In the House of Mourning

October 18, 2019

Ecclesiastes has a counterintuitive proverb: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2, ESV).

Obviously, it would be more fun to go to the house of feasting, and Ecclesiastes is not opposed to enjoyment. In fact, enjoyment is a gift of God (3:13). Yet, the house of mourning teaches us the brevity of life. Death may come suddenly, or it may be expected with the decline of aging or the wasting away from disease. But unless the Lord returns first, we will all die.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a celebrity or ordinary, wealthy or poor, wise or foolish. Death is a reality of life. The speaker of Ecclesiastes struggles looking at life under the sun. I suspect “under the sun” may suggest life from merely this world’s point of view. From that vantage point, we hear him lament:

Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 2:15-17, ESV

Although there are frustrations with life under the sun, life in this physical world, Ecclesiastes points us beyond it to a relationship with God. The final chapter encourages, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth…” (12:1, ESV). Especially remember God before the decline of aging sets in. Ecclesiastes paints a vivid picture of aging with imagery from village life. Or at least remember God “before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken” – in other words, before death.

The reason for this command is that there is a purpose to life.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, ESV

What is the lesson that we should learn in the house of mourning? Prepare for death by living life to the glory of God. Don’t miss the whole purpose of life.

−Russ Holden


Freedom in Christ

October 4, 2019

Some people make me nervous when they quote scripture. It is because what they seem to mean by the verse doesn’t seem to be what the verse appears to mean in context. For example, consider Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Corinthians 3:17)

What some seem to mean is that their impulses so are so Spirit guided, they don’t need to worry about what scripture says. Now I’m not opposed to feelings and impulses. When I have impulses to give, serve, or speak a good word for Jesus, I’m endeavoring to act on those impulses. I do believe in God’s providence to put opportunities in our way. But feelings are not a test for truth. Hopefully our feelings flow from our acceptance of truth and are tested by truth.

So, what does Paul mean by freedom? It is helpful to look at other places where he explains his concept of freedom.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1, ESV)

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13, ESV)

For Paul, freedom in Christ is freedom from the bondage to law which condemns us when law is used as a means to salvation. We can’t be saved by our perfect law keeping (by merit), because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Our freedom in Christ is also the freedom not to sin. We have forgiveness of our sins by the atoning death of Christ, so our past burdens are removed. We have spiritual help in the present to aid us in the battle against temptation and to grow in Christian graces. Paul warns Christians of the two paths in life that we still face: “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace…. 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 8:6, 13, ESV)

Freedom in Christ is not freedom to do as you please and ignore scripture. Scripture, after all, is the Spirit’s inspired message. It is freedom from perfect law keeping and merit when we accept God’s grace in the atoning death of Christ. It is freedom from the bondage to sin, when we find and use the spiritual resources that God has richly provided for our victory. The journey in Christian living has taught me that this is true Christian freedom. The freedom to be the human being God intended me to be for there is found love, peace, and hope.

— Russ Holden


Why Sing?

September 27, 2019

Singing is an important part of our worship to God. We want our singing to be pleasing to God, and we want it to be meaningful as worshippers. One important way of focusing on singing is simply to ask its purpose. Why sing?

Dr. Everett Ferguson provides a good list in his book, The Church of Christ:

  1. Singing is a way of preaching Christ. Several New Testament passages are thought to have been early Christian hymns (e.g., Philippians 2:6-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16). 
  2. Singing is a confession of faith. “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge (or confess) his name” (Hebrews 13:15, ESV).
  3. Singing expresses the indwelling Spirit and word of Christ. Ephesians 5:18-19 associates singing with being filled with the Holy Spirit. The parallel passage in Colossians 3:16 encourages us to have the word of Christ dwell in us richly. How many things do you remember because you have repeatedly sung them?
  4. Singing as praise is a spiritual sacrifice. See the quotation of Hebrews 13:15 above.
  5. Singing shares in the praise of heaven. In Revelation we are brought to the throne room of heaven and given a taste of its praise (Revelation 4:8, 10-11, 5:8-12, 14:2-3, and 15:2-3).
  6. Singing is for instructing and encouraging one another. When we sing, we teach and admonish one another (Colossians 3:16). We must sing with our minds (1 Corinthians 14:15). When we sing, we are speaking to one another (Ephesians 5:19).
  7. Singing expresses the unity of the church. “…that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:6, ESV — emphasis added).
  8. Singing involves the whole person. Scripture emphasizes that singing is to be with both spirit and mind (1 Corinthians 14:15). We are to sing with our hearts (Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16) as well as with our lips (Hebrews 13:15).
  9. Singing expresses deep religious emotion. “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise” (James 5:13, ESV).*

Good singing has meaningful words that draw us closer to God. Let’s sing praise to God with our whole being.

—Russ Holden

*Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Eerdmans, 1996), p. 271


Fear of God?

September 20, 2019

Should we talk about the fear of God? Isn’t the love of God all that we need? I’m convinced just as Paul taught the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), we must too. If we are to be balanced in Christian living we need to understand what the fear of God does for us. And yes, when we talk about “fear,” we are also talking about reverence. But we must not forget that when talking about God we are talking about one who is other than us and greater, far greater, than us. Here’s a list of the positives that come from the fear of God.

Wisdom and Understanding
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 9:10 ESV) cf. Psalm 1:7

Avoidance of Evil
“By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the LORD one turns away from evil.” (Proverbs 16:6 ESV)

Prolongs Life
“The fear of the LORD prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short.” (Proverbs 10:27 ESV) cf. Proverbs 14:27, 19:23

Blessings
“The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life.” (Proverbs 22:4 ESV)

Perfecting Holiness
“Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” (2 Corinthians 7:1 ESV)

Motive for Evangelism
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” (2 Corinthians 5:10–11a, ESV)

Built Up, Comforted, Growing
“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” (Acts 9:31 ESV)

Acceptable Worship/Service
“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28–29 ESV)

— Russ Holden


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