Foreigners in Our Native Land

April 9, 2021

Peter tells his readers that they were ransomed from the futile ways passed down from their forefathers (1 Peter 1:18). Later in the letter, he says:

With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery… 1 Peter 4:4, ESV

The word “surprised” is intriguing because it has literary connections in the letter that are not obvious in English. The word translated “surprised” is based on the xeno root which means stranger or foreigner (as in xenophobia, the fear of strangers or foreigners). The standard Greek lexicon defines the word used in this way.

to cause a strong psychological reaction through introduction of someth. new or strange, astonish, surprise*

This connects with a theme within 1 Peter. Peter addresses his readers as “exiles of the dispersion” (1:1). In 1:17, he tells them “to conduct yourself with fear (or reverence) throughout the time of your exile.” In 2:11, he writes:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 1 Peter 2:11 ESV

Since we are redeemed from futile ways, we will be different from the world around us. We will seem like foreigners even in our native land, because we are citizens of heaven. This surprise on the part of others should not catch us off guard. It means we are preparing ourselves for another world.

−Russ Holden

*A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p.684.


The Seven Sayings from the Cross

April 3, 2021

Crucifixion was designed to be an excruciating and humiliating death. It was a chaotic scene of Roman soldiers, dying men, and passersby hurling insults. In the midst of this, Jesus speaks.

Prayer — “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34, ESV). Jesus had been beaten, scourged, mocked, spat upon, and nailed to the cross. Yet there is no bitterness, anger, or rage at his attackers. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost.

Promise — “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43, ESV). Passersby ridiculed him. The chief priests and religious leaders mocked. Even the criminals on either side joined in the abuse, but one repented. To him Jesus offered a gracious promise.

Provision — “Woman, behold, your son!…Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26, 27, ESV). In the midst of his own agony, Jesus thought of his mother and her care. He provided for her by putting her in the care of the disciple whom he loved.

Petition — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, ESV). Jesus was crucified at about 9 a.m. At noon, darkness fell upon the land. He died about 3 p.m. at about the same time as the evening sacrifices in the temple. It was a lonely job dying for the sins of the world. The cry of dereliction as it is often called were words from Psalm 22:1. Even with the feelings of abandonment, the psalm expressed trust and hope.

Pain — “I thirst” (John 19:28, ESV). Hanging by the arms, the pectoral muscles became paralyzed and the intercostal muscles were unable to act. Air could be drawn into the lungs, but not exhaled without raising yourself up, which meant fighting against the searing pain of the nail in the feet. Catching each breath was exhausting work. Jesus’ thirst witnessed to the pain of the cross and Jesus’ humanity.

Purpose — “It is finished” (John 19:30). W.T. Hamilton wrote: “All that he had come to do was done. Prophecies fulfilled; atonement made; law fulfilled (Matt. 5:17); sufferings over. This is a statement of victory.” The purpose of Jesus’ coming to earth was fulfilled.

Prayer — “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46, ESV). Again the words of a psalm (Psalm 31:5) were on Jesus’ lips. It was a cry of faith. Death will not conquer.

As you ponder the cross, what do you see? What do you hear? What is your response?

—Russ Holden


Forever Life

March 26, 2021

“For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes… All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls…” These are biblical metaphors for the brevity of life. Our physical life is fragile. Death has no minimum age requirement, but this isn’t the entire story.

Two different eternities stretch out before us depending on our choices in life.

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. (Romans 2:6–8, ESV)

We must understand the “patience in well-doing” of the previous passage as pointing to faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-31). Jesus makes all the difference.

Jesus is also our reason for believing in life after death. We have several lines of evidence that converge: the Old Testament prophecies and the eyewitness testimony of the gospels. The alternate explanations – growth of legend, hallucinations, stolen body, wrong tomb, and Jesus merely swooning on the cross and not dying – fail to convince even many skeptics. As someone has observed, we need something the size and shape of the resurrection to explain the dramatic transformation of the disciples and the conversions of James and Paul.

So we have someone who can speak authoritatively about life after death – Jesus, the Risen One. We have two different eternities stretching out before us depending on our choice about Jesus.

Jesus used a number of images to describe hell – “outer darkness, unquenchable fire, weeping, and gnashing of teeth.” Whatever surface contradiction is contained in these words is resolved in human experience excluded from God. Even in the worst moments of this life, there are snatches of beauty and glimpses of goodness. To be excluded from God is truly death.

A marriage banquet of the Lamb, a glorious Jerusalem, and an exalted Garden of Eden with Trees of Life aplenty are the images of eternal life with God. Love, goodness, and beauty are God’s gifts and tokens of his presence. If two eternities stretch out before us, give me that which can truly be called forever life.


Life Is Fragile

March 19, 2021

 

 

A time existed as innocent children when we knew nothing of death. It never occurred to us that animals died, or worse, that we die. It intrudes on us at the first sight of a dead animal, and we ask our parents our first questions about death.

Awareness of death may come at the death of a family member. The childlike questions of why don’t they get out of that suitcase are met with adults straining to give an answer – to find just the right words.

If death came to the aged and infirm only, death might be easier to explain. Yet, a grim reality exists: life is fragile. It is fragile to all of us regardless of age or station in life. Youth may be the time of life when we feel invincible, but such feelings are mistaken. I’ve been to funerals of children and the elderly and those in between. Death knows of no minimum age requirement.

If death came only after a very long life, death might be easier to explain. Although I’ve known ninety year olds who still wanted more of the gift of time, somehow, we take comfort when the deceased has had a long and full life, but it doesn’t always happen that way.

None of us can say to God, you owe me so many years. Even the 70 or 80 years found in Psalm 90 are but round numbers not guarantees. That means each day of life is a gift from God. I’m not trying to be morbid reflecting on the frailty of life. I simply want to be aware that each moment is precious. Each moment is a gift.

The gift of life also has purpose. God grants me this wonderful gift so that I might know him and glorify him. We each have an expiration date. Usually we don’t know when it will be. We are not like gallons of milk with it printed on our sides. That gives urgency to spiritual things.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14, ESV)

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30–31, ESV)

Life is a gift. Life has purpose. Life is fragile.

−Russ Holden


The Value of Jesus

March 12, 2021

The aroma of very expensive ointment filled the house. While Jesus reclined at table, a woman had poured the ointment on Jesus’ head. It was a lavish gift. The anointing of a guest’s head with oil was customary, but not like this. The expense was extraordinary. One gospel placed the value of the ointment at 300 denarii – the pay of a common laborer for 300 days (Mark 14:5).

The objections came. It could have been sold and given to the poor. But Jesus said it was a beautiful thing. She had prepared Jesus for burial. We don’t usually sit at the dinner table, while the undertaker prepares us for our funeral. Jesus’ words would have struck them just as odd. The cross unspoken lingered like the aroma of the expensive ointment. Yet, he said to them that her deed would be proclaimed to the whole world wherever the gospel is proclaimed.

Judas, one of the Twelve, plotted with the religious leaders, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” The price was thirty pieces of silver, the price of a slave (Exodus 21:32). The betrayal price set in motion the events that led to the cross. It was a large amount, but not nearly as large as the expensive ointment. How odd those thirty pieces of silver gained was a terrible loss, and “wasted,” expensive ointment was a wondrous gain!

It is as if the woman in the story said, “Jesus, I love you so much that I give you this ointment and so much more, I give you myself.”

It is as if Judas said, “Jesus, I don’t love you enough to pass up thirty pieces of silver.”

Two juxtaposed stories (Matthew 26:6-13, 26:14-16) both contain something of value. In both the valuable things say something about the participants and reveal spiritual priorities. Both stories foreshadow the cross.

Wherever these stories are told, an uncomfortable truth follows. We must make the same sort of decision. We will either be like the woman and say, “Jesus, I love you so much that I give you this and this and even my very life,” or we will be like Judas and say, “Jesus, I don’t love you enough to pass up this or that” as we name our price: jobs, family, possessions, pleasures, or thirty pieces of silver.

We all put a price tag on Jesus either to follow or reject. In your life, what’s the value of Jesus?

−Russ Holden


Cancel Culture

March 5, 2021

The book, When Harry Became Sally by Ryan Anderson, was removed from Amazon.com’s website. The book challenges some of the current transgender policies of our government and does so with science. The book was published in 2018 and had hit number 1 on some of Amazon’s charts. Its disappearance from Amazon is viewed as an example of cancel culture. The left’s attempt to silence voices that disagree with them. Amazon certainly has lots of books that the left would disagree with, so we wonder about this book being targeted. In fact, I don’t know of a bookstore that I’ve entered where there wouldn’t be books with which I would disagree.

I value free speech. I think the original American ideal was a marketplace of ideas where proponents of competing ideas reasoned about different viewpoints and attempted to win others to their own point of view. I said reasoned discourse. Much discourse today is emotional and highly charged. It is unfortunate that so many people’s attention span has been shorted to sound bites. Sound bites are not reasoned discourse.

Following Jesus has always meant traveling with the few on the narrow road rather than the broad road with the many. Jesus pronounced this blessing in the Sermon on the Mount.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12, ESV

Speaking for Jesus has always had consequences. Jesus made clear that to be pleasing to him we may have to withstand harmful words and deeds that are against us. Cancel culture is not new. We only need to read the second century A.D. correspondence between Pliny the Younger and Trajan.*

With Covid-19 churches everywhere quickly embraced Zoom or streaming video. This has been a blessing in this difficult time. Our prayer is that people will be converted, but this more public presence may come back to bite. We could become the target of cancel culture. I’m not suggesting that we tailor our message on the Internet so that we are not criticized. I’m just warning that we may be targeted for what we say online as well as in real life, and we must be courageous.

I’ve reflected on the fact that if you are looking for evidence to convict me of being a Christian, I’ve left plenty online that would do so. Cancel culture can’t cancel us among fellow travelers of the narrow road. Cancel culture can’t cancel us in the eyes of God. Jesus has pronounced his blessing on the persecuted. But it also means we need to pray for boldness and perseverance.

— Russ Holden.

*https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/pliny-trajan1.asp


Of Handbreaths and Cubits

February 19, 2021

The psalmist reflects on the brevity of life in Psalm 39:5. Other things are going on in the psalm, but I want to focus on a word in verse 5.

Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! (Psalm 39:5 ESV)

The word is handbreadth. A handbreadth is the width of your four fingers excluding your thumb or about 3 inches. The psalm has used a short measure of length to talk about length of time. I can visualize a handbreadth. It is harder to visualize time. But the psalm reminds me of the brevity of life.

This brings us to the cubit, which is a measure of length six times greater than a handbreadth or about 18 inches, the distance from the tip of your fingers to your elbow. Jesus uses the cubit in a discussion on worry.

Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? (Matthew 6:27 NKJV)

Translators have a bit of a struggle in this verse. The Greek word (ἡλικία | hēlikia | Strong’s G2244) can mean either a span of life or a reference to height. So which should we choose?

I think Psalm 39:5 tips the balance in favor of length of life. Jesus uses the very generous cubit in comparison to the handbreadths of the psalm. But I think both are using measurements of length to describe lengths of time. It is figurative not literal. They are striking images.

I’m also not convinced that most people wishing to be taller want to be 18 inches taller at least in the ancient world. Basketball was not a motivation in the time of Jesus. A person who is 5 foot 2 inches would become 6 foot 6 inches.

Translations understanding this is a reference to height are the KJV, NKJV, and HCSB. Translations understanding this as adding to the length of life are ESV, NASB, NIV, NET, and CSB. These latter translations change cubit to hour or moment with footnotes giving more information.

Psalm 39 reminds us of the brevity of life. It’s like handbreadths. Jesus instructs us that we can’t even add a cubit to our life spans length with worry.

— Russ Holden


Don’t Inherit Folly

February 13, 2021

 

The simple inherit folly, but the prudent are crowned with knowledge. (Proverbs 14:18 ESV)

The Book of Proverbs is meant to be read slowly and meditated upon, so it’s good to ponder Proverbs 14:18. I like the definitions in the footnotes of the NIV at the beginning of Proverbs for simple and fool: “The Hebrew word rendered simple in Proverbs denotes a person who is gullible, without moral direction and inclined to evil.” (Footnote on 1:4). And in Proverbs 1:7 the footnote on the word fool reads, “The Hebrew words rendered fool in Proverbs, and often elsewhere in the Old Testament, denote a person who is morally deficient.” Folly or foolishness in this context can deal with behavior that is immoral, dangerous, or even self-destructive. Not having a moral compass in your life will lead you into evil which may have painful consequences.

The prudent person makes sound judgments and can look ahead to see the moral consequences of various actions. The prudent will be crowned. Their path leads to what is good and honorable.

Theodore Dalrymple is a British essayist who as a psychiatrist worked in a British prison and a hospital in a low-income area. He illustrates this proverb. He describes patients coming to him that are depressed that he believes are simply unhappy because of a series of wrong choices. He writes,

My patient was not just a victim of her mother, however: she had knowingly borne children of men of whom no good could be expected. She knew perfectly well the consequences and the meaning of what she was doing, as her reaction to something that I said to her—and say to hundreds of women patients in a similar situation—proved: next time you are thinking of going out with a man, bring him to me for my inspection, and I’ll tell you if you can go out with him.

This never fails to make the most wretched, the most ‘depressed’ of women smile broadly or laugh heartily. They know exactly what I mean, and I need not spell it out further. They know that I mean that most of the men they have chosen have their evil written all over them, sometimes quite literally in the form of tattoos, … And they understand that if I can spot the evil instantly, because they know what I would look for, so can they—and therefore they are in large part responsible for their own downfall at the hands of evil men.*

The simple without moral direction inherit folly, the consequences of immoral decisions. The prudent look ahead guided by moral principles and receives the good. Beware, don’t inherit folly!

— Russ Holden


Loving Jesus More Than Anything Else

February 5, 2021

The words of Jesus seem shocking and harsh: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, ESV). These words have certainly been misunderstood and abused at times through church history.

Part of our problem is with the word hate. Our English meaning is hostility, aversion and loathing. To plug that into Jesus’ statement is to misunderstand. The Old Testament has a usage of hate that means to love less than.

  • When the Lord saw that Leah was hated… Genesis 29:31 (Rachel being loved more) 
  • If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other hated, and both the loved and the hated have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the hated… Deuteronomy 21:15 (English translations often do not use “hate” here as they attempt to make it more understandable.)

Matthew’s account makes the same point but with greater clarity for us: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37-38, ESV).

Yet even after we come to terms with the word hate, the statement by Jesus is still shocking. We must place being a disciple above a number of very good things – parents, wife, children, family, and even our own life. In other words, we can’t let any of these things, even saving our own skin, keep us from following Jesus.

How does that look in real life? Years ago, I read report on a woman convert in Cambodia. When she began to attend church for worship, her family locked her in her room. She climbed through a window and left home. The church had to provide her temporary shelter until she could get on her feet. She couldn’t return to her family and be a Christian too.

Her mother finally accepted her, but her brother and family continue to reject her. Even after experiencing this rejection from family, she was baptized. She counted the cost for following Jesus and decided that she loved Jesus more than anyone or anything else.

−Russ Holden


Kindness Is Free

January 30, 2021

My recent experiences have suggested to me that we need more kindness in our world. The opposite of kindness is evident: being rude, insensitive, derogatory in language, and self-centered. The absence of kindness can make work, school, and home life burdensome.

So what is kindness? This is where dictionaries can disappoint. Kindness is often defined by a long list of qualities. But I think we can focus this broad beam of light to some basics. Kindness is sympathetic of other people’s plight. It is helpful to other people’s needs. It is forbearing and gentle in dealing with people. It involves a warm heart towards others rather than a cold and indifferent one.

Kindness is a Christian virtue. It is component of the fruit of the Spirit. As Christians we shouldn’t ignore developing it in our lives. Reflection on Christian teaching aids us in understanding the virtue and hopefully making it real in our lives. Why are we called to kind?

All human beings are created in the image of God and are to be treated with dignity. They are also people for whom Christ died. We are not to treat people as things but as persons. Yes, we will face difficult people maybe even enemies. Evil is not overcome by evil returned but by good.

Paul teaches us that love fulfills the law (Romans 13:8-10). All the various commandments can be summed up in love your neighbor. Love will not harm others. But the ethic of love will go beyond: do no harm. The Golden Rule extends this: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12, ESV). Love will do positive good for others. Christians are to live this ethic of love.

We are the recipients of kindness from God. God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4). God’s kindness toward us in Christ is seen in the immeasurable riches of God’s grace (Ephesians 2:7). Just as we love because God first loved us, we are called to kindness because of the great kindness God has shown us.

Kindness is free in the sense that I can freely bestow it on all I meet. Certainly, kindness may cost me something as a I do a good deed, but most of the time it is a matter of how I treat people. I want to see a lot of free kindness in my world because kindness is transformative. The walk with the Spirit must include kindness. This is something to which we’re called.

— Russ Holden