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Monday, November 12, 2018

An Old Testament prophecy that proves God and the Bible

Imagine if I told my ten-year-old daughter, "I guarantee that one of your descendants will do something amazing like cure cancer, which will make him a famous hero in every country in the world." What are the odds that prediction would come true?

I don't know the exact odds, of course, but they would be infinitesimal!

Abraham was told something very similar to that (three times) in Genesis 18:18, 22:18, and 26:4 when God said, "In your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed."

Think about this for a few minutes. The prophecies made to Abraham were written down in around 1400 BC by Moses. Even if the most radical liberal skeptics are right (which they're not) and the Torah wasn't compiled until the 6th Century BC, that's still over 500 years before Jesus was born, and 2500 years before our time, when he has become a blessing to people from every nation in the world, just like the prophecy said.

The other promises in the same narrative, like Abraham would have a son and he would become a great nation, had already taken place by the time they were written down, so the writer could have simply "reverse engineered" those prophecies and made up the idea that they were predicted long before. But the prophecy that "all the nations shall be blessed" had hardly been fulfilled at that time, by any stretch of the imagination. So no matter how you slice it, the claim that "in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed" was a wild one, which would have been inconceivable and even delusional unless it had been made by an all-powerful God with the ability to make it come to pass.

And what God did do, just as he said he would, is akin to the prediction I mentioned at the beginning above. In fact, it's more like me saying to my daughter, "One of your descendants will become famous on 30 planets," because at the time the promise to Abraham was written down, the writer only knew about the few nations that surrounded him. He himself couldn't have known that Jesus would become a blessing to hundreds of nations that didn't even exist at the time! But God knew all that--he planned it out and made it happen.

When I shared this with some friends recently, one said, "I wonder if there were other similar prophecies made in the ancient near east," as if that might cast doubt on the spectacular nature of this one. I had never heard of such, but just in case I checked online and searched a collection of ancient near eastern prophecies on Google Books. I couldn't find any similar prophecy. But even if some exist, none of them came true like the one given to Abraham!

(Also--and this is something missed by the skeptics who find parallels to biblical stories etc in other ancient literature--Satan often copycats biblical truth when he creates other religions, and he has enough supernatural ability and knowledge to do that even prior to God's revelation being recorded. So just because an idea may have existed before it was written down by God's people doesn't mean it was necessarily an inspiration or source for the biblical account.)

God is real and the Bible is true, and while there are many other evidences for those truth claims, none are more compelling than fulfilled prophecy, because only God can know the future and predict it in detail long before it comes to pass. A mathematician named Peter Stoner once studied eight fulfilled prophecies from the Old Testament and concluded that the chances of them coming true by chance was 1 in 1017 or 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000. That’s one in one hundred quadrillion! 

Stoner didn't even include the amazing prophecy given to Abraham that "in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed." Imagine what the odds would be if he had, and take some time to enjoy the blessing that Jesus Christ can bring to your life by reading or listening to the Bible

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Jesus turns problems into OPPORTUNITIES

Matthew 14:12-33 covers a few action-packed days in the life of Jesus (paralleled by John 6), and it contains a series of stories where physical problems become spiritual opportunities for the Lord. Jesus was the Master of "making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil," as it says in Ephesians 5:16. And we can too, if we follow his example by the power of the Holy Spirit...

The death of a loved one is an opportunity for reflection and renewal (vv. 12-13)

When Jesus heard about the death of his dear cousin John, “he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself.” He took time to be alone with his father. This reminds me of Ecclesiastes 7:1-5…

"A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will take it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools."

Death makes us think about what life is all about, or should be all about. It's an opportunity for God to put things in perspective in our minds. Also, speaking of opportunities, I can't pass up this opportunity to mention the most famous death of a loved one that was used for good by God...the Cross itself, which is the most profound illustration ever of this principle. It was the worst thing ever--the unjust torture and murder of a perfect man, and even worse, the separation of the Father and Son as the latter bore the former's wrath for all our sins. But the best thing ever came from it--the salvation of an innumerable multitude who will worship and reign with our Savior forever!

But back to Matthew 14. What did Jesus do in his time alone with God? We know from other passages that he prayed and meditated on the Word of God, which is essentially what a relationship with God is--talking to him in prayer and listening to him in his Word. No doubt Jesus was empowered by his time with God to do what he did next…

Physical sickness is an opportunity for healing and growth (vv. 14)

“He had compassion on them and healed their sick.” Jesus had the heart of God toward needy people because he was God, but also because he spent time with God…and the latter is something we can reduplicate. And though we might not be able to heal with a word like Jesus did, we can point them toward the physical and spiritual healing described in James 5:14-16: "Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. [This can mean to apply oil, as the Good Samaritan did to the wounded man, so I believe it's referring to medical treatment.] And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective."

So when we are sick, we can experience the love of Christ by asking for healing, trusting in him for whatever his answer is, and learning whatever we can through the illness. And we can compassionately serve others by praying for them and encouraging them to trust in Him, as well as helping them in whatever way we can with their physical and spiritual needs. And that leads us to the next opportunity…

Physical needs are an opportunity for service and evangelism (vv. 15-21)

The crowd needed to eat, and there wasn’t any food they could get for themselves. So Jesus fed them, more than 15,000 people, from just five loaves and two fishes! My wife and her friends Traci and Lisa have proven that it is possible to emulate the spirit of Christ's miracle, if not the specifics--they have a non-profit ministry (aptly named "Five Loaves and Two Fishes"!) that not only feeds people in the name of the Lord, but also teaches underprivileged youth how to cook so they can have a job skill for their future. (The name of that particular part of the ministry is "Filet of Soul Culinary Institute"--not as directly biblical, but just as cool.)

But back to the gospel text again. Notice that this, one of Jesus’ greatest miracles, flowed from his time with the Lord and was followed (according to John 6) by his teaching about being “the bread of life” and saying that the spiritual was more important than the physical, like in my "life verse," John 6:27: “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for that food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, because on him God has placed his seal of approval.” So Jesus met their physical needs, but that was not his primary concern. This really becomes obvious in the next part of the passage…

Success is an opportunity for thanksgiving and faith (vv. 22-23)

As we would expect, Jesus gave thanks when he broke the loaves and feed the 15,000. But what comes after is much more of a surprise. You might remember that earlier I said this passage contains a series of problems, and you may wonder how a great success like feeding the crowd could be a problem. Well, success can be a problem when it turns the hearts of people from what really matters. And this is really shocking, what Jesus does after this great miracle, when he has the crowds eating out of his hand both literally and figuratively: He sends them away! Verse 22 says, "Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds."

What’s going on here? Why does he do that? Well, first it’s because of what I just said…he was more concerned for their spiritual well-being than for the physical, and they should have been too. In John 6:15 it says, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Their response to the miracle was they thought, “Man, we should make this guy the king so we can eat like this all the time!” (They were an ancient example of “voting your pocketbook.”)

John 6:25-29 says, "When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, 'Rabbi, when did you come here?' Jesus answered them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life'....Then they said to him, 'What must we do, to be doing the works of God?' Jesus answered them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.'

Storms are an opportunity to walk on the water (vv. 24-30)

Jesus went away again to be alone with the Father, and the disciples were caught in a storm when they followed him across the Sea of Galilee. It was a bad enough storm that even these experienced fishermen were stuck in it, and fearful for their lives. But the storm was another opportunity for Christ, and he came to them in the middle of it, revealing his divine power by walking on the water. Then he shared some of that divine power with Peter, who took the opportunity to ask Jesus if he could join him on the water.

Most of us probably know what happened then...Peter was doing really well until he took his eyes off of Christ and looked at the waves. He started focusing on the obstacles more than the opportunity, the challenges more than the Champion, the dangers more than the divine enablement and protection he had been promised. And that leads us to our final lesson from the passage...

Failures are an opportunity for restoration and repentance (vv. 31-33)

"But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, 'Lord, save me.' Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, 'O you of little faith, why did you doubt?'  And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, 'Truly you are the Son of God.'"

Without his failure Peter would have never cried out, "Lord, save me." And if he hadn't sank so low, he wouldn't have seen the immediate love and compassion of Christ shown to a repentant sinner. The worship he gave to Jesus along with the rest of the disciples was no doubt enhanced by the fact that he had just been rescued from the waves, when he had deserved to die in them because of his unbelief. What an illustration of the saving faith that God grants to his chosen people (Eph. 2:8-9), which is a heart cry of desperation when we realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. That faith may be far smaller than a mustard seed at first, but by the Spirit's work it grows as we pray along with another man who met Christ, "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24).

Another fruit of saving faith and the Spirit's work in the hearts of his people, besides thankful worship to the One who saves us, is regret and repentance for our failures to believe and obey. Following another "boat" miracle of Christ--the filling of the nets with fish--Peter "fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, 'Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord'....And Jesus said to Simon, 'Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.' And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him." (Luke 5:8-11). Notice in that case, repentance was again immediately followed by restoration and a promise of future ministry, and that message of forgiveness and hope led to a total life commitment of service on the part of the ones being loved by the Savior.

May God turn all of your difficulties into opportunities for spiritual growth and ministry, and may we make the most of every opportunity in these evil days.

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Thursday, April 5, 2018

Was Adam saved? And what it means for you... (Spurgeon on Genesis 3:20-21)

It never ceases to amaze me how I can still see brand new things in Scripture, even after studying it so extensively for so many years! My nine-year-old daughter Katelyn asked me a few weeks ago after the Bible class I have with her and her sister Jaclyn, "Dad, were Adam and Eve saved?"

I answered her the same way I have for many years when I've been asked that question: "We don't really know...the Bible doesn't say one way or the other. But God did make clothes for them after they sinned, so it seems like he loved and cared for them. So maybe. But we don't know."

The other day, however, in my personal time with the Lord I was reading from a collection of Charles Spurgeon sermons about Jesus called Christ's Glorious Achievements. The great preacher waxed eloquent on the "Proto-Evangelium" (first gospel proclamation) of Genesis 3:15, in which God says to Satan, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel." Then Spurgeon went beyond that passage and commented on verse 20, where Adam's response to the curse is recorded...

I do not think we have attached enough importance to the conduct of Adam after the Lord had spoken to him. Notice the simple but conclusive proof which he gave of his faith. Sometimes an action may be very small and unimportant, and yet, as a straw shows which way the wind blows, it may display at once, if it be thought over, the whole state of the man’s mind. Adam acted in faith upon what God had said, for we read, “And Adam called his wife’s name Eve (or Life); because she was the mother of all living” (verse 20). She was not a mother at all, but as the life was to come through her by virtue of the promised seed, Adam marks his full conviction of the truth of the promise though at the time the woman had borne no children. There stood Adam, fresh from the awful presence of God, what more could he say? He might have said with the Prophet, “My flesh trembleth from the fear of thee,” but even then he turns round to his fellow-culprit as she stands there trembling too, and he calls her Eve, mother of the life that is yet to be. It was grandly spoken by Father Adam: it makes him rise in our esteem. Had he been left to himself he would have murmured or at least despaired, but no, his faith in the new promise gave him hope. He uttered no word of repining against the condemnation to till with toil the unthankful ground, nor on Eve’s part was there a word of repining over the appointed sorrows of motherhood; they each accept the well-deserved sentence with the silence which denotes the perfection of their resignation; their only word is full of simple faith. There was no child on whom to set their hopes, nor would the true seed be born for an age, still Eve is to be the mother of all the living, and he calls her so. 

Spurgeon makes a really good case that both Adam and Eve had truly repented from their sins, as evidenced by their willingness to take the consequences (2 Cor. 7:11), and that they had true faith, as evidenced by a confidence in God's promises (Heb. 11). Then he encourages us to emulate the latter:

Exercise like faith, my brother, on the far wider revelation which God has given to you, and always extract the utmost comfort from it. Make a point, whenever you receive a promise from God, to get all you can out of it if you carry out that rule, it is wonderful what comfort you will gain. Some go on the principle of getting as little as possible out of God’s word. I believe that such a plan is the proper way with a man’s word; always understand it at the minimum, because that is what he means; but God’s word is to be understood at the maximum, for he will do exceeding abundantly above what you ask or even think.

To give us more encouragement to believe the promises of God, Spurgeon then comments on verse 21, which is the part of the text I mentioned before: "And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them."

God heard what Adam said to his wife, and saw that he was a believer, and so he comes and gives him the type of the perfect righteousness, which is the believer’s portion—he covered him with lasting raiment. No more fig leaves, which were a mere mockery, but a close fitting garment which had been procured through the death of a victim; the Lord brings that and puts it on him, and Adam could no more say, “I am naked.” How could he, for God had clothed him.

Justification by faith alone! Total perfect righteousness given as a free gift to those who have committed ruinous sin, but have come to the end of ourselves and know that we can only rely on God's grace for forgiveness and assurance of his love...

Christ has delivered us from the power of the serpent who opened our eyes and told us we were naked, by covering us from head to foot with a righteousness which adorns and protects us, so that we are comfortable in heart, and beautiful in the sight of God, and are no more ashamed.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Great because of grace

If I had a dime for every time someone told me, "You have a great family," I might actually be able to pay our bills for a change! As poor as we might be financially, we are unquestionably rich beyond belief spiritually and relationally, not to mention all the amazing gifts and giftedness God has bestowed upon our wonderful children. 

People sometimes follow up that observation about our family with a question like, "How did you do it?" The short answer is "by the grace of God"--anything great about us is only because of his grace and mercy. The obvious reason for this answer is that the head of the home has been such a miserable failure in so many ways. It obviously can't be because of me, and even my wife will take no credit for it (though she's definitely done much better than I). But beyond the obvious is another reason for the answer "only by the grace of God": anything that's good in our family has happened through God's "means of grace"--namely the biblical truths that we have learned and taught and practiced in the home (though very imperfectly).

In the almost two years since a time of hard discipline and deep repentance in my life, I've been blown away with how gracious God has been to our family despite my sins, and I've also experienced the joy of rediscovering and restoring the principles of his Word to our family. Now Jill and I have an opportunity to encourage a younger couple in our church who are committing themselves to Christ and seeking to build a home that will honor him. To share with them the principles that God has used for good in our home, I wanted to give them some teaching on the family I'd done years ago. Since the files for the series were too big to send by text or email, I uploaded them to YouTube so the couple and their children could be blessed by them, and I'm mentioning it here in case others of you might like to learn more about the truths that God can use to build a good family, and keep it together even through the kinds of terrible disasters that can strike anyone in this broken world.

Please pray for our continued faithfulness to God as a family, and for any others that we will have the privilege of serving in his name.

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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Could someone like me be God's friend?

As I looked out the windows of my room the other day at the beautiful snow on the trees, I thought about how great it would be to have friendship and favor with the awesome Creator who designed such an amazing world. But some of my experiences make me question whether that could really be true of me, because as David said “my sin is ever before me” (Psa. 51:3), and the suffering that has resulted from it has “broken my heart” in so many ways (Psa. 68:11-12, 20, 2 Cor. 2:6-8). Such circumstances do not seem by any stretch to be those of a friend of God.

But thankfully experiences and circumstances are not the basis of truth. So I continued in my meditations…

Is there any way a loser like me could be God's friend? And then I thought, If undeserving people want to become the friend of a powerful VIP, they could do so by having a relationship with someone who is close to him.  If we know someone he loves, he will give us the time of day, and if that person loves us he will even gladly give us his love because of the one who is so close to him. And then I remembered the essence of the gospel, that in Christ we can be friends of God for precisely that reason. God the Father loves his Son so much that if we are placed in union with him by faith, we can be truly loved by this powerful Creator who is the author of so much amazing beauty…

Psalm 8
1O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth,
Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!....
3 When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars [and snow!], which You have ordained;
4 What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
5 Yet You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You crown him with glory and majesty!

That last verse is quoted in the New Testament as referring to Jesus, which confirms the idea that it is our union with Him that causes God to “take thought” and even “care” for us. Hebrews 9:9 says, “We do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.”

And then verse 10 tells us that even our suffering (yes, even suffering for sin, because Jesus did) is an inevitable evidence of being “in Christ”… “For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.”

So I do have hope after all, by the witness of the Holy Spirit, that I am a son of God the Father, a brother of Jesus Christ, and a beloved friend of all three Divine Persons who spoke this incredible universe into existence—the Holy Trinity who ordained the beautiful snow (and even the back pain we get from shoveling it)!

[Additional note: Something else that gives me hope is realizing I am much more like the tax collector than I am the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). But more on that some other time…]

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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

For those who don't have clean hands and a pure heart (Spurgeon on Psalm 24)

Every time I read Psalm 24 (and similar passages), I experience an existential crisis.

“Who can ascend to the hill of the Lord," it says, "and who can enter into his holy place?  He who has clean hands and a pure heart.”

I don't know about you, but I don't think of myself as someone who has clean hands and a pure heart. In fact, when I read those words like I did the other day (on the 24th of the month), I can't help but think about all my sins of action and attitude, and wonder if there is any way someone like me could enjoy loving fellowship with God, either now or in eternity.

But then I read this great quote from Spurgeon’s commentary on that Psalm, from his Treasury of David:

Dear reader, it is possible that you are saying, “I shall never enter into the heaven of God, for I have neither clean hands nor a pure heart.” Look then to Christ, who has already climbed the holy hill. He has entered as the forerunner of those who trust him. Follow in his footsteps, and repose upon his merit. He rides triumphantly into heaven, and you shall ride there too if you trust him. “But how can I get the character described?” say you. The Spirit of God will give you that. He will create in you a new heart and a right spirit. Faith in Jesus is the work of the Holy Spirit, and has all virtues wrapped up in it. Faith stands by the fountain filled with blood, and as she washes therein, clean hands and a pure heart, a holy soul and a truthful tongue are given to her.

And later I was reading in another Spurgeon book I have, which is a collection of his prayers, and I noticed how well this part of his prayer fit with the Psalm above.  Hopefully you can say these words to God as you read them like I did, and be blessed by it like I was…

O LORD, many of us feel like the lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the temple. Come by this way and make the lame ones perfectly sound. O Lord, Thou canst do by Thy servants today what Thou didst by them in the olden time. Work miracles of mercy even upon outer court worshippers who are too lame to get into the holy place. 

But there are many who feel like that man when he was restored. We would follow our Restorer, the Prince of Life, into the temple, leaping and walking and praising God. He has gone into the temple in the highest sense, up to the throne of God. He climbs, and we would follow, up the steps of the temple one by one, made meet. We would come nearer and nearer to the throne of God. O Lord, Thou hast done such great things for us that we feel the drawings of Thy love. “The Lord hath appeared of old unto me, saying: Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love, therefore with loving-kindness have I drawn thee.” 

Draw us nearer, Lord, draw us into the inner Sanctuary; draw us within the place which once was hidden by the veil which Christ has rent; bring us right up to the throne of grace, and there beholding the glory of God above the Mercy Seat may we have communion with the Most High. Heal all our diseases and forgive us all our trespasses. 

Still, Lord, though healed of a former lameness so that now we have strength, we need a further touch from Thee; we are so apt to get dull and stupid; come and help us. Lord Jesus. A vision of Thy face will brighten us; but to feel Thy Spirit touching us will make us vigorous. Oh! For the leaping and the walking of the man born lame. May we today dance with holy joy like David before the Ark of God. May a holy exhilaration take possession of every part of us; may we be glad in the Lord; may our mouth be filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing, “for the Lord hath done great things for us whereof we are glad.” 

Today help Thy people to put on Christ. May we live as those who are alive from the dead, for He is the quickening Spirit; and may we feel Him to be so. Is any part of us still dead? Lord quicken it. May the life which has taken possession of our heart take possession of our head; may the brain be active in holy thought; may our entire being, indeed, respond to the life of Christ, and may we live in newness of life.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Questions and Answers about Divorce

Two of my supporters on Patreon asked if I would post some of my writing about divorce in the Bible, so here are some excerpts from correspondence over the years...

To a parent whose daughter filed for divorce from an unbelieving husband who had moved out of the home, and now she wanted to marry someone else:

I don't understand why you say that your daughter didn't do right according to the scriptural teaching on divorce. First Corinthians 7:15 says, "If the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace."

The initial command in that verse is to "let him leave" if he does "not consent to live with her" (v. 13). Marriage is viewed as a live-in relationship, so if the unbeliever leaves and does not want to be a part of that relationship, then divorce is only a matter of paperwork. In a sense the marriage has been dissolved when the leaving takes place, and in Paul's day that alone would have constituted a legal divorce.

So sometimes in our day it may be necessary for a believing wife to file for divorce, when there is no hope of reconciliation. This is because the unbeliever may not want to live with her, but may also not be willing to file for divorce because he does not want to pay alimony. In such cases the believing spouse has not sinned by asking for a legal divorce to correspond with the permanent marital separation that has already taken place. In fact, this accords with the last clause in 1 Corinthians 7:15, where Paul says "God has called us to peace." The Greek word for "peace" means a resolved situation, and being separated indefinitely without divorce can hardly be called a resolved situation.  In that situation the believing partner is still bound legally to his or her spouse, but is unable to fulfill any of the scriptural commands for a husband or wife because they do not live together (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33; 1 Corinthians 7:3-5).

First Corinthians 7:15 also speaks to the issue of remarriage when it says, "The brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases." The "bondage" Paul mentions can only be referring to the marriage in general, and specifically to those marriage duties that the deserted partner is unable to fulfill. And if the unbeliever's leaving frees the believer from any obligation to that marriage, then it necessarily follows that he or she is free to remarry. If that was not true, the believer would still be in bondage to a significant degree. Also notice that the term "bondage" is used to refer specifically to the issue of remarriage in Romans 7:2 and 1 Corinthians 7:39.

So it seems to me, based on the information you gave us, that your daughter did fulfill the scriptural teaching on divorce by letting her unbelieving spouse leave, and therefore in such a case she is not under bondage. Therefore, like a woman whose husband dies, "she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 7:39; cf. 7:27-28). "Only in the Lord" would require, of course, that she is in the Lord, which means that she needs to be repentant of the sin she committed in marrying an unbeliever and examine herself carefully to make sure she is in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).

You are right when you say that divorce is treated as if it were an "unpardonable sin." Unfortunately our Christian culture and sometimes our theology cause that kind of prejudice and spiritual pride. We just need to make sure individually that we stand for the truth of Scripture, but also cultivate compassion for those who have sinned in ways that we have not.

To a person who was thinking about divorcing without biblical grounds:

I hope you will realize that what I'm going to share with you is presented in a spirit of genuine love and concern for you. If you don't like what I say, please remember that "open rebuke is better than love that is concealed--faithful are the wounds of a friend" (Proverbs 27:5-6). I hope and pray that you will read this letter carefully and prayerfully and look up all the Scriptures I mention.

Getting a divorce in your situation would be disobedience to the clear teaching of Scripture and a terrible sin against God, who hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). Jesus said, "Have you not read, that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh'?  Consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate...And I say to you, whoever divorces his or her spouse, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery" (Matthew 19:4-9). And the apostle Paul wrote, "To the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband" (1 Corinthians 7:10).

For a more extensive discussion of the Bible's teaching on divorce, I would recommend Jay Adams' book Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible. I would also recommend that you read John MacArthur's book The Gospel According to Jesus, because it discusses the question of what it really means to be a Christian and how anyone who does not desire to obey God's Word has reason to doubt that their faith is genuine.

To a Christian woman who was recently divorced because of fault on both sides and now wants to date someone else:

Your situation is a difficult "egg to unscramble" because you and your ex-husband have apparently disregarded the teaching of the Word of God throughout much of the last several years. Your wrong responses to conflict and trials, your seeking help from secular counselors that cannot provide truth, your failure to obey Matthew 18:15-17 when one of you was sinning by seeking divorce or committing adultery--all this has made the situation a difficult one to assess. One thing is for sure, though, in light of those sins: Wholesale repentance on your part is where any reparation must start. You must realize and admit that you have sinned in the above areas (and others if that's the case), and commit yourself from now on to respond correctly to conflict and trial, seek godly biblical counsel, etc. Only with that commitment set clearly in your mind and heart can God lead you into His will for your present and future life.

Our advice to you at this point would be to follow Matthew 18:15-17 in seeking repentance from your ex-husband and reconciliation with him (I'm assuming that he still claims to be a Christian). He has committed sin against God by divorcing you and seeking other relationships, so he needs to be dealt with by Jesus' plan for dealing with sin (which is in the above passage). If repentance doesn't take place and reconciliation is impossible with him, then at some point in the future you may be able to think about remarriage, because unrepentant adultery has taken place. But too much unrepentant and unresolved sin has taken place on both sides in this situation for you to simply forget everything that has happened and find someone else. You need to deal with the things you have done and your ex-husband has done in a fully biblical manner. The ideal situation would be if both of you would repent fully before God, commit yourselves to living holy lives according to a biblical standard, and be reconciled. Only after you have tried to make that ideal work and it has proven impossible should you even think about having a relationship with someone else.

To a friend about a woman who has been convinced by her new church leaders that since her previous divorce was not on biblical grounds, based on Mark 10:12 she is "still married in God's eyes" to her first husband and is committing adultery by living with her second husband.  Therefore she is planning to divorce him (after twenty years of marriage) so they won't be "living in adultery" any longer: 

As with all Scriptures, Mark 10:12 needs to be understood in its context and genre, and especially in light of the parallel passages elsewhere in the gospels, like Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. Mark abbreviates almost everything in his gospel, and those other passages contain the "exception clause" that Jesus added ("except for sexual immorality"), making it clear that he wasn't saying it's always wrong to divorce and/or remarry. In passages like Mark 10:12, Jesus' point it to apply the law to his self-righteous hearers' hearts, so that they will be convicted of their sin rather than justifying it. He is not covering every possible situation, but assuming that the divorces and remarriages he is talking about are sinful ones on the part of those who did them. He was not trying to make people like your friends feel guilty, but the hard-hearted Jews (Pharisees and scribes especially) who thought they were righteous.

Christ's use of the term "adultery" simply doesn't mean that they're "still married in God's eyes." He was using the term "adultery" like in his words right before he had used "murder," as a title for all the sins prohibited by the sixth and seventh of the Ten Commandments. His saying that a hating person has committed "murder" doesn't mean that the person they hated is dead, and his saying that a divorced person has committed "adultery" doesn't mean they are still married to the former spouse. That is an over-literal reading of the words of Christ, who constantly used figures of speech and overstatement as a way of making his point, and especially bringing conviction and condemnation to hard-hearted people.

Other passages make clear that God recognizes a legal divorce through the state as a real divorce, and that the couple is not married anymore, even if the divorce was sinful. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is an example...notice in that passage that even if the woman was divorced wrongly, she still legally (and in God's eyes) became the wife of the second husband, and the first is called her "former husband."  They were not still married in God's eyes. Also, 1 Corinthians 7:11 says that if a woman divorces sinfully, "she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband." Notice two things about that verse... 1) She is "unmarried" (really divorced) even though it was sinful choice, and 2) the reason for remaining unmarried is to be reconciled if possible. I say "if possible," because if it's not possible, because the former spouse is an unbeliever or won't have her, then Paul goes on to say that she can remarry (verse 28 is referring to the formerly married when it says, "if you do marry, you have not sinned"). Also, the whole point of 1 Corinthians 7:17-23, in its context, seems to be that once someone comes to Christ, they start over from where they are. Apparently the converts in Corinth had the same type thoughts your friend has, and so Paul makes a big point that they should "remain in the state in which you were called" and not abandon your current spouse (same in verses 12-14). Finally, 1 Timothy 5:14 almost certainly includes divorced women (the word for "widows" means "those left alone"), and Paul says they should get remarried.

Two wrongs don't make a right! Or as the founder of my university said more convolutedly, "It's never right to do wrong in order to get a chance to do right."

As always, heart motives are a huge issue in this. If she wants to keep her vows to her current husband (which she must...Eccl. 5:4-6!), then she needs to be delivered from the bad teaching she's receiving and have her conscience realigned with the word so it can be clear in loving and serving him. If, however, she in her heart actually wants a way out of the marriage, then that is the real issue that needs to be addressed, and no instruction in the Word will make a difference until she repents.

For more extensive teaching about these issues, you can listen to my three-part series on YouTube.

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Saturday, January 27, 2018

Hope for the old and gray (Spurgeon on Psalm 71:18-20)

In my personal prayer times (especially when I'm not sure what to say), I often sing a series of songs that I made up to express various needs and requests to the Lord. They were intended to be just between me and him, though I did record some of them as a goodbye present for the members of Faith Presbyterian Church of Sonoma in 2005. One of them includes these lyrics...

At your mercy oh Lord, I'm at your mercy oh Lord
Nothing in my hands I bring, only to the cross I cling
At your mercy oh Lord, I'm at your mercy oh Lord
Amazing grace how can it be, to save a wretch like me

I was lost, but I was found
Lord, you turned my world around and upside down
I was blind, but now I see
And I'm dependent on the life you make in me

Those words (especially about mercy and dependence) have become more meaningful to me as I've grown older and the gray hairs, aches and pains, and miserable failures have accumulated in numbers too high too count. So Psalm 71:18-20 was especially encouraging to me when I read it recently, along with Spurgeon’s comments on it…

18 Now also when I am old and greyheaded, O God, forsake me not; until I have shown thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come.  19 Thy righteousness also, O God, is very high, who hast done great things: O God, who is like unto thee!  20 Thou, which hast shown me great and sore troubles, shalt quicken me again, and shalt bring me up again from the depths of the earth.

Spurgeon says this about the passage, in his Treasury of David:

Verse 18. Now also when I am old and grey headed, O God, forsake me not. There is something touching in the sight of hair whitened with the snows of many a winter: the old and faithful soldier receives consideration from his king, the venerable servant is beloved by his master. When our infirmities multiply, we may, with confidence, expect enlarged privileges in the world of grace, to make up for our narrowing range in the field of nature. Nothing shall make God forsake those who have not forsaken him. Our fear is lest he should do so; but his promise kisses that fear into silence. Until I have shown thy strength unto this generation. He desired to continue his testimony and complete it; he had respect to the young men and little children about him, and knowing the vast importance of training them in the fear of God, he longed to make them all acquainted with the power of God to support his people, that they also might be led to walk by faith. He had leaned on the almighty arm, and could speak experimentally of its all sufficiency, and longed to do so ere life came to a close. And thy power to every one that is to come. He would leave a record for unborn ages to read. He thought the Lord’s power to be so worthy of praise, that he would make the ages ring with it till time should be no more. For this cause believers live, and they should take care to labour zealously for the accomplishment of this their most proper and necessary work. Blessed are they who begin in youth to proclaim the name of the Lord, and cease not until their last hour brings their last word for their divine Master.

Verse 20. Thou, which hast shown me great and sore troubles, shall quicken me again. Here is faith’s inference from the infinite greatness of the Lord. He has been strong to smite; he will be also strong to save. He has shown me many heavy and severe trials, and he will also show me many and precious mercies. He has almost killed me, he will speedily revive me; and though I have been almost dead and buried, he will give me a resurrection, and bring me up again from the depths of the earth. However low the Lord may permit us to sink, he will fix a limit to the descent, and in due time will bring us up again. Even when we are laid low in the tomb, the mercy is that we can go no lower, but shall retrace our steps and mount to better lands; and all this, because the Lord is ever mighty to save. A little God would fail us, but not Jehovah the Omnipotent. It is safe to lean on him, since he bears up the pillars both of heaven and earth.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

Do not trust in princes (Charles Spurgeon on Psalm 146)

Now that I've finished blogging through the book of Galatians and Martin Luther's commentary on it, I've returned in my personal time with the Lord to the Psalms and Charles Spurgeon's wonderful commentary called The Treasury of David. I say "returned" because in 2016 I was reading them every day during an intense time of repentance before the Lord and restoration with him. I want to see them again now through new eyes, remembering how the Holy Spirit ministered to me and applying them again to my heart. And I'd like to share some of them here with you...

As I read Psalm 146 and Spurgeon’s comments on it, I was thinking about how prone we are to look to people in authority to fix things for us, or become depressed because they are more a part of the problem than the solution. One prayer I have in this bizarre political world that exists right now, for example, is that Christians will realize just how futile it is for us to place our hope in getting the right candidates into office or the right laws into effect.  And I pray that God will use the sins and failures of leaders, including my own, to cause us all to put more and more of our faith in God, and less and less in human beings…

3 Do not trust in princes,
In mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.
4 His spirit departs, he returns to the earth;
In that very day his thoughts perish.
5 How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
Whose hope is in the Lord his God,
6 Who made heaven and earth,
The sea and all that is in them;
Who keeps faith forever.

Here are some great Spurgeon quotes on that passage:

Verse 3. “Do not trust in princes.” If David be the author this warning comes from a prince. In any case it comes from the Spirit of the living God. Men are always far too apt to depend upon the great ones of earth, and forget the Great One above; and this habit is the fruitful source of disappointment. Princes are only men, and men with greater needs than others; why, then, should we look to them for aid? They are in greater danger, are burdened with greater cares, and are more likely to be misled than other men; therefore, it is folly to select them for our confidence. Probably no order of men have been so false to their promises and treaties as men of royal blood. So live as to deserve their trust, but do not burden them with your trust. “In mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.” Though you should select one son of man out of the many, and should imagine that he differs from the rest and may be safely depended on, you will be mistaken. There is none to be trusted, no, not one. Adam fell; therefore lean not on his sons. Man is a helpless creature without God; therefore, look not for help in that direction. All men are like the few men who are made into princes, they are more in appearance than in reality, more in promising than in performing, more apt to help themselves than to help others. How many have turned away heartsick from men on whom they once relied!

Verse 6. [Put your hope in the Lord…] “Who made heaven, and earth, the sea and all that is in them.” Wisely may we trust our Creator: justly may we expect to be happy in so doing. He who made heaven can make a heaven for us, and make us fit for heaven. He who made the earth can preserve us while we are on earth, and help us to make good use of it while we sojourn upon it. He who made the sea and all its mysteries can steer us across the pathless deeps of a troubled life, and make it a way for his redeemed to pass over. This God who still makes the world by keeping it in existence is assuredly able to keep us to his eternal kingdom and glory. The making of the worlds is the standing proof of the power and wisdom of that great God in whom we trust. It is our joy that he not only made heaven, but the sea; not only things which are bright and blessed, but things which are deep and dark. Concerning all our circumstances, we may say the Lord is there. In storms and hurricanes the Lord reigneth as truly as in that great calm which rules the firmament above.

From Spurgeon, Charles H.. The Treasury of David: Charles Spurgeon Commentary on Psalms. Kindle Edition.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

We read a Muslim book in our family worship!

One of our greatest blessings as a family in the last six months has been hosting international students from countries all over the world, including Japan, Russia, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. It has been such a privilege for us to get to know them, and to talk about our faith with them.

For Christmas my new friend Aziz, a Saudi studying at a local university, gave me a book by a Muslim Imam that is a favorite of his father's, a gift that I appreciated very much and have enjoyed reading. In our family worship after dinner one night, I shared an excerpt from the book and then a passage from the Bible, and we compared and contrasted the two.  I thought you might like to hear about it, and repeat our little experiment in discernment...

In his book Don't Be Sad, Dr. Aid al-Quarni writes this:

By brooding over the past and its tragedies, one exhibits a form of insanity - a kind of sickness that destroys one's resolve to live for the present moment. Those who have a firm purpose have filed away and forgotten occurrences of the past, which will never again see light, since they occupy such a dark place in the recesses of the Mind. Episodes of the past are finished with; sadness cannot retrieve them, melancholy cannot make things right, and depression will never bring the past back to life....

Do not live in the nightmares of former times or under the shade of what you have missed. Save yourself from the ghostly apparition of the past. Do you think you can return the sun to its place of rising, the baby to its mother's womb, the milk to the other, or the tears to the eye? By constantly dwelling on the past and it's happenings, you place yourself in a very frightful and tragic state of mind....

The person who lives in the past is like someone who tries to saw sawdust. 

There is much truth in those words, and I especially like the last saying. The Imam's teaching is an example of what we call in Christian theology "common grace" (and possibly "natural revelation," depending on our understanding of that term), because what he says about the past makes a lot of sense, and it also fits with the wisdom revealed in the Christian Scriptures. One particular passage, which we read together that night in our family worship, says something very similar, but also differs from the Imam's teaching in a couple important ways. See if you can pick out the similarities and differences as you read the apostle Paul's words Philippians 3:12-15...

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.

The part in bold print, of course, is very similar to what the Imam was saying, so his words ring true to us who believe that the Bible is the ultimate authority by which all human wisdom should be judged. But the biggest difference between the two excerpts, which also should be fairly obvious, is that in the biblical passage, the idea of "forgetting the past" is sandwiched between two statements about Jesus Christ being the reason why we can and should put the past behind us. This is a microcosm of the similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity that I've discovered in becoming friends with Aziz (and in my studies about the two religions): our morality and values are similar in many ways, but in Islam Jesus is viewed as merely a prophet (rather than the Son of God) who did not really die on the cross, while Christianity affirms the opposite about him on both counts.  To us Jesus is the "reason for the season"--not just at Christmas, but in everything we believe and do.

It was also interesting to note that in the preceding verses of Philippians 3, what Paul was "forgetting" from the past were not only bad things he had done, or even bad things that happened to him, but also the good things he had done when practicing his religion. He wanted to put those "good works" behind him because they could actually prevent him from having a saving relationship with Jesus, if he was trusting in them to make him right with God. So he says in verses 9-11,

I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my 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.

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Thursday, January 4, 2018

It's a conspiracy! (Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians 6:11-18)

This is my last post (!) in an almost year-long series going through the book of Galatians and Martin Luther's classic commentary on the book. Along the way I have tried to always communicate the basic truths of the passages I read about, and also add a little "spice" by talking about something especially provocative or practical to our lives. So it is fitting that for this last post in the series, I have some summary quotes by Luther that capture the essence of the last passage in Galatians, and then after that I will launch into some interesting conspiracy theories...

But first things first.  The apostle Paul closes out this powerful letter with these words in Galatians 6:11-18:  "See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen."

As any good writer does, Paul uses his conclusion to reiterate the main theme of his work, which in this case is justification by faith alone. He has been especially concerned that the Galatians not fall prey to the false teaching of the Judaizers, who said that circumcision was necessary for salvation. The crescendo of Paul's conclusion is therefore verse 15: "For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation." About that verse, Martin Luther writes,

Reason fails to understand this, "for the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God." (I Cor. 2:14.) It therefore seeks righteousness in externals. However, we learn from the Word of God that there is nothing under the sun that can make us righteous before God and a new creature except Christ Jesus. A new creature is one in whom the image of God has been renewed. Such a creature cannot be brought into life by good works, but by Christ alone. Good works may improve the outward appearance, but they cannot produce a new creature. A new creature is the work of the Holy Ghost, who imbues our hearts with faith, love, and other Christian virtues, grants us the strength to subdue the flesh and to reject the righteousness of the world.

The camaraderie, shared passions, and common sympathies between Paul and Luther, which we have seen throughout this series of posts, is evident in their last words as well. Paul concludes in verse 18, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen." And Luther concludes his commentary with the similar sentiments...

This is the Apostle's farewell. He ends his Epistle as he began it by wishing the Galatians the grace of God. We can hear him say: "I have presented Christ to you, I have pleaded with you, I have reproved you, I have overlooked nothing that I thought might be of benefit to you. All I can do now is to pray that our Lord Jesus Christ would bless my Epistle and grant you the guidance of the Holy Ghost." The Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior, who gave me the strength and the grace to explain this Epistle and granted you the grace to hear it, preserve and strengthen us in faith unto the day of our redemption. To Him, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be glory, world without end. Amen.

So where did the "conspiracy theories" come in, you might ask? Well, I'm glad you did, so I can close my own series of writings with something I found interesting (if not very relevant, in the end)...

I noticed as I read through Luther's commentary that there was a glaring omission...he did not say anything about the end of Galatians 6:16 and the controversial phrase about "the Israel of God." Most pre-modern and Covenantal theologians understand this as a reference to the Church of Christ, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, and a not-so-subtle way for Paul to reiterate his general theme of inclusion and his specific teaching in chapter 3, where he said that the Gentiles were also "children of Abraham" through their faith.  Dispensationalists and Christian Zionists, on the other hand, take the phrase as a reference to ethnic Jews, because to allow that it may apply to the Church would contradict their foundational belief in the separation of the "two peoples of God" (Israel and the Church).

If you'd like to read an extensive exegetical discussion of the verse (and see what I think about it, as well as some opposing comments), click here. But the first conspiracy theory arose in my mind when I thought about why Luther's Galatians commentary did not even mention that part of the verse, when he seemed to comment on every other portion along the way. And I mused, "Hmm, maybe Luther thought it was supporting a pro-Jewish perspective, and he really was anti-semitic, so he just ignored it. Or worse, maybe he wanted to take it out of the Bible altogether, like the book of James." So I was thinking that maybe Luther himself was conspiring against this part of Scripture.

But then I did some research and found out that in the complete, unabridged version of Luther's commentary (which the Kindle one I've been reading is not), he does comment on "the Israel of God" and takes the traditional Covenantal view. Here's what he says:

When Paul adds "and upon the Israel of God," he touches the false apostles and the Jews who gloried and bragged that they were the people of God, that they had the law and the promises. So it is as if Paul said: They are the Israel of God, those with faithful Abraham who believe in the promises of God offered in Christ, whether they be Jews or Gentiles, and not they which are the begotten of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob after the flesh. But this entire matter was handled before in the third chapter.

So it wasn't Luther who left that phrase out of his commentary, it was whoever edited it for my Kindle version! And that led me to a new conspiracy theory... Maybe it was a Dispensationalist or Christian Zionist who did the abridgment!  Or someone that was afraid of offending Jews...

Just kidding! I actually intended to parody anti-semitism there, in case you were wondering, and not to parrot it. We need to be careful on the one hand not to elevate ethnic Jews above non-Jews in any way, but we also need to make sure we don't view them in a negative light either. (Those are Paul's main two points in Romans 10:18-11:24, by the way.)

Thank you for joining me on my trek through Galatians and Luther's commentary... I'm looking forward to moving on to many new and interesting topics in the days to come!

Happy New Year!

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