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

Friday, August 1, 2014

The "Unconvertable"

As I was studying Matthew 27 a few moments ago, the thought occurred to me that the very same people who cried out "Let Him be crucified" (vs. 22-23) and later mocked Jesus while He hung on the cross, were some of the same people who, fifty days later, said, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37). They became the first members of a movement that would reshape history for the cause of Christ and glory of God.

Then I thought of Saul the Pharisee, a man who hated everything about Jesus and the much so, in fact, that he made it his life's work to stamp out Christianity. "As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison" (Acts 8:3). But this same hateful, violent man was soon humbled by the grace of Christ. He was baptized and "immediately...preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. Then all who heard were amazed, and said, 'Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem?'" (Acts 9:18-21). Saul of Tarsus is better known to us as Paul the apostle.

And then I thought of wicked king Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian ruler of the 6th century B.C. who worshiped pagan gods and persecuted God's servants and prophets (Daniel 2-3). What hope was there for such a powerful, wicked man? None, right? Wrong! God humbled Nebuchadnezzar to the point that he said the following, as recorded in Daniel 4:34-37...
"And at the end of the time I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me; and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever: for His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, 'What have you done?'...Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to put down."
I've often wondered if this reform lasted in Nebuchadnezzar's life, and if I'll possibly see him in heaven one day. This passage gives me hope that I will.

Darius, the great king of Persia, was greatly impacted by Daniel as well (Dan. 6). He honored God and made the decree "that in every dominion of my kingdom men must tremble and fear before the God of Daniel" (Dan. 6:26).

The wicked pagans of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah.

Manasseh, one of the most wicked kings of Israel, eventually "humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and prayed to Him...then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God" (2 Chron. 33:12-13).

There are many other examples of radical conversion in the Scriptures, of men and women who, despite all odds and presumptions to the contrary, came to know the Lord!

How is it possible?
"Then Jesus said to His disciples, 'Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.' When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, 'Who then can be saved?' But Jesus looked at them and said to them, 'With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.'" (Matthew 19:23-26).
"For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16).
We all know people that we think will never come to Christ. The "unconvertables."

If we learn anything from these examples, it's that we should never assume this about anyone.

"With God, all things are possible." Let that sink in.

And then get to work "sowing the seed of the kingdom."