Jan 22

The Rationality of Biblical Faith (1)

The Rationality of Biblical Faith (1)

 

The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.

 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying,

 Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.

 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.

(Isa. 7:9-12 NRS)

 

In the Hebrew of the first sentence in the passage above, there is a word play whose force is difficult to convey in English. The same word is used in two different forms that give it slightly different connotations. It is something like “If you will not make firm (in trust), you cannot be firm (in the face of your enemies). The Hebrew term used is one that connotes reliability, and nouns formed from it include “truth” and “faithfulness.”

 

The opponents of Christian faith often equate “faith” with mere wishful thinking. Even Christian thinkers have compared it to jumping over the rail of a speeding ocean liner on a dark night in the expectation that we will be caught. That is not faith, but lunacy.

 

No, the Hebrew concept conveys something else. It is to put confidence in the reliability, the “truth” of someone. That is the whole thrust of the Bible: God has made some incredible promises, and then has fulfilled them. In other words, if we believe his promises (which is what Biblical faith is) there are very good reasons for doing so. As F. B. Meyer says, “Although our faith is sometimes more than rational, it is never irrational.”  Jesus told his followers before the fact that he would rise from the dead (). Then he did so, as a matter of fact. To believe in resurrection is more than rational. But the evidence we have been given for our faith is perfectly rational. This is true throughout the Scripture. We are not called to “blind faith,” but to confidently put our trust in God, to risk everything for him, because he has proven himself “true” again and again

Jan 06

Courtesy, Kindness and the Christian Life

Courtesy, Kindness, and the Christian Life

 

Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

(Phil. 2:2-5 NRS)

 

I suppose it is a sign of advancing age, but it seems that I remember more often these days some of the things my father said. One of them is, “You gotta think about the other fella.” How simple, and how increasingly absent from our common life these days. We are harried, stressed, anxious, and running late, and other people are just in our way.  “I don’t have time to be kind! Some other day!”

 

We often think of courtesy and kindness as simple, common things that we could pick up and do whenever we wish. But I don’t think that is true at all. Notice the word that is repeated three times in the passage quoted above. It is “mind,” which means attitude, or way of thinking, and in this case, a way of thinking about ourselves.

 

This “mind” is to put the concerns and needs of others before your own. That is the attitude of Jesus. He did not think about his own divine rights; he thought about our desperate need. But let me say that such an attitude is far from normal to us humans, and it is not something that can be packaged up as a nice, neat New Year’s resolution: “I am going to be kind to one person (who doesn’t deserve it!) every day.” Well, that’s not a bad idea, but like most good resolutions it won’t last without something deeper having taken place first. This kind of undeserved grace to others, this kind of incredible self-forgetfulness, is only possible to those who, like Jesus, have died to their rights.  Have you, have I? Have I ever, in a moment of utter submission, died to my way, and come alive to his, and am I daily allowing him to pronounce the death sentence over my “own interests.” That is what it will take for most of us to introduce courtesy and kindness back into the public square. Let it happen.

Dec 23

Rejoice

Rejoice!

 Shout to the Lord, all the earth;

break out in praise and sing for joy!

Sing your praise to the Lord with the harp,

with the harp and melodious song,

 with trumpets and the sound of the ram’s horn.

Make a joyful symphony before the Lord, the King!

                                                                                          Psalm 98:4-6 NLT 

One of my professors once said that you can tell a lot about a people on the basis of their vocabulary. The more important something is to them, the more words they have to express the various connotations. So, it is said, the Eskimos have seven different words for snow.

 

This is an especially important point in the Hebrew language, because it has a very small general vocabulary. That means that for some important words, there will be several different, though-related, English ideas expressed by one single Hebrew word. So, when we find several Hebrew words used for a single idea, it means that idea is really important. So for concepts related to sin there are at least eight different Hebrew words.

 

But the same thing is true with the idea of singing joyfully. In Psalm 99 no fewer than five different words for musical rejoicing appear, four of them in verse 4 alone. Why would this be the case? Why wouldn’t one all-purpose word, like “sing,” for instance, be enough? Clearly it is not enough because the Israelites need more ways than just one of expressing the wonder they have found in Yahweh, their God. He is the creator, the savior, the wonder-worker, the deliverer, the One who made the world in order, and who, praise his name, is coming to set it in order (the meaning of the word often translated “judge”) again. He is Love, he is Truth, he is Power.

 

This is why Christmas is a musical season. He has come! One carol is not enough. We need every one in the repertoire, and we need some new ones. But it is not just about the Baby; it is about the fact that the creator-savior-wonder-worker-deliverer-reoderer has come! Our God is cause for rejoicing. If you are not singing for joy these days, maybe you need to reflect a little more deeply on the wonder of our God.

Dec 20

My Peace I Leave With You

My Peace I Leave With You

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. 

John 14:26-27  ESV

 

At this Christmas season, one of the recurring themes related to the coming of Christ is that of peace. On the night of his birth the angels sang “Peace on earth.” That seems entirely appropriate since as Isaiah tells us he is the Prince of Peace, and of his kingdom and peace there will be no end (Isaiah 9:7). Yet he himself said he did not come to bring peace to the world, but a sword (Matt 10:34). What are we to make of this, especially in the light of the verses printed above? Is Jesus confused, or what?

 

First of all, he is not confused. But these verses are talking about three different things: the ultimate impact of Christ’s ministry in the world, the short-term impact in the world, and the means by which Christ intends to achieve his goal. Intimately connected with all that is the Biblical concept that we translate with the English word “peace.”

 

The English word primarily connotes the absence of conflict. While the Biblical terms, rooted in the Hebrew words having the consonants sh, l, and m can connote that idea, they go much deeper. They speak of making something whole and complete. One of the words is used for paying a debt. That is, as long as the debt is not paid, the arrangement is incomplete, it is not “at peace”. But when we pay off the debt, we make it whole. So, what is God’s ultimate goal for his cosmos through his Son? All wrongs will have been righted; all sins atoned for; nothing left unsettled or undone: peace. What a day, the day of his Second Coming!

 

But what of the immediate impact of Jesus’ ministry, the day of his First Coming? Did it put things together for the Jews? Far from it! It forced them to make difficult decisions. Was this itinerant preacher from Nazareth the Messiah? And more than that, was he the Son of God? As Jesus said, he brought a sword that would divide families and nations into warring factions. His stupendous claims could do nothing else in a world where sin holds so many in its iron grip.

 

But what about this period between the two comings? Are we simply to resign ourselves to a hopeful anticipation of that last day, all the while echoing Longfellow’s hymned words “there is no peace on earth”? No! That is the beauty of what Jesus said in John 14. He can give a peace about which the world knows nothing. He can make each of us whole, complete. He does not offer absence of conflict; calm, shining days where trouble is far away. No, he told us that in this world, before his Second Coming, we will have trouble. But he offers a “peace” that the world cannot give! He can take our divided hearts, partly his, and partly our own, and make them one for him. That is peace, the peace that Christmas has made possible, here and now. That is my Christmas wish for you, that you have or you will allow the Holy Spirit to take all the strands of your life and make them all his. Merry Christmas indeed!

Nov 04

Flying on Instruments

Flying on Instruments

 

But we are not like those who turn away from God to their own destruction. We are the faithful ones, whose souls will be saved. Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.                                                  (Hebrews 10:39-11:1 NLT

 

Some years ago a friend of mine was renewing his instrument flying license, and he asked me if I would like to go along. Enjoying flying as I do, I jumped at the chance.

It was a lovely sunny day, and the instructor and I, looking out the windows, could enjoy it. But my friend could see none of that, because he was wearing a large dark visor that completely blocked his vision of anything but the instrument panel of the plane, as would be the case if he were flying at night or in clouds.

As I recall, the instructor flew for the take-off, and then turned the controls over to Bill (not his real name). At this point, I was really hoping that Bill had learned his lessons well, because he and we were completely dependent on his ability to follow the instruments. There are three that are absolutely vital: a compass, a turn and bank indicator, and an altimeter. The first determines what direction you are heading, the second tells you what attitude you are in: straight and level, turning, or climbing or descending, and the third, how high you are. It is absolutely essential that the pilot follow these instruments, because when we humans have no external point of reference, our senses are completely unreliable.

After we had flown awhile, with Bill responding to the instructor’s instructions about compass heading, turning, and climbing or descending, the instructor said we were ready to head back, and called the airport tower for directions. Looking out, I could see the airport far away on our right. But as the flight controller gave Bill his directions about heading, attitude, and altitude, I watched us move around and slowly begin to line up on the runway. If we drifted a little right or left, the controller’s calm voice would guide Bill back again, and by the time we reached 500 feet and Bill could lift the visor and land us visually, we were lined up perfectly.

As I watched this all from the back seat, I thought: this must be how it is for the angels looking on at us. They can see our destination perfectly and see whether we are headed in the right direction with the right attitude and at the right height. We can’t see it at all, and unless we can find some external reference points, some instruments, as it were, we are lost. But thank God, we do have an all-sufficient instrument, the Bible, the Word of God, and we do have the voice of the Flight Controller, the Holy Spirit, sounding in our ear, telling us how to read that instrument. Maybe sometimes the angels hold their breath as we, unseeingly, drift off the flight path. But again and again they must smile at each other, seeing how, not listening to our conflicting senses, but following the instruments, we, still unable to see the runway, are yet lining up perfectly. What a day it will be when the Controller says, “Ok, you can lift the visor and come on in.”

Oct 28

Called To Live In Freedom

Called To Live In Freedom

 

For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another. So let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves.

                                                                                                            Galatians 5:11-16 NLT

 

Paul goes Jesus one better, doesn’t he? Jesus said the whole law could be summed up in two commands (Matt 22:37-40), and here Paul says it can be summed up in one! I suspect that Paul means that if we truly love God, we will be able to love others, and that that is the goal of the whole thing. But whether we say one or two, is that right? Is the law about love?

 

Most of us don’t think so. For most of us, the law is about a whole bunch of demands. It certainly has nothing to do with love. The gospel, on the other hand, is about love, and the gospel has set us free from the demands of the law. That means we are free to do what we want, confident that we will be forgiven. But that is exactly where Paul will not go.

 

The apostle is thinking along these lines: if we try to use God’s commands as a way to make ourselves good enough for God, our sinful determination to have our own way (“the sinful nature,” or “the  flesh”) will always defeat us. We will be in bondage, always trying, and always falling short. But the Cross tells us we don’t have to make ourselves good enough for God; he has already forgiven us in self-sacrificing love. We are free!

 

But free to do what? Run amok? Live like the devil? Never! Now, having received the Holy Spirit through the Cross, and thus being filled with the love of God, we are free to fulfill the purpose of the law in the first place: giving ourselves away for others in self-sacrificing love. Why do we not dishonor our parents, murder, steal, slander, commit adultery, and lust after the possessions of others? Because God will get us if we do? No! It is because we cherish our parents’ reputation; we cherish the possessions, the life, the reputation and the sexual integrity of those around us. Spirit-filled believers have been set free from their demand to have their own way, and are enabled to care more about others than themselves. They are now free to fulfill the true purpose of the law: love.

Oct 21

Revive Us Again

Revive Us Again?

 

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow [walk in] my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

Ezekiel 36:25-27 NIV

 

When we pray and ask God for revival, what do we have in mind? What are we visualizing a revival will look like? In most cases, I suspect that we are looking for religious ecstasy with accompanying signs of spiritual power.

 

To be sure, the spiritual powerlessness of the contemporary church and the lifelessness of much of our devotion is an affront to God and a sign to the world that something is wrong. But on the other hand, all too often revival movements that have focused on religious ecstasy have run amuck. Church history is littered with stories of heresies and sexual excess that have arisen from great revivals. Why is that, and why wasn’t it the case with the revival led by John and Charles Wesley in England?

 

Should we try to squash the ecstasy that comes when we are face to face with God and know ourselves fully clean in his presence? Of course not, and we could not if we wanted to. So there was plenty of ecstasy in the Wesleyan movement, especially in the early days. John and Charles were even accused of promoting “enthusiasm,” which meant “fanaticism” at that time. But that supposed “fanaticism” did not come to define the movement. Why not?

 

The reason is because the Wesley brothers were not seeking ecstasy, they were seeking the Biblical God and his character, and to get rid of everything that prevented that ethical character from being reproduced in them and their people. Notice the scripture printed above. What will be the result of Spirit-filling?  It will be a certain kind of “walk,” one whose direction and character are dictated by God’s instruction manual – his “torah.” The goal of revival for the Wesley’s was nothing less than holy living.

 

So it should be for us. Holiness should be a wedding of godly character and ecstatic experience, and if that wedding is truly done and done right, then the joy of his presence will flood through our ethical righteousness, while the reality, consistency, and solidity of our ethical righteousness will be the anchor for our ecstasy. Revive us again.

Oct 14

I Love Your Law

I Love Your Law

 

“I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought your precepts. I will speak of your statutes before kings and will not be put to shame, for I delight in your commands because I love them. I reach out for your commands, which I love, that I may meditate on your decrees.                                                                                                                              Psalm 119:44-48 NIV

 

When we read the above verses and then remember that the Apostle Paul says Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law (Gal 3:13) we do a doubletake. What’s going on? What is going on is not either/or, but two sides of a single coin. Is God’s instruction manual for life (that’s what “torah,” which the English Bible translates “law,” means) a bad thing. Never! Thank God he has shown us how he designed us humans to function.  That’s why the psalmist can say he can walk about in freedom. The torah is a blessing!

But Paul says it’s a curse! What he is describing is the result of having misunderstood what the torah is for. If we think that torah-keeping can make us acceptable to God, as the Pharisees did, we have got it backwards and our persistent inability to keep the torah will indeed curse us. Nobody can be good enough for God except one man – Jesus. Every one of us, from Abraham on, comes to God by grace alone.

But look at all of Paul’s letters. What is Paul calling his new Christian disciples to do? He is calling them, now that they are Christ-followers, to live according to torah! Stop stealing, stop lying, stop committing adultery, etc. Why? To make themselves acceptable to God? Of course not! That is where the Galatians went off the track. No, Paul wants them to live that way because this is the life of Christ that is being now, praise God, being reproduced in us by the Holy Spirit, if we will just surrender to him.

The good news of the Gospel is that because Christ has cleansed the temple of our hearts the Holy Spirit has moved in with the marvelous power to make God’s torah no longer an impossible demand, but all that the psalmist dreamed of: our delight, our liberation, our testimony, our life.

Oct 07

Law and Grace

Law and Grace

 

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!  Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.                                                         (Romans 6:15-18 ESV)

 

The strength of the biblical teaching on holiness is that it synthesizes the biblical teachings on law and grace without doing damage to either.  You say, “What are you talking about?”  In the history of the Christian church it has been very difficult to keep law and grace together.  A classic example is in the Protestant Reformation with Martin Luther.  Luther had struggled to be a faithful Christian, and he thought this meant keeping all the commandments of the Catholic Church and of the Bible. But trying to do this, he found himself crushed and broken. So, as he got into the Word, and began to get a picture of the glory of the free grace of God, he came to see grace and law as enemies. Grace frees us from any need to try to keep God’s law, he taught.

 

This is true, as far as it relates to coming into a saved relationship with God. Nothing we have ever done or will ever do can make us acceptable to God. It is God’s free grace in Jesus that does this. But the danger is that we then begin to apply this idea to the Christian life: “It doesn’t matter how I live; I’m saved by grace!” If the Roman Church submerged grace under legalism, the modern Protestant Church has submerged the holy living that God expects of us under the cover of grace. We say, “It’s alright that I don’t live a life like Christ’s, because I don’t need to.”

 

But perhaps you are saying, “Wait a minute! You have shifted your ground. We were talking about the law, but now you are talking about Christ-like living.” Actually I have not shifted ground. The core of the law, its ethical requirements, is nothing other than a Christ-like life. The law gives us the content of such a life. And the good news that John Wesley discovered in the Bible is that it is not a matter of law or grace. Rather, as Paul says in the passage for today, grace not only brings us to God, freeing us from the wrong idea that we have to work our way into God’s favor, it is also the means, through faith (“obedient from the heart”), to enable us to live the life of God before a watching world..

 

Sep 30

Face to Face

Face to Face

 

The one thing I ask of the Lord—the thing I seek most—is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life….

My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.”  And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming.”                                                                                                                                Psalm 27:4, 8 NLT

 

Although I have read Psalm 27 many times, something struck me in a new way in my most recent reading of it. I thought, “This psalm is about relationship with God.” And it is. The opening words make that clear: “Yahweh is my light and my salvation.” It does not say, “Yahweh gives me light and saves me.” It is not about what he does for me, but who he, in himself, is to me and for me. I think then of Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth, the life” (John 14:6). These are all in him; get him, and you get them; don’t get him, and you don’t get them. It’s all about personal relationship.

But I mustn’t seek a relationship with God through Christ in order to get these things. They are all byproducts of the main thing – knowing him! And that’s what we see in this psalm. Does David want deliverance and protection? Of course. Does he look to his God for them? Yes. But look at the underlying theme: I don’t want to live on my own with a little help from God in the rough places. I want to live in his very house. I want to experience his presence. I want to have conversation with him (the NLT rendering of v. 8 captures well the sense of the Hebrew “your face will I seek”).

On the other side of the coin, what would be ultimate loss? It would be for God to turn his face from me, to turn his back on me (v. 9). But that will never happen so long as there breathes in us one desire to be his. “Even if my father and mother abandon me, Yahweh will hold me close” (27:9 NLT). What a thought! To be held in his arms, to gaze into his face, to hear his whisper in our inmost ear. That is salvation.