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.


Chapters and Verses

October 27, 2020

The Bible was not written in chapters and verses. As helpful as chapters and verses are, they are a later addition to the text. The chapter divisions came first. They date from the thirteenth century and are usually attributed to Stephen Langton in an edition that he did of the Latin Vulgate. (However, the psalms were always individual poems.) The verse divisions were added by Robert Estienne (also known as Stephanus) in his fourth edition of the Greek New Testament in 1551. The first translation to employ his versification was the Geneva Bible (1560).

Since chapters and verses are imposed on the text, they sometimes introduce breaks at the wrong place for the reader. One sentence can run over several verses, and a new sentence can even begin in the middle of a verse. Some of the unfortunate verse breaks led to a quip about Robert Estienne’s work. He made the verse divisions while traveling by horse from Paris to Lyons. The quip says that some of the unfortunate divisions occurred because the horse stumbled. Estienne’s son, however, said that his father likely made the versification when he stopped at inns and not while he was actually riding his horse. The same thing can happen with chapter divisions. They also may break up material that really belongs together.

My advice is don’t read verses; read sentences and paragraphs. To try to understand a verse by itself without seeing it in the larger context of the sentence and paragraph is to make an interpretive mistake. The inspired authors of scripture were not writing in verses; they were writing sentences, paragraphs, and books. It is up to us as readers to understand how these meaningful groups of text fit together.

The need to read the Bible as a book and see beyond the chapter and verse numbers has caused a few publishers to be creative. Alexander Campbell, the Restoration Movement leader, published a New Testament that he called The Living Oracles. Campbell only had a verse number at the beginning of a paragraph. The ESV is now published in the ESV Bible, The Reader’s Edition. It has chapter markers but no verses within the text. Biblica, the copyright holder of the NIV, has published The Books of the Bible, which is an NIV edition without chapter and verse numbers. All these publishing endeavors are attempts at getting readers to see sentences, paragraphs, and books. In other words, to read the Bible in context. They are also not a replacement for your regular Bible.

Do I want to get rid of chapters and verses? Absolutely not! They are helpful in pointing people to a particular place in the text. I always want to give book, chapter, and verse for what I believe. However, I do want us to understand the origin and limitation of chapters and verses. They are convenient place markers and not thought units. As readers, we must read in context.

—Russ Holden

 

 

 


Book, Chapter, and Verse

October 9, 2020

When a Christian refers to book, chapter, and verse, he or she is locating a portion of the Bible. Although the word, Bible, means book, the Bible is really a library of 66 books — 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. The chapter and verse divisions were a later addition to the text. The chapter divisions are usually attributed to Stephen Langton in the thirteenth century, and the verse divisions were added by Robert Estienne (also know as Stephanus) in the 16th century. Chapter and verse indicators are not essential, but they are certainly helpful. When citing book, chapter, and verse, you can point to a portion of the Bible very easily and precisely. The system works very well to provide a location in the Bible.

When a Christian demands book, chapter, and verse, he or she are making a plea to base our authority for religious matters on the Bible. I’m not wanting an opinion that we should do thus or so when it comes to worship, church life, or Christian living. I’m wanting to know that it is from God’s word. Citing specific passages allows others to examine the evidence, just as the Bereans did at Paul’s preaching: “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11 ESV).

Citing the evidence of book, chapter, and verse is important because the Bible can be misunderstood. Peter reflecting on how some have misunderstood Paul’s letters says, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures”(2 Peter 3:16 ESV). That means we need to check out what the Bible says for ourselves.

There are no special rules for inspired writings. We have to ask the same questions as we would any other text. What genre or kind of writing is this? We have to ask the typical reporter’s questions: who, what, when, where, and why? We must understand what is said in context — both the literary and historical contexts. But citing book, chapter, and verse allows others to read and conclude for themselves. I don’t want someone to believe something just because I said it, but because I’ve provided the evidence which others can check for themselves.

For the novice to the Bible, “book, chapter, and verse” can seem like a code. But once you see that it is a system of navigation for this library, it begins to make sense. What is required is to get familiar with the library of books which comprise the Bible. Citing book, chapter, and verse is our way of citing the evidence for our beliefs and practices, because the Bible is our sole authority for Christian faith and practice.

— Russ Holden


Where Jesus Is Called God

October 2, 2020

In Christian teaching, God is more complex that what the philosophers of Ancient Greece may have thought. We believe in one God as some of them did, but God is in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Several passages teach this, but there are a couple of often overlooked passages where Jesus is called God. But we have to check our translations to get the Greek grammar correct.

“… waiting for … the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,” (Titus 2:13 ESV)

The ESV makes clear that in this verse Jesus Christ is called both the great God and Savior. The NKJV, NASB, NIV, NET, CSB, and NRSV render it the same way. The King James has the following.

“Looking for … the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ;” (Titus 2:13 KJV)

So why is there a difference in the translation? In 1798, Granville Sharp, a linguist, noted that in Greek when you have an article, a noun, the word “and” (which in Greek is kai) followed by a noun without the article, if the two nouns are singular, personal, and common (i.e., not proper nouns), the two nouns are governed by the same article and always refer to the same person. Sharp and the scholars who followed him demonstrated that God (theos) and savior (sōtēr) were common nouns. Proper nouns in Greek are words that cannot form a plural. Both God (theos) and savior (sōtēr) can be found in the plural. Grammarians have attempted to disprove the Granville Sharp Rule for the past 200 years but have been unable to do so. Modern translation after the ASV have reflected the rule in Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1. In both passages, Jesus is called God.

The teaching about the deity of Christ is not dependent on these two verses. We also find it in passages like John 1:1-14, Hebrews 1:1-4, and Philippians 2:6-7.

Sometimes I’m asked do I understand the teaching about the godhead (the traditional term is “trinity”). I would answer yes. But do I necessarily comprehend it all? I would say no. But that is also true of qualities like God’s eternal nature, omniscience, and omnipotence. I understand that these things are taught about God. I understand the implications of these teachings, but do I totally grasp them? The answer is no. The practical outcome of the teaching concerning the deity of Christ is that we worship Jesus Christ. I can accept the plain teaching about the godhead, but I suspect that even in eternity we will be growing in our understanding of the nature of God. God is worth eternal contemplation and worship.

— Russ Holden


Church and Politics

September 25, 2020

As I write this, we are in the midst of a presidential campaign year. Politics is everywhere, and we may be tempted to bring a little too much of politics into church. Although churches have freedom of speech, they have limitations if they want a tax-exempt status.

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.

By the way, I believe we can clearly teach about the moral issues of our day, but we shouldn’t be endorsing candidates or political parties.
But this is about more than tax-exempt status. My experience through the years teaches me that Christians may come to different judgments on politics and still have a moral reason for their choice. I have visited in church member’s homes and heard politics brought up and know from experience that good Christian people disagree. I have also held my tongue in such situations, keeping my own political views private as the opposing candidate was being endorsed. I just know that if these individuals had debated their views at church, it would have been a messy distraction from the mission of the church.

Batsell Barrett Baxter was the chairman of the Bible Department at Lipscomb University when I was a student. He was also the radio and TV speaker for the nationwide Herald of Truth, and he preached for the Hillsboro Church of Christ in Nashville. He was well known in the church at that time.

Baxter told a story on himself to his preaching students. He wanted to caution his students about politics in church. He wanted us to learn from his mistake. In the 1960 presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Baxter preached a sermon addressing the election. Many Protestants feared having a Roman Catholic in the Whitehouse, because according to the fear, he would be subject to the Pope, a foreign power. Like many Protestant ministers of the time, Baxter preached such a sermon. The closing prayer was led by a man who gave a 20-minute rebuttal to the lesson. Baxter learned his lesson painfully.

My point is simply this: we may agree on the faith and still have political disagreements. Let us not offend our brother or sister on matters that will simply pass away with the coming of the Lord.

—Russ Holden


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