Christianity 201

January 2, 2022

Doctrinal Humility

I have to confess I’ve not read John Stackhouse’s book Humble Apologetics, but I do resonate with the title. The publisher blurb in 2006 seemed to indicate that he was writing more about evangelistic, or conversion-focused discussions.

Stackhouse argues that the crucial experience of conversion cannot be compelled; all the apologist can do is lead another to the point where an actual encounter with Jesus can take place. Finally, he shows how displaying an attitude of humility, instead of merely trying to win religious arguments, will help believers offer their neighbors the gift of Christ’s love.

Sometimes the discussions we have are with fellow-Christians, a first-time confession of faith is not the focus, and the topics can become rather thorny.

Last week I stood in a light rain in a grocery store parking lot speaking with two people who had left their church when both the number and degree of differences became too much for them to bear. Much of it focused on a single issue, a second one contributed to it, and a third was mentioned in passing, though I know it’s high on their list of concerns.

The thing is, when it was all said and done, all I really took away from it was their cockiness; their arrogance. They were not at all impressed that the weight of church history is not on their side. Neither is the support of present-day churches in our community. You can only get to their position through misunderstanding the context of certain scriptural passages; through proof-texting; and through a belief that some poor translation work done in the past on key words outranks Biblical scholarship.

The Apostle Paul would be the first to admit that the waters are sometimes muddy. In the oft-quoted “Love Chapter” of his first letter to the church at Corinth he writes,

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.  (13:12 NLT)

Two chapters later, as he speaks of the resurrection of the church, he says something with great clarity, but it’s still, to him at least, part of the realm of what he calls mystery:

Listen, I am telling you a mystery: We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, (15:51 CSB)

At other times there is no doubt at all in his mind or the readers’ minds:

Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead. (Phil. 3:13 NLT)

In other words, he hadn’t mastered this in his own life, but there was absolute conviction about the spiritual destination in front of him.

If the phrase “one thing I do” sounds familiar, it’s a lot like, “one thing I know,” the phrase uttered by the man born blind after receiving sight. Referring first to their charges against Jesus,

He then answered, “Whether He is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  (John 9:25 NASB)

It was, quite literally, black and white; and today we use the blind man’s confession as a model for the conversion experience

I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see.

This type of certainty stands in contrast to “seeing through a glass darkly” (KJV) or “seeing things imperfectly” (NLT, as above). But here’s a truth

We don’t have to know and understand everything to know and understand the things that count.

Paul writing to the Philippians said,

I am convinced and confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will [continue to] perfect and complete it until the day of Christ Jesus [the time of His return]. (1:6 Amplified Bible)

Other translations use the word confident. Obviously, some things were not seen imperfectly to Paul. He could say some things with confidence.

There is a book by Peter Enns called The Sin of Certainty. Having followed Enns online for years and read several of his books, I have no doubt (ironic use of phrase here, don’t you think?) that he is certain when it comes to the deity of Christ and the fact of the resurrection.

Rather, the book was a response to what was a growing body of people who expressed their intransigence online; the type of people who will defend to the death some sacred pet doctrine on social media. Unintentionally — and I am being gracious here, perhaps it was intentional — they are modeling for new believers a stance where one must be absolutely certain of everything. That’s just not possible when you haven’t had time to work out your salvation and it forces people to simply parrot rote responses or take ownership of parts of a catechism not through life experiences, or Holy Spirit leading, but because of their ability to call up key words and phrases.

Eventually, this can lead to a spiritual arrogance. When reviewing Enns’ 2016 book, I wrote;

Peter Enns basically catalogs some of the various less-certain elements one might find in the sphere of Christianity, and rather than resolve all of these necessarily, creates a climate where the reader can say, ‘Oh yeah! That’s me! At last someone who gets it.’ Some of the book draws from his personal experiences of dealing with the doubt/certainty continuum, either internally or in his family or academic life.

There is however value in creeds. When we remind ourselves that Christ was

…conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried.

and that

He descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
and sits on the right hand of God the Father almighty…

Those times, we are discussing the things that are non-negotiable and these are things which the body of Christ around the world should agree.

But what if your faith is in that creed and not in the one to whom the creed points?

A book similar to The Sin of Certainty released three years earlier. About that one I wrote,

With… Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Baker Books), Gregory Boyd presents the thesis that far too many Christians — at least in North America and western Europe — are committed to a set of spiritual propositions more than they are committed to Christ; and that in fact the thing they worship and place their faith in are these ‘certainties,’ far more than they worship and have their faith secured in “Christ, and Him crucified.”

…While the book clearly intends to shatter the idol of theological over-confidence, its equal purpose is to give some peace and comfort to people who, although they are long on the journey with Jesus, still don’t feel they have all the details of the contract worked out. He is writing to those of us who perhaps know people for whom all doctrinal and theological matters are settled once and for all…

What is the ultimate expression of God’s position and power? What words does he say? What doctrine does he clear up for all time?

Nothing. Just as the orchestra builds to a crescendo we get this:

John 13:3-5Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him… … 12-14 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.

Utter, absolute humility.

Six months before reading the Boyd book I wrote,

…each one of us needs to be developing a personal, systematic theology so that we can respond when asked what we believe. We should know the ways of God; truly know what Jesus would do. But we should write our theology in pencil, not pen; remaining open to the possibility that what we see as through frosted glass will become clearer over time and therefore subject to change…

This devotional is messy because our attempts to do theology are often messy. There is a balance between the things on which we can place our trust — think of the hymn “Standing on the Promises” if that helps — and the things which we will never see with perfect clarity.

To the person in the parking lot last week, I would say, “You lack a humble apologetic, and that may be your spiritual downfall.”


“…it is a mark of imbecility of mind, rather than of strength; of folly, rather than of wisdom; for any one to dogmatize with an air of infallibility, or to assume the attitude of perfect intelligence on any one subject of human thought, without an intimate knowledge of the whole universe...”

– Alexander Campbell in The Christian System

 

 

 

December 29, 2021

Persons Claiming They Don’t Have Need for Bible Teaching

This is our fifth full-length post from Bill Muehlenberg at the website Culture Watch and it’s only the first part of a longer article. You’ll need to click through to continue reading some of the reactions he had when he posted this. It’s a very timely topic right now, especially as people have used Covid-19 as an excuse to sever themselves from local churches. Click the header which follows.

Difficult Bible Passages: 1 John 2:27

This is another passage that is so often abused and misused. That is the main reason it can be so difficult or problematic. A subtitle to this article might be: “This Is How Cults Arise”. That is because those who mangle this verse are prime candidates for the cults or may well already be in one.

The verse says this:

“As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.”

This verse, and John 14:16-17, 26 and John 16:13, are so often wrongly appropriated by some believers. The texts in John’s gospel are a bit different: they refer to the fact that Jesus will soon be leaving his disciples, and he wants to assure them that he is not abandoning them, but he is leaving the Holy Spirit with them to assist and guide them.

These verses are often used by those who claim that they have no need of “human” anything: human learning, human teaching, human counsel, human books, human study, etc. They imply that they have a direct pipeline to God, so are totally self-sufficient in and of themselves. They have no need of anyone else.

I just wrote about these “Holy Spirit-only” believers. At the end of the day what we have are not super-spiritual believers, but usually arrogant and fleshly Christians: billmuehlenberg.com/2019/01/26/holy-spirit-only-christians/

In a moment I will give a concrete example of this sort of twisted thinking. But first, how might we answer this? It is quite easy actually. If we simply run with the two most basic rules of biblical interpretation, we will have no problems here at all:
1) study every text in its context
2) compare scripture with scripture

As to the first, the context shows that John is dealing with some heretical, Gnostic, and/or secessionist teachers who were claiming special spiritual insights and revelations. It is THOSE sorts of false teachers that these Christians have no need of, and need to avoid.

Concerning the second, it is clear from numerous biblical passages that we DO need teachers, counsellors, advisors, overseers, etc. – all of them “mere” humans. The New Testament everywhere speaks of how God has given teachers and others to the Body of Christ to help it grow and develop.

Simply based on all these other texts, there is absolutely NO way anyone could believe that John is saying we should not have teachers. Indeed, the letters of John are ALL ABOUT teaching, instruction and helpful information to believers. Throughout the New Testament human teaching – properly understood – is NOT being downplayed, but extolled and encouraged.

I realize that these hyper-spiritual types especially dislike things like biblical commentaries, but let me quote from just a few of them anyway. While they may despise and look down upon these godly biblical teachers, I am happy to run with their Spirit-directed wisdom and insights.

One of these great Spirit-endowed men of God was John Stott. He said this about the passage in his commentary:

True, in the last resort the Holy Spirit is our absolutely adequate Teacher, and we maintain our right of private judgment by His illumination of the Word of God. But we must see this verse in the context of an Epistle in which John is, in fact, teaching those who, he says, have no need of human teachers! And other passages of the New Testament refer not only to the general ministry of teaching in the Church (e.g. Acts 4:18, 5:28, 42; 2 Tim. 2:24) but also to specially gifted ‘teachers’ (1 Cor. 12:29; Eph 4:11).

Obviously John’s epistles are full of teaching and instruction. As James Montgomery Boice puts it:

When John says that the Christians of his day “do not need anyone to teach” them, the statement must be understood in its context. It does not mean, for instance, that there is no value at all in teaching or that there is no such thing as a teaching ministry in the church. In fact, as Bruce observes, “What is John himself doing in this letter if he is not ‘teaching’ his readers?

Or as Marianne Meye Thompson comments:

While ultimately the Spirit “will teach you all things” (Jn 14:26), the Spirit does so through human beings. Thus, when the Elder writes you do not need anyone to teach you, he does not mean that they have never needed any teachers—for he himself was and continues to be their teacher! But they do not now suddenly need new teaching about Jesus, such as the secessionists are offering.

Let me now turn to some recent remarks that came my way on all this…

[…continue reading here]

November 24, 2021

How Did They Miss That Sermon Reference?

The Voice – II Cor. 3:18 Now all of us, with our faces unveiled, reflect the glory of the Lord as if we are mirrors; and so we are being transformed, metamorphosed, into His same image from one radiance of glory to another, just as the Spirit of the Lord accomplishes it.

The Amplified Bible – II Cor. 3:18 And all of us, as with unveiled face, [because we] continued to behold [in the Word of God] as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are constantly being transfigured into His very own image in ever increasing splendor and from one degree of glory to another; [for this comes] from the Lord [Who is] the Spirit.

With the pandemic, it’s been awhile since some readers here have been physically present in a worship service, but for a moment, imagine you there and the pastor is preaching and after awhile it occurs to you that the whole sermon seems to be directed at one particular person’s situation. It’s almost embarrassing. It’s like everyone knows the minister is referring to Derek or Sylvia or Maggie or Justin, so why doesn’t he just go all the way and use their names?

But then, imagine that mysteriously, you’re drawn into a long conversation with Derek or Sylvia or Maggie or Justin a few weeks later, and you get the distinct impression that the sermon hasn’t changed a thing in their life; that whatever it was that made it so blatant to you and everyone else that it was about them, seems to have misfired or otherwise not taken root.

I suppose there could be a number of possibilities here, of which four are:

  • They were tuned out for most of the sermon; not paying attention
  • The pastor’s remarks registered, but they assumed it applied to someone else, never considering it might be them to whom the sermon was most directly speaking
  • The application and needed next steps registered, but were eventually dismissed or forgotten
  • The cost of change or the price of obedience was simply too high

The Bible tells us we’re not simply to be hearers of the word, but doers of the word; but sometimes we mess up the hearing part which cancels out the rest.

James 1:22-24 (The Message) Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.

For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think… Romans 12: 3a NASB

Imagine not knowing what you look like.

People do this everyday however. The middle aged man steps into his souped up sports car, turns the music on the sound system up high, and believes he is still 18. He starts flirting with his assistant at work and with the receptionist at the dentist’s office, and forgets he’s graying; that he has a wife and kids.

He needs a mirror.

The woman who goes out to lunch to with four friends and then spontaneously offers to pick the tab for everyone’s meal before they embark on an afternoon of shopping, slapping down the credit card at store after store, forgetting that the bank has already canceled her other credit card because of too many missed payments, and her income prospects for the foreseeable future are rather dim.

She needs a mirror.

We all need a mirror. An accurate one. One that doesn’t distort the truth. The clearest, most focused mirror is God’s word. It shows us what right living looks like. It tells us where we’ve messed up. What we can do to get back on track. What it will take for us to stay on track. You can read more about this four-fold purpose of scripture by clicking here.

…Sometimes however, the sermon is about you. It’s like there’s no one else there. Imagine the same scenario, but it’s more like a bad dream. The pastor preaches a similar sermon, but everyone turns around stares directly at you.

But weeks later your life is unchanged. That would be a bigger nightmare.

What would your excuse be?


Want to further wrestle with the issue of how we see ourselves vs. how we really are? Consider the book by Brant Hansen, The Truth About Us. Here’s a link to a review of the book.

November 2, 2021

Why Four Versions of the Sign above the Cross?

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:30 pm
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I’m sitting at my computer getting ready to type a review of the latest book by J. Warner Wallace, titled Person of Interest, and I decided to look back previous reviews of his book I’d written at Thinking Out Loud. There, I found a book excerpt which really should have appeared here at C201, not there. If anything has that extra “201” bite to it, it’s this type of topic. So from 2015, here’s some of his writing to chew on from the book Cold Case Christianity. The link below will take you there directly where other resources await.

Why Are There Four Versions of the Sign on Jesus’ Cross?

It’s not uncommon for skeptics of Christianity to point to differences between the New Testament Gospel accounts as evidence of corruption or unreliability. I’ve discussed many of these alleged contradictions in my talks around the country, and I’ve written about many of them at ColdCaseChristianity.com. One example sometimes offered by critics is the sign posted above the cross of Jesus. The simple, brief message of this sign is recorded by all four Gospel authors, yet none of them record precisely the same words. How could these four men fail to record the same sign, given the importance of the moment and the brevity of the message? Look at the variations offered by the Gospel authors:

“This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37)
“The King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26)
“This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38)
“Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19)

In evaluating alleged “contradictions” of this nature, I think it’s important to remember a few overarching principles related to eyewitness testimony (I describe many of these principles in my first book, Cold-Case Christianity). Even though I accept and affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, inerrancy is not required of reliable eyewitnesses. In fact, I’ve never had a completely inerrant eyewitness in all my years as a homicide detective. In addition, I’ve never had a case where two witnesses have ever agreed completely on the details of the crime. Eyewitness reliability isn’t dependent upon perfection, but is instead established on the basis of a four part template I’ve described repeatedly in my book and on my website. But beyond these generalities, much can be said specifically about the variations between descriptions of the sign over Jesus’ cross. I take the following approach when evaluating multiple eyewitness accounts, and the same methodology can be used to evaluate these signs:

Identify the Common Details
When interviewing multiple eyewitnesses, I listen carefully for common features in their testimony. In every witness observation, some details are more important than others; some aspects of the event stick out in the mind of the observers more than others. In this case, one expression is repeated by all four authors: “the King of the Jews”. Why does this one aspect of the sign appear repeatedly without variation? These words describe the crime for which Jesus was executed. Jesus was crucified because He proclaimed Himself a King; He was executed for His alleged rebellion against Caesar. This is consistent with the trial accounts we have in the Gospels and also accurately reflects the actions taken by the Roman government against other popular rebels. While we, as Christians, now understand God’s plan related to the death and resurrection of Jesus, the authors of the Gospels are simply recording the one most prominent feature of the sign: the description of Jesus’ crime.

Recognize the Perspective of Each Eyewitness
Every witness offers a view of the event from his or her unique perspective. I’m not just talking about geographic or locational perspectives here, but I am also talking about the personal worldview, history and experience every witness brings to the crime. All witness testimony is colored by the personal interests, biases, aspirations, concerns and idiosyncrasies of the eyewitnesses. In this particular case, an important clue was recorded by John to help us understand why there might be variation between the accounts. John said, “Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.” The sign was written in a variety of languages and we simply don’t know how much variation occurred between these translations. The perspective and life experience of each author now comes into play. Which translation was the author referencing? Even more importantly, what were the concerns of the author related to the event? Some witnesses are more likely to repeat a victim’s name than others (if, for example, they knew the victim personally). Others will focus on something about which the witness had firsthand knowledge. I’ve seen an incredible amount of variation between reliable accounts on the basis of nothing more than personal perspective.

Consider the Conditions of the “Interview”
In working cold cases over the years, I’ve read my fair share of investigative supplemental reports containing eyewitness accounts. I’ve come to recognize the role interviewers have on the accounts given by eyewitnesses. Years later, when re-interviewing these same eyewitnesses, I’ve uncovered additional information simply because I asked questions neglected by the first interviewer. When evaluating an account from the past, it’s important to recognize the location, form and purpose of the interview. This will have a direct impact on the resulting account. Something similar must be considered when evaluating the description of the sign on Jesus’ cross. We simply don’t know precisely the purpose of each author or the conditions under which each author wrote his Gospel. Why, for example, is Mark’s version of the sign so brief? Why, for that matter, is Mark’s entire Gospel so brief? Was there something about Mark’s personality accounting for his brevity (there does seem to be some evidence of this given the short, emotionally charged nature of his account), or was something even simpler involved (like a shortage of papyrus)? We’ll never know for sure, but we simply cannot assume each author was writing under the exact same conditions. No two witnesses are interviewed in precisely the same way.

Differentiate Between Complimentary and Conflicting Accounts
When comparing two eyewitness accounts, I am more concerned about unresolvable contradictions than complimentary details. In fact, I have come to expect some degree of resolvable variation in true, reliable eyewitness accounts. While there are clearly variations between the sign descriptions in the Gospels, these dissimilarities don’t amount to a true contradiction. Consider the following reasonable message on the sign:

“This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”

If this was the message of the sign, all four Gospel accounts have captured a complimentary, reliable summation of the sign, even though there is some expected variation between accounts. None of these accounts contain an unresolvable, troublesome claim like:

“This is Judas Iscariot, the King of the Jews”

If one of the accounts contained this information, we would truly have a conflict worthy of our attention. There’s a difference between complimentary variation and conflicting description.

Assess the Opportunity for Collusion
Whenever I am called to a crime scene as a detective, the first request I make of the dispatcher is to separate the eyewitnesses before I get there. I request this so the witnesses won’t have the opportunity to talk to one another about what they’ve seen. Witnesses will sometimes try to resolve any variations before I get there. I don’t want them to do this; that’s my job, not theirs. Instead, I want the messy, sometimes confusing, apparently contradictory accounts offered by every group of witnesses in such a situation. There have been times, however, when witnesses have the opportunity to consult with one another for several hours before I arrive on scene. When this is the case, and their individual accounts still vary from one another, I usually have even more confidence in the reliability of these accounts. When people have the opportunity to align their statements, yet still refuse to do so, I know I am getting the nuanced observations I need to properly investigate the case. The Gospel authors (and the early Church) certainly had the opportunity to change the descriptions to make sure they matched, but they refused to do so. As a result, we can have even more confidence in the reliability of these accounts. They display the level of variation I would expect to see if they were true, reliable eyewitness descriptions.

The Gospels are appropriately varied and nuanced, just like all multiple eyewitness accounts. The variations between the sign descriptions is further evidence of this expected variation. Click To Tweet

If the four authors of the Gospels had written precisely the same words throughout their Gospel accounts, skeptics would be no more confident in their content. In fact, I suspect, critics of the New Testament would be even more vocal in their opposition. The Gospels are appropriately varied and nuanced, just like all multiple eyewitness accounts. The variations between the sign descriptions is further evidence of this expected variation. This level of dissimilarity should give us confidence in the accounts, rather than pause. Why are there four versions of the sign on Jesus’ cross? Because the accounts are written on the basis of eyewitness observations. They demonstrate the characteristics we would expect if they are reliable descriptions of a true event in history.


J. WARNER WALLACE is a Dateline-featured cold-case homicide detective, popular national speaker, and bestselling author. His is a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and Adjunct Professor of Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology (Biola University). Relying on over two decades of investigative experience, Wallace provides the tools needed to investigate the claims of Christianity and make a convincing case for the truth of the Christian worldview. His latest book (2021) is Person of Interest.

Read my review of Person of Interest at this link.

October 16, 2021

Rescued from a Life Apart from God to a Life With God

Eleven years ago, in 2010, many of us were glued to a live CNN feed from Copiapo, Chile; watching the rescue of the 33 miners who had been trapped underground for 69 days. That got me thinking at the time about what it means to be rescued.

In Psalm 18:17 we read:

He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.

In II Tim 3 10-11 Paul tells Timothy,

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.

And Paul again, speaking in a broader sense in Col. 1:13-14 writes;

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

The experience of the Chilean miners is similar to our own experience.  Maybe you became a Christ follower at a young age and didn’t experience much in the way of sin and depravity, but positionally, all of us were once captive and now we are numbered among the rescued. We’ve been set free!

But do we truly appreciate it? Instead of focusing on what you were saved out of, think of what you were saved from.  Think of what might have been — the things you were kept from and even today are kept from — were it not for the Holy Spirit working on and working in your life.

Let’s think about someone who knew exactly what she’d been saved out of. Consider this passage from Luke 7 — especially the climax of verse 47 — in the light of the personal rescue that has taken place just for you…

36Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, 38and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

39When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

40Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.

41“Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

43Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

44Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

While I believe we have a picture here of a woman who has been transformed, or at the very least is in the process of transformation. But note that her reputation has continued to follow her. It would take time (and an endorsement from the Teacher from Nazareth) before that reputation would start to change.

Additionally, the rest of the people there had every reason to be thankful as well because, by the grace of God, they had not succumbed to a life that would bring societal and community condemnation.

But wait, there’s more!

The dichotomy of what we’ve been saved from versus that what we’ve been saved out of, pales in comparison to what we’ve been saved to.

By this I mean that instead of letting sin set the standard, and focusing on whether we came from a dark background or if we dodged the proverbial bullet (and letting that identify us), we should instead focus on the idea that we’ve been saved to a life in Christ, which includes 24-hour access to his presence.

We’re no longer looking back, but we’re enjoying the present and looking forward to the future.

The Chilean miners lived each successive day in the blessing of having been rescued, but I’m sure that this doesn’t define their lives today, eleven years later. Rather they are living in the present and looking forward to the future, and for them, I hope this also includes the life in Christ we’ve discussed.

 

October 5, 2021

Fearing and Trembling

Over the past year, in the wake of differing opinions on everything from health issues to politics, I have seen a great proliferation of new books being published on how Christians should work out their differences with other believers.

It’s hard to do this, because the answers are not always black-and-white; not always crystal-clear. Two people can have different answers to the WWJD? question. (We’ll get to that in a minute!)

1 Corinthians 13:12 (NLT) states,

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.

Philippians 2:12 advises us to “work out” our salvation “with fear and trembling.” As other translations make clearer, this references what was translated elsewhere as “fear of God.”

Dear friends, you always followed my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. (NLT)

…Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. (MSG)

But sometimes, you find yourself fearing and trembling your fellow believer, especially when the “working out” means that you walk away from certain scripture verses with a different take on them than that of a brother or sister. I know fear of your fellow man wasn’t what the verse intended; but sometimes life seems to be play out like that.

In the early days of my other blog, I would spend over an hour some days catching up with moderating and reading and responding to reader comments. With a few of them, I would reach a point where we clearly agreed to disagree. But hopefully neither of us were being disagreeable.

It’s hard not to be passionate about our pet doctrines. I can easily fall into that trap. But it becomes even more difficult when people have grown up without exposure to anyone who feels different about a particular element of theology than their own.

And then there are the people who shut everything down with, “Well, that’s not in the Bible;” expecting that the scripture would provide crystal-clear guidance on things that weren’t invented or didn’t exist back then.

Guess what? You’re right. It’s not in the Bible. But other things are, and we can interpolate where the dots connect by reading what the Bible does say about very similar things.

Especially one thing: The mind and heart of God.

The popular bracelets, buttons and bumper stickers from two years ago asked the question, What would Jesus do? Sometimes we have to (with fear and trembling) figure that out by asking the question, What did Jesus do? Knowing how he did respond (and teach us to respond) gives us an idea how he would respond to what we face today.

We’re so quick to say that “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship;” but many people fail to express their faith in relational terms. To which I would say maybe you are missing out on something. To know what God feels about things in our modern context, you need to first know God as a friend. I have friends who I haven’t seen physically in a long, long time; others who I haven’t so much as e-mailed; but I know how they would respond and react in certain situations because I know them.

At this point however, it can still be a standoff, because the other person may feel they have as deep a knowledge of God and His will as you do. We know that while we may all stand in personal relationship to God; or if you prefer, to Jesus; the dynamic of that relationship may be quite different for different people.

So work out your doctrine with fear and trembling.

Work out your personal ethics with fear and trembling.

Work out your systematic theology with fear and trembling.

Work out how you respond to others with fear and trembling.

But remember, that all around you are other Christ followers — seeing as through frosted (or fogged up) glass — who are doing the exact same thing. With the cross of Christ in view, we will eventually find ourselves drawing closer to each other. But it may take time.

Our closing words are from the next chapter of Philippians. Here’s what Paul says in 3:12-14 (NLT)

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.


So should we just clam up and say nothing ever? Tomorrow we’ll look at the idea of “preaching to the trees;” affirming our faith in declarations even when it seems nobody is listening.

September 29, 2021

Letters to the Seven (or more) Churches in Revelation

This is a revisit to an article that was posted here eleven years ago. It’s been rewritten for clarity. It also features a graphic image at the bottom. When I tested the link, I discovered that the original site is no longer available, so I can’t give proper credit. Make sure you spend as much time looking over the chart as you do reading what follows…

(NIV) Rev. 1:9 I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, 11 which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”

12 I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

19 “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. 20 The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

Seven letters to seven different churches that existed when John received the vision, right?

Zoom out a little. There were a dozen or so well-established churches at the time. Could it be that the choice of “seven” means that these letters have application to the whole church? That the letters, like the rest of scripture, are not written to us but are definitely written for us?

Zoom back in. Some people teach that the seven churches represent different ages of the larger church over different eras. That this is a historical overview of church history. Perhaps. But there may be something more immediate for us to consider.

Zoom in again. Churches like the seven so-described exist today. If you’ve been around different denominations, or have attended a variety of churches, you might be able to put different names next to each letter.

Zoom in more. Even within an individual church, there are often different sub-groups to whom these different letters might apply. Or maybe they represent different stages in the history of that local church over time.

Zoom in tighter. We shouldn’t get caught up in the idea that the letters are a message that someone else needs to hear. That it’s for the church in the Middle Ages. That the message applies to the church down the block. Rather these letters contain a message that’s for me. These letters have application to each one of us. Maybe the message to the church at Laodicia is pertinent to you right now. Or maybe you’re at a Sardis or Ephesus point in your Christian life.

Zoom in!

…Here’s a bonus for you today…

If you didn’t grow up in church before the 1960s, here’s an example of the kind of visual presentation you missed out on when the letters were taught!

We considered the seven letters elsewhere at C201. Here’s a link to Seven Letters: Seven Problem Churches (It’s a short article and uses the same scripture reference, so you’re already halfway through!)


If you’re reading this at the site and not as an email, there’s a formatting problem (depending on what browser you’re using and the size of your monitor) with the last ten or so articles that normally I can fix, but this time it’s not fixing. Thanks for your patience. If you wish the text of a particular article emailed to you, use the submissions and contact tab to request.

September 24, 2021

New Testament Authors Had Different Approaches

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:34 pm
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It’s been five years since we last highlighted the writing of author and college president John Mark Reynolds who appears at Eidos, a Patheos blog. Click the title below to read at source, and then browse the site to see other things he’s written.

Peter and Paul and Difficult Questions

Paul and Peter are often portrayed together: two apostles with contrasting, but not conflicting messages. They were very different, a rabbi and a fisherman. Peter became the Prince of the Apostles, the first amongst apostolic equals. Paul wrote epistles that remain some of the most profound expressions of Christian truth ever written.

The powerful did not want to hear what they were saying. The Empire beheaded Paul and crucified Peter. Before martyrdom, both could see the way things seemed to be going and so both faced mental difficulties: how could Jesus be Lord, but Caesar seem to have all the power? Where was the promise of His coming?

Peter and Paul thought, prayed, and lived within the new Kingdom. They did so the best they could, but both came to see the limits of what they could know.

Despite limits, think we must. 

Life can get tedious. The world is not as the world should be, broken by sin, and so can be hard to understand. In fact, there are, most probably, problems that we will never solve to our own satisfaction. The answers may be beyond the capacity of the human intellect!

We have to accept a reasonable uncertainty, the just live by faith. We have faith seeking understanding continuously. 

The Christian does not have the option of not thinking, of doing the best reasoning possible. The Second Person of the Divine Trinity is called the Logos, the Word, a term strongly related to thinking well in New Testament times. The Bible calls us to study, to love God with our minds, and God allows Job to make his case. If the case fails, that is not God’s fault and God condemns those false friends who would stop Job from pressing his case.

Our reason has limits, but reason we must. Peter and Paul kept the faith and kept seeking understanding. Their contrasting comments on the process give me hope.

Peter and Paul 

Peter had three years with Jesus: a profound experience. We cannot be sure if he was fully literate. Nothing about his job or life would have required much formal education. Paul had, and often displayed, at least some classical and a first-rate Jewish education. He too had a profound experience of the Risen Lord, but not as Peter had. Peter saw Jesus eat and drink. He heard him teach and saw the miracles himself. Peter went to the empty tomb and ate breakfast made by the Risen Lord. Paul was confronted by the ascended Christ in a vision. He experienced healing and heard the testimony of those who had known the Lord. To a great extent, Paul knew Jesus as the rest of us after the first generation of Christian have known Jesus- through the witness of the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures, and the testimony of witnesses.

Peter comments on Paul’s writings:

14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.

Peter accepts Paul’s wisdom, but also points to the dangers of difficult answers. There is almost nothing so simple people cannot misunderstand it. Look at what has been done with Christ’s command to love enemies! Wrestling with the deeper things of God  provides room for twisting words. Despite this, Peter commends Paul’s writings to the attention of his readers!

Peter could not write like Paul or perhaps think as Paul thought, but he valued the wisdom given him.

Intellectual types might stop there, feeling smug, but Paul stands in the icon with Peter. While Peter, who was no intellectual, merely a saint, affirms the value of intellectually difficult writing. Saint Paul, who was one of history’s great intellectuals, looked at the limits of credentials and reason:

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

People do the best we can, but we often confuse credentials with real wisdom. We become “scribes” in the system of our own age and opine. Our opinions can prevail when all there are only words, but then reality comes. There is no negotiating, no debating, reality. Jesus comes, is crucified, and raised from the dead. He is the power and the wisdom of God and against that reality, the one true Word, Greek words failed.

We keep thinking, reality keeps making us modify what we think. Our words must fail, but the Word endures. This gives us a heavy dose of intellectual humility. Intellectual humility was the beginning of science, philosophy, and true theology.

This much endures:  Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and the gospel that Paul preached. They endure because however we might try to deface that hard won realization and profound teaching, their works were icons to Christ and Christ is immortal truth.

September 3, 2021

What I Love About the Bible Despite My Misgivings About It

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:30 pm
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by Clarke Dixon

How could I, a Baptist pastor, possibly have misgivings about the Bible?

For one thing, the Bible has often been used to abuse. The movie, “The Book of Eli,” sets out a post-apocalyptic future where there is only one copy of the Bible. The main villain of the story knows that if he can get his hands on that one copy of the Bible, he will have incredible power over others. Throughout history many villains and nice people alike have used the Bible to have power over others, sometimes with terrible results.

Second, The Bible is terribly complex, convoluted, and leaves itself open to being misunderstood by everyone, including me. Such misunderstandings have often been divisive, and sometimes deadly.

So what do I love about the Bible despite my misgivings?

I love the genuine nature of the Bible

Let me take you back to my experience of preparing a study on the Book of Philemon when I was a student. Yes, we call Paul’s writings “letters,” or sometimes “epistles,” which sounds more religious, though it isn’t. But in preparing a study on Paul’s letter to Philemon I came to realize that this really is a letter. This did not sound like a letter from God to us, but from one person to another, about another person. The letter concerned a very real situation. In fact it seemed to me to be a very real situation that had nothing to do with me!

The Book of Philemon is not God saying to everyone “here are some rules to live by,” but rather Paul saying to Philemon, and I summarize, “since Jesus is Lord and Saviour, there are implications on how you are going to treat your runaway slave Onesimus, namely with forgiveness and treating him like a brother, not a slave.” What we have is an example of the good news of Jesus being worked out in a real life situation. And that has everything to do with me.

All the letters of the New Testament are like that. They speak to real situations. Through them we learn how to work the Gospel out in our lives. In fact all the writings that make up the Bible are very much tied to real world situations. Being rooted in real events, they are the record of real people responding to a real God in a very real relationship between God and humanity.

Let us consider these verses from Acts:

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

Acts 1:1-3 (NRSV)

Notice what the writer of Acts does not say. He does not say “God told me to tell everyone this.” Rather, “these things happened, and so I’m telling you about it, Theophilus.” We can thank God for some guy named Theophilos, because though the writer wrote for his sake and learning, we get the benefit!

These are very real events the writer wants to share with Theophilus. While there are metaphors, and poetic devices in Scripture, the Book of Acts tends to not be very poetic. These things happened!

All the writings of the Bible are rooted in things that happened in history. These historical events point to the relationship of God with humanity. The New Testament especially, is rooted in who Jesus is and what Jesus did and said, and what happened including his death and resurrection. In Jesus we find the greatest self-disclosure of God. The Bible is not the greatest self-disclosure of God. Jesus is. In the Bible we have very real people responding to very real glimpses of God. Jesus is the greatest glimpse God has ever given of Himself.

We don’t want to just know the Bible, we want to know God, and we do that supremely through Jesus, whom we meet through the Bible.

I love the complexity of the Bible

Because the Bible is the record of a very real relationship between God and humanity, it is complex, and rich, with many genres, written by many different people in many different circumstances. The complex and convoluted nature of the Bible might be something we do not like about the Bible, however, it is actually something to love!

While some people come to the Bible expecting a simple rule book, we find so much more, including things like;

  • Frustration when God seem so distant, or not concerned – many of the Psalms.
  • The angst of trying to figure out the meaning of life – Ecclesiastes.
  • Questions around suffering – Job.
  • The beauty of romantic and sexual love – Song of Songs.
  • Questioning the fairness of God – Jonah (we should note that the Book of Jonah is not really about Jonah’s obedience, or lack thereof, but the reason for his disobedience; namely, his perception that God’s love of the enemy is unfair).
  • The historical event of God being with us, in Jesus – the Gospels.
  • The working out of “what does it look like to be a follower of Jesus in our day?” – the letters of the New Testament.
  • Encouragement for when we face persecution – Revelation (many interpretations of Revelation miss the point)

With the Bible we don’t have a simple rule book, but wisdom, wrestling, waiting, wanting, and the record of God with us.

While the Bible does not give easy answers, or give answers easily, I love that it leads to great questions.

There are easy answers found in the Bible. Is it okay if I murder someone? No! But it does not always give easy answers. Instead it invites us to wrestle with questions.

Consider, is it okay to kill someone? Killing someone can be different than murder, in self-defense, for example. Christians are divided on the answer to that. Those of the Anabaptist tradition point to the radical love of Jesus in responding to violence with peace and non-retaliation, this being the Kingdom-of-Jesus way. We Baptists tend to focus on the expression of love for those we want to protect from violence, which sometimes may require violence. The point is, there is no easy answer on this, people have read the same Bible and come to different conclusions on it. But wrestling with the question is a great thing to do and deepens us, no matter what answer we may come up with.

I have heard people describe the Bible as an answer book, with the answers to every question you might possibly have about anything and everything. I simply have not found that to be true. But I have always found that it leads to great questions. Great questions lead us to greater depth. Sometimes it is better is better to be deep than correct.

The Bible does provide the answers to the most important questions we could ever ask, like; Who is Jesus? Who is God? What does Jesus have to do with God? And with us? We are reminded of those important questions, and the answers when we participate in the Lord’s Supper. There is a place for deep conviction and for sharing answers. There is a place for for deep humility and living with questions. We do well to figure out which is best where.

While the Bible did not fall from the sky, I love that the Bible is God-breathed.

This is something that cannot be said of other writings:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV)

We should not think of the Bible as being God dictated. The fingerprints of human authors are all over it, human authors who faced very human situations, just like we do. While the fingerprints of human authors are all over the Bible, the heart of God is in it. The writings which are collected into the Bible are what God has seen fit so that we can know Him.

Conclusion

If people are looking for a simple book dropped from heaven that explains everything and gives us simple rules to live by, we will be hard pressed getting people to love the Bible, especially if they actually read it.

But if people are looking for authenticity, for genuine writings by real people experiencing real problems, in real situations, in relationship with a real God, as really experienced in the real person of Jesus Christ, then we can be hopeful, for I know I will not be the only one who loves the Bible!

August 11, 2021

Do Bible Principles Need to be Stated Twice to Matter?

It began with a conversation I had four years ago at the local Christian bookstore concerning Bible features. As the guy was looking at one in particular, he said, “Oh good, it’s got the precepts.”

The first time, it didn’t really register. Then he looked at another and said something like, “Does it have the precepts?”

Huh?

It turned out he was talking about what most of us would call cross references; the notations of other passages either in a center column, the bottom of the page, or at the end of the verse itself where something related may be found.

The idea of ‘line upon line, precept upon precept’ is taken from Isaiah 28:, 9-10 in the KJV. The NASB expresses it as:

To whom would He teach knowledge, And to whom would He interpret the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just taken from the breast?  “For He says, ‘Order on order, order on order, Line on line, line on line, A little here, a little there.’”

The NLT is really contradictory to this idea on its rendering of this:

He tells us everything over and over–one line at a time, one line at a time, a little here, and a little there!”

implying that the learning or teaching or knowledge is linear, but not necessarily cumulative. In other words, one line at a time, doesn’t mean that line B is necessarily building on line A, but to say upon is to imply that it is or does.

(In case you’re wondering if there’s any irony to be found, you’re wrong; the verse itself is reiterated in scripture, albeit 3 verses later in verse 13.)

As we discussed this the idea of “Out of the mouth of two [or three] witnesses was brought into the conversation. This is found in the Old Testament twice.

The one condemned to die is to be executed on the testimony of two or three witnesses. No one is to be executed on the testimony of a single witness. (Deuteronomy 17:6, HCSB)

A solitary witness against someone in any crime, wrongdoing, or in any sort of misdeed that might be done is not sufficient. The decision must stand by two or three witnesses. (Deuteronomy 19:15, CEB)

Those OT passages are cited in the NT by Jesus and by Paul.

But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. (Matthew 18:16, NIV)

This is the third time I am coming to you. Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  (2 Corinthians 13:1, ESV)

In the Corinthian example, you have to go back to the previous chapter to get the context. Paul is speaking about sorting out matters concerning people who have been found in sinful practices.

Capital crime. Wrongdoing. Sin. Denial of Sin. Nowhere do these passages suggest something related to “the establishing of doctrine.” But don’t get me wrong:

I believe the Bible always corroborates itself on matters of important doctrine.

In other words, it’s internally consistent. I’m just not sure that we need to force it [scripture] into a situation where everything has to be said twice or three times in order to establish a doctrinal pattern, or make it conform to an overarching systematic theology. Or, to come at it differently, it may reinforce something but in an entirely different way than our Western way of thinking can process too simply.

I think to do so is to doubt the value of what we read the first time. It’s saying to God, ‘Now, if you’ll just show me one more time where you say this, then I’ll obey.’ I think that undermines the text somehow. That doesn’t mean to imply that at a crossroads of life we don’t ask God for confirmation of what we are to do. There is the example of Gideon, who put out a second fleece.

So what are precepts? Yourdictionary.com says

precept pre·cept. … The definition of a precept is a guiding principle or rule that is used to control, influence or regulate conduct. An example of a precept is a commandment found in the Ten Commandments.

At that we would need to get into the differences between a rule and a principle. Principles are timeless, never location-specific, widely applicable. Rules apply to one group of people in one particular situation at one unique point in time. The rest of that we need to save for another day.

A cross-reference is simply:

•noun: cross reference; plural noun: cross references
–a reference to another text or part of a text, typically given in order to elaborate on a point.

Anyone who has been reading the Bible for any length of time knows that sometimes the Bible editors have chosen to take us to a reference to a rather obscure part of the verse, not something which indicates its overall meaning. There are times when I have been completely mystified as to the inclusion of a particular reference. Many of you know the danger of over-spiritualizing things, and I don’t want to be guilty of under-spiritualizing something, but… They’re. Just. Cross-references.

And at risk of stating the obvious, there’s 2 Timothy 3:16, which reminds us that all scripture is inspired. (Italics added; four expressions of this verse may be found at this link.)

Here’s my concluding statements on this:

We read scripture not so much because we’re trying to learn precepts as we are recognizing the importance of understanding the ways of God.

and

If God is saying something to us with unmistakable clarity through a scripture passage, we don’t need to start hunting around looking for a second verse.

May 18, 2021

Watch Out for Misplaced Bible Verses!

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:34 pm
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Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. 2 Tim. 2:15 NIV

And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth. – Acts 17:11 NLT

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness – 2 Tim. 3:16 ESV

A year ago we introduced you to Lily Pierce and her blog Retrospective Lily and mentioned that she is a great writer despite a physical challenge. This time around she shares a warning about people who quote scripture verses in contexts which would horrify the original writers, and adds a principle that I heard growing up, namely that you need to look for other passages which corroborate the one in question.

Click the line which follows to link to this at her site.

The Bible Can Justify Anything, So Weigh Scripture Against Scripture

You read that title right! So, how can we discern the heart and will of God–if His Word can be twisted to fit any narrative? Well, I won’t pretend for a moment to have all the answers–as if all the answers could be had. But looking at scripture as a whole is a good suggestion.

People have gotten upset in the past when I’ve spoken against fixating on one tree within a whole forest. I think some Christians are so wary of “progressivism” that their blasphemy radar is waaay too sensitive. Viewing scripture holistically is the only sensible way to approach the Bible. The alternative is pulling verses out of context and building a doctrine out of them.

In the book Oliver Twist, the orphanage director, who serves as the parish beadle, is a mean, selfish man. When he meets nine-year-old Oliver, he gives him a cold, stern lecture (because why be kind to a CHILD WHO IS ALONE IN THE WORLD, right?) and quotes 1 Cor 13:11: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. Hey, man, ever read the one where Jesus says that we should become humble like children? Or the one where Jesus insists His disciples let the children come to Him? Guess not.

This fictional example reflects the contradictions that lie within so many Christians who are condescending, rude, and unempathetic–in the name of Jesus. Pride and righteous indignation reign even more supremely than God in many of our hearts. Have we forgotten that Jesus said the first would be last? Or how Paul wrote that none of us have cause to boast because we are only saved by faith, not our own works? Or, like, the other countless ways we are told in the Bible that arrogance is condemned? I think the man who went out to eat after church that’s screaming at a waitress because the chef messed up his order missed the memo. The town gossip who happens to hold several “power positions” on church committees just doesn’t get it. [SN: I’ve literally heard the term “power positions” used in reference to church committees. Hmm…ever heard of “servant leadership?”]

In a totally different instance, I once wrote a post in which I said that followers of Jesus should be active in helping their neighbors. A reader pointed out the sentence fragment of 1 Thess 4:11 (and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you) as a way to negate what I’d said. I replied that, perhaps in that particular scenario, the Thessalonians–Christians in Greece–needed to keep a low profile to avoid persecution (confirmed by a Google search). But it’s clear when one reads the entire New Testament that we are called to really love our neighbors, and biblical love is an action verb. We must take up our crosses and follow Jesus, being His hands, feet, and face in the world, because the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.

The Bible has been used to justify so many things–slavery, bigotry, political agendas, etc. I don’t want to delve into it all because ain’t nobody got time for that here; countless others have written articles, essays, and even whole books on these subjects. And people disagree.

But here’s the point: weigh scripture against scripture. And always stay humble enough to learn and take direction from the Spirit.

Have you ever seen a Bible verse taken out of context?  Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!

April 30, 2021

The Bible’s Divine Symmetries Exceed Literary Beauty

There’s a quotation that is now widely attributed to Philip Yancey, but I’m sure he said he got it from someone else:

If Jesus had never lived, we never would have been able to invent him.

Although I Corinthians 2:9’s context is different, our New Testament begins with the life of One that no human mind has conceived (NIV) or that never entered into the heart of man (KJV). Each of the gospel writers could have ended with the phrase, ‘Seriously! This all happened! We’re not making this up!’

The story of Jesus is simply incredibly complex. It seems simple enough and for just a little money you can purchase any one of hundreds of Bible books which will provide the primary narrative to children. But as you dig deeper, it reveals layers of significance you never considered.

When I was a university student there was a course offered called “The Bible as Literature.” Knowing where my life ended up, part of me wishes I’d taken this course, but another part of me wonders if it may have caused me to reduce the Bible to only literature; to deny its “living, active… sharper than any two-edged sword” power.

Eight years ago at this time, I was reading Jesus, A Theography by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola. The use of theography is to suggest that while most stories of Jesus are simple biographies that is, they narrate “from womb to tomb,” this one is attempting to begin with “Christ before the manger,” and then move into eternity. I don’t know that the book lived up to its goals entirely, but I value it as a resource — I’d place it in my top ten — and it’s still in print. 

I’ve mentioned before that the ancients viewed scripture as a multi faceted jewel that revealed more and more with each slight turn; capturing and reflecting and refracting light in infinite combinations. To Sweet and Viola, the preferred image is that of a constellation with phrases from various sections combining to form images.

In the case of John’s gospel, the birth narrative is paralleled to the “I am” statements which are unique to that book.

Jesus A TheographyThe seven I AM metaphorical statements of Jesus in the gospel  of John are followed by their corresponding circumstances in the story of Jesus’ birth:

“I am the bread of life.”
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which means  “house of bread.”

“I am the light of the world.”
Jesus was born under the light of the star of Bethlehem.

I am the door of the sheep.”
The doors of the guest house were closed to Mary and Joseph, but the gate to the stable was open.

“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.”
The infant Jesus was sought by shepherds looking for a baby wrapped in swaddling bands (used for birth or burial) and lying in a manger.

“I am the resurrection and the life.”
Jesus survived King Herod’s attempt to kill him.

“I am the way, the truth and the life.”
Wise men found their way to him, recognized the truth about him and defied King Herod’s evil plot.

“I am the true vine.”
Jesus was born in Bethlehem Ephrathah, which means ‘fruitful.’

The example above, while not the strongest of the parallels introduced, is fairly typical, and the reader must decide if the this information is significant spiritually or merely reflective of the Bible’s literary value. To the believer and Christ-follower, the Bible has to be more than great literature.

The book is well crafted and well researched and on average, each of the sixteen chapters has about a hundred footnotes. Still, I find a good filter is needed when reading this; each reader has to determine what they want their ‘take away’ to be from each chapter.

For me, more than anything else, the book highlights the issue of reading of Christian books versus only reading the Bible. I am where I am today spiritually because of the influence that Christian writers have had on me. If anything their words have drawn me into a deeper examination of scripture.

But the Bible’s complexities can be distracting to some people. It’s easy to get “lost in the weeds” of its intricate details and miss out on what God is saying to you and me through any given passage.

For example … Go back to the quoted section above. Beyond things like the significance of the name of His birthplace, or the ways in which His life mirrors the “I Am” statements, what does it speak to you and me?

[Instead of just throwing the question out there; let me offer a personal response: I think that often the amazing life of Jesus compels me to worship. Not in the ‘bursting into song’ sense, but just an awe for the narrative that leaves no loose ends. For an earthly, incarnate life that is so whole, so full, so rich.]

Can we know too much? On the one hand, in terms of Bible study is there such a thing as too much information? I believe Jesus: A Theography is on one hand a valuable addition to my library, but on the other hand, it’s important that I not stray too far from the simplicity found in those children’s Bible study books.

Matthew 11:25-26 (NIV)

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

Matthew 18:2-4 (NIV)

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

But on the other hand, making discoveries in books like these is like suddenly reading those narratives we heard has children with a pair of 3-D glasses, and seeing dimensions unfold we never knew previously; filled with ‘ah-ha’ and ‘Wow!’ moments.

Luke 24:31-32 (NIV)

Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Again, sheer awe.

March 24, 2021

Scripture Medley: The General Epistles

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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It’s been a long time since we’ve done anything like this, so today we’re back using the services of TopVerses.com to check out some of the most sought-after verses in the general epistles, those books lying between Paul’s writing to Philemon and the book of Revelation. The number which appears next to “Bible Rank” is its overall position in searches. Note that I did skip some verses in order to select others, so refer to TopVerses for actual ranking. All quotations are NIV.

This may seem like such a random exercise. Why do this? Don’t treat this a throwaway devotional. My hope is that something will jump off the page for application to your situation today. Or that you’ll be reminded of a scripture that has settled in the recesses of your memory and now returns to the foreground. Or that you’ll see something which perhaps you’re meant to share with someone in the hours or days to follow.

See also the notes at the bottom for more ways to engage with today’s verses.

Hebrews:

Hebrews 11:1
Bible Rank: 44
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

Hebrews 4:12
Bible Rank: 58
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

Hebrews 12:1
Bible Rank: 67
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us

Hebrews 11:6
Bible Rank: 87
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Hebrews 4:15
Bible Rank: 251
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.

Hebrews 1:3
Bible Rank: 252
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

James

James 5:16
Bible Rank: 59
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

James 1:2
Bible Rank: 92
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds

James 1:5
Bible Rank: 111
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

James 1:17
Bible Rank: 149
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows

I Peter

1 Peter 3:15
Bible Rank: 122
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect

1 Peter 2:9
Bible Rank: 131
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

1 Peter 3:18
Bible Rank: 213
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.

II Peter

2 Peter 3:9
Bible Rank: 153
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance

2 Peter 3:4
Bible Rank: 189
They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”

2 Peter 1:21
Bible Rank: 276
For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

2 Peter 3:18
Bible Rank: 677
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

I John

1 John 1:9
Bible Rank: 41
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 4:1
Bible Rank: 148
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

1 John 1:7
Bible Rank: 194
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

II John

2 John 1:6
Bible Rank: 1,757
And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

III John

3 John 1:4
Bible Rank: 1,192
I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

3 John 1:11
Bible Rank: 1,436
Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.

Jude

Jude 1:3
Bible Rank: 1,228
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that the Lord has once for all entrusted to us, his people.

Jude 1:5
Bible Rank: 1,352
Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that the Lord at one time delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe

Jude 1:24
Bible Rank: 2,474
To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy –

[a verse to which we have to add the 2nd half]

Jude 1:25
Bible Rank: 17,451
To the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.


What’s next? – I remember when The Navigator’s scripture memory system was more popular, you might see people on public transit with index cards memorizing key verses, or what we might call rehearsing these truths. I encourage you to do the same here. Choose one or two verses on which to meditate, or simply start at the top again and, more slowly, read through the list one more time.

Option 2 – Go back to TopVerses.com, and instead of working your way through particular Bible books, use the topical index — it appears first — to explore texts which resonate with where you are today.

With both options – Find a Bible or Bible online and read beyond individual verses to get the full context of what’s being said.

January 25, 2021

The Tree of Life

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:34 pm
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Ron McKenzie‘s website Blessed Economist is somewhat unique as he writes from a perspective intersecting the worlds of politics and economics, and the worlds of scripture and faith. He is the author of at least seven books, has another teaching blog Kingdom Watcher (KW), and lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. We shared an article by him here in June, 2014 and then I’m not sure what happened after that! Earlier today I reconnected with his online work. May I encourage you to click the link in the header which follows and read this article, which appeared just two days ago, at his site.

Thoughts on the Tree of Life

The Tree of Life was at the centre of the garden of Eden. God was present in the garden. The God Yahweh caused to grow trees that would give humans everything that they needed for life. The Tree of Life was in the middle of the garden because it was the source of wisdom for life. Humans had access to this tree as long as they lived by the wisdom of God.

According to Proverbs, the tree of life is the wisdom of God (Prov 13:12; Prov 11:30).

She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her (Prov 3:18).

The tree of life is the centre of the garden, because it was the source of the wisdom of God for life.

Adam and Eve had a choice between two trees. They could choose between knowing good and evil (human wisdom) and wisdom for life (God’s wisdom). Prior to the fall, they had access to the tree of life, ie God’s wisdom. They could hear God speak whenever they listened to him.

Adam and Eve chose to be autonomous and have their own wisdom, rather than continuing to rely on the wisdom of God. Once they chose to rely on their own wisdom, they unwittingly placed themselves under the control of the spiritual powers of evil. This blocked their access to the wisdom of God, because their shame prevented them from staying close to God.

God sent Adam and Eve out of the garden, so they would experience the consequence of their choice. It would be in this world, that God would eventually rescue them (see God’s Big Strategy).

Humans were already mortal, before they fell from blessing, but they were able to live long lives (up to a thousand years). They gave them immense opportunity to advance themselves.

When God expressed concern that humans would reach out and eat from the tree of life and live forever, the Hebrew word can mean forever, but it can also mean for the full extent of an age/season. God was not concerned about them having eternal life. Rather, he was saying that without his presence and wisdom, they would not be able to live their full lifespan. The consequence of living in a hostile world, vulnerable to the spiritual powers of evil would significantly shorten term their lives.

That is what happened. Since then most humans have lived less than one hundred years.

Restoration of the Tree of Life
According to the book of Revelation, the tree of life was not destroyed when the Garden of Eden was lost. It was transferred into Paradise.

To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God (Rev 2:7).

I presume that the tree of life in the Garden of Eden was not the original one. It would have been a copy of the true tree of life in the spiritual realms. Paradise is the place where the people of God live while waiting for the Parousia. The tree of life is waiting there ready for people who put their trust in Jesus. We will have full access to this tree when the spiritual realms are fully opened to us following the parousia of Jesus.

To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life (Rev 21:6).

In the final vision of Revelation, the source of life is a river flowing from the throne of God.

The angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the peoples. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him (Rev 3:1-3).

In this vision, the tree of life draws from the river of life and provides healing for the people of the nations. God will be present with his people, so pain and sickness will disappear.

 

 

November 9, 2020

Using the Scriptures as a Model for Prayer

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:38 pm
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For today’s thoughts, we have some very short excerpts from a 2019 book, A Genesis to Revelation Guide to Prayer by Pamela L. McQuade (Barbour Books). I’ve chosen a few that were perhaps not as obvious as others to give you a sense of how the book works. There are also some longer articles about prayer as well but for me the centerpiece is section 4, which consists of 144 references to prayer. This 224-page book comes in a smaller size that can be carried with you in a pocket or purse or lunchbox.

Prayer in the Middle of Disaster

As judgment fell upon the land because of Judah’s unfaithfulness, Joel called out to God, the creator of the earth, to intervene and stop the destruction of the pastures, fields, and woodlands — All the elements of the earth that supported people’s needs. Only God could end the disaster and lift his judgment from his unfaithful people.

Lord help us! The fire has consumed the wilderness pastures and flames have burned up all the trees. Joel 1:19 NLT

Prayer for Sanctuary

In a vision, Ezekiel saw the people of Judah destroyed by God’s command, and the prophet cried out to God for them. Though they had fallen far from God, Ezekiel still had compassion. Though God did not seem inclined to ease their plight, in Ezekiel 11:16 he promised that even though the people would go to foreign lands, he would be their sanctuary.

When they were killing and I was left alone, I fell face down, crying out, “Alas, sovereign Lord! Are you going to destroy the entire remnant of Israel in this outpouring of your wrath on Jerusalem?” Ezekiel 9:8 NIV

Prayer for God’s Workers

Anyone who works in ministry will come to recognize that more workers are essential. Jesus told the disciples to ask God to provide workers in order to bring in the harvest of human souls. He will answer this prayer.

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Matthew 9:37-38 NIV

A Prayer that God Overhears

Concerned about the state of their nation, a remnant of faithful Jews spoke to one another about their failings in God’s eyes. Even though they weren’t really praying, God heard their concerns. He honored them with a scroll of remembrance and promised to spare them.

Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. The scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name. Malachi 3:16.

God Hears Short Prayers, Too

Hezekiah heard from the prophet Isaiah that God was prepared to take his life. The faithful King prayed a fervent, short prayer, and before Isaiah could leave the palace, God turned him around with a new, hope-filled message for the king. God hears every prayer, even our shortest, most desperate ones.

When Hezekiah heard this, he turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, “Remember oh Lord how I have always been faithful to you and have served you single-mindedly, always doing what pleases you.” Then he broke down and wept bitterly. 2 Kings 20: 2-3 NLT

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