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Summaries, Ecclesiates 11-12, Psalms 32-34

Monday, April 29, 2019


Ecclesiastes 11 opens with advice about how to deal with an uncertain future.  Prepare for success by using several different strategies that may pay off down the road.  Recognize that nothing can be done about disasters that already have occurred.  At the same time, don’t be so paralyzed by fear of disaster that you do nothing.  Don’t expect to understand what God has purposed.  Instead, control what you can control by working hard.  The chapter concludes with an encouragement to enjoy life while remembering that hard times, death, and judgment are coming.

Ecclesiastes 12 considers the inevitable end of life.  The first 8 verses describe the effects of aging and death in various poetic ways.  Because all of these things are inevitable, we should remember God now.  The final part of the chapter, and indeed of the book, describes the work of the Preacher.  He commends proverbs and wisdom while warning against excessive devotion to other kinds of study.  The summation of all wisdom is to fear God, obey Him, and remember His judgment.

Psalm 32 contrasts the experience of sinfulness and forgiveness.  It describes the forgiven man as blessed, then reverts to David’s personal experience.  When he refused to acknowledge his sin, he suffered, but God blessed him when he repented.  Because of that experience, he urges everyone to seek God so that He will protect them like He protects David.  Vs. 8-9 are spoken from God’s perspective, and they explain the necessity of His corrective discipline.  The final verses present the conclusion that the wicked will suffer, but the righteous will rejoice in God’s protection.

Psalm 33 praises God for His wonderful works.  It opens by calling His people to praise Him in song because of His righteous word and works.  Everyone should fear and honor Him because He is the Creator.  Even now, His work continues.  He defeats the plans of the enemies of Israel while prospering His people.  Against His will, no human strength or ability can be effective.  He always remembers those who serve Him, and He protects them.  Thus, we should hope in Him.

Psalm 34 expresses David’s rejoicing at escaping Abimelech.  Its first verses express David’s determination to praise God and call others to join him.  He wants to praise God because God rescued him, as God always rescues His people.  Even when young lions go hungry, God makes sure that the righteous want for nothing.  Anybody who wants to enjoy the blessings of the Lord must turn from evil and seek good.  He listens to their prayers while destroying the wicked.  Even when things don’t seem to be going well for them, God will still deliver and protect them.  Their enemies will be defeated, while everyone who trusts God will be justified.

Why "Break My Heart" Works

Wednesday, April 24, 2019


At the end of this year’s new-hymn class at Jackson Heights, we went through and recorded a dozen of the songs we’d learned through the quarter.  I’ve spent the past couple of days listening to the CD in the car, not only from a worshiper’s perspective, but from a hymnist’s perspective. 

Over the past decade, I’ve slowly learned that there are some things you can’t tell about a hymn or spiritual song until you sing it.  For one, there are some arrangements that look fine on the page but prove to be a booger to sing.  Most importantly, though, you can’t tell whether a hymn will generate buy-in from brethren until you hear them sing it.  There is a difference in sound between singers going through the motions and singers pouring out their hearts in worship.

Buy-in is the single most important attribute of a spiritual song.  It determines whether it will be used congregationally or not.  If a hymn does not have buy-in, it’s like faith without works.  It doesn’t matter how skillfully written or intellectually profound the hymn is.  If people don’t want to sing it, it’s dead.

As I was listening to the CD, then, I was listening for the telltale evidence of buy-in.  I heard it, among several other places, in the Clint Rhodes song “Break My Heart”.  “Break My Heart” is written in a style I don’t use.  If I had been invited to edit it, I would have had some technical critiques to offer. 

However, if a sacred song draws Christians into worship, it’s doing its job, and “Break My Heart” manifestly does that.  I think it works, and I think it works for two reasons:

Accessible Content.  “Break My Heart” is a song about the Christian’s struggle with sin.  Particularly, it’s about the times when we don’t want to do good, but we want to want to.  It’s a plea to God to overcome the stubborn resistance within us so that we can devote ourselves to Him.

Every Christian with an ounce of self-awareness will identify with this struggle.  All of us will wrestle with sin for as long as we live, and that conflict exists because our flesh wants to sin.  We need God’s help, we know we need God’s help, and so we want to sing a song that is about asking God for help.

Use of Counter-Melody.  Recently, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the difference between songs written for a praise band and songs written for the congregation.  There are a lot of things that praise bands can do that congregations can’t.  Most notably, they can have a more extreme vocal range and use more complicated rhythms.  G5 in the melody will murder congregations on Sunday mornings.  So too will those dotted-eighth/sixteenth rhythms that mimic the vocal stylings of a lead singer.

However, there are things that congregations do well that praise bands really don’t.  First on my list is the employment of counter-melody.  Typically, the lead singer of a praise band is The Lead.  They don’t want to step back and let somebody else in the band take over for a little bit.

However, congregations enjoy passing the melody back and forth or singing two melodies simultaneously with different rhythms.  Many of the most prominent songs that come from a-cappella traditions reflect this.  Think “Our God, He Is Alive”, for instance.  The same is true of “Break My Heart”.  The song really comes alive once you get to the chorus and the alto/tenor counter-melody.  They make it musically satisfying.

Fundamentally, I’m a pragmatist.  What ought to be is all well and good, but you have to pay attention to what works.  “Break My Heart” works, at least in a group that can pull off a tenor counter-melody.  Both song leaders and writers ought to pay attention.

Why Should I Believe?

Tuesday, April 23, 2019


One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about preaching this half-hour study series is the number of sermon suggestions I’ve gotten from the members here.  I love to hear what y’all want to learn from the word, and before I’m done, there will be about half a dozen sermons that some brother or sister here specifically asked for.

This sermon comes to us from Carolyn.  A couple of weeks ago, she came to me and asked, “What do you say to somebody who doesn’t believe in either God or the Bible?  What’s the simplest argument that you can make that will convince them?”

Of course, every argument has its limitations.  Not even Jesus could persuade somebody who refused to listen.  The same is true for us.  Nothing I say this morning will have any influence on a hard heart.  However, if somebody is not a believer but is open-minded, this is the best approach I’ve found for reaching them.  Let’s consider this morning, then, the answer to the question, “Why should I believe?”

The first point of the answer, and indeed the main argument, is that THE RESURRECTION PROVES THAT JESUS IS THE SON OF GOD.  Paul makes this point in Romans 1:3-4.  Today is a special day.  It is a day on which we are gathered to remember and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I am referring, of course, to the first day of the week.  If you’re here because you think that the resurrection should only be remembered one day a year, I appeal to you, please reconsider that.  The resurrection is the most important event of human existence, and we must give it the attention it deserves.

Let me back up a little bit, though.  The resurrection is the most important event of human history if, and only if, it happened.  A mythical resurrection has no meaning for any of us.  Why should we believe that it is more than a myth?

If you’ll recall, I preached two sermons on this last year.  If you don’t recall, I’m going to move those over to the current church blog so you can read them for a refresher! 

Having said that, here’s the basic argument.  Let’s start out by treating the Bible like any history book.  For now, we’re going to ignore all the supernatural stuff unless something else gives us a reason to accept it. 

Treating the Bible in this way, there are five reasonable, non-supernatural conclusions we can draw about the events surrounding the end of Jesus’ life on earth.  First, it’s apparent that Jesus died on the cross.  Second, His disciples believed, whether rightly or not, that the risen Jesus appeared to them.  Third, His brother James, who did not believe in Him during His ministry, believed the risen Jesus appeared to him.  Fourth, Saul of Tarsus, an enemy and persecutor of the church, also believed that he saw the risen Jesus.  Fifth, on the first day of the week, Jesus’ tomb was found empty.

There’s nothing supernatural about any of those things, but when you put them together, they add up to a supernatural conclusion.  The single best explanation for those five facts is that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

If that is true, if Jesus was indeed raised, we must take everything He said about Himself seriously, including His claim to be the Son of God.  Somebody who claims to be the Son of God, is killed, and stays dead is either a liar or a deluded fool.  Somebody who claims to be the Son of God, is killed, and rises from the grave truly is the Son of God.

Now that we’ve established that, it follows that IF JESUS IS GOD’S SON, THE BIBLE IS GOD’S WORD.  Consider the words of the Lord in Matthew 15:3-4.  In context, Jesus is involved in a dispute with the Pharisees about whether He has to follow their made-up human traditions.  That doesn’t concern us this morning.

What does, though, is the way that Jesus speaks of the Scriptures during his rebuttal of the Pharisees.  In v. 4, He quotes from two passages of the Law of Moses, Exodus 20:12 and Exodus 21:17.  Then, He describes them in a particular way.  In v. 3, He calls them “the commandment of God”.  In v. 6, He calls them, “the word of God”.

That’s extremely significant.  Let me explain why.  I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God.  My belief is a reasoned, logical belief, and I’m happy to explain why I believe to anyone who asks.  In fact, that’s what I’m doing right now.

However, my reasoned belief is all I have.  It’s a conclusion that is not based on my own direct observation.  I can see Shawn in his office working on a sermon.  However, neither I nor anyone else could have seen the Holy Spirit inspiring Paul to write the book of Romans.

All that, though, is not true of Jesus.  When Jesus describes the Scriptures as the word of God, that’s not a statement of faith.  He knows, and He would not have hesitated to call the Scriptures out as a fraud if they were.  However, when the Son of God endorses the Bible as the word of God, that’s straight from the horse’s mouth.  That’s something we must accept.

The final part of the argument is that IF THE BIBLE IS GOD’S WORD, IT IS RELIABLE.  Look at the statement that God makes in Isaiah 55:10-11.  I believe that this is true because God said it, but even if He hadn’t said it, I think it’s nothing more than common sense. 

Even if we know nothing else about God, we know from this lesson that He is powerful enough and rational enough to raise someone from the dead.  The resurrection reveals God as a purposeful, intentional being.

If that’s who God is, the word tells us what His purpose is.  Unless the New Testament has been mangled beyond comprehension, that purpose is clear.  God sent Jesus to earth to die for our sins so that those who believe in Him and are faithful to Him could inherit eternal life.  That’s not from one verse.  That’s from hundreds of them.

However, if God allows the gospel to be perverted and destroyed, His purpose can no longer be accomplished.  If there are all kinds of errors and falsehoods in the Bible, we can no longer rely on it to learn what God has done for us and what we ought to do for Him.  Under those circumstances, the Bible would be about as useful a guide to heaven as a road map would be if it told us to get to Nashville by heading south.  In both cases, no one would ever arrive.

That makes no sense.  Why would God go to all that trouble to raise Jesus and then allow the gospel of the risen Savior to be corrupted into uselessness?  The point is that we don’t have to take the skeptical view of the Bible that we took in the first point of this lesson.  In fact, we shouldn’t. 

Once we see that even a skeptic’s Bible proves the resurrection, the resurrection opens the door for revelation and miracles and Bible authority and everything else.  In addition to everything else that Jesus proved when He rose from the grave, He proved that we can rely on the Scriptures too. 

Resurrection Objections

Monday, April 22, 2019


Last week, we turned our attention to a book called The Case for the Resurrection, by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona.  This book undertakes to establish the resurrection as a historical fact by using only evidence accepted by a scholarly consensus to prove its point.  In particular, Habermas and Licona rely on five “minimal facts” to build their argument.  These five facts are that (1) Jesus died on the cross, (2) the early disciples believed they had seen the risen Jesus, (3) James the Lord’s brother believed that he had seen the risen Jesus, (4) Paul believed he had seen the risen Jesus, and (5) the tomb was empty.  Though none of these facts are persuasive on their own, together they support the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead.

However, for centuries, scholars have been attempting to come up with a naturalistic, non-supernatural explanation for these facts.  I agree that if one of these explanations fits the facts as neatly as the resurrection does, we should accept it.  After all, we generally think that natural explanations are preferable to supernatural ones.  It’s important that we explore these alternatives in good faith, so this morning, let’s consider objections to the resurrection.

There simply isn’t time this morning to examine all the possible alternate theories, so we’re only going to hit the most common ones.  Of these, the first is that the resurrection account is A NON-HISTORICAL STORY of some kind:  a legend, a parable, or a myth.  Maybe all 1 Corinthians is saying is that the disciples thought Jesus was still alive in their hearts.

When we test this theory against our five minimal facts, though, it doesn’t score very well.  It’s consistent with Jesus’ death on the cross, but it isn’t consistent with any of the others.  To illustrate, let’s look again at 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.  This is not the language of a parable or a myth.  This is the language of a truth claim.  Paul is asserting that these people really saw Jesus after he rose from the dead. 

In particular, look at v. 6.  Here, Paul says that Jesus appeared to 500 people at one time, some of whom have died, but most of whom remain alive.  If this is only a parable, why would Paul bother saying that?  A parable is just as valuable whether it comes from the lips of its originator or not.  The fact that these people were still around only matters because Paul is offering them as living eyewitnesses of a historical resurrection.

Likewise, it is not at all clear that a legend or a parable can account for the dramatic life changes in James and Paul.  Both James and Saul of Tarsus were exposed to plenty of Christian teaching, but none of it converted them.  Why would one more story do the trick when so many hadn’t?

Finally, the argument that this is a non-historical story cannot account for the evidence of the very historical empty tomb.  If Jesus died and stayed dead, His body would have stayed there.  Generally, as explanations go, this one is extremely unsatisfying.

Next, let’s consider the argument that SOMEBODY STOLE THE BODY.  Maybe it was the disciples; maybe it was the gardener whom Mary Magdalene blames in John 20.  Regardless, somebody took it.  

This one scores a little bit better than the story hypothesis.  It satisfies two of our minimal facts:  that Jesus died and that the tomb was empty.  However, it founders on the sincere conviction of those who claimed to be eyewitnesses.  As we’ve learned, neither the early disciples, James, nor Paul sincerely believed only that the tomb was empty.  Instead, they were convinced that Jesus appeared to them after His death.  That’s a very different thing.

In fact, if we look only at the fact of the empty tomb itself, nobody in any of the accounts seems to think it’s very convincing.  Even among the disciples, the only one who believes because of the empty tomb is John.  For an example of a much more common reaction, let’s look at John 20:11-13.  Now, scholars are certainly skeptical about the historicity of this account.  Typically, the only thing they will use it for is to suggest the gardener as a potential body-snatcher. 

However, it certainly does represent the way that early Christians thought.  Here, Mary sees the empty tomb, sees angels sitting inside it, and still concludes that somebody has stolen the body!  Isn’t that what we would think if one of our loved ones died and the body vanished from the funeral home?  None of us would jump to the conclusion that the loved one had risen from the dead.  Generally, the disciples also found the empty tomb by itself unconvincing, to the point where it isn’t even mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15.

Third, let’s evaluate the APPARENT DEATH hypothesis, also called the swoon theory.  According to this way of thinking, Jesus only passed out on the cross, woke up three days later, rolled away the stone, and appeared to the disciples.

This one also doesn’t score real well.  It only explains the phenomenon of the empty tomb.  Obviously, if Jesus only fainted on the cross, He didn’t die on it.  However, the participants 2000 years ago:  the disciples, Jesus’ family, the Roman guard, the chief priests, and Pontius Pilate, believed that He did.  The Romans certainly knew how to crucify people and make sure they were dead!

Second, this explanation is implausible on its face.  It’s asking us to believe that Jesus, sleepless, brutally beaten, crucified, in such bad shape that He passes out, and left in a tomb for 36 hours without food or water, somehow wakes up, uses His crucified hands to roll away the heavy stone from inside the tomb, and limps to safety on His crucified feet.  Basically, in an attempt to deny a miracle, the proponents of this theory are asking us to believe in a different miracle!

Finally, why would the appearance of this wreck of a human being convince anyone that He had risen from the dead?  Even granting all of the above, if Jesus manages to stagger into the upper room, none of the eyewitnesses would think He had risen from the dead.  Instead, they would correctly conclude that He actually hadn’t died yet. 

Similarly, this does nothing to explain either James or Paul.  James wasn’t going to be convinced because his false-prophet brother survived an execution attempt.  Nor would Saul of Tarsus, upon encountering a healed-up Jesus two years later, conclude that this meant that Jesus rose from the dead.  This hypothesis simply isn’t useful in explaining the facts.

Our fourth alternate hypothesis is HALLUCINATION.  According to this argument, all of the post-resurrection appearances of the Lord were the result of the disciples seeing things that weren’t there, perhaps as a result of the strain of bereavement. 

In order to evaluate this argument, we first have to distinguish between an illusion and a hallucination.  An illusion is when the human senses misapprehend something that is actually there.  For instance, probably all of us have seen heat shimmer on a blacktop road in the summertime that looks like water.  Because the illusion is based on something physical, multiple people can see it at the same time.

However, that’s not true when it comes to hallucinations.  Hallucinations aren’t based on anything real; instead, they occur entirely within someone’s mind.  As a result, there is no such thing as a group hallucination.  There is no known mechanism for transmitting a hallucination from brain to brain.  Even if people in the same place are hallucinating at the same time, they will hallucinate different things. 

This is a big problem for the hallucination argument.  As we’ve discussed, many of the experiences of the risen Lord were group experiences.  Whatever the 500 saw, it certainly wasn’t a group hallucination. 

Second, most people who hallucinate subsequently recognize that what they saw wasn’t real.  Only people with a predisposition to believe in the hallucination will continue to believe.  However, none of the people on our minimal-fact list had this predisposition.  Skeptic James didn’t.  Persecutor Paul didn’t. 

Even the early disciples didn’t.  Look, for instance, at Luke 24:10-11.  Once again, the principle of embarrassment comes into play here.  Early Christians intent on convincing others to believe in Jesus aren’t going to say that even the founders of the movement were skeptical and believed reluctantly!  That is, unless it’s true.  The same men who dismissed the story of the women at the tomb would also have dismissed a hallucination—correctly—as “seeing things”.  Finally, of course, hallucination can’t explain the absence of Jesus’ body from the empty tomb.

Our final attempt to explain away the resurrection is A COMBINATION of theories.  This approach attempts to pair theories with each other in order to overcome the weaknesses of each.  Thus, persons unknown stole the body, the early disciples hallucinated that they had seen Jesus, and Paul became a Christian because he wanted to gain control of a new religious sect.  All the evidence is explained, and we don’t have to be Christians!  Hooray!

However, there are two serious problems with the combination approach.  The first of these is that in addition to inheriting the strength of its component parts, it also inherits their weaknesses.  If the evidence doesn’t support the contention that Paul converted because of his lust for power (and it doesn’t), then the whole theory fails.

Second, the whole exercise has the flavor of ad hoc hypothesizing about it.  This is what people do when a hypothesis they like is falsified by contrary evidence.  Rather than rejecting the falsified hypothesis, they add another hypothesis to it that addresses the contrary evidence.  No matter the amount of contradiction, this is a process that can go on indefinitely.

Let me give you an example.  Let’s say we’re in high school, and I have a crush on a cute girl.  I tell you, “I think she likes me.” 

You reply, “Actually, she just went out with George last weekend.” 

At this point, my hypothesis has been falsified, but I don’t want to accept that, so I say, “She just went out with him because of her friends.” 

You answer, “Actually, they can’t stand him.”  Falsification Number Two. 

I say, “Oh, they just pretend like that in front of you.”

You see how it works?  As long as I want to cling to my original belief, I will always be able to manufacture one more reason to do so.  Similarly, people who want to deny the resurrection will always be able to manufacture one more reason to do so (sometimes flatly goofy stuff like “Jesus had a twin brother!”), even though the resurrection has vastly more explanatory power than any alternative theory, and even though the resurrection has all kinds of evidence supporting it and the alternatives have none.

What’s really going on here is that the combination-theory folks are committed to a philosophical belief in naturalism, so they will deny supernatural events like the resurrection, regardless of the evidence.  Let’s not be like them, friends.  Let’s follow the evidence wherever it leads, and it leads to Jesus as Lord.

Summaries, Ecclesiastes 6-10

Monday, April 22, 2019


Ecclesiastes 6 begins with a comparison of two apparently pitiable people:  a man who is greatly blessed by God, yet does not enjoy his blessings, and a stillborn child.  According to Solomon, the second is better.  Next, he points out that both toil and wisdom are ultimately meaningless, and that what we can see is better than what we desire.  The chapter concludes with more observations about the difficulty we have in comprehending human existence.

Ecclesiastes 7 opens with several observations about the importance of learning from sorrow and death.  Solomon next endorses wisdom and patience.  Don’t try to figure everything out, enjoy blessing, and learn from adversity.  He next explores both the dangers of wickedness and of (human) righteousness.  He endorses a balanced, wise perspective on life.  However, he acknowledges that even his wisdom is not enough to seek out the deep meaning of life.  He wraps up the chapter with a warning about being entrapped by women.

Ecclesiastes 8 first praises wisdom and its advantages.  Then, it encourages obedience to the king and patience waiting on proper procedure.  After all, we are powerless in the face of many other things as well.  Solomon next considers the fate of the hypocrite.  He points out that it ultimately will be well with the righteous, but not with the wicked, regardless of how things look now.  Nonetheless, he observes that on earth, sometimes people get what they don’t deserve, both for good and evil.  The proper response to this is to enjoy the good things that we are given, while not wearying ourselves trying to figure out the ultimate purposes of God.

Ecclesiastes 9 points out that no matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, the same thing happens to all of us:  we die.  There are two appropriate responses to this:  first, enjoy prosperity and your life with your spouse.  Second, do the best you can in the time you have been given, because the day is coming when you won’t be able to do anything.  Looming over all our efforts, though, is chance.  The best at anything still can be betrayed by bad luck.  In the final portion of the chapter, Solomon relates a story about a poor man who saved a city but was forgotten.  Nonetheless, it’s still better to be poor, wise, and forgotten than a ruler who is loud, obnoxious, and possibly even sinful.

Ecclesiastes 10 advocates wisdom and patience.  Those who are impulsive and foolish will be destroyed by it.  Sometimes, though, the undeserving are elevated and the deserving abased.  Trouble comes along with every work we do, but wisdom can alleviate (though not eliminate) the problem.  The fool makes his own life miserable in any number of ways.  Finally, a land benefits from wise rulers and is destroyed by foolish ones.  All the same, don’t curse the king, even in private.  You’ll get found out!

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