Christian Responses to Plagues and Threats in the Past

A virus that affects the vulnerable, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, is a threat that we should take seriously.

As we consider how to respond to COVID-19, it is worth considering some of the responses to plagues and threats by Christians in the past.

The Plague in Rome

Jesse Lusko posted recently:

In 250 AD the plague wiped out 1/3 of the population of Rome. There was hysteria and most Romans abandoned the weak and the sickly and fled. Pagan historians record how Christians instead sacrificially cared for the sick and faced death with joy and confidence. Cyprian writes “In contrast to the prevailing despair, the Christians seemed to carry their dead in triumph.”

The Atomic Age

C. S. Lewis wrote these words in 1948 after the dawn of the atomic age:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Luther and the Plague in Wittenberg

The Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe in the 14th century, but what many people don’t realize is that it continued to pop up at times afterwards for centuries.

In August 1527 the plague showed up in Wittenberg, leading to the closure of the university and other social institutions. People began fleeing the city in panic, and many people did get sick. In fact, the mortality rate of those who contracted the plague was 70%.

Martin Luther and his wife believed that they were called to serve the sick rather than to flee their city. They opened up their home and treated many sick people.

No one should dare leave his neighbor unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them. In such cases we must respect the word of Christ, “I was sick and you did not visit me …” [Matt. 25:41–46]. According to this passage we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.

In other words, Martin Luther believed there was an obligation to help those who contracted the plague, but so long as they were helped, it was a matter of conscience if one remained to aide in this great task.

He argued that it would be better for hospitals with trained staff to care for the sick, yet if one were not to be found, “…we must give hospital care and be nurses for one another.

For more on this, see: Martin Luther and His Incredible Response to the Black Plague

Conclusion for Today

As the people of God, it is important that we respond to the current situation in prayer, in faith, in service, and in generosity. We are called to look out for the weak and vulnerable among us, to be the body of Christ in the world, and to speak with a prophetic voice – proclaiming God’s words of life and the message of eternal hope in Jesus.

Reader Questions: Was Jesus Really Related to King David?

Last year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received this question:

I have been watching an archaeologist/historian video series. She says Jesus could not have been of David’s bloodline because David was Judean from Judea. Any thoughts?

The claim that Jesus could not have been of David’s bloodline because David was a Judean from Judea fails to take into account the fact of the Babylonian captivity.

The Judeans were taken to Babylon for roughly 70 years (it’s “roughly 70 years” because they didn’t all return at once; they returned in waves). Upon return from the captivity, many settled in different places, such as the much more fertile north of Israel, which was also more highly populated and therefore had more work opportunities. Joseph was a builder (“carpenter“ implies wood work in English, but the term used in the Bible implies more that he was more generally a construction worker) and Nazareth was a Jewish settlement right outside of the large Hellenistic city of Sepphoris, where it seems that the Jews of Nazareth went to work every day as laborers.

The lush and fertile north of Israel

Despite their resettlement after the exile, the Jewish people would have kept track of their ancestral hometowns and villages. 70 years is not so long that you would lose connection with your past, especially for ancient people who were more inclined than modern people to keep track of that and value it.

The argument that Jesus could not have been descended from David since he grew up in Nazareth is the same argument made by Nathaniel in John 1. It was an argument which neglected to recognize the fact that while Jesus grew up in Nazareth, his family was originally from Bethlehem, hence the reason Mary and Joseph had to travel there for the census.

Matthew 2 tells us about how Mary and Joseph left Bethlehem because Herod the Great attempted to kill Jesus, fearing him as a threat to his throne. Mary and Joseph took baby Jesus to Egypt, and upon their return they moved to Nazareth in order to stay off the radar of the Herod family even after the death of Herod the Great.

Thanks for the question and God bless you!

What Does Peter Mean by Adding “Virtue” to Your Faith?

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This past Sunday at White Fields we began our study of 2 Peter, as part of our “Pilgrim’s Progress” series. The sermon “Make Your Calling and Election Sure” looked at 2 Peter 1:1-15.

In 2 Peter 1:5-7, Peter urges his readers to make every effort to add to their faith virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love.

All of those seem pretty straightforward, except perhaps one: Virtue.

How Does Peter Understand “Virtue”?

“Virtue” seems like a pretty broad term, and one that different people might define in different ways.

However, keep in mind that Peter is writing to people throughout Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). This is stated explicitly in 1 Peter 1:1: “To those…in…Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” These are the historical regions of Asia Minor, which at this time was a predominately Greek-speaking, Hellenized region. Hellenization wasn’t only about the Greek language, it also included the proliferation of Greek social norms and philosophical ideas.

Greek philosophy included the thoughts and writings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the most influential and prominent stream of Greek philosophy being Stoicism.

The Stoics were very focused on the idea of “virtue” and held that there are four “cardinal virtues”: Wisdom, Morality, Courage, and Moderation.

Keeping this historical and cultural setting in mind, it would seem that when Peter uses the word “virtue,” he does so with the expectation that his readers will associate that with the Greek philosophical teachings on virtue, particularly that of the Stoics.

Without Faith, Virtue Avails Nothing

It is significant that Peter speaks of “adding” or “supplementing” your faith with virtue. In other words, faith in Jesus and his finished work is the baseline upon which we are encouraged to add these virtues.

So, while Peter is affirming that the Stoics were right that these virtues are good, to have these virtues apart from faith in Jesus will avail you nothing before God. These virtues might help you in life and in relationship with other people, but they will not do anything to improve your standing before God.

CS Lewis on Virtue: the Bible vs. the Stoics

If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness.  But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. 

You see what has happened?  A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance.  The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.  I do not thik this is the Christian virtue of Love. 

The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.  We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.  If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. 

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.

CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory 

This week Mike and I sat down to discuss this question of what it means to add virtue to your faith for our weekly Sermon Extra video series:

Is the Term “Evangelical” One We Should Embrace or Avoid?

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In a recent post, I reviewed Christian Smith’s book, The Bible Made Impossiblein which he takes aim at “biblicism,” which he claims is particularly prevalent amongst evangelical Christians.

This brings up an important question: What exactly is an “evangelical”?

Popular Usage

Recently a friend from church approached me before service one Sunday morning. He pointed out an article in the New York Times about evangelicalism in America, and asked what exactly an evangelical is, and whether our church was evangelical.

Another friend recently posted online about two Christian leaders who had written a book about their support for a particular political issue, and my friend’s comment was that the divide between evangelicals and Jesus is widening all the time.

Obviously my friend is speaking of evangelicals as if they are a single, united group of people, who for the most part do not only hold certain religious beliefs, but also certain political and social positions.

Again, it begs the question: what exactly is an “evangelical”?

Origin of the Term

The word “evangelical” means “of the gospel” or “about the gospel.” It comes from the Greek word evangelion, which means a proclamation of good news.

See also: The Gospel of Caesar Augustus, & What It Tells Us About the Gospel of Jesus Christ

The gospel, which is the proclamation of Jesus Christ and what He has done in order to save us, redeem us, and reconcile us to God, is the core message of Christianity. Thus, an “evangelical Christian” simply means: a Christian who is about the gospel, or a gospel Christian.

Co-Opting of the Term

Since the gospel is the core message of Christianity, one would assume that all Christians would be people who are about the gospel! Unfortunately, some political groups have attempted to co-opt the term evangelical to give the impression that theologically conservative Christians all agree with particular political, social, and economic positions and support certain political parties.

This has led some Christians to feel that they should abandon the term evangelical, as they feel it is no longer helpful in identifying them because the term may be associated in some people’s minds with certain political positions, thus creating an unnecessary barrier for some in approaching Christianity.

So what is an evangelical?

Defining Evangelicalism

Theologian and historian Mark Noll says: “the groups and individuals making up the postwar evangelical movement unite on little except profession of a high view of scripture and the need for divine assistance in salvation.” [1]

Another definition states that evangelicalism is “a transdenominational movement that has sought to transcend its differences in order to work together toward certain common activities and goals, particularly evangelism, world missions, and ministries of mercy and justice.” [2]

Nathan Hatch explains that evangelicals cannot be spoken of as if they are one united group of people who all share the same core beliefs, nor is there one leader who represents or speaks on behalf of evangelicals as a whole. He states, “In truth, there is no such thing as one evangelicalism. [It is made up of] extremely diverse coalitions dominated by scores of self-appointed and independent-minded religious leaders.” [3]

Thus, for my friend to say that “evangelicals are moving farther away from Jesus every day” is to suppose that certain leaders speak on behalf of a movement which is united in both their theological and political views, which is absolutely not true. Nevertheless, many people obviously hold this opinion, partly because of “self-appointed” leaders who act as if they do speak on behalf of evangelicals as a whole, which is the reason why many Christians are considering whether it would be best to distance themselves from this descriptor.

Not an American Movement

One of the problems with associating the term evangelical with Christians who hold certain political positions is that it fails to recognize that evangelicalism is a worldwide movement, not an American one, and evangelicals around the world hold a wide variety of positions on social and economic issues. Even in the United States, evangelicals are not united in their political views or affiliations.

Should We Embrace It or Avoid It?

Words are only helpful until they are not. Furthermore, the helpfulness of words depends on context, because in different contexts, the same words can be associated with different things. If a word carries a lot of baggage in a particular context, it might be better to find a different word.

For example, in Hungary, where I pastored for several years, the word evangéliumi (literally: of the gospel) was a helpful and positive term which gave people a sense of who we were and what we were about. In England, where I have done my theological education, the term evangelical does not carry heavy political connotations, and is therefore helpful in describing a certain kind of Christian who is active in their faith, takes the Bible seriously, and is engaged socially. John Stott, an Anglican, is remembered in England as the face of the Evangelical Alliance, a group of churches that works together beyond denominational lines to further the gospel.

In the United States some Christians, including myself, have opted for using alternative monikers, such as “Gospel-Centered,” which retains the idea of being focused on the gospel, while not using a term which has come to be associated with many things other than the gospel in American society. As I often say: as a Christian, the only controversy I want to be known for is the controversy of the gospel.

Rhode Island & Walden Pond: How They Shaped the Way Americans Think About Church

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It has been said that there are two men who did more to shape the American psyche and culture than anyone else:

#1: Roger Williams, Founder of Rhode Island

Roger Williams moved from England to Boston in the 1600’s to be part of the Puritan colony of Massachusetts

The Puritans’ goal was to create a pure church, free from politics, corruption, and compromise.

Roger Williams loved this idea… the only thing was: after a while he noticed some things in the church there in Boston that he didn’t really like. Things such as how baptisms were carried out, and how the church was managed.

So, do you know what he did?   He left.

Roger moved down south of Boston and established his own colony, with its own church, in what is now Providence, Rhode Island.

But then, guess what happened… After a while, Roger found some things he didn’t like about this new church, and some of the people there (the very church he himself had founded!). And so, Roger Williams left that church as well, and established another church nearby.

And then he left that church too…

Every church he started, he eventually left – because he found things he didn’t like… and they never completely matched his vision for what a perfect church should be, which is particularly interesting since he was the leader of these churches.

Roger Williams ended up alone, still having faith, but completely withdrawn from Christian community.

#2: Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau was a writer, who famously encouraged us to “march to the beat of our own drum.”

He lived in a hut, next to Walden Pond, and would write about going for walks in the forest alone.

Thoreau expressed a very powerful theme for Americans: we take care of ourselves, we work for ourselves, we answer to ourselves — and when it comes to church, we do that for ourselves too.

Thoreau shaped American culture by putting the self at the heart of the American psyche.

His biographer put it this way:  Henry David Thoreau “stands as the most powerful example…of the American mentality of: self-trust, self-reverence, or self-reliance.”

But here’s the thing:  if you look at Thoreau’s life, you don’t find a happy person. He struggled to engage in long-term, meaningful relationships with others, and at the end of his life he had no friends.

Rugged Individualism + Personal Religion = Selling Us Short

The “rugged individualism” of Thoreau plus the “personal religion” of Roger Williams shapes American culture to this day.

Like fish in water, it is hard for us to imagine things any other way, but thankfully God’s Word gives us God’s vision for what the Body of Christ, the gathered, redeemed People of God, AKA: the Church is intended to be and called to be. And when understood, it becomes clear that our culture of rugged individualism + personal religion is selling us short. God has something better for us!

See the article: A Culture of Loneliness and What to Do About It 

I love this quote from Scottish theologian Sinclair Ferguson:

We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.

This Sunday at White Fields Church in Longmont, we will continue our Vision series by looking at God’s vision for the church. If you are in the area, we would love to have you join us!

For more on this, check out the book: A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together by Scot McKnight

Resisting the Sirens’ Song

 

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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 ScienceDrew 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.

For a message on how the gospel is good news, rather than good advice, see: In Thy Dark Streets Shineth)

Approach #2: Argonautica

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!

Christmas is for “Those People”

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The Ins and the Outs

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!

Merry Christmas!

What Did John Calvin Mean By, “We must remember that Satan has his miracles too”?

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In a recent post titled If Satan Has Been Defeated, Why Is He Still “Prowling Around”?, we looked at how Satan is not God’s counterpart, and certainly not his equal. How then can someone like John Calvin, who has a high view of God’s sovereignty and power, say that “Satan has his miracles too?

Calvin was referring to Matthew 24:24 – where, in his Olivet Discourse, Jesus states that during a time to come of great tribulation, “false messiahs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”

The Context of Calvin’s Statement: A Response to Roman Catholic Criticisms About a Lack of Miracles in the Reformation

This statement is only part of a bigger statement by John Calvin. It is found in the “Prefatory Address to the King of France,” at the beginning of Institutes of the Christian Religion. In this section, Calvin is responding to Roman Catholic criticisms of the Reformation, one of which was that the Reformation lacked miracles, which they said proved that the Reformation was not a legitimate, apostolic, work of God.

In his response, Calvin said that the immediate purpose of a miracle like healing was to bring relief to the individual, but the ultimate purpose was to prove that the apostolic preaching was true. Calvin then argues that the Reformation is not a new revelation, but rather the reaffirmation of the original apostolic preaching, therefore it does not necessitate miracles to confirm its validity.

Calvin then takes it one step further by suggesting that many of the supposed miracles reported by the Roman Catholic Church may not be from God, but may instead be of the sort talked about by Jesus in Matthew 24:24, i.e. performed by false prophets by the power of Satan to lead people astray and deceive them.

Interestingly however, Calvin does not disavow miracles entirely, but suggests that there were actually miracles that accompanied the Reformation. He then makes the concluding point that the test of miracles should be what they cause you to worship and trust in. Any miracle which causes you to trust in false doctrines or turn away from the Word of God, he says, are suspect in their origin.

This final point is a good one; you might remember that in Exodus, Pharaoh’s sorcerers were able to do replicate some of the miracles which Moses performed. The effect of these miracles was to cause people not to listen to God and repent, but to trust in false gods. I have witnessed a similar phenomenon amongst people in some circles today who seek signs and wonders; sometimes the signs they seek cause them to trust in things other than God, His Word, and the gospel.

You can read a larger excerpt of what Calvin wrote here, but here are some highlights:

In demanding miracles from us, they act dishonestly; for we have not coined some new gospel, but retain the very one the truth of which is confirmed by all the miracles which Christ and the apostles ever wrought.

But the mark of sound doctrine given by our Savior himself is its tendency to promote the glory not of men, but of God (John 7:18; 8:50). Our Savior having declared this to be test of doctrine, we are in error if we regard as miraculous, works which are used for any other purpose than to magnify the name of God.

And it becomes us to remember that Satan has his miracles, which, although they are tricks rather than true wonders, are still such as to delude the ignorant and unwary. Magicians and enchanters have always been famous for miracles, and miracles of an astonishing description have given support to idolatry: these, however, do not make us converts to the superstitions either of magicians or idolaters.

But our opponents tell us that their miracles are wrought not by idols, not by sorcerers, not by false prophets, but by saints: as if we did not know it to be one of Satan’s wiles to transform himself “into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14).

We, then, have no lack of miracles, sure miracles, that cannot be gainsaid; but those to which our opponents lay claim are mere delusions of Satan, inasmuch as they draw off the people from the true worship of God to vanity.

Source: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, cited in: The Reformation’s Lack of Miracles: A Response by John Calvin

Celebrating Saint Nicholas

December 6 is Saint Nicholas Day, or the Feast of Saint Nicholas.

Whereas Americans tend to say that Santa Claus comes on Christmas Eve to deliver presents, for Europeans Saint Nick brings chocolate and some gifts on December 6.

“The Real Santa is Dead”

One of my American friends once told me that they don’t do Santa Claus, because they like to keep fairy tales out of their faith. That’s a fair point. However, when it comes to Saint Nicholas, we would do well to not lose the legacy of the historical person as we throw out the proverbial bath water.

To that end, my wife and I have always taken the approach with our kids of telling them about the real Saint Nick: the pastor and theologian who loved and cared for the poor in his community.

We explain to them that the reason there are so many Santas in malls and at events is because Saint Nicholas was such a wonderful person that people want to keep his memory and legacy alive, and they do that by dressing up in that red costume with the beard.

This led to a funny episode once, when we were waiting in line to have our picture taken with a mall Santa, and my son – 5 years old at the time – started talking to another kid in line and told him, “Did you know that the real Santa is dead?!” Needless to say, the kid was surprised and concerned to hear this news!

The Real Saint Nick

Saint Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in the village of Patara, in what is now southern Turkey, into a wealthy family. That’s right: no North Pole nor reindeer for the real Santa, but palm trees and white sand beaches.

His parents died when he was young, and he was taken in and raised by a local priest. Following Jesus’ call to the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:21) to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas dedicated his entire inheritance to assisting the sick, needy and suffering.

He became a pastor, and was later made Bishop of Myra. He became famous for his generosity and love for children.

Nicholas suffered persecution and imprisonment for his Christian faith during the Great Persecution (303-311) under Roman emperor Diocletian.

As a bishop, he attended the Council of Nicaea (325), at which he affirmed the doctrine of the deity of Christ against the Arian heresy.

Homoousios or Homoiousios

The discussion at the Council of Nicaea was summarized by which word to use in describing Jesus’ nature: whether he was homoousios (of the “same substance” as God) or homoiousios (of a “similar substance” as God).

At the the Council of Nicaea, bishops from all over the world gathered to study the scriptures and address the Arian controversy which advocated for the term homoiousios, denying Jesus’ full deity. This view, which is also held today by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was deemed heretical by the council of bishops based on examination of the Scriptures, which teach that Jesus is Immanuel (God with us), and is true God of true God.

The debate got very heated, and at one point Nicholas reportedly got so upset with he deemed to be blasphemy, that he slapped an Arian.

This is the real Saint Nick: Palm trees and white sand beaches, defender of the faith, and slapper of heretics.

Nicholas died in 343 in Myra. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6.

Where the Tradition of Gift Giving Comes From

Many stories are told about St. Nicholas’ life and deeds. Perhaps the most famous story is that of a poor man who had three daughters of marrying age. Because the man was poor, he was unable to provide a dowry for his daughters, which meant that they would not be able to find a descent husband and would either be married into further poverty or would have to become slaves.

After Nicholas found out about this family’s situation, he visited the family’s house at night, leaving them three anonymous gifts: bags of gold, which he tossed through an open window while the family was sleeping.

The story goes that they found the gold in their shoes when they awoke, which is the reason for the tradition in Europe that Saint Nicholas leaves chocolate in children’s shoes. Nicholas provided for these poor girls to help them break out of the cycle of poverty.

Rather than trying to make Christmas Santa-free, let’s take back the true story of Saint Nicholas and take hold of this opportunity to talk about a Christian man who loved Jesus, championed good theology, and exemplified Christ through compassion and generosity to the needy.

 

1 Peter: A Call to Missional Humility

photo of monument during daytime

We are currently studying through 1 Peter at White Fields. You can listen to the studies here: Pilgrim’s Progress: A Study Through 1&2 Peter

I’ve read the letter many times, but it’s my first time preaching through it. Doing so has caused me to see a few things in the letter which I hadn’t noticed before:

Peter Reflects Paul

Many scholars date this letter to 64 AD, the time when the great persecution of Rome began under Caesar Nero in the wake of the great fire of Rome. It was also during this time that Paul the Apostle was put to death.

One theory is that Peter wrote this letter in the wake of Paul’s death, to speak to the church in Asia Minor (see 1 Peter 1:1), the area where Paul did a great deal of his ministry and church planting, and to whom he wrote several letters (Ephesians, Galatians, Colossians). Peter was writing to warn them and prepare them for the flood of persecution that was radiating out from Rome to the rest of the empire, and to fill the gap to some degree since the Apostle Paul was now dead.

Throughout the letter, Peter can be seen reflecting on many of the same topics and themes which were found in Paul’s letters (especially Ephesians) and sometimes uses very similar language, although clearly Peter’s writing follows a different pattern than Paul’s. Interestingly, in 2 Peter, Peter mentions Paul’s writings, even calling them Scripture.

For related topics, check out: When Was the New Testament Recognized as Holy Scripture? & Did the New Testament Writers Know They Were Writing Scripture?

It seems that Peter was intimately familiar with Paul’s letters, and perhaps those letters influenced him in the writing of his own letter.

A Call to Missional Living

A major theme of 1 Peter is that as Christians we are sojourners and pilgrims, strangers in this world. As Christians, our citizenship is in Heaven, which is also where our ultimate hope lies; not on this Earth.

Considering that this letter was written to people who were suffering greatly, this message is not surprising. Indeed, the promise of the gospel is that one day those who are children of God will be brought home by their Father to be with Him in security and fullness of joy, free from the pain and suffering caused by sin.

However, if we see Peter’s letter as primarily being about the hope of escaping this cruel world and going to Heaven, we’ve missed the main thrust of his letter. The main thrust of the letter is actually about missional living.

The hope of Heaven makes us bold and courageous so that we can live this life on mission with God. Peter wants us to think of ourselves as sojourners on a mission.

There are several ways in which you can be a foreigner in a foreign land:

  1. A Tourist – Puts down no roots. They come to a place to take what they can and enjoy what they can, but they don’t invest deeply in that place or worry much about building relationships with the people there, because they are living out of a suitcase in a rented hotel room, as they await their flight out to go home.
  2. A Prisoner of War – Is in that foreign land against their will, and therefore they bide their time until they can get out.
  3. A Missionary – A missionary is intentional about their time and resources, knowing that they are in that place for a purpose; they are on assignment.

Peter, in this letter, focuses more on living in this world than escaping from this world, and encourages us to take the posture not of a tourist, nor of a prisoner of war, but rather that of a missionary.

Missional Humility

In this letter, Peter has a lot to say about humility. Throughout the gospels, it is apparent that Jesus’ disciples had an issue with being competitive. There are John’s comments about beating Peter in a footrace to Jesus’ grave on Easter Sunday, and the multiple times Jesus caught his disciples debating which of them was the greatest.

Peter himself, as a younger man, had pridefully told Jesus that even if everyone else fell away, he would remain faithful to the end. Jesus then informed Peter that before that very night was over, Peter would deny him three times.

Jesus graciously restored him, but Peter was unquestionably humbled by that experience. Furthermore, some 30 years had passed by this time since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Peter is older, and his word for younger people is: humble yourself, so that God doesn’t have to do it for you – because God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

For Peter, humility is not only a way of relating to God, it’s also an important aspect of what it means to live missionally. Peter talks about living humbly in this world, and treating unbelievers with respect and gentleness (see 1 Peter 3:15). In order to engage in God’s mission effectively in this world, it’s not just what you say that matters, but how you say it, and how you live.

May we be those who hear the message of Peter:

  • May we love the Word of God, so that it sinks into us, and permeates our thoughts and speech.
  • May the promise of Heaven cause us to engage rather than disengage with the world around us in a missional way,
  • and may we take a posture of humility towards others and before God as we do so.