Context, Context, Context

September 13, 2019

The disc jockey on the Christian radio station had a verse to read — the word of God for us. He read Jeremiah 29:11.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (NIV)

He went on about how comforting these words were for us. And he is not alone. The verse appears on posters, wall hangings, and Internet memes.

But there is a problem. It ignores the context of these words. Look at the verses before and after.

For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. (Jeremiah 29:10, ESV)

Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:12–14, ESV)

Jeremiah wasn’t even promising this to the people of his day. It was a future message of hope for Israel after the Babylonian Captivity. I certainly cannot apply this directly to my situation. I do believe that the people of God have a bright future. I can read Revelation 21-22, which is more directly related to the Christian life, and realize that. However, I don’t know what we may have to pass through on our way to there. Revelation was predicting persecution and economic hardship for those first century Christians who first read Revelation.

I cannot know that the future has prosperity and no harm for me personally or for my country on the basis of Jeremiah 29:11. I know that it will be well for the people of God if we are faithful, but I don’t know the circumstances we may face. I’m not a prophet, and Jeremiah 29:11 is not addressing us.

The Bible is not meant to be read as a series of isolated verses. It is intended to be read as a book with us asking basic questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how? The old adage for Bible interpretation (and for that matter, any interpretation of a text) is true: context, context, context.

— Russ Holden

Please, Thank You, and Excuse Me

September 6, 2019

Are good manners a part of Christian living? I would be the first one to admit that the words in my title are cultural expressions. But behind these cultural expressions are Christian virtues: kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control (see the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23), and gratitude (Luke 17:15-17). Although I see a great deal of courtesy in my own community, it seems in the wider world we see a growing rudeness and hair trigger anger.

Manners do not come as standard operating equipment on children. My parents had to teach them to me. My Great Aunt Mabel made it a point to teach me manners when she could. I’m certain I didn’t always appreciate her lessons as a child, but I can look back with gratitude. One of her lessons was that I was to stand when an adult entered the room in order to greet them. It was years later that I found there was actually a biblical basis for this one: “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:32, ESV). I still feel awkward if I’m not in a position to stand when greeting someone. Parents are civilizing the next generation. Being civilized has nothing to do with the time or country of origin of your birth. It has to do with what you are taught and trained to do.

In the past year, I’ve been hospitalized for 45 days on three occasions and in rehab for 8 days. For much of that time, I wasn’t allowed out of the bed or chair without assistance. I’ve had a lot of dealings with nurses and nursing techs, and I practiced manners and kindness. I realized I wasn’t the only person on the floor, and that pushing the call button might not get an instant response. I tried to plan ahead so that my calls were not urgent. I was cooperative and considerate. I treated them as the medical professionals they are. And do you know what? I was treated with kindness and consideration in return. I was not motivated by that, but we do reap what we sow. (Obviously, there will be exceptions where you will be treated rudely in return, but I think at this time, it will be the exception and not the rule.) I had one nurse say to me: “I had a really bad day yesterday. I’m so glad to have you as a patient today.” And they knew that the way I treated people was because I am a Christian.

In an increasing rude world, good manners motivated by Christian virtues will stand out and be noticed. It will make life more pleasant, and it will make you more pleasant to be around. The “magic words” as some parents call them are still valid: please, thank you, and excuse me.

— Russ Holden

Off to a Boring Start?

August 31, 2019

A genealogy seems like a boring way to start a book. At least that was my first impression reading the Gospel of Matthew many years ago. When we take a second look attempting to understand the original audience’s point of view, we can detect reasons for beginning with a genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17).

Mathew names Jesus as Jesus Christ. The expression is so familiar that we begin to treat Christ as a last name. It is a title. It means the Anointed One. It is a claim for Jesus to be a king in David’s dynasty. David was the second king of Israel and important because of a promise made to him by God. Suddenly a genealogy begins to make sense. In order to have a dynastic king, he must have the right pedigree. If he doesn’t have that quality, there is no point listening to all his other characteristics. For Jesus to be the Christ, he had to be the son of Abraham and the son of David. These two had received significant promises that involved their seed (see Genesis 12:1-3 and 2 Samuel 7:12-16).

The first section of the genealogy takes us from Abraham to King David. Note the emphasis in the genealogy. Matthew is not content just to say David, but King David. The second section moves from David to Jechoniah and the Babylonian Captivity. This list is a list of kings. The third list begins with Jechoniah because it must continue with who he fathered. (Jewish genealogies could include gaps with significant ancestors being mentioned and some minor figures dropped out of the summary list. The arrangement of 14, 14, and 14 is artificial and possibly helpful for memory.)

The Babylonian Captivity serves an important transition from the second to the third sections of this genealogy. The significance is the captivity brought an end to David’s dynasty or at least a hiatus to the dynasty. Psalm 89 captures the emotion of one wondering where was the promise made to David.

Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David? Psalm 89:49 ESV

Isaiah used a powerful word picture for the coming loss of dynasty. The dynasty was like a tree that had been cut down – the stump of Jesse (linking this to David by mentioning David’s father). But Isaiah looked forward to a new shoot or branch coming out of the stump – the Messiah, the Christ.

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. Isaiah 11:1 ESV

If we understand the pain of the captivity and the loss of David’s dynasty, we can grasp the significance of the Jesus’ genealogy. Here’s the one who fulfills the promises made to David and to Abraham. Suddenly it’s not so boring anymore.

−Russ Holden

In the Wilderness

August 23, 2019

Even believers may experience times when God feels distant. (He’s not, by the way.) But we feel a spiritual dryness. Our cup feels empty. It is our wilderness experience. Listen to the psalmist’s wilderness experience.

As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? (Psalm 42:1–2, ESV)

He goes on to speak of his tears, and people asking him, “Where is your God?” One of the refrains in Psalm 42 is “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Psalm 42:5, 11 ESV).

What does David do to combat this spiritual wilderness?

  1. The psalmist is honest about how he feels. He is spiritually dry, and he admits it. His soul is cast down within him. He asks God, “Why have you forgotten me?” (v. 9). 
  2. The psalmist remembers his better days when he went with the throngs to the house of God with “glad shouts” and “songs of praise.” (v. 4)
  3. The psalmist remembers who God is. He remembers his hope in God (v. 5). God is his salvation (v. 5). God has “steadfast love” (v. 8). He is “the God of my life” (8). Note that there is another refrain within the psalm, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 42:5-6a and 11. And it is this closing refrain in verse 11 that gives us the resolution of the psalm.

Why do we have these “wilderness experiences” and feel spiritual dry? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect these test our faith. The moments of dryness in my life seem to have come when I’ve been extremely busy or stressed with difficulties. The question becomes then: will I seek God? I have found that when I pray, read scripture, and worship through the dry spells my cup is eventually refilled. I must like the psalmist be honest in my prayers, remember better days, and remember who God is. Don’t be surprised by spiritual dryness in your life. Scripture warns us and aids us when we are in the wilderness.

— Russ Holden

Mind Control

August 16, 2019

I’ve often described our minds as being like a TV set with a remote control that seems to spontaneously change channels on us. The issue is our power to concentrate, and especially concentrate on good things.

Entertainment has often been a force to shorten our attention spans. Compare a movie or TV show from 50 years ago or more with today’s programming. The pace was slower in the past. Several Christian disciplines help us develop longer attention spans. Reading, especially Bible reading for a Christian, lengthens our attention span. Prayer is another practice where we are concentrating on our relationship with God, and finally, the worship assembly is another place where keeping our minds engaged with worship is important (1 Cor. 14:15). I believe these are learned behaviors that get better as we practice them. And in our practice, we may have to recall our minds to what we are doing whether reading, prayer, or worship. I’m not going to claim that stray thoughts never enter my mind while engaged in these activities, but I’ve gotten better at it over time. We have to keep “changing the channel” back to what we are focusing on. We have to fight for control of our minds.

Another disturbing problem is that our mind can go to wrong thoughts. We deal with wrong thoughts by “changing to the channel” to good thoughts. And we aid this process by not filling our minds with evil thoughts. Paul’s instructions are important.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8, ESV)

This is a reminder that “the unknown remote control” isn’t in charge. We are. We replace evil thoughts with noble thoughts.

Prayer also aids us in this challenge. Paul’s statement in Romans 8 is appropriate: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13, ESV).

In prayer we ask God for help in controlling our thoughts and especially for ridding ourselves of evil thoughts. I think God honors this verse and helps us with our weaknesses. With God’s help we learn strategies and gain strength in controlling our thoughts and minds. Christian living involves self-discipline for moral and spiritual mind control.

— Russ Holden

How Many Circles?

July 6, 2019

I had a professor who spoke of the one-circle person and the two-circle person. He would draw a circle on the chalkboard for the one-circle person, and two circles which overlapped a bit for the two-circle person.

The one-circle person is the person who believes that nature is all there is. The single circle represents the physical universe. If you attempt to talk to the one-circle person about a miracle, for example, the resurrection of Jesus, he has ruled such things out of bounds. He will say such things cannot happen. No amount of evidence will be convincing. because he views the universe as a closed system. That’s all there is. He is a one-circle person. It is his worldview.

The two-circle person believes in the natural universe but also believes in a spiritual realm and the existence of God. Or, if not certain about God, he is at least able to grant the second circle as a possibility to be reasoned about. If you attempt to talk to the two-circle person about a miracle, for example, the resurrection Jesus, he is willing to consider the evidence.

The two-circle person also believes the universe usually operates by physical causes and effects. Miracles are not claimed to explain everything. They do not necessarily resort to a God of the gaps. Miracles would be viewed as something rare, that is why they are by definition wondrous. But the two-circle person doesn’t rule them out of bounds by definition. He is open to the possibility that God can intervene in this world and do something instantaneously that cannot be explained by natural causes and effects.

The one-circle person sometimes thinks that his one circle worldview is to be identified with the scientific enterprise. But the two-circle person can do science as well. In fact, science grew up in the midst of two-circle thinkers — the Christian west. The two-circle person believes that this universe is orderly and understandable, because the Creator made us with senses and minds that correspond to that reality and lead us to true knowledge about the world around us.

The one-circle person will sometimes unknowingly borrow from the two-circle person. He will talk about the pursuit of truth and moral values and even meaning, failing to realize that those things to have substance must come from the other circle — the circle he denies.

Some one-circle people will even wistfully talk about the Christ of faith even though they believe Jesus of Nazareth is moldering in the grave. Their one-circle life doesn’t allow for a resurrection, no matter the witnesses, no matter the prophecies, and no matter the tremendous transformations that occurred.

I’m a two-circle person. I’ve not ruled the evidence as out of bounds. In your life, how many circles?

Do It In the Right Order!

June 28, 2019

Two women who didn’t know one another began to converse as a way of passing the time. The conversation began to narrow down to the one woman’s son and the other woman’s daughter. Both children faced the same problem. Each had a sex partner although they were not married. Pregnancy had come to both couples, and difficult questions came to the two couples with the pregnancy. Did the couple have what it takes for a long-term commitment? Did they have what it takes to raise a child?

Neither couple was certain that they had what it takes for a long- term commitment and child rearing. The woman with the son wondered whether she would have a grandchild that she rarely if ever would see. The woman with the daughter confided that her daughter and the father of her child were seeing a counselor, but they admitted that it was difficult.

Society has advocated moral relativism — no moral absolutes, and certainly no moral rules about sexuality. It has promoted certain lies. Sex has no consequences. You should start to have sex when you are emotionally ready for it, but only you know when that is. And our sexuality is not something we can control.

God’s plan is different. It recognizes that sex does have consequences. The proper place for sex is in marriage (Hebrews 13:4), so Christians are taught that they can control lust and sexual behavior (Matthew 5:27-30, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).

Waiting for sex means that you can develop job skills to support yourself and a family. Developing job skills might include college, apprenticeships, and trade schools. You find someone to marry. With marriage we ask the hard questions first of whether this is someone I could have a long-term relationship with or can I imagine raising a child with this person. These are deeper questions that whether I find them sexually attractive or fun on a date.

Marriage has the birth of children within view. The announcement of a pregnancy is usually a source of joy and not a crisis as to whether this relationship will continue.

God’s way has an order to it: job skills, marriage, sexuality, and if blessed with them, children. You are less likely to end up in poverty if you do it in this order. Your life is likely to have greater stability. But most important of all, it honors God when you do it in the right order.