Tag Archives: New Testament

Can We Find God in Terrible Acts?

There is an argument made by a moral philosopher long ago.  He pondered, “Suppose there was a button, and pressing that button would bring untold riches, peace, and prosperity to the entire world.”  Sounds great, right?  The only cost, says the philosopher is that one “Chinese peasant would drop dead.” He then asked, “Who among us would press that button?  And who among us would want that button in wide currency?”

For the sake of argument, take that question and apply it to the issue of rape.  If I could press a magic button that would miraculously erase all rapes, past, present, and future, should I press the button?   At the face of it, the answer would seem to be an overwhelming, “Yes!” However, once one lets emotion subside, and begins to think rationally, it is clear that pressing this button, despite having good reasons for pressing it, would have unintended consequences.

I would NOT press the button–nor would I want such a button in wide currency. Yes, I know that sounds incredibly heartless. After all, why wouldn’t I want to erase all the evil and tragedy caused by rapes?  Quite simply, If I could erase ALL rape, hundreds of thousands of human beings would drop dead.   They would cease to exist. Many human beings owe their existence to being the result of a horrific rape.

This includes my son.  My precious 2-year old son is the product of a horrific rape.  While I mourn the reality of the rape that took place, I am indescribably thankful that he exists!  He is my son and he is of immeasurable value.  I love him.  God created him, and made a plan for his life.  Part of this plan included being conceived in iniquity.

Let me state this for the record, when it comes to the button:  I would not press that button.  Let me repeat that again:  I would NOT press that button.

Simply put:  in a fallen world, there are NO solutions.  At best, all that exist are trade offs.  A solution here, causes unintended consequences there.  What one person considers a solution, another man considers a negative.   It is unwise to act as if solutions do exist.  They don’t.  If we have learned anything in human history, we have learned that.

But, in terms of  pressing the button to erase all rapes, I couldn’t do it.  The death of a human being is too great a cost to me.  It is an unintended consequence that I am not willing to inflict.  While I find rape to be equal to slavery in the lecherousness and horribleness of what it entails, I find murder–the ending of a life created in God’s image–to be worse.

Remember this point:  Humans cannot create human beings.  They cannot do this.  Humans are created by God.  If human beings are created by God alone, and God allows a child to be the product of a rape (the product of two human beings with free will), does this in any way negate the fact that this child is created by God?   Of course not.

Let us see it another way:  f I could press a button right now, as many would like to do, and make Down Syndrome disappear, I would NOT.  Since magic doesn’t exist, eliminating Down Syndrome would necessarily mean eliminating people with Down Syndrome.  It would entail murder.  It would mean genocide.

How about another example:   If I could press a button right now, and make all racism, past, present, and future disappear, would I do it?  Well, since magic doesn’t exist; to remove all racism would mean to remove all racists.  This would involve the murder of human beings.  This cost is too great. As much as I despise racism, I despise the murder of human beings more.

A last example:  I find Islam to be a horrific religion.  I hold to the position that an accurate reading of Islam does neccesarily lead one to embrace jihad.  Be this as it may, I would not press a button that would erase Islam, past, present, and future from the face of the earth.  Since magic doesn’t exist, this endeavor would mean removing those who practice Islam.

Though I disagree with Muslims and hold many of them in contempt, I value their lives.  While the prospect of eliminating all traces of Islam may be intriguing, the cost is too great.

For the Christians among us,there is something incredible about these words: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…”

It is sobering and hard to accept this at the face of it, but God can even use something as despicable as a rape to bring Himself glory. God is in the world, using its successes and its failures for His glory.

Think about that.  God’s sovereignty is such that your past is not a direct indicator of what your future will be.  God decides your path.  Our lives are in His hands.  He can take an unmitigated disaster and make a symphony out of it.

The rape of a woman should never end in the murder of the child. God can use that child for great things.  History provides much evidence to support this.  The testimony  of a child of rape can change the lives of millions.

I believe my son, the product of a horrific rape, will be a great man of God.

I wouldn’t press the button. I would destroy the buttons.

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Theology with a 6-Year old!

Every night after dinner, my family and I read a passage of Scripture and then go through a devotion that is based on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Tonight, our passage was from Exodus 34 and the topic of discussion was the character of God.  Let me just say that there is nothing more fulfilling, even amidst your 2-year old son wreaking havoc and being a perpetual source of sound effects and noise, than being a part of your 6-year old daughter engaging with real theological concepts.  Each lesson ends with a series of questions.  Ava, my 6-year old looks forward to this portion.  It warms my heart.

Exodus 34 picks up with Moses getting the second copy of the 10 Commandments.  He was on the mountain for the second time, you remember, because he smashed the original copy at the sight of the idolatrous outrage that was taking place at the feet of a golden calf.

The devotion very quickly moved to its main point:  Moses prayed that God would have mercy on them.  God is fully merciful yet fully just.  We often read that with little regard for what it actually means.  This is a difficult concept to comprehend.  Imagine for a moment,  Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump being found guilty of something horrific:  In Hillary’s case, exposing top secret info that was shown to have directly caused the death of 4 Americans in Benghazi.  In Trump’s case, evidence showing his willful colluding with the Russians in order to help them hack the DNC so he could win the election.  Imagine they went to court and were found guilty.  Instead of imposing a sentence, the judge says, “You are free to go.  Forget it even happened”  How would you feel about that?

When justice collapses in a society, hope collapses with it.

Total mercy comes as the expense of total justice.  Total justice comes at the expense of total mercy.  If someone was fully just they could not be fully merciful.  If one were fully merciful they could not be fully just.  Unless…well, we will get there in a moment.

Surpassingly enough, my 6-year old daughter, Ava, was able to grasp this paradox.  I believe I put to her a hypothetical situation in which she did something wrong, and rather than punishing her, I told her it was ok–that she could forget that it even happened.  Initially, she was ok with that.  Who wouldn’t be?  You could take something that isn’t yours, and then get no punishment.  But then it became more real:  I asked her, “What if someone did something very wrong to you; perhaps they stole your favorite toy, and I told their parents, ‘its ok, don’t worry about it–let your kid keep the toy?'”  She understood that my being overly kind would mean that she would not be getting a fair shake.

For her, justice would have been denied.  Complete mercy necessarily denies complete justice.

On the other hand, if I were fully just–If I called the police and reported the child for theft–what would that teach my daughter?  My lack of mercy would in the long run damage not only the kid who stole Ava’s stuff, but also Ava!  Would that be right?

No.  At times, justice must be bore by someone not involved.

This concept was strange to her.  It is strange to all of us.

One of the things we have been talking about lately in our home is the nature of sin.  Many Christians wrongly believe sin to be merely the wrong things that we do.  I remember hearing this as a child.  I was more concerned with whether I was doing the right or wrong things, that I defined sin as some sort of barometer for bad behavior.  There is perhaps nothing more absurd in all of Christendom than to believe that.  It took me a long time to be delivered from that way of thinking!  Heck, I am still being delivered from it.   While behavior is a part of sin, it is not sin in its fullest and most sordid sense.  Sin is more than just bad behavior.  Bad behavior is a symptom of something else–something more sinister.

In fact, if Jesus’ death on the cross only cured our sinful behavior, we would still go to hell. Yeah, read that again:

“If Jesus’ death on the cross only cured our sinful behavior, we would still go to hell.”

As I described to Ava, sin is like a perpetual cancer.  When we get the sniffles or the couch, it isn’t the sniffles or the cough that is making us sick. As Ava described it to me, “Its the germs that make us sick.”  Absolutely right.  Sin is like a disease that controls our being and dictates how we live. It is our moral compass.  Unfortunately, the byproducts of sin run the gamut from speeding to lying to rape to murder.   The New Testament refers to sin as a power that controls us.  Paul talks about knowing what he ought to do, but instead doing the opposite. If Paul had to struggle with sin, what does that say about you or me?  It is a power that influences us.  It can enslave us.

I asked Ava, “If sin separates us from God, and our sinful behavior was instantly cured, would we still go to hell?”  She thought about this for a few moments, and answered “Yes.”  I think she understood that sin is more than just bad behavior. If Jesus death on the cross was simply done in order to make us do good deeds, would that really be worth His death on the cross?  Isn’t that just some sort of moralism?

Jesus has brought us something more wonderful than just some sort of pragmatism.

I agree with Ravi Zacharias, “Jesus did not come into the world to make bad men good.  He came into the world to make dead men live.”  That, my friend, is worth shouting about.

We talked about that cosmic courtroom that is in session not because of our bad deeds, but because of our cancer–our sinful nature–the nature that caused human beings to crucify the Son of God.  The cancer that caused human beings to wonder, “Did God really say…?”

Because of our cancer–our sin–we deserve to go to hell.

Fortunately, God is fully just.  He is also fully merciful.  What is He to do with us?  We deserve death, but His character grants mercy, right?

This is where I was able to share with Ava the most incredible news of all:  Yes, we deserve hell, but instead of God banging down the gavel and sentencing us to death, Jesus entered the courtroom and volunteered to pay the price for our sin.   He intermediated on our behalf.  He had a direct influence on God’s wrath.

He went to hell in our place.

God was fully merciful:  he let us go free.  Yet, he was fully just:  Our sin was punished.  Jesus took our punishment.  He lived so that He could die.  He died so we could live.

Without Jesus Christ, none of us could escape hell.  We would all be there eventually.

God’s being fully just and fully merciful would be a paradox…unless…Jesus hadn’t come to be our propitiation.

I pray my sweet 6-year old can grasp that.  Full disclaimer:

I pray I can grasp that.

 

 

 

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The Morality of Greed

If you were to be completely honest, one of the prevailing themes you have grown accustomed to hearing is the idea that greed is inherently evil.  Now, I have to be honest:  As a Christian, I personally believe that it is my duty to seek first the Lord and His kingdom.  If I do this, all these things (my needs being met) will be added unto me.  So, for me, the byproduct of work is not primarily money.  The byproduct of work is, first and foremost, glorifying God through excellence.

That being said—if I seek Christ’s Kingdom first, there is nothing wrong with me also desiring to earn compensation for my work.  I cannot find any instance in the Bible in which desiring to be paid an adequate wage for ones efforts is wrong.  You might say, “But those greedy Wall Street guys are surely engaging in immoral behavior,” or “Greed is the root of all evil.”  Some of them probably are.  In fact, the very college academics that make that claim teach moral relativism, but when a banking executive actually exercises moral relativism in his work, he is suddenly immoral?  But Greed being inherently immoral?

The problem with this type of reasoning is that to make this case, one has to read social grievances into the Biblical text itself.  Jesus Christ did not come to give us a perfect economic system or to be a social agitator.  He came to cure man’s sin problem.  I do agree that Jesus talked about the impact of money, but I feel it comes from a different angle than just “wealth disparity.”  I think Jesus’ commands about money and not loving money have to do with what a person places ultimate value in.  Is your ultimate value your money?  If so, you are a slave to your money.  Is your ultimate value your body?  If so, you are a slave to your health.  Do you find your ultimate value in your financial success?  If so, you are a slave to work.

Our ultimate value should be found in Jesus Christ.  The Bible even says, “for they did not love their lives when faced with death.”  Our lives are not our ultimate value.  Neither is our money.

But is ‘greed’ necessarily evil?  Let’s look at it.  While we do so, let us remember that passionate issues require dispassionate analysis.

If you look objectively at definitions of greed, you will see that greed is very different from envy, jealousy, or covetousness.  It is different than materialism.  It is even different than greediness.  Greed is nothing more than seeing the furthering of one’s own interests as his primary motivation for work.  This goes against the conventional wisdom, without question.

So how can greed drive a person’s work?

Let us think about a few examples of this in real life:  Picture for a moment, a farmer in Idaho.  Can you imagine his days’ work?   Picture him getting up well before daylight, venturing out into a field—facing sleet, snow, and bitterly cold wind.  All this is done in order to harvest potatoes.  Because of his hard work, New Yorkers can have potatoes for dinner.

Now picture a Colorado cattle rancher.  He gets up well before dawn as well.  He feeds the cattle.  He breeds them.  He moves them from location to location so that they can eat greener grass.  His entire life is circumscribed by taking care of cattle.  He faces the dead of night, winter and snow, cold rainy mornings, and even the dry heat of the summer—all to make sure New Yorkers can have a steak next to that potato.

Here is the question:  What if New Yorkers—in their desire to have a steak and potato for dinner—had to rely on the inherent charity and willingness of ranchers and farmers to care enough about New Yorkers to send them steak and potatoes—rather than their desire to make a living for themselves?

I would be grieving for New Yorkers.

You see, in serving the interest of themselves, the rancher and farmer necessarily serve their fellow man.  Their desire to earn a living (greed) demands that they produce what other people want.

Our free market is driven by an imperative:  It is more profitable to serve your fellow man than not to serve him.  Adam Smith talked about these principles in his book, Wealth of Nations.  The free market system is essentially a moral one.  It depends upon supplying people with what they desire at a price that they are willing to pay for it.

This of course comes with risk.  What if the New Yorker doesn’t want to eat a steak or order a potato?  What if instead, he desires to eat bacon and eggs?  No one forces him to buy what the rancher has to offer.  Then again, no one forces the rancher to plant potatoes.  It is all about individual choice.

Similar to this is the idea that the free market works only because of trust.  When is the last time you bought beef at the supermarket and actually weighed it yourself to see if it weighed what the packaging said?  When was the last time you measured a 2-liter of soda to see if it really contained 2 liters?  In fact, we rely on trust all the time.  You dont carry around scales and measuring devices in your pockets.  It would cost too much.  It would take up too much room.  It would cost you convenience.  Trust is an important concept here.

Still yet, is an even more moral situation:  If I cut a person’s grass, and at the end of my work, he pays me 30 dollars; that is essentially a certificate showing that I served my fellow man.  When I take my thirty dollars and walk into the supermarket and buy steaks, potatoes, and sodas for my family and I to eat for dinner—the cashier of the supermarket basically says to me:  You want the rancher in Colorado and the farmer in Idaho to serve you?  How have you served your fellow man?  I then produce the certificate of achievement (30 bucks).

Wealth itself is nothing more than scarce information.  I have 30 dollars in my pocket.  If you just compare the cost of goods, you could say that my 30 dollars is worth much less than the food I eat at Applebees.  In fact, if I were to buy the same products that I will consume at Applebees, it might be half as much.  The problem is, I cannot consume 30 dollars.  It is only a piece of paper.  So, I exchange it gladly for something that is worth more to me than the money itself:  namely, food.  Because I am not in the restaurant industry, I do not have the skills, infrastructure, or the resources to make quality dinners.  I don’t have the extra time either!   So—for that scarcity of information, I gladly pay more than it is worth.

A thing derives its value by how much a person is willing to pay for it.

Consider this:  I walk into a supermarket and tell the manager I want a gallon of milk.  He charges me 3 dollars.  If that milk is worth to me more than my three dollars, and my three dollars is worth more to the manager of the store than the milk, we engage in a voluntary contract.  We voluntarily engage in a transaction of trust.  I trust he gives me a gallon of milk, and he trusts that my three dollars are worth three dollars.  I make him feel good and in return, he makes me feel good.  This is called a positive sum gain.  On the flip-side, if I were to walk into that same supermarket and hold a gun to the manager’s head and say, “Give me the milk or I will kill you,” I have just said, “If you do not make me feel good, I am going to make you feel bad.”  This is a zero sum gain.

In all of human history, there has never been an economic system prior to the free market that did not function without zero sum gains.  Most of recorded history notes looting, plundering, theft, and coercion as the norm.  The exception has been the free market system.  It is a system based on trust and reciprocity.

The rule among fallen men is theft.  The exception is voluntary trade.

These are all moral concepts.

Greed isn’t inherently evil.  It drives our transactions.  After all, what is wrong with wanting to better the lives of you and your family?  Even the most ardent socialists I know send their child to piano lessons.  Why?  They want the best for their child.

The contrast of greed is the idea of envy.  Picture this:  You work a 60-hour per week job sweeping floors at a Fortune 500 company.  One night while walking home, you see a large group of people who work at the company eating in the restaurant.  You pause and watch through the window.  The person driven by greed will think to himself, “What must I do to be where they are at?  What have they done that I haven’t?”  This might prompt your working so hard that everyone notices, taking night classes, reading more books so that you can pass a promotion test, or finding a new job at which advancement is possible.  Either way, these are healthy questions to ask.  The other view would say, “It is inherently unfair that they have what I do not.  How can I have some of what they have?”

Now, the political left is well aware of these two differing types of thinking. The conservative would usually reply to this man, “I am going to work to get you equality of opportunity; you are going to have to work to ensure an equality of outcome.”  The progressive, on the other hand would declare, “I agree with you.  It is unfair.  He only has his stuff because he stole it from you.  You deserve to be in there too.  In fact, if you vote for me, I will promise to take some of what he has and give it to you.  I cannot ensure equal opportunity, but I can ensure equal outcome.”

This is zero sum economics.

If you pick the pockets of Peter to pay Paul, you will always have Paul’s vote.

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Peter and How Jesus recalibrated his view of reality and fishing.

Have you ever had your idea about reality recalibrated?  You might say, “Yeah, I used to be an Atlanta Braves fan, until they traded everyone away and started losing.”  Good point, but this is not what I am talking about. I do not mean to be persuaded as to another point of view because circumstances change or because new evidence is provided. What I mean instead is, that which was once was reality ceases to be.  It gives way to a new (real) reality that causes an unstoppable and utterly complete paradigm shift.

I have often heard about people who have been trapped in blizzards and were forced into using a pocket knife to sever a trapped leg out from under a boulder so that they could get to shelter. The reality of life becomes suddenly more important than the need for a leg.   Their idea of pain is recalibrated.   I have heard about POW’s who begin to view torture as normal (because they know that pain is an indicator that they are alive), or prisoners in Auschwitz engaging in activities that would seem gross and inhumane in order to survive. See the story of Roman Frister or Victor Frankl for more on that.

What if I were to tell you that our idea about what is the “good” can be recalibrated by a fresh glimpse of reality? It is even more than that. It isn’t only that our idea about what the “good” changes (that places too much importance on our ability to think); in reality, that which is the good itself completely changes around us.

Have you ever learned a new word, or come across a fact that you previously didn’t know? Have you noticed that when this happened, all of a sudden you started hearing that word used in conversations, you started seeing it in books, or that fact that you just learned suddenly shows up in every article you read? It isn’t that those things have just come to light. It isn’t that because you learned them, all of a sudden they exist. In truth, it is because they exist—and because they have been imparted in you that now you notice things around you that you didn’t notice before. You are different.

Do you know the story about the calling of Simon Peter?  If you don’t, there is no better time to brush up on it than now!  The story is located in Luke 5:1-11 and it is captivating.

Done reading it? Short and potent, huh?

To begin, this story doesn’t take place in a synagogue, nor does it involve a hushed crowed listening to an intellectually learned and eloquent disquisition on a Psalm.  Instead, a crowd has gathered to hear Jesus (a traveling teacher) teach on a smelly boat landing—with fisherman nearby (no doubt smelly)—who are disgruntled (probably using the language or sailors) and cleaning their nets after a night without a catch.

The first glimpse of reality:  Jesus walks into a world of people rather than summoning them to step out of their world and come to him. We often think that God is calling us to leave the pull of earth’s gravity and meet him somewhere in the sky. This couldn’t be further from the truth.  If we all lived in California and Heaven was located in Hawaii; and all we had to do to get there was swim the whole way, how many of us would make it?  There would be some who would drown nearly as soon as they started.  Some would drown a hundred feet in.  Some would make it a mile.  The triathalets might make it several miles.  But the point is, we would all drown.  Unless Hawaii was moved closer or we were carried to Hawaii, none woud make it.  God did this for us.

God became a man. He came to us. There is no way we can go to Him. The last folks who tried by way of a huge tower were stopped dead in their tracks. They got pretty high, but God still “came down” and stifled them. We don’t have the ability to climb that high.

So—the boys (professional fisherman—serious anglers) have just returned from a night of fishing—they caught nothing.  While they are maintaining their gear, and probably complaining, Jesus hops onto the boat belonging to one of the fishermen, Peter.  He tells Peter to take the boat out to the deep water and to lower the nets.  So, let us set the scene:  Peter is an expert fisherman and Jesus is a traveling preacher (who has probably never fished in his life) who has jumped on a fishing boat (without so much as an “excuse me but I’m going to be joining you”), and is now giving a trained angler instruction on how to fish.  Imagine for a moment a professor of postmodern Spanish History at some Ivy League school walking into an auto garage and telling the mechanics to let him look over the engine.

Now—Jesus doesn’t get right to it—telling Peter how much his life is lacking because Christ isn’t in it—No.  Instead, he plays up to Peter’s greatest strength—fishing.  Jesus basically jumps in the boat and says, “Bro, I need your help!  Please help me!”  Now this is realistic.  I am sure Peter’s nautical abilities have been relied upon before.  People know he is an expert on the water, and an expert at catching fish. In this case, Jesus needs a platform from which to teach and he needs a source of amplification.  He needs Peter, because he cannot simply preach from a drifting boat.  He needs Peter to steady the vessel so he can effectively teach from a stationary position.  He also intends to use the natural sound carrying properties of the water as a natural amplification device.  This is all very realistic.  It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus relies on humans for help.   If you remember simple pleas for help from Jesus like, “Give me a drink,” then you will see this request as the same.  Often times, Jesus puts people through tests.

What I find interesting is that Jesus isn’t really “teaching.”  He is fishing.  He is fishing from a fisherman’s boat, with a fisherman, but he isn’t after fish.  He is after the fisherman, himself!  He is fishing in a fishing boat to catch a fisherman. In Peter’s world, when he catches fish, the fish die in the process.  In Jesus’ world, when he catches fish, they begin to live.  This story converges two different realities of fishing.

Reality is about to be changed.

Peter was no doubt very adept in the water.  For this reason, he was probably able to put his boat steering skills on autopilot and listen to the teaching of Jesus. He had no choice—and he was helping!

I am reminded of a guy who was a skeptic who started attending this youth group. They decided to take a retreat, but because they lived in a country in which Christianity was illegal, they had to figure out a way to get to the camp which was a few kilometers away and would have police all along the route. The skeptic, however, had powerful parents. The mom actually once dated the chief of police. She phoned this man and said, “Do you remember me?” He replied in the affirmative and asked what he could do for her. He granted them the request to go. They also needed the permission from the Minister of Interior. It just so happened that his mother knew the minister of interior. With a second phone call the trip was set. The young man actually went with the camp organizers three days in advance to set the camp up. He helped set up the living quarters, the teaching areas, and the recreation activities. He was saved on the second day of the camp. You could say he played a role in planning, organizing, and executing his own conversion. Peter is pretty close here!

Now, when the sermon is over, we expect Jesus to thank Peter for his services and to be taken back to shore and to go on his way.  This would be reality.  Instead, this land-loving carpenter gives orders to the professional fisherman concerning how and where to catch fish. This is a new reality.  It is also a test.

Jesus commands him to “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”  Now, let us be honest: this may be the most absurd suggestion ever given to a fisherman.   There is only one right response to such a situation:  “Get off of my boat you moron!”  After all, Peter knows that the fish they are after in Sea of Galilee do not live in the deep water, but rather, in the shallower, more oxygenated areas near the mouths of streams.  This is how they stay alive (eating the bait fish entering from the streams).  Secondly, it is daytime.  The fish they are after congregate under the rocks during the day.  They are night feeders.  If you go to the Sea of Galilee today, you will see the fishermen fishing at night.  Not the day.  William M. Christie notes,

“We have seen shoals at ‘Ain barideh and ‘Ain et-Tabigha so great as to cover an acre of the surface, and so compact together that one could scarcely throw a stone without striking several.  In such cases the hand-net is thrown out with a whirl.  It sinks down in a circle, enclosing a multitude, and these are then gathered in by the hand, while the net lies at the bottom.”

This may sound foreign but it isn’t.  Go to YouTube and type in, “cast net for mullet” and see that it happens TODAY in the South.  In fact, I learned to fish using a cast net. I once heard a man say, give a young man a cast net and he will never starve. That is great wisdom.

Now—The Sea of Galilee drops off into deep water very close the shoreline, and is dangerous in many areas for swimming.  Casting for fish is either done by boat or—for more experienced fishermen, standing in the water.  The fisherman in this lake know that successful fishing takes place at night.  The very idea that a preacher would suggest dropping the nets in the day is bordering on the absurd.  Now, Peter isn’t a teacher.  He knows very well that he cannot enter into the debates about the law or the finer points of the Sabbath—but he does know a thing or two about fishing.  He replies to this request with sarcasm:

“Teacher!  We toiled all night and took nothing!  But at your word, I will let down the nets.”

Let me do my best to paraphrase this exchange:  “Listen teacher, me and my boys are pros.  We know were the fish feed—it’s along the shore and at night.  In fact, we were out there all night and didn’t catch a darn thing.  We are tired, and I have stayed awake much longer than I would have liked—helping YOU—serving YOU—ever since you hijacked my boat.  You rabbis think you know everything and now you think you can hop on my boat, preach to a bunch of peasants, and then tell me where to tell me to fish?  Very well!   We will go do it.  Let’s just see who knows about fishing!”  It reminds of the scene in Jaws where the salty sea captain Quint, tells the college trained rich boy, Matt Hooper, “It proves one thing Mr. Hooper:  That you college boys don’t have the education enough to admit when you’re wrong!”

In fact, when Peter calls Jesus, “Teacher,” the word used is “epistates” which not only can mean teacher but more accurately, “boss,” or “chief.”  It is a term of sarcasm.  So, tired and weary—and annoyed—Peter and his team set out to fish the deep water in the daytime.

But something happens. Reality strikes.  They catch a great wealth of fish.

He hauls in a large catch.  The nets break the catch is so heavy.  He signals over for help and both his boat, and the boat of the helpers become so full, they both begin to sink.  This is worth commenting on.  He signals rather than calling for help.  Just as we saw Jesus use the sound carrying characteristics of water, Peter doesn’t want to inform EVERYBODY about the fish.  Financial secrets must be kept! This is his livelihood. If you were a beggar and lived among other beggars and you found a supply of food, would you tell everyone where it was at? This is a question worth pondering.

He waves them over discretely.  Jesus is watching this behavior as well.

This next part is the gem of the story:  You see, Jesus has approached Peter at the point of his greatest strength:  fishing.  But Peter isn’t shocked at the catch—at least not for long.  What shocks him is that this person, Jesus, has obviously made a choice between money and something else.  Here is a man who could be the best fisherman in the world.  He has caused Peter to catch an abundance of fish—when the fish weren’t supposed to be there.  The thing is, Jesus doesn’t want it.  He doesn’t care about the fish—instead he is wandering around the Sea of Galilee teaching the crowds for free. He is interested in something else.

For the first time in his life, Peter has met someone who is driven by something greater than mammon.  Could you imagine meeting someone who could shoot 10 under par—every round they played—at any golf course in the world—giving that up so that they could wander around rural driving ranges and giving free talks on a second birth?  All night, Peter and crew work tirelessly to catch fish—but this man—says, “drop the nets,” they catch the motherload—and he isn’t cashing in? He is more interested in people.

Peter knew that anyone with this knowledge of fishing could be rich instantly.  So, why was Jesus, a poor traveling teacher—traveling around teaching people for nothing?  What could possibly be worth more than 2 boats full of fish? Like Isaiah, Peter knows instantly that he is in the presence of someone great and that he is unclean. Reality strikes.  His vocabulary changes.  Where once he called Jesus, “epistates” or “boss,” he now calls him “kyrios” or Lord.  “Teacher” opens the first speech, and this one closes with “Lord.”

Oh, what a little reality will do.

He begins his repentance by asking Jesus to get away from him because he is unclean.  Jesus dismisses this.  Jesus wants to recalibrate Peter’s understanding of reality.  You see, when Peter uses his sarcasm, rather than getting upset, Jesus reprocesses his anger into grace.  Peter is not blind to this.  He has insulted someone holy.  Peter is now acting as if he were a leper in the presence of a healthy man. He thinks that his uncleanness can defile Jesus.  But unfortunatley for Peter, he has never met the giver of life.  He is about to have his world rocked.  In reality, it isn’t that Peter’s sin can defile Jesus; but rather, that Jesus (the Good) can offer Peter the gift of righteousness. Peter’s sin cannot infect Jesus, but Jesus can infect Peter with the Holy Spirit—and as a result, cure Peter’s illness. Reality.

The Son of God did not come to make men good.  The Son of God came to give men life.

Jesus dismisses Peter’s concerns.  He assures him that he will still use his fishing skills, but for a different type of catch.  He was now to enter the business of catching people.  No longer will he catch things that die.  He will catch things and Jesus will give them life.

From this very boat, Jesus caught people from the shore and gave them life—including Peter!

Now, he is offering this to Peter. Reality has changed.

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Kurt Eichenwald and his presuppositions

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With the coming of Christmas and other Christian-observed holidays often come the obligatory Christianity-bashing articles that seem fit to be printed by publications like Newsweek, The Huffington Post, and Patheos.com.  No one should be surprised that these types of articles are written.  What should be of surprise is the lack of scholarship that is being used in writing these critiques.

I for one long for the days of Bart Ehrman’s informed criticisms (though they are far from right).  You have to hand it to folks like Ehrman who write polemical work aimed at Christianity:  At least the guy knows where the library is.

The article in question appears in the latest issue of Newsweek Magazine.  It is written by Kurt Eichenwald who is very well known inside the readership of the New York Times and the Vanity Fair publications.  He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and it is safe to say that this guy is no slouch.  His area of expertise seems to be in the areas of business or financial topics, and especially covering business scandals.

The cover story here isn’t about a scandal in a Fortune 500 company.  Instead it is titled, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” and unfortunately, in this particular instance Eichenwald seems to be far removed from his area of expertise.  I cannot stress that enough.  It is amateur hour at best.  He tries to establish his credibility by claiming to be standing upon the work of mainstream biblical scholarship; however, when one investigates this further, it is clear that he only cites critics of evangelical Christianity–and even in this–he fails to accurately portray some of their views.

This essay doesn’t come across as an objective piece of scholarship.  Instead, it comes across as a hit piece.  When he does cite scholars, it is only those on the critical fringe of Christianity.  I cannot locate a portion of his essay where he cites any scholar who works within the orthodox Christian tradition.  For those who say Fox News is biased, at least they have Juan Williams and Bob Beckel.  Eichenwald doesn’t want a debate.  He wants to remove the need for debate.  Eichenwald doesn’t waste any time getting to the point, either:

 “They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.

They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers—fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s words.”

Now, to be fair:  I do know some folks that fit perhaps most of that description.  They do exist.  I concede this without reservation.  The problem is, they are as far to the fringe of evangelical Christianity as pro-lifers are to the Democrat party.

Why only talk about the thought that is going on at the fringe?  How in the world can surveying the fringe thinking be considered objective journalism or scholarship?  Shouldn’t like Matthew Arnold said, we look at things by examining the best and brightest that has ever been said or thought?  Isn’t it a mistake to judge a worldview by looking at its worst representatives?  Why not cite those who are well respected by both critical and orthodox scholars?

When I think of the greatest thinkers in modern Christianity, I don’t think of the notorious Fred Phelps, or the guy at the breakfast joint who has a Scofield Commentary on the table, a “South Will Rise Again” t-shirt on, and a God made “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” trucker hat on.  I think of men like the late Francis Schaeffer, Ravi Zacharias, R.C. Sproul, William Lane Craig, John C. Lennox, Peter Kreeft, Eleanor Stump, Michael Ramsden, Alister McGrath, Paul Copan, Gary Habermas, and Stephen C. Meyer.  None of them are on the fringe, but all of them are respected.  This angry fundamentalist riff that Eichenwald gives us doesn’t seem to reflect reality.  Does Ravi Zacharias sound angry at homosexuals here?  Hardly.  Take William Lane Craig.  Does he sound like he is sympathetic to anti-science views? Not a chance.  What about Alister McGrath?  Does he sound like the fundamentalist anti-evolutionist that the author would make him out to be?  Not even close.  I mean, I can find atheists like Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, or PZ Meyer who say some pretty acerbic things about Christians—does that mean I dismiss them flat out and refuse to take any of their arguments seriously?  Hardly.

What this author is attempting to do is take the whole of evangelical Christianity and lump them into a straw man at whom he can toss fiery darts.  It doesn’t work.

I do however think his criticisms are worth looking at.  Many Christians cannot interact with an essay like this and make a lucid rebuttal.  If it were up to the guy at the breakfast joint, he’d reply with—“Well, my pastor says different.”  This is not the way to “give an apologetic.”  We are commanded to be able to provide answers.  Therefore, we must already in our pre-evangelism begin to look at what the questions are.  There are no new questions, only new people who ask them.  There have been several outstanding rebuttals already made elsewhere on the internet(Michael Kruger, Al Mohler, Daniel B. Wallace), and for those reasons, rather than focus on Eichenwald’s egregious attempts at exegesis, I am only going to focus on a few of his assumptions.

One of the first of his assumptions that is almost ubiquitous in the writings of the anti-Christian worldview adherants is the univocal contention that if you believe in God, this somewhow means you believe less in science.  I am reminded of C.S. Lewis who noted, “I believe in God like I believe in the sun.  Not because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”  He also noted more specifically, “Man began science because he expected law in nature.  He expected law in nature because he believed in a lawgiver.

I am not going to go into a lengthy discussion about faith vs. science here, I have done it elsewhere.  What I am going to say is that the conflict doesn’t lie between faith and science.  It lies between two opposing worldviews, theism and naturalism.  Theism on the one hand says that all matter is derived from a purposeful agent; atheism on the other hand says that all matter is the end product of a mindless unguided process.  Let me ask you a question:  If you knew that the computer that aids the flight of a jumbo jet was the product of a mindless unguided process, would you trust it?

Secondly, this assertion that anyone who posits an intelligent agent as the creator of the universe is just absurd.  Let us look at it one way:  If I walk onto the beach and see giant letters that spell the name “Barack Obama,” do I suddenly deduce that this is the result of chance?  No, I posit a person.  Why?  Because words carry semiotic meaning.  Why is it then when the longest word in the history of man (the human genome) is seen, we suddenly posit chance and unguided process?

David Berlinski says it well:

I imagine this story being told to me by Jorge Luis Borges one evening in a Buenos Aires cafe.

His voice dry and infinitely ironic, the aging, nearly blind literary master observes that “the Ulysses,” mistakenly attributed to the Irishman James Joyce, is in fact derived from “the Quixote.”

I raise my eyebrows.

Borges pauses to sip discreetly at the bitter coffee our waiter has placed in front of him, guiding his hands to the saucer.

“The details of the remarkable series of events in question may be found at the University of Leiden,” he says. “They were conveyed to me by the Freemason Alejandro Ferri in Montevideo.”

Borges wipes his thin lips with a linen handkerchief that he has withdrawn from his breast pocket.

“As you know,” he continues, “the original handwritten text of the Quixote was given to an order of French Cistercians in the autumn of 1576.”

I hold up my hand to signify to our waiter that no further service is needed.

“Curiously enough, for none of the brothers could read Spanish, the Order was charged by the Papal Nuncio, Hoyo dos Monterrey (a man of great refinement and implacable will), with the responsibility for copying the Quixote, the printing press having then gained no currency in the wilderness of what is now known as the department of Auvergne. Unable to speak or read Spanish, a language they not unreasonably detested, the brothers copied the Quixote over and over again, re-creating the text but, of course, compromising it as well, and so inadvertently discovering the true nature of authorship. Thus they created Fernando Lor’s Los Hombres d’Estado in 1585 by means of a singular series of copying errors, and then in 1654 Juan Luis Samorza’s remarkable epistolary novel Por Favor by the same means, and then in 1685, the errors having accumulated sufficiently to change Spanish into French, Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, their copying continuous and indefatigable, the work handed down from generation to generation as a sacred but secret trust, so that in time the brothers of the monastery, known only to members of the Bourbon house and, rumor has it, the Englishman and psychic Conan Doyle, copied into creation Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and then as a result of a particularly significant series of errors, in which French changed into Russian, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Anna Karenina. Late in the last decade of the 19th century there suddenly emerged, in English, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and then the brothers, their numbers reduced by an infectious disease of mysterious origin, finally copied the Ulysses into creation in 1902, the manuscript lying neglected for almost thirteen years and then mysteriously making its way to Paris in 1915, just months before the British attack on the Somme, a circumstance whose significance remains to be determined.”

I sit there, amazed at what Borges has recounted. “Is it your understanding, then,” I ask, “that every novel in the West was created in this way?”

“Of course,” replies Borges imperturbably. Then he adds: “Although every novel is derived directly from another novel, there is really only one novel, the Quixote.”

All kidding aside, this is where his presumptions begin:

The first is that truth cannot be known.  This is a pervasive view in the academy today.   It used to go something like this:  “Look, What is true for me is true for me, and what is true for you is true for you—let’s all have our own truths and just be happy that way.”  This fell out of fashion a while ago because quite simply its absurd.  If someone were to make that statement, they aren’t only wanting you to believe it, they are wanting you to consider it absolute truth.  What they are saying is, “You should think this way too.  This is how all enlightened people think.”  The problem is, if that is true, then it is not the case that what is true for me is true for me and what is true for you is true for you.  If it is true for everybody, it isn’t just true for me.  This is a problem.

I am reminded of a talk I heard a guy give—he said that after engaging with a group of skeptics at a major university, a professor who was in attendance came up and challenged him to a verbal duel.  They ended up going to lunch the next day, and the professor began to tell this particular guy how he had greatly mistaken what Eastern logic is all about (the speaker happened to be from India though).  The professor had a problem with the idea that something is EITHER true OR it is false.  Something cannot be BOTH true AND false at the same time.  This is the law of the excluded middle or the law of non-contradiction.  So, this professor, in the middle of lunch began to regurgitate all his vast philosophical ideas about the Hegelian and Marxian dialectic down onto the placemats around him.

When he was finished, the professor began to cut into his food.  The man who had sat dumbfounded by all this then said, “So what you are telling me is that something cannot be EITHER true OR false?  It must be BOTH true AND false?”  The professor nodded and answered in the affirmative.  It was here that the professor was trapped.  The other man kindly said, “But if something can only be both true and false, rather than either true or false, aren’t you telling me that when looking at the world, EITHER I use the both/and view OR nothing else?”

At this point, the professor who had just put a piece of congealed halibut into his mouth uttered begrudgingly, “The EITHER/OR does seem to emerge doesn’t it?”  Something is true or it isn’t.  There is no alternative.

This is where things have begun to change in the last 20 years or so.  Now the common line is, “It isn’t that truth is relative to people; on the contrary, truth doesn’t exist.”    The view is that everyone thinks they have truth, and everyone is looking for it—but no one has it—which is good news because it is liberating.  The problem with this view is that when someone says, “There is no truth,” they are telling you that they believe the statement, “There is no truth” to be true.  Here is the rub:  It if were true that there were no such thing as truth, then what they are saying isn’t true.  But if it isn’t true that there is no such thing as truth, then what they have said is false.  But if there is no such thing as truth, then they have said absolutely nothing but in a very complicated way.  This is why British philosopher Roger Scruton says, “When someone tells you there is no such thing as truth, they are asking you not to believe them—so don’t.”

But you see, this presumption is even more sticky.  Today, the view has shifted to this idea that truth can be known, but it can only be known—but it can only be found in science.  Science alone can lay claim to truth.  The problem with this is obviously, it is a self-defeating statement.  If only science can make truth claims, it is false.  That isn’t a scientific statement, and science doesn’t say anything.  It is a method.  Hume said that all truth must be either self-evidently true or empirically verifiable—if it is neither—toss it to the flames.  Well, is his statement self-evident or empirically verifiable?  No. Toss it to the flames!  It was poor logic like this that caused ardent atheists like AJ Ayer and Antony Flew to reconsider their views.

But from this, the view has become that anyone who believes in God believes in something that cant be empirically tested—therefore they are believing in something that isn’t there.  Today, the politeness around this area of conversation has all but disappeared.  I used to hear things like, “John, I am happy that you believe what you believe.”  What they mean by that is “I can see that you are genuinely fulfilled as a Christian, and that your belief excites you, and that it has given you meaning.  I am happy that you believe this, and I wish I could believe it too, but I cant!”  I have heard that almost word for word over the years and I started to think about just what they were saying.  What they are saying is:  “Look John, I am happy that you are happy, but the reason you are happy is because of your faith (which they understand is believing in things that aren’t there). “  Now what do you call people who believe in things that aren’t there?  Crazy People!  What they are saying is, “John you are insane, but the main thing is, that you are happy and insane.  I am happy that you are happy, and I wish I could believe what you do, because I would like to be happy, too…but I simply cannot embrace such insanity and join you!”

The second assumption that Eichenwald holds is that faith is a positively bad thing.  It isn’t good for you and it isn’t good for society.  It is best demonstrated by people who go around blowing things up.  So the above politeness has turned into, “I am not happy for you.  I am against what you believe.  Faith is dangerous.”  I was reading something right after 9/11, and one of these atheist writers basically said, “Do you know what Christianity and the 9/11 hijackers have in common?  They fuel their fanaticism at the same holy gas station.”  The attack is on the idea of faith itself.  The problem is, there is a lack of understanding about what faith is that is prevalent today.

This idea that faith is blind belief in something absent of evidence, or even contrary to evidence, is a definition that goes against 2,000 years of Christian thought.  Of the hundreds of thousands of books written on the idea of faith, you will not find a definition of faith that sounds like that.  Likewise, faith is not believe in something that makes you happy, or is convenient, or fulfills your wishes.  Faith isn’t fantasy.  The word faith, when used in the bible (pistis), is always used in response to something that us true and real.  In other words, it would be like me saying, “I have faith in the President.”  By my saying this, I am acknowledging that he exists, that he is trustworthy.  It doesn’t matter whether or not I want him to exist—if he exists, he exists whether or not I wish for him to or not.  Secondly, I am acknowledging that he is dependable and keeps his promises (perhaps the current president is a bad example here).

This is the sense that the Bible speaks of faith.  It talks about knowing that he is, and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.  That is a statement about his truthfulness.  In Hebrews it talks about being “certain (fully persuaded) as to things that are not seen,” or talking about a full and complete assurance that something is real.  Notice, that this use of the word faith is completely different than saying, “I hope the Lakers win tonight,” because this cannot be guaranteed.  Christianity claims to be rooted in reality and truth.

The third assumption that Eichenwald holds is that many Christians are arrogant because they are certain.

Now, to set this up, we have to realize that many people find Christianity to be offensive because it claims to reveal things as they really are.  If I were to say to you that there is a book on the table—and you look and there isn’t—then my statement claims to reveal something that is wrong.  It doesn’t reflect any reality.  Either I was mistaken, or there is moral issue of deception at play.  It is the revelatory nature of truth that makes people uncomfortable.

Aristotle wrote a book titled, Politics which sheds light here.  In the book he asks for you to imagine a perfect society—and in this perfect society, a perfect person suddenly shows up.  They are so perfect that they are considered to be a god amongst men.  Aristotle asks, “What would a society do with such a person?”  He is very clear in the answer:  They would be killed.  Why?  A perfect person, if he ever did show up in our midst; his very presence would reveal our faults and all our imperfect, and even the imperfection of our society.  In other words, would you want it to be openly revealed, who you are?  Who you really are?

This is what Jesus claimed to be—a God amongst men—a being without fault.  Do you see the problem?  When Jesus himself stood before a judge, he proclaimed, “Everyone who is on the side of truth believes in me.” To this, the judge replied, “What is truth?”, and then walked away.

If you knew the moral complications that were happening inside of the man examining Jesus, you would understand—but interestingly enough, the man proclaims to the crowd that he finds no fault in Jesus—that is to say, nothing deceptive or morally wrong.

It is the idea of certainty that makes many of our contemporary friends upset.  In fact, this is what Eichenwald is driving at.  “How can you be so rude as to be so certain?”

I remember talking with a friend who happened to be a Buddhist.  She had a problem with what I was saying about Christianity.   She said to me, “Christianity is so arrogant.  It claims to be the only right way.  How can you hold to such a morally abhorrent view?”  I replied to her, “Do you follow the teachings of the Buddha?”  To this, she replied in the affirmative.  I asked her, “Didn’t the Buddha, after leaving Hinduism to start his own system, say that he rejected the Vedas?  Doesn’t this fly as an insult in the face of millions of Hindus?  How can you believe such an abhorrent view?”  To this, she said, “Uhh, John, I don’t like where this is going.”

Here is the thing, whenever you say that something is true, you are saying that any contrary statement is not true.  Further, when you say that Christianity is true, and that those who follow God are going to heaven, many people take offense to this.  It is as if they think you are saying, “I know I am going to heaven—I am better than you—you aren’t going.”  That isn’t at all what the Christian faith says.  What it says is that those who trust in God will inherit the Kingdom of God.

But this is where the idea of certainty gets uncomfortable to people.  They will say, “Surely being good is all that matters.  If I am good, and God is loving, how could he send me to hell?”  The interesting thing is that in the Bible, Jesus addresses this very question.  A guy asks him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered, “Why do you call me good? No-one is good, but God alone.” (If good people are going to heaven, and only God is good, then who is going to heaven?  We need help.  In Luke 18:9-14 Jesus tells a story that is pertinent to our situation, which shows us that there are only two possibilities as to how a person can become righteous, either (1) we make ourselves righteous or (2) someone else makes us righteous.

So the question persist:  “How can you be so certain, when it all seems so fuzzy?” Now, my first answer would be, “On what grounds am I certain that my wife loves me?”  If I asked this of my Dad, he would reply, “After 30 plus years of marriage, I am absolutely certain that she loves me.”  You know, I think God wants for us to be certain.  It is no mistake that in the Bible we are told, “These things are written so that you may know…”  You see, there is a basic issue with the question itself.  Here it is:  When people ask me, “How can you be so certain,” they are presuming that I am coming to believe in God because of all the reading I have done or all the high power arguments that I can give.  In truth, nothing could be further from reality.  Of course the arguments are important—but, think of my wife again.  I can’t prove to you through mathematics that she loves me.  Even the certainty we get in mathematics cannot be found in science.  We can’t get it in medicine; we can’t get it in biology.  What we can talk about is evidence.  I would say that I am an evidence based Christian.  There is no difference, except that when it comes to eternity, there is more at stake than in science.  My faith in God is based on evidence just as the doctor has faith in medicine.  Neither can be proved in the mathematical sense of proof, but evidence can be given to support the veracity of what we believe.

Many people will follow the Freudian path and say, “You know, you Christians, you have just constructed God.  You need an idea of God in order to be happy.”  The problem with that, besides the fact that if God does exist, this very argument can be turned around at atheism; is that Christianity and its veracity has nothing to do with my intellect or my desires.  Christianity isn’t about man looking for God, it is about God looking for man.  The central claim is that God became a man in Jesus and that through Jesus God was revealed to us.  Let’s supposing I wanted to get to know you.  I could submit you to a PET scan and put all kinds of microbes and wires on your head, and even monitor your heart—It might be true that I could learn a lot about you this way—but I could not know you this way.  To know you, you have to reveal yourself to me.  We have to talk.  I can begin to develop, based on our relationship a high level of confidence in you.  I have a high degree of confidence in my wife because I know her.  What gives me the confidence?  She does.  It isn’t that within myself, I have to come up with all this confidence—no.  The power of my faith lies in the object that I place my faith in.  God gives me the confidence the more I get to know him.  I am confident in Christ, but this confidence has nothing to do with myself.

In fact, only the Christian faith is set up this way.  If you look at every other belief system, you will find that it is either based in knowing, feeling, or doing.  You must master a certain set of thought, experience something specific, or follow a list of rules.  In philosophy we would call this epistemology, existentialism, or pragmatism.  The Christian faith does not rest on any of these three.  The Christian faith isn’t a system of knowing, even though there is no knowledge more important than knowing Jesus as Lord.  It isn’t an existential system where one must engage with feeling—even though, there is no feeling greater than coming to know the Lord.  Finally, it is not a system of pragmatism, even though Jesus said you will know true Christians by what “They do.”

The Christian system is a system of being.  It has to do with Christ’s being in us.  You can take every religious system and remove its founder and it will still stand.  Remove Muhammad, and Islam can still stand.  Someone else could have been the prophet.  You can remove Buddha from Buddhism and it can still stand.  In Christianity, if you remove Jesus you have nothing.  In fact, Michael Ramsden quips, “If you remove Christ from Christian, you are left with Ian and Ian cannot help you.”

When people follow these other systems, it is as if they are basing their faith on a merit system, and ultimately in their abilities.  The question, “How can you be so certain,” then has a more stinging meaning.  It is as if they are saying, “Who are you to be so confident that you will be accepted by God?  You are a human like the rest of us.”  To this I say, “absolutely—I am just like you.”  The secret is, my relationship with God isn’t set up on a merit system.  It isn’t like a university system.  In school, how you do you know you will get a degree?  Well, honestly you don’t.  If you told your professor on the first day, “I am absolutely confident I will ace this degree program,” I am sure he would reply, “Yeah?  We will see.”  You cannot be certain here.  Not only that, but the professor himself cannot guarantee you that you will get a degree.  Why?  It is a merit based system.  Either you meet the requirements or you fall short (there is that either/or again).  The problem with God is that many people think that he works in the same way.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.

When I met my wife, what if I had decided the minute I met her, to propose marriage?  What if I brought her a cookbook, and in the cookbook it stated, “These are the laws for making Cherry Pie.”  The law says, “Thou shalt take 100 grams of flour, and 40 grams of cherries…., and so much sugar and water…and heat it up to such a temperature,” and so on and so forth.  What if I then told her, “Do you understand how to follow these laws?”  She replies in the affirmative.  Then I reply with, “Of course I wouldn’t dream of accepting you now, but if you will keep the rules in this book for the next 30 or 40 years I will think about accepting you—will you marry me?”

Unfortunately this is how many people think about God.  We wouldn’t begin to insult a human being with this type of thinking, yet we gladly subject God to it.

The last thing I want to say comes by way of Isaiah Berlin.  Berlin was a 20th century polymath who lived in the United Kingdom.  He was a brilliant thinker and he wrote on a variety of topics.   One of the things he wrote a lot about was the idea of freedom. He asked often, what does it mean to live in a free country?  He talked at length about monism—or the view that there is only one form of truth. He equated this with the despotic regimes of Hitler and Stalin.  Unfortunatly, Berlin saw tyranny first hand and they bothered him.  He began to say that if you want a free society, pluralism must be allowed to live.  Now, keep in mind, his definition of pluralism is different from the way a postmodernist would define it.  What he wanted was a free, loving, and just society.  The essence of this is pluralism.  There are multiple truths.  We are back at where this essay began.  Here is what Berlin said:

“The enemy of pluralism is monism — the ancient belief that there is a single harmony of truths into which everything, if it is genuine, in the end must fit. The consequence of this belief (which is something different from, but akin to, what Karl Popper called essentialism — to him the root of all evil) is that those who know should command those who do not. Those who know the answers to some of the great problems of mankind must be obeyed, for they alone know how society should be organized, how individual lives should be lived, how culture should be developed. This is the old Platonic belief in the philosopher-kings, who were entitled to give orders to others. There have always been thinkers who hold that if only scientists, or scientifically trained persons, could be put in charge of things, the world would be vastly improved. To this I have to say that no better excuse, or even reason, has ever been propounded for unlimited despotism on the part of an elite which robs the majority of its essential liberties.

Someone once remarked that in the old days men and women were brought as sacrifices to a variety of gods; for these, the modern age has substituted the new idols: isms. To cause pain, to kill, to torture are in general rightly condemned; but if these things are done not for my personal benefit but for an ism — socialism, nationalism, fascism, communism, fanatically held religious belief, or progress, or the fulfillment of the laws of history — then they are in order. Most revolutionaries believe, covertly or overtly, that in order to create the ideal world eggs must be broken, otherwise one cannot obtain an omelette. Eggs are certainly broken — never more violently than in our times — but the omelette is far to seek, it recedes into an infinite distance. That is one of the corollaries of unbridled monism, as I call it — some call it fanaticism, but monism is at the root of every extremism.”

This is a sobering thought. After reading this, I found myself struggling with it.  I believe that there is one truth—am I really like that?  I think the answer to this question is answered simply: Can one hold truth and at the same time extend grace?

I think what Eichenwald and Berlin and many who hold this view would say is: How can you dare to know truth—you will judge everyone else with it!  Instead, we need to love.

Here is the problem: Love discriminates, love judges, love fights.  Love does not exist in the absence of judgment, but only in the presence of it.  Have you read the brilliant treatise written by modern day philosophers, “The Black Eyed Peas?  They have a song called, “Where is the Love,” and in the song it says at one point, “If you never know truth then you never know love” I don’t know if they wrote that lyric themselves, but it is exactly right.

Peter Kreeft says it this way,

“Love fights. Love cares. Love discriminates. And therefore there is in Scripture, very clearly, a thing called the ‘wrath of God’. God hates all enemies of love as the doctor hates the cancer that’s killing his beloved patient. If you really love a human being you will hate all the dehumanizing forces that are harmful to that human being.  If on the other hand you don’t really love a human being but just tolerate a human being, then you will hate nothing, so, love and hate go together. Love of a human being, no matter who he is, and hate of a human being, no matter who he is, are exact opposites, they are black and white. But love of all humans and hate of all sins – that goes together.”

Consider for a moment—what is mercy and what is justice?  Well, for humans, we always extend mercy at the expense of justice, and we exercise judgment at the expense of mercy.  If your sister is raped, and the judge lets the offender go free, saying, “we must be merciful and understanding of those who rape,” then where is the justice?  In Christianity alone, do we see a God who exercises mercy not at the expense of justice, but through the exercise of his justice.  This is the justice of the Cross.

A friend once asked me, “Don’t all roads lead up the mountain, to God?”  The issue is this, if you stood at the top of a mountain, could you see all the paths at once?  Where would you have to be to have such a perspective?  Answer:  In multiple places at once—omniscient.  So, when a person says that all paths lead to the top of the mountain, they are saying that they can see all the paths.  If only God has that type of view, who are they claiming to be?  I think Jesus answer to the question, “Don’t all paths lead to God” would be, “There are no paths that lead to God, only the path that God has made in coming to us.”

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Worship: Spirit and Truth. What it is and isn’t.

Ravi Zacharias is absolutely correct when he says of worship, “It is the sense and service of God.”  What does that mean?  I want to address today an issue that has become quite controversial in the church.  What is that issue?  Worship.

You hear countless sermons today on music—whether it be contemporary or traditional. Organs or guitars, choirs or praise teams—and how Christians are tearing each other’s eyes out over their particular tastes.  The truth is, music isn’t worship.  Anyone who tells you it is wants you to believe a lie.  Music can be used in worship, it can be a vehicle of worship—but it isn’t worship itself.
In Chapter 4 of the book of John, Jesus gives us an incredible picture of worship though the way he deals with a prostitute.  This is a very loose woman—basically—she wouldn’t be welcomed into most of our churches today (that’s for another day).  It is in this context that Jesus tells us about worship.  Present in the dialogue are a few issues:  First there is Hunger.  Jesus is hungry and the disciples have left to get food.  Jesus is thirsty.  He is at the well looking for something to drink.  We see racial tensions.  A Jew isn’t supposed to talk to a Samaritan.  We see sexual tension.  A man shouldn’t talk to this woman, and this woman shouldn’t be a prostitute.  It is in the midst of this madness that Jesus teaches us about what worship is. Why?  Quite simply, if we ever get God right, the stuff we spend so much time trying to fix, will take a whole lot less time fixing.
Jesus has confronted this woman with her sin.  He tells her in verse 16, “Go call your husband,” and in verse 17, she says, “I have no husband,” and then Jesus replies in verse 18 (my paraphrase), “You got that right—you have 5!”  So what does she do when confronted with her sin?  She does what nearly anyone does when confronted with their sin and the holiness of God:  She skirts the issue.  She dances around it.  She obfuscates.

She wants to move on to the subject of religion.

We need to look at a number of things that are important to realize when it comes to worship:

The first issue to understand is the importance of worship.  At the end of verse 23, Jesus says, “For such people, the father seeks to be His worshippers.”  Why is worship important?  It’s simple:  God is looking for it.  He is looking for authentic worship and sincere worshippers.  It is implied here that these worshippers that God is looking for are hard to find.  We have to realize this though:  Just because God is looking for them doesn’t mean he needs them.  He doesn’t need worshippers, he deserves worshippers.

Psalm 148 says:

]Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
Praise Him in the heights!
Praise Him, all His angels;
Praise Him, all His hosts!
Praise Him, sun and moon;
Praise Him, all stars of light!
Praise Him, highest heavens,
And the waters that are above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord…

When it comes to human beings, worship is a conscious choice.  When it comes to nature, worship is automatic.  God created you to be a worshipper, but he seeks you to see if you will fulfil the reason for which you were created—to worship God.  What is worship?

Tony Evans says, “Worship is the celebration of God for who God is and what God has done.”  It is all that I am paying supreme homage to all that God is.  The implication is that worship is recognizing above all, who God is.  We must recognize God as God.  When people worship, but don’t recognize God as God, he isn’t being worshipped.  Worship isn’t taking place.

What is the object of worship?  Verses 23 and 24 say: 23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24 God is [e]spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

God is the object of our worship—but not a God you make up.  He is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Many groups who say they are worshipping, but the God they are worshipping isn’t the father of the Lord Jesus Christ.  This isn’t worship.  God is the father of all creation.  Even nonbelievers recognize that.  He is the Father of the saints.  We recognize that as Christians.  But it is the fact that He is the father of Jesus Christ that makes him unique.

If we miss Christ, we miss the Father.

God is also sprit.  You can’t worship God first with your body.  His essence is not corporeal.  This means his is not material.  He is a person, but he has no visible body.  He is an invisible person.  If you are going to worship him, you must begin in the invisible part of you.  It is possible to be physically in the place of worship, but not have the requisite heart of worship.  God is spirit, and he is dealing with the invisible realm, not the visible.

To put it simply, you may have the look of worship.  You may have the smell of worship.  You may have the right clothes on.  You may have the hand movements of worship.  You may even have the right hairstyle or clap on the right beat.  Get this right though:  If all God gets is your body, you are not worshipping God in spirit.  If you aren’t worshipping God in spirit, you aren’t worshipping at all.

Some people will tell you that they don’t feel that they have worshipped unless their body moves.  Ultimately, they are saying, “Worship is about how I feel.”  This is wrong.  Worship is about how God feels when we are done.   Unless your spirit moved, it doesn’t matter what your body did.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the physical can and should be an important part of our worship to God, but it isn’t the most important.  The most important is the spirit.

I see people all the time:  They stand up but don’t sing.  “I don’t like that song,” or “I don’t like that type of music.” When I see this, I want to remind them that God would say, “Hey!  I thought you were singing to me!”  To refuse to sing because you don’t like the song dismisses the fact that God may like to have that song sung to Him!  Who are you or I to choose?  Is the role of the choir to sing to you?  No!  Its purpose is to sing to God.  If you are only coming for you and to sing the songs you like, and to see things that you want to see—you aren’t worshipping God.  You are asking God to worship you.

The barometer is this:  At the end of the benediction, if God doesn’t applaud—something has gone wrong.  God is to be glorified, not us.

You see, God has intrinsic glory.  What does this mean?  Well, if you put a robe on a guy, he becomes a judge.  If you put a white coat on him, he is a doctor.  If you put dress blues on a man, he becomes a marine.  This is ascribed glory. If you take any of those men, and strip him down and put rags on him—he becomes a bum.  Ascribed glory is only given based on a set of circumstances—and it is temporary.  This is not what God is.  God is intrinsically glorious.  This means that His glory is and cannot be taken.  As wet is to water or blue is to sky, Glory is to God.  It is intrinsic.

The next issue is what could be called, the spheres of worship.  In verse 20 we see the woman say, 21 Jesus *said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”

What Jesus says is that first of all, worship is not a place.  Worship is a state.  It isn’t first about where you are, it is about who you are.  If your life isn’t a continuous act of worship, showing up on Sunday at a building with a steeple is worth nothing.

In 1st Corinthians, Paul says that “your body is a temple,” the church of the living God.  Put it this way, you don’t go to church—you are church!  If the spirit of God is in you, you couldn’t leave church if you wanted to. The question isn’t about what is happening at the local church house, the questioning is what is going on in your internal church—the one that is open for business 24 hours a day and seven days a week.  If you think that church is only on Sunday and ends at noon, then you are missing the point in a major way.  Worship is a way of life, not a place you go to.  Why wasn’t Daniel fazed when the edict was sent out that he couldn’t pray?  Today we would gather together and have a prayer service if our religious rights were challenged like that.  Daniel didn’t have to have a prayer meeting.  His life was a prayer meeting.

The reason many of us are messed up is because the only time we are in church is on Sunday.  If we could learn that being in church and worshipping really means us being the people God wants us to be, then we would always be worshipping.  We wouldn’t necessarily need a pastor or a choir—we would be the pastor and the choir.  When worship is real, you become alive.  It becomes like the engine or the car that drives your life!  It becomes your oxygen source.

If the only time we break into praise through song is on Sunday, or if the only time we open His word is on Sunday—or if the only time we fellowship with other believers is on Sunday—why is it any wonder that we are anemic Christians?   Worship isn’t a mountain or Jerusalem.  Worship is you!   It has to be you.  The spirit of God dwells in you!

What about the problems in church when it comes to worship styles?  I will tell you this:  Anyone who has no problem worshipping in private, will have no problem worshipping corporately.    Why?  You haven’t defined worship by a once a week meeting.  You have defined it by John 4—your relationship with God.  Daniel worshipped in private, that is why he could stand boldly and face the consequences of his actions—and beat them.

This is why the Psalmist says, “From the rising of the sun, to the going down of the same.  The name of the Lord deserves praise.”  Your life is worship.

It isn’t about reading a verse day.  It isn’t about a prayer you recite before a meal that you could say backwards and still not mean what you are saying.  No.  It is about saying, “God, I fall down at your feet and I adore you.  I sense your presence and I devote my life to serving you!”

When we understand that the meat we cut on our plate was derived from an animal that God made, or when we realize the tea in our glass was made from water and leaves that God made—when we realize the table our food and tea sit on was cut from a tree that god fashioned—we will be able to say, “God, I adore you.  You are worthy of all praise.”

The final issue is the essence of worship.  Jesus said, “The true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”  To put it clearly, if we are going to worship God corporately and privately, then our worship must be both authentic and accurate.  What do I mean?  It must be authentic in your spirit and accurate in his truth. Spirit refers to our attitude, and truth refers to information.

God is spirit.  What this means is that God is both an invisible, immaterial reality.  You can’t see him because there is no matter.  There is no matter because he is invisible.  Reality doesn’t require matter.  Because God is spirit, for us to link our spirits to his, there must be a person with a spirit who is pursuing his.  It doesn’t stop there.  The person pursuing him must be pursuing him as truth—as the truth revealed in scripture and in the flesh as Jesus.  What I am saying is that we cannot make God in our image and expect him to cooperate with our idea of worship.  We are made in his image, and we must worship God as truth.

The implication is:  The better you know God, the better you worship.  Truth exists.  There is the true One—God, and there is the true Word—the Bible.  We know God because we have relationship with him and because he has revealed himself in his word.  Unless we know God personally through the truth of his being, and know about God through the truth of his word, we cannot know him.  If we don’t know him, we can’t worship him.

This is why we see so many churches in America today—doing nothing.  Some people want an exciting service of worship, but they don’t want truth.  Some want all the truth, but they want no excitement in worship.  One is emotionalism and the other is dead orthodoxy. Both are wrong.

We are to worship God and serve him out of desire.  It is what we are made to do, and when we begin to know God, it becomes what we want to do.

If my anniversary came around and I bought my wife flowers and when I presented them to her I said, “Because you expect this, and because it is my obligation as your current husband, I got you these,” I guarantee you that they would be thrown back in your face.  We give gifts because we want to.  It is the nature of love to delight one’s self in the other.

This is a desired duty.

If we sense God without serving him, it isn’t worship.  If we serve God without sensing Him, it is drudgery.  God wants your heart and your hands.  Not just one or the other.

Many of us don’t get this.   This is why you see church members who are sanctimonious in the church building but snakes in the parking lot.  Many of these people act as if there is some magic spell in the walls of the church or some magic balm that has been applied to the pulpit.  No.  If we don’t start to worship outside of the church, we will never be able to worship him inside it.  If in the church we sing, “Have thine own way,” and then out in the parking lot we hear, “Get outta my way,” we have just witnessed a religious show that is neither based in spirit or truth.

As Tony Evans notes, “The fuel of worship is God, the furnace of worship is man, but the fire of worship is the Holy Ghost.”

Some of us may not be there yet.  That is ok—so long as we are willing to go there.

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God’s Character

Have you ever known you were called to do something, and you were good at it?  As assured as you can be that you are right for this particular thing, we cannot escape our human instinct that manifests itself in a performance mentality—which is usually judged by numbers.   I remember Michael Ramsden, who is the European director of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, once admitted that he had lived by this rubric, and then at some point had retreated from it.  Though his ministry was based around this numbers system, he says a turning point came when he was preaching in South Africa, at a golf club.   A prominent member of the club had arranged an evening meal. Hoping for 60 people to come, it turned out that 137 came. There were more non-Christians than Christians. The group was comprised predominantly high class business types.  Michael says that he was extremely excited about the meeting, but then minutes before it was time for him to speak, a colleague approached him and said that the meeting was a mistake—that this audience would not be receptive.

He said that he went on to give the worst sermon he has ever preached.  None of his points seemed to connect—no one seemed to be moved at all by what he had to say.  At the end, Ramsden gave an invitation—and he also handed out cards for people to critique what they just heard. 

He asked them to mark their card, on each respective question:  A to E. These people would essentially grade his sermon. 

Grade it:

 A = one of the best sermons you have ever heard

E = The worst.

The card also had a place for them to circle a statement.  From “I became a Christian tonight” to “Never invite me again.”  Ramsden says that after the meeting he couldn’t sleep.  He was intently concerned about what had just happened. 

The next morning at 7:30, the organizer called him.  Michael said his wife answered the phone and told him who was on the line.  He was hesitant when he put the phone up to his ear:

46 people ticked box A – ‘I gave my life to Jesus.’

48 people ticked box B – ‘I want to go to the Bible study.’

4 ticked box E.

Weeks later, most of the people from box B became Christians.   2 from box E did too.

Ramsden said he learned valuable lesson.  He decided that from that day forth,  to always give people the opportunity, no matter how I feel. He said, “My feelings are not a strong basis to operate this ministry from!”

He’s right you know.  It’s about trust—Trusting God.

 

There is a problem though.  Many Christians are not sure if they can morally trust God.  Non-Christians like Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist, would say our God is morally abhorrent.  He even goes on to say that the theology of the cross is abusive and sickening. Here is the thing—and I am not trying to exculpate Dawkins—but—if you don’t know God is trustworthy – you can’t trust him.

 

Well, is God trustworthy?  What is his true character?

In the book of Jonah, which is arguably one of the oldest pieces of Biblical literature we have, we see a remarkable story about God’s compassion. The whole city of Nineveh was saved.  Who was Nineveh?  Just know that they were considered an enemy nation to the Israelites—if for no other reason than they enjoyed using the skin of Israelites for lampshades.  Isn’t this remarkable that God would have mercy on them—and use an Israelite to bring the message to them?  You’d think that was encouraging.  Mass salvation of an enemy nation. So, just how does Jonah the preacher feel about it?

Chapter 4:1 – it displeased Jonah greatly – (literally gut wrenchingly exceedingly upset) and he was angry.

As Christians, we get displeased that revival doesn’t come.  Here is Jonah made that it has come.  He hated the people he was preaching to, but he knew God was gracious and compassionate.  In fact, you could say it this way:  The kind of God he was, is Jonah’s problem.

Often we can get angry and upset when we see the people who are our enemies forgiven and restored.  Doesn’t it sometimes seem like God is schizophrenic?  One the one hand he is loving and nice, and on the other, there is fierce wrath.  We need to not set them in opposition to each other, but see them in the light of each other.

In Jane Austin’s novel, Pride and Prejudice, there is a scene where Mr. Darcy says he loves her (Elizabeth) against his will, his better judgment, and his character. (Unsurprisingly she rejects him!)  If there are some people who know you (everything- the real thing), YET they love you – those are the most valuable relationships. To be known warts and all – and loved.  What could be better?

Here is the truth of the matter:  True love does not exist in the absence of judgment – but in the presence of it.  Think of a marriage where as you get to know each other and in the face of flaws etc., you healthily grow in depth.  As they get to know you and your faults better, the love gets stronger.

God really knows you. Do you have emotional stability that comes from knowing that God loves you despite your flaws? (Tis doesn’t mean God is happy with them or that we should excuse them). He knows it. God is not interested in covering things up. That’s not the path to true relationship.

 Have you ever said something stupid to a friend and made them upset or hurt them?  Lets supposing the next day you go to them to apologize.  It’s great when they forgive you.  All is well in the world, right?  But, consider if they say, “It’s nothing” – and walk away, and you know – it’s something! And now there is something between you. It’s not the same.  Things are estranged.  Or suppose we try to make up for it. We make a fuss. We try to serve them in some way to earn the forgiveness rather than look at the problem. We no longer have real relationship. Covering up wrongdoing (in that sense) becomes a barrier to relationship.

Isn’t that what we are after?  Restored relationship?

The word Compassion – comes from ecclesiastical Latin. It literally means ‘With Passion.’ It means to make a moral judgment and be moved from the depth of your being to do something about it. You have compassion when you say, “That’s wrong – we have to DO something!”

 

God is compassionate in this way.  He looks at the world and all its sin, and he is deeply moved to step in.  He goes to a cross, NOT to cover our sings—but to justify us by publically dealing with it.  He has to deal with the wrath of God.  God is fully merciful but also fully just.  He cannot extend mercy while at the same time undermining justice.  Justice isn’t served despite merry, it is served through it. 

Through Christ on the Cross.

The message is nothing other than that while we were still sinners, he found us! He had already paid the price, he has moved! He knows exactly what we are like, and what was required. And he’s with us.

We hear the phrase, “God loves you” so much, it becomes meaningless.  The truth is, God loves you and me because he knows exactly who we are—and what we have done.  He isn’t deluded.

We don’t have to pretend to be someone we aren’t with God.  He is already fully aware.  It isnt any help to myself or God to refuse to be transparent with him.  It also gives me transparency with others. I know I have been forgiven – because he forgave me.

There is only one basis for me to be forgiven:

If I have done wrong to someone – I should not be able to say ‘I’m forgiven’ – except and unless the other party is willing to forgive, and offers it – and through repentance I have received that forgiveness.

If that’s the case, it is not arrogant for me to say, “I am forgiven.”

We are dependent on him, his promise. God has said it! It’s dealt with. So I can be secure, whatever other insecurities I might wrestle with.  Are you totally assured as to the character of God? Are you utterly sure of him?  Are you utterly sure he really means his words of love and assurance? That he has chosen, called and loved you? That’s the reality!

Are you prepared to fail on that basis?

The basis on which I know I can fail, is that I know it’s not about me. I do and can blow it. When preaching or leading worship, it’s not about how many respond etc. I am okay of others reject me on the basis that God has accepted me.

We need confidence – to trust the God who transforms lives.

In all other worldviews God can be merciful, by passing over his justice. For us, it’s not at the expense of his justice, BOTH operate together.

 

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Do Christians really claim victimhood in order to gain sympathy? Is Candida Moss right?: Martyrdom and its relationship to Witness.

I saw a post on Al Jazeera that reads: “The Bitter Tears of the American Christian Supermajority.”

In the article, the author says—you (secularists) may think that the most persecuted group is the Muslims, or the African Americans, or perhaps the immigrants. On the other hand Christians think they are the most persecuted and oppressed. He gives three anecdotal accounts of how the Christian people have pushed forth their message of undue persecution. In the first he says,

“On March 2, three Baptist ministers in Akron, Ohio, arranged for the local police to mock-arrest them in their churches and haul them away in handcuffs for the simple act of preaching their faith. A video was posted on YouTube to drum up buzz for an upcoming revival show. A few atheist blogs object to uniformed police taking part in a church publicity stunt, but far more people who saw the YouTube video (24,082 views), in Ohio and elsewhere, took this media stunt as reality — confirmation of their wildest fears about a government clampdown on Christianity.”

In his second piece of evidence he cites the controversial Arizona “anti gay” bill:

“On Feb. 26, Arizona’s conservative Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse services to people who violate their sincerely held religious beliefs — for example, gays and lesbians. Fox News pundit Todd Starnes tweeted that Christians have been demoted to second-class citizenship in Arizona, an opinion widely shared on the right-wing Christian blogosphere, which sees Brewer’s veto as a harbinger of even greater persecution to come.”

Finally, he gives this:

“And the feature film “Persecuted,” a political thriller about a federal government plan to censor Christianity in the name of liberalism, is due out in May. Featuring former Sen. Fred Thompson and Fox News host Gretchen Carlson, the movie received a rapturous reception at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on March 10 and is of a piece with other Christian films such as “God’s Not Dead,” about a freshman believer bullied into proving the existence of god by an atheist professor.”

 

He goes on to dispute that these anecdotes indicate any real persecution. He says unequivocally that

“More than 75 percent of the United States identifies as Christian; 57 percent believe in the devil, and nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe the Bible to be either the “inspired word” or literal word of God. Despite the constitutional separation of church and state, the government began under President George W. Bush to outsource social welfare programs to faith-based organizations (more than 98 percent, according to one 2006 study, of them Christian churches), and schools with religious ties (mostly Christian) in several states are now well fed by direct public subsidies. But then, American places of worship (again, most of them Christian) have long enjoyed a de facto public subsidy as tax-exempt 501(c)3 organizations funded by tax-deductible contributions. Last month President Barack Obama himself held forth at National Prayer Breakfast about the importance of Jesus in his life.”

He is basically saying, this persecution of Christians is a myth. It doesn’t exist! There may be some persecution of Christians in Egypt or perhaps Nigeria—but in America they are coddled.

The writer tries to get at the orgins of this “orgy of self pity.” He cites Candida Moss in saying that self-pity is “hard wired into Christianity.” In her book, “The Myth of Christian Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom,” Moss pontificates on this theme. Moss says that claiming that Christians have suffered persecution is an admittance of amnesia.  According to Moss,

“Early Christians were persecuted by Rome only sporadically, less for religious heterodoxy than for political insubordination in an empire that was draconian across the board. Early Christian writers Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and Tertullian chronicled such incidents as proof of the faith’s righteousness, laying a scriptural basis for a self-image of eternal persecution.”

She goes on to say that it was Eusebius who “encoded the understanding of the church as persecuted into the history of Christianity itself.”  She goes on to point out that his martyrdom stories were conjured up in an effort to motivate the base. Moss goes on to say, “These tales of persecution — full of blood, cruelty and dodgy “facts” — were enjoyed at the time, much in the way that modern audiences take in horror movies, and the lowbrow gore has long been justified by embarrassed exegetes as a response to the strain of persecution.” Then the dagger—Moss argues, “the textual evidence indicates all these tales of persecution were composed after, not before, Christianity had become the favored religion of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century. In short, they belong to an invented tradition of victimization.” What scholarly evidence does she give to support this claim? None.  She says that for Christian historians, “martyrdom is easily adapted by the powerful to cast themselves as victims and justifying their polemical and vitriolic attacks on others.”

Then the author of the article praises Moss’ study, and goes on to point out that the book

“Has earned favorable reviews for its scrupulous scholarship; it has also aroused much nastiness from Christian critics. Even before the book was released, she told me via email, it was denounced by conservative Christian commentators and she has since received hundreds of angry messages, letters and phone calls.”

Here is what Moss said about the criticism of her book. She wrote:

“Most of these people appear not to have actually read the book but, rather, have heard about it and see it as a further example of persecution. Many of them write to the university and ask it to fire me. An alarming number think that I deserve to be beaten, raped or killed (although blessedly very few of them threaten me directly). Many of the comments are about my character and appearance, but I hear that’s very common for female writers. I’ve been called a “female Judas Iscariot”, a “demon,” possessed by Satan, evil, the Antichrist and a Holocaust denier. “

 

Does this anecdotal account confirm that Christians are belligerent and acerbic in their confrontation of dissent?

 

A first argument would be that for every “ignorant Christian” who claims to be the victim of unwarranted persecution, I can draw attention to the very same thing on the side of the secularist. I do wonder—why is it if I were to propose the positioning of a monument to honor Voltaire in Washington DC, this would go through a proper debate process and would be judged by its merits as an idea. Yet, if I suggested a statue of Moses or Jesus—it would instantly be struck down as an idea that violates the separation of Church and state? Arguably, Jesus and Moses have done much more to shape the understanding we have of freedom and individual liberty in this country than has Voltaire. Even through another perspective we see the bias. Why is it that among faculty members on the secular campus, which is made up of let’s say, 12% homosexuals—is the homosexual faculty member more likely to outwardly portray his/her sexuality in the tenure process than is the 2% of the faculty made up by Evangelical Christians? What about this minority group? It as if we are allowed to have our beliefs in private, but they must be stricken from the public square. If we put up a statue of Moses, is that the same thing as the government endorsing Moses as the only way?  Political Scientiest Dinesh D’Souza asserts,

“But you have no problem with government removing all religious symbols from the public square and you don’t see that as government endorsing atheism or secularism?…I want the public square open to both Moses and the 10 Commandments and to Voltaire.”

I agree with Dinesh D’Souza, when asked by Bill Ayers to give a “full-throated support for queer rights,” asserts:

“I believe in the United States we are all a minority of one and we are each entitled to the full rights made available to us in the Bill of Rights.”

I wonder if many on the left would give a full throated support for the rights of evangelical Christians to be recognized, and to be protected from “derogatory comments from other citizens.”

I also agree with D’Souza who says,

“I submit that if you were a professor here (Dartmouth) before the tenure committee, the defender of queer theory would have every reason to expect to be promoted, while the evangelical Christian would have to hide his true views.”

We are a minority of one. Persecution is inevitable at some point for all people.

I don’t know that I would agree at all with the author’s (Mrs. Moss) premise (and I have read her book). I think she has a fundamental misunderstanding of what Christianity is all about—as do many people.  Are Christians persecuted? Yes. Should we expect it? Yes. Consider:

 

“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy – wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”—1 Hebrews 11:32-12:2

Love is costly by definition. Do you think that even though something may be offered to someone for nothing—that means that it didn’t cost the giver anything? It may indeed cost all. The trouble is that I think many in the church—when it comes to the issue of witnessing to people of other worldviews seem to be looking for methods and means that will cost nothing. I think that the only way this could be achieved would be to separate love from our method. Perhaps this is why some of Christianity comes across as abrasive or crude. If one only employs methodology, they will have no love in their action. If the only employ love, they will have no method. They must be coexistent.

Do you not think it is interesting that nearly every action by Jesus in the New Testament is an example of a “costly demonstration of unexpected love?”  Consider, the father leaving the house to run to the prodigal, the Samaritan carrying the man into the Jewish village, the Shepherd leaving the 99 to find the one–or the woman who must get down on her hands and knees to search for one coin.  It doesn’t stop there!  What about Jesus who has no time for the crowd in Jericho (the oppressed), but has time for Zacchaeus (the oppressor)? You notice in that story, the moment that Jesus shows love for Zacchaeus, the anger of the crowed moves from Zacchaeus to Jesus.  A costly demonstration of unexpected love.

Now, we must understand—Rejected love is painful—without question. In fact, Jesus Christ expressed pain and hurt in the face of rejection. There is a mandate for us to give our lives to the lost in the same way that he reached to us through the incarnation and the Cross. Wasn’t it E.M Bounds who remarked,

“The world is looking for better methods, God is looking for better men.”

I think that as Christians we should concentrate more on changing hearts than changing our methods.

Well, what about persecution more specifically?

Do you know what Jesus said about persecution? He said it was part of the job. You can understand that as—“expect it.” Jesus, in preparing his disciples for the trials of this world, told them that difficulty would come. They might have thought that, with God on their side, no suffering would ever befall them. Jesus however told them:

“I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think that he is offering service to God…”

Right before he said that—he said this,

“And you also will bear witness…”

More than mere persecution—What do you know about the word witness? It comes from the Greek word “martys.” Do you know what that means? “Martys” was translated to Latin as “martir,” and it developed through history to become the word “martyr.” If you are interested in this, Michael Jensen from Oxford has a wonderfully erudite dissertation on the matter. He says that without question, our word martyr can be traced without any question—to the word that we read in the Bible as “witness.” Don’t take Michael or my word for it though. Even in the New Testament—there is a clear connection between being a witness and suffering. We are told that being called to be a witness means that suffering will come for Christians. Christ said, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” He goes on to say, “The world hated me.” Should we be surprised at the hatred we attract because of His name?

Take the earlier Hebrews passage: Faith and faithfulness to God lead to great victories in His name. What happened? Well—kingdoms were conquered, justice enforced, promises were obtained, the moths of lions were frozen, fire was quenched, people escaped the sword, enemy armies were put to retreat, and women received back their dead! It also shows that this came at great cost! Some were tortured, mocked, flogged, put in chains and imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, and impaled and killed with the sword. I would say that they were the ones whom the world was not worthy.

Any thought about witnessing without cost is fraudulent. There were miracles and there were martyrdoms. This is no contradiction—but rather, the knowledge that we are called to serve—and to give our lives in His name—and one day we will be called home.

We must remember that we follow in the footsteps of “martyrs,” or the witnesses who went before us. These were not spectators who watched what went on. They have come before us and finished the race. The Bible doesn’t say they were a small group—in fact, it calls them, “A cloud of witnesses.” They are now spectators seated in stands that are not lightly filled. The stands are packed—with many who gave their lives for Him. Christians shouldn’t lose heart, or their way—but rather fix their eyes on Christ. We should run after Him—who was despised with the shame of the Cross—and is now seated at the right hand of God!

Now to deal directly with what she says in the book. This is actually not a unique time in history. There has always been a cost to reaching people with the Gospel. Many Christians are unwilling to pay it, however. The truth is though; this is the context in which the Gospel took root in the world and spread. To preach a sermon of repentance and faith has and will always be a challenge. A good friend of mine shares the gospel in Islamic countries. He noted to me that,

“I have had the privilege of speaking in some parts of the world in which personal safety cannot be guaranteed. It is always disappointing to hear some people’s concerns that maybe I shouldn’t go to a particular place because the risks are too great. “

 

Our goal as Christians isn’t to conserve our lives, but rather to give it. We are not called to ignore risk or employ reckless abandon. We believe in prayerful consideration. But my friend is right when he says, “But to refuse God’s call to go because of hardship is to demand something that the first Apostles would struggle to recognize as genuine Christian obedience.”

I am struck that the Hebrews passage contains numerous inferences to the hope of the resurrection. We don’t follow the3 dead—but rather those who have new life in Christ—this is a resurrected life that Christ has already won. We don’t fear death—for if we lose our life for Him, we end up keeping it!

This passage in Hebrews is riddled through from beginning to end with the hope of the resurrection. We follow in the footsteps, not of the dead, but of those who have the hope of new life in Christ, a resurrected life that Christ has already won for us. Let us not fear death; if we lose our life for Christ we end up keeping it.

Here are two final thoughts. In the early church, everyone was by definition “of another faith.” We learn a great deal just by looking at the NT. Have you seen what A.A. Trites has written on the Gospel of John? He says,

“The Fourth Gospel provides the setting for the most sustained controversy in the NT. Here Jesus has a lawsuit with the world. His witnesses include John the Baptist, the Scriptures, the words and works of Christ, and later the witness of the apostles and the Holy Spirit. [I would add that we too are being called as witnesses.] They are opposed by the world… John has a case to present, and for this reason he advances arguments, ask juridical questions and presents witnesses after the fashion of the OT assembly. The same observation is true of the Book of Acts, though Luke develops his case somewhat differently from John.  All of this material is suggestive for twentieth-century apologists. The person and place of Jesus… is still very much a contested issue. The claims of Christ as the Son of God are currently widely disputed. In such an environment a brief must be presented, arguments advanced and defending witnesses brought forward, if the Christian case is to be given a proper hearing. To fail to present the evidence for the Christian position would be tantamount to conceding defeat to its opponents. That is to say, the controversy theme, so evident in the NT, appears to be highly pertinent to the missionary task of the Church today… it is noteworthy that faithful witness often entails suffering and persecution.”

 

There are three marks of these Biblical witnesses.

 

1.  They are passionately involved in the material they present.  They have been apprehended by it, and they have a compulsory drive to share it with others.  We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.

 

3.  We must be true to the bare facts of the Gospel, but also be responsible for sharing their meaning.  Thirdly, witnesses must be faithful not only to the bare facts of the Christ-event, but also to their meaning. As John Piper quips,

“If we cannot explain the good news of the gospel, it is neither news nor is it good.”

 

 

We must also give thought to our credibility. If a person is an eye-witness to something, but there are a known drunk—their credibility will be in question. We are told to be known by our fruit (singular fruit with plural taste). Titus says that the, “purpose of Christ’s death was to purify for himself a people enthusiastic for good works.” This is not the foundation of our salvation, but it is the evidence of it. By our evidence, the Gospel message is, “adorned and commended to others.”

 

 

Where I would focus my polemic on the church is not that they incessantly whine about being persecuted, but rather that they have wrestled perpetually with the balance between good works, having people eager to do good works, and the preached word of the Gospel. The Gospel and evidence must go together. Even the writers of the Lausanne Covenant said it this way: “The church may evangelize (preach the Gospel); but will the world hear and heed its message? Not unless the church retains its own integrity. If we hope to be listened to, we must practice what we preach… In particular, the Cross must be as central to our lives as it is to our message. Do we preach Christ crucified (I Cor. 1:23)? Then let us remember that a church which preaches the Cross must itself be marked by the Cross.”

 

 There must be evidence of the Cross in our lives. If not, we will only be seen as giving theories. The world doesn’t want theories, it wants real people who have truly been transformed.  Without being willing to accept being willing to lay down our lives, we have all theory and no action. On the flip side, to spring into action with no Gospel would be just as absurd. I wonder if we as Christians are prepared for the cost.

 

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The Apostle Paul and Rhetoric

We all know there are famous speeches that last the test of time.  Some orators are able to say things that make the events that they are describing seem more spectacular than they actually are.  Great rhetoric is instantly identifiable, and upon hearing just a few words, the listener is able to know who said the words, what they were talking about, and what the nature of the speech was (all without hearing the speech in full).  Take for example these opening lines: “We will fight them on the beaches,”  “I have a dream,” and “Four score and seven years ago.”  Every culture has rhetoric that children learn from an early age.  We know these speeches instantly even though Churchill was decades ago.  Gettysburg was centuries ago as well, but the speech lives on.  Finally, Martin Luther King Jr. is from a time past, but his “I have a dream” is still as recognizable as it was that day.

The question must be asked, which is greater, the rhetoric or the subject matter?  Is it the subject matter that makes the speech great, or is it the rhetoric that makes the subject matter great?

In the ancient world, around 480 BC there lived a prominent Greek statesman, orator, and Athenian General named Pericles.  He was well-known and was widely regarded the most prominent in each of those areas.  Now, when Athens was attacked by the barbarians, the Greeks successfully held them off and gained military victory.  Upon winning this battle, the leaders called together the great rhetoricians to write speeches to commemorate the victory.  Pericles wrote one of these speeches.  His was the greatest.  In fact it was so moving that grown men who had fought began to weep instantly upon hearing it.  It was so powerful that today on the anniversary of the speech it is still read today.

There is a problem though.

Even though the Athenians held off the barbarians in this attack, in a subsequent attack a short time later, the Athenians were beaten.  The defeat is more significant for the Greeks than the victory, obviously, but today we only remember and celebrate the victorious speech by Pericles.  It isn’t remembered because of a lasting victory, but because of lasting rhetoric.

In this case, it wasn’t the event that made the speech great, it was the rhetoric that gave meaning to the event itself.

Even Aristotle says, that he knew it was a folly of a speech, “but it causes my heart to soar like an eagle.”  It adds significance to the events that they don’t have.  His (Pericles) eloquence is so strong it adds meaning to the events!  It is purely his rhetorical skill that makes the speech memorable.

Now Paul was extremely well learned in the intricacies of Greek oratory.  In fact, in his book 1 Corinthians, he uses this very model found in Pericles.  The passage we are going to look at has 17 points of reference to the Pericles speech!  It has four sections of four verses.  It is a rhetorical gem in comparison to Greek oratory.  Here is the passage:

17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.   18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”  20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

 

21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,  24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

 

 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,

29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.[1]

Now we instantly see the four sections.  As interesting as this is, it gets even more stimulating.  In the entire passage, Paul is exhorting the Corinthians not to employ lofty rhetoric above the Gospel itself.  He is saying “it isn’t the rhetoric that makes the Gospel special, it is the Gospel that makes the rhetoric special!”  Despite this, and in seeming defiance to his own admonition, Paul breaks into a rhyme!  Now, if you are warning against trendy rhetoric, the last thing you would encourage is a rhyme scheme.  Look at verse 23:

23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,”

This is a powerful verse.  It is amazing that he declares that Christ dying is a stumbling block to Jews.  They were waiting for a political leader who would free them from oppression in this world.  Jesus talked about freeing people from sin.  The fact that He died was not seen to the Jews as a victory, but instead it was viewed as a defeat.  How can a leader lead if they are dead?

It is a truly remarkable phrase.  I think the fact that Paul employs the rhetoric he has been warning against makes it all the more special.   Look at what it says in the Greek:

“hēmeis de kēryssomen

Christon estaurōmenon,

Ioudaiois men skandalon

ethnesin de mōrian.”

Do you see the rhyme?  He is using incredibly powerful and straight forward rhyme scheme here with an easily flowing cadence to get this message of “Christ crucified” across.  The problem is, there is no rhyme scheme like this found in any Greek poetry.  Where is it from?  It is Hebrew.  Paul has taken Hebrew literature and translated it to Greek.  Do you know how difficult this is to do?

Paul is reversing what happened with Pericles’s speech.  Pericles tried to give meaning to meaningless events through rhetoric.  Paul is saying it is not the rhetoric that gives power to the Gospel, but the Gospel that gives power to the rhetoric.  As a matter of fact, if you are using rhetoric to add power to the Gospel, the Gospel no longer has power—its all about the messenger!

The fact that Christ is deity, died, and resurrected—is power enough.

Here is the challenge I would leave with you—are you relying on your gifts and using God, or are you relying on God and using your gifts?  It is a powerful question we must all ask ourselves.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (1 Co 1:17–2:2). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

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