Follow the Star and bring your gift

 

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Even though December 25th has passed, we are still in the Christmas season. In fact, traditionally in many European countries especially, the celebration of Christmas is extended from December 25th through January 6th, the so-called “12 days of Christmas.”  January 6th is the Feast of Epiphany, which traditionally commemorates the visit of the Magi, or Wise Men to the infant Jesus. Matthew 2:1-12 gives the Scriptural account of the Magi’s visit to Jesus.….

2 “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.”

Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.”

Well whether we call them the three kings, the wise men, the Magi, there are questions that seem to arise almost immediately when we hear this story. Our holy curiosity kicks in, and we begin to wonder. Who exactly were these visitors to the Christ child? Royalty, astronomers, astrologers, Zoroastrian priests? Where did they come from—after all The East” is a rather vague geographical designation, isn’t it? Were there even necessarily three of them? No one is precisely sure as to the answer to these questions. But when the Magi arrive, the plot of the Christmas narrative thickens, as it were. We no longer have just that simple manger scene with Joseph, Mary, the animals, and maybe an adoring angel or two, with shepherds keeping their vigil from a respectful distance. We no longer have a manger at all in fact—Matthew 2:11 talks about these mysterious visitors coming into a house to worship the infant Jesus. Because they come later, whoever they are and wherever exactly they are arriving from, the Magi’s story allows us to address the question of how do we respond to the Christmas story. After the celebrations and observances of December 25th itself have died down, after that initial explosion of joy at the Savior’s birth—what comes next? The Magi offer us a model for how to respond to Christ for the rest of the year, and indeed for our whole lives. We see in them a reflection of the Great Commission, a consistent faithfulness, and an ability to surmount the interference of a fallen world. Finally, we can learn from the type of gifts that they bring. Simply put, what the Magi do, every time we revisit their remarkable story, is to point us back to Christ.

 

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            Now I mentioned the Magi in relation to the Great Commission a minute ago. The Great Commission of course is Jesus’ last command to His disciples in the Book of Matthew—chapter 28:18-20 to be precise. The visit of the Wise Men represents the Great Commission in reverse. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Christ sends out His disciples to go and preach to all the nations, but here in Matthew 2 the nations come to Jesus, at the very moment of His birth! Now as I’ve mentioned, we don’t know the precise origin of these mysterious visitors, but we can probably assume that coming, as they do from “The East”, that they are not Jewish. Now in Luke’s Nativity narrative we see Jesus’ birth being proclaimed by the angels to the humble shepherds. Thus the Kingdom of God reaches across the socio-economic divisions of that ancient Jewish society. In the same manner, Matthew, with his account of the Magi’s visit, shows how the Kingdom of God reaches across national and cultural divisions. From the very start, because these foreign dignitaries have sought Christ out, Matthew wants to demonstrate to us that Jesus will be of significance not just for the Jews, and not just in Israel, but for the Gentiles, and for the whole world. The Savior’s birth has universal implications, and Christ comes to everyone, in the unique context of their particular culture and history. This fact is beautifully reflected when you study the nativity scenes prevalent around the Christian world during this season of Christmas. Now many of us probably have a nativity set in our homes, but I think it’s a safe guess that none of them would rival the size, splendor, and elaborate detail of many of the nativity scenes to be found in the Old World. Some of the Southern European nations in particular have a long and storied history of producing nativities which are timeless works of religious art and yet which also reflect the particular cultural traditions of those countries. The nacimientos of Spain, the creches of France, and the presepes of Italy all include such expected figures as the Holy Family, barn animals, shepherds, angels and the Magi. But they also feature peasants dressed in regional costumes, craftsmen, musicians, soldiers, pets, tavern-keepers…and often the architecture of the manger itself and other buildings is more European than Ancient Near-Eastern. The reason for all of these local alterations and additions goes deeper than mere artistic license or preference however. It represents for the artists a statement of belief—a belief that Christ is universal and so he comes to the Spanish, French, Italians, and all other peoples in a way they can understand, and in a unique manner befitting that particular culture. And people from all walks of society, from the most important, down to the most humble, are welcome at His nativity. The Magi thus point us to Christ, and specifically to the Great Commission. Long before the church is launched, before indeed Jesus’ ministry has even begun, representatives of the nations have come to adore the newborn Savior, who will one day give up His life for them, and for all peoples.

 

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We also find in the Magi a model of consistent faithfulness, embodied by the way in which they patiently and diligently follow the Star which leads them to Bethlehem. Now of course at Christmas we have many visual reminders around us of this star which guided the Magi, starting perhaps most prominently with the star that many have atop their Christmas trees. Perhaps my favorite though is the candles in the window. I love driving by a house on a dark December night and seeing the light of those candles shining forth to pierce the winter shadows. Across many different countries and cultures, the candle has been used as an integral part of Christmas observances. For example in Denmark during the days before Christmas, candles are to be seen everyone, alleviating some of the gloom of days in which there may only be six hours of sunlight. Denmark actually uses more candles per capita than any other country in the world–and they are even added to the Christmas tree itself! In Ireland, candles are traditionally placed in windows on Christmas Eve to provide light for the Holy Family and welcome them, in contrast to the inn at which they were turned away in Bethlehem. I used to live in Texas, and there and elsewhere in the American Southwest it is customary at Christmas to display small lighted luminaries all around the house. These are candles set into paper bags, and in the darkness they flicker and glow in a most enchanting manner.

 

All of these Christmas candles serve, like the Star of Bethlehem, to remind us to turn our eyes towards Christ. They further remind us of the truth expressed in John 1—that Jesus is the True Light, who has entered the world to overcome the uncomprehending darkness. So the Magi’s patient quest to follow the star says much about their faithfulness and burning desire to seek out God in their midst. The Star is a fixed point of reference that allows them to orient their quest around it. By keeping their eyes set upon its heavenly light, they avoid becoming distracted, or straying off course. Now here the question can be raised—what is our star today? I believe it is Scripture. Even within the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth, in Matthew and Luke, we find Scripture repeatedly referenced, as the prophets of the Old Testament, Isaiah and Micah, are quoted in relation to the coming of Jesus. When we stay rooted in Scripture, it will again and again guide us back to Jesus, however far we may have strayed from Him previously. Jesus spoke on several occasions about the importance of the Word of God, and never more powerfully than in Matthew 24:35. There He proclaims to us “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.” The Bible is permanent, it has endured through the ages, and it is God’s Living Word. Living, because through the Holy Spirit all Christians can understand and interpret it, and living because it is just as applicable a guide for us now as for the saints of old, and will continue to be so for all the centuries to come, until Christ returns. So as the Magi followed the star, which we see reflected atop our Christmas tree, or in the light of a window candle, we should also strive to follow that fixed, sure point of reference and guidance that Scripture provides for us in all areas of the Christian life. As Martin Luther so aptly phrased it, borrowing the language of the Nativity, Scripture is the cradle in which the Christ child lies.”. Through God’s Word, we are led to Jesus most reliably and directly. It is our own Star of Bethlehem.”

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But as we go through the story of the Magi there is an undeniably disturbing element which runs beneath—the role of the murderous King Herod. The black villain of the Christmas story, Herod is a figure who in many ways in strikingly modern. Long before megalomaniacal world leaders such as Stalin, Hitler, or Kim Jong Il, we have this wicked man, so blinded and myopic in his desire to hold onto political power by any means necessary. Instead of learning from the Magi’s devotion he only can think of how to use them as unwitting pawns in his paranoid quest to discover a potential rival for his throne. I see parallels between Herod and another figure, this one fictional, yet also instructive; Jacob Marley. Now anyone who has read Charles Dickens’ classic novella “A Christmas Carol” will recognize the character of Jacob Marley, the man who was once partner to Ebenezer Scrooge in their counting house. Marley, like Scrooge is a cold-hearted miser, who cares only for money and yet once he dies, he learns of the terrible error of his ways. He then revisits his old friend. Marley’s ghost warns Scrooge that his only hope for redemption is to become a more generous and compassionate person, one whose every action is not motivated by the desire for profit. Now at first, faced with Marley’s lamentations and remorse, Scrooge proclaims that his old friend was always a good business man. Marley, greatly disturbed, responds: Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Marley then goes on to regret his lack of vision, and perspective in life: Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!  Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!” Marley realizes that his obsession with the narrow pursuit of profit meant that he permanently missed his chance to make a difference with his wealth, and be a blessing to others. Marley however in Dickens’ fictional world does get a chance to warn his old friend, and thus play a part in the eventual redemption and changed nature of Scrooge. Herod meanwhile, despite his murderous threats and attempts to manipulate the devotion of the Magi is powerless to thwart the eventual and eternal plan of the Lord. Ironically enough in fact, the very efforts of Herod which drive Christ and His family to seek refuge in Egypt end up simply fulfilling Scriptural prophecies. Herod, for all of his evil desire to control events around him for his own purposes, ends up completely subservient to God’s greater plan. Thus the story of the Magi reminds us that no matter how the fallen world might strive against the work of the Lord, God’s purposes and plans will be accomplished. What lasting hope and surpassing peace there is in that knowledge!!

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Finally we can learn from the Magi’s story by specifically taking note of the gifts that they bring. There is the gold—symbol of the kingship of Christ, the Messiah who has come in the line of David. Frankincense—a kind of incense used in worship, and a reminder of the Divinity of Christ. Myrrh, used in embalming, is symbolic of Jesus’ eventual death, a foreshadowing of the purpose for which He came into this world—to give up His life as a ransom for many. But beyond these immediately symbolic meanings for the three gifts of the Wise Men, what else can we say about them? They represent the best of what the Magi had—laid at the altar of the newborn Jesus. I don’t think I could let a discussion of the Magi pass without referencing the famous 1905 O. Henry short story “The Gift of the Magi.” Many of you may be familiar with this classic little work. It’s the story of Jim and Della, a young married couple who are short on money, and yet want so badly to express their feelings for each other with the perfect Christmas gift. So Jim sells his prize watch in order to buy a beautiful set of combs for Della, who has luxurious long hair. Only it turns out that Della has cut her hair short and sold it in order to purchase a fancy chain for Jim’s watch. The young lovers are heartbroken when they discover how they have sacrificed for each other—seemingly for naught. But the author offers some perspective on their situation with the story’s closing lines: The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the new-born King of the Jews in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the Magi.” As the O. Henry story illustrates, the last lesson that the Magi teach us to offer the best of ourselves, whatever gifts or talents we have to Christ. We cannot hold back, if we are going to serve the Lord—we must give Him everything.

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So when we look at the story of the Magi, we should quite simply live in imitation of them. Remember that Christ has come for all people and for all the nations, a fact these same Magi acknowledged at the moment of His birth. Like they followed the fixed light of the star, let us follow the fixed and constant light that Scripture provides us, a light which will always lead us back to Christ. Just as Herod failed to thwart them, let us never fear the machinations of the wicked, which are ultimately powerless to derail the true plans and purposes of the Almighty. So let us have confidence and trust in the Lord, and like the Magi, follow the star, and bring our gift, to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. And as we do, may our actions, lifestyle, and our witness serve to guide others to Him as well. Amen!

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We are One Body

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I want to talk about unity. Since Tuesday, November 8th, we have been living with the results of a presidential election which fairly clearly underscored many of the divides that still run deep in American society.  Some people are excited about a change in political power, while others are frustrated, angry, and fearful. And knowing that there are Christian men and women on both sides of the spectrum, I felt it would be a good time to address this political conundrum by turning to a different question. That is, despite the obvious divisions in 2016 America, what about unity—specifically unity amongst those who follow Jesus?? What does unity look like in the Body of Christ, and the Church?? How are believers in the church united across the wide spectrum of different traditions, cultures, and denominations that make up Christianity? Is such unity even important??  It’s interesting that even in the immediate aftermath of this devastating electoral defeat for the Democratic Party, both Hillary Clinton and President Obama had words of encouragement and a unifying spirit to share, rather than expressing bitterness or anger at the man who had just defeated them.

 

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Outgoing President Obama reminded Americans about several important truths as he prepared to hand over the reins of power to someone who, on the surface at least, he would appear to share little in common with. “One thing you realize quickly in this job is that the presidency and the vice presidency is bigger than any of us. So I have instructed my team to follow the example that President Bush’s team set eight years ago, and work as hard as we can to make sure that this is a successful transition for the president-elect. Because we are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country…We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We are Americans first.”

 

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Then listen to some words from Hillary Clinton, who despite just having lost the most important election of her life, was still in a conciliatory and positive mood: “Last night, I congratulated Donald Trump and offered to work with him on behalf of our country. I hope that he will be a successful president for all Americans…I still believe in America and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” Now how is it that even following such a devastating political defeat, both Obama and Clinton can be so gracious and magnanimous towards a man with whom they admittedly have some very significant differences? I believe it’s because they both recognize that America, the ideals for which our nation stands, and the overall national unity which they can help foster, is more important than the partisan divide. And I think there is also a belief here that ultimately, those things which unite us as Americans remain stronger even than the obvious divisions that threaten our society.  Now I share all this by way of illustration to return back to my main topic—what does unity in the church look like? What does it look like not only for groups—churches and denominations, but amongst individual believers? What beliefs and practices bring us together, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, as Christians, how do we demonstrate a spiritual unity to the world at large? These are some of the questions I want to examine through the lens of John 17:20-26, as well as some other passages. These verses in John thoare part of a passage that constitutes Jesus’ great final prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before His betrayal and arrest. And in these last few moments before everything turns against Him, one of the big things that is on Christ’s mind is the unity of those who would call Him Lord. In light of this, I think that the 2.2 billion people around the world who profess to be Christians would all do well to call to mind the shared faith we have in the One Savior and the One God who is great enough to surpass all of our human weaknesses, divisions, and imperfections, to bring us together at the foot of the Cross.

 

To start out, let’s address a question that perhaps is obvious to some of you, but still is important to unpack a little. Because before we can fully understand why unity in the church is so important, we need to understand where the church itself came from. And no, I’m not referring to the Baptist church, or indeed any one particular denomination. This is a much larger question regarding the universal church. Who started it—who was its founder?? Now those of you who know me probably know that I’m a history guy—I love to study the past, and something that’s always been intriguing to me is how things get started. Because almost any entity you can think of has what we might call an origin story—and often that origin or beginning leads us back to one particular person, a founder.

 

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Cities have founders—Romulus and Remus were the two legendary founders of Rome, nourished, so the story goes, by a female wolf.

 

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Nations have founders too—Simon Bolivar, a Venezuelan statesman and military leader who in the early 19th century, played a key role in the establishment of five South American countries as independent from Spain–Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and the nation that would bear his name—Bolivia.

 

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Companies have founders—the Bell Telephone Company, established back in 1877, was started by none other than Alexander Graham Bell—the main who incidentally also invented the telephone.

 

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If you’re ever been to Disneyland in California or Disney World in Florida, you can see a large statue of Walt Disney standing hand-in-hand with his most famous creation, Mickey Mouse. It’s a tribute to the extraordinary vision of one man, whose fertile imagination launched an entire multimedia and entertainment empire.

 

 

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But when we talk about the Church—we can talk about a founder greater than any other you could possibly imagine. Cities, nations, companies, even creations of fiction and the imagination, all have their founders—but in each case—these individuals built something that ended up being greater than themselves. But in the case of the church—its founder, Jesus was infinitely greater than what He created, yet He lived, and died even to serve His creation! The church, according to Scripture is not a man-made entity, the result of politics and hierarchy, but the creation of none other than God—in the person of Jesus Christ. Listen to Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18—“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” Furthermore we know that the church, being once established by Christ will prevail ultimately because of the sacrificial love that Jesus has for the community of believers. It is a love that perfectly exemplifies the type of love a husband should have for his wife, as Paul writes in Ephesians 5:25—“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.” Christians call the church the “Body of Christ”—a term that has twofold significance. It recognizes on the one hand that all of us as individual believers come together in a corporate fashion to compose a unified entity that should live and work in the Spirit of Jesus. This phrase also reminds us that Jesus has sacrificed Himself in love for the welfare of all Christians, both individually, and corporately.

 

So for all of its flaws and shortcomings, when we speak of the church as a whole, let us never forget that the idea of the church and its founding take us back to none other than Jesus. That truth alone should serve as a powerful reminder for us that the church is an institution worthy of respect and worthy of our best efforts to serve in and through it for the cause of Jesus. But within each individual church, as well as across many different churches and denominations, what is it that actually binds us together in a shared sense of value and purpose? What does a belief in Christ lead us to profess and practice in common? Well I want to highlight just a few truths here, which hopefully will further impress upon you the importance of unity within the Body of Christ. Because while it can be all too easy to focus on what separates us from other Christians, we must not lose sight of the great number of cherished beliefs that have been held in common by the vast majority of Christian men and women down through the centuries from the time of Jesus until our present age. Even if you think you have little in common with a Catholic priest in Rome, a Russian Orthodox grandmother in St. Petersburg, a Pentecostal congregation in Rio, or African-American Baptists in Alabama—there is an amazing commonality of belief and practice that binds us together as Christ followers. That commonality extends first from our beliefs—in one God, and in the Savior, Jesus Christ. A statement of universal Christian belief that I particularly value is the Apostle’s Creed. It dates back to at least the 700’s AD, and contains a powerful summary of those essential doctrines and truths that most Christians share across denominational and cultural boundaries. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.” Now I won’t try to unpack all of the beliefs referenced in the Apostle’s Creed, but most of us who are believers can recognize in this statement a fairly accurate summary of a good deal of essential Christian doctrine.  And let me just add a brief semantic explanation here. In the Apostle’s Creed, “catholic” is a lowercase word, that is referring not to the Roman Catholic Church, but is being used in its other sense to mean “universal” and “all-embracing.” Christians are also bound together by things that we practice in common. For example, although the understanding of how exactly  to carry out these ceremonies may vary from church to church, virtually all Christians in some way observe baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or Communion. Christians worldwide also share in the church calendar, sometimes known as the Liturgical Year. Although the dates and customs of celebration may differ, almost every Christian will celebrate holidays like Easter and Christmas.

 

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Perhaps the most powerful factor in binding us together as Christ followers is our common adherence to the Word of God—the Bible. The power and permanence of God’s Word has been a strong anchor for the universal church down through the ages—through changing times and seasons, the authority and witness of Scripture remains steadfast. Jesus promises us this—in Matthew 24:35 He assures us: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” Then we can agree with and echo the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 119:89—“Forever O Lord, your word is settled in heaven.” Now sometimes you might hear people say something like, “Well yes Christians everywhere use the Bible but it’s been changed and distorted so much down through the years by all of the different translations!” So I want to share with you a brief anecdote about how one Christian answered such an objection. Horizons International is a ministry located here in Boulder, right across the street from the CU campus. Their founder is a man named Georges Houssney, from Lebanon, who grew up in the predominantly Muslim city of Tripoli before coming to faith in Christ as a teenager. Now one thing that you might know about Islam is that they are very particular about the fact that the Koran can only be properly read and understood in Arabic. And so often when you see translations of their holy book into other languages, they won’t even be called Korans, but something like “An interpretation of the meaning of the Holy Koran.” As a result of this feature of their religion, Muslims often accuse Christians of holding to a distorted, or garbled version of the Word of God, due to the many translations that have taken place over the years. Houssney’s response to this objection is quick and forceful. He accuses the person of having uttered a blasphemy, which is speaking in an offensive manner towards God. Then he asks them, “Don’t you think that the Lord God, the Creator and ruler of this entire universe, whom you claim to believe in, is capable of keeping the meaning of His Word intact through some different translations? Is it beyond God’s ability to work in more than one language??” And that response usually answers the objection! Despite the different translations that exist, we should be confident that the essential message and truth of God’s Word, the Holy Bible has been preserved, and will continue to be preserved by the Holy Spirit.

 

Some people perhaps wonder how does the concept of unity relate to the obvious diversity that is present within the church?? And here I’m speaking not only of diversity of cultures, languages, races, but also a diversity of different personalities, gifts, and talents. I remember having a conversation with a student recently on campus at CU, and although he’s not a Christian yet, he’s been reading the Bible some with me, and is definitely spiritually open. But anyway, his concern was that becoming a Christian meant he would have to conform to a certain type of personality, with certain interests and hobbies, maybe even a particular way of talking or dressing—and I tried to assure him that while becoming a Christian does mean being molded increasingly into the person and character of Christ, it does not mean that you have to lose your individual identity, or lose those unique characteristics that make you different from everyone else! Scripture talks about this—and how unity within the church can still serve to highlight and celebrate the diversity of different gifts, talents, and abilities that are present. Listen to Paul in Ephesians 4:4-6—“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of you calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” So first, Paul is laying out the case for our unity as believers. But then listen to what follows—“But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift…And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.” Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, Paul expresses a similar thought—“There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all.” Paul then says later in this same chapter “Now you are the Body of Christ, and members individually.”

 

 

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Those of you who know me well know that my great passion in sports is college football, and my favorite team is the Alabama Crimson Tide. Now I have to brag a little on my home state here, because in case you didn’t know, Alabama has been one of the best teams in college football over the past decade—during which time we’ve won four national titles, and an amazing 91% of their overall games. This remarkable run of success is largely due to their talented head coach Nick Saban. He calls his coaching style and system “The Process” and a key part of it is leaving nothing to chance, and building a comprehensive team of experts to guide the Alabama football program in every possible way. You might think that to be of service to a dominant college football program you either need to be an athletic young man between the ages of 18-22 or an experienced coach that lives and breathes football strategy 24/7. But Saban has recognized that there are many other pieces to the puzzle of constructing a championship caliber football team. So at Alabama the strength and conditioning coach is an equally important part of the program, as is the nutritionist, the academic advisors and tutors, and even a sports psychologist. In this way, Saban leaves nothing unaddressed that could possibly affect the on-field performance of his players, and he’s quick to mention how all of these diverse figures are equally important to the overall success of the team.

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There is a misconception amongst some that if you really want to be useful in the Kingdom of God, and serve the Lord, you have to devote yourself to full-time vocational ministry, or become a missionary. Now of course we need good pastors, and missionaries, and even campus ministry leaders, but it is also absolutely vital to the Kingdom of God that we have Christian engineers, Christian doctors, Christian business people, Christian teachers, and so on. So you should never think that you are of any less importance to the Body of Christ because you don’t do ministry as your career. A lot of people can get hung up on the decision about whether they should go into ministry or not as a profession, and while that might be a discussion that some will need to have, I think perhaps the larger and overarching question is prefaced by a statement. As Christians, all of you are going into the business of ministry and missions, and from there it’s just a matter of finding out what is your most effective mission field to serve in. And a Christian serving in whatever walk of life God has placed them in is just as important and vital to the health of the overall church as a pastor, missionary, church planter, or campus minister.

 

We’ve talked about how unity in the church comes from shared beliefs and ultimately from Christ Himself—so what does Jesus say on this subject? Well there are many passages we could turn to, but I want to focus on just a few verses for a moment. In Luke 9:49-50, Christ briefly addresses the question of sectarianism. This can be defined as the anger and strife that emerges between two different subsections or factions within an overall group. And if you know much at all about the history of Christianity, you know there has sadly been a great deal of blood shed over the years in support of sectarian quarrels—Catholics fighting Protestants, Orthodox fighting Catholics, even religious violence between citizens of  the same nation—such as was experienced in Northern Ireland for much of the 20th century. And it is clear from Scripture that none of this internecine violence and division is ultimately pleasing to Christ. Listen to Luke 9:49-50—“Now John answered and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us. But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side.”  

 

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Well that brings us to our central passage, John 17:20-26. Now, it’s interesting, but a few chapters before this prayer, in John 10:16 Jesus makes a significant allusion to the fact that His message will soon spread far beyond just this small band of followers and the largely Jewish world He lives in to reach many different peoples: “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.” So as these other, future believers come into faith, Christ emphasizes the unity that should prevail. Then, in John 17, during those last few precious hours before His betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays for Himself and His disciples. But as we read a minute ago in verses 20-22, Christ also prays for many others who will one day believe—that even includes us as Christians today! “I do not pray for these alone but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one.” There’s much to unpack from just these three verses, but basically Christ is praying for the great universal church, for all those who will come to faith through the teachings that will be written and passed down by those original 12 Apostles. And that includes us now. How cool is it to know that more than 2000 years ago, Jesus was already praying for you! Note also that when Jesus desires us to have unity amongst ourselves as believers, He’s calling us to model a much greater unity which exists in heaven. Because when Christ says that He and the Father are one, He’s referring to a perfect unity between God the Father and Jesus the Son as part of the Trinity. And the Church is called to honor and reflect that heavenly unity. Then listen to verse 23 in John 17. “I in them and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” Here is a reference to the world knowing that Jesus has been sent by God. Christ is trying to remind us that the extent to which the universal church can either display unity, or a lack of it—will powerfully affect its witness. To put it in simpler terms—as my pastor Jay Wolf used to say back in Alabama, no one wants to come to church to see a fight! If those on the outside, non-believers, only see Christians continually arguing amongst ourselves, how attractive and compelling a testimony is that really, coming from people who claim to follow the Prince of Peace?? Make no mistake—a spirit of discord, strife, disunity and hatred that springs up between groups of Christians comes from Satan himself. You see the devil can so easily twist our seemingly spiritual feelings around. Now of course there’s nothing wrong with a new church being established, or even a new denomination—this has happened periodically throughout history, according to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. But when that new church or group of believers is consumed with pride at their exclusivity and even led to believe that they alone have a monopoly on the truth, and when they start to look with contempt and derision on other Christians—well that is where the spirit of Satan very well may have superseded the Holy Spirit, and be at work. I heard a joke one time—“A man went to heaven and was being shown around by St. Peter. As they went from cloud to cloud they came to various doors which St. Peter would open. One showed a large group rolling on the floor and talking in tongues.  “Our Pentecostals” Peter said. Next was a serious ritual. “Our Catholics”, he replied. Then they saw a group engaged in a beautiful choral performance—“The Episcopalians”, St Peter offered. At the next cloud, Peter didn’t open the door but instead put his forefinger to his lips in a hushed motion and they both tiptoed past. Once past, the man asked what was that all about? “Those are the Baptists”, Peter explained. “And they think they are the only ones here!!”

 

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Now as I have already alluded to—there is nothing wrong with having different denominations or churches—their existence alone does not necessarily constitute an offense against the unity of the Body of Christ. Because we can have differences which don’t have to lead to disputes, or mutual distrust and dislike. We can think of different churches, or even different denominations like families. Now everyone knows that their family isn’t perfect, and yet I bet that most of us will at the same time stick up for our families. I’m a Winslow—my family has certain things we value, and they’re important to us, they’re not just arbitrary things, but maybe there are some differences with my family and your family. That’s ok—we don’t have to be exactly the same, maybe it’s even good if we’re different. It’s more interesting that way, and we can learn some things from one another. My denominational family is Baptist—that’s one major reason why I came on staff with Christian Challenge—which is the Baptist campus ministry at CU-Boulder, and not with a non-denominational group like Navs, or Cru, or Intervarsity. I am proud to be a Baptist, I can tell you some specific reasons why I am Baptist, and I would even say that I think there are some things we do really well as a church and a denomination. But by no means do I think we have a monopoly on the truth, or that the Spirit of Christ isn’t present and working in other churches and denominations. So all that to say, when we talk about unity, we need to make sure it’s unity for the right reasons, and a unity that is centered on Christ. Let’s go back to John 17:24-25—“Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me.” It’s clear to me from Christ’s Words, that our unity should be centered on Him—because faith in Jesus alone, not in our good works, not in our church membership, not in anything else, is what will bring about our salvation. Along those lines, I have a pretty simple criteria for what makes a church or a denomination Christian, in terms of their doctrine. You can get complex and look at a big statement of belief, but I have a very concise rubric that I borrowed from my pastor back in Alabama—“Jesus plus nothing.” If someone is saying that to be a Christian means believing in Jesus plus speaking in tongues, or believing in Jesus plus devotion to the Saints and Virgin Mary, or even something that sounds really good like believing in Jesus plus promoting social justice—they’re off base for me, and they’re missing the point. Because anything that is added to faith in Christ and then presented as an essential component of what it means to be Christian, is unnecessary. Jesus alone is enough. So we of course should reserve the right to dissociate with groups which have either removed Christ or added to Him being at the center of the church and Christian practice. So in summary, what we are talking about this morning is not unity at all costs, and it’s not an inauthentic unity for the sake of political correctness. In 1555, the Peace of Augsburg concluded a period of destructive warfare between Lutheran German princes and members of the Holy Roman Empire. The peace settlement’s religious implications were defined by a Latin term–Cuius regio, eius religio, being translated—“Whose realm his religion.” In others words, the prince of a particular region would now determine the religion of his subjects based on his own beliefs. A Lutheran prince’s subjects would have to be Lutheran, a Catholic prince’s Catholic. Now this is spiritual unity of one kind—but it was forced, and therefore artificial. I would even hazard to say this type of spiritual unity does not honor God because it proceeds from man-made strictures rather than the heartfelt convictions of individuals.

 

 

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I want to conclude by talking in some very practical terms about what unity in the Body of Christ can look like, and how we can promote it. Because I firmly believe that promoting unity and ecumenism, a spirit of cooperation amongst those in the universal church begins not with bishops, popes, pastors, or presidents of denominational conventions. No, it starts on the grass-roots level, with people just like you and me. Ordinary Christians, who, nonetheless, can be called by God to do some extraordinary things. And many of the same things that promote a healthy walk with God as individuals will help us to be ambassadors of unity and reconciliation amongst the Body of Christ. So if you’re wanting to promote unity in the Body, ask yourself—are you striving to embody the nine Fruits of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22-23?? What about those superlative qualities of love as listed in 1 Corinthians 13—are you making your best effort to live those out?? Love is paramount here—because it is the one quality that Christ highlights as the defining hallmark, and characteristic of those who would be His followers. Listen to John 13:34-5—“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Then, in John 17:26, Jesus says “And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” In addition to the qualities we should demonstrate individually, what about corporately?? What does a church that is unified, and actively working to promote unity amongst the rest of the Body of Christ look like?? Well the Book of Acts gives us a beautiful portrait of how the early church came together in harmony to promote the general welfare and furtherance of the Gospel of Christ. Acts 4:32-35—“Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.” Of course the early church wasn’t perfect—we can garner evidence of all the doctrinal disputes and problems they endured from the early letters of Paul. Yet there is the portrait here nonetheless of a unified Body of believers whose priority is each other’s mutual welfare as well as the spread of the Gospel message.

So what might your role be in promoting unity amongst the Body of Christ?? We certainly don’t have to always agree on everything, and as I’ve tried to show, a diversity of belief and practice can be the working of the Holy Spirit, just as the Spirit has also distributed a variety of different spiritual gifts and talents among us. But we should always be striving to build bridges amongst one another. Let’s follow the words of Paul in Romans 12:18—“If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” If you can do that, and promote unity amongst all believers, you will be giving a powerful testimony to the way in which Christ can unite peoples across boundaries of race, language, history and culture. And today, in an age where there appears to be so much polarization and disunity, for all Christ followers to proclaim and live out the One Thing, Same Thing together is a priceless opportunity. Don’t miss it—be part of it—be one, even as Christ and the Father are. Amen!

The Tree of Life

Fall has always been my favorite season, but until recently, I was never fortunate enough to live in a place where you could experience a true autumn. So these last several years in Colorado have been a real treat–enjoying the crisp cool days and chilly nights during this transitional time of year, but above all marveling at the beauty of the foliage. Colorado is somewhat famous for its aspen trees and for just a few short weeks in either late September, or early October (depending on the elevation) they treat everyone to a riot of fall colors–vivid yellows, oranges, and reds. The leaves appear to “shiver” as they prepare to fall and hence the trees are sometimes termed “quaking aspens.” During the fall, I love to go up to one of the aspen groves in higher elevations, and lose myself in the scenic beauty of God’s Creation. As I’ve thought about trees during this fall season, it brings to mind the fact that the tree is a powerful, recurring symbol used throughout Scripture.

 

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Our teaching theme for the students this semester is “One Thing, Same Thing”, which is all about the fundamentals of our faith, and how to have a walk, and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And one of the things we wanted to do for the semester was to find an image, a recurring illustration we could use that would help convey our teaching in a visual way. We decided on the image of a tree. And so one of our artistically gifted students in Christian Challenge, Jose Canizares, made a beautiful painting of a tree to give us a good visual illustration. I’ve entitled this post “The Tree of Life”, because ultimately what I desire for each of my students in Christian Challenge is the opportunity to begin or continue a life that, just like a healthy tree, is firmly rooted, a life firmly rooted in the promises and person of Jesus Christ.

 

 

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Now, as I started preparing this post, I was reading a little bit about famous, unusual and noteworthy trees from around the world, and the story of one in particular really caught my attention. You see a photograph of it above, the Tree of Tenere. It was located in a very remote area of the Sahara Desert in northeast Niger. So remote in fact, that this tree was reputed to be the most isolated one in the entire world, the only one for some 250 miles in all directions. Despite its harsh surroundings, the tree had developed deep roots, deep enough to reach the water table some 100 feet underground, and keep it sustained. For years the tree was celebrated as a symbol of life amidst scarcity, and the local Touareg people considered it sacred. Yet this fragile, beautiful symbol of the perseverance of nature, which even the harsh desert couldn’t kill, was gone in an instant as a result of the carelessness and stupidity of humanity. A drunk trunk driver struck, and killed the Tree of Tenere in 1973. Imagine the callous disregard of this deed. In this whole dead, empty expanse of sand, that individual managed to take away the one symbol of life!!

 

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I share that story with you because it reminds me in some ways of another famous tree, one that we read about in the Book of Genesis. For when God first created humanity, He placed our ancestors, Adam and Eve, in a beautiful garden, one filled with lovely plant life. Listen to this description in Genesis 2:9 of the vegetation found in the Garden of Eden—“And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Then a few verses later, God gives this command to Adam, in Genesis 2:16-17—“Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” These would appear to be pretty simple instructions, right? God has created a wonderful garden for Adam, and then his companion Eve, to live in. There are no doubt all variety of different fruits and plants that they can enjoy, with just this one restriction. And yet in Genesis 3, we discover something very interesting about our human condition, and our human psychology. For what is it in us as humans, that would make us disregard the 99 wonderful gifts that God offers to us, and go after the one thing He wishes to protect us from? But the temptation of the serpent, and this perverse human impulse to do the forbidden prevail, and so Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The curses of death, work, and pain in childbirth follow, and to top it off, Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden. We are told in Genesis 3:24 that God places a heavenly being, a cherubim to stand east of Eden, and with a flaming sword guard the way to the Tree of Life. So the tree first appears in Scripture then as a symbol of the Fall of humanity, and of our own sinful disobedience. Here’s the question: After this inauspicious beginning, how can we ever return to Eden, and go back to the Tree of Life? Well keep that question in mind as we begin to answer it by looking at some other tree images that occur in Scripture.

 

 

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Psalm 1 is a passage which uses the image of the tree to help illustrate for us how we can enjoy a healthy, and fruitful relationship with God by being well-rooted, and choosing our location wisely. Or to put it another way, this Psalm talks about the importance of keeping good company, and surrounding ourselves with others who are also pursuing God, and will encourage and help us in our faith journeys. Listen to Psalm 1:1—“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful.” So you see here, the Psalmist is describing someone who doesn’t imitate the unrighteous or allow themselves to be influenced by those who are not following God. We all naturally tend to be influenced and shaped by those around us, and it can be so easy, without even fully realizing it, to begin to take on some of the characteristics and attitudes of your friends, and the people who you spend the most time with. So we must strive to make sure that people we’re putting ourselves into community with are going to be positive influences, especially in the spiritual realm. In verse 2, the Psalmist continues by describing how the person who is well-rooted spiritually will delight in the knowledge and pursuit of the Lord—“his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night.” One reason why we study Scripture, and even meditate over it, is so that we can learn how to more faithfully walk with the Lord. Then, look at Psalm 1:3. Here we get the tree image in detail—“He shall be like a tree, planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither, and whatever he does shall prosper.” What a beautiful word picture–a tree that is has deep roots, because it’s located in a good place, specifically near a body of water, which is the source of life and sustenance. Notice too that this tree proves its health by bringing forth fruit—this is a topic we’ll come back to in more detail in just a few moments.

 

 

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I mentioned earlier that one of my favorite species of trees, and one which is very much associated with the West and the Rocky Mountains is the Aspen tree. This picture is actually of an aspen grove called Pando, located in Utah. And what’s fascinating is that although this would appear to be a grove of many different trees, it’s actually considered by scientists to be just one single living organism. You see each of these aspen trees is genetically identical, and supported by one vast, interconnected root system. While the individual trunks may only live to be 100-130 years old, researchers believe the root system may be as old as 80,000 years!! This beautiful grove, this single living organism illustrates the idea that as Christians, our ultimate spiritual health comes from not only connecting to and associating with one another, but also connecting with Christ. And though the church features a wonderful diversity of different gifts, backgrounds, and individual stories, despite our uniqueness, Scripture says we are also One in Christ. As Paul writes in Romans 12:4-5—“We have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ”. In a similar fashion, in one of the last prayers of His life, Jesus, in John 17:20-21, asks that all of His future followers would be unified by their belief in Him: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, as You Father, are in Me, and I, in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that you sent Me.” So as we strive to follow God individually, let us seek also to find fellowship and unity with one another based on this common purpose, and the common salvation we can share through Christ.

 

 

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the original Lloyd’s Coffee shop in London

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Lloyd’s of London today

Now as we consider the image of the tree, we should also note the importance of good soil. A healthy tree can only grow where there is adequate soil, and when the seed has a chance to develop. This was the message of the Parable of the Sower given by Jesus in Matthew 13. As it happens, Matthew 13 also contains another parable of Christ with a similar message, the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Listen to Matthew 13:31-32—“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” Certainly, one of the truths we can discern from this teaching is that big things can sometimes come from very humble, seemingly insignificant origins. In 1688, Edward Lloyd ran a coffee house in the city of London. It was frequented by sailors, merchants, and ship-owners. Due to the nature of his clientele, Lloyd offered reliable shipping news and weather forecasts in addition to serving food and beverages. Gradually, the shipping industry took more precedence than selling coffee, and eventually Lloyd went into the insurance business full-time. Now, some three-plus centuries later, Lloyd’s of London is headquartered in a slightly more imposing edifice than that original coffee shop, and is perhaps the best known insurance company in the world.

 

 

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A young James Hendrix

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Jimi Hendrix on stage at the Monterrey Pop Festival, 1967

James was a young man from Seattle, a high-school dropout, who, after a failed stint in the 101st Airborne Division, decided to try and make a career in music, since more than anything in the world, he loved to play guitar. He moved to Tennessee, but as a black man in the early 1960’s his professional options were limited. He ended up on what was known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit”, playing clubs that catered to an African-American audience and serving as a backing musician for many different performers such as Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, and Jackie Wilson. But after a couple of years, with his career going nowhere, he moved first to New York, and then in 1966 all the way to London to try and make it. And it would be there in England, that the world was first come to know of Jimi Hendrix, who in just a few short years during the second half of the 1960’s completely revolutionized the music of the electric guitar.

 

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Born in 1860, Anna Mary Robertson Moses had lived a hard life, rearing ten children on a farm in upstate New York, only five of whom lived past infancy. And yet in her spare time, she enjoyed some creative pursuits, such as quilting, and embroidering. However at age 76, she was forced to give these up due to arthritis. Her sister suggested that she try painting as a new hobby. So in the early 1930’s, this self-taught artist began to paint simple scenes of American life–the holidays, and customs of the now bygone era she remembered from her childhood. Then in 1938, an art collector named Louis Caldor happened to be passing through the little hamlet of Hoosick Falls, New York. He stopped at a drugstore, and bought a few locally-made paintings he liked for between $3 and $5 apiece. Over the next few years Moses’ works slowly gained more and more acclaim, until eventually the farmer’s wife known as “Grandma Moses” gained exhibitions in some of the most prestigious museums in the country. By the time of her death in 1961, she was known around the world as an American cultural icon. One of her paintings today hangs in the White House, and for an artist whose initial work sold for $3, she had a painting in 2006 auctioned off for $1.2 million dollars! So in the business, music, and art worlds just to name a few examples, big things can come out of very humble, seemingly insignificant origins. To return to the parable in Matthew 13—Jesus wants to demonstrate with this message from the mustard seed, how from the humble origin of a tiny seed, given the right soil and enough patience, a great tree can spring up. Notice too that this tree is great not just because of its own size and prominence, but because it is able to offer a place of refuge and shelter to the birds. In other words, a mark of the life rooted in God is that such a person will influence and impact the lives of many others. And it doesn’t take much to get started. So those who are thinking that they don’t have much to offer God right now, or who are worried that they lack the amount of faith or the spiritual desire to start, don’t fear!! Because just like the tiny mustard seed in this parable, with God’s help your life can eventually sprout and transform into a sturdy tree of faith—a tree of life!!

 

 

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Earlier, as we looked at Psalm 1, we saw how the tree described there demonstrates its health by bearing fruit. So let’s talk just a little more about that idea. Now you don’t have to be a farmer, or an arboreal specialist to know that if you plant an apple tree, or a pear tree, one way to ascertain its overall health is to check the fruit. And just because the tree might be tall, and have big branches, and otherwise look good—none of that really matters too much if it’s not producing healthy fruit, because it is then failing the very purpose for which it was planted and cultivated. Now I realize that all of us have different spiritual gifts, and talents. Each will serve the Lord in a different way—that’s fine, and that’s part of the beautiful diversity of the Kingdom of God. But we all must find our places of service!! Because just to sit back, and watch others, or to think that being a Christian merely means that you’ve obtained salvation, and are saved from going to hell, reveals a profound misunderstanding of our purpose as Christ followers. Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms in Matthew 7:17-19 about the importance, indeed the necessity of bearing fruit. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Now these are strong words from Christ, and again maybe some people wonder about how exactly they can bear fruit in the Kingdom? Maybe you think that you don’t have the gift of being a pastor, or a teacher, or an evangelist—but there are still so many things you can do. God has uniquely given each one of us a platform, some special ability that you can use to serve Him and others. So, it is imperative that you discover how you can be not just a passive believer in God, but an active follower of His!! The great Christian author C.S. Lewis explained what it means to bear fruit by using another metaphor—that of the egg. In a passage from his classic work Mere Christianity, Lewis writes: “When He said, ‘Be perfect,’ He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder—in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” Do you see Lewis’ point here? To bear fruit is to realize our full, God-given potential. That is what we are called to do, and the fruit we bear, is our witness to others. By that fruit, outsiders, non-Christians, people who don’t yet have a relationship with God, can know what that looks like. But in order for this to take place, we have to become active in our faith!!

 

 

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Well in closing, let’s talk about what is really the heart of the tree—the trunk, and then what extends from the trunk—the branches. A healthy tree, we might say, is one in which the branches spread wide and strong, twisting outward and upwards from that central trunk. But how much good is even the strongest, sturdiest branch, on its own—if it gets disconnected from the trunk?? You have to learn that you can’t do it on your own. This is certainly true in the sports world, even for the greatest individual players. After his team went undefeated during the 2005 regular season, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady bought an Audi Q-7 luxury SUV for each of his starting five offensive linemen. In case you’re wondering, the Q-7 retails for around $50,000!! In 2012, when Adrian Peterson rushed for an NFL-best 2,097 yards, the Minnesota Vikings star showed his gratitude by purchasing personalized snowmobiles for the members of his offensive line. Now Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson are household names, major stars in the world of sports, but even the most ardent Patriots and Vikings fans might be hard-pressed to name all five starting offensive linemen on their respective squads. But Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson, and many other NFL stars instinctively know that for all of their individual talents, without the dedication and skill of their offensive lines, they could accomplish nothing in football. The role of offensive linemen is basically to be like a human shield. They block and hit people, pushing them out of the way so that hopefully the quarterback and running back—or whoever is carrying the ball on offense, won’t get hit. It’s a punishing occupation—but offensive linemen essentially sacrifice themselves and their bodies so that others on the team can have success. So back to that central truth–you can’t do it on your own. And that is very much the case in your spiritual life too. Jesus teaches us this in John 15:5 using a tree metaphor: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” 

 

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The reason that we should abide in Christ is because that is how we reflect our love for Him. And this love on our parts is but a pale reflection of the great love that Jesus has demonstrated already for all humanity. For Christ took it upon Himself to be the sacrifice for sin. He died on the cross, but that cross can be envisioned in another form, as 1 Peter 2:24 describes in reference to Jesus: “Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the three, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness.” The same tree which was a symbol of our sinful downfall in Genesis is now recast in 1 Peter as the symbol of God’s redemptive work on the Cross. I asked earlier how could we, after the sin of Adam and Eve, ever make it back to the Garden of Eden, and that Tree of Life which we’d been banished from? Well now we have the answer. It’s nothing that we could ever do—but that which Christ has already done!! Let’s look briefly at Revelation 22. Revelation comes at the very end of Scripture, and is kind of like a fast-forward through spiritual history, to give us a glimpse of how God will one day bring all of His great redemptive work as well as history itself to a perfect conclusion. And in the last chapter of Revelation, we get a portrait of heaven itself. Hear this description of heaven from Revelation 22:1-3—“And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him.” Do you realize what’s happened here?? In the end, we shall once again have access to the Tree of Life, and we’ll be healed of that curse pronounced on Adam and Eve back in Genesis 3. Our lives will then perfectly resemble the tree planted by the waters in Psalm 1. All of these different Scriptural images of trees are fulfilled and perfected here in this last passage in Revelation 22. And again what makes this possible—what allows us to once again have access to the Tree of Life, is because Jesus gave His life for us on a Tree, on the Cross. S0–what kind of plant will you be?? Will your seed sprout up, and if it does, will it develop in a strong, healthy tree, that is in community with others, is well-rooted and watered, draws life to itself, and bears fruit?? The way to do that is to stay rooted in Christ. Invite Him to be Lord of your life, and strive to follow His example every day. Don’t feel like everything has to be perfect in your life before you follow Jesus, but heed the words of that beautiful old hymn—“Come ye weary, heavy-laden/Lost and ruined by the fall/If you tarry until you’re better/You will never come at all/I will arise and go to Jesus/He will embrace me in His arms/In the arms of my dear Savior/Oh, there are ten thousand charms.” If it’s rooted in a relationship with Christ, your tree then will indeed grow, and will serve to bless and be an example to others. May we all have the chance to prosper, and grow, while staying rooted in the life-giving truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen!

The Word of God–nothing more, and nothing less

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Most people who know me fairly well would agree that I’m somewhat of a bibliophile. My apartment is crammed full of books, and that’s not even counting the many tomes that are still back at my parent’s house in Alabama. Ever since I was small, I’ve always enjoyed spending time in libraries and bookstores, and I really credit my parents for instilling in me a love of reading as a child. I read in many different genres–novels, plays, biographies, memoirs, history, travelogues, cultural studies, art history, theology–the list goes on. But what constantly amazes me is how one book above all, The Bible, has exerted such an inordinate influence over almost every conceivable branch of Western letters. In fact, even if you’re not a Christian, if you grew up in the West, you have been somehow shaped by this book. Because Biblical themes, standards, and ideals have left an indelible impression not only on the literature, but on the art, laws, culture, and psyche of the Western world. However living as I do in a fairly secular place like Boulder, Colorado, I often hear people saying something along these lines—“yes we know that the Bible is an important book, from a literary, and cultural standpoint. But is it something that we can still consider reliable as a guide to life in 2016?” And that’s a very legitimate question to explore, which is want I want to do in the rest of this blog post. I want to endeavor to answer some of these questions: How can we trust that that Bible is the Word of God, which has been passed down faithfully through the ages, across so many different cultures and languages?? And furthermore, why specifically is it that Christians make the Bible into their guide for faith and practice? Even if we accept the authority of the Bible–how do we go about interpreting it? How can we study the Bible effectively, and begin to live out what it teaches? I’ll start by laying out some claims about why we can trust the Bible from a historical standpoint. Then we’ll get into why the Bible is our primary guide to the Christian life, how we can interpret Scripture, and finally some suggestions for further Biblical study.

 

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Let me set the stage initially though by talking about the power of the Word. Our words—mine, yours, everyone’s, have power. Words have power to inspire. Where I live, here in Colorado, the Broncos are king, but personally I’ve always been more of a college football than NFL fan. Maybe it has something to do with coming from Alabama haha. But I love to study the history of the sport, and read about famous coaches. And even though I’m no fan of the team, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have produced some legendary sideline leaders over the years, and none greater than Knute Rockne. He coached them from 1918-1930, and during that span won 105 games and five national championships. Rockne, in addition to being a great tactician, was known for his rousing locker-room speeches. The most famous of them all was his “win one for the Gipper” speech, given during the half-time of the 1928 Notre Dame-Army game. George Gipp had been an All-American halfback for the Irish, but he caught pneumonia, and died an untimely death at the end of his last college season in 1920. So the story goes, before he passed away, Gipp made one last request to his coach, Knute Rockne: “I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.” Rockne apparently saved this inspirational story for nearly a decade before using it to fire up his Irish team to come out in the second half and defeat Army, 12-6.

 

 

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Words, even just a few, if carefully selected, have the power to paint indelible images. One of my favorite poems is called “The Eagle” by 19th century British writer Alfred Lord Tennyson. I love it because in just a few lines, Tennyson paints an unforgettable visual portrait of this majestic bird: “He clasps the crag with crooked hands/Close to the sun in lonely lands/Ringed with the azure world, he stands/The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls/He watches from his mountain walls/And like a thunderbolt he falls.” Words have the power to convict. I did my undergrad at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and as at many universities, we had an Honor Code there. But while the Honor Code is certainly not unique to Vanderbilt, there is a special story attached to it that I love to recall. Dr. Madison Sarratt was a math professor, and later a vice-chancellor at Vanderbilt in the mid 20th century. And this is what he once announced to a class before he gave them a test, in order to get his students to take the idea of the Honor Code, and their academic integrity seriously: “Today I am going to give you two examinations—one in trigonometry and one in honesty. I hope you will pass them both, but if you must fail one, let it be trigonometry, for there are many good people in this world today who can’t pass an examination in trigonometry, but there are no good people in the world who cannot pass an examination in honesty.”

 

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So indeed, words have power. And this is the principle at the heart of why Scripture, the written Word of God matters. Interestingly enough, at the Beginning of all things, there were words. According to the Book of Genesis, the Lord God did not fashion the universe and all creation through His hands, or by stirring up some cosmic mishmash together. No, He spoke everything into existence. The Power of the Word. Later, in John 1, Jesus is referred to as the “Word of God”, and then as the “Word made flesh”. So Words matter, Words have significance, and the Words of Scripture, as we will see, are reliable.

 

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So let’s discuss that question now a little further—how is it that we know we can trust the Bible from a historical standpoint? I could really use the rest of this post just on this one topic, but I do want to give you just a few reasons as to why you can trust that the Bible is reliable, and has been faithfully preserved down through the ages. Most people are probably familiar with the Dead Sea Scrolls. These ancient Biblical manuscripts were first discovered by Bedouin shepherds in Caves near the Dead Sea in Israel starting in late 1946. Over the next decade a total of 981 manuscripts were found, and documented. What did they contain?? Well there were portions of every book in the Old Testament except for one, including a complete copy of the Book of Isaiah. The most remarkable thing about this discovery from an archaeological standpoint is that before this time, the oldest copies of the Hebrew Bible we had dated to about the 10 century AD. The oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls go back to the 4th century, BC. So in other words, this discovery brought to light Biblical manuscripts that were over 1000 years older than any that had been previously found!! From a faith standpoint though, the most significant thing about the scrolls is that their appearance and subsequent translation has not significantly altered the Biblical manuscript. Except for a few grammatical differences and slight textual variants, what researchers and scholars found again and again was that the Jewish scribes had been extraordinarily faithful in copying and passing down their scrolls from one generation to the next, over a period of thousands of years! In fact even today, the Jewish people continue to treat the Word of God with extraordinary reverence. Specially trained scribes actually copy out the entire Torah, which is the first five books of the Old Testament, in longhand, for use as a scroll in synagogue worship. When the scribe is being copied, if any mistakes are made, the entire page must be torn out, and done over again. And once the scroll is completed, a process which can take as long as a year-and-a-half, its pages must never be touched directly by the human hand. Instead, a special pointer is used to follow along in the text when reading.

 

 

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Now, some of you may be wondering just how it is that these Scriptures, which have been translated so faithfully and treated with such reverence across the ages, even came to be collected together in the first place? After all, some of the manuscripts discovered from among the Dead Sea Scrolls were fragments from texts that are not now found in Scripture. So how was it decided about which books to include in the Bible? Well it’s a fascinating process to study what is known the Canonization of the Bible—how the individual books were selected. In the case of both the Hebrew Old Testament, and the Greek New Testament, this process of Canonization was a lengthy one, rather than a single event. The first portion of the Hebrew Bible to be grated authoritative status was the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament—the books of the Law. By around 400 BC in the years following the Jewish exile in Babylon, the Torah was accepted as part of the Canon. Next to be accepted were the writings of the Prophets, by approximately 200 BC. Finally, towards the end of the 1st century AD, especially following a critical council held at Jamnia in 90 AD, the remaining books of the Old Testament gradually came into widespread acceptance in the various Jewish communities. But how did religious leaders and scholars decide which books to include, and which to exclude?? Well, there were several possible criteria—was the book written in the Hebrew language, was it believed to be Divinely-inspired, did it conform enough, in terms of teaching and content with other texts, and was it in widespread use amongst the various Jewish communities scattered around the Ancient Near East?? And what about the Canonization of the New Testament, written in Greek?? Well the first parts of the New Testament to be written were some of Paul’s letters, starting in the 50’s AD. These were followed by the Gospels, between roughly 70 and 100 AD, along with epistles from Paul and others. As for their inclusion in the eventual Bible, it’s widely accepted that by the end of the 2nd century AD, Paul’s letters and the four Gospels were all considered Canonical, while other books, such as Revelation and Hebrews, would take longer to be included. The earliest list we have of the 27 books of the New Testament comes from Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in 367 AD. Criteria for canonical inclusion of New Testament were fairly similar to those used to determine the Old Testament books. They included apostolicity, which is a book’s connection back to someone who either was an apostle or knew firsthand an Apostle of Jesus. Other criteria included that the book taught orthodoxy, or true doctrine, was considered to be Divinely-inspired, and finally that the work was widely accepted amongst the various churches and early Christian communities. I share this information so that you know the 66 books of the Bible were not assembled randomly, but with painstaking care, and according to a specific set of instructions.

 

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It is interesting too, just for a moment, to look at the Gospels specifically. These four books really are the heart of the New Testament, and at the very center of the foundation of the Christian faith, since they recount the life of Christ. But sometimes critics will charge that the Gospels were written long after the time of Christ, thus allowing their message to become distorted and inaccurate. Bart Ehrman is a noted author, and scholar of the New Testament, but he is not a practicing Christian, and has made a name for himself as a religious skeptic. Now the great Christian writer and apologist C.S. Lewis is famous for arguing that you have only three options for considering who Jesus is, based on the Biblical evidence: He is a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. But Bart Ehrman adds a fourth possible option to this list—legend. In other words, Ehrman believes that Jesus could have been just an ordinary, moral teacher who was elevated to the status of a God by His later followers. And part of the strength of such an argument could plausibly lie in saying that the more time which passes between an individual’s death, and the records pertaining to their life and work, the more space there could be for a possible distortion of details, and even the invention of information. But if we take the widely accepted date for the death of Christ to be around 33 AD, we find that the first Gospel, Mark could have been written as early as 65 AD, just about thirty years later. The last Gospel, John, was probably written around 90 AD. Thus we are talking about a period of only about 60 years between the death of Christ and the last of the firsthand accounts of His life. Especially by the standards of antiquity, that is not a long time-lapse. Thus the Gospels were written within a timeframe that could easily have encompassed the lifespan of someone who knew Jesus and walked alongside Him. Therefore it makes it less likely that wild fabrications or outright legends would be concocted during a time when eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life still would have been living. Also, the chart I have posted above this paragraph provides a nice response to people who would try and cast doubt on the authenticity of the New Testament, while refraining from similar critiques on other widely accepted works of antiquity. As you can see, both in terms of the number of extant manuscripts and the gap between the creation of the original and the oldest surviving copies, the New Testament has much stronger evidence for its textual integrity and existence than the works of Homer, Caesar, Tacitus, and many other famous writers from antiquity.

Finally, as regards this whole matter of the historical reliability and accuracy of Scripture, I’d like to share a brief anecdote. Horizons International is a ministry located in Boulder, right across the street from the CU campus. As the name implies, they focus on reaching out to international students, specifically those coming from a Muslim background. The founder of Horizons is a man named Georges Houssney, from Lebanon, who grew up in the predominantly Muslim city of Tripoli, Lebanon before converting to Christianity. Now one thing that you might know about Islam is that they are very particular about the fact that the Koran can only be properly read and understood in Arabic. And so sometimes when you see translations of their holy book into other languages, they won’t even be called Korans, but something like “An interpretation of the meaning of the Holy Koran.” As a result of this feature of their religion, Muslims often accuse Christians of holding to a distorted, or garbled version of the Word of God, due to the many translations that have taken place over the years. Houssney’s response to this objection is quick and forceful. He accuses the person of having uttered a blasphemy, that is speaking in an offensive manner towards God. Then he asks them something like this: “Don’t you think that the Lord God, the Creator and ruler of this entire universe, whom you claim to believe in, is capable of keeping the meaning of His Word intact through some different translations? Is it beyond God’s ability to work in more than one language??” And that response usually answers the objection! As I’ve tried to show through a few historical examples, God’s Word has been preserved through the ages and is historically reliable.

 

 

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But why as Christians, and maybe especially as Protestants, would we say that the Bible is the ultimate authority for Christian practice, and the final source we turn to in order to direct our life and faith as believers? Well to answer this question let’s go back in history a few centuries, to the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The man most associated with this movement to correct some of the major abuses in Catholicism was Martin Luther, that great German theologian and writer. Luther had actually trained originally to be a priest, and one of the things that troubled him about the Catholicism of his day was the extent to which it was endorsing practices which Luther did not feel had any real Scriptural basis. In 1521, Luther, whose writings attacking the church’s corruption were starting to garner increasing controversy and gather him a following of his own, was called before a council of the Holy Roman Empire, in what came to be known as the “Diet of Worms.” There, before the imperial council, Luther was asked to renounce all of his writings as heresy. His famous response was this: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” Luther received the courage to stand against the imperial authorities and the assembled might of the Catholic hierarchy because it was his solid conviction that Christians should order their lives, first and foremost, according to the dictates of Scripture. This is why one of the primary truths that emerged from the Protestant Reformation is the term Sola Scriptura, which is Latin for “Scripture alone.”

 

And in various places, the Bible itself attests to its own authority as our guide for life. Psalm 119, the longest of all Psalms, is essentially a beautiful hymn to the glory of God’s Word, and all the ways in which it can aid and sustain us through life. God’s Word guards us from wrongdoing–Psalm 119:11—“Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” The Scriptures help us in times of difficulty and suffering–Psalm 119:28—“My soul melts from heaviness; strengthen me according to your word” Scripture and its truth are not just for one age, but for all time–Psalm 119:89—“Forever, O Lord, your word is settled in heaven.” The Bible will guide us in all areas where we would require advice and discernment–Psalm 119:105—“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Then we later have the testimony of Christ, which powerfully echoes Psalm 119 in attesting to the power and permanence of God’s Word. When Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness, He responds by quoting from God’s Word, and avowing our absolute need to be sustained by it daily. Matthew 4:4—“It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Here Jesus is actually quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3, thereby demonstrating His own knowledge and faithfulness to Scripture. Christ’s Twelve Apostles furthermore recognize that they can do no better than to be guided by the Divine Word. At one point, Jesus asks them if they wish to turn back from following Him, as some others have already. Peter’s response is perfect in its succinct truth. John 6:68—“Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And then like Psalm 119, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 reminds us that the Bible can guide us in all areas of our life: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

 

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But how are we to go about understanding and interpreting the message of the Bible? Can’t Scripture often be challenging, complex, and hard to fully understand? After all, it was written thousands of years ago, in a time and culture very different from ours today. Now all of that is true, but at the same time, as Christians, we hold the Bible dear precisely because we believe that everyone, and not just the specially-trained person, can understand and apply Scriptural truth in their lives. Another one of the foundational principles that emerged during the Protestant Reformation from Luther and his followers is the idea of the “Priesthood of the Believer.” This is the concept that all Christians, and not just the clergy, have direct access to God through their prayers and the power of the Holy Spirit. This access also includes the ability to interpret Scripture. Now of course it can be helpful to have training to better understand the Bible, and in fact what I want to talk about now are some of the aids that we have at our disposal to better understand Scripture and its meaning. The most important one perhaps, is the power of the Holy Spirit, which is promised to us by Jesus in John 16:13—“When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will speak not on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will tell you things to come.”

 

 

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John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist Church in England in the 1700s, and later, his followers compiled a methodology based on his ideas known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The idea is that there are four norms or sources for guiding our Christian theology and practice. They are Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. Scripture is the most important of these four, in keeping with the teaching of earlier theologians like Luther. But the other three categories can all aid us in the interpretation of Scripture. So our God-given reason and common sense can help us understand many Biblical passages, as can tradition—borrowing from the work and wisdom of the many great Christian thinkers and teachers down through the ages. Finally experience, that is our own personal relationship with God, and what we have learned from this, can be an aid in our better understanding the message of the Bible. Now obviously Biblical interpretation is not always so simple a matter. After all, that’s part of what I went to seminary to do—to learn how to better interpret Scripture. And if you wanted to, you could go and study Biblical Hebrew, and Koine Greek, so that you could read the Biblical texts in their original languages. All that would help.

 

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But we should be careful of assuming that the Bible is so complex and mysterious in its interpretation, because very often, the message of Scripture is perfectly clear, but we simply don’t want to follow what it says. I love a quote from Soren Kierkegaard, the great 19th century Danish theologian, on Biblical interpretation. He said this: “The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?” To finish this thought—I want to return briefly to Martin Luther. His guiding rubric, and philosophy for his entire approach to Biblical interpretation was actually quite simple, and for me, pretty hard to improve upon: “What promotes Christ.”

 

 

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Lastly, I want to talk just for a moment about how you can begin to apply Biblical truth and authority into your Christian life. A lot of people say they want to live their life according to Biblical principles, but doing this isn’t quite as easy as it sounds.  Gary Player is one of the most famous and successful golfers in history. The South African, known as “The Black Knight”, won nine major championships over the course of his long career, and in total has won 165 tournaments. But what was the secret to his becoming successful and then maintaining that success over such a long period of time? Well one time, so the story goes Gary Player was hitting balls off the practice tee one morning, and the first ball he hit went 280 yards straight as a bullet.  A man watching him in the gallery said, ‘Man, I’d give anything to be able to hit a golf ball like you.’  Gary walked over to the guy and said, ‘No, you wouldn’t.’  The guy said, ‘Yes, I would.  I’d give anything to hit like that,’ Gary said, ‘No, you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t be willing to do what it takes. You have to rise early in the morning and hit five hundred balls until your hands bleed.  Then you stop, tape your hands, and hit five hundred more balls.  The next morning you’re out there again with hands so raw you can barely hold your club, but you do it all over again.  If you do that through enough years of pain, then you can hit a ball like that.”

 

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Well it’s really the same with your spiritual life. There are no shortcuts—you have to develop some good habits, and engage in some spiritual disciplines if you really want to learn and apply Biblical truth to your life. First, you have to commit yourself to reading the Bible on a regular basis, preferably every day, during a quiet time. And not just reading through casually, but really studying, and pondering the truths contained therein. Psalm 1 says “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he mediates day and night.” Then Psalm 46:10 commands: “Be still, and know that I am God.” So we all need to be able to find a time and space where if even for just a few minutes, we can devote ourselves to studying and meditating upon God’s Word. And then I would also encourage you to think about engaging in Scripture memory. I posted about this not too long ago.  Over the last few months, I’ve been making more of an effort to pursue Scripture memory and it’s making a difference in my quiet time and in my spiritual life. There are many different systems to use for Scripture memory. A lot of the students at CU have a verse pack, where they keep index cards with their memory verses. I actually prefer to store my verses on my phone, just because it is always something I have with me. You might find another method you prefer. But I do strongly encourage you, even if it’s just one verse a month, or a few per semester, to start learning God’s Word and storing it into your heart. It will not only help you in your own walk with the Lord, but it will help you as you minister and witness to others. As Psalm 119:130 so eloquently states in regards to God’s Scriptures: “The entrance of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple”.

 

Let me close by saying this—for all of the evidence that I’ve tried to offer here, ultimately, accepting Biblical authority is going to come down to an individual act of faith on each person’s part. If someone is truly a skeptic about the claims and authority of Scripture, no amount of arguing by me or anyone else will persuade them. But I do believe that God can do amazing things, even to the heart of a skeptic, if they will begin to read and study the Scriptures with an open mind. But for those of you who are Christians, and who do accept the authority of the Bible, let me give you one final exhortation. If you are basing your Christian faith and practice on something besides the Bible, be careful! For almost any other source of authority you could find, including some of  those we mentioned like church tradition, your own reason and experience, our culture, the influence of friends or others…all of these things are subjective and subject to change. Scripture however has stood the test of time, and it is a sure and certain guide that will never let you down! In Matthew 24:35, Jesus vows: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.” The Word of God is historically reliable, true, and eternal, and so I urge you to base your faith and your walk with the Lord upon nothing more, and nothing less. Amen.

 

Unlikely hymns

 

I grew up with traditional Southern Baptist worship music. My home church, First Baptist Montgomery, had a large and impressive sanctuary, whose exterior was modeled on the famous Duomo of Florence, while the interior featured an extensive array of stained glass. As befitting such a space for worship, the musical accompaniment at the church was dominated by a large organ. So during worship, it seemed only natural we would sing traditional hymns in the traditional way. The Baptist Hymnal, which I proudly keep a copy of even with me today, features a wide array of classic church music drawn from across the centuries, and from many different ecclesiastical and national backgrounds. For me personally, hymns such as “A mighty fortress is our God”, “Jesus shall reign”, “Fairest Lord Jesus”, “I’d rather have Jesus”, “Come thou Almighty King”, “O God our help in ages past” and many others still embody what would is my ideal and favorite worship experience. So I could definitely say that with my upbringing, I am mostly a traditionalist when it comes to church music, and my preferences still tend to run in that direction, even after years of serving in college ministry haha.

 

Of course through my work in campus ministry, I have become very familiar with contemporary worship music, and can appreciate and enjoy a variety of different artists in that genre. My first exposure to this music prompted a slightly different reaction though, back in the late 1990s. I can remember almost the exact moment I first encountered more contemporary church music. I was visiting my grandmother in Gardendale, Alabama, just north of Birmingham, and her church there, First Baptist Gardendale, had begun to adopt what today would be considered a “blended” style of music, combining traditional hymns with more contemporary worship songs and choruses. Initially to me though, the sight of a drummer, bassist, and guitarist in a worship service was almost comically jarring. I remember thinking to myself “this is a fad that will never last!” Haha—guess I was wrong with that prediction. My feelings at the time though were that the bass, drums, and guitar were the instruments of rock music, and so at first they seemed very incongruous alongside a piano or an organ. It turns out though that the incongruity I supposedly sensed was based on my own ignorance of the history of rock as a musical form. Because later as I studied more about the origins of this wonderful musical genre, and became a dedicated fan of many different rock bands, I realized increasingly that rock had some pretty deep religious roots. After all, rock had largely evolved out of the blues and country music, genres which in turn had connections back to African-American spirituals, and Gospel music, respectively. It’s not surprising then that such early pioneers of rock and roll as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis all grew up with strong connections to Gospel music. In fact even later after they had become better known for their rock recordings, these artists continued to perform and release Gospel material.

Of course a whole genre of rock music played by explicitly Christian artists eventually developed. But what is perhaps more surprising is the wide array of rock bands seemingly without any connection to the Christian world who’ve nonetheless decided to explore spiritual themes in some of their songs. The cliché of “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll” would seem to hold true for much of what was written by many of these groups, and yet for whatever reason, they have also at times found themselves drawn towards God. I want to share a few notable examples of what might be termed “unlikely hymns”, from the golden era of rock and roll in the 1960’s and 70’s. Then I’ll discuss some reasons as to why even secular bands might have been drawn towards the spiritual, and try to tie this back to a Scriptural basis.

 

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During the Sixties, The Byrds epitomized the West Coast folk sound, and then later became known also for a pioneering single “Eight Miles High” released in 1966, which was considered a herald of the “psychedelic” era. But as the years progressed, and especially as they became more influenced by country music, The Byrds recorded two covers of songs with an explicitly Christian message, “The Christian Life” and “Jesus is just alright”, and thus helped expose these works, and their message, to a larger, more popular audience. The Velvet Underground meanwhile, were known as being among the most avant-garde of all 60’s groups. Coming from Manhattan, and being associated in their early days with celebrated pop artist Andy Warhol, the group fronted by the streetwise Lou Reed were known for exploring such hard-bitten themes as drug use, sado-masochism, paranoia, and prostitution in their songs. Yet their self-titled third album, released in 1969, contains the gentle ballad “Jesus.” The simple, almost child-like lyrics repeat throughout the song as follows: “Jesus, help me find my proper place/Jesus, help me find my proper place/Help me in my weakness/Cause I’m falling out of grace” Lou Reed, the song’s writer, came from a Jewish background, so we can only speculate the extent to which he was interested in Christianity, but there was another Jewish songwriter who came to prominence in the 1960’s, Canadian Leonard Cohen, who also revealed a lyrical fascination with Christ. Cohen’s 1967 tune “Suzanne” is ostensibly a love song, yet inserted into its midst are these meditations about Christ: “And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water/And he spent a long time watching from the lonely wooden tower/And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him/He said “All men are sailors then until the sea shall free them”/But he himself was broken long before the sky would open/Forsaken, almost human he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” While Cohen later became involved in Zen Buddhism, another songwriter from a Jewish background, Bob Dylan, that famously irreverent Sixties troubadour, pioneer of the Singer-Songwriter movement actually went through a well-publicized Christian conversion during the late 1970s. Dylan seemingly became a Christ-follower, and released two albums during this “born-again” phase. Although he later would appear to distance himself somewhat from these songs, in 2009 he did release an album of traditional Christmas carols, Christmas in the Heart. Was this release merely a nod to the seasonal music market, or perhaps a reflection of some spiritual beliefs still held by the oft-inscrutable songwriter??

 

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Of course during the 1960’s no group was any bigger than The Beatles, the “Fab Four” from Liverpool, who nearly single-handedly redefined the course of rock history during their recording years from 1962-1970. For all of their prolific songwriting on a variety of different topics, The Beatles rarely addressed religious themes. But in an early 1965 interview, Paul McCartney noted: “We probably seem anti-religious because of the fact that none of us believe in God.” During the same discussion, John Lennon added a slight clarification: “We all feel roughly the same. We’re all agnostics.” A little over a year later, in the spring of 1966, Lennon would infamously proclaim to a British journalist while musing on the Beatles’ fame: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.” In the summer of 1966, Lennon’s comments were published in American newspapers, igniting a firestorm of controversy, particularly over the “more popular than Jesus” assertion. Some irate American fans even went so far as to burn their Beatles records and memorabilia in protest. But even as early as the fall of 1966, Lennon was softening his stance on Christianity somewhat, leading many to believe that his true spiritual views were more nuanced than that one particular soundbite. In a magazine interview given while filming his part for the movie “How I won the war”, Lennon observed: “I believe Jesus was right, Buddha was right, and all of those people like that are right. They’re all saying the same thing– and I believe it. I believe what Jesus actually said– the basic things he laid down about love and goodness…If they took more interest in what Jesus — or any of them — said, if they did that, we’d all be there with them.” Then, on June 25, 1967, The Beatles performed one of their biggest and most enduring hits “All you need is love” while being filmed for the “One World” television special, the first live, internationally broadcast program. Commenting years later on the event for The Beatles Anthology documentary, George Harrison noted in regards to the group’s song choice for the broadcast: “We thought, ‘Well, we’ll sing “All You Need Is Love”, because it’s a subtle bit of PR for God.” Meanwhile, Lennon’s religious views continued to move away from his earlier statements. In an unreleased 1969 interview with the BBC he discussed his views of Christianity while a member of The Beatles–“It’s just an expression meaning the Beatles seem to me to have more influence over youth than Christ. Now I wasn’t saying that was a good idea, ‘cos I’m one of Christ’s biggest fans. And if I can turn the focus on the Beatles on to Christ’s message, then that’s what we’re here to do. If the Beatles get on the side of Christ, which they always were, and let people know that, then maybe the churches won’t be full, but there’ll be a lot of Christians dancing in the dance halls. Whatever they celebrate, God and Christ, I don’t think it matters as long as they’re aware of Him and His message.” In that same interview, John Lennon went on to reveal that some of his supposed animosity towards Christianity was really based more on a distrust of organized religion, stemming back to a childhood incident at age 14, where he had been kicked out of an Anglican youth group for not being able to control his fits of laughter. “I wasn’t convinced of the vicar’s sincerity anyway. But I knew it was the house of God. So I went along for that and the atmosphere always made me feel emotional and religious or whatever you call it. Being thrown out of church for laughing was the end of the Church for me…I would have liked to have been married in a church but they wouldn’t marry divorcees? That’s pure hypocrisy.” Thus it would seem that for all their supposed irreverence and iconoclasm, The Beatles, and John Lennon in particular, might have been more interested in the Christian message than their reputation would warrant.

 

 

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Moving into another one of my favorite periods in rock history, the 1970’s, we find plenty of other examples of seemingly secular artists who made forays into Christian-themed work. Big Star was a power-pop group out of Memphis, Tennessee that achieved some limited success in the 1970’s and developed a cult-like following amongst music aficionados in later years. Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that a group raised in the South, and exposed to the Gospel and blues traditions in Memphis might include spiritual themes in a song, but few tunes in the rock canon have ever been more straightforwardly Christian than Big Star’s “Jesus Christ.” Its lyrics could be straight out of a Christmas carol: “Angels from the realms of glory/Stars shone bright above/Royal David’s city/Was bathed in light of love/ Jesus Christ was born today/Jesus Christ was born/Jesus Christ was born today/Jesus Christ was born” Many other 70’s groups though were far less likely candidates for ever writing a Christian-themed song, and yet surprisingly enough we can find such works scattered across their catalogs. Roxy Music was a British “art-rock” band whose innovative visual imagery and use of an early synthesizer, helped them to stand out from many of their contemporaries. Roxy Music’s lead singer and songwriter Bryan Ferry penned the track “Psalm” for their 1973 LP Stranded, and true to its name, the track features overtly spiritual lyrics and imagery: “Believe in me once seemed a good line/Now belief in Jesus is faith more sublime/Head in the clouds, but I can’t see the Lord/Short of perfection, I’ll try to be good/ I’ll stand at His gate, I’ll wait for His sign/Then I’ll walk in His garden, when it’s my time/Drink from His cup, hush now don’t you cry/His quiet waters, will never, never run dry/Nearing death’s vale, He’s here by my side/He leads me to paradise, a mountain so high/Don’t be afraid, just treasure His word/Singing His praises, I know that I’ll be heard”

 

 

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Queen was one of the most successful and popular bands of the 1970’s, and their charismatic frontman, Freddie Mercury was as well known for his flamboyant and hedonistic personal life as for his vocal prowess. He died of AIDS in 1991, and would certainly never be confused for any type of spiritual spokesperson. Yet on the band’s self-titled debut, released in 1973, is Mercury’s rather earnest ballad, “Jesus.”—“Then came a man before His feet he fell/Unclean said the leper and rang his bell/Felt the palm of a hand touch his head/Go now, go now you’re a new man instead/All going down to see the Lord Jesus/All going down to see the Lord Jesus/All going down/It all began with the three wise men/Followed a star took them to Bethlehem/And made it heard throughout the land/Born was a leader of man/All going down to see the Lord Jesus/All going down to see the Lord Jesus” Mercury was of Indian origin, and had been raised in the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, and yet these lyrics would seem to reveal at least some interest in the work and message of Christ. Or perhaps we could just write this off as a tribute to Mercury’s admiration for Gospel music, and an attempt to emulate that particular style and lyrical content. Even less likely candidates than Freddie Mercury to write anything that spoke favorably towards Christianity were the members of the British heavy metal group Black Sabbath, the band in which Ozzy Osbourne came to prominence as the vocalist. Their consistently dark stage and lyrical personas, did not preclude them however from including a track on their 1971 album Master of Reality that was entitled “After Forever.” And on this song, the band that had become the virtual poster-child for heavy metal excess turned their talents to a relatively serious endorsement of faith, and a rather strong critique of those who would disdain spiritual beliefs. “Have you ever thought about your soul can it be saved? Or perhaps you think that when you’re dead you just stay in your grave/Is God just a thought within your head or is he a part of you? Is Christ just a name that you read in a book when you were in school?…Well I have seen the truth, yes I’ve seen the light and I’ve changed my ways/And I’ll be prepared when you’re lonely and scared at the end of our days/Could it be you’re afraid of what your friends might say/If they knew you believed in God above? They should realize before they criticize/That God is the only way to love…Perhaps you’ll think before you say that God is dead and gone/Open your eyes, just realize that He’s the one/The only one who can save you now from all this sin and hate”

 

 

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But surely amongst the most surprising candidates to have ever penned a Christian-themed song would have been Alice Cooper. Born Vincent Furnier, this pioneer of “shock rock” became notorious to 1970’s audiences for his gory stage shows which included mock executions, live boa constrictors, chopped-up baby dolls, and all manner of other horrors, presided other by the gravelly-voiced Cooper, whose trademark snake-eye makeup gave him a particularly sinister appearance on stage. Yet in 1971, he penned “Second Coming” for the Alice Cooper band’s breakout third album “Love it to Death”. “I couldn’t tell, if the bells were getting louder/The songs they ring I finally recognize/I only know, hell is getting hotter, the Devil’s getting smarter all the time/And it would be nice to walk upon the water/To talk again to angels on my side/I just come back to show you, all my words are golden/So have no gods before me, I’m the light”

 

At times the lyrical hints can be very subtle, yet still telling. For example, Don McLean’s 1971 smash-hit “American Pie” has been played ad nauseum on radio from that day to this, and there have been numerous attempts to critically unravel the “message” of the song. Yet tucked away near the end of the tune is a Trinitarian reference, reflective perhaps of the fact that McLean grew up in a Christian household: “And the three men I admire most/The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost/They caught the last train for the coast/The day the music died.” In some instances, an artist never released any Christian-themed music for much of their career, but then suddenly an album comes out which makes you wonder if they hadn’t been wrestling with some of these themes all along. Judas Priest was a hard-edged band out of Birmingham, England, that, along with Black Sabbath was considered one of the pioneering groups of the heavy metal genre in the 1970s. Their lead singer, Rob Halford, later became known in 1998 for being one of the first metal singers to come out as openly gay. As they watched Halford up on stage, dressed from head to toe in leather and studs, and often making his entrance on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, even his most avid fans would have perhaps had trouble believing that their hero was actually raised in a Christian home, prays every day, and credits a belief in God to helping him overcome his alcohol and drug addictions in the mid-1980s. In 2009, Halford released a Christmas album called Winter Songs that included faithful, if albeit heavy-metal-tinged renditions of traditional carols such as “O Holy Night”, “What Child is this?”, and “O Come all ye faithful”.

 

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And the list could go on. I could talk about rock groups in later decades that explored spiritual themes, from such well-known artists as U2, to bands on the more “indie” range of the musical spectrum, such as Belle and Sebastian. But now I’d like to discuss just briefly about why it is that Christ and His message have exerted such an endearing fascination even in the world of rock and roll, which ostensibly celebrates so many values that would be opposed to Biblical truths. Certainly there are Scriptural passages which suggest that all people, even those who’ve never been exposed directly to the Gospel, are still able to access some knowledge of God through the direct evidence of the world around them, as well the promptings of their own conscience. Such a viewpoint is called “natural theology” and is expressed well by Paul in Romans 1:18-20—“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because, what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” Now Paul, who is among the greatest missionaries and evangelists of all time, is certainly not saying that God’s presence and message are so obvious that they need no communication. Obviously he dedicated much of his life to the very specific endeavor of seeking to spread the Good News of Jesus. But it does seem that Paul believes everyone should be able to at least arrive at a basic knowledge of God from those natural proofs of divine existence which, in addition to the order and majesty of Creation, would also include the innate sense of morality that we possess, try though many may to suppress it. Paul makes a somewhat similar point during his famous address to the Athenians on Mars Hill in Acts 17. Here, speaking to a crowd full of intellectuals and skeptics, as well as those immersed in pagan polytheism, Paul surprisingly suggests that many in his audience might be closer to the one true God than they realize. First, he makes mention of the monument which he noticed while passing through the Areopagus: “For as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you.” Then, in Acts 17:26-8, Paul continues his theme that God is more a part of the Athenian culture and intellectual landscape than his hearers could conceive: “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring” By quoting from a Greek poet, Paul further demonstrates that this Athenian culture is perhaps more open to monotheism than would be previously imagined. I bring up these examples from Paul to underscore my point that our own Western culture remains more influenced by and open to spiritual, and even specifically Christian ideas than we too might imagine. Taking rock and roll as a quintessential cultural product of the West, and specifically America, this also holds true, as we have observed by examining a selection of spiritually-influenced lyrics from bands who are in no way identifiably “Christian”.

 

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Having mentioned natural theology, and the foundational need that humanity seems to have to acknowledge the Divine, across different cultures and time periods, I would be remiss if I didn’t also consider the innate power of music to evoke spiritual feelings. Certainly the Psalms are an example of this natural, and deep-seated connection between music and the spiritual. Although they are technically considered part of the Wisdom Literature genre in the Bible, they are really unique in comparison to any other section of Scripture. The Psalms address an incredible breadth of subjects and themes. In the simplest terms, we could refer to the Psalms as the “songbook” of Ancient Israel. These poetic compositions were sung, often to musical accompaniment, and would have been part of the Temple worship of ancient Judaism. They continue to be important in Jewish synagogue worship to this day, and from the earliest history of Christianity, psalms also featured in the liturgy and worship practices of the Church. While the Psalms were probably originally used mostly in a communal worship setting, many of them, especially some authored by David, have a very personal and individual perspective as well. The name of the book of Psalms in Hebrew is “Tehillim”, meaning “praises”, a fitting title since almost every Psalm contains words of praise to the Lord. The Greek word “Psalmoi”, from which we get the English title “Psalms” means “instrumental music”, again reflecting the fact that the Psalms were originally designed to be sung to musical accompaniment.

 

 

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The 150 Psalms are the “songbook of life” because they express so many universal human emotions, ranging from joy to despair, while at the same time, they always point us back to God as the author and guide of life. There are psalms of praise and thanksgiving, psalms of lament, imprecatory psalms (calling for judgment on the enemies of God), and psalms of confession—those seeking forgiveness for sins committed. In dealing with love and hatred, sorrow and forgiveness, as well as the pure joy of praising and exalting God—we could say that the Psalms first covered many of the genres and moods that are by now cliché to sing about in popular music, including rock and roll. Bono, lead singer of the legendary Irish rock band U2 is a practicing Christian, who has often addressed spiritual themes in his lyrics, although U2 have never been regarded as a purely “Christian” group in terms of their song subject matter. Back in 1999, he reflected about the Psalms, writing at length: “That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me — the blues. Man shouting at God — “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?” (Psalm 22). I hear echoes of this holy row when unholy blues man Robert Johnson howls, “There’s a hellhound on my trail,” or Van Morrison sings “sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” Texas Alexander mimics the psalms in “Justice Blues”: “I cried Lord my father, Lord thy kingdom come. Send me back my woman, then thy will be done.” Humorous, sometimes blasphemous, the blues was backsliding’ music; but by its very opposition, it flattered the subject of its perfect cousin, gospel. Abandonment, displacement is the stuff of my favorite psalms. The Psalter may be a font of gospel music, but for me it’s in his despair that the psalmist really reveals the nature of his special relationship with God. Honesty, even to the point of anger: “How long, Lord? Wilt thou hide thyself forever?” (Psalm 89) or “Answer me when I call” (Psalm 5).”

 

Bono continues: “Psalms and hymns were my first taste of inspirational music. I liked the words but I wasn’t sure about the tunes — with the exception of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” I remember them as droned and chanted rather than sung. Still, in an odd way, they prepared me for the honesty of John Lennon, the baroque language of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the open throat of Al Green and Stevie Wonder… Psalm 40 suggests a time in which grace will replace karma, and replace the very strict laws of Moses (i.e. fulfill them). I love that thought. David, who committed some of the most selfish as well as selfless acts, was depending on it. That the scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries used to shock me; now it is a source of great comfort.”

I love these words from Bono, not only because U2 is one of my favorite rock bands, but also because I feel like his description of the Psalms so seamlessly explains how this spiritual “songbook” expresses so many of the themes that thousands later worked their way into the forerunner of rock, the blues, and then rock music itself. Furthermore, I believe that the honest emotion, and the raw “realness” which enables so many people to resonate with the Psalms, is also a major factor in attracting listeners to rock music. In 1971, giving an interview to Rolling Stone magazine, and reflecting back on the beginning of his fascination with rock music, John Lennon observed: “It gets through to you; it got through to me, the only thing to get through to me of all the things that were happening when I was fifteen. Rock & roll then was real; everything else was unreal. The thing about rock & roll, good rock & roll…is that it’s real, and realism gets through to you despite yourself. You recognize something in it which is true, like all true art.” The raw honesty of the emotions that rock music can evoke in its playing might not always drive the musicians or their audience towards spiritual matters and God, but certainly I’ve tried to show in this blog post that it’s also not so much of a stretch to see how rock and roll, for all of its notorious reputation as an art form, can also at times celebrate more elevated spiritual thoughts and emotions. We have also observed how the long lineage of musical forms which led to the emergence of rock, including blues, country music, and Gospel music, all could be said to originate in the Psalms. Music then seems to be one of the ways that God has provided for us to express that which cannot be expressed otherwise, to unburden our souls, and celebrate both sacred, and profane longings.

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That such a medium could lead people closer to God then is not really too surprising. It certainly proved to be the case for the aforementioned Alice Cooper. The notorious “shock rocker” of the 1970s, once said this about his musical outlook: “We were into fun, sex, death and money when everybody was into peace and love. We wanted to see what was next. It turned out we were next, and we drove a stake through the heart of the Love Generation.” But despite such a nihilistic stance, Cooper had still maintained enough moral sensibility to write a song like “Second Coming”, whose lyrics I cited earlier in the post. And eventually, through the ravages of years of touring, and substance abuse, God reached even the supposedly hardened heart of Alice Cooper. He is now a born-again believer, a man who, when he is not touring, works with a faith-based organization he started called “The Solid Rock Foundation” to help at-risk youth through free musical training. Cooper reflected on his eventual conversion in a 2014: “So songs like ‘Second Coming’ and things like that were all pretty much always warning about Satan. Almost everything I wrote was ‘good and evil, don’t pick evil…You know, even when I wasn’t Christian I was saying that. You know, ‘God and the Devil, don’t pick the Devil, because it’s a bad idea… The very fact that He [God] cared enough about me to save my life about 20 times, you know, and help me survive a million different things to put me where I am now. And then the challenge I have now, being a Christian in the rock business. You know, He kind of put me in the philistines, the camp of the philistines, which is okay.” In the same interview, Cooper mused on the ways in which his life was transformed through putting his faith in Christ: “Well, before you are always self—you’re always self-centered. Everything is for you.  Your self is God. And we make lousy gods. Humans make lousy gods, I think. We need to let God be God and us be what we are. I think that’s what changes: the focus on who you’re serving. You’re not serving you. You’re serving Christ.” Finally, he addressed his struggle about whether to continue in his profession as a rock musician following his conversion: “God’s chipping away at your life all the time to try to make you more like Him. That’s what a Christian is, a person that’s being molded and shaped all their life …. I think the Lord expects you to do your best in His name. I had to struggle a long time about rock and roll. I realized it’s not really the music. It’s what’s being said with the music. So I think you have to be careful of what you’re writing, what you’re representing.”

 

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In that last quote, Cooper really gets at heart of why rock, like any other type of music, can be used to praise God as much as to distract or lead people away from Him. It’s not about the heavy drums, pounding bass, screaming electric guitars, or even the theatrical visual image portrayed by many rock performers. These are but the external trappings of the art form, although many critics have confused them for the essence of the message itself. Instead, it’s all about what the musician, or band has to say. And hopefully as this post has demonstrated, even some of the most worldly and irreligious rock groups have at times felt compelled to explore spiritual themes with their words. In Matthew 16:13-15, Jesus asks His disciples about His identity—first from the standpoint of outside opinions, but then from within the group itself. “He asked His disciples saying ‘Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” This question of Christ’s echoes down through the centuries, and it would seem, compels even those who are seemingly far from God to ponder the life, work, and message of Christ. Sure, one could dismiss these spiritual songs as anomalies in an otherwise thoroughly secular catalog for many of these artists. Perhaps they were written even from a tongue-in-cheek, or ironic standpoint, simply playing with the audience’s expectations by departing from the usual “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll” stereotype. Or, just possibly, they were written from a real, if perhaps even on some level subconscious desire by these artists to provide a response to the question of Jesus in Matthew 16:15. Certainly for me, when I hear these unlikely hymns, it’s a reminder to be on the lookout for those around me who might be searching for God, even those very ones who seem furthest from Him.

Lessons from St. Paul–Living in the State of Grace

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At my home church in Colorado, East Boulder Baptist, I recently had the chance to preach on a fascinating passage from Romans that helps shed some light on how we are to approach living the Christian life. Working in campus ministry at CU-Boulder, one of my main focuses is in the area of discipleship. It really represents the proverbial “other side of the coin” in relation to evangelism. Because after someone has heard the good news of the Gospel and made a decision to follow Christ, the real process of the Christian life begins—which is living out a personal relationship with Christ on a daily basis. In Romans 6:15-23, Paul talks about how the Christian should live in light of the law on one hand, and the freedom that we have in Christ on the other. This is such an important passage, and so rich in theological detail, but it’s not just of historical interest. Because I believe that today in 2016, as much as in the 1st century AD when Paul was writing, Christians are still struggling to not fall into the ditches on either side of the road when it comes to how they should embody their faith. On one side, there exists legalism, where people get confused into thinking that if they just do the right things, they can earn God’s favor and be a good Christian through sheer determination and force of will. This is a profound misunderstanding of what it means to trust in and follow Jesus. Paul himself was once embroiled in this type of thinking, as he reveals in Philippians 3:4-7. But then he gradually realized that the law, and adherence to its principles couldn’t save him. Yet on the opposite extreme, Paul is also dealing with people who say that since we’re Christians, and we’re no longer bound by the Old Testament laws, and so we can just do whatever we please. This is a heretical doctrine technically known as antinomianism, and it’s summed up in that first verse of the passage. Romans 6:15—“What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!”

 

            So here is the challenge that Paul faces in writing this letter for the church’s instruction, and that we as Christians still face today. How can we understand that we don’t have to judge ourselves according to our works, or by how well our actions correlate to a standard of ethics and morality—of religious rules?? That’s trying to earn God’s favor through human efforts—and that’s the essence of legalism. A few months back, I had the opportunity to participate in a simulcast of David Platt’s “Secret Church” at East Boulder Baptist. It proved to be a wonderful and informative evening, and the title of Platt’s talk was “A Global Gospel in a world of religions.” He discussed the principal belief systems around the world other than Christianity, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Animism. And what all of these systems of belief have in common is that they to some extent or another all teach a means of achieving spiritual favor through human effort—in effect what we might call various forms of legalism.

 

But if we strive to avoid legalism, on the other hand, how can we also understand that freedom from the law doesn’t mean that sin doesn’t count, or isn’t to be taken seriously?? That’s the problem with antinomianism. And the answer to how to navigate down that faith road and not end up in either ditch is to embrace the love and grace that Christ offers us. To live the Christian life is to enter into a love relationship with our Savior Jesus. And that love Christ offers, and the grace to cover our sins and shortcomings overrides a legalistic, fear-based view of Christianity that’s all about rules and the penalties that come from breaking them. Then at the same time, a love for Christ is stronger than any reckless desires which might lead us to abuse our freedom from the law and needlessly indulge in sin. Between the two extremes then of legalism, and an overly-casual attitude towards sin—I believe that love can guide us safely. When I think of the power of love to affect change, I’m reminded of a timeless children’s story I first read ages ago. It’s one of Aesop’s fables–“The North Wind and the Sun.” The mighty North Wind decides to challenge the Sun to a test of strength. Their object will be to compel a passing traveler to remove his cloak. The wind thinks this will be a fairly easy matter, and begins to blow with all its force, intending to rip the coat right off the traveler’s back. But of course the harder the gusts come, the more the traveler hangs on to his coat, and grips it tight to his body. Then it’s the Sun’s turn, and after a few minutes of its loving, gentle warmth, the traveler happily removes his cloak. That fable illustrates the power of love to win out over any other type of force. The power of Christ’s love and grace can ultimately help safeguard against either legalism or antinomianism.

 

 

But to better understand the dangers of both these positions, let’s proceed further into the passage. Verse 16 reveals a somewhat unflattering truth about the human condition, but one that is accurate nonetheless. Because even as Americans, living in an open, democratic society, with all of the civil rights and liberties that we enjoy—we are still all slaves. Listen to Romans 6:16—“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin to death, or of obedience to righteousness?” In other words, we will all serve something—either our sinful desires, or the righteous model that’s offered to us through Christ. Now I know that’s not what anyone really wishes to hear, or believe about themselves. It was the same way with the Israelites—they were incredulous, and indignant even to say the least when Jesus, speaking in John 8, tells them much the same thing. John 8:35—“Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave to sin.”

So the question at hand here is who do you wish to serve?? Martin Luther, the great German theologian, and father of the Protestant Reformation envisioned it this way—he talked about all humans being like horses that would be ridden either by God or the devil. So in Luther’s estimation we are each made to serve someone. Now there are some people who have a little stronger conception of human free will. Such persons might say—“I make my own choices”, whereas the image of a slave would seem to suggest someone who doesn’t have much agency or decision-making ability. But consider this little poem from R. Lee Sharpe. It’s one that I quite like—since I first heard it quoted by my pastor back in Alabama several years ago. “Isn’t it strange how princes and kings, and clowns that caper in sawdust rings, and common people, like you and me, are builders for eternity? Each is given a list of rules; a shapeless mass; a bag of tools. And each must fashion, ere life is flown, a stumbling block, or a Stepping-Stone.” Sharpe’s brief poem captures essentially the same idea that Luther was trying to convey, just from a somewhat different viewpoint. Because even if we focus more on the idea of our ability to choose and exercise our free will, we still have to make decisions about what we are going to value and seek to accomplish with the limited time we are allotted in this life. And if we end up serving our own selfish, and sinful desires, there’s a good chance that our life’s legacy will prove to be more of a stumbling block for those who come after. However, if we live to serve God, and then by extension others, we can hope that our legacy may be an encouragement, a stepping stone to those who’ll follow. So back to Paul’s central question—will we be slaves to sin, or to righteousness?? Next, he’s going to show us what the results of each decision look like.

 

Romans 6:19-21 illustrates the final consequences of being slaves to sin. Paul doesn’t mince words here, but instead wants to clearly demonstrate what our patterns of sin will culminate in if they remain unchecked. Romans 6:21—“What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.” Then consider James 1:14-15, which in equally stark terms lays out the result if we follow through with what might be termed the “life-cycle” of sin. “Each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.” Sin ultimately leads to death—you really can’t put it in much simpler terms, can you?? That noted Evangelical pastor, writer, and theologian, Francis Schaeffer once observed: “Every man has built a roof over his head to shield himself at the point of tension…The Christian lovingly, must remove the shelter and allow the truth of the external world and of what man is to beat upon him. When the roof is off, each man must stand naked and wounded before the truth of what is…He must come to know that his roof is a false protection from the storm of what is.” Sin, and its consequences cannot be sugar-coated. We have to understand what the ugly end result, the fearful final product will be if we give ourselves over to sinfulness, and become its slaves. So Schaeffer’s efforts to “remove people’s roofs” is just another attempt to get them to see the flaws and potential problems in their non-Christian worldviews. C.S. Lewis, in his classic work The Screwtape Letters gives us an ingenious series of dialogues between two devils in hell as they try to tempt a man termed “the patient” towards his own damnation. There’s a great line in there which pretty much sums up how Satan attempts to ensnare us in sin, and what the end result is: “An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula…To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens our Father’s heart”

 

Well now that we have a bleak picture of what it means to be a slave to sin, let’s turn to the positive kind of slavery that Paul wants us to embrace—to be a slave to righteousness. This is described in the passage in verses 17 and 18. Now first of all, we must understand that there is only one way to be set free from the power of sin. We’ve just discussed how destructive sin can be, how it leads ultimately to death, and so how can we hope to escape its power? We can’t do it through the law alone—you can read through the whole narrative of the Old Testament and witness how the Children of Israel tried that approach and failed. Or look at the life of Paul himself—a man who was profoundly obedient to the law, and yet found that it couldn’t change his heart. We can’t escape sin through our own determination or will-power. Indeed many of us could probably identify with the profound frustration that Paul expressed in Romans 7:19—“For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil that I will not to do, that I practice.” Relying on the law and our own human efforts to save us from sin is the essence of the problem with legalism, as we’ve already discussed. It is a flaw that many other world religions possess too. Yet on the other hand, some people try to escape sin by pretending in essence that it doesn’t really exist. They profess a kind of sloppy idealism, where if we just do whatever we want, and wish all other problems away, then we don’t have to face consequences, and live by any particular standards. We’ve already given a name to this behavior—antinomianism. To put it in slightly less theological, and more contemporary terms, these are the kind of people who might cite the phrase “all you need is love” in response to all the world’s problems. As a big of a Beatles fan as I am, I have to say that this quote from one of their most famous songs isn’t quite sufficient. Yes, we do need love—but what kind of love? And as unpopular as it is to say, love is meaningless if it’s directed indiscriminately towards everything—if it is not accompanied by standards, even by judgment. We love the idea of standing up for human rights, but that then means we should hate other things, like human trafficking. Or we can love a friend, but hate the bad choices they are making, the addictions that are ruining their lives. But in a world where people have rejected the idea of universal or absolute standards, how can we then turn around and judge certain practices or customs? To what authority will we appeal to? If all we need is love—to whose standard and idea of love are we turning towards?

 

I say all this to bring us to a clear conclusion—only through the love, and atoning work of Christ, and Christ alone, can we be saved from the power of sin.  We simply cannot do it by ourselves!! Then, as Paul says in Romans 6:18—“Having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” So how do we pursue such a life of righteousness? Well maybe a story, a literary anecdote, will help to illustrate for us. O. Henry was perhaps the greatest short story writer in American literature, and he became particularly known for crafting stories with unexpected, surprise endings. One of his finest, which I still remember from the time I first came across it as a high school student, was entitled “A Retrieved Reformation”, first published in 1903. It concerns the story of one Jimmy Valentine who at the beginning of the narrative, is just about to be released from prison via a special pardon from the governor. The warden suggests that he try to live a straight life from here on out, but hardly has he been released from the penitentiary than Valentine resumes his old habits as a thief, one who specializes in safe-cracking to be exact.  He pulls of a few heists but then, as in many a good story, love intervenes. Jimmy falls in love with a girl in the small town of Elmore, Arkansas, and he’s motivated to begin pursuing the honest life of a shoe salesman. His love, Annabelle, is ironically enough the daughter of the town’s banker. Anyways, Jimmy changes his name to Ralph Spencer, as symbolic of this new start in life. And he writes a letter to an old friend, planning to give away his old set of custom made burglar’s tools to signify a clean break with his criminal past. In the letter he says: I want to make you a present of my kit of tools. I know you’ll be glad to get them—you couldn’t duplicate the lot for a thousand dollars. Say, Billy, I’ve quit the old business—a year ago. I’ve got a nice store. I’m making an honest living, and I’m going to marry the finest girl on earth two weeks from now. It’s the only life, Billy—the straight one. I wouldn’t touch a dollar of another man’s money now for a million. After I get married I’m going to sell out and go West, where there won’t be so much danger of having old scores brought up against me. I tell you, Billy, she’s an angel. She believes in me; and I wouldn’t do another crooked thing for the whole world.” Now so far so good—it seems that the newly christened Ralph Spencer truly is on his way to a second chance in life. But our pasts have a way of pursuing and even overtaking us, and so it is with Ralph Spencer. For you see there is a detective named Ben Price, who helped to arrest the former Jimmy Valentine, and has been back on his trail since. He’s hoping this time to put Valentine away for a good, long sentence.

 

Right after Ralph writes the letter, planning to give away his burglary tools, he and Annabelle are visiting her father’s bank, and at that very moment, Ben Price has arrived in town, and is simply waiting for the most opportune time to arrest the real Jimmy Valentine, alias Ralph Spencer. Then, one of Annabelle’s young nieces is accidentally locked into the big bank vault. The combination hasn’t been set yet, and no one can open it. No one, that is, but Ralph Spencer. He knows what is at stake. He realizes fully that if he opens the safe to rescue the young girl, with Ben Price there watching, he will fully reveal the truth—that Ralph Spencer is nothing more than Jimmy Valentine, the former bank robber. Everything, his new life, his impending marriage to Annabelle, his attempt at repentance and reformation, will be over. Yet he doesn’t hesitate. Using the set of tools he was preparing to give away, Ralph cracks the safe in a matter of minutes to rescue the young girl. He then turns to the figure of Ben Price, who’s been looming in the bank doorway the whole time, watching, and prepares to turn himself in. But then, Ben looks him over and simply announces “Don’t believe I recognize you. Your buggy’s waiting for you, ain’t it?” In a remarkable turn of events, Jimmy has been forgiven by this man who’d come to arrest him. Because Ben Price sees through the selfless act of Jimmy cracking the safe to save the girl that this man really has changed, and has been redeemed. Just as the love of a woman helps to redeem Jimmy Valentine from a life of crime, we all have the opportunity to also be redeemed by love—but by the infinitely greater love of God. If we can experience freedom from sin, and the promise of eternal life through the sacrifice made by Christ, then that should provide all of the motivation, all of the encouragement we need to pursue a life of obedient service to righteousness, rather than to our sinful desires.

The last verse in our passage, Romans 6:23, is effectively a summary of everything we’ve already talked about. It lays out the stark truth about sin, but then offers us the unimaginable hope that comes through the gift of salvation in Christ. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Each of us today has this priceless opportunity to experience life in the “State of Grace.” We don’t have to live under the pressure of a legalistic, performance-driven vision of trying to please God with our actions. We also can avoid the fallacy of simply indulging in sinfulness, which is a destructive path that will ultimately lead us to death. Now is maintaining this balance always going to be easy?? Of course not, but that is why we have the Holy Spirit living in us, to guide, to teach, and to mold us ever more into a pattern of Christ-likeness. That is why we have Christian communities, churches, where we can hold one another accountable, and encourage each other in this pilgrimage of faith. And that’s why we have God’s Word, to store away in our hearts, so that we may live according to its principles. We should all strive to seek after the model presented to us by Christ in Matthew 20:27-28. Here Jesus says “Whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” The Word of God tells us plainly that we will serve something—either our sinful natures, or the way of righteousness as exemplified by Christ. So let us pursue lives that are oriented to the love and service of God and others. God has served us—so we should each also take up that role. And in doing so, we can find the same joy and purpose as Paul by pursuing the path of Christlikeness no longer as slaves to sin, but as faithful servants in obedience to righteousness. Amen!

Review of Revelation

 

I must confess that Revelation has not always been my favorite book in Scripture. I can distinctly remember a time before I went to seminary in which I imagined that perhaps one of the things that pastors learned when they earned a Master’s of Divinity degree was how to understand (and then preach/blog about!) books such as this. And it seemed I wasn’t the only one who had mixed views on this last chapter of the Biblical narrative. Many different Christians I talked to who were otherwise well-versed in Scripture appeared to be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable with Revelation. On the other hand, there were Christians who appeared to devote an inordinate amount of their devotional and theological interest to this one book, and unlocking its “secrets.”

In subsequent years however I’ve fortunately had the chance to learn to appreciate and absorb the teachings of Revelation better. I’ve heard some great teaching on its contents from David Platt and my pastor at my home church in Alabama, Jay Wolf. Back when he was still pastor of the Church at Brooke Hills, Platt did an extensive teaching series on Revelation, with the verse-by-verse detail and expositional expertise that is his trademark. One of the biggest takeaway points I remember from the series was Platt’s emphasis that Revelation is a book meant to unite, rather than divide the church. This is certainly an important truth to keep in mind, because historically Christians have sometimes drawn theological and denominational “battle lines” around where they stood on the interpretation of certain portions of Revelation such as the Millennium or the extent to which the book’s prophecies referred to past, present, or future events. To this point, I’ll add two other observations from Jay Wolf, who like David Platt wished to emphasize how Revelation could bring the church together rather than provide fodder for argumentation or fruitless eschatological speculation. Jay has said that Revelation should “drive us to Christ, not to charts”, a quasi-humorous reference to the complicated nature of some of the teaching therein, which has led some theologians and scholars to try and approach it from a visual, or schematic standpoint. But the underlying message is a serious one, that the Body of Christ should use God’s Word to find common ground and mutual encouragement, whenever possible. Jay also is fond of giving his two-word summary of Revelation’s contents as follows: “Jesus wins.” Indeed, the ultimate victory of Christ is the salient point to be taken away from Revelation, and if we lose sight of that critical truth, much of our additional study of this unique book will lose its proper focus and emphasis.

 

There are many extensive and exhaustive commentaries and companions to Revelation that I could bring into my discussion for the remainder of this blog post. But sometimes, less can be more, and I want to highlight one relatively brief commentary that I have found particularly enjoyable and accessible, Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation.[1] I first used this commentary in seminary, and revisited it recently for my own personal study. Some of the insights I gained were so valuable for my understanding of Revelation that I wanted to share them here. I’ve always envisioned my blog not only as a reflection of my ministry experiences, and personal insights I’ve gleaned from ministry, the Scriptures, and trying to pursue the Christian walk, but also to be a place where I could pass on the wisdom of others. I will freely admit that while I did have the opportunity to study a great deal about Biblical interpretation and exegesis at seminary, Revelation is a book whose complexity calls for bringing in some outside aids. I believe Bauckham has produced a readable yet still intellectually rigorous introduction to the spiritual riches of the Book of Revelation, while containing his observations within a relatively compact volume of 164 pages. It is clear from his writing that he still takes Biblical authority seriously, and is not simply approaching his work from a detached, scholarly standpoint, but rather through a lens of faith. In addition, he structures his arguments thematically, rather than in an expositional, or verse-by-verse format. As a result, Bauckham’s work encourages the reader to see more of the “big picture” concentrating on the timeless and significant themes of Revelation rather than getting caught up in the details of trying to interpret each individual verse, symbol, or prophecy. I want to reflect on just a few highlights of his work that have been personally very beneficial for me as I seek to better understand this important Scriptural text. While this will of course in no way attempt to be an exhaustive or systematic trip through Revelation, my hope is that with some further study, the book will appear a little less mystifying and will fit better into the context of the rest of Scripture. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll see that Revelation is full of practical wisdom and applicability to Christians in 2016.

As Bauckham reveals early in his book, one of the reasons that people have historically struggled to properly understand Revelation, is because they have misunderstood its genre. Revelation is often referred to as a “prophetic” or “apocalyptic” text, while other people may be most familiar with its first three chapters, which feature seven letters to different churches in Asia Minor. Revelation in fact represents a unique blend of three different types of Biblical literature—prophetic, apocalyptic, and letter. These genres are at times distinctive within the overall book but often are also intertwined together. A brief explanation of each genre’s place within Revelation may be helpful. It is a prophetic book not only because God is revealing His Word and teachings directly to the author John, but also in the way that Revelation builds extensively on tropes and traditions drawn from the Old Testament tradition, including many of the prophetic books. In addition it is addressing a specific historic situation, namely that of churches in the Asian provinces of the Roman Empire towards the end of the first century AD. Many people automatically associate the adjective “prophetic” with a foretelling of future events, and while Revelation does contain some of this type of prophecy in the broad sense, we should be careful of trying to define too specifically the types of events that may occur based on our reading or interpretation of the text. As Bauckham writes, “Revelation has suffered from interpretation which takes its images too literally. Even the most sophisticated interpreters all too easily slip into treating the images as codes which need only to be decoded to yield literal predictions. But this fails to take the images seriously as images. John depicts the future in images in order to be able to do more and less than a literal prediction could. Less, because Revelation does not offer a literal outline of the course of future events…but more, because what it does provide is insight into the nature of God’s purpose for the future.” (p.93). Revelation can be termed apocalyptic literature in that in offers us insight from a transcendent, Divine perspective, a God’s-eye view of history and events. The author, John, has a heavenly, other-worldly experience from which he draws the information and imagery that is then revealed to the reader. Finally, just as we see in other parts of the New Testament, most notably in the writings of Paul, Revelation contains letters. While chapters 1-3 include letters to seven historical churches in Asia Minor, the full impact of these teachings is designed of course to serve the benefit of the entire church. The seven churches are each struggling with different doctrinal and theological issues that in effect cover the spectrum of possible situations that Christians of that day might have faced, and still confront in the present. Just then as with the epistles of Paul, the letters in Revelation can both enable us to better understand the historical context of the problems faced by a church in a particular moment of history, and also serve as timeless sources of Scriptural instruction that remain relevant for believers today.

 

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As we think about Revelation as a whole, it’s also important to reflect briefly on its title. Sometimes mistakenly called “Revelations” the singularity of the book’s name is crucial, because its 22 chapters represent one unified message and narrative. Also, for all of the difficulty and controversy that has sometimes surrounded the proper interpretation and application of its contents, Revelation’s message was never intended to be “secret.” Revelation 22:10 clearly states this: “And he said to me, ‘Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand.” Often you will see commentaries, studies and guides for Revelation which promise to “unlock”, “decode”, or “unveil” its message. But the fact of the matter is that the book’s message is not meant to be hidden away, or kept secret from all but the select few with the knowledge to understand it. Yes, there are symbols and imagery that must be investigated and better understood, but their apparent inaccessibility to the uninitiated reader is much more a function of the gulf in time and space between our culture in the America of 2016 and the cultural situation of the 1st century AD in the Ancient Near East. It does not stem from the author of Revelation’s intent to deceive, mystify or somehow hide his message from anyone. Imagine a time traveler from centuries in the future suddenly arriving in our present day and perusing political cartoons in a local newspaper. They might be initially stumped by caricature depictions of Trump and Hilary Clinton, or the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey. However any one of us would readily understand these symbols and their interpretive meaning, perhaps without even needing to read the captions of the cartoon. In a similar fashion, the initial contemporary audience of John’s teaching would have understood many of the images he used instinctively, so as Christians in 2016 we need to recognize that our lack of understanding of Revelation is not formulated on any attempt by the author to keep his meaning hidden, but a function of these cultural and historical differences, which can be bridged in large part through Scriptural study. Adding to this, Bauckham notes of the symbology in Revelation: “once we begin to appreciate their sources and their rich symbolic associations, we realize that they cannot be read either as literal descriptions or as encoded literal descriptions, but must be read for their theological meaning and their power to evoke response.” (p.20).Knowing then that Revelation is not meant to be in any way a “secret” teaching should reinforce our belief that is has a message designed to bring the church together, rather than split it into factions based on who can properly understand these teachings. Nonetheless, while Revelation conveys this message of unification, it also carries a message of judgment, which we will discuss in further detail a little later. Now sometimes the book is summarized as being solely designed to provide comfort to Christians who were beginning to suffer increasing persecution under the auspices of the Roman Empire. While it certainly does have this function, Revelation is also a book which challenges Christians who have become complacent and comfortable under imperial rule to the point where they are willing to compromise their beliefs in order to not challenge the status quo. Such aims of the author are not contradictory however but rather complementary in the sense that they further earmark Revelation as a prophetic text which will “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”

 

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If we were to summarize the overall message given to the seven churches in Revelation 1-3 it would be this: “be victorious!”, and “don’t compromise!” While each church faces specific theological challenges, the hope is that they will be faithful to God, rather than allowing either persecution or their own comfortable co-existence within the Roman system to cause them to damage or lose their witness as Bodies of Christ altogether. Then, in Revelation chapter 4, we get a glimpse into the Throne Room of Heaven, part of the otherworldly perspective that the unique apocalyptic focus of this book can offer. God’s sovereignty is here made manifest, and plainly acknowledged as it will be in the future all across the earth. The Throne Room scene also offers some interesting usage of Old Testament symbols which are now slightly re-envisioned. For example, the Divine Throne is surrounded by four living creatures, reminding us of the cherubim that flanked the Ark of the Covenant, and the heavenly creatures described in Ezekiel 1. Incidentally, these four living creatures, described as having the appearance of a lion, calf, man, and eagle have traditionally been used to symbolize the four Gospels: Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John, respectively. Again and again in Revelation, we see the appearance of Old Testament symbols which gain a new interpretive power in the context of their usage in this book. Thus the sealed scroll described in Revelation 5 and the sealed book which John is told to eat in Revelation 10 have their Old Testament counterparts in the scroll the prophet eats in Ezekiel 3.

Significantly too, the imagery in Revelation maintains an overall harmony and consistency with the Old Testament. So, just as throughout the Old Testament we never see the face of God directly, Revelation also resists in any way anthropomorphizing the person of God the Father—that is presenting Him in human form. Thus while images of judgment, thrones, and crowns might conjure up human ideas of monarchy, as Bauckham mentions, the goal of the author is actually to convey a totally opposite and other conception of God that is non-human: “John’s purpose is certainly not to compare the divine sovereignty in heaven with the absolute power of human rulers on earth. Quite the contrary: his purpose is to oppose the two…the imagery purges it of anthropomorphism and suggests the incompatibility of God’s sovereignty.” (p. 43.). Furthermore, Bauckham perceptively points out that how the insistence in Revelation on an otherworldly, transcendent God does not make Him any less close to humanity, but actually can serve to increase His immanence, and nearness to us: “Transcendence requires the absolute distinction between God and finite creatures, but not at all His distance from them. The transcendent God, precisely because He is not one finite being among others, is able to be incomparably present to all, closer to them than they are to themselves.” (p. 46). Revelation also reinvigorates another conception of God that goes all the way back to the beginning of the Biblical narrative in Genesis, that of God as Creator. Part of the great hope that the book offers us is the promise that God will not simply preserve the faithful in the face of persecution or amidst the tribulation of the End Times, but that He will actively recreate both heaven and earth, thus perfecting what, in the case of earth, had previously been marred by sin and the effects of the Fall. This is the great truth inherent in Revelation 21:1—“Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea.” The reference to the disappearance of the sea in 21:1 is highly significant as well. The ancient Israelites, not being a sea-faring people, tended to view the ocean as a place of mystery and fear. It was where legendary monsters dwelled, such as the Leviathan mentioned in Job. In the Genesis creation account, God’s spirit had brought order to the primeval chaos of the waters. These same waters had of course later flooded over the earth in judgment, save for Noah and his family in Genesis 6. So God’s final destruction of the sea in Revelation 21 signifies on multiple levels the ultimate Divine victory. The sea’s absence means there will no longer be anything hidden or unknown, and at the same time God is declaring that His Creation is now eternally secure against the threat of destruction.

 

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The immanence of the Divine presence is of course also distinctly communicated to the church and the faithful through the person of Christ. And make no mistake, Jesus is a very central figure in this book. In fact one of the hallmarks of the text is its high Christology, comparable to that found in the Gospel of John. And interestingly enough, despite this emphasis on Jesus’ clear identity as the Messiah and One who is equal to God, Revelation, as we have already alluded to, features a strong Jewish identity through its many references to Old Testament prophets and themes. As Bauckham explains: “the worship of Jesus was part of early Christian religious practice from a relatively early date and it developed within Jewish Christianity where consciousness of the connection between monotheism and worship was high. It cannot be attributed to Gentile Christian carelessness of the requirement of monotheistic worship. It must be regarded as a development internal to the tradition of Jewish monotheism, by which Jewish Christians implicitly included Jesus in the reality of the one God.” (p.61). Some religious scholars will try to argue that the worship of Christ was only added later as more Gentiles came into the church, but here Bauckham strongly contends that these largely Jewish Christian communities nonetheless understood and viewed Christ as equal to God. This is a good response to the argument made by Bart Ehrman and other liberal religious scholars that Jesus was only elevated to the status of God much later in history. As an interesting grammatical side-note on the topic of Revelation’s Christology, Bauckham notes how in the original Greek, the author John often uses a singular verb or a singular pronoun when referring to God and Christ together. This is perhaps a further clue to his view that they are co-equal and indeed One.

As for Christ’s role within the Book of Revelation, there are several images used in the text to convey different aspects of Christ’s power and purpose. In Revelation 1:17, Christ refers to Himself as “the first and the last.” This brief phrase is full of symbolic importance, demonstrating as it does how Christ was present both at the beginning of Creation as a member of the Trinity, and how His return will usher in the end of history. It can remind us also of the description of Christ as the Word provided in John 1:1—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Then in Revelation 5, Christ appears as the Lamb. This is of course an image of sacrifice, reminding us of Jesus’ willing death for the sins of all humanity, and again reminiscent of earlier passages from the Gospels, namely John 1:29—“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” We can think too of the sacrificial Passover Lamb of Exodus 12. Jesus is also viewed in Revelation as the fulfillment and culmination of the many Messianic prophecies found in the Old Testament. Thus in Revelation 22:16, Christ offers this self-description: “I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.” Among the many prophecies that this verse makes reference to is one found in Numbers 24:17. Jesus appears as the fearsome conquering Messiah in Revelation 19, whereas similar language can also be found in Isaiah 11. Christ’s role in Revelation is also that of a faithful witness. He is referred to in Revelation 1:5 and 3:14 as the “faithful and true witness.” His willingness to be sacrificed for the Truth of His witness is reflected by the similar faithfulness unto death demonstrated by His followers. The Greek word “martyr” literally means “witness” and while in Revelation the faithful witnesses of Christ do not necessarily always incur death as a result, it is clear from the narrative that they, and indeed all Christ followers should be prepared to be faithful even to death. The Two Witnesses described in Revelation 11 are thus symbolic of all those who follow in the model and footsteps of Christ, and are prepared to testify to the Truth of the Gospel, regardless of the penalties this might bring from the oppressive forces of the Empire and evil. The Two Witnesses are eventually put to death, and yet their Resurrection in Revelation 11:11 reflects of course the Resurrection of Christ, and is proof that the forces of oppression will never be able to permanently stop the spread of the Word of God.

 

Speaking of opposition to the God’s Word and work, Revelation is famed for the fearsome images it evokes of the enemies of God’s people. The three most significant are what Bauckham terms the “satanic trinity”, which includes the dragon/serpent, the sea-monster beast, and the earth-monster beast. The dragon appears in Revelation 12, as well as later in Revelation 20:2 as the creature confined by the angel into the bottomless pit. This dragon or serpent is equated in Revelation 12:9 and in 20:2 with Satan, and of course we can think back all the way to Genesis 3, and identify it equally with the serpent who tempts Adam and Eve to sin in the Garden of Eden. The connection with the Genesis narrative is further strengthened by the content of Revelation 12. Here, a woman gives birth to a son, and then is immediately pursued by the vengeful dragon. The woman flees into the wilderness to a place of sanctuary prepared for her by God, while the son is taken up to heaven. This victory of the woman and her offspring even in the face of persecution from the dragon, who literally represents evil incarnate, confirms the prophecy found back in Genesis 3:15. There, God pronounces this curse upon the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed. He shall bruise you head, and you shall bruise His heel.” The woman then can symbolize Eve, the first mother as well as later Mary, the Mother of Jesus, while the Son is Christ, whose sacrificial death will be the bruised heel, but who will permanently destroy the head of evil. The two beasts meanwhile, also have their Old Testament antecedents. The sea-beast a continuation of the concept of the Leviathan, a primeval sea monster, and the Behemoth, a gigantic land creature, are both mentioned in the Book of Job. In the Book of Revelation, these primeval monsters are transformed into symbols of imperial Roman power. The sea-monster represents the military might of Rome, while the earth-monster symbolizes the propaganda machine of the imperial cult. While it would appear in Revelation 13:7 that the beasts are able to overcome the faithful by slaying them, it is in fact the very death of these martyrs and witnesses to Christ that ensures their final victory. As Bauckham shares: “When the martyrs testify to the true God against the spurious divine claims of the beast and refuse to admit the lies of the beast even when they could evade death by doing so, they win the victory of truth over deceit. The beast’s lies cannot deceive them or even win their lip-service by coercion. He can kill them, but he cannot suppress their witness to the truth.” (p.91). Moreover, in this critical confrontation between good and evil, John wants his readers to know that everyone has a part to play. The decision as to whether someone will side with the Empire’s ostensibly invincible might and the worldly rewards it can offer, or stand for the power of God’s unquenchable truth and its heavenly inheritance is one that Christians today still must confront.

Then, in Revelation 17, another important symbolic enemy is introduced—the Great Harlot, also called Babylon. The city of Babylon and its associated empire was of course formerly one of the great enemies of the Jewish people, responsible for the destruction of the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 586 BC, and subsequently the site of a long period of exile for many Jews. It was now a symbol and essentially a code word for the current great Empire and enemy—Rome. The image of a harlot or whore not only conjures up unfaithfulness, and the worship of many different gods (thus a kind of religious “promiscuity”—the opposite of a strict monotheism), but also is a commercial image that reminds readers of the formidable economic clout of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, whereas Christians are called to defeat the two beasts, they are called to escape Babylon, as Revelation 18:4 attests: “And I heard another voice form heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues.” Just as the beasts are defeated by the faithfulness of Christian witnesses unto death, we eventually witness the fall of Babylon in Revelation 18 as a judgment and Divine censure from God.

 

Other imagery within Revelation is often associated with numbers. One of the most famous examples is of course 666, the Number of the Beast, from Revelation 13:18. Six is the number of man (who was created on the Sixth day, along with land-dwelling animals). It is one short of seven, the heavenly number of perfection. There is plenty of symbolic importance here without having to necessarily translate through numerological analysis the meaning of the number, which some Biblical scholars have assigned as a coded reference to Nero, Domitian or another hated Emperor of the Imperial Roman regime. Also, there is a series of different judgments, fearful in their content, and severity, which come in sevens. As we have mentioned, seven is the heavenly number, the number of fullness and completion. So in this case, we can know that the judgments described—the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls, all symbolize that God’s wrath has reached its climax and is being fulfilled upon those who have repeatedly refused to repent. Other numerical associations in Revelation include the number 12 and variations of it. Twelve of course symbolizes the Twelve Tribes of Israel, showing that connection between God’s original Covenant with Israel, and His final plan for the redemption of all humanity through the Messiah from Jewish lineage—Jesus. In the Heavenly Throne Room scene in Revelation 4, we see 24 elders gathered around the Divine Throne—a multiple of twelve. Later, in Revelation 7, the Messianic fulfilment of Christ’s work is symbolized by the sealed group of 144,000, meaning 12,000 from each of the Tribes. Finally, at the end of Revelation, we can read descriptions of the New Jerusalem, which will now be the Holy City not only for the Jews, but for the redeemed of all humanity. It contains 12 gates, while in its midst is a Tree of Life (a perfect redemption of that Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which symbolized humanity’s sin and downfall in Genesis 3).

The ultimate mode of Divine triumph and the completion of God’s work in history will take place through the event of the Parousia, the Second Coming of Christ. Many Christians who’ve studied Revelation have tended to fixate their interest on this aspect of the book, and specifically on trying to ascertain the exact particulars of Christ’s Return and the events thereafter. But of course as we are reminded by Matthew 24:36, no one, not even the angels, knows the exact day or hour of Jesus’ Return. Thus, for Bauckham, our focus when considering the End Times and the exact chronology of events should be more directed towards who will triumph rather than how or when exactly that triumph will unfold. Revelation assures us of the final victory of the forces of righteousness with Christ at their head, as chapter 19 describes. In Revelation 20 we see that Satan is bound for 1000 years, and the nature of this Millennium, as well as the events which take place thereafter has been the source of much theological debate over the centuries amongst Christians. Bauckham sidesteps much of the discussion over Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism, to instead direct attention to what he feels is the main message of the teaching: “the theological point of the millennium is solely to demonstrate the triumph of the martyrs: that those whom the beast has put to death are those who will truly live eschatologically, and that those who contested his  right to rule and suffered for it are those who will in the end rule as universally as he—and for much longer: a thousand years!” Taken as a spiritual symbol, the Millennium confirms then the triumph of the faithful of Christ, the very ones the Beast had sought to destroy. Yet, as Bauckham points out, attempts to translate the Millennium onto a literal timeframe end up causing more problems, and raising more questions than is necessary: “We then have to ask all the questions which interpreters of Revelation ask about the millennium but which John does not answer because they are irrelevant to the function he gives it in his symbolic universe…Whom do the saints rule? Do they rule from heaven or on earth? How is the eschatological life of resurrection compatible with an unrenewed earth?…The millennium becomes incomprehensible once we take the image literally…John expected the martyrs to be vindicated, but the millennium depicts the meaning, rather than predicting the manner of their vindication.” (p.108). Bauckham then falls in the Amillennialist camp, as did many of the early church fathers such as St. Augustine, and prominent leaders of the Reformation like Martin Luther and John Calvin. If you are interested in more detail about this particular theological stance, Wikipedia actually has a good summary page. But basically the Amillennialist position says that  the Millennium as described in Revelation 20 is not a literal 1000 year period, but rather symbolic in nature, and yet it still definitely affirms there will be a literal Return of Christ at some unknown date in the future. But since no Christian can claim to know with any degree of certainty the exact time of Christ’s Return, perhaps as a Church our focus should be more on the meaning of these Final Things, rather than the manner in which they will take place. Thus back to Jay Wolf’s wonderfully succinct summary of the essence of Revelation’s message: “Jesus wins!”

 

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This leads to the last chapter from Bauckham’s book I want to discuss—“Revelation for today.” It would be a great tragedy if Revelation were only seen as a book focused either on yet-to-occur events of the future, or was merely a historical relic which had bolstered the strength and resolve of early church leaders facing martyrdom at the hands of a ruthless imperial system. Revelation, like all books in the Biblical Canon, contains great relevance and applicability to the lives of believers today. The power of the book really lies in the wonderful diversity of images and messages it conveys. Near the outset of this blog post we discussed how Revelation presents a unique mixture of different Biblical genres: prophetic, apocalyptic, and letter. And in the mixture of these different genres, we receive messages that at times would seem to be almost in opposition to one another, and yet actually blend together neatly in the final analysis. God’s wrath is certainly on display in the book, through a series of fearful judgments, and yet perhaps nowhere else in Scripture is His love for His people more tenderly displayed than in Revelation 21:4, where we are told “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying”. Indeed, at the conclusion of Revelation, the God who has been hidden beforehand, working through symbols, and heavenly messengers, is now directly present in a way that was never before possible in the Biblical narrative. Revelation 21:3—“Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people.” The glorious New Jerusalem that is described in Revelation 21 and 22 has no need for the sun or the Temple, because God’s magnificent presence illuminates everything and He is perfectly accessible to all who dwell in that blessed heaven. Revelation has also perhaps confused some readers with its seemingly contrasting themes of Christ’s imminent Return, and the apparent delay in the occurrence of many of the events described in the book. Certainly there is a sense of urgency and imminent expectation that runs throughout the book. John opens his narrative by referring in Revelation 1:1 to “things which must shortly take place.”, while Jesus’s last words in Revelation 22:20 are “Surely I am coming quickly.” And yet at the same time, the martyrs who in 6:10 cry out “How long, O Lord?” are told to wait a little longer, and there is a symbolic period of three-and-a-half years during which God stays His Hand concerning future judgments while the Two Witnesses continue to preach in Revelation 11. Yet we know too from elsewhere in Scripture that we must be careful in thinking that God is “delaying” when such calculations usually say more about our own human timeframe than any Divine chronology. 2 Peter 3:8-9 reminds us of this truth: “But beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” These verses are a good indicator of what is at work in the Book of Revelation as well. God’s delay, if we can call it that, is based in part on a desire to give as many people as possible the opportunity to find repentance in Christ before some of these Final Judgements come to pass. Ultimately, for both the original audience of John’s writings, and Christians in 2016, the study of Revelation invites us to wrestle with hard questions—not about the detail of particular symbology or chronology, but overarching, universal questions such as will we compromise with our culture, or resist faithfully?? What if our material prosperity and even our lives are threatened in the process? And knowing that Jesus’ final victory is assured, why aren’t we living with more purpose, conviction, and confidence as Christ followers in the here and now?? What part will we play in helping to prepare the world around us for the Return of the King? All of these questions are just as fresh, relevant, and pressing for us in 2016 as they were for believers of the first century AD, and Revelation can serve as a wonderful guide for us to think about how we will respond in a manner that is Biblically faithful.

Revelation, in the final analysis, is not a complicated “code” to invite argument over theological detail, nor a consolation reserved for some far-off future, nor an incomprehensible jumble of apocalyptic detail to be fearfully avoided. Rather, as Bauckham eloquently attests, it is a call to action for all believers, then and now! “Revelation does not respond to the dominant ideology by promoting Christian withdrawal into a sectarian enclave…while consoling itself with millennial dreams…Revelation’s outlook is oriented to the coming of God’s Kingdom in the whole world and calls Christians to active participation in the coming of the kingdom. It its daring hope for the conversion of all the nations to the worship of the true God it develops the most universalistic features of the Biblical prophetic tradition.” Reading Revelation as a call to action will be a big step towards seeing it as a teaching that should unite the Church in Christ-honoring solidarity rather than divide it into competing theological factions. The consolation Revelation provided to early Christian martyrs and the hope it offers for the final events of history are then united to its clarion call for the Christian to live boldly in the present age.

[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Burying treasure

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Burying Treasure

As a child, two of my favorite novels, ones in fact which I still enjoy to this day, were Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and J. Meade Faulkner’s Moonfleet. These classic Victorian-Era boys’ adventure stories both feature as a central plot element the search for a hidden treasure. And in both novels, for all of their light-hearted sense adventure, we also sense a darker strain, in narratives which recount the extent to which men will descend into cruel and ruthless behavior in the search of such treasure. Yet there is still something in such stories that intrigues and excites us as readers. I think in part it is the idea not merely of finding wealth, but wealth that it is hidden and inaccessible to others. Only those who are willing to go on a quest for adventure, to risk life and limb, and unravel clues from a treasure map, or a riddle-like poem, will be able to uncover the secret riches.

With this idea in mind, let’s turn our reflections to spiritual riches. These too are often hidden, not because God doesn’t want us to find them, or even because we don’t know where to look, but simply because we lack the diligence to search for and to value such blessings. The Bible in fact often uses a treasure metaphor to describe many spiritual concepts. In Matthew 13:44, Jesus famously shares this parable concerning the Kingdom of God: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Then in Proverbs 2:1-5, we find Solomon admonishing us to seek after Divine wisdom just as we would a buried treasure: “My son, if you receive my words, and treasure my commands within you, so that you incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding. Yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures. Then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.” Perhaps the greatest spiritual treasure of all is the wealth of instruction, guidance, and wisdom we can find contained within Scripture itself. The New American Standard translation of Psalm 119:11 says “Your Word I have treasured in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Thus we can know clearly from its own testimony that Scripture is the source of all of the spiritual wealth we could ever seek. And yet so many people who would consider themselves to be faithful Christians do not make the time in their lives to prioritize the reading and study of God’s Word. I have certainly found myself in such seasons of life before too.

 

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Scripture memory

However many of us may indeed have a regular quiet time, and that is a wonderful way to get into God’s Word, and meditate on its truth, and application to our lives. But another aspect of really valuing the Bible and acknowledging its absolute centrality to our faith and practice as believers is to begin to memorize portions of Scripture. Now I must confess that for many years I have heard different teachers extol the virtues of Scripture memory, but it is only recently that I have been making a more concerted effort to consistently and faithfully pursue Scripture memory as part of my devotional life. And already the results have been so fulfilling that I wanted to share in this space a little more about the value of Scripture memory, as well as talk about some verses which I’ve learned recently, and their personal significance for me. I also want to address some of the objections that people may raise to Scripture memory, or obstacles they may face, and how these can be overcome.

 

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Scripture memory mentors

First though I want to mention three people in particular who helped inspire me to pursue the process of learning and storing away of God’s Word in my heart. Jay Wolf, longtime pastor at my home church back in Alabama, First Baptist Montgomery, has long been an advocate of Scripture memory. Growing up and hearing him preach, I was always impressed with how effortlessly he could utilize additional verses and cross references that connected to whatever passage he was preaching from. I could tell he didn’t need notes to recall many of these verses, but had obviously learned them by heart. It all goes to prove an old ministerial adage—it’s not so much about having a prepared message as being a prepared man! Jay also was frequently able to take just one or two verses he had learned and utilize them to give a mini-devotional, even in the midst of an otherwise-busy staff meeting. This further proves that Scripture memory for him was not just some mental or intellectual feat, but always served a practical purpose as well—to enhance his ability to easily share the truths of God’s Word with others. I’ve seen a similar devotion to learning God’s Word from Bobby Pruett, the director of Christian Challenge here at CU-Boulder. When I meet with him for mentoring, or in staff planning meetings, and when he addresses our students as a large group, Bobby is constantly drawing upon the rich stockpile of verses he has learned over the years. He’s done a great job too of encouraging our students to begin memorizing Scripture, and has given them a number of tools to aid in that endeavor. Bobby’s emphasis on the importance of Scripture memory can in part be traced back to Max Barnett, who for many years led the Baptist Student Union at the University of Oklahoma. Max discipled Bobby in ministry, as well as many others who went on to lead campus ministries around the country. I’ve had the privilege of attending several different retreats and conferences where Max was a featured speaker, and so I’ve heard him repeatedly extol the virtues of Scripture memory as one of the most crucial foundations for his own Christian growth, and a vital spiritual discipline to pass on to students in our ministries. In fact, Max believes so strongly in this pursuit that he recently self-published a short tract entitled The Value of Memorizing Scripture: treasuring the Word of God. With Jay, Bobby, and Max, despite their devotion to internalizing the truths of God’s Word, they have never taken a legalistic or performance-driven approach. They never criticize others for not learning Scripture, nor do they demonstrate their Scriptural knowledge in anything other than a very humble manner. These ministry leaders use their Biblical acumen in such a way as to make even the most neophyte of Christians feel comfortable, and this is so important. There are some ministries and churches where one’s intellectual gifting and knowledge of the Bible can take on a prideful tone, and such attitudes can be very damaging, undermining the very truths that have been so carefully learned and absorbed from the Word of God!

 

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Reasons for Scripture memory

Now while it might seem to be a self-apparent truth, I still think it’s important to examine some of the reasons for Scripture memory, and mention the many benefits that can result from intentionally pursuing such a spiritual path. Of course this list could be literally endless, so I’ll share just a few reasons that have been impressed on my heart, as well as some insights offered in the aforementioned Max Barnett tract, The Value of Memorizing Scripture. For me, one pretty basic reason that I wanted to pursue Scripture memory more intentionally is that several of the students who I mentor individually each week are also engaged in this spiritual discipline. And so for me to be able to best encourage my students who are memorizing Scripture, I want to be doing the same thing myself! It also is helpful for the process of mentoring. As I’ve shared in an earlier blog post, mentoring and offering one-on-one discipleship to students has been one of my favorite aspects of campus ministry. But fairly early on I realized that I would not always be able to follow a set “agenda” with each student. I needed to leave some space in our meetings for them to share about what was going on in their lives. Thus my preparation had to be flexible enough to accommodate whatever unexpected twists or turns the conversation might take when someone began to honestly open up about their spiritual struggles, growth, and questions. Having verses memorized can be a great aid in mentoring though because often a student will bring up a scenario or situation that is covered perfectly by a particular verse or passage.

Scripture memory has also been enhancing my quiet times. For a while now I’ve been reading all the way through books in the Bible, rather than moving around to different sections in a topical fashion, and this has been really helpful. But I’ve also found that by focusing on particular verses, I have that much more of an understanding and appreciation for the passages they are rooted in when I come across these in my quiet time. And sometimes one just one particularly rich verse may provide plenty of material for thought and reflection. I’ve heard people complain before that they don’t feel like they retain that much from their quiet times, and so Scripture memory can address this concern by allowing you to key in on certain verses that then hopefully will stay in the mind long after you might otherwise have forgotten what passage or book you read a few weeks ago for your devotional. Finally, I have been inspired and humbled by hearing and reading the testimonies of many brave men and women of God who served in the mission field in locations which could be considered “closed.” As we all know, there are sadly many places even in our world today where the Bible is not welcomed, and may even be officially prohibited. In such places, both for missions workers, but even moreso for native believers, they only have as much of God’s Word available as they have been able to store away in their hearts. And so out of respect for the challenges that our persecuted brothers and sisters in the faith are facing around the world, I never want to take for granted the privilege I have of an open Bible in a free society, where I can study and share the truths of Scripture as freely as I please! To memorize God’s Word is another way then of cherishing and valuing the gift of Scripture.

In his tract, The Value of Memorizing Scripture, Max Barnett actually provides a list of thirty different reasons for why this practice can be spiritually beneficial for you. I want to share just a few of the ones that really impacted me. Learning portions of Scripture by heart can of course help us to avoid sin, which is not a surprising conclusion, but Max develops this concept a little further, noting how “what dominates our minds will dominate us”, and then mentioning later that “verses we have well learned provide a great reservoir for meditation.” On this topic of Scriptural meditation, Max then perceptively adds: “Some cults especially promote the idea that meditation is emptying the mind. That is not meditation according to the Scriptures. Biblical meditation is thinking on the character, truths, and ways of God. You cannot meditate on what you do not know.” Well said!! Or to phrase it another way, if your mind is not being filled with the enriching truth of Scripture, there is a good risk that it is instead being filled with other sources of input, perhaps neutral in nature, but also perhaps harmful. We can memorize Scripture to give ourselves this opportunity though to meditate upon, in the words of Paul in Philippians 4:8—“whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report.” Max’s tract also mentions another side benefit of Scripture memory—it can help to keep us mentally sharp and strengthen our overall intellectual life. Far too many people associate any kind of memorization, study, or serious reading with “school work” and maybe even try to consciously avoid these practices once they graduate. But it would totally defeat the purpose of a hard-earned education to let oneself completely stagnate mentally post-graduation, and so even small exercises like Scripture memory can help prevent this. Finally Max discusses how the verses we memorize may have a specific and special memory attached to them. As I will share a bit later in this post, I have several verses which I’ve been motivated to learn based on the unique memories that are attached to them for me.

 

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Overcoming obstacles and objections

Now, I’m certainly familiar with the fact that there may be some obstacles in place for the typical Christian that would lead them to think that Scripture memory is something they are not capable of. I say I’m familiar with this because I have raised some of these objections myself in the past (haha). But I want to address a few of them, not only to maybe show how they can be overcome, but just in general to also encourage people who are thinking about starting to learn Scripture, but feel a slight bit daunted by the task in front of them. I’ve already discussed the question of legalism briefly, and shared how people such as Jay Wolf, Bobby Pruett, and Max Barnett, while steeped in Scriptural knowledge from years of verse memorization, have nonetheless never come across as legalistic in their teaching or encouragement of this spiritual practice. The key lies in the heart attitudes. If you are doing anything in the Christian life, from memorizing Scripture to going on a mission trip, to tithing, out a sense of pride, then you are at great risk of losing the very value and spiritual benefit you might gain from these actions. So as long as Scriptural memorization is approached with a humble spirit, there is no reason for anyone to view this practice as legalistic. And to further help in this regard, I personally do no set “quotas” for myself. At any given time I have several different verses that I’m working on, but these just happen to be the ones that I’ve come across in my quiet time, or that God has put on my heart. I don’t have a set goal or amount in mind, although if that system works for others (which I’ve heard that it can) then fine. I do try to review both my new and old verses on a relatively regular basis—that is several times a week. But not having a specific goal in terms of the number I’m going to learn in any given time frame helps it to feel like something more for my own spiritual nourishment, and less like an assignment or spiritual “discipline” that must be endured. In The Value of Memorizing Scripture, Max mentions the fear of some that learning specific verses here and there could lead to taking the meaning of the verse out of context. This is always a danger we must strive to avoid in Scriptural interpretation, and exegesis. However, Max makes a convincing argument that by learning a single verse we are much more likely to remember the contents and context of a particular passage or chapter in Scripture: “You do not have to take a verse out of context. In fact, the exact opposite can be true. You can recall the context and location by a single verse. A verse can be like the handle on a suitcase. You can pick up a large suitcase by a small handle. In many books of the Bible, you can recall the content of a chapter by a single verse.”

 

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Another objection may be that people feel like they just don’t have the time to engage in memory work, or don’t wish to always have to carry a Bible around with them for that purpose. But thanks to the modern technology that most of us have access to, Scripture memory is easier than ever to pursue. With the very popular, and free Bible App you can easily highlight and copy a verse or passage of Scripture and then quickly transfer and paste the comments to your phone’s memo section, or wherever else you’d like to store the information. Then, since most of us almost always have our phones with us, whenever you have a free minute or two during the day, you can use your device to review your verses. Of course if you don’t wish to use your phone, I know others who have made small index cards with the verse written on one side and the scripture reference on the other. These cards can then be transported in a verse pack which can easily fit into your pocket. You can keep not only the verses you’re learning, but also a list of the references for the other Scriptures that you’ve already memorized, in order to be able to review those periodically. I’ve found that with 5-10 minutes of review 3-4 times a week, you can both recall old verses and start to learn new ones. And if you’ve had a fairly regular quiet time over the years, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find out that you already know a decent number of verses without even realizing it, while others will be generally familiar enough that you can learn them in their entirety relatively quickly. While as I mentioned previously, I try not to think in terms of goals or quotas, even if you had managed to just learn one new verse per month, think of the value of putting 12 Bible verses permanently into your heart by the end of the year!

Another question that may arise is what verses to memorize. Each person will probably find their own system or method that works here, but for me it helps if the verse I’m learning has some personal significance. This could mean that it was shared with me by a friend, or perhaps I came across it during my quiet time, or simply had always enjoyed the message and meaning of the verse. Some people have used topical systems, for example learning a series of verses under subjects such as prayer, evangelism, resisting temptation, etc. There is nothing wrong with this, but in my experience, and from talking with some other people engaged in Scripture memory, it’s usually easier to remember a verse that has some type of meaning to you, rather than having been assigned. Another practical tip is to try and learn all your verses from the same translation, preferably whatever you read already for your time of personal devotion. I use the New King James version. Finally, it can be good to have verse-learning partner, or partners. These could be people in your small group or Sunday school class, or a trusted friend or mentor. It can be a great spiritual devotion however to share a verse you’ve learned or are learning with another believer, and maybe even talk a little about the meaning and context in which the verse could be applied. This will also be good practice for the general application of Scripture memory. Learning Biblical references is never just an intellectual exercise, nor an act of private devotion. Rather it should always be done with an eye towards the opportunity to potentially share these truths with someone else, particularly in a situation where you might not have the time or ability to read directly from Scripture.

 

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Some favorite pieces of treasure

Now I want to share just a few verses that I’ve learned and why they are particularly significant for me. Some of you reading may even have memories and perspectives on these same verses, which I’d love to hear about! Numbers 6:22-26And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them: “The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.” This beautiful blessing from Moses is sometimes used as a benediction by pastors, and so I had certainly heard it on occasion in church growing up. But its particular significance, and the motivation for learning it came more recently. It was August of 2014, and I had just moved out here to Boulder from Alabama to begin serving with Christian Challenge at the University of Colorado. Although I was very excited to begin this new ministry, it was a bittersweet time too because I was now living further away from my family than ever before, and knew that I would really miss them. I was flipping through my Bible one day, and noticed a little post-it note in Numbers 6. There my mother had copied out the prayer in verses 24-26, and had addressed it to me. I was brought to tears by this simple reminder of a mother’s faithful love, and so from now on I’ll never be able to see these beautiful verses without being reminded of my mom. I hope to be able to pass on this same blessing to someone special in my life one day. Another verse from Numbers that I memorized recently is Numbers 11:29Then Moses said to him, “Are you zealous for my sake? Oh, that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” The context here is that Moses has learned that two other men have been prophesying in the camp of the Hebrews. But rather than becoming angry or in any way feeling threatened by this news, Moses gladly embraces the fact that God might be working through others. Too often in ministry and in churches, we become territorial, wanting to jealousy guard our little circle of influence, as though we somehow had a monopoly on spiritual truth! We should follow Moses’ example here, and rejoice when God blesses other ministries, and at the same time trust the Lord to provide and help us keep those people whom He wishes our ministry to influence.

 

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1 Samuel 16:7 has long been one of my “life verses.” “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” This was the verse I preached on the first time I ever spoke at my home church, First Baptist Montgomery, and a verse that carries a lot of significance for me as I think back on my spiritual journey up until this point. God’s reminder to Samuel to look to the interior, rather than exterior qualities of someone leads him to eventually anoint the young David as the future king. And certainly, one of my goals, from my first experiences in community ministry with the homeless, up until now and my work with college students, is to try and see the best in others, and help them to discover their God-given potential. John 14:1-4, 6Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.”… Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” This beautiful passage from my favorite Gospel, John, was a personal favorite of my grandmother’s. I can remember her quoting from it, and this same passage was later shared at her funeral. My grandmother was a remarkable person who demonstrated an active and vibrant faith, and also consistently encouraged and believed in me, long before I had the confidence or vision to know exactly what I planned to do with my life. These words from John offer great spiritual comfort, especially in the face of death, and they are doubly special because they can help me recall the memory of a dear friend who I still miss, and who had such a positive influence on my young life.

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Sometimes memory verses just have such a clear practical application that we can call them to mind any time certain situations arise. One such reference is 1 Corinthians 10:13“No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” Dealing with temptation is a universal Christian struggle, and so remembering this verse can help us to understand that no matter how strong our desire towards a particular temptation might be, God has faithfully provided for us a way to overcome these feelings, and sin never need be an inevitable occurrence. In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul offers to us a succinct summary of the whole nature of our salvation experience. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” In so many other world religions, human effort, through good deeds and acts of charity is how someone gains Divine favor. Christianity uniquely says that we can never do enough good works to please God, and thus our salvation is experienced solely through faith in the forgiving grace of God as expressed in the death of Jesus on the Cross. Hebrews 12:1-2 is a wonderfully inspiring passage—Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” These verses have added significance for me though because they represent the favorite Scriptural reference of one of the great spiritual mentors in my life, Pastor Jay Wolf from First Baptist Montgomery. Jay often concludes emails, notes, and text messages with a reference to Hebrews 12:1-2, and I also remember him sharing the personal significance of this passage to me when he performed my ordination service several years ago. Thus the energy of this Biblical exhortation and the example of one of my true role models in the ministry both combine to make Hebrews 12:1-2 an awe-inspiring section of Scripture for me! Sometimes, verses can be important because they seem to perfectly capture a situation or circumstance that we often find ourselves experiencing. In my particular ministry on a college campus, I am frequently engaging in some form of apologetics, as I respond to questions or skepticism regarding the truth and claims of the Gospel. Thus I love the message of 1 Peter 3:15—“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear;” This verse reminds me not only to always be ready to defend my beliefs, but to also be careful to do so in a way which is not argumentative or prideful, but instead reflects a respectful humility in the model of an authentic Christ-follower.

 

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I want to close with a trio of verses from Psalm 119. This longest chapter in all of Scripture is devoted to praising the excellence of God’s Word. So there could hardly be a more fitting portion of the Bible to turn to for Scripture memory. Psalm 119:10-11 states: “With my whole heart I have sought You; Oh, let me not wander from Your commandments! Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You.” The Psalmist here gives us a great reason to memorize Scripture—so that we might not trespass against the Biblical guidelines that God has offered for our lives. Psalm 119:28My soul melts from heaviness; strengthen me according to Your word.” My attention was first drawn to this reference actually when I was reading a book about the city of Amsterdam. Psalm 119:28 was chosen as the inscription for one of the city’s memorials to its Jewish victims during the German occupation in World War Two. I thought about how fitting a choice this Scripture is though for any time of sorrow in our lives. Whatever disappointment, trial, struggle, or grief we are dealing with, we can know that even if our very soul seems like it will melt, strength and restoration lie just a page away in the treasury of God’s Word. Nothing else in the world can assuage our sorrows and uphold us in dark times like the Bible! Finally there is Psalm 119:105. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” This oft-cited verse works on two different levels for me. The most basic understanding is to remind ourselves that Scripture can offer guidance like nothing else in a dark, sin-filled world where we can so easily go astray and lose ourselves. But the light imagery is also very reminiscent of the New Testament and Jesus’ description of Himself in John 8:12 as “the light of the world.” I pray that through continued Scripture memory I can reflect a little more of God’s light to others as I strive to internalize and then live out the beautiful truths He has so readily preserved for us in His Word. Each verse of the Bible I learn then is one more piece of buried treasure which none of the vicissitudes of this life can ever tarnish!

Secret Church 2016 highlights

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I recently had the opportunity to view a simulcast of David Platt’s 2016 “Secret Church” broadcast, shown at my local church—East Boulder Baptist. For many years I’d heard from friends about how powerful these times of intense Biblical teaching were, and so this year for the first time I was able to participate in one, along with several of our other Christian Challenge students and staff! For anyone who is not familiar with Secret Church, it is an annual time of teaching from David Platt, currently the president of the IMB, and formerly pastor of the Church at Brook Hills. First held back in 2006, the aim of Secret Church is to provide an intense 6-hour block of Biblical teaching and prayer, modeled on Platt’s missionary experiences in Asian house churches, where often he might only have a single evening to be able to impart to underground pastors doctrinal instruction and encouragement. Given the circumstances which inspired it, each Secret Church broadcast includes a period of prayer for the nations and particularly persecuted churches, along with the teaching.

This year’s Secret Church was titled “A Global Gospel in a world of religions”, and focused on the relationship between Christianity and the other major world religions. I was particularly excited about this topic, given that much of my work at CU with Christian Challenge involves reaching out to international students, the vast majority of whom are coming from a non-Christian background. Platt focused on three main world religions Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, and also talked about Animism and Atheism, which, while they do not fall as neatly into the category of organized religions, are still very pervasive worldviews.

Platt’s talk began with a survey of the religious makeup of the world at present. This included some interesting projections for how religious demographics might change by 2050, based on extensive research from the Pew Forum. The projections estimate that Islam will have nearly equaled Christianity as the religion with the most adherents worldwide by 2050. This increase is due in part to the fact that Islamic adherents in general have higher birth rates, but in addition, these projections are also based on the sad estimate that approximately 106 million people are expected to leave Christianity over these next 34 years. In Europe in particular, the Christian population is predicted to continue to decline markedly. Interestingly, China is somewhat of an “x-factor” in these predictions however. If the rapid growth of Christianity in that nation continues, then by 2050, over 50% of the population might be Christian, a truly remarkable development for an avowedly atheistic state! Granted, hard data on the church in China can be difficult to obtain, but even if these estimates prove to be exaggerated, there is no denying that with its huge population, China could play a major role in determining the future of world Christendom. Platt emphasized that of course all of these projections are subject to change, with one of the main variable factors being a possible missional awakening in the worldwide church. On this note, Platt cited British writer and journalist Douglas Murray, who is himself an atheist, as noting that the growth of Islam in the Western World is partially attributable to the fact that “most branches of mainstream Christianity have lost the confidence to proselytize.”

Before going into a discussion of some of the specific religions and worldviews, Platt first gave a helpful summary of what the heart of the Gospel message, and thereby the distinctiveness of Christianity, entails. He used an acrostic for “GOSPEL” to help summarize the essential Christian message.

G—God’s character

O—Offense of sin

S—Sufficiency of Christ

P—Personal response

E—Eternal urgency

L—Life transformation

Platt then mentioned the critical importance of evangelism as the duty of every Christian in spreading the Gospel message with those around them. Then he highlighted personal conversion as a necessary and individual response to this message which would then extend to a lifelong commitment to follow Christ as Lord and Savior.

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Then Platt turned to an individual discussion of five main religions and worldviews. With each religion/worldview that he discussed, after laying out its basic characteristics and tenets, Platt then offered some practical suggestions for how Christians could engage people coming from these traditions in spiritual conversations. First he talked about Animism, which is less an organized religion than a worldview which sees the physical world as being interpenetrated with spiritual forces. Inanimate objects can carry spiritual significance as can natural events, and the practitioner seeks to manipulate and or appease these various spiritual forces through the use of magic, prayer, and superstition. There is also a focus on immediate benefit or gain as opposed to long-term, or eternal rewards. Now many people may assume that animism is limited to tribal peoples in remote villages in Africa or South America. But in fact, as Platt revealed, Animism can be encountered all over the world. Since it is more of a worldview than a strict set of religious tenets, it can be easily grafted onto another faith, including Christianity. Living in a city such as Boulder, I have encountered a fair amount of “spirituality” that might could be categorized as animistic in nature. For example, there are many people in the Boulder area who’ve embraced aspects of New Age religion including adherence to astrology, healing “crystals”, fad spiritual “diets”, and other practices that could be labeled as superstitions. To share the Gospel with Animists, Platt recommended that we warn about the deceptive power wrought by false spirits (ref. 1 John 4:1). He also suggested that we emphasize the singular spiritual power of Christ over nature, disease, sin, and death itself noting that the Gospel of Mark in particular is a good place to take Animists to show them some of the Scriptural stories illustrating Jesus’ power.

 

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Next, Platt looked at Hinduism, which has some 915 million followers worldwide. In North America, if continued patterns of migration persist, the Hindu population is expected to double by 2050. Hinduism is a very ancient religion which is difficult to quantify because of the vast diversity of beliefs and practices it encompasses, which can often differ widely by region. It includes a polytheistic worldview where some estimates hold that a staggering total of 330 million different deities are worshipped. Two central tenets include a belief in reincarnation (Samsara), the process by which each soul must pass through endless lifetimes before salvation is attained, and the idea of karma, that actions in an individual’s past lives determine their current condition, while present actions can influence future lives. Hindus seek salvation (Moksha) through a variety of paths, including through works (Dharma), knowledge (Jnana), devotion (Bhakti). Aids in these paths to salvation can include mantras, yoga, participation in religious festivals, and ritual bathing. But all paths involve an intense human effort which is of course opposed to the Christian concept of salvation apart from any human works or striving. Here in Boulder I certainly see evidence of an interest in aspects of Hindu spirituality, most notably through yoga, which is extremely popular around town. The Hindu greeting “Namaste” is also commonly used in social media. There are also a large number of international students at CU who are coming from Hindu religious backgrounds. In sharing the Gospel with Hindus, Platt recommends emphasizing the uniqueness and exclusivity of Christ (ref. John 14:6), since a polytheistic worldview might be tempted to view Jesus as simply one more god that can be added to the pantheon. He also mentioned highlighting the fact that Christianity offers the opportunity for someone to know God now (2 Corinthians 6:2), rather than only after an endless cycle of countless reincarnations, the possibility of which the Bible expressly refutes (Hebrews 9:27).

 

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Next in the study was Buddhism, whose teachings can be summed up with an explanation of the Four Noble Truths, from which follows the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths include the affirmation that all of life is suffering (Dukkha), suffering is caused by selfish desire (Samudaya), the cure for this suffering is the cessation of desire (Nirodha), and the path to liberation from suffering (magga) has eight steps. These eight steps, called the Eightfold Path include right views, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. The goal in all of this is to achieve final enlightenment (Nirvana). It can only be obtained through intense self-effort, using aids such as mantras and meditations. And while different schools of Buddhism vary on their belief in the possibility of supernatural aid, they are similar in their rejection of the concept of a personal, creator God. In Boulder, I’ve certainly seen a wide array of evidence to suggest that Buddhism is an “in vogue” religion. Many stores on Pearl Street sell small images of Buddha and Buddhist prayer flags, which can also be seen hung from houses and apartment buildings. There is a Buddhist university here–Naropa, along with a Zen Meditation Center, and the Boulder Shambhala Tibetan Buddhist cultural center. To witness to Buddhists, Christians should emphasize that salvation in Christ is not possible by any human works or effort, attainable only through faith and God’s grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). And while each of the virtues of the Eightfold Path can in some sense be correlated to Scriptural verses which encourage similar practices, really focusing on the nature of salvation as a gift will emphasize to the Buddhist that the aim of Christianity is not to merely pursue a life of good works. One of the most striking points that Platt made in comparison between the two faiths is the idea that while Buddhism’s goal is the ultimate elimination of desire, Christianity’s goal is the ultimate fulfillment of all of our desires in Christ (Philippians 4:19).

 

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Next we discussed the faith which is currently the fastest growing religion in North America, and is estimated to expand to represent 10% of the overall European population by 2050—Islam. Muslim beliefs are summed up by the idea of submitting to their God, Allah. The central tenets of the faith are contained in the so-called Five Pillars of Islam. These include the central confession of faith (Shahada)—“there is god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet”, five daily times of prayer (Salat), the giving of alms to the poor (zakat), the special fast during the month of Ramadan (Sawm), and the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca (Haji). Apart from the many political disturbances which have occurred in recent years between Muslims and non-Muslims, Platt pointed out that dialogue between Christians and Muslims is further complicated by several misconceptions that many Muslims have about Christianity. Because Islam strictly proclaims that the true meaning of the Koran can only be obtained by reading it in the original Arabic, they are suspicious that the meaning of the Bible has been corrupted through its many different translations. Also, because a true separation of Church and State is uncommon in many majority Muslim cultures, they tend to equate Western culture as being synonymous with “Christianity.” Thus they may view American movies and television as somehow representing Christian views simply because they were produced in a country that has a majority Christian population. Muslims frequently misunderstand the concept of the Trinity, and assume that Christians actually worship three different gods—God the Father, Mary the Mother, and Jesus the Son. And while it is true that Jesus is an honored figure within Islam, He is viewed simply as one more great prophet (while Muhammad is the last and greatest prophet), and not as the Son of God. In addition, Muslims do not believe that Jesus really died on the Cross. In witnessing to our Muslim friends we must therefore emphasize the Oneness of the Triune God, as well as the equality of all three Persons in the Trinity. Followers of Islam should also receive a clear Christology—that Jesus is both fully God and fully Man (Hebrews 4:14-16). Finally, in talking with Muslims we could do well to borrow from one of my favorite C.S Lewis quotes about the nature of Christ, as found in the classic apologetic text, Mere Christianity“ I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. Also, just as with all of the other major religions, we can contrast the Muslim belief in salvation through works with the Christian conception of salvation by grace, through faith alone.

 

Finally, Platt looked at Atheism, which while not a religion as such, is continuing to gain ground as a widely prevalent worldview, especially in the West, and in a city like Boulder. The Pew Forum estimates that by 2050 the self-identified “non-religious” sector of the North American population will increase from 16 to 26% of the total population. Atheism can be hard to categorize but Platt helpfully offered three common “types” of Atheism that one may encounter. “Scientific Sam” is the atheist who is a pure materialist, denying the existence of anything spiritual that cannot be scientifically proved, and determining furthermore that scientific theories and discoveries can account for most of the mysteries in our life, providing a plausible and coherent worldview in which the “comfort” of religion or a belief in God is thus unnecessary. “Moral Mark” is the atheist who becomes fed up with the hypocrisy they see amongst adherents of organized religion, and thus decides that one could be just as moral and “good” of a person without following any religious tenets. Furthermore such individuals often go a step further and conclude that religion is not only unnecessary, but might even be actively harmful, keeping people intellectually and emotionally burdened with fear and superstition. Finally there is “Insignificant Isabelle”, an atheist who no longer feels the need for the “crutch” that religion provides. They have come to terms with their own insignificance in a vast and indifferent universe, and have accepted that death is the final and natural end of everything. They have even decided that being without a belief in God is liberating because they are now free to make the most of their lives in the here and now without being distracted by any promise of future reward or punishment. In talking with atheists, Platt urged Christians to pursue “humble dialogue” where we are willing to honestly listen to their objections to our faith. At the same time, we should strive to ask some pointed, and thought-provoking questions about their worldview and its logical implications.

Platt ended Secret Church 2016 with three conclusions: there is an eternal hell which awaits everyone who does not believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ, while an eternal heaven is the reward which awaits those who have accepted Christ, and finally—we are the means by which God has ordained that the Gospel might go to every person in the world!! (Romans 10:13-15). Then, he offered three exhortations: we must pray passionately (Matthew 9:37-38), give sacrificially (Matthew 6:19-21), and go confidently (Acts 20:24)—to people right around us, and people around the world. In doing so, we know there will be risk (Matthew 24:9-13), and yet we should be constantly looking towards our reward! (Hebrews 12:1-2). It was a blessing for me to be able to take part in Secret Church 2016. I feel that I not only gained a little better overall perspective on world religions, and clarified my understanding of some of the most salient features of these other world faiths, but most importantly was reminded throughout Platt’s teaching about the beautiful uniqueness of the Gospel. The University of Colorado campus, like many university campuses around the country is increasingly becoming a marketplace of competing worldviews, ranging from traditional religions, to eclectic “spirituality” and avowedly non-spiritual positions such as atheism. With people coming from all of these different backgrounds, my goal is to be able to listen to their stories and then confidently articulate the truth of the Gospel in response. I am reminded of a favorite passage from Colossians 4:5-6–“Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” How fortunate that I am living in a time and place where members of the nations, and representatives of so many different worldviews are accessible for building relationships with that can lead to spiritual conversations, and witnessing opportunities. I pray that I, along with other Christian Challenge students and staff will always take our responsibility as ambassadors for Christ seriously, and will rejoice in the chance God has given us to testify of the One Gospel that saves amidst a world of religions.

Resurrection Reveille

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I recently had the opportunity to enjoy spending Easter down in Colorado Springs with my sister, brother-in-law, and my parents, who were visiting in from Alabama. We went to church together and had some wonderful family time as we celebrated the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection. The day also brought back some warm, wonderful memories of Easters in years past. Unlike the chilly, snow-covered scene in Colorado Springs a few weeks ago, the Easters of my Alabama childhood were almost invariably sunny and mild. But I’ve entitled this post “Resurrection Reveille”, because, in my mind, Easter always brings up associations of early morning. Now admittedly my family didn’t usually go to sunrise services growing up, although I’ve always thought that would be a beautiful experience. Nonetheless, in order to get a seat in the full sanctuary at the 8:30am Easter Sunday service, we’d have to rise pretty early. My sister and I would hurriedly check out our Easter baskets, and then have a breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and Krispy Kreme doughnuts before getting dressed for the big worship service. Music also constitutes a big part of my Easter memories. I can remember singing the venerable old Charles Wesley hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” almost every year, including this one. But for years, a tune had been stuck in my head, associated with a long-ago Easter from my childhood, but which I couldn’t exactly place. It would bug me around that time of the year as I tried to figure out what it could be, and then I would forget about for a while—until the next Easter possibly. But this year it kept going round in my head all Easter afternoon, and one of the blessings of the Internet age is that between Google and Ebay, no half-remembered memory from our childhoods need be permanently lost. So, following some searching for the fragment of lyrics that I remembered, I found the source of my long-lost tune. It was Keith Green’s 1977 “Easter Song.” Some time back in the late 80’s or early 90’s I would imagine, I’d heard it performed by an ensemble at First Baptist Montgomery, under the direction of our much-beloved former minister of music, Bill Roper, and it had lodged in my memory ever since.

 

Now, I confess I didn’t know much previously about the life and work of Keith Green, a pioneering figure in the Contemporary Christian music scene. He’s also one of the favorite artists of our Christian Challenge director, Bobby Pruett, and as I listened to “Easter Song” repeatedly, I was captivated by the lyrics. So often, Easter, like Christmas, is mostly about observance, remembering the work of God in the past. And certainly that is a worthwhile thing. Scripture exists in part to remind us of God’s faithfulness down through the generations, and Christianity, like its parent religion Judaism, celebrates a God of history, who has worked in prior generations in unique ways. And yet our God we know is still at work, and so our holy days of faith should not only be times of reflection, but opportunities for us to called into action as bearers of a living and vibrant message—never more so than on Easter! For any Christian, the Resurrection is the single defining event, the foundational truth, and linchpin which holds our faith together. This is certainly what Paul affirms in 1 Corinthians 15:14—“And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is vain and your faith is also vain.” The words of Keith Green’s “Easter Song” thus focus not only on celebrating Jesus’ conquering of the grave, but the implications for our lives going forward. Hear the bells ringing, they’re singing/that you can be born again”. Then the song continues—“Hear the bells ringing they’re singing /that you can be healed right now. Hear the bells ringing, they’re singing/Christ, he will reveal it now/ The angels, they all surround us and they are ministering Jesus’ power, quickly now/reach out and receive it, for this could be your glorious hour.” We find an emphasis on immediacy—Green is singing urgently to the listener, letting them know that Christ’s Resurrection is not just a long-ago event to commemorate, but that in the spirit of 2 Corinthians 6:2 , now is the time of salvation and deliverance from sin through Christ!! The same power that raised Christ from the dead is available to anyone who will believe, as Romans 8:11 testifies. Green’s lyrics also charge those who already believe to take action, and spread the message of Easter: “The angel up on the tombstone said He has risen, just as He said/Quickly now, go tell his disciples that Jesus Christ is no longer dead.”

 

Reading a little more recently about the life of Keith Green, I found him to be a fascinating study. Although he died in a plane crash at the tragically young age of 28 back in 1982, and only released only five albums in his lifetime, Green’s legacy, both musical and personal continues to inspire many in the Christian music community to this day. I mentioned both his musical and personal legacy, for from what I can tell, Green really tried to make sure that his life, and business practices, as well as the message of his music, all aligned with the Gospel truth that had changed his life. He once stated—“I repent of ever having recorded one single song, and ever having performed one concert, if my music, and more importantly, my life has not provoked you into Godly jealousy or to sell out more completely to Jesus!” Pretty strong words—but from Green they weren’t just talk. The suburban Los Angeles home where he lived with his wife Melody and his growing family, also became a place of refuge for many in need—drug addicts, prostitutes, single pregnant women, and the homeless. Then, in 1979 he took what would be an almost-unheard of policy for a professional recording artist—he refused to any longer charge money for concerts or albums, instead simply telling people to pay whatever they could afford in accordance with God’s direction. Green was willing to not just sing about trusting God, but live this out in a very visible fashion. And as much as he could charm with sweet songs of praise, he also wasn’t afraid to convict and challenge a church which may have grown too comfortable and complacent. Once again, the message of Easter was at the center of what for Green, needed to be a springboard to Christian action. Lyrics from his song “Asleep in the light” include” “Can’t you see it’s such a sin? The world is sleeping in the dark that the church just can’t fight/’Cause it’s asleep in the light/How can you be so dead, when you’ve been so well fed/Jesus rose from the grave and you, you can’t even get out of bed/Jesus rose from the dead, come on, get out of your bed”

Keith Green’s music is infused with a sense of urgency that in part stems from his own story. He had an unusual mix of a Jewish and Christian Science heritage, and grew up as a musical prodigy. Coming of age in the height of the countercultural 60’s he investigated Eastern philosophies and experimented with drugs. But following a bad acid trip, he gave up drugs and became increasingly drawn towards Christianity, along with his new wife, Melody. Perhaps his best-known song, “Your love broke through” chronicles Green’s final discovery of God’s truth, which shattered through the illusions and confusion of his pre-Christian life: “Well I’ve been blind all these wasted years/And I thought I was so wise, but then you took me by surprise/Like waking up from the longest dream, how real it seemed/Until your love broke through/I’ve been lost in a fantasy, that blinded me/Until your love broke through” Perhaps it was a recognition of the time he had wasted as a youth that drove and motivated Keith Green as an adult to pursue Christ with a palpable passion and sense of urgency.

 

But what about us?? As we reflect on the message of Easter, should it be a time of calm reflection and joy?? Yes certainly. But it should also be a call to action! Earlier, I mentioned the time-honored 1739 Easter hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” composed by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. It includes the lines: “Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!/Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!” Then in another favorite praise song of Easter, Bill Gaither’s 1974, “Because He lives”, we hear in the chorus– “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow, Because He lives all fear is gone.” Thus we find that in the songs of Easter we are indeed exhorted to not simply honor Christ’s rising from the dead, but to also go forth and live out that truth! Scripture reinforces this point in several instances too. Again and again, we see that following the message of Jesus’ Resurrection comes a clear call to spread the news. Matthew 28 opens with the story of the Empty Tomb, but then finishes in verses 18-20 with that seminal missions exhortation, The Great Commission. Luke concludes his Gospel in chapter 24, also with the story of Jesus’ Resurrection, before eventually adding his version of the Great Commission in Luke 24:46-48. Then in John 20:21-23, following the account of His Resurrection, Jesus sends out His disciples. Finally, note Acts 1:9-11. Here, immediately following what must have been an astonishing sight—watching the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, the disciples are visited by two angels. “Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward Heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” We can sometimes find ourselves in the same position as those disciples—gaping in open-mouthed wonder at the glorious truth that a new life in Christ represents. But we must not stop there! The nature of the Resurrection is that it changes everything, and so we are called to go forth and spread this truth to the nations. Thus in all of the Gospels, the message of Christ’s Rebirth is followed by an urgent appeal to make this news known unto all humanity.

 

We’ve looked at examples of such passages in Matthew, Luke, John, and Acts already, but what about Mark?? I remember in seminary classes we would sometimes talk about “textual variants” found in Scripture. And often these were fairly minor it must be admitted, of interest perhaps to seminarians and theology professors, but having very little bearing on the actual interpretation of a book or passage. But one of the most famous is found at the end of the Book of Mark, and it can help to further underscore the central message of this post—that the Easter message is not only a commemoration of Christ’s glorious victory over death and sin, but also a clear call to action, for Christians to share this life-changing truth with others. Many Biblical scholars believe that Mark originally ended with verse 16:8—“And they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Now the “they” in question are Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and another woman named Salome. They had come early on Sunday morning to bring spices that may finish anointing the body of Jesus. They find the tomb empty, and hearing from an angel that Jesus has risen, we come to verse 8. Out of fear and no doubt overwhelmed at the magnitude of this astounding news, the women at first do not share their story with anyone else, though the angel specifically instructs them in Mark 16:7 to go and spread the Resurrection news to the Disciples.

Mark 16:9-20 reveals that after a subsequent personal appearance from the Resurrected Savior, Mary Magdalene does indeed go and tell the disciples, and then Mark concludes his Gospel with his own version of the Great Commission and then the Ascension of Christ. But why did at least some versions of Mark originally end with verse 8?? It’s very likely this could be a literary device. When we read a chapter in a book, or watch an episode of a television series that ends abruptly with some aspect of the plot or story still unresolved, we call it a “cliffhanger.” And on being confronted with a cliffhanger, the natural thought in our minds is “what happens next?” or “how will the story end?” Well perhaps Mark is wanting to insert us, as the reader, into the story of Jesus by wondering what will happen now that Christ is risen?? Will we take up the responsibility to go and share with others, or will we remain fearful and silent?

This Easter, as I reflected on the many blessings that have accompanied my tenure of ministry here in Colorado, I was reminded afresh, through the music of Keith Green, the reading of Scripture, and that still, small voice in my own heart, that the story of Jesus’ Resurrection was never meant to only be a triumphant exclamation point, but also a blinking cursor on our life’s screen. During the season of Easter, we hear the glorious news shared with us afresh, that testimony of Jesus as written in Revelation 1:18—“I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore.” But how will the empty tomb change us? In the aforementioned Keith Green song “Your love broke through” there’s another wonderful line, full of the truth of the Easter message—“All my life I’ve been searching for that crazy missing part/and with one touch, you just rolled away/The stone that held my heart” Can it be said of us too, that are hearts are overflowing and ready to share the message of the good news of Easter with others? I know personally that I am always in need of a little extra “push” and some holy motivation to do my best with the calling I am privileged to have from God. So in my own life, I pray that Easter is not only a commemoration, but a wakeup call to share and live the message that has given my life meaning. And may the Resurrection be a moment of God’s Glorious Reveille for us all. Amen!