The Faith of Friends

“And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’” (Mark 2:5, ESV).

This verse is part of the familiar story (told in three of the four Gospels), describing how four men brought a paralyzed man to Jesus for healing. The venue was crowded with hurting people, so they knew that their only hope was to remove the roof, thatched or tiled I assume, and to lower the man into Jesus’ presence.

At first glance it seems that Jesus connects our forgiveness to our faith and this seems right to us. But upon closer examination it is significant that He connects forgiveness (and in the end, the healing of the paralyzed man) to the faith of the friends that brought him to Jesus. All three versions of this story link the forgiveness and healing to the faith of the friends, not the faith of the needy man.

The primary purpose of the inclusion of this story in the Gospels is to point out the authority of Jesus to forgive sins which was a not-so-subtle claim to being God on Jesus’ part. The religious leaders present at the time would have understood this point (and so should we).

A secondary truth, however, is the dependence of us who are in need for friends who have faith. In the Lord’s grand design each of us, at one time or another, will be dependent upon the faith of one or more Christian friends when our faith is in a weakened state. Our faith in Christ’s presence and provision may be weakened by a constant barrage of problems or heartaches; it may be weakened by trouble caused by our own sin; it may be weakened by the encroachment of age or the oppression of our enemy. But what a joy it is to have friends who care enough for us to lay us in the presence of Jesus. Without these four men, this paralyzed man might never have been healed.

It is pure speculation, but I have often wondered how the healed paralytic changed after his healing, He would no longer have to beg or be dependent on his family; his gratitude to his friends must have been (pardon the pun) “through the roof”! People who have been so radically changed by Jesus typically are bold to introduce others to Him; perhaps this man brought other needy friends to Jesus or at least pointed them to Him. Just like his friends’ faith led to his healing, now his faith could encourage someone else, maybe even lead to their healing.

Let us also not imagine that this was the only time when this formerly paralyzed man would need the faith of his friends. In times of crisis we think that once we get through THIS one, we’ll be able to handle all others, but that is not usually the case. We have an ongoing need for a community of faithful friends.

Are there Christian friends in your circle going through tough times (maybe the needy one is you!)? How many have turned away from the faith or how many Christian couples have divorced for lack of a group of supportive friends to “hold the ropes” for them? Perhaps YOU could be that one faith-filled friend who takes the lead by organizing mutual friends to pray, or even fast, for someone who just doesn’t have the strength in himself to believe that Jesus can meet him in his desperate time of need.

Flee for Refuge

“… we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us” (Hebrews 6:18-20)

A dear brother in Christ passed into the Lord’s presence just before Christmas. Dang Lee was born in Laos in a tribal group known as the Hmong people. The Lord was pleased to use Alliance missionaries when He opened the eyes of the Hmong people in a remarkable way to the power of God over Satan. Truly Paul’s words, “how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 These 1:9), could have been written about these people. Dang understood more about the power of the demonic world than most Christians I know.

When he was seven months old, Dang lost his mother; when he was seven years old he lost his father, so much of his childhood was spent in the home of his uncle. At about age twelve Dang fled for refuge to Jesus as his Savior, never losing faith in Him. It was at this time that the war between the Communist-backed North Vietnamese and the democratic South Vietnamese caught the Hmong people in the middle. I don’t know the political decisions that led the Hmong tribal leaders to align their people with the pro-Western government. It may have been due to their conversion to the Christian Gospel, but I am unsure. Though a tremendous number turned to faith, not all did. Some chose to remain with their shamans and fetish worship.

Whatever the politics, Dang joined a Hmong militia unit that rescued downed American pilots from the jungles of Laos if they were shot down. They would then flee for refuge to the safety of the Hmong people until they could be returned to their units.

When Vietnam fell to the Communists, one of the first targets of the North Vietnamese and their accomplices, the Viet Cong, would have been to eliminate the Hmong people who had opposed them, so Dang and many others swam the Mekong River into Thailand, fleeing for refuge to the safety of that nation. Ultimately the refugee camp was a stepping stone to refuge in the United States. For the past forty years he lived in a country whose customs were foreign to him. He learned to adapt, but anyone with whom he talked would know that this was not his native land and English was not his first language. Later, after the political tensions were over, Dang returned to Laos and helped some of his remaining family, but that region of the world was no longer his home.

Dang’s life was a metaphor of how we should live as believers who have fled for refuge to Jesus. This country is not ours. Its customs are (or should be) foreign to our own. We adapt (sometimes too much) but everyone we meet should know that this is not our native land; we are really citizens of a different country. We may have come out of this world’s darkness, but it is no longer home.

The writer to the Hebrews reminded his readers that, if we have genuine faith in Jesus, we also are refugees, waiting until that time when we can return to the home that Jesus has prepared for us. Now, for the first time in more than four decades, Dang is home, never again needing to flee for refuge.

The Lord Is My Portion

I cry to you, O LORD; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living” (Psalm 142:5, ESV).

The seventeenth century author, John Donne, wrote, “No man is an island…” His point was that every other human being enriches us and their loss diminishes us to some degree. Another way of saying this is that no one is sufficient in himself; we all seek some kind of refuge because ultimately we cannot stand alone.

The writer of this Psalm was David, long before he became king. He was running for his life and took shelter by hiding in a cave. This happened twice in the Scripture (I Sam 22 and 24). In the first incident, he was fleeing from the king of Gath; in the second he was fleeing from Saul. We cannot be sure which incident this arose from, but it is immaterial. David knew his resources were insufficient. The men that were with him were a comfort to him, I’m sure, but they were no match for the thousands that either enemy could bring against them. David felt overwhelmed; he needed a Refuge.

The Refuge he found was in the God of Israel. It wasn’t that he disdained or didn’t appreciate those that supported him; he just knew that if he were to be delivered, the God he worshiped would have to step in to do it. In both cave episodes, David sees a marvelous deliverance. The first was the provision of a pagan king who sheltered his parents; the second was the shame that Saul experienced when David could have killed him but did not. Other people surrounded David in both places, but his trust was in the God of Israel, not in human deliverance.

We in this generation have lost that spirit of genuine trust in God. The terms, “faith” and “trust,” are often interchangeable in the Scripture — trust is an active expression of faith. But our society has substituted a nebulous “belief” for active trust. Perhaps it’s because we have grown accustomed to having a safety net beneath us. If everything seems hopeless, our savings or our government or our family or someone else will step in and bail us out. David didn’t have the government as a safety net — indeed, it was the government that was pursuing him!

At least part of the reason we have lost that trust in God is that the government (or any other refuge) is gullible — we don’t have to be completely honest with them. We don’t have to admit our sins and our failures; we don’t have to declare our fears. In short, we don’t have to make ourselves vulnerable. But we do with the God of Israel. He expects humility and honesty when we come before Him, not excuses and justifications. He is certainly willing to forgive, but most of us fear that our deliverance will be conditioned upon some loss of face before others. That may be a legitimate fear; He may demand it. But the rewards for truly trusting Him are well worth any humility we might experience.

In another Psalm, David put it this way, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7, ESV).

Restore Us Again

Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us! Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation. Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly. Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land (Psalm 85:4-9 ESV).

These days, whenever I see the word, “restore,” in the Scriptures, I take note. Our nation, which began well, has drifted further and further from the God of Israel. The drift has come to the point where many in our society deny the Christian roots of our nation. One political party even removed any reference to God from its platform a few years ago.

We are not the first nation to drift from the Truth. It has been a problem since the day that Joshua led Israel to conquer and settle the land Palestine. On numerous occasions in the book of Judges Israel drifted from the Lord, cried out to Him when their enemies humbled them by oppressing them, and the Lord delivered them. This pattern happened repeatedly throughout the 900 years when ancient Israel lived in the land of Palestine. Finally, after many warnings, God carried off half of the nation (the Northern Kingdom of Israel) by the hand of the Assyrians. Even then, the Southern Kingdom of Judah drifted away just 200 years later.

Yet God never gave up on His people. Just before Judah met its end in the Babylonian Captivity, Jeremiah the Prophet declared, “Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name: ‘If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever’” (Jeremiah 31:35-36 ESV).

The United States of America cannot claim the promise that God gave to His ancient people, but individuals who are His can be secure in His promises. Yet many of us long for the preservation of our Christian heritage here in America so that our children and grandchildren will have the same opportunities to prosper and know Him. But this will only happen if the Lord restores our land. Political solutions are insufficient.

The psalmist explained in this passage what God’s people need to do if we would see the Lord restore our land — “hear what God the LORD will speak,” and “let them not turn back to folly.” The Lord will not restore our land until and unless His people listen to what He is saying to us through His Word. He will also not restore our land until this nation turns away from its “folly,” those sins that we have condoned despite the clear dictates of the Scripture. This is called “repentance.”

Not Empty Words

For [the Law of Moses] is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess (Deuteronomy 32:47, ESV).

There are many types of literature that I pass by when I go to a bookstore. I care little for romance novels or science fiction; I have little interest in cooking (my interest is just in the eating!) so cookbooks and nutrition guides are easy to ignore. My real interest is in the ideas that drive us to do what we do, so I peruse books on philosophy and theology and classic literary stories. The rest are just empty words.

Many people today view the Bible as a large book of empty words. The stories coming from ancient times don’t seem to have any relevance to their lives today, and they can’t imagine how a 2000—4000 year old book could be relevant in an age of such advanced technology. Sadly I am talking about people who claim to be Christians.

Biblical theology claims that the God that created us has revealed Himself to mankind. He has not left us to wonder if He exists or what His will is; the Bible asserts forthrightly that its words are the very Words of God. (There are some who choose not to believe that the Bible is God’s Word, but there is no question that the claim to authority is made in the text.) To read those claims for oneself, a person merely needs to turn to the end of the third chapter of Paul’s second letter to Timothy and read into the first few verses of chapter four. Jesus Himself told us that the words of Scripture will never pass away (Matt 5:18).

If, as Biblical theology also claims, the realm of this God is our everlasting destination, and this space-time existence is only temporary, it seems logical to figure out how He has communicated to men through the ages and what He has said to them. For all our advanced technology, after all, we are still just created people — even as they were in every other age. We must also understand that the Bible’s 66 books claim to be the complete revelation (Heb. 1:1—2:4); don’t be fooled by the claims of some that God added an addendum (see Gal. 1:6-9).

This understanding is the rationale for Moses’ statement that the Law God gave him was not an “empty word, but [our] very life” (Deut 32:47). It is relevant to us today, just as it was when it was written, even though we have to filter the ideas through our changed culture. An initial reading may take us through parts that are difficult to understand (we might even describe them as “boring”), but with some understanding of ancient cultures those difficulties can be overcome — by any normal adult. Some parts are understandable even to preschool children. We simply must begin with the understanding that these are not “empty words.”

Many years ago I decided for myself that if these are indeed the words of God, nothing is more important than for me to understand them, so I began to read the Bible cover to cover each year. No decision has had a more profound effect on my life than this one.

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.

 

A Great Apologetic

“Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth…”

This line, from the old hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation,” is one of the best apologetics of the Christian faith. Few things demonstrate more clearly the Truth of the Gospel than the unity of believers despite time or cultural boundaries.

For example, the Nineteenth Century writers who truly knew Christ didn’t seem to care how long their essays or sermons, reports or articles were. Perhaps they knew that their readers would probably have little other things to read, so they were verbose by our standards. Yet among those who truly walk with Christ, their experiences are the same and their writings resonate with authenticity. The atonement of Christ cleansed them of sin just as readily as it does the modern believer and their experience of forgiveness moved them to action even as it does believers today.

On the other hand, the writings of unbelieving men, though they may be considered by literary experts as important and even classical works, do not suggest a real knowledge of the internal work of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps there is common thread of human experience that they express well, but they lack the joyful freedom that believers find in the finished work of Christ.

The same can be said when we meet people of different cultures. Because the Gospel of Jesus transcends culture, a believer from Africa has a oneness with a believer from Southeast Asia and a genuine fellowship with another believer from North or South America. The Christian experience is remarkably similar despite the cultural differences. Since we began as a mission society, our denomination likes to remember that there will be some from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” gathered around the throne of Jesus singing His praise when this life is over. The vast multitude will not be predominantly caucasian. Indeed if the believers alive right now as you read this blog are an accurate cross-section of the population of heaven, it is likely that caucasians will be in the minority. But it won’t matter. And I personally doubt that we will even think of racial or ethnic distinctions in that wonderful place. The only race that will matter will be the human race!

One of the principles that has guided our missionary enterprise for the past century and a quarter has been the reality that because the Gospel is transformational to every culture, the Church should be an expression of believers from that culture. We don’t plant churches that are reflections of our American Christian experience; we plant indigenous churches – the genuine expression of forgiveness and personal discipleship in those cultural settings. Then, when believers meet from other cultures, they share the common experience of service to the same Lord.

What Do True Christians Believe?

So…now the homosexual community is defining for us what it means to be a “Christian.”

Fox News reported on December 18 that the A&E network has removed one of the stars of the popular show, “Duck Dynasty,” because he made some remarks about homosexuality that they disagreed with. For the record, his comments were consistent with the clear teaching of the Old and New Testaments.

The article states, “‘Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil’s lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe,’ said GLAAD rep Wilson Cruz. ‘He clearly knows nothing about gay people or the majority of Louisianans and Americans – who support legal recognition for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples. Phil’s decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors who now need to reexamine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families.’”

So what do “true Christians” believe? Can one be a “true Christian” and believe the Scripture or does a “true Christian” have to reject the clear teaching of Moses (Lev. 20:13) and other Old Testament saints, Jesus (by inference) and Paul (Rom. 1:21-32; I Cor. 6:9; I Tim 1:10)? Could the Apostle Paul be a “true Christian” according to the new definition?

The real issue here has less to do with the re-definition of the word “Christian” and more to do with the rejection of the Old and New Testaments as being the authority of believers for “all matters of faith and practice.” This is not as much an attempt at silencing an individual as much as it is an attempt at silencing the Scriptures. Most, if not all, orthodox churches or denominations contain a statement similar to “all matters of faith and practice” in their Statements of Faith, because at least at some point, the Scriptures were the foundation for the teachings of that organization.

In the same interview Phil Robertson makes the statement that he loves “all humanity.” Just because he is willing to call an action “sin” does not mean that he “hates.” After all, the Gay and Lesbian spokesman called Phil, “vile and extreme.” If the GLAAD representative can disagree without being labeled a liar and a sinner, why should Phil be labeled for his opinion?

In a sense, this controversy brings to light an important decision that each of us who takes his faith seriously must consider: will I choose to believe the teaching of the Scriptures or will I allow the current trends in political correctness to shape my beliefs? Do I agree with the Gay and Lesbian representative that my belief in the Scripture makes me a “vile and extreme” person? What is the foundation of my faith? Am I willing to stake my eternal destiny upon Scripture or the opinions of our society?

By the time this column is printed, I suspect that the controversy will have blown over. If the Robertson family is as strong in their beliefs as I have been led to believe they are, they will likely stand alongside their Patriarch’s statements rather than cave to the current trends. If A&E chooses to yield to the Gay community’s opinions, they will likely be forced to remove the show entirely. But it ultimately won’t affect the Robertson clan. They have made their fortune selling duck calls, not TV shows.

In the end, though, the real question is ours. What will we believe – the Scripture or political correctness? Consider carefully – eternity really does rest on this decision.

Called By God

And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. (Hebrews 5:4 ESV)

The “call” of God into ministry is an important event in the personal and professional development of those in ministry. Those who have diminished the authority of the Scripture dilute the importance of this because they see ministry as a “profession” and the decision to enter this field as no different than the decision to be a doctor or a teacher. Additionally, many today reject the notion that there is a God wholly other than we are Who has a will that He makes known to men. They see Him as an extension of ourselves or some metaphysical reality, not a spiritual Person as He is described in the Scriptures.

But for us who believe the Scriptures, the call of God into ministry is of vital importance. From a practical standpoint, the unusual stresses of ministry often require a clear and compelling sense that this is “what God created me for.” Those who make the decision to enter ministry without this sense often feel frustrated and unfulfilled because they are in themselves powerless to effect the eternal change that the Scriptures indicate is our job. In almost every other field there are more tangible benchmarks to give us a sense of fulfillment; in ministry, though, most of these benchmarks won’t be seen until eternity.

The verse quoted above suggests that this has always been the case – even in the Old Testament era. But how that call comes is not always the same. Personally I can point to a specific event in which the Lord clearly “said,” “I have called you…” I know others, though, whose call is just as compelling but who had no mystical “Voice.” They simply have obeyed the Scripture in Romans 12 which told them to “Present your bodies a living sacrifice…” (et. al.).

The Old Testament law identified the “first issue of the womb” as being the Lord’s possession. Many in that era understood this to mean that they were to enter the priestly service (interestingly, a high percentage of senior pastors in America today are firstborns in their families). Still there needs to be a sense of “call” somewhere in the experience of the minister.

When a Christian young person is considering his career decision, it would seem to me that professional ministry should be one of the considerations. At the end of Romans 11, Paul is carried into a doxology praising the infinite wisdom of God, and then writes, “THEREFORE, present your bodies…” (Rom 12:1, emphasis added). God has a wonderful ability to re-direct, if that is not His purpose, and He can call from other professions, but material entanglements sometimes prevent the young person from obeying. So it is better to pursue that at the beginning of the career search.

Whatever the circumstances of the “call,” it must happen for the ministry to be effective.

Believe in Jesus

 
38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’ (John 7:38, ESV).

The Greek language in which the New Testament was originally written does not contain punctuation marks as we do who speak and write in English. Therefore when we read in our English Bibles and see punctuation, we must remember that they are not “inspired” in the same way as the words themselves. Most of the time the translators are very competent and the punctuation expresses the meaning of the text, but there are some places where the meaning is ambiguous or uncertain. The text above is one of those places.

Many translators connect the phrase, “as the Scripture has said,” with the statement that follows. But the problem with this is that there is no place in the Old Testament Scriptures (that part of the Word of God that had been recorded when Jesus walked among us) where this statement is made. In fact, there is nothing close to this statement to be found when we cross-reference the words and phrases of this text.

For me, therefore, I prefer to see this phrase as connected to the first clause, “Whoever believes in me as the Scripture says…” (drop the commas). Paraphrased, then it might read, “If you will believe in Me in the way that the Scriptures describe, your life will overflow with joy and satisfaction.” Personally, I think this is the sense of Jesus’ words that day.

It also answers the question, “Why do Christians today lack that inner joy and peace that the Bible promises?” Because they don’t really believe in Jesus as He is portrayed in the Scriptures.

The greatest problem in Christian theology today is our deficient understanding of Christology – who is Jesus. The Old Testament enjoins us to “Seek [His] face…” (Ps 27:8) – His Person. What He does for us will follow once we understand Who He is.

Without knowing it, many years ago I happened upon the richest meditations in the Scriptures when I found and considered the three great Christological passages of the New Testament: John 1:1-4, Colossians 1:15-18 and Hebrews 1:1-4. In their own ways, these three passages describe the Second Person of the Trinity as the Creator, as the Sustainer and as the Judge of all mankind, with each branching off these ideas in their own ways. Since the Bible contains a remarkable unity, despite the diversity of human authorship, these passages amplify rather than contradict the Old Testament teachings concerning the Messiah. Nothing in them is inconsistent with the teachings of Moses or the Prophets. The rest of Scripture notwithstanding, my life has been joyful and satisfying largely because I have chosen to believe what these passages tell me about Jesus.

Yours will be too. Believe what the Scripture says about Jesus to enjoy life as God intended it.