Monday, December 30, 2013

When Bible Teachers Argue...Who Do You Trust? Matthew 7:16-20

Original Photo by Flickr user Kjunstorm

The context of this passage about fruit is Jesus' warning to beware of false prophets who "Come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves" (Mt. 7:15).

Jesus wanted his followers to know that there would be some people who would try to deceive them claiming a message from the Lord. The Jews would have immediately understood his reference to false prophets and to wolves. They had suffered at their hands many times in the past.

When I read this passage about false prophets, I thought about a passage I read in Jeremiah recently. In Jeremiah 28, a man named Hananiah tried to convince the people that Jeremiah was wrong about the destruction coming to Jerusalem at the hands of God. He claimed to speak for God when he said that God would "break the yoke of the king of Babylon" (Jeremiah 28:1-4).

Jeremiah's response was direct.
"Amen! May the LORD do so! May the LORD fulfill the words you have prophesied by bringing the articles of the LORD's house and all the exiles back to this place from Babylon. Nevertheless, listen to what I have to say in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people: from early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster and plague against many countries and great kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the LORD only if his prediction comes true." (Jer. 28:6-9)
 In response to that, Hananiah broke the yoke Jeremiah was wearing by direction of the LORD to symbolize that God would break the yoke of the Babylonians. "At this, the prophet Jeremiah went on his way" (Jer. 28:11).

But God sent him back to Hananiah.
"Listen, Hananiah! The LORD has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies...." (Jeremiah 28:15-17).
When I read that story several weeks ago, my heart went out to all of the people who were torn between believing Jeremiah's true words from God or Hananiah's false words. How were they to know who to trust when both were claiming to speak for God!?

And my heart went out to all of the people living today who face the same reality. It's not hard to see that we face a similar situation today. People claim to speak truth from direct revelation or even from the revelation of the written word...and so many people claim these truths in direct opposition to others who are also claiming God's word as the basis of truth! Both sides accuse the other of misinterpreting the scriptures. I remember a woman in Jamaica crying when we knocked on her door and offered a Bible study. She was so upset because several different people claiming Christianity's truth had been knocking on her door and they all said different things. She had no idea who to trust and who to believe.

How are we as followers of Christ supposed to know who to trust? Obviously, we go straight to God's word, but what about when two sincere students of God's word claim truths that oppose each other and it is not just a matter of opinion, but one that bears more weight and importance?

By pointing to their fruit, Jesus gives us a very good place to start. What is the purpose of the teaching? Is it self-serving or self-sacrificial? Does it lead one to closer obedience to the plain truths of God's word or does it force a choice between being obedient to a difficult-to-interpret passage over a plain one? Does the teacher live what he teaches? Is the teacher obedient to Jesus' commands to love as He loved us?

What does his fruit look like?

I think it is worth taking the principle a step further since as Christians we are all called to be priests and teachers (1 Peter 2:9, Hebrews 5:12-14).

Do I ask out loud or even in my mind for the preacher to preach messages that are pleasing to me instead of challenging to me? Do I claim to want to know more and more about God and His word and stand ready to defend His word, but balk at the idea of defending the widows and orphans? Do I claim the Spirit of God in my life and set myself up as a teacher in word or in example, but fail to actually carry (bear) the fruits of the Spirit- Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? (Galatians 5:22-25)

What does my fruit look like?

May we strive to be bearers of good fruit instead of simply bearers of a pleasant message of comfort and salvation without sanctification. May God give us the discernment to recognize wolves in sheep's clothing and may God give us the courage to look inside our own lives and allow Him to weed out those wolfish, self-seeking tendencies in ourselves. May we trust and may we become the Jeremiahs who speak the difficult but true messages of God's word. And may we never listen or spread the messages of the Hananiahs.

It should be very sobering truth to us who accept Jesus' teaching that "every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

Monday, December 23, 2013

Is God a "Bigot"? - Matthew 7:13-14

When I pulled the the internet up a few moments ago to write this article, I was immediately bombarded by at least 2 articles about Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty. It seems the whole nation is either defending or attacking him based on his calling homosexuality (among other things including lying, drunkenness, adultery, etc.) sin. Most of the discussion seems to be based on his right to free well as A&E's right to suspend him based on their beliefs. But we all know that the issue of free speech is not what ignited the controversy. Free speech is simply the political hot-button that has been pressed.

At the heart of the issue is something that is much more central to who we are as human beings and to our deeply held beliefs and emotions. At issue is the claim of the exclusivity of the gospel. What ignited the firestorm of emotions and reactions was the debate about whether or not any action can actually be called a sin. Of course that conversation then leads to what a sin does to your relationship to God and how it affects your afterlife.

One of the biggest arguments against the Biblical picture of God is that a loving God could not lovingly throw anyone into hell. How could He be loving and do that to one of His children? Jesus' claim above is one of the passages that people struggle with when they try to rectify it with their concept of God. The claim of Biblical Christianity is that sin separates man from God (Isaiah 59:2), and that the only way back to God is through Christ where we receive the forgiveness of sins (John 14:6, Acts 4:8-12, Romans 6:1-14).

That claim will never be a popular one because so many people choose to worship false Gods, choose a path of self-determination over submission to God, choose to satisfy momentary desires of the flesh instead of receiving "abundant life" (John 10:10).

The truth is that all of have sinned (Romans 3:23). There is no difference in what type of sin as far as its effect on our souls (Galatians 5:19-21). But the greater truth than our sin is that God offers redemption to us in spite of our sins!

Phil Robertson came under attack for quoting 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 which is a list of sins that prohibit someone from entering the kingdom of heaven. But arguing about this list forgets verse 11 which says, " And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."

What does that mean? It means that homosexuals, liars, adulterers, drunkards, drug addicts, the prideful, the arrogant, the greedy, the abusive, those who rage, those who steal, those who disobey parents can all be "washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God!"

And now what does all of that have to do with the Matthew 7:13-14 which claims that there are few who find the way to salvation as opposed to many who walk the road to destruction?

People have argued for centuries about their concept of God. About heaven. And about hell. People have railed against the idea of so many people in the world being cast into hell because of their refusal of Christ. People have labeled God as unloving and turned away from their faith as a result of this or else they have twisted the scriptures to make these statements more palatable and opened the way for any "good" person to go to heaven. All because they view a God who would make an exclusive statement like this as unloving.

But what if we are reading it incorrectly? What if Jesus' statement of the wide and narrow paths says more about man's rejection of a loving God than it does about an unloving god's rejection of man?

Consider these passages:
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing."    - Jesus in Matthew 23:37
"The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." - 2 Peter 3:9
"I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. " - 1 Timothy 2:1-4
And finally:
 "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son." - Jesus in John 3:16-18
 Now I ask you, does it sound like the God of the Bible...the God that sent His one and only Son...the same God that warns of hell...does it sound like He is an unloving God who wants to throw people into everlasting fire? Or does it sound more like God is doing everything He possibly can short of taking away our free will to save as many people as possible to be with Him in paradise?

The sad truth of the Christianity that we preach is not that God will ultimately reject and condemn most men...but that most men have already rejected the love of God and have so condemned themselves.

May we always spread God's message of love. May we see people the way God sees them. Not as people who we desire to see their punishment, but as souls who we long to restore to their Creator.

And may we take seriously Jesus' warning about the wide and narrow paths because none of us have to pay attention to be lost. We can all do that simply by drifting through life selfishly (i.e. sinfully). No, being saved is not a matter of works-righteousness. But it is a matter of seeking for the narrow gate that so many ignore.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

When did the Golden Rule become silver? Matthew 7:12

The Golden Rule.

I would venture to say that there are more people in the world who could quote at least some form of this rule than there are who could not. As I was reading Barclay's commentary on this passage, he pointed out that the negative form of the rule is stated in countless places throughout many different religions, cultures, government figures. The negative form of course says basically that if there is something you would rather someone not do to you...then don't do it to them! Pretty simple and pretty basic to human existence. That rule is what governs every law on the books. Don't steal, you don't want to be stolen from. Don't abuse; you don't want to be abused. Don't slander; you don't want to be slandered about.

Here's the problem: too many times we, as followers of Christ, attempt to make the "Golden Rule" of Christ something less...we are content to live by what I will call the "silver rule" of not doing others harm. But living that way does nothing but make us sterile and basically moral people. It does not give us purpose; it does not fill us with passion; and it does not inspire the world to look for the God they have been missing!

What if we have taken what some call the climax of the sermon on the mount- the Golden Rule- and we have stripped it of its power? Could that be why we focus on teaching our children what not to do more than we focus on what to do? Could that be why we spend so much time in front of the television and our teenagers spend so much time in front of their game systems? Could it be that Christianity has become just another voice calling for people to do nothing to others that you wouldn't want done to you, when our message is supposed to be "Do unto the others what you would have them do to you!?"

Christianity is a religion of action, not of restrictions!

I love this paragraph in Barclay's commentary. Read it slowly and let the end of it especially sink in.
"It is perfectly possible for a man of the world to observe the negative form of this golden rule. He could without very serious difficulty so discipline his life that he would not do to other what he did not wish them to do to him; but the only man who can even begin to satisfy the positive form of the rule is the man who has the love of Christ within his heart. He will try to forgive as he would wish to be forgiven, to help as he would wish to be helped, to praise as he would wish to be praised, to understand as he would wish to be understood. He will never seek to avoid doing things; he will always look for things to do. Clearly this will make life much more complicated; clearly he will have much less time to spend on his own desires and his own activities, for time and time again he will have to stop what he is doing to help someone else. It will be a principle which will dominate his life at home, in the factory, in the bus, in the office, in the street, in the train, at his games, everywhere. He can never do it until self withers and dies within his heart. To obey this commandment a man must become a new man with a new centre to his life; and if the world was composed of people who sought to obey this rule, it would be a new world."
May we strive to live up to the Golden Rule and never be satisfied to simply follow its "silver" form.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Quit praying like God is a dead-beat dad.- Matthew 7:9-11

Original photo by Flickr user bterrycompton

Ask any kid in the U.S. over the age of 5 what they want for Christmas this year or for their birthday and I guarantee that 95% of the answers will begin with the letter "i"- as in i-pad, i-phone, etc. I may be exaggerating the age a very well might be 4! By the way, did you know that 78% of all statistics are made up on the spot :)

I suppose with the traffic to Opry Mills backed up for a mile and half 23.5 hours of the day from last week till Christmas, it is appropriate that we come now to this verse about giving gifts. What's on your kids' list? was I right? Did it involved the letter "i"? If it didn't, I would be willing to wager that it at least involved some electronic gadget...even if they already have one!

I think it's possible that our extreme affluence (even those of us who don't consider ourselves to be rich are actually filthy rich compared to the rest of the world and compared to previous generations) has tainted our understanding of Jesus' command to ask, seek, and knock and His comparison to a Father that gives good gifts to his child.

Last week we committed to asking, seeking, and knocking trusting that God would answer, open, and be found based on Jesus' promise. But we addressed that it is difficult to believe those promises in light of what seem to us to be unanswered prayers. The problem is quite so much in figuring out a theology that is suitable to explain it in a way that makes sense. The problem is figuring out how that theology fits when I am the one who has lost a loved one. When it's a personal unanswered prayer, it becomes much more real.

In our passage for this week, Jesus compares God' willingness to give us good things to the dads that we see every day.

I have to tell you...I feel like I'm a pretty strong dad. I don't give in all of the time to my daughters when they are whining or are begging for something. Why? Because some of the stuff that they ask for, I know they really don't need and often I know that it will actually hurt them! But when they really ask in a sweet way and give me that look...let me tell you, I've caved a time or two! (Thankfully, they haven't quite figured out how to manipulate me completely, but I'm sure my time is limited!)

But what if they asked for something that I know they actually do need? I'm here to tell you, if my daughters were really hungry and in need of food, I'm pretty sure I would do just about whatever it took to provide it for them when they asked. I'm just thankful that God has provided for us so well, that I have not been put in a situation that I felt like I needed to steal. I'm not saying it's right...I'm just saying, if they were really in need, and I couldn't figure out any other way to put food in their bellies...I'm not sure what I would do. Please don't blow up the comments about the rightness or wrongness of stealing...I know its wrong. That's not the point. The point that Jesus points to is the desire of earthly fathers, who are very, very imperfect- in fact Jesus says "evil"!- to provide for and take care of their children.

Take the most doting, spoiling his little princess, wrapped around little fingers dad in the world. His emotional connection and love for his child is nothing compared to the emotional connection and love that God feels toward His children.

I tell my daughters every day how much I love them. I try to tell them every day that I don't love them nearly as much as their Daddy in heaven. I want them to trust Him more than they trust me. I want them to petition Him even more than they petition me. I get frustrated with their requests sometimes because of their 3-yr old selfishness and whinyness. But God the Father begs us to bring all of our complaints and worries and fears and needs to Him.

What a beautiful picture.

Unfortunately, there are some who did not, or do not, have a good relationship with their dad. I assume this verse must be hard for them because they have not experienced a dad who desired what was best for them. All I can say to them is this...the promise of the Heavenly Father...Abba..."Daddy" is for you and maybe in an even deeper way. All through scripture God's love for the orphaned and fatherless is shouted from the law and the prophets.

May we all work to focus and to help our children to focus more on the gifts of answered prayer and the providences of God every day that we take for granted. How many meals did you eat today? Did you drive to work? Do you have a job? Did you pick which clothes to wear today? Did you forget how cold it was outside until you opened the door of your centrally heated house? Boy do we have a lot that we haven't even thought to ask for and yet it's been given us!

When we struggle with why some prayers are not answered the way we want, may we take comfort and gain strength from the infinite numbers of prayers that He has already answered...before we even asked for them. May we quit being ashamed to pronounce our faith in answered prayers because some of them have not been answered the way we hoped. May we quit praying hesitantly and timidly as if Abba were a dead-beat Dad that we had to beg for the things we need. And may our thanks for the countless blessings He's already given us turn into strengthened faith for future prayers.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

I've asked. I've seeked. I've knocked. Why have I still not recieved the open door I've been seeking for?- Matthew 7:7-8

For everyone who asks, receives; the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  - Mt. 7:8

One quick question...
If all I have to do is ask then how come I haven't gotten everything I've ever asked for?

Do you struggle with that as much as I do? I have often come to the "prayer promises" passages in the Bible and either rushed through them so I didn't have to deal with them, or else I've just settled to not fully understand them.

I remember very plainly standing in a hospital room of a young man who had either just died or was dying. I am actually fairly confident that he was already dead, but the doctors, for some reason, had not pronounced him dead yet. With his wife wailing in the room, I began praying...earnestly. I reminded God that he had raised people from the dead before. In fact, He had raised people who were much more dead than this man if he was in fact dead. (Lazarus was already in the tomb long enough to start smelling when Jesus told him to come out!) I knew then, and I still do, that God has more than enough power to raise someone who has already been pronounced dead. With that knowledge, I pleaded with God to put life back into this young man who still had not been pronounced dead.

I reasoned with God. I pointed out the praise that He would get when the doctors had to pronounce a miracle instead of a time of death. I begged for the wife of the man that I didn't know how she would make it if he died. How as it fair to let him die when he had raised others!?

I kept praying after even the wife had even given up hope that there was a real reason why the doctors had not pronounced him dead yet. And I left the hospital- and his funeral a few days later- frustrated that this verse about the surety of asking, seeking, and knocking is so difficult to understand in practice.

I also remember the feeling when I walked out to the Vanderbilt parking garage with my brother the night I thought my daughters were going to be born at 27 weeks. They wound up coming at 29.5 weeks and are doing great now! But that night, we got the visit from the doctor who was in charge of telling us all of the statistics of mortality and morbidity for babies that are born that early. Jon David walked me to the car and I shared what had been screaming silently in my mind for hours. "I prayed several weeks ago that if they weren't going to be faithful to God and Christ as adults, that God would take them before they got to that point and were still innocent."

Timidly, I still pray that prayer. I would rather lose my daughters who I love with all my heart for the next several decades and have them for all of eternity than have them till I die and lose them for eternity. That is still my prayer...but that night, anyway, I was scared to death that God had answered my prayer...and I wanted Him to take it back.

Why do we see such strong promises in the scriptures and from the mouth of Jesus and yet know that sometimes prayers are answered with "no?" Jesus, himself, was answered "no" in the Garden of Gethsemane when he begged the Father to take his cup from him. How do we reconcile that?

I have to say humbly that I still have no idea. I know intellectually the arguments about Jesus praying, "nevertheless not my will by yours be done." Those are good and true arguments. But how are we supposed to pray at all believing these commands of ask, seek, and knock when we can't see the specific and detailed plans and will of God from his eternal perspective instead of our temporary one?

Here is what I choose to believe.

Jesus was telling the truth. God makes big promises about our prayers and petitions. Jesus- and others (think Elijah in James 5:17-17)- put that truth into practice and saw incredible results in their prayers. And still at times they were told "no." I wonder if they struggled with these questions like we do. But they chose to believe. And while at times they may have been frustrated and confused about not seeing what God sees when the "no's" came, they chose to keep praying, seeking, and knocking. And their prayers closed and opened the heavens, raised the dead, and healed the sick.

I wonder if I see more "no's" than "yes's" simply because I have not chosen to translate my belief into actions and adventurous faith-led and faith-filled risk-taking like they did. I wonder.

I don't know that I will ever come to a good answer. I have some theories that I am comfortable with. But I don't think they would do you any good, because they didn't do me any good until I came to them myself. But I will choose to believe...and I will pray the prayer of a father who believed as much as he could.

I will choose to ask, seek, and knock expecting the results Jesus promised and when God questions my lack of faith I will reply like that father, "I do believe! Help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24)