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 Significance of the Reformation

The Significance of the Reformation

The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple. (Psalm 119:130, ESV)

Five hundred years ago this month, an event took place that changed my life. No, I am not that old — despite what my kids think.

In October, 1517 an Augustinian monk nailed a list of grievances to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany and ignited a revival that historians have called the Reformation. Martin Luther’s issue ultimately was quite simple: The Judeo-Christian Scripture is the final authority in the world. Certainly many other ideas have spun off of that one, but this is the root which became the foundation of our civilization.

I was a naive, confused college student (interestingly, at a Lutheran liberal arts college) when I was first confronted with this idea, but not in the way you might think. Instead of promoting Luther’s idea, the faculty of my college had bought into the notion that to believe the Scripture was the height of ignorance. Only a fool would believe that Moses walked through the Red Sea on dry ground, that Jonah could survive three days in the belly of a fish, or that Jesus could walk out of His grave. I can only imagine what Luther himself might think about those who identified themselves with his name!

The fervor with which the faculty at my school repudiated the Bible’s authority made me wonder “Why?” If this book were just an anthology of myths and legends, why are there whole courses at this and other colleges describing why we should not believe it? Why are there endless books being written to explain away events that they tell us are comparable to Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan? That fervor, rather than causing me to scoff at the fools who could believe such nonsense, drove me to it. I had to know whether it really was true or not.

That same issue — Truth — was behind Martin Luther’s stand against the excesses of the Roman Church. The circumstances he faced were different than mine, but the issue was the same, and that’s why that event changed my life. Yet I had more wrestling to do: What were the answers to the weighty questions that were raised by my professors? How can I reconcile seemingly unbelievable events with the modern world? As I pursued the Truth, those answers slowly came.

About this time I heard a noted (evangelical) theologian say, “The Scripture is God’s revelation of Himself and His will to men.” Although some of the answers were still fuzzy in my mind, it occurred to me that, if this man were correct, nothing was more important than finding out about Him. So I began a practice of reading through the Bible annually, which has continued to this day, and I intend to keep doing it until the day I die. At first I didn’t understand a lot of the history I was reading; I certainly didn’t understand many of the rules the Lord imposed upon His people, but it was His revelation of Himself. Through it I came to know Him. Slowly I began to make sense of the world around me.

David understood what I experienced when he wrote, “The unfolding of Your Word gives light” (Ps 119:130). Truth is not usually a lightning flash and boom of thunder (it can be, read Psalm 29). It is a methodical unfolding of His Truth. Sometimes, as with Martin Luther, it compels us to take a stand, but the courage to do so happens in the quiet moments as He reveals Himself.

God’s Full Revelation

“For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:46-47, ESV).

The Old and New Testaments of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures form the complete revelation of God’s direct communication to the men He created. This truth is under-emphasized in our day. Some strains of theology today suggest — if they don’t teach outright — that the New Testament has replaced the Old Testament, even that a Christian doesn’t need to read the Old Testament. Such teaching is wrong.

The New Testament is truly the final recorded Word from God, and it contains the essential teaching about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but it doesn’t make the Old Testament obsolete. Jesus Himself observed in the passage quoted above that “[Moses] wrote of Me.” Therefore to appreciate the singular intent of God in this world, it is important to understand the Old Testament as well as the New.

Someone who is a true basketball fan doesn’t merely tune into a game for the last 2 minutes of the game; he arranges his schedule to watch the whole game. A lot happened in the game before the last two minutes. Similarly, a lot happened in our world to bring us to Jesus. We can’t fully understand the New Testament until we have a grasp of the Old.

For example, why did Matthew begin his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus? It was because of the promise given to King David that Messiah would come from his descendants. Without this knowledge, the first few verses of Matthew (and a portion of Luke’s Gospel as well) would be merely a long list of often-unpronounceable names that have no relevance to life today.

The Old Testament records the ways God has tried to communicate His Truth to men from the beginning. Sin had entered this world and God was/is intent on redeeming men despite it. Beginning in Genesis 3, He promised to send a person who would crush the serpent who had tempted men to sin. That person would become known in Jewish writings as “Messiah” and would be “a prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:15).

The list of hints, prophecies and pictures of Messiah are contained in almost every book of the Old Testament. Messiah Jesus didn’t just appear on the scene one day; He was the fulfillment of a long, remarkable plan of God to redeem men.

This is why our church has celebrated Passover for the past several years. This Jewish feast was intended by God (through Moses) to help His people to recognize Messiah when He came. Sadly it just became a ritual handed down from generation to generation. Happily, though, some of us have seen the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Jesus, and it has enriched us beyond measure.

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.

 

Testing Our Faith

At that time the LORD said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth (Josh 5:2-3).

This is one of the places in the Biblical narrative where geography plays an important role in understanding what is happening in this passage.

Joshua has taken over for Moses in leading Israel. To confirm this God parted the Jordan River at flood stage so that Israel could to cross into the land. This would imitate the great miracle He did in the leadership of Moses – the crossing of the Red Sea – and remind the people that Joshua was indeed God’s choice to succeed Moses. After the nation crossed, the river returned to its natural state.

The place that Israel crossed and camped was not far from the place where the Jordan River feeds into the Dead Sea. Geographically, this is the lowest point in elevation on the face of the earth. Within about 5 miles, and, more importantly, within sight was the fortified city of Jericho. Joshua, Israel’s military commander under Moses and now the political leader, was looking up at the city, with no place of escape behind him – not the place a military commander would seek to launch an attack from. It was at this point that God tells Joshua to circumcise his army, effectively disabling his army for 2-3 days. Had the king of Jericho tried, he could have launched an attack just then and destroyed completely the army that was threatening him. He, of course, didn’t know this but it didn’t make it any less significant that Joshua was risking the safety of his nation by immobilizing is army.

Why didn’t God have them do this before they crossed the Jordan? Why did He wait until the River had returned to flood stage? It was simply and solely because He wanted to test the faith of His leader. Joshua passed.

There are times when God tells His people to do what is totally against the dictates of human reason, but to do it at His command and in dependence upon Him. Tithing is such a command. In an age when there is such financial pressure on families, He still calls upon us to give a tithe (see Matt 23:23 and Luke 11:42). The idea is not that we deplete our resources; it that we honor the One who owns it all. And this often goes counter to accepted practice in our society.

A related area is that God promises us that if we seek first His kingdom, all our material needs will be cared for. So, should a Christian mom take a job and put her kids in day care or should she stay at home and instill the values in them that she believes? Should a teen take a part-time job that will require him/her to work on Sunday?

There are other apparently irrational things that God calls us to do that we should do in obedience, just like Joshua (e.g., consider Isaiah 40:31). If we are fully devoted to Him, He will test our faith.

The Anchor

Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near (Rev 1:3).

Theologians and Bible teachers have debated for centuries what “this prophecy” refers to. Does John promise blessing for reading the twenty-two chapters of the Book of Revelation or is the blessing for those who read the whole of the Scripture? We won’t resolve this debate in this blog, but we will testify to the blessing that reading either this book or the whole of the Scripture brings.

For more than 30 years I have been committed to reading the Bible, cover to cover, each year. It started with merely reading five minutes a day. My reasoning went something like this, “If God created me and has a purpose for my life, should I not set apart – at a minimum – five minutes each day to listen to Him?” Certainly He deserves much more than a mere five minutes, but since I could not predict how my life would go and what demands would be placed upon it over the course of time, I vowed only to this small amount. Still, that vow has kept me in the Scripture daily – usually for more than five minutes. On the rare occasion when I have failed, I have been conscious that the Holy Spirit has awakened me – sometimes from a very deep sleep – and has prompted me to fulfill my vow.

This vow to read the Word has created stability in my life like nothing else could. It has comforted me in trying times; it has reminded me of the Source of every blessing when times have been good, keeping me from thinking too highly of myself. When the world around me has been uncertain, whether due to politics, economics or personal loss, the Word has brought assurance that it will remain and that He is my refuge.

This vow has also brought real direction to me over the years. It has been – in the words of David – “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). There have been many times when my daily reading schedule has brought me to a passage of Scripture that was clear direction for that moment, if not that day. Most of these have not been profound, out-of-body experiences, but the quiet confidence that I had heard from God.

Whether you regularly read all sixty-six books or just the last one, John’s promise is true – you will be blessed. Nothing can be an anchor to our lives like reading this Book.

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).