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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Favorite Songs - My Eyes Are Dry, by Keith Green

(Are there some songs that never get old for you? You can listen to them over and over again, even after you've just listened to them, and you still enjoy them? When they also make you think about interesting and important stuff, you get the kinds of songs I'm talking about in this series of blog posts.)

Facebook is often referred to as Fakebook, and with good reason. Our posts are more about what we wish our life would look like than what it really looks like. Well, this post (which I will share on Facebook) will be a dose of reality.

I was recently reminded of the song "My Eyes Are Dry" by Keith Green when I did my Bible reading for the first time in a while (that's a big part of my problem, by the way). I read Isaiah 35 and then Charles Spurgeon's comments on it, and I realized that one section unfortunately described me.

Spurgeon was commenting on Isaiah 35:3, which says that God's people will "rejoice even with joy and singing... they shall see the glory of the LORD and the excellency of our God." He says:

A wonderful sight to see, for there is one of the most lovely sights in the world when the glory and excellency of God are to be seen in the works of his grace in his own people. It is such a sight that it makes men first rejoice in their hearts, and then rejoice with their tongues. They shall “rejoice with joy and singing,” which is the double rejoicing of the heart and of the lip. Well, these must be a favored people who, wherever they go, can make others glad after this fashion. Brethren, they must be full or they could not overflow! They must be themselves alive, or else they could not quicken the desert places. They must themselves be in flower, blooming like the rose, or they could not make the wilderness so full of verdure. The Lord grant that we may be in that state that we may be able to go into the wilderness. There are some of God’s people that cannot trust themselves to go where they are wanted, because they have not grace enough. They are so weak that they are like the weak man standing on the river’s brink, who cannot leap in to pull out a drowning man for fear they should be pulled in themselves. But, oh! they are blest indeed who dare go into wildernesses and into the solitary places, and carry the transforming benediction of heaven with them till the wilderness changes its dress, and the brown of the and sand gives place to the ruddiness of the rose, because God has come there with his people.

The part of that quote that describes me in recent days, I realized, is the negative part in the middle (in bold). I haven't been rejoicing in the Lord and receiving His grace as I should, so I haven't had much to give to others spiritually, and haven't even wanted to at many times. I realized that I was not at a good place and the song "My Eyes Are Dry" came to mind. So I started to sing and pray it to the Lord, as I have at many such times of spiritual dryness in my life. That's one of the reasons it makes my list of favorite songs, along with the fact that it has such a beautiful, haunting, moving, and memorable melody.

In addition to praying the words of that song, I went on YouTube and downloaded a couple dozen songs by Keith Green that used to be a regular part of my listening diet but I haven't heard for a long time. I'm adding them to my regular rotation, and I encourage you to rediscover his music or discover it for the first time, whichever may be the case. Here are some of my other favorites by Keith, all of which are especially helpful when our eyes are dry and our hearts are cold:

Create in Me A Clean Heart
Dust to Dust
I Don't Want to Fall Away from You
Grace By Which I Stand
Cut the Devil Down
I Want to Be More Like Jesus
Make My Life a Prayer to You
Romans VII
Rushing Wind
When I Hear the Praises Start
Oh Lord, You're Beautiful

(I made a playlist of those songs on YouTube, for myself but also for you. Would you consider taking just about 30 minutes to listen and pray through them?)

The good news is that I feel revived after hearing those blessed songs and praying their words to the Lord, but the bad news is that if I don't keep filling my mind and heart with His Word and making use of the other means of grace, I will quickly slip back into spiritual coldness and deadness, like a branch cut off from its vine.

However, if I do abide in Him, I will bear much fruit, as Jesus said, and the positive side of Isaiah 35 will be true of me. Here are verses 5-6 and Spurgeon's comment on them:

"Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert." See what the presence of Christ does. See what the presence of Christ’s people will do when he comes in them and with them. They make the wilderness rejoice. But, besides that, the dwellers that are found in the wilderness—these lame and deaf people—get the blessing. Oh! may God make us to be a desert to others of this sort.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

What God has joined together... (A Biblical understanding of divorce and remarriage)

In March of this year I had the gracious privilege of speaking to about 40 pastors and their wives at two conferences in Kampala, Uganda. During part of each conference, I presented what I believe is a biblical understanding of divorce and remarriage that takes into account all the relevant passages of Scripture and brings them together in a consistent system. As a summary and teaching tool, I used some carefully worded propositions with supporting references, which those Christian leaders (and others through the years) have found to be helpful.

I realized recently that the propositions weren't available anywhere online, so I'm remedying that with this post. Much of my learning about this issue can be found in this statement by the elders at John MacArthur's Grace Community Church, where I served on staff and wrote the original draft of the statement. But I've always found that these propositions are a simple and helpful format for teaching and discussion, so I'll reproduce below the one-page version of them that I've often printed out for those purposes.

At the center of my "system" for understanding and reconciling all the relevant passages (and also at the center of the propositions page, interestingly) is Jeremiah 3:6-10, which is often overlooked but absolutely critical to these issues. I think my best contribution to the thorny questions about divorce is how I point out that since Jesus used only one word for his "exception" in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, his Jewish audience must have known what he was talking about, and undoubtedly they would have been familiar with Jeremiah 3:6-10, a striking and memorable passage where God divorces Israel. And the word porneia that Jesus uses in Matthew is found four times in four verses in the Greek Septuagint version of that passage. So when they heard that word, they would have understand that Jesus was talking about unrepentant sexual sin, because that was the grounds for God's divorce of Israel (twice it says "she did not return"). It then follows, like I say in the propositions, that the only time divorce is acceptable to God is when reconciliation to a monogamous, cohabitant relationship is not possible.

I've also recently added a proposition (IV) about criminal physical abuse, because the issue always comes up in discussions about grounds for divorce and is in the spotlight now more than ever (see this post about a well-known theologian who changed his view).

Limits on time and space keep me from elaborating about all this further as I do in my teaching, but you can listen to the recordings at the link in the first paragraph below and also correspond with me in the comments or any other way. I welcome any and all dialogue about this important issue. But here are my propositions:


by Dave Swavely

The following propositions, summarizing my views on the biblical teaching about divorce and remarriage, are the result of many years of considering the exegetical, theological, and practical issues facing the church today. An explanation of the biblical basis for each of these propositions is available in a series of audio files that can be streamed at…

I.   Because of the sacredness of marriage and the seriousness of covenant vows (Gen. 2:24; Eccl. 5:4-6; Mal. 2:14-16; Mark 10:2-12), all biblical means should be exhausted to keep any marriage together (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 7:12; 1 Pet. 3:1‑7). Divorce is only allowed by God in rare and extreme circumstances (Matt. 19:8-10; 1 Cor. 7:10-15), and long-term separation as often practiced today is neither biblical nor wise (Matt. 19:6; 1 Cor. 7:1-5, 15).

II.   When even serious sins like abuse, sexual immorality, or separation occur in a marriage, but repentance occurs and reconciliation to a monogamous, cohabitant relationship is possible, then the faithful partner should forgive and reconcile (Luke 17:3‑4; Matt. 5:23‑24; Eph. 4:32). Reconciliation after divorce is not possible when one partner is remarried or is an unbeliever (2 Cor. 6:14ff; 1 Cor. 7:39), but it is a necessary fruit of repentance when two believers have been divorced and are able to remarry one another (Mal. 2:13‑16; Matt. 5:32, 1 Cor. 7:11).

III.   When one partner resists all means of reconciliation and refuses to maintain a monogamous, cohabitant relationship (through unrepentant sexual sin or desertion), then the faithful spouse cannot fulfill his or her covenant obligations and is released from the moral responsibility to do so (Jer. 3:6‑10; Matt. 5:32; 1 Cor. 7:15). When that marriage bond is severed through divorce (Deut. 24:1-4, 1 Cor. 7:11), the faithful spouse is then free to marry another Christian (1 Cor. 7:8‑9, 27‑28).

IV.   Criminal physical abuse often falls into the category of “desertion” (1 Cor. 7:15) because unrepentant abusers prove that they do not want to live with their spouses. Such abuse should be reported to the police as well as the church (Rom. 13:1-5, Matt. 18:15-17) and an initial separation should occur for the safety of the victim (Prov. 22:3, 27:12). If abusive partners do not repent and change significantly, they should be treated as unbelievers who don't really want to live with their partners, because legal and/or safety considerations would keep the abused partners from returning to the home.

V.   Believers who have been divorced prior to their identification with Christ and the church, and cannot be reconciled because their former spouse is an unbeliever or is remarried, are free to remain single or marry another believer (1 Cor. 7:20, 24, 27; 2 Cor. 5:16‑17).

VI.   In cases where an unbiblical divorce has taken place in a single person's past, the leaders of the church should help that person to repent and "unscramble the egg" according to biblical principles (Heb. 13:17; Matt. 18:18). If true repentance has taken place and reconciliation is not possible with the former spouse, then the forgiven believer could pursue another relationship under the oversight of his or her spiritual authorities (1 Cor. 7:27-28, 36-39; 1 Tim. 5:11-14). 

VII.   In cases where believers have been divorced and remarried unbiblically, the answer is confession and repentance (Prov. 28:13; 1 John 1:8-9) and then continuing in their current marriage according to biblical principles (Eph. 5:21-33), because they are now bound to the obligations of the covenant made with the new spouse (Deut. 24:1-4; 1 Cor. 7:17-24). 

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Monday, April 27, 2020

Favorite Songs (Coronavirus Edition) - Nobody But You by James Taylor

(Are there some songs that never get old for you? You can listen to them over and over again, even after you've just listened to them, and you still enjoy them? When they also make you think about interesting and important stuff, you get the kinds of songs I'm talking about in this series of blog posts.)

I've named this as one of my favorite songs (top two or three actually) ever since I was a kid--I grew up on James Taylor so I had to include one of his songs toward the top of my list. But over time and life experience it has taken on new meaning for me, which became even fuller recently when I remembered it and thought about it in light of one of the great lessons in the coronavirus crisis. I'll get to that below, but first let's talk about the song...

What I love about it musically: It's short, just the right length that leaves you wanting more. It's the perfect mix of sadness and hope in tone and feeling. It's catchy, and it saves the catchiest part for the end and only the end...if commercialization was the goal, the ending "chorus" would have been repeated over and over again. But Taylor, having aced the commercial thing already with the albums Sweet Baby James and Mud Slide Slim, wanted to do something more "concept" with this album (One Man Dog, still tied for my favorite with Dad Loves His Work) and he was aiming more for art than for sales. I love the guitar solo and that little roll on the drums at the end of it, and every other little thing about the song. It's perfect and so so smooooooth.

What I don't understand is why Taylor never plays it live (as far as I know...maybe someone can tell me differently). This doesn't make sense to me, especially since in his later years he's revisited so much of his obscure early stuff...even "Chili Dog" from this same album (you can't get any more obscure that that).

The lyrics are about everything letting you down except one person. Money, career, family, and even religion have now left this normal "Joe" empty and unsatisfied like Solomon in Ecclesiastes. Yes, some folks have been good to him in some ways. But only one person really understands, really cares, really is there for him in all the details of everyday life.

Is that one person God, or more specifically Jesus Christ? I don't know and can't find anything online that tells me, and of course Taylor could have been merely thinking of a lover or a friend. But it's not out of the question when you consider the fact that just two years earlier he wrote this in another favorite song of mine, "Fire and Rain":

Won't you look down upon me, Jesus
You've got to help me make a stand
You've just got to see me through another day
My body's aching and my time is at hand
And I won't make it any other way

So I like to think of "Nobody But You" as referring to Jesus. Only He really understands, really cares, and really is there for us in all the details of everyday life. And only He can provide the true satisfaction we need, especially in regard to the truth we need to know to have a good relationship with God and others (not to mention eternal life).

In contrast, if the coronavirus crisis has proven one thing, it's how much we as humans don't know. Consider these "lockdown rules" I saw on Facebook (sorry, I don't know who wrote them, but kudos to whoever did):

The Rules:
1. Basically, you can't leave the house for any reason, but if you have to, then you can.
2. Masks are useless, but maybe you have to wear one, it can save you, it is useless, but maybe it is mandatory as well.
3. Stores are closed, except those that are open.
4. You should not go to hospitals unless you have to go there. Same applies to doctors, you should only go there in case of emergency, provided you are not too sick.
5. This virus is deadly but still not too scary, except that sometimes it actually leads to a global disaster.
6. Gloves won't help, but they can still help.
7. Everyone needs to stay HOME, but it's important to GO OUT.
8. There is no shortage of groceries in the supermarket, but there are many things missing when you go there in the evening, but not in the morning. Sometimes.
9. The virus has no effect on children except those it affects.
10. Animals are not affected, but there is still a cat that tested positive in Belgium in February when no one had been tested, plus a few tigers here and there…
11. You will have many symptoms when you are sick, but you can also get sick without symptoms, have symptoms without being sick, or be contagious without having symptoms. Oh, my God.
12. In order not to get sick, you have to eat well and exercise, but eat whatever you have on hand and it's better not to go out, well, but no…
13. It's better to get some fresh air, but you get looked at very wrong when you get some fresh air, and most importantly, you don't go to parks or walk. But don’t sit down, except that you can do that now if you are old, but not for too long or if you are pregnant (but not too old).
14. You can't go to retirement homes, but you have to take care of the elderly and bring food and medication.
15. If you are sick, you can't go out, but you can go to the pharmacy.
16. You can get restaurant food delivered to the house, which may have been prepared by people who didn't wear masks or gloves. But you have to have your groceries decontaminated outside for 3 hours. Pizza too?
17. Every disturbing article or disturbing interview starts with " I don't want to trigger panic, but…"
18. You can't see your older mother or grandmother, but you can take a taxi and meet an older taxi driver.
19. You can walk around with a friend but not with your family if they don't live under the same roof.
20. You are safe if you maintain the appropriate social distance, but you can’t go out with friends or strangers at the safe social distance.
21. The virus remains active on different surfaces for two hours, no, four, no, six, no, we didn't say hours, maybe days? But it takes a damp environment. Oh no, not necessarily.
22. The virus stays in the air - well no, or yes, maybe, especially in a closed room, in one hour a sick person can infect ten, so if it falls, all our children were already infected at school before it was closed. But remember, if you stay at the recommended social distance, however in certain circumstances you should maintain a greater distance, which, studies show, the virus can travel further, maybe.
23. We count the number of deaths but we don't know how many people are infected as we have only tested so far those who were "almost dead" to find out if that's what they will die of…
24. We have no treatment, except that there may be one that apparently is not dangerous unless you take too much (which is the case with all medications). Orange man bad.
25. We should stay locked up until the virus disappears, but it will only disappear if we achieve collective immunity, so when it circulates… but we must no longer be locked up for that?

Nobody But You

Everybody knows that I'm just a Joe that likes to hang around,
Talking about my problems, bringing other people down.
Well this may be so, but not long ago, I was sitting on the top of the world.
Sure is strange how things can turn themselves around.
When I'm in need of a little bit of consultation, used to call on my Uncle John.
Took a trip down to West Virginia, found him dead and gone.
And as some sort of silly little consolation, they gave me a ticket back.
What you gonna do with folks like that?
You can talk about bands of angels,
And they think you come with your soul in your hands to set their children free.
But you talk about little bit of understanding, things that happen day to day.
Some of you folks sure enough have been good to me.
You come on talking about angel bands,
And they think you come with your soul in your hands just to set their children free.
But you talk about little bit of understanding, things that happen day to day.
Someone has been good to me.
Nobody but you, nobody but you, nobody but you, nobody but you.
Nobody but you, nobody but you, nobody but you, nobody but you.
Nobody but you, say nobody, nobody, nobody, nobody, nobody but you.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Can I pray to God now, even if I've not been doing it?

On my way back from my recent trip to Uganda, I made a new friend on the interminable flight from there to Brussels. She was a wonderful young lady with many exciting and interesting life adventures. She was also a self-described agnostic Jew who was scared to death of flying and struggled with panic throughout the trip. I shared with her how my wife had a similar issue for many years but God helped her to overcome it. I asked her if she had ever prayed and she said something like, "Yes, but it kinda seems unfair." I was pretty sure she meant that praying in a crisis would be an insult, or at least pointless, when she didn't pray any other time. So I mentioned that even if my older daughter only talks to me when she wants something or has a problem, I'm still glad to hear from her and I'm still happy to help her out. Because I love my daughter and am eager to hear from her at any time, regardless of whether she ever talks to me otherwise.

I woke up in the middle of the night last night and among many other things, that young lady came to mind and I prayed for her. Then I opened my Kindle to read something from God's Word, as I usually do in such situations, and amazingly this was the verse I read (Isaiah 26:16), followed by some comments by the great Charles Spurgeon:

LORD, in trouble have they visited thee, they poured out a prayer when thy chastening was upon them.

That is true of hypocrites; but it is also sweetly true of some whom God is bringing to himself. Child after child has died, loss after loss has broken down the business; now they turn to God. Oh, it is a blessed loss that makes us find our God! What we gain is infinitely more than what we have lost. What a mercy that God is willing to hear us in the time of trouble, that all our putting-off and rejection of him do not make him put us off! I remember one who wished to hire a conveyance to go to a certain town, and he went to the place where he could hire it, and asked the price; he thought that it was too much, so he went round the town to other people, and found that he could not get it any cheaper; but when he came back to the place visited first, the man said to him, “Oh, no, no! I will not let my horses to you. You have been round to everybody else, and now you come back to me because you cannot get what you want elsewhere; I will have nothing to do with you.” That is man’s way of dealing with his fellow man; but it is not the Lord’s method of dealing with us. When you and I have gone round to everybody else, the Lord still welcomes us when we come back to him. Yes, just as harbours of refuge are meant for ships in distress that would not have put in there except for the storm and danger, such is the mercy of the Lord God in Jesus Christ. If you are forced to accept it, you are still welcome to it. If you are driven to it by stress of weather, you may come in, for the harbour was made for just such as you are.

Wow, can you believe that amazing "coincidence" of God's providence? It could be helpful for my friend on the plane, of course, but I believe it was given to me for all of you to read and consider also. I think we all struggle to some degree with the fact that we pray a lot more in times of crisis and wonder if God will hear us if we haven't prayed as much as we should have before. But we need to realize that He allows difficulties (like a scary situation) in our lives precisely because He loves us and wants us to talk to Him more. "Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Rom. 10:13), and the "whoever" includes even those who are calling for the first time, or for the first time in a long time.

Consider Hebrews 12:5-11:

Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
    nor be weary when reproved by him.

For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

You might say, if you're thinking along with me, "Isn't that passage written to those who already believe in Christ?" Yes, but like Spurgeon wisely says at the beginning of the quote above, it is also "sweetly true of some God is bringing to himself." Many people have found that when they cry out to God in a time of crisis, even for the first time or the first time in a long time, He sends a person or message to them that will lead them into further knowledge and understanding of His truth. That's because He has already chosen to love them before the foundation of the world and planned to adopt them into His family through the redeeming work of Christ.

Ephesians 1:3-14 tells us about all that:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
So don't let the fact that you haven't prayed enough keep you from doing so in the middle of a problem. If you do find yourself talking to God, it's probably because He loves you and is bringing you into a relationship with Him. You were created for that purpose and will only find your ultimate satisfaction and reason for living when you embrace it. As Augustine said (and experienced personally), "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Him." And as Blaise Pascal wrote, "What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself."

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Thank God for the coronavirus?

After not sleeping for over two days because of a trip home from Uganda that started at midnight there (I can't sleep in airports or airplanes more than a few minutes for some reason), I woke up in the middle of the night in the midst of a fever dream (but not a literal fever, thank God) and realized that on the return trip I had let my doctor down in two ways. I had forgotten to take my malaria medicine and my Airborne.

As I got up and did that (better late than never!), an interesting thought came to me, as they often do in the early hours, which is reproduced in my first point below. But that thought expanded into several others (as they often do), so here we go...

In Uganda I had the tremendous privilege of teaching almost 40 pastors and their wives (some of the finest, I believe, from all over the country) in two three-day conferences about "the theology of marriage" (see this series on YouTube for some of what I taught). I mentioned to them one of my favorite counseling assignments, which is based on Romans 8:28: "Make a list of all the ways you think that God could possibly bring good out of this trial." Here are a few such items, which are not even close to being exhaustive but serve as appropriate examples. (And I'll comment on my title at the end.)

The coronavirus reminds us that there is such a thing as absolute truth

A man I talked to on one of the planes said he believed that "all paths lead to God" or some similar expression of subjective relativism in religion, and I wish I would have thought to use the following illustration in my discussion with him...

Imagine if someone on the airplane had a serious cough and hacked right in people's faces without even putting an arm or hand up to block their germs. Even not wearing a mask would be enough for such a person to be criticized by his fellow travelers, and they probably would think badly of him for even getting on the plane with them! Imagine if he said, "Who are you to say I'm wrong? I sincerely believe I don't have the virus" or even, "I might have it but I need to live out my truth. Don't say your opinions are better than mine."

Everyone would recognize that as nonsense, of course, because things like the coronavirus give the lie to relativism. I remember a similar dynamic after the 9-11 World Trade Center attack, when even the most "tolerant" people had to admit there was such a thing as good and evil in the world. If there is right and wrong and true and not true in disease and terrorism prevention, why would we think there are no absolute truths that reward a search for them in the spiritual realm?

This absolute truth exists even without our absolute understanding, by the way. We will never know all the truth about coronavirus or terrorism, but that truth exists, and we can know enough about it to achieve the needed goals of stopping a pandemic or preventing another 9-11. In the spiritual realm we will never know everything about God and His ways, but we can learn enough to have a saving relationship with Him and to live a life that is pleasing to Him and good for us, because He has promised to give us that knowledge by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13, 2 Timothy 3:15-17, 2 Peter 1:3).

The coronavirus gives us an opportunity to trust God in the face of fear

The conferences in Uganda were planned long before the coronavirus happened, of course, and I and others wondered if we should cancel the trip. (My dear mother was definitely of the opinion that I shouldn't go.) But I remembered the biggest lesson that I learned from my only other trip to a third-world country (the Philippines when I was in my twenties): "Fear is never a reason to not do something good." There can be other legitimate reasons, of course, but fear alone should never keep us from it. So I went on the trip to minister God's Word to a wonderful group of Ugandan people who were so hungry to learn and had made their own plans to give up four days of their lives and travel up to seven hours to be there.

Ironically, I was probably safer in Uganda than I would been if I stayed in America. I certainly had less chance of contracting the virus, because as of now Uganda still has no reported cases. (Some think the high temperatures keep it from thriving, and the government of the country has taken strong steps early on to keep it out.) I did, however, have to face the fear of not being able to return to America or at least being quarantined for a while upon my return. Allan and Lucy Topham, my beloved companions and sponsors on the trip, had to leave halfway through to avoid those eventualities because of some health needs. So I had to decide whether to continue by myself for the last day of the first conference and the entirety of the second.

I decided to stay, largely because my wife was okay with it and even for it, and I am so glad I did! Many of the attenders said the conferences were life-changing and begged me to come back, and God's providence was evident in so many details of the trip. For example, we arrived in Uganda one day before the country was closed to Americans, and I left one day before all flights through Europe were cancelled and all group meetings were banned (and three days later all plane travel from the country was grounded)! Another example was that the coordinator for the second conference decided at the last minute to add translation to the teaching, which meant it would take twice as long to get through the material, but because the other speaker had left we now had only half of it to cover, so it worked out perfectly. And I could go on with many other examples, but suffice to say that God showed himself trustworthy again, as He always does.

The coronavirus makes us go deep in our theology

Whenever crises and tragedies like this occur on a large scale, it causes people to think about deep theological issues, which is one of the reasons God allows them to happen. I say "allows" because all Bible-believing Christians can agree on that terminology, regardless of our particular theological understanding of the sovereignty of God and theodicy (or "the problem of evil"). I had an interesting discussion recently about whether it is accurate and/or wise to say "I'm thankful for the coronavirus" or "Thank God for the coronavirus" in light of the fact that it is so terrible and so many people are suffering because of it, and therefore we don't want to "blame God" for it or be insensitive to human suffering.

It can't be wrong to use terminology like that, because in the Scriptures God says things like, "I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things" (Isa. 45:7). Jesus himself said, in a context about people rejecting Him, "In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, 'I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.'" So we shouldn't be too critical of those who thank God for even bad things that happen--in fact, I watched a video and read a post online with titles without the question mark and was blessed by them. 

But I didn't want to write it without the question mark because I question (no pun intended) whether that is the best and wisest terminology to use while the crisis and tragedy is happening. (Perhaps it would be better afterward, as we're looking back and see God's providence after the fact and the pain is not so fresh). Most people who hear it won't understand the fine lines between God causing evil directly and allowing it as a part of His plan (see R.C. Sproul's great book Chosen By God for a discussion of that distinction). But I definitely think we can and should say things like, "We are thankful in the midst of the coronavirus" and "I'm thankful for the good things God is able to bring out of this."

Whatever way you prefer to say it, I hope that the basic idea summarized in Romans 8:28-29 will be an anchor to you in the storms that are raging (and any that will be in the future): "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son." God is making you more like Christ now (especially through exposing and removing idols in your life) so that you can be with Him one day forever, when trials like the coronavirus will not even be worth remembering except for the spiritual good that came out of them.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2020

More prayers and words for my family (and anyone else who dares to read them)

Last August I wrote a post called "Prayers and words for my family (and anyone else who dares to read them)" that's accumulated a surprisingly large number of views. Since it apparently struck some kind of a chord, here's another similar post based on what I read this morning in my time with the Lord...

Jill and I prayed last night together for all of our children, as we sometimes do (but not nearly enough), and with that still fresh in my mind I woke up to the Bible reading and prayer that I usually do in the mornings (though still not often enough).

I read through the book of Isaiah by itself a few months ago and since then I've been reading through it again with comments by Charles Spurgeon interspersed. And I couldn't help thinking of my children when I read this verse and Spurgeon's comments (in italics):

Isaiah 26:11 - "LORD, when thy hand is lifted up, they will not see: but they shall see, and be ashamed for their envy at the people; yea, the fire of thine enemies shall devour them."

There are some people who will not see; and, as the old proverb hath it, there are none so blind as those that will not see; but they will one day be made to see, if not to their salvation, then to their everlasting shame and confusion. They shall he made to see that, after all, there is a God, and that he is strong to punish the ungodly, and to overthrow his adversaries. I pray that no one of you may refuse to see by the light of the gospel until he is forced to see by the blaze of the judgment-day; yet, alas! there will be such.

Does it surprise you that I pray for my children's salvation (especially if you know them and know that they are wonderful people)? I pray for their souls precisely because they have so many great things about them, and especially because I love them so much, for I know the dangers of false profession and apostasy all too well. For me to assume that neither of those horrors could assail my own children would be highly presumptuous on my part. (I'm starting to talk a bit like Spurgeon, aren't I? Well, worse things could happen.:)

And because my children are so great and so loved, I well know the Adversary will spare no attack on their souls. Shockingly numerous and creative false gods can be generated by the idol-factories in their hearts and encouraged by Satan's world system. So I pray along with Isaiah and Spurgeon that God would grant them repentance, even as He does so in my own unfaithful heart:

Isaiah 26:13 - "O LORD our God, other lords beside thee have had dominion over us: but by thee only will we make mention of thy name."

O Lord, how sadly, how long, how grievously, did those other lords domineer over us; but from this time forth we will know no name but thine; and, when we mention it, it shall be by thy grace, and by thy power alone, that we even put our trust in thy wondrous name!

Above all, I pray that God would be glorified in my children's lives and that they would live for His glory. I also pray that they would live for the good of others, because as I was reminded in a recent conversation with my son Nathan, we are communal people created for community, and the community that God created for us is the community He calls "the Church." (It is also called His new "nation" and the "kingdom" that Christ came to establish on earth, far superior to all usurpers.) So I'll end with Isaiah 26:15 and Spurgeon's comment on that verse:

"Thou hast increased the nation, O LORD, thou hast increased the nation: thou art glorified."

God is always glorified in the increase of his people, therefore, we should, above all other reasons, pray for the increase of the Church because God will be thereby glorified.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Multiple Referents - A Key to Understanding Biblical Prophecy and Eschatology

Many theologians and commentators (and even mere readers of Scripture) have noticed a dynamic called "the already and not yet" of prophetic passages. That phrase is usually applied to Old Testament prophecies and their fulfillment in both the New Testament "church age" and in the still-to-come future age after Christ returns. But in a sense it also applies to prophecies that have been completely fulfilled in history like many about the first coming of the Messiah that are found in Isaiah, the book that I've been reading and studying for my time with the Lord in the last few months. And I also believe that the dynamic is true of the bulk of the prophecies in Revelation (I'll explain as we go).

I like to use the term multiple referents when referring to this dynamic (no pun intended:). What I mean is that a particular prophecy often refers to something that will occur in the near future (from when it was written) but then also speaks in a broader sense to things that will happen in the far future (from when it was written). Almost all scholars of any eschatological stripe recognize that this is happening with some prophecies at least, including dispensationalists who insist on a "literal" interpretation of prophecy but acknowledge that certain passages refer to both the church and a future Israel. A good example would be the New Covenant promises, which must apply to the church because several NT passages directly say that, but they also believe there is a future fulfillment in a Jewish millennial kingdom.

So why can't we all agree that there are multiple referents for many, if not all, biblical prophecies, both in the Old and New Testaments? It seems that this would provide some "reverse polarity" in our eschatological battles (to quote the late Neil Peart:) and allow us to be more open to one another's perspectives without throwing around pejorative labels like "allegorist" or "wooden literalist." For example, my dispensational and pre-millennial friends could be more open to the possibility that the events described in Revelation 6-19 could have been referring (at least initially) to the fall of the deicidal systems of Jerusalem and Rome, and I could be more open to a future conversion of Jews and other more "literal" fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies in the new heavens and earth.

The more I read and study biblical prophecy, the more I think that our experience at the consummation will be similar to what we do now with Old Testament predictions about the first coming of Christ. We say "Wow, that's amazingly accurate!" and realize that what it was saying became clear only after the events actually happened in history. (I have that experience with Revelation 6-19, by the way.) I think we'll be even more amazed when history comes to a close and we see all the ways many other prophecies have been fulfilled (though we see now "through a glass darkly"). And I think we'll see multiple referents for many, if not all, of those prophecies.

Here's an example that I just read about in my time with the Lord this morning. (I was reading Spurgeon's comments on the passage, so that's why the version quoted is KJV.)

In Isaiah 22 the prophet talks about events that will occur during his lifetime--he actually names the people he's talking about, like Shebna the scribe and Eliakim the son of Hilkiah (vv. 15 and 20). But when we read the description of Eliakim in particular, we can't help but see indications that he was a type of the Messiah who would come 700 years later, especially since some of the terminology used for him is found in other passages where Isaiah is clearly talking about Jesus (9:6-7, 16:5). Here's Isaiah 22:20-23...

"And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah: And I will clothe him with thy robe, and strengthen him with thy girdle, and I will commit thy government into his hand: and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open."

The initial referent of that prophecy is a person and circumstances that were familiar to the readers, and the events predicted would soon come to pass in their world. (I believe this is like the predictions about Jerusalem and Rome in Revelation, where John says they "must shortly take place" "for the time is near.") But Eliakim is not the only ruler referred to in the passage--Jesus Christ is almost certainly a second referent of the prophecy. (And in my understanding of Revelation there can still be referents after the early centuries, because the dynamics described in the book take place in different ways throughout history, a la the historicist and idealist views, and even may at the consummation of history, a la the futurist view.)

Because of the multiple referents in biblical prophecies, it is completely legitimate for preachers and teachers to apply what Isaiah says about Shebna and Eliakim to us today, and I want to leave you with some of the tremendously insightful and encouraging thoughts Spurgeon shared about Isaiah 22. (That's the main purpose of all biblical eschatology, by the way--to change our lives now for the better.)

About the stubborn "nail" of Shebna being removed (Isa. 22:15-19), and the downfall of his glory, Spurgeon writes:

Whenever Jesus Christ comes into the heart, before he rides in state into the Castle of Mansoul, there is a battle, a strife, a struggle, a down-casting of the image of sin, and then a setting up of the cross in its place. All men, by nature, have some kind of righteousness. There is no man so vile but he still wraps himself up in his rags and cajoles himself into the belief that he has some degree of excellence, spiritual or moral. Before Christ can come into the heart, all this natural excellence must be torn to shreds; Every single stone of the wall upon which we have builded aforetime must come down, and the foundations must be utterly destroyed before we shall ever build aright and surely for eternity upon the cornerstone of Christ Jesus.

The tendency of human nature, as long as we are in this world, is to get something to rest upon in ourselves. We can hardly be indulged with the light of Jehovah’s countenance before we begin to make a confidence of it; and if our graces for a little while bud and bloom like seeming flowers, we very soon begin to compliment ourselves upon our imaginary goodness. Borrowed though every excellence be, we begin to be proud of it, and to forget too much that in him is all our salvation, and all confidence. This knocking down has to be persevered in, for the flesh lusteth against the Spirit; and yet as fast as we can, in our pride build up anything in which we can glory, the Lord sends a terrible blast of some kind or other against the wall, and sweeps it all down, that Jesus Christ may alone be exalted in our experience.

Then, after profoundly picturing the repentance we need for both salvation and sanctification, Spurgeon goes on to wonderfully describe saving and sanctifying faith and the promise of the gospel in verses 20-23 (the nail fastened in a sure place):

If God bids me lean my whole weight upon his Son, and I do so lean, and yet am not sustained, then is there a great mistake, not on my part only, but on the part of Infinite Wisdom. But we cannot suppose that. The Lord knew what he was doing when he appointed the Only Begotten to be the sinner’s pillar of strength, upon which he might lean. He knew that Jesus could not fail; that as God he was all-sufficient; that as perfect man he would not turn aside; that as a bleeding surety, having paid all the debt of our sin upon Calvary, he was able to save to the uttermost all them that come unto God by him.

I hope those words will be a blessing to you, both today and throughout whatever future God has planned for you!

[If you're curious about the different understandings of Revelation, you can listen to some teaching of mine here, here, and here.]