Early Christianity, part one

Jesus of Nazareth designated some of his followers as “apostles”—messengers with authority to proclaim his word, to forgive sins, to perform miracles as he had done, and to declare his victory over all evil. Convinced by his resurrection that Jesus is the Christ—the promised Savior of the world, a visit from God to his people—the apostles began at Jerusalem to share the message of the Christ. Their audience carried their message to many parts of the Roman Empire. Soon the apostles themselves were preaching in the surrounding area. Traveling the roads built and protected by Rome, they carried their message throughout the Hellenistic world and beyond its borders into Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The apostles of Jesus preached first to Jews, then also to Gentiles. Roman civilization tolerated the Jews, in spite of their uniqueness. Jews worshiped only one God. They observed a holiday every seventh day. Their religion defined the food they ate, the clothes they wore, and many other details of everyday life. At first, Christianity was treated as another Jewish movement, like the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. Because of its popularity among Gentiles, though, Roman officials began to take wary notice of the Christians. Rome was always willing to add one more god to the list of gods it worshiped. Persian and Egyptian gods had been added to the pantheon, as had Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. The insistence of Christians that only one God is the true God, that they could only worship to one God and pray to one God, offended the tolerance sensibilities of the Romans. Fearing that the monotheism of the Christians might offend the gods, some authorities demanded that Christians pray and sacrifice to the Fortune of Rome. When Christians refused, they were imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes killed. Persecution of Christians was not consistent or enduring for the three hundred years between Christ and Constantine. Often Christians were tolerated and ignored. But some local officials, and a few of the Caesars, demanded uniform tolerance throughout the Empire. Christian intolerance of other religions made them suspect. For that reason, they were sometimes called to answer to the authorities, facing persecution if they remained faithful to Christ and to their one God.

Many Christians endured persecution, even to the point of death. Others fell away from the faith. When persecution ended, some of those who had denied Christ wanted to return to the Church. Their return caused a crisis among Christian leaders. Some leaders reminded the fallen that Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father in heaven.” Other Christians reminded those leaders that the central theme of Christianity is forgiveness of sinners, that even the apostle Peter had denied Christ and had been restored to the Church. A compromise was reached in which fallen Christians could be accepted back into the Church, but only after they had endured a time of testing, or probation. Forgiveness was granted freely and unconditionally because of the suffering and death of Jesus. Church membership was allowed only after candidates had demonstrated their sincere repentance through good works, or penance. When asked about Christians who died before completing their penance, Christian leaders invented a condition called “purgatory” in which Christians could complete their penance before arriving in Paradise. Centuries later, these ideas of penance and purgatory would lead to a crisis in the Church, generally called the Reformation.

The apostles developed a pattern of preaching that centered around the person of Jesus. They mentioned his baptism by John, they described some of the miracles he worked, and they quoted some of his teaching, including his parables. The bulk of their message focused on Holy Week, from the Sunday when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem through the Sunday he rose from the dead after his crucifixion. They also explained the relationship of these events to the teachings and history of Moses and the prophets and the consequences of those events to the lives of those who heard and believed the message about Jesus. Eventually, the apostles began to write letters to congregations containing the same message. Already in the first century, Jews and Christians agreed on a core of older writings from Moses and the prophets—called the Hebrew Bible by the Jews and the Old Testament by the Christians. Now Christians formed a New Testament to accompany the Old Testament. Already in the second century the official New Testament was being collected, although some variations of that collection existed into the fourth century. To be included in the New Testament, a writing needed to pass three tests. It needed to be written by one of the apostles (or by someone closely associated with an apostle—Mark, who wrote what Peter preached; Luke, who traveled with Paul and who interviewed eyewitnesses of Jesus; and James and Jude, the brothers of Jesus). It needed to be consistent with the message taught by the apostles and their followers. It needed to be known in all the major congregations of Christians, not only in one part of the Roman world. No conspiracy gathered the books of the Bible; consensus formed the canon (or list of approved readings) based upon those three simple rules.

Christian thought contained some diversity, including movements that went very much against the grain of what was said and done by Jesus and his apostles. In my next post, I will address some of those early Christian movements. J.

The historical Jesus

After Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, a theologian and historian named Dionysius began the custom of numbering years based on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. According to Dionysius’ plan, Jesus was born in the year 1 A.D. (which stands for Anno Domini, the Year of the Lord); the previous year was 1 B.C., so there was no Year Zero in his system. Unfortunately, Dionysius made a miscalculation in his counting. We know this today because Herod the Great, the king who tried to kill Jesus, died in the year 4 B.C. Having this knowledge, we could correct Dionysius’ arithmetic so that it is now the year 2026, Columbus first sailed west in 1497, the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1781, and so on… or we can just live with the odd statement that Jesus was born around 5 B.C., which is what we have chosen to do.

Few historians today doubt that Jesus from Nazareth lived two thousand years ago, even if some Internet commenters and pop-up pages claim otherwise. Even though the name of Jesus does not appear in first century documents not written by believers, the very existence of those believers demonstrates a historical Jesus in the first century. While some have tried to dismiss the New Testament writings as inaccurate summaries of the life and teaching of Jesus prepared two or three generations after his lifetime, the New Testament writings are clearly based on an oral tradition that is anchored in the time of Jesus and in the first generation of his followers. Paul’s understanding of Christ and the Gospel was formed while many eyewitnesses were still available. Theories that discount the accuracy of the New Testament rest upon presuppositions that miracles never happen, that accurate knowledge of the future is impossible, and that people always manipulate oral tradition to accommodate their beliefs. None of these presuppositions are scientific or logical, and the third of them has been thoroughly debunked by recent studies of oral tradition in a nonliterate community.

 Historians agree, then, that a person called Jesus stands at the heart of Christianity. “Christ” is not a last name (Jesus was not the son of Mary Christ); “Christ” is a title that means the Chosen One or the Anointed One—kings and priests were anointed in Israel and were called christs or messiahs. In Nazareth he was Jesus son of Joseph; elsewhere he was Jesus from Nazareth. Though he was not part of the official teaching structure in first century Judaism, he did preach and teach. He emphasized the Law of Moses, making its commandments even more strict than the experts at the time were teaching. Jesus emphasized that anger at another person, to the point of shouting insults, is equivalent to murder, and that looking at another person for the purpose of lust is equivalent to adultery. At the same time, he countered the detailed analysis of the Law regarding details such as work allowed on the Sabbath and the ceremonial washing of hands. Jesus viewed himself as consistent with the teachings of Moses and the prophets. More than that, he identified himself as fulfillment of Moses and the prophets. His parables—which, on the surface, seem to be lessons about living property and loving one another—centered on his identity and on his mission to bring unconditional forgiveness to sinners. Unlike most holy people, Jesus associated with sinners and was honored by sinners. Jesus did not proclaim revolution against political and religious authorities. His proclamation of the Kingdom of God was defined by his testimony when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus called upon people to repent (to confess their sins and throw themselves upon God’s mercy) and to believe the Gospel (the good news of God’s mercy as delivered through Christ Jesus).

Jesus accompanied his preaching with miracles. He healed the sick, cast out demons, calmed storms, and raised the dead. These miracles demonstrated his power over nature as the Creator of nature. They revealed his compassion for people in need. They fulfilled promises given to God’s people through Moses and the prophets. They sampled what Jesus promises to do on the Day of the Lord when all the dead will be raised, all sicknesses will be healed, and all evil will be cast out of the world. Suggestions that gullible and superstitious people were tricked by Jesus, or that later tradition attached stories from other myths and legends to the person of Jesus, are countered by Christian insistence that Jesus himself, having been killed, rose from the dead. Following that resurrection, the opponents of Jesus could not produce his body and were limited to claiming that his disciples stole his corpse. But those same disciples, risking their own lives, insisted that Jesus had died and was risen. His resurrection was presented as evidence that Jesus is who he claimed to be—the Christ, the Son of God—that his promise to defeat evil and rescue sinners has been kept, and that the Day of the Lord is coming, a Day when Jesus will raise all the dead and will invite those who trust in Jesus to live within forever in a healed and perfected world.

The opponents of Jesus accused him of blasphemy—of insulting God by claiming to be God. If Jesus did not believe himself to be the Son of God and the Christ, he could have escaped condemnation and execution by saying so. Instead, he confirmed the truth of the charges against him. Needing Roman permission to execute Jesus, his opponents brought him to a Roman governor who had a different understanding of what it meant to be the son of a god. Governor Pilate would not have dared affirm charges against another Hercules, or any heroic son of any god. But Jesus’ opponents rephrased their charge. They chose the foulest word in Latin and said that Jesus claimed to be a king—Rex Jesus. For this he was executed by the Romans, who posted the charge on his cross: “Jesus from Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (This charge is often abbreviated in artwork to the letters INRI.) The shameful suffering and death of Jesus would be an embarrassing contradiction in most religions, but Christians affirm that Jesus endured the cross to pay the debt of sinners and to defeat the forces of evil. Christians teach that Jesus took upon himself the punishment sinners deserve so he could give in exchange the rewards he deserves for his perfectly obedient life. He is the only Son of God, but those who trust in him become God’s children. He is the only one without sin, but he bears the burden of all sins so those who trust in him are now clothed in his righteousness.

Jesus was a teacher about love and righteousness, but he was far more than just a teacher. Jesus was an example of sacrificial love and righteousness, but he was far more than just an example. As the Christ, Jesus defeated evil, and he shares his victory with all who trust in him. Jesus rescued sinners from the power of evil; he paid a ransom that ends the debt of every sinner. He established a Church to proclaim news of his victory and to share his forgiveness with all people. He is with his people always, and he will appear in glory on the Day of the Lord to finalize the work that he finished on the cross.

All this happened in a small region of the world during the time of Caesar Augustus and Tiberius Caesar, emperors of Rome. The accomplishments of those Roman Emperors are largely forgotten, save to a few professional historians. The accomplishments of Jesus, King of the Jews, continue to shape the world today. J.

Of many books there is no end

  Last night I read Psalms 149 & 150 and also Revelation 21-22. This morning I read Psalms 1 & 2 and Genesis 1-3. These readings are part of a pattern I established years ago, reading through the Bible in one year (and covering the book of Psalms five times each year). Although those selected readings may create an impression that I read the Bible from cover to cover, I actually alternate between the testaments. In January, for example, I will read Genesis, Matthew, and Ecclesiastes. In February I will read Exodus, Hebrews, Romans, and Song of Songs. I try to keep the longer books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) separated from one another; I try to match themes between the testaments as much as possible.

I also read other books: devotional books, philosophy, history, literature, fantasy and science fiction, poetry, drama, and the classics. Since the beginning of January 2001, I have kept lists of books I am reading and have finished. In this way, I have been counting the books I finished each year over the past twenty years.

In 2020, I smashed my previous record, probably because of the virus crisis and quarantine. Between January 1 and December 31, I finished 205 books, far beyond the earlier record of 176. In fact, my reading in 2020 actually increased my twenty-year average from 123.7 to 127.8. And these were not all short and easy books. They included the works of Soren Kierkegaard (which I actually started more than a year ago, so some of them were counted in 2019). They included the works of Leo Tolstoy (yes, even the epic War and Peace, unabridged). They included philosophers Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Rosseau, the Federalist, de Tocqueville, Thoreau, Emerson, and William James. In all, I read roughly 65,000 pages in 2020.

This being the dawn of a new year, I have started my reading list for 2021. I will read several volumes of Martin Luther’s works, will pick up some twentieth century philosophers (including Dewey, Nietzsche, and Freud), will read the works of Mark Twain and those of Kurt Vonnegut, and some other books besides. I will read the five books I got for Christmas this year. I will also read the first twelve volumes of Britannica’s Great Books; I already read the first twenty pages of Homer’s Iliad this afternoon.

I like to read. I like to relive old experiences by reading books I have read before. I like to learn new things. I like to see things from a different perspective. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that he had tried meditation, but he found that all the benefits promised from meditating happened for him when he was reading. That is my experience as well.

I tell prospective writers that they need to do three things: they must read a lot, they must write a lot, and they must rewrite a lot. I’ve got the first two skills down pretty well; I don’t always carry through with the third. Reading develops communication skills. It exposes the mind to better ways of expressing one’s self. It improves vocabulary, grammar, style, creativity, and thoughtfulness. More than any other means of communication, reading and writing allows communicators to reflect upon what is being said and to refine and polish the communication before sharing it with others.

For all I know, this could become one of those busy years when I don’t even finish one hundred books. Or I might have lots of spare time and set a new record. Either way, I will enjoy the books I read, and I will benefit from the exercise. Of that I can be sure. J.

Keep your soul diligently

We’ve all seen those memes on Facebook and other places where the letters of each word are scrambled, but the first and last letters are kept unchanged. Sometimes these memes are accompanied by statements such as, “Only intelligent people are able to understand this message.” Actually, most adept readers are able to read them; as we learned to read, our brains developed shortcuts that recognize words even when the internal parts of the words have been changed.

But, by the same token, sometimes we mistake one word for another. The slip-up can be amusing, such as confusing “immorality” and “immortality.” Usually a second glance fixes the misreading. But this morning in my Bible reading, I faced a misreading that indicates just how overwhelming our current virus crisis has become.

I was reading Deuteronomy chapter four. I got to verse nine, which says, “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your hearts all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” This is a trustworthy saying. But when my eyes first scanned the verse, my brain changed the beginning to, “Only take care, and keep your social distancing.”

Of course a second glance fixed the misreading. I suppose the words “take care” only added to the tendency to expect s…l d……..y to be “social distancing.” But my mildly amusing experience only shows how overwhelming this virus crisis has become, that I even expect the holy Word of God to command social distancing.

My experiences with the virus crisis are like those of most people. As an introvert, I don’t mind keeping my distance from other people. Three times a week I take a two-mile walk through the neighborhood. I do what I was taught as a child: I walk on the left-hand side of the road, facing the traffic. But now, with social distancing, if someone is coming toward me on the same side of the road, I cross to the other side to avoid that person. I’ve always wanted to do that. Now, not is it not rude to cross the road to avoid people—it’s recommended.

I’m very much blessed to have three jobs that all paid me my regular salary while I worked from home. Every week I write a sermon, and every Saturday I email it to the members of the congregation. Our church musician presents a concert of church music on Facebook every Sunday. We mail in our offerings, and my check comes in the mail. My history class was changed from classroom to online. Some students dropped out, and a couple have fallen behind on the work, but several are faithfully taking their quizzes (open book, since we don’t have the classroom discussion before the quiz) and—I expect—writing their essays that are due next week. But my full time job at the library raised the biggest concerns. How can a library function when the doors are locked and the workers are told to stay home?

The first week the library was closed, we were told that it was like snow days—we would stay home and be paid. The second week, they began encouraging us to do tasks at home that were somehow job related. Since I am an archivist, I began sorting and arranging the family pictures I brought from my father’s house several years ago. After they were arranged, I even started putting them on Facebook and tagging family members. I also explored the family genealogy. More than half the people who visit our research room in the library are doing genealogy—some in great depth, others just getting started. I’ve always been able to guide people to resources, but now I have much more experience in genealogical research and will be more helpful.

By the third week, we had a process of reporting how we were spending our time “on the clock.” But after that, the library decided that 75% of our hours had to be of direct benefit to the library system; the other 25% could be for learning and wellness activities. Some library branches began experimenting with curb-side services. Four branches are providing free meals to neighborhood children who usually get fed at school. My department remains locked up; but we are taking turns being in the building to answer the phone and help patrons.

Last week, with the phone-answering system in place, I was invited to return to my desk and continue processing archival materials. I must wear a mask everywhere in the building except at my desk; I must wash my hands frequently and wipe down surfaces often. This procedure might last for the rest of the summer.

Since it is losing some money—parking and meeting room fees, and overdue fines—the library director decided that he would reduce or eliminate some positions temporarily to save the library money. All positions will be restored when the crisis is over. People in eliminated positions retain their health insurance and other benefits but must apply for unemployment. Those who are reduced will—if the state government allows—work only part-time and receive unemployment money for the hours lost. I have been placed in the second category.

I do not feel comfortable with the likelihood that I will be receiving unemployment compensation for ten weeks or so. It’s not that I don’t need the money. It’s that every person thrown into the unemployment system is added to the financial burden that taxpayers like me and my children will be reimbursing for years to come. I disagree with the library’s decision to lower its costs by putting its workers temporarily into unemployment. In fact, I cannot help but view this as a cynical political ploy to deepen the crisis (and the feeling of crisis) at the expense of the current administration.

We will all get through this together. Stress and anxiety are high right now. (I spend little time on social media precisely because I rapidly tire of all the talk of virus and quarantine. It makes me shaky and queasy.) Meanwhile it’s important for each of us to take care, and keep our social distancing… I mean, keep our souls diligently. J.

A message from God (part two)

The Bible is the Word of God, the only trustworthy communication we have with the Creator of heaven and earth and the Redeemer of sinners. As God’s Word, the Bible can be used to test and judge other messages—not only dreams and visions, thoughts and feelings, but also preachers, teachers, and writers. If their message contradicts the Bible, their message is not from God. Because our understanding and interpretation of the Bible’s message can sometimes be diverse and unclear, I have written about how to reconcile different Christian interpretations of the Bible here.

But once we have acknowledged that the Bible is God’s Word, that it is the only test of other messages, how can we be sure that the truth of the Bible is true for us? Written long ago in foreign languages and foreign cultures, the Bible might not seem like a very personal message to Christians in the contemporary world. Therefore, some Christians seek and trust additional connections to God, additional ways that they can receive his Word and apply it to their lives.

Jesus knows everything. He knew this yearning for closeness could lead to problems. Therefore, Jesus promised that he could be found. “But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29); “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Where did Jesus promise to be found? Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Some Christians are frustrated with the Christian Church on earth. It is filled with sinners. It sometimes fails to protect members and visitors from sinners in offices of power. The Church sometimes neglects the most needy and pays too much attention to worldly wealth and power. Yet Jesus promised to be present where people gather in his name. A study on discipleship I took when I was in high school proclaimed, “There are no Lone Ranger Christians.” The Church is the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ. Those things that happen in the Church give us a closer relationship to Jesus—closeness that we will not find by enjoying Creation, meditating quietly in our rooms, or waiting for dreams and visions and quiet voices.

We see sinners in the Church. Jesus sees saints, already forgiven through his work. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). Because the Church is his Bride, Christ does not allow us to seek a relationship with him apart from the Church. If you love him, you must love his Bride and see her with his eyes. When we see the sins committed in the Church and remember that those are forgiven sins, we are reminded that our sins also are forgiven through the cleansing work of Jesus.

What happens when people gather in Jesus’ name? The forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and believed. The Word of God is read and explained. Prayers are raised to God on behalf of the Church, its members, and the world in which we live. Sacraments also happen in the Church. It is no mistake that Paul uses baptismal language when talking about Christ’s cleansing of the Church, “by the washing of water with the Word.”

To some Christians, Baptism is a thing they did for God, an act that shows that they love and trust Jesus. They see Baptism as obedience to a commandment. But Baptism is a gift from God. It makes a Christian new every day, able to obey the “new commandment” to “love one another.” Studying the commandments does not make us better; God’s grace and forgiveness makes us better. Only through God’s grace and forgiveness are we restored to our Maker’s plan, being transformed into the image of Christ. Baptism is one of God’s expressions of this grace.

The other expression of God’s grace is called the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and the Sacrament of the Altar. Again, some Christians eat and drink at the Lord’s Table as obedience to a command. They are remembering Jesus and showing that they love him. But Paul calls this Sacrament participation in the body and blood of our Savior: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (I Corinthians 10:16). Jesus says of the bread, “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you.” He says of the wine, “This is the cup of the New Testament, given for you for the forgiveness of sin.” He urges Christians to “do this often, remembering me.”

A quiet whisper like the one Elijah heard, a message from the Lord that springs into the mind unbidden, might seem like the closest relationship a believer can have with the Lord. But receiving his body and his blood in the Sacrament is even more intimate than hearing a whisper or receiving a message. It seems that the Christians most determined to experience God through dreams and visions and inner thoughts and voices are those who are neglecting the intimacy of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The Bible urges us to cling to these Sacraments for confidence of our salvation and for connection to the Lord. I joke with Jesus about receiving messages from him through the radio, but Jesus earnestly reminds me to base my relationship with him upon the Bible, the Church, and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. J.

A message from God (part one)

The Lord Jesus and I have a running joke. Since Jesus knows everything, he knows that I am only pretending, but I like to think that he sends me private and personal messages via the songs I hear on the radio. Whether it’s a recent song such as, “If it’s meant to be, it’ll be,” or a classic rock song like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” I treat the lyrics as encouragement to trust that a job change is coming soon. Even break-up songs can be heard as a promise that soon I will leave my current job for something better.

Jesus knows that I accept only the Bible as genuine messages from him. He said it himself: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Luke 24 shows Jesus using the Hebrew Bible (Moses, the prophets, and the writings) to explain his rescue mission, including his death and resurrection. Moses and the prophets spoke and wrote as inspired by the Holy Spirit. The apostles chosen by Jesus did the same. We can trust the Bible to be God’s Word, trustworthy and true, fully reliable in whatever it reports. No other message that claims to be from God—dreams, visions, or inner voices—comes with that guarantee.

Over the years I have known several Christians—in person or through the Internet—who believed that they received personal messages from God outside the written Word of the Bible. I do not want to single any of these Christians out for argument or debate. God can do whatever he wants. If he chooses to send a dream to one person and a thought to another person and a song on the radio to a third person, the Lord is quite capable of doing so. He doesn’t need my permission. But I want to share a cautionary tale about accepting every such message as heaven-sent, without “testing the spirits” (I John 4:1) by comparing the current message to the Bible.

Two men—I’ll call them Moe and Joe—had similar frustrations about religion and Christianity, although they lived in different parts of the world and at different times of history. Moe and Joe were both perplexed by the many religions in the world, including various differences in Christian teaching. Groups of Christians read the same Bible yet offered different interpretations of what is written. Moe and Joe both sought a direct and personal relationship with God. They wanted the Lord to confirm the truth to them so they could believe the truth and share it with others.

Had Moe spent more time studying the Bible, he would have been prepared for what happened to him. Moe would have know that “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (II Corinthians 11:14), and he would have remembered Paul’s warning that “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8) As Moe sought a personal relationship with God to reveal truth to him, Moe was met by an angel of light who claimed to be the archangel Gabriel. This angel gave Moe messages to recite, purportedly messages from God that had been preached by all the prophets but had been changed over time. These messages included moral teachings that greatly resemble those accepted by Jews and Christians. But they also included statements that Jesus is a prophet but nothing more than a prophet, that God has no Son, and that each person is responsible for his or her own salvation. Some people think that Muhammad (or Moe) made up the messages he received; others believe he did receive the recitations of the Quran directly from an angelic figure. I cannot judge Muhammad, but I can judge his message to be false because of what it says about Jesus.

Likewise Joe (Joseph Smith Jr.) in the state of New York received heavenly visitors who provided him access to “Another Testament of Jesus Christ,” the Book of Mormon. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints believe that the Book of Mormon is from God; most Christians believe that it is not. The proof is found in comparing its message to the writings of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles. Once again, the messages do not agree. Some people think that Joe invented the messages of the Book of Mormon; others believe he did receive those writings from heavenly figures. I cannot judge Joseph Smith, but I can judge his message to be false because of what it says about Jesus.

With Moe and Joe in mind, I encourage every Christian to be slow to accept any dream or message or thought or feeling as a personal message from God. “Test the spirits.” Study the Bible to know God’s Word so you can distinguish truth from falsehood. Don’t be angry when another Christian uses God’s Word to correct a message that you think came from God, because that is one of the purposes of the Bible (II Timothy 3:16-17). And tomorrow I will write more about having a personal relationship with Jesus that goes beyond reading, hearing, learning, and sharing the written Word of the Bible. J.

Church and state and God’s wrath

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:1-5).

Americans sometimes speak as if we invented the separation between church and state. That separation already exists in the Bible. Early Israel—under Moses, Joshua, and the judges, including Samuel—was a theocracy; God was ruler over Israel. But already in his farewell sermon (the book of Deuteronomy), Moses guided by the Holy Spirit anticipated the time when Israel would be ruled by a king. The ultimate king is, of course, Jesus, but the kings of Israel and Judah were pictures of Jesus, preparing the way for his coming as surely as priests and prophets prepared the way of the Lord.

Only Jesus is permitted to hold the two positions of priest and king. Saul and Uzziah were both punished by God when they attempted to do tasks assigned to the priests. Likewise in the New Testament, God’s work is done by church leaders and by human governments, but the work they do is carefully distinguished.

Church leaders proclaim the commands of God largely to diagnose sin, to call for repentance, and to offer forgiveness to sinners. Preachers must speak of the wrath of God, but they do not exercise the wrath of God. Human governments pass laws that regulate behavior to protect citizens from sinners. Governments enforce penalties for murder, robbery, false witness, and other sins, declaring them crimes against the state and punishing people convicted of such crimes.

When the church tries to punish sinners, it steps on the government’s feet. Aside from excluding obviously unrepentant sinners from the blessings of the church, Christian leaders can do little with churchly power to overturn evil in the world. We call upon Christians to do good works, to imitate Christ, but we do not convey God’s wrath when Christians fail. Instead, we continue to call for repentance and continue to promise forgiveness through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When the government tries to forgive sinners, it steps on the church’s feet. Governors and Presidents have power to pardon criminals, but a governmental pardon is not forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from the cross of Christ through the work of the Church.

Christians have a dual citizenship. We are loyal to human government and take part in its actions. We also belong to the kingdom of God, and our first loyalty is to Jesus. When the government opposes God’s ways, we follow God’s ways, as Daniel did in Babylon and as Peter and John did in Jerusalem. But—even though Christians are called to reach out to their neighbors with the good news of forgiveness through Christ—it is right and not sinful for Christians to report a crime to the police. It is right and not sinful for Christians to testify truthfully in court about crimes they have witnessed. Christians may serve as police officers, jurors, judges, and even executioners. When these actions bring punishment to sinners, the wrath of God is being exercised. The final wrath of God will be expressed on the Day of the Lord, but his wrath works through human government today to limit sin and evil in the world and to protect all people from sin and evil.

Faith in Christ spares sinners from the wrath of God on the Day of the Lord. Faith in Christ does not spare sinners from the wrath of God exercised by human government. Prison officials do not witness to prisoners, but they permit Christians to enter the prisons and witness to prisoners. If a criminal comes to faith in prison, that criminal is a forgiven sinner spared God’s wrath on the Last Day, but that prisoner must continue to serve his or her sentence in the world under the authority of human government.

Human governments consist of sinful humans. They sometimes make mistakes and do what is wrong. In a democracy, Christians are free to vote for the leaders they expect to make the fewest mistakes. They are free to send messages to their leaders, advising them to do what those Christians, informed by the Bible, believe to be right for the government to do. Christians even have freedom to gather together and protest wrong decisions made by the government. Christians remain subject to human government, which represents the authority of God. We owe our leaders honor and respect, even when we feel that they are mistaken—even sinful—in what they say and do.

Church leaders describe the wrath of God to warn sinners of the coming Day of the Lord, the punishment that will be dealt to sinners. But we do so to call for repentance. Rather than constantly preaching fire and brimstone and the wrath of God, Christians should be known for pointing to the cross, showing how Christ consumed the wrath of God to spare us the punishment we deserve. Christian leaders should be known for proclaiming the love and mercy and grace of God, not only his wrath.

Church leaders often call believers to discipleship or to holiness. We remind people why we were made—to love God and to love our neighbors—and we encourage one another to do good works. But the commandments of God do not cause sinners to do good works. The commandments do not create discipleship or holiness. The commandments describe what Christians should do, but the forgiveness of God gives Christians power to do good things. The commandments describe the perfection of Jesus, but the forgiveness of God transforms us into the image of Christ, changing sinners into saints. Knowledge of the wrath of God does not, by itself, redeem sinners; knowledge of the wrath of God moves sinners to repentance, opening their minds and hearts to hear and believe the good news of redemption through Christ.

In this way the Bible distinguishes between the functions of God’s wrath under human governments and in the Christian Church. J.

You will know the truth

Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

Why do Christians who read the same Bible and trust the same Bible have different versions of the truth? I’m not asking about people who read the Bible and purposely edit what they read to suit their purposes. I’m asking about people who expect to find the truth in God’s Word, yet disagree with each other about what that Word says and means.

For fans of big words, the answer to this question lies in hermeneutics. In simpler terms, even faithful Christians may approach the Bible in different ways, having different assumptions about what the Bible contains. One Christian may treat the Bible as a rulebook and may search the Scriptures looking for rules and regulations. That reader sees the historic accounts of the Bible as examples of what happens when one person obeys God’s rules and when another person breaks God’s rules. Another Christian may treat the Bible as a set of promises from God. That reader sees the historic accounts of the Bible as people acting out God’s plan of salvation. To the first reader, Genesis 22 (Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac) shows a believer giving his best to the Lord. To the second reader, the same chapter shows Abraham and Isaac acting out the drama of Good Friday, as a father is prepared to sacrifice his son.

How do we know which approach is correct? The best answer is, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” When a reader is confused about one passage in the Bible, that reader searches for other parts of the Bible that address the same topic. The other passages add clarity to the message of the confusing passage. To understand the apocalyptic language of the book of Revelation, a reader should be guided by the clear teachings of Christ in Matthew 24 & 25 and those of Paul in I Thessalonians 4 & 5.

Of the various mistakes that many Christians make while reading their Bibles, the two most common (at least in western culture) is to trust their reason and to trust their feelings. Both reason and feelings (head and heart) are important when reading the Bible, but reason and feelings should both be shaped by the words of God, not the other way around. Reason is a tool that helps the reader to interpret the Bible correctly; it assists in leading to other passages that provide clarity. Feeling is a tool that helps to apply the message of the Bible to a person’s life. God’s commandments can prompt a sense of sorrow which leads to repentance; God’s promises can prompt a sense of joy which accompanies faith. But so long as we live in this sin-polluted world, both reason and feeling are tainted by sin. Our heads and our hearts, even after we come to faith, are unreliable guides to truth. Both should be placed under Christ’s Lordship; both should be ready to surrender to the Bible’s message even when that message seems wrong to the head or to the heart.

Reason rejects paradox, but many of God’s truths are paradoxes. God is one, but he is three Persons. Christ is entirely God and entirely human, yet he is one Person, one Christ. The Bible is God’s Word, entirely trustworthy and true, yet God delivered that Word through human individuals who each had his own style of writing. Every attempt to make these teachings reasonable results in false teaching. One Christian makes the Father, Son, and Spirit sound like three gods rather than one God. The next Christian reasons that the three Persons are simply the same God under different names—that Jesus is the Father and the Spirit as well as the Son. Both approaches sound reasonable; both are wrong.

Feeling can carry a Christian many directions away from the truth. One Christian reads the commandments, begins to repent, and is overcome by sorrow and guilt which blocks true repentance and keeps that Christian from hearing the promises of God. Another Christian, having felt the joy that accompanies faith, yearns to continue in that joy. That reader avoids the passages that speak of sin and judgment and so avoids the guidance that God’s Law provides for our lives on earth.

Everything should be judged by the Bible, the messages God delivered to the world and to his people through Moses, the prophets, and the apostles. Any dream, any vision, any message that claims to come from God (whether audible or heard only within) should be compared to the Bible, which we know comes from God and is trustworthy and true. A message that seeks to change the message of the Bible—whether by direct contradiction or by subtle reinterpretation of the Bible—is not a message from the God who gave us the Bible. Even if that message makes sense to our heads or feels good in our hearts, the Christian must still “test the spirits” (I John 4:1-3) to be certain that the message is not false.

Head and heart are important parts of our beings. They were created by God and have been redeemed by Christ. We use them both to find God’s Word in the Bible and apply that Word to our lives. But, until Christ appears and makes everything new, neither can be trusted in the same way the Bible should be trusted. Scripture interprets Scripture—only by this rule can we come to know the truth and to receive freedom through that truth. J.

To fulfill the Law

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).

Jesus shows his respect for the Old Testament. The Law—that is, the Torah, the five books of Moses—and the Prophets are valid for all of history, not merely for the time before Jesus was born. Not the smallest part of the Bible can be omitted. Jesus does not say that religion grows and evolves, changing as the times change, leaving behind what is no longer practical and improving as people improve. Instead, Jesus says, true religion rests on a timeless standard. People cannot drift away from the eternal standard without letting go much that is good, even much that is essential.

Why, then, did Jesus and the early Church abolish so much of the Law? Why don’t Christians maintain the kosher food rules delivered by Moses? Why is the Sabbath day, for most Christians, the first day of the week rather than the seventh? Why do Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter but neglect Passover and Yom Kippur? Why do Christians refuse to sacrifice lambs and bulls and doves to the Lord?

People have not improved; nor have we outgrown the old ways. The answer to all these questions is that Jesus has fulfilled the writings of Moses and the prophets. The holidays and sacrifices and all the teachings of the Law were pictures of Jesus. Jesus fulfilled them in such a way that practicing them is no longer relevant. Christians still study the Old Testament to learn how Jesus is revealed by these pictures. In some cases—the animal sacrifices, for example, and the seventh day Sabbath—Jesus fulfilled the Law by suffering and dying on the cross, resting in the grave on the Sabbath, and rising to life on the first day of the week. We remember these Old Testament commandments, but we do not obey them. Jesus fulfilled them for us; we are no longer bound to them. Other commandments—not to kill, not to commit adultery, not to bear false witness—Jesus also fulfilled for us, but now we are guided by these commandments as we strive to imitate Jesus and as we are transformed by the Holy Spirit into the image of Jesus.

Christians do not agree with one another about certain aspects of God’s Law. Some hold to the seventh day Sabbath; others are willing to jettison even God’s view of marriage. In general, though, the apostles chosen by Jesus have given the Church reliable guidelines about which commandments are no longer binding because Jesus fulfilled them and which commandments he fulfilled so that we can obey them and imitate him.

“Not an iota, not a dot” can pass away from God’s Word. The yodh subscript and the wavy line which distinguishes a Tau from a Heth—they all matter. We ignore no part of the Bible. We treasure it all. We study the Bible, learn its message, and teach that message to others. As we look at God’s Word, though, we find more than rules about how to live. We see the ways Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. We have not truly understood any part of the Bible until we have found Jesus in it. The entire Bible was written to bring us to him. Therefore, Jesus speaks against anyone who would ignore part of God’s Word, and he favors those who cling to the entire Word of God. Because it all is about Jesus, it all matters.  J.

My newest book: Unveiling Revelation

Imagine seeing a woman and a dragon stretched across the sky. Imagine seeing four supernatural horsemen riding across the landscape, bringing death and destruction in their wake. Imagine watching as the mighty city Babylon is destroyed by enemies that used to be its friends. Best of all, imagine standing in the presence of God, surrounded by angels and saints, all singing praise to Jesus Christ the Lord and the Redeemer.

All these things happened to John the Apostle on the island of Patmos. He described his experiences in the book of Revelation, the full name of which is A Revelation of Jesus Christ. The book of Revelation is written in poetry with many odd and frightening vision. But the main theme of the book is good news: Jesus has won against all evil, and he shares his victory with his people.

In “Unveiling Revelation,” John’s book is studied by comparing it to the other sixty-five books of the Bible. After an introduction that outlines Biblical eschatology (the study of Last Things), the book breaks Revelation into sections and analyzes them one by one. More a devotional work than a commentary, it reveals the true meaning of what is described in the book of Revelation.

This is now the tenth book I have self-published through Amazon and Kindle. To celebrate, I reduced the Kindle cost of all ten books to four dollars each. In some ways, Unveiling Revelation was a difficult book to write—it was meant to be last summer’s writing project, and I didn’t finish it until this summer. But I think I learned a lot studying Revelation to write about Revelation. I’ve taught the book in Bible class at least five times, and before that I took a seminary course on the book of Revelation, so I hope other people will find my observations helpful.

On the other hand, not all readers are going to like my book. It does not follow the path of The Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind books. Instead, I treat passages such as I Thessalonians 4:13-18 as God’s clear messages about eschatology and use them to decipher the meaning of the poetic language of Revelation. Since everything in the Bible is true, and Revelation is in the Bible, it follows that everything in Revelation is true. But, as there are figures of speech elsewhere in the Bible—figures that must be interpreted in context and through comparing them to clearer sections of Scripture—so the same is true of the book of Revelation.

In one of the Bible classes I taught about Revelation, a young man spoke up to say, “I don’t understand everything in this book, but I’ve figured out one thing: Jesus wins!” That is certainly the most important thing to remember when reading and studying Revelation. If you don’t comprehend anything else, be sure to remember that Jesus wins. J.

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For the paperback, click here.    For the Kindle, click here.