Monthly Archives: September 2009

Scattered

Acts 8:1b (NIV)
1 On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

On the same day that Stephen was stoned, a huge persecution against the Church broke out in Jerusalem.  Acts 8 and 9 go on to tell us that a young man named Saul was instrumental in moving this persecution forward, going from house to house, dragging off men and women and putting them into prison.  Later on Saul (Paul) would state that when these men and women were put to death, he had cast his vote against them (Acts 26:10).

It would be very easy for the Church, under these circumstances, to wonder what was going on.  Weren’t they God’s special people?  Hadn’t He promised to never leave them or forsake them?  This surely didn’t seem right.  You can see the same kind of mindset in the Church today.  When seemingly bad things happen to Christians, there is a lot of mental hand-wringing that goes on, trying to figure out why God has allowed this terrible thing to happen.

But I think that there is more here than meets the eye.  Before Jesus left, he told the disciples who were wondering when He was going to restore the kingdom to Israel, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:7-8 (NIV)   Many scholars have noted that this statement/command is actually a good outline of the entire book of Acts:  the Church began in Jerusalem, and then expanded into all Judea and Samaria, and then finally, through the apostle Paul and the other apostles, expanded out to the ends of the earth.

But we often have a problem seeing HOW this expansion got started.  We are not given an exact timeline, but this persecution seems to have taken place a few years after the day of Pentecost, when the Church was birthed.  During that time the number of Christians had grown, even among prominent Jews and priests, and the administrative issues of the Church had grown (see Acts 6:1-7).  But in all of this time, there never seems to have been any great motive to move out of Jerusalem.  And then came the showdown with Stephen and the subsequent persecution.  Things became so terrible that everyone except the apostles were scattered.  And where did they scatter to?  Throughout Judea and Samaria, exactly as Jesus had foretold.

We see the same kind of thing after the flood.  God’s commandment to Noah and his sons was, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” Genesis 9:1 (NIV)  So did they obey that command?  In Genesis 11:1-4 we are told:  Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”   In other words, even though God had told them to scatter out and fill the whole earth, their plan was to build this city and tower specifically to keep that from happening!  But of course, God confused their languages so that they couldn’t understand each other, and then they broke up (probably by language groups) and scattered over the whole earth (Genesis 11:8-9).

Now some people may have a hard time believing that God would use a persecution just to get the disciples to scatter out into Judea and Samaria.  But we have to remember that God’s plan was NOT to form a Church in Jerusalem that anyone in the world could come to if they wanted to.  It was to take the good news, the Gospel, to everyone wherever they lived (Matthew 28:19-20).  That’s why the first word of the Great Commission is GO, not STAY.  And if the Church wouldn’t go, if they got so occupied with their own doings in Jerusalem that they forgot the very reason that they had been brought into existence in the first place, then it would be reasonable for God to do whatever it took to get them back on track.  And there is no reason why that wouldn’t include allowing a great persecution to break out.

We need to think about this as we go about the business of our local congregations.  So many of us are so occupied with what is going on within the walls of our churches that we really don’t think about the GO part of the Great Commission.  If we consider it at all, we usually think about it in terms of worldwide missions to Africa or Asia or some ohter foreign country.  But in a very real sense, if our congregations are our Jerusalem, then the places in which we work and shop and play are the Judea and Samaria of our lives.  We are directed to reach out into these areas with the good news of the Gospel.  If we don’t, then I think God is justified in doing whatever it takes to knock us out of our comfort zones and into the world so we will spread the message of reconciliation.

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God Alone

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:2-3 (NIV)

The Israelites, when the came out of Egypt, were not the monotheistic people that the patriarchs were.  It had been 400 years since the Lord had last talked to Jacob, and for those 400 years, the Israelites had been steeped in Egyptian culture and theology.  It is very likely that their theology was a combination of Jacob’s understanding of God Almighty (El Shaddai) and the understanding about how gods in general worked that was prevalent all throughout that area at the time.  In those days, people tended to believe in “local” gods; that each god had a specific location where they were able to exercise their power, and so you kind of had to figure out which god ruled over the are in which you were living so you would know how to worship him or her.  (For remnants of this belief, check out 1 Kings 20:23-25.)

So when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, one of the first things that He had to do was to teach the Israelites who He was – what kind of a God He was, and what He required of His people.  And the first thing that He did was to give them a few “general theology” lessons:

There are NOT many gods.  There is only one God, and He is Him!
The Israelites are not to just insert God into their pantheon, or group of gods that they believe in.  Instead, they are to worship Him, and Him alone.
The true God does not have a form that can be seen by people, so He cannot be depicted by any kind of an idol or statue like the nations around them used to depict their gods.  Threfore, the Israelites are not to use any kind of visual depiction of Him in their worship.

The Israelites didn’t pull this off right off the bat.  First there was that whole episode with the golden calf (Cf., Exodus 32:1-6 and following).  Then, after the conquest of the Promised Land, they started worshiping the fertility gods, Baal and Asherah.  And finally, after Solomon’s death, Jeroboam, the king of the northern tribes, made two golden calfs and installed them in temples in the north of the country so the people wouldn’t go to the Temple in Jerusalem.  It wasn’t until after the Babylonian Captivity that the people started to take God’s requirements seriously that they not worship any god but Him.

So by Jesus’ day, you wouldn’t be able to find any graven image or idol in any house of a devout Jew.  But was that the end of idolatry in Israel?  Unfortunately, no.  The tendency of our depraved hearts is to continually put something other than God at the center of our lives.  And it can be anything.  For the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day, it was the Law of Moses; they actually put it higher than God Himself, to the point that they actually misidentified Him and put Him to death when He showed up in the flesh in fulfillment of His prophecies.

Throughout history, people all over the world have put so many things in the number one spot in their lives.  Sometimes it has been literal idols or false gods, like the Greeks and Romans and Hindus.  Sometimes it has been fame or money that gets elevated to the top spot.  These days it tends to be the “stuff” in our lives; things like new cars, new houses, computers and big screen TVs.  For some it is online games, or gambling, or movies, or drugs.  Any and all of these things can actually become something that we spend our time, energy, and best efforts for, elevating them to the place where God is supposed to be.  But the same rule applies today as it did that day at the base of Mount Sinai:  “You shall have no other gods before me.”

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Job’s Faithfulness

I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread. Job 23:12 (NIV) 

Job, as part of his defense against the accusations of sin by his friends, gives us this verse to show how truly he has followed the commands of God.  He clearly declares that not only has he NOT departed from the commands that have come from the lips of God, but he has treasured the words of God more than his daily bread.

How many of us today could make that claim?  How many of us can truly say that we have not departed from God’s commands?  How many of us could really truly say that we would rather read and study our Bibles than eat?

Some might say that a person would have to be some kind of religious nut to say those kinds of things.  Or they might say that Job was an exceptional person, a real saint, whereas we are just normal flesh-and-blood people.  Nobody could possibly obey God completely, or so the usual argument goes.  And (for some strange reason) this kind of reasoning brings comfort to us and seems to relieve some of the conviction we feel when someone brings up this kind of verse.  But is that reasoning true?

It’s amazing to me, especially as a member of a holiness denomination, a person who can testify to the saving and sanctifying power of God in my own life, how many people, even “good Christians,” believe that we cannot live our daily lives without sinning.  I am regularly shocked by how many people have discarded the biblical statements:  “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” (Ephesians 1:4 NIV); “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14 NIV); “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14-16 NIV).  (And that’s just the NEW Testament!  There are dozens more in the Old Testament!)

Some people have tried to play with the words to lower the bar of holiness that is expected of people, declaring that holy doesn’t actually mean holy; it just means something more like “saved.”  In other words, as long as you have said the Sinner’s Prayer, then you are saved, and you are considered holy by God even while you are still sinning.  But if God actually meant that, why would he say “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do.”  Doesn’t that imply that our holiness is to resemble in some important ways the holiness of God?

Some other people say that some people are holy, but the majority of Christians really can’t pull off holiness, so obviously, God gives most of us a pass on real holiness and just expects it from the “super saints.’  But I can’t find anywhere in my Bible where God lists two classes of Christians, or has different standards as if there were two classes of Christians.  Instead, passion for God and a real holiness that results from that passion seems to be the expected norm for ALL Christians.

The apostle John holds the bar high in ways that are not open to misinterpretation:

 Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.  But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. 
 Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.  He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.  No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.  This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.
1 John 3:4-10 (NIV)

 The fact is, real holiness, real ethical purity, is and always has been the standard for God’s people, both in the Old Testament times and in the New Testament times.  And we in the New Testament dispensation have something that can actually remove from us our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh; give us compliant and obedient hearts instead of the rebellious ones that we were born with.  And that something, actually someONE, is the Holy Spirit.  The Old Testament saints received the Holy Spirit in spurts, but we can have the Holy Spirit as a permanent resident in our hearts, actively conveying to us God’s presence as well as changing us from the inside out into the very image of Jesus.

 Some people seem to be threatened by this high standard of holiness.  Some even complain that such a high standard is unrealistic and discouraging to the ordinary person.  But every saint of God is nothing more than an ordinary person who is made extraordinary not by some special talent or special set of genes, but simply by living in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

And if Job could live in obedience to all of the commands from the lips of God, if he could treasure God’s words more than his daily bread to the point where even God Himself declared him blameless (Job 1:8), and do it without the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, then we should be much more able to pull it off with His presence.

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In the Beginning

Genesis 1:1 (NIV)
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

The whole Bible begins with the simplest and yet most mind-blowing concept of all:  An eternal God who created everything.

 These days a lot of people seem to have a harder time accepting these two biblical assumptions than the people of the past.  Some chalk it up to us being more informed, or more intelligent, or more scientifically advanced.  But when you think about the fact that some of the greatest scientific minds that the world has ever known, such as Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Newton, and a host of others, accepted these facts as axiomatic and not at all incompatible with either intelligence or scientific thought, it should make us pause before we claim that the reason we don’t believe is because of our higher intelligence.

Some people wonder where God came from.  The simple answer is that God didn’t come from anywhere; He always has been.  This is hard for a lot of people to accept, but that ‘s because we are finite beings who are firmly stuck in the time-space continuum, and it is impossible for us to really grasp something/someone who exists outside of space and time.  When you talk about God, questions like “where does He live” or “when did He begin” have no meaning.  He doesn’t live in any specific location like we do, because He is not bound by space and is not a part of the universe that He created.  He is present everywhere in the universe at the same time (which is why He can hear the prayers of everyone in the world simultaneously), but He is not trapped in the universe that He created as we are.  Some have tried to understand this by talking about additional dimensions that we can’t see that God must be “in,” but even that doesn’t help us finite beings really understand a being who is infinite and who exists outside the universe as well as being ever present inside of it.

There is also a lot of talk these days about where the universe itself came from.  It seems that some people think that belief in a Creator God is somehow “unscientific.”  But actually it is no more unscientific than any other theory of origins – it just allows for the supernatural to play a part in creation instead of restricting possibilities to purely natural processes.  The facts of physics actually support the idea of a supernatural creator in that they state that every effect has to come from a cause sufficient to produce it.  And an all-powerful God who exists outside of the universe (no matter how hard that is to fit into our finite brains) would definitely be a cause sufficient to create the universe we see.  Without God, we actually end up having to believe that the universe somehow created itself by some kind of massive explosion, basically from nothing (since if anything existed to explode before the explosion, then there has to be a cause for that something!).

But the God of the Bible, the way that He has revealed Himself – infiinte, all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), and filling the universe (omnipresent) – is an adequate first cause.  Everywhere we look, we see elements of design and intelligence in the world around us, in the solar system, and in the galaxies that we see around us.  Even our very DNA is loaded with information so cleverly constructed that a single microscopic gene can hold volumes and volumes of information, everything needed to fully construct whichever organism it is designed to produce.  All of the pieces of our world fit together in ways that have filled true scientists with awe and wonder thoughout the world and throughout history, and that are the envy of engineers and designers .  (A lot of our newest breakthroughs in scientific areas like flight, microengineering, and even medicine have been influenced and informed by structures and chemical elements of birds, fish, and even insects!)

The fact of the matter is that every modern “scientific” idea about the origins of our universe and life in it are unproven and untestable theories.  But in the Bible we have received an eyewitness report from the only being who was actually there when the universe began, and He has told us exactly how it happened and who created it.  Our options are to join with the greatest minds in history to believe the testimony of our Creator God, or we can choose not to believe and to try to make up our own stories of how things got started.

As for me, I believe God.

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The Tragedy of Bad Theology

John 9:24-34 (NIV) 
      A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”
     He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” 
     Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 
     He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?”
     Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses!  We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.” 
     The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes.  We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will.  Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind.  If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 
     To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

The Sanhedrin made a tragic mistake in judgment about this man, who had been blind from birth, and whom Jesus had healed.  Their mistake was based on a non-biblical idea of human suffering.

This non-biblical idea is found in the disciples’ question in John 9:1-2, and the corrective is found in Jesus’ response in verses 3-5:

John 9:1-5 (NIV) 
     As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 
     “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.  As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.  While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

The common theology back then was that if someone was born with a birth defect, that it was punishment either for the sin of the child while still in the womb, or of the parent(s).  The logic behind this theology is that since God wouldn’t allow anything bad to happen to an innocent child, the explanation must be that the child with the birth defect isn’t innocent – they must have done something sinful in the womb to cause God to inflict this kind of punishment on them.  (Hence the angry declaration from the Sanhedrin:  “You were steeped in sin at birth!”)  Or, if not the child, then the defect must be punishement for the sins of the parents, and God was punishing them by burdening them with a broken child. 

But when His disciples betrayed this same theology by their statements about this man before Jesus healed him, Jesus corrected them on the spot:  The birth defect wasn’t the result of a sin of either the child or his parents.  Instead, God allowed the birth defect so that the work of God might be displayed in that person’s life.

The same theology that tries to make sense of the bad things that happen in peoples’ lives is addressed by Jesus in Luke 13 as well:

Luke 13:1-5 (NIV) 
     Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.  Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

 The fact behind Jesus’ theology here is also clearly brought forward by Paul:  ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  Bad things don’t happen to people because they are somehow worse sinners than someone else.  And, if we really stop and think about it, we really do know that bad things don’t only happen to the worst sinners.

So what is the answer to the problem of evil in a world created by a good God?  The simple answer is that we don’t live in the world as it was when God created it in the beginning, when He declared every created thing “very good.”  (Genesis 1:31)  Instead, we live in a world that has been broken by sin, and that brokenness leads to all of the death and disease and birth defects and personal tragedy that we see today.

The good news is, as Jesus noted, that God can use the bad things that happen to us to show forth His work in and through the lives of His people.  People like Joni Erickson Tada come immediately to mind.  Paralyzed from the shoulders down in a diving accident when she was just a teenager, she has impacted literally thousands of lives for the kingdom of heaven.  Her life is a huge testimony to the power of God to work through someone’s weaknesses and brokenness.  Another is a man named Dave that I saw on a Focus on the Family video years ago.  This man was terribly burned by a phosphorus grenade in Viet Nam; his face was grossly disfigured.  But God sent him out to speak to high school students all over the country about the kingdom of God, and his impact was huge.

Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis, had a brother, a strong and devout Christian, who developed and eventually died from a horrible, degenerative disease.  The long and often painful struggle with this disease by this godly man was enough to make even the strongest believer wonder what God was doing.  But instead of relying on folk theology like the Sanhedrin used with the man born blind, Ken and his family turned to the Bible for their answer.  And, as a result, it strengthened their faith in the God who is in the process of healing our broken world, and who was with their son and brother all the way through this disease, and clear through to the other side.  This successful search for answers is documented in Ken Ham’s book:  “How Could a Loving God…?” (Copyright 2007, Master books, Inc.  Green Forest, AR)

It’s vital as Christians that we get our theology from the Bible, not from our opinions or the thoughts of people in our society today.  The Bible was written by the only one who actually knows the answers to all of the questions that we could possibly ask.  And by getting our theology from the Bible, we will avoid the tragedy of bad theology that the Sanhedrin fell prey to, which ultimately led to them rejecting not only the recipient of the miracle, but Jesus the miracle worker, and ultimately the God whom they claimed to serve.

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