Monday, March 31, 2014

Believers That Sin & A God In Whom Is No Darkness At All

A more current version of this post is available here.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

All Things Dull and Ugly: Monty Python and the Millennium

In 1848, a song with the title All Things Bright and Beautiful appeared for the first time in Mrs. Cecil Alexander’s Hymns for Little Children. It subsequently became a Christian standard, and you are probably familiar with at least some of the lyrics (and almost surely the general concept), so I won’t include them here.

Also, they are considerably less amusing than the lyrics to the parody version written by British comedian Eric Idle for Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album in 1980. I include a couple of verses to give you the general idea:

       “All things dull and ugly
        All creatures short and squat
        All things rude and nasty
        The Lord God made the lot

        Each nasty little hornet
        Each beastly little squid
        Who made the spiky urchin?
        Who made the sharks? He did”

It goes on in much the same vein for four or five stanzas, but you get the picture. You can read the whole thing here if you care to, or if you don’t recall it (it has been nearly 35 years). As a teenager, I thought it was hilarious … until I didn’t.

My point is actually not to bang out a few paragraphs about how the members of Monty Python are (or were) horrible, irreverent human beings on their way to hell. They did, in fact, take more than a few shots at religion, but many of their targets made themselves more than fair game.

No, my interest in this particular ball of snark hurled at the cultural wall is its uncanny accuracy.

You see, they really do a nice job of making Scripture’s point for it, at least on this topic.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Debunking Heavenly Mythology IV: Christians Will Spend Eternity In Heaven

Does it really matter where we’re going to spend eternity, frankly?

I mean Christians, of course. It matters a very great deal indeed to the lost where they end up, whether they recognize it now or not. Time will tell, but if the teaching of the Bible turns out to be the truth, the fact that a person doesn’t see fit to believe in or respond to that truth does not mean he or she can escape the eternal consequences of his choice, or of hers. And those who fail to value the Lord Jesus Christ at his true worth — who fail to see him as his Father sees him — will spend eternity without him.

If that doesn’t seem like a big deal now, bear in mind that there is no cause/effect relationship between what is coming to us after death and your opinion or mine about it. That is the nature of objective reality. The idea of “true for you” or “true for me” is a vapid modern platitude to which no rational person genuinely subscribes, though it makes for a great means of deflecting enthusiastic truth purveyors one doesn’t really feel like dealing with.

Trust me, spending eternity without the Lord Jesus Christ will definitely be a big deal when there no longer exists the opportunity to choose it or reject it.

But to Christians, to those who believe, Paul says, “[T]he Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”

We will be “with the Lord”. That is our destiny as believers, and the goal, the true hope of every believing heart. So for Christians, does it really matter where we spend eternity as long as our Lord is there?

Yes and no.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot and the Infinite-Personal God

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena … Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
What interests me about Sagan’s monologue is that so much of it is undeniably true — and yet there’s one crucial point on which I would have to disagree. Sagan, as many others have done before and after him, looks at the sheer inconceivable size and scope of the universe and comes to the conclusion that it is simply too big, and we are simply too small by comparison, for us to believe that our lives have any higher purpose, or that there is a God who cares about us.

To which I say, wait, what?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Debunking Heavenly Mythology III: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

Um … they don’t. Really. Look it up.

Aw, come on, you’re Googling, aren’t you.

It’s okay. I did too. I also got my concordance out. But this particular misconception is not confined to the famous Christmas carol.

Although ... it’s awfully hard to prove a negative. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we have “no unequivocal biblical evidence” of angels singing.

I owe my father for this one, by the way. It’s a small point, but one of a number of things that prompted me to begin looking at the words of Scripture a little more attentively, and actually look things up rather than just believing what I was told.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Dear Preacher: On Calvinism and Pride

Dear Preacher Bob:

This isn’t a complaint, just a reflection. My point is not to object, but rather to expand the range of possible answers to a question you raised a couple of weeks back. Would you bear with me while I do that?

You gave a message on the subject “The Sovereignty of God”. I agree that this is an essential topic and for the most part, I found myself rejoicing in your take on it.

Yet I must confess that there was a moment or two in which I found myself hesitant — moments when the language you chose seemed to take the teaching about God’s sovereignty in the direction of what is called in theology “Neo-Calvinism”, and which philosophers call “Hard Determinism” — namely, the view that human freedom is an illusion, and all events are preset by God before they happen. And thus having merged “sovereignty” more-or-less with the interpretation of Neo-Calvinism, you then concluded with the following …

You said, “As far as I can see, the only reason for not believing in it is pride”.

The purpose of this letter is simply to suggest some different ways of seeing things.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Debunking Heavenly Mythology II: Saint Peter and the Pearly Gates

In a previous post I spent a few hundred keystrokes on the things of heaven, trying to point out how very ill-equipped the best of us is to fully comprehend them, even with the aid of the imagery of Scripture, since “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”.

But our inability to fully apprehend everything about heavenly things is not a license to manufacture any old view of heaven wholesale. The only reliable source of knowledge about things outside current human experience is the word of God itself.

Myth #2: Saint Peter and the Pearly Gates
“The pearly gates is an informal name for the gateway to Heaven … The image of the gates in popular culture is a set of large, white or wrought-iron gates in the clouds, guarded by Saint Peter (the keeper of the ‘keys to the kingdom’). Those who are not fit to enter heaven are denied from going into the gates, and will descend into Hell.”

Monday, March 24, 2014

Passing Thoughts on Fred Phelps

Fred Phelps, renowned pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas has died at age 84. I doubt that many people are ready to cry much about that. According to The Independent, he rose to national notice after becoming the subject of the Louis Theroux documentary The Most Hated Family in America (2007). But for most, he is the man remembered for showing up at the funerals of dead homosexuals to exhibit a sign reading “God Hates Fags”.

Speak Well

Whatever the man himself may have practiced in life, I think we’d all agree that in general we ought to try follow the Latin axiom, De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est — “Speak only well of the dead”. For all Christians, I think that the realization that “we must all stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ” should alone be sufficient to counsel in us humility.

However, in this case nil nisi bonum may not quite do the trick. Whatever you think of the guy’s agenda, you really can’t admire his methods. He was a fractious man, to be sure. He loved to be gratuitously confrontational. He sought out every opportunity to create offense (as if that in itself were proof of faithfulness) and he seemed to love to present himself as a lightning rod for public anger. Certainly he seemed, at times, to lose touch with the idea of loving the sinner while hating the sin, and to forget that “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God”.

But my point is not to criticize Mr. Phelps, particularly after his death: I shall leave that to the popular press, who will no doubt be quite eager to take up that charge. No, I want to ask the opposite question:

What should he have done?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Debunking Heavenly Mythology I: Angels are Dead People

In a previous post, I spent some time contemplating the things of heaven and trying, however haltingly, to point out how very ill-equipped the best of us is to fully comprehend them, even with the aid of the imagery of scripture, since “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”.

That said, there are many, MANY things that we can be very sure heaven is not.

The lack of specificity and detail about many heavenly things is not a license to manufacture any old view of heaven wholesale. Let’s address a common myth or two — and I promise not to make any of this up:

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Things That Are Prepared

The idea of heaven is necessarily a blurry concept to earthly beings. We navigate the world around us via our senses, so it is unsurprising to find a certain conceptual impenetrability to those things we cannot see, touch, taste, smell or hear in this present life. Those who are unacquainted with the Lord might well say, “The reason you can’t conceive these things is that they don’t exist”.

Except they do. We have our Lord’s word on it. He tells his disciples explicitly that “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” And he says it as if he’s wondering why on earth we would for a moment expect anything else.

This conceptual fuzziness about heavenly things is a consistent feature of prophetic revelation, both Old Testament and New. Ezekiel peppers his description of the heavenlies with the words “appearance” and “likeness”, as if to say, “I know my account is hopelessly inadequate, but this is the closest I can get”. John, in Revelation, does exactly the same thing, using the word “like” over and over again.

To the believer, it’s emotionally stirring, certainly, but I have to admit to a certain intellectual dissatisfaction with the lack of detail.

Friday, March 21, 2014

On Reorganizing our Concept of Love

The following is excerpted from a sermon I enjoyed last night (I did, in fact, warn the preacher that he was likely to be transcribed):
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)
“God is love,” says the Bible.

We must be careful that we don’t make of that something sentimental or insincere. God is love, but in our society today, many people believe love is god.

And there’s a difference.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Baal Worship, Howard Cosell and Little Details

In 1931, an excavator named Claude Schaeffer on a dig in Ras Shamra, Syria came across three clay tablets in the ruins of a house belonging to a high priest of the god Baal that have come to be referred to as the Krt Epic or the The Epic of Kret (without any vowels, it’s hard to be consistent in the transliteration of ancient Eastern names).

If you were to cherry-pick a few couplets from the Krt tablets you might observe that they bear a passing similarity to the language of the Psalms:
“To the earth Baal rained, to the field rained ’Aliy. Sweet to the earth was Baal’s rain; to the field the rain of ’Aliy.”
“In a dream of Beneficent El Benign, a vision of the Creator of Creatures, the skies rained oil, the wadis flowed honey. So I knew that Mighty Baal lives; the Prince, Lord of Earth, exists.”
The deity being worshipped is referred to as “mighty” and “beneficent”; his generosity in providing rain for the crops is called “sweet”. He is the “Lord of Earth”.

Even the bit about flowing honey sounds vaguely familiar.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Purpose of the Sacrifices [Part 6]

Continuing an examination of the sacrifices of the Old Testament. We started with what the sacrifices WERE NOT and are now examining what they WERE.

In my last post we looked at the sacrifices as a reminder of sins and asked why a constant reminder was necessary for God’s people.

But what other purposes did the sacrifices serve?

3. The sacrifices pointed forward to Christ

This is a subject to which I find the depth of my understanding and my ability to express myself entirely insufficient. Fortunately for me, to try to explain exactly how each sacrifice looks forward to and illustrates the person or work of the Lord Jesus is quite beyond the scope of this series of posts.

I will have to be content with demonstrating that, in fact, they did.

Which doesn’t take much.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Heretics and Coffee

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Purpose of the Sacrifices [Part 5]

Continuing an examination of the sacrifices of the Old Testament. We started with what the sacrifices WERE NOT and are now examining what they WERE.

In my last post we examined the way in which the sacrifices served the very practical purpose of providing food for God’s servants and their families.

What other purposes did the sacrifices serve?

2. The sacrifices were a reminder of sin

It may seem odd to imagine that the people of God need to be reminded of sin, but that is very much the teaching of the book of Hebrews: “But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year.”

In this respect the sacrifices did what the entire Law of Moses was designed to do: Point out failure. Paul says in Romans that “the law came in to increase the trespass”.

Wait, what? Is Paul saying that God desired an increase in sin?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

In Need of Analysis: The “Four Hour” Rule

Some help here, anyone?

I read this on Tuesday but have had no success at tracking down the original quote on the web (and since Wesley died in 1791, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to get it from the horse’s mouth):
“John Wesley said that he had a very poor opinion of Christians who did not spend at least 4 hours every day in prayer.”
I found a number of quotes from Wesley on the importance of prayer (some good stuff there too) but nothing first-hand about the amount of daily time he deemed appropriate. Wikipedia, while providing a bio, was no help either. The closest I could find was this, from micahcobb.com: “John Wesley used to say that he thought very little of a man who did not pray four hours every day.” Slightly different wording, no direct attribution, no book reference, nothing to follow up, but perhaps it was the source for the quote I read on Tuesday.

This site referenced another called arminiantoday.com, which amplifies a bit: “We all have probably heard the stories of how John Wesley would rise up at 4 AM every day to seek God for the first four hours of the day.  In his later years Wesley was known to spend up to 8 hours in prayer.”

Huh. “Stories.” Okay, not much help there.

I’ve found a number of references to Wesley praying two hours a day, and a number to his mother doing so. But no direct confirmation in Wesley’s own words that he prayed four hours a day regularly or thought ill of those who didn’t. Other than stories, of course. It may well be true, and I just haven’t been able to confirm it.

It may be utter hogwash.

Why does it matter how long John Wesley prayed daily or what he thought about prayer?

It doesn’t, really. Except …

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Does Christianity Discriminate Against Women? [Part 3]

In recent years the accusation that the Bible is anti-female has arisen more and more frequently. The first post in this series dealt with the objection that scripture is sexist because it uses the masculine gender to refer to God.

The second dealt with the objection that church order as taught in the New Testament discriminates against women.

In this post, I’d like to examine a third:

Objection #3 — Doesn’t the Old Testament Endorse the Victimization of Women?

Numerous incidents in which women were potential or actual victims of sexual abuse, such as Lot’s offering his daughters to the Sodomites and the rapes of Dinah and Tamar, are recorded in Scripture without being concluded by an act of divine judgment or by any moral commentary. Some people take this to mean that the God of the Bible does not consider the victimization of women to be a crime, and that the Bible endorses such treatment of women.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Purpose of the Sacrifices [Part 4]

Continuing an examination of the sacrifices of the Old Testament. We started with what the sacrifices WERE NOT.

In my last post I pointed out what should be obvious to any evangelical Christian or cursory reader of the book of Hebrews: that the Old Testament sacrificial system neither disposed once-and-for-all with the question of sin from God’s perspective, nor did it clear the conscience of the worshippers.

So what WERE the sacrifices for then?

1. The upkeep of the priesthood

To say that sacrifices are “for” the upkeep of the priests is to sort of beg a major question. I mean, it would be silly to initiate a system of sacrifice for the sole purpose of taking care of those who serve in it, wouldn’t it? It would be like starting a business for the sole purpose of paying the employees.

So perhaps this is not so much a “purpose” of the sacrifices as a practical, well-designed benefit of the sacrificial system.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Does Christianity Discriminate Against Women? [Part 2]

In recent years the accusation that the Bible is anti-female has arisen more and more frequently. The first post in this series dealt with the objection that scripture is sexist because it uses the masculine gender to refer to God. The last post in this series deals with the objection that the Old Testament endorses the victimization of women.

In this post, I’d like to examine the objection that church order as taught in the New Testament discriminates against women.

Objection #2 — The Command for Women to be Silent in the Churches is Discriminatory

But if God really understands and values women just as much as men, why are men in the position of spiritual power? Why are women asked to keep silent in the churches, while men have the privilege of public ministry?

Doesn’t that prove that the Bible portrays women as inferior beings?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Purpose of the Sacrifices [Part 3]

Continuing an examination of the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament, starting with what they were not, and moving to what they were.

In my last post I tried to establish that the sacrifices neither fed God nor gave him pleasure, and that they were useless without the right attitude and accompanying actions.

Let’s carry on with what the sacrifices WERE NOT:

4. The sacrifices were not effective in removing sin

Nobody in the history of mankind ever escaped the righteous judgement of God by way of offering a sacrifice, or even by offering multiple sacrifices.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Worldviews: Question 3 — Life

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Worldviews: Question 2 — Endings

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Worldviews: Question 1 — Origins

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Worldviews: An Introduction

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Does Christianity Discriminate Against Women? [Part 1]

In recent years the accusation that the Bible is anti-female has arisen more and more frequently. Because the Scripture uses the masculine gender to refer to God, it is labelled sexist. Because the Bible teaches that although men and women are equal in God’s sight they have different roles in His service, it is called discriminatory. Because the Old Testament relates how certain women were victimized, it is accused of endorsing the abuse of women.

Are these charges justified?

Whole books have been written about this subject, so it is impossible to give a complete answer here. However, we can examine the three main objections listed above and see if they are truly valid.

Objection #1 — The Bible Describes God in Masculine Terms

Some people assume that the use of a masculine pronoun is meant to imply that men are closer to God or more like God than women are. There is no Scriptural support for such a view, however, and indeed much Scripture to contradict it. Right from the very beginning, the Bible establishes that both men and women are made in the image of God: “So God created man in his own image, male and female he created them”.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

The Purpose of the Sacrifices [Part 2]

Continuing an examination of the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament, starting with what they were not, and moving to what they were. In my last post I tried to establish that, first and foremost, the sacrifices of the Old Testament were far from God’s ideal. I am quite confident that if there had been a way to accomplish the necessary purposes of the sacrifices without involving suffering or death, God would most certainly have ordered it.

So let’s carry on with what the sacrifices WERE NOT:

2. Sacrifice did not ‘feed’ God or give him pleasure

This is in direct contrast to the understanding of the nations in their pagan sacrifices:
“Everywhere in the Mediterranean world, sacrifice was at the center of cult. Its ostensible purpose was to feed the gods or the dead.”
— Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide
The God of Israel makes it clear this is not his purpose at all. Far from it:
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?”
The thought of God “consuming” or “eating” animal sacrifices in a literal sense is not only distasteful but neo-blasphemous. Those who love animals rightly recoil from the notion of a God who loves gore, bloodshed and meaningless suffering. While the God we worship has often made accommodation for man’s weakness and failure, he himself is far above such things.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Inbox: Practical Sanctification

I remember sitting through a lot of sermons about theological concepts as a teenager and wondering “What am I supposed to do about that?”

Or maybe I just wasn't listening as carefully back then.

Anyway, I received an email this morning from a full-time Bible teacher currently traveling across Canada that takes one of those five-syllable spiritual ideas and makes it extremely practical, something I still appreciate. An excerpt:
 “Sanctification therefore is not principally an experience: it is God using the truth, or God using His Word — and the Holy Spirit bringing it to us, opening our understanding of it, and then enabling us to apprehend it. We are then to take this truth and apply it to ourselves or to our lives day by day.”
Read the whole thing here.

The Purpose of the Sacrifices [Part 1]

Animal sacrifice is not something Christians practice, for good reason. The sacrifices of the Old Testament point forward to Jesus Christ and were fulfilled in his death, and are thus no longer necessary for either Jews or Gentiles.

For Christians, the sacrifices can be an interesting study, the details of which frequently serve to reinforce the unity and consistency of Scripture and the plan of God for man through the ages. They can be very reaffirming to a Christian’s faith, and give a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the holiness of God, the nature of sin, the condition of man and most significantly, the value of the sacrifice of Christ himself.

For modern Christians and unbelievers, though, Israelite sacrifices are often a stumbling block. “Those poor animals”, we think, “what did they do to deserve that?” and “Why all the blood? What’s the deal with that?” Animal sacrifices conjure the image of bloodthirsty imaginary pagan deities and do not sit comfortably alongside the 21st century Western mindset. (Of course, for those moderns who have no issue with abortion, I’m not sure why you would have any objection to animal sacrifice. Any concerns about the morality of inflicting suffering, fear and death apply at least equally in both situations.)

But if it helps, I’m with you on the “poor animals” thing.

Let’s drop our preconceptions and have a look first at what the Old Testament sacrifices WERE NOT, and then at what they WERE.

Maybe then we’ll have a better idea why they were necessary.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Grief is Not a Sin

Over the last year or so I’ve been reading through the Bible at the rate of about a chapter a day. I just finished Jeremiah yesterday, which is a really emotionally tough book if you identify even slightly with Jeremiah, and as I was reading the first chapter of Lamentations I was struck by a thought that’s been creeping up on me for a while.

Grief is not a sin.

Well, duh, you may say. Of course it’s okay to grieve. We lose people or hear terrible news or suffer disappointment, we feel sad; it would be monstrous if we didn’t react that way. And I think most people would agree that this is the case.

And yet it’s easy to fall into the trap of expecting that grief, or lamentation, should only last so long or go so far. Just a nice neat little grief, not too long, something you can swallow back and force a watery smile and then put your chin up and keep marching with a smile on your face. Especially if you call yourself a Christian, because Christians are supposed to be full! of! joy! and count themselves blessed when they suffer tribulation, etc.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Inbox: The Authority of the Servant

Tertius writes in connection with today’s post:
“… that I am your servant.” Would another reason for such a request be that the authority of both the servant and his message must be recognized by those to whom he is sent, or what he says will be discounted and he will be perceived as just mouthing off; his message not taken seriously and God’s purpose in sending him frustrated? Paul used a good amount of ink convincing the Corinthians that he had credentials that were no less than those of the twelve [apostles], and was similarly concerned that Timothy’s youth not result in him being despised. Receiving the messenger as having full authority is necessary to receiving the message he delivers.
Absolutely. Well said.

A Nature Like Ours

“Elijah was a man with a nature like ours”, James says of one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, a man who had conversations with God, a man who appeared and talked with the Lord Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, a man who ascended to heaven in a chariot rather than dying like the rest of us.

Elijah was a man who stood for God at a time when the nation of Israel had given up the worship of Jehovah for the worship of Baal and was in a state of moral decrepitude, ruled over by a king who was just about as wicked as they come.

Those of us who complain about our current leadership should try living under Ahab. Or maybe not.

In this atmosphere of corruption, decline, apostasy and injustice, Elijah spoke out faithfully for God. But James says, far from being some kind of untouchable pillar of emotional rectitude, Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.

And he was. Elijah experienced loneliness, doubt, fear, guilt, depression and exhaustion.

But when Elijah prayed, well … things happened. And that’s the point James is making:
“He prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the sky poured rain.” (James 5:17,18)
It may be worthwhile to examine Elijah’s prayers a little more carefully.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Fifth Business

Facing pressure from his publisher to explain the meaning of his new book’s title, Canadian novelist Robertson Davies cooked up the following phony quote:
“Those roles which, being neither those of hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and Opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.”
I read the otherwise-rather-grubby novel in my teens and the only part of it that stuck with me was the term Fifth Business. It seemed like a very apt description of a lot of people’s lives, I thought at the time.

They used to be called bit players. Nowadays we give them awards and call them character actors.

What would you think about dying in your early 30s? It’s not something I’d necessarily choose for myself and I suspect most people feel the same way.

That was what happened to John the Baptist, the original bit player.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Deafening Silence of 9/11

The most current version of this post is available here.