Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Martyrs and Heroes

Artwork from the Roman Catacombs where Christians
were buried, depicting Christ, with Peter and Paul, looking
at the book of life and seeing the martyrs below.
I was updating our staff this morning about circumstances some of our global outreach personnel are facing in a very difficult place. Team members there have been killed while seeking to be witnesses to Jesus, and temporary evacuations are underway. We discussed believers in prison in other countries that we tend to forget about the longer the imprisonment lasts. I was thanked for reminding us all of the prices being paid for the Gospel, and how we need to keep this in mind.

I wanted (and want) us to realize that sacrifice and risk is part of our calling. But I also reminded the staff (and myself) that it is part of a larger and exciting picture, for two reasons. One is that all of this risk and danger is in the cause of the Gospel, and that cause is succeeding. Conversions in Islamic nations are taking place at record rates that governments fear to report. The gospel's growth in China and other Asian settings is well established. And just today I heard a report about a gospel centered church planting movement in western Europe that has deployed hundreds of new church planters in the last few years.

The second reason  is that excitement and risk is something that the current generation of young Christians want, even though they don't make that gospel connection yet. How do I know?  Simple--look at their fascination/obsession with role playing video games where they can be heroes. Look at the appeal LOTR and the Hobbit or Spiderman or Captain America and all sorts of movies and TV that tell stories of courage and heroism. Or consider their desperate desire to feel a "rush" that lead them to go skydiving on their birthdays. Even college kid stunts are often undertaken because of the challenge and risk involved. Imagine if all of our Christian young adults would awaken to the fact that they can actually take up a challenge to be a combination superhero/secret agent in a dangerous place and rescue people from certain, eternal death. They have to be clever, creative, and careful, but also bold and brave. They can do this using almost any career or just a willingness to go someplace and help. Their mission is the most vital in the world, and best of all, it will succeed, but only as people are willing to lay down their lives.

Do I want people to die? No, but I want them to live for something worth dying for. And my guess is that deep down, that's what many of them want as well. The good news is that if anyone wants this kind of life, it is available. Now, if I can only find a way to get that message to them~

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Rob Bell, Oprah, and ... me.

This video segment of a longer interview between Rob Bell and Oprah Winfrey was called going "Soul to Soul." It is part of promotional material for Oprah's upcoming "The Life You Want" weekend seminar tour this fall, and Rob is a featured guest, along with Deepak Chopra, Elizabeth Lesser, and others in the self-help pantheon. I first saw the interview discussed in a link from FB to a blog, but that article only highlighted a few questions--and you can read that summary here.

I watched this four minute "Q & A" and came away with a number of impressions.

  • Rob has adapted VERY WELL to a move from Grand Rapids, Michigan to southern California. He looks very, well, "beachy." He surfs with his son. He wears the right clothes, and he has that healthy look so many of us who live(d) out there seek. He's exchanged "midwestern geek" for "so Cal chic." And I can't fault him for that, because I loved living there--even on a much tighter budget. It's a great place to live, and the success of his books and tours have allowed him to get there and enjoy it. Good for him.
  • He is as pithy a communicator as ever--saying much in a few words, and saying just as much in what he doesn't say. What he says is winsome, engaging and genuinely thought provoking, even if for me those thoughts were filled with alternating sadness, frustration, and disappointment.
  • Through his speaking and writing gifts, he has gained a platform that few coming from the evangelical world have attained--the opportunity to speak to the large "popular culture" about matters of utmost importance.
  • He has made a conscious decision to use that platform for non-confrontational, generalized, spirituality, not biblical Christianity. Deepak Chopra, Hinduism's earlier "Rob Bell" (I say that because many Hindu teachers find him stealing their "good stuff" and mashing it up in ways that they abhor) could have said everything Rob Bell said--except maybe thinking about "flesh and blood" people in heaven that make it a place you want to go (I thought of Mitch Albom's book The Five People You Meet in Heaven during that particular part of the interview).
  • Whether intentional or not (and Rob is much too smart for me to truly believe it isn't), Rob deflected every opportunity to exalt Jesus Christ toward an optimistic, generalized, "everyone is going to be fine" spirituality that, if embraced, will send you to Hell. In the picture he painted, Jesus is not the greatest joy of Heaven, instead it is seeing relatives you never met. God isn't a person who makes himself known to those who seek and has given a Word to be heard, but rather "like a song you hear in another room" but you can't hear clearly, so you keep trying to hear it more and more. No one is evil in need of repentance--everyone just needs to "wake up." Death isn't a great divider and time of judgment (Hebrews 9:27), but only a grand "Aha!" moment. I could say more, but I will stop here on this point.
  • Rob Bell is dangerous because he is so good at what he does. He rightly understands the power of story and simile, just as Jesus did, and uses them powerfully. But he draws incomplete and false analogies that have just enough of a ring of truth that they resonate with us. And the small amounts of truth contained in his thoughts fall far short of real "good news" for the broken people Rob seems to be so concerned for. He offers "peace" to so many who have no peace, and will never find it if they take him at his word.
I grieve to say what I've said, because I know Rob once believed differently--or at least taught differently with passion. People came to know Jesus as their Lord through Rob's earlier ministry. Now, at least during his sojourn in "Oprah World," they may never even hear that name--the only one given under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

This week, I'm not preaching in my Revelation series, but I feel like I'm living its messages. I've received the news of three workers in Afghanistan to minister to people in the name of Jesus who were killed because they were there. And I've heard a formerly evangelical pastor tell the queen of popular western culture that everyone is going to be fine. Martyrs and apostasy have been the Church's experience through the years, and will be until the time when Jesus returns. Both will be painful to bear.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Links That Make Me Think

Here are some links I found this week that made me think about various matters in our world today.

We've just celebrated our 44th annual Earth Day. Did you get a present? A mental present was this article, which reminded me of the dire predictions being made about the environment in the 1970s that did NOT come true. Our population has not led to widespread famine to the point where continents have been depopulated. The twenty years of chilling have NOT led to an ice age. And air pollution has NOT led to poisoning in major cities (this is one problem that was being addressed then and continues to be, although don't tell China that). Read an be reminded that the "experts" certainty of outcomes then and now needs to be tempered with humility. Sometimes things work differently than we believe. Sometimes we do wake up and make some good changes. And sometimes disaster may come from where you least expect it. 13 Most Ridiculous Predictions Made on Earth Day, 1970 — Jon Gabriel | Ricochet:

Charles Murray is one of the most brilliant scholars of our time. His "Coming Apart" is both troubling and compelling analysis of the fracturing American culture. Azusa Pacific caved into to pressure to uninvite him. BOO! The Master's College is having him instead. YAY! Read this wonderful "open letter" he wrote to APU's students. An Open Letter to the Students Of Azusa Pacific University, from Charles Murray

I've made no secret of my appreciation for Bill Brown's blog--I've cited it numerous times on Facebook and Twitter, and now here. And I've also made no secret of my cautionary approach to the movie and book "Heaven is For Real"--and all claims to have visited Heaven and returned to tell the tale. Now Bill has tackled this subject in his own, thought provoking way--looking at the movie, Hollywood's interests in the afterlife, and our possible response to it all in this post, Heaven is For Sale.

Earlier in April I attended the T4G Conference in Louisville, and heard tremendous messages from the Word encouraging us toward faithfulness in sharing the Gospel. Kevin DeYoung gave a powerful message on the Word of God, and you can see that message at this link--note, that this is the first of three parts, and as you finish part one you will see the links to part two and three. Kevin DeYoung, "Never Spoke a Man Like This Before: Inerrancy, Evangelism, and Christ's Unbreakable Bible.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"He is Risen; He is Risen Indeed!"

I've actually been to this tomb in Israel many times--a rolling stone tomb along the road that is probably the closest we
will get to a good representation of what Jesus' empty tomb would have looked like.
A very well known "cutting edge" Christian famous for his iconoclastic life and writings wrote a book a number of years ago that was every "wanna be cutting edge" Christian's favorite book. In it, the writer echoed one of his mentors in saying that the beauty of the teachings of Jesus is so great, and the power of his instruction so overpowering, that even if the whole story of Jesus wasn't true, and there was no heaven ahead, he would still want to be a Christian because of these qualities.

At that point as I was reading the book, I threw it across the room.

Why? Because that is what Paul the apostle would have done.

Actually he says, in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Christ is not, really and truly, raised from the dead, we Christians are "most to be pitied." That is Bible talk for "losers," "idiots," or just about any term of derision and foolishness you would want to pin on us. Why, Paul says, would we go through all the self-denial, the enduring of wrongs in hopes that they will be made right some day, the offending of others, and who knows what else, if this whole matter of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus isn't real?  Good question! 

Christianity, thankfully, is not just a self improvement program because, let's face it, even if I improve myself to my highest potential, I am still falling short of God's glory, still selfish, still thinking more about myself than I should, only now I'd just have more about me to brag and think highly about. And I can't save myself from myself--from my sinfulness. 

Christianity is about resurrection, not just reformation. It is not just weak becoming strong, but dead coming to life. The resurrection of Jesus figured much more prominently in the apostles' preaching in Acts than it often does in our thinking. We focus on his death--a vital focus to be sure. But they loved to proclaim his resurrection--his power over death, and the guarantee of right standing before God forever in his presence. His death, without the resurrection, gave his followers only grief. They didn't think about how noble it was, or even of it as a possible appeasement of God's wrath. Only the resurrection made it real to them.

And it keeps making it real to us. He is risen. He's alive, now and forevermore. And as he ascended into heaven the message of the angels at that event was the same as he had been giving--he is coming back!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Saturday of "Holy Week"

[This is the seventh and final post in a series on the week of Jesus' passion, first posted in 2012.]

Theme: Waiting
Text: Mark 16:1; Luke 23:56; Matt. 27:62-65

The records of what happened on the day between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are brief.  Nothing is reported about the disciples--we can only gather from the lack of faith demonstrated later that they were not confidently expecting Jesus' words about rising again to come to pass.  

The women who wanted to care for Jesus' body ran out of time on Friday to complete their preparations: the tomb was closed while they went home and rested for the Sabbath as required by Jewish Law.  Saturday night was spent getting the final supplies and preparing to go to the tomb the next day--wondering how they would move that stone.

But the enemies of Jesus were disturbed.  They knew that Jesus had said He would rise.  So they went to Pilate to ask for guards to be sent to the tomb to keep his disciples from stealing the tomb.  Obviously these Jewish opponents of Jesus feared the power of Jesus to motivate his disciples, even if they didn't believe in resurrection.

Sometimes those who don't believe in Jesus have a clearer understanding of what Jesus words can mean than do His own disciples.  Maybe that's why so many efforts are made to keep people from hearing or reading God's Word.

Thank God that the despair and dejection of that Saturday never need be faced by any of Jesus' followers again, for less than 24 hours later, Jesus would emerge from the tomb and the question of whether or not He was Messiah and His sacrifice sufficient would have been forever settled.  

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Friday of "Holy Week"

[This is the sixth post in a series on Jesus' passion week, first posted in 2012.]

Text: John 18:28-38
Theme: Truth

There is so much more to be said about the day of Jesus' death than I can even mention in this format, but let me simply point out one moment.  It is Jesus, standing before Pilate, questioning him and having Jesus answer with questions and hard sayings.

"Are you king of the Jews?" asks Pilate.

"Do you say this on your own, or did others say it about me?"

"Am I a Jew? Your nation has delivered you over..." Pilate responds.  "What have you done?"

"My kingdom is not of this world..."

"So, you are a king!"

"For this purpose I was born," said Jesus, "to bear witness to the truth."

It is at this moment, as Ravi Zacharias first pointed out in a sermon I heard, that a huge opportunity is presented and missed.

Pilate responds to Jesus' statement by asking, "What is truth?"

But instead of waiting for Jesus to respond, he turns and goes outside.

Pilate was a skeptic, who didn't believe there was truth to guide you: there was only opportunities to be snatched or missed, and circumstances to be controlled or else have them control you.

Imagine if he had waited.  At every moment in this dialog, Jesus had responded.  But here, Pilate doesn't wait for a response.  If he had, what would Jesus have said?  Would it have mattered?  It would not have changed the outcome as Christ's sacrifice was not optional, but might have begun a change in Pilate.  We can never know.

On this Good Friday, many will not know what the day is about.  Many others will recognize an historical event, but not seek to know the truth of what happened and why.

May your Good Friday be one where you know what happened, and why it happened, and that it happened all for you.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Thursday of "Holy Week"

[This is the fifth post on the week of Jesus' passion, first posted in 2012.]

Text: John 13:1-17:26
Theme: New Commandment

Our text today is a long one, but that is because it was so important that John dedicates almost 20% of his gospel to the account of the last supper in the upper room.  Why so much time here?

There were, it is true, many poignant moments.  The passage begins by stressing Jesus' unfailing love for His disciples, right to the very end.  And it concludes with a prayer that reflects that love.  He taught them humility by washing their feet, and told them that those who know him are "clean."  He explained that He was the vine and we are the branches, taught on our future dwelling in His Father's house, and He instituted the Lord's Supper.  He revealed His betrayer, and He promised the Holy Spirit to us.  All of this took place in the course of a supper, which the other gospels identify as a Passover meal.

But something we sometimes miss is that Jesus, having earlier this week summarized the whole Law in two commandments, now offers a third to be kept by His disciples.  The two summary commandments we may remember:
  1. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt. 22:37)
  2. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Matt. 22:39)
Now, Jesus offers #3, calling it "a new commandment," and requiring it as a proof that we are His followers:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have love you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35)
Who does the loving here?  His disciples.  And who are they to love?  One another--the rest of the disciples, or what we call Christ's Body, the Church.

If we read this passage from the standpoint of Jesus' love for us and His desire for us to love each other deeply, it takes on a powerful new meaning.  He washes disciples' feet because He loves us, and He wants us to wash each others' feet because we love each other.  We draw life from Christ the true vine, but we share in that life together.  The Spirit will come because Jesus loves us, but He comes to us, collectively, binding us together even as He binds us to Christ.

Further, if we take Jesus' three commands as the summary of what He wants us to become as His grace transforms us, it looks like this:

  1. We love God supremely, with everything we are and have.
  2. We love others humbly, putting their needs on equal footing with ours
  3. We love the Church sacrificially, putting our collective good ahead of individual desires
This is what Jesus modeled in the Upper Room, and even more powerfully in the Garden and on the Cross.
Pray today that we will fulfill this high and holy calling.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Wednesday of "Holy Week"

[This is the fourth post in a series on the week of Jesus' passion, first posted in 2012.]
Text: Matthew 26:14-16
Theme:  Betrayal and fake faith

Wednesday during the Passion Week has been difficult for commentators to deal with, because while other days are specifically noted through entering and leaving Jerusalem, or the relation of the day to Passover, or some other detail as to what Jesus did.  As Sherlock Holmes would say, "When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" (Doyle, 91).  Now if we can assign all of Jesus' other recorded activities to other days, then the conclusion is that Jesus spent Wednesday in private fellowship with the disciples and the family of Simon the Leper: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, in Bethany.  The next day would be the second most painful of his life.

But that doesn't mean everyone was idle.  Only on a day when everyone was left to themselves would Judas have the freedom to make a quick trip (probably less than a 30 minute walk) to the Temple precincts where he could arrange to betray Jesus.

The actions of Judas are epic in scope, and have led to all sorts of speculation.  How could one who had seen all he had seen come to such a point?  There had been no mistreatment by Jesus or the disciples--he had even been made treasurer of the group (Jn. 12:6).  Some have thought he had tried to orchestrate a move that would force Jesus to act against Rome.  More liberal scholars have even suggested that he acted with Jesus' covert blessing to bring things to a head.  And others have suggested that after discovering that Jesus would not fight Rome for independence, he had become disenchanted and disgusted.

Ultimately, we don't know his lesser motivations.  But Jesus offers a number of clues.  Here is a list of what He, John, and Matthew have told us about Judas:

  • Judas was not "clean"--cleansed from his sin.  "You [the disciples] are clean, but not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, "Not all of you are clean." John 13:10-11
  • Judas was led by Satan--"...the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray [Jesus]" John 13:2
  • Judas was "the son of destruction" who is specifically said to be "lost" John 17:12
  • Judas was "a devil" John 6:70
  • Judas was a thief  John 12:6
  • Judas' sorrow over betraying innocent blood lacks any expression of repentance toward God or toward Jesus  Matt. 27:4-5
If we simply take what the Scripture says, we must conclude that Judas was, from the beginning, a fake.  He was known from the beginning by Jesus as the one who would betray Him.  His only comments recorded are lies--whether about Mary's expensive ointment for Jesus, or denying that he was the betrayer, or greeting the Lord with a kiss.

But he was a good faker.  None of the rest of the twelve knew he was the betrayer until he did the deed.  Even when he left the upper room, they thought he was on a mission for Jesus.

Such fakers are still among us.  God, by his grace, will open the eyes of some of them (or you, if you are a faker reading this--and this may be His warning to you to repent).  Others will continue to deceive everyone else until they do something to reveal their loyalty, or maybe they will go to the grave deceiving us, and be exposed only at the Judgment.  They may even join the chorus of those crying out, "Lord, Lord did we not prophesy in your name (Judas did), and cast out demons (Judas did), and do many might works in your name (Judas did)"(Matt 7:22).

And they will hear what Judas will hear, "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness."

Faking faith is deadly, and it can't succeed before the one Judge who matters.  

Let's pray that God opens the eyes and hearts of fakers we may know (even if we don't know they are fakers).  And perhaps we might need to ask the Lord Jesus the question even his true followers asked that next night when he told them betrayal was coming, "Lord, it's not me, is it?  I'm not faking, am I?"

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Tuesday of "Holy Week"

Jesus and his disciples at the Temple
[This is the third post on the week of Jesus' passion, which I first posted in 2012.]

Text: Mark 11:19-13:37 (Matt. 21:19b-25:46)
Theme: Teaching

On way back into Jerusalem Tuesday morning, the disciples see the cursed fig tree has died, from the roots, so it couldn't have been a killer frost, bug, or blight.  They are amazed, but Jesus tells them that faith in Him enables followers to see huge problems or barriers (which is what mountains often symbolized) moved aside--and of course the biggest barrier we all face is that between us and our Holy God.  

Arriving in the Temple courts, Jesus spends his entire day facing tricky questions and teaching difficult truths.  His enemies try and trap Him in His words, but He not only escapes, but ties them up in theological knots.  He points out their ambivalence toward John the Baptist, shows the difference between saying we will obey authority and actually obeying it--an attitude his opponents clearly manifested toward God's powerful Word through Jesus.  He exposes Pharisees and Sadducees as having faulty theology, summarizes the whole Law in the two great commandments, and raises the thorny issue that the Bible says that David's Lord was also David's son.  He pronounces woes on scribes and Pharisees, laments over Jerusalem (once again quoting Ps. 118:26 as needing to happen again before the city sees Him for who He is--something yet to occur), and takes time to praise a poor widow's generous heart.  Finally, He spends a great deal of time with the disciples teaching on events surrounding the destruction of the Temple, the signs of His coming at the end of the age, and what the kingdom's coming will be like.  As Jesus left the Temple and the city, He was not only teaching about its future destruction, He was leaving it for the last time of his own accord.  His next departure would be on Good Friday, carrying a cross.

Jesus' teaching in one day encompasses a full course of theological study!  I wish I could have been there taking copious notes, but then all I would have is what the Bible gives me.  I'd want to ask questions!!!  There is so much still for me to learn.

That may be why this one day has chapters dedicated to it.  Jesus had much to say that we needed to hear.  We still do.  Today, as we reflect on all that Jesus said for our benefit, let's pray and ask the Spirit of God to drive us to see our need of the Word of God to instruct us, and to cause in us a craving for the pure milk we find in that precious Word.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Monday of "Holy Week"

[This is the second in a series of posts on Holy Week, which I originally posted in 2012.]

Text:  Mark 11:12-19
Theme:  Curses!

A mature fig tree
Jesus went into Jerusalem from Bethany, and on the way sees a fig tree that has its leaves out in the spring.  It was not the season for figs, but a fig tree in leaf would already have little, edible, "figlets" that would become figs and were a simple treat to eat.  This tree didn't have them, and so Jesus curses it, because it held the promise of fruitfulness without the reality.  This sets the stage for the next event.

Arriving at the Temple, Jesus, for the second time, attacks the commerce taking place in what is often called "cleansing the Temple."  But he doesn't cleanse it, he "curses" it with words taken right out of Isaiah and Jeremiah rebuking the Israelites for their unfaithfulness.  As rightful King arriving on Palm Sunday, he had looked with a look of evaluation the evening prior before going to Bethany.  Now he has rendered his judgment that the Temple's role was finished.  This beautiful edifice looked "fruitful" religiously, but in fact it had become the opposite through the corruption of its controllers.

The fig tree was an established symbol of Israel.  The Temple was the heart of Israel's worship of God.  In his actions Jesus was passing divine judgment on the nation and its worship.  While both showed the promise of bearing fruit, neither actually did so.

As we consider our walk with Christ during this Passion Week, we might want to do some "fruit inspecting" concerning ourselves.  Do we profess great love for Jesus, but manifest little evidence of it in our lives?  Paul was not above warning professing believers to do self-examination to see if we have true faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).  But even true believers must sometimes acknowledge that our fruitfulness has been adversely affected by a lack of abiding in Christ.  Perhaps our prayer might be that the Father--whom Jesus calls the Vinedresser (John 15:1) might come and do his work of pruning us as branches so that we might bear more fruit (John 15:2).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday's Future Replay

[This will be the first of seven posts this week about "Holy Week," the time between Jesus' triumphal entry and his resurrection.]

Today is Palm Sunday, and while I didn't preach on it today, I did preach from the book that speaks of its future replay and fulfillment--Revelation.

In the weeks leading up to what we call the "Triumphal Entry," Jesus had been moving through the region around Jerusalem, Judea, and the region beyond the Jordan, doing a choreographed tour that was designed to avoid direct confrontation with the Pharisees and yet set up a moment of grand tension and climax.

Staying out of site and then coming to Bethany to raise Lazarus.

Joining the pilgrims across the Jordan and making his way toward Jerusalem for his final Passover, healing the blind man Bartimaeus as he went.

Stopping in Jericho long enough to have a party in Zacchaeus' house and welcoming that tax collector into the kingdom.

Heading toward Jerusalem, but lagging behind the crowd so that they would be there when he finally arrived on Sunday.

Having a feast at Lazarus' house, emphasizing that miracle and causing no small amount of despair among his enemies.

Then, finally, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey's colt, in fulfillment of Zechariah's prophecy.

No one who knew their Bibles could doubt what Jesus was doing or what is meant. The Pharisees and chief priests certainly understood. The king had come to Jerusalem.

There was only one problem. Jerusalem and its leaders didn't want this king--or at least the kind of kingship he represented to them. This was also in fulfillment of prophecy, but it still meant that, by their rejection, they were sealing their own doom and the destruction of their beloved city.

However, the story does not end there. The week between Palm Sunday and Easter, called "Holy Week" by many, was a time of much teaching and preparation by Jesus, pointing to his coming death, but also to the culmination of history, when he would return to earth, again presenting himself as a King. This time, there would be no option being presented, however. He would come in power and glory, taking vengeance on his enemies and redeeming his people.

This Palm Sunday, we can join the chorus of those on the streets crying out "Hosanna"--meaning "save now!"  Thankfully, we know that through his death, he has secured that salvation, and his resurrection is the proof. We also now know that he will be king, and it will be amazing.

Keep returning this week for posts on the events of Christ's passion during Holy Week.