Anchored By Scripture

See to it that no one misleads you (Matthew 24:4).

For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect (Matthew 24:24).

The days before the return of Christ will be marked by deception. Jesus predicted it in the verses above; Paul predicted it in II Timothy 4; Peter predicted it in II Peter 2; and though Jude doesn’t use the same language, he confirms the spirit of the age.

Most Bible scholars believe we are living close to the return of Christ; I agree, but not always for the same reasons. I suggest that we are living in the last days because of the deception that is happening around us and sometimes in us.

If we limited our evidence to the political world, there would be enough duplicity to convince the most pollyannaish among us, but the evidence goes far beyond politics. Many are duped today into believing the lies of the cults simply because their lives seem so morally pure; others are taken in with promises of health and wealth; and others imagine that joining a cause will bring fulfillment in this life and sexual ecstasy in the next.

Several years ago I enjoyed fishing with my father-in-law in his old boat on a small lake near his home. To the naked eye the lake didn’t appear to have any current, but I discovered quickly that unless we dropped his homemade anchor (an old coffee can filled with cement and an eye hook), we would soon be a good distance from where we suspected the fish were.

For a variety of reasons, our society is adrift without an anchor, and therefore ripe for the deception that marks the end times. The deception actually has been around since Jesus ascended; what’s different is that we have turned away from the anchor — the Bible.

Some of us have been shamed into disbelieving the Bible. We have listened to the scornful, seemingly superior, “wisdom” of those who have more education than we have. They have spouted objections that we can’t answer, making us think that there are no answers.

Others of us have rejected the Bible because some in our circles seem to have reduced the Scripture to a few disjointed and inconsistent rules in an attempt to preserve the past. We wonder why they believe that the God that created us and gave us the ability to communicate is stuck in the seventeenth century expressions of Shakespeare. We had trouble enough deciphering his meaning in our high school English class. Why do some Christians insist that He still communicates in that way?

Jesus told us that the truth would set us free (John 8:32), so it seems logical that we should pursue the truth. It doesn’t work, though, to pretend to pursue the truth while all we are really wanting to do is find a way to inflate our egos. The God that created us, who is able by His Word to judge the thoughts and intentions of our hearts, can see if we are pursuing the truth in integrity or if we have succumbed to the duplicity of our age.

He Has Spoken

The LORD called Moses and spoke to him… (Leviticus 1:1, ESV).

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… (Hebrews 1:1-2 ESV)

There is no more profound thought in all of the world than the idea that the living God has spoken to His creation. People of previous generations grasped the idea that if He truly has spoken, our job is to listen and obey.

It seems to me that the most important issue facing this generation is the question of whether we will believe that God has spoken, and, if He has, where that communication will be found.

Christian orthodoxy (that is, the teaching of the historic Christian faith) has held that He has spoken through the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The Westminster Confession of Faith (written in 1646) declares, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (I. vi.).

In recent years, though, the issue has been confused by those who have suggested that He has offered new revelation which has replaced the old. Our Muslim friends have suggested that Mohammed is a later (and therefore more authoritative) prophet than Jesus. They still claim Jesus was a prophet, but choose not to believe His claims to deity. Our Mormon friends have declared that the historic Christian faith has been trumped by the “new revelations” of an angel (Moroni) in the nineteenth century.

The latest confusion of the idea that God has spoken is the philosophy of Postmodernism which denies absolute truth. If there is no absolute truth, then the historic Christian understanding (at least as expressed above) is wrong. God may have spoken to Moses as recorded in Leviticus but times have changed and therefore His communication is irrelevant. If postmoderns are right, can we ever know anything for sure (including questions of right and wrong)?

Yet the people of this world crave certainty. Primetime TV is weighted with dramas that solve crimes through forensics, logic or law; there is a whole network that does nothing but show stories of the solving of crimes; other programs ask the audience to judge the guilt or innocence of a person after presenting the cases. For these, at least, justice is matter of right and wrong, of black and white.

This craving for certainty is a clear evidence to me that the postmodern philosophy is wrong. There is absolute truth; what God has spoken, He has spoken in space and time. Since He is God, that communication must have implications beyond the space-time moment in which it was uttered. This is one reason (there are several others) why I choose to believe the Scriptures. It is incomprehensible to me that God would give us a sense of justice and a desire to know Him without some certain revelation of Himself.

The Sinless Savior

“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” (Matthew 1:23).

In my last blog I wrote of the importance of this prophecy to the demonstration that Jesus was the Messiah for Matthew’s audience. Certainly that was an important reason for Matthew’s inclusion of this in his Gospel. But he had another reason: Only a sinless Savior could satisfy the wrath of God for our sins.

The holiness of God is largely misrepresented in our day. We understand that a God who is holy is not stained by sin or any form of impurity, but we ourselves are conceived in sin and surrounded by sin, so our understanding of purity is conditioned by it.

When Jesus was “transfigured” — when Peter, James, and John followed Him up the mountain and He was met by Moses and Elijah — Mark described His garments as being “radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3). There was a degree of “whiteness” that exceeded what could be accomplished by human effort.

The comparison of character with clothing is not exact, to be sure, but it illustrates that we live in an imperfect world — a world which sin affects more than we are usually conscious of. The Lord, however, is not stained in this way. His is a perfect purity, a purity that would be marred by the slightest suggestion of sin. Any sacrifice for sin, then, could not be stained with sin itself; it too would have to be pure.

So the virgin birth of Jesus is more than a fulfilled Messianic prophecy; it is a necessary condition for the atonement that Messiah was to have accomplished. Paul said it this way, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Paul’s statement leads to another important reason for the virgin birth of Jesus: the restoration of righteousness. When Adam fell in the Garden of Eden, he could never be restored to his righteous standing. There would never be a time when he could go back to the same sinless purity that he and Eve enjoyed then. He could be forgiven, but he could never have the same relationship with God as he had before he was estranged from him. It is like a man who is forgiven by his wife after an extramarital affair; the memory of his waywardness never leaves their relationship.

 But because of the sinless character of our Savior, we who trust Him (including Adam and Eve, if they looked forward to the atonement of Christ) can be restored to that original righteousness. Our sins were imputed to Him when He died for us; His righteousness was imputed to us. Our relationship now is just as if we had never sinned. That is only possible if Jesus is born sinless, of a virgin.

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.

The God of Details

“…and to Jesse was born David the king. And to David was born Solomon…and to Jacob was born Joseph the husband of Mary, by whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:6,16).

Like any other authors, the Gospel writers had a particular audience in mind when they wrote. John wanted skeptics to “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing [they] may have life in His name” (John 20:31). Luke wanted his Greek audience (“Theolphilus,” see Luke 1:1-4) to know the exact truth concerning Jesus. Mark wrote to a Roman audience, so was less concerned about the things that a Jewish culture would consider important. But Matthew intended his Gospel to convince a Jewish audience that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

It was for this reason that he began with the genealogy that traced the heirs to the throne of Israel to Jesus. The promise to David was that Messiah would sit upon his throne, and God cannot lie. Somehow, despite the Babylonian Captivity, despite the intermarriage of the Jewish people with the pagan residents of Palestine when they returned from Babylon (see Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 13), and despite more than 500 years of not having an actual king on the throne of Israel, the genealogical records of the day showed that the rightful heir was a man in Nazareth named Joseph whose (adoptive) Son would be the subsequent King.

Until the lineage of Jesus could be traced to David, there could be no acknowledgement of Jesus as the Messiah. But now that this could be established, some other Messianic prophecies would have to be seen as having been fulfilled (the subject matter for a future blog).

Our society doesn’t value our heritage the way that the Jewish society did and, perhaps, still does. We allowed the obstruction of the birth records of President Obama so that his heritage could not be traced. Those legal records were of less importance to us than the political agenda that he espoused so we ignored them. But this blog is not about political matters.

We in this society are not concerned about Truth in many venues. The Supreme Court ignores the plain sense of the text of the Constitution to legislate from the Bench; video and eyewitness evidence is disparaged if it doesn’t fit the politically correct template. We conveniently ignore what we don’t agree with in moral and ethical arenas.

Matthew convincingly shows Jesus to be Messiah in his Gospel, but that doesn’t matter if there is no objective Truth. As long as we can decide for ourselves what Truth is, we will allow the general society to dictate what we will choose to believe. Let us enjoy this freedom while it lasts, because no society has ever survived with this spirit, and it will not be tolerated when we face the God who so very carefully arranged the circumstances so that we would recognize His Son when He appeared.

Truth Matters

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

I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth (3 John 4).

And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world (Revelation 12:9).

Many people begin their walk with Jesus by asking, “What can I do to get rid of this guilt?”; I began my walk with Christ by asking, “What is the Truth?” That, in itself, makes me weird. Over the years I have habitually capitalized Truth in my writings to distinguish between those principles we call “truths” and the objective, unchangeable Truth of Scripture against which everyone one of us will be judged.

Admittedly, when we pursue the Truth, we must come face to face with our true moral guilt before the God that created us. He revealed Himself finally and completely in Jesus who declared unequivocally, “I am…the Truth…” (John 14:6) and died to remove our true moral guilt.

Beyond this declaration of Jesus, both Paul (in I Timothy) and John (in 3 John) recognized the importance of Truth in their writings.

But Truth is under assault in our modern world. Postmodern philosophy has capitalized upon the relativism that had been slowly becoming more pervasive since the end of WWII. Our world has received a steady diet of challenges to our moral absolutes as television shows and movies create scenarios in our minds where those who have been traditionally “bad” are suddenly shown to be the morally “good” and sympathetic characters. In the past few years this has played out in real life on the streets of some of our major cities.

We are not going to solve the problems of race relations, police brutality and government overreach until we return to the Truth. One hundred and fifty years ago, churches believed and taught the Bible; today major denominations stand against the explicit teachings in it. Isaiah warned us, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (5:20). One author has entitled his book, No Place for Truth, lamenting that modern churches have become bastions of pop psychology and “feel good” homilies, rather than places where Truth is declared.

Of course, these things should not be a surprise to anyone who truly does believe the Truth. The enemy of our souls has been called, “the father of lies,” (John 8:44) and “the one who deceives the whole world” (Rev. 12:9). He was the one whose first recorded words were, “Indeed, has God said…?”

The purpose of the Christian should be to align himself/herself with the Truth (and, yes, that begins with an admission of our true moral guilt and a confession of Christ); the purpose of the Church should be to strengthen and support that alignment through teaching the objective Truth, revealed in Jesus and the Scriptures — whether or not the crowds follow.

Proven Relationships

19 But I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, so that I also may be encouraged when I learn of your condition. 20 For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus. 22 But you know of his proven worth that he served with me in the furtherance of the gospel like a child serving his father. 23 Therefore I hope to send him immediately, as soon as I see how things go with me; 24 and I trust in the Lord that I myself also shall be coming shortly. 25 But I thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger and minister to my need; 26 because he was longing for you all and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. 27 For indeed he was sick to the point of death, but God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. (Philippians 2:19-27)

Friendship within the family of God is often deeper than friendship outside. In fact, many (myself included) find that the bonds we have in Christ are more trustworthy than even familial ones. Paul’s comment that Epaphroditus was a “fellow soldier” is a key to this phenomenon. Soldiers have to trust their lives to fellow soldiers. In that close, often intensely stressful, situation, a new definition of brotherhood is often experienced.
The two men Paul mentioned in this passage had a deep bond with the Apostle. Timothy is described as having a genuine concern for the welfare of the Philippians. Even among some of Paul’s other ministry companions, self interest reigned rather than Christian concern and integrity. Timothy was the only one who was on the same page — ministry-wise — with Paul. I wonder what the real motivation for accompanying Paul was among the others in his circle, but I will never know this side of heaven (and then I won’t be concerned about it).

Epaphroditus was also concerned about the Philippians, only in a different way. Biblical history suggests that he was one of them. He didn’t want his friends there to worry about him — even though he risked his life for the cause of Christ.

I count friendships in the Body of Christ as genuine in much the same way that Paul did. Some people are closer to me personally (as Paul was to Timothy) and I know their genuine service to Christ because we have laughed, cried, and prayed together. I have depended on them and they have not let me down. They have been a source of great encouragement to me, and I will always revel in their friendship.

There are others that I know from their service. Many of my missionary friends are among these. I know the risks they have taken for the cause of Christ. I know what sacrifices they have made materially and of their families. The writer to the Hebrews calls them, “men of whom the world is not worthy” (11:38).

May God grant that they will have the same opinion of me.

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.”

Earthquake!

God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea; Though its waters roar and foam, Though the mountains quake at its swelling pride. (Psalm 46:1-3 )

The recent earthquake in California’s Napa Valley was felt by my son and his family 20 miles away. Happily there was no damage to their possessions, and we are grateful that there was no loss of life (although I recall that there were a few serious injuries).

Although it is not mentioned explicitly, it appears that the Psalmist recognized the common phenomena of a resulting tsunami when he spoke of “the mountains [slipping] into the heart of the sea. Though its waters roar and foam…”

Fear is a common emotion in the midst of an earthquake. We often use the Latin phrase, “terra firma” so we can emphasize the “firm” in “firma.” An earthquake is anything but that. Somehow the fact that scientists can explain the shifting of the plates beneath the surface of the earth doesn’t alleviate our fears because even though they can explain them, they can’t predict them accurately or intervene to prevent them.

According to the political correctness that dictates speech today, we are forbidden in our day to attribute earthquakes to God. Random naturalism created everything according to their view, so earthquakes are also random events. “God” is just the metaphysical coping mechanism that helps us deal with this or any other fearful event. Although they deny the Scriptures, modern proponents of political correctness would point out that even in this verse God is not seen as the source of the natural phenomena.

This is, however, a ridiculous argument. The God of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures is revealed as the Sovereign God who created and maintains the laws that keep the universe operational. He is revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ and is called “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light…to Him be honor and eternal dominion” (I Timothy 6:15-16, emphasis added). In another place Jesus is described as the One who “holds all things together by the Word of His power” (Colossians 1:17). This is the same Jesus that predicted an increase in earthquakes leading up to His return (Matthew 24:7).

So, if we believe the Scriptures, it makes sense that we would turn to Him during the fearful time of an earthquake. He created the earth; He is Sovereign over its operations; and He holds it all together. Ultimately the earthquake is a harbinger of that day when we will meet Him, when He will judge our works. And, given that we will have one chance to stand before Him (Hebrews 9:27), we should get to know what He requires. Happily that is written for us, if we will just choose to read it.

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.