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A Legacy of Faith

Sunday, September 29, 2019

“By faith Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death; and he was not found because God took him up; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God.”

(Hebrews 11:5)

Hebrews 11:1 begins with a description of faith as a positive response to God. We hope for what we don't yet have or haven't experienced yet (Rom. 8:24-25) but we're certain  we will experience it in the future because we trust God. When we believe in what we hope for and are as confident of it as if we already possess it, then we have  faith. Faith, then, is forward-looking to an unseen future (2 Cor. 4:14).

This assurance is what stands beneath and supports that hope of a better future. When we hope for something with faith, at the base of that hope is unwavering trust in God that He will bring it about. So biblical faith is something that connects an unseen future with the present, much like an anchor connects a ship to the sea floor. This kind of trust provides a strong motivation to endure the present, however difficult, until we obtain the promised future.

The next verse states, “For by it (this biblical faith) the men of old gained approval” (Heb. 11:2). The Hebrew writer has already said that God was not pleased by sacrifices of the Old Law (10:5ff) but He was pleased by the faith of His people even before the law of Moses was written (Rom. 4:9-15). He has also already outlined that those who did not possess genuine faith were not approved (Heb. 3:19). Chapter 11 is the positive flipside. Here, the writer gives some great examples of faith and calls the Hebrews to walk worthy of their legacy.

One such person who received the approval of God on the basis of his faith was Enoch. But where Abel was killed for his faith (Heb. 11:4), Enoch never died! Enoch was a descendant of Seth, seven generations removed from Adam (1 Chr. 1:3; Jd. 14). The only information we have about him outside of his genealogy is found in Genesis 5, “the diary of death,” showing the fruit of Adam’s sin which spread to all mankind (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 5:12). Story after story ends with the same phrase “and he died” (Gen. 5:5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20). But Enoch’s story interrupts the gloomy list of death with a curious statement: “and he was not, for God took him” (Gen. 5:24).

Enoch did not “see” (or experience) physical death because he “walked with God” (Gen. 5:22, 24). The author of Hebrews understood this "walk" meant Enoch had faith. The Hebrew word for “walk” conveys the meaning of an ongoing, intimate fellowship (Gen. 3:8; 6:9; 17:1; Psa.1:1). Enoch had a great relationship with God. He walked by “faith” (2 Cor. 5:7) and because of this “he was not found,” by anyone on earth or by death itself. This was his reward (Heb. 11:6). By taking Enoch up and thus delivering him from death, God was testifying that He was pleased with him (Heb. 11:2). If we walk with God now we will be taken up to Him later.

What a great example! What a great legacy! It may seem strange that for all of Enoch's 365 years (Gen. 5:23) this is all the information we have about him. But the scarcity of information is precisely the author’s point. These few verses are all that we need to remember his legacy, and Enoch’s was a legacy of faith. He was a man who walked with God and was rewarded by being delivered from this life into the next.

By contrast, the next name on the list is Methuselah (Gen. 5:25-27). The only pertinent information about him was that he lived 969 years and had some children. Again, the little that is said is significant. Despite the fact that he lived more than the lives of 10 men today, nothing of eternal value is recorded! Instead of a legacy of faith, Methuselah’s legacy is one of a wasted life, albeit a long one.

Imagine that your genealogy was in the book of Genesis. Based on how you are living your life right now what would be the most outstanding characteristic? What would your legacy be?

"God Spoke to Me"

Sunday, September 22, 2019

“Son of man, prophesy against...  those who prophesy from their own hearts ... who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!”

(Ezekiel 13:2-3)

The Israelites often encountered the problem of discerning between true and false prophecy. Some prophets were saying one thing and other prophets were saying another, yet both claimed to be speaking in the name of the Lord. How did they know who was right?

This problem must have been especially troublesome to unpopular though genuine prophets whose message was not well received by their contemporaries. Classic battles between false and genuine prophets are illustrated in the stories of Jeremiah (Jer. 28), Elijah (1 Kgs. 18), and Ezekiel (Ezek. 12-13).

The ancient Biblical authors kindly note the distinction between genuine prophets and false prophets but to those living in the moment the distinction was much less obvious. In the Law of Moses, God did equip His people with the tools necessary to discern truth from error. Deuteronomy 18:22 was a simple rule of thumb: just wait to see if the prophet’s words were fulfilled. If the prophecy never came to pass, then you have your answer. But some prophecies were too far distant for this rule to be relevant to the hearers. Another test, Deuteronomy 13:1ff, was simple enough. If the prophecy did not agree with the sound doctrine of the Law (for example, if it encouraged idolatry) it must be rejected and the false prophet must be dealt with.

The early church encountered the same problem. God’s Spirit bestowed the first century church with many gifts, chief among them was the gift of prophecy. God’s will for Christians was still being revealed at that time so this spiritual gift was a necessity for the early church to live and worship in the way God wanted (1 Cor. 12; 2:9-13).

But not everyone was telling the truth so a number of warnings and rules were given to believers to instruct them how to discern truth from error (1 Thess. 5:21-22; 2 Thess. 2:1-3; 1 Jn. 2:18-23; 4:1-3). To some extent, the proof was within the hearer himself, “he who is of God hears the words of God” (Jn. 8:47), that is, his ears are attuned to God’s voice (Jn. 10:16). Another significant test is the life of the prophet, as Jesus says, “you will know them by their fruits” (Mt. 7:16).

What about today? It is common for religious people to claim that God has spoken to them or that God has spoken through them. Any skepticism toward the mechanics of this process of “revelation” is usually met with quotations of 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20, “Don’t quench the Spirit! Don’t despise prophecies!” To which it may be wise to respond politely with the very next verse, “but test everything; hold fast to what is good.” (1 Thess. 5:21)

The severity of judgment leveled against false prophets in the Bible should give sufficient warning to any God-fearing person who claims to exercise this gift. The Bible teaches that God’s inspiration of His apostles and prophets was both “verbal” (word-for-word) and “plenary” (every word is equally authoritative) (1 Cor. 2:9-13; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Though the Bible was written by human authors, the words were prompted and guided by the Holy Spirit (1 Pet. 1:19-21).

If pressed, contemporary “prophets” will explain their experience of receiving revelation as a vague feeling or a few disjointed words that require interpretation later. Whatever they are experiencing, it is not Biblical inspiration and does not fit the pattern of Biblical prophecy.

When "false prophets" are condemned in the Scripture it is not just their prophecy that is false but their heart, their character (2 Pet. 2:1ff). They may genuinely believe God is speaking to and through them but in reality they are "follow[ing] their own spirit" (Ezek. 12:3) instead of God's Spirit. God will allow people to believe a lie, even sending a deceiving spirit to false prophets to seal their condemnation (1 Kgs. 22:22-23; 2 Thess. 2:11-12). Let us, then, be very careful to speak only where God has spoken (1 Pet. 4:11). We can always be sure God is speaking to us through the Scriptures.

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.

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