Sunday, December 30, 2012

Does Luke 16:19-31 Teach Us Anything About the Afterlife?

One of the great hopes of every believer is the resurrection. Because of the victory of Jesus over sin and death and his resurrection, we also have the hope of entering into eternal life. Our physical death is temporary and those who have passed on wait for the final victory of Christ when the world will be judged and we will all enter into the presence of God in heaven to be with Him forever. Remarkably, there is not a lot of detail given in the Bible about what is happening while departed believers are in this intermediate state between the physical death of our bodies and our resurrection. The passage that appears to give the most information is the story of the rich man and Lazarus found in Luke 16:19-31. 

This passage would clearly seem to be of great importance in our understanding of what happens after we die. The problem is that many scholars believe that this story is a parable. As such, it is not necessarily a recounting of an actual event but is rather an illustration to support a larger point. Because of this, we must be careful about placing too much emphasis on the details rather than on the main point of the message. The message seems clearly to be that our deeds in this lifetime are going to be judged and that the teaching of scripture is sufficient warning, instruction, and testimony to this fact. Essentially, we must believe and repent because there will be a time when it is too late.

If this is a parable does that mean we can learn nothing from it about the afterlife? Even if this is not a record of an actual interaction between two real people are we to assume that none of the details are to be trusted? Beyond the question of it being a parable, there are certain difficulties with assuming that this is a literal telling of events. For example, if these are souls that are separated from their bodies and waiting for resurrection then how is it that they speak in bodily terms of having fingers, tongues, and being thirsty etc.? It is possible this is metaphorical language intended to help us to contrast the comfort of the one with the torment of the other rather than a literal description. 

Let me begin by saying that I am not completely convinced this is a parable, there are reasons to think it may not be. My goal, however, is not to answer that particular question but rather to point out that even if it is there is still much here we can learn. 

First, although this may be a teaching illustration rather than an actual event it is important to note that it was the practice of Jesus to use literal illustrations in his parables. For example, the actual events of the parable of the Good Samaritan may never have occurred but the characters, setting, and events were all representative of the actual world the hearers lived in. The same is true for all of the illustrations Jesus used. To put it another way, although the parables may not have been historical events there is no reason that they could not have. They are drawn from real life situations. I think that Luke 16 is very likely the same sort of thing. The only difference is that in this case Jesus is drawing upon something that the average farmer would not have observed because he was not yet dead. In addition, the ideas of a place of comfort and torment were discussed in the rabbinical literature and so Jesus is working with concepts that were probably not unfamiliar to his listeners.

Therefore, even if the sensory language is metaphorical and even if the particular conversation is just an illustration we can likely draw some conclusions from the passage. First, if the main point is the unalterable reward or punishment (justice) then we must assume that there is consciousness in the intermediate state because concepts such as comfort and torment, whether physical or not, require consciousness to be meaningful. 

Some have taught that the soul sleeps awaiting the final judgment. Although the Bible often speaks of death as sleep (Matt. 9:24, 27:52; John 11:11; Acts 7:60, 13:36; 1 Cor. 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Thess. 4:13, 5:10) this language should be understood metaphorically. It is language designed to indicate the temporary nature of this separation of spirit from body. Just as sleep will come to an end, so will death. For example, Jesus says of His friend Lazarus that he had fallen asleep (John 11:11). After the apostles misunderstand Him, He plainly tells them that Lazarus is dead (John 11:14). “Sleep" is a common Biblical metaphor for death. 

The type of consciousness Jesus describes in Luke 16 is also supported elsewhere in the New Testament. For example, the apostle Paul, when speaking about dying said, "we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8). In Philippians 1:23 Paul says “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” This hardly makes sense unless there is a consciousness after death. Jesus, Himself, told the thief on the cross next to Him, "today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43) and the author of Hebrews explains in chapter 12 that we worship in front of a great cloud of witnesses that apparently includes the heroes of the faith and “the spirits of just men made perfect”. In Revelation John speaks of dead believers who are conscious of what is happening on the earth and are petitioning God to act (Revelation 6:9-10).

I do not have room to develop it here but I think we can also demonstrate from other passages that the chasm between the two experiences is unbridgeable and there is one life, then judgment. Although the final judgment has not yet come, those whose physical lives have ended are aware of their status and have in some sense already entered into rest or torment. It seems, therefore that even if we accept that Luke 16:19-31 is an illustration and may possibly not be the record of an actual event, and even if we accept that some of the language is likely metaphorical, it remains an important passage dealing with what happens between physical death and resurrection.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


Like most everyone else my heart is very heavy as I think about what happened in Newtown Connecticut. I reflected upon what might be appropriate to post as I reflect upon those events. Our prayers are with those families. I do not believe I can add anything of any substance to what Dr. Mohler posted on his blog Friday. I encourage you to read his thoughts Here

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Salvation of the Fittest? Grace, God’s Glory, and Spiritual Darwinism

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)

Christians talk about grace a lot. Unfortunately, we do not all mean the same thing when we use the word. Most Christians agree that grace means “unmerited favor” but it seems a common statement of definition does not solve the problem. The difference comes down to what exactly “favor” refers to in a Christian context. What is it that we receive that we do not merit?

The fundamental teaching of Christianity is that we cannot save ourselves and any hope of salvation is necessarily dependent on the grace of God in Christ. The question is to what extent does this grace extend? Historically, evangelical Christians have understood the Bible to teach that salvation is completely of grace and that we do not contribute to it whatsoever. Others have argued instead that God’s grace is a helping grace that strengthens a believer to complete their journey of faith. Both agree that sinners cannot be saved apart from grace but one side thinks that God’s grace initiates faith and desire for God and the other side thinks God’s grace is a response to faith and a desire for God.

It is an important issue because either view has major implications for how we understand the Gospel. Is our justification before God solely the work of God (monergism) or is it a cooperative effort between God and sinners (synergism)? I believe the Bible teaches that justification is the work of God alone and that apart from a gracious work of God we do not even know we need to be saved let alone have a desire for it. As the old song says, “twas grace that taught my heart to fear”.

Most people who hold a concept of helping grace that has God and sinners cooperating to achieve salvation are careful to give the credit for salvation to God. The reasoning goes that without the grace of God, those who desire to be saved could not be therefore God alone should be glorified. Even so, one cannot have a cooperative view of salvation where God is completing a process that initiates within the sinner and attribute salvation fully to God. If God is responding to a desire or faith in the sinner then both elements (this desire and God’s response) are necessary. The result is that we end up with the kind of thing where you do the first 1% and God does the other 99%.

My reading of the Bible leads me to believe that God is not content to be given 99% of the glory for saving sinners. There are many biblical and theological arguments related to this issue but there is one very simple observation that I think highlights the difficulty of the view that God is responding to an impulse in the sinner. Ultimately, this view degenerates into a type of spiritual Darwinism.

Darwin argued that there are characteristics in some animals that make them better suited to feed and reproduce than others. As a result, those creatures best suited to their environment would survive and pass on their genes. Over time, the strong species would survive and the weak would become extinct. In Darwinism, the providential hand of God is removed from the process and the only forces that are left are the environment and the intrinsic characteristics of the individual creatures. If God is responding to an impulse of some sort in the sinner then He cannot also be the cause of that impulse. The cause must then be within the sinner himself, his environment, or some combination of the two.

Imagine the following scene: On Judgment Day, there will be two groups of people before the throne of God. One group will enter into heaven and the other will enter into eternal punishment. Suppose that the synergistic view is correct and we were to ask someone who was in the group waiting to enter into heaven how it is that they came to be in that group. They might respond that they will enter heaven because God, in His grace, has saved them. We might then logically ask why it is that they have been saved when many others have not. I imagine that they are likely to respond that they believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and trusted in Him as their savior.

At this point, if we were to ask why it is that they believed and accepted this message while those in the other group did not, what would they say? They certainly will not want to say that they were more intelligent, more spiritual, or more sensitive than all those who were lost. Maybe they would point out that there were many believers in their lives that prayed for them, encouraged them, and shared the truth with them but then there will be many in the other line who had equal or better support in this regard. What within a sinner would give them an advantage in developing a desire or faith? None of the potential answers seem satisfying.

I know of no Christian that is comfortable saying that ultimately there is something within them that led to their salvation no matter how much they want to protect a human role in the process. If, however, God is not initiating the process and is instead responding then this seems to be an inevitable conclusion. In order to believe in a cooperative view of grace one must admit that there is something within particular sinners that gives them an advantage. Just as in biology if you remove the design of God from the equation you end up with creature/environment determinism. The grace of God is reduced to salvation of the fittest.

I cannot imagine anyone who on that day will not give all glory to God for what He has done for him or her. I cannot imagine anyone who will point to themselves as the reason. Rather I think we will join the heavenly chorus we see in the book of Revelation. Shouting, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” and “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God” (Rev. 7:10, 19:1).

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Unconverted vs. Unreached

Before ascending into heaven, Jesus gave the church a command to evangelize. In what became known as the Great Commission Jesus told His disciples that all authority had been given to Him and they were to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)

Clearly one of the main responsibilities of the church is to share the gospel. Since each individual congregation has limited resources, they have to make decisions about how best to fulfill this commission to preach and teach. Recently, I have had a number of conversations about missionary outreach and I am surprised by how often I heard a particular opinion that I would like to address. In at least three of these conversations, well-intentioned believers have told me that they think that their churches should focus on doing missionary work in their local communities. In each of these cases, it was pointed out that there were many needs and many “unreached” people within a few miles of where their church met. These brothers and sisters would prefer that the missionary resources of their church be focused on those local needs rather than sent to the other side of the world.

The desire to see those near us turn to Christ is certainly God honoring. It is also a good thing for us to wish to help meet the needs of those in our own communities, particularly when the needs (both spiritual and physical) in those communities are so great as they are in American cities. The idea that we should focus our attention on the “unreached” people in our own communities, however, fails to make an important distinction. It is true that there are many unconverted people in our communities but it is generally not true that they are unreached. We have to be careful that we do not fail to understand the difference between those that are unconverted and those who are unreached.

In most places in the United States, there are plenty of opportunities for anyone who is interested to find a church, attend a Bible study, or get a Bible of their own. While many people in our country reject the gospel it is typically not because they lack access to people or resources where they can learn about it. In many places in the world, this is not the case. According to The JoshuaProject, there are still an estimated 2.8 billion people that are completely unreached. This means that they live in places where they do not have any access to Bibles, there are no indigenous believers, and they are likely to die without ever hearing the gospel even once.

The local mission of the church is of great importance. We should have a burden for those around us to accept the Gospel and be saved. The spiritual needs in our communities are very great and I do not want to minimize that. Even so, we have to avoid a provincial attitude where we retreat into our own communities and ignore our responsibility to the broader mission of the Church. There remain places where there is no translation of the Bible to read, no preacher to hear, and no believers to share their hope. We must not be indifferent to these needs, Jesus commands otherwise.

If you are interested in thinking about this further, I suggest you listen to the following sermon delivered by Pastor David Platt earlier this year at the T4G conference. Pastor Platt explains how a belief in God’s sovereignty fuels a death defying passion for missions. He highlights the distinction between the unconverted and the unreached and gives a memorable exhortation to the Church to share the gospel with the unreached.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Dull Reading is Misinterpretation

Pastors and teachers spend a lot of time ensuring that they are properly interpreting the Bible. To do this they must not only study the text but must also study how to study. A continual examination of the appropriate methods of interpretation and application characterize those who feel the weight of their responsibility to teach the Word of God to His people. The major concern is always that the message taught is the message that God intended when He breathed forth the passage. Often, however, we spend so much time concerned about our explanation of the text that we forget that the reading of the text aloud also involves a process of interpretation. If our presentation of the text does not convey the tone and emphasis of the author, we give a misinterpretation even though we faithfully share the inerrant words. The Word of God is not boring and when we read it to people as though it is the list of ingredients on the back of a cereal box, we fail to communicate its message accurately and do violence to the text.

At no point should our teaching or preaching degenerate into a stage performance, but many of us could learn valuable lessons from those who have finely tuned their oral interpretation skills. The reason why listening to Alexander Scourby or James Earl Jones read the Bible is so much more powerful than listening to ourselves read is not just because they have been gifted with wonderful voices. It is because they have been trained in the art of oral interpretation. They are able to use emphasis, pauses, and varied speed and volume to vividly convey the imagery and tone of the text to the mind of the listeners. I am not at all advocating preachers or teachers being overly dramatic. We certainly do not want to use rhetorical devices that distract from the message, but a certain amount of oral interpretation is necessary to communicate the text faithfully. If we read Paul’s warnings, the exhortations of the prophets, or Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees without conveying the cutting power, urgency, and boldness of those statements we deprive the congregation of the full impact of what God has revealed even though all of the content is there.

As teachers and readers of the Bible, we are supposed to declare the full counsel of God. If we fail to communicate the tone and tension of the passages we read, we fall short of what we are called to do. We all know that we may hear different preachers preach the same text and essentially make the same points and yet one message will be powerful while the other will be forgettable. Often the reason is not that the observations or applications of one are any better than the other but rather that the better preacher takes time to let the Word itself settle into minds of the congregation rather than hurrying through it to get to what he wants to say. I believe that if we spend more time carefully communicating the words of the biblical text itself we would serve our churches better.

This advice is not limited just to preachers and teachers. Often one of the most underappreciated elements of the worship service is the scripture reading. It does not help that it often seems to be tacked onto or squeezed into the flow of the service. Sadly, some churches have eliminated the practice altogether. Why is it that God’s people often do not respond to the scripture reading? It is, after all, the very word of God. Perhaps it is because quite often it is not allowed to breathe. The power and majesty of the text are frequently undermined by our poor delivery of it. I am convicted that this is an area that I need to work on in my own teaching. I pray that if you are a person who has an opportunity to read the Bible publicly that you would give some prayerful thought to this issue. God is not dull, His word is not boring, and our communication of His revelation should not obscure that.

God Bless

Monday, November 19, 2012

Is The Bible Hearsay?

The testimony of the Bible is the foundation for the Christian faith. Many have argued, however, that the testimony the Bible gives is hearsay. As such, they argue that it would not even be admissible in court and is insufficient as testimonial evidence for anything it affirms. One of the best examples of this argument is found in the writing of the American revolutionary Thomas Paine who was one of the first to publish it widely for a popular audience. Paine is most famous for his pamphlets Common Sense and Rights of Man, but he also penned a theological treatise (arguing for Deism) called The Age of Reason where along with various other attacks on the Bible, he offers the hearsay argument against the Christian faith.

Paine writes, “But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it. It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication — after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.” (Paine, The Age of Reason, Section 1)

This argument goes right to the heart of the obligation of humankind to accept the Word of God and so it deserves an answer. A common Christian response is to offer an analysis of types of evidence and testimony, usually pointing out that in any case not all hearsay is inadmissible in court. Often, this is followed by evidence that the text of scripture is historically reliable and so forth. These responses may have their place but in this case, the response must address something more fundamental. Technically speaking the criticism is a straw man argument because although it might work on a popular level it does not properly address the Christian doctrine of how revelation through the Word of God functions.

The thrust of the argument is that we believe that God revealed certain information to prophets or apostles who then told others, either in person or through their writing. That, however, is not the Christian doctrine. Some modern theologians have argued that the Bible is the record of God’s revelation but the traditional Protestant view is not that the Bible is a record of revelation but that the Bible is revelation. This is a small distinction but it makes a massive difference.

Hearsay describes an indirect communication as when a person receives information that is at least one level removed from the source. The Christian view of revelation, however, is that the Bible is direct communication from God to those who read or hear it. We do not consider the Bible to be an indirect communication. We do not understand its accuracy to be dependent upon the veracity of Moses, Paul, or John. It is in every sense the Word of God and people are therefore under obligation to believe it. The Bible itself makes this claim in various places, perhaps most clearly in Paul’s 2nd letter to Timothy. Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says, "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 Tim 3:16 ESV) He is claiming unequivocally that God is the author of the Bible. The claims are not the claims of the apostles and prophets; they are the very claims of God. The transmission of the Bible is therefore a miraculous process whereby God reveals through rather than merely to His chosen messengers.

The written Word of God is therefore similar to the incarnate Word of God in that it is both human and divine. The scriptures are the thoughts of God expressed through human language and literature. The Bible is not merely a witness to revelation, nor does it only become revelation in encounter, or depend on the responses of men for its validity or its standing as revelation. The inspiration of its writing is not in the sense that God dictated each word but rather that the Holy Spirit influenced the mind of the human author such that he selected out of his own experience and vocabulary exactly those words that conveyed God’s message precisely. These human words are therefore properly God’s words though communicated through the particular style and vocabulary of the various human authors.

The message is not mediated to us through the prophets or apostles in the sense that it is a message they received and then give to us. Rather, the message is mediated directly to us through the work of God the Holy Spirit as His word is read or preached. As a result, anyone who has read the Bible, heard a scripture reading, or heard a faithful exposition of the Bible from a teacher or preachers has heard the very voice of God and is therefore under obligation to submit to it. If, as Paine argues, revelation is limited to the first communication then based upon a proper understanding of the doctrine of the Bible any who have heard the message have received direct testimony from God. They will therefore be responsible for their acceptance or rejection of it. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Bible Study Tips: Look for Pattern Variation

I have written often about how important it is to identify repeated words and concepts when studying the Bible. Doing so helps us to identify the main themes and topics within the book or passage that we are studying. The value of paying close attention to repetition, however, is not limited to this role. Often slight variation on common or expected repetition can provide helpful insight as well. This works at both a big-picture level (something I plan to deal with in a future post) and on the micro level which is where today’s Bible study tip is focused. In this post, I want to explore how a slight variation on a common repetition can add reinforcement to a particular theme that is in view. Of course, our goal in study should always be to understand the plain meaning of the text but these subtle reinforcements of the message help us to appreciate the richness of the Bible and the glory of God in His revelation of Himself.

As an example let us examine one of the statements that Jesus makes while on the cross. Both Matthew and Mark record that “…about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
(Matthew 27:46 ESV, c.f. MK 15:34)

The emphasis of this verse is clear enough. Jesus is asking why God has abandoned Him.
For the first time Jesus is experiencing separation from the Father as He takes upon himself the sins of His people. He is experiencing a separation from the Father that He has never known. Theologically we understand that this separation is the result of God’s righteous judgment of sin. Many people point out that Christ’s words here are a quotation from the 22nd Psalm and that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of David’s famous lament. What many people often miss, however, is just how unique these words actually are in the mouth of our Lord.

Jesus prayed constantly. The Bible repeatedly describes Him praying or going off to pray. In most cases we are not told exactly what He prayed about but there are at least 10 or 12 times where some of the specific words He used are recorded. Remarkably, this verse and the parallel verse in Mark are the only instances I know of where Jesus does not address God as Father when speaking to Him. In fact, when He teaches the disciples how to pray He instructs them to address God as Father also.

Whatever else might be intended by the use of “father” as a title for God it is certain that a certain intimate relationship is implied. Father, while being a title of authority and respect, is also a signifier of a close relationship. It is therefore interesting that the only place where Jesus does not address God as “Father” is when He is crying out to ask why He has been forsaken. It is only when Jesus is aware of His separation from God (due to our sin) that He addresses God as sovereign deity rather than the normal address of familiarity. While the meaning of the verse is sufficiently clear, knowing this detail adds gravity to the scene and reinforces the theme of separation. Not only do we see the pain of our Lord as He cries out to God but the very words that He uses indicate how dramatically His relationship with the Father has changed as He takes the place we deserve.

By noticing this slight alteration to the normal pattern that Jesus uses when He prays we are able to notice a “layer” of the text that reinforces the theme and deepens the force of the statement. Paying close attention to these slight variations can often lead to observations about passages that deepen our understanding. If you are interested in taking this further I suggest you begin by studying each of the introductions to Paul’s letters. Look carefully at how each one slightly alters the general pattern then pay close attention to how the variations relate to the message of each particular letter. You can then go on to apply this kind of observation to other texts.

I pray God blesses your continued study.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Blind Men and the Elephant: Another Perspective

In our skeptical culture it has become unpopular to assert that we can know anything with certainty, especially religious truth. Since the denial of any particular fact is also an assertion of some other fact (about which we must also be skeptical) no religious view can be correct but neither can any be denied. Therefore, all religious views are considered objectively false but each contains elements of the truth and so are equally valid. One of the most popular illustrations used to try to show how such divergent religious opinions can all be equally valid is the “God is like an elephant” analogy.

The analogy is that there are four (sometimes six) blind men who happen upon an elephant. These men have never encountered an elephant before and are attempting to describe it to one another. The first man reaches out, grabs the trunk, and explains that it is like a snake. The second grabs one of the elephant's legs and insists that it is like a tree. The third feels the elephant's tail and explains that it is like a rope. Finally, the fourth blind man walks forward, encounters the elephant’s side, and concludes that it like a wall.

The idea is that each of the men is wrong in an ultimate sense but all are communicating some truth about the elephant. The elephant is supposed to represent God and the blind men are supposed to represent various religions that, while all limited in an ultimate sense, are all actually describing the same thing. The assertion is that no religion fully understands God and yet all religions contain some truth about God. Therefore, all religions must be recognized as limited but since none are complete they each should be accepted as equally valid.

From a logical standpoint, there are many problems with the underlying argument. My goal in this post is not to work through those issues but if you are interested in that kind of analysis I recommend you check out William Lane Craig’s work in this area. My purpose instead is to turn the illustration on its head and use it to argue for, rather than against, the Christian view of religious knowledge. When looked at from a slightly different perspective, the analogy highlights the necessity of God’s revelation and provides an important lesson for modern evangelicalism. Let me explain.

First, notice that the people in the illustration are blind. They are deprived of the natural function that would allow them to clearly see and evaluate the elephant. They are therefore limited in their perspective and must grope at the object they are trying to understand. This is an accurate description of fallen humanity and the Bible also describes the spiritual condition of humans as blindness. Because of sin, we no longer have the natural ability to see God as He is. Apart from His grace, the best we can do is grope in the darkness in our effort to know and understand Him. Like these men we are not completely without knowledge of God but the knowledge we do have is limited and distorted.

Notice also that the elephant exists apart from the experience of the men. There “is” actually an elephant and although they do not accurately describe the creature, it is there and its attributes are objectively real. This too is an accurate picture of the human condition. Many may deny and distort the knowledge of God but the fact is that He is there and He is not dependent upon our assessment of Him. In the same way that the elephant remains every bit an elephant despite the errors of the blind men, God remains every bit God. We may be mistaken about Him but that does not change the objective reality of who He is. Perhaps though, we should not be too critical of the men at this point. After all, what they did was reasonable considering the situation they were in. The only way for them to get information about the elephant was to do what they did. Their mistake was not in the attempt but in assuming that the creature was defined by their subjective experience.

The crucial difference between what is happening in this illustration and our ability to know the truth about God is that we are not completely reliant upon our religious experience. Think about how the lesson changes if there was someone who could see the elephant and explained to the men what they were not seeing. What if, even having this information they continued to insist that they were correct based upon their limited experience? Obviously, we would see them as fools for clinging to opinions based upon incomplete and unreliable experience while rejecting better information.

Sadly, this is often what many people do. Personal experience too often becomes the basis by which people try to understand God. The inconsistent and fluctuating feelings of the limited human intellect become the filter for all that is transcendent and divine. This is not just an issue in unbelieving society. The emphasis on subjective religious experience has continued to grow and influence evangelical churches and seminaries. As a result, it permeates worship styles, teaching methods, and counseling sessions. God, however, has not left His people to grope in darkness. He has spoken to us in His holy Word and through it has communicated the truth about Himself.  He has also sent an unbroken line of witnesses including God the Son as very man and His church to testify to who and what He is.

The lesson for us should be obvious. The Bible is of paramount importance to the Church. Without this revelation from Him, we are in the same position as those blind men; each one grasping some small but ultimately incomplete or inaccurate glimpse of the divine majesty. Personal experience is a wholly inadequate basis for knowing God, especially the experience of fallen creatures like us. The modern emphasis on religious experience in our churches is dangerous. If we are to know God, we must interpret our experiences in the light of His holy and inerrant word and not the reverse. When evaluated in light of the Word, religious experience magnifies the glory of God in our lives. Divorced from the Word it is nothing more than groping in darkness.

Bible Study Tips: Use Wordle

One of the most important things to do when studying any passage is to look for repetition. Repeated Words or phrases are one of the easiest ways to identify the main themes and zero in on what the author is emphasizing. Traditionally students are encouraged to circle, underline, or color code repeated key words. Despite all of the new tools we have available, I think the old way is still the best way because it forces students to engage the text and read it repeatedly. There are times, however, when this approach may not be optimal. If, for example, a person is working with a digital text, is dealing with a large section of text (the Pentateuch for example), or needs the information quickly they may be looking for another way to do the analysis.

Thankfully, there are tools that allow a student to do this kind of analysis quickly on large sections of text. The easiest way is to find a Bible study tool or website (there are several) that will show you how often a word is used in the Bible. You can then narrow the count as needed. The most basic approach not using custom Bible study tools would probably be to paste the text into a word processing tool, create a list of each word in the document, and list its frequency. Unfortunately, The most common word processing tool that students have access to is Microsoft Word and you have to load a special macro or add-in to do this. Even so, the output is going to be just a list of words and numbers similar to what you get with most of the Bible study tools. There are a few disadvantages to looking at the data this way. First, many people are visual learners and a simple list of words and numbers does not make it easy for them to understand the relationship between various word frequencies. Second, it can often be difficult to analyze such a list for very large passages.

However, a tool is free, easy to use, and available to anyone with access to the internet that works very well. produces a word cloud, which is a visual presentation of the relative frequency of words, for any text that a person chooses to enter (you can also get a basic list if you want). You simply go to and paste whatever text into the tool you want to examine and the site will produce a graphic that will allow you to see the relative frequency of the words in that passage at a glance. The site automatically excludes common articles and conjunctions (the, and, etc.) and then you can easily exclude additional words by clicking on them. The result is a fast and powerful look at the relative frequency of words within any particular text.

I have found that using this tool allows me to see relationships between ideas quickly that I can then go back and trace through the passage I am studying. For example, I am currently teaching Ecclesiastes. This is the Wordle for the NASB version of Ecclesiastes.

One of the things that I had noticed in my study was that although people often think of Ecclesiastes in terms of negative themes such as vanity there is a more prevalent emphasis on God and other themes than on those we often instinctively associate with the book. Even though I had already noticed this from my study, when I looked at the graphic I realized that I still had not appreciated the extent to which this was the case. This insight led me to closer study of the God, man and time references and an increased emphasis on them in my teaching through the book.

Since the wordle tool allows for a very large amount of text, it is possible to use it for everything from a short passage to the entire Bible. Below are some examples of other selections:

Genesis Chapter 1 (ESV)
1 Peter (NASB)
 New Testament (ESV)

Entire Bible (ESV)
May God bless your continued study!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Book Review: Steven J. Lawson- Pillars of Grace A.D. 100-1564

Pillars of Grace 
By Steven J. Lawson / Reformation Trust Publishing

In this second volume of the series, “A Long Line of Godly Men” Steven J. Lawson walks the reader through almost 1500 years of history calling attention to the development and defense of what later became known as the doctrines of grace. If the reader is looking for sophisticated historical and theological analysis, they will not find it here. What they will find, however, is something that is greatly needed in the evangelical world today, namely a framework for understanding their theology in the broader context of Church history. In addition to his introductory and concluding material, Lawson examines the doctrines of grace in the works of 23 influential Christian teachers between the years of 100 and 1564, including:

Clement of Rome
Ignatius of Antioch
Justin Martyr
Irenaeus of Lyon
Tertullian of Carthage
Cyprian of Carthage
Athanasius of Alexandria
Basil of Caesarea
Gregory of Nazianzus
Ambrose of Milan
Augustine of Hippo
Isidore of Seville
Gottschalk of Orbais
Anselm of Canterbury
Bernard of Clairvaux
Thomas Bradwardine
John Wycliffe
John Hus
Martin Luther
Ulrich Zwingli
William Tyndale
Heinrich Bullinger
John Calvin

Lawson is able to demonstrate that although the emphasis and systemization of the doctrines of grace during the Reformation was dramatic it did not simply appear out of nowhere. He capably shows, with brief biological and historical sketches, that the trajectories of Reformed thought were familiar to Christian teachers in every age. The Reformers saw themselves as defenders of classic Christian teaching but sadly, many who identify as Reformed today have little or no familiarity with any pre-Reformation writers other than Augustine. Lawson does this generation a service in providing an accessible account of this history.

The historical and theological segmentation of the book make the book a bit redundant but the advantage is that each of the segments can stand on their own making it useful as a quick reference or to those who are only interested in particular eras or teachers. The repetition gives it an almost devotional quality as the same themes are introduced and reinforced in segment after segment. The biggest drawback is that at times, Lawson seems to stretch a bit in his analysis. Often quotations are given and applied to themes that were unlikely to have been intended given the context of the original quote. In places, Lawson admits this and does a fair job of pointing out that although the original writer may not have always fully appreciated the consequences of their own ideas and observations that the seeds of those conclusions were nevertheless present.

I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in early Church history and especially the doctrines of grace. It should be required reading for anyone who considers themselves “Reformed” and is unfamiliar with the development of these doctrines prior to the Reformation outside of Augustine.  While being an apology for Reformed history it avoids the polemics of earlier works on the topic (Toplady, Gill, etc.). I believe that many will find it interesting and informative.

*A copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher at no cost in exchange for a review. The review is not required to be positive and all opinions expressed are my own.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin

One of the things that amaze me about the Bible is how tight the composition is. There are no unnecessary words or phrases and the imagery, structure, and vocabulary all work together to support the message in a way that far surpasses the greatest human literary achievements. I admit that when I was younger I used to think that the Bible, while true, was not very elegant in its presentation. I thought that at times it was needlessly repetitive, somewhat clunky, and often belabored details that seemed unrelated to the main point. This opinion, however, was more of a reflection on my callow understanding of literature and my lack of patient hours with the text than on the scriptures themselves. In fact, as I have grown I have found that it is often precisely these eccentric details and how they support the message that most strongly highlight the glory of God in His divine authorship of the Bible.

I was reminded of this truth again a couple of days ago as I was reading the fifth chapter of Daniel. The chapter begins as follows:

“King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand. Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and of silver that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. Then they brought in the golden vessels that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.           Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king's palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote. Then the king's color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. The king called loudly to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers. The king declared to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing, and shows me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” Then all the king's wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or make known to the king the interpretation. Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, and his color changed, and his lords were perplexed.” (Daniel 5:1-9 ESV)

Belshazzar is stopped in the middle of his idolatrous use of the vessels of the temple by a disembodied hand that is writing upon the wall. Apparently, what the hand had written was not clear, nevertheless, Belshazzar was terrified by the experience. He then called for all his “wise” men to read the writing and explain it, but they were not able to do so. At this point, the queen mother hears about the predicament and informs Belshazzar that there is a man (Daniel) who had previously interpreted visions and solved riddles and who had the spirit of god.

Daniel is called for and Belshazzar explains to him that he will receive gifts and prestige if he can read and interpret the writing. Daniel rebukes him and tells him to keep his gifts. He reminds him of God’s humbling of his famous ancestor Nebuchadnezzar (which Belshazzar knew about) and rebukes his idolatry. In Daniel’s rebuke he repeats the phrase “you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone” that was mentioned in the introduction to the chapter. Then, Daniel reads and interprets the writing.

And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” (Daniel 5:25-28 ESV)

I had always found it interesting that the wise men could not read the writing. Obviously, God intended this so that Daniel would be called for. I thought that perhaps there was something obscuring the writing or that it was in some strange script (a rare Hebrew script perhaps) that the “wise” men would not recognize but that Daniel could. I always assumed there must have been some obscurity to the words for them to be indecipherable to these learned advisors. I had never bothered to study these words before but this time I decided to look them up.

To my surprise, these are not Hebrew words at all, but are Aramaic, which was a language that was quite familiar to the Babylonians. The words written on the wall are closely related to other words with which many Bible readers would be familiar. They are actually words for weights and measures associated with money. The word Mene is related to the more familiar word Mina, which is a little over 1lbs and was used as a measure for gold and silver. 1 mina of gold today would be worth around $35,500. The term Tekel is related to shekel, which is 1/60th of a mina. The final word in the message, Parsin, means to divide. After realizing that they are Aramaic words I think it is likely that the advisors could read the words but that they could not make sense of it. It would seem to be simply be a random list of words for measurements.

Daniel, however, reads the words as verbs and gives the interpretation. As verbs, Mene means to number or measure, Tekel means to weigh, and Peres (the singular form of Parsin) means to divide. The term Peres seems also to be play on words because of its similarity to the word for Persian. Daniel is given the ability to explain the meaning of the words and how they apply to Belshazzar. Belshazzar’s days are numbered because he has been measured, weighed, and found lacking. As a result, his kingdom will be divided.

Having taken the time to look up these words helped to reveal an irony in the message that I never appreciated before. The emphasis of the narrative is on the idolatry of Belshazzar. He was acting as though he was not under the rule of a sovereign God. He treated the things of God as though they were mere objects. He calls for these items as a conqueror who calls for the spoils of the vanquished. Even when he calls for Daniel to seek his help he addresses him not as the great advisor to kings but instead says, “You are that Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom the king my father brought from Judah.” (vs. 13). 

When Belshazzar calls for the vessels, they are specifically mentioned as vessels of gold and silver. Twice the text mentions that they were praising gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. There is a repeated association of Belshazzar with material things and with division (conquest). It is therefore ironic that the very words of judgment pronounced against him are consistent with those same themes. The words of condemnation are essentially a description of the ambitions of Belshazzar’s heart. God, however, measures by a radically different standard and the wealth and power of the king are quickly shown to be given and taken at the mere pleasure of a sovereign God. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Making Fun of Muhammad

I was travelling outside of the United States last week when the various news sites were covering protests and demonstrations throughout the Muslim world in reaction to the publication of certain video’s and cartoons that are apparently disparaging to the Muslim prophet Mohamed. This led to a lively discussion among my international friends and they were eager to hear what I as an “American” thought about all of this.

The consensus among the group was that the United States government should use its power to remove the video from YouTube in order to protect people from further violence. I did my best to explain that the American government did not, and should not, have this kind of power. We discussed the fundamental liberties that Americans have traditionally defended and the danger of allowing the government to restrict them. It was difficult for my friends to understand how such a philosophical commitment could be so powerful that a government would refrain from taking action that would protect people from harm. I did my best to explain that unfortunately liberty often has an extremely high price. Some of my foreign friends seemed to understand this explanation and others were more hesitant.

While I believe that government censorship is indeed a threat to personal liberty, it is important to distinguish between supporting an action and believing that the government has no right to restrict it. Although I support the idea that government should not interfere with the freedom of speech except in extreme cases (i.e. you do not have the right to yell fire in a crowded movie theater) it does not mean that I agree that these increasingly frequent parodies of Muhammad are appropriate.

Unfortunately, some Christians seem to have a smug sense of satisfaction at seeing the type of irreverent attacks that have so often been aimed at us, focused on another target. Some believers apparently think that since Muhammad is a false prophet any attempt to discredit him is acceptable. The publication of properly supported historical analysis, theological evaluation, and factual criticism are all fair game but the publication of slanderous, insulting, and intentionally inflammatory art or communications is sinful and should be recognized as such. For Christians, the ends do not justify the means. We are to speak the truth.

The priority for all Christian behavior is love. We are to speak the truth in love and as far as it is possible with us, we are to be at peace with all men. Our endorsement should never be on anything that seeks to inflame zealous reaction apart from love and the truth. We have to remember that our battle is not against the deceived, but against the deceiver. Amusement at the agitation of the lost is evidence of our own spiritual deadness and hatred for those in darkness is an indictment upon our own heart.

Some may try to rationalize sinful opinions against these demonstrators by pointing to the violent hatred that they exhibit. In doing so they fail to recognize that the zealous hatred in the faces of those protestors is a picture of the ugliness of our own hearts apart from Christ. Except for the grace of God, we are as fanatically committed to idolatry as they are. They are similar to the Jews of Paul’s day in that “they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge”. Our burden for them must be to share Christ. We are to take no pleasure even in the insults hurled at those who insult us. We address Islam not with satire or slander but with the Truth. The world hates those who hate them and laughs at the discomfort of its enemies. We, however, are to love those who hate us and to pray from them.

It is not the place of the Church to try to regulate the behavior and speech of the unbelieving world. We can support the freedom of those who disagree with us to share their views in a free society. We understand that a society that protects this right is beneficial to the Church because it allows us greater freedom to share the truth and participate in the marketplace of ideas. This does not, however, remove our responsibility as Christians to oppose slanderous and irresponsible expressions. Let us pray for the grace to live by the words of Paul to the Ephesians, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

Let us pray that we may live to see the Lord glorify Himself in the lives of these violent extremists by bringing them to know Christ just as He did with a young man of a similar spirit named Saul who went on to be used mightily as an apostle of grace. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Machen's Final Lesson

One of the most influential people in modern Christian history is Dr. J. Gresham Machen. His influence extends in some way or another to virtually every conservative evangelical group in America today. A short time ago, I came across his last recorded words and the power of them impressed me so much that I wanted to share a few thoughts regarding them. Just before he died (January 1, 1937), Dr. Machen had a telegram sent to his colleague and friend Dr. John Murray. The telegram was brief and to the point, it read simply, “I'm so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it."

It might not be surprising for a Christian to express hope in Christ as they near the end of their life but this is not just a general expression of confidence in the Gospel. This is a very careful expression of his faith. He is thanking Christ and proclaiming that there is no hope apart from Him (as many Christians do), but he is doing so with purposeful theological precision. Notice that Dr. Machen gives thanks for “the active obedience of Christ.” This brief yet powerful expression of his understanding of the Gospel shows the extent that meditation upon the glories of Christ must have characterized his thinking. So much so, that even with his last words Dr. Machen offers valuable instruction to the Church about the glory of the Gospel and of our Savior Jesus Christ.

He was offering thanks for a specific aspect of the life and work of Christ as it was applied to his own life. Theologians distinguish between the passive and active obedience of Jesus but it is not something that most Christians often think about. It is an important distinction, but one that we are rarely taught to appreciate. These words by Dr. Machen are an expression not only of the precision of his theological understanding but also of a deep meditation on their personal application to sinners such as himself.

The passive obedience of Jesus is His suffering the penalties for the sins of His people. It is His perfect submission to the will of The Father in facing the holy and just wrath of God poured out upon our sin. It is all the humility and pain He suffered culminating in the Cross itself. Distinguished from this is the active obedience of Jesus that Dr. Machen mentions. Christ’s active obedience is His perfect fulfillment of the requirements of the Law and of Holiness before the Father. While His passive obedience is paying our debt to sin, His active obedience is His attainment of perfect righteousness on our behalf.

We most often hear about Christ’s passive obedience but His substitutionary atonement is made effectual by His perfect righteousness attained through His active obedience. The two cannot be separated and the hope of the Gospel depends upon them both. It is for good reason that Dr. Machen specifically calls attention to Christ’s “active” obedience in reflecting on the hope and comfort he has in Christ. If Christ had simply died to pay our debt we would still remain without any righteousness of our own. We would have simply returned to the state in which Adam was.

Dr. Machen is saying that in Christ we have obtained something that Adam did not have, namely a secured and certain inheritance in the eternal kingdom of God. Jesus did not just pay for sins and then leave us to our own devices. Dr. Machen is saying that the life of Christ and the perfections of Christ are credited to the believer so that as believers we possess the very righteousness of Christ Himself. Jesus is the complete substitute in that our punishments are transferred to Him and His rewards are given to us. Unlike Adam, we are credited as righteous because of the obedience of Jesus (Rom. 5:19). Dr. Machen was expressing his confidence before God because the life by which he would be judged was none other than the life of Jesus Christ. The hope he expressed was not just that his sins were forgiven but that he had inherited all the blessings of God in Christ.

Our savior not only pays the debts we have accrued, but also grants to us the fullness of His riches. Dr. Machen points us to an amazing savior. I pray that the hope he had is present in you as well.

*Before posting this, I wanted to verify that these were indeed Dr. Machen’s last words. During that process, I came across these two articles that give further insight into the meaning of Dr. Machen’s final statement. If you are interested in reading further, I recommend them to you.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What's in a Name? The Blessing of Jacob at Peniel

Shakespeare may have thought that a rose by any other name was still a rose, but names were of great significance to the people of ancient Israel. A name to them was not just a word; it was an important part of a person’s identity. We clearly see this in many Biblical instances where a person’s name is changed after an encounter with God. These names often highlight important themes in the text, some of which go beyond what is immediately obvious.
For example, many commentators highlight that the name Israel, which is the new name that Jacob receives after his blessing at Peniel means strong with God. They identify this as a reflection on the perseverance of Jacob in his wrestling with God. Since Jacob would not let go until he received a blessing they say he was strong in his encounter with God. While the new name certainly points to this, I think it is a mistake to see the name (or the blessing) as primarily about Jacob’s strength. In fact, if we look carefully at the “name” theme in this narrative we find a deeper perspective on the blessing at Peniel and one that finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The incident is recorded in Genesis 32:
“The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.” (Genesis 32:22-31 ESV)
Jacob and the stranger have wrestled throughout the night and the man then demonstrates supernatural power by dislocating Jacob’s hip with a touch. Jacob, now recognizing that this is no mere man, clings to the stranger and demands a blessing. The stranger, however, does not immediately bless Jacob but instead asks him a question. The stranger asks Jacob what his name is. We know that the stranger is God so he was not simply asking for information. There is something deeper behind the question.
You may remember that this is not the first time that Jacob was asked this question. Twenty years earlier his father Isaac had asked him twice who he was and both times Jacob lied and claimed to be his brother Esau in order to steal the blessing his father intended for Esau (Genesis 25:18-27). Notice what happens when Esau finds out that Jacob has stolen his blessing: “As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” (Genesis 27:34-36 ESV). After this, Esau vows to kill Jacob.
This is ultimately why Jacob is all alone by the bank of the river Jabbok when we meet him in Genesis 32. After Esau threatened to kill him Jacob left home and stayed away for 20 years. Then an angel told him to return home where he would be blessed, the incident in Genesis 32 takes place as he is returning home. Even after all these years Jacob still feared the wrath of his brother Esau (Gen. 32:6-12) and this is why he was alone when the stranger took hold of him.
Earlier, when Esau asks “is he not rightly named Jacob?” he is calling attention to the fact that the word “Jacob” means usurper and is also a play on the Hebrew word for deceitful. Now, years later, this stranger has defeated Jacob physically by dislocating his hip. The picture seems to be that Jacob is not even able to stand under his own power and is clinging to the stranger. Deprived of his power, all he could do is petition the stranger for a blessing realizing that he could not impose his will upon him.
Although the stranger has broken Jacob’s body he is not done with him. The question he asks is part of the struggle, one crippling blow was to the hip and the question about his name is another. This question undoubtedly reminds Jacob of how he lied about his name in his deception of his father in order to receive Esau’s blessing. With this deception brought to mind Jacob must essentially give a confession. He must identify himself as a usurper and a deceiver. In giving his name, Jacob must come to terms for the first time with who he actually is. He, already broken physically, must now also confess that he is a deceiver and thus is not deserving of the blessing that he seeks. Only after Jacob was deprived of every pretense of self-sufficiency and confesses his true nature does he receive the blessing.
The stranger breaks Jacob not only physically but also shatters his pride. It is only once he admits his unworthiness and resigns himself to complete dependence on the grace of the stranger that Jacob receives the blessing and a new name. He is now Israel. The new name is not primarily to call attention to Jacob’s strength but rather to the victory he wins in weakness. It is only when he is broken that he is proclaimed to be strong with God. The recounting of the blessings of Jacob in Genesis 35 indicate that the name “Israel” was as much about the promised blessings as a statement of fact about Jacob.
The blessing of Jacob is an illustration of God’s initiative in blessing His people by grace, through faith. It is picture pointing us to the Gospel. Jacob cannot contribute to the blessing and is helpless to bring it about. It is only when he is utterly defeated in his own power that Jacob is said to win the victory. The God-man blesses Jacob but reserves the revelation of His own name (Jesus) because the appointed time had not come.
The God-man took hold of Jacob, overcame his stubborn resistance, broke his pride and blessed his cry of faith. I pray that He has done the same for you.