Like a Thief in the Night

April 20, 2018

Yes, someone has predicted the Second Coming of Jesus for April 2018. No, I won’t give the details or promote the speculation. There will never seem to be a lack of those who have constructed elaborate time tables predicting the Second Coming of Jesus or the end of the world. Whether they be religious fanatics, scientific quacks, or a mixture of both, Christians should remain calm.

Apparently, the Christians at Thessalonica were upset over the coming of the end, and Paul reminds them:

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thessalonians 5:1–2 ESV)

Thieves come suddenly without making appointments with us, and so shall the end be, the Day of the Lord.

Yes, I’m aware of the next verse: “While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3 ESV). Some will claim that pregnancy is a timed event. Doctors can calculate a due date, so if we can just search the scriptures for the appropriate times, we can know the due date of the Second Coming.

We should be suspicious of such thinking because it makes Paul immediately contract himself. The problem is how do we handle metaphors. We should not take every possible lesson from an image. We should use the lesson that the author intends. Paul is clear about the lesson he intends. The point is one of inevitability: “they will not escape.” Having taken Lamaze classes and been a birthing coach for my wife, I know that a woman in the midst of contractions may say: “I don’t want to do this.” It’s probably not the time to say to her, “It’s too late.” Rather, just let her squeeze your hand as she goes through the contractions. She already knows that it’s too late. The pregnancy image is not to get us to find a timetable but to realize the inevitable end.

Jesus instructs us in Matthew 24:36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (ESV). And then repeats himself in Matthew 24:42: “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (ESV). Again, it seems to me that date setters are contradicting Jesus’ own teaching.

How should Christians conduct themselves in a world that will someday come to an end? If we return to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, maybe we can receive some clues as to how we should live our lives. They were people following the instructions on how they should walk and please God. They were to live moral lives. They were to love one another. They were to have as their ambition to lead a quiet life working with their hands and minding their own business. They were to behave properly to outsiders. They were pool who lived with the hope that at the Lord’s return they would come to be with him always (1 Thessalonians 4).

My complaint with date setters is simple. Failed dates bring discouragement and doubt. I’ve known some people who were convinced of a date, dressed in white robes, and spent a night in a vigil, but the Lord didn’t come. I think they lost their faith in the process, which unfortunately was misplaced faith in a date setter, but led to loss of faith in Jesus. Failed dates also bring ridicule from unbelievers and may get in the way of the legitimate message that Jesus is coming again.

The end will come like a thief in the night, but we are not to live in panic, but rather in preparation. I don’t need it scheduled on my calendar to be ready. With live in preparation as we lead lives of faith that honor God.


Speak A Good Word

April 13, 2018

One communication research did a study on people’s ability to identify another’s emotional moods from facial expression, body posture, and tone of voice. Not surprisingly, these non-verbal forms of communication actually do communicate. People can accurately identify emotional moods without words at a higher rate than chance would explain. Further, some people are better at reading emotions than others. Women did a better job than men in this particular study.

But one interesting fact from the study confirms the wisdom of Solomon: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love” (Proverbs 27:5, ESV).

The researcher divided the moods into four categories: pleasurable or distressing, active or passive. The easiest emotions for his test subjects to spot were the active/distressing ones such as fear, anger, and disgust. Test subjects almost always identified them correctly. But when the moods were passive/pleasurable, such as feelings of love, admiration, and satisfaction, the test subject often missed them. The subjects either confused this emotions with one another, or half the time, labeled them as boredom or dislike. The researcher notes:

The implications are obvious: if two people like each other but never give voice to their affection, there’s good change at least one of them will miss it. Yet if one party is temporarily upset by the other, it will come through loud and clear, even without a word spoken. Remedy: if you feel positive toward someone — say it.*

We communicate even when we are not saying a word, but effective communication of good feelings we have towards others need the added touch of the spoken word.

*Em Griffen, Making Friends (& Making Them Count), pp. 88-89.


Just and Justifier

April 6, 2018

God forgives sins, right? The answer is, of course, yes. But I fear that many people have mistaken notions about forgiveness. One faulty idea is akin to balancing scales. If I have more good deeds than bad deeds, then the scales are in my favor, and God should forgive me. I’m a pretty good person after all. If my bad deeds outweigh my good deeds, then I’m in trouble and subject to judgment. But in this faulty idea, only really bad people have to worry about this.

The problem is that this is not the biblical view. Sin separates me from God. If I imagine my sin as a debt, then I must also imagine all of my good deeds as something I already owe. My good deeds are not extra credit that a teacher assigns to help students get a passing grade. My good deeds are not extra funds which I can place in an account that is overdrawn.

But the problem goes deeper. We must ponder how a just God can forgive sins. Is it as easy as we might first think? Imagine someone accused of a crime who opts to have the trial by judge rather than a jury. All of the evidence is presented, and it is quite overwhelming that the accused is guilty. But when the judge comes to sentencing, he declares the accused as not guilty. How would we respond to such a thing? Wouldn’t there be an outcry that justice had not been done? Wouldn’t the judge be accused of being unjust, and maybe the newspapers would investigate whether a bribe had taken place. The public would question the character of the judge.

In Romans 3:21-26, Paul uses three terms to explain the death of Christ. Justified comes from the realm of the law court. To be justified is to receive a favorable verdict, to be in right standing. Redemption is a marketplace word. It is to purchase something or in the case of the ancient world, someone out of slavery. The redemption in Christ is like a new Exodus from slavery — in this case slavery from sin. The third term is propitiation. It comes from the realm of the temple. It was a sacrifice that averts the wrath of God. Paul’s point is that Christ has done something in dying on the cross to make it possible for God to forgive sins.

This leads to Paul’s statement in 3:26: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26, ESV). In other words, without the death of Christ God could not be the just judge and forgive sins. The penalty had to be dealt with. The redemption price had to be paid. The sacrifice had to be offered. But in doing this in Christ, God could maintain his justice and yet be the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus. God could forgive. He could render the favorable verdict without it compromising his character as in my story of the unjust judge.

Popular understandings of forgiveness are faulty. We must learn the biblical view and help others to see this view. Forgiveness is not possible without the death of Christ, and receiving forgiveness is not possible without faith in Jesus and all that it entails (ponder “obedience of faith,” Romans 1:5, 16:26).


The Transforming Cross

March 30, 2018

The cross of Jesus refers to his crucifixion by the Romans, his burial in a rich man’s previously unused tomb, and his resurrection from the dead. Christians look back on this once for all event as permanently dealing with sins and gaining the victory over death. But Paul also uses the cross as a model for our lives as Christians.

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, ESV)

This daily crucifixion is a putting to death of myself so that Christ may live in me. The voluntary death to self is motivated by the great love that Christ and the Father have for us.

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:24, ESV)

The above passage from Paul lets us know that this crucifixion of ourselves also has to do the flesh. Flesh in Paul is defined well by the descriptive phrase that follows “with its passions and desires.” In other words, it is a putting to death of sinful desires in our life. It is a life lived by faith (Gal. 2:16), “through the Spirit, by faith” (Gal 5:5), and involves faith working through love (Gal. 5:6). Although we may be engaged in an inner moral struggle for Christian maturity, it is love that motivates us and the Spirit who strengthens us (Romans 8:13, Ephesians 3:16). It is not an unaided struggle.

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14, ESV)

The model of the cross is also a model for putting to death the world on a daily basis. Paul’s use of “world” is not to evoke the beauty of creation around us. Rather it is the world system that is hostile to God. My death to self is to result in a new creation (Gal. 6:15). It will be because I’m walking by the Spirit which is the opposite of gratifying the desires of the flesh (i.e., worldly, sinful desires). I’m to be led by the Spirit (Gal. 5:18) which will produce the fruit of the Spirit, which is a very different lifestyle from the one lived by worldly values. And Paul offers a challenge to us: “let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).We must pay attention to what it means to let Christ live in us. We must be vigilant that we are not slipping back into worldliness for the new creation is in Christ, it is not in the world.

As you ponder the cross of Christ, also consider your daily crucifixion of self. The cross of Christ is to be a transforming cross.


The Interrupted Jesus

March 23, 2018

Jesus preached in the open where crowds would gather, so it is not surprising that he might be interrupted by someone in the crowd. Luke 11:27 depicts a woman shouting out this interruption: “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” It’s a nice compliment to Jesus’ mother, but Jesus is quick witted and has the last word. He counters with this beatitude: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

The blessing of hearing God’s word is great. The Book of Revelation also begins with a blessing on the one who reads and the one who hears the words of “this prophecy.” It takes humility on our part to hear the word of God as we should. The challenge is expressed in Isaiah 55:8-9.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8–9, ESV)

God’s word convicts us. It makes demands on us.

I believe hearing and reading God’s word is a blessing. I’ve come to see it as “sweeter than honey” (Psalm 119:103) and as “a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). God’s commandments are for our good (Deuteronomy 6:24). But we have to become oriented to this library of books. It takes effort. We begin by understanding little, but with diligence the Bible becomes clearer to us, so that it becomes a source of comfort and strength.

So, if you believe that hearing God’s word is a blessing, what are you doing about it? Are you reading your Bible regularly? Are you a part of the Bible studies when the church assembles? It is an empty thing to say it is a blessing and then not partake of the blessing.

But notice that the beatitude Jesus gives is not just on hearing the word of God, the blessing only comes if we hear and keep it. In fact, the blessing in Revelation is the same: “blessed are this who hear, and who keep what is written in it…” (Revelation 1:3, ESV). Notice in Luke 11, it is not enough to be Jesus’ mother as great a privilege as that was. One needs to hear and keep. When his family came seeking him, he made the same point: “For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35, ESV). James also warns about being “hearers only.” He compares being merely a hearer to looking in a mirror and then walking away and forgetting what we are like (James 1:22-25). Scripture is profitable to us only if we allow it to teach, reprove, correct, and train us in righteousness (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

The interrupted Jesus is not gotten off track. He provides a wise beatitude for us to ponder: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”


What or Who and Why

March 19, 2018

As a teacher, I’ve discussed textual variants in adult Bible classes before and often feel that people’s eyes glaze over with boredom. But I had one come up in 1 Corinthians 3:5 recently, and I was in too much of hurry in class to properly handle it.

The variation in 1 Corinthians 3:5 is this: did Paul say, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?,” or “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos?” Translations divide in a predictable way. “What” is the reading of the NASB, ESV, NIV, and most other recent translations, and “who” is the reading of the KJV and NKJV. These readings represent two different approaches to evaluating variations in the Greek manuscripts.

The NKJV is choosing the reading found in the largest number of manuscripts. This is called the Majority Text Approach. This approach gives readings which are in line with the traditional readings of the KJV. Proponents have argued that the providence of God would make certain that the reading found in the majority of manuscripts would be the correct one. On the other hand, the majority of manuscripts are late. These manuscripts also seem to be smoother in style, have fewer differences between parallel passages in the Synoptic Gospels, and have fewer difficult readings. These characteristics might suggest scribes have smoothed out and adjusted the text in small ways.

The other approach looks at the earliest manuscripts, the ones that are judged to be the best quality of manuscripts, and the ones that have the widest geographical distribution. This approach also seeks an explanation with the internal evidence for the kind of mistake a scribe is likely to make. This approach also compares early translations and quotations from early church authors. I think this is a common sense approach, and it is the one that I take. But I would hasten to add that questions of textual variants are in the area of opinion. They are not matters of faith, and good Christians may charitably disagree.

I do have a pet peeve. It is when the issues are presented in an unbalanced or uninformed way. I’ve typically seen this go something like this. Someone states, “The NIV leaves out verses.” Then we are pointed to the warning of Revelation 22:18-19 about adding or subtracting. But this is not a question of leaving out words in the sense of Revelation 22. The manuscripts being consulted by the NIV simply don’t have the verses or parts of verses under consideration, and it is a judgment call in evaluating this kind of evidence. And if we examine all translations including the KJV, we could find similar situations. Translators and editors of eclectic printed Greek New Testaments are wrestling with what is “thus says the Lord” versus “thus says the scribe.” We may disagree with our answers, but the issue is important. I just don’t like seeing the issue misrepresented.

When we look at this textual variant in the context of 1 Corinthians 3, I think we have to say that the variation may effect how you explain the text, but the variation doesn’t change the overall meaning. If Paul said “what,” he was emphasizing the function of Paul and Apollos, and the answer to the question is: they are servants. If Paul said “who,” he was emphasizing them as persons, but the answer to the question is still “they are servants.” This is often the case with variants. They may effect how you explain a particular passage, but they don’t change the overall teaching of scripture.

We are blessed with an abundance of Greek manuscripts. The number is over 5,800 complete and fragmented manuscripts. When we compare with other ancient writings, we see that the New Testament is well attested. The History by Herodotus has 109 manuscripts, The History of Rome by Livy has 150, and The History by Thucydides has 96. No one questions that we accurately have these ancient writings. This should give us confidence about our New Testament which has an overwhelming amount of evidence. Only about 1/1000 of the variants are significant, and none of these would change doctrine. God would have had to inspire each scribe or person who copies a Bible verse to prevent variations from occurring. Having copied Bible verses into lesson outlines before the days of copy and paste from Bible software, I can attest that copy mistakes can occur. But they are usually fairly easy to identify and understand.

We are also blessed with very good translations of the Bible into English. In reading them comparatively, you do not get the impression that you are reading different books. The differences are usually slight and understandable. For close study, I like the NASB, ESV, KJV, and NKJV. Although I read the Greek New Testament as a part of my regular Bible reading, and I’m reading 1 Corinthians in Greek as a part of class preparation, I do try to look at a number of Bible translations too. And I benefit from those comparisons.

The Bible is also a very resilient book. Even when a translation choice is not optimal, the teaching of scripture is contained in many passages, so there are always corrections to be found for a translator’s bad choice (compare for example the NIV in Psalm 51:5 with another translation and also Ezekiel 18). The bottom line is that English Bible readers should read with confidence.


The One Who Hears, The One Who Rejects

March 9, 2018

Jesus is very up front with the possibility of rejection as we share the gospel (as well as the possibility of gaining a hearing). Notice Luke 10:16: “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (ESV). See also Matthew 10:40, Mark 9:37, Luke 9:47-48, and John 13:20.

The truth is none of us like to be rejected. It is a deep seated human fear. Maybe that is the reason Jesus addresses the issue so directly. How are we to muster the courage to say a good word for Jesus if we face rejection when we do?

First, these sayings take the focus off us. It is important to ponder this, because it can help us be courageous. If we are rejected in our efforts to the share the faith, we must remember that the rejection is not just of us, it is a rejection of Jesus, and it is a rejection of the Father who sent Jesus. Rejecting me is trivial. I’m one person in 7.6 billion. Rejecting Jesus and the Father is not trivial at all. Yet, the purpose of this life is making a decision about God, the creator. Being confronted with this decision is the most important matter in life whether we like it or not. We can’t control another’s decision, but we can provide the opportunity to choose.

Second, the fear of rejection coincides with not feeling accepted. The Christian, of all people in the world, should feel love and acceptance. “God is love” (1 John 4:8). God has demonstrated his love for us by sending his only Son into the world to be the propitiation for our sins. Because of God’s love for us, Christians are commanded to love one another. Christian community (i.e., the church) should provide for us love and acceptance. The church is the family of God. Fellow Christians are my brothers and sisters in Christ. If my identity is formed around this, I don’t go out into the world wondering whether I belong or am accepted. I should know something of community as God intends it to be. And this acceptance should help me conquer my fear of rejection, because I know a community that everyone should have the opportunity to experience.

Third, we don’t know a person’s response until the message is shared. I’ve met atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus who have become Christians. When you hear their life stories, it is amazing. We might even be tempted to think: I never would have suspected that they would respond to the gospel. And that is exactly the point: we don’t know a person’s response until the message is shared. The decision is for them to make not me.

Further, an initial rejection by someone may not be the last word in this person’s life. Experience teaches that it may take many encounters before a person begins to give serious thought to the gospel. Maybe your encounter with this person is encounter number one. You’ve planted a seed. Others may encourage this person, and maybe on the seventh encounter the person becomes open to study and conversion. Someone planted, another reaped, but every Christian who touched this person’s life had a role in sharing the gospel. Remember that an initial rejection may not be the last word. Maybe it is the first encounter that will lead to a changed life in time.