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Pessimism and the Future of the Church

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

 

On my recent week-plus swing through Texas, I shared a number of meals with and otherwise talked to a number of old friends.  One of the themes of those conversations was pessimism about the future of the Lord’s church, at least in the United States. 

Admittedly, reasons for such a bleak outlook seem abundant.  Day by day, our nation appears to be growing more wicked and less tolerant of genuine Christianity.  A greater percentage than ever before of children “raised in the church” are leaving it.  Attendance is declining nationwide.  Et cetera, et cetera.

Despite all the gloomy statistics, though, I’m not convinced that the gloom is warranted.  First of all, human beings are rotten at predicting the future.  Whatever you think the world is going to be like 20 years from now, you’re almost certainly going to be wrong.  In the past 20 years, which is not all that much time as history goes, the United States has had to endure 9-11, the War on Terror, the Great Recession, and the celebrity of the Kardashians. 

The 20 years to come will hold just as many surprises, both bad and good, and anybody who tries to predict the future by extrapolating current trends is foolish.  Where will that leave the church?  Who knows!

Second, if we think the world is going to wrack and ruin, we have lots of company among God’s people in the Bible.  Some of the godly gloom-and-doomers are obvious:  Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and a host of other prophets.  Some, though, are less so.  In Psalm 12:1, David writes, “Help, Lord, for the godly man ceases to be, for the faithful disappear from among the sons of men!”  Yes, that David—the one who was about to lead Israel to the pinnacle of its righteousness and historical attainments.

Similarly, Paul has to argue in Romans 9:6, “It is not as though the word of God has failed.”  Why?  Precisely because it appeared that the word of God had failed!  Paul had seen the people of God—the Jews—reject the Anointed of God en masse.  We think of the first century as a time of tremendous success, but that’s not how it looked to the Jewish brethren alive then.  To them, it seemed as if God’s great purpose had been defeated.  Only the Holy Spirit could reveal that all along, God had been aiming at another purpose altogether.

So too today.  It may be that our purposes—for our country, for our churches, for our families—are being defeated.  However, God’s purpose is not being defeated.  I believe that He is as active in history as He ever has been, but His work today is unknowable. 

Perhaps we are on the cusp of a spiritual renaissance in this country, and God will be glorified in that.  Perhaps He is using our riches to establish first-century Christianity across the globe, and He will be glorified in that.  Perhaps He is waiting until the iniquity of the American has become full to come in judgment against us, and yes, He will be glorified in that too. 

The future is uncertain.  The victory of God is not.  We don’t have to worry about what tomorrow will bring because He’s got it under control.  Literally. 

Instead, our place is to work, not grow weary, and not lose heart.  Whatever God’s purposes may be, we know that they will always provide a place for those who hold fast to Him.

Understanding Bible Translations

Monday, February 04, 2019

 

The last time I took the pulpit here, I preached on how to step up in our Bible reading.  Much to my surprise, the part of it that attracted the most discussion afterwards was a brief comment about the translations I recommended for reading.  Lauren said there were a bunch of folks furiously scribbling down acronyms, and I had several conversations afterward about it.  One of those conversations was with Dr. Clifford, who encouraged me to preach on translations, so here I am!

Even though this sermon is not going to be about any particular Biblical text, it’s still going to be about the Bible.  After all, our faith is founded on the premise that we can read and understand the word of God for ourselves.  However, few if any of us can read the Scriptures in the original languages, so we have to rely on translations for spiritual understanding..  How reliable are they?  This evening, then, let’s see what we need to know about understanding Bible translations.

First, let’s ask WHAT A TRANSLATION IS.  This might surprise some, but I’ve seen a lot of confusion in this area from brethren, and it begins with the difference between a translation and a paraphrase.  A translation is taken from the original languages, but a paraphrase begins with an English Bible. 

Also, translation or paraphrase has nothing to do with perceived faithfulness to the text.  Let me give you an example.  Some years ago, I preached a sermon out of the NIV, and after the sermon, one of the elders of the congregation came up to me and commented on my use of a paraphrase in the pulpit.  I told him, “That’s not true.  The NIV is a translation,” which it is.  However, he still didn’t take the point.

This is important because even though there are paraphrases on the market—things like The Living Bible and the Message—most of the options we’re presented with are translations.  With the exception of a few that were translated by people with an agenda, they are good-faith efforts to make the word of God available to people who only read English.  We don’t have any perfect translations of the Bible, and some translations are better than others, but just about all of them can teach us the truth.

Despite this, there are people who try to stir up strife about translations, and most of them are people who believe that only the King James Version is the word of God.  They’re very active on social media, and they use memes like this one to cast doubt on other translations.  The NIV leaves out verses??? That must be pretty bad, right?

Actually, no.  This isn’t evidence of some subversive plot by atheists.  Instead, it’s about the manuscript evidence on which translation is based.  There weren’t as many good manuscripts available when the KJV was translated, so the translators concluded from limited evidence that those passages belonged in the Bible.  However, by the time the NIV was translated, many more manuscripts had been discovered, and its translators decided from better evidence that those passages should be excluded.  In my opinion, the NIV is right to leave those verses out!

This takes us to a discussion of TRANSLATION PHILOSOPHY.  I think if you asked most Christians what they want in a Bible translation, they would say something like, “I want a Bible that says what the original manuscripts say.”  The problem is that it’s not that easy.  Translation isn’t like solving a mathematical equation.  There is not a single right answer in every instance. 

The first way that translators have tackled the problem of saying what the text says is with word-for-word translation.  If there’s a word in Greek, the translator chooses the best English word available to represent it.  This approach tends to appeal to brethren, but there’s a problem. The languages of the Bible, like all languages, are idiomatic.  They use figures of speech.  Most of the time, if you translate an idiom literally, the result is confusion rather than enlightenment. 

Let me give you an example.  In 1 Thessalonians 4:4, Paul talks about knowing “how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor”.  I realize that I’m speaking to an audience of hardcore Bible students.  Many of you probably recall studying this text and drawing your own conclusion about the meaning of “vessel”.

However, imagine that you’re coming to the text for the first time.  Possessing one’s own vessel is a Greek idiom, but it isn’t an English one.  I would guess that if you grabbed somebody off the street and asked them to interpret 1 Thessalonians 4:4, they would probably think you were talking about a jar!

As a result, all Bible translations will, to varying degrees, also use a thought-for-thought approach.  They will tell you what they think the text means rather than what it says.  For instance, in 1 Thessalonians 4:4, the ESV takes a thought-for-thought approach and says “control his own body”, which makes a whole lot more sense to the average English speaker.  The danger, of course, is that the translators will be wrong about the meaning of the text, and the more this approach is employed, the more likely they are to be wrong.

With this in mind, let’s consider some DIFFERENT TRANSLATIONS.  When it comes to translations with which brethren are most familiar, the KJV, NKJV, NASB, and ESV are more toward the word-for-word part of the spectrum, the NLT is over toward the thought-for-thought side, and the CSB and the NIV are tweeners.

Once again, there are no wrong answers here, but of those translations, I prefer three of them:  the NKJV, the ESV, and the CSB.  Much of this has to do with publisher support.  I trust Crossway, which publishes the ESV, and Holman, which publishes the NKJV and CSB, to put out a quality product.

However, there are also things that I like about each translation too.  Let’s start with the oddball, the CSB.  Because of its translation philosophy, it reads much differently than what we’re used to.  For instance, look at the way the CSB renders Romans 8:6.  I really like this.  Rather than forcing a Greek idiom into English, it uses an English idiom to explain the Greek.  However, I decided not to adopt the CSB because it’s too different.  If I used it from the pulpit, everyone following along in their NASB’s, KJV’s, and NKJV’s would constantly be doing doubletakes.

At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the NKJV, which is, unsurprisingly, a lot like the old KJV.  Here’s the NKJV rendering of Romans 8:6 by way of comparison.  I like the NKJV, and I’ve used it as a preaching Bible before.  However, it has the same limited textual basis as the old KJV and, like the old KJV, it includes a number of verses that I don’t think should be in the Bible.  That’s not a huge deal; it doesn’t materially affect the meaning.  However, it’s enough to lead me to look elsewhere.

That leads me to my weapon of choice, the ESV.  Here is the ESV take on Romans 8:6.  I use the ESV because it’s such a good all-rounder.  Its translators used all the best manuscripts, it reads more smoothly than the NASB, and it’s better for precise study than the NIV.  Like every translation, it has renderings that I don’t like, but all in all, I think it’s a strong contender for a Christian’s go-to Bible.

The Son of Man in Psalm 8

Friday, February 01, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unlike many of its neighbors in the early part of Psalms, Psalm 8 is an apparently straightforward song of praise to God.  In vs. 1-2, it points out His power, revealed both in the glories of creation and in His exaltation of the lowly over the wicked.

The key question of the psalm appears in vs. 3-4.  Given that God is so great, why does He have any regard for mankind ("the son of man" in v. 4), which is much less important than He is?  The rest of the psalm points out that God's regard is evident in His blessings.  He has made mankind the most exalted of the earthly beings, crowning us with glory and honor, and given us dominion over all other earthly creatures.

Makes sense, right?  However, in Hebrews 2, the writer reveals that the psalm has a hidden meaning.  It isn't only about the lower-case-s son of man, us.  It's about the capital-s Son of Man, Jesus.  Even though Jesus was not originally lower than the angels, He was made to be so.  

Like us, He tasted mortality, but after His death, He was crowned with glory and honor and given dominion not only over the creatures of the earth, but over all of God's creation.  However, we still await the time when everything will be put under His feet.  Death has yet to be subjected to Him.

All of this might seem like a subversion of Psalm 8's original point, but in truth it confirms it.  It is ultimately Jesus' death on our behalf, not our earthly preeminence, that proves how much God cares for us.  In Hebrews 2:10, the writer observes that Jesus brought many sons to glory.  Our salvation is the greatest way that God crowns us with glory and honor, all by causing His Son to become one of us and die for us.

In response to this, we can only echo Psalm 8's closing thoughts:  "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!"

 

Stepping Up in Bible Reading

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

 

Nearly every gospel preacher on the planet, including both Shawn and me, will advocate reading the Bible on a regular, ideally daily, basis.  Most Christians will agree that, yes, it would be good for them spiritually if they were to carry a Bible-reading program to its conclusion.  However, I suspect that most Christians never have managed to read the Bible cover-to-cover despite those good intentions.

If that’s you, don’t feel bad about that, so long as you intend to do better this year.  Though it seems simple, sticking with a Bible-reading program is quite difficult.  I myself didn’t manage it until 2013, despite having preached the gospel for nearly 10 years by then.  In the years since, though, I’ve read through the Bible at least one time every year, and I’ve learned a few things about reading along the way.  This morning, I’d like to share them with you so that all of us can step up in Bible reading.

First, I’d like to discuss the importance of CHOOSING THE RIGHT BIBLE.  I don’t think this is something that most Christians think about, but the Bible we select to do our reading has everything to do with how successful we will be.  For instance, at home, I’ve got this awful purple fake-leather KJV Bible that’s printed on what feels like copier paper in 7-point type.  Yes, it’s the Bible.  It contains all 66 books from Genesis to Revelation.  However, if you wanted to read that thing cover-to-cover, you’d have to have the patience of Job!

The Bible we use to read matters a lot, and my guess is that a lot of Christians fail in their Bible-reading resolutions because they aren’t reading out of a Bible that’s right for them.  My suggestion, then, if you want to get serious about it, is to buy a Bible specifically for reading.  Don’t try to cheap out.  Don’t try to do your reading on your phone.  I suspect that most people who start out doing daily Bible readings on their phones end up doing a daily Facebook reading!  It’s too tempting.

Instead, go to the nearest big Lifeway or other Bible bookstore and spend some solid time looking for a Bible that’s right for you.  I recommend paying particular attention to Bibles in the ESV, NKJV, and CSB translations.  Those are all translations that are good for reading, and they are well supported by publishers that turn out a quality product.

When you’re out Bible-shopping, don’t judge the book by its box.  Actually take those Bibles out there in the store and spend a few minutes reading a page or two in each one.  Pay attention to whether the print is comfortable for your eyes.  Ask yourself if the Bible feels right in your hand.  I myself read out of a genuine-leather Bible rather than a polyurethane Bible because I like the way it feels.  Does it have a whole bunch of references that you find distracting?  Go through this process with a couple dozen Bibles, pick the one you love, and buy it.  Whatever it costs you, successfully completing a reading program will be worth far more.

Second, if we want to succeed in our Bible-reading, we have to UNDERSTAND THE PURPOSE OF READING.  To illustrate what I mean by this, I’d like to look at two different passages from the book of Acts:  Acts 8:27-31 and Acts 17:11.  Both of these texts involve the Bible, but they are not about the same activity. 

Let’s start with the Bereans.  Notice that Luke doesn’t say they’re reading the Scriptures.  He says they’re examining the Scriptures.  In other words, this is a text about Bible study rather than Bible reading, and study and reading are not the same thing.  The Bereans are trying to answer a particular question, and they’re devoting a lot of effort to their search.  These things, focus and intensity, are characteristic of study.

Reading, by contrast, isn’t like that.  Look at the eunuch back in Acts 8.  He doesn’t have the word open for any particular reason.  He’s just killing time on his way back to Ethiopia.  Similarly, his consideration of the word isn’t that intense.  He doesn’t understand what he’s reading, but he’s OK with not understanding, and if Philip hadn’t shown up, he would have gone on not understanding.

In the church, I think we have a firm handle on Bible study, but I don’t think we understand Bible reading.  As a result, brethren approach Bible reading in the same way that they do Bible study.  They’re very intense with the text.  They try to figure out every little nuance.  They may even have a system of marking up the text with colored pencils as they go. 

Now, that’s all well and good, but the problem is that it’s exhausting!  Christians who start this way will often end up with a Bible that’s 10 percent marked up and 90 percent unread.  Their intensity defeats their purpose.

Instead, I find that for me, Bible reading is a lot more passive.  I’m not trying to outline the text or figure out everything; instead, I’m simply listening to what God has to say to me.  Whatever I get out of it is what I get out of it.  If I come to something I don’t understand, I make a mental note of it and move on. 

If you want to get through our reading program this year, then, don’t try to study your way through it.  Read your way through it.  It’s a lot less demanding, and I think you’ll find that it’s much easier to maintain.

Finally, we will be much more likely to succeed in our Bible-reading plans if we READ REGULARLY.  Consider the psalmist’s attitude toward the word in Psalm 119:20.  He doesn’t want to encounter God’s law yearly or monthly.  He wants it to be a constant part of his life.

I think all of us want that too.  Well, if we don’t, we have spiritual problems that are beyond the scope of what this sermon can fix!  We want to be in the word daily, but then life intervenes.  We get really busy at work, one of the kids gets sick, or we just plain lose focus, and the next time we look up, we’re two months behind.  “Oh, well,” we say to ourselves.  “Guess I might as well wait till 2020 to take another crack at it.”  What we want doesn’t end up being what we do.

However, with a little bit of thought, we can make what we want into what we do.  Some of this starts with timing.  For all of us, there is an optimal time to read:  maybe in the morning, maybe on our lunch break, maybe right before bed.  For me, since I’m a morning person, first thing in the morning is my ideal time.  Whatever it is, we need to figure it out and read then.  If we do that long enough, the habit will become ingrained.

Second, we need reminders.  I started off by getting a daily email notification.  Now, I’ve printed off reading plans for both of my Bible reading schedules and check off readings as I do them.  If that doesn’t work, maybe we need stronger behavioral cues.  For instance, it might help if every night, you sat your Bible down on top of your TV remote or your phone.  Want to check your messages?  Want to watch something?  You have to read first!  Things like this sound silly, but in reality, they can help us tremendously in reaching our spiritual goals.

Gillette Ads and the Truth

Friday, January 18, 2019

 

Let me begin with some general observations about the nature of truth.  Contra both Pontius Pilate and many in our society, I believe in objective truth.  For me, this conviction follows naturally from my faith in the capital-T Truth.  If God is, then light and darkness, right and wrong, and truth and falsehood also are.  Something is either true or it isn’t.  Binary.  On-off.

If something is true, it is true regardless of source or context.  If my best friend is praising some attribute of mine and he’s correct, that’s the truth.  If he comes to me in love and correctly points out a mistake I’ve made, that’s truth too. 

For that matter, if my worst enemy on the planet (whoever that might be) publicly denounces some flaw of mine, with 100 percent evil intentions, ignoring all the bad things he’s done to me, guess what?  My enemy has told the truth.  Maybe the conclusions that he wants others to draw from the truth aren’t justified.  However, his enmity does not give me the right to deny or ignore my flaw.

I think most brethren are on board so far, so let’s start talking about the Gillette commercial that has engendered so much controversy recently.  First of all, like any business that sells ads, Gillette’s motives are entirely commercial.  They don’t care about morality or cultural change.  They want to sell razors, and if acting like they care about the values of others will sell razors, that’s what they’ll do. 

In Gillette’s eyes, if this ad campaign sells more razors and does not change the bad behavior of one bully or sexual harasser, it will have been a success.  If it makes America a better place and does not sell more razors, it will have been a failure.  Them’s the facts, and criticizing Gillette for that is like criticizing a vulture for eating carrion.

I think too that the ad is meant to take sides in the culture wars.  It is meant to appeal to those who seek to minimize, de-masculinize, and diminish men.  The ongoing destruction of the two-parent family is both cause and effect here. 

Furthermore, the ad focuses on bad behavior by males while ignoring bad behavior by females.  If you don’t think that junior-high girls can be even more vicious bullies than junior-high boys, you’ve got another think coming.

Having said all that, you know what?  Everything in that commercial was true.  Far too many men have behaved badly for far too long, “Christian” and non-Christian alike.  They have taken advantage of their power to exploit and abuse those who are weaker.  It continues to be a serious problem to this day.  Bullying, sexual harassment, and worse are rampant.

I don’t care who calls that out as wrong.  It’s wrong.  Every last one of us knows that the Bible condemns both that behavior and the heart that lies behind it.

If we deny that, if we reject or minimize the truth because of its source and its context, if we focus on the motives rather than the message (Philippians 1:15-18 notwithstanding), we have lost the right to claim that we are defenders of truth.  In fact, we have become every bit as post-modern as those we oppose.

Truth doesn’t belong to us.  Truth doesn’t belong to them.  Truth belongs to God.  Either we acknowledge it, or we don’t.

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