Christianity 201

February 7, 2012

Jeff Mikels Fields Some Questions – Part Two

I love it when pastors do a Q&A (question and answer) session after their sermons.  Yesterday we met Jeff Mikels, pastor of Lafayette Community Church in Indiana, who has blogged some of the questions he wasn’t able to answer in previous messages. Today we conclude with three more questions.

Some of the questions may apply to your interests.  Each question is a link to the full article.  You are encouraged to read each question at its source and leave specific comments on the applicable article.  When you click through, you can also use the articles you read to link to the rest of his blog.  I promise there won’t be Part Three tomorrow, but I equally promise that I believe we’ll return to Jeff’s blog in the future. 

I’ve also added some comments at the very end that apply to both parts of this short series.

The Bible: Do NT verses on Scripture apply to both Testaments?

Can we generalize New Testament verses on the authority of Scripture (eg. 2 Tim 3:15-17) to the NT since in the original context they were referring only to the Old Testament?

I didn’t get to answer this one on Sunday, but it’s a good question and deserves a little time. Basically, the question raises the issue that the New Testament authors use the word Scripture to refer to their Scripture which would have been the Jewish Scriptures or the Old Testament. Therefore, one could argue, the New Testament passages on Scriptural authority apply only to the Old Testament. As a result, how do we get our idea that the New Testament is also authoritative?

This is a very rational line of thought, but it misses on one small point. When the New Testament writers used the word “Scripture” they were not talking only about the Old Testament. In fact, there’s a fascinating passage in 2 Peter 3:15-16:

Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. — 2 Peter 3:15-16

What’s fascinating in this passage is that Peter considered Paul’s writings to be Scripture. The word “other” near the end of v. 16 demonstrates that. Another fascinating thing about this passage is that Paul was still alive when it was written. So follow the logic: Peter knows about Paul’s writings. Peter calls them Scripture. Paul most likely is aware of Peter’s writings. He surely would have been told what Peter thought about his letters. Paul doesn’t deny it, ever. The most likely conclusion is that Paul and Peter both knew that what was being written in their day was to be considered Scripture.

Therefore, the answer is “Yes.” New Testament passages on Scripture refer also to the other New Testament writings.

The Bible: What about the apocrypha?

On Sunday, I was asked about the apocrypha, but I later found out that the answer I gave was partially wrong.

What I said was that back in the days before Jesus, there were a number of books that were circulated among Jewish people. However, back then, no one considered them to be on the same level as Scripture. In fact, after the prophet Malachi wrote his prophecy it was widely understood that there were no more prophets, and that was 400 years before Jesus. Nevertheless, history still happened during those 400 years and Jewish teachers still speculated on spiritual realities. That’s where the extra books came from. Nevertheless, as I said, the Jews of the time did not consider them to be authoritative or on the same level as the other Scriptures.

When the Hebrews Scriptures were translated into Greek, the translators decided to also translate some of the other documents into Greek as well. Eventually, the collected Greek translations came to be called the Septuagint after the supposed 70 scholars employed to do the work of translation.

By the time of Jesus, the majority of the Septuagint had been translated, and both Jesus and the Apostles used the Septuagint version as the version they quoted from. Nevertheless, no New Testament writer quotes from or refers to any of the books in the “apocrypha.” (see this article) Further, when the Rabbis finally and fully agreed on which books were the authoritative Hebrew Scriptures, they included only the books we now have in our Old Testament. Therefore, the reason these other books are not in Protestant Bibles today is that the Jews of Jesus day, though they used the Septuagint translation for their knowledge of Scripture, seemed to know a distinction between the books that later became the “Hebrew Scriptures” and those that later became the “Apocrypha.”

That’s basically what I said on Sunday, but I also made a claim that I have since learned was incorrect. I said that the Catholics followed the tradition of the Septuagint and included three sections in their Bibles with the Apocrypha in between the Old and New Testaments. However, that was wrong. Having been raised Catholic, my wife Jen has a Catholic Bible and showed me after the service that in their Bible, the “apocryphal” books are interspersed throughout the Old Testament. Furthermore, she told me that Catholics are actually quite offended by the term “apocrypha.”

So I was wrong about the Catholic Bibles. After a little more research tonight, I found that it was Martin Luther who first put the Apocrypha into a separate section between the Old and New Testaments. Therefore, I’ll just say that the best way of understanding the difference between Catholic Bibles and Protestant Bibles is that Protestants follow the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures for the Old Testament while the Catholics follow the tradition of the Septuagint.

I personally follow the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures endorsed by Jesus and the Apostles.

For additional information, these Wikipedia articles are quite interesting:

Understanding the Father

On Sunday, we addressed the third statement from [our church’s] Statement of Faith, but before we can look at it, we need to consider the relationship between human language and the reality of God.

The Limits of Our Language

What thoughts come to mind when you think of God? What images come to you? Is he some old man sitting on a throne? Do you imagine him in the ways of Greek mythology, like Zeus holding a lightning bolt and standing on a mountain? Do you imagine him as a highly exalted human being?

The problem is that none of those images are valid. None of those images work. None of those images are allowed. They are all idols. In the burning bush, God used no mental images to describe himself. The fire was a portal for his voice, but his self description was simply “I AM.” In the march from Egypt to Israel, God confirmed his presence before the people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. In the days of wandering, God confirmed his presence by the golden box called the Ark filled with the ten commandments. And near the top of the list at number two was the command against having any idols, any objects of worship that were visible and tangible.

Our mental images are just as idolatrous because they put representations of God in our mind that are not actually God as he is. The most important thing to know about God is that he cannot be contained, he cannot be imagined, he cannot be imaged by humans. Our concepts are too small, our brains are too childish, our language is too limited, our knowledge is too elementary.

Even as we talk about God, we must keep in mind that God is bigger than the words we use. When we say God is love, we mean that he has revealed himself to us with the word “love,” but that his love is more loving than our love.

By way of disclaimer, then, I just want to say that God is the standard for the attributes we describe. It is not the other way around. We can’t use our words, define our words, put our own concepts into our words, and then apply those labels to God. We can’t say, “Well, to me, love means… and therefore, since God is love, he should act like…” You can’t come to know God by learning more about the attribute. You can’t study fathers to learn about your Heavenly Father. You can’t study lovers to learn of God’s love. You can’t study morals to learn about God’s goodness

Instead, we need to let God and his reality fill out the definition for the words we use. If God is love, we must let God’s character and actions define for us what love really is.

Now, we can turn to the statement.

The Father

[Our] Statement of Faith reads thus:

God the Father is an infinite personal spirit, perfect in holiness, wisdom, power, and love. He concerns Himself mercifully in the affairs of each person, He hears and answers prayer, and He saves from sin and death all who come to Him through Jesus Christ (Deuteronomy 32:4-6, Psalm 139, Matthew 6:6-8, John 3:16-17, John 4:24, Romans 6:23, 1 Corinthians 8:6).

Implications

What I find to be most fascinating about all of this is that the statement starts with a God who is an infinite personal spirit, perfect in holiness, and it ends with a God who pays attention to the prayers of individual people.

In talking about this with our congregation, I walked through the statement point by point, showing supporting verses and providing brief explanation where helpful. Then, at the end I addressed some live questions from the congregation. Those questions were fascinating because they all seemed to revolve around the one big issue of God’s will versus human freedom.

Answering those questions adequately requires us to fully grasp the meaning of the first sentence of our statement above. Here are a couple bullet points to flesh out the statement:

  • As the only infinite personal spirit, God is boundless with regard to time and space, without physical properties, but able to mentally relate to other intelligent beings.
  • Perfect holiness means that God is completely distinct—other than—everything in Creation. He is above and beyond his creatures. His essence, attributes, and behaviors cannot be fully comprehended by any created being.
  • Perfect wisdom means that God always fully understands all possible courses of action. He perfectly understands the past. He can perfectly predict the future. Therefore, he can perfectly select the best course of action in any circumstance.
  • Perfect power means that God is always able to accomplish what he intends to do. It doesn’t mean that he is able to create logically impossible realities like a circle with four right angles. It does mean that he always gets what he wants. His power extends so great that he is even able to create a world where the independent actions of free beings bring about the end result he desires.
  • Perfect love means that God is first of all in a perfect love relationship with the other members of the Trinity. His very nature allows for and demands a loving mutuality of deference, equality, respect, and affirmation. Love is intrinsic to the nature of God. Therefore, because the Trinity is at work cooperatively to bring about God’s desired plans, the Father deeply loves his plans and the execution of those plans by the Son. Finally, the Father loves the individuals of the world because they are his prime agents working out his plan on planet Earth.

In the posts to follow, we will be addressing questions regarding the will of God, but to conclude this post, I want to affirm the most personally compelling reality of the nature of God.

God, the one who is unbounded by time and space, who knows the best thing to do at all times, who is fully capable to bring about his will regardless of circumstances, made you to be who you are at this moment in history. God, who always knows what’s best and always gets his way, made you.

Take pride that God has chosen you to be part of his plan. Take warning that God expects you to play by his rules. Take comfort that God has done everything possible to empower you to do just that.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. — John 3:16-17


Now that we’ve freely “borrowed” some of Jeff’s writing; I’d like some of you to return the favor by bookmarking or subscribing to Jeff’s blog.

But before we leave, I want us to “borrow” one more thing.  Look at the questions that appeared yesterday and today and while the substance of each answer is important, notice the carefully reasoned approach by which each is answered.  That’s the style your “always be ready to give an account” answers should have to your friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers.  You go from “A” to “B” to “C” to conclusion.

Consider the concept that you want to make progress with each new paragraph or thought, and the idea that one paragraph builds upon another which is based on a foundation or hypothesis.

But then, having said that, you have to content or substance.  Like the Bereans, you need to “search the scriptures” in order give people quality answers to the questions they might ask.  Christianity 201 is all about digging a little deeper.

February 6, 2012

Jeff Mikels Fields Some Questions – Part One

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I love it when pastors do a Q&A (question and answer) session after their sermons.  It creates immediacy and a bit of vulnerability.  Jeff Mikels is the pastor of Lafayette Community Church in Indiana, and had a few leftover questions that made it into his blog. 

Some of the questions may apply to your interests.  Each question is a link to the full article.  The first one is complete, but for the rest you’ll have to click to read the full answer.  You should leave specific comments on the applicable article.  I like the quality of his answers to the point where I’m going to steal three more here tomorrow!

The Church: Can you be a Christian without going to church?

This past Sunday, I ended our service by taking some live questions from the congregation, but I wasn’t able to address all the questions live. Therefore I’m tackling some of them through this blog.

Does this mean that you cannot be a Christian unless you go to church?

The simple answer is that you can be a Christian without going to church if you define “Christian” to mean “I have been saved.” (Salvation does not depend on going to church or anything else you do. It is a gift from God. See Ephesians 2:8-10). You can also be a Christian without going to church if you define “church” as “an event where I show up, sit, soak, and leave 60 minutes later.”

However, if you define Christian to mean “follower of Jesus” and if you understand “church” to mean “the universal family of God, specifically expressed in local fellowships” then you can’t be a Christian and intentionally avoid the church. Reading the rest of Ephesians will make it clear that God did not save us to be isolated individuals destined for heaven. To the contrary, Jesus died for us to cleanse us of sin and thereby bring us into God’s family! Reading 1 John will remind you that you can’t love God and hate his family.

Even more strongly, John speaks of people who were once part of his church and then decided to leave the church:

They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. — 1 John 2:19

To state it strongly, every true follower of Jesus will pursue frequent fellowship with other believers that involves locality, leadership, mutual submission, expression of gifts, discipleship, evangelism, ministry, and worship. Any fellowship expressing all of that is rightly called a church.

The Father: God’s will and human freedom

At the end of our service last Sunday, I took some live questions from the congregation. An interesting pattern revealed itself. Here are all the questions that came in:

  • How do you mix all knowing, all powerful, and free will? Do we mess up his plan? Or does he choose not to know what we are doing so as not to compromise our free will?
  • Can you expand the reality of God’s power & righteousness as it applies to being in or “outside” of God’s will?
  • If the Bible doesn’t discuss a particular issue, is the answer always “It’s God’s Will”?
  • If God knows the future, why did He create us if He knew we would fall?

Each question came from a different person, but nearly every question addressed the issue of how God’s will relates to human free will.

The relationship between God’s will and human free will is nearly as complicated as understanding how God is by nature one and three at the same time. However, it’s far less essential to our understanding of God than is the notion of the Trinity, so there has never been consensus among Christians regarding how the two relate. There are many different ways Christian scholars have understood the relationship…  [continue reading here]

The Church: Why Sundays?

This past Sunday, I ended our service by taking some live questions from the congregation, but I wasn’t able to address all the questions live. Therefore I’m tackling some of them through this blog.

If the church is the community of believers who are to be continually gathering and working to build the kingdom, why do we meet on Sunday mornings the way we do? How does this fit and/or conflict with the picture of the church in Acts?

 

One of the claims I made on Sunday was that modern day people who say things like “I don’t want to go to church, I want to be the church” as an excuse to not be a regular part of a local church are fooling themselves. Of course, I agree that no one should merely “go to church” because in the Bible, “church” isn’t something you go to. “Church” in the New Testament refers to the people not an event or a location. Therefore, no individual can “be the church” because “the church” by definition (based on the word Jesus used: ekklesia) is an association of people. If anyone is “being” the church, they are being the church with other people.

Anyway, in discussing that point, I reminded everyone that if they don’t want to go to church on Sunday, they don’t have to. They could do what the first century Christians did and meet every day in public places and in people’s homes. I was speaking a bit facetiously because I knew that the expression of Christianity found in the book of Acts would be rather difficult to reproduce in the hustle and bustle of modern American society.

Nevertheless, this question (quoted above) is profoundly applicable to us today. Basically, the point is that if first century Christianity was so “organic” and ingrained in every part of life, why do we reduce modern Christianity to Sunday worship?

I have to answer this question by dealing with it in two different ways…[continue reading here]