Provocative Bible Verses: John 3:16

For years John 3:16 had a seemingly constant presence and American sporting events, especially in the end zones of football games. The ubiquitous man with the rainbow-colored Afro held up his sign for all the world to see, week after week, game after game. Clearly it is the most famous citation of any passage in the Bible.

 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” John 3:16

My personal love for the passage extends to it being the verse that got me admitted back into The United States after a mission trip many years ago. I had taken a group of high school student into the mountains south of Mexico City for two weeks. By the time we returned and were coming immigration, my hair was even longer than normal and my full beard was well, full. It didn’t help that I was wearing old jeans and a rough cotton homespun hoodie when the immigration officer asked me what I did for a living. “I’m a pastor” I replied. Silence from the immigration officer as he looked at my hair, my beard, my hoodie and my jeans then my hoodie, my beard, and my hair again. At which point I heard, “quote John 3:16”. I did so flawlessly and with a sigh of relief that he didn’t ask for something like 2nd Chronicles 8:12. I rather enjoyed the puzzled look on his face so I let him know I was a youth pastor and all these teenagers behind me were the youth returning from a mission trip. His face lit up with a smile and he said, “that’s wonderful, welcome back kids” and he quickly stamped fourteen more passports and let us through.

But let’s not be lulled into a shallow view of this verse. It is far more than a cliché at sporting events or an easy ticket back into The United States. It is one of the most profound statements in the Bible. The first thing to notice about this verse, and something that most people miss, Jesus is the one who says this. These are not the words of a narrator telling us something about Jesus. These are the words of Jesus himself telling us something profound about himself, his mission, and his Father. Recognizing that little bit of information gives a much deeper and personal meaning to the words.

Think if it this way, in this short sentence Jesus is making it abundantly clear that he came into the world for one purpose. His mission was to come and die in order to open the door to eternal life for anyone who would put their trust in him. That is really what he means when he says “whoever believes in him”. Belief from a biblical point of view is all about trust. Putting your faith in Jesus is about trusting him, trusting that he is in fact God come in the flesh, that he is the savior, that he did rise from the dead, and that he will fulfill his promise to give eternal life to all who believe in him.

Certainly the message that God loves the world is a comforting one. But don’t stop there. Don’t breath a deep sigh of relief as if that somehow makes everything perfect and safe. That God loves the world is not a particularly provocative statement in our day. Most people only think of God in terms of his being loving. What is really provocative is the exclusionary nature of the second part of the verse. Jesus does not say that he came to give his life and the result would be that no one in the world would perish but that everyone would have eternal life. Rather he says that anyone who believes, trusts in him, would not perish but have eternal life. That is not something that most people find comforting in our day. Most people skip right passed that part of Jesus declaration. It is just too discomforting to ponder the implications. If eternal life is given only to those who trust Jesus, then it is not given to those who do not trust him. In the western world that is one of the worst possible things a person could say and believe. It is considered intolerant beyond measure. The theology of our day in the west is that all roads to God are equally valid. Pick whichever road feels best to you. It will eventually get you to God and be sure that along the way you never dare to tell someone else they are on the wrong road.

But it is Jesus himself who says that only those who trust and believe in him, who truly follow him, will have eternal life. He makes that clear in John 3:16 and in numerous other verses where he separates those who follow him and welcomes them to eternal life and those who don’t who he consigns to condemnation. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, is also the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who will one day return to this world he died for and he will bring with him his judgment. Consider what Jesus says just two verses later in John 3:18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. Those are certainly words to shake us out of our spiritual doldrums and ask if we are truly trusting and following Jesus or if we are taking false hope in “For God so loved the world”.

The love God has for you must be combined with the reality that God is also just and that eventually, one way or another, sin must be judged and condemned. This is where the most provocative piece of this verse comes in. God so loved the world that he came into the world through the incarnation of Jesus and willingly went to the cross in order to pay the price for your sin. That is what is contained in the seemingly innocuous words “gave His only Son”.  The Father gave His only son over to the hands of wicked men so they would torture him to death. That death was the price to be paid for sin and rebellion against God. God made that clear to Adam and Eve from the start. Jesus paid the price of that death so that those who do believe would be assured that they will truly live for eternity. You and I have sinned against God and deserve whatever punishment comes our way. Yet in His love, the Father has made a way for us to be reconciled to Him. The resurrection of Jesus from the grave and his ascension to the Father’s right hand validate his death and vindicate him before his accusers. They are also part of the assurance his followers have that they too will be raised up on the last day.

One final thought for those who are already followers of Jesus. This verse should motivate you to love your neighbor with a reckless abandon. It should move you to sacrifice for them so that they would experience the love of God and turn to follow Jesus. It should motivate you with the realization that they may not be on the right road and the road they are on may lead to perdition. Do not rest in the comfort of knowing that God loves the world without owning the truth that not all the world loves God and that you are an ambassador on His behalf, calling people to their only true hope, to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.

Honoring Obama Even When You Disagree With Him: The Sequel

This piece was first posted four years ago today. I find that it is just as relevant now as it was then and can only hope that people who claim to follow Christ will exhibit Christ-like character no matter what their political position may be. It is deeply concerning to me that I see many Christians, politically right and left and theologically right and left, who have made their political ideology superior to their Biblical commands. By that I mean, many people are interpreting Scripture in light of their politics and not their politics in light of Scripture. I think this because the vitriol that I see in the Christian on Christian attacks and ad hominem arguments are only possible if we are setting aside the things that Jesus taught us about our relationships and responding to one another out of human pride, bitterness, and anger.

With that said, I trust that the following will speak to you and that you will be encouraged to trust in an almighty God who has been running the universe very well, long before you and I ever showed up on the scene to tell Him how to do it.

First published in November of 2008

“This morning I was confronted with one of those Bible passages with which we like to do one of two things. It is a passage that we either try to ignore altogether or explain it away so that we become convinced that it could never apply to our situation. The passage deals with giving honor to leaders, even bad leaders, even if you vehemently disagree with what they are doing. The words come from the Apostle Peter in 1st Peter 2:13, 14 and 17. “13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good…17 Honor everyone. Love the Brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor” Peter goes on to talk about also honoring your boss as well as being willing to suffer for doing good. Those are not easy things to put into practice.

Now before I go any further let me make it clear, in the last election I voted for the other guy so this is not coming from an apologist for the current administration. Rather, I am trying to look at this from the standpoint of making Christian witness a priority over political ideology. What I have seen in recent months, in terms of political rancor and vitriol is not new, at least not in my eyes. One advantage of being a child of the sixties is I have seen demonstrations against the government that make the G-20 demonstrators look like a Sunday school class out for an ice cream social. So I am not concerned about the general population getting all angry and nasty in politics. That is nothing new no matter what the media says. What does concern me is the level ridicule, bitterness, and anger bordering on hatred that is being poured out by many claiming to follow Christ. Instead of attacking the issues that we disagree over, many are falling into the time-honored tradition of attacking the person expressing the ideas.

I always find it humbling to the extreme that the first century Christians continued to honor the Emperor with the exception of worshiping him as a god, even as he was having some of them put to death for their faith. Peter makes it clear why this was to be the practice of Christ-followers. 1st Peter 2:21-23 says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His footsteps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly.” That is the kind of life that we as Christ-followers are to demonstrate to the world around us.

But what is the purpose in it? Peter also makes that clear. We are to live this way, honoring those in authority even when they make us suffer so that they will glorify God. “Keep your conduct honorable among the gentiles so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” 1st peter 2:12 This is why I say I am more concerned with our Christian witness than I am with political ideology. Peter says that the ultimate goal is NOT for us to shape the government. Certainly we are to be involved in the process but if we get the public policy we want and do not live in such a way that leads people to people glorify God, then we have failed. It would be better to have lost the policy debate and have won people to Jesus than to have won the debate and lost our witness and our souls.

This is why Peter says that we are to honor others. We are to treat them with respect and dignity, even serving them while we disagree with their policy or their methods. We debate the issues. We don’t attack the person. We should be involved in the public debate in order to demonstrate what a Christ-follower is really like, not just what we think, but how we love and honor others. So disagree all you want with President Obama, with your governor, mayor, town dog catcher. If you are in another country the same applies to you. Disagree with policy but honor the office and the person in it. It may mean that you will suffer for disagreeing, because we should never be surprised when unbelievers don’t play by our rules. But that is never an excuse for us to do anything differently from how Jesus did it.”

Jesus said to them, “my wife”

Yep, that’s the line that has the theological nerd world all a buzz. Of course it probably also has caused no small amount of questioning and consternation among the faithful as well as gloating among the skeptics. It all stems from a scrap of 4th century paper about the size of a business card on which those words appear. Of course the paper is just a fragment and doesn’t include what Jesus said to his wife or even the identity of the wife. Christianity Today has a very helpful article on this.

So what are we to make of this find? For some it is seen as vindication that Jesus really was married and that the early church, in the worlds longest running conspiracy/cover-up, was embarrassed by the fact of Jesus marriage and has destroyed and denied evidence ever since. But let’s deal in reality and what we do know. It is a long-standing tradition, from the very earliest generations of the church, that Jesus was never married. That tradition existed centuries before the creation of this 4th century fragment. Some argue that there is no historical evidence to back up the claim that Jesus was married, as if that is somehow significant . The fact that we have so much written about the life of Jesus with never a hint of a wife is what should be taken as being significant. The reverse should be where the burden of proof lies. If there is a 2,000 year old tradition of something, then those who deny it are the ones who need to show some proof that the tradition has no basis in reality and needs to be changed.

Some will claim that this fragment is proof that Jesus was married. Really? One thing I find amusing is that some of the same people who will deny the reliability of the Bible will assume the reliability of this fragment. The argument has been that since we do not have the original manuscripts of the New Testament authors and the earliest copies are from possibly the late 1st and certainly the early 2nd century, they are not reliable. Well if that is the case, why would anyone put stock in a business card sized fragment from the 4th century? I can only assume that it is because one was already predisposed to believe what they thought it said, no matter what logic or evidence said to the contrary.

But let’s assume there is some authenticity to the fragment. What then? Well there are a couple of options. First, the Bible refers to the Church as The Bride of Christ. Context is crucial to understand any statement. Given the fact that we have no context for the fragment, no idea what Jesus said to “his wife” in the missing pieces, and that we have no identification of the wife, it is certainly reasonable that Jesus may have been referring to His Bride, the Church. Without the missing pieces of the document we will never know. Secondly, let’s suppose Jesus was in fact married. Then what? Well my answer is, so what? You see, our ultimate authority is not tradition, as important and helpful as it may be. Our ultimate authority is the Bible and nowhere in the Bible does it ever address the marital status of Jesus, one way or the other. We know that Peter was married, and that Paul was not, because the Bible speaks directly to that. But it says nothing about Jesus. Which again I stress is significant. We have so much more written about the life of Jesus than we do about Peter or Paul, yet we know their marital status, one married, one not. It must be stated very clearly there is no Christian doctrine built on the marital status of Jesus. No matter of faith, theology, or accepted biblical interpretation is effected by it one way or the other. In fact, one could make the case that if Jesus was married this could fit rather nicely with Hebrews 2:14-18. That passage makes it clear that in order to be the perfect sacrifice for sin Jesus became like us in all ways, with the one exception that he never sinned. Now I don’t think the author of Hebrews was making the point that Jesus had to be like us in every single detail of life, as if the had to eat the same food we all eat, or dress the same way we all dress or listen to the same music we listen to. But if one wanted to push the thought to an extreme application, if you are single and Jesus was single, that could be a point of identification with you just as it would be if he was married and you are also married. However, in neither case is it a doctrinal issue that Jesus must have been one or the other.

In the final analysis, finding a 4th century fragment that has the phrase “and Jesus said to them, my wife”, is much ado about nothing. Although I am sure that for the next 40 years there will be untold numbers of television documentaries, books, blogs, and podcasts about this “incredible” find and how it revolutionizes our understanding of Jesus and proves a massive cover-up.

Christianity’s Fate Is Not Contingent on America

Before you go off on me as being somehow un-American, I was born into a typical Pittsburgh blue-collar family. My Dad’s first job was in a coal mine before he worked his way to owning a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership and fulfilling his version of the American dream. My favorite actor always has been and always will be John Wayne. As a kid I cried when he died at the end of The Alamo. As an adult I tear up when an American flag gets handed to a family member at a funeral with the words, “on behalf of a grateful nation”. If I have a slight regret it is that I didn’t sign the enlistment papers that Marine Captain Tacksus had ready for me back in college. So yes I love America. But America and Christianity are not the one and the same, and the fate of Christianity is not dependent on the fate of America or any other country.

If, as history shows to be the way of all great nations, America one day becomes eclipsed by some other nation, that does not mean Christianity is somehow eclipsed or automatically in decline. I get the distinct impression that many people think otherwise, both Christian and non-Christian. Some non-Christians seem to relish the possibility of both the decline of America and Christianity. If it would be possible to deal a blow to both with one stone, then they say, so be it. For some their primary hatred is for America, which they view as monolithically Christian and so they hate Christians/Americans. The recent violence and demonstrations in Egypt, Libya, and now strangely enough Australia would fall into this category. Many Muslims see America as a Christian Nation and their picture is the decadence of Hollywood, sex, drugs, alcohol, and more sex, hetero and homosexual and a nation that militarily is trying to impose “Christian values” on other countries. For others their hatred is for Christianity and they view America as the bastion of Christianity and if America must decline for Christianity to lose its influence that’s all well and good.

This illustrates the problem that Christians create when we too closely align ourselves with any kingdom other than God’s Kingdom. The missteps of a government or society that we cannot control can easily drag Christianity, or the external perception of it, in a direction that is neither helpful nor accurately Christian. Most people outside Christianity, not to mention within, do not appreciate the nuance of a Christian being a model citizen of their country, yet with a higher citizenship that trumps anything the earthly country might do or call for. Additionally, most people paint with a very broad brush and we let one example fill in the blanks for us in understanding a whole group. That was part of the point of Daniel Khaneman’s book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow” that I reviewed some time ago. So when a government, an anonymous movie director, or a screw loose preacher, says or does something provocative in a destructive way, people paint with a broad brush, decide that is what all America and thus Christians are like and they get violent against all things American/Christian.

The connection of a country with Christianity is not new. At least since the Reformation and the 16th century it has been largely the case. Prior to America it was the British Empire that Christianity hitched a ride with and circled the globe doing missions wherever the Union Jack got planted. In some cases with worked well. In others, Christianity became synonymous with English invaders and colonial oppressors. Prior to that it was Spain and the expansion into Central and South America that tied a Roman Catholic brand of Christianity to the Conquistadors. So you see the problem. Christians and Christian mission can benefit as a result of the work of countries and empires. Certainly the existence of the Roman road system made it possible for Christianity to spread in the first few centuries. But when we become so closely connected to the culture and/or government that Christianity becomes nearly indistinguishable from them, then Christianity looses its power and message.

I said even many Christians do not understand the nuance of being a model citizen of an earthly country while being first and foremost a citizen of God’s Kingdom. There are at least two reasons for this that I can see. One is our inability to disagree with someone or something and still love them. The other is that our view of success is based on one of worldly power and dominance.

As to the first, one only needs to look at a few church splits to see that Christians have a hard time disagreeing on even the most mundane and unimportant things, without taking sides that cause conflict. It goes all the way back to the first disciples of Jesus who wanted to prevent some people from casting out demons in Jesus name because they were not part of the group. In another case, James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven onto a village that did not want to listen to Jesus preaching. In both cases Jesus harshly rebuked them. In America we Christians need to learn how to disagree with people in a Christ-like manner. In Ephesians 4:15 Paul says we are to speak the truth in love. There is a dynamic tension with which few seem willing to live. We either love someone and don’t speak any truth for fear of hurting their feelings, which is actually incredibly unloving and untruthful, or we speak the truth without any love, under a false guise of love, while in the process ripping a person’s guts out, which is also not loving and incredibly dishonest. Christians must absolutely learn to disagree in as loving a way as possible. That must be the case in politics, religion, and any other area of life. You can love your country, serve it, sacrifice for it, but at the same time disagree, lovingly, when it goes wrong.

The second issue, our view of success and power, is more difficult to deal with. No one would argue against being more loving as we speak truth. It is obviously what Jesus wants. But our view of success is far more deeply rooted in our culture than we Christians want to admit. The thinking goes something like this. America is a great nation because God has blessed us, because we have been a Christian nation that was obedient to the Bible. As long as we follow the Bible and are a Christian nation, we will be a world power and a blessed people, in every way, including our material, physical, and emotional well-being. If we start to decline morally, as we seem to be doing, then God will judge America and we will lose our place of blessing, and Christianity will decline around the world as American influence declines.

There are so many false assumptions in that line of thinking that I fear it would take a whole book to address. But let me briefly deal with a few. First, Christianity did just fine expanding from place to place and reaching more and more people, long before America ever existed. Remember, the first viable English colony in North America that succeeded, didn’t get going until almost sixteen hundred years after Jesus walked the Earth. It was another one hundred and fifty years before the colonies split from England and became a separate nation. It has really only been since World War 2 some seventy-five years ago that America has been a world power and with the collapse of The Soviet Union, THE world power. God was doing just fine in expanding His kingdom for the 1900 years of history from Jesus to American dominance, and I suspect He will do just fine until Jesus returns, no matter how long that takes. A second presumption in the previous paragraph is that America has, until recently, been a model Christian nation. For almost the first hundred years of that City Set On A Hill we call America we allowed white people to own black people as property. Not exactly a shining Christian nation moment. Let’s not even talk about what we did to people who were Red not Black and lived here before European’s arrived. On the other end of the spectrum, motivated by Christian Temperance Movements we passed a constitutional amendment banning alcohol. It was the worst kind of Christian Pharisaism and resulted in all sorts of violence and corruption not to mention leaving a lasting picture of Christians as extremely legalistic fanatics who want to dominate others. No, America has not been the ideal Christian nation that would automatically be showered with God’s blessing. Perhaps the most dangerous assumption in the previous paragraph is that America somehow is fulfilling a role of being The New Jerusalem. As a result people attach to America all sorts of Old Testament prophecies about Israel, Jerusalem, or various Hebrew tribes. Now it is generally true that if nations follow the things of God that things will go better than not. But that is a result of God’s truth having that effect whether we are believers or not. However, that is a far cry from saying that America is God’s new chosen nation and applying prophecy to it; especially prophecy that was already fulfilled in Israel 1500 years ago.

The bottom line is this. America is a great nation that has at times demonstrated amazing “Christian” principles and culture and at others times not. In the last few decades it seems to be more not. God’s Kingdom is far greater than America. God does not need America to fulfill His plan of redemption that was set before the foundations of the world. God can and does use America as He has and does use any nation. Christians need to actually live what we so often point to on America money, “In God We Trust”. We do not trust in American dominance or success in order to feel secure that God’s plan of redemption will succeed. Conversely we do not fear failure in God’s plan of redemption is things in America are not going as we would hope. In recent history, America has been the key player in the World Christian Movement, but South America, Asia, and Africa are seeing massive growth in Christianity. China will soon become the nation with the largest number of Christians in the world. South Korea, as small as it is, is beginning to lead the way in missionaries sent. Some see that as the decline of America. I think God sees it as the ascendency of a global Christianity. No matter what happens in America or any other nation, God is still sovereign and will prevail, as will The Church. Jesus promised that even the Gates of Hell could not withstand the ultimate success of His plan.

“Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be” by Cornelius Plantinga

Make no mistake, this is a book about sin. It is about the hideous nature of sin, the way it corrupts, destroys, and slowly sucks the life out of people. It is not the kind of thing most people want to talk about these days. Sin has been replaced with “dysfunction”, “addiction”, “syndrome” and a host of other terms that remove any responsibility from us, all in a vain effort to alleviate our guilt and shame. Plantinga pulls no punches when he discusses the nature of sin and the motivators behind it.

Crucial to Plantinga’s approach is a biblical understanding of Shalom, or Peace. When talking about Shalom, he dreams, along with the writers of the Bible, of a time when true peace would reign. Shalom is more than an absence of war, rather it is the presence of so much that is good and desirable; “a new age in which human crookedness would be straightened out, rough places made plain. The foolish would be made wise and the wise, humble. They dreamed of a time when deserts would flower, the mountains would run with wine, weeping would cease, and people would go to sleep without weapons in their laps”. pg 9

Sin destroys peace. It destroys the Shalom between God and man and within humanity. According to Plantinga, sin is not just the breaking of some arbitrary law. It is the breaking of a covenant relationship with our creator and a breaking of relationship with our fellow human beings. “Sin is a culpable and personal affront to a personal God” pg 13 For people who chafe against rules for rules sake and want to claim that we should have the freedom to do what we want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, this definition of sin should cause them pause. In a very real way at least two someones are alway hurt by our rebellion, us and God. We violate and vandalize the peace we have with God when we sin.

Among the many ways Plantinga talks about sin, perhaps the two that most took hold of me were sin as a parasite and sin as self-swindling. As a parasite sin has no life of its own. It must attach itself to me in order to feed itself. In the process it slowly sucks the life out of me. It is a tick that you don’t even acknowledge until it has begun to bury its head under your skin and chew its way deeper into you. You can remove the visible part on the surface but risk leaving the head inside to continue its damage. The picture of sin as a self-swindler brings out how easily we fool ourselves into thinking this will be something good, something harmless, something meaningless. In the end we find that the swindler has raided our personal accounts and walked off with everything leaving us destitute and guilty of self-destruction.

As harsh as this book may sound it is in fact a very encouraging book. Not in the sense that you will walk away from it filled with delight, but rather you will walk away from it with courage and conviction. There is something about the way Plantinga portrays sin with such honesty and visceral clarity that is actually refreshing. I had the feeling that finally someone was talking sense about sin and even though it was painful to see myself in so many of his examples, there was hope in the honesty. The way sin has been mostly dealt with in our day is to down play its impact, try to convince us that it is not as serious as we think it is and to just relax. Yet I feel that most of us, if we are honest, have long had a sense that as Plantinga says, this is Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be. Something is seriously wrong and we are being told, don’t worry you will be fine. It’s like going to a doctor because you have this nagging sense that something is desperately wrong with your heart, you can feel it, sense it, it pains you. You go to the doctor, he does a less than cursory exam and says, “Oh you’re fine, don’t worry about it. Everyone has this”. It bugs you and nags you for years until one day another doctor looks at you and says, “This is serious. You have a condition that could kill you at any moment. That anxiety you have been experiencing is well placed. We need to correct this now”. As hard as it would be to hear that doctor’s diagnosis there would be a sense of relief that finally you have someone being honest with you about the deadly nature of your disease. That is exactly what Plantinga does. And like any good doctor he provides a treatment, through Christ, to deal with that sin and bring true Shalom into your life.

At under 200 pages and with the honor of being the 1996 Christianity Today Book of the Year, there is no excuse for not reading this book.

Obama, the Bible, and Same Sex Marriage

It is impossible to turn on the news today or go to the internet without being confronted by the news of President Obama’s statement that he supports the right of same-sex couples to get married. While I can certainly appreciate his compassionate heart for people who feel they are unfairly being denied the possibility of a marriage to their same-sex partner, and I can even affirm that I believe the President to be my brother in Christ, I have to disagree with his position on clear biblical grounds.

At the heart of the issue is this, who determines what a marriage is and who can get married and who cannot? In the last 200 years or so, governments have played an increasingly large role in that decision and the religious community has played a smaller and smaller role. But for the entire period of human history prior, that was not the case. Prior to that time, certainly in western civilization, it has been the church, and I mean that in the broadest terms, that has defined marriage and informed the government on what is and is not a marriage. Clearly the tables have been turned. Now instead of the faith communities informing society and the government on what is and is not marriage, it is western philosophical, post-enlightenment philosophy that shapes the our understanding of marriage. We have gone from marriage being a sacred union between man and woman, to being a contractually based relationship between two people who want certain benefits of accorded such couples by the government and society. That is founded on faith in philosophy not faith in God.

But where does the church get its understanding of marriage? On what basis does it take a stand. Let me be clear about one thing. This is not a blog dealing primarily with homosexuality. That is only secondarily the issue here. What I am talking about is marriage and its roots. In the Christian community we look to the Bible as our revealed source of God’s truth. That is a given. You can debate the wisdom of that all you want but the fact is, the Bible is what Christians hold to as their depository of God’s will and wisdom. I say that as strongly as I do, so that it becomes clear, if you want to affirm same-sex marriage you are doing so with full knowledge that the Bible teaches otherwise. That may not matter to you, but it matters to millions of Christians in America and a billion world-wide. First let’s be clear on what the Bible does not say. The Bible does not say “same-sex marriages are sinful”. You won’t find those words. Why? Because rather than take a negative approach full of “thou shalt nots”, the Bible takes a positive approach and holds up the ideal that we are to strive for. The positive teaching of the Bible on marriage is that it is designed by God to be between a man and a woman. That teaching is so clear and so taken for granted that there were no same-sex marriages and thus no need to say anything against them. That doesn’t mean there was no homosexual behavior. There was. But same-sex marriage was unheard of so there was no need to speak against it. Rather the Bible says what marriage is, why it is and who is eligible for marriage.

To understand what the Bible teaches, we have to start with Genesis 2 and the account of the creation of man and woman.

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” 19 Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. 22 The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. 23 The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”

24For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. Genesis 2:18-24

It doesn’t matter whether you think this actually happened as a literal event or that it is somehow a myth handed down to make a point. For Christians, and incidentally, Jews AND Muslims, this is something revealed to us by God to teach us about our origins, purpose, and destiny. As it speaks about marriage it is crystal clear that God made it to be a union between a man and a woman and that it has spiritual significance. They are somehow joined together as one. They are not just two people signing a contract detailing how they will share property rights or designating who can visit them in the hospital or any other such important issues. Those are the issues of the contractual understanding of marriage in the post-enlightenment west. The Bible is saying there is more, there is a binding together of man and woman in marriage that is instituted and blessed by God.

Some will say that the Genesis passage is Old Testament and therefore culturally irrelevant. For that reason it also needs to be recognized that Jesus affirmed this teaching in the clearest possible ways.  In Matthew 19 he repeats and expands on the teaching from Genesis 2 as a way of affirming the sanctity of marriage and the exclusive nature of the relationship between a man and a woman. Jesus does not deal with this as a cultural issue but rather as an issue of theological truth that is founded in the very character of God. When Paul writes to the Corinthians he also affirms that there is a spiritual component to the physical relationship that is supposed to be reserved for husband and wife. A biblical understanding of marriage must include the recognition that it is more than two people agreeing to live together and be partners in some domestic limited partnership. There is a third-party involved. The Bible says that God joins together a man and woman in marriage. That is why it is primarily a spiritual and not a civil matter.

In making any decisions about our view of marriage we must, or at least confessing Christians must, look to what the Bible says about marriage and seek to understand it and implement it as best we can. Some people may come to a different interpretation of what the BIble teaches. I understand that and can work with that. At least from there we can discuss the meaning of the passage and its application based on mutually agreed methods of literary interpretation. What we cannot do is simply ignore what the Bible says because we are trying to be compassionate, modern, or even fair.

What are the concerns in all this? Some who support same-sex marriage might simply say, “why don’t you just live your way and let them live their way?” That sounds so nice and reasonable and fair. But here is the problem. Because government now has the primary role in determining who can get married and what a legitimate marriage is, they also have the power to determine who can perform such marriages and who cannot. Given the nature of government to spread its power and authority rather than limit it, as an evangelical pastor I have a legitimate concern that the day may soon come when the government says, in order to have the authority to perform any wedding, I must be willing to perform all weddings, same-sex or not. You think that is far-fetched? Think the government would never do such a thing? Look at recent history. Religious hospitals are being faced with regulations requiring them to perform medical procedures they find to be immoral. Religious schools and other institutions are being faced with the possibility of being required to provide insurance coverage for those same procedures. Clearly the government has shown a willingness to ignore the conscience of people of faith and require them to do things that violate their religious beliefs. How ironic is that, when one of the foundational principles of our culture today is to respect the beliefs of others and not force anyone to adhere to your beliefs. It seems that only flows one way.

Let me make one final point. I place the blame for where we are, squarely on the shoulders of Christians and the Church, though probably not for the reasons you may think. It is not because we have failed to oppose such culture shifts vehemently enough with protests and indignation. Rather, it is because we have failed to teach and uphold the positive Biblical ideals on marriage, sex, and human relationships. Far too much of our teaching and preaching is moralistic do’s and dont’s without any solid foundation based on the character of God. Such moralism quickly gives way to what is expedient, easiest, or “most reasonable”. In other cases our teaching too closely represents the latest self-help steps to a better marriage or relationship. It is teaching, full of practical tips, void of Biblical power. We need to get back to a Biblical understand of the purpose of marriage, the oneness between man, woman, and God that is the glue that holds the marriage together. We need to be captured by the holy mystery of man and woman becoming one, and that being more than sexual intimacy but a binding of soul on soul that is for the benefit of society and the glory of God. Let’s live out the glory of a Biblical marriage that makes it so attractive and compelling that people would yearn for that ideal and accept no substitute for the blessings God has for them.

 

Week 6 from Genesis Study Now Available

This is week 6 from our study of Genesis covering 5:1-6:8. Among other things, we take a look at that strange verse about the Sons of God and the Daughters of Men and the Nephilim

Genesis Study on Video Week Six

I hope you enjoy it and will add your voice to the conversation.

Christianity and Science: Is There a Conflict?

As a kid I was enthralled with science, any branch of science, astronomy, biology, chemistry, paleontology, physics, anatomy, it didn’t matter. Until the fifth grade I lived in a house that backed up to a huge woods that included a spring fed pond where my best friend Bobby Kramer and I used to catch salamanders, crayfish, and lots of really cool bugs. Of course we would also put fire crackers in the model warships we built but that is another story. One of my favorite parts of that woods was a dried stream bed with a several foot high wall from an old waterfall. We would regularly dig into that rock wall and pull out some of the most amazing fossils that we would eventually match to their period in history. Dissecting frogs and snakes was a normal Saturday afternoon, as was mixing compounds from the chemistry set, making slides for a microscope, or charts of the various constellations according to the season. A highlight of a junior high biology class was when, along with two other students, I was given the opportunity to dissect a fetal pig when the rest of the class got frogs. I grew up with the birth and expansion of the space program and once could name every astronaut, their capsule name and mission highlights. My bucket list still includes a walk on the moon. I still love science as evidenced by the fact that one of the books currently on my night stand is a biography of Albert Einstein. It is as much about physics as it is about his life.

As a Christian I find myself puzzled and saddened by the ongoing conflict between so many people of faith and people of science. There seems to be this commonly held idea that you cannot be a Christian and a good scientist. The two are seen as being polar opposites that can never be reconciled. Yet anyone with a bit of historical perspective and willingness to get beyond sound-bite thinking will find that in fact the opposite is true. Christianity and science are both historically and philosophically allies in the search for truth. In fact, the modern scientific method owes part of its existence to the philosophical world-view of Christianity.

All Truth is God’s Truth

Both science and Christianity are on a quest for truth. As a follower of Christ I have no fear of science. If science determines something to be “true” then I know that God is well aware of that truth and in fact is the reason such truth even exists. Some of the greatest scientists in history were also people of deep Christian faith. Their faith in a God of laws and order gave them a theological foundation from which to explore the cosmos. There was a conviction that the God of truth, who ordered the world, did so with a set of laws that made it possible to study and learn using the scientific method. Isaac Newton, who is considered by many to be one of, if not the greatest scientist in history, functioned as a scientist because of his faith.

“Newton’s theology profoundly influenced his scientific method, which rejected pure speculation in favor of observations and experiments. His God was not merely a philosopher’s impersonal First Cause; he was the God in the Bible who freely creates and rules the world, who speaks and acts in history. The biblical doctrine of creation undergirded Newton’s science. Newton believed in a God of “actions [in nature and history], creating, preserving, and governing … all things according to his good will and pleasure.” (Charles E. Hummel, Christian History, Christianity Today Online April 1 1991)

The case has been made that the rise of science in Western Civilization is in large part due to the influence of Christianity. Because the world was seen as being created by God with order and laws, it was not only possible to study and learn, it was actually a duty to study and learn about the cosmos. Although other religions and their cultures may have been more advanced in some areas of technology, they were not cultures and religions that promoted science as such. Buddhism, and Hinduism are great examples. Historically they have viewed time and the cosmos in a circular fashion. What is now will come to an end and the cycle of time repeats. Scientific progress is not highly valued because it will all come around again. In addition, the material world is seen as something to escape. It is the world of suffering and pain, not the world of wonder created by God. The gods of such theologies are also capricious and unpredictable so any conclusion reached in the study of the cosmos are unreliable. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the cosmos was pronounced by God to be “very good”. Time is more linear and we are heading towards a desirable future that is a new creation of heaven and earth. Far from wanting to escape this reality, the Christian is one who is called by God to improve it. That includes being good stewards of creation. Being a good stewards requires understanding how the cosmos functions in order to care for it in a way that glorifies God.

When Scientific and Theological “Truth” Conflict

There are times when the understanding of science and our understanding of the Bible are in clear contradiction. Most often cited is the case of Galileo and the Church disagreeing over the Earth revolving or being fixed and stationary. This is often cited as an example the narrow-mindedness of the Church and Christians. Science is hailed as being objective, rational, concerned with truth. But here is the problem, prior to Galileo and Copernicus, the common notion among scientists was that the Earth was fixed. The Church at the time looked at some verses in the Bible and decided that indeed the earth was fixed. After all, it said things like, “God has fixed the earth on its foundation” or spoke of the sun rising and setting. So for centuries, science that the Church agreed, the Earth is fixed and the sun moves. No one bothers to point out that for centuries science was also wrong. They only point out that the Church was wrong. The fact is, science was simply quicker to correct its error. Eventually the Church came to realize that the Bible was not wrong, because it never taught that the Earth was fixed. It was our understanding of the Bible that was wrong and needed to be changed. All of that is to simply say that when science and the Bible seem to be in conflict, we need to be patient and reexamine our preconceived ideas. It is possible that the explanation science gives for the information is wrong. It is possible that our understanding of the Bible is wrong and needs to be adjusted. It is possible, as with Galileo, that both science and our understanding of the Bible are wrong.

Eventually much of Newtonian physics was superseded by the theories of Einstein. Quantum physics replaced Newtonian physics. The speed of light being constant and the fastest possible speed became foundational truths. For the last hundred years they have ruled the scientific world. Yet recently some scientists in Europe have indicated that they may have found something that travels faster than the speed of light. As a result the Physics world is a buzz with debate. Could science be going through another mega-shift in its understanding of truth? It remains to be seen. But one thing is certain, whatever they discover about the truth, it will still be God’s truth.

Scientific Method vs. Naturalism

The scientific method is simply that. It is a method of exploring and discovering truth. It is neutral. A person of faith can and should use good scientific method to explore and discover the wonders of God’s created cosmos. Naturalism is a philosophy. It is a mind-set that excludes the possibility of any spiritual component in the cosmos. In naturalism the material world is all that exists or at least all that can be studied and understood. Many scientists are also committed to naturalism. God has no place in their world. Naturalists will often accuse people of faith of being narrow-minded and unwilling to see the truth. I find that rather odd since the Naturalist is the one who is thinking more narrowly. They exclude the possibility that God has anything to do with all this. The scientist who operates out of faith seems to have the more open mind, believing that there may be more explanations for things than simple material cause and effect.

The bottom line is that if you are a person of faith, you must not see science as the enemy. You need not fear whatever currently appears as a contradiction between the Bible and science. Taking the long view of history and realizing that eventually God’s truth prevails should give confidence to your faith and motivation to your exploration of the cosmos as a scientist.

Why Being Thankful Just Doesn’t Cut It.

I know that this week is all about being thankful. I know that the Bible is clear that we are to give thanks in all things. I wrote a blog on that very topic sometime back. Give Thanks in All Things. In spite of that I have to admit that I am having second thoughts about all this thanksgiving spirit. Maybe I am just getting more contrary or maybe there really is something to be said here. The point is, it seems that much of our “thanksgiving” runs shallow and is extremely self-centered. Most of the time, our giving thanks stops short of making a real impact.

Here is my point. My recent trip to India got me thinking a great deal about the words of Jesus in Luke 12:48 “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” What has continued to run through my mind is the realization that I and almost every follower of Christ in America, have been given immeasurably more than Christians in almost every other place on the planet. So it has me wondering, What will you require of me Lord, in light of all I have been given and for which I am thankful?

All around America on Thanksgiving Day, people will stop and give thanks for the many blessings in their life. Followers of Christ will be thankful for the freedom they have to worship, their home, jobs, food, family, the list goes on. Once we are done giving thanks for all these we will dig into the turkey and mashed potatoes then fall into a turkey induced stupor in front of a football game. At least that is usually my routine. When that happens we fall woefully short of what God has for us. We need to ask a question on the heels of all our thanksgiving. The question is simple. Jesus, what do you want me to do with all I have been given in order to bring you glory and lead others into a relationship with you?

You see we have not been given all our blessings just so we can have a wonderful life. We have not been showered with good stuff just so we can be comfortable. We have been given all the blessings we are so thankful for in order to use those things to make a difference in the lives of others. So here is the deal. When you run through the litany of things that you thank God for, don’t stop there. Continue the conversation with Him and ask, what do you want me to do with this? How can I use all this for the advancement of your Kingdom. That is how we can truly say thank you to God for all His good gifts in our lives.

Burn a Qur’an for Jesus.

Okay, it has been awhile since I have posted on what I consider to be a stupid move by Christians. Not that there hasn’t been any material to work from. But this one is over the top and I just had to say something before my head exploded. It is being reported in CNN that a Florida preacher is planning a burning of the Quran, the book considered holy scripture by Muslims. His hope is that this will have some evangelistic impact and cause Muslims to repent and follow Jesus. Are you kidding me?

Look I am all for trying to bring Muslims to faith in Jesus Christ. I am convinced that only by faith in Christ can one be assured of a place in heaven. So my objection to this burning of the Quran has nothing to do with thinking that every religion is as valid or true as the next. My objection is that this is as far from a biblical way to act as one can find and will in fact have the exact opposite effect. Far from causing any Muslim to reconsider his or her faith, this will only serve to alienate them further from the Gospel and will have that same impact on countless non-muslims who see this as one more angry Christian who is out of his mind.

Let’s look at this from a perspective that Jesus so clearly teaches, “love your neighbor as yourself”. Let’s suppose for a moment that this scenario is turned around. Instead of a Christian pastor burning the Quran to get Muslims to repent, it is a Muslim Imam burning a Bible to get Christians to convert to Islam. What do you think the reaction of Christians would be? Exactly! Many would be screaming about the horrors of Islam and how the Bible is our sacred book and that Muslims are just showing once again how evil they are. So why do we think that Christians burning the Quran will have any beneficial impact and cause people to want to follow Jesus?

It is far to easy to make an outrageous statement and burn a book for Jesus. What Jesus wold rather have is that we do the hard work of preaching and demonstrating the Gospel as He tells us to. The Bible says “speak the truth in love”. We don’t hold back from declaring that Jesus is the only way to heaven. But we do it as we serve people in need and as we weep over the fact that they are lost without Jesus. I mush prefer what Christians in Lebanon did a few years ago during a time of fighting between Muslims in Lebanon and the Israeli army. Instead of standing around and burning Quran’s and being excited that the Muslims where finally getting their due, the Christians sheltered and clothed and fed Muslims who had lost their homes or were simply fleeing the violence. When asked why they were doing this the Christians replied, “because Jesus said we are to love our neighbor and care for the hurting in our midst”.

You tell me, which kind of Christian would you rather be associated with? Whose Jesus would you rather follow?