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September 2015

We need more REAL spiritual fathers!

By | Christianity | One Comment

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses ‘seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:2-12 ESVST)

With the Pope’s visit this past week to the East Coast, it’s been impossible to avoid the image of how clergy is typically treated. We see a person in Francis who inspires awe and respect from all quarters of society, and in many cases, that reaction seems based on his outward displays of humility. He seems “down to earth”, he is at home with people, he doesn’t seem like he wants to be separated from the people by his status.

And yet… there is the fanfare. The robes. The adulation. And of course, the hat. People who would never be confused with “religious types” line up to honor him. They kiss his ring, and they call him “Holy Father.”

So it’s no surprise that I’ve seen reminders this week on Facebook to “call no man your father on the earth”. Often we in the church will go to Matthew 23 to confirm the idea that there should be no one with the title of “Father”, no person with a distinction of preeminence in the church, no system of clergy that creates separate classes within God’s people.

I would argue that those things are true – but not necessarily because of what Jesus says about the Pharisees.

As we look at the context, Jesus isn’t really talking about title or station. And he certainly doesn’t appear to be talking about the literal idea of not calling anyone “father”. Jesus uses the term on a number of occasions to describe a physical relationship – whether direct or ancestral. And later on, Paul has this to say about the Christians in Corinth:

I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:14-17 ESVST)

Paul wasn’t telling the brothers and sisters in Corinth that he should be addressed as “father” – it’s not about a title or terminology. It’s about a specific relationship that he had with the brethren there that didn’t exist between most other Christians – even those who had some sort of spiritual leadership or guidance over the Corinthians. He was a father to Timothy because he had guided and mentored him since Timothy’s youth. (Phil. 2:22, II Tim. 1:4-5) He was a father to the Corinthians in a spiritual sense because he had helped to build that congregation through teaching and encouragement. (Acts 18:1-11)

We all have fathers in the faith – and mothers, too, for that matter. While as Jesus said, we are all brothers and sisters and therefore equal in God’s sight, we have those people who were instrumental in forming and solidifying our faith. We may never use the term “father” or “mother” to describe them, but that’s what they are!

In those cases, it’s always about a specific, intimate relationship – not one that is designated or appointed. Someone doesn’t immediately become my father in the faith because I show up one day at his local church and begin attending there. I’ve known many men in the church who were elders or deacons in the church, but I would never consider them my “fathers” in the faith. They didn’t have that relationship with me, and no title or designation could bring that into existence.

But I can think back to men and women who have guided and molded me into what I am today (the good parts, anyway), and they did that through a godly influence, a willingness to guide me in understanding the word and a genuine interest in my growth and well-being.

As Paul said, you don’t have many of those. I know I don’t. Some people are blessed with more of them than others. And in an age where it’s too easy for Christians to be focused on their own lives, their own families, it sometimes seems like it’s rarer and rarer that we have those influences from men and women who take an interest in our spiritual growth not because biology or proximity dictates it, but because they see value in us, and they want us to fulfill all that God has laid in store for us, both in this life and the life to come. You don’t become someone’s father or mother in the faith by being observed from afar. You can certainly be an influence, but if you want to be a spiritual parent, you’re going to have to get personally involved in someone’s life.

Spiritual fathers and mothers don’t take that role on so they can wear ornate robes, be surrounded by throngs of admirers and receive invitations to speak in front of foreign dignitaries. They do it because they have an interest in individuals. They create one-on-one spiritual connections with the aim of helping someone else. They are, as Jesus pointed out, your servants.

We need more fathers and mothers in the church. And the only way that’s going to happen is if we start acting like them. May God help us to do just that.

What do you mean, the 10 Commandments don’t apply to me???

By | Christianity | 4 Comments

Any time I want people to look at me like I’ve grown a third eye, I bring this topic up. I’m kidding… sort of. I bring it up because I believe it’s very important to understand and has a significant impact in how we study the Bible.

According to scripture, the 10 Commandments do not apply to you. And if you aren’t Jewish, they never did.

Typically, the first response to this statement is: “How can you say that? So you think it’s OK to murder people?” But in reality, this shouldn’t be an odd concept to us. If I told you that I wasn’t bound by Mexican law, would you gasp in shock and claim that I think I can do anything I want? Of course you wouldn’t – because you’d understand the concept that laws apply only to the people to whom they are given. Each nation has its own set of laws, and as it happens, a lot of them are similar, and in many cases they overlap. I don’t have to obey Mexico’s laws concerning theft – because U.S. law forbids it, and that’s the law that I’m required to obey.

But some say, “This is different. This is the 10 Commandments! Delivered from on high, written by the finger of God.” The problem is, it’s not different. And the scriptures never state that it’s different. There are two things we need to consider:

First, the 10 Commandments are not a separate law from the Law of Moses. That doesn’t mean that the 10 weren’t ever singled out or referenced specifically. (See Deuteronomy 5, for example.) But does that mean that the Israelites received two distinct laws? No – these 10 served as almost an “executive summary” of the rest of the law. If an Israelite truly honored and kept those 10 commandments, he would necessarily keep everything else that God would later reveal. It’s not unlike Jesus picking the “greatest commandment” – he was simply arguing that “on these hang all the laws and the prophets.”

The 10 commandments and the rest of the law were delivered at the same time, from the same God, through the same messenger to the same people. Notice what God says to Moses in Deuteronomy 5 after the 10 commandments are read:

“Go and say to them, “Return to your tents.” But you, stand here by me, and I will tell you the whole commandment and the statutes and the rules that you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.’ You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess (Deut. 5:30-33 ESVST)”

In other words, the 10 Commandments were not the “whole commandment.” But Exodus says something else that’s revealing:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. (Ex. 34:27-28 27 ESVST)

What are “these words”? They are the 10 Commandments, which are part of the covenant with Israel. Specifically, it was an agreement whereby God would give Israel possession of the land of Canaan, and Israel would in turn honor God and forsake idols. (v. 11-26) Based on the rest of the book, that covenant also included the instructions for the tabernacle and other ritual observances. We also know that the “Book of the Covenant” was in reference to all that God had told Moses – not just the 10 Commandments. (Ex. 24:3-4) In fact, the phrase “covenant” seems to be used interchangeably with the tablets (the 10 Commandments) and other elements of the Law of Moses.

Was this covenant between God and any other nation that chose to adopt it? No – it was specifically for a single nation. (Ex. 6:6-7, 19:5-6, 31:17, Deut. 5:2-3, Deut. 7:6-8) And it was a covenant that was violated when an Israelite disobeyed one of the 10 Commandments or any of the more specific laws written in the Book of the Covenant, which we know as the first five books in the Bible. This is why Christians do not observe the Sabbath – because the Sabbath was a day designated as a symbol of the covenant between God and Israel. (Ex. 31:13-17) We can’t select nine commandments and apply them to all people, but have one which does not. It’s one law – and if you violate one commandment, you violate the entire law. (James 2:10, Gal. 5:3)  There are no examples in scripture (that I know of, anyway!) of anyone being bound by the 10 Commandments and not the remainder of the Law of Moses as well. ( See II Kings 17:36-37)

I am very happy to say that as a Christian, I know that I am freed from the law. (Col. 2:14-17, Eph. 2:15, Rom. 7:4) As Paul warned the Christians in Galatia and Rome, we shouldn’t be looking for ways to go back! If I want to understand the requirements of my covenant with God, I can go to the teachings of the inspired apostles, and also to the words of the “author and finisher of our faith,” Jesus Christ.

Why we can’t be “red-letter Christians”

By | Christianity | No Comments

I’ve personally used the term “red-letter Christian” for a while. I actually didn’t know there was an official “movement” by that name – one that was formed by people who were concerned about the politicization of Christianity and its seeming alliance with right-wing political groups. Their claim is they want to transcend politics and unite people in what they perceive to be Jesus’ true calling – one involved with social justice and environmental stewardship (among other things).

That’s really not how I’ve used that phrase in the past. It’s probably worth talking about the concept of Jesus as a revolutionary political figure (which he wasn’t). I find it interesting that a group determined to transcend politics seems to embrace politics and government as the solution and tool by which we do God’s will – the irony being that if I do in fact focus on the “red letters” in my Bible (the ones spoken by Jesus), I don’t actually see Jesus talking about anything concerning what a government should do about social issues. I see a lot of things about what an individual ought to be doing – and none of them involve appointing a government to go do my work for me.

“If Jesus didn’t say it…”

But that’s for another article. What I’m talking about is a more general application – the idea that the “red letters” are somehow more significant, more important than the rest of the scripture. I think this is a crucial concept to understand if we’re going to study the Bible and come to a full understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

The theory is simple: If Jesus didn’t say anything about it (or in some cases, if he didn’t say much about it), it must not be that important. Therefore, it should at least be de-emphasized, and in some cases even ignored.

The problems with this concept are numerous, but the main one is that Jesus himself seems to have had no intention that people should take that approach. Quite the opposite!

Many writers, but one Spirit

Where did Jesus’ words originate? Not with Jesus – believe it or not. Jesus himself was the first to assert that! As he said in John 7:16, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” In the next chapter, he adds, “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.”

If that sounds similar to something an apostle or a prophet would say, that’s because it is! Peter discussed this in talking about his own role as a witness to Jesus’ teachings and miracles:

“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place … For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Pe 1:19-21)

Peter was guided and instructed by the same source as was Jesus. The same is true for Paul, and the rest of the other apostles. And there’s a reason for that: because it was the role Jesus chose for them. When Jesus sent out the 12, he told them to “teach them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:20)

The Gospels and the epistles serve the same purpose

Jesus told Peter that “upon this rock, I will build my church” – but Jesus didn’t talk about the church or even make an attempt to establish it while he was on the earth. Instead, he equipped the apostles to go out and preach the Gospel after he had ascended. They did that, bringing Jew and Gentile into one body in Christ, which was “built on the foundations of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.” (Eph. 2:20) So wouldn’t that mean that Jesus built the church through the teaching of the apostles? They were Christ’s instruments, and should be regarded as such.

That’s what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were when they wrote the Gospel accounts, and it’s what Peter, James and Paul were when they wrote and spoke to Christians around the known world. The epistles came from that same spirit that created the “red letters”, and should never be seen in opposition to them or as a secondary element next to them. They are part of the exact same story, through the same Spirit, with the same goal: be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.

How I can be sure God will answer my next prayer?

By | Christianity | 2 Comments

There’s a natural follow-up to last week’s blog. We talked about why it sometimes seems like God hasn’t answered our prayers – or maybe that the answer to that prayer seemed to be no for a number of reasons that are discussed in scripture. So that leads us to ask: How do I pray prayers to which God will answer “yes”?

I think there are some things that the Bible shows us about prayer that can help us, and the good news is that all of them have to do with our attitude when we pray. We’ve already seen that humility of mind and submission to God’s will is an absolute requirement if we want to have an effective prayer life, so it’s no surprise that an effective prayer life requires an approach that echoes those things:

I need to pray for the right things

That seems like circular logic. I want God to give me what I want, but God is only going to give me what He chooses to give me, so I need to ask for the things God wants to give me, so he’ll give me those things! But it goes back to the attitude we must have in approaching God. If it is God who works in us “to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13), and our attitude is to cultivate that in our lives (II Thes. 1:11-12), then it makes sense that our prayers should align with what God wants for  us.

How many times do parents say “I would do anything for my kids”, but if the child then came and said, “If that’s true, then I want a Ferrari!” And the response is “that’s not what I meant.” Because most parents don’t give their children whatever they want, whenever they want. Sometimes it’s because it’s simply not possible, but in most cases, it’s because the parent is filtering the child’s request by what is best for that child. Why would I buy my child a flame-thrower if I think he’s going to hurt himself using it? So why do we expect God to give us whatever we want, even if it might be detrimental to His plan for us?

John points this out: “If we ask anything according to His will, he hears us.” (I John 5:13-15) We need to figure out how we can serve God best, and then pray that God will help us to do that.

I need to pray with contentment

If we are looking at our relationship to God as a means of “fixing” our lives, we may need to think about what needs fixing. Is my life self-destructive, unfulfilling, lacking in meaning or direction? God can and will help with that. But if I’m not content with my life simply because I’m not content with what I earn, what I do for a living, how many friends I have, how many difficulties rise up in my life… there’s a principle that we need to master first.

Praying to God will not end all our troubles. It will not ensure a life free of suffering and loss. It will not show us a pathway to change our economic, political or social status. Paul seemed to understand this when he wrote: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” (Phil. 4:11) If I’m not at peace with my lot in life, and I expect God to fix that, I’m likely to be disappointed! The reason for that, I think, is that my economic or social status has nothing to do with whether I can serve God. In fact, God might even be using those things to help us serve better.

I need to pray with confidence

As we saw in the last discussion, we can’t be doubtful. And we shouldn’t be doubtful!

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. – Hebrews 4:14-16

Jesus is our mediator. He has been through the difficulties of life just as we have – and more. He knows how difficult it can be to serve God in a world that isn’t interested in true, undefiled religion – in putting God’s will above our own. And we know that when we pray to God through Christ, God can do “abundantly more than we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.” (Eph. 3:20). We need to trust that there’s nothing that we can ask that God cannot do for us.

I need to pray for others

The thing that jumps out at me over and over in the Bible when it talks about prayer is the number of times that prayer is about someone else, not about the person who is praying. Paul talks about not only looking after your own interests, but the interests of others (Phil. 2:4), and our prayers should reflect that:

  • Pray for the preaching of the gospel, Mtt. 9:38, II Thes. 3:1
  • Pray for spiritual struggles of others, Luke 22:31-32
  • Pray for churches that are not “sound”, II Cor. 13:7-10
  • Pray for those in sin, I John 5:16
  • Pray for government leadership, I Tim. 2:2
  • Pray for spiritual leadership, Heb. 13:17-18
  • Pray for the sick, James 5:14-15
  • Pray for overall health and well-being of Christians, III John 2

So what’s holding our prayers back? Let’s strive to make prayer a central point of our lives, understanding not only the power of prayer, but the responsibility that comes with it!

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