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) they are using and how their understanding of Scripture has been conditioned by 2000 years of Church history, as well as by 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 or not they needed to take place, the fact is that they did take place. And the fact that they did take place has affected the way various groups have come to see certain things today. Those struggles  have 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).

The Focus of Our Faith
The Focus of Our Faith
Paul’s Letters to the Jesus Believers at Colosse
Bite-Size Studies Through Colossians
by Jeff Doles

Preview with Amazon’s “Look Inside.”

Available in paperback and Kindle (Amazon), epub (Google and iTunes) and PDF.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

God’s Chosen People ~ The Church

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.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Help My Unbelief

Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
Do you trust Christ with your life? Day-to-day, most Christians struggle somewhere along that vast continuum between “Lord, I believe” and “Help my unbelief.” Some days we are doing better at it than other. Other days, we are not doing well at all. But “help my unbelief” is always a good response, one that Lord Jesus does not upbraid but is able to work with. It is an honest answer that reveals that there is a very real relationship with Christ going on, and that it is a relationship of trust, however shaky one’s faith may be.

Is my faith ever at 100%? I doubt it (pun unintentional). However, it is not the size or strength of my faith that counts but, rather, the object of my faith that rescues and redeems me. What is important is that I have entered into relationship with Christ — and He will gladly “help my unbelief.”

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Public Reading of Scripture

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. (1 Timothy 4:13 NIV)

And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. (1 Thessalonians 2:13 NIV)
At Vespers the other day, I was particularly struck by 1 Thessalonians, where Paul gives thanks for the believers at Thessalonica that, “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.” What particularly impressed upon me was that last bit, “The Word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.” This work is not cast in the aorist tense but as a present indicative. That is, it is not a completed action but an ongoing one. The Word we have received by faith is always at work in us, even now, and it is very powerful.

This is one reason I would like to see more Scripture readings in worship services — they seem to have declined in many congregations. The public reading of Scripture is very powerful because the Scriptures themselves are very powerful, and the Holy Spirit is able to work through it in a way that goes beyond what men and women of God can do through preaching and teaching.

I think of Paul, inspired by God and very articulate in all his letters and, no doubt, also in his preaching and teaching. Yet, in Ephesians 1:17, he prays that God would give believers the “spirit of wisdom and revelation” in knowing God intimately. I take this “spirit” here to be the Holy Spirit — who else could it be who brings divine wisdom and revelation?

As articulate and faithful to the gospel as Paul was, and as effective as he was, he realized that it simply would not be enough, and that what believers need is for the Holy Spirit to bring wisdom and revelation. Now, I certainly believe the Holy Spirit can — and does — work through the preaching of the Word, but as I have continued in ministry, I have come to realize that He can also work quite powerfully through a simple public reading of the Word. And I have learned to depend on it more and more, and even to crave it.

In 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul exhorts Timothy not only to preaching and teaching, but also to the “public reading of Scripture.” Though he lists it first in order, this reading is not merely a setup for the preacher. It is very powerful in its own right, as the Holy Spirit Himself illuminates it to the heart of the hearer. And when we receive this Word in our hearts, it is like a seed that is planted, always at work, growing and increasing in us, continually changing us and conforming us to the image and likeness of Christ.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Hermeneutics and Church Tradition

Hermeneutics is about the principles of interpretation. It is an art as well as a science, because it is ultimately about people and how they understand things.

Tradition is how the Church has understood Scripture through the centuries. How the Church approaches Scripture has been subject to historical development concerning the canon of Scripture, the various manuscripts of Scripture, the principles by which the Church has interpreted Scripture, and the doctrines derived by the Church from Scripture. It is an ongoing conversation, with contributions from different ecclesiastical perspectives, different sets of hermeneutical principles, and different approaches concerning the intent of the human authors, intent of the divine author, reader perspectives, application as meaning, embracing theological interpretations of Scripture, and a variety of other considerations.

There is a sea of things to think about with all this, too much to explore in one lifetime, much less in one blog post. But if we develop a good historical understanding about the depth and breadth of the Tradition, it will help keep us from being insulated and isolated islands with provincial, or even ghettoized, mindsets when we come to The Book.

The question is not whether we should give place to tradition in our reading of Scripture. We already do, and it can no more be avoided than a fish can avoid the water it swims in. Even in our hermeneutics, we follow a tradition of how we ought to interpret. Hermeneutics has developed in the Church over the centuries, shifting in different directions and emphases at different times and places, and not everyone shares the same set of interpretive principles. The Reformers, for example, shifted in a particular interpretive direction, and if we follow in that direction, we are nonetheless following a hermeneutical tradition (and even that tradition has split off into other traditions in the years since the Reformation). So, the question of what sort of hermeneutics we should use is itself a continuing conversation in the Church.

The apostle Jude spoke about the faith which was once for all delivered, entrusted, handed down, to the saints (Jude 3). The content of that faith does not change. However, to receive that apostolic tradition does not mean that there is has never been or will be any development. For not everything that can be rightfully said about the apostolic faith has necessarily already been said. There may be more that is yet to be learned and understood from it.

The apostles would rightly warn us against such developments that would take us away from Christ and the gospel. But the difference is between doctrine that develops from and within the apostolic tradition, and is in agreement with Scripture, and doctrine that develops in addition to the apostolic tradition and is contrary to Scripture. The former would be in alignment with the gospel and the latter out of alignment with the gospel.

How the Church has come to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity is an example of the former. The Trinity is inherent in the Scriptures, though not explicitly stated. The particular way we think and speak of it in the Church today is a doctrinal development. It was not a new doctrine, but a historical development in our understanding of what was inherent in the Scriptures and the apostolic tradition. Even so, the council of Nicea did not explain for us the mystery of the Trinity. Rather, it preserved the mystery for us, leaving us safe boundaries within which to think and talk about it and still remain true to the testimony of the Scriptures and the witness of the apostles.

Likewise the hypostatic union — Jesus, fully divine and fully human. That has some serious implications about Mary — from whom Jesus received His humanity — such that she can rightfully be called Theotokos. This union of divinity and humanity in Christ has all sorts of implications, which the Church continues to explore, even after 2000 years.

There is much to be unpacked — about God, Christ, the Spirit, the gospel — certainly a lifetime's worth. The apostles did not necessarily work out for us all the implications of Christ and the gospel, and it is a very fertile field. God is infinite, and it would take an eternity to explore the divine interaction within the Godhead — and I expect that is what we will do as we enjoy eternal fellowship with the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.

(See also Reading Scripture with the Church)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Tribe of “Us”

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:38-40 NIV)
The disciples were not happy with this fellow — he was driving out demons in Jesus’ name. He was obviously not one of their little band, because he did not travel with them. They were with Jesus — literally — but this guy clearly was not. Yet here he was, performing exorcisms in Jesus’ name, just as if he had been one of them.

That made the disciples very uncomfortable. In fact, they were so uncomfortable with being uncomfortable that they tried to stop him from working those miracles in Jesus’ name. Jesus had commissioned them, not him. They wanted to draw a clear line of distinction and make sure that he did not do anything that was supposed to be done only by them.

They were proud of themselves over what they had done, so John went and told Jesus about it. But Jesus would have none of their attitude: “Do not stop him,” He said. Imagine Jesus looking at their perplexed faces and blinking eyes. Then an explanation: “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me.”

This man was clearly doing miracles — he was casting out demons. Just as clearly, he was doing it in the name of Jesus. Not as magic, using Jesus’ name as some sort of talisman he picked up somewhere along the way (the way Christians sometimes pray). No, this guy was acting in faith. Not just faith in the name of Jesus, but faith in Jesus Himself — he could not have driven those demons out otherwise. Remember the story of those exorcists in the book of Acts who did not know Jesus but tried to cast out demons in His name? It did not work out well for them.
Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists took it upon themselves to call the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “We exorcise you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.”
    Also there were seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, who did so. And the evil spirit answered and said, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?”
    Then the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, overpowered them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. (Acts 19:13-16)
But this man that John and the disciples tried to stop was actually getting the job done in the name of Jesus. He was acting on Jesus’ behalf, doing what Jesus would do.

The message Jesus preached, the gospel, was the announcement that the kingdom of God was now here (Mark 1:14-15). And all the miracles, healing and exorcisms Jesus did were manifestations of God’s kingdom now come into the world. This man apparently grabbed onto Jesus’ message, believed it and went out to live it. And doing so, he manifested the kingdom in quite tangible ways. What Jesus’ disciples were still learning, this man was out doing, and it really bugged them because he was not one of them — one of “us.”

And now Jesus brings out the kicker: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Notice carefully what Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t say, “Whoever is not against Me is for Me,” but rather, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” He was doing a couple of things here. First, He was establishing solidarity between Himself and the disciples. He and the disciples were “us.” They all belonged together. Jesus and the disciples; the disciples and Jesus. They were all mates.

But Jesus was also establishing solidarity between Himself, the disciples and this other fellow, who was outside their little group yet accomplishing miracles in Jesus’ name. John had tried to stop this guy, “because he was not one of us.” But Jesus was saying that, yes, this fellow, too, is “us.” Part of Jesus. Part of the disciples. Part of “us.”

Jesus was redefining the disciples’ small and limiting idea of “us.” And that made them uncomfortable. Makes us uncomfortable, too. But that’s not a bad thing … is it?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Paul and James on the Same Page

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Paul, in Ephesians 2:8-9)

Faith without works is dead. (James, in James 2:19)
Some have wondered if there is some discrepancy here between Paul and James. Paul says we are saved by grace through faith, not of works. James says that faith without works is dead. Martin Luther, the great Reformer, was all about Paul but could hardly stomach James. Luther infamously called the book of James “a right strawy epistle.”

Faith, not works, is what saves, says Paul. And yet, there are works, and Paul is never very far away from them. In Ephesians 2:9, he declares, “not of works, lest anyone should boast.” But then in verse 10, which invariably follows verse 9, he adds, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

Works are not left out of the question. What is left out is boasting — there is never any place for it. No, we are not saved by works. But yes, we are saved for good works. Good works enter the equation not as a means of salvation but as a result of salvation. More importantly, these good works are not our own works but God’s works being produced in us. For we are His workmanship, His new creation in Christ, and the good works He now produces in us reveal Christ in us.

So, for Paul, faith does not leave out works. We can see this again in his letter to the believers of Galatia, in which he is very clear that we are not justified (counted as right with God) by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:16). He is very adamant on this point, as we can see again in Galatians 5:4-5.
You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.
If we attempt to be justified by the law and its works, we have fallen away from God’s grace and are alienated from Christ. The only righteousness we can have before God is purely by faith.

And now look at what Paul has to say about this faith in the very next verse: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6 NIV). The NKJV has this as “faith working through love.” The only thing that counts, that has any value or is of any use, is faith expressing itself through love. That is the nature of faith in Christ, the kind of faith that justifies us before God — it expresses itself through love. Faith that does not work through love is dead, which is very like what James says.

Now let’s take a look at what James said. In James 2, he is talking about love, particularly as it relates to showing partiality between rich and poor. His readers have played up to the rich but have dishonored the poor. He admonishes them:
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Loving your neighbor as yourself fulfills the law of God. This is the same thing Paul said in Galatians 5:14. “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” James’ point is that, if you do not love your neighbor as yourself, you have broken the law just as much as if you committed adultery or murdered someone. His exhortation, then, is to live as those who will be judged by the “law of liberty,” which turns out to be the “law of love,” because it is fulfilled by love. No mercy will be shown to those who have not shown mercy — love — to others.

James continues. In this next section, his concern is still about showing love and mercy, but now he begins talking about it as a matter of faith:
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. (James 2:14-18)
The example he brings is about faith expressing itself through love. It demonstrates no love to say to one who is naked and destitute, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” but give them no help to do so. There is nothing of faith in that because there is nothing of love in it. It is dead. Useless. Counts for nothing. You might as well just bury that thing because it does not do anybody any good, not even you.

The nature of faith is that it works — it expresses itself through love. And now James assesses the kind of faith that cannot be shown without works:
You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe — and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? (James 2:20)
Whatever belief in God the devils may have cannot rightfully be called faith. It has no saving value, or else even the demons would end up well. It is dead. And so it is with faith that does not express itself through works of love.

James then offers Abraham and Rahab as examples of faith expressing itself through works:
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:21-26)
See how the faith of Abraham and Rahab expressed itself through their actions. Their actions demonstrated the reality of their faith and in that way completed their faith. But a faith that does not result in works of love is not just incomplete — it is dead. Son, then:
  • “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” — Paul
  • “Faith without works is dead.” — James
James and Paul end up saying the same thing. They may say it in different ways, but they are both on the same page.

(See also, Faith That Expresses Itself Through Love and Faith Without Love is Dead)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Random Thoughts

Some thoughts culled from my random file. About faith, love, life and relationship with God. Some have occurred to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Some are aphoristic and avuncular. I didn’t know what else to do with them, so I put them here. For your edification, inspiration and/or motivation — or your money cheerfully refunded.
  • Some people are still living in the “before” part of their testimony. But keep praying for them, because God knows how to get them to the “after” part — and it will be breath-taking.
  • What counts, the apostle Paul said, is faith expressing itself through love. God is love, and faith in God looks like love.
  • The gospel of Jesus Christ is not an ideology, it is an invitation to a relationship with God that changes the world.
  • Christ does not offer us a legal contract but a covenant relationship. It is not like buying a car but like getting married — we belong to Him and He belongs to us. Which is why the Church is called the “bride” of Christ.
  • Evangelism without relationship is just propaganda.
  • Faith is not a doctrine but a relationship. It is not about a proposition but about a Person.
  • Faith is learning to be loved by God ... and to love God in return.
  • Faith is learning to live in the faithfulness of God toward us, and so we become more faithful toward God.
  • Faith in Christ is not working up a sense of certainty about Christ. It is giving your life to Christ, entrusting yourself into His hands.
  • Gave up “trying harder” years ago. Started loving God more instead. Happy ever since.
  • If you see the glass as half-empty, perhaps that is an opportunity for you to help fill it.
  • The nature of faith is that it can be seen in the life of the person who has it. You can tell a lot about what a person believes by looking at how they live.
  • When you know Jesus, the judgment of God does not come to condemn you, it comes to condemn everything that stands against you.
  • The judgment of God shakes out things that cannot be established and establishes things that cannot be shaken.
  • “Set your mind on things above.” That’s how you can see what the will of God being done in heaven looks like. Then you will be able to see where the earth is out of alignment with heaven and call for the will of God to be done here just as in heaven.
  • Today, Lord, fill my mind with Your thoughts, fill my mouth with Your words, fill my heart with Your affections. Amen.
More random thoughts …

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Faith is an Ongoing Conversation

For by grace you have been saved through faith. (Ephesians 2:8)
Faith is not a static moment of belief but an ongoing conversation with God. It is not a single point, a punctiliar moment of assent to some proposition about God. It is a personal relationship with God. And because it is personal, it is dynamic.

The nature of the faith through which we are saved in Ephesians 2:8 is that it is an ongoing and personal relationship with God. It is not an insulated or isolated moment. It may begin in a moment, but then it continues — an ongoing relationship with God in which we entrust ourselves (not just our “sweet by and by”) into His hands.

This does not require that our faith must reach some standard of perfection, however. Few, if any, have ever had such a perfect faith. Even the saints have plenty of moments of doubt and disappointment, and even disobedience. But even in all of that, faith remains and the relationship endures. And God brings us back to Himself.

Abraham dickered with God. Jacob wrestled with God. Moses argued with God. Jonah was angry with God. But it was all faith nonetheless, because they were bringing it to God and putting it all on Him.

The often-seen attempt to reduce faith down to a single saving moment usually makes it a matter of mental assent to some proposition about God, and all that matters is that split-second of belief. Some have protested that this is more than mental assent, that it is “believing God.” But no matter how they explain it, it always ends up sounding like mental assent to a proposition about God, that He did this or will do that.

However, faith is more than a moment of assent. And it is more than a moment of “believing God.” It is trust. The devils believe that there is a God (James 2:9), but that is not nearly the same thing as trusting Him. Faith, on the other hand, is entrusting ourselves — who we are, and our lives as well as our destinies — into the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ. And remaining there in relationship with Him.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Diversity of Our Gifts

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. (Genesis 2:19 NIV)
In Genesis 2:19, God sets newly minted Adam to naming the animals. What is especially interesting to me about this is that God did not tell Adam what to name the animals. He simply observed to see what Adam would name them. God left it up to Adam what they would be called.

Adam was created in the image of God and to be like God. Then God puffed His breath into Adam’s nostrils and Adam became a “living being” (Genesis 2:7). The Targum Onkelos, an ancient Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, understands this verse as saying that man became a “speaking spirit.” God Himself spoke — and thereby spoke all things into existence — then He created Adam with the ability to speak, too.

Then God gave Adam the assignment of naming the animals. So now Adam spoke, and whatever he called each animal, that became its name. Adam’s words not only identified, they defined. They were creative.

God has given each one of us creative gifts. Whatever those are, they will look different on each one of us. If you or I had been in Adam’s place, we might each have named the animals differently, and then that is what they would have been called.

God created us to be creative, and in that God-given capacity, there is a rich diversity. The Spirit of God has gifted and called each of us into the ministry of Christ, and we each manifest those gifts and callings in a diversity of ways. It is tempting to think that, because you and I are called to certain ministries and have learned to exercise them in particular ways, others are also called to those same ministries and those same methods. But we each wear our gifts and callings differently. So we cannot expect that I must wear it the same as you, or that you must wear it the same as me.

Some of that is because of how differently God has made each of us. Some of it is because of the circumstances God has placed us in. Some of it is because of the season we each find ourselves in. Some of it is because of how, and by whom, we have been trained and taught in the Christian life. Some of it is because we are still in the process of being discipled in this or that area of our faith and life as Christians. And some of it might be because God has given each of us His breath and His heartbeat, and He is standing by to see what we will do with it — what we will create and how we will call things — just as He watched Adam’s creativity at work in naming the animals.

Each of us has not only been given a gift for the sake of the Church and the world, but each one of us is a gift that God has given to the Church and to the world. We are divine gifts meant for each other. The diversity and creativity of the gifts we have been given, and the gifts we are, help us understand more of the many-sided, multi-colored wisdom of God.

It may seem like the diversity we have represented among us is not always complementary. And perhaps it isn’t. It can be an uncomfortable thing at times, but perhaps that is not necessarily a bad thing — merely a thing. The ultimate thing is the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace that we have in Jesus Christ, which transcends the diversity of our gifts, our callings, our varied understandings of the faith and experiences in Christ, bringing them all together into one.