Friday, March 28, 2014

Speak No Evil

We really don't believe Jesus.  Oh yes, we believe IN Jesus (at least that He existed/exists), but we don't believe Him.  We really don't think He's serious when we read what He preached.  It's as if we've convinced ourselves that the Son of God hoped that we'd take His words with a proverbial grain of salt.  "Oh you know Jesus," we tell others as we wink, "you really can't take Him literally."  It's true that Jesus did use figures of speech and even hyperbole from time to time.  But I'm afraid that when we say one shouldn't take Jesus "literally", I think what we really mean at times is that we shouldn't take every word He uttered seriously.  Case in point:

Last night, I found myself confronted with past sins.  I left one ministry meeting and since I've grown fond of the young man co-leading another meeting, I stopped by to see how it was going.  It was basically a topic-driven prayer session and the topic was depression.  I guess to keep with the mood of the conversation, we shifted/drifted into a talk on suicide.  The two can be connected, obviously not always, but one can easily lead to the other.  That's when an old friend came to mind.  But first, think with me here:

What would you say about a grown man who stands by and watches someone pull out a knife and just start stabbing another human?  How would you view that man congratulating/encouraging the stabbing to continue?  What if, at the end of the liberal lacerations, the grown man and the stabber walked off with howling laughter together?  Even if the first man isn't the one with the knife, what is in his heart that enables him to give hearty approval to such violence?

"You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.'  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing.' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool.' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell."
-Matthew 5:21-22  (NASB)

You may have never witnessed a physical murder.  You might not ever give aid and comfort to a convicted murderer.  But according to Jesus, if you have spoken in anger, intended to harm or otherwise injure another human, "guilty enough to go into the fiery hell".

R.C. Sproul comments in his expositional commentary on Matthew,  "So when God says we should not murder, that means, by extension, that we should not do anything that damages  our neighbor's life.  Murder begins with unjustifiable anger and hatred, and it includes insults, slander, and estrangement from people.  That is why Jesus said that no one escapes the weight of the law merely be refraining from actual murder... Jesus does not say it is just as bad to be angry with your brother as to kill him.  Jesus  never collapsed the difference in degree of heinousness of various sins.  His point is that just because you have not gone all the way to murder does not mean that you are free from the full-orbed responsibility of the law." (pp. 108-109)

Of course, all the protests begin at this point... I've heard them all and I've used them all.  I'm not even going to engage in an argument here because I'm not the judge of any reader and God is the One to Whom we must all give an account.  But I do know this: I have not taken this teaching seriously enough and yet Jesus said that the accounting we face will take into consideration "every careless word" we've said.

All this came flooding over me last night because the only person I know of who, I am told, committed suicide was a young man who was verbally savaged by so many (especially women) for his size, shape, and appearance.  The code names for him were clever in the cruelest sense and funny at his expense.  I remember when I was told of his suicide, I blamed others.  But then again, I didn't do much to deflect the verbal daggers meant to bring derision to him.  As shocked as I was to hear he took his life, when I considered the kinds of things people said to him and about him even behind his back, I shouldn't have been too terribly surprised.

What can I say?  I'm a fairly sarcastic guy myself.  It comes naturally--too naturally-- to me.  I can rationalize and say I don't mean harm, it's only in fun, etc.  But I know myself and in the kitchen, I'm painstakingly careful with sharp knives as I suspect you are too.  However, are we as careful with our words?

"Don't let any anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in SPEECH..."
1st Timothy 4:12 (NIV, emphasis added)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Star Witness Part 2

"Your example can't save anybody.  It's not how you live, it's that He died!"
-Patrick J. Walker

Some years back, Rob Bell had re-popularized "The Ghandi Question".  Never heard it?  The Ghandi Question is a counter-apologetic move in a conversation intended to derail your gospel presentation and fluster the Christian.  It works like this:

You're presenting Jesus as He described Himself, "... the Way, the Truth, and the Life.", and declaring that no one has access to the Father except through Jesus (John 14:6).  You know it's not popular to express exclusivity in Christ but in your desire to be faithful to what you believe and in Whom you believe, you say it anyway.  Then it happens--the Ghandi Question-- "Well, Ghandi was practically a saint but he wasn't a Christian.  Are you saying that God is as narrow minded as you are?  What kind of God sends a good man like Ghandi to hell?".  Of course, it comes in variations, but the effect is the same.  You look like a bully, a buffoon, or worse.  Naturally, the questioner is smug or self-righteously angry with you and anyone else listening just knows you've lost whatever ground you thought you were standing on.  However...

God's standards are not the standards of men.  It doesn't matter who we think of as a saint.  We are not the judges of who enters Heaven or Hell; God is.  His standard is clear in both the Old and New Testaments: "Be holy, for I Am holy." (Leviticus 19:2, 1st Peter 1:16).  Psalm 15 is only 5 verses, but it will rock your world.  Can you claim any single attribute of one who dwells on Yahweh's holy hill?  Make no mistake: the only sinners who ascend the hill, do so on the back of Christ.  You can disagree if you want to, but God has already explained His thoughts about our thoughts and given His diagnosis of the human heart that doesn't yield to Jesus.  Thank God for the prescription!

But for the same reasons that Ghandi's life isn't enough to qualify him FOR eternal life, your life and my life--even this new life in Christ--is not the message OF eternal life.  If it were, wouldn't Peter's sermon in Acts 2 read very differently?  For our purposes here, it is just as interesting to observe what Peter didn't say as it is to observe what he did say in that sermon.  Think about it, who could have boasted a more "changed life" than Peter?  Certainly none of the Apostles had experienced what he experienced in the preceding 60 days leading up to his sermon.  Why didn't Peter stand up and say something like this:

"Men and brethren!  Just a few weeks ago, I was a coward and a fraud.  Forewarned by my Jesus of Nazareth--my best friend, of course-- that I would be tempted to deny him, I laughed at the thought and denied it outright.  But as I followed my friend Jesus after his arrest, I was shocked to find myself shaking like a leaf in front of a little servant girl.  I was too ashamed and too scared to even admit I knew Him.  I cussed like a sailor and when He looked my way after the 3rd time I had denied him, I wanted to drink myself to death and crawl under a rock.  And yet, here I stand here proclaiming the power of my Lord and Savior to change lives!  I'm brave enough to stand in front of thousands of you and unashamed to claim Him as the One Who transformed me.  He picked me up, turned me 'round, placed my feet on solid ground (does anyone know if this phrase rhymes in Aramaic?)!  And what He did for me, He'll do for you too!  Don't you want Jesus in your life?

Somehow, I doubt that they'd be "pierced to the heart" from such a "gospel" presentation.

But it's noteworthy and instructive to see how Peter "brought them to Jesus".  His delivery was:

1.  Historical... Jesus was presented as a real person that his audience knew.  His actions, ministry, arrest, death, and resurrection were addressed not as "faith" but as events that were verifiable.

2.  Scriptural... Peter proclaimed his message from two Psalms.  He used reasoned from Psalm 16 that David was not speaking of himself but of the promised Messiah.  And he used Psalm 110 for other purposes--

3.  Confrontational... This should not be over-looked.  Psalm 110 does not display Christ as One Who is pleading for an opportunity to make the lives of men complete.  Peter's use of Psalm 110 is almost threatening.  It's as if he's saying, "The Jesus you all killed?  Yeah, God is His Father and just put Him on a throne... and promised to crush His enemies.  Um... that would be you.  Any questions?"  Yes, we do make urgent pleas for unbelievers to come to Christ.  However, we must never neglect the importance of warning a world that is hostile toward God that He will break those who oppose Him with a rod of iron.  Therefore, we who believe this message must repent and believe even as we encourage others to "kiss the Son".

This is why Pastor Walker's quotation is vitally important.  No one can look at kindness, winsome dispositions, or other fine qualities and ascertain that Christ lived a perfect life, died as propitiation for the sin-debt of believers while simultaneously applying His righteousness to their account, resurrected on the 3rd day to assure justification and serve as the First Fruits of the Resurrection.  What?  Is the homeless guy I helped supposed to hear all that from me handing him a sandwich and a smile?  But rather, as it is written,

"I believed, therefore I have spoken."  (2nd Corinthians 4:13)

Lastly, this post should not be understood as a rationale for not sharing how one came to faith in Jesus.  But rather, it is a reminder that the story of how one comes to faith is distinct from the gospel story of salvation for all who believe.

Star Witness Part 1

"We are to be witnesses FOR Someone TO someone."
-Pastor Patrick J. Walker

Remember prepositions?  If it wasn't for Miss Puccarelli, my 4th grade teacher who taught us the list of prepositions by singing them to the tune of "Yankee Doodle", I wouldn't remember them either.  She did what she could, but I start drawing blanks after "during".  Anyways...

This past Sunday I was blessed and challenged by God through a major sermon from my Pastor.  As a congregation we were exhorted to expand and exhaust our opportunities to testify as "star witnesses" on behalf of the Lord--especially to those who don't know Him.

My followers on Twitter know that I quote @PastorPWalker ad infinitum, ad nauseum (take your pick) almost every Sunday.  This is so much so that when I don't tweet on Sundays around 8AM to 8:30AM, I get texts and IMs asking if I'm sick or out of town!  But the quote above captured my attention because of, strangely enough, the prepositions "for" and "to".

The sermon was crystal clear as to Who we are commanded to be a witness FOR.  Every Christian is privileged to serve as ambassadors for Christ (2nd Corinthians 5:20).  Not only do we have relationship with Him, it is an honor to speak on His behalf.  Pastor Walker also made it plain who we are witnesses TO.  As it is written, "Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men..." (2nd Corinthians 5:11).  Since we know that the "meek and mild" routine isn't in view for the Second Coming, we are duty-bound to warn and make appeals to the unbelieving that they would repent and believe... which leads to the meat of the matter:

If we know Who we testify for (Christ) and know our audience (unbelievers, primarily), what is the message?  In other words, we know who FOR and we know who TO, but do we truly know and understand what we bear witness OF?

My fear is that if professing believers were asked, upwards of 80% would say that they were called to bear witness of how Christ changed their life.  The formulaic presentation would be something like this:  "Before I knew the Lord, my life was (enter tragic events, tales of woe, and bad self-image here) but then I met Jesus (enter exciting details, lots of smiles, and over-used platitudes here).  It breaks down to Jesus as a product that once tried, revolutionizes the life of the user/consumer.  But consider this:

Commercials practically say the same thing about antiperspirants, toothpaste, cars, pills and gym memberships.  A college education is said to have the power to "change your life" too.  And if the truth be told, many a convert to Buddhism claims to have found "peace of mind".  Many prisoners who convert to Islam can also say that they have "found a new purpose in life".

We could go on and on but I think that the point is clear:  If your witness amounts to "Here's what I experienced in my life when I asked Jesus into my heart..." what could you possibly offer as an to answer someone who says that they tried Jesus but didn't have your experience of favorable events, circumstances, and feelings?  If our message is tied primarily to our experience of how Christ has filled our lives with positive emotions, physical/material benefits, etc. aren't we inviting our listeners to search out the trappings of a blessed life rather than seeking Christ Himself?

Stay tuned for Part 2 later...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Knowing God and Ourselves

I don't keep up with sports like I used to.  If it's not play-off time, I hardly know anything that's happened.  My only hope is the highlight reel.  Every now and then I do get a glimpse of ESPN's Sports Center to catch the critical stats and scores.

Last week, I attended the National Conference that Ligonier Ministries hosts annually.  There are so many things worthy of making the highlight reel from that ministry event.  But rather than try to give you a highlight reel, I'm giving you the moment  that arrested my attention but also encapsulates the essence of Ligonier Ministries.

A man submitted a query for one of the famous Q&A sessions that all attendees look forward.  A father was explaining to the panel how his faith had been rocked by the death of his son.  He went further to state that he experienced severe bouts of anger against God.  This father simply could not reconcile his faith in a good God Who would take his son away.  My own initial instincts on how to answer this question might be the subject of another blog.  But I want to share with you the answer given by Dr. R.C. Sproul.  This answer, I believe, sets him--not just apart but above--the thousands and thousands of so-called Bible teachers.  Cutting to the core, his answer was quick and it ultimately came in one word:


He went on to say, "Repent in dust and ashes.  Crawl over glass in your repentance,  if you're angry at God.  "There's never been anything that's happened to you in your whole life, including this great tragedy and most painful experience that could ever possibly justify being angry at God.  There are ten million reasons why He should be angry at you."

My heart was thumping and my mind was racing.  Between my ears was a flood of possible answers more likely to be heard in church pulpits and Sunday School classes across the world.  "It's okay, God can handle your anger."  "It's natural, you're only human."  "God didn't take your son, that was the devil."  "Death is part of God's plan for life, you have to learn to accept it."  "You need the love of family, lean on people who will help see you through."

From a biblical perspective, the kinds of answers usually given in light of a difficult question like this range from the ridiculous, to the reductionistic, to the repugnant.  We either say things that are so stupid it's embarrassing, so simplistic it's insulting, or so evil we prove to be reprobate.  Sometimes we see the pain in the face of the questioner that we rush to bring relief.  But we fail to understand that by failing to correct their false accusation of God is a sin that hurts them far worse than their loss ever would.

Why?  Because that man's loss robbed him of experiencing his son on earth.  But a response that fails to correct his view of God could be used to rob him of enjoying God in heaven.  Not only that, but even on earth, the only true comforter is God Himself.  Disconnection from "the judge of all the earth who does no wrong" is a prelude to hell.

I've been listening to the ministry of Dr. Sproul since 1996.  If I had to pick the central theme of the ministry it's this: The Holiness of God.  If I've learned anything by listening to Dr. Sproul and putting on my best imitation of a Berean, I've discovered that God is good and I am not.  Any failure to understand and be convinced of that fact is only proof that I'm a sinful and fallen creature who, without the sacrifice of Christ to avert God's wrath and the merits of Christ applied to my account, have nothing good to hope for from the hand of a holy God.  While I haven't stopped sinning altogether, I have a far greater awe and appreciation for God's amazing grace towards me as the Holy Spirit enables me to sin less and less in this vale of tears.

There's more to be said on the topic, but this suffices for the day.  I am so grateful for the faithful presentation of God and His gospel by Dr. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries.  If you haven't explored their website, I say to you in the famous words of another man I admire: Don't Waste Your Life.  Tolle Lege!

P.S.  The drawing/sketch above is not mine, it's from at this page:   If anybody's mad, I'll take it down- just ask!