Monday, April 13, 2020

"Christian Sacred Cow" No. 3 — “You never know what God will do.”

In heavily Hindu nations like India, milk holds a central place in religious rituals. In honor of their exalted status as milk producers, cows often roam free even in large cities. Authorities in several cities have tried to remove the cows, but usually they come back. Christians have their own “sacred cows” as well — things we just assume are true, and often say without asking whether they square with the Bible. As we continue our discussion of these Christian “sacred cows,” we turn to the often-heard statement, “You never know what God will do.”

It sounds pious, or religious, to say we don’t know what God will do because we think that expresses our humility in the face of God’s sovereignty, his ability to do whatever he wants to do. In Isaiah 55 God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). And, of course, because “God’s space” is a dimension we can’t access it through our normal senses, we recognize that there are many things about the Creator we’ll never fully understand. But that doesn’t mean we “never know what God will do” — because in many cases he’s told us exactly what he will do.

There shouldn’t be any doubt that he will heal us — in fact, he has healed us — if by faith we take the healing he offers us in Jesus. There should be no doubt that God will bring justice to unjust situations, because as Psalm 103 declares, “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed” (Psalm 103:6). There ought to be no question in our mind that God will hear our prayers, forgive our sin, and renew our living space according to his purpose — since he tells us, “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

The Lord has told us that if we obey his commandments he will make us “the head and not the tail” (Deuteronomy 28:13). So we have no uncertainty about whether God will reward a life of generosity with blessings in return; Paul says, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. . . . And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:7, 9). We could go on and on.

And there’s the other side to that equation: foolish actions will bring unpleasant results because that’s the way God has set up the universe. Paul, in Romans 1, calls this “the wrath of God”; but God doesn’t actually have to do anything for the consequences of disobedient and foolish actions to have their effect. As Paul explains, all God has to do is to “give people up” who refuse to acknowledge him, and the effects of their poor choices will play out in their lives because that’s the way his universe works.

So it’s not correct to suggest that God is unpredictable and we don’t know what he’s going to do. We do know, because he’s told us in his Word. God’s purposes aren’t hidden from us. Paul quotes Isaiah 40:13, “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” Then he adds, “But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). As members of Jesus we have insight into God’s purposes and intentions. So when people say “You never know what God will do,” that’s another “sacred cow” we can drive off, like the city authorities in India.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

"Christian Sacred Cow" No. 2 — "This world is not my home."

We continue our discussion of “Christian Sacred Cows,” things believers often say that have taken on the status of truisms but which lack a real biblical foundation. One of these declarations is “This world is not my home — heaven is my home, I’m only passing through.”

Discussing this “sacred cow” is bound to raise some eyebrows because we hear it all the time, especially in a some of our songs including a lot of country “gospel” music. But we have to apply the principle of the Bereans, to “examine the Scriptures to see if these things are so.” Does Scripture really teach that “heaven is our home” and this earth is only a place we pass through on our way there? Let’s take a closer look.

It may shock you to hear that “going to heaven when we die” is not the ultimate goal of the Christian life. The New Testament says little about what happens when we die. Indeed, Paul told the Philippians, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23). But he doesn’t elaborate on exactly what that means, or give us a picture of what it looks like. Several passages in the New Testament tell us that Jesus is seated “at the right hand of God” (Romans 8:34), so we assume that means heaven because heaven is the dwelling place of God.

But what is “heaven”? Obviously it’s not someplace that’s literally “up” above the surface of the earth, because the earth is a ball floating in space. So heaven could be “down” as well as “up.” It’s better to say that heaven is “God’s space,” as contrasted with our space. It’s not “up there” but it’s all around us in a dimension beyond the four dimensions we normally experience. Paul says, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). If we’re in Jesus, who has been raised from death, then we’ve already been raised and are already “seated with him in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6) — we already participate in God’s space.

The aim of being “saved,” or delivered from the false values of the prevailing culture (see Galatians 1:4) through membership in Jesus, is not so we can “go to heaven when we die.” The aim of our membership in Jesus is to live the resurrection life now, as we anticipate the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plan for us.

But what is that plan, as Jesus and the New Testament writers teach it? God’s plan is to merge “his space” with “our space” in the new creation. Often we quote Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:17, to say that when a person comes into Christ he becomes a “new creature.” But the Greek puts it a little differently: ei tis en Christo, kaine ktisis – “If anyone in the Messiah, a new creation.” There isn’t any “he is” in this sentence. What Paul is saying is that when a person become a member of Jesus, a new creation exists for him, a new way of life in which everything has changed. As members of the risen Jesus we experience a foretaste of our ultimate destiny in the new creation, which is described in the Bible’s final chapters.

The picture many people have of heaven, with the “golden streets” and all that, is actually drawn from the Bible’s picture of the new creation in Revelation 21, the “new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:2). But if it’s coming from heaven then it’s not heaven but the renewed earth, which is to be like the earth God originally made, where God dwells with his people as our space merges with his space. So if we say, “Heaven is my home, I’m only passing through,” we have it exactly backwards. Earth is my home, and heaven is where I pass through on the way to my real home in the renewed earth. Heaven is a “holding pattern” until, with Jesus, we “come in for a landing” in our ultimate destination in God’s new creation, here on this earth. We don’t stay in heaven forever. “This world is not my home” is another “sacred cow” we need to put out to pasture.

Friday, December 13, 2019

“Christian Sacred Cow” No. 1 — “God is in control.”

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a “sacred cow” as “someone or something that has been accepted or respected for a long time and that people are afraid or unwilling to criticize or question.” However, as Christian believers we need to follow the example of the people the apostle Paul met in ancient Berea (Acts 17:10-12) who were “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” Sometimes we just repeat certain “sacred cows” that sound religious or pious without asking whether they’re really true in the light of Scripture. This is the first of several Christian “sacred cows” we’ll be taking a closer look at.

A favorite saying of Christians is that “God is in control.” When we say this, we usually mean that in spite of some kind of bad news, of whatever sort, God is working through it to achieve his purpose. It’s easy to extend this thought to the idea that everything that happens occurs because it’s God’s will that it should happen — even bad things we don’t like because they’re harmful. We think that if God is God, then nothing can happen that isn’t his will.

Actually, that’s not a Christian teaching; it’s a Muslim teaching. In Islam, Allah has total control of everything; his will overrides every other influence or purpose. In fact, “Islam” means “submission” — total submission to the will of Allah.

As Christian believers we understand that God has created all things by his Word, and his Word underlies and sustains the universe. That’s clear from the Bible’s opening chapters in the Book of Genesis. Hebrews reminds us that through Jesus God is “upholding the universe by his word of power” (Hebrews 1:3). But does that mean God controls everything? We need to look at the whole story.

Consider Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’” In other words, the Creator has turned control of this earth over to people who are made in his image.

People are the Creator’s representatives or agents in the management of the world. If something goes wrong that’s not God’s fault; it’s usually because people have made sinful decisions contrary to his purpose. God has made all things, but he’s turned the management of those things over to us. As Psalm 115:16 says, “The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man.”

So claiming that “God is in control” is a “sacred cow” we need to question over against the full teaching of Scripture. When it comes to problems we deal with in life, for example, God isn’t responsible for them. Jesus declared that, as the Son of God, he came to give us abundant life, not problems and difficulties.

When something goes wrong, then, that’s not God’s doing; it’s the thief who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10) who is responsible; and we have the authority to oppose him because God has put us in charge and given us dominion. As James says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). We don’t need to ask God to change something he has given us the ability to change. As Gloria Copeland puts it, “If you need a change, make a change.” Don’t just wait for God to change things.

So when we say “God is in control” we’ve forgotten that he has entrusted to us the control of many aspects of our life and experience. Don’t let that religious-sounding expression be an excuse for accepting or tolerating situations or conditions you have the ability to deal with, as a creature made in God’s image.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Logical Fallacy of “Endangered Species”

The efforts to prevent certain “endangered species” from extinction are well known. One has only to recall the 1973 “snail darter controversy,” in which construction of a Tennessee dam was halted because of the threat to the habitat of a tiny mud fish. Since then such incidents have multiplied with an impact on agriculture, fishing and other industries, and recently on the use of river water in California to combat forest fires. For that matter, the proliferation of fires is itself the result of restrictions on forest management, supposedly in the interests of preserving botanical habitats.

Of course, the most “endangered species” is the human race, whose young are liable to be deprived of life while still in the womb — or even newly emerged from the womb. Human young, in the United States, enjoy less protection than the pre-hatched young of the bald eagle. But that’s another story.

The purpose of this essay is to point out the logical fallacy of protecting “endangered species.” We’re not opposed to such efforts. We only wish to expose the irony in the philosophical position of people who push for the protection of all species, whatever the cost to human industry and property rights.

It’s highly likely that proponents of protecting all species believe in the theory of unguided evolution — that life has arisen, and life forms have evolved and changed, without the intervention of a directing Intelligence, namely, God. In popular culture today there’s no room for the activity of a non-natural force in the emergence and development of life in its various forms. I surmise it would be rare to find anyone concerned about “endangered species” who’s not a believer in unguided evolution.

And this is where the logical fallacy we’re pointing out begins to appear. One of the principles of evolutionary theory is that life forms less equipped to survive in their environment are superseded, and eventually wiped out, by more successful life forms. The crass formula “survival of the fittest” (which really means only “survival of the survivors”) is a generally accepted maxim of the evolutionary viewpoint. Species exist today because they’ve successfully adapted to a particular environment and haven’t been driven out by another, more successful, species which has passed on its genetic information to succeeding generations.

Humanity, according to the evolutionary point of view, is simply another form of biological life having no inherent superiority over other species. Indeed, to regard human life as somehow having more worth than that of, say, the snail darter is to merit the epithet of “speciesism,” an accusation equivalent to “racism.” Logically, then, for human beings to drive out another species less able to cope with its environment is a perfect example of the evolutionary principle in operation. Someone with an evolutionary worldview, if looking rationally at the issue, should have no problem with extinction of the snail darter, bald eagle, or any other species when the human species proves more powerful, more “successful” in coping with its environment. That’s how evolution is supposed to work.

So the outcry for “animal rights” to take precedence over “human rights” is a logical fallacy, because any species has the evolutionary “right” to supersede another, less viable, species. To regard human life as simply another example of a zoological species means that when human activity adversely affects another species this is simply evolution talking its natural course.

There’s a better approach to the protection of “endangered species,” and that’s to abandon the religious faith of unguided evolution. That is a “faith” without evidence in natural history, for it ignores the presence of sequential information in the genetic code of living creatures — information which could have originated only in the mind of an Information-Giver. In other words, an Intelligence has been at work in fashioning each species, and that’s what gives them their worth.

There’s only one species that cares about the welfare of other species. That is people who, according to the Book of Genesis, are charged with managing and protecting the rest of the biological ecology (Genesis 1:28; 2:15). No one ever met a wolf, or a shark, concerned with “people rights.” The sea otter that people rescued from the Exxon Valdez oil slick, when cleaned up at a cost of $80,000 and released into the ocean, was immediately attacked by a killer whale. But there’s something unique about people, a trait that goes beyond what can be explained by the unfolding of blind, impersonal processes. People care about other living creatures in a way that’s unique to them, and can’t be explained by unguided evolution. Protecting supposedly endangered species is an activity appropriate only for people who believe, with the writer of Genesis, that “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Saturday, September 1, 2018

How Do We Evaluate a Preacher's Message?

Unhappily, Christian people are often all too ready to attack other Christians and to accuse them of being “heretics” because they disagree with their teaching. The gospel (euangelion) is the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection and his authority over all things,as the Son of God (e.g., Romans 1:1-4).

But this basic “good news” has many implications and facets, and different preachers focus on different aspects of the gospel. Some stress accepting God’s forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life. Others emphasize the experience of knowing that God loves you. Still others stress the new way of life that becomes possible for us through the work of Jesus. Obviously all these are aspects of the basic message about Jesus, so it’s unkind and even foolish to attack a preacher as a false teacher because he or she stresses a different facet of the Christian message.

As an example, in certain Christian circles there’s a sustained attack on the “prosperity gospel” or “word of faith” movement as a false teaching. (Never mind, of course, that the Apostle Paul calls the gospel the “word of faith” that he preaches — Romans 10:8-9.) Opponents evaluate the “prosperity gospel” negatively because millions of third-world Christians continue to live in deprivation and poverty despite having come to the Lord.

But, we have to ask, should we evaluate the truth or falsehood of a preacher’s teaching based on the experiences of people, or on what we see reported in the media? Or should we judge the preacher’s message based on how it corresponds to the Word of God? In other words, does the poverty of millions of believers negate the clear teaching of Scripture that “the reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4)? It seems to me that it’s the Word of God, rather than human circumstance, that provides the criterion by which to evaluate the truth or falsehood of someone’s teaching.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

We Need More Pharisees

The Pharisees get a “bad rap” in the New Testament because Jesus called some of them on their inconsistent practices (Matthew 23:13ff.). Indeed, he told some of them that they were children of the devil (John 8:44) — pretty strong language! The epithet “Pharisee” has become synonymous with “hypocrite,” and nobody wants to be accused of being Pharisaical. But the fact is, all Christians are Pharisees. If you believe the Word of God should be your guide for living, if you believe in miracles, and if you believe in the resurrection of the dead you’re a Pharisee — for those things were what distinguished the Pharisees from other Jews of the first century. The apostle Paul was a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5), and used his identification with the Pharisees to stir things up among his accusers (Acts 23:6-7). Jesus certainly cared about the Pharisees or he wouldn’t have tried so hard to straighten them out, to make them into more effective and accurate teachers of his people.

Contrary to common opinion, the Pharisees weren’t trying to get people “saved” by keeping the most stringent provisions of the Law of Moses. They were actually developing “workarounds” so the Law would be easier for more people to keep. For the Lord had given the Law as an act of grace (Deuteronomy 7:7ff.), in order to prepare the people he had chosen as his witnesses to lead an orderly and successful life in the land he had promised to give them. Our culture of today has experienced the disappearance of many standards of upright and compassionate behavior, and a diminished belief in the resurrection and in God’s miracle-working power. So we don’t need fewer Pharisees, we need more.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Jesus and the Crowds: A False Teacher?

Several times recently in social media I have seen posts that contrast an image of a large, well-filled auditorium with that depicting a sparsely populated church. The message accompanying these images proclaims that false teaching about the Christian faith draws large crowds, while a small attendance is indicative of true Christian teaching.

If the message is drawing a large audience, that must mean it’s tailored to the “itching ears” of people who only want a non-challenging, complacent, or distorted version of the faith. On the other hand, it is inferred, genuine Christian teaching appeals only to a few. The implication of this contrast is clear: if a preacher has a large following, drawing great crowds to his ministry, he must be a false teacher who should be avoided.

Let’s apply this criterion to the Gospel record of the ministry of Jesus. Because whatever Jesus taught about living in the kingdom of God was true and valid, he must never have spoken to large crowds, right? Only a handful of people would have been drawn to his teaching or followed him.

Jesus drew large crowds.

The problem is, that’s not what the Gospels tell us about Jesus’ teaching. In all four Gospels we find that large crowds sought Jesus out, surrounded him, and received his teaching gladly. I surveyed the Gospels in a well-known English translation of the New Testament looking for occurrences of the word crowd or its equivalent in association with Jesus’ teaching or healing activity. Here’s what I discovered: for the words crowd or crowds, 72 occurrences; for multitude or multitudes, 25 occurrences; and for throng, 5 occurrences. (In almost all cases the Greek word is the same, ochlos, though in a few cases the Gospel writers used plethos. The translator’s judgment governs which English word is used.)

In collating these instances I was able to group them into ten, often overlapping, categories:
  Crowds follow Jesus or gather around him
  Crowds surround Jesus and hinder access to him
  Jesus addresses the crowds
  Jesus dialogues with a crowd, or with people in the crowd
  The crowds react to Jesus’ teaching or things he does
  Jesus has compassion on the crowds and meets their needs
  Jesus leaves the crowds or dismisses them
  Jesus’ opponents react to the fact that he draws great crowds
  The crowds acclaim Jesus
  A sorrowful crowd accompanies Jesus to his crucifixion.

What is most often said of the crowds in the Gospels is that they gathered to Jesus, followed him, or clustered around him. A good example is Matthew’s introduction to the “Sermon on the Mount”: “And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan. Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him” (Matthew 4:25—5:1). Mark reports, “Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land” (Mark 4:1).

Luke provides another instance: “When the crowds learned it, they followed him; and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing” (Luke 9:11). And this example comes from John: “After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a multitude followed him, because they saw the signs which he did on those who were diseased” (John 6:1-2). There are too many instances of this to list here; altogether the Gospels contain some twenty passages or verses that refer simply to the fact that whenever Jesus taught about the kingdom of God, and demonstrated its presence by healing peoples’ diseases, large numbers gathered to him and followed him.

Jesus’ audience was often so closely clustered about him that it was hard for people to gain access to him. Luke provides two examples: “Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him for the crowd” (Luke 8:19). “And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature” (Luke 19:2-3).

The crowds respond to Jesus’ teaching.

Sometimes the Gospels simply report that Jesus addresses the crowds, and occasionally they record his conversation with members of his audience. Here’s an instance from Mark: “And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Again, Luke tells us: “And when a great crowd came together and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: ‘A sower went out to sow his seed . . .’” (Luke 8:4-5). The people surrounding Jesus were not simply passive listeners, but engaged him in conversation as in Luke 11:27: “As he said this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!’” Jesus’ hearers asked questions: “The crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Christ remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of man?’” (John 12:34).

The Gospels record the crowd’s reaction to things Jesus says and does. Matthew concludes the “Sermon on the Mount” with this statement: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29). Jesus’ healing of the paralyzed man provoked the crowd’s response:  “And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We never saw anything like this!" (Mark 2:12). John tells us one reason why people were attracted to Jesus: “The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead bore witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign” (John 12:17-18).

Jesus has compassion on the multitude.

We are reminded, several times, that Jesus had compassion on the crowds who came to him and was moved to meet their physical needs. Here’s an instance from Matthew: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. As he went ashore he saw a great throng and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:13-14). Mark provides these examples: “As he went ashore he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). “In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him, and said to them, ‘I have compassion on the crowd . . .’” (Mark 8:1-2).

The needs of the multitudes coming to him were so great that sometimes Jesus had to send them away and take his departure, often by boat. As Matthew tells us, “And sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan” (Matthew 15:39). Mark records another instance: “Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd” (Mark 6:45). Jesus drew aside from the crowd to heal a deaf man (Mark 7:32-34).

Jesus’ crowds threatened his enemies.

Jesus’ popularity with the people alarmed his enemies. The Gospels record their reaction, and we cite three instances. Matthew reports, “But when they tried to arrest him, they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet” (Matthew 21:46). John tells us, “Yet many of the people believed in him; they said, ‘When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?’ The Pharisees heard the crowd thus muttering about him, and the chief priests and Pharisees sent officers to arrest him” (John 7:31-32). Because the crowds believed in Jesus, Judas could not arrange to have him seized when they were present: “So he agreed, and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of the multitude” (Luke 22:6).

Beginning the week of his passion with his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus drew the acclamation of the multitudes — as the well-known account of “Palm Sunday” reminds us. John tells it this way: “The next day a great crowd who had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!" (John 12:12-13). The esteem in which the crowds held Jesus complicated his enemies’ efforts to eliminate him.

It was only at Jesus’ crucifixion that crowds were stirred up against him and called for his death, and that was the doing of Jesus’ enemies. Preachers sometimes claim that the people who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on “Palm Sunday” had turned against him by Good Friday. That’s not true; the scornful Friday crowd was a different crowd. And even as Jesus was being led to Calvary, Luke tells us, “there followed him a great multitude of the people, and of women who bewailed and lamented him” (Luke 23:27). The disciples whom the risen Jesus met on the Emmaus road were but two of a sizeable following who had “hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).

Is the size of the audience a valid criterion?

It’s clear that Jesus, during the years he preached the kingdom of God in Galilee and Judea, was the head of a large popular movement, gathering crowds of people wherever he went. So, returning to our original issue, was Jesus therefore a false teacher? If we follow the logic of the social media posts we cited, we would have to conclude that he was — because if his teaching was the truth, it should have attracted only a small following!

The size of a preacher’s audience ought not to be taken as an indicator of whether or not he or she is giving forth teaching that is true to Scripture and the Christian faith. As the Gospel record of Jesus’ ministry shows, the message of the kingdom of God can draw a large, responsive audience. If there is a question about the validity of a popular preacher’s ministry, the question can only be resolved by a thorough examination and analysis of what’s being presented in the light of the Word of God.

Attacking fellow believers is surely not an effective way to promote the Christian faith. But if, on social media or any other platform, a critic wants to label a preacher as a false teacher, let that critic state his case on the basis of Scriptural principles. The size of the audience has nothing to do with it.