Tuesday, December 24, 2013

O Faithful Town of Bethlehem

I was just watching a newscast (it's Christmas Eve) and they were mentioning Jesus' birthplace, Bethlehem. They also showed a map of modern Israel with an arrow and dot showing the approximate location of Bethlehem. There was only one problem. They had the wrong location. They had Bethlehem in about the place where Nazareth is. Nazareth is in Galilee; Bethlehem is in Judea, south of Jerusalem a few miles. Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem late in Mary's pregnancy.

But did you ever wonder why God wanted Jesus to be born in Bethlehem? Now it does not seem to be a historical accident. It is not by chance that Caesar Augustus ordered everyone back to the place of their families' origins. There is only one other time in Roman history when such a demand was made regarding a census. Besides, this was not even the regular census which occurred every 14 years. It was a special one. A special census was rarely done.

We might be tempted to simply say that Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem to fulfill Micah's prophecy that the messiah would be born there. But things do not happen just to fulfill prophecy; the event prophesied has significance. Until recent months, I had not thought too much about it. I just sort of figured that Jesus was the son of David and God wanted Him to be born where David was born.

I think that there is more to it than that. This is something that God seems to have gone to some lengths to have happen. Is there something special about Bethlehem that motivated this whole thing? I believe so.

I recently taught the book of Ruth in a bible study. You know the story of Ruth: Ruth the Moabitess was daughter-in-law to Naomi, an Israelite woman who lost her husband and two sons-in-law and had nobody to support her. Ruth, being widowed as well but younger than Naomi, could marry again, have children, etc., but chose to stay with Naomi and to make Naomi's God her own. Ruth and Naomi go back to the town where Naomi was from - Bethlehem.

Ruth ends up marrying a man from Bethlehem, Boaz, and saving herself and her mother-in-law from dire poverty. It is a beautiful story of love and faithfulness. I have digressed a bit, but we naturally focus on Ruth and Naomi and Boaz while not seeing something very important about Bethlehem.

Bethlehem seems to have been a place of faithfulness to the Lord. Remember that this all happens during the time of the Judges, before Israel had any king. This period was marked by a repeated falling into idolatry. Bethlehem was an exception to this. Bethlehem remained faithful to God. Notice how Boaz and the other Bethlehemites speak to one another. "And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem. And he said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you!” And they answered, “The Lord bless you.” (Ruth 2:4) They spoke to one another like believers today talk to each other.

Another thing we need to see is that they practiced the Law of Moses, though not in some kind of pharisaic manner. They used the Law to bring blessing to those Israelites who had fallen on hard times or were poor. The Law stated that the Israelites were not to reap the edges of the fields but leave them to the poor and needy for their sustenance. This Boaz did and it seems to have been the practice in Bethlehem. Ruth gathered after the reapers and gains the special notice of Boaz.

More importantly, the Law also provided a way for those who had fallen on hard times to reclaim their inheritance and posterity. Naomi's husband had land around Bethlehem, but Naomi was not capable of farming it. So her husband was going to lose his heritage and land since his sons were dead. Boaz marries Ruth and becomes what the Bible calls the kinsman-redeemer (depending on your translation). A close kinsman could marry the widow (in this case, the daughter-in-law of the widow), take the land on behalf of the original owner's family and raise up sons who could reclaim the land and continue the family's line. (This is what the Law was really about, not about keeping all kinds of arcane rules for the purpose of ritual purity.)

Of course, we know that Ruth and Boaz have a great-grandson, David, who becomes the king of Israel and from whom Christ will come. But notice that David grows up in this place of faithfulness to God. I do not think that is an accident. God has always intended that succeeding generations be faithful to Him. God can do great things through faithful families. God chose Abraham for this very reason. "Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him. For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him." (Genesis 18:18-19)

I really believe that God wanted His Son associated with a place of faithfulness to Himself. He wanted Jesus to be born in a place that for generation after generation had followed the Lord. In fact, it seems that the mother and supposed father that God had for His Son were also these kind of faithful Israelites. At the time of Jesus' birth, there were many who thought they were God's favorites. The Pharisees, in particular, thought that by firm adherence to their traditions they would be righteous. Jesus told them that their hearts were far from God. Yet Joseph and Mary obeyed the Lord when He directed them by His angels. They seem to be what the OT calls the "faithful remnant".

God loves faithfulness. He rewards faithfulness. He promotes those who are faithful rather than those who are talented or have perfect doctrine or are scrupulous about religious rituals or who never miss the mark (sin). We know, for example, that David sinned, but he was quick to repent and get right with God. I don't know about you, but I can relate to those in the Bible that have sinned rather than those like Daniel who never seem to miss it. Daniel, of course, was faithful. But other saints of old were faithful despite the fact that they sinned sometimes. It is nice to know that one does not have to be perfect to be counted faithful.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Chicken or the Egg?, or return to Sola Scriptura

We have all heard the question: What came first, the chicken or the egg? We as Christians could also ask another question: What came first, the Bible or the church? The Roman Catholic view on the this question is in favor of the church. When the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century rejected some long-held Catholic beliefs for their view of things like justification by faith based on what the Bible said, Catholics said that there would be no Bible without the church because the church chose which books were allowed into the canon of scripture. Hence, the church preceded the Bible and gave it authority. Therefore, the church (meaning to them the RC Church) is the authoritative interpreter of scripture and is thereby infallible.

Protestants rightly argued that the church only affirmed the Bible which is the written Word of God. The apostles and their immediate followers wrote the books of the New Testament. The church circulated those documents and most of them were immediately and universally accepted by the churches. Now, "the churches" here does not mean any organization that developed out of the earliest churches (i.e., the RC and Orthodox churches), but the people, including, but not exclusively, the ministers of the church. The four gospels and Paul's writings were accepted as authoritative writings right away. Even when the NT was still being written, Paul's epistles were being called scripture. "Paul also, according to the wisdom given him wrote to you; as in all his letters, speaking in them of these things; in which some things are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist, as they do the other Scriptures." (2 Peter 3:16)*

Some still note that it took time to write the New Testament and that the early church had no New Testament to read. True, but they did have the same Word of God that we do, only it was preached and not written down yet. The revelation of God's Word was given to the early church because the apostles had revelation from God and most of them were direct followers of Jesus. That same Word that they preached became inscripturated as they wrote down what God had revealed to them. The church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief cornerstone." (Ephesians 2:20) The church is built on the Word.The written Word and the preached Word are the same thing in different forms. The church simply recognized the New Testament as the written Word of God based on the apostolic witness.

A New Chicken or Egg question: Do we put Jesus or the Bible first?**

The RC view and the Protestant view of this is clearly at odds. But now we have Protestants who are as confused as the Catholics. A prominent pastor recently said this, "The foundation of our faith is not the Scripture. The foundation of our faith is not the infallibility of the Bible. The foundation of our faith is something that happened in history." He means, of course, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. That might sound good, but it is wrong. It is true that we are saved by the crucifixion and resurrection, but our faith in that is based on the Word of God which we have in the Bible. "Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God." (Romans 10:17) That is the Word preached by the apostles and made into scripture. That is the basis of our faith. We cannot be saved without this Word. If Jesus dies on the cross and nobody hears about it, it does us nobody any good.

Jesus, the living Word, is God's revelation to us, . That revelation was preached by the apostles and written in the New Testament. Some, like this pastor, think that they are exalting Jesus by lowering their view of scripture. That cannot happen. You cannot have a low view of the Bible and a high view of Jesus. Our attitude towards the Bible, the written Word, determines the place that Jesus, the living Word, holds in our life.

The Protestant Reformers held a high view of scripture. Part of that what was called 'Sola Scriptura', Latin for 'Scripture Alone'. This is "the teaching that Scripture is the Church's only infallible and sufficient rule for deciding issues of faith and practices that involve doctrines" (Theopedia). In other words, the Bible is not only perfect in what it affirms but it has everything we need for the Christian life.

Amen to that. No personal revelation or prophecy or education or enlightened conscience can or should be put above the Bible which is God's Word to us today.

*The church took a couple of centuries to bring together and approve the books that would be put into the New Testament. It was not done, as a famous novelist suggested, by a group of bishops wanted to insist on one of a variety of Christianities supposedly present in the fourth century. (I am referring to the Council of Nicea where the 27 books of the NT were accepted, but not newly accepted. The bishops only agreed that what had already been accepted was, in fact, correct.) The church used several criteria for what constituted the new (testament) scriptures. They had to be written by an apostle or the companion of an apostle. They had to be generally useful to the churches. In other words, they could not be a message to an individual or a church that had no application to other individuals and churches. And they must agree with the apostolic tradition passed down through the churches and originating with the apostles themselves.

** I am aware that the chicken and egg analogy does not work exactly in the second case where some Protestants tried to put Jesus 'above' the Bible. It's just a literary device, so I think it works anyway.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Judgment and Justice

One of the things that is hard for Christians to accept is divine judgment. I do not mean the simple fact of judgment, but that some of the judgments found in the Bible seem a bit extreme. We have God ordering the Israelites to conquer Canaan and to slaughter its inhabitants. Noah builds a boat to save a remnant of humanity, but saves only his own family. The rest are wiped out in a flood. We see God's own people, the Israelites, decimated and taken into captivity. Even when a remnant returns, most are still scattered all over the pagan world.

And those are just temporal judgments. Eternal judgment is far worse. Multitudes are cast into a Lake of Fire to burns forever after the Great White Throne Judgment. There are indications that the torment of unbelievers will last forever. It seems to go beyond what is just and necessary even for the worst of sinners.

The question we have to ask ourselves about this is twofold. First, are we willing to accept the Bible for what it says no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel? Second, are we willing to set aside our own judgments on these matters and accept God's?

It used to be very simple. Those who believed in Christ and the scriptures accepted the judgments as being from God as the just punishment for sins committed. Those who did not believe the scriptures rejected the judgments, often calling them unjust.

Now we have a different situation. Some claiming to be orthodox Christians are now rejecting these judgments as relics of an ignorant and superstitious people or as errors added to the Bible by ancients who, unlike us, enjoy this sort of thing. Like many unbelievers today they say that God would never do those things. After all, did we not just pass through a period of history when the Nazis tried to commit genocide against the Jews. Was this not condemned by all?

But then we could respond that in order to stop the Nazis from committing such atrocities that we had to kill many thousands of them. We bombed their cities and decimated their armies. And we do not feel bad about it now. Why? Because we were preventing the evil from continuing and punishing those responsible. That is what God does when He brings judgment.

Those who deny that God brought the biblical judgments have set themselves above God and judged Him for His actions. I even read just today from the pen of an evangelical who said that God put the so-called Canaanite 'genocide' in the Bible so that we would despise genocide. Really? That's absurd. God did not order judgment on the Canaanites to teach us how bad genocide is. He did it to warn us of the consequences of our sins.

God judges sin. Those who reject Jesus, the sacrifice for our sins, will receive a greater judgment than we might think is due. This ought to cause us to fear and to live in the fear of the Lord. The book of Hebrews says that it is a "fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." We have forgetten about this side of God. We only want to acknowledge the pleasant things that God promises us. We have forgotten his just judgments. "Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness,[f] if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off." (Romans 11:22)

The greater His goodness is, the greater His severity is. None us wants to see people judged. (At least, I hope we don't.) We want people saved and set free by the power of God. That's why we have the Great Commission.

It's our job to preach the gospel to everyone. Yes, even to those of another religion. They are lost and they need a Savior. God loves them all. His love is unconditional, but His forgiveness and salvation are not. They require faith in the Risen Savior. Love drives us to seek and save those who are lost. Love does not pretend that divine judgment is not a reality; it makes us want to get this gospel to everyone as soon as we can.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Bible interpretation - Darwinist and Newtonian

It seems to me that evangelicals fall into two categories when it comes to Bible interpretation. I will call them "Darwinist" and "Newtonian". I am not writing this to attack the theory of evolution (which I might do another time) or to put forth the idea that physics proves the existence of God (which it does). Additionally, I am not interested in skeptics of the Bible, no matter how educated, as I generally don't bother with them at all. I am talking about Christians who say they believe the Bible gives us revelation from God.

The reason I am using the names of two scientists is because some like to imply that their approach to scripture is "scientific" though it is not nor can it ever be. Modernist tools for Bible interpretation, called the 'higher criticism', are not scienctific at all. Science cannot help us very much in intepreting the Bible. But since the term 'science' is presumptuously used in the field of Bible interpretation and scientific ideas are considered to be authoritative in our culture, I will use a couple of ideas from science and see if they have helped form our thinking with regards to the scriptures. I think they have.

First, I want to look at the Newtonian approach. Isaac Newton, who gave us an understanding of the basic laws of physics, showed us that all things in the universe function by the same set of laws. He demonstrated to us that physical laws are universal and that the whole of creation functions according these laws in a complete system without any outside agency necessary to make all things work together. Whatever new things we might discover or invent has no effect on the laws of nature themselves. These laws are fixed and permanent. The law of gravity still applies even when we learned to make airplanes that fly. Other laws of nature would tell us how to 'overcome' the law of gravity in order to fly, but this would not abrogate the law itself. Progress comes from applying the laws of nature and understanding them better, not by pretending that we can make up new ones.

What could this idea have in common with Bible interpretation? Quite a bit. The concept that there the laws and principles laid out in the Bible and that these are eternal, not subject to change, is an idea that has been around since the Bible was written. These biblical principles can be applied to new situations, but the Bible itself does not change. Laws against coveting your neighbor's things apply to things that we have now that they did not have. We have cell phones and cars and lots of other stuff. We cannot say that the laws against coveting do not apply in these situations because things were different back then. The outward things may be different but the law against coveting still applies. We just apply it to new things. We may think of ancient people as scientifically ignorant, but they were not ignorant of what coveting was. They understood it as well as we do.

This newtonian principle can be used with any eternal principle in the Bible. Notice that I said eternal principle and not all laws or principles. Many OT laws are no longer in force. We do not sacrifice animals anymore when we sin, we ask for forgiveness based on Jesus' sacrifice. Hence, there is no more need for animal sacrifices nor to keep many of the kosher laws and laws of uncleanness. They were never intended to be permanent. "The Law [of Moses] became our tutor until Christ came, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that the faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor." Galatians 3:24-25 These laws are compared to the instructions that we give to children like "don't touch the stove". This is to protect the child until he is old enough not to accidently burn himself. This "law" is not permanent for the child but performs a protective function until he is mature. But the child will always be governed by the laws of nature. He can always burn himself if he is not careful. There is a permanent principle that always applies.

We have to read the Bible carefully to determine which instructions were eternal and which were temporary. The apostle Paul told Gentile believers that they did not have to be circumcised but that they did have to obey the laws regarding sexual morality. Paul condemned the actions of a church member who was living with his father's wife, something specifically forbidden in Leviticus 18:8.

Well, what about this Darwin fellow? Are we talking about the creation vs. evolution debate? No, not directly, though we could apply it there. I want to focus on an approach to the Bible that Darwin's theory might back up. Charles Darwin postulated that we humans are not direct creations of God but that we evolved from lower creatures. Some have taken this idea of evolution and applied it to all sorts of things. They look at human progress and say that we have come from a primitive, even brutal, state and have evolved into modern, enlightened people. Our ancestors (supposedly) were illiterate, patriarchal, prejudiced and just plain stupid. They held many unscientific ideas and believed things like slavery and genocide were perfectly okay.

But now, according to social darwinists, we have evolved to the point where we realize that many of the things that seemed fine in the past are really evil. The biggest example of this is the issue of slavery which was practiced in nearly every society since time immemorial. Now we know better. What, then, does a Bible-believing Christian with this kind of mindset do? We have the Bible, written thousands of years ago which seems to teach that God ordered the Canaanite genocide and, at least, permitted, if not ordained slavery. How does that person deal with the Bible? Can this person accept the Bible as fully inspired by a good God? Or, better, what paradigm can a believer use to bring together his belief in the Bible and his social darwinist assumptions?

Well, for many, the key is in the idea of evolution itself. Since, as is assumed by many, people were lacking in understanding of what was truly just and moral, then God must have planted in the Bible seeds, so to speak,that would sprout later. God has put things in the Bible that we would only truly understand when we were more enlightened and evolved. There are projections in the Bible that we are supposed to pay attention to. They give us hints as to how we should apply the Bible today. Hence, we do not always follow even the instructions given to us in the New Testament, but we are to use our evolved understanding (our current modern ethos) to determine what we should do or not do.

So instead of taking our cue from the Bible where the marriage ideal is one man-one woman until one dies we see how marriage 'evolves' and try to figure out where it should be today. There is polygamy in the Old Testament, but Jesus and Paul insist on monogamy in the New. Today, some people say that legal marriage is unnecessary, but that modern people only need "loving, committed relationships", an abstraction marriage. So sex may occur outside the marriage bond as long as it is not casual or promiscuous. And now some are saying that two men or two women ought to be able to get married. After all, we think that "loving, committed relationships" are good for any couple and for society as a whole.

But then we have those pesky rules against homosexual activities of any kind. What to do with those? Well, reinterpret them, of course. And this is not that hard to do if you make certain assumptions. If you assume that the homosexual activities condemned in the Bible were only of a certain variety, then you can justify others. It is alleged by these "darwinist" intepreters that ancient homosexual behavior was only of the violent or promiscuous kind and that they were too primitive and ignorant and unevolved to have the kind of "loving, committed relationships" that the Bible is supposed to approve of. It does not matter to them that homosexual relationships are always emphatically condemned in the scriptures no matter what the circumstances. They simply assume that God only condemned it for a primitive and ignorant people who were incapable of the enlightened and egalitarian relationships that we now have.

I have to say that I find this kind of reasoning to be very ironic. The assumption that ancient people were prejudiced and that we are evolved and enlightened is nothing but prejudice against ancient people. It prejudges them as unenlightened and stupid. It prejudges the biblical writers as being unable to understand the revelation that they themselves wrote. Some Bible scholars who do not believe in literal Adam and Eve acknowledge that both Jesus and Paul believed in a literal Adam and Eve, but that they were mistaken. Really? This is human hubris at its worst. To presume that you know better than the Son of God the meaning of the Scriptures is nothing short of blasphemy. But let's move on.

Is it not true that progress has been made in many areas? Has God not raised up many who have helped us see things that we were blind to before? Is this not progress? Sure it is. We have to examine how this progress came about. It did not come about because someone saw the general direction the Bible was going and reasoned accordingly. No, these things come about by applying the eternal principles of the Bible that was previously ignored.

Our progress has come not because we did not understand new some revelation that the Bible only suggests. Rather it has come by someone calling us to heed the eternal principles that we have ignored. Newton discovered the law of gravity; he did not invent it. He did not say, "I think that we ought to adopt the law of gravity. This is progress!" No, he discovered a principle that was there all the time. Dr. Martin Luther King was not a progressive with regards to the Bible. He called us to live according to the principles that had always been there. One does not need to radically reinterpret the Bible to see that it speaks clearly against all racism and prejudice. The problem is not with the Bible. It is with us. The problem is, and has always been, human sin not a lack of evolution. The solution to this problem is not interpreting the Bible according to our current culture, but humbly applying the principles of the Bible even if they go against our own thinking.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Are We Reading the Bible Too Narrowly or Not Narrowly Enough?

You might think that those who believe that the Bible is the Word of God would interpret it pretty much the same way. After all, believing, as we do, that the Bible does not contradict itself (a corollary of the truth stated in the first sentence) severely limits how one can interpret most passages. You may be led to a pacifist position regarding warfare by reading the commandment "You shall not kill (murder)", but you should be dissuaded from that interpretation by considering the fact that God actually commanded the Israelites to go to war at various times and authorized the death penalty for a wide variety of offenses against His Law.

So there are limits as to how far we Bible-believing Christians ought go in our explanations of Bible passages. But that hardly stops us from disagreeing about practically any Bible verse. We all have different approaches as to how we interpret the Bible, and one way in which we differ is in how narrowly or broadly we apply certain truths.

Perhaps the most prominent example of this is the well-known passage in Philippians 4:13 which reads, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." It is usually taken to mean that Jesus Christ will give us strength and ability for whatever task we have in front of us. If we have to do something that seems beyond our normal capability, God will gives the strength and power to do it, especially if God has called us to do that very thing.

There are some, though, that disagree with this view of what Paul is saying here. They argue that this verse of scripture does not mean that at all. Rather they think that the above view takes the verse out of context and gives it a meaning that the context does not support. And I partially agree. Here is the part that I agree with: The text in its context says:

"Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me."

In other words, Paul is not talking about God giving him the ability to do something that he is called to do by Him. Instead, he is saying that God has given him the ability to be either in a state of prosperity or in a state of need. It has to do with his material condition, not anything else. Paul could handle life when his needs were not met and he could handle life when things were going great.

Those who say this, who read the passage in its narrowest sense, have a good point here. By simply quoting verse 13 we are lifting the verse out of context and applying well beyond that context. It seems to take on a different meaning.

That's a pretty fair point. We always must be careful to interpret things in their context. Take a simple example. A man pushes an old woman, knocking her to the ground. Another man does the same thing. Are these bad men? Before we can say for sure, we must consider the context. The first man pushed an old woman off a bus. He is a bad man. The second pushed an old woman out of the way of a bus that was going to hit her. He is a good man. We must consider the context to judge what has happened.

Let's get back to our disagreement about the Bible passage. Is it right to take Philippians 4:13 and apply it to all kinds of situations that were not referred to in the rest of the passage? Many would say that we should not. We should only apply the verse to a person's material circumstances. This would be the narrowest reading of the text.

And we must take the passage in its context to determine its meaning. After all, if one lifts the verse out of context and applies it absolutely, it could be meant to say about anything. What if I quoted this verse and said that I was now going to leap over the Empire State Building because Christ will give my strength for ANYTHING. You would be right to say that I have interpreted the passage far beyond the original intention of the author. That is taking this scripture way too broadly.

My take: I do not want to take Bible passages out of context and make them mean something that was not intended. But this does not mean that I will only apply them exactly the way that the author of the passage does. We must always remember that there is a divine author above the human author and a divine intention above the human intention.

Despite my assertion that we must interpret scripture in its context and not isolated from the verses around it, I also know that God is the author of the whole Bible and He has put principles in the Bible that we can use that may go beyond the immediate context. This is especially true when there are other scriptures that back up our application of a principle beyond the context.

So I do not have a problem with using the principle of Phil 4:13 "I can do all things through Christ" and applying it to things like God helping us in difficult circumstances of different kinds and God giving us the ability to do the things that He has called us to do. I think that is legitimate. There is an abundance of evidence in the Bible that God does give His people strength and ability for whatever they are called to do.

So - we do not want to be too narrow in our reading of the Bible, though we must understand the context of the passage. We do not want to absolutize it and make it say something way beyond the Bible. We can apply the principles of the Bible in the context of the whole Bible and not just the immediate context.