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.


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)

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?

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

On Speaking Up

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” – James 1:19

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” – Proverbs 18:2

I was reflecting earlier on the two verses above.  Mimicking a few of my son’s bath toys in the water, these verses floated around in my mind and kept bumping into my continued struggles with social media. It isn’t that I don’t value social media – I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and I try to engage regularly.  But I’m finding it more and more stressful to do so. I wonder why this is? 


First, by definition, a social media (SM) presence comes with a lot of pressure.  You don’t interact in person with a lot of the people you interact with on SM, so your SM presence is the only way many people know you. Further, and perhaps more significantly, SM has become our manmade opinion factory.   Online communication platforms have created a global “town square,” where one can express their opinion about any issue they see societally or culturally.   And they do express those opinions indeed.  One can publish material without having earned a hearing with multitudes, which was not the experience of my parent’s generation. 

Christians have led the way in opinion sharing.  On Twitter, I follow left-leaning Christians, right-leaning Christians, and people everywhere in between.  Everyone has something to say about everything.  The thing that amazes me is how quick everyone is to understandthings that happen.  Maybe I’m just not that smart (and probably so), but I hear about the President’s latest comments, the latest police shooting, or the latest interaction between global diplomats, and I need a few minutes to think about it. But once those few minutes are up, I’m “late on this” (to borrow a phrase which people frequently use online). 

I believe that our opinions are driven by our beliefs and our presuppositions – that is, your grid of discernment is made up of whatever you assume about people, persons, ethics, morals, etc.  Therefore opinions are products of the collision between news and your grid. Therefore, I have opinions.  But since I assume that there are complexities about people, politics, and culture (NOT nuance– I hate that concept), it’s hard for me to process things as quick as most online appear to.

Slow to speak? 

Now I wouldn’t ask people to slow down just so I could catch up.  But this whole issue makes me wonder something.  Should Christians be as quick to speak up about everything they perceive to be wrong (or right) as they often are?  When you look at the verses quoted above, you find James making his point about being slow to speak only after saying, “Know this…”  In Greek, the phrase is actually one word: hoste, which is a conjunction that means “so that.”  This means that the point in the verse is the effect of the point in the previous verse.  And the previous verse gives a statement about our being brought forth (born again) by God’s Word of truth, that we’d be the “firstfruits” (that is, God’s beloved) of his creatures (1:18).  So Christians are the beloved of the Lord, born again from above, and this is supposed to have the effect of their having three characteristics: 

1. Quick to hear– they don’t need to lead a conversation, though they may like to, and they may have the words that need said.  But they’re willing to let others speak first.

2. Slow to speak– they don’t need to jump to giving their opinion on everything that they hear; rather, they understand, knowing that Biblical truth is simple and yet the purposes of peoples’ hearts are “deep water” (Proverbs 20:5), that if they come in like a bulldozer they’ll do damage. But if they wait patiently they’ll be able to bring the life-giving Word once the person on the other side of the table knows they’re cared for and loved.   Thus the Christian is slow to speak.

3. Slow to anger– they’re not easily flustered, because they “let the peace of Christ rule in their hearts” (Col. 3:15), which is a peace that only Jesus gives (Jn. 14:27).   It isn’t that they don’t have slip-ups (come sit in the passenger seat while I’m driving in traffic).  But these slip-ups are slip-ups; not the norm. They’re ruled by peace, because Jesus is the Prince of peace.

The Need to Speak Up

I understand that unless people “speak up,” injustices aren’t addressed, truth often falls through the cracks in favor of fickle opinions, and necessary change never materializes.  I’m giving my opinion right now!   But I’m concerned about what appears to me to be Christians’ reversal of the Biblical mandate above:  We’ve become slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to anger, expressing our immature thoughts and opinions every time there’s an opportunity.  According to James, believers are those anchored in their rebirth by Christ’s Word, and this apparently is to have the effect of our being patient with speaking into complex issues.  

Theology Drives Practice

Years ago I left behind a theological tradition which I felt, based on both theory and experience, naturally led the adherent thereof to feel a need to share their opinion every time they sensed something wrong.  Since Scripture unequivocally says that a fallen world is full of things that are wrong, this seemed theologically and sociologically immature to me.*  So I entered into the historic evangelical stream with a Reformed bent, amazed at the exegetical nature of the teachers therein and the patience of the believers therein toward social issues.

But what I’ve seen in recent years grieves me:  There is now a sense within this stream, both from left-leaning believers and right-leaning believers**, of a responsibility to speak up about everything that is perceived wrong.  Bonhoeffer is often quoted as an authority in speaking up about “injustices”; yet people forget that Bonhoeffer also held to some questionable views of the Scriptures.*** Is his legend (Don’t mishear me - I love Bonhoeffer) make his an authoritative position?  People say, “Well Paul spoke up all the time!”  Yes, but how often, and how quickly?  How do we know that every issue that came up in Paul’s ministry was recorded in Scripture?  

Overcoming By the Blood of the Lamb

The book of Revelation is written with the intent of encouraging Christians that while they go through much trouble in this world, their Lord is in control, and He’ll win every spiritual battle along the way, until he wins the final battle and brings His people into the New Heavens and the New Earth.  The “tribulation” that keeps coming up throughout is referring to the difficult experience of living in a fallen world in the present day. This "take" on Revelation, an admittedly unpopular one, seems proven by John’s saying that he is Christians’ “partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Christ Jesus” (1:9)****.  But how do Christians respond to the troubles of life – whether personal or social? : “By the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (12:11; see also 12:17, 14:12, and 19:10 - it’s all about the power of the Word holding the Christian in the midst of trouble).  They don’t overcome problems in life by speaking their opinion or giving their two-cents; they overcome by holding to Christ, keeping faith in the Gospel, and bring that Gospel to bear often

Are we adorned by the Gospel, bringing the basic Biblical message of repentance and faith in Christ and reconciliation with God through Him to bear on our friends in this life? I’m not asking you to stop speaking up. I’m asking you pray first, and see what would keep your responses in step with the Gospel.  I’m convinced that if we commit to this together, we’ll give a more faithful light.  

Let’s follow Jesus together. 

*For the record, I’ve left behind a couple of theological traditions in my journey.  What I say above is not meant to be an insult to anyone therein, or to said traditions.  The Lord has people in every theological tradition.  This has just been my journey, based on my reading of the Scriptures, finding what Christian tradition seems to fit most closely with the Scriptures.  

**For the record, I’m a right-leaning believer, believing that no Christian in their right mind could ever vote for a candidate of a political party which has legal abortion as part of its platform.  I’m sorry if this turns you off, but I’d be more sorry if I held to the opposite opinion. 

***See his treatment of Christ’s resurrection in Matthew 28, in his little book Christ as Center, p.72ff.  Christ as Center is a collection of lectures on Christology from during his teaching days.   See also https://reformedforum.org/will-real-bonhoeffer-please-stand-part-5/ , where Dr. Jeff Stivason shows some of the difficulties of Bonhoeffer’s sometimes contradictory positions, including his issues with the resurrection in the new edition of Christ as Center, entitled Christ the Center.  

****It seems that all three of these phrases are taken together, thus as the Christian's simultaneous experience. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Platt, Trump, and Prayer

You might have heard by now that President Trump made a surprise visit to Maclean Bible Church in Maclean, VA (suburban DC) this past Sunday.  Toward the end of the service, the president’s men called the church and said that they’d be arriving soon, seeking prayer from the church, per Franklin Graham’s request for a national day of prayer for the president.  

David Platt, the pastor of MBC, is a well-known author, pastor, and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board.  Upon the President’s arrival, Platt called him up on stage, after which he read from 1 Timothy 2, where the Apostle Paul enjoins that all believers pray for rulers and all of those who are in high positions of authority. Finally, he prayed a several-minutes-long prayer for the president, a prayer that was filled with sincerity and Biblical truth, calling on God’s guidance for the leader of the country.  It seems that Platt's prayer put on display his commitment to God's kingdom before America; at least that's how it sounded to me.

Mixed Reactions 

As hard as it might be to believe (note, sarcasm), Platt’s actions were received with mixed reactions.  On the opinion-cesspool that is Twitter, some leaders praised the pastor for practicing the Biblical mandate to pray for the country’s leader; others called it an example of white evangelical leaders “using their platform to prop up the president," and others called it an “embrace of Trump."  Those on the other side argued that it was a reason to “smile," while the Gospel Coalition rightly noted and praised Platt’s prayer that “earthly leaders benefit the most when they follow the one universal king over all." 

The Pastor's Response 

The next day, Rev. Dr. Platt responded with a letter written to his congregation but released to the public (understandable because he is a public figure) apologizing for any hurt he caused to church members by bringing the president on stage.  He stated in the letter that backstage he and another pastor were able to share the gospel with the President.  He also shared that he was caught off guard by the arrival of the president, so he had to make a decision about what to do quickly. But all of that said, Platt made clear that he remains concerned primarily for those who were hurt by his decision, because he loves his church, and is only trying to "lead with God's Word in a way that transcends political party and position, heals the hurts of racial division and injustice, and honors every man and woman made in the image of God."

My thoughts

I've been a fan of David Platt's missional focus for a long time; he helped me years ago to learn to think clearly about what it means to be a Christian committed to Christ's kingdom before any earthly entity.  I've also not agreed with every one of Platt's decisions - an example being his sermon at Together For the Gospel 2018 where he spoke heavily of the problem of whiteness in American churches, which seemed to me to be his peddling to popular opinion instead of really engaging with the text of Scripture (and he was expositing a text of Scripture).  That said, I've never questioned Platt's heart, nor do I forget that, like me, he is a sinner saved by grace.  Thus he isn't perfect; since I also am not, disagreements are bound to happen.  

That said, I have a few thoughts:

1. Platt's love for God and people is an example to emulate.

It seems today that most Christians are either committed fully to loving God (caring first and foremost about sound theology) or to loving people (even being willing to compromise on Biblical doctrine for "love's" sake).  But Platt embodies both the way Jesus said we should (Matthew 22:37-38): his passion for God's glory is obvious, but so is his love for people and desire for them to come to God in truth and thrive living for Him.  That permeates his ministry, and it was on display both in praying for the president, the controversial figure that he is, and in his letter to his church, apologizing to them for any hurt he caused.

2. Life doesn't happen on social media.

This also highlights the fact that social media should not and DOES NOT govern the real world.  Platt's actions show that a pastor can be a public figure and yet be committed to their local church and God's kingdom above cultural pressure.  I didn't read his apology as caving to cultural pressure.  I took it as marching to the beat of Jesus' drum, giving honor where honor is due (Romans 13:7, in this case, to the President), but also loving those who may be confused by his actions (a confusion, no doubt driven by the effect of a polarized American society).

3. Peoples' anger over political issues colors their perception of the actions of those who clearly don't have a political agenda.

I was grieved by the response of so many people on Twitter automatically calling Platt's prayer for the president an endorsement of him and all of his policies.  But I wasn't surprised.  People are angry about so many things today, and social media provides them the outlet to put it out there for the world to see.  And even "better," if others agree with them, it entrenches them in that opinion so that it is validated.  But Platt made very clear in his letter to his church that he never meant to endorse the President, but just to pray for him.  Yet, because people have such vitriol toward the President - and toward the fact that he is still the president three years into his tenure - they automatically assume Platt must be a Trump-supporter.  It's been said before that perception is reality.  No; perception is subjective.  Something looking a certain way doesn't mean it is.  Unpopular opinion: you might be wrong.

Let's pursue Jesus' priorities.

My hope would be that we as evangelicals would prioritize Jesus' priorities before what others say we should prioritize.  If President Trump (or President Obama, when he was President) were to step into the church I pastor, I would feel honored to be in their presence, and you better believe I'd pray for them publicly (I often thought about this during Obama's tenure).  Isn't the church supposed to be a "house of prayer for all nations" (Isaiah 56:7)?
But pursuing Jesus' priorities means not only questioning those on the other side of the political aisle but also questioning ourselves.  That would require humility; and in America, whether conservative, political, or moderate, we don't do humility well.

Lord, start by changing me.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Reasons For Worship

Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!
    Praise befits the upright.
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
    make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
Sing to him a new song;
    play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
For the word of the Lord is upright,
    and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
    the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
    and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;
    he puts the deeps in storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the Lord;
    let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!
For he spoke, and it came to be;
    he commanded, and it stood firm.
                                                Psalm 33:1-9

I’ve been teaching through the Psalms on Sunday nights through the Fall and the Spring (broken up by a winter break in Ecclesiastes).  Some Psalms require a little more work to turn into a message/sermon; but some just preach.  Psalm 33 is one of those psalms.  Since it is longer, I chose to cover only the first nine verses this past Sunday night.  And I'm sharing it with you all today, since I haven't written in a long time! 

Forgiven, to Worship 

First, it’s helpful to note the similarities between Psalm 33 and 32.  32 describes the joy of finding righteousness with God, through having one’s sins forgiven and not held against them.  It isn’t that their sin is obliterated totally (like wood turning into smoke when set ablaze).  Rather their sin, though apparent in their sinful flesh, is not counted against them (32:1-2), so that they are put into a gracious state with God.  This is why Paul quotes 32:1-2 in Romans 4 to prove justification by faith alone in the Old Testament.  Further, he quotes it there alongside of Abraham’s justification by faith (see Gen. 15:6), because the word for “counts” is the Hebrew same in Genesis 15 and Psalm 32.** 

The response of the justified is joy, for their having received from God "uprightness of heart" (32:10-11).  This same thought is carried over into the opening verse of Psalm 33:  “Shout for joy in the Lord O you righteous!  Praise befits the upright.”  Thus there is a clear connection between these Psalms – one describes the salvation process (justification by faith), and the next describes the worshipful response (joy and thanksgiving).  

Second, we see the call to worship (33:1-3).  Praise befits the upright, because God gets the glory for all that they enjoy (v. 1).  Worship happens as instruments and new songs are employed to glorify God (vv. 2-3). Our hymnbook at church has, just to name a few, songs from the 4thcentury, 8thcentury, 12thcentury, 17thcentury, and the 20thcentury.  All through time, God’s people have been worshiping Him with “new songs” as they’ve seen Him work in their day.  May it continue! 

Reasons for Worship 

Third, the question is answered, "Why would one worship the Lord?"  Thus we see here the reasons for worship (33:4-7).   These include:

a) the uprightness of God’s Word (v. 4a) – His Word is true and good, with no crookedness or sidewaysness; thus His Word disciples and shepherds even the crooked into uprightness

b) that God does all His works in faithfulness (4b) – faithfulness to what?  His plan from the fullness of time to unite all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10).  All of God’s workings in history are to that end, and thus He is faithful to it; this always means good for His people. Thus they can trust that, in Christ, He always has their best interest in mind. 

c) that God loves righteousness and justice (5a) – in Him is no darkness (1 John 1:5).  It’d be a disaster if He was sovereign (in absolute control) and evil.  It’d also be a disaster if He was not sovereign but was good. But the God of the Bible is both sovereign AND good.  So He will have true justice in the end, and He works in the world today for true justice. Further, His heart is for those who have been beat up by the injustices of a fallen world (Ps. 34:18).  Thus, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).

d) that the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord (5b) – not just in the west, which has been so richly blessed by the Gospel’s influence over 2000 years, but all over the world.  His patience, mercy, and goodness is enjoyable all over the globe. 

e) that He is the Creator by His powerful Word (6) – He made all things by speaking them into existence.  Proof of this is seen in that our words have power (and words can hurt just as much as sticks and stones).  Our words have power, yet we can’t speak things into existence like God can.  The whole Bible, and all of reality, is meant to be discerned in light of Genesis 1.  

f) that He rules and orders His creation how He wishes (7) – Verse 7 probably draws attention to the exodus event.  But the general point of the exodus is that God’s glory as the One who does all that He pleases (Ps. 115:3) is to be put on display for the whole world to see (see Ex. 9:13-14).  See Psalm 104:21ff. for an interesting study on God’s overruling what we call the “food chain” among species.  Animals get their food from God, and they know it.  Further, see Ecclesiastes 1:7 for the point that God rules the hydrological cycle many of us are witnessing strongly this rainy time of year.  

This God is just so glorious and worthy of attention, time, and glory.  Our awe is too often given to things not worthy of it.  This leads to the final point.

The Right Response 

Finally, we see the response of the upright (33:8-9). Their uprightness is seen in their acknowledging that which is true: He is glorious, and worthy of awe and fear.  Since He does what He wants, with no compulsion by men (and even our prayer requests are only promised to be answered if we pray according to God’s will, cf. John 15:16), all the earth is called to:

-      fear Him (that is, revere Him, glory in Him, thank Him, love Him as the right response of a heart that has witnessed His truth), and 

-      stand in awe of Him (to cease amazement at the things of this world that are not that amazing, and replace it with amazement at Him).

May we rightly order our attention and rightly fix our eyes.  We're promised wisdom (Ps. 111:10) and light within (Matt. 6: 22).  What could be better?  

Do you see His power and glory?  Will you turn your eyes on His worthiness and excellence?  If so, count yourself among the upright in heart, and know that He'll keep you in His strong hand eternally.  If you hear Him, you're already in His hand. 

**This isn't meant to imply that the justified stay under sin's power.  Rather, since they hope in Jesus, they "purify (their) selves as he is pure" (1 John 3:3).  The point above is simply that though the person still "stumbles in many ways" (James 3:2), neither their stumbling nor their former sin is held against them, because God has placed them into a state of grace on account of Jesus' work at the cross. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Fierce Theology

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks at church services in Sri Lanka. It was done by Islamic terrorists, killing Christians worshiping together on arguably the church’s most important worship day of the year.  Over 320 people were killed, and there is chilling video of one of the suicide bombers walking into his assigned church building moments before taking his own life along with the lives of many others.   We pray for the families of our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world; and we are confident that said brothers and sisters are with their Master even now.

Union “Theology”

Yesterday, Serene Jones, president of Union Seminary in New York (and who describes herself as a “fierce theologian”) was interviewed in an opinion piece in the NYT about Easter and the theology behind it.  In the article she made several odd (yet unfortunately typical at Union) theological statements: that the virgin birth is a “bizarre claim,” that we can’t know what comes after death, that God is not all-powerful but is “vulnerable” (a typical descriptor of God among current liberal theologians), and so on.  

But perhaps the most odd are a couple of statements toward the beginning of the interview: Referring to whether or not the resurrection happened, she says, “Those who claim to know whether or not it happened are kidding themselves.  But that empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.”  She continues to add, when asked about the crucifixion that, “Crucifixion is not something that God is orchestrating from upstairs.”  

Directly Contradictory to the New Testament

First, the Apostle Paul would utterly rebuke her for claiming that he and the rest of the apostles are kidding themselves for claiming to know what happened.  The gospel of John claims that Jesus appeared to the disciples three times alive after the crucifixion (John 21:14).  And the message they preached, according to Acts, was the resurrection of Jesus and its theological meaning.  Further, Paul claims that the resurrected Jesus appeared not only to him but to no less than five-hundred people at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6-8).   And what does this mean?  That Jesus is the Son of God who alone is capable of saving (Romans 1:4-5).  Being the only truly holy man (untainted with sin), and having maintained perfection through His whole life, his resurrection proves that he thus is the One who can save. 

Second, regarding the claim that God didn’t orchestrate the cross, one has only to read the first four chapters of Acts to see the Apostles claiming no less than three times that the cross was sovereignly orchestrated by God (2:23, 3:18, 4:28).  While this doesn’t mitigate the responsibility of those involved in the crucifixion, yet, in the same way that God was working good in the midst of Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery (see Genesis 50:20), God was here working salvation through the evil actions of the murderers of Jesus.  Considering the Acts passages above, to claim that God wasn’t in control is to directly contradict what He says about it.

Dead in Vain?

But these aren’t the things that bother me the most about Miss Jones’s interview.  My best friend texted me this morning with an astute observation: According to Jones’s claim that the real message of Easter is not the resurrection of Jesus but that love is stronger than death, the murdered Sri Lankan Christians died with no hope, and their death was just a waste.   True.  If Easter isn't about Jesus' resurrection, then these brothers died in vain, and since they're dead and can't love anymore, which is what Easter must be about, the resurrection doesn't include them, but only us who are still alive now. 

But hear me loud and clear. The message of Easter is that Jesus rose again, defeating death and darkness. Yes the message of salvation is a loving message, and anyone can get in on this.  But the message nonetheless is that Jesus rose again, so that whatever befalls the believer in this life, whether awake or asleep, they are the Lord’s (Rom. 14:15) and won’t be abandoned (Psalm 16:10).  

Because of this, we can be confident that our Sri Lankan brothers and sisters who died on Sunday yet live.  While I’ve never seen any of them, I will one day.  We as Christians are called to love our enemies however they would treat us, and in doing this, we show our adoption into God's family by Jesus' work.  And if they take our lives, we know that we will be with the Lord, who loved us, gave himself for us, and rose again.

If you ask me, that is a fierce theology.