This week I sat down with Christine Appel to discuss the history of Project Greatest Gift, a home-grown ministry that serves kids in kinship and foster care in northern Colorado at Christmastime.
Every year during the month of November, we partner with the Health and Human Services departments of Weld, Adams, and Boulder Counties to provide for children and families in the kinship and foster care systems.
In this interview, Christine tells the story of how Project Greatest Gift got started, the vision behind it, and how God has used it over the past few years.
Importantly, we also discuss what is different this year in 2020, as Project Greatest Gift expands to an online platform.
Years ago I was telling my dad about the moral failure of a high profile Christian leader which had disqualified him from ministry. I concluded the story by saying something to the effect of: “Well, I guess he showed his true colors.”
My dad’s response was: “What if that’s not who he is at the core, but a mistake that he made?”
There I was, judging this man based on one of his worst moments, and saying: “That is who he IS!” My dad was willing to say that while what this man did was wrong, he should be given the opportunity for redemption rather than being forever dismissed and defined by his worst moment.
This isn’t to say that people are not sinners or that sinful actions are justifiable, or can just be chalked up as an “oops” that doesn’t count against us. No.
And yet: What do we do with sinners? Do we write them off and condemn them, standing upon their fallen frames in order to make ourselves appear that much taller? Or do we believe that redemption is possible and desire to see it take place?
I don’t pay much attention to Sarah Silverman, but I stumbled upon this clip of her talking about cancel culture and how it labels people as irredeemable. She makes a great point: Don’t we want to see people change? If so, we should encourage and celebrate transformation rather than self-righteously writing off people forever who have made mistakes.
This is what made Jesus so incredible: he showed love to those whom his society considered irredeemable: prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners. Far from affirming their sins, he offered them redemption, a new identity, and a new destiny.
Here is the clip from Sarah Silverman:
Sarah is not a Christian, but she is touching on something that is core to Christianity.
May we as the church be those who champion redemption, who provide a place where people are loved and are shown that they are not irredeemable because of Jesus!
In him, fallen people like us have had our sins dealt with before God, and therefore we can receive forgiveness, redemption, a new identity, and a new destiny. That’s good news.
Recently a friend reached out to me with some questions regarding “annihilationism” and “conditional immortality.”
Will Every Soul Live Forever, or is Immortality Conditional?
One of the key questions in this discussion is this: Although the Bible clearly teaches the promise of eternal life for those who have been redeemed by Jesus, does the Bible teach eternal death for those who die in their sins?
“Conditional immortality” is the term given to the belief that the souls of those who die apart from redemption in Jesus will not go on living forever. They believe that immortality is conditional, meaning that only the souls of those who put their faith in Jesus will live forever, but not the souls of those who do not.
The central argument for conditional immortality in the Bible comes from Genesis 3 and Revelation 22, which talk about the Tree of Life, which was present in the Garden of Eden and will be present again in the New Jerusalem. In Genesis 3 we are told that the people were cut off from it, lest they eat of it and live forever in their fallen state. The idea is that if the Tree of Life is in the New Jerusalem (Heaven), it provides people with eternal life, but to be cut off from Heaven is therefore to be cut off from the source of eternal life.
Conditional immortality is also related to the idea of “annihilationism”
Annihilationism or Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT)?
Annihilationism is the belief that unredeemed souls will be “annihilated,” i.e. snuffed out in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 21:15) and cease to exist for all eternity. Seventh Day Adventists in particular argue that since Hebrews 12:29 says that God is a “consuming fire,” those who have not been justified and sanctified through Christ will be consumed by his presence and cease to exist.
In contrast to this is the traditional belief about Hell, held by the Church Fathers and the majority of Christians throughout history, that Hell is eternal conscious torment (ECT).
The key arguments against the ECT view of Hell, and in favor of annihilationism are two-fold:
An eternity of punishment for sins committed in a finite lifetime seems unfair, i.e. “the punishment doesn’t fit the crime”
The view of Hell as eternal conscious torment is not Biblical, but is imported from outside philosophies.
The ECT view is often blamed on Platonism, or Hellenism more generally, or from medieval assumptions influenced by writings like Dante’s Inferno
Rather than unquestioningly accepting these claims, we should examine if what they claim is true.
What Did Jesus Say About Hell?
Some might find it surprising that most of our understanding about Hell from the Bible does not come from the Old Testament, but from the words of Jesus.
13% of Jesus’ teaching and half of his parables were about Hell, judgment, and the wrath of God.
What that means is that Hell is not a peripheral issue, but is a major theme of Jesus’ teachings. If you claim that Jesus was a good teacher, you have to deal with the issue of what he taught about Hell.
Examining Jesus’ teachings, we find that the view of Hell as eternal, conscious torment was not a later addition to Christianity in the Middle Ages, nor the influence of Platonism or Hellenism, but rather people who simply accept the words of Jesus at face value.
Here are some examples of what he said:
Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matt. 25:41)
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt. 25:46)
[but some] will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt. 8:12)
And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:47-48)
Here Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 66:24
In Luke 16, Jesus tells the story of a man who suffered in Hell after his life on Earth ended, which means that his soul was not snuffed out when he died, but continued living.
Because of the simple clarity of these verses, the great majority of Christians throughout history have accepted that the teaching of the Bible is that Hell is eternal, conscious torment.
Eternal Separation from God
In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, the Apostle Paul describes Hell in this way:
those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,
2 Thessalonians 1:9
Once again, we see an example of the eternality of the destruction which will be suffered by those who do not know God and who reject the gospel.
Rather than being unkind or heartless, these messages are written to those who are alive so that they can turn from their ways and be saved. As Ezekiel 33:11 says:
As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die?
It is the heart of a loving God that warns and pleads, knowing the gravity of what is at stake. It is because God cared so much that he came to this Earth to give his life, that people might be saved.
A Message from Beyond the Grave
In the Gospel of Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells a story about a rich man who died and suffered torment in Hades. Jesus shares that this man longed to be able to send a warning to his family members who were still alive that they should not make the mistake that he did, of not trusting in and walking with God.
For those who are alive, this is a very important story because it helps us to understand the urgency of responding to the gospel and receiving the gift of salvation and life that is extended to us in Jesus.
The question still remains as to whether it is fair for Hell to be eternal, since life on Earth is finite.
Here 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is helpful, which tells us that the essence of Hell is separation from God and his glory.
Since God is the source of beauty, life, joy, peace, and goodness – to be separated from God and his glory is to be cut off from those things for eternity. In other words: what makes Hell hellish, is that God is not there. What makes Heaven heavenly, is that God is there.
Furthermore, since Hell is the destiny of those who have rejected the grace of God and relationship with him, and have essentially pushed God away or turned their back on Him, Hell is the final culmination of them getting what they wanted in their lifetime.
In Genesis 6:3, God says something very serious: “My Spirit will not always contend (or strive) with man.” If a person continually rejects the offer of God’s grace and the conviction of the Holy Spirit, the time will come when God will give them what they insisted upon, forever: life apart from God. This giving people over to their ungodly desires is the essence of God’s judgment (see Romans 1:18-31).
Hope Beyond the Grave
Faithful Christian teachers in history, such as John Stott, have believed in annihilationism, but this view has always been a minority viewpoint, mostly because it seems to contradict the straightforward teachings of Jesus.
What we do know is that the message of the gospel is truly good news, and that there is an urgency to this gospel because of the reality of Hell.
A lot of people say children are a gift from God. If that’s true, then why would God give a pedophile children?
It isn’t just people who say that children are a gift from God; God himself says that children are a gift from Him.
Psalm 127:3 says, “Behold, children are a gift of the LORD, The fruit of the womb is a reward.” (NASB)
In the 1989 movie Parenthood, Keanu Reeves’ character says something profound:
You know Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog. You need a license to drive a car. Hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any butt-reaming a**hole be a father.
Keanu Reeves as Tod Higgins in Parenthood
When we lived in Hungary, we adopted a child whom we had guardianship over for years. The process included a gauntlet of intrusive tasks: home inspections, psychological examinations, classes, fees. During a week-long class, one of the other prospective adoptive parents expressed his frustration that it seems unfair people who want to help children in need by adopting them are put through such a rigorous process, when someone who becomes a parent biologically doesn’t have to do anything.
At the same time, we also visited orphanages where children were abandoned because they were either unwanted, or the parents were unable to care for them.
Here in Colorado, our church is involved in helping children in kinship and foster care, who oftentimes end up in these situations because of abuse or neglect.
We’ve known people over the years who would have been great parents, but struggled with infertility, or were unable to have children because of other medical issues.
It seems like an incredible injustice that many who want to have children cannot, while many who should not have children do. Is God somehow irresponsible in his distribution of children? And if it is merely a natural, biological occurrence, then why does the Bible insist that children are a gift from God?
The reason for the principle, that children are a gift, is intended to shape the way we think about human life.
Life, the Bible says, is sacred. Human beings are created in the image of God, and though we are fallen, we continue to bear the image of the divine, even if it is marred within us. Alone out of all creation, this is unique to human beings. This is why it is allowed for human beings to ethically kill and eat animals, but human life is different.
Many ancient people considered children to be a nuisance. God wanted people to treat children as treasures.
This can be seen with Jesus; when his disciples tried to shoo away the children who wanted to come to Jesus, assuming that their master was too great a person to be bothered by annoying little children, Jesus corrected them and said, “Allow the little ones to come to me, for to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.”
One reason why little children were not valued very highly in ancient society is because they were not able to contribute or produce anything. Furthermore, young children were particularly susceptible to disease and death. So the feeling of many was that once (and if) the child grew to the point where they could be a contributing member of society, then their life would have value. God said: No, children are not a drain, they are a gift.
The principle is that children are to be considered a gift, and human life is to be treasured.
As human beings, we are fallen. We ourselves and the world we live in languish under a curse: the curse of sin and death. This curse has far-reaching implications: it means that the world does not work the way it was originally designed to, and neither do we.
The results of this curse include sickness, hatred, envy, strife, selfish and hurtful actions, as well as all kinds of deviant behavior, and ultimately death.
We were not designed to struggle with infertility, we were not designed to abuse others, nor to suffer abuse at the hands of others.
Every human being lives under the cloud of this curse their entire life, and we all suffer from its effects in all kinds of forms. This is tragic. So tragic, that God became one of us in Jesus Christ to put an end to it forever.
Human life is still a gift and is still precious, even though human beings suffer here on Earth.
Identity and Responsibility
To say that someone is a pedophile is to define them by their sin. Rather than saying that God gives children to pedophiles, it would be more accurate to say that God gives children to people, and tragically, some people choose to harm children.
Here is how the Bible explains this:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
To ask the question of why God allows people to be parents if he knows ahead of time that they will one day commit abusive acts against their children is akin to taking responsibility away from the sinner and placing it upon God, and this issue gets into the classic Trilemma of Theodicy:
A trilemma is like a dilemma, only instead of two issues (di) that are at odds with each other, in a trilemma there are three (tri).
The trilemma of theodicy states that there are three things the Bible states are true about God, which cannot all be true at the same time:
God is loving
God is all-powerful
The argument goes that since evil exists, either: God must not really be loving, or God must not really be all-powerful. Either God is incapable of stopping evil, even though he’d like to – in which case he is not all-powerful, or God is capable of stopping evil, but chooses not to, in which case he must not be truly loving.
The logical flaw in the trilemma
The big flaw in this thinking is that it takes into account only two of God’s attributes: his love and his power.
But does God have only two attributes? Certainly not! God has a myriad of attributes, including that he is: all-knowing, providential, eternal, etc. Simply adding another attribute of God to the equation changes it fundamentally, and removes the “lemma” out of the tri-lemma!
For example, if we say that God is not only loving and all-powerful, but also all-knowing and/or providential, it changes things completely. It means that it is possible for God to allow bad things and use them for good purposes, and even for our ultimate benefit. The fact that God is eternal reminds us that comfort in this life is not the pinnacle of existence, therefore it is also possible for an eternal God to allow temporal hardship in order to work an eternal good purpose. The Bible says this explicitly in 2 Corinthians 4:17 – For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
Thankfully, even in the most horrific situations, there is hope:
Why is human life still a gift, if a person suffers abuse?
While on the one hand, the human experience is irreconcilably tainted by suffering, human life is a gift because it carries with it the hope of redemption.
The promise of the gospel is that no matter what horrors a person might suffer here on Earth, in this broken world at the hands of broken and evil people, because of what Jesus did, redemption is possible.
And what redemption looks like is a new world, in which all that is wrong is made right: in which injustice and evil are judged, in which an end is put to suffering once and for all.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Human life, despite its suffering, carries with it the hope of eternal life and redemption.
Speaking of this redemption, Paul the Apostle says:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For in this hope we were saved.
The pages of Scripture are full of the story of the people who suffered greatly.
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated… But God has provided something better for us.
May we take hold of this promise and hope by faith in Jesus and what He accomplished for us, so we can experience life and redemption!
Do the Signs of the Times Point to the Imminent Return of Jesus?
Considering the things that are currently going on in the world, including locust plagues in Africa, the possibility of famines, economic collapse, civil unrest and nations arming for war, and the pestilence of the coronavirus, do you think this means that the return of Jesus is going to happen soon?
During Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem before he was crucified, he went up on the Mount of Olives, the hill in Jerusalem which stands opposite the Temple Mount, and he gave his famous “Olivet Discourse.”
As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.
Jesus described the coming of the end of the age, which will culminate with His return, as being similar to “birth pains.” The thing about birth pains is they are building up to something, in this case the eschaton – “the final event,” from which we get the word eschatology. The closer we get to the eschaton, Jesus says, the more these “birth pains” will increase in both frequency and intensity.
Here are a few factors to keep in mind regarding these current events and what they mean about the return of Jesus:
We get closer to the eschaton every day. Just as you are older than you used to be, every day we are closer than we have ever been before.
The eschaton is something we should look forward to with eager expectation, not something we should fear or hope to postpone. In Titus 2:13, Paul describes the early Christians as: “in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”. To the Thessalonians, Paul wrote about the return of Jesus in order to encourage them and comfort them (1 Thess. 4:13-18). The early Christians used the slogan, “Maranatha!”, an Aramaic phrase which means, “Our Lord, come!” and is found in 1 Corinthians 16:22 as well as in other ancient Christian writings, such as the Didache.The early Christians did not fear the eschaton, but eagerly looked forward to it, and the knowledge of its coming was a source of hope and encouragement for them, as it should be for us as well.
We should always be ready for the return of Jesus. In Matthew 25, in this same Olivet Discourse, Jesus told two parables: “The Parable of the Talents” and “The Parable of the Ten Virgins.” Both of these parables are about the topic of being “ready” for Jesus’ return. What does it mean, and what does it look like for us to be ready for Jesus’ return? According to these parables, to be “ready” means being busy about the Lord’s work – doing what He has called you to do, not becoming complacent and checking out, taking your foot off the gas because the end is near.
What Jesus would say if you asked him if His coming is near: In Acts 1:6, after His crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus’ disciples asked Him if it was now time for Him to restore the kingdom to Israel. He told them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:7-8). If you were to ask Jesus, “Is it almost time for you to return?”, His answer would be the same today: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…to the end of the earth.” In other words: Jesus wants us to be ready always for His return to happen at any moment, and that means being fully occupied with the work of His mission and His Kingdom.
What Does It Mean to “Believe in Jesus”?
In my sermon this past Sunday I addressed the question of what it means to “believe in Jesus” in order to receive salvation and forgiveness of your sins, as the Bible describes.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but 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.
I explained that the kind of belief the Bible is talking about is not merely believing that Jesus was a historical person. No reputable historians deny that. Simply believing that Jesus existed doesn’t make you a Christian.
So does it mean believing that Jesus really died on a cross and rose from the grave? Again, it is possible to ascent to the validity of these historical events without being a Christian.
James explains this in his epistle:
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!
Rather the word “belief” (pisteo in Greek) in this case means to trust in, to cling to, to rely on someone or something.
To believe in Jesus unto salvation, therefore, means that rather in trusting in yourself, or relying on someone or something, rather than clinging to your own merits to save you – you trust in, cling to, and rely on Jesus and what He did in order to save you.
On this point, I think the church fathers have a great deal to teach us, because when we today speak of what faith is or whether one has it, we are unwittingly obscuring the face that everyone already has faith. Everyone trusts in someone or something. That is, all people in their efforts to achieve fulfillment or happiness or anything else of value entrust those efforts to someone or something. Many of us entrust our lives to ourselves. Some of us entrust them to a religion or a philosophical worldview. Some of us entrust them to another person. Some of us entrust them to an institution. Christianity insists that for this trust to be salvific, it must be directed only toward Christ. He holds what is truly valuable in life – his relationship with the Father. He has shown the uttermost depths of love for us. He is able through his Spirit to unite us to his Father, to make us adopted sons and daughters. Our lives are infinitely safer in his hands than in our own hands or in the hands of anyone else or any institution or philosophy. He is the one to whome we should look, the one in whom we should trust. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). In light of this, it is perhaps appropriate today for evangelicals to spend less time seeking to nail down exactly what faith is and instead to point other people to the one who is truly worth of their faith, Jesus Christ. Conversion to Christianity is not so much a process of gaining faith where one had none before as it is a process of transferring one’s trust from whatever or whomever one was trusting previously to Christ alone.
Fairbain, Life in the Trinity, p. 188
Thank you for reading and sending in your questions!
Like so many of you, when I saw the video last night of what happened to George Floyd, I was horrified.
If someone was not there to film this incident, would we even know that this happened?
Was this an isolated incident? We have to recognize that a steady stream of “isolated incidents” constitutes a pattern, and racism and prejudice are alive and well in the world today.
As Christians, it is our theological duty to speak out against racism.
Racism asserts that some people are more valuable than others. This view is anathema to those who follow Jesus.
No matter the color of a person’s skin, no matter their economic or social status, no matter their level of ability or disability: all people are created in the image of God, and therefore endowed with an innate dignity as image bearers of the Divine.
What is at the Root of Racism?
It would not be uncommon to hear someone say that at the root of racism is sin. The question though is: What sin exactly is at the root of racism?
What underlies racism is the endeavor common to all human beings of seeking to establish an identity.
Every person is seeking to establish an identity, which can be defined as: evidence that we have value and worth, that we are deserving of love and acceptance.
People seek to do this in many ways, such as geography, ethnicity, morality, economics, social standing, education, etc.
However, when someone seeks to establish their identity in anything other than the redeeming work of Jesus, it leads to disaster.
This disaster, in some cases, may only be personal; it may only affect them. It will still be disaster because it will lead to emptiness, futility, and the loss of their soul (see Mark 8:36).
However, in many cases, the disaster of attempting to build an identity apart from Christ can affect others. This is what leads to wars, ethnic conflicts, tribalism, rivalries, and racism.
These are all forms of self-justification, or the attempt to prove one’s worth by means of something within them, whether that is their morality, their good deeds, or their race or tribe.
The Reformers, particularly Calvin, pointed out that while people can do good things apart from faith in Jesus and experiencing His regenerative work in their lives, all of their good works will ultimately be motivated by either self-justification or self-glorification.
Self-justification often seeks opportunities to justify oneself by looking for ways in which they can feel superior to others. It is endeavoring to build an identity for yourself – apart from Christ – that “proves” that you have worth, and many people go about that negatively by juxtaposing themselves against other people whom they deem to have “less worth.”
Considering It All Rubbish
In the third chapter of his letter to the Philippians, Paul the Apostle talks about how he formerly tried to build his identity apart from Christ in his ethnic background, in his morality, in his education, and in his zeal for God. (Philippians 3:4-9).
The result of these things, in every instance, was that they led him to look down on others who didn’t have his ethnic background, his morality, his education, or his zeal for God – and in at least one case it led him to physically and psychologically harm an entire group of people.
However, after coming to faith in Christ and embracing the gospel, Paul says that he now considers all of these things rubbish compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus, and being found in Him, with a righteousness that comes from Jesus, not from anything within Paul himself.
What the gospel offers us is value, worth, and belonging because of what God has done for us and who we are in Christ. This identity, rather than leading to oppression or rivalry, leads to love and charity.
May we be those who find our identity in Christ, and who recognize the inherent dignity of all people.
The following is a message I sent out to our church today regarding the current situation with COVID-19:
The situation with COVID-19 is developing quickly. I am glad that our authorities are taking this so seriously; a virus that threatens the most vulnerable in our society is something we should all care about deeply.
Confidence and Love
As Christians in these times, we are motivated by two things: confidence in the gospel, and love for our neighbors. In Jesus, we have confidence and security; we do not fear, because we know that even if our bodies are destroyed, we have a heavenly dwelling that awaits us because of what Jesus accomplished for us. Hebrews 2:14-15 tells us that because Jesus defeated death and the devil, we are free to no longer live in the fear of death.
Although we do not fear death, it is important that we love our neighbors by doing what we can to slow down the spread of this disease which is affecting vulnerable people, particularly the elderly and those whose immune systems are compromised.
Doing your part to minimize the spread of COVID-19 is not an act of fear, but of love for our neighbors.
If you, or anyone you know, needs help with shopping or errands, particularly if you/they are elderly, we want to help you with that so you don’t have to put yourself at risk. E-mail email@example.com with any needs, and we will make sure it gets done in a safe manner.
In this spirit of love, we ask that you respect the recommendations of the CDC and refrain from unnecessary gatherings and contact with others, until the risk goes down. If possible, please consider working from home.
Whereas last week, we recommended that Community Groups continue meeting, we are now leaving it up to individual groups to decide if you should meet, or consider a video chat instead. Shelby will be posting more information on possible ways to do that soon.
Sunday Church Services
For this Sunday, we will pre-record a video with worship and a Bible teaching, which we will then post on YouTube and Facebook for you and those in your household or family to watch together. On Sunday at 10:00 AM we will start a “watch party” on Facebook for those of you who use that platform. If you haven’t yet subscribed to our YouTube channel or followed us on Facebook, now is a good time to do that, and you will be alerted whenever we post a video or go live.
We are working on setting up the video system in our new building, so we can use that to film and broadcast our services, and we expect that to be ready soon. We are also working on a Church Online platform that we can use during this time.
We are waiting until it is safe and advisable for us to have physical gatherings before announcing our official Grand Opening in the new building.
Michelle Pearl, our NextGen Director, will be posting the weekly lesson so that you can go through them with your children at home on Sundays.
As we often say, giving financially to God’s work through the local church is an act of worship. Since in-person giving will not be possible until we can gather physically again as a church, we ask that you give online. That can be done on our website here, or on Realm.
Blog Posts and Devotional Thoughts
During this time, I will be posting more frequently on my blog with devotional thoughts and Bible studies. That might be one more way for you to engage with our community and grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here’s the website: Longmont Pastor – and you can subscribe in order to get email updates of new posts.
Update on Pastors Nick and Mike
I just arrived back from Ukraine, where Pastor Mike and I were visiting our missionaries and teaching at a leadership conference. When we left, there was no recommendation against travel to Hungary or Ukraine, and there were no COVID-19 cases. When I arrived back in the US today, I was screened and tested for COVID-19 and the test came back negative. However, we are more than happy to comply with the protocol and self-quarantine for 14 days out of love for others and respect to the authorities.
In one of our recent studies from the Vision series, we looked at developing God’s vision for your situation – part of which is understanding that every situation presents us with opportunities to respond to the gospel and love our neighbors. That is true in this situation as well! Here is the link to that message: A Vision for Your Situation It is important that we stick together in this time, as a community of people who love Jesus and love our neighbors. We want to continue growing in faith and looking for ways to serve those around us in Jesus’ name.
Peter essentially gives two evidences for why we can trust the Bible:
Christianity is based on historical facts which had many eye-witnesses
The record of Messianic prophecies which Jesus fulfilled
The Test & the Evidence
The Book of the Prophet Isaiah contains an incredible claim: the Lord God is contrasting himself with the pagan gods which many people worshiped in the form of idols, and God says, Here is how you will know that I am the one true God, and those so-called ‘gods’ are nothing: I will tell you the end from the beginning; I will tell you what will happen before it happens, and then when those things come to pass, that will be the proof to you that I alone am God. See: Isaiah 44:6-8; 46:9-10; 48:5-6
So God himself challenges us to put him to the test, and he goes on record predicting things about the future which will come to pass. Roughly 1/3 of the Bible is made up of prophecies, including many about the promised Messiah, which predicted various things about his identity and actions.
According to one calculation, there are 332 Messianic prophecies from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), which Jesus fulfilled.
This is why the Dead Sea Scrolls are such a big deal: they date back to about 100 years before the birth of Jesus, which shows us that the prophecies which Jesus fulfilled were indeed written before his birth, and were not later redactions or additions. See: Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter for Christians
Peter Stoner’s Calculations
Professor Peter W. Stoner was Chairman of the Departments of Mathematics and Astronomy at Pasadena City College and Chairman of the science division at Westmont College. In his book, Science Speaks, Professor Stoner outlines the mathematical probability of one person in the first century fulfilling just eight of the most clear and straightforward Messianic prophecies.
We find that the chance that any man might have lived down to the present time and fulfilled all eight prophecies is 1 in 1017 (1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000).
In case you’re wondering, the Mega Millions had a $1.6 billon jackpot in October 2018, and the odds of winning it were merely 1 in 302,575,350. 
Stoner went on to calculate the probability of one person fulfilling 48 prophecies: 1 in 10157.
In case you’re questioning whether Professor Stoner’s math was wrong, H. Harold Hartzler, PhD, of the American Scientific Affiliation, Goshen College, writes in the forward of Stoner’s book:
The manuscript for Science Speaks has been carefully reviewed by a committee of the American Scientific Affiliation members and by the Executive Council of the same group and has been found, in general, to be dependable and accurate in regard to the scientific material presented. The mathematical analysis included is based upon principles of probability which are thoroughly sound and Professor Stoner has applied these principles in a proper and convincing way.
What Makes Christianity Unique
Along with eye-witness evidence of historical events (testimony for which people died, suffered imprisonment, torture, and the torture of their loved ones), and the prophetic record, something else that sets Christianity apart from all other religions and philosophies is the path of salvation it presents:
Whereas other religions offer ways to save yourself or endear yourself to God through doing actions, or keeping rules – the gospel message of the Bible is that you cannot save yourself, no matter how hard you try – but that God has done for you in Christ that which you could never do for yourself, in order to save you – because he already loves you.
That’s much better news, and a promise you can take to the bank.
In Homer’s classic epic, The Odyssey, tells the story of Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, and his perilous journey home after the Trojan War. Along the way, Homer faces many dangers, but perhaps the greatest danger of all are the Sirens.
A Picture of Temptation
The Sirens are seductive, and they sing a beautiful song that sailors cannot resist. However, the Sirens’ song is deadly: when sailors are enticed by it and steer their ships towards it, they are lured to their death, as they crash their boats into the rocks.
The Sirens’ song is a picture of temptation. People are not tempted by things which are grotesque and terrible, but by the allure of something which is desirable and attractive. However, there are things in life which draw us in with a promise that is not only empty, but which will lead to your demise and the shipwrecking of your life.
Two Approaches to Resisting Temptation
In his book, Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain Science, Drew Dyke points out that the Sirens are not only used by Homer in The Odyssey as a picture of temptation (and how to resist it), but they were also used by Apollonius Rhodius in his epic, Argonautica, which was written about 500 years after The Odyssey. Interestingly, Rhodius mentioned the Sirens in order to offer a different approach to resisting temptation.
Approach #1: The Odyssey
Odysseus knows about the danger of the Sirens and he is aware of his own weakness. Rather than assuming that he will be strong enough to resist the Sirens’ song, Odysseus makes plans in order to protect himself and his men from lure of the Sirens: he orders his men to tie him to the mast, and tells them not to untie him no matter how much he pleads with them. To make sure the sailors aren’t seduced, he has them stuff their ears with beeswax so they won’t hear the Sirens’ song.
When Odysseus hears the Sirens’ song, he tries to escape the ropes and begs his sailors to free him, but they ignore him and continue sailing. Odysseus’ plan to overcome temptation works and they survive the danger of the Sirens’ song.
The approach to temptation laid out in The Odyssey is akin to asking others to keep you accountable and taking steps to prevent yourself from coming in contact with things that tempt you.
This approach is wise in that it recognizes human weakness. We need more than just good advice, we need help. If all we needed was good advice, no one would be overweight or broke or in experience conflict in their relationships, since a myriad of good advice on these topics is readily available for free. The fact that people still struggle with these things is proof that what we need is more than just good advice: we need help to overcome our weaknesses and do what is right, not only towards others, but even for our own best interests.
In Argonautica, the Argonauts have to sail past the same Sirens, but they take a different approach to overcoming temptation:
On board their ship is a musician named Orpheus. When they hear the Sirens’ song, rather than stuffing their ears with wax and tying themselves up to avoid the allure of the song, they rather have Orpheus get out his lyre and play a louder and more beautiful song. Because of Orpheus’ “sweeter song,” the sailors are able to resist the temptation of the Sirens’ song, and they pass by securely.
This approach to temptation does not merely restrain the hand, but seeks to capture the heart.
Dyke points out that while it is wise to recognize your own weaknesses and set up safeguards to protect yourself, the best way to resist temptation and the most powerful means of self-control is to listen to a “sweeter song.”
A Sweeter Song
Augustine of Hippo explained that what defines a person most is what they love. Therefore, in order to change who a person is, we should seek to change what they love.
How do we do that? By showing them a better story and a sweeter song.
That better story and sweeter song is found in Jesus. Ultimately all people are seeking the same things: joy and happiness, relief from suffering and pain, love and acceptance, overcoming the limitations of this physical world, adventure and discovery… the list could go on. However, the ways and the places in which many people seek these things will not only leave them unfulfilled but will dash them against rocks and shipwreck their lives. It is only in Jesus that our deepest longings will be fully and ultimately satisfied.
Jesus and the salvation He gives is the sweeter song. May we help others to see that! There may be times when it is wise to take practical measures to prevent ourselves from giving in to temptation, but ultimately we need our hearts to be won over by the sweeter song. May we listen to it loudly and often, that our hearts may know it and not accept any lesser, competing songs!
If you read the narratives about Jesus’ birth, you notice that two very different groups of people came to celebrate the event: the magi and the shepherds.
These groups could not have been more different.
The magi were “wise men from the East,” whereas the shepherds were local.
The magi who educated whereas shepherds were uneducated.
The magi were trained in astronomy: a practice common amongst social elites at that time. The shepherds were illiterate.
The magi were wealthy. The shepherds were the poorest of the poor.
The magi were elites: they easily got an audience with the king. The shepherds were outcasts: dirty, smelly, and looked-down upon by others.
The wise men were the 1%-ers. The shepherds were the undesirables.
Honored yet Disgraced
Then there’s Mary. When the angel came to her to tell her that God had chosen her to be the one through whom the promised Savior would come into the world, her response was:“Me? Really?” Later on she says that God had “looked upon her lowly estate” (Luke 1:48).
Mary was a young woman and she was poor. She was engaged to a blue-collar construction worker. We know that together they were poor because when they dedicated Jesus as a baby in the temple, they gave an offering of two turtledoves (pigeons), which was the sacrifice that the poorest of the poor were allowed to make (the wealthy were required to sacrifice a lamb, but this allowance was for those who couldn’t afford to buy a lamb). Truly: he was was rich became poor… (2 Corinthians 8:9)
Furthermore, since God’s plan necessitated that the Messiah, the promised savior, be born of a virgin (Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:22-23), that necessitated that whoever would be chosen to bear the Messiah would become a social pariah by doing so, because they would become pregnant outside of wedlock.
Mary had to be content with knowing who she was in God’s eyes, because in the eyes of those in her community she was disgraced. In fact, John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus had to deal with insults and people calling him a bastard because of his mother’s assumed impropriety (John 8:41). Scholars also note that when Mark’s Gospel reports that Jesus was called “the son of Mary” rather than the common way of referring to a child as the son of their father, i.e. “the son of Joseph” – that this was a slight, insinuating that Jesus was the product of Mary’s adultery.
Hope for “Those People”
Sometimes people look at Christianity and say, “the problem with Christianity is that it is so narrow and exclusive,” because Christianity says that if Jesus is God, if Jesus is the Savior, then you have to put your trust in Him and follow Him in order to be saved.
But here’s what’s interesting:I have met many people who say: “All you have to do to be saved is: be a good and moral person.”
Most people don’t believe that all people will be saved. They fully expect that Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot will go to hell, as well as those who hurt children or the weak. They believe that those who are cruel and mean, and those who do bad things and hurt others deserve Hell rather than Heaven.
In fact, many people find it scandalous that by just believing in Jesus, a person like Jeffery Dahmer, who has done truly terribly things, could be forgiven of their sins and still go to heaven. People even go so far as to say things like, “If someone like that is in Heaven, then I would rather not be there.” The assumption is that for God to forgive someone like that would be a grave act of injustice.
The problem, though, with saying that “All moral and decent people will go to Heaven,” or “If you live a good life, then you will be saved,” is that not all of us are moral! Not all of us have lived good lives! Some of us are failures. Some of us are broken. All of us have done things that we’re not proud of. We have all done things that hurt other people.
To say that “good and moral people” will be saved, or that in order to be saved you must “live a good life” is narrow and exclusive, because it puts “those people” on the outside. The gospel, on the other hand, offers hope to “those people” because it says that anyone who comes to Jesus will be welcomed, received, forgiven, and transformed.
The message of the gospel is good news for all people – for the elites and the outcasts. For the decent and the indecent. For the good and the bad (see Matthew 22:10 – both “the good and the bad” were invited to the wedding feast). The gospel is scandalously open to all people who will come and receive the free gift of redemption through Jesus. That’s good news for “those people” like me and you!