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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Good Morning, Vietnam!

Good news!  Despite continuing anti-Christian opposition in many places, the government of Vietnam is gradually opening up and allowing unregistered house churches to take steps toward integration into society, especially in major cities.  This includes allowing mass evangelistic gatherings involving thousands of people like this one.  Let's continue to pray for our brothers and sisters in Vietnam!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Two Ways to Read about Jesus

I was reading Luke 8:26-39 recently, the familiar story of the man possessed by the "legion" of demons that Jesus throws out of him.  I'd like to walk you through what I was thinking about when I read this passage to illustrate how we need to strike a particular balance when we read our Bibles and look at Jesus.

I read through slowly and meditatively, trying to picture in my mind the scene as it unfolded.  The first prominent thing to come to my attention was how after Jesus performed this mighty miracle, the people of the city begged him to leave (v. 37).  Luke says twice that they were very afraid of Jesus (also v. 35); at the very least it must have had to do with the pigs they lost in the process (v. 33)—what other property would Jesus destroy?—but there were probably other, more personal reasons for fear as well.  At any rate, what impressed me was that Jesus struck fear in people, who wanted him to go away, because what he did to heal the sick dealt collateral damage that upset these people's world.  And the message that I got from this was that if I do the will of God to fight Satan and heal the broken like Jesus did, then I can expect to face a similar outcome.

I could have stopped there and considered myself to have had a successful time of studying the Word.  The Holy Spirit brought a truth to my attention that I can apply to my life as I strive to be like Jesus—ta-da!  But the Spirit wasn't done.

I went back over the last few verses again and looked at Jesus from a different angle.  I had been watching him as the Example I am supposed to copy.  Now I watched him as the Savior that I cannot copy.  Instead of putting myself in the sandals of Jesus, I put myself in the sandals of the healed man.

The man wants to go with Jesus back to Galilee, but Jesus tells him, " 'Return to your home, and declare what God has done for you.'  So he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole town what Jesus had done for him" (v. 39).

The student in me noted that this is one of the many situations in which Matthew, Mark, and Luke reveal Jesus' divinity implicitly if not explicitly (specifically in the parallel between the words "God" and "Jesus" in v. 39).  But it also got me thinking, what has Jesus done for me?  Lots of things, perhaps best summed up by the aspects of the gospel I blogged about recently.  Meditating upon this led me to pray, slowly and repeatedly, "Jesus . . . you have done great things . . . for me."  This became an intimate time of fellowship with the Lord for me.

I walked you through this devotional time to point out that there are two basic ways we can look at Jesus in the Word.  Both of them are good, and neither should be neglected.

One way is the first thing I did: to put ourselves in Jesus' place and view him as a model for our own action.  As persons who are predestined to be conformed to his image and who are ordered to imitate him, this is entirely appropriate.  The other way is to recognize our deep need for Jesus as our Savior and our King, positions he holds that no one else can, and to put oneself in the place of those he helps.  As persons who are "wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked" without him, viewing Jesus this way is also entirely appropriate.

I don't know about you, but my natural tendency is to take the former route when I'm looking at Scripture.  Positively, this may come from a genuine, Spirit-led desire to excel beyond what I am.  Negatively, it may come from pure ego, assuming that I'm "the good guy" in every story just like Jesus is.  (Here's a biblical example of that, especially the "we" in v. 10.)  Either way, if that's all I look at, my Christian life comes down to me scrapping to get to the next spiritual level and ripping away all obstacles to that quest, which, when isolated, degenerates into an attempt to be saved by works.  It also limits my experiences of intimacy with Christ.  On the other hand, though I don't know if anybody actually does this, there may be danger in focusing entirely on Christ as Savior and self as needy.  While it is true that apart from him we can do nothing, it is also true that he chose us to bear fruit, and if we never desire to emulate him but are content to remain in passive spiritual mediocrity, washed over and over again with "cheap grace," then fruit isn't going to happen.

So my encouragement to you when you read the Bible, especially the Gospels, is to be careful to look at Jesus both ways.  View him as the person you need, and receive his glory and love.  But also view him as the person you need to emulate, and receive his challenge and instruction.  We need deep familiarity with both aspects of Jesus if we are to be and do what he wants for us.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Can You Be Too Rich for Heaven?

There was a Saturday Night Live skit years ago (I think it featured Steve Martin) that featured a prosperous businessman who took very seriously Jesus' words in Mark 10:25: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God."  So he decided to invest his fortune into making really big needles and breeding really small camels, and if that didn't work, he was prepared to hire a virtual army to remove that verse from all copies of the Bible worldwide.  (If you can find this clip online, please let me know where to get it.  I'll owe you forever.)

Historical theologian Brian Matz nicely summarizes the ancient church fathers' understanding of Jesus' troubling words about wealth in a way that is instructive, encouraging, and still seriously challenging.  Check it out and be blessed.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Four Aspects of the Gospel (Concluding Thoughts)

The gospel is that:
  • The kingdom of God is replacing the kingdom of the world in Jesus Christ.
  • Jesus Christ brings peace (shālōm) to those with faith.
  • Our sins can be forgiven through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from works of the Law.
  • God has fulfilled his promise to Israel's fathers through Jesus Christ.
What might we learn from this?  Here are a few ideas.

1. We can select our gospel emphasis according to our audience.  After all, that's what the apostles and New Testament authors did.  We can look at these four aspects of the gospel as a palette from which we may choose the most effective and compelling way to communicate what God has done for us in Jesus Christ tailored to the specific needs and longings of those who hear.  That also means that if in a given gospel-presentation we do not mention one or more of these aspects, we do not have to feel ashamed that we have failed to proclaim the gospel.  (If that were true, then a number of the New Testament authors are in a heap of trouble.)  However . . .

2. One predominant gospel emphasis to the neglect of the others tends toward heresy.  In Francis Schaeffer's pamphlet about the charismatic movement, The New Super-Spirituality (1972), he points out that when part of the entire sphere of Christian doctrine is unstressed by the church, then a movement inevitably arises to correct the church, but it frequently overstresses the part that has been neglected as if it is the most important part or even the only part that matters.  Then that movement becomes a heresy not because it teaches what is false of itself, but because it blows that part totally out of proportion to the whole, which then does lead to false doctrine.  Meanwhile, the rest of Christians who had been neglecting that part now intentionally avoid it even more, because they don't want to be anything like those crazy heretics, but that actually makes their teaching even less biblical because it is less complete.  So in Schaeffer's words, "Satan fishes equally on both sides and he wins on both sides" (p. 28).

The same thing can happen within the segment of Christian doctrine called the gospel.  Among Protestants at any rate, theological conservatives/evangelicals have tended to stress Aspect #3 heavily.  In fact there is currently a gospel-obsessed movement that contains many adherents who are highly skeptical of any teacher or church that does not repeat #3 as often as possible, using the right words to do so.  Liberals on the other hand have stressed #2 and to a lesser extent #1 with the so-called "Social Gospel," though they have often twisted those aspects by emphasizing human efforts to achieve peace and the kingdom instead of the work that Christ has already done to achieve these things.  But in either case, I'd like to suggest that even if one's articulation of the gospel according to one of these aspects could not be more doctrinally pure, if one makes that aspect The One That Really Matters, heresy is just down the road.

3. An articulation of the gospel in which Jesus Christ is not central is no gospel.  Our biblical investigation here ought to make that apparent.

(By the way, sorry I haven't written with my previous frequency lately.  Things have been crazy.  Hopefully I'll be able to ramp it up a little soon.)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Four Aspects of the Gospel (4)

What's the gospel?

4. God has fulfilled his promise to Israel's fathers in Jesus Christ.  Paul told the Jewish synagogue at Pisidian Antioch that "we proclaim to you the good news about the promise to our ancestors, that this promise God has fulfilled to us, their children, by raising Jesus" (Acts 13:32-33).

The essence of God's promise that an Anointed One, a Messiah/Christ, would come.  The gospel is that that Messiah has come, and it is Jesus (Acts 5:42).  The gospel also includes what this Messiah did, not only rising from the dead, as Paul told the Pisidians, but also dying on the cross.  At first hearing, the idea of a crucified Messiah didn't sound like good news to a Jew but something incomprehensible, a "stumbling block" (1 Cor. 1:23).  But the apostles proclaimed the gospel to their fellow Jews by repeatedly demonstrating that "[t]his gospel [was] promised beforehand through [God's] prophets in the holy scriptures" (Rom. 1:2).  Even though Jesus didn't fit the Jews' mental model of what a Messiah was supposed to be, that's because the gospel is a "mystery that had been kept secret for long ages" that just now has been revealed by God in Jesus' person and work (Rom. 16:25).

But the fact that God has made good on his promise to Israel isn't just good news for Jews but good news for Gentiles too—another shock to Jewish assumptions.  "[T]his secret was not disclosed to people in former generations as it has now been revealed to [God's] holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit," Paul writes to the Ephesians, "namely, that through the gospel the Gentiles are fellow heirs [with Jews], fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 3:5-6).  When Gentiles respond to the gospel, they turn from the worthless idols they are accustomed to worship to "the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them" (Acts 14:15).

For this reason, the gospel is both what Jesus the Promised Messiah did in his earthly life and what he continues to do through his entire Church, Jew and Gentile together.  This is why Mark entitles his account of the life of Jesus "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1).

God has fulfilled his promise to Israel's fathers in Jesus Christ.  That is good news.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Four Aspects of the Gospel (3)

What's the gospel?

3. Our sins can be forgiven through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from works of the Law.  "And we proclaim to you the good news," Paul says in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, " . . . that through [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by this one everyone who believes is justified from everything from which the law of Moses could not justify you" (Acts 13:32, 38-39; see also Gal. 2:14-16).

The good news is that God no longer must count people's sins against them.  He can call them innocent (justify them) even if they have done guilty things.  They don't earn an innocent verdict by doing enough good things written in God's Law to compensate for the bad things they've done, because no one can ever do enough.  God declares people innocent by nothing other than his free grace (see Acts 20:24).  The announcement of this grace is powerful enough to save people (Rom. 1:16) and enable them to be born anew (1 Pet. 1:23, 25) by being sanctified (set apart for God) by the Holy Spirit (2 Thess. 2:13-14).

But this forgiveness, salvation, rebirth, and sanctification only comes to people who repent of (turn away from, reject) their sin (Mark 1:15; see also Luke 1:16-19) and who begin to obey God as a result of their new faith (Rom. 1:1, 5).  But the most important condition, which comes up again and again in the Scriptures I've referenced here, is faith—wholehearted trust/belief in the person and work of Christ as the only way one can be saved.

Our sins can be forgiven through faith in Jesus Christ.  That's good news.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Four Aspects of the Gospel (2)

What's the gospel?

2. Jesus Christ brings peace to those with faith.

Arguably this is the earliest definition of the gospel in the Bible, as it makes its first clear appearance not in the New Testament but in the Old: "How delightful it is to see approaching over the mountains the feet of a messenger who announces peace, a messenger who brings good news [gospel], who announces deliverance, who says to Zion, 'Your God reigns!' " (Isa. 52:7; see also Rom. 10:15; Eph. 6:15).

The Hebrew word for "peace" in Isaiah 52:7 is the familiar word shālōm.  The meaning of shālōm extends far beyond the English word "peace."  Shālōm in its broadest possible conception is wholeness or completeness.  In politics it is peace; in the human body it is health; in relationships it is mutual friendliness, loyalty, and respect; in any situation it is goodness to the nth degree.

The gospel is that this kind of peace, shālōm-peace, has been brought into the world by Jesus Christ.

In his Gospel, Luke kicks off Jesus' ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth, where Jesus reads another prophecy of Isaiah (61:1-2): "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news [gospel] to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19).  Jesus brings wholeness to those who are lacking something: the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed, physically, materially, economically, politically, socially, morally, and spiritually.  Jesus brings wholeness to the whole human person.  These are "the unfathomable riches of Christ" (Eph. 3:8).

Jesus not only announces peace but enacts it.  Summarizing his ministry, he tells John the Baptist in one breath that "The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them" (Matt. 11:5).  Jesus' gospel-preaching announces shālōm, and his healing makes shālōm in people's bodies.

The shālōm-peace that Jesus announced and demonstrated in his earthly ministry is to be completed in the age to come.  The gospel is that God's great Sabbath-rest of peace is out there, just a bit down the road, and if we hold on to our faith in God while we still do not see it, we will someday inherit it (Heb. 4:1-6).  It is no surprise that faith is essential to enter into eternal peace, because Jesus consistently required faith for people to receive physical peace (health) from him in this life.

The gospel of peace and the gospel of the kingdom are closely connected.  The reestablished reign of the true King is what establishes peace.  "[God] . . . proclaim[ed] the good news of peace through Jesus Christ," namely that "he is Lord of all" (Acts 10:38).

Beginning in this age and concluding in the age to come, Jesus Christ brings peace to those with faith.  That is good news.