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The Problem with a Comprehensible God

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

In my time as a preacher, I’ve had my share of conversations with people who thought they had a moral or philosophical justification for their agnosticism/atheism.  They found something in the Bible they didn’t like.  Maybe it was God commanding the slaughter of the Canaanite children.  Maybe it was God condemning the practice of homosexuality as sinful.  Maybe it was God’s foreknowledge of human activity.  Regardless, there was something that displeased them, they couldn’t see how it was consistent with their understanding of God, so they concluded that God didn’t exist. 

I believe there are answers to all of these objections (and the others like them), but there’s an even more fundamental problem with that line of reasoning.  All of these scenarios begin with the doubter constructing their version of God  (possibly in good faith; possibly as a straw man), comparing their construct to the Biblical record, and concluding that the God of the Bible doesn’t measure up.  Their God wouldn’t do that!

To which I say, “So what?”  The God of the Bible doesn’t make sense to them.  Why should they have any expectation that a being of vastly greater understanding (which is how the Bible presents God) ought to make sense to them? 

I am quite confident that five years ago, when I told my children that they couldn’t eat Halloween candy for three meals a day, it didn’t make sense to them either.  “Candy tastes good, and it is there to be eaten.  It tastes better than stuffed peppers, so we should have it for dinner instead of stuffed peppers.  What am I missing?” 

Children don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t understand what they don’t understand.  And yet, my five-year-olds were much closer in intellect to me than I or any atheist doubter is to God.  If the child is unable to understand the parent, how much more will the creation struggle to understand the Creator!

Consequently, we should expect there to be many times when God does or tells us to do things that don’t make sense to us.  A God who is omniscient ought to be incomprehensible to human beings who aren’t.  Just like the toddler isn’t going to back Mom into a logical corner so that she offers up candy on demand, we aren’t going to be able to use the times that God doesn’t make sense to us to prove that He doesn’t exist.  The problem isn’t Him.  It’s us.

Indeed, it is the comprehensible God who looks much more like a figment of the human imagination.  The gods of the Greeks were comprehensible.  They got in ridiculous fusses with each other like people do.  They committed adultery like people do. 

Despite their greater power, these gods fit into a human frame.  They were idols, crafted to resemble people not only in outward features but in personality and scope.  They made sense because they were human in origin.

The God of the Bible does not make sense like that because He did not come from us.  He is not human or human-like.  He doesn’t even exist in the same state of reality.  He is utterly alien to us, and it is a tribute to His skill in communication that we are able to understand Him even as well as we do. 

The alien-ness and incomprehensibility of God, rather than being a sign of His non-existence, really is a proof to the contrary.  If we don’t understand Him, that is as it should be.  We can expect to have unanswered questions for as long as we live and maybe thereafter.  Conversely, if we think we do understand Him, we’re missing something.

Our job is not to make God make sense.  It is to seek to please Him.  As Moses wisely observed in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may obey all the words of this law.”

The Pharisee Trap

Monday, July 27, 2020

The devil has been hard at work for millennia, so he knows the best way to tempt any kind of person, even religious people.  We see his handiwork plainly in the Pharisees of the New Testament.  Even though many who accuse Christians of Pharisaism don’t know what they’re talking about, we still need to pay attention to the true characteristics of the Pharisees so that we don’t end up like them ourselves. 

First, Pharisees care more about appearances than the heart.  In Luke 11:39-41, Jesus accuses them of washing the outside of dishes while leaving the inside filthy.  How about us?  It’s easy to show up for Sunday-morning services looking like the picture of a saint, while our hearts are filled with evil desires that we spend the rest of the week living out.  Other Christians might be impressed, but God won’t be.

Second, Pharisees major in minors and ignore majors.  As Jesus points out in vs. 42, they tithed garden herbs (paying attention to a tiny detail of the Law of Moses) while neglecting justice and the love of God.  We can pride ourselves on going to the “right” church, but if we aren’t here because we love Jesus and long to serve Him, it won’t do us any good.

Third, Pharisees like impressing others.  Luke 11:43 reveals that they loved prominent seats and respectful greetings.  They viewed that as their due for their spiritual attainments.  Even though the practice of Christianity doesn’t have the same status in our larger society, self-interest still can creep into our faith.  Let’s imagine that we’ve worked really hard on something for the church, but nobody compliments us on it or notices that we’ve done it.  The Pharisee will be bothered by that, but the disciple won’t care.  They weren’t doing it for other people in the first place.

Fourth, the Pharisee leads others astray.  In v. 44, Jesus compares them to unmarked tombs.  This is another reference to the Law.  According to Numbers 19:16, anyone who touched a grave became unclean for seven days.  Thus, the Jews customarily whitewashed tombs so that other Jews would know not to touch them.  By contrast, an unmarked grave could spread uncleanness to those who did not know that they had been contaminated.

By extension, then, the Pharisees spread corruption to others who didn’t realize it—by teaching them to be Pharisaical instead of holy.  When we practice a hypocritical, checklist-based, lifeless version of Christianity, our teaching will be flawed too.  Rather than teaching others to become like Jesus, we will teach them to become like us.

Sadly, Pharisaism always will be a problem among God’s people.  With the devil’s help, we can turn even faith in Christ into a tool of self-promotion.  We only can guard against it by keeping our eyes focused on Him.  When we seek Him in humility, devotion, and love, the temptation to hypocrisy can find no root in our hearts.  That won’t make Satan very happy, but it will please the Lord.

The Bible and Outside Scholarship

Friday, July 24, 2020

If there is anything that stands at the heart of our faith, it is the idea that ordinary Christians can read and understand the Bible for themselves.  Unless we are competent to do so, every other conclusion that we reach—about God, about Jesus, about salvation—is suspect.  Until we find an expert to interpret the Bible for us, we are in serious trouble!

This is a powerful idea with many implications.  One of them is that we must be wary of any interpretation of Scripture that relies on evidence outside the Bible.  For instance, Craig Keener’s argument that women should be allowed to lead in public worship depends on scholarly conclusions about the lack of education of women in the first-century Roman Empire.  Reasoning from those conclusions, he dismisses 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12 as culture-specific and no longer relevant.

The problem is that if scholarly opinion is not only helpful but necessary to an argument, the argument will fail without backing from scholars.  Thus, anyone who reads the Bible on their own, without assistance from outside sources, cannot reach the correct conclusion.  They are not competent to understand the Bible for themselves, and the Bible itself is not a sufficient guide to faith and practice.

For instance, let’s assume that Keener is right.  The scholars have it pegged, and 1 Timothy 2:12 is a culturally specific instruction that does not apply to women today.  Well and good, but what about our brethren in the 19th century who studied and applied 1 Timothy 2:12 before all these scholars did their research? 

If Keener is right, they must have been wrong.  They required something of their sisters in Christ that God did not require.  Indeed, rather than being useful, the Scriptures were deceptive.  The plain reading of 1 Timothy 2:12, even understood in the context of the entire Bible, led them into error. 

Such an outcome would be fatal to our belief that we ought to try to understand the Bible for ourselves.  If we can do everything right in our Bible study but still get it wrong (because we didn’t consult the right expert), it is better for us to leave study to those who are wiser and more scholarly than we are.  Rather than relying on our own judgment, we should rely on someone who has the training and the time to sift through the dueling academics and figure out which ones are worth listening to. 

Ultimately, though, if this is the world in which we live, we shouldn’t listen even to the experts.  The composition of the Bible was finished 2000 years ago, but the accumulation of articles and books about the Bible continues to this day.  What if some professor five years from now, or ten years from now, makes a discovery that transforms our understanding of, say, the importance of baptism?  If so, even the most expert of experts can’t help us be right today, and we can have no confidence in any attempt to discern truth in the word of God. 

Of course, none of this is to say that academic and scholarly writing is useless in understanding the Scriptures.  At its best, it adds nuance and depth to our comprehension of divine truth.  The experts have their place.

However, we must make sure that we keep them in their place.  A mountain of scholarly articles is not enough to overturn the testimony of the Scriptures.  Scholars are people too, and human fallibility is precisely the reason why we need an infallible written guide.  Let God be found true, though every man be a liar!  We cannot place our trust in even the wisest of human beings.  It must be in Him. 

The Faith of Habakkuk

Thursday, July 23, 2020

It probably won’t surprise most of you to learn that I’m a worrier.  I come by it honestly; my father before me was a worrier too.  Nonetheless, I’m apt to lose myself in fretting over the future of the country, the future of the church, the future of my family, and all sorts of other things I can’t control. 

It was with great interest, then, that I saw a Facebook friend posting the other day about the book of Habakkuk.  Just as we do, Habakkuk lived in a time of great turmoil, and just like me, he worried about the future.  However, unlike any of us, Habakkuk got to engage in a direct dialogue with God, and the conclusion he reaches afterward is both profound and as relevant to us as it was to him.  This morning, then, let’s consider the faith of Habakkuk.

When I look at the book, I divide it into four unequal sections.  The first stretches from Habakkuk 1:1-2:1.  It teaches us that GOD CAN USE THE WICKED TO JUDGE THE WICKED.  The Chaldeans were even more wicked than the Jews they were about to conquer, and we see Habakkuk struggling with that.  However, God still was in control, and His judgments still were just. 

So too for us.  If we feel like Christianity in our country is under threat, both from internal and external enemies, we should understand even the triumph of those enemies as a judgment from God.  Nothing less than the Babylonian Captivity could humble and purify the Jews, and it may well be that God has decided that His people today need to be humbled and purified too.  He continues to direct the course of history, and even the people who think they have rebelled against Him will end up carrying out His will.

I see a second main section in Habakkuk 2:2-17.  It shows that ONLY FAITHFULNESS CAN PROTECT US FROM WRATH.  In Habakkuk’s day, the Chaldeans looked unstoppable.  However, God promises him that their judgment was coming too.  They would be repaid for all the wrong they were doing.  In fact, the only ones who were going to make it through were the righteous, who would live by their faith.  This idea, which is found in Habakkuk 2:4, is so important that the passage is quoted three times in the New Testament.

The lesson is plain for us.  We might get outraged about how the enemies of God in our day seem to be prospering, but we can be sure that He has His eye on them too.  Their time is coming.  Rather than worrying about how things should turn out, we should focus on staying faithful.  The math here is simple.  The faithful will live, but the proud won’t.

The third section of the book runs from Habakkuk 2:18-3:15.  Part of it is prophecy, and part of it is prayer, but the message of all of it is that GOD IS MIGHTY AND WILL ACCCOMPLISH HIS PURPOSE.  Indeed, the text draws a contrast between the idols of the nations in the first section, who can’t do anything, and God in the second section, who can do whatever He wants to. 

Though we don’t see people worshiping statues too much today, we live in an idolatrous time.  Just as the Scripture discusses, there are people around us who make an idol out of money.  So too, there are those who make idols out of politics, government, and even science.  The stock market jumps up every time there’s a successful COVID vaccine trial, but even if a vaccine will keep us safe from COVID, it can’t keep us safe from death.  Whatever the idol, though, idolatry is vain.  In the end, only God will prevail.

This takes us to our final section, which appears in Habakkuk 3:16-19.  Its point is simple:  TRUST IN GOD, NO MATTER WHAT.  Notice the contrast.  On the one hand, Habakkuk is terrified of the invasion that he knows is coming.  On the other hand, though, even if things get so bad that there isn’t any food left, he will continue to rejoice in God. 

I don’t know what the future holds.  It may be that the present distress is just a blip on the radar screen, and we’ve got an era of prosperity and peace stretching ahead of us.  It may be that things will be worse than I can imagine, and that’s pretty bad! 

This I know, though:  the future still will have God in it, and for all of us, that’s enough.  We do not know how He will save and redeem and care for us, but we know He will.  Like Habakkuk, we always will be able to rejoice, because we have the one thing that matters.

Sound Teaching

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

For those of you who aren’t aware, right now, there is a brotherhood-wide split occurring in mainline churches of Christ.  I have friends who attend mainline churches who believe the split already has occurred.  The sources of division are questions that we would consider fundamental.  Can churches of Christ use musical instruments in their assemblies?  Is it permissible for women to lead in the assembly?  Can you belong to a church and join in its work if you haven’t been baptized for the forgiveness of your sins?  Those in progressive churches of Christ these days will answer “Yes,” to all three of those questions.

To be honest, brethren, I find this shocking.  How can it be that these churches have gone so far so quickly?  How can it be that even the one baptism of Ephesians 4:5 has come under attack?  Of course, a little bit of thought provides the answer to the question.  Consider 2 Timothy 1:13.  It tells us that we are to hold on to the New Testament pattern of sound teaching.  Clearly, these churches have failed to do that.

The same thing can happen to us.  Indeed, if we are not vigilant, it will happen to us.  Lest we drift away, we must concern ourselves with clinging ever more tightly to the Scriptures.  This evening, then, let’s contemplate the subject of sound teaching.

First, let us note that sound teaching DEMANDS HUMILITY from us.  Look at what James says in James 1:21.  He tells us that if we want the word to implant itself in us and save our souls, first we must humble ourselves before it.

This statement probably would draw amens from across the religious spectrum, but let’s pause for a moment to think about what it means.  Humility means that we care about what the word of God says instead of what we want to do.  Humility means that we place all of our confidence in the wisdom of God and none in our human wisdom. 

In practice, humility means that we will do what God says and only what God says, because that’s the conclusion to which submission and trust lead.  If it’s in the law of Christ, it doesn’t matter how little we like it or how unwise we think it is.  We will obey.

Without this humility, there’s really no point to studying the Bible or trying to serve God at all.  Pride is all the opening that the devil needs.  When we run into one of those hard sayings of Jesus, he will whisper in our ear that we don’t really have to listen to the Lord.  When we find apparent foolishness in the word, he will pat us on the back for how wise and understanding we are.  Every time, he will use our pride to lead us straight to destruction.

Instead, we should adopt the sentiments of Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 3:7.  We all are little children.  We all do not know how to go out and come in.  However, if we humble ourselves completely before our heavenly Father, and we do only what He says to do, everything will work out all right.

Second, sound teaching DECLARES THE WHOLE PLAN OF GOD.  Consider Acts 20:26-27.  There’s a warning here for every preacher and teacher of God’s word.  Paul says that because he declared the whole plan of God to the Ephesian elders, he will be innocent of their blood.  If they go astray, it won’t be his fault.  However, if he had taught them only the easy parts of God’s plan, he would have destroyed himself along with them.

I think this highlights one of the more difficult features of the gospel.  It is often the case that the parts of the Bible that we most need to hear are the parts we least want to hear.  They demand that we admit unwelcome truth, and they require us to give up cherished parts of our lives. 

However, this gets back to humility.  Are we going to listen to God all the time, or are we going to listen to Him only when the listening is pleasant?  If the latter, we’re not really serving God.  We’re serving ourselves and applying a Christian gloss to our selfishness.

In fact, I think this is exactly what is going on in those progressive churches.  We know that Bible teaching on baptism is unpopular.  There are many in our community who would have no problem joining our church—if only we didn’t demand that they be baptized for the forgiveness of sins first.  If we let anybody become a member, regardless of their salvation experience, a big stumbling block has been abolished.

Bible teaching on the role of women in the church is unpopular too.  Lots of people in the world are going to write us off as a bunch of chauvinists because we won’t let women, even talented women, get up in the pulpit and preach.

The thing is, though, that unless we teach on these controversial subjects, and unless we practice what we preach, we are not declaring the whole plan of God.  No women in authority in the church is part of that plan.  Baptism for the forgiveness of sins is part of it too.  We cannot change God’s revealed will.  All we can decide is whether we are going to honor it or not.

Finally, sound doctrine REMAINS IN CHRIST’S TEACHING.  Let’s read from 2 John 8-10.  John makes clear here that this is a very real danger.  It is all too possible for Christians to go beyond the teaching of Christ and so lose their reward. 

This should lead us to ask what going beyond the teaching of Christ means.  I think the concept here is pretty simple.  When we teach and practice the things that Christ and His apostles taught, we are remaining in His teaching.  On the other hand, when Christ and His apostles didn’t teach something, and we teach and practice it anyway, we go beyond His teaching, much like the deceivers mentioned in v. 6.

This is simple to understand, but through the centuries, it has proven to be quite difficult to apply.  The devil loves to convince God’s people to go beyond God’s teaching.  Here too, he appeals to our pride.  He seeks to persuade us that adding something to the divinely inspired pattern will be an improvement. 

He also seeks to minimizes the consequences.  Surely God wouldn’t condemn someone to hell for doing that!  I don’t know about y’all, but when the devil tells me it isn’t dangerous, and the Holy Spirit tells me in 2 John 8 that it is dangerous, I’m going to go with the Holy Spirit!

This, I fear, is what is going on with churches of Christ that are adopting instrumental music.  We all know what is written in the Scriptures about our song worship.  There is nothing in the New Testament that permits us to adopt the instrument.  Bringing the instrument in, then, is going beyond the teaching of Christ.

At this point, some brethren want to ask if I’m sure that everybody who uses the instrument is going to hell.  I think that’s the wrong question.  We need to worry less about the precise extent to which something is wrong and worry more about devoting ourselves to what is right.  Let’s ask if we want to submit humbly to God, if we trust that His way is best, if we want to remain faithfully within the teachings of His Son.  If the answer to those questions is “Yes,” the instrument never will make an appearance.

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