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Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Cutting Room Floor: Faithful or Fearful?

And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. (Jdg 2:10)

In the second chapter of Judges, this verse might as well be a flashing neon sign.  It is the bridge between the faithfulness of the Joshua generation and the apostasy of the Judges generation.  In explains how Israel’s outlook went from being one of promise and hope to being one of sin and despair.  The depth of its ramifications is played out for the rest of the book of Judges, and in a sense, for the rest of Old Testament history. 

Those of us who are parents might read such a verse and be convicted and fearful that we are not doing enough to build Christ into our children.  The assumption is made that if that new generation of Israelites did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel, the previous generation must not have told them.  They dropped the ball.  They bear great responsibility.

But as I mentioned in the message on Sunday morning, the knowledge written about in this verse does not refer to an awareness of information.  It’s not that the Israelites had never heard of the Lord or of the work that he had done for Israel.  Certainly, they had.  Remember Caleb’s reply to the angel of the Lord in Judges 6:13? “If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’”

Also in ch11, Jephthah spends 14 verses giving a history lesson to the king of the Ammonites, recounting for him how God brought them from Egypt to their present inheritance. Clearly, the people knew about the LORD and His work.  They knew it very well.  So the preceding generation was faithful in some significant measure in communicating the promises and works of God. 

The problem was that this new generation did not know God in the sense that they did not love and cling to God, they did not trust His work (Jos 23:1-13).  Not even Joshua could make them do that, and we sense his frustration about that in the final verses of Joshua 24.

So, Judges 2:10 should not serve to indict us if our children do not come to faith in Christ.  However, it is a good reminder of two things – first, we do have a responsibility to bring the gospel to our children, but second, our efforts are no guarantee that they will repent and believe.

We all want our children to be saved.  Some people want it so desperately that they are preoccupied with it.  “What can I do?  What can I do to make sure they get saved?”  And many, in their great desire to be assured that their efforts will be successful, cling to Proverbs 22:6, Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.

But Proverbs are not promises or laws.  A biblical proverb is a short, pithy saying that expresses a wise, general truth.  Most of us probably know someone who diligently and faithfully raised a child up according to Scripture, but the child grew up to live and die as an unbeliever.  How do we explain that?  Proverbs are general truths, not promises or laws.

Further, the popular understanding of this proverb is not quite accurate.  The text literally reads, “train a child up in the beginning of his way, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”  There is no explicit or implied reference to training a child in godliness.  It is a general truth about training a child up in any direction.  It simply states that the way you train a child will affect how he lives his life.  If you train him to be lazy, he will be lazy as an adult.  If you train him to work hard, he will work hard as an adult.  There will be exceptions, but the exceptions do not refute the general rule.

So Proverbs 22:6 is far from a promise that if we will just do the right things, our children will be saved.  That can be freeing or disheartening depending on how much you trust the Lord.  It can be a freeing thought that I am not responsible for saving my child, if I trust the Lord and purpose to be faithful in what He has commanded.  It can be a fearful thought that I cannot save my child, if I am trusting in myself rather than the goodness and wisdom of God. 

But the fact that I am not responsible for saving my child does not mean that I am not responsible for how I parent that child.  And the fact that I cannot save my child does not mean there is nothing I can do for them.  God has given us instructions to which we must be faithful.

Ephesians 6:4 reads, Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.  Titus 2:4 reads, …and so train the young women to love their husbands and children.   These commands along with the pattern shown in Deuteronomy 6 and the principles of Proverbs should be our guide.

Deut 6:6-7 "And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.

Pro 19:18 Discipline your son while there is hope, And do not desire his death.

Pro 22:15 Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.

Pro 13:24 He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.

Pro 23:13 Do not hold back discipline from the child, Although you beat him with the rod, he will not die.

Pro 29:15 The rod and reproof give wisdom, But a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother.

Additionally, we should pray diligently for our children.  All of these things comprise the yardstick by which we will be held accountable in the end.  As in all things, God is sovereign and we should rest in His goodness and wisdom, striving to be faithful in all that He has commanded us.  We should be speaking, living, and training them in the gospel, teaching them to obey all that He has commanded.  As a general rule, our children will follow.  But our hope is not in their conversion, but in the God who saves. 
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Facebook and Faithfulness

Last week I saw an article about a small college that recently conducted an experiment in which it imposed a week-long ban on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.  The college administration wanted to see how important the technology had become to the students and faculty.  What they found was that these tools could be useful, but that in the lives of many in that college community social media had become a bona fide “addiction.” 
It was reported that one student was in the habit of checking Facebook 21 hours a day.  The student would manually block all postings for three hours so as to get some sleep.  For others, social media was getting in the way of their schoolwork.  Still, even with the blackout on the school’s computer system, for many students the burden of not having continuous access to social media was more than they could bear, and they were compelled to continue checking Facebook and Twitter via their smart phones.   
Obsession with social media appears to be a growing problem in the workplace as well.  One study in April 2010 found that more business employees are visiting Facebook from the workplace than any other internet site.  6.8% of all business internet traffic goes to Facebook, twice the traffic going to the number two site, Google.  A July 2009 survey reported that 77% of workers who have a Facebook account use it during work hours.  Of that number, 87% admit that they had no clear business reason for using the site.
Most of us on Facebook or Twitter could probably name a person or two that we would think of as an “addict.”  We might even admit about ourselves, "I'm probably on more than I should be."  Should we be concerned about this?  I would advocate a biblical suspicion of it.  This phenomenon has all the earmarks of widespread and widely accepted idolatry.
First, let me express clearly that I do not intend to use this post to condemn the use of social media.  These technologies are by no means inherently sinful.  They can be very helpful.  I’ve been able to reconnect with friends from my childhood that I would not have found otherwise.  It has also been encouraging to see people who were at one time not even nominal believers, who have come to know the Lord and grow in His likeness.  I’ve even been able to give and receive biblical counsel through Facebook.  So there are good things. 
But good things can become idolatrous things.  As we recently discussed in Sunday School, an idol is anything that we consistently make equal to or more important than God in our attention, desires, devotion, and choices.  But is it really possible for any of these forms of social media to supplant the Lord in that way?

Well, we don’t have to be crippled under the weight of a compulsive desire to post a status update in order for our use of Facebook or Twitter to be considered an idolatrous influence in our lives.  All it takes is for us to allow that thing to cause us to be unfaithful in some area of our lives.  Making God preeminent in our attention, desire, devotion, and choices involves seeking to be faithful to Him in every area of our lives, to be faithful in the things He has commanded.  We are to be faithful in our marriages, with our children, in our work, in our service to the local body, in our devotional life, in our friendships, in our finances, in how we spend our “free” time, etc.  I would suggest that if our attention to social media has caused us to be unfaithful in any one area of our lives, it has become an idolatrous lust.  That may sound harsh, but if it has caused us to be unfaithful, we have chosen it over the Lord.  That’s the definition of an idol.

Ephesians 5:15-16, has this to say regarding our stewardship of our time: Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 

The term “walk” is used here and elsewhere in the New Testament as a metaphor for our lifestyle and conduct.  These verses tell us to live wisely.  The following phrase tells us how to do that – by making the best use of the time.  Wise living requires that we be good stewards of our time.  Someone who squanders his money is easily regarded as a fool.  He who squanders his time is equally foolish, and this passage tells us why – the days are evil.  We live in a sinful age.  There is temptation all around. Without the purposeful use of our time, we make ourselves vulnerable to a host of things that would draw us away from devotion to Christ.

Some would say they spend so much time on social media for the edifying relationships or the spiritual encouragement.  I am encouraged that there are a small number of people who use their status updates on Facebook or Twitter to post encouraging quotes from the Bible or links to edifying articles or sermons.  But it seems to me that the vast majority of what I witness there, even among professing believers, could be characterized as a brash display of self-centered, self-important reports on the minute details of one’s life, and/or  a soapbox duel comprised of bold – and often, uninformed – philosophizing that either intentionally or unintentionally alienates the very friends with which this social media purports to connect us, and fails to rise to the standard of biblical love.

And a greater irony is that many who spend hours upon hours on Facebook, reading about and commenting on the ingrown toenail of an acquaintance from high school, have marriages that are suffering, productivity problems at work, children who have no idea what it’s like to have a parent look them in the eye when they are speaking, and no time to spend pursuing Christ in the Word.  Playing in the background behind all the Mafia Wars, Farmville achievements, witty comments, and LOL’ing, there are relationships with flesh and blood people in the same room with us that are dying from a lack of care and attention. 
That should cause us to question our motives for donating so much time to this.  Do we find some kind of fulfillment there?  Do we go there for comfort or rest?  Do we log on because it makes us feel better?  Is it a pleasant distraction?  If the answer is yes, that’s not good.  If we are going to our social media to take our minds off of our problems or to cheer us up after a horrible day or to make us feel important or liked, that social media has become a false refuge and is nudging God out of the way.  1 Peter 1:3-13 tells us that we have been born again to a living hope, and that hope is in Christ.  Our sufficiency, our comfort, our fulfillment, our rest, and our right understanding of ourselves is to be found in Christ alone. 

So what am I advocating?  Canceling your Twitter account or taking text messaging off of your cell plan?  Not necessarily.  I would just encourage everyone to take a look at ourselves.  If you are keeping these technologies in their proper place in your life, praise the Lord and use them for His glory.  But if these social media have risen to the level of causing you to be unfaithful in some area of your life, I believe a little radical amputation would be wise.  Jesus said in Matt 5:29, “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.”

But amputation is just a preliminary step.  Sanctification involves removing idols from our lives and growing in our worship of Christ.  So we shouldn’t just cut down or cut off our access to Facebook or some other social media.  We must also replace that with time spent in the Word and time spent taking practical steps to be faithful in those areas where we have failed due to our unfaithful use of our time.    

There is nothing wrong with enjoying our Christian liberty as long as it does not become an occasion for the flesh (Gal 5:13).  Our greater desire should be to not to be enslaved by anything (1 Cor 6:12).

 Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Taking Notes?

  21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
 22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.
 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.
 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
(James 1:21-25)
I must tell you how encouraging it is to see so many people taking notes during the sermon on Sunday mornings.  A number of you have commented about how furiously you write to keep up, and I’ve heard several folks talk about having filled up entire notebooks.  Your diligence is a testimony to your love for God’s Word.  
Years ago I used to study the Word using a Bible with extra-wide margins.  I would write as small as I could, trying to keep a running commentary on the material on each page.  There were also post-it notes on most pages because I had run out of room in the margin.  I wanted so badly to know and understand as much as I possibly could.  I desired to master the pages of Scripture.  Sadly, I can look back on those years and see that while I was doing my all to master the Word, very seldom was the Word mastering me.  My zeal to hear the Word was far more consistent than my zeal to apply it.
James 1:21-25 is a key text for those who love God’s Word.  I know from experience how easy it is to allow the intake of the Word to become an end in itself rather than a means to the ultimate end – conformity to the image of Christ. 
In verse 21, James exhorts us to put away sinfulness and receive the implanted word.  Many believers have that down pat.  We listen to sermons.  We listen to Christian radio.  We listen to the Bible on our mp3 players.  We read the Word, memorize it, sing it, pray it, and think it.  We have no problem receiving the Word - we can’t get enough of it.  But how many of us have moved past the reception of the Word and into v22?  But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.   
The person who hears the Word without applying it is self-deceived.  He has deceived himself into believing that his reception of the Word, his knowledge of it, his mastery of it, is resulting in a changed life.  He is like someone who knows everything about aviation but who has never flown.
How many times have you heard a sermon or participated in a Bible study and afterwards thought or said, “That was really convicting” – only to then leave that message or lesson confined to the piece of paper on which you took your notes?  It is so common for us to think that because we are receiving the Word, learning the Word, and being convicted by it that we are growing spiritually.  James would tell us that unless we are being doers of the Word, we are deceiving ourselves. 
Vv23-24 contain an excellent illustration: For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.  For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.  The truth of Scripture is like a mirror for the human soul.  Biblical teaching and preaching holds up God’s perfect standard and shows us where we are not living in conformity with God’s revealed will.  We can stand in front of that mirror and see ourselves clearly, convicted about the change that needs to take place, but if we do not immediately work to apply that truth, the circumstances and pace of life can dull that image so that before long we completely forget the needed change.  We forget what we looked like in the mirror – we forget what the text demanded of us.
What benefit is there in learning truth or even being convicted by it if we do not then apply it?  Bible knowledge without application is a recipe for pride and self-deception.  All forms of Bible intake – preaching, teaching, reading, memorization, meditation – should be done with a view to bringing it to bear in our lives. 
So what are you doing with those sermon notes?  Here is a suggestion.  At your first opportunity after the message – Sunday afternoon, evening, or Monday morning – set aside some intentional time to reflect on the points of the message and how it can be applied to your life.  Is there a sin that needs to be confessed to God?  Do you need to seek forgiveness from a brother or sister?  Should you seek accountability in some area of your life?  What changes need to be made?  Write down two or three specific things that you can do to apply the truth you received in the message.  Then each day of the week, return to those notes, praying over them, and scheduling time to carry out those application points.  You could also discuss the message with family members or friends, sharing with each other how you were specifically convicted and helping each other think through the best ways to apply the Word to your life.  Pray together that the Lord would give you the desire and grace to be doers of the Word, and not hearers only.
James 1:25 gives us a grand promise if we will do that: But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
May the Lord be glorified and His church be edified as we strive to be intentional about living the Word that we love to learn.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Friday, September 17, 2010

Perseverance of the Saints - But What About Hebrews 6? Pt5

Finally, we come to end of this series on Hebrews 6.  If you have not read the beginning articles of this series, it would be a good idea to start with them, before reading this one. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)
The issue at hand is, what is the proper interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6?  Do these verses indicate that a true believer can lose his or her salvation?  
Before we get to these verses, there is one last contextual issue I’d like to mention.  The author of Hebrews offers the Old Testament Jews as an example of those who received revelation of the Messiah, but who rejected it.  Numerous times in the book, the author points out the revelation of God that the Jews received, using their failure as an admonition to the reader for self-examination.  The Jews had all the revelation of God that anyone could ask for.  For example, Hebrews 1:1-14 tells of the testimony of the prophets about the coming Christ.  The Jews’ reception of this revelation and eventual rejection of it is alluded to in 2:1-4:
  1 Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.
 2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution,
 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard,
 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.   
These verses are so important for understanding Hebrews 6.  V2 speaks of Old Testament revelation as “the message declared by angels.”  The author writes that every rejection of it, “every transgression, or disobedience,” was punished.  In other words, the Jews received revelation of the Son, rejected it, and were judged.   
He then goes on to describe a revelation greater than that received by the Old Testament Jews.  It was delivered by Christ Himself.  It was also delivered by the apostles, those who heard Him first-hand.  v4 tells us that God authenticated the message of the apostles by signs, wonders, various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit.  The 1st century church saw and experienced some amazing things.  They saw and experienced the things mentioned in v4 that we have only read about.  (Once the message of the New Testament was completed, these authenticating acts of God were no longer necessary to validate the message.)  The New Testament church has received a revelation of the Christ that surpasses the revelation given to the Old Testament Jews. 
The implication is clear.  If the Jews received a rudimentary revelation of the Christ and were punished for rejecting it, how will we not be punished for rejecting this greater revelation?  Obviously, it is possible to receive such revelation and not be saved.   
Hebrews 6:4-6
  The opening verses of this section, 5:11-14, address the relative immaturity of some of the readers, as identified by their being unskilled with the word of righteousness.  So beginning in 6:1, the author exhorts the readers to press on toward maturity: Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God...  In other words, it’s time for you to start progressing in sanctification.  It’s time to move past the very beginnings of the Christian life, repentance and faith. 
V2 gives more examples of these initial baby steps: …and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.  “Washings” is the plural form of the word baptismos, or baptism.  So one of the initial baby steps is instruction about baptisms.  This could refer to the baptism of John vs the baptism of Jesus, Jewish purification rituals vs Christian baptism, or water baptism vs baptism with the Holy Spirit.  What these instructions were is not so essential.  That they are elementary things of the faith is the point and the reader is exhorted to progress beyond such things.
The following verses, then, show the danger of remaining immature.
  4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit,
 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,
 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
What is being discussed is the possibility of a situation in which a person may have no further opportunity to repent.  So what is that situation?  In short, vv4-5 could be descriptive of anyone, both true and nominal believers, in the 1st century church.  They describe the extraordinary revelation of Christ received during the time of the apostles.
First, the hypothetical persons described have “been enlightened.”  This is not a very confining description since John 1:9 tells us that “the true light,” Jesus Christ, “enlightens everyone.”  So we could hardly conclude from this clause in v4 that what is being discussed is necessarily a true believer. 
Second, they have “tasted the heavenly gift.”  The New Testament uses the concept of tasting in the figurative sense to describe experiencing something.  It can be momentary or prolonged.  Matt 5:45 and Acts 17:25 indicate that all people experience the goodness of God, but that by no means indicates they are all saved.  The Gospels are full of accounts of people benefitting from Jesus’ miracles, and yet the great majority rejected Him.  So, one should still not assume that the situation described here is that of a true believer.
Third, the person has “shared in the Holy Spirit.”  At first glance, this clause may appear to be the most difficult.  However, anyone involved with the church in the 1st century would have experienced the work of the Holy Spirit via witnessing miracles, tongues, and healing.  These very things are mentioned in 2:4, which according to the warning given there are things that can be experienced without resulting in salvation: signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit. Additionally, this could be a reference to the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus in John 16:8, a ministry which Acts 7:51 indicates can be resisted without resulting in salvation. 
The other things mentioned in v4-5 are similar.  They are experiences of revelation, not indications that one has been saved.  Judas is an excellent example of this type of person.  All of the things mentioned in v4-6 were true of him.  He received all of the revelation that one could ever hope for, the same revelation as the other disciples, yet he fell away.
This fits perfectly with the author's use of the Old Testament Jews as an example of unbelief.  The experiences mentioned in 6:4-6 are quite similar to descriptions of the revelation received and rejected by the Jews (2:1-4; 3:9b; 3:16-4:2).  4:2 gives this assessment of them: For the good news came to us just as to them, but the message they received did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.  So 6:4-6 simply returns to the theme that the reception of great and manifold revelations of Christ does not ensure the salvation of the one who experiences them.
So why are these verses written here?  Remember that the author is exhorting the readers to press on to maturity.  These verses indicate that remaining in a state of immaturity could be a sign that one is not a believer at all.  Like the other warnings in the book, the author is intending for the readers to examine themselves.  The true believer who languishes in what appears to be spiritual immaturity shows no positive evidence that he or she is truly saved.  They are virtually indistinguishable from the nominal believer. 
The passage is intended to prompt the question: Is your immaturity an indication that you are a baby believer and need to press on to maturity, or is your immaturity an indication that although you have received all the revelation of the gospel that one could hope for, you have not truly repented and trusted in Christ alone to save you?
These verses expose the grave danger of staying in a state of immaturity.  If an immature person is not a true believer, they run the risk of eventually “falling away,” rejecting the magnificent revelation given to them.  And the consequences of such a choice are dire – that person may lose any further opportunity to repent and believe and be saved.  Why?  Because having received clear revelation of the gospel and rejecting it constitutes “crucifying again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (v6).  It is a grave and mortal insult against the Son of God to receive the truth about Him, His sacrifice, and His salvation, and to then spurn Him.  This passage is a strong admonition against the notion that there is always tomorrow.
This sobering truth is reiterated in Heb 10:26-29, For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.  Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses.  How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace.
Let me point out again that the things listed in Hebrews 6:4-6 are experiential in nature.  They refer to the reception of revelation.  But the mere reception of revelation is never given in Scripture as an indication that one is regenerate.  Rather, godly fruit is held up as the indication that one is regenerate.  And we need only progress to the very next verses before we are reassured of this:  For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned (6:7-8).  In other words, those who bear good fruit are saved; those who bear worthless fruit are doomed.  Fruit is the indicator of the condition of one’s soul.
V9 lends further weight to this interpretation: Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things – things that belong to salvation.  This indicates that the things mentioned in vv4-6 are not things that belong to salvation.  So what are the things that belong to salvation? The various fruit mentioned in vv10-11 – good works, love, service, earnestness, hope, faith, and patience.
Hebrews 6:4-6 is not a warning that if you are not careful you may lose your salvation.  Rather, it is a warning against spiritual complacency.  A state of chronic immaturity could be an indication that you are not a believer at all, and that you run the risk of falling away from the revelation you’ve been given with no possibility of repentance.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, September 9, 2010

To burn or not to burn?

Many of you are aware that a charismatic pastor in Florida has named this Saturday, September 11, “International Burn a Koran Day.”  Pastor Tony Jones intends to set hundreds of copies of the Koran on fire in an effort to call attention to the evils of Islam.  A wide range of public figures, both Christian and Muslim, both Republican and Democrat, have publicly condemned these plans. 
General David Petraeus is concerned that the images of the burning books will “be used by those who wish us ill, to incite violence and to enflame public opinion against us.”  President Obama has referred to the pastor’s plan as a "recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda."  Numerous times over the last several days I have read and heard the phrase “unnecessary provocation.”  It seems that the vast majority of people at home and abroad are vehemently opposed to this.
I do think it is a valid concern that a public Koran-burning will endanger our troops overseas, and I do think it will give our country a black eye internationally.  But the main reasons I’m hearing from public figures for why this is a bad idea are not the main reasons I would cite.  There are biblical principles that apply to this situation that should persuade anyone who claims to be a minister of the gospel of Christ to forego the public burning of the Koran.
First of all, let me affirm that Pastor Jones is right on some accounts.  I’m not a fan of t-shirt evangelism or t-shirt sloganeering, but Pastor Jones has made up some t-shirts that proclaim “Islam is of the devil.”  This is excellent theology.  Islam is what the Bible would call “another gospel” (Gal 1:6-7).  That is, it teaches a way of salvation other than salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  2 Cor 4:3-4 tells us that in the case of those who do not believe the true gospel of Jesus Christ, the god of this world – the devil – has blinded their minds “to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”  Therefore, because Islam leads people away from the true gospel, it should be considered a tool of Satan. 
Second, because the Koran teaches this false gospel of Islam, it is a book of lies.  It teaches a god that does not exist.  It teaches a way of salvation outside of the atoning death of Jesus Christ, the Son of the One True God.  Acts 4:12 tells us “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." 
So, Islam is of the devil and the Koran is a book of lies.  Pastor Jones is right.  Does that mean that the Church of Jesus Christ should burn copies of the Koran?  No.
First of all, burning books of any kind indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of our warfare.  The Church of Christ is not fighting against material things or material beings.  2 Corinthians 10:3-5 says, For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.  Our ultimate enemy is the devil and his demons, as we saw last year in our study of Ephesians 6: For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6:12).  Our battle is spiritual in nature. 
So how did Paul command us to fight this spiritual battle?  Via the use of spiritual armor and weaponry:
  13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.
 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,
 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.
 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one;
 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,
 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication (Eph 6:13-18a).
I won’t take the time here to explain these verses in the detail with which I explained them over the course of 7 sermons.  But what I would like to note is that we are not to fight spiritual battles by physical means.  We fight spiritual battles by spiritual means. 
Now there in v18, Paul exhorts us to fight via prayer.  For what did he tell us to pray in the following verses? 
  18 To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,
 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel,
 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.And what came next?  In the very same sentence, the same sentence in which he instructed us how to fight this battle, for what did he tell us to pray? (Eph 6:18b-20).
We are to pray for one another…and for the bold proclamation of the gospel.
Pastor Jones appears to misunderstand the nature of the battle and the appropriate way to wage war.  He is seeking to fight a spiritual battle and a spiritual enemy using physical means.  He is burning the Koran rather than preaching the gospel.

We need to ask ourselves – do we find in the NT the apostles engaging in the same kind of spectacle that Pastor Jones is planning?  Absolutely not.  (Some might cite Acts 19:19, where “a number of those who had practiced magical arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all.”  But a dear brother pointed out to me that Acts 19:19 was not a publicity stunt making a statement against an idolatrous cult.  It was the act of new converts renouncing their former way of life.)  What do we find the apostles doing in their effort to keep the Great Commission?  Proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It’s important to remember that the culture into which the apostles were called to go was a pagan culture.  There were false religions everywhere you looked.  The apostles had manifold opportunities to desecrate the temples of these false gods, and yet, they didn’t.  The classic example of an apostle engaging the culture is found in Acts 17:16ff where Paul ministered in Athens, a city “full of idols” (v16).  How did Paul engage the culture?  By tearing down the temples or burning the idols?  No.  He engaged the culture by reasoning with them “in the synagogue” and “in the marketplece” (v17).  He preached “Jesus and the resurrection” (v18).  Vv22-31 show Paul boldly delivering the truth, calling the people to repentance.  He fought a spiritual battle against the evil one using the gospel rather than a torch. 
In fact, the last thing Paul wanted to do was to offend, lest he lose an opportunity to preach the gospel (1 Cor 9:20-23).  This is precisely what Pastor Jones does not understand.  By burning the Koran (or even threatening to), he is causing the world to turn a deaf ear to anything he says.  Certainly, Paul knew that the gospel was offensive (1 Cor 1:22-24).  And you and I shouldn’t kid ourselves about this.  If we share the true gospel faithfully, we’re going to see many people offended by it.  But like Paul, our desire should be that if people are offended it will be because of the truth of the gospel rather than because of our actions and manner in delivering it. 
What is the best way to counter Islam or Mormonism or Atheism or any other false gospel?  It isn’t by burning their false scriptures, but by proclaiming the true gospel with compassion, allowing the message rather than our manner to cause offense.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Friday, September 3, 2010

"...and there are many adversaries."

Reading through the final chapter of 1 Corinthians recently, I saw something that caught my attention.  Sometimes believers may think of such closing chapters as throwaways.  It’s all goodbyes and random requests, right? 
“Greet Prisca and Aquila...”
“Timothy, my fellow worker, greets you.”
“When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books…”
But there nestled in among the closing remarks of 1 Corinthians, there is a thought-provoking and convicting statement:  I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries (1 Cor 16:8-9).
What jumped off the page at me was the word “and”.  I would have expected “but” or “and yet” or “even though” or “inspite of the fact that.”  It would make more sense to me if Paul had held up the wide door for effective ministry as his reason for staying in Ephesus, while citing the existence of many adversaries as the detractor or downside of staying.  “Since there is so much ministry for me to do here, I’m going to stay, in spite of the fact that there are many adversaries.”
Or I could even understand Paul citing the adversaries as a factor making him unsure if he would end up staying.  “I’d like to stay in Ephesus, since there is great opportunity for ministry here, but still…there are so many adversaries…I dunno.”  That’s probably what I would have written.  I may have seen all those adversaries as a reason to think the door for ministry was closedPeople hate me here.  It must be time to move on.  You may be able to relate.
But Paul, unlike many Christians (pastors included), did not consider opposition, adversity, suffering, or persecution to be an indication from God that it was God’s will for him to move on.  Amazingly, Paul cites the presence of many adversaries as a reason to stay in Ephesus.  That’s the power of that word “and.”  “I’m staying because there is a wide door for ministry and because there are many adversaries.”
One remarkable quality of Paul’s ministry was the efficiency and equity with which his gospel offended both Jews and Greeks.  Acts 19:23ff tells of Demetrius, a Greek silversmith, who made a nice living crafting silver shrines for the false goddess Artemis.  Calling together other craftsmen who profited from this idolatry, he said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship”(Acts 19:25-27).  Subsequently, a riot broke out that endangered the lives of Paul and his companions.
In the next chapter, Acts 20, Paul reminds the Ephesian elders of how faithfully he ministered to them in the face of trials that happened to him through the plots of the Jews (Acts 20:17-21).  2 Cor 11:24 records that on five occasions, Paul received 39 lashes from the Jews. 
And yet, his persecution by Jews and Gentiles he did not regard as the downside of his ministry.  This is because he understood the cause of such adversity – the success of the gospel.  His proclamation of Christ, the wide door for ministry to which he refers in 1 Cor 16:9, is precisely what caused the opposition noted there.  That there was much opposition indicates that there had been much success attained by the preaching of the gospel.  The presence of many adversaries, therefore, was no reason to leave, but evidence that the cause of Christ was advancing there and that there was opportunity for greater ministry still.
The fact that there are people opposing the gospel means that the gospel is being effective.  Satan is no moron.  Matthew Henry, in his commentary on this verse, wrote, “The devil opposes those most, and makes them most trouble, who most heartily and successfully set themselves to destroy his kingdom.”  Those who are being effective for the kingdom of God are those most threatening to Satan and his mission to destroy the church and deprive God of His glory.  Opposition is no sign that it’s time to move on.  It may be a sign that you’re doing something right and that you should stay the course. 
We may be tempted to think that Paul was able to do this because, unlike us, opposition and adversity didn’t bother him.  The truth is that it bothered him greatly.  Speaking of his time in Ephesus, Paul wrote in 2 Cor 1:8-9, For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
Paul despaired of life itself?  Yes.  But he continued, understanding that his struggle was for the furtherance of the gospel and to cause him to rely not upon his own strength, but upon God who raises the dead.
How rare such conviction is in the modern church.  How quickly we throw in the towel in the face of any kind of adversity, let alone persecution for the gospel.  We have trouble in our marriages, so we get out instead of seeking to glorify God there.  We experience trials in our work, so we look for a way out instead of seeking to stay and be a light there.  How quickly we leave the rapids and search for smoother waters.  How thoughtlessly we run from difficult situations based upon our own comfort, not considering what would bring God the most glory. 
How we respond to such adversity reveals whether we have a heart that is centered on God or on ourselves.
We need a heavenly perspective.  Suffering for one’s faith is not a mere possibility for believers – it is a certainty, if they are being faithful (Phil 1:29-30; 2 Tim 3:12).  Persecution is not a downside to being in Christ.  It is a cause for rejoicing (1 Pet 1:6-9, 4:12-14; Acts 5:40-41). 
Our objective, according to Paul, should be clear: to let our manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ by standing firm, striving for the faith of the gospel, not frightened by any opposition (Phil 1:27-30).   May the Lord lead us at PBF to be faithful and step fearlessly through the wide door for effective work that has opened to us, emboldened by whatever adversaries we face.

Posted by Greg Birdwell