Thursday, April 28, 2011

Religious Intolerance on Facebook?

Over the past few weeks I have had multiple people tell me (without me asking) that they have witnessed some level of resistance or even hostility from others on Facebook and other social networking sites to Christian content. A couple of the people simply mentioned that there were comments to the effect that people shouldn’t use the site as a platform for proselytizing. One person showed me a post by someone who was getting people to support the idea that religious expression be banned from the site. Another person even shared with me some very hostile comments to their attempts to share Christian ideas resulting in this brother feeling the need to explain his purpose in doing so. 

Believers should not be surprised that others get agitated by the posting of Christian content. The Gospel of Jesus is an offense and unless the Holy Spirit opens the eyes and hearts of those who have rejected Christ they cannot begin to understand why that message is so important and precious to us. Paul explains to the Christians in Corinth that “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor. 2:14) Notice that this isn’t just a reluctance to accept spiritual things it is actually an inability.

In our natural state we want to be the ruler of our own lives and our hardness and sinful rejection of God is so great that we literally have a moral inability to understand or accept spiritual truths. It is only by the grace of God through the preaching of the Word that anyone can submit themselves to the Lord. Those who are not submitting themselves to the Lord, recognizing their own depravity and relying upon Christ to be their only righteousness do not want to be confronted with the things of God and would much rather avoid them. Jesus said “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”(John 3:19-20)

Paul explains that those who minister the Gospel are bearers of life to those who believe but are bearers of death to those who reject the message. “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life And who is adequate for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:14-16) The words of the scripture are not a comfort to those who are resisting God. The words of God require a response and the weight of such things is more than most people want to deal with. We are breezy and light people and do not wish to be confronted with such serious and penetrating questions. The problem with God is that He doesn’t leave you with escape routes. Ultimately you must either submit to Him or continue in rebellion. He leaves no middle ground.

As a result the concept that expressions of our beliefs could ever be banned from Facebook or any other place demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of us on the part of those who are unbelievers. For those who are truly believers there is simply no area of our thinking that isn’t predicated upon God’s Word (or so it is our desire). Every expression of the believer, whether social, economic, political, etc. is an expression of our faith. Although we may have much in common with non-Christian friends on the surface the reality is that we are living in two completely different worlds. As we learn more about one another we will quickly begin to see that our experience of the world around us overlaps very little. The deeper we go the more it becomes apparent that those who are in Christ are different on a fundamental level. Christianity is the ultimate meta-narrative that requires all other experiences to conform to its Truth. Accepting Christ fundamentally changes the very way you think and experience the world. The transformation is not immediate in its comprehensiveness but it is sufficiently profound to be described as a new birth. Spiritually the person you were is dead and a new creation takes its place. This new creation is being transformed into the very image of Christ.

Despite this the one thing we know that we do have in common with those who are agitated by our faith is that we too are sinners. We too have a natural tendency to resist God in our old nature. It is only by His grace that we have come to understand and to be filled with the love of Christ. Indeed we are example enough that there is no sinner who God cannot save. We are set apart simply on the basis of what He has done and there is nothing inherent in us that make us different from them. They may not understand it but we know it is an act of love on our part to witness to them in the hope that God would save them. The Lord has said that He will in no way cast out any who come to Him and Paul reminds us that they cannot come unless someone preaches to them. We must have a sense of urgency about our faith. We must believe that it is in the power of God to overcome resistance and to cause even the most stubborn sinners to be born again. We must love our neighbors enough to tell them that the house is on fire and that they must wake up or perish!

Social networking sites are offering new ways for people to interact that are allowing some of the compartmentalization of our lives to be broken down. We can often see what people are thinking about things we say or do in ways that before might not have been as obvious. The nature of people, however, has not changed. Unfortunately most of the Christian content on these sites is fairly trite but occasionally someone will put their heart out there or share the Word of God. In those cases we can expect some flack and that is OK. Let us remember the words of our Lord, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” (John 15:18-20) and like Paul let us be encouraged by the power of the word being able to honestly say along with him that we are not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God for salvation for all who believe.

I pray for the encouragement of all of you who are sharing the Word through Facebook and other similar sites. I pray that your ministering in that way would glorify Christ recalling that “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy and the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:17-18). I pray also that there would be many who would come to hear the Word and believe as a result of what you do.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The God Who Speaks

“You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led.” (1 Corinthians 12:2 ESV)

I think this is a remarkable verse because of all the things that Paul could have said that would have captured the impotence of the idols he chose their muteness. Obviously those idols were blind, and unfeeling, unthinking, and a host of other things that differentiate them from not only God but even men but it was their silence that Paul focuses on.

There is a special emphasis in the Word of God placed upon the act of speaking. God spoke the world into existence, His revelation of Himself was given through prophets who proclaimed “thus saith the Lord”, and finally Christ Himself, the perfect image,  holy savior, and fullness of the revelation of God to mankind is known as “The Word”. Our God is a God who speaks.

Philosophers and scientists have still not been able to fully explain why it is that human beings can communicate through the kind of language that we do. The way we learn language and the patters that we develop from the earliest age do not correspond well to the current theory that complex language evolved from the grunts and squeals of animals. What is more, there is no way to explain how information can be conveyed from one mind to another through the use of sounds or even symbols without encountering many significant difficulties. How is it that I can assign the same significance to a particular grunt as you do and then be able to identify, differentiate, decode, and evaluate your thoughts within a fraction of a second? Think about it, we do not speak the way we write. Words do not emerge from our mouths as separate entities; rather native speakers spew forth a continuous string of sound that our minds recognize as distinct words. When we are speaking we do not say I am going to the store later today. Depending upon our accent we are much more likely to say I’mgointothestorelatertoday yet people seem to have little problem understanding what is said. What is more, no two people actually sound exactly the same or even pronounce words the same way but those sounds are still usually interpreted properly. Human language is so incredibly complex and difficult and yet it remains incredibly effective and powerful.

Scientists and philosophers may continue to argue about how this is possible but the theologians already have the answer. The divine Word or Logos is the light that lighteth every person. Being made in the image of God we have the necessary structures as part of the architecture of our minds to be able to communicate this way. We were designed to have fellowship with God and one another and language is integral to that process. One of the defining attributes of fellowship is communication. God does not rely upon the religious experience of the mystic or the conceptual framework of the philosopher but rather reveals Himself in words.

The theological liberals who have made action the basis of their religion or the neo-orthodox who have made encounter the foundation for theirs have both missed the mark. The Words of God cannot be separated from who He is because this is the way that He has chosen to reveal Himself. It is by the foolishness of preaching that God is saving the world.  Even Christ, who is the perfect revelation of God, places a special emphasis on the revelation of God in words. He instructs the disciples with words even telling them in John’s Gospel “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63) and the great confession of Peter is “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Later when Christ is praying to the Father before His crucifixion He says “I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.” (John 17:8).

We serve a God who speaks. This speaking did not cease with the close of the apostolic age. I do not mean that God gives unique revelation today but through His word He continues to speak directly to all those who believe. It is one of the great mysteries about the scriptures that though they were written long ago to people in far away places when we read them or hear them preached it is truly God speaking personally to us. Through the Holy Spirit those words transform us and shape us. The Word of God is alive and is active. These are not just ideas or concepts but through the working of the Spirit they are literally the sustaining and life-giving food of the spirit. This is why it is so important that preaching and teaching be done directly from the scripture. We do not worship a mute God. I pray that if today you are feeling disconnected or distant from God or if you are seeking to know Him better that you would take up and read. Those ancient words were proclaimed and recorded with you in mind. They are for your benefit and I pray that your spirit would drink deeply from them.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

He is Risen!

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Lift up your eyes all around, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from afar,
and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.
All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you;
the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you;
they shall come up with acceptance on my altar,
and I will beautify my beautiful house.
Who are these that fly like a cloud,
and like doves to their windows?
For the coastlands shall hope for me,
the ships of Tarshish first,
to bring your children from afar,
their silver and gold with them,
for the name of the LORD your God,
and for the Holy One of Israel,
because he has made you beautiful.
(Isaiah 60:1-9 ESV)

Praise God for Christ is Risen and salvation has come to His people.. Happy Easter!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

...They Shall Come and Proclaim His Righteousness to a People yet Unborn, that He Has Done It

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
                        Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
            O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
                        and by night, but I find no rest.
            Yet you are holy,
                        enthroned on the praises of Israel.
            In you our fathers trusted;
                        they trusted, and you delivered them.
            To you they cried and were rescued;
                        in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
            But I am a worm and not a man,
                        scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
            All who see me mock me;
                        they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
            “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him;
                        let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
            Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
                        you made me trust you at my mother's breasts.
            On you was I cast from my birth,
                        and from my mother's womb you have been my God.
            Be not far from me,
                        for trouble is near,
                        and there is none to help.
            Many bulls encompass me;
                        strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
            they open wide their mouths at me,
                        like a ravening and roaring lion.
            I am poured out like water,
                        and all my bones are out of joint;
            my heart is like wax;
                        it is melted within my breast;
            my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
                        and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
                        you lay me in the dust of death.
            For dogs encompass me;
                        a company of evildoers encircles me;
            they have pierced my hands and feet—
            I can count all my bones—
            they stare and gloat over me;
            they divide my garments among them,
                        and for my clothing they cast lots.
            But you, O LORD, do not be far off!
                        O you my help, come quickly to my aid!
            Deliver my soul from the sword,
                        my precious life from the power of the dog!
                        Save me from the mouth of the lion!
            You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!
            I will tell of your name to my brothers;
                        in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
            You who fear the LORD, praise him!
                        All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
                        and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
            For he has not despised or abhorred
                        the affliction of the afflicted,
            and he has not hidden his face from him,
                        but has heard, when he cried to him.
            From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
                        my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
            The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
                        those who seek him shall praise the LORD!
                        May your hearts live forever!
            All the ends of the earth shall remember
                        and turn to the LORD,
            and all the families of the nations
                        shall worship before you.
            For kingship belongs to the LORD,
                        and he rules over the nations.
            All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
                        before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
                        even the one who could not keep himself alive.
            Posterity shall serve him;
                        it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
            they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
                        that he has done it.
(Psalm 22 ESV)

As we prepare to meditate upon the price which was paid for our redemption this Good Friday I cannot help but think of the words David wrote in this psalm roughly 1,000 years before Christ. We see in this passage the vivid imagery of crucifixion itself and that we are intended to see it here can hardly be doubted when we consider that it begins with the very words of our Lord on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At that moment we see the both the cost and the glory of the Gospel. That the perfect Son of God who “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1) would be separated from The Father because of our sin. That it pleased the Father to crush Him for our iniquities and that He gave Himself as an offering for our purification is such an incomprehensible thing for us to try and understand. And yet He did this, not because of our value, but because of His goodness and mercy.

When I was a child I used to think Good Friday was a strange name for this particular holiday. It didn’t seem like “good” was the best way to describe the feeling of the day. It was a serious time and we were actually celebrating the fact that the one we most loved was tortured and killed. By God’s grace, however, I eventually began to understand my own depravity and God’s Holiness (I’m still learning both) and when I consider the grace that was shown to me by my Savior on that Cross I have no words with which to adequately describe my thoughts and feelings.

Brothers and sisters I pray that as you celebrate this Good Friday, in whatever way that you keep it, that you would meditate upon the fact that a great price was paid so that you and I might have fellowship with one another and live in the presence of God forever. Everything that we have and everything that we need was purchased on that cross. There is nothing we possess of any value that was not paid for on that tree. From beginning to end all we have is Christ and we need nothing more. May the Grace of God and the Love of Christ become ever more apparent to us this season so that we might praise the glory of His grace. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

No Cornerstone: Modern Western Ethics

In my day job I am a business manager and recently an acquaintance of mine who also works in the business world but has a philosophy degree were discussing the pervasiveness of unethical behavior in the business world. It did not take long for the conversation to move to the foundational question of the basis of ethics itself. This is an ancient argument (dear Ethyphro) and we each made various observations about it.

As we spoke I began to reflect upon the fact that we are in a culture clearly but slowly moving from certain assumed foundational standards to something else. It is this ill defined something else that causes much of our frustration and is an unending source of concern for Christians. It also is a much broader issue that cannot be restricted to business ethics.

In the west the teachings of Christianity were not only foundational to the faith of individual believers but eventually became indispensable to the establishment of western culture itself. It was the Christian view of the foundation of ethics that was assumed by the cultural institutions within which even the unbelievers functioned. Of course a cursory historical analysis will reveal that the depravity of our age is no greater from a theological perspective than that of prior generations. The issue is not that people themselves are any more depraved. It is something else.

What is changing is that within a culture whose ethical assumptions were based upon Christian teaching these standards are eroding. For example, the founders of the United States provided not for adherence to Christian faith as other nations tried to do but rather for the establishment of a public ethic. They recognized that without a basis of moral accountability the secular structure which they erected would collapse under its own weight. In their day (before Darwin) all of the alternatives were essentially theistic. They wished to found a secular state that also provided a moral basis for its governing structures. In the end they divorced the ethical system of Christianity from its theological foundations and appealed to it as a rational expression of the best ethical teaching available. So even in the United States which was federally constituted as a secular state (as opposed to the European countries) the ethical assumptions of the society were based on those of Christianity even though they were not incorporated directly into the governing structures. The culture, though not properly “Christian” in the pure sense was Christian in the sense that the cultural ideals were largely assumed to be those of the Christian bible. 

The attacks on Christianity since the Enlightenment could not ultimately undermine the foundation of the faith of individual believers but have had a tremendous impact on the weakening of the foundations of the cultural structures which guide public and business ethics. Today more than anytime since the initial ascendancy of Christianity the culture must wrestle with the question of what makes something right or wrong. Is it the ten commandments? Sharia law? Simple consensus? As Christian perspectives on right and wrong are being jettisoned there has emerged no obvious replacement though there are many applicants vying for the job. Perhaps the closest thing is a sort of atheistic or agnostic materialism that tries to maintain some value and dignity of human life while denying that its origin or its end has any such purpose, value, or dignity. This seems to me to be intellectually dishonest and ultimately futile. On this basis it is likely that western ethics in the final analysis will degenerate into meaningless assertion of self.

The most intellectually honest of the non-Christian philosophers eventually recognized this. Camus toyed with the idea that the only important question left to answer was the appropriateness of suicide. More potently Nietzsche recognized that as society dismantled its Christian foundations it would face a crisis similar to the kind of postmodern fracturing we see today. Nietzsche was an enemy of Christianity but he recognized that its rejection entailed the rejection of a particular type of civilization (which incidentally he encouraged). He is famous for his expression “God is dead” but he did not mean by this the literal death of a being that he did not believe existed. What he meant was that God was ceasing to be relevant in the life of western culture though that culture had yet to shed the trappings of faith. In that sense we are witnessing what he perhaps saw before most others, namely the rejection of Christian foundations for our very culture and the fallout from it. It is perhaps better to let Nietzsche speak for himself. (In other writings he identifies himself with the “madman” in this story)

“Have you heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, “I seek God! I seek God” - As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. “Has he got lost,” asked one. “Did he lose his way like a child,” asked another. “Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Emigrated?” -Thus they yelled and laughed.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God,” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him - you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe the blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us - for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars - and yet they have done it themselves.”

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

-Friederich Nietzsche - The Gay Science, Book 3, 125 - "The Madman"

The rejection of a Christian informed ethic is a rejection of the cornerstone of western culture. The confusion of our age is in part the result of a desire by many to construct an ethical system that upholds the unique value of humanity while building upon a foundation of despair. Thankfully for those of us who believe we have a solid foundation upon which to build and we pray that the Lord would keep us as we navigate this world. May we be light to those who are in confusion.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Brief Thought on Spiritual Genealogy

“For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel”
(1 Corinthians 4:15 ESV)

In this verse Paul is reminding the Corinthians of his special relationship to them. He was blessed to have many spiritual children in the Lord among them whom he witnessed to, taught, and ministered to. Those who ministered to us by teaching us the gospel and witnessing the Truth are obviously tremendous blessings in our lives and we would do well to give thanks unto God for bringing them to us.

All glory and honor must go to God for our salvation and so we do not spend too much time thinking about the fact that there is a long unbroken line of witnesses from us back to Christ Himself. As believers we are part of a family or culture of people that crosses not only across national and tribal boundaries but across the centuries as well. The Lord’s providence is amazing! If you think about the message of salvation being preached throughout the ages until it came to you and of all the sacrifices and prayers through the ages that God provided through His people to bring you to Him it can be a bit overwhelming.

There are many websites and software programs that allow us to do research into our physical lineage. It is often interesting to trace our physical genealogy because it places us into a historical context and gives us a sense of identity. We do not need this kind of thing in our spiritual lives because Christ Himself is sufficient for all of that and through the Word we have the same Apostolic teaching as the first Christians had. We focus directly on the work of God in salvation but we also recognize that it pleases Him to use means and we can glorify Him as we give thanks to Him for those who have played a part in our hearing the Word.

Some of us are blessed to have overlap between those in our physical lineage and those in our spiritual lineage and some are not. In either case we will be spending eternity with those who faithfully witnessed the Truth of the Gospel through the ages until our own time. It is interesting to think about our spiritual genealogies and how it is that God worked through countless lives so that we might hear the gospel. How different many of those people’s lives, circumstances, and experiences must have been from our own and yet we are all united by faith in the same promise. In the most significant ways we have much more in common with all of them regardless of language, culture, and time than we do with our own unbelieving neighbors. Praise God for those whom He has used to bring us to Him and may the Lord bless each of us so that through our ministries and witnessing others might be saved and joined to Christ and to us.

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Our Creator God is Awesome

One of the most amazing doctrines in the bible is the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. The fact that we believe in a God who created everything out of nothing is a major difference between our faith and most other worldviews. That God created the world and everything in it simply by decree is a testament to an unimaginable power and intelligence. If you seriously think just about this truth alone then every other doctrine related to our salvation such as the incarnation, the crucifixion, etc. become all the more remarkable.

Watch this famous film from the 1970's and then consider just for a moment the immenseness and awesomeness of the universe. Now think about the fact that there is a God who spoke all of this into existence. Then consider that this God also knows your name, how many hairs are on your head, and if you believe in Jesus Christ this God has promised that you are in His hand and that ultimately all things work together for you to share in His Glory. What a God we worship!

"If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

John 3:5 Water and Spirit

“Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”        (John 3:5 ESV)

The wisdom of the scriptures is inexhaustible. It is not like other books that we can read a few times and have the material mastered. In some cases we might even reject a particular interpretation only to notice something later that makes us change our mind. John 3:5 is an example of that kind of text for me.

John is my favorite Gospel and I have studied it and taught it multiple times. As a result of my study of the structure of the first few chapters, the recurring theme of spiritual birth contrasted with the natural, and the immediate context of this verse I had concluded that water represented the natural birth and that Christ was explaining that an additional spiritual birth was necessary contrasting that with the physical birth. While I believe that Christ was explaining the need for a spiritual birth I no longer believe that water should here be understood as a reference to natural birth. In my initial interpretation I neglected to pay close enough attention to the grammatical structure of this verse. The goal of any study is to find the plain meaning of the text but we must be careful to pay attention to grammatical and structural details because if our interpretation of the “plain meaning” is correct it will be supported by those details.

Most translations render the second part of this verse as “born of water and the Spirit”. In Greek, however, the word for Spirit has no article. Literally it is “born of water and spirit (or wind)” not “born of water and the Spirit (or wind)”. Translators include the article “the” because it is assumed that spirit is a reference to The Holy Spirit. This makes it sound as though there may be two births, one by water and one by the spirit that are required. The absence of the article, however, would normally indicate that the preposition “of” takes as its object the phrase “water and spirit” as a unit. The grammatical implication is that there is one birth comprised “of” both water and spirit.

Nicodemus was asking the question how can a man be born again and this is precisely the question that Jesus answers. The natural birth is assumed and Jesus is here giving Nicodemus information about the nature of the second birth and he explains that it is a birth of water and spirit. What is meant by this? There have been a number of explanations given but by far the most common and ancient is that this is a reference to baptism. There is a sense in which baptism is related to this passage which I will address a bit later but I think it is unlikely that one can make a strong case for this as an explicit reference to the act of Christian baptism on a grammatical-historical basis. There are two other clues that I think help us to answer the question without resorting to allegorizing the reference to water to refer to Christian baptism.

The first clue is to be found a couple verses earlier where Jesus tells Nicodemus “…unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (v.3) The word “again” here is the word anwqen (an-o-then) which can mean either again or from above and may be purposely ambiguous similar to Jesus’ later play on the word for wind/spirit. This is important because the comments in verse 5 are a clarification of this statement. Whatever born of water and spirit mean they are an explanation of born again/from above. The wordplay associated with anwqen in light of the statement in the introduction to the Gospel that “…to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”(Jn 1:12-13) indicates that Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus that this is a spiritual birth initiated by God Himself. Jesus’ clarification and His further explanation of the nature of spiritual birth in verses 6-8 are designed to show Nicodemus that his own efforts and the pharisaical system were insufficient to achieve what he sought.

The next clue, however, is perhaps even more helpful to our understanding of what exactly the phrase “water and spirit” refers to. In verse 10 Jesus rebukes Nicodemus saying “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” This most certainly indicates that this teaching can be found in the Old Testament. Jesus is pointing out that God had already revealed the answer to these questions in the scriptures which Nicodemus possessed and should have been familiar with.

The figures of water and wind(spirit) are common in the Old Testament but there are a few places in particular where the context might be applicable to the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. The first are those that appear in the context of God’s future blessing of Israel as His people. For example notice the relation between water and spirit in Isaiah:

“But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams. This one will say, ‘I am the LORD's,’ another will call on the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, ‘The LORD's,’ and name himself by the name of Israel.”
(Isaiah 44:1-5 ESV)

Or the relation and wordplay between wind, breath, and spirit (same word) in Ezekiel:

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”
(Ezekiel 37:9-14 ESV)

The most likely reference, however, that Jesus’ words should have called attention to for Nicodemus were those of Ezekiel chapter 36 where the symbols of water and spirit are connected with spiritual cleansing and renewal associated with the promise of the New Covenant. This passage brings together each of these references within the context of The Promise and thus makes sense as a response encompassing the relationship between spiritual regeneration as well as the coming of the Kingdom of God.

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
(Ezekiel 36:25-28 ESV)

Jesus is telling Nicodemus that in order to see the kingdom he must be spiritually regenerated and that this regeneration is a cleansing and renewing work initiated by God. It cannot be inherited, earned or worked for. God Himself prepares His people to enter His kingdom and it is God who redeems them just as He promised He would do in the Old Testament. He was reminding Nicodemus of the promise of the New Covenant. Water and spirit in John 3:5 both refer to regeneration. It is one new birth that God initiates cleansing His people and preparing in them a new heart so that they may see the Kingdom of God. 

I mentioned before that the most prominent and ancient view of this text has been to see it as a reference to baptism. Although I do not think this passage is literally talking about baptism there is a sense in which baptism can be seen in relation to this passage. The spiritual cleansing that is referenced by Jesus’ use of the phrase “water and spirit” is expressed in baptism. When we are baptized we are proclaiming that we have been crucified with Christ, and cleansed of our sins. The rite of baptism is a figure or sign of the deeper spiritual reality of the regeneration that Christ is referring to. This is why in scripture baptism is associated with the washing of regeneration, a clear conscious toward God, and the forgiveness of sins. Not because the act or the water have any spiritual power but because in baptism we testify to what the Lord has done in us. Baptism is therefore the confession that the requirement which Jesus explained to Nicodemus has been met in us through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice. 

I wish I could share these insights with all those with whom I have previously studied with or taught on this passage. I praise God though that by His grace I continue to be led into the truth and continue to see marvelous things in His Word. I pray that the same is true for you as well.  

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Discovery of Ancient Metal Books in Jordan?

Easter is coming. This time of year I always experience a mixture of joy and uneasiness. The joy is because I will be celebrating the resurrection of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The unease because every year at this time there is always a series of sensational and provocative news stories, articles, or documentaries –usually based upon rogue or outdated scholarship- that confuse, challenge, or try to redefine the content of Christian faith. Time magazine, The History Channel, and others inevitably give press to some scholar from the Jesus seminar or some audacious pet theory of an obscure researcher that undermines the gospel. This year (as we have in some past years) we get bonus material because the marketing people at many news organizations decided to publicize the alleged discovery of around 70 metal books in a cave in Jordan that may date to very early in the Christian era.

Over the past week or so there have been reports about this flying all over the place. The artifacts apparently came to light about 5 years ago but seem to have been in the owner’s family for some time. The claims being made about these documents are bold even claiming that it is possible that these are the oldest Christian documents ever found, that they may be as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls, that they may contain the earliest known images of Jesus etc. Here are just a couple of examples of what I am referring to:      Daily Mail              Examiner

It is possible that these books are a significant find but until they are examined by multiple qualified scholars we cannot really know what exactly they are. There are, however, a number of things about them that are suspicious. First, the documents are de-contextualized. They were supposedly in the possession of a family for many years which makes it impossible to evaluate them in relation to the other artifacts that they were allegedly buried with. Second, they are metal. This makes it likely that they are later than some of the reports are claiming. Third, they were apparently not intended to be read because at least some of them had metal rings on all sides sealing the books. The idea of having hidden knowledge or holy words that should not be read is inconsistent with the normal approach of the early church which reproduced and distributed thousands of copies of their holy book. These books, if old, may be associated with a Gnostic or Jewish mystical sect but they would seem to be out of character for early Christian documents. Finally, although scholars have not yet been able to examine them and give peer reviewed opinions some have translated the portions of the books that have appeared in various photos and indications so far are that the documents are faked.

If you are interested in reading more about the reaction to these books by people who specialize in ancient texts (and therefore know a whole lot more about this than I do) you may find the following articles of interest.

 I will be waiting to hear more about this discovery but until people who know what they are talking about (not journalists) have a chance to look at these books I am going to get back to planning for Resurrection Sunday and studying the one text I know for sure is absolutely authentic… my Bible. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Message and Method

There are many things to consider when trying to find a church home. Is there a plurality of elders? Do the people seem to genuinely love one another? Not to mention the practical logistical questions related to location, children’s programs etc. The list goes on and on but of all these questions the biggest one most people are concerned with is “do they teach from the bible?” This is a very important question because it goes to the heart of the message and priorities of the church in question. Unfortunately it is not as easy a question to answer as we might assume. Virtually all evangelical churches claim to teach from the bible and claim to have a commitment to the scripture as the authority for all doctrine and spiritual matters. In most of these churches there is no shortage of the use of scripture but the mere use of the scripture is not a guarantee that the church is biblically based in its teaching.

I recall once being present when a person challenged a particular preacher saying that his messages were not sufficiently biblical. Over the next few days the preacher examined the messages that he had given over the previous month or so and counted up the number of biblical references that were made. He returned the next week and explained that he had looked into the matter and that on average his sermons contained X number of biblical references (I don’t recall the exact number but it was fairly high) and that he was quite satisfied that his teaching was biblical and that the criticism was baseless. Unfortunately many false teachers also use the scripture as the basis for heresy and simply using biblical verses doesn’t mean that one is teaching under the authority of the Word of God.

If listening for biblical references is not enough to make the evaluation then how are we to know if a church is truly “teaching from the bible” with only a visit or two? Unfortunately there is no full proof litmus test. One cannot truly know what the commitments of a particular body of believers are until you have spent a period of time examining their teaching and actions against the Word. There is, however, something we can look for that will give a good indication of a church’s commitment to the bible. Look past the message to the method. The way the Word is handled will often tell you more about a particular church’s view of the scriptures more quickly than simply evaluating the messages. I suggest that there are four things in particular to look for.

  1. Is there a commitment to expository preaching through complete books?

There is nothing wrong with the preaching of topical sermons per se but if the sermons are always topical or “produced” it is something to be cautious about. The Word of God is not supplemental to the preaching ministry of the church. The Word of God is the power of God unto salvation and it is the Word of God that the Spirit uses to literally transform the mind of the believers. As Paul wrote to Timothy “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 competent, equipped for every good work.” The bible provides everything necessary for the salvation and the sanctification of the believer. Through the working of the Holy Spirit there is power in the Word itself. A church with a commitment to expository preaching is demonstrating that they are under the authority of the bible and want their preaching to follow the emphasis, organization, and topics that the Lord has provided in His Word and which He has assured will be sufficient to "equip us for every good work".

  1. Do the classes study the scriptures directly?

I cannot tell how many times I have been invited to a bible study only to find out that what is actually being studied is some other book about the bible rather than the bible itself. The use of commentaries, theologies, or other Christian literature in the gatherings of the congregation should be supplemental. These other books are not to serve as the primary focus of communal study because they are not authoritative. What you would hope to see is that the normal approach is for the teachers to lead the classes through whole books of scripture. At times a topical class might be profitable (I am teaching one now) but even then it should be biblical and exegetical in its foundation. If the bible isn’t the foundation of what the church is studying then it may be a sign that they have a weak commitment to biblical teaching.

  1. Do the teachers teach how to study?

As another teacher told me about a week ago “the difference between teaching and preaching is that the preacher is serving up a fish dinner whereas the teacher is showing the class how to catch, clean, and prepare the fish”. The authority for all biblical teaching is the text rather than the teacher so it is very important that teachers show the students how they are coming to their conclusions. Teaching points should never stand apart from an explanation of how they are derived from the text. Second, the teacher should be explaining this in such a way as to aid the students in their own personal bible study. Sharing how to examine the grammatical, structural, contextual, and historical elements of a text is essential to the bible teacher because the fundamental calling is not to give answers but to lead others into the text. This is why the New Testament says both that teachers are a gift to the church and also that believers have no need for any man to teach them. The teaching that comes in a bible study should not be from “any man” but from the Holy Spirit Himself as expressed in the scriptures. The “teacher” should be simply a guide helping the student to understand what God Himself has taught. If the teacher isn’t teaching the class how to study for themselves and how the conclusions are formed it may be an indication that the scriptures are being used as a supplement to teaching rather than as its foundation.

  1. Is biblical teaching expressed in the worship services and other functions?

There are basic things that are taught in the scriptures about which there is no doubt. We are to worship God, we are to pray for one another, and we are to evangelize. Another thing to look for is evidence of biblical influence on the methods used for those activities. Few people ever examine the worship music doctrinally but the songs that a church uses can sometimes tell you a lot about their focus. Furthermore, do they sometimes come to together corporately to pray rather than listening to a single lead speaker pray? There are lots of things that influence church scheduling but are biblical imperatives like prayer and evangelism part of those schedules? A true commitment to biblical teaching involves not only learning the Truth but also providing for the expression of those truths in discipleship.

There are lots of things to take into consideration when choosing a church. When trying to determine if the churches you may be visiting are teaching from the bible it may be more helpful to look at the methods or ways in which the bible is used in the life of the church rather than simply trying to form a conclusion from the messages. Obviously if the messages are not biblical you don’t want to stay but just because there are bible verses tacked onto or woven throughout a message doesn’t mean that it is a church that has a commitment to or reverence for the Word of God. If you happen to be looking for a church I pray that this post is helpful to you and also that the Lord would guide you in your search.