Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Monuments to Failure

Since I work in the construction industry in Chicago, I've with some interest followed the saga of the Chicago Spire. This magnificent structure will, when completed, stand over two thousand feet tall! Situated right on the lakefront, this building will dwarf the Sears Willis Tower, Trump Tower, Hancock Building, Aon Center, and all the other massive skyscrapers this beautiful city has to offer. It will be the tallest building in the US by far, and may be the tallest in the world.

The excitement over this spectacular project hit a fever pitch in July of 2007, when ground was broken and the massive foundation was being dug. The foundation extends more than eighty feet deep into the ground, the sort of undertaking required to support such an enormous tower. More than two years ago the excavators started removing dirt by the truckload, leaving a spectacularly huge hole in the ground to make way for a ginormous concrete pour.

Today, two and a half years later, there's nothing at the site but a spectacularly huge hole in the ground. Oh, and a small fence to keep people from falling in.

What happened? From the start this project had problems securing funding, and really never should have begun. They never even got to the point of hiring contractors for anything other than the foundation - nobody who could handle something of this scope was willing to commit to such an unfunded and poorly-conceived project. But they pressed ahead and started the foundation work, dug a big hole, poured some concrete, and just figured they'd raise the rest of the money as they went. That didn't work so well, and the site's been dormant since May of 2008. Then that little housing/economic/credit crisis hit, and suddenly lending $2.4 billion to build mega-expensive high rise condos in a city that's already oversaturated with crazy-expensive high rise condos seems like an even worse idea. So the project is now essentially dead, and everyone who's done any work for it is suing to get whatever they can from the funds previously raised.

I worked at several sites nearby, close enough to see the Spire site from higher floors. When riding the lifts up the side of the building, it's fairly common for someone to point out the big hole in the ground with a sarcastic quip about how great and wonderful the Spire is, and how it's blessed everyone who's associated with it. At other sites around the city, it's become a laughingstock, a sort of mutual joke that no matter how bad things are at this site, at least we're not working the Spire. The project was poorly conceived and started without adequate preparations, and now it's become a source of derision and mockery, and a disaster for everyone who bought into it.

I couldn't help but think of the Spire this morning as I read this in Luke 14: For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’

The Spire project began foolishly, and the cost so far has been tens of millions of dollars wasted, countless hours of time wasted, and a big, mockable hole in the ground. Those who pressed on with this short-sighted silliness are ridiculed, and rightly so. But the disaster they've left in their wake is infinitesimal compared to the disaster Jesus warns about - people who make a start of following him, then quit.

One of the worst products of the American church has been an easy-believism which fails to take the demands of Jesus in the gospel seriously. Jesus condemns this unserious view of his call to discipleship, and declares those who make a profession of faith but don't follow through to be a disaster worthy of mockery. Yet so much of popular American evangelicalism seems geared towards producing and encouraging such spurious confessions. Our evangelism produces 'decisions' which affect no change in the person; we proudly proclaim that "five hundred people received Christ!" at an event, yet a month later only a handful are anywhere near a gathering of God's people. We speak of people who "are Christians but not living anything like it", and encourage people that their salvation is secure based on what they said at one time in the distant past, even as their years of subsequent living deny Christ with every word and deed. (Obviously I hold to the fully-biblical doctrine of eternal security, but utterly denounce the bastardized version of it which removes from it any notion of sanctification or perseverance.) Those who began without counting the cost and turned back are encouraged as if they are going to heaven rather than called to repentance and real, persevering, disciple-making faith.

I'll close by asking you to compare the message of the easy-believe church with the demands Jesus places on all who would follow him. This is not for a super-special level of disciple beyond the regular believers; this is the bare-level commitment of all who would be saved. Here's what Jesus had to say:

Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Most Severe Remedy

You can tell a lot about how serious a disease is by the severity of the treatment. You would never consider amputation for a broken wrist, but for a gangrenous arm that threatens your life, it's a distinct possibility. Some chemotherapy drugs are so dangerous that if a few drops are spilled a hazmat unit must clean it up. Yet people willingly have them injected into their veins, because it's the only chance they have to stop the cancer. But if you just have a cold? No thanks, I'll take my chances with the illness. The severity of the remedy you're willing to undergo is proportional to the threat of the disease.

So then, what does it say about us and how sick we are when Jesus tells us that "You must be born again"?

There is no cure for our disease other than complete renewal. Each of us is so completely sinful to the very core of our being, nothing short of total regeneration will save us. No moral program, no good that we can do, no accomplishments or philosophy or religion or intellect or wealth or power, none of it can purify us from our sin and make us righteous before a holy God. We are so desperately sinful, there is nothing - nothing! - we can do to get better. The only remedy is to be born again, completely made new by the grace of God.

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)

Have you been born again to faith in Jesus Christ? There is no question more vital, more urgent than this. The stakes are eternal - on one side is the hope of eternal life, on the other is eternal damnation. There is no other way. Which side are you on?

Are you sure? Tragically, there are many who are under the delusion that they are genuinely born again simply by claiming to be, despite all evidence to the contrary. Few things could be more tragic than having false assurance. So how do you know? What does it actually mean to be born again, and evidence could there be that you are - or aren't? Check out this short but powerful book (available free online) about what it means to be born again. Dig into scripture to see what it says about those who are God's children and those who aren't - 1 John or Ephesians are great places to start. And examine yourself for the signs of the newness of life which regeneration brings. If you truly are born again, boldly proclaim the gospel in word and deed. If not, repent and believe. Nothing you can do could ever be more important than this.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Felix's Folly

I just finished reading through Acts, and was really struck by this passage. It describes Paul's interaction with Felix, the Roman governor of Judea. Felix was married to a Jewish woman and was at least somewhat familiar with "the Way". Paul had been imprisoned and was under Felix's authority, and Felix decided to check into this newfangled Christianity he'd heard about.

After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, "Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you." (Acts 24:24-25)

Fascinating. Felix couldn't wait to hear about this Jesus fellow and all the neat things he did. I bet he really enjoyed hearing about God's love, and all about grace, and how he works all things for good to those who love him, and maybe even about heaven. Oh, how interesting and intellectually stimulating and compelling all this was! Felix may have even been emotionally moved and felt downright 'worshipful'.

And then Paul had to ruin it by bringing up that pesky "righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment". Once the inescapably personal demand for repentance and warning of God's wrath came, Felix was outta there. Not very seeker-sensitive there, Paul.

Obviously Paul did the right thing in preaching the whole counsel of God, the whole gospel. What good would it do to entertain Felix with stories about Jesus, to tickle his itching ears and satisfy his curiosity, if he was never called to true faith and was left dead in his sin? How many of our churches need to follow Paul's example here and resist the temptation to entertain the lost, stop leaving the call for repentance unspoken for fear of offending them and driving them away, and boldly preach the whole gospel?

But this isn't about them. It's about us. You, and me, and everyone who sits in the pews on Sunday and listens to the word of God being proclaimed and expounded. What do we do with it? Do we enjoy it as long as it's an entertaining story, or intellectually stimulating discourse on God's sovereignty and man's responsibility, or a message about God's wonderful promises to his people - and then, like Felix, check out when the demand to repentance and holiness comes? Do we receive the message only until it personally challenges us to get rid of our hidden idolatries, root out our pet sin, and actually obey God by living in radical love? Are we content to soak up the fascinating knowledge of all the deep things of God, so long as it leaves us completely unchanged?

What do we do with a message like this? We can be happy to learn about the theory of being lukewarm, acknowledge the theoretical need to repent, and gain some conceptual understanding of honoring Jesus rather than making him vomit. Or we can examine our lives for evidence of lukewarmness, repent, and live to glorify Jesus. Like Felix, many choose the former. How about you? How about me? We know the truth - what will we do with it?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Is it too late?

Recently I read through the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah. The two prophets had very similar messages for Judah, but being over a hundred years apart their messages took on a different spin.

Isaiah prophesied during the time when the northern kingdom of Israel was judged by God, conquered by Assyria, carried into exile, and re-settled with the half-breed Samaritans. He begged and pleaded with the southern kingdom of Judah to repent and be faithful, lest God judge them as well. The response was at least good enough (particularly when Hezekiah was king) that God postponed the judgment for a century or so.

Which is where Jeremiah came in. He preached a message essentially the same as Isaiah's - Repent! Believe! Worship God alone! - but his message was thoroughly rejected by almost everyone. His book actually records more respect for the prophet coming from foreigners (such as the conquering Babylonian pagans) than from any Jew except Baruch (and maybe Gedaliah). As the rejection mounts, the message shifts focus from an Isaiah-like "Repent or God will judge us", to something more like "It's too late to repent - judgment is coming!". During the last few years before judgment finally came in the form of the Babylonian army and a 70-year exile, Jeremiah's message was focused on how best to survive and endure the impending judgment, and no hope of avoiding it remained. They had reached a point where it was simply too late to repent.

There's no doubt that America as a nation has some major sins on our record. We are fully deserving of God's judgment (some would say we're already experiencing some of it), and there are calls for repentance that we seriously need to heed. The godlessness of our nation requires a response no less than Assyria in Jonah's day. And yet, even as the calls for repentance go out, it's becoming easier to suspect that we're more in the Jeremiah stage, where we're so far gone and so hardened that we simply will not repent, that it's too late.

For instance, when you see something truly ghastly like this. Lord, have mercy.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Seven Letters for Seven Churches

Our church recently started going through Revelation, and we should be in there for a year or more. It's truly fascinating stuff, a book that we are truly blessed to read and take to heart (1:3). As the title says, it is the revelation of Jesus Christ.

To go along with this study, my small group is memorizing the first three chapters. These chapters contain the introduction where John encounters the resurrected, glorified Christ, who is seen walking amongst seven golden lampstands which represent seven churches. As sovereign ruler of the universe and particularly of the churches, Jesus has a few words for them - some of commendation, some of condemnation. While all the messages are different, each begins and ends the same way. First Jesus declares something about himself and the authority behind his words to the churches. Then each letter closes with a promise "to the one who conquers". It's worth taking some time to reflect on these statements of Christ's glory and the incredible promises he holds out to those who persevere in the faith.

Jesus is:
  • Him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven lampstands;
  • The first and the last, who died and came to life;
  • Him who has the sharp two-edged sword;
  • The Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze;
  • Him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars;
  • The holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one will open;
  • The Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation.
The one who conquers:
  • Jesus will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God;
  • Will not be hurt by the second death;
  • Jesus will give some of the hidden manna, and Jesus will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it;
  • Jesus will give him authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as Jesus has received authority from his Father. And Jesus will give him the morning star;
  • Will be clothed thus in white garments, and Jesus will never blot his name out of the book of life. Jesus will confess his name before his Father and before his angels;
  • Jesus will make him a pillar in the temple of his God. Never shall he go out of it, and Jesus will write on him the name of his God, and the name of the city of his God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from his God out of heaven, and Christ's own new name;
  • Jesus will grant him to sit with him on him throne, as Jesus also conquered and sat down with his Father on his throne.
Reflect and consider how great and awesome our Lord is, and how wonderful the inheritance of those who remain faithful to him.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Stuff Someone Else Said

"A false teacher isn't revealed just by the error he preaches, but also by the truth he leaves out."

James MacDonald, sermonizing on Revelation 2:2

Monday, September 7, 2009

Comfortable Darkness

About a year ago the wife and I took a tour of Israel. One of the things that really hit us hard was the spiritual lostness we encountered throughout the country. Whether it was the Jews still openly putting their faith in symbols or people worshiping relics, even when filled with awe and wonder at many sites there was often revulsion at the gross idolatry.

But the worst feelings came when we ventured into muslim-controlled areas of Jerusalem. Both of us had spent time in muslim countries before, and we felt the same sense of extreme darkness in Israel as we had previously. There's just something about being immersed such utter lostness, such open, unapologetic rebellion against God, it's an oppressive type of spiritual warfare you can feel constantly pressing on you. It's a really tough thing to describe, just a non-stop loathing of God and his people that continually wears on you, as if it's physically assaulting you. The constant heartbreak for those utterly trapped in evil, compassion mixed with despair, continually praying for many that surround you and are totally lost in darkness, it's downright exhausting.

One night at dinner we were discussing this with a few people, about how thoroughly our hearts were breaking for the muslims who were so thoroughly lost. One of the women made a really insightful observation that honestly stung quite a bit. I wish I could remember the exact quote, but it was roughly "the darkness we're not used to always seems darker than the darkness we're familiar with". Ouch.

Here's the thing. Being surrounded by muslims, seeing them openly mock Jesus, knowing their passionate hatred for God's truth, it was easy to be moved to compassion and anger and prayer. They are so utterly, obviously lost in sin. But how many people am I surrounded by every day who are every bit as lost? Why is it that being surrounded by muslims moves me to tears for their rebellious plight, yet I can see hundreds of people every day who are just as desperately rebellious and feel next to nothing? Is it just because their particular rebellions - materialism, humanism, practical atheism, whatever - are somehow less serious? Are their sins somehow less offensive to God, more acceptable and less severe?

Or is it just that I'm more comfortable with this type of sin? Is it that I've been immersed in this type of rebellion against God for my whole life, so it just seems natural and I barely take notice of it? I can very quickly get worked up about muslims despising Christ's work, but my neighbors who live as if there's no God, somehow that doesn't seem to bother me. The darkness around me every day is every bit as dark, but apparently it's just something I've gotten used to. I may even regard it as a more respectable type of sin, a way of hating God that somehow doesn't offend me or break my heart.

I say this to my own shame. What I want now is for my spirit to be provoked within me by all manner of sin, and not just by strange idols. To be so consumed by a passion for God that all rebellion, all sin, is clearly seen for what it is. To have my heart break for lost neighbors and friends and family. To see beyond the cultural issues that make muslim and hindu and buddhist and animist sin so obvious, yet make Western-style humanistic atheistic materialism seem not so bad. To see and proclaim the gospel as the solution to all this sin, no matter what form the idolatry takes. My neighbors are no less lost than the most virulent Christian-hating persecutor, and both need Jesus and the truth of the gospel more than anything. May I see that every day and live in light of that truth.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Esau: Don't Be Like Him

Sometimes a few sentences tell you all you need to know about a man. Consider this little snippet about Esau from Genesis 25:

Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, "Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!" (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, "Sell me your birthright now." Esau said, "I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?" Jacob said, "Swear to me now." So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Esau and Jacob were twin sons of Isaac, an extremely wealthy man who had inherited the Abrahamic covenant of God's blessing. As the older son, Esau was entitled to the birthright - that is, when Isaac died, Esau would get a double share of the inheritance. For some families the birthright didn't amount to much, but when your father is possibly the richest in the world, a double share translates to a ton of wealth.

But one day Esau had been out hunting, and when he got back to the camp he was hungry. His deceitful brother Jacob offered an utterly ridiculous trade - some lentil stew for the birthright. Can you imagine, say, two of Warren Buffet's kids making a trade like this? "Sure, I'll buy that bowl of chili for thirty billion dollars. I'd be stupid not to!" It's not even like Jacob was out in the middle of nowhere - he hung around the camp and was cooking. Which means Esau could have easily just called one of their many servants and had food brought to him (and probably something better than lentil stew). Honestly, it's tough to imagine that Jacob wasn't kidding when he made the offer, and tough to believe he kept a straight face while doing so. How absurd can you get, asking for immeasurable riches for a measly bowl of stew?

Esau traded in a heartbeat.

No wonder the text says he "despised his birthright." There's simply no other way to explain such a foolish trade. No rational defense for Esau's idiocy can possibly be offered - even the slightest bit of thought reveals this trade to be beyond lunacy. We read this and wonder how Esau could possibly do something so stupid.

And yet, how many of us have done infinitely worse?

Consider this warning from Hebrews 12. Esau's reprehensible trade is an illustration of the sheer lunacy of making an even worse trade:

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no "root of bitterness" springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.

The book of Hebrews is a massive warning to Jewish believers who, largely because of persecution, were considering abandoning the faith and returning to the old system. The author systematically shows the superiority of Jesus to the old system, proves that since Jesus came the old system is obsolete, and warns about the exclusivity of Jesus - if you abandon him, there is no hope to be found anywhere else. Writing to those who have lost family, property, power, freedom, and reputation, he encourages them to continue in faith, that is, to be so assured of their glorious future in Christ that current troubles pale in comparison, to count the riches of Christ as more valuable than all the pleasures of sin, and to persevere whatever the cost. Continue in Jesus because he's worth it, and to turn back is to abandon all hope.

With that backdrop, he introduces Esau as a model of what not to do. Esau looked at all the incredible wealth that could one day be his. He looked at a bowl of soup that would satisfy his hunger for a few hours. And he decided he would rather have the soup. Utter foolishness - and a perfect picture of what we do when we abandon Jesus.

We could have eternal glory and riches in heaven far beyond our imagination. Yet we decide we would rather enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. We would trade eternal glory for a few months of illicit sex. We would abandon heaven for a little money. We would deny God so we can enjoy a better reputation among peers or family or the intelligentsia. We denounce our faith to avoid persecution and live more comfortably. In all this, we are making a trade far worse than Esau's lunacy.

What is your bowl of stew? What is so precious to you that you would gladly abandon eternal joy and embrace eternal wrath? What in this world could possibly be so great that you would deny Jesus to have it?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Discernment and Yardwork

One of the most sorely lacking disciplines in American evangelicalism today is the discipline of discernment, simply knowing the difference between right and wrong. The proliferation of prominent false teachers and faulty gospels (prosperity gospel, oneness pentacostalism, openness, etc) speak to the general disinterest among professing Christians towards sound Biblical teaching. In fact, one of the fastest ways to find yourself on an island is to question a popular teaching or teacher by comparing their ideas to scripture.

It's not a fun thing to do my any means, but it's completely necessary if you care about your own spiritual development or your church's health. In fact, one of the strongest warning passages in the Bible harshly rebukes those who do not "have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil" as immature unrighteous infants. So God takes the practice of discernment very seriously, and it's worth taking some time to look at here.

But first, some musings on my life as a homeowner.

After we got married two years and a couple days ago, Tricia made the move out to Chicago with me. We stayed in my tiny one-bedroom apartment a few feet from the train tracks for a couple months, then took the plunge and bought our first house. This of course introduced me to a whole new world of responsibility - maintenance, especially the yard.

We had looked at this house several times before buying it, and it seemed that some landscaping work had been done by the previous owners. But because we were looking in late fall and early winter in Chicago, we never actually saw the yard before buying it. Every time we looked, it was covered in snow. Even the day we moved in, there was a major blizzard. It wasn't until around March that all the snow finally melted while we were there (it may have gone away a few weekends while we were out of town, and promptly snowed again), whereupon we discovered additional landscaping in the back yard. Nice.

Here's the thing though. That spring, when plants started growing in the landscaped area, we had no idea what was what. We had never seen what plants were supposed to be in there, so we didn't recognize which sprouts were good and which were weeds. So that first year while we were learning to recognize what belonged and what was an invader, we had to let things grow a bit longer before trying to pull the weeds. This year, now that we know the good plants and some of the weeds look awfully familiar, we can get the evil ones rooted out much faster. And new types of weeds we didn't have last year - well, they're clearly not the good plants we want, so they're easy to spot and make go away.

That's not to say weeding is easy now. Far from it - it's one of the most persistently annoying things we have to do. Getting them all up takes effort, and it hurts, and some of them have nasty thorns, and there's a lot of other things we'd rather be spending our time on, but if we want our garden and flowers and stuff to be healthy and productive, we need to eliminate the weeds that choke the life out of them. It's hard work, but it must be done.

Oh, and the weeds keep growing back. This is especially true if you just pluck what's above the surface and don't dig down to get the root. If you just deal with the visible surface, it'll keep growing back in the same place over and over and over and over and over and over... No, if you really want to get rid of it, you need to dig out the root. Find the place where it draws its strength, and attack it with a vengeance. That'll stop it from growing back there immediately, and just as importantly keep it from reproducing and spreading.

But no matter how well you clear your yard, weeds will come back. All it takes is one kid in the neighborhood blowing dandelion seeds in the air, and you'll find them. You can have a pristine yard with nothing but full healthy grass, but if you let your guard down at all, you'll have nasty weeds before you know it. Diligence is key. It's not enough to root out the weeds once and be done with it. It's something you have to continuously watch for, and every time it looks like they're coming back, you need to put a stop to it before it takes root and reproduces. Know what your lawn and garden are supposed to look like, and aggressively attack anything that doesn't belong.

Oh yeah, discernment? See above.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Any way you want it?

The story of Cain and Abel has always fascinated me. The lightning-fast descent of humanity from the purity of the Eden is astounding. By generation two, we had already sunk from true communion with God, all the way to murder. Think about that. You can start reading our history from the time before sin, and within about two minutes you get to where we're killing each other. If you want a good illustration of the depths of our depravity, there you have it.

There's something in this story that's real easy to gloss over, but if you slow down and think, it can reveal a lot about our natural state. We'll pick up the story in verse 3:

In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.

This is the first thing we read about after Adam and Eve rebelled and were banished from the garden. They had kids including Cain and Abel, who then grew up and offered sacrifices to God. Why did they start sacrificing? Scripture doesn't explicitly tell us, but there's no reason to think they came up with the idea themselves. Most certainly God told them what to do and how to do it - He was the one to institute the sacrifice.

Now why did God regard Abel's offering and not regard Cain's? Although we don't know exactly what they were commanded, the most reasonable conclusion is that Abel obeyed and Cain didn't. This is reinforced in the NT, where we are told plainly that Cain was evil and Abel righteous. Abel obeyed God and worshiped the way God commanded, while Cain disobeyed and worshiped the way Cain wanted. And God only accepted Abel's worship, while completely rejecting Cain's.

Now how would you react if God had clearly let you know that your actions were disobedient and unacceptable? Would you be repentant? Ashamed? Convicted? Or perhaps the reaction would be denial, self-justifying, trying to make excuses? Let's see how Cain responded:

So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it."

Interesting. Cain disobeyed, God called him out on it, so Cain was very angry. Now who was this anger directed at? Certainly Abel to some degree - no doubt he was jealous that little brother was the one God accepted, and this jealous anger led to the first murder.

But above all, Cain was angry at God. 'Who does God think He is, not accepting my sacrifice? Sure, it's not what he told me to do. But isn't my way good enough? I should be able to worship Him however I want!' Again we see how quickly and thoroughly we were corrupted. Just a couple chapters ago we were created out of dust, and already Cain is trying to dictate terms to God, and upset when God doesn't bow to his wishes. The clay is furious at the potter.

Cain's reaction should make us vomit in terror. The audacity of being angry with God, as though He were in any way answerable to us... And yet, how easy is it to see this same thing going on today? All you have to do is point out the Biblical teaching that salvation is only through faith in Jesus, and watch the fur fly. Oh, that's so unfair! What about people who do this and that other thing? God wouldn't reject them! If God is truly good, he wouldn't be so cruel as to condemn people just for rejecting Jesus. Well fine, if God won't accept such and such, then I don't want anything to do with him! Who does God think he is, anyway?

God's amazingly gracious response to Cain says it all. If you obey, will you not be accepted? It's really not that complicated. God will decide how God is to be worshiped. What right do we have to complain or get angry at the rules our sovereign creator has established? Is it not enough that, while we are all deserving of instant death and condemnation, He has graciously provided a means for salvation and worship? When we complain that the way God has appointed is insufficient, that He should accept worship any way we offer it (as long as it's sincere!), we are no different from Cain.

God owes us nothing. We have earned nothing from Him except wrath. The most spectacular news the universe has ever seen is that God has graciously placed our sin on Jesus on the cross, pouring out on him the fullness of wrath due to us, has counted us as righteous with Christ's own righteousness, and though we had been His enemies, He has through no merit of our own raised us up with Christ to bless us now and forever.

Let us be overwhelmed by the matchless grace God has provided, and stop insisting that we deserve more and better options. We don't even deserve this. Don't be like Cain and think God had better be happy with whatever we offer. Let's be like Abel and glory in the grace and goodness of what God has done.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Coincidentally, it cost the same as the next stimulus bill

A guy goes out to buy a pack of smokes, charges them on his Visa. Goes home, checks his finances, and notices something a bit off. Instead of costing a couple bucks, the cigarettes he bought apparently cost more than everything in the world combined. That's right, apparently his cigarettes cost a hair over $23 quadrillion. There are some important things we can learn from this.

1) Smoking is an expensive habit.

2) Always check your credit card transactions against your receipts. You never know when a waiter will throw a couple extra bucks on your tip, or McDonald's might try to charge a couple extra billion for the large fries. As a general rule, if the amount on your statement is at least fifteen digits longer than what you expected, you should complain.

3) It took over two hours on the phone with his bank to sort this out. Let that one sink in for a while, and consider whether you want anything to do with Bank of America.

4) At first they refused to remove the overdraft fee. Well obviously, since he charged several times more money than the entire world has, they're entitled to that extra $15.

5) I'm actually somewhat afraid that the government will see this story and get an idea.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ah, Toledo, How I Miss Thee

Living in the Chicago area has been a non-stop barrage of government so bad you sometimes can't tell the difference between corruption and incompetence. You have former governors in prison or awaiting trial. You have multiple suburbs voting overwhelmingly to leave Cook County and form our own, followed by the board president calling us uneducated ingrates who just don't understand how much they do for us (so far the list of things I've come up with is "collecting our taxes" and "????").

Recently the fun story has been Chicago leasing control of all the parking meters to a private company, a deal that was rammed through with less than two days of debate and before anyone really knew what it entailed (there's been a lot of that going in lately, it seems). They had a budget deficit of roundabouts $150 million, so they sold off control of the parking meters for a payment of $1.2 billion. Sound great, right? Sure, until you find out that the lease is for 75 years, or an average of $16 million per year. With approximately 36,000 meters in Chicago (so I hear - haven't been able to find an official count), that works out to $444 per meter per year, or just over a dollar per meter per day. Lemme put it this way: before this deal, a lot of the meters downtown were already at $3 per hour (other parts of the city were obviously less), and they were continually packed. Even without maintenance costs, they're taking way, way less than they would've made by holding on. The inspector general released a report saying as much, estimating that the market value for this lease was at least double what was settled on. So one of the aldermen responsible went on the radio to defend the lease (audio I would love to have right about now), and he made two very salient points. It doesn't matter how much money we're giving up long-term because we gots billz to pay now. And we really shouldn't matter how this will affect the city long-term, because none of us will be around by the end of the lease. Well, thanks for clearing that up! Oh, and did we mention that the mayor's nephew just happens to work for the company that bought the lease and stands to make millions in bonuses? Just a coincidence, no doubt.

So just when I start to think it can't get any more ridiculous, it's always good to see my former home Toledo make the national news. Because nobody, I mean nobody, can top the combo of incompetent, corrupt, and just plain crazy that is mayor Carty Finkbeiner. Just watch, and pray your mayor doesn't get any similar stupid ideas. (Which is worse - using garbage men to write illegal tickets, or using workers for a voter fraud and extortion organization to conduct a census?)

One more that isn't so much about bad Toledo government, but it did make the national news, so here you go. So a house is on fire, and the firement can't get into it because of a pitbull guarding it. The good news is it only took a few minutes to get past, but any delay if there was someone inside is too much. If it's me, I'm letting the pit bull drink from the fire hose, and be done with it (bonus vids: here and here). But that would no doubt upset the PETA folks (not the good ones from People for Eating Tasty Animals (keep being awesome), the insane ones), and pointing out that they could've used the axe instead or just shot the dog wouldn't satisfy them. But then again, I'm the crazy type that values human life, so what do I know?

Monday, June 22, 2009

More evidence that we're doomed

Today my drive home took a bit over an hour. I kept checking to a local news/talk radio station to see which stories they'd be discussing. So many interesting topics to choose from, what would it be?

Would they talk about the major upheaval in Iran, where the masses are possibly a step away from undoing Carter's folly, and kicking out the suicidal/genocidal mullahs? Where violent oppression has come to the fore, and new media has allowed the story to get out despite government censorship? Would they talk about how the mullahs grossly erred in rigging the 'election' (with 125% voter turnout, and 40 million votes counted in an hour by hand!) for Ahmadinejad, when all of the candidates were their puppets anyway, and the 'reformer' Mousavi is every bit as genocidally anti-Semitic as Ahmadinejad and only a hair's breadth away from him on most other issues? How the mullahs overplayed their hand in a pointless show of power for only marginal gain? How the Supreme Leader has issued edicts that are being blatantly disobeyed for the first time in decades? Or perhaps discussing what, if any, role the US should play in this uprising that could drastically alter the face of the Middle East?

Or maybe a little something about North Korea. You know, the ones that recently test-fired an ICBM over Japan, and our response was to cry to the UN, who warned Kim Jong Il to stop, or else. Or else what? Or else we will be very angry with you, and we will write you a nasty letter saying just how angry we are! Predictably, several weeks later they did an atomic test, detonating a nuke roughly the size of the ones that Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oh, and then they threatened to obliterate Seoul. Then they threatened to nuke Hawaii on July 4th, which they apparently have the capability to do now. And then Kim Jong Il appointed a son as his successor, as if he's ready to go out in a blaze of glory. Then they quite possibly loaded a ship full of nuclear material and missile parts and are planning to send it to destination unknown, a move that actually got the US to publicly respond, and may lead to a serious escalation any moment. Perhaps they would talk about something along those lines.

Or maybe they'd go economic, seeing as how we're still in a world-wide recession (which, as much as people try to blame it on us, actually hit Europe several months earlier and much harder, but I digress). Maybe something on the recklessly high deficits Bush and the Republicans (and Democrats the last two years) ran up, leading to their ouster, and how the Democrats led by Obama have about quadrupled that already. Or the insane amount of nationalization that has taken place already, so much so that Hugo Chavez is joking to Fidel Castro that Obama is making them look conservative by comparison. (Let that one sink in for a minute. Ready? OK.) And now in the midst of this, despite claiming that we're already out of money, he wants to spend another hundred billion or so to provide health insurance (NOTE: not health care. There is a huge difference between health insurance and health care. Much of the debate on this issue is clouded by people confusing/blending the two, which is almost certainly intentional.) for less than half of the uninsured (even when you remove illegals from the 'uninsured' totals), at a cost more than double what it would be to just buy a health insurance plan for them from a current provider. And a massive debate is raging over which proposed reforms to enact, most of which will almost certainly lead to the eventual nationalization of over 1/6th of the economy. Or perhaps they'd talk about the media's role in this, since one of the four largest 'independent' networks is planning to devote Wednesday to a day-long infomercial promoting the President's health insurance reform agenda, complete with refusal to acknowledge any dissenting viewpoints. (Note the contrast with Iran, where people are risking their lives to get the word out about what their state-run media isn't telling.) Surely there's something interesting there to talk about?

Or maybe they'd go for more local news. Like how the mayor of Chicago had for years refused to commit to a financial guarantee for the Olympics, then last week changed his mind and offered the completely non-corrupt IOC a blank check signed by the taxpayer. Or how yet another Alderman was arrested on corruption charges. Or how our new governor is furiously campaigning to raise taxes, because when you've got a budget deficit, the only thing you can do is raise revenue. (Oh wait, there is another option, but... nah, that would never work.) Or perhaps something more about our lovely Senator Burris, who somehow will not be charged with perjury for lying under oath and changing his story, let's see, I think he's on story number eight now. Or Senator Durbin, who was in a meeting last year before the horrible, awful bailouts were enacted, where they were being discussed. Immediately after leaving the meeting wherein specific troubled firms were discussed as being on the verge of failure despite public news to the contrary, the honorable senator sold all his stock in these firms, saving himself six-figure losses based on insider information. You may think that sounds like insider trading, but you'd only be right if you were a textbook trying to provide a clear example of insider trading, or maybe a dictionary trying to define it. But not if you were, say, a Senator, or perhaps the justice department of the same party's administration who would be tasked with investigating such a thing.

So with all this potential news to choose from - Iran, North Korea, the economy, the nationalization of ABC, the health insurance debate, local issues and corruption on a scale that makes New Orleans jealous, plus many other local and interesting stories - it could be really hard to choose what to talk about. There's just so much rich stuff there, what to choose, what to choose. So what did they talk about the entire hour?

Apparently some guy named Perez Hilton, who is famous for something or other, got into a fight with someone from the Black Eyed Peas, who were last heard from every twelve seconds during the 2004 NBA playoffs.

We're doomed.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Huh. I still have a blog. How 'bout that?

It's been a while since I've written anything, and this will be somewhat short. Oh well, life happens.

A few weeks ago I was reading a new book by John Piper called Finally Alive, about what it means to be born again. It was awesome. Then I flew somewhere for work, and left it on the plane. Curses and drat. It's available free online, but something about that just isn't the same, so I'll probably finish it once I get another copy. Anyway, one of the first things that really stood out to me was an observation I don't recall ever making before. Piper asks a really basic question - why must we be born again? Why is that the only way?

Part of the answer he gives is based on this analogy - the severity of the cure is proportional to the severity of the disease. Nobody would undergo radiation therapy for a tummyache, or get your leg amputated for a sore toe. For measures that extreme to even be considered, the disease has to be incredibly dangerous. Bad enough that if these last-resort measures aren't taken, you will die.

So consider what that means with regards to regeneration. No other remedy will suffice - we must be born again. We must be completely made new. There is no other way. We cannot just be made better. We can't work really hard and improve. We can't be reformed. The command originally was given to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, in the top percentile of righteous men among the most righteous nation on earth (for what that's worth). Yet even he could not just do better, so that he could stand on account of his own righteousness. No, the only way we can ever be brought into right standing with God, and see the kingdom, is to be born again.

What does that say about how we are before Christ makes us alive? How desperately sinful are we if no reformation could ever be enough, if we must be made completely new? That simple command - "You must be born again" - is about as strong a statement of total depravity as you'll find in scripture (and that's saying something!). If the only possible solution is to be born again, there is truly nothing commendable in us. Truly, salvation is completely of the Lord.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On Interfaith Prayer Services

In America, one of the more common methods of promoting unity is to hold something known as an "interfaith prayer service". These were particularly common following 9/11 (for anyone from the Obama administration reading this, that was the day when... oh nevermind, you wouldn't be interested), when people of all faiths were called to set aside their differences and call out to God together - Christians, Jews, muslims, whatever Apu is, etc. Sometimes an interfaith prayer service will be called for a community, a college (by the 'interfaith council'), or in extreme circumstances, the whole nation. Annually, there is the National Day of Prayer (apparently it's this week - as usual, Dan Phillips offers an outstanding take on it), in which all Americans all axed to take time to call out to God on behalf of the nation.

My question is, should Christians participate?

Consider for a moment what these events are saying. The fundamental assumption central to an interfaith prayer service is that we all worship the same god and what we believe makes no difference at all. The whole concept necessarily assumes that all prayers are equal, that they are simply generic petitions to generic deity/energy field/life force/gaia. Without this assumption, the entire idea is patently absurd. What business would a Jew and a muslim have praying together, or a Christian and a mormon, or a hindu and a j-dub? If any of those faiths are true, all others are necessarily false (well, hindu and mormonism might be compatible), so why would we think their prayers are of any value?

Frankly, the idea of a Christian claiming that his faith is no different from any other should be nauseating. How dare we set aside the exclusivity of Christ in order to pretend that Islam is just as valid and their prayers are just as effectual? How dare we give false witness to those of other faiths and undermine the gospel by pretending that [generic belief or moralism] is no different than salvation through the death and resurrection of the Son of God for his church? How can we profane the blood of Christ by declaring it to be of no more worth than... whatever it is hindus do?

Can you imagine Paul participating in an interfaith prayer service in Corinth or Athens? Sure, his spirit was provoked within him by all the idols, and he risked his life to confront their pagan idolatry, but maybe for one day he could lead a generic prayer to generic deity, because it's all really the same anyway. Right.

Or maybe Jesus would be willing to participate in one. Perhaps after saying this:

"If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God."

...he could have extended the invitation. Now let's pray together, because our prayers all go to the same place, right? Right. Yeah, I can totally see that happening.

So here's the challenge: provide one scriptural justification for Christians participating in an interfaith prayer service. Surely if one exists, my Biblically-knowledgable readership (at least a dozen strong!) should be able to find it, no problem. Perhaps an example of such a service in scripture would suffice?

I could only think of one scriptural example of an interfaith prayer service. You can find it in 1 Kings 18. How'd that work out?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Veritable Bouillabaisse

The first in an occasional series in which I throw a few short items together when I don't feel like writing anything long or deep.

*** Recently, on a tip from Frank Turk, I read through the book What He Must Be ...If He Wants To Marry My Daughter. Sometime around page 12 or so, it was clear we'd be loaning it out to other people who need to read it. After further reflection, that turned into buying additional copies to get it into necessary hands more quickly. So you might be able to gather that I liked it and thought it was insanely useful. Very, very challenging stuff.

As you might be able to tell from the title, the book is a guide to help fathers screen potential suitors for their daughters - the non-negotiable traits he absolutely must have if he's going to be allowed to pursue her. But with just a little reflection, it's clear that the book would be useful for plenty of other types of people. For example, single men who need to develop these qualities. Single women who should know what to look for. Married men who can see where they're falling short. Women who are mentoring younger women. Folks in youth ministry, students and leaders alike. Basically anyone who could potentially date or is in a position to influence such a person. So go buy it - in fact, buy two and give one away to someone who needs it.

*** You may have heard about this thing going around called "swine flu". Excuse me, H1N1 A or whatever it's called now. A few days ago, The Obama apparently called it that in a press conference I didn't watch, and the next day I heard a bunch of news people calling it that, so I figured they were just being butt-kissing lapdogs as usual. Well, they probably still are, but eventually I heard one of them explain the change from the simple, common name to its unwieldy laboratory designation: apparently a lot of people - in spite of repeated announcements to the contrary - thought you could get it from eating pork, so they were boycotting pork products.

This is, quite frankly, an idiotic reason to change the name. A bunch of people can't be bothered to read all the way to the second paragraph of a news story, or listen for more than eight seconds, to get the information that's clearly being told, and they foolishly overreact? So why, exactly, are we supposed to accommodate them? Listen - if someone is stupid enough to give up bacon without even doing the three seconds worth of research it would take to show that such a move is unnecessary, they deserve to go without bacon. It's a harsh penalty, I know, but stupidity must have consequences. Besides, the decrease in demand would drive the price of pork down. Which means those of us who actually pay attention would be able to buy cheap bacon! I say we keep calling it "swine flu" until the price is low enough to justify buying a separate freezer just to hold all the bacon I'd buy.

But under my plan, those who take the initiative to be well-informed, make wise decisions, and act responsibly would benefit, while those who are ignorant, moronic, utterly short-sighted, and rush unthinkingly into bad decisions would miss out. And that simply can't happen in today's America!

*** Occasionally I'll read something in the Bible that brings up a mental image that I can't help but laugh at. Sometimes it's just a case of unfamiliarity with ancient ritual, where something that'd be perfectly obvious to the original readers is not explained, so that when it's read today it sounds sort of funny. Such was the case when I read through Numbers recently, and came to a section with a wave offering. Best I can tell, a wave offering was generally part of a larger offering. The priest would take a prescribed part of the animal (for example, a ram shoulder for the Nazirite vow closing), pick it up, and wave it. So imagine my surprise when I read this in Numbers 8:

5And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 6"Take the Levites from among the people of Israel and cleanse them... And you shall bring the Levites before the tent of meeting and assemble the whole congregation of the people of Israel. 10When you bring the Levites before the LORD, the people of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites, 11and Aaron shall offer the Levites before the LORD as a wave offering from the people of Israel, that they may do the service of the LORD... 13And you shall set the Levites before Aaron and his sons, and shall offer them as a wave offering to the LORD.

Alrighty then. So was the elderly Aaron supposed to pick up each of these 8500-odd men and wave them in the air? I suppose it's possible, but... I'm guessing there's something about this ancient ritual that I just don't see, but it made perfect sense back then. Still, the image of Aaron picking up each of these thousands of grown men, and waving them around, well, it amuses me.

*** Today I finally started reading the latest John Piper book, Finally Alive. I'm only in the introduction, and already it's been totally worth it. Makes me wonder why I went so long since the last time I read a Piper book. It's about what it means to be born again - the real, Biblical use of the term, not the shallow, pathetic perversion of the term common today. The little vignette wherein he takes the Barna research group to task for their horrible handling of the term "born again" is simply must-read. I have a feeling this is going to be well worth reading.

Oh, and I should also mention that last week we went to see Piper and Don Carson give a little seminar on the intersecting interests of the pastor and scholar. My theory is, whenever you get a chance to go see one of these guys teach, it's probably going to be worth it. If they're both speaking, it's a safe bet that it'll be extraordinarily edifying, challenging, intellectually stimulating, and worshipful. Perhaps I shall write about that event soon. Perhaps.

*** Just checked my RSS not too long ago, and saw this post (follow the links there to his earlier posts - they're all good, and I've probably linked them before). It's commentary on an interview Christianity Today did with Rob Bell to pimp his newest book, during part of which Bell is asked to explain the gospel. The article's title: "Not the Gospel of Jesus. Not Anywhere Near It." That really sums it up quite well - much of the interview was downright nauseating, but the supposed gospel presentation was beyond terrible, being something any New Age spiritualist or TM guru could easily affirm, albeit with one oblique reference to Jesus. Yet another opportunity to ask: how exactly is this guy considered a Christian leader? What am I missing exactly? How can anyone read his stuff without klaxons blaring and red warning lights flashing?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Despicable King Ahaz

Reading through 1 and 2 Kings, it's tough not to notice that a lot of the kings were just wretched. One that really stuck out to me the last time through was King Ahaz, whose story we find in 2 Kings 16. He's the first of the Ahaz-Hezekiah-Manasseh troika that should drive certain people crazy, namely those who believe that children perfectly reflect the way they're raised (giving credit to the father for the child's righteousness, and blaming him for the child's rebellion). Ahaz was incredibly wicked, his son Hezekiah was the most righteous king Judah ever knew, then Manasseh was beyond evil. But that's a head-scratcher for another day.

As for Ahaz, scripture doesn't really have anything good to say about him. This passage starts off with a description of his wicked idolatry. He was so evil he even sacrificed one of his sons, an act the Bible calls "despicable". In order to obtain a material blessing from a god - usually an abundant crop or healthy livestock - the parents would sacrifice their newborn child to their 'god', killing their child so that they could be better off financially. I'll let you draw your own parallel to a modern abomination. Suffice to say, God does not approve.

Next, we read about when Israel and Syria teamed up to invade Judah. Ahaz got out of it by paying Assyria to attack them, not an uncommon practice in those days. So what's so wrong about that? Well, we read elsewhere a little more of the story. In short, Israel and Syria threatened to attack, and Ahaz freaked out. So God sent Isaiah with a message to Ahaz - don't worry, I'll deliver you, have faith. And Ahaz was told to ask for a sign - anything he could imagine, God would do for him. Just pause and let the magnitude of that offer sink in. Now, consider this - Ahaz blew it off! Instead of asking God for - well, anything - and trusting God to deliver them as He promised, Ahaz decided it would be better to loot the temple and treasury, send the gold to Assyria, and let them handle things. Now that is pure wickedness. (As for the sign that was offered - God decided to give one anyway, one that's a tad bit better than anything Ahaz could have ever dreamed).

Which brings us to the third abomination Ahaz committed, which is what really caught my eye this time through. It's a sin that never gets mentioned in any list of the worst sins, but really, it can make a good case for being among the most nauseating. What did Ahaz do that was so bad this time?

He made a new altar for the temple.

Wait, that's it? That's what gets me so worked up? Surely that isn't really all that bad, is it? Why yes, yes it is. Just on the surface, we see the heart of Ahaz turned to other gods. He saw the altar at Damascus, a pagan altar to imaginary deities. The altar in the temple at Jerusalem was a pretty plain design, pretty much just a big bronze square, but the pagan altar he saw in Damascus was apparently ornate and beautiful. So Ahaz rejected the altar of God, deciding he'd rather have the better-looking altar of the pagans. To Ahaz, God was just one of many, and it didn't really matter which god he worshipped, or how he did it. An altar was an altar, all the offerings go to the same place, right? What difference did it really make - God's altar, a pagan altar, they're all basically the same. In this act, Ahaz completely rejected God's covenant, despised the call to be a holy people and worship him only. Instead, Ahaz wanted to be just like all the other nations. So he rejected God's altar, and made an altar just like the other nations had. In doing so, he rejected God as well.

That's wicked enough, but there's more. Consider this passage from Hebrews 8:

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, "See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain."

See there why God would be so offended by the altar Ahaz built? When God gave Moses the designs for the tabernacle and its furnishings, it wasn't accidental or random. Everything in the tabernacle/temple was modeled after the heavenly reality. This includes the altar. As God designed it, the altar was a temporal, physical model of a piece of heaven. So when Ahaz spurned God's altar, he was ultimately rejecting heaven. He looked at the temple furnishings, saw a glimpse of heaven, and decided he'd rather have what the Syrians had. In rejecting the altar, he was rejecting heaven itself. Now that is a sin!

God's design for the tabernacle was deliberate. He gave specific patterns for specific furnishings, because these earthly furnishings were to clearly reflect heavenly glory. Because of the awesome, eternal truth represented by these furnishings, God demanded that all worship be directed through these approved channels. You could not just worship God anywhere in any way and expect Him to accept it. No, to truly worship God, it must be through the way God appointed. God will be worshipped how God wants to be worshipped, and no other.

To equivocate and insist that another way was just as good as the God-appointed way is wickedly insane. When Ahaz insisted that the pagan altar of Damascus was essentially the same as God's altar, he committed blasphemy of the highest order. God had clearly revealed how He would be approached; to claim that another method was just as good was wicked arrogance - to think that sinful man can approach God however we want! To imagine that we set the terms of interaction with God transcendent, our creator! No, we can only approach God as He says, and when He has clearly revealed how we are to approach Him, we need to obey. Trying another method is sinful folly.

So when Ahaz rejected God's clear direction (as did Uriah the priest, who sinned through spinelessness) and insisted the Syrian way was just as good or better, Ahaz was guilty of a heinous sin.

And so are many in the church today, those who are infecting the church with ideas of pluralism and inclusivism. Pluralism is the idea that all faiths are basically equal, all ways lead to God, blah blah blah. Inclusivism teaches that, while Jesus is the preferred way to God, there may be other ways as well, albeit inferior and more difficult ways. Both of these run afoul of the clear scriptural proclamation that we can only approach God through Jesus. God has made it abundantly clear that salvation is through Christ alone. What sort of blasphemous arrogance is required to pretend that another way is just as good? Who do we think we are, if we believe that we choose the terms of the covenant, that we decide how God is to be worshipped?

But that sort of teaching is everywhere today, spurred on largely by modernism and greatly accelerated by postmodernism. Few doctrines are less popular that the exclusivity of Christ, and few questions are intended to hurt and embarrass more than "Do you really believe that good [fill in the religion] are going to hell?" We are derided for believing that one major flaw outweighs all the 'good' they do. Yet this is exactly what God has declared - who are we to think we know better than God?

And so, we are constantly assaulted with the mocking of modern-day Ahaz. We are told that the altar in Damascus is just as good as the one God designed for Jerusalem, and it's purtier, too. And the world will like us more if we stop being so... exclusive. So we need to stand firm, and let God be true though every man a liar. Let us believe God, reject all substitutes, and present the full hope of the true gospel.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The First Witnesses

This Sunday is Easter, and of course I've been thinking quite a bit about what Jesus accomplished on the cross and by his resurrection (not just because of Tony Jones's latest heretical rantings, either). As often happens, when meditating on a familiar passage of scripture again, something strikes me differently than ever before. This time, I've really been thinking a lot about the first witnesses to the resurrection.

All across America tomorrow, many preachers will mention that the first witnesses to Christ's resurrection were women. They'll give the usual spiel about the view of women in that culture, how they weren't regarded as reliable witnesses, how if this was a fictional account there's no way they'd make up women as the first witnesses, etc etc. All well and good. What hit me recently, though, is that there's one thing not quite right here.

They weren't the first.

Oh, they were the first to respond positively. The first who saw Jesus and believed. The first to tell the apostles and start proclaiming the marvelous truth that Jesus had conquered death and had risen to glorious life. But they weren't the first ones to know about the resurrection.

That honor fell to an even less likely group - the Roman soldiers. And what they did with this amazing knowledge is a sad commentary on us. That's right, us. You and me. How so? Let's set the scene...

Jesus had been performing his public ministry for about three years. In that time he'd shown through miraculous signs and authoritative teaching that he was the long-awaited Messiah, and had gathered a large enough following. The Jewish ruling authorities, knowing full well that he was the Christ, but treasuring their wealth and power above God's promise, became increasingly jealous until they finally plotted to murder Jesus (as well as those who gave indisputable evidence of his divine power). All through his ministry, Jesus clearly and publicly claimed that he would be killed, but would rise again on the third day. So after they successfully orchestrated his murder, the Jewish leaders also wanted to ensure that his body would stay put. They axed Pilate for a guard, and he granted their request, ordering a group of soldiers to seal and guard the tomb to make sure none of his disciples stole the body.

The soldiers no doubt knew why they were to guard this tomb. Most likely Pilate or the Jews had explained their mission to them, but even if not, they surely had heard of this latest would-be Messiah. They had heard of his ministry, the miracles, the claims to divinity. They would have known that he had talked about his own resurrection, and would have been on high alert for anyone who would steal the body and pretend he had risen. The city would go berserk if that happened, and that was something Rome just wouldn't allow. These soldiers would have been determined - nothing like that was going to happen on their watch! This man who claimed to be God in the flesh, who claimed he would burst forth from the grave victorious over death - they would make sure his corpse stayed right where it was.

That was before they ran away.

We don't know exactly how long they stuck around or what all they saw, though it seems they were gone long before the women got there. We can only imagine what their conversation that night was like - probably mocking Jesus, laughing at the idea that someone could come back from the dead. Possibly ridiculing the idea of anything supernatural at all - why, all those healings and miracles he did were probably just parlor tricks. He was just a man, and he was just as dead as all the other would-be saviors of Israel, and he'd stay that way. But then:

And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.

Can you imagine? Assigned to guard a tomb to make sure someone stays inside of it. Mocking the very idea of someone coming back to life. Cursing the backwoods hicks of Israel that would actually believe such a story, making this stupid waste of time assignment neccesary. And then - an angel descends from heaven. Their reaction is the typical response to an angelic appearance, absolute dread and despair. No doubt there was an added element of incredulity - can this truly be happening? They watched as the terrifyingly awesome angel descended from heaven. They got out of his way as he walked to the tomb, grabbed the multi-ton stone, and effortlessly flung it aside. We don't know exactly when they fled. Did they wait to see Jesus actually walk out of the tomb, fully alive in his glorious resurrection body? Did they run away before then, when they saw the angel and knew what was coming? We don't know for sure.

We do know this: they knew that Jesus had risen, just as he said. They were the first people to know that Jesus had conquered the grave and had broken the power of sin and death. They had beheld irrefutable proof that Jesus is who he said he is, that God's word is absolutely sure, that Jesus is truly the Son of God. They knew all this, and yet what was their response?

While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, "Tell people, 'His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.' And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.

Yikes. In the face of irrefutable proof that God's word is absolutely true, that all Jesus said would come to pass, they despised it all, agreeing to lie about it in exchange for money. And the priests, who knew even better than the guards what the resurrection meant, gladly paid them to lie. Now that is depravity!

And the truly sobering thought is, we're not any different. Apart from God's saving, sealing grace, every one of us would gladly deny God for money or power or acceptance. Starting with Adam, who knew God but didn't care and threw it all away, down through the Pharisees and priests of Jesus' day, who knew who Jesus is and refused to accept it, we all would find some excuse for not believing, Unless, that is, God's regenerating grace makes us alive. But for the grace of God, that would be me. This Easter as we reflect on what Jesus did on the cross, as we celebrate his triumph over the grave, as we praise him for all his wonderful works, take some time out to truly thank God for making you alive. Because without his grace poured out on the elect, we would be there with the crowd shouting for his crucifixion, or knowing full well he had risen yet offering to lie for money, or knowing the truth yet trying desperately to distract from it or pretend it never happened. Let it sink in - if not for God's grace, we'd gladly trade his promises for our fame or power or wealth or just because we felt like it. We are as depraved as the soldiers or priests who killed him or wished to keep his rising a secret. If you've come to genuine faith in Christ, the praise for this belongs to God alone.

Which leads to the next point. "Skeptics" are seemingly everywhere nowadays, showing up on blogs and all other media, pretending that they'd believe if only there was some evidence. The guards shoot a massive hole in that idea. They were in the best position to examine the evidence, and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that what Jesus had said was true. They received the best evidence imaginable, and still refused to believe. If the preponderance of evidence here wasn't enough for the soldiers, how can any amount of evidence available today convince a modern skeptic? It simply will not happen - apart from God's grace. "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead."

Of course, the gospel must be proclaimed boldly and cleanly. We must present it clearly, as it should be. And when necessary, we must be apologetically prepared. But we must never fall into thinking that our argument or evidence will win over someone who is lost. Compared to the tomb guards and high priest, no evidence we could present is as compelling. A skeptic will not be won over any more than the guards were. If one is to come to faith, it won't be from a clever argument or awesome evidence. It will be the work of God in them, convincing them of sin, bringing them repentance, and making them alive through faith. Apologetics and stuff have their place, but true conversion only comes from the regenerating grace of God.

So praise God that he made you alive. Praise him that he has set you free from sin and death. And pray for those still blinded by the darkness. God is their only hope, just as he has been ours. And don't get too worked up over apologetics or methods, as if your words had the power of God to save. God alone can bring conversion, not your words or promises. Never stop praising God, for he has done the same and more for you.

Friday, April 10, 2009

These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, "This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you." And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

"Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, 'Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.'"

When he said above, "You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (these are offered according to the law), then he added, "Behold, I have come to do your will." He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,
"This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,"

Then he adds,

"I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more."

Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Congregational Government

Frank Turk has an awesome post up at Pyro, which included this beauty in the comments. Give 'em a read.

One theme that comes up a few times is the dispute between elder-governed and congregational-governed churches. Not wanting to derail the thread too much, I figured I'd just post this here instead. Plus, it gives a nice easy four-minute update (perfect for those busy work weeks), and the timing is quite cromulent all around, oddly enough.

When we were in Israel, at one of the sites James MacDonald taught a lesson from Mark 15 et al about the many grave injustices involved in sentencing Jesus to death. Seemingly at every step, someone broke the law or acted deceitfully or used extreme cowardice, in order to railroad the innocent man to the cross. In so many ways, this was a spectacular sin.

At one point, he talked about the crowd turning against Jesus. Just days before, they had praised him as he entered Jerusalem through the east gate from the Mount of Olives, shouting Hosannah and greeting him as the king he is. Yet here they were not even a week later, a bloodthirsty mob calling for his death. Quite a sobering look at how fickle and depraved we are, and how it's only by the grace of God that those of us who are in Christ remain in him.

But here James took a minor tangent, and pointed out that this was just par for the course for large crowds in the Bible. The challenge - name a time a right decision was made by the crowd. Let's see... give us a king so we can be just like everyone else... we're too afraid to enter the Promised Land, take us back to Egypt... make us an idol, Aaron... who does Moses think he is, let's follow Korah... crucify him! There may be a counter-example somewhere I can't think of offhand, but so far the congregation's track record is looking exceptionally bad. So commenting on this trend, that in scripture decisions made by the congregation are (almost?) always horrible, James revealed the title of a book he hopes to publish someday:

Congregational Government is from Satan

It's pretty hard to tell where he stands on some of these issues, isn't it? So anyway, aside from the clear commands throughout the NT (particularly in the pastorals) that the church is to be elder-led, this maybe sheds some extra light on the case against congregational rule. Or maybe it doesn't. Whatever, I thought it was an awesome title, even if there's almost zero chance someone will publish it.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A little follow-up

Saturday night I posted about the severity of sin, and how a faulty view here leads to patently anti-Biblical views of the atonement and of hell. Sunday we went to church, and listened to a very, very convicting sermon on hell. Give it a listen this week (unfortunately, they only keep them up for a week, no free archive).

The intro in particular struck a chord with me, as Pastor MacDonald described the tremendous sorrow that always accompanies discussing the reality of hell. I may have been particularly sensitive to that point because I was had just read this snippet from the Rob Bell interview I linked to, where he responds to a question about whether he believes in a literal hell, and his response was still stickin' in my craw. He says:

"...I don’t know why as a Christian you would have to make such declarative statements. Like your friend, does he want there to be a literal hell? I am a bit skeptical of somebody who argues that passionately for a literal hell, why would you be on that side? Like if you are going to pick causes, if you’re literally going to say these are the lines in the sand, I’ve got to know that people are going to burn forever, this is one of the things that you drive your stake in the ground on. I don’t understand that."

This paragraph illustrates so well why I can't stomach much of what Bell says. First off, you have the postmodernism shining through loud and clear (far more clearly than even the most postmodern secularist would ever dream of, by the way). The question is a simple "is there a hell", and somehow his answer is all about what people believe. Wow. This is postmodernism on steroids and crack. His response assumes that whether or not there's a hell is not an objective reality, and turns into a "whatever you think is true for you" nonsense. Somehow, this type of thinking is supposedly compatible with Christianity. Still waiting for an explanation of how.

Then you have the combo ad hominem/strawman attack. This is really a beauty, actually. Falsely assuming that there's no objective reality, Bell then claims that anyone who claims that there is a literal hell is only doing so because they really want there to be (hello, Mr. Strawman!), and then based on this attacks their character. This is beyond absurd. Compare his strawman Christian to an actual godly man such as James MacDonald or Alistair Begg, men who weep over the thought of people suffering eternally, yet still proclaim the message. Obviously, the strawman claim of them just really wanting people to burn isn't anywhere near true.

So why would such men preach about hell if they don't (yet) rejoice in the eternal suffering of others? What possible reason would they have to preach about something they don't enjoy thinking about, that moves them to tears? Could it be.... that it's TRUE? Memo to Rob Bell: God's Word clearly proclaims the reality of hell. No matter how much the thought disturbs us, it is true. For a Christian to believe God is hardly a character flaw.

Ironically, in questioning the character of those of us who believe God, Bell shines a light on his own deficiency. By attacking us for believing God, he reveals his own deliberate, overwhelming doubt. See, Bell is definitely a smart man, well-educated, certainly capable of reading with comprehension, and he's read the Bible a few times at least. There is simply no way an honest reading of scripture could leave the question of hell unsettled. The evidence for a real, eternal hell of torment is utterly overwhelming. His doubt is not an accidental mistake, but can only be intentional, stubborn refusal to believe God.

In his accusation, Bell essentially calls us sadists - we just really, really want people to burn and suffer forever, apparently. The truth is, we simply believe God and act accordingly, no matter how it makes us feel or how much the message offends (talking about hell certainly isn't popular!). Bell, on the other hand, surely must know the truth, but insists on pretending otherwise. Possibly it's because of how it feels, perhaps it's so people will like him more, maybe some of both. The end result is not unlike a doctor who sees his patient has cancer, but because he doesn't like talking about it, and the patient really doesn't want to hear it, he never says anything. Apparently to Rob Bell, that doctor exhibits great character, while the doctor who does his job despite the sorrow is a wicked sadist who just wants people to have cancer and suffer.

And with that, I go to pray for my own repentance from any doubt or ungodly attitude, then for Rob Bell. First for his repentance, and if that won't happen, then for his poison influence on the church to cease. May God grant us more faithful preachers of the Word and less peddlers of doubt.