A Substantive God

You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain (Deuteronomy 5:11, ESV).

Social media is a wonderful way to keep track of old friends and family, and it has become a venue for airing political or social opinions in a proper setting. But, I admit, I have “de-friended” some because of the crass and crude language that many use, and I am tempted to do the same with some others. I would do so, not because I am a Christian, but because the profanity that I am forced to read to keep track of these friends is simply gratuitous. Unlike the airwaves where the FCC used to monitor and “bleep” offensive language, social media is self-monitoring (or, often, unmonitored).

But let’s be clear…as offensive as this language is, it does NOT violate the third of the Ten Commandments. Moses didn’t command the Hebrew people to refrain from crass speech (neither did he encourage it); he commanded the people to refrain from references to the God of Israel that reduced Him to a common status. The word, “vain,” could also be translated “empty” or “deceitful.” Whenever we extract the meaning of the name (character) of the God of Israel in our speech, we have violated this command.

To avoid violating this command the ancient Hebrews were careful not to pronounce the personal name of God — the one given to Moses in Exodus 3 when they met at the burning bush. The four letters would be translated into our English language as “YHWH.” The Hebrew language does not have any vowels, so those would have to be supplied by the readers and the sacred name is usually translated “Jehovah.” But Hebrew scribes were so very careful not to mispronounce the Name or to use it in an empty/vain way that they did not pronounce it at all. Instead, when they read the Scripture aloud, they substituted the word “Adonai” which means “Lord,” and which could refer to either a human or a deity. The scholars who translated the Scripture into English faced a dilemma about how to remain true to the written Hebrew text while avoiding vain or empty usage. Is there ANYONE who has not read the words of a text or sung the words of a song while his mind was distracted in some way? To read a reference to the God of Israel in this way would violate this Third Commandment for many people.

The solution that the English translators arrived at years ago was to follow the lead of the Hebrew scribes. When the Hebrew text makes reference to the personal name of the God of Israel, “Jehovah,” the translators will use the word, “LORD.” To distinguish the Hebrew word “Adonai” from the personal name of God, they will write “Adonai” as “Lord” and “Jehovah” as “LORD.” Most translations follow this convention. 

So, if the crude “sailor’s language” does not violate the Third Commandment, what does? In a word, irreverence. Personally I take greater offense at references to the Sovereign Lord of creation as “the good Man above” or “the Man upstairs” than to the four-letter-words that FB friends will use (though I still sometimes “de-friend” them!). That reference suggests to me that He just an average Joe that I might “shoot the breeze” with over coffee/coke/beer or sandwich. Such an impression has reduced Him to a common position.

I am also concerned in our world today at all of the hints and suggestions that the God of Israel is no different than any other religion’s god. It is common today in much music/conversation to refer to Him as simply “God” rather than to Him as “Lord” (implying submission) or to “Jesus” (referring to His revelation of Himself). I am not attributing any improper motivation in this but in a society that has interpreted grace to be license and blended the holy with the common, I have to wonder about the ways in which we refer to the Lord we worship. Sometimes I wonder if an adherent to some other religion could sing our worship songs, substituting in their minds “Allah” or “Buddha” in place of “God.” Is our worship distinctively Christian? Have we substituted something empty for the name of the God of Israel?

After spending nine and a half chapters explaining the supremacy of Christ over the entire religious system of the Jews, the writer to the Hebrews wrote, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, … let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:19-22, ESV). I like to read the word “confidence” as “audacity” because it implies to our modern minds that He is NOT just like the rest of us. He is substantive and separate.

 

The Primacy of the God of Israel

“I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before Me” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7, NASB). 

For many people in our modern society, the Ten Commandments seem distant and for another era. We acknowledge that they are foundational to our system of laws in America, but they don’t seem to have any bearing upon our daily lives any more. The Culture War in which we are currently embroiled has made the display of them a point of contention with conservatives fighting to preserve them and progressives wanting them to be removed. Sadly, however, many conservatives want them to remain only because they have a place in our history. They are less concerned about their having a place in our hearts. As a society we wantonly violate them — even if we acknowledge their historical importance.

The first Commandment tells us that it is our responsibility to hold the God of Israel FIRST in our lives. No god is to have a higher value to us. Yet, for much of American society, there are many things that we value more than the God of Israel.

One of our gods is success. We prize success so much that we will sacrifice truth before it. We justify “bending” the truth even if we don’t break it, but David told us that the man of integrity, the man who is true to the God of Israel, will “swear to his own hurt and not change” (Ps. 15:4) Success comes in many forms — popularity, power, influence. It’s not by accident that so many vie to be the “American Idol” with all of the popularity, material prosperity, and influence it accords. Success is even more important than the God of Israel in the contemporary church. It is more important today to appear successful than it is to be faithful to the revealed Truth of Scripture.

Another god of America is ease. As long as it is easy, we will follow Jesus, but when following Him is uncomfortable, many fall away. This was Jesus’ point in Mark 4:5-6 and 16-17 in the Parable of the Soils (some call it “The Parable of the Sower”). When the seed is planted in rocky soil, the heat of the sun burns up the plant because the root has no depth. The heat of the sun is illustrative of the affliction that ALWAYS comes to believers in Jesus.

Another soil is the thorny soil of our god of pleasure. It is closely related to the god of ease. Hedonism has invaded the church in subtle ways. For many today, ministry is no different than entertainment. We switch churches as readily as we switch channels on our TVs. Paul spoke of the coming time when men would choose a church because the teaching “tickled” the ears (2 Tim 4:3) instead of being true. What Paul saw as a future expectation is now a present reality.

Relationships, for many, are more valued than the God of Israel. Jesus Himself told us that no one is worthy of being His disciple if he is not willing to put Him before family (Matt 19:29, et.al.). Some parents of unbelieving children stay home from worship when the kids are visiting rather than declaring their allegiance to the Lord over their children. How many, in defiance of the clear commands of Scripture, marry unbelievers thinking that they “can’t live without him/her”? Invariably, that relationship draws the believer away from the Lord rather than drawing the unbeliever to Him. This idolatry is not just true of young people and parents. Some preachers fear offending certain people in their congregations more than they fear offending the God of Israel by compromising the revealed truth of Scripture.

When my children were small we had a big back yard surrounded by a privacy fence that kept them in and danger out. The Ten Commandments function in that same way for our society. There is great freedom within their boundaries, but much danger when they are torn down. Admittedly, when my children were small, they knew they needed parental permission to venture outside the boundaries of the fence. We moved from that home before they challenged that expectation. But in this society the Church has failed to stand against the challenge to these boundaries. Perhaps that failure is because we are not sure we believe it ourselves. Whatever the reason, we need to repent and return Him to His proper place — first in our lives. 

A Credible Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening to His Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus, The Bread of Life

When a Jewish family prepares for Passover, they go through a very involved routine to rid their home of the yeast or leaven. Leaven (the Hebrew word is “chametz”) is considered a picture of sin and contamination, so their goal is to get rid of all of the chametz that is in their home during the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread – not just the packets of yeast that might have been purchased at the store. They search the house for anything that contains leaven, any bread, any cake or cookies. Many of the Jewish foods at the supermarket are marked as ready for Passover – they are without leaven.

This job of cleaning out the leaven is mostly Mom’s, but the Jewish dad participates also and, despite his disproportionate effort, he usually gets the credit. On the night before Passover Dad and a child go on the ceremonial search for the chametz. The child holds a candle while the father carries a feather, a wooden spoon and an old cloth napkin. Mom, who has done all the hard work, has left in a visible spot in the last room a few crumbs of leaven, so that their search would not be in vain. Dad then sweeps the few offensive crumbs into the spoon and wraps it – spoon and feather included – into the napkin. Then he declares, “Now I have rid my house of leaven.” The next morning he joins the other Jewish men at a ceremonial bonfire in which they burn their bundles of leaven. The thorough effort ought to be a picture of our effort to get rid of sin in our lives.

Actually both Testaments see leaven as a picture of sin. Jesus used its corrupting influence as a vivid picture of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 16:6). Similarly, Paul equated leaven with malice and wickedness while urging the Corinthians to “keep the festival (of Passover) with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (I Cor. 5:8).

The contaminating influence of sin is seen in the fact that when we begin to justify some known sin, it becomes easier then to justify another. There is a fascinating progression in I John 1:6-10 where John records that once we persist in lying to others, we then begin to believe the lie ourselves and finally we end up calling God a liar.

We’ve all seen this progression at work. A married man and a pretty co-worker strike up a friendship. It starts out innocently, but they become more and more attracted to each other. If anyone in the office questions them they get defensive (they lie to others). They justify lunch together all the while refusing to acknowledge the sinful feelings that are growing in them (they are lying to themselves). Finally they consummate the affair and defend their actions, calling God the liar for saying that something as beautiful as their love for each other is sinful.

This is the contaminating influence of sin. The sin began way back in their minds, and that is where the battle could have been won. Certainly the immoral actions are sin, but so is the unwillingness to check the temptation. But it is interesting that this goes even deeper. When sin is not checked, we not only justify the actions connected with that sin, but the sin expands. Now instead of dealing with a covetous or lustful temptation, we have to deal with immorality, with lying and with idolatry. If you are keeping track of the Ten Commandments, the one sin has grown to four. The leaven is at work.

We cannot live sinless lives, as Jesus did, because we are steeped in sin from birth. But we can dispose of known sin, and the picture of the Jewish family going through the house prior to Passover is intended to
remind us of this. We are to be as diligent in searching our hearts for sin as the family is in searching their home for the leaven. David wrote, “Search me, O God and know my heart; try me and see if there be any hurtful way in me.” (Ps. 139: 23-24). The ancient rabbis have seen a relationship between this practice and Zeph. 1:12 where the Lord declares, “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs who think, ‘The LORD will do nothing, either good or bad.’”

A calloused attitude toward sin was a serious offense in the ancient Jewish society. The failure to rid their homes of leaven led to exclusion from the community (Ex. 12:15, 19). Excommunication in ancient Israel was more severe than we perceive it to be in our society. To be cut off from the community meant that a man couldn’t trade or enjoy the protection of that community. He would be vulnerable to the attacks of enemies and wild animals. It was a real punishment. Today people perceive that there is no real consequence to sin beyond some personal grief. But this doesn’t mean that in God’s sight sin is any less severe.

The Church is to be a place where righteousness is promoted. Yes, we are to be a loving and caring community, but that doesn’t mean that we should be soft on sin.

At the same time, we should be conscious that every one of us has some skeleton in our closet. There are no perfect people; all of us are in some ways hypocrites. But the issue of personal holiness is not an issue of perfection. Mostly it is an issue of honesty. We are to be honest about our sin, especially as we speak to God. We are to align our lives with the Scripture, acknowledging that we aren’t perfect in this and confessing our failures. When we do this honestly, without pretense, we will find ourselves growing in holiness.
 The Unleavened Bread is a type of Christ, Jesus Himself having said, “I am the Bread of Life.”

The baker uses a fork to pierce the bread so that air bubbles don’t form. When the baked matzo is held up to the light you can see small holes in the cracker. It is pierced, just as was Jesus. The Bible says “He was pierced through for our transgressions” (Is. 53:5). Furthermore, when the bread bakes, the places between the holes get brown, producing a striped look. A phrase in that same verse is often translated, “By His stripes we are healed.” Jesus took that unleavened bread at the Passover meal in the Upper Room the night before He died and He broke it before them with the words, “This is My body” (Luke 21:19).

The contrast between leavened and unleavened bread is intended to point out the serious nature of sin. But often people today are not willing to assume the cost of their sin, so they put on a façade that suggests to people around them that they have repented, when they really haven’t. Real repentance always costs more than a feigned penitence.

It is also costly for the Jewish family to rid its home of leaven. It is amazing to observe all the foods containing leaven that we have in our homes that would have to be replaced after the celebration. The financial cost would be quite high, had not the rabbis come up with a remarkable solution.
 The Jewish mother still gathers up all the leaven in the home, but instead of putting it in the trash, she sells it to her Gentile neighbor for a dollar. Sometimes she puts it in a spare room/closet in her home and sells the whole room to her Gentile neighbor. But the point is that it is no longer her possession and she can honestly say that there is no leaven in her house. She is ready for Passover. After the Feast she then buys it back from her neighbor – hopefully for the same dollar – and everyone is satisfied.

Everyone, that is, except God. It is not enough for us to say that we are giving up sin when all the while we have intentionally just put it aside for a period of time. The picture of the Unleavened Bread at Passover is a picture of our being diligent to rid ourselves of sin, of trusting Jesus, the Living Bread, to cleanse our hearts and purify our minds. Let us do so with sincerity and truth.

A Post-Church Society

“…so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love…” (Ephesians 3:17, ESV).

I have been conscious for years that we live in a post-Christian world. The values of American society that used to be rooted in a Judeo-Christian worldview have eroded into a largely secular philosophy. This has happened in the last sixty years, but it has been amplified by the postmodernism of the past 25 years. Recently, however, I heard our world described as a “post-church” society.

The post-Christian moniker alarms me, but God’s people have always thrived when there has been a sharp distinction between our values and those of the world. I admit, however, that I am more disturbed by the “post-church” label. It seems that many today think that they can meet and be close to Christ without joining with a community of believers.

When Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus, he included two classic prayers, one in the first chapter and one in the third chapter. Unlike our prayers, they had little to do with someone’s health concerns or financial struggles. One phrase of the prayer in chapter 3 calls upon God to cause the people be “rooted and grounded in love.”

The imagery suggests a plant that grows because of the healthy soil in which it is planted. It draws nourishment from what surrounds it. If it is not in an environment that is conducive to healthy development, it will shrivel up and die.

When I lived in South Carolina many years ago I tried to duplicate my dad’s spectacular garden which was in downstate Illinois. My attempt was an utter failure because the sandy soil had few nutrients, especially compared to my dad’s garden which he planted near the old barn that had been where he had raised his hogs.

The technology of our day is a wonderful thing, but is no substitute for the rich wealth of the inter-generational relationships developed in the local church, especially in a church that feeds upon the richness of the Scripture. Yet, more and more, I hear of people who are turning away from the church. As I grow older, I understand the stress of people who tune in to some form of media because their physical condition limits their ability to assemble with the community of believers. But I am more disturbed by those who choose their “Lone Ranger” Christianity because the Church has been linked to right-wing politics or, worse, because they cannot forgive a hurt they experienced in the church in times past.

The Church has never been perfect; there have always been conflicts. Nuances in teaching can be sources of conflict, and hurtful comments over music, decorations, or architecture will always exist. Martin Luther is reported to have said, “When the devil was kicked out of heaven, he landed in the choir loft.” Even in Luther’s day, apparently, there was disagreement over the church music.

But the Church is the soil in which the nutritional benefits of the Word are best assimilated into a believer’s heart. It is here, in an atmosphere of forgiveness and compassion, that the Lord can create healthy disciples. Here, He can encourage us, rebuke us when necessary, and strengthen us to grow in the harsh environment of a hostile world. Without the Church (yes, and the Word), Christians shrivel up and die.

The Music of Christmas

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14, ESV).

While my previous blog highlighted some of the things I don’t like about the American Christmas holidays in this era, there are some really wonderful parts to it as well, especially the music that often accompanies the season.

There is no other time of the year when familiar strains of music exalting the Savior are played in public venues. Regularly I pray that someone’s heart would awaken when they hear, “Hallelujah! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth,” or “I know that my Redeemer liveth…” Even the most hardened pagan can understand the message despite the antiquated, Shakespearean forms of these verbs. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will open the heart of a person to ponder the question, “What Child is this who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” Why did the “angels greet [Him] with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping”?

For us who believe in Jesus, these lyrics give us opportunities to speak of the substance of the Christian Gospel while the rest of the world is merely “fa-la-la-ing” among their boughs of holly. Despite the political correctness of this world, the traditional carols (so far) are still considered part of our cultural celebration, so that the thoughtful pagan reveler might actually begin to link the celebration with Jesus, the King of Kings, rather than Santa Claus, the benevolent home invader.

I also pray for the innocent child who hears about the Baby Jesus and asks his/her parents why there is such a fuss over this Baby. What makes Him special? Perhaps the Lord will use the discomfort in the child’s parents over an innocent question to make them consider what really is the “mercy mild” that this Baby brought to reconcile God and sinners. Maybe the Lord will awaken their hearts to realize that they themselves are the sinners that He came to reconcile to Himself!

Even if the person doesn’t respond to the Gospel through the text of the familiar lyrics, the lyrics will have accomplished their purpose. It will be a sad scene for some as they stand before the throne of God on that day, as they try to justify their rejection of Christ by claiming that they had never heard the Gospel message. I can imagine the Lord stopping them mid-sentence (Rom 3:19) and bringing to their remembrance the music they heard in the mall or on their secular radio station that told them to “Fall on their knees” before the incarnate Son who became flesh on that holy night.

I know that there is much Christmas music these days that is pseudo-Christian or downright secular which we all enjoy, which highlights the cultural aspects of the season. We innocently dream of the white Christmases depicted by the Currier and Ives paintings while quietly wishing for a tender Tennessee celebration so that we don’t have to fight the weather. Nostalgically we can even smell the pumpkin pies, even if we are not originally from Pennsylvania. But I love the music of Christmas because inevitably we are drawn back to the stable near the overcrowded inn where Mary’s little boy-child was born so that men can live forevermore if they put their trust in Him.

Don’t Forget Jesus

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14, ESV).

It’s almost sacrilegious to say, but sometimes I find the Christmas season almost nauseating. It’s not that I don’t like the Christmas treats, and my wife is a great cook, along with all the others whose goodies I partake of. What I find nauseating is the endless repetition of the phrase, “the true meaning of Christmas,” when those spouting such drivel don’t know or won’t tell us what Christmas really does mean. My struggle is the willingness of men to focus on the trappings of Christmas while ignoring the Holiday.

It is NOT merely an opportunity to give gifts or do good to others. Don’t misunderstand — we are called upon to give and to do good for our fellow man, but that is true in every season of the year.

It is also NOT merely a chance to reflect upon how blessed we are. Yet during this season many people let these blessings proudly inflate their inner Scrooge by comparing themselves to the homeless or others in their family, or by how much they can deduct from their tax bill through end-of-the-year giving. Again, I say, there is nothing wrong with traditions of helping the less fortunate or visiting family or charitable giving. But these are not “the true meaning of Christmas.”

All of the things we will hear about the “true meaning of Christmas” are merely smoke and mirror devices used by the enemy of our souls to distract us from Jesus. In fact, some of the traditional religious institutions surrounding Christmas have become so familiar that we lose sight of Him.

The piety of Mary and Joseph that led the Lord to honor them by being the Messiah’s parents has given way to the idea that Christmas is now an occasion to provide for a homeless couple. No one denies the importance of helping the homeless, but that is not the lesson to be drawn from the narrative — it’s not “the true meaning of Christmas.”

The Christmas lights that used to remind us that Jesus is the light of the world are now the subject of TV special contests (complete with large financial prizes) to see who can create the most spectacular display. There are people who work year round to engineer these home decorations, without a thought (apparently) of Jesus. But we will hear them or some reporter explain that this is “the true meaning of Christmas.”

We could go on and on with the Christmas traditions that have been distorted to distract us from Jesus. The true meaning of Christmas involves Jesus’ willingness to lay aside the glory that was rightfully His to come to rescue mankind from sin. In that act He demonstrated the patient and giving nature of our Creator who fulfilled the plan that He had in mind from the moment Adam and Eve disobeyed in the Garden. That act also demonstrated the power of God to overcome the pride of men who falsely imagine that the world revolves around them. It’s not just a cliche — Jesus really is the reason for the season. Let us not forget Him.

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.

Fake News…in the Church

Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. (Psalm 119:89, ESV)

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed the famous 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany, Historians have marked this event as the beginning of a revival known as the Reformation. It is the most important event outside the pages of Scripture. Sadly, most people know very little about it or why it happened.

Social media today is filled with what Donald Trump calls “fake news.” It is usually disinformation that is intended to promote or destroy a political position. Since I have people among my Facebook “friends” on both sides of the current political fence, I often chortle at what people will believe, but it begs the question, “How do we know what is true?”

Fake news was Martin Luther’s struggle with the Roman Catholic Church in his day. Like so many political groups today who solicit funds from their political base, the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century was selling “indulgences” to their base. Buying these indulgences would supposedly shorten a deceased loved one’s time in purgatory according to the highest office of the church. But doing good works had never rid Luther of the nagging sense of guilt that afflicted his soul. It wasn’t until he recognized that real forgiveness was to be found in God’s grace, applied to him by Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. Luther recognized the sale of indulgences (among other things) for what it was — an elaborate fund raising scheme that was duping innocent people into a false sense of security. So he objected by nailing his 95 Theses (grievances) on the door of the church.

This event was not well received by those in the church hierarchy, so Luther had to defend his objections, leading ultimately to the question of “How do we know what is true?” Interestingly, it is the same question raised by Trump’s term, “fake news.” Those who followed Luther’s lead recognized that truth is not a political position. It is not the “spin” determined by a body of human beings, even if they are church officials or people in power. Truth, for the Reformers, was objective and revealed by God in Scripture.

The Reformers were not monolithic. They had different approaches to a number of issues, but what they did agree on was the source of truth. In some relatively minor areas, they did disagree on what Scripture taught (hence, we have many Protestant denominations). But the final authority was Scripture, not the Church’s interpretation of Scripture.

In our day Protestants and Catholics still disagree on the source of truth, but now the disagreement is compounded because there is a large portion of the society that doubts the existence of truth. Postmodern relativism has created a world in which every statement is fake news to someone. Every statement is someone’s spin.

But the legacy of the Reformation — the reason that it is the most significant event outside the pages of Scripture — is that it identifies that truth is objective and then it defines its source — God Himself. In the words of King David, “Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89, ESV). Thank you for your courageous stand, Dr. Martin Luther. Thank you to the many other Reformers who were martyred for firmly standing for the truth. May many in this generation say with you, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”