Forever Life

March 26, 2021

“For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes… All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls…” These are biblical metaphors for the brevity of life. Our physical life is fragile. Death has no minimum age requirement, but this isn’t the entire story.

Two different eternities stretch out before us depending on our choices in life.

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. (Romans 2:6–8, ESV)

We must understand the “patience in well-doing” of the previous passage as pointing to faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-31). Jesus makes all the difference.

Jesus is also our reason for believing in life after death. We have several lines of evidence that converge: the Old Testament prophecies and the eyewitness testimony of the gospels. The alternate explanations – growth of legend, hallucinations, stolen body, wrong tomb, and Jesus merely swooning on the cross and not dying – fail to convince even many skeptics. As someone has observed, we need something the size and shape of the resurrection to explain the dramatic transformation of the disciples and the conversions of James and Paul.

So we have someone who can speak authoritatively about life after death – Jesus, the Risen One. We have two different eternities stretching out before us depending on our choice about Jesus.

Jesus used a number of images to describe hell – “outer darkness, unquenchable fire, weeping, and gnashing of teeth.” Whatever surface contradiction is contained in these words is resolved in human experience excluded from God. Even in the worst moments of this life, there are snatches of beauty and glimpses of goodness. To be excluded from God is truly death.

A marriage banquet of the Lamb, a glorious Jerusalem, and an exalted Garden of Eden with Trees of Life aplenty are the images of eternal life with God. Love, goodness, and beauty are God’s gifts and tokens of his presence. If two eternities stretch out before us, give me that which can truly be called forever life.


Life Is Fragile

March 19, 2021

 

 

A time existed as innocent children when we knew nothing of death. It never occurred to us that animals died, or worse, that we die. It intrudes on us at the first sight of a dead animal, and we ask our parents our first questions about death.

Awareness of death may come at the death of a family member. The childlike questions of why don’t they get out of that suitcase are met with adults straining to give an answer – to find just the right words.

If death came to the aged and infirm only, death might be easier to explain. Yet, a grim reality exists: life is fragile. It is fragile to all of us regardless of age or station in life. Youth may be the time of life when we feel invincible, but such feelings are mistaken. I’ve been to funerals of children and the elderly and those in between. Death knows of no minimum age requirement.

If death came only after a very long life, death might be easier to explain. Although I’ve known ninety year olds who still wanted more of the gift of time, somehow, we take comfort when the deceased has had a long and full life, but it doesn’t always happen that way.

None of us can say to God, you owe me so many years. Even the 70 or 80 years found in Psalm 90 are but round numbers not guarantees. That means each day of life is a gift from God. I’m not trying to be morbid reflecting on the frailty of life. I simply want to be aware that each moment is precious. Each moment is a gift.

The gift of life also has purpose. God grants me this wonderful gift so that I might know him and glorify him. We each have an expiration date. Usually we don’t know when it will be. We are not like gallons of milk with it printed on our sides. That gives urgency to spiritual things.

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)

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30–31, ESV)

Life is a gift. Life has purpose. Life is fragile.

−Russ Holden


The Value of Jesus

March 12, 2021

The aroma of very expensive ointment filled the house. While Jesus reclined at table, a woman had poured the ointment on Jesus’ head. It was a lavish gift. The anointing of a guest’s head with oil was customary, but not like this. The expense was extraordinary. One gospel placed the value of the ointment at 300 denarii – the pay of a common laborer for 300 days (Mark 14:5).

The objections came. It could have been sold and given to the poor. But Jesus said it was a beautiful thing. She had prepared Jesus for burial. We don’t usually sit at the dinner table, while the undertaker prepares us for our funeral. Jesus’ words would have struck them just as odd. The cross unspoken lingered like the aroma of the expensive ointment. Yet, he said to them that her deed would be proclaimed to the whole world wherever the gospel is proclaimed.

Judas, one of the Twelve, plotted with the religious leaders, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” The price was thirty pieces of silver, the price of a slave (Exodus 21:32). The betrayal price set in motion the events that led to the cross. It was a large amount, but not nearly as large as the expensive ointment. How odd those thirty pieces of silver gained was a terrible loss, and “wasted,” expensive ointment was a wondrous gain!

It is as if the woman in the story said, “Jesus, I love you so much that I give you this ointment and so much more, I give you myself.”

It is as if Judas said, “Jesus, I don’t love you enough to pass up thirty pieces of silver.”

Two juxtaposed stories (Matthew 26:6-13, 26:14-16) both contain something of value. In both the valuable things say something about the participants and reveal spiritual priorities. Both stories foreshadow the cross.

Wherever these stories are told, an uncomfortable truth follows. We must make the same sort of decision. We will either be like the woman and say, “Jesus, I love you so much that I give you this and this and even my very life,” or we will be like Judas and say, “Jesus, I don’t love you enough to pass up this or that” as we name our price: jobs, family, possessions, pleasures, or thirty pieces of silver.

We all put a price tag on Jesus either to follow or reject. In your life, what’s the value of Jesus?

−Russ Holden


Cancel Culture

March 5, 2021

The book, When Harry Became Sally by Ryan Anderson, was removed from Amazon.com’s website. The book challenges some of the current transgender policies of our government and does so with science. The book was published in 2018 and had hit number 1 on some of Amazon’s charts. Its disappearance from Amazon is viewed as an example of cancel culture. The left’s attempt to silence voices that disagree with them. Amazon certainly has lots of books that the left would disagree with, so we wonder about this book being targeted. In fact, I don’t know of a bookstore that I’ve entered where there wouldn’t be books with which I would disagree.

I value free speech. I think the original American ideal was a marketplace of ideas where proponents of competing ideas reasoned about different viewpoints and attempted to win others to their own point of view. I said reasoned discourse. Much discourse today is emotional and highly charged. It is unfortunate that so many people’s attention span has been shorted to sound bites. Sound bites are not reasoned discourse.

Following Jesus has always meant traveling with the few on the narrow road rather than the broad road with the many. Jesus pronounced this blessing in the Sermon on the Mount.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12, ESV

Speaking for Jesus has always had consequences. Jesus made clear that to be pleasing to him we may have to withstand harmful words and deeds that are against us. Cancel culture is not new. We only need to read the second century A.D. correspondence between Pliny the Younger and Trajan.*

With Covid-19 churches everywhere quickly embraced Zoom or streaming video. This has been a blessing in this difficult time. Our prayer is that people will be converted, but this more public presence may come back to bite. We could become the target of cancel culture. I’m not suggesting that we tailor our message on the Internet so that we are not criticized. I’m just warning that we may be targeted for what we say online as well as in real life, and we must be courageous.

I’ve reflected on the fact that if you are looking for evidence to convict me of being a Christian, I’ve left plenty online that would do so. Cancel culture can’t cancel us among fellow travelers of the narrow road. Cancel culture can’t cancel us in the eyes of God. Jesus has pronounced his blessing on the persecuted. But it also means we need to pray for boldness and perseverance.

— Russ Holden.

*https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/pliny-trajan1.asp


Of Handbreaths and Cubits

February 19, 2021

The psalmist reflects on the brevity of life in Psalm 39:5. Other things are going on in the psalm, but I want to focus on a word in verse 5.

Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! (Psalm 39:5 ESV)

The word is handbreadth. A handbreadth is the width of your four fingers excluding your thumb or about 3 inches. The psalm has used a short measure of length to talk about length of time. I can visualize a handbreadth. It is harder to visualize time. But the psalm reminds me of the brevity of life.

This brings us to the cubit, which is a measure of length six times greater than a handbreadth or about 18 inches, the distance from the tip of your fingers to your elbow. Jesus uses the cubit in a discussion on worry.

Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? (Matthew 6:27 NKJV)

Translators have a bit of a struggle in this verse. The Greek word (ἡλικία | hēlikia | Strong’s G2244) can mean either a span of life or a reference to height. So which should we choose?

I think Psalm 39:5 tips the balance in favor of length of life. Jesus uses the very generous cubit in comparison to the handbreadths of the psalm. But I think both are using measurements of length to describe lengths of time. It is figurative not literal. They are striking images.

I’m also not convinced that most people wishing to be taller want to be 18 inches taller at least in the ancient world. Basketball was not a motivation in the time of Jesus. A person who is 5 foot 2 inches would become 6 foot 6 inches.

Translations understanding this is a reference to height are the KJV, NKJV, and HCSB. Translations understanding this as adding to the length of life are ESV, NASB, NIV, NET, and CSB. These latter translations change cubit to hour or moment with footnotes giving more information.

Psalm 39 reminds us of the brevity of life. It’s like handbreadths. Jesus instructs us that we can’t even add a cubit to our life spans length with worry.

— Russ Holden


Don’t Inherit Folly

February 13, 2021

 

The simple inherit folly, but the prudent are crowned with knowledge. (Proverbs 14:18 ESV)

The Book of Proverbs is meant to be read slowly and meditated upon, so it’s good to ponder Proverbs 14:18. I like the definitions in the footnotes of the NIV at the beginning of Proverbs for simple and fool: “The Hebrew word rendered simple in Proverbs denotes a person who is gullible, without moral direction and inclined to evil.” (Footnote on 1:4). And in Proverbs 1:7 the footnote on the word fool reads, “The Hebrew words rendered fool in Proverbs, and often elsewhere in the Old Testament, denote a person who is morally deficient.” Folly or foolishness in this context can deal with behavior that is immoral, dangerous, or even self-destructive. Not having a moral compass in your life will lead you into evil which may have painful consequences.

The prudent person makes sound judgments and can look ahead to see the moral consequences of various actions. The prudent will be crowned. Their path leads to what is good and honorable.

Theodore Dalrymple is a British essayist who as a psychiatrist worked in a British prison and a hospital in a low-income area. He illustrates this proverb. He describes patients coming to him that are depressed that he believes are simply unhappy because of a series of wrong choices. He writes,

My patient was not just a victim of her mother, however: she had knowingly borne children of men of whom no good could be expected. She knew perfectly well the consequences and the meaning of what she was doing, as her reaction to something that I said to her—and say to hundreds of women patients in a similar situation—proved: next time you are thinking of going out with a man, bring him to me for my inspection, and I’ll tell you if you can go out with him.

This never fails to make the most wretched, the most ‘depressed’ of women smile broadly or laugh heartily. They know exactly what I mean, and I need not spell it out further. They know that I mean that most of the men they have chosen have their evil written all over them, sometimes quite literally in the form of tattoos, … And they understand that if I can spot the evil instantly, because they know what I would look for, so can they—and therefore they are in large part responsible for their own downfall at the hands of evil men.*

The simple without moral direction inherit folly, the consequences of immoral decisions. The prudent look ahead guided by moral principles and receives the good. Beware, don’t inherit folly!

— Russ Holden


Loving Jesus More Than Anything Else

February 5, 2021

The words of Jesus seem shocking and harsh: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, ESV). These words have certainly been misunderstood and abused at times through church history.

Part of our problem is with the word hate. Our English meaning is hostility, aversion and loathing. To plug that into Jesus’ statement is to misunderstand. The Old Testament has a usage of hate that means to love less than.

  • When the Lord saw that Leah was hated… Genesis 29:31 (Rachel being loved more) 
  • If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other hated, and both the loved and the hated have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the hated… Deuteronomy 21:15 (English translations often do not use “hate” here as they attempt to make it more understandable.)

Matthew’s account makes the same point but with greater clarity for us: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37-38, ESV).

Yet even after we come to terms with the word hate, the statement by Jesus is still shocking. We must place being a disciple above a number of very good things – parents, wife, children, family, and even our own life. In other words, we can’t let any of these things, even saving our own skin, keep us from following Jesus.

How does that look in real life? Years ago, I read report on a woman convert in Cambodia. When she began to attend church for worship, her family locked her in her room. She climbed through a window and left home. The church had to provide her temporary shelter until she could get on her feet. She couldn’t return to her family and be a Christian too.

Her mother finally accepted her, but her brother and family continue to reject her. Even after experiencing this rejection from family, she was baptized. She counted the cost for following Jesus and decided that she loved Jesus more than anyone or anything else.

−Russ Holden


Kindness Is Free

January 30, 2021

My recent experiences have suggested to me that we need more kindness in our world. The opposite of kindness is evident: being rude, insensitive, derogatory in language, and self-centered. The absence of kindness can make work, school, and home life burdensome.

So what is kindness? This is where dictionaries can disappoint. Kindness is often defined by a long list of qualities. But I think we can focus this broad beam of light to some basics. Kindness is sympathetic of other people’s plight. It is helpful to other people’s needs. It is forbearing and gentle in dealing with people. It involves a warm heart towards others rather than a cold and indifferent one.

Kindness is a Christian virtue. It is component of the fruit of the Spirit. As Christians we shouldn’t ignore developing it in our lives. Reflection on Christian teaching aids us in understanding the virtue and hopefully making it real in our lives. Why are we called to kind?

All human beings are created in the image of God and are to be treated with dignity. They are also people for whom Christ died. We are not to treat people as things but as persons. Yes, we will face difficult people maybe even enemies. Evil is not overcome by evil returned but by good.

Paul teaches us that love fulfills the law (Romans 13:8-10). All the various commandments can be summed up in love your neighbor. Love will not harm others. But the ethic of love will go beyond: do no harm. The Golden Rule extends this: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12, ESV). Love will do positive good for others. Christians are to live this ethic of love.

We are the recipients of kindness from God. God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4). God’s kindness toward us in Christ is seen in the immeasurable riches of God’s grace (Ephesians 2:7). Just as we love because God first loved us, we are called to kindness because of the great kindness God has shown us.

Kindness is free in the sense that I can freely bestow it on all I meet. Certainly, kindness may cost me something as a I do a good deed, but most of the time it is a matter of how I treat people. I want to see a lot of free kindness in my world because kindness is transformative. The walk with the Spirit must include kindness. This is something to which we’re called.

— Russ Holden


What Can the Righteous Do?

January 22, 2021

David raises the question, “… if the foundations are destroyed,
what can the righteous do” (Psalms 11:3, ESV)? His advisors seem to give him the solution, “Flee like the bird to your mountain” (Psa 11:1). There may be times when flight is a sensible precaution. I suspect we all wish at times for a place to hide when the world seems like it’s falling apart. But David’s answer has less to do with location and more to do with devotion.

Psalm 11 is a chiasm. Chiasm refers to its literary structure. In chiasms, the author addresses topics leading to the center of the poem which is the most important part and then does the parallel topics as the movement of the psalm goes from the center to the end. This leads to a pattern of topics that go like this: A, B, C, C, B, A. It is instructive to see the structure of Psalm 11. A corresponds to A, B corresponds to B, and C is the central, most important thought of the psalm.

A — God is refuge, 11:1
B — The righteous suffer, 11:2-3
C — God is still ruler of all, 11:4
B — The wicked will be punished, 11:5-6
A — God is righteous, 11:7

David acknowledges the crumbling foundations and suffering of the righteous. But the answer to his question, “what can the righteous do?,” is found in the center of the poem.

The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD’S throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man. (Psalm 11:4 ESV)

The reason that devotion is more important than location is that David still has faith that God is on his throne. God is still sovereign. He is in control of history even in those times when it doesn’t seem like it. Yes, there is wickedness, but it will not ultimately escape judgment. And the upright will see God’s face. (11:7).

What do the righteous do when the foundations are destroyed? We are to remember that God is still on his throne. He hasn’t abdicated. The wicked can’t overcome God. Judgment will ultimately come. And we, the upright, have a promise: we will see God’s face.

— Russ Holden


It’s Not Too Late to Start a Bible Reading Plan!

January 1, 2021

You may be reading this between January 1st and 3rd. Even though 2021 has started, it is not too late to start a Bible reading plan!

First, you need to choose the Bible that you are going to use which includes the translation and the format — traditional book format or a device like a smart phone or tablet. No one needs a device to read the Bible, and many people may be happier without one. But for some of us devices provide convenience, compactness (a library of books in your pocket), and the one that means the most to me — I get to choose the font size.

Choose a translation with which you are comfortable. I prefer a formal equivalent translation (that’s more literal) like the ESV, KJV, NKJV, or NASB. But I must admit that the first time I read through the New Testament was in a functional equivalent (more thought for thought and in everyday language) like the NIV, CSB, NCV, or NET. You can always compare translations as you go, and over the years, you may choose different ones to read. As the quip goes, “What’s the best translation? The one you read.”

Second, find a plan. Reading through the Bible in a year is a great thing to do, and I’ve been doing it every year for decades, but that’s not where I started. Starting with that big of a goal may end up being frustrating. Maybe you start with something more manageable like attempting to read the New Testament (Matthew – Revelation) or the narrative portions of the Bible (Genesis-Esther and Matthew – Acts). Short plans on various Bible subjects exist as well. What is important is developing the habit of Bible reading. Once you have a consistent habit, you can add more reading or adjust your reading for the next year according to your needs.

YouVersion.com has a great app to begin with on a smartphone or tablet. The big plus is that it is free. It has lots of translations. It has lots of audio Bibles that can play along when you read. It allows highlighting, note taking, and it has lots of reading plans.

OliveTree.com has my favorite mobile app. You can start for free with the NIV, ESV, NKJV, and KJV. It also allows highlighting, note taking, and Bible reading plans. But for a fee, you can add additional study books like Bible dictionaries, atlases, study Bibles, commentaries, and audio Bibles. It also has a large selection of Bible reading guides. I consider YouVersion a great Bible reading app, and OliveTree is a great Bible study app because it offers more Bible study resources although at a fee. Both are excellent places to start.

Other serious Bible study apps to consider are Logos and Accordance. I use Olive Tree, Logos, and Accordance on a regular basis on my tablet, phone, and laptop.

A great number of guides can be found on the Internet by Googling. It’s not too late to start a Bible reading plan!

— Russ Holden