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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Understanding Hell, Part 3

(If you haven’t read the first two posts in this series, you can find them here and here.)
So far we have spent a little time establishing the biblical case for a literal, physical, eternal hell.  Now I’d like to briefly deal with the first of several common objections to this doctrine.
Objection #1:  “The Greek word for ‘eternal’ is aionios, which can describe an ‘age’ or ‘segment of time.  Isn’t it possible that when the Bible speaks of the eternal nature of hell it means that hell will last for an age, that is, not for eternity, but for a finite period of time?”
It is true that aionios can refer to a limited period of time.  It can also refer to the age to come or to the world.  So how do we know which sense is being used in any given instance?  The context is always the determining factor.  And in the case of texts dealing with the subject of hell, there are at least three reasons why it is best to take aionios as referring to a literal eternity.
First of all, the New Testament shows that eternal punishment is parallel with eternal life. In Matthew 25:46 aionios is used of both heaven and hell.  There, speaking of the judgment of the nations, Jesus says, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."  One of the cardinal rules of biblical interpretation is that you don’t assign different meanings to multiple uses of the same word in the same passage.  So if we want to say that hell is temporary, we have to say also that eternal life is temporary.  Moses Stuart, considered to be North America’s first Bible scholar, expressed it another way when he wrote, “we must either admit the endless misery of hell or give up the endless happiness of heaven” (Moses Stuart, Exegetical Essays on Several Words Relating to Future Punishment, p62). 
Second, other passages point to the eternality of hell without using the word aionios.  In Matthew 3:12, John the Baptist refers to the judgment as “unquenchable fire.”  That is, fire that cannot be put out.  In Mark 9:48, Jesus describes hell as the place “where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”  See also Mark 9:43 and Luke 3:17.  Sounds eternal to me.  So even if it is granted that aionios can mean something less than a literal eternity, these other references still stand as indicating an eternal punishment for the wicked.
Third, there is a usage of aionios that always refers to a literal eternity.  Wherever we find aionas ton aionon, which is translated “forever and ever,” we can know that a real eternity is in view.  It literally means “the age of the ages,” and is used to describe the duration of God’s glory (Gal 1:5; Eph 3:21; Phil 4:20; 1 Tim 1:17; 2 Tim 4:18; Heb 13:21; Rev 5:13, 7:12), the duration of God’s throne (Heb 1:8), the duration of God’s dominion (1 Pet 4:11, 5:11; Rev 1:6, 11:15), the duration of God’s existence (Rev 4:9, 10; 10:6; 15:7), and the duration of the saint’s reign with Christ (Rev 22:5).  This usage is also found in Rev 20:10 where it describes the fate of those cast into the lake of fire: they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.  
So yes, aionios can mean a limited period of time, but for the reasons stated above we cannot conclude that such a meaning pertains to hell.  The most natural reading of the relevant New Testament texts point to a hell that endures forever.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Suggested Method for Tackling Sin

(Here is an excerpt from yesterday's message containing a suggested method for tackling sin.  Again, if any of you would like some help with your specific situation, the elders would be glad to come alongside you.  For the ladies, we can set you up with a godly woman to help you.)

This is just a suggested method.  This is a way, not necessarily the way, to bring the Word to bear on your sin.
If you’ve become convicted of a particular sin, that sin has most likely become a strong habit.  So, following the biblical model for change (Eph 4:22-24), you have to put off the sin and put on something in its place.  Kill the sinful habit and replace it with a godly one.  As an example, let’s say you are being habitually impatient with your children.  If you don’t have children, take note of the principles and just apply them to your situation. 
The first thing to do is to determine how that sin is manifesting itself in your life.  Maybe you raise your voice at them.  Maybe you simmer without exploding.  Maybe you say critical, hurtful things to them when they don’t do what you want.  Write those things down.
Second, determine what you are thinking each time you are tempted to that sin.  Sin doesn’t begin as an outward act.  It starts in the mind and heart.  Your thought may be, “Can’t I get some quiet around here.”  It may be, “I deserve respect.”  It may be, “settle down.”  Write those things down.
Third, determine what you are wanting in those moments.  It may be peace and quiet, when they are being loud.  It may be respect, when they are disobeying.  It may be a clean house, when they are messing everything up.  It may be leisure and rest, when they are dragging their feet getting ready for bed.  It may be punctuality when they are preventing you from leaving for church on time.  Write down what it is that you are wanting. 
Fourth, determine when that sin is manifesting itself.  When do you find yourself getting impatient with the kids and even sinfully angry with them?  You might want to keep a journal for a few days and write down the time and circumstances each time you are tempted to sin in this way.  Write it all down. 
Fifth, go to the Word and find out what the Bible teaches about that sin and the opposite Godly virtue.  Bible Gateway is a great online resource for doing topical searches.  Write that down.  It will be important to commit some of these passages to memory.
Now you’ve got all that information written down. What do you do with it?  The how tells us the specific actions we need to put off.  If that specific action is yelling at the kids, the godly action that I can seek to put in its place is praying for the kids, and thanking the Lord for them.  So when I am tempted to raise my voice, I stop and pray instead.  
 The thinking tells me what thoughts I need to replace.  So if the thought I’m putting of is, “why can’t everyone be quiet,” I need to construct a biblical thought to replace it, like: “God is using all things, including this noise, to conform me to the image of Christ.”  That new thought needs to be written down and memorized.
The wanting tells me what I’m worshiping that needs to be replaced with worship of Christ.  If I want quiet so much that I will sin to get it or sin if I don’t get it, it’s an idol.  I need to recognize it as such and determine that in that moment I will focus on worshiping and pleasing Christ alone. This particular part of the plan relies heavily on my having preached the gospel to myself as a habit of life.
 The when tells me the specific times when I need to prepare myself for temptation, so that I can take a few minutes beforehand to go somewhere where I can be alone and go over all this information… 
…the sin that I am avoiding and the godly behavior I want to exhibit in its place…the thoughts I am going to resist and the godly thoughts I will strive to think instead…the idol that will be calling my name in that moment of temptation and the excellencies of pleasing Christ that I will focus on instead.  I review the relevant Scriptures that I have gathered.  I pray for God’s assistance in the moment of temptation, acknowledging before God I can’t do this in my own power.  Only His grace and strength will enable me to obey and I will trust in Him.  And I commit to the Lord that I will strive to be faithful. 
And I go through that every time I am about to go into a situation where I know temptation will be waiting for me.  If those times for you are super predictable, set an alarm to remind you to do that.  And one crucial part of preparation is having started my day rehearsing the gospel to myself, pondering all the glorious truths of what God has done in Christ on my behalf for His glory.  Remember that looking intently at the gospel is what fuels the fire of our devotion to the Lord giving us the very desire to obey.
Again, this is just one way you can take a systematic sledgehammer to your sin.  You can do some other kind of method, that’s fine.  But you have to do something.  Taking copious sermon notes won’t cut it.  You’ve got to put it into practice where the rubber meets the road.  That means actually sitting down and coming up with a plan for how to obey.
You may say, “that sure is a lot of work.”  Yep.  That’s why Peter writes in 2 Peter 1:5 make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue.  Expend energy on this.  That’s why Paul commanded Timothy in 1Tim 4:7, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.  In v10 of that chapter, he says to toil and strive.  That’s why Paul writes in Philippians 2:12 to work out your own salvation as God works in you.   
We do this trusting in the Lord’s strength, not our own, and focusing on the gospel, but we do have to do something.  Isn’t that the spirit of James 1:19-27?  Be doers of the law, not hearers who deceive themselves.  Look at the perfect law of liberty and persevere.  Stay there.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Understanding Hell, Part 2

Last time we began our look at the doctrine of hell by studying the holiness of God.  God’s holiness is the proper context for our understanding sin and judgment.  Because God is infinitely holy, sin is infinitely offensive to Him.  Therefore, the wrath of God rightly falls upon those who sin against Him.
Having established last time that the wrath of God is perfectly consistent with His holy character, we will now cover the nature of God’s wrath against sinners, specifically, that it is manifested in an eternal, literal, and physical hell. 
There is a category of objections to certain doctrines of the Bible that I would refer to as “but-God-wouldn’t-do-that” objections.  These objections are typically raised whenever Scriptural proofs are presented showing that God would indeed do “that.”  The doctrine of hell is a prime target for these objections, so let me acknowledge right away that they are out there.  I will address objections in a later post, but I want to establish first what the Bible actually teaches about hell.  If the Bible teaches that God does judge sinners in hell for all eternity, we must accept it.   
That hell is eternal is abundantly clear in Biblical teaching.  Consider Matthew 18:8-9: And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.  And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Cf. Matt 5:29-30; Mark 9:43-48)
In Matthew 25:31ff, Jesus tells of the future separation of the sheep from the goats.  Of the goats, He says in v41, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’”
In 2 Thess 1:9, Paul writes of those “who do not know God” and “who do not obey the gospel”:  They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
In Jude 5, we read, Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.  Likewise, Jude mentions Sodom and Gomorrah as examples to us of those who undergo a “punishment of eternal fire” (v7).  Later in v12, he describes false teachers as those “for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.”
Revelation 14:9-11 tells the fate of those who worship the beast or take his mark. V11 includes this chilling description of what they will endure: “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night…”  Further, Rev 20:9-15 predicts the devil, the beast, and the false prophet being thrown into the lake of fire along with Death, Hades, and all those whose names were not written in the book of life.  There “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever (v10).
Several of the references above also tell us that this eternal hell is a place of fire.  In Matt 5:22, Jesus speaks of the sinner being liable to “the hell of fire.”  In Mark 9:48, He describes hell as a place “where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”  All three of the Synoptic gospels tell of hell’s “unquenchable fire” (which also testifies to the eternality of hell)(Matt 3:12; Mark 9:43; Luke 3:17).
Additionally, so many references speak of hell as punishment, judgment, and torment that it is simply implausible to deny that hell is a conscious reality.  If it were not a literal, conscious experience there would be no punishment.  There would be no torment.  And it certainly could not be said of hell, “in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Lk. 13:28).  Yet, this is precisely how Jesus describes it, each time indicating that hell is a literal place.  Heb 10:27-31 speaks of this judgment as utterly fearful.  James 5:1-5 describes it as the “coming miseries.”
I’d like to point out the fact that a great many of these references are coming from the mouth of Jesus.  This is ironic because so many of the “but-God-wouldn’t-do-that” objections are based on the supposedly passive character of Christ, which demonstrates that many people have as shallow an understanding of the Son as they do of the Father.  Jesus taught more about hell than anyone else in the New Testament.  And Rev 19:15 reveals that Jesus is the one who “will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.”  
If you look back at the references above, you will find that ALL of the New Testament writers testify to this picture of hell.  And in spite of the unimaginable horror pictured in the Bible’s teaching on hell, over and over again the Biblical writers affirm that this punishment is just, that God’s wrath is righteous (Explicit: Acts 17:31; Rom 2:2, 5; 2 Thess 1:5-10; Rev 19:11. Assumed: Matt 5:20-30; 23:33; 24:45-25:46; Mark 9:42-48; Luke 16:19-31; Rom 1:18-3:20; Heb 10:27-31; James 4:12; 5:1-5; 2 Pet 2:4-17; Jude 6-23; Rev 20:10-15).
I mentioned on Sunday that the modern emotional problem that we have reconciling the concept of a loving God with an eternal hell is not a dilemma recognized in Scripture.  Rather, a very serious problem would arise if God did not pour out His wrath on sin – God would not be just (Pro 17:15; cf Rom 3:21-26). With that in mind, consider this: is it possible that our problem with the doctrine of hell stems from our underestimation of the heinousness of sin and the holiness of God?
Next, time we’ll start to deal with the common objections.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Understanding Hell

Over about the past year, I have received numerous questions about hell, particularly from folks who want to be better prepared to share the gospel and from others seeking biblical answers to common objections to this doctrine.  The traditional doctrine of hell experienced sparse opposition over the first 1800 years of the church, but in the last couple of centuries, with the rise of modernism and post-modernism, the doctrine has experienced almost constant attack.  The central question posed repeatedly is this: does the Bible teach a literal, physical, eternal place of torment called “hell”?  The short answer is yes, but over the next several blog posts, we will be taking a look at what the Bible has to say, as well as dealing with some of the most common objections. 

It is the position of the elders of Providence Bible Fellowship that there is a literal, physical, eternal place of torment called hell, and that it is the certain destination of all those who die in their sin.  All have sinned and deserve this judgment, but by God’s grace and through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, those who repent of their sin and trust in Christ alone to save them are forgiven of their sin, spared an eternity in hell, and given the gift of eternal life.   We hold this position because the Bible teaches it, not because it is popular or because it is the traditional view. 

The appropriate place to start with this doctrine is with the character of God.  A skewed view of who God is a fertile ground for error.  That is because all of theology finds its foundation in the character of God.  The very word theology means “study of God.”  So it should be no surprise that when we are wrong about the character of God, we end up in doctrinal error in many other areas of theology. 

The doctrine of hell is no exception.  This doctrine is rooted in who God is.  One common way that we get into trouble with the doctrine of hell is by elevating one of God’s attributes above all the others.  “God is love,” the Bible tells us (1 John 4:8, 16).  Many people then infer that hell cannot be literal, physical, and eternal because “a loving God would not do that.”  I’ll deal more with that objection in a later post, but what we need to understand at this point is that, yes, God is love, but He is not only love.  He is also holy. 

The Bible teaches that God is holy in two different senses.  First, He is holy in the sense that He is unique, separate, and distinct from everything He has created (Ex 15:11; 1 Sam 2:2).  This could be called the non-moral component of God’s holiness.  This “otherliness” of God is related to the second sense in which He is holy: He is separated from all that is sinful.  This is the moral component.  One of the classic texts illuminating the holy nature of God is Isaiah 6:1-7.

  1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.

 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.

 3 And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!"

 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.

 5 And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"

 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.

 7 And he touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for."

That the word “holy” is pronounced three times in v3 represents a superlative in the Hebrew language.  It essentially means that God is ultimately holy.  He is perfectly separated from all that is sinful.  The passage clearly demonstrates God’s majesty and separation, but it goes further in that it shows the implications that God’s holiness holds for man.  Notice Isaiah’s response in v5 to being confronted with the searing holiness of God.  There was not only an awareness of his own sinfulness (“…I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips…”), but also a dread of judgment (“Woe is me! For I am lost…”), all because of seeing who God is (“for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”).  God’s revealed holiness led to an awareness of sin and judgment.  God’s holiness exposed that Isaiah was unholy. 

Notice also, what v7 teaches us.  Isaiah was able to be in God’s presence only because his guilt was removed and his sin was atoned for.  This whole passage implies that God’s holiness is the basis for understanding sin and judgment.

Isaiah 6:1-7 shows us that God’s holiness is not just a description of who He is but also a standard for His creation.  The main principle of the OT law is found in Leviticus 19:2 – “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”  The same principle is found in the NT in Matthew 5:48, where Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as our heavenly Father is perfect.”  Peter also applied this standard to the church when he quoted Leviticus 19:2 in 1 Pet 1:15-16.  The righteousness that God demands from man is based on His own character, expounded in His word.  

So when we break God’s law, we are not just breaking a rule.  We are offending the very character of God.  We are violating His holiness.  That was the reason for Isaiah’s sense of doom in the presence of this Holy God.

Because of God’s holy character, He judges men according to their deeds (Rom 2:6; 2 Tim 4:14; Heb 9:27; 1 Pet 1:17; Jude 14-15).  He is a righteous judge, which means not only that He is righteous, but that it is good and right for Him to judge men accordingly (Psa 7:11; 9:7-8; 96:13; Jer 11:20; Acts 17:31; Rom 2:5; 2 Thess 1:5; 2 Tim 4:8; Rev 19:11). 

Scripture repeatedly speaks of the wrath of God as His response to sin.  As Paul begins his explication of the gospel in the book of Romans, he writes in 1:18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men...”  Likewise, Jesus describes the fate of the disobedient in John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”  An exhaustive list of cross-references would be too long to include here, but a few references include Num 11:33; 2Ki 22:13; Eph 5:6; Col 3:6; Heb 3:11, 4:3; Rev 14:10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1; 19:15.  God’s wrath is His righteous response to the sinfulness of men. 

God is holy. His holiness demands a payment for sin.  This is the foundation for a right understanding of hell.

Next time we’ll begin to look at what the Bible teaches about the nature of God’s wrath.  Until then, consider this: if God is not a God of wrath, why do we need a Savior?

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Monday, March 14, 2011

DeYoung's Review of "Love Wins"

When I learned that Rob Bell's new book - Love Wins - would be released at the end of this month, I decided that I would set aside the time necessary to read it and write a review of it for our people.  However, Kevin DeYoung today posted a review so thorough, insightful, and biblical that it would be terrible stewardship of my time to write one myself.  I highly recommend it.  DeYoung has done a great service to the church by dissecting this book and devoting himself to getting it done in such a timely manner.

Also, this Thursday at 2:30, Southern Seminary will be live streaming a round table discussion of the book.  Participants will be Albert Mohler, Russell Moore, Denny Burke, and Justin Taylor. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Influencing Others Toward Confidence in Christ

When other believers see you suffering, how does it affect them?  When you are persecuted, what kind of influence does it have on the people around you?  Do they become fearful about following in your footsteps or are they emboldened to live faithfully due to the example of God’s strength exercised in you?

Those are questions I was prompted to ask as I read the first chapter of Philippians this week.  Paul wrote the letter from a Roman prison.  As a general rule, prison has a deterring effect, if not on the prisoners themselves, then certainly on society as a whole.  I’ve seen enough prison documentaries that even if my conscience wasn’t bound to the Word of God, I would be a model citizen.  Most people don’t have to go to prison to realize they don’t want to go to prison.  That’s true today and it was true in the Roman Empire 2000 years ago. 

Just as important as knowing you don’t want to go to prison is knowing how to prevent that from happening.  People who sell drugs go to prison.  You don’t want to go to prison?  Don’t sell drugs.  People who rob banks go to prison.  You don’t want to go to prison?  Don’t rob banks. 

In the first chapter of Philippians, Paul informs the recipients that it had become known to the whole imperial guard and to the rest of the people of Rome exactly why he was in prison.  He was there for proclaiming Christ.  What effect would we typically expect that kind of information to have on the city?  Something like this: “People who proclaim Christ go to prison.  You don’t want to go to prison?  Don’t proclaim Christ.”

Logic would tell us that Paul’s imprisonment would have a deterring effect on the spread of the gospel.  That makes what actually happened truly amazing: “And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (1:14).  Paul’s imprisonment had the opposite effect of what we would expect.  The believers around him were much more bold to speak the truth.  They were much more bold to proclaim Christ. 

How can we explain such a thing?  I think one key is what Paul writes about the foundation of these believers’ confidence.  They had “become confident in the Lord” because of Paul’s imprisonment.  There was something about how Paul conducted himself while in chains that led others to grow in their confidence in the Lord to such an extent that they were willing to engage in the very activity for which he was arrested.

I think we see at least three things in Paul that would have inspired confidence in the Lord.  First of all, Paul modeled joy in the Lord.  That is counterintuitive to the normal human mind.  Prison and persecution are horrible.  One would expect Paul to be in utter despair.  Yet, he wasn’t. 

There was joy in his prayer life (1:4).  He rejoiced that Christ was being proclaimed, even by those who did so out of rivalry against him.  So joyful was he about this that he said it twice in one verse (1:18)!  His joy in the present circumstances was implied when he asked the Philippians to complete his joy by being of one mind (2:2).  He was concerned that the Philippians have joy as well (2:17-18, 28; 3:1).  In 4:1, Paul told them that they were his joy.  Twice in 4:4, he exhorted them to rejoice in the Lord.  He also rejoiced in the Lord that they were concerned for him (4:10). 

And what was the ultimate reason for Paul’s joy?  “…for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance…whether by life or by death” (1:19-20).  Paul rejoiced in the Lord because whether he lived or died, Christ had secured his deliverance, not merely from a physical prison, but from the penalty and power of sin.  This is why he was able to write in the very next verse, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” 

A testimony of joy in the midst of a serious trial can be almost unsettling to those around you.  It speaks volumes about the value of the One in Whom you rejoice.  There is so little joy in the life of the typical person that when one witnesses it first hand, especially in the life of a person enduring suffering or persecution, it garners their full attention.  It matters the manner in which we suffer.  Are we doing so with joy or in despair?  What are we saying about Christ to those watching us?

Second, Paul modeled confidence in the Lord.  The epistle to the Philippians is riddled with it.  In 1:6, he wrote, “I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”  This confidence about the Lord’s accomplishment of their sanctification is echoed in 2:13.  Later in the first chapter he confessed his certainty that the Lord would see him through his imprisonment (1:19).  Much of the third chapter shows Paul declaring no confidence in his own flesh, but rather faith in Jesus Christ (3:1-11).

Paul’s confidence in Christ was demonstrated in his ability to be content in all circumstances.  “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (4:12-13).  Some may think that last sentence to be a bold statement and it is.  But it is not a fleshly dependence upon self, for in ch3 Paul denied any confidence in the flesh.  Rather, Paul is convinced that he can survive any ordeal because of the strength of Christ in him. 

He also trusted that Christ would sustain the Philippians: “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (4:19). 

This confidence was based upon what Paul knew of the character of God.  Paul lived in the certainty that the Lord would never leave him nor forsake him.  The letter is devoid of any mention of anxiety…except for when Paul exhorts the recipients to be anxious for nothing, but to let their requests be made known to God (4:6).  Paul had a peace founded on confidence in the Lord.  What did that communicate to the people watching?  The Lord can be trusted.

In whatever difficulty you find yourself today, or in that trial that you’ve just come through, have you demonstrated a steeled confidence in Him?  Perhaps like Paul, we should focus not so much on the uncertainty of our circumstances, but on the absolute certainty of who God is. 

Third, Paul modeled a hunger for the Lord.  This seems to bleed through ever chapter of the letter.  As already noted, Paul stated in ch1, “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain…” (1:21).  So enthralled was he with the Lord that to live was Christ, yet his preference was death: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (1:23).   

One of the greatest pictures of longing for the Lord in all of Scripture, in my opinion, is found in that passage in ch3 where Paul disavowed any confidence in his own flesh.  Although in terms of his pedigree and accomplishments in Judaism, he had as much reason as anyone to put confidence in his own righteousness, he considered it nothing: 

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith-- that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (3:7-11).

He hungered for Christ to the extent that he wanted to share in His sufferings, to become like Him in His death. 

Paul showed Christ to be worth all the persecution he was enduring by rejoicing in the midst of it, trusting in the Lord without wavering, and preferring Christ over even his own life.  If we are not communicating the same things in our trials, it would do us and those around us some good to view our suffering through the lens of the gospel.  Our suffering is not just about us and what God is accomplishing in us.  It is also about His reputation among those around us and how our example might leaders others to confidence in Him. 

Think for a moment about your current difficulty.  What does the Lord want to demonstrate about Himself to those around you by how you endure that situation?  What is your life teaching others about Christ?  The church and the world could use some God-centered suffering in us, suffering that demonstrates the joy of following Christ in all circumstances, the trustworthiness of our Savior, and the surpassing value of knowing Him.  Such suffering, rather than causing others to shun trials and persecution, might cause them to welcome it for all the intimacy it would afford with such a magnificent Savior.

 Posted by Greg Birdwell

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

1 Samuel 16 - Does God Suggest Samuel Lie?

Over the past several weeks in Sunday School Class we have been studying the one-another commands. This past Sunday we looked at Colossians 3:9, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices”.

During our discussion the following passage was read. We briefly handled the text but I believe it is important to give a little more in-depth treatment to this passage and the two questions that may come from it.

1 Samuel 16:1-5 “The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” [2] And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’ [3] And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you. [4] Samuel did what the LORD commanded and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, “Do you come peaceably?” [5] And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.”

The questions: 1. Is God suggesting to Samuel that he be deceptive and in essence lie? 2. Is deception or a lie taking place because Samuel is not disclosing the entire purpose of his journey?

Context is key. In Chapter 15, Saul is anointed King over Israel. However, he failed to obey the commands of God and is removed as King by God via Samuel. Samuel then grieves that Saul is no longer king (v.35).

Here, in Chapter 16, we see Samuel continuing to lament over Saul and God reproves him for his ongoing grief. God instructs Samuel to anoint a king from the household of Jesse. However, Samuel is fearful that he will be killed if Saul finds out about his orders from God to anoint a new king. Yet, God informs him to take a heifer for sacrifice and say, "I have come to sacrifice to the LORD."

The first question: Is God suggesting that Samuel be deceptive? No.

First, God is simply telling Samuel what to do. God has every right to require a sacrifice. When Saul was made king they sacrificed peace offerings (1 Samuel 11:15).

Secondly, Samuel could and did offer sacrifices (1 Samuel 7:9-10). These directions were within the scope of his role and responsibility.

Third, it is God’s prerogative to reveal as much of His will as He desires. Moses did not tell Pharaoh of God’s entire plan for the Israelites (Exodus 7:16, 8:1, 9:13). Although we do know Christ will return we do not know when (Matthew 24:29-31, 36).

Fourth, in order for God to suggest that Samuel be deceptive He must go against His own character. Scripture tells us that He is the “God of truth” (Isaiah 65:16, Psalm 31:5). God is not like a man that he should lie (Numbers 23:19).

Fifth, God commands us not to lie (Exodus 20:15). Certainly, God is not so small or weak that He must now make an exception to His command in order that David be anointed king. We also see the principle of speaking truth to others in scripture (Ephesians 4:25).

The second question: Is deception or a lie taking place because Samuel is not disclosing the entire purpose of his journey? No.

In order to correctly answer this question we must look back to the text. First, we know that Samuel never explicitly lied in this passage. Second, he properly answered the question, “Do you come peaceably?” with “Peaceably, I have come to sacrifice to the Lord”. The elders were concerned about their safety and Samuel addressed their concern.

The crux of the question is whether or not it was sinful to withhold information; particularly, privileged or sensitive information. Again, it is God’s prerogative as what to share and not share.

Is it wise to volunteer sensitive information to just anyone? No. Is Samuel under an oath or obligated in any way to the elders to reveal the total extent of his travel to Jerusalem. No.

Samuel followed the Lord’s instructions precisely and kept from sinning.

In closing, the thrust of this text is not to teach a moral truth about lying. However, we can examine this text in light of scripture that clearly teaches that God is truth and cannot lie, He commands us to speak the truth, and He always provides a way out when we may be tempted to lie in a difficult situation (1 Corinthians 10:13). When we scrutinize scripture in its context and in light of clear passages apparent contradictions rapidly dissipate.

Posted by Rick Jones

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Gideon in Judges and Hebrews - A Contradiction?

A number of you have asked recently about an apparent contradiction between the way Gideon is portrayed in the book of Judges and the way he is portrayed in Hebrews 11.  This is a great question, and since more than one of you have asked, it is reasonable to assume that there are others who have the same question.  So let’s look at this.

Those of you who have been with us from the beginning of Judges are aware of its less-than-flattering pictures of some of the judges.  Barak was seemingly a coward, unwilling to obey the Lord’s command to deliver the people of Israel from Sisera unless a woman went with him (4:4-10).  Gideon was a fraidy-cat-turned-tyrant, bent on seeking his own glory rather than God’s (6:11-8:28).  Jephthah, we will see, murdered his own daughter in accordance with a hastily made vow (11:29-40).  Later, he went to war with his own countrymen, slaughtering 42,000 of them (12:1-6).  Sampson was an undisciplined brute, who broke every tenet of his Nazirite vow, and whose inability to say no to forbidden women resulted in his tragic demise (13:1-16:31).  Not the kind of fellows you want courting your daughters.

But if you read Hebrews 11, the so-called “Hall of Faith”, you might wonder if there were two sets of these guys.  After reciting a long list of faithful works of many Old Testament figures, the author writes this, beginning in v32:

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-- who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight (Heb 11:32-34).

Huh?  It would be easier to handle if the author had instead mentioned the earlier judges, Othniel, Ehud, or Deborah, but he only includes the worst judges.  Can it be possible that the Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah in Hebrews 11 are the same Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah found in Judges?  Or do we have a bona fide contradiction? 

First of all, let me explain what would be required for there to be a genuine contradiction.  If Judges asserted that these figures never exercised faith or if Hebrews 11 asserted that they never did anything sinful, then we would have a contradiction.  For Judges to show that they were sinful and Hebrews to show that they demonstrated faith is no contradiction.  Otherwise, you and I are walking contradictions.  Nevertheless, let’s see why the two books don’t present the same sides of these guys.

Authorial intent is the key.  What did the divine author of both books intend to teach by what was included in each text?  Let’s start with the book of Judges.  There are two parallel themes running through the book – the Canaanization of Israel and God’s determination to save His people.  The Canaanization theme shows the moral and spiritual deterioration of Israel during the judges period.  With each judge cycle, the people become more and more steeped in their idolatry and apostasy.  As we’ve seen, the judges themselves also show this progression. 

So what is the point of this portrayal of deterioration?  To show that man needs a Savior.  (The other theme – God’s determination to save – points to the fact that God will provide such a Savior.)  In accomplishing this intent, the author included only those stories that would contribute to the development of those themes.  Further, He told those stories in such a way as to highlight the elements of each story that would maximize that message.

Does that mean that what Hebrews says about these guys is not a contradiction?  Did they demonstrate faith?  Yes, each one of them fought in the deliverance of the people of Israel, acts of implicit faith (4:9-10, 14-16; 7:1, 15-23; 11:32; 14:4, 19; 15:7-8, 15; 16:28-30).  The reason that the author did not make more of this or even include some of the very positive things that these judges did is because doing so would not contribute to the overall themes.  Worse, including those things would make the point extremely difficult to recognize, defeating the purpose of their being written in the first place. 

For example, what if between the stories of Gideon flogging the Succothites and taking revenge on the kings of Midian, the author included a heart-warming story about Gideon rescuing a litter of blind puppies?  (Pretend for a second that Gideon actually did this.) First of all, it’s irrelevant.  Second, it would confuse the point.  The author only chooses those episodes that serve the overall theme. Interpreters of the Bible should be thankful for this – its makes our job much easier.

Now, what is the authorial intent in Hebrews 11?  To show the Canaanization of Israel or God’s determination to save?  Not at all.  The intent is completely different.  Following the magnificent exposition of the superiority of Christ in Hebrew 1:1-10:18, the author then moves to exhort the reader to faith and perseverance11:1-40 contains a series of examples of faith and perseverance in the lives of Old Testament figures.  11:1 begins the chapter: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  The OT figures are then described as acting in accordance with their certainty of a future reward (11:13-16, 26).  The point is then summed up in 12:1-2:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2 ESV)

Thus the author uses the faithful acts of OT figures to exhort the NT believer to run the race with endurance.  They persevered based on a mere shadow of the things promised – how much more ought we to persevere who have received the full revelation of Jesus Christ?

So, just like in Judges, the Holy Spirit inspired the inclusion of only the material necessary to make that point.  This is illustrated not only in the omission of any negative material about these four judges, but also that of the rest of the people mentioned in the Hall of Faith.  Noah was a naked drunk (Gen 9:20-27); Abraham was willing to sacrifice his wife’s purity to save his own skin (Gen 12:10-13); he and Sarah chose a sinful human solution to their problem of childlessness (Gen 16:1-3); Jacob deceived his father and stole his brother’s blessing (Gen 27:1-46); Moses was a murderer who later disobeyed God and forfeited his entrance into the promised land (Exo 2:11-12; Num 20:6-12); and David committed adultery and tried to cover it up by committing murder (2 Sam 11:1-27).  Why not include these facts in Hebrews 11?  The ESV Study Bible note for Heb 11:2 provides a great answer:

“The author does not focus on [these figures’] failings, since his goal is to positively illustrate what faith looks like...”

This might prompt a question: Is it legitimate for a biblical author to present a certain figure a certain way for a certain purpose in one book but to use the figure differently in another book?  Isn’t this cheating?  No, these are just different, but completely true snapshots of the same life.  Suppose I want to illustrate to someone the depravity of man using examples from my own life.  I could trot out such snapshots from here until the Lord takes me home, without ever mentioning a single Christ-like act that God has graciously worked through me.  To do so would not be dishonest in any way.  All of those snapshots of my depravity were actual episodes in my life that serve to demonstrate the potential for evil in the human heart.  It all comes down to the particular message I am trying to demonstrate. 

One might wonder why in our Judges sermon series I have not spent time dealing with Hebrews 11 or trying to marry the two texts.  The short answer is that when studying or preaching a certain text, the object is to be faithful to the biblical author’s intent for that text.  If I read Hebrews 11 into every episode regarding Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah in Judges, I am going to skew the author’s intent.  The reverse is true as well.  We shouldn’t read Judges into Hebrews 11.   

That is not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t interpret Scripture with Scripture.  It is simply to say that to do so accurately, we must take into account the authorial intent behind each text.  When we do that, a multitude of Bible “contradictions” disappear.

Posted by Greg Birdwell