Thursday, January 16, 2020

Francis Chan, the eucharist, and church history, part 2

Below is the second part of a two-part blog post engaging with Francis Chan's recent comments regarding the Eucharist, where he clearly supports a Roman Catholic understanding of the Lord's Supper.  I do not intend to stir up arguments on social media.  In fact, if you disagree and say so, I'll just now say thanks for your thoughts and for reading through my poor writing!  But I will not argue back.  Social media debate is too vacuous to fit into my (and I would assume most peoples) schedule.  That said, I do have some thoughts for you to consider if you want to and have time to read them.  

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I listed Chan's main supporting arguments for his position in the first post.  But since you may or may not have read that, let me state the three I will be engaging with in this post:


            3. According to Acts 2:42 the early believers devoted themselves to the breaking of bread the same as the Apostle’s teaching, so it is right to prioritize the Lord’s Supper over other elements of corporate worship.
            4. Pre-Reformation, communion elements weren’t thought of as symbolic; that came during the Reformation.
            5. Globally, Christians gather for communion, not for preaching.  (Granted, Chan didn’t say this explicitly, but it seems to be implied by his mentioning his Indian pastor friend.)

Is it Biblical to elevate Communion to central status in worship? 

3. Yes the earliest church devoted itself to the breaking of bread alongside of the apostles’ teaching, fellowship together, and prayer  (Ac. 2:42).  But doesn’t that suggest that the teaching of the Word takes at least some level of priority?  That may explain why it is that in Acts 6, the apostles take a step back from serving tables in order to give themselves to prayer and the preaching of the Word, NOT to administering communion.  You may say, “They didn't need to focus on communion, because it is simple and doesn’t require study.”  Yes, exactly.  Preaching/teaching is not simple; thus, it requires time to prepare.  

Further, why is that Paul only explicitly references the Lord’s Supper ONCE in his letters (1 Cor 11:23-28)?  It could be said, again, that this is because the Lord’s Supper was simple and understood in its importance, and the Word wasn’t.  Still, if the Lord’s Supper is to be at the center of church life, why doesn’t Paul mention it in the Pastoral Epistles once?  Instead, his emphasis in every pastoral epistle is on right preaching and doctrine.  Read 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus (particularly 1 Tim 4, 2 Tim 2-4, and Tit 1) if you want proof.  Note that in every single epistle, attention is given to correcting error in what is being taught and making sure the teaching is faithful.  How could this be the case if preaching and teaching isn’t the priority? 

This also shows why preachers give time to preparation – so they aren’t in error.  One might wish that Arius and Pelagius would have spent more time studying and less time talking; perhaps they would have seen their errors and repented.  Maybe not.  Billy Graham, the great evangelist of the 20th century, famously said toward the end of his life that he wishes he would have studied more and preached less. 

The Reformation didn’t fix the church.  It pointed out errors that had taken the church off the path for a long time.  But let’s not act like it ruined the church.  The church had error before, and it has errors now.  Thus, one of the great mottos of the Reformation is Semper Reformanda: Always reforming.  Because we need to be always growing, maturing, and moving into more and more Biblical fidelity.

Was the Ancient and Medieval church entirely literalistic in its understanding of Communion?

4. As mentioned earlier, I’m not so sure that pre-Reformation, communion elements were never thought of as symbolic.  Earlier I mentioned the conflict between Ratramnus and Radbertus, which gave way to the official Catholic position.  Again it was struggle that gave way to the official position.  This is probably why later Protestants like Thomas Cranmer cited Ratramnus as a source for a symbolic view of the Lord’s Supper (see the quote on the bottom of his Wikipedia page).  But also consider Augustine, who stated in no uncertain terms that it is a “servile infirmity” to take the signs of “the sacrament of Baptism and the celebration of the Body and Blood of the Lord” for “the thing that they signify.”^^*  In other words, at least to some degree, Augustine took these things as symbolic.  Later, Augustine refers to the Lord’s Supper as, “a memorial of the fact that His flesh was crucified and wounded for us.”^**  I am not suggesting that Augustine definitely held a symbolic view of the Lord’s Supper – merely that some of his writing suggests that he did, so maybe it is not as simple as it’s stated often to be.

Regardless, let’s for the sake of argument assume that every pre-Reformation church figure held to a literalistic view of the Lord’s Supper.  Isn’t it possible that the church could at times fall into error, and need Scripture to correct it?  I’m included in this.  What error am I suggesting needs corrected?  The notion that when Jesus said, “This is my body,” he was saying, “Communion is my literal body.”  Instead, I’d suggest that you consider that the apostles were looking at his body when he said this.  Therefore, how could he not be saying the meal is symbolic of his body which sits before them?  He was pointing to was the Passover meal that had always been thought of as a symbolic representative of the Passover lamb, blood, and bread, and here He was, taking it and saying, “You are to now consider me as your Passover Lamb when you partake of this.  Remember me when you take this.”  And doesn’t this mean the elements symbolize him, just like it had done for the Passover?  Hence Paul’s statement that, “Christ, our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7).  Jesus took the Passover meal and told the disciples that it points to him.  Now when they take it, they are to keep this in mind.

John 6 will not do as a proof that the Lord’s Supper is literally Jesus’ body.  Right before saying that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have life (6:53), in almost the same breath, he said that whoever believes in him has life (6:47).  Well, Jesus, which one is it that gives us life?  The Eucharist or believing in you?  I believe that his answer is this: “Who said anything about the Eucharist?  Eating my flesh and drinking my blood IS believing in me.  To believe in me is to receive me into your heart, like eating food; and when you receive me, you have life.” This sounds a lot like what He’d said in the previous chapter: “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life” (5:24).
This is why the typically accepted Protestant understanding of the Lord’s Supper isn’t that it is a bare symbol (as many have suggested).  Rather, it is that the risen Christ who is in heaven on our behalf brings us up to himself during the Lord’s Supper, so that we enjoy His presence spiritually.*^  It is not a bare symbol, but it is also not a real sacrifice.  Instead, it is a spiritual blessing, enjoyed by us who are spiritual (1 Cor. 2:15).  

Does American evangelicalism overvalue preaching, while the global church values the Lord’s Supper? 

5. I’m blessed by Chan’s mentioning his Indian friend who says that he and his fellow Christians love to gather for communion, not necessarily preaching.  I’m glad they treasure communion like they do.  But I could easily counter with the fact that I have a pastor friend in India who has a growing church which emphasizes the preaching of the Word above all else.  Apparently people in his church love preaching.  It is easy to research and find church traditions in Africa, China or anywhere else that place the emphasis on preaching.

I say all of this because I’m a little afraid that Chan’s point will be taken by multitudes to mean that everywhere else, Christians rightly value Lord’s Supper, while here in America we value preaching, and wrongly so.  That is not my understanding in studying global Christianity.  I am far from an expert.  But I know that preaching is highly valued elsewhere. 

That said, I agree that preaching can become an overemphasis, to the point that people will wrongly only go to a church if there is a “dynamic” speaker.  Hence, my prep-time as a pastor is less and less as the days go by, not because I know what I’m doing better now (though I hope to be growing), but because I want more time for shepherding, evangelism, writing, and other tasks.  I don’t see Paul spending hours and hours preparing to preach.  But not everyone is gifted like Paul, and some need extra time to prepare.  Further, Paul received a lot of criticism for the fact that he wasn’t a particularly eloquent preacher (see 2 Cor 10:10, 11:6).  But the rest of his ministry, and the power of the Spirit on him, made up for it.  For the rest of us, we try hard to preach and teach well, because we’re not Paul.  And God has called us to fulfill our ministries (2 Tim 4:5).

Conclusion

Again, I’ve been a Chan fan for a long time, and still am.  But his narrative of the unfolding of church history appears to be a little simplistic and shortsighted.  I’d caution you before you start to do the very thing it seems that he might be suggesting, that is, questioning everything.  Asking questions is good, and so is being critical (for how can we discern truth from error any other way?)  But let us not question everyone and everything else before we question ourselves too.  It may be that our being edifyingly critical depends on being critical of our own ways of thinking first.  I heard Tim Keller say once, “Let’s be skeptical, but let’s make sure we are skeptical of our skepticism, too.”  This way, if our brothers really do have specks in their eyes, we’ll see clearly to help them remove it.  

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^See John Piper, Contending For Our All, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 50.

^^Ibid, 41.

^*See Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: 3. The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300), (University of Chicago Press, 1978), 74-80.

^^* Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 87.

^**Ibid, 93.

*^See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.31.

Francis Chan, the eucharist, and church history, part 1

Below is the first part of a two-part blog post engaging with Francis Chan's recent comments regarding the Eucharist, where he clearly supports a Roman Catholic understanding of the Lord's Supper.  I do not intend to stir up arguments on social media.  In fact, if you disagree and say so, I'll just now say thanks for your thoughts and for reading through my poor writing!  But I will not argue back.  Social media debate is too vacuous to fit into my (and I would assume most peoples) schedule.  That said, I do have some thoughts for you to consider if you want to and have time to read them.  
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Francis Chan is a beloved evangelical figure because of his bestselling book Crazy Love, his contagious concern for evangelism, and for his sojourning spirit that took him out of being a mega-church pastor into lay ministry.  He is a not a mysterious figure by any stretch, and yet it seems that there is something very real and authentic about his faith in and walk with Jesus that is attractive to us who feel a tendency within to live life in the motions.

Over the past decade Chan has become known for his hot takes.  He wrote a book on the church's disastrous neglect of the Holy Spirit, and contributed to another book responding to Rob Bell’s questioning of Hell.  This is to say nothing of sound bytes from well-known sermons he’s preached.  I for one am thankful for him, because he seems to have both a concern for truth and a love for the lost and desire that believers live Biblically. 

Recently Chan has made comments suggesting that the evangelical church is focused too heavily on preaching and not enough on the Lord’s Supper, also known as Communion.  He suggested that the Acts church prioritized the Lord’s Supper, even suggesting that they knew Communion as an experience of Christ’s real body and blood.  And the church had this understanding until about 500 years ago, apparently coinciding with the Reformation, when confusion set in.  As can be guessed, Roman Catholics applauded him, seeming to suggest that he is close to Catholicism.  Non-Catholics who hold to Catholic-like views of the Lord’s Supper have done the same.  

In making his argument he gives several supporting arguments, some clearly given, and some implied: 
            1. During the Protestant Reformation, attention was taken off of communion and put onto preaching.  Pre-Reformation, church worship was all about communion, not preaching.
            2. From the Reformation onward, preaching became divisive because the messages contradicted each other.  Therefore, the church began and continues to reenact 1 Corinthians 1:12-13, where believers were dividing into sub-sects, following Paul, Peter, Apollos, etc.
            3. According to Acts 2:42 the early believers devoted themselves to the breaking of bread the same as the Apostle’s teaching, so it is right to prioritize the Lord’s Supper over other elements of corporate worship.
            4. Pre-Reformation, communion elements weren’t thought of as symbolic; that came during the Reformation.
            5. Globally, Christians gather for communion, not for preaching.  (Granted, Chan didn’t say this explicitly, but it seems to be implied by his mentioning his Indian pastor friend.)

Before I give responses to each, let me restate what I said earlier: Chan is a true Christian who loves Jesus, and I am very thankful for him. My response is a response over in-house debates.  That being said, I do have some strong disagreements with him.

Is the Reformation the first time the church emphasized preaching?

1. It is very clear studying history that pre-Reformation, preaching was critical and essential for church life.  I’m reading a book right now on ancient Biblical interpretation, and it is very clear that heavy emphasis was placed for centuries on right Biblical teaching.  This is why John Chrysostom’s (c. 347-407) legacy as a great preacher has survived, as has Basil of Caesarea (329-379).*  These are just a couple of cheap examples of the importance of preaching during that time, and much (much) more could be said.  This doesn’t negate the importance of communion then.  But the idea that it is wrong to place an emphasis on preaching is itself wrong, both Biblically and historically.  

Regarding preachers using 20 hours of prep, it takes a long time to construct a speech of any kind that is going to be sure to help the hearers.  Augustine felt the same way, saying in On Christian Doctrine that it is important for preachers who may not be as naturally gifted in rhetoric to give themselves to study and preparation, so as to be a blessing to their hearers.**

Did the Reformation create church division?

2. Yes, division is one of the most common accusations of the pitfalls of the post-Reformation church.  We all should long for a greater ecclesiastical unity.  That said, I want to raise two points.  First, Paul, by stating that the church by definition submits to Christ (Eph 5:24), implies that the church is unified in its submission to Christ.  That may not mean that every believer is of the same mind all the time or that the church has moments of infidelity.  But the posture of the true church is a posture of submission and love for Jesus, and it finds its way back to truth.  Second, we all know that Jesus calls his sheep to be unified (John 13:34-34, 17:21).  But again, Paul’s statement in Ephesians implies that the church is unified.  There in John 17, Jesus prays for unity.  Is anyone going to suggest that Jesus, who had just said that as we follow him, he answers our prayers (15:7, 16), can’t himself get his own prayers to the Father answered?  I’m suggesting that the church, with all of its warts and problems, is substantially unified.  Perhaps we have chosen to blind ourselves to this reality for the sake of refusing to rest in Christ.  

This is probably why my recent prayer time with a few other pastors, one an Evangelical Free pastor, another nondenominational, another Christian Reformed, and myself a Conservative Baptist, showed us all being in substantial agreement on the highest priorities.  It isn’t that we agree on everything, but that we agree on the main things.  We would all be in substantial agreement with the statement of faith (link) put forth by the National Association of Evangelicals.  

For the claim that the church was unified before the Reformation, I’m not so sure.  Consider the doctrinal disagreements that spurred on the councils that spelled out doctrinal fidelity.  Let me ask an uncomfortable question: Are we so sure that the heretics were really trying to be heretics?  Or is it possible that they, professing Christians, were just wrong, and dug their heels in when no one else would listen?  Reading ancient Christian commentary, I’ve found myself (and all of Protestantism, as far as I can tell) in agreement with some things Pelagius and even Arius had to say.  Not all things – certainly not the matters about which they believed what has and should still be called heresy – but some things.  I’m not saying these men were real Christians.  I don’t know, and their beliefs were so spurious that we do well to be skeptical.  But I know that reading a lot of their stuff, they seem to have some good to offer, in a similar way that I disagree with NT Wright over some primary things, though I think he has much good to offer.***

My point is that the ancient church’s long lasting and church altering debates and disagreements do far from suggesting that there was absolute unity.  John Piper has demonstrated well that when Athanasius stood up for the orthodox position of Jesus’ divinity, Athanasius, for all intents and purposes, stood alone.  The church had gone almost entirely wholesale into Arian heresy, and Athanasius was a proponent of a view that was in the minority.^  Hence the ancient phrase that escapes a lot of believers today: Athanasius contra mundum – Athanasius against the world.^^  How could this all be, if there was such unity?  In fact Athanasius contra mundum suggests a profound unity in error!  Thankfully, his view was eventually accepted.

Finally, I remember reading during seminary of the Medieval disagreement over what exactly is the Lord’s Supper – is it really the body and blood of Christ, or is it symbolic?  One church leader, Radbertus, held that it was really Jesus’ body and blood that underwent a real sacrifice during the Eucharist; and on the contrary, another leader (and friend of Radbertus), Ratramnus, held it to be a symbol.^*  Eventually, Radbertus’ position won out and eventually became the official Catholic position; but it took disagreement and controversy to get there.  A little more on Radbertus/Ratramnus later.  Suffice it to say that the notion of absolute unity pre-Reformation is not historically supportable, and I'm a little surprised that so many maintain and argue for it.  

Responses to points 3-5 will be posted tomorrow.  Thanks for reading.  
Best, Scott 
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*Gerald Bray. Biblical Interpretation, Past & Present, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1996),  88-89.

**Augustine. On Christian Doctrine, trans. D.W. Robertson, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1958), 121.

***The obvious question in response is this: Scott, are you implying that Wright is a heretic like Arius and Pelagius were?  I do believe that his view on justification is disastrously incorrect.  Since I consider justification by faith to be an essential teaching of Christianity, I have a hard time calling one a Christian who doesn’t hold to it.  That said, I will call them a Christian if it seems, based on their other beliefs, that they love the Lord and are trying to be true to Scripture.  Wright fits this definition, and I wonder if any of the ancient heretics did, too.  But that doesn’t change the wrongness of wrong belief, and the disastrous effects of said wrong belief.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Jacob's Limp, and Our Own

As I begin a new year, I’m finishing reading through Genesis again.  And again I’m reminded why past Genesis readings have led me to the conclusion that Jacob is my favorite person in the story.  There are two particular reasons I love Jacob, both based on statements he makes at the end of his life: First, I love his honesty about life; second, I love his understanding that his whole life has been orchestrated by God.  

Honesty

First, Jacob’s honesty.  When his suddenly famous and successful and not dead son Joseph brings Jacob and the rest of the family to Egypt, Jacob meets Pharaoh, to whom Joseph is right-hand man.  Pharaoh asks the old man Jacob about his life, and Jacob responds, “Few and evil have been the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning” (47:9).  This is a remarkable statement from the man who was a liar and swindler in his younger days.  But perhaps it is not so remarkable when one considers that for most of his earlier lies and swindles, he has to some extent been repaid.  The old saying is “What goes around comes around,” but a newer belief in the Western world (though it is no new belief at all) is Karma. Perhaps Jacob is suggesting that he is the recipient of Karma.  But that doesn’t appear to be how he understands his troubles.  Instead, he suggests here and says plainly elsewhere that it is God who has worked all of this – both the blessing and the bad.  This leads to the second point.

The Shepherd

(Second,) Jacob’s understanding that he has been led by God all of his life.  Pharaoh’s question to Jacob, paraphrasing, is, “How old are you?” (47:8)  And Jacob’s response is (not paraphrasing, but abbreviating), “My sojourning has gone on for 130 years,” followed by his statement about how evil and few have been his days.  Notice that Pharaoh’s question is about Jacob’s age, and Jacob states the number only as a timestamp for his sojourning.  And when he compares his life to his fathers (Abraham and Isaac), he compares his sojourning to theirs.    Apparently Jacob understands that God’s people are always on a journey and never at home in the world (Heb 11:13).

A little later, Jacob can be seen giving a blessing to his grandsons, Joseph’s sons.  One can’t help but remember a similar scene from Jacob’s childhood where he and Esau are getting blessings from their dad Isaac, and Jacob steals Esau’s firstborn blessing (Gen 27).  Anyway, in the course of Jacob’s blessing Joseph’s sons, he refers to God as the One who has “been my shepherd all my life long to this day” (48:15).  What a staggering claim.  Here, Jacob owns that all of his life – with both his great blessing at his dad’s hand (which, by the way, though he stole it, God let him keep it, because according to 25:23, it was the plan of Him who’s ways are not man’s ways, Is. 55:9), and the repayment of his wrongs at the hands of Laban and his own sons – has been ordained according to God’s sovereign plan for him.  We shouldn’t be too surprised by this.  God did make himself personal to Jacob at the famous staircase (28:10ff) and during the famous wrestling match (32:22ff), the latter which gave Jacob his famous limp. 

The Limp

And that raises an important part of Jacob’s story: he was brought to understand that if one is going to journey with God, they’re going to have to do so in weakness (ie, with a “limp”) so that they don’t “go on ahead” of God (cf. 2 Jn 9) instead of following Him (Num 32:15).  In other words, God aims that we be weak not because he wants to hinder us, but because he understands that our true weakness is a spiritual one whereby we lean toward autonomy and moving faster than we should.  So he gives us spiritual weakness so that we will, like His Son, only act in concert with Him, and He’ll be glorified as we enjoy going at His speed.  It seems like Jacob learned this the hard way, and at the end of his life, felt the need to tell about it. 

Most of us live our lives at any given moment thinking we know everything, or at least every important thing.  We’re experts in our experiences and fields, and filter every issue through the lenses of our expertise, and that is why we’re so proud of and sure of ourselves.  It is only in the course of our proverbial wrestling matches, which usually happen on the way to something else (as Jacob’s happened on the way to meeting Esau), that we realize either how wrong we were or how we need to slow down in our rightness and bring others along patiently, like God brings us along patiently. This is the struggle of the journey for sinful people like us.  

Still, Scripture is replete with examples of God being referred to as the Shepherd of his people.  Whether the famous, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” Psalm (Ps 23), or the more collective, “He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, the sheep of His hand” (Ps. 95:7), this concept of God as shepherd is cause for worship.  Further, it is an essential aspect to the Messianic promise of the prophets, where God promises one day that in a new and special way He will shepherd his flock (Ezek. 34:23, 31; 37:24).  Hence Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd” (Jn 10:11, 14), and he is referred to as “the great shepherd of the sheep” in Hebrews 13:20.  Sinful though we be, if we belong to God, he shepherds (leads, keeps, protects) us.

This must be why Jacob understood life as a journey, and himself as a sojourner.  To be on a journey suggests a direction.  I’ve heard the phrase a lot recently, “Not all who wander are lost.”  That is because even wanderers are looking for something.  But to Jacob, he wasn’t simply wandering.  He was sojourning, maybe not looking for something as much as belonging to Someone – he was a sheep belonging to a Shepherd.  And at the end of his life he could say in the same breath both that his days had been evil, and that God had shepherded him every step of the way.  In other words, yes it has been hard, but it has had purpose, and it is beautiful as my shepherd has led me.

Sparks Fly Upward

Scripture is very clear that we live not necessarily in an evil world, but a fallen world.  And life in a fallen world is hard and full of evil.  “Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).  Just read Ecclesiastes to find the Bible’s clarity on the vanity – even the meaninglessness – of life in a fallen world.  But that is why Jesus’ coming into the world is good news.  He reveals the fullness of the truth for us to know, and the core of it is that all of creation exists for Him (Col. 1:15).  And as we embrace the Son for whom all things exist, and in whom all things consist (Heb. 1:3), the difficulty and darkness begins to lighten up and brighten up.  Thus to the Apostles, the journey is a journey into transformation, where we who believe are being conformed to Jesus’ image every step of the way (2 Cor. 3:18), until one day when the transformation will be complete (1 Jn. 3:3).  And the joy, love, and glory that Jesus has eternally enjoyed with the Father become our joy, love, and glory (see Jn. 17:24-26), as we delight in Him. 

Beauty in the Big Picture

As a pastor I work a lot with people who are twice my age or slightly more; though, as I get older, there are fewer and fewer who are twice my age!  One thing I see in counseling is that older people look back on past hard chapters in life – raising kids, working for hard bosses, going through marital troubles, cancer, etc. – with joy.  Why?  It cannot because these chapters were fun while they were happening.  Rather, it is because these people – sojourners – made it through, they know not how, now with some wisdom and refining that ease and comfort couldn’t have given.  This must be why Jesus rebuked seeking a life of ease (see Lk 12:19): God made us for a journey.  That way, we learn to enjoy the process like God does, and we get to the other side with limping, but it is a beautiful limping.  It feels like we’re only making by the skin of our teeth.  But the God who called us and is with us, is already present at the end as well.

All of this is to say that we need to reflect on Jacob keep in mind and be encouraged by the “big picture.”  After all, the Old Testament was written to encourage us and keep us longing for God (Rom. 15:4, 1 Cor 10:6).  As we remember who rules the world, is in control, and is generating good for us at all times, there is supposed to be a joy as we remember that He’s God and we’re not.  We’re just journeymen/women.  And we limp and walk this trodden path painfully, but we do it knowing that we have a Shepherd who is caring for us and carrying out good purposes for us.  

It was good enough for Jacob to be shepherded by God, even if that means that what goes around comes around.  Jacob understood that God orchestrates it this way so that His people will learn what they need and come to humble themselves.  It’s the same with all of God’s people throughout time: always sojourning, never at home in the world, and being prepared for glory (cf. Heb 11:13).  My hope is that, if you're following the Lord, it is good enough for you.  We’re not promised tomorrow in this world.  But we are promised eternity in the joy of our Master.  May we lean on the sure promise of it as we limp through this sojourning life.  We’ll make it to the end gloriously.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Nick Foles, and the Gospel in the Public Forum


You may have heard of Nick Foles.  He is a former Super Bowl MVP who is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars.  He is coming off of an injury and is finally ready to play, having missed virtually the entire first half of the season.  In the past he has been humbly outspoken about his Christian faith, and he is apparently planning to enter the pastorate after his playing career is over.  

In the video above, Foles offers such a beautiful expression of faith in Jesus.  Foles shows that the life of a Christian is not a constant experience of receiving whatever we want.  Instead the Christian’s life is a journey where we understand that Jesus is sovereign, so we go along with the ride as He causes providence to work for our good.  “Through many trials we enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Ac. 14:22).  Foles is so clear-headed about the journey, and it is inspiring and refreshing.

It amazes me how many clear-headed evangelical Christians there are in the NFL.  It seems like every week you hear a testimony from an NFL starter about God’s goodness toward them, and how they want to give him the glory. At the very least, these men have a sense of reality with God, and they live in it.  I’m not sure why I’m so amazed by this.  In my experience, a stressful life is a radical means of grace because it drives the individual to constant prayer, which changes us as much as it works effectually for the things we request.  And I’m sure that a constant dance with the dangers of football on up to the professional level drive countless men (and their families) to constant prayer.   So maybe it makes sense that so many of these men are so strong and clear in their faith.  They live a life of danger and therefore, prayer.  And one thing crystal clear from Scripture is that God works effectively through the prayers of His people.  He's near to all of those who call on Him (Ps. 145:18).

Foles reminds me here of the Apostle Paul when he was in Athens speaking in the city square (Ac. 17).  Like Paul uses the opportunity to engage with the cultural sensibilities of the time, showing how they only find resolution in Jesus, Foles does the same thing.  Contrary to the reporter's assumption, he was not afraid of the backup quarterback’s success in his absence.  Rather Foles’ identity is in being beloved by the Lord.  So there is no threat or reason for anxiety, if God who loves you is in control.   

In a day when conversations about faith in the social sphere seem to always be relegated to political and social reflection and application, it is refreshing to hear a man talk about faith in Jesus in terms of just following Him on the journey, trusting His providence, and waiting on Him.  This is quite a testimony.  But really it is just Biblical Christianity.  



(Man; I just remembered the Jags play my team this Sunday. Sorry, Nick.  Go Colts.)

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Conspiracies, the Devil, and Jesus

“Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread.”   Isaiah 8:12 

This passage comes from a section in Isaiah which is often cited in the New Testament.  The soon-after promise that “the Lord” is coming to earth to become a sanctuary for his people is an obvious look forward to messianic days.  Hence, the apostles often cited the section in support of Jesus’ being the Messiah (ie. Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:8, 3:14-15).  

But what does the “conspiracy” sentence mean?  Apparently the people of God were in danger of a conspiracy-mindset creeping in during their days.  Since Israel was in such bad shape as a nation, morale was low.  Therefore, all kinds of explanations were being advanced as to why things were so bad and getting worse.  One example is the peoples’ belief that the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah were working for opposing nations in their pronouncing of God’s judgments.  Into this cultural moment God said, “Don’t listen to that stuff; don’t get caught up in the group-think.  Wait on the Lord, and live in the Scriptures.  He’s in control, and He’s using all of this difficulty to make the days when He steps foot on earth that much more glorious, so you’ll believe.  Don’t get caught up in peoples’ easy diagnoses of the Problem.  The work needed is inward.  And the One coming will do that work.”  

A Day of Conspiracy Theories

Today is the day of conspiracy theories.  You may not agree, because maybe you hold that a particular theory has some weight to it.  But people all over the place are buying into different claims about who is really destroying society, some theories more far-fetched, and some representing true concerns:

-Flat-earthers hold that NASA and the government have lied to the people about humanity’s travels to space.

-Many social-justice-oriented people hold that there is an organized conspiracy designed to hold down and hurt minorities and women in America.  

-Anti-vaxers hold that our kids all have physical and mental problems because “big pharma” forces medicines on them.   

-Many Christians hold that liberals are all working together intelligently to stamp out religion and traditional conservative values. 

These are just a few examples.  Of course, it is important to ask questions.  How else can we learn?  Still it is often the case today that when one begins to ask questions, they begin to see coherence between points in a particular web of beliefs (ie, a conspiracy), and it encourages them that they’re asking the right questions.  The problem is that so few of these theories are ever actually proven, so no solution is ever found.   But people feel that they’ve figured out what’s wrong and who is to blame.  So they’re now part of the elite “in crowd,” which CS Lewis once rightly noted that all people want to be in.  

The Devil

But what if these are the wrong questions?  I’m going to suggest something that may sound a little odd to our postmodern ears.  What if our real issue is a lack of acknowledgement in the existence of the Devil, that ancient serpent (Rev. 12:9) whose goal is to lie and murder (Jn. 8:44), who has the power to blind people to God’s truth (2 Cor. 4:4) and is allowed to work powerfully in the earth (1 Jn. 5:19, Rev. 13:3)?  What if the real conspiracy is a denial that he still works in the world, and that all of these little issues – some of them worthy of being called legitimate concerns – are thrown around to keep people distracted from the reality of sin and the glory of the risen King and his salvation?  It’s what happened during Jesus' day; what if it’s still happening now?   The old Cowper hymn is true which says that God works in mysterious ways.  But the devil does too.  He was crafty in Eden (Gen. 3:1), he had schemes in the first century (2 Cor. 2:11).  Doesn’t he still today?    

Screwtape and Politics 

Speaking of CS Lewis, you’ve probably seen his little statement on the distraction of politics in the Screwtape Letters:  Paraphrasing, “Dear wormwood, keep them focused on politics, so they won’t consider spiritual matters.”  While Lewis would most certainly affirm the importance of right politics, nevertheless his point is taken: If the devil can get people calling other people the devil, then he can hide in plain sight and keep people blind to the spiritual realm where he works.  Slanting the idea to a different angle, if I think others are the devil, I won’t think the devil is the devil, or that I ever do anything that serves his purposes.   

And perhaps even more serious, if I think others are evil, I certainly won’t think I am.  If I did, that would require me making a beeline to Jesus to renew me from the inside out.  Never mind that Jesus said point blank that I am evil (Mt. 7:9, Lk. 11:9), and that I need His new creation.  They, not I, are the problem with the world.

I’m the Way

As you know, Jesus spent a lot of time confronting the religious elite and the powers that be.  Less noted is that he also confronted the outcasts of society – the marginalized, as people prefer to call them today – and told them of their need to repent too.  Because while one side would point across and say, “THEY’RE the problem!” and vice-versa, Jesus came to say, “You’re all the problem, Satan has blinded you, and I’ve come to destroy His works and make you new” (cf. 1 Jn. 3:8, 2 Cor. 5:17).   And anyone can get in on this and enjoy the new creation that He brings.  

Until He returns, the world will never enjoy a mitigation of all problems.  But a joy that is outside of circumstance will be available, and the church will herald its message clearly, as opposed to its current confused message.  But you will only enjoy this if you're at least ready to question the world's conspiracy theories, and are ready to embrace God's simple yet profound theory (outlined above).  One theory will give you no rest and it will make you incorrigible toward opponents.  The other will give you rest and give you love for your opponents.  That's because the latter is based on One lovingly giving HIs life for HIs opponents, to save them.

And to me, there's just no other way.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Thoughts From the Journey

Greetings all.
Usually I only write on my blog when I have a theological or pastoral point to make.  Today is a little different.  This post will take on more of a spirit of personal reflection regarding the journey over the last six months.

Dorothy Mae 

First, this summer saw the birth of our second child, Dorothy Mae, June 24.  Since our son Isaiah (who just turned two last month) was born with all kinds of health conditions, conditions which are slowly but surely correcting as the days go by, we were afraid that Dorothy Mae would have the same issues.  I was very nervous about it for the last four months or so of her time in utero, my anxiety being directly contrary to my theology, thus showing the weakness of my flesh (ala, the disciples in Matt. 26:41.)  But Dorothy Mae came to us 2.5 lbs larger than Isaiah was at birth, healthy, and full of life.  I wept when I held her in the post-op room, waiting for mommy to be brought back, Dorothy Mae having no need for chords or cables.  Today, at just over two months, she's almost 10 lbs, drinking a lot of formula, and being the drama queen that I expected her to be.

Tragedy 

Second, Kate lost her dad Andy in May, roughly a month and a half before Dorothy Mae was born.  It was very sudden, and he was only 65.  Losing a parent is hard enough, but for it to happen as close to the birth of a child is even more difficult.  We were left to grieve from afar, as our being a high-risk pregnancy cancelled any possibility of travel for the funeral.  The sentiment left over from this death followed by life is that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away (Job 1:21).  Kate is an only child, and she was very close to her dad.  Since the summer was so crazy with life happening, the grieving process has looked a little different than usual.  But isn't that how life works sometimes?  We're thankful to have the Holy Spirit as our Comforter (Jn. 14:16), as He is Jesus' spiritual presence with us while He is Himself at the Father's right hand.  This may be the best part of the hope of Biblical Christianity - Christ's very presence with us as we follow him.

Academic Adventure 

Less important, I took a fairly drastic shift in my postgraduate studies.  I signed up last year for the DMin (doctor of ministry) program at Denver Seminary.  After taking one class, it seemed pretty clear that the program wasn't for me, nor the DMin degree itself.  No poor reflection on Denver Seminary - it is without question full of godly faculty and students, and I'm very grateful for my short time there.  I just am on a different journey than that program would have offered, and it took joining it to find out.
So I withdrew from there and enrolled in the PhD program at Columbia Biblical Seminary (at Columbia International University, South Carolina), a program which is completed entirely online.  But this required taking two semesters of Greek this summer (yes, two semesters this summer).  Long story short, I survived, and looking back, I'm glad to have done it so intensely, because completing it so quickly enabled me to begin the first PhD class yesterday.  Over the next couple of years I'll have to relearn German (I took it in high school) and learn either French or Latin, as a requirement for my research studies.  I'll be exploring the relationship between the Protestant doctrine of "Sola Scriptura" and the (relatively) recent interest among reformed-leaning evangelicals in Biblical Theology.  I should have a PhD in theology in five years or so, Lord willing.
Further, I'll be teaching the 8th grade Bible class at our local Christian school.  I did not foresee this happening, but, as is so often the case, the Lord had other plans.  What a great opportunity to serve area kids and families.  Grateful (and prayerful - this will be a new adventure).

Rich Ministry 

Finally, this summer saw a lot of ministry.  The challenge as a Baptist pastor is getting stuck in the insular world of church ministry, and never connecting with nonbelievers.  But this summer saw a weekly basketball outreach and a partnership with several area churches for an outreach tent at the NJ State Fair (which takes place in our county).  Finally, I had a few other opportunities to speak and present the gospel before non-churchgoers.  First Baptist had four baptisms at the beginning of the summer, and there are a few in the works for the fall, as well as some potential new members.
Ministry is funny.  You grind and grind and sometimes it seems like you don't get a lot of return.  But then when you step back and take a look at has happened over the last 3/6/9/12 months, it's clear that God has been at work.  You're reminded of Jesus' endearing word to Peter and the apostles: "I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18).  People are being discipled, brought to believe, and mobilized to shine light into the world in which they live.  And you know it's the Lord doing all of it.

Sojourners and strangers

On many occasions, the New Testament refers to Christians in terms of being sojourners, strangers, exiles, etc. (eg. Heb. 11:13, 1 Pt. 1:1, Ps. 119:19).  What does that mean if not that we're on a journey and don't really know what the future holds?  There will be twists and turns, unforeseen chapters, changes in goals and priorities, etc. etc.  But we should be thankful that our Lord has the road mapped out, and not only is He in control, but He's good and He loves us.  There's more I could say, but there's no better place to end than reflecting on God's control, goodness, and mercy.  May it be a reminder to you today as you journey.  Follow Him and take up the cross daily - this enslavement to Jesus (cf. Rom. 1:1, 6:18) is the only freedom there is.

ινα χριστον κερδησω (That I may gain Christ, Phil. 3:8)
Scott

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Daniel and the Lion's Den

Daniel is one of my favorite books in the Bible, because it is not only filled with gripping narrative, but with prophetic foresight looking forward to Jesus the King of kings.  I don't feel that I fully understand everything in the book (especially between chapters 8 and 11), but I'm growing.  And I've preached and taught chapters 1-6 (the narrative section, written mostly in Aramaic) many many times.  Recently my personal reading had me go through Daniel again.

Sunday school lesson

If you're reading this, you're probably familiar with the story of Daniel being in the Lion's Den.  King Darius, king of the the Medo-Persians, has just received the kingdom of Babylon and he likes Daniel because Daniel is useful to him and clearly devout in his faith.  But Darius gets tricked at the hands of political people-pleasing (6:10-13) into putting forth a decree that lands Daniel in trouble, because Daniel is still committed after all these years to Adonai, his God.  Everyone's jealous of Daniel (6:4)  Though it pains Darius (6:14), Daniel must be cast into a lion's den.  And you probably know the story: the lions don't attack Daniel in the least, and Daniel appears to remain calm in the den (while the king is sleepless over the whole scenario, 6:18).   When morning comes, Daniel is brought out, and he's survived without a scratch.  And those who accused Daniel are thrown into the den, and are eaten before they even get to the ground (6:24)!

Growing up in church, the lesson here was clear:  Have faith like Daniel, and you can stand fast when you're in the lion's den.  Not a terrible message, as it puts the emphasis on God's staying power.

Adjusting our lens 

Or does it?  Maybe, but maybe not - I would argue that it puts the emphasis on your faithfulness.  And since most of us can't even begin to fathom being in that kind of situation (the vast majority of western Christians will never have to defend our faith before a den of people, let alone lions), the story ends up just floating up in the sky somewhere, out of our reach.  In other words, the passage doesn't mean anything to us personally, because how can I have that kind of faith, and when will I ever need to?  So, like the religious elite of Jesus' day, we end up more hardened by the story than softened by it (Mk. 4:10-12).  It remains a Biblical sort of fairy tale, forever lost on us and filed away as an idealistic but impossible Bible lesson from our childhood.  It's the same thing with David and Goliath, the three in the furnace, Joshua and Jericho, on and on, etc. etc.

But what if we think about these passages all wrong, and that the lesson therein is not that we are to be strong like these people, but instead that God is strong?  And that, as we journey with him like Daniel, Joshua, Deborah, etc., he'll give us the power and faith needed to endure through whatever is thrown our way?

Incidentally (not really), God's strength is exalted all throughout Daniel:

  • "to him belongs wisdom & might ... he gives wisdom to the wise, & knowledge..." 2:20-21
  • "he does according to his will among the host of heaven ... those who walk in pride he is able to humble" 4:35, 37
  • "he delivers and rescues; he works signs and wonders ... " 6:26-27
  • "to you oh Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us, open shame" 9:7
The emphasis through the whole book is God's power to rule sovereignly, and to sustain those who know him.  Since he rules history, he knows the trials that his people will face, and he will sustain them to the end and stand them up when they need to stand up (1 Cor. 1:8, Jude 24).

Captivated by glory 

I recently received perhaps the best compliment a church leader can receive: a frequent church visitor told me that she loves our church because we seem to be more concerned with praising and thanking God for who He is and what He's doing than we are with complaining about all that's wrong with the world.  I was stunned.  We have many cultural, governmental, personal problems, etc.  But the Christian is the one who follows the One who has overcome the world (Jn. 16:33), and in Him, they're crucified in this world and living here as members of the New Creation (Gal. 6:14-15).  Thus they give their lives to glorifying and praising Him because they've been captivated by His good news and power, and they know He's at work in their midst.  They take seriously "Do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31).  They're miserable failures in and of themselves; but they're more than conquerors as He lives in them and they enjoy His love.  The best part: whenever they're faithless, He's faithful (2 Tim. 2:13), and this gives them confidence that though they fail him time and time again, He still loves them, and will shepherd them through it.  Thus they don't really fail Him - He's in control.  And this gives them freedom.

And that's what Daniel knew.  Perhaps we could restate that last sentence.  That's what Daniel learned, as he followed the Lord through Babylon.  As you follow Him today, are you learning this too?