Joaquin Phoenix is Playing Jesus, but Refused to Reenact One of His Miracles

image.png

Joaquin Phoenix is playing Jesus in the film “Mary Magdalene,” which releases this week on Good Friday, and attempts to look at the story of Jesus through the eyes of Mary Magdalene.

Check out: Is Good Friday Actually Good?

The movie takes a few liberties with the story, however. For example, in the case of the healing of the blind man in John 9, the man is replaced by a woman, and Joaquin Phoenix refused to act out how the actual miracle took place: by making mud with saliva and dirt, and rubbing it on the blind man’s eyes.

Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. (John 9:6-7)

Here’s what Phoenix told CNN about why he wouldn’t reenact this particular miracle:

“I knew about that scene from the Bible, but I guess I had never really considered it. When I got there, I thought, ‘I’m not going to rub dirt in her eyes. Who the f— would do that?’ It doesn’t make any sense. That is a horrible introduction to seeing.”

Instead, Phoenix chose to lick his thumb and rub the woman’s eyes. [source]

However, I think that Joaquin Phoenix, in claiming to know better than Jesus, is actually detracting from a major aspect of what made that miracle significant.

On my recent trip to Israel, I had the opportunity to visit the Pool of Siloam, which is currently being excavated. I even had the chance to teach about this miracle from John 9, right on site to our group.

IMG_8672.jpeg

IMG_0919.jpeg
Teaching at the Pool of Siloam after having walked through Hezekiah’s Tunnel

One of the key features of the parable is that the way Jesus healed this man required the man to respond in faith to what Jesus did and said. Jesus didn’t simply touch this man and he was healed; he did something which would have seemed odd and confusing (applying mud to his eyes) and then told him to do something which also seemed to not make sense: to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.

The Pool of Siloam was originally used to provide water for the Temple. Water was brought from outside the city, via the Gihon spring, through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, to the pool, where it was collected. In the time of Herod the Great, other pools were created, closer to the Temple, such as the Israel Pool, and those were used in the service of the Temple instead; the Pool of Siloam was then used as a public mikvah, or ritual bath, used for Jewish purification rites.

Here’s why the way Jesus performed this miracle matters:

1. It required the man to respond in faith and obedience

Faith has been defined as “trusting God enough to do what he says.” This man had probably washed his face many times in his life; how would washing mud off his face on this day help him see? It didn’t make sense, and yet that’s kind of the point: it required faith for him to obey rather than cynically refuse to do so, saying “Why would that help?” or “Why would today be any different?”

2. It communicated a theological message

The theological message implicit in Jesus covering this man’s eyes with dirt and telling him to wash in a ritual bath, was that we need to be cleansed.

But beyond that, here is Jesus – God incarnate – the one who created humankind out of the dirt of the Earth, yet we are now broken and fallen as a result of our sins and failures. And so here is the creator, come to us to heal our brokenness, once again putting his hands in the dirt and re-forming that which has become broken.

It’s a powerful picture. What a shame that Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t get it and robs the audience of it.

3. It was public, not private

When this man was healed in this public pool, many people would have seen it, as John 9 tells us they did. This was not a private thing between Jesus and this man; it was done for all to see, to bring glory to God.

Let’s stick with letting Jesus’ words and actions stand on their own!

Here’s the trailer of the Mary Magdalene movie:

Advertisements

A “Jealous God”? How is that Good?

bible black and white book close up

A few years ago, in a conversation with a childhood friend of mind, he told me that the thing he can’t accept about the God of the Bible is that he is described as being “jealous.” My friend insinuated that he could never respect a God who had such a petty and insecure character trait.

Several times in the Bible, God refers to himself as a “jealous God.” For example, in the 10 Commandments, God tells his people not to worship other gods, because he is a jealous God.

What’s interesting, is that jealousy is listed in the New Testament as being one of a handful of sins which are called “the works of the flesh” and are contrasted with “the fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians 5.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

How can God have a characteristic which the Bible itself calls sinful?

There are two answers to this question:

1. Two Different Greek Words – With Two Different Meanings

The confusion over the word jealous being attributed to God is really a matter of the weakness of the English language. In Greek, two very distinct words, with distinct meanings, are used to describe these two attitudes:

In Galatians 5:21, where jealousy is listed as a sin, the word is: φθόνος (phthonos) – which is more akin to envy or covetousness: it connotes ill-will towards someone because of something they have which you want for yourself. [1]

In James 4:5, where God is described as jealous, the word is: ἐπιποθέω (epipotheo) – which means to dote upon or desire intensely. [2]

In other words, God is not described as having a sinful characteristic at all. The confusion comes from the deficiency of the English language, or perhaps of the translators to find better words to differentiate these two concepts.

2. Why It is Good that God is “Jealous” for His People

One definition of jealousy in the dictionary is: “fiercely protective or vigilant of one’s rights or possessions”

This is the essence of what the Bible is talking about when it describes God as a jealous God. It means that when it comes to his people, he desires our hearts to be fully his, and he desires exclusivity in that relationship —  hence the first commandment: You shall have no other gods beside me.

Throughout the Bible, God describes his relationship with his people as a marriage – a covenant relationship. God calls himself the husband of his people; in the Old Testament, Israel is referred to as the wife of Yahweh. In the New Testament, the church is called the Bride of Christ, and Jesus is called the Bridegroom. This is why idolatry is compared in the Bible to adultery against God.

It is appropriate for a spouse to be fiercely protective of the exclusivity of their marriage, and be opposed to anything which would try to come in and threaten it.

When we first moved to Colorado, my wife went to a dentist. After that first appointment, Dr. Brian began calling her on the phone and sending handwritten cards. Maybe he was just following protocol, but as a husband, I didn’t like Dr. Brian sending my wife cards and calling her on the phone!

The fact that God is jealous for his people is a wonderful thing. It means that God doesn’t just tolerate you, He doesn’t just put up with you — but He is fiercely passionate about His love for you! 

This kind of fierce, passionate love is described in the Song of Solomon:   Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. (Song of Solomon 8:6-7)

That is the kind of love that God has for you. It is the kind of love that moved the God of the Universe to leave his heavenly throne, and become one of us — to walk our dusty streets, and be despised by the very people he created — and ultimately to be nailed to a cross in order to redeem you. This love is at the very heart of the gospel.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Benefits of Studying Church History

adult blur books close up

In his book, Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones discusses the following benefits of studying church history:

Church History Guards Us Against Error

Most of the theological discussions that people have today, as well as most heresies that exist today, were already discussed, debated and settled within the first 500 years of Christian history. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses are basically neo-arians, and their view of Jesus is the same one which led to the Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed. The modern heresies of today are really just rebranding and recycling older ideas which the church has already spent a lot of time addressing.

For more on Arius and Arianism, check out: Was It Necessary for Our Salvation that Jesus be God? 

Lloyd-Jones says this:

The way to safeguard yourself…is to learn something about heresies—how they arose in the past generally through very good and conscientious men. History shows how subtle it all is, and how many a man lacking balance, or by failing to maintain the proportion of faith, and the interrelationship of the various parts of the whole message, has been pressed by the devil to put too much emphasis on one particular aspect, and eventually pressed so far as to be in a position in which he is really contradicting the Truth and has become a heretic. So Church history is invaluable… It is not the preserve of the academics. I would say that Church history is one of the most essential studies for the [believer] were it merely to show him this terrible danger of slipping into heresy, or into error, without realising that anything has happened to him.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers (pp. 128-129).

Church History is a Source of Encouragement

Some people think about studying church history as being kind of like a visit to a sausage factory: the finished product might be great, but the way it was made wasn’t pretty. On the contrary, I would say that church history should cause us to be filled with wonder and amazement that in spite of human folly, errors, and mistakes, God has providentially guided and protected His Bride, because He loves her and is devoted to her.

Lloyd-Jones says this:

I know of nothing, in my own experience, that has been more exhilarating and helpful, and that has acted more frequently as a tonic to me, than the history of Revivals.

Take the time we are living in. What discouraging days they are, so discouraging that even a man with an open Bible which he believes, and with the Spirit in him, may at times be discouraged and cast down almost to the depths of despair. There is no better tonic in such a condition than to familiarise yourselves with previous eras in the history of the Church which have been similar, and how God has dealt with them.

The French novelist Anatole France used to say, whenever he felt tired and jaded with a tendency to be depressed and downcast, ‘I never go into the country for a change of air and a holiday, I always go instead into the eighteenth century.’ I have often said exactly the same thing, but not in the same sense in which he meant it, of course. When I get discouraged and over-tired and weary I also invariably go to the eighteenth century. I have never found George Whitefield to fail me. Go to the eighteenth century! In other words read the stories of the great tides and movements of the Spirit experienced in that century. It is the most exhilarating experience, the finest tonic you will ever know.

For a preacher it is absolutely invaluable; there is nothing to compare with it. The more he learns in this way about the history of the Church the better preacher he will be. At the same time let him, of course, during this training become familiar with the stories of the great men of the past, the great saints and preachers. It will not only act as a wonderful tonic to him in times of depression, it will keep him humble when tempted to pride and a spirit of elation.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers (p. 129).

Where to Begin?

There are a lot of really great books on church history. If you know a good one, please feel free to post it in the comments section.

I think a great place to start, with a book that is accessible, substantial, and enjoyable to read, is From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya by Ruth Tucker.

Also check out this great free online lecture series on church history from David Guzik at Enduring Word.

Another great resource is Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alister McGrath, which doesn’t sound like a church history book by the title, but approaches theology by looking at it through the development of Christian beliefs over the course of history.

We also offer a class at White Fields on church history. Check out our School of Ministry page, and if you’re interested in the class, shoot us an email at the address listed on that page, and we’ll keep you posted on when we will be hosting that class again.

Resources for Families: Responding to Reader Questions

Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received a few questions about resources for families:

Question 1: In a recent Calvary Live you mentioned a ‘kids’ Bible you read to your kids. Can you tell me the name and publisher of that Bible?

The name of that Children’s Bible is The Jesus Storybook Bibleand it is published by Zonderkidz, which is the children’s branch of Zondervan.

I love this Bible because, to put it in semi-technical terms, it uses a Christo-centric hermeneutic and a Biblical theological approach to teaching kids the stories of the Bible, which is so important. Almost every children’s Bible I have come across presents a moralistic message to children, rather than one which helps them to see Christ in all of Scripture, and that all of the Bible points to Him and is fulfilled in Him.

On a similar note, I have found that many Children’s Ministry curricula are moralistic in nature, and can err on the side of telling Bible stories, but not explaining how those stories point to Jesus or fit into the narrative of the Bible which culminates in Jesus’ saving actions on our behalf. However, there are some good ones out there; at White Fields we use The Gospel Project, and we love how well it points our kids to the gospel every week and helps them learn to read the Bible through a christological lens.

This children’s Bible is a breath of fresh air, and I have often found myself choking up as I read it to my children, because the message of the gospel and the brilliance of God’s love and grace comes through so clearly.

Personally, I think every adult should read this too. It is a wonderful introduction to Christ-centered hermeneutics and biblical theology, which everyone, not just children would benefit from.

Question 2: I am the leader of a small group in my church. We want to study parenting but are having a difficult time finding materials. I was hoping you might be able to suggest some?

My recommendation would be Family Life’s Art of Parenting course.

I haven’t used this material yet myself, but we are considering hosting a class at our church based on it, and I trust the publisher. They have both group materials and a self-service online course.

Thanks for your questions! Keep them coming, and I hope these resources help.

 

 

New Zealand, Nigeria & New York: Religious Violence, Refugees & Reporting

This past Friday, the world was rightly horrified by an attack on muslim worshipers in Christchurch, New Zealand by an anti-Muslim white supremacist.

In another part of the world, 280 Nigerian Christians have been killed in the past two months by Fulani militants and Boko Haram terrorists. Nigeria has now been declared to be the most dangerous country in the world to be a Christian.

Why Such Little Reporting on Nigeria?

The instances in New Zealand and Nigeria are both examples of violence and hatred directed towards people based on their religion, yet the attacks in New Zealand have gotten much more press coverage than those in Nigeria, the latter of which has prompted questions from British MP Kate Hoey as to why there is so little coverage of these events in the media.

Why such unbalanced reporting?

Is it because the one took place in a developed Western country, whereas the other is taking place in a developing country in Africa? Is it because the one was a one-time incident, whereas the other is an ongoing campaign of terror?

If so, what does the lack of media attention communicate? Hopefully not that the lives of those in the developing world matter less than the lives of those in developed countries. Hopefully not that ongoing violence is less worthy of our attention and outrage than isolated events.

Nigerian Refugees in the News

I was encouraged today when I came across this article from the New York Times, highlighting an 8 year old Nigerian refugee in New York City.

As the article details, Tanitoluwa Adewumi lives in a homeless shelter with his family. The article mentions that Tani’s family is from northern Nigeria, and that they fled their homes because of Boko Haram terrorists who are targeting Christians such as themselves in their homeland. In New York, they were helped by a local pastor to get temporary housing in the shelter, as they wait for their asylum case to be processed.

As Tani began attending public school in NYC, he was introduced to chess, and over the past year, he has become a chess prodigy, winning his age group, and impressing coaches. “He went undefeated at the state tournament last weekend, outwitting children from elite private schools with private chess tutors.”

A GoFundMe account set up for those who want to help Tani and his family: https://www.gofundme.com/just-tani

Created in the Image of God

One of the fundamental teachings of the Bible about humanity is that we, uniquely out of all created things, are created in the image of God. As a result, we believe that all humans have dignity and are equal in value, no matter their race, gender, socio-economic situation, or physical ability or disability.

There is an ongoing situation in Nigeria right now which deserves the world’s attention. Good on the New York Times for talking about it. More is needed.

My Recent Poll: Here’s What I’ve Learned So Far

chart close up data desk

A few weeks ago, I posted an anonymous poll here on the site, in which I asked the question: How would you, or others you know, finish this sentence: “I could never believe in a God who ________”?  (click here for that post)

If you haven’t filled out that poll yet, you can access it here.

I got a good number of answers, but the bigger the sample size, the better for this sort of thing, so I would love it if you would go over and fill out the poll and send it to others who wouldn’t mind giving their voice.

This poll was done in preparation for a sermon series we will do at White Fields starting April 28, the week after Easter.

Here’s what the poll results have shown so far:

Theodicy is the biggest issue for those who took our poll

The top two responses were: “I could never believe in a God who:”

  • Sends people to Hell
  • Allows bad things to happen to good people

There were several write in answers which were related to these two, such as: “I could never believe in a God who:”

  • Can heal, but doesn’t heal all
  • Allows good people to die, but lets awful people live
  • Allowed the Sandy Hook massacre
  • Allows miscarriages
  • Chooses some and not others

These issues all fall under the category of Theodicy, which essentially means “the defence of God’s goodness”

The Trilemma of Theodicy

Very famous in this regard is what is called the 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:

  1. God is loving
  2. God is all-powerful
  3. Evil exists

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.

An Unloving God Who Creates Unloving Followers?

Following closely behind in popularity were: “I could never believe in a God who:”

  • Doesn’t affirm some people’s sexuality
  • Creates hateful and hypocritical followers

Surprising Lesser-Issues

To my surprise, the questions which seem to not be major issues in people’s minds are were:

  • The reliability of the Bible
  • Proof of the existence of God

I wonder if this is the result of much effort put into these areas by Christian apologists, including CS Lewis with Mere Christianity and Timothy Keller with The Reason for God, or if, on the other hand, Christians are putting a lot of effort into questions which people don’t currently perceive to be pressing questions which cause them to be skeptical of Christianity. Either way, these issues are certainly fundamental to Christian faith and belief, and speaking into them can hardly be said to be in vain.

Other lesser-issues, which I expected would receive more responses were:

  • Apparent genocides in the Old Testament
  • Suppression and subjugation of women and minorities

I wonder if the reason for this is because there are very well-known evidences that Christianity and the Bible have done more to encourage the uplifting of women and minorities around the world, evidenced by the fact that wherever Christianity has gone in the world, women and minorities have been empowered and there has been movement towards equal rights, equal pay, etc. Surely there is room for improvement in these areas, but the point is that the Bible provides the theology which empowers women and promotes equality for people of all races. How it is implemented is a human issue.

More to Come

I will write more on some of these issues in the weeks to come, and will address them in the upcoming sermon series.

If you haven’t filled out the poll yet, I’d love it if you would: click here to access it.

Did People Go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death & Resurrection?

mountains with crepuscular ray

A reader recently sent in this question:

In John 3:13, Jesus says“No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven-the Son of Man,”

  • Is this saying that people didn’t go to Heaven before Jesus’ death and resurrection?
  • Where had everyone who died gone before Jesus died and rose?
  • Did this change after his death and resurrection?
  • What verses can you share with me about this?

Let me answer each of those questions in order:

Is this saying that people didn’t go to Heaven before Jesus’ death and resurrection?

Yes, I believe so.

Where had everyone who died gone before Jesus died and rose?

The Old Testament talks a lot about “Sheol” which is the dwelling place of the dead. Psalm 139:7-8, for example, says: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”

Is this saying that God is present in Hell? No. It’s saying He is present in Sheol. 

It would seem (I’ll give Scriptural justification for this below) that Sheol was divided into two sections: Abraham’s Bosom and Hades.

Abraham’s Bosom was a place of comfort for those who died in faith. Since they had not yet been redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus, they could not go to Heaven, so this was a sort of holding place, or waiting room for the souls of the Old Testament believers who died in faith, trusting not in their own works or performance to garner them favor before God, but casting themselves on God’s mercy and grace to save them through the Messiah who was to come.

Hades, on the other hand, was a place of torment for those who died apart from awareness of their shortcomings and apart from faith and trust in God’s mercy and grace. Hades, like Abraham’s Bosom, was/is a holding place or waiting room for the souls of those who have died apart from faith, and though those in Hades suffer torment presently, one day Hades will be emptied into the Lake of Fire, meaning that Hades is not the final destination for those who have died apart from faith.

Did this change after Jesus’ death and resurrection?

It seems that in the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus descended into Sheol and released those from Abraham’s Bosom and led them to Heaven. Those who die now in faith in Jesus go to Heaven, i.e. the presence of God.

Hades, on the other hand, remains in tact, and those who die apart from faith still go there.

What verses can you share with me about this?

Luke 16:19-31: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31 gives us insight to this through the story of the rich man and Lazarus: Lazarus, a poor man who died in faith, is taken to Abraham’s bosom, whereas the rich man who died apart from faith is taken to Hades. Between the two parts of Sheol, the story tells us, is an uncrossable chasm, and there is no escape.

The rich man desperately wants someone to go and speak to his family members, and plead with them lest they end up in Hades as well, but the man is told that his family members have been given Moses and the Prophets (i.e. the Scriptures), and they should listen to them.

Ephesians 4:8-10: He Led Captives in His Train

In Ephesians 4:8-10 we read this: Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives (in his train), and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

The Apostles Creed, one of the oldest Christian creeds, includes this phrase:

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.

Going back to Jesus’ apostles, who spoke with him after his resurrection, there seems to have been an understanding that Jesus descended into Sheol, and did two things:

  1. Released those “captives” from Abraham’s Bosom and led them to the immediate presence of God (Heaven). (Ephesians 4:8)
  2. Preached to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19-20)

The latter of these was not evangelism, but a pronouncement of judgment upon those spirits in Hades. We know this because of the qualifying text in 1 Peter 3:20.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise”

2 Corinthians 5:8Luke 23:43  & Philippians 1:23 tell us that when a believer dies today, they are taken to the direct presence of God, AKA “paradise”.

Hades will be cast into the Lake of Fire

Revelation 20:11-15 describes how, after the judgement of the living and the dead at the end of all things, Hades will be cast into the Lake of Fire.

And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.  (Revelation 20:13-15)

A New Heavens and a New Earth

Heaven, as it is now experienced, is different than what will be after the final judgment, where Revelation 21 tells us that there will be a new heavens and a new Earth, for the first heaven and the first Earth will have passed away, and will be no more. (Revelation 21:1)

Jesus said in Matthew 24:35 that Heaven and Earth will pass away, but his words never will.

2 Peter 3:7 says, But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. 

And 2 Peter 3:10 says, But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Thus, after the final judgment, there will be a new heavens and a new Earth, which will be not only the restoration of Eden, but the fulfillment of what Eden would have been had sin not entered in.

In the New Jerusalem, once again, we see humankind together with God, with no sin nor shame, nor any of the destructive effects of sin (i.e. sickness, pain), and that the Tree of Life is there. Whereas Eden was a garden, the New Jerusalem will be a garden city.

Submit Your Questions!

Thanks for these great questions! Keep studying the Word, and feel free to send more questions to me by filling out this form.

Chinese Conviction & American Apathy

Image result for chinese christianity

In 2018, the Chinese government acted to crack down on unregistered Christian churches. These churches are sometimes called “house churches,” which is a misleading term, since many of these churches have hundreds, even thousands of members and own their own buildings.

Chinese law requires Christians to worship only in congregations registered with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a government-sanctioned organization which manages churches. Millions of Chinese Christians meet in unregistered churches which defy these government regulations, seeing them as compromising the church, especially considering the Communist government’s atheistic agenda.

Over the past few months, the Chinese government has stepped up their persecution of Christians by destroying crosses, burning Bibles, confiscating religious materials and closing churches, even demolishing their buildings, as can be seen in this video:

In December 2018, more than 100 Christians who attend a Reformed church in Chengdu were arrested and charged with “inciting subversion of state power.”

Chinese Conviction

The pastor of that church, Wang Yi, a former human-rights lawyer and law professor, who has been an influential intellectual in China, issued a statement along with other Chinese Christian leaders titled: “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” in which they stated that they would not cease gathering together for worship and studying the Bible.

Additionally, around 500 Chinese Christian leaders have signed a document called “A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith,” in which they stated that they were prepared to bear all losses, even the loss of their freedom and their lives, for the sake of the gospel.

For Chinese Christians, gathering together for worship and Bible study is an act of resistance and social disobedience. It brings with it the possibility of arrest, punishment and persecution. And yet – believers are resolute: they will not stop gathering for public worship services, no matter what the cost.

American Apathy

At the same time, on the other side of the world, the American church is seeing a rising wave of apathy.

Some of the reports of the decline of Christianity in the United States are misleading, as I’ve written about here: Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 1 & Part 2.

However, other reports show that while reports of the decline of Christianity in the US may be overstated, there is a growing sense of apathy in regard to church attendance.

Christianity Today recently published these infographics based on data from Pew Research Center:

image.pngimage.png

Read the full report here: Pew: Why Americans Go to Church or Stay Home

Two significant things that these infographics reveal: 1) Americans view Christianity as being important for the purpose of moral formation, 2) Americans tend to think that church is superfluous when it comes to Christian faith.

The Irony

Comparing the Chinese situation with the American one, what we see is that the people who stand to lose the most from going to church (the Chinese) are the most resolute in doing so, even though doing so will likely hurt them financially, socially, and even physically. Conversely, those who have the most freedom and stand to lose nothing are the most apathetic about public worship.

Whereas many Chinese Christians see gathered worship as central to their faith, something they absolutely cannot give up or do without, and an act of resistance – many American Christians see it as extraneous.

Who is Right?

I believe that we in the West can afford to learn something from our brothers and sisters in the East.

Christianity was formed and grew in the crucible of persecution, and perhaps the worst thing for Christians is to experience such ease and comfort that we lose the understanding that following Jesus is a radical and subversive thing in this world.

Perhaps the greatest danger our faith can face is not direct persecution, but patronizing “pats on the head” and people thinking that Christianity is “nice”.

Sinclair Ferguson has put it this way:

“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.”

Recently I read an article by Simon Chan from the theological journal Pneuma, in which he very astutely wrote this:

[Western Christians] have a very weak sociological concept of the church. This has two negative consequences. First, the church tends to be seen as essentially a service provider catering to the needs of individual Christians. Rarely are individuals thought of as existing for the church. When the church is seen as existing for the individual, then the focus of ministry is on individuals: how individual needs can be met by the church. But when individuals are seen as existing for the church, the focus shifts from the individual needs to our common life in Christ: how we as the one people of God fulfill God’s ultimate purpose for the universe, namely, to glorify and enjoy God forever.

Chan is challenging us to ask the question: Contrary to our consumeristic mentality, isn’t it actually true that the church does not exist for us as much as we exist for the church, and the church exists for God?

I believe that we in the West can afford to look to the East and learn from our Christian brothers and sisters in China about the importance of gathered worship.

What Does It Mean to Live “Coram Deo”?

Image result for coram deo

What does it mean to be “in the presence of God”?

This past Sunday at White Fields we studied Isaiah 6 as part of our series, Remember the Prophets

You can listen to the audio of the message here: A Vision of God

In Isaiah chapter 6, Isaiah gives an account of his call to ministry, which took place through a vision he had of God. In our community groups, one of the discussion questions had to do with what it means to be in the “presence” of God.

Coram Deo

Coram Deo is a Latin phrase which literally means “before God”. For Christians, throughout history, the phrase has been used to describe a life that is lived before God, i.e. in constant awareness of His presence, and seeking to experience communion with Him – not just at church or in dedicated times of prayer (although those are not to be neglected!), but as you go throughout your day.

An Uber Driver and a Stay-at-Home Mom

This past week I had two conversations which illustrated the importance of this:

The first was with a lady in community group who drives Uber several hours a day. She described how, sitting in her car, she is able to commune with God; she listens to sermons and even as she’s driving, she converses with God in her soul.

The second was a stay-at-home mom who called in to Calvary Live, the weekly call-in radio show I host on Mondays on GraceFM. She described how she struggles to find time to pray because she is so busy with her toddler, so she has developed a system where she will set timers throughout the day, and when they go off she will pray for 3 minutes uninterrupted. I suggested that perhaps it would be helpful for her to learn instead the practice of “Coram Deo”: living your whole life before the face of God, and conversing with Him throughout the day, not only in dedicated stints.

Pray Without Ceasing & The Practice of the Presence of God

Paul the Apostle wrote to the Thessalonians that they ought to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). It was in heeding this call that some throughout history were drawn to monastic movements: they became monks and nuns, went away to Bible colleges and the like, so they could truly pray without ceasing. But how can you do that if you have a job or a toddler? For most of the population, retreating from the duties and responsibilities of life in order to pray without ceasing is not feasible, and we must ask the question: even if it were feasible, would it actually be the right thing to do? I would say, No! God has given us a mission in this world, and in order to fulfill that mission, we are not called to retreat from the world, otherwise we cannot be salt and light; a city on a hill is not meant to be hidden (cf. Matthew 5:13-16)

A famous book written in the 17th Century by a monk who called himself Brother Lawrence, is: The Practice of the Presence of God. In it, Brother Lawrence describes his practice of ongoing conversation with God as he went about the duties of his day, which included dishwashing and other chores. Throughout his day, he was living Coram Deo: before the face of God.

An Integrated, Rather than Compartmentalized Life

The principle of Coram Deo is important, because it reminds us that our lives as the people of God are to be integrated, not compartmentalized. In other words: it isn’t that our lives are compartmentalized into different areas: work, family, faith, etc… – but that our faith is integrated into every aspect of our lives: we do our work before the face of God, and unto God’s glory! Our family life is lived before the face of God, and unto His glory!

In other words, to live Coram Deo means to seek to be constantly aware of God’s presence (which is there whether you realize it or not), seeking to live in constant communion with God, and integrating your relationship with God into every aspect of your life.

This means that you don’t have to be a monk or a nun in order to pray without ceasing. It means that you don’t have to be in vocational ministry (working for a church or Christian organization) in order to serve God through your work!

For more on this, read: Vocation and Calling According to the Reformers

I invite you to join me in seeking to live Coram Deo today and everyday moving forward!

For more on Isaiah’s vision of God, check out this video discussion I had with Worship Pastor Mike Payne:

Jordan Peterson and the Bible

Image result for jordan peterson

Jordan Peterson is an interesting character. A Canadian clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, he has had a meteoric rise in popularity in the media as of late.

One reason for Jordan Peterson’s recent popularity is that he has been able to put words and justification to what many people consider “common sense”, not least of all when it comes to the idea that gender is not a social construct, but is rooted in biology. He then, as a psychologist, gets into the psychology behind this very relevant social issue.

I recently finished reading his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaosin which he brings some of his training and experience and makes it very practical, from everything to posture, raising children, and conversation.

Jordan Peterson and the Bible

Jordan Peterson states emphatically that he is not an atheist (nor does he believe that anyone is actually truly an atheist). He is also not a Christian, at least not in the traditional sense. He mentions in the book that he received a Christian upbringing, but departed from Christianity once he got out on his own.

Nevertheless, Peterson champions many things which are considered biblical or Judeo-Christian values. He argues convincingly for the doctrine of human depravity, and often uses the word “sin” – a word which even many Christian churches today try to avoid, as they feel it is off-putting and rubs people the wrong way. Jordan Peterson does not shy away from talking about human depravity and the need to take personal responsibility for your actions and decisions.

Peterson quotes generously from the Bible in his book; in fact, I mentioned to someone the other day that Peterson talks about and quotes the Bible more than the authors of many explicitly Christian books I have read!

However, Jordan doesn’t only quote from the Bible, he also attempts to exegete and interpret the Bible, particularly the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, and it is here where I, as a theologian, take issue with what he says.

Presuppositions Influence Interpretation

Anyone who attempts to interpret the Bible will inevitably be influenced in their interpretation by their presuppositions, their commitments to already-held beliefs. None of us are truly objective. We all look at things through various lenses, and those lenses invariably and inevitably affect the conclusions we reach.

As a humanist who buys into the idea that all religions developed as the result of the shared consciousness of particular cultures, Jordan Peterson views the Bible as being a didactic mythology which served to help certain groups of people at certain times. He does not believe that it is objectively true, or even more true than the sacred writings of other religions, rather that it reflects the collective consciousness of a particular group of people at a particular time.

Thus, rather than taking what the Bible says at face value, he tries to fit it into his own framework of thinking. The reason this is sometimes confusing, is that it is unclear where exactly Jordan Peterson’s worldview comes from. It seems to be influenced by the Bible in large degree, and yet Peterson clearly has other influences, particularly Enlightenment thinkers, who championed the above stated views on the Bible in particular and epistemology in general.

The Irony…

Here’s the irony: while Jordan Peterson (rightly) argues against relativistic approaches to things like understanding gender and hierarchy, he himself has a relativistic approach to epistemology, truth and worldview! He has basically created it for himself, based on what he subjectively decides to borrow from various religions and philosophies.

Back to Issues of Epistemology and Worldview

For example, Jordan Peterson states (as fact) Wellhausen’s “Documentary Hypothesis” about the construction of the Old Testament having had 4 main sources and several redactions. Wellhausen’s theory is now considered deeply flawed and is not held by many contemporary Bible scholars. It is irresponsible and misleading, in my opinion, for Peterson to state this as if it is accepted fact, without even giving the caveat that this is a theory from the 1800’s which a great number of Bible scholars today (who have studied this subject in much greater depth than he has) no longer accept.

Irresponsible and Uninformed Exegesis and Hermeneutics

Furthermore, I would say that Jordan Peterson practices irresponsible and uninformed biblical exegesis and hermeneutics repeatedly throughout his book, particularly in regard to the significance of the opening chapters of Genesis. For example, in Rule 7: Pursue What is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient), he states that the Bible says that work is part of the curse of sin and death in Genesis 3. This is simply not the case! Genesis 1 & 2 show that work was part of the idyllic world which existed before sin came into the world, and it portrays God working. The difference after the curse, was not that people would have to work (they worked before the curse), but that their work would be characterized by frustration because of the introduction of sin and imperfection into the world.

Another example can be found in his further attempts to exegete and interpret Genesis 3:22-24, where it says that God drove the man and woman out of the garden after they fell into sin, lest they eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. Peterson expresses that this action of God seems mean and inexplicable. There is a very good and widely held view on why God did this, based on a clear reading of the text: God – in His mercy! – did not want the man and woman to be cursed to an eternal existence in their fallen state. Rather, he would allow them to die, so that he could then resurrect them once he had accomplished his plan of setting right all that they had done wrong. We call that: the gospel!

Nothing New Under the Sun

In summary, Jordan Peterson speaks with such confidence and bravado that he comes across as an authority, when in actuality he is merely recycling old Enlightenment approaches to the Bible popularized in the 1800’s, which are not considered to be consensus today.

All Injunctions, No Justification

My final critique of Jordan Peterson’s book would be this: he concludes the book by telling people that they must be strong in the face of adversity. He says that life is pain and hardship, but we must be strong in the face of it and persevere. But here’s the problem: he never gives a reason WHY we must persevere! Why push on? Why try to be strong and suffer well?

In other words: If we have no destination, and the journey is painful, then why bother continuing the journey?

Having rejected the hope of the gospel, Jordan Peterson has sawed off the very branch he is standing on, and at the end of his book, his message to be strong and persevere falls flat because he has not shown us that life has an actual telos: a destination, meaning and purpose.

As Christians, we absolutely do have a hope which goes beyond this life, and it is this hope which makes our lives meaningful and worth living, even in the face of hardship. We have a destination, and that destination gives us a mission in this life. Our goal is not only our own happiness, but to use our lives for God’s purposes until we do come into the great eschatological hope of eternal life because of what God has done for us in Jesus.