Is the Book of Esther Fictional? Does it Really Belong in the Bible?

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Did you know that the Book of Esther never mentions God?

Did you know that whereas almost every Old Testament book is quoted in the New Testament, the Book of Esther is not?

Did you know that the Dead Sea Scrolls contained copies of every Old Testament book except the Book of Esther? (for more on the Dead Sea Scrolls, see: Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter for Christians)

The Book of Esther tells the story of a Jewish girl in Persia who becomes a queen and uses her position to save the Jewish people from an attempted genocide. This story is the basis for the Jewish holiday of Purim, a holiday which is not prescribed in the Law of Moses.

These facts, along with the lack of corresponding historical records which corroborate the events talked about in the book have led many people to question not only whether Esther is historical, but whether it belongs in the Bible at all.

Martin Luther, for example, criticized the Book of Esther, accusing it of being too aggressively nationalistic and containing no gospel content.

It isn’t only Christians who are divided over the Book of Esther; Jewish congregations are also divided over whether Esther is a true story or a fable, and whether it belongs in the canon of Scripture (e.g. the Orthodox Union considers it historical and canonical, whereas the Assembly of True Israel considers it neither historical nor canonical).

Let’s consider the relevant questions:

Is Esther Historical?

The Book of Esther focuses on a ten year period (483-473 B.C.) in the Persian Empire during the reign of Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes.

The book contains several historical, chronological and cultural details, which would lead us to believe that it is intended to be read as actual history, rather than as a parable. As in the case of Jonah (see: Is Jonah a Historical Account or an Allegory?), specific historical and geographical details are characteristic of historical narratives and not of allegorical stories (e.g. the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son).

In Esther 1:1 we read an accurate description of the extent of Xerxes’ empire, in 1:2 we read about the location of the seat of the Persian government, and in 1:3-4, we read that in the third year of his reign, Xerxes gave a banquet for all his officials and servants, including the army of Persia and Media. The reason this is important is that it coincides with the accounts of the historian Herodotus which tell us that Xerxes’ second invasion of Greece took place from 480 to 479 B.C., which means that this great gathering mentioned in Esther 1:3-4, which verse 4 says lasted 180 days, is likely describing the preparation for that military invasion of Greece.

According to Herodotus, Xerxes began his return to Persia after his defeat by the Greek navy at Salamis at the end of 480 B.C. The dismissal of Queen Vashti, described in Esther chapter 1, would correspond to this timeline, having happened just before Xerxes departure to Greece, and his encounter with Esther would have happened just after his return. Herodotus claims that Xerxes “sought consolation in his harem after his defeat at Salamis,” which corresponds with what the Book of Esther describes and the time when Esther would have become queen.

Despite the clear historical setting, no outside sources exist which tell us about Esther becoming queen or about the killing of 75,000 Persians. However, it seems that the author’s intent is to relay historical events, and while corroborating sources do not exist, the same is also true of other historical accounts, including those of Herodotus.

Thus, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence which would lead us to believe that Esther is not a historical account, and where historical accounts from this period do exist, they line up with the historical, cultural and geographical details that Esther gives.

Why is Esther in the Bible if it doesn’t mention God?

Esther was recognized as scripture by the Jews before the time of Christ. Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that the Jewish Scriptures were written from the time of Moses “until Artaxerxes,” whom Josephus identifies as the “Ahasuerus” in the book of Esther (Against Apion 1.40-41 & Jewish Antiquities 11.184). Therefore, Josephus understood Esther to be the last book to be written in the Jewish canon.

In the Christian church, Esther was listed among the books of the Old Testament canon at the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397, but was widely accepted by Christians as canonical long before that because of its inclusion in the Jewish Old Testament canon.

Although God is not named in the book, God is not absent from the story. Like in the story of Joseph, Esther is a story which highlights the providence, or the “invisible hand of God” at work in the world, ordering and ordaining events to happen according to His divine plan.

Many scholars believe that the absence of the word “God” from Esther was not a mistake, but was an intentional literary device, aimed at focusing attention on the importance of human initiative and divine providence. The sheer number of “coincidences” in the Book of Esther beg the reader to take notice of the invisible hand of God at work to bring about salvation and justice.

Does Esther contain any gospel content?

Contrary to Martin Luther’s claim that Esther does not contain any gospel content, the story actually contains very many foreshadowings of the salvation which Jesus will bring. Consider, for example the basic elements of the story:

There is an enemy of the people who wants to kill and destroy them. God raises up a savior at just the right time, who uniquely has access to the throne of the great king, who alone can save the people from this impending doom. This savior, at risk to herself, enters into the throne-room of the king and intercedes on behalf of her people, thus securing their salvation. The evil-doers, who throughout the story seemed to act unencumbered, receive the pronouncement of judgment from the king.

Furthermore, we see how the evil Haman desired to be treated as royalty even though he was not. In this we have a contrast with the one who was indeed royalty, but set aside his privileges in order to become a servant so that He might save us (see Philippians 2:3-11 and Matthew 20:28).

Finally, we see in Esther an example of God’s faithfulness to His covenant people.

Conclusion

Because of the scarcity of historical accounts and the lack of thoroughness of those which exist, it would be unwise for us to assume that this story is not historical just because we have not yet found other accounts which corroborate certain aspects of this story. The fact that some parts of the story do have corroborating historical evidence and accounts should give us confidence that Esther is a historical story about actual events – which ultimately are part of the picture and foreshadowing of the Great Savior who has now come: Jesus Christ, who entered into the throne room of God to make intercession for us, that through Him we might be saved from the great enemies of our souls.

Is Jonah a Historical Account or an Allegory?

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The story of Jonah is a fantastical story about a rebellious prophet who runs away from his calling, then tries to kill himself and gets swallowed by a giant fish who transports him back to where he started and barfs him up on the beach. Then he walks into a large city, preaches the worst sermon ever, and the whole city repents – much to Jonah’s dismay.

The key literary device used in the Book of Jonah is: satire, defined as: the exposure of human vice of folly through the use of humor and irony. In other words, the story of Jonah is intended to make you laugh…and then cry – as you realize that you are actually a lot like Jonah yourself.

Is Jonah an Allegory?

For these reasons, many people have questioned whether Jonah should be understood as an allegory instead of an historical account. As an allegory, Jonah represents Israel: a nation who has not shared the heart of God for lost people and has run away from their calling to be God’s light to the nations. The fish would represent Israel’s (at that present time: current) captivity, which would mean that the calling to go to Nineveh represents the implied proper behavior or response that Israel should have once their captivity is over.

Aside from the miraculous (fish) and fantastical (all of Nineveh repenting) nature of the story, another reason people have argued that Jonah is meant to be understood as an allegory or parable is because there is no historical record outside of the Bible that corroborates the repentance of Nineveh at the preaching of Jonah.

Why Most Bible Scholars Believe Jonah is a Historical Account

1. Jonah is a historical figure

2 Kings 14:25 speaks of a prophet named Jonah who lived in the 8th Century BC. This lines up with the timeline of the events of the Book of Jonah, and it would line up with the Assyrian Empire being powerful at this time.

2. The story presents itself as a historical narrative

The book is presented as a historical, not a fictional narrative. Specific historical and geographical details are characteristic of historical narratives and not of allegorical stories (e.g. the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, allegorical stories which are given no historical or geographical anchoring). See: Jonah 1:1-3; 3:2-10; 4:11.

Furthermore, the story of Jonah has all the marks of a prophetic narrative, such as those about Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings, which also set out to report actual historical events.

Therefore a simple reading of the text would lead us to believe that this is a historical narrative.

3. There is no strong evidence against it being historical

For those who would argue that the miraculous element of the story is not possible, that would lead to bigger questions about the ability of God and the nature of the world. This assumption, of course, would have implications for how one reads most of the Bible, not just the Book of Jonah. If, on the other hand, God is capable of doing miracles, this should not be considered a major issue.

The lack of historical account from Nineveh about Jonah’s coming and the subsequent repentance of the entire city is not considered strong evidence against Jonah’s historicity either, since 1) records were not kept in ancient society as they are now, and 2) whatever records did exist were regularly and intentionally destroyed by each successive ruling party or civiliazation. Historians would not consider the lack of corroborating historical accounts from Assyria to be evidence against the historicity of the Book of Jonah – whether they believe the story to be true or not.

The question of whether an entire city would repent is not really a problem either considering the communal nature of ancient and Eastern societies. A look at the history of the spread of different religions shows that entire nations have often converted after the command of their king or ruler. Such a response, therefore, would not be unprecedented or even unusual.

4. Jesus spoke of the story as having historical and future relevance

In Matthew 12:40-41, Jesus declared that “the men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah.”

Conclusion

Therefore, my conclusion is with the majority of scholars who believe Jonah to be a historical account. Certainly we should acknowledge though, that it is not history for history’s sake, but that there is a particular didactic (teaching) intention in the way the story is told. May we learn from it!

For more on Jonah, check out this study I did at White Fields Community Church: Jonah: God’s Mission in the World

David Foster Wallace on Atheism and Worship

In 2008, at the time of his untimely death, the Los Angeles Times declared that David Foster Wallace was “one of the most influential writers of the last twenty years.”[1] He was an award-winning, bestselling postmodern novelist, who loved to push boundaries in his storytelling.

Although Wallace was an agnostic, he made some profound statements about atheism and worship in his now famous commencement speech, which he gave to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005.

Here’s what he said:

webdavidfosterwallaceYou get to choose what to worship. Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god … to worship … is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.

Worship power, and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they are evil or sinful; it is that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They are the kind of worship you just gradually slip into day after day … without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. [2]

Wallace, although not a Christian, understood and communicated a very profound and very biblical truth: everyone worships, but anything you worship other than God will “eat you alive.”

Romans 6:16 tells us that there is no such thing as not worshiping, and that anything we worship other than God will enslave us.

Rebecca Manley Pippert puts it this way:

“Whatever controls us in our lord. The person who seeks power is controlled by power. The person who seeks acceptance is controlled by it. We do not control ourselves. We are controlled by the lord of our lives. (Pippert, Out of the Saltshaker, p. 53)

Whether we call ourselves religious or not, all of us have a lord, a master, and we are all worshipers.

The only way to be free, is by having a lord and a master who will not crush you, but who will liberate you – and in Jesus we have exactly that: one who came not to crush us, but to liberate us from all that enslaves us and to fulfill our deepest longings.

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:10,13)

What a tragedy it would be to know this truth and not come to the fountain of living water and drink in order to be liberated and fulfilled!

Here is a recording of Wallace’s speech. The part about worship begins at 17:50.

The Hijacked Mind (and How to Be Free)

I don’t usually feel much sympathy for cockroaches, but I recently found out about a strange parasite that attacks beetles, grasshoppers and cockroaches.

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Spinochordodes tellinii (S.T.) is a parasitic worm. Once it enters its host, it lives quietly and peacefully inside of them as it develops and grows. Once the S.T. has grown into maturity, it hijacks the mind of its host and causes them to commit suicide by compelling them to find water and cast themselves into it and drown.

The S.T., which by this point has grown to be larger than the host when stretched out, emerges, leaving their host dead in the water, and swims away to find a mate and reproduce.

You can read more about it here: Parasites Brainwash Grasshoppers into Death Dive

The way this parasite functions is similar to the way that sin works in our lives.

We have been studying the Epistle to the Romans on Sunday Mornings at White Fields. (Click here to see those messages) This Sunday we will be looking at Romans chapter 6, which tells us that sin is not something we can merely dabble in, but that our sins actually enslave us.

The only way to be free, we are told, is paradoxically by becoming “slaves of God.”

The paradox of freedom is that freedom from God enslaves us, but serving God frees us.

This is why, when God told Pharaoh through Moses to let his people go, he didn’t merely say, “Let my people go,” (as Charlton Heston incorrectly portrayed), the message was always actually, “Let my people go that they may serve me.” (For more on this, check out: The Setting for Salvation, a study of Exodus chapter 1)

In other words: freedom from the slavery they were in was not found in just coming out of slavery and then doing whatever they wanted. Why? Because it only would have been a matter of time before they would have been captured and enslaved by someone else. The only way for them to experience true freedom was for them to serve a new master who could, and would, truly liberate them and cause them to thrive.

As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

In Romans 6, we are told that we will either be slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness. The thing about sin is that it acts a lot like the Spinochordodes tellinii: it seems innocuous at first, but as it grows and matures, it will enslave you and ultimately destroy you.
The good news is: there is one who is greater than the greatest parasite: Jesus Christ, who took our sin and conquered the great enemy, so that we might be free. He sets us free from the great hijacker of our minds, hearts and souls.

Jesus told his disciples: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:13-15)

And yet, the followers of Jesus would refer to themselves as “bondservants of Jesus.” A bondservant was a slave by choice; it was a slave who had been granted their freedom, and yet chose to serve their master, because of their love for their master and desire to remain with them. (See: Free to Be a Slave)

To be a Christian is to be set free from bondage to sin, and to become a bondservant of God, because of Jesus.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

Why Church Attendance Isn’t Like Rental Car Insurance

I came across this article in my Apple News feed this morning, posted by a major news source:

Americans still believe in God, so why do so many of us see it as just optional rental car insurance?

The article cites research which shows that despite the fact that 80% of Americans believe in God, church attendance is decreasing. Americans aren’t necessarily giving up on God, they’re just not going to church like they once did.

Contributing factors are our American culture, which is radically individualistic. It’s not a stretch to say that our modern Western culture is the most individualistic culture which has ever existed in the history of the world.

(Read: Toxic Loneliness and How to Break Out)

Furthermore, the Bible has been placed in the hands of the people. No one has to go to church any more in order to hear what the Bible says. Sermons are available via podcast and there are more Christian books on the market than one could probably ever read in a lifetime. Thus, people are increasingly considering church to be optional rather than vital.

The author of this article, a pastor, argues that the church as a community is irreplaceable and meets a deep spiritual need.

(Read: Why Go to Church If You Already Know It All? Here’s Why)

41aomdoo-sl-_sx325_bo1204203200_I am currently reading Martyn Lloyd Jones’ classic Preaching & Preachersbased on a series of lectures he gave back in 1969. Interestingly, he mentions the same issue as having existed at that time as well; the availability of journals, books, radio and television broadcasts of sermons or other Christian content had led many people to opt out of church because they felt they could feed their souls and connect with God on their own via these mediums, apart from the local church.

Here’s his response:

“This is a wrong approach because it is too individualistic. The man sits on his own reading his book. That is too purely intellectual in its approach, it is a matter of intellectual interest. The man himself is too much in control. What I mean is that if you do not agree with the book you put it down, if you do not like what you are hearing on the television you switch it off. You are an isolated individual and you are in control of the situation. Or, to put it more positively, that whole approach lacks the vital element of the Church.

Now the Church is a missionary body, and we must recapture this notion that the whole Church is a part of this witness to the Gospel and its truth and its message. It is therefore most important that people should come together and listen in companies in the realm of the Church. That has an impact in and of itself. I have often been told this. The preacher after all is not speaking for himself, he is speaking for the Church, he is explaining what the Church is and what these people are, and why they are what they are. 

Not only that, when a person comes into a church, to a body of people, he begins to get some idea of the fact that they are the people of God, and that they are the modern representatives of something that has been known in every age and generation throughout the centuries. This makes an impact. The person is not simply considering a new theory or a new teaching or a new idea. They are visiting or entering into something that has long history and tradition.

The person who thinks that all this can be done by reading, or by just looking at a television set, is missing the mysterious element in the life of the Church. What is this? It is what our Lord was suggesting when He said, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst.’ It is not a mere gathering of people; Christ is present. This is the great mystery of the Church. There is something in the very atmosphere of Christian people meeting together to worship God and to listen to the preaching of the Gospel.”

He then goes on to tell the story of a woman who had been involved in occult practices, who one time entered one of his church services when he pastored a small fellowship in Wales. She continued coming and eventually converted. When asked what kept her coming when she first started attending, she said that she sensed a “clean power” in their midst.

“All I am contending for is that when you enter a church, a society, a company of God’s people, there is a factor which immediately comes into operation, which is reinforced still more by the preacher expounding the Word in the pulpit; and that is why preaching can never be replaced by either reading or by watching television or any one of these other activities.”
(Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, pp. 52-55.)

Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but let us encourage one another all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:25)

Treasure in Unexpected Places

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Did you know that a few years ago, the British artist Banksy set up a stall at the edge of New York’s Central Park, and offered some of his most famous and sought-after works of art up for ridiculously low prices?

Some of Banksy’s most famous pieces, the monkey with a sign, the guy throwing flowers, the rat with a smirk, they were all there – but people walked by and completely ignored them.

Pieces which are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were on sale for $60 a piece, and yet, over the course of the day, only three people bought prints from the old man watching over the stall, which was only labeled “Spray Art.”

One lady bought two pieces, but only after haggling for a 50% discount. One young woman bought a large canvas at full price, and one lucky man from Chicago bought four of them for his new house, because he just wanted “something for the walls,” and he thought these would suffice.

All in all, Banksy sold $225,000 of art for just $420. The entire stall was holding over $1 million worth of art, but no one recognized the incredible value of what they were walking right past.

Here’s an article about it, and below is a video which was taken of the stunt as it happened.

Or maybe you’ve heard about the world famous violinist, Joshua Bell, who, two days after selling out a theater in Boston where the average seat price was over $100, entered a Washington D.C. metro station and played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million. In 45 minutes, he made $32 in tips, and of the thousands of people who walked by, only six stopped to listen.

Here’s an article and a video of that.

“From now on therefore…”

How many times do we do the same thing? We overlook the treasure that is right before us, because it is in a place we didn’t expect to find it.

We overlook it in the people about whom we are predisposed to think a certain way. We overlook it in nature and in all kinds of other places.

The Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:16: “From no on therefore, we will regard no one according to the flesh.”

He is making a determination, that he will not look at people the same way anymore. Why not? Because in the prior verses, he talked about how Jesus has died to redeem us. Not everyone will receive that gift of redemption; Paul mentions that when he talks about how, in light of what God has done, we now seek to compel and persuade others to look to Jesus and receive God’s grace freely offered to them, as if God as making his appeal through us: we implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God! (2 Corinthians 5:11,20)

CS Lewis put it this way:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
(CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

Beyond just the fact that no human you ever encounter is a mere moral, Paul tells us something even more astounding: that for those of us who have received this gift of redemption and new life in Christ, God has placed the light of his glory within us – as if someone put a great treasure in a simple clay pot… or if Banksy set up a stall in Central Park, or if the greatest violinist in the world were playing in a subway station…

Will you determine to see the beauty and the majesty that God has placed around you? Will you determine to see people differently than you have – as those who bear the image of God, and for those who have been redeemed: those in whom the glory of God dwells?

I know that I need to do this myself: to slow down and consider the treasure and the beauty of what (and who) is around me. I bet I’m not the only one 🙂

Update on Project Back to School 2018

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Drop off time!

Recently I told you about Project Back to School: White Fields Community Church’s annual summertime outreach to kids in foster care in conduction with Weld County Health and Human Services.

This month-long project concluded today with some of us from the church delivering the backpacks to the case workers in Weld County. They will be delivered to these needy families in the coming days and weeks.

Here’s a message from Travis Hergert, who oversees missions and outreach for White Fields:

Backpacks delivered!!

This morning, Joe Cady, Pastor Nick and I had the great privilege of delivering the backpacks that you so graciously provided to 135 elementary, middle school and high school age foster children.  As you all are well aware, each pack was filled with the needed school supplies for Weld County Schools.

It took two pickup trucks to haul all of the backpacks to Greeley!  As we were unloading them at the facility, I was so moved when one of the Human Services workers commented that he is always amazed at how our church manages to provide this amount of backpacks and an incredible amount of gifts at Christmas.  He said he wanted to know the secret of how a congregation is so engaged with their community!  All of the Human Services case workers were incredibly appreciative and very excited to give each child their new backpack and supplies.

This goes beyond just backpacks, you truly showed the love of Christ in a tangible way!

…As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:15, ESV)

It was great to see how excited the case workers were about the backpacks, having personal knowledge of the kids and the details of their situations. Please be in prayer both for the kids, their caretakers and these case workers who care so much about them.

“Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:18)

This is an ongoing outreach, so if you would like to be involved with either Project Back to School or Project Greatest Gift, contact White Fields by clicking here.

Project Back to School

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Did you know that children in the foster system form an at-risk people group without in our own communities?

In almost every case, the reason these children end up in foster care is because of an unsuitable home environment, which may involve violence, neglect, drugs, crime, etc. These environments not only result in trauma many times, but they also tend to result in or be associated with poverty. Many foster care situations are kinship care, which means the child is cared for by a relative, which can create a financial burden.

Poverty has a profound impact on a child’s mental and physical well-being. Children living in poverty have higher rates of absenteeism from school. Students who come from low income families are six times more likely to drop out of high school.  Adults without a high school diploma are 4 times more likely to be unemployed and live in poverty, which means raising their children in poverty, perpetuating a cycle of poverty which may persist for generations: poverty affects education which affects poverty. (source 1, source 2)

One of the ways that we can help kids break out of this cycle of poverty is by encouraging them to stay in school – and one of the ways we can do that is by helping them have the things they need to be confident and excited about going to school, so they can succeed!

Our church, White Fields Community Church, has a history of ministering to children in the foster system, and two years ago we began a new ministry: Project Back to School.

We are working with Weld County Department of Human Services, and this year they have identified 135 at-risk kids who need help with school supplies, clothes and shoes.

This is the most we’ve ever taken on. The first year we did 50, last year we did 100 – and this year we’ve accepted their request to provide for 135 kids! It’s a big step of faith, but we are trusting that God will raise up people to bless these families in the name of Jesus. It’s a way for us to love not only in words and in speech, but in action as well (1 John 3:18).

If you would like to be involved, visit us on a Sunday morning this July, leave a comment below, or contact the church here.

 

Who’s Holding Whom?

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I have a two-year old daughter whom I love with my whole heart. At this age, she is learning and growing so fast, especially in her speech.

Lately, every day she looks up at me and says, “Can I hold you?”

That’s her way of asking me to pick her up. Last night I was holding her, and she asked me, “Can I hold mommy?”

When we pick her up, she holds on tight. I’m not sure if she’s just mixing up her words, and really means to say, “Can you hold me?”, or if she really thinks of it as her holding us when we pick her up. Certainly she is holding on, but at the end of the day, our grip on her is much stronger than her grip on us.

I can’t help but think of this in regard to a believer’s relationship with God.

We are told by the writer of Hebrews that we are to “hold fast” to the gospel (Hebrews 3:14, 4:14, 10:23). We should love Him, seek Him, and cling to Him.

But here’s the good news: if and when you fail to do so, if and when you feel weak, confused and exhausted to the point where you are struggling to hold onto Him – He will still be holding on to you.

My daughter thinks she is holding onto me. But the truth is: I’m holding onto her much more firmly than she’s holding onto me, and I’m much stronger than she is.

2 Timothy 2:13, most likely quoting from an early Christian creed or song, says: if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.

At the church where I served my first few years in Hungary, the pastor would read this passage at the end of every service:

Now unto him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy,
To the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen. (Jude 24-25)

Find security in knowing this today: If you are His child, then as much as you might be clinging to Him (and you should be), He is clinging to you much more tightly, and He is infinitely stronger!

Discipleship is a Direction

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Recently I posted some things I had learned from a book I read called No Silver Bullets by Daniel Im. (Read that post here: “Inputs and Outputs for Growth and Maturity”)

Last week I was in California attending the CGN Pastors and Leaders Conference at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, and Daniel Im was there speaking about some of the topics covered in his book.

By the way, recordings of the messages and panel discussions from the conference are available here. I thought the panel discussion on current issues in theology was particularly good.

One of the things Daniel wrote about in his book and talked about at the conference is the idea that discipleship is a direction, rather than a destination. While there is an ultimate destination to our discipleship: experiencing the glory of God in the fullness of His Kingdom forever, as long as we are here on this Earth, being a disciple of Jesus is about direction, not destination.

  • A destination is a place you can arrive at. Once you’re there, then you’ve arrived.
  • A direction implies active and sustained movement towards something.

What is the measure of maturity?

What is it that makes a Christian disciple “mature”?

Consider this: in the Bible, we read about many people who encountered Jesus, from ultra-religious pharisees to prostitutes, extortioners and even thieves.

If the measure of spiritual maturity is simply knowledge or religious observance, then it’s no question: the pharisees were more mature. They knew more about the Bible and their record of religious observance was spotless. The only problem was: the pharisees were far from God in their hearts. (Mark 7:6 – “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me).

On the other hand, you have people like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), an extortioner who hasn’t got everything in his life sorted out, but he’s changed directions and is moving towards Jesus even though he’s just now at the beginning of his journey.

Who is the greater disciple? The answer is: Zacchaeus, because he is moving towards Jesus, as opposed to the pharisee who isn’t.

The implications of viewing discipleship in this way

Viewing discipleship as direction rather than a destination has profound implications. It means that you don’t become a disciple by successfully learning a block of material or completing a discipleship workbook or 4-part class. Rather discipleship is an ongoing process.

Unlike justification, which is an outside, definitive, unchanging status that is bestowed on a believer by God, discipleship by definition implies sustained movement. So, if at one point in your life you were passionately seeking God and following Jesus, but are not currently doing so, your past discipleship doesn’t make up for your current posture. Knowledge, longevity nor familiarity equate to having “arrived” as a disciple, in other words. Discipleship is about direction.

A Case Study: the Cussing Christian

When I was pastoring in Hungary, we had a young woman come to our church. She had grown up in an atheist family and her father was a musician. She was a bohemian herself. At our church, she heard the gospel, and she received it – and immediately she began to grow and change. She was at every Bible study, taking copious notes, so hungry to know God and understand His Word and His will for her life. She was all-in, whole-heartedly following Jesus and asked to be baptized.

She also cussed like a sailor. My wife and I learned some new Hungarian words from her… You see, we were fluent in Hungarian, but being in church settings, there were certain “colorful” words, which we had never been exposed to. That all changed when this woman came around. Every Wednesday, after Bible study, there was a time for people to ask questions and then we would pray together. She would often have questions or comments, a praise report or a prayer request – and as she would speak, we’d hear her say some words which didn’t recognize, and then we’d watch as the others in the group grimaced from the words she chose to use. Quickly, we learned what those words meant.

Although we didn’t love the fact that she was using this language, we were happy to see the change in her heart and in her life and her obvious love for Jesus. This was how she had talked before she came to know the Lord, and we trusted that the Holy Spirit would do the work of sanctification, and as she followed Jesus, she would be transformed in every area, including this one.

One day a middle-aged woman from the church approached me. She was angry that we allowed this woman to come to our church and be baptized, considering that she used foul language. This middle-aged woman had been raised in a Christian home, but had a penchant for gossiping about others and slandering them. Unlike with the young woman, I had not witnessed any of the fruits of the spirit in this middle-aged woman’s life, but instead had distinctly seen judgmental and legalistic tendencies.

Which of these two women was the greater disciple? Clearly the older woman knew more about the Bible and had been a Christian longer, but if discipleship is a direction, then the answer is: the younger woman.

What direction are you moving in?

If discipleship is about active, sustained direction, what direction are you moving in? Have you perhaps stagnated?

The good news is, you can change direction. That’s what the word “repentance” means: to change direction.

That was, after all, the first message Jesus preached: “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Change directions, whatever you’ve been pursuing, running after – instead, change directions and follow me.