The Approval of Sin

February 21, 2020

We are introduced to the Apostle Paul at the stoning of Stephen. This is before his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road and his conversion. In fact, this incident in his life introduces him in Acts, and then tells how he became a persecutor of the church. What is Paul’s role at the stoning of Stephen? “And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58 ESV). Paul isn’t throwing stones at Stephen, but his presence at this scene is sympathetic with those who do. The text then reads, “And Saul approved of his execution” (Acts 8:1 ESV). Paul approves of the murder of Stephen and so participates in the sin by his approval.

Paul uses the same word “approves” in Romans 1:32. In this section of Romans, Paul has described humanity which has failed to acknowledge or give thanks to God. He depicts a downward spiral of wrong behavior, and he concludes the section with a series of sins. We are not really convicted of sin until we are convicted of specific sins. But notice the end of the list.

Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:32 ESV)

I don’t think we can mistake Paul’s statement. To approve sin is sin

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In our current world, the definition of tolerance has changed. It used to be that tolerance involved the ability to kindly disagree. We granted the other freedom of speech and were willing to compete in the marketplace of ideas for the minds of people. The new tolerance means acceptance of other views as true or at least as true as your own. Failure to do that is viewed as being intolerant. Obviously, the person who believes in moral absolutes cannot agree with such a position, but he or she can be tolerant in the older definition of the term.

The first century culture would have accepted Christianity, if only Christians would have recognized the pagan gods as valid ways to truth. Christians couldn’t do this without compromising their faith, and some paid with their lives. We face a similar conflict, although we are long way from the persecution of the first century. Our culture will tolerate a compromised Christianity, one that will acknowledge many ways to truth and the validity of all values. But here’s the rub. To approve sin is sin.

Our goal should be to approve of what God approves and disapprove of what God forbids. We must stand for truth and morality as revealed by God. That approach will be unacceptable to many people in our society, and we must accept the fact that there will be opposition to us. But we must not fall into the trap of approving sin. To approve of sin is sin.

— Russ Holden


The Challenges of Discipleship

February 15, 2020

Jesus is about to leave the crowds behind him and cross the Sea of Galilee. Two men come to him expressing their desire to follow him: one is identified as a scribe and the other man as “another of the disciples.”

The scribe says, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” I suspect we would do everything to sign this man up. Jesus, however, reminds him of the challenges of discipleship. Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20, ESV). If we were to distill this colorful statement, it seems to mean: The disciple must value Jesus above material comfort and possessions.

It’s a challenging statement especially for those of us living in the United States. We have very comfortable lives. Even the circumstances of our poor can be favorably contrasted with the past and with third world nations today. So how do I apply this principle? A few will become missionaries and go into third world nations and not live as comfortably as we do here. But even for those of us who stay in the USA, we may practice generosity pleasing to Jesus and so live below our means in order to be generous. And who knows what the future may bring on a national or international scale? Regardless of what happens, we must value Jesus above our comfort and possessions.

The second man identified as “another of the disciples” begins with a request: “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” (Matt. 8:21, ESV). Jesus replies, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matt. 8:22, ESV). As we look at Jesus’ cryptic reply, we see some who are literally dead and needing burial. But Jesus says to allow “the dead” to do the burial. Obviously, the first “dead” cannot be literal, because literally dead people don’t bury literally dead people. So, the first dead must be figurative and most likely the spiritually dead who are not responding to the call to follow Jesus. What’s the principle for us to learn? Disciples must value Jesus above earthly relationships.

Fortunately, following Jesus does not always require separation. It is only when they force a choice between family or Jesus. (See also Matt. 10:35-37, Luke 14:26). But it can happen. I knew a new Christian in college who had converted from Judaism and his parents had cut him off: he was dead to them. Converts from Islam will often lose family and in some settings face the danger of losing their lives. Jesus is making a point. The disciple must value Jesus above earthly relationships.

Jesus wants us to know up front the challenges of discipleship. The value of following Jesus is higher than every earthly value, because Jesus offers the eternal. This is not always easy, but always worth it. As we make and renew our commitment, Jesus wants us to ponder the challenges of discipleship.

— Russ Holden


Firstborn of Creation

February 7, 2020

The English phrase, “the firstborn of all creation,” is difficult in Colossians 1:15. Our English word, firstborn, simply means “the first to be born, the eldest.” If one stopped with the phrase, it could mislead someone into thinking that Jesus is the first created thing. But the context won’t allow this meaning:

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16–17 ESV)

Paul proclaims Christ as the agent in creation. All things were created by him. He himself can’t be created, so we must do some research on the word firstborn.

Among translations that attempt to be form equivalent there is a great deal of consistency: “the firstborn of all creation” (ESV, NASB, NRSV) and “the firstborn over all creation” (NKJV, NIV, NET, CSB). When we turn to translations that are functional equivalent, that is that are trying to evoke the same meaning as the original readers would have had, we see a glimmer of another meaning for firstborn: “Supreme over all creation” (NLT) and “He ranks higher than everything that has been made” (NCV). This gives us a clue that there is more going on.

One tool that is accessible to English Bible readers is the footnotes of the NET Bible. They are very helpful because they deal with translation issues. The footnote at Colossians 1:15 reads:

The Greek term πρωτότοκος (prōtotokos) could refer either to first in order of time, such as a first born child, or it could refer to one who is preeminent in rank.

Another example of this usage as noted by the NET footnote is Psalm 88:28 in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It reads:

And I will place him as firstborn
High above the kings of the earth. (Lexham English Septuagint)

This is case where “firstborn” (prōtotokos) only refers to supremacy of rank. It does not seem to be concerned about time. Time of birth is missing from this passage. That means the Greek word “firstborn” has a range of meaning which are English word does not have. This makes it difficult for the English reader to get the right meaning without some checking.

Why does Paul use “firstborn” (prōtotokos)? Colossians 1:15-20 is poetic. My Greek text even prints it as poetry. For a discussion of the poetic nature of the section, see the NET Bible footnote. “Firstborn” in 1:15 is balanced by “firstborn from the dead” in 1:18, which doesn’t present problems for us in English. Paul links together in this wonderful passage creator and savior.


Make the Most of Now

January 31, 2020

 

A Sikorsky S-96B helicopter crashes killing 9. One of the nine is very famous. He had talent, fame, and wealth. Even though our country averages 465 accidental deaths per day, this one hit home for many people. Some were hoping the news would prove false, but as the day wore on, the news remained the same. We express condolences on the Internet to the families who have lost loved ones because we don’t know them personally. We pray. We reflect.

Maybe we feel a death like this one because it makes us uncomfortable. We are reminded of our own mortality. We are confronted with the fact that talent, fame, and wealth couldn’t prevent death. Death can come from many places: accidents, the violence of others, diseases, and the inevitability of aging. Death may come unexpectedly, or it may come with a certain predictability as a person’s health declines further and further. This past week the oldest woman in the world died at 127. If her age is correct, she was the last living person to have seen the 19th Century. Yet, we know that death is no respecter of age. Death may come to the youngest among us and to all the ages in between.

The Bible gives us some images for our lives. Hezekiah prayed when he told he was about to die:

My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me
like a shepherd’s tent;
like a weaver I have rolled up my life;
he cuts me off from the loom;
from day to night you bring me to an end;
(Isaiah 38:12 ESV)

Hezekiah’s word pictures reflect the frailty and brevity of life. In a similar way, James uses the image of mist or vapor for our lives (James 4:14). We appear for a “little time” and “then vanish.”

So how should we live? We should make the most of the time we have. We should live our lives with purpose and gratitude. We should live our lives in the right relationship with God, so we are prepared for the life to come. As Paul stated as he reflected on a quote from Isaiah 49:8, “For he says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2 ESV). Now is what we have with certainty. We must make the most of now.


Glimpses of Nicodemus

January 24, 2020

Seek the truth. We are introduced to Nicodemus in the Gospel of John. Jesus calls him “a teacher of Israel” (John 3:10). Despite his position, Nicodemus is a seeker for truth. Nicodemus states, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2 ESV). He has reached the proper conclusion from the signs. He is not aligned with the Pharisees who accuse Jesus performing miracles by the power of Satan. Seek the truth.

Speak for the truth even when you are in a minority. The religious leaders have sent officers to arrest Jesus. They return empty handed saying “No one ever spoke like this man!” They belittle the officers, but Nicodemus speaks up, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does” (John 7:52)? The religious leaders give him their condescension. But Nicodemus has demonstrated the principle: Speak for truth even when you are in the minority. Note the situation will not always bring rational discourse. John will later note that others failed to confess Jesus for fear of the Pharisees and being expelled from the synagogue “for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:43, ESV).

Practice the lifestyle of truth. Joseph of Arimathea boldly asked for the body of Jesus to bury it in his own new, rock hewn tomb. Nicodemus is also in this scene bringing seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes (John 19:39). It indicates that he is a man of wealth, but one who is also capable of generosity. Jesus gives us truth to be believed and trusted, but also truth to be lived, a lifestyle of truth. We gain a glimpse of the lifestyle here in generosity.

Nicodemus disappears from the record at this point. There is much we might like to know. But that is also true for a number of people in the New Testament including some of the apostles. John has given us glimpses of Nicodemus. These glimpses give us things to ponder and practice.

— Russ Holden


Time and Eternity

January 3, 2020

The eternal God who created the universe also created time. There was neither day nor passing year until God spoke the universe into existence and separated the light from the darkness. The eternal God gave the sun, moon, and stars to mark the progress of the seasons. Humankind’s first calendar was the glorious march of sun, moon and stars across the sky—each obedient to its creator. Look beyond the clock and calendar even the magnificence of the skies to the One who made it all and give Him praise.

The eternal God should be “our dwelling place.” As we see how fleeting time is—how fleeting our time is, we ponder Him for whom a thousand years is like a day or a few hours of the night (Psalm 90). But for us even a long life is soon past. Yet in those fleeting moments we may live for God and decide eternity for ourselves. “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, ESV).
Having had the opportunity to hear good news, we must not let the moment fly from us without a response. Our eternal destiny hangs in the balance.

For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:2, ESV).

And once begun, the faith must be lived. We dare not drift away from so great a salvation. We do not know when the last grain of sand will fall in the hourglass of our life.

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end (Hebrews 3:13-14, ESV).

Though our life is but a mist—a fleeting moment (James 3:14), God can give meaning to our lives, and living for God can give us hope beyond the transitory and the temporary. Praise God for time and eternity!

—Russ Holden


To Decide to Follow Jesus

December 21, 2019

There is no neutral position on Jesus of Nazareth. We may follow him as the Christ, or we may reject his claims, but there is no undecided point of view. We have either come to him in faith, or we are outside of Christ. We may be undecided as we investigate the claims of Jesus, but being outside of Christ is perilous spiritual position to be in. The relationship to Jesus Christ is binary: we are either in Christ or we are outside of Christ. So it is interesting reading in the gospels people’s responses to Jesus.

Jesus went up to the Feast of Tabernacles at about the middle of the feast, because the religious leaders were seeking to kill him. On the last day of the feast, Jesus cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37–38 ESV). This teaching as John noted is about the coming reception of the Holy Spirit.

John provided us with some responses to this speech. Some said, “This really is the Prophet.” This is a reference to the prophet like Moses found in Deuteronomy 18:15-18. Peter will later preach that Jesus is the prophet like Moses (Acts 3:22-23). Jesus is the Prophet, but he is more. Others said, “This is the Christ.” This confession was more on target, although one suspects that Jesus is different than their expectations. Some questioned, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee?” They knew the prophecy of Micah 5:2. However, their knowledge about Jesus was deficient. They were asking a good question, It would all depend whether they sought the answer.

John also recorded a conversation with the chief priests and Pharisees. Soldiers were sent to arrest Jesus, but they returned empty handed. Their defense was “No one ever spoke like this man” (John last 7:46)! Note the religious leaders response: (1) have you been deceived?, (2) have the authorities and Pharisees believed in him?, and (3) this accursed crowd does not know the law. When Nicodemus interjected, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” Their reply was a bit of a sneer, “Are you from Galilee too?”

Making a decision for Christ takes the right information and teaching about Christ. It also takes a willingness on our part to consider this message as true, and a heart willing to change. The journey to faith may not be smooth. Note the religious leaders were trying to intimidate the soldiers and Nicodemus. They were not engaged in a reasoned discourse about Jesus, a let’s consider the evidence for and against Jesus. They were attempting to keep the soldiers and Nicodemus in line by ridicule and intimidation. Don’t be surprised when those same strategies show up in the modern world.

We must be spiritual truth seekers. Because the most important decision you will ever make is to decide to follow Jesus.