Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Ask for the Old Paths" - a Lesson From 2 Chronicles 11

There always seems to be push to abandon the old ways and rush forward to embrace that which is new and exciting. Things that have been around for a while lose their appeal, especially for folks who are obsessed with pleasure. And that's our society today, isn't it?

It's also the case that the old ways - the "traditional" institutions, you might say - have been around long enough for us to discover all the flaws. The up-and-coming system of thought or institution still looks perfect to us, or at least better than the old.

From fashion styles to social movements, from diet plans to philosophies, short-sighted people obsessed with the here and now choose the excitement of what's coming over the wisdom and experience of the past.

In 2 Chronicles 11, we see a major transition taking place in the kingdom of Israel from what we call the "United Kingdom" (of Saul, David and Solomon) to the "Divided Kingdom" (Israel in the north and Judah in the south). When it was time to appoint Solomon's son, Rehoboam, to be king, the people warned Rehoboam that if he didn't agree to make certain changes, they weren't going to support him as their king. When he failed to comply, they said, "What share have we in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. Every man to your tents, O Israel! Now see to your own house, O David!" (2 Chron. 10:16). Granted, Rehoboam handled the whole situation poorly, but the people were quick to abandon their loyalty to the Davidic line - the royal line God promised to bless  - in favor of something new and "more promising." They went on to make Jeroboam their king.

But here's what I find fascinating.

When this transition took place - and when it became clear that Jeroboam was not going to be a godly king - "those from all the tribes of Israel, such as set their heart to seek the Lord God of Israel, came to Jerusalem to sacrifice to the Lord God of their fathers" (2 Chron. 11:16). This included the Levites and priests as well as an untold number of people who were committed to truth.

I'm not suggesting that we should cling stubbornly to traditions, nor am I saying that new ideas never have a place at the table. What I am suggesting is that, like the Hebrews in this text who migrated to Jerusalem, we shouldn't be so quick to embrace what is new simply because it looks and sounds better. Rather, we should be willing to take a firm stand upon truth, even when it is couched in a system that seems outdated and drab.

I'd rather cling to the proven truth of old, even if there are traditions and people surrounding it that are flawed (i.e. Rehoboam) than hastily embrace the glitz and glam of the present (i.e. Jeroboam) that not only lacks truth, but will eventually develop the same warts and blemishes that I might find so repulsive with the "old" now.

We have to develop foresight and maturity like this or we will be like "children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine" (Eph. 4:14).

I can't help but agree with the prophet Jeremiah who once said, "Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it" (Jer. 6:16).

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Uplifting Lessons From Romans 8

I'm currently studying through Romans and cannot help but be thoroughly impressed and uplifted by the inspired words of the apostle Paul. Yes, this is a difficult book. Yes, it is misinterpreted and abused by a great many religious people to support teachings that are both false and destructive. But if you will take the time to really study this epistle, your faith will be edified in more ways than you can begin to imagine.

Take, for instance, Romans 8. For me, this has always been one of the more difficult chapters in the book. But even amid the difficulties, there are so many uplifting concepts being taught to us by our Lord.

Consider a few of these concepts with me...

"There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (vs. 1). The point is not that Christians are unconditionally, eternally secure. Notice that the promise of "no condemnation" is tied to an ongoing lifestyle of walking "according to the Spirit." But even still, this is an insanely uplifting promise, is it not?!?! I must admit that it frustrates me when I see God's children walking about unsure of their salvation and status with God. This verse alone should propel us into a state of confidence. And with confidence come real hope and real peace.

"For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, 'Abba, Father.' The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (vs. 15-16). What a profound notion, that God has adopted us to be His children. As a result, we can now have intimacy with our heavenly Father! Yes, it's true that we are also called "slaves" of God in places like Romans 6 (this merely describes a different aspect of our relationship with God), but that doesn't take away from the fact that we are God's sons and daughters through Jesus Christ. I find it insane that the God of heaven and earth has asked me to be His precious son. "What is man that you are mindful of him?" Indeed! What a humbling concept.

"For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us" (vs. 18). This is what we Christians call hope, and biblical hope is not a wishy-washy thing; it's defined as confident expectation. It's this hope that puts gas in our engine and makes us go. It's this hope that animates us and drives us forward. I'm not suggesting that this life doesn't matter, because it absolutely does, but it's eternal life that takes precedence in a Christian's heart...and a simple study of the New Testament will make it abundantly clear that "heaven will surely be worth it all."

"And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (vs. 28). Now, Paul isn't saying that everything we do will work out - i.e. our business ventures, financial investments, dreams and life-goals, etc. In context, Paul acknowledges the sufferings and hardships that Christians endure. The ultimate point here is that if we love God and put Him first, that God's purpose for us will be accomplished. But this doesn't make the verse any less potent. If you really trust God's wisdom, then you must desperately long for His purpose (not your own) to be accomplished in your life...which means that this verse is unbelievably encouraging.

"What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?" (vs. 31-32) If this doesn't embolden you, nothing else will. And what I love about this passage is that God cements our confidence by reminding us of the gift of Christ. In other words, if God went through all the trouble of implementing, carefully guiding, and completing this incredible scheme of redemption in Christ, and if He sacrificed His own Son for you, does it not make sense that He cares for you? And does it not make sense that He is going to do everything He can to provide for your needs? I'm reminded of the Israelites who, after seeing God's miraculous provision time and time again, still complained and still rebelled and still thought that Egypt had more to offer than God. Really? But are we that different?

And finally, "Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (vs. 37-39). Nothing can take you away from God. Nothing can overpower God's love for you. God isn't going to avert His gaze or let go of you because He's distracted, or weary, or fickle. But notice that in the list Paul provides, he doesn't mention YOU. In other words, he doesn't say that YOU can't separate yourself from the love of God. Dear reader, it's important for you to understand that God has done everything and IS doing everything even NOW to nurture your faith and guide you back home to be with Him forever...and that the only thing - THE ONLY THING - that can ruin everything is you. Not the devil. Not your friends. If you stop believing, stop trusting, stop following and stop hoping...there is nothing that God can do to keep you from choosing to do so. This should simultaneously serve as a gentle reminder to us to "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12) and as a faith-builder in the power and love of God.

I hope that these few thoughts from Romans 8 have encouraged you today. Don't give up. Don't lose sight of God's abundant blessings. And don't forget that you're just a sojourner passing through a foreign country on your way home...home to be with your Father.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Five Arguments From Atheists

When I talk to atheists - which is often these days - it's very, very common for us to debate the merits of Christianity. 

As a Christian, I affirm that there is a God, that the direct revelation of God's will to mankind can be found in the Bible, and that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins and restore us to God. 

The atheists...well, they disagree.

In debating a wide range of issues, from morality to God's nature and everything in between, there are five lines of reasoning that I hear often from atheists.

1. The God of the Old Testament was violent and wicked.

It's true that there is a lot of violence in the Old Testament. It's also true that God commanded much of this violence (e.g. Lev. 20:10; Deut. 7:1-2; 1 Sam. 15:1-3). Many atheists object to God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his only son (Gen. 22:2), even though God was only testing Abraham's faith and stopped him before he could go through with it (vs. 10-12).

Of course, there are countless examples of God's incredible mercy and patience as well, which the atheists ignore, but yes, I won't deny the examples of violent acts and seemingly harsh laws.

Atheists are disgusted and horrified by these stories, and coming from their perspective, I can understand why.

But none of this disproves the existence of God, does it? Even if God is as horrible as they seem to believe, it only means that they don't approve of God's character. I know my kids sometimes think I'm a little mean or harsh...but I'm still their father. There's no way around that.

Any parent will tell you that even though their kids sometimes view them as harsh or unfair, it's often just love misunderstood or justice unappreciated. Even though children and teenagers think they have all the answers, they are usually just very immature, ignorant and naive. Also, when I mete out punishment to one of my children, it may seem harsh to my other children or to bystanders because there are details they don't know.

Are we children? Not technically. But in comparison to God, we kind of are, aren't we? And sometimes, just like spoiled children, we accuse God of wrongdoing without knowing all the details. Without getting into every example of God's allegedly violent and harsh nature, suffice it to say that there is a lot more to these instances than you might think.

2. "Science makes God unnecessary."

The well-known scientist Stephen Hawking, once a theist, has concluded that God is no longer needed as an explanation for how the world works. There was a time, for example, when folks ignorantly believed that solar eclipses and bolts of lightning from the sky were expressions of God's wrath or whatever. God was used as an explanation of the otherwise unexplainable.

I have talked to many atheists who believe that because there is a natural explanation for everything, there is no reason to invoke God as an explanation.

This is illogical.

Think about it. Because we can explain how a computer works, have we explained away engineers and programmers? Not at all. Because we can explain how a car works, have we explained away the designers, the mechanics, or even Henry Ford? Of course not.

"But Casey, we can see the engineers and mechanics; we can't see God!" I understand that. But first of all, the point simply is that it's not logical to conclude that because there are natural explanations for how the world works, that there must not be a God. Secondly, I do not deny that believing in God takes faith. "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen...By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible" (Hebrews 11:1, 3).

In the Bible, we learn that even though God is active in the world and sustains it, the world primarily operates according to natural laws. For example, in Job 5:10 and Job 28:26, we're told that the Lord sends rain on the earth, but in Ecclesiastes 1:7, the hydrological cycle is explained. God sends rain on the earth using natural processes.

I'll even go so far as to say that because this world operates according to natural LAWS - laws that work together to sustain an orderly world - God is the only viable explanation. After all, laws infer a lawgiver and order infers an overseer. Paul observed in Acts 14:17, "Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness."

Here's the trailer for "Earth From Space," a mind-blowing video from PBS that illustrates the incredible order and complexity of the world we live in. To watch the full documentary, click here.
3. The Bible is full of contradictions and fallacies.

I have a few friends who are scientists and it's a fact that almost nothing frustrates them more than when non-scientists are careless and irresponsible with science. Like with anything else, scientific facts can be taken out of context and misused to reach the wrong conclusions. 

And yet many atheists - the same ones who can be very protective of science and hyper-sensitive to the mishandling of science by non-scientists - fall short of their own standard when it comes to their criticisms of the Bible. They cite an alleged Bible contradiction without giving any real thought to the greater context of the verses they are pitting against each another. And then, when Christians like myself offer an explanation, they accuse us of trying to "explain it away." I wonder how they would feel if I blew off their explanations of the deeper complexities of science. "You're just explaining it away you ignorant scientist you!"

In reality, many of these atheists (though not all) have a prejudice against the Bible. They're usually seeking to discredit and malign the Bible, not better understand it. For this reason, I am always so excited when I meet an atheist who seems genuinely interested in how I understand certain biblical truths or how I explain certain alleged contradictions.

One more thing...

Should a person who is trying to better understand science begin with quantum physics? Or would it be wiser to begin with basic physics? And should they consider the entire field of physics to be "junk science" or pseudoscience when they fail to understand quantum physics (as they inevitably will)?

To my atheist friends: just because you can't understand some of the deeper, meatier issues of the Bible (Heb. 5:12-14; 2 Pet. 3:15-16) doesn't invalidate the Bible or mean that it is full of logical fallacies. Be patient, please.

In other words, extend the Bible (and Christians) the same courtesy that you expect Christians to extend to science (and to you).

4. What makes Christianity any more right than other world religions?

How can I say that Christianity is right when there are Muslims who are equally-convinced that they have the truth? Isn't it the height of arrogance to tell another person of faith that I am right and they are wrong? And how can I have any confidence in the Bible as divinely inspired when there are other religious people who make the same claims about their holy books?

But is this problem unique to religion?

There are differences among historians about historical events. There are differences among politicians about policies and legislation. There are differences among parents about parenting styles. There are differences among doctors about health and lifestyle choices. 

On a scientific level, what makes evolutionary scientists right when there are creation scientists claiming to have a better understanding of the universe? What about the differences that abound among scientists when it comes to string theory, the multiverse, uniformitarianism, etc?

In the end, I cannot answer for every Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan or Jew out there. I can't even answer for every Christian. All I can do is explain why I believe Christianity is true and why you need Jesus to be your Savior. The Bible says that we're to "Test all things; hold fast what is good" (1 Thess. 5:21).

5. Religion is rooted in emotions and wishful-thinking, not science and reason.

Unfortunately, this is true for a lot of Christians and religious people. There are people who cling to their faith, not because they have reasoned it out, but because they want to continue their family tradition, or they're clinging to some emotional connection, or because they "want" to believe that it's true, or because it adds structure to their life, or...well, you get the point.

Sometimes an atheist will even share a video like this on their Facebook page just to show how ridiculous religious people are. And yes, there are people out there like this. I've seen it.

But the Christian faith, even though it absolutely appeals to our emotions and feelings on a number of levels, also appeals to our intellect. 
"And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised" (Eccl. 1:13).
"Jesus said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment" (Mt. 22:37).
"...that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling..." (Eph. 1:17-18).
I would suggest to you that Christians - true, committed disciples of Christ - are very interested in the human intellect and in truth. I know I am, and I have a lot of brothers and sisters-in-Christ who are as well. Again, true disciples (learners) must be!!!

And finally, to be fair, let's not fool ourselves into thinking that emotionalism is restricted to religious people only. I can assure you that some folks are atheists because they are "angry at God" or have had bad experiences in religion. Others may be atheists simply because they don't want to feel obligated to an authority higher than themselves. Some are too lazy to be religious and wear the 'atheist' label because it's convenient. In other words, not all atheists are atheists because of science and reason. So this isn't a religion problem, it's a human problem.

In this article, I've addressed five of the common arguments I hear from atheists. There are other arguments, I know, but those will have to be addressed in another article. And keep in mind that the answers I've provided are condensed; there's a lot more to say in response to each point. 

If you would like me to address a particular argument or line-of-reasoning that you've heard atheists use, please let me know. I'd love to hear from you.

Until then, take care, and may God bless you in your pursuit of truth.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Naaman's Friends

The story of Naaman the leper in 2 Kings 5 is well-known by Bible students. Our children often learn this story in 'Sunday School' - the story of "Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria" (vs. 1) who sought to be healed of his leprosy by the prophet Elisha, and was healed when he finally agreed to dip himself seven times in the Jordan River per the prophet's command (vs. 10-14).

But have you ever given any real thought to the other key characters in this story? As I reviewed this account a few minutes ago, it occurred to me that there is much for us to learn from these individuals.

Let's start with Naaman himself. Leprosy was a stigmatizing, debilitating skin disease, and so not only was Naaman well aware of this issue in his life, he was willing to do anything to be cleansed. Sin is like a disease, and we ought to be as eager as Naaman to be cleansed. In Isaiah 1:18, the LORD says, "Come now, and let us reason together...though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool." This spiritual cleansing which God offers should be on the foremost of your mind if you haven't yet received it. Ananias said to Saul, "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16).

But then there's the young girl from the land of Israel that became Naaman's servant (2 Kings 5:2). When she learned of her master's leprosy, she said, "If only my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! For he would heal him of his leprosy" (vs. 3). She knew how and where Naaman could be healed, and it appears that she was very excited to share this news with him. I wonder what impact Christians would have on the world if we were all this excited and this outspoken about the cleansing and salvation that Jesus offers to the world? If this girl hadn't spoken up, would Naaman have been cleansed? Probably not. How would he have learned of God's prophet otherwise?

In the story, the king of Syria sent a letter to the king of Israel on Naaman's behalf. "Now be advised, when this letter comes to you, that I have sent Naaman my servant to you, that you may heal him of his leprosy" (2 Kings 5:6). The text goes on to say that "when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, 'Am I God, to kill and make alive...?" (vs. 7) In other words, the king of Israel viewed Naaman as a burden that he'd rather not deal with. I think that sometimes we feel like the king of Israel in this story when people with serious problems and issues come to our church and express interest in the Lord. Instead of rejoicing that they are sincerely interested in seeking God, we only think of all the work and time and resources that will be spent on these people once they are converted. Shame on us!

The king of Syria has something to teach us as well, believe it or not. Think about it. He was willing to send Naaman to Elisha for cleansing...because Naaman needed cleansing...but he himself had no interest in meeting this "miracle worker" because, after all, he didn't "need" the help. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in the world just like this today! They are happy that others can benefit from religion, but they don't think that they personally need religion in their own lives. Let me ask you this question: could this man have learned something from Elisha? Absolutely! He could have learned about the true God of heaven, just as Naaman did. We all need cleansing, and therefore, we all need the Lord!

Of course, we have to mention Elisha the prophet, don't we? What I love about Elisha in this story is that he felt no need to impress Naaman, a very important person in the Syrian government. He didn't let it go to his head. In fact, when Naaman showed up at his door, he didn't even go out to meet him, but sent his servant to tell Naaman what he needed to do. Christians today, and especially those in leadership positions, should learn from Elisha's example here. Christianity isn't a political movement. We're not in this for the power or prestige. Like Elisha, we need to preach the truth and point people to God.

It surprised Naaman when Elisha instructed him to "Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you" (2 Kings 5:10). Naaman reacted in anger. He complained, saying, "Indeed, I said to myself, 'He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy.' Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?' So he turned and went away in a rage" (vs. 11-12). This is where we meet Naaman's servants. They rebuked their master for his childish behavior and encouraged him to obey the prophet's command. After all, it wasn't difficult to dip in the Jordan River seven times, so why not at least try it? It was at their urging that Naaman finally obeyed the command and was healed. If they hadn't been there to encourage Naaman, I doubt he would have been healed. Likewise, we need to be that voice of reason to our friends, family and coworkers. Instead of getting sucked into the drama, we need to encourage people to do the right thing.

And finally, there is Gehazi, Elisha's assistant. For most of the story, Gehazi looks great. But in verses 20-27, we see this man of God succumbing to greed. You see, Elisha wouldn't take payment from Naaman for what he had done for him. When Naaman left to return to Damascus, Gehazi said, "I will run after him and take something from him" (vs. 20). So he concocted a lie and received from Naaman two talents of silver and two changes of garments (vs. 23). Gehazi thought he had gotten away with it, but Elisha knew what he had done and confronted him about it. In the end, Naaman's leprosy was transferred to Gehazi and his descendants (vs. 26-27). Of course, Gehazi illustrates for us the ugliness of greed and the fact that we cannot hide anything from God (see Hebrews 4:13). But also, we learn from Gehazi that ministry is NOT a business. We cannot view our Christian faith as a means of getting rich and famous. Paul the apostle affirms that while preachers can be paid for the work they do (1 Cor. 9:14), men should preach, not for the money, but because they feel called by God to do it (1 Cor. 9:15-18).

Can you relate to any of the characters in this story? 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Are We Blind Also?

"And Jesus said, 'For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind.' Then some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these words, and said to Him, 'Are we blind also?' Jesus said to them, 'If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, 'We see.' Therefore your sin remains'" (John 9:40-41).
Earlier in this chapter, Jesus restored sight to a man who had been blind from birth. Can you imagine never having seen a thing? And then, can you imagine all of a sudden being able to see everything? What an amazing experience that must have been. 

And yet the Pharisees - the religious elite of the day - weren't too thrilled when they heard what happened. After all, it was the Sabbath day, and no work on the Sabbath meant no healing on the Sabbath. Instead of rejoicing with this man, they interrogated him to ascertain the Sabbath-breaker. They failed to realize (or they forgot)  that "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning" (James 1:17). 

The Pharisees were so self-righteous that they couldn't pass up an opportunity to show the world how right they were and how wrong everyone else - including Jesus - was. They liked pointing fingers. They enjoying sapping the joy out of faith. They took pleasure in making spirituality burdensome. In reality, they were more concerned about their own righteousness than the glory of God.

And so, at the end of the story, we find this interesting dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees.

Jesus said that his mission on earth was to not only give sight to the blind but also blindness to those who claimed to have full vision. It seems to me that Jesus was using the physical healing of the blind man to illustrate spiritual blindness and spiritual enlightenment. So, in other words, Jesus was saying to the Pharisees that He came to this world to open our spiritual eyes to the truth of God.
" open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me" (Acts 26:18).
"For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6). 
But what does it mean that Jesus came so that "those who see may be made blind?" 

In John 9:40-41, Jesus went on to say that the Pharisees were among those who could see, or at least, claimed they could see. Again, he told them, "If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, 'We see.' Therefore your sin remains."

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Jesus seems to prefer blindness over claimed vision. Those who are blind have no sin, but those who claim to be able to see are still in their sins.

Ultimately, Jesus is repudiating arrogance and self-righteousness, not true spiritual enlightenment. He's not saying that those who are spiritually-enlightened and understand the truths of God's word are still anchored in the muck and mire of their own sin. He's saying that those who claim to be enlightened on their own apart from the work and grace of God are lost.

Those who come to Jesus freely admitting their need for His help and guidance will be warmly received into the kingdom of God. But those, like the Pharisees, who think they already have all the answers...well, there's nothing Jesus can do for them.

I'm reminded of the beatitudes where Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3). 

And then there's this...
"For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence" (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
So which are you?
  • Are you blind? Jesus is willing to open your eyes to His truth!
  • Do you think you can see? If so, you are still in your sins and there is nothing that Christ can do for you so long as you persist in your self-righteousness!
  • Has Jesus opened your eyes? Keep your eyes open, dear brother or sister! Remain humble and continue in the light and truth of Christ! 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Five Reasons That You Need God

Earlier this afternoon, I went into the kitchen to eat lunch and was really perturbed for a moment that there was nothing in our fridge or pantry that I wanted to eat. I remember thinking to myself, "I shouldn't be reduced to eating something that I really don't want to eat!!!" And then it dawned on me how utterly snooty I was being. So I made myself a peanut butter sandwich and moved on with my life.

We live in a country where we can satisfy our every whim whenever and however we want. Our affluence and prosperity allow us to be snooty...and unbelievably fickle. When we get a little too hot, we just crank up the air conditioner. Too cold? Turn up the heat. Would you rather wear a red shirt and blue jeans today, or a black shirt and khakis? Are you craving Chinese food? Enchiladas? A Big Mac? Take your pick.

For most of us, it's not about what we need, but what we want.

And unfortunately, when it comes to religion, the same mindset applies.

You don't want to go to church? You don't want to be restricted in your moral behavior? You don't want to think about eternity right now? Okay. Then don't. Or find a religion or faith that gives you what you want. 

It's been my observation that more and more people - especially young people - are drifting away from God, not because they have been persuaded that He doesn't exist, but because they just don't want to serve Him right now. Or they don't think they need Him.

If this describes you, here are five reasons that you need God in your life...
1) God completes you!
According to Genesis 1:26-27, God made you in His image. What this means is that you're not just a physical being, like a dog or monkey. Like God (John 4:24), you actually have an eternal spirit! In 2 Corinthians 4:16, the apostle Paul calls the spirit our "inward man." Even while our physical body grows weak over time, our spirit can be nurtured; it can grow and develop. In fact, Paul goes on to say that our physical body is just a tent where our true spiritual self lives. God made us this way so that He could have fellowship with us. 

As spiritual beings, God has placed eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). In other words, we ponder life beyond the grave. We ask questions about our purpose here on earth and have an insatiable desire to analyze and understand the spiritual realm of existence. Don't you wonder about these things?

You need God because only He can answer these questions and fill that gaping void in your life. Sure, you can try to either fill that void or ignore the emptiness by watching movies, filling your life with pleasure, or by turning to alcohol or drugs, but until you turn to God, there will always be something missing!
2) Your life will be better with God in it.
I'm not saying that God will take away your problems, cure your ailments, or miraculously lead you down a path to guaranteed financial success. My only point here is that if you live by God's wisdom, you're going to make better decisions that will naturally lead to a better life.

For example, Proverbs is a book where God gives us advice on practically every aspect of the human experience. In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon writes from his own experiences about the vanity of life, and how true purpose and value can only be found in religious service. The Bible is replete with examples of men and women who suffered and experienced the same things that we do; their stories preemptively warn us of the consequences of certain actions.

Moses observed that "the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always" (Deut. 6:24). Even Peter says that, "He who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit. Let him turn away from evil and do good..." (1 Peter 3:10-11). You can try to live life your way, but Jeremiah 10:23 warns us that "it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps."

Christians aren't perfect. We make plenty of mistakes. Our lives aren't always blissful. But the more that we follow God's guide to life (i.e. the Bible), the more likely it is that we will have better relationships, better attitudes, and a better overall human experience. Even when we face hard times, we have "the peace of God which surpasses all understanding" (Phil. 4:7) which comes from our security in Christ.
3) God gives us direction and purpose.

Do you ever wonder why you're here? Do you ever feel that you're just kind of going through the motions? Do you ever wonder if your life really matters in the grand scheme of things?

Nearly 3,000 years ago, the great King Solomon asked these questions...and do you know what he concluded? "What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun? One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever" (Eccl. 1:3-4). That's a rather bleak outlook, isn't it? But isn't it true, in a sense?

Even the apostle Paul observes that "when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness" (Romans 6:20). On one hand, it appears that there is more freedom and excitement in the world, and that a religious lifestyle will just sap your life of fun. But the apostle concludes in verse 21: "What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed?" You can ignore God now, but one day, you're going to regret it. A life without God has nothing to offer you long term.

Through Christ, however, you can have a purpose-driven life.

Everything that seems purposeless apart from God gains purpose when you give your life to Him.
  • Your job is more than just a paycheck; it is the means by which you gain the ability to help and bless other people. The Lord tells us to work hard so that we might "have something to give him who has need" (Eph. 4:28).
  • Our possessions are no longer seen as the source of our happiness, but as blessings from God that He intends for us to enjoy as we make our journey to our eternal home (Eccl. 2:25; James 1:17). When our 'things' are understood in the proper context, we find greater joy in life.
  • We're called to reach lost souls for Christ (Matt. 9:37-38) and to live in such a way that others can see Christ living in us (Phil. 1:20; 2:15). Our relationships and our place in society take on a whole new light with this in mind.
  • From your families to your hobbies; from your view of politics to the effects of politics and world affairs in your life, everything takes on a new meaning when you are living for God.
But more specifically, God actually has a specific role for you in His church. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul says that we're baptized into the body (church) of Christ where we become functioning, purpose-driven members of His body (vs. 12-19). "For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another" (Romans 12:4-5). In other words, God is saying to you, "I want you in My church! I have a special place for you in My kingdom!"
4) Serving God adds depth to your character and imparts wisdom.
It's true, unfortunately, that there are a lot of so-called "Christians" out there who are as shallow as a puddle in the desert. They are Christians in name only. They may go to church and carry a Bible around, but the fact is, there's very little difference between them and everyone else.

But you have to understand that this isn't God's intention for His people.

"But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control, perseverance, to perseverance brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love." (2 Peter 1:5-7).

To put it another way, baptism doesn't mark the end of our spiritual journey, but the beginning.

While a college education can teach you a lot about calculus, chemistry and creative writing, God offers us a life of spiritual education and training that is worth far more! "For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come" (1 Timothy 4:8).
5) God offers you salvation!
You may see yourself as a good person - and you are in a human sense - but the fact remains that you have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). You have lied. You have lusted. You have lost your temper. You have done things that God never intended for you to do. We all have.

And your sins have separated you from God (Isaiah 59:1-2). It's as if you've committed spiritual crimes against God; you've violated His law, and so when the day of your judgment comes, you will be pronounced guilty before God (2 Corinthians 5:10). And no amount of good deeds will make up for the crimes you've committed.

This is why God sent Jesus. Through His death on the cross, our sins can be forgiven and our slate can be wiped completely clean. Paul explains it in Romans 5:8-9 when he says, "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him."

Apart from Christ, there is nothing that you can do to be saved (John 14:6). So if you want to have heaven as your eternal home, you have to accept God's offer of salvation. You must believe in and trust in Jesus, repent of your sins, and be baptized into Christ (Romans 6:3-5; Galatians 3:27).

I know that you have a lot on your mind. I know that the world seems to have a lot to offer. You may be thinking that you'll start serving God one day, just not today. Maybe you're young and don't want to make such a commitment this early in your life. Or maybe you're waiting on God to show Himself to you.

I don't know what you're thinking. What I do know is that that God loves you and that He has more to offer you than you realize. Salvation. Hope. Purpose. Family. Heaven.

What do you say? Can I help you find God's purpose for your life?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Departing From God in College

According to a study published in 2007 by the Social Science Research Council, 64% of students currently enrolled in a four-year institution reported a decline in church (or other religious) attendance. 1 This doesn't mean that universities rob young people of their religious faith or spirituality, but in the very least, it does tell us that the college lifestyle poses a challenge to religious service...something I think we all knew already.

Church attendance may suffer among college students for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with deep philosophical challenges to their faith. It could be the business of their schedules or the fact that they don't have transportation from campus to church. Some students may take part in on-campus Bible study groups instead of going to church. Others may commit to going to church when they're able to return home on weekends.

But let's not kid ourselves. There are sometimes deeper reasons behind the decline in religious and spiritual habits of college students.

For many young people, college represents freedom and independence - from their parents and the traditions that have defined them for 18+ years. This is the opportunity for them to discover who they really want to be, or to finally do what they have wanted to do for years. Because our religious roots can often be traced back to our parents, and because religion is often a part of our family tradition, this thrilling sensation of independence often prompts students to either abandon or challenge their religious faith (or the outward display of it, at least).

This is an excerpt from an ABC News article from 2005 entitled, "Are Students Losing Their Religion on Campus?"
From the day she was born, Ashley Parrish was taught to put God first in her life. She attended a Christian school, did missionary work in Mexico, and gave youth sermons at her local church -- then she left home for her freshman year of college. 
"When I came to college I was so excited to get out of the bubble that I'd been in, in high school and in my family, and i just kind of went crazy," Parrish said. 2
It's not always a yearning for independence that drives students away from their religious service. In many cases, it's the college lifestyle - the drinking, partying, sexual promiscuity and perhaps even drug use. Even the Bible speaks of "youthful lusts" (2 Timothy 2:22). For young people whose conscience has been trained by their religious upbringing, the guilt and shame alone could keep them from showing up at church on Sunday morning. 

Or maybe they convince themselves that this is their time to "sow their wild oats." They'll get back to God in a few years once they've had their fun.

Finally, it could very well be that college students who abandon their faith do so because they are philosophically challenged by their exposure to other religious and philosophical worldviews. As someone who ministers on the local university campus, I've talked to many young people who blame their departure from religion on the scientific evidence they hear for evolution, or the teachings of a philosophy or "religious studies" professor who reduces Christianity to an antiquated superstition that has outlived its purpose.

Again, I'm not saying that universities rob students of faith or spirituality. In fact, there are some studies which show that folks who go to college are more likely to retain their religious faith than those who don't go to college. Even still, there can be no doubt that college students face many challenges to their faith, with some even choosing to abandon faith altogether.

Hopefully, you can understand why this is a topic worth addressing. With so many college students questioning their need for God, or the role of God in their life, I'd like to emphasize five reasons that we need God. This will be the topic of my article on Monday.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Is God a Genocidal Maniac?

When the issue of morality is raised with atheists, they often respond by accusing the God of the Bible of being immoral. As an example, they point out that God slaughtered (or commanded the slaughter) of innocent people, women and children in the Old Testament (e.g. Deut. 7:1-2).

This is admittedly difficult, especially in light of our understanding of social justice here in 21st century America. There is no easy answer. And really, no answer will be satisfactory if one is determined to find fault with God. However, there are some things we can say here that will help us to address the challenge at hand.

The first problem is that we’re analyzing this from a human perspective. While it’s true that genocide and murder are immoral, they are only immoral because we do not have the right as mere humans to take the life of fellow humans. God, however, is the creator and originator of human life (Genesis 1:26-27), and because He has given life, He has the right to take it away (Job 1:21-22). He truly owes us no explanation (which infuriates atheists).

But contrary to the atheists’ charge, God has never arbitrarily or flippantly taken life. In Ezekiel 18:32, God says, “For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies.” Peter adds that God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). 

If God places such a high value on life, the logical question is, “What was God’s purpose for taking life in these instances?”

There are many instances in the Bible where God destroyed a nation (or people) because of its wickedness. The flood of Noah’s day and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah are two examples. It’s worth noting that in both cases, the people had an opportunity to repent.

But when atheists accuse God of being a genocidal maniac, they usually have in mind the time when He commanded the Israelites to utterly destroy the nations that inhabited the land of Canaan, not sparing women or even children (Deut. 7:1-2; Deut. 3:6; Josh. 6:21). What many fail to understand is that even this wasn’t without cause. 

When God promised Abraham that his descendants would one day inherit the land of Canaan, He told him that “the iniquity of Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:16). In other words, God couldn’t justly take the land of Canaan away from the Amorites (and other nations) so long as they were a just and moral people. God’s promise to Abraham was that his descendants (Israel) would conquer Canaan when the Amorites became so wicked that judgment against them was warranted. 

Along these same lines, Deuteronomy 9:5-6 says that Israel didn’t inherit the land of Canaan because of their righteousness, but “because of the wickedness of these nations.” Regarding the women, these were some of the same women who had caused the men of Israel to sin (Numbers 31:15-17).

These weren’t “innocent people” when you understand that immorality itself is a crime against the God of heaven. So God wasn’t arbitrarily wiping out nations of people. These were displays of divine justice against spiritual corruption.

This doesn’t quite explain the killing of the children, though, does it? This is the most challenging part of this issue, I admit. I don’t claim to have the perfect answer, but I do have an answer...

In the example of Israel’s conquering of Canaan, not only were they to utterly destroy the people, they were to tear down all the emblems of the idolatry that had plagued the land for so long (Deut. 7:5-6). This was about purging the land of its former identity so that the Israelites could have a fresh start in their mission of preserving the truth of God and bringing about the Messiah. Even though the children may have been innocent, God must have known that they would later revert to the pagan traditions of their forefathers.

And while this wasn't the reason that God commanded the slaughter of children, it is worth noting that young children would have gained immediate access to heaven.

Some will argue that the above explanation is nothing more than a vain attempt to defend the indefensible. I admit that I begin with the belief that God is holy, righteous and therefore innocent. But let’s not kid ourselves: the atheist often begins with the belief that God is unholy, unrighteous and therefore guilty. I have seen many an atheist eagerly charge God with sin without even knowing the details of what happened or the circumstances.

God’s love, mercy and patience are on display from Genesis to Revelation. In fact, the Bible is about God’s plan to save fallen man through Jesus. “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16). If God’s love and wisdom are so evident, and if He is sovereign, are we not going to give Him the benefit of the doubt when we struggle to understand His will?

Even when we don't understand how or why God does what He does, let us not forget that He is the Creator and we are the creation.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

What is God's Purpose?

A friend of mine recently asked me, "What is God's purpose?"

What is God's plan? What is He all about? What is He after?

Most religious people say that God's purpose is our salvation. The theme of the Bible is redemption, right? In a sense, yes. See Ephesians 1:3-6 and 1 Peter 1:17-21.

But I would suggest to you that salvation is merely the means to the end.

In Genesis 1:20-25, God created all kinds of animals on the earth - birds, fish, reptiles, mammals, etc. - on days five and six of the creation week. But in verses 26-27, not only do we learn that He created mankind, but that mankind is very unique among God's creation.
"Then God said, 'Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.' So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'"
Did you catch that? Unlike the elephants, hawks and dolphins, we're made "in the image of God." God is a spirit (John 4:24). We are made in His image in that we have an eternal spirit within us as well. Verses such as 2 Corinthians 4:16 contrast the "outward man" which is perishing with the "inward man" which is being renewed daily. This "inward man," or spirit (or soul), is something that we alone share in common with God. It is what allows us to live eternally (Matt. 10:28).

Whether it's part of our 'spirit' or simply the superior way in which God designed our brain, we also have a unique ability to reason, emote and discover. No other animal is like us.

Why did God create us to be so unique? Why did He give us an eternal spirit?

Because He wanted to create a being with whom He could have fellowship! Not only is this implied in Genesis 1:26-27, this is exactly what we see in Genesis 2-3. God created a garden paradise for mankind to inhabit - the Garden of Eden - and gave us everything that we could ever want or need. In Genesis 3:8, we learn that God was in the habit of walking in intimate fellowship with mankind in the Garden.

Of course, God was still God. He was over us and gave us law, not only to define our free-will, but to show His authority over us. And rightfully so! He is our Creator!

But Adam and Eve sinned! Sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:1-2) because "God is light and in Him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5). So they were exiled from Eden. Paradise was lost!

Unfortunately, the plague of sin didn't stop there.
"Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned" (Romans 5:12).
Adam's sin paved the way for his progeny to sin. In fact, we "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). And what is sin? The transgression of God's law (1 John 3:4). All of us have violated God's law - whether it is/was the law written on our hearts; i.e. the moral law, or conscience, that we all instinctively have within us (Romans 2:14-16), or the revealed law of God (Romans 10:17). Christians believe that the Bible constitutes God's revealed law.

Our sins have removed us from the very special fellowship for which we were designed. This isn't God's fault. It's our fault! We have sinned! We have separated ourselves from God. And there was nothing that mankind could do to rectify this problem.

This is where God's "scheme of redemption" comes in.
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will..." (Ephesians 1:3-9).
Throughout the Old Testament, God's purpose was a "mystery." There was foreshadowing and prophecy that pointed forward to some grand climax - the seed of Abraham, a prophet like Moses, a descendant of David, would come to establish a spiritual kingdom during the days of the Roman Empire, beginning in Jerusalem. This messianic king would be "wounded for our transgressions" and "the Lord...laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:5-6). In so doing, He would redeem us and establish not only a new kingdom, but a new covenant.

God's plan was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and the New Testament reveals God's mystery! As Paul says in Ephesians 1, we have been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ.

But again, salvation was only the means to the end!

Paul goes on in Ephesians 1:10 to say the following about our salvation...
"...that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth - in Him!"
And in chapter two, we learn that Jesus' death:

  • Destroyed the barriers that divide mankind (vs. 14).
  • Reconciled us to God (vs. 16).
  • Granted us citizenship in His kingdom (vs. 19).
  • Allowed God to dwell within us (vs. 21-22).
God created mankind to have fellowship with Him. Even though we sinned and separated ourselves from God, God made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could regain access to His fellowship. For those who will humbly believe and obey Him, we not only have fellowship with God here, we have the promise of eternal fellowship with Him one day.

"For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself" (Philippians 3:20-21).
"Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever" (Rev. 22:1-5).
So what is God's purpose? Our salvation? Yes. To be praised by His creation? Yes. But above all else, His purpose is fellowship. This is why He made us, and this is His hope for each one of us.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Paradise - Heaven or Hades?

 "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)
Jesus said these words to the thief that was crucified next to Him. These were comforting words to a criminal who was in the middle of a painful, prolonged execution. Ironically, the religious people were the ones mocking Jesus and incurring God's judgment while this thief was being promised "paradise."

But what is paradise?

While many equate paradise with heaven, there is another way to interpret this term.

In Luke 16:19-26, we find the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In this story, both men die and go to a place called "Hades." 

The Greek word here is hades and is defined as "the place of departed souls." The word in the Old Testament is sheol and is defined similarly as "hades or the world of the dead (as if a subterranean retreat)." While both words can be translated as "grave," they seem to refer less to the physical state of the dead, and more to the spiritual state of the dead. 

Here in Luke 16, the hadean realm is explained in greater detail.
  • It is a spiritual, not a physical realm (vs. 22).
  • It's a place of conscious existence (vs. 22-26).
  • There are two divisions of Hades - a place of rest (i.e. "Abraham's bosom") on one side and a place of torment and flame on the other side (vs. 22-23).
  • There is a "great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us" (vs. 26).
  • Each side is visible from the other (vs. 23).
  • There is remembrance of the former, earthly life (vs. 25, 27-31).
Jesus describes this realm in Luke 16 and implies that this was the destination of departed souls. It follows, therefore, that when Jesus said to the thief, "today you will be with me in paradise," that He was alluding to the hadean realm. What Jesus describes in Luke 16 as "Abraham's bosom" - a place of rest and comfort - fits the description of "paradise."

Many argue that the story in Luke 16 is actually a parable, and that Jesus wasn't describing a real place. First of all, there's no reason to believe that this was a parable. But even if it was, Jesus' parables were stories rooted in terms and concepts that the common people understood. In other words, even if the rich man and Lazarus weren't real people, the hadean realm was and is a real place. Besides, Jesus wouldn't have used pagan concepts to convey spiritual truth to the Jewish people (who despised the pagans).

Others contend that while the hadean realm did exist, it no longer does. It is believed that the people of the Old Testament couldn't access heaven because their sins were not truly redeemed. Hebrews 9:15 says, "And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance." After all, "it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins" (Heb. 10:4). In other words, a "waiting place" had to exist until the cross; but when Jesus shed His blood and provided total redemption, the need for Hades ended. Now, it is believed, we go straight to our eternal destination - heaven or hell - when we die.

I understand this viewpoint and why it is held by so many, but I cannot bring myself to accept it for the following reasons:
  1. In Acts 2:34-35, Peter said on the day of Pentecost (after Jesus' death and resurrection), "For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: 'The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.'" So even after Jesus' death, David hadn't ascended to heaven. Now, was this only true of David before the cross; did his status change after the cross? I don't believe so. Notice how David's failure to ascend to heaven is contrasted with Jesus' ascension into heaven to sit at the right hand of God. So it appears that, even after the cross, the saints of the Old Testament still were in the hadean realm.
  2. One of my main reasons for believing that Hades still exists is the resurrection. The Scriptures speak repeatedly of the resurrection of the dead that will take place when Jesus returns. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:52 that "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet...for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed." Later, Paul adds that when the Lord descends from heaven, "the dead in Christ will rise first" (1 Thess. 4:16). This makes perfect sense if the hadean realm still exists. The souls of the righteous which presently reside in paradise will be reunited with their physical bodies, dramatically transformed (1 Cor. 15) and raised up to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:16-17). But if Hades no longer exists, and if the souls of the righteous are already in heaven, they will have to return to the earth and be resurrected again, only to return to heaven.
  3. Along these same lines, the New Testament affirms a future day of judgment. Read Matthew 25:31-46; John 5:26-30; Romans 2:5-11; 2 Corinthians 5:10, et al. Acts 17:30 says, "Truly these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead." So there will come a DAY of judgment when all will stand before Christ (2 Cor. 5:10). Again, this makes sense in light of the hadean realm, but less sense if all the deceased have already been given over to their eternal fate.
  4. Finally, in Revelation 20:11-15, we find a symbolic description of the coming Judgment Day. In verse 12, John says, "I saw the dead, small and great standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books." Then, in verse 13, "The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works." So it appears that the hadean realm will continue to exist until Judgment Day. When Jesus returns, the hadean realm will be emptied and ALL will stand before Christ to be judged.
For these reasons, I believe that the hadean realm is not only a real place, but that it continues to exist, even today. So when Jesus said to the thief, "Today you will be with me in paradise," I believe that He was speaking, not of heaven, but of the part of Hades - the realm of the dead - that is described as a place of rest and comfort.

I know that there is more to this subject than what I have written in this article. My goal has not been to exhaustively deal with this issue, but to provide a simple, concise explanation of paradise and the hadean realm. 

I also want to add that this is nothing more than my interpretation of the New Testament text. I know that many good, sincere brethren disagree on this. This is certainly an issue I'm willing to discuss and debate, but not one that I am willing to debate to the point of division. In the end, it really doesn't matter to me whether I go to Paradise in Hades or Paradise in Heaven when I pass from this life. I know that whatever God has in store for me will be more than I deserve.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Sinner's Prayer - Romans 10:13

"For whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Romans 10:13).
In most religious literature, and at the end of most sermons (in most churches), there is an invitation to pray the "sinner's prayer." This is a prayer that an unsaved person utters in order to obtain salvation. And the verse above in Romans is often used to justify this practice.

Anyone who believes the Bible to be the word of God must agree that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. That's what the verse says!

The question is: how do we call on the name of the Lord? 

Most people interpret this to mean the sinner's prayer - praying for salvation. That is an understandable interpretation for obvious reasons, but the fact is, the greater context of the New Testament demands a different interpretation. 

That same phrase is used two other times in the New Testament. 

In Acts 2, Peter begins his sermon on Pentecost by quoting a prophecy from Joel. "Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved," he says in verse 21. At the conclusion of the sermon, the people ask, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" What does Peter say in response? "I already told you what to do you nitwits! Call on the Lord; pray for salvation!!!" No! He tells them to "repent, baptized...for the remission of sins." Does Peter contradict himself? Of course not. If he tells us to call on the name of the Lord to be saved and then tells us a little later to repent and be baptized for the remission of our sins, we must conclude that these two commands are harmonious. In short, we call on the name of the Lord when we obey Him, and obedience includes baptism.

Also read Acts 22:16. Ananias tells Paul, "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord." Again, how and when do we call on God? When we're baptized. 

In short, when we're baptized (in response to God's command), we're calling on Him to do what He promised He would do - forgive us, save us, acknowledge us. In neither of these verses is the act of calling on God equated with prayer.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Bible's Greatest Defense: Itself!

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who would agree with this statement by Bill Maher (at left). I have spoken with many atheists who view the Bible as a collection of fairy tales that classify as either horrific or unintelligible. Sure, they will admit that there are some nuggets of wisdom here and there - the famous "Golden Rule" or "Judge not that you be not judged" - but they cannot seem to get past the exclusivity, the apparent 'contradictions' or the simple fact that it's a 2,000-3,000 year old collection of letters written by middle eastern goat herders.

I've been a Christian for almost 11 years, but I've been a Bible student for 15 years. While I can understand why many people are quick to ridicule or mock the Bible, I am convinced that they do so only because they don't truly understand it. Now they will respond that it's because they understand it that they ridicule and mock it.

After 15 years of studying the Bible, I'm still unlocking its secrets; I'm still trying to understand it's deeper messages. I've often said that the more I delve into the Scriptures, the more I agree with the statement in Hebrews 4:12 that the word of God is "living and powerful."

When I defend the inspiration of the Bible, I often point to its fulfilled prophecies, its historical accuracy, archaeological confirmation and internal consistency. But to be honest, what impresses me the most about the Bible is its deep, intrinsic beauty.

Allow me to explain...

Honesty About the Human Condition
As a creative writer, I know a thing or two about "selling a story." While the heroes and heroins are allowed (and expected) to experience hardship along the way, in the end, they must learn the lesson and win the day. They always defeat the enemy, conquer evil and ride off into the sunset with the damsel-in-distress. I'm reminded of one of my favorite Alan Jackson songs:
"Cowboys don't cry, and heroes don't die. Good always wins, again and again. And love is a sweet dream that always comes true. Oh, if life were like the movies, I'd never be blue. But here in the real world, it's not that easy at all. When hearts get broken, it's real tears that fall. And darling, it's sad but true, but the one thing I've learned from you, is how the boy don't always get the girl here in the real world."
When we go to the movies, we want the hero to beat the bad guy and get the girl. We're entertained by that. But we know that real life doesn't work that way! Movies can make us feel good, but they don't match reality.

And this is where the Bible offers something that movies and books do not.

Adam and Eve disobeyed God (Gen. 3). By Noah's day, "every intent of the thoughts of [man's] heart was only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5). On more than one occasion, Abraham, the "father of faith," failed to trust God as he should have (Gen. 12:10-20; Gen. 20). We again witness the depths of depravity in Genesis 19 when God rains down fire and brimstone on the cities of the act of divine judgment from which not even Lot and his family escaped unscathed. Isaac and Rebekah had a divided marriage (Gen. 25-27). Jacob showed favoritism to his second-youngest son, Joseph, and unintentionally created such a poisonous environment that Joseph's brothers felt justified in selling him into slavery (Gen. 37). Moses committed murder (Gen. 2:12), argued with God (Gen. 3), and even later disobeyed God in front of all of the people of Israel (Numbers 20). The Judges were not always the most righteous of people (e.g. Samson). King David committed adultery and murder (2 Sam. 11). The wise King Solomon is known as much for his apostasy as for his wisdom (1 Kings 11). It's almost depressing at times to read through the annals of the kings of Judah because some of the best and most righteous kings departed from God in the end. Job is the story of a righteous and blameless man who suffered tremendous pain and loss. The prophets were mistreated and persecuted, even by God's own people. 

In the New Testament, Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied Jesus, His own brothers didn't believe in Him (John 7:5) and His own countrymen - the same ones who witnessed His miracles - were the same ones who cried out "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" And if you think that the churches of the first century were perfectly unified and free of problems, you're mistaken; just read 1 Corinthians, or the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3.

A Hollywood actor, Robert Duvall, once said that "We either accept weaknesses in good people or we have to tear pages out of the Bible." And former president, Ronald Reagan, added, "Within the covers of the Bible are the answers for all the problems men face."

The Bible isn't always pleasant, but it's honest, and its honesty is what convicts us, helps us and inspires us. Not only can we learn from David's sin with Bathsheba and Peter's denial of the Lord, but these stories assure us that, if such imperfect men could be so useful in God's kingdom, maybe we can be as well! 

How could a collection of mostly Jewish men from 2,000-3,000 years ago - some educated, most uneducated - have such insight? And why would they have been so honest about the men and women of whom they wrote? This isn't how you "sell" a story!

American novelist, John Barth, once said that "The Bible is not man's word about God, but God's word about man." I couldn't agree more! There is no greater psychology textbook, no greater insight into the human condition, than the Bible.

Poetic Beauty
Have you ever read the book of Job? Or Psalms? The writings of Paul? While the entire Bible is beautifully and elegantly written, the poetic and linguistic beauty of these particular sections are unparalleled. Consider a few examples:
"Remember to magnify His work, of which men have sung. Everyone has seen it; man looks on it from afar. Behold, God is great, and we do not know Him; nor can the number of His years be discovered. For He draws up drops of water, which distill as rain from the mist, which the clouds drop down and pour abundantly on man. Indeed, can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds, the thunder from His canopy?" (Job 36:24-29).
"For you formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother's womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them" (Psalm 139:14-15). 
"Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
On the surface, this doesn't prove that the Bible is divinely inspired. But as an avid Bible student, the more that I read and study its elegant and touching words, and the more I see their relevance and simple beauty, the more I am convinced that they must come from God alone.

Maya Angelou echoed these sentiments when she said, "I read the Bible to myself; I'll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is."

Layered...Like an Onion

I'm not a big fan of the movie Shrek, but I always liked the scene where Shrek tries to explain to Donkey that "Ogres are like onions" because they have "layers." While I'm not comparing the Bible to onions, I am saying that the Bible has layers.

I've read through the Bible many times. I read parts of it every day. So I'm constantly cycling back through the same passages and the same stories. It may sound boring and redundant - and I imagine it is with most books - but not so with the Bible...because each time I read a passage, I fold back a new layer and find new and deeper lessons. It's one of the most rewarding and faith-building exercises that Christians experience in their walk with Christ.

Take David's sin with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11-12 as an example. You might read through it the first time and be appalled that such a godly man could do such a thing. The next time you read it, you might gain insight into temptation and how it unfolds. You might begin to relate to David. Then, the third time, you might notice how Psalm 32 gives us insight into David's mind during the months following his sin. Then you might notice that David's psalm of repentance (Psalm 51) relates to this incident. Now you're beginning to understand not only the power of temptation, but the true nature of repentance. But then what about Bathsheba? And what about her husband, Uriah? What about David's commander, Joab, and his role in the debacle? What about the parable of the ewe lamb at the beginning of chapter 12? How did David's sin affect his family in the subsequent chapters? What lessons can be learned from the way David mourned his son's death? What about divine chastisement? How has God used David's temporary apostasy to impart lessons to untold millions of people, even today?

This is just one of countless examples that I could relate to you.

When I restudy a passage, it may be a word or phrase that stands out to me for the first time. It may be that my recent studies in another passage grant me new insight here in this one. It could be deeper reflection upon the character of the story. In any event, the Bible is layered, and the more I study it, the more I uncover its subtle messages.

In the words of John D. Rockefeller, "We are never too old to study the Bible. Each time the lessons are studied comes some new meaning, some new thought which will make us better."

A Consistent Message
As a writer, I can say that it's harder than you might realize to write a novel that has a consistent, harmonious story line. It's difficult enough to fully develop the characters; now try bringing the plot to its climax smoothly and gracefully. Then try tying up all the loose ends by joining the different story lines and answering the questions that you've asked throughout the book. It's one thing to come up with an entertaining plot, but it's another thing to write a book so that, when the reader finishes the last chapter, he/she is satisfied.

The Bible is not a book. It's a collection of 66 books written by over 40 different authors from three different continents, from all walks of life, in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek). From a purely human standpoint, it would be impossible for this many diverse authors to articulate a strong, consistent message. 

And yet that's exactly what we find in the Bible. Augustine, who lived from 354-430 A.D., said that "The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New."

In Ephesians 3:3-5, we read the following about the Bible's message:
" that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets..."
If you've ever read a mystery novel (or seen a movie along these lines), you know how, at the end of the story, you say to yourself, "Ohhhh, I see! Now it all makes sense!" The Bible is like that. The Old Testament contains the mysterious plot, with hints and clues along the way. Then, in the New Testament, we find the climax - Jesus' death on the cross - followed by a careful and precise explanation of the mystery and what it means for us.

From the prophecies of a coming Messiah that fill the pages of the Old Testament to the foreshadowing and symbology that is initiated in the Old and explained in the New; from the way that the prophets of old follow the messianic lineage through Seth, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ruth and David, to the way that God's character and nature are expressed fully through Jesus in the gospels, the 66 books of the Bible are intricately woven like a tapestry.

Bible skeptics are often familiar with the messianic prophecies of the Bible. They often respond by saying that they are "self-fulfilling prophecies." Or, they say that the interpretations of such prophecies are subjective. It's easy for them to make such accusations and to cite an example or two to back up their point. But a deeper and more honest examination of the Scriptures eliminates this objection swiftly and completely. There's just too much.

Here's a [very] partial list:
  • Jesus is contrasted with Adam in Romans 5:12-21.
  • The tree of life lost in Genesis 3:22-24, but regained in Rev. 22:1-5, 14.
  • Jesus is compared to Moses in Acts 3:19-26.
  • Jesus inherited the "throne of David" (Acts 2:30-31).
  • David crossed over the Brook Kidron when he was betrayed by his son, Absalom (2 Sam. 15:22-23). Jesus crossed over the Brook Kidron just before being betrayed by Judas (John 18:1).
  • Read Galatians and the entire book of Hebrews.
  • The symbolism of Revelation is based in Ezekiel and Daniel.
Perhaps this is why Jesus, when He was on the cross, said, "It is finished" (John 19:30). He came to fulfill/complete the Old Testament plan (Matt. 5:17-18), to solve the mystery, to explain God's plan, and to reconcile us to the God we lost in Eden.

This quote from William P. White sums up this point well: "The Bible is a harp with a thousand strings. Play on one to the exclusion of its relationship to the others, and you will develop discord. Play on all of them, keeping them in their places in the divine scale, and you will hear heavenly music all the time."

It Answers Our Deepest Questions
Finally, the Bible is so impressive to me because it answers the deepest and most universal (and yet basic) of man's questions. Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is our destiny? I have never come across a book that so succinctly and yet so intricately answers these and other questions of life. It's so much more than just a book of history or facts or knowledge.

And this is vitally important!

In Acts 17, the apostle Paul arrived in the city of Athens. He encountered an audience that "spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing" (vs. 21). These people loved knowledge; they found it entertaining. I can't help but think that a lot of people today are just like the Athenians; knowledge is abstract, even esoteric. The pleasure is in learning and knowing.

Paul proceeded not only to tell them about God, but to make Him personal and relevant. He told the Athenians that God had made them and wanted to have a relationship with them (vs. 26-29) and concluded by saying, "Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead" (vs. 30-31).

In a few sentences, Paul answered the three fundamental questions of human existence. Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is our destiny? He made it clear that abstract or intellectual knowledge, though a source of great pleasure, is NOT sufficient.

I love science. I love history. I love politics. I love to debate. I love philosophy. I love to be intellectually stimulated. But no amount of knowledge in these areas - no amount of scientific knowledge - will ever be able to address the deepest questions that every man and woman asks internally and meditates upon throughout life.

Having said that, these questions aren't neatly listed and answered in any one place. Again, the Bible is layered and answers these questions at different times and in different ways. The more that we study the Scriptures - and I mean truly study - the more that we understand the answers to these questions. It's not just that the Bible answers these questions; it's how it answers them.

A skeptic might respond by saying that these questions, although natural, do not demand or justify a religious response. In other words, the fact that we ponder a higher purpose and life after death doesn't mean that such exist. I disagree. The fact that we all ask these same questions is proof-positive to me that we have been created by a common designer. Indeed, Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God has put eternity in our hearts.

Bill Maher and other skeptics like him will continue to judge the Bible without truly knowing and understanding it. They will cherry-pick and lift verses out of context in an effort to mock it and 'prove' its absurdity, ineffectiveness or inaccuracies. I've seen it time and time again.

For me, there is a preponderance of evidence in favor of the divine inspiration of the Bible. The prophecies, the scientific foreknowledge, the historical accuracy and archaeological confirmation of the Bible are all compelling and overwhelming.

But my faith in the message of the Bible is not derived from any one piece of evidence, or even a mass of evidence that can be laid out on the table for all to see. For me, it is my deep, daily and very personal study of the Bible that sparks my soul, enriches my faith and provides me with a calm, unwavering, unfettered assurance in the reality of my God.

For some, it is circular reasoning, but for me, it is not.
"There's no better book with which to defend the Bible than the Bible itself." -Dwight L. Moody