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Monday, December 28, 2009

Repentance Must Keep Pace

“With every increase of mercy you receive from God there will be an accompanying increase of responsibility. . . . As you grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ and receive more and more of His mercies with each passing day, your repentance must keep pace. Any failure here is an open demonstration of a lack of love and appreciation for the boundless mercies of our Lord Jesus Christ. Tragic is the case of any individual whose repentance does not increase with the gifts and graces of God he daily receives.”

Richard Owen Roberts, Repentance: The First Word of the Gospel, 297

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Worshiping the King: Bethlehem's Line in the Sand

Some 2,000 years after His birth, Jesus Christ still remains the most divisive figure in human history.  The testimony of the Gospel writers clearly shows this. 

 "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

When they heard these words, some of the people said, "This really is the Prophet." Others said, "This is the Christ." But some said, "Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?"  So there was a division among the people over him. (John 7:40-43)

Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?" And there was a division among them. (John 9:16)

Those who are confronted with the truth of Jesus Christ are forced to make a choice.  There are only two options – believe or reject, love or hate, worship or ignore.  Everyday all over the world people are making that choice.  And interestingly, Christmas, a time when Christ seemingly gets more attention than at any other time of the year, is a time when we can see most clearly this choice being made.  There are those who want nothing to do with Christmas, who are offended by the greeting, “Merry Christmas.”  Then there are those who embrace the holiday, enjoying the festive season of the year…while silently denying the reason for Christmas and refusing to worship the baby.  Then there are those who celebrate Christmas as an act of worship.  And while outwardly those appear to be three different groups, the Bible would present them as two – those who believe, love, and worship Him and those who don’t. 

Matthew’s account of the wise men coming to visit the Messiah shows just this kind of division in humanity.  Herod is the central character in Matthew 2:1-18.  For this reason, his choice about how to respond to the birth of Jesus is portrayed in the most detail.  Herod was appointed king of the Jews by Rome.  In v2, he received word of a baby born king of the Jews.  V3, When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled. 

Herod the Great could go down as one of the most paranoid rulers of all time.  He imagined conspiracies under every rock in Jerusalem, and was so zealous to retain his power that over the years he executed his wife, several sons, and a number of other relatives.  So it is no surprise that Herod would do what he did, which was to seek to kill the baby born the King of the Jews. 

The first couple of steps in his plan are very telling.  First, he gathered all the chief priests and scribes and asked them where the Christ was to be born (v4).  What is so significant about this?  Herod believed that the baby of whom the wise men spoke was the Christ.  That was why he asked for the chief priests and scribes – they were experts in the Hebrew Scriptures and he knew that they would know the details of the prophecies of the Messiah.  And he was right.  They did know.  They told him that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.

Next, Herod summoned the wise men and sent them to Bethlehem to find the baby (vv7-8).  Why is that significant?  It shows that Herod believed the Scriptures.  The Scriptures foretold that the baby would be born in Bethlehem, and that is where he sent the wise men.  He sent no one to Bethany.  He sent no one to En-karim or Emmaus or Bethphage.  Herod was so ruthless and paranoid that if he had any doubts about the truth of the Scriptures he would have sent out people to search all over.  But so sure was he that the biblical prophecy was right that he sent them only to Bethlehem.

Later in the chapter, we find even more disturbing evidence of Herod’s belief in the trustworthiness of the Scriptures.  When it became clear to him that the wise men had tricked him and were not coming to tell him the exact location of the child in Bethlehem, he ordered all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger to be murdered.  He was so convinced of the veracity of the Word that he was certain if he killed all the young boys there, he could know that the Christ was dead and the threat to his own power was eliminated.

Think about the implications there.  Herod believed that Jesus was the Christ and he believed what God’s Word said about Him.  In the eyes of many in the evangelical church today, those two truths mean that Herod was a Christian, saved from his sins.  But the teaching of this story and the teaching of the Bible as a whole is that an intellectual agreement with certain facts about God is not tantamount to saving faith.  There is another component needed.

What instructions did Herod give the wise men?  Treacherous ones: "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him" (v8).  This was nothing more than a self-serving charade intended to preserve his own power.  Clearly, Herod did not intend to worship the baby, but to kill Him.  He desired to refuse the baby king’s rightful authority over him. 

The counterpoint to Herod’s treachery in this chapter is the earnestness of the wise men.  They came from the east.  Some scholars estimate this trip could have taken months, requiring the wise men to cross some of the most inhospitable territory in the world.  Knowing nothing more than that a king had been born, they came to Jerusalem hoping to find help in locating Him. 

V2 tells us that they came for one reason only, “For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him."  This is the necessary component.  This is what Herod lacked.  Like him, the wise men also believed that the baby was the Christ (v2) and that the Scriptures were true in their prediction about Bethlehem as His birthplace (v8).  But unlike Herod, they left everything and worshiped Him.  They bowed to His authority: They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh (vv10b-11).

Many people will celebrate Christmas this week, believing in the historicity of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and even believing that He was the Christ, and yet they will be no more saved than was Herod.  They will refuse the rightful authority that the baby holds over their lives.  They may claim to be His followers, but they deny Him in that they refuse to recognize the line that He draws in the sand.  They will not forsake all and follow Him.

We have a Savior who divides the world into two groups – those who love and worship Him and those who don’t.  True saving faith drives us to our knees in submission to the King.  May our actions this week reveal hearts of worship for the Christ.  When He looks down on us this Christmas, may He see a familiar sight – those who have left all and traveled far to worship a baby King.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Who Can Make Good People?

I’ve just read a thought-provoking article entitled “Have We Stopped Trying to Make Good People?”, written by syndicated columnist Dennis Prager.  It reminded me once again why it is so important to try to be as biblical as possible in our understanding of man, his biggest problem, and the only hope for a solution. 
Prager offers in his opening line, “The most important question any society must answer is: How will we make good people?”  He says that the question is one addressed by the American Judeo-Christian values that emphasize individual character: 
One cannot make a good society if one does not begin with the arduous task of making good individuals. Both Judaism and Christianity begin with the premise that man is not basically good and therefore regard man's nature as the root of cause of evil.

This may sound basic and even obvious, but it is not. In the Western world since the Enlightenment, belief in the inherent goodness of human beings has taken over. This has resulted in an increasing neglect of character development because evil has come to be regarded not as emanating from human nature (which is essentially good) or from morally flawed individuals but from forces outside the individual -- especially material ones. Thus, vast numbers of the best educated in the West have come to believe that "poverty causes crime."

Prager’s assessment about the root of evil is right.  A proper understanding of the root cause of evil is essential.  The past several decades have seen the collective conscience of the country engage in wholesale blame-shifting.  The author is correct to identify this shift as a movement away from Judeo-Christian values.  At the heart of the question about the source of all human suffering and evil is the issue of the root nature of man.  If we view man as inherently fallen and sinful (as taught in the Bible), then we will view social ills as the result, not the cause, of evil.  If, on the other hand, we embrace the pagan notion that man is inherently good, then we are forced to regard social ills as the cause of evil - i.e. people commit crime because they are poor.  The former holds the individual responsible; the latter absolves the individual of responsibility and assigns blame to something external. 

For example, a Judeo-Christian ethic might view violent crime as an issue of self-control, while a more humanistic ethic would regard it as an issue of gun control.   One side sees the individual as the evil element, the other side sees the availability of guns as the evil element.  The contrast is stark, and Prager is right to recognize the difference as a matter of the embrace or rejection of a Judeo-Christian worldview.

Where Prager misses the mark, though, is in that opening line: “The most important question any society must answer is: How will we make good people?”  There is a logical misstep in believing that man is not basically good, but that man can make good people.  If man’s nature is fallen, how is it that he can act upon himself or upon another man to change that?  Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil (Jer 13:23). 

In the end, Prager’s notion about making good people is as flawed as the humanistic worldview that he assails.  He rejects the idea that evil can be dealt with by some kind of external change, i.e. a war on poverty; but his own solution amounts to the same thing, a kind of external change, albeit in the area of individual behavior.

Those of you who were in Sunday School this week will remember Paul Tripp’s excellent illustration, and it certainly applies here.  The idea that a focus on individual character development will solve the nation’s problems is akin to the idea of treating a rotten apple tree by nailing red delicious apples to its branches.  It may look good for a few days, but eventually the red delicious apples will spoil and the following season the tree will go right back to producing rotten apples.

Teaching an outward morality devoid of an inner devotion to and worship of the One True God will always eventually lead any culture back around to the humanistic idea that man is inherently good.  Why is that?  Because man’s problem is what is inside of him, not what is outside of him.  The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick (Jer 17:9).  If a man’s behavior is changed without any accompanying heart change, his still-fallen heart will eventually deceive him, and his behavior will once again reflect that fallenness.  The current state of morality in America does not represent a breakdown in the teaching of outward morality – it is the very result of the teaching of outward morality.

I would present that the most important question a people can ask is “Who will be our God?”  The only way that people become good is through the sanctifying power of Jesus Christ transforming the heart.  And that only takes place in the lives of those who repent of their sin and trust in Christ’s death and resurrection to save them from that sin.  Should we teach morality?  Certainly.  But unless it is done in concert with the spreading of the gospel, it is a striving after wind.  Christ alone makes good people.  Man can’t.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book Recommendation: When People Are Big and God Is Small

There is a specific malady of the soul that all of us suffer from to some degree.  It shows up in the teen who is struggling with peer pressure, wanting to do, say, and wear the right things so as to gain the acceptance of others.  It shows up in church members who are over-committed, having difficulty saying no to any service opportunity.  It’s in the life of the person who hates to speak in public.  It’s in the life of the person struggling with anger and depression.  It shows up in the antics of the gregarious “life-of-the-party” type.  It’s there in the strivings of the super-competitive.  It’s the fuel of the Fortune 500 CEO, and it drives the woman who is desperate for her husband’s attention.  It’s alive in both the conceited and those with “low self-esteem.”

What is it that ties all these things together?  Some may call it “peer pressure.”  Others may call it “people-pleasing.”  The psychological world calls it “co-dependency.”  The Bible refers to it as “the fear of man.” 

“Fear” in the Bible has a much broader range of meaning than simply being afraid or frightened.  It can carry the idea of being in awe of someone, being controlled or mastered by someone, worshiping someone, trusting in someone, or needing someone.  When we “fear” man, we put people in God’s rightful place in our lives.  Instead of our lives being guided by a biblical fear of the Lord, we are guided by fear of people. We allow our behavior to be controlled by our fear of what people will do or think.

So the overcommitted church member takes on more and more responsibilities at church because he is afraid that others will think he isn’t faithful.  Some hate to speak in public because of the fear of saying something stupid and being rejected by everyone.  The outgoing “life-of-the-party” person cracks jokes and tells stories in order to be liked.  The desperate wife does anything she can to gain her husband’s attention because without it she is hopeless.  The fear of man is a universal problem that can absolutely control one’s life. 

In recent years, there have been two main approaches to dealing with this problem. In secular psychology, the sure cure for “codependency” is to love yourself more.  While some in the evangelical world have jumped on that bandwagon, others have proposed that the key to treating codependency is to know that God loves you more than you could possibly imagine.

Ed Welch, in his book When People Are Big and God is Small, rejects both solutions.  He notes the obviously unbiblical nature of the “love yourself more” approach.  Of the evangelical “God loves you” approach, he writes, “It still allows us and our needs to be at the center of the world, and God becomes our psychic errand boy given the task of inflating our self-esteem.”

In order to offer a more biblical approach, Welch takes his readers through the Scriptures, giving a better understanding of the problem as well as the most God-honoring solution.  His book takes a three-pronged approach. First, the author explains the how and why the fear of man.  “To really understand the fear of man, we must begin to ask the right questions.  For example, instead of ‘How can I feel better about myself and not be controlled by what people think?’ a better question is ‘Why am I so concerned about self-esteem?’ or ‘Why do I have to have someone – even Jesus – think that I am great?’”

Second, Welch delves into the Bible’s clear teaching about the solution to the fear of man: “The most radical treatment for the fear of man is the fear of the Lord.  God must be bigger to you than people are.”  In this section, the author not only explains what the fear of the Lord is, but also how to grow in the fear of the Lord.

Third, Welch provides a biblical understanding of how we are to view and relate to the people in our lives.  “Regarding other people, our problem is that we need them (for ourselves) more than we love them (for the glory of God).  The task God sets for us is to need them less and love them more.  Instead of looking for ways to manipulate others, we will ask God what our duty is toward them.”

This book has been very helpful to me personally, and I believe it would be a benefit to you, too.  I truly believe that we all struggle with the fear of man in some form.  This book provides a thoroughly biblical understanding of the problem, as well as the biblical antidote – fearing God and loving people.  I highly recommend it. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Differences in the Genealogies of Christ

We’ve spent a little time over the past couple of Sundays looking at the genealogies of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  We’ve noted that Matthew begins with Abraham and works his way forward to Jesus, while Luke starts with Jesus and works his way backward to Adam.  Of course, since the two evangelists were making different points with their respective genealogies, it is to be expected that there may be some stylistic or presentational differences.

But if we look more closely, we find other differences that cannot be explained as stylistic, but appear to be more accurately referred to as discrepancies.  Most of these pertain to the generations from David to Jesus.  For example, of the generations from David to Jesus, only two of the names match in the respective genealogies – Shealtiel and Zerubbabel.  Surprisingly, the two Gospels don’t even agree about who Joseph’s father was – Matthew says it was Jacob, Luke says it was Heli!

This is thought by many skeptics to be the silver bullet destroying the notion of inerrancy.  Luke and Matthew cannot both be right, they say.  One must be wrong, and if that is so, the Bible contains factual errors.

Well, there are several ways to account for these discrepancies, all of which are plausible, though a couple stand out.  No matter which is right, together they add more than enough room to stand on in denying the claims of skeptics.  

The first approach has been to argue that Matthew gives Christ’s genealogy through Joseph, while Luke gives the genealogy through Mary.  This view is based largely on Luke 3:23 which refers to Jesus as “being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph.”  Obviously, with a virgin birth there will be no literal human father.  So Luke took Mary’s family line and substituted Jesus’ legal father in the place of Mary, thus showing a typical genealogy, that is, one with all male names.  This was the first explanation I ever heard, and I still think it is a plausible one.

A second approach, which happens to be the oldest, was proposed by Julius Africanus in the 3rd century A.D. (and cited by Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History 1.7). The view holds that Matthew’s genealogy provides Jesus’ physical line and Luke provides His royal line.  The differences in the genealogies between David and Joseph can be explained by the principle of levirate marriage. 

Levirate marriage is described in Deuteronomy 25:5-6:  "If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband's brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her.  And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.  Therefore, the first son born as a result of a levirate marriage was the legal son of the dead brother, while being the literal physical son of the living one.

According to Julius Africanus, Jacob (Matt 1:15) and Heli (Luke 3:23) were “uterine brothers” – born to the same mother by different fathers.  Heli died without an heir.  So Jacob took Heli’s widow in a levirate marriage to raise up a son in his dead brother’s name.  Therefore, Joseph was Jacob’s physical son (Matthew) and Heli’s legal son (Luke).

On problem with this view is that there are two names in Luke’s genealogy between Melchi and Heli – Matthat and Levi.  So the generations do not appear to line up exactly with Julius Africanus’ assessment.  However, this is not a deal breaker since Matthew omits numerous generations from his genealogy.  His repeated wording, “___ was the father of ___” frequently means “was the descendant of”.  Matthew’s intent was not to name every link in the chain, but to simply to show a connection between Abraham and Jesus.  This is why Matthew only shows 27 names between David and Jesus, while Luke shows 40.  With this in mind, Julius Africanus’ suggestion is certainly plausible. 

A third view proposed by historians is that Heli (Luke 3:23) was the father of Mary.  It is supposed that because Heli had no male heirs, Joseph was adopted by Heli through Joseph’s marriage to Mary.  There are occurrences in the Old Testament of the continuation of a family line by such means (Ezra 2:61; Neh 7:63; 1 Chron 2:34-36).  By this view, Luke reflects adoption so that his genealogy shows both physical descent (Adam – Heli) and legal descent (Heli – Joseph). 

While we may never have enough information to come up with a definitive understanding of the differences between the two genealogies, there are enough plausible explanations that we have absolutely no reason to reject the doctrine of inerrancy. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Legalism vs. Justification

In our men's bible study that meets on Tuesday mornings we've been going through the book of Galatians. This great book places Legalism in the cross-hairs of biblical truth. Through our study and discussions I'm reminded of the absolute danger of this counterfeit hope.

Recently I heard a sermon by CJ Mahaney dealing with Legalism and it's assault on Justification. I cannot recommend this sermon highly enough. If you have an hour I exhort you to take the time to listen. You can get it here.

In his sermon, CJ states, "Simply put legalism is substituting your works for His (Christ’s) finished work.” He also defines legalism as the "height of arrogance" and is an effort at "self-atonement".

CJ also poses some questions that really help expose the heart of legalism.

1) Am I more aware of and affected by my past sins than I am the finished work of Christ?

2) Do I live thinking and believing and feeling God is disappointed with me rather than delighting over me?

3) Do I have an undue concern about what others think?

4) Do I lack joy?

5) Do I consistently experience condemnation?

6) Am I more aware of areas I need to grow than I am of the cross of Christ?

These questions leave many of us standing guilty of legalism, but we need to know how to rightly process the indictment.

The remedy to legalism is the cross. Robert Murray McCheyne says, “Take 10 looks at Christ for every one look at yourself.”

Jerry Bridges seeks to explain how God sees us in our sin, and how understanding justification rightly frees us up to grow deeper in Christ.

When we pray to God for blessing, He does not examine our performance to see if we are worthy. Rather, He looks to see if we are trusting in the merit of His Son as our only hope for securing His blessing. Disciplines of Grace, 19

We need to hear the gospel every day of our Christian lives….It is only the joy of hearing the gospel and being reminded that our sins are forgiven in Christ that will keep the demands of discipleship from becoming drudgery. Disciplines of Grace, 21.

Let us stand in the hope of Christ and not in our own hopelessness. He is our hope, strength, and absolute salvation.