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


A Mother’s Instructions

May 8, 2020

A mother’s instructions are important. Proverbs speaks of that importance.

Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching,
for they are a graceful garland for your head
and pendants for your neck.
(Proverbs 1:8–9 ESV)

My son, keep your father’s commandment,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching.
Bind them on your heart always;
tie them around your neck.
(Proverbs 6:20–21 ESV)

Every seven years at the Feast of Tabernacles the law was to be read to all Israel including the men, the women, the little ones, and the sojourners (see Deuteronomy 31:10-13). Mothers in Israel were to know moral and spiritual things just like the fathers. Mother’s instructions were important, and so it should also be with Christian mothers.

A child’s moral foundation is formed by the age of nine. Their outlook on truth, integrity, meaning, justice, and morality are formed early in life. Not much can change this outlook except the power of the gospel, so mothers have an important role by their instruction to form this moral foundation. The famous quote from Francis Xavier speaks to the persistence of this early moral training, “Give me the children until they are seven and anyone may have them afterwards.”

Batsell Barrett Baxter was a well know preacher among us over 40 years ago. He was also the chairman of the Bible Department at David Lipscomb when I was a student. I had him as a professor and as my course advisor. In his biography, *Every Life a Plan of God,* he speaks fondly of his mother. She read or taught him Bible stories as a child, and that teaching influenced the course of his life. Mothers have an important role in teaching the Bible.

Children are fact absorbers. They memorize easily. They remember the stories we tell them, especially the stories we repeatedly tell them, and the good news is they like stories repeated. Childhood is a time we can teach them lots of information about the Bible. A child’s mind thinks concretely. Concrete thinking is very fact oriented and literal.

Abstract thinking in children usually begins between the preteen to mid-teen years. Abstract thinking sees the significance of ideas and not just the facts. It understands concepts and figurative language (of which there is an abundance in the Bible). All the facts we have taught our children will be processed as they begin to mature mentally and engage in abstract thinking.

Mothers are also on the frontline of manners. This may not be as important as moral and spiritual instruction, but I’m certainly grateful for that instruction too. We are likely to hear mothers saying, “Sit up straight.” “Use your fork not your hands.” “Chew with your mouth closed.” “Say please.” “Apologize to your sister.” “Say thank you.” It is because of this persistent instruction that we are not barbarians when released upon the world as adults.

Mothers are important, and at least one of the reasons for their importance is their instruction in morals, scripture, and manners. I for one am thankful for my mother’s instructions.

— Russ Holden

 

 


Eagerly Desire the Day

May 1, 2020

Peter makes an intriguing appeal “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (2 Peter 3:11-12, NIV). Of interest is the word that the NIV has rendered “speed.” A quick survey of translations indicate two possibilities: (1) hasten or speed the day or (2) eagerly desire the day.

  • “hastening” (ESV, NASB, NKJV, NRSV and NET), “speed” (NIV), 
  • “eargerly” (NIV margin, Hugo McCord), “earnestly desiring” (NRSV, ASV), “earnestly desire” (HCSB), “look forward” (NCV)

The Greek word “speudō” has both meanings. Those who favor “hastening” point to Jewish background, although the IVP Background Commentary notes that the rabbis were divided on the issue of whether Israel’s repentance and obedience sped up the day. “Hastening” would suggest that we speed the coming of that day by our repentance, evangelism, and prayers. Those who favor “eagerly desire” find it the simpler solution because it doesn’t involve human behavior affecting the timing of the end. Although I’ve tended to favor the second choice, I must confess the difficulty of the options.

However, I don’t want to get lost in the “trees” of this passage and miss the grandeur of the “forest”. As you read 2 Peter 3, it is apparent that Peter wants us to be prepared for the Day. It will arrive “like thief in the night.” We know it’s coming, but we don’t know when. This world will be destroyed, but Christians hope for better things. In the meantime, we must live holy lives knowing that our future home is where righteousness dwells.

Yet what may be most challenging to 21st century American Christians is the eager anticipation of that Day. What is apparent in the chapter is an eager anticipation regardless of translation choice in 3:12. First century Christians were excited with longing for Jesus’ return. It didn’t mean they checked out from this world. Preparations needed to be made. People needed to be reached. As C.S. Lewis has aptly quipped, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”

We are in need of reminders to aim at heaven. The busyness and comfort of this life may cloud our vision. Would we pray with Paul, “Our Lord, come!” (1 Corinthians 16:22)? Or would our lifestyle proclaim, “O Lord, wait!”? Our attitude to the day has an effect on our lifestyle. Somehow, the companions of eager desire are holinesses and reverence. May we eagerly desire the day of God!

–Russ Holden


Once, Now, and If

April 24, 2020

They are two adverbs and a conjunction — once, now, and if. You may not be able to label parts of speech in a sentence, but you know how English works. These three words reveal the structure of Paul’s thought in Colossians 1:21-23. Once speaks about the past. Now speaks about the present, and if speaks about a potential, conditional future. It is good for us to ponder once, now, and if as we think about Paul’s message

With the word “once,” Paul points to the past, the pre-Christian past of his readers. They were once alienated. This is an objective statement about status outside of Christ. Christians can and should be welcoming to non-Christians in the assembly. But just as tourists can be welcomed in a foreign country and yet not have the privileges of citizenship until they have moved from the category of aliens to citizens, the same is true for those outside of Christ.

But Paul has two more descriptions of the past: hostile in mind and doing evil deeds. The classic statement that says our way of thinking is different from God’s is Isaiah 55:8-9.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.  Isaiah 55:8–9, ESV

The more alienated we are from God, the more our thinking is going to be off, and the more our thinking is off, the more our behavior will be wrong, even evil.

“Now” indicates the present. The Christian’s present is different from the past. Now we are reconciled to God by the death of Christ. Reconciliation means that the broken relationship that was once hostile and alienated has been made right. We have been brought near. This is done so that we might be presented holy, blameless, and above reproach before him. There is the justification sense of this. Because I am in Christ, “there is now no condemnation for those who are Christ Jesus”. There is also the sanctification sense. Because I am in Christ, I am actually growing more holy in life and conduct.

Finally, there is the big “if”. Paul says that we must continue in the faith. Although translations differ here (“the faith” ESV, NASB, KJV, NKJV and “your faith” NIV), I think “the faith” is preferable, although both statements would be true. The Greek text does have the definite article (i.e., the), and it seems to link up with what was heard and proclaimed in the latter part of the sentence.

Paul wants us to be stable, steadfast, and not shifting from the faith, the apostolic message. If we do that, we will stand before God blameless and above reproach.

Paul gives us a glimpse into our past, present, and future with once, now, and if.

-Russ Holden


The Meaning of Jesus’ Resurrection

April 10, 2020

How can we express what the resurrection means?

It means vindication. Jesus really is the Messiah, the Anointed One, who fulfills the promise made to David. The chief priests had rejected him. The crowds had cried, “Crucify him!” Peter preached that the resurrection gives us the certainly “that God has made him both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

It means forgiveness. The wages of sin is death. God warned against eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17, ESV). The sacrificial system of the Law of Moses was a pointer to what God would some day do on the cross. Life was in the blood. A life was accepted in exchange for the life of a sinner. “He (that is God) made him who did not know sin a sin offering in our behalf, in order that we may become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21, my translation*).

It means reconciliation. Adam and Eve had walked with God in a way that it is difficult for us to imagine. Our only hint is in Genesis 3 when they heard the sound of God walking in the garden, and they knew what the sound meant, so they hid themselves because of their sin. Paradise was lost. Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden. Yet, God has sought to reconcile the world to himself. Because of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, we can approach the throne of grace with confidence. As Christians, we become a temple of the Holy Spirit. We look forward to once more having access to the Tree of Life and walking in God’s glorious presence.

It means transformation. Yes, I need to be forgiven of my sin, but I also need a moral makeover. I need to become a better person. Following Jesus and putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit is the process of that moral transformation. God’s desire is that we be conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29).

It means eternal life. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Jesus is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead anticipates and is the basis of the resurrection at his coming. Death has been conquered. Yes, we may still have to experience physical death, but those who are in Jesus have life and hope of eternal life. “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24, ESV). “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (1 John 5:11, ESV).

How wonderful and marvelous — He is risen!

—Russ Holden

*The word “sin” is frequently used in the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) for “sin offering, so I’ve rendered it that way here for it makes the passage clearer. 


Is Life a Test?

April 5, 2020

Dr. Gregory House was television’s fictional curmudgeonly doctor who solved medical mysteries. Some have even wondered what House would do with Covid-19. But House was also a misanthrope and an atheist. In a scene where the characters were considering whether there is anything to people seeing a white light at the end of the tunnel in near death experiences, House retorts that it is simply the chemical reactions to the brain shutting down. There is nothing after death, and he finds that comforting. When questioned about this being comforting, he replies: “I find it more comforting to believe that this isn’t simply a test.”

The scene succinctly raises an important issue about life. Is life a test or not? The Christian worldview gives a much different answer than the one given by the fictional Dr. House. The question is worth pondering.

I suspect that the comfort gained from saying life isn’t a test goes something like this. Death is the end. There is no judgment, heaven, or hell. (Can we hear John Lennon’s Imagine being sung in the background?) We can’t get life wrong. It’s like the elation of the student who finds out there is no final exam.

Yet, this perspective comes with a terrible cost. It would mean that life has no ultimate meaning despite the fact we all seem to seek to make our life meaningful. It would mean that no moral values exist, other than the ones I subjectively create for myself, or we decide as a group, or some elite, powerful group decides for us. Yet such values are more akin to “I like chocolate; you like vanilla” than they are to “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not.” The dictator who exterminates millions, the gunman who takes out a passersby in a shopping mall, or the woman who donates time at a soup kitchen are all just different ways of living life. Who’s to say which is better? They all die. If life is not a test, no one passes or fails.

Believing that life is a test certainly has ramifications. Since my choices in life can lead to eternal loss or eternal bliss, choices are filled with meaning and cannot be taken lightly. A choice between good and bad really exists. Doesn’t my sense that some things are not fair suggest that there is something about moral decisions that goes beyond my subjective feelings about them?

Such a life is more than a pass or fail for the afterlife. Life becomes a moral adventure. We have the opportunity to grow in goodness, love, and kindness. We learn the challenges of standing up for justice and fairness in a world that is frequently unfair. Honesty grows into transparency as we learn to be honest about who we are in all circumstances. The trials of life produce patient endurance.

I find comfort in life being a test. It means life matters, and death is not the end. It’s a profound question. The course of your life will be affected by your answer. Is life a test?
−Russ Holden


Veneer or Solid Wood?

March 27, 2020

When I was a small child, I remember a dresser which had veneer. If you are wondering what veneer is, the dictionary definition of veneer is “a thin decorative covering of fine wood applied to a coarser wood or other material.” This dresser had seen better days, so some pieces of veneer were missing or loose. As a curious child I noticed the difference between the beautiful veneer and the coarse wood beneath. And truth be told, I wanted to pull on the veneer to see more, much to my Mother’s dismay.

As an adult, I have a couple of pieces of furniture from my family which are solid wood. The veneer dresser, by the way, is long gone. One of these pieces of furniture is an oak end table. I remember when it was purchased at an antique store. It too had seen better days. But being solid wood, the beauty of the oak was restored to its former glory, because it was oak all the way down. It was solid wood.

I cannot help but feel that we as Christians are being tested by the Covid-19 pandemic. If we can’t assemble together, will we worship God in smaller groups? God continues to be worthy of worship. In fact, our English word, worship, has as its etymology “acknowledgement of worth.” God is still our creator. God is still our redeemer. God is still the one who reveals himself through his word. God’s providence hasn’t failed. I still have blessings, and God still deserves thanksgiving.

What I fear is that this past Sunday, God received less worship, less praise, and less thanksgiving than the week before. And if my fear is true, it is not because churches weren’t trying to provide resources for their members. It seems to me that a crisis is exactly the time to turn to God even more devotedly. So I want to make clear the challenge for us.

On Paul’s Second Missionary Journey, he and Silas were arrested in Philippi. They were placed in stocks in the inner prison. Roman prisons had less creature comforts than our modern jails and prisons, and I wouldn’t want to live in a modern one let less a Roman prison. Not only were they in jail, but Paul and Silas were placed in the most secure part of that prison. Their feet were placed in stocks, a device to confine their extremities and make it impossible to escape. And I thought long flights in economy class were uncomfortable. I can’t imagine the discomfort felt by Paul and Silas. And yet, what did they do? “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25 ESV). Paul and Silas didn’t stop worshipping and praying when times were tough or even when they couldn’t be in an assembly with others.

So the question is a simple one. Will we continue to worship and pray? Is our Christianity more like a thin layer of veneer, or are we solid wood all the way down?

— Russ Holden

*Oxford Dictionary of English, see under veneer and worship.