Saturday, September 28, 2013

Nebuchadnezzar and the False Prophets

We could learn a lot from a pagan king.

Now, I don't mean that in a Willow Creek "let's ask wicked business and political folk how they do things and model our church after that" type of learning. I mean, there's an example in scripture where a pagan king gets something right, something that we in the American church all too often get wrong. I'm talking of course about King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon's dealings with false prophets in Daniel 2.

There were a whole bunch of magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, etc in Babylon, people who claimed to have supernatural powers, access to the divine, blah blah blah. They enjoyed a pretty good living and formal government sanction. But then one night, Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that was clearly of divine origin. He brought the dream to his supernatural specialists for an interpretation - and that's when their problems began.

Because it was such an important dream, Nebuchadnezzar wanted assurance that he could trust the interpretation. So he devised a simple test - the one who could tell him the dream was the one who could correctly interpret it. After all, he reasoned, if this dream is from a god, surely it would be a trivial matter for that god to reveal the same dream to his chosen interpreter. He put the challenge before his divine experts - and they didn't fail, they didn't even try.

Nebuchadnezzar drew the only logical conclusion. They were frauds. For years they had been collecting their money and putting on a little show, but now he really needed them. Now there was something truly significant that he desperately needed to understand, and they didn't even pretend like they could do anything about it. They were utterly worthless when it really mattered, so what good were they? Worse, this was the first time they could show their true divinely-granted power, and all they could show was that they didn't have any. They had been lying to him, and if there's one thing tyrants don't like, it's finding out they've been deceived. They were deceitful false prophets, claiming to speak the words of gods when they didn't, and he reasonably decided to kill every last one of them.

Of course, the story doesn't end there. The dream was not from merely a god, but from the actual God. And there was a true prophet in their midst, Daniel. God revealed the dream and its interpretation to Daniel, who proclaimed the very word of God to the pagan king. Nebuchadnezzar was a great king, but his kingdom would fall and others would rise in its place. But one day would come a kingdom established by God, which would crush all the kingdoms of this world. As John would record centuries later, "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever." At the name of this Lord of lords, every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Amen.

But back to Nebuchadnezzar - what can we learn from his example, even though he was still a wicked unbeliever? He had no tolerance for deceivers who claimed divine power and divine words. Once it was clear they were charlatans, he decided to get rid of their poison. Why don't we?

The church is full of frauds who claim supernatural powers they don't have. False prophets who claim to speak for God when they don't. Charlatans who claim they can heal but can't. Wizards and magicians of all sorts who claim to be extra-special conduits of divine power, whose miracles elicit laughter rather than awe, whose divine words of wisdom are bad pop wisdom, whose prophecies which aren't outright false are less impressive than Ed Glosser, Trivial Psychic. Deceivers defaming the name of Christ with their wicked shenanigans.

Why do we put up with it? Why are we so much less discerning than a wicked king of olde? Once he knew they were deceivers, he went to get rid of them, through execution (the same punishment God ordered for false prophets in Israel). Once we know these charlatans for what they are, we should get rid of them through the New Covenant parallel - excommunication. Unless and until they repent, goodbye, and good riddance.

Does that seem too harsh? Suggest for me a more appropriate way to deal with those who say "Thus saith the Lord" when the Lord most certainly has not saith. Name a more suitable punishment for those who claim divine inspiration for advice that is worthless at best and destructive at worst. Tell me how best to handle those who mock the Spirit with wretched shows like this and this, or those who put on displays of 'power' accompanied by rank heresy, or those who claim a stream of divine revelation apart from scripture.

Really, I'm open to suggestions. Because a century or so of playing wait-and-see with a tumor doesn't seem to be slowing its growth.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Anyone Can Say Anything

In Mark 2:1-12 we read:

And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” - he said to the paralytic - “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

Anyone can say your sins are forgiven. I mean, the pope can say he's forgiving sins for anyone who retweets him, for cryin' out loud. (Side note - is Tweetzel the saddest Roman episode you can remember? They used to be able to extort money for 'indulgences', now they're reduced to RTs? Pathetic.) Anyone who wants can claim to forgive anyone's sins - who can check it? How would you falsify?

But who would claim to be able to heal the paralyzed? What could be more easily falsifiable? You say you can heal - well, heal! And here, Jesus does exactly that. He tells a paralytic to get up and walk, and he does!

Now, commanding a paralyzed man to walk is beyond amazing. But how does it prove that Jesus can also forgive sins? Jesus says the healing is proof of his authority to forgive (see also here). Is it, and if so, how?

One response is that the visible, unquestionable power on display in healing gives confidence that we can trust him for the invisible power he claims. If he can do this humanly impossible act you can see, why can't he also do the humanly impossible that you can't see?

I think there's something more to it, though. Why was the man paralyzed to begin with? Because of sin. Now I don't mean that in the Job's friends, John 9 kind of way, that he did a specific sin and was paralyzed as punishment. I mean it in the general sense - Adam sinned, and we were cursed, and so life is full of suffering and ends in death. We're sinners living in a broken, cursed world.

When Jesus heals, it isn't just a display of power, generally. When Jesus heals, and raises the dead, he is showing specifically the power to undo the effects of the curse. And if he can overpower the effects of the curse, he can overpower the cause - sin.

In Adam's sin, we were cursed and broken. In the second Adam's righteousness, the curse is broken and we are made new. When Jesus healed, he was pointing to the much greater healing he would perform through his righteous life, death and resurrection. Sin is forgiven, death is conquered, and we are reconciled to God.