Posts filed under ‘ABC Extra’
This past weekend in worship and ABC, we discussed some of the biggest objections and obstacles that people present to trusting in Jesus. One of the objections and obstacles I covered in ABC had to do with the reliability of Scripture. Bart Ehrman, a skeptical scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explains why so many people call into question the Bible’s reliability:
Not only do we not have the originals [of the biblical manuscripts], we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have the copies of the copies of the originals, or the copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later – much later. In most instances, they are copies made centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places…These copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are. Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences in our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.
Many people wonder if that which is recorded in the Bible is historically accurate. Recently, popular news commentator Bill O’ Reilly called into question the historicity of the biblical stories of Adam and Eve and of Jonah, saying, “I was taught, in my Catholic school, that a lot of the stories in the Bible are allegorical.” Bart Ehrman takes it a step farther. He not only questions if what is recorded in the Bible is historically accurate, he questions if what is recorded in the Bible was even supposed to be there at all! He notes the many ancient copies we have of the Bible differ from each other, thereby undermining their veracity, at least in Ehrman’s eyes. After all, if no two ancient manuscripts completely agree with each other, how can we know which manuscripts record what was actually written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, et al?
In their book Reinventing Jesus, three biblical scholars make some helpful distinctions concerning the types of variants, or differences, that we find in ancient biblical manuscripts. In order to understand what is truly going on with the differences we have between ancient copies of the Bible, it is worth it to review their categories.
The majority of the variants we have in the New Testament are either alternate spellings or misspellings of a given word. For instance, the name John is in some manuscripts spelled Ioannes, while in other manuscripts, it is spelled Iaones. One “n” or two? It doesn’t really matter. Regardless of how this name is spelled, we know to whom the manuscript is referring.
Differences That Do Not Affect Translation
There are some differences between ancient copies of the Bible that have no affect on how we read something in English. For example, Greek allows for definite articles before proper names, but does not demand them. Thus, instead of referring to “Mary,” a biblical Greek text may refer to “the Mary.” Or, instead of referring to Jesus, a Greek text may read “the Jesus.” Because Greek allows for but does not demand these definite articles, some ancient Greek texts contain the definite articles in front of names while others do not. This, however, does not affect the translation or meaning of a given biblical text. Rather, the decision to retain or forgo a definite article is merely a matter of style.
Meaningful Variants That Are Not Viable
There are some differences between ancient biblical copies that do indeed affect the meaning of a text, but one of the variant readings is simply not viable. For instance, ancient versions of 1 Thessalonians 2:9 refer to “the gospel of God” while a late medieval manuscript of this same verse refers to “the gospel of Christ.” Though the gospel is indeed Christ’s gospel, because only one late medieval manuscript has this reading while almost all other ancient manuscripts refer to “the gospel of God,” the reading that refers to the gospel of Christ simply isn’t viable. Too many other texts militate against this reading.
Meaningful and Viable Variants
Finally, there are some variants between ancient biblical copies that both affect the meaning of a text and are viable. Romans 5:1 has variants that read, “We have peace” as well as “Let us have peace.” Scholars are split on which one is original. But even if scholars are split on which one is original, both statements are theologically correct. After all, we are both promised peace through Christ and commanded to be people of peace by Christ.
It is important to note that the variants which are both meaningful and viable make up only about one percent of all textual variants. Moreover, even with the many, but small, differences in our many ancient biblical manuscripts, not one of these differences – even the meaningful and viable ones – compromises a biblical doctrine. Throughout all of these manuscripts, doctrines like the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and salvation by grace through faith are taught. Indeed, Ehrman is finally forced to admit that the vast majority of variants in ancient biblical manuscripts are insignificant when he writes, “Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant.”
So what does all this mean? It means the text of the Bible we have is the text of the Bible as it has always been. Thanks to the faithful and diligent efforts of many scribes and scholars over many centuries, the words of the apostles and prophets have been faithfully handed down from one generation to the next. What we read now in the Bible is what the Christian Church has always believed, taught, and confessed. Christ has preserved His Word from corruption by His grace. Thanks be to God!
 Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), 10.
 Melissa Barnhart, “Robert Jeffress Argues With Bill O’Reilly Over If Jonah, Adam and Eve Stories Are Real,” Christian Post (3.8.13).
 J. Ed Komoskewski, M. James Sawyer & Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Really Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006), 53-63.
 Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 10.
It had to be a frustrating experience for the disciples. They wanted Jesus to answer what they thought was a perfectly appropriate and critically important question: “Lord, are You at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6)? This question seemed fair enough. After all, when the disciples pose this query, Jesus has already risen from the dead and has been periodically appearing to His in a dazzling demonstration of His dominion over death. And now that Jesus has conquered death, the only thing left for Him to do is to usher in the utopia of God’s kingdom. But Jesus gives His disciples a less than satisfactory answer to their question about God’s kingdom: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by His own authority” (Acts 1:7). Jesus says to His disciples, “God’s kingdom is coming, and My Father knows when it’s coming. But He’s not going to tell you. It’s not for you to know.”
The refusal of God to provide satisfactory answers to all the questions Christians ask has been a conundrum that has frustrated the faithful for millennia. Questions that range from the mildly curious – “When did the dinosaurs go extinct according to the Bible?” – to the direly critical – “Why does God allow evil to continue to rage in world?” – are left unanswered, at least in toto – by what God reveals in holy Writ. Yes, there are partial answers these questions and to others like them, but there are not complete answers. And this leaves many discouraged and despondent.
Like many other countless Christians throughout the ages, Martin Luther too struggled with why God did not answer everything everyone might want to know. After much reflection, Luther came to this conclusion: “Whatever God does not tell you, or does not want to tell you, you should not desire to know. And you should honor Him enough to believe that He sees that it is not necessary, useful, or good for you to know.” Luther was willing to trust that God knew – and knew how to manage – what Luther himself did not.
Perhaps the reason God does not tell us everything we might like to know is this: a lack of knowledge compels trust. In other words, when we do not know something that God knows, we are compelled to trust that God knows what He’s doing even if we happen to be left in the dark. Our lack of a comprehensive answer to every question we might have can actually be used by God to increase our faith! And growing in faith is far more important than growing in mere knowledge.
And so, what would you like to know about God? God may not give you every answer to every question, but you already have His answers to the questions that matter most. Does God love you? Yes! Can you be redeemed by the blood of Christ? Yes. Can you trust that God knows what He’s doing and has your best interest at heart? Yes.
How much more do you really need to know?
 Martin Luther, What Luther Says, Ewald M. Plass, comp. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), §209.
This past weekend in worship and ABC, we talked about the importance of working smarter rather than harder. The poster child for the opposite – working harder rather than smarter – was Moses, who, after he explained to his father-in-law Jethro how he was serving as the sole arbiter and judge for all of Israel’s disputes, was told by his father-in-law, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone” (Exodus 18:17-18). Blessedly, Moses humbly swallowed his pride and, in Exodus 18:24, we read, “Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said.”
Moses may have had the good sense to listen to his father-in-law and delegate some of his duties to other trustworthy Israelites, but, even with some much needed help, Moses’ responsibilities did not suddenly became light and easy. Jethro admits as much when, after encouraging Moses to share his workload with others, he says, “If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain” (Exodus 18:23). Moses’ responsibilities, though fewer, will continue to be straining and stressful. There will still be plenty for Moses to do.
Perhaps you can relate to Moses. After all, you, like Moses, have probably been told of the importance of working smarter and not harder. Yet, no matter how many time management principles you implement and no matter how many tasks you delegate, you, like Moses, may still find yourself awash in a sea of obligations and unexpected troubles that can become overwhelming at times. What do you do when the principles of working smarter rather than harder fail you? Jesus shows the way.
Mark 6 proves to be one of the most tragic in the Gospel. Jesus’ dear friend and cousin, John the Baptist, is beheaded at the behest of Herod Antipas’ stepdaughter. Jesus is understandably distraught. But Jesus’ jam-packed calendar of ministry marches on. In the episode immediately succeeding John the Baptist’s untimely death, Mark notes, “So many people were coming and going that Jesus and His disciples did not even have a chance to eat” (Mark 6:31). Jesus may be mourning, but the crowds still want to see Him.
It is with the memory of Jesus’ cousin weighing in on Him and the throngs of curiosity seekers pressing down around Him that Jesus issues an invitation to His disciples, “Come with Me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31).
Jesus’ invitation is fascinating. Though Jesus Himself is certainly tired and emotionally spent, Jesus’ primary concern is not with Himself, but with His disciples. The verbs of His invitation – “come” and “get some rest” – are second person plural verbs. That is, Jesus is saying to His followers, “You come with Me by yourselves to a quiet place and you get some rest.” Jesus, knowing that His disciples are exhausted even as He is exhausted, nevertheless has compassion on His disciples and invites them to get some rest by spending time with Him.
Jesus, it seems, is a man of boundless compassion. He has compassion on His disciples when He invites them to rest with Him. When Jesus’ plans for a peaceful getaway are foiled because large crowds follow Him to His destination, Mark notes, “He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So He began teaching them many things” (Mark 6:34). Jesus has compassion on the crowds when He cancels His vacation plans to preach them a sermon. Following His sermon, when He finds out the crowds He has been teaching are hungry, He has compassion on the multitudes by holding history’s first potluck. When everyone else forgets to bring a side dish, Jesus takes the meager offering of a little boy – five loaves and two fish – and multiplies it to feed five thousand.
As He does on the disciples when they are tired and as He does on the crowds when they are spiritually lost and physically hungry, Jesus has compassion on you too. When your life is straining and stressful, Jesus understands. After all, He has gone through straining and stressful times too – losing loved ones and being exhausted by the rigors of day-to-day ministry. But Jesus doesn’t just empathize, He can also help. For the same invitation He offers to His disciples, He extends to you: “Come with Me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31). Or, as He puts it another time: “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
No time management principle – no matter how good it may be – can remove all stress and strain from life. For life is full of the unexpected. But no stress or strain – no matter how heavy – can destroy the peace and rest that Jesus gives. For the peace and rest that Jesus gives is not based on life’s circumstances, but on His promise. And His promise is stronger than life’s stresses.
So go away with Jesus and get some rest. You need it.
Election Day is tomorrow. I am, as I’m sure you are, praying for our country and for her leaders. I am also praying that much of the fear that surrounds this election will be calmed by the peace of God that transcends all human understanding (cf. Philippians 4:7).
This week, my blog is a simple one. Yesterday in Adult Bible Class, I talked about Mark 12:13-17 with a special emphasis on what Jesus says about paying taxes and honoring God in verse 17: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” I wanted to put into transcript form (with some slight editing for the sake of readability) my conclusion from Adult Bible Class. For as we head into voting booths across our land, I think it’s important to reiterate what we talked about – that no matter who occupies the Oval Office, there is only one Occupant on the throne of heaven. And that alone should be enough to quell our fears and give us hope. Here is what I said:
I’m going to go on the record today and say that I think it’s time for us to have a smaller government. But when I say that – before you get too excited or too angry depending on your political persuasion – I’m not talking about tax policy and how we’re going to pay for this or that government program. I’m not talking about what social programs we should or should not keep. I’m not talking about whether we should be for or against the Affordable Health Care Act. I’m not talking about the size of government in Washington at all. I’m talking about the size of government in our imaginations. For government – and its attendant greatness or ghoulishness – has captured far too large a place in our hearts and minds.
Here’s what’s happened: whether Republican or Democrat, many people have bought into this myth that if the wrong guy makes it into office – which always happens to be the guy they’re not voting for – that’s the end of the line. That’s the demise of our nation. That’s the disintegration of everything good and moral and noble and righteous in our world. And people get all revved up and riled up, determined to save what is most important to them by getting their guy into office.
Folks, when this happens, you’re not voting for a president, you’re seeking a Messiah. And that job has already been filled.
I love what a New York Times columnist named Ross Douthat writes about this:
The party in power claims to be restoring American greatness; the party out of power insists that the current administration is actually deeply un-American – heretics in the holy temple of the U.S.A., you might say – and promises to take our country back…And the country keeps cycling through savior figures, hoping each time that this one will be the One that we’ve been waiting for.
Folks, the One we’ve been waiting for has already come. And His name is not Barack Obama. His name is not Mitt Romney. His name is Jesus Christ. And, by the way, not only has He come, He’ll come again.
So cast your vote. Be a good citizen. But remember that even if Caesar gets the coins, Jesus holds your heart.
And that’s what matters most.
 Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012), 269.
Last week, Melody and I were startled awake to the sound of our shih tzu, Bandit, growling and barking frenziedly. My hackles – and nerves – were immediately raised. “What is he barking at?” I thought to myself. “Is something wrong in the house? Is something on fire? Is there an invader?” After I wiped the sleep out of my eyes, I sat up to see Bandit sitting on our bedroom floor, tail wagging back and forth, barking ferociously…at our cat. There was no fire or invader. Just a feline, as frustrated as we were at Bandit’s barking.
Melody was not at all amused by this nocturnal rowdiness, nor was she amused at the fact that, rather than putting an end to Bandit’s snarling, I just sat in bed, taking it all in. “Get those animals out of here!” she exclaimed. The dog and cat did eventually settle down. But a few hours later, they were at it again. And Melody was awoken again. After kicking the animals out of the bedroom, I did what I should have done earlier that night: I closed the door. And peace ensued.
In our text for this past Sunday from Revelation 21, we catch a glimpse into the new Jerusalem, that is, the new creation which God will usher in on the Last Day. In John’s description of this heavenly hub, I find this to be especially notable: “On no day will Jerusalem’s gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there” (verse 25). Like I shut our bedroom door at night to keep out the pets, ancient cities would often shut their gates at night to keep out nefarious invaders. For example, when the city of Jericho learns that the Israelites are drawing near to attack, the book of Joshua notes, “Now Jericho was tightly shut up because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in” (Joshua 6:1). Ancient cities closed their gates. The new Jerusalem will not.
Why will the new Jerusalem’s gates always be open? Because unlike the municipalities of antiquity, the this cosmic metropolis will have no foes of which to be afraid. For all of the city’s enemies will have been conquered, even as John says: “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars – their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur” (verse 8). Thus, Jesus opens the city’s doors.
Jesus is in the business of opening doors. As Jesus Himself says, “Knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). Paul, after a mission tour through Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe rejoices that God “had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). He later prays “that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains” (Colossians 4:3). Christ’s desire is to open doors for His followers. Even at the beginning of Revelation, Jesus exclaims to the church at Philadelphia, “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut (Revelation 3:8).
There’s an old, oft-repeated, and tired Christian cliché: “Whenever God closes one door, He always opens a window.” The premise of this statement is that God will make a way, even when things don’t turn out how you might expect or want them to. As much as I appreciate the general sentiment, I’m not so sure that the specific imagery is accurate. For when it comes to this specific image of a door, Scripture portrays God as one who opens doors rather than closing them. If we run up against a roadblock, before we blame God for slamming a door in our face, perhaps we should wonder if the door was ever open in the first place. Or perhaps we should consider whether it was our own sinfulness that closed a door rather than God. In fact, the only time that God is portrayed as closing a door is in Luke 13:23-28 when someone asks Jesus:
“Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But He will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with You, and You taught in our streets.’ But He will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from Me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth.”
The door out of hell, it seems, will be locked up tight by Christ so that the gates of the new Jerusalem can be left open, free from the fear of God’s enemies.
So today, rather than bemoaning the “closed doors” in your life, why don’t you thank God for the ones He has opened for you? For they are many. He has opened the door to his knowledge through the pages of Scripture. He has opened the door to forgiveness through His Son, Jesus Christ. And He has opened the gates of His new Jerusalem so that we may come in. I can’t wait to walk through.
When I lived in north Austin, there was a park close to the house at which I was staying with a beautiful jogging trail, complete with lots of forested areas and a breathtaking open field full of wildflowers. At the time, I was overweight, so I decided taking up running might be just the thing to help me shed those unwanted pounds. So one afternoon, I hit the gravel. The trail was a mile and each tenth of a mile was marked. I made it about two- tenths of a mile before I had to stop. I was dripping with sweat. I was out of breath. But most of all, I was embarrassed. “Two-tents of a mile?” I thought to myself. “That’s not even once around a running track!”
After my embarrassing initial outing, I knew something had to change. So I went out again…and again…and again. I sweated. I grunted. I pushed myself. I was tempted to give up and tap out. But I knew the more I ran, the more my body and health would be transfigured and transmuted. And so, I endured. And that endurance made all the difference.
These days, I am thankfully many pounds lighter and can run much farther. A three-mile run is now a part of my daily routine. Although now, being a little older and wiser, I know that pre-dawn mornings in Texas are much better for running than are sun-scorched afternoons. But beyond the temperature, it is my endurance that made all the difference in my health and fitness. Endurance was the key.
In our text for this past weekend from 2 Corinthians 6, Paul rattles off a list of the hardships and joys he has experienced in ministry:
As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Corinthians 6:4-10)
With such a lengthy list, it does not take long to discover that Paul has had more than his fair share of ups and downs in ministry – everything from beatings and imprisonments and sorrows to purity and love and rejoicing. Yet, it is the first thing in Paul’s list of ups and downs that sets the tone for the rest of Paul’s list: endurance. Paul writes, “As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance” (verse 4). Through all of ministry’s ups and downs, Paul highlights one thing that has made all the difference in his ministry: endurance. The Greek word for “endurance” is hypomone – mone, meaning “to stand,” and hypo, meaning “under.” Thus, to “endure” means to “stand up under” even the toughest times. The great New Testament scholar William Barclay comments on hypomone:
It describes the ability to bear things in such a triumphant way that it transfigures them and transmutes them. Chrysostom has a great panegyric on this, this triumphant Christian endurance. He calls it the root of all goods, the mother of piety, the fruit that never withers, a fortress that is never taken, a harbor that knows no storms.
Barclay’s thoughts describe precisely what Paul does with the ups and downs of his ministry. He endures through them so that he might be transfigured and transmuted. Rather than giving up or tapping out, Paul endures. And you should too.
What ups and downs are you experiencing in your life? When you endure through them, God can change you by them. God can use them to “conform us to the likeness of His Son” (Romans 8:29). So stand up under hardship. Stand up under good times as well. For standing up under life, which is the very definition of endurance, can be used by God for His purposes. And God’s purposes will endure long after you fail and falter. His endurance is an endurance we all need – for life and for eternity.
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 William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954), 237.
“Righteous!” Whenever I see this word followed by an exclamation point, I cannot help but envision a teenage Californian with long hair, decked out in board shorts, surfboard in hand, just waiting to take on the next big wave. And it’s not surprising that this is the portrait that comes to mind. After all, the word “righteous” is not exactly an integral entry in our pop-culture lexicon. And when the term is used, it describes nothing more than a big wave. In fact, I found some of the synonyms assigned to the word “righteous” in the Urban Dictionary to be interesting: “awesome,” “amazing,” “cool,” “exciting.” All of these can certainly apply to big waves.
Though the word “righteous” is not regularly used in a particularly thoughtful manner in our day and age, this word served as a foundation of theological thinking and speaking for the biblical writers. For it was used to describe the very character of God: “The LORD is righteous; He has cut me free from the cords of the wicked” (Psalm 129:4). It is interesting to note how the Psalmist connects the righteousness of God to the defeat of wickedness. In the Bible, righteousness and wickedness are inimical. Thus, righteousness is more than just something that is “awesome” or “cool,” it is, in a phrase, that which is wholly right while actively opposing that which is wrong.
In our text from this past weekend in worship and ABC, God expounds not only on His righteousness, but on how a person can connect to His righteousness. God says through His prophet Habakkuk, “The righteous will live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). “Righteousness,” God says, “is not attained by righteous living, but through faith in the God who is the very definition and embodiment of righteousness.”
Interestingly, this conception of righteousness – that it is attained through faith in God – is at odds with Habakkuk’s conception of righteousness. When God tells Habakkuk that the Babylonians will soon sweep in to destroy Israel because of her unrighteousness, Habakkuk protests: “Why are You silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves” (Habakkuk 1:13)? Habakkuk carries with him a conception of righteousness that is grounded not in God, but in good works. The more good things a person does, the more righteous he is. Conversely, the more bad things a person does, the more wicked he is. Habakkuk’s argument to God, then, is, “Israel may be wicked, but Babylon is wicked-er! How can You use a nation less righteous than Israel to punish her for her unrighteousness?”
It is important to understand that Habakkuk’s objection to God and conception of righteousness is not entirely unfounded. Righteousness can be and is defined in such a way to include the works the one does. Indeed, the Lutheran Confessions even speak of a “righteousness of works”: “The human will…can to a certain extent render civil righteousness or the righteousness of works; it can speak of God, offer to God a certain service by an outward work, obey magistrates, parents; in the choice of an outward work it can restrain the hands from murder, from adultery, from theft” (Ap XVIII:40). This “righteousness of works,” however, as helpful as it might be to keep society in order and provide for its ongoing tranquility, counts for nothing in the sight of God. Isaiah accurately estimates the value of this kind of righteousness before God when he writes, “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).
God’s primary concern is not how righteous we are in the world’s sight, but how righteous we are in His sight. And righteousness in God’s sight can only be attained by faith in Christ. As the Lutheran Confessions state: “The imputation of the righteousness of the Gospel is from the promise; therefore it is always received by faith, and it always must be regarded certain that by faith we are, for Christ’s sake, accounted righteous” (Ap IV:42-43). Because we are accounted righteous “for Christ’s sake,” we cannot consider anyone better or worse, holier or wicked-er, in the sight of God. For Christ’s righteousness is indiscriminately and freely applied to all who have faith. And because Christ’s righteousness is whole and complete, everyone who receives His righteousness is also whole and complete. There is no difference between those justified in Christ. That is why, to obtain true righteousness, only one thing will do – faith!
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 Definition 2 at http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=righteous
The other day I participated in an internet poll. The question asked was, “Do you consider yourself to be a good person?” There were three options: “Yes,” “No,” and “It’s not black and white.” The results of this poll? The vast majority of people – a little under two-thirds – responded that they did consider themselves to be good. Another one-third of the respondents answered that such a question is not black and white. Finally, two people claimed they were not good. And one of the two was me.
This past weekend in worship and ABC, we looked at a list of spiritual gifts from Romans 12. Before talking about spiritual gifts, however, Paul sounds a warning: “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Romans 12:3). Paul understands that humans have a proclivity, when asked whether or not they are “good,” to think of themselves as better than they are – to think of themselves “more highly than they ought.” Thus, Paul calls for “sober judgment.”
Last week in my personal Bible reading, I read a seemingly simple and straightforward passage that gripped me: “Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, toward Zoar. This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah” (Genesis 13:10). In Genesis 13, Abraham and his nephew Lot are on their way up from Egypt to start over and settle in a new place. As they reach the Negeb, they arrive at a pinnacle from which they can see two lands – one to the east which looks well-watered and lush and one to the west which looks arid and barren. Abraham, in an act of stunning generosity, allows his little nephew to pick which of the two lands he would like for himself. Logically, Lot picks the lush land, leaving his uncle with the barren pit. But as Lot is picking the lush land, we find out that this land is home to two infamous cities – Sodom and Gomorrah. Before God destroys these twin cities of iniquity with fire and brimstone, however, they are apparently situated on a verdant plain. But why? Why would God bless such evil cities with such lush landscapes? For these cities cannot be considered “good” by any estimation! Even people who call themselves “good” would probably say that the residents of these cities were “bad”!
There is a foundational truth that undergirds all of God’s blessings: God’s blessings come not because humans are worthy to receive them, but because God is gracious to give them. Sodom and Gomorrah certainly did not deserve the land and bounty they enjoyed. But out of His grace, God blessed them in spite of their wickedness. And we must remember and recognize that God does the same thing with us. The blessings we have are not the result of our worthiness, but a testimony to God’s graciousness. As Jesus Himself says, “The Father causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
More than once, I have been asked, usually after a heartbreaking tragedy has struck a seemingly great person, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Though it is important to affirm the sadness of tragedy and mourn with those who mourn (cf. Romans 12:15), it is also important to understand that such a question has embedded in it a faulty premise. There are no “good” people, at least not in the biblical sense. Though people, when asked if they are good, may consider themselves as such, the Bible paints an entirely different picture of human holiness. Paul explains, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts…We were by nature objects of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1, 3). “By nature,” Paul says, “we are sinners. By nature, we are bad. And because of our badness, by nature, we deserve not God’s blessings, but God’s wrath.” The question, then, is not, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” but “Why do good things happen to bad people?” For we, like Sodom and Gomorrah, deserve not the verdant plains of God’s blessings, but the barren desert of God’s wrath at our sin. So why does God give us good things even though we are bad? He gives us good things because of His grace. So praise God for His blessings to you today! For you do not deserve them. But God has given them to you anyway.
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“Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose the prevails” (Proverbs 19:21). In Hebrew, the word for “plans” is machashabah, a word that describes the inventions of man. In Exodus 31, God sets apart certain Israelites to be the craftsmen of the country. God says, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship” (Exodus 31:2-5). The Hebrew word for “make” in verse 4 is machashabah. Bezalel is called by God to be an inventor, or a crafter, of art.
Man loves to invent. Indeed, some of our society’s biggest technological and medical breakthroughs are thanks to irrepressible human ingenuity. But not only does man love to invent things, he also loves to invent plans for his future. He plans where he will live, how much money he will make, what kind of car he will drive, and what kind of success he will achieve. But man’s invented plans cannot stand against God’s eternal purpose. The Psalmist warns, “The LORD knows the thoughts of man; He knows that they are futile” (Psalm 94:11). The Hebrew word for “thoughts” is again machashabah. Man’s plans, no matter how grand, are futile if they do not comport to God’s purpose.
In Luke 12, Jesus tells the story of a farmer who takes in a bumper crop. In fact, his crop is so big that he doesn’t have room for his bounty, and so he has to build more grain silos to store all he has grown. And then, with his grain safely stored, he begins to make plans. He says to himself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12:19). But the rich man’s fleeting and foolish plans are no match for the finality of death. God appears to his man and says to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself” (Luke 12:20)? This man invented many plans. But they all fell apart.
During Easter at Concordia, we began a series titled “Living on Purpose” where we are discussing and discovering God’s eternal purpose as expressed in His Son, Jesus Christ. All too often, however, we confuse our plans with God’s purpose. It is against this mistake that Proverbs 19:21 warns. You can plan all you want. But you can’t thwart God’s purpose. Just ask the devil. His plan of sin could not thwart God’s purpose of salvation through the cross of Christ.
What are you planning? It’s great to plan, but your plans should never be at odds with God’s purpose. Why? Because God’s purpose for us is good and loving. The apostle Paul reflects on God’s purpose for us when he writes, “God has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of His own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy 1:9). God’s purpose is our salvation. And in comparison to purpose as transcendent as this, my plans seem only measly. His purpose is greater than my plans. Praise be to God!
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This past weekend in worship and ABC, we looked at the life and times of King Josiah. Following the reigns of two exceedingly wicked kings, his father Amon and his grandfather Manasseh, Josiah was a much-needed breath of fresh air. The author of Kings can barely contain his delight when he writes, “He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD” (2 Kings 22:2). What was it that made Josiah such a noble king? Succinctly put, Josiah was a man who followed God’s Word. To cast Josiah’s piety in Reformation-era lingo, Josiah was a man committed to the principle of sola Scriptura – that Scripture alone should be the norm and guide for righteousness before God in faith and life. This guiding principle comes out especially clearly when the high priest of Israel at this time, Hilkiah, discovers the Book of the Law (i.e., the Pentateuch, or first five books of the Bible) tucked away in the dusty recesses of the temple. Heretofore, this book, with all of its guidelines for righteousness, has been lost to Israel. When Josiah hears what the Book of the Law teaches, he immediately recognizes it as the word of the Lord and tears his robes in repentance over all the ways in which he and Israel have disobeyed God’s commands in this book. For Josiah knows that Scripture alone should guide Israel’s life and his life.
Though the principle of sola Scriptura is clearly embraced by Josiah, it is not so eagerly welcomed by many in our day, even by those who claim the name of Christ. A couple of weeks ago, I came across a quote on Facebook rejecting the principle of sola Scriptura, and one of its creedal texts, 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The quote commented:
The fact is that this passage does not even hint at Scripture being the sole rule of faith. It says that Scripture is inspired and necessary – a rule of faith – but in no way does it teach that Scripture alone is all one needs to determine the truth about faith and morals in the Church.
This quote was written as part of an article by the Roman Catholic apologist Tim Staples and argues that along with Scripture, Church tradition and the ecclesial Magisterium should hold pride of place as sources and norms of doctrine. A couple of points are necessary.
First, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 makes an explicit claim to sufficiency which, by default, is an implicit claim to sole primacy. Paul, when describing the benefits of Scripture, notes that it thoroughly equips the Christian for every good work. Words such as “thoroughly” and “every” leave no remainder. Thus, Scripture is solely sufficient for teaching us all we need to know about righteousness before God in faith and life. Second, Scripture is replete with warnings against adding to or subtracting from Holy Writ (Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32, Proverbs 30:5-6, Revelation 22:18-19). Such warnings, especially those against adding to Scripture, leave no doubt that Scripture considers itself a sufficient and sole source.
Finally, the difficulty with rejecting the principle of sola Scriptura is one of authority. If Scripture is not the sole and supreme authority in one’s life, something else will be – whether that “something else” is tradition, another human, or one’s own sensibilities and desires. And these other things, as authorities, will inevitably trump Scriptural authority in some fashion. For when one has multiple authorities, these authorities inexorably wrestle for primacy. Thus, to hold to the principle of sola Scriptura is to hold to biblical authority over and against all other sources of authority. And to hold to biblical authority is to hold to the doctrine of divine inspiration, for the reason Christians believe the Bible is supremely authoritative is because of its supreme and divine author. And to hold to the doctrine of divine author is to trust in God – in this life…and for the next.
I can’t think of any one and any words I’d rather trust. How about you?
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