Fearfully and Wonderfully Made? What About Those Born Handicapped?

A few days ago I received a question from someone in our church:

Psalm 139 says: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

How is this true of those born with birth defects?

This past Sunday we started a class at White Fields called Christianity 101. The goal of the class is to teach people the core doctrines of Christianity over the course of 4 weeks. The first week covers the topic of: Who is God? To answer this question, we look at the various attributes of God and then consider: 1) the implications of that attribute for people in general, and 2) the application for you and your life in particular.

Before looking at the attributes of God, we begin with the question with which the Westminster Catechism begins: What is the chief end of man? Answer: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

What you find is that as you consider multiple attributes of God, the implications of these attributes compound together to answer questions like the one above.

For example, God is:

  • Sovereign (does what He wants, see: Psalm 115:3)
  • Omniscient (knows everything)
  • Omnipotent (can do anything)
  • Righteous (good)
  • Love
  • Immutable (having integrity, unchanging)

If all of these are true at the same time and all the time (that’s where the immutability comes in), then it helps us to determine an answer to many questions, including the one above.

The other factor to take into consideration is this: “the whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). We live in a fallen, broken world, which Jesus came to redeem, but as it stands now, “all of creation waits with eager longing…in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For…the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for…the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:18-25)

In other words: We live in a broken world, where things are not the way that they “should be.” One day, everything will be made right, because of the redeeming work of Jesus. As it is now, God can do anything, and He does whatever He wants, but He doesn’t always do everything that we think He should do. We must remember though, that He knows more than we do, and that everything He does (or doesn’t do) is based on love, and is for our ultimate good and for his ultimate glory.

One of the verses in the Bible that I find most encouraging is Revelation 16:7. In this section, we are reading about the vision that God gave John about the future and how, in the end, God wins and defeats evil for good. In this particular section, John is having a vision of heaven, and many people standing before the throne, after believers have been killed for their faith. And this is the statement that is spoken in heaven: “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments.”

In other words: there are a lot of things that happen here on Earth, about which we wonder: How is that fair? How can a good, loving God allow that to happen? But here is what this verse is telling us: that one day, when we get God’s perspective on things, the perspective that you can only have from heaven, you too will say: every judgment you made, O God, was right and true. You may not see it now, but you will. That’s the promise.

Regarding the omniscience of God, and that He has created us for His glory, it is like the time when Jesus’ disciples asked him about a man born blind:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:1-3)

God created us for His glory. That means that we are not the owners of our lives — we are tenants. (I will be talking about that subject this coming Sunday at White Fields as we study the Parable of the Tenants).

A few years ago, when our daughter was born, she suffered a severe oxygen deficiency which caused brain damage. She was in a coma for a week, and we were told she would be seriously handicapped for the rest of her life. During that time, my wife and I grieved, and we sought the Lord, both for our daughter’s healing, but also to give us the grace and strength to be able to handle whatever happened. We came to the conclusion, that no matter what happened, we wanted our daughter to be happy and to love God and know that He loved her. The fact is, that there are many mentally handicapped people who are happy and have a very pure love for God.
This week, I ran across this video about people with Down’s Syndrome being asked why they were so happy and why they love themselves and other people so much. It’s worth watching.

In the end, God healed our daughter. I’ve written about that story here if you’re interested in reading it: I Believe in Miracles. Here’s Why. If He hadn’t, we’d still love and trust Him, and our hearts do go out to those whose loved ones have not been healed…yet. That is the hope that we have in Jesus — that for those who are in Christ, it is only a matter of time before all is made right.

Maranatha. Come quickly Lord Jesus!

What Does it Mean that Jesus is the Son of God?

This week I’m hosting Calvary Live, a call-in radio show on GraceFM. One of the questions I received yesterday from a listener is a very common point of confusion:

If the Bible says Jesus is the Son of God, how is it that Christians say that he is God?

I answered this question on the air yesterday, but then got a follow-up question via email. Here are my responses; hopefully they will help others who have similar questions.

Understanding the Term “Son of God”

The term Son of God is used in reference to Jesus many times in the New Testament. In John 20:31, John says: “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” If believing that Jesus is the Son of God is so important, it is essential that we understand what that means.

“Son of Man” / “Son of God” / God the Son

Three different titles are often used of Jesus. Here’s what each of them refers to:

  1. Son of Man: This title is used 88 times in the New Testament, often by Jesus in reference to himself. It is a Messianic title which comes from the Old Testament book of Daniel: Daniel 7:13-14.
    By calling himself the “Son of Man,” Jesus is saying two things about himself: 1) He is the Messiah, 2) He is fully human. This is important, because there are those who are called monophysiteswho believe that Jesus only had one (mono) nature (physis), i.e. that he was either fully human or fully deity, but not both. This position is held by the Coptic (Egyptian) church, but is generally considered heterodox.
  2. Son of God: Refers to Jesus’ authority and deity. Thus by saying that Jesus is the Son of Man and the Son of God, the Bible is teaching that Jesus was at the same time: fully human, the Messiah, and fully God. More on this below.
  3. God the Son: Refers to Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. For great resources on the Trinity and the deity of Christ, click here.

“Son of God” refers to nature and authority, not to origin

Jesus is not the Son of God in the sense that he is God’s “offspring,” rather this term must be understood in light of how the term “Son of ______” was used in ancient, and specifically Hebrew, thinking/language.

One writer puts it this way:

The word “son” was employed among the Semites to signify not only filiation, but other close connexion or intimate relationship. Thus, “a son of strength” was a hero, a warrior, “son of wickedness” a wicked man, “sons of pride” wild beasts, “son of possession” a possessor, “son of pledging” a hostage, “son of lightning” a swift bird, “son of death” one doomed to death, “son of a bow” an arrow, “son of Belial” a wicked man, “sons of prophets” disciples of prophets etc. The title “son of God” was applied in the Old Testament to persons having any special relationship with God.
But the Messiah, the Chosen One, the Elect of God, was par excellence called the Son of God (Psalm 2:7)

So, to be THE Son of God was a title reserved for the Messiah (or Christ in Greek). This is very clear from several verses which equate the term “Son of God” with the Christ/Messiah.
For example: John 20:31 – …so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God…  or Matthew 26:63 – the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

However, when Jesus answers that question, affirming that he is the Son of God – he is accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Why would claiming to be the Son of God be considered blasphemy and worthy of a death sentence? It’s because the Jewish leaders understand exactly what the phrase “Son of God” meant: to be the Son of God meant to be of the same nature as God, in other words: to be God. That claim was considered blasphemy and according to Leviticus 24:15-16, a blasphemer was to be put to death.

We see this very clearly in an interaction between Jesus and a crowd in Jerusalem:

Jesus said… “I and the Father are one.”

Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”

“We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (John 10:30-33)

Hebrews 1:3 expresses this concept that the term “Son of God” refers to Jesus being of the exact nature as God, i.e. Jesus is God:

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being.” (Hebrews 1:3)

Not only did Jesus directly claim to be God – which was the very reason why the Jewish authorities demanded that he be executed, but Jesus made several other claims to the fact of his deity:

  1. Jesus invoked the ancient and sacred name of God (I am) in speaking of himself. For this reason, the Jewish people tried to stone him on more than one occasion, for example: John 8:58-59 – Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
  2. Jesus claimed to do things that only God could do, such as forgive sins (Matthew 9:1-8) and resurrect the dead (John 11:25)

So Son of God refers to Jesus nature and authority, not to his origin.

The opening verses of the Gospel of John makes it clear that Jesus did not come into being when he was born as a baby in Bethlehem, but that he had existed from eternity past, as he is indeed God made manifest in human flesh.

The understanding that the Messiah is in fact God himself, come to the world in human flesh, is found in the Old Testament

Perhaps the best, but certainly not the only example of this is found in Isaiah 9, where speaking of the Messiah, it says:

For to us a child is born, (a human child who will be born)
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end, (eternal).   (Isaiah 9:6-7)

Does Isaiah 53:10 say that Jesus is God’s “offspring”?

The question I got from another listener in response to this answer was asking if Isaiah 53:10 doesn’t actually refer to Jesus as the “offspring” of God.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

The answer is very simple: the “offspring” referred to here is the offspring not of “the Lord,” but of the “suffering servant” (the one whose soul is made an offering for guilt).

What this is referring to is how, through Jesus’ death, many others would come to (spiritual) life.

This is actually referenced to by Jesus in John 12:24, but in order to see this, we have to understand that the word translated into English as “offspring” is literally the word “seed”.

Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds (offspring).”  (John 12:24)

Isaiah 53:10 therefore, is not referring to Jesus as God’s offspring, but referring to those who will come to new life as a result of Jesus’ sacrificial death.

I hope this helps make sense of these things! Thanks for reading; if you have any comments or further questions, please write them below.

Was Jesus in the Grave Three Days and Three Nights? Here’s How It Adds Up

In Matthew 12:38-41, we read about how some of the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign that he really was who he said he was: the Messiah. Jesus responded that only one sign would be given to them: the “sign of the prophet Jonah.”

For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the Earth.

Here’s the problem: If Jesus died on Good Friday and rose on Easter Sunday, that doesn’t add up to 3 days and 3 nights. At most it adds up to 2.5 days and 2 nights.

So… does that mean that Jesus didn’t stay in the grave long enough to fulfill his own prophecy?

Nope. Jesus really was in the grave three days and three nights, which is why the early Christians also taught that he was raised on the third day (Acts 10:40, 1 Corinthians 15:4). Let me explain how it adds up, but be prepared: it’s going to change the way you think about “Good Friday.”

Some Basics to Start With

  1. The Jewish calendar is lunar (based on the cycles of the moon), whereas the Roman calendar (which we use) is solar (based on the rotation of the Earth around the Sun). As a result, they don’t always correspond, hence the reason why the date of Easter changes every year. Today in Western Christianity, Easter is celebrated on the Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon. For more on why the date of Easter changes each year, click here.
  2. We tend to think of the new day beginning when we wake up, but in the Jewish mindset, the new day begins at sunset. So, when the sun sets on Monday, it is not considered Monday evening, it is considered the beginning of Tuesday.
  3. We know that Jesus resurrected on a Sunday, “the first day of the week” (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2,9; Luke 24:1)

What is a “Sabbath”?

The word sabbath means “rest,” and it refers to a holy day when no work is to be done.

Every Saturday is a sabbath, but there are other sabbaths as well – also known as “special Sabbaths.” Some of these “special Sabbaths” are celebrated on a specific calendar date, no matter what day of the week that date falls on – kind of like how we in the USA celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July, and we observe that holiday no matter what day of the week it falls on.

In John 19:31, we read this about the day when Jesus was crucified:

Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.

The special Sabbath referred to here was the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a holiday which is always observed on the 15th day of Nisan according to the Jewish calendar.

According to Leviticus 24:4-14, there are three special holidays in the month of Nisan: Passover (the 14th of Nisan), the Feast of Unleavened Bread (15-22 of Nisan) and the Feast of First Fruits which was held on the Sunday following the Passover.

Let’s Sum This Up

Jesus actually died on a Thursday. Friday and Saturday were both sabbaths: Friday was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and Saturday was the weekly sabbath.

Jewish Month of Nisan

How can we be sure that this is what happened?

Several decades ago, the London Royal Observatory took on the challenge that since they could theoretically identify the position of the planets and start on any date in history, to figure out if around the time of Jesus there was such a time when Passover fell on a Thursday. Since the Jewish calendar is lunar, there is always a full moon on Passover, so this is pretty easy to figure out. Not surprisingly, there were several years around the time of Jesus when this took place. It’s really not that uncommon – just like how Christmas falls on a Tuesday every few years.

Even More Interesting…”Coincidences”?

According to Exodus 12:1-13, God told the Israelites that they were to select the Passover Lamb on the 10th day of Nisan. They were to examine it from the 11th to the 13th to make sure it was without blemish, and they were to sacrifice it on the 14th.

If the 14th was Thursday – and Jesus was crucified on “the day of Preparation” (Matthew 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54, John 19:31) which was the day when Passover began and the celebration began with the eating of the Passover meal (Jesus and his disciples then would have eaten the last supper Passover meal on Wednesday evening). Then what this means is that when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, that was on the 10th of Nisan – the day when the Passover lambs were to be selected!

Furthermore, remember that the Sunday after Passover was the Feast of First Fruits (Leviticus 23:9-11) – which means that Jesus resurrected on the Feast of First Fruits. This is what Paul the Apostle is making direct reference to in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23, where he says:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

So there you have it:

Jesus was indeed in the grave for three days and three nights. It really wasn’t that much of an anomaly, but it resulted in two sabbaths back to back – something which regularly happens every few years.

So “Good Friday” was actually on Thursday, “Maundy Thursday” was actually on Wednesday, and “Holy Saturday” was actually two days long.

However, it is incredible to see how God orchestrated and prepared for this to happen as it did for thousands of years before it happened. In reality, the Bible tells us that God had planned this whole thing out from eternity past (see Revelation 13:8) – and all of it so that you may have life in His name by believing! (John 20:31)

 

The Less Famous Days of Holy Week

holyweek

Good Friday and Easter Sunday get all the press, but there are other important days of Holy Week.

Maundy Thursday

What is a “maundy” anyway? It comes from the Middle English and Old French word Mandé, which comes from the Latin Mandatum – which means Mandate.

Maundy Thursday refers to the mandate that Jesus gave the night before his crucifixion, when he shared his last supper with his disciples. After Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet in an act of love and service, he then told them:

A new commandment (Latin: mandatum) I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

On Maundy Thursday we remember the events of the last supper, the institution of the sacrament of communion, the betrayal of Jesus by one of his closest friends, and the all night prayer vigil that Jesus had in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he sweat blood from the stress and anxiety he was experiencing as he looked forward to the physical and spiritual suffering that awaited him.

It was on this night that Jesus prayed three times: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39-44)

The fact that the Father did not remove this “cup” of suffering from Jesus reminds us that there was no other way for us to be saved, then for Jesus to go forward with taking our place in death and judgment so that we might be able to receive forgiveness and eternal life.

Holy Saturday

The day between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday is known as Holy Saturday. For the disciples of Jesus this would have been a day a great darkness and uncertainty, when the effects of Jesus’ crucifixion were not yet understood by all, and even though it wasn’t the case – it seemed like all hope was lost. Little did they realize that Sunday was coming…

Max Lucado wrote an excellent post on “The Silence of Saturday” a few years ago:

Jesus is silent on Saturday.  The women have anointed his body and placed it in Joseph’s tomb.  The cadaver of Christ is as mute as the stone which guards it.  He spoke much on Friday. He will liberate the slaves of death on Sunday.  But on Saturday, Jesus is silent.

So is God.  He made himself heard on Friday.  He tore the curtains of the temple, opened the graves of the dead, rocked the earth, blocked the sun of the sky, and sacrificed the Son of Heaven.  Earth heard much of God on Friday.

Nothing on Saturday.  Jesus is silent.  God is silent.  Saturday is silent.

Easter weekend discussions tend to skip Saturday.  Friday and Sunday get the press.  The crucifixion and resurrection command our thoughts.  But don’t ignore Saturday.  You have them, too.

Silent Saturdays.  The day between the struggle and the solution; the question and the answer; the offered prayer and the answer thereof.

Saturday’s silence torments us.  Is God angry?  Did I disappoint him? God knows Jesus is in the tomb, why doesn’t He do something?  Or, in your case God knows your career is in the tank, your finances are in the pit, your marriage is in a mess. Why doesn’t He act?  What are you supposed to do until He does?

You do what Jesus did.  Lie still.  Stay silent.  Trust God.  Jesus died with this conviction: “You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay” (Acts 2:27 NIV).

Jesus knew God would not leave him alone in the grave.  You need to know, God will not leave you alone with your struggles.  His silence is not his absence, inactivity is never apathy.  Saturdays have their purpose. They let us feel the full force of God’s strength. Had God raised Jesus fifteen minutes after the death of His son, would we have appreciated the act? Were He to solve your problems the second they appear, would you appreciate His strength?

For His reasons, God inserts a Saturday between our Fridays and Sundays.  If today is one for you, be patient.  As one who endured the silent Saturday wrote:  “Be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord” (James 5:7 NKJV).

Good Friday: The Great Exchange

103 the crucifixion of christ-tintoretto

The good news of Good Friday is that “It is finished!” (John 19:30) Because of that, we can rest from our labors of trying to justify ourselves, and we can revel in hope, because not only were our sins imputed to Jesus, but his righteousness was imputed to us.

This is what it means when it says: “For our sake, He (God) made Him (Jesus), who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

It’s the most astonishing exchange of all time: for those who receive Him (John 1:12), all of your sinfulness was placed on Him, and in return all of His righteousness was accounted to you.

Jürgen Moltmann puts it this way:

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” (from The Crucified God)

Moltmann goes on to say:

God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.

May your Good Friday be filled with reflection upon, appreciation for and response to what Jesus did for you on Calvary, the ultimate expression of God’s love for you!

 

Christians Who Don’t Believe – Part 2

In case you missed Part 1 of this post, you can read it here.

There was a BBC article published this past Sunday about the beliefs of people in England regarding the resurrection of Jesus and life after death.

According to their survey:

  • 25% of people who call themselves Christians in Great Britain do not believe that Jesus resurrected from the dead.
  • Only 17% of the general public in Britain believe word-for-word the account of Jesus’ resurrection.
  • 10% of non-religious people in Britain believe that the Easter story contains some truth, but only 1% believe it is literally true.
  • 21% of non-religious people believe in life after death.
    • Of these, 65% said they believe that their soul would go to heaven or hell, and 32% believe they will be reincarnated.

And here’s the one I find most shocking:

  • 31% of British Christians surveyed said they do not believe in life after death.

While someone like me looks at this and sees an incredibly dire situation, the article says that Church of England officials were actually quite encouraged by it! Here’s why:

  1. Because it showed that “many British people, despite not being regular churchgoers, hold core Christian beliefs.”
  2. It showed more regular church attendance amongst younger Christians than older ones.

Maybe it’s me, but in light of the survey it seems like a bit of stretch to say “many” and to say “core Christian beliefs”. Is literally believing in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead not considered by them to be a “core Christian belief”?

What’s interesting about this is that the Bible directly addresses those who call themselves Christians and yet do not believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead.

In 1 Corinthians chapter 15, Paul speaks first to those who call themselves Christians and do not believe in life after death, and then he speaks to those who deny that Jesus literally rose from the dead. It’s almost like this chapter could have been written for 31% and 25% of British Christians respectively.

The first point Paul makes is that the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead is and has always been a central tenant of the gospel: the core of Christian belief, and it is only by believing this gospel that we are saved. (1 Corinthians 15:1-4)

The second point Paul makes is that not only was the death of Jesus foretold by the Scriptures, but so was his resurrection. (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

The third point Paul makes is that there were hundreds of eye witnesses still alive at that time who could attest to having seen Jesus alive after his crucifixion. (1 Corinthians 15:5-8)

Then Paul goes on to say (Vs 12-15) that if there is no life after death, then all of the apostles and Christians were liars, because they told people that Jesus had risen from the dead and that they had seen him.
If they had lied about this, they either did it knowingly or unknowingly. If they did it knowingly, then they are intentionally conning people and they should therefore not be trusted. If they lied unknowingly, that means that they are delusional and should not be followed, because they are, to put it crassly: deranged.

Next, Paul says that if there is no life after death, then Christian faith is pointless, and they have just been wasting their time and believing in a fairy tale (Vs 17-18) – and ultimately there is no hope, and no good news. And if this is the case, that Christianity is just another form of moralism and empty rituals, then Christians are the greatest fools in the world. (Vs 19, 30-34)

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:19)

But… if Christ is truly and literally risen from the dead, then that means that God has broken a hole in the pitiless walls of this broken world, and made a way for us to be saved! And Jesus is the first fruits of those who will be resurrected from death to everlasting life.
And the day is coming when the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)

And because that day is coming, we can have the confidence in whatever circumstances we may face in this life to be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

The story of Jesus’ resurrection is an integral and indispensable part of the good news of the gospel: the core message of Christianity. The hope that we have as Christians is based on it. To deny it is to deny Christian belief and to try to change Christianity into a form of moralism full of empty rituals which encourages condescension towards God and towards other people of faith, but which leaves you as a person worthy to be most pitied because you are without hope in anything greater than yourself.

If however, you believe in God, then let me ask you the question Paul the Apostle asked the crowd at his own trial: Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? (Acts 26:8)

It would be incredible if you or I raised someone from the dead, but if God is God — the creator and sustainer of life — then such a thing is neither impossible nor even difficult for him.

May you be filled with true belief this Easter season, so that you may believe, and in believing have life! (John 20:31)

Christians Who Don’t Believe – Part 1

20120507-incredulity_of_saint_thomas_by_caravaggio

What does it mean to be a Christian? Most people would say that it means that you are a follower of Jesus or that you believe a certain set of doctrines.

The BBC published an article this past Sunday about the beliefs of people in England regarding the resurrection of Jesus and life after death. The report corresponded with some comments I made this past Sunday about how there is a correlation between rising standards of living and a decrease in religious adherence in many societies of the world, and what some of the reasons for this are. You can listen to the audio of that message here.

Here are some of the statistics listed in the article:

  • 25% of people who call themselves Christians in Great Britain do not believe that Jesus resurrected from the dead.
  • Only 17% of the general public in Britain believe word-for-word the account of Jesus’ resurrection.
  • 10% of non-religious people in Britain believe that the Easter story is true.
  • 21% of non-religious people believe in life after death.
    • Of these, 65% said they believe that their soul would go to heaven or hell, and 32% believe they will be reincarnated.

And here’s the one that I find most shocking:

  • 31% of British Christians surveyed said they do not believe in life after death.

This brings up a very important question: What do you actually have to believe in order to be a Christian?

Or to put it another way: Are there any things which, if you don’t believe them, you can no longer legitimately call yourself a Christian?

When I was 16 years old, one of my Christian friends from school told me I wasn’t a Christian. I was offended – because, you see: I grew up going to Lutheran school. I was catechized and confirmed in the Lutheran church, and I sincerely believed in God’s existence. In fact, I believed that Jesus was God the Son and the Son of God and that he literally died and rose from the dead just as the Bible describes.

So how dare she say that I was not a Christian, right?

But she was right. I wasn’t a Christian.
And I knew it.

Here’s the text she turned me to if you’re interested: Matthew 7:21-23

But here’s why, in spite of believing the biblical doctrines were true, I was not a Christian: because that is not the kind of belief by which a person is saved and becomes a child of God.

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, (John 1:12)

Because here’s the thing: the Bible says that the devil also believes all of those things about God: in God’s existence, in the fact that Jesus was God and that he lives, died and resurrected on the third day. (James 2:19)

The word “to believe” in Greek is the word πιστεύω (pisteuo).
It doesn’t mean less than believing in something’s existence or acknowledging that something happened, but it does mean more than that. It means: to trust in, to cling to, to rely on, to adhere to, to commit to.

This is the kind of belief that the Bible is talking about when it says:

  • But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, (John 1:12)
  • these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)
  • Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29)
  • For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

I have a few more thoughts to share about this, but I’ll save them for tomorrow.
Stay tuned for Part 2.

“I don’t want any presents, I just want my daddy”

A few weeks ago I was preparing to go out of town for 10 days.

For the past several years I have taken trips like this one to visit different ministries and speak at churches and conferences. Last year when I was preparing to leave, my kids were sad that I was leaving, but when I told them that I would bring them Túró Rudi from Hungary, they cheered up and asked me, “When are you leaving?!”

But this year was different. My daughter was very upset that I was leaving, pretty much to the point of being inconsolable. In an attempt to cheer her up I told her that I would bring her back a present from one of the countries I was visiting, and I asked her what she would like.

Her response broke my heart: through her sobs she said, “I don’t want any presents, I just want my daddy.”

In Exodus 33 there is an interesting story. After God had heard the people’s cries and saved them from slavery in Egypt, brought them through the Red Sea and provided for them in the wilderness and entered into a covenant with them, the people had turned their backs on God and created a golden calf to worship instead. God chose to forgive them for this, but in Exodus 33 he told them: Even though you haven’t kept up your end of our deal, I’m still going to give you the Promised Land. I will send an angel before you, who will protect you and who will give you victory in all the battles you face. BUT… I will not go with you.

Think about what God was saying… He was testing them: Did they only want Him for the things He could give them, or did they actually want Him?

Essentially, God was offering them success, security and prosperity – without Him. He wouldn’t be there to tell them what to do. They could live their lives however they wanted, and they could have everything they wanted.

Sounds like a pretty good deal, right?

But rather than being excited by this offer, we read that the people mourned when they heard this “disasterous word.”

I wonder how many of us would consider this a “disastrous word” and bad news, that we could have everything we want — without God. I’m sure there would be many people who would be quite fine with that offer: if they could have success, security and prosperity and no God around telling them what to do and what not to do.

And yet these people were willing to give up all of those things, in order that they might have a relationship with God! It’s the same sentiment that was expressed by my daughter on the eve of my trip: “I don’t want any presents, I just want my daddy.”

The claim that many detractors and critics of Christianity make, that one of the only reasons people are religious is because they view God as a “cosmic fairy” or a genie in a bottle, whom they can invoke to give them what they want. But this flies in the face of that!

Let me ask you: What if you could have everything that you’ve always dreamed of having: money, success, the dream house, the trophy spouse, fame and recognition, and/or whatever it is that you dream of having — but without God. Would you be excited by that prospect, or would you consider it “disasterous”?

What we see later on in Exodus 33 is that Moses, having come to know some of who God is, makes a bold request: he asks to see God’s glory. Because here’s the thing: one of the defining characteristics of a person who has truly come to know God is that they want more of Him.

May we be those who come to know God in such a way that we want more of Him, and desire to know Him more than we want the “presents” that He can give us.

“Should I Not Have Compassion on that Great City?”

Greetings from Kyiv, Ukraine! I have been in Europe for the past week on a ministry trip to visit some ministries that White Fields Community Church partners with in Hungary and Ukraine, with the focus of my trip being here in Ukraine.

I got a good price on a multi-destination ticket with Turkish Airlines. Part of the reason for the low price is that it included a 12 hour layover in Istanbul. I can understand why for some people that would be a terrible inconvenience, but for me on this trip it was a great added bonus! Recently I’ve been teaching classes on the history of Christianity, and Constantinople is a big part of it, so I looked forward to the chance to get to see the “New Rome” and the old capitol of the Byzantine Empire along with the Hagia Sophia – the largest Christian church in the world for nearly a thousand years, and a building that changed architecture.

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Inside the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), built in 537 AD!

Istanbul, with 14 million people, is the largest city in Europe. During my time there I went to the Asian side of the Bosphorus Strait, and from there I could begin to get a glimpse of just how big this city is. It was great preparation for the conference I was coming to teach at in Kyiv on the topic of “Vision for Our Cities.”

I was reminded of the message of the Book of Jonah, which is summed up in the final verse, where God says to Jonah, “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”

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Looking across the Bosphorus from the Asian side, toward the “Golden Horn”

Jonah’s view of Nineveh was that it was a city full of terrible sinful people who did terrible sinful things, and that they deserved God’s wrath. He was frustrated and upset by the fact that God wanted to offer them a chance to repent and receive mercy. But God spoke to Jonah at the end, and pointed out that Jonah was more concerned about plants than he was about people. God, on the other hand, cares more about people than plants – and so therefore, how could God not care about a city full of his most masterful creation, whom he loves? God wanted Jonah (and us) to understand the way that he feels about people, and about cities full of people: he loves them and we should too.

“And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”

On the streets of Istanbul and in the public transport areas I saw a lot of refugees from the Middle East. While I was in Turkey, the United States issued a ban on bringing laptops and tablets onto flights originating from 10 airports in 8 muslim-majority countries, including flights originating from Istanbul, something which will affect me on my flight home. The ban came as the result of the discovery of a plot to put explosives into an iPad.

As I walked through downtown Istanbul towards Taksim Square, I began wondering what it would be like for someone to do Christian ministry in that city. I was surprised at how European it was; aside from the mosques and minarets, most of the city looks like any other large European city.

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Galata Tower and a typical European neighborhood in Istanbul.

At the same time, I remember the news about German missionaries who were killed in Turkey a few years ago, and I realize that it would not only be difficult, but also dangerous for someone to do Christian ministry there.

Cities in general are “humanity magnified.” And because of that, there is inherently a dual nature to all cities: on the one hand they are full of the pinnacle of God’s good creation: people who are made in His image – on the other hand, we are fallen and so cities also have more brokenness, danger and sin.

The story-line the Bible tells is one which can be summarized in four points: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. That means that because of Jesus there is hope for humanity.

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Istanbul: very European and yet unquestionably Muslim

A Google search helped me find some international churches in Istanbul. I pray for their safety and for them to have effective ministry in this great city. May we truly understand the message of the Book of Jonah and may God give us His heart for cities like this one.

True Colors

I saw a quote today posted online that said this:

“Occasions make not a man fail, but they show what the man is.”
Thomas à Kempis

A Conversation

It reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad a few years ago. We were talking about a prominent pastor who had committed sin which resulted in him to losing his position and ministry along with the respect of his peers.

I commented to my dad, “I guess he showed his true colors.”

My dad wisely and graciously responded, “Maybe those aren’t his true colors. Maybe that was just something he did in a moment of great weakness and darkness.”

In other words: I was suggesting that the good things this man had done for years were really just a facade, and finally his true self was revealed. My dad on the other hand was suggesting that maybe the terrible things the man had done were more of an anomaly than the true essence of who he was.

The Issue

Should we determine a person’s character based on their worst moments or on their best moments?

That’s not a very easy question to answer.

Surely no one would say that we should judge Adolf Hitler’s character based on his best moments. However, all of our greatest cultural and even faith heroes are people who had dark moments in which they did bad things. Martin Luther King Jr. committed infidelity. Moses was a neglectful father. Martin Luther had a racist rant. The list could go on.

Despite the fact that we like clean-cut distinctions, to label people either “good” or “bad” – the messy reality of life is that all of us do both good things and bad things. We commit sins which hurt others and grieve the heart of God, and we do wonderful things which benefit others.

So, which you is the real you?

An Example

David and Saul. Both were kings of Israel. Both were chosen by God for the people. Both began very well – and both committed grievous sins which had tragic effects for both their lives and the lives of many others because of their position as king.

And yet, one of them is called “the man after God’s own heart” whereas the other is remembered as an anti-hero with no concern for God. 

It could even be argued that David’s sins were worse than Saul’s. Saul attempted murder, but David actually committed murder and adultery.

However, the great difference between the two men is that David, when confronted with his sins, was quick to repent and turn back to God. Saul, on the other hand, when confronted, stubbornly persisted and resisted God.

This response to God of humility and willingness to repent – this fundamental desire to live for God and please God, seems to be at the heart of what separates these two men.

The Promise

There is a sense in which I agree with the above quote from Thomas à Kempis, and yet I am hesitant about what I perceive to be its inference.

I agree with the quote in as much as it is saying that ALL people are fallen and therefore the reason we sin is because we are sinners at heart; our very nature has been corrupted and opportunities to sin simply reveal this fact.

However, it seems that the inference of this quote is that in a given situation, some people fail and others do not – and this reveals their fundamental character. Furthermore, a person who does not fail in that given situation should feel a sense of pride that they are fundamentally better than those who did fail.

If this is indeed what is being inferred, this attitude, while commonly held,  is contrary to the gospel.

The message of the gospel, that God took on human flesh in order to pay the price for your sin and redeem you, has 2 simultaneous effects on the person who really understands it:
1) it makes you incredibly humble – because it tells you that you are not fundamentally better than anyone else. You are made of the same stuff and you are in the same boat: a sinner who is hopeless without a savior,
2) it makes you incredibly confident – because it tells you that you are loved by God, and that He is wholly committed to you, forever.

The promise of the gospel is that if you will repent of your sins and turn to God – like David did – and put your faith in what Jesus did for you, then not only will God justify you, but He will also redeem you, and as part of that He will sanctify you, from the inside out by the power of His Spirit – and the end result will be that the “true you,” the version of you free of sin, which He created you to be, will ultimately be revealed.

Romans 8:19 says, For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.
1 John 3:2 says, We do not yet know what awaits us when He appears, except that we will be like Him.

The real you is the you that you are in relation to God – the you whom God declares you to be – and if your faith is in Jesus, then the you whom He is making you into by His Spirit: the version of you without the corrupting effects of sin which have marred the image of God that you bear.

The promise of the gospel is that it will be so for those who have embraced God’s offer of salvation in Jesus.