Wednesday, June 27, 2012

German Court Bans Circumcision

I would have thought that as a result of their history of horrifying anti-Semitism that the courts in Germany would be particularly sensitive when it comes to laws that discriminate against Jewish believers. Yesterday, however, a German court in Cologne effectively outlawed the faithful practice of Judaism within its jurisdiction when it ruled that infant circumcision was illegal. You can read the story here.

There is no requirement that Christians circumcise their sons but as believers we should be sensitive to the excessive entanglement of secular states in regulating what is or is not appropriate religious practice. While some regulation is both necessary and reasonable, this kind of intrusion into a core religious practice of Jews (and many Muslims) that has been recognized and carried out for thousands of years should be troubling to us.

Perhaps this is simply the case of a court not thinking through the broader implications of its decision but this kind of intrusion of the secular state into religious practice does not bode well for personal liberties (religious or not) within that society. I pray that the churches in Germany will send a clear message that they oppose the state interfering in this area. If they fail to do so history has shown us that the next knock may be upon their own door. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Book Review: Daniel Hyde- God in Our Midst: The Tabernacle and Our Relationship with God

769281: God in Our Midst: The Tabernacle and
Our Relationship with GodGod in Our Midst: The Tabernacle and Our Relationship with God
By Daniel Hyde / Reformation Trust Publishing

In his new book Daniel Hyde provides us with a wonderful series of meditations on the Jewish tabernacle. He examines how the tabernacle demonstrated the presence of God among His people in the Old Covenant and how its symbolism is now fulfilled in our relationship to God through Christ in the New Covenant.  The book is a collection of 17 edited sermons that are drawn from exposition of the tabernacle narrative in Exodus and related passages. The 17 sections are as follows:

1. Contributions to Build the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:1–7; 35:4–29)
2. The Tabernacle in the Wilderness (Exodus 25:8–9)
3. The Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:10–22; 37:1–9)
4. The Table with Bread (Exodus 25:23–30; 37:10–16)
5. The Lampstand of Gold (Exodus 25:31–40; 27:20–21; 37:17–24)
6. The Construction of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26; 35:30–36:38; 38:21–31)
7. The Altar of Bronze (Exodus 27:1–8; 38:1–7)
8. The Lord’s Courtyard (Exodus 27:9–19; 38:9–20)
9. The Priesthood of the Lord (Exodus 28:1–2)
10. The Benefits of the Priesthood (Exodus 28:3–43; 39:1–43)
11. The Liturgy for Ordination (Exodus 29:1–37; 30:22–33)
12. Why Worship God as He Commands? (Exodus 29:38–46)
13. The Altar for Incense (Exodus 30:1–10, 34–38; 37:25–29)
14. The Price of Redemption (Exodus 30:11–16)
15. The Basin for Washing (Exodus 30:17–21; 38:8)
16. The Gifts Given by God (Exodus 31:1–11; 35:30–36:7)
17. A New Beginning (Exodus 40)

All too often “seeing Jesus in the Old Testament” type of works end up being adventures in allegorical interpretation that leave the average Christian wondering if the author is using some kind of secret decoder ring to interpret the Old Testament. On the other extreme many others fail to develop the themes beyond what is specifically referenced in the New Testament. Hyde avoids these extremes and does a good job of beginning with an observation of the Old Testament text in its context and then applying it within a broader biblical framework that is informed by the New Testament. His treatment of the text is detailed enough that advanced students will appreciate his insights and yet it is accessible enough that even newer Christians can benefit from it. The indexes and illustrations make the book easy to follow and easy to navigate.

Although the book is a collection of 17 distinct meditations it retains an overall unity that demonstrates a consistent historical redemptive approach to the Bible. The distinct sections are sequential so the book retains a unified flow built upon the Exodus narrative itself. Secondly, the forward, introduction, and conclusion draw the broader work together into a single statement about how Old Testament texts can be handled from a wholly Christian, though not unnecessarily spiritualized, approach. For those who wish to delve further into the philosophy of interpretation that the author is applying and advocating in the book there is a well written appendix article on preaching from the Pentateuch.

Although written from a Reformed Confessional perspective I think Hyde’s observations and applications will be helpful to anyone interested in the typological elements of the Jewish tabernacle and their relation to the Gospel. The book may also be of particular interest to those who are looking to preach or teach from these texts and are looking for an example on how they might apply them in a Christian context.

*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 wholly my own.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why Christians Suffer: One Perspective

Why did God allow this to happen?

This is the question that inevitably comes up whenever someone is suffering or some tragedy has occurred. The problem seems even more difficult when the tragedy occurs in the life of a Christian who is supposed to be God’s child and has access to Him in prayer. What is more, we know that God is sovereign over all things and so we cannot avoid the fact (although many try) that God not only allows His people to suffer but that He actually purposes at times to bring suffering to them. Consider the following verses which are just a few of many that we could turn to:

I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7 ESV)

“…and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17 ESV)

“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29 ESV)

“Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1 Peter 4:19 ESV)

For the Christian this is not a question of justice. We know that nobody suffers unjustly and that God has a right over His creation, especially sinful people to do with them as He pleases. Even so, knowing His love for us and His goodness we may still wonder why our loving Father wills suffering to be part of the lives of His children. Once we are in Christ and our sins are forgiven why should suffering remain in our lives?

We know that God is not cruel or sadistic and He does not bring suffering simply for His amusement. Rather, He purposes suffering in our lives because He loves us. I realize that this is an answer that is absolutely incompatible with our natural way of thinking. In fact, it will sound insane to anyone operating from a purely human standpoint. The Bible, however, teaches that God has a loving purpose in the suffering that comes into our lives. Peter explains in his first letter:

“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:6-7 ESV)

Peter tells us that God is purifying His people in the way a metalworker purifies gold. The impurities are burned away and the dross is removed until pure gold remains. By this process the metalworker “proves” the gold. Once the impurities are burned away a proof mark is applied which is a stamp verifying that it has been tested and confirmed genuine. Peter is explaining that God brings various trials to bear in our lives so that we are likewise purified. The “dross” of our lives is removed and the genuineness of our faith is proved and is thereby marked as genuine. Peter says that our faith is even more precious than gold and that if we endure, our faith will result in praise and honor and glory at the revelation of Christ Jesus.

Even if we accept Peter’s answer that the Lord works this way, it may still not be obvious to us how suffering leads to a more pure faith. Why would God work this way? I do not claim to know why God does all that He does but if we meditate upon what makes up most of the trials and suffering in our lives I think we will notice something interesting.

Most trials are difficult because they involve the want or loss of something we value or desire. It may be material possessions, a job, our health, a particular relationship, or even our life or that of a loved one. The withholding or loss of anything that we want to have or anything we do not want to lose can bring stress, grief, and pain. The pain results from our desire to have something better than what we have. It results from our evaluation that things should be different. It results from our thinking that we have been denied something of value.

Surely our lives, health, etc. are valuable to us but in an ultimate sense they are of far less value than what we have in Christ. We possess fellowship with God Himself which is a gift of immeasurable value and in comparison all other things appear worthless. This is Paul’s point when he says “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8 ESV) It is important that we do not miss the force of this statement. The word translated as “rubbish” is the word skubala which is the word for animal excrement.

He is saying that he will allow nothing else to compete with Christ in his affections. Compared to Christ all other things are as worthless as animal filth. In our weakness we are often tempted to love even good things so much that our desires for them can can overshadow our trust in God and our submission to His will above all else. We easily lose sight of the immeasurable value of what we have in Christ and mourn for temporal losses of far less value. God, however, is not content that we should be of a divided mind.

In His mercy and love God prepares us by purging all idolatry from our hearts. Through each trial he asks us if we love these other things more than we love Him. In each trial He asks if we truly trust that He knows what is best for us. Through each test He demonstrates that He is sufficient for us and that He will never abandon us. Notice also that He graciously reminds us that the trials and suffering are temporary; they are “for a little while”. Nothing is ultimately withheld from us and we lose nothing that we do not recover in greater measure. We are therefore encouraged and strengthened in the hope of His promises.

We see then that at least one of the reasons for God using suffering in our lives is that to be complete and “proved” is to be wholly dependent upon God. God lovingly prepares these temporary trials to draw us closer to Him, strengthen our confidence in Him, and leave us with nothing but Him. It is a gracious and loving thing that He removes any idols from our hearts. He never brings more than we can bear and if we trust Him we will be perfected through suffering. It is this reason why James can make the amazing statement that we should “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4 ESV)

I do not claim that this is a complete answer to the question but I submit that it is at least one of the reasons the Bible gives us. Secondly, understanding this truth does not mean that the trials are any less real or any less painful when we encounter them. I pray, however, that knowing that our suffering is a means that God uses for our own good and His own Glory will strengthen us and by God’s grace (as James says) provide us with a sustaining joy in Christ even when our happiness has fled “for a little while”.

Monday, June 11, 2012

How to Preach & Teach Relevant Messages

As someone who teaches and preaches the Word of God I have often thought about the relationship between the message that is being taught and the method of communicating that message. I am not an expert on the subject but through the years I have heard, read, or participated in a number of conversations about the need to make the Bible “relevant” to classes and congregations. This debate about contextualization and relevance has permeated virtually every discussion on worship and preaching in our generation.

The Bible as God’s Word is by definition relevant. There is no message that is more important or practical in the lives of people than the Gospel. Since all have sinned there is no person for whom the message does not have immense relevance. What most people who use those terms mean, however, is that we need to capture people’s attention and get them to see that this message has direct application in their lives.

Many have argued that since conviction of sin, conversion, and repentance are the work of the Holy Spirit there is nothing any person can do to make the Bible more or less relevant. While I agree with this in an objective theological sense there is a sense in which the teacher or preacher is responsible for ensuring the “relevance” of the message. We have all suffered through teaching that was excruciatingly difficult to follow. We have all heard preachers who have droned on without ever clearly explaining the Gospel. Every preacher or teacher is responsible for communicating the truth and also for communicating it clearly.

How then should someone who has complete confidence in the inherent power of the Word prepare so that they may give a relevant message without resorting to worldly marketing, entertainment, or other inappropriate kinds of contextualization? First, the minister must study. There must be a disciplined approach to knowing what the Bible says. Through study, the teacher accumulates all of the information from the text. He observes what it says and how it says it. Second, the teacher must meditate upon the Word. This involves careful thought about the information uncovered in study. Not just a quick consideration but deep thought about what is said in a particular passage and how it relates to every other passage and how it addresses and redefines the experiences in his life and the lives of those around him. The minister must think carefully about how all those details come together into a unity of truth.

It is through this process of meditation that the pastor/teacher uncovers biblical connections and realizes the significance of various details in the text and how they connect to the fundamental categories that the scripture deals with. These categories; sin, holiness, redemption, reconciliation, etc. provide the basis for connecting the truth of the Bible to the spiritual needs (conscious or not) of the hearers. These connections also allow the teacher to highlight the relationship of difficult passages with those that are clearer. By knowing the material well and how it addresses universal themes the pastor/teacher can present a message that is relevant to any person regardless of their particular subculture or context.

Finally, after all of this it is necessary that the preacher clearly communicate the message. In order to do so the preacher must understand some basic information about the people to whom he is preaching or teaching. For example, it would not be very edifying to preach a great English sermon to a Chinese speaking congregation. The Word of God is powerful but it does not function as a magical incantation. It must be intelligibly articulated. It must be cognitively understood before it can be morally transforming.

The issues related to doing this are the same ones we repeatedly see in the scripture. There are questions of vocabulary, dress, and other side issues that we must take notice of so that the preacher himself is not a distraction drawing attention away from the message. Paul, for example shows us that our dress and approach should not be offensive. If people are to be offended let them be offended at our message not our appearance or behavior (1 Cor. 9:20-23). We see indications that there are basic things that must be taught and understood before we expect people to understand more complex doctrines (Jn. 3:12, 1 Cor. 3:2, Heb. 5:12). Obviously we must pay attention to the fundamentals of effective communication but because of the nature of the message of the Bible the best thing a teacher can do to help people see the application of the scripture in their lives is to know the material well enough to explain it clearly.

The concern about “relevant” preaching and teaching is not itself wrong. Our desire whenever we preach or teach is that people’s lives are changed. We recognize, however, that it is the Holy Spirit that works through the message to do this. Because of the universal sinfulness of humanity the message is already relevant. Our part is to prepare properly so that we are able to communicate it clearly. This may involve some of the external contextual type of things that many people focus on but the primary emphasis should not be on presentation but on the method of preparation. If a pastor/teacher wants to be relevant then the best thing they can do is to know the material so well that their explanation and application of it flows naturally from the text.

I pray every time I preach or teach that if anyone should discuss the message later on with family or friends that the conversation would be about the text. If I have done my job properly I will fade into the background and the listener will be fully engaged with the words and message of the Bible itself. If they are discussing anything about me then I have done them a disservice. As count Zinzendorf so eloquently said, the job of the preacher is to “preach the Gospel, die, and be forgotton”. If you have a faithful preacher or teacher who consistently leads you into the Word of God and helps you to see the glory of Jesus Christ in its pages I pray you would take the time to thank them and encourage them in that task this week.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


Many advocates of legalized abortion on demand have long argued that their position is protective of women and women's rights. It seems, however, that at least in some cases the basic concern for women is actually less important than promoting a particular perspective on pregnancy that completely disregards any and all the interests of the child for the absolute control of the mother. It is ironic that at the heels of the Civil Rights Movement in our country that we would ignore the most basic civil rights, even the right to life itself, of these children.

The video that follows speaks for itself. I warn you, however, that it is disturbing to watch on a number of different levels.