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Reading Leviticus and Old Testament Law: the Problems of Relevance and Human Rights

This post is specifically for my church family as we read through the Bible together this fall.  Sometimes it has felt as though we are drinking water through a fire hydrant!  Reading at this pace is a challenge and it often feels impossible to stop and meditate.  But one advantage is to be able to see recurring themes and points of connection more clearly.  If you see a prophecy in Deuteronomy, and its fulfillment comes at the end of 2 Samuel, you will recognize it more easily if the readings are only days or weeks apart rather than months or years! The first five books of the Bible are sometimes known as the “Books of the Law.”  Depending on your point of view, law can be tedious and boring in modern and ancient literature alike.  Leviticus is a challenging book!  The pace of the narration grinds to a halt as God continues his dictation of laws to his covenant people, gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai.  If you aren’t bored to tears by the slowed pace, you may be shocked by the seemingly harsh judgments against those who might break God’s law.  I wanted to post this note in hopes that it would remind us of truths that God has revealed in other parts of the Bible. That way we are practicing good interpretation; we will use scripture to interpret scripture and let the Bible speak for itself. IsaacsacrificeDOMENICHINO16

Types of laws: Throughout the first five books of the Bible, God gives three general types of laws: Civil, Moral and Ceremonial.  You can see examples of each in Leviticus.  For an example of a civil law, see chapters 13 and 14 which outline laws of hygiene.  You can find an example of moral law in chapters 18 and 19.  Some of the ceremonial laws are given in 23 and 24.  Why is this part of the Christian Bible?  Why should we read it?
2 Timothy 3:16-17 says “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”  In light of this New Testament declaration (which concerns the Old Testament and New Testament alike), we know that God would have us to gain something from Leviticus.  But what??  What does the grain offering prescribed to the ancient Hebrews at the foot of Mount Sinai have to do with Jesus’ church after the cross??  Aren’t we free from the law?
Yes, we are free from the Law.  The entire book of Galatians, Hebrews and long portions of Romans are dedicated to describing, at great length, how and why we are freed from the Old Testament law.  But there are universal truths behind each law that are useful to understand.  Some are easier than others to discern.  What do we gain from reading them?  A deeper understanding of God’s relationship with his covenant people and his design for human flourishing.  For example, the theme of the entire book of Leviticus is “holiness”.  The word “holy” is used in Leviticus 76 times in 27 chapters. (A quick comparison with the other Books of the law: in Genesis, the word “holy” is used 1 time.  Exodus: 46 times, Numbers: 35 times, Deuteronomy: 11 times.)  We aren’t bound by the laws in Leviticus, but we can see that the universal principle of “holiness” is terribly important to God.
This becomes apparent when we consider the nature of the sacrifices.  Many types of sacrifices for different occasions are outlined.  How many of them have something to do with atoning for sin or ceremonial cleansing?  All except for one: the fellowship offering described in chapter 3.  What can we learn from this?  For thousands of years God has been in the business of making a way for us to have fellowship with him!  There is even a sacrifice prescribed for unintentional sin!  God is so holy and pure he cannot dismiss sin with a wink, yet he still desired relationship with his morally bankrupt people.  The sacrifices and some of the rituals clearly foreshadow Jesus’ final sacrifice at the cross as well.
What about the human rights problems in Leviticus?  Capital punishment is an activity that some people today find disgusting. Most people today are sickened by slavery and many actively fight against human trafficking.  How come we see these two activities condoned in Leviticus?  Isn’t this problematic for the Christian faith?
Yes.  Enemies of the Christian and Jewish faiths, many of them under the umbrella of “progressivism” use passages such as Leviticus 18 and 19 as leverage for their anti-religion agenda.  How can we take the Bible seriously when it condones slavery? Can we really believe that the God who allowed people to sell their children and execute people by stoning and burning is the same God who sent his son Jesus to teach love and forgiveness?  Haven’t we as the human race moved past such draconian, stone-age practices?
Paul Copan, in his Book “Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God” answers these and other difficult questions with scholarly expertise.  You can purchase it by following this link: http://www.amazon.com/God-Moral-Monster-Making-Testament/dp/0801072751/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1412456629&sr=1-1&keywords=paul+copan+is+god+a+moral+monster   (I also have a Kindle version if you wish to borrow it.)  If you don’t find enough depth in this post, I highly recommend Copan’s work.
For now, let’s go back to what we already know about what God has said in scripture:
1. God created everything. (Genesis 1:1).  As such, he is the creator of absolute truth, morality and humankind.  He is the author of right and wrong, which stands independent of the changing winds of cultural taste.  He is the sole owner of every human being, and apparently feels within his rights to destroy every last one of us if he so chooses (remember the flood! Genesis 6 – 9).  By contrast, our cultural preferences and legal systems are man-made, temporary and subject to change with the new moon.
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2. The form of slavery in the Old Testament was not the same type of slavery we normally think of in our culture today.  With the abolition of slavery less than 200 years behind us, we naturally revert back to a despicable form of slavery, which was permanent, degrading and hopeless.  By contrast, Hebrew slavery was temporary, compassionate and hopeful, as seen in Exodus 21:2 and Leviticus 25:39-46.  What about the foreigners that they enslaved?  They were likewise to be treated with compassion, as seen in Exodus 21:5, where slaves had a legal option to stay with their masters if they chose.  Slaves were allowed to own their own property, and potentially to purchase their own freedom.
Does that make sense of Exodus 21:20-21?  Apparently slave-owners could beat their slaves savagely and be free of legal wrongdoing.  If you are like me, you will find it hard to have a warm fuzzy about that law.  But consider again that we are judging from within our own cultural context into a culture that had only just been freed from hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt.  Beatings were commonplace.  Moses, their leader chosen by God himself had personally killed a man with his own hands!  The ultimate resolution of this problem is that it is God’s word that prevails…not our personal preference.  
Does that mean that we should re-institute slavery as a modern civil structure?  No way!  As New Testament followers of Jesus, there are no second class citizens, as we see in Ephesians 2:11-22 and Galatians 3:28.  Paul also encouraged slaves to purchase their freedom if they were able (1 Corinthians 7:21).
3. What about Capital Punishment?  Sexual deviants, blasphemers, and witches were equally condemned to public execution, usually by stoning, sometimes by burning.  What are we to make of this?  Can God still be good and order the death of an adulterer?  By today’s standards, perhaps half of our population would be condemned!
In order to gain some perspective and clarity, let’s look at three priorities that God has clearly demonstrated: His own reputation, the moral hygiene of his covenant people, and the natural order.
Priority #1: God’s reputation!  As owner of all of humanity, God is concerned that his people know Him as He is.  Knowing who God is and what He is like is an essential part of human flourishing.  As such, when his name and reputation are slandered, or anything that lessens his greatness in the eyes of his people was subject to swift and decisive correction! (Leviticus 10:1-3 and 24:10-23).  Ouch!  Can we reconcile this with the God we see in the New Testament?  Check out Acts 5:1-10.  Ananias and his wife Sapphira lied to God and were instantly killed by the Holy Spirit.  Can you see the parallel?  In each case, a covenant had only just recently begun.  In each case, someone tested the author of the covenant; God.  His reputation was at stake!  These were precedent setting events.  God had the obligation to maintain his reputation, even at the cost of human life (which he owns anyway.)
Priority #2: the Moral Hygiene of God’s People!  Many of the laws we see in the Old Testament seem puzzling: Exodus 34:26–don’t boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.  Leviticus 19:27–don’t trim your hair or beard.  What can we make of these strange commands?  Look at the bigger picture: God was removing Israel from Egypt (a pagan nation) and bringing them to the land of Canaan (a pagan territory).  The surrounding cultures were rife with all types of witchcraft, demon worship, child-sacrifice, ritual prostitution and nature worship.  God’s priority of keeping his people separate from those influences comes out in many of his laws.  Why?  It goes back to God’s reputation (which the pagan worldviews undercut) and human flourishing (which pagan practices stunt).  God was so concerned about the cultural purity of his people that he sometimes used capital punishment as a deterrent.  Is there a modern-day application for that universal principle?  You tell me…
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Priority #3: Rebellion Against the Natural Order!  Leviticus 18:21, You are not to make any of your children pass through the fire to Molech. Do not profane the name of your God.; I am Yahweh.” Leviticus 18:22, “You are not to sleep with a man as with a woman; it is detestable.”  Leviticus 18:23, “You are not to have sexual intercourse with any animal, defiling yourself with it.”  A few of the Old Testament Laws prohibit activities that may have been pagan in practice, but also go completely opposite of natural design.  As such, they are a rebellion against the one who designed them.  Again, God is concerned about His reputation, and the moral hygiene of His people.  The category of sin in those verses bleeds into the other priorities already mentioned, as we see in the verses which follow: “Do not defile yourselves by any of these practices, for the nations I am driving out before you have defiled themselves by all these things…I am Yahweh your God.” (Leviticus 18:24, 30).
*A quick word on homosexuality and the church today*  This is a front-line culture war issue.  The church has a bad reputation in the world’s eyes because many denominations have maintained a biblical stance on homosexuality, which stands in contrast to mainstream culture.  Open Door Church will stand on the Bible, in spite of cultural pressures.  However, we will strive to keep homosexuality in perspective: it is not the only sin.  It is not the worst sin.  We are committed to being truthful about sin of all types, and learning to love sinners of all types.  Expect us to do both less than perfectly.
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It’s Time to Kill that “Soulmate” Myth

This post will start off sounding really cynical to some of you, but please hang out until the end, because this is an important idea to grasp if you want to succeed in romance.  First let me tell you what I’m NOT trying to say.  When I was fresh out of high-school, I experienced something very common for people fresh out of high-school: a breakup.  I had moved far away from my girlfriend and the distance was killing it.  Not only that, but all of the dramatic life changes that people experience at that stage were killing it.  Many of you have been there.

I have a dear aunt who was newly divorced at the same time.  We commiserated often.  She listened to Sarah McGlachlin and we mourned our losses.  It was foolish for me to consider that our pain was similar: she had three children and well over a dozen years from her ex-husband.  I had teenage infatuation and a few months.  But my aunt was gracious to me.

One day she commented something to this effect: “At least you still believe in true love.”  To which I responded, “I’m not sure I do believe that.”  It was a foolish thing to say, in retrospect.  I had no idea what I was talking about.  But my views on love have changed since then, and I’m glad to report that this post is NOT a polemic against romantic love or even a cynical rant against the saccharine emotion that Hollywood tries to pass off as love. Those are good things that are too-often understood in distorted ways.

Take Jerry Maguire, for instance.  In the climactic scene typical of romance movies, Jerry confesses his feelings for Dorothy with the unforgettable line, “You complete me.”  This is the downfall of popular beliefs on romance.  The pressure that was placed on Dorothy at that moment was a burden too great for any mere mortal to bear.  It is unfair.  We aren’t made to complete each other or to find completion in any human relationship, not even marriage.

That’s why the myth of the “mail-order” soulmate needs to die.  The idea that somewhere out there is your perfect match who will share all your interests, laugh at all your jokes and put up with all your baggage without any fuss is setting people up for failure.  Soulmates like that are earned over a lifetime of heartbreaking compromise, sacrifice and plain old hard work.  Not predestined in the stars.  They are cultivated intentionally, not granted automatically.

I think this is one reason that so many long-term relationships never lead to marriage and so many marriages fail: Person “A” doesn’t “complete me” a-la Jerry Maguire, therefore, he/she must not be my soulmate.  Time to look for my soulmate in Person “B”. Obviously that is a sweeping generalization, but one that I believe has real traction in our romance-infatuated culture.

There is an underlying spiritual dysfunction that is associated with the soulmate myth.    In a world that has very little use for God, the impossible pressure to “complete me” has been taken off God and placed on human relationships, especially romantic relationships.  This is idolatry, plain and simple.  So not only are we setting ourselves up for failure by placing too much pressure on our romantic counterparts, we are robbing God of the deep, soul-adoring worship that He deserves.  I may have just lost some of you who aren’t concerned with religious affection.  (Dorothy from Jerry Maguire might say, “You lost me at idolatry.”)  But I’ll stand by my claim: what human relationships can never attain in terms of emotional satisfaction, a “sacred romance” will.

That isn’t to say that romance isn’t a good thing.  That isn’t to say that there is no place for romance in healthy marriages.  To the contrary: without romance, intimacy and bedrock commitment, marriages will wither on the vine.  Every time.  But the elevation of romance to the end of all relational emotion is detrimental to our thinking.  Here’s why:  God designed the marriage relationship as an means to an end, not an end itself.  In other words, He didn’t invent marriage just so we could get married, there is a purpose to it.  Besides procreation.  Besides sexual fulfillment.  Besides companionship.

God designed the marriage relationship to be a reflection of the relationship he desires with us.  In the New Testament, the church is called the “bride” of Christ.  It’s brilliant, really.  Sheer genius.  God uses a universal human institution as a relational metaphor, so we will understand just what He is getting at.  He wants an exclusive commitment.  He wants adoration.  He wants emotional closeness.  He wants us to grow in our understanding of him over the long-term.  He wants us to work hard to not offend Him!  He wants our relationship to bear fruit.  He wants to be our soulmate.

So if we kill the soulmate myth, where does that leave marriage?  Does it lessen the emotional impact of romance?  Just the opposite.  What could be more romantic than realizing that your closest human relationship is modeled after an eternal, all-powerful being who literally died just so he could be with you?  What could have a more powerful aphrodisiac effect than knowing that the person who stretched out the heavens and laid down the foundations of the earth wants–no, COMMANDS you to make love to your spouse (1 Corinthians 7.3-5)?

The effect of killing the soulmate myth DOES take the pressure off of your significant other to be and do for you what only God can be and do.  Soulmates aren’t assembled on some conveyor belt, ready to go, right out of the box.  I’m convinced that God isn’t waiting for you to find THE ONE, but one of potentially dozens.  Although He does know which one you will choose–which poses several more questions about free will and God’s sovereignty, none of which bear addressing right now.  All of that to say, when you and your romantic interest decide that you are in it for the long-haul, be prepared to do the work and build your own soulmate.

Why Christians Shouldn’t Take the Bible Literally

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Maybe you’ve heard this comment or something like it before:

“The Bible is a good book, but you just can’t take it literally.”

Many Christians protest.  “We take the Bible literally!”  We say.  Then passages such as Numbers 22 with Balaam and the talking donkey, or the book of Jonah and his dramatic experience inside the fish are commonly used as ammunition to discredit the reliability of the Bible.  Can any rational person be expected to believe these tales?  Aren’t they just metaphors with moral underpinnings?

Yes.  Rational people CAN (and do) take these accounts at face value.  If we accept the existence of God (which most people do), there is no reason to reject the historical accuracy of miraculous accounts, as long as they are contained in otherwise historically accurate writings.  BUT…we shouldn’t take the Bible literally.

Before you stop reading and label me an apostate, let me explain.  Let’s dig through some basic rules of human communication and grow in our understanding of how to understand and explain the natural way to interpret the Bible.

First and foremost, no one interprets the Bible literally.  As in the WHOLE Bible.  The protestant Bible is made up of 66 books written in 3 different languages on 3 different continents over thousands of years by dozens of authors from every walk of life.  Remarkably, all of that material points to the same person who inspired it (the God of the ancient Hebrews), but it is NOT all literal!  Take, for instance, these lines that Solomon wrote about his bride:

“Your eyes are doves behind your veil.  Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead.  Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them has lost its young.”  

This passage is obviously poetic and contains figures of speech: metaphors and similes.  If we were to stand on our claim that the Bible should be taken literally, we would have to say that Solomon’s bride had birds for eyes!  Obviously that isn’t what he meant.  Which is what we, as readers of the Bible are looking for: what did the author mean to say?

If the author is writing historical narrative (like the gospels or the first eighteen books of the Old Testament), it’s safe to say he meant for us to interpret his material literally.  Jesus himself interpreted miraculous accounts literally: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matt 12.40).  If the passage is poetic, it contains an overwhelming majority of figurative language.  If it is prophetic, the prophet generally lets the reader know whether he is using symbolism and figures of speech.

Here are three of rules of thumb that will never steer you wrong:

1: Context is king!  The author of the text usually gives you pretty clear indications of his intentions.  Let the text speak for itself, don’t take small passages out of their literary context. Jesus is called the “Lamb of God” in several new Testament books.  Do we believe that he was literally a juvenile farm animal?  No, that would be a pretty violent interpretive maneuver.  We understand that we shouldn’t read modern newspapers as though they were poetry.  We know that modern love ballads contain hyperbole.  Figures of speech are common tools in human communication, we have to interpret them the way they were meant to be interpreted.  If there is confusion about the author’s intended meaning in a specific passage, back up a few verses or a couple of chapters and pick up his train of thought.  The surrounding context will generally clear up the meaning of most of the individual verses in the Bible!

2. Ask yourself, “What is the author trying to convey?”  Ultimately, the author controls the meaning of the text, NOT the reader.  What would Steven Spielberg say if someone wrote a review of “Saving Private Ryan” that claimed it was an extended allegory about politics in the 1990s?  My guess is he would say something like “No, you doofus.  That’s not what the film means.”  If we let the text speak for itself, a large majority of interpretation is simple.  Yes, some passages are difficult, but even if we were to exclude them *gasp!* the Gospel message is clear.

3.  “I take the Bible at face value.  It is what it appears to be.  It means what it says.”  These phrase can be very helpful in conversations with those who toss out the “L” word (literally).  We can agree with them and say “No, you’re right.  I don’t take the Bible literally either.  At least not the whole thing.”  This is a good way to find common ground with people who might have never considered normal rules of human communication apply…even to the Bible.

Selling and Sending: Two Postures for the Church

Missional Field Notes

From Forge: Dallas:

There are two competing postures for the people of God today: a church of consumers, demanding goods and services, and a church of missionaries, sent and sending into the world. These compete for the minds of Christians. Every church functions according to one or the other. Every disciple stands on these two foundations for life, two theological bases for making decisions, two postures that shape all we do: selling or sending.

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In Praise of Negativity (Sort of)

Ok, not really.  The word “negativity” used to mean basic, street level pessimism.  No one really likes that.  It doesn’t do anyone any good.  The kind of negativity I want to praise is actually more in the center of the spectrum between pessimism and optimism.  Let’s call it…realism.

The reason this conversation even needs to be had is because of a trend in the church for people to condemn realism and call it negativity.  The prosperity gospel movement has made it a point to make positive thinking a central tenet of their teaching, to the extent that speaking anything “negative” (such as condemning sin as outlined in the Bible) is taboo.  Some people make the bold claim that our actual words have power over our situation, and say things like “words have the power of life and death.  Speak life over you situation.”  Or “Get your mind going in the right direction, and your life will go in the right direction.”  One example of the many applications of this is in overcoming addiction. I read about a person who wanted to stop smoking, and was told to claim his victory over addiction daily, by saying “I don’t like cigarrettes.  I don’t like their taste or their smell.”  According to the testimonial, several months later the person had quit!

There are a couple of problems with this spiritual teaching, the main problem being the Bible.  While there IS scripture that supports maintaining something like a “positive mental attitude”, (Philippians 4.8, for example), the mechanism for our victory is not in our mental posture or our speech, but in the blood of Jesus.  His victory is ours, and it is a victory over sin, not necessarily suffering.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the testimonial about the smoker who quit was true, and positive affirmation can certainly have a powerful affect in anyone’s life. But we are called more often to obedience than to grand declarations or positive affirmations.  We are called to persistence in prayer, not to “speak life” over our situations.  To shift the focus of our hearts away from Christ and his completed work, and to reduce the wonderful, difficult discipline of prayer to a trite formula of speaking your desired outcome is a cheap substitute for New Testament discipleship and ultimately amounts to old fashioned animism: performing spiritual rituals in order to manipulate the spiritual realm to your own advantage.

Another difficulty with the “no negativity” crowd is a wrong definition of faith, which has the ultimate effect of leaving the faithful in a state of disillusionment.

“Faith is not believing that God can, it’s knowing that he will.”  Are you familiar with this statement?  It is wrong on a number of levels.  First and foremost, it is a direct contradiction to Daniel 3.16 and 17.  The context shows us the three Hebrew transplants, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego facing the anger of King Nebuchadnezzar for refusing to bow down to his golden image.  Pay close attention to their response:

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to give you an answer to this question.  If the God we serve exists, than He can rescue us from the furnace, and He can rescue us from the power of you, the king.  But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.”  (HCSB, emphasis mine.)

Ultimately, God rescued them, as we all remember.  However, scripture is full of examples of God’s people who were doing all the right things and God still allowed them to “go through the fire”, so to speak.  (For a great list of examples, see Hebrews 11, not to mention Jesus himself.)  What happens to those who buy into the “positivity” message when things don’t go right?  If you thought that faith meant “knowing that God will”, and He didn’t, what does that mean?  Either you misunderstood God or you misunderstood faith.  The family who prays for healing over cancer but doesn’t receive it…where are they after God takes away their loved one sooner than they wanted?  Or the parent with estranged children who seem to keep building higher walls and running further away?  The wife whose husband never stops cheating on her?  Did they have misplaced faith in God?  Doesn’t he care about their situation?  In contrast, the concept of faith that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego demonstrate is radically different.  Their object of faith (God) was good, powerful and worthy of their obedience no matter the outcome of their situation.  They praised God for who He is, rather than what He does.

Finally, there is an idea that’s married to this redefinition of negativity.  The idea is that we shouldn’t mention the concept of sin, since it is negative and might make us feel bad, which is the opposite of the desired outcome for this pseudo-gospel.  Look at God’s diagnosis in Jeremiah 6.14

“They have treated my people’s brokenness superficially, claiming ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” 

When we preach the gospel as though its sole purpose were to bring us comfort, instead of to address sin and grow Christ-like worshippers for the glory of God, of course we will want to avoid sin.  Of course we will ask people not to discuss unpleasant, nasty circumstances.  But that doesn’t square with the Bible, people’s real needs or their real lives.  Avoiding negativity means that we misdiagnose the disease.  Instead of a sinful heart that loves it’s sin, we are dealing with a negative heart that needs psychological coaching to overcome it’s bad feelings.

In medical terms, this type of treatment would lead to a malpractice case on day one.  Doctors cannot avoid negative conversations, otherwise they decieve their patients.  Mechanics cannot gloss over serious mechanical issues (although they sometimes exaggerate them!) and pastors cannot afford to sugarcoat the seriousness of sin.  If that means we need to sound negative, so be it!  Jeremiah preached doom and destruction over Jerusalem for decades.  John the Baptist called his listeners a “brood of vipers.”  Jesus said in John 7.7, “The world…hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil.”  

Bring on the negativity.  We can’t start the healing process until we know just how deep the wound goes.

Five Reasons Why The Blood Moon Prophecy is Just Bad Math

Sean Holloway

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There are some very fascinating astronomical things happening in our solar system that started today. Last night, the full moon entered the shadow of the earth and created a cool looking and unique appearance that is different from the typical appearance of the moon. While the color of the moon during this eclipse is not always the same, and depends on different factors, last night’s was the more expected red colored “blood moon.” A blood moon is when there is a lunar eclipse at the same time as a full moon in the lunar cycle. But there is something more unusual about this particular occurrence. It is the first of four consecutive similar lunar events. There will be four more blood moons in the next 18 months. This sequence is called a tetrad. These four eclipses will occur on April 15th, 2014 (today), Oct 8th, 2014, April 4th, 2015, and…

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Holiness, Grace and Gospel Purity

Compromise? Sometimes, on matters of preference.  Grace? Of course, in non-essential areas of belief. Water down the gospel? Go easy on sin? Not on your life. One mark of Christian maturity is knowing how to deal with sin in our own lives and in our brothers’. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/gospeldrivenchurch/2014/03/27/be-bold-enough-to-follow-the-truth-as-far-as-it-takes-you/

What’s the Bible for, Anyway?

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The entertainment industry is money driven.  Period.  If people will pay for it, they will produce it, no matter what it is.  The number of Biblically based productions lately is a testament to the fact that there is still a thriving “evangelical” base in the American populace. What about Bible movies?  Are they okay for Christians to watch?  Should New Testament Christians support the entertainment industry with dollars that could be used elsewhere, when we already know what the Bible says?  To say “no” might be splitting hairs over something silly when we (the church) have much bigger fish to fry.  Besides that, Paul addresses certain cultural differences within the church in Romans 14…”who are you to judge the servant of another?”  One objection might be raised at this point, however: movie makers, while they are free to exercise poetic license, disrespect the Christian world when they insert anti-Biblical messages into their work.

While the question “should Christians watch Bible movies” is an irrelevant waste of time, I think a deeper, more important question is in need of addressing in church culture: What is the purpose of the Bible?  Did God intend for us to be entertained by His Word?  That is a distinct possibility, as he inspired the original authors to use every means of literary communication available at the time…auditory as well, when you consider that the Psalms were sung and played on instruments.  (I wonder if the Bible were being inspired today, would authors use film or other visual arts, or would they stick to written communication?)  However, entertainment is not the sole purpose of the Bible.  John explains that he wrote his gospel in order that we would know that Jesus is the son of God.  Paul explained to Timothy that scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.  Is there another, overarching synthesis of these and other passages that can explain the purpose of scripture?

It would seem that the purpose of the Bible as a whole is to show us that God has made a way for our broken relationships to be repaired, especially our relationship with Himself.  And the way is the person of Jesus.  Does using the Bible as entertainment  create a problem?  Not really.  But that’s not what it was intended for.  How about this angle–does using the Bible as a moral guide create a problem?  Many people assume that’s what the Bible is.  A compilation of rules by which to live.  The problem with this approach is that the Bible itself doesn’t champion the rules as a means by which to achieve morality.  Let’s unpack that a bit.

The Hebrews were the chosen people of God, privileged above every other nation.  They were chosen, not because of any particular moral qualities, per-se, but because of Abraham’s faith.  Abraham took God at his word.  Hundreds of years after Abraham, God gave his chosen people a moral code, as they gathered in fear at the base of Mt. Sinai.  There were blessings promised for adherence to the code, and curses for disregarding the code.  It was a solemn and binding oath, a covenant.  The Israelites, having seen God’s deliverance from Egypt, had every reason and incentive to keep the covenant.  But they didn’t.  In fact, the Old Testament tells us that, in spite of their KNOWLEDGE about God, they were sometimes WORSE than the Canaanite pagans they displaced!

How does this principle apply to the Bible as a whole?  Both Old and New Testaments contain moral injunctions.  But the net result of the moral efforts of Old Testament Hebrews was abject moral failure.  If we can learn anything from the history of ancient Hebrews, it is that having rules does not make us good people.  If this is true, why would New Testament followers of God through Christ Jesus try to interpret the Bible as a set of rules?  Trying really hard to follow rules didn’t work under the Old Covenant, human nature being what it is, trying really hard won’t work under the New Covenant.  That’s why the focus of the New Covenant is the person of Jesus, foreshadowed by the Tabernacle, succeeded by the Holy Spirit in power.  Only God has the power to take a morally broken and failed person and make him or her good.  No rules can do that.

This is why the method of taking characters in the Bible and holding them up as moral role models is problematic.  I don’t believe God intended them to be role models (nor did he intend for them to be entertainers!)  People are portrayed in the Bible exactly as they were: morally bankrupt, but still bearing the image of God.  David failed in the matter of Bathsheba.  Joseph failed in his hubris toward his brothers.  Noah was a drunk.  Jonah was a racist.  Peter was a loudmouth and a flake.  Paul had a thorn in the flesh.  (On a side note, the fact that nearly all of the Biblical “heroes” had feet of clay is strong evidence that the Bible has not been touched up by editors over the centuries.)  Top to bottom, people in the Bible were people…except Jesus.  He was a complex person, prone to telling off the Pharisees and keeping company with gluttons.  He claimed to be God in the flesh, which would have been blasphemy for any mere mortal.  But the illegal court that convened to send him to his death had to make up a charge because there was no one who could ever say they had seen him sin.  Jesus BECAME our morality.  He fulfilled the entire moral law at the cross.  He empowers us with his Holy Spirit to be redeemed from habits of sin.  On the contrary, the Bible “heroes” merely provide us with a backdrop, an historical context for the long-view of God’s redemptive work in humanity.  They fill in the gaps of the story between creation and redemption.

Sometimes I think we tend view Jesus as simply one of a field of Bible heroes.  Probably the best.  But in the same class, to a greater degree.  We see him as the professional version of what his predecessors were trying to be.  This is a false idea.  Jesus isn’t a better version of ourselves.  He is in another class altogether.  He is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, because He took on human flesh, but the fullness of the Godhead dwelt in that body.  He is far superior to any person who has ever lived.  The Old Testament “saints” predicted his coming, the worship and rituals foreshadowed his atoning sacrifice, everyone who ever met him was astonished by his presence.  Three short years of his ministry precipitated the birth of the Church, and the calendar started over.  His impact on history is unparalleled.  If there is a moral role model in the Bible, it is the step-son of Joseph.  This is why we can say with confidence that the Bible is not primarily a source of entertainment.  Nor is it a moral guide-book.  It introduces us to the person and work of Jesus, in order that we might know him and be reconciled to God!

Jesus and “The Book of Eli” (part 1)

eli

Remember “The Book of Eli”? It was one of a spat of post apocalyptic dramas with washed out color and characters who care more about surviving to the end of the day than dental hygiene. I love that genre. “Eli” came out in 2010, just a year after “The Road” starring Vigo Mortensen. In 2007, “I Am Legand” hit theaters. And more recently, television has blessed us with “The Walking Dead”. These are just a smattering of the wide array of end-of-the-world scenarios that have cropped up in the American cultural landscape lately. Why do we tell these stories? Maybe they allow storytellers to say something important about what it means to be human and what we value most. Whatever the case, I think “The Book of Eli” says something important about the place of belief in western culture.

On the surface, “Eli” appears to be a solid piece of movie-making with a subtle nod to the evangelical demographic. It has action sequences, a mysterious protagonist, a bad guy for him to fight, good visual effects and world-class acting. Plus, the inclusion of the Bible! But what does the film actually say about the Bible and its place in society?

Carnegie, the gangster who terrorizes a local populace of survivors, is obsessed with finding a copy of the Bible in order to leverage peoples’ faith for his own purposes. This is not an unrealistic idea. For hundreds or thousands of years people have misused scripture as a means of psychological leverage over those who aren’t Biblically literate. So far, so good. I can’t find anything wrong with this portrayal of how the Bible might be used in a hypothetical, post apocalyptic North America. But consider the final scene of the movie: Eli reproduces the lost text in it’s entirety, from memory, word for word. A fresh copy of the miraculously protected scripture is placed on a shelf, next to a Hebrew Torah and a Qur’an, in a repository of knowledge on the island of Alcatraz. The message of the entire movie arguably hinges on that sequence and its meaning.

What lesson are the film-makers trying to teach us? It is a subtle statement, but I suppose that they are saying one of two things about the Bible: 1. all scripture (from every religion) is sacred or 2. No scripture is sacred, but knowledge is sacred. With option 2, we would interpret the movie as depicting the preservation of one of a vast body of texts, all of which end up in California for safe keeping. In either case 1 or 2, it would seem that the subtlety presents us with a classic postmodern interpretive exercise: we insert our own preferred interpretation of the ending. (The movie “Inception” was a masterful example of that type of ending.) Let’s have a closer look at the problems associated with each option.

1. If the film is saying that the Bible is not the only text that is sacred scripture, we are presented with religious pluralism, in which each faith is accepted as an equally valid option. The problem with pluralism is that it views truth as a subjective matter, relative to the individual. However, spiritual truth is not a matter of preference or opinion, any more than the laws of physics. All truth stands in isolation from popular conceptions of truth. Is there a God? Our opinions don’t determine the answer. If not, it doesn’t matter what the evangelicals or Muslims say, he still does not exist. If so, the opinions of atheists don’t effect his existence. Either God is or he is not. One is true or the other. But not both. Is Jesus the incarnate son of God? If so, every other religion is invalid, because Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6). If Jesus is NOT the incarnate son of God, the entire New Testament is useless and Jesus was a lunatic megalomaniac! There is no point in the pluralist exercise of placing each faith perspective on a level playing field, because the major world religions have mutually exclusive truth claims that cancel each other out. They do not play well with others. They also have differing levels of epistemic merit, or warrant for belief, so it makes no sense to portray them as equally valid options. If the film-makers intended to present us with religious pluralism (which I consider the correct option), they are not preaching faith in God, but faith in faith, which is no concession to the evangelical community even though the Bible is a part of the plot.

2. If the film is saying that “no scripture is sacred,” (and by extension, that Eli’s actions were free of Divine intervention or influence), it is hard to understand why they have portrayed Eli’s Hurculean efforts to preserve the book. How long would it take a person to memorize the whole Bible? There are nearly 775,000 words in the 66 books of the Protestant Canon. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Eli was aggressively working to memorize all sixty-six books, and was able to commit 100 words per day to memory. Supposing that he never missed a day, it would have taken him 7750 days, or just over 21 years. But is it reasonable to suppose that Eli could have memorized the first hundred words of Genesis in year one and still recite them 21 years later at Alcatraz? no, Eli would have to have worked harder, for longer than 21 years to commit the entire corpus of Biblical writings to memory, if, as option 2 would imply, he was merely a man walking across North America to protect a man-made book with no supernatural significance. Why bother? I think its safe to rule out the idea that the film is telling us that Eli is preserving a “man-made” Bible merely for the sake of it’s cultural-historical value.

Here we are faced with a fine piece of cinema, which perfectly embodies the zeitgeist of our age. Is there something special about the Bible? “Possibly” says the film. “You decide for yourself, you insert your own meaning. But if the Bible IS sacred, it’s certainly not alone.” If “Eli” was an attempt at finding common spiritual ground between the world and the church, it failed. Although it might appear to be making concessions to evangelical thinking, it merely places Jesus on the same field as Mohammed and Moses. No thanks, Hollywood.

What are the practical implications of a postmodern approach to spiritual truth? Wordlviews which have room for pluralism are looked upon with favor, while exclusivists are cast as backward, superstitious or hateful. A prime example is occurring right now in the Maine State Legislature, where an act written to protect religious freedom is in serious trouble. http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/02/21/religious-freedom-bill-defeated-maine-house/Pdp5JK1vC8lbQW0xE0Sq4H/story.html

I don’t intend to launch into a political commentary, but I mention this to show that philosophical foundations (pluralism, in our case today) will eventually have practical implications. I am not arguing for a theocracy, but against relativism and pluralism. The end result of rejecting objective truth as a basis for law and society is disastrous: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Judges 21.25. Tragically, in the Biblical passage that immediately illustrates this unfortunate epitaph, a man allowed his concubine to be raped to death by thugs in order to save himself from a similar fate. This event precipitated a full scale tribal war. The Israelites were not anchored morally to any fixed point, and the author of Judges diagnosed this condition as the responsible factor behind their moral failures.

Apart from any suggestion that “Eli” might have for us, we have two real-world options concerning the Bible. 1. The Bible is man-made and contains some truthful sentiments, and many misguided religious untruths. In this case, there is no sense in preserving Christianity because it is a false religion. The moral weight of the Bible is nothing unique, every human knows right from wrong whether they read the Bible or not. The books themselves are not able to make anyone good any more than a measuring stick can make someone tall. Furthermore, the message of the Bible is not primarily a message of morality, but of reconciliation with God through Jesus. So if the historical person of Jesus was not who the Bible says he was, the moral value of the Bible is redundant and powerless to effect change in the human race.
Option 2: The Bible is what it claims to be and should be taken at face value. The historical person of Jesus is the son of God incarnate and has the ability to repair the broken relationship between man and God. As such, he has ultimate authority over the affairs of earth and is deserving of unrestricted ownership of our affections and obedience. That’s what the Bible says, after all. In the next post, I hope to explain a couple of reasons we can know that the Bible is what it claims to be.

Book Review: The Silence of Our Friends, by Ed West

Ed West wrote a Kindle Single called “The Silence of Our Friends: The extinction of Christianity in the Middle East”. It is a wakeup call to the western world, Christian and otherwise. The past ten years have seen an alarming trend of Islamicization and increasing hostility and intolerance toward Christians in the Middle East. There is a genocide on, and no one is noticing.

 

West presents disturbing statistics and accounts of recent persecution toward the Christians community in the Middle East, as well as a survey of Christian history in the region. Unfortunately, violence is nothing new to the church. But the extinction of an entire minority group of society should be enough to concern even the most staunch opponents of Christianity. While many view the violence in places such as Syria and Egypt as politically motivated and irrelevant to American interests, Mr. West provides cogent reasons for everyone, relgious or otherwise, to be concerned.

 

The first reason is the apparent willfull ignorance of Western (read “American and British) media and leadership concerning Muslim actions against Christians. Whether because of fear of a Muslim backlash (a legitimate concern) or because of a desire to appear balanced and/or tolerant, the public voices of western media have been anything but balanced in their reporting of the genocide. Even the U.S. State department, in public comments concerning violence, has yet to identify the perpetrators, victims, or the extent of the problem. For example, hundreds of Churches in Iraq and Syria, many of them hundreds or thousands of years old, have been destroyed. Christian men, women and children have been massacred in droves and evicted from their ancestral homes, all without a peep from the State Department and hardly a stir from mainstream Media outlets. Yet, in response to an incident of vandalism at a Mosque in Israel, the State Department released the following statement: “The United States strongly condemns the dangerous and provocative attacks on a mosque in the northern Israeli town of Tuba-Zangariyye…Such hateful sectarian actions are never justified.”

The second reason that West gives us to be concerned over the situation is that the erosion of religious freedom, even the freedom of religious groups alien to our own, ultimately threaten everyone’s freedom. Says West, “religious freedom is a secular cause too, because it is intimately linked to the freedom of unbelief, an essential requirement of a good society and one Islamists threaten. And one does not need to be Christian or religious to care about anti-Christian violence, anymore than one has to be gay or black to care about homophobic or racist violence.”

 

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