Thinking Through Scripture

"but the word of the Lord remains forever"

Month: October, 2014

The Measure of Success

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Success is measured in many different ways.  It might be measured in the trophies and accolades one receives from high performance on the gridiron.  Maybe it is in the number of votes and victories while running for public office.  Perhaps it’s in a sizable paycheck, Bentley, or vacation home.

As a preacher, like other professions, there is the constant nagging pressure of being “successful.”  There is a morbid interest in degrees earned, church size, books published, and participation in quality lectureships.  This makes sense.  I mean, who doesn’t want to help a church grow?  Who doesn’t want to be the keynote speaker?  After all, aren’t all of these things different avenues by which we help people on their spiritual journey?

The World’s View of Success:

I have a feeling James and John might have thought this way.  I know that their mother did.  She badly wanted success for her boys.  The meteoric rise from impoverished fishermen to a place among the highest rulers in the greatest kingdom on earth was glaring measure of unprecedented success.  So she pleads with Jesus, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left” (Matthew 20:21).

Forget about lectureships, prominent churches, and well read publications, she is asking about a seat at the King’s table.  Surely from that position they can accomplish a lot of good.  Surely it will provide them opportunities to help those in need and to teach divine truth.  But somehow, that might not be what they had in mind.

Following this request for prominence, the other 10 disciples “became indignant with the two brothers” (Matthew 20:24).  It is evident that the “success” they are all seeking is about pride, power, and prominence.  This provides Jesus with an excellent opportunity to teach an important lesson about success in His kingdom.

Jesus’ View of Success:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

Jesus takes societies measures of success and flips them upside down.  In Jesus’ kingdom, the slaves are the great ones and the rulers are in the place of slaves.  That’s because success isn’t measured by accolades, wealth, or popularity.  Success is measure by humility and service.  It is not the priest or the Levite who are remembered, but the dirty Samaritan who served his fellow man (Luke 10:30-37).

Jesus is the prime example of prominence in the kingdom.  There is no one who is greater.  He is the Son of Man who came on the clouds to receive “dominion, glory and a kingdom” (Daniel 7:14).  Yet, even the Son of Man is not too good to serve.  Whether it is healing the infirmed or washing His disciples’ feet, Jesus constantly took advantage of opportunities to serve others.  In fact, Jesus served in the harshest, least prominent, and most painful way possible.  He served by taking the brunt of our sins upon Himself and enduring the cruelty of the cross.

Let’s make sure that we never feel too successful to serve.  We are not too good for any job in the kingdom.  No elder, preacher, professor, or Christian is above serving others.  It’s what we are called to do.  It is in humble service to others that our success is measured.

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Da Vinci’s Nicaea

The Da Vinci Code:

I recently read The Da Vinci Code.  I realize I am a little bit late on this blog since most of the buzz about that book died out years ago.  But I have always been a little bit behind on social trends anyway, so I figure I’ll just sit back in my No Fear t-shirt, put in my new Hanson c.d., and write down a few thoughts.

I enjoy teaching and studying about how we got the Bible and the formation of the Old and New Testament canons.  I had negatively referenced The Da Vinci Code several times in teaching without ever actually having read it.  I referenced it based on hearsay and book reviews.  But I always felt a little uncomfortable with that, so I decided to sit down and read the book for myself.  Honestly, I kind of liked it.  I thought it was well written, an entertaining story, and a topic worthy of discussion.  Dan Brown, the author, seems to be a pretty intelligent man who knows a little about a lot.  In fact, I enjoyed it so much I am reading his earlier work Angels and Demons right now.

Historical Blunders:

There were, however, several historical blunders in Dan Brown’s book.  Probably the worst was his claim that many non-canonical gospels were discovered in the 40’s in Nag Hammadi and in the Dead Sea Scrolls.  In reality, the Dead Sea Scrolls contained the library of a Jewish community living in Qumran until about AD 68.  Their library was discovered in 11 caves by the Dead Sea in 1947.  They were not a Christian community, and no Christian gospels were discovered in their library (although a small number of scholars speculate a tiny fragment that might contain a piece of Mark was discovered in cave 7).  So Brown was way off on what he said about the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Brown also claimed that there were roughly 80 gospels that were rejected by the church because they did not present Jesus as divine.  The actual number of known (not necessarily discovered) non-canonical gospels is closer to 40, and generally these present Jesus as far more super-human than the 3 synoptics (although His Deity can still be seen in these also).  For a more in-depth critique of the historical blunders of The Da Vinci Code, see Bart Ehrman.  The blunder I want to primarily focus on was made about the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.

Beliefs about the Council of Nicaea:

There have been many times in personal Bible studies, primarily with college-age skeptics, that the Council of Nicaea was brought up.  I have been told that the Council of Nicaea started Christianity.  I’ve been told that the only reason I worship on Sunday is because of a decree by the Council of Nicaea.  I have been told that the only reason that I believe Jesus is divine is because of the Council of Nicaea.  I have been told that the only reason my New Testament contains 27 books is because of the Council of Nicaea.  It seems like people toss the Council of Nicaea around as the origin of any uniquely Christian belief or practice.

I always wondered where on earth people got the idea that the Council of Nicaea did any of these things.  Especially that it had anything at all to do with the New Testament canon.  Thanks to Dan Brown, I might have figured it out.  Sir Leigh Teabing, a major character in The Da Vinci Code, makes the claim numerous times that Emperor Constantine decided which books would make up the New Testament at the Council of Nicaea.  This is completely fabricated.  The Council had zero to do with the canon.  However, it was an important council.  In the event that you are curious or someone brings it up to you, it might be helpful to know a few things about it.

The Truth about the Council of Nicaea:

The Council of Nicaea was the first major ecumenical council of the ancient church.  It was called by Emperor Constantine, the first Emperor to pay lip service to being a Christian.  In Alexandria, Egypt there had been several large disturbances.  There had been a serious disagreement about the nature of Christ by a prominent teacher, Arius, and a bishop, Alexander.  Arius taught that there was a time when Jesus did not exist (Arianism, not to be confused with Aryanism).  Thus, Jesus was a created being, lesser than the Father.  Alexander taught that Jesus was eternal, and equal to the Father.  After excommunications, lines being drawn, riots in the streets, an attempt to unify the empire was called in AD 325 in Nicaea.

Bishops from all over the ancient world assembled and discussed many issues.  The date at which Easter would be celebrated, the exaltation of bishops in Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, and the substance and nature of Jesus were among those issues.  The 27 year old Athanasius argued on Alexander’s behalf for the eternal equality of Jesus to the Father, and Eusebius (not the church historian, who was also present) argued for Arianism.  The council agreed with Athanasius, and made an official decree about the eternal nature, substance, and equality of Jesus with the Father.  This decree actually didn’t influence the church for very long, since Arianism grew exponentially after the council’s decree, leading to the excommunication of Athanasius.

What the Council Did Not Do:

The Council did not decide that Sunday would be the day of Christian worship.  That practice had been the norm since the days of the New Testament (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1, 2), and was unanimously confirmed by many Christian writings which predate the Council of Nicaea (Didache, Ignatius, Epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Epistle of the Apostles, Tertullian, and Eusebius).  Consider this quote from Justin Martyr around AD 155:

“And on the day called Sunday there is a gathering together in the same place of all who live in a city or a rural district.  We all make our assembly in common on the day of the Sun, since it is the first day, on which God changed the darkness and matter and made the world, and Jesus Christ our Savior arose from the dead on the same day.  For they crucified him on the day before Saturn’s day, and on the day after (which is the day of the Sun) he appeared to his apostles and taught his disciples these things” (Apology, I, 67:1-3, 7).

The Council did not have anything to do with the New Testament canon, which had already started forming in the days of the New Testament (2 Peter 3:15-16).  In the 2nd century, Irenaeus wrote about the four Gospels, “It is not possible for the Gospels to be more in number than they are nor again to be fewer.  Since there are four regions of the world in which we live, and four universal winds (and the church is scattered over all the earth), and the gospel is the pillar and support of the church and the spirit of life, it is fitting for the church to have four pillars” (Against Heresies 4.11.8).  His reasoning might not be great, but he does help us learn about the four gospels in his day.  Long before the council of Nicaea, certain books were being collected, copied, circulated, and viewed as Scripture.

Finally, the Council did not create the doctrine of the deity of Jesus, as Dan Brown claims.  The Gospel of John is replete with reference to the Deity of Jesus (John 1:1-3; 8:58; 20:28), and His equality with the Father (John 5:18-29).  This belief is corroborated with many other New Testament references (Matthew 3:3; 14:33; Mark 1:3; Acts 20:28; Hebrews 1:8; Titus 2:13, etc.).  Even Pliny the Younger, the governor of Bithynia at the beginning of the 2nd century, after learning more about Christians, wrote that they habitually gathered early and sang hymns “to Christ as to a god.”  Long before the council of Nicaea, Christians viewed Jesus as divine, eternal, and equal to the Father.

Dan Brown is a talented writer, but an early Christian historian he is not.  Myths about the Council of Nicaea rage, but knowing a few facts about it can help you be prepared when you’re called on to give an account for what you believe.

You Pharisee!

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“You Pharisee!”  “I’m a recovering Pharisee.”  “That’s just Pharisaical.”  Have you ever heard an accusation or admission that sounded like this?  I know I have.  These statements are generally made in reference to how strictly someone applies the Bible.  Terms often thrown out in conjunction with Pharisee are “legalist,” “ultra conservative,” “judgmental” and, well, “jerk.”  These are fairly common accusations and are sometimes fitting.  However, lumping “Pharisee” with these other derogatory terms can lead to a misunderstanding of what Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees was actually like.

The Faults of the Pharisees:

The Gospels portray the Pharisees as having a lot of negative traits.  They are pictured as elitist, arrogant, and uncaring.  They were hypocrites who taught others hard truths that they were unwilling to do themselves.  They had no compassion for the infirmed or those who were deemed “sinners.”  They cared more about the traditions of their fathers than the actual Law of God.  They cared more about getting praise from men than giving praise to God.  Their deeds of righteousness: giving, prayer, and fasting, focused primarily on self aggrandizement.  They made and broke their vows based on contrived technicalities.  Their goal was to try and trap Jesus with their dishonest Scripture games and word plays.  Simply, the Gospels do not paint a pretty picture of the Pharisees.

Jesus and the Pharisees:

The problem with the modern insult, however, is that it’s rarely used to talk about these negative traits.  It’s usually used to talk about “strictness” and “legalism.”  Interestingly, these are two things that the Pharisees are NOT rebuked for.  In fact, at times Jesus seems to rebuke them for not being strict enough.

Remember the Sermon on the Mount, one of the most challenging sections of Scripture you will ever read.  The call of the sermon is for a righteousness that “surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20).  It is to surpass their righteousness in sincerity (6:1), priority (6:33), but also in practice (5:21-48).  Whether the subject is anger, insults, violence, lust, adultery, divorce, honesty, revenge, self sacrifice, or love, Jesus calls His disciples to an incredibly high standard, unparalleled by anyone, far exceeding the Pharisees.

In Matthew 15 Jesus levels a harsh rebuke at the Pharisees, not for binding the law too strictly, but for ignoring the law in favor of traditions.  “Why do you transgress the commandments of God for the sake of your traditions?…by this you invalidate the word of God for the sake of tradition…In vain do they worship Me, Teaching for doctrines the precepts of men” (Matthew 15:3-9).  Jesus appears to have a pretty big problem with ignoring or transgressing the law.

In Matthew 23, Jesus makes it pretty clear that His problem is not how strictly the Pharisees teach the Law, but that they ignore important parts of it.  He says, “all that they [the Pharisees] tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds.  They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger” (Matthew 23:3-4).  Later in the chapter, Jesus will say, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law; justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.  You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23).

Notice several points in this passage.  1) Jesus saw some teachings of the law as more important than others. 2) The Pharisees stressed doing the less important stuff. 3) Jesus stressed doing ALL the stuff.

He didn’t rebuke the Pharisees for doing the less important parts right, but for neglecting the most important sections of Law.  His problem was that they “swallowing camels” not that they “strained gnats.”  Jesus ends verse 23 by saying, “these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”  If it is important Jesus want you to do it.  If it is less important, Jesus still wants you to do it.  The Pharisees majored in minors, and Jesus wanted them to major in all of it.

Are You a Modern Pharisee?

If you pick and choose which of God’s teachings to follow, then you may be a Pharisee.  If you show no compassion to the man on the street because it was his sins that got him there, then you may be a Pharisee.  If you care more about looking “conservative” or “sound” than sincere devotion to God, you may be a Pharisee.  If you bind beloved traditions on others, then you may be a Pharisee.  If you care more about winning arguments with word traps than you do souls, you may be a Pharisee.  If you expect more of others than you do of yourself, you may be a Pharisee.  But, if you are strict or even “legalistic” in your adherence to divine teaching, rest assured, you are following the path of Jesus more than the Pharisees.

Personal Relationship with God?

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“A personal relationship with God.”  I have heard the phrase so many times; both people in favor of it and people against it (which sounds really strange).  I’ve read books and heard sermons that say things like, “The Bible never mentions having a personal relationship with God.”  Then I’ve read other books and heard other sermons which have said, “All you need is a personal relationship with God.”  So what’s the deal?

A Personal Relationship:

I suppose we need to ask what is meant by “personal relationship.”  If a personal relationship means that you love God and He loves you back, then certainly this is a biblical idea.  If it means communication with God, then a personal relationship is absolutely essential.  If it means truly getting to “know” God, then Hosea and Jesus are both clear that we need this desperately (Hosea 2:19-20; 4:1, 6; 5:4; John 17:3, etc.).  If a personal relationship with God is a relationship of love, communication, and fellowship, then yes, we need all the personal relationship we can get.

I have a personal relationship with my wife because we know each other, care, love, respect, and communicate with each other.  I can trust her to be faithful to me and I will be faithful to her.  These are essential parts of a close relationship and they are essential parts of our relationship with God.  However, our relationship with God is not merely an individual thing.  If by “personal relationship with God” we mean an individual relationship as opposed to a communal relationship, then they have left behind a very important Bible teaching.

A Communal Relationship:

Our relationship with God was never meant to be an individual thing that we have on our own.  From the earliest days of Christianity, the followers of God have had a communal relationship.  They shared their money, enjoyed common and spiritual meals, and they worshipped together (Acts 2:41-47).  There are reasons why the Hebrews writer is emphatic in his call to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).  And again he calls Christians to, “consider how to stir one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25).  John writes, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

By virtue of becoming a Christian, we have entered into a fellowship, a community with every other Christian.  We are to encourage other Christians.  We need to continually meet with other Christians for worship and the Lord’s Supper.  We are not Christians on our own.  I have had far too many conversations with people who belong to no body of believers, who never attend worship, serve other Christians, or share in the Lord’s Supper, but they have hope in their “personal relationship” with Jesus.  They pray, read, and do all the individual things, while neglecting their God-given communal responsibilities.

God calls us to be part of a body, a movement, a group, an assembly, a church.  The bride of Christ in Ephesians 5 is the church as a whole (Ephesians 5:23, 25-27), not just the individual Christian.  When you are baptized, God actually adds you to His number, His church (Acts 2:41, 47).  So much of what the Christian is called to do is about others, not just about “me and God.”  There is no substitute for being part of a body of believers.  Certainly our relationship with God needs to be personal, communicative, and heartfelt.  But it also involves service, fellowship, worship, and unity with a community of believers.

Matthew 24:40-41

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“Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left.  Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left” (Matthew 24:40-41).

This passage is one of the most important for those who believe in the Rapture.  This post isn’t meant to go into much detail about Rapture theology, just to look at what we can learn from these two verses.  These verses vividly depict the separation of believer and nonbeliever at the coming of Christ.  Matthew 24 begins with a discussion of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70 (Matthew 24:1-35), then concludes with a discussion of the 2nd coming of Jesus at the end of time (Matthew 24:36-26:1).

This passage looks a lot like what will probably be depicted in the upcoming movie “Left Behind.”  One day there will be masses of people who disappear, vanish, and are taken, caught up, or raptured to be with God in heaven.  Everyone else will be left behind.  At least, that is a common view of the beginning of the end.  Is that the picture that this verse is really painting?

Let’s look at a few of the words used and try to figure this thing out.  The most important words to consider are probably “taken” and “left.”  The word for “taken” is also often translated as “received” (John 1:11; 14:3; 1 Corinthians 11:23; 15:1, 3; Galatians 1:9, 12; Colossians 2:6).  The word for “left” is translated numerous ways: “send away, divorce, forgive,” etc.  It has the idea of removal; whether removing sins, removing a spouse, or removing certain people.

A legitimate way to translate Matthew 24:40-41 could be, “Then two men will be in the field; one will be received and one sent away.  Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be received and one sent away.”  I think this is a preferable translation because it really gets at the heart of what the passage is teaching: there will be a swift separation that takes place at judgment with the coming of the Son of Man.

This is illustrated well in the parables that follow in Matthew 25.  Notice Matthew 25:32-33, “Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.”  To those on His right He will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom” (25:34).  But to those on the left, He will say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41).  Some will “come” and some must “depart.”  That sounds a lot like being “received” and being “sent away.”  Jesus ends the discussion by mentioning eternal separation, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

When Jesus comes, whether you are working in the field, grinding at the mill, living your everyday life and minding your own business, you will be judged.  Some will be received by the Lord and some will be sent away from Him.  No Rapture theology is needed to understand these verses.  But more important than simply understanding what will happen, is being prepared for it.  Make sure that you are prepared for the coming of the Lord.

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