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Are You Living Your Best Life?

Saturday, July 08, 2023

…he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.

1 Peter 1:3-4

Your Best Life Now is the title of Joel Osteen’s 2004 redundant and shallow self-help book which affirms a distinctly un-Christian, short-sighted “name-it-and-claim-it” theology (AKA the prosperity gospel). It is about how to get God to serve the demands of self-centered, materialistic people who actually think that godliness is a means of gain (1 Tim. 6:5). Osteen tells his readers (in seven simple steps!) that God wants us to live our best life now. I do not recommend it.

The irony in his message is that it’s only true if you’re not a Christian. For those who reject the gospel, this really is their best life; there is no hope for future good beyond it for death will finally separate them from the source of all goodness (Heb. 9:27). This is the unhappy destiny of us all because we have all put ourselves at odds with our Creator (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). But Jesus came to rescue us from judgment, reconcile us to God, and give us life beyond this one.

Therefore, if you are a Christian, the best really is yet to come! Now, since we can only glimpse the matchless glory that will be revealed to us (Rom. 8:18) we live by faith not sight (2 Cor. 4:16-18). God never promises us a wealthy and trouble-free existence here on earth. Rather, “we groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom. 8:23) We eagerly await the resurrection because we know that is when our salvation will be complete and all that is wrong will be made right. The Christian’s best life only begins now but culminates when this life ends.

I can’t imagine what the suffering, exiled Christians Peter addressed in his letter would think of Osteen’s book. They lived under the harsh reign of Nero (54-68 AD), a highly educated but impulsive and brutal emperor. Nero ascended the throne at the age of sixteen. Early in his reign he was heavily advised but he slowly grew more independent and soon abandoned all restraint. He began to execute his rivals one by one. He murdered his mother at the behest of his wife and forced his tutor, Seneca, to commit suicide.

After the great fire of Rome (64 AD), it was rumored that Nero had ordered the fire to clear a space for a giant palace. Tacitus tells us that Nero, sensing the ire of the Roman mob, said Christians were responsible. Christians were already unpopular at this time because they refused to pay their civic respects by worshiping the Roman gods. Nero claimed the fire was the vengeance of the gods—a wave of localized persecution ensued. In the aftermath of the fire, many Christians were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and executed. At least three thousand were thrown to the lions in the Colosseum. Just a short time after writing his second letter, Peter himself would be executed by Nero (2 Pet. 1:12-15; cf. John 21:18-19).

Peter wrote to Christians who were chosen by God yet exiled, despised, and rejected by the world (1 Pet. 1:2; 2:4). Much of his first letter is devoted to encouraging Christians to remain strong in their faith and follow the example of Jesus who suffered innocently and without retaliation (1 Pet. 2:18-24). He teaches them that suffering in this life comes with being a Christian. Therefore, they should not be surprised by it (1 Pet. 4:12) but prepare for it (1 Pet. 5:6-11) and even learn to rejoice in it, because it is a sure sign of their fellowship with Christ (1 Pet. 4:13-19). Peter consistently reminds these hard-pressed disciples that their best life comes on the other side of this one: they have an inheritance laid up in heaven for them and, because of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, they have a certain, living hope of attaining it (1 Pet. 1:3-4). That hope for the future would fuel their suffering in the present, shaping and strengthening them until the coming of Jesus (1 Pet. 1:5-9). So, are you living your best life now or is the best yet to come?

Contradicting Jesus

Saturday, July 01, 2023

“By no means Lord…”

Acts 10:14

We have a tendency to modify Christianity for various reasons. These are not outright rejections of the truth, but subtle attempts to edit it, downplaying or eliminating elements from it that may be socially unpalatable or hard to accept. Ironically, when we redefine the gospel to make it more accessible or less offensive, we strip it of its power and relevancy. These modifications, no matter how well-meaning, only lead people away from Christ and the eternal life he wants to give them. On three occasions, the apostle Peter contradicted Jesus, illustrating this tendency to modify Christianity.

First, when Jesus’ identity as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” was professed by Peter, Jesus went on to foretell his own suffering, death, and eventual resurrection in Jerusalem. But Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” (Mt. 16:21-22) Peter, like most Israelites of the day, was expecting a militaristic Messiah, one who would take the throne in Jerusalem and establish God’s rule by wiping out their pagan oppressors. But Jesus subverted his messianic expectations: he came not to destroy pagans but to save them from their sins (Jn. 3:16-17); he came not to establish an earthly, political kingdom but a heavenly, spiritual one (Jn. 18:36); he came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Mt. 20:28). Peter wanted a Christianity without the cross so Jesus had to explain that there is no cross-less Christ and there are no cross-less Christians either (Mt. 16:24-28).

Second, in the upper room on the eve of his death, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet as a parable of his love, humility, and the spiritual cleansing his death would provide. When he came to Peter he responded incredulously, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” and then contradicted him: “You shall never wash my feet!” Peter wanted a Christianity without cleansing so Jesus had to explain that if he did not wash Peter’s feet then he could not have fellowship with him (Jn. 13:8). The King leads by serving. Jesus’ greatest act of service, which this instance of foot washing dramatically anticipated, was giving his life on the cross to cleanse us of our sins. We will never be clean unless we accept that spiritual cleansing.

Finally, after Jesus’ victory over death and ascension into heaven, God’s kingdom was established. It was always God’s mission to unite Jews and Gentiles, a mission Jewish Christians were slow to understand and reluctant to embrace. In Acts 10, Peter was given a vision that set him on the road to discover the universal scope of God’s plan. Peter saw many animals, some of which were unclean according to the Law of Moses, descending from heaven on a giant sheet. He was then told to kill and eat the animals. And again Peter contradicted the Lord: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” But the voice responded, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” (Acts 10:14-15) Peter wanted a Christianity without mission, one that was limited to the Jewish people. But Jesus showed him through this vision, his instructions, and his meeting with a certain Gentile family, that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35)

God’s people have a tendency to deviate from the gospel, something Jesus vehemently warned us against. The Galatians accepted a “different gospel” (Gal. 1:6) and the Corinthians “another Jesus” (2 Cor. 11:4). Peter was a conspicuous example of this tendency. When he was confronted with a teaching he didn’t particularly like or agree with or understand, he contradicted Jesus with the words, “No Lord!” Have you ever said that to Jesus? How can we call him “Lord” and contradict him in the same breath? (Lk. 6:46) May God give us the wisdom to trust him and respond to Jesus with the humble and submissive words “Yes Lord!”

The Land Cycle

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Matthew 5:5

Biblical geography is more than the scenic background of God’s story. Land plays an important role in his eternal purpose. It begins with humans living with God in a divinely gifted land (Gen. 1-2) and ends with redeemed humans living with God in a renewed land (Rev. 21-22). Everything in between is the development of God’s people in—and out—of God’s land. The earth was created by, and thus belongs to, God. Therefore, it is his to give or take away. As a divine gift, there are human responsibilities attached to it; God is our ultimate “land-Lord.” A theme of land can be traced through Scripture with three repeated cycles which lead us to Jesus.

First, humans inherit and forfeit the whole world. In the beginning, humans were created in God’s image and charged with exercising dominion over the entire earth, yet still under God (Gen. 1:26-28). Therefore, humans are the rightful heirs of creation (Psa. 8; 37:11; cf. Mt. 5:5). The first humans walked in fellowship with God on the earth until they rebelled against his authority and were exiled from the paradise of Eden (Gen. 3:22-24), sent away from God’s presence into a warped creation (Gen. 3:17-19). The first cycle shows that dwelling in God’s land is conditional. Obedience to God’s word leads to continued enjoyment of the land whereas disobedience leads to forfeiture and exile.

Second, Israel inherits and forfeits the promised land. Later, after humanity spread over the face of the earth, God chose one man (Abraham) through whom he would work to fulfill his purpose. From Abraham came the nation of Israel and eventually, the Messiah who would bless all nations. Israel inherited the promised land of Canaan, a place where they could rest with God in peace and satisfaction—another Eden-like situation. Though the land was given to Israel unconditionally, keeping the land was conditional. The previous inhabitants, the Canaanites, lost the land due to their wickedness; their lives were so disgusting to God, that the land “vomited” them out! God warned Israel that the same would happen to them if they lived like Canaanites (Lev. 18:24-28; 20:22-26). Sadly, Israel’s sins led to their exile (Deut. 28).

Third, Israel returns home but it still feels like exile. Exiled from their ancestral homeland, many Israelites began to doubt their faith in God. Therefore, God sent the prophets with a surprising message: though the loss of their land was terrible and their own fault, God would bring them back home. There were many other promises attached to Israel’s restoration, such as the gift of new, obedient hearts and the forgiveness of their sins (Ezek. 36:24-26; Jer. 31:31-34). But when Israel returned from captivity, not only did they continue to struggle against God but the pagan regime in charge treated them like exiles in their own land! The Old Testament ends with Israel back in Canaan but suffering under oppressive powers and languishing in their sins. The generations passed in this uneasy state until their long-awaited Messiah arrived.

Finally, God reverses the land/exile cycle in Jesus. Jesus arrived as Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Savior, inaugurating the kingdom of God. As a perfectly faithful Israelite, Jesus was the only one who really deserved to inherit the land and yet he chose to live without a home (Lk. 9:58). He suffered the ultimate “exile” by dying on the cross and then conquered death in his resurrection. Through Jesus, God grants the blessing of the forgiveness of sins to those who turn to him in faith and brings them into one family where they come to inherit an imperishable land: a “heavenly country” (Heb. 11:16) that eclipses even Eden in its glory (Rev. 21-22). Cleansed of their sins through the sacrifice of Christ and given imperishable bodies at his return, the faithful will dwell together with the Lord in this perfect land forever without any fear of exile.

No Greater Joy

Saturday, June 17, 2023

I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

3 John 1:4

God gives his people so many reasons to celebrate. We rejoice in our salvation, the blessings of being part of God’s family, the eternal life we have in Christ. We can even find joy in our trials knowing what God is accomplishing in us through them. What brings you the greatest joy as a child of God? The apostle John writes, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”

When John writes of “my children” he does not mean, of course, his physical relations. They were his “beloved children” in the spiritual sense, children in the faith (also Paul in 1 Cor. 4:17; 1 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4). John, the last living apostle, wrote his three letters later in life. Therefore, he self-consciously strikes a paternal tone throughout, describing the recipients of his letters as “my little children” with regularity. These were Christians John knew well. He had taught them, labored with them, prayed for them. Therefore, the apostle took special joy in seeing this new generation of Christians flourish and grow strong in the faith as they continued “walking in the truth.”

When Simon and Nora were around three or four years old, Rachael and I would take them to the mall on rainy days where there was an indoor playground. It was bedlam when crowded. But everything was made of squishy foam so it was a safe place for them to get their wiggles out. On one crowded day there was a gaggle of older kids running hither and thither heedlessly knocking down toddlers in their wake like bowling pins. One such casualty began to cry and Simon walked over, helped him up, and dusted him off. Seeing our son act with such compassion made us beam with joy! This feeling is, in essence, what John is talking about.

This great joy, however, is only given to those Christians who are actively helping others grow, first by initially bringing them to faith in evangelism, then continuing to help ground them in the teaching of Christ and sticking with them as they mature in the faith. After long months and years of bible study, many earnest prayers, patient evenings talking through issues, countless deeds of service and other loving relational investments—in other words, after planting the seed of God’s word and watering the soil of the heart—we start to see the growth that only God can provide (1 Cor. 3:5-9).

All boasting, then, is excluded in such work because, after all, “it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13) and we struggle “with all his energy that he powerfully works within [us]” (Col. 1:29). It is the simple, pure, profound joy of the farmer who toils in tears but perseveres (Psa. 126:6). There is nothing quite like seeing those we love “walking in the truth.” It refreshes our hearts in the Lord (Philemon 1:20).

However, this precious growth is constantly threatened by the enemy and must be protected at all cost. The faith of new Christians is fragile and easily shaken. So we must not be careless in our speech or actions toward them. The Lord holds those who cause these “little ones… to sin” accountable (Mk. 9:42). Therefore, we must “take care how [we] build upon” the foundation of another’s work lest we be found destroying God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:10-17). How sad when one who has not invested in another’s growth discourages them in tactless conversation! But how refreshing when they contribute to that growth by building them up!

In 3 John 1:4, we find both encouragement and warning. First, great joy is found in witnessing the spiritual growth and constancy of those we have labored to bring to faith. How are you helping others “walk in the truth”? Second, we must be careful never to jeopardize that spiritual growth through insensitivity. “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” (Rom. 15:2)

What's Wrong With Creeds?

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15

A creed is a formal statement that summarizes the essence of one’s religious beliefs. The Nicene Creed and Apostles’ Creed are popular examples. Usually, each line in the creed is followed by a Scriptural citation that justifies the statement. People swear by a creed to show their loyalty to what the creed affirms. But ought Christians to use creeds? One obvious problem with creedal formulas is that they may contain error. But even if all the statements in a creed agree with Scripture there are other reasons why we should avoid them.

First, creeds prevent personal discovery. When the Bereans heard Paul preach “they examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11) This is the responsibility of each individual (2 Tim. 2:15). We cannot outsource the work of Bible study to anyone else because we have to know why we believe what we believe and be able to support our convictions with God’s word. We must test each teaching by holding it up to the divine standard of God’s word (1 Thess. 5:19-22; 1 Jn. 4:1). Creeds short-circuit the vital process of personal discovery. In our faith, just like in Math class, we must ‘show our work.’ That is, we must be able to support our convictions with reasoned arguments from the Bible to show how we reached our conclusion. Accepting the pre-packaged truth-claims in creeds may lead to intellectual laziness and blind indoctrination further down the road.

Second, creeds deny divine authority. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul claims that Scripture comes from God and is sufficient to equip us for every good work. If there is something we need to know to live the way God intends, we can find it in the Bible (2 Pet. 1:3). If Scripture is all we need, creeds are supplementary at best and subversive at worst. Creeds are tidy statements of belief, the kind the authors of the New Testament are notoriously reluctant to give us. The Bible isn’t written in bullet-points but rather forces us to study the context carefully, string ideas together, and draw the right conclusions. Consider the topic of salvation. There are many passages that deal with it. Therefore, to understand salvation requires us to consider each passage in light of the others. Only those who put forth this effort can respond appropriately.

Third, creeds fix favored interpretations. We have all changed our convictions about a passage or an idea. Honesty and humility demand that there is no teaching in Scripture that does not merit further study. This is not to say God’s will is indiscernible (Eph. 5:17) but is to admit our limitations and fallibility. No Christian has everything figured out; we all have room to grow and mature. But a creedal statement is set in stone, as it were. Once an interpretation makes it into a creed then it is as if the matter has been settled and the issue is now beyond the reach of further study because it has been tested and found to be true. The implication is that you don’t have to test it, you just have to believe it. Therefore, creeds fix favored interpretations. But what if those interpretations are wrong?

Finally, creeds contradict Christ’s attitude. Jesus believed in the absolute authority of God’s word (Mt. 5:17-20) and regularly opposed the religious establishment of his day, contradicting and correcting the accepted rabbinical interpretations of the Law. In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus gives six antithetical statements which all begin the same way: “you have heard that it was said… but I say to you…” Because God’s word was being distorted by the teachers, either by restricting the Law’s demands or extending the Law’s permissions, Jesus corrected their errors and showed that living in God’s kingdom means obeying God’s word, with all its implications, from the heart. Jesus always appealed straight to God’s word as the sole authority, never to popular views or rabbinical precedents.

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