Monday, December 23, 2013

What Does God Promise Us, Really?

When I say that God has a wonderful plan for your life, what Scripture is the first to pop into your mind?

Chances are that Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”) was the first Bible verse that you thought of. My purpose in this short blog post will be for you to consider a new Scripture that gives a similar promise but has the advantage of being a promise that we should claim.

But first, a quick word about Jeremiah 29:11. Considering my purpose here, I will only do the briefest of overviews. More pillows, wall hangings, and Bible covers are stitched with this verse than any other selection of literature in the English speaking world. It has tremendous emotional appeal to many who have held on to this verse in times of difficulty, and some of you will question my Christian orthodoxy by what I’m about to write. But I’m convinced that if you give me a fair hearing, the Scripture passage that I replace it with will do more for your spiritual journey.

Jeremiah 29 was not written for you. Or me. Nor anybody alive today.

Let me explain. When I read Scripture I employ a rule that I learned from Greg Koukl of Stand To Reason (str.org). This rule is simple, significant, and enlightening. It goes like this: Never read a Bible verse (NRBV).

Never, ever read a single verse of Scripture. When you read the Bible, you should always read at least a whole paragraph – before and after the verse in question. Following this basic rule will give you more of the author’s flow of thought. The alternative is always to read verses out of their context and develop a meaning contrary to the author’s intent, and thus, in essence, to write your own Bible.

So when we employ NRBV to Jeremiah 29, we find that Jeremiah wrote this section specifically to the Jews who had been taken captive in Babylon. He wrote it as an encouragement to them that after 70 years of captivity, God would remember them and bring them back to the land. Why? Because he knows the plans that he has for them. Good plans for welfare and not for evil; plans that will give them hope.

You see, Jeremiah 29:11 is somebody else’s promise, and nobody today is now alive to claim this promise anymore. Now, it is very common at this point for some Christians to spiritualize the verse and say that, well, the point is that God has good plans for his people. I have two problems with this approach. First, it’s true enough that God plans well for his people, but why can’t we find Scripture more pertinent to us from the New Testament that speaks to us? Second, and more problematically, when Christians take this verse to heart, it gives the impression that God has only pleasant things in store for us in this life. God has plans for my welfare, after all. It is often unspoken, and we absorb it from our Christian culture in a hundred subtle ways. We expect that things will go well for us.

And then they don’t. The car dies. You develop cancer. A job is lost. But God, I thought you had good plans for me? Plans for a future and a hope! What happened?

Let me suggest a selection of Scripture that makes the same promise that we take Jeremiah 29:11 to be, but is more powerful, more encouraging, and is actually written for New Covenant Christians.

In Romans 8 (using NRBV) Paul asserts that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, that those who have the Spirit are led by the Spirit to put to death the deeds of the body, that we have been adopted as sons (and daughters), that all creation is awaiting our full redemption, and that that the Spirit intercedes for us. The apostle then says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers….if God is for us, who can be against us?” (v28-31). He goes on to proclaim that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing. Not tribulation. No power, no angel, no height nor depth. No job loss. No dead cars. Not even cancer will ever separate us from God’s love in Christ.

Now that is a promise that we can cling to! Jesus said that in this life we will have trouble, but that we shouldn’t worry because he has overcome the world (John 16:33). We will have trouble. God never promises us easy street. But none of this trouble will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ. And this is not the general love of God for all people. Paul is specific that it’s the love of God in Christ. For you, Christian.

But wait, there’s more meat to this promise that Paul is giving us. For those of us who love God, who are called according to his purpose, all things will work together for our good. What does good here mean? Does that mean everything will be hunky-dory in my life, all peaches and cream? No. He completes the thought in the next sentence. The good for which all things will work is that we will be conformed to the image of Christ. God is promising us that all things, all things, all suffering, pain, depression, anxiety, and sadness. All happiness, pleasantness, and sunshine. All things will work for our good to make us more like Jesus.

This is a promise that we can claim, hang on to, dig our nails into during our toughest times when life seems to have gone off the rails. We followers of Christ need to prepare for suffering. It will come. Many a believer has had her faith derailed because of unexpected trials. Don’t let this happen to you.

By the way, the more you mature as a follower of Christ, the more appealing the promise to be like him will become. When I was younger this promise felt like the booby prize at a third grade birthday party. But now that I’m approaching middle age, and about 33 years in the Lord, I desire more and more to be made more like Christ.

So in summary, I’m not telling you to throw out all your pillows that have Jeremiah 29:11 stitched on them. I simply want you to replace in your mind the promises that you cling to. Jeremiah is weak sauce compared to Romans 8, which is rich and deep with meaning for us in Christ.

Praise be to the Lord that he will work all things out in my life for my good so that I will resemble more and more the Lord whom I have chosen to follow.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Are We Investing our Talents for the Kingdom?

As I've written before, the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30) is one of the most challenging parables/teachings in Scripture to me. It is clear from this parable that the Lord will hold us accountable for what we do in life with what he gave us. He gives each of us resources and abilities to further his Kingdom, and there will be a reckoning.

Given this reckoning, I want to make sure that my remaining days in this life are devoted to Kingdom work. I am about to turn 38 years old in just a few weeks, and while this would not quite be considered middle-age by most standards, I am feeling more middle-aged than I ever have. Most people probably follow this natural tendency toward becoming more reflective as they age, and I am no exception.

Regardless of how much the Lord gives us (5, 2, or 1 Talents), we are expected to invest what we have. After almost 38 years I have come to realize and accept the abilities and gifts that the Lord has given me. I am not handy - my wife will attest to that. While I enjoy playing my guitar, I am no skilled musician. Stick figures are my idea of great art. While I greatly respect entrepreneurs and those that can successfully run a business, I don't think naturally in those terms. I run for (a perverse) pleasure and to get basic exercise, but I don't have any great athletic skill.

What I am is a scholar. I love to read, to learn, and to study. And I love to teach given the proper audience (as a high school science teacher, the "proper" audience involves those who are interested in the material - a situation relatively rare with the average American teenager). I teach in my local church when given the opportunity and have consistently received positive feedback from both adults and students.

This is how God made me, it is what I am passionate about, and how God will hold me accountable. I will not be condemned for not being able to do a slam dunk or paint the next Mona Lisa. But I will be held accountable for not being me. I am a learner and a teacher, and these are my passion. I will be judged accordingly.

Knowledge of myself causes me to act differently. I recently (in the last year) was accepted into Biola University's Master of Arts in Science and Religion (MASR) program, and I started taking classes last fall. The reason I did this was to increase my skill as a scholar and teacher. I can't teach what I don't know, and so if I want to invest my "talents" for God's Kingdom, I need to develop those talents. My long-term goal is a PhD in philosophy, probably specifically in the History and Philosophy of Science. Not because I covet being a "doctor," but because as a PhD I can have a wider impact for the Kingdom. As William Lane Craig often writes, the university drives our culture. All future politicians, business leaders, and even community organizers will pass through the university. This is a major mission field in our culture.

Self-awareness also causes me to pray differently. This last year, after beginning taking classes at Biola, at the same time I went from two jobs at my school (I used to run an evening classroom) down to just my daytime physics position. I did this to honor my family above the extra income I was making. But it also means my financial resources available for taking classes with Biola has greatly diminished. So I am praying to the Lord asking him to give me the resources that I need not only to take care of my family but also to continue developing my abilities for the Kingdom. Because I know myself and how God made me, I am simply asking him to give me what I need to be more effective at how he made me. If I were a farmer, I would pray for the Lord to bless my crops and farming abilities. I am a scholar, so I am asking him to bless my learning and to expand my opportunities for teaching what I have learned so far.

This is a matter of trust for me and simply placing it before the Lord. The PhD especially would have to be a work of the Lord because I am the sole provider for my family. Not only would I have to be accepted into a program but I will also need funding from the school. If the Lord does not provide an open door for ministry in this area, then I will seek out other ways in which I can have an impact for the Kingdom.

So, what about you, dear reader? How has God made you? Have you spent a season thinking about this and asking the Lord for wisdom to discern your abilities? Have you taken steps to develop those abilities? Are you investing your skills in kingdom work? Have you prayed, asking the Lord to give you what you need to develop yourself and for the wisdom to use your gifts? No matter your age, it is not too late (or too early) to begin thinking about how to have the most impact and how to be the most effective for the Kingdom.

If every follower of Christ in our culture made a decisive effort to engage themselves and their abilities into kingdom work, this world would be better, almost overnight.


Saturday, July 6, 2013

Waging War on an Enemy in the Camp

An enemy has overrun the camp.

We are captives, POW's, from a series of battles that was won decades ago by an enemy that is at once both hidden and obvious. It is obvious, because we can see its affects all around us. It is hidden because we all have patterns of thought influenced by this enemy that we don't even realize.

Worst of all, we have allowed this enemy to overtake us. In a sort of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome, we have come to admire and adore this enemy that has no good plans for the Church.

We have not been vigilant and have ignored Paul's admonition to play defense in Colossians (2:8) by not being taken captive by deceptive philosophy. In another passage Paul switches from defense to offense, still using this key word, "captive." In 2 Cor 10:3-5, he tells us to "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." (As an aside, this verse is usually taken out of context to mean we should capture impure thoughts, etc., but in context it is clear that Paul is referring to arguments, speculations, and cultural strongholds that hold sway over people's minds)

From this moment on I am hereby declaring war on this enemy that has infiltrated our ranks in the Church and in our culture.

We have been overrun by naturalism and materialism - the idea that the only thing that exists is the physical universe and no such person as the Christian God exists. (Materialism does not mean too much shopping, but that the world is only made of material with no spiritual aspects)

Now, I said before that this enemy is both hidden and obvious. The obvious aspects are, well, obvious. All of the major influential organs of our culture are committed to this worldview: the universities, Hollywood, major media outlets, legal system. We hear the message in a thousand different ways that all we are is body without soul. My purpose in this post is not outline all of the various and sundry ways that the overriding philosophy of our culture is naturalistic.

What I want us to see is the more hidden aspect of materialism and naturalism, for many of you have already turned me off. For you may be thinking: I go to church. I haven't bought into this naturalism stuff. I believe in God. He's real! Well, let me ask you - a representative of Western Christianity - a few rhetorical questions (meaning I don't expect an answer - you're welcome to, but it's unlikely I'll hear you...or put them in the comments below):
  • What is your view of the universe? Is it a system that runs efficiently, sort of like a machine? Did God set it up at the beginning and then just let it run?
  • Do you think in categories of natural vs supernatural?
  • When you pray about a particular topic weighing on your heart do you secretly expect that nothing will really happen?
  • Is science the study of the natural world and physical processes within the world only?
  • Do you, or your denomination, see the Scriptures as perhaps true with regards to spiritual things, but maybe not in historical or scientific aspects?
  • Do you think that all of your thoughts are generated in your brain? 
  • When Jesus promises us things like he does in John 1:7, does the promise die a death of a thousand qualifications?
  • When you think of miracles in the Bible, such as the parting of the Red Sea or the Burning Bush, do you tend to think of natural processes that could have caused this to happen?
  • If you believe in God as Creator, do perhaps think of God doing it strictly through secondary causes or indirect means?
  • Do you listen to neuroscientists ("brain scientists") to tell you what you "really" are?
  • Do you tend to see sin as a product of bad environment or poor education or possibly as an unhealthy psyche?
  • Are psychiatrists and psychologists the key to our "sin problem?"
  • Is the presence of natural evil (i.e. earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes) just due to the natural forces at work in the physical world?
Most of us Western Christians have been trained to answer the above questions with a yes! The problem is that the answer from the Christian worldview to all of them is no! Maybe you only answered yes to a few of these. Even if you answered yes to only one question, then to some extent you have bought into materialism/naturalism, a hollow and deceptive philosophy.

The Bible knows nothing of this separation between natural and supernatural. Biblical categories are human vs superhuman (see the Introduction to Craig Keener's excellent work, Miracles). Because of naturalism we tend to devalue the work of God. Oh, we say that we believe that God is a miracle worker and that he created the universe, but what did he really do? Do we believe in a passive God who somehow only operates hands-off, by letting other things do his dirty work?

You see, in the Bible God takes all of the credit. He causes the grass to grow and waters the earth (Ps 104). He alone created the heavens (Is 40:26). God is the one who works wonders (Ps 77:14). He even creates natural disasters (Is 45:7).

Our acceptance of naturalism, even though we may not realize it, has caused us to take glory away from God. Contrary to what our culture teaches, Scripture tells us that he is the initiator and sustainer of the entire created order (Gen 1, John 1, Col 1:15-17). He is responsible. The buck stops with him, not with natural laws or created things. 

So, my challenge to you is to be open to the ways in which we have been taken captive by a hollow and deceptive philosophy. Naturalism has nothing to offer us. It is completely bankrupt as a philosophy. It makes us think less of ourselves, less of others, less of creation, and less of God. Much moral evil has resulted from the acceptance of this insidious idea. For this reason I am declaring war on naturalism and materialism, and this will continue to be a theme on my blog.

We have been overrun. Let's take back our camp for the glory of God.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Can Science Prove that God Doesn't Exist?

Science is limited. It is like a strong dog on a chain. It rules its own area legitimately, but no more. Science is powerful and has brought us a tremendous amount of knowledge about the way in which God has set up the regularities of nature. Yet it is on a leash...

Scientists of the modern era, however, think that the dog has been let loose to roam the neighborhood. Many in our culture will claim that science is, in fact, the only way to gain knowledge. For example, Alex Rosenberg, in his book The Atheist's Guide to Reality, defines scientism thus, "....the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science's description of the world is correct in its fundamentals..."  If science didn't tell it to you, you can't know it according to those represented by Rosenberg.

If I may be permitted to switch my metaphors, we may think of science as a metal detector. A young boy goes down to the beach with his metal detector and comes back with a delightful collection of soda tabs, lost earrings, and spare change. Is anyone in his family surprised that the boy found metal with his metal detector? Of course not! Notice,though, that his collection did not include sea shells, beach balls, or sand crabs. A metal detector finds what is within is capabilities.

The same is true for science. It can only find what is within its capabilities. Science goes down to the beach to study the natural world, and low and behold!, when it returns it reports to us regularities and elements of that natural world. For a scientist to proclaim that there is nothing beyond the natural world would be just like our young boy to insist that the whole world is made of metal.

Amazing how we would quaintly pat the young boy on the head with a knowing look to the other adults in the room, yet we listen to some scientists or thinkers who say the logical equivalent and nod our heads up and down in deferential agreement.

The next time you hear someone say that science is the only path to knowledge, simply pat him on the head and tell him (or her) how quaint he (or she) is.

So, can science prove that God doesn't exist? Well, is God a physical being? Not according to orthodox Christianity. And if God is not physically a part of the natural world, then he is beyond the capabilities of science and cannot be ruled out by science. Returning to the dog metaphor, science cannot investigate anything outside of its territory. It may bark threateningly, but it is restrained no matter how hard it tries not to be.

I do think, however, that God has inscribed in the regularities of nature evidence of his having designed it, and that science can detect these inscriptions. But that is a topic for another day...

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Are the Sun and Earth Insignificant?

Have you ever heard that the Earth is "just" an insignificant planet orbiting around an "average" star? Well, forget that! I'm reading Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, by Ward and Brownlee. These are two guys who study astrobiology, the field that looks at requirements for life to exist elsewhere in our universe.

It turns out that our star is far from average. Here's just a few quick facts:
  1. Our Sun is a yellow star. This very fact means that it is bigger than 95% of all the stars in our Milky Way galaxy. The "average" star is a red dwarf. These ruddy fellows are too small and don't put out enough energy to support any intelligent life.
  2. Our Sun is not a blue star. Blue stars are the hottest stars. They release most of their energy in the UV part of the spectrum. You know, the put-your-sunscreen-on-or-you-will-get-a-nasty-sunburn type of UV - same stuff. Living under a permanent tanning bed is not the ideal way to encourage meaningful life.
  3. Our Sun's brightness is quite stable. Some stars are variable stars, which means they, well, vary their brightness. Not good for life. It would be like trying to bake your cake as your oven fluctuates its temperature wildly and frequently.
A ton more things could be said, but I'll leave it there for now. Our Sun is very, very, very unique.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Challenge from Friendly Flying Spaghetti Monster

Take a minute and a half to watch this video. It represents a satirical challenge to our Christian convictions that is becoming more common. Yes, it's corny. And of course, it's meant to lampoon us. But take it seriously. Pretend that a rather obnoxious atheist is standing in front of you and presenting this her "religion" to you. Post your thoughts below in how you would answer this person (just remember to do it with gentleness and respect - 1 Peter 3:15).

I will post my thoughts in a day or so of how we can respond thoughtfully to this.



So, whaddaya gonna say?
 



Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Noble Seeker?

Overheard from Greg Koukl recently at his Tactics seminar, "Why in our culture is it noble to be a seeker, but ignoble for the search to be over?"

Think about it: you can tell people all day long that you are a seeker of truth, of God, of meaning, of anything. But the moment you say that you have found the truth, God, or meaning to life, they accuse you of arrogance. Well, if reaching your destination is not considered to be possible, then why go on the trip?

My search is over. What other religion or worldview can adequately explain the following:
  • Why the universe is here? Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • Why are the fundamental laws and constants of the universe so tremendously fine-tuned?
  • Why does life exhibit information (DNA and the genetic code)?
  • Why are we conscious? Why are we aware? If all of this happened by chance and natural law, then at best we should be zombie-like creatures just bumping around and procreating.
  • Why do we have the capacity to reason if we are just a fancy chemical reaction?
  • Why do we all have this sense of having failed morally, of being guilty? Maybe we all feel guilty, because we actually are guilty...
  • How else do you explain the tremendous evidence in favor of the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazereth?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Making Decisions through Wisdom, Part 2

In my last post I laid out why I think the 'personal guidance' model of decision making is not biblical. Today I want to offer what I think the Bible does present as the method for making decisions.

The Wisdom Model

The wisdom model is not complicated. The following is adapted from Decision Making and the Will of God, by Garry Friesen and from some of Greg Koukl's work at Stand to Reason (www.str.org). When you have a decision to make, follow these four steps:
  1. Where God commands, we obey.
  2. Where God has given no command, he gives freedom.
  3. When operating in your freedom, use wisdom.
  4. When you have done what is moral and you have done what is wise, then put your plan into action, trusting in the sovereignty of God.
That's it. The wisdom model boils down to this: you have freedom to do what you want as long as it is moral and wise and you may do it with God's blessing.

1. Where God Commands, We Obey

God commands, we obey. It's that simple.

Sooo, how do we know what God commands? Do we listen for his inward voice telling me? No, we go to the God-breathed Scriptures. Paul tells Timothy that it is to the Scriptures that we must go to show us righteousness and to be fully prepared for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17).

This principle should motivate us to read and study God's Word with a passion. Christians walk around fervently praying, "Show me your will, God. Tell me what to do!" But many of us rarely go to the one place where God tells us what to do: his Word. Or if we do open the Scriptures, it is for a one or two verse pep talk in the mornings with very little depth. Paul says that we need to handle accurately God's Word (2 Tim 2:15). The only way to accomplish that is to get to know it by regular study.

If you want to know what God commands, read verses in context. Greg Koukl teaches a principle that I have found to be very helpful: Never read a Bible verse. See him in a YouTube video here discussing this critical concept.



Knowing what God commands is wrapped up in knowing his Word. You can't know the first without knowing the second.

If you are looking for personalized guidance on specific decisions, such as what to do if you are considering changing jobs or moving houses or marrying your sweetheart, the Bible won't tell you specific answers. But it will give you principles

If you're considering an upcoming career change and you have an interest in becoming a drug dealer or a mob boss, obvious scriptural principles are at play here that you may want to consider before filling out your W-4 form. But if you want to take a promotion in a more mundane industry that will involve more pay, more responsibility and more hours, then you can (and should) consider your gifts (1 Pet 4:10), your ability to provide for your family (1 Tim 5:8), your responsibility to raise your children (Eph 6:4, Mark 9:42). These principles are pertinent to your situation and are a part of God's revealed moral will for all believers.

2. Where God has given no command, he gives freedom

In the book of Acts as we watch the apostles beginning to preach and to spread the Gospel outward from Jerusalem, notice what we don't see. We never witness any disciple or apostle sitting around scratching their head and praying for God's will to know where they should go and to whom they should preach. They don't listen for the voice of the Spirit to get their marching orders for the week. They just go. They just preach.

Consider how Paul begins his second missionary journey. He and Barnabas are in Antioch just after the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. Paul leans over to his partner in ministry and says, "Hey, Barney! Let's go visit all the churches that we established before and see how they're doing" (Acts 15:36). Paul simply decides to do it. He wanted to, so he makes it happen. This pattern we see repeated throughout the book of Acts.

Paul had freedom, and obviously felt free, to conduct his ministry how he wanted to.

In the midst of this freedom, God did interrupt occasionally.

It is fascinating to read as Paul begins this second missionary journey. After Paul and Barnabas split (see below), Paul travels to Derbe and Lystra and meets Timothy. Paul needs a traveling companion, and everyone spoke highly of Timothy, so Paul brings him along. They continue journeying throughout Phrygia and Galatia, but - watch this - they were "kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia" (16:6). Again in the next verse, Luke informs us that "the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them" to enter Bithynia.

So we see Paul and Timothy out there traveling from town to town preaching the Gospel and checking on Paul's churches, but occasionally God would stop them. Paul must have thought it was a good idea to preach in Asia and also in Bithynia, so he tried to. He had the freedom to conduct his ministry as he saw fit, but God is sovereign. We don't know why Paul was prevented from entering these regions - that was part of God's sovereign will. But Paul had to obey when commanded by the Lord (whatever that looked like).

The bottom line: there is freedom when there is no command.  

3. When operating in your freedom, use wisdom

God has given us an entire book in the Bible devoted just to finding wisdom. Proverbs! Clearly God considers it important for us to develop into a wise people. Why give us so much wisdom literature if he's just going to call the shots anyway? We should be reading this scriptural jewel on a regular basis to gain wisdom.

James urges us to pray for wisdom (James 1:5) when we lack it. Why pray for wisdom if God is going to lead me in every important decision?

In 1 Kings 3, the Lord offers to give Solomon anything he asks for, and Solomon asks for wisdom. Why? Solomon evidently had this conversation with God - why not just ask the Lord to lead him in all his decisions? Because this Personal Guidance model is basically brand new on the Earth. It never would have occurred to the ancients to ask God to make all their decisions for them. Thus, Solomon asks for wisdom so that he will know the best course of action.

Solomon had chosen...wisely.

The way of wisdom is also heavily modeled for us in Scripture. As another example, if we go back to the beginning of Paul's second missionary journey in Acts 15, he and Barnabas part ways over John Mark. Barnabas wants to take Mark along, but Paul doesn't. Notice how Luke records it: "Paul did not think it wise to take him" (v38, emphasis mine). What Scripture doesn't say here is almost as important as what it does say. It does not indicate that Paul and Barnabas spent a season in prayer asking for the Lord's leading. Paul simply thought it unwise because he'd been left in the lurch before by Mark (see Acts 13:13) and didn't trust him. Paul used his judgment.

Paul uses his wisdom when deciding to take Timothy with him just a few verses later. The believers in Lystra speak highly of him and "Paul wanted to take him along on the journey" (16:3). No seeking the Lord's voice or leading here. Paul simply wanted to take Timothy. It seemed good to him, and he did it. As it turns out this relationship between Paul and Timothy blossomed to the point where Paul writes to Timothy, "To Timothy, my dear son..." (2 Tim 1:2) and "my true son in the faith..." (1 Tim 1:2). God had sovereignly worked to bring Timothy into Paul's life, and they developed a close and meaningful relationship. God brought someone into Paul's life that he could trust to pass the baton on to after Paul's ministry came to a close (read 2 Timothy). 

Which leads into the last point...

4. When you have done what is moral and you have done what is wise, then put your plan into action, trusting in the sovereignty of God

From Paul's point of view, he was getting a traveling companion for his second missionary journey. But God had other plans - to give Paul and true son in the faith and fellow worker in the Gospel.

Our wisdom and freedom to act within the constraints of God's moral will is how God expects us to operate. But there are times when we try to do something, and it just won't work out. Obstacle after obstacle gets thrown in our face. If you have done your best to honor God and act wisely and yet this thing you want to do is just not coming together, then sometimes we just need to understand that God may be sovereignly preventing you from doing that thing. Remember Paul and Timothy above trying to go to Asia and then Bithynia. They were prevented somehow by the Lord.

The Wisdom model recognizes that after we have done everything we can, we must ultimately trust in God's sovereignty and his control over the events of our lives. Proverbs 16:9 has one of my favorite verses about this idea. The NIV says, "In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps."  This verse is not saying our plans are worthless (for their is no sense of judgment here), but Solomon is showing us both sides of the equation. On our side, we make plans and try to make things happen. But it is also the Lord directing our steps. Solomon recognizes that both are involved when we make plans.

Benefits of the Wisdom Model

Several benefits recommend the Wisdom model of decision making over the Personal Guidance model.

First, it has the advantage of being taught in Scripture. There is no indication from the Bible that I am to seek out God's personal, individualized guidance on an issue, but I do observe generalized commands from his moral will that are to be obeyed. I don't see in Scripture a requirement to "hear from the Lord" before I make a move, but I do discern time and time again admonitions to search for and to ask for wisdom in decision making. I haven't noticed any people in the Scriptures using language such as "I felt led," "I'm trying to find God's will," or "God gave me a peace about it," but I do observe the decision-making habits of the early apostles. They appear to simply make the wisest choice available at the time while being submitted to God's sovereignty.

Next, I don't have to try and figure out what God is telling me. This was a big problem for me when I still held to the Personal Guidance model. How do I know what God is telling me? When I asked other Christians, I always got conflicting advice on how to listen to the voice of the Lord. Was this a sign from the Lord? Is this a confirmation? That thought in my mind - is it mine or God's? The great thing about this model is that I don't have to waste time figuring that out.

Can God put thoughts in our minds? Of course! But the difference is I don't have to figure out the source. A good thought is a good thought. Maybe I'm talking with a non-Christian friend and the thought enters my mind to say something to him and that opens up a spiritual conversation where I get to share the Gospel. Where did that idea come from? I don't know, and it really doesn't matter. It was simply a great idea to say what I did.

Now, some will say that this takes away from God's glory because I could take credit for something that God said to me. Well, ok, maybe, but remember, there are no instructions from Scripture for me to discern what God is saying to me individually. None. So from my perspective a good idea is a good idea, and we can give glory to God for our ability to think and for the opportunity to share the Gospel. All of our minds are offered to the Lord for his glory (or should be, anyway).

Third, I don't have to feel left out all the time. Have you ever heard stories about Christians telling how God was really speaking to them to do this or that? Well, I hear those stories all the time. But I used to feel left out. Why wasn't God speaking to me that way? I read the Bible, I pray, I plead with him to talk to me. Why wasn't he doing talking to me? Was it my sin? That must be it...my sin is keeping me from hearing from God, and those that do hear from him, well, they must really be close to the Lord!

In a subtle way the Personal Guidance model makes some believers feel like second class citizens much like the prosperity gospel does. Here this my friends: if you are not hearing from God, you are not being left out. God isn't speaking to those people the way that they say he is. I know that this sounds harsh and unspiritual. But there just is no indication from Scripture that this hearing-from-God mentality is something we are to expect.

So what are they hearing? I don't know. As Greg Koukl says, I exegete Scripture, not experiences. In other words, we should be figuring out what the Bible means, not the significance of our experiences.

The fourth benefit of the Wisdom model is the freedom. I experienced a tremendous weight lifted from me when I began to study this issue. I don't have to constantly try and figure out what God wants me to do. Mine is to obey Scriptural commands, seek out wisdom, and then do what I want. If God does not want me going down a particular path, he will establish my steps (Prov 16:9). He will sovereignly direct me by opening up opportunities or closing others just like he did with Paul and Timothy. I will not know it at the time why certain things are or are not working out, but ultimately God's plan will be done.

Finally, the wisdom model removes superstition from the Body of Christ. Reading the signs of God's will has almost become a pagan art in some circles. Oh, we don't use pagan terminology. We would never do that! We baptize our paganism with Christian language, but its roots are the same. Modern Christians don't read chicken intestines, but how many of you have ever done this: hold your Bible up on its spine, open to a random page and point to a random verse (with your eyes closed, mind you), and accept whatever it says as God's message to you? I must confess I have done this, and it is not Christian! Treating God's holy Word like a magic 8 ball is not recommended...

Pagans read signs in nature everywhere. Have you ever encountered the same word or phrase throughout the day and interpreted that as a sign from above? Maybe I randomly hear the name "Botswana" three times today in various ways. Lord, we pray, do you want me to move to Botswana and become a missionary? This type of thing becomes normal to Christians who have been taught to looks for signs, but Christians don't do this. Pagans do. (By the way, I am not calling you a pagan if you've ever done these things - only that these practices are rooted in pagan thought and superstition.)

But God does not drop signs or hints for us. That is so not our Lord's way. Please give him more credit than that! Here's how you will know if you are receiving a message from the Lord: you will encounter a talking donkey (Num 22), a burning bush (Ex 3), a nighttime vision (Dan 7), a vision of a man from Macedonia (Acts 16), a supernatural wrestler (Gen 32) or an angel with a flaming sword (Gen 3). Now that's creative and kind of hard to miss!

Conclusion

I urge you to search the Scriptures to see if what I am saying is so. Don't just take my word for it.

If you think that I have misunderstood the thrust of the Word on this issue, then show me where. If you read this seriously, some of you may feel that something has been taken from you. The idea of hearing the voice of the Lord is so entrenched in evangelicalism that it is not uncommon to have strong emotional reactions to the Wisdom model. But if you feel something was taken from you, I assure you that it is not something that you ever really had. We have just been socialized in our Christian circles to interpret our thoughts as God's voice.

But go to the Scriptures. Find out for yourself. The following resources are great if you want to learn more about this:



If you have any comments, questions, or smart remarks, feel free to leave a comment below.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Making Decisions through Wisdom, Part 1

In my last post I introduced this topic with a recent decision that Sara and I had to make. Today I want to begin by laying out why I think the popular 'personal guidance' decision-making model is not based in Scripture. This post is a little long, but bear with me. This idea of making decisions by listening for the voice of the Spirit is so ingrained in our Christian culture that there is a lot to respond to.

The Personal Guidance Model

The unspoken assumption behind the 'personal guidance model' of decision making is that God has an individual blueprint for your life and that we must discover what he has planned for us for each of our decisions. Discovering that plan for my life is what we call "finding the will of God."

Notice the catchphrases and expressions that we use:
  • "I felt led by the Spirit to do this..."
  • "God confirmed this by giving me a peace about it."
  • "God gave me an open door..."
  • "I heard that still, small voice leading me..."
Have you ever searched the Scriptures for these phrases that have crept into the modern evangelical Christian's vocabulary? They roll off our tongue regularly with hardly a thought. Let's take a moment and look at one of them.

The "still, small voice" is commonly heard by those reporting to have heard from God. This phrase occurs in the King James version of 1 Kings 19 (the NIV chooses the phrase "gentle whisper"). Elijah is on the run from Jezebel after his triumphant Mount Carmel experience. The emotional pendulum has now swung, and Elijah is depressed, thinking himself alone as a prophet, and is a little fearful. God has looked after him, though: feeding him, giving him access to water, letting him rest. Elijah gets up and travels for 40 days and nights until he finds lodging in a cave on the side of Horeb.

While in the cave, he shares with the Lord what is on his heart, and God invites him outside to witness the presence of the Lord passing by. Not in the wind. Nor the earthquake or fire, but in a still, small voice.

I want you to notice a couple things abour this account. First, this was not an inward nudge as this phrase often is interpreted today. What does the text say? The voice was an actual sound - Elijah heard it with his ears. "When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face" (1 King 19:13, NIV) and went outside. Elijah proceeded to have an actual conversation with the voice of God.

Second, this phrase does not occur in the context of decision-making. Elijah isn't using the still, small voice to help him figure out what he should do. It is simply the manner in which the Lord chose to reveal his presence to Elijah and speak to him.

The rest of the phrases and terms mentioned above, when seen in their context, do not have anything to do with decision-making. I will save discussion of them for another day, but you may, as good Bereans, search out whether what I'm saying is true or not.

For instance, check for the phrase "led by the Spirit." This phrase only occurs three times in Scripture: Romans 8:12-14, Gal 5:16-21, and Matt 4:1. What does the text actually say about that phrase? If you want to study the idea of inner peace as a confirmation of God's will, then Colossians 3:15 is where most people go. What does the context of that verse say? Care to look up open doors? Go to 1 Cor 16:8-9, 2 Cor 2:12-13, and then Acts 16:26-28. Does Paul always go through an open door provided by God? Did Paul see an open door as indicating God's will for him and something that he must obey?

You will find that in all cases, a legitimate phrase from Scripture has been ripped from its original context and given a completely new meaning. But this is never appropriate when studying Scripture! Our new meanings to these phrases are not inspired, only God's original meaning in context is. Scripture is God's Word, not ours, and spiritual danger abounds when we walk around giving new meanings to old texts. Ours is to mine that original meaning as a '49'er looking for that first lucky strike.

Interpreting Scripture or Interpreting Our Experiences?

If listening for the voice of the Lord is so crucial for us to make decisions, where Scripture teach how I may listen for it? Where am I taught how to hear it? How shall I distinguish the Spirit's urgings from my inner emotions? I must confess that I used to really struggle with trying to figure out what God was saying to me because I certainly never heard anything audible from him like Elijah or Moses. Scripture seems to be mighty silent on an issue of utmost importance, if indeed this is the model we are to follow as Christians.

I know that many of you might have had experiences where you felt like the still, small voice gave you guidance on a particular issue. I urge you to consider that we are to interpret Scripture, not experiences. God's Word is our authority for our life and conduct, not anecdotes or experiences. We should interpret our experiences in light of Scripture, not the other way around.

God's Sovereign and Moral Wills

Now, some of you may be thinking that surely God has a plan for my life. He is sovereign and omniscient after all, and it would be best for me to seek his counsel in order to know what that plan is.

Yes, I agree. God is sovereign, he knows what will happen to us, and he most likely does have a plan for our lives. But, where does Scripture teach that God will share his sovereign plan with us?

Theologians have generally recognized in Scripture two "wills" of God: his sovereign will and his moral will.

His sovereign will cannot be thwarted, no man can stand against it, and it will be done (see Daniel 4:35, for instance). This "will" is not always revealed to us. But, looking backward on our lives, we can often understand God's sovereign plan for our lives and why things happened the way they did.

God's moral will is his will for how we are to live in a godly manner, and it is fully revealed to us in Scripture. Among other things, we are to avoid sexual immorality (1 Cor 6:18, 1 Thess 4:3), hate what is evil and cling to what is good (Rom 12:9), in fact, read all of Romans 12 - it is a treasure trove full of God's moral will for us. He tells us what we should and should not do as we interact with other people. God's will for you is to live a holy life (1 Pet 1:15-16).

So, we should not expect to know in advance his sovereign will, but God's moral will has already been revealed to us. In fact, his moral will is completely revealed to us so that we will know how to live. It is not personalized for me - it is broadly general so that all Christians will know how to live.

God's moral will does not tell us what to do, but rather how to be. God does not tell us whom to marry - it tells us what kind of husband or wife we should be. He does not reveal to us whether or not to take the job - he tells us what kind of an employee we should be. He desires for us to be more like Christ (Rom 8:28-29).

Since God is concerned with us becoming more like Christ, we should be making our decisions, not based on inner hints or feelings, but based on the answer to this question: will this endeavor give me the opportunity to be more like Christ? Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason asks, "When was the last time you made a decision based on humility, self-sacrifice, servanthood,...or the interests of proclaiming the Gospel?"

Does God Hint?

When God speaks to a person in Scripture, it is never through hints, suggestions, nudges, leadings, or checks in the spirit. God acts boldly. When he wants to get someone's attention, there is no doubt who is doing the talking. Think of any person in Scripture with whom God speaks: Paul on the road to Damascus, Moses by the burning bush, Peter with his vision in Acts, Isaiah's vision of God on his throne. Even Samuel hears an audible voice, although as a child he mistakes it for Eli at first. There is no case in Scripture where God tries to communicate to someone and they don't get it. The Lord will get your attention if he has a message for you.

More than this, though, a principle laid down by Paul is violated by the idea that God is trying to communicate to us through hints and nudges. In the context of spiritual gifts in 1 Cor 14, Paul discusses the superiority of the gift of prophecy over that of speaking in tongues, because prophecy builds up everyone in the church, not just the speaker as in the case of tongues. Now, the principle. If you are going to speak in the church, it must be clear. Otherwise, whom will your message help? Now, if we are urged to speak clearly to each other, how then can God get away with being unclear with us?

Ahh, but our sin gets in the way of our hearing God's voice some will say. Well, consider this: God had no trouble getting through to Saul on the road to Damascus even though he was out to kill or imprison Christians. Talk about sin! And yet Saul/Paul heard God's message crystal clear. The Bible just does not teach that our sin will prevent God from speaking to us if he has a message for us.

The Importance of Reading the Word

Another common response is that I am putting God in a box by not allowing him to speak to us. First, I am not saying that God can't lead us through inner promptings and the like. What I am saying is that the Bible does not teach that we should expect it as a matter of course. If God chooses to do something special, that's his prerogative. Second, if you want to hear God speak to you, read the Scriptures.

This point is so important it is worth repeating: if you want to hear from God, read God's Word! Scripture is God's personal, active Word to us. Paul tells Timothy in 2 Timothy that "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (3:16-17, emphasis mine). Notice the phrase "thoroughly equipped for every good work." God's Word has everything we need for every good work that we could do for the Kingdom. We do not need anything else. Not urges, hints, leadings, open doors, or voices. 

The problem is that we don't read the Word. This is a grave danger of the personal guidance model of decision making: it often hinders the reading of the Word. If I think that God will just direct my life through inner promptings, then I will not be searching his Word where he actually does speak to us. If we really believed that God's Word was living and active and that God was really speaking to us through it, we would read his Word. But we don't. My friends, God's Word is alive! He speaks! If you want to hear his voice, you have but to open the Scriptures and pour yourself into them. Are you feeling dry, parched, separate from God? Don't seek him in the inner voice of your emotions. Seek his face in the one place where the living God of the universe is guaranteed to meet you: his very Word.

J.I. Packer has written,
What shall we say of [the personal guidance model]? The first thing to say is that this idea of guidance is actually a novelty among orthodox evangelicals. It does not go back further than the last century. Second, it has lead people to so much foolish action on the other hand, and so much foolish inaction on the other, as well as puzzlement and heartbreak when the 'hotline' to God seems to go silent, that it has to be seen as discredited. Third, it must be said that Scripture gives us no more warrant constantly to expect personal 'hotline,' 'voice from the control-tower' guidance than to expect new authoritative revelations for the guidance of the whole church. [Hot Tub Religion, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1987), 116]

Ok. So far this has been a negative argument. In my next post I will lay out for you the positive case for the wisdom model of decision-making.

What are your thoughts?




Tuesday, June 4, 2013

How Do We Make Decisions? (or, Why I Had to Leave My Second Job)

How do we make decisions as followers of Christ?

Think of the last big decision that you had to make. How did you make it? Chances are that if you are a follower of Christ, you prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide you and to show you his plan for your life in this area. You probably listened for that "still, small voice" to lead you.

What I want to discuss over this and the next blogpost or so is that I do not think that this listen-for-the-Spirit's-voice is the biblical model for decision making. I know this sounds radical, but bear with me...

First, some context. Here is the latest "big" decision that Sara and I had to make. For the last three school years I have been working two jobs. I teach physics by day, and by night, I am a caped crusader fighting crime and bringing justice to...no, wait...sorry, my inner 5-year old keeps coming out.

My actual second job is only slightly less interesting. I teach alternative education at my district in the evening, which means I get all kinds of students, from students failing their classes to drug users to social adaptation issues. I've had a student come to school so hopped up on synthetic weed that his heart was banging out of his chest, and he was pale as a ghost. His parents came and took him to the hospital. I had another high school student who liked to go to the bathroom and throw poop around.

Yes. You did read that correctly. He was my little monkey. Of course I didn't know who was leaving these little gifts in the boys room was until he got kicked out for bringing a knife to school and the poo-lympics subsequently stopped. Somehow I missed the class in college on how to deal with airborne excrement...

So you can see why I might want to leave this enviable position.

The decision, however, was a difficult one for Sara and I because of the extra income that the job brought in.  Sara and I decided early on that when we had children that she would stay home with them and work in the home. Then we chose to homeschool our kids, and Sara enjoys doing this. Well, of course there are the rare days when she'd rather have her kidneys pecked by crows or be waterboarded by the CIA, but those are pretty few. We both think that our boys are best served by being educated in the home.

And that means that I am the sole wage earner for the family, and thus my second job. For three years. With drug users and poop throwers. But this past month Sara and I finally made the decision to call the second job quits. We chose family time and more limited income, and both of us are looking forward to this upcoming change.

How did we make this decision?

First, we both agreed that in a perfect world I would be home with my own family in the evenings. We knew this from the beginning. A father should be involved in the home as much as possible.

Second, we sought and received wise counsel. I spoke with several people, including one man in particular from our church, who was able to help me think through the issues and the importance of being there to help raise my children. "For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers" (Prov 11:14).

Third, we prayed, sharing with the Lord that we would trust him to provide for our needs.

Finally, I submitted my resignation letter.

Done.

Now for the controversial part. Nowhere in this decision-making process did Sara or I ask the Lord to tell us what he wanted us to do. Nor did I ever sense the "leading of the Spirit" to do this. In today's current evangelical climate that almost sounds at best foolish and at worst, arrogant.

Why did we not "seek the Spirit" on this issue? Because I am not convinced that this model of decision making is taught in Scripture. I don't think that the Bible teaches us to expect that the Lord will share his plan for our lives.

This post is long enough already, so in my next post I will outline why I think the Bible teaches a wisdom model of decision making and not a ask-the-Lord-to-show-me model. In the meantime, what are your thoughts?

By the way, I know that this is an emotional issue for many Christians, and I expect that most of you won't agree. But allow me to lay out my case before calling me a heretic!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Haunted by Scripture

The Parable of the Talents haunts me.

In Matthew 25:14-30 describes a man who goes on a journey who leaves vast resources to his three slaves. To one he gives five talents, another two , and the third one. A talent was a sum of money worth about 6000 days' wages. A tremendous amount in that day. Not too shabby in our day, I might add! Jesus surely meant to imply that the man was giving his slaves everything that they would need during his absence.

The first two slaves take their talents and immediately set about investing it, and upon the slave owner's return, they had both doubled what had been given to them. Both of these slaves are praised, and they receive more responsibility as a result.

The third slave promptly buries his resources for fear of losing them. When the slave owner returns, this slave is cursed and thrown out for being lazy and a good-for-nothing.

Of course, Jesus means for us to understand that he is the slave owner in the parable. What is this journey that he goes on? Well, consider the context. This parable falls in Matthew 25, coming right after chapter 24 where Jesus discusses the signs of his return. Immediately after this chapter 25 begins with the Parable of the 10 Virgins where Jesus warns his disciples to be ready always for his return. Next is our Parable of the Talents.

So, the journey is the time between Jesus' ascension and his return.The time in which we find ourselves today. And God's power has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3). We are those slaves that have been given so much. How much? Go read right now Ephesians 1: 15-23. Seriously - go read it. I have time.

Ok, welcome back. Here's why this parable haunts me: we have been given responsibility to invest the resources (talents and spiritual gifts) that the Lord has given us, and he will hold us accountable upon his return for what we did with those resources.

I have been thinking about this parable a lot lately. How should we respond to it? Well, what did the two good slaves do? We are told that the first slave "went at once and put his money to work" and earned five more talents. The second slave does the same thing.

This is clearly what Jesus means for us to do - put our talents and spiritual gifts to work. Jesus means for us to be active, not to sit around waiting, waiting, waiting, like the good-for-nothing slave.

We need to be strategic about using our gifts and talents. We need to first identify what our gifts and talents are, and second, we need to develop them. Finally, we need to think long and hard about how to use them in service to God's Kingdom. We cannot be passive about this process. The third slave was condemned for this.

One final thought. In modern Christian circles it is not uncommon to hear someone claim that they are "waiting on the Spirit" before they do anything. This sometimes will go on for a looooong time. Years, even. My sense is that sometimes what sounds spiritual is a mask for fear and passivity. Sometimes what we really need is to just do something. Strategize, make a plan, and then execute. Go out into the world and use your talents for God's Kingdom. That is the message of the Parable of the Talents.

And, oh by way, you do not need God's permission to obey the Great Commission. It is already a command to us. Ours is to obey. Go out of your house and do it. Make a disciple. Teach him (or her) to obey everything Jesus said.

And it haunts me because I realize how little I have done in my 37 years for his Kingdom. From this point forward I want to be more thoughtful and purposeful about using my gifts to serve the King in his power.

These blessed words do not come free: "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!"

What do you think? Does this parable haunt you as well?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

An Evolutionary Argument for Traditional Marriage

Let’s assume the truth of Darwinian evolution for the sake of argument:

According to Darwinian theory, we are the products of a long, gradual process. This process included genetic variation acted upon by natural selection. Species that are the most fit will on average produce more offspring, and so will tend to spread throughout a population. At any given time a species will generally be populated by the most fit individuals, although a population is always changing.

That Darwinian process has produced males and females for each species that reproduce sexually. Sexual reproduction is the process selected by nature for getting these species' genes into the next generation. These requirements for producing children have been dictated by nature. 

Many species that reproduce sexually will mate but then only one of the parents will remain behind to raise the offspring. Additionally, some species will mate, the mother will lay her eggs, and then the progeny are on their own to face a harsh predatory world. More rarely, mom and pop will mate and then both will stick around to handle the parenting duties.

Human beings have historically shown themselves to be in this third category. Cultural studies ranging over the world and throughout history have demonstrated that men and women make long-term pairing to raise their children. Human children are notorious for taking so danged long to develop. The complexity of the human species with physical, emotional, and cognitive needs probably tended to require more than just what a mother or father could alone provide. Also the length of time required for human maturation would have tended to encourage both mating partners to contribute to the raising of their children.

That this is the case is easily explained by evolution. Nature must have selected for this long-term-pairing trait. By definition the dominant trait in a species is the most beneficial for survival. Therefore we should follow what is best for our survival and maintain our traditional marriage model. Anything else will just weaken our survivability on average.

What do you think? Given Darwinian evolution, does this argument work?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Everything Physical is Physics...

...but not everything is physical.

This is becoming my standard answer to my students when they ask, "What is physics?" You see, in the high school in which I teach, every student must take physics (thanks to this policy, I have a job!). So I initially get a lot of questions about what it is that they will be learning. My answer tries to point out to them that everything in the physical universe must obey the laws of physics, which we will be studying. We live in an orderly universe governed by law. This insight is astonishing in its own right: why is the universe orderly? This can lead to some very interesting conversations about design.

My point is a little different, however, when I respond, "Everything physical is physics, but not everything is physical." We live in a materialistic culture in which we are told in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways that we are nothing but our bodies. Our minds are reduced to our brains. Our feelings to chemical reactions. Our morality to evolutionary bric-a-brac.

So by saying that not everything is physical, I hope to put a stone in their shoe that there is more to this world than just physical stuff. For example:
  • Souls
  • Mental states
  • God
  • Information
None of these are physical, but they are just as real as a rock. I don't bring all of this up unless someone asks, but most students don't take the bait. Every once in a while, however, I get a student genuinely interested, and then we can launch into a meaningful conversation.

Just one more small way to push back the tide...

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Empty Tomb only Brought Confusion

Here are the 5 Minimal Facts of Jesus' resurrection.* This means the vast majority of scholars in this field agree to these, whether they are conservative or liberal scholars.
1) Jesus died on a Roman cross.
2) Jesus' disciples had experiences that they interpreted as his resurrection.
3) The enemy of the church, Paul, converted to becoming a follower of Jesus.
4) James, Jesus' brother, went from being a skeptic to a faithful leader in the church.
5) The tomb was empty on Easter morning.

One thing about the empty tomb to realize is that it was not the empty tomb that convinced Jesus' followers that he had risen. The first reaction to seeing the empty tomb on Sunday morning was confusion. In Luke 24, some women go to the tomb to put spices on Jesus' body. When they get there, they find the tomb empty. Verse 4 says, "While they were wondering about this," the angels show up to tell them about the resurrection. Why were they standing there wondering about the empty tomb? Because they did not expect it! 

Mark 16:3 adds the detail that the women were discussing the problem of who was going to move the stone for them so they could anoint the body. They did not expect the tomb to be empty.

In John 20 Mary Magdalene is crying because she is upset that she says someone has taken the body, and Mary doesn't know where the body was taken. Mary did not expect the empty tomb.

It was not the empty tomb that convince the early followers of Jesus of the resurrection. On the contrary, it was when they met Jesus that they were convinced. It was Minimal Fact #2 that caused the disciples to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, not Minimal Fact #5.

The Apostle Paul, for instance, may not have even seen the empty tomb at all. The tomb being empty did not convince him. It was the resurrection appearance of Jesus to him that changed him.

*Adapted from The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, by Habermas & Licona.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Minimal Fact #5 of Jesus' Resurrection:*

The tomb was empty.

There are slightly fewer scholars that accept this "minimal fact." Whereas the first 4 are agreed upon by well over 90% of conservative and liberal Bible scholars, only about 75% of scholars agree to the fact of the empty tomb according to Dr. Gary Habermas, the Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Dept. of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University.

Here's the basic evidence that the tomb was empty on Easter morning:
1) Jerusalem. The crucifixion and death of Jesus happened in Jerusalem. Later, his disciples proclaimed Jesus' resurrection in Jerusalem. That means that if his enemies wanted to put a stop to this, they could have just hiked over to the tomb, gotten his body, and put an end to this new "way." The tomb was empty or Jesus' enemies surely would have squashed this early and often. It is significant that Christianity first sprang up in the very city where the events took place, NOT in some far away city where the empty tomb could not be falsified.

2) Enemy support. This means that there is evidence in Scripture that Jesus' enemies indirectly confirmed that the tomb was empty. Read this from Matthew 28:12-13, "When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’" Instead of leading the way to the tomb to point out a dead body, the priests told the soldiers that they were to say the body was stolen. There would be absolutely no need to make this story up if the body were in the tomb.

3) Women. The first witnesses to the empty tomb recorded in Scripture were women. In the first century AD in Palestine, the status of women was not what it is today. Here's a quotation from Josephus (Antiquities 4.8.15) that gives you a sense of the culture of the time: "But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex...since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment." The testimony of women was not valued. So, if you were going to make up a story about a guy coming back to life, you wouldn't make women the first witnesses to that miracle in that culture. The Gospels probably record women as the first witnesses because...they really were the first witnesses and the authors are just being truthful. The role of women here is a little embarrassing in that culture, so why report it if it isn't true?

So most scholars agree that the tomb was empty. Most scholars also agree that:
1) Jesus died by crucifixion.
2) The disciples really believed that Jesus rose from the dead.
3) The skeptic, Paul, converted and became an apostle.
4) James, the skeptical brother of Jesus, converted and became an apostle.

These are the 5 minimal facts of that the vast majority of conservative and liberal scholars who work in this field agree to. 

Next time I'll discuss how the best explanation for these data.

*Adapted from The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, by Habermas & Licona.


Friday, March 1, 2013

Minimal Fact #4

Minimal Fact #4:*

James, the skeptic and brother of Jesus, converted to become a follower of Jesus.

Most scholars accept this fact because it is documented by several early sources. First, scholars agree that James was originally a skeptic. As the brother of Jesus (Mark 3:21,31;6:3-4; John 7:5), James did not origninally believe in his own brother as the Messiah. But something happened that changed him from skeptic to becoming not only a follower of Jesus, but a leader in the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:12-21; Gal 1:19). What would it take for you to believe that your very own brother was the long-awaited Messiah?

There are no sources that say exactly what it was that convinced James, but Paul records in 1 Corinthians 15:7 that Jesus appeared to James after being raised. Likely it was this post-resurrection appearance that would have contributed to James' conversion. Paul also mentions clearly in Galatians 1:19 that Paul met James in Jerusalem, and that James was both the Lord's brother and an apostle. Luke writes in Acts 15 that James played a leading role in the Jerusalem council that is mentioned there. This means that within just a couple of years after the resurrection, James went from being a skeptic to becoming a believer, an apostle and leader in the church.

Several ancient sources also record James' suffering and martyrdom. Scholars generally accept these sources, which include Josephus, Clement of Alexandria, and Hegesippus. What would it take for a confirmed skeptic like James to go from being an enemy of the church to becoming a leader in the church who was then killed for his convictions? Once again, people die all the time for mistaken beliefs. But nobody dies for what they know to be false. Nobody.

So we know at least that James believed that Jesus had risen from the dead. But he was there. James was Jesus' brother. That's powerful evidence.

Minimal Facts:
1) Jesus died by crucifixion.
2) Jesus' followers believed that Jesus rose from the dead.
3) The skeptic Paul converted to becoming an apostle.
4) James, the brother of Jesus, went from being a skeptic to being an apostle and leader of the church.

Next up: The fifth and final Minimal Fact.

*Adapted from The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, by Habermas & Licona.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Happy Belated Birthday, Copernicus!

Yesterday, if you didn't notice from the Google Doodle, was Copernicus' 540th birthday. He is one of the men responsible for getting the ball rolling (pun totally intended) of accepting that the Earth moves around a central Sun, and not the other way around. 

Feel free to party at this point - I'll wait...

...Ok, welcome back! Copernicus was a devout Catholic Christian who did not want to upset the Church, but for largely unknown reasons began to work out a heliocentric model of the solar system. To us it is common sense that the Sun is at the center, but in his day, it was common sense that the Earth was at the center. Heliocentrism was not largely accepted for another 150 years or so.

Happy Birthday, Nick!

Minimal Fact #3

Minimal Fact #3 of Jesus' Resurrection:*

Paul, the skeptic and persecutor of Christians, converted to becoming a follower of Christ.

In Paul's own words (1 Corinthians 15:9-10, Galatians 1:12-16, 22-23, and Phillipians 3:6-7), he describes himself as a persecutor of the church. We also have record in Acts (7:58, 8:1-3, 9:1-19, 22:3-16, 26:9-23) of Paul's actions against the church. There was also a report circulating among the region of Galatia that said, “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy" (Gal 1:22-23).

Paul also describes in his own words (see passages above) of his conversion. This is significant because Paul doesn't claim to have heard the Gospel message from some schmo around town, but Paul claims to have seen the risen Lord himself. He then has a dramatic change of life, eventually becoming an apostle and leader in the church.

Paul could have been mistaken, of course. But one thing we know is that he truly believed it. No less than 6 other sources (Luke, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian, Dionysius of Corinth, and Origen) testify to Paul's suffering and martyrdom for the faith. People have (and do) die for believing something that is wrong, but they never die for a lie. This is why the vast majority of scholars in this field agree that Paul did in fact become a convert to Christianity.

Paul was a persecutor, said he met the risen Jesus, became a leader in the church, suffered and died for the faith.

Minimal Facts:
1) Jesus died by crucifixion.
2) The disciples believed that they experienced the risen Jesus.
3) Paul, the skeptic, became a believer in Christ.

*Adapted from The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, by Habermas & Licona.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

As an encouragement to believers and to "put a stone in the shoe" of non-believers, I want to offer evidence that Jesus of Nazareth is no longer dead. Lent begins this year on Wednesday, Feb 13, so in less than two weeks we'll be in the season when we remember (officially) the death and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps you and I will have the opportunity to discuss this with an unbelieving friend or co-worker. I hope to give you something to talk about.

I will be using what has been called the "minimal facts" approach to the Resurrection. There are certain facts that are agreed to by the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars, not all of which are Christians. A surprising number of scholars are not Christians themselves, and approach the Bible simply as a work of literature by humans. But even the majority of these skeptical scholars agree to the "minimal facts" of the Resurrection as I'll be sharing them.

Next time: Minimal Fact #1

Minimal Fact #2

Remember, Minimal Fact #1 of Jesus' resurrection is that Jesus really died on a Roman cross.

Minimal Fact #2 of Jesus' resurrection:*

Jesus' disciples and followers had experiences that they interpreted to be Jesus' bodily resurrection.

Notice how this is worded. It doesn't say that Jesus bodily rose from the dead, but that his followers had experiences that they thought was Jesus' resurrection. It has to be worded this way in order to be a minimal fact (a fact agreed upon by the vast majority of historians and New Testament scholars, many of which are skeptics to Christianity).

How do we know this? Here's how: 1) They said it, and 2) They believed it.

1) There is record of strong oral tradition dating back to before the first books of the Bible were even written (See 1 Corinthians 15:3-7). The written record includes Paul's letters, the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John), sermon summaries (Acts 2). These all testify that the disciples claimed to have seen Jesus raised bodily from the dead.

2) They believed they witnessed Jesus' resurrection. Nine ancient sources record the disciples' willingness to suffer and even to die for their faith in Christ. These sources include the book of Acts, Polycarp, Tertullian, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Origen, and Dionysius of Corinth. People will and do die for things all the time, even for being mistaken. BUT, people do not suffer or die for something the know to be false. So at the very least this evidence tells us that the disciples truly believed that they saw Jesus alive.

Once I've laid out all 5 minimal facts, then we'll talk about how skeptics explain away all the facts. For now here's what we know:
1) Jesus died.
2) Jesus' followers had experiences which led them to believe that he rose bodily.

*Adapted from The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, by Habermas & Licona.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Minimal Fact #1

Minimal Fact #1 of Jesus' Resurrection:*

Jesus died by crucifixion.

This might seem like an odd place to start. We're talking about Jesus' resurrection, and the first piece of evidence is that he died?

Well, in fact this is an important place to begin. Every reputable scholar in the field, both Christian and skeptic, agree that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and died on a Roman cross. John Dominic Crossan, one of the founders of the liberal Jesus Seminar and no friend of conservative Christianity, said, "Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be. For if no follower of Jesus had written anything for one hundred years after his crucifixition, we would still know about him from two authors not among his supporters. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus" (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 145).

From Jesus' death, we can infer a couple of things. 1) Jesus actually existed. In order to die, you have to be alive, right? No credible scholar on the planet disputes that Jesus of Nazareth was a real human being who walked the Earth. The only ones who do deny it are the internet loons. 2) A popular explanation of the resurrection is called the "Swoon Theory," where Jesus is said to have been taken down from the cross still alive and then revived in the tomb. The problem is that historians universally agree that Jesus really died. So the Swoon Theory is not taken seriously in scholarly circles, even among scholars who don't believe in the bodily resurrection.

So there we are: Minimal Fact #1 says that Jesus really died. Stay tuned for Minimal Fact #2.

*Adapted from The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, by Habermas & Licona.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Can We Give Evidence for Our Faith?

So, giving historical facts as evidence for our faith in Christ is entirely biblical. Not only that, but it is helpful for two reason: 1) The evidence encourages the faith of Christians that what we believe is actually true, and 2) it gives the non-Christian something to chew on. If it turns out that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is strong, then non-believers that we interact with can be challenged by it. The Holy Spirit can then use this evidence to work on that person's heart.

Demonstrating that there are good reasons to believe what we believe is encouraging to Christians. Skeptics and non-believers in our culture tell a story that they have reason on their side and that Christians foolishly believe in spite of the facts. But this couldn't be further from the truth. The Christian faith is entirely reasonable. Good reasons abound for being a follower of Christ.

Emotions are also a huge part of following Christ, but I'm not focusing on our emotions because the modern American evangelical Church is so tuned in to our emotions that we sometimes get the idea that following Jesus is all about our feelings. But there is more to it. Jesus said that we should love God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds (Matt 22:37). God is worthy of being worshiped by all of our being, including our minds.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Faith is Active Trust

Because Christianity is a religion with claims to history, we can search out the evidence from history to see if it's really true. I want to be careful in how I go about this, however, because Scripture is clear that the Holy Spirit can testify to our hearts that we are children of God (Rom 8:16), and a person without historical evidence can still be a follower of Jesus of Nazereth. Yet, the biblical model of faith is an active trust in the evidence we do have. God gives us evidence for belief all over the Bible. God gave Moses the ability to perform miracles as evidence that Moses spoke for Yahweh. The entire Gospel of John was written as evidence for belief in Christ (John 20:30-31). Paul in Acts 17 reasons with God-fearing Jews and Greeks from the Scriptures and discusses with people in the marketplace evidence from nature that God wants everyone to repent. So providing evidence for faith is the biblical model for providing a witness to others. No where in Scripture is it taught that we should just believe in spite of or contrary to facts. Saying that "I just believe in Jesus and that's all I need to know" may sound spiritual to our modern ears, but this idea is not taught in the Bible. Did Jesus say to Thomas that he should "just believe?" No, he met Thomas where he was and allowed him to put his finger in Jesus' wounds. That's evidence.