Faith: the real thing

“I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” — Jude 3

Isn’t it amazing how many people hold the truth in utter contempt? Plenty of people try to make the case that the Holocaust never happened, even though survivors live to this day, the sites of concentration camps still stand, and many eyewitnesses have left both written and photographic accounts of what they experienced or saw.

It’s nothing new. Other examples have occurred throughout history. In New Testament times, while people who had personal memories of Jesus and his teachings still lived, false teachers dared to offer their version of his life and ministry as an alternative.

John named one of them, Diotrephes, in his third epistle. Jude wrote a more general warning. Paul had successfully contended against those who wanted to make following the ancient law a prerequisite for following Jesus.

Now, a generation later, teachers claimed that by grace, Jesus had eliminated any need to heed the law at all. As Jude wrote in the next verse, they preached grace as a license to sin and denied the lordship of Jesus.

Does that sound familiar? Plenty of modern writers and preachers proclaim that the law came with judgment, but that Jesus came with grace and forgiveness. They teach as if Jesus had done away with all moral requirements, as if people can express faith in Jesus and do whatever they want.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer properly named that attitude “cheap grace.” It is absolutely false that grace is absent from the Old Testament; prophets invariably proclaimed that after God punished sins he would restore his  people. It is also absolutely false that Jesus offered forgiveness without repentance. All of Scripture’s most vivid descriptions of hell come from his lips.

Grace is free in the sense we can’t earn it by being good enough. It is costly in the sense that we must be good and keep becoming better in response to it. Continuing in sin is not an  option.

In our time, as in Jude’s, false teaching attacks the truth as revealed in the preaching of the apostles and in Scripture. In our time, as in Jude’s, Christians must learn the truth, be able to discern between truth and falsehood, and contend for the faith.

After all, it was delivered once, for all. God will never issue a second, revised edition. What he has revealed belongs to all–even those who preach condemnation on themselves by denying it.

The power and limits of intercessory prayer

God showed Amos a swarm of locusts that he prepared to punish Israel. Amos, a citizen of the rival kingdom of Judah, begged him to be merciful. God relented. Then he showed Amos a consuming fire. Again Amos begged for mercy and God relented.

But then God showed Amos a wall, and next to the wall, a man with a plumb line. Amos could persuade him not to destroy the apostate kingdom with locusts or fire, but God would not allow his prophet to dissuade him from punishing the sins of his people.

King Jeroboam II had built a prosperous and militarily powerful kingdom, but he refused to heed Amos’ words. God would destroy Jeroboam’s dynasty, and then the kingdom itself, along with all of the idols the kings of Israel had erected and the sanctuaries that housed them.

A plumb line will always show a true vertical. A wall, no matter how massive and strong it looks, that has shifted from a true vertical is in danger of collapse. If there is no way to repair it, it is safer to demolish it than to let it collapse.

The northern kingdom shifted away from true vertical when its first king rebelled against Solomon’s son and set up idols so his people would not have to go to Jerusalem to worship. God raised up one dynasty after another, but none turned from that sin.

If the kingdom would not repent, God would not overrule its own free will to repair it. Instead, he demolished it. Amos could intercede on their behalf and get God to change his mind on the means, but could not halt the destruction God intended.

God still uses the same plumb line today: his word. Everything stands or falls in comparison to Jesus, the living word. God will uphold, repair, or demolish every person and every human institution according how it lines up with Jesus.

As always, grace follows judgment. God punishes sin severely, but only as a means to redemption.

Worshiping through the Apocalypse

“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.” — Revelation (a.k.a. Apocalypse) 1:3 (NASB)

Someone has said that the New Testament is so simple that you need someone to help you misunderstand it. We’ve all had plenty of help! As far as Revelation is concerned though, I doubt if many find it simple at all.

There seem to be two predominant kinds of Christians when it comes to that book. Many avoid it entirely; it is too overwhelmingly confusing. Others teach from it all the time, attempting to guide people through the spiritual implications of today’s news. Alas, they frequently contradict each other, and after the passage of time, much of their interpretation turns out to be wrong.

Fortunately, some people over the centuries have found another way to approach Revelation. It’s a great example of worship. Read it through, if you haven’t already. It’s the only book in the Bible with a special blessing just for reading it. Or read it again if you find the connection of Revelation and worship surprising.

Look at how people act toward God in the scenes that take place in heaven. Notice all the very familiar verses that have become the texts of hymns, sacred choral music, and praise choruses. Does it make you want to sing? Please do!

If I read Revelation correctly, while some really apocalyptic stuff happens on earth, the saints in heaven join all the angels in some pretty spectacular worship services.

I have gotten tired of trying to figure out whether to prefer premillennialism, postmillennialism, or amillennialism–and especially what’s supposed to happen pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, or post-tribulation.

I guess I’m a panmillennialist: It will all pan out eventually. I just want to live in such a way that I’m among those worshiping in heaven, not the other bunch. As long as John wrote down so many hymn texts, we might as well sing them and worship God here. It will set our hearts in the right direction. It will be good practice for there.

Not exactly a fast: the substitution principal.

“. . . to grant those who mourn in Zion, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of the spirit of fainting, so they will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”–Isaiah 61:3 (NASB)

Twice in one recent day, I encountered the concept of fasting from bad attitudes. I see what the two people are getting at, but I don’t think “fasting” is quite appropriate. Fasting generally means not eating for a period of time. Jesus and Moses each fasted for forty days. Fasting doesn’t get more serious that that. On the 41st day, they resumed eating.

Fasting from a bad attitude smacks of what one of my college classmates went through. She decided to give up swearing for Lent! For forty days, she would start to make a characteristic comment, hold her hands over her mouth, and say something a little different. Monday after Easter, she was gleefully back in her element.

So I don’t want to fast from a bad attitude, and I don’t want to urge anyone else to engage in that kind of fast. That is, I don’t want to give a bad attitude up for Lent. I want to get rid of it. A bad attitude is a bad mental habit. No one can break a habit by deciding not to do something any more. The way to break a bad habit is establish another in its place. As we go through Lent, consider the following substitutions:

Instead of judging others, seek Christ’s love for them.

Instead of thinking of illness, think on Christ’s healing power.

Instead of speaking words that pollute, speak words that purify.

Instead of anger, develop patience.

Instead of discontent, seek out what to be grateful for.

Instead of bitterness, practice forgiveness.

Instead of discouragement, develop hope.

Instead of feeling overwhelmed by problems, pray prayers that strengthen.

I could go on, but probably no one can keep all of that in mind at the same time. Ask God what he wants to work on with you–from this list or some other attitude. = “blank”Expect him to bring scriptures to mind; to bring articles, conversations, sermons, etc. to your attention that relate to your new habit; and to bring you to situations where you will have to deliberately choose not to respond in the old way in order to practice your new habit.

And then, after a hard struggle that may at times seem endless and pointless if you let it, amaze yourself and all of your associates with your new habit. You haven’t given up anything for Lent, but for life

A promise about prayer, with conditions for abiding

“If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you.” — John 15:7 (NASB)

I’m sure every Christian loves Jesus’ promises about prayer. So many of them seem, on the surface, to say that we can ask for anything and our heavenly daddy will do it. Of course, every Christian has the experience of praying and not having it done.

Jesus never made that promise glibly. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he made it in the context of comparing his church to a grapevine. He is the vine and we are branches. Branches of grapevines must undergo periodic severe pruning. Otherwise, they will will bear lots of leaves but not much fruit. The vinedresser cuts off whatever is not necessary, leaving the rest of the branch firmly attached to the vine.

And so the promise about prayer here comes with two conditions: that we abide in the vine and that Jesus’ word abides in us. According to Strong’s concordance, “abide” means to stay in a given place, state, relation, or expectancy. Assuming, for this post, that we abide in Jesus, what does it mean for his word to abide in us?

Jesus said elsewhere, out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Measuring what comes out of our mouth against the written word of God tells us what abides in us. It’s not like we have to be quoting Scripture all the time, but the words of our mouth ought to be faithful, hopeful, and loving.

If we speak words of frustration, unbelief, quarreling, gossiping, etc., those words line up with the words of the devil, not the words of Jesus. They indicate an area where the word of God abides on the pages of our Bibles, but not in us. We can’t expect all of our petitions to be granted if we fail to meet Jesus’ conditions.

Dwelling in the secret place

“He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” — Psalm 91:1 (NKJV)

The secret place of the Most High means nothing less than the inner sanctum of the heavenly temple, and the shadow of the Almighty is located between the wings of the cherubim on the ark of the covenant. What does it mean to dwell there?

In the natural, I have had several dwelling places, including dorm rooms, apartments, and houses. In every case, I have been able to visit other people’s dwellings, but my own dwelling is always different. I do not spend all of my time, or even most of it, in my dwelling, but I have special privileges there like I have nowhere else.

First of all, I have the key to my dwelling. I can go in and out any time I want. Not only that, I can relax there like nowhere else. If someone I’m visiting says, “make yourself at home,” that doesn’t mean I can help myself to whatever food I’m in the mood for, undress, spend the night, or any of the other things I can do at home. I can safely be more vulnerable at home than anywhere else.

Second, most of my stuff is there. Even when I lived in a tiny furnished apartment and didn’t own much but clothes, books, and stuff for the kitchen and bathroom, I kept it at the apartment.

So what does it mean to dwell in the inner sanctum of the heavenly temple? For one thing, it means dwelling in a family. For part of my life, I lived alone. No one will dwell in the secret place of the Most High alone. After all, God lives there, too.

Christians, one and all, are adopted sons of God and part of the church, which is the bride of Christ. (There is no male of female in the body of Christ. If any woman is queasy about being a son or if any man is uncomfortable being the bride, get over it!)

Additionally, it does not mean we spend our whole time in church, or in a personal quiet time, or anything else that’s “religious.” There’s no religion in the secret place. I’m not always at home here on earth, but I’m always married to my wife whether I’m home (or she is) or not. Love constrains me from being unfaithful.

Most importantly, if I dwell in the secret place, in my Father’s house, I must know he loves me and desire to please him. Absent my love for God, I can hardly expect or even desire the privileges of home. The key of the kingdom, and dwelling within it, is Peter’s confession of the lordship of Christ. Don’t think about house rules, by the way. The concept of rule keeping entirely negates the whole concept of grace.

To love God as I ought utterly requires that I love nothing else more. Jesus said to store up treasure in heaven, and that our heart is where our treasure is. In a materialistic society like ours, that means that we can’t love our stuff so much that it gets in the way of loving God.

My dad has had a lifelong hobby of woodworking, and for twenty years or so, he also blew glass. Glass objects and furniture he made are my most prized possessions. I love them more than anything comparable made by professionals. I do not love them more than I love him. How much more, then, must I love God, in whose house I want to dwell, more than any of the stuff I can accumulate or the money it takes to get it?

Fear of God: the wrong way

Superficially, the Parable of the Ten Minas resembles the Parable of the Ten Talents, but the differences are probably more important than the similarities. Jesus told the parable right before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. His followers thought he was going there to claim his kingdom. In fact, he intended to go to his Father to receive it. In the parable, he traveled to a far country.

Mina, like talents, is a unit of money. In this parable, though, the minas represent spiritual gifts. The nobleman gave a mina to each of ten servants. (In the parable of the talents, he gave three men different amounts according to their differing ability.) Then he returned, having received the kingdom, and called the servants to find out how they had done. This parable does not give account of all ten of them. It lets three represent them all.

Remember: the nobleman did not lend the minas. He did not appoint his servants as stewards of the minas. He made a gift of ten minas to each of them and told them to do business.

The first servant reported earning ten more minas. Commending him, the nobleman did not take back either his gift or the increase on it. Instead, he awarded the servant with authority over ten cities. The second reported earning five minas. Again the nobleman commended him, allowed him to keep the original gift and the increase, and gave him authority over five cities.

Notice he initially rewarded all ten servants equally, but the gave the later reward on the basis of what they accomplished with the first. Then came the third servant. He simply gave the one mina back and said some rather insulting things about the nobleman’s character–things that the nobleman’s generosity toward the first two utterly disproved. The nobleman did not commend him; he scolded him, reclaimed his gift, and gave it to the first servant.

The third servant testified that he behaved out of fear. Since the nobleman so clearly represents Jesus himself, this servant was motivated by the fear of God. Aren’t we commanded to fear God? Then why the biting criticism for him?

Proper fear of God does not fail to recognize his generosity and his love. Proper fear does not paralyze us from doing works for him. It does not lead us to hardness of heart, harsh words about God, or hatred of him. It does not paint a false picture of his character or acts. How many people today fear God the way that third servant did?

Notice that the nobleman in the parable gave ten minas. He took back the mina only from the servant who despised the giver and refused to do anything with the gift. And he did not keep that mina; he gave it to someone else. When God gives a gift, he does not take it back for himself.

In the very last verse of the parable, the nobleman commands the execution of those who had refused to accept him as king. That refusal is the only thing that can keep anyone out of the kingdom of God.

The unbelieving servant, the one who out if improper fear did nothing to exercise his gift, did not die, did not suffer exile, did not lose any of his rights as a subject of the kingdom. He only lost what he had already despised.

Until Jesus returns and asks for an accounting, we all have the chance to learn to act in the proper fear of God and cease from the paralysis of any improper fear we may have

God’s steadfast love–and hatred of sin

“Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.” — Lamentations 3:22-23 (NKJV)

“Then he said to them all, ‘If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.'” — Luke 9:23

God’s mercy is new every morning. God calls us to take up our cross daily. Do those concepts seem somehow at odds?

Jeremiah, lamenting over the destruction of his beloved Jerusalem, comforted himself in the fact that some of God’s people had survived, even if their capital city and its temple had not. Jesus, going resolutely to his death, warned his followers that they would have to take up their own crosses.

In context, then, both Jeremiah’s word of praise and Jesus’ word of warning have to do with death and destruction. Jerusalem’s destruction took place as an act of divine judgment that culminated centuries of prophetic warnings about Jerusalem’s sin. As Jeremiah had already prophesied, God in his grace restored his people, his holy city, and his temple seventy years later.

Jesus died for our sins–both in the sense that he bore the penalty and paid the price and that his judicial murder resulted from sins no different than the ones each of us commits. Then, three days later, Jesus rose from death. All who believes in him have the right to be adopted as God sons.

The two scriptures above, therefore, provide two more illustrations of the general pattern that judgment always leads to grace. The daily opportunity to take up the cross to crucify the flesh is a daily mercy, uniting judgment and grace in one divine gift.

Joseph in Egypt: what did he forget?

“Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh: ‘For God has made me forget all my toil and all of my father’s house.'” — Genesis 41:51(NKJV)

By the time Joseph had any sons to name, he had led rough life and suffered much injustice. It didn’t start out that way, of course. As the eldest son of his father’s favorite wife, Joseph became his father Jacob’s favorite son. He enjoyed such favor that his older brothers despised him. Then came the dreams, which earned a rebuke even from Jacob.

Why did Joseph stay home when Jacob sent the older sons out to take care of the cattle? Was Joseph too young for that work, or just another example of coddling a favorite? In any case, when Jacob sent Joseph to look after them and report back to him, they beat him up.

Most of them wanted to kill him, but Reuben, the eldest, already in trouble for sleeping with one of Jacob’s concubines, urged them to throw him into a pit instead. Reuben may have wanted to rescue him later, but Judah, figuring they might as well get some good out of the boy, persuaded the rest to sell him into slavery.

There is no need here to recount the story of Joseph’s diligence and faithfulness in slavery and how others took advantage of him until he came to Pharaoh’s attention. When he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and suggested that Pharaoh appoint leadership to plan for the coming years of plenty and years of famine, Pharaoh designated Joseph as his prime minister and gave him a wife.

Joseph had two sons, and named the firstborn Manasseh, which means “causing to forget.” God, he said, had caused him to forget both his slavery and his father’s house. But as the story unfolds from there, he obviously did not forget his father’s house or what his brothers had done to him. When they came for food, he recognized them immediately, and also recognized in their behavior the fulfillment of his youthful dream.

What, then, had he forgotten as he named his son? He forgot his pain, his anger, and his bitterness. Years later, his brothers were in his hand. He could have killed them. He did mess with their minds a bit, but he desperately wanted to see his father and younger brother again.

After Jacob’s death, the older brothers feared him, but he had forgiven them long before. Their nephew’s name could have served as a daily reminder that Joseph remembered what they had done, but forgotten how to be offended by it.

Leaving Jesus behind

We have only one story of Jesus’ childhood, when he sat in the temple questioning the teachers while his parents had already started to return home. Surely every parent can identify with the multitude of emotions Joseph and Mary must have felt as they searched for their son.

Men traveled separately from women and children in those days. A twelve-year-old, one year from adulthood, could have plausibly traveled with either group. Only when they stopped for the night and families reunited did Joseph and Mary recognize that no one had seen Jesus. They had to return to Jerusalem to find him.

More than one preacher has commented about the last verse that even Jesus had to learn wisdom from his youthful carelessness.

But wait a minute. This is the incarnate Lord of the universe we’re talking about. Mary and Joseph, like good church people, went on about their business simply assuming that Jesus was with them. Isn’t it the parents’ responsibility to know where their children are? And isn’t it the church’s responsibility to follow Jesus instead of assuming he’s with them?

God is everywhere. He has promised never to leave us or forsake us. We can’t wander away from his presence. Unfortunately, we can easily lose the experience of his presence. When we leave that experience behind, it can be a long time before we notice. It can take even longer to remember where we were and what we were doing the last time we noticed him.

Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus performed a lot of his miracles when he was on his way to do something else. He frequently allowed the opportunity to minister to the needs around him to change his plans, always sensitive to the Father’s leading.

The church and its individual members too often go through worship services, Sunday school classes, and personal quiet time as a routine, assuming that Jesus is around somewhere. If Jesus pauses to go about his Father’s business and we plod along out of force of habit, we will leave him behind. Should we then scold him?

The baby in the manger has grown up. Why are we so often astonished?