Saturday, March 28, 2015

Arguing With A Burning Bush

Because of the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, when people think of Moses the face millions of them see is Charlton Heston’s. But the real Moses was no Hollywood he-man. He was a man with flaws and faults just like us, and if we are open to God’s leading, He can use us in spite of our flaws just as He used Moses.

Most people who have read the book of Exodus (or seen the Heston film) know that Moses had to flee from Egypt because he had murdered an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. So Moses was no sinless poster boy from the very start. His temper plagued him at the end as well; in chapter 20 of the Book of Numbers, while the Israelites are in the desert God tells Moses to speak to a rock at Meribah and water would flow from it. Moses was angry at the people’s complaining and struck the rock instead; for his disobedience God kept him from entering into the Promised Land.

We also know that during the time between these two events, God used Moses in a way Moses could have never imagined. Through Moses God brought the 10 plagues upon Egypt, freed the Israelites from bondage, parted the Red Sea, oversaw the construction of the Ark of the Covenant, gave the Israelites great military victories, and brought them to the brink of the Promised Land.

However, I think the episode of Moses’ life that is the most amazing (and instructive) is his encounter with God at the burning bush. In real life, Moses was not nearly as composed as Charlton Heston when coming face-to-face (so to speak) with God. In fact, Moses did something I’m sure all of us would swear we would never do if God were before us: he argued with God, not just once, but five times. Here are Moses’ five questions or excuses, followed by God’s response, when God told him to go to Pharaoh:

Moses: Who am I that I should go? (Exodus 3:11).
God: I will be with you; when you come out of Egypt, you will serve me on this mountain (Exodus 3:12).

Moses: But what is your name, that I may tell the people who sent me? (Exodus 3:13).
God: I am who I am, Yahweh, the God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3:14-15).

Moses: How will the people believe that you have sent me? (Exodus 4:1)
God: Responds by turning Moses’ rod into a serpent then back into a rod (Exodus 4:2-4), then He makes Moses’ hand leprous then heals it (Exodus 4:6-7), and finally instructs Moses to turn water from the Nile into blood if the people still do not believe (Exodus 4:9).

Moses: I am not eloquent; I am slow of speech (Exodus 4:10).
God: I, Yahweh, am the one who made your mouth (Exodus 4:11).

Moses: Please send someone else (Exodus 4:13).
God (finally getting angry at the excuses): Your brother Aaron will go with you; you will speak my words to him and he will speak to the people for you (Exodus 4:15-16).

I think there are several lessons in this encounter. The first is that it’s amazing God chose Moses at all, given the flaws he had already exhibited. The second is that God is patient when we think we’re not up to the task or when we don’t immediately grasp His calling. Finally, Moses’ life makes clear that if we will be obedient to God’s call in spite of our fears and shortcomings, some incredible things can happen. We may never part the Red Sea, but we may do equally amazing things, from sharing the Gospel halfway around the world on a mission trip to helping feed the homeless in our own neighborhood.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Significance of the Resurrection

Easter Sunday, the day we celebrate Jesus' resurrection from the dead following his crucifixion, is fast approaching. A huge number of people will fill churches on Easter morning and sing about the resurrection, but do they believe it? In America today, while most people believe in God, a lot of people don't believe that the resurrection really happened. Amazingly, this includes people that consider themselves Christians.

The literal resurrection of Jesus is not something that can be accepted or rejected according to your personal interpretation of the Bible. This can happen with issues like whether we should have female ministers and whether speaking in tongues still exists. Debate about the resurrection, however, is not possible for people who call themselves Christian, because the resurrection is the single most important aspect of Christianity, and without it Jesus was simply one in a long line of "good teachers." So were Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa, but we don't place faith in them or consider them the way to salvation. Jesus himself foretold his death and resurrection several times in the gospels:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Matthew 16:21 (NIV)

Jesus told his disciples, “The nation’s leaders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law of Moses will make the Son of Man suffer terribly. They will reject him and kill him, but three days later he will rise to life.” Luke 9:22 (CEV)

The various Christian denominations may argue about numerous points of doctrine, but they cannot deny the importance of the resurrection in the plan of salvation. The Apostle Paul wrote in the letter to the Romans that "if you confess with your mouth, Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." He went on in his first letter to the Corinthians to say that "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." The resurrection is what sets Jesus apart from every religious teacher that ever lived and what gives believers their hope.

So I would like to make a very brief case for the historical reality of the resurrection, which isn't as complicated as it might seem at first. Without delving too deeply into various conspiracy theories that have cropped up in the last few centuries I will deal mainly with two key factors: the empty tomb and the deaths of the apostles.

1. The Empty Tomb. Let me first remove the long-discredited argument that Jesus was alive when he was taken down from the cross and somehow escaped the tomb. This theory has always been nonsensical; Roman soldiers were well skilled in making sure a condemned person's sentence was carried out. And while Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ may have been too bloody for some people's taste, it was a very factual presentation of what happened to those sentenced to crucifixion. That's simply not something a person survived.

Another extreme theory was that the disciples stole the body from the tomb. This theory hinges on the premise that Jesus' followers (all of whom fled when he was arrested) returned to the tomb, overpowered a squad of Roman soldiers standing guard to prevent just such an occurrence, and then hid the body. All so they could proclaim the reign of a king they knew to be dead. This notion stretches the imagination even further than the idea of someone rising from the dead.

So if we know Jesus was dead, and the disciples didn't steal the body, then why didn't the Jewish leaders or the Romans simply produce the body when the claims of the resurrection were made? That would have been the simplest way to shut the whole thing down. They didn't because they couldn't; the body wasn't there.

2. The Deaths of the Apostles. There have been many followers throughout history who died for the leader of a religious movement, most often through mass suicide, but the deaths of the apostles fall into a different category altogether. Of the eleven apostles (Judas had committed suicide after betraying Jesus) only John died of natural causes. The other ten died while spreading the gospel, in the following ways:

         Peter - crucified upside down
         James, son of Zebedee - beheaded
         Matthew - killed by a sword thrust
         Philip - crucified
         Andrew - crucified on a cross in the shape of an X.
         Simon - crucified
         Thomas - speared to death
         Thaddeus - killed by arrows.
         Bartholomew - flayed alive and crucified
         James, Son of Alphaeus - stoned to death

Both the violent nature of these men's deaths and the fact that they died at different times and in different parts of the Roman Empire is important. If they knew that the resurrection was a lie, which they would have if they had either stolen Jesus' body or not personally seen him after the resurrection, it is possible that one or two of them might have been deranged enough to die in order to keep the story going. There is no way, however, that ten of them would have endured excruciating deaths, completely separated from the others by years and hundreds or thousands of miles, for something they knew to be a lie.

What we see in the apostles is an amazing change from the terrified men who fled at Jesus' arrest to men who did not shrink from death in proclaiming his resurrection. That is only possible if he really did rise from the dead.

Ultimately, the resurrection is something that cannot be ignored or treated like a fairy tale. It is either true or it's not, and the entire Christian faith rises or falls based on the answer to that question. I believe that, given the limited space allowed, I have shown solid reason for belief in the resurrection that goes beyond a mere leap of faith. But in the end faith is still needed, and this Easter season each of us must ask ourselves if we truly have that faith.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

When One Part of the Body Suffers

The world was shocked and horrified last month at the video released by ISIS terrorists showing the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya. It was one in a long line of ever-increasing atrocities committed by ISIS against anyone who does not believe exactly as they do; they have murdered Christians, Jews, and Muslims with equal disdain.

The reaction to this heinous act was understandable. What is harder to understand is why most Christians in America still do not acknowledge or perhaps even recognize the wholesale slaughter of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and Africa. While we debate how to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, lament the ongoing stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and attempt to be politically correct when condemning Islamist terrorists, Christians in Nigeria are being murdered by the thousands by Boko Haram militants and Assyrian Christians virtually "cleansed" from northern Syria by ISIS.

It is true that the secular media often downplays the fact that these attacks against Christians are occurring, but that does not excuse our indifference. And while we should be outraged when attacks of this kind happen to anyone, anywhere, if we truly believe the Bible as we claim to, we should take note for another very important reason: all Christians, no matter their nationality, race, gender, or any other demographic you want to use, are one Body:

“The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit…This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it.” 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 25-26

As Christians, whether in Egypt or Syria, Nigeria or Iraq, America or Europe, we should be wounded as if these persecuted brothers and sisters are part of our own family...because they are. We should not simply shake our heads sadly and move on to the next news item. We should pray without ceasing for our fellow believers around the world for whom persecution is much more than being told they cannot hold a Bible study in a public school or pray before a football game. And we certainly should not remain silent; when one suffers, we all suffer.

Finally, we should pray that we would, if faced with the same fate as the 21 Egyptian martyrs, remain as faithful as these brothers did, who “did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Revelation 12:11) and who have received “the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:4).

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Creflo Dollar Has Obviously Never Met Job

It was reported a few days ago that televangelist and mega-church pastor Creflo Dollar has asked his congregation and supporters for donations to purchase a $60 million Gulfstream jet airplane to "help him spread the gospel." The outcry from all sides, including many normally supportive of his ministry, was so strong that Dollar has taken down the fundraising page for the jet. While many have embraced the prosperity gospel of preachers like Dollar and the more famous Joel Osteen, $60 million for a private jet was finally a bridge too far.

The controversy brings us back to a question that comes up when dealing with preachers like Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and others: are they preaching the gospel, or simply saying what people want to hear while getting rich in the process? One of the best answers comes not from the New Testament, but rather the Old Testament story of Job, a book that seems to be missing from these individuals' Bibles.

When looking at the story of Job, the first thing that becomes obvious is his suffering. Job lost nearly everything, and God allowed it. He lost his flocks, his herds, his servants, his health, and his own children. The only things he did not lose were the two things that by that time he probably hoped to: a nagging wife and his own life.

Yet the Biblical account of Job emphasizes that throughout his ordeal Job did not sin against God by cursing him. God allowed Satan to bring calamity upon Job to prove that Job would remain faithful no matter what his circumstances became. This doesn't fit very well with the prosperity gospel message so many flock to today, a message that says Christians with enough faith will always be healthy and wealthy, and those who suffer in these areas do so because of a lack of faith.

Preachers like Dollar and Osteen love the "name it and claim it" philosophy of the prosperity gospel, and with good reason. In most cases the faithful are required to "sow financial seeds" as a way of demonstrating their faith, and these seeds of faith go directly to the preacher (VISA and MasterCard accepted). It's certainly a gospel of prosperity for the ones preaching it.

In fact, Osteen can do something few Christian preachers in history have accomplished: preach a month of messages on "getting blessed" and "being the best you that you can be" while never mentioning either sin or Jesus even once. Theologian John Piper has rightly said that "the prosperity gospel will not make anybody praise Jesus; it will make people praise prosperity."

So is this prosperity gospel Biblical? Absolutely not. As proof, let's start with our friend Job, not so much because of the trials he faced even though God still favored him, but because of his responses, which Mr. Osteen and Mr. Dollar could learn from. When Job learned of the deaths of his children:

"Job stood up and tore his robe in grief. Then he shaved his head and fell to the ground to worship. He said, 'I came naked from my mother's womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!' In all of this, Job did not sin by blaming God." (Job 1:20-22 NLT)

Job recognized that everything we have is given to us by God, and that our praise should not depend on our circumstances. Later, his wife had some harsh words for him, and he gives an amazing answer:

"His wife said to him, 'Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die.' But Job replied, 'You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?' So in all this, Job said nothing wrong." (Job 2:9-10 NLT)

Joel Osteen has often described himself as more of a life coach than a preacher (he is surely glad that churches hold tax-exempt status, since life coach corporations do not). But a life coach needs to prepare people for the inevitable trials of life, don't they? Teaching that enough faith fixes every financial problem doesn't seem to be very good counsel, especially since this type of faith is centered on self rather than on God. To make matters worse, it tells people who are suffering that their suffering stems from a lack of faith.

Here are a few other verses for the prosperity gospel proponents to consider:

"Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!" Habakkuk 3:17-18 (NLT)

"Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you." 1 John 2:15 (NLT)

"Don't store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be." Matthew 6:19-21 (NLT)

Note that none of these verses condemn having money or possessions; the condemnation is for those who love the things of the world more than the things of God. If you follow a "name it and claim it" theology, then you are by definition storing up treasures on earth and loving the world more than God.

I don't know if either Mr. Dollar or Mr. Osteen are familiar with the verses I've used here. I can only pray that they will someday begin preaching the true and complete gospel to their huge congregations. Until that day, this passage both sums up their "preaching" and the prosperity gospel, and counters their claims as well:

"After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can't take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content. But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows." 1 Timothy 6:7-10 (NLT)

As for Creflo Dollar's current "ministry need," he would do well to remember that Jesus "had no place to lay His head" (Matthew 8:20), and he certainly didn't have a private jet.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Does a Church's Size Matter?

For hundreds of years the most important question people asked when choosing a church had to do with denomination. That can still be a major factor (even today very few people move effortlessly from Lutheran to Baptist to Episcopal services), though the rise of non-denominational churches has diminished it somewhat. The new "big question" that has emerged only in recent years concerns something quite different: size. People searching for a church have a wide range of options, from cell groups to house churches to churches that meet in coffee shops and bars. But the most common choice is between a small church or a mega-church. Both have advantages and both have drawbacks, all of which must be considered.

In some ways, choosing between a small church and a mega-church requires the same analysis of advantages and disadvantages that one would apply to the question of whether to live in a small town or a large city. In saying this I am not discounting the leading of the Holy Spirit in choosing a church or diminishing the importance of a congregation's doctrinal beliefs, but rather acknowledging the realities of life in America today.

Before looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the two types, some definitions are needed. For the purposes of this article, a mega-church is any congregation with over 2,000 people attending regularly. A small church is one with fewer than 250 regular attendees. Obviously there are a great number of churches whose congregations fall between these two numbers, but this is a look at small vs. mega, not medium vs. fairly large.

The New Testament has examples of both types of congregations. The first chapters of the Book of Acts tell of very rapid growth in the church that occurred as people were hearing the Gospel for the very first time. You can see similar explosive growth anytime the Gospel was proclaimed in areas where it had not been heard before, such as Korea after the Japanese occupation and Eastern Europe after fifty years of communist rule. In Romans 16:3-5, Paul acknowledges a much smaller church, sending greetings to Priscilla and Aquila and the "church that meets at their house." The house church movement in China mirrors this type of congregation. Jesus himself gave us the minimum size for a congregation: two or three. In Matthew 18:20 He said: "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."

Small churches offer one thing that mega-churches can't match: a real sense of family. There is something comforting about being somewhere where everyone knows you, especially as we become more and more disconnected from each other as a society. People in small churches also have much greater direct access to their pastor; this diminishes as the congregation grows larger and the demands on the pastor's time increase. The mixing of age groups in smaller churches also helps by intermingling the excitement and energy of younger or new believers with the wisdom and experience of senior adults. Singles get to hear the problems discussed by married couples in their classes, and thus aren't as surprised when they encounter these same problems after they get married.

The strength of that interaction of age groups has a downside, however. The singles often have greater interaction with married couples precisely because there are so few other singles. This lack of others at their same stage of life can be discouraging (although even large churches do a poor job of caring for singles). Smaller congregations also are more likely to suffer from a dearth of programs and ministries due to lack of funds and lack of people to lead them. Sometimes simply providing a decent living for the pastor can be a financial strain on a very small church.

Mega-churches have to be concerned about finances as well, but for very different reasons. Most have a large number of programs and ministries, and need to bring in huge amounts of money to finance these programs. There is little access to the pastor, who may only be seen by most on Sunday mornings. Mega-churches offset this by having very large ministerial staffs, with ministers for married adults, singles, children, missions, etc. I know of at least one mega-church in North Dallas that has over forty full-time ministers on staff for a congregation of 28,000.

One of the single biggest advantages of mega-churches is the quality of their children's programs. Given the fact that many couples either return to church or start going for the first time when they have children, the size and quality of a children's ministry has a huge impact on the growth of a church. An outgrowth of this is also an increase in Bible study classes for married couples, with more choices than you will find in a small church.

As I said above, singles (particularly those who are divorced) are often treated as second-class citizens in churches regardless of size, but they have more opportunities in mega-churches simply by virtue of their larger numbers. Mega-churches also tend to do multiple mission trips during the course of a year, so those with a heart for missions have far more options than are available in a smaller congregation.

Mega-churches have drawbacks, of course. Many attend simply because of the status some of these churches have, hoping to cut business deals or move up socially as a result of their membership. Mega-churches also have a tendency to become small cities unto themselves, with activities every night of the week, coffee bars, bookstores, full workout facilities, even bowling alleys and movie theaters. You can essentially live there, which totally goes against Jesus' command that we go into the world and be salt and light.

In the end, you may have to visit both types of churches before finding the one you are most comfortable with and where you can best serve. Neither type of church is good or bad based solely on its size; we need to keep in mind that growth is a not always sign of God's favor and blessing, as well as the fact that smaller doesn't necessarily mean less worldly. A church cannot be judged by its size, but by the heart of its members and their impact on the world.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Great Commission

Evangelism and discipleship are not the same thing, but without evangelism there can be no one to disciple. In the Great Commission, evangelism is implied when Jesus tells the Apostles to "make disciples":

"Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'" (Matt 28: 18-20 NIV)

Jesus' command to his disciples, and ultimately his followers down through the centuries, to reach the world with the good news of salvation is recorded in the 28th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew; it has come to be known as the Great Commission. The Great Commission is one of the clearest passages in the entire Bible, and yet is also one of the least obeyed.

In Matthew 28:19, Jesus said, "go." He didn't say think about going, or even pray about going. He said go. Yet only a small fraction of Christians ever follow this clear command. I think there are several reasons why this is, ranging from a simple fear of talking to people to thinking it's the job of the pastor, missionary, or some other "professional clergy." But we are all called to do our part to take the gospel (or evangel, from which we get the term evangelism) to the world. In Acts 1:8 Jesus gave us the blueprint, elaborating on what "all nations" means:

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8 NIV)
Let's break this blueprint down both in its 1st Century context as well as what it means for us today. I would then like to examine what is and what is not evangelism.
  1. Jerusalem. In the first century, this obviously meant the city of Jerusalem. This was where the apostles spent time with Jesus following his resurrection, where the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, and where the first church was formed. Today, we can think of Jerusalem as whatever city we happen to live in, or even our own family. These are the people closest to us, the ones we care the most about.
  2. Judea. Judea was the administrative region in which Jerusalem was located, roughly the equivalent of a state or province today. If Austin is your Jerusalem, then Texas could be considered your Judea. You still have a connection or kinship with folks in this area.
  3. Samaria. Samaria was a region outside of Judea, and could thus be considered another state, like going to Oklahoma from Texas. But Samaria was much more than this. Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies, and by specifically telling his disciples to go there, Jesus was making clear that everyone, whether friend or foe, was to be told the message of the gospel. That message is the same for us today, which means going places we might not otherwise be comfortable going.
  4. The ends of the earth. This literally means the ends of the earth. In the 1st Century, the apostles went to most of the known world, from Paul's missionary journeys through Asia Minor and Greece to Thomas's journey to India. We are called to do the same, realizing that for us China may be "the ends of the earth," while for a Chinese believer New York or Boston is "the ends of the earth." It simply depends on where you're starting from.
In fact, there are many who would not use the contemporary examples above at all, arguing that Jerusalem is the actual city of Jerusalem, as are Judea and Samaria, and that all the rest of the world is the ends of the earth. For me the command is the same either way you look at it: we are supposed to tell those close to us, and whenever possible to tell even those in far away places.

We saw earlier that Jesus clearly commands us to evangelize, to reach our world with the gospel, but what exactly is the gospel? First, what it isn't. It isn't orphanages, hospitals, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, or any other charitable act or organization. These are all good, important, and evidence that we are believers in Christ, but in and of themselves they are not the message. If they were, then you would have to consider every Buddhist, Muslim, Wiccan, Agnostic, and atheist who did any of these things a Christian, and neither we nor they believe that. Good works also give an opportunity for evangelism, but they are not evangelism.

The gospel, the evangel, the good news that Jesus brought is not nearly as complicated as we often try to make it. In a nutshell, Jesus' message was that we have all sinned and none of us deserve Heaven. But God loved us enough, even while we weren't loveable, that He sent Jesus to take the penalty that we deserved. The apostle Paul put it this way:

"My friends, I want you to remember the message that I preached and that you believed and trusted. You will be saved by this message, if you hold firmly to it. But if you don't, your faith was all for nothing. I told you the most important part of the message exactly as it was told to me. That part is: Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say. He was buried, and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say. Christ appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. After this, he appeared to more than five hundred other followers. Most of them are still alive, but some have died. He also appeared to James, and then to all of the apostles. Finally, he appeared to me." (1 Corinthians 15:1-8 CEV).

The majority of us in America have heard this message in some form or other since we were children, although that is becoming less and less the case today. But many, if not most of us have never done anything once we heard the message. Jesus said in Luke 19:10 that he "came to seek and save the lost." How does He save us? When asked how to be saved, the apostle Paul gave this answer:

"Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. For if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Acts 16:31, Romans 10:9 NIV).

That's the Good News. We can have our sins forgiven and enter into a real, personal relationship with God. News doesn't get any better than that, and we shouldn't hesitate to tell others about it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Whale of a Tale

While the story of Jonah is one of the best known in the Bible, nearly everyone misses the real point of the story altogether. The ultimate theme of the Book of Jonah has nothing to do with whales; it is a story of God's merciful compassion for all people, not just the Israelites.

Jonah preached during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel (782 753 B.C.). At some point during his ministry, God called him to preach a message of repentance to the people of Nineveh, the capital of the Israelites' bitter enemies the Assyrians, in order that they would turn from their evil ways and not be destroyed. This would be similar to an American preacher being called to bring a message of repentance to Osama bin Laden or the leader of ISIS, knowing that they would turn from their ways and be spared by God. Jonah wanted God to destroy Nineveh (the same way many of us would want al-Qaeda or ISIS destroyed), so he ran in the opposite direction, taking a ship to Tarshish.

This is where the whale comes in. God sent a storm to stop Jonah, and after determining that Jonah was the cause of the storm, the crew threw him overboard. The great fish was simply the means God used to keep Jonah from drowning. After three days Jonah had had enough, and cried out to God to forgive him. The whale then spit Jonah out alive onto dry land, and Jonah began the long journey east to Nineveh. For those who don't believe that the whale (or great fish, we don't know for sure) really swallowed Jonah, take it up with Jesus. He refers to the event as a fact in Matthew 12:38-41 and Luke 11:29-30. If Jesus says it happened, then it's good enough for me.

What happens once Jonah gets to Nineveh is the real lesson of the story. He does as God commanded, calling on the people to repent or be destroyed. To his chagrin, everyone from the king down to the lowliest servants do just that, fasting and praying for God's forgiveness, and God relents from destroying them. Jonah becomes so angry about this that he tells God that he wants to die. God then teaches him, and us, a lesson.

While still hoping that God might change his mind and destroy Nineveh, Jonah goes to the east of the city and sits in the blazing heat. God caused a plant to grow that gave shade to Jonah, and Jonah was very happy. But the next morning, God sent a worm to attack the plant, which immediately withered and died. This made Jonah so angry that he again told God it would be better for him to just die. God simply asks if it is right for him to be angry about the plant, for which Jonah had done no work and which was, after all, only a plant, while having no concern for the people of Nineveh, people just like him whom God had created.

Therefore, the Book of Jonah is not some children's fairy tale about being swallowed by a whale. It is a lesson from God about loving those who are not like us, even our sworn enemies, especially our sworn enemies. Because while he may not condone their deeds, God loves them just as much as he loves us. It wasn't a popular message 2,700 years ago, nor 700 years later when Jesus told us to love our enemies, and it's not particularly popular today. But if we're going to follow God as we should, it is a lesson we must heed.

Monday, March 9, 2015

What is Faith?

A well-known Bible passage says that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1, NIV). There are passages in the Bible that can be hard to understand, but this one perfectly sums up the essence of what faith is. While the dictionary gives a generic definition such as “belief that is not based on proof” or “belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion,” Hebrews 11:1 distills what faith is into a simple sentence.

This is not to say that faith is simple; it’s not. But having a solid starting point when talking or thinking about such a complex issue is of great benefit. While a secular view of faith might indeed see a definition like “belief not based on proof” as properly describing religious faith, this in fact refers to a blind faith, a shot in the dark, a hope that really has no basis.

When looking at the theological definition of faith, it may be that the King James Version of Hebrews 11:1 puts it best: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The KJV does not translate well for today’s reader, but the use of the word “evidence” is important. True faith is always based on evidence of some sort.

For example, the resurrection of Jesus cannot be proven scientifically; the events of the lives of historical persons cannot be put under a microscope or tested in a lab. Yet they can be weighed in light of what is called “legal/historical evidence.” In the case of the resurrection of Christ we have the evidence of an empty tomb (though guarded by Roman soldiers), the changed lives of the disciples after the Resurrection (when they were cowering in fear at the crucifixion), and the fact that the first person to find the tomb empty was a woman.

This last point is often overlooked yet very important, because at that time in Jewish culture a woman could not testify in court and was not considered a reliable witness. If the story had been fabricated by the apostles, they would certainly not have had a woman be the first to reach the empty tomb.

All of these and other things taken together constitute evidence, believable testimony that the resurrection occurred. But as no one living today was at the tomb that day, we cannot fully prove that it happened. The evidence strongly indicates that it did, but there is still a small gap between belief and fact.

The step across that gap is faith, it is being certain of what we have not seen. And one of the most interesting and exciting things about faith is that once you have a little of it, God can take that sliver of faith and build it into something stronger. This happens through prayer, through reading the Bible and seeing the teachings there come true in your own life, and through events and circumstances that the secular world would call mere coincidence.

Some will say that putting faith in anything or anyone is stupid, but the fact is, everyone lives by faith every single day. If you don’t think so, ask yourself the following questions:

How many meals have you eaten in a restaurant without ever watching the cook to be sure he wasn’t poisoning you?

How many times have you ridden in an elevator trusting that a safety inspection was performed in the past decade?

How often do you drive through an intersection every day, believing that the drivers at the cross street will actually stop at the red light?

We all exercise faith in innumerable ways, both great and small. But when it comes to the most important thing in life many are quick to dismiss faith, and this simply should not be. Our faith should be active, constantly tested, constantly explored, constantly measured against evidence. When this happens, the Christian faith is not a stumble in the dark; it is a leap into the Light.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Bible as Scientific Literature?

Not long ago I stumbled across the website of organization dedicated to increasing our study of the Bible, and being someone with a high regard and great interest in the Bible I wanted to see what they were all about. I expected some sort of seminary, but this was not the case, and their mission statement took me by surprise:

"The Institute's mission is to educate the general public about the value and importance of reading the Bible and using it as the primary textbook for knowledge and study. Its purpose is to broaden perspective of the Bible from what is commonly thought of as a textbook used in Sunday school, to a scientific text on all subject matter."

A scientific text on all subject matter? That's a leap even a limber Pentecostal wouldn't make, and I think it points out another problem, which is the attempt by some to make the Bible something it's not.

The Bible is a religious, social, and historical chronicle of God's work in the lives of a specific group of people during a specific period of history, but it's not science. The teachings and message of the Bible are just as valid for us today as at any time in history, but it was not intended to be a scientific textbook. To quote from the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message (the first creed/confession I found online that dealt specifically with the Bible):

"The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is the record of God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. It reveals the principles by which God judges us; and therefore is ... the true center of Christian union and the standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried."

Even the Baptists see the Bible as a book of divine instruction, not scientific knowledge. While many (myself included) accept the Creation account in Genesis as both literal and true, that does not make the Bible scientific literature. Genesis explained to the Israelites how the world began, but the focus was on man's fall and God's work of redemption as a result. It's certainly not a text you can prop up next to a beaker and test tubes in a lab and expect to receive guidance.

To use a different book as an example, the Bible cannot be used as scientific literature any more than Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers can be used as a history of France. Neither was intended for that purpose. Scientific literature, by its very definition, implies that experimentation has taken place: tests conducted, theories tested, hypotheses proved or disproved. This cannot be done with the Bible, or with any other historical or religious book. There are ways to test, to a certain degree, the accuracy of historical and religious texts, but even that doesn't make them science.

We might also do well to remember that while the Bible has proven reliable throughout the centuries, science has a much more checkered past. At various time through history, scientists (or the closest thing available at the time) have been absolutely positive that the sun revolved around the earth, that the world was flat, and that bloodletting was the cure for almost every disease. It seems like every few hundred years or so, everything science has presented as fact turns out to be wrong. Even Darwin's theory of evolution has been largely dismissed in recent years, though the media and anti-Christian groups often refuse to acknowledge this. Yet the Bible has remained true.

One of the biggest problems inherent in the ongoing debate regarding the "science" of the Bible is that the two sides spend so much time arguing evolution versus creation that they miss the point of the book. While we debate the "real" length of a day in the Bible, we completely ignore the people that Jesus told us to pay attention to: the lost, the sick, the outcast, the oppressed, and the poor.

Perhaps rather than trying to determine if the Bible can be used as a book of science we should be wondering why it's no longer being used as our guide for faith and morals. It seems like the more people question the reliability of the Bible (in spite of vast archaeological support of the historical accounts), the more they throw out the essential message as well. Sadly, it seems the Bible does have one thing in common with a college Organic Chemistry textbook today: most of us aren't reading either one.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Gospel Explained in 2 Minutes

Many of my previous posts dealt with the gospel, a straightforward subject that has somehow become muddled and distorted over the years. An understanding of the gospel is necessary, however, to understand any post I write from this point forward, among which will be discussions about faith, salvation, and what it means to be a disciple. Because it all starts with the gospel, I want to share a very brief but clear summation by Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Dallas.

I could not have said it any better...probably not even close.


"Forgiven" by Thomas Blackshear

Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words...

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Flabbergasted Trilogy

The so-called “Christian fiction” genre has grown steadily over the past decade, boosted by the fact that stores devoted solely to Christian books have been opening as fast as other brick-and-mortar bookstores have been closing. The problem with most of these Christian novels is that while they do have religious overtones and far less sex, language, and violence than mainstream fiction, they are typically not very well-written stories. One notable exception is the Flabbergasted trilogy by Ray Blackston.

Flabbergasted is Blackston’s debut novel, and it gives the name to the trilogy that ultimately followed. Set in Greenville, South Carolina, Flabbergasted is one of the best beach novels I have ever come across. The characters are vividly drawn and definitely grow on you as narrator Jay Jarvis and his friends navigate the Southern singles scene by, of all things, visiting various church singles Sunday school classes. Not a bad idea for those tired of the online dating sites.

I was well into the book before I realized that it fell into the “Christian fiction” description, because unlike many others of its kind, it was not dogma converted into a novel. When the subject of the gospel did finally appear it was not watered down, but was presented with clarity in the midst of a very humorous situation. From girls who church-hop looking for husbands to missionaries with a fondness for throwing food at people, this is an entertaining group of characters, not some fictionalized hellfire-and-brimstone sermon.

The second book in the series is A Delirious Summer. The premise is similar to Flabbergasted, but with a twist. The narrator this time is Neil Rucker, a missionary on furlough for the summer looking for a wife in the wilds of Greenville, where he encounters many of the same people Jay Jarvis met in the first book. He quickly finds that Carolina beaches may be even more dangerous than the Amazon jungle, and watching this young man try to navigate the Greenville social scene is a lot of fun. Allie, Darcy, and Alexis form one of the most hilarious (if sometimes dangerous) trios I’ve read in a long time.

The final novel in the series is Lost in Rooville, and it is here that Blackston falls a little flat. For most of the book the characters are lost in the Australian Outback, and while there are entertaining parts, taking the setting outside of South Carolina hurts the story somewhat. We do get to see the resolution of these myriad relationships that started in the first two books, however, and that combined with the familiar and likable characters makes it worth reading.

So if you’re looking for some well-written, funny, and sometimes enlightening novels for those long winter nights, check out the Flabbergasted trilogy, particularly the first two books. If nothing else, you’ll never look at dating the same way again.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Fish on Your Car is Hindering the Great Commission

I try to refrain from ranting on this site, but tonight is an exception. After yet another long and harrowing drive home, I feel compelled to comment on something fans of Seinfeld will well remember. Consider the following exchange between Elaine and Puddy:

Elaine: David, I’m going to hell! The worst place in the world! With devils and those caves and the ragged clothing! And the heat! My god, the heat! I mean, what do you think about all that?
Puddy: Gonna be rough.
Elaine: Uh, you should be trying to save me!
Puddy: Don’t boss me! This is why you’re going to hell.
Elaine: I am not going to hell and if you think I’m going to hell, you should care that I’m going to hell even though I am not.
Puddy: You stole my Jesus fish, didn’t you?
Elaine: Yeah, that’s right!

Ah, the ubiquitous "Jesus fish." For readers outside of the United States, the Jesus fish is a symbol that many Christians in America like to put on their vehicles, usually on the trunk, bumper, or tailgate. As Wikipedia explains, it "comes from the fish symbol formed by two intersecting arcs, the ends of the right side extending beyond the meeting point so as to resemble the profile of a fish." Early Christians used it as a secret way to identify each other, because the letters in the Greek word for fish (ichthys) form an acrostic for the phrase "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior."

In theory, there is nothing at all wrong with placing this symbol on your car or SUV to let know people know that you are someone who believes in Jesus. However, the theory falls apart once 99% of people get behind the wheel. Because let's face it: Christian or not, most of us are horrible drivers. When you combine a lack of driving skills, chronic texting while driving, and even full-blown road rage with a known symbol of the Christian faith, you have become the polar opposite of salt and light.

Some of you are certainly wondering what the big deal is. After all, most of the drivers you cut off, scream at, or make inappropriate hand gestures toward will never meet you in person. And that is the problem. They will never know that outside of your car or truck you are a caring, committed, follower of Christ who would give them the shirt off your back. They will only know this: that you are the idiot who ran them into a ditch while putting on mascara with one hand and texting with the other, and that you have a Jesus fish on your car. And more than a few of them will think this:

"If that's how Christians act/drive/represent/etc., then I don't want anything to do with them or their Savior."

Sure, that's a ridiculous overreaction and completely unfair generalization, but guess what? Most people don't need much of reason to avoid us as it is. The last thing we need to do is give people one more excuse to avoid Christ and Christians by combining an ancient symbol of Jesus with a modern inability to drive like a sane person.

I once asked a pastor why he didn't have a fish on his truck; he was a pastor, after all. His response was telling: "Paul, until I learn how to not drive like a lunatic, I'm not putting one of those near my truck. It's bad publicity for Jesus."

So to all my brothers and sisters out there with the Jesus fish on your vehicles, I say this: go right now, this very minute, and pry it off. Don't even read the end of this sentence first. Just do it. Then repent of your horrific driving, ask for forgiveness, and invite the neighbor down the street out for coffee so you can tell him or her about what Jesus is doing in your life and what He can do in theirs.

Better let the neighbor drive.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

So Now What?

One of my recent posts was a short one about the Apostle Paul’s definition of the gospel (which was also short and to the point). But knowing what the gospel is still doesn’t tell us what we are expected to do about it, so what comes next? What is our response supposed to be? Well, just as the Bible gave us the definition of the gospel, it answers that question as well.

The second chapter of the book of Acts tells of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus rose from the dead. Peter speaks to a large crowd of Jews from all over the Roman Empire that have gathered in Jerusalem, telling the story of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection (the gospel), and how this proved Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. They responded with the same question we have today, and Peter gave a clear answer:

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” Acts 2:37-38,41 (New International Version)

Repent and be baptized. These are not ideas that Peter just pulled out of thin air as he was speaking to the people. Both came from Jesus himself, one at the start of his ministry and the other just before he ascended into heaven:

Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News. “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” Mark 1:14-15 (New Living Translation)

[Jesus said:] “Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples. Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to do everything I have told you. I will be with you always, even until the end of the world.” Matthew 28:19-20 (New Century Version)

Repent and be baptized. Like Paul’s explanation of the gospel this seems pretty straightforward, at least the part about baptism (we have all seen what a baptism looks like, if not in person then at least in movies or on television). Where we get hung up is on the R word.

“Repent” sounds like something you would hear from a downtown street preacher, all condemnation and no compassion. But we saw above that Jesus called everyone to repentance, and there is no question about how much he loved us. So what does repentance mean? It does not mean simply being sorry for sins you have committed; often we are sorry not for the sin, but that we got caught. True repentance involves an acknowledgement that we have sinned not just against others but against God, a true change of mind about sin that results in a change in our actions (literally, to go in the opposite direction).

Repentance seems like an old-fashioned, outdated concept in a world were anything and everything goes, but without it salvation is simply not possible. Jesus first called people to repent at the start of his ministry, Peter did the same at Pentecost, and God still calls us to repentance today. The only question left is how you will answer.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Only One Way

I was re-reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis last week and came across the famous “poached egg” passage. If you have never read the book, the specific passage is below:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Lewis wrote this during in the mid-1940s, and what I find troubling is not that people 70 years ago rejected Jesus’ claim to both be God and the only way to salvation (many have rejected that since his days on earth), but that so many today go even further, maintaining that he never really made such claims for himself in the first place. A few years ago, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a major study on religious beliefs in the United States. It found that 70 percent of all Americans believe that many religions can lead to eternal life, including 65 percent of all Christians. Shockingly, 56 percent of people who consider themselves Evangelical Christians said that there are many paths other than faith in Christ that lead to God and eternal life.

I understand that this is a popular and “tolerant” point of view. However, it stands in direct contradiction to the words of Jesus himself. Consider the following passages:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.” John 14:6-7

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son…. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:27

“Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this; to believe in the one he has sent.'” John 6:29

“For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” John 6:40

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” John 10:28-30

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.'” John 11:25-26

None of these statements of Jesus are in any way vague or ambiguous, and for that very reason many people, even self-professing Evangelicals, simply avoid them altogether. But to call yourself a Christian while rejecting the very words of Christ himself is disingenuous at best and self-delusion at worst. As C.S Lewis said, “He has not left that option open to us. He did not intend to.”

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Springsteen and the Scriptures

In my first post I jokingly referenced two Bruce Springsteen songs; in my second I encouraged you to read the Bible more. It’s the weekend, so I thought I’d take a look at how reading the Bible more can help you catch references in Springsteen’s songs that you would otherwise miss. What can I say…I make strange connections on Saturday mornings before that second cup of coffee.

In that post about the Bible I said that not knowing anything at all about the Bible makes it impossible to understand the Constitution, Shakespeare, or Michelangelo (to name only a few) since all three owe the Bible a debt for their content. The same is true of some of Springsteen’s best songs. Consider these examples:

Adam, Cain, and Abel:
Adam Raised a Cain
“In the Bible, mamma, Cain slew Abel
and East of Eden, mamma, he was cast
You’re born into this life paying
for the sins of somebody else’s past
Adam raised a Cain”

The Price You Pay
“Little girl down on the strand
With that pretty little baby in your hands
Do you remember the story of the promised land
How he crossed the desert sands
And could not enter the chosen land
On the banks of the river he stayed
To face the price you pay”

Swallowed Up (In the Belly of a Whale)
“I fell asleep on a dark and starlit sea
With nothing but the cloak of God’s mercy over me
I come upon strange earth and a great black cave
I dreamt I awoke as if buried in my grave
We’ve been swallowed up”

Jesus, Gideon, Saul, and Abraham:
Heaven’s Wall
There was a woman waiting at the well Drawing water ‘neath the desert sky blue She said, “He’ll heal the blind, raise the dead, cure the sickness out of you” Come on men of Gideon Come on men of Saul Come on sons of Abraham Waiting outside heaven’s wall

Noah and Jesus:
Rocky Ground
“Forty days and nights of rain washed this land
Jesus said the money changers, in this temple will not stand”

Jesus Was An Only Son
“Jesus was an only son
As he walked up Calvary Hill
His mother Mary walking beside him
In the path where his blood spilled
Jesus was an only son
In the hills of Nazareth
As he lay reading the Psalms of David
At his mother’s feet
In the garden at Gethsemane
He prayed for the life he’d never live,
He beseeched his Heavenly Father to remove
The cup of death from his lips”

That’s a fair number of references spanning a 40-year career. But I want to make one thing clear: I am not saying Bruce is evangelizing here. His most famous album was not called “Born Again in the USA.” But clearly he knows at least something of the Bible, or these references would never have made their way into his songs. So if you won’t take my advice on reading the Bible, then at least listen to Bruce. He is the Boss, after all.

Note: Just in case you would like to look these references up for yourself, I have included the passage or Bible book where you can find them below.

Adam Raised a Cain:  Genesis chapter 4, verses 8-16
The Price You Pay: Numbers chapter 20, verses 1-12 and Deuteronomy chapter 34, verses 1-5
Swallowed Up (In the Belly of a Whale): Jonah, chapters 1 and 2
Heaven’s Wall: John chapter 4, verses 1-30. The stories of Gideon, Saul, and Abraham are found in Judges chapters 6-8, 1st Samuel chapters 9-31, and Genesis chapters 11-25 respectively
Rocky Ground: Genesis chapters 6-9 (the Flood) and John chapter 2, verses 13-17
Jesus Was An Only Son:  Matthew chapters 26-27, Mark chapters 14-15, Luke chapters 22-23, John chapter 19

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

How to Choose a Bible

Men like William Tyndale and John Wycliffe devoted their lives (and sometimes even sacrificed them) to bring us the English translation of the Bible. While they would likely be pleased to see how far their initial work has come in making the Bible available to all English speakers, they would also be confused by the sheer number and variations of translations and types available now. Walk into any Christian bookstore, or any other bookstore for that matter, and you will be faced with so many options that you may long for the days when the King James Version was the only one available.

Choosing the right Bible for you is no longer a simple task, but it can be made easier with a little work before you buy. The first and often most difficult choice is which translation is best for you. There are stalwarts out there who still insist that The King James Version is the only true translation, even if many of the words haven't been in use for nearly 200 years. If you are one of these people your choice is easy, at least as far as translation. For everyone else, let's take a look at the plethora of translations available.

When translating the Bible from the original languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic) there are two basic methods: word-for-word or thought-for-thought. In reality, all versions use some combination of this process, because many Greek and Hebrew words don't have an exact English equivalent and the word order doesn't match up exactly either. A true word-for-word translation would be virtually unreadable. And while thought-for-thought translations better convey the original meaning, even they translate Greek and Hebrew words exactly wherever possible. A third method is the paraphrase, but these versions allow for current slang and idioms and are outdated almost as soon as they are printed.

The ultimate goal is making the Bible clear and understandable to us today without everyone having to learn Greek or Hebrew. My recommendation is to stay to the thought-for-thought side without slipping all the way to a paraphrase. Another consideration is the reading level required for each version. The translations on the word-for-word end of the spectrum will require a higher reading level (12th grade for the King James Version, for example) while the thought-for-thought versions will require a lower reading level (4th grade for the New Century Version). Below is a list of widely available versions, the translation type, and reading level:

King James Version (KJV): Word-for-word, 12th grade.

New American Standard Bible (NASB): Word-for-word, 11th grade.

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): Balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought, 10th Grade.

New King James Version (NKJV): More verse-for-verse than word-for-word, 9th Grade.

English Standard Version (ESV): Word-for-word, 8th Grade.

New International Version (NIV): Balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought, 7th Grade.

Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB): Balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought, 7th Grade.

New Living Translation (NLT): Thought-for-thought, 6th Grade.

Contemporary English Version (CEV): Thought-for-thought, 5th Grade.

New Century Version (NCV): Thought-for-thought, 4th Grade.

Beyond reading level and translation method, there are a few other important choices that must be made when selecting a Bible, things like font, print size, cost (which is related to the binding method) and type of Bible. Cost can vary widely, but generally speaking you get what you pay for. A particular study Bible may come in soft cover for $19.99, hardback for $29.99, bonded leather for $49.99, and genuine leather for $69.99 and up. While more expensive, a genuine leather Bible should last for a lifetime, while a soft cover may wear out in two years or less. In the long run, it's better to pay more now.

When speaking of the type of Bible, I am referring to another phenomenon that is fairly recent: the specialty Bible. For centuries Bibles had only the sacred text, some maps, and perhaps a brief concordance. Today the choices are enough to make a person dizzy. Type in "Study Bible" on Amazon and you will get hundreds of results. A few include: The Life Application Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Seeker's Bible, The NIV Study Bible, The McArthur Study Bible, The Reformation Study Bible, The Women's Study Bible, The Recovery Study Bible, The Men's Devotional Bible, and the list goes on and on.

Almost anyone can find a study Bible that suits his or her particular need at a given moment in time. All are filled with helpful notes, articles, diagrams, concordances, maps, and application tips that can be very useful. But one word of caution: it is very easy to get so caught up reading the notes and articles that you're not actually reading the Bible itself. The notes should always be used in addition to, not in place of, the actual Biblical text.

As for my own personal recommendation, especially if this is the first Bible you've purchased in some time, I would suggest either the NIV Life Application Study Bible or the ESV Study Bible. The NIV is the world's best-selling translation and is very readable. In addition, the notes in the Life Application Study Bible are easy to understand without a seminary degree, which is not true of every study Bible out there. The ESV Study Bible has also grown in popularity in recent years; it contains far more notes, charts, and illustrations that the Life Application Study Bible, and also tends to be more scholarly in its approach.

Whichever version and type you choose, it will only be of use to you if you're reading it daily, not simply letting it sit on a shelf gathering dust. And reading the Bible is only beneficial if you then put what you read into action. As it says in James 1:22, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

The Gospel in a Nutshell

Sometimes we make things much more complicated than they need to be. Entire books have been written to explain the gospel, but here is how the Apostle Paul summed it up in four sentences:

"Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." 1 Corinthians 15: 1-4 (NIV)

Nothing I could add will make it any clearer than Paul did two thousand years ago.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Three Steps To Improve Your Bible Reading Time

As I wrote in an earlier post, the Bible is both the best-selling book in the world and one of the least-read. This is particularly tragic because the Bible is the one book that has the ability to literally change our lives (see Psalm 119:11, Romans 10:17). I think the main reason many either don’t read it or read it very little is that they have no real plan for getting the most out of their Bible reading time.

There are several key factors when it comes to reading the Bible. One of the most important is using a translation that you are comfortable with. Most will never read the Bible in the original Greek or Hebrew (although that is a worthy endeavor if you are so inclined), so an English translation that is readable for you is critical.

Another consideration is understanding the difference between Bible reading and Bible study. Both are key aspects of the Christian life, but they are not the same thing. Bible reading is exactly that: spending time reading it, much like you would any other book you read purely for enjoyment. Bible study involves the use of lexicons, dictionaries, histories, maps, commentaries, and other tools to more closely examine a particular passage, person, or theme. The problem with not recognizing this difference is that you can spend a great deal of time reading about the Bible without ever actually reading it. As the late, great Johnny Cash once joked, “the Bible sure does shed a lot of light on all those commentaries.”

Therefore, when it comes to actual Bible reading, I believe there are three things you can do that will make your time profitable, and they actually go beyond just reading: reading the Word, hearing the Word, and writing the Word.

1. Read the Word (Luke 4:16). This is the most obvious aspect of Bible reading. It involves simply going somewhere quiet and reading. Some can do this in a crowded Starbucks without being distracted, while others need the silence of an empty house. Either way, commit to a specific period of time and stick to it; fifteen minutes is a good start for most.

Don’t simply flip around reading random verses; you wouldn’t do that with any other book and hope to understand it, and the Bible is no different. Try to always read at least a chapter (in a long book like Genesis) or the whole book (for shorter ones like James or Jonah). This will keep things in context and make understanding easier. Also, if your pastor uses a particular version when preaching and you are comfortable reading it, it can be helpful to use that same translation. This will make the transition from reading during the week to hearing on Sunday easier.

2. Hear the Word (Romans 10:17). It is well-documented that we retain information best if we receive it a number of different formats. Since nearly every Bible version is available on CD, mp3, or online today, hearing the Word is easier now than at any time in our history. Whether you listen at work, home or in the car, hearing the Bible read by someone else is an excellent way to reinforce your reading. Be sure you are using the same translation for listening that you are for reading.

3. Write the Word (Deuteronomy 6:9). This is an exercise that can have many benefits, from reinforcing what you have read and heard to being an act of worship in itself. Simply get a good quality notebook or stationery and copy down the text you are reading longhand. Copying the text will force you to focus on the entire passage rather than simply skimming it and will help it become more firmly planted in your mind and heart. An added benefit is that once you have gone through the entire New Testament or even the entire Bible, you will have a copy of God’s Word in your own handwriting that will be special to you and can be handed down to your children as well.

I believe that this combination of reading, hearing, and writing is not only beneficial but also Biblical (be sure to look up the verses cited for each of the three activities above). Practicing this in conjunction with your normal prayer and study time can greatly enhance your enjoyment and understanding of God’s word. Now stop reading this and go read your Bible.

The Least-Read Book in America

In my first post I promised a few thoughts on the Bible. After some thought I realized that I would be insane to think I could even scratch the surface. Fortunately, I am a little insane. But where to start?

I could comment on the new trend of action-hero Biblical movies that bear no resemblance to the original story: Russell Crowe as a rugged Noah? Christian Bale as a sword-wielding Moses? What's next, Robert Downey Jr. as Jesus in The Savior Strikes Back? The less said about this development, the better.

Or maybe I should wade into the ongoing debate (at least within Evangelical circles) about which translation of the Bible is the "right" one. The danger in that is the risk of the King James Version Only faction coming after me with torches and pitchforks. Contrary to what they might tell you, it is not the version Jesus read, and the last edition of Webster's dictionary that contained all of the words in the KJV came out around 1850. It is an amazing, beautiful version that was written so that the common man could understand 1611. My advice on Bible versions: get the one you will actually read.

Which brings us to the area of Bible discussion I have settled on for this post. If you ask people to name the best-selling book of all time, some will say The DaVinci Code or one of the Harry Potter books, but most will correctly name the Bible as the all-time best seller. The folks at Guinness World Records estimate 5 billion copies have been printed. Yet in spite of these mind-boggling numbers, it is also the least-read book in America today.

Don't get me wrong; most people in America own a Bible, and a large number own more than one. But to borrow the line from a less biblical question, 90% of people don't read the Bible, and the other 10% lie about it. Even many regular churchgoers in the Bible Belt only dust their copy off long enough to carry into Sunday services; they then toss it into the back seat of their SUV until the next week.

We weren't always biblically illiterate; only a generation ago most Americans were at least familiar with the majority of the Bible stories, if not the theology contained in them. That's not true anymore, and if you think I'm exaggerating, consider the following responses to some simple Bible knowledge questions:

In the first book of the Bible, Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree. One of their children, Cain, asked, "Am I my brother's son?"

Moses led the Hebrew slaves to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread which is bread made without any ingredients.

Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the Ten Commandments. He died before he ever reached Canada.

Samson slew the Philistines with the Axe of the Apostles.

Lot's wife was a pillar of salt during the day, but a ball of fire at night.

Noah's wife was Joan of Ark.

It was a miracle when Jesus rose from the dead and managed to get the tombstone off the entrance.

Keep in mind that these responses came from children ranging from elementary to high school, in Christian schools. How much worse would the average "man on the street" do, since many can't find the Pacific Ocean on a map of the U.S.? But that's another rant for another day.

Before you argue that Biblical literacy is irrelevant, consider this: many of our laws are based on the Bible, and much of the great art and literature of the Western world was inspired by the Bible. Not knowing anything at all about the Bible makes it impossible to really understand the Constitution, Shakespeare, or Michelangelo (to name only a few) since all three of these owe the Bible a debt for their content. And that's just looking at it from a practical standpoint.

There is also, clearly and most importantly, the spiritual aspect of Bible reading. I believe that the Bible is divinely inspired and is nothing less than God's revelation of himself to us. I like the way The Message version translates 2 Timothy 3:16:

"Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way."

While God has never spoken to me audibly, He has spoken to me through the words of the Bible more times than I can count. And for those who say it's full of me some.

Here's a challenge: try reading the Bible for 15 minutes a day for 30 days. Start with Mark's gospel, then read Acts (not Axe). These will cover the story of Jesus and the early church, and don't have long lists of names no one can pronounce. Try either the New International Version or the New Living Translation as both are extremely readable. At the very least your literary, historical, and cultural literacy will improve considerably; the Bible has wars and romance and treachery and heartbreak and redemption, just like a good novel. Unlike a novel, though, it has so much more than that.

So be warned: once you start reading the Bible, it can be hard to stop. And if you're not careful, it just might change your life.


Welcome to Light in the Darkness. If a Google search of Springsteen's Light of Day or Darkness on the Edge of Town landed you here, feel free to hang around for a while before continuing your musical journey. The subtitle pretty much sums up who the blog is for: seekers, skeptics, and followers. In other words, everyone.

It won't take long for the observant reader to figure out what this blog is about: following Jesus. I debated with myself for a long while before starting it, because Lord knows (pun intended) that there are a ton of similar sites out there. But then again, maybe not so similar. Consider who finally convinced me to do it; not a pastor or mentor, but a magician. An atheist magician no less:

“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.” - Penn Jillette of the duo Penn & Teller

Like I said, maybe not so similar to other blogs on the subject, since I've mentioned two Springsteen songs and quoted an atheist while only mentioning Jesus once. And that's important if we're going to engage in any kind of real conversation, at least as real as you can get in this weird virtual world. I'm not some Ivory Tower theological academic and definitely not a fire-and-brimstone prophet, though both of those have their place in this conversation. I am just like you: I have good days and bad days, love my kids while occasionally wanting to strangle them, and still hope that some day I will be a roadie for the E Street Band. To paraphrase Penn above, I do believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that everlasting life is possible by following, really following, Jesus. And since I don't hate you (quite the opposite), I need to tell you about matter how socially awkward things might get.

When you think about it, the real question is why we don't all talk about it more, regardless of what we believe. I have talked to people for weeks about the catch that Dez Bryant made against Green Bay (and it was a catch), and have been urging total strangers I see in bookstores to read Zafon's novel The Shadow of the Wind for nearly a decade. Again to quote Penn, "this is more important than that."

So I hope you'll stop by again, read and ponder, comment and debate, encourage and question, and just generally get involved. My next post will explore some thoughts on the least controversial book ever written: the Bible.