The Supremacy of Scriptures

The Holy Bible is the supreme authority in Christianity, as it reflects the person and power of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Most Christians take it far too lightly, and suffer confusion and powerlessness in life as a result.

The founder of the Hindu religion is unknown, but he bequeathed a political and cultural system entrenched in thousands of lives and dozens of cities to the residents in the Indian subcontinent. Moses granted his heirs a religio-legal system and a powerful nation on the brink of conquering its Promised Land. On his death, the Buddha left behind an oral tradition of teachings as well as a network of thousands of monks and lay followers, and many monasteries in northeastern India. Muhammad left a religion, a political system, and an empire for Muslims. Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim religious and political leaders ended their earthly lives with books, songs, people, cities, armies, land, money, and everything else befitting a mighty character in history.

Jesus Christ left behind little, at least by conventional historical standards. He wrote no book and sired no offspring. He controlled no lands, no cities, and no armies. He developed no political structure and did not establish a religious order. The Rabbi from Galilee did not even leave a building in His name. What did Jesus pass on to history? 120 followers (Acts 1:15), a little money, and His words and actions as recorded by others. With such a slim posterity, why is He the central figure in human history and the faith that He taught, Christianity, the largest religion on earth?

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True to Each Other

In this lonely, painful world, how can we have deep, meaningful relationships? How can we be true to each other?

In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the Roman Emperor shouts “et tu Brute?” when he sees his close friend, Marcus Junius Brutus, among his assassins.  Though most Americans are not plunging daggers into each other, relationships in the world, the United States, and even the Church are shriveling and dying. According to US Census Data in 2020, our population growth has slowed to its lowest point since the 1930s.[1]  Experts blame COVID and economic troubles, but this trend has been present for decades. Marriage is less common, and couples are having fewer children. People are having less sex, and even dating less. Research from the Barna Group indicates that Americans have fewer friends and higher levels of loneliness than in the past.[2] Elders are less lonely than Boomers, who are less lonely than Gen X, who are less lonely than millennials. The stereotypical image of a lonely widow in our culture may be less common than that of a lonely teenage girl.

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Anger and the Christian

Should Christians be angry? What are the dangers of human anger, and how do we avoid them?

Several weeks ago, my son David was engaged in a discussion with a classmate about whether a Christian should ever be angry. My son argued that God shows anger and Paul writes “Be angry but do not sin (Ephesians 4:26).” His disputant suggested that God alone can be angry, but humans never should. Like many conversations, this one dragged on, with neither man convincing the other. David remained calm, but his counterpart did not. Resolving nothing, they parted company.

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Reviving the Saints

Life is exhausting, and ministry sometimes makes it worse. How can Christians be revived on our life’s journey?

Followers of Christ grow weary and sometimes fall away:

  1. Normal ups and downs of life and ministry – To be human is to encounter sickness, injury, and disappointment. Things break, opportunities vanish, relationships wither, and hopes fade. In ministry, people we love and serve angrily resist and reject. We labor for years with seemingly little effect.
  2. Major hurtful events and people in our lives – Sometimes even friends and loved ones succumb to the pressure of the world and reject us and our faith. Sometimes they end their own lives.
  3. Discrimination against and persecution of Christians in the United States (academic, political, economic) – We lose our jobs and other opportunities due to the practice of our faith. Christian schools are threatened with loss of accreditation, and Christians are seen as unfit for political office because of their beliefs.[1] Christians have become criminals simply for reading a Bible passage or saying something that others don’t like.[2] For example, H.R.5 – Equality Act 2019 – LGBTQ rights states “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (42 U.S.C. 2000bb et seq.) shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.” Whatever one thinks about LGBTQ rights, religious beliefs would be no defense to prosecution (and persecution). Christians who believe what the Bible states about LGBTQ issues are specifically targeted.

Non-Christians encounter issues one and two, but increasingly Christians are facing problem three as well. It is so easy to despair. Amidst these challenges, how can believers in Jesus Christ be revived?

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Zedekiah – Discontent, Disobedient, and Destroyed

The last king of Judah, Zedekiah, was discontent and disobedient to his God. It destroyed him and his whole nation with him. How does his tragic experience inform and challenge us today?

Few Christians look at Jeremiah or the Old Testament prophets for guidance in modern life. Fewer still look at the wicked kings of Israel and Judah. But their folly and failure contain powerful lessons for followers of Christ today. Zedekiah is a good place to start.

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Cause of Death of Ananias and Sapphira

Ananias and Sapphira, early Christians who lied to God, were struck down for their sin. How did it happen?

Jesus, the Man that many believed was the promised deliverer of Israel, the Messiah, had died. But then only three days later, He had risen from the dead. Jesus had a glorified body, He was not just a ghost, and He had appeared to a few (Luke 24:39-43) and to hundreds (1 Corinthians 15:6). After Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples had shared His message in Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit had come upon the people (Acts 2:1-36). Three thousand believed. Signs and wonders, miracles of healing and power, began to happen through the hands of His disciples, also known as the Apostles. The Jewish authorities arrested the church leaders, Peter and John, for proclaiming Christ. Believers began selling their possessions for the benefit of others in the church, and everyone was filled with awe. What would God do next?

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Calendars of the Ancient Near East

Access ancient Jewish, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Roman calendars to better understand the Bible

The two primary parameters that shape human thinking, regardless of culture, antiquity, or language, are space and time…spacetime for the physicists among us. It is difficult to understand any communication without a common understanding of these parameters. Such simple phrases as “See you tomorrow” require both parties to have a similar understanding of “tomorrow”.

The Bible records over 4,000 of history, from the earliest human settlements from Mesopotamia to Arabia to the cosmopolitan Roman Empire. It thus covers dozens of cultures, nations, and tribes, each with their own understanding of space and time. The Quran doesn’t do this, and neither do the Vedas, the Tripitaka, or any Sutra. The Bible stands alone – no other book is like it.

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As We Think

Directing our emotions, our thoughts, our words, and our actions…to be who we were created to be.

The Economist is no fan of Donald Trump. The October 27 to November 2, 2018 issue featured a column by the editor Lexington describing the foreign policy failures and successes of the President. It was accompanied by the picture noted here, which shows Trump as an archer rejoicing over a single bulls-eye while quivers of arrows are far off the mark. He seems to be ignoring his many failures and raising his arms in triumph over one, perhaps random, success. Maybe Lexington sees Trump as an incompetent egomaniac who sometimes gets lucky. Certainly, other people do. While catchy, this illustration is a snowflake in an avalanche of political cartoons criticizing the US leader.

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A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23

Shepherds have uniquely valuable insights into this most beloved of Bible passages.

It was almost Christmas as my young family and I left for church from our town house in Bad Kissingen, Germany, a few miles north of Schweinfurt. A middle-aged German couple lived next door, and one day I asked the wife if they attend church, and what were their holiday plans. She replied that she and her family had attended services occasionally long ago, and were planning a quiet Christmas. Hoping to encourage her to go back to church, at least for Christmas, I mentioned that the Bible has some wonderful passages and asked her if she had ever heard of the 23rd Psalm. “Der Herr ist mein hirte!” she shot back, “Of course! Germans learn that as children. Do you think we know nothing?” I apologized for my inadvertent insult, but couldn’t help thinking about Psalm 23 as cultural classic versus Psalm 23 as living truth. My neighbor memorized Psalm 23, but showed no sign of living it. Followers of Christ must know it, and live it.

God uses the research, experiences, and insights of other Christians to help us see into the Scriptures. Much of the Bible is written in the language of farmers and herders. The 23rd Psalm is a beautiful, symbolic description of our Father’s care for His people through a shepherd’s eyes. As a professional shepherd and the author of A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Philip Keller shares some valuable insights, which I have included.

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A Land Called Married

Isaiah describes the “marriage” between God and His people. Christians can learn much for our marriages as well.

My youngest daughter was fighting a virus that sapped her strength and made her miserable. Good movies brighten her mood, and soon we were enjoying the six-hour British Broadcasting Company (BBC) version of Pride and Prejudice. Based on a classic novel by Jane Austen (1775-1817), Pride and Prejudice mixes romance, social commentary, and morality, detailing the twists and turns of courtship and marriage among the daughters of the aristocratic Bennett family in early 19th century England. The movie poignantly reveals how vastly different society’s view of marriage was two hundred years ago.

In Isaiah 62, the Lord encourages His people, promising them future goodness and glory after their defeat and exile.  God uses the metaphor of Israel as His bride, telling His readers that their land would no longer be called “Desolate” but be called “Married” (v4). Most people in my experience would not juxtapose these two words, partly because “desolate” refers to a place “in bleak and dismal emptiness” and “married” refers to a relationship between two people. Isaiah 62 is not about human marriage per se, but neither is it about the physical land of Israel. Rather, it is about the restored relationship between God and His people. As such, it becomes a model of how human marriage under God can be, and should be.

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Will My Dog Go to Heaven?

Gracie - John Niven - cropped 1.jpg

People love their pets, and want to know what will happen after they die. The Bible provides an answer. 

About two weeks ago I saw John at a riverboat party. The general mood was light, but he stood alone in the shadows, his face stained with dry tears. John and his wife, their children long out of the house, had been forced to put their beloved dog, Gracie, to sleep. I listened long and said little as he shared his heart, and soon the party was over. A few days later he approached me at another gathering.

“Mark, you are a minister, right?”

“Yes, I was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister.”

“Will Gracie go to heaven? I have heard both – some people say that she will, and others say that since she doesn’t have a soul, she won’t.”

He paused. There was silence as I considered my reply. John was still visibly distressed, and I had to be right, but I equivocated.

“Well, the bottom line is that no one knows for sure.”

John’s face fell.

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Whence Identity?

A Christian view on how and where we find and build our identity. 

“To be a Turk is to be a Muslim” our Turkish tour guide announced during our tour of the Seven Churches in Revelation. I asked him why he believed that, and he replied that since Allah made him a Turk, clearly Allah intended for him to be a Muslim. Both his logic and his history were faulty. While the descendants of the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks are overwhelmingly Muslim, the modern descendants of the Khazar Turks are largely Jewish. Present-day Gagauz and Chuvash Turks are predominantly Christian.

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Look What You Made Me Do

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By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55092301

A Christian perspective on Taylor Swift’s song, on her career, and hoping she will replace her lost innocence with virtue.

I rarely comment on trends and events in the entertainment world, mostly because I don’t follow it.  I do follow my daughter’s life, however, and she asked me to comment on Taylor Swift’s latest music video, Look What You Made Me Do. So here I write, as a fool rushing in where wise men never go.

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To Be A Man

An acrostic on being a man, based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

It is Easter weekend, 2017, a time to celebrate the most important event in human history; the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We also consider how the work of Jesus impacts our daily lives. Many of the “powerful” in America in 2017 dislike much of what the Lord taught, and detest who He claimed to be. American Christians, therefore find the Bible at odds with prevailing attitudes in the media, business, government, and entertainment. It can be hard to know what to do, and harder to find strength in tough times. One friend has been unemployed for over a year; another for four months. One is strongly considering leaving his wife. A teenager struggles with what it actually means to be a man, and a recent college graduate faces a wonderful but fearsome task, becoming a husband.  Directly using the word of God, I have described part of what it means to be a man.

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Encountering God

As we approach death, we realize that only an encounter with God is big enough to save us from despair. Too bad we don’t realize that earlier. And how do we encounter Him?

When children are young, their world is little bigger than their neighborhood; their home, their school, their friends’ houses, and their church. When people reach young adulthood, their world expands, perhaps even to encompass the whole globe. Slowly though, muscles weaken and eyes get foggy. Women lose their ability to conceive, and hair grays. At those moments, pensive people begin to truly understand that though the world will not leave them, they will leave the world. While little children anchor themselves in their parents and young adults in career and family, the aged realize that these anchors will not hold.

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Understanding Authority

Since the Fall, man has hated authority. America has built a culture on the hatred of authority, and yet God is still Lord, and He still appoints people over us. What do we do?

The US Founding Father Benjamin Franklin is alleged to have said “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” Whether he said this or not, the idea of questioning authority has woven itself into the DNA of American culture. But the idea of questioning authority is not new; indeed, it is as old as man. Since the serpent convinced Eve to question God’s authority in the Garden of Eden, sinful man has questioned authority. Even more, we have an inherent dislike of it. The idea that anyone or anything should be “over” us in some way is anathema to man, especially individualistic Americans.

Before we continue, we must define our terms. For our purposes, “to question” will be “to ask” or even “to challenge” authority but not to automatically reject it. We will define “authority” as “the power to give orders or make decisions: the power or right to direct or control someone or something.”[1] Note that authority is not the same as power. Power is simple ability, while authority is ability plus legitimacy. A man holding a gun may have the power to take your money, but he doesn’t have the authority to do so. A tax collector in a democratic government has both the power and the legitimacy, hence the authority, to take your money.

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The Bible Story

What is the Bible about? Can you answer that question?

Technology has made life physically easier and information (and misinformation) more available while decreasing the work of living (farming, cleaning, cooking, maintaining, etc.). As a result, more people have more time to edify or to entertain themselves than ever before. Meanwhile, man’s naïve belief that technology would bring about utopia (embodied in modernism) has given way to a belief that utopia is not achievable or even desirable. There is no meaning in the universe aside from what man puts into it and the best we can hope for is personal peace and affluence, as defined by each person (reflected in post modernism). No religion, worldview or other metanarrative is any better than another, much less true for all people at all times.

Since the Bible makes exclusive claims to truth, it is diametrically opposed to such relativism. Over the millennia, many people have attacked the Bible, and this is also true today. People attack the Book and those who believe the Book. Respectful debate is good, challenging believers to think through their faith and non-believers to honestly consider the claims of Christ. Such debate, however, seems rare. Human nature being what it is, mockery, discrimination and violence are the order of the day. Persecution of Christians throughout the world, and even in the West, is growing. Many people across the globe are shedding Christian blood, but believers should never fear; the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.

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Spiritual Warfare

Every event in the universe is the result of a chain of causes, some known and some not. Our forebears and third world contemporaries generally see spiritual forces as ultimate, though not proximate, causes, of happenings. Westerners generally do not. Who is right?

Our church recently sent a mission team to Eastern Europe to work with local churches in music, outreach, and Vacation Bible School. As they were returning to the airport, the driver nodded off and the van ran off the road, rolling several times before coming to a stop. Thankfully the injuries were limited to skin lacerations and concussions. As the story of the accident was recounted in church the following Sunday, everyone was shocked, many prayed, and others asked what else they could do to help.

Our family has a young woman from Iran living with us, our “adopted daughter (AD)”, who attends a class of international Christians with many Muslim background believers. On hearing the news, one of the women in that class announced that the accident was caused by spiritual warfare. AD, trained in science, was puzzled. This incident was clearly an accident, caused by a purely natural phenomenon, fatigue. Could this be interpreted as spiritual warfare, or was that interpretation an example of sincere but misguided faith? Driving home that day, AD asked me what I thought.

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Physical Beauty and the Christian

Physical beauty, whether in a lilac or in a lady, is a gift from God. We must enjoy it, develop it, protect it, value it, and ultimately give Him the glory. 

My recent travels led me to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a conversation with Felicity, a Boyce College undergraduate studying the Bible before she moves on to a degree in cosmetology. A beautiful and engaging young woman, Felicity believes that her call in ministry is to help others be beautiful and engaging. Helping other coeds with hair, makeup, and the like is a joy to her, and a source of some badly needed cash.

Yet there is a proverbial fly in the ointment. Felicity has a wonderful Christian role model who works in the industry, and she has reported to Felicity that cosmetology is hard for people dedicated to Christ. Many people involved, both workers and clients, act as if physical appearance is all that matters. Youth and vanity, already lauded in much of American culture, become idolized in the walls of the salon. Should a committed Christ-follower even be in such an environment? If so, how can she keep her heart pure? Felicity asked me what I thought on this issue, and I have written some thoughts below.

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Do We Hate Our Bodies?

Our Lord loves us and He gave us our bodies, however they may be, for our enjoyment and His glory. Christians do not hate the material world… we love it. 

The other day I read an article written by a hospice chaplain from South Carolina entitled “What the dying really regret.” The author interviewed an elderly woman who was dying of cancer, who said:

“I know I’m supposed to hate my body…Everyone told me — my family, my school, my church. When I got older, magazines and salesgirls and boyfriends (told me), even if they didn’t say so out loud. The world’s been telling me for 75 years that my body is bad. First for being female, then for being fat and then for being sick…But the one thing I never did understand is, why does everyone else want me to hate my body? What does it matter to them?” Kerry Egan, CNN, 17 Oct 2014

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Song of Songs – The Mystery and Majesty of Human Love

A commentary on the Song of Solomon

Interpreted for centuries by most Jews and Christians as an allegory about the love of God for His people, modern commentators hold that this is a story about human love, which secondarily reflects the perfect love between God and His people. Though God is never mentioned, His presence permeates the book. There is widespread mention of the wonders of His creation as well as the constant restraining (and liberating) presence of His moral code. Notably, in the Song of Songs the woman did most of the speaking. It is magnificent poetry with extensive use of olfactory imagery. Remarkably, it never mentioned having children as the purpose for marriage. Romantic love was beautiful and desirable for its own sake.

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Advent Tree Family Devotions – December 7

Twelve Pointed Star

Luke 6:12‑16; Philippians 2:12‑18

The twelve pointed star represents the twelve apostles of Jesus.

Simon Peter was married, owned a house in Capernaum, and ran a fishing business with his brother Andrew on the Sea of Galilee. He, along with his business partners James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were the disciples closest to Jesus. Peter is mentioned more times than any other of the twelve, wrote the Gospel of Mark (with John Mark) and first and second Peter, and is generally considered the leader of the apostles.

James and John, who Jesus nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder” for their zeal, were with Peter at the Transfiguration and close to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane on His final night. James became the first disciple to be martyred, and John, the “one who Jesus loved”, led the church at Ephesus, was exiled to Patmos, and wrote the books of John, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John, and Revelation.

Philip of Bethsaida was a disciple of John who came to Jesus and brought Nathaniel (possibly also called Bartholomew), whom Jesus identified as meditating under a fig tree, as well. Matthew was a tax collector from Capernaum who wrote the first gospel. Thomas followed Jesus with intensity and loyalty, but refused to believe in the Resurrection until he saw for himself. Less is known of James, son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot*, and Judas the son of James. Judas Iscariot, another Zealot, and one who never grasped Jesus’ nature or mission, was His betrayer.

Jesus personally picked these twelve ordinary men to deliver His message throughout the world. Each failed miserably at times to obey in faith, as when Peter denied the Lord and when they all fled at Jesus’ arrest. Each failed miserably at times to even understand Jesus’ message, as when James and John wanted to call fire to consume the Samaritans (Luke 9:54), and Philip said “show us the Father…”, even though he should have known that seeing Jesus was seeing the Father (John 14:8). Yet on the whole, with the power of the Spirit working in the hearts of men to reveal the Gospel message, they prevailed. Christianity, which started out as 120 people in 30 AD (Acts 1:15), grew to over 100,000 in the Roman empire by AD 100, only 70 years later. Today, about 2 billion people worldwide proclaim the name of Christ. No other religion touches so many lives.

As Christians, we can remember the men represented in the 12 pointed star. We can take comfort because if God can accomplish His perfect will through them, He can do the same in us, no matter our background and past. Just as the moon reflects light, we have been chosen by Jesus to shine in a corrupt and broken world, reflecting His light to those around us.

In the hustle and bustle of this special time of year, don’t neglect the feeding of your light which enables it to shine forth with the story of our Savior. Let these times of devotion provide discipline and strength for the times in which it is most difficult to shine for Him.

*the Zealots were a nationalistic political group wishing to overthrow Roman rule

O Holy Night

O holy night! the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope – the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine! O night when Christ was born!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here came the Wise Men from Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our Friend.
He knows our need – to our weakness is no stranger.
Behold your King, before him lowly bend!
Behold your King, before him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His name forever!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

 

 

Timekeeping in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East

Students of antiquity stumble over important questions. To accept any ancient work such as the Bible as a valid historical document we must understand the basics of daily life in the Bible. It is unfortunate, or exciting depending upon your point of view, that the Bible encompasses over 2,000 years, thousands of square miles and dozens of cultures. Simple questions abound such as “what time of day was Jesus crucified?” While this article will not provide a definitive answer, it will shed light on the question.

Israel

Time was divided into days, weeks, months and years during the Israelite monarchy. During and after the Babylonian exile the Jews adopted the Babylonian system of dividing the daylight period into hours.

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The Bible – Word Above All Words

We can try to ignore the Bible, but we will fail. We can minimize its import, but we are only kidding, and hurting, ourselves. 

The Bible is the most popular, and controversial, book in human history. There are those who love and live by it, those who revile and attack it, and those who ignore it. Great leaders in the past have honored it:

“The New Testament is the very best book that ever was or ever will be written in the world.”  Charles Dickens

“The Bible is no mere book, but a Living Creature, with a power that conquers all that oppose it.”  Napoleon Bonaparte

“The secret of my success?  It is simple.  It is found in the Bible, ‘In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths.’”  George Washington Carver

“That Book accounts for the supremacy of England.”  Queen Victoria

“In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, I believe the Bible is the best gift God has given to man.  All the good Savior gave to the world was communicated through this Book.  But for this Book we could not know right from wrong.  All things most desirable to man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.” Abraham Lincoln

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Being a Doer

We must do the commands of God. Do we dare?

How can we be doers of the word and not just hearers?

James 1:22-25

1. Be familiar with the Bible – it is not enough to know a few stories and a smattering of principles, we must know the overall story of the Bible and how its pieces fit into the whole.

When a man learns to fly he needs to know about the engine and elevators, lift, drag and thrust, and the other principles, but he must also know how it all fits together.

This is just as true for God’s revelation. In His general revelation, He created the world. The general revelation is immediately available to everyone on earth and proclaims Him to them (Psalm 19:1). The Bible is His special revelation. It in He chose a man (Abraham), then a people (Israel), then a man (Jesus), then a people (Christians), who must then proclaim Him to the world. God’s pattern for His total revelation is therefore: World – man – people – man – people – world. That is the story of the Bible.

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Halloween

On those infrequent occasions when modern man considers the landscape of religion throughout the world, he is likely to think of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and a smattering of smaller faiths. These religions, the “big five”, encompass the beliefs of more than two thirds of the world’s population, though there are innumerable sects and denominations within each. It was not always so.

Of these, before 500 BC only Judaism and Hinduism existed, and even they were different in many respects from the religions by those names today. Instead the world was a bubbling cauldron of tens of thousands of tribal and regional religions. The Greek pantheon, which became the Roman pantheon, the Celtic religion, and the later Norse pantheon, are among the most well known today in the West. Even after the advent of Buddhism in the early 5th century BC, Christianity in the first century AD, and Islam in the 7th century AD, these tribal and regional religions played an important role in the lives of their followers.

No one knows where the holiday today known as Halloween originated, but there is widespread agreement that it came out of the cauldron of Christian and pagan influences in Europe in the Middle Ages. Some link it to the Celtic festival of Samhain (summer’s end) while others to the Roman feast of Parentalia (the festival of the dead). The name “Halloween” is a contraction of “All Hallows Eve”. The common belief was that the souls of those who had died wandered the earth until All Saints Day on November first, when they would be taken to purgatory. All Hallows Eve, therefore, was their last chance to take revenge on their enemies. To avoid recognition, however, the souls would disguise themselves. Those targeted by the souls of the dead could do something good for them and perhaps avoid retribution. Also, the poor would go from house to house in the Middle Ages on All Saints Day receiving food in exchange for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day, November second. From these practices followed the modern customs of dressing in costume and “trick or treat” on Halloween.

During the Reformation, Protestants objected to Halloween as “Popism” and tried to eliminate pagan influences from the Church. The Puritans in New England opposed the holiday but later Scottish and Irish immigrants brought it with them into the New World. Subsequently celebrating Halloween became widespread in America among all social classes and ethnic groups.

Like all things, holidays take on the color of their surrounding culture. The lives of medieval men and women were surrounded by death. The healthiest could and often did perish in an instant, and as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote in Leviathan “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” As a result Halloween was heavily influenced by death, its main images being skeletons, corpses, and ghosts, or dealers in death, such as witches, demons, and even the unlucky black cat.

Halloween in America today is less about death, which seems distant in a land with good public health, excellent medical care, and where people die in hospitals instead of at home. Rather Halloween is more about sex. A quick look at almost any costume catalog reveals sexy pirate, foxy lady, sexy wench, sexy gangster, Aphrodite, nurse knockout, passionate princess, and a host of revealing costumes for women and even young girls. Men’s and boy’s costumes are more about violence and arrogance, with outlaws, commandos, and fictional superheroes as standard fare. There are, of course, still the historic Halloween standards of witches, ghosts, ghouls, zombies, and other bloody, rotting and scary costumes. And in the interest of fairness, many children and even a few adults dress up as animals, fruits, vegetables, (modest) princesses, and other fun and wholesome choices.

Christians today sometimes eschew Halloween entirely, sometimes participate wholeheartedly and without discretion, and sometimes celebrate a variation, such as “fall festivals” common among church groups. The Bible does not categorically state what the Christian response to Halloween is, since Halloween is a much later development. Nonetheless it does provide principles to guide our conduct.

First, believers in Jesus Christ should never fear. Some people feel that pumpkins, black cats, and other images of Halloween are so associated with this holiday that Christians must not be associated with them at all. This is false; the God who made pumpkins and black cats allows people to use, and even misuse, what He has given them, and uses their actions for His greater plan. Other people fear the images of death. This must not be, because death is a result of our sin and must be faced, and also because Jesus Christ conquered death once and for all at the cross. Still others fear the magic and what they perceive as demonic influences. Evil spirits undoubtedly have significant influence on the world, as do good spirits, and their influence is not confined to Halloween. However, Christ won the final victory, and if our eyes are on Him, we have nothing to fear.

Second, believers in Jesus Christ should avoid sin at all costs. Most everyone fears death, but few fear sin. This is remarkable because sin leads directly to death, and not just physical death, but spiritual death as well (James 1:14-15). When sin is wrapped in such an alluring package as a scantily clad, beautiful young woman, we fear it even less. While sex between husband and wife bears the imprimatur and magnificence of heaven, the same act between anyone else will result in eventual destruction (Proverbs 7). But sex is not the only good thing which if misused becomes sin. Power and pride, so laudable when directed rightly, so lamentable when directed wrongly, and so prominent a theme in the men’s Halloween costumes, can also lead to sin (Habakkuk 1:11).

Our family enjoys decorating, carving pumpkins, going to fall festivals, dressing up in costumes, and eating treats on Halloween. God made, either directly or through the handiwork of man, every pumpkin, every treat, and even every costume and decoration. He will use it all for His perfect purposes and His glory. Our responsibility, not just for Halloween but for every day, is to avoid the twin dangers of fear and sin. In so doing, we can enjoy all of the abundant life that He gives those who love Him.

World Evangelism

Should we tell others about Jesus? If we don’t, the stones will cry out.

Evangelism, loosely defined as trying to get others to believe and practice a particular religious faith, has received a bad reputation in many circles in the last century. David Livingstone, the famous 19th century explorer-doctor-missionary in Southern Africa, reflected his times in his belief that Civilization, Commerce and Christianity would help Africa and the undeveloped world out of poverty and into relationship with Christ. He did not support European colonialism but others in his era did, and the association of the “3 Cs” with colonialism generated a backlash against missionary work in the post colonial era.

Evangelism also presupposes that the evangelist knows the true religion and the one being evangelized does not. Such a claim to knowledge cuts against the grain of moral relativism (“there is no true religion”) and can suggest that one man is inherently superior to another. It is difficult for any man to preach a belief system without importing his unseen cultural biases into his message, and the inherent conflict in trying to change another’s way of thinking can result in violence.

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The Land of Milk and Honey – Agriculture in Ancient Israel

In Exodus 33:3 God promised to take the Hebrews, recently freed from slavery in Egypt, to a “land flowing with milk and honey.” During my trip to Israel in March of 1995 when I approached Jerusalem, I was a little skeptical of the “milk and honey” description. Much of the land is dry and hilly, and it was warm even that early in the year. Israel more resembled where I grew up, arid Southern Calfornia, than the watered paradise I had envisaged. After many years and much study, I have come to realize that Israel truly was “a land flowing with milk and honey”, especially compared to the Arabian Desert and Egypt (beyond the Nile).

Even more important, it is impossible to understand much of the Bible without understanding the agriculture that it describes. Unlike modern industrial and information societies, in which food is so plentiful that only a small minority are involved in its production, Ancient Israel was agricultural. So was every nation around them. Every aspect of their lives, economies, religion, pleasure, and even war revolved around the cycles of nature in a way that few of us can understand.

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What Was the Most Important Part of Luther’s Theology?

Luther’s allegiance to the Holy Bible (solo Scriptura) as the ultimate source of authority in Christianity was the most important point of his theology. It is hard for Christians in the 21st century to imagine how the first 350 years of the faith must have been, when the only Bible available was the Old Testament, possibly the Apocrypha, the gospels and the letters of Paul, and some other letters. There was no firm agreement on what constituted the inspired Word of God, and therefore the dangers of heresy were great.

It is little wonder, therefore, that the church came up with a combination of means to judge whether a teaching was orthodox or not. Creeds such as the Apostle’s Creed, which summarized the key points of Christianity, a single bishop in each city who served as the source of authoritative interpretation, and an increasing understanding of which books belonged in the New Testament and which did not, were the means by which the early Church defeated Gnosticism and a host of other heresies that could have destroyed the new faith in its cradle.

The danger, of course, in using such a combination is that believers are tempted to put creeds or authoritative teachers above the Bible. This is exactly what happened. At the Council of Carthage in August 397, church authorities recognized (they did not determine) which books should form the New Testament. These books bore apostolic authority, were consistent with the teachings of the Old Testament, the Gospels, and other Christian teachings, and they were recognized throughout the church as God’s inspired truths.

After the Bible was completed, the reasonable thing to do would have been to recognize that the authority of creeds and bishops is derived from and therefore subordinate to the Word of God. Creeds are useful teaching tools but are essentially mini systematic theologies and therefore necessarily oversimplify or even distort the truths of the Lord. Bishops are usually well educated and faithful and their word can be trusted, but they are still sinful men and liable to errors of omission and commission. Creeds and bishops were still needed because in cultures with few books and little literacy it is important to have such lesser authorities, but God‘s word was the ultimate authority.

What happened, unfortunately, was that the authority of the bishops was magnified, not diminished, until church leaders were presenting as truth teachings that were clearly falsehoods, such as the practice of indulgences. Unbound to the Bible, creeds also proliferated and promulgated misinterpretations of it. Over hundreds of years, these errors gained the authority of tradition and tradition, not the True Word, became the ultimate source of authority. Believers suffered greatly from both of these errors for centuries.

Luther came at a time when mass printing and distribution was possible and literacy was rising fast. Over a millennium after Carthage, he and others rediscovered what should have been apparent all along. The Word of God, not creeds based on it or bishops and other churchmen explaining it, was the real source of truth. Everything believers teach and do must be measured against the only real source of authority, the Bible, and not the other way around.

Tradition still has authority and much of what we do in the modern church, such as worship services at 1100 on Sundays, midweek prayer meetings, and Christmas on December 25th, is based on it. Creeds still have authority, because they are quick and useful ways to teach important Biblical truths to men. However, the Bible is supreme. Luther recognized this, and all of his other great contributions, such as sola fide and sola sacerdos, came from that foundation.

The Conditions of Discipleship

For those ready to stop playing at religion, what do they do if they really want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ?

Webster defined “condition” as “anything called for before the performance or completion of something else.”  A condition of graduation with an MDiv, for example, is the satisfactory completion of a certain number of courses and mastery of a certain basic body of information.  Dr. Mike Mitchell postulates several conditions for discipleship, including self denial, renunciation, leaving all, steadfastness, fruitfulness and love.  Anyone who wishes to be a true disciple of Christ must demonstrate these qualities.  It is important to differentiate “disciple” from “follower”.  Elwell’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology suggests that the word disciple (μαθητής mathētēs) may be rendered “pupil” in English but actually connotes a far more personal attachment and commitment. The idea is that a disciple is a pupil with a personal relationship with the Master.  While one can be a casual follower, one can only be a devoted disciple.

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Jesus, an Example of Mentoring Leadership

How did Jesus mentor His disciples? How did He mentor others? How should we mentor those who look to us for leadership?

One of the greatest strengths of mentoring leaders is the ability to teach.  To reproduce himself, a man must teach, by words and by actions, those who are learning from him.  Jesus taught large groups and the people marveled at the wisdom and authority of His words.  He was doing His most important work, however, when He was teaching small groups of His disciples and other followers (Luke 24:32).

Mentoring leaders also use gifts of exhortation to mentor those entrusted to them.  Exhortation includes encouragement and instruction to do the right and wise thing.  After Peter’s proclamation of faith in Matthew 16:16, Jesus encouraged him.  After Peter denied Jesus in Matthew 26:69-75, Jesus encouraged him again (John 21:15-17).  Many times in the gospels Jesus exhorted His disciples.  Such gifts as exhortation and teaching are evidence of excellent communication, in this case sharing leadership principles and examples to the next generation of leaders.

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Israel at the Time of Hosea

The Kingdom of Aram (modern Syria) had long been a major military threat to Israel, and Israel had been forced to devote many resources to defense against its northeastern neighbor.  During the days of Jehoahaz (816-800 BC), crushing defeats at the hands of the Arameans had reduced Israel’s army to “not more than 50 horsemen, 10 chariots, and 10,000 footmen (2 Kings 13:7).”

An adventurer named Zakir had successfully gained power in the small kingdoms of Hamath, Luash, and the regions nearby, situated northeast of Aram. Hoping to expand his power the king of Aram, Ben Hadad III, formed an alliance to overthrow Zakir and seize Hamath and Luash. According to the Stele of Zakkur, found in 1903 near Aleppo, the Aramean coalition laid siege to the city of Hazrach (cf. Zechariah 9:1) near Damascus, and was defeated. Zakir’s victory destroyed the army of Aram and led to their precipitous decline. These events occurred around 790 BC, and within 30 years Aram had grown so weak that Israel had gained control of Damascus and Hamath themselves (2 Kings 14:28). The borders of Israel expanded almost as far as they had reached under David and Solomon.  Assyria, which would destroy Israel itself in 722 BC, was relatively weak since the passing of Shalmaneser III (859 – 824 BC).

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Will Jesus Come Again?

Jesus has waited 2000 years to return…is He ever going to come?

Daniel Whittle and James McGranahan wrote the famous hymn I Know Whom I have Believed. The song concludes with a question and a note of hope:

I know not when my Lord may come, at night or noonday fair, nor if I walk the vale with him, or meet him in the air.

But I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day.

The hope of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ has been a source of great comfort to Christians, especially during persecution, for two millennia. However it has also been a source of doubt since Jesus gave no specific time and the event seems delayed. If this troubled the readers of 2 Peter around 65 AD, how much more is it a concern for Christians in 2015. With every passing year, and certainly with the technological and lifestyle changes since first century Israel, it gets harder and harder to believe that Jesus will actually come again. Believers are reminded of this every time someone predicts the return of Christ on a specific day, only to have it not occur.

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Misrepresenting Christianity in a Public School

Schools, public and private, are places where people of all ages learn important things that will help them and others. They are also places of indoctrination and coercion, where truth is skewed to serve someone’s ideology. 

My son is a high school student who is currently taking his required World History class. The teacher is covering religions, and has recently been studying Christianity. While sometimes students misunderstand an instructor’s point when they tell others what happened in class, parents can gain insight into the class by what the teacher sends home as well as what their children report. These issues came up in our discussion:

Allegation 1 – Paul invented the doctrine of Original Sin

To address this allegation, we must first understand the word “sin”.  The Bible represents sin as a broken relationship between the Creator God and His creatures, human beings. The relationship was broken by the rebellion of man against the command of God in the original idyllic state, the Garden of Eden. Each individual commits sins, individual acts of disobedience to his Creator, but the human race as a whole is separated from God through our act of corporate rebellion. Whereas in other religions sin is considered a single act, usually involving breaking some taboo, in Christianity sin is a state of being. Since people are in this state, rebellion against God, they commit individual acts of sin. Stated another way, in other religions people may be sinners because they sin, but in Christianity people sin because they are sinners.

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US Elections – American Transitions of Political Power

Complain as you will about the American political system, our elections and transfers of power are the best in the world, and in history. 

Americans have waited long for this day to come; some because they are sick of the seemingly endless cycle of electioneering, and others because they are hopeful that their efforts will pay off, or at least their candidates and initiatives will succeed. Most people probably have a mix of these feelings. While understandable, such discomfiture is far better than the alternative. The purpose of elections in every country is to provide for a fair and stable transition of power from one person or group to another. Few countries in history have been able to pull this off.

Whatever happens today in any individual race, including the race for the presidency, power will change hands. The 112th Congress will give way to the 113th, some states will have different faces in their governors’ offices, and the legislative rolls will contain different names. Local governments also will not be the same in January as they are today. The amazing thing about America is that power changes hands with stability, if not civility, and money, not blood.

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Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Epidemics, and other Misfortunes

Misfortunes and even disasters are part of life. Are they natural phenomena, are they judgments from God, or are they both?  

Hurricane Sandy has just swept through the east coast of the US, killing at least 100, leaving six million without power and causing at least $3 billion dollars in damages. In March 2011, an earthquake (magnitude 9.3), tsunami and radiation accident in Japan killed 15,870 and caused $235 billion in damages. In January 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Leogane in Haiti, killing at least 316,000. Disease epidemics relentlessly cycle through populations. Such catastrophes occur constantly somewhere in the world, and terrible suffering and loss is an inevitable result.

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We the Rebels, the Traitors, the Despised and the Beloved

Jesus said that the world will hate those we follow Him. He said that Christians are in the world but not of the world. What does that mean?

Our class had an interesting discussion during Sunday School yesterday. We begin in a large assembly and share announcements and prayer requests. The department includes young and middle aged adults, and one prayer request was a delight; a recently married couple will be having their first child in the spring. Many of the other requests were sad; women with breast cancer, aging and dying parents, and trouble with marriages and children. No one is immune to the disappointments and tragedies of life.

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Be Thou My Vision – Fixing Our Sight on God

God is not the giver of blessings; He is the blessing. God is not the enabler of accomplishments; knowing Him is the accomplishment. God is the center of our provision and the center of our ambition. And yet why is that so easy to say and so hard to do?

One of my favorite hymns is the Irish “Be thou my vision”, its words are attributed to Dallan Forgaill in the 6th century and its tune an Irish folk song, “Slane”.   The theme is that God alone should be the vision and goal of every Christian, just as He was for Paul in Philippians 3:7-14.

What does it mean to have God for our vision in our purpose for life?

The modern mantra of finding ones’ purpose for life seems to be “follow your inner star”, “find your dream” or “do your own thing.”  The idea is that within each person is something that will guide him or her to meaning and fulfillment in life if only he or she follows it.  Books, music, and movies parrot this idea relentlessly, and many people simply accept it as truth.  Under certain assumptions this could be logical:

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Listening When God Speaks – Genesis 41

God speaks to us, more often than we would like. He is not silent, but we are not listening. 

I was teaching 30s-40s adult Sunday School several weeks ago, studying the call of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1) and we were discussing how God speaks to man today. The expected answers came first; God speaks through His word (the Bible), He speaks through other people (the pastor, trusted Christian friends and family), and He speaks through circumstances (opening some doors to opportunity and closing others). These were all good answers, but none of them described how He spoke to Jeremiah in that chapter. The Weeping Prophet heard the word of God through visions and through the Lord speaking directly to his heart. I asked how many heard God in those ways and the room fell silent.

Does God still speak through dreams? Does he speak through visions? Did He ever? Sigmund Freud and modern naturalists would say no, that dreams are the product of the swirling mass of id and ego, or other psychological and naturalistic forces, within each of us. However, the Bible clearly teaches that God spoke through dreams and visions to men and women in the Old and New Testaments. Which is true?

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The Identity of the Child in Isaiah 7:14

God uses normal means to accomplish wonderous effects, and He does so for now, for the future, and for eternity.

Judah was in desperate straits.  The strength and prosperity of King Uzziah had given way to the weakness and poverty of King Ahaz.  Tilgath Pileser III, the ascendant ruler of Assyria, was expanding with a mighty army and his neighbors, Syria and Israel, had attacked Judah to force it to ally with them against Assyria.  Judah had suffered a severe defeat, and at that moment, Ahaz was not thinking about something that was going to happen 730 years later.  Probably, Isaiah wasn’t either.  Therefore the child promised in Isaiah 7:14 was not, at least in Ahaz’ mind, the future Messiah.  Isaiah had promised him a sign that God would deliver him and his nation from the combined might of Israel and Syria and the child was to be the sign.  The sign was not that a young woman would bear a child; this is an ordinary part of human experience.  Rather it was that the birth of this child would begin the countdown to destruction for Judah’s enemies.  Specifically, the kings that Ahaz feared would be destroyed before the child reached preadolescence.

That prophecy was most likely fulfilled by the birth of Isaiah’s second son, Maher-shalal-hashbaz (MSH).  According to Herbert M .Wolf, “almah” most reasonably refers to a young woman of marriageable age, who in Hebrew culture was expected to be a virgin.  The event in 8:1-2 is likely the marriage ceremony between Isaiah and his new wife, and the child is conceived in verse 3.  Isaiah’s prophetess was a virgin when she married but obviously not a virgin when she conceived.  In verse 4, Isaiah clarified his prophecy; this time saying that before his son was even old enough to talk, Israel and Syria would be no more.  Thus MSH was the immediate fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14.

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