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Spiritual Thoughts, Spiritual Words

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

The fundamental question of our faith is whether the Bible is the inspired word of God.  If it is, we can rely on its contents.  If it isn’t, everything we believe in, from the creation to the resurrection, is built on a foundation of sand instead of rock. 

Not surprisingly, then, those who are opposed to the Scripture often either deny its inspiration or attempt to limit inspiration’s scope.  Those who adopt the latter approach will say that the Bible is inspired in its broad outlines, but its details are the product of human understanding and reflect the wisdom of the time in which its authors wrote.  This position seems to be much like ours, but in practice it leads to very different results.  We insist on obedience even to the commandments that we don’t particularly care for (Matthew 19:9, anyone?) because we believe they express the will of God. 

However, if we believe instead that not everything in Scripture is necessarily inspired, that gives us freedom to reject the hard sayings as anachronisms.  Surely Paul’s comments about women in 1 Timothy 2 and the practice of homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6 are echoes from an unenlightened, barbaric past, mere expressions of the apostle’s own human prejudices!  Surely our wisdom has evolved beyond such things!

This perspective allows us to have our cake and eat it too.  We get to celebrate the risen Lord and cherish the hope of eternal life while also rejecting every commandment that we find difficult or inconvenient.  Only the ones that are amenable to the spirit of our own time need remain.

As convenient as this would be, though, it simply doesn’t align with what the Bible itself says about inspiration.  In particular, we must take into account Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:10-13.  Here, he makes two strong claims about the involvement of the Holy Spirit in his work.  First, the Spirit has revealed truth to him.  Second, he expresses that truth in words taught by the Spirit.

This does not mean that Paul was a Scripture-writing robot.  If inspiration deprived human authors of their authorial voices, every book of the Bible would sound alike.  This is not the case.  The Pauline epistles don’t sound like the Johannine epistles, and neither sounds like the Petrine epistles.  All reflect the personalities of the apostles who wrote them.

Instead, it describes a subtler process.  In some way, the Spirit of God worked with the spirits of the prophets, allowing scope for human individuality yet precisely expressing what God wanted to be said.  Because inspiration operated at the word level, nothing that the inspired writers recorded strays from the will of God.

Thus, we can have great certainty about what we read in the Bible.  We don’t have to wonder whether any miracle or commandment is a human invention.  None of them are.  However, it also imposes a weighty responsibility on us.  If God has said it all, we must obey it all.  To do otherwise represents a failure to honor Him.

The Recurring Remnant

Monday, November 15, 2021

In Romans 9-11, Paul is concerned with what I like to call the problem of Israel.  If salvation through Jesus is the triumphant conclusion of God’s plan for His people, how come the earthly nation of Israel, which had been God’s people for 1500 years, largely rejected it? 

One of Paul’s answers to this conundrum appears in Romans 10:1-5.  There, Paul notes that the failure of Israel to accept Christ is not as complete as it might seem.  In the time of Ahab, the prophet Elijah thought he was alone, but there were 7000 others who were faithful to God.  So too, Paul observes that there is a righteous remnant of Jews who did believe the gospel.

Though Paul doesn’t expand on his point, the righteous remnant is a theme throughout the Bible.  Starting from the time when God first chooses a people to be His own, they show a dismaying fondness for apostasy.  Eventually, God is forced to judge them, a tiny, faithful minority survives the judgment, they grow and prosper and become strong, and the cycle repeats itself.

This pattern begins even before the Israelites enter the land.  600,000 men saw God reveal Himself in fire at the top of Sinai and pledged themselves to Him.  Of those thousands, only two remained faithful and crossed the Jordan into Canaan.

Once they are in the land, the problems continue.  By the end of the time of the judges, Israel has been overrun by the Philistines and God’s dwelling place at Shiloh has been destroyed.  The Israelites really don’t recover until the kingship of David.

The era of the divided kingdom sees more of the same.  Though the house of Ahab and the worshipers of Baal seem so powerful in the time of Elijah, they are destroyed by Hazael, Elisha, and Jehu.  Only the righteous remnant (comprising people like the Rechabites) endures.  According to 2 Chronicles 30:11, another righteous remnant from the northern tribes comes humbly to worship in Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians.

The Assyrians are an instrument of judgment against the kingdom of Judah too.  The remnant of Isaiah 10:20-21 is contextually a remnant that returns from Assyrian oppression, and it is made up of both Israelites and Judahites.  As the Jeremiah 24 prophecy of good figs and bad figs makes clear, the same pattern holds during the Babylonian invasion and captivity.

There is a powerful lesson here for us.  We want the Lord’s church to be thriving and strong, and we are grieved when we see so many brethren abandon the ancient pattern for the wisdom of the age.  However, there never has been a time when God’s people were thriving and strong yet remained faithful.  The divisions that have taken place since the Restoration only confirm the rule.  Sadly, whenever the righteous prosper, they start trusting in themselves and cease to be righteous.

We should not yearn to belong to those who have got it all figured out and succeed through their own wisdom and strength.  We should yearn instead to belong to the remnant, those who cling to God and are roundly mocked for doing so, always failing, always dwindling, always defeated. 

Strangely enough, though it always looks like the remnant is about to be destroyed, it never is.  Against the odds, God’s people endured through disaster in the wilderness, captivity in Babylon, and persecution across the Mediterranean.  Indeed, they triumphed.  No matter how bad things look, if we endure, we will triumph too, not because the remnant is so powerful, but because He is. 

Calvinism in Romans 9

Friday, November 12, 2021

If there is any passage in the Bible that Calvinists love, it is Romans 9:6-24.  Upon a casual reading it seems to confirm the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.  It talks at great length about God’s mercy and God’s choice being the deciding factors in human existence, and in the context, Paul cites a number of Old-Testament figures to prove his point.  When first I began to study the Bible on my own, this context intimidated me.

However, as is often the case, when we consider this text in a wider context, it takes on a different meaning.  Paul’s goal in Romans 9-11 is not to explain the salvation or damnation of individuals; it is to explain why the physical nation of Israel, despite having received God’s promises, largely has rejected Jesus and His salvation.  Romans 10:6 implies the question Paul is answering:  has the word of God failed?

In response, Paul argues that the promises to the patriarchs are not fulfilled through their fleshly descendants (the physical Israel) but through the children of the promise (Christians).  It always has been this way; according to the flesh, Ishmael and Esau should have been the heirs of the promise, but God chose Isaac and Jacob as heirs.

In this, Paul continues, God is not being unjust.  If He wants to show mercy to Christians instead of Israelites, He has the right to do that, and if He wants to use Israel as a tool to make known His glorified people from all races, He can do that too.

None of this has anything to do with the predestination or salvation of individuals.  Ishmael was not automatically lost because he was not the heir of the promise; in fact, we know nothing about his salvation or condemnation.  The same is true of Esau.  In many ways, he looks like a more righteous man than his younger brother.

The issue of Pharaoh is trickier.  As Paul’s quotation from Exodus 9:16 shows, God did indeed raise Pharaoh up so that He would be glorified through him.  However, at least for a time, Pharaoh had a choice about how God would be glorified.  Cyrus-like (compare Isaiah 45:1-6), Pharaoh could have let God’s people go immediately, which would have made the book of Exodus much shorter and less interesting.

However, that’s not the choice that Pharaoh made.  Though God did harden Pharaoh’s heart later (in much the same way that I might harden my wife’s heart by doing something that I know drives her buggo), the first time that Pharaoh’s hard heart is attributed to anybody, it’s attributed to Pharaoh, in Exodus 8:15.  Now, God only could be glorified through Pharaoh’s humbling and destruction.

All of these Old-Testament characters are introduced, though, only to prove Paul’s main point.  God can do whatever He wants with the physical nation of Israel, and He can do whatever He wants with the spiritual nation of Christians.  Only the second nation will be saved, but as Paul’s own example proves, there was nothing hindering Jews from joining the spiritual Israel except for their own hardheartedness. 

The same holds true for us today.  We know which group will be saved.  Whether we belong to that group is up to us.

Straight Talk About Hell

Thursday, November 11, 2021

During our recent trip to Hawaii, my wife and I saw many amazing things.  Of them all, though, the most amazing was the active volcano.  Lauren saw that Kilauea had begun erupting again just before we left, so we decided that we wanted to visit the crater rim after dark, when it would be most visible. 

We ended up on the rim about a mile away from the molten part.  We could see steam hissing out of vents all over the caldera floor, one of which was stained a brilliant yellow by the sulfur coming out of it.  After dark, we could see molten orange cracks forming and closing, and the sides of the crater were lit with red. 

As I took the spectacle in, I thought to myself, “Well, I know a sermon request when I see one!”  I literally saw a lake burning with fire and brimstone, but I was quite safe from it.  However, the day is coming when billions will encounter a lake burning with fire and brimstone, and they will not be safe from it.  That’s not a fate I would wish on anyone, so I figured it was time for some straight talk about hell.

The first thing that we must understand about hell is that IT IS A HORRIBLE PLACE.  Consider Jesus’ description of it in Mark 9:42-48.  Note first of all the list of things that Jesus said are preferable to being cast into hell.  It’s better to have a millstone hung around your neck and be drowned.  It’s better to have your hand chopped off.  It’s better to have your eye gouged out.  It’s better to have your foot severed. 

None of those are things we want to have happen to us!  However, if we were offered a choice between those things and hell, we would be wise to say, “Bring on the millstone.  Bring on the axe.”

In fact, Jesus describes hell as a place where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched, a description He takes from Isaiah 66.  Most of us have experienced a burn, though hopefully only a minor one.  Most of us have seen roadkill in the summer that is seething with maggots.  Other passages describe hell as utter darkness. 

Those things are what hell is like, except that hell lasts forever.  In Matthew 25, Jesus talks about eternal fire.  In 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul describes eternal destruction.  On earth, eventually what burns is burned up.  The maggot-ridden corpse is consumed.  The darkness is ended by dawn.  However, there is no relief from the torments of hell.

Of course, these things are not literal.  Instead, they are meant to convey to our minds what it’s like to be eternally separated from God.  When some people hear this, they say, “Well, that’s not so bad!” 

However, we only say such things because we never have experienced the complete absence of God.  Every good gift that every one of us enjoys in our lives comes from Him.  When God leaves, He takes all the good with Him, and all that is left is misery, suffering, and all the cruelties that the devil can devise.

Second, IT IS FOR SINNERS.  Look at Revelation 21:6-8.  As the words of the Father here make clear, there are only two choices.  Either we inherit eternal life from Him, or we are cast into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone.  There’s no third way.

Also, the catalogue of sins in v. 8 is meant to be representative rather than exhaustive.  Hell is not only for those who practice those particular kinds of wickedness.  It is for anyone who practices any kind of wickedness.  If we practice sin, hell will be for us.

For many, this is their single biggest problem with Christianity.  The Bible teaches both that God is love and that most people will spend eternity in hell.  Isn’t that a contradiction?

However, I think that those who propose this dilemma have failed to reckon with what God has done for us.  First of all, God has been fair.  He has revealed Himself to every human being through His creation.  He’s given every one of us a conscience. 

We all had the opportunity to honor Him and walk righteously before Him.  Did we take it?  We did not.  We chose to reject Him and be evil instead. 

In addition, God is merciful.  He gave us the opportunity to find salvation through His Son.  Do most take advantage of that?  They do not.  God is reaching out to them, pleading with them to accept the most precious gift anyone ever has been offered.  In response, they turn their back on Him and go on being evil. 

What’s God supposed to do?  Confirm His word with lots of miracles?  He’s tried that lots of times.  It didn’t work.  Reveal Himself directly to people?  Last time God did that, they crucified Him.  Win them with kindness?  He’s doing that right now.  It also doesn’t work.  Warn them with suffering?  He does that too, again with little success.

In short, there is nothing that even God can do with hard-hearted, wicked sinners.  He sends them to hell because it’s the only option left.  That’s not a loving God’s fault at all.  It’s 100 percent theirs.

Hell is a horrible place, it’s where all sinners go, and ONLY JESUS CAN SAVE US FROM IT.  Let’s read from His words in John 14:5-6.  To begin with, let’s notice here that the alternative to being gathered up and cast into the fire is abiding in Jesus.  This means two different things.  First, it means being connected to Jesus.  We must be saved through Him.  We must become His disciples.

Second, abiding means staying connected to Jesus.  After we rise from the waters of baptism to walk in newness of life, we actually have to live that way.  If we’re uncertain about whether we’re abiding in Jesus or not, He proposes a simple test here.  Those who abide in Him and vice versa bear much fruit.  There are many things in their lives that show they are disciples.  However, if we are living fruitless lives, we should be concerned about that.  It shows that we aren’t abiding in Him, and the alternative is not good.

However, we must be careful about assuming that discipleship is nothing more than another opportunity to justify ourselves by works.  That’s not it at all.  Our good works reveal us as His disciples, but they do not and cannot establish our righteousness before God.

Now that I know that my life is going to be considerably shorter than I had anticipated, as you might imagine, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to its end.  Let me tell you, brethren—if I believed that my eternal destination was determined by the things I’ve done, I would be terrified.  I know that the only name I can claim on my own is “sinner”.  

However, I don’t rely on myself.  I rely on the mercy of the One who justifies the ungodly.  I know Him too, and I know that I can trust Him.  Only He can rescue me from the horrible fate I deserve, and when He does, I will spend eternity praising Him for His salvation.

Singleness in God

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Most Christians are aware that when it comes to serving God, we need to take our cues from His word rather than from the world.  However, the dangers here are broader than we often realize.  It is not only conformity to the world that poses a problem.  A rejection of worldliness that is so emphatic that it pushes us to the other, equally ungodly, extreme is equally problematic.

Consider, for instance, the reaction of the Lord’s church to the denominational practice of clerical celibacy.  We correctly note that nothing in the Bible requires vows of chastity from religious leaders, and we correctly identify the many temptations and problems that such vows create.

However, in our zeal to oppose such error, we end up denying that singlehood can have spiritual value at all and exalting marriage as the truest way to live a godly life.  Married brethren may not be able to sense it, but any Christian who has been unmarried for a while will tell you that there is a caste system in the church that puts couples and families at the top with single Christians as second-class citizens. 

To detect signs of this caste system, we need look no further than the subjects of our sermons.  Marriage and family is probably the single most common subject for a gospel meeting.  How often do we hear of gospel meetings directed exclusively at the unmarried?

If the Scriptures supported this bias, that would be one thing, but instead, they have as much to say about the spiritual value of the unmarried as of the married.  Yes, the qualifications of elders and deacons involve marriage, but we also must reckon with Paul’s words about the usefulness of being unmarried in 1 Corinthians 7.  In vs. 32-35, he points out that unmarried Christians can devote themselves entirely to God, whereas married Christians are inevitably torn between pleasing God and pleasing their spouses.

Brethren commonly dismiss the implications of this discussion by saying that it relates only to “the present distress”, and it is true that some of what Paul says here in praise of singleness (especially vs. 29-31) is limited to a context of great upheaval.  However, vs. 32-35 is not context-specific.  I love my wife and family, and I would not surrender them for anything, yet I spend as much time and energy on pleasing my wife as godly husbands did 2000 years ago.  If I didn’t have a family, I could use all those resources in the Lord’s service instead.

Single Christians, then, are not second-class spiritual citizens.  Even if they do not currently experience many of the joys that married Christians know, they have been presented with unique opportunities to glorify their Master.  Rather than mourning what they do not have, they ought instead to rejoice in all that they can do.  Even the best marriage only will last a lifetime, but good works are an eternal memorial before God.  When single Christians give their time, talents, and money to Him, they are storing up a treasure for themselves that will last forever.

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