Thursday, August 28, 2014

Problems of an Unexamined Faith

Everyone has a worldview and a set of presuppositions — it can’t be avoided. But not everyone understands what their worldview entails or that they have presuppositions, much less what those presuppositions might be. Over the years, I have met a lot of people — including many Christians — who seemed to be like that.

Presuppositions and worldviews are not just things that are taught in school through formal education. Formal education is probably the least of it, because we are enculturated and conditioned toward them in thousands of ways. Sometimes the conditioning is overt, and sometimes more subtle, as beliefs and values are shaped. And most people do not bother to examine what they believe or why they believe it.

We are conditioned by a mélange of worldviews. It becomes like a cafeteria line where people select some of this and a bit of that with a helping of the other and often come up with a custom blend that is at odds with itself at important points because they are based on presuppositions that are mutually contradictory.

A good question to ask when there is discussion or disagreement over important matters is, “Why do you say that?” or “How do you know?” It usually does not take very long before you’ve reached the point where one does not have a clear answer — and that is usually the point of their presupposition. Of course, if we are going to use this strategy, we need to be prepared to answer the same sort of questions ourselves and to identify the point where our own presuppositions begin. (We should be prepared for that anyway, even if only for our own benefit and understanding.)

G. K. Chesterton said, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” But, of course, people often close their minds on things that are not substantial but, rather, on things that are convenient — personally, culturally, intellectually, emotionally, or even religiously convenient. Yet, they would usually consider themselves to open-minded and receptive to new idea. Often enough, those who disagree get dismissed as close-minded troglodytes who just don’t “get it.”

We must always be aware of the presuppositions that are at work in our worldview. If we have an unexamined or little examined faith, or one that we maintain out of convenience, others will soon see through us and we will come off as propagandist. And that is closed-mindedness at its worst — arrogant, dogmatic, defensive and prideful.

Several years ago, I was in a series of discussions with people of a scientific bent. The topic was evolution, and the views of the participants often turned out to be a matter of scientism, empiricism and philosophical materialism. It was only with great difficulty that any of them were willing to admit to having presuppositions. And those who did tended to view their own presuppositions as the universal default, the rock-bottom ones that every “open-minded” person would naturally have if not for the brainwashing “superstitions” of Christianity or other religions. With other people with whom I have dialogued, the case was not so much that they denied having presuppositions when such were pointed out to them, but that they had been unaware of their presuppositions in the first place.

I find a similar situation with Bible-believing Christians when it comes to their interpretations of Scripture. They do not recognize that they are actually interpreting Scripture. They think they are simply reading it and seeing what it says, and that doing so requires no interpretation at all. And being unaware that they are interpreting Scripture when they read it, they are also unaware of the particular set of hermeneutics (principles of interpretation) and how their understanding of Scripture has been conditioned by 2000 years of Church history, as well as secular history, culture and a variety of other factors.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Focus of the Heart Upon God

Contemplative prayer is essentially the focus of the heart, mind and will upon God in love. It is an enjoyment of His presence. It is, as Richard Foster puts it, a loving attention toward God. It is a fulfillment of the greatest commandment — to love God with all our heart, mind and soul. It is what used to be called Christian mysticism. It is a communion with God, who dwells in us through Christ, by the Holy Spirit. Isaiah said that God would keep in perfect peace those whose minds are stayed on the Lord (Isaiah 26:3). Contemplative prayer is a way of doing that.

The Christian tradition of contemplative prayer is about letting go of all the thoughts that distract our attention and focus on God. Remember Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Martha was worried and upset about many things — she had many distracting thoughts that kept her from being with the Lord. But Jesus said that there was only one thing needed, and that Mary had chosen what was better. She let go of the many things that could have worried and distracted her to embrace the only thing that was really needed. She sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to Him, enjoying His presence.

That is what Christian contemplative prayer is about. Not emptying our minds of everything but, rather, letting go of every thought that distracts us from Jesus so that we may hear Him and be with Him. It is taking time to be like Mary in the midst of our Martha moments.

Have you ever read a passage of Scripture — perhaps about the love of God, or His grace, mercy or faithfulness — and then leaned back to think about it for a while? And having thought about it, did it turn into a prayer to the Lord, and you were thanking Him for it. Or perhaps asking Him to reveal it deeper in your heart and in your life, to show it through you as well as to you? And when you finished, did you linger for a little while in His presence and enjoy what He had just revealed to you in that Scripture or spoke to you about it in the quietness of your heart?

That is a contemplative way of prayer.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Eternal Life is Knowing God through Christ

This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. (John 17:3)

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:11-12)
The thing that makes eternal life eternal is God Himself. It is His life — it comes from Him and He shares it with us. It is the life of Christ in us. It is the Spirit of God in us, continually ministering life to us. It is, to use the words of 2 Peter 1:4, being “partakers of the divine nature.” Eternal life has everything to do with God.

The quantitative aspect of this life — that it is eternal — is a result of the qualitative aspect — that it is divine. The primary aspect of this life and this salvation, out of which all other aspects flow, is being reconciled with God. In His prayer in the garden of Gethsemane on the night before He was crucified, Jesus said, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3).

Eternal life is all about knowing God through Jesus Christ. This is not merely knowing about God, but knowing God Himself. And not just knowing about Christ, but knowing Christ Himself. It is an ongoing personal relationship with God, being reconciled to Him through Christ. The Greek verb for “know” in John 17:3 is in the present tense and indicates continuous action.

Knowing God through Christ is not merely a means to an end. It is the purpose as well as the source of eternal life. Indeed, knowing God is the essence of eternal life, and it is found in Jesus Christ.
For it pleased the Father that in Him [Christ] all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. (Colossians 1:19-20)
To enter into salvation, then, is to enter into that reconciled relationship with God. We enter it through Jesus Christ. “Whoever has the Son has life,” says John. A person who does not want that relationship does not really what salvation but something that does not exist. The salvation Jesus offers is life, eternal and divine, given freely and received by faith. And this gift of life is ... Himself.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Paradigms and Soda Straws

The struggles in history are the struggles in history. Whether they needed to take place, the fact is that they did. And the fact that they did take place has affected the way various groups have come to see certain things today. Those struggles resulted in certain paradigms.

Now, paradigms are not necessarily bad ... or necessarily good. They are simply ways of seeing. That is, they help us see certain things. On the other hand, paradigms can also prevent us from seeing other things, things that are outside of how we have grown accustomed to seeing.

Our eyes take in a lot of visual data, and our brains try to process it, to make sense of it. But there may be a lot of things we don’t notice because they are outside of our paradigm. Optical illusions work because our brains try to process the images according to some particular paradigm, and the image is somehow not completely set up according to that paradigm.

Or to give another example, when I bought a Saturn Vue back in 2007, I had not seen one before. But the day after I bought it and rode around town in it, I saw Saturn Vues all over the place. Well, the truth is that I had actually seen them before but I simply had never noticed them before, because I did not have a category in my mind for them. But when I bought a Vue, my mind opened up a new “file” on them and suddenly I started noticing Saturn Vues.

In the Western Church, and especially in evangelicalism, we have been accustomed to a particular paradigm about the gospel, that it is mainly about justification, or more narrowly for some, about the payment for sin, or for others, about the assurance of heaven when we die. We have been accustomed to reading Scripture through that particular paradigm, and we have difficulty seeing things in Scripture that are outside that paradigm. We read them, our eyes actually scan them, but we do not notice them or know what to do with them because we do not have a category for them in our thinking.

It is like trying to breathe through a soda straw. Now, you can actually breathe through a soda straw, and if you do it long enough you can get used to breathing that way. And if that were the way you were taught to breathe from the beginning, you might probably think that everyone is supposed to breathe that way. But when you remove the soda straw and inhale deeply, you begin to realize how much that straw limited your ability to breathe. You have enlarged your paradigm, the way you understand and experience breathing.

The same thing can happen with the way we understand and experience the Scriptures. One day you may be reading along in your Bible and you notice something you have never noticed before. And instead of setting it aside and moving on because you don’t know what to do with it, you stop and think about it, taking it in as best you can. Then you begin to notice it in a number of other places in the Bible. It was always there for you, and you may have read over it a hundred times before, but now, suddenly, you are noticing it.

Something like that happened to me when I began to study closely in the book of Matthew, back in the 80s, and I began to realize how much of the Gospels and the ministry of Jesus was concerned with the kingdom of God (this eventually led to my book on the Gospel of Matthew, The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth). It happened again in more recent years when I started studying the gospel by looking at every place in the New Testament that uses the Greek words for gospel (euaggelion) and evangelism (euaggelizo). I soon began to realize that the gospel is very much bigger than I had formerly thought in the paradigm to which I had so long been accustomed. I was no longer trying to breathe it in through a soda straw but began inhaling it deeply.

Were those struggles of mine, wrestling with my old paradigms, necessary? I don’t know. Perhaps I could have ignored those other things I was suddenly noticing in Scripture and been fine — you can breathe through a soda straw, after all. On the other hand, I kept on noticing those things and was unwilling to let them go.

Of course, there has been a price to pay. The struggle itself is one. But then there is also trying to explain what I see to others who do not see it (yet) — that also has cost me. But what I have gained in return has been well worth it: I see wonderful things now — in Christ, in the gospel, in the Word — that I could not see before, and it has blessed me to no end. And I am breathing more deeply.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Gospel of Reconciliation

For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. (Colossians 1:19-20)
In Colossians 1, Paul gives a rich account of the gospel, the announcement concerning King Jesus the Messiah. It is the gospel that has gone out into all the world, even in Paul’s day, and has been bringing forth fruit ever since (vv. 5-6). It is the gospel the believers at Colosse learned from Epaphras, one of their own, and Paul’s fellow servant (v. 7). It is the gospel by which God has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 13). It is the gospel by which we have redemption — the forgiveness of sins — through the blood of King Jesus (v. 14). Then in verses 15 through 18, Paul gives us a marvelous description of the divine Son whom this gospel announces:
  • He is the image of the invisible God.
  • He is the firstborn over all creation.
  • All things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible, including thrones, dominions, principalities and powers, were created by Him, through Him and for Him.
  • He existed before everything else.
  • In Him all things hold together.
  • He is the head of the body, the source of the Church, its very beginning.
  • He is the firstborn from the dead.
  • He leads the way in everything.
And now, in verse 19, we come to the point of it all — the reason for the gospel and the purpose of the kingdom: It pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell in the divine Son, and by the Son to reconcile all things to Himself. God’s plan is that everything comes together in Christ. The One by whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together is the One in whom all things are being reconciled to God. Paul says something very similar in Ephesians 1, where he is again describing the gospel:
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth — in Him. (Ephesians 1:7-10)
This is God’s pleasure and purpose, that all things, both in heaven and on earth, be gathered together into one in Christ. It is a reconciliation of cosmic proportions — and the point of the gospel. The underlying reality of this great reconciliation is what Jesus accomplished at the cross, where He made peace through the sacrifice of Himself.
  • At the cross, Jesus “disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:15).
  • “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11).
  • Now King Jesus is bringing all things into alignment with God. “Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet” (1 Corinthians 15:24-25).
  • All who belong to Him participate in “the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:9-11).
  • Even creation itself is waiting for this great reconciliation to be fully realized. “For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21).

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

God’s Chosen People ~ The Church

The people of God are one vine in Christ.

The Greek word for “church” is ekklesia. We find it in the New Testament, but we also find in the Old Testament — in the Septuagint (aka, LXX), which is an ancient Jewish translation of the Old Testament into Greek. There, it refers to the assembly, or congregation, of Israel — God’s chosen people gathered before Him. It occurs at least 77 times, including these, where it refers to:
  • The “assembly of God” (Nehemiah 13:1)
  • The “great assembly” where God is praised and the good news is proclaimed (Psalm 35:18; 40:9)
  • The “congregations” where God is blessed (Psalm 26:12; 68:26)
  • The “assembly of the saints” (Psalm 89:5, 149:1)
  • The “assembly of the people” where God is exalted (Psalm 107:32)
  • The “assembly of the LORD” (Micah 2:5)
Our English word “church” comes from the Greek kuriakos, which speaks of “belonging to the Lord.” But it is the word ekklesia that is usually translated as “church” in the New Testament because it is the assembly that belongs to the Lord. In the Old Testament (LXX), ekklesia likewise refers to the assembly that belongs to the Lord.

God has only ever had one people, and it is the same people in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, they are referred to as His own “chosen” people (e.g., Deuteronomy 14:2). In the New Testament, “elect” is the word that is used, which means the same things as “chosen.” All who believe on Jesus the Messiah, whether Jews or Gentiles, are referred to as “elect” (e.g., 1 Peter 1:1-2), “chosen” (e.g., 1 Peter 2:9), and God’s “own special people” (Titus 2:14).

Gentiles, or pagans, who come to the Lord Jesus do not become a new and separate people of God. They are, rather, “grafted” into the one people God chose from the beginning. Paul speaks of this in Romans 11, where he explains that unbelieving Jews, though they be the “natural” branches, have been broken off from the “olive tree” (Israel) because of their unbelief (v. 17, 21). However, when they return and receive Jesus the Messiah, they will be grafted back in (v. 23). Gentiles who believe in Jesus, on the other hand, though they be “wild” branches, are grafted into the “olive tree” of God’s chosen people (v. 17). And because they are grafted in, it can be truly said of them that they are now part of the olive tree, too — made one with God’s chosen people. (See Grafted Into the Chosen People)

In the New Testament, both Jews and Gentiles who believe on Jesus the Messiah are called the “elect” or “chosen” and are referred to as the Church. Does this mean that the Church has replaced Israel as the chosen people? NO, NOT AT ALL! Israel is still the chosen people, and Jews who have received the Messiah remain in it. But now Gentiles who believe on Messiah are part of it, too, grafted in through faith. The chosen people of the Old Testament has been broadened out to include all who believe on Jesus the Messiah — even the pagans. That is why Paul says in the beginning of Romans that the gospel is “the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek [Gentile]” (Romans 1:16).

What, then, of the modern nation of Israel? Is the modern political state the same thing as the chosen people of the Old and New Testaments? No, not necessarily. Those in the modern nation of Israel who believe on Jesus the Messiah belong to the chosen people. Those who do not believe on Him do not, because of unbelief. The chosen people is no longer limited to ethnic Jews but now includes men and women of all the nations who believe on the Messiah.

The New Testament Church does not replace Israel as the chosen people, nor is it some sort of parenthesis in God’s plan concerning Israel. Rather, the Church is how Paul speaks of the reality of Israel as God’s chosen people. God has never changed His mind. He has never forgotten His people, or His promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It has always been His purpose to bless all the families of the world through Abraham and to gather in all the nations as His chosen people.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Grafted Into the Chosen People

For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.” Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. (Romans 11:16-20)
Who are the chosen people? In the Old Testament, clearly, they are the children of Israel. So also in the New Testament. But where the Old Testament uses the word “chosen,” the New Testament uses the word “elect.”

Paul tells us quite a lot about God’s chosen people in Romans 11, where they are portrayed as an olive tree. He tells us that some of the branches were broken off and other branches were grafted in. The natural branches that were broken off represent ethnic Jews who rejected Israel’s Messiah — they were broken off because of unbelief. The wild branches that were grafted in, were grafted in through faith in Israel’s Messiah. These are the Gentiles — the pagans! — who believe on Jesus the Messiah. What, then, of the natural branches? Is that the end of the story for them? No! Paul says,
And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. (Romans 11:23-25)
We should note that Paul is not referring to Jews and Gentiles as individuals but as peoples. Though individual Jews may die in unbelief, as do many Gentiles, what Paul has in mind is a wholesale turning of the Jewish people to Jesus as Messiah. In the meantime, God has allowed their turning away from Jesus to be an opportunity for the pagan nations to turn to Him. Even so, Paul’s expectation is that the branches that were broken off through unbelief will one day return, through faith in Jesus, and be grafted back in — “and so all Israel will be saved” (v. 26).
Concerning the election [i.e., being chosen] they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy. For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all. (Romans 11:28-32)
The “election” is still for them, and so also the gospel — and the Messiah. But God has allowed their present disobedience so that the nations might come to the obedience of faith in Messiah and receive God’s mercy. In a similar way, God is using the mercy He has shown to the wild branches as an opportunity for the broken branches to return to the obedience of faith through Jesus. When they do, then God’s mercy will be on all — even as Paul spoke in verse 15: “For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?”

So, then, unbelieving Jews, though they be the natural branches, have been broken off from the olive tree (Israel) because of their unbelief. However, when they return to belief and receive Jesus the Messiah, they will be grafted back in. Believing Gentiles, on the other hand, though they be wild branches, are grafted into the olive tree, the chosen people, through faith. And because they are grafted into the olive tree, it can be truly said of them that they are now part of the olive tree, too — one with God’s chosen people.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Radical: A Life Rooted in Jesus

For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height — to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving. (Colossians 2:6-7)
When we hear the word “radical,” we often think of someone or something that is extreme in some way. Edgy. Maybe even off center or out of balance, because of being on the edge.

“Radical” comes from the Latin word, radix, which means “root.” It is not about what is out on the margins somewhere but about what is deep down at the root. You can’t get more basic than that. The real question about being radical is not about what is on the edge but what is at the root. What is the foundation upon which it is grounded? When you change that, you change everything.

In Ephesians 3, Paul’s prayer for believers is that they will be strengthened by the Holy Spirit, so that Christ might be quite at home in their hearts through faith. The result is that we would be rooted and grounded in love. In Colossians 2, Paul urges believers to keep on walking in Christ, having been rooted in Him and continually being built up in Him.

Living radically is about living in a different way and on a different basis, with a different center and a different focus. It is life from a different root and it produces a different fruit.

Jesus calls us to be rooted in Him. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” He said. “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:8). And what is the fruit? Love. “By this all will know that you are My disciples,” Jesus said, “if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

A life that is rooted in Jesus is a radically different life. It is not about doing extreme things. It is about living life centered on Him. It may seem extreme and out of balance to the rest of the world. This is because the kingdom of God turns the expectations of the world upside down — the last come first and the first end up last, and it is the servants who are considered the greatest of all, manifesting the life and love of God. Those who live according to God’s kingdom may seem upside down to the world, but they are the ones who are right side up in the world as it was meant to be, and will be, when the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven.

A life rooted in Christ is a life rooted in love that reveals the kingdom God. You can’t get more radical than that.