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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)

What Are You Waiting For?

Saturday, August 27, 2022

“Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.”

Ecclesiastes 11:1-2

The farmer would sometimes cast his seed onto flooded areas during seasons of excessive rainfall, hoping that once the waters eventually receded the seed would take root and a crop would sprout. The wisdom of the farmer is seen in his taking a seemingly hopeless situation (a flood) and turning it into a profitable one.

The Preacher instructs us not to be discouraged from doing good just because our situation looks bad on the surface (Gal. 6:9). We are to continue sowing the seed because eventually the waters of difficulty will recede. While it may take some time for the seed to produce a crop, it will eventually come (1 Cor. 15:58). Whether he is speaking of generosity or business ventures, we are to be bold and act while we can because disaster may strike us in the future. Better to diversify our assets or give generously while we can because what goes around comes around (“you will find it after many days”).

“He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap… In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” (Ecclesiastes 11:4, 6)

We should not wait for ideal conditions to do what needs to be done. The farmer who waits for the perfect weather to sow his seed never reaps a crop. The same fixed law of the harvest applies in God’s kingdom (Gal. 6:7-10). Instead of waiting for the ideal conditions ("observing the wind") we should make the best use of the present because the future is neither predictable (“time and chance happen to all” Ecc. 9:11) nor promised (Jas. 4:13-17).

Jesus once said, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work” (Jn. 9:4). The Preacher wrote, "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” (Ecc. 9:10) Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16). In all three passages, the brevity of life under the sun becomes a spur to motivate activity. Life is short and the days are evil; make the most of your time while you have it.

Sometimes we find ourselves waiting for the ideal conditions to begin the work God has called us to do.

  • Have you been meaning to speak with a neighbor about Christ but don’t feel prepared? What steps have you taken to be more prepared? When will you be sufficiently prepared?
  • Have you been meaning to send that encouraging message to your brother or sister in Christ whom you know is struggling but you are waiting for the perfect moment? When will that be?
  • Have you been meaning to develop better study and prayer habits to develop your relationship and understanding of God but feel like you have to tie up loose ends elsewhere first?
  • Have you been meaning to be more hospitable and have people over your house more but are waiting for a more convenient time?

Caution has its place but so does enterprise. All worthwhile work involves taking calculated risks. Will we trust the Lord and cast our bread upon the waters? Even if things don’t look favorable right now, much fruit may come later. A change in the weather will come when the God of the harvest sets things right.

Reading for Reform and Renewal

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.

1 Timothy 4:13

The Scriptures are meant to be read not only privately for individual study but also publicly for the shaping of the entire church family. In addition to teaching, Paul instructed Timothy to devote himself to reading Scripture out loud to the church. It was crucial for every Christian to hear God’s word on a regular basis because it is ‘living and active’ (Heb. 4:12). God powerfully works through his word. There are several key moments in the history of God’s people when the Scriptures were read aloud to great effect.

For example, in the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign, the temple in Jerusalem was finally being repaired after years of neglect. During its reconstruction a priest named Hilkiah found a book called ‘the Book of the Law,’ what we call Deuteronomy, Moses’ recounting of the Law and Israel’s history just before entering the Promised Land (Deut. 28:61; 29:21). Kings in previous generations had access to this book and were even instructed to make their own copy to read (Deut. 17:18-20). Sadly, sometime during the decades of apostasy before Josiah ascended the throne, this book was lost or hidden.

When Shaphan, Josiah’s secretary, read the book out loud to the king and he heard Israel’s history, God’s instructions in the Law, the blessings for obeying the covenant, and the curses for disobedience, and the warnings of exile, Josiah tore his clothes in grief and horror. 2 Kings 22-23, where this story is recorded, teaches us three powerful lessons regarding the public reading of Scripture.

First, Scripture warns us of danger — When the king heard the Law read aloud he realized how far Israel had wandered from God (2 Kings 22:13). The prophetess Huldah warned them bad things would happen if they didn’t start obeying the words of the Law and turn to God as a nation. Josiah understood the danger Israel was in and his responsibility as king to set the example (2 Kings. 22:14-20). Scripture has the power to convict us when we are wrong. This painful conviction is necessary before we can make things right.

Second, Scripture moves us to reform — In response, Josiah gathered all the people to the temple to hear the Law read aloud. Upon hearing the word, the king called Israel to reform and renew their covenant promises to God (2 Kings 23:1-3). Again, Scripture was at the heart of this national movement; the priestly desire for inner purity, the prophetic word of warning and judgment, and royal leadership into covenant reform were all motivated by Scripture. God’s word, with its stark warnings and glorious promises, has the same transformative power in us when we hear to obey.

Third, Scripture teaches us accountability — Josiah wasted no time rooting out and destroying idolatry in Israel and reestablishing proper worship to the LORD (2 Kings 23:4-20). Sadly, the kings after Josiah undid all his reforms and the nation went downhill from there. Eventually, they suffered the consequences of their disloyalty to God and were exiled to Babylon. The lesson here is that we can’t rely on the reforms of previous generations. Each generation must read and wrestle with the Scriptures afresh lest they forget the lessons of the past and fail to meet the challenges of the present.

Reading Scripture during the assembly acts as a warning to show us where we might be straying from God, motivates us to make the necessary changes in our lives, and teaches us that we are accountable for our spiritual condition before God. Josiah realized Israel had not been keeping the Passover, a fundamental part of their national identity and life (2 Kings 23:21-22). What might our generation be missing? If we read and hear God’s word we can find out and make the corrections (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

According to the Pattern

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it… see that you make them after the pattern… which is being shown you on the mountain.

Exodus 25:9, 40

After God redeemed Israel from Egyptian slavery he entered into a covenant relationship with them at Mount Sinai. Through Moses, he gave Israel the terms of the covenant and specific instructions to regulate Israel’s life and worship. The centerpiece of Israel’s religious kit was the tabernacle, a collapsable tent which housed, among other things, the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence. The paraphernalia of Israel’s religion was fashioned after “the pattern” which was shown to Moses on the mountain. It was important for Israel to follow this pattern for at least two reasons.

First, fidelity to the “pattern” was crucial for Israel to develop an understanding of what it meant for a holy God to dwell among sinful people. Every aspect of the Law was instructive. It taught them that though their sins separated them from God, God made provision for sin through the sacrificial system administered by the priesthood. The architecture of the tabernacle and the design of the furniture associated with it contributed to this overall understanding.

Second, adherence to the “pattern” was Israel’s opportunity to demonstrate their faithfulness. If they took God seriously—and after his gracious rescue and thunderous appearance at Sinai they did! (Ex. 20:18-21)—their approach to the fabrication of the tabernacle and its furniture would be reverent and meticulous. Such care was the response of faith and gratitude toward a gracious God, not an effort to earn God’s grace, which was and still is an impossibility.

Like many things in the Old Testament, Israel’s concern for the pattern of things revealed by God provides Christians with a positive example. Under the new and better covenant established by Jesus, possessing the true form of the “realities” of which the law only foreshadowed (Heb. 10:1), the principle of following God’s “pattern” applies just as much today as ever. But the patterns we follow aren’t physical schematics but the teachings, practices, and traditions of the early Christians. Undergirding this view is the strong conviction that God has revealed his mind through the apostles and prophets by the Spirit in Scripture (Eph. 3:5). Therefore, the teachings and example of the early church in Scripture are our “pattern.”

Paul speaks of the necessity of keeping to the “traditions” (1 Cor. 11:2) which were not human traditions, such as in Mk. 7:1ff; Col. 2:8, but traditions laid down by God through the apostles. Any deviation from these traditions was not permitted (2 Thess. 3:6). For example, Paul warned the Thessalonians not to be unsettled by false teaching but to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” (2 Thess. 2:15) Therefore, as we read the patterns of the early church in the New Testament we are to fashion ourselves after them as best we can. God reveals both positive and negative examples of the early church to show us what to do and what to avoid. He expects us to put two and two together and follow the “pattern.”

God’s provision of such a pattern in Scripture is one way he has preserved the church through the ages. Each generation can appeal to the pattern without having to rely on the previous generation. If there were no pattern for the church to follow then any deviation from God’s will in one generation would be passed on and compounded in the next. Such is the doom of all who appeal to anything other than God’s word as their pattern. But when we appeal to Scripture as our pattern we can avoid and even correct the faults of previous generations and experience the joys of reform and renewal. For more on this topic, see Josiah in 2 Kings 22.

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