Friday, August 5, 2016

I'm Sorry: I've Invited You to Church for the Wrong Reasons

Dear people-I-have-wanted-to-come-to-my-church (and especially to those who actually come),[1 (see footnotes below)]

I am sorry. I have misrepresented to you the reasons for you to come to church. My only defense is that I didn't know what I was doing, because I misrepresented the reasons to myself too. I ask forgiveness for not representing the truth accurately, as some of you rely on me to do.

When I have invited you to church—and more often when I have encouraged a straggling, semi-regular attender to appear again—I have done so for your well-being. This is a major error.

It is a subtle error, to be sure. Because in fact, I have a good, God-honoring motive. Wanting another's well-being is of the essence of love, and God wants us to love each other.

It also happens to be true that coming to worship is good for your well-being. I have given you various reasons for this:
  • "In [God's] presence is fullness of joy; in [his] right hand there are pleasures forever" (Ps. 16:11 NASB).
  • It is a refuge and encouragement to faithful Christians who spend all week pressured and marginalized in an ungodly world.
  • Christian couples who frequently attend worship have lower divorce rates than those who don't.[2]
I have sincerely wanted you to reap all these benefits and many more.

My concern for you has become even more acute because of a shift that's happened nationwide during my nearly nine years as pastor of First Baptist Church of Hollidaysburg: people who attend church are attending less often.

Even just a generation ago, "regular church attendance" meant about 46 or more weeks a year, and the off weeks were mostly due to sickness. Today, three or four appearances every two months is the baseline of "regular" in people's minds, even among people who think (and self-report) that they attend weekly.[3]

So I've been earnestly desiring your well-being while the frequency of your attendance (indiscriminately lumping you all together) has been dropping. And I remain certain that coming to worship every week is good for you. I've been appealing to you on that basis, not only if you are a non-attender and your welfare is our only common ground but also if you are a member of my church who claims Jesus Christ as Lord.

But I've been wrong. Your well-being is not the principal reason for you to come to church, even if it does help you—especially if you have already received God's forgiveness.

The reason to worship in church is because God wants it, and God deserves to get what he wants.

The principal reason to come to church is not your benefit, but his.

If you come, you will benefit, because God has so arranged the universe that what is best for him is best for everyone who loves him, in the end. He wants this for us more than we will ever know. But we only receive the benefit reliably when it isn't our main motive—when our goal is his benefit instead.

In the Book of Revelation, heaven is depicted as a continuous stream of praise by a gathered throng of all manner of spiritual beings, humans included. One of the words they say most is "worthy": "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power" (Rev. 4:11); "Worthy is the lamb who was killed [i.e., Jesus, the Son of God] to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and praise!" (5:12).

"Worthy" means, "you're worth it; you deserve it." And "you deserve it" means "we owe it to you." We owe the Triune God worship, praise, glory, and honor.

What's so special about God that we owe him worship? He "created all things"—including us—"and because of [his] will they existed and were created," and because Jesus was "killed, and at the cost of [his] own blood [he has] purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation" (5:9).

The reason to come to church is because God is more important than you, he wants you to worship him there, and you owe it to him because you owe him your life.

This may be difficult for you to accept.

For one thing, you may not believe that God cares whether multiple people sing and say congratulatory things to him in the same place at the same time. This is because your mind is shaped by the assumptions of your culture more than by God's perspective and wishes as revealed in the Bible. (Mine are too, by the way—this doesn't come naturally to any of us.)

You may think, "Why is God so vain that he needs people telling him how great he is all the time?" Answer: he doesn't need anything. He simply wants you to treat him the same way you treat everything else you value: you open your mouth and say how great it is, quivering with excitement, whether it's a sunset or a smartphone or a slapshot or a sister you are proud of.

You may think, "Why can't I do that by myself?" You should indeed do that by yourself—on your bed, in the wilderness, in the company of unbelievers, wherever. Good for you for doing it.

But that doesn't erase what the Bible says about doing it together. Go to and type "let us" book:Psalms in the search bar. Don't just scan the results; click on the verse references to read in context. Then read Revelation, especially these sections. Do you get the picture of what brings God glory?

It may also be hard for you to accept that you owe God worship in church because my approach has made it harder for you to believe it.

I have fallen into the trap of wanting you in church for your well-being because I've also wanted you in church for my well-being.

I feel a weighty responsibility to ensure the well-being of the institution that I serve. It is entrusted to me to shepherd it well, so I work hard to nurture its life and health and growth. I want you to be in church because I am too often afraid and embarrassed of failing.

Right or wrong, I find a great deal of my life's meaning and value in my work, which I can even more easily justify since it is "kingdom" work (i.e., work toward explicitly godly ends). I too often want you to be in church so that I know that I am worth something.

So, like the stereotypical car salesman, I think about what I need to do or say—or what I can persuade leaders, members, and other attenders to do or say—to get you and your family and your friends into church this Sunday.

I'm doing it for you, and I'm doing it for me. And I'm doing it for God in that I've always believed that God wants us to be there. But I have not been doing it because God deserves our best even though we don't deserve his.

So let's start over, you and I. Let's get on the right track. Let's repent. Let's confess our sin. Let's ask for forgiveness. Then let's "produce fruit that proves [our] repentance" (Luke 3:8).

Our obedience to God when we know what he wants is the measure of our love for God. It's that simple. And whoever's wishes you put ahead of God's is the person you love more than him.

Consider this when you look at your bedside clock on Saturday night and again on Sunday morning. Who are you disappointing—including yourself—if you get up and get dressed?

Consider this when you're making plans for Saturday night or for the whole weekend or for half the weekends of the year. Who are you disappointing if you say "no, I'm staying home"?

Consider this when you're registering your kids for activities. Who are you disappointing if you say "no" or "not that day" or "no more than once a month"?

Consider this when you're applying for a job. Who are you disappointing if you say "no" or "don't schedule me for then"?[4]

Whoever you don't want to disappoint is the person you love—or more likely, fear—more than God. Are they worth it?[5]

In my own repentance, I'm trying to make amends by telling you what I should have told you all along. But I was afraid of disappointing you. I was afraid that you would think I was a mean, judgmental Pharisee, and then you'd never come to my church. I loved, or rather feared, you more than God. And by loving you, I hurt you.

There's a song we like to sing whose chorus says, "I'm coming back to the heart of worship, and . . . it's all about you, Jesus. I'm sorry, Lord, for the thing I've made it. . . ." The song is about confusing slick music with worship, so I often think it doesn't apply to me. But my misaligned motives bring me under its judgment.

Let's indeed come back to the heart of worship. It really is all about him.
Come, let us return to the LORD.
For He has torn us, but He will heal us;
He has wounded us, but He will bandage us.
He will revive us after two days;
He will raise us up on the third day,
That we may live before Him.
So let us know, let us press on to know the LORD.
His going forth is as certain as the dawn;
And He will come to us like the rain,
Like the spring rain watering the earth. [Hos. 6:1-3 NASB]

[1] As this is an open letter to a broad set of recipients, I trust my readers have the discernment to recognize that not every single remark in it applies to every single reader.

[2] Whether one factor causes the other or whether another factor causes both is an open question.

[3] To my knowledge, evidence of this trend so far is anecdotal and hasn't been formally studied and precisely quantified, but the testimony is widespread enough that there seems to be something happening here. And it correlates with American Christians' beliefs about whether church attendance is "essential."

[4] I know that some people work on Sunday out of desperation to provide for their needs. I know that some people work a periodic Sunday rotation because they serve people who need care 24/7. Those are different matters entirely. I'm talking about choosing a regular Sunday job because you want to live on more rather than on less or because you like it or because you want to climb the ladder or because you want your boss's favor.

[5] If your question is, "What about the person who is too sick to come?" or "What about the person who is too disabled to leave their home?" or "What about the person who is the sole caregiver of a severely sick or disabled person?" I have two questions in reply. First, are you that person? Second, do you sincerely believe that I am referring to that sort of person in what I am saying?

Friday, June 3, 2016

Self-Expression, Freedom, the Supreme Good . . . and Bathrooms

So, apparently we're at a point in our civilization that one of our most important controversies has to do with where people use the bathroom. This alone should dismantle the myth of human progress.

Though I jest, I readily admit that there are issues of major importance in the transgender/public bathroom debate, notably the weighty questions, (1) what is a human as a sexual being?, (2) is a human being sharply divided between mind and body? (3) if there is a conflict between one's mind and one's body, which "wins" in moral reasoning?, (4) what is the proper balance between the concerns of the one and the concerns of the many?, and, (5) in what circumstances and to what extent ought the government to adjudicate the balance between the concerns of the one and those of the many?

As for question (1), I gave an entire series of talks on it (and if you want to jump to the part about transgender, that's here). But today I want to focus on question (4).

Our civilization is now so radically individualistic—and pampered—that people assume that "freedom" means that I can express who and what I think I am to the utmost, and everyone around me not only has to allow me to do it, but they also have to congratulate what it is I've expressed about myself. At least they must signal no disagreement whatsoever. If anyone says, "Dude, your self-expression is lame" or "abnormal" or (the horror) "wrong"—or if a community or organization says, "Express away, but we're not altering our custom or standards to fit your expression"—that's considered a violation of freedom. Sometimes it's even considered hatred.

My gut response to this state of affairs is that our entire civilization has regressed to adolescence; our obsession with being young forever has so gotten the better of us that the bulk of adults in our society have never grown up. But on further reflection, I admit that this strident individualistic demand on the surrounding world is not totally new or crazy. Indeed, in a certain vein I agree with it and share it myself.

One of the good and perhaps unique fruits of Western civilization is the conviction that there are certain things about an individual that are so sacred that society must go to the utmost lengths to avoid violating them. Historically, the chief among these—though it took a very long time to emerge—has been freedom of religion.

What most people today do not understand about freedom of religion is that religion is not primarily an identity marker or a means of self-expression. The confusion is natural, because in the Express Yourself Era, your favorite topping on a hamburger is marketed as an identity marker and means of self-expression. And without a doubt, there is an element of this that goes on in religion. People don't put "Jesus fish" on the backs of their cars for nothing; they do it to register to the world who they are. (Ironically, people with "COEXIST" bumper stickers are doing the same thing.)

Unfortunately, when religion degenerates into being mainly an identity marker for this tribe or that, then the situation is ripe for ugly, pointless power struggles and even bloodshed (e.g., Northern Ireland in the twentieth century). But over the first fifty years of the American republic, the critical mass that coalesced around religious freedom didn't view religion as an identity marker. They did not see religion primarily as the way to be me or even as the way to be us but as the way to be(come) good.

Some optimistically believed that if everyone tried to be good in the best way they knew how, even if their different ways clashed, the aggregate result would be a good country, and therefore a stable and prosperous one. But even those who were not so optimistic maintained that the individual's quest to be good was so superlatively important that it must never be restrained. Above all, an individual must never be coerced into doing something he or she believes to be morally bad. Therefore, the rest of society needed to bow down to that—it needed to accommodate itself to the needs of the individual who was trying to be good, even if the person was widely believed to be off the mark and if accommodating them was somewhat annoying to everyone else.

An assumption behind freedom of religion was that the most important relationship that an individual was negotiating was not their relationship with their society or even their relationship with themselves but rather their relationship with their omnipotent Creator and Judge. The individual was not trying to conform to a socially or individually constructed, subjective truth, which was temporary, but rather to the objective truth, which is eternal.

Advocates of freedom of religion also assumed the immortality of the soul. If this life is all there is, then whatever makes for the greatest comfort (however defined) in this life would seem to be of greatest importance (though it still leaves open whether the greatest good is the greatest comfort for the individual or for the many). But if the human self survives eternally in some form, and if that self's activity during its present biological lifespan decisively influences its comfort over an infinitely longer term on an infinitely greater scale, then individuals ought to be free to ensure their eternal well-being amid the discomforts of the present life, and nothing should stand in their way.

It is evident that the beliefs that once undergirded freedom of religion have largely been lost in our culture except among a strong and resilient minority. People may believe in a Creator, but they do not believe that the Creator is a Judge. They do not believe that that Creator is or determines truth, and thus "truth" is slang for "what seems 'right' to me or to us right now." Whether or not people believe in the immortality of the soul, people do not believe that there is a determining link between activity in this life and well-being in the hereafter. They certainly do not function that way; even many who pay lip-service to traditional religious beliefs function as if comfort in this life is the supreme good. And even if there is some connection between this life and eternity, fortunately the bar to be hurdled to reach everlasting blessedness is extremely low so that everyone or nearly everyone steps across it without trying to.

It was once believed that being good and doing good resulted in feeling good, though perhaps not until after death. Today, feeling good is considered to be being good in and of itself. Going after that feeling is what we mean by doing good, and the way to advance in that quest is self-expression.

It used to be that the most sacred thing about a person, which no institution should ever violate, was their attempt to live according to what their Maker said was morally right, as best as they understood it. Today the most sacred thing about a person, which no institution should ever violate, is their attempt to live according to what they, their own maker, believe to yield maximum comfort in their own skin at the present moment.

In sum, our civilization treats present comfort being me the way it used to treat eternal comfort being good. Therefore, a rule that sorts persons into segregated bathroom facilities based on genitalia is not only less than ideal because of the genuine difficulty it raises for some with gender dysphoria or certain intersex conditions. It is, rather, an immoral violation of the most sacred thing about a person, their self-concept, the expression of which is the chief route to painlessness now, which is the supreme good.

Regardless of bathroom management practicalities—and setting aside the acutely real problem of the suffering of gender-dysphoric and intersex people—I believe that the assumptions underlying our culture's elevation of individual expression are bogus. Its practical atheism, materialism, and subjectivism wilt before the God I've come to know.

Monday, March 7, 2016

How Decline Happens

In the early tenth century B.C.(E.), David expanded the nation of Israel into an empire with subject kingdoms spread across the Levant. His son Solomon did not extend Israel's reach militarily or politically, but he greatly increased its economic leverage and cultural prestige, which made Israel still more dominant—a Near Eastern superpower in the making.

Then in a span of about five years—from ca. 931 to ca. 925—Solomon's son Rehoboam presided over the contraction of the dominion of the House of David from a Levantine empire to a tiny (though wealthy) tributary of Egypt. The Davidic monarch went from emperor to client-king almost overnight.

 Conquest list of Pharaoh Shoshenq I (Shishak) (credit Olaf Tausch)

You can read about how this happened in 1 Kings 11:1-12:24; 14:21-31 and 2 Chronicles 10-12. Here are some lessons derived from it about how and why decline from supremacy happens. Apply to your church, organization, or nation as they pertain:
  • Decline begins while things are greater than ever—especially as to quantifiable measurables—but cracks in the edifice are beginning to show.
  • Decline follows unresolved (possibly smothered) internal strife over the stresses put on people to resource greatness.
  • Related strife comes from the inequitable sharing of the benefits of greatness—i.e., the concentration of privileges and resources in the tightening circle of those connected to power, into which others cannot break. (Note: Those in the circle are typically oblivious that there even is a circle and even more so about the arbitrariness of their privileges.)
  • Decline also follows compromise of the reason (purpose) that brought about greatness—the uniqueness, the mission—so that greatness becomes the end unto itself and does not serve anything outside itself.
  • Greatness brought about by God for his long-range purpose is forfeited when people cease to be humble and obedient and in awe of God alone.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Why Was Jesus Killed? 149 Reasons

Rembrandt van Rijn, Raising of the Cross (1633)

I looked in the New Testament to get answers about why Jesus was killed. I thought I'd find a few. I found a lot.

Granted, among the reasons for Jesus' death listed below, there is much overlap. But the list still shows the startling complexity of why Jesus was executed in Jerusalem, nearly all New Testament authors' keen interest in the subject, and their stubbornly repetitious insistence on substitutionary atonement (notwithstanding many other important, complementary reasons).

Please note: Whenever "we"/"us"/"our" is used below, in context it nearly always refers to people who have placed their trust in Jesus and his death as the source of their salvation.

Why was Jesus killed?

  • Matt. 2:2-3, 13—he was born the king of the Jews
  • Matt. 10:21-28—the Pharisees believed he was the devil incarnate
  • Matt. 12:14—he demolished the Pharisees’ criticism of his Sabbath activity with irrefutable reasoning from Scripture and assertion of his own authority
  • Matt. 16:21-23—it was God’s plan
  • Matt. 17:12—the authorities did not recognize him
  • Matt. 20:28—he gave his life as a ransom for many
  • Matt. 21:45-46; 22:15—he publicly alleged that the chief priests and Pharisees rejected God, and the people held him to be a prophet
  • Matt. 26:14-16—Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve disciples, betrayed him
  • Matt. 26:28—his blood sealed a covenant and was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins
  • Matt. 26:39—his Father wanted it
  • Matt. 26:54—it fulfilled the Scriptures
  • Matt. 26:59-66—the chief priests and the Council seized on Jesus’ quotation of Ps. 110:1 and Dan. 7:13 as the crime of blasphemy
  • Matt. 27:18—the chief priests and elders envied him
  • Matt. 27:20—the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas’ release instead of Jesus’
  • Matt. 27:24—Pilate wanted to prevent a riot
  • Matt. 27:37—he was claimed to be the king of the Jews
  • Matt. 27:46—he was forsaken by God like David was (Ps. 22:1)
  • Mark 3:6—the Pharisees/scribes believed him to blaspheme by forgiving sins on his own authority and to eat and drink in unholy ways, and he healed on the Sabbath
  • Mark 8:31-33—it was God’s plan
  • Mark 10:45—he gave his life as a ransom for many
  • Mark 11:18—he accused the chief priests and scribes of turning the temple into a robbers’ den, and the crowd was amazed at his teaching
  • Mark 12:12—he claimed to be the son of God (the Messiah) whom the chief priests, scribes, and elders rejected
  • Mark 14:10-11—Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve disciples, betrayed him
  • Mark 14:24—his blood sealed a covenant and was poured out for many
  • Mark 14:36—his Father wanted it
  • Mark 13:49—it fulfilled the Scriptures
  • Mark 14:61-64—Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and quotation of Ps. 110:1 and Dan. 7:13 were construed by the chief priests and the Council as blasphemy
  • Mark 15:10—the chief priests envied him
  • Mark 15:15—Pilate wished to satisfy the crowd, which had been incited by the chief priests, by releasing the insurrectionist and murderer Barabbas instead of Jesus
  • Mark 15:26—he was claimed to be the king of the Jews
  • Mark 15:34—he was forsaken by God like David was (Ps. 22:1)
  • Luke 2:34-35—he was appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel and for a sign to be opposed
  • Luke 4:22-30—no prophet is welcome in his home town
  • Luke 6:11—he ignored and exploded the scribes and Pharisees' purity standards
  • Luke 11:53-54—he blasted the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy
  • Luke 18:31-33—the prophets foretold it
  • Luke 19:47-48; 20:19, 26—he denounced the authorities in Jerusalem, and the people loved it
  • Luke 22:3-6—Satan entered Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve disciples, and led him to betray Jesus
  • Luke 22:20—his blood sealed a new covenant
  • Luke 22:37—he was counted among the criminals in order to fulfill Scripture (Isa. 53:12)
  • Luke 22:42—his Father wanted it
  • Luke 22:53—the people who wanted to seize him were granted the moment to do it and the power of darkness to execute it
  • Luke 22:70-71—the Council seized on his noncommittal response to their question as self-incrimination
  • Luke 23:24—Pilate conceded to the crowd’s demand that insurrectionist and murderer Barabbas be released instead of Jesus
  • Luke 23:34—his killers did not know what they were doing
  • Luke 23:38—he was claimed to be the king of the Jews
  • Luke 23:46—he committed his spirit to his Father’s hands, like David did (Ps. 31:5)
  • Luke 24:25-27, 46—Moses and the prophets said that the Messiah had to suffer what he suffered
  • John 1:29—he was God’s offering to himself to take away the sin of the world
  • John 5:16-18—he enraged the Jewish authorities by healing on the Sabbath and calling God his own Father, thus claiming to be equal with God
  • John 7:7, 19—he asserted that people did not obey God’s law and that their deeds were evil
  • John 7:25-26, 30-32, 44-52—the chief priests and Pharisees in Jerusalem did not recognize that he was the Messiah and disbelieved his claim to be sent from God
  • John 8:20—he alleged that the Pharisees did not know God, his Father
  • John 8:37, 40, 44—his true message did not find a place in the authorities because, like their father the devil, they hated the truth and wanted to murder those who tell it
  • John 8:59—he claimed to be eternal God
  • John 10:10, 15-18—he laid down his life of his own accord so that his “sheep” would have life according to his Father’s command
  • John 10:30-39—he enraged the Jewish authorities by claiming to be one God with the Father
  • John 11:48-53—the chief priests and Pharisees were afraid that if everyone believed in him, the Romans would depose them and annihilate the Jews as a nation, but that if Jesus died then diaspora Jews would return to Judea
  • John 12:32-33—he intended to draw all people to himself
  • John 15:13—he laid down his life for his friends, his disciples
  • John 15:18-20—the world hated him
  • John 15:21-24—the world did not know the Father and hated him too
  • John 15:25—the cries of David in the Psalms about being hated without a cause had to be fulfilled
  • John 16:2-3—his killers thought they were doing a service to God
  • John 18:11—his Father wanted it
  • John 18:33-34; 19:19-21—he was accused by the chief priests of pretending to be the king of the Jews
  • John 18:40—the chief priests demanded that Barabbas, a robber, be released instead of Jesus
  • John 19:7—he violated the Law of Moses by making himself out to be the Son of God (more than just the Messiah)
  • John 19:10-11—Pilate was given authority over Jesus by God
  • John 19:12—Pilate protected himself from the chief priests’ allegation that he was disloyal to Caesar
  • John 19:14-16—Pilate used him as a way to wrest a confession of allegiance to Caesar from the chief priests
  • John 19:19-22—Pilate was sending a message to the Jews that Rome would crush anyone who claimed to be their king
  • Acts 2:23—God knew it and planned it in advance
  • Acts 3:13-14—the people of Jerusalem disowned him in Pilate’s presence in exchange for a murderer when Pilate wanted to release him
  • Acts 3:17—both the rulers and the people acted in ignorance
  • Acts 3:18—God announced it beforehand by the prophets
  • Acts 4:28—God’s hand and purpose predestined it
  • Acts 7:51—the Council was stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, resisting the Holy Spirit just like their fathers
  • Acts 7:53—the Council received the Law of Moses as ordained by angels but did not keep it
  • Acts 7:32-35—he fulfilled Isaiah 53:7-8
  • Acts 13:27—the residents and rulers of Jerusalem did not recognize him or the prophecies written about him that are read every Sabbath, which they fulfilled by condemning him
  • Acts 26:22-23—Moses and the prophets said that the Messiah had to be subjected to suffering
  • Rom. 3:25—God displayed him as a propitiation that justified God’s merciful disregard of sins committed up to that point and God’s acquittal of those linked to Jesus through faith
  • Rom. 4:25—he was delivered up because of our crimes
  • Rom. 5:6-9—God demonstrated his love for us helpless, ungodly sinners by acquitting us and saving us from his wrath through Jesus’ blood
  • Rom. 5:10—it reconciled us to God while we were God’s enemies
  • Rom. 5:19—it was an act of obedience that designated many to be righteous
  • Rom. 6:6—our old self with its sin-corrupted body was crucified with him so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin
  • Rom. 6:7, 11—by baptism into Jesus’ death, we are dead to sin and held innocent of it
  • Rom. 7:4-11—through it we died to and thus were released from the Law that exacerbates our guilt by illuminating it and exciting our rebelliousness
  • Rom. 8:3-4—God did what the Law could not do: condemn sin in the likeness of sin-degraded humanity without condemning us, so that the requirement of the Law could be met in us
  • Rom. 14:9—it made Jesus Lord even over those who have died
1 Corinthians
  • 1 Cor. 1:18-25—God wisely planned to expose worldly wisdom’s inadequacy for finding God by using the foolishness of the cross to save those who believe it
  • 1 Cor. 2:7-8—none of the rulers of this age understood the secret truth of God’s wise, predestined plan
  • 1 Cor. 5:7—he is our sacrificed Passover lamb whose blood protects us from the deadly wrath of God
  • 1 Cor. 11:25—his blood sealed the new covenant
  • 1 Cor. 15:3—he died for our sins, in accord with what the Hebrew Scriptures said
2 Corinthians
  • 2 Cor. 5:21—God made him to embody sin in our place, even though he knew no sin, so that by him we would embody God’s righteousness
  • 2 Cor. 13:4—he was weak
  • Gal. 1:4—he gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, as God the Father wanted
  • Gal. 2:21—it was the necessary means for us to gain righteousness by God’s grace, because the Law does not deliver it
  • Gal. 3:13-14—he redeemed us from the curse embedded in the Law by embodying that curse on our behalf, so that Gentiles might receive the blessing given to Abraham and Jews and Gentiles might receive the promised Holy Spirit
  • Gal. 6:14—his cross makes his followers despised and as good as dead in the world’s eyes but also makes the world despised and dead to them
  • Eph. 1:7—it redeemed us and made possible the forgiveness of our crimes according to God’s rich grace
  • Eph. 2:13-16—it made made peace between Jews and Gentiles, uniting them in one body, by annulling the commandments of the Law that divided them, and it reconciled them to God as one
  • Eph. 5:26-32—he intended to make his church holy and clean in order to present it to himself as his wife, glorious and flawless, with whom he will become one
  • Phil. 2:8—he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death
  • Col. 2:19-20—it was God’s desire to make peace between himself and all things through the blood of Jesus’ cross
  • Col. 2:22—it reconciled us with God in order to present us holy, blameless, and beyond reproach before himself (provided we continue in the faith)
  • Col. 2:11-12—we are buried with him through baptism, which is Jesus’ means to remove our sin-corrupted bodies from us as a non-physical circumcision
  • Col. 2:14—in his crucifixion our unmet obligations were crucified too
  • Col. 2:20—it enabled us to die with him with respect to the elementary principles of the world
1 Thessalonians
  • 1 Thess. 4:14—it enabled those who die through him to rise as he did
1 Timothy
  • 1 Tim. 2:6—he gave himself as a ransom for us all, which was a timely testimony
2 Timothy
  • 2 Tim. 2:11—if we die with him, we will also live with him
  • Tit. 2:14—he gave himself for us in order to redeem us from every lawless deed and to purify for himself a people for his own possession that is zealous for good deeds
  • Heb. 2:9—he tasted death on behalf of everyone
  • Heb. 2:10; 5:9—it made him complete as the inaugurator of our eternal salvation
  • Heb. 2:14-15—by it he incapacitated the devil, who had the power of death, and delivered us who were enslaved through fear of death all our lives
  • Heb. 2:17; 5:1—it conformed him to his human brothers and sisters in all ways so that he could propitiate God for our sins as our high priest
  • Heb. 2:18; 5:2—it enabled him to help gently those who are tested at the point of death, because he was also
  • Heb. 5:8—it taught him obedience
  • Heb. 7:27—he offered up a once-for-all sacrifice to God when he offered up himself
  • Heb. 9:12—his blood enabled him to enter the heavenly holy place as high priest once for all because it obtained eternal redemption
  • Heb. 9:13-14; 10:10; 13:12—it was an unblemished offering that Jesus gave to God through the eternal Spirit that cleanses the consciences of defiled people from dead activities to serve the living God as holy people
  • Heb. 9:15-16—it redeemed the crimes committed under the first covenant and is the means by which Jesus mediated a new covenant, so that those who have been called to participate in it may obtain the promise of an eternal inheritance
  • Heb. 9:22—it made forgiveness possible
  • Heb. 9:23—it cleansed the accoutrements of the heavenly holy place to inaugurate their use
  • Heb. 9:28—he bore the sins of many
  • Heb. 10:10-18—by it he obtained single, complete, eternal, final forgiveness for all those who have been designated as holy by his death
  • Heb. 10:19-22—it gives us confidence to draw near to God in the heavenly holy place even now with a clean conscience
  • Heb. 12:2—he was motivated by the joyous prospect of ascension
  • Heb. 13:20—it enabled God to raise him from the dead
1 Peter
  • 1 Pet. 1:2—it cleanses us and ties us to God in a covenant
  • 1 Pet. 1:11—it was predicted by the Spirit of the Messiah through the prophets
  • 1 Pet. 1:18-19—it redeemed us (Gentiles) from the futile way of life handed down to us by our forefathers
  • 1 Pet. 2:21—his suffering for us left us an example to follow in our own unjust suffering
  • 1 Pet. 2:24—he carried our sins in his body so that we might die with respect to sin and live with respect to righteousness
  • 1 Pet. 2:24—by his wounds we were healed
  • 1 Pet. 3:18—he died for the sins of the unjust in order to bring us to God
1 John
  • 1 John 1:7—his blood cleanses us from all sin
  • 1 John 2:2—he himself is the propitiation for our sins and those of the whole world
  • 1 John 3:16—he showed us what love is by laying down his life for us
  • 1 John 4:10—God loved us and sent his own Son to be the propitiation for our sins
  • Rev. 1:5—he released us from our sins by his blood
  • Rev. 5:9—it made him worthy to unleash judgment on the evil world
  • Rev. 5:9—it bought people from every tribe, language, people, and nation for God
  • Rev. 7:14—it purifies those who endure the great tribulation
  • Rev. 12:11—it enables us to overcome the devil when we testify about Jesus

Wednesday, December 2, 2015


The English word "success" is interesting because of its dual meaning. A "success" is an object—a great achievement (or the acclaim it gets). A "success" is also a subject—a person who achieves something great.

What follows is not completely thought out and validated, but consider how success applies to a person who is in Christ.

In the flesh (temporarily) and in the view of the world, I am partly a success—that is, a successful person—and partly a failure. Almost everyone is; some are more one than the other depending on the standards by which the world is measuring.

In the flesh (temporarily) and in the view of God, I am not a success at all; I am an utter failure. Sin is failure, and I am full of sin.

In the Spirit (eternally) and in the view of God, I am a complete success, but objectively, not subjectively. Subjectively, I am neither success nor failure—I have achieved nothing, and I have committed no sin. Objectively, however, I am a success: I am Christ's success. My salvation, sanctification, and glorification are his accomplishment, his triumph. I am his trophy.

I am going to experiment with thinking about myself according to the Spirit, neither a success nor a failure myself, but as Christ's success.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Miracles Happen Suddenly, and They Take a Long Time

In the famous miracle story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding, it is easy to miss the details about where the water came from before Jesus transformed it:
Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washing, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus told the servants, "Fill the water jars with water." So they filled them to the very top [John 2:6-7].
Six jars at twenty to thirty gallons apiece is 120 to 180 gallons total capacity. Do not overlook that they were unfilled and may have been completely empty, and the servants filled them to the brim.

To fill the water jars, the servants needed to draw water—a lot of it—from a well. Let's say they used a three-gallon bucket or two. If so, they may have lowered, drawn, and poured as many as sixty times to fulfill Jesus' request.

That did not happen all at once. There was a fairly lengthy amount of standing around and ongoing embarrassment for the groom and the headwaiter who did not know that Jesus and the servants were doing anything about it. Jesus changed the water to wine in an instant, but significant preparation was required before that happened.

This makes sense. This was the first miraculous sign Jesus performed, and he did it at about the age of thirty. To get to that point he needed to survive the diseases that probably claimed the lives of about 40% of the people born in Palestine the year he was born before they reached that age. (Of course, God would make sure that Jesus would survive that long, but the people around him did not know that.)

Jesus' conception itself was miraculous, of course, but centuries of prophecy passed before it came about. "But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son" (Gal. 4:4 NASB).

This pattern happens aplenty in the Bible. The water jars remind me of Elijah's confrontation of the prophets of Baal. Elijah waited for most of the day while Baal's prophets failed to get their god to strike their sacrifice with lightning ("fire from heaven"). Then Elijah had to build a big altar out of found stone, then dig a ditch around it, then get firewood to put on top of it, then kill a bull and heave it on top of it. Then he had people fill four water jars—and since they were in the middle of a roughly two-year drought, they may have had to walk down seven hundred feet to the Mediterranean Sea to get that much water and then up again to bring it back—and pour the water on top of the altar. Then he made them do it two more times. Then he prayed. Then God incinerated the whole thing.

After this, Elijah prayed for the drought to end—seven times. (Unless you have prayed for the same thing in front of someone else seven times in a row, you do not know how uncomfortable this is.) Then a tiny cloud appeared on the horizon, and then a bit after that the downpour fell.

Miracles happen suddenly, but miracles take a long time.

Friday, November 20, 2015

All Truth Is Relative

Americus: That's true for you, but it isn't true for me.

Socrates: I'm sorry—what did you say?

Americus: I said, "That's true for you, but it isn't true for me."

Socrates: How could something be true for you but not be true for me? I mean, you are sitting at a table at Joe's, and I am sitting at the same table at Joe's. That's true for us both. If I said, "I am not sitting at Table 7 at Joe's at thus-and-such address," I would be wrong.

Americus: Well, maybe you would be wrong and maybe you wouldn't. Maybe the word "table" means something different to you than it does to me. But in any event, I wouldn't judge you as wrong if you said that you weren't sitting at Table 7. From your perspective, that might be true, and who am I to judge?

Socrates: Just to be clear, I'm not talking about you judging me or me judging you. I'm talking about judging whether a statement that I make or that you make is true or false.

Americus: Whatever. If that's a distinction you want to make, fine. But again, that's true for you, not for me. That's your perspective, not mine.

Socrates: What does my perspective have to do with it?

Americus: Everything is a matter of perspective. You see what you see based on where you are; you know what you know based on your view of things. No one else sees exactly what you see with exactly the same eyes from exactly the same angle with exactly the same experience backlog and exactly the same way and terms of categorizing and defining and making sense of what you see. It is totally individual, totally unique to you. And mine is totally unique to me. So how I could I possibly pass judgment on what you see? I can never see it as you. The only reasonable thing is for me to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that it is, in fact, true for you, just as what I see is, in fact, true for me.

Socrates: Well, whether that's the only reasonable thing or not, I'm not sure. But you can't really mean that you can't see the same things as I see. Look at that car out there. Now, if I got up, and you moved over to my seat in the booth and sat down where I sat, and you looked at that car, wouldn't we both agree that there is a car there? Wouldn't we both see the same car?

Americus: We might, or we might not. What you mean by "car" I might not describe as a car. I might describe it as an automobile.

Socrates: But those are the same thing!

Americus: Are they? Maybe they are the same to you, but they might not be the same to me. Who can say?

Socrates: The Oxford English Dictionary, US Edition?

Americus: That's collective opinion, but it does not describe what I see and the words I use. But I'm just messing with you. To tell you the truth, yes, I would agree that that is a car, and it is there out the window. But it is just coincidence that you and I think the same thing. I'm not saying that we can never agree about anything or that our perspectives never align. That would be ridiculous. What I'm saying is that just because multiple individuals' perspectives happen to align and agree, that does not mean that there is One True Perspective. All truth is relative.

Socrates: What's that now? All truth is relative?

Americus: Yes. I mean that whatever you perceive to be true is based on where you are standing, so to speak. And there are as many truths as places to stand. So for example, if I'm standing on one side of a river and looking at the river, I would say, "The river is flowing from left to right." And if you are on the opposite side of the river, you would say, "The river is flowing from right to left." These statements are contradictory, right? But we know that they are both true, because it depends on where you are standing. Everything is like this.

Socrates: Everything? I don't deny that some things are like that. But even in your example, we share a common definition of "right," "left," "flowing," and "river." Those things are absolutes by which we sort out how our different truths, so to speak, are relative.

Americus: Are they really absolute? Aren't they just conventional? You and I happen to agree on the meanings of "right," "left," "flowing," and "river." But that is coincidence. What if we did not? What if we didn't agree on the meaning of the words or spoke completely different languages? We would still both be true, or at least we should still each presume that the other is true and not pass judgment. Everything is equally valid so long as it conforms to one's own authentic point of view.

Socrates: Okay, but by your own assertion, that statement you just made—"Everything is equally valid so long as it conforms to one's own authentic point of view"—is only true for you. You can't assert it on me or reject my assertion that some things are valid for everyone.

Americus: Now you're getting it.


Americus: Seriously, you're getting it. My belief that every belief is true provided it corresponds to one's own perspective is true for me. Your belief that some beliefs are true if they correspond to a universal absolute is true for you.

Socrates: But if I believed that my belief in a universal absolute is only true for me, then that contradicts my belief in a universal absolute.

Americus: Yes, that is true for you too.

Socrates: (sigh) Okay, you win.

Americus: It's not about me winning. You didn't lose.

Socrates: Well, however you want to say it, what I mean is that I acknowledge that what you see to be true for you is true for you, and what I see to be true is true for me. Whether you meant to or not, you convinced me. Far be it from me to assert a universal truth and impose my own perspective on you.

Americus: That's remarkably gracious of you. I don't think I've ever seen someone think this sort of thing through and be so willing to change their mind.

Socrates: That's kind of you to say. But it's really a tribute to you making your point so well. But I want to ask you something else. Are you a gambling man?

Americus: Am I a gambling man? Not much. Every once in a while I go to the casino with friends and play a little blackjack, but it's not a big thing to me.

Socrates: Well I am a gambling man.

Americus: Really? You? That surprises me; I would not have guessed.

Socrates: It's true. Now, to be honest, I never gamble with money in a straightforward, gaming way. I've never put down money in a casino; I've never bet on sporting events or anything like that. But I take big risks based on my guesses about the future. My whole life is a big gamble.

Americus: I see what you mean. I never thought of it that way.

Socrates: Well today I want to do something that's out of the ordinary for me. I want to make a wager with you. The wager is about whether at some point tomorrow you will sit in this very booth at this very Denny's.

Americus: Which side are you going to take?

Socrates: That's up to you. If you bet that you will sit here sometime tomorrow, I'll bet you won't, and vice versa.

Americus: You know, I could be clever and two days from now claim that it was true for me that I came in here and sat down whether I believe that I actually did it or not.

Socrates: I hoped you would mention that. I'll actually spot you that. I will allow you to be the judge, from your perspective, of whether you sit here tomorrow or not. In fact, I'll rephrase the bet. My bet is that you will (or won't, depending on which side you choose) sit down at this table tomorrow from your perspective. And if you tell me the following day that it was true for you that you did or didn't sit down here, I'll take your word for it and pay my bet. Deal?

Americus: That's a really risky bet on your part! You're going to bet against what I say I'm going to do, which is risky enough, and then you're leaving it entirely to me to judge whether I did it?

Socrates: You got it. So which side are you taking?


Socrates: I'm serious! You can trust me.

Americus: Okay. I'll bet you that I will not come and sit at this booth tomorrow.

Socrates: All right. I'll bet you that you will sit at this booth tomorrow, and that that will be true for you whether or not it is true for me. Twenty dollars?

Americus: Fine. Twenty dollars.

Socrates: Excellent. Let's shake on it. Now, why did you bet that you will not sit here tomorrow?

Americus: Well, I could give you all sorts of reasons. I could say that it is easier for me not to come here than to come here; I would have to be intentional about coming here, but if I go about my usual routine for tomorrow then I will not. I could tell you that I hate going to the same restaurant two days in a row and never do it. I could tell you that I don't even particularly care for this restaurant and would never choose it myself and am only here because you asked me to come. And all of those things would be true. But I actually have an even bigger reason in this case, because tonight I am driving to Baltimore to stay in a hotel there to take a flight to Europe early the next morning, so I won't be anywhere near here all day tomorrow.

Socrates: Wow. When you lay out all the evidence for what is going to be true for you tomorrow, it makes my side of the bet look pretty bad! So I guess it's safe to say that even if you are scrupulously honest in two days, and what you tell me is true for you is honestly what you know from your perspective, there is almost no possible way that you are going to tell me that you sat in this booth anytime tomorrow.

Americus: It looks that way to me.

Socrates: Me too. So then, I want to redeem myself by making another bet.

Americus: Oh my God, are you kidding me? What is this?

Socrates: Hear me out. I bet you that at some point in the future, it will be true for you, from your perspective, that you will be standing before Jesus, the Son of God, to be judged by him for the deeds you've done and whether you accepted his forgiveness in this life.

Americus: What?

Socrates: You heard me. I'm betting that at some point in the future you will be judged by Jesus. And everybody else who has ever lived will too, but that's not the focus of my bet. My bet is about you.

Americus: Come on, man. I already told you that what you believe about God and Jesus and sin and judgment and stuff is true for you but it's not true for me.

Socrates: Oh, I know; I totally agree. I don't presume at all to make what is true for me true for you. I know it isn't true for you today. That's not my bet. I'm betting that it will be true for you at some point in the future. I'm saying that at some point in the future, you yourself, as an individual, from your own perspective, will believe it to be true of yourself that you are being judged by Jesus the Messiah for your present life. That's my bet.

Americus: Look, even if I agreed to that bet, it's a bet that I can never collect on. "At some point in the future"? If I ever claim to win, you'll just say, "It hasn't happened yet."

Socrates: That's true, but look at the other side—if I win, I won't be able to collect, because you'll have nothing to pay me, and I won't be able to do anything with anything you gave me anyway. But I'll make it easier on you. We'll make this bet inheritable by our descendants so that they are obligated. And I'll put a limit of, I don't know, a hundred thousand years. And I'll tie your judgment to universal judgment. So if in a hundred thousand years universal judgment by Jesus Christ has not occurred, my descendant will pay your descendant whatever we agree on today, if that makes any sense then.

Americus: I still think it's a stupid bet.

Socrates: Well, I think you're right, though maybe not for the same reason. So let's just make it an imaginary bet then, not one we're actually going to make. Let's pretend that we could actually collect from each other at some point. Would you take that bet? Would you bet that it will never be true from your perspective that you will be judged by Jesus?

Americus: I don't know. I don't know how what is going to be true for me in the future.

Socrates: Hold on now. Don't be so quick to doubt yourself. You were very certain a few minutes ago that it will not be true for you tomorrow that you will sit in this booth. How could you be so sure about what will be true for you tomorrow but you have no idea what will be true for you at some other point in the future?

Americus: Because I have good reason to believe what my life is going to look like tomorrow. I have good reason to know what I'm going to be doing then.

Socrates: Exactly. You have good reasons for betting on what will be true for you tomorrow. And I have good reasons for betting on what will be true for you at some other point in the future. This isn't about what is true for me. It's about what is true for you. I think that what will be true for you in the future, from your perspective, is not the same as what is true for you today, and I think I know what your perspective will be at that future point. Want to hear the reasons?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Three Striking Thoughts…

…from one Bible sentence I forgot: "With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (2 Thessalonians 1:8).

(1) This is very blunt about final judgment with eternal consequences commonly (though somewhat imprecisely) known as "hell." Multiple speakers in the Bible, especially Jesus, are blunt about this. In my preaching I do not talk about this often enough not-in-code.

Some say that presenting the gospel as "turn or burn" is insensitive to and therefore ineffective in our culture. They make a good point. But on the other hand, our culture's abhorrence of the idea is exactly the reason people need to hear it. If it is true, then it is highly important, and people are unlikely to stumble onto this truth by accident.

(2) Yesterday I walked through part of my town praying for the people who live in the houses and apartments I was passing and for their status as the last judgment. I'm sure most of them believe in God. They don't know that the devil does too but it's not helping him much.

Paul says that people "who do not know God" are in danger. That might be a useful element in a  conversation about spiritual things. "I believe in the President of the United States in the sense that I believe that there is such a person. But I don't know him. Even if I studied and learned a ton about him, I still wouldn't know him. Do you think it's possible to actually know God?"

(3) In those homes I passed, I also suspect that most of them believe "the gospel of our Lord Jesus." In my town there's better than 50% odds that if I asked a random person, "Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died and rose again, that your badness can be forgiven and that you can have eternal life because of him?", that person would agree.

But not nearly as many people in those homes obey the gospel. They do not live differently because they believe those principles than if they did not. This is another valuable element in a spiritual conversation: "If we don't obey the message about Jesus, we are still in danger."

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Only Repeatable Event from History

Why learn history? Why does it matter? The adage that whoever is ignorant of history is doomed to repeat it—ignoring at present what precisely the statement means and whether it is true—implies at the very least that historical knowledge is worth acquiring as a necessary ingredient for shaping our future into a desirable outcome. Why should we have any confidence that historical knowledge can (indeed, must) help us to do this?

The proverb cited above assumes the negative: the situation in the past was bad because of what people did; if we learn what they did, we may choose to do otherwise; if we do otherwise, we will not end up in the same bad situation that they did. Maybe, maybe not. But I would like to look at a positive rendition of the same principle. Let’s assume that the situation in the past was good because of what people did; if we learn what they did, we may choose to do it too; if we do, then we will end up in the same good situation that they did.

Take for example your friend who says to you, “I went to Joe’s Restaurant, and boy, was it ever good!” You think, “I’d like a dining experience that makes me as happy as my friend is. If I do what my friend did, I’ll get what he has.” So you ask him questions—when are they open? where are they located? and so forth. And you take his advice: you do what he tells you to do.

Seems reasonable, right? We do it all the time, every day, every time we take anyone’s advice to do anything.

This might, in principle, apply to historical knowledge about situations of greater impact on comfort or pain, for more people than the individual, with wisdom gathered from longer ago and further afield, than the case of your friend who went to Joe’s. However, when we try to apply it we run into some problems.

First, is there any experience in the past that we truly want to repeat? We can find features of almost any place, time, and culture that we would like to experience in our near future. But in those same situations there are invariably features that we do not at all wish to experience. But can the features we desire exist apart from the whole complex of the situation of that place, time, and culture? To use an analogy, can we take one gene out of the whole strand and splice it into the present for the desired outcome without the undesirable parts of the strand and without harmful side effects? Maybe we can, maybe we can’t; maybe with some things but not with others. But it seems dubious.

Second, even those conditions in the past that we think we want, would we actually like them once we had them? Maybe, maybe not. In the case of the friend who went to Joe’s Restaurant, he might have very different tastes from us. We might go to Joe’s and have the same experience objectively but experience it very differently subjectively if we don’t like the same foods that our friend does. And what if we don’t have the same experience? What if service is inconsistent? What if our friend is prone to exaggerate?

On the other hand, the better we know our friend, the more we could trust him. We might have experience that shows that we do like the same things that he likes and that he does not exaggerate. But how do we do the same character vetting, so to speak, with people who lived in the past? How do we know that we would like what they thought was good? And that leads to still another problem—very often, probably most of the time, people in the past (like people in the present) did not focus on what was so good about their situation but what was bad. We might look back and say that they had it pretty good in one respect, but they generally do not testify to it being so good. What if our hopes are too high?

Third, how do we know how to get what they had? Assuming that people who experienced our desired situation in the past were conscious of it and did enjoy it, did they have a prescription for how to arrive at it? Did it come about by their effort or the effort of previous generations? Or did they sort of fall into it by dumb luck? And even if they did have a prescription that they would give us if they could, how much faith do we have that they are correct? For example, a group in the past might say that they were so prosperous because of their faithfulness to tradition, but is that really the reason for their prosperity? Another group might say their prosperity came because of their devotion to individual liberty, but is that so? In other words, can we trust that people living in any given time know enough about how they got where they were to be able to give an account of its causes?

Fourth, if we knew the causes if past success, if we believed the prescription of the ancients, could we possibly replicate it? The causes may have been—probably were—complex and/or enormous. To use an analogy, we might know that strong winds cause big waves, but that does not mean we can move the air.

So there is much reason for skepticism—or at least some major hurdles to overcome—in order to restore what we like from the past. But there is one past situation, and probably only one, in which this hope is fulfilled: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

This is not because Jesus’ resurrection gets a special pass to evade the rules that apply to all other past situations. To the contrary, it is because the event of his resurrection is uniquely competent to pass all the tests.

First, do we want to repeat Jesus’ resurrection? I certainly do. There is no complaint here about wanting one aspect of it and not another. It is not as though I want my body to be raised but my mind to be elsewhere or vice versa. It is not as though I want to be raised from the dead but with a different sort of body than he had or suited to different purposes. The totality of eternal life—not just perpetual living, but a qualitatively different life that extends perpetually—is plenty appealing to me. I want what he’s having, and don’t change a thing.

Second, would I actually like it once I had it? This is the trust issue—can I trust that what Jesus found desirable and what his followers who knew him and saw him raised found desirable is what I too would desire? It is possible that I might be deceived, yes. But I do not think so. I cannot imagine how a self that is impervious to death, weakness, pain, and attack, that is radiantly glorious and exudes peace and joy, could have any downside—or at least any downside comparable to the downside of life as we know it. In other words, if I got it, I might not care for it, but it seems well worth the risk.

Moreover, Jesus himself seems to be a trustworthy individual. His life and his death reveal a sharp contrast between himself and the humans around him. He seems, quite simply, to be a much better person, perhaps immeasurably so, than any other human in his world or in mine. If I can trust some people around me to however limited a degree, I ought to be able to trust Jesus too.

Third, do I know how to get what he has? Again, the answer is yes. Jesus taught extensively, and his followers who spent the most time with him did too, about how to achieve the eternal life that he gained. Did they know what they were talking about? This is where the magnitude and the uniqueness of the desirable condition that Jesus exhibits play critical roles. If Jesus truly did rise from the dead this way, to which so many witnesses attest, then he achieved something that is absolutely unequalled. There is nothing to compare it to. That strongly suggests that there is nothing to compare him to. Where did the power come from to raise him from the dead? He says it was his Father, God. It certainly came from somewhere. No one else has an alternative explanation. If there was an alternative explanation, that would be one thing, but without that alternative it seems wise to trust the one person who experienced it and to do what he says.

Fourth, can I do what he says? Indeed I can, because Jesus’ prescription is limited only in part by large historical trends affecting masses of humans. For the most part, it just applies to me. Yes, I need to hear the story and the prescription, and that is outside my control. But once I do hear, then it is up to me what I do with it, and no external forces can violate or interrupt that (though they may be affirming or hostile toward it). And his prescription is astonishingly doable. He simply wants me to renounce my life—the thing I want to exchange anyway—and trust him that he will get me what he has that I want if I want him to. Every other instruction that he gives is simply the most rudimentary actings-out of what it is like to have the thing that I say that I want in the first place.

Is it possible for any person from any time, place, and culture to reach back and have access to that life of Jesus? Can the outcome be produced in our future wherever we find ourselves? It can indeed, because Jesus not only rose from the dead but ascended into heaven, as itself was observed by human witnesses and explained by angelic ones (who in turn can be trusted, because their announcements about Jesus’ resurrection were proven valid by the human witnesses later). By ascending into heaven, the life that Jesus has that I desire is located beyond the vicissitudes of change in this world. He took that human life into a realm that cannot be violated and that is equally accessible to all places and times. Furthermore, he said that that realm is coming here to replace this one in some form—all of this world, all places, times, and cultures.

The resurrection of Jesus is the one truly and uniquely replicatable event, the one historical situation that we may desire with confidence, being sure that our choices in the present may reproduce it for ourselves.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

How God Wants You to Complain

Nobody likes whiners. Most of the time, in most of the ways that people whine, God doesn't like them either. There are multiple examples in the biblical Book of Numbers where God's patience after decades of providing for the needs of his people, the Israelites, is finally exhausted. Their repeated complaining provokes him to kill some of them off now and again to drive home the message that their ingratitude is a very bad idea. In fact, it's a heinous sin.

So it is surprising that in some parts of the Bible God welcomes and even encourages complaining to him. One example is Psalm 89. It's pretty remarkable that God's Spirit moved a man to take him to task in a pungently accusatory way.

The psalm does not start out that way, however. In fact, it begins with praise with a special (and crucial) focus on God's faithfulness:
I will sing continually about the LORD’s faithful deeds;
to future generations I will proclaim your faithfulness [v. 1].
Then the psalmist further tips off where he's going to go with this psalm by quoting God as saying,
"I have made a covenant with my chosen one;
I have made a promise on oath to David, my servant:
'I will give you an eternal dynasty
and establish your throne throughout future generations' " [vv. 3-4].
 Then the psalmist swings back to extended, magnificent, picturesque praise:
O LORD, sovereign God!
Who is strong like you, O LORD?
Your faithfulness surrounds you. . . .
Equity and justice are the foundation of your throne.
Loyal love and faithfulness characterize your rule [vv. 8, 14].
Having thoroughly established his profound regard for God's faithfulness, the psalmist poetically retells the story told in 2 Samuel 7 (and 1 Chronicles 17) of how God made an everlasting promise to support, defend, and prosper King David and all his royal offspring. In the psalmist's words, God said,
"I will always extend my loyal love to him,
and my covenant with him is secure.
I will give him an eternal dynasty,
and make his throne as enduring as the skies above" [vv. 28–29].
What if David's descendants act wickedly and prove themselves unworthy of this promise? God asserts that this contingency may have short-term negative consequences, but it in no way nullifies his promise—he will, on the whole, make David's line succeed no matter what they do:
"I will punish their rebellion by beating them with a club,
their sin by inflicting them with bruises.
But I will not remove my loyal love from him,
nor be unfaithful to my promise.
I will not break my covenant
or go back on what I promised" [vv. 32–34].
Then suddenly the psalmist grinds the gears. The psalm shrieks,
But you have spurned and rejected him;
you are angry with your chosen king.
You have repudiated your covenant with your servant;
you have thrown his crown to the ground [vv. 38–39].
He's just getting started. The psalmist says "you have [done]" or "you are" thirteen times. He is accusing God of blatantly violating his agreement. The disasters that have struck Israel are not random occurrences or the sole fault of surrounding nations. These are God's fault.

This is the substance of a "covenant lawsuit," as modern scholars call the ancient phenomenon. When things go bad in Israel, other biblical laments express contrition, acknowledging that God justly brings calamity because Israel has sinfully violated its covenant with God. That is because the covenant between God and Israel made through the mediation of Moses entailed voluminous responsibilities on Israel that the people did not keep.

But the covenant God made to David and his line is different. In that covenant David had no obligations. God took on all the obligations. So despite the sin of Israel and even the sin of David's descendants who reigned wickedly on his throne, the psalmist has no compunction about laying all the blame at God's feet. God never gave himself a way out of keeping his promise. In fact, he specifically detailed his expectation that David's sons would act badly. His promise is entirely independent of that fact. Therefore, in the eyes of the psalmist, God has failed in his duties.

This psalm may be written after the return from exile—which demonstrated that Israel was forgiven for its sins—but with the Davidic monarchy still unrestored. In any case, it is startling that God would inspire a man to write an infallible accusation against God's faithfulness!

Or is it? The psalmist went on at length about how faithful God is. And that may be the indicator of a godly complaint.

When the Israelites of the exodus generation complained it came from a position of doubt. They doubted whether God was able to help them. They doubted whether God wanted to help them. They doubted whether God would keep his promises even while God was in the very act of making good on those promises.

The author of Psalm 89 is exactly the opposite. He complains from a position of faith. He believes wholeheartedly that God is faithful. He believes that God made a promise to David. His complaint presumes that God is acting in contradiction to his words and in contradiction with his very nature. Far from denying God's word, the psalmist calls God back to it. This is who you are, God! he says. This is what you said! But the present circumstances don't line up!

This is the complaint that God welcomes. It's griping and moaning over the fact that circumstances do not square with God's character and his revelation about himself and his intentions. God delights in us indignantly badgering him to get with his own program. It shows that we believe that he and his program are for real—that messed-up circumstances need to turn upside down while God simply needs to be who he is.