What Can the Righteous Do?

January 22, 2021

David raises the question, “… if the foundations are destroyed,
what can the righteous do” (Psalms 11:3, ESV)? His advisors seem to give him the solution, “Flee like the bird to your mountain” (Psa 11:1). There may be times when flight is a sensible precaution. I suspect we all wish at times for a place to hide when the world seems like it’s falling apart. But David’s answer has less to do with location and more to do with devotion.

Psalm 11 is a chiasm. Chiasm refers to its literary structure. In chiasms, the author addresses topics leading to the center of the poem which is the most important part and then does the parallel topics as the movement of the psalm goes from the center to the end. This leads to a pattern of topics that go like this: A, B, C, C, B, A. It is instructive to see the structure of Psalm 11. A corresponds to A, B corresponds to B, and C is the central, most important thought of the psalm.

A — God is refuge, 11:1
B — The righteous suffer, 11:2-3
C — God is still ruler of all, 11:4
B — The wicked will be punished, 11:5-6
A — God is righteous, 11:7

David acknowledges the crumbling foundations and suffering of the righteous. But the answer to his question, “what can the righteous do?,” is found in the center of the poem.

The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD’S throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man. (Psalm 11:4 ESV)

The reason that devotion is more important than location is that David still has faith that God is on his throne. God is still sovereign. He is in control of history even in those times when it doesn’t seem like it. Yes, there is wickedness, but it will not ultimately escape judgment. And the upright will see God’s face. (11:7).

What do the righteous do when the foundations are destroyed? We are to remember that God is still on his throne. He hasn’t abdicated. The wicked can’t overcome God. Judgment will ultimately come. And we, the upright, have a promise: we will see God’s face.

— Russ Holden


It’s Not Too Late to Start a Bible Reading Plan!

January 1, 2021

You may be reading this between January 1st and 3rd. Even though 2021 has started, it is not too late to start a Bible reading plan!

First, you need to choose the Bible that you are going to use which includes the translation and the format — traditional book format or a device like a smart phone or tablet. No one needs a device to read the Bible, and many people may be happier without one. But for some of us devices provide convenience, compactness (a library of books in your pocket), and the one that means the most to me — I get to choose the font size.

Choose a translation with which you are comfortable. I prefer a formal equivalent translation (that’s more literal) like the ESV, KJV, NKJV, or NASB. But I must admit that the first time I read through the New Testament was in a functional equivalent (more thought for thought and in everyday language) like the NIV, CSB, NCV, or NET. You can always compare translations as you go, and over the years, you may choose different ones to read. As the quip goes, “What’s the best translation? The one you read.”

Second, find a plan. Reading through the Bible in a year is a great thing to do, and I’ve been doing it every year for decades, but that’s not where I started. Starting with that big of a goal may end up being frustrating. Maybe you start with something more manageable like attempting to read the New Testament (Matthew – Revelation) or the narrative portions of the Bible (Genesis-Esther and Matthew – Acts). Short plans on various Bible subjects exist as well. What is important is developing the habit of Bible reading. Once you have a consistent habit, you can add more reading or adjust your reading for the next year according to your needs.

YouVersion.com has a great app to begin with on a smartphone or tablet. The big plus is that it is free. It has lots of translations. It has lots of audio Bibles that can play along when you read. It allows highlighting, note taking, and it has lots of reading plans.

OliveTree.com has my favorite mobile app. You can start for free with the NIV, ESV, NKJV, and KJV. It also allows highlighting, note taking, and Bible reading plans. But for a fee, you can add additional study books like Bible dictionaries, atlases, study Bibles, commentaries, and audio Bibles. It also has a large selection of Bible reading guides. I consider YouVersion a great Bible reading app, and OliveTree is a great Bible study app because it offers more Bible study resources although at a fee. Both are excellent places to start.

Other serious Bible study apps to consider are Logos and Accordance. I use Olive Tree, Logos, and Accordance on a regular basis on my tablet, phone, and laptop.

A great number of guides can be found on the Internet by Googling. It’s not too late to start a Bible reading plan!

— Russ Holden


The Indescribable Gift!

December 26, 2020

It is an outburst of praise as if Paul could no longer contain himself, and a prayer pours out of his heart. The prayer is simple; the prayer is profound. “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15, NIV)!

The context of this praise is Paul’s discussion of the special collection for Jerusalem that is the subject of chapters 8 and 9. In fact, commentators have divided on what Paul means by this phrase. A few have suggested that the indescribable gift is the special collection itself. That’s the impression left by the New Living Translation’s rendering, “Thank God for this gift too wonderful for words!” But even they footnote that the Greek says “his gift.”

It seems more likely that the indescribable gift is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It’s as if Paul’s thoughts about Christians giving naturally leads to what God has given us. No matter what we give, we cannot out give God.

God’s gift is indescribable. The word that Paul uses for indescribable has its first occurrence in Greek literature in this passage. Some think that Paul may have even coined the word. It is one of those words that simply has a negative prefix attached as we do with un- (unhappy instead of happy) or a- (atheist instead of theist). The word without the negation means “to tell in detail” or “narrate in full or completely.”

Paul does not mean that the gift cannot be described. Indescribable in English has two senses. If I go to the doctor and say that I have an indescribable sensation, it means that I have a feeling that I can’t put into words at all – frustrating to both doctor and patient. But if I were to say that I have indescribable joy, I would mean that it is surpassing description. I would have words, plenty of words, and quite possibly a rushing torrent of words. I would mean that all of the words put together could never completely describe it.

That’s the way it is with God’s gift. Can I get my head around the concept “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”? What was it like for the one who knew the glory of heaven to experience a peasant’s birth, a carpenter’s life? How do I depict the meaning of the death of Christ? I can imagine myself standing before the judgment seat of God deserving “guilty as charged.” Yet Christ brings me acceptance. I can imagine myself in chains – a slave to sin. Christ’s death redeems me out of my bondage. He has paid the price to set me free. I can imagine myself in front of an altar. The wrath of God is coming upon me because of sin. What sacrifice can I offer to appease God? My hands are empty. In the midst of my predicament, God provides the sacrifice of His own son.

And so it goes. Many words can describe what God has done, but we are approaching something wondrous. Whether we approach the task with great analytical skill and precision or whether we burst out with the evocative words of a poet, words fail. “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”


The Gift

December 18, 2020

It is one of our funny, family Christmas stories. By funny, I mean awkward, painful, and only slightly humorous at the time. It has become funnier with time and retelling.

My wife and I purchased a Christmas gift for one of our nephews. The gift was a hardback copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, one of the books in The Narnia Chronicles. This C.S. Lewis children’s story is a favorite in our family. I had read it in college and had wished it had been read to me as a child (and yes, the books are old enough that it could have happened). Before our son was born, we had purchased a set of The Narnia Chronicles, so they were his first, earthly possession. I say this to indicate from our point of view, this was a precious gift.

Our nephew opened our gift and immediately his face fell with disappointment. He threw the book on the floor and stormed off nearly in tears. The adults experienced the laughter of awkward moments. As I said, it’s become funnier with the retelling.

To be fair, he later read the book and enjoyed it, and maybe he wasn’t old enough at the time we gave it. But I suspect that many of us have that awkward, painful, and only slightly humorous gift story to tell.

Gift giving involves the transaction between two parties: the giver and the recipient. What is precious to the giver may not be precious to the recipient. If in doubt on this point, please check the gift exchange line the day after Christmas at your nearest, busiest store.

This brings me to the most important gift. God gave his only son. God had no more precious gift to give. The gift was costly beyond measure. The price included the suffering of crucifixion and death. It was costly to be a sin offering for others, and our need for the gift couldn’t be greater.

So how have your responded to this precious gift? Have you headed to the exchange line for what the world can offer in its place? Or have you received with joy and learned how precious is the gift!

—Russ Holden


The One Talent Servant

December 11, 2020

Hearing the parable of the talents is difficult (see Matthew 25:14-30). We are distanced from the cultural setting of the story. It was a world of masters and slaves. A wealthy master departing on a journey entrusts his possessions to his three slaves. He gives to each according to their ability. The relationship itself says that the possessions are not their own, and they will have to give an account.

The word, talent, is also easily misunderstood. Today, the word, talent, normally means a special ability, and I have heard quite a few sermons about using our talents (i.e., abilities). In the ancient world, the talent had originally been a measurement of weight varying between 57 to 80 pounds and then a unit of coinage. Verse 27 specifically mentions silver, although most English translations just say “money” in this verse, and the NCV inexplicably talks of gold. It’s difficult to translate into dollar amounts, but comparisons help. One talent is about twenty years of wages for a common laborer, so 5 talents, 3 talents, and 1 talent would be 100 years of wages, 60 years of wages, and 20 years of wages. The “poor” one talent man received nearly a million dollars in our currency.

Imagine burying 20 years worth of wages in silver in your field. What were the original hearers thinking as the story was told? Maybe some thought, “If I had that much money, I’d know what to do with it. I wouldn’t just bury it.”

The servants didn’t receive just a few dollars. Even the Message’s $5,000, $3,000, and $1,000 is paltry in comparison with the text. The servants received major investment capital, and economic terms describe their master’s return. He wants to “settle accounts.” The one talent man describes his master as being a “hard man.” The word refers to “being unyielding in behavior or attitude” and in this context, “demanding”. It makes hiding his talent even more difficult to understand, although I suspect we are tempted to do the same. The master calls the one talent man “wicked and slothful” or “worthless and lazy.”

What are we to learn? We have a master – God Himself, the creator of the universe. Everything we have is a matter of stewardship – our money, possessions, time, abilities, and opportunities. We take nothing out of this world except for what we “treasure in heaven.” There are no U-hauls attached to hearses. The greatest treasure we have been given is the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:7). Is not the gospel worth a million dollars to us? Will we bury it or use it to achieve gain for our master?

The question is never how much has been entrusted to us. That will in fact vary. The question is whether we are faithful. From our master’s point of view, are we “worthless and lazy” or are we “good and trustworthy”? The bottom line is stewardship.

—Russ Holden


Repent or Perish!

December 4, 2020

As Paul is explaining justification by faith in Romans, he still expects people to repent. He asks, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4, ESV)? So what is repentance?

One of the best ways to define repentance is to see its New Testament usage. John the Baptist commanded, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8a, ESV). The fruits of repentance are evidenced in his answers to various groups. They are sharing food and clothing, not collecting more tax than authorized, not abusing authority, and not giving false testimony (Luke 3:10-14). In 2 Corinthians Paul teaches, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10, ESV). Grief alone is not enough as seen in the life of Judas (see Matthew 27:3-5). One author has well defined repentance as “an act of the soul which takes place between ‘godly sorrow,’ on one side, and the ‘fruits meet for repentance,’ on the other.”* Repentance is a change of mind that leads to changed behavior.

Further, repentance is linked with salvation.

No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Luke 13:3, ESV

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:38, ESV

Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out… Acts 3:19, ESV

See also passages like Acts 11:18, Acts 17:30, and Acts 26:18-20.

For some saying repentance is necessary for salvation is troubling. For example Zane Hodges states, “Faith alone (not repentance and faith) is the sole condition for justification and eternal life.”** Yet his statement doesn’t square with the evidence of the above passages.

Faith/trust is the means to salvation as opposed to merit/works. As a means it is also a condition, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility of other conditions being revealed that are consistent with trust. Repentance obviously is consistent with trust. In fact, how can I say that I trust Jesus and God and follow their way, if I haven’t changed my mind yet about the sin in my life? We need to take Jesus’ words seriously—repent or perish!

—Russ Holden

* H.W. Everest, “Repentance—Its Nature, Conditions and Necessity,” The Old Faith Restated, I:170

** Absolutely Free!, p. 144


Thanksgiving to God

November 20, 2020

Thanksgiving Day can mean many things to people. It’s the day we eat turkey and dressing, candied yams, and pumpkin pie. It’s the day family gets together (or at least not more than two families according to the State of Michigan this year). It’s the day we get to sleep in. It’s the day of the Macy’s Parade watching balloons, floats, and marching bands (except this year will be very different). It’s the day we watch the Detroit Lions play football. It’s the day people are planning their strategy for Black Friday.

As the story goes, a man was watching his wife prepare a roast. She cut off the end of the roast and threw it away and then placed the remaining meat in the roasting pan. The husband was amazed that part of the roast was thrown away and wanted to know why. His wife replied, “That’s the way my mother did it.” So the couple decided to ask the mother why part of the roast was thrown away. Her reply compounded the mystery. She replied, “That’s the way my mother did it.” So, all three decided to ask the grandmother the mystery of the roast. The grandmother’s reply stunned them all. She said, “My roasting pan wasn’t big enough for the whole roast.”

The story of the roast is a cautionary tale reminding us that the reasons for things can be lost over time. The meaning of a tradition needs to be passed down with the tradition. One dictionary defines Thanksgiving Day as an annual holiday where we celebrate the harvest. Does that really give the complete picture?

The first Thanksgiving Day in our country was declared by Governor William Bradford on December 13, 1621. It was to be a day of feasting and prayer. Certainly, it was a day of celebration, but it was also a day of thanksgiving to God.

The first national proclamation of Thanksgiving was in 1789 by President George Washington. About that day he wrote, [it is] “to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be: that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our service and humble thanks for His kind care and protection….”

Thanksgiving Day may mean a lot of different things to us. Our traditional meals and annual activities may vary from family to family. But let us not loose sight of the original intent for the day. Let us give thanks to God for His providential care.

—Russ Holden

 


Jesus is the Solution to Our Problem

November 17, 2020

Didn’t know you have a problem? All of us sin. We make mistakes. We fail to do what is moral at the time. But the context of these failures is that we and our world are the products of a Creator God. And God is holy. No sin. No moral failures. So, our sin becomes a barrier to fellowship with him. And that is very bad news for us.

But God doesn’t let it end there. He sends his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is sinless. It has to be that way. Someone with the sin problem can’t save people with the sin problem. Yet though sinless, he willingly dies on the cross for the sins of the world. Paul explains this solution with a number of terms (Romans 3:21-31).

It means we are justified. This is a law court word. The charges are dropped against us in Christ, not because we are innocent, but because the demands of the law have been satisfied by our substitute. For those of us who are united to Christ this is great news. And Paul says later in Romans, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1, ESV)

It means we have redemption. Redemption is a marketplace term. It means to buy back or release by payment of a price. An Old Testament example of redemption is the buying back of the firstborn male sons of a family (Exodus 13:11-13). The firstborn male animals were to be sacrificed except the donkey which could be redeemed for a price or killed, but it couldn’t be sacrificed. The unfortunate practice of slavery gave another example of redemption. A price could be paid so that a slave was set free.

It means we have a propitiation (“sacrifice of atonement” NIV, “mercy seat” NET, CSB cf. Heb. 9:5). This word comes from the setting of the temple. Propitiation is a sacrifice which averts the wrath of God. Paul makes clear that the wrath of God is revealed again all ungodliness and unrighteousness (Romans 1:18, 2:5, 2:8, 3:5).

Jesus is the solution for our sin problem, but how is the solution applied to our lives. It is applied to “the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). The opposite would be by works (or earning it.) Yet, Paul’s definition of faith is not mere intellectual assent. Paul teaches “the obedience of faith,” that is obedience that is produced by faith and is an example of trust. So, within Romans, Paul mentions a number of things that clearly are not merit but fall under the category of faith/trust: repentance (Rom. 2:4), baptism (Rom. 6:3-4), and confession (Rom 10:10). We must trust in what Jesus had done for us with all that this trust involves.

Jesus is the solution to our problem!

— Russ Holden


The Humor of Christ

November 7, 2020

In the introduction to his book, The Humor of Christ, Elton Trueblood tells of a family devotional. He was reading from the Sermon on the Mount and came to the section where Jesus says: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3, ESV) His young son began to laugh hilariously. Trueblood notes that the child had gotten the joke that sometimes adults pass over. Jesus used a very incongruous picture, a staple of humor, to make his point. Humor often punctures us and gets our attention in ways that a simple declaration fails to do.

We see examples of Jesus’ humor when he speaks of the religious leaders scrupulously concerned about the outside of a cup or plate, but the inside of the cup is full of greed and self-indulgence (Matthew 23:25). Or again, the religious leaders are so concerned about ceremonial cleanness that they will strain out a gnat (an unclean animal according to the law), but swallow a camel (another unclean animal). Such incongruent images may have resulted in laughter from his audience. Trueblood notes the value of such humor:

If it were not for the medicine of created laughter, there would be no adequate antidote to pride and vanity among men. God has created us with a self-consciousness which makes conceit possible, but He has also made us able to laugh and thus to provide a balance to our danger. (The Humor of Christ, p. 36)

Recognizing humor in the teaching of Christ is one step in seeing the many facets of Jesus. We get the impression that Jesus laughs, but he also weeps, becomes angry, can be stern, but also loving and gentle. Jesus himself says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, ESV). Jesus helps us see God more clearly. Trueblood remarks:

The deepest conviction of all Christian theology is the affirmation that the God of all the world is like Jesus Christ. Because the logical development is from the relatively known to the relatively unknown, the procedure is not from God to Christ, but from Christ to God. If we take this seriously we conclude that God cannot be cruel, or self-centered or vindictive, or even lacking in humor. (The Humor of Christ, p. 32) 

— Russ Holden


A Cautionary Tale

November 1, 2020

The Book of Judges is a cautionary tale. It recounts a dark period in Israel’s history. It begins with Israel’s failure to conquer the Promised Land completely. Because of this failure, the idolatry of the original inhabitants becomes a snare for Israel. The cycle in Judges is Israel commits idolatry, they become oppressed by their enemies and cry out to God, God raises a judge to deliver them, and eventually the cycle begins again.

The judges were military leaders who brought deliverance to Israel. That is probably not our first definition of a judge, although Deborah did in fact hear cases and dispense justice (Judges 4:4-5). Yet, the judges often demonstrate deep flaws which show them to be men of their times. Gideon makes an ephod that becomes a snare to the people and a temptation to idolatry. Jephthah makes a rash vow, but he also slaughters some in Israel who refused to help him. Sampson seems to make military victories only because of bad choices with Philistine women.

But the book ends with even darker stories. Jonathan, the grandson of Moses, helps steal an idol with the help of armed men and sets up an idolatrous worship site in Dan, which lasts “until the day of the captivity of the land” (Judges 18:30). This is followed by an account of the rape and murder of a priest’s concubine. (Should a priest have a concubine in the first place?) This incident nearly leads to the wholesale slaughter of the tribe of Benjamin.

But these dark stories are not without a point. A refrain that occurs within the books states: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25, ESV). The Book of Judges answers the question of what happens when a people wander away from God. The moral decline illustrated in Judges is a cautionary tale.

It is a lesson that it difficult for modern society to hear. Society doesn’t always want God in the public square. Society often likes its morality to be relative. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” could be our own nation’s slogan.

But then we wring our hands when violence and crime occur. Evil, violence, and crime will always be with us as long as this age lasts. But when a society goes through a moral decline such evil will increase. This is a morality problem that statutes won’t cure. It is not that statutes are unimportant. They represent a social contract which should be based on shared values and common morality. When values and morality differ, statutes become difficult to enforce. Witness the drug problem in our country. In other words, morality and values are the deeper issue.

The safety of my person and property are dependent on the morality of the people in my community. When the moral decline becomes so great, even the authorities cannot stop what happens next. Societies can descend into anarchy. And periods of anarchy are what we see in the Book of Judges. For those willing to hear, Judges provides a cautionary tale.