t troubled by further questions until much later.

But I digress. From my own experience, from listening to others tell their testimony and to some venting about unhappy religious backgrounds, I see confusion when it comes to the issue of salvation.

In part I think this is because some of us never grow up in our understanding of God. But another contributing factor, I think, is that I had an experience of being saved from Hell rather than an experience of being saved to God.

Any teacher, coach, and most parents will tell you that part of training involves laying out consequences. God deals with us the same way. He tells us what the wages of sin is, just as He warned Adam what would happen if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

So Sunday school teachers who spoke of Hell were not inventing something or using scare tactics. They were telling the truth.

However, escape from Hell isn’t all that great in and of itself. For years I worried about boredom sitting on those clouds, playing a miniature harp for all of eternity.

Eventually my understanding began to grow and my relationship with God began to develop, but it took years.

I had one friend in college who had serious questions about God, in part because she had questions about eternity. My answers were woeful and unbiblical, and she dismissed Christianity in the face of them.

That experience drove me to ask more questions.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

  1. Salvation seems to be less important to some people than their efforts to earn it.
  2. Salvation is much more about being in God’s company than anything else. The real terror isn’t Hell. It’s separation from God. Conversely, Heaven is only great because God makes it great.
  3. Christ provides the only access to God.
  4. Because salvation is really a relationship, it is dynamic.
  5. I don’t have to wait for “later” to experience the joy of my salvation.
  6. The relationship I now have with God grows like any other relationship. If I spend time with Him, I am close to Him. If I don’t, I’m not.
  7. Right now, my relationship with God is more like an Internet friendship. I know Him in part, in the ways He’s revealed Himself to me. Someday, I’ll know Him in person.

This article originally appeared here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction in August, 2009.

Published in: on June 27, 2016 at 4:33 pm  Comments Off on The Problem With Salvation  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Does God Still Speak In A Still, Small Voice?


I missed the National Day of Prayer. Again. It was last Thursday, Cinco de Mayo. I intended to write something appropriate, maybe linking the two together, but best laid plans and all . . . Today I want to re-post an article, which first appeared here in November 2011, that appropriately addresses prayer—our communication with God and His with us.

– – –

praying_guy-429125-mFrom the beginning of time, God communicated with Man. Adam and Eve knew Him in such a close way, they talked with Him as anyone might talk to their friend. Because of sin, however, God’s intimate communication with His creation changed. He still talked with Cain and Abel, but by the time of Noah, not many people were listening.

In a later generation Abraham heard God speak, and eventually so did his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. When Joseph came along, though, he knew God’s voice only through dreams.

Moses was a throw-back — God spoke to him and even to the entire company he led out of Egypt. No still, small voice, this, however. The people were terrified of God and begged Moses to be the go-between so they wouldn’t have to hear from Him directly again.

From time to time throughout the remaining history of God’s chosen people Israel, judges, prophets, or kings heard from God, but they were now the exception rather than the rule. And still they sought Him and asked direction of Him. And why wouldn’t they? For forty years God’s presence had been with the nation in visible form. They camped where He wanted them to camp and departed when He wanted them to depart. They attacked peoples according to His direction and crossed rivers in the way He stipulated. They were used to God being in their lives in a real, tangible way.

No surprise, then, when their leaders turned to God and asked Him where they should go and who should be in the front of an impending attack.

More surprising, to Saul anyway, must have been God’s refusal to answer the king He had rejected. Saul was in a bind and wanted to know what he should do, so he went to God. No answer. He asked the priests who used some method of divination that wasn’t explained in Scripture but was referenced regularly. Still no answer. He went to the prophets. Nothing. Saul was experiencing the truth of Isaiah 59:1-2.

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short
That it cannot save,
Nor is His ear so dull
That it cannot hear;
But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,
And your sins have hid His face from you so that He does not hear.

After Saul came David, and he was unique — not in the Moses-throw-back way, but in the church-forerunner way. David, unlike, others in the Old Testament had the Holy Spirit with him permanently. Others experienced His presence on an occasional basis. He came on Saul, and He left. He came on Samson, and He left. He came on David, and He stayed:

Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” (1 Sam. 16:13a – emphasis mine)

The significant thing here is that David continued asking God what He wanted Him to do. Should He go up against the Philistines in Keilah? Would the men of Keilah deliver David into their hands? Should he pursue the Amalekites who raided his city? After Saul’s death should he go up to Judah? To which city?

And on it goes. David, filled with the Holy Spirit, asked specific direction from God — not the kind of instruction you can find in the Bible, if they had had a copy of the complete Scripture.

But here’s the thing. There is a segment of Christendom today that looks down on the kind of communication God had with David. Or perhaps more accurately, they look askance at it. Not those instances recorded in the Bible so much, but certainly any such communication a Christian would wish to have along those same lines today.

God spoke in the Bible. Period. The end. He doesn’t give people today any special or “secret” calling, they say.

I share their desire to preserve the integrity of the Word of God. I have no belief in some sort of esoteric, mystical path to God. There is only way way we can know Him and that’s laid out in the authoritative Word of God. But also laid out in the authoritative Word of God is communication with Him about very practical, mundane things. And also laid out in the authoritative Word of God is the truth about the Holy Spirit.

Jesus, for example, said that the Holy Spirit would “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26b). I wonder how He does that. Then there is Acts 1:8a — “but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” I wonder how that power manifests itself.

A specific instance of the Holy Spirit’s direction is recorded for us in Acts 13:2.

While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

I don’t know how still or small His voice was there, because apparently all who were gathered together heard Him.

Two important things here: the Holy Spirit not only spoke to them but He specified that He was calling Barnabas and Saul to a particular job.

Is God’s voice audible today? I’ve never heard it so, but that doesn’t mean He won’t speak to someone audibly if He wants to. When the Holy Spirit speaks into a Christian’s life, is it a secret message given only to him that flies in the face of God’s written Word? Never. The Holy Spirit is the author of the Bible. He would not give direction to one of His that would countermand the clear instruction He’s already given.

But He does hear and answer prayer, sometimes with a sequence of circumstances that are too on point to be coincidental, sometimes with a peace that surpasses understanding, and sometimes with a still small voice that gives the same kind of direction King David sought.

This is not Gnostic or heretical. It’s the way one person relates to another. God didn’t give up His right to talk to His people because He gave us the Bible. In fact He gave us the Holy Spirit so we would have a more intimate communication with Him than a good many of those people we read about in the Old Testament.

Think about it. Israel saw the Shekinah glory fill the temple, but today believers, saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, are the temple He fills.

Published in: on May 9, 2016 at 7:10 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , , , , ,