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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).

Jesus Died for Our Sins

Sunday, August 11, 2019

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”
(1 Corinthians 15:3)

The phrase "Jesus died for my sins" comes so readily to our lips but what do we mean by it?  Hopefully we mean the same thing the apostle Paul meant when he used the same words. When Paul gives his boiled-down gospel story (1 Cor. 15:1-4) he adds the key phrase, "in accordance with the Scriptures." Now, this doesn't simply mean Paul could find three or four proof texts in the Old Testament that speak of the Messiah dying for our sins, e.g. Isaiah 53. More than that, what "according to the Scriptures" means is that there is an entire biblical narrative that has anticipated his sacrificial death.

This is the grand story of how the Creator God is rescuing the world from sin. This narrative is shaped largely by the history of the nation of Israel; their Exodus from Egypt; formation as a nation at Mt. Sinai; inheritance of the land of Canaan; disobedience to the covenant; their exile and return from Babylon. Israel was to bear God's solution for the world (to "bless all nations" and undue the curse, Gen. 12:3; cf. Ex. 19:5-6) but tragically they became part of the problem. The rescuers needed rescuing! The life boat was sinking!

The Messiah arrived on the scene when Israel had hit rock bottom. He came as an Israelite to deal with the problem of sin once and for all. The biblical authors speak of Jesus "bearing" our sins in his body, particularly while he died on the cross (Isa. 53:4, 11; Mt. 8:17; 1 Pet. 2:24). One of the clearest passages that helps us to wrap our minds around this sacrificial death is Romans 8:3-4:

"For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."

Having said "there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (verse 1), Paul states that God "condemned sin in the flesh". There is no condemnation for those who are "in Christ" because God has passed that sentence  of "codemnation" onto "sin" itself. Interestingly, Paul doesn't say God "condemned Jesus" but rather God "condemned sin in the flesh" or body of Jesus.

This makes sense in light of the previous chapter, Romans 7, where Paul sees God giving the law of Moses in order to lure sin into one place where it could be condemned. That place is the body of Israel's representative, who is also humanity's representative, Jesus.

The body of Jesus, the only Israelite who perfectly kept the law (Rom. 8:3-4) and the only human who properly reflected the image of God (Heb. 1:3; 2:14-18) was a trap for the raging cosmic beast of sin (Gen. 4:7). He took sin and all of its death-dealing power to the grave in his body. Then, to circle back to Paul's summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, after "he was buried" Jesus was "raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures" (again, the story of the Scriptures anticipated this resurrection) opening up the eternal future of God's good purposes for creation. In the resurrection, Jesus came back to life but he left sin in the grave forever.

In Romans  6, Paul links our unification with Jesus in the act of baptism to this great story of the Scriptures. "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." (Rom. 6:4) Through reenacting Jesus' death, burial and resurrection in baptism, we enter into God's new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) having "died to sin" once for all (Rom. 6:1) and cleared of all codemnation to be set free from our sins (Rom. 8:1-2).

That's what we should mean when we say, "Jesus died for my sins."

Good Leadership

Sunday, August 04, 2019

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

(John 15:13)

Some of the greatest stories of love and heroism are true stories in times of war. In moments of intense danger some people rise to the occasion in tremendous acts of self-giving love inspiring others to do the same.

Captain William Swenson is one such hero who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on September 8, 2009. He and his men were tasked with defending a group of Afghan government officials who were scheduled to meet with local village elders. The group was ambushed and came under heavy fire on three sides. Among many other things, Cpt. Swenson was recognized for running into live fire to rescue the wounded and pull out the dead. By sheer coincidence, one of the medics had a GoPro camera mounted on his helmet, capturing the whole scene on video. Cpt. Swenson was seen dragging a soldier who was shot in the neck to a helicopter when, just before leaving the man to rescue others, the captain bent over and kissed the wounded sergeant.

Stories like these impress upon us the great potential for love within all of us. These are the moments when God’s image (Gen. 1:26) is most clearly reflected in us. We are surrounded with plenty of examples of humans doing their worst but what makes the best come out in these heroes? Are they just better people than the rest of us?

I don’t think soldiers are inherently better people than civilians but an environment like the military that is built upon the virtues of loyalty, trust and sacrificial leadership is proven to inspire and motivate others. It is no surprise that the Biblical authors use military metaphors when describing discipleship (1 Cor. 9:7; Phil. 2:25; 2 Tim. 2:1ff).

Someone once said, "In the military awards are given to people who sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others, while in the business world bonuses are given to people who sacrifice others to benefit themselves." While this may be an unfair generalization to which there are many exceptions, there are notable parallels between the attitude of people and their work environment.

When war heroes are asked why they risked so much for others their answer is almost always the same: “They would have done the same for me.”  To routinely respond with such humility and confindence in others requires a deep sense of trust, loyalty and cooperation.

In the spiritual warfare we are engaged in (Eph. 6:12; 1 Tim. 1:18; 1 Pet. 2:11), there must be a similar circle of safety and trust where we cooperate to warn one another of impending danger and to come to one another’s aid. God’s model for this environment of spiritual safety and growth is the church, a kind of new covenant army (Eph. 4).

For others to become what God created them to be requires witnessing a positive example. People need to see the good in others for them to see the potential for good in themselves. We have the ultimate example in Jesus (1 Pet. 2:21) but we also have examples of mature Christians who are further along in their spiritual journey of discipleship called "shepherds" (1 Tim. 3; 1 Pet. 5). God blessed Dulles with three such men to help us grow into the people we were always meant to be (Eph. 4:11-16).

Leadership among God’s people is not a promotion or a license to boss others around (Mt. 20:25-28). Leadership is all  about positive, inspiring influence (Mt. 5:13). Paradoxically, leaders in the church lead by following Christ. Following Christ means serving others. Serving others means counting others as more significant than yourself (Phil. 2:3-4ff) That’s what Christ did for us so that we can do the same for others. Let us all lead by following!

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