The difference between God and us?…

MANHATTAN

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The future is here and it is pre-modern

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We often hear conservatives (both the political and religious kinds) lament the decline of civilization caused by the abandonment of Judeo-Christian “values.” Every year we witness battles in the culture war over Christmas songs in malls, monuments to the 10 commandments, or students praying at football games. These controversies seem to indicate a growing hostility towards Christianity, if not religion in general. I’d suggest, though, that we have moved well beyond the post-Christian and into the post-secular.

New Age may have ended as a phenomenon of the 1960s and 70s but it ushered in an alternative spirituality that has continued to gain momentum. Yoga, mantras, meditation, and various pantheistic beliefs and practices have become mainstream ideas, accepted without question. The increasing number of Americans who identify as spiritual but not religious is a testament to its success. People have rejected Christianity (the goal of New Age) while avoiding the skepticism of a secular worldview that is hostile to any belief in the supernatural.

Next came the Age of Interfaith Religion with its central belief that there is one truth, which speaks in many tongues. Oprah is probably the most well-known advocate of this view and you can watch an interesting video of her on YouTube arguing with an audience member about whether there is only one way to heaven. This worldview compels us reinterpret our beliefs in light of other religions. No less than the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church has said that we must no longer consider sin an operative notion in the modern life. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni says that Christians need to get over their antiquated hang-ups about homosexuality:

The drama in Indiana last week and the larger debate over so-called religious freedom laws in other states portray homosexuality and devout Christianity as forces in fierce collision. They’re not — at least not in several prominent denominations, which have come to a new understanding of what the Bible does and doesn’t decree, of what people can and cannot divine in regard to God’s will.

See the problem emerging for Christians? We face increasing pressure to change our beliefs to accommodate the prevailing moral beliefs of the culture. For them, it’s not enough to win the debate. They must bring everyone into submission. As the Apostle Paul wrote:

Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened…

Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

Romans 1:21,25

Add to this mix a growing unfamiliarity with the Bible and Christianity and my belief is that we are heading into a time not that different from ancient Rome or other pre-Christian societies. I think that the early church will serve as a model of how to engage a culture that views Christianity with belligerent hostility and fear.

It’s a future that inspires concern but one that should drive us to look to the cross as the symbol of the ultimate victory we have in Jesus.

 

How do you really experience God?

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When our church dived into Henry Blackaby’s book Experiencing God I reacted with my usual lack of expectation that it was really worth the excitement. I thought it was a typical, off-the-shelf, Christian self-help book until I read a few reviews. I then discovered a much bigger problem.

Blackaby’s book undermines the authority of Scripture only to replace it with subjective measures of the work of God, mainly our perceptions and feelings. He does a lot of harm to Christians by leading them to expect God to provide a special revelation, or assignment, just for them. It’s bad enough that many Christians have an unbiblical worldview (most according to many surveys). We need the kind of clarity that can only come from the Bible which is the word of God.

I thought it was a typical, off-the-shelf, Christian self-help book until I read a few reviews. I then discovered a much bigger problem.

I have heard people talk about the will of God in a mystical fashion my whole life. They told me to seek after it and ask God for it. I was supposed to follow the Holy Spirit’s “leading.” Of course, nothing ever happened and I wondered about what it took to gain this knowledge. And with each decision point I would reach where I hoped God would show me the way I was disappointed and increasingly frustrated.

The problem is that this is an unbiblical way of living the Christian life. I don’t know where it came from but it certainly didn’t come from Jesus. If we want to know the will of God then we must know the word of God. A healthy spiritual life is one where the believer is growing in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is not passing from one emotionally stimulating experience to another.

Blackaby wants you to hear God’s “voice” and that includes the scriptures but is not limited to them:

“God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit. He uses the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church (other believers). No one of these methods of God’s speaking is, by itself, a clear indicator of God’s directions. But when God says the same thing through each of these ways, you can have confidence to proceed.”

What?! The Bible, by itself, is not a clear indicator of God’s directions? Has Blackaby not read what Paul wrote to Timothy?

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

Not only is the Bible a clear indicator but it is the ONLY clear indicator of God’s “directions.” Your goal is not to develop a spiritual 6th sense that will indicate when God is “leading.” Everything we need to know in order to live a Godly life is found in the scriptures. Whatever help we get from others only supplements what is in the word of God. It is never a substitute for the revelation of the Bible.

Lest you think that I’m just being a negative it’s important for me to say that we are so blessed to have the Bible as our guide. Peter himself said as much:

For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  

And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount.

We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts…

Peter had an actual mountaintop experience. He saw things that you and I should never expect to see in our lifetimes. And yet, years later, he would go so far as to say that the word of God was far more valuable than any of those miracles he witnessed. It is so important that we understand this because of our temptation to think that if we see a sign then our faith will be solid.

The Bible is explicit, specific, and true. Spiritual maturity comes through time spent in the scriptures. Taking Blackaby’s approach means forever attributing your gut feelings to the Holy Spirit. You can see the fruit of that approach in your churches and among your family and friends.

If God did not reveal Himself to us through His word we would know nothing about Him. Hold fast to the word. It is the only firm foundation.

How firm a foundation you saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!
What more can he say than to you he has said,
to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

Why do we doubt God’s promises?

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The story is a familiar one. A man who’s been struggling with sin surrenders his life to Christ. His life has been transformed and now everything is different.

But it’s not long before his sin is back and tugging at his elbow. He finds out that it’s not in the past where he thought he left it. He’s always taking one step forward and two steps back.

He wonders if God was enough, if his conversion was real, if there’s any hope of deliverance in the future. Why can’t he shake it?

You’ve heard a story like that. Maybe it even describes your life. This is the story of Israel’s history and it’s why Exodus 14 is relevant to us.

God delivered them in an amazing way but they fall apart when they see Pharaoh’s army approaching. They’re certain that God has left them to be killed by their former masters. They doubt this whole business of deliverance and pine for the days of slavery.

I don’t care how long you’ve been a Christian. It doesn’t take much to make you doubt that God is going to deliver you this time. We may say “Amen” and “Hallelujah” during the sermon but when we’re tested we often act as if we don’t really believe of any of that stuff we heard.

Some of us may even welcome the temptation. Sometimes we see Pharaoh coming and we’re not sure we don’t want him to catch us. Sometimes we seek comfort in our old, sinful ways because it’s familiar, even if it doesn’t make us feel any better.

What do you do when the doubts arise?

The most important thing to remember is that God sent Israel into that situation on purpose. God had a plan to redeem them and a bigger plan to redeem His creation. But that plan includes dangerous, painful, and stressful challenges.

God’s plan sends us into difficult situations but He also makes provisions for our deliverance. We don’t earn or win that deliverance through our own merit. God’s grace is necessary and sufficient. We can draw hope and confidence from knowing that we will be victorious because, ultimately, He is victorious.

Moses gave the people three easy steps to follow: don’t be afraid, watch, and shut up. Fear is of the devil, not God. Watch, because you’re not going to handle it yourself. Shut up is just good general advice and can solve many of your problems.

God is leading you in the bad times as much as in the good times. It’s good to know that we’re not the first ones to experience fear. Eventually we have to decide to believe God (not just believe in Him) and fight the good fight.

The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.

Resurrecting Paul’s Gospel In Our Day

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I was recently invited to a Christmas “service” at a local megachurch. The performance was at a professional caliber, except with cheap ticket prices. The musical performances, dances, light show, and transitions are smooth and polished. It was choreographed to perfection.

And they also talked about Jesus.

I put service in quotes because I think it was a service in all but name. I didn’t leave thinking that I had worshipped God. I was entertained and hyped up but I wasn’t invited to the throne of grace.

The sermon I heard told me that I am “inadequate” for a “transformed” life without Jesus. One of the pastors did mention a survey of Americans’ inflated perceptions of self-worth, showing us that we are narcissists. But that’s about as bad as the description of our condition got.

Consequently, the gospel I heard was a message that God can give me a purpose in life that will fulfill me. If I put my faith in Him then there will be so many more things that I can do. Yessss!

I’m sure that I was especially sensitive because I had been listening to R. C. Sproul sermons all year. I felt like an Amish person sitting through mass. With bad news that good who needs the gospel? I realized that we need a bestseller book that redeems the doctrine of sin. As I thought about it more I realized that we need to resurrect Paul.

Paul gives us a comprehensive and concise understanding of the gospel, especially in his letter to the Romans. He gives us the bad news of our condemnation and he also gives us the good news of His salvation, justification, and sanctification. If twitter was a microcosm of the U.S. you’d think that half the church has never read Romans 1. God is more of a therapist rather than a judge.

The most popular gospel today is a message of reconciliation for a broken world. We’re supposed to speak to gays, drug addicts, and skeptics and stress God’s love for them. The idea is that they will cling to the cross because they are so desperate for healing, peace, meaning, etc. Like the sermon I heard, it was about what you stand to gain.

But how can the unbeliever be prepared to respond to the gospel if he does not become aware of his guilt? We do live in a broken world and part of what makes people broken is that they find the gospel offensive. That includes people who know that they’re hurting, not just those who are in no need of a religious crutch.

Moreover, how can the church speak prophetically if it decides to tickle the ear rather than prick the heart? The prologue to John’s gospel tells us that the world is condemned because it has rejected the light. The church’s most important responsibility is to bear witness to that light and remind people that God will hold them accountable.

We need this gospel: a balanced message that carries the bad news and the good.

What Does Symmetry Reveal About God?

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In Ezekiel 40 God casts the prophet into a trance and shows him a vision of a new temple with its courts buildings. You can see the symmetry from diagrams of the floor plan. Knowing that every verse of the Bible is there for a reason we have to ask ourselves what this means. What does it say about God? Why did He make it symmetrical?

The unity and diversity in symmetry struck me. It was right there in front of me and I never realized it. The reason why I think this is so important is because it gets to the essence of who, and what, God is.

Philosophers have tried to find the right balance between unity and diversity for thousands of years. They tried to reduce the world down to one essence from which everything emanates but they could only get to four: earth, air, fire, water. What was the fifth essence that unified these? What was the quintessential essence?

University is a combination of the words unity and diversity. There are a diversity of disciplines, sciences, but what is the one truth that permeates them all. This is probably a foreign concept for most college students who simply pick classes like they order off the menu at a restaurant.

The unofficial motto of the U.S., e. pluribus unum, is Latin for “out of many, one.” Unity in diversity.

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We see unity and diversity everywhere in creation but only in the biblical worldview do we see unity and diversity in the creator. We see in the godhead unity and diversity within the community of the trinity. We worship a triune God, one in essence and three in person.

When I think about the symmetry of the temple that Ezekiel saw I now think of how it reflects God’s unity and diversity. When I think of the three sides of the temple I think of the three divine persons. I also see that God brings order out of chaos.

Now we are the temple of the Holy Spirit and God brings His holiness into us. He has brought peace and order to our chaos. Wherever we go we dwell in the holy sanctuary of the Most High.

If I Had To Preach At A Wedding…

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Weddings are like graduation ceremonies in that your expectations for the sermon/speech are pretty low. The speaker has the impossible task of captivating an audience that is impatiently waiting to get to the fun part of the event. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case with my brother’s sermon at a friend’s wedding last week.

He highlighted the couple’s admirable commitment to their relationship by guarding their purity before the wedding. They did what seems to be rarer these days by not hooking up and shacking up. They trusted God with each other and their relationship and they’ll be blessed for it.

It got me to thinking: what would I say if I had to give a message at a wedding? What should a wedding sermon sound like?

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Genesis 1:27

We start at the beginning, creation. He made us male and female, equal in His eyes and yet distinct from each other in how we manifest the meaning of humanity. I think of a loose connection with the unity and diversity of the trinity, where we affirm that there is one divine essence and yet three distinct persons. Male and female are both humans and yet they bring something unique to the human experience.

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

Genesis 2:24

Or, to quote the theologian Wayne Fontana, “The purpose of a man is to love a woman and the purpose of a woman is to love a man. So come on baby, let’s start today, come on baby, let’s play the game of love, love, la la la la la love.”

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Genesis 1:28

We read in Malachi 2:15 that the Lord created marriage to establish a Godly seed in the earth. He wanted all men everywhere to call upon the name of the Lord. Your marriage has no higher purpose and it will primarily be fulfilled through the fruit of your union. This basic idea seems to be lost on almost everyone, including Christians. Marriage is not about living or financial arrangements. It’s about pursuing God’s purposes for our lives.

Young people who are single and establishing themselves often have big ambitions to be great or do amazing things in life. Or they may want to simply have the option to go in whatever direction they choose. It doesn’t occur to them that they can effect tremendous change in their own children. No celebrity or famous person will occupy the position you hold in your child’s life. We know the great men of history but we don’t know the parents who devoted themselves to care for their children. If you want to change the world then have children, and lots of them.

Turn, O backsliding children, saith the Lord; for I am married unto you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion.

Jeremiah 3:14

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Most important in marriage is the symbol of our relationship with the Lord, who is the bridegroom of His people. Husbands are to their wives what Jesus is to His church. Wives are to their husbands what the church is to our Lord. Even the wedding ceremony reflects this as we watch the bride (the Church) coming down the aisle to be presented before her bridegroom (our Lord) whiter than snow.

Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready.

And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.

And he saith unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith unto me, These are the true sayings of God.

Revelation 19:7-9

In this church age we are betrothed to Christ and we await His coming so that we may enter into the wedding ceremony. We will then be joined together in a holy and eternal union of peace and joy.

The Bible is permeated with language about marriage and weddings. Many of the lessons it gives use these examples to illustrate the things of God. In getting married you will come to have a greater understanding about the Lord and your relationship to Him. May your union be like the union of Christ and His bride. May this wedding revive our hope of our coming union with our Lord as a people.

Amen.

How Much Does Heaven Cost?

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I often heard people say that you can’t buy your salvation and while that is true it is also somewhat inaccurate. Jesus put a price on the kingdom of heaven when He gave us two parables to describe what it is like.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:

Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

Matthew 13:44-46

There’s a legitimate point that my parents and other elders had and I get it. But my economic training tells me that we have to qualify that statement. While you can’t buy heaven you can put a price on it. I know. I need to explain.

There are two economic principles that we need to consider. First, the Subjective Theory of Value says that something is only worth what a customer is willing to pay for it. It has no objective price that applies to everyone.

Opportunity-Cost

The next economic principle is opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of a resource is the next-most-valued use of that resource. For example, you are spending your valuable time reading this blog when you could be doing something else. Whatever you could be doing is your opportunity cost. Since you’re still reading this that tells me that your alternative options are not more valuable to you, at least not at the moment.

We now see some things in Jesus’ parables that weren’t apparent at first glance. When the man found the treasure he sold everything he owned to buy the field. He was also willing to give up any alternative use of his time and the field to acquire that treasure.

The same is true for the merchant who found valuable pearls. He was willing to part with everything he owned to get that pearl.

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How many stories can you think of about people who take drastic measures to pursue a dream? There’s Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, etc. They all were on the verge of financial ruin, some even bankrupt, at one point but they took big risks to succeed.

There’s no doubt about their commitment. If we can risk it all for something as fleeting as business then we can see the value in the everlasting kingdom of heaven. Jesus is clear: in exchange for the kingdom He wants all that you have.

Jesus said that those who look back when they put their hand to the plow are not fit for His kingdom (Lk 9:62). For those people the opportunity cost is greater than following our Lord so they prefer the alternative. He wants followers who prefer the kingdom more than anything.

If someone looked at your bank account would they see that your priority is the kingdom? How about if they looked at your schedule? What’s the kingdom worth to you and is it obvious to anyone?

Jesus wants disciples who’ve decided to follow Him, no turning back. The cross is always in front and the world is always behind them. Even though none go with them they still will follow. No turning back, no turning back.

The Dead Don’t Praise God

Psalm 88 is a psalm of suffering. It depicts the suffering of the people of Israel in exile. Christians can see the suffering of Christ depicted in it. Its language is universal and its applications are limitless which makes its relevance timeless.

I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit; I have become like a man without strength, 

Forsaken among the dead, Like the slain who lie in the grave, Whom You remember no more, And they are cut off from Your hand.

You have put me in the lowest pit, In dark places, in the depths…

You have removed my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an object of loathing to them; I am shut up and cannot go out.

My eye has wasted away because of affliction; I have called upon You every day, O LordI have spread out my hands to You.

Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? Selah.

The psalmist is in a dilemma because the same God who is faithful, just, righteous, merciful, generous, and mighty to save leads him through trials that cause him to despair even of his life (remember Paul and his despair?). But he makes an important point about the dead that we see in other scriptures too including Ps. 6:5; 30:9; Is. 50:10; Hab. 3:17,18.

Dead men are silent and they can’t praise God. He appeals to God for the sake of His own glory if for no other reason. The psalmist’s picture of death is a gloomy one indeed.

As Christians we need to complete the picture by adding a gospel perspective. This Christian view of death is found in 2 Ti. 1:10; Heb. 2:14; 1 Cor. 15: 17,18, 51-57. It is one full of light and hope.

As Jesus said in Matthew 22, the Lord is the God of the living, not the dead. We who were dead are now alive in Christ. The psalmist’s problem goes away because there will always be people alive to praise God and give Him the glory and honor that is due Him.