Friday, December 17, 2010

MARY’S SONG

Luke tells us that immediately after Mary was told by the angel that she was to be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38), Mary went “in haste” to the home of her cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant, with the child who would be named John.  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting she pronounced a blessing on Mary and her child (Luke 1:39-45).

Mary’s response was the beautiful poem recorded in Luke 1:46-55:
46.  “My soul exalts the Lord,
47.  and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,
48.  because He has looked upon the lowly state of His slave girl.
      For behold, from now on all the generations will consider me fortunate,
49.  because the Mighty One has done great things to me,
      and Holy is His Name,
50.  and His mercy is for generations and generations
      to those who fear Him.
51.  He has done mighty things with His arm;
      He has scattered those who are arrogant in the thoughts of their hearts;
52.  He has torn down sovereigns from their thrones,
      and exalted the lowly;
53.  the hungry He has filled with good things,
      and the rich He has sent away empty;
54.  He has come to the aid of Israel His servant,
      in remembering mercy,
55.  just as He spoke to our fathers,
      to Abraham and to his seed forever!
I’ve been teaching a class on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and haven’t finished the Beatitudes yet.  This past Sunday we discussed the blessings and woes in Luke’s version of the Sermon (Luke 6:20-26).  (See: THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT, 4.)  Luke records not only “blessings,” but also “woes.”  I pointed out that Luke’s version seems to follow the theme of his Gospel, of a radical reversal of commonly accepted social structures, and that this theme was first taken up in Mary’s song.  There was some discussion, especially as to how these contrasts relate to us.

As I meditated this week on this theme, I felt I needed to get back to what Mary said (or sang) in her beautiful poem.  After all, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine that some of what Jesus taught may have been learned at His mother’s knees.

I’m afraid that we who believe in the divine inspiration of the Scripture often forget its human element.  It’s easy to simply assume that these beautiful words and thoughts just sprang spontaneously from the lips of a teenage girl.  Perhaps they did, but that’s not how it usually worked. It is more likely that they are the product of some deep thinking about God and His promises.

The context doesn’t allow for a long period for its composition between the announcement of the angel and Mary’s utterance – just the time of travel from Nazareth to the Judean hill country – a week perhaps?  Possibly Mary was composing, even writing her thoughts as she traveled.

But the poem shows a familiarity with the Scripture – not only with a few verses, but with its great themes.  If Mary composed “in haste,” she must have already had many of these thoughts firmly in her mind.

It’s clear that the poem is patterned after the prayer of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10).  It carries similar themes.  Hannah’s prayer was uttered at a time of great crisis in the nation of Israel.  The Theocracy had degenerated into near anarchy, as a reading of the last five chapters of the Book of Judges demonstrates.  The prayer looked forward to the coming of a king – God’s Messiah or anointed one (2:10).  It exalts the LORD and speaks of great changes that He was bringing to pass, especially His salvation and exaltation of the poor and lowly.  Mary must have seen the parallels between Hannah’s day and her own.  Israel in Mary’s time was occupied by a foreign oppressor and ruled by an evil puppet king.  But Mary was to give birth to a new King – God’s final Messiah (Luke 1:31-33).

But Mary’s song was not a cut and paste version of Hannah’s prayer.  Mary picked up the theme of God’s ancient Covenant promises.  The word translated “mercy” in verses 50 and 54 is the Greek word eleos, the word used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament – ca. 200 BC) to translate the Hebrew word HESED, which meant much more than mercy; HESED (translated “lovingkindness” in the NASB) speaks of the LORD’s loving loyalty to His Covenant people.  Verse 50 is a quote from the first line of Psalm 103:17.  The rest of that verse and of verse 18 speak of:
      “His righteousness to children’s children
      of those who keep His Covenant
      and remember His precepts to do them.”

Mary had in mind those Covenant promises that the Lord had made to Abraham and his seed and the eternality of the promises (verses 54, 55; Genesis 12:1-3; 17:7).  The word “remember” (verse 59) is another Covenant word.  When “The children of Israel cried out” in their bondage in Egypt, “their cry rose up to God.  So God heard their groanings and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Exodus 2:23, 24; 6:5).  The reference to the Lord’s “arm” (verse 51) also takes us back to their deliverance from Egypt with a “strong hand” and “an outstretched arm” (Exodus 6:1, 6; Psalm 59:10).

Mary knew that she stood at the beginning of a new era in God’s dealing with His people – a beginning that recalled those other beginnings – the call of and Covenant with Abraham, the deliverance from Egypt, the inauguration of the monarchy.  Perhaps she saw their culmination in the birth of her Child.

And she saw the radical reversal of the social structures of her day when “the arrogant” and “sovereigns” would be brought down, when “the lowly” would be “exalted” and “the hungry” would be “filled with good things” (verses 51-53).

Her Son lived out her song in His life and ministry.  He died to set things right, not only between God and man but between man and man.  He is returning to complete the task and reign as King.  He has left us with His message and His task till He returns.

So at this season of the year, when we celebrate the birth of Mary’s Son who was also the Son of God, why aren’t we who claim to be His followers busy with the task and the message?  Why are we so concerned with maintaining customs and traditions of the holiday – customs and traditions which have little to do with His birth and even less to do with His task?  And why have we narrowed our concern to the title given to the holiday?

For more thoughts on Mary, see: MARY’S PAIN.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

IS THE GREAT COMMISSION FOR US?

I received the following question from someone who serves in missions:  “I have been looking at the passage.  It is the passage about the "Great Commission" and who it applies to.  I know it is directed to the disciples and I remember from Bible study class that the words were continual -- going, making, teaching.  There is someone here that has the view that not everyone is called to share and that this is for the disciples only.  I know that view is out there, but was wondering if this verse is overused.  The one part that came to me is that of all the people He was around, He said this to eleven.”

I’ve seen a number of interpretations of the Great Commission, many of which appear to be aimed at avoiding it.  It seems strange to me that people who have left their homes to serve the Lord halfway around the world should be questioning its validity for them. 
Here are some thoughts.

Jesus actually gave a number of “commissions,” though the one you refer to in Matthew 28:16-20, is the one usually labeled thus.  Others are found in Mark 16:14-16; Luke 24:46-49; John 20:21, 22; Acts 1:8.

Matthew 28:16-20 reads as follows:  “And the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain that Jesus appointed to them.  And when they saw Him they worshipped, though some doubted.  And Jesus came and spoke to them saying, ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Me.  Go therefore and disciple all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things, whatever I have commanded you.  And look!  I am with you all the days until the consummation of the age!’”

Yes, the commission in Matthew is said to be spoken to the eleven disciples, elsewhere called apostles (Matthew 28:16).  However, the text doesn’t strictly say only to the eleven.  Some believe this appearance to be the same as that which Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15:6:  “Then He appeared to five hundred brothers at one time …”  A mountain in Galilee would seem to be one of the few places where Jesus could have appeared to this number without drawing too much attention.  The phrase “… though some doubted,” might also imply there were others.  It would seem to me that by this time, the eleven would have overcome their doubts.

The passage in Mark, though in a disputed text, mentions two others who may have been included (Mark 16:12, 13).

The passage in Luke definitely includes the two Emmaus disciples (verses 33-35) and most likely a number of women (verses 9, 10).

John merely uses the words “the disciples,” which usually is used of a larger number of persons than merely the eleven.  In verse 18, he mentions Mary Magdalene.

The commission in Acts seems to be clearly directed to only the eleven.  Verse 2 refers to them as “the apostles.”  In verse 11, they are addressed by two angels as “men of Galilee,” which would appear to exclude men from elsewhere, as well as women.  But in verses 12-14, they are part of a much larger company in the upper room (120 according to verse 15).  Could these also have been with the eleven when the commission was given?  In Acts 2:1-4, “… they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit was giving them (the ability) to speak.”

So my belief is that, while the eleven – the apostles – were particularly singled out as recipients of the commission, it was directed at a much larger group of disciples, including many women.

But the commission is also continual and self-perpetuating and includes disciples even in this age.

First, Jesus says, “… teaching them to observe all things, whatever I have commanded you.”  I would suppose that the “all things” that are to be taught to these new disciples would include the commission itself!

Secondly, when Jesus says, “I am with you all the days until the consummation of the age,” we need to ask to whom He is speaking.  Certainly He is not implying that this event will necessarily occur during the lifetime of those He was addressing, even though they many have understood it that way.  This promise, which is tied to the commission, goes beyond their lifetime and I believe must be meant for the whole church.

Now for a few words about the verbs in verse 19.  There are four verbs:
  • The main verb translated “disciple” or “make disciples” is matheteusate. It is an imperative – a command – and is in the aorist tense.  This gives it immediacy – “just do it,” or “start to do it.”  All the other verbs are participles modifying the main verb.
  • “Go” (poreuthentes) is an aorist participle.  This form is often used with an imperative to lend it more urgency – “do it NOW.”  Matthew 28:5, 7:  “The angel answered and told the men … ‘Go quickly tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead.’”  Check out Matthew 2:8; 11:4; 17:27; Mark 16:15.  Some have attempted to soften the command by translating, “As you go, make disciples.”  This would require a present participle as in Matthew 10:7.  To translate thus is faulty exegesis and even worse, irresponsible application.
  • "Baptizing” (baptizontes) and “teaching” (didaskontes) are both present participles, which speak of continuing action.  These are the means to be used in making disciples.
Conclusion:  The great commission is valid today.  I believe it is applicable to every disciple of Jesus Christ.

Also see:  FEELING THE CALL and PAUL AND JESUS AND THE GREAT COMMISSION.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

SHOULD MY WIFE WEAR HER JEWELRY TO CHURCH?

When I taught at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston, I had a student who attended the same church as former President George H. W. Bush and his wife Barbara.  Every week as he came into class, he’d announce, “I saw George and Barbara at church Sunday.”  I’d ask, “How were they?”  He’d always give the same answer, “Barbara wore her pearls.”

On my previous post I attempted to deal with the question raised by 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, of whether or not women should wear head coverings.  I referred to another text, 1 Timothy 2:8-10:  “I want the men to pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, without anger and argument.  Likewise also women to clothe themselves in modest clothing, with decency and discretion not with braided hair and gold or pearls or extravagant clothing, but with that which is fitting a woman professing godliness – with good works.”  This passage makes no mention of a head covering though it did speak of women’s clothing and adornment.  I remarked, “It seems that here Paul is instructing both men and women about public prayers, giving some requirements as to their inward and outward condition.  Here it is modesty of dress and appearance, not a veil that is required.”

This prompted a comment:  “So now you'll have to answer the questions raised by the verses in 1 Timothy:  should my wife leave her jewelry at home?  Hehe.”

Though the “hehe” tells me it was asked with tongue in cheek, the question seems to be legitimate, so I’ll attempt to deal with it.

It should be noted that men are the first to receive instruction and it has to do with what we might call their spiritual condition.  They are to lift up “holy hands without anger and argument.”  Perhaps Paul saw that men, in order to be holy in their public prayers need to let go of those things which are often hindrances to men – a quick temper and argumentiveness.

And so he says something similar of women.  If they are to be holy in their public prayers, they need to let go of that which is often a hindrance to women – extravagance of dress.

Public (as well as private) prayer can be done by rote with our minds, in a sense, detached.  We can mouth all the little customary clich├ęs while all the time our thoughts are far away.  Paul was saying here that those thoughts and concerns need to be gotten rid of.

Men – get rid of all that anger and those irritants that provoke us.  Clear your mind, so it will be holy.

Women – get rid of all those concerns about how you look.  Don’t worry about whether you look better than the gal standing next to you.  Be holy.

A similar passage is found in 1 Peter 3:2-4, “… as they (your husbands) observe your pure conduct and fear (of the Lord), whose adornment should not be the putting on clothing, but of the hidden person of the heart – with the imperishable quality of a humble and quiet spirit, which is extremely precious in the sight of God.”

Peter, unlike Paul, was a married man.  When he wrote his letter he had been married for at least 30 years.  Like Paul, he was concerned that women make the development of inner beauty a priority over external beauty.  I don’t believe he was forbidding any concern over external appearances.  We have to be careful of an overly literal reading.  I don’t believe Peter was telling women not to wear clothes.

So it’s okay to wear your jewelry to church.  And Barbara can wear her pearls.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

SHOULD MY WIFE WEAR A HAT TO CHURCH?

A dear friend of mine called the other afternoon a bit perturbed over a message she had heard in church.  The speaker had started with an Old Testament text, then moved to 1 Corinthians 11 and began to preach that women must wear head coverings in church.
This upset my friend greatly.  She’s a woman in her 80s who has been involved in active ministry most of her life.  She of course, is not one to be swayed by one sermon.  Her concern was for the younger, less mature women in the church and how it had upset them, and for those who might be turned off to the Gospel by what she perceived as legalism.  She wanted an opinion and some comments from me.  We talked for about a half hour and I promised I would write down some thoughts on the passage.

The passage under discussion is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16:
2. Now I am praising you because you remember me in all things and you hold tight to the traditions, just as I handed over to you.
3. Now I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of a woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God.
4. Every man praying or prophesying with head covered disgraces his head.
5. But every woman praying or prophesying with head uncovered disgraces her head, for (she is) one and the same with her who is shaved.
6. For if a woman is not covered she should have her hair cut off.  But if it’s a disgrace to a woman to have her hair cut off or be shaved she should be covered (or cover herself).
7. For a man should not have his head covered since he is the image and glory of God, but the woman is man’s glory.
8. For man is not from woman, but woman from man.
9. For indeed man wasn’t created for the sake of the woman, but woman for the sake of the man.
10. For this reason the woman should have authority on her head, because of the angels.
11. However, neither is woman without man nor man without woman in the Lord.
12. For even as the woman (came) from the man, so also the man (comes) through the woman.  But all things (come) from God.
13. You yourselves judge among yourselves.  Is it proper for a woman to pray to God uncovered?
14. Doesn’t even nature itself teach you that man, if he wears long hair it’s dishonor to him?
15. But the woman, if she wears long hair, it’s glory to her?  Because the long hair is given to her corresponding to a covering.
16. But if anyone supposes himself to be a disputer, we do not have such a custom, neither (do any of) the churches of God.
This controversial passage has been argued passionately by many as have just about all New Testament passages having to do with women’s roles.  It is one of those passages that I usually avoid digging too deeply into for a number of reasons.  The main reason, however, is that whatever interpretation I come up with will upset some persons.

There are those who use it, I believe, in a way that suppresses women in the ministry.  There are also those who attempt to ignore it completely, or who desire to make it say what it does not.

As I attempt to understand it, three questions come to mind:
• The most important question is:  is there an order of authority to be recognized and followed as the basis for what follows?
• The second question that needs to be dealt with: are women allowed at all to take part in the public worship of the church?  Often those who make the covering a requirement also require that women keep silence in the assembly.  This requirement may range from absolute silence to allowing them to sing or play musical instruments.
• Third, does this passage teach (as it seems to) that women are to have their heads covered?  If so, why, when and with what?  To many, this is the major question.  In some churches women are required to wear some sort of covering in public worship, often a lace veil or something resembling a doily.  I recall that my mother, a Roman Catholic, though she attended church infrequently, would always wear a hat when she did.  For many older women in my youth, even Protestants, it was the thing to do.

I will attempt to deal with these questions in order as I go through the text. This is not a commentary on the whole text, simply an attempt to deal with these questions.

Before I get too far, some notes on word meanings and translations of certain words:
• “man” (14 times) and “woman” (16 times) are aner and gune, the same words that are elsewhere translated “husband” and “wife.”
• “traditions” and “handed over” (verse 3) are paradoseis and paradidomi. Though paradoseis often refers to human traditions, as Paul uses the words, these are not simply “customs” to be accepted or rejected, but are revealed truth.  In 11:23, Paul says that he “handed over” (paradidomi) the truths of the Lord’s Supper.  In 15:3, he uses the word of his “handing over of the first things,” the facts of the Gospel itself.  Also see 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6.
• “nature” (verse 14) does not speak of nature as we usually think of it – that which we can observe in the world of plants and animals – but simply “the way things are” – human nature or disposition.  Paul says of himself and Peter in Galatians 2:7, “we are Jews by nature.” Romans 2:14, “The Gentiles do the things of the Law, by nature.”
• “corresponding to” (verse 15) translates the word anti, which usually means “in place of.”
• “custom” (verse 16) is sunetheian and speaks of an optional practice which may or may not be ignored. In 8:7, it speaks of self-imposed dietary restrictions (“custom of the idol”).

I believe the “traditions” that Paul “handed over” to the Corinthians refer not necessarily to the issue of women’s coverings, but to the doctrine related in verse 3.  There is a “headship” order to be recognized and followed.  Though the context is that of public worship, the principles go beyond.  They apply to every aspect of our theology and practice – our understanding of God and of human relationships.

Paul talks here of three “headship” relationships:
• Within the Trinity, God, the Father is the Head of Christ the Son.  Though all three members of the Trinity are equally God, there is a “functional” or “economic” subordination of the Son to the Father.
• There is a “headship” relationship of Christ the Son, to a man.  Christ is my Head, my authority.  I am subordinate to Him.  No one would argue this one.
• The woman is subordinate to the man.  We must remember that he is not saying “women” and “men,” but uses the singular.  This refers, I believe, to the husband/wife headship/subordination.  It is similar to the relationship of the Son to the Father within the Trinity.  The wife and husband are equals, but there is a “functional” or “economic” subordination of the wife to her husband.

Though it does not say clearly in the text, this appears to be an allusion to the fact that the man/woman relationship is somehow an aspect of the image of God. Genesis 1:26a, 27, “And God said, ‘Let us make man according to our image and according to our likeness …’’  And God made man; according to His image He made him, male and female He made them.”

The answer to the second question should seem obvious from the text.  It seems clear that women are allowed to take part in public worship of the church – to have speaking roles.  The restrictions mentioned are addressed to the women who “pray or prophesy.”  They seem to have been doing so in Corinth.  The negative command is directed at those who did so without meeting certain restrictions (verses 5 and 13).  If women were not praying and prophesying, the restrictions would be meaningless.

By the way, there seem to be no restrictions placed on women who do not “pray or prophesy”!

Now to the third question.  If the word “traditions” mentioned in verse 2 speaks primarily of the doctrine of headship in verse 3, as I believe, then the whole issue of women’s head covering falls within some other category.  It is an issue of “custom” (verse 16).  The doctrine is essential; headship must be recognized.  The married woman must have some way of demonstrating her subordination to the husband’s headship.  In Corinth and possibly through much of the first century Mediterranean world, it was demonstrated by her veil.  Paul also mentions the long hair as a symbol given “corresponding to” (or in place of) a covering.”  Apparently this could also serve as a symbol of the wife’s subordination.

It would seem to me, that if the head covering was simply a matter of “custom,” then as customs change, it could lose its significance.  Why shouldn’t symbols be a matter of personal agreement between a woman and her husband?  The issue is not a piece of cloth but the headship/subordination of a man and a woman as a symbol and sign of the relationship of Father and Son.

It is interesting to me that in another passage speaking of public prayer, Paul makes no mention of a head covering. 1Timothy 2:8-10:  “I want the men to pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, without anger and argument.  Likewise also women to clothe themselves in modest clothing, with decency and discretion not with braided hair and gold or pearls or extravagant clothing, but with that which is fitting a woman professing godliness – with good works.”

Though some would disagree, it seems that here Paul is instructing both men and women about public prayers, giving some requirements as to their inward and outward condition.  Here it is modesty of dress and appearance, not a veil that is required.  The passage in Corinthians was addressed to a particular assembly; this passage seems to be more universal.  Note all the references to “all” and “every” throughout, starting with verse 1.

Conclusion:

This passage gives instructions as to some requirements for both women and men in the public worship in the church at Corinth.  Paul assumes that both men and women have speaking roles in the worship.  His concern is that both men and women show by their dress, the headship/subordination that exists within the Godhead and the family.

The particular way that women were to demonstrate this was the wearing of some sort of head covering, or veil or long hair.

I believe that the text teaches that the externals are a matter of custom, not doctrinal truth.  Therefore, as customs change, this custom could change as well.  The important issue is that the husband and wife maintain that headship/subordination.  It would seem that whatever symbols are used should be a matter agreed upon by the wife/husband.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT, 9

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Matthew 5:4

For the last few weeks, I’ve been teaching a class on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and been meditating on the Beatitudes.  I’ve already published 8 posts (the last time I taught it), but as I continue to study I’ll probably have more.  See: THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT.

There are a number of questions raised by this beatitude.

First, does this saying contradict Matthew 8:21, 22:  “And another of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, permit me first to go away and bury my father.’ But Jesus says to him, ‘Follow Me and leave the dead to bury their own dead!’”?

I don’t believe Jesus is forbidding mourning in this pronouncement.  This is simply one more of Jesus’ radical demands for discipleship.  We are told that this man already was a disciple.  Elsewhere throughout the gospels we read of Jesus making demands that would seem to be calculated to drive people away rather than attract them.

To a scribe who said, “Teacher, I’ll follow you wherever You go.”  Jesus replied, “The foxes have their dens and the birds of the sky their nests, but the Son of Man doesn’t have a place He may lay His head” (Matthew 8:19, 20).

“The one who loves father or mother more than Me isn’t worthy of Me.  The one who loves son or daughter more than Me isn’t worthy of Me.  And whoever doesn’t take his cross and follow Me isn’t worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37, 38).

These are only a few of the radical demands Jesus makes on His followers and would-be followers.  He expects total commitment!  This doesn’t contradict His compassion as expressed elsewhere.  “Come to Me all you who labor and are burdened down, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, because I am gentle (praus -- same word as is translated “meek” or “gentle” in the third beatitude) and lowly in heart and you’ll find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is kind and My load is easy” (Matthew 11:28-30).

A second question is who are the mourners?  They are the same persons as are mentioned in all nine beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12).  They are those persons who recognize that they have a need and are coming to Jesus to have that need met.  They are “poor in Spirit,” “meek,” “hungering and thirsting for righteousness” and so on.

And they are mourning.  There are four Greek words for mourning used in the Greek New Testament.  Though they are synonyms and often used interchangeably, there are different nuances in their meaning.
Lupeo, which speaks of sorrow, pain, distress or grief.  It speaks to the deep emotion of the griever.
Threneo, which speaks of lamenting, even “sing a dirge.” It brings to mind the loud emotional expression of grief (John 16:20 uses both words).
Kopto, (literally “cut”) expresses the outward signs of mourning or grief, “beat the breast” (cf. Matthew 24:30).
 The word used in Matthew 5:4 is Pentheo.  It is often used in the transitive sense – to mourn over or for something.  The disciples will mourn for Jesus when He is taken (Matthew 9:15).  Paul wonders why the Corinthians haven’t mourned over sin in their midst (1 Corinthians 5:2).

And what are these persons mourning?  Jesus doesn’t say, so we are forced to interpret.  We mourn that which is lost.
 The loss of a loved one through death: a parent, a child, a friend, a spouse.
 The loss of a loved one through alienation.
 A spiritually lost loved one.
 The loss of our childhood.
 A lost opportunity.
 A material loss
 A sin
 Our own sinfulness.

Whatever the loss it leaves a hole in our heart.

And Jesus doesn’t promise that He will cause us not to mourn.  He doesn’t promise us that we will cease mourning, but that in our mourning we will be comforted.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

CONFORMITY TO CHRIST

I wrote in a previous post of the IMITATION OF CHRIST and hope to continue further, but first I feel I need to write on a related topic, especially as it is found in the writings of Paul.

Paul uses a number of words with the root MORPHE (form) which speak of a future (and I believe, present) condition in the life of the believer.

In Philippians 3:20 and 21, Paul says, “For our citizenship is in Heaven, from where we are also eagerly expecting the Lord Jesus Christ, Who will refashion the body of our humiliation, conformed (SUMMORPHOS) to the body of His glory …”  He is speaking of a future change at the second coming of our Lord.  At that time, we will be completely changed over and will be made like Christ.  This is undoubtedly what the Apostle John is speaking of in 1 John 3:2, where he says “… we know that when He appears we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.”

Paul also uses the same word in Romans 8:29, where he says, “Because whom He (God) foreknew, He also predestined conformed (SUMMORPHOS) to the image of His Son.”  It appears that here Paul is also speaking of a future transformation.  The context (Romans 8:28-20) places it within the “purpose” of God.

But Paul says (verse 28), “God is working all things together for good to those who love Him, to those who are called according to His purpose.”  This seems to imply a present work of God in our daily lives.

When Paul reprimands the Galatian believers for attempting to put themselves under the Old Testament Law, he calls them, “My children for whom I again am suffering birth pains until Christ is formed (MORPHOO) in you …” (Galatians 4:19).  He seems to be expressing a present goal of Christ-likeness in them, which they are slow to attain.  In other words, even though God’s purpose is to make us like Christ at His return,  He is presently working out that change in our lives.  He is working to make us like Jesus right now!

Paul tells the Roman believers that they are to “stop being conformed (different word: (SUSCHEMATIZO) to this age, but be being transformed (METAMORPHOO) by the renewing of the mind, so as to test and approve what the will of God is – the good and well pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2).  He says that this transformation process is through the renewing of one’s mind and that it should lead to a testing and approving of God’s will.  In other words, it begins with the mind and is carried out in one’s actions.

Another passage that throws some light on the transformation process is 2 Corinthians 3:18: “But we all, with face unveiled, contemplating (or reflecting) as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed (METAMOPHOO) into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Spirit of the Lord.”

I believe that the way that we renew our minds is by gazing into the mirror of the Scripture.  There we see ourselves in our needy state – not a very pretty sight.  As Paul tells us in Romans 5: helpless, ungodly – sinners – enemies of God.  Or the horrible list of negative qualities in Romans 1.  But it is also in the Scriptures we see Christ.  We see Him as the perfect Man who walked this earth.  We see Him as the incarnate God who gave His life for us.

We see two “images” – ourselves and Jesus Christ.  And those two are extremely out of focus with each other.  But it is only as we see ourselves in comparison with Him that we can begin to bring ourselves into focus with Him.  As John Calvin said, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

It is as we study and meditate on the Scriptures, on their picture of us and their picture of Jesus that we move into the process of transformation, when we are continually becoming more and more like Him.

And our goal is to be “to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the sharing of His sufferings, being conformed (SUMMORPHIZO) to His death” (Philippians 3:10).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"YIKES!"

Every once in a while when I am teaching or preaching, I hear an “Ouch!” or a “Yikes!” from one of the persons in the class/congregation.  The other day I received an e-mail with a few comments on my last post.  At least one statement I’d made received a “Yikes!”

Of course, being a lover of words, I had to ascertain the precise meanings of these words.  Well, according to my Webster’s, they are defined as follows:
        “Ouch – interjection – used especially to express sudden pain.”
        “Yikes – interjection – used to express fear or astonishment.”

It seemed interesting to me that a quote from, or a comment on a passage of Scripture could arouse pain, fear or astonishment.  Was it something I said, or the way I said it?  I really don’t want to scare people or hurt them.

But the Scriptures do at times frighten us.  They can poke us and pain us.

I have been a reader of and a student of the Bible for over 50 years.  I have read through the book at least once in every one of those years and studied most of it in depth.  It is very easy to fall into a rut of just reading the words or the stories without feeling them, without receiving their painful jabs.

But every so often something will leap from the pages and arouse an “ouch!”  Or “yikes!”  Or perhaps when I’m sitting in church, listening to the preacher go on about a familiar passage and he suddenly opens up something I hadn’t seen before.  Or someone in a Bible study will make a comment or ask a question that had never entered my mind.

Now I’m not talking about some new and interesting interpretation of some familiar text.  I’m talking about a new application – a moment when I’m hit with the fact that this text is making demands on me that I have not been carrying out, or have been unwilling to carry out.

This Sunday I’m beginning a new Sunday school class with a small group of adults.  I plan on taking them through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  When I’ve told people about my topic, some have asked questions like “What are you going to do with it?” or “What are your goals?”

Of course, I could give many standard answers, like “I want the students to learn to live by its principles,” or something like that.  But I’m enough of a realist to recognize that lives don’t change much over a few weeks or months of teaching.

Perhaps I should simply say that I’m looking for a few good “Yikes!” moments, those times when those in the class (myself included) will be hit between the eyes with a demand of Jesus that we’d never been confronted with before – a demand that will change our thinking and actions even if only in some small way.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

THE IMITATION OF CHRIST

I’ve been having an e-mail conversation with a friend on this topic, though I don’t think we’ve made much progress yet.  It’s a very deep and involved topic and has occupied the thinking of men and women far wiser than I.  A brief browse through this blog will show that it has occupied much of my thinking.

But what do we mean when we speak of “the imitation of Christ”?  I believe it means different things to different people.  Perhaps none gets the complete picture.

• To some, it refers to the contemplative life – meditation and prayer.  Certainly a study of the Gospels shows Jesus often going off alone to talk with His Father.
• To others it is an active life of sacrificial service to others.  Again, the Gospels present an active, robust Jesus working nearly nonstop in His service.
• Others emphasize the development of Christ-like character.  Sometimes we are steered from the Gospels to the epistles of Paul and others – Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” or Peter’s “additions to faith.”
• Still others see Jesus as an example of “how-tos” – how to teach, how to evangelize, how to have a discipleship program, how to handle conflict, etc.
• Unfortunately there are also sincere, well-meaning Christians who totally ignore these ideas.  They read the Gospels, but (it seems to me) only pay attention to them when they can be mined for interesting children’s stories or sermon illustrations.   (The Old Testament is often treated in the same way.)  I confess that for years I was a part of this last group.

I believe that all of the above except the last are legitimate examples of the imitation of Christ.  However, it seems that we pick and choose our areas of imitation, often because of personality, preference or the church tradition we are involved in.  Perhaps we are looking to find our traits in Jesus and not Jesus’ traits in ourselves.  As has been noted of theologically liberal scholars who search for “the historical Jesus” (whatever that means), we often find a Jesus who looks amazingly like us.

The Jesus we see in the Gospels, is of course, a Man who cannot be imitated in every way.  He was the perfect Man.  He was sinless.  He was fully God.  He lived in a different time, a different place and a different culture than we do.  And yet He was human – made of the same stuff as we are.

So then what characteristics do we see?  What kind of man is this that we are to imitate?  And as we look at His characteristics, His personal traits, His actions, which are we to imitate and which are we to disregard?

• He was a Man who knew who He was.
• He spent great amounts of time talking to His Father, God.
• He lived a life of total commitment to God and demanded that His followers have the same commitment toward Him.
• He loved all people and demanded the same from His followers.
• He paid special attention to the suffering, the poor and the downcast.
• He risked His reputation.
• He lived a morally perfect life, yet extended love and forgiveness to the immoral.
• He was a religious nonconformist and actually flouted religious traditions.
• He was willing to suffer for the sake of others.
• He did all to the glory of God.

So how do we work these into our lives?  Or can we?  Or should we?

Also see:
IMITATE ME.
IMITATE ME, Part 2.
WHAT DID JESUS MEAN?
LIVING LIKE JESUS.
WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?

Bill Ball

Sunday, October 17, 2010

ARE THEY OUT OF LUCK?

I received the following question on my post TEN QUESTIONS ANSWERED: “What happened to all of the souls that lived and died before Jesus? Was just wondering .. are they just s____ out of luck?”
I gave a brief reply: “Good question. Briefly the answer is no. I’ll try to post a fuller answer in a few days. I’m out of pocket right now.”

Well, it’s been over a week, so I think I better sit down and come up with a “a fuller answer.”

Salvation – a right relationship with God – has always been based on the work of Jesus Christ and appropriated by faith, even before He was born and died and rose.

1 John 2:2, “And He (Jesus Christ) is the propitiation for our sins and not for ours alone, but for all the world.” The word “propitiation” means the sacrifice that satisfies the anger of God. If Christ’s sacrifice was enough for the whole world, that would include those born before He made the sacrifice as well as those in the future.

In Romans 4:3, Paul quoted from Genesis 13:6, “What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness (right standing with God).’”

The Old Testament is filled with examples of men and women of faith, even though other expressions may have been used.

     “Then they began to call on the name of the LORD” (Genesis 4:26).
     “And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24).
     “Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD” (Genesis 6:8).

The 11th chapter of Hebrews in the New Testament lists over a dozen persons of faith of the Old Testament, male and female, Jew and Gentile (non-Jew).

Early in his letter to the Romans, Paul speaks of what is known as natural revelation:

     “… because that which is known about God is evident among them (humankind), for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world, His invisible characteristics have been clearly seen, being understood through the things He made, that is, His eternal power and divine nature” (1:19, 20).

There is, and always has been, a revelation of God in nature, both before and after Christ. However, Paul says that this leaves humankind “without any excuse … because they didn’t glorify Him as God, or give Him thanks” (1:20, 21)

So I’d have to say that, as I understand the Scriptures, the only persons who are “s____ out of luck” are those who haven’t responded in faith to the God who has revealed Himself in nature, in the Scriptures and in His Son.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

GREED

If I were to attempt to name in one word the cause of the current financial/economical distress in our country today, I suppose I wouldn’t be the first to say “greed.”  Bankers, money managers and CEOs were out for all they could get and they got it.  Congressmen and senators, elected and supported by money from those same persons allowed it to happen and bailed out those who failed (see THE BIG SHORT).  But then these people also preyed on the greed of the “lower classes” – the desire for more than we could afford, which led to massive debt.

The Greek word in the New Testament usually translated “greed” is pleonexia and is related to the word pleon, which simply means “more.”  So we could define greed as the desire for more – avarice or insatiableness.

Greed, I suppose, is not looked on as a great evil, at least not in 21st century America.  After all, isn’t the desire for more the great driving force of our industry and economy?  Doesn’t it lie behind our individual ambitions?  Aren’t “we the people” now known as “consumers”?  We might even recite that line from an old movie:  “Greed – for want of a better word – is good!”

But the New Testament doesn’t seem to see it that way.

Jesus listed greed right along with fornication, theft, murder and adultery as one of the evils that proceed “out of the heart of men” (Mark 7:20-23).

Paul listed greed among the fruits of “a depraved mind” (Romans 1:28-32) and listed greedy persons (pleonektai) along with fornicators, idolaters and homosexuals as among “the unrighteous” who will not “…inherit the Kingdom of God” (1Corinthians 6:9, 10). He even said “… greed … is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).

Apparently God takes greed pretty seriously!

Yet, the one time that we find Jesus giving a specific warning of the dangers of greed, He is not addressing bankers or CEOs or swindlers or even necessarily, the rich, but just ordinary people – the crowd – who were following Him:
     “And someone in the crowd said to Him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!’
     But He (Jesus) said to him, ‘Man who appointed Me as a judge or arbitrator over you?’  And He said to them (the crowd), ‘Watch out and guard yourselves from every form of greed, because a person’s life doesn’t consist in the abundance of stuff that he has!’” (Luke 12:13-15).

Sounds like Jesus was being a bit harsh on the man, doesn’t it?  After all, the guy may have had a legitimate complaint.  Jewish inheritance laws were pretty specific and it’s not hard to imagine that his older brother was holding out on him.  If the brother was there in the crowd, it would have been easy for Jesus to make an effort at arbitration.  Or Jesus could have referred him to a good lawyer.

But Jesus was a Man on a mission.  He had just been speaking to His disciples about the necessity for bold witness and the certainty of God’s provision.  This guy had either been too preoccupied with his problem to hear or something that Jesus said had triggered a thought that led to this outburst.

Anyway, it looks like Jesus is speaking of some particular aspects of greed that we might fail to see.
     • Greed can be simply the desire to get what’s due me.  Jesus didn’t question the legitimacy of the man’s claim. I believe what Jesus was speaking to was the man’s preoccupation with getting what was due him, especially in the area of material things.  It is this feeling that preoccupies many of us.  We deserve better.  We deserve more.  If only I could get my due …
     • Greed is also the assumption that real life consists of the goods that we possess.  If I could have only a bit more.  If I could only have …

The Jesus tells the crowd a story:
     “And He told them a parable, saying, ‘The fields of this rich man bore good crops, and he was reasoning in himself, saying, ‘What’ll I do, because I don’t have any place to gather my crops?’
     And he said, ‘I’ll do this: I’ll tear down my barns and I’ll build bigger barns and I’ll gather there all my grain and my good stuff. And I’ll say to my soul, you have a lot of good stuff laid up for many years. Take it easy, eat, drink and enjoy yourself.’
     But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is demanded back from you. And the stuff you’ve prepared – whose will it be?’
     So is the one who treasures up for himself and is not rich toward God!’” (Luke 12:16-21).

To be truthful, I wouldn’t have thought of the man in the story as greedy.  He didn’t seem to be wanting more; he seemed satisfied with what he had.  But he was an illustration of what Jesus said in verse 15.  He thought he had it made, that his life really did “consist in the abundance of stuff that he had.”  But he had left God out.  His financial planning was all wrapped up in his own comfort – his stuff --and he had failed to recognize God as his provider and the One who had a claim on his life.
     • Greed is the assumption that I’ve got it made, the false security based on possessions.

And then Jesus turned to His disciples and addressed them, still on this whole issue of greed:
     “And He said to His disciples, ‘For this reason I’m telling you, don’t worry about your soul, what you’re going to eat, nor about your body, what you’ll wear; for the soul is more than food and the body more than clothes’” (Luke 12:22, 23).

He then goes on to tell them about God’s provision (verses 27-30).

Were the disciples greedy?  Jesus didn’t accuse them.  But He did address their worries about material things.  Could this be one more aspect of greed?  Could we say this?:
     • Greed is the worry that I may never have enough – the insecurity brought on by looking to possessions I don’t have.

If the above definitions are accurate, then greed is a problem for all of us, a sin that we can fall into whether we are rich or poor, whether we are among the “haves” or the “have-nots.”

I’m not trying to excuse the greed of the rich, the CEOs, bankers and money managers.  The Bible speaks to their greed and of how it leads to the oppression of the poor.

But I do believe that greed is or can be a sin problem for anyone in any place on the socioeconomic scale, and that is what this passage speaks to.

As often in the New Testament, we are presented with an alternative, what could be called “habit displacement.”  It’s found in verse 31 of this passage:

“Seek His Kingdom and these things will be added to you.”

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

MARY’S CHOICE

I’m writing this on my yellow pad in my friend’s house near the top of a huge rocky hill near Canyon Lake, Texas.  Uni and I are here for two Sundays and the week in between.  I’m preaching in a church pastored by this friend while he and his bride of a little over a year go on a much needed cruise.  We had lived in the Texas hill country for a number of years before moving to Oklahoma, and I miss it.

Autumn here is beautiful even though there are no reds and browns and yellows like there are up north.  Just green – the live oaks and the cedars.  It’s quiet up here.  We can walk or drive around and enjoy some of the beauty of Texas.  Each morning we drive a few miles to Canyon Dam and walk across it.  The breeze blows gently off the lake and cools us from the warmth of the Texas sun.

When we moved in last Saturday, we were shocked by the stillness.  There are neighbors but not close; I haven’t seen any yet.  There’s a dog somewhere that barks a greeting when we come or go.  Otherwise, it’s quiet.

Then we found out there’s no TV, internet or land line here.  Our cell phones barely show antenna.  That caused us a bit of panic.  What’ll we do?  We can’t find out what’s going on in the world.  We’re used to watching the TV news and to keeping posted on the internet.  We’re used to communicating with everyone via e-mail.  We’re used to being entertained by our TV in the evening.

Well, we did make a few adjustments.  We found a Scrabble game.  We read.  Uni crochets.  We play solitaire.  We picked up some cheap movie DVDs to watch on our laptop (what else can you do with it?).  We go to town every other day to check our e-mail on McDonald’s Wi-Fi.

But the real adjustment is that we are learning to enjoy the peace and aloneness and the time that we can’t fill up.  We’d already started on this path when we retired, except that we had neighbors and family around and a yard to maintain – and puttering.  This week is accelerating the slow down process.  (Is that an oxymoron?)

We’re learning to not be busy and it is refreshing!

Busyness seems to be considered one of the greatest of virtues among Christians and non-Christians alike.  We feel we have to be doing something in order to have worth.  We seem to gage a fellow-Christian’s spiritual condition by how busy he or she is.  We don’t like to brag on ourselves, but we do like to let others know how much we’re doing.

And yet I don’t find busyness listed among “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22, 23.  I do, however, find “peace, patience … self-control.”

Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not commending laziness.  There’s always plenty of work that needs to be done.  But I’ve found that I need to examine what things are essential as well as what jobs someone else can do better.  I don’t think that the opposite of busyness is laziness; it’s peace!

We need quiet time.  I’m not speaking of a structured “quiet time,” although that is important: we do need structured time for reading and prayer.

But we need free time to just let our minds wander, to meditate, to converse with each other and with our Father as we would someone sitting across the room, to listen to the Spirit, to just “have a little talk with Jesus.”

We need to be a little less like Martha who was “worried and troubled about many things,” and a little more like her sister Mary, who “chose the good part that won’t be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41, 42).

I think Uni and I are learning a little more this week about making Mary’s choice.

P.S.  This wasn’t published till we got home!

Monday, September 27, 2010

TEN QUESTIONS ANSWERED

On my previous post (TEN QUESTIONS) I wrote of “ten questions that every Christian must answer,” a video referred to in a comment on the post before that one.

I posted the questions and made some comments, but I did not answer the questions.  Here I will make an attempt to do so, though not in the order given.

First, I attempt to deal with what I previously referred to as “nonsense questions.”

Question #1.  Why won’t God heal amputees?

Apparently the interrogator feels that this is an extremely important question because this is what he named his website.  He tells us that because many, even doctors, believe in miraculous healings, it would seem that God should be able to restore severed members.  After all some species do regenerate.

While I referred to this before as a nonsense question, I guess it makes sense if there are many who claim to have witnessed miracles.

Perhaps part of the problem here is in the overuse of the word.  Many consider every answered prayer or healing a miracle.  I do not.  The word as used in the New Testament (Greek – DUNAMIS) describes a powerful work of God that can be seen but not explained.  By that definition most of us have not witnessed a miracle.  I haven’t!

True miracles are rare.  That’s why they’re miracles!  As I have often said, if everything is a miracle, then nothing is a miracle.

So perhaps God does heal amputees, perhaps not.  He is perfectly capable of doing so.  If He has, most of us probably would not have seen it happen.

Question #7.  Why didn’t any of Jesus’ miracles in the Bible leave behind any evidence?

I must confess that I don’t know what sort of evidence is expected.  Does he want videos of the healings?  Does he want to see petrified loaves and fishes?

We do have eyewitness accounts.  Are they not sufficient?  They’re sufficient for much of “secular history.”

Ah, but there is one miracle with continuing effects:  Jesus’ resurrection.  He is still alive, though it may be a while till we see Him, at His return.  Paul named over 500 witnesses, many of whom were still alive years after the event.  Unfortunately as Paul relates “some have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:3-6).  (All have by now.)

Question #8.  How do we explain the fact that Jesus has never appeared to you?

I guess I’d have to say that it’s because He’s not been in the habit of appearing to folks visibly since His ascension.  I really fail to see how this question is even relevant.

Question #9.  Why would Jesus want you to eat His body and drink His blood?

Assuming that our questioner is a rational, critical thinking, educated person, I would have thought he understood what a metaphor is.

In John’s gospel, chapter 6, verses 32, 33 and 34, Jesus claims to be the “Bread of Life” or something similar.  This is only one of His many “I am” claims.

It should be clear that “eating and drinking” in this context is a metaphor for appropriating Him by faith.  He uses the expressions “come to Me,” “believe in Me,” and “eat My flesh and drink my blood” interchangeably (John 76:32-58).  Later, in the other gospels, He inaugurates the memorial supper in which the participants partake of actual bread and wine as a symbol.  But we can’t expect our interrogator to understand.  After all even Jesus’ disciples said, “This is a hard statement.  Who can understand it?” (John 6:60)

Now for the legitimate, though slanted, questions:

Question #3.  Why does God demand the death of so many innocent people in the Bible?

This is one of the most difficult questions for the person of faith.  I do not have all the answers, though I have attempted to deal with it in a previous post, VIOLENCE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT.

Question #4.  Why does the Bible contain so much anti-scientific nonsense?

I would like to rephrase the question as “Why does the Bible seem to contradict much of modern scientific thinking?”

Again, I do not claim to have all of the answers, though I have attempted to deal with the questions in WHAT IS TRUTH? and OUR COUSIN THE FISHAPOD.

We also need to remember that the Bible was written to be read by “pre-scientific” readers.  It does not claim to be a book of science, though it is not “anti-scientific.”

Question #5.  Why is God such a huge proponent of slavery n the Bible?

I don’t find God at all a proponent of slavery in the Bible, even though there are laws concerning slavery in the Old Testament and exhortations concerning slavery in the New Testament. See RACE.

Now for the really tough ones, questions that still trouble me and other persons of faith.

Questions #2 and #6 are closely related.

Question #2.  Why are there so many starving people in our world?
Question #6.  Why do bad things happen to good people?

We see our world sometimes overcome with evil, both what we could call “moral evil” and what we could call “natural evil.”  The first refers to those evil acts that humans inflict on each other.  The latter refers to evils that seem to “just happen” – natural disasters, accidents.

The innocent suffer as much as the guilty.  Both moral and natural evils seem indiscriminate as to their victims.  We could look simply at the problem in #2, but there are other related problems.  An examination of the problem of starvation involves not just “natural evils,” as causes, but humankind’s cruelty to one another.

I have attempted to deal with these issues in a number of posts. See:
     THE VALUE OF HUMAN LIFE
     WHAT HAPPENED?
     GOOD GUYS AND BAD GUYS
     THE INFINITE ABYSS
     JOB, GOD AND SUFFERING -- 7 posts

The more I have thought and written on these topics, the more I realize that I don’t know, so I’m still working on this one and will be till Jesus takes me home.

Finally, Question #10.  Why do Christians get divorced at the same rate as non-Christians?

Well, first of all, we live in a fallen world and have to deal with sinners.  Sometimes the problems, such a divorce, are caused by non-Christians, but sometimes they are not.

Secondly, it is apparent that Christians still carry their old fallen mature, or as Paul calls it “our old man.”  It is too easy to “be conformed to this age” (Romans 12:2), which is why we are exhorted to “present our bodies to God” (Romans 12:1).

Christianity is a religion of rescue. God saves sinners.  And we come to Christ as we are.  It takes a while for change to take place.  But we should note that there are differences in the way Christians live.  There should be.

Back to the divorce question. Our questioner quotes Jesus’ saying (Matthew 19:6 – KJV) “What God has joined together let not man put asunder,” as though it were a guarantee that the marriage would last.  “God has sealed the deal,” he says.  But apparently he hasn’t read closely.  It is a command, not a promise.  The fact that Jesus commands not to “put asunder,” would seem to indicate that man is capable of doing so.

Conclusion

Perhaps I’ve wasted a bit too much time in attempting to answer questions which the questioner believes cannot be answered.  Perhaps not.  But I felt compelled to take the challenge.

However, our questioner’s solution to real problems by resorting to denial just smacks of intellectual dishonesty.  He hasn’t really answered his own questions.  He has rather chosen to take a leap of faith.

The atheist needs to deal with these and similar questions himself.  He needs to answer questions of purpose and meaning.  If he believes that the world in which he lives has no meaning, then questions of morality, such as he asks, make no sense in a world that just “is.”

See also DAWKINS’ GOD DELUSION, PARTS 1-8.

Friday, September 24, 2010

TEN QUESTIONS

In a comment on my previous post (SCRIBES AND PHARISEES), I was referred to a video on YouTube “about religion” and was told that I might like to view it and see what I think. The comment said, “I thought it makes a lot of common sense, don’t you?”

Well, I viewed the video and found the questions interesting. It contained 10 questions that the speaker said “every intelligent Christian must answer.” Some of these I had asked or been asked before and I have personally wrestled with. I made the following comments:

“Interesting questions. Some are quite challenging. Most are answerable, but some are more difficult. However, the questioner seems to assume that anyone who attempts to answer them is either not intelligent or is simply rationalizing, so whatever answers one gives would have no weight with him.

I have personally wrestled with many of these as a believer. You may find some of my thoughts by browsing through this blog."

At first I thought that that was enough said, but as I pondered the video more and more, I felt I needed to put in my two cents. I reviewed it a few more times and checked out the website. The speaker on the video appears to be on some sort of vendetta against God, the Bible and Christians.

The questions are:
1. Why won’t God heal amputees?
2. Why are there so many starving people in our world?
3. Why does God demand the death of so many innocent people in the Bible?
4. Why does the Bible contain so much anti-scientific nonsense?
5. Why is God such a huge proponent of slavery in the Bible?
6. Why do bad things happen to good people?
7. Why didn’t any of Jesus’ miracles in the Bible leave behind any evidence?
8. How do we explain the fact that Jesus has never appeared to you?
9. Why would Jesus want you to eat His body and drink His blood?
10. Why do Christians get divorced at the same rate as non-Christians?

This seems to be a mixed bag of questions. Some are questions that have troubled persons of faith and non-faith for years (#s 2, 3, 6 and 10); some, though legitimate, seem to be slanted toward the questioner’s viewpoint (#s 3, 4 and 5); others come close to being simply nonsense questions (#s 1, 7, 8 and 9).

The interrogator begins by flattering his viewers. He tells me that he assumes that I the viewer am a smart person and an educated person, probably a professional of some sort, one who knows how the world works and is able to think critically. I feel as I watch that he is trying to suck me in, into agreement with his claims.

But the flattery doesn’t last long. He makes it clear that anyone who gives answers with which he disagrees is rationalizing or making excuses. If anyone actually has an answer, it must be a rationalization or some way of making up excuses for God. There are in the speaker’s mind, no reasonable or sensible answers. (If there are, I’m afraid he wouldn’t even consider them, unless of course they agreed with his.)

And what are his answers to these questions? Simple. Just deny that God exists! The speaker takes us through the 10 questions twice, the first time to cause us to question our foolish beliefs, the second time to show how his answer is the only solution to all ten. Here is his solution:
-- “What if you instead assume that God is imaginary? The answers to every one of these questions make complete sense because God is imaginary.”
-- “If we assume God is imaginary our world makes complete sense.”
-- “People who believe in immortal beings are delusional.”
-- “The belief in any god is complete nonsense!”

There you have it! We need not be concerned about these and other questions. Just deny God’s existence. What is, is. That’s all there is to it! The world now for the first times makes sense!

Or does it? Does denying God really make sense of this world? Some of these same or similar questions are asked and pondered by non-believers. Don’t they know that they don’t have to worry anymore? (Of course realizing that the greater share of the people who inhabit this globe are “delusional” should seem to be a cause for worry for the atheist.)

But then, another solution to the dilemmas in these questions might be to deny the existence of the other entities, such as amputees, starving people, etc. Denial can work in this way as well. Denial is no solution. We cannot solve a dilemma merely by denying the existence of one of its “horns,” no matter how convenient that may be.

But I digress. As I said, a number of these appear to be simply nonsense questions. Our interrogator has come up with an image of God that doesn’t always agree with the picture we find in Scripture. His god (that he doesn’t believe in) is somehow expected to be answerable to man. His god is a magic god, sort of like a genie in a bottle to be called up at will to do one’s bidding, and the interrogator apparently believes that Christians share the same concept. This god doesn’t live up to what the interrogator thinks is believed about him, therefore he must be imaginary.

It’s the old “straw man” debater’s trick. Describe your opponent in terms that can be easily refuted. Only in this case our interrogator has created a “straw god,” one of his own design.

I’ll attempt to deal with the individual questions on my next post.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

SCRIBES AND PHARISEES

In the previous post I quoted a warning from Jesus about the Pharisees. Later in that same post I mentioned Pharisaism and the Pharisees and drew a subtle (?) comparison between the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and the moralists of our day. Often one thought leads to another and I began to see more and more similarities.

But first, who were the Pharisees? Actually there were a number of religious parties that Jesus clashed with, but the Pharisees and the Scribes were two that were often lumped together and often overlapped.

The Scribes were probably originally just what the name implies: copyists of the Holy Scriptures (our Old Testament). This was in itself an honorable profession dating back at least to the time of Ezra (ca. 457 BC). Because of their writing skills and their knowledge of Scripture they were highly regarded as scholars, teachers and lawyers (Ezra 7:6, 10). They also became known as guardians of the Jewish tradition.

The Pharisees were a sect within Judaism whose origins are not clear. Some believe they were to be identified with the Hasidim who were connected with the Maccabean leaders of Israel (ca. 160 BC). The apostle Paul and the historian Josephus both claimed to have been Pharisees. This party was the traditionalist party, holding to a strict interpretation of the Scriptures and a strict observance of its rules as interpreted by them.

The two groups overlapped of course. Not all Scribes were of the Pharisaic party and not all Pharisees were Scribes, but they are often seen together in the Gospels (Matthew 5:20; 12:38). Sometimes we see references to “the Scribes of the Pharisees,” (Mark 2:16), apparently persons of this party who were also of this profession.

These people were apparently highly regarded among the common people and had an influence that went way beyond their numbers. They were a strong influence for morality in their day. Yet we find Jesus constantly warning others about them.

“Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees …” (Matthew 16:6; Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1).

“Watch out for the Scribes …” (Mark 12:38; Luke 20:46).

“The Scribes and Pharisees have seated themselves in Moses’ seat. Everything they tell you, do and keep, but do not do according to their works …” (Matthew 23:2).

He acknowledges their “righteousness,” but holds His followers to a higher standard: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, there’s no way you’ll enter the Kingdom of the Heavens!” (Matthew 5:20).

He seems to be referring to them and holding them up as a bad example when He speaks of “the hypocrites” in Matthew 6:2, 5, 16.

He not only warns others about them; what is striking is His direct confrontations with them. There were many, although two of the most direct and harsh are found in Luke 11:37-52 and Matthew 23:13-29. Though there are similarities between these two diatribes, they are different, spoken at different times and places and probably to different groups.

In Luke’s report, Jesus says “Woe to you!” six times, sometimes aiming at the Pharisees, sometimes at the Scribes (Luke uses the word “lawyers”). Once He calls them “fools” (11:40).

In Matthew’s account, He says “Woe to you!” seven times. He calls them “hypocrites” six times. He calls them “blind guides” twice, “blind” three times, “stupid.” They are “the murderers of the prophets,” a “nest of snakes” (He apparently got that expression from John the Baptist, 3:7).

This doesn’t sound like “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” Jesus hung around with sinners, tax collectors, winos and whores, yet we never read of Him talking to them this way. What was it about these good religious people that aroused his ire?

Well, the most often mentioned fault is that mentioned above: hypocrisy.

“They say and they don’t do! They bind up heavy loads and put them on the peoples’ shoulders, but they don’t want to lift one finger” (Matthew 23:3, 4).

“You clean the outside of the cup and the dish while inside they’re full of greed and self indulgence” (Matthew 23:25).

“You’re like white washed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but inside full of dead men’s bones and all sorts of uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).

They were concerned about an outward show of righteousness, but not with inward reality. They cared about appearances, about being recognized by others for their good deeds and piety. They liked to be honored as the religious leaders (they thought) they were. The root of hypocrisy is pride.

“They like to walk around in long robes and they love greetings at the market place and the best seats in the synagogues and the best couches at banquets” (Mark 12:38, 39; Luke 20:46).

And they were greedy. Luke tells us right out that the Pharisees were “money lovers” (16:14).

Jesus said they “devour widows houses” (Matthew 23:14; Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47). Widows were at the bottom of the socioeconomic order, the weakest of the weak. The Old Testament law commanded provision to be made for them. We’re not told how these religious con men swindled the widows out of everything they had, but apparently that’s what they did.

They had devised elaborate interpretations of the Law to allow them to be free of taking care of their aged parents (Matthew 7:9-13).

Pride. Greed. Hypocrisy. Many more incidents could be cited, but that’s enough. Yet these people were regarded as, and regarded themselves as, paragons of virtue. They wrung their hands over the sins of the common people. They were meticulous about the laws of purity, about tithing. They condemned sexual misbehavior and those involved in it. The stories in John 8:1-11 and Luke 7:36-50 bear this out.

And they were absolutely certain that they had a corner of God. Jesus tells the story of a Pharisee who “went up in the Temple to pray … and the Pharisee stood there and prayed to himself, ‘God I thank you that I’m not like other people, swindlers, unrighteous, adulterers … I fast twice a week, I tithe everything I get’” (Luke 18:11, 12).

Dare we compare these moralists of Jesus’ day with the moralists of our own? Are the self-appointed guardians of the morals of America the Pharisees of our day?

Are the televangelists who lament the sexual sins of our nation while asking “seed faith” money from their viewers so that they can live luxuriously?

What about the talking heads, secular, political and religious who constantly bemoan the moral morass of America? Those who constantly harp against homosexuality, abortion, illegal aliens, or whatever? It is not always clear whether they are attacking the sins or the sinners.

Why is greed seldom, if ever, mentioned by those who love to catalog the sins of their neighbors?

Perhaps it’s time for us to separate ourselves, not from ordinary sinners, but from the “righteous,” moralistic Pharisees of our day.

I did not relate the complete story that Jesus told as recorded in Luke 18:9-14, mentioned above.

“And He also told this parable to some who were confident in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others. ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.’” After relating how the Pharisee thanked God that he wasn’t sinful like others, he added “’or even like this tax collector.’” Then the story continues, “... but the tax collector stood at a distance and wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying ‘God be merciful to me the sinner!’ I tell you this one went to his house justified rather than the other. Because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Is it perhaps time that we stopped harping on the sins of others and recognized our own? Is it perhaps time that we who claim the name of Christ humbled ourselves?

Monday, September 6, 2010

WATCH OUT!

“And Jesus said to them, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” (Matthew 16:6).

On August 28, 2010, television talking head Glenn Beck delivered a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. It was 47 years to the day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his well-known “I Have a Dream” speech on those same steps. Both were addressing huge rallies; King’s was a march on Washington, DC for Civil Rights; Beck’s was a “Restoring Honor” rally.

I have read Dr. King’s address a number of times and still find it moving. It is a call for justice and freedom for his people, a freedom and a justice that had been denied them. It is a message of hope, the “dream” that someday this justice and freedom will be realized for and by all the people of America.

I confess that I have not read Glenn Beck’s speech. I have listened to bits and pieces of it on YouTube and excerpts on TV news. I really don’t care to hear or read any more. I have heard enough of this man and his political scandal mongering.

Ah, but this speech is different. In it, I’m told, he’s left politics behind and has a new aim of “restoring honor” to our nation, of restoring America to the values it once had.

What happened? Was Mr. Beck “converted”? Has he turned over a new leaf? As far as I know, there’s been no change, except in the topics of his speech. He is still a Mormon (even though he has condemned churches that teach or practice “social justice”).

So why have so many evangelical leaders jumped on his bandwagon or “enlisted” in his new “Black Robe Regiment”? According to a recent news article (in The Oklahoman, pages 1d and 3d, September 4, 2010), a number have.

“Richard Land, Southern Baptist executive was pleased.”

“Bishop Harry Jackson, a black evangelical leader was pleasantly surprised” that Beck said things “some of my close friends could have written.”

“Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. was among the faith leaders to enlist …”

“ … some evangelical leaders say he sounded all the right religious notes.”

“Lou Engle, founder of The Call rallies across the country said Beck will get qualified support. ‘I think evangelicals will see him as a moral voice, not necessarily a spiritual voice.’”

Not all, of course, were so effusive in their praise. There were a number of voices of warning.

Probably the clearest summary of this unclear thinking was that of Stan Guthrie, editor-at-large for Christianity Today, “Most evangelicals are friendly toward the idea of Amercan civil religion, and I think Beck’s call sort of fit into that stream of history. I think that as long as he doesn’t get too specific about his Mormon faith … many people will be willing to get on board.”

And that to me appears to be the real problem here. A television talking head who has refashioned himself in the past, has refashioned himself once again, this time as a preacher of moral and religious revival in America. And it is a morality and religion of a generic sort. It is a selective morality. It is not an essentially Christian morality. It is not based on the morality of Jesus, the morality of the Bible. It is the morality of the small- g god of American civil religion, especially that held by the political right. It is more moralism than morality.

I fear that there is an element of Pharisaism in all of this. We should not forget that the Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, were moralists too. For some reason, however, Jesus did not endorse them, even though, He would probably have agreed with some of their moral beliefs.

The Pharisees too, did not like the moral direction in which the people of their nation were going. They said of their own people, the Jews, “This crowd that doesn’t know the Law are cursed” (John 7:49). They “ … were confident in themselves that they were right and had contempt for the rest” (Luke 18:9).

I’m afraid we evangelicals have forgotten the meaning of the word “evangelical.” We are believers in and followers of, the “evangel”-- the gospel-- the good news of Jesus Christ, of His death and resurrection for the sins of humankind. We have forgotten our task, which is to love our neighbor and to seek his salvation in Christ. We are to BE moral, but we are not called upon to bring others under that morality, except through our example and the gospel.

“Let your light shine before people, so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in the Heavens” (Matthew 5:16).

Friday, September 3, 2010

AMERICAN GOSPELS

In America today, we are confronted with a plethora of “gospels,” often in disagreement with one another, sometimes overlapping one another, but all in competition with, and contradiction to the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All promise a “salvation” of sorts. Two strike me as prominent.

One is the “Gospel of Acceptance.” We recently heard and are hearing it proclaimed by many in politics and the news media in the fracas over the building of a Muslim community center near Ground Zero (see previous post). In reaction to the fear and bigotry of some, others were and are preaching a sappy gospel of tolerance that goes way beyond our first amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and of religion. It is as though our Constitution declares that all religions are created equal. It seem to be implied by those who hold to this gospel that anyone who holds to the exclusivity of their faith (whether Christian, Muslim or whatever, but especially Christian) is a bigot.

This is a false gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ IS exclusive. Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). To love my neighbor does not mean I am to accept his views of God. To love my neighbor means I am to accept him as a person and to seek what is best for him. This would include doing my best to point him to faith in Christ.

There is another “gospel” that seems to have penetrated the thinking of many Americans, including many evangelical Christians. I’ll call it the “Gospel of America.” What is sad to me is that while most evangelicals can see through the previously mentioned “gospel,” many swallow this one whole without even questioning its truth claims. They in no way find it incompatible with the gospel of Christ.

Though there are many variations, the message goes something like this: America was once a Christian Nation, founded by godly Christian men (and women). Our Constitution is an inspired document based on the Bible. But America has been (or is being) hijacked by evil men! Our Constitution has been reinterpreted by evil men! We, the people of God, must take back our nation and its Constitution and restore America to its former place of honor and glory, though we’re not always clearly told what the method of achieving that goal might be. Sometimes it is political activism. Sometimes it is presented as restoring morality or “family values.”

It even includes at times, evangelism. In the Gospel of America as it is held by some evangelicals, salvation is a national thing. If we get enough people “saved,” then we can save our country. Evangelism and the personal salvation of individuals is seen as simply a means to the achievement of this greater end.

This mythology of a past golden age from which we have fallen is a counterfeit of the biblical account of a perfect creation marred by the fall of man. The myth of restoration is a counterfeit of the restoration achieved through the work of Christ to be ultimately consummated through His return to reign in a New Heaven and Earth.

In fact, the “gospel” is usually more concerned with the bad news than the good news. There seems to be a preoccupation with what is wrong with America, or with those persons it opposes. It is fed by fear.

This is nothing new, however. It has been with us for a very long time. I can remember hearing warnings of the dangers of American’s fall for most of my Christian life. The “evil men” who have taken over or are taking over our nation, have been variously identified; in the fifties we were warmed of communists and modernists (liberal preachers); in the sixties it was hippies, integrationists, left-leaning judges. Today various other groups are pointed out, usually those with whom the preacher disagrees politically or religiously.

The Gospel of Acceptance is too broad. It seeks to be all-inclusive and attempts to eliminate the need for Christ’s sacrifice. The Gospel of America is, in one sense, too narrow. It excludes those of different political thinking.

Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 that “ … God … gave us the ministry of reconciliation, how that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. So then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God was exhorting through us, ‘We urge you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.’”

Monday, August 30, 2010

BE REAL

I am uncomfortable with compliments. Though I like it when people say nice things about me, I have this feeling that if they really knew me …!

Well, anyway, the other day someone said that what he admired about Uni and me was that we are “real.” I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, so I checked out my Webster’s. None of the definitions given seemed to fit, especially in the context he was speaking of. The closest I could find to what I think he meant was, “not artificial, fraudulent or illusory: GENUINE.” I like that. I certainly would like that to be true of me. Sort of like Flip Wilson’s Geraldine, “What you sees is what you gets!”

Well, then, the next question is, is realness a Christian virtue, something to be desired? I couldn’t find it in any of the lists of virtues listed in the New Testament.

But the New Testament does have a lot to say about truth, and truth has to do with that which is real. Would it be to great a logical leap to say that to “be real” is to be, as the apostle John says, “walking in truth”?

John uses this expression three times in his letters:
  • “I was extremely glad that I found some of your children walking in truth …” (2 John 4).
  • “For I was extremely glad when some brothers came and testified of your truth, even as you are walking in truth. I have no greater joy than this that I hear of my children walking in the truth” (3 John 3, 4).
The Greek word peripateo “walk” or “walk around” is often used by the apostles Paul and John to describe a person’s conduct or way of life. It is translated simply “walk” in many of our English versions (Aristotle’s school was called peripatetic because he taught while walking around). But it is only John who ties together the words “walk” and “truth.”

I’m not sure exactly what John meant by “walking in truth,” but in his writings I find three ways this can be true of a person:

  • Doctrinal purity, especially a correct understanding of who Jesus is. John has much to say about this in his three brief letters. He warns, “ … many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh … Watch yourselves” (2 John 7, 8). “Who is the liar, but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? … Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father. The one who confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:22, 23). We can’t “walk in truth” unless we hold to the truth about the One who claimed to be The Truth (John 14:6).
  • But it also includes a correct understanding of who we are – honestly about ourselves. “If we say we have fellowship with Him and we walk in darkness, we’re lying and we’re not doing the truth … If we say we don’t have sin, we’re deceiving ourselves and the truth isn’t in us … If we say we haven’t sinned, we make Him a liar …” (1 John 1:6, 8, 10). John’s remedy for deception is simple: “Confess our sins” and “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7, 9). So here’s a paradox. I can’t be real unless I admit that I’m not! “Walking in truth” involves recognizing and confessing to God that I often fall short in this walk.
  • And it involves a continual fellowship with and growing conformity to Jesus Christ. Perhaps that’s why the word “walk” is used. It implies motion, something that must continue all my life. This is, I believe, that aspect of walking in truth that can be seen.
These thoughts are not meant to be a simple 1-2-3 step program, but a continual process that goes on through our lives.

It is easy to put on the outward trappings, to be a different person on Sunday than we are during the week, or even to be a number of different persons. It is also easy to compare ourselves with others who are doing the same. But when we honestly compare ourselves with Jesus, recognizing who He is and who we are, when we allow Him to bring us into greater conformity with Him, I believe we can, to some extent, be “real.”

I’m not there yet!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

FURTHER THOUGHTS ON LOVING MY MUSLIM NEIGHBOR

As anyone who reads, watches or listens to the news knows by now, the conflict I mentioned in my previous post between the Christian lady and her Muslim neighbor has been greatly overshadowed by a similar but larger conflict, which has the whole nation up in arms (well, not literally -- yet).

The building of a Muslim community center within a few blocks of Ground Zero has been proposed. This has caused a reaction much greater than that of the dear lady mentioned in that post.

Voices have been raised across the country opposing this “desecration” of our “hallowed ground.” Anger at Islam is expressed by demonstrations. Politicians and talking heads have expressed their indignation. Christians have expressed their hatred for the religion of Islam, and it would seem, for its adherents. Arguments, pro and con, abound. Polls, we’re told, show that nearly 70% of Americans oppose building on this site.

Well, what are we as citizens of two Kingdoms – as Christians and Americans – to do? What should be our attitude?

• First of all, I believe we need to recognize that the first amendment to our Constitution begins thus: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” That’s the beginning of our Bill of Rights! [The only other mention of religion in our Constitution is in Article Six, where it is stated that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”]

So it looks to me as thought these people have a right to build their building wherever they wish to. And I as an American have no right to deny them.

• But it has been protested that in many Muslim nations Christians are denied the right to build their buildings of worship. In fact, in some Muslim nations, it is against the law to even BE a Christian. This is true. Uni and I pray regularly for the persecuted church in these countries, as well as in others. We also pray for their persecutors.

However, I fail to see how the denial of rights to Christians in Muslim nations justifies in any way the denial of rights to Muslims in America. America is not a “Christian nation.” It never was and never will be. And I for one am glad it isn’t! My concern for persecuted believers in other nations leads me to this conclusion. I don’t want to see the church becoming the persecutor as it has been and still is, in some nations.

• All that I have said above has nothing to do with the “rightness” or “wrongness” of Islam. It has to do with my attitude as both an American and a follower of Jesus Christ.

I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the only way to God. He made that claim. He said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Though Islam believes Jesus was a great prophet, it does not accept these claims. It denies that God could have a Son. Therefore I have to conclude that Islam is false.

But Jesus also said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As I noted in the previous post, He left no loopholes. So while I believe my Muslim friends hold a false view of Jesus and of God, I am to love them as I love myself. It’s that simple, though it may not be easy.

Is this dangerous? I suppose it can be. My Muslim neighbor may not love me. He may even be out to convert me or something worse! (But then so also may my neighbor who is an atheist or a Hindu or a Christian of some other persuasion.)

Yet, even if all the fears expressed by the ranters and conspiracy theorists should be shown to be true, I have no other option than to love my neighbor.

Monday, August 2, 2010

THE SECOND GREAT COMMANDMENT

A few weeks ago, an article that I found interesting appeared in our local paper (The Oklahoman, 7/17/2010).  It was entitled “Religious Tolerance at Issue.”  It told of a local neighborhood into which a new family was moving.  The family happened to be Muslim.  When one of the residents found this out, she “put a sign in her yard proclaiming her Christian beliefs and warning passers-by that Muslims are ‘dangerous.’”  The writer of the article, Carla Hinton gave her thoughts on this and told how it disturbed and troubled her.  We were told that the resident claimed she had a right to do this.
The rest of the article discussed free speech, religious intolerance and stereotyping.  Ms. Hinton commented that “stereotyping doesn’t fit in with the tenets of many religious faiths – least of all Christianity” and that this was also “very unneighborly thing to do …”  She then concluded by asking for her readers’ thoughts and said that they might be used in a future story.

Of course, I immediately e-mailed her my thoughts, and then waited to see them in print.

Two weeks later the column appeared giving some readers’ views.  Though I was disappointed to find that mine were not published, I eagerly read them all.  We were told that most readers agreed “that the yard sign was an example of religious intolerance,” though, “some others felt the woman who erected the yard sign was justified in doing so because of her Christian heritage.”  I assume that the views published were a reasonably good sampling.

One comment warned of the dangers of tolerance, that it is a satanic tool and that Jesus is the only Way.  Another pointed out that the woman’s beliefs and her “Christian” lifestyle didn’t seem to coincide and said that showing Christian love to the neighbor might cause them to want to know more about Christian faith.

One spoke of “the good and peaceful people who make up the Muslim community,” while another claimed this is all propaganda and that the lady’s sign was not unneighborly.

There were more, some in agreement with the sign lady, some in disagreement.  All the published comments (seven) appeared to be from those who claim to be Christians.

So, what do we do with this?  How can those who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ differ so strongly?  Is this all simply a matter of opinion?

What bothered me is that though I would agree with much of what was expressed, I believe that the article and the responses seemed to ignore, even avoid, what Jesus Himself taught. (It’s in the Bible!)

When Jesus was questioned as to what the first and great commandment of the Law was, he replied:  “’You will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the great and first commandment.  And the second is like it.  ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-31).

Jesus was quoting, of course, from the Old Testament Law.  The commandment to love the Lord was from Deuteronomy 6:4, 5.  The commandment to love one’s neighbor came from Leviticus 19:18.  What is it about these two commandments that we don’t understand?

Just in case we’re looking for loopholes, the Bible seems to close them for us.

In the same chapter in Leviticus that Jesus quotes, there is another commandment:  “The stranger (or alien) who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).  Both verse 18 and 34 conclude with “I am the LORD !”

And that’s not all. In Matthew 5:43, 44, Jesus expands it still further, “You’ve heard that it was said, “You will love your neighbor and hate your enemies.  ’But I tell you ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”

When a lawyer (teacher of the Law) tried to find a loophole by asking, “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus told him a story of how one about whom the lawyer held racial and religious stereotypes (a Samaritan) behaved as a neighbor, and then told him to do likewise (Luke 10:25-27).

So if our neighbors include, not only those who look, behave and worship like us, but also aliens, our enemies, people of a different race or religion, then who is excluded?  Certainly not the Muslims next door!

Jesus left us with two Great Commandments – to love God and to love our neighbor.  He also left us with a Great Commission – to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20).  The two are not mutually exclusive, as some of the above comments might seem to imply.  In fact, I believe that the Great Commission necessarily follows the Great Commandments.  If I truly believe that Jesus is the only Way to God (as some of the comments claim), and if I truly love my neighbors, then my great desire should be to see them come to faith in Christ.

Also, we should beware of using loving actions as a gimmick to win them to faith in Christ.  If I may express it thus:  We are not to use the Second Great Commandment as a means of carrying out the Great Commission, we are rather to use the Great Commission as a means of carrying out the Second Great Commandment.

So what should the “sign lady” do?  What should we do in a similar situation?  She (we) should simply love her (and our) neighbors, which means seeking what’s best for them.  This includes pointing them to Christ by her actions as well as her words.  But if these neighbors do not choose Christ, loving them is still our responsibility!

Bill Ball
8/2/2010