AuthorShane

A Sample Sermon- “You Must be Born Again”

Just now over on Facebook I did a live video about how to put a sermon together. I mentioned that I would post the notes for anyone interested. Here ya go!

 

You Must Be Born Again

John 3:1-15

June 3, 2018

Valrico FL

Introduction

We are seven sermons in, so before I start the eighth let’s take stock of what we have looked at so far:

-The purpose of the gospel, 20:30-31, signs that lead to or shore up faith, and that leads to life.

-We’ve already seen two stories involving Jewish authorities snooping around and asking questions, in 1:19 with John and in 2:18 with Jesus.

-Jesus’ first two major actions (water to wine and the temple cleansing) had a common denominator –  the theme of transformation – from the Law and its system to something much better.

-Jesus is attracting a following, but he doesn’t trust this growing popularity – 2:24-25.

All of this background sets the stage for the first extensive conversation Jesus has with someone. Not exactly how long this conversation goes. 3:10? 3:15? 3:21? “Red letter” decides for you, but I am not definitive. And in the big picture, what John says is guided by the Spirit and is the same as hearing Jesus – see 13:20 (“whoever receives the one I send receives me”).

The topic of this conversation is the new birth, the idea of being “born again.” That’s not a phrase I’ve heard a lot in the churches I’ve been a part of, but certainly very common phrase in popular culture. So much so that this car dealer [SLIDE] took the phrase as its name – “Born Again Auto.” I guess they would specialize in conversion vans!

The popularity of this phrase has also bred a lot of cynicism by people in the world. For instance, The Atlantic magazine ran a story about the president (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/06/trump-born-again/489269/) [SLIDE] “Just Another Sinner, Born Again” with this subtitle –

“The claim that Donald Trump has come to Jesus follows a long pattern of redemption narratives among American evangelicals.”

So what are we to make of this idea? What does it really mean to born again? That’s what this conversation is all about. And it begins with Jesus laying out…

1. The Necessity of the New Birth

1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 

Ruler, according to v. 10 a famous teaching, and according to 7:4-52 a member of the Sanhedrin.

2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 

“Night” –  could be because of time of day typically used for study and conversation about the Bible. Could be because of fear of the rest of the Jewish leadership, which does play a role in the way others responded to Jesus.

I will say that in John’s gospel, “night” tends to have a dark spiritual connotation (as in 9:4).

Anyway, this formidable Jewish leader with a list of credentials comes to Jesus and extends the professional courtesy of calling him a colleague, “Rabbi.” That’s what Jesus’ early followers called him in 1:38, but they weren’t part of the elite. This is Nicodemus.

And how does Jesus respond? You have to become a completely new person!

3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Take the verse in reverse order.

“Kingdom of God” refers to God’s reign. And there is a tension in the way the Bible speaks of the reign of God. Sometimes it is a present reality, sometimes yet future. That’s because there is a sense that God reigns now, but there is an ultimate sense of God’s reign, when every knee bows. Mary liked to talk about the kingdom established and the kingdom perfected. And if you do not submit to God’s reign in Jesus, you will not enjoy the perfection of the eternal kingdom.

And that’s what Jesus means by “see.” It means to experience and share in something, cf. 3:36. And what Jesus says is that without experiencing something you CANNOT share in the perfected kingdom of God.

What is it? Being born again. Some of your Bibles have a footnote that this word in Greek can also be translated “above,” and as it turns out, this new birth is a heavenly one. But Nicodemus clearly understood Jesus to mean “again,” because he talks about being born a “second time” in the next verse.

But before I get to that verse, let me emphasize that what Jesus is saying here is that none of us can share in the glorious eternal reign of God unless we have a complete makeover, a fundamental change in our identity, new birth. That’s the necessity. So necessary that Jesus prefaces this with the solemn declaration, “Truly truly.”

But what does this mean? That’s what Nicodemus wanted to know.

2. The Meaning of the New Birth

4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 

I don’t think Nicodemus was a dunce and literally imagined that Jesus meant climbing back into your mom (my poor mom was 4 11 – that would have never happened!).

Rather, I think he is exasperated, “You can’t possibly mean this!”

5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 

So now Jesus explains. What does “water and the Spirit” mean?

The key is v. 10, where Jesus says that a teacher of the OT should know this.

Any passage that speaks of a transformation that gives new life through water and Spirit? Yes!

Prophet Ezekiel overlaps with Daniel, captivity. But God promises a different future:

Ezekiel 36

25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Jesus says that this is the transformation that is so profound and comprehensive it is like you are starting over as a new person, reborn!

When does this new birth take place? Well in the NT there is an obvious time at which there is a transformation that gives new life through water and Spirit – Acts 2:38-39 (notice – promise to your fathers).

And this is why earliest commentators on this passage connected it with baptism:

John Chrysostom (born AD 344)The first creation then, that is, that of Adam, was from earth; the next, that of the woman, from his rib; the next, that of Abel, from seed, yet we cannot comprehend any of these.… How then shall we be able to account for the unseen generation by baptism, which is far greater than these, or how can we require arguments for that strange and marvelous birth?… The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit do everything. Let us then believe the declaration of God. That is more trustworthy than actual seeing. Sight often is in error; it is impossible that God’s Word should fail. Let us then believe it. (Homilies on the Gospel of John 25.1–2)

So this is the meaning of the new birth. In baptism God transforms us to new life through the Spirit. [Back to SLIDE]

6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 

Nicodemus represents human achievement and excellent pedigree. Those things are irrelevant to the kingdom of God. What matters is not human parentage (“that which is born of the flesh”) but divine parentage (“that which is born of the Spirit”).

This is what John told us from the start – 1:12-13.

Nicodemus was amazed by this abrupt demand for spiritual renovation, but for no good reason according to Jesus:

7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 

To drive home the point that the work of the Spirit is different than the work of man, Jesus uses a down to earth analogy:

8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

In Hebrew and Greek, the same word for “wind” is also “Spirit.”

Really talking about the Spirit.

How much do we control the wind? Not at all. Where does it come from or go? You can see a car come and go, or a person, but not the wind. All you really see are the effects.

That’s the new birth through the Spirit. This is not engineered by man, manipulated by us. It is the Spirit that gives new life, out of our ability to see or comprehend, but we can see the result of the Spirit’s work.

But why is the Spirit going to give us life? Why does baptism make us new people? That leads to Nicodemus’ third comment:

3. The Means of the New Birth

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 

And here Jesus rebukes him for lack of comprehension.

10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 

What is true of Nicodemus was also true of many in Israel. They placed their confidence in their family tree, and ignored the OT teaching that in order to be in God’s restoration there must be internal transformation. And the next verse seems to confirm that Nicodemus is representative of many –

11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 

“You do not receive” – plural, y’all.

And the “we” could be Jesus speaking formally in response to Nicodemus’ “we” in v. 2, but it could also be Jesus and the disciples, especially by the time John wrote this gospel. 

12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 

Earthly things, two analogies of birth and wind, but these did not create faith and understanding. How will Nicodemus and fellow Jews believe when Jesus is more explicit about his own identity and other aspects of God’s work, the “heavenly things”?

And Jesus is certainly qualified to talk about heavenly things-

13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 

There isn’t a revolving door of people going back and forth from heaven to earth to reveal who God is and what he is doing. There is one who is unique, the “Son of Man”, who has come to make God known to us.

But Jesus isn’t finished with analogies to explain the means of the new birth. He draws one from the OT that Nicodemus knew and taught.

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 

Do you remember the story? It’s in Numbers 21-

So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Jesus picks up on two key details. First, the serpent was “lifted up,” and second, it gave life.

And just like the serpent was lifted up, Jesus – the Son of Man – mays be lifted up. This is John’s unique way of describing the crucifixion, as in 8:28.

Through the serpent lifted up on a pole the people were given life. And through Jesus, lifted up on the cross, we have life – ETERNAL life.

15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

In other words, the means by which the new birth takes place is the death of Jesus. Through our faith in his death, at baptism we are born of the water and Spirit and find new life, a new start, a new identity in Christ.

Conclusion

Nicodemus was perplexed by Jesus’ teaching on being “born again.” On the other hand [SLIDE], 29% of Americans claim to know what it means to be “born again,” but when surveyed, less than half believe what Jesus just said – that his death on the cross is the only means by which the new birth takes place. (https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2017/december/you-must-be-born-again-evangelical-beliefs-politics-survey.html)

For them, being “born again” may just refer to an experience they have had, or a team they chose to be on. But according to Jesus, being born again is the vital, essential, work of the Father through the Spirit on the basis of the death of the Son.

So on the one hand, lots of people who claim to be “born again” but don’t understand much more than Nicodemus.

But on the other, there are lots of us who never use the expression, “born again.” We use different terms, like the package of HBRCB. And those are true enough, bullet point summaries of what the Bible says. But where in that list is is the emphasis on transformation that Jesus talks about? Becoming a new person?

Is it possible that the reason lots of people get immersed in water but don’t reflect any change at all in the sort of people they are is because we don’t talk about being “born again” enough?

Maybe we don’t emphasize this as we should, but Jesus did – and this morning we invite anyone here who is not born again to be born of the water and the Spirit, baptized on the basis of your faith in Christ and his death.

The Unraveling of Reality

A couple of months ago the Kentucky chapter of Planned Parenthood tweeted out this message:

Why would a pro-abortion rights organization insinuate itself into the transgender debate? Those seem like completely unrelated issues. To be sure, I know people who are pro-life but also pro-LGBT rights. But generally speaking, these issues do tend to attract the same supporters. Those who are pro-abortion rights also tend to be pro-LGBT rights, and vice versa. Why is this the case?

The answer to this question involves a philosophical issue that on the surface appears to be very trivial and esoteric, but in fact reflects the single greatest mistake ever made in the history of Western Civilization. How’s that for overselling?!? Except in this case, it is not an exaggeration to say that this philosophical issue undergirds the crisis facing western society.

How can one idea be so crucial, and what is this concept, anyway? In this brief post I hope to answer these questions.

This is a picture of the beautiful Hillsborough River nearby where we live. Here’s a simple question – was this river invented or discovered? Obviously, it was discovered. It is part of the natural environment. I don’t know who the first people were to find this waterway, or what they first called it. But the point is, human beings did not manufacture it – the river was a part of the natural order, and human beings simply found it.

Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation

The same is true with other natural forms and forces. Sir Isaac Newton did not “invent” gravity; he discovered it. The force of gravity existed long before Newton observed it and quantified it with his famous equation. All that he did (and he did it quite brilliantly!) was to observe that aspect of the natural order and structure of the world and then develop a mathematical formula that summarized this discovery.

Hanging in there with me so far? The big point here is that there is order and structure to reality that we as human beings discover rather than invent. We do not simply impose our own meaning on this order and structure; we discover and describe it.

And once you uncover what something is, you can also determine what something is for. Take a look at this picture, for instance:

What is this? It is an ear. And what is its purpose? Its purpose is to hear. The structure and order of the ear also reveal its purpose. Once you know what it is, you know what it is for.

So let’s summarize:

  • There is order and structure to reality.
  • Human beings discover rather than invent this reality.
  • Discovering what something is also reveals what something is for.

This all seems like so much common sense, and it is. This view of the nature of reality also has a technical name in the study of philosophy. It is called realism (snazzy, right?!). And this is the view of reality shared by the philosophical tradition of Plato and Aristotle, as well as the teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – in other words, all of the major streams of influence of Western Civilization. And it held sway until the 17th century when certain developments led to its abandonment.

By the time of the 1600s  the fruits of scientific study shifted the focus of attention  from discovery to invention. To be sure, all of the inventions that were developed depended on awareness of the structure and order of reality that were previously uncovered (especially the laws of mathematics and physics). But over time, the astonishing breakthroughs in technology and manufacturing led some philosophers to conclude that all of reality is nothing more than an invention of human beings. There is no structure and order in reality for us to discover. We simply impose our own reality on the world. And all of those forms of structure, order, and purpose that were previously held to be real were dismissed as nothing more than names we assigned rather that universal realities we discovered.

This view is called nominalism (think of nominating = naming a candidate). And as philosopher Edward Feser has written, the rejection of realism in favor of nominalism is “the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought” (The Last Superstition, p. 51). How so?

Think again with me about that Planned Parenthood tweet:

Realism says that there is order and structure to discover. On this view, a human being who has a uterus is a woman. But if there is no structure and order to discover, then we can impose on our meaning onto reality. And thus, a person with a uterus can be called a man.

Likewise, if there is structure and order to reality, then it is obvious what this is:

9-10 Weeks

This is a human being (it is a being, and it is human). But if there is no such reality to discover, only one to impose, then we can make this be anything we want it to be, such as a body part.

Similarly, if there is structure and order to reality, then just as it is obvious that the purpose of the ear is to hear and the purpose of the eye is to see, it is also clear that the purpose of male and female sexual anatomy is for men and women to be sexual complements of each other. And with a little more reasoning, we can see that they are to be complements in a permanent union suitable for raising children, i.e. marriage.

But if we are free to impose our own meaning on reality, then marriage can be anything we want it to be. It can be two people of the same sex. It can be groups of people.  It can be human beings and robots. It can even be one person marrying herself (although I’m not sure how you would go about getting a divorce in this situation!).

Maybe now you see what I meant when I said this rather academic question has profound implications for civilization. The rejection of realism in favor of nominalism explains why questions which were once agreed upon by the broad consensus of western society are now hotly contested. But what is at stake here are not a few hot-button moral issues. What is at stake is civilization itself.

If a society concludes that it merely imposes rather than recognizes natural order, then it no longer must afford human rights to all mankind. It can simply define certain people as subhuman, which is precisely what the radical ideologies of the 20th century did. For the Nazis, non-Aryans were Untermensch, “under-men,” subhuman. Jews, Poles, Slavs, homosexuals, anyone the Nazis determined to be unworthy of the status of full humanity. To the Nazis, people like the Jews were not human beings; they were lice, parasites that needed to be eradicated.

 

Once this premise is accepted, it just depends on the particular biases of the culture as to which group faces such dehumanization. Maybe it’s fetuses. After all, they drain resources, to the extent that this writer calls them “parasites.” And of course, fetuses aren’t the only human beings who drain resources. So do sick infants and the elderly. That’s why it is no surprise to see open advocacy for infanticide and euthanasia of the aged.

And as the metaphysical glue of realism dissolves, so does the belief in human dignity and equality across racial and ethnic lines. All that counts is race or tribe or class. So it is no mystery that as the philosophical underpinning of western values crumbles that racial animus, class warfare, and authoritarianism are on the rise. And this will only get worse.

What we are witnessing is the unraveling of reality.

So what are we who follow Jesus supposed to do in the face of the emerging Dark Ages? The key word is to love – to love God and to love our fellow man. There is a curious paradox about the way Christians were perceived in ancient times. On the one hand, pagans despised early Christians as “stubborn and obstinate” and as “haters of all mankind” because of their determined stand on the truth of the gospel in defiance to the pagan culture. But on the other hand, the charity of early Christians was so manifestly evident that even while condemning them, the pagans conceded that they were filled with love.

But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death.  (Tertullian, Apology 39).

As reality continues to unravel around us, the human toll will be enormous. That means it is vital that we remain committed to our faith and not succumb to the incoherent philosophy of the world. But it also means that we must live our faith and minister to those who are the victims of this dehumanizing age. Through this sort of compassionate conviction, just perhaps we can mend a few broken strands.

New American Standard Bible or English Standard Version? Here’s Why I Switched to the ESV

In the winter of 2004/2005 I was debating switching from the New American Standard Bible to the English Standard Version. After some comparison, I decided to make the switch. Here is my review  explaining why. 

In 2001 Crossway released a new translation, the English Standard Version (ESV). The purpose of this translation is to be more literal than the New International Version (NIV) – particularly the recent “gender neutral” edition – and to be more readable than the updated New American Standard Bible (NASB). Both the ESV and the NASB are on the literal end of the translation spectrum. The chief difference is that the ESV translators attempted to emulate the literary beauty and rhythm of the King James Version (KJV) and Revised Standard Version (RSV), while the NASB translators focused more on strict literalism.

For many years I have used the NASB and its 1995 updated edition. But recently I have been comparing the NASB with the ESV, and I would like to share the fruits of my research with you. Since I do not possess the linguistic or critical skills needed to evaluate translations, I have primarily relied on the reviews of others. In particular, I have used Jack Lewis’s The English Bible: From the KJV to the NIV (Baker, 1982), for a great deal of my research. Along with the help of several young people where I preach, I used Lewis’s chapter on the 1977 NASB as a framework for comparing the ESV and updated NASB.

The primary result of my study has been this: approximately two-thirds of Lewis’s criticisms of the NASB have been corrected by the ESV, while virtually none have been corrected by the updated NASB.

Less Literal

There are several instances in which the NASB is less literal than the ESV. Some examples:

  • Ezekiel 3:7 – “the whole house of Israel is stubborn and obstinate” (NASB) vs. “all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart” (ESV)
  • Psalm 88:18 – “My acquaintances are in darkness” (NASB) vs. “my companions have become darkness” (ESV)
  • Psalm 78:33 – “So He brought their days to an end in futility” (NASB) vs. “So he made their days vanish like a breath” (ESV)
  • 1 Peter 3:7 – “live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker” (NASB) vs. “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel” (ESV)

Additions

There are dozens of times where the NASB adds a word to the text that the ESV does not. Some examples:

  • Luke 1:17 – “It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him” (NASB) vs. “and he will go before him” (ESV)
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:21 – “But examine everything carefully” (NASB) vs. “but test everything” (ESV)
  • Luke 5:39 – “The old is good enough” (NASB) vs. “The old is good” (ESV)
  • 1 Timothy 5:22 – “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily” (NASB) vs.Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (ESV)
  • Mark 6:9 – “but to wear sandals; and He added, ‘Do not put on two tunics’” (NASB) vs. “but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics” (ESV)
  • Acts 7:59 – “as he called on the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus’” (NASB) vs. “he called out, ‘Lord Jesus’” (ESV)

Inaccuracies

There are several instances where the NASB translation is very poor, but the ESV is accurate. Notice a few examples:

  • Ecclesiastes 12:5 – “and the caperberry is ineffective” (NASB) vs. “and desire fails” (ESV)
  • Hebrews 9:16 – “For where a covenant is” (NASB) vs. “For where a will is involved” (ESV)
  • Acts 2:46 – “breaking bread from house to house” (NASB) vs. “breaking bread in their homes” (ESV)
  • Exodus 32:4 – “This is your god, O Israel” (NASB) vs. “These are your gods, O Israel” (ESV)
  • 2 Samuel 24:1 – “And it incited David” (NASB) vs. “And he incited David” (ESV)
  • 1 Corinthians 1:12 – “Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ’” (NASB) vs. “What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ’” (ESV).

Consistency

The ESV is not entirely consistent, but does seem to exceed the NASB in this regard. Here are just a few examples:

  • The NASB translates porneia as either “fornication” or “immorality.” The ESV consistently uses “sexual immorality.”
  • The NASB uses renders mlk differently in Leviticus 1:15 (“wring off its head”) and 5:8 (“nip its head at the front of its neck”); the ESV is consistent (“wring off its head” and “wring its head from its neck”).
  • Genesis 1:24 and 2:7 use the same Hebrew term for man and animals. The NASB translates them “living creatures” and “living being”, while the ESV is consistent (“living creature”).
  • While the NASB translates teleios as “mature” (Eph. 4:13), “perfect” (Phil. 3:15), and “complete” (Col. 1:28), the ESV consistently uses “mature.”
  • The NASB dropped the archaic term “seed”, but often uses “descendant” or “descendants,” neither of which are collective nouns like “seed.” The ESV almost always uses “offspring,” which is a collective noun.
  • The NASB translates psyche as “life” in Mark 8:35, but as “soul” in the next two verses, while the ESV translates it consistently as “life.”
  • 1 Corinthians 16:22 reads “he is to be accursed. Maranatha” in the NASB. Why translate “anathema” (he is to be accursed) but not “Maranatha”? The ESV has “let him be accursed. Our Lord, come”
  • The NASB translates the same word as “wings” and “covering” in Ruth 2:12 and 3:9. The ESV uses “wings” in both cases.

Smoother English

The ESV’s primary goal was to use smoother English than the NASB while retaining the literal meaning of the text. Here are some examples:

  • John 1:43 – “The next day He purposed to go into Galilee” (NASB) vs. “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee” (ESV).
  • Luke 20:2 – “Tell us by what authority You are doing these things, or who is the one who gave You this authority?” (NASB) vs. “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority” (ESV)
  • Amos 1:1 – “which he envisioned in visions concerning Israel” (NASB) vs. “which he saw concerning Israel” (ESV)
  • Genesis 4:1 – “I have gotten a manchild” (NASB) vs. “I have gotten a man” (ESV)
  • Luke 23:45 – “because the sun was obscured” (NASB) vs. “while the sun’s light failed” (ESV)
  • Nehemiah 5:7 – “You are exacting usury” (NASB) vs. “You are exacting interest” (ESV)
  • 2 Corinthians 11:3 – “your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (NASB) vs. “your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (ESV)
  • Leviticus 19:27 – “You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads” (NASB) vs. “You shall not round off the hair on your temples” (ESV)

Criticisms of the ESV

The weakness of relying on Lewis’s critique of the NASB is that while we could easily check places where the NASB was poor and the ESV was better, I really have no way of knowing all the instances where the ESV is inferior to the NASB, or where both translations are weak. Based on very random research, here are some criticisms of the ESV:

  • The NASB italicizes added words; the ESV does not.
  • The ESV uses the literal Hebrew “Azazel” for “scapegoat” in Leviticus 16:10, with no note as to the meaning.
  • The ESV translates Matthew 16:18 as “the gates of hell,” although it does have “gates of Hades” in a footnote.
  • The ESV renders 2 Timothy 1:12, “I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” It does have the NASB rendering in a footnote.
  • The ESV renders Revelation 20:4 the same as the NASB: “They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” This translation is in keeping with premillennial interpretation, as opposed to “lived and reigned” in the KJV and ASV.
  • My sense is that the ESV has fewer notes about textual variation than the NASB or NIV.

Some Concluding Thoughts

It would be very helpful if someone with the linguistic and critical skills could measure the ESV against the Hebrew and Greek text rather than just comparing it to the NASB. However, based on these initial findings, it seems to me that the ESV has a clear edge over the NASB in accuracy and readability.

Series on the Gospel of John (and a Reminder to Subscribe to the Blog!)

Our church is focusing on the theme of Christ-likeness this year, and in connection with that theme, I’ve been preaching through the Gospel of John. For any of you who would like to go through the gospel with us, I thought I would periodically include links to the sermons.

Before I paste in the links, let me also remind you that you can subscribe to the blog so that any time I upload new content, it will be sent to you by email. Just visit the blog on your computer (not your phone), look on the lefthand side for the box to enter your email, type it in and click the “subscribe” button. And of course, check your spam folder to make sure the updates aren’t being filtered there (although this blog is to online teaching what SPAM is to meat).

Here are the links to the sermons on John (so far). I hope these can be of some help to you as you desire to walk with Christ.

That You May Believe (Introduction)

The Word (John 1:1-5)

The Light (John 1:6-13)

The Word Became Flesh (John 1:14-18)

Four Ways in Four Days to Christ (John 1:19-51)

The First Sign (John 2:1-12)

The Law Was Given – Grace and Truth Came

John the evangelist concludes the prologue of the fourth gospel with these words:

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:16-17)

At first glance, John seems to be drawing a sharp contrast between the Law on the one hand and grace and truth on the other. And if we filter John’s language through the grid of Paul’s teaching in Romans and Galatians, the juxtaposition of law and grace becomes even more pointed.

However, I don’t think that is what John intends by this passage. Granted, if we read it through the lens of Paul’s letters, and in light of the Reformation’s emphasis on justification by faith, we will draw the conclusion that John is contrasting law and grace. But the first rule of Bible study is to read passages in their own context before drawing contemporary applications.

So let’s think about the text in John 1:17 in the context of the first century. If you were a Jewish believer, as John was, the Law and grace/truth were not mutually exclusive. To the contrary, the giving of the Law of Moses was considered a profound act of divine grace. Even Paul says as much! “The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2). This is why the psalmist celebrated the Law as sweeter than honey and more precious than gold, and prayed to God to “graciously teach me your law!” (Psalm 119:29).

The opposite of “Law” is not “grace”, and it is certainly not “truth”. Jesus himself testified to the complete truthfulness of the Law. Its authority is so sure that not even the smallest stroke or letter can be ignored (Matthew 5:17). The enduring truth of the Law is so firm that according to Christ, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).

If John’s intention was not to place the Law and grace/truth in a sharp antithesis with each, then what’s his point? The text provides us with two important clues. First, notice carefully the verbs that John uses in verse 17:

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

The Law was given, grace and truth came. The Law was given through an intermediary, Moses. If you remember the account of the giving of the Ten Commandments (by the way, since they were given, they were a gift – an act of grace!), the people were terrified by the voice of God and insisted that Moses serve as an intermediary (Exodus 20:18-21). But in Christ, who John says is the Word of God (John 1:1), the divine message came in person – literally – in Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, the contrast in the text is between the giving of the word of God to the people in an indirect fashion, and the coming of the Word of God to the world in a direct fashion.

The second clue in the text is the expression in 1:16 –

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

We have received grace and even more grace – how? The Law was a gift of grace. But as great of a blessing as it was, it was not the fullest expression of God. That came when the Word became flesh. The Law was a gift of grace – Jesus was an even greater gift of grace.

This passage, then, is an important reminder about the most distinctive doctrine of Christianity. In Islam, God’s most direct revelation is the Quran. In Judaism, it is the Law. But in Christianity, it is a person – the Word.

“Husbands, Love Your Wives” (or, Men and Women Are Different)

A couple of Sundays ago while we were on the way to church, Kristi noticed some rain to the south, heading right toward our church building. And sure enough, a block away from the building the rain began to pour. So, I drove under the portico, dropped Kristi off at the front door, and then parked. Since I am not exactly fleet of foot, I got drenched on my way into the building. A few minutes later, the rain stopped.

After worship was over, we were about to head to the car, when all of a sudden it started raining – again. So, I waddled out to the car and got soaked – again. As soon as I picked up Kristi and turned out of the parking lot, the rain stopped. It was like a scene from a sitcom!

I wasn’t alone, of course. Many other husbands were doing the same thing – they just had the good sense to have umbrellas (how long have I lived in Florida without remembering to get one?!?). Those fortunate enough to have teenage boy could foist the job onto them. But it was almost always men who were “braving the elements.”

This doesn’t mean that women are incapable of doing so. Many of our ladies at church are single, like my Mom was, and had to park for themselves. One of our ladies is married to a man who uses a walker, and so she had to drop him off and pick him up. And our young mothers routinely have to fend for themselves and their children as they run various errands through the week, especially if they also work outside the home . But all things being equal, if a husband and wife were driving together during that Sunday’s downpours , it was the man who sacrificed for his wife and walked in the rain, not the other way around.

Why is this the case?

Is it a matter of an arch-conservative religious culture?  Well, I see commercials and TV shows all the time that depict men holding umbrellas for women, and I assume these portrayals aren’t all written by Bible-thumping fundamentalists! Is it merely a matter of social convention? I don’t think so. While everyone agrees that gender roles and customs vary from culture to culture, even the most “woke” feminist would have been troubled if wives were the ones trudging through the rain instead of their husbands.

The reality is that men and women are different, and those physiological differences substantially (though not exclusively) account for many of the different roles we fill. The mantra of the radical progressive movement is that sex is based on biology but gender is determined by social convention and personal identity. No one questions, of course, that the expression of masculinity and femininity varies greatly from culture to culture. But it is also indisputable that many social customs are largely determined by the biological differences that intrinsically exist between men and women.

On average, men are larger, stronger, and faster than women. There are women who tower over me (like my wife), who can bench press more than me, and who can outrun me (all women, in fact!). But generally speaking, by virtue of biology, men have the edge on women when it comes to size, strength, and speed. And that is why, generally speaking, in culture after culture, it is men who are expected to fight in wars, investigate strange noises in the middle of the night, and endure the rain after parking. Biological sex creates many of our social conventions.

There is a dark side to these biological differences, however. Since men are stronger and larger than women, it is all too easy for men to exploit their physical advantages. Women are three times more likely to experience abuse, rape, assault, or stalking than men. Are men sometimes abused by women? Of course. But on average, it is men rather than women who are far more prone to perpetrate this sort of violence, and the simple reason is biology.

This is also why, in culture after culture, there have been gender-specific activities. In more primitive times it was the first big hunt. For millennia it often involved athletic contests. In many cultures right up until today it has taken the form of boy’s and men’s clubs and societies. These male-only activities are not inherently designed to denigrate women (although they can be perverted into doing precisely that). To the contrary, they serve the purpose of helping to channel male energy and aggression into virtuous responsibility and respect. They also create an environment in which men feel free to open up as men without the additional complication of male-female dynamics, which paradoxically makes men more open and available to women. Done well, these kinds of clubs and societies make better men, husbands, and fathers.

What I have just summarized reflects the wisdom of thousands of years of human tradition. And I can testify personally to the powerful affect my participation in sports, in camps, and in fraternal organizations has had on me as a man. Many of you can as well. And while I haven’t explicitly said this, it should go without saying that many of my female readers can testify to the same blessing they have received from various girl’s and women’s organizations. This is what true diversity looks like – celebrating the flourishing of men as men and women as women for the common good of both. Vive la différence!

Who could possibly object to this tradition of boy’s/men’s and girl’s/women’s hobbies, activities, or clubs? Only those who are in the grip of ideology (which one writer has defined as “the systematic way of ignoring reality”). In this case, the ideology is extreme egalitarianism which allows for no genuine differences between men and women, and therefore cannot tolerate the notion of male-only or female-only organizations or activities. This radical egalitarianism is intolerant in the extreme in its pursuit of sterile conformity. Like the Borg in Star Trek who go from solar system to solar system demanding assimilation into the collective, egalitarians poison everything they come into contact with because of their narrow and dogmatic fixation.

There is a deep internal incoherence embedded in this ideology, however. It claims to support the notion of equality, but it inevitably undermines equality. How so? Here’s one example. Egalitarians purport to support women’s rights. But radical egalitarianism denies that there’s any true difference between men and women. If that’s so, then does it even make sense to speak of women’s rights? Obviously not. Gender is just a social construct, remember? But all ideology eventually gives way to biology. Remember the famous line from Animal Farm (a novel about egalitarianism). “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than other’s.” Radical egalitarianism inevitable leads to a crass power struggle, and when it comes to gender, who does that tend to favor? Radical egalitarianism always exacts a heavy price from women.

You can actually see this playing out right now on a very modest scale in the recent decision of the Boy Scouts to change the name of its parent organization to just “Scouts” in order to include girls as well as boys for membership. From what I can gather, the organization still intends to offer boy-only and girl-only activities. I hope that this is the case, given how vital they are to the development of young men and women. But it should be no surprise that the Girl Scouts perceive a threat in this move:

Girl Scout leaders said they were blindsided by the move, and they are gearing up an aggressive campaign to recruit and retain girls as members…

The overall impact of the BSA’s policy change on Girl Scouts membership won’t be known any time soon. But one regional leader, Fiona Cummings of Girl Scouts of Northern Illinois, believes the BSA’s decision to admit girls is among the factors that have shrunk her council’s youth membership by more than 500 girls so far this year.

She said relations with the Boy Scouts in her region used to be collaborative and now are “very chilly.”

I have no idea how this will all play out. Maybe the organizations will find a way to resolve this in a manner than truly is the best for all the children involved. But I think it is fair to say that this decision by the Boy Scouts illustrates the collapse of many cultural institutions that once helped to affirm and enhance the unique and diverse potential of young men and young women.

It is paramount for Christians to intentionally fill the gap left behind by this cultural collapse. Older men need to mentor young men, and older women need to do the same for young women (Titus 2:2-6). And more than ever in this age that is hostile to boys (as books from a wide array of authors attest, such as this one and this one and this one), mature Christian men need to step up as fathers and older brothers to help guide young men into the unique responsibilities God has assigned.

And that task is a noble one. It is the call to love, serve, and give, just as Christ loved us. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). This is what it means to “act like men” (1 Corinthians 16:13). More than ever we need to be a “band of brothers” to build in one another the gallantry and courtesy Christ demands of us as men.

 

 

 

 

 

The Grim Future of Private Religious Schools (and Some Ideas)

A few weeks ago the small private liberal arts school I attended and taught at began a project to build a new student center. This meant that the old student center had to come down. I have to admit that I was very sad as I stood at the demolition site and snapped this picture of the ruins of a building that held such special memories.

But what concerns me far more is the future of schools like the one I attended. Part of my worry has to do with the declining enrollment problem facing all colleges. The pool of high school graduates in America has been steadily declining for some time, and it is estimated that this trend will continue through 2030. Because of these deflated numbers, analysts predict that as many as half of the colleges and universities in the country could close their doors in the next 10-15 years.

But the general demographic trend is not the greatest source of my anxiety. I am especially concerned about the future of private religious colleges. Schools like the one I attended and taught at typically have codes of conduct that reflect the religious beliefs of the institution. Such codes often include specific language about moral issues like sexual conduct.

And therein lies the problem. There is a growing climate of hostility in America to the traditional Christian view of sexual ethics. There is no better way to illustrate this increasing anti-religious bigotry than the recent New Yorker column lamenting the “infiltration” of Chick-fil-A into New York because the owner has donated to pro-traditional marriage causes. (For some great satirical responses to this article, check out this Babylon Bee piece and this blog post).

And the assault on religious freedom is only going to grow stronger. Multiple polls demonstrate that the “Millennial” generation does not hold a robust view of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. A 2015 Pew Research survey revealed that “four-in-ten Millennials say the government should be able to prevent people publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups.” A 2017  Brookings study found that 44% of college students do not believe that the First Amendment protects “hate speech.” And since the pro-LGBTQ movement believes that any statements defending traditional marriage or critiquing same-sex actions constitute “hate speech,” you can see where this mindset will lead. I’m no prophet, but I will make this prediction: within my lifetime there will be a serious movement to repeal the First Amendment protections of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. And if you don’t believe me, check out this video.

At the moment, private religious schools are permitted to maintain these codes of conduct and still receive federal money because of our nation’s strong commitment to religious freedom. Such schools can apply for what’s called a “Title IX Exemption.” This is why private religious schools can maintain their status with government accreditation agencies, which is crucial in order for students to receive federal grant and loan money such as I relied upon to go to college.

But this exemption is under assault. Schools that have applied for this exemption are accused of perpetuating “the harms of religion-based bigotry.” And it is clear that the pro-LGBTQ lobby intends to strip this protection of religious freedom away from such schools, a prospect that the government’s solicitor general admitted during the Obergefell case. That leads me to another prediction: the next Democratic administration will strip the Title IX exemption of its power to protect the religious freedom of schools.

Let me pause to address the issue of “religion-based bigotry” before I go further. Some of you may think that codes against same-sex conduct are no different than codes against interracial dating and marriage that many schools of a previous generation enforced. But the two issues could not be more different. One has to do with conduct, the other has to do with race. A school that says that sex is reserved for the one man-one woman relationship of marriage is not bigoted against gay students. The code applies to all students, gay or straight. Whatever the person’s orientation, the same rule applies to everyone’s conduct. Such a rule that has to do with behavior is totally dissimilar with a rule that has to do with race. Sadly, many schools did have such racist rules, and the fact that those sinful and hateful rules are now being used to club all adherents of traditional morality over the head is reason #2,182 not to be a racist if you are a Christian.

All of this means that the “dark clouds of Mordor” are growing more ominous by the moment. If this exemption is taken away, then the federal government will be able to threaten schools with the loss of accreditation unless they change their codes of conduct. Those schools that refuse to bow the knee to Baal will lose accreditation, and with it all federal loan and grant money for students. Additionally, students who graduate with unaccredited degrees may find it hard to be hired, especially if the company is “woke” to progressive social causes. This will be the end of many private religious schools.

So, what to do? How can private religious schools navigate between the Scylla of falling enrollment and Charybdis of federal decertification?

It will be a mistake for schools to search for mere short-term solutions. Yes, you can temporarily inflate enrollment numbers by adding sports teams, with the incoming revenue stream of federal loan and grant money for which many athletes qualify. But when (not if) accreditation is lost, this money will vanish overnight. Nor will it help to look for cost-cutting measures with faculty salaries and benefits. The last thing a small school needs in these troubled times is a demoralized faculty and staff. Nor will it help to address the problem with cosmetic changes to the campus. This will not be sufficient to address the demographic shift of available high school students.

Instead, here are some things these schools can do:

  1. Schools should wean off all federal money, including student grant and loan money, as soon as possible. As Carl Trueman has written, “Given the financial significance that the federal student loan system has for most colleges, this process will be painful and difficult for many, where it is possible at all. Yet it is vital.” Schools should use the next two years as a reprieve and phase out all programs that are unsustainable without this money.
  2. Schools should look for students from non-traditional sources. While the number of high school graduates is falling, there are many other potential student populations. Instead of waiting for students to come to campus, the campus needs to go to the students, with on-line and hybrid course offerings, extension and satellite campuses, and other such options. The on-campus population may decline, but the overall student population and revenue stream can grow.
  3. Schools should create job placement networks for their students. Schools like the one I attended have a tight-knit network of alumni. This is the perfect situation for collecting databases of alumni and friends of the school that can post job openings for students. Imagine the power of recruiting a student who knows that when he or she is finished with classes, the school will actively seek to set them up with a prospective employer. This can ameliorate the stigma of a non-accredited diploma.

And even if it should be the case that private religious schools do not survive, there is still hope. And the fact is, families and churches should not totally delegate responsibility for rearing children to such institutions to begin with. If these schools, which are adjuncts to the home, no longer exist, our children can still flourish in the faith, so long as we do our job. But it would be a shame if future generations did not have the opportunity that my wife and I enjoyed to receive an education in a faith-affirming environment. There are challenges ahead, but they can be met with resolve, imagination, and love.

 

The Purpose of John’s Gospel – Produce Faith or Reinforce Faith?

Toward the end of the fourth gospel the author states his purpose for writing:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)

That you may believe. The Gospel of John is written to persuade people to come to faith in Jesus Christ.

Or is it?

Many Greek manuscripts of John contain the Greek term that means “come to believe,” πιστεύσητε  (pisteusete). But many manuscripts have a different term, πιστεύητε (pisteuete), which means “that you may hold the faith.” It’s only one letter’s difference, but it makes a big difference in this case. Is John writing so that his readers come to have faith, or is he writing so that his readers hold onto the faith they already have? Most of our English translations choose the former (like the ESV above), but my limited reading on the textual evidence suggests that the slightly better attested reading is reflected in versions like the New Living Translation: “that you may continue to believe .”

If this is the case, why would John write such a gospel? Why is he concerned about whether his readers will persist in their faith in Christ? One answer might be a distinctive emphasis of the fourth gospel, the threat of expulsion from the synagogue. John’s gospel is the only one of the four that mentions this threat.

  • His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue. (9:22)
  • Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue. (12:42)
  • I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. (16:1-2)

Late in the first century, in response to the spread of Christianity, the rabbis included into the cycle of benedictions at the synagogue a prayer that condemned heretics like the “Nazarenes.” This prayer, the Birkat ha-Minim drew a line in the sand for any Jewish believer in Christ – reject the Christian heresy or face the consequences. Since the synagogue was the center of religious and social life for first century Jews, to be excommunicated from the synagogue was to be disowned by your family and your community.

If the original wording of John’s stated purpose was to encourage his readers to continue to believe, such a backlash against Jewish Christians around the Empire may offer a reason for his concern. And it may also explain the unique structure of the gospel, which focuses on the signs of Jesus’ ministry in chapters 1-11, and the “glory” of Jesus’ death and resurrection in chapters 12-21. John wants his readers to know that the faith they have placed in Jesus is well-founded so that as they face suffering they will maintain their commitment in light of the promise of  glory to come.

That makes the fourth gospel incredibly relevant to our own time. The social structures of the contemporary culture here in America are exerting tremendous pressure on Christians to surrender fundamental commitments of faith. It is going to get more difficult to hold on to our confession that Jesus is Lord and King. John has already explained why this is happening:

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3:19-20)

And Jesus told his first disciples that hatred of him would redound to hatred of them:

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. (John 15:18)

No one wants to be hated. I certainly don’t! But if Jesus is who he says he is, then I would rather be hated by others and loved by him forever. And the signs of the first half of this gospel are designed to assure me that Jesus is indeed who he claimed to be, so that I will greater confidence in the promises he claims to give.

If you need encouragement to hold on to your faith, I suggest you take a look at the Gospel of John.


Over the next several weeks I will be preaching through the Gospel of John, and if you would like to follow along, you can listen to the lessons on our church website. Here are the first two sermons:

That You May Believe

The Word (John 1:1-5)

 

 

 

Christians Need to be More Judgmental with Each Other

What?!?!? More judgmental? Shane, have you lost your mind?!? Everyone knows that Jesus said we are not supposed to judge each other. “Judge not lest ye be judged!” And see, I even quoted it King James style just to let you know I’m really angry!!

If I may slip a word in edgewise, let me explain what I mean by “judgmental.” I don’t mean hyper-critical, or hypo-critical, but I do mean critical – critical in the sense of holding each other accountable when we need it.

And it turns out, that’s what Jesus meant as well. Look at the full context of the verse you quoted-

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Was Jesus condemning all “speck removal”? Not at all. In fact, Jesus quite plainly says that he wants us to be able to see clearly enough to take the speck out of our brother’s eye. But what Jesus was condemning was a hypocritical mindset that is eager to point out the mistakes in the lives of others while self-righteously ignoring the glaring problems in our own life.

We know for certain that Jesus was not opposed to making any judgments. In the very next verse, he insists that we make a very serious judgment:

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. (Matthew 7:6)

Who are “dogs” and who are “pigs”? We have to decide – judge – who fits this description.

A few verses later, Jesus goes on to say that we must discriminate between right and wrong choices to make:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)

And in the next breath, he warns about the insidious danger of false prophets, who we must distinguish from those who teach the truth-

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15-16)

Taken in its broader context, Jesus’ statement that we should not judge simply cannot mean that we are never to make critical judgments about a person’s character, or about certain beliefs, or about choices in life. What Jesus is teaching is that we must do so from a profoundly humble posture that has as its first impulse careful introspection rather than careless criticism.

But just as surely as a speck in the eye needs to be removed before it causes permanent harm, we need to help each other confront the mistakes we have made before those mistakes cause greater damage. Here’s how Paul expresses the point:

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2)

Like Jesus, Paul says that we should help heal or restore a brother who has slipped into sin (has a speck in the eye). And like Jesus, Paul says that we should do so having first examined our own behavior (“keep watch on yourself”), guarding against prideful self-righteousness (“lest you too be tempted”). But the bottom line is the same. In the right spirit, and with the right motives, we need to call each other to account. According to Paul, this is a measure of whether we are truly “spiritual.”

I’m convinced that the root problem with many of the hot-button issues prevalent in our culture right now is the refusal of professed Christians to hold each other accountable. For instance, the generation that is younger than me really struggles with the clear biblical teaching that same-sex actions are sinful. It seems arbitrary to them for this one behavior to be singled out as sinful. But same-sex conduct is not singled out for censure. ANY sexual relationship outside of the one man + one woman for life relationship of marriage is sinful. When the Pharisees came to Jesus to ask him about divorce, here’s how Jesus answered the question:

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)

According to Jesus, God’s design is the inseparable “one flesh” relationship of a man and woman in marriage. Since divorce violates this design, Jesus condemns it, and says that remarriage after divorce (with one exception) constitutes adultery:

And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)

So does this mean that homosexual acts are sinful? Yes. But it also means that premarital sex, extra marital sex, and divorce and remarriage are wrong as well. The reason that the biblical injunctions against homosexual conduct seem arbitrary is because far too many professed Christians have been arbitrary in what they have taught and practiced. Christians who wink at sex outside of marriage or casually engage in serial divorce and remarriage but suddenly draw the line at homosexuality aren’t living by conviction; they are just bigots.

Similarly, how many Christians object to the horror of abortion as an affront to the sacred value of human life while at the same time harboring prejudice toward others merely because their skin is a different color? Have we held each other accountable for racial prejudice, or have we just swept it under the rug? Aborting a fetus is wrong because that human being bears the image of God. But what about hurling racial epithets?

With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:9-10)

We can’t claim to stand for the dignity of human life while despising and denigrating human beings whose skin is a different shade than our own.

Brothers and sisters, the world can see through our inconsistencies. And above all, the Lord who judges the thoughts and intents of our heart can see through us (Hebrews 4:12-13). The answer is not to surrender to the culture and walk away from the standards of God’s revealed truth. The answer is for us to be more consistent, to hold each other to greater accountability, to “judge” each other with a deeper and holier love for God and one another.

 

 

 

Your History Is Not Your Destiny

Mom and I

Eighteen years ago today my Mom passed away after suffering a massive stroke. I will never forget the sense of dread that swept over me when the president of the college where I was teaching came to my classroom and told me I needed to call my Granny. My worst fear had always been that something would happen to my Mom, and then Granny would die shortly after, and I would be all alone.  On April 11, 2000, that nightmare seemed to be coming true.

As it turned out, I was wrong (as is often the case with the anxious worries we experience). Granny lived ten years after Mom passed away, and I can’t imagine any grandson having a closer bond that I did with the woman I talked to every day for a decade. And the same year that Granny’s body began to slowly wear out, I reconnected with a friend from my college days and started dating. Granny never got to meet Kristi, but I told her about my new love, and Granny was very happy.

By the spring of 2011 I knew that I was going to ask Kristi to marry me – I just needed to pick the right time. And then it hit me – April 11. That had been such a sad date for so long, but I could choose to give it new significance. And so, the evening of April 11, 2011, I popped the question, and Kristi said, “Of course.”

There are things in life that we cannot control and cannot change (like my Mom’s passing). Sometimes these events are the result of choices other people make that we have no influence on at all (like my father’s decision to abandon Mom when she became pregnant). Sometimes we make bad choices or let good opportunities slip away (why didn’t I pursue Kristi in college?!?!?!). But whatever has happened in the past, we have the freedom to make better choices in the present and create a better future.

Is there a clearer example of this in the Bible than the apostle Paul?

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;  as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:4b-11)

Paul’s encounter with Christ forced him to dramatically reevaluate his past and chart a different course for the future. Paul’s history was not Paul’s destiny! And Christ can make the same difference in your life.

Perhaps there is a date in your life that marks a heartbreaking loss. Grief and remembrance are an important part of life, but this may also be a great opportunity to give that date new significance by serving someone else. During one of our trips to Moffitt Cancer Center for Kristi’s treatments we ran into the husband and daughters of one of our church members who had passed away. They were marking the anniversary of her death by passing out flowers at the clinic. What a beautiful gesture!

Or, maybe there is a day seared into your conscience because of a moral failure. That date on the calendar might become a reminder to get away and spend time alone with the Lord – or to spend a day sharing the gospel with others. Or, perhaps it could be a time to seek out the fellowship of Christians who will encourage and reassure you.

And there may be a day that is memorable because of something good that happened that you can reassign an even greater spiritual significance. This is what the Lord did with the sabbath command, which was first given as a day of rest from toil (Exodus 20:8-11) but invested with additional meaning as a celebration of the deliverance from the toil of slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). And it is what Jesus did in taking the Passover and (in musical terms) raising it to a higher key through the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29).

The point is that we should not ignore the past, but neither should we feel imprisoned by it. Christ enables us to put the past in its proper perspective because of what he has in store for us in the future, and that gives us the guidance we need to live in the present.

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:12-17)