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Judicial Hardening

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Now Eli was very old, and he kept hearing all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting. And he said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad. If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death.

(1 Samuel 2:22-25)

The aging prophet Eli heard about his sons’ flagrant immorality. They had turned the tabernacle into a brothel, a place where sins were committed rather than confessed. He tried to warn them that blatant defiance against God would leave them without hope. “But,” the text says, “they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death” (25b).

We expect the text to say, “they would not listen to the voice of their father, so (in consequence) God decided to put them to death.” Rather, it says that the reason they would not listen to their father was because (“for”) God decided to put them to death. The deafness of Hophni and Phinehas to their father’s warning was the result of God’s judgment. How can this be? Is this not unjust?

Before we harm ourselves in attempting to be God’s prosecutors, we must recognize two things: first, all of God’s judgments are perfectly just; second, we are not more merciful than God.

The declaration of v.25b cannot be divorced from the preceding record of Hophni’s and Phinehas’ wicked behavior (1 Sam. 2:12-17). They had no regard for God (v.12). Clearly, God was punishing them for their persistent rebellion. But part of God’s punishment was their rejection of their father’s words of warning.

Therefore, the text teaches us that a person can remain so firm in his rebellion against God that God will actually confirm him in it. Paul speaks about those whose “consciences are seared” (1 Tim. 4:2; see also 2 Thess. 2:11-12). So entrenched in rebellion, such people will remain unmoved by any pleas for repentance or warnings of judgment. Like Pharaoh before them, Hophni and Phinehas had hardened their own hearts through their consistent rebellion. Once they reached the point of no return, God simply finished the job.

Paul teaches us the same truth about the pagan nations in Romans 1:18-32. Because they “suppress the truth,” “God gave them over” (three times, vv. 24, 26, 28) to the way of life they so eagerly desired. The point is not just that these reprehensible attitudes and behaviors are the evidence of humanity’s wickedness. They are also the evidence of God’s wrath. One of the ways in which God’s wrath is revealed is in abandoning people to their own stubborn craving to live apart from him. Note that the phrase “the wrath of God is revealed” is in the present tense. That is, God’s wrath is not just something reserved for the future but is currently at work when people insist on being ruled by their passions instead of their God.

How ought Christians to respond to this teaching of ‘judicial hardening’? We must never accuse God of lacking in mercy nor are we to treat this teaching with mere intellectual curiosity, trying to discern at what precise point it becomes “impossible… to restore” someone who persists in sin (Heb. 6:4-6). Rather, we should respond in the way the Hebrew writer admonishes us to:

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb. 3:13)

A Shared History of Pain

Saturday, September 24, 2022

“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

(1 Peter 1:6-7)

Have you ever noticed that the heroes and villains of our favorite stories both share a similar backstory? Usually, both the hero and the villain have suffered some traumatic experience early in life that shaped their character.

Writers indicate this history of pain in clever—and some not so clever—ways. Heroes may be orphaned, if not literally then metaphorically. Villains often display their mysterious past trauma through a scar, a limp, or a speech impediment. I’m sure we can all think of a few abandoned heroes and disfigured villains. Whether the pain be physical, emotional, or psychological, you can almost count on it playing a major part in the development of the story.

Heroes and villains share a history of pain. The difference between the hero and the villain is in their response to that pain. The villain says, “The world hurt me and now I’m going to hurt it back.” The hero says, “The world hurt me and now I’m going to make sure others don’t suffer like I did.” One returns evil for evil, insult for insult, while the other attempts to break the cycle of hurt through some act of heroism, however that is defined.

In the best stories we see principles of redemption, mercy, justice, healing, kindness, sacrificial love, loyalty, and, of course, a happy ending. What makes these principles attractive to readers and moviegoers alike is that they are reflective of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our culture is not aware of this and may even assert that the goodness of these qualities is self-evident, but Christians know that this is nothing less than the very goodness of God at work in the human conscience.

The Bible affirms that pain is the result of human rebellion against our Creator (Gen. 3:16-17). Suffering is indicative of a creation out of joint with the One who made it. Therefore, the experience of pain is universal. Sometimes we inflict pain on others or ourselves as villains. Other times, we suffer pain as innocent victims living in a broken world. But our response to pain determines whether we become God’s wounded healers or the devil’s wounded destroyers.

In Jesus, God has come down from heaven to share in the human experience of pain. He suffered innocently, faithfully, and peacefully. He was tempted to respond to suffering with retaliation but refused. He gave his perfect life as a sacrifice to stop the cycle of human suffering, taking into himself the sins of the world as he died on the cross. His resurrection demonstrated his victory over sin and death and the start of his healing reign which will culminate in the end of pain when he makes all things new (Rev. 21:4-5).

We all suffer but the Christian’s pain is not pointless. It is taken up in the hands of our merciful God and used to teach and transform us. Through the fires of suffering, our faith is tested and purified as we turn to the one who suffered with us and for us: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet. 2:21-24; see also 4:13; Rom. 5:3-5)

Our pain shapes us. But will it make us a villain or a hero?

Love to the End

Saturday, September 17, 2022

“Now before the Feast of the Passover, 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.”

(John 13:1)

Throughout Jesus’ ministry he had been indicating to his followers that his “hour” had not yet come (Jn. 2:47:68308:20). This climactic, divinely appointed “hour” was, of course, the hour of his death, the “hour” to which God’s redemptive efforts had been pointing since Genesis 3. This was the hour of the Son’s glorification (12:23), the hour for him to be “lifted up” to “draw all men” to himself (12:32), the hour of the clearest revelation of God to humanity.

Jesus would “depart out of this world” to return to the Father. John’s use of the word “world” refers to the mass of lost humanity (1:10), the very “world” the Father loved so much that he would ransom it with the life of his only Son (3:16-17; Mk. 10:45). God’s love for the world is manifest in his aim to draw the lost out of it and unto himself. 

Those who are drawn out of the world become something new and distinct from the world. The world has its “own” and Jesus has his “own” (15:19). Those who belong to the world are those who hate and reject Jesus (15:18-25). Those who belong to Jesus are his disciples, the people of God, who would eventually be called his church. He prayed for our protection, unity, and future glory (17:9-26). For though he left the world and went to the Father, we who believe in Him must remain until the “hour” of our departure comes (2 Tim. 4:6). 

Jesus had loved his own all along but in John 13, in these final moments of his life, John says, “He loved them to the end.” 

There are a few different ways to understand John’s wording here. The ESV, NASB, RSV and NKJV all render John 13:1, “he loved them to the end.” If “to the end” [eis telos] is to be understood temporally, we might say, “He continued to love them to the very end of his life.” But “to the end” could also mean “utterly” or “to the uttermost,” hence the NIV’s paraphrase, “He showed them the full extent of his love.” His love, which was shown to them all along, would be perfected once he accomplished his Father’s will.

Either way, Jesus’ love for his own is such that it extends beyond the very limits of our imagination. In John 13, he exhibits his ultimate, self-sacrificing love by washing the feet of his disciples, which was really done in anticipation of his greatest act of love, his sacrificial death on the cross. “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn. 15:13)

Jesus loves us to the very end and to the uttermost. In the cross, we see the full extent of love and it cannot be calculated. God gives us the full measure of that fathomless love in his Son. We can never experience a more soul-satisfying love than what we have in Christ. 

Grounded firmly in the rich soil of this love we could seek to explore its every dimension for 10,000 years and not exhaust it in the least. God’s love can be known but its infinite nature is such that it soutstrips our human imagination. “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:17-19)

Even though we can’t fully appreciate the depth of God’s love now we joyfully and gratefully try. May God help us to know his love and love him and others like Jesus, to the end and to the uttermost.

Establishing Trust

Saturday, September 10, 2022

“always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect”

1 Peter 3:15

The existence of God, the historicity of Jesus, the veracity of Scripture. Answering critical questions about these issues used to be central to evangelism. However, while Christians still need to be equipped to answer them, these are no longer the primary questions being asked by skeptics today. They arose from the Enlightenment and were based on modern principles of rationalism and scientific empiricism. Our postmodern culture has different concerns that also deserve thoughtful consideration.

Many Christians believed, myself included, that the greatest threats of postmodernity to our faith were the relativization of truth, the rise of religious pluralism and the privatization of morality. But even these issues rarely come up. Instead, skeptical unbelievers (and even some professing Christians) are asking questions like:

How do Christians account for the genocide of Indigenous peoples, the enslavement of Africans, the Colonization of the Western world, or the forced ‘conversions’ (read: torture) of the Inquisition? All these were done in the name of ‘Christianity,’ after all. How should Christians respond to sexual misconduct, cover-ups, financial scandals and other abuses of power within their church? How can Christians preach a message of unity, love and reconciliation when there is so much division and animosity in the religious world and even within their own congregation?

Some of these concerns can be answered by affirming that not all that wears the name of Christ is necessarily of Christ. There was nothing remotely Christian about the slave trade or the Inquisitions, despite attempts to prop them up with Scripture. But others hit disconcertingly close to home. Some of us have even witnessed religious hypocrisy, injustice, and abuse within our own church. How should we respond to the undeniable and glaring faults of Christians which have disenchanted our generation?

We must understand we are proclaiming the gospel to people who view Christians with deep suspicion and distrust. Whether every suspicion is merited or not is beside the point. These misgivings are barriers to the gospel that must be cleared away if the saving message of Jesus is to reach the heart. The work of evangelism is not only about defending our faith but also includes establishing trust. How can we do that? At least three things come to mind.

First, we must acknowledge any wrongs and inconsistencies in both our individual lives and in our church with the message we proclaim. Honestly admitting our failings and grieving over them highlights our need for God’s grace and our desire to correct them. Few things are more destructive to our public witness than “Christians” covering up sin in their lives or in the lives of others.

Second, this sorrow must move from emotion to action; our change in mind must be followed by a change in life. Skeptics must see the gospel’s transformative power as well as its convicting power. Christ saves us from our sins and to a new, holy way of living. The “putting-off” of the old humanity must be followed by the “putting-on” of the new which is made in God’s likeness (Eph. 4:23-24).

Third, we must never compromise the message of the gospel in an attempt to make it more accessible or relevant to others because its effectiveness depends on its purity. There can be no deception or distortion, only “the open statement of truth” (2 Cor. 4:2-3).

There is much more to say about establishing trust in our post-modern culture but these three things would be a great start.

Is Satan Lucifer?

Saturday, September 03, 2022

“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”

Isaiah 14:12 (KJV)

The short answer is, not exactly. Satan is another name for the devil (slanderer) which means adversary. We see that adversarial relationship with God and his people throughout Scripture when he lies (Gen. 3:4; Jn. 8:44), blinds (2 Cor. 4:4), tempts (1 Cor. 7:5), devours (1 Pet. 5:8), contends (Job 1:10), destroys and otherwise tries to disrupt the relationship between God and humanity.

He is the leader of disobedient angels (Mt. 25:41; Rev. 12:7). Angels are created heavenly beings. They were originally created, like everything God made, “good.” Like humanity, angels were given freewill and, also like us, they “sought out many schemes” (Ecc. 7:29). But unlike humans, when angels sin against God there remains no known means of forgiveness. Instead, when angels abandon their submissive roles to God (Jd. 1:6) they are “cast into hell… and committed… to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment” (2 Pet. 2:4).

Many people refer to Satan as “Lucifer” due to Isaiah 14:12. Lucifer is a name which means “Helel son of Shachar”, which was probably a name for the morning star (Venus) or the crescent moon. Newer translations favor “morning star” (NIV), “Day Star” (ESV), or “the shining one” (NET). But in this text, the remnant of Israel is taunting, not Satan, but the “king of Babylon” (Isa. 14:3-21). No single individual is being addressed. Rather the king of Babylon is a composite of all the proud despots who rule on the earth. Such kings shine brightly like the “morning star” but eventually fall from their lofty throne of arrogance (13-14) to a “bed of maggots” and a “cover of worms” in total disgrace (11, 15, 19-20).

That a human ruler(s) is in view, there is no doubt. He is called a “man” (16) and possesses a corporeal body (19-20). Isaiah is using the image of this tyrant king as a poetic symbol for all the oppressive kings of Babylon the world over. This prophecy teaches that all who exalt themselves over God’s rule and oppress others will suffer the same fall and disgrace as “the king of Babylon.”

If Isaiah is talking about a human king, then why do most people assume “Lucifer” is the devil? Our culture has adopted this meaning largely because of John’s Milton’s famous epic poem Paradise Lost. Milton applies the term to the devil, popularizing the idea. But where did he get the connection from?

Jesus uses language from Isaiah 14 to describe Satan’s fall in Luke 10:18: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” The similarities are striking: the “Day Star” fell from heaven (12), was cast down to earth (12), had destroyed nations (12), sought to ascend to God’s throne (13), desired to be like God (14), and was relegated to the pit (15). Add to this, the Bible’s symbolic use of Babylon as a type of any earthly power that exalts itself and opposes God (Rev. 14:8-9) and it is easy to see the connection to Satan.

The similarities suggest a dual condemnation may be at work in Isaiah 14: the earthly kings of “Babylon” and the spiritual forces of darkness behind them (Eph. 6:12) are bound up together in their doom. Pride was what condemned the devil (1 Tim. 3:6) and all who follow his example will suffer the same fate (Prov. 16:18).

Many powerful people occupy a glorious throne in this world, are “stars” among the rulers. But when they seek to overthrow God or work against him all such “stars” will fall because they’ve thrown in their lot with Satan. On the other hand, “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” (Daniel 12:3)

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