Peace Like a River

August 14, 2020

With what are God’s requirements to be compared? Is God like a cosmic-Simon-says who is attempting to trip us up? Or is God more like a parent setting limits for the protection of his children? Listen to the instruction of Moses in Deuteronomy.

And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. (Deuteronomy 6:24 ESV)

God is not a killjoy. His commandments are for our good, for our benefit. I’ve witnessed too many times people who rebelliously go their own way making a train wreck of their lives. Even my own experience tells me that the instructions of scripture are good for me (even when temptations want to lead me another direction). Blessings come from the path of righteousness.

Moses had warned Israel of this, but despite this warning, Israel paid for their stubbornness with the Babylonian captivity. Judgment came against them. In the midst of prophesying judgment, Isaiah pictured God’s lament that it could have been very different if they had listened.

This is what the LORD says–your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the LORD your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea” (Isaiah 48:17-18, NIV).

They could have had peace like a river. The land of Israel does not have many rivers. The land is semiarid with only marginal rainfall in many places. The land does have numerous wadis or dry riverbeds that flow with the runoff from the rains, but those are not constant. The image of a river is a picture of abundance. They could have had peace that was abundant and constant — peace like a river.

Righteousness could have characterized their lives so that it was like waves on the shore. Waves are rhythmical and repetitious. There is always a new wave coming to shore. Again, we see a picture of abundance. What is it like to live in a community where righteousness is the norm — a place where you expect it just like you do the next wave?

What about us? Do we stubbornly go our own way only to reap the consequences of our sinful decisions, or do we have peace like a river? Let us discover the blessings of a humble walk with God.

— Russ Holden


Actions, Consequences, and Responsibility

August 7, 2020

People have difficulty with the idea that their actions have consequences, and that they are responsible for their actions. We often want to blame what has been done to us as an excuse for bad behavior. No doubt some people must overcome greater difficulties than others. Yet, we each choose the attitude with which we approach life and the actions we take. We are not programmed like a computer. We are not helpless marionettes of a malicious puppeteer.

Part of our problem with actions, consequences, and responsibility occurs with the difference between moral choices and the law of physics. If I fall from a 30-story building, I can expect fairly consistent results. But one act of fornication may lead in one case to an “unwanted pregnancy,” in another–a sexually transmitted disease, and in still another–just a bad memory. The consequences may vary from the same act, but consequences come with both good and bad moral choices, and we must accept responsibility for the choice.

Proverbs looks at the general trend of certain choices. It’s not that we might not find some exceptions, but that learning the lessons from human experience and God’s revelation teach us that certain things are bad choices and others are good choices. Listen to a sampling.

Laziness vs. Industriousness. “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth” (Proverbs 10:4-5, NIV).

Violence. “The violence of the wicked will drag them away, for they refuse to do what is right” (Proverbs 21:7, NIV)

Lying. “A man of perverse heart does not prosper; he whose tongue is deceitful falls into trouble” (Proverbs 17:20, NIV).

The above are simply examples, Proverbs covers many more categories. The assumption in Proverbs is simple. Given that actions have consequences, I don’t have to do every possible action to know something of the possible consequences. I can learn from the experience of others and the revelation of God. Be responsible. Choose wisely.

–Russ Holden

 


Faith Not Sight

July 20, 2020

I don’t like the fact that our bodies disappoint us with aging or disease or both. Somehow it just doesn’t seem fair that the best body we will ever have is at age 18 (at least in this life). We see the aging process in others, but eventually we have to admit to it in ourselves. What Paul called “the outer person wasting away” is observable in life (2 Corinthians 4:16).

Yet Paul placed beside this unwelcome fact another wondrous observation. In Christ, the inner person can continue to grow and become better. “Our inner person is being renewed day by day” (1 Corinthians 4:16). God is transforming us to become more and more like His Son. Our character, our kindness, and our love can grow and mature throughout our lifetime. The best our inner person can be in this life may be the day we breathe our last.

Paul compared this body that disappoints us to a tent (1 Corinthians 5:1). Tents are temporary. They are fragile and frail in comparison to a permanent structure. The disappointments of our bodies are reminders we are sojourners here. We are just passing through; this is not our enduring home. A tent may become frayed and worn until it wears out, or it may be suddenly pulled down, but it is never permanent.

The God who renews our inner person also builds us a permanent dwelling. As Paul wrote, “[W]e have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (1Corinthians 5:1b, ESV). In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul described our physical bodies with words like “perishable,” “dishonor,” “weakness,” and “natural”. While the resurrection body that we await at Christ’s return is described by words like “imperishable,” “glory,” “power,” and “spiritual.” The transient will be swallowed up by the eternal.

The processes of the outward wasting away and inward being renewed take place in the course of daily life. Daily life filled with its ups and downs, its trials and temptations, and its moments of doubt and faith. Paul used the word, “groaning,” to describe this present life. He spoke of “slight momentary affliction,” although slight affliction doesn’t seem to adequately describe Paul’s life (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-28). He could only call it that when weighed on the balance with eternal glory. The eternal outweighs the transient and makes the walk of faith worth it all.

Paul had confidence that to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord. The God who is doing a great work of renewing and transforming in our inner person is also preparing for us a permanent dwelling place. Eternal glory is worth it all “for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7, ESV).


God Gives the Increase

July 10, 2020

Jesus said to go into all the world and preach the gospel. Today’s world population is about 7.8 billion. It’s a staggering task. When viewed like this, it can be paralyzing. What can one person do? What can one church do?

Yet I recall the words of Jesus, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much” (Luke 16:10a, ESV). And in the parable of the talents, the approved servants hear these words:

His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’   Matthew 25:21, 23, ESV

It seems that the global picture will take care of itself when we learn to be faithful even in the little things.

Take the story of Fred Asare, the director of the Village of Hope. His older brother received the World Bible School lessons, and he encouraged Fred to take them too. The WBS teacher sent
the lessons to the then nine-year-old Fred. Fred was very young, and he felt like he had received too much help from his brother in doing the lessons, so he asked to take the entire lesson series over again. The WBS teacher sent the lessons again. (I admire the patience.) The WBS teacher sent an invitation to Fred to hear some missionaries preach. Fred invited his school mates. They were baptized. After college, Fred was invited to be the director of the Village of Hope – a work that had previously failed. Fred accepted the challenge, and many have joined in that work. But I want you to notice the small acts of faithfulness – the small beginnings that lead to great things being done. 

Thank goodness for farmers. They prepare the soil. They plant the seed. They care for their crops waiting patiently for the rain. Yet, they feed the world. I might despair at the task given the smallness of the seeds. Yet, the farmer knows that our beneficent Creator knows
how to multiply seeds into abundant crops.

It is to this that Paul compares the task of sharing the gospel. “I  
planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6, NKJV). God knows how to multiply our efforts. He seeks people of faith, who can be faithful even in the little things. He desires people who can encourage, invite, share, and give. You never know where your faithfulness may lead. Your faithfulness may be part of a golden chain of events that moves mountains. Pray for open doors and the faith to go through them. For it is God who gives the increase.

– Russ Holden


Aren’t You Being Judgmental?

July 3, 2020

If you stand for Christian values, you will likely hear someone say, “Aren’t you being judgmental?” I like the story of Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu philosopher. He came to the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. In his address to the delegates, he said, “We [Hindus] accept all religions to be true,” and “[it] is sin to call a man [a sinner].” Of course, in making the statement, he himself has called someone a sinner (i.e., the one who calls another a sinner). I find it amusing. The charge of being judgmental is always a boomerang.

But what about “Judge not, that you be not judged”? Doesn’t that forbid judging. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:1-6 has three parts. The middle part uses the image of getting a speck out of someone’s eye. The image of getting a speck out of someone’s eye is a way of talking about counseling or confronting someone about sin in his or her life. This isn’t forbidden, but we are first to get the beam out of our own eye. Jesus is concerned about hypocritical judgment.

But what about “Judge not, that you be not judged’? It is indeed a warning about judgment in a section that confirms we will indeed make judgments. What is Jesus’ point? The point is found in the explanation that starts with “for.”

For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:2, ESV

Jesus is warning us about unmerciful judgments. If we want mercy from God, then we need to extend mercy to others.

Finally, Jesus warns about uncritical judgment, a failure to evaluate a situation and its dangers. Holy things are not to be given to dogs, and pearls are not to be thrown to pigs, because pigs trample, and dogs attack. Wisdom can know ahead of time how certain things and people will be treated by others. Jesus is warning us of an uncritical judgment in the face of persecutors.

Jesus is not opposed to us making judgments. He is giving us warnings about unmerciful, hypocritical, and uncritical judgments. It is impossible to live the moral life without making judgments.

The charge of being judgmental is always a boomerang, because it too is a judgment. The question in such cases is do we have an agreed upon basis for moral decision making. If we are both Christians, we should in the moral teachings of the Bible. If we don’t have a common basis for morals, then the problem is likely not judgmentalism regardless of the charge, but our competing ways of deciding what is moral. Both of us have the right to attempt to persuade the other, but in the end, if we can’t agree on the basis, we may have to lovingly disagree and wait for God, the Judge.

— Russ Holden


What Is Freedom of Religion?

June 26, 2020

As we celebrate our country’s independence this week, it is good for us to contemplate one of our country’s cherished values that is found in Amendment I of The Bill of Rights.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The first thing to notice is the amendment restricts government not religion. “Establishment of religion” which congress is not allowed to do, in the context of the eighteenth century meant creating a national church. Some states at the time did have state churches, although the support for state churches was abandoned by 1833. But what is the free exercise of religion.

Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in which describing Amendment I he used the phrase: “thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” That phrase continues to be debated. What is clear though is the church is being marginalized more and more today. It is leading to erosions of what I think the free exercise of religion really is.

Freedom of religion has historically had several components. I have the right to my beliefs about religion. I can assemble with others and worship as I believe without disturbance. But I must also be able to share my faith and convert others. I must be able to bring my religious values into the public square. It is in this last category that we are seeing problems with the current political situation.

To illustrate the problem, a blind woman in Rhode Island was banned form a public park and library for sharing her Christian faith. The accusation is she “accost(ed) patrons by ‘stopping’ and ‘giving them religious pamphlets.’” She was giving out copies of the Gospel of John. Her version is “I do what the Pocket Testament League urges … Simply offer them a Gospel of John, the Word of God. No arguing.”* It sounds like what she was doing was fairly innocuous. You have to believe that religion should not be in the public square at all to take offense. After all, patrons could easily walk on by this woman and not take a copy of the Gospel of John. Religion must be in the public square if we are to truly have religions freedom. But that is indeed the challenge in the United States today.

Religious freedom includes the right to believe in God as we choose, the right to assemble for worship without interference, and the right to talk about our faith in public, to attempt to convert others, and to bring our values into the public square as we discuss the issues of the day. Egypt grants these first two to some Christian groups, but you can’t convert Muslims. I pray that this country’s religious freedom remains greater than that.

— Russ Holden

*https://www.foxnews.com/us/christian-woman-rhode-island-park-discrimination-lawsuit


A Father’s Legacy

June 19, 2020

What is a legacy? Its primary meaning is money or property left in a will, but in its usage, it often goes beyond physical things. Proverbs is concerned about a Father’s legacy: “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous” (Proverbs 13:22 ESV).

The primary meaning of this proverb deals with property. Their world was one in which the land had been divided among the tribes. It was important to pass the land to sons so that it could be passed to grandsons. The proverb acknowledges that this process will not necessarily go right for the sinner, and the context acknowledges that things can sometimes go wrong for the good because of oppression (Proverbs 13:23). Leaving a well-managed farm will be a benefit to more than one generation — “to his children’s children.”

The Legacy of Moral Example and Instruction. Many view Proverbs 13:21-25 as a unit, so I don’t think it is unfair for us to consider other legacies. We read in verse 24, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Proverbs 13:24 ESV)

This verse is difficult in our current cultural climate. It definitely refers to corporal punishment, but not abusive punishment. As parents, we used it for rebellious behavior. Jordan Peterson suggests a flick in the palm as a solution to inflict enough pain to gain attention and correction. But the proverb is about correction. The ESV’s “diligently” could also be “to be early or prompt in disciplining.” As James Smith notes, “This emphatic form suggests that the discipline would come either (1) in the morning of life before the bad habits are firmly fixed; (2) immediately after the offense; or (3) diligently.*” Fathers must model morality, instruct in morality, and discipline for morality in their children.

The Legacy of Work and Preparation for Work. Proverbs commends being industrious so that we can take care of our needs. But this also means preparing out children to do the same. In the ancient world, it would be teaching the sons to farm or do a trade. Daughters would have learned about food, clothing, and domestic duties necessary for survival. We raise children to leave home. We’ve even coined a verb out of the noun, adult. A son or daughter who adults has learned to behave in a responsible way and live on their own.

The Legacy of Faith and Spiritual Life. The daily wisdom of Proverbs is in fact the wisdom of God. It is spiritual. It involves a life lived for God. The greatest legacy I’ve received has been a spiritual one. Faith was modeled for me. Faith was instructed to me. As a father, I want my children, grandchildren, and descendants to have the salvation that is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Fathers, what is your legacy?

— Russ Holden

*James E. Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms, Old Testament Survey Series (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1996), 562.


The Oasis

June 12, 2020

Once upon a time, there was an oasis in the middle of a desert. The desert was a dry wasteland where the sun burned hot. The heat rising from the blistering sand wearied many a traveler. But the oasis gave hope of refreshment to weary souls.

In the oasis was an artesian spring that gave the clearest, bubbling cool water that man has ever tasted. So much so, that its fame spread far and near. Travelers would come to the oasis just because they had heard of the refreshing spring. They drank deeply from its waters and found refreshment and contentment of soul.

Those who frequented the oasis decided to build a cistern near the spring. They used the finest materials and filled it with the pure water. They made the area around their cistern pleasant and comfortable, so that people began to prefer drinking from the cistern than the spring itself. At first no one noticed the difference.

But in time, the cistern became contaminated and leaked. The people began to drink smaller and smaller amounts. Having grown so fond of their cistern, they did not notice that they were weary and faint. They continued to go to the cistern acting as if they had forgotten the spring. Some grew weaker, and others perished in their journeys overcome by the desert’s heat.

for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:13 ESV)

–Russ Holden


Regeneration

June 5, 2020

Regeneration means to be born again. In the context of the New Testament, it is the spiritual rebirth associated with receiving the Holy Spirit. Some argue that regeneration occurs first and then is followed by faith. Others argue that regeneration differs from person to person. Some argue that a person becomes a Christian and then one must seek the Spirit to receive Him. By definition, regeneration must be God’s act, but we still ask when does regeneration take place? What is the evidence of the New Testament?

  • John 7:37-39 “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and 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.'” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” ESV Evidence: belief > regeneration
  • Galatians 3:2 “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” ESV Evidence: hear > faith > regeneration
  • Acts 2:38 “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.” ESV Several things suggest that “gift of the Holy Spirit” refers to the gift which is the Holy Spirit. It is certainly one of the grammatical possibilities. This grammatical possibility seems to make the best sense in the light of the New Testament’s teaching that Christians receive the Holy Spirit (see Romans 8:9 and 1 Corinthians 6:19). Evidence: repentance > baptism > regeneration
  • Acts 5:32 “And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” ESV Evidence: obedience > regeneration
  • John 3:5 “Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” ESV Grammatically, the passage is talking of one birth with two aspects: water and the Spirit. Given the context of the New Testament, the water in this passage most likely refers to baptism. Evidence: water and regeneration
  • 1 Corinthians 12:13 “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free- and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” ESV Evidence: baptism and regeneration
  • Titus 3:5 “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” ESV Clearly baptism and regeneration are linked together in other passages. This makes the reference to washing most likely a reference to baptism. Evidence: washing and regeneration

When taken with all the New Testament evidence, becoming a Christian involves faith, repentance, confession, baptism, and regeneration. Regeneration before faith does not fit the evidence. Neither does the idea that the reception of the Spirit is long after becoming a Christian. And although there is a variety of ways of expressing things, as the above list demonstrates, the variety is not inconsistent. A pattern emerges from the evidence when taken as a whole. Have you been born again?

—Russ Holden


The Good Mystery

May 15, 2020

When you hear the word mystery, what comes to mind? Do you think of something esoteric and incomprehensible, or do you think of a whodunit crime novel? For Paul in Ephesians 3, mystery means something that God had not previously made known or made clear but has now revealed. We could not arrive at this mystery by reason or observation alone. The good mystery was revealed by God.

God’s plan was progressively revealed. We see a hint of it in the curse on the Serpent in Genesis 3:15 and in the promises to Abraham and David. The prophecies of the Old Testament point to it. But the mystery was not fully revealed until it was revealed to the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:5). Yes, the mystery when revealed was a bit of a shock to some Jews. But Paul assures us: the good mystery was revealed to the apostles and prophets.

What is this good mystery? It is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the same body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Ephesians 3:6). God’s plan was to create a new humanity in Jesus “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Everyone can share in the inheritance. Everyone can be a part of the body. Everyone can partake of the promise. The good mystery is that the gospel is for all.

That means the good mystery is preached. Paul became a minister of the gospel “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Ephesians 3:8-9). Paul makes clear that the church is an integral part of the plan.

… so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord … (Ephesians 3:10–11, ESV)

I suspect that we struggle a bit thinking about spiritual beings observing the church to see the wisdom of God. But what they should see is a new humanity in Christ Jesus. They should see is both Jew and Gentile formed into one family of God. They should see people, regardless of nationality, race, culture or language, being united in Christ and transformed into Christ’s likeness.

The good mystery is revealed by God. It has been revealed to the apostles and prophets. We read about it in our New Testaments. The mystery that Paul preached is that the gospel is for all.

—Russ Holden