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.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sermon Preparation on a Thursday afternoon

I am so excited to study God's Word!  Its clarity and depth are incredible.  I just spent the last hour or so tracking down the use of the Hebrew word, "hinneh" in Esther.  The use of the word in Esther 6:5 ("behold Haman"), 7:9 ("behold the gallows"), and 8:7 ("behold the house of Haman") as structural markers to the Haman narrative could easily be a thesis topic.  The author is using this little Hebrew word as a subtle way to mark God's sovereign design in the collapse of Haman and his schemes.  It "just so happened" that Haman was in the courtyard when the king was just figuring out that he wanted to honor Mordecai, and so the king's young men say, "Behold Haman." (6:5)  It "just so happened" that the eunuch Harbona speaks up to the king (who is furious--and who wants to say anything to a furious king??) to say, "Behold, the gallows that Haman built for Mordecai." (7:9)  It "just so happened" that the king takes on the urgency of saving the whole of the Jewish people by beginning his statement, "behold, the house of Haman." (8:7)  What a beautiful way to tie these three sections together (and as nearly as I can tell, "hinneh" is not used anywhere else in Esther).

I have not encountered an English translation which preserves this structural marker precisely.  For that matter, it is debatable if structural markers should be preserved, if one desires a good English translation.  The structural markers of the original languages are not necessarily good structural markers in English, and, frequently, the markers are so subtle that I am guessing that the translators often miss them inadvertently.  The KJV and NASB come close to preserving them and come close in this instance.  It is interesting that the ESV does not. Even though I use the ESV, both in my main reading of the Bible and in preaching, I find that it does not preserve structural markers very well, particularly in the Old Testament.

Still, structural markers are important to bring clarity and color to the text of scripture.  The author of Esther clearly intended the reader to note this marker.  This is yet another reason why pastors should be proficient in the original languages of the Bible.  If we believe in the verbal inspiration of scripture, that is, that the very words of the Bible are God-breathed, we who preach must know both the words and how they are put together if we are to preach authoritatively.  The longer that I study the Bible, the more that I discover the beauty of the Word of God and the incredible brilliance of the human authors.  Indeed it draws me into worship of the ineffable divine Author.

I am so grateful to the Lord that He provided me the experiences and teachers that enable me to work through Esther in Hebrew.  It is actually a worship experience here in my study!!  Thank you, Lord, for showing me this little, subtle marker to point to your work "behind the scenes" in the downfall of Haman. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Working Parents and the Fruitless Pursuit of Joy in the Workplace

In October 2003, The New York Times Magazine ran an article entitled “The Opt Out Revolution.” The article profiled several women who were dropping out of the workplace in order to be stay-at-home moms. 
The women in the article were successful individuals who had decided that the place of fulfillment for them could not be found in the workplace and so turned their attention homeward.
A few weeks ago, a follow-up article appeared on The New York Times website entitled, “The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In.” 
The basic gist of the new article was that some of the women who had opted out nine years ago now want back in the workplace. Due to changing life circumstances, divorce being the predominant example given in the article, they now have a need for employment. The idyllic life they thought they were pursuing came crashing down around them.
It’s a sad article for many reasons. It hurts to read the stories of women and men who have found happiness in the workplace and at home elusive.
The purpose of this article isn’t to give a theology of women or men in the workplace. I’m wary of simplistic statements about decisions families make as they strive to pursue God’s glory with their lives.
Let me just share three quick thoughts I had as I read these articles.
First, my heart aches for single parents who are faced with the difficulty of trying to provide all of the financial, emotional, and spiritual support for their children.
What an incredibly difficult journey some of these women have had to face. When they stepped away from the workplace, they had no idea that their world would so dramatically change in a few short years. I pray that God provides for them in profound ways.
Second, both women and men are pursuing joy in things that will not bring satisfaction.
God has called men and women to live sacrificially for the benefit of others. It is wonderful and godly as it is to enjoy your work but ultimate satisfaction flows from being obedient to God not in the work itself. If I cannot find joy in a mundane job, I won’t find lasting joy as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company either.
It doesn’t surprise me, then, to read that women and men found the workplace unfulfilling. What drove some of the women profiled home was not joy in a calling but fleeing from a place that hadn’t brought them joy.
In the original article from 2003, one person noted: “Among women I know, quitting [their job] is driven as much from the job-dissatisfaction side as from the pull-to-motherhood side.” I don’t know the hearts of these women, but there is a potential that there was not an honest assessment of the potential idols that were causing their unhappiness. One idol, children, may have simply replaced the previous idol of the workplace.
Third, families struggle to address the core issues that caused dissatisfaction.
In many of the situations profiled, my heart ached as husbands and wives acknowledged that they had been deeply unhappy for some time and had not really taken steps to address the heart issues that were causing that unhappiness.
One woman said of her husband: “He’d come home at night, and I’d want to talk about what was going on at school and with the other parents, and I’d get frustrated he was not finding it more engrossing.
How tragic! A husband, who should find great joy in the lives of his children, found the home a place that was too mundane for his consideration. He had bought into the lie that it is in the sphere of the workplace that his worth will be validated.
The problem for women and men is not their presence in the workplace. In Proverbs 31 we encounter a woman who has a significant and profitable position in the community. The problem is why they make the decisions they do about involvement in the workplace. The Proverbs 31 woman’s delight is not in the prestige of her position but rather in the Lord.
Moms and dads struggle to find joy and satisfaction in the ministry to which God has called them.
The answer to the heartache I find in this article for both husbands and wives is an embracing of the self-sacrificial love to which God has called them.
For wives, this means seeing the home not as a place in which she “does her time” until she can really begin to live but rather as a place where she can joyfully serve her family in whatever way God calls her to do so. Practically, this means there may be a period of time where she decides to limit her time in the workplace. It may mean passing on opportunities to advance in order to fulfill her responsibilities to nurture her children and serve as a partner for her husband.
For husbands, this means seeing the home not as a distraction from the “real” world but rather as his primary sphere for ministry and the purpose of his work. Practically, this may mean that he passes on opportunities to advance up the corporate ladder. It may mean that he may abandon hobbies for a period of time because of the need to be at home.

For all of us, may we find contentment with what God has provided and joy in wherever He has placed us.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Eschatology: the Lost Princess in the Queen of Sciences

Today’s universities derive from the monastic institutions and cathedral schools of Western Europe.  The academic regalia, which look out of place today, recall those roots in the Middle Ages.  At the time of the founding of such institutions of higher learning, universities primarily prepared students for work in the church.  As such, the study of theology was the most important subject.  Theology, in fact, was known as “The Queen of the Sciences,” since all other knowledge flowed to it and from proper theological foundation flowed the means to understand the other subjects rightly.

Today, we are far removed from theology as “the Queen of the sciences.”  In fact, even in Christian circles, theology is sometimes disparaged as cold, divisive, and antithetic to a warm, loving relationship with Jesus.  Of course, this is wrong.  If I am to have a warm, loving relationship with Jesus, I must know Him as well as I can.  That means theological study.  Fortunately, I sense a movement of the recovery of theology in the church.  Young and old alike, finding that a shallow faith does not serve one well in an increasingly anti-Christian environment, are discovering the delight of theological study.  Theology further serves to provide the resources to tackle the profoundly perplexing ethical questions that modern technology is bringing.  So, I embrace and wish to fan into flame this increased interest in theology.

However, there is one area of theology which has not grown in interest, one study of theology that is in fact on the decline.  As my title suggests, I call this area of study, “the lost princess in the queen of sciences.”  That lost princess is the study of eschatology, or the study of last things. 

There are several reasons why eschatology is not of prominent interest these days. 

1)      There are more important concerns.  Both the perception and the reality is that there are more important concerns than a fully mapped out eschatology.  However, the key eschatological questions of heaven, hell, who goes which place, and the purpose of the ages cannot be minimized without extreme danger to our souls and a loss of our purpose before a great and glorious God.

2)      The challenges of apocalyptic literature make the study hard.  Apocalyptic literature, the books of Daniel and Revelation being prime examples, is a very challenging genre to interpret correctly.  What things are literal; which are figurative; what connections is the author making with other writings or with history and geography?  These are all very difficult questions, which makes the study hard.
3)      The fact that people of good will disagree.   There are many wonderful, solid Bible teachers, pastors, and theologians who have widely disparate views on the end times.  The fact of that disagreement easily leads either to rancor or to a minimizing of importance of the issues.  Either way, we end up with a feeling that we just don’t want to rehash areas of controversy.  Today, there seems to be a lack of desire to renew fractious debate (that is good), but perhaps that has also led to an avoidance of eschatology altogether (that is not so good). 

4)       The fanciful ways that some popularize their eschatological viewpoint.  While popular books on the end times have a way of drawing attention to the subject, not all of that attention is good.  There is a tendency among these popular treatments to make much of very fine details, which are not easy to figure out.  There also appears to be a focus on the USA and its role in prophecy.  This leads to interpreting the prophetic texts of the Bible from an American geopolitical point of view.  As an example, for years, many held that the Soviet Union was the “king of the north” in Daniel.  I caught a bit of criticism for arguing against that position in 1985.  Later events showed that my concerns were justified.  The same kind of thing has occurred over the years in the identification of the Antichrist.  This leads to an almost cartoon effect in which a few Christians are interested in arcane prophetic identifications, and most just tune out altogether.

5)      There is a great difficulty in maintaining a consistent eschatology, given the complex array of biblical texts.  It is important to note that no matter what one’s position on Bible prophecy, there are texts that will be challenging and troublesome.  It does not serve the church well to pretend otherwise.  I see the tendency from every eschatological viewpoint to set up all other views as obviously wrong without honestly interacting with the alternate viewpoints.  We should be humble before the Lord and with one another in this study.

Even with all these reasons that push us away from the study of last things, eschatology is essential to study.  Here are some reasons why: 

1) Eschatology deals with core issues.  Where do we go when we die?  Is there a heaven?  A hell?  Where and when and under what conditions does one go to those places?  What about near death experiences?  Is punishment in hell forever?  If so, why?  The study of last things is promised to be a blessing to our hearts (see Revelation 1:3), if we take it to heart.  Further, if we pay attention to our future hope, we will seek to live pure lives now (see 1 John 3:3).

2) There are less core issues like the burial versus cremation debate, the nature of the intermediate state, or the destiny of pets and animals.  This last one is a profound theological question often asked by children, which could provide a great introduction for children to the study of theology in general and of eschatology in particular.  But instead of saying to our children, “That is a great theological question.  Let me introduce you to theology!” we simply say, “Of course, Fido is in heaven with Jesus,” and leave the child to wonder where that comforting “truth” came from.  By the way, I am not taking up this question, at least not in this article.  I am simply saying that the question about the destiny of pets is an eschatological question.  And we would better serve our children by pointing them to the study of the Word of God in this category of theology than we would by any answer to that specific question that we give them.

3) Far too often, we “do” theology without really doing it.  That is, we make theological conclusions based upon our feelings and what must seem right to us without the hard work of study of the scriptures that touch upon the subject.  Then, when someone challenges our theological “feeling,” we can easily be offended and say that “theology” itself is bad, when, in fact, it is our way of doing theology that is flawed.  This is particularly true when it comes to the eternal destiny of loved ones or how one can know that we are going to heaven.  An emotional theology simply says, “How do I want the universe to work?” and develops a theology which confirms the desire.  A biblical theology asks the question, “What does the Bible say?” and seeks to develop conclusions based on biblical evidence.  This is not an easy task, but if we believe that God has revealed His ways on the pages of scripture, then this is an essential task.  It is in this sense that we can call theology a “science.”  This is hard enough when it comes to things like the doctrine of God or of the church or of angels.  It gets really challenging when we are talking about future things, so hard in fact, that we often do not do it. 
4)  How one understands eschatology ends up affecting how one interprets the Bible.  When we consider prophetic predictions, how literally are we to take them?  Even making allowances for literary genres, there is a wide discrepancy among very committed Christians about this matter.  My concern is that if the predictive parts of the Bible are some sort of allegory, why would not the historical parts be the same?  While I deeply respect and admire many who hold more allegorical views of eschatology than I do, I am troubled by this concern and confess that I have never read or heard a sufficient explanation (which I admit might be more due to my obstinacy than to the sufficiency of the explanation).  At any rate, this makes one’s eschatological views even more important than just about eschatology.  It makes it about how one views all of the Bible.

5) The key interpretive concept which ties all of scripture together is God’s kingdom.  Namely, God is at work to demonstrate that He alone is qualified to build His kingdom.  All of the Bible, including its description of history, including its description of future events, is designed to point to this truth.   The fulfillment of the ages is a King, named Jesus, Who alone meets all the claims of perfect kingship.  The only way that we capture the nature of God’s kingdom is by a study of eschatology.  If you are interested in a fuller development of this as the theme of the Bible, see the message series, “What the Bible is All About” available at:

6) It is far too easy to set up straw men of positions that we do not embrace.  This is particularly true of eschatology.  When I see how men I respect and honor as godly men treat my understanding of eschatology in a disparaging way, making light of the popularizers who are easy to dismiss, I wonder if they have ever encountered a person who really has thought through this eschatology.  Similarly, I wonder if I am rightly understanding the eschatological views of those that I disagree with.  Am I guilty of the same thing that I see in them?  These are questions which call for greater theological engagement, not lesser.  The way to personal spiritual growth in these matters is by greater engagement, not lesser.

In the final analysis, it is not who the Antichrist is, or what weapons will be deployed at the battle of Armageddon that makes the study of eschatology important.  What makes it important is that it impacts our understanding of all other parts of theology, of history, and of destiny.  We do not have to don the regalia of the scholastics of the Middle Ages.  However, if God is to be glorified in us to the greatest degree possible, it is essential that we embrace the Queen of sciences, theology, and that we include in that embrace the lost Princess, eschatology.