True Freedom

The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. You, O LORD, will keep them (Psalm 12:6-7, ESV)

The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century is the most significant historical event outside the pages of Scripture because it settled the question of the source of Truth. The Reformers understood that Truth is revealed in the Scripture rather than in the changing ideas of culture or the men who are the products of that culture. The very first question posed by Satan in the Garden of Eden was a question about the reliability of Revealed Truth (Gen 3:1). For the first millennium and a half following Christ, His followers recognized the Truth largely on the basis of the original teachings of the Apostles and those that followed immediately after. But by the time of the Reformation, the source of Truth had begun to erode. The traditions of the Church were taking precedence over Scripture just as they had in Jewish culture. Like the Jews, some of these traditions had no basis in Scripture itself and even contradicted it.

Those in our day that deny the objective nature of the revelation of Scripture suggest to us that God is shrouded in mystery. Nothing can be known about Him or about His will for men with certainty. We are left to ponder and wonder whether our understanding is right without any assurance that it is or it isn’t. They tell us that the historical writings we call “the Bible” certainly are one “witness” to God but cannot be considered reliable in an age 2-3 millennia removed from the time of their writing. Other religious teachings are similar “witnesses” even if they contradict ours because nothing can be known absolutely except what we can see or sense. Our senses tell us there is something outside of our realm of experience (hence, the various “witnesses”), but we cannot determine if our assessment of those sensory impressions is accurate because God has not clearly and absolutely revealed Himself.

In this society the warden of a prison reserves solitary confinement for his most incorrigible prisoner. He shuts him up and prevents any contact with the outside world. If the noise in the courtyard reaches his senses, he has to listen closely to determine if the noise suggests a riot (that might give him an opportunity for escape) or just an especially exuberant game of basketball, but he cannot know for sure because he can have no contact with the world beyond his cell. The purpose of this punishment is to break him, and it is usually effective.

Those in our world who deny that there is revealed Truth often try to suggest to us that God is a God of love, yet the circumstances that they have created by this denial of revealed truth parallel the circumstances given to the incorrigible prisoner as punishment. They are not the circumstances of one who is within the good graces of the warden. They like to tout how free they are to pursue truth, but it is a freedom within the confines of the cell created by unknowability. Nothing outside the bounds of the cell can be known; the “freedom” exists only within the closed system of the observable universe. Yet mankind intuitively knows that there is something outside. If he didn’t have this intuition, he wouldn’t be searching for the larger purpose or deeper meaning of life.

Solitary confinement affects the human psyche. Those that survive do so by adjusting their mindset; those that fail to adjust to this temporal reality ultimately go mad. We see the same phenomena in our world where men substitute very irrational theories to compensate for their rejection of revelation. Declaring the absurdity of “spontaneous generation” within the theory of evolution to be “rational” is just one example.

When the Reformers brought to light the authority of the Scripture over the changing opinions of men, they opened the door to a prison cell. Jesus had said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). No intermediaries, theologian’s interpretations, or speculations were necessary; God has spoken! The source of Truth is established.

The Issue in the Church Should Be Truth

“ . . . the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15)

I often listen to talk radio in my car — that probably puts me in a certain demographic! This morning as I was driving the hosts (one man and one woman) were discussing what they were looking for in a church. Throughout the conversation the qualities they looked for in a church typically began with the statement, “I want a church where I feel______” or “I feel a church should ______.” What was conspicuous by its absence was any mention of truth.

Admittedly I completed my drive before the conversation concluded, so truth may have been mentioned later, and I hope it was. However, what I did hear is quite typical of a postmodern society in which truth is marginalized in favor of feelings. 

 Postmodernism is a philosophy which has denied the existence of absolute truth, but it has become the prevalent worldview of many in our society. Words can mean what ever we want them to mean. For example, law can be twisted to imply intent when the text of the statute does not include it. The definition of marriage can be redefined to include homosexual unions when the writers of our laws never had this in mind.

When absolute truth is ruled out, the Scripture is no longer authoritative (identifying the insidious nature of this current philosophy). As a society we have called sin, “moral error” or “a mistake” or “estrangement,” all of which it is, but these terms serve to water down the concept. The use of the term, “mistake” or “error,” recalls a test in school where a single mistake did not constitute failure. Biblically speaking, however, sin condemns us to hell — any sin, no matter how small, no matter how few. And according to the Apostle Paul, “All have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). Likewise he said we were all “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Only the Atonement of Jesus can deliver us, if we understand sin biblically; but if it has a different definition, many remedies can be considered to be correct (and many are in our world).

When absolute truth is ruled out, Paul’s description of the character of God, that He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), is meaningless. How can people come to know the truth when truth cannot be known?

When absolute truth is ruled out, “every man does what is right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Solomon tells us in Proverbs that “There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death” (14:12). Without truth, there is no measuring line. The prophet used the picture of a plumb line (Amos 7:7-8). Until we return to the position that the truth is more important than how we feel, that the church is the repository of truth, our nation will continue to languish and, ultimately, implode.

I have no problem with looking for a church that has compassion for the poor or prompts us to think about the troubled world in which we live or demonstrates that they care for our needs, but unless truth is the first quality that we seek, everything else will be a band aid solution for our fractured society.

Signs of the Messiah

Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD, AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, ” GOD WITH US.” And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus (Matthew 1:22-25).

When Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy prior to the consummation of their marriage, his first thought was to “divorce” her privately. (In that society an engagement was as binding as a marriage, so the term “divorce” is appropriate.) Much has been made, properly, about Joseph’s integrity in that he did not desire to damage her reputation any more than it already had been or would be damaged through the pregnancy prior to their consummation. So the angel had to meet him in a dream to prevent this.

Matthew included this incident in his Gospel to demonstrate the fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah concerning the virgin birth of the Messiah. It was a well-known prophecy and needed to be documented if the Jewish people were to believe that Jesus really was Messiah.

Prognosticators in various fields — meteorology, economics, as well as religion — look for signs to determine the validity of a phenomenon. The National Weather Service has studied the weather conditions just prior to significant weather events so they can warn us when similar conditions exist. In the aftermath of a storm they will dispatch analysts to determine if a fallen tree or structure was the result of straight-line winds or the twisting of a tornado. Investment counselors observe the political and economic conditions when the stock market rises and falls to make the wisest decisions concerning our retirement funds. The religious prognosticators tend to be less accurate because the Scripture they consult was written in cultures and languages far different from our own.

Matthew is doing the same in this context. The phenomenon of Jesus’ ministry, especially His death and Resurrection begged the question, “Is/Was He the predicted Messiah?” Accuracy in assessing this was vital because the hope of the Jewish nation was at stake. If He were not the Messiah, they must continue to watch for someone else to fulfill the prophecies; if he were the Messiah, He was the King and needed to be obeyed.

Although the Messiah was predicted to come through Jewish ethnicity, He was not a Savior only to the Jews. Prophecies are abundant that describe His desire that ALL nations come to Him. Still, the evidence that Matthew drew together in his Gospel for his Jewish audience makes it clear that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah predicted by the ancient prophets of Israel. Therefore if a man rejects Him as Messiah, he must reject the Scriptures (or at least Matthew’s Gospel) as having any authority.

Wikipedia Christians

In January, 2001 Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched a new kind of information source called “Wikipedia.” In the 13 years since it’s inception it has become the fifth most popular website with about 500 million unique visitors each month. Of course, most know that the special characteristic of the site is that volunteers – not professionals – update the information. As such, some question the accuracy and consistency of the articles. Still, many of us use the site as a quick source of information, much like we used to trust the nerdy student in high school rather than taking the time to research a question on our own.

I fear that the Church in America is becoming “wikipediated.” As a matter of convenience or laziness, we trust others to inform us about the God that created and redeemed us – before Whom we will one day give an account.

Both Testaments testify to the accuracy and authority of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. For more than 2 millennia the Church has judged the accuracy of its theology against the text of the Bible. The revival known as The Reformation was accelerated by Gutenberg’s printing press giving the common man the Scriptures in his own language, and even though distributors of the Scriptures were oppressed and persecuted, the Bible became the best-selling book of all time. As people read it, they were transformed.

But people no longer read the Bible. We get our theological information from our religious leaders, but we rarely check out the substance of that information. We trust the theological institutions that gave them degrees or the ecclesiastical organizations that ordained them. What we don’t realize is that many of these institutions and organizations have watered down their standards, being more concerned about “bottom line” issues than they are about Truth. We are “wikipediated.”

Or we get our theology from the media. Prime time television brought the subject of “angels” into our homes in several shows a few years back, but it is likely that very few people compared the portrayal of these characters with the Biblical teachings. I remember raising this idea to a friend of mine – a pastor’s wife – who defended their viewership with the comment, “But there is nothing else that is wholesome on TV!” Television has “wikipediated” us.

Movies are no better. I cannot count the number of times I have seen Charleton Heston portray Moses in “The Ten Commandments” and though Cecil B. DeMille used many lines directly from the Scripture, it is impossible to re-tell 40 years of Biblical history (and 4 books of the Bible) in a 3 hour movie. And that movie was produced in an era where the Bible was largely considered to be accurate. Bible-themed movies since are geared to audiences that have questioned or even rejected the inspiration and authority of the Scripture. In our day theological understanding is more conditioned by Mark Burnett, Roma Downey and Mel Gibson than it is by Peter, Paul and John. I have no beef with the producers of these movies. My beef is that we are “wikipediated.”

The answer to this trend is obvious: we must return to the Book. Like the English teacher that criticizes a term paper for relying on secondary sources rather than primary ones, God will ask us why we didn’t consult His Book. Our denomination proudly claims AW Tozer who wrote The Pursuit of God. Can we really say we are pursuing Him if we fail to consider – even, meditate on – what He said directly to us?

Of course, we are not the first. The Hebrews that followed Moses out of Egypt didn’t want to hear directly from God either (look up Exodus 20:19 – don’t just take my word for it), so they asked Moses to listen to Him and tell them what God said. They allowed themselves to be “wikipediated” – and we know what happened to them.

 

Wrestling Against Powers

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12 ESV)

As Evangelicals we believe this verse, but most of us don’t understand it. I can’t say that I understand it fully either, but I read something this week that offered a bit more insight.

In Daniel 10:13 there is a reference to the “prince of Persia,” evidently a spiritual ruler or authority that has some influence over the whole nation. Since it was in opposition to the angel sent to comfort and aid Daniel, we understand it to be a demonic power. To my knowledge this is the only clear Biblical reference to demonic powers that oversee individual nations, but I have no doubt about the veracity of this teaching. We just don’t have any authoritative supporting information.

But I offer an anecdotal reference. Just last week the German government sent armed law enforcement officers to a private home and removed the 4 children from the home. Their crime? They were homeschooling their children. In 1948 the international community responded to the abuses of the Hitler regime by declaring, “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (Universal  Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26, Section 3). But now the German government is  rescinding this without any protestation from the international community. (This information was shared by ParentalRights.org in a recent communique.)

It seems that the same spirit that oppressed Germany under Hitler has reared its ugly head again. Is it just me or does it seem odd that the same oppression is being perpetrated upon the same people 65 years after it was defeated and declared to be evil (or at least associated with an evil regime)? Could it be that there really is a conflict going on in the heavenlies that somehow effects us with real – sometimes dire – consequences, but about which most of us are oblivious?

Obviously, I believe the answer is “Yes!” I cannot explain how the conflict in the heavenly realms impacts our world, but I recognize that to make an eternal difference we need to drop the frenetic pace most of us keep and begin to pray more and fast more. If the real battle is in the unseen world beyond ours, we must learn to take the fight to that realm.

Take Hold of Instruction

Take hold of instruction; do not let go. Guard her for she is your life (Prov 4:13)

Being instructed is hard. It rubs against our pride by forcing us to admit that there is something lacking in us, and everything in our society tells us that we are complete and adequate in ourselves, just as we are. There is nothing in us that requires instruction, at least not morally; men are basically good in themselves. If there is a flaw, society will take care of that through its Department of Corrections. The emphasis in public education upon “self-esteem” undermines real instruction. No longer does a student have to master a certain body of material; he is given passing marks so that he will feel good about himself. As a result of this unBiblical philosophy, larger numbers of our society are having to be “corrected.”

But Solomon’s words to us – if they are followed – actually help us live satisfying lives, because they keep us humble. We don’t think “more highly of ourselves than we ought to think” (Rom 12:3). We recognize in these words that there is real life…satisfying life…fulfilling life…abundant life, not a pretense of life like we see in the characters on TV and the movies. That’s why Solomon tells us to “guard her.”

Primarily Solomon has the informal instruction of a parent to his child in mind, but it is not outside the meaning here to think of formal instruction. Some professions expect a certain amount of “Continuing Education” or “Professional Development” of their members. My own course in seminary is stretching me to read things that I might otherwise have set aside. In some cases I have read books that I had not known existed, books confirming certain convictions in me but which I had no idea had been put into print. The confirming of those convictions has been a great encouragement to me, in some cases delivering me from an “Elijah Syndrome,” the feeling of being all alone in my ministry.

I’m glad I “[took] hold of instruction.”

The Object of Our Trust

Paul warned them, 10 “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” 11 But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. 12 Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest. (Acts 27:9-12).

             I certainly feel the frustration of the Roman Centurion in this passage. It seems that most of my decisions also pit the wisdom of professionals against the wisdom of revelation. Now, before I comment more about the revelation, it is important to note that the Centurion was not a believer at this point, so he did not have a Christian frame of reference and he didn’t have a clue that his only place in the history of the world was his intersection with the life of Paul the Apostle.

             Personally I can excuse the Centurion for this bad decision (hindsight is 20/20). What I have trouble excusing are believers in our day who operate a Church as if it is a business. Certainly there are some business practices that are proper to follow: financial accountability, organizational management principles and living within our means are just a few.

             But I have been in settings where the leaders ignored the example of our Lord Jesus and ruled by their directives rather than leading as servants. The secular business model took precedence over the revealed Truth of Scripture. An unbelieving Centurion might be excused; but these leaders should have known better.

             There are also times when a Church needs to consciously set aside a normal practice to obey Scripture. One example is that Scripture continually commands us to give. Think about: the widow’s mite (Luke 21:1-4); the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-22); the principle of sowing and reaping (II Cor. 8-9); and the explicit teaching of our Lord in Luke 6:38, “Give and it will be given to you…” These teachings are diametrically opposed to most business models. The Christian businessman may compare “faith” with “risk management,” but the object of his trust is different. The businessman trusts in an expected return on his investments based upon statistics; the Christian trusts in the faithfulness of the God he serves.

             As with Paul and the Centurion in Acts 27, our decisions always betray the object of our trust. It may not be evident immediately, but sooner or later it will become clear. This helps us make sense of the verse in Hebrews that says, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb 11:6).

The Rich Man and Lazarus

“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

                “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

                “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'” (Luke 16:27-31)

 

                The text here comes from the story about the rich man and Lazarus. (Traditionally, the rich man’s name has been “Divies” because it is the term used in the Vulgate, the Latin Bible, for the rich man, but the name is not in Scripture.) Lazarus was a poor beggar who often would sit at the gate of the rich man’s home and beg. But he believed (apparently) and was rewarded with heaven while the rich man suffered in Hades. Jewish legend suggested that when a believer died he would go to Abraham’s bosom, so Jesus was using this idea to make His point, not necessarily condoning any truth to the legend.

                The rich man, while in agony, called upon Father Abraham to soothe his agony by sending Lazarus and when that was not possible, he asked him to send Lazarus back to his family that was still living so that they could be warned. Abraham explained that they had the Scriptures, but the rich man thought that someone coming back to life would more clearly convince them. But Jesus put the main point of His story in the words of Abraham, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they won’t be convinced if someone rises from the dead.”

                There is a specific and a general application to this. The specific application is that the skeptical religious leaders would not be convinced when Jesus Himself rose from the dead. This is, at least in part, because to believe in Him would likely doom their careers within the Jewish Sanhedrin. These positions were acquired at great cost of time and effort. We might compare them to political careers in our day. Very few men are willing to risk their careers to believe in Jesus – then or now.

                The general application is that no matter how many or how stupendous the miracles, they will not convince the skeptic, unless they are convinced by the Scriptures. If a person will believe it will be because he chooses to listen to “Moses and the Prophets” (aka, the Scripture).

                This principle is really a major factor in the decline of the Church in our day. People have things backward – they want the miracles rather than the Scripture. It’s too hard and time-consuming for many to dig into the Scripture; we’d rather just have a quick, easy miracle, or some other “feel-good” entertainment. And there are always churches that will try to accommodate them. But Dr. A.B. Simpson had it right when he penned the verse, “Once it was the blessing, Now it is the Lord; Once it was the feeling, Now it is His Word; Once the gift I wanted, Now the Giver own; Once I sought for healing, Now Himself alone.”

The Unseen World

In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob his house (Mark 3:27).

            Though most of us don’t understand much of it, the Bible makes it clear that there is an unseen world around us that somehow influences this world. This is Jesus’ subject in this passage of Scripture in Mark 3.

            The New Testament suggests a cosmology of angelic beings that exercise their power over various entities within our world. There seems to be a distinction in Paul’s mind between the various angelic beings that he describes in Colossians 1:16, “thrones or powers or rulers or authorities.” What exactly the various beings influence is unclear, but there is ample evidence to suggest that some of these beings influence individuals (for good or for bad) and some influence nations or perhaps, ethnic groups. In a vision the prophet Daniel describes one of these angelic beings as “the prince of Persia” (10:13), suggesting that his influence was over that whole nation or people.

             When Jesus was speaking in Mark 3, it appears that He was referring to this unseen cosmology because it was in the context of a discussion about Satan’s influence in this world. Satan is described as “the god of this world” in 2 Cor. 4:4, and the metaphor is changed to a house in Mark 3. But in both pictures Satan and his angelic majesties are in view and the reference to “the strong man” that must be bound is a reference to Satan or one of his demons. Jesus (and His body, the Church) are seeking to “carry off his possessions,” the people that are still under his dominion.

             The exact meaning of this statement, then, hinges on what it means to “bind the strong man.” Not only, it would appear, does the unseen world have influence over ours, but we in this world can exert some influence over that world as well, probably through prayer, fasting and other spiritual disciplines. In my opinion these disciplines are the means by which we become partners with Him in the work of the kingdom.

             I suggest that one of the ways we are to “bind the strong man” is by prayer for the people groups that are still unreached in our world. Satan is the one who has “blinded the minds of the unbelieving” (see again 2 Cor. 4:4). By “binding” him, then, we would release these people from the blindness so that they can see Christ and turn to Him.

             The Bible is clear in Matthew 24:14 that Jesus will return when the last person is reached with the Gospel. By binding Satan through prayer, we are partnering with Him in the great cause of world evangelization, and hastening His return.

Hermeneutics

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:1-4).

             A lot of people think the Bible is a “magical” book, a veritable fortune cookie that kicks out a wise platitude every time it’s opened. Nothing could be further from the Truth!

             One of the most important – but forgotten – courses in seminary is the one on hermeneutics, the science of interpretation. As Evangelicals we believe in the “Grammatical-Historical method,” that is, that the text of the various books of the Bible should be interpreted according to the standard rules of history and grammar.

             While there is a Divine component to the Scriptures, the various books were written by men who lived in space and time. Their writings reflect the history and culture of their day and it is impossible to interpret their writings correctly until we understand something of their circumstances. In those few places where the history and setting are obscured and unknowable, we assume that this will not inhibit a proper understanding of the passage, but for most of the Biblical writings, the context is apparent, or at least available to the reader.

             Likewise the biblical writers used the standard rules of grammar in their writings – subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs and adjectives – all of the parts of speech that we learned in Junior High/Middle School English. What is confusing to some is the fact that in certain places the writers of Scripture record obvious figures of speech, just as we speak and write in our world. The passage above is an example.

             How can we tell that Jesus intended His statement from the Sermon on the Mount that “if your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away” (Matt 5:29), to be a figure of speech and not taken literally? No one actually did it, even though they followed Jesus wholeheartedly. And there are many other examples…

             The point of this blog is that anyone that can read can understand the Bible. Children who are just learning some of these principles of reading may have some trouble in places, but there are still passages that can make sense to them. For most of us, though, the struggle is either a matter of taking time to do it and/or a background in which we have been taught that the Bible cannot be understood without someone interpreting it for us.

             But down through the centuries men have recognized that God desired His Word to be understood by the common, ordinary people. When the common language of the people was Greek, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into that language – the Septuagint. When the common language became Latin, Jerome translated it into that language. It was called the “Vulgate” (from the Latin word for “common”). In England John Wycliffe and William Tyndale were persecuted because they dared to translate the Scriptures into the English language so the common people could read it, and in Germany Martin Luther translated it into German.

             The point? YOU CAN READ AND UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE – JUST DO IT!