Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tears in Wineskins

One of the great things about studying the Bible is finding out new things through the study of the customs and culture of the society of the ancient Hebrews. One little tidbit that I found was in Psalms 56:8. It reads, "You Yourself have recorded my wanderings. Put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your records?" In almost every English translation, the middle part of this verse uses the word 'bottle' as a place that God puts our tears.

That's a little blind to us. Why would someone put tears in a bottle? When we dig deeper we find that the Hebrew word translated 'bottle' is actually the Hebrew word for a wineskin. Well, then, why put tears in a wineskin?

To know why this image is used we have to understand one of the ways that wineskins were used. Of course, wineskins were used to hold wine, but scholars tell us that wineskins were also used to hold precious liquids. Wineskins were the best way to preserve various liquids just as pottery jars were used to store just about everything else. (The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in pottery jars.)

If God put our tears in wineskins, it must mean that they are very precious to Him. The psalmist asks God to store his tears as precious things. And He does. Sometimes we think that God is far away when we are suffering, but we must know that He is storing our tears and writing them in his book. They are preserved forever.

So when you read Psalm 56, remember what this meant when it was written. I think the translators used the word 'bottle' because we would be confused by the notion of storing tears in wineskins. But I prefer a very literal translation with explanatory footnotes at the bottom of the page. Then it speaks to us more clearly than trying to translate ancient customs in modern parlance. "Tears in a bottle" just does not do it for me.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Facts and Interpretation

Usually when Christians think of the word 'interpretation' they think of interpretation of the Bible. For this blog, however, our subject is the interpretation of facts. But, you may say, do facts need interpretation? Aren't they true all by themselves?

The answer to that is both yes and no. A firmly established fact by itself needs no interpretation. But facts do need interpretation when they are used to promote ideas. For example, the US Civil War (1861-1865) is a historical fact which contains many historical facts. But when we discuss the causes of the Civil War, we must interpret those facts.

One of the big controversies regarding the interpretation of facts is regarding the origins of the universe, the earth and mankind. Secular biology interprets the facts of scientific discovery one way (in accordance with the theory of evolution) and the Creation scientists interpret them another way. [For the purposes of this blog, I will use the laymen's term "theory" instead of the scientific term "hypothesis". The correct terminology is 'hypothesis of evolution' not the common term 'theory of evolution'.] And proponents of Intelligent Design interpret them yet a third way. (Let us not confuse Creation Science with Intelligent Design.)

All three of these views of our origins use the same scientific facts, but use them in different ways. Evolutionists claim that the facts support their theory and so do the Creation Scientists and Intelligent Design advocates. I will not, in this blog, talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each view. I only wish to point out that all qualify as science. Now evolution is the reigning view today, but that does not make it more scientific.

Evolutionists often claim that Creation Science is not science and should only be taught in religion classes (if at all) instead of biology class. They say that teaching Creation Science (or Intelligent Design) in biology class alongside evolution would be like teaching in a history class that the Holocaust never took place. And there some who deny that the Holocaust ever did take place. But that is a different thing entirely. The Holocaust deniers are not offering a different interpretation of historical facts but are denying well-established facts. It is a denial of facts that is the problem here. Certainly, we should not teach any form of history that expressly denies these facts. Creation Science and Intelligent Design do not deny facts; they interpret them differently.

Now let's examine some facts that you often hear cited in Christian circles. One of them is the statistic that people in churches are as likely to be divorced as those outside the church. I have heard this statistic for many years and I have no reason to doubt it. But how should we interpret this fact? Well, here is a case where we really need more information. Fortunately, deeper studies have apparently been done that shed more light on this subject. One study that I heard of examined people in churches and not only their marital status, but also their place in the church and their own history in it.

What they found is very interesting. They found that those who had the most longevity in church and were considered to be the most active and committed within the church were far less likely than the general population to have ever been divorced. Those who are more on the margins and are more recent members are far more likely than the general population to be divorced. It seems that people who have been recently divorced often go to church (or return to church) after their divorce.
So it may be that, overall, church members are as likely to be divorced as anyone else, but it is different for different groups within the church.

Now this makes sense to me. I do know some people who are deeply committed to the Lord and are very active in the church who also have been divorced. I do not have a problem with that. Divorce is not the unpardonable sin. However, I have noticed that more of the longtime 'core' members of the churches that I have attended generally are not.

What we need to take from all this is that we should not base our preaching on these kinds of statistics because statistics may give us one impression but further study and analysis leave quite another. I am not saying that statistics are always misleading, or that they should not be used. We just have to be careful with them and realize that they are not the last word and probably should not be the basis of our teaching and preaching.

There is another statistic that I have heard over and over for more than 30 years. And it sounds very plausible. I am sure you have heard it, usually from youth ministers. It goes something like this: "If a person is not saved by age 15 (or 14 or another age in that range) their chances of being saved are very slim". This is quoted to get church people to support youth programs.

You might be surprised by what I am about to say about this statistic. You might guess from my skeptical tone that I am about to tell you that this statistic is not true, but I am not going to do that. It is a true statistic; unfortunately, it is also completely irrelevant. The reason that it is irrelevant is because of what Jesus said. "Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." These are sobering words indeed. Jesus is telling us that only a few find eternal life. These words tell us something statistically. They tell us that only a minority will be saved. That means that if a person is not saved by ANY age, chances are they will not be saved at all. In other words, I could say that if a person is not saved by age 6, chances are that they will never be saved. And I could say the same thing about age 86 as well.

So the statistic about those who do not get saved by their teen years probably will not be saved at all is a true, but irrelevant, statistic. Now, as a person who was saved at age 15 I want to say that I am fully in favor of youth groups and of evangelizing teens. I do not, however, think that we should use this phony statistic to bolster our case. It is unnecessary. If God is leading you to work with the youth, then do so. If you want more support then tell others and let God lead them.

Whenever some statistic seems to bolster our beliefs or arguments, Christians tend to accept it with no examination. This is not good. We have often been taken as suckers. We do not really need statistics to back up our biblical perspective or our ministry. Isn't the Word of God and the leading of the Spirit enough for us? We need to lose our skepticism of the promises of God and the prompting of the Holy Spirit and increase our skepticism of statistics. I think we have it backwards sometimes.

In conclusion, the church needs to use facts and statistics very carefully. Even if they back your own view, do not accept them without examination or further analysis. If more or better information is not available, then lay them aside until you can correctly interpret them.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Liberal Theology is Idolatry

Liberal theology should not be confused with liberal political or social views. In Christian theology, a liberal is a person, claiming to be a Christian, but denying certain fundamental truths that Christians have held for 2000 years. Two truths that liberal Christians do not believe is in the infallibility of Scripture and the deity of Jesus Christ. There have been those who believe in the infallibility of Scripture and have still denied the deity of Christ through the ages but it requires that one read the scriptures in some extraordinary ways. For example, the Jehovah's Witnesses have their own corrupted translation of the Bible in order to deny Christ's full deity.

Liberal Christians use the scriptures in the way that they see fit (in a "scholarly" manner, of course) but do not hold that the scriptures are altogether true. They pick and choose what to believe, or not believe, according to the thinking of the age in which they live. They interpret it as metaphor as it pleases their own modern sensibilities and decry any sort of 'literalism' that would require them to actually believe what it says. They generally interpret clearly historical events such as the Resurrection of Christ as something that happened to the disciples rather that something that happened to Jesus. They deny the physical reality of the Resurrection while claiming to accept the spiritual import of it.

In the nineteenth century, liberal Bible scholars began to interpret Jesus according to their own liking. They felt free to reject the deity of Jesus while accepting him as a great moral teacher or a prophet or whatever suited them. Another liberal scholar, Albert Schweitzer, wrote a book in the early 20th century pointing out that each of these new views of Jesus turned out to support that scholars view. Their own individual "Jesus" agreed with them completely. How convenient. It just so happened that Jesus believed whatever that scholar believed.

What was happening here was obvious. These scholars were trying to make Jesus in their own image and likeness. They were making an idol out of him. It is no different from what Isaiah told the unfaithful Israelites. "He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. It is man's fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, Ah! I am warm; I see the fire. From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, Save me; you are my god." Here is a description of the ancient Israelite making an idol for himself. Isaiah shows clearly how foolish this is.

This is no different than the modern, liberal Christian making Jesus into whoever they want him to be. They are making him into an idol. They use their tools (critical scholarship) like the workman in Isaiah. And like that workman they apply the same tools to God's Word that they would to any common book. They have no respect or awe for the Word or for the real Jesus as depicted in the New Testament.

We cannot pick and choose what aspect of Jesus we want to believe in. We have to accept those things about him that offend modern sensibilities (things like miracles, pronouncement of judgments to come, and especially who he claimed to be). We must accept things we do not like and assume that God knows better than we do.

What the modern liberal Christian do is really worship his or her own thoughts. They do not worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. They set up idols in their minds and expect us all to bow down to their 'enlightened' views.

This should be a warning to us conservative, Bible-believing Christians as well. We must make sure that we are not trying to make Jesus into Someone who supports whatever we think or believe. We have no right to believe anything but God's Word. We need to accept what the Word says no matter how it fits our personal theology.

Many times I have had trouble accepting certain things in the Bible because they did not seem right to me. I accepted them anyway. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. (Liberals think that their thoughts are above the Word.) As I have matured in the Lord I began to more fully comprehend some of the things that I had trouble with earlier. I gained wisdom. "[God] lays up sound wisdom for the righteous: he is a shield to them that walk upright. He keeps the paths of judgment, and preserves the way of his saints. Then you will understand righteousness, and judgment." Proverbs 2:7-9

So let's not follow down the liberal path of idolatry. Let's renew our minds to the Word.