Sunday, June 21, 2015

About submission...

The world has changed and is changing in regards to men, women, and their roles in society. Men were designed with natural energies and dispositions that led them to be the hunters, defenders, and leaders of families and communities, and they have fulfilled these roles for thousands of years. In a more modern sense, men have been viewed as the 'breadwinners' (even though women and children obviously worked). This has had some tragic side effects, such as wage inequality, educational restrictions, lack of voting rights, the 'glass ceiling,' and general sexism. These are broad generalizations, but they are backed up by research and history.

The past 100 years has seen tremendous change in these areas. Just over 100 years ago, UGA was 100% male. Now, there are 5,000 more women than men in the student population. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed guaranteeing women the right to vote. Many women entered the workforce during World War II (1939-45) as men went off to fight, and I don't think we can underestimate the effect that the availability of safe and effective birth control had on American society in the '60s and '70s. At the end of WWII, 1/3 of American women were in the workforce; today, the number is around 57%. The Great Recession of 2008 disproportionately hit men, and men have had a harder time finding jobs in the recovery; many of them possess skills that no longer match the American job market.

The changes also affect the family. While some seek to redefine marriage, the larger trend has been a "cultural retreat from marriage" and a "decline of fatherhood." Divorce rates are dropping, but this is largely due to declining marriage rates and people waiting longer to marry. In the '60s, the average age for first marriage was 20 and 22 for women and men respectively; today, the average ages are 27 and 29. The truth is that women don't need a husband for financial stability, and our society's standards for sexual activity, cohabitation, and having children outside of marriage have changed to such a degree that there is far less societal pressure to get married. The reduced drive to marry (or generally grow up) promotes an extended adolescence, and this phenomena is not limited to the stereotypical guy in his parents' basement; there are many middle-aged women who behave as if they are still in college.

The effects extend to the church. There is a lot I could say here, but I'll limit it to this: on average, more women than men are in church, especially in mainline, liberal churches that have embraced the feminine influence, even accepting female priests and pastors. A recent Pew study on Christianity in America shows that these mainline denominations are in decline while evangelical denominations are holding steady or increasing. Adopting the prevailing egalitarian view has not worked out well for mainline churches.

The bottom line for me is that many of the traits and characteristics men possess (competitiveness, risk-taking, seeking challenge, independence, physicality, sexuality) that were formerly required and praised are now dismissed or denigrated. One social theory on this says that when societies are in times of relative peace, it trends towards androgyny or more similarity between men and women. Men were built to function in the proverbial Siberia, but our modern world today is more like Tahiti.

With men and women more alike than ever, how do we interpret passages like 1 Peter 3. First, let's look at the actual passage.

1 Peter 3:1-12

To begin, we must look back at the previous chapter where Peter instructs believers to submit to human authority in government and the workplace, with Christ as our example of submission. Most of us in America don't face the harsh treatment that 1st century believers did as an occupied country or as slaves, so their example (in addition to Christ's) should be more than instructive for us.

This passage is not the only one to instruct wives to submit to their husbands (Col. 3:18; Eph. 5:22; Titus 2:4-5). The roles men and women play in both the home and the church (1 Cor. 11; 1 Tim. 2) are connected and often compared. While these distinctions may be easier to accept when both are believers, Peter's instruction (while certainly not endorsing marrying a non-believer, 2 Cor. 6:14) includes submission to a non-believing husband. The wife's pious behavior can be more powerful in influencing her husband towards Christ than any nagging words. He is also careful to say "your own husband," not any and every man. Paul's instruction to women in 1 Cor. 14 actually serves to protect them from the improper influence of a spiritual leader.

Ephesians 5, a similar passage to 1 Peter 3, concludes with the command for husbands to love their wives and for wives to respect their husbands. Fidelity and respect are of the utmost importance to men in their marriages, and I believe most women would say that their husbands' love for them outweighs all of the other important elements of their relationship. A failure in these areas will undermine the very foundation of a marriage.

Faithfulness, respect, and love are matters of the heart and mind long before they are revealed through actions. Here, Peter (and similarly Paul in 1 Tim. 2) points to the connection between our outward appearance and the attitude of our heart. A woman's adornment, what she uses to make herself more attractive, shouldn't be a fancy hairstyle, jewelry, and clothing (not that these things are inherently sinful). In our minds, this may take on a sexual connotation, but I believe the instruction here is primarily a warning against vanity and materialism. Paul often contrasted the inner and outer person, and Jesus spoke of what was done in public versus in secret. The same applies here: a woman should focus primarily on good works and the adornments of the heart before those of her outward appearance. “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.” -Prov. 31:30.

It is important to note what submission is not. Some stretch these instructions, particularly verse 6, as requiring a woman to stay in an abusive or adulterous relationship. A wife's submission to her husband, and likewise any believer's submission to any other human authority, goes only up to the point that it contradicts God's law. While there is no command for a believer to leave an adulterous spouse, there is also no command to stay.

Now to the men...the Bible's instruction to husbands in this passage is not as detailed as that to wives or what is provided elsewhere in Scripture, but it carries great weight. Verse 7 can sound pretty condescending to our ears, but that it not how it was written or intended. The "understanding" that Peter refers to is the knowledge of how God has designed us; husbands should relate to their wives with knowledge, not according to their lusts and passions. Women's physical weakness in comparison to men should not be misunderstood as intellectual or moral weakness; we are all vessels to be used by God. God shows all believers, both men and women, honor as heirs, and we must do likely to other believers, especially our spouses. To do otherwise is an offense to God and will hinder our communion with Him.

Husbands and fathers have a larger impact on their families than our modern culture would suggest. If a father is the first in a family to become a believer, there is a 93% chance that the rest of the family will believe. The comparative rates for mothers and children are no where close to this. Few things are worse than having responsibility for something that you have no authority over. God has given the husband the responsibility to lead his family, which requires that he have authority over his family. Ephesians 5:25 instructs husbands to love their wives "just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her." Our marriages preach a Gospel message to world.

So back to my question: How do we interpret this passage in light of society's evolving views on gender, sexuality, and marriage?

Equality is absolutely a biblical principle, and believers have rightly sought to correct the injustices of sexism, discrimination, and other forms of injustice. In our zeal to correct the wrongs of history and the present, we can't forget that God made male-female distinctions in order for us to complement each other and to exercise different functions in society. These distinctions come with certain responsibilities that are most apparent (and difficult) in the home and in the church. Equality and complementarianism are both biblical teachings (as opposed to hierarchical or egalitarian views, further described in Foundations).

Our example of submission is Jesus. He submitted Himself to the will of His Father (Matt. 26:39; John 6:38; 1 Cor. 11:3; 15:28) while maintaining equality with the Father. Jesus also submitted Himself to human authority out of obedience to the Father. Equality and submission are both key to our understanding of the Trinity and the deity of Jesus.

Ladies, while we're in this arena of thought, let me caution you about "dating Jesus" or saying "Jesus is my husband" or even the general language of "falling in love with Jesus." There are multiple words in the Bible that are translated as "love," and we can miss the importance of the variations. No where in Scripture is the romantic version of the word attributed to a believer's relationship with Jesus, and taking such a view can hurt your relationship with your husband; it's hard to compete with Jesus. Yes, the Bible describes Jesus as the bridegroom, but of the church, not you individually.

All of us
Finally, this passage wraps up Peter's teaching on submission and authority by reminding all of us to be "harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble" and to bless those who insult us, echoing the words of Jesus (Matt. 5:38-39) and Paul (Rom. 12:17; 1 Thess. 5:15). He quotes Psalm 34, encouraging us to guard our tongues and seek peace, which is vitally important in our marriages and churches. As James 3 says, "See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire." Countless relationships have been harmed or destroyed by reckless words; may this never be said of our marriages or our church.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Great Generosity

2 Corinthians 8 & 9

As Paul writes what we refer to as 2 Corinthians, many of the believers in Jerusalem were facing severe poverty. It is easy to imagine that many of them were put out of their synagogues and faced persecution for following Jesus, which would have without doubt affected their ability to earn money, but many Jews were likely poor under Roman occupation, regardless of their faith. As recorded in Romans 15, believers in Macedonia and Achaia were ready to help, and now the believers in Corinth were also ready to come to their aid. The Jews had shared Jesus with them - Gentiles - so supporting the Jewish believers materially was a matter of duty.

But as 2 Corinthians 8 & 9 show us, the Corinthians were not operating out of mere duty but out of a deep desire to support their brothers and sisters in Christ. Titus had apparently initiated this gift (v6), but they didn't require convincing; God's work in them led to their great generosity. God had given them joy in their affliction...generosity in their poverty (as of a beggar).

The average American donates 3-5% of their income to charity. The percentage is higher for those that give to religious organizations. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the percentage decreases as a person's income increases (up to about $250,000 a year). It is also interesting to note that those with the lowest incomes, below $20,000 a year, donate 4.6% to charity.

The Corinthians saw giving as a privilege and gave up to and even beyond their ability to give. We also see that they gave themselves first to the Lord, and then to the godly leadership of Paul and his co-laborers, who pointed out that this gift was voluntary but provided an opportunity for them to show their sincerity.

Paul then points to the truth of the incarnation of Christ, that Jesus left heaven and accepted the limitations of humanity so that they could gain heaven and become children of God. He became poor so that we could become rich. Christ becoming poor meant effectively giving up His omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence as He took humanity (Philippians 2:5-11). The riches He provides for us are not earthly wealth and fame (Matthew 6:19-21), but the treasures of heaven, indescribable grace, and the fruit of the Spirit.

The Corinthians had already committed themselves to giving; the time was coming to fulfill that commitment. As Coach Richt says, it was time to "finish the drill." We are great at coming up with ideas and making plans, but we often fail at the completion and execution of those plans. It is a lot easier to say you are going to give than to actually give.

It is also easy to think that since you are not 'rich' (by whatever standard you choose to use) and cannot give a large gift then your gift is not that important, but Paul says that we should give according to what we have, not by what we don't have. The goal was to bring about a level of equality among the believers, that the Corinthians' abundance would meet the needs of those in Jerusalem. Yet another example of the New Testament church being too liberal for modern conservatives while at the same time being too conservative for modern liberals, but I digress...

Paul and those with him also recognized the new for accountable in administering these funds. There is no shortage of financial scandals among churches, ministries, and other charitable organizations today, and those with the responsible of administration should take heed of Paul's example in this. He sent some of his best people to do this: Titus and likely Luke and/or Apollos.

Paul had been bragging on the Corinthians, and he was writing not to motivate them to give (they were already 'ready') but to make sure that they were ready to give. As mentioned before, a desire to do something and actually doing it are two different things.

When I worked for The Atlanta Opera, one of my jobs was to track pledges that had been made. A pledge is when a person commits to making a donation at a later date. These pledges are often in writing (to keep the accountants happy) and are often paid in installments over time. Donors may do this for a variety of reasons, but it is often done in part to receive some type of formal recognition from the organization. Whenever it is determined that a donor is not going to fulfill their pledge, the accountants have to write off the pledge as a loss, something no one wants to do.

Paul feared that this might happen with the Corinthians. Of course, his concern was less for the accountants and more to prevent the embarrassment of his ministry, the Corinthians, and ultimately God. He also warned against covetousness. It is easy to see how a person's 'readiness' could have faded. 'That was last year, God. Things have changed.'

Then we get to the verses we hear whenever a preacher is brave enough to preach about giving, about sowing and reaping and being a cheerful giver...'here it comes,' we mutter. Paul says that generosity is an evidence of grace in the life of a believer. It's not so much that you must be generosity to be a follower of Jesus, but rather that generosity is a sign that a person is following Jesus. It shows who we really are.

In Luke 16, Jesus says, "Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you?" If we are not faithful in the resources we have been entrusted with now, why do we think God will give us more to be responsible for later? Just ask the countless number of people whose lives were ruined by winning the lottery. Having 'more' usually isn't the answer. It's different in God's economy. Just look at Luke 21. The poor widow gave 'more' in her two copper coins that the rich who were giving out of their excess.

R. G. LeTourneau, a businessman whose company built the facility now known as the Georgia Baptist Conference Center, said, "The question is not how much of my money I give to God, but rather how much of God’s money I keep for myself." He lived this out in part by eventually living off of only 10% of his income, giving the rest away.

John Wesley earned the equivalent of $10 million in books sales alone but died broke having given it all away to various ministries and causes. "[When I die] if I leave behind me ten and all mankind [may] bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber."

“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”
-C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Paul concludes this section with an incredibly profound statement: "Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!" This gift, the grace he had just discussed that (among many other things) compels believers to give, is truly indescribable. One of the best known hymns in the world is "Amazing Grace." This hymn, even with all of the emotion that it can evoke, falls short in describing the grace that is available to us through Jesus. We don't deserve it; we can't earned. All we can do is accept it and be thankful for it.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Virgin Birth

Larry King was asked if he could interview anyone in history, who would it be? He said Jesus and followed up with this statement: "I would like to ask him if he was indeed virgin-born. The answer to that question would define history for me."

While much effort has gone into providing an apologetic for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I cannot recall seeing much of an apologetic for the virgin birth of Jesus. It never really crossed my mind until I was faced with the criticism by some that the virgin birth was actually made up in the late first century to fulfill some of the Old Testament messianic prophesies. Even some self-professed believers thought of it as a "pious legend" rather than fact.

So what evidence is there to support the virgin birth?

Let's start with some background. First, God the Son existed before the birth of Jesus (John 1:1, 8:58; Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1:15-16). Second, because of original sin, for Jesus to have a sinless life required a miraculous entry. Third, and this one is a little more obscure, Joseph was a descendant of King Jeconiah (Matt. 1:12), God had said that none of his descendants would sit on the throne of David or rule Judah (Jeremiah 22:28-30).

Several things among Jesus' family support the virgin birth. We see in Luke 1:38-39 & 56 that the date of Mary and Joseph's marriage did not predate the conception. Before being instructed by God to take Mary as his wife, Joseph sought to put her away quietly (Matt. 1:19); the natural assumption would be that Mary had committed fornication/adultery and was worthy of death. In other words, Mary took a great risk in making this claim. We also see in Mark 6:3 that Jesus did in fact have brothers and sisters, and this fact was widely known. If any one of them were older than Jesus, it would discredit the virgin birth account. We know that the family of Jesus was prominent in the early church (1 Cor. 9:5), and the claim of a virgin birth was never silenced by them. Finally, we see that Zechariah (a priest) and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, celebrated Jesus as the Savior (Luke 1).

Despite claims that the virgin birth is an invention of the late first century, evidence points to it being known in the early to mid first century during the time of Jesus' family and of the apostles. They risked rejection of their entire message on account of this claim. Scripture records several instances where disputes arose and were resolved in the early church, but no record of a dispute of this issue exists.

The question of Jesus' parentage was out there, especially among his critics. His exchange with the Pharisees in John 8 has this question lurking just under the surface; "Where is Your Father?" v. 19, "We were not born of fornication;" v. 41, "You are a Samaritan" v. 49 (a stinging insult considering the Jews' low view of Samaritans; Samaria was near His hometown of Nazareth).

Jesus' relationship with his earthly parents, particularly Mary, was likely very unique. In John 2:4 and 19:26, Jesus refers to Mary as "woman." While in English this may seem very cold and even rude, the context doesn't point to such an interpretation, especially His statement from the cross. Why did Jesus say "woman" instead of "mother"? One thought is that He is pointing back to the messianic prophesy in Genesis 3:15:

"And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel."

Another criticism of the virgin birth is that Paul, the author of much of the New Testament, supposedly never refers to it. Some even claim that Paul had not heard of the virgin birth. This argument doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Galatians is almost universally regarded as an authentic writing of Paul and dates between AD 40-65. In chapter 4, the word Paul uses that is most commonly translated as "born" carries a much fuller meaning than the biological act of birth. Paul also only refers to the mother, not the father...unusual unless done intentionally. In Romans 1, Paul refers to Jesus as being born of a descendant of David. Both Mary and Joseph were descendants of David, but it is important to see that his bloodline was through Mary, not Joseph.

The evidence of the virgin birth is not limited to scripture. Even the Quran affirms the virgin birth of Jesus, which serves no good purpose for Islam.

While none of this constitutes a 'smoking gun' for the non-believer, it should be apparent that the claims of a virgin birth could have been easily put to rest in the first century if they were not true. The fact that the claim persists to this day is evidence in itself.

So must a person believe in the virgin birth to be a true follower of Jesus? Albert Mohler asks, “If Jesus was not born of a virgin, who was His father? There is no answer that will leave the Gospel intact. The Virgin Birth explains how Christ could be both God and man, how He was without sin, and that the entire work of salvation is God’s gracious act. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, He had a human father. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, the Bible teaches a lie.”

In other words, to not believe undermines Christ's nature and nullifies the incarnation. Without the incarnation, the cross means nothing.

Online resources on this subject:
Reason to Believe the Virgin Birth
Was Jesus born of a virgin?
Questioning Christ
Which Virgin Birth?
Must We Believe in the Virgin Birth?
The Virgin Birth of Christ: Evidence of Its Historicity

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Paul's Use of Liberty

These are the notes from my talk today at One Hope Church. Download the audio here.

Click here for notes and audio from my recent talk "Why We Work" that I mentioned at the end of the meeting.

The issue of ministerial compensation may not be as widely controversial as some of the other topics addressed in Paul's letters to the Corinthians, but there are Christians today who believe that ministers should not be financially compensated or only in certain situations, many basing this belief on the verses we will look at today.

This issue is personal for me. My undergraduate degree is in church music. For well over a decade, I was supported financially either part-time or full-time by a local church or Christian ministry. Near the end of this period, I became incredibly discouraged and disappointed by vocational ministry and began questioning whether the entire enterprise was flawed in design and/or practice. This searching, in addition to other factors, ultimately led me to One Hope Church (then Downtown Community Fellowship).

One of the passages I studied was 1 Corinthians 9, the subject of this post. As we have been working through 1 Corinthians, the past few weeks have included discussions of eating food sacrificed to idols, marriage, singleness, and other matters of conscience. It is important to keep those in mind as we look at 1 Corinthians 9.

1 Corinthians 9:1-14
The Right to Compensation

Paul first addresses the concerns of some that he wasn't really an apostle. Why? Some doubted his apostleship and would try to use his lack of material support from the Corinthians as evidence of his non-apostleship. He quickly makes his case that he is a true apostle and that the church at Corinth is itself evidence of this fact. With this being the case, he has the same rights as every other apostle, namely to be materially supported and to marry. He even invokes those known and respected by the Corinthians as examples. We know from Matthew 8:14 that Peter (Cephas) was married, and Paul's statements are based on the common knowledge that other apostles and ministers were provided for in a way that allowed them to eat, drink, and support a family. He uses the contemporary examples of soldiers (2 Timothy 2:3), vine-dressers (1 Corinthians 3:6-8), and shepherds (1 Peter 5:2-4) and Old Testament examples of agriculture (Deuteronomy 25:4) and the service of the temple to drive the point home. Paul also writes in Galatians 6 that, "the one who is taught the word is to share all good things with the one who teaches him."

Paul points to Jesus in making his case. Two particular statements from Jesus come to mind. First, in Matthew 10, Jesus said, "Do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two coats, or sandals, or a staff; for the worker is worthy of his support." In Luke 10, He said, "Stay in the house, eating and drinking what they give you; for the laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not keep moving from house to house." Jesus was instructing those He was sending out to wholly rely on God's provision through other believers to provide for their needs.

All of this is not to say that there aren't legitimate concerns around ministerial compensation. Paid, professional ministers can feed into the "clergification" of ministry and endorse a consumer mindset among members. Church members begin to think things like, "Evangelism? That's the minister's job." Members may develop a sense of entitlement because of their giving. They can become disengaged from ministry and may use their financial support of the church (or lack thereof) to harm the paid minister(s) if there is conflict. I've seen it happen.

We should also do a reality check of what support for ministers looked like for the early church. We know that many, if not most, of the first believers were quite poor, so the support of ministers was likely primarily to provide for food and shelter. This is what Paul was referring to in verse 4. Today in our state, it is quite different. In Georgia, a full-time minister makes between $60,000 and $80,000 annually (LifeWay). Ministerial compensation should be generally comparable to that of the church members and in line with the minister's education and experience, but there are those that will use their ministerial position to build tremendous wealth for themselves, often on the backs of impoverished church members. As 1 Peter 5:2 shows us, this has been a problem from the beginning.

If you have been around OHC for any length of time, you hopefully recognize that we have a contrasting view of pastors, "clergy," and ministry: Jesus is our pastor, the local church should have a plurality of leadership, and all believers are priests unto God. It can be difficult to balance these principles with the idea of paying someone to do ministry, but that doesn't mean that we should abuse Scripture to take things to one extreme or the other.

1 Corinthians 9:15-18
Voluntary Non-Compensation

Paul says that he is obligated to preach, under's his duty. It was a necessity for him, so he saw no reward or credit due. Preaching without charge was voluntary and for his glory (reward), a sort of free will offering. Paul still had to eat, though, so he supported himself by making tents, the same trade as Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:3; 20:34; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8).

The principle is that there is a reward in not making use of something that you have a right to. With that said, Paul does not command or expect other ministers to do the same. Even Paul didn't do this all of the time. His statements regarding voluntary non-compensation were in regards to the Corinthians; Paul did receive support from other churches at other times (Philippians 4:16-18).

Those who oppose supporting ministers financially sometimes make a distinction between an itinerant preacher, evangelist, or church planter and the salaried minister of a local church. This is an effort to allow for the examples of compensation we see in Scripture but still prohibit supporting a minister tied to a local church. I don't think that this distinction has any merit and reveals their true motivation. I think those holding such a view err in only focusing on Paul (and only on Corinthians) to the exclusion of the other apostles and ministers, including the other places Paul ministered and the ministry of Jesus Himself. Paul stayed in some places for extended periods of time, and others ministered primarily in Jerusalem. In many cases, those against local church compensation seem to be motivated by disappointment or outright rebellion against the authority of the local, organized church. They also could be using this as justification for an unwillingness to give generously (or at all).

Yes, some churches hire too many people to do the ministry that regular church members should be doing, but we can't let such bad practices cause us to hold an incorrect view on this subject. The fact is that no church can hire enough ministers to do all the things that need to be done, nor should it try to. In order to reach the world, we need missionaries and church planters that can support themselves as Paul did at Corinth.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23
"all things to all men"

Christ was responsible to the Law for us so that we are no longer responsible to it (Galatians 3:13, 24), but Paul often kept the law to remove hindrances to the Gospel. He circumcised Timothy, whose father was a Greek (Acts 16), he cut his hair because he was keeping a vow (Acts 18:18), and he went through a purification ceremony (Acts 21:20-26). He was not Judaizing (making people become Jews before becoming a Christian), but rather avoiding things that would get in the way of the Gospel being heard.

Paul was no stranger to what we often call contextualization; he even quoted popular poets. Yet he did not conform to the world around him. He became "all things to all men" without breaking the law of Christ. His purpose was also clear: "for the sake of the gospel," not just for his own comfort or preference...certainly not to just fit in. Paul didn't want to simply enjoy the Gospel by himself.

A call to ministry does not necessarily mean leaving the working world. In fact, it could mean planting yourself firmly in that context.

Paul had a right to marry, a right to eat whatever he wanted, and a right to be compensated for his ministry, but did not claim these rights in every situation. The (false) 'prosperity gospel' has been summarized as "name it and claim it," the exact opposite of Paul's mindset. Is there anything that you have a right to that you are not claiming for the sake of the Gospel? Are we, both individually and corporately as a church, truly sacrificing to reach people with the Gospel?

1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Run to Win!

The Isthmian games were one of the Panhellenic Games of ancient Greece, along with the Olympics and two other similar events. They took place near Corinth, and there was a lot of local passion about them (sound familiar?). They were held every two years, and athletes had to train for 10 months with a qualified trainer in order to compete. They were allowed no wine and had a rigid diet and specific training regime. All of this provided the backdrop for Paul's explanation of his extraordinary approach and use of liberty.

"The body may be made a good servant, but is a bad master." If the athletes were willing to work so hard for a reward that was dead before they put it on, what should we do for an eternal reward? The word Paul uses for "discipline" literally means being black and blue under the eyes. Paul is not shadow boxing; he's throwing knockout blows. The athlete controls his diet, exercise, sleep, and training. The believer should show even greater control over the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, worship, and resisting temptation. Paul's fear of disqualification is not referring to his salvation, but rather avoiding a failure that would hinder the Gospel or limit his heavenly reward. How many apparent champions for Christ have fallen morally and destroyed their ministry in the process?

Are you in the race? You can't run this race apart from Christ. If you have yet to do so, commit your life to following Him now. That is the starting line.

Are you "running to win," disciplining yourself to avoid being disqualified? Are you practicing the spiritual disciplines necessary to compete? Are you taking steps to avoid temptation? Are you being held accountable by spiritual mentors (coaches) and fellow believers (teammates)?

What lengths are you going to in order to identify with those apart from Christ? Are you investing in those apart from Christ or living comfortably in a Christian bubble? When making decisions about where to live and work, are you asking how these decisions can help you reach people for Christ? Does your desire to reach people affect how you dress and communicate?

Are you then actually sharing the Gospel with them? Don't stop with contextualization. If we stop short of sharing the Gospel, we are just out for a casual jog. Run to win!

Further Reading:
Is it okay for pastors to be paid for ministry?
Do Not Muzzle the Ox: Does Paul Quote Moses Out of Context?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why We Work

Download the audio here.

As school started back recently, several of my friends posted the typical pictures of their kids on their first day of school. Some had signs or chalkboards saying something like, "First day of 2nd grade." Some added, "When I grow up, I want to be a..." I thought this was a great idea, to track how a child's interests and desires change over the years, at least until they stop letting you take pictures of them for the first day of school.

I asked my Facebook friends to post how they would have answered that question when they were kids. I got some pretty awesome responses:
veterinarian, marine biologist, astronaut, musician, lawyer, start orphanage and live overseas, center fielder for the Yankees, teacher, leader, mom, truck drive, poet, explorer, nun, nurse, activist, medical pathologist, beautiful princess...
One of the first questions we often ask people when we meet them for the first time is, "What do you do?". We celebrate when a friend gets a new job or a promotion, and we pray for and support those experiencing unemployment because we almost universally understand the importance of work not just for the financial benefits, but also for the person's emotional well-being. It seems that the idea of work is hardwired into humans.

Tomorrow is Labor Day, and this holiday, like many others, has lost some of its meaning for most Americans. We view it primarily as the unofficial end to summer and one last chance to hit the lake or fire up the grill. We've been observing Labor Day, "dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers," for over 100 years, and it provides a good opportunity to examine what the Bible teaches about work.

First of all, the Bible tells us that God works (Gen. 2:1-3). It also says that God gave man work to do prior to the Fall, not as a result of sin (Gen. 2:15). While work itself is not a result of sin, one of the consequences of sin was to make work harder (Gen. 3:17-19).

Employment Statistics
  • U.S. unemployment: 6.2% (July)
  • Recent high of 10% in 2009
  • Around 25% at the peak of the Great Depression (1933)
  • Georgia unemployment: 7.8%, second to last (Mississippi)
  • Athens: 5.2% (Athens also has one of the highest poverty rates in the country)
  • Significant numbers of workers are underemployed, working only part-time (no benefits), are overqualified for their current jobs, or have stopped looking for work altogether.

What is my calling?
People often describe their occupations or other activities as their "calling," so many people, both young and older, feel lost when they don't have a similar sense of calling, but God places two calls on all of our lives:
  1. To belong to Christ
  2. Participate in His redemptive work
First, 1 Timothy 2:4 tells us that God "desires all men to be saved to come to the knowledge of the truth." Second, we see in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 that Christ has given us the "ministry of reconciliation" and that we are "ambassadors for Christ."

What job does God want me to have?
We see several examples of God calling people to specific jobs and tasks in the Bible. He told Noah to build the ark (Gen. 6); told Moses and Aaron to lead Israel out of Egypt (Ex. 3:4; 28:1); called prophets to deliver His words (1 Sam. 3:10; Jer. 1:4-5; Amos 7:15; among others); put Joseph, Gideon, Saul, David, and his descendants into roles of political leadership; called some to be His apostles and disciples (Mark 3:14); and sent Paul and Barnabas out as missionaries (Acts 13:2), but...

Probably no more than 100 people in the Bible were called to a specific task.

It is rare for God to call someone directly and unmistakably to a specific task.

I went to a theological college, and virtually everyone I went to college with were training for full-time vocational ministry as pastors, music ministers, missionaries, and teachers. Now, many of them (like me) are working 'secular' jobs as police officers, office managers, mattress and insurance salesmen, farmers...even research administrators. Did we somehow misunderstand God's call? Are we being disobedient? Has God not been faithful to provide us vocational ministry opportunities?

We will look at vocational ministry more in-depth later in our ongoing study of Corinthians, but I will say this for now: our world is changing drastically, and this affects how we do ministry. Personally, I believe that in the future fewer and fewer people will be in vocational ministry and more churches will be led by bi-vocational and volunteer leaders. These leaders will still need training, but more of them will also need the ability to meet their financial needs through another job.

Do I have to work?
The short answer is "yes." In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul addressed an apparent practice of allowing the forthcoming return of Christ to be an excuse for laziness. In no uncertain terms, Paul tells them that, "If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either." (2 Thess. 3:10-13).

Everyone is commanded to work to the degree they are able, but God does not usually provide a particular job offer.

God is less concerned with the particular job you have and more so with how you go about doing your job. Colossians 3 teaches us to work "heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men." We are to follow Jesus in every aspect of our life. This has profound implications. Our work must meet the high ethical standards we learn from the Bible. It should guide how we interact with our employer, employees, and co-workers. Christians should be known for having a good work ethic and conducting their business ethically, and we hurt our testimony when we do not. Society at-large benefits from Christians living out their faith in the workplace.

This cuts both ways: as the recent Hobby Lobby/Affordable Care Act case has highlighted, employees and employers are free to have their faith guide how they do business, even if those decisions are unpopular.

One of the reasons we work is in order to give (Eph. 4:28), and we should remember that many throughout the world do not get to choose their career or pursue education. We should be grateful for the opportunities that we have. It is also important to realize that these principles are not limited to our actual jobs. It applies to our volunteer efforts, how we parent, care for family members, etc. You don't have to have a job in order to work.

How much should I work?
All of us probably know someone who is a workaholic or is "married to the job." They work long hours, are constantly checking their work email in the evenings, on weekends, and even on vacation. Is this what being a good worker means? Not really. Work is but one element of the whole life that God has called us to. Outside of our jobs, we also have the other work of taking care of our household, yard work, personal finances, etc. We shouldn't let our work hinder our responsibilities to our families, our church, or our neighbors. Colossians 3:17 says, "Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father."

God has also called us to rest. One of the Ten Commandments given in Exodus 20 is to "remember the sabbath day." As God rested after creation, so are we to rest. Jesus offered further guidance when He said, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." (Matt. 2:23). God created us to work but also to rest. When these two things get out of balance, whether due to overwork, laziness, too much recreation, or failure to devote time for worship, our lives often spin out of control.

God could have caused Jesus to be born to a priestly or Pharisaical family. The young Jesus could have spent His days under the care of professional ministers and scholars, but God choose an seemingly ordinary couple with 'secular' jobs to raise His Son. Jesus likely learned the trade of His earthly father, Joseph: carpentry. His hands were likely calloused from using heavy tools to shape wood and stone, up until He began His public ministry around the age of 30. Jesus is no stranger to hard work.

He also used a variety of occupations to describe spiritual truths. In His parables, He talked about agriculture, banking/investing, craftsmanship, ministerial jobs, and hospitality workers. Jesus is no stranger to the professional work we do.

Proverbs 6
6 Go to the ant, O sluggard,
Observe her ways and be wise,
7 Which, having no chief,
Officer or ruler,
8 Prepares her food in the summer
And gathers her provision in the harvest.
9 How long will you lie down, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?

Calling in the Theology of Work
Theology of Work Project

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Return of Christ

Download the audio here.

Mark 13:24-37

When reading the prophetic passages of the New Testament, it is tempting to obsess over the details (I'm looking at you, "Left Behind" readers), but Jesus' emphasis is less on detailing the events (providing a full eschatology) and more on how His disciples should act leading up to and during these events. He doesn't give us an itinerary.

Mark 13:24-27

The question for us is often, "What is He referring to? The destruction of the Jewish Temple or His Second Coming?". The First Jewish-Roman War took place from 66-73 AD with the Siege of Jerusalem, including the destruction of the Temple, taking place in 70 AD. This was the Second (Herod's) Temple that had been built less than a hundred years early to replace the First (Solomon's) Temple, which has been destroyed 600-700 years earlier. During the Siege of Jerusalem, the city was utterly destroyed. Only a few towers and a portion of the western wall were left standing as an indicator of the type of city Jerusalem had been. Josephus claims that over 1 million people were killed, including women and children. It was a terrible scene.

Jews now commemorate this occasion as Tisha B'Av (9th of Av), which typically falls in July or August. Since the destruction of the Temple, there have been no daily sacrifice, an important element of the Jewish Law.

In these verses, we see intense prophetic language, echoing Daniel 7, Amos 8, Joel 2, Ezekiel 32, Isaiah 13 & 34, and Revelation 6. Biblical prophesy often has two applications or fulfillments: short-term (limited) and long-term (extensive, complete). One example of this would the messianic psalms of David. They had a short-term fulfillment in the life of King David but were or will be completely fulfilled in Christ. Another example would be the birth prophesies of Isaiah. They had a short term fulfillment in the life of Isaiah but were completely fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.

With the words of Jesus in their hearts and minds, it would be understandable that His disciples would have expected Him to return some 40 years later when they saw the Temple destroyed just as He had predicted, but I believe that both events, the turmoil in Jerusalem and the Second Coming of Christ, are in view in this passage.

In v24, we see the sun darkened, as it would in just a few days at the crucifixion of Jesus. As we look forward to the 'end times,' we may see the sun itself fail. Stars fall in v25. In the short-term, this may be a references to the Jewish political and religious leaders (the 'stars') falling from power and dying during the war with Rome. In its future fulfillment, it may be quite literal; meteorites falling and stars appearing to move strangely as the 'powers in the heavens' (gravity?) are disrupted and earth orbit changes.

Daniel 7:13 is quoted in v26. In Daniel, it refers to the Son of Man going to the Father, and it is reasonable to see it in that same light: Jesus' enthronement and vindication in the 1st century, since the word translated "coming" could also mean "going." The most common view, though, is that this refers to His future return. In v27, we see angels, often associated with judgment (2 Thess. 1:7). The idiom "four winds" refers to the fact His followers will come from all over the world.

Mark 13:28-32

It is the natural pattern of plants to begin showing signs of new life before the fruit appears. This would have been the case of the fig trees at the time Jesus spoke, in spring just before Passover.

There could be a minor debate over what "is near" in v29, Jesus ("He," as it is usually translated) or "it" since the Greek word does not indicate gender. Either way, the result is the same: Jesus' return is near. “Ever since the Incarnation, men have been living in the last days.” (Cranfield)

"Generation" in v30 has been a point of much struggle for those seeking to interpret the Bible. In the most common understanding of the word, it would seem that Jesus says that many of the people alive at the time of His words would be alive when He returns, and many were still alive some 40+ years later when the Temple was destroyed. The word translated as "generation" also has another definition, meaning a race of people. In this case, it refers to the race of the Jewish people. Jesus says that the Jewish people, despite thousands of years of dispersions and difficulties, would remain an identifiable people until His return. The fact of Israel's current existence is in itself a fulfillment of prophecy.

The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 led many to see the fig tree in v28 as representative of the re-emergence of Israel, a prophecy seemingly being fulfilled before their eyes. They believed that Jesus would return within a generation, 40 years to be more precise. The 1980's saw widespread interest in the return of Christ, and when He did not return, many believers were left confused and disillusioned.

It seems that Jesus knew that we would obsess over the time of His return and warned that it is not for us to know. This statement is unique to the Gospel of Mark. He says that even "the Son" does not know. How could Jesus not know? How could He be truly God and not know something? John Wesley said that as a man, "Christ was no more omniscient than omnipresent." This may be an oversimplication, but we recognize that Jesus voluntarily limited Himself at the Incarnation. Luke 2:52 tells us that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature as He grew up, so it should be understandable and acceptable that Jesus, as a man, limited His knowledge. The point of Jesus' statement is that we shouldn't obsess over trying to figure out when He will return. Rather, we are to be alert and ready whenever it may come.

Mark 13:33-37

The idea of being watchful, waiting for His return, is detailed in the three parables of Matthew 25. Jesus offers another parable here in Mark 13, that of the man, his house, and his servants.The servants, including the doorkeeper, have responsibilities for who comes in (strangers) and what goes out (the master's possessions). They also must manage all correspondence and commerce in accordance to the master's wishes. With Jesus as our Master, this applies to our individuals lives and to the church. We must be alert since we do not know when Jesus will return or when we will die and face Him. If the servants were asleep or otherwise not alert, they put the house at risk.

His return will be unexpected, but not sneaky; we'll all know when He returns. Every person is personally responsible to be watchful. So how do we deal with the uncertainty?

"Some people have the idea, 'We don't know when Jesus is coming, so it doesn't really matter.' Others have the idea, 'We don't know when Jesus is coming, so we have to find out and set a date.' The right response is, 'I don't know when Jesus is coming so I have to be alert, eager, and ready for His coming.'" (Guzik)

I recently celebrate my 36th birthday. Based on the average life expectancy of a guy in the U.S., I am almost at mid-life. On average, I'll live another 40 or so years, but that is just the average. I have no promise that I'll make it to work tomorrow. The Lord could return at any time, or I could live well past the average, as many in my family have. Whatever the length of my life is, I must live it alert and ready for His return.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Marriage, Divorce, and Children

I owe much to the book "Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible" by Jay E. Adams in guiding my preparation for this. It is a wonderfully balanced and concise examination of the issues. Thanks to Greg Hagues for sharing it with me.

These are my notes from the talk I gave this morning at One Hope Church. Download the audio here.

As Chet mentioned last week, one of the benefits of preaching, teaching, or studying through a book of the Bible is that you can't skip the tough issues. Mark 10 certainly brings us to one of those tough issues: divorce. Divorce has had a huge impact on my life. My parents divorced when I was very young; I know what it is like to spend weekends and split summers and holidays with a non-custodial parent. I also know the difficulties that can come along with step-parents. Beyond my parents, many of my closest family members, friends, classmates, co-workers, and even fellow ministers have gone through divorces. Even now, some of the college students in our church are going through tough times with parents facing divorce. Whether directly or indirectly, divorce touches everyone involved.

Some statistics on marriage, divorce, and remarriage (I have others from some scholarly sources that are not available online; feel free to ask me for them).

Mark 10:1-12

Before we can properly address the issue of divorce, we need at least a basic understanding of what the Bible says about marriage. Just as Jesus did, we need to go back to the beginning: Adam and Eve.

Genesis 2:18-25

After recounting the institution of marriage from Genesis, Jesus then adds, "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." We often hear this at the end of wedding ceremonies. God is at the center of the union, even if the couple is oblivious to the truth and mystery of it; it is God that has made them one flesh.

From this passage and others that deal with marriage, there are several things we can observe:
  • Marriage was instituted by God (not man)
  • Marriage is the first and most fundamental institution
  • Marriage is a covenant and binding
  • Marriage is a covenant of companionship
  • Marriage is the place for true intimacy
    • It is not equated with sexual relations
    • It is different, bigger, and inclusive of sex and reproduction
  • Marriage is to conform to the model of Christ and His church (the bride of Christ)
Mark tells us that the Pharisees were asking Jesus about divorce to test Him. Why would they do this? If they could get Jesus to say something that conflicted with the Law of Moses, then they would have a valid accusation against Him. Jesus responds with a question, "What did Moses command?". By doing this, he used a great rhetorical device to get at the motive and root of the issue: their hardened hearts.

Divorce is not a recent invention. The Bible actually provides us more details about divorce than it does about engagements and wedding ceremonies.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 Law of Divorce

The Bible also tells us that God hates divorce.
Malachi 2:13-16

In Jeremiah, we God divorce Israel because of her unfaithfulness (idolatry).
Jeremiah 3:6-10

Throughout the Bible, a few different words are translated to English as "divorce." These words carry the meanings of 'cut off,' 'expel,' 'put away,' 'dismiss,' 'let go,' 'send away,' 'leave,' or 'separate.' From these passages and others, we can draw several key principles regarding divorce.
  • Divorce always stems from sin, but
  • Not all divorces are sinful
    • In Jeremiah 3, God divorces Israel; surely this was not sinful
    • In Matthew 1:19 when Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant before they had come together, he "being a righteous man...planned to send her away secretly." To do so would have constitute a divorce even though they were not yet married. Engagements were much more formalized then than in our culture.
  • Divorce is never necessary (required) among believers (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)
  • Divorce is legitimate when an unbeliever wants to divorce a believer (1 Corinthians 7:12-16)
  • Divorce is legitimate on the grounds of sexual sin (Matthew 5:32; 19:9)
  • Divorce is forgivable when sinful
    • It is not mentioned in any of the lists of heinous sins (1 Cor. 6; Gal. 5; etc.)
    • But sin is sin and shouldn't be taken lightly; it requires forgiveness
    • God neither winks at divorce nor denounces it, so neither should we
Matthew 19, a parallel passage to Mark 10 tailored to Matthew's Jewish audience, includes a few additional details that are noteworthy. In verse 3, we see the phrase "for any reason at all" referring to the divorce. It was apparently a practice among the Jews at this time that virtually anything could be a viable reason to divorce someone. In verse 9, Jesus includes "except for immorality (fornication)," an echo of Matthew 5:32. In verses 10-12, we see Jesus' disciples taking His statement as a indication that it would be better to not marry at all. Jesus acknowledges this statement but recognizes that most people cannot fulfill it. Jesus does not discourage marriage.

Given Jesus' response to the Pharisees, we may be left wondering why God through Moses would include divorce in the Law...why did God permit it? We should be reminded that God did not institute divorce; it was already going on before the time of Moses. It is important to note why the Law recognized and regulated divorce:
  • To make sure that it was permitted only under certain circumstances and not under others
  • To make sure that it was done in an orderly fashion
  • To ensure that those considering divorce were aware of the possible consequences, to discourage hasty and foolish divorces
So what should we as a church do if members are facing an illegitimate (not permitted by scripture) divorce? I believe that the church should play an active role in preventing divorce among its members. This includes all aspects of church discipline for the person at fault of seeking an illegitimate divorce, with the goal of restoring the marriage. Even if the divorce is legitimate, it is not inevitable; unfaithfulness can be forgiven. Marriage was instituted by God, so marital problems should be resolved within the church, not the courts (as with any conflict among believers).

For those who have divorced, the question of remarriage arises. Obviously, the believer will want to avoid the sin of adultery that Jesus describes in verses 11 and 12 of the passage, but remarriage is not prohibited outright. It is a complex issue involving certain restrictions and obligations (more than I can outlined here), but all of these restrictions are in place to encourage and facilitate the restoration of the original marriage...even after a divorce. The goal of reconciliation isn't lost when the divorce is final.

Mark 10:13-16

It is important that this event, Jesus blessing the children, immediately follows the discussion of divorce both in Mark and Matthew, “the Lord’s assertion of the sanctity of married life” (Swete). If there are children involved, they are affected greatly by divorce, regardless of age. The children in this passage are of various ages, including infants, and Jesus' response to His disciples preventing them from coming is strong and emotional. The disciples, seeing that the children were not in need of healing or capable of receiving Jesus' teachings, thought that there was no reason for Jesus to interact with them. They thought that they understood the mind of Christ; man, were they wrong. Jesus loves children! Though He was never married or ever had biological children (the Da Vinci Code was fiction, y'all), He welcomed the children's interruption.

With the warning from the previous chapter in mind, we should be mindful to NEVER cause a child to stumble or prevent them from coming to Jesus. It should be noted that Jesus did not baptize them, so no connection to salvation or church membership is implied, but it should also be noted that Jesus didn't merely use the children as an object lesson when He said, "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all." It was more like, 'By the way, you got this wrong, and this how wrong you got it.' Believers are to be like children in several ways:
  • We are to be as connected to Christ as a small child is to their parent
  • The relationship should be trusting and simple...loving obedience
  • Like a child, we should be inquisitive of and about God
  • We are also to be under the government of God as a child is under its parents
If a child is the first to become a Christian in a family, there is a 3.5% probability that the rest of the household will also. If the mother is first, the probability increases to 17%. If the father is first, the rate jumps to 93%. (BP) What does this mean if the father is not in the home?

We must look at our marriages through the eyes of the cross; it is about sacrifice, not self-fulfillment. Also, the church is the Bride of Christ, and this relationship...this new unconditional; it doesn't depend on our faithfulness, but rather on the perfect faithfulness of God.