Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review: Greg L. Bahnsen, Presuppositional Apologetics- Stated and Defended

The story behind this book is quite remarkable. This book was supposed to be published many years ago. Dr. Greg Bahnsen wrote the draft and had even edited the galley proofs. The publisher was prepared to move ahead with publication pending final editing but then the edited galley proofs were inexplicably lost. Dr. Bahnsen was very busy at the time, the book could not be found and eventually the publisher could wait no longer and destroyed the plates. Normally that would be the end of the story. In this case, however, after Dr. Bahnsen’s death the envelope containing the edited proofs was found. It had fallen behind a cabinet in Dr. Bahnsen’s office and lay there undisturbed for years. Fortunately, the technological developments of the past couple of decades made it possible to proceed with publication even though the original plates had been destroyed. The proofs were scanned and converted to a publication format that was then edited by Joel McDurmon. So, we finally have the ability to read this “lost” book by Dr. Bahnsen.

The book is organized into two parts with three appendices that provide additional information that Bahnsen had edited out but that McDurmon has chosen to include as supplementary material. The first part is an explanation and defense of the presuppositional approach to apologetics in the tradition of Van Til. It is one of the best condensed yet thorough explanations of the Van Tillian approach that I can recall reading. It is certainly much more accessible than the writings of Van Til himself. Those familiar with Bahnsen and Van Til will likely find much of this material to be a review but people not familiar with Van Til or Bahnsen who are looking for a readable, but not overly simplistic, explanation of the how and why of their approach will benefit greatly from this book.

In part 1 Bahnsen explains why a presuppositional approach is required, gives biblical support for it, and discusses the method itself. As I said earlier, Dr. Bahnsen has taken the best of Van Til and organized it in a consistently logical expression that is accessible to non-scholars who are interested in philosophical apologetics. There are some areas where an understanding of basic principals of logic would be helpful to the reader but even these areas should be understandable with careful reading.

The highlight of part 1, however, was Bahnsen’s argument in the 3rd chapter that epistemology is not primary over metaphysics and that the two cannot be divorced from one another. He argues that in constructing any theory of knowledge a person must assume certain metaphysical realities. Bahnsen then argues that since the sovereign God has revealed Himself to mankind an acceptance of proper (Christian) metaphysical and epistemological systems is fundamentally an issue of ethics. He says, “All men begin with genuine knowledge- true belief about the state of affairs and justification for that belief- and then proceed to use or misuse it. The beginning of philosophy is not a subjectivist guessing game but a matter of ethics.” The third chapter therefore provides the connection that is the theological and philosophical basis for the primacy of the transcendental argument as opposed to other forms of apologetics in his view.

The second part of the book is a critique of non-Van Tillian apologetic systems that claim to be presuppositional. In order to do this he specifically analyzes the apologetic methods of three other Reformed apologists and comments on a fourth that are often considered presuppositional. He examines in detail the systems of Gordon H. Clark, Edward J. Carnell, and Francis Schaeffer and then comments briefly on Ronald Nash. Bahnsen concludes that each of these other systems falls short of the standards of Biblical presuppositionalism and should ultimately be considered weakened forms of natural theology.

The criticisms that he offers are strongly colored by the influence of Van Til and in some cases they are a bit overreaching. He begins each critique by providing a number of quotes from each scholar that he agrees with and then he goes on to demonstrate how he thinks they were inconsistent in their commitment to those principals. In the cases of Clark and Schaeffer in particular, he ignores clarifying statements or definitions that would resolve the issues that he is pointing out. In other cases he is criticizing them for approaches that he himself uses even in this very book. Although there are cases where I think his analysis of these other apologists is unfair, I also think that he touches on legitimate weaknesses in the systems of each of these other men. He capably summarizes some of the best arguments against each those systems. Part 2 is particularly valuable in helping the reader to understand the Van Tillian perspective on other systems of Reformed apologetics. It is also a good starting point for critical examination of those systems if the reader is willing to evaluate the criticisms along with the respective responses to those criticisms made by those being criticized.

Overall this is a good book and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in apologetics in general or presuppositional apologetics in particular. Dr. Bahnsen has smoothed some of the rough edges off of Van Til and given us a clear and coherent description and defense of his system along with a Van Tillian perspective on other presuppositional approaches. Bahnsen was a first rate scholar, apologist, and writer. This book is no exception and although it was published years after it was written its material remains relevant. I expect that it will be a blessing and a resource to the Church for years to come.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas 2011

God Bless you all and Merry Christmas!

The meaning of Christmas doesn't begin at Bethlehem. It begins at Eden. It doesn't end with a baby. It ends with the King of Kings. Take a few minutes to reflect upon the full meaning of Christmas by watching this creative animation that explains Christmas in its full context. 


The Story of Christmas - An Animation from Grace in Cranberry on Vimeo.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Purim and the Power of God

The book of Esther is a remarkable book for many reasons. Not the least of which is how different it seems compared to much else in the Old Testament. There are no great prophets. There are no miracles. There is no direct revelation or manifestation of God like we see in so many other historical narratives in the Bible. In fact, even the name of God is not mentioned in the book. There are only a few scant references to prayer and worship. Despite this the hand of God is obvious throughout the entire story. It is the record of God working providentially, through secondary causes, to protect and preserve His people. The closest thing to any kind of supernatural intervention comes through the insomnia of the king and a particularly well timed reading from an official record book (it seems even in those days reading a government publication was useful for putting people to sleep).

Because of these unique traits Esther is a particularly helpful book for the people of God in our time. After all, God most often works through and in His church using these kinds of means today. We are guided by the Word God has already delivered through the prophets just like the faithful in the book of Esther. He also works through the incidental connections and relationships that we have just as He did with Esther. It is therefore a great testimony to the power of God in working to preserve His people through the exercise of His providential control of secondary causes, including human decisions and experiences.

If this is all we see in the book, however, we overlook something that I think is very significant. The purpose of the book of Esther is to record the origin of and reason for the Purim celebration. Esther 9:26 tells us “they called these days Purim, after the term Pur.” This is a reference to the enemy Haman casting lots to determine the opportune time to destroy the Jews. The word Pur means “casting lots.” It might seem curious that the celebration of the events in this book would be named after what appears to be a minor detail in the narrative. As the story moves along and Haman begins plotting to destroy his enemies we are tempted to quickly read past this detail in 3:7

“In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, they cast Pur (that is, they cast lots) before Haman”     (Esther 3:7 ESV)

The story then continues on as Haman approaches the king to set his plot in motion. In addition to the feast being named after this “detail” we notice that near the end of book Haman’s casting of lots is mentioned again.

For Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur (that is, cast lots), to crush and to destroy them.”   (Esther 9:24 ESV)

The repetition of this detail in the text plus the reminder of it included in the name of the feast indicates that it is something we are intended to take notice of. While this may initially appear to be a minor detail, if we consider it in light of the way the narrative ends as well as the broader themes of the Old Testament its importance becomes profound. We have woven into this narrative a most remarkable truth. It is the demonstration of the supreme power of Yahweh over all false gods. It is an assertion that He alone is the one true God, whose Word will not fail to come to pass because there is none who can oppose Him.

When we tend to think of God demonstrating His supremacy over all pretending deities our minds are drawn to the Exodus story where each plague specifically exposed the impotence of the Egyptian pantheon. Or perhaps Elijah taunting the prophets of Baal as his offering is consumed in fire (though drenched) while theirs remains untouched. But, in Esther we have the same kind of demonstration of the power of Yahweh over lesser deities. Haman had consulted the gods through the use of the casting of lots to determine the best time to move against God’s people. He sought divine guidance to ensure that He would be successful and yet God demonstrated His superior power and the futility of Haman’s efforts by bringing him to ruin.

Haman’s casting of lots may not have been just a devotional practice. It may very well have been a conscious attempt to restrain the power of the God of the Jews specifically. I say this because the text repeatedly tells us that Haman was an Agagite. Agag was the Amalekite king whom Saul failed to kill. The prophet Samuel eventually kills Agag but some of the family survived. The Amalekites were traditional enemies of the Jews and as a descendent of Agag Haman would certainly have been aware of the power of the Jewish God and the history of their deliverance from Egypt and conquest of Canaan.

Some who have studied the casting of lots in ancient near eastern cultures have pointed out that the lots are often thought to point to a power greater than any of the gods themselves. In some Hittite legends the gods themselves cast lots for direction and are under the fatalistic power of “the lot”. If Haman was under the impression that Yahweh was a regional god or a god of the hill country as some of Israel’s enemies assumed then his behavior might have been an attempt to specifically overcome the power of Yahweh on whose protection the Jews relied.

The amazing thing about this narrative is that unlike the Exodus story or the Elijah story God does not intervene miraculously. The demonstration of the power of God in this story is such that His sovereignty is seen to be all encompassing. It is not a matter of Yahweh simply being more powerful than another deity. His power is not limited to the hill country or the region of Palestine. His Power extends even to the falling of the lot and is such that he moves people and even kings as He wishes through their own choices. His providence is sufficient to accomplish His will because His providence is all encompassing.

Because the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob is all powerful and totally sovereign His promises to protect His people can be accepted with complete confidence even outside of Israel and even in the face of hopeless odds. Esther’s cousin and caretaker, Mordecai understood this and alluded to this confidence when he said:

“For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”     (Esther 4:14 ESV)

He knew that God’s promises (Word) could be trusted because of who God is and he recognized that God often works through His people to bring about His purposes. I pray that each of us would see this same truth in our own lives. Every time a person repents of their sins and accepts Christ and every time that the Lord delivers us we see this truth confirmed in our own lives. I pray that God in His grace would overcome our own weak faith so that we may live in the full confidence of those who are children of the Living God. Let us never forget who it is that keeps watch over us. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Insanity of Anti-Semitism

It was brought to my attention that my article “Do Christians Muslims and Jews Worship the Same God?” has been listed on the website When I first heard about this I was concerned because there is certainly no intention for that article or anything else on the site to be anti-Semitic or against Jews as a people in any way. I was disturbed by the idea that anyone might interpret that article as being anti-Semitic. My purpose was simply to show that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are distinct religions with different theologies and that acceptance of the divinity of Jesus is foundational to the Christian understanding of the identity of God.

I decided to check into why the article would be listed on their site and to contact them about it if possible. As it turns out, however, the link to the article on their site does NOT mean that they consider the content to be anti-Semitic. They link to all sorts of information that is related to Jewish identity. It is always important when dealing with information to carefully understand the context in which it is being shared. If you click on the “about” tab on their site you will see the following statement (emphasis is theirs): is the web site of the Anti-Semitism News Network, a global news resource and portal about a variety of topics and issues important to Jews (and Gentiles) in a global and political context. On we present news about Jewish-Gentile relations and controversies facing our world today, with the hope that bringing this information to the forefront, it will open up dialogue and communication for peaceful and non-violent solutions to combat Anti-Semitism. tries to be fair and balanced, it does not only expose Anti-Semitic and Anti-Jewish news, it also present news which could be considered pro-Jewish, including philo-Semitic topics, subjects and positive news inspiring Jewish life. is an uncensored RSS news site bringing together all kinds of views, some are very controversial, so viewer discretion is advised. Not everything on this site is Anti-Semitic, many published items offer a unique perspective on Jewish life or topics important to Jewish-Gentile relations. Do not assume because something is posted on our site it is Anti-Semitic. We make an effort to post news which is positive and informative for the global Jewish community. We present a variety of view points from many perspectives around the world on this web site and hope that people will work with us to expose and fight against real genuine Anti-Semitism where ever it might exist in the world today.

Please be open minded and not make the assumption because something is posted on this web site it should be interpreted as anti-Semitic.”

Although this should be sufficient for people to realize that the linking of our site on theirs is not any indication that they consider us anti-Semitic I thought it would be good to make a brief statement to be perfectly clear about this issue just in case other readers have a concern. Anti-Semitism (and any other kind of racism) is totally incompatible with Christianity. Sadly, there has been no shortage of this kind of destructive nonsense throughout the history of the church. Those cases are examples of people failing to understand and submit to the implications of the Gospel. From a Biblical standpoint anti-Semitism is foolish and insane.

Jesus was Jewish. The apostles were Jewish. The earliest Christian’s were Jewish. The promises that we have as Christians we only possess because we have been grafted into the promises that God first delivered to Jews. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, makes the following amazing statement. He says, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever.”     (Romans 9:3-5 ESV)

Can you imagine this? Paul’s desire that the Jews would understand that Christ was the focal point of their scriptures and was their messiah was so great that he said that if it were possible he would trade his salvation for theirs! How any Christian can read these words and yet harbor a hardness or hatred in their hearts for the Jewish people is incomprehensible to me. As Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesians:

“…remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” (Ephesians 2:12-16 ESV)

It is through the Jewish messiah that we are reconciled to God. We are made one people of faith through His blood and I believe the Bible teaches that there will be a day of great revival and conversion where the veil will be lifted and Israel will accept their King. Until that time we are to pray for them, share the Gospel of peace with them, and be thankful that because of Christ we have a share of an inheritance in the Kingdom of God which was promised to them through their forefathers. There is no basis whatsoever for racism of any kind to exist in the Church. Considering the redemptive history that we accept in Scripture it is particularly insane for any Christian to be anti-Semitic.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lex Lata (the law as it is)

The New Testament clearly teaches in many places that although Christians are now free in Christ we are to remain in subjection to ruling authorities. We are supposed to follow the law. By doing so we attempt to live peaceably within society and avoid having the name of Christ slandered because of our un-neighborly behavior. Unfortunately we have reached a point where this is almost impossible to do. You might think that I am planning to write about the immoral nature of many of our laws. I am not. As believers we are to submit even to unjust and unreasonable authority unless it directly contradicts the Word of God or is illegitimate on its own basis. I am referring instead to a legal problem that most Christians almost never think about.

Sir Thomas More illustrated what he thought would be the ideal society in his brilliant and thought provoking little book Utopia. Referring to the laws of the Utopian society he makes the following observation.

“They have but few laws, and such is their constitution that they need not many.  They very much condemn other nations whose laws, together with the commentaries on them, swell up to so many volumes; for they think it an unreasonable thing to oblige men to obey a body of laws that are both of such a bulk, and so dark as not to be read and understood by every one of the subjects. They have no lawyers among them, for they consider them as a sort of people whose profession it is to disguise matters and to wrest the laws, and, therefore, they think it is much better that every man should plead his own cause, and trust it to the judge, as in other places the client trusts it to a counselor; by this means they both cut off many delays and find out truth more certainly; for after the parties have laid open the merits of the cause, without those artifices which lawyers are apt to suggest, the judge examines the whole matter, and supports the simplicity of such well-meaning persons, whom otherwise crafty men would be sure to run down; and thus they avoid those evils which appear very remarkably among all those nations that labor under a vast load of laws.”

One does not have to wonder much what More would have thought of our current situation in the United States. Not only are there so many laws that it would be simply absurd to suggest that every person know them but the complexity is so great that there is not even a single individual person who could know them all. Perhaps there is good reason for some of this complexity and perhaps Thomas More’s thoughts were a bit too, well utopian. Nevertheless, there are profound implications of having such a complex interlinking of laws for us as Christians. As I said earlier, we are to follow the law but I doubt very much that we know very many people at all who are not in violation of some or other legal requirement.

You might think that I am exaggerating a bit but I doubt it. A few weeks ago Eric Felton wrote an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal called Are We All Online Criminals?. Felton points out some of the implications of just one law, namely the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. According to the U.S. Justice Department’s interpretation of this act it is actually illegal to violate the terms of a service agreement. Felton observes that each of us probably enter into more legal agreements in a year than our grandparents did in their entire lifetime. Because of the restrictive language that is in most of those service agreements (which virtually everyone ignores) there are a number of common behaviors that the Justice Department considers technically illegal and they are pushing for even more restrictive controls. For example, the article points out that providing inaccurate or misleading information to online dating and social networking sites is actually against the law. More surprisingly it is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to use the Google search engine! I wonder how many school teachers knowingly encourage their high school students to do illegal research? The list of similar violations could be virtually endless.

The Justice Department has responded by saying that they have no interest in going after people who commit these kinds of petty violations. Felton points out, however, that although they may choose not to they could. The potential threat to our freedom as Americans should be apparent enough. As Christians, however, does this kind of law place an impossible burden on us? Does Christ’s command that our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no” along with the other verses already mentioned mean that we have moral duty to read and understand all of the fine points of these service agreements? Is it a sin for a 17 year old to use Google or for someone to not give their correct birthday to a networking site in order to protect their privacy?

I do not have an easy answer but I think it is an interesting question. We tend to think of things like stem-cell research or human cloning when discussing the moral implications of newer technologies but there are all sorts of less obvious issues that we need to be thinking about as well. When I consider fallen mankind’s attempts at establishing fair and reasonable laws I want to say with all the more urgency… Lord Jesus Come Quickly! 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Acts 17:11 The Noble Bereans

The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed …                                             (Acts 17:10-12 ESV)

This has long been among my favorite passages of the Bible. I have often thought of the faithful Bereans looking up and double-checking what Paul and Silas told them and confirming it for themselves, through study, that indeed the Gospel message was in fact biblical (taught in the Old Testament). This is the ideal Protestant picture of discipleship; test everything by diligent study, carefully examining the Word, searching the Scriptures, to evaluate all truth claims. An interesting article in the November issue of The Journal of Biblical Literature, however, questions how accurate this image is.

The article, by Roy E. Ciampa of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is titled “Examined the Scriptures”? The Meaning of anakpinonteV taV grafaV in Acts 17:11. Ciampa argues that our mental image of faithful Jews engaged in an ancient equivalent of modern style Bible study is likely inaccurate or at least overstated. He begins by pointing out that there is some question among historians as to how accessible physical texts would have been to the average first century Jew. Books were very expensive at that time and many people could not read. Certainly not everyone would own their own Bible and even if they could read many may not have had access to one that they could use for private study.

Ciampa points out that the misunderstanding is due in large part to a long tradition of interpretations that say that the Bereans “searched” the Scriptures which gives the impression that they were looking things up in their Bibles directly. He traces the origin of this translation tradition to Chrysostom who, in his comments on Acts 17:11, explained that the verb in the text (anekrinon) means the same thing as another verb (anhreunwn) which does in fact mean “searched”. Apparently the wording in the text was not a common construction even at the time he was writing and Chrysostom therefore defined it in reference to a more well known word. Chrysostom’s substitution of the definition of anereunaw for anekrinw became (whether due to his influence or not isn’t certain) the standard approach for major translations that followed. Jerome’s Vulgate as well as Luther, Tyndale, the King James Version, and many others translate the word in a way that conveys the idea of searching the text. Historically most lexicons also listed “searched” as one of the meanings for the word but Ciampa argues that this was a result of the ancient tradition of translating it that way rather than any lexical-grammatical justification for doing so.

Ciampa looks at the use of the term in both the Bible and other ancient Greek literature and shows that the word anekrinon can mean “to examine” in a judicial context such as cross-examining a witness but that it never means “to search” or “to examine” an impersonal object such as a text or artifact. He suggests that “inquire” better communicates the idea in the text. Most modern translations use the word “examined” rather than “searched” to translate the word and this is supported by the best recent lexicons but Ciampa points out that it is important to pay careful attention to the definitions used by those lexicons. He explains, “The Greek texts that support the gloss “examine” do so with the meaning “to determine the qualifications, aptitude, or skills [of a person] by means of questions or exercises” or “to question formally/judicially to elicit facts or information; interrogate,” not with the meaning “to observe carefully or critically; inspect” (or “to study or analyze”).” He goes on to point out that the contemporary English translations, thought they use the term “examine” rather than “searched” still give the impression that the Bereans were searching or analyzing their Bibles.

It is, of course, possible that some of the wealthy Bereans had copies of the Scriptures so it might have been the case that some of them were in fact looking things up. According to Ciampa, however, the verse itself is not addressing that issue but is rather dealing with them asking questions about the Scriptures.  Ciampa argues that the text “indicates that the Beroeans were ‘asking [Paul] questions about the Scriptures every day to see if these things were true.’ This gives us a picture of a community that treated Paul as a highly respected rabbi or teacher of Scripture and suggests that the Beroeans were thought to have (or are portrayed as having) evaluated his teaching based on his answers to the questions they put to him in light of their own prior knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures.”

Ciampa therefore claims that although it is possible that some of the Bereans may have had the tools and capability to engage in daily Bible study, and that it is possible that this capability informed their questions of Paul, that all Acts 17:11 tells us is that the Bereans were asking Paul questions and comparing his answers to their knowledge of the Scripture. It does not indicate if that knowledge was the result of continual and direct access to the scrolls themselves or through memorization and what they knew from the regular readings at the synagogue. The picture we should have in our mind from Acts 17:11, according to Ciampa, is that Paul was being called on to explain and defend his teaching as if he were defending a thesis. Ciampa sees this as much more consistent with the approach that would be used by those who may not have personal texts and he argues it was a common approach in the rabbinical tradition. He is saying that what is commendable about the Bereans is their openness to hear and consider the teaching rather than their commitment to Bible study as we have come to know it.

The article is interesting and makes a good case for Ciampa’s conclusions though the reaction of other Greek scholars remains to be seen. In at least one sense, if this is correct, it makes the Bereans even more commendable because the implication would be that they were not just using their Bibles like encyclopedias or reference books but rather that they had a working knowledge and grasp of the material. In order to “examine” or “question” Paul or any other teacher with regard to their doctrine and interpretation would require a great deal of understanding of the various connections and relationship of material within the Old Testament.

The flow of the narrative in Acts suggests that it is the suffering and resurrection of the Messiah that they were searching to confirm with the Old Testament. I do not know how many Christians in our Churches today, even with all of our modern access to texts and study aids, can biblically demonstrate the suffering and resurrection of Christ solely from the Old Testament. These ancient Bereans, however, were familiar enough with the content of their Bibles to follow Paul’s references as he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, ask follow up questions, and evaluate Paul’s claims. Bible in hand or not, that requires a great deal of familiarity with the text.

I pray that like the Bereans we would all come to know the Scriptures well enough to evaluate teachings we encounter against them even if our Bibles do not happen to be readily at hand.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Seven Billion & Counting

One of those questions that constantly comes up from both unbelievers and believers when discussing the Gospel is “what about all the people who never heard the Gospel?” Of particular interest to people seem to be those who lived before the time of Christ who would be logically precluded from hearing the Good News. Their fate cannot be tied to the evangelical impulse of the Church and so they would seem to be the perfect test case for discussing the implications of exclusive salvation through belief in the Gospel.

This is certainly a very good question and it deserves its own post one of these days. There would seem to be implications for all sorts of things tied up with it, not the least of which is the justice of God. Today, however, I want to point out something related to that question that is not at all intended as an answer. It is merely an observation that I find interesting and that I think the Church needs to think about with regard to its current responsibility. I am referring to population statistics. If we look at estimates on how many people have lived on planet earth we find that it is disproportionately weighted to a post Jesus world. In fact, it is disproportionately weighted to our own time. Someone may point out that there are many logical reasons why we would expect this to be the case but nevertheless it remains a fact. As someone who believes in meticulous providence and the fact that God has a specific purpose for every person who is born or dies I find this fact interesting.

Somewhere around the end of October of this year it is estimated that the current population of the earth exceeded the 7 billion mark. This is amazing considering the fact that as recently as the turn of this century we were hovering around 6 billion. That means that in the past 12 years the earth has added roughly the equivalent number of people as currently live in India. One out of every 7 people alive today were not here just 12 years ago.

What is even more astonishing is that according to most sources the population of the earth at the time of Christ was around 300 million people. That means that the whole world was populated by the number of people that now inhabit just the United States. The population growth rate has been dramatic since the first century and even more dramatic in the past 200 years.

Even using the above estimates that assume evolutionary timetables which would put the first humanoids around 200,000 years ago (much earlier than most Christians accept) the total number of people who had ever lived up until the time of Christ would be around 20 billion. In the last 2,000 years, however, that number has increased by at least another 36 billion people to over 56 billion total all time. So the fact is that the majority of people who have ever lived have lived in the past 2,000 years.  In fact 1 out of every 8 people who have ever lived is alive right now!

None of this answers the question we started with but it does bring up a few interesting points. God has established His Church and it has pleased Him that it should do its ministry in a time of maximum outreach potential. The New Testament was written at a time when Roman rule and Greek culture made it possible for the message to be distributed across a wide area quickly from a central geographic point. Various other factors came into play such that this message is beginning to be spread at a time prior to the majority of people living on earth. My intention isn’t to try and defend God with statistics (He doesn’t need me to do that). As I said, this isn’t supposed to be an answer for the question we started with. I do think, however, that we as Christians need to understand what the significance of these numbers are.  Jesus tells His disciples in John 4:35-36

“Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.” (ESV)

We have the largest mission field in history. In a real sense there are huge parts of the planet that are not in a post-Christian world. The foundation has been laid for us and Holy Spirit continues to work. In places like China, India, and Brazil the professed conversion rate is astounding numbering in the tens of thousands each week and yet there are still so many who have never heard or do not understand the message of the Gospel. The question we began with is a legitimate theological question but on a practical level we need to more concerned about those who are still alive and have not heard the Good News. There is a lot of work to be done so that God may be glorified and He has continued to provide an opportunity for His Church to participate in His work. Today we have over 7 billion opportunities to do so… just something to think about. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

Same Mass... Increased Density

This Sunday the Roman Catholic Church will be implementing the first significant changes to their English liturgy in Southeast Michigan since its translation from Latin in the 1970’s following The Second Vatican Council. A comparison of the old version and the new version of the Mass can be found HERE.

The changes are supposed to be a more literal rendering of the language of the Latin Mass and are intended as part of a world wide effort to commonize the vernacular liturgies so that they are as similar as possible. For the most part the result of the changes is that the wording is more conservative. For example, in the old liturgy the priest would greet the people by saying “The Lord be with you” and the people would respond “And also with you” but now the response will be “And also with your spirit” which seems a bit less intuitive to modern ears. Another example is during the recitation of the Nicene Creed. The old language spoke of Christ as “One in being with the Father” but now Jesus will be said to be “consubstantial with the Father”. The two versions mean the same thing but the new language is clearly less user friendly for the average person. Many of the changes are similar to this in that they are focused more on a precise translation of the Latin and less on ease of understanding for the layman. The new Mass also involves a change to some music and more singing.

These changes have caused quite a stir among many Catholics. Some see them as a good thing. They view them as an elevation of the language of the Mass that further sets it apart from common discourse. Others, however, see these changes as a partial repudiation of the advances made at Vatican II and worry that people will be driven away by the apparent conservative shift in the language of the liturgy. They worry that the Mass will be less accessible for people after these changes.

From a purely theological perspective nothing in the Mass has changed. This isn’t surprising because even the sweeping liturgical changes of Vatican II itself did not change the underlying theological understanding of the Mass or Catholic doctrine. The changes at that time and now are a matter of how those beliefs are communicated and presented. Whether the shift to a more conservative presentation will be beneficial or not to the Roman Church remains to be seen.

When I speak with many of my Catholic friends and family one of the things they often mention is that the Mass gives them a feeling of history, connection, and separation from the broader culture. There is a sense of connection that they find in their liturgy that transcends the chaos of their modern lives. These changes will likely strengthen that response. Though many oppose the changes I think Rome may indeed understand very well what it is doing.

People have a desire to connect to something stable and unchanging. In a time when so many Protestant churches, in an attempt to be seen as relevant, are more likely to reflect the culture rather than confront it the decision by Rome to become more formal in its liturgy may further strengthen the differentiation and the power of the Catholic sub-culture. As an alternative to both widespread Protestant oscillation and Roman formalism I pray that our churches would focus on the unadorned preaching of the Gospel because only God Himself is unchanging and transcendent and we can only truly have fellowship with Him through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

The greatest and most valuable tradition of all is the Gospel. It is the message of the Prophets and Apostles and it alone is the power and message of salvation. By God’s grace, let us forego undue focus on liturgy and focus instead on the clear preaching of the Gospel. For as the Apostle Paul reminds us “…since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:21-24 ESV)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Thought on Thanksgiving from the Early Church

I thought it would be appropriate today to share a brief thought on thanksgiving from the early Christian teacher John Chrysostom (347-407). The following comes from one of his homilies on the book of Ephesians. Unfortunately it is a sentiment that would be difficult to find in many of our churches today.

“What then? Are we to give thanks for everything that befalls us? Yes; be it even disease, be it even penury [extreme poverty].  … Yes, even though thou know not the word, give thanks. For this is thanksgiving. But if thou give thanks when thou art in comfort and in affluence, in success and in prosperity, there is nothing great, nothing wonderful in that. What is required is, for a man to give thanks when he is in afflictions, in anguish, in discouragements. Utter no word in preference to this, “Lord, I thank thee.” And why do I speak of the afflictions of this world? It is our duty to give God thanks, even for hell itself, for the torments and punishments of the next world. For surely it is a thing beneficial to those who attend to it, when the dread of hell is laid like a bridle on our hearts. Let us therefore give thanks not only for blessings which we see, but also for those which we see not, and for those which we receive against our will. For many are the blessings He bestows upon us, without our desire, without our knowledge.”

We are to give thanks despite whatever worldly afflictions we face. This is not because we follow some sort of stoic submission where we seek to be indifferent to suffering. No, it is rather because no matter what we face here we can be confident in the goodness of our God who has done immeasurably much for us in His gift of Christ. We know that the sufferings of this current time are nothing to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.

Happy Thanksgiving 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Review: Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics

By Graeme Goldsworthy / IVP Academic

In Gospel Centered Hermeneutics, Graeme Goldsworthy's argues that evangelical contributions often do not give sufficient attention to the vital relationship between hermeneutics and theology, both systematic and biblical.

Therefore, Goldsworthy moves beyond a reiteration of typical arguments to concentrate on the theological questions and presuppositions, and their impact on the interpretive process and on their impact of our articulation of the gospel. In doing so, he brings fresh perspectives on some well-worn pathways.

Part I examines the foundations and presuppositions of evangelical belief, particularly with regard to biblical interpretation. Part II offers a selective overview of important hermeneutical developments from the Patristic era to the present, as a means of identifying some significant influences that have been alien to the gospel. Part III evaluates ways and means of reconstructing truly gospel-centered hermeneutics. Throughout Goldsworthy aims to commend the much-neglected role of biblical theology in hermeneutical practice, with pastoral concern for the people of God as they read, interpret and seek to live by his written Word.

There were many observations and conclusions in this book that I agree with and some others that I did not. Most importantly, however, this is a book that challenged me to think and for that reason I highly recommend it. This is a book that needed to be written and Goldsworthy skillfully illustrates how the theological and philosophical presuppositions of Biblical interpreters influence their interpretations. He does a marvelous job of placing the task of the exegete in its broader context. He recognizes that to focus simply on rules and methods while ignoring the broader worldview issues related to epistemology and ontology gives us an insufficient understanding of what hermeneutics really involves.

Other works may have more detail regarding practical application of the principals of interpretation but regarding the broader issues involved with Biblical interpretation this is the best thing I have read in nearly a decade. He too quickly (in my opinion) dismisses a plain hermeneutic for Old Testament passages in favor of a covenantal view of redemptive history but a careful consideration of his reasoning is something that those who hold other views will be challenged to respond to. Some of the material in the book may be difficult for those who do not have familiarity with certain theological and philosophical issues but it is written in a way that would allow it to perhaps serve as a launching pad into further study into those areas.

I highly recommend this book to any advanced student or any person who is interested in the relationship between theology/philosophy and Biblical interpretation. Like any human book it must be read critically but it is an excellent work and deserves to be widely read by those interested in the subject.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why I am a Compatibilist

In the previous article I discussed Jonathan Edwards' explanation of how divine sovereignty and human responsibility can be compatible. Edwards argument is important because it demonstrates that the teaching of the scripture that God is in control, and also that He justly holds people accountable for their actions, does not involve a logical contradiction. His arguments, and others like it, however are not the basis for why I am a compatibilist. I am a compatibilist because I believe that the Bible teaches it.

The basic question comes down to whose will is determinative for whatever events occur. Is it human choices and intentions that determine what happens or is it God’s choices and intentions? There are many Biblical examples that I think require us to answer that question in a way that asserts that both are the case. As the old theologians used to say “God works through means”. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

The Joseph Story (Genesis 37:18-28, 45:1-8, 50:15-20)

Notice the pronouns in the first part of this story. The text is clear that it is the brothers who are making these choices. If we ask who decided that Joseph would be sold to the Ishmaelites we have to answer based upon this section that his brothers did.

They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt. (Genesis 37:18-28 ESV)

When the story picks up a few chapters later we are given another perspective. This time we see the intention of God introduced. In fact, in the same sentence we see two different wills connected to the same event. Joseph says that his brothers sold him into Egypt but then he says that it was God who did it. He emphasizes God’s providence in their actions by telling his brothers “it was not you who sent me here, but God”. It is clear from the overall narrative that this statement is not intended as a denial of the fact that the brothers had sent him but rather his way of emphasizing that God’s purposes are fulfilled even through their sinful actions. Even their rebellious choices end up being part of the means God uses to bring about His ends.

So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:4-8 ESV)

As we reach the end of the narrative the brothers clearly understand that they are responsible for what happened to Joseph. They did not, however, understand Joseph’s faithfulness and trust in God’s providence that he shows in his famous statement “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good”. I have heard many teachers and preachers explain this verse by saying that God used the actions of brothers to bring about His purposes as if God simply made the best out of what happened. This is not, however, what the verse says. Joseph says that “God meant it”. If we ask the question “who is responsible for Joseph ending up in Egypt” we must give two answers. The brothers are responsible but so is God. God didn’t force the brothers to do what they did, their choices were their own. They did what they desired to do and chose according to their own sinful and selfish natures. Their choices, however, were part of the larger plan of God to provide for His people.

When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Genesis 50:15-20 ESV)

The Crucifixion (Is. 53:10, Acts 2:22-23, 4:26-28)

We see a similar dynamic with regard to the crucifixion of Jesus. The Bible tells us that it was the plan of God that Christ would be sacrificed. Hundreds of years before Jesus was born the prophet Isaiah revealed God’s intentions in the death of His Son.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; He has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. (Isaiah 53:8-10 ESV)

Peter, in his well known sermon recorded in Acts 2, also touches upon both the human and the divine intention when discussing the death of Christ. He makes it clear that human choices led to the death of Christ but like Joseph’s story this is also part of the plan that God has willed to bring about.

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:22-23 ESV)

Again in chapter 4 when Peter and John are released from custody and are praising God both the human and the divine wills and intentions involved in the crucifixion are mentioned again.

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’—for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:26-28 ESV)

The Bible teaches that there are two distinct purposes at work in the death of Christ. There are the sinful acts of human beings but also there is the plan of God. God did not force these people to do what they did; they acted according to their own desires and their own motives. There was, however, another purpose and another cause of these events. If we ask who determined that Jesus would be crucified we must provide two answers if we are to be consistent with the teaching of the Bible.

We see in both of these examples that God’s plans infallibly come to pass. He determines what will happen but He does so in a way that does not violate the ability of people to act according to their own desires. To deny the human intention and agency in bringing about these events is to deny the Biblical witness that those people were responsible for those choices and that they were indeed real choices. If we deny the divine intention then we deny the Biblical witness to God’s purposes in history and perhaps His sovereignty as well. These people made choices that proceeded from their own desires, their own natures, from who they were and God working through them according to their nature accomplishes His own ends. Therefore in these examples we see an illustration of what Edwards was talking about. God is in control and His sovereignty means the outcomes are certain even though people are making free choices for which they can justly be held accountable. There are many other Biblical examples that we could have looked at but these are the most well known and I think they are sufficient to make the point. Compatibilism is not just a speculative philosophical position but is a conclusion based upon a careful reading of the Biblical text.

Friday, November 4, 2011

On Free Will

I have been asked many times whether I think the Bible teaches that God is completely sovereign or if it teaches that people have free will. I usually respond that the Bible teaches both. That answer usually frustrates people. Most people recognize that if the Bible is truly God’s word it cannot contain real contradictions and they therefore conclude that it has to teach either one or the other. How, they ask, could God be just in holding people accountable for actions that He ultimately planned or determined?

Many assume that God being in control of all things and people being truly free are incompatible. As Christians, however, we believe that the Bible is true and it is the Bible that is our ultimate authority. The Bible clearly teaches that God is completely sovereign and in control. It also teaches that people are responsible for their actions and that God will hold them accountable for what they do. The logical compatibility of those truths is therefore a necessity for a rationally coherent Biblical theology.

The Bible simply asserts and assumes these truths as facts and does not explain the details of how they can be logically reconciled so various theologians have offered potential solutions. The best attempt I have read is Jonathan Edwards work The Freedom of the Will. Edwards explained that all choices were both determined and free. His observations and insights into the nature of willing allows for a logically consistent compatibilism between divine sovereignty and moral accountability. Since this issue has come up a couple of times in recent conversation and since Edwards’ writing is fairly dense philosophical and theological argument I thought it might be helpful to summarize some of the key points that he makes.

Most people think of free will as the ability to make alternative choices in such a way that the will is neutral and can make a choice either for or against any particular alternative. Edwards, however, shows that the will never has this kind of freedom. He points out that “will” is not so much a noun as it is a verb. The will is not a thing but it is rather the mind choosing. He then examines the basis upon which the mind makes choices. He demonstrates that a mind will choose (or will) that which is the greatest desire acting upon it at the time of the choice. This is very important because it implies that the will is never neutral. There is always a reason why a choice is made. A particular mind cannot choose against its own desires. A mind cannot want to not do what it most wants to do at the same time.

Someone may object and point out that people often do things they do not want to do. The reality is, however, that what people choose to do is in fact what it is they wanted to do at the moment they made the choice. For example, I have met many alcoholics who hate their addiction. They genuinely do not want to continue with that lifestyle. The fact is, however, that at the moment that they decide to pick up the bottle their desire for that short term pleasure is greater than their desire to refrain from drinking. They may seriously regret it later but in that moment the thing they most wanted to do was to take a drink. Although those desires may be so strong that one could say they were not free the fact is that they were choosing according to their own desire. Another example is if your boss asked you to do something that you absolutely did not want to do but you ended up doing it anyway. Even though everything in you might have been resistant to doing what you were asked, if you do it, it is still true that your greatest desire at that moment was to comply. At that moment your desire to keep your job or not have a problem with your boss was greater than your desire to resist. Even though it may not be a choice you would have made in other circumstances, all things being considered, it is what you wanted to do.

The will is therefore always determined by the greatest desires acting upon it at the moment of the choice. This means that every choice is determined by our nature and character. Edwards, however, also argues that our wills are indeed free. They are not free with regard to the power of contrary choice as so many people assume but they are truly free in that they do what it is they wish to do. His point is that so long as a person is not forced to do something against their will or is not restrained from doing something they willed to do then their actions freely proceed from them and so they are justly held responsible for them. Edwards argues that if you do what you want to do then your choices are free even if what you did was what God planned for you to do and you are still justly responsible because they were choices that came unimpeded from your own desires. 

By demonstrating that choices can be both free and also determined Edwards lays a logical philosophical foundation for understanding how to reconcile the Bible’s assertion that God is sovereign and also its assertion that He also holds people accountable for their actions. This view of freedom does not require that people have an equal ability to actualize multiple future realities in order to be free. If God works through beings according to their natures He can determine what will happen without overruling the ability of creatures to choose that which they wish to do. If the actions of those creatures are expressions of their own desires then they are justly held morally accountable for them even if they could not have done otherwise.

The objections to divine sovereignty tend to flow not from Biblical passages that teach that people possess the power of contrary choice (there aren’t any) but rather from a question about God’s justice in holding people accountable for choices that they were certain to make. Edwards’ argument provides a logically consistent explanation that fits with the two plain assertions of the scripture (God’s sovereignty & man’s responsibility). Much ink has been spilled on this subject but Edwards’ argument remains the most compelling work on the subject that I have read. Obviously the summary above barely scratches the surface of the overall argument. If you are interested in reading the entire thing you can get a free copy HERE

Monday, October 17, 2011

Bible Study Tips: Applying the Neglected Passages

Up to this point most of the bible study tips have focused on things that to help with the observation or interpretation phase of study. Today I want to introduce a tip that applies primarily to the application phase.

It is sometimes difficult to apply lessons from texts that are not obviously doctrinal. Those texts, however, do provide important truths that we should pay attention to. Sections such as the “begat’s” for example, are rarely studied and if they are read at all they are skimmed quickly. We should recognize, however, that by skipping over these texts we are depriving ourselves of some of the means that the Lord has provided for our development.

Paul instructs Timothy that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV) and he reminds the believers in Rome that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4 ESV). Therefore we do not want to ignore or neglect any of the scripture.

Our example will be from the second chapter of the book of Ezra which is one of those passages that is often skimmed through. (I didn’t include the entire chapter out of copyright considerations)

            Now these were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town. They came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, and Baanah. The number of the men of the people of Israel: the sons of Parosh, 2,172. The sons of Shephatiah, 372. The sons of Arah, 775. The sons of Pahath-moab, namely the sons of Jeshua and Joab, 2,812. The sons of Elam, 1,254. The sons of Zattu, 945. The sons of Zaccai, 760. The sons of Bani, 642. The sons of Bebai, 623. The sons of Azgad, 1,222. The sons of Adonikam, 666. The sons of Bigvai, 2,056. The sons of Adin, 454. The sons of Ater, namely of Hezekiah, 98. The sons of Bezai, 323. The sons of Jorah, 112. The sons of Hashum, 223. The sons of Gibbar, 95. The sons of Bethlehem, 123. The men of Netophah, 56. The men of Anathoth, 128. The sons of Azmaveth, 42. The sons of Kiriath-arim, Chephirah, and Beeroth, 743. The sons of Ramah and Geba, 621. [THE LIST CONTINUES TO NEARLY THE END OF THE CHAPTER]

What are we to do with a list like this? How often would we use this passage to instruct, encourage, or rebuke one another? Probably not often, but by asking a few basic questions about this passage we will see that there is valuable teaching here. First, we begin with the basic journalistic questions so we can understand the biblical passage. We then follow up with a few questions about the similarities between those in the biblical narrative and ourselves.

  1. Who are these people?

We know from the text that these people are “the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia.” That is to say that they are the descendants of Jews who were taken from their land by the Babylonians. We also see that they have maintained their genealogies. They have not fully assimilated into the society of their captors but have continued to be a distinct minority with its own identity.

  1. What are they doing?

They are returning to their ancestral homeland. They are gathered together to go back to Judea and if we read a bit ahead we see that they intend to rebuild the temple and reestablish the ceremonial worship of God according to the Law.

  1. When is this happening?

This is happening about 70 years after their ancestors were taken into captivity. The Babylonians, who had conquered their land, had now come under the rule of the Persians. Just as promised ahead of time through the prophet Jeremiah the Persian king is allowing them to return.

  1. Where is this happening?

They are moving from Mesopotamia to Judea.

  1. How is this happening?

If we back up a bit in the book of Ezra we see that king Cyrus had issued a decree: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:2-4 ESV)

  1. Why is this happening?

For these kinds of texts the “why” is often one of the most important questions. In this case we find the answer back in the first chapter. “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing” (Ezra 1:1 ESV)

  1. How is the condition of the people in the passage similar to our own?

In bible study the focus of this question should always be in a redemptive context. We are really asking how are these fallen people in circumstances similar to us. In this case we see that they are God’s people who were in a kingdom that was not their home and were longing to be back in their homeland. They are preparing to return.

  1. What does this passage reveal about God’s character?

This passage shows at least two important things. First, it shows that God keeps His promises. These people are returning home in fulfillment of a promise that God had made. Second, it shows that God is sovereign because He worked through all the various circumstances to ensure that His prophesies would be fulfilled.

There are many other questions that could be added. Basically they would focus on two categories. First, what is similar or different about us and the people in the text? Second, what does the text reveal about God. Just with these two, however, we see that the second chapter of Ezra is in fact a doctrinal and encouraging passage.

This list of names (that most people skip) is a testimony to the trustworthiness of God, that He has the power to bring about His ends, and keeps His promises. What is more we recognize that we are also a people exiled from home in a place that is often hostile to us but have the promise of God that He will protect us and that, if faithful, we will return home to be with Him. We can be encouraged not just in an abstract sense (though that would be sufficient) but also because we have the very names as evidence that the Lord has kept similar promises in the past. Our hope is in a Lord who keeps His promises and does not abandon those who remain faithful to Him.

By taking some time to ask a few basic questions we can find relevant teaching and application in every part of the scripture, even those that seem to be rather distant from our own circumstances. It just takes a little bit of thought and a few well placed questions. As a teacher of mine used to say, “When you come across a passage that seems a bit dry you can usually make it less dry by applying a bit of perspiration.” I pray that the Lord would continue to bless you in your studies.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

My Thoughts are With You

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:16)

It is a great blessing when we go through any kind of adversity or trial that our brothers and sisters in the faith are praying for us. When a Christian says “my prayers are with you” they are letting you know that they recognize that God has the power to intercede on your behalf. They are communicating to you that you should trust God to do so. They are also demonstrating faith that God will honor His promises to hear our prayers. There is tremendous power in prayer. By praying we are appealing to the sovereign power of God to do what we recognize we cannot do.

Lately, however, I have noticed that many people these days are saying things like “my thoughts are with you” or “sending good thoughts your way”. This is one of those areas where there is a huge gap between those who have a relationship with the living God and those who do not. While I recognize that it is a polite and thoughtful thing to tell someone that you are thinking of them it does absolutely nothing to address the underlying issue. It is simply a recognition that someone feels bad that you are dealing with some kind of trial. The thoughts of others cannot change our circumstances nor can they give us the strength to endure them beyond what was already within our psychological capacity. The believer on the other hand has access to the phenomenal power of God who can either resolve the issue or provide the strength for us to grow from it.

For His own reasons God does not always heal us or deliver us from particular circumstances but He always has the power to do so. When I am going through adversity I do not want acknowledgement from others who are just as helpless as I am. I want to know that my brothers and sisters are interceding with my Father, King, and Savior who has already demonstrated His love and care for me. As a believer, if I must suffer, I do so in the knowledge that my suffering has a purpose and is itself accompanied by the benevolent guidance of God. What a privilege that is. The unbeliever is sadly without that hope. The thoughts of people, good or not, cannot change that.

Every time I hear about a person suffering some tribulation and I then hear someone say that “their thoughts are with them” I am reminded of Paul’s words in Ephesians.

“…remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2:12)

I then thank God that He has saved me. If you are a Christian consider using these opportunities as a way to share the hope that is within you. Tell people that you are praying for them (make sure you do it if you say you will). Some may not think it will do any good and others may even ask you not to. Most people, however, genuinely appreciate it and I have found it often opens the door for further discussion about faith down the road. Even if it doesn’t, it is an expression of your own faith.