A Credible Truth

Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? (Acts 26:8, ESV) 

When the Apostle Paul was defending himself before King Agrippa in Acts 26, he explained that he was on trial because he believed what the Jewish people down through the centuries had believed — that God had spoken to men from outside of this world. Then he asked what in that context was a rhetorical question, “Why is it thought incredible that God raises the dead?”

Although this was rhetorical (meaning that the answer was obvious) when Paul spoke it before King Agrippa, it is no longer so. There are reasons in our day why many ask this question. 

The idea of God raising the dead lacks credibility in our day because we have been indoctrinated with a philosophy called Naturalism. Only natural causes are allowed. Philosophically we have declared that anything outside of nature cannot be considered. Evolutionary teaching dominates our public education because the alternative requires something outside of nature to have created us. Somehow, by ignoring the question of how life could be produced from non-life, the various versions of evolution can be seen as naturalistic, therefore allowed in our society, therefore credible. A God creating outside of natural experience must not be credible — according to the prevailing philosophy.

Another aspect of that philosophy of Naturalism is Uniformitarianism. Naturalistic scientists have determined therefore that the world is billions of years old because they have observed the aging process of natural things for the relatively few years that the technology to do so has been available. They then assume that things have always aged at the same, uniform, rate. But what if a worldwide flood did occur (for example)? Would not the pressure of the water skew the rates of change? What if God created with an appearance of age? The assumption of uniform rate of change denies the miraculous intervention by an outside force and makes in-credible any miracle, including the miracle of resurrection.

But if there really is a God — if there really is Someone outside of our world who in His own time and in His own ways chooses to step into space and time — how could His doing so be considered in-credible? In fact, if He is there, it would be incredible to believe that He would NOT step into our world in some way. If He were to be silent to a world He created, it would imply that He had no purpose in mind when He created, much less that He cared for His creation. But if He had a purpose, it is only natural that He would step in at times and make His will known, just as a responsible parent would do for his child.

This is what Christians in every age have believed — that down through history the God of creation has spoken to direct His people, culminating in the final revelation of the promised Messiah, Jesus. The writer to the Hebrews says it this way: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (ESV). 

The fact that so many in our day find the resurrection of Jesus incredible to believe is a demonstration of the philosophical shift that has taken place in recent years (that is, in the past 200-300 years, perhaps longer). That philosophical shift has led many to re-define the meaning of resurrection so that now it is often preached as the emergence of the perennial flowers each spring. It is too incredible to believe that a dead Man now lives.

Paul understood, and the true Church has preached through the years, that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, we have no hope for a life beyond this one. If you read the other speeches of Paul in the book of Acts, you will observe that in every case it is the teaching of the Resurrection that is the sticking point that prevents belief in Jesus. The Resurrection is not only credible — it is the foundation of all we hope for.

Can I Hear God’s Voice?

When I was first a believer in Jesus I had the tendency to think of the will of God in terms of location or vocation. Where would he want me to be? What did He want me to do with my life? To a certain extent, of course, these things were related. But a study of Scripture revealed very little connection between the will of God and those ideas. The will of God is for the repentance and conversion of the lost (1 Tim 2:4); my good works, as a testimony to Christ’s wisdom and truth before an unbelieving world (1 Pet 2:15); a holy lifestyle (1 Thess 4:3); and my thankfulness (1 Thess 5:18). Beyond these, the Scripture says very little about God’s will.

Recently, as I have revisited the question, I have considered not “What is God’s will?” but “How do I hear from Him?” There is MUCH in the Scripture related to that question. Ultimately the answer comes back to the Scripture for David wrote, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105). 

In the Biblical record, however, I am struck by the number of times that people think they are hearing from God when they are not. Job’s friend Eliphaz had a vision in the night in which he thought he heard the advice that Job needed in his affliction. The text, however, reads eerily (Job 4:12f) and describes a shadowy form rather than a clear person. The advice given seems right, but is rejected by Job as “half-truth.”  Personally I believe that the vision was of a demonic spirit and not the Lord. Eliphaz’ counsel along with the advice of the rest of his friends was ultimately rejected by God (Job 42:7).

Even more confusing is the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24. He follows what God tells him and then is rebuked for doing it. He speaks a blessing upon Israel three times, but in the end is killed along with Israel’s enemies because he counseled the Moabites to tempt Israel into sexual immorality (Num 31:8, 16). Did Balaam listen to God or to Satan? The best answer I can come to is that he heard from both but did not have the discernment to know which was which. The only time, it seems, that he clearly understood that it was God’s voice that he was hearing is when his donkey spoke to him!

Certainly we recognize that those who make no claim to worship the true and living God  will be deceived as was the representative of the Assyrian king before Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:25), but our dilemma is heightened when we realize that Satan tried to use Scripture to tempt Jesus (Matt 4:6) and can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14).

So, if one of Satan’s tactics is to confuse the voice of God with his own, we are back to the question, “How do we discern the voice of God in our world?” Godly men through the years have offered the advice that when Scripture, circumstances, and the advice of trusted counselors all are aligned, we can be confident in the Lord’s leading. 

The problem with this, however, is that waiting for that alignment often doesn’t fit my timetable. I get impatient waiting for the microwave to reheat my coffee. My time is too important. I get impatient with the driver who is going the speed limit on our town’s side streets (admittedly, those speed limits are often set way too low!). I am used to instant communication, instant information, instant service. I consider myself to be holy when I spend fifteen minutes of my morning in a “sweet hour of prayer.” 

I admit that I don’t really know what the Psalmist means when he tells us repeatedly to “wait for the Lord.” Why didn’t Moses feel angry or guilty over his wasted time when he went up to the mountain to get the Law and it was seven days later before God finally spoke to him (Ex 24:15-16)? I know that I would have.

The result of that “wasted time” was that he heard from the Lord; God had clearly spoken; in the end, that was all that mattered. Perhaps that’s the answer to our struggle as Christians to hear and discern the voice of God in our day — slow down, meditate on the Scripture, and just wait. He promises to “instruct [us] in the way [we] should go” (Ps 32:8).

Honest Confession and Repentance

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (James 4:7-10, ESV).

Despite the uninformed opinions of many who resist Christ in our day, the Christian roots of our society are undeniable. It was not uncommon in the early days of our Republic (and even prior to our independence) for our leaders to appeal to the God revealed in Jesus Christ for His aid when we faced a crisis. On a number of these occasions that appeal was accompanied with fasting.

Fasting has seen something of a revival in recent years. About 30 years ago I thought that I was far outside of the mainstream when I began a regular appeal to God through fasting over some personal issues, but in recent years many books and pamphlets have been written on the topic. Perhaps it was practiced more than I understood, but certainly there was less published about it. My study of this discipline has revealed that often in Scripture fasting is intended when the inspired writer uses the phrase “humble yourself” or “afflict yourself.” Most of these phrases are written to Jewish audiences in the Old Testament, but it is significant that in the handful of places where the phrase is used in the New Testament, the primary audience is also Jewish. When James wrote this in the passage quoted above, then, it is likely that he had the idea of fasting in mind.

Over the years I have counseled people to fast when they are facing impending doom — a personal diagnosis of cancer or the anguish of the decisions of a prodigal child. Weighty decisions are also proper occasions for fasting; it doesn’t have to be a matter of life or death as many matters were in colonial America or in the Biblical record. The Apostle Peter used the phrase, “humble yourself,” in the context of “casting all of your cares upon Him” (1 Pet 5:7).

Not all passages that refer to fasting include prayer, notably in the book of Esther. But virtually every reference is attended by a call to confession and repentance of sin, either overtly or implied. Before we can expect the Lord’s deliverance, it behooves us to have clean hearts through honest confession and the intentional decision to turn from what displeases Him.

Yet with the revival of interest in the discipline of fasting, there doesn’t appear to be a similar interest in confession and repentance. It is relatively easy to go a day without eating or to go many days without eating certain foods, but I confess (no pun intended) that I have a harder time with the self-examination that should accompany repentance. My personal fat reserves will not allow me to starve in a short period of fasting (despite what my stomach says), but the real struggle for me is setting aside the time for honest soul-searching. I suspect that I am not alone.

As I have read historical literature recently I have been struck by the importance that the people of previous eras have attached to genuine confession and repentance. Fasting might have accompanied their appeal to the God of Israel, but it was more incidental to it than it was central. The central issue was the humble confession (with subsequent forsaking) of their offending actions before the holy God that they worshiped. 

The Jewish calendar always includes a high holy day in the fall that is called the Day of Atonement. It is instituted and described in Leviticus 16 and the text includes the phrase “humble/afflict yourself” as a reference to fasting. But like most everything else instituted by God, we humans have a propensity to make it a legalistic work of righteousness. I confess that my practice of fasting has often resembled a legalistic “Yom Kippur.” May God grant me the grace to restore a proper spirit to my fasting.

Listening to His Voice

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:1-2, ESV).

Fifty days after the festival of Passover, the Jewish people celebrated another holiday — Pentecost. At this festival Jews from all over the world came to the Temple at Jerusalem. Traditionally Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread commemorated the freedom that the Hebrew people enjoyed having been released from Egyptian bondage; Pentecost (aka, the Feast of Weeks) commemorated the giving of the Law (or Torah) at Mt. Sinai.

It happened on the first Pentecost after Jesus rose and ascended that the Apostles and the other followers of Jesus went together to the Temple for the service commemorating the giving of the Law when the Lord broke through, coming upon them to fill them with the Holy Spirit. Luke recorded that it came upon them “suddenly” — unexpectedly, not according to any natural laws.

Many people deny any historical connection between the Jewish Festival and the Christian experience at Pentecost. In their minds, the filling of the Holy Spirit was merely coincidental to the Feast of Pentecost. While that may be true historically, it is not true philosophically. The giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai was a record — in time and space — of the revealed Truth of the God of Israel, who created the world and all that is in it. For the first time in all of the history of mankind, when Moses received the Law, men could see in written form who the Lord was and what He expected of them. Between the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the ministry of Jesus, the Lord broke through many times to reveal more of Himself and His will for His people. These were unpredictable events, sometimes through the mundane recording of the history of His people, sometimes through the intimately personal poetry of men like David, Solomon or Job, and sometimes through the fiery preaching or writings of the prophets. None of these was predictable, yet to the listening ear — attuned to His voice — these revelations were clearly from Him.

When He broke through at Pentecost, the Lord was reiterating that He was still revealing Himself, this time writing the Law upon the hearts of men through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Himself had told the Apostles at the Last Supper (seven weeks earlier) that the Holy Spirit would “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13, ESV).

It may appear to be coincidental historically, but the Lord’s plan was to connect the revelation in Scripture with ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Peter (who was at the Last Supper and the Day of Pentecost) saw this connection when he wrote that the Scripture was given to men who were moved by the Holy Spirit (see 2 Pet. 1:20-21).

The importance of the Scripture cannot be overemphasized in our day when most people who claim to be Christians rely on their fickle feelings to discern God’s Truth. He still desires to break into space and time to reveal His will to men, just as He “suddenly” broke through on the day of Pentecost. He does not reveal new truth, for in the wisdom of God the canon of Scripture closed after the Apostolic era, but He will still guide us through the wisdom that the Holy Spirit moved men to record.

Our job, just like His people in every generation, is to have a tender heart to listen to what He is truly saying, not just what we want to hear from Him. Sometimes, like in Acts 2, He accompanies His revealed truth with signs and miracles; sometimes He speaks in the still small voice, as He spoke to Elijah (1 Kings 19:12), but He never violates what He revealed previously. Either way, His voice will be clear and unmistakable to those truly listening and He will delight to lead us, His people, in the time and space in which we live.