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Written by: C. W. Booth

April 5, 2007

Good Friday, Easter, Passover, and Celebrations

Earlier this week my family and I celebrated Passover with a "representative" Seder.We invited several other families, with whom we are close, to also attend (sadly, two of the families had to cancel due to illness--in this we greatly sympathize and empathize).

We have been celebrating Passover in this manner almost every year for nearly two decades, I believe.It is not a matter of law, moral necessity, or guilt that motivates us.We simply were astounded when we first came to see the prophetic symbolism which God had built into both the historic event in Egypt over 4000 years ago and in the ceremonial meal that commemorates that event.It does so greatly move us every time, and we are so very much edified each year we choose to celebrate.And it brings us great joy to watch others experience it for the first time, and to watch the expressions on their faces when they begin to connect the symbolism with their Christian theology.

To the end that others may desire to experience this for themselves, my wife and I have posted the "representative" ceremony, meal instructions, and recipes in an article: http://thefaithfulword.org/seder.html

We call it "representative" because the abbreviated version we have adapted lasts only 45 minutes (instead of 4 hours), does not strictly follow the Haggadah, and the food may not be entirely kosher.Therefore, it is not an actual Seder, but a representative Seder.Still, we feel it gives a good sense of the rite and the meaning of the symbolism embraced by Jewish families around the world every year.

For those who may be bothered by the implications of imprecisely replicating a feast which originates in Old Testament Law, I have attempted to lay out a few explanations in a set of FAQs:http://thefaithfulword.org/passoverfaqs.html

Surely, such an experience will not suit everyone, but for those whom it does, have a blessed and meaningful Passover, Good Friday, and Easter.Christ has risen!He has risen indeed!

 

April 10, 2007

What Characterizes a Mature Reader?

A week ago, a Solomon Islands resident of limited means stood on the beach with his family, watching the water retreat from around his feet. Then he saw the family dogs dart off the beach and into the nearby hillside. Noting these signs, he became alarmed and shouted for everyone to leave the beach and run into the hills. His family along with one other heeded his urgent words. Devastating tsunami waves broke over the beach, swept away his house with the others, and killed dozens. The man and his family watched dumbfounded from the hillside.

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Today I received an email from a friend describing how an acquaintance, known to be a mature Christian, approaches the task of reading Christian writings. The acquaintance excels at "looking for the truthful nuggets in otherwise not very good books." In this way, the person feels they are fulfilling Philippians 4:8, to dwell on whatever is true, honorable, right, and pure.

Simply stated, they either ignore the errors, or they miss identifying the errors completely because they are so focused on only finding the good. As an outcome of that approach, such readers of Christian writings never have anything negative to say about any book or any writer, no matter the depths of unorthodoxy into which the author may have slipped. When asked about any specific book, they respond, "Oh, it was very good, I learned this, that, and the other thing. You can learn a lot from reading it yourself."

Were we called to ignore error and focus only on the good, perhaps that would be an acceptable approach. However, in every book of the New Testament (except Philemon), we are admonished to identify good teaching and to recognize bad teaching (1 Timothy 4:6-7). We are warned to shun bad teaching (1 Timothy 6:3-5). We are commanded to rebuke bad teachers (2 Timothy 4:2). We are instructed to refute bad teaching (Titus 1:9). In fact, I am at a loss to recall any passage which calls us to cover up the bad doctrine of a teacher while at the same time commending only the good points he has made, "Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them" (Ephesians 5:11). Can one expose and refute, while simultaneously ignoring the existence of, bad doctrine?

Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matthew 10:16)

so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes. (2 Corinthians 2:11)

As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; (Ephesians 4:14)

We are never to be ignorant with regard to knowledge, but our behavior and thought lives should be innocent. We are to so have our spiritual senses trained that we are never tossed about on each new wave of doctrine that surges past. We do not pretend that waves of bad doctrine do not exist, but we see one coming because we have been trained to spot them, then we call to everyone, "Move out of the way, dangerous wave of doctrine coming!"

My own approach to discerning books and evaluating their usefulness can be described in these terms. When reading a book or a writing by any author, one must find the thesis statement. Many times the thesis statement is not what the author advertises it to be (remember that one can be tricked by one’s own heart, even an author, or, misdirection could be part of the "scheme"). If the thesis statement is biblically faulty, then that is a "bad book." In other words, the book’s main premise is a bad doctrine. Whatever tiny jewels of goodness may be found by digging through the mud are not worth the effort. Such books I do not ignore, but expose the improper doctrine for what it is, to warn others. Anything else would be both dishonest and unloving--the brethren, if we love them, deserve to be told the truth, and as our brothers in Christ, we should love them enough to warn them of unseen coming danger.

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My wife said, "But what if the man had been wrong, and he warned everyone on the beach to run into the hills…wouldn’t he be utterly embarrassed or even ridiculed?" "Yes," I replied, "that is always a possible consequence of offering others a warning." As I contemplated this, it dawned on me, one can apologize for making an honest mistake of issuing an invalid warning, and thus repair the damage, but if the danger is real, it is nearly impossible to repair the damage caused by ignoring it, and no amount of apologies will reach those carried off by the waves.

 

April 14, 2007

Reading Illustrations Aright

Reading with Discernment

In my April 10, 2007 blog, I divulged that I read books and other materials with a discerning eye. I try to write that way as well, literally praying over every essay, article, and posting which I author, beseeching the Lord that it would be an edifying piece, scripturally accurate, and glorifying to God. Further, I encourage all Christians to read with righteous discrimination, constantly judging the words and ideas to be true or false, and to know why.

Some readers have taken me at my word and applied discernment to an article which I wrote and placed on my website (http://thefaithfulword.org/salvation.html ). First, permit me to congratulate the readers who did this, for that is exactly how we ought to approach all Christian writing. Secondly, I would like to thank those who wrote, giving voice to their questions and objections. Once someone has found what seems to them to be a doctrinal error, they should feel obligated to do something with that information. Keeping it to themselves, and telling no one, does not edify or instruct anyone. Notifying the author, so as to confirm the error, or to correct the author, is an act of love.

Addressing the Issues: No Objection to the Thesis

Salvation was the theme of the article. All men need to be saved from their sins because all men stand condemned before God (since all have sinned) was the very thesis of the article. God alone calls men to repent, and God alone has paid the penalty by which men are forgiven their sins. With this proposition, too, no one raised any concerns.

What urged the questions and concerns was my employment of an illustration. Some concepts, such as mercy and grace, are often difficult to comprehend when one is first confronted with them. Illustrations can bring a new meaning to unfamiliar words. But illustrations derived from modern Western life are not generally found in the pages of Scripture, so they can cause a certain amount of consternation to sincere Christians. Though the theme, thesis, and propositions of the article were acceptable, the illustration left some feeling uneasy.

Responding to the Call

Christ has redeemed us. That is, He has bought us back from sin at the cost of sacrificing His own life; all the while He remains Creator, Master, Judge, and Lawgiver. An unbalanced exchange to be certain, given the scale on the one side holds my own poor soul, and on the other side the inestimable life of the innocent and holy Sovereign.

He has paid the cost for our intentional indiscretions, and far more. And He alone calls us to repentance. We do not call, we cannot call, for our spirits are dead already as the consequence of sin. The dead can do nothing of their own initiative.

Yet, He does call us. The call is irresistible. His call raises the dead. It cannot be refused. His gift cannot be dismissed. Once called, we respond. Called to what? How is it that we respond? Our response to His call is repentance, "I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:32). "Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you" (Acts 3:19-20).

Christ, our Redeemer, has ordained that repentance be our response, a response that is an integral aspect of the bestowing of undeserved forgiveness, "and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem’" (Luke 24:46-47).

Even the faith to believe and the desire to repent have been provided by God as a gift of grace toward our redemption, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8). We bring nothing to salvation but a spirit already dead and ineffectual. Yet, without repentance, dare we claim to be forgiven? "If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us" (1 John 1:8-10).

Confession (admitting the guilt of our sin) and repentance (a sorrowful turning of our behavior away from committing sin) are the very responses to which Christ has called us (Luke 5:32). If God has not enabled the response (confession and repentance), then it is clear that He has not issued the call, for the gift of the calling is irresistible grace. Grace sufficient to save is grace sufficient to evoke confession and repentance.

My Illustration

Many times spiritual truths can be made more comprehensible through the use of illustrations. Perhaps use of the word analogy is more appropriate. Human language may not seem to be perfect in its ability to communicate God’s transcendent truth, but it is the medium which He has decreed, therefore, it is sufficient. Often, analogies and illustrations help make clear some quite profound concepts.

Illustrations are often imperfect by definition. For they picture a concept only in part, they are not the concept itself. They permit a reality or a truth to be viewed from a perspective other than from the most usual manner. If it were not so, then illustrations would have no value. They allow an idea to be understood, to become more legible, by exchanging the less comprehensible concept for one that is more familiar and more readily absorbed, at the expense of a loss of precision.

To explain to the unsaved (who are least familiar with the ideas of grace and mercy) that God, who is Judge of all the Earth, forgives our sin, I invoked an illustration. That illustration is the plea bargain. A plea bargain, in our western society, is a legal technique by which a person may be granted a lesser sentence than their crimes deserve, but only if they confess their guilt, at least in part. Use of this illustration was meant to convey to sinners that they receive a full pardon (and no punishment) for all the guilty sins they have committed if they confess to being guilty, to being a sinner. A lack of willingness to confess means there will be no plea bargain agreement, and consequently no reduction of their punishment. The confession allows the legal system to apply whatever leniency the judge may choose.

Certainly, this is an imperfect illustration. Yet, the illustration is not meant to carry the full weight of explaining the entirety of the gospel, man’s sinfulness, God’s predestination choices, sovereignty, and grace. It is meant only to demonstrate that God does forgive and that man must repent. God calls, and man responds with repentance. God initiates the offer of a plea bargain and the criminal must admit his guilt so as to receive the benefit of the offered bargain. God is just to forgive us our sins when we confess and repent (1 John 1:9). Is God obligated to forgive if we have no response, no confession, or no repentance?

Here in the USA, plea bargains are readily understood. Especially by those who find themselves repeatedly carried into the judicial system as the consequence of their own actions. For this reason, to better reach those who are in most need of forgiveness (the unrepentant), I grabbed onto an analogy that would vividly reflect to the sinner the witness of the gospel which offers salvation, to "those who will," to those who are "called."

Properly Interpreting Illustrations

Misunderstanding illustrations, and how to apply illustrations, has led to many atrocious interpretations of Scripture over the years. Authoring illustrations is proper, as many inspired writers of the Word have used analogies, metaphors, parables, and illustrations to map commonplace concepts against eternal spiritual realities with the goal of explaining the spiritual by reflecting it against the corporeal, at least in part.

Paul and Isaiah used the metaphor of the potter and clay pottery to illustrate that God is sovereign and can do with humans whatever He desires to do. As wonderful as this illustration is, it is improper if one uses it to build a story beyond what was intended. For example, to lay claim that the potter is a businessman and makes his vessels to sell for profit on the open market is an abuse of the illustration, and misses the narrow point for which the story was told.

Similarly, when Jesus compared the faith and belief of His followers to being a flock of owned sheep, and that the sheep trusted the shepherd (John 10), He was using an analogy which relied on a shared human experience to illustrate an eternal spiritual truth. Yet, the illustration becomes abused if one attempts to extend its meaning beyond what was intended. Such an abusive example was found in the master’s thesis of one seminary student who used Jesus’ analogy to claim that Jesus assumed the sheep (His followers) to be "stupid" (as real sheep generally are) and in need of caretakers (pastors) "to make important decisions for them for their own good, such as who to marry or which profession to pursue." What a sad abuse of a valid illustration. Of course, all that Jesus meant was that sheep do not, and should not, trust strange masters, and thus, that His disciples do and should trust only Him for their ultimate spiritual guidance. The abusive expansion cited above results in a nearly opposite meaning for the illustration than was intended by the Lord when He uttered it.

Analogies and illustrations generally have but one specific point they are intended to illuminate. Stretching the illustration over other points not expressly intended to be covered by the original speaker of the illustration causes the result to be invalid and highly confusing. The fault is not in the analogy, but in how it is applied far beyond the one concept it was meant to visualize.

Certainly, the plea bargain analogy is imperfect in some regards, for it is a product of creative human thought. Yet, if it conveys the principle to a sinner-in-need that they can receive forgiveness but that they must confess their sinful guiltiness (and must therefore turn from committing sins--in other words, to truly convert), then the analogy has fulfilled the only intent for which it was constructed.

The difficulties some readers had with the plea bargain analogy had to do with attempting to apply the illustration to points which were beyond the scope of the illustration, and even the article. Two individuals wanted to apply the illustration in a way that made it appear that God was no longer sovereign. Another objection centered around using it to usurp the concept of total depravity. Yet, the illustration was never intended to say anything about those doctrines. It merely is a way of visualizing grace and mercy by likening it to a commonly occurring societal practice: an underserved remission of punishment when the accused comes to realize his guilt and confesses his culpability to the Judge.

God Outworks His Will through Human Action

Our human lives, thoughts, decisions, choices, and actions are the corporeal outworking of God’s sovereign intents and will. Through God’s mercy, perhaps, He will choose to see some attain the perfect knowledge of salvation (and for the dead spirit to cede to His irresistible call) through such a human endeavor as is represented by this mean analogy.

May we all be ready, in season and out of season, to communicate the gospel witness to those around us using the language and images common in our society. The Lord has put us into a culture different than the one in either the New or Old Testaments, using languages that are radically foreign to the ones spoken by the biblical authors. God’s ways are far beyond ours, yet, He has chosen to disclose the gospel to His chosen ones via ordinary speech from the lips and pens of the weak, foolish, and ignoble whom He has also called. In this season, I have chosen to attempt to speak the language of those around me using illustrations borrowed from their contemporary culture so as to communicate the ancient and unchanging truths that God has provided us in His Word.

 

April 20, 2007

Pick the Wrong Answer and Die, Oh, and There is No Right Answer

Imagine standing in the lobby at a very large church. Worshippers are wandering all around catching up on weekend relationships, children rushing by, and deacons tending to crowd control. Suddenly, several church elders walk up and proclaim in a loud voice, "Answer this question well and we’ll let you live, answer badly, and we’ll see to it that you are killed."

John 8:1-11 tells the story about Jesus being confronted by a trap at the hands of the temple officers. Now, it must be understood that this passage of Scripture is suspect, at least it probably was not an original part of the inspired Gospel of John. Yet, the encounter itself may actually have occurred and was written down by some observer other than John, and much later the story was incorporated into a copy of the gospel by a copyist. For the purposes of this discussion, we will assume the trap took place as recorded.

Essentially, the trap was meant to be a no-win contest for Jesus. The Pharisees came up with the situation and provided to Him the two answers from which He was to choose. Either answer He chose was guaranteed to lead to death for Himself.

A quick background to the trap must be established. Israel had been conquered by the Romans, who imposed their rule and law over top of the Jews, the Mosaic Law, and its theocratic government. One of the many laws the Romans imposed was that the Jews could not execute any person without a Roman court trial (John 18:31). Pilate, being the Roman governor in Jerusalem at the time, would have been the proper authorizing official.

If a Jew were to execute someone in the name of, and in compliance with, the Mosaic Law without getting the Roman governor to sign the order, that Jew would have been guilty of murder in the eyes of Rome. Rome did not treat murders pleasantly. Like it or not, Israel, the Jews, and the Pharisees were under Roman law.

The Pharisees found a woman in the act of committing adultery. Mosaic Law required execution by stoning (or strangulation for some types of adultery). Yet, if the Pharisees or Jesus pursued the Mosaic Law’s penalty against the adulterous woman, they would be guilty of murder, and would themselves be executed by Rome. On the other hand, if Jesus declined to endorse the Mosaic Law by stating that the Roman law forbade executions of this kind, then Jesus would have been charged with heresy by the Pharisees, and they would have actively prosecuted Him, perhaps all the way to Roman court, so as to execute Him. Either answer Jesus would have given would have resulted in His potential death.

Jesus chose neither of the two answers. Essentially, the Pharisees had improperly promoted Jesus to be a judge of the people and the Law. Jesus shrewdly recognized the trap, the faulty list of answers He was given to choose from, and that He was being placed in the judge’s chair. Jesus was not an elder (governing authority) in either Rome or Israel. Jesus had no earthly authority to judge lawsuits or to condemn men to death.

He responded, "Let those righteous ones among us be first to begin the execution of this woman, but only if they can do so without incurring on themselves the guilt and sin of murder by the very act of throwing the stones." Jesus knew that throwing the stones would make one guilty of murder under Roman law, and they would be innocent no more. By this wise answer, Jesus upheld the Law of Moses, acquiesced to the authority of Roman law (detestable as it was), and removed Himself from the judge’s seat.

Jesus did not answer in the manner that He did so as to bring an end to capital punishment for sinful actions, for Paul would later state (with the authority of the Christ) that the government’s use of deadly force is a legitimate exercise of God’s design in governmental rule. Nor was He accusing the Mosaic Law of being too harsh, for He was Himself its very author. Jesus did not come to overthrow the Romans, or to incite others to disobey secular law. He was certainly not born to dismantle the Mosaic Law (it would only become obsolete when He had resurrected and thus fulfilled the Law). He did not walk among men to act as judge over them for He held no official office.

As Messiah (God on Earth), Jesus came to save men from their sins. He came to teach, to call men to repentance, to proclaim the spiritual aspect of the Kingdom of God, to die as a sacrifice for the sin of mankind, to rise from the grave, and to fulfill the very Law of Moses.

Make no mistake about it. Now that Jesus has fulfilled His earthly mission and ascended to sit again with God, He has seated Himself in the judgment seat. All will bend the knee before Him someday. All will answer for their sins before Him someday. And He will exercise His mercy, proclaiming Himself to be our advocate as well as our judge, as the elect stand before Him on that day. We will not be judged for our sins, but be ushered into God’s eternal presence. The unrepentant sinners, the unbelievers, He will cast into Hell.

Then, one more time, He will act as judge over the elect, not for sins they committed, not for whether they have faith, but for the motives, actions, decisions, and thoughts they utilized as children of God on Earth. Our impure works will be burned, like straw on a raging inferno, and our pure works will emerge from which (metaphorically speaking) are forged crowns of praise to Christ. These crowns we will joyously set before the feet of Jesus, the author of our faith.

What lesson do we learn from the story of the Pharisees and the adulterous woman? While we live on Earth, we are subject to the laws of men (Romans 13:1-7) and the commandments of Christ (John 15:10). We must abide by both. If Jesus, the author of the Mosaic Law and the Law of Grace, was not above obedience to human institutions or God’s ordinances, then neither are we. When possible, we obey both.

At the end of the story, the Jewish officials realize that if they stone the woman (as the Mosaic Law requires), they will become murderers under Roman law, so they sheepishly and quietly slip away. No one is left to condemn the woman to death-by-stoning, except Jesus. Interestingly, we are not told that Jesus forgave her of her adultery. Of course, she did not confess her sins either. Yet, just as His earthly father had done with His mother, Mary (Matthew 1:19), Jesus looks at the unrepentant sinner and states, "I also am not going to condemn you to death," for He was not a valid judge of the land, but He was a valid savior of it.

Perhaps there is one additional abiding lesson here. Though not acting as judge (before His due time), He did act as prophet and evangelist. Jesus told the woman who was caught in sin, "Go, and sin no more." This imperative we must obey, and His example we must imitate.

April 28, 2007

Did Jesus Break the Law of the Sabbath when He Healed Others?

Having recently studied a book espousing a new way to conduct biblical hermeneutics (a review of which is a subject for a later date), I was surprised to find that some "serious Bible scholars" have concluded that Jesus did indeed break the Mosaic Law. Specifically, they assert that He disobeyed the divine law prohibiting working on the Sabbath.

Their logic operates something like this: Jesus said that He does the work of His Father (John 5:17, 5:26, 10:25, 14:10), and only does what He sees the Father doing (John 5:19). Therefore all His miracles and acts of ministry are His vocational work. When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, He was working at His vocation. His working caused Him to break the Sabbath law, a penalty which rightly called for the death penalty (Exodus 31:14-17).

How is it that Jesus was not executed for this alleged infraction, and, how is it that He is claimed to have been innocent of all sin--2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:22, 1 John 3:5--when, in His day, sin was considered anything that violated the Law and the Prophets? These scholars who have created this new hermeneutical approach, claim that because Jesus was deity in human form, He was incapable of sinning, therefore, anything He did (as Lord of the Sabbath) became holy at the very moment He did it. Laws on humanity were not, and should not, be considered binding on the King of Kings. As Lord of the Sabbath and Lord of the entire Law, He was free to amend the Law at any opportunity so as to further His work. In like manner, He is still free to do so today. So the logic goes.

Frankly, that is very faulty logic, bad theology, and poor scholarship. Jesus said His intent and His obligation was to teach and to obey even the smallest of the Laws and Prophets (Matthew 5:17-19). Jesus was fully human and fully God. His humanity required Him to obey all laws that are binding on every other human, which is in fact what He taught His own disciples to do (Mark 12:14-27, Matthew 17:24-27).

Regarding healing on the Sabbath and whether that was an actual violation of the Law of Moses, Jesus answered that question Himself. "’Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’…And He said to them…’it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’" (excerpts from Matthew 12:10-12). Jesus said, "it is lawful." Yes, the seventh day was a day of rest, a kindness to a hard working humanity, but it was not a day to rest from doing good.

Jesus did not change the Mosaic Law when He uttered the words "it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath." He showed them that the Law of the Sabbath always permitted acts of mercy toward animals and toward people on the Sabbath. Even the Pharisees knew this, for the examples Jesus cited as proof that He was being obedient to the Law were the very ones the religious leaders had written into their extra-biblical traditions: watering their draft animals (Luke 12:13-16), extracting family members and animals from a pit (Matthew 12:10-12, Luke 14:3-6), or circumcising an infant (John 7:21-24). Certainly, Jesus did break some of the traditions of the Jews, like hand washing before eating, but those traditions were not found in Scripture nor in secular law, and it was not a sin to break traditions (Mark 7:5-13).

During court trials, the Jewish religious leaders angrily concluded that Jesus was innocent and never broke their Law. Both the Roman governor and the king of Israel also made the same proclamation of innocence (Mark 14:53-59, Luke 23:4, 14-22, John 18:38, 19:4-6, James 2:10). In fact, the only thing they eventually charged Him with was claiming to be "the Christ." And claiming to be the Christ was no violation of any secular or religious law, because He genuinely was, and is, the Christ.

What lesson do we take from all this? Jesus was bound to obey all the laws of God and all the laws of men. And so must we. He was convicted and executed when He told the truth, that He was the Christ. It is very possible that we too will suffer and die because we tell the same truth--Jesus is the Christ.

Hmmm...is anyone else worried about a "new" hermeneutic approach that necessarily convicts Jesus of being a law breaker?

 


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