Why Study History? Why Remember The Past?

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Why Study History? And Why Remember The Past?

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Historians with increasing and distressing frequency are openly admitting that history has no meaning

and shows little or no purpose or goals.

– C. Gregg Singer, “The Problem of Historical Interpretation” (1976)

One has to go back of the “facts” of history to a discussion of the meaning of history.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Psychology of Religion (1961)

 

Why Do We Study History?

Why do we study history?  And what’s the best way to go about it?  Most folks rarely have a good answer for the first question.  And, when pressed, they are likely to say, “So we can learn from the past.”  Or, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  Of course, a lot of kids in this country don’t study history at all.  Instead, they attend classes called social studies, an orchestrated, highly secularized “stream of consciousness” that contains abstract “bits and pieces” of history, almost always out of sequence and always agenda-driven. Proof? You’ll never find social studies taught today with an ultimate frame of reference that reflects God as creator. Never.

Alright, what’s this “ultimate frame of reference” concept as it pertains to history, then?  Well, for starters, all “professional” historians have an ultimate frame of reference, despite what they may say.  They have a starting point. And when these secular historians speak of the reasons for studying history, they usually tell us that history helps us understand peoples and societies, that it provides material for moral contemplation, that it helps a people develop a sense of identity, or that it even makes for stories that are simply entertaining.  But here’s the dirty little secret:  These reasons or assumptions require some sort of overarching framework to be at all meaningful. That said, most historians today deny meaning for history.

Why Study History? And Why Remember The Past?

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But if history has no meaning and no purpose, what possible significance is there to succession laws of the French, the rites of the Aztec human sacrifices, or the funerary practices of the Egyptians?  If there is no moral law that applies to all peoples in all times, how in the world would anyone judge between imperialist and colonist, Marxist and Capitalist, or slaveholder and slave?  If there are no transcendent values, can we even call history an important story?  “A good story”?  Or any kind of story, for that matter?

How Do We Study History?

A failure to answer the first question is always going to leave you with little hope of answering the second:  How do we go about studying history?  The rejection of any true meaning for history necessarily leaves the secular historian with nothing but intellectual and moral relativism. He has no grounds or guidelines for inquiring into history or any reason to think the inquiry has any value whatsoever.

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And so these guys usually overrule source documents and then lecture with what the source documents should have said.  They generally ignore and deride any empirical evidence that threatens their ruling paradigm.  And, of course, they ignore the work of Christian scholars without hesitation.  They write off the Bible as a source of history and chronology simply because it is the Bible. 

The Foundations of Christian Scholarship 

Christian scholarship, on the other hand, rests on the solid rock of Scripture.  A biblical approach to history begins by presupposing all that Scripture says.  It can’t be developed out of one or two doctrines or three or four verses.  It is ingenuous if not downright dishonest for us to pronounce history “His Story,” and then go on to sequencing facts and narratives without further theological consideration.

It’s also important for the Christian historian to understand that what Scripture says about history is but one dimension of God’s total self-revelation in Scripture.  So, we may say something like, “God controls history,” but in the end, that, too, it is a meaningless statement until we confess clearly who this God is, what exactly it is that He controls, how and to what decree He effects that control.

If we are to have a biblical understanding of history, then, we’re going to have to speak of … and presuppose at all points … the doctrines of the self-contained, ontological Trinity.

Of God’s eternal decrees and all encompassing providence; of special creation in six days and of man’s creation in God’s image.

Of God’s plan for man’s dominion; of man’s ethical fall in Adam and the judicial and moral consequences that followed.

Of God’s gracious covenant with His people and the promise of the Gospel that lies at its heart.

Of the verbal inspiration and infallibility of Scripture and of its sufficiency; of the Incarnation (the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures in one Person).

Of Christ’s substitutionary death for sinners and His literal, bodily resurrection and ascension to heaven; of His current reign in fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

Of the central role of the Church in history; of the restraining (“common”) grace whereby God advances His program of dominion even through the unconverted.

And of the literal, physical Second Coming of Jesus Christ at the end of history to raise the dead and judge the world.

Why Study History? And Why Remember The Past?

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In other words, if we are to understand and teach history, we must have a good understanding of all the great truths that appear in Scripture, many of which are summarized in the creeds and confessions of the Bible-believing Church.  (Remember that “creed” just means what you believe. And everybody believes something about God and Scripture. Everybody.) So “doctrine” becomes a pretty important tool when studying history.

The Bible as History

The Bible is the only reliable account we have of the first 4,000 years of Earth’s history.  In fact, it is virtually the only account we have at all for the first 2,000 years or so of that history.  The Bible tells us about man’s creation, his fall into sin, his first civilizations, and the great Flood and the waters God used to destroy and renew the Earth.  The Bible tells us the origin of marriage, writing, worship and sacrifice, division of labor, agriculture, animal husbandry, metallurgy, music, urbanization, capital punishment and linguistic diversity.

But its more than that.  The Bible gives us a consistent chronology that runs from creation through Abraham, from Abraham to the Exodus, from the Exodus to Solomon’s Temple, and then through the kings of Judah and Israel up to the Babylonian Captivity.  (Conservative theologians have generally argued that the prophecy of 70 Weeks in Daniel 9 continues the chronology up to the death of Christ in A.D. 30.)  Bible chronology is at odds with the currently accepted secular chronology of the ancient world, because historians have made the chronology of Egypt the touchstone for that of every other ancient people. The problem is … Egypt’s chronology has always been in kind of cloudy chaos … as we’ve seen earlier.

Of course, Scripture gives us the personal history of the patriarchs.  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.  And the history of Israel from the Exodus through the republic and monarchy to the Babylonian Captivity and the Restoration.  Though Scripture doesn’t speak out rightly of topics like social history or cultural anthropology, it’s accurate whenever it talks about such things and as such is a treasure trove for the cultural historian, the sociologist and the archaeologist.

The Ethics of History

Scripture also gives us the ethical standard by which we can evaluate the actions of men and nations.  Even a cursory reading of the prophets demonstrates that God regularly rebuked kings, nations and whole cultures in terms of His covenant law.

Christ and His apostles continued that tradition.  Jesus denounced King Herod, calling him “that fox,” and reminded the imperial governor Pilate of his personal responsibility as God’s servant (Luke 13:32; John 19:11).  Paul reasoned with the Roman governor Felix concerning “righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come” (Acts 24:25).  John described the Roman Empire under Nero’s rule as a monstrous Beast whose atrocities Christ would judge (Rev. 13; 17; 19).  And the writer of Hebrews told us that under the New Covenant God will shake all things, kingdoms and cultures included, until only the Kingdom of Jesus Christ remains (Heb. 12:25-29; cf. Hag. 2:6-7).

The Meaning and Goal of History

Why Study History? And Why Remember The Past?

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Scripture also speaks plainly of the central theme and purpose of history.  It tells us God’s plan of redemption in Christ.  That plan has its origins in eternity, but its historical roots lie in the creation and fall of man.  God created man good and after His own image and appointed him steward and vicegerent over the whole creation (Gen. 1).  Man, “through the instigation of the devil and by willful disobedience,” fell from that high calling.  But God gave His people the promise of a Redeemer, one who would destroy the works of the devil and undo the work of the Fall (Gen. 3:15).

And so all of ancient history was preparation for the coming of Christ … for His incarnation, ministry, atoning death, resurrection and ascension to glory.  The goal of history then, is the spread of the Gospel, of Christ’s salvation and Kingdom to the ends of the earth (Matt. 28:18-20).  Paul writes of Christ’s certain victory in these terms:

For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.  The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death (1 Cor. 15:25-26).

So Christ’s Kingdom, when viewed from the long lens of history, is supposed to grow and develop over time.  This Kingdom growth also involves a winnowing or “sorting out” process (Matt. 3:11-12).  New Covenant history, then, is marked by differentiation and distinction.  Jesus separates the wheat from the chaff.  The tares become, more obviously, tares …  the wheat becomes, more obviously, wheat (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43).

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The difference or “antithesis” between light and darkness, truth and error, godly culture and satanic culture, becomes clearer and clearer as the centuries go by. God’s Kingdom matures in history.  His people, at least to the extent they are faithful and obedient, can even be covenantal blessed. (Lev. 26; Deut. 28).  In like fashion, Satan’s followers mature in their rebellion.  That is, they become more and more reprobate in their understanding, character and culture (cf. Rom. 1:28-32; 2 Tim. 3:13).

And, in the process, as we see in the case of secular historians, they become increasingly irrelevant.  Read their textbooks.  They posit a meaningless universe and so are disinherited by their own rebellion.  The meek (those harnessed for service) really do inherit the Earth (Matt. 5:5).

Conclusion

At some point determined by God … redemptive history ends.  Jesus returns.  Resurrection and judgment follow.  But here’s the cool part: The grace, the love, even the learning, that take place here, in this world, carry over into the next, into a renewed and transformed creation (Matt. 25:28-29; Rom. 8:19-23).

This means that everything we do here matters forever.  No good thing is forgotten before the Father; every cup of cold water has its reward (Matt. 10:42).  The ripples of history go on into eternity.  This makes history … studying and remembering the past …  a testimony to Gospel and its fruit.  An effort very much worth the time.

Guilt And Depravity

Guilt And Depravity

“I know there is good in you.”

—Luke to Darth Vader, Return of the Jedi (1983)

As Seen on TV

The mass murderer … the serial killer, the paid assassin, the warmonger, the man responsible for the death of dozens or thousands of innocent people … suddenly becomes one of the good guys and joins the team.  And everyone’s okay with this.  Of course.

How many times has this plotline been drawn up for a TV show?  We can think of Alias, Stargate, Babylon 5, Deep Space 9, Dr. Who, Once Upon a Time, Person of Interest, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, and Black List, for starters.  Our common rationale for buying into this frightening scenario seems to be, “Yes, he was bad.  But he’s good now.”  This assent to “instantly good” usually betrays a rejection of some basic biblical categories. So, let’s take a closer look at guilt and depravity.

Guilty as Charged!

We begin with guilt.  Guilt is a legal category, not really an emotional or psychological one.  In general terms, a man who commits a crime is guilty.  He has broken a law and deserves punishment.  How he feels about his crime is irrelevant.  His guilt is an objective matter.

Scripture tells us of our legal guilt before God our Creator.  God has clearly revealed His law in Scripture.  That law is an expression of His holy nature and of the loving and faithful communion that exists among the Persons of the Trinity.  God’s law is, therefore, good and right in this absolute sense.  The man who breaks that law is in conflict with and at war against God himself … at war with Ultimate Reality.

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We might ask, “Can’t love overlook guilt?  Can’t divine love just accept every man as he is, murderer and victim alike?”  Scripture says: nope.  God is One.  There can be no conflict in His Being.  In Him justice and love meet.  His law is a perfect expression of His love, and God’s justice requires that He punish those who war against it.  In fact, God describes Himself with these words:

The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation (Ex. 34:6-7).

‘At One’ (Atonement)

Hold on just a second, you say.  God says He will “by no means clear the guilty,” and yet He claims that He forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin.  Isn’t this a contradiction?

It’s not a contradiction, because God has many attributes. But it is, to me at least, another fascinating mystery of the Gospel.  Though God must certainly punish sin, He can punish it in the person of a “fit” substitute.  And His love and mercy have moved Him to provide such a substitute.

Guilt And Depravity

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That Substitute is God Himself.  The eternal God, in the Person of Jesus Christ, gave Himself as a penal substitute for sinners.  Scripture speaks of atonement.  The shed blood of Christ covers our sins so that we can be “at one” with God.  God can forgive us because Jesus already bore our punishment on the cross.  He can and will cover us with Jesus’ righteousness when we believe the Gospel.  This is the doctrine of justification by faith.

You Dirty Rat! (Depravity)

But substitutionary atonement and justification by faith are not the whole of the Gospel, because guilt is not the whole of man’s problem.  Fallen humanity is not just guilty before God … we also have a depraved nature, and that nature taints all that we are and do.  In the days before the Flood,

. . . GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Gen. 6:5).

Theologians call this total depravity.  This depravity has to do with the condition of the heart.  So it’s “total” not in its depth, but in its breadth.  It touches and defiles all that man is and does.  It lies behind all of our choices, all of our thoughts and feelings.  And, as long as we are dominated by such depravity, we will continue to be at war with God.

What depraved man needs, of course, is a new heart, a new nature.  And this is the rest of the Gospel.  The God who forgives sins for Jesus’ sake also transforms sinners through the regenerating and sanctifying power of His Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:7-14).  Jesus forgives sinners and makes them new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17).  He also gives sinners a heart to love God and to keep His commandments (Heb. 8:10; Ezek. 36:26-27).

But here’s the important thing:  If man has no “depraved heart,” there’s not a lot for Christians to talk about, is there?  Because it follows quite logically then, that we don’t need Jesus to change hearts.  In fact, we don’t need Him at all, except as a little frosting perhaps on an already beautiful cake, so to speak. If our nature is basically good, then we can’t really talk about human depravity in any meaningful sense.  Absolutely no need for “the Gospel rescue mission.”  If you believe this, it’s the “gospel of humanism” that shapes your basic beliefs, assumptions about reality, and ultimately your worldview.

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Romanticism in all its forms and from all ages assumes that man is basically good, that our emotions are pure and our basic intuitions always trustworthy.  For those with this humanistic worldview, mankind in general has learned its destructive habits from society.  Humankind’s poverty, education, food or “the man” has somehow corrupted him.  We’re all hapless victims of Christianity or capitalism, of dark magic or our DNA.  From this starting point, we’ve moved to saying, “But, if you just give us a new environment and the right external influences … you’re going to see change.  Maybe regenerative wonders.  Maybe behavioral miracles.”

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Where’s the love, right?  We’ve got to share the love.  Come on people now… If we just loved the criminal more, his inner goodness will “break on through to the other side” and he will become the new man.  The good man.  And since none of the criminal’s corruption was ever his fault, we must now also receive him warmly back into society without qualification or question.  Liberal theology demands he’s never had a sin nature, so the orders are …  forgive, forget and integrate back into our neighborhoods with starry eyes and hopeful grins knowing we’re all in this together and we’re all good.  But where do these ideas really come from? Ideas like we are “all good?”

Fixed Nature?

The Pelagian and the existentialist assume that man has no fixed nature.  Man creates his identity, creates himself, moment by moment by his own autonomous choices.  The “good” man is the one who is currently choosing to do good.  The “evil” man is the one who is currently choosing evil.  But either man can alter the nature of his choices at any moment.  The evil man can decide that he no longer likes the sort of person he’s been and suddenly choose good; the good man can abandon his good works and just as suddenly choose evil.

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Why would either make such a choice?  Environment.  Crisis.  Loss.  New perspective.  Impress a woman? Whatever.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s not for us to question, we’re told.  But once the man says, “I’m good now,” we are supposed to instantly forget what he’s been and regard him as he says he is.  The past is a dead letter.

Think this is just theology with no practical application?  One of my employee’s husband had a sister who was murdered back in the 80s. She was savagely beaten, raped, tied to a tree and shot in the head.  Her murderer got away with the crime.  Ten years later he even started to brag about it.  Then one day he bragged to the wrong person and was turned in. He admitted in court that he did it and was given 71 years in jail.  After serving only 10 years, he came up for parole and is about to be released.  He told the parole board he was “good now” and proved it by getting a law degree at the taxpayers’ expense while he was serving time.  A law degree proves you’re good?  Irony of ironies, I suppose.  Bottom line:  His parole board and liberal judge wants him in your neighborhood because he says he’s good.

Conclusion: Ideas Have Consequences and Theology Matters

Man, in his rebellion against God, will not admit the existence of guilt and depravity.  Yet our culture still clings to corrupted notions of atonement and justification.  Atonement becomes self-atonement, a demanding program of charity and self-sacrifice or an elaborate system of blood rituals and magic, or a hell of suffering and torment inflicted by the mindless universe, the helpful sadist, or even the empty angst of one’s own self-destructive habits.  Regardless, the goal of self-atonement is self-forgiveness and self-justification.  The rest of us are expected to forgive on demand and, of course, pity anyone who struggles dutifully on their own personal 12-step journey. (We’ve got Freud to thank for much of this.)

The Gospel says that self-atonement is self-delusion and madness.  Only God can forgive sins.  He forgives sins only because of Jesus’ sufferings and death 2,000 years ago on the cross.  In that divine atonement is true justification and new birth.  There is no other remedy for sin.

Good Friday And The Real Meaning Of The Cross

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Good Friday And The Real Meaning Of The Cross

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Penal suffering in Scripture is released,

or not inflicted upon the guilty,

because it has been endured by a substitute.

—William Shed, Dogmatic Theology (1888-90)

 

 

The Need for the Cross

Early on in the Bible we get some bad news.  Our rebellion deserved divine wrath.  God is just and holy and can’t overlook sin (Ex. 34:7).  But God is also love and grace.  His love moved Him to save sinners from death and hell.  “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).  God gave us His saving love in the person of Jesus Christ, whom He gave for the salvation of the world.  Those who believe in Jesus are saved from their sins and also from the wrath of God.  They have eternal life as the adopted children of God.  Those who refuse to believe remain slaves to sin and abide under God’s wrath (John 3:36).

God gave up His Son to death on the cross.  Please know this … the cross was a particularly horrible way to die.  As the victim’s chest muscles tightened, breathing became more and more difficult.

Only by pushing up against the nails that pierced the victim’s hands and feet could he draw his next breath.  But this could go on for days.  The Romans had mastered crucifixion, not just as a tool of punishment, but also as a visceral warning to others.  Pain, suffocation, thirst, exposure, infection and humiliation all went into the torturous death of the cross.

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But when it came to Jesus there was much more.  Beyond the lashes, the beatings, the thorns, the fatigue, and the physical anguish was something far greater.  The wrath and curse of God (Gal. 3:13).  For Jesus, the cross was also a ticket to Hell.  The Father made Jesus a true and complete offering for sin (Isa. 53:10).  The Son of God took on, in His humanity, all the terrors of Hell in the place of those who would trust in Him.  And then He died a judicial death, the innocent for the guilty, to bring rebellious sinners to God.

The Bible uses a number of terms or concepts to explain exactly what Jesus accomplished on the cross.  Scripture speaks of sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, atonement and redemption.

Sacrifice

God instituted animal sacrifice in Eden and continued it until the cross.  Early on, “sacrifice” taught the theology of penal substitution.  The worshipper took a lamb or a bull from among the community’s herds (Lev. 1).  The animal had to be without spot or blemish.  The worshipper would lay his hands on the animal, so identifying himself with it.

He would then kill the animal himself.  This was important.  Sacrifice always meant death, and the worshipper needed to understand his responsibility for that death.  He needed to realize, “This animal died for me.  I deserved this death.  I killed this substitute.”  Once the animal was dead, all or part of the animal was placed on a flaming altar.  There it was consumed, and its smoke rose up to heaven.  Sacrifice went on for 4,000 years.  But the blood of lambs and bulls couldn’t ultimately satisfy the demands of God’s justice (Heb. 10:1-4).  They were only a picture and pledge … a kind of “flaming promise.”  And, of course, they weren’t the real Substitute.

Jesus was the real and true Substitute, the true Lamb of God (John 1:29).  He came from among God’s people, true Man from true men.  He was innocent and holy, guiltless by God’s testimony and by Roman law.  But in His sufferings and death, Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God against sinners.  He died in the place of His people, and He rose from the dead as a clear testimony to His righteousness and deity (Rom. 4:25; 1:4).  When we “lay hands” on Him, we identify with Him, by faith.

Propitiation

The word propitiation has nearly disappeared from the modern church’s vocabulary.  It’s a word suspiciously absent from many of newer translations of Scripture.  While we live in a “dumbed down” world where multi-syllabled words are disappearing fast, the word propitiation has been scrubbed from Scripture for a very different reason. The real problem folks today have with this word … is the theology it implies.  That’s because to propitiate means to turn away anger or wrath.

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To say that Jesus is “the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10) is to confess that God’s wrath needed to be propitiated.  That God, in all His holiness and justice, is angry with sinners (Ps. 7:11). That He hates all the workers of iniquity (Ps. 5:5).  That the wrath of God abides on those who are His enemies (John 3:36).

Jesus, in His sufferings and death, bore that anger, that hatred, that wrath, so that God can show His love for sinners without violating His own holiness and justice.  God loved the world in giving His only begotten Son as a “propitiation” for sins.  Those who trust in Him have God’s love and favor.  Those who reject Christ abide under God’s all-consuming wrath and are bound for eternal Hell.  Sorry, that’s what the Bible says and that’s why understanding who Jesus is and what he accomplished is both urgent and important.

Reconciliation

Alright, so God took the first step in reconciling His enemies to Himself.  This means, first, that an offended God had to satisfy the demands of His own justice so that He could be at peace with His enemies.  Paul writes, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (2 Cor. 5:18).  The basis for reconciliation with God is the legal imputation of sin to Christ and the imputation of His righteousness to those who believe.

Second, and this is the “amazing grace” part … reconciliation means that God reaches out to sinners through the Gospel to bring them to Him.  So, Paul goes on to say that God “has committed unto us the word of reconciliation,” and pleads accordingly, “we pray you, in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God” (1 Cor. 5:19-20).  God, in no uncertain terms, calls us to lay down our enmity toward Him and receive His peace.  He says, “get out of that camp and get over here!”

Atonement

Good Friday And The Real Meaning Of The Cross

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“Atonement” in English is a word translated William Tyndale (d. 1536) to communicate this biblical doctrine.  The Hebrew word appears throughout the Torah in connection with blood sacrifice.  Atonement means that God covers the sins of His people with the blood of Christ.  That is, God judicially hides the guilt of the sinner from His view because Jesus has already taken on the wrath that the sinner has coming.  Because God has already punished the sin … He may forgive the sinner.  Atonement involves both propitiation and reconciliation.  Which means, it escorts in, both forgiveness as well as peace with God.  This is no small thing.  The blood sacrifices of the Mosaic covenant portrayed and preached atonement in very graphic terms.  Terms that seem out of place for us today.

Redemption

Redemption is tied to debt and slavery.  “To redeem” means to “buy back.”  God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, destroyed its enemies, took his people to Himself as His covenant bride.  Not just that, but He also gave Israel an inheritance … the land of Canaan (Ex. 15:13; Deut. 7:8; Ezek. 16:8).  Please stay with me here and keep reading, because most people don’t follow this “redemption trail” and its tremendous implications. Under the Mosaic law, a man’s nearest male relative served as his kinsman-redeemer.

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The kinsman-redeemer had some major responsibilities and at least four interrelated functions:  1) He had to buy back his enslaved kinsman (Lev. 25:28).  2) He had to make sure justice is done for his kinsman if he has been murdered (Josh. 20:1-6).  3) He even had to marry his kinsman’s widow and raise up his kids if necessary (Deut. 25:25).  4) He also had to buy back an indebted or lost inheritance for his kinsman or for his kinsman’s widow and children (Lev. 25:25).

Glad that’s Old Testament?  Keep reading.  It’s very much a part of the good news.

Good News

All of this is fulfilled in Jesus Christ:  1) He has bought us back from sin and death (Gal. 3:13; Titus 2:14).  2) He destroys our enemies (2 Thes. 1:7-10).  3) He has taken the Church as His Bride and is raising up a redeemed humanity as her children (Rev. 21).  4) He will redeem all of creation and restore it in “resurrection glory” for His people.  This is our eternal inheritance (Rom. 8:18-23).

Christ Crucified

All this opens up the true meaning of the cross.  And it’s how Jesus Christ became the Savior of the world.  This is what Good Friday is all about.  Jesus our sacrifice, our propitiation, our reconciliation and our atonement:  Jesus our Redeemer and our Savior.  Our responsibility is to trust in Him and to obey His commandments.  His words, not mine.

May God bless you mightily this Easter.

The Kingdom Of Heaven

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The Kingdom Of Heaven

Truly answer me… In judgment and in dream.

Nebuchadnezzar, “Ancient Babylonian inscription” (6th century BC)

 

Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness, and princess shall rule in judgment.

Isaiah the prophet (8th century BC)

 

The Terror of Dreams

An image, great and terrible, bright in glistening metals.  A head of gold, breast of silver, belly of brass, and legs of iron.  Stuff worthy of a nightmare, and that’s exactly where the king of Babylon met it.  But there was more.  As the king watched, a stone, untouched by human hands, was cut from a mountain and hurled at the image’s feet.  The image shattered and became as “the chaff of the summer threshing floors,” and the winds carried the residue away.  Then the stone grew and grew until it became a great mountain that filled the whole earth.  Quite a big dream, even for a king.

King Nebuchadnezzar knew that what he had seen in his nightmare was a revelation, a divine message, of immense importance.  He had to know what it all meant.  So he called the wise men of Babylon … the magicians, the astrologers, the sorcerers … and demanded of them the meaning of the dream (Dan. 2:2).  They gladly agreed to supply answers. They just needed to hear the details of the dream first.  And there Nebuchadnezzar balked.  “The thing is gone from me,” he said.  As wise men and “diviners,” surely they could supply the details.  And if they could, the king could trust their interpretation.

The wise men were horrified.  It wasn’t possible.  Only the gods could do such a thing.  If only the king would. . . .  But the king wouldn’t budge.  Instead, he ordered all the wise men of Babylon destroyed.  Ouch!  If they couldn’t help at such a cosmically critical moment, what good were they?

The king’s soldiers began to collect all of Babylon’s diviners and astrologers for execution.  And then they came to Daniel (v. 13).

The Interpreter of Dreams

Daniel was a young man, barely 20.  He was a Jewish captive, ripped away from his home and family by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar.  Here, in Babylon, he had undergone a thorough program of indoctrination in the magic, idolatry, Statism, and the ethnocentrism that was the Babylonian world and life view.  But from the beginning of his training, Daniel had purposed that his loyalty to and fellowship with the God of Israel would take absolute precedence over every advantage, program, or lure that the golden city might offer (Dan. 1).

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And so, Daniel had listened to the lectures, memorized the information, and passed all the tests.  But he abhorred the magic of Babylon and despised her idols of silver and gold.  His wisdom came from faithful obedience to the word of God.  He knew Scripture thoroughly, and when soldiers came with news of the king’s dream, the whole thing started to sound very familiar (Gen. 41).  So, Daniel went before the king and asked for time.  The king, desperate for answers, was willing to grant it.

That night God showed Daniel the dream and revealed its meaning.  Daniel gave thanks.

The Kingdom Of HeavenThe next day, Daniel went before the most powerful man on the planet and told him God’s plan for the history of the world.  The four metals that made up the image were four kingdoms.  Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar in particular, was the head of gold.  But an inferior, silver kingdom would succeed Babylon.  There would follow a still “baser” brass kingdom.  And, finally, a fourth kingdom, strong and brutal like iron.

“In the days of these kings,” Daniel said, “shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed . . . it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms and it shall stand forever” (v. 44).

The Kingdom of Heaven Is at Hand!

“The kingdom of the God of heaven” or for short, the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven.  This is the kingdom that John the Baptist proclaimed in the wilderness.  It is the same kingdom that Jesus spoke of in sermon and parable throughout the whole of His ministry.  Both John and Jesus said the kingdom was at hand, and that proclamation, to many, stirred excitement and speculation.  Anyone who really knew Israel’s history could see in it the unfolding of the Babylonian dream.  Golden Babylon, argent Persia, brazen Greece, and finally iron Rome.  The fourth kingdom now held center stage in God’s drama of history.  The final kingdom, God’s kingdom, couldn’t be far off.

What did surprise many was the “sudden” nature of this coming kingdom.  Probably because both John and Jesus were warning men to repent … here and now.  The King was coming with fire and judgment.  Those who would not repent of their sins would face His wrath.  The curse of fire or the blessing of God’s Spirit were Israel’s only choices.

A King Shall Reign in Righteousness

The laws of every kingdom are an expression of that kingdom’s religious priorities and practices.  And, of course, they’re based in its ultimate concerns.  All cultures walk in the name of some god, something they consider “ultimate.” (Mic. 4:5).  The effective reach of a culture’s laws then defines that culture’s laws and boundaries.  A king reigns only as far as he can enforce his laws.  Enemies and rebels have always rejected these various jurisdictions.  “We will not have this man to reign over us!” they cry (Luke 19:14).  Rebellion and civil wars always follow.  Human kingdoms rise and fall in terms of the king’s ability to enforce his laws effectively.  But since human kingdoms have no way to reach men’s hearts, no way to re-write the nature of hearts and no way to compel their inward loyalty … human kingdoms regularly fail.

The kingdom that John and Jesus announced is the righteous rule of God over earth and within history through His Messiah.  It differs markedly from the kingdoms of this world.  The kingdom of heaven has its origin in divine grace, working in and through the hearts of men.  It is characterized by true righteousness.  Its power is that of God’s own Spirit and it’s destined to overthrow and supplant all its rivals.

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First, God’s kingdom comes from outside man’s history.  It originates in divine grace.  God has come to us in the Person of the King, Jesus Christ.  Jesus established the kingdom in and through His atoning blood.  The glory of God is the kingdom’s chief end, but its historical goal is the salvation of the world (John 3:16-17).

Second, the kingdom is very clearly an earthly affair.  It operates in the hearts and lives of men and women on earth and within history.  The grace that God works in the hearts of His people they in turn work out in their commitments and choices every day (Phil. 2:12).  This reign of God in Christ is centralized in its heavenly King but decentralized in its earthly administration.  This kingdom has no room for tyrants and no room for anarchy.  Every citizen of the kingdom is both a king and priest in Christ.  Individual freedom, responsibility, and self-government are hallmarks of the kingdom.

Third, God’s kingdom is characterized by righteousness, judgment, and justice.  Unlike the politicians of our world, the heavenly King is just and righteous.  He loves righteousness and hates iniquity.  His integrity is beyond question.  He executes “judgment and righteousness in the earth” (Ps. 45:7; Zech. 9:9; Jer. 23:5; 33:15; Isa. 9:7).  He will not ignore rebellion, but because of His own sacrifice, He can forgive it.  But He demands unconditional surrender from His enemies (Matt. 3:7-12).  Those who fear Him, those who trust Him, lay down their rebellion and embrace His mercy and salvation.  They receive pardon and forgiveness.

Fourth, the kingdom of heaven comes in the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11; Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2).  By virtue of His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has poured out the Holy Spirit into our world and history.  The Spirit transforms hearts and lives through the preaching of the Gospel.  He brings men to faith and repentance.  He grants the King’s people power for faithful obedience, and joy and peace within that obedience (Ezek. 36:25-27).

Fifth, God’s kingdom will destroy and supplant all its rivals.  The psalms promise that Messiah will reign from God’s right hand until all His enemies are His footstool and that He “shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath” (Ps. 110:1, 5; I Cor 15:25; Heb. 10:12-13).  He will dash His enemies in pieces (Ps. 2; Rev. 2:26-27).  Isaiah says that “of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end” (Isa. 9:7; cf. Matt. 28:18-20).  As Nebuchadnezzar saw, the kingdom of heaven is destined to grow until it fills the whole earth.  The New Testament says nothing less of Christ’s redemptive kingdom.

Pagan Righteousness and Royalty

An ancient inscription shows us how Nebuchadnezzar understood the relationship between righteousness and royal authority. He wrote:

Adorn my kingdom

Forever

With a righteous sceptre,

With goodly rule, and

With a staff of justice,

For the welfare of my people!

Nebuchadnezzar wanted to rule righteously for the sake of his people.  He addressed this prayer to Shamash, the Babylonian sun god.

Even the pagans, at times, desired the State to be a tool to establish justice and even “righteousness.”  The problem lies in the definition of these ethically oriented nouns.  For Nebuchadnezzar, righteousness meant the establishment of a pluralistic world order mediated through his own person and office and powered by ritual magic and military power.  Today, righteousness often means legalized plunder in the name of social justice accompanied by a happy acceptance of degeneracy and pre-natal murder.  Politicians who best market this agenda dominate and win many elections.  Asking what moral standards are used to justify their agenda, is of course, off limits.

The kingdom of God, however, calls for a righteousness defined by God’s holy character and described in His holy law.  Because all of us, in our natural, unbelieving state, hate God and His law, God in Christ calls all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).  And He works through His Spirit to grant that repentance and with it … forgiveness through the blood of Christ.  We – through God’s grace — are given both justification and sanctification.  This is the good news of the kingdom of God and our present hope.

Water Into Wine

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Water Into WineI left the empty life behind. He turned the water into wine.

—Dave Stearman, “He Turned the Water into Wine” (1973)

 

He comes to make His blessings flow  Far as the curse is found.

— Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World” (1719)

 

A Jewish Wedding

They were getting married.  A young couple.  A simple celebration.  Their families weren’t rich.  Even scraping together enough money to pay for the food and wine had been difficult, but family and friends chipped in.

Organization was a headache, too, but the young couple had found a family friend to serve as coordinator.  Her name was Mary.  She was a widow from nearby Nazareth.  She was known for her godliness and good sense.  She had raised a large family and had lots of practical experience.  Perfect for a planner. There was more, though, something unusual.  Rumors had it that strange things happened when her first Son was born.  Angels.  Stars.  Prophecies. She and her family had spent time in Egypt, too, in Alexandria perhaps.  No doubt she had stories to tell, if only she would.

There was one more thing about the wedding.  Mary’s Son Jesus had recently taken up the calling of Rabbi, a teacher of the Law.  The desert prophet John had introduced Him to Israel, and thus He had already begun to attract a small following.  The families had invited Jesus to join the celebration and to bring His disciples.  More mouths to feed.  But rabbis were always well-received at Jewish weddings.

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The bridal procession itself had begun at dusk.  Covered with a veil and surrounded by her childhood friends, the young bride had left her father’s house and set out for her new home.  Before her went pipers.  Then came those who passed out oil and wine to the grownups, and nuts to the children.  Some carried torches or lamps on poles.  Those nearest the bride had myrtle branches or wore garlands of flowers.  Everyone rose to greet the procession and to pronounce blessings and praise.

Once the bride reached her new home, she was taken to her espoused husband.  Then came the official pronouncement:  “Take her according to the Law of Moses and of Israel.”  The groom signed the contract, the written vows in which he promised to care, keep, and provide for his wife.  Next came the ceremonial washings and their accompanying benediction.  Finally, there was the bridal cup and one more blessing.

Then came feasting.  There were many guests.  Perhaps more than the young groom had thought would come.  The wine began to run low.  In Jewish life and for a Jewish festival, this meant disaster.  Mary, always watchful, saw the problem.  There was no backup plan for wine.  But Mary had something else in mind.

Mary went to Jesus and said simply, “They have no wine.”

Mary and the Wine

We aren’t told exactly what Mary was thinking. We’re not sure if Mary completely understand who her Son really was.  Certainly, He had always been responsible and reliable as a young man.  And with Joseph gone, she had learned to trust Jesus with the ordinary affairs of money and family.  But given Jesus’ response, she may have actually been looking for a miracle.

John had baptized Jesus and hailed Him as the Lamb of God and as the One who would pour out the Holy Spirit.  And, in fact, the Spirit had descended upon Jesus, and a heavenly voice had pronounced Him the Son of God.  Surely Mary had heard of all this.  And just as surely it would have resonated with the old memories and meditations she had locked up in her heart.  What was in Mary’s heart?

Well, what had the angel said?  “He shall be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David. … He shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:32, 35).  “Messiah the Lord.”  That’s what the angels had called Him to the shepherds.  “Born, King of the Jews,” the wise men had said.

Water Into WineHad the time finally come?  Was everything about to come together?  Did she need to give one little nudge?  Or maybe she simply needed help, and her observation veiled a motherly hint for action.

“They have no wine,” she said.

Jesus said, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?  My hour is not yet come.”

Whatever Mary may have had in mind, Jesus was now on His Father’s timetable.  His final revelation as Messiah lay three and half years in the future.  In the meantime, it wasn’t for Mary to dictate, however gently, how He should pursue His course to the cross and the throne.

In confidence, humility and meekness, Mary simply turned the matter over to Jesus and trusted Him for whatever resolution pleased God.  She told the servants, “Whatever He tells you to do, do it.”

Water Into Wine

Jesus directed the servants to six large stone water pots.  These contained the water that the faithful used for ritual purifications.  Each could hold 20 to 25 gallons.  But the crowd had already used up a lot of the water.  So Jesus told the servants to fill the water pots.  They did… up to the brim.  Jesus told them to carry some of what was in the jars to the table master, the one who oversaw the banquet.  They obeyed.

When the table master tasted what the servants brought him, he immediately called for the groom.  He said, “Every man sets out his good wine at the beginning of the feast; then, when everyone’s had plenty to drink, he puts out the worse.  But you’ve kept the best until now!”  The groom, unaware of the miracle, didn’t know what to say.

This was the beginning of Jesus’ miracles, His first manifestation of His power and glory (John 2:11).  Scripture simply says, “and His disciples believed on Him.”

A Feast of Wines

The prophets had described the coming of Messiah through a great many figures and metaphors:  water, wind, and fire were among their favorites.  But another prominent, recurring image was that of festival, of banqueting, and every good feast involved lots of good wine.  Here are a few of the prophecies that connect Messiah with the free gift of celebratory wine:

And in this mountain, shall the LORD of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined (Isa. 25:6).

Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price (Isa. 55:1).

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt (Amos 9:13; cf. Joel 3:18).

It was no accident that Jesus began His ministry by providing an abundance of wine for a wedding.  The miracle was an open declaration that He was the Messiah and the divine Bridegroom. But not just that … also that the kingdom of God had come in power and that God was about to make all things new.  The sacrament He established just before His death said the same thing …  new and eternal life through the blood of the new covenant (Matt. 26:27-29).  But Jesus ordained wine for the sacrament (instead of blood) — wine for the celebration of victory.

As our Priest, Jesus has completed and perfected our atonement.  As our warrior King, He has defeated sin and death.  His work is done.  He has taken His throne (Heb. 10:11-14).  It is time to celebrate and rejoice.  He summons us to eat and drink with Him at His table in His kingdom (Luke 22:28-30; cf. Matt. 8:11).

The Lessons of the Miracle

Jesus’ first miracle displayed His power as Creator.  We aren’t told whether He called new carbon molecules into existence or merely restructured the protons of the existing hydrogen and oxygen molecules to make the water into wine.  It doesn’t matter.  This was a creative miracle.  Jesus is God.  Period.

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Jesus performed the miracle at a simple wedding, as the traditional wedding ceremonies remind us, saying of human marriage: “which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee.”  At the beginning of the world He ordained marriage and gave away the bride (Gen. 2:18-25).  Now as the Divine Bridegroom, He blessed marriage anew and revealed Himself in and through it.

Water Into WineIn the wine miracle, Jesus displayed the stark contrast between His own ministry and that of John the Baptist.  “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine” (Luke 7:33).  John majored in austerity and abstinence, traits appropriate for a nation that stood on the verge of destruction (Matt. 3).  But Jesus came to establish a kingdom whose marks are “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).

To perform the miracle, Jesus used waters set aside for ritual purifications.  These were not washings that God had ordained, but ritual cleansings established by tradition (Mark 7:3-4).  Apparently unimpressed with Jewish tradition, Jesus swept it aside to rescue an ordinary wedding and ensure the happiness of two young lovers and their guests.

In this miracle, Jesus turned the ordinary into the extraordinary.  He could have left the wedding guests with water.  Certainly, water is life-sustaining.  He could have given them grape juice.  But He gave them wine.  He replaced the mundane with the extraordinary, the bland with celebration.  The good news is, He still does it with human lives today.

In the miracle, Jesus showed Himself the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and announced the advent of His kingdom.  He chose to work with images of joy, celebration, prosperity, and renewal.  This is not a Neo-Platonic kingdom locked up in our hearts, but a kingdom with real consequences in the real world.  “He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

Conclusion

It has been nearly 2,000 years since Jesus turned the water into wine.  Very few of the wedding guests knew or understood what He had done.  Jesus wasn’t trying to prove His identity or start an advertising campaign.  Jesus Christ is the living God who does wonders.  He is Life:  He makes all things new.  Those with faith and “eyes to see” will take comfort in the water into wine miracle.  Those without faith will see nothing but myth and superstition.  But then againv… such will not believe “though one rose from the dead.”

Dedicated To Jared Brewer, Who Makes Great Wine

For Further Reading:

Alfred Edersheim, “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah” (New York:  Longmans, Green, and Co., 1904).

The First Temptation of Christ

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The First Temptation of Christ

Want. Take. Have.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Bad Girls” (1999)

. . . Miracle, mystery, and authority.  Thou hast rejected all three and hast set the example for doing so.

—Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1879)

In the Wilderness

After the Spirit descended upon Him, Jesus went immediately into the wilderness.  He was there, fasting, for 40 days and 40 nights.  All the while, Satan tempted Him to abandon His mission (Luke 4:2).  He tempted Him to trade obedience to His Father for the glories of self-will and self-affirmation.  As the days wore on and the trial drew to an end, Jesus’ health and strength began to fail.  Satan then appeared to Him in visible form and made three last assaults on His ultimate trust in His Father.

Scripture insists that these temptations were real and that there was, in each of them, something that would appeal to Jesus’ human nature (Heb. 4:15).  It’s important to understand that Jesus was truly human.  Huge deal.  In addition, He is also eternal deity.  Huge deal, too.  The truth is, the psychology of all this is tough for mortals to process.  As the Son of God, Jesus was both omniscient and omnipotent.  He upheld creation and decreed its end from its beginning.  As a true man, He grew, learned, and suffered.  So, as days of temptation turned into weeks, He could feel the full effects of hunger, exposure, and exhaustion.  And so, in His humanity, Jesus felt the full force of Satan’s arguments.  He really was tempted in all points like we are, and yet He never yielded to the temptation.  He did what His mission required, never turning away from His Father’s will.

Satan’s Attacks

Satan struck first at Jesus’ very real need to survive.  “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”  The force of this temptation was simple enough …  if you die here and now, it’s all for nothing and your whole mission goes south.  Fail in your mission and you fail your Father and your people.  That said, survival becomes job No. 1, right? If you are who you claim to be, accomplish phase one of your mission by living to fight another day.  Make bread out of these stones.  Use your miraculous powers to save your life and the lives of those who will follow after you. Focus on the ends, not the means.

Satan struck next at the path to the cross.  In a moment of time he showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  All these, he said, I’ll turn over to you if you fall down and worship me (Rev. 13:4).  In other words, Satan was offering to withdraw all opposition to Jesus’ mission.  Fascinating.  There would be no resistance, no sufferings, no cross.  But not just that, there would be no persecution for His followers, either.  No lions, no stakes, no martyrdom.  Satan would support Jesus’ claims to sovereignty, and no Christian would ever have to suffer for his faith.  Jesus could have it all simply by admitting that Satan’s perspective made pragmatic and existential sense.

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Finally, Satan struck at the actual definition of the mission.  People, he implied, are a tough sell.  They’re not going to buy in to your mission on your word alone.  They need real reasons to believe.  They need evidence.  Give them some.  Jump from the pinnacle of the Temple.  The God you call your Father won’t let you die.  He’ll send angels to catch you, land you and get you safely among “credible” witnesses … the Pharisees and Sadducees.  With those kinds of witnesses and that kind of buzz, everyone in the Temple precincts will know beyond a doubt that you are the Messiah!  And to punctuate this third argument, the devil quoted Scripture: “For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.  They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone” (Ps. 91:11-12).  In this version of Satan’s plan, the Temple and the scriptural promise of the supernatural “safety net” were to launch the ministry in a big new way. It would be the “P.T. Barnum” way.

What Would Jesus Say?

The First Temptation of ChristJesus had walked His prescribed path all His life.  He knew His Father’s word.  It was indelibly stamped on His heart (Ps. 40:8).  When He responded to each of Satan’s attacks with Scripture, He didn’t speak like a child who, from a memory that has been crammed with Bible verses simply spits out the necessary, parent-pleasing responses.  He spoke from a firm, heart-felt commitment to the power of God’s Spirit.  And He spoke as the eternal Son of God.  There was no word-magic here, only a firm and full commitment to God the Father.

Satan’s first temptation was addressed to the desires and needs of the physical body.  Satan had tried to place these bodily needs above the very word of God.  But in words borrowed from Deuteronomy (8:3), Jesus said, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).  Jesus didn’t deny that man needs bread and food to live, but He insisted that obedience to the words of God was a far greater need.  Man doesn’t need to merely live … man needs … first and foremost … to obey God.

Satan’s second temptation appealed to man’s desire for possessing the big, the shiny and the beautiful.  Man sees, wants, and takes often without any regard to God’s law.  Jesus could have all the kingdoms of the world immediately, Satan said.  No delayed gratification necessary.  No killing the will to self. All He had to do was admit Satan’s underlying and most fundamental premise …

The right to challenge divine authority. Simply stated… men can be as gods.  But Jesus responded with: “It is written, you shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve” (Matt. 4:10).  The universe functions in terms of God’s law and His decree.  There are no other gods, no other sovereigns.  Man must acknowledge God as the only true source of legitimate authority.  His Word alone is the only legitimate explanation of reality.  And with respect to man’s place in all of this … true authority comes from submission to God and His law.

Satan’s third temptation aimed at human pride.  Man wants celebrity status.  He wants attention, acclaim, admiration … and he wants it now.  Just like Veruca Salt in the original Willy Wonka movie, who wanted to be the first to find the golden ticket and wanted an Oompa Loompa pretty quick, too. But that was mild compared to vanity and pride offered in the place of worshiping God.  Again, Jesus answered Satan with Scripture: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (Matt. 4:7).  God’s promises are not to be a launching pad for our own private plans and pleasures, our own pursuits of glory.  Man’s chief end is the glory of God.  And we are created for precisely that.

Three Deceptive Hooks

The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.  This is how John sums up the lifestyle of the world apart from God (1 Jn. 2:16).  These were the three hooks with which Satan tried to deceive Jesus and if “sold separately and without responsibility” are the ones he throws at us.  These were also the big three hooks that Satan used in the Garden against Eve:

“And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” (Gen. 3:6).

Here’s what’s important:

This threefold hook is directed at man’s threefold office, that of prophet, king, and priest.  Satan would have man put his bodily needs and desires over the (prophetic) Word of God.  He would have him seize (kingly) power and dominion without regard to the law of God.  He also would have mankind seduce and abuse others in an anti-priestly bid for prominence and pride.

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The First Temptation of ChristBut since man is always prophet, king, and priest … every temptation appeals in a greater or lesser degree to all of these at once.  In other words, every temptation appeals in some measure to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.  And every sin is a surrender of our hearts and souls … to the power of Satan and self.

Victory Over Satan

All of Satan’s temptations implied a kind of soft-and-easy-to-digest “marketing message” for Jesus and those who would follow Him.  He encouraged Jesus to use miracles to save life, power to establish His kingdom, and mystery to gather a following.  Miracle, authority, and mystery.   These are exactly the words Fyodor Dostoevsky uses in “The Grand Inquisitor” section of The Brothers Karamazov (1879).  In this parable, the Grand Inquisitor, like Satan before him, berates Jesus for failing His people, for not loving them enough.  Of course, Satan and his messengers regularly pose as angels of light.

But Satan’s worldview assumes that man’s biggest problem lies in his current situation or condition. This could be found either in the outside world around him or even in his own current physical or psychological status.  But how can we turn the misuse of miracle, authority, and mystery into something we can use?

Here’s the thing that should immediately grab us and is the very bottom line:

Our true problems are NOT environmental or psychological.  Our real problems are ethical and judicial.  Our natural, unbridled impulses push us to be ethical rebels against God’s law and we then find ourselves under His temporal curse.  The truth is, no miracles, no heavy-handed tyrannical power, no slick and seductive mysticism carry any real meaning and authority.  They’re only the devil’s lies.  Jesus knew this, and He rejected every and all options except a very painful but obedient walk toward Calvary.  He set His face toward the cross.  He trusted His Heavenly Father.  He obeyed the Word of God, and Satan fled. That’s the only formula that makes Satan flee.

Then God intervened.  Angels came and ministered to Jesus.  He was in the wilderness with the wild beasts, and for a moment Paradise was restored (Mark 1:13).  It was Jesus’ ethical obedience that won this battle.  But the war had only begun.  There would be fierce, future engagements.

Worshiping The False God Of Football

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super bowl 3 -- wikipediaPicture this: People gathered together each week for one cause — clapping, singing, worshiping. They donate their hard-earned money, and their time, too, knowing they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Heaven, they believe, surely will be something like this.

Were you picturing a church? It’s actually a football stadium – and it happens each fall and winter in cities across America.

What happened that caused us to misplace our worship? We go to church and sing a few songs, check our watches waiting for the preacher to be done, and then rush home and cheer on our favorite team. And if our team loses, our world is shattered. Sadly, for so many Americans, football has become an idol.

The most-watched television event in U.S. history is … a football game. When Seattle defeated Denver to win the 2014 Super Bowl, 111.5 million Americans watched, placing it at No. 1. Second place on the list? A football game. Third place? A football game. In fact, Super Bowls account for the 21 most-watched events in American television history.

So, what about cable television? After all, Super Bowls are only on broadcast TV. Well, the most-watched event in cable TV history, too, is a football game. When Ohio State triumphed over Oregon this year in the college football national championship, 33.3 million Americans watched – a cable record. The semifinal games drew an average of 28 million.

And we didn’t even mention television contract rights. ESPN pays $1.9 billion each year to televise NFL games, FOX $1.1 billion and CBS $1.0 billion.

How did we get here?

There is nothing wrong with football, but we somehow have shifted from enjoyment of a good thing to the making of a false god. We now derive our joy and value from whether our team wins or loses – and not from the God of the Bible.

In a word, we now commit idolatry in the name of fandom. That’s what sin does; it takes something good and distorts it into something else, drawing our eyes off of God. It is the very thing Satan did in the garden with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:1-5).

Cotton Mather once said, “Faithfulness begets prosperity, and the daughter devours the mother.” What did he mean? Faithfulness can lead to prosperity, but prosperity will cause us to become complacent and to replace a desire for faithfulness with a desire for more prosperity — and we will sacrifice faithfulness in the name of prosperity.

Image source: Forbes

Image source: Forbes

Football is a child of American prosperity. Billions are paid in advertising, each team builds a new stadium in an attempt to out-do the last team that built a new stadium, and player contracts are astronomical for the sake of entertaining the fan and winning games. This is all possible because football is extremely profitable.

Where it gets personal, however, is when we realize football’s prosperity is due to us. Football makes billions because we have elevated it to a God-like status.

The first commandment God gave Moses read, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). When we elevate something to a level that it receives the affection that only God deserves, the praise that only God deserves, and the attention that only God deserves, we break the first commandment and sin. When we allow a game and our team’s performance to affect our mood while being indifferent toward the work of God in our lives and the lives of others, we break the first commandment. When we neglect our time with God and His people for the sake of something temporal, we break the first commandment. When we care more about the advancement of our team than the advancement of the Kingdom of God, we break the first commandment.

It would be bad enough if it ended there. But there is a more insidious thing that happens when we establish a lifestyle of obsession over something other than God: We teach others to do the same thing.

Truth is, you are always preaching – whether it is with your words or your actions. There are always eyes on you and ears listening to you … and sometimes those eyes and ears are very impressionable. Perhaps they are your own children.

Moses told the Israelites, “You shall teach [God’s law] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:7). When we obsess over football, we are doing just the opposite, teaching our children that idolatry is an acceptable way of life.

Please understand: Watching football does not equal idolatry. However, when football (or any sport for that matter) becomes something that defines you, affects you, consumes your thoughts, and controls your wallet – then it is bordering on idolatry.

What if we cared as much about the advancement of the Kingdom of God as we do about our team advancing the football down the field? What if we showed the same heartfelt elation over the worship of God as we do cheering for our team?

As the Super Bowl approaches, consider putting football in its rightful place: a good thing to be enjoyed, but not a god thing to be worshiped. We were made to worship. The question is: What will you worship?

Crazy Voices Crying In The Wilderness

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Crazy Voices Crying In The Wilderness

For the herald’s voice is crying / in the desert far and near,

calling all to true repentance / since the kingdom now is here.

—Johann Olearius, “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” (1671)

 

Alone of all the prophets, John hailed the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.

—The Church of England, Common Worship (2008)

 

The Voice

He came out of the wilderness.  His hair was long and caught up in seven braids.  He wore camel’s hair clothes, rough and not so fashionable.  He tied it together with a leather belt.  Locust was his superfood and he preferred wild honey to Stevia.  His name was John.

He cried with a loud voice.  Anywhere he could.  From a bluff.  From big rocks.  From a rise along the riverbank.  Wherever there was a makeshift camp, a passing caravan, a crowd gathering at a waterhole … suddenly he would appear, and he would lift up his voice and cry:

“Repent!  For the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Kingdom of God?  The people knew those words.  Daniel the prophet had spoken of a kingdom the God of heaven would set up in the latter days (Dan. 2:44).  Kingdom of God.  Kingdom of heaven.  The kingdom of the coming Messiah.

The Messiah.  Could the Messiah be John himself?  Was he the promised King?  Or was he perhaps some other figure out of a distant prophecy?  Elijah was supposed to come as the Messiah’s herald (Mal. 4:5).  And, if anyone could pull off the look and feel of Elijah, it was John.

Then again, Moses had spoken of a great Prophet, the greatest Prophet, who would speak all of God’s words, do great signs and wonders, and know God face to face (Deut. 18:15-19 and 34:10).  Maybe this man was He.

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Whoever he was, his message bit the soul with great force.  He called the religious leaders “a generation of vipers” — “the seed of the Serpent.”  He called all of God’s people to turn from their sins, not in word only, but most especially in deed.  “Bring forth fruits appropriate for repentance,” he demanded.  And he did something else.  He summoned men and women alike to baptism, a cleansing rite that the prophets had associated with Messiah.

More and more people flocked to the wilderness to hear this man preach and — before long — he established himself on Jordan’s banks where Israel’s religious leaders could easily find him.  It was only a matter of time before they showed up.  Church police.  He was an outside voice in religious matters and a potential rival to their authority.  They came to examine his credentials, to see what he would have to say for himself.

“Who are you?” they demanded.  “The Messiah?”  Not that they would have believed him if he had said yes.  “Or are you Elijah?”

“Nope,” he answered to all three.

“Who are you, then?  We need to give an answer to those who sent us.”

And John said: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the LORD,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

“Then why are you baptizing if you’re not the Messiah or Elijah?”

Keep in mind … baptism was an Old Covenant concept and ordinance (Heb. 9:10; Num. 19).  That’s why the theological experts didn’t ask, “What are you doing?” but rather, “Why are you doing it?”  The baptisms they knew mostly pertained to certain Jewish sects in the area. But they knew there was another baptism, one that was both Messianic as well as eschatological (Isa. 52:12; Ezek. 36:25).  But who was John that he should offer it?

“I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance,” John said, “but He who comes after me is mightier than I whose sandals I am not worthy to bear.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit . . . and with fire.”

John’s Baptism

We’ve all heard it in Handel’s Messiah:

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

The words come from Isaiah 40:1-5.  The voice is that of John the Baptist.  God was about to manifest His glory before all flesh, and He chose this particular man to serve as His voice.

John was the son of a priest and a Nazarite from birth, a birth that had been foretold in the Temple (Luke 1:5-22).  He came “in the spirit and power of Elijah” to prepare Israel for the Messiah’s coming (Luke 1:17).  His message was one of glory and judgment.  The kingdom of heaven, the redemptive rule of God through His Messiah, was about to explode into history with news of the King.  John’s message regarding the new King posed a challenge to all men, beginning with Israel:  Will you submit obey and be faithful or will you be a rebel?

Crazy Voices Crying In The WildernessJohn hit a nerve.  Submission requires repentance.  Men must acknowledge their transgressions of God’s law and turn away from them.  The King required action, visible fruit.  Mere “bloodline” descent from Abraham meant nothing: “God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham,” John said.  He pictured the King, the Messiah, standing at the threshing floor that was Israel with a winnowing fan already in His hand.  This Messiah would separate the chaff from the wheat:  He would gather the wheat into His barn and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.  The Judge was knocking at the door.  Israel … each Israelite … must make a choice.  The consequences would be eternal.

Those who professed repentance, John marked with baptism.  Baptism pointed to cleansing, to new birth and resurrection (Ps. 51:7; Ezek. 36:26-27; Titus 3:6).  It was a sign and seal of the work of God’s Holy Spirit.  The Messiah was coming to baptize Israel with God’s Spirit or with the fires of God’s wrath.  There could be no neutral ground.  Those who would repent and receive their King would have the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).  Those who rejected repentance, who continued in their self-righteousness, would face temporal and eternal wrath.  (The destruction of Jerusalem, with all its horrors, was little more than 40 years away.)

Behold, The Lamb Of God!

John’s first work was to call Israel to epistemological self-awareness.  Each Israelite needed to know his own sin.  And each needed to repent.  John’s second work was to introduce the Messiah Himself.  And so one day, John saw his cousin Jesus coming to Jordan for baptism.  John knew Him for who He was, and he tried to put Him off, “hey wait a minute … I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?”

But Jesus insisted.  For though He had no sins, He needed to be identified with His people, and He needed to be set apart to His priesthood by one already a priest (Matt. 21:23-27).  And so John baptized Jesus in the Jordan.  As Jesus came up from the river, the heavens opened, the Spirit of God, dove-like, descended upon Him, and the Father in heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:16-17).  And so, baptized and anointed, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, became the Christ, the Anointed One, the Prophet, King, and Priest of divine redemption.

It was about this same time that John pointed to Jesus and called out, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”  And here is the last puzzle piece.  How can a sovereign and holy God forgive sinners?  Good works have no merit.  Repentance has no merit.   Man has broken God’s law, and God is rightly offended.  His wrath is just and inevitable.  Unless …

“The Lamb of God.”  A sacrifice.  A substitute.  One whose life is of infinite value.  One who in His own body and soul bears the wrath of God against sin in the place of His people.  To repent, then, means to embrace the Lamb, to trust His shed blood, to find in Him new life and the power for obedience.  Entry into God’s kingdom lies through the blood of the Lamb.

A Dying Voice

John died a martyr’s death for condemning King Herod’s marital sins (Matt. 14:3-12).  Jesus said he was the greatest of the Old Testament saints, the greatest of the prophets.  But John got to see Jesus, his Messiah.  He had the amazing privilege and responsibility of introducing Him to Israel.  And yet, Jesus said, “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt. 11:11).  John still operated in the shadows of the Old Covenant.  He didn’t live to see the cross or the empty tomb.  He didn’t live to Pentecost.  The blessings of New Covenant life far surpass even the glories of John’s ministry … because the King has come.  The kingdom of heaven, then and now, is a reality.

Wise Men From The East

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Wise Men From The East

And lo, to their great surprise, the star which they saw in the east then appeared . . ..

—John Gill, Exposition of the New Testament (1746-8)

Nothing will awaken those that are resolved to be regardless.

—Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible (1712)

Where Is He . . .?

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, there came Magi, stargazers, from the East to Jerusalem.  These wise men weren’t from the Orient.  They most likely came from Persia.  They weren’t kings, and Scripture doesn’t say how many of them there actually were.  But certainly, their arrival was enough to get Jerusalem all wound up and draw the attention of the whole city to their one question:  “Where is He that is born King of the Jews?”

There was no ambiguity in the question.  The wise men weren’t asking after recently born “princelings” in general.  They weren’t asking about a child who would one day become a king.  They were looking for the One whose very birth made Him the King of Israel by divine right.  They were looking for the Messiah.

Everyone who heard their question understood its significance.  These wise men claimed that the Messiah had already been born.  They further claimed to have astral evidence:  “We have seen His star in the East and are come to worship Him.”  We don’t know exactly what they saw, but the few details given in Scripture are only beginning to match up with the conjunctions, comets, and super novae that we’re familiar with.  Whatever the nature of the star, these wise men were sure that it was a sign from the God of heaven.

The Magi came to the court of Herod the Great.  It was the obvious place to begin.  Herod, after all, was king of Judea.  If the newborn Child wasn’t his, he would certainly know where to find it.

But Herod didn’t know.  Aside from some itinerant shepherds, no one with first-hand knowledge had made any announcements.  The Magi’s star had gone unnoticed or at least unappreciated.  Still, Herod believed the Magi.  For political reasons, Herod had converted to Judaism and learned its rhythms.  He knew its structure and basic theology.  He knew the prophecies and understood the hope of Israel.  And one thing was certain beyond doubt … he wasn’t about to let it interfere with his reign.  While politely putting the wise men on hold, he summoned the chief priests and scribes (the authorities on Jewish Scripture) and demanded of them where the Messiah would be born.

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They knew, of course.  All Jews knew.  The prophet Micah had given the location 700 years earlier.  “In Bethlehem of Judea,” the priests said, and they paraphrased his prophecy:

And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel (Matt. 2:6; cf. Mic. 5:2).

Herod went back to the wise men and enquired about elapsed time.  When had they first seen the star?  Then he pointed the wise men toward Bethlehem, a small village about six miles south of Jerusalem.

“Go and search diligently for the child,” Herod said, “and when you have found Him, bring me word again that I may come and worship Him also.”

The wise men were completely taken in.  But at this moment Herod’s much-vaunted political acumen wholly failed him.  He offered the Magi no guide, sent no escort, ordered no spies or surveillance teams.  He sent the wise men off on their own and trusted these strangers to be his eyes and ears.  No doubt, he commended himself for his cunning and craftiness.  The wise men set out.

And no one followed them.  No one at all.

Wise Men From The East

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As the wise men journeyed south, the star they had seen in the East suddenly reappeared and led them through the dark night to Bethlehem.  There, it stopped and shed its light on one very specific house.  A house, not a stable.  Remember, months had passed since Jesus’ birth.  Joseph had found his family a real house and had probably picked up work of some kind.  He was away when the Magi first arrived, so when the wise men entered the small home, they found only the Child with Mary his mother.  Immediately, they fell to their knees and worshipped the infant King.  Then they unpacked their gifts and presented them:  gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Princely gifts, indeed.

The hour must have been very late because the wise men didn’t attempt the fairly short return journey to Jerusalem.  Instead, they found a place to unburden their camels and set up their tents for a quick night’s sleep.  But hardly had sleep fallen upon them before God’s word burst through into their dreams with a solemn warning …  they must not return to Herod.  Treachery and danger were the heavy implications.  The wise men rose, packed up their things, and fled from Bethlehem and Judea.

Then the angel of the Lord entered Joseph’s dreams with a more specific warning and admonition.  “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (Matthew 2:13).

And so, Joseph gathered his small family and immediately headed for Egypt.  The gifts of the Magi would fund the flight and their time away.

It didn’t take Herod too long to realize what was happening.  The wise men had betrayed him and he would entertain no more indirect approaches.  In a rage, he sent his soldiers with orders to kill all the children under two near Bethlehem.  The soldiers obeyed zealously.  And Bethlehem wept as the prophets had foretold.  Another night, not so silent, not so calm.

Only The Wise Men Went

Herod was a cagey political realist.  He understood the political implications of Jewish theology as well as anyone in the kingdom.  Before a divine King, all earthly kings would have to bow.  To a divine King, all temporal rulers must pay homage.  If the infant Messiah lived, Herod would be obligated, sooner or later, to conform to his policies, laws and prescribed way of life.  Herod would rather murder a bunch of babies than accept such terms.

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The priests and scribes, on the other hand, lived in a dichotomy of practical occupation. That, versus a vague fairytale religion of “Bible people, Bible stories, Bible times.”  Oh yes, they knew the prophecies.  They knew the promises.  They knew the theology, all too well.  But it never occurred to them that the implications of this theology would radically uproot their own world in the blink of an eye and set them on a collision course with some pretty big players. And that it would begin with their own personal agendas and turf battles.

You see, the priests were in bed with Rome.  In fact, they worked hard to maintain their position, power and wealth all while balancing a necessary allegiance to Rome.  The scribes, mostly Pharisees, majored in secular moralism and religious manipulation.  They strained at theological gnats while swallowing moral camels, all the while basking in the admiration of God’s poor.

Here’s what’s so often overlooked:

Despite their knowledge of Scripture, neither the priests nor the scribes made the obvious connection from “Messiah is born” to “Let us go and worship Him also.”  When the wise men set out for Bethlehem, not a single Jewish theologian went with them. Interesting.

Then there was the city itself.  When the Magi’s question was made public, the populace fell into confusion, fear and tumult.  What did it all mean?  What would Herod do?  What would this mean for relations with Roman?  For religious coexistence?  For market prices?  No doubt, this created a great deal of buzz on the streets. But not one of God’s covenant people came to the wise men and said, “Look, I’m in, wherever you guys go, I’m going.”

The wise men, of course, had come a long way.  They brought expensive gifts.  They crossed a desert.  They advanced into a strange culture, into a political situation full of intrigue and treachery.  All to ask one, very important question.  They risked everything to see the culmination of 4,000 years of prophecy and hope.  They risked everything for a few brief, if expensive, moments of worship.  And then they went home.  Fascinating.

One More Thing

We’ve all sung the carol called “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  But few people realize that the Twelve Days of Christmas doesn’t end with December 25.  That’s where it begins.  It ends on January 5 Twelfth Night. The next day is Epiphany, a feast that celebrates the revelation of God in human flesh and, more particularly … the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles.  The focus of which, at least for Western churches, is the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus.   The Book of Common Prayer gives us this prayer for the day:

O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles:  Mercifully grant, that we, which know thee now by faith, may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Think about this: How much will we give up, how far will we journey, how much will we risk, what crazy culturally driven thoughts and misconceptions will we abandon in order to see God made flesh in Jesus Christ? And then if we find Him, will we worship Him?  After that …. how, then shall we live?

Is Your New Year’s Resolution Logical?

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Is Your New Year’s Resolution Logical?Wherefore our wills also have just so much power as God willed and foreknew that they should have. . .

—Augustine of Hippo, The City of God (5th century)

 

For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin. . .

 —John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will (1543)

 

Making Changes, Making Choices

As we enter the New Year, we think about resolutions, changes, new beginnings.  We think about making better choices.  A new diet.  More exercise.  Picking up a new hobby.  Sending timely reports to your boss. Finishing that book we’ve started a dozen times.  Choose.  Resolve.  Do.  It should be that easy, right?

Then why do we fail so often?  And why do our resolutions accomplish so little?  Why can’t we live out our choices?

Making Ourselves By Our Choices

Barack Obama wrote in his book, The Audacity of Hope, that American values “are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”  His claim echoes a long American religious and literary tradition that says that we have no fixed nature and that we create and define ourselves moment by moment by our choices, with our sin nature never getting in the way.

Charles Finney

Charles Finney

American roots run deep here.  Before Thoreau and Emerson there was Charles Finney.  Before there were public schools, there were McGuffey’s Readers.  Before Netflix spies and superheroes, there was Hemingway.  All have preached the American gospel of the self-made man, the man who creates himself good, on his own with never a mention of a dark or fallen side.  It’s a Pelagian gospel, to be sure, and its definition of “good” has become increasingly vague with the passing decades.  But not just that. Very few have even challenged the basic assumption that people can make and remake themselves by raw choice and willpower alone.

The Freedom To Choose

So, let’s examine this assumption closely. First, Scripture affirms human responsibility and the reality and significance of our choices.  But it also teaches our fallen nature.  Key point, often overlooked: Our choices flow from a heart corrupted by sin.  In other words, fallen man is free to choose (our will is uncoerced; our actions are self-determined), but we will always choose, in some form, rebellion against God … until God changes our hearts.

The natural man finds this doctrine offensive and asserts his own freedom, his own autonomy.  He doesn’t need God. But he can find no solid ground for this assertion.  To see this more clearly, let’s go back to the extremes of materialism and pantheism discussed at Christmas.

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The materialist reduces all to atoms.  Reality is matter in motion.  Everything is reduced to cause and effect.  Like billiard balls scattering on the table after the break, energy particles generated in the Big Bang scatter, collide, and rebound … “off the glass” … exchanging momentum and transferring energy.  Only this.  Nothing else.  Consciousness, volition, and choice are mere molecular interactions within the brain.  After all, that’s all they can be.  There is nothing else according to the consistent-thinking materialist.  Appeals to quantum theory may seem to open a door to pure contingency, to pure chance, but pure chance isn’t free will.  The concept of randomness isn’t consistent with the concept of a free choice. Think of it this way:  Can you make a real choice if the concept of logic no longer exists?

religion-1225383_640The pantheist sees all temporal differences, all individual choices, as passing manifestations of the all-encompassing One.  The individual soul is the cosmic soul and you can’t separate the two. The Hindu says “atman is Brahman.”  But stop and think this through. To say “I like the Bulls but not the Cavs,” or that “Usain Bolt came in first and Bill Heid last,” or “let’s have lunch now rather than later” are all just illusions to the pantheist.  Differences can’t be real if they are going to be consistent thinkers. Individual choice is irrelevant in this worldview.  He who steals and he who thinks he’s been stolen from … are both confused.  Not just that … even killing and dying are the same, both valid expressions of impersonal, divine reality.  If “All” is one, you can’t make distinctions. If you can’t make distinctions, all choices are imaginary.  Cosmic jokes.

The Gospel And Its Implications

Over against all of this, Scripture proclaims the reality of human choice and the power of God to liberate and transform the human heart.

First, the claims of Scripture are important. Scripture teaches the absolute reality of both Creator and creation. They are distinct. God exists eternally and necessarily as the Source and Ground of all created reality.  (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1.)

In God, unity and diversity are equally ultimate.  God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God is therefore absolute life and absolute personality.  He is communion, love, and choice.  This God created heaven and earth, not out of His own essence, but out of nothing.  This means that the universe is wholly God’s.  His deal.  It exists at His pleasure and for His purposes, the terms of which are spelled out in His eternal decrees.

Second, Scripture tells us that man’s freedom is the freedom of a creature.  Man can’t bend reality to his will.  He can’t become a zebra or pass back and forth through time simply because he wants to.  (“Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” Jeremiah 13:23.)

He functions as a creature within a broader creation.  And at every point, every moment, his freedom and choices are, in some way … checked, restricted, and given form by the rest of creation which itself moves at God’s sovereign command.  Nobody is autonomous.  Our choices are real, but not absolute.  Man is, therefore, responsible for his actions and accountable to God.  (Note to self: God will judge the world.)

jesusThird, Scripture tells us that our main problem isn’t that we are creatures or that we lack total autonomy … our big problem is our ethical rebellion against God.  Since the historical Fall of Adam in Paradise, we’re all sinners.  (“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” Romans 5:12.)

We are still free, within the limits of our creaturehood.  And we can make choices, to be sure.  But (and this is a big but) because our hearts are twisted and messed up by sin, our “gravitational pull” is toward bad choices.  Granted, our bad choices aren’t always as bad as they can be … but apart from Christ “bad choices” serve the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.  And because our hearts are “bent” this way … our nature is to not seek God, let alone serve Him.

Fourth, Scripture presents us with the Gospel:  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  He gave His life as an atoning sacrifice wholly propitious (paid in full) to reconcile a holy God to unholy sinners.  (Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” 1 John 4:10.)

He died and rose again to offer His righteousness to those who will receive Him by faith.  And by His Spirit, He transforms human hearts and so grants the very faith He requires.  This is called regeneration, or new birth.

The man who has been born again is free to love and serve God.  He is free to make good choices, albeit ones that often fall short.  Since the work of the Holy Spirit isn’t complete in this life, we will continue to struggle with our choices.  But the indwelling reality of the Spirit’s presence and power make growth in grace, love, and holiness real possibilities.  The one who is born of God can overcome sin, the world and the power of the devil.  All this means our wills are free from the bondage of sin … allowing for prayerful change and volitional choices in Christ.

What it all comes down to is this:  Unbelievers can make New Year’s resolutions.  I’m not saying they can’t. What I am saying is that they just can’t make sense of their resolutions or even their day-to-day choices if they consistently play out the full implications of their worldview.

The Gospel has enormous implications for all of life.

Happy New Year!

Is There Such A Thing As ‘Natural Law’?

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Is There Such A Thing As ‘Natural Law’?

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If you want my thesis of natural law theory in one graphic sentence, I will provide it: the most consistent defender of natural law theory was the Marquis de Sade. 

                    — Gary North, Westminster’s Confession (1991)

 

 The Fear Of The LORD Is . . .

Let’s talk about the right place to begin a discussion of natural law. What’s important to establish early on is that these rules are determined by the God who creates, who speaks and who decrees the end from the beginning.  The God who is Triune. The God who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ. The God who speaks infallibly in Scripture. The God who saves sinners through Jesus’ blood.

This God, and no other, is the only foundation for all intelligible thought, communication, and learning.  That said, this is what Scripture explicitly teaches about where to start: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7).  Again, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding” (Prov. 9:10).

Unless the God who created the world tells us about Himself and creation, unless He opens our hearts to hear and believe that truth … we are left with foolishness and its attendant skepticism — cynicism and nihilism. There’s nothing we can truly know and we can be sure of nothing truly.  For that matter, we can’t even be sure there is something to be sure about.

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Is There Such A Thing As ‘Natural Law’?

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But the question of knowing something is only part of the discussion.  That’s because in Scripture, to know God and to fear God mean also to obey God.  Epistemology (study of knowledge) and ethics (rules for living) are rarely separate concepts in the Bible, but rather, are woven tightly together throughout Scripture:

Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding (Job 28:28).

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth forever (Ps. 111:10).

Blessed is the man that feareth the LORD, that delighteth greatly in his commandments (Ps. 112:1).

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man (Eccl. 12:13).

God’s commandments are revealed in Scripture.  Knowledge and wisdom are inextricably “interwoven” with obedience to those commandments.  What’s more… these commandments, the laws revealed in Scripture… are alone authoritative and infallible.

“To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20).

Biblical epistemology drives us necessarily to biblical law.

Total Depravity And Natural Law

But doesn’t Scripture allow for a divine law implicit in Nature, one accessible to unaided reason?  In my previous articles on epistemology, I’ve talked about general revelation, the revelation that exists in creation and in the hearts of men (Ps. 19:1-6; Rom. 1:18-20).  I’ve also tried to establish that the Apostle Paul argues that even the heathen have “the work of the law written in their hearts” and that they are, therefore, responsible for their actions (Rom. 2:14-15).

Is There Such A Thing As ‘Natural Law’?Certainly, Paul teaches us that general revelation is so clear that it leaves men without excuse for their sins (Rom. 1:20).  And He definitely declares that “the work of the law” is written in the hearts of those who have never heard the Gospel.  In fact, He goes on to emphasize the human conscience as being a very accurate testimony to man’s true moral nature. His conclusion? Unbelievers have a conscience, with concepts of right and wrong.  What Paul doesn’t say, though, is that this vague “conscience” is a substitute for the commandments of God revealed in Scripture.

Here’s the problem: The natural man’s conscience is sufficient to condemn him because he can’t and doesn’t live up to his own imperfect standard.  That’s because the natural man’s moral nature is thoroughly defiled and corrupt.  The Bible says his heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9).  The ways that seem right to him are the ways of death (Prov. 14:12).  Though he holds the truth, he suppresses it in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18).  And until and unless he is born again, he will not come to the light lest that light should condemn his works (John 3:20).  In short, the man outside of Christ hates God’s commandments precisely because they are God’s commandments:

Because the carnal mind is enmity against God:  for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be (Rom. 8:7).

The truth is, the natural man wants nothing to do with what God commands.  Our current 24-hour news cycle as well as all recorded history bears witness to this.  When we look at the news or the law codes of the nations both ancient and modern, we do see echoes of biblical morality, particularly in the legal codes of the once Christian West, where the influence of Scripture has been strongest.  But none of these codes are consistent with what our Creator requires of us.

And many of the things that we find in these law codes are profoundly at odds with one another.  Further, much of what we find there is reprehensible and abominable.  We find polygamy, chattel slavery, pederasty, infanticide, and abortion enshrined and codified as integral parts of the cultures of whole peoples, nations, and empires.

Worse still, we know from Scripture that every sin, every moral perversity imaginable, has at some time or other been elevated by fallen man to the role of virtue or religious service (Deut. 12:31).  The ancient Canaanites practiced prostitution, self-mutilation, and child sacrifice in their worship of Baal.  The Thuggee of India strangled thousands of travelers in the name of the goddess Kali.  And the Sawi tribe of Netherlands New Guinea embraced any kind of treachery (including cannibalism) as the greatest of virtues and the highest good. (When missionaries first presented the Gospel story to this New Guinea tribe, they actually mistook Judas as the hero because of his great betrayal.)

What Does Natural Law Actually Say?

In the light of all of this, we shouldn’t be surprised that no one has ever published a written testimony or transcript of natural law.  Even though adherents have said for centuries that’s it’s supposed to be accessible to all thoughtful and rational men… no one has ever written down what’s actually accessible or even a summary of its principles.

But if anyone ever makes the attempt, here are some questions he should answer along the way:

  • Is this law compatible with the Trinitarian-based law found in Scripture, particularly in the Ten Commandments? Is it a shorter or foggier version of biblical law, or is it another law-code altogether?
  • Does natural law allow for oaths of office or the use of oaths in courts? If so, in whose name should they be sworn?  And is that name a valid name for the Christian God and no other, or is it the name of some other yet-to-be-named deity?  (The State, perhaps?)
  • What exactly is murder? That is, who are those we are not to kill?  Does the answer depend on the age, gender, ethnicity, or medical fitness of the victim?
  • What is the just penalty for murder? Execution, imprisonment, rehabilitation, or maybe some kind of a mind-wipe?
  • What exactly constitutes theft? Is it theft if a poor man takes the property of a rich man?  What if the State does it for him?  What if the State calls it taxation? Or “nationalizing foreign holdings”? (What happens when “laws of nations” collide?)
  • What is the just penalty for theft? Restitution, imprisonment, or amputation?
  • Can civil government consider any sexual acts as crimes? If so, which ones?  What are the corresponding penalties for each act?
  • Should having more children than two be a civil crime? If so, what’s the proper sanction for that crime?
  • If there is disagreement to the answers given to the questions above, can we safely assume that those answers are wrong?
  • How many people have to agree with a certain answer before we should take them seriously? Everyone?  A significant majority?  A slight majority? How does natural law communicate the exact percentage?
  • If the answers to these questions are at odds with the law revealed in Scripture, can we assume that the God of the Bible is at war with the answers? Or, could He simply be mildly annoyed with them?

The Rise And Decline Of Natural Law

Is There Such A Thing As ‘Natural Law’?

Marcus Aurelius.

Bottom Line: Natural law is a pagan invention.  The Stoics came up with the idea to provide a universal law-order for the cosmopolitan world created by Alexander’s conquests.  Natural law, the Stoics said, is found in the divine intelligence or logos inherent in the cosmos itself (accessible to all right-thinking human beings).

Roman intellectuals picked up on this idea next.  “For there is one universe made up of all things, and one God who pervades all things, and one substance, and one law, one common reason in all intelligent animals, and one truth.” So wrote the philosopher Marcus Aurelius, the emperor whose “natural law” allowed for the persecution and murder of Christians.

Medieval theologians, philosophers, and legal experts brought natural law into Christian theology through a door marked “natural revelation.”  The muddy and confused concept of natural law, useful to kings and popes, continued through the Reformation and into the Enlightenment:  Greece to Rome to Aquinas to Locke.  But while some Christians today continue to profess natural law theory, most thinking atheists have given up on it altogether.  They usually cite Darwin.

Darwin’s doctrine of evolution completely rewrote man’s understanding of Nature.  Nature was no longer a given that could provide even a vague basis for law.  It was no longer a fixed metaphysical reality on which philosophers could hang any system.  Nature was process, always changing, always becoming.  No fixed laws.  Nature, then, is a perfect Hegelian synthesis … red in tooth and claw.  Laws like this, that move and change, are then laws of convention … the strongest kill the weakest.  This worked well for Stalin’s purges and Hitler’s death camps.  Think about it. If Nature is all there is, by what standard can you say Hitler, Stalin and Mao were wrong?

What standard would the Buddhist or Hindu use to condemn Hitler?

And so we come again to the absolute necessity of divine revelation.  We know right and wrong because God reveals it in Scripture.  There are no other standards.

Think Twice Before Saying ‘Merry Christmas’

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Think Twice Before Saying ‘Merry Christmas’

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“The joyful news of the birth of Christ is this restoration of man to his original calling with the assurance of victory.”

—Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (1973)

 

“He comes to make His blessings flow / far as the curse is found.”

—Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World” (1719)

 

The First Christmas

Jesus of Nazareth was born about 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, a small Judean village six miles south of Jerusalem.  At the time, Caesar Augustus was the emperor of the Roman world.  The king of Judea itself was Herod the Great, a master politician … cruel, insolent, and murderous.  Jerusalem, rich and cosmopolitan, was the pearl of Palestine.

The Jewish temple, which Herod had adorned, was magnificent beyond words, but its priestly rulers were apostate and worldly.  The Pharisees, who were the primary teachers of God’s word, were immersed in self-righteousness and legalism.  They strained at moral gnats and swallowed theological camels.  The faithful were few and mostly poor.  The age they lived in, both in Judea and beyond, was marked by disillusionment, despair and unbelief with spiritual leanings towards the mystical and irrational.  In many ways, Jerusalem at the time looked a lot like any big city in America today.

When Jesus was born, his mother and adoptive father were some 65 miles from their home in Nazareth, a backwater town in northern Galilee.  A Roman census had compelled Joseph to return to his family’s hometown to enroll himself for future taxation.  Mary, his espoused wife, went with him.  She was in her ninth month and “great with child.”  Apparently, the almost newlyweds didn’t want to be separated at this crucial time, and it is likely that Mary’s support network in Nazareth had unraveled.  Her friends and family would have judged her unchaste and either crazy or the queen of lies:  “Son of God, indeed!”

Crowds thronged the narrow streets of Bethlehem.  By the time Joseph and Mary reached the village, all the normal accommodations were taken … and there would have been few to begin with.  Finally, someone offered them a place in a stable.  Tradition says it was a cave.  The cramped area no doubt smelled of urine and dung.  The city streets were anything but silent.  The star that hung above the city went unnoticed.

Christian Heroes For Christian Kids: These Amazing Stories Are Putting God Back Into History!

Joseph most likely played midwife.  There was blood and screaming and placenta.  The baby cried.  There was no cradle.  Joseph cleaned out a manger, a feeding trough, to receive the baby.  Mary or Joseph wrapped the baby tightly in strips of linen cloth, “swaddling clothes,” and placed the newborn in the trough.  Mary tried to rest.

Think Twice Before Saying ‘Merry Christmas’

Image source: Pixabay.com

It would be a few hours later, perhaps, that a bunch of strange, tough-looking men would poke their heads into the stable and ask about a baby.  Joseph, at first defensive, would yield in wonder as these shepherds told of an angelic visitation announcing the birth of the Lord Messiah.  The shepherds had come to see the child.  Joseph let them pass.  The shepherds stared for a bit at what seemed a perfectly ordinary baby, and then they plunged back into the cold streets and told anyone they could about the angels and the baby.

So far, that’s the first Christmas.  The Magi or wise men (not kings) were still in the East (Persia, probably) planning their pilgrimage.  It would take them several months to reach Herod’s court in Jerusalem.  By then, Joseph had moved his family to a small house in Bethlehem and had found some type of daily work.  When the wise men arrived, slaughter came close on their heels, and the holy family fled into Egypt for sanctuary.  The gifts of the Magi funded their life in exile.

The Flight From History

Over the last hundred years the Church and the world have slowly but surely shoved the birth of Christ into a fairy tale world of “Bible stories, Bible people, Bible times.”  There is an incipient Gnosticism at work here and a strong contempt for real history.  The actual history of Christ’s birth has been ignored, adorned, and rewritten to give the whole thing a Romantic, otherworldly feel.  The “super-holiness” of sentimental awe has pushed aside the actual holiness of the holy God incarnate in the midst of His people.  What remains is a separation of the Gospel from historical reality, a separation of the religious and the real.

This disdain for history is nothing new.  It’s implicit or explicit in every form of unbelief known to man.  To see this more clearly, simply consider the consistent extremes of materialism and pantheism. Both streams of consciousness are alive and well, “worldviews” with us today.

The materialist reduces everything to atoms.  Reality is matter in motion.  Just that.  Nothing more.  Love, joy, hope … these are all just chemical reactions within other chemical reactions.  For folks who think consistently this way, there can be no such thing as history, let alone a meaning for history.  Energy particles explode in and out of chaos and eventually collapse in upon themselves again.  Or maybe they spread out beyond their own gravitational pull as the universe dies a cold death.  Who knows? And why should anyone care?  And what is “caring,” after all, but another meaningless chemical reaction?  Why should anyone care about anything?

The pantheist sees all historical and material things or “particulars” as illusions. To the pantheists, everything you see and touch in everyday life is simply a manifestation of an impersonal reality.  All is One.  John Lennon lived in this world and you probably remember the song … “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try.” So, to John Lennon and the folks that profess such things … “all that is” … is an equal expression of that One.  Master and slave, warmonger and peace child, rapist and victim, murderer and the murdered … not one of these distinctions are even real.  In this way of seeing the world, history doesn’t exist.  Neither does crime. There is only the One.  Meaning itself, as far as that goes, is a meaningless concept. Why? Because it suggests that there is something beyond the static reality of One.

The Word Was Made Flesh

Over against this nonsense, the biblical doctrine of the Incarnation establishes the reality of history and reveals its purpose and goal.

mary-josephFirst, the doctrine of the Incarnation presupposes the reality of Creator and creation.  God and His creation are real.  The Triune God exists eternally and necessarily as not only absolute personality but as the personal Source and Origin of all created reality, of all matter, space, and time.  God’s eternal decree and providence structure, determine, and define creation and its temporal flow.  History is what God decrees and is brought about by His providence.  It is … “His story.”

Second, the doctrine of the Incarnation highlights the central conflict within all history.  Humans are fallen.  We are in ethical rebellion against our Creator.  We have eternal punishment coming.  We are incapable of saving ourselves.  But God in His infinite mercy and grace has entered our history … has joined Himself to His creation … to save us from our sins through a death of penal substitution.  Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.

Third, the doctrine of the Incarnation establishes the meaning and goal of history.  The eternal Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, entered creation, became flesh, to undo the work of the Fall, to restore men to fellowship with God, and to establish His Kingdom in history and beyond history.  The Son of God came to save the world and to accomplish the restitution of all things to the glory of God.

Because Jesus Christ is eternal deity and because He has come in terms of God’s sovereign decree, He will accomplish His mission.  Jesus has redeemed the earth, and all history since the Resurrection is the outworking and application of that redemption.  History will see the full manifestation of His redeeming work.  He will reign until all enemies have been put under His feet.  But not just that … He will spread the blessings of His reign to the ends of the earth.

This is the message and reality of Christmas.

Merry Christmas!

Advent In Space And Time

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Advent In Space And Time

“After all, nitpicking the timeline of Xena: Warrior Princess is the surest way to madness.”

Chris Sims on the Xena Christmas Special (2015)

 

“Chronological Bible teaching presents a foundation for understanding Jesus’ death and resurrection”              

New Tribes Mission (2016)

 

Bible Stories, Bible People, Bible Lands

Remember the TV series Xena, Princess Warrior?  Frankly, there’s no reason you should.  My daughters caught some of this show in the 90s. But this crazy sword-and-sorcery series did serve up a good lesson on how not to think about the Bible.  In one episode Xena meets Ulysses, the shepherd boy David, and Julius Caesar.  That same season featured a Christmas episode.  Officially, it’s a Winter Solstice episode, I guess, but in the last few minutes Xena meets a young Jewish couple and their newborn Child.  Xena and her young partner provide them with a donkey.  Why not?

Xena apparently lives in “ancient times” or “the mythic ages.”  These seem to include at least the whole 1,200 years that preceded the birth of Jesus Christ.  Every character … historical or mythical … lives in these “mythic ages” and thus could show up on Xena as the needs of each week’s script required.

Now, what has this to do with teaching the Bible?  Just this:  An awful lot of Bible teachers … especially those who teach children … treat the historical accounts contained in the Old and New Testaments as “Bible stories” about “Bible people” who lived in “Bible times.”  These teachers apparently have, for the most part, a lot in common with the script writers of Xena. No sense of chronological history and no sense of cultural and sociological change in history are required.  No attention whatsoever is paid to the “cause-and-effect” flow that moved ancient history toward the coming of Christ.  Particularly, no attention is paid to the progression and development in God’s covenant dealings with His people over the first 4,000 years of Earth’s history.

Christian Heroes For Christian Kids: These Amazing Stories Are Putting God Back Into History!

Advent In Space And TimeAnd so, children come to Sunday school or Bible class week after week and hear stories about David and Goliath, Jonah and the whale, Noah and the Flood, and Jesus walking on the water.  Children hear stories out of historical sequence and with all the important “connective tissue” missing.  Children are then left with the lasting impression that these characters lived in “Bible times,” an upper-story, otherworldly existence, a lot like Xena’s mythic ages.  For such children, biblical history has become mythology and real only in the sense that myths are “real.”  The result borders on the tragic:  Teachers tell the Bible story, tag a moralistic lesson to it and call it a day.

The Gospel In Space And Time

This problem isn’t limited to Sunday school.  Many foreign mission programs seem to suffer from a similar malady.  Missionaries come to previously unreached people and master their language. They then hurry to tell them of the Savior Jesus who was born long ago in a land far, far away.  While this approach is better than leaving these folks in total darkness, it does carry with it very real and long-term liabilities.

At least one missionary organization has taken on this potential pitfall head on.  New Tribes Mission sends their people into the mission field with a timeline in one hand and an inflatable globe in the other.  NTM missionaries don’t begin with an in-depth study of the gospels.  Rather, they teach the Bible in historical order and then place these “histories” within the context of Earth’s actual geography.

Unreached people groups have no concept of the God of the Bible. So, Bible teaching begins at the same place God began with His chosen people: at the beginning. Chronological Bible teaching presents a foundation for understanding Jesus’ death and resurrection (https://usa.ntm.org/about/).

NTM has found that this approach to evangelism leaves fewer holes in their hearers’ understanding and provides a better foundation for discipleship than the more traditional approach.

The Historicity Of The Gospels

The gospels stand firmly in chronological sequence with the writings of Moses and the prophets.  Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy that reaches from Abraham to Jesus.  This is Jesus’ legal genealogy through his foster-father Joseph and the kings of Judah.  Luke gives us a balancing genealogy.  This is Jesus’ genealogy through His mother Mary, and it reaches all the way back to Adam.  Together, these genealogies tie the biblical account of Jesus’ birth to all the rest of human history and help fill in the gap between the close of the Old Testament and the opening of the New.

Not just that, but both Matthew and Luke set Jesus’ birth during the reign of Herod, the Roman-appointed king of Judea.  Matthew also names Herod’s son and successor, Archelaus.  Secular history tells us a great deal about Herod the Great, and it all dovetails exactly with how the Bible describes him.

But the gospels’ historical context and accuracy doesn’t end there.  For example, when Luke begins his account of Jesus’ ministry, he sets up the political situation in and around Judea with precision:

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness (Luke 3:1-2).

Luke also tells us that John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus (Luke 1:36) and that some six months into John’s ministry, Jesus came to him for baptism.  At that time “Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age” (v. 23).  Jesus was old enough to begin a priestly ministry lawfully (Num. 4:47 and Matt. 21:23-27).  Jesus’ submission to the Mosaic law at this point was key to the priestly dimension of His redemptive work.  Historical chronology matters to God and it should matter to us.

The Christmas Story

christmas-934177_640Of all “Bible stories,” the history of Jesus’ birth has probably suffered more than any other from an abstracted and Gnosticized disregard for history.  Nativity scenes and carols regularly ignore the historical facts of Christ’s birth and blur the harsh, down-to-earth realities described or implied in the gospel accounts.  The manger was a feeding trough for animals, not a sanitized cradle.  The Baby most certainly cried a lot and the night was most likely not particularly silent.  And unless the light from the Christmas star somehow poured through a hole in the stable roof … “round yon Mother and Child” wasn’t all that bright.  The Magi didn’t come to the manger that night, and the angels didn’t hover around the stable.  Not one participant wore a halo.  And let’s not forget the slaughter of the innocents by Herod’s soldiers in this story.  Yep, this is one huge epic drama full of terror, uncertainty and flight.

The truth of the Christmas story is this:  The Son of God came down into our history, in God’s perfect chronology and geography … for our salvation.  He came as a real man and lived among real men.  He was born a real baby with all that that means.  He humbled Himself for our salvation.  He carried our curse, all the way to the cross.  And then He rose from the dead victorious.

When we teach the “chronology of Christmas,” the gospel makes a lot more sense.

Getting Ready For The Messiah

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Getting Ready For The Messiah

The three centuries which followed the Macedonian conquest of Asia,
from the death of Alexander the Great 
to the fall of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt,
are perhaps the most thrilling of all periods of ancient history.

              —Peter Thonemann, The Hellenistic Age (2016)

 

The Hellenistic Age

Alexander’s conquests had merged the Hellenic world with the decaying Persian Empire, expanding it and giving it new life.  The Greek language, Greek literature, philosophy, and Greek political order spread all over the known world.  Polis gave way to kosmospolis, a universal city-state or “empire” in terms of which all men could find definition and meaning.  But Alexander died at 33, and his generals ripped the empire into four parts.  The Hellenistic Age began.

Getting Ready For The Messiah

Alexander. Image source: Wikimedia

The intellectual hub of all of this was Alexandria in Egypt.  There, a fully staffed library and museum gave mathematicians and natural philosophers funding as well as room to record, expand, and apply the learning of the ancients.  Alexandria was also the birthplace of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.

The philosophies that dominated this age quickly proved hopeless dead ends.  The Cynics spoke of virtue as mere self-sufficiency, possessions, and social ties.  The Epicureans sought comfort in inner serenity and turned their backs on whatever gods the others had.  The Skeptics completely gave up on epistemology.  They argued that we can’t know anything that lies behind sense experience.  The Stoics, a bit more hopeful, confessed a universe wholly determined by the Reason (Logos).  Here, at least, was some hope for a universal or natural law accessible to all reasonable men.  But in the end, it, too, proved hopeless, lacking clarity and codification.

The mindset and culture that existed within this political and philosophical framework struggled with both disillusionment and apathy, often veering wildly into the irrational.  Belief in an all-controlling Fortune was common.  So was belief in astrology.  Many turned to magic as if it were one of the more practical sciences. Finally, many sought salvation through the myriad of mystery cults.  Intellectually and spiritually, the Hellenistic Age was bankrupt … very much like our own.

Waiting For The Messiah

Throughout the Hellenistic world, however, there was a scattered people who were eagerly awaiting a whole new world.  The Jewish people were waiting for their Messiah.  They were waiting for the Kingdom of God and the outpouring of His Spirit.  As the years passed, they searched their sacred scrolls and watched the prophetic clock tick away its hours.  Isaiah had talked about a Persian named Cyrus 170 years before he conquered Babylon (Isa. 44:28; 45:1).  Zechariah had charted the course of Alexander’s conquests (Zech. 9).  And Daniel’s prophecies, though a bit fuzzy, were at least easy enough to follow in their broad outlines.

The prophecy of the “Metal Man” in Daniel 2 set the timeline for the Messiah in terms of the rise and fall of four world-kingdoms:  Golden Babylon, Argent Persian, Brazen Greece, and Iron Rome … followed at last by the Kingdom God.  The prophecy of the 70 Weeks in Daniel 9 marked out that same timeline in weeks of years:  70 “weeks” or 490 years from the decree to rebuild Jerusalem.  And the detailed prophecies of Daniel 11-12 spelled out the details of the political and military rivalries that would engulf Judea and Jerusalem, from Alexander’s death until the coming of Israel’s King.

Specifically, Daniel 11 describes the latter days of the Old Covenant in terms of the ongoing conflict between the kingdoms to the north and south of Judea. The Seleucid kingdom of Syria and Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt.  The kings of both dynasties are well-known to secular history, and over the centuries this familiarity has led unbelievers to condemn “Daniel” as a pseudo-prophet writing after the fact.  How else, they ask, could his descriptions of political and military history be so exact?  Such accuracy would require divine omniscience, after all!

The Abomination That Desolates

There are two periods within the Hellenistic Age to which Daniel’s prophecies give special attention.  The first is the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes and the second is the battle of Actium and rise of the Herodian dynasty.  Both culminated in times of great tribulation for the Jewish people.

Antiochus IV. Image source: Wikimedia

Antiochus IV. Image source: Wikimedia

Antiochus IV (215-164 BC) was the eighth of the Seleucid kings.  He called himself “Epiphanes”or “God manifest.”  His enemies called him “Epimanes” or “the Mad One.”

In 170 BC, after a successful campaign against Egypt, he seized Jerusalem, “made a great massacre,” and plundered the Temple of all its treasures.  Two years later, after Roman intervention prevented another move on Egypt, Antiochus turned his wrath more fully against the Jewish people (Daniel 11:29-30).  Again his armies occupied Jerusalem and slaughtered its inhabitants.  Antiochus even set up an idol-altar in the Temple and sacrificed to Zeus, the culmination of what Daniel calls “the abomination that makes desolate” (Daniel 11:31).  He put an end to the Temple ritual and forbade the Jews to observe the Mosaic Law.  He made circumcision and sabbath observance capital crimes.  He ordered the Jewish people to surrender all copies of Scripture to be burned.

Antiochus’s tyranny eventually provoked opposition.  Mattathias the priest and his sons, latter called the Maccabees, eventually led a successful revolt against Syria (Dan. 11:32-35).  This Maccabean Revolt recovered religious and civil liberty for the Jewish people, though in stages.  Judas Maccabeus recovered Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple (165 BC).  This rededication is still commemorated today in the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.  Political independence came 23 years later, and the Jewish people were able to maintain it for some 70 years.

The Willful King

Getting Ready For The Messiah

Herod. Image source: Wikimedia

The secular histories tell us that Rome gained control of Judea when two feuding Maccabean princes, brothers, invited Pompey to settle their quarrel. The Roman armies came and stayed, and Judea became a Roman province. A few years later, the Roman Senate, at the insistence of Marc Antony, declared Herod (the son of Antipater the Idumean) king of Judea.  This is where Daniel’s prophecy picks up … with a king “who shall do according to his will” and “speak marvelous things against the God of gods” (Dan. 11:36).  Scholar Alfred Edersheim describes Herod with these words:

Cunning, ambitious, bold, and energetic, he was equally hated and feared by his subjects.  The two distinguishing features of his character and government were the most unrelenting cruelty, which sacrificed even those nearest to him to the slightest suspicion, and a magnificence which induced him everywhere to raise lasting monuments to himself.

The backdrop for Herod’s rise to power was the struggle for control of Rome that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar.  Octavian and Marc Antony divided the emerging Roman Empire between themselves:  Octavian took the west, Antony the east.  Antony allied himself with Caesar’s former mistress, Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemaic dynasty.  What began as reciprocal distrust and a propaganda war quickly exploded into military conflict.  The key battle was fought off the coast of Actium (31 BC).  When things got hot, Cleopatra withdrew and Antony followed—all the way back to Egypt.  Octavian pursued, moving his forces by land through Palestine (Dan. 11:40-41).

Herod eventually met Octavian, even though he had originally sided with Marc Antony against Octavian.  But Herod, always the master politician, was able to ingratiate himself to Octavian and gain his political support depite the fact he was previously fighting against him.  Octavian continued into Egypt, only to find both Antony and Cleopatra already dead by their own hands (Dan. 11:42-43).  Octavian took control of Egypt, returned to Rome, and there declared himself Caesar Augustus.  The Roman Empire had come of age.  With Octavian’s blessing, Herod the Great was now on the throne of Judea (Dan. 11:45).

The advent of the Messiah was less than 30 years away.

Mary’s Song

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Mary’s Song

It is not the proud or the mighty or the rich who have the last word. 

Indeed, through his Messiah, God is about to over throw all these.

—Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Luke

 The Bible as History

When we say that the Bible is the Word of God, we mean that the Spirit of God breathed out His own words through human writers.  “Holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21), so that “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16).  The words of Scripture are in the most literal sense the words of God, infallible, inerrant, and authoritative.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the human writers had nothing to do with the process of composition.  The Spirit of God chose, prepared, and equipped the human authors and then made use of their personalities, intelligence, and gifts in the writing process.  They wrote, not as robotic software programs producing automatic writing, but as artists crafting profound and beautiful literature.

And so very little of Scripture comes to us as straight dictation from the mouth of God.  Only rarely did God completely override the intentions and actual will of His spokesmen.  (The wicked prophet Balaam is an example.)  Also rare were the occasions when the Spirit of God dumped a large amount of information into the mind of a previously ignorant writer.  God usually worked with what His servants knew or had learned.  For example, when God needed someone to write sacred history, He normally chose an educated man who had been an eyewitness to the events he was to describe.  In some cases, God moved the writers to interview eyewitnesses or to collect primary source documents.

Christian Heroes For Christian Kids: These Amazing Stories Are Putting God Back Into History!

Luke, for example, was a meticulous and careful historian.  Throughout his gospel and his history of the fledgling church — what we call the book of Acts — Luke cites documents, delivers direct quotations, and specifies geographical and political situations.  For example, in his gospel there are two occasions when he tells us what Jesus’ mother Mary was actually thinking:

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19).

 And Jesus went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart (Luke 2:51).

How did Luke know the thoughts of Mary’s heart?  My best guess is that she told him.  At some point, probably while the Apostle Paul was awaiting trial in Caesarea (Acts 24:27), Luke visited nearby Judea and did his research.  He most likely interviewed Mary.  He spoke with the available apostles and with some of the women who had accompanied Jesus.  He probably also visited the marketplaces and synagogues of the Judean countryside where he could still find some older residents who remembered the birth of John the Baptist.

In short, Luke, like all those who wrote holy Scripture, wrote with historical accuracy. That accuracy also bears authoritative witness to the words that Mary herself spoke under divine inspiration (Luke 1:35).  Those words, that song, we call the Magnificat (vv. 46-55).

The Magnificat

The inspired writers who composed poems and psalms wrote out of their own experience and with their own skill.  These were men — and in a few cases, women — who had read and studied Scripture, meditated upon it deeply, and made a great deal of applying it to life. Such a one was Mary of Nazareth.  When we read her song, we see her deep knowledge and understanding of the Old Covenant prophets.  We see also the fruit of her own study and meditation on the promises that God had made to His people.

Mary’s Song

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At many points, Mary’s song parallels and expands on the song that Hannah had written centuries before to celebrate Samuel’s birth (1 Sam. 1:1-10).  Both songs begin with joy in God’s salvation.  Both celebrate a great reversal that God will accomplish in history:  He will bring down the proud and exalt the humble to positions of power.  But Hannah’s song begins with the work of her son Samuel and looks forward to the coming of Messiah, God’s anointed King.  Mary’s song begins with the work of her Son, which she sees (in principle at least) as already accomplished.

My soul doth magnify the Lord,

and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.

For He hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:

for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

For He that is mighty hath done to me great things;

and holy is his name.

And His mercy is on them that fear Him

from generation to generation.

He hath shewed strength with His arm;

He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seats,

and exalted them of low degree.

He hath filled the hungry with good things;

and the rich He hath sent empty away.

He hath helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy;

As He spake to our fathers,

to Abraham, and to his seed forever.

Notice that Mary draws very little attention to herself.  She is God’s bondservant and in need of His salvation.  What God has done for her and will do through her is all of grace. Mary fully understood that God is a covenant-keeping God who shows mercy to those who fear Him to a thousand generations.  Now, with the advent of Messiah, God in flesh comes in to history personally to establish His kingdom as well as His righteous rule, in all of life and culture.

Mary goes on to describe the great upheaval that Messiah will bring about.  Through Messiah, God will scatter the proud through the very schemes they have devised against Him.  He will dethrone the mighty and raise the humble to positions of power.  He will strip the rich and fill the hungry with good things.  All of this, Mary says, will be the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises to Abraham and his seed.  God will bless all nations.

Conclusion: Taking Mary Seriously

Mary took God at His word.  The prophets had spoken at length of the historical, social, and political consequences of Messiah’s reign (Ps. 2; 72; 100; Isa. 2; 60; Dan. 2; 7).  They had no doubt that Messiah would change the world.  Mary’s song, in very simple terms, powerfully asserts the same.  There is nothing in this story of Gnostic fables or mystical experiences.  Mary isn’t playing with empty images.  She, like the prophets, is talking about the real world of politics, finance, intrigue, and power. She also knows her Son’s reign will eventually bring all life on this planet into conformity to God’s word.   She knows that her Son’s reign will change everything, forever and that every knee will bow.

Mary foresees the fruit of the Gospel in history and then lives her life in terms of this vision. This is our call as well — and knowing isn’t enough. We must live our lives in terms of the promised fruit of the Gospel.

Time For A New American Thanksgiving

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Time For A New American Thanksgiving

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With President Obama and the Clintons now dust in the wind, what do Americans need more than anything else to “reboot” this great nation? What’s the secret sauce that could get us going again and make the biggest difference at this time in our country’s history?

What all Americans need most right now is a self-conscious and continuing mindset of Thanksgiving. We need hearts thankful that we were born into the greatest nation in human history. Further, thankfulness that God used our Founding Fathers to bless this country with an amazing degree of freedom and for the first 200 years… the most remarkable standard of living ever known.

What we desperately need to get back to is a permanent sense of thanksgiving for the faith and courage of our unconquerable forebears who, with a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other… crossed our untamed rivers and rugged mountains… farmed the land… developed the resources and built our industrial infrastructure… all to secure a place for themselves and for us. They were a special breed, tough and free, seeking not just a place to worship. Their desire was to build a “City on a Hill.”

In the beginning, they came from England. Persecuted by James I and his High-Church henchmen. Despite their hardships, they came with thankful hearts. But the humble Pilgrims were also strong, determined, and bold. They had to be. Future Plymouth Governor William Bradford describes their mindset: “What could they see when they came ashore but a hideous, dark and desolate wilderness?”

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“With little what could sustain them… but the spirit of God and his grace. May not and aught not the children of these fathers rightly say, ‘Our fathers were Englishmen and came over this great ocean and were ready to perish in this wilderness. And they cried out to the Lord and he heard their voice and looked on their adversity. They praised the Lord because he is good and his mercies endure forever.’”

Our nation was founded and preserved by men and women who believed in individual freedom, in high biblical values, and in personal responsibility. But even that was not enough for them. No. They regularly got down on their knees and asked the assistance of an Almighty God. Not just out of weakness, though, but because, over and over, even their great strength and best efforts fell short at times.

Time For A New American Thanksgiving

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From the very start, prayer was an important part of our American tradition. Imagine seeing the great skeptic Benjamin Franklin calling for prayer at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia that produced the remarkable document that is the Constitution of the United States. Imagine seeing a well-dressed foreign diplomat at the time, visiting the Continental Congress and asking a friend which of the delegates George Washington was… only to be told: “Mr. Washington is the man on his knees giving thanks to God.”

Let us be thankful for such heroes. For a George Washington, our nation’s “Indispensable Man” and Father of our Country… for the brilliant Patrick Henry… for the steadfast John Adams and for the great Christian general, Robert E. Lee. And let us thank God for the Pattons and MacArthurs. May the Lord again give us such heroes! As Tennyson wrote:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek to find, and not to yield.

That’s the greatness of America that President-elect Trump should return us to. He’s got his work cut out for him given the damage President Obama has done. Instead of being strong, confident and thankful, for the last eight years we’ve been weak, apologetic and guilt-ridden. We have let this President and his minions turn us into the most guilt-ridden people in all of recorded history. Think about it. Whatever bad happens anywhere in the world, it is somehow made out to be our fault. We send aid around the world and we’re called corrupt. After defeating Germany and Japan, we defended Korea and tried to help Vietnam only to be accused of imperialism. The president of Mexico insults our new President, suggesting that it’s because all Americans are guilty of exploitation.  The world spits in our face and we call it morning dew.

My guess is we still give away more goods, services, equipment, food, and money than all the nations in the history of the world combined. We hang our heads in shame as we discuss slavery and anti-Semitism — as though millions of Americans didn’t die to free slaves and destroy the Nazis. President Obama has dialed our national self-respect setting to “off” and we’re a sick nation because of it.

Meanwhile, teachers in our schools tell America’s youth that every virtue we possess has some secret agenda hidden behind it. George Washington was a thief with wooden teeth, Ben Franklin a con man, MacArthur, arrogant and shallow. Jefferson raped black slaves, and on and on. We have apparently forgotten that the world respects only those individuals and nations which respect themselves. Our kids must be taught this.

Time For A New American Thanksgiving

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Our schools teach that socialism is good while free enterprise is a sure road to ruin. Really? Is that really true? Much of the world is already living in socialist “hell,” after all. We know what it looks like. That said, Americans should realize and teach our children to be thankful that, despite Obama’s best efforts at socializing our country…  we’re in still in Heaven compared to most of the world. And we should teach our kids to be eternally thankful to God for it.

As I think more about it, America is probably the least guilty and perhaps the most altruistic of all the nations in all human history. In 1946 we could have conquered the world and created a Pax Americana.  Instead, we disarmed ourselves, paid reparations to our enemies and went on to build back up the nations we just defeated.

America is the most generous, most maligned, and least appreciated nation in the world.  As I said, America rehabilitated Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and Japan after World War II, pouring in billions of dollars, providing equipment, machinery, workers, and know-how that we alone possessed.

Germany and Japan today seem to have forgotten this, even as we continue to pay for their defense. To the critics who claim we only did it in self-interest, let me respond by saying how happy I am that our space exploration has found Mars uninhabited so we won’t be expected to supply Martians with foreign aid and make new enemies in space.

When people anywhere in the world are hit by earthquakes or other natural catastrophes, who sends the help? The United States. When American cities are flattened by hurricanes or tornadoes, who helps? Nobody.

So now with the socialist “putter” out of office, let’s quit apologizing to a world we’ve fed, built up and protected. Let’s quit placating, buying, and bribing our enemies. America has been the light of the world, the hope of the world, the envy of the world and has no need for any sort of inferiority complex… let alone making it a required subject in school. Seriously, can a nation that trains its youth to be guilty of everything under the sun even survive?

How ironic that we should be told we must feel guilty about our guilt, arrogance, and materialism, and yet we are the only nation on the face of the earth where most of the world’s people still want in and no one wants out except liberal celebrities. We Americans have a great deal for which to be thankful.

Of course, we’ll always have problems. We’re sinners, after all. But we can gain perspective on them with a little humorous optimism.  For instance, we can be thankful it costs less per paycheck to feed a child than it did his father. We can be thankful America still has an almost unlimited faith in our young people; even Obama wanted to prove this by the size of the debt he expects them to pay off.

We can also be thankful a new Republicans Congress is finally forced to face an urgent unsolved problem: how to get the people to pay the taxes they can’t afford for services they don’t need. And let’s be thankful we’ve still got more free speech in this country than anywhere else — though we do need a great deal more of it that’s worth listening to.

Being forever thankful, you see, doesn’t mean we should be perennial Pollyannas. We ought to have some worries. A reasonable number of fleas keeps a dog scratching, after all. If we do the best we can, where we are, with what we’ve got, that will be more than enough to preserve our country. We can’t all do great things — but we can all do small things in a great way.

Want To Know About The REAL Constitution And What The Founders Truly Intended?

Time For A New American Thanksgiving

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I’m thankful I have an assistant who’s more organized and smarter than I am. She knows when I want to be forced to do something against my will. I’m also thankful that I went in business for myself at an early age, so I never had to get through a job interview. I’m thankful that I love my work, although sometimes I feel like an overworked coal mine — cracked, polluted, and full of noxious gas. I guess we all feel like that sometime. But I know and am thankful to God that He gave us plenty of coal, if we’ll just mine it.

You know, years ago a theologian named Greg Bahnsen taught me that “ingratitude” is the worst sin of all. Also many years ago, my wife’s grandfather told about a time during the Depression of the Thirties when he was complaining with his friends how hopeless everything was.  Hunger, mass unemployment, banks closed, ruined men jumping out of windows. “There’s just not much to be thankful for,” one of his friends remarked.

My wife’s grandpa replied: “Well, I for one am grateful to Mrs. Collins.” She was a schoolteacher who a decade before had gone out of her way to encourage him in his studies. “Did you ever thank her?” one of his friends asked. He hadn’t. But that night he wrote to her.

In a week or so this answer came, written in a shaky older hand: “My dear Warren:  I want you to know what your note meant to me. I am an old lady in my eighties living alone in a small, lonely room.

“You will be interested to know, Warren, that I taught school for fifty years; and, in all that time, yours is the first letter of appreciation I have ever received. It came on a cold January morning and it warmed and cheered my lonely old heart as nothing has cheered me in many years.”

One of the many regrets of my own life is my failure to express gratitude enough. Not only to those who have meant so much to me but also to those folks I didn’t even know, folks who sacrificially gave of themselves to make this a better nation and a better world.

Thanksgiving is definitely a time that we, as a nation, have set aside to express our gratitude to our Heavenly Father, from whom all blessings flow.  It is also a time, if we will make it so, to remember to express our appreciation to our family, friends, educators, employees, pastors, and courageous patriots that aren’t afraid to stick their necks out.

God has blessed America! Be thankful for it. Pray daily that He will continue to do so. And work your hardest to preserve the liberty of this great and blessed land.

Awaken Your Child’s Love Of History And Put God Back Into History! Read More Here.

Understanding Biblical Storytelling

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Understanding Biblical Storytelling

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Man is the image of God.  He necessarily creates stories and enjoys them.

 —Greg Uttinger, “The Lord of the Rings: A Good Story” (2012)

Deep comedy is a product of Christianity, a mark of resurrection life on the pages of Western literature.

—Peter Leithart, “Deep Comedy” (2006)

 

Introduction

I’ve discussed in broad terms the biblical foundations for many areas of life and thought, including the arts in general.  Now let’s look at the narrower “art” of storytelling.  As with all things we start with God … not just God as Creator, but in God as a personality and who He truly is.  So we begin with the ontological and then the economic Trinity.

Sounds complicated, but all I’m saying is that from eternity God is a self-communicating God.  The Father begets the Son.  The Father and Son breathe forth the Holy Spirit to one another.  You see this over and over in the Bible. That said, let’s look at the doctrine of the Son’s “eternal generation” a bit more closely.

Great Stories and The Ontological Trinity

The Son is the glow of the Father’s glory and the express image of His Person (Heb. 1:3).  The Father looks upon His Son, and He is well pleased (Matt. 3:17; 12:18; Prov.  8:30).  In other words, the Father communicates to the Son and Spirit without any loss in the communication itself.  And … the Son doesn’t compromise the Father’s image or muddy up His glory in any way.

To understand the literary significance of this doctrine, we can contrast Christ the Son with the pagan deities … with Cronos who castrates his father or Zeus who does the same.  With Isis who poisons her ancestor Ra and grabs his power.  Or with Loki who raises the forces of chaos and death against Odin and his allies at Ragnarok.  The pagan myths show us that the gods beget troubled children much to their sorrow.  More broadly, these myths regard any move beyond the beginning as a misstep, a corruption of the ideal, a fall of sorts.

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Mysticism in general echoes this thought stream.  That’s why any frameworks that move away from original divinity always lead to distortion and loss.  Only true, Trinitarian balance and harmony provide conceptualization for story.  This understanding of deity creates a backdrop for “the happy ending” so crucial to traditional storytelling.  Meaning … any move from the origin results in catastrophe and tragedy.

The biblical doctrine of the Trinity rejects the tragic endings implicit in pagan ontology.  God’s self-communication does not end in failure but in glory.  The Origin finds full and glorious expression in His complete Revelation.  The Father is glorified in His well-beloved Son, and the Son rejoices in His Father (John 17).

The Covenant of Redemption:  God as Storyteller

Understanding Biblical Storytelling

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Just how the Son glorifies the Father, and the Father the Son, is the story of the Gospel.  But that Gospel story has its origin in the eternal counsels of the Godhead.

Here’s what I mean by that:  Scripture tells us of God’s eternal decrees.  It places these decrees in the context of the eternal fellowship that is the Trinity.  Before the world began, the Persons of the Godhead made promises to one another (Titus 1:2).  They assumed obligations (John 14:31; 17:2).  They took on roles.  The Father gave the Son a people and instructions concerning them (John 17).  The Son became the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8; cf. 1 Pet. 1:19-20).  The Holy Spirit agreed to wait on the earthly work of the Son and to come in His name (John 16:7-15; cf. 7:39).  In eternity they agreed upon all this and much more.

In other words, before the world began, the Persons of the Trinity communicated to one another the nature of the history they would create.  They communicated all that they would do, all that would happen, down to the smallest detail (Isa. 46:10; Acts 15:18).  Not just that … they rejoiced in their plan.  This is where Storytelling begins, but it isn’t where it ends.  God made His story real:  He created heaven and earth.

God’s Story:  Setting, Conflict and Characters

Every story needs a setting.  God set His story (primarily) on Earth.  The story starts “in the beginning” and carries on to the Last Day, to the Resurrection and Final Judgment.

Now, stories as we understand them on this side of the Fall arise out of conflict.  Guides to good reading usually list the more common conflicts:  man v. man, man v. woman, man v. nature, man v. God or the gods, man v. himself, and so on.  But all of these conflicts are the result of the Fall.  In any given story, the specific conflicts either arise out of the sins of the characters or out of the common curse that afflicts men because of sin.  Examples are legion but include battles with disease, wild beasts or natural disasters.

Conflict, of course, presupposes actors … heroes, villains, and victims (protagonists and antagonists).  In God’s story, God Himself is the Hero.  The apparent conflict He must resolve for us rises out of God’s justice and our sin.  It is simply this:  How can God be just and yet forgive rebellious sinners?  God answers this question through the Gospel story as Christ battles Satan (the Dragon) for the life of world.  This story unfolds through 4,000 years of redemptive history.

It is of course “a thriller” of a story and mystery as well.  Only God in His infinite wisdom knew its solution, and He revealed it in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 2:7-9; Rom. 16:25-26).  It’s also an action/adventure story.  The Son of God came into the world to wage war against the Dragon and to destroy his works (Matt. 4; Rev. 19).  I suppose on some level it’s even a romance.  The resolution of the story required the eternal Bridegroom to lay down His life for the Bride He loved (Eph. 5:28).  Jesus Christ, then, is the archetypical Hero, who really does save the world (John 3:16-17).

God’s Story:  Big Plotlines

God’s story begins with the creation of the world and man’s fall into sin.  Here the conflict within history begins.  But at the garden gate, God promises to rescue His people (the Bride), but He does not explain in any detail how He will manage it.  He speaks obscurely of “the Seed of the Woman” and institutes sacrifice (a foreshadowing of the Cross).  As redemptive history unfolds, we see the life-and-death struggle between the Woman and her seed and the Dragon and his seed.  The Dragon tries again and again to seize the Bride and bring forth his own seed through her or to destroy her and her seed. Sometimes he nearly succeeds.  Yikes!  These attempts are all plot complications.  They introduce tension and we experience suspense as we wait to see what God will do.  And, of course, God always maintains His promise and rescues the seed … usually in some creative, unexpected, even humorous way.

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As the story reaches its climax, God steps into the story as a true man (the Incarnation).  But His identity is concealed (the prince-in-disguise, nice!).  He comes with an incredible plan, divine power and self-sacrificing love.  He is the Prophet, King, and Priest of redemption.  He dies for His Bride (the ultimate plot complication) and rises from the dead to save her (the ultimate plot reversal).  The Hero ascends His throne, and the story rushes quickly to its dénouement (last bits of business and final expla­nations) in the book of Acts and the Epistles.  As Revelation shows us, the King and His Bride live happily ever after (final resolution).  God’s story is very deep comedy and about as far away from pagan tragedy as you can get.

Humans As Storytellers

God’s story is reality.  Most of ours are not.  But because we are made in God’s image, we are by nature … image bearers and sub-creators.  We imitate our heavenly Father in devising sequenced events that always stay in our limited sphere.  We do so to probe the nature of God’s world as well as our own hearts.  We invent stories for wonder, for relaxation and escape. We also create stories that inspire growth in understanding and wisdom.  And here’s the thing … the better our stories conform to God’s template … the more powerful and impactful they will be.

Obviously, not every story can imitate the archetype in all its dimensions.  This is normal, proper and just makes good sense.  After all, even Scripture contains stories within stories.  And though the doctrine of the Trinity guarantees that the Gospel story ends in glory … it contains many stories of sadness and defeat.  Why?  Well, sin and death are real problems in this crazy temporal world of ours.  But not forever.  The literary universe in which the Christian writes is one of love, truth, and hope.   It is one that allows our imaginations to soar beyond the stars … but keeps our hearts grounded in the holiness and love of the Triune God.

For Further Reading:

Francis Nigel Lee, The Central Significance of Culture (N. p.:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976).

Henry R. Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House Co., 1972).

Gene Edward Veith, Reading between the Lines, A Christian Guide to Literature (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway Books, 1990).

Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times, A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway Books, 1994).

Leland Ryken, The Christian Imagination (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1981).

Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination, Thinking Christianly About the Arts (Wheaton, IL:  Harold Shaw Publishers, 1989).

Leland Ryken, Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective (Wheaton, IL:  Harold Shaw Publishers, 1991).

Greg Uttinger, “The Trinity and Storytelling,” Chalcedon Report, Oct 2003, no. 456, Vallecito, CA.

Peter Leithart, Deep Comedy:  Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature (Moscow, ID:  Canon Press, 2006).

Richard Purtill, Lord of the Elves and Eldils:  Fantasy and Philosophy in C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1974).

Freedom Of Speech: Can You Really Say Anything You Want?

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Freedom of Speech: Can You Really Say Anything You Want?

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If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable.       

— Justice William Brennan, Texas v. Johnson (1989)

What is the liberty of the press?

Who can give it any definition which would not leave the utmost latitude for evasion?

—Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers, #84 (1788)

The First Amendment

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

This is the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.  It guarantees, among other things, freedom of speech.  The clause that contains the words “freedom of speech” also adds “or of the press.”  It recognizes that each in some measure is involved in the other.

The first clause protects the “free exercise” of religion, something that obviously includes the freedom to espouse ideas and doctrines that others in the community might find objectionable.  The last clause says the people have the right to assemble peaceably and “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  These, too, have implications for both speaking and writing.

The impetus for the First Amendment came from the Anti-Federalists, patriots who looked at the proposed Constitution with grave, even violent, suspicion.  These men, generally writing out of a true concern for civil liberty, were afraid that the Constitution would create a tyrannical central government and threaten the very liberties they had fought a war to reassert and defend.  Some of the Anti-Federalists were never reconciled to the new order, but others were willing to sign on if the Constitution was supplied with a bill of rights.  In the end, the Federalist agreed.

Hamilton’s Objections

Writing in a series of articles eventually collected as The Federalist (1788), Alexander Hamilton argued that a bill of rights was not only unnecessary, but also quite possibly dangerous.  He argued, for instance, that the “freedom of the press” was incapable of any clear definition.

Freedom of Speech: Can You Really Say Anything You Want?Who can give it any definition which would not leave the utmost latitude for evasion?  I hold it to be impracticable; and from this, I infer, that its security, whatever fine declarations may be inserted in any constitution respecting it, must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the government.  And here, after all, as intimated upon another occasion, must we seek for the only solid basis of all our rights (#84).

Hamilton distrusted what he saw as meaningless platitudes. He thought, rather, that the meaning and defense of “the freedom of the press” must rest with the character and conscience of the people and their elected officials.  By extension, the same would be true for that broader category: freedom of speech.

Liberty in France

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, France’s National Assembly was pounding out its own manifesto concerning human rights:  The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789).  With regard to freedom of speech, the Declaration said this:

No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.

The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.

The revolutionary government wanted to glory in freedom, but it inevitably had to recognize that the words “freedom of speech” needed context and qualification.  Public order required it.  Therefore the State would have to set limits on this hypothetical freedom.  But the National Assembly, beyond a general appeal to natural rights and a respect for the liberty of others, did not give specific standards or guidelines for the laws that might properly define and limit freedom of speech.

The Source of Liberty

Freedom of Speech: Can You Really Say Anything You Want?

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Freedom needs definition … it needs boundaries.  Absolute freedom, true anarchy, is simply chaos, and necessarily ends in the triumph and tyranny of the man with the most guns — or a controlling share in the media.  True freedom requires order, but an order that respects the image of God in man, that does not coerce private opinion, and that does not require a man to sin against his own conscience.  In other words, true freedom requires the boundaries of law.

But the question is:  Which law?  Or whose law?  By what standard should we or can we measure out and limit true freedom?  Which law-order, if any, is truly compatible with liberty?

Once again we return to the issue of ontology or “being.” If reality is at bottom undifferentiated spirit or impersonal atomistic matter, then any talk of right or of rights is meaningless.  What is, is right.  There is no transcendent standard by which right and wrong may be measured, no absolute beyond existence by which we might legitimately say, “This is right, and this is wrong.”  And in the absence of any applicable moral absolutes, the concept of human rights is dead in the water.  We may speak of “rights” granted by society or the State, but this is pure chimera.  Such “rights” are nothing but bare permission for the moment and can be taken away as easily as they were granted.  No harm, no foul.  What is … is “right.”

Only on the basis of a transcendent Absolute can there be any real talk of right and wrong or of human rights.  Liberty, to be anything more than bare, momentary permission from the existing social order, must be rooted in an Absolute that stands outside of and beyond all human social order and all created reality.  Liberty is meaningful only on the presupposition of the personal Creator God, who both transcends creation and is immanent within it, and who has spoken to man in words he can understand.  A meaningful concept of liberty presupposes the Triune God of Scripture.

What Do the Scriptures Say?

But it isn’t enough to say that liberty comes from God.  We must actually search God’s Word to see how His law provides for and limits freedom – in this case, freedom of speech.  We must especially note the difference God’s law makes in this area between sins and crimes.  Not every sin is a crime.  Not every lie or bit of gossip or angry exclamation is a crime as far as Scripture is concerned.  By principle and case law, Scripture tells us what limits civil law ought to place on speech and related forms of communication.

The ‘Off-The-Grid’ Christmas Story

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The 'Off-The-Grid' Christmas Story

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus / Born to set Thy people free.

– Charles Wesley, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” (1744)

 The Redeemer has broken every bond: / The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.

– Placide Cappeau, O Holy Night, (1847)

 

In the Beginning

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.  Then God created man in His own image.  He gave us the world and promised us life and joy.  But we rebelled against God’s word.  Adam chose to place his own interpretation on reality, an interpretation shaped by his inward desire to be his own god.

God could have destroyed man and his world on that day.  But instead, He made a promise.  A Hero would come to reconcile God to man and man to God (Gen. 3:15).  And as a sign and seal of that promise, God sacrificed animals … probably lambs … and clothed our first parents with their skins.

As the faithful thought about that sacrifice, as they repeated it year after year, they should have seen that the sacrificial lamb died in the place of rebels.  The lamb was a representative, a substitute of sorts.  Through the sacrificial lamb, God was promising reconciliation and peace through a substitute.

But the lamb itself was not the substitute. After all, the slaughter of lambs and goats and bulls would go on for 4,000 years.  Every sacrifice pointed to the Substitute, but no animal sacrifice was the Substitute.  The faithful could have reasoned that the promised Hero would be the Substitute, but that would be an incredible conclusion, because the Substitute had to die.  But Heroes never die in a good story … do they?

Waiting for Messiah

The 'Off-The-Grid' Christmas StoryTwo thousand years after God gave His first promise, He called Abraham out of the city of Ur in Mesopotamia and led him to the land of Canaan — what we call Palestine.  God gave him a promise.  Abraham would become the channel through whom God would bless the whole world.  “In thy Seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18).  Abraham would be the ancestor of the great Hero who would restore the world to God’s blessing.

To confirm this promise, God swore an oath to Abraham.  In a terribly stark but powerful ceremony, God swore unilaterally that He would not let His promise fail … that He Himself would die rather than let His promise fail (Gen. 15).  There was a hint here.  Later, God imposed the bloody rite of circumcision on Abraham and his descendants.  Circumcision pointed to the necessity of God’s saving grace.  There could be no hope in natural generation.  The flesh could only produce the flesh.  The promised Seed, the Hero and Substitute, would be born through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Abraham, of course, was the ancestor of the Jewish people.  And for 2,000 years their prophets and seers drew word-pictures of the coming Hero:

He would be the Seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Judah, of the seed of David.  He would be born of a virgin, in Bethlehem of Judea (Isa. 7; Mic. 5).  He would appear 70 weeks of years after Cyrus ordered the Temple rebuilt (Dan. 9).  He would arrive in the days of the fourth great world empire, the one that succeeded Babylon, Persia, and Greece (Dan. 2).  He would come when Rome ruled the world.

The Hero, the Substitute, would be God’s Anointed, His Messiah.  He would be a Prophet like Moses, a Priest like Melchizedek, a King greater than David.  He would sit at God’s right hand, ruling in justice, wrath and mercy.  His government and peace would fill the earth (Isa. 9).  All kings would bring Him tribute; all nations would serve Him (Ps. 72).

And yet this great Hero, this Messiah, would be despised, rejected, afflicted — without comeliness, without beauty (Isa. 53).  His own people would conspire with the Gentiles to destroy Him (Ps. 2). He would be betrayed by His friend, deserted by His disciples, surrendered to the Gentiles, numbered with criminals, mocked by His enemies, pierced in His hands and feet, hung on a tree, slain and buried in a borrowed tomb.

And on the third day He would rise from the dead and take His seat at God’s right hand (Ps. 110).

With this picture of the Messiah fully drawn, the prophets fell silent, and 4,000 years passed.

The Child Is Born

The 'Off-The-Grid' Christmas Story

Image source: Pixabay.com

Finally … in the fullness of time … when Augustus was emperor, when Herod the Great was king of Judea … when pagan idolatry and Greek philosophy had not simply failed, but carried culture into the depths of depravity … the Messiah came (Matt. 1-2; Luke 1-2).  They called Him “Jesus.”  He was born by miracle, born of a virgin without the interference of a human male.  He was born in innocence and holiness.  He was born the incarnate Son of God.

Incarnation.  What a word.  And on it the whole promise of reconciliation turns.  God Himself becomes the Hero.  God became man.  He took to Himself a true human nature.  And yet He remained God, eternal deity:  one Person, two natures.  “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

The creeds of the Church put it this way:

I believe . . . in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man (Nicene Creed).

. . . [W]e teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. . . (Formula of Chalcedon).

This Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior, the Hero.  No other.

Because Jesus was truly man, He could suffer and die in the place of men.  Because He was true God, His life was of infinite value, and He could bear all of God’s wrath against sinners.

The Belgic Confession (1561) summarizes the Gospel with these words:

We believe that God, who is perfectly merciful and just, sent his Son to assume that nature, in which the disobedience was committed, to make satisfaction in the same, and to bear the punishment of sin by his most bitter passion and death. God therefore manifested his justice against his Son, when he laid our iniquities upon him; and poured forth his mercy and goodness on us, who were guilty and worthy of damnation, out of mere and perfect love, giving his Son unto death for us, and raising him for our justification, that through him we might obtain immortality and life eternal.

Jesus died on the cross in the place of guilty sinners.  The third day He rose again.  He returned to life to give life to His people.  He ascended to heaven and sat down at the Father’s right hand.  He is Lord of all, and He reigns with truth and grace. He forgives sins and changes lives. He frustrates and destroys His enemies. He directs history in all its details toward the peace and blessedness the prophets foretold.  Those who trust in Him have peace with God now and an eternal place in His kingdom.

This is the meaning of Christmas.

The Thanksgiving Blessing Almost Everyone Forgets

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You say, ‘If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.’ You make a mistake.
If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled.”
Charles Haddon Spurgeon

How Do We Know Anything?

The Thanksgiving Blessing Almost Everyone ForgetsEpistemology is the study or philosophy of knowledge.  It answers the questions, “How do we know?” and, “How do we know that we know?”  These questions aren’t simply about ways of teaching and learning or about accuracy in media.  They’re about our deepest assumptions and presuppositions concerning life.  How is knowledge even possible… knowledge of yourself, knowledge of the world, and knowledge of God?

Epistemology may seem an odd topic for Thanksgiving.  And the connection between epistemology and Thanksgiving may not be immediately obvious.  Some quick Internet searches suggest that the only connection between epistemology and “thanksgiving” can be summed up in a question, one mostly asked by skeptics:  How do we know there’s a God to whom we ought to be thankful?

Great question. Onward.

Romans 1

First and foremost, Scripture insists that human knowledge rests completely upon God’s self-revelation.  God reveals Himself in creation generally, and then more specifically, in man’s nature.  Man is the very image of God.  Which means that we can know things with certainty.  That is, we are morally obligated to receive God’s self-revelation and to understand the whole universe in terms of it.  The problem is that we’re sinners.   And in our natural state … we’re not on good terms with God and for the most part we hate anything that even points to God … which means that we also hate real knowledge.

Paul describes this “biblical epistemology” in the first chapter of Romans.  There he argues for the clarity of a general revelation. Man, he says, is confronted with the knowledge of God, the true God, indelibly stamped in his own nature and written in a big, big way across the scope of all creation (v. 19).  It’s always been that way, Paul says.  God’s divine nature and sovereignty have been manifest in the things He has made from the beginning of creation (v. 20).  But men willfully and culpably suppress this knowledge in unbelief (v. 18-20).  So in one sense all humanity knows God, although apart from the grace of God … we suppress this knowledge.  Paul goes further and speaks of a time in history “when they knew God” but willfully rejected that knowledge out of ingratitude. Now we’re getting somewhere.

There were, in fact, two times in human history when all living humanity acknowledged the reality of the Creator God and the validity of His claims on mankind.  In Eden after the Fall, and on Ararat after the Flood (Gen. 3; 9).  Folks heard the promise of God and gave thanks for His mercy.  But that thankfulness was pretty much short-lived.

In each case, within a few generations, men became outright annoyed with God.  Yep, they knew God, but refused to give Him glory (v. 21).  They even grumbled about His laws and His providence.  They complained about His nature. They wanted Him to be more like them.  Paul describes this by simply saying that … they weren’t thankful.

So, since they didn’t like how God did things, they reinvented Him.  They imagined that God was like man … or like the birds of heaven, or the beasts of the earth, or the snakes and beetles that crawl in the dust (v. 23).  And they gave form to their imaginations and manufactured idols.  They worshiped the works of their own hands … manifestations of their own creative and reproductive energies.

Bottom line: They worshiped sex and power.  And God then seemed to let them have what they wanted most: their own way.

pilgrims 2Paul then says that God in judgment gave them over to “reprobate” minds, minds void of judgment (v. 28).  And if they wouldn’t make the logical distinction between God and beasts and bugs, He would abandon them to the full range of such craziness.  Paul describes in some detail the ethical degradation that came from this type of idolatry, but he begins with man’s intellectual inability to discern the true nature and proper use of human sexuality.

It’s not surprising, then, that men who put the transcendent God in the same category with a piece of wood or a rock eventually found that they could no longer think in clear sexual categories.  Ingratitude has both ethical and epistemological consequences.

God, Knowledge And Community

God’s self-revelation is tied to His total self-knowledge.  God fully understands, fully loves, and fully delights in His creation.  He is absolute love, goodness, and joy.  As eternal “Trinity-in-Unity,” the Father loves and delights in His Son (Matt. 17:5), the Son rejoices in His Father (Prov. 8:30-31), and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father to the Son and from the Son to the Father as the living, divine bond of their love and delight (John 15:26; 16:7-15).  God, then … is overflowing joy and delight.

As far as we’re concerned, God is the Author of every good and perfect gift (Jas. 1:17).  There is nothing we can give Him that He has not first given us.  And yet in His absolute self-sufficiency, He calls us to find our joy in Him (Ps. 43:4).  He calls us to be thankful and to enjoy that thankfulness in Him.

pilgrims faithBut since the Fall, this is only possible when we come to Him through faith in Christ crucified and risen (Rom. 15:13).  Only those whose sins are forgiven have real cause to be thankful and rejoice in God.  Only those who have been born again by God’s Spirit can lift grateful hearts and voices to God in true thanksgiving.  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge and the starting point of true joy and thanksgiving.

Summary

Ingratitude leads humanity to idolatry.  Thankless humanity then reinvents God to free themselves from His laws and ordinances.  But when they reject and replace the true God, they also reject the very basis of value and meaning.  They reject the living Truth and find their world devoid of any absolute.  For these folks … all things are relative.  Truth is meaningless.  Ethics are fleeting.  Claims to knowledge are merely power plays to control, enslave, and abuse.

Thankfulness, on the other hand, is really just submission to reality.  It’s not only a recognition that God exists but also a joyful understanding of who God is and what He’s done in time and space.  Thankfulness, then, is the natural response of true faith to the goodness and grace of God in creation and redemption.  So the human heart that’s truly thankful to God rejoices in all God’s works because it knows the world we live in for what it is … the creation of a loving and sovereign God who reveals Himself in plain sight.

Thanksgiving, then, becomes a great time not just to celebrate physical blessings. Despite liberal claims to the contrary, most Americans have plenty of these. But Thanksgiving is also a time to give thanks to God for the foundation of knowledge itself. What an amazing blessing.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Bible, Slavery And ‘Jubilee’ Freedom

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Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land

unto all the inhabitants thereof.

—Inscription on the Liberty Bell (1752/3)

 

This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.

—Jesus of Nazareth (AD 30)

 

Jubilee Bond Servants

The Bible, Slavery And 'Jubilee' FreedomThe Mosaic Law permitted and regulated various sorts of bond service.  In previous articles (located here and here) we’ve considered penal service, indentured service and lifetime service as a home-born slave. A fourth type was wrapped up with the Jubilee laws and had a couple of forms, both of which were terminated every 50 years by the Jubilee.

Israel’s liturgical calendar was an expansion on the seventh day Sabbath.  In addition to the weekly Sabbath, Israel celebrated the new moon each month and five annual sabbatical feasts.  Three of these – the Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles — fell in the seventh month Tishri.  Beyond that, every seventh year was a Sabbath of the land, a year of release from charity loans, and a time when short-term indentured servants were set free (Lev. 25:1-7).  After seven such Sabbath years came the Jubilee, a 50th year Sabbath (vv. 8-12).

In the Jubilee the land continued to lie fallow, all agricultural lands returned to the heirs of the original owners and Hebrew bondservants who hadn’t been freed in the previous year were set free.  The Jubilee was announced in the last month of the 49th year with a trumpet blast on the Day of Atonement.  So our concern will be with the two sorts of bondservants freed by the Jubilee, but first we must better understand the Jubilee’s significance.

The Jubilee as a Type and Shadow

As an extension of the Sabbath theme under the Old Covenant, the Jubilee pointed forward to the world to come, the Kingdom of the Messiah.  It spoke of the security, liberty and peace that would characterize that coming era.  In that new world, the prophets said, “They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid” (Mic. 4:4; Zech. 3:10).

In Isaiah’s prophecy, the Messiah speaks of His own ordination and mission in terms of the Jubilee:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD . . . (Isa. 61:1-2a).

The “acceptable year of the LORD” is the cosmic Jubilee, the final realization of all God’s promises to His people.  Notice the emphasis on liberation and particularly the words, “proclaim liberty.”  Clearly, the Jubilee was typical and prophetic and because of this … the things associated or interwoven with it must have an end … in both senses of the word.  Both a goal and a termination.

When Jesus preached His first sermon in Nazareth, He began by reading Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the Messianic Jubilee.  Then He sat down to teach and, with every eye fastened on Him, He said, “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears” (Luke 4:21).  Jesus came to free men from sin.  The liberation of bondservants at the Jubilee was a picture of this.  This is why the Jubilee began with the Day of Atonement.

The Nature of Jubilee Bond Service

To understand Jubilee bond service, it’s important to remember how the shorter “indentures” worked.  These indentures were normally the result of a man defaulting on a zero interest charity loan.  A man who defaulted on such a loan would sell himself (or be sold) into service, and the money would go to his creditor.  He would receive no wages during the time of his service.  That service could last no more than six years, and when the indentured servant was released to return to his own lands, his employer was to supply him liberally from his own flocks, threshing floor, and winepress … that is, with capital for a new beginning (Deut. 15:7-15).

dead sea scrolls -- youtubeJubilee service dealt with a more serious sort of financial misfortune.  Say a man has already mortgaged (leased) his family’s lands.  Having nothing else, he has made his own labor the surety for a commercial, interest-bearing loan.  But in the end, his business venture falls through.  He can’t repay the loan.  Probably happened a lot actually. So, at this point he must sell himself into service and pass on the price of that service to his creditor(s).

This is where the two forms of Jubilee service come in.  The debtor could either sell himself and his services to an Israelite, one of the covenant people, or to a “stranger,” a resident alien.  The Israelite was required to treat his servant with kindness and respect, but interestingly, the stranger was under no such legal restraints.  Here is most of the relevant legislation:

And if one of your brethren who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells himself to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a slave.  As a hired servant and a sojourner he shall be with you, and shall serve you until the Year of Jubilee. . . . You shall not rule over him with rigor, but you shall fear your God (Lev. 25:39-40, 43).

Now if a sojourner or stranger close to you becomes rich, and one of your brethren who dwells by him becomes poor, and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner close to you, or to a member of the stranger’s family, after that he is sold he may be redeemed again; one of his brethren may redeem him: Either his uncle, or his uncle’s son, may redeem him, or any that is nigh of kin unto him of his family may redeem him; or if he be able, he may redeem himself (Lev. 25:47-49).

In general then, life in an Israelite home would be easier for the indentured servant than life in the home of a resident alien.  The Israelite was required to treat his servant as hired man and “not rule over him with rigor.”  This might imply that he was to pay him wages on top of the purchase price.  In any case, he was to be generous with him.  Furthermore, the indentured servant would live and work in the context of a family that feared God.  He would not have the spiritual and psychological strain of living in a home dominated by pagan thought forms and residual idolatry.

On the other hand, the resident alien might be in a better position to buy the man’s services.  He would not have the prior obligations of making charity loans or buying short-term indentures.  And he might expect a higher return on the Jubilee servant since he could work him harder.  The implied lesson was this …  Financial responsibility and future-orientation are the best way to avoid being enslaved to pagans with all that might involve.

The Kinsman-Redeemer

It is in connection with bond service to a stranger that God introduces the figure of the kinsman-redeemer, the go’el (Lev. 25:48-49).  This man is the bondservant’s next of kin.  He has the duty to buy back his kinsman from bondage if he is able, particularly if that kinsman in bondage to a resident pagan.

The New Testament reveals Jesus Christ as our Kinsman-Redeemer (1 Pet. 1:18-19; Rev. 5:9).  He is our brother, the divine Son of Adam, who has paid our redemption price with His own blood (Heb. 2:10-18).

Conclusion

Jubilee bond service then, was a kind of picture of our bondage to sin.  God addressed that picture with two others … the bondservant could be freed by the coming of the Jubilee or through a price paid by the Kinsman-Redeemer.  With these pictures fulfilled in Christ, Jubilee bond service has faded from covenant life.  Christ now promises His Holy Spirit and “Freedom in His Spirit” to those who believe the Gospel, and He calls us through the Gospel to live responsible and self-disciplined lives.  The goal: He wants all of His people to act and live like free men and women.