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The Unexpected Jesus

Monday, July 06, 2020

There is a famous Charles Wesley hymn entitled “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”.  Certainly, there is plenty of Scriptural justification for applying that adjective to the Lord.  As the words of Zechariah in Luke 1 and Simeon in Luke 2 attest, the Jews had been waiting anxiously for the Messiah for centuries!

However, there is another sense in which Jesus’ coming was unexpected, and this sense is prominently displayed in John 7.  Throughout the chapter, nobody knows what to make of the Messiah they actually got.  7:4 tells us that His brothers did not believe in Him.  7:12 describes the dispute between the Jews who thought He was a good man and those who thought He was misleading the people (correct answer, none of the above).  In 7:27, some argue that because they knew where Jesus came from, He couldn’t be the true Messiah (never mind Isaiah 9, Micah 5, etc.).  Likewise, the chief priests claim in 7:52 that Jesus’ Galilean origin disqualifies Him from being a prophet. 

Ultimately, most of the Jewish nation rejects Jesus because He doesn’t fit in their Messiah-shaped box.  He doesn’t seek out the people they think He should seek out, He doesn’t tell them to do what they think they should do, and He doesn’t solve the problem they think He should solve.  The Jews turn aside from Jesus, straight into the downfall of their nation in 70 AD.

Today, we might shake our heads sadly at those foolish, foolish Jews.  However, we are better off considering whether we are behaving like them.  Even though the gospels reveal Jesus to us, the Jesus in the minds of most in our society doesn’t look much like the Jesus of the gospels at all.

Most Americans are looking for a Jesus who is an unconditional grace and blessings dispenser.  They don’t have any interest in discipleship or living holy lives.  Nonetheless, when they have problems, they want to be able to get Jesus to fix their problems.  This does not involve repentance, humility, or life change; instead, it’s about Jesus slathering their brokenness with His love.  Then, when their lives have improved, they want to put Jesus in the attic until the next time they need to feel better. 

Such expectations will keep them (and us) from any meaningful encounter with the Lord.  Jesus did not come to kiss our boo-boos.  He came to die a hideous death in our place because our sin was that bad and nothing less could help.  He doesn’t let us do whatever we want.  He demands utmost obedience because we owe Him everything.  His work doesn’t leave our lives unchanged.  It leaves them transformed.

This is the Jesus of the gospels, the Jesus who calls us to follow.  Either we pick the cross up, or we don’t.  However, indifference will meet an inevitable end—a shattering encounter with the Lord who will come one more time in a way that no one expects.

Being Right and Wrong at the Same Time

Thursday, July 02, 2020

I am quite sure that God frequently shakes His head in amazement at my foolishness.  However, I hope that year by year, decade by decade, I manage to get a little bit wiser.  One such hard-won nugget of wisdom has to do with being right and wrong at the same time.

When I was younger, I believed that when it came to a difference of opinion, there was a right side and a wrong side, and that was that.  I tried to listen to the views of others and give them a fair hearing, but when I thought I was right, I was quick to inform others of their error.  The only thing that mattered was who was right, right?

Wrong.

The problem is that people aren’t computers.  People are people.  All of us have an emotional attachment to the things we believe.  When those convictions are challenged, we don’t enjoy it and are apt to become defensive.  If the challenger continues to push, either we push back or disengage from the conversation.  There’s been a lot of talk recently about white fragility, but frankly, I think human fragility is the real issue.  Nobody’s skin color makes it easier or harder for them to hear things they don’t want to. 

If we don’t acknowledge this fundamental truth about people, we are much less likely to win converts and much more likely to create conflict.  The map is not the territory, and merely presenting the abstract truth about something often fails to persuade.  When we’re right on a conceptual level but get the human aspect wrong, we will end up being right and wrong at the same time.

I spent years being right and wrong at the same time, and I probably spend too much time there even now.  I don’t recommend it.  It strains and fractures friendships, creates lots of enemies, and accomplishes nothing worthwhile.  People won’t listen, and we will become cynical and embittered because they aren’t listening.

 If we want to avoid this trap, there are several things we need to consider.  What’s our goal?  Usually, it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) just to “get somebody told”.  As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:11, knowing the fear of God, we ought to try to persuade others.  Winning hearts is the goal of the gospel.  Winning arguments isn’t.

Persuasion requires us to account for the humanness of those we are trying to persuade.  One of the most enlightening books I’ve read in recent years is Kerry Patterson’s Crucial Conversations.  It observes that people only are persuadable when they feel safe.  The less safe they feel, the more inclined they will be to reject what you have to say.

There are a number of ways to build safety in a difficult conversation.  Having a strong pre-existing relationship is perhaps the most important.  The more others trust us, the better able we are to safely discuss a difficult topic with them.  In fact, I think it’s sound practice for all Christians to build and reinforce relationships with everyone they know as a matter of habit.  We never know when we will have to put that relationship to the test.

Second, we need to choose our words carefully.  In Colossians 4:6, Paul urges us to season our speech, and our efforts toward palatability can make all the difference between acceptance and rejection.  Harsh, condemnatory language rarely wins over its target.  On the other hand, when we strive to be understanding, fair, and compassionate, we are much more likely to find an open heart.

Finally, we have to make change as easy as possible.  All of us are proud, insecure creatures.  We don’t like to admit when we’re wrong, especially not in front of others.  Consequently, private conversations generally are more effective than public confrontations.  They allow people to change without suffering a dramatic loss of face.

We also need to put ourselves in the place of the one who is wrong and speak to them as we ourselves would like to be spoken to when we are wrong.  We never should demand that someone forfeit their dignity in order to acknowledge an error.  As satisfying as it may be to make the moron crawl, such demands will destroy our future influence.

Doing even these things is not easy, and there is much more that I could say on the subject!  Sadly, I’m sure that I have even more to learn.  We live in a society that has forgotten the art of having conversations like these, but this is a skill that we must master if we want to win souls and inherit eternal life ourselves.

Context and Withdrawal

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

There is no error more dangerous to the Bible student than overlooking the context of a passage.  Though all of us know the temptation to proof-text, many of the most pernicious false doctrines of all time arose because someone prioritized the verse over the context.

Of course, dismissing the context doesn’t always lead us into apostasy.  Sometimes, it merely leads us to miss the point.  This is probably true for most brethren when it comes to Matthew 18:15-18.  We know this one as the withdrawal-process passage.  It lays out the steps that you have to go through before you can cross a brother off the membership rolls who is “walking disorderly”.

A look at context, though, sheds a different light on these four verses.  In Matthew 18:1-5, Jesus informs us that we have to become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.  In vs. 6-9, He warns us about the dire punishment that will come upon one who causes such a child to stumble and emphasizes how far we must go to avoid such a fate.  In vs. 10-14, He highlights the value of every such child to their heavenly Father.  Even vs. 21-35 show how important God’s children are by explaining the lengths to which we must go in forgiving them.

In sum, the context of Matthew 18 is about the value of every child of God.  Every.  Single.  One.  If our reading of vs. 15-18 also does not reaffirm that importance (and it usually doesn’t), we’ve overlooked something vital.

Read in context, vs. 15-18 isn’t the bureaucratic process for excluding a Christian from fellowship.  Instead, Jesus is setting out the lengths to which we must go to try to rescue an erring child of God, because every one of them is that precious.

When we see a Christian who looks like they’re getting in trouble, we don’t gossip about them with our friends or wait quietly for the elders to get involved.  We go to them ourselves.  We act immediately, just as we would act immediately if hackers got hold of the password to our bank account.

If that doesn’t get through to them, we’re supposed to return with reinforcements, bringing in others in a desperate effort to avert calamity.  If that doesn’t work, we are supposed to involve the entire congregation.  Only then, only after we have done everything we possibly could do, to no avail, are we allowed to consider that Christian as though they are no longer part of us.

Too often, we follow the letter of the law here while ignoring its spirit.  One Christian learns of another brother in sin.  He informs the elders, who send the erring brother a letter that gets ignored.  The elders announce to the church that the wayward member isn’t responding to correction, and two weeks later, they read another letter which they have used to inform him that he has been withdrawn from.  None of this produces any outward result because the brother in question stopped assembling six months ago.

Does this follow the form of Matthew 18:15-18? 

It does. 

Does it honor the Lord’s intent?

Absolutely not.

Fulfilled Prophecy and Dating the Gospels

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Fulfilled prophecies play a central role in the New Testament.  Matthew and Luke use passages from Isaiah and Micah to explain the events of Jesus’ birth narrative.  All four gospel writers take predictions from Isaiah and other prophets and employ them to define His ministry.  In John 12, John explains the unbelief of the crowds by claiming that Isaiah predicted it.  So too, the stories of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection are studded with citations of prophecies that Jesus and His enemies fulfilled.

To Christians both 2000 years ago and today, these prophecies are powerful evidence in support of our faith.  As meteorologists prove on a regular basis, it’s very difficult for human beings to predict what is going to happen even next week.  When, however, a man foretells an event that happens centuries in the future, it shows both that God has intervened in history and that the man is speaking for God.

Not surprisingly, then, the authors of the New Testament are at pains to indicate when a prophecy by Jesus or one of His followers is fulfilled.  In John 2:19-22, John explains Jesus’ facially bizarre claim that He would tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days as a prediction of His death and resurrection.  In Acts 11:28, Luke notes that Agabus’ prediction of a worldwide famine was fulfilled. 

More subtly, there are many instances in the gospels when prophecies are confirmed by subsequent events.  In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus predicts His death, burial, and resurrection three times during the last part of His ministry, then dies, is buried, and is resurrected.  In Acts, Paul is told by Agabus that he will be imprisoned, then is imprisoned.  Again, examples abound.

It makes perfect sense for Christian authors to do this at every opportunity.  Every time they can write that Jesus predicted something and it happened, it confirms that Jesus is the Son of God.  Every time Luke can establish that Paul, Agabus, and all the rest did the same thing, it shows Jesus’ authenticity and theirs.

However, there is one fascinating exception to this rule.  In the gospels, Jesus probably spends more time predicting the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans than any other event.  Some of the prophecies are cloaked in apocalyptic language, but others are quite plain.  In Luke 19:43, for instance, Jesus says to Jerusalem, “For the days will come on you when your enemies will build a barricade around you, surround you, and hem you in on every side.”  Pretty straightforward!

The prophecies of Jesus concerning Jerusalem were indeed fulfilled, 40 years after His death.  This is a huge piece of evidence confirming that Jesus was a genuine prophet.  Thus, we would expect Luke, for instance, to point out that Jesus’ prophecy was fulfilled as he pointed out that Agabus’ prophecy was fulfilled.  This opportunity was not lost on the ante-Nicene Fathers, several of whom noted in the second and succeeding centuries that Jerusalem was destroyed according to the word of Jesus. 

However, Luke never says a word about it.  Neither does Matthew, Mark, or John.  There is not a shred of evidence anywhere in the Scriptures that Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70.

I see two possible explanations for this.  The first is that the Evangelists are idiots.  After painstakingly highlighting all these other fulfilled prophecies, they simply missed their chance to confirm Jesus’ divine origin by pointing to His correct predictions of Jerusalem’s fall.  I find this hard to credit.  Whatever else one may think about the Gospels and Acts, they clearly are not the work of idiots.

The second is that the Evangelists failed to make this rhetorical point because they did not have opportunity to make it.  They couldn’t write about Jerusalem’s destruction as a fait accompli because when they were writing, that destruction hadn’t happened yet.  Like the general resurrection that Jesus predicts in John 5, it was an event they anticipated, not one they celebrated. 

If so, the dates for at least the Synoptic Gospels, and probably John as well, are all very early, before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.  If this in turn is true, all of the Evangelists are writing within 40 years of the bulk of the events they record—well within living memory.  The gospels, then, are not the accretion of decades or centuries of folkloric tradition about Jesus.  They are nearly contemporaneous records that deserve to be treated as reliable historical accounts, and that has a host of implications.

Unequally Yoked

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

2 Corinthians 6:14 is one of those passages that seems to lend itself more to discussion of what it doesn’t mean than what it does mean.  Everywhere I’ve been, brethren have been adamant that it does not mean that it’s wrong per se for Christians to marry non-Christians.  I agree, but that still leaves us asking what kind of relationships we’re supposed to avoid.

Most commentaries will say that the metaphor in the text (“Do not be unequally yoked,”) has to do with putting a strong ox and a weak ox in a yoke together.  The strong ox will pull harder than the weak ox, and the wagon will go off course.

Notice, though, that there are two elements here that make the situation problematic.  First, there has to be a yoke.  The two parties have to be joined in some way.  Second, there has to be an inequality between them.  Logically, I think this has to mean that the unbeliever has more influence over the Christian than vice versa.  After all, we generally call a Christian influencing an unbeliever for good “evangelism”.

This does not apply to every marriage between a Christian and an outsider, but it does apply to some.  If you are considering marrying a non-Christian and you know in your heart that eventually they will lead you to fall away, you should not marry them!   On the other hand, I know plenty of Christians who have been married to unbelievers for decades.  That’s probably not the wisest decision, but if the believing spouse still is on course for heaven, clearly the yoke has not been unequal.

I think this principle also can be applied profitably to the political realm.  Recently, I’ve seen a number of Christians warning against conflating “black lives matter”, the slogan, with “Black Lives Matter”, the political movement.  Semantic disputes aside, the former is a conviction that every Christian should share.  Do black lives matter?  Yes!

However, Black Lives Matter does not merely stand for the inherent value of black people.  It also stands for expanding abortion rights (behold, here is irony!), normalizing transgender behavior, and various other unrighteous goals.  The concern is that a Christian might be led by their godly convictions into an association that will influence them to accept or at least wink at ungodliness. 

This seems to me like an example of unequal yoking.  After all, no individual is going to exert more influence on BLM than BLM is going to exert on them.  The only question is whether yoking has occurred.  Has our connection with BLM become so strong that our allegiance to it overrides our allegiance to Christ?

I do not, of course, speak with reference to BLM, which is too radical to be appealing to most brethren.  Instead, this is a danger that arises whenever we join ourselves with any political party.  There are none righteous, no, not one! 

For every godly policy a political party promotes, there is another that is ungodly.  For every morally upright political leader in a party, there is another who is a scoundrel.  If we become so filled with a partisan spirit that we ignore the ungodliness and excuse the scoundrels (while loudly pointing out the ungodliness and the scoundrels on the other side), we are unequally yoked.

This is not to say that we cannot hold political convictions or vote.  However, we must maintain a wary detachment while doing so.  Even as we cast a ballot for one side or another, we must not put our hope and confidence in them.  Politics can’t save the world, but it can cost us our souls. 

It is easy for us to separate ourselves from the parts of the world that disgust us.  When it comes to the parts of the world that allure or even inspire us, separation becomes more difficult.  However, it also is then that separation becomes most important.

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