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Is It Genuine or Generic?

Saturday, January 01, 2022

I find the marketing ingenuity of off-brand products humorous. Instead of Cheerios, there are Crispy Oats. Instead of Superman, there is Specialman. Instead of Dr. Pepper, there is Dr. Perky. Instead of Rice Crispy Treats, there are Crispy Rice Treats. They get as close to the genuine article as possible without infringing on the trademark, perhaps to dupe undiscerning shoppers.

We have a tendency to do the same thing with Scripture. There are phrases which sound quasi-Christian, which seem to have a similar flavor as the real thing but are, in actuality, knock-offs. As Christians, we must be careful not to trade God’s genuine promises for generic sentiments. Removing a verse from its context removes part of what that verse means. Or worse, we may change the wording of a verse altogether so that what we end up with is a generic, spiritual-sounding sentiment which lacks the power and applicability of God’s word. Are you rooting your faith in God’s genuine promises or are you settling for generic religious-sounding sentiments? Here is an example of such a sentiment.

“Everything happens for a reason.” We use this phrase to bring comfort to people who have gone through some bad experience. Their experience will turn out alright in the end because, we say, “everything happens for a reason.” The bad will lead to good because God is in control of the situation. Between the lines of such a sentiment is the belief that everything that happens happens according to God’s plan. But this is not necessarily true and the Bible will not allow us to hold such a view.

There are many things which happen that are opposed to God’s will and are not according to his plan. Slavery, child-trafficking, prostitution, wars, murders, pandemics, etc. all lie outside of God’s expressed will. To be fair, God permits these things to happen and will, in the fulness of time, bring them to a final end in the Judgment. But not everything that happens is because God would have it so. There is a difference between God’s desired will (what he wants [1 Tim. 2:4]) and his permissive will (what he allows [Acts 14:16]). But God does have a fixed will, an eternal and unchanging purpose.

The phrase “everything happens for a reason” is really a generic parody of Paul’s teaching in Romans 8:28, which says “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This says something quite different than “everything happens for a reason.”

In the book of Romans, Paul outlines God’s eternal plan to justify Jews and Gentiles by faith in Christ and unite them into one multi-ethnic, new covenant family. Paul spends time in his letter to the Romans explaining that the law of Moses was an important part of God’s “purpose” but it wasn’t the key because it depended on our “flesh,” which is weak. Rather, it was always God’s plan to keep his promises through Jesus, who would fulfill the law, justify those who have faith in him and give them life by his Spirit.

That’s why “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Although God doesn’t cause everything to happen, nothing that does happen takes him by surprise or catches him unprepared or is able to thwart his eternal “purpose.” God is able to hijack “all things,” even evil, terrible, and sad things, and work them “together for good.” But for whose good? “For those who love God… who are called according to his purpose.” (see Gen. 50:20)

God’s plan is to “conform” us “to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29-30ff). So, while everything that happens is not good, God will bring good from everything that happens “to those who love him.” He can use every situation to make us more like Jesus which is God’s purpose for us. Let’s not settle for generic, religious-sounding phrases but rest our hope fully in the genuine word of God!

Pleasant Words

Saturday, December 25, 2021

“The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips.

Gracious words are like are a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”

(Proverbs 16:23-24)

Gracious speech is both palatable and pragmatic, easy to swallow and good to follow. Pleasant speech has the power to persuade others and cause real change. Persuasion is a skill that can be developed through the practice of gracious speech: "The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness" (Prov. 16:21). Because of the source of our speech (originating in ourheart, Mt. 15:18), our choice of words has an eternal impact as Jesus made abundantly clear:

“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Mt. 12:33-37)

James, combining the wisdom of Proverbs and the teaching of Jesus, also spoke about the power of the tongue (Jas. 3:1-12). He called the tongue a "restless evil," a "world of iniquity," the one thing human beings have never been able to tame. But instead of excusing bad language, James teaches us that what we cannot tame God can. By giving us wisdom and cleansing the source of our speech God can purify our language and teach us gracious speech.

The tone and tact of our speech is just as important as the words themselves. Paul wrote, "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person" (Col. 4:6). Timing could make all the difference. After all, the only difference between a fresh salad and a pile of slimy garbage is time. Therefore, “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov. 25:11) and "to make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!" (Prov. 15:23)

"Be quick to hear, slow to speak" (Jas. 1:19). We would do better by listening more and speaking less. Speak only when words are necessary and make your words count. With the help of our gracious Lord, we can choose to speak pleasant words, easy to swallow and good to follow.

A Tale of Two Men

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left… One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Luke 23:32-33, 39-43

All four gospel accounts record that Jesus was crucified with two other men. This took place on a hill called “The Skull” probably due to a nearby rock shaped like a human skull. A fitting place for the darkest hour of human history. The authors do not name the two men crucified with Jesus but reveal only that they were “criminals,” literally malefactors, evil-doers, good-for-nothings. We don’t know their precise crimes but death by crucifixion was a punishment reserved for rebels against the Empire. These men may have been insurrectionists executed as threats to Rome. The crucified bodies were signs which said, in effect, “This is what we do to people who rebel against Caesar.” Crucifixion was an effective deterrent to rebellion and a bloody reminder of who was in charge.

In contrast to the guilty men surrounding him, Jesus was innocent and was not suffering for his own sins but the sins of others. Yet, in fulfillment of prophecy, all the abuse was hurled at him (Psa. 22:6-8; Isa. 53:12). Though his crucifixion looked as if Jesus were cursed by God and had failed to establish God’s kingdom, it was actually part of his enthronement and God’s eternal plan (Lk. 9:22; 17:25; 18:31-33). Those who wished to thwart God’s purposes by killing Jesus actually fulfilled God’s plan (Acts 2:23; 3:17-18; 5:30-31). Despite appearances, the cross was part of God's crowning victory not his defeat (Col. 2:15).

These two men crucified with Jesus teach us an important lesson.

One man mocked the Messiah. Rather than fearing God, he ridiculed the agent of his own salvation, assumed Jesus was guilty when he was innocent (identifying himself with Jesus, Lk. 23:39), failed to see that the Savior would be delivered not from death but through death, and only wanted deliverance from physical death.

The other man was promised Paradise. He admitted his guilt, recognized Jesus’ innocence and the spiritual nature of his kingdom, and surrendered to Jesus asking him to “remember” him when he came into his kingdom. He knew who Jesus was and what he came to do. He died with Jesus in a way that the other man did not and so received God’s amazing grace.

This text confronts us with the question, Which man are we? The scene on Calvary is a miniature picture of the entire gospel story. Jesus is still the rejected but sinless Savior. His cross is still the symbol not only of his rejection by men but of his love for all men. And every person corresponds to one of the two men crucified with Jesus. Like those two men, we all are guilty and deserve death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23), but Jesus stands in the middle offering us life.

Will we be like the one who simply dies, not seeing Jesus for who he is, never humbling ourselves, never changing our minds? If so, we will die in our rebellion without hope. Or will we be like the second criminal, who admitted his guilt and entrusted himself to Jesus? If so, we can received the promise of eternal life too. Both men were crucified and died with Jesus, but only one would live with him. Have you died with Jesus in baptism so that you can live with him in the resurrection? (Gal. 2:20; Rom. 6:3-4)

Our Example

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.

1 Timothy 4:12

If I based my estimation of Christianity solely on the behavior of other Christians, I probably would never have become a Christian myself. We’ve all witnessed awful behavior in the church. Perhaps we’ve been on the receiving end of such behavior and, to our shame, been guilty of dishing it out as well. Based only on how other Christians act, I would have left Jesus long ago.

But of course, that’s not what our faith is based upon, is it? We don’t follow Jesus based upon what others do or don’t do. Our commitment to Jesus is based upon what he has done and what he says. Other people will let us down and disappoint us. We will, at times, disappoint ourselves. But none of our failures absolve us of following our Lord.

With that being said, we need to realize as Christians how big of an impact our example can have on others, unbelievers and believers alike. Our actions can either clear a path for the gospel or put stumbling blocks in its way. The Lord knows this and constantly reminds us of our weighty responsibility (Mt. 18:6).

“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 13:34-35)

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)

People will make judgments on the merit of the Christian faith based on what they see in us. We may fairly represent Christ or not, but “the tree is known by its fruit” (Mt. 12:33). They will note whether we truly love each other or not. They will see if we are truly unified or not. As said before, hypocrisy in God’s people does not excuse unbelief, but that hypocrisy can seriously undermine the gospel. Jesus’ phrase “that the world may believe” should always be ringing in our ears. While it is the gospel that saves (Rom. 1:16) not our example, the messenger who embodies the message is most effective. This we cannot do without the Lord’s help.

“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:2-6)

We must teach the truth and teach it in love. We must live the truth and live it in love for God and our neighbor. In this way, we can be a lighthouse for others instead of perpetuating the darkness.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 5:14-16)

“Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.” (Phil. 2:14-16)

A Tale of Two Cities

Saturday, December 04, 2021

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Excerpt from A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens

Dickens penned those words in 1859 about London and France just before the bloody French Revolution began in 1789. Despite being separated from those “times” by 70 years, Dickens saw how closely his present resembled the past. Even today, after more than a century later, those “times” could accurately describe our “times.”

In fact, this tale of two cities is something of a theme in the Bible. Isaiah prophesied a worldwide judgment by telling a tale of two cities which represent all of humanity. “The lofty city” (Isa. 26:5; 24:4), the symbol of rebellious humanity and all those who trust in and exalt themselves above God, is destined for ruin (Isa. 24:6, 10, 12; 25:2, 5). But this proud city will be replaced by a righteous city in which the Lord reigns (Isa. 24:23; 26:1-2). Isaiah prophesied that God would overthrow the present world order enslaved to sin and establish his eternal kingdom of righteousness, which he did in Jesus.

Fast-forward to the book of Revelation where John picks up the metaphoric language of the two cities again: Babylon the Great (Rev. 17) and the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21-22). The original audience of John’s vision endured intense persecution for being part of that New Jerusalem and they needed to know that the Lord was aware of their struggles and would act very soon to vindicate them (Rev. 1:1).

What are we to learn from this theme of two cities? The New Jerusalem still stands unshaken and all who belong to Christ are her citizens (Phil. 3:20; Heb. 11:10; 12:18-29). But we have our modern Babylon as well, though she has yet to start drinking the blood of the saints here. While it pains us to see the impact of Babylon upon the world, we must remember that that lofty city, whatever form it takes in any age, is doomed.

Christ conquered sin on the cross and rose victorious over death in his resurrection. He has all authority in the universe and will rule until every power is put into subjection to him (1 Cor. 15:25). Therefore, fear not. Babylon, which seemed so great in Nebuchadnezzar’s day, fell at the hands of “the Most High” who “rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Dan. 4:25). Assyria, before her, was devoured by fire after she served her purpose (Isa. 10:5, 12-19). Egypt was drowned in water (Ex. 14) and Rome likewise fell. Why should any modern Babylon be any different?

Though the evil of the world appears to prevail, be certain that in the Lord’s own good time we will hear the report, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” Every kingdom that can be shaken will be shaken (Heb. 12:25-29). And like a beautiful bride coming down from heaven, the New Jerusalem will forever stand, tall and proud in all her glory with Christ in her midst shining bright as the sun (Rev. 21-22).

In many ways Dickens had it right. The present will always be a tale of two cities; one opposing God destined for destruction, the other, a city not made with hands, comprised of faithful followers of the Lord, destined for glory. Babylons come and go but the New Jerusalem stands forever. The question is, which city will you be living in when that voice like many waters shouts and shakes not only the earth but also the heavens? The choice is yours.

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