Wednesday, July 30, 2008


I love Paul’s letter to the Romans. I have studied it in-depth and taught it in-depth many times. Yet there is a passage right near the beginning that for many years, I glossed over because I was eager to get to the “meat.” It was one of those passages that one learns from experience rather than from study.

Paul is writing to the Romans in his authority as “an apostle, separated to the gospel of God” (1:1). He desires to go to Rome, the capital city of the Empire, to visit the church there. He says “always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you” (verse 10). The reason he gives is that “ … I long to see you in order that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established” (verse 11).

I can picture Paul here, dictating these words to his scribe, Tertius (16:22). Suddenly he stops, motions to Tertius to lay his quill pen down. He puts his hand on his chin, paces back and forth a few times and motions Tertius to dip his pen and start writing again.

“that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine” (verse 12).

Here is the great apostle, the explainer of the gospel, the great missionary who opened Europe to the gospel, explaining to his readers that not only did he have something to give them – they had something to offer him! I think I know a little bit of how Paul feels.

I have taught the Bible and Theology for many years. I’ve preached, I’ve taught in college. I have had the privilege of teaching literally thousands of men and women, and of sharing my small “gift” with them.

And yet I believe that I am the one who has benefited the most from my intercommunication with them.

Their questions in class have often given me fresh insights. Very seldom did a class session go by without my learning something – not only about the material, but about people.

Of course at the end of a semester there were material gifts and cards expressing gratitude. There were often gifts of food. (I think some students actually delighted in seeing me get on a sugar high.) :^) There were many notes of appreciation which still bring tears to my eyes.

However, mostly it was the students themselves who not only encouraged me, but taught me by their lives. The College of Biblical Studies where I taught for many years is not your typical Bible college. Most of my students were not young people fresh out of high school. They were adults, a few of them even older than I. They were men and women involved in ministries of all sorts – they were pastors, Sunday school teachers, church elders and deacons, those involved in ministries to addicts, or to the poor. They taught me about commitment to Christ and about love for people.

And some were new believers, or old believers who had never grown. I could see growth spurts in many. I could see light bulbs going on over their heads as they learned how to study the Scripture and think for themselves, I could see new or renewed commitments as they began to apply the Scriptures to their own lives.

Like Paul, I was “encouraged together with (them) while among (them), each of us by the others’ faith.”

If any of my former students are reading this, thank you!

Bill Ball

Thursday, July 24, 2008


I noticed a sign in a store window in the mall: “Be true to your brand.”

I know there are many folks out there who are brand loyal and this sort of entreaty would appeal to them. It’s sort of like urging us to love our mothers or our country.

But I guess I’m not brand-loyal (except maybe to my Tony Lamas – see picture). It always seemed a bit foolish and manipulative to me. And even more so in these tight economic times. I’m a bargain hunter. And besides a brand name is in many cases just a label slapped onto a product manufactured who-knows-where, by who-knows-who.

But there is a brand name that I believe demands my loyalty. It’s the brand “Christian.”

The name is used quite commonly nowadays and has different meanings for different folks. Some use it as an adjective, but it’s usually a noun. Some use it to describe anyone who does not hold any other religion. Some see it as synonymous with “American” or “white American.” Some see it as applying only to their particular group or denomination, or to those who have had a conversion experience.

Interestingly enough the word Christian is only used three times in the New Testament. And it is not a name taken on themselves by the followers of Christ.

The first usage is in Acts 11:26: “ … and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” This was a formation off the name “Christ” and meant something like “followers of Christ.” Before this they had never had the label pinned on them. The church in Antioch was the first church with a large number of Gentiles (non-Jews) and the label was apparently given by non-believing Gentiles to this new group. It may have been a name of contempt, or at least distain, like the term “Jesus-freak” back in the 1970s.

The second time we encounter this word is in Acts 26:28. The apostle Paul had been imprisoned for over two years with no clear charges made. Finally he had made an appeal to the supreme court of his day, to Caesar himself.

Porcius Festus, the Roman governor scheduled a hearing to determine his actions and called in Herod Agrippa II to aid him in his determination. Paul in making his case and giving his testimony began to preach the death and resurrection of Christ. Though Festus accused Paul of being crazy, Paul pressed his case to Agrippa (who of course claimed Jewish ties). “King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets? I know that you do.” And Agrippa replied to Paul, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian” (Acts 26:27, 28). Again, this may have been contemptuous use of the word. Agrippa couldn’t escape the logic of Paul’s argument and so, as many today, resorted to sarcasm.

The third use of the word is in 1 Peter. Peter in this letter is urging his readers to “Keep your behavior excellent (or beautiful) among the Gentiles” (2:12a). He admits that “they slander you as evildoers” (2:12b). He tells them, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation” (4:12, 13).

And then he tells them, “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evil-doer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God” (4:14-16).

People will accuse Christ’s followers of all sorts of crimes. Peter is telling his readers – and us – that we should make sure that none of these accusations is true. And there are those so blinded by sin and ignorance that they will hate those to whom they attach the label of Christ and make being a Christian the worst crime of all. We’re not to be ashamed but to glorify God in “that Name.”

Maybe the day is coming when the word Christian will not be used as sloppily as it is today, when naming the Name of Christ will bring shame.

Will that be “strange”?

Bill Ball

Thursday, July 17, 2008


I usually don’t like to watch biblical movies, especially ones about Jesus. They seem to get more of the story wrong than right. But now and then I do watch them and sometimes something grabs me and offers me a new insight.

I remember one such movie on TV. I can’t remember much, but one scene grabbed me.

It was in the upper room the Sunday morning after the crucifixion. The disciples are cowering in fear. They’ve heard rumors, but don’t know what to make of them. Suddenly Jesus appears. The disciples back up to the wall opposite Him, their eyes wide with fear and amazement. They look like they’ve seen a ghost. (That’s right straight out of Luke’s account: 24:36,37). ”Peace,” says Jesus with His right hand raised. The camera flashes from them to Him and homes in on His face. Jesus has a smile on His face, almost a smirk. Jesus is amused!

I had read that passage dozens of times yet I’d never imagined Jesus smiling. But it seemed so natural in this scene. From then on, I started looking for a smile on Jesus’ face whenever I read the gospels.

Now the Bible never tells us that Jesus smiled or laughed and so I guess we assume He didn’t.

We’re told many times that Jesus wept or cried. He wept at His friend Lazarus’ funeral (John 11:35). The Greek word is dakruo – to shed tears, and it’s in the aorist tense. It could be translated “Jesus burst into tears.”

Luke tells us He wept over Jerusalem (19:41 – different Greek word, klaio, to wail or bewail). The lament that follows, or a similar one is recorded 3 times, each in a different context.

In fact, Isaiah, in his prophecy of the Messiah tell his readers he was “A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (53:3).

We’re also told often that Jesus was angry (Mark 3:5; 10:13) and even when we’re not told He was angry, we can almost feel His anger. “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Mark 9:19). Usually He is angry at the unbelief of His disciples or the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

(Also see COMPASSION.)

But did Jesus have a sense of humor? I believe He did.

First of all, God does. Some examples in the Old Testament. “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22).

Abraham’s son of promise is named Isaac – “laughter” or “laughing boy” (Genesis 21:3).

According to Psalm 104:15, God gave “wine which makes man’s heart glad.” Apparently Jesus drank quite a bit of it, even though His reputation in this matter was exaggerated (Luke 7:34).

The Old Testament is filled with stories with deep ironic twists.

Jacob swindles his older brother of his birthright and blessing. Later Jacob falls in love with a beautiful woman named Rachel. He works 7 years for her hand, but on the morning after the wedding, he wakes to find he’s married to her homely older sister. When he complains to his father-in-law, he’s told (literally) ”It’s not done thus in our place to give the younger before the first born” (Genesis 29:26). Ouch!

Or the story of Samson’s parents in Judges 13. (See A SUITABLE HELPER.)

Or the catch-22 story of Micaiah the prophet in 1 Kings 22:1-28. (I’ve got to write more about this guy later.)

The stories almost seem to be told in a way that incites us to laughter. If we don’t see the humor in the Bible, it may be because we don’t expect it to be there.

But what about Jesus? I believe the aspect of His humor that comes out most in the gospels, is His use of irony, sometimes even to the point of sarcasm.

He must surely have smiled when He nicknamed His leading disciple “Peter,” Rock. Peter many times was anything but a rock. (John 1:42; Matthew 16:18).

Or when He used the epithet “dogs” on a Gentile woman, who approached Him for healing for her demon-possessed daughter. When she came back on Him, He commended her for her faith (Matthew 15:21-28).

Jesus liked camels (after all He created these ugly awkward looking beasts) and used them in His cracks at the scribes and Pharisees. “You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). These religious folks were scrupulous to make certain they didn’t swallow an unclean insect, but they swallowed something much bigger.

He calls them blind guides, “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14).

Camels again, “And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).

Maybe the reason we fail to see the humor of Jesus is that we have a false picture of Him, as some sort of monkish saintly person with a halo stuck on His head and we fail to see Him as a real Man, as well as completely God. (See WHAT DID JESUS MEAN?) Maybe we feel it is irreverent to look for humor in His sayings and actions.

Or perhaps it is our literalism. I have found that those who claim to take the Bible literally often have a hard time with irony and figures of speech, especially hyperbole. “Jesus must have been talking about a literal camel and a literal place called the eye of the needle,” I’ve been told.

But once we grasp the humor of Jesus, we begin to see it everywhere as we read the Gospels. We see smiles on His face and those of His hearers and friends.

A story is told about Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher of the late 19th century. It may be true or it may be apocryphal. Either way, I like it:

A woman approached Spurgeon after one of his sermons and complained, “Mr. Spurgeon, I think you use altogether too much humor in your preaching.”

“Oh, sister,” replied Spurgeon, “if you only knew how much I hold back!”

Bill Ball

Monday, July 14, 2008


I hope Mike doesn’t mind my picking up his comment on my previous post, “I can honestly say that I have not seen anything of Republican or other politics in the church that I attend, or others that I have visited in the last few years. I really don't see partisan politics in the church as a problem, at least not in the small circles where I travel. Maybe it is a problem in other parts of the country and other denominations -- I don't know.

To the contrary, I think my pastor makes a conscious effort to avoid anything political, even to the point of not addressing issues within broader Christianity that probably should be addressed, perhaps for fear of offending someone or being accused of being political.”

Mike, I applaud your pastor and his leadership. And I also can say that my pastor avoids things political. If he got political, I’d probably take issue with him.

But I see politics as a real problem in the church in America, even though it may not be a problem in some churches. Have you never heard of the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, the American Family Association and all the others? Their leaders make political pronouncements all the time. Evangelical leaders even endorse presidential candidates.

And even in churches where politics is avoided in the pulpit, politics is still a problem, because the average everyday evangelical Christian doesn’t get all his or her input from the pulpit. Nor from the Bible. He gets it from many other sources: religious radio; religious TV; talk radio; religious and other books and literature; the Internet; and, e-mails from well-meaning friends.

What I’ve seen is that the average evangelical along with other Americans is able to hold many contradictory beliefs in his mind at the same time. (Didn’t James say something about a double-minded man?) If you disagree, how do you explain the Pew Survey that came out a few weeks ago?

I fear that we not only suffer from biblical and theological ignorance, but from an inability to think, or even a fear of thinking.

As far as the gospel itself being offensive: Yes, it is! “For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). “But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness” (verse 23).

It should be the message of the cross that offends. It should not be politics.

It seems to me that those who seek political solutions, who want to make America “rediscover” a generic “god,” are the ones trying to remove the “stumbling block of the cross” (Galatians 5:11).

In fact, Paul calls the message of Christ crucified “… a wisdom, however, not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away” (1 Corinthians 2:6). “The wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (verse 8).

If the rulers of Paul’s day were ignorant of God’s wisdom, do we really expect the rulers of America to do any better?

Bill Ball

Thursday, July 10, 2008


On July 4th of this year, Dr. Charles Stanley and In Touch Ministries had a special guest speaker for their holiday program: Newt Gingrich.

I was told by a friend to click on the In Touch website to hear his message. Of course I checked it out. I was really curious. Newt Gingrich speaking in a Baptist church? Had he become a Baptist preacher? I thought that perhaps he’d gotten converted and was giving his testimony of how he’d found Jesus. After all, wasn’t he the man who had to resign as Speaker of the House because he was having an affair (at the same time that he was leading in getting Bill Clinton impeached for lying about his affairs)?

Well, no, he didn’t want to talk about Jesus. He was pushing his new book: Rediscovering God in America. Now I haven’t read Newt Gingrich’s book, but I did listen to his “message” for about ½ hour before I gave up. It was a typical hodgepodge of patriotism, militarism, Republicanism and religiosity. He talked a lot about the flag, the military, America, the Bible and even God. He actually did mention Jesus Christ once, but only offhandedly.

Although he is a professor of history, his understanding of history seems to be as weak as his understanding of the Bible. Either that, or he is deliberately playing fast and loose with both.

Gingrich paints a picture of our founding fathers as men of God, and undoubtedly many of them were. But for many, their faith was not in the God of the Bible, the God who gave His Son.

One of his favorites is Thomas Jefferson. Gingrich admits that Jefferson was a Deist but insists that Deists really believed in God as Creator. However what Gingrich doesn’t explain is that Deists did not believe in God as One who is involved in the affairs of men or in God as the One who sent His Son as Savior of the world. I have a copy of Jefferson’s “Bible.” For his edition he removed all references to miracles and to the deity of Christ. (He missed a few.)

Gingrich paints a picture of a godly America that I believe exists only in the wishful thinking of some people. And his call for America to rediscover God does not go far enough. America does not need to “return to God.” The American people need Jesus Christ who died for our sins and rose again. And so does Newt. And America needs churches that proclaim Christ and not Gingrich’s generic god.

I have a problem with patriotic services in church. I find none of this in the New Testament. I don't find Jesus or Paul or John or any other New Testament writer calling their nation to repentance and responsibility. And the Roman Empire in their day was as immoral as, or worse than America in our day.

As a Christian citizen of both the Kingdom of God and of the USA, I recognize that I have dual responsibilities. In fact, in a representative democracy such as ours we have a greater responsibility. But our responsibility is to "do all things to the glory of God." That includes how we vote, hold office, etc.

As far as Mr. Stanley's having Newt speak, I didn't see any indication that tells us Newt is a believer. His past actions, his ignorance of the Word of God, as well as the fact that he does not acknowledge Christ would seem to disqualify him, if not as a believer, at least as someone who should speak in church

There are too many people in this country who think that being an American and being a Christian are the same thing. This kind of preaching only adds to the confusion and muddies up the Gospel.

I believe that the church in America has gotten sidetracked often throughout our history because we have blurred the distinction between three entities: the church, Israel and our nation. The Israel of the Old Testament was a theocracy. In a sense we could say that “church” and “state” were one. But not so today. The church’s task is not to create or “restore” or “revive” a godly nation. That’s impossible. History is full of failed theocracies. We don’t need one here!

Bill Ball

Monday, July 7, 2008


“… we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14).

In my post, CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET FUNDY, I mentioned “non-essentials: fad doctrines, pop Christianity, religious stuff.” XLT asked me what I would consider current “fad doctrines.” As soon as I read his comment my mind began making a list. I figured I better write them down. These are not necessarily false doctrines, just those things that can get us side tracked.

I started my Christian life in a very rigid church. The gospel was preached there, but there were many legalistic rules governing the life of the believer. Do’s and don’ts (mostly don’ts) were to be followed in order to be spiritual. When I broke free of this and started attending a Bible church, I began to cautiously exercise my freedom in Christ. However, it wasn’t long before I found that there were new “rules,” mostly having to do with some new book or teaching by some well-known preacher.

Spiritual gifts. You’ve got to find your spiritual gift. You really can’t function without knowing it.

Temperament. Tim LaHaye’s book told us there are 4 basic types named after Greek bodily fluids. Again you can’t function without knowing your temperament.

Gothardism. Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Youth Conflicts -- chain of command – the umbrella. Every aspect of the Christian life can be reduced to 10 or 12 simple steps.

Eschatology. Hal Lindsey’s books were undoubtedly used to scare many into the Kingdom. But they also led to debates about trivial esoteric matters.

When I was in seminary, it was Calvinism. One had to determine how many points he held to.

Church growth principles. The homogeneous church-- Seeker friendliness.

Self-esteem. Borrowed from pop psychology and baptized as Christian. After all you can’t love your neighbor as yourself unless you love yourself, right?

Spiritual life books. At least once a year we’re confronted with a new one. Some are good. Some are worthless. Most of them could be subtitled: “This works for me, so it should work for you.” It usually doesn’t.

So much of this stuff is proclaimed from the pulpit as though it were on a par with the Word of God. It’s taught in Sunday school classes and home Bible studies.

Any others?

Bill Ball

Thursday, July 3, 2008


A while back, Uni and I were sitting and chatting with some Christian friends. The conversation got around to religious stuff. You know, the latest seminar, the latest conference, some current media preachers (good ones, I guess), the current Christian musicians, some popular Christian books. I think my eyes were getting glazed over like they do when the conversation turns to golf. Most of the conversation was about matters about which I knew little and had no desire to learn. When my thoughts were asked, I blurted out rather rudely, “I’m not religious!” My friends were somewhat puzzled, but knowing that I’m a bit eccentric and a curmudgeon, they didn’t castigate me.

I’ve been a believer in Jesus for well over 50 years. I’ve gone to seminary, pastored churches, taught at a Bible college, etc. I suppose that would qualify me as religious in the thinking of many.

But I still get uncomfortable in the company of many when their talk gets religious. We have a religious, or “Christian” subculture in America. I’ve had at least one foot in that subculture all of my life. But I try to keep at least a few of my toes out of it.

Please understand. I’m not criticizing anyone in particular. It’s just that so much of our religion has little to do with Christianity as I read about it in the Bible. It seems to be more like a copy of the culture around us – and not always a good copy.

I believe we should engage the culture around us and not retreat into our little monasteries. Rather than reading only Christian authors and listening to Christian music all the time, we should read and listen to what the culture around us is saying. Rather than getting our news through “Christian” media, we should be reading our newspapers and newsmagazines.

I hear many complaints about the “liberal” slant of the secular news media by those who don’t realize that much of the religious media has a political slant as well, though it is often disguised as biblical.

Enough of that rant!

What should our religion be like? Well James tells us in 1:27: “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Bill Ball
July 2, 2008

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


I really appreciated Mike’s comments on my previous post. (It’s nice to know that someone is reading this stuff.)

Mike said, “Now you are sounding like a fundamentalist.”

Well, yes, I guess I am sounding like one.

A little over a half-century ago, I would have called myself one. Back then the word stood for someone who held to “the fundamentals of the faith” – a biblical literalist. I still consider myself as one, by that definition. But even then the word carried some baggage with it. Often the adjective “fighting” was affixed to it, because of the desire by many to contend over non-essentials. And the legalism: it was not enough to believe in the Bible, one needed to conform to rigid standards, supposedly drawn from the Bible. And separatism: those who didn’t hold to certain views and behaviors were to be treated as though they weren’t really Christians.

There are many “fundamentalists” of this sort still around today, though some of the rules have changed.

I believe, Mike, that many of those you mentioned who have “come out” of the church and have no use for “doctrine” or “theology,” yet feel they are better Christians because of this, have really thrown out the baby with the bath water. They have rebelled against the peripheral issues, and thrown off the essential truths of the gospel with them. We cannot be “better Christians” by denying the doctrines of the person and work of Christ.

I believe I speak as one who has struggled with these peripheral issues and their importance. But I have found that much of my growth as a follower of Christ has consisted of two processes which are concurrent.

The first and most important is a development of a knowledge of, and a relationship with God through time in His Word, through prayer and through worship.

The second is a peeling away of non-essentials: fad doctrines, pop Christianity, religious stuff. This includes a lot of the do’s and don’ts that were once considered important.

I’ve found that the more I grow in the first area the less I worry about the second.

Bill Ball
July 2, 2008