Monday, July 11, 2016

The Birth of a Girl and the Great Story

I saw a meme slandering the “religion” of the Bible yesterday, justifying the rejection because of this citation (I give it exactly as it appeared): A woman who bears a female child is twice as filthy as one who gives birth to a male. Leviticus 12:1-5

First, there is no verse that says this (notice the citation is for 5 verses). Second, no English translation of Leviticus 12:1-5 uses the word “filthy.”

The passage hinted at and twisted actually says this: “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, saying: “When a woman gives birth and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean for seven days, as in the days of her menstruation she shall be unclean. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall remain in the blood of her purification for thirty-three days; she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until the days of her purification are completed. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean for two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall remain in the blood of her purification for sixty-six days” (Leviticus 12:1-5).[1]

You can reject the Bible because of a single idea (not accurately quoted) that seems offensive in our culture and time (so much for tolerance, understanding, and pluralism, eh?). Or, you can step back and see this verse as reaching back to the first and greatest low point in human history where a promise of incredible saving grace was given…then see that this verse bridges between that bright promise on a dark day and a future day when the promise was fulfilled in the greatest gift the world has ever (or will ever) see.

Let me tell you a story. Leviticus 12:1-5 is an element of that story.

In the beginning, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule’” (Genesis 1:27,28). There’s no category of “unclean” at this point. God’s creation “was very good” (1:31). The “unclean” part comes in later.

God created a unique place of joyful communion with Him – “a garden…in Eden” (2:8). All that human beings could need was there. They could “from any tree of the garden…eat freely” (2:16). Except one tree, which was the test of faithful obedience to the Creator Who had supplied their needs and made them to be in blessed relationship with Him, the Source of Life and Goodness. The one commandment was given to them: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die’” (Genesis 2:15-17).

Then something happened.

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, ‘Indeed, has God said, “You shall not eat from any tree of the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, “You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.”’ The serpent said to the woman, ‘You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate…” (Genesis 3:1-6).[2]

Every verse after Genesis 3:6, and every moment of human existence (including yours and mine) afterwards, is grace. That could have been the end. But God, from before the foundation of the world, knew what would transpire and had a plan. The ending would be better than the beginning. It’s a story played out over a very long time, though. As the twisting and criticism of Leviticus 12:1-5 shows, we don’t often have the patience for a long story, no matter how beautiful.

Serpent, woman, and man are summoned to God’s tribunal for this rebellion. The serpent is cursed by God. In the curse, God makes a promise. The Promise. “I will put enmity [warfare] between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel” (3:15). Immediately after this, the woman’s punishment is announced: “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth” (3:16). The woman tastes death – the punishment for rebellion – in giving birth, even shedding blood (life, as we’ll see). Every birth is a reminder of the sentence of death, a reminder that the saving serpent-Crusher promised by God is desperately needed.

A long time later, God organizes His people into a nation, giving them moral laws, civil laws, and ceremonial laws. The ceremonial laws reminded them that they were a people who lived by a different standard than all the other peoples of the world, who were alienated from Him and living however they desired (the autonomy espoused by the serpent that fateful first day of the Fall of humanity). Among those ceremonial laws was Leviticus 12:1-5. The shedding of blood was significant from a symbolic standpoint, for “…the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11). Bloodshed was to be a reminder that rebellion against God forfeited the life of the rebel, and that sin had separated us from God. The blood and the ritual inconvenience was to be a reminder. Those laws under that old covenant (we call it the Old Testament) applied to all of life for God’s people – there was no aspect of life that didn’t point them to the Great Story. Including childbirth, in which (as a result of Eve’s rebellion) there is the shedding of blood, a picture of sin-caused death (alienation from God) even in the entry of life into the world. We need the serpent-Crushing Savior.

Why, though, was the ritual time of “uncleanness” longer with the birth of a girl? It’s not because God or the Bible consider girls bad. In fact, did you know that, among all the ancient religious texts, the Bible is the only one that tells us about the creation of women (Genesis 2:18-25)?[3] The Bible is filled with women who were great heroes, from the judges of Israel to prophetesses to incredible key parts of the Great Story! No, Leviticus 12:5 isn’t there because girls are worse than boys. It’s there to keep reminding us of the roots of the Great Story and The Promise. The apostle Paul later says, “the woman [Eve] being deceived, fell into transgression” (1 Timothy 2:14). The birth of a girl, daughter of Eve, reminds us that through the woman Eve’s actions, sin entered humanity. Before you get angry at how unfair this seems, remember: God is not holding a grudge against the female gender because of Eve. He is reminding every generation in which a girl was born that through the “seed” of the woman the serpent-Crusher was going to enter the world. The birth of a girl brought a longer meditation on this Promise and the need for that Promise’s fulfillment than the birth of a boy.
Instead of the female of humanity being a stigma forever reminding of one woman’s sin, the female of humanity was, by the gracious plan and Promise of God, the means by which the solution to humanity’s problem was to be solved. Bloodshed and “uncleanness” were reminders that we all are under sentence of death for our rebellion against God, but through the woman a serpent-Crusher was going to come. This was worth a two weeks’ reminder with every birth of a girl among the ancient people of God.

Let’s fast-forward. The Bible tells us that, “when the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law” (Galatians 4:4), including the “Law” contained in Leviticus 12:1-5. The serpent-Crusher didn’t come through the “seed” of a man. This is why Mary’s conceiving of Christ as a virgin is theologically important – it fulfills the promise of the first pages of the Bible! The messenger-angel said this to Mary upon bringing her the news: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). The same messenger-angel assured Mary’s fiancé Joseph with this revelation: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child Who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20,21).

The regulation of Leviticus 12:1-5 isn’t there to stigmatize women and infant girls. It’s there as a reminder that humanity’s greatest problem, brought into the world by the first woman’s sin, will be incredibly and gloriously solved by God through a woman. The beginning was tragic, but it is infinitely out-shined by the ending. Like any good story, the tension was maintained and built throughout the telling, and Leviticus 12:1-5 was part of that.

It’d be a shame to miss out on the whole Story.

Genesis 3:15 has been fulfilled by God when He sent His Son into the world through a woman - not just one famous woman (Mary), but through women who were providentially brought into the Christ-story even though their backgrounds should have excluded them. Ruth was from Moab, not Israel…she wasn’t part of the nation God was using to bring His Son into the world, but by His incredible gracious plan to “purchase for God with [Christ’s blood]…from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9), she was included. Her name is in Jesus Christ’s genealogy (Matthew 1:5). Rahab was a harlot in Jericho…the same Jericho filled with idol-worshipers consigned to destruction (Joshua 6:1-27). But by God’s providential plan and grace, Rahab and her family were saved out of the destruction. And she became part of the Old Testament people of God, Israel. Her name is in Jesus Christ’s genealogy (Matthew 1:5).

The ceremonial regulation of Leviticus 12:1-5 doesn’t apply to new covenant (New Testament) believers anymore, because it was fulfilled in Christ, the serpent-Crushing seed of the woman promised in Genesis 3:15. Now “you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you” (Galatians 3:26-29, New Living Translation). Men and women are equal in the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ (the same equality by which both are described as the image of God back in Genesis 1:27). In Christ, a woman is to be honored “as a fellow heir of the grace of life.” God doesn’t even hear the prayers of anyone who treats her less than this (1 Peter 3:7)!

Let me finish up the story by taking us to the words of the apostle Paul: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness - with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she [Eve] will be saved through childbearing [her “Seed,” Jesus Christ] - if they [female Christians] continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” (1 Timothy 2:8-15, English Standard Version). The mandate that women not be pastor-teachers in the Church isn’t a punishment. It is, like Leviticus 12:1-5, a telling of the Gospel story in the role women play in the Church. Women still speak the truth of God’s Word by the power of the Holy Spirit, what the Bible calls “prophecy” (Acts 2:17; 21:9; 1 Corinthians 11:5). But they don’t take the leading teaching role in the Church, as a telling of the story of Eve and the eventual salvation that came through her “Seed,” Jesus Christ. Children of Eve, tell this story by continuing in “faith” in her “Seed,” Jesus Christ, in “love and holiness, with self-control.”

I’ve heard for decades now that the attention span of the average American is continually shrinking. I wonder if we’re capable of reading beyond a meme or bumper sticker anymore. Please don’t reject the Grand Story of God’s Love because of a single tiny falsehood that popped up on your screen appealing to your innate desire to rebel against everything.

“‘She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’ Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet [in Isaiah 7:14]: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:21-23).

Believe in Jesus Christ, this “Seed” of the woman, the great serpent-Crusher, the Defeater of the sin-penalty of eternal death, the Savior of all – men and women equally – who call on His name, the Reconcilion to our Creator, and the Demonstration of the love of God.

Yes, the love of God. “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world [as the “Seed” of the woman] so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son [as the “Seed” of the woman] to be the propitiation [punishment-taker] for our sins” (1 John 4:9,10).


[1] New American Standard Bible, unless otherwise noted.
[2] What’s sad about this is that the serpent hasn’t had to change his strategy in the least since that moment. The meme slandering the “religion” of the Bible is a modern expression of that “serpent of old” (Revelation 12:9): twist the Word of God, then outright deny the Word of God. It worked then, and still works today. The Bible says these continuing followers of the serpent’s way are in “the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:26). God grant them freedom to the truth of the Bible!
[3] Some will chafe at the creation of the woman – wife to the first man – as a “helper” (Genesis 2:18). “The term ‘helper,’ which is also used by God to identify Himself (Exod. 18:4; Deut. 33:7), describes the woman God created to become a partner with the man in the overwhelming task of exercising dominion over the world and extending the generations (Gen. 1:28; 2:18). When you call upon God to be your ‘Helper,’ you are not suggesting that He divest Himself of His deity and supernatural powers. Rather you ask Him to come to your aid with the powers of His divine person. There is no hint of inferiority in the term. It describes function (what she does) rather than worth (who she is).” Dorothy Kelley Patterson, “The Family,” in Baptist Faith & Message 2000: Critical Issues in America’s Largest Protestant Denomination, ed. Douglas K. Blount and Joseph D. Wooddell (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 188.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Prayer of Psalm 10 Will Be Answered

“The Lord is King forever and ever;
[unbelieving people-groups] have perished from His land [the place of covenant-communion].
O Lord, You have heard the desire of the humble;
You will strengthen their heart, You will incline Your ear
To vindicate the orphan and the oppressed,
So that man who is of the earth
[unbelieving “tare” among the “wheat”] will no longer cause terror” (Psalm 10:16-18).

Both verses 16 and 18 use the Hebrew word אֶרֶץ, rendered differently in the English (“land” and “earth”). I would suggest that they both be understood as “land” in the theologically-significant sense – the old covenant symbol of the place of God’s fellowship and blessing with His covenant people.

The “nations” (גּוֹי), in the context of “the land” (אֶרֶץ), refers to unbelievers, this idea being an historical echo of the idolatrous people-groups of Canaan as Joshua led the people into the Promised Land.

Psalm 10:1-15 describes the situation to us. Unbelievers are oppressing God’s people, especially the most vulnerable among them.

There are two teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ that, when read together, fit the context of Psalm 10:16-18. I’ve already hinted at the first: “Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, “Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?” And he said to them, “An enemy has done this!” The slaves said to him, “Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?” But he said, “No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn’”’” (Matthew 13:24-30).

The troubling unbelievers in the communion between God and His believing covenant people will eventually be judged – this is the prayer of Psalm 10 and the promise of Jesus.

The second teaching of Jesus which is applicable to our reading of Psalm 10 speaks of “stumbling blocks” of “these little ones” (the vulnerable of God’s covenant people). Both Church discipline in this world and “eternal fire” in the next are promised (again, the answer to the prayer of Psalm 10): “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, ‘Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, ‘Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell. See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven. For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost’” (Matthew 18:1-11). Go on to read 18:15-20, where the context for “stumbling blocks” is “the Church” (18:17) – the place of God’s communion and blessing with His covenant people, prefigured by “the land” in the Old Testament (including Psalm 10).

May we be especially sensitive to the vulnerable in the Church, beloved. The Lord of the Church hears their prayers.

Meanwhile, let us faithfully speak the Word in the power of the Spirit (“prophecy”), that the “tares” and “stumbling blocks” in our midst will be “convicted by all…[and be] called to account by all…[and that] the secrets of his heart [will be] disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you” (1 Corinthians 14:24,25). Let us exercise discipline, treating the unrepentant as a "Gentiles and tax collector" (unbelieving objects of evangelism) and the repentant with unceasing forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-35) for the glory of the Lord of this field.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Way the Wind Blows

“Two priests came round our house tonight:
One young, one old, to offer prayers for the dying,
To serve the final rite.
One to learn, one to teach
Which was the cold wind blows,
Fussing and flapping in priestly black
Like a murder of crows.”
Sting, “All This Time” (from The Soul Ages, ©1991, A&M Records)

I’ve had this song playing in my mind lately, and it’s been a psychical irritant. The place of the album in my life is poignant (it came out in January the year I graduated high school), and I have always deeply appreciated Sting’s song-writing abilities. But these lines rumple me in spirit.

Earlier this week I made the drive to the middle of our incredible (and incredibly large) state to visit someone in a rehabilitation hospital there. It was a long trip (roughly 280 miles one-way), and one of the men I’ve been mentoring for several years was off work, so I asked him to come along.

The Lord has granted me the opportunity to play the role of mentor many times over the years, sometimes even in an official capacity as some of these brothers were pursuing seminary degrees. It’s mostly been a joy to me (though there has been heartbreak), and that’s probably why Sting’s been annoying me with his singing recently. The discipleship of the people of God, those who “learn” and those who “teach,” does not have as its content “which way the cold wind blows.” He is anything but “cold.” Sting makes reference to the Bible’s play on the single word (Hebrew in the O.T., Greek in the N.T.) for “breath,” “wind,” and “Spirit.” He is the Spirit of Whom Jesus speaks in His nighttime encounter with the Pharisee: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:4-8).[1] The Person of the Holy Spirit, Who is as mysterious and invisible as the wind, causes our new life in Christ to become a reality in His continued participation in the creative work of God (this is how He’s introduced to us in the second verse of the Bible). He is not a “cold wind.” He is the very warmth of the true life of God in all those who believe in the resurrected and glorious Son. And this Monday, though we both coincidentally wore Batman t-shirts, we were not quite comparable to “a murder of crows” in “priestly black” (and there are no crows in New Mexico – only ravens). If you don’t know the joyful weight of pouring your time, heart, struggles with sin, experience with a gracious God, and life itself into a fellow believer for their (and your) continued growth, pray earnestly that the warm, living wind Who is the Holy Spirit brings you to this place.[2]

On our way back we were talking of false teachers. My brother mentioned that he had caught a reference I made to one several weeks early in the morning Lord’s Day service at our local church. Without mentioning the preacher’s name, I had pointed to his Gospel-denying, theology-twisting recent proclamation that God had broken His own Law out of love. Horrible. The Song of Moses praises God with these soaring lines: “The Rock! His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He” (Deuteronomy 32:4). The Spirit says this of God’s commitment to a just upholding of His Law: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD” (Proverbs 17:15). It is this unchangeable character of God in righteousness that leads to the sacrifice of His perfectly righteous, holy, and obedient Son in our place. It, not the breaking of His own Law, was the only way “He would be just and the Justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). Sin had to be punished according to God’s Law. He is a perfectly righteous Judge. He is also Savior. Someone had to pay. The Son, one in will with the Father, fulfilled this role by offering Himself in our place. No Law was broken, no eternally unchanging righteousness compromised – but salvation is accomplished, praise His holy name.

Our conversation then moved to another teacher who, on Christmas Eve last year, had announced to his congregation that the Ten Commandments weren’t commandments at all, but promises. His argument was that they are not “commandments,” since this Hebrew word is not used to describe the Ten. They are the Ten “Words.” From this he argued, via a look at dubious connections between Hebrew words, that they were not commandments but promises. There are several problems here. Context is the greatest.

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write down these words [הַדְּבָרִים], for in accordance with these words [הַדְּבָרִים] I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.’ So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And he wrote on the tablets the words [דִּבְרֵי] of the covenant, the Ten Commandments [הַדְּבָרִֽים, lit., “words”]…then Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the rulers in the congregation returned to him; and Moses spoke [וַיְדַבֵּר] to them. Afterward all the sons of Israel came near, and he commanded [וַיְצַוֵּם] them to do everything that the Lord had spoken [דִּבֶּר] to him on Mount Sinai” (Exodus 34:27-31).

You don’t have to know Hebrew to see the three-letter root: דבר. It is a flexible word, translated “word”/“words,” “Commandments,” and “spoke”/“spoken.” I don’t remember exactly how my Hebrew professor in seminary explained it, but I always describe Hebrew words as something like Swiss Army Knives. Words can have a widely varied and large semantic range. This, sadly, opens the door for interpretive malpractice. Sometimes teachers use the original biblical languages as a means of giving the text a new meaning, usually falling into what is called a root fallacy. We don’t discover new or deeper understandings of texts by looking up a word in a Hebrew (or Greek or English) dictionary. That’s not how language works. You don’t get to isolate a word in a sentence, look it up in a dictionary, and choose a definition apart from how the word is used in its context. In this case, the “Ten Words” can be rightly understood as the “Ten Commandments” because they are “the words of the covenant,” that is, commandments that represent the boundaries of the covenant relationship. We see this earlier as Israel meets the LORD at the mountain: “In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. When they set out from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped in front of the mountain. Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant [obedience is part of being in covenant!], then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.’ So Moses came and called the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do!’” (Exodus 19:1-8). With the establishing of covenant, God doesn’t give guideposts or mere words or promises – as Lord of the covenant He gives commands, and the people understand this. He commands obedience, and they response with a commitment to obey. The words that will come off of the mountain through the mediator Moses are understood to be commandments. Context tells us this, not a dictionary definition (or a Jewish Christian expert).

Returning to Exodus 34:34, the verb “command” is used in the midst of his presenting the “Ten Words,” or Ten Commandments, to the people. The people didn’t understand the words to be mere “promises.” They are “words” commanded by God.

The same language is used with the generation after the Exodus: “…the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form - only a voice. So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded [צִוָּה] you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments [הַדְּבָרִים]; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone. The Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might perform them in the land where you are going over to possess it” (Deuteronomy 4:13).

In case this evidence is unconvincing, I submit evidence from the Son of God Himself, Who, in naming five of the Ten, calls them “commandments” (Matthew 19:17-19; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20).

To be fair, I don’t think what was said about the Ten “Words” was all bad.[3] What was bad was blaming God for this redefinition of the tablets of God’s Law (the preacher claimed the Lord laid this on his heart hours before the sermon was delivered). If this pastor would have taken to the pulpit and said, “here are the blessings in the life of a believer in Jesus Christ when they, by the power of the Holy Spirit, obey God’s Ten Commandments,” the ten points of this preacher’s Christmas Eve sermon would have been a wonderful, God-glorifying feast for the Church. What was bad was teaching his congregation that English translations are all wrong and the truth can only be learned from Jewish Christians with innovative definitions of Hebrew words. While they may provide insight that supports what the text as a whole clearly says, the original languages are not sources for secret knowledge accessible to a special few. Translation teams for our English translations have labored mightily to tell us what the Lord has spoken, and, as the saying goes, “context is king,” not selective and creative word-studies or etymological journeys into the previously unknown.[4] What was bad was minimizing the cover-to-cover demand by God that those who believe in Him and love Him also obey what He has commanded in His all-sufficient and clear Word.

The warm, eternal life-giving wind Who is the Holy Spirit moved through our discussion, even as we drove home through the powerful spring winds of New Mexico. By way of reminder to us all, it’s always important to return to rejoice in His truth after reading/refuting false teaching. So I conclude with the reality that the Ten Words commanded by God begin with a statement of gracious, supernatural, historical salvation for His covenant people: “I am the LORD your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2//Deuteronomy 5:6). This salvation foreshadowed the greater one accomplished by the Father in the new covenant: “He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). And, just like grace preceded the Ten Words commanded by God in the Old Testament, the New Testament also follows gracious salvation with an adjuring to obey the God of salvation.[5]

This upcoming Lord’s Day I hope to speak of the Christian’s graciously-given ability to love God’s Law. Only in Christ, with the penalty of the Law against our lawlessness forgiven, can we sing: “The Law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul” (Psalm 19:7), “I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart” (Psalm 40:8), “the Law of Your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (Psalm 119:72), Your Law is my delight” (Psalm 119:77b; 119:174b), I love Your Law” (Psalm 119:113b; 119:163b), and “Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and Your Law is truth” (Psalm 119:142). Only in Christ, with the penalty of the Law against our lawlessness forgiven, can we confess with the apostle: “…the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good…the Law is spiritual” (Romans 7:12,14).

 Learn this and teach this. Warmly.

[1] Jesus is alluding to wisdom inspired by that Spirit through Solomon centuries earlier: “Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God Who makes all things” (Ecclesiastes 11:4).
[2] Mentorship (a contemporary word for discipleship) is also the fulfillment of the Great Commission – not baptism alone. READ Matthew 28:18-20. Teaching someone to observe all the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ is a life-long process.
[3] #1 – You do not have to live in constant disappointment anymore. #2 – You can be free from rituals and religion and trust in a relationship. #3 – You can trust in a Name that is above every Name. #4 – You can rest. #5 – Your family does not have to fall apart. #6 – You do not have to live in a constant state of anger because you will be motivated by love and not hate. #7 – You do not have to live a life dominated by the guilt, pain and shame associated with sexual sin. #8 – I will provide. #9 – You do not have to pretend. #10 – I will be enough. Found at Pastor Noble's blog. Again, if presented as blessings resulting from obedience to the Commandments, these are rich. Sadly, a day later, while apologizing for parts of this teaching, he addresses those who “still cannot wrap your mind around what I taught and disagree with it.” We can wrap our minds around it, and find that, according to Scripture, his redefinition of the Ten Commandments is wrong.
[4] D.A. Carson calls this “the root fallacy,” which is “the search for hidden meanings bound up with etymologies.” Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), pgs. 28-33.
[5] John 14:15,21; 15:10; 1 John 5:2,3; 2 John 6; Revelation 12:17. True faith leads to obedience (Romans 1:5; 16:26; Acts 6:7; Hebrews 5:9).

Monday, May 9, 2016

The End of the Earth

I had another reminder yesterday of the importance of the church in extreme rural areas. A younger couple recently moved to a nearby ranch, had met one of our congregation’s members at the post office, and had accepted the invitation to Sunday worship. Let me make this less normal: “nearby” is 45 miles. The ranch was down near a border port-of-entry. 45 miles away. There is no town, no other church between us and them. They would have had to travel 30 miles from us to the west and 45 miles from us to the east to find another congregation.

This is my Sunday afternoon passion.

I love Tim Keller, even with his passion for the large city. My denomination’s North American mission organization has made its focus cities on our continent with 1,000,000+ residents. I agree that cities are important (it’s where the people are), but cannot, cannot, cannot forget the nowheres.

“…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:8). The Lord has graced me with a “remotest part of the earth” in which to serve on my Sunday afternoons, and a congregation I serve full-time in a small city of 10,000 residents 90 miles away which not only allows, but encourages my service elsewhere.

The risen and glorified Christ sings about my beautiful nowhere: “From You comes my praise in the great assembly;
I shall pay my vows before those who fear Him.
The afflicted will eat and be satisfied;
Those who seek Him will praise the Lord.
Let your heart live forever!
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord,
And all the families of the nations will worship before You.
For the kingdom is the Lord’s
And He rules over the nations”
(Psalm 22:25-28).

One of our men called us to worship yesterday morning with Psalm 98 in the “city church” in which I serve. It was his last Sunday with us – he and his wife had to move to a “big city” in another state for medical services. He read to us:
“O sing to the Lord a new song,
For He has done wonderful things,
His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him.
The Lord has made known His salvation;
He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth” (98:1-4a).

Isaiah shares this witness:
“Sing to the Lord a new song,
Sing His praise from the end of the earth!”
(Isaiah 42:10).
“I will also make You a light of the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth

“The Lord has bared His holy arm
In the sight of all the nations,
That all the ends of the earth may see
The salvation of our God”

Pastors, deacons, Sunday School teachers, seminary students…got three or four hours free (like on a Sunday afternoon)? I’m willing to wager there’s a nowhere within reach of you who cannot afford a full-time (or even part-time) pastor. But there are souls there. Souls which need the Gospel. Souls who know Jesus and therefore need the latter part of the Great Commission: “…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Small church buildings need to stay open, casting light over towns that are nearly ghost towns and further, 45 miles away and beyond. The Church must gather, even in the beautiful nowhere where God still walks. Can you give that kind of time to a nowhere? “Big city” churches, can you support and encourage such efforts to keep the lights on where very, very few will see them?

Six years ago my “city church” gave one of its vans to a small church in a town on the other side of the state (population 300). The older man who was serving that congregation at the time was an experienced church planter. He knew of my Sunday afternoon work in the nowhere. He looked at me, squinted his eyes, and said, “I used to do what you’re doing – it made me old.” I think of that often. Thought of it - or rather, felt it - yesterday as I drove the 98 miles back for evening service.

But it’s worth it. God has blessed me through that ghost-town congregation more times than I can count over the last nine years. We have baptized new believers and buried saints who have graduated to glory. We have reached out to help this shrinking town (70 residents when I started, 30 now) several times a year. I learned how to preach to 2 to 3 people here (that’s how we started). Souls for whom Jesus died. Souls that need the Word taught and explained and fed to them.

Do you have time? There are nowheres with souls out there. Don’t forget them. Please. When I travel I am sensitive to these little isolated collections of people - especially when there's no church in their midst. They are a mission field as surely as the isolated African village or the North American metropolis. Who will serve them?

A young couple drove 45 miles to worship yesterday afternoon. And, in the middle of nowhere, there were open doors and a welcoming congregation ready to receive them.

Friday, April 22, 2016


“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
Walden; or, Life in the Woods, by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

I saw this title on our electronic reader (or whatever they’re called). It had been since grade school since the last time I read it, so I opened it and remembered. I’m sure I thought it deep once, but it was only this quote that grabbed my attention this time. Sadly, Thoreau didn’t spend enough time thinking about eternity.

“I have seen the task which God has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves. He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor - it is the gift of God.  I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him” (Ecclesiastes 3:10-14). I got to speak at a Christmastime memorial service at a children’s hospital once, and spoke from 3:11. God “has also set eternity in their heart.” Our longing beyond our capability to grasp or even comprehend. A desire made even more bittersweet and acute when we are forced to sense just how brief time is. How could we ever purposefully aim to “kill time,” as the saying goes?

Where is the only peace in this often confounding tension between time and eternity? God’s got eternity in His grasp. For us. In Christ.

He was for us before time in Christ in eternity past: “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, Who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, Who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher” (2 Timothy 1:8-11).

He will be for us in Christ after time into eternity future: “…according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen” (2 Peter 3:13-18).

But what about now? What about Thoreau’s warning?

I’m mindful of this paradox: with eternity on either side extending forever, all of this thin slice which is time itself is so infinitely small that I don’t see logically how it can exist. But it obviously does (which is why I am no philosopher). I’m not the only one to think on this. Paul speaks of time’s smallness compared with eternity: “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). I’m tempted to quote the whole chapter. In it the apostle and cohorts (Timothy, and perhaps others – 1:1) speak of having “this mercy” and “not [losing] heart” (4:1) despite the opposition of false teachers (4:2) and “the god of this world” himself, who through the false teachers blinds “the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, Who is the image of God” (4:3,4). Ah, but the Gospel. It is what Paul teaches, what motivates him to be a “bond-servant” to the Church (both current members and the lost who will be brought into it through the preaching of the Gospel). It is for this that he is willing to be “afflicted…perplexed…persecuted…struck down…always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus” (4:8-10). “Death works in us” (4:12), he says. What’s Paul’s goal in this sliver of time? He tells the association of churches in Achaia that “all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God” (4:15). This is the goal. God’s glory. It’s worth making the most of this infinitely brief moment.

Westminster Shorter Catechism Q1. What is the chief end of man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.

Forever. And ever. And ever.

I’ll end as I began – with a quote from a classic (this time from a work I love and from a writer who has always moved me deeply).

“Do I dare 
Disturb the universe? 
In a minute there is time 
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. 
For I have known them all already, known them all: 
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, 
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons…”
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

Over this momentary cup of coffee, it’s time to begin this day, not to “kill time” (for eternity approaches faster than light) so as to make for an injurious eternity, but for thanks and glory to the One Who holds it all in His hand as if it were as brief as the blink of an eye.