Under the Knife

September 18, 2020

The tabloid press continually report on beautiful people who went under the knife to be more beautiful. They went under the knife of cosmetic surgery pursuing a vision of outer perfection. Although such surgery seems extreme, all of us would willingly consent to surgery when our life or health is at stake. None of us like it, but we are willing to go under the knife.

But there is a surgery more important than the ones to enhance outward beauty or repair physical health. This surgeon wields more than a scalpel. He wields a sword.

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. Hebrews 4:11–13, ESV

The message about the sword is bracketed by some important ideas. We are to strive to enter the rest which is heaven itself, and we are warned that this rest can be missed by disobedience. At the end, we are told that everything about us is exposed to God before whom we must give account. God has already seen all our spiritual x-rays, CAT scans, and MRIs. There is nothing about us that he doesn’t already know. We shouldn’t play games or think we can hide. Faking it leads to disaster even if others buy our sham.

The point of sword is that it pierces. The sword of the word can pierce all the way to our thoughts and intentions. God has always wanted our hearts (Deuteronomy 6:5). God has always wanted his law written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). This is surgery to make us more beautiful on the inside. This is surgery to correct our failing spiritual health. Without it, we will spiritually die. The surgeon wants us more obedient, more holy. The word’s penetration into our heart is to make us more like the one we are following – Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

Hebrews reveals all too clearly that there have been others who have heard the word and responded with hardened hearts (3:7-8). We have a spiritual surgeon who wants to penetrate all the way to thoughts and intentions. He wants to make us more beautiful on the inside. He wants to make us more like Him. Are we willing to go under the knife?

−Russ Holden


Finish the Race

September 11, 2020

Have you ever been in a race? Have you ever watched a race? I’m going to assume that you answered, “Yes,” to at least one of these questions. Races are familiar, and it makes a powerful image for Christian living. Paul writes, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So, run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. “So I do not run aimlessly” (1 Corinthians 9:24–26 ESV).

Purposeful and disciplined. Races have a starting line and a finish line. They are goal oriented, which makes a great analogy for Christian living. We are to live a life of faith and be pleasing to God, so that in the age to come, we will spend an eternity with God. That’s why in this race analogy Paul notes the self-control of the runner. He notes about himself that he does not run aimlessly. The Christian life is to be purposeful and disciplined because we have a finish line that we are running towards. And unlike the race where there is one winner, Paul encourages that the victor’s wreath is available to all the faithful.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7–8, ESV, emphasis mine)

When Paul speaks of “the crown of righteousness,” there is a parallel with the wreath of 1 Corinthians 9:25. Both crown and wreath are the Greek word stephanos (στέφανος, Strong’s #G4735). It refers to the victor’s wreath as opposed to the royal crown, which in Greek is diadem. So, Paul is comparing the prizes of an athletic contest to the reward of Christian living. The athlete’s wreath is perishable, but the Christian’s wreath is imperishable. There are many things people chase after. Most of them are perishable. If I want to capture the true meaning of life, I must be aiming for the imperishable and eternal with purpose and self-control.

Finish the Race. When I was in college, I would run laps around a track for exercise. I would reach a point where I couldn’t go on but hadn’t quite reached my goal. But by pressing on, I would gain “a second wind.” Perseverance made the difference. For most of us, the Christian race will not be a sprint but a marathon. We need to ponder Paul’s statements about his Christian life: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Christian living will involve opposition which we must resist. It involves finishing a course. Races are not meanderings that go anywhere you want to go. To change metaphors, our course is “the narrow way.” And finishing this course means, we have kept the faith. We have believed the Scriptures. We have trusted in the One revealed there. We have followed Jesus to the end.

— Russ Holden


Two Ends

September 4, 2020

All of my life someone has been predicting a date for the Second Coming of Christ. They have all been wrong. I fear that such wrong-headed date setting may discourage people from the endurance needed to wait for the Second Coming. Jesus said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only”
(Matthew 24:36 ESV). In the light of the fact we don’t know, Jesus goes on to command us to “be ready” (Matthew 24:44).

The Second Coming will be the end of human history, but it will also be a beginning for life in eternity with God or without. But there is another end which we must consider. Besides the end of human history, there is also the end of my history in this physical life. I admit that I didn’t think about this much as a younger man. I am more aware of it now that I’m older, and I’ve had life threatening health problems. I still hope I have many years of service left, but I don’t know. The end of my physical life is the other end I must consider.

Whether Christ returns during my lifetime or I die, I must be prepared spiritually for eternal life with God. There are two ends, and I’m not certain which one I will meet, but both require preparation not worry. This life is for spiritual preparation for the next. But someone recently asked, “Have you ever known anyone who waited too long to be prepared?” Unfortunately, I can think of many.

I received a call from a man who wanted to be baptized, but he was in the hospital. Doctors were not giving him good odds for survival. I met with him, and I talked with hospital officials. But the hospital would not allow the baptism. The man had IVs, and the hospital was concerned about liability. I couldn’t dissuade the hospital of their position. If he was dying, why deny him spiritual comfort?

But the man survived and went home from the hospital. A couple of us called on him to see if we could meet his spiritual needs. We would have gladly studied with him or baptized him. We could make the baptism as convenient as possible for him. But he refused to study, and he refused to be baptized. I don’t know whether he was upset about not being baptized in the hospital, which was outside both of our control. But before any progress was made, he died. And that sort of thing haunts me. The end came before he was ready.

Remember there are two ends: the Second Coming of Christ and our death. The answer for both is be prepared. As Paul wrote:

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)

— Russ Holden


The Book of Books

August 28, 2020

I’m a book lover and an avid reader. And like most book lovers, I have a stack of books that I haven’t gotten to despite the number that I do read. But I certainly can’t keep up with the number of books published each year. The US publishes over 300,000 books a year, and that is not counting self-published books which could make the count go up to a million. Of course, a vast amount of those books wouldn’t interest me, but even among the books that do interest me, I have to choose. I can’t read them all. So I relate to the words of Ecclesiastes:

My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
(Ecclesiastes 12:12 ESV)

The quote is a reminder that there is no end to the making of books, but it also is a warning about priority: “beware of anything beyond these.” The passage is putting “the many books” on one side and “the words of the wise” put down in “the collected sayings” in verse 11 on the other side. The priority is because the words of the wise “are given by one Shepherd” (Ecclesiastes 12:11). Priority in the midst of many books must be given to inspired Scripture.

I’ve learned this lesson. I’ve prioritized Bible reading in my life. It has been the habit of my life. I’ve learned that reading religious books doesn’t give you knowledge of the Bible. That must be gained firsthand. And without the knowledge of the Bible, you can’t test the truth of merely human religious books. So if all you are doing is reading religious books, you have your priorities wrong. The Bible must come first.

This is especially true for church leaders who teach: elders, teachers, and evangelists. I’ve actually heard sermons that came from popular religious books that contained the same errors that were in those books. Discernment can only come from knowing your Bible thoroughly. Paul as he departs from the Ephesian elders for the last time, having preached “the whole counsel of God,” says, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified”(Acts 20:32 ESV). It’s God’s word that builds up. It’s God’s word that will give you the eternal inheritance.

The weariness that comes from many books is still with us. Some of those books are worth reading, but we need our priorities straight. Priority in the midst of many books must be given to the book of books — the Bible.

— Russ Holden


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