Friday, December 8

Change of Heart

Well, I am going to take a break from blogging (news flash there), but not just because I'm too busy. I have always been of the opinion that we always have time for what we really want to do. I am simply unconvinced that I am meeting my objectives for this blog. I wanted to write first and foremost for the people to whom I minister in my local church. I have found that there are more effective ways to write for them. What of the millions of bloggers? Who will write for them? I have no doubt they will find many other more interesting and more helpful things to read online.

The lack of cogent argumentation and careful analysis online has soured me on the idea of blogging as a reliable method of learning and interaction. Probably the most helpful facet of writing online is the ready access to criticism, quickly available and in massive quantities. Unfortunately, not all criticism is equally valuable, because one must consider the source (not a popular opinion in these days of "anybody's opinion is as worthwhile as another's").

If one does not have a crusade, better returns on one's investment of time and trouble can be had than blogging. And so I bid farewell, not unhappily, to blogging as a ministry tool. Consider it tried and found wanting.

Thursday, July 6

Doesn't Have the Same Ring to It

A phrase sometimes used for heaven in popular Christian music is "Beulah land." Upon hearing a song sung a few weeks ago that used this term, I did a quick search for "Beulah" in the ESV on my Pocket PC. Imagine my surprise when the search returned no hits! Confused, I tried my search again in the King James and found Isaiah 62:4. I returned to the ESV to try to figure out what was wrong with a translation that would leave out "Beulah land"!

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.

Again, speaking of the restoration of national Israel, God promises his people that they will no longer be called "Forsaken" (Hebrew, azubah), as in an unmarried and unloved woman. Instead, she would be called "My Delight is in Her" (Hebrew, hephzibah). Israel's land (key to these promises, as I noted in a previous post) would no longer be called "Desolate" (Hebrew, shemamah), but instead, it would be known as "Married" (Hebrew, beulah).

In other words, this verse points out with a dramatic comparison the coming judgment and future restoration of Israel and her land. Because of her sin, Israel was judged and "forsaken" by her God, and removed from her land, which God allowed to become desolate. Isaiah prophesies of a coming day of restoration when God would once again delight in his people and restore them to their land.

It is interesting that even the King James translates the second occurance of beulah as "married" ("thy land shall be married"). So why sing about "Beulah land" instead of heaven? I guess "heaven" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

Wednesday, July 5

“My Name is Written on His Hands”

One of my very favorite hymns is Charles Wesley's "Arise, My Soul, Arise." The first verse says this:

Arise, my soul, arise; shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding sacrifice in my behalf appears:
Before the throne my surety stands,
Before the throne my surety stands,
My name is written on His hands.

I came across Isaiah 49:16a the other day, which is the basis for the last line of that stanza. "Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. . . ." I was a little bit disappointed when I went back and looked at the surrounding context. Just a brief survey finds that "I" is God speaking to "you" people of Israel ("his people," v. 13). In light of the second half of the book of Isaiah (chaps. 40–66), God is promising to restore his people in a very literal and tangible way. In fact, the second half of verse sixteen and verse seventeen record the significance of God's people, national Israel, being engraved on his hands: "Your walls are continually before me. Your builders make haste; your destroyers and those who laid you waste go out from you." God is promising to restore Israel and rebuild Jerusalem, no matter how long it takes or how unlikely it appears. He will fulfill the promises he has made to his covenant people.

While not wanting to be too hard on Charles Wesley, who has given us some magnificent hymn texts, the imagery of being "written on God's hands" does not specifically apply to the church saint. However, we enjoy even better promises. If God gave up his own Son for us, what would he possibly withhold from us? If God has acquitted us, in what chance of "double jeopardy" do we stand? If God's Son has paid our debt with his death and now stands interceding for us at God'’s right hand, who would dare to condemn us? What could possibly remove us from God'’s favor?

"He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died——more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" (Rom 8:32–25a).

Why Animal Sacrifices?

I have written before about the Old Testament sacrifices. The question we might legitimately pose is why did God ordain this intricate system of animal sacrifices? What purpose did it serve?

Theologically speaking, a sacrifice provided atonement. It allowed the offerer access to God. An animal sacrifice was the only way God revealed in the Old Testament for a person to approach him. Even the burnt offering, a freewill display of personal worship required atonement (Lev 1:4).

From a very practical standpoint, the animal sacrifices provided for the material needs of the priests and Levites. God did not give the priestly tribe of Levi any land as an inheritance during the land allotment; God told them that he would be their inheritance (Num 18:20). He provided for them through the tithe (Num 18:26), but also through the sacrificial system itself. Notice Leviticus 7:7–10.

"The guilt offering is just like the sin offering; there is one law for them. The priest who makes atonement with it shall have it. And the priest who offers any man’s burnt offering shall have for himself the skin of the burnt offering that he has offered. And every grain offering baked in the oven and all that is prepared on a pan or a griddle shall belong to the priest who offers it. And every grain offering, mixed with oil or dry, shall be shared equally among all the sons of Aaron."

Parts of each of the offerings went to the priests, remunerating them physically for their spiritual ministry. In the burnt offering, while all the flesh of the animal was burned up on the altar, the hide went to the offering priest (Lev 7:8). The part of the meal offering that was not offered up (but “waved” or “heaved”) was eaten by the priest (Lev 7:9–10). The priests and Levites shared in the common meal following the peace offering (Deut 12:18). The meat of the sin and guilt offerings went entirely to the priest, along with the additional fifth of the restitution from the guilt offering (Lev 7:7).

Thursday, June 22

The Day and the Night

When I was younger, I was often fearful at night. Noises, strange sounds, and my own over-active imagination conspired against me. What a blessing to know that our God does not "sign off" at night—in fact, both the day and the night belong to him!

"Yours is the day, yours also the night;
you have established the heavenly lights and the sun" (Ps 74:16).

Monday, June 19

The Need for an Interpreter

God has revealed himself in many ways throughout history. The Bible records many channels of God's self-revelation, such as nature, the image of God in man, direct and audible revelation, God's people, the Bible, and Jesus Christ Himself. In addition, God has revealed himself through mighty acts, both providential and miraculous. Each of these channels faces limitations from a human perspective, as you might expect when an infinite God reveals himself through finite means.

In these days, there is much emphasis placed on God's mighty acts. "Signs and wonders" are seen as proof positive that God is working in a specific assembly or that an individual has been "baptized with the Holy Spirit." However, there is one question that is regularly left unanswered: how does one know that these happenings are signs from God? And how does one know what message from God these signs are meant to communicate?

The answer could be one of any number of possibilities: some might say they "just know" while others might point to some sort of continuity with Jesus and the apostle's ministry in the New Testament. But the problem remains: without an authoritative interpreter from God, the mighty act would go unnoticed or be misinterpreted.

Take for example, the voice from heaven in John 12: Jesus said, "Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven: "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him" (John 12:28–29). Notice what happened here: God revealed himself through a mighty act, a miraculous voice from heaven that communicated the authenticity of Jesus as the Son of God. However, while the disciples heard and understood the voice (as evidenced by John's authoritative interpretation of the event), the people standing around misinterpreted God's mighty act. Some thought it was the voice of an angel. Others looked up at the sky wondering why there was a sudden rumble of thunder. The powerful self-revelation of God was lost because of their misinterpretation.

Therefore, when one claims that God has revealed himself in a mighty act, he presumes to act as authoritative interpreter of God's revelation. Along the same lines, those who claim that God is speaking to them through circumstances (God's providential working) also place themselves as authoritative interpreters of God's revelation. It seems that taking this upon oneself is rather presumptuous. I am convinced that biblical prophets were aware that God was speaking through them and thus prophesied with boldness and confidence; can those who claim to experience God's mighty acts speak with the same confidence? By what do they presume to do so?

Don't Sweat the Mint and Rue?

Many label those who have extra-biblical personal standards as Pharisees. This Pharisaism, they continue, was denounced by Jesus. This legalism was condemned by Paul. The only truly holy way to live the Christian life is without any standards. Standards are a demonstration of weakness and spiritual immaturity.

Certainly, if people believe that they will be saved or "more saved" by certain practices or taboos, Scripture is clear that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Nothing can make a believer more or less saved.

However, to say that Jesus condemned the Pharisees because of their rules is a false statement. Consider Luke 11:43: "But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others." According to some, Jesus ought not have uttered that last sentence. He should have said, "You should have paid attention to justice and the love of God and not worried about all those rules and regulations."

Why would Jesus have said this? The reason was that the Pharisees were obeying God's Law. They were doing what God had commanded. In fact, they were obeying God scrupulously. Remember Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount: "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 5:20). Jesus never condemned the Pharisees' righteous deeds and desire for holiness.

However, their zeal for the Law (Rom 10:1–3) eclipsed their love for God. They majored on the minors to the neglect of the majors. They "cleansed the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside [they were] full of greed and wickedness" (Luke 11:39). Jesus' answer to their wrong priorities was to set God as first and to obey him from the heart, motivating their scrupulous devotion to obedience.

Personal standards do not necessarily mean someone is a Pharisee. And Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees for their rules; he condemned their neglect of God's justice and love. We must be careful not to compartmentalize our lives and be inconsistent in our obedience. As Paul said, we must "let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly" (Col 3:16).

Friday, May 26

Hosanna? What's the Big Deal?

Have you ever wondered what was so bad about the crowds shouting "Hosanna" as Jesus rode into Jerusalem in Matthew 21? Matthew records that as Jesus entered the city, "Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, "'Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!'" (Matt 21:8–9). This infuriated the chief priest and scribes (vv. 15–16), who demanded that Jesus order the people to stop.

But what was so maddening about hosanna? If we knew the Old Testament as well as the Jewish religious leaders did, we wouldn't even need to ask. In the 118th Psalm, the the Davidic King praises God for his enduring, loyal love (vv. 1–4). When God's people, the nation of Israel, are being afflicted by their enemies, they can trust in God's care and expect his deliverance (vv. 5–21). God's king (the anointed Davidic king) expects to be vindicated as his trust is in God, returning victorious through God's help. In light of this, the psalmist looks forward to rejoicing in God's salvation and calls for God's deliverance and salvation (vv. 22–26). The result of God's deliverance is thanksgiving and worship coming from his people Israel (vv. 27–29).

You may still be wondering what "hosanna" has to do with Psalm 118. The word hosanna is a transliteration of the Hebrew words that are translated "Save us, we pray" in verse 25. You'll also notice that the crowd in Matthew 21:9 also quoted the following verse in Psalm 118: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" (v. 26a).

The problem the priest and scribes had was that the people were affirming that Jesus was the Christ, the anointed Davidic king whom God had promised to send. They were agreeing with Jesus' claim that he was the Messiah. They were celebrating the very claim for which the religious leaders would crucify Jesus within the week.

Tuesday, May 23

A Problem with Man's Sovereignty

I cheerfully affirm the sovereignty of God in all things, even man's salvation. Some feel that this is a major problem, absolving me of the responsibility of proclaiming the Gospel (which charge I categorically deny) and making man into some sort of fatalistic robot (which charge I, along with the apostle Paul also deny— see Romans 9:19–20).

The sticky point about sovereignty is that it is exclusive. If God is sovereign, then all things must be under his control. There is no such thing as some sort of "limited sovereignty." If it is limited, then he is no longer sovereign. Imagine an employer telling an employee, "You have complete freedom to do whatever you want, but you must run all decisions past me for approval." Similarly, if God must have his decrees approved by man's "free will," he is not sovereign, man is.

The sovereignty of man is not a problem for many. In fact, many build their presentation of the Gospel upon this assumption. However, this point of view seems to fail to take into consideration God's judgment of the wicked. Most would affirm the existence and reality of eternal punishment (in fact, this is why man should choose God— he should evaluate heaven and hell, and pull the lever and vote for the right choice). However, when man is sovereign, we are left with a bad taste in our mouth when God condemns people to eternal punishment just for making the wrong choice. And why can't they make the right choice later when they know better (as they stand before God)?

A few years ago, I was listening to a series of books on tape. The series was a fictional depiction of what might happen following the Rapture. For the most part, the events seemed to line up well with the biblical data. However, the writers adopted the sovereignty of man as the determining factor in salvation, which fact was repeatedly emphasized throughout the series of books. I endured this for the first several books, but I finally reached the breaking point when the Antichrist was standing before Jesus Christ.

I was appalled as the writer depicted Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, almost apologetic as he consigned the Beast to eternal punishment. I don't remember the exact wording anymore, but it was something to the effect of "You had so much potential, if only you had chose to serve me instead of Satan." At this point, I turned the tape off because I was so steamed!

The judgment of the wicked is a huge problem for those who place man's will over God's sovereignty. God is not glorified by judging the wicked; he is embarrassingly apologetic. This is nothing like how the Bible describes God's judgment. Consider Revelation 16:4–7.

The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood.
And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, "Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!"
And I heard the altar saying, "Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!"

In conclusion, the thinking that man's will is sovereign simply cannot explain how God is glorified by his judgment of the wicked. God is glorified both by those whom he saves and by those whom he judges.

Hebrews 11: Persevering Faith

Faith is the foundation of all we believe (11:1–3).
In the first nine and a half chapters, the writer of Hebrews has made his case theologically for the superiority of faith in Jesus Christ to the Judaism of Israel. His conclusion is that, in spite of the persecution, the readers must persevere in their faith in Jesus Christ. If they turn away from Jesus Christ, they can only expect judgment and destruction.

But to persevere in faith through persecution? The writer’s answer is that godly men and women from ages past were commended by God because of their faith (v. 2). Faith in God is the foundation of our understanding of everything, including the very existence of the universe (v. 3).

Persevering faith through persecution was the hallmark of Old Testament believers (11:4–38).
This idea of perseverance in faith in spite of difficulties was nothing new; in fact, the writer walks through Old Testament history, demonstrating that the godly men of the past had something in common: they all persevered in faith through difficulty. Look at the list:
  • Abel obeyed God and brought a pleasing sacrifice. He was murdered by his brother for his obedience, but God was pleased with him (v. 4).
  • Enoch pleased God and God took him up (v. 5).
  • Noah obeyed God and demonstrated his faith by building an ark for 120 years when there was no rain. The flood proved his obedience was right (v. 7).
  • Abraham left his family and his homeland and obeyed God. He never actually inherited all the land God promised to him (vv. 8–10).
  • Sarah believed God's promise of a great nation to come from her and Abraham, even though she never lived to see the nation of Israel (v. 11).
  • Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac in obedience to God, even though he knew that Isaac was the promised son. As far as Abraham could figure, the only way the situation could work out was if God raised Isaac from the dead (vv. 17–19).
  • Isaac demonstrated faith by giving the blessing to Jacob, his younger son, instead of Esau (v. 20).
  • Jacob demonstrated faith by blessing Ephraim, again, the younger son, over Mannasseh (v. 21).
  • Joseph demonstrated his faith by charging his descendants to take his bones back to the Promised Land from Egypt (v. 22). It was more than four hundred years before this happened.
  • Moses, the mediator of the Old Covenant, demonstrated faith throughout his life, as he led the children of Israel out of Egypt and to the Promised Land (vv. 23–30). He made choices based on God's revelation and not on what appeared to be enjoyable around him.
  • Rahab demonstrated faith by siding with the Israelites over her own people (v. 31).
Others also demonstrated faith by obeying God and were victorious in their exploits (vv. 32–35a). Yet others endured persecution (does that sound familiar?) and were even martyred for their faith, but still remained faithful (vv. 35b–38). The thing that they all had in common was that they believed God and obeyed the revelation he had given, even though they never received the eternally complete salvation that we now have available in Jesus Christ (vv. 39–40; 13–16).

Now the readers of the book of Hebrews have before them the perfect and complete salvation that these great men and women of faith never enjoyed. They had simply believed what God told them and obeyed, but they never had the "perfect" salvation that we have available. Why would anyone turn away from "so great a salvation"?