Wednesday, September 20, 2017

What Are You Listening To?

For a long time now, I have found great benefit in good listening when I am able to do so while also doing something else--driving, exercising, walking, or mowing the lawn. That last one has taken a bit of a hit because I recently got a faster mower and the one downside is I've lost time to listen! Every once in a while, some of you run into me while I have my earphones on, and ask me what I am listening to (yes, I know that this is not grammatically correct, but you don't say, "to what are you listening," and neither do I). So let me tell you some of the ways I try to redeem my listening time and make it worthwhile.

Of course, there is listening that I do for pleasure. In fact, Kathy and I always have a line-up of audiobooks that we find to listen to on car trips. We download them to our phones, but you can also get them on discs from bookstores and online sources. Some audiobooks have been purchased through sites like, which has a free book offer with membership (we take advantage of their daily email offering a low-cost book--the email is free, the book may or may not be one we like, but occasionally we buy one).
Another great source is, and a bonus there is that they offer a free audiobook every month, in addition to many titles on sale. There are also audiobooks available at our local public library to check out or using online services that they provide. Two we use are Overdrive and Hoopla. You must have a library card for these, but they allow you to borrow all sorts of audiobooks, as well as e-books, and Hoopla has movies as well. All of the above have apps for your phone, and so it becomes a rather easy process to download and listen. In addition to novels, histories, and biographies, we have listened to some very good Christian non-fiction. I have Knowing God by J.I. Packer, and listen to it every year. I just finished listening to Paul Little's Know Why You Believe, as well as Matt Chandler's The Mingling of Souls and Taking God at His Word, by Kevin De Young. I'd actually read all of these in print--some a long time back, but listening was an enriching experience.

Of course, shorter listening times can be very well used, too, through podcasts. Don't tell me you don't like podcasts--there are so many different kinds, this would be like saying I don't like words. I listen to lots of different kinds of podcasts. Let me suggest some, all of which I have found and subscribed to on iTunes.

News and current events
 I have two "must listen" items that I don't want to miss. I cannot enjoy watching broadcast or cable news and want clear summaries, preferably from the worldview I share. The first is "The World and Everything in It" by World Magazine. This thirty-minute summary feels a bit like NPR but from a Christian worldview. You start with a summary of the day's news, then a more in-depth analysis of a story or two, then a feature story of various kinds, and a commentary. This fills me in on what's happening without shrill tones or reporting that doesn't tell a story from both sides. They also have a daily e-mail news summary. Sign up for any of their resources at the link above.

The second is "The Briefing" with Dr. Al Mohler (president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville). This is analysis of major news stories from a Christian perspective, and I don't know of any better analyst of events today. This is a great resource, and when he takes a month off in July I miss it!

Culture and cultural issues
"Signposts" is a weekly podcast by Russell Moore, from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and he talks about a wide range of issues--often answering questions he receives from listeners.

"The Breakpoint Podcast" continues the ministry of Charles Colson. The Colson Center provides an every weekday commentary of about 4 minutes, a more in depth 30-minute program on Fridays, and on Mondays and Wednesdays longer interviews or addresses by important Christian voices on various issues. Listen to the short commentaries, or the longer offerings, or both.

"Cultivated" is a new podcast my son told me about, where Mike Cosper interviews people who are making significant contributions to Christian life and thought, including some people you may not have heard of but who are seeking to make a difference.

"Levar Burton Reads" is a podcast Kathy learned about and we've listened to together. It is short stories from various sources, and we've enjoyed most of the ones we've listened to. 

"The Classic Tales Podcast" some great works (and some not so great) read in one-hour portions and downloadable in weekly episodes. 

There is no shortage of sermon podcasts (including ours here at Grace!). But here are some I regularly go to.

"Truth for Life"--Alistair Begg. Sermons from Parkside Church. Bible exposition with a Scottish accent, which makes it even more true (OK, it makes us think so).

"Let My People Think" on Zacharias. These are often focused on apologetics, with lots of good stories and illustrations.

"The Village Church"--Matt Chandler (they also download sermons from other campuses, which I sometimes listen to--you have to start the podcast to know who is speaking. Solid preaching in a unique style that resonates.
"Grace to You"--John MacArthur. For decades, his sermons have taken thousands through books of the Bible, and they continue to do so.

The Bible
I put this last, but it really is the one I won't miss. As a part of my own time in the Word I choose a listening plan on The Bible App from YouVersion. Right now, it's 40 days through the New Testament. Before that is was the Ten Lists by Dr. Grant Horner. Listening to the Scriptures as I exercise builds up my spirit even as I'm also trying to build up (or at least slow the break down of) my body. You can choose the version you want to hear as well as the program.

Sometimes I may not be able to focus totally on what I'm hearing when I listen to things. Yet even then what you hear gets into your head, and it helps to shape my mental environment. I encourage you to consider doing some profitable listening.

Oh, and yes, I listen to music, too, but that's for another time!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

"Hurricane Theology"

What storms can teach us

One hurricane worse than ever, one that was less than expected, and two more out at sea: the Atlantic hurricane season of 2017 is monumental in its devastating potential. Those who preach global warming climate change say, “Aha! We told you so” and insist that such record-breaking storms are proof that humanity has destroyed the planet’s ecosystem. Others cite all sorts of data to “prove” that nothing has changed. I haven’t heard too much chatter from those who would identify God’s judgments unfolding in the storms, although there may be some out there (I did, however, receive an email about the potential prophetic significance of the recent solar eclipse, and the message was, “the end is coming.” I think I already knew that).
Why do seasons and storms like this come along and disrupt life so dramatically? After Hurricane Harvey’s “once in a thousand years” rainfall in Houston, and Irma’s 180+ m.p.h. winds in the Caribbean and Florida Kesy leave one in awe of such storms. Those with an axe to grind will point to these kinds of occurrences and challenge us, “How can you believe in a god who would do this?”
Should we read specific divine retribution into this? You might think that God is mad at the USA, except that the Caribbean got pounded harder by Irma. God’s specific judgments on nations, if this was one, can be pinpointed better than that. In fact, the storm has caused the postponement of Awana Lifeline’s sponsored event with leaders of law enforcement and prisons from various Caribbean nations. The path of Hurricane Irma impacted lots of believers in God, and the headquarters of Wycliffe Bible Translators, Pioneers, Ethnos 360 (the former New Tribes Mission), and CRU (the former Campus Crusade)—all in Orlando. Various believers, churches, and ministries suffered damage and will be inundated with needs to be met. Certainly God could spare those doing such good work from such potential danger!
We who sat in relative safety struggled to deal with watching thousands of families trying to recover from the deluge in Texas, and the tens of thousands fleeing from south Florida. I watched with both dread and fascination as pictures from NASA show this new, massive storm on its way to bring destruction to so many. And I wonder, “who deserves this?”
The answer to such a question is multi-faceted, but can be found where God speaks about all things we need for life—the Bible. Here are a few threads we can pull together.
As part of the human race that lives in daily rebellion toward the holy and just Creator of all things, we must affirm that we all deserve this and much worse for our rebellion. God is under no obligation to keep his creation tame enough for us to enjoy—his only limitation being his own word not to flood the entire earth again (the rainbow tells us that). Given the history of God’s people’s suffering right along with the rest of humanity in a kind of reversal of common grace (God causes his hurricanes to sweep away the just and the unjust), we know that such tribulations are to be expected—it is our ability to look beyond them that must be different. We see the chaos of today, but we know that this is not how it was created to be (Genesis 1-2), nor is it the way it will be when Christ comes to rule the earth, and it is certainly not the way it will be in the time of new heavens and earth (Revelation 21-22).
The storms and terrors of this world are real, powerful reminders of the consequences of Adam’s traitorous surrender of his righteous authority in this world to Satan, and in his role as prince of this world, destruction is the devil’s business—even when done under God’s ultimate sovereignty (see God’s control of calamity in Isaiah 45:7). We should see this as a sobering warning of what’s worse and is coming to those who do not repent. That is what Jesus said about some people who suffered the disaster of having a tower collapse on them—no one should assume that such things make anyone a “worse” sinner than anyone else. The warning is much more specific—worse things await those who do not repent of their sin (Luke 13:3-5). A storm may rise that sweeps away everything you own, and may drown your neighbors, but as frightening as that is, hell will be much, much worse. We should look at the terrors of the storm and thank God that such events can preach repentance, if we will hear.
But cataclysmic storms can also reveal the power of our God. It was from the whirlwind that God spoke to Job—as if his words were not already powerful enough! And it was his power over the winds and waves on the Sea of Galilee that caused Jesus’ disciples to redirect their fear from the storm to their Savior—“who then is this, that he commands the winds and the water and they obey him? (Luke 8:24-25)” The creator of the storm has made them yet another revelation of his power and thus a source of praise and awe.
Finally, these storms should (and did) ignite our compassion toward all those in danger. I think about God’s rebuke of Jonah when the prophet was mourning over a dead plant, but upset with God’s heart of concern for the population of Nineveh, a city in danger of judgment. On a more positive note, the arrival of a famine that Agabus had prophesied led the church in Antioch to sacrificial compassion toward the affected church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:28-30). There will be many continuing needs to be met in Texas and now the Caribbean, Florida, and perhaps other places. Such moments provide an opportunity for the grace of God to shine through his people.
Let’s be praying for those facing very difficult days ahead, and let’s pray that God gives all of us—his people—the hearts and opportunities to help. And let’s be sure to be thankful that the God who created this storm showed mercy on many and caused it to turn westward into the Gulf of Mexico and thus spared many who were in its original path.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Original Gospel "Quartet"

"Why did the Bible include four gospels?"

"Why do the gospels disagree?"

"Why didn't God just give us one gospel, like He gave us one account on creation?"

These related questions come to me from Bible students of all ages and maturity, in varying forms of course. The "lack of agreement" question is sometimes couched in language that lets me know the person doesn't want to say that there must be a mistake in there, but they wonder if there is. 

The uniquenesses, as well as the similarities of the four gospels is one of the ways that we see how a book written by inspired men is clearly human as well as divine. In fact, each book advances our understanding. Let me seek to show you how (briefly) and then recommend a tool that I greatly enjoy for your own use.

First, the four books give us four perspectives on one story. Matthew, likely the tax collector also called Levi, writes with a clear understanding of the Hebrew Bible and how Jesus fulfilled prophecy--the book brims with quotations cited as being fulfilled. That is fascinating when you think that Matthew would have been considered a traitor to the Jewish people as a Roman tax collector. I can't wait to get to Heaven and hear how this man knew so much Scripture, but also whether he had been wrestling with the truth while outwardly having cut himself off from it! He writes with Jewish audiences in mind. Mark is a man of action, and his gospel could leave you out of breath with its quick pace--much like that of his mentor, Peter. Luke is a doctor writing to help convince/educate someone of significance about the truths about Jesus in a factually precise way (he even uses medical terms). His book has a sequel--Acts. And John, writing much later decides to pick up on much material that the earlier three gospels did not cover to give us a very personal glimpse of Jesus. Each writer even orders their material a bit differently to bring out a different aspect or emphasis in the story.

Second, they provide four complementary, not contradictory witnesses to truth. Now, some argue that they contradict each other, but it is more like witnesses to a car crash standing on different corners--each tells what he sees or knows, without contradicting the other. For example when blind Bartimaeus is healed, Matthew tells us there were actually two blind men together (Matthew 20:29-34), while Mark and Luke only mention Mr. B (Mark 10:46-52, Luke 18:35-43). But that isn't a contradiction, just an added detail. That story has another problem detail--Matthew and Mark say Jesus was going out of Jericho when it happened, while Luke says he was going in. Which is it? The answer is, "both." Jericho had been burned down, rebuilt a short ways away, and then the original site was rebuilt as well--both were called "Jericho." So, Jesus was probably between the old and the new site when the miracle takes place. Thanks to history and archeology, we can answer that fairly easily. Comparing the gospels gives us a rich story--or as one writer calls them, "The Life of Christ in Stereo!"

Third, each gospel has some material that we would lack if that gospel wasn't written and preserved. Even with three gospels paralleling each other (Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the "synoptic" gospels--a term that means from the same "eye" or perspective), there are precious stories and important accounts we would be missing without each one. Matthew is our only source about the wise men. Luke gives us the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, the story of Bethlehem and the shepherds, and the prodigal son. Mark has four miracles not recorded elsewhere, and of course the story of a young man fleeing without his robe when caught in the Garden with Jesus--probably an autobiographical note giving us Mark's closeness with the Lord and the disciples. What would we do without John 3:16, or the Good Shepherd, the "I am" sayings, and so much more that only comes from John? 

Yes, think of them as a Gospel Quartet--Mark sings tenor--that part with all the high notes. Luke sings lead--the thread that holds it all together. Matthew is the baritone, covering some of the same ground as the lead but then moving into parallel paths. And anchoring it all with that solid line on the bottom, John sings bass--hitting those resonating notes of God's love that seem to hold it all together and in tune. 

Now, let me finish by telling you about I tool I use regularly when studying the Gospels. It is a book called a harmony of the Gospels (there's another musical idea!). It takes all four gospels and puts them in columns next to each other in chronological order--meaning some passages aren't in the order we find them in their gospel, but in the order in which they most likely occurred. You can read them side by side and see how each tells the story--sometimes word for word, and sometimes differently. Mine is Harmony of the Gospels, by Robert Thomas and Stan Gundry. There is a version in the New International Version and one in the New American Standard Bible (which is the one I have), and you can see it.

I hope that this brief encouragement might cause you to appreciate the gospels more, and perhaps investigate a very helpful tool!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Tapestry of Connections

Every once in a while I am amazed at how God weaves seemingly unconnected threads of life together, much like a tapestry. I often heard that when you view a tapestry from behind, you cannot always discern what is going on. It is only from the top view that you really see the design of the artist. This week I feel like I've gotten a glimpse at the top of a tapestry over a decade in the making. And it's exciting.

When I left California in 2005, I left behind a longstanding friendship with Mike Broyles, a pastor on the staff of another church in my city. Mike had been a constant encourager and partner in ministry in our community. After my departure, Mike's role at his church ended and he transitioned into serving in the jail ministry he had been a large part of while on the church staff. This involvement led to his becoming director of Awana Lifeline, a ministry to prisoners that uses two Bible study curricula to lead prisoners to Christ--Malachi Dads for men, and Hannah's Gift for women. Mike stayed in touch and would let us know what God was doing as these ministries expanded. 

A few years after I came here, Kevin and Tia Reilly returned from Costa Rica because Kevin's leg injury from years ago had created such pain that the solution had to be amputation. Kevin and Tia settled here in Cedarville, took on lots of ministry, helped our church's missions program, and wondered if God had another chapter in missions for them. Kevin got his M.Div., Tia got a Master's and went back to teaching as they served on our Global Outreach Team.

Meanwhile, LuAnn Ragle had heard about a nurse she knew who had wound up in prison in Dayton. She sensed God calling her to reach out to this woman, named Leah. It was out of her comfort zone, but she continued to meet with her weekly to share Scripture and teach her the truth about God through Scripture memory, Leah's faith came alive, and she became a strong testimony to her fellow prisoners as she waited to be released. Once she was released, Leah began to use her testimony to speak to women about how God's grace came to her and redeemed a horrible circumstance. My wife, Kathy met Leah and became a friend, and had her speak to her ABF class here, at "Beat the Blahs," and at Safe Harbor, where she was eventually hired.

A few years ago, Mike asked if Grace might want to help Lifeline take its prison ministry to the Dominican Republic in 2016. We decided to fund their "Returning Hearts" event (reuniting prisoners with their children) through the Harvest Offering and to send two couples to help: the Reillys and Chris and Pam Miller. Kevin and Tia decided to go because it was a Spanish-speaking opportunity. 

Mike came to Grace last July to say "thanks" for our help and our decision to support this ministry to the DR. While here, he mentioned the need to find a woman who could help lead Hannah's Gift and his desire to see Lifeline programs come to Ohio. Kathy thought of her friend Leah. She called LuAnn who called Leah, who came to Grace the next day to meet Mike. He encouraged her to start teaching a Bible study, so she began to do Hannah's Gift at Safe Harbor. 

So, guess what's happened?

Leah's ministry continued to grow, and she received permission to lead Hannah's Gift in the facility where she had been a prisoner--an unheard of development. Mike facilitated training at her church for volunteers. And as July began, Leah led a team of 16 into the prison to begin Hannah's Gift. with 30 women prisoners.

Kevin and Tia Reilly found the Malachi Dads experience in the DR to be a confirmation that they could return to overseas work. We prayed and sought God's will for them, and we determined to send them back to Costa Rica, where one of their ministries will be to begin Malachi Dads for Lifeline there--a new country for this ministry. They arrived back in that country the same week as Leah's ministry in the prison here to take up their work. 

And this fall, a second "Returning Hearts," funded by Grace, will serve Malachi Dads graduates in the Dominican Republic, but also will model the effectiveness of the program to chief law enforcement and prison officials from all over the Caribbean and Latin America. 

A friend far away stayed in touch.

A friend sensed God's call to reach out to a prisoner.

A couple sought to find ways they could serve God again in Central America.

And in God's amazing plan, these three threads were woven together in our midst, and now we celebrate the beginning of a ministry in a prison in Dayton, the renewal of a ministry in Costa Rica that will reach prisoners there, and an upcoming event that will reunite prisoners in the Dominican Republic with their kids and show a whole region of the world what the power of the gospel can do behind prison walls. 

What an amazing weaving together by God!

What an amazing God!

What a privilege to be here at Grace in Cedarville and see how God used us to be the point at which these stories intertwined!

And who knows what God may weave into the the design, or who might be a part of it, next?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

When Trusted Teachers Stray

Eugene Peterson has blessed and edified more believers than I ever will. As a much younger pastor, his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, had a profoundly encouraging impact on my sanctification--even the title has been a powerful reminder of what following Christ is like. Similarly, other books--all named so creatively as to stay in my head--have blessed me and countless others: Under the Unpredictable
Plant, Eat this Book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, are just a few. Of course, many of you have enjoyed reading The Message, Peterson's paraphrase/translation of the Bible that was a bit too casual for my regular reading, but certainly an insightful and generally faithful and accurate interpretive reading. I have an autographed copy of The Pastor: A Memoir, that is valued gift from a dear friend.

So you can imagine my profound disappointment when, in an interview with Religion News Service's Jonathan Merritt, Peterson said he had come to know many more gays and lesbians than he had in the past, felt that the current societal and church "transition" on this issue was good, and that he would perform same-sex "marriages." You can read the entire interview here; it is not long, even though it is painful. Then, just as I had finished the original draft of this essay, news came that Peterson had recanted his previous change of mind--that is, he said he was wrong in his answers in the interview, and on reflection, he wanted to make clear that he held the biblical view of marriage only being between one man and one woman. The retraction is a just a little confusing, but you can read Christianity Today's report of it here. His own statement is here.

The initial interview and the position revealed were disturbing for any number of reasons. It is true that Peterson has always had some other positions and conclusions with which I (and more importantly, many solid biblical scholars) have disagreed over the years, and perhaps these later years of retirement and ministry in the larger context outside of a local church have heightened a move further from constraints he felt there. He has stayed within a large, apostatizing mainline Protestant denomination with ease, while other evangelicals have largely given up and moved elsewhere. But the hallmark of Peterson's writing, as creative as it has been, was its thorough commitment to examine and explain the Scriptures. That is what the interview lacked. He based his shift on knowing "good" gays and lesbians. While the retraction goes back to a biblical view, there isn't any explanation given as to how he wound up affirming so much that was so bad, except to say it was an interview with a lot of hypothetical situations. And his retraction lacked any interaction with Scripture, either.

But the temporary defection from truth was based on a commonly expressed way of thinking--there are such good people who believe and/or live in ways I've held were wrong. What about all these good people?
Let's set aside the fact that no one is "good"--even if we accept and acknowledge that there are LGBTQ people who are kind, humble, generous, and other "good" attributes, should that change our theology? Should "good" Buddhists cause us to abandon the idea of a personal God or future judgment? Should "good" atheists lead us to dismiss the necessity of faith in God? My relatives who are Mormons are very good--in some cases much nicer than I am. Should I let go of the necessity of believing in the co-equality and eternality of Father and Son, and the orthodox conception of the Trinity?

Our faith's content can be testified to by a person's life, but it cannot be erased or altered by it. Peterson, like others before him, found himself surrounded by the culture's shifting currents and felt the urge to move with them. At no point did he cite any scriptural warrant for his change, and almost incredibly rested his argument with "'s not a right or wrong, as far as I'm concerned."

Unbelievable. I'm so grateful he changed his mind. Even if the change seems less than robust. [After originally writing this, I came across a number of sites saying that this had not been his first affirmation of same sex attraction as potentially good.]

But that leaves us with the question that comes when a teacher we have trusted goes wrong, "What about all I've learned from him? What about his books?" As a Christian, and as a pastor, let me offer some warnings and encouragements.

First, don't make the mistake of deciding that when Peterson, or any other teacher you know shifts on an important topic, this is immediate grounds to rethink your own position. We often grant too much authority across the board to human teachers and assume that, because they are "smarter" than us on a number of issues, they must be being "smart" when they change their minds about something. A similar problem occurs when we discover a teacher or writer who is excellent on a subject. We then tend to give him credence across the board, coming to any new things from that teacher with a pre-disposition to accept them. Yes, there are many people in this world smarter than I am, and some of them who once held views I do have abandoned them. If I've not paid attention to an issue, that may cause me to examine their arguments, but don't be easily moved from confidence in teaching that is longstanding within historic Christian thinking and preaching. In this case, the clear expression of biblical truth on human sexuality witnessed to by two millennia of faithful teaching, must win out.

Second, Peterson temporarily joined an, unfortunately, growing list of writers and teachers that I will no longer recommend without much caution. I do not want anyone to be confused by reading an author, then discovering his or her erroneous views on an important issue, and consider the source "safe" on the subject because I recommended a book written before taking this position. When a teacher goes bad, his previous good books must only be offered to more discerning readers, and then with caution.

Third, I'm so grateful he has come back to a good position, but even if he had not, I cannot forget what I have already read and learned, nor would I want to. I appreciate the multitude of insights I have received from Peterson's writings, and wherever they amplify scriptural truth, they are still helpful and worthwhile. Don't go throwing away an erring teacher's books or forgetting all the ways in which he has enabled us to understand truth if you have been blessed by his past works. On this point, I would simply remind you that a number of our old hymns and our current worship songs were or are written by people with very deficient (and sometimes heterodox) views on God, the Scriptures, the Trinity, Hell, the atonement of Christ, human sexuality, and the nature of the church (to name a few areas). The particular songs we sing are not teaching error, even if the authors believe and teach error elsewhere, and I would suggest that truth can (and has been) taught by people who were not changed by it themselves. That does not negate truth.

Fourth, Peterson's admission of what drove his wrong thinking is instructive to us. It's hard to be on the cutting edge of culture and hold tightly to biblical truth. That hold was undermined, in his case, not just by the constant drumbeat for "acceptance" generally in the culture, but by meeting "good people" who were "spiritual" and also gay or lesbian. But that shows two errors--the first being the assumption that anyone is really good. David, Isaiah, and Paul all weigh in on that question. The second is more subtle--judging gays, lesbians, and other sinners to be inherently incapable of doing things in this world that we would admire. We are all sinners, and all of us fall short of God's glory. But all of us, through the grace of God, are not as bad as we could be, and to be surprised that a gay person might be "good" or have spiritual interests is as wrong as assuming that your atheist neighbors cannot have a good marriage. There are many people who do not believe truth who are, nevertheless, admirable. We must see that, even as we acknowledge it does not change God's evaluation one bit.

 [Note: this is as it was written before the announcement of his change of mind--but I leave it because it's important to remember] Fifth (and I'll stop here), it may be a long shot from a human perspective, but I pray that Eugene Peterson will let the Scriptures that he has loved, expounded, and made clear to so many become the authoritative voice in his mind and heart on this issue once again. I'm praying he changes his mind, and does so soon.
Make no mistake--I consider him a Christian who is in error on an issue that is currently leading many people into destructive and soul-destroying sin by calling what is sinful "good." As a teacher of Scripture, James tells us in his epistle that there is a stricter standard of judgment that he (and I) will be held to. But I consider him a Christian, and one who has shown a long, consistent testimony of love and faithfulness to Jesus. As we age, we are not always careful to make sure that we finish well--holding on to the patterns, the attitudes, and the practices that have gotten us this far. I say to those my age and older--if Eugene Peterson, who has lived and served and thought and written so wisely over so many years can go off the rails on a big, important issue, then so can we if we are not careful to stay anchored to the Scriptures. Take heed.[Prayers answered! To God be the glory! But the warning still stands!]

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Body, No Body, New Body

A question over dinner prompts some Scripture study

Perhaps it has been the recent passing of a number of friends and family here at Grace that prompted the question, but at last Wednesday's church dinner, I was invited into a discussion of whether we have a body after our death and before the resurrection comes. I shared my thoughts, but decided to look back at the Scriptures to confirm them. As I did so, I thought this might be something some of the rest of the family might benefit. So, here is the basic problem that was being considered::
  1. Humans are made as spirits in bodies.
  2. Sin brought physical death, which is separation of spirit and body.
  3. Jesus saves sinners, and his resurrection is proof of that, and the pattern of what is to come--we will be raised in glory like he was.
  4. When we die, we are away from the body and present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8), or "with Christ" as it says in Philippians 1:23.
  5. We receive a new body when we are raised in the resurrection--the physical body that was left on the earth is raised as a glorious body when the trumpet sounds and Christ returns (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-58, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-16).
  6. So then, if we left one body, and don't get our new body until the resurrection, what are we between dying here and being resurrected in the future?
A simple conclusion can be drawn. We are spirits temporarily without physical bodies. But that sounds weird to our minds. Can that be?

Some say, "no," and assume that God simply gives us a body for that intermediate time. That seems logical, after all, how would we function as humans in heaven without one? Those who hold this view point to evidence in the Transfiguration account, where Moses and Elijah were seen by the disciples on the mountain (see Luke 9:28-35). They must have had bodies to be seen, since we can't see spirits.

But, I think that the Scripture supports the simple conclusion I stated--death brings about a temporary separation between our spirits and bodies. Let me give you some reasons I think this and how I would answer objections.

  1. Going to Heaven when we die is wonderful--far better, Paul says, than living in a sinful world (Phil 1:23). But it is not complete. If we had glorified bodies there, why would the resurrection matter? It would be nothing more than acting out a story, rather than an actual redemption of the body from the power of sin and death. 
  2. Paul says that being "present with the Lord" is a state of being "unclothed" for us--read 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 slowly. We are currently in our earthly (dying) "tent"--this body. We long to be clothed in our "heavenly" (eternal) dwelling which we will put on and not ultimately be found "naked"--what is that referring to? I believe that it is our longing to experience not just release from this body, but the resurrection body which is our perfect, "heavenly" dwelling, or "home" as opposed to a "tent" which is temporary. Our spirits are temporarily "unclothed" as we wait for our resurrection body. The idea is that we have more to receive after we die than just being with Jesus (which is, of course, incredible). 
  3. "But how could we recognize one another? We'd all be invisible!" That is thinking not anchored in fact. Think about a few stories in Scripture. Remember when King Saul went to a medium and asked him to call up the spirit of Samuel (it is in 1 Samuel 28, and it is a very interesting story)? God allowed that to happen, and Samuel actually appeared to him--but it was his spirit, not a resurrected Samuel. How could Saul see him? Either God made it possible, or else when a human sees another human spirit, that spirit has an appearance like the person had when in a body. That may be how Moses and Elijah appeared on the mount of Transfiguration  (Elijah's a tough case, since God took him to heaven directly without death). And when Rhoda, the servant girl in Acts 12 said she saw Peter at the door, those praying inside said she is seeing his angel--perhaps his guardian angel was their thought, or perhaps they thought it was his spirit (I doubt this option, though, since they knew angels were not dead humans). Either way, they figured that a spirit had been visible to Rhoda. And we know that angels are spirits (Hebrews 1 tells us that) but when they choose to appear, we see them. Perhaps God gives them a temporary body, but he could also give us the ability to see them, as he did Elisha's servant in Dothan (see 2 Kings 6:8-17). Finally John sees the souls of martyrs under the altar (Revelation 6). This is before the resurrection, but they are given white robes--how will they wear them? Won't they just fall off? Apparently not. I'm not sure how, but perhaps they are spiritual robes for spirit beings.
  4. Why long for the resurrection? Well, I think it's because we are made to be spirits in bodies. Our bodies have no life without a spirit. And our spirits will, likely, find life without a body incomplete and frustrating. Life after death with Jesus will be very good indeed, but it won't be complete--yet. We still have his return, our resurrection, his rule, final judgment, and life in new heavens and new earth to look forward to. So, this life is the worst it gets for us, and the next step is better, and the step after that even much better still, until we get to the fullness of the life for which we were created.

So, I would suggest that when we die, we leave this earthly body behind to take up a joyous, blessed, but temporary state of existence as spirits without bodies in the presence of Jesus. We need not think it will be uncomfortable or embarrassing or weird--but it will be different, and it will be incomplete, so that we will long for the day of resurrection to come--just as we should long for it now. But don't be afraid; Paul still says it is "far better" than here.

Perhaps you'd like to be with Jesus but escape being without a body. There is a group of people for whom that will be the case--those who are alive and remain until Jesus' coming (go back to 1 Thessalonians 4:13 ff). So you should be praying the prayer at the end of Revelation--"even so, come Lord Jesus" even more fervently!

Monday, June 12, 2017

A Persecution Check Up

“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 2 Tim 3:12

It’s a common theme in scripture stories that those who are the heroes of the faith go through hard times because of their choices to do what God says is right. Joseph relayed dreams God gave and his brothers’ let their jealousy and hatred result in selling him into slavery. Later, when he refused to sleep with his master’s wife, she got him thrown in prison.

Moses was mocked by Pharaoh and disbelieved by the Israelites when he came at God’s command to deliver the people. Later, the same people would repeatedly rebel against his leadership.

David would not kill Saul when he had a chance and had to stay on the run. A city David rescued turned on him and would have betrayed him if he hadn’t escaped.

Daniel wouldn’t stop praying and found himself in a lions’ den. Jeremiah wouldn’t stop prophesying God’s judgment and, in turn, was thrown in a cistern and later carried off against his will to Egypt by his own people, where he died.

In the New Testament, we are not surprised that the scriptures that reveal a Savior who was wrongly tried, convicted, and executed would continue the theme. Peter was repeatedly jailed and eventually martyred. Paul’s list of hardships at the hands of Jewish people in almost every city he visited included being arrested, beaten with rods, put in prison, and stoned with rocks until they thought he was dead. James was beheaded, and John was exiled. Tradition tells us that all the apostles were martyred except John. Stephen was killed because of his strong faith and a sermon that correctly diagnosed Israel’s chronic unbelief.

We might somehow miss the lessons the stories might be trying to tell other followers of Jesus, and so there are a number of pointed statements to let us know that these people were not exceptions but examples. The scripture above is perhaps the most succinct and pointed.  It isn’t saying that you might pay a price for godliness, but you will.

Are you paying any price? Have you?

Maybe you are and it’s obvious. Co-workers mock you, and the more you show a forgiving spirit and a prayerful attitude, the more they laugh. Some of you may have lost a job, an opportunity, a court case, an award, and it is directly attributable to unbelievers not liking what you say and do. These aren’t made up circumstances—I know people who have experienced all these and more.

Maybe you are and it’s not obvious. The realm of spiritual warfare goes far beyond the active oppression of other people. You may be oppressed in spirit, or finding yourself in a great season of temptation. The forces of evil, your true enemies, may be at work behind the scenes in events or circumstances that bring pain into your life. God does his work in us so that all things are his tools to bring about his glory and our good (Romans 8:28), but that was true for Job also, and we know that his “persecution” was from Satan himself.

If you are being persecuted, the Bible gives us some fairly straightforward words of instruction.

We are to rejoice, because this is a confirmation of our “blessed” state as a true child of God. You should count yourself as one who can stand in the same company as the prophets and others I mentioned earlier (check out the Beatitutes—Matthew 5:1-12 –for a good reminder of this).

We are to pray for the people who may be persecuting us (Matthew 5:44), asking God to use our testimony and our non-resistance as a means of showing them the truth and bringing them to repentance.

We may, if we are trying to fulfill God’s calling, need to leave (the Bible says “flee”) a place of resistance and persecution to go to another place where they will receive us and we can serve (Matthew 10:23). This was Jesus’ word about the mission of the disciples to Israel until he comes, and it may especially fit for missionaries and preachers who find a hostile audience—they may need to go where the hearers are more receptive.

Maybe you aren’t being persecuted. You need to ask yourself why.

Perhaps you have been, have come through it, but you are in a moment of respite. Praise God for that. The Bible doesn’t say it’s going to be persecution 24/7 for everyone. We should always thank God when there is a time of rest, of refreshment, and of renewal. But get ready. True and lasting rest only comes in Christ’s presence, not here on earth.

Maybe persecution came to you after an initial excitement about trusting Jesus, and caused you to retreat from any total commitment to pursuing Christ. You’ve settled for an “under the radar” faith. Watch out; you may be one of those for whom persecution is about to kill the seed of faith. The parable of the seed, sower, and soils (see Mark 4:16-17) is a special warning for you.

You might be the kind of person who can see when trouble is coming, and you find any way you can to avoid it. If people are going to mock your faith, you don’t talk about it. If everyone else is cheating, you don’t say anything, and maybe you do just enough to go along that no one would say you aren’t part of the crowd. And you certainly wouldn’t say that the Devil is attacking you—as long as you keep things quiet, you’re fine. There’s a problem with that, though. You fit into the category of people Jesus describes in Matthew 10:33—those who won’t acknowledge him before people. In that passage there is some very bad news for you—if you fail to acknowledge Jesus before men (Jesus calls it “denying him”), you will not be acknowledged by him before the Father in the time of judgment.

Maybe you are enjoying life to the full; you are using your talents, being successful, and nothing is standing in your way. Your biggest worry is how to capitalize on all your success. You aren’t worried about persecution, and figure that people need to chill and just not get so worked up about spiritual stuff. You’ve found that your success and your ability to get ahead keep you out in front of any problems that might come your way. Hey, you are in the Bible—your story usually as the heading, “The Parable of the Rich Fool” and you can find it in Luke 12:15-21.

So, what opposition/persecution/suffering/difficulty is yours right now or has been your regular experience for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel? It’s a pretty important question for which to have an answer, don’t you think?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Loving Christians is Hard Work

But it is what we do if we love God

The message of Romans 12:9-21 is governed by the first two words of the passage: "genuine love." It carries the force of a command directive, and it sets the stage for all the other characteristics of:

  • the life that has been presented to God as a living sacrifice,
  • the mind that is being renewed by the word of God to love the will of God,
  • the realization that I am a part of the Body of Christ but not its Head,
  • and the understanding that my ability to do what God has designed me for is both guaranteed and dependent upon the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life.

The following statements are descriptions of what that love will look like in the life of such a person. There are positive traits to seek, negative behaviors to avoid, and acts of love toward believers, strangers, and enemies. And there is the promise that we can actually overcome the the evil around us. 

It is a passage filled with aspiration and hope. And it is hard.

Hating evil and taking a stand for good is a risk, and one that doesn't always pay off in this life. A "hot pursuit" of Christ requires our time and concentration, and rebuilding our priority lists around serving Him and not ourselves. And it takes continual reminders to move my perspective away from the immediate to the eternal so that I can endure the days (and sometimes weeks and months) that can range from disappointing to brutal--no wonder I must be "constant in prayer." 

But the part that is as challenging as any is the part that says, "Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor." Reading that is sobering, and it's not as if it is the only place we find it. Just consider...

Jesus said it: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved 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 13:35)"

And He said it again: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:12)"

The writer of Hebrews simply says, "Let brotherly love continue. (Hebrews 13:1)"

Peter writes, "Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8)"

Of course, we can probably sing what John said, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)"

If brotherly love and family affection is truly genuine, and not an act, then this passage and the others I just cited speak of an environment where we are openly, regularly, and visibly demonstrating affection, commitment, and forgiveness. The idea of love covering a multitude of sins doesn't mean that I hide my sins, but that my love causes me to be willing to overlook offenses. Now I know that the legalist in all of us bristles at that--we much prefer the instructions to confront and point out faults (sometimes forgetting about that pesky verse about logs in our own eyes). But we are to be people who don't keep track of how many times that prickly brother or sister says something that rubs us the wrong way.

And it is at just this point that we find it so difficult to do. Because as we set out to be a beacon of love, we may discover that all the other people we are supposed to love are not necessarily just waiting for our love to make them break out into smiles and song. In fact, while there are a few times in our lives where the good that we seek to do for others is greeted with profound joy and gratitude due to the need of the moment, more often it is either politely acknowledged, not noticed, and every once in a while it is treated as the least we could do or even not enough. We'd like to think that this doesn't happen among believers, but it does.

But when we are tempted to get upset or give up, we must remember that we are living sacrifices to God, and we are living to do what He wants and not for our own expectations. Our renewed minds need to kick in and remind us that showing love is not for the purpose of receiving good back, but to show the presence and power of Jesus to others who need it. Just like Jesus, we will find it often isn't recognized or honored, but it still is God's will for us as it was for Him. And so, like Jesus we keep going. I love what it says in John 13:1 "...when Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end." We know what that end was in His earthly life, but praise His name, because Jesus lives He continues now to love us right into forever. 

That is our goal. Let us so love one another, that whatever else people may say about our fellowship, they will say that. Would they say it just looking at us on Sunday? Let's try something--let's see if we can be so kind, loving, affirming, and joyous in each other's presence this Sunday, that it would cause anyone visiting to wonder what's so exciting.