This blog is the combined effort of four senior pastors of different churches. Their desire is to point you toward living a God-centered, gospel-focused, Christian life.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Is God Stingy?

Why does God give laws in the Bible?  We too easily craft the wrong reason, namely that God is a cosmic killjoy, stingy and making life as restrictive as possible.  Eve was the first person to imagine this.  Do you know the first command God gave to people?  If you think it was, “Don’t eat from the fruit in the garden,” you make the same mistake as Eve.  Genesis 2:16, the first command of the Bible*, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden.’”  The first command was one of wide generosity!  Eve, of course, focused on the second command not to eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden.  Then, because she thought of God as restrictive and stingy, she twisted that command to say that she could not even touch that fruit.  The serpent planted doubts, asking, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” This reinforced the notion that God was stingy, restricting his creation from flourishing and fulfillment.

The Bible is filled with people who misunderstand God’s nature.  Consider the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.  The prodigal believes his father (who represents God) as stingy and restrictive.  So, he asks his father for his inheritance and flies fast and far from his father.  However, the older brother makes the same mistake.  He too thinks that the father is stingy and restrictive.  “You never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends,” he says.  So, whether one is a rebel against God or a legalist who takes pride in rules, the same error holds—both think of God as stingy and restrictive, not expansive in generosity and kindness.

You might ask, “Well, if God is generous, why did He make laws?”  This fine question is best answered in another article, but the quick answer is when God says, “Don’t,” He is really saying, “Don’t hurt yourself.”

Don’t make the error about God being stingy.  The God who made the world and everything in it is generous and kind, and He wants people to know Him.  He has given you two “books” by which you can know His character.  One is the world He has made; the other is the book He has written, the Bible.  I invite you to “read” both.

*Some will argue that Genesis 1:26--"be fruitful and multiply" is the first command, and they would have an excellent case.  The more specific point that I am making is the issue of the word, "commanded," in 2:16, which is the first time an official command is issued, using the word, "command."

This article first appeared in the Pantagraph on April 1, 2017.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Case for the Nations (or Why Do We Have an Immigration Problem?)

I am hearing a lot these days about the importance of uniting the people of the world.  In the immigration debate, some have expressed that it is a national duty to welcome down trodden people into one’s country, most especially because there is no real right to have an established border which is designed to keep people out.

The idea of a nationless world is indeed attractive.  John Lennon’s “Imagine” puts it this way:

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace,

The notion of a borderless world has captivated human imagination (pun intended) all the way back to Genesis 11.  Human beings have always been tempted to build for themselves a borderless world without God (no countries and no religion too).  Consider Genesis 11:1-4:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

There is the unity of language here.  There is the use of makeshift materials for the building of a unifying center.  There are the words, “come, let us” repeated as a plaintive desire for unity and peace.  Who of us cannot relate to that desire?  Why do we have nations?  Don’t they just get in the way of peace?

However, if we look a bit more deeply, we discover that the reason the people at Babel sought borderless unity was really for us humans to build a kingdom without God.  We want to build a kingdom without God and for our own fame, glory, and self-centeredness.  Human beings are to be the center of the universe.  As Humanist Manifesto II states, “No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.”  We long to be important; we long to make a name for ourselves.  We think that the unity of the world, no matter how that unity is achieved, would be a wonderful and great thing.  We think that anything that scatters the human race, especially where we would not understand one another, would be a very wrong thing indeed.

God thinks otherwise.  He will not tolerate the building of anyone’s kingdom but His own.  Consider Genesis 11:5-9:

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

Notice that God “came down,” not as a rival but with a Creator’s and father’s concern.  God knows that this plan of human kingdom building without Him would be only the beginning of horrible apostasies.  God now says (v. 7), “Let us go down.”  The Trinity is a far, far more powerful gathering than the gathering of all the human race!  The arithmetic of heaven is that 3-in-1 is more than billions of people.

Nationalism, according to verses 8-9, is God’s appropriate discipline on an unruly race.  Notice how in verses 7-9, the words, “confused” and “dispersed” are each used twice, emphasizing that God has done something on purpose to thwart human unity without Him.  The half-built Tower of Babel is a monument to the glory of man without God.  It is the end game for those who want to “Imagine.” 

That there are different races, different nations, different peoples is an insuperable fact.  No amount of “imagining” is going to eliminate it.  Nations are born and die, of course, but the idea of a one world government is not only undesirable, it is impossible.  Even though there may be times when people feel like they are close to achieving the humanist dream, that cause will never triumph.  God will always stop it.

God will always stop it for two important reasons.  First, it is not in our best interests for it to triumph.  A life lived without God is a disaster.  A culture or people without God is a horror.  An entire world without God?  Well, God simply refuses to allow that to happen.[1]  Such is the nature of His love for the rebellious human race.  Second, God wills that He be glorified by His creation.  He will have the glory due to Him.  Some who have considered this think it arrogant of God, even selfish of Him, to will that He be glorified.  However, when one considers the true nature of God in all of His manifold attributes, we are brought low.  We are undone.  We bow before the rightful ruler of the universe Who alone is good and worthy of praise.

In a very real sense, then, nationalism, the creation of nations, cultures, races, languages is a punishment from God for our hubris, our belief that we could create a kingdom without Him.  This fact of the nations is what is behind many of the troubles that we face.  Nations do not understand one another or want what another nation has and so go to war.  Innocents caught up in the war are displaced and run to other nations.  Those other nations now must figure out whether to receive these from war torn lands.  Further complicating matters, the people who are warring can disguise themselves as innocents and try to spread their hate elsewhere while pretending to be refugees.

This is what is behind the immigration debate.  How does a nation respond to hurting people?  Should a nation try to preserve its distinct national identity?  These are questions that especially are facing many European countries, but they are also facing us.  They are not easy to answer.  However, the answer is not and cannot be that nations do not matter, that nations are some sort of obstacle to humanity.  Rather, different nations and cultures exist precisely because God so has ordained it.
How does this affect our own nation?  Well, apart from God, the United States is doomed to failure.  “E Pluribus Unum” without “In God We Trust” is a tower of Babel that God will confuse into collapse.  I frankly do not know how to resolve the refugee and immigration challenges that our country faces, even though I have very good friends on all sides who seem to know exactly what to do.  However, I know that the idea of a borderless world is not from God.  I know that it is national suicide to think that we can admit without limit those who are committed to defying our laws.  I know that it is wrong to turn our backs on helpless people who will die without our aid.  I know that God always calls me to love my neighbor as I love myself.

I am not so much interested in this article about how to resolve the current immigration debate as I am in getting out there that the NATIONS matter to God.  God has decisive control over the affairs of the human race.  The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD (Proverbs 21:1); a man may plot his way, but the LORD determines his steps (Proverbs 16:9); the plans of man are many, but the purpose of the LORD will stand (Proverbs 19:21).  God works out everything after the counsel of His own will (Ephesians 1:11).  Jesus is the only one able to open the scroll of the destiny of the world (Revelation 5:5).  This means that the nations that He Himself ordained are in His hands.  The Apostle Paul spoke of the glory of God in creating and controlling the nations this way, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, (Acts 17:24-27).  God has appointed the times and boundaries of the nations so that they will seek Him and find Him.
God will one day reunite the peoples of the earth and reverse the punishment of Babel, but the basis of that unity will not be the glory of the human race.  It will be the glory of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. 
“For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples
    to a pure speech,
that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord
    and serve him with one accord.” Zephaniah 3:9
And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
    from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
    and they shall reign on the earth.” Revelation 5:9-10

A day will come when the nations (as we understand them) will be no more. That day is not yet.  Let us not wish that there were no nations.  Rather, let us thank God that even the confusion of nations draws us to the real King—to God Himself.

[1] At least, He will refuse to allow a one world government without Him to happen until the Day of the Lord.  There will come a time when the Lord will defeat the combined forces of the world unified against Him. See especially Revelation 17-20.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Third Way: Beyond Escape and Beyond Despair

The headlines these days are difficult to read without the loss of innocence.  One of the more contentious presidential elections in generations, the unabated battle against terrorism, the decline of moral sensibilities so that our culture cannot even say that there are only two genders—these events give us a jaundiced eye and push us in one of two directions. 

One direction is to seek to escape the news by hiding in our own smaller world, attempting to make it as prosperous and peaceful as possible.  There are several ways that we can do this.  We can insulate ourselves from the world as it is by our selective engagement with media that we agree with.  We can protect ourselves by cultivating friendships only with people who think like we do.  We can avoid facing painful things by focusing our determination to do well in our work, in our families, and in our church community.

Another direction is to get grumpy and frustrated over the whole mess, wondering if there is anything worth the effort required to maintain a sense of optimism.  We fall under the weight of despair described by Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells” (a song written in the throes of the American Civil War)—
“And in despair I bowed my head;
there is no peace on earth I said;
for hate is strong and mocks the song;
of peace on earth, good will toward men.”

Now, neither of these directions is entirely wrong.  In fact, at least parts of these responses are biblical ways to respond to challenging times.  1 Timothy 2:1-3 tells us that we are to pray for those in high positions in our culture so that “we may lead a quiet and dignified life”.  So, it is not entirely wrong to want to escape the painful realities of a sin cursed world.  As for the second direction, the Psalms are replete with grumpiness and frustration at the apparent triumph of wickedness.  Psalm 74:1, 10 provides a good example, “O God, why do you cast us off forever?  Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? . . . How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?  Is the enemy to revile your name forever?”  So, it is not entirely wrong to get grumpy and frustrated over the apparent victory of evil over good, either.

However, there is a third way!  It is the way that faces rather than tries to hide from the realities of evil.  It is the way that acknowledges sin in all its horror and pain, yet it is not a way to despair.  This way is rather a path to glory.  Consider the words of the Bible, and note how sin is not minimized or ignored, yet it is no reason for despair, either.

“You shall call His name Jesus;
For He shall save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
Note here that there is hope.  A Savior named Jesus is coming.  But this is a Savior from sin.  Sin is not denied or ignored.  It is faced, faced by a Champion who will deliver us from its grip.

“God is so rich in kindness that He purchased our freedom through the blood of his Son, and our sins are forgiven.” (Ephesians 1:7 NLT 1996)

Note here that there is freedom.  This is not the freedom of hiding from reality.  It is rather the victory of a new reality.  God is so kind that at high cost, the blood of His Son, He bought our freedom from the shackles of sin.  Indeed, our sins are forgiven!  Sin again is not denied or ignored, but neither is sin triumphant.  God has purchased our freedom through Jesus’ blood.

“For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God’s anger against us.  We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us.” (Romans 3:25a NLT 1996)

Note here that there is reconciliation with God.  To be reconciled to God, we must first face the reality that we are NOT right with God.  Then, we embrace by faith this remarkable fact that God sent Jesus to take the punishment which we deserve.  His death satisfies the anger that God has against us.  We are right with God when we believe that Jesus shed His blood as a sacrifice for us.  Again, sin is not denied or ignored.  Sin tempts us to despair, BUT it is not ultimately triumphant.  Jesus Christ provides the third way, not denial of reality, not despair over reality, BUT triumphant in a new reality—the forgiveness of sins!!

Here is a hymn describing our victory in Christ.  Note how biblical the idea this “third direction” is, as nearly every line comes from some text of scripture.

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea. (Heb 4:15-16)
A great High Priest whose Name is Love (Heb 4:14)
Who ever lives and pleads for me. (Heb 7:25)

My name is graven on His hands, (Isa 49:16)
My name is written on His heart.
I know that while in Heaven He stands (Acts 7:55)
No tongue can bid me thence depart. (Rom 8:34)

When Satan tempts me to despair (Luke 22:31-32)
And tells me of the guilt within, (Rev. 12:10)
Upward I look and see Him there (Acts 7:55-56)
Who made an end of all my sin. (Col 2:13-14)

Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free. (Eph. 1:7)
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me. (Rom 3:24-26)

Behold Him there the risen Lamb, (Rev 5:6)
My perfect spotless righteousness, (1 Cor 1:30; 1 Peter 1:18-19)
The great unchangeable I AM, (Heb 13:8; John 8:58)
The King of glory and of grace,

One with Himself I cannot die. (John 11:25-26)
My soul is purchased by His blood, (Acts 20:28)
My life is hid with Christ on high, (Col 3:3)
With Christ my Savior and my God! (Tit 2:13)

And in the words of Charles Wesley,

“Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth;
Born to give them second birth.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn king.”

No need to hide, no need for despair, our King has set us free.

Merry Christmas!