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Self-Defense and the Christian

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

 

Last week, I did something I’ve never done before.  I bought a firearm.  There were many reasons why I did this, but ultimately, it was because of my desire to protect my family if the need arose.

In making this decision, I had to reckon with the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-41.  For centuries, people have understood this passage to mean that it is wrong for Christians to use violence, even if they are defending themselves.  If that’s what the test requires, brethren, that’s what we have to do.  We can’t pretend like this passage doesn’t exist and do what we want anyway.  If we defend ourselves, and it’s against the will of Jesus, we are no different from anyone else who chooses to defy His will.

However, before we reach that point, we have to decide whether that is, in fact, what the text is saying.  Just a few verses up in Matthew 5, Jesus tells us to tear out our sinful eyes and cut off our sinful hands.  We know that isn’t meant to be literal, and it may well be that turning the other cheek doesn’t mean what it appears to mean either.  Let’s explore this issue as we consider self-defense and the Christian.

It’s appropriate to open this exploration by looking at some PROBLEMS WITH THE LITERAL READING.  Why shouldn’t we understand this text as a general prohibition of self-defense?  I see three issues with that reading, and the first of these is that it doesn’t correct the way that the Jews were misreading Scripture.

“An eye for an eye,” after all, is taken from the Law of Moses in Exodus 21:24, and in that context, it’s not about self-defense or even personal revenge at all.  Instead, it’s a standard for determining the severity of judicial punishment.  The Jews of Jesus’ time are taking this judicial standard and saying, “We have the right to dish out punishment ourselves.”  If “Turn the other cheek” is about self-defense, it does not correct this misreading of Scripture.  Instead, it is introducing an entirely new topic, and for Jesus, that would be extremely sloppy logic.

Second, this reading doesn’t fit with the rest of Jesus’ answer.  In Matthew 5, He spells out three ways that His disciples are not to resist evil:  by turning the other cheek, by not fighting lawsuits, and by going the second mile.  Of these three, the second two are about state action.  Famously, Roman soldiers had the right to compel peasants to carry their gear for one mile.  Similarly, lawsuits are part of the machinery of government, and just as they do today, rich people in Jesus’ time commonly used them to oppress the poor.  If the last two parts of Jesus’ answer concern the government in some way, that should at least leave us open to the possibility that turning the other cheek is about the government too.

Third, much of the rest of Jesus’ teaching presumes that people will defend themselves.  Look, for instance, at Luke 11:21-22.  This parable, of course, is not about self-defense, but it does reflect a cultural assumption that a strong man will fight to protect his home.  Jesus does not describe him negatively for doing this, as opposed to the unrighteous steward and the unjust judge in other parables.  Instead, He takes the strong man’s action for granted.

If the obvious reading is untenable, we need to look for A STRONGER READING instead.  A passage that will get us going in the right direction is Lamentations 3:25-30.  In context, of course, Jeremiah is mourning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the people being led off into captivity.  In that situation, his inspired advice is to submit to the Babylonians and wait for God to have mercy.  That’s what v. 27 is talking about when it says that it’s good for a man to bear the yoke.  As part of that, Jeremiah says, the Jews need to give their cheeks to those who are smiting them—the same idea that Jesus is promoting in Matthew 5. 

In fact, I believe that in Matthew 5, Jesus is quoting Lamentations 3.  He’s telling the Jews of His day to submit to an unjust Roman government in the same way that Jeremiah told the Jews of his day to submit to the unjust Babylonians.  “Turn the other cheek” is about submitting to the government.

This reading resolves all of the problems we identified earlier.  First, under this reading, Jesus is correcting the Jewish misunderstanding of Exodus 21.  He’s saying, “Don’t take the law into your own hands.  Honor the government, even when it is oppressive.”  Second, “Turn the other cheek,” now fits thematically with “Let them have your coat,” and “Go the second mile.”  All three now concern the disciple’s responsibilities to the government.  Finally, it does not call into question the accepted practice of defending one’s family and property from criminals.

Additionally, this ties into one of the major themes of Jesus’ ministry.  Among other reasons, God sent Jesus when He did as a last-ditch attempt to turn the Jews aside from a disastrous rebellion against Rome.  Jesus warns them repeatedly to seek a heavenly, not an earthly, kingdom.  If “Turn the other cheek,” is a warning against rebellion too, that fits perfectly.

This leaves us with THREE APPLICATIONS.  First, just as the Jews were not allowed to take revenge into their own hands and justify it by misapplying the Law, we aren’t allowed to take revenge into our own hands either.  Christians are supposed to be merciful and forgiving rather than vengeful.  If we have opportunity, we are to do good even to those who have done evil to us.  Punishing wrongdoing is God’s job and the government’s job, not ours.

Second, like God’s people in the first century, we are to submit to the government.  We are to honor the laws and pay our taxes, even when we believe those laws are unjust and the taxes are oppressive.  Certainly, our brethren 2000 years ago faced unjust laws and oppressive taxes to a degree we can hardly imagine, but they never took up arms against Roman tyranny. 

Sometimes, I hear people arguing that in our country, the Constitution is the true government, so we have the right to rebel against a government that has gone beyond the bounds of the Constitution.  Frankly, I think that’s sophistry.  As Peter says in 1 Peter 2, we are not merely to honor the law.  We are to honor the emperor.  The godly obey the man in charge, even if he’s as crazy and evil as Nero.  Of course, this is not true when the law directly contradicts the commandment of God.  Then, our responsibility is to obey God rather than men.

Finally, we have to make up our own minds about gun ownership and self-defense.  If Matthew 5 does not offer a clear command on the subject, we must be guided by our own conscience.  There’s no reason to criticize the Christian who resolves that they can never take life, no matter what, nor is there reason to criticize the Christian who is willing to kill to protect the life of another.  This is a decision that we must make thoughtfully and prayerfully, but if we do, whatever we choose will be to the glory of God.    

Doing All Things Through Christ

Friday, July 05, 2019

 

There are some texts of Scripture that it seems nearly everyone knows.  They’ve made the leap to become part of popular culture.  One such text is the punch line to Philippians 4:11-13.  Our society idolizes success, and Philippians 4:13 appears to promise success in everything because Jesus will help.  I can remember my high school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes putting Philippians 4:13 on T-shirts.  My wife’s childbirth-class instructor suggested that women might want to repeat Philippians 4:13 when they were in labor, and so on.

All of that was very inspiring, no doubt, but is it really what the passage is about?  Is Paul telling us that Jesus is the gateway to achieving our earthly goals, or is his point different?  Here, as always, we need to tune out the cultural noise and ask what the Scriptures truly are saying.  Let’s turn our attention, then, to some passages that will help us understand what it means to do all things through Christ.

When we are determining whether Philippians 4:13 applies to what we are doing, we first must EVALUATE OUR GOAL.  Paul offers us a useful template for so doing in Colossians 3:1-2.  Notice that the distinction here isn’t between setting our minds on righteous things instead of things that are sinful.  It’s between setting our minds on things above instead of things that are on the earth.  This is important because it tells us that there are goals that aren’t sinful that are still earthly.  It’s OK for Christians to have goals like that, but they shouldn’t be where our minds are set.

This is the problem with applying Philippians 4:13 to scoring touchdowns or delivering children.  Contextually, the passage isn’t about being able to do whatever we want to because Jesus gives us superpowers.  It’s about doing what He wants us to do through the strength that He provides. 

In context in Philippians 4, Paul is not being given the strength to succeed.  He’s being given the strength to endure.  Jesus is helping him to be content despite not even having enough money to eat so that he can go on spreading the gospel.  That’s not something that most Americans would recognize as a success, but it was something that brought Paul closer to Christ.

So too for us.  Again, it’s fine for Christians to pursue earthly achievements, but those things should not be the pursuit of our lives.  Athletic success is fine, but not important.  Career success is fine, but not important. 

Instead, we ought to be concerned with the triumphs of the spirit.  How am I doing in my battle against secret sin?  Am I becoming more compassionate and merciful in my dealings with others?  Am I, like Paul, patiently enduring suffering for the Lord’s sake?  Those are the things that we should be looking to accomplish through the strength that Christ gives us.  They never will shine on our resumes, but they are the kinds of things that get recorded in the book of life.

Second, we ought to PRAY FOR BOLDNESS.  Consider the example of the apostles in Acts 4:29-31.  Contextually, this is impressive.  In the previous chapter, Peter and John had been arrested for healing a lame man—for doing good!  They have been released from custody only after the leaders of their nation have warned them that if they continue to proclaim Jesus, they will suffer for it.  What do they do?  They come together with their friends and pray for boldness to continue preaching.

Here, I think we come to the difference between FCA-style leaning on Jesus and Bible-style leaning on Jesus.  Usually, the pop-culture version of Philippians 4:13 is about ability.  God, help me run faster.  God, help me make better business decisions. 

By contrast, the Bible version of Philippians 4:13 tends to be about commitment to Christ.  We know what we should do.  We have the physical and mental abilities to do it.  However, there is some part of us that is afraid, so we need Christ’s help to do it.

This is obvious when it comes to serving the Lord—with evangelism, for instance.  We know how fear can cripple us then, can keep us from doing what we know is right.  However, the same is often true of our struggles against sin.  If there is some sin that is constantly present in our lives, be it porn, alcoholism, or gossip, we physically could quit.  However, we’re afraid to.  We are comfortable in our sin, and we allow our minds to dwell on how unpleasant life would be without it.

In both of these cases, prayers for boldness are the answer.  We don’t need stronger quadriceps or stronger brains.  We need stronger hearts.  We need the Lord’s help to do what we know we need to do. 

Once we recognize that need, we should ask for help constantly.  Prayer is not supposed to be a one-and-done thing.  It is supposed to be a constant thing, especially in the times when we are tempted to be less than we should be.  If we turn to Jesus, He will make us strong.

Finally, we must BE STRONG AND ACT.  Look at the exhortation recorded in Ezra 10:2-4.  Again, this is significant in context.  Ezra has only just arrived in Jerusalem.  Immediately, though, he has been confronted with a spiritual disaster of epic proportions.  The Jews again have begun intermarrying with foreign women, even though that was one of those things that got them carried off into captivity in the first place!  Worse still, the leaders of the people, those who were supposed to be leading them in righteousness, instead have been foremost in sin. 

Somebody has to do something, and that somebody is Ezra.  Nobody else has the same understanding of the Law that Ezra does.  Nobody else is in the same elevated position.  If he does not act, it may be that the Jews will be carried off into another captivity, never to return to the land.

The same holds true for us.  There will be times in our lives when we are called on to take a stand.  The stand could be in private, a defiant declaration that we are not going to practice that secret sin ever again.  It could be in the context of our families, when somebody isn’t living right.  It could be in our workplaces or even our churches. 

However, wherever it takes place, the stand will be lonely.  That’s what it means to take a stand.  Rather than looking around sideways to see what everybody else is going to do, we do what we know we must and leave it to others to follow.

What Jesus wants us to know, though, is that when we are taking that stand, no matter how lonely it may feel, we never will be alone.  He will be with us, and when we act with His strength, we will be certain to fully accomplish His will.  Maybe the earthly results won’t be what we wanted, but in the spiritual realm, God will be glorified, and that’s what matters.

Why Care About Teaching Our Children?

Monday, July 01, 2019

 

For our congregation, this is the time of year when we pay the most attention to teaching our children.  There have been women meeting in the building for weeks working on various aspects of our upcoming vacation Bible school, and the week after that, we’ve got a quarter change coming up, with all the work that entails.

All this is quite demanding for those involved.  It’s demanding for our teachers and resource-preppers, and it’s demanding for our parents too.  Parents are the ones who have to clear their schedules to get their kids here for every night of VBS.  Parents are the one who have to get their kids up early on Sunday morning and put them to bed late on Wednesday evening so they can be here for Bible class.  We all know very well that given these stresses, it would be much easier not to help and participate.

Why should we participate anyway?  What is it about the result that makes all this effort and stress worthwhile?  In short, why should we care about teaching our children?

There are several Biblical answers to this question.  The first, and in some ways the most important, reason that I want us to consider has more to do with us than it does with our kids.  We should care about teaching them because IT REVEALS WHO WE ARE.  Here, let’s look at Deuteronomy 6:4-9.  This is a familiar text, but I must admit that until recently, I didn’t understand it as fully as I should have.  I read it flatly, as a list of commandments.  Commandment One was to love God.  Commandment Two was to keep these words in our heart.  Commandment Three was to teach them diligently.  And so on.

However, that doesn’t reckon with Jesus’ statement in Matthew 22 that the whole Law depends on this commandment, along with the commandment to love our neighbor.  We can’t understand Deuteronomy 6 as a laundry list of commandments.  Instead, we need to connect every other commandment in this reading back to the commandment to love the Lord, and we need to understand each one as an expression of that love.

In other words, if we truly love the Lord with all our heart and soul and might, we won’t have to go down two verses and say, “Oops!  Now we need to remember to diligently teach our children!”  Instead, we will be diligently teaching our children already, because diligently teaching children is one of the things that people who love the Lord do. 

To put things a different way, our devotion to teaching children is a litmus test for our devotion to God.  If we don’t care about it, if we are unconcerned with telling the young about Him, that’s a serious heart problem, and it indicates the presence of a much more serious heart problem.  Conversely, if we are filled with love for teaching children about God, it indicates a love for God too.  Deuteronomy 6 does not allow us to separate those things, either in our families or in our churches.  If we are the people we ought to be, teaching children will be important to us.

Additionally, this is an important matter because IT GUARDS AGAINST APOSTASY.  Consider the sad tale of Judges 2:6-7, 9-11.  This is the story of three generations.  The first generation consisted of those who stood with Joshua and conquered Canaan with God’s help.  The second generation was made up of those who were children at the time and saw all of God’s great work.  The third generation, though, comprised those who had no direct experience of God’s deliverance.  Once the elders who did have that direct experience died, the third generation that did not know God began to serve the Baals instead.

It’s interesting to note that since the Restoration, trouble has arisen in the Lord’s church on about this same time scale.  70 years after the Restoration, about the turn of the 20th century, a brotherhood-wide split occurred over the issues of instrumental music and missionary societies.

I don’t think this is coincidence.  Instead, I think it’s the same pattern repeating itself.  You have a generation that goes through some great conflict, a second generation that doesn’t participate much but sees it happen, and then a third generation without direct experience.  The founders are faithful; their heirs are apostate.

The only cure for the disease is to make sure that children know the Lord.  Even now, I see signs of failure in this.  There are all too many young people around the country who are “raised in the church” who don’t know why we do what we do.  They assume it’s a matter of human tradition rather than divine commandment.  They don’t understand the importance of doing all in the name of the Lord because they have not been brought to encounter Jesus as Lord.  Unless we are diligent to teach them with all the passion that Deuteronomy 6 implies, either history will repeat itself, or something even worse will happen.

Finally, investing ourselves in teaching matters because IT GLORIFIES GOD.  We see how we ought to conduct ourselves when serving the Lord in 1 Peter 4:10-11.  Whatever we have been given, we are to use it to serve one another, and we are to use it as well as we can.  Only then will God receive the glory that He deserves.

Among other things, this should warn us against the dangers of apathy.  It’s all too easy for us to go through the motions of doing the right thing without truly investing ourselves in it. 

We see this problem unfolding in the first chapter of Malachi.  There, the returned exiles are offering to God blemished sacrifices that they never would dare to give to their governor.  In response, God expresses the wish that someone would shut the doors of the temple rather than allowing such halfhearted service to go on.

Today, we know all too well what it looks like when parents and Bible-class teachers are going through the motions rather than giving their best.  In situations like this, no one is prepared.  The children haven’t done their lessons, and the teacher is frantically rummaging around in bins in the resource room 15 minutes before class starts trying to piece together a craft. 

No adults involved have put much thought into the class.  They’ve acted like it’s not important, and from this, the children involved will draw the conclusion that it shouldn’t be important to them either.

That, brethren, is what a blemished sacrifice in the classroom looks like.  Sure, the lights are on and everybody’s there, but the zeal that should animate each participant is absent.  In a time as troubled as ours is, our children need more from us than that.  In any time, God deserves better from His people than that. 

If we want our classes to be effective, we have to give them our best.  This doesn’t mean that every Bible-class teacher has to be the most wonderful teacher in the world.  We all have our limits.  It does mean, though, that we will be pushing those limits.  If we do, our effort will communicate the importance of God to the children we teach more clearly than anything we say.

Problems with Original Sin

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

 

Believe it or not, brethren, we’ve finally come to the end of this half-hour study series.  Because the goal of this is to equip you to study with people, I’ve had Jennifer include in the bulletin a sheet that you can fold in half and stick in your Bibles.  It has an outline for every sermon in the series, with Scriptures.  If you need a refresher on what to say about each point, the link at the top goes to a post on our church blog with links to each individual sermon.  Hopefully, this will help y’all for years to come!

Also, all the way through this series, I’ve been saying that these studies are nothing more than introductions to some very complex topics.  Never has that been truer than with this morning’s sermon.  The doctrine of original sin is one of the foundations of Calvinism, and I could easily preach sermons on Calvinism until 2020 without running out of material!  What I have to say this morning won’t be enough to convince Calvinists who really know their Bibles, but it might be a conversation-starter, and it could also be useful for somebody who has heard Calvinist teaching but doesn’t really understand the Scriptural basis of the argument.  With these modest aims in mind, then, let’s turn to the Scriptures to explore three problems with original sin.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the doctrine of original sin is the idea that every human being inherited the guilt of Adam’s sin in the garden of Eden.  We believe that all people die physically because of that sin, but Calvinists argue that every human being is also spiritually dead because of it.  Thus, a newborn baby, minutes out of its mother’s womb, if it dies and is not baptized, will go to hell because it is stained by original sin. 

This is an extremely powerful doctrine.  If you accept it, it will change the way you read the entire Bible.  However, there are some powerful reasons not to accept it.  First, IT DENIES THE INNOCENCE OF CHILDREN.  Look at the words of our Lord in Mark 10:13-16.  Here, of course, we are looking at a situation that existed hundreds of years before anybody suggested the existence of original sin.  None of these children have been baptized.  The boys would have been circumcised, but there is nothing in the Law of Moses that says that the purpose of circumcision is to take away sin.

Nonetheless, Jesus says of these children that the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.  They don’t need His grace to enter that kingdom.  They’ve got it already.  They don’t have to be baptized as children so that they can receive the kingdom like us.  Instead, we must receive the kingdom like them. 

Clearly, in the Lord’s eyes, there is not a thing wrong spiritually with any of the children He is blessing.  This lines up with our own experience.  Even though children can certainly disobey, all of us who have been parents or even older siblings know that they don’t have a true consciousness of sin.    On their own, they are entirely innocent.

What Calvinists would have us believe, though, is that even though they have committed no wrong themselves, they stand condemned regardless because of inherited sin.  Unless they just happen to be born into a family that believes in baptizing infants, if they die before maturity, they will be eternally condemned.

There are many who question the existence of God because they can’t understand how a loving God would allow children to die.  However, the death of innocent children pales in comparison to the horror of millions of children who had never done anything wrong being sentenced to hell for what somebody else did.  That, brethren, could only be the work of a God who is not loving, not merciful, and not even just!

This, indeed, takes us to the second major problem with the doctrine of original sin.  IT HOLDS US ACCOUNTABLE FOR OTHERS’ SIN.  I think there are fairness problems associated with that, but even more than that, God says outright that it’s not how His justice operates.  Here, let’s consider Ezekiel 18:1-4. 

This text tells us that in Ezekiel’s time, the Jewish exiles were playing the blame game.  The proverb that God cites means, “Our fathers were the ones who sinned, but we were the ones who got punished.”  That’s awfully convenient if you don’t want to admit your own guilt.  You can just blame your bad circumstances on Dad.

In response, though, God says that the soul who sins will die.  The rest of the chapter elaborates on this theme.  If the father is wicked, he will die.  If the son is wicked, he will die.  However, a righteous son will not bear the punishment due a wicked father.

This presents a massive problem for anyone who wants to argue for original sin.  My own father was a faithful Christian, but even if he had been a scoundrel, I still wouldn’t be punished because of what he had done.  That being the case, how could I or any of us possibly be stained with guilt because of what our ultimate ancestor Adam did?  If the son will not die for the sins of the father, why would any of us die because of the sins of our many-times-great-grandfather?

Of course, practically speaking, this doesn’t help me much.  I may not be guilty because of the sin of Adam, but I am guilty because of the sins I’ve committed myself.  However, it is good to know that God will only hold us accountable for what we’ve done!

Finally, the doctrine of inherited sin is problematic because IT MINIMIZES THE POWER OF CHOICE.  There are many texts that emphasize the importance of free will, but let’s look at Hebrews 12:25.  This passage offers us a stark choice.  Either we hear the One who warns us from heaven and live, or we refuse Him and die.

To my thinking, it simply doesn’t make much sense for the Holy Spirit to tell us such things if our eternal destiny is predominantly determined by things other than our own choices.  It reminds me of a soccer coach I saw once—not my children’s coach, thankfully—back in Illinois.  He told all of the five-year-olds on his team that he would give them five dollars if they could beat him in a race across the field.  For the first three-quarters of the race, he dogged it and made them think they could beat him, but in the last quarter, he raced ahead and made sure none of them would collect.  What a jerk!

If God tells us that our actions matter, but they really don’t matter because we’re doomed no matter what, as far as I’m concerned, He’s no better than that jerk soccer coach.  Frankly, that doesn’t sound like the God I know from the Bible.  His standards are high, and it is with difficulty that even the righteous are saved, but He will reward everyone according to what they have done.  If my soul is lost, I can be sure that it’s not because of a choice somebody else made.  It’s because of a choice that I made.

Half-Hour Study Series Outlines and Links

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

 

ABOUT GOD

  • How God Speaks to Us  (Ephesians 3:4-5)
  • The Reliability of Scripture (2 Peter 1:19-21)
  • The Sufficiency of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
  • He Is the Creator  (Revelation 4:10-11)
  • He Is Good (Mark 10:17-18)
  • He Is Holy (Isaiah 6:1-3)
  • He Desires a Relationship with Us (2 Corinthians 6:17-18)
  • Jesus Is the Son of God (Romans 1:3-4)
  • The Bible is God’s Word (Matthew 15:3-4)
  • The Bible Is Reliable (Isaiah 55:10-11)

SALVATION

  • God Expects Us to Obey (Romans 2:6-8)
  • Sin Is Lawlessness (1 John 3:4)
  • All of Us Have Sinned (Romans 3:23)
  • Sin Leads to Death (Romans 6:23)
  • Christ  (Acts 2:36)
  • God’s Son (Matthew 16:15-16)
  • Savior (Acts 13:23)
  • Belief (John 3:16)
  • Repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10)
  • Confession (Romans 10:9-10)
  • Baptism (Acts 2:38)
  • The Definition of Repentance (Acts 26:19-20)
  • Knowledge of God’s Will (2 Samuel 12:7-9)
  • Honesty About Sin (2 Samuel 12:13)
  • Willingness to Change (Matthew 19:20-22)
  • Immersion in Water (Acts 8:38-39)
  • Of a Believer (Colossians 2:11-12)
  • To Wash Away Sins (Acts 22:16)

INSTRUCTION IN RIGHTEOUSNESS

  • It’s Consistent (Colossians 3:17)
  • It Calls Us to the Word (Acts 17:10-11)
  • It Honors Jesus, Not Ourselves (Ephesians 5:22-24)
  • Ask About Baptism (Matthew 28:18-20)
  • Evaluate Their Worship (John 4:23-24)
  • Listen to Their Teaching (John 8:31-32)
  • God’s Pattern (Mark 10:6-9)
  • Judgment on the Immoral (Hebrews 13:4)
  • Lust (Matthew 5:27-28)
  • Divorce (Matthew 19:7-9)
  • Why (2 Corinthians 8:8-9)
  • When (1 Corinthians 16:1-2)
  • How Much (2 Corinthians 9:6-8)

MISCELLANEOUS TOPICS

  • The Baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-47)
  • The Laying on of the Apostles’ Hands (Acts 8:14-18)
  • Their Nature (Acts 2:6-11)
  • Their Duration (1 Corinthians 13:8-13)
  • It Denies the Innocence of Children (Mark 10:13-16)
  • It Holds Us Accountable for Others’ Sin (Ezekiel 18:1-4)
  • It Minimizes the Power of Choice (Romans 5:12)

 

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