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Spiritual Perception

Sunday, September 15, 2019

“Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you.”

(Hosea 10:12)

Wynton Marsalis, the Pulitzer prize winning jazz trumpeter, once said of his role as a teacher at Juilliard, “If you want to learn, I can’t stop you. If you don’t want to learn, I can’t teach you.” This hits on the uncomfortable and mysterious Biblical truth of spiritual blindness. As much as we might like to believe otherwise, Scripture teaches there are some who simply cannot or will not see the truth for what it is.

Jesus said, “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Mt. 13:13) Jesus wasn’t speaking in parables to hide the truth from certain people. He spoke in parables “because” the truth wasn’t getting through to them in the first place. In fact, parabolic teaching is an effective way to increase learning but, fittingly, only to those who want to learn. The parables were meant to sift Jesus' audience into those who were fit or unfit for the kingdom.

Quintilian, a great Roman teacher of oratory said of some of his scholars, “They would no doubt be excellent students if they were not already convinced of their own knowledge… Blessed is the man who has the humility to know his own ignorance, his own weakness, and his own need.” Behind all fruitful learning is both the desire to learn and an attitude of humility (Mt. 5:3, 6). Being a student (or a “disciple”) requires acknowledging there are things we don’t know. A student is not greater than his master. This is hard because most of us see ourselves as enlightened and perceptive people. But we may be clueless to the spiritual reality of the condition of our soul or the nature of God’s kingdom or the identity of Christ.

The minds of some may already be made up. Even when such people read the Scriptures, they see what they want to see in them and not what is there. This blindness is not due to any lack of intelligence or ability to reason. It is a result of a heart that has “grown dull” (Mt. 13:15). There forms a kind of spiritual callous over the heart that keeps the truth from penetrating (Eph. 4:18-19).

God has given us charge over our heart (Prov. 4:23; Mt. 6:21; 12:35). Therefore, if we allow our heart to “grow dull” to God’s word we have no one to blame for this condition but ourselves. Jesus told a parable explaining the different attitudes disciples would encounter when sharing the gospel. (Mt. 13:18-23)

It is important to note that he called it “the parable of the sower” and not “the parable of the soils”. In other words, the parable is primarily meant to prepare disciples to expect to encounter a wide range of attitudes to the announcement of the kingdom. It's as if Jesus is saying when the gospel is rejected it may not always be tied to one’s delivery. It may simply be a reflection of the listener's heart.

With that being said, we’re all listeners too and need to examine the condition of the soil of our own hearts. When we listen to this parable, we are going to find ourselves in one of four categories. If you don't like where you fit into the parable, the mere fact that you can view yourself critically is a good sign.

But perhaps you know of someone who lacks spiritual perception and you have been praying for them to see and embrace the truth. Don’t lose hope for that person. The fact is, we don’t know if they are ‘locked in’ to that condition. The fallow ground of the human heart can be made ready to receive the good seed of God's word (Hos. 10:12). There does come a point when God will allow a person to reject his love (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28; 2 Cor. 4:3-4; 2 Thess. 2:11-12) but let’s not forget that he can also give sight to the blind (Lk. 4:18-19).

In the meantime, let us love our neighbor, speak the truth in love, and pray for the gospel to take root. Either way, we must sow the seed and leave the burden of results to God (1 Cor. 3:6).

Feminine Discretion

Sunday, September 08, 2019

“Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion.”

(Proverbs 11:22)

This most vivid proverb is one of my all-time favorites because of the humorous mental picture it conjures. However, the lesson it teaches and its relevancy to our culture is no laughing matter.

Proverbs 11:22 invites us to imagine a beautiful and precious ornament, a golden ring.  A ring made from such precious metal would be expensive, something to be worn for special occasions. Now imagine saving up for such a thing, taking it home and instead of wearing it yourself you slap it on a pig’s snout! No one will see the ring at an elegant celebration gilding the ears or nose of woman. Because a pig, not a woman, wears the ring, it will spend its life rooting around in mud and the excrement of its wearer. What a waste!

Wisdom calls us to compare that precious ring to a woman’s beauty. God created women with natural beauty. But that beauty, like all gifts from God, is sacred. Physical beauty is as powerful and deceptive as wealth. Like wealth, a woman’s outward beauty can betray her into trusting in it for security, purpose and self-worth. “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain," wisdom says (Prov. 31:30a).

When a woman makes choices that reflect an improper understanding of her beauty she cheapens herself. She seeks for her identity in a corruptible physical characteristic. It is a futile endeavor. “A woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (Prov. 31:30b) because she has found her value and purpose in her Creator who endowed her with an “imperishable beauty” (1 Pet. 3:4).

For a woman’s beauty to achieve its divine purpose it must be displayed with “discretion.” Like a precious ring in a pig’s snout, the attractiveness of a woman is nullified by her lack of discretion. A golden ornament and a pig are as incongruous as a beautiful woman who has no taste.The term “discretion” or “taste” (NET) can refer to physical taste (Ex. 16:31), intellectual discretion (1 Sam. 25:33) or ethical judgment (Psa. 119:66). Here, it probably means the latter. The proverb is describing a woman who has no moral sense of propriety or good taste. She puts her beauty to wrong uses.

In this age of digital-hyper-documentation, a woman’s online media presence can easily turn into a 24-7 fashion show. Young women already feel pressured by society to look a certain way and when they can't live up to this unrealistic and unattainable standard, they develop low self-esteem and an unhealthy self-image. Couple that with fathers shirking their responsibility to guide their daughters to a correct view of themselves and you have a cocktail for disaster.

Some think, “If I put on this outfit, show a little here, a little more there, then maybe I will feel good about myself.” Men, if you don’t believe me that women are saying this to themselves when they go shopping or look in the mirror then start an Instagram account. Never mind. Don’t.

A woman with such distorted concepts of beauty will never find self-confidence or self-worth. Instead, she will find just the opposite. She will only further objectify herself and degrade her divine reflection. She will be doomed to feelings of inadequacy, purposelessness and insecurity. She will never have enough adoration, digital likes or verbal compliments to substitute for the divine acceptance, which is the only acceptance we really need.

This is the ring on the pig’s snout. Physical beauty is not a trinket to be used to lure men. Beauty must be used with caution, with taste, with propriety, with “modesty” (1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:3-4).

But this inward adornment of the gospel is not just a responsibility for Christian women. Men have created the problem of female insecurity and it will be up to men behaving like real men to solve it. It begins with what men allow their eyes to behold (Job 31:1; Mt. 5:27-30), how men speak to women, what men expect on a date, what men look for in a marriage partner, and, most importantly, how men treat their spouse and what men teach their daughters, which is the same thing.

The Certainty of Faith

Sunday, September 01, 2019

"It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught."

(Luke 1:3-4)

Most people know the New Testament begins with the four books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We call them the four Gospels. Sometimes we think of them individually as “Matthew’s Gospel” or “Mark’s Gospel” etc. But instead they should be called “The Gospel according to Matthew, Mark…” etc. In the New Testament there is only one Gospel, the good news of Jesus become king (Gal. 1:6-9). And in the first four books of the New Testament we have this one gospel being presented according to the witness of four individuals.

That’s why there is so much similarity between these books. They each have unique qualities but they are all telling the same story. They all start, in some way, with the beginning of Jesus’ work on earth and end with his crucifixion and resurrection. Reporting the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is a tidy way of summarizing the good news. (see 1 Cor. 15:3-4)

We hear a lot about “The Gospel of Thomas” and “The Gospel of Peter,” which are second and third century documents that some say are just as authentic and authoritative as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But if you read “The Gospel of Thomas,” for example, you will notice the difference in content to the original four. It is a fake document that was written later and ascribed to Thomas. In fact, it does not follow the narrative of the others. There is no account of Jesus’ ministry, of his death, or his resurrection. It is simply a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus which may or may not be genuine. Whatever it is, it is certainly not “The Gospel.”

But the four Gospels of the New Testament are telling the same story just ordered differently by four different men. The beginning of Luke’s gospel is especially fascinating because he gives us insight into how he compiled and wrote it. Luke says he did a lot of research. Many people had written summaries of Jesus’ life but Luke wanted a more comprehensive account. So he studied early church documents and he interviewed other Christians, people like Peter and Paul, whom he knew personally and, perhaps, many others.

He did all of this for a man named Theophilus who was a young Christian who needed reassurance about the things he was taught. Theophilus may have been a wealthy patron who funded Luke’s research and the publication of the document, which was an extremely labor-intensive and costly process. The purpose of the document - a two-volume work which included the book of Acts - was to reassure him of the truth of the Gospel.

Many people think that faith is a subjective choice and has nothing to do with objective truth. But faith in the Bible is never used in this post-modern way. Rather, Biblical faith is perceiving and acting upon what is true. Our faith is increased (our faith in who God is, what Jesus has done, his death and resurrection) when we understand what is true. When the truth is articulated and defended, faith is established in the heart. (Jn. 8:31-32; Rom. 10:14-15)

It is important, then, to approach the Gospels as historically reliable documents. Luke and the other writers recorded events that actually happened. Just because they wrote persuasively and artfully, and include some miraculous events, should not undermine their historical credibility. The Gospels deserve to be treated as fairly as any other ancient document and judged on their own merit.

The Gospel writers believed that Jesus was raised from the dead and wanted others to believe it too. To do this effectively, they compiled historically accurate data, arranged it into a compelling format, and presented it in such a way to elicit a positive response from the reader.

Praying for Wisdom

Sunday, August 25, 2019

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”

(James 1:5)

At the beginning of Solomon’s reign as king of Israel he went to one of the greatest high places in Gibeon (because the temple in Jerusalem had not yet been built) and worshiped the Lord there. It was there “the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night” saying, “Ask what I shall give you” (1 Kgs. 3:5). Driven by humility and a sense of inadequacy for the task set before him, Solomon asked God for wisdom to govern Israel effectively.

God was so pleased with Solomon’s request that He granted him the wisdom he would need to lead Israel but also blessed him with all the “riches and honor” befitting a king as well. Now, all things considered, wisdom is no guarantee of success, as the rest of Solomon’s story plainly teaches (1 Kgs. 11). But following the “wisdom from above” (Jas. 1:13-18) results in the best possible life under the sun and makes it more likely to inherit eternal life (2 Tim. 3:15).

The Lord doesn’t have to appear to us in a dream to offer us wisdom. James 1:5-6 tells us all we have to do is pray in faith for wisdom and God will give it to us “generously” and ungrudgingly.

This is a significant statement. James is telling us that a faithful prayer for wisdom is guaranteed an affirmative answer. That is not true for every supplication we make. A prayer for better health, for instance, may not be met with God's "Yes". There are many things we may pray for to which God may respond with “No” (2 Cor. 12:7-9). But when it comes to wisdom, all we have to do is ask.

The important qualifier for this supplication for wisdom is the “faith” of the supplicant.  We must ask “with no doubts” (Jas. 1:6). In other words, we have to understand what we are getting ourselves into when we ask God for wisdom and how He answers such a request. God doesn’t wave His hand over us and, Presto!, we are imbued with divine wisdom. Wisdom is gained in more subtle ways.

We sometimes gain wisdom from experience. Wisdom is the art of living well in God's world. It is discernment regarding the practical issues of life. Sometimes we gain wisdom through failure. Someone said, “Experience is the hardest teacher. It gives the test first and then the lesson.” When we make mistakes in life or fail to endure trials, God expects us to evaluate those failures and learn from them. Why pray for wisdom and waste our failures by continuing in them? This is the hardest way to gain wisdom because it comes with the scrapes and, sometimes, scars of failure.

We can also gain wisdom from others’ experience. We should all surround ourselves with wise counselors but the greatest teacher is Scripture. The reason we have wisdom literature in the Bible is to make us “wise for salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). We reject God’s generous gift of wisdom by not reading, studying and meditating on the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, James and the words and life of Jesus.

Paul understood that Jesus is the embodiment of divine Wisdom, (1 Cor. 1:30; cf. Isa. 11:2) "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:2-3; cf. Prov. 2:1-15) and through whom we are given the "Spirit of wisdom" ourselves (Eph. 1:7).

Everything we might want to know about God and His plan for us can be answered with reference to Christ. He isn't a clue or a key to the "mystery of God". No, Paul says Christ is the "mystery of God" (Col. 2:2). In him, all our deepest yearnings for wisdom are satisfied. Paul describes understanding as "treasure” to invite us to explore the Scriptures with the eager expectation and hungry curiosity of a treasure hunter. The treasure of God's wisdom in Jesus makes all the wealth of Solomon look shabby by comparison! (Psa. 19:10)

So, let us pray for wisdom by faith but let us also diligently seek it and keep our hearts open to receive it.

God's Will is Life

Sunday, August 18, 2019

“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”
(Ezekiel 18:23)

The above passage (cf. 33:11 along with the Lord’s self-designation in Exodus 34:6-7), is one of the most beautiful affirmations about God’s character in all of Scripture. These rhetorical questions directed toward God's suffering people expect a clear “No” and “Yes” answer respectively. Here is God’s emphatic declaration: “Just so we’re clear Israel, I want you to live and not die!”

Why does the Lord have to speak so explicitly here? Shouldn’t his desire for life be obvious? Shouldn’t we know that the Creator delights in his creation living and not dying? Shouldn’t Israel especially know that not only is God rooting for them but that he has a purpose for them that requires them to live?

Well, considering God’s stark denunciations of the wicked and the terrifying descriptions of his wrath upon them found elsewhere in the prophets, it’s at least understandable that one might be tempted to answer the first question (“have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?”) with a “Yes.” Wickedness is so repulsive to God, as outlined with such poetic and legal force by Ezekiel, that one may come away from a text believing that God would love to wipe Israel from the earth as we might take pleasure in swatting an annoying gnat from our face.

But, according to Ezekiel 18:23, this is far from the truth!

Many who superficially read the Old Testament find within its pages an angry, vengeful God who does nothing but punish sinners. “Why isn’t he more loving like the God of the New Testament?” This tragic misunderstanding has led many to picture God as an unjust monster who "takes pleasure" in dealing out retribution.

To be fair, the chances of opening your Old Testament and finding God angry with Israel or a some other nation, perhaps even threatening to punish them, is actually pretty good.

But is this a balanced view of God? Let me put it to you this way. If a neighbor was walking by your house with the windows open and heard your child screaming, “Stop hurting me daddy!” while you were trying to remove a splinter from his hand, would that scream be an accurate representation of your relationship with your child? Should those who heard such screams conclude that you enjoy punishing your children? Surely not!

God must remove the splinter of wickedness from his people precisely because he loves them. His moral integrity combined with his love simply will not allow unrepentant sin and the damage it leaves in its wake to continue unchecked. But make no mistake, the exercise of punitive justice gives him no pleasure at all.

In fact, what pleases God is that moment when a sinner repents which liberates him to exercise his unique and divine ability to grant the gift of life (Lk. 15:7; Rom. 6:23). Giving life to his creation is his favorite thing to do. It has been his greatest “pleasure” since Genesis 1.

Even when we, like Israel, make enemies of God (Rom. 5:10) he gives an advanced warning of danger (Lk. 13:3; Ezek. 3:16-21; 33:1-10). And what is the point of a warning if not to give those in danger the chance to escape? (Ezek. 18:32) In passages like Ezekiel 18:23, God is pleading for the wicked to see their desperate situation and to turn their lives around before it's too late.

In our wickedness, we face a God who warns us with no pleasure at all that the “soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). But if we turn to him in repentance, we face a God who promises with pleasure that the soul who repents shall live (Ezek. 33:11).

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