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Monday, May 30, 2011

The Reception of the Holy Spirit: The Spirit Within

In my last post, which introduced this series on the reception of the Holy Spirit, I proposed that the New Testament describes two ways that a believer receives the Spirit, which borrowing from biblical language itself I described as the Spirit coming within and the Spirit coming upon.  In this post I will list the terms used by New Testament authors that refer exclusively to "the Spirit within" and interpret some of the major passages that talk about this mode of the reception of the Spirit.

The natural place to start is with the terms "the Holy Spirit being/dwelling/remaining in" the believer.  The Bible says little about what exactly this is or how it happens (aside from God the Father giving him), but we do know outcomes of the Spirit's indwelling.  The Spirit makes the individuals and churches in whom he dwells into temples of God (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; Eph. 2:22).  Another outcome of the Spirit's indwelling is knowledge of the truth: learning it (John 14:16-17; 1 John 2:27), speaking it (1 Pet. 1:10-11), and guarding it (2 Tim. 1:14).  Most importantly, we know that the Holy Spirit dwells in every regenerate believer from a single, but decisive, biblical passage: Romans 8:5-11.  According to Paul in Romans, if the Holy Spirit is not in someone, that person thinks and functions according to "the flesh" (which is hostile to God and rebellious against his law), cannot please God, does not belong to Christ, and is headed for death.  By contrast, if the Holy Spirit is in someone, that person's spirit is alive, he/she thinks and functions according to the Spirit and is at peace, Christ himself is in that person, and God will eventually raise that person's mortal body from the dead into an immortal body as he did Christ's.  In other words, the characteristics and attitude that we expect (and God demands) from a true Christian only belong to the person in whom the Spirit dwells.  The person without him cannot possibly be saved.  For example, Jude describes false teachers who are destined for eternal damnation in Jude 18-19 as "not having the Spirit."

The Holy Spirit gives new, eternal life to all those in whom he dwells, life of a quality that can't come from any other source.  So we see "the Holy Spirit giving life" in John 6:63, "being made alive by means of the Holy Spirit" in Galatians 5:25, and "the Holy Spirit flowing" out of the center of the believer like running (literally, "living") water in John 7:38-39.  The imagery of new life continues with the terms "being born of/by/according to the Holy Spirit."  Only those who have been born by the Spirit can see and enter the kingdom of God.  Only they can recognize each other as kin (John 3:3, 5, 8), and they are misunderstood and persecuted by those who have only been born naturally (i.e., according to the flesh; Gal. 4:23, 28-29).

The indwelling of the Spirit is necessary for God the Father to take ordinary, wicked people and make them into his holy nation.  Thus we read of "God choosing [believers] by the sanctification of the Holy Spirit" in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 and 1 Peter 1:2.  God chose all believers in the truth to be saved, to obey Christ, and to be cleansed by Christ's blood, which he accomplished by sanctifying them with the Holy Spirit.  Likewise believers are "washed by means of the Holy Spirit" by God to be saved by his mercy, regenerated within, declared innocent, sanctified, and made heirs of eternal life (1 Cor. 6:11; Tit. 3:4-7).  Of course, until Christ's work on the cross, the Jews assumed that they were and would always be God's holy people and that they were inducted into the people of God by circumcision.  But Paul talks about the heart "being circumcised by means of the Holy Spirit," by which any person, Jew or Gentile, becomes a real Jew in God's sight and truly keeps God's law (Rom. 2:29; cf. Col. 2:11-14).  Further, it was a given in both Jewish and Gentile thought-worlds that only a holy person could access a divine being in its temple.  For a Jew, naturally, that not only entailed being Jewish but for progressively closer access being a Levite or a priest or the high priest himself.  But Paul uses the term "having access to the Father by the Spirit" to define the awesome privilege belonging both to all Jews and to all Gentiles through Christ (Eph. 2:18).

Paul repeatedly points out that "having the Holy Spirit" in the present gives believers confidence that God will complete his saving work in the future.  All who belong to Christ will receive eternal life in their mortal bodies through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9, 11).  The promised resurrection is described as a future redemption, God's purchase of the believers, and indeed, the fact that they have the Holy Spirit already marks them as having been bought with a price (Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 6:19-20).  Along these very lines, the terms "God giving the Holy Spirit as a pledge [or 'down payment']" and "God sealing [believers] with the Holy Spirit" represent the confidence believers can have of their eventual resurrection because of the Holy Spirit whom God has given them now (2 Cor. 1:21-22; 5:5; Eph. 4:30), a gift closely connected to their faith in the gospel (Eph. 1:13-14).

Another couple of terms remain that pertain to the Spirit within, and they come from one tricky verse, 1 Corinthians 12:13, which reads, "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.  Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit."  Some of the evidence that these terms—"being baptized by means of the Holy Spirit" (which I'll explain shortly) and "the Holy Spirit being given [to believers] to drink"—are connected to the Spirit's indwelling in all believers is the universal scope of the text.  Paul insists that we were all baptized into one body by the one Spirit and all made to drink of the one Spirit, and he even gives some examples of opposites according to the flesh (Jew/Greek, slave/free) that are encompassed by the one Spirit's work.  (This is reminiscent of the "one baptism" referenced in Eph. 4:5 and "the commonality of the Holy Spirit [my translation]" in 2 Cor. 13:14(13).)  It is also notable that Paul made this statement to a church suffering from chronic and severe unity problems, much of which revolved around some people claiming to be more spiritual than the rest because they demonstrated spectacular manifestations of the Spirit that others lacked.  Nevertheless, Paul insists that this baptism by means of the Holy Spirit is common to all believers.

Now it would be easy to claim from this passage that "the baptism of the Holy Spirit" is universally received by all believers at conversion as another aspect of the Spirit's indwelling work.  But despite the presence of the terms "baptize" and "Holy Spirit" here, this verse does not actually refer to the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  The key is the Greek preposition en.  In languages in general, prepositions are notorious for being really flexible.  (For example, look up "on" in an English dictionary and count the definitions.)  In many places, the Greek word en means "in."  A pertinent example for our study is Matthew 3:11, which I should introduce by pointing out that the Greek word baptízō, translated "baptize," was actually a run-of-the-mill word meaning "immerse" or "dip": "I [John] baptize/immerse you in [en] water . . . but he [Jesus] will baptize/immerse you in [en] the Holy Spirit and fire."  However, another very common meaning of en is "by means of," that is, the tool or instrument that you use to accomplish something.  As it happens, the phrase "en the Spirit" occurs several times in 1 Corinthians 12, and in all cases it means "by means of the Holy Spirit."  So we see in verse 3, "[N]o one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by [en] the Holy Spirit," and in verse 9, "[T]o another faith [is given by God] by [en] the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by [en] the one Spirit."  Judging from the pattern of usage Paul already established in this chapter, it is most likely that "in [en] one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" is best rendered "by means of one Spirit we were all baptized into one body."  In other words, God the Father used the Holy Spirit to baptize us.

The distinction between "in" and "by means of" is more than grammatical hair-splitting, because it indicates that the baptism Paul mentions here is not necessarily the same as the baptism in/of the Holy Spirit promised by John the Baptist in the Gospels.  So what kind of baptism is it?  Most likely, Paul is using the metaphor of baptism—which, I again stress, was an ordinary, non-churchy word meaning "immersion," like what you'd do to your dirty pots and pans—like he uses the image of "washing" in 1 Corinthians 6:11 and Titus 3:4-7 mentioned previously, which refers to the removal of sin.  This washing/baptism by the Spirit aligns neatly with Paul's description in Romans 6:1-11 of being "baptized into Christ Jesus," which removes sin from us and us from sin, and which is the spiritual reality that physical water-baptism reflects and expresses (and those in sacramental traditions believe enacts).  So the physical rite of baptism in water parallels God's action of washing off our sin by the indwelling Holy Spirit when we believe, and so the rite of baptism initiates us all into the visible church in parallel with the indwelling Holy Spirit's work to initiate us into the invisible church composed of those God knows who truly believe.

This work of the Holy Spirit and all his activities listed in this post are performed by the Spirit when he rests within a person, which he begins doing in all genuine, regenerate believers in Jesus Christ at the moment of conversion.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Reception of the Holy Spirit: Introduction

"Have you been baptized in the Holy Spirit?"

This is what my new acquaintance inquired of me, seated across from me at lunch on a cold December day last year.  I nervously looked down, afraid of what uncomfortable relational pressure I might be about to undergo.  "Well, the answer is yes, I have," I began, "but let me ask you what exactly you mean by 'baptized with the Holy Spirit' to be sure I'm answering your question accurately."

The remainder of that conversation (which wasn't as awkward as I had feared) propelled me into a quest to nail down once and for all the answer to the question, what exactly is the baptism of the Holy Spirit as the Bible describes it?  Now, for me the question was not, "Are the 'charismatic' gifts of the Spirit available today?" or, "Do post-conversion 'fillings' with the Spirit happen?"  I've long said yes to both of these.  The specific question is, how does the baptism in the Holy Spirit fit with them?  Is it concurrent with and/or the same as regeneration, or does it happen at water-baptism, or is it a "second blessing"?  Implicit in these options is the question, does a person have the Holy Spirit in any respect prior to being baptized in the Holy Spirit?  And perhaps one more question of a practical nature is, how does a person know if he or she has been baptized in the Holy Spirit (particularly if it does not happen at conversion)?

After digging deeply and widely in the New Testament, I've concluded that the overall doctrinal heading for this investigation should be "the reception of the Holy Spirit," not least because "receive" and "give" and their cognates are the most common words to describe the Holy Spirit coming into contact with a person—much more common than "baptism," for example.  I've also concluded that there are indeed two distinct ways to receive the Holy Spirit that can be summed up by two prepositions.  When we are saved, brought from darkness to light, we receive the Spirit within.  This is the regeneration that makes our dead spirits live, awaken to the gospel, and believe in Jesus.  But there is another kind of receiving the Spirit, and that's the Spirit coming upon.  This reception of the Spirit usually happens after conversion though for some it happens at the same time; also, a regenerate Christian who does not want the gift might never receive it.  The primary effect of the Spirit coming upon is a boldness to talk about Jesus that compels both the speaker to speak and the hearers to respond (one way or another), and miraculous manifestations may also occur.  (Incidentally, this summary of mine is essentially what my lunch partner believes.)

For the next few posts I'm going to detail my evidence for this position from Scripture.  My approach will be to list the many terms that the NT writers employed to refer to the reception of the Holy Spirit and sort them into three categories: those that refer to the Spirit coming within, those pertaining to the Spirit coming upon, and those that in one way or another blend the two.  We'll see that different NT authors employ some of the same terms in different ways, which is one of the factors that has bred confusion on this subject over the centuries.  But I hope that we'll also see that precision and conviction on this doctrine is of crucial importance for the Church to fulfill its mandate in the world.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Reading the Bible and Friendship with God

Imagine you have a friend who is friends with a really important, famous person.  When you first become aware of this connection, you enjoy hearing details about the VIP's off-camera life from your friend, because they make you feel closer to this person that you've seen in the media but never met.  After a while your friend might say, "This VIP friend of mine is coming through town next week.  Come with me and I'll introduce you."  When your friend makes the introduction you and the VIP have a brief, cordial chat, but if the three of you are standing around for much longer you soon become a spectator as your friend and the VIP carry on a more substantial conversation suitable to the intimacy of their relationship.

Some time later your friend says, "Hey, my VIP friend is coming to town again, and I thought it would be cool if I got some friends together to hang out."  So you go, and because recreational activities can mix people together and level the relationships, you have some more genuine interaction with the VIP yourself in the small group.  When the activity is over, though, the VIP takes an interest in you individually.  You get coffee with the VIP and your friend, but this time the VIP is asking you questions, and most of the interaction is between the two of you with only occasional insertions by your friend.  A week later you get a call from the VIP, and you set up a time to hang out one-on-one.  Your relationship has now evolved to the point that it stands on its own without the friend who brokered it even being around.

I think that the development of the time that we spend with God follows the same path as this parable that I just told.  We start just by hearing about God from someone who knows him well by listening to sermons in person or in recordings or by reading books or blogs.  Then we have a conversation with God himself by reading the Bible, but it's cursory, just a verse or two before we spend the great bulk of our time reading what someone else says about God, as in "daily devotionals" like Our Daily Bread (or as Zach Bartels calls it, Our Daily Crouton).  From there we move to a Bible study workbook that requires us to engage with God in Scripture more deeply, reading longer passages and answering questions about them, but that time is still in a setting contrived by someone else and consists mostly of that author's commentary.  If we seek greater closeness with God, we move on to some means—a particular Bible or book or mentorship by a trusted friend—by which we read God's Word ourselves, but there's still some orienting material that gives us a clue of what to look for and how to go about it before we dig in.  Finally, we graduate to reading the Bible alone, spending unmediated, one-on-one time with God with no director but the Holy Spirit.

There are two lessons we can draw from this pattern.  First, each of us has developed to a particular degree of intimacy with God in our hearing and reading of Scripture.  We can still enjoy and be nourished by less intimate interactions with God mediated more by other people, just like if we have a close friend we can still enjoy sharing that friend with others in a group setting.  But if we're used to a particular degree of intimacy with God, and then for a period of time all of our time with him is in a less intimate setting—like if we're used to reading the Bible with little guidance and then spend several weeks in a daily devotional—we starve for God and our relationship with him suffers.  That's true even if the same level of intimacy that starves us is a rich banquet to someone who isn't as far along.

Second, our development in spending intimate time with God progresses through stages.  Unfortunately, many people stick, satisfied, at one stage, and fail to mature.  A person who has been a Christian for forty years but has never moved beyond listening to sermons or reading Our Daily Bread has as close a relationship with God as someone who makes occasional small-talk with a friend of a friend, regardless of how long they've been doing it (and their life shows it).  So it is good for us to consider what stage we're in and how we can meet the challenge of going to the next one.  If you're used to listening to others talk about God but never read the Bible yourself, why not practice reading a daily devotional?  If you're used to those, invest time in a Sunday School class or Bible study that requires moderate homework in a workbook based on the Bible.  If that kind of thing is familiar to you, pick up a book like How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, Developing Intimacy with God, by Alex B. Aronis, or The International Inductive Study Bible to guide you into substantial time in the Scriptures directly.  And if you're accustomed to those kind of things, isn't it time to take the training wheels off and read on your own?

For whatever stage you're in, God wants to be an intimate friend to you.  How close are you willing to be to him?  What are the consequences of holding back?

Monday, May 23, 2011

I Love Matt Papa

I was thinking that this post should be filed under the category of "Cory Reviews Media That's Been Around Long Enough That All the Reviews Should Have Been Written Already."  (Aside 1: I would consider making this a post label, but it's too long.  Aside 2: If you check out my book reviews, you see that almost all of them fall into this category.  See also here.  Aside 3: Wait for my review of Jaroslav Pelikan's 5-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, published 1971-89.)  That's because I'm about to ramble about Matt Papa's 2008 worship album Your Kingdom Come.

But then I discovered on the artist's website, which calls the release "the new album," that I wasn't so late after all, because Papa hasn't released another full-length work since entering Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary as Your Kingdom Come was being completed.

It figures.  I've been listening to this album at least every other day for several weeks and I don't see signs of it letting up.  What makes it fun is great musicianship.  But what keeps me coming back is how every song is soaked in Scripture.  Biblical phrases abound in the lyrics.  They proliferate so naturally in Papa's songs that one gets the impression that he isn't trying to make Scriptural songs at all; it's just that he himself is so soaked in Scripture that it can't help but infuse his music.

Other elements of the album grip me deep within as well, including the fascinating interplay between Papa's hard-rocking, modern style and his conscious commitment to the historic Church through the ages.  I can't remember any contemporary Christian tune employing part of that ancient liturgical staple, the Gloria Patri (specifically the part, "as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen"), as Papa's "Alive" does.  "Alive" itself is a good example both of Papa's cleverness and his good theology.  The tune begins with eighth-note chords in the upper range of the piano accompanied by sleigh bells, and the first words are, "Bells are ringing, children singing."  Christmas song, right?  Wrong—this is an Easter hymn: the words continue, "Christ is risen, Christ is risen."

Another example of Papa's knowledge of church history, as well as his musicianship, is the unexpected insertion before his song "Prepare the Way" of a guitar reduction of the familiar introduction to J. S. Bach's chorale prelude "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" ("Sleepers Awake").  (Once I discovered this blog post by Papa in which he declares Bach to be one of his heroes, as yours truly does, my esteem for Papa turned into a full-on man-crush.)  And if those credentials were not enough to validate Papa's commitment to the historic Church and the Great Tradition of doctrine through the ages, there is one of my favorite cuts on the album, "Trinity," which is about—well, you guessed it.  Seriously, how many Christian songs have been written in the last few decades on the central doctrine of the Christian faith?  But this ought to be expected of a musician with a rich doctrinal statement (and he calls it a creed!—wow!) on his website as well as a "mantra" of biblical principles that guide his ministry.

The songs on Your Kingdom Come generally fall into two thematic categories.  One category, which includes the songs already mentioned, are songs of adoration to the Triune God, especially the risen Christ.  The other category is a bracing challenge and exhortation to the Church to proclaim the gospel in word and back it up in deed to all nations in light of the authority of Christ and his coming judgment.  The prime example is the eponymous track of the disc, "Your Kingdom Come," which happens to be my favorite cut of them all, a vigorous, rousing anthem of God's coming kingdom and the Church's plea to be engaged in it.  This group of songs also includes the frankly harsh "Woe to You," a chastisement of false Christianity steeped in Jesus' declamations in the Gospels, and "Where Is the Difference," reminiscent of Keith Green's classic "Asleep in the Light."  (Come to think of it, Papa kind of looks like Green.)
Keith Green

Matt Papa
The music on Your Kingdom Come also breaks down into two categories following the two main themes.  The songs of adoration are more likely to be piano-driven and reflective.  Despite the fairly simple and sometimes cyclical chord progressions, the musical interest derives from the lush dissonances and harmonies formed by the backing synth pad, the melodic line, or instrumental counter-melodies.  The kingdom/mission songs on the other hand are more likely to be guitar-driven, straight-ahead rock, usually with the kind of hard edge that you expect from a band at a youth event.  These songs have the gripping energy and beat that make you want to move.  And of course, getting the Church to move is Papa's point.

It's been a long time since an album worked its way so deeply into my thoughts and passions, actually forming those thoughts and passions, as this one has in the past few weeks.  And in fact I can't remember an album ever eventually forming my preaching as this one has as an internal counterpoint to the series I'm currently preaching in the Gospel of Luke.  Luke is about the kingdom coming in Jesus in the power of the Spirit.  (Regular readers know my restlessness over the Church's reflection on the kingdom of God, and I'll be blogging at length about the Holy Spirit real soon.)  This is what Your Kingdom Come is about at its core.  I think Papa would be pleased that his musical sermon is forming spoken sermons.  As he says on his website, "Songs are sermons people remember.  I often don't remember a sermon I heard yesterday, let alone a year ago.  But with songs, there's a hook, and people remember it.  So that's why I want to write with Scripture.  I don't want to waste time."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Least of the Nations

I've started reading through 1 Chronicles intensively for the first time, and some of you are already beginning to yawn, because you know what 1 Chronicles starts with: genealogies.  Lots and lots of genealogies.  Lots of lists of names that you can't pronounce that don't seem to be of any value.  But I'm going through it with a fine-toothed comb anyway.  These lists were very important to the Jews after the exile at the very least so that individuals could establish their authentic Jewishness and in some cases Levitical or priestly office (for why this was so important, see here).  As I immerse myself in 1 Chronicles I can't help but start to look at the world from the perspective of a postexilic Jew, which sheds light on a great deal of the Bible and sometimes provides spiritual insights in surprising ways.

For example, the very beginning of 1 Chronicles gives the lineage of Adam to Noah's sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth and then gives an overview of the nations descended from them in parallel with Genesis 10.  This sketches the entire ethnographic world that the Israelites knew in very broad strokes.  Some of the nations listed here we know very well (e.g., Mizraim/Mitsráyim = Egypt).  Others we have only a vague idea of and still others we don't know anything about at all.  But you can't pore over this list, painstakingly cross-checking every name with other biblical references and examining commentators' speculations, without getting the picture of a world that to the Israelites was really, really big with really, really huge nations that were already taking up all available space.  As the genealogy narrows telescopically down the line of Shem to Abraham and then from all the nations descended from Abraham to Israel itself, you get a sense of the tininess of God's chosen people in their crowded world.  For example, Egypt/Mizraim had a ten-generation head start on Israel to multiply and populate territory.

This is the backdrop of Moses' admonishing reminder to Israel that
you are a people holy to the LORD your God.  He has chosen you to be his people, prized above all others on the face of the earth.  It is not because you were more numerous than all the other peoples that the LORD favored and chose you—for in fact you were the least numerous of all peoples.  Rather it is because of his love for you and his faithfulness to the promise that he solemnly vowed to your ancestors that the LORD brought you out with great power, redeeming you from the place of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt [Deut. 7:6-8].
God loves using the small, the weak, the few, and the undeserving to accomplish his work and reveal his glory.  The Bible gives example after example of it.  And in church history we see examples of it too, (e.g., the Moravian Church).  Ironically, the power that God exerts through the small frequently makes the small big, and then as we view it we become seduced by bigness.  (Solomon might be a telling example of this.)  But even then, out of the drifting, seemingly successful big thing, God will again bring new life out of the small thing within it.  This cycle should remind big churches, ministries, and movements of God to be humble and small ones to be hopeful.  The small should also be cautious not to envy the big but to seek the God who is faithful to his promises.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Friendship: More than You Thought

Friendship is one of those features of life that most of us experience and make assumptions about but rarely talk or think about in the abstract.  Nevertheless, Western civilization has been entertaining a conversation about friendship since Aristotle began it 2,500 years ago.  Modernity has made this conversation more important for us than ever.  Mobility has increased, so people are living further from family networks and are seeking to create networks of friends to replace them.  New communication technologies are redefining what a friend is in common parlance, with Facebook obviously being the prime example.  What impact do these developments have on the drift of our friendships, on our happiness, and on our walk with God?

Lee Spitzer has added his voice to the ancient conversation in his book Making Friends, Making Disciples: Growing Your Church through Authentic Relationships, published by Judson Press (2010).  My friend Lee has probably reflected more on friendship from a Christian perspective than any other living person, or at least more than any you're likely to come across.  His book provides a welcome and fascinating window into a typically unexamined part of our lives.

The heart of Lee's meditation on friendship is an exercise that employs a deceptively simple diagram that he terms "Friendship Circles."  The diagram assumes different levels of intimacy in our friendships with different people.  By seriously asking, "Who are my friends?" and examining which we have shared more of ourselves with than others, we gain a fascinating view of our relational world.  Like all good self-examination exercises, the data we put onto the page has been within us all along, but we are unable to recognize its import until we see it outside of ourselves.

Lee brings a wealth of insights out of the Friendship Circles exercise in connection with other research, such as the number of total friends (250) and close friends (20) a human is capable of having, the number of close friends belonging to the average American (10), and the number of friends necessary to stave off loneliness (8 to 12 close ones).  He also makes forays into such provocative territory as the relationship between Facebook friends and actual friends, the unique qualities and risks of opposite-sex friendships, and who Jesus' friends were according to the Gospels.

The example of Jesus is interesting because of his dual nature.  As a human, Jesus models good, healthy friendship patterns for us, and indeed most of Making Friends, Making Disciples has to do with how our friendship patterns might be made as beneficial as possible.  But as God, Jesus also models how God has reconciled his enemies to himself to make us his friends, and even more interestingly how God has his own "Friendship Circles" in which some (Abraham, for example) are exceptionally close.  This portion of Lee's investigation not only raises the question, "How close a friend am I to God?" but much more importantly, "How close a friend is God to me?"

Lee Spitzer is convinced that our friendships, actual and potential, are gifts that God has given us that can be submitted to and employed by him for his kingdom and glory.  Properly understood, our friendships give clues to what God desires to do in, through, and around us.  They form the substructure of all evangelism and discipleship, and a healthy, balanced web of friendships within a church is an essential ingredient for a healthy and faithful body.  Making Friends, Making Disciples explores all these themes.  Meanwhile, Lee has continued his meditations, expanding still further his understanding of friendship and how God uses it.  Let's hope he's making plans for a sequel.

Monday, May 2, 2011

What God Celebrates

Like the rest of the world I was surprised last night by the announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. military personnel in Pakistan.  Though it is probably naive to believe that this is the end of Islamic terrorism, it is still a remarkable milestone.  A lot has happened in the nearly ten years since the 9/11 attack.

As I saw footage of the crowds that were spontaneously gathering in American communities and celebrating bin Laden's demise, I wondered how happy God is about bin Laden's death.  I remembered Ezekiel 33:11, which says, "As surely as I live, declares the sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but prefer that the wicked change his behavior and live."  I also remembered a provocative Christianity Today (online) interview with Brother Andrew in 2007, in which he asked, " 'Have you prayed for bin Laden today?'  That question should shock a lot of Christians.  Of course we haven't!"  (I haven't.)  "That is why he is what he is.  We have an evangelical black list of people we don't want to see in heaven and put bin Laden on top."

I do believe that there is justice in bin Laden's violent death.  He was a criminal and a murderer; he shed human blood and by humans his blood was shed (Gen. 9:5-6).  And therefore I believe that there is an appropriate, justified satisfaction at his death, even for God.  But it is not really worth celebrating for Christians.  There is far more celebration among the angels of God in heaven over the child who said he was sorry for his sins and trusted in Jesus this morning than there is for bin Laden's death.