My Fundamental Flaw

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV).

I had a rough week last week. I learned that I am diabetic. For all of my adult life I have been healthy and whole, generally speaking. My back surgery in high school limited some of my activities, but not significantly. A dozen or so years ago I learned I had high blood pressure, but that was attributable to some OTC sinus medications, which I have cut out. I could stand to lose a few pounds, but no one would consider me to be significantly overweight.

I was really shocked when my doctor informed me of my diabetes. In fact, I was in denial for a couple of days. I considered myself to be a healthy man that had an occasional illness. In fact, I haven’t even had a major cold or flu for a couple of years. How could I have this fundamental flaw in my body? Yet multiple tests confirmed the diagnosis. Instead of viewing myself as a healthy man with an occasional illness, I must now consider myself to be a flawed individual, seeking to control my symptoms.

Americans (in fact, all mankind) today face the same issue as I do — to view ourselves as fundamentally flawed rather than generally whole. Like me, the society is mostly in denial. How could we be the biggest and best, the richest and most technologically advanced, and have a basic flaw to our character? Yet, the evidence should convince us, like the additional tests did for me. Justice is what the vocal minority opines it to be rather than an objective standard in our society; we (taxpayers, that is) continue to fund the barbaric practices of the abortion rights lobby that would make Attila blush; and, contrary to the most basic natural knowledge, we have declared the legality of same sex marriage. Yet we go on believing that the problems in our society come from outside ourselves — we’re good, the environment is not.

Biblical Christianity is the only religious system that views mankind as basically sinful, instead of basically good. All others — even the pseudo-Christian groups — mask the evil in our hearts by suggesting that a certain combination of good works will overcome any moral deficiency in us.

Several years ago, after one of the school shootings in our society, I heard a local radio personality interview a mental health professional. As they deplored the violence the host asked his guest, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (echoing the book by the same title that was popular at the time). The underlying assumption was that we are good people, and that bad things happen to us from outside ourselves. Jesus was clear, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19, ESV, emphasis added).

The Founding Fathers of our country lived in an era when the foundational tenets of the society were Biblical. A generation before the Revolution the Colonies experienced a religious event known to historians as The Great Awakening. The moral courage that was required for them to put at risk their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” came from the Great Awakening. (Do you think any of our current crop of politicians would put their lives and fortunes at risk? Most are there to make a fortune!) The writings of Washington, Adams, Madison and Jay are steeped in a Biblical worldview, a worldview in which they understood that the human heart is “desperately sick” as Jeremiah noted (above).

To this condition the Bible declares that the atoning sacrifice of Jesus is the answer. The Apostle Paul declared that “[that sacrifice] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16, ESV). Many have been tried, but no other solution will work.

I now recognize the fundamental flaw in my body, leading me to significant changes in my lifestyle. Assuming I get this under control, it may not affect me as it does some other people. But I can never look at a restaurant menu from the perspective of a healthy person again. Until and unless the people of our society change their perspective, the problems we face will continue to spin out of control, as surely as the blood sugar of us diabetics.

Intellectual Honesty

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11, ESV).

I first read this passage shortly after I put my faith in Christ. I was a student at a theologically liberal, liberal arts college affiliated with a mainline Christian denomination. The Religion/Philosophy department at that college had a disdain for those of us who held an evangelical faith, who believed that the Bible was indeed the revelation of the Living God. In their minds we were not “intellectually honest”; we were silly enough as to believe that Moses did part the Red Sea, Noah did preserve the human race on an ark, and Jesus did rise from the grave.

On the day that I first read this passage, something unusual happened that I have trouble explaining. I was captivated by the text; it filled all of my thoughts for a period of time; I sensed that God Himself had met me in that hour. Since that day the Judeo-Christian Scriptures have had a special place in my thinking.

I knew that what I had experienced was just the opposite of what I was being taught at my college. I also knew that I didn’t have the intellectual and academic background to take on the professors and students that scoffed at what they would call “psychological or religious experiences.” They would dismiss my experience as the result of the previous meal’s pepperoni pizza, even though I knew it was not. I held on to this tension and the question of “intellectual honesty” for several years until I discovered the writings of an evangelical author — Dr. Francis Schaeffer — who had himself wrestled with these same issues.

As is often the case, the open disdain these students and professors had for the Scripture drove me to consider it more deeply. I wanted to know the truth. Is there a God that is outside the realm of humanity, that created men, before Whom we would give an account? Is He still active in this world? How can I know Him? This was the time that I discovered the reality of God’s words to Jeremiah, “you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (29:13, NASB).

Is it “intellectually honest” to believe the Bible? The answer is an unqualified, “YES!” The lack of intellectual honesty is really on the part of those professors and clergy who deny the Bible. They are the ones who draw their salaries from the gifts of people in the pews of these mainline churches who still hold to the authority of the Bible, at least to some degree. The people often have not yet discovered that these professors don’t believe that the God described in the Bible even exists.

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.

Our Prayer

Then Rabshakeh said to them, “Say now to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria, “What is this confidence that you have? You say (but they are only empty words), ‘I have counsel and strength for the war.’ Now on whom do you rely, that you have rebelled against me? Now behold, you rely on the staff of this crushed reed, even on Egypt; on which if a man leans, it will go into his hand and pierce it. So is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who rely on him. But if you say to me, ‘We trust in the LORD our God,’ is it not He whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away, and has said to Judah and to Jerusalem, ‘You shall worship before this altar in Jerusalem’?  Now therefore, come, make a bargain with my master the king of Assyria, and I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them. How then can you repulse one official of the least of my master’s servants, and rely on Egypt for chariots and for horsemen? Have I now come up without the LORD’S approval against this place to destroy it? The LORD said to me, ‘Go up against this land and destroy it.'”‘” (2 Kings 18:19-25).

Remarkably the descendants of these ancient Assyrians are the ones who are currently oppressing God’s people (Christians, this time) in Syria and Iraq. World politics have changed enough that Egypt is no longer the hope for rescue, but the same ultimatum is being given – submit to us or die. They even justify their destruction by declaring that it is the command of their god.

As Hezekiah prayed for his people, so we need to be praying for the Christians in Iraq and Syria today. Earnest prayer for them will lead to earnest prayer for ourselves.

“Father, You are the Sovereign Lord Whose plans for this world will ultimately be fulfilled. As You revealed Your glorious power when Hezekiah and the city of Jerusalem were threatened, so we ask You to reveal Your power in this time.

“These infidels have scoffed at Your power no less than their ancestors did nearly 3000 years ago. They are intent upon establishing their rule and displaying their god as the supreme deity in this world. But You make it clear that You had/have no rival (then or now), that all who dare to exalt themselves to Your position will be cast down. In ancient times You destroyed their army by killing 185,000 in a single night so that they limped back to their home where their leader was assassinated. How You choose to protect Your reputation and show Your glory this time is Your own decision. We simply cry out that You will do it soon.

“We grieve the martyrdom of many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the persecution others are enduring for Your Name. Sustain the families of the martyrs by the comforting ministry of the Holy Spirit. One of the early Church Fathers observed that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” and so we ask that this would be true in this day as well, that the persecution of Your Church will be a blessing to Your Kingdom.

“Open the eyes of many in our world who have shown no interest in Your Truth so that they may see the assured confidence of those who die with Your name on their lips. Make clear to them that the persecutors are the deceived and the cowardly while those who stand with Jesus to the death will receive the ultimate reward.

“Open the eyes of those for whom the Christian faith is merely a form without substance. Don’t let them straddle the fence; bring them to the point that they must decide to reject You or follow You wholeheartedly.

“Finally, Father, renew in each of us who bears Your name the resolve to follow You to the death, if it is Your will. We recognize that in this world the name of Jesus is increasingly being denounced, and the pressures to turn from Him are growing stronger. Diminish the attraction of this world; magnify the world to come in our hearts.

“We ask this for Jesus’ glory and with His authority. Amen.”

The Transformed Heart

But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).

The key idea of these two verses is the contrast between the unbeliever and the believer. Paul uses the phrase, “the called,” to identify the believer, whether he is Jewish or not. Increasingly in this Twenty-first Century, though, American churches are being populated by people who don’t understand the power of the transformed heart.

In Paul’s day, of course, to be a Christian meant that a person had to take a stand for Jesus; their baptisms were not inside the safety of a church’s baptistry, but out in the open, in a stream or a pond, where everyone could see. Christianity was not yet the State religion, the worship of Caesar was, and at various times and places in the First Century a public stand for Jesus would lead to persecution. In those times and places, the believer had to rely upon the power and wisdom of Christ within him.

When Christ transformed my heart many years ago the Holy Spirit made it clear that I couldn’t live by my wits or on the strength of someone else’s faith. I had to turn to Jesus – the the wisdom of His Word, applied to my life by the Holy Spirit – to deal with the issues in my life. As a young man back then those issues were not as complex as they would be if I were to meet Jesus today, but they were just as real. Thankfully as I continued to read and ponder the Scriptures, the entanglements of sin didn’t get as strong of a hold on me. But I noticed that many of those around me either couldn’t get past some aspect of their perception of Christianity (they “stumbled”) or they just considered my faith to be foolishness. Usually those who “stumbled” had some previous exposure to the Church (even if they weren’t ethnically Jewish) while those with very little or even no exposure just considered the Christian faith to be laughable.

But in our day the need for a transformed heart is not proclaimed with quite the urgency as in earlier generations of the Church. Since “sin” has become a “four letter word” in many circles, forgiveness is not proclaimed either. The proclamation has become “Christianity light” – all the flavor of Christianity with nothing that will offend. And in much the same way that people can get used to diet beverages (alcoholic or not), this generation has gotten used to the “light Church.”

The antidote to the “light Church” is the proclamation of “Christ crucified,” leading to the truly transformed heart. Along with Paul, we must let the chips fall where they may. If people stumble over this message or consider it foolishness, let them – because they are lost. And before they can be found (“called” in Paul’s vocabulary), they must realize they are lost.

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.


When I Think of Christmas…

…I think of the Normandy Invasion, commonly known as D-Day. Years of planning went into that event. First, and the most obvious, was physically amassing the men and equipment needed to pull off the invasion. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, landing boats, airplanes, troop transports, weapons and ammunition, communication devices, food and medical supplies all were assembled despite the threat of German U-Boats that were intent on preventing the invasion.

Then there was the element of strategy. How could the Allies pull off a surprise invasion when the Germans knew that it would happen and would fortify the likely landing zone? We know now that the Allies used quiet gliders under the cover of darkness to allow the paratroopers to drop in behind the German fortifications and take the battle to them from both sides. Our leaders created a unique communication device – a clicker – so that the paratroopers could communicate with one another in the dark. They also used the Navajo language to securely communicate information because of the difficulty of breaking this code.

Finally there was the sacrifice. The loss of life would be great; the human suffering would be greater. But the goal of freedom required it.

Amid the quiet scenes of Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus in the manger, we tend to forget that there’s a war raging. It’s a war where the two sides have clearly defined goals: freedom, on the one side; tyranny, on the other.

For centuries the Triune God had been preparing for the invasion of His Son into the world so the intense battle could begin and the final victory won. Just as the Allies in WWII amassed the soldiers and equipment, so God prepared the players for His Invasion: the Roman peace, the Greek culture, the Jewish religion, a godly virgin woman, a morally upstanding fiancé.

Then there was the strategy. Despite the prophecies, the enemy of our souls never dreamed that the Deliverer would come in the innocence of a Baby. Perhaps Satan was looking for the Father to put His endorsement on a prophet or priest, already in the Jewish system. But he never dreamed that the Triune God would Himself take on human flesh to become one of His subjects. The defenses of the enemy – a brutal political world and a legalistic religious system – were no match for the strategy of the Incarnation.

But the War could not be won without sacrifice. Our soldiers at D-Day laid aside their comfortable surroundings for the hardship of war, in many cases not returning. But freedom was at stake. Our Lord laid aside the prerogatives of His heavenly home – the fellowship with the Father, the honor and majesty of His position – to come to this war zone and fight – again, because our freedom was at stake.

The pictures in our old newspapers of the joy of our returning soldiers after WWII are indelibly impressed upon our minds, as they should be. But how much greater will be the victory parade in heaven when the King of Kings rightfully assumes His place.Jesus…although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:5-11).

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.”