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With God on Our Side

A new documentary looking at the relationship of American evangelicals to the modern State of Israel is being screened several nights this week in southern California.

With God On Our Side – Trailer 2 from Porter Speakman Jr on Vimeo.

For more on problems with Christian Zionism, you can read this “Open Letter” from 2002, signed by many evangelical and Reformed pastors and theologians including our own Mike Horton.

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Coming Soon! Justified, the MR book

“God justifies the ungodly”: Paul’s statement in Romans 4:5 has brought comfort and provoked controversy throughout the history of the church. Historically, most Protestants have seen the Reformation as a rediscovery of this gospel truth–indeed, justification as “the article by which the church stands or falls.” In our day, however, neither the Reformers’ account of the doctrine nor their appraisal of its significance can be taken for granted. Through various movements within Protestant theology and biblical studies, fresh (and not so fresh) challenges have made it imperative for us to reevaluate the Scriptures and the systematic as well as historical arguments that have been persuasive for so many Christians in previous eras.

Scheduled to be released at next month’s Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting, this book joins that contemporary conversation, bringing together voices from the pages of Modern Reformation magazine over the years. Like the magazine, this collection connects Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist theologians, historians, and biblical scholars who are able to unpack important issues for thoughtful nonspecialists.

This collection covers a lot of ground: the relationship of justification to covenant (especially recent discussions between N. T. Wright and John Piper), the law, union with Christ, as well as sanctification. A final chapter considers the contemporary relevance of justification. If theology is for the church, then the gospel is surely a matter for all of God’s people to wrestle with together.

Each Friday until the ETS meeting in Atlanta, Georgia (November 17-19, 2010), we’ll post more information about this new book. Stay tuned!

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How is the kingdom coming?

From the Editor: As we have been learning, Jesus’ parables are set in the context of the inauguration of his Kingdom. In the current issue of Modern Reformation magazine Mike Horton answers a series of questions about the flow of redemptive history. What did the disciples expect the coming of the kingdom to be about? How does the kingdom that is present on earth with Jesus’ ministry relate to the Old Testament theocratic kingdom? What should we understand about our role in the uprooting of the kingdom of Satan?

The manner in which the demons respond to Jesus shows his authority over them, but it is not just a raw power: it is his coming in his kingdom of grace and forgiveness that they fear most. Satan and his emissaries are busiest not with plotting wars and oppression–these are symptoms of the sinful condition that human beings are capable of generating on their own. However, Satan knows that if the Messiah fulfills his mission, the curse is lifted, his head is crushed, and his kingdom is toppled.

All of Satan’s forces are deployed in this last battle for “all authority in heaven and on earth.” All of Jesus’ miracles are pointers to this saving announcement; they are not ends in themselves. The kingdom comes with words and deeds. In the miracles, it is said that Satan has bound these people (viz., Luke 13:11, 16). Christ is breaking into Satan’s territory, setting history toward a different goal, bound to his own rather than to demonic powers. This is why Paul’s call to spiritual battle in Ephesians 6 identifies the gospel, faith, the Word, and Christ’s righteousness as the armor and weapons. Satan’s energies are now directed against the church and its witness to Christ. The devil knows his house is being looted and his prisons are being emptied as the gospel is taken to the ends of the earth.

Whatever the salutary effects of this kingdom on the wider society, with Christians living as salt and light, this age cannot be saved. It is dying. Through his apostles, Christ declares to the churches, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever” (Gal. 1:3-5). To be sure, the Spirit is also at work in common grace, restraining the spiritual entropy of this present evil age. However, the Spirit’s saving mission is not to improve our lives in Adam, under the reign of sin and death, but to crucify us and raise us with Christ. Paul reminds us that “the appointed time has grown very short.” We marry, live, and work in the world, but without anxious attachment to this present age: “For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). Like God’s counsel to the captives in Babylon, Peter exhorts believers to “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:17-19, emphasis added). Fully involved with the common life of our neighbors, we are nevertheless pilgrims who, with Abraham, are “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).

Instead of calling down God’s judgment and driving out the Gentile nations, Jesus commands us to pray for our enemies. “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ [Exod. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21]. But I say to you, ‘Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him your left’” (Matt. 5:38-39). God no longer sends plagues among the godless but “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” and he expects us to imitate his kindness (Matt. 5:43-48). This is not the time to judge our neighbors, but to take the log out of our own eye (7:1-5), to diligently seek God’s good gifts (vv. 7-11), to enter through the narrow gate (vv. 13-14), and to bear good fruit (vv. 15-27).

In fact, when Jesus went to a Samaritan village preaching the good news and was rejected, James and John wanted to call for fire to fall from heaven in judgment upon them. “But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went to another village” (Luke 9:51-56). Nicknamed “sons of thunder,” James and John were clearly looking for a kingdom of glory all the way to the very end (Mark 10:35-45). They even asked Jesus if they could be seated at his right and left hand at the presidential inauguration, but Jesus told them that they had no idea what they were asking: namely, crucifixion with Jesus (vv. 35-40). As such, there is no holy land over which to fight. There aren’t even holy places, shrines, or sanctuaries, since Christ and his people together form the end-time sanctuary. Jesus was announcing the arrival of the new covenant, which he would inaugurate in his own blood (Matt. 26:28).

Confusing Christ’s kingdom of grace with the Sinai theocracy was precisely the error that Paul addressed especially in Galatians. The kingdom of God in its present phase simply is the announcement of the forgiveness of sins and, on this basis, entrance into the new creation. The signs that Jesus performed were evidence that the age to come had indeed broken in on this present evil age. That is why he told John’s disciples to return with the news of healings, but especially that “the poor have the gospel preached to them,” adding, “and blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:5). In other words, this is his mission in his earthly ministry and blessed are those who are not put off by it, expecting something other than this salvation of sinners. God’s kingdom is all encompassing, yet it arrives in two stages with Christ’s two advents.

When Christ returns in power and glory, there will be no need for the proclamation of the gospel, no need for faith or hope. There will be only love, since the reality will be evident and fully realized for everyone to see (1 Cor. 13:8-13; Rom. 8:19-25). “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:8-9).

It’s not that the horizon of Jesus’ contemporaries was too broad but that it was too narrow. While they were settling merely for a messiah who would restore geopolitical theocracy, Jesus Christ was bringing a universal dominion–not just overthrowing Gentile oppressors but casting out the serpent from heaven and earth forever: “For behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). In the present era, his kingdom of grace is a reprieve for repentance and faith in Israel and throughout all nations before Christ’s return. It is a new creation at work in the world–a new covenant yielding new relationships with God and with each other based on forgiveness and fellowship rather than on judgment and exclusion.

Continue reading here.

Other questions answered in the article include:

  • Should we interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament?
  • Does the Bible emphasize continuity or discontinuity in God’s plans?
  • Does the New Testament treat the new covenant church as the expansion of Israel (the old covenant church) or as two separate entities with different programs?
  • Are we to expect catastrophe and then Christ’s Kingdom, or is Christ’s kingdom present now in suffering and progress of the gospel to be consummated in glory at Christ’s return?

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The Gospel According to Pixar

Some of our favorite people in the world are the folks at Mockingbird Ministries. Most of them are the kind of Episcopalians that give us hope for that long-suffering body of believers. We pray often that their tribe increases!  What really draws us to them is their creative, irenic, and fresh ways of connecting the great truths of the Law and Gospel to contemporary culture.

If we had a blog roll, their blog would be high on the list of blogs we frequent and recommend. We’ve also been privileged to work with them in some of their events: our own “Dad Rod” Rosenbladt was at their 2010 Mockingbird Conference.

Today we want to highlight their newest production, The Gospel According to Pixar.  This short study guide is an accessible and creative pairing of the great Pixar movies (Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., etc.) with biblical and redemptive themes. It’s perfect for a midweek study or youth group series and we want to see it gain widespread use among the churches and friends that look to White Horse Inn for materials to assist them in their own Reformation journey.

I recently asked the editors, Todd Brewer and David Zahl, a few questions about this book and their other projects.

Introduce our readers to Mockingbird. How does The Gospel According to Pixar reflect your ministry’s purpose?

Mockingbird is a ministry that tries to connect Christian faith with the realities of everyday life in as down-to-earth way as possible. Right now we do this primarily through web resources, conferences and publications. Whether it’s the music of Michael Jackson, the work of Alcoholics Anonymous, the mysteries of LOST, the social commentary in the New Yorker, or the poetry of T.S. Eliot, we listen with open ears to anything outside of the church world which might point to the old, old, story of God’s abundant grace and forgiveness for sinners through Christ. In many ways, The Gospel According to Pixar is much of the same. The films tell compelling stories about love, forgiveness, fear, loneliness, identity, etc. that provide vivid illustrations of how the Gospel interacts with real life.

Lots of movies have redemptive themes in them, what makes the Pixar films such a treasure trove of material?

First and perhaps most importantly, not all movies with redemptive themes are all that good. Pixar films are of undeniably high quality, from the scripting and voice-acting, to the art direction and thematic coherency, to the clever humor and emotional depth. They somehow manage to appeal to an incredibly broad audience, cutting across pretty much all demographics, without stooping to lowest-common-denominator gags. So they have already burrowed a deep channel into people’s hearts – our job is simply to connect that “Pixar place” with the Gospel.

Second, among the studios making “family films” these days, Pixar has an almost unique grasp on internal dynamics – their “anthropology” is refreshingly low. That is, the protagonists themselves tend to be their own worst enemies (Woody in Toy Story 2, Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles, Marlin in Finding Nemo, Remy in Ratatouille, the list goes on). In fact, because the primary conflicts tend to be so internal, the films are often criticized for having weak villains. It’s not a matter of a hero reaching deep inside themselves to realize their potential; instead, their adventures almost always humble them in some profound way, forcing them into a position of desperation (or repentance), where redemption, almost always in the form of some intervening event, can occur. In this sense, there’s a powerful death/resurrection thread that runs through their films.

Third and related, Pixar films touch on universal themes and concerns. They are interested in truth, in other words. Each character’s struggles and hopes become our own because they are our own. We want Wall-E to get the “girl”; we hope Marlin will lighten-up. We are swept up into the story so much that we see ourselves in the characters. So while Woody may be a pull-string toy cowboy, at its core his story of anxiety and salvation is one that indirectly resonates in a small way with our lives. The films speak on a number of different levels so that they unwittingly coax the heart and imagination of the audience. So while each movie is filled with meaning, they rarely feel like moral fables or didactic parables.

What effect have you seen this particular study have in the way that people understand and live out of the Gospel?

Well, people certainly enjoy having some fun with the Gospel. And Pixar movies are nothing if not fun. On a more serious level, we have noticed that the study has a decompartmentalizing effect. Despite the films’ fantastical elements, they are deeply concerned with the realities of loss, suffering, defeat, death even, and sometimes Christians can be very relieved to be reminded that the Gospel addresses reality, not just Christian reality. In other words, the very heartstrings that Pixar films pull on are the same heartstrings on which the message of the forgiveness of sins needs to be played. As we all know, religious folks, ourselves included, erect all sorts of religious defenses to the Gospel, often subconsciously – and I’ve noticed that they find the approach of this book helpful, that it can be an avenue for the Gospel to reach parts of the heart where the defenses are strongest. Non-believers really appreciate how we clearly love the films, and are not attempting to unfairly instrumentalize them, or assign Christian intent where there is none (which many such teaching series inadvertently do), but instead seeking to understand how the biblical diagnosis and understanding of life might resonate or interact with the Pixar one. The response has been really positive, across the board.

Do you have other “The Gospel According to…” studies available or in the works?

A few years back, we wrote a series called “The Gospel According to The Office” which people really enjoyed. It takes episodes from the first three seasons of the hit NBC TV show and located the frequently hilarious illustrations of human striving and delusion, and drew connections to the Christian message, which of course, addresses deluded and self-justifying people. It can be downloaded for free on our website www.mbird.com. We also recently completed a new series called “Good News for People with Big Problems,” which is our attempt at a heavily-illustrated basic course in Law/Gospel, theology-of-the-cross-leaning Christianity.

There are a bunch of other publications on offer, most recently a little publication called
Grace in Addiction: What the Church Can Learn from Alcoholics Anonymous but that’s not really a series. In the works right now is a series called “God Gave Rock N Roll To You” which should be available sometime next year. A similar series about Seinfeld has also been bandied about, but there are no firm plans as of yet.

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A Cultural Mirror?

I’ve never watched the TV show Glee. However, a friend forwarded a couple of interesting takes on a recent episode of this teen life series. One character, a gay atheist (Kurt), encounters friends who are evangelical stereotypes. In one poignant scene, a girl invites Kurt to church and says it’s OK if he doesn’t believe in God, as long as he still believes in something “sacred.” Carefully avoiding Jesus songs, she joins the praise band and dedicates “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” to Kurt.

Over at the Christian Century blog, Steve Thorngate offered this interesting evaluation:

Once again, pop culture offers us more-or-less-evangelical Christianity meeting the secular other in the gauzy common ground of vaguely spiritual friendship. The writers’ insistent respect for all their characters (at least the adolescent ones) serves them well in this episode. But it would have been more interesting if its treatment of faith boiled down to something richer than simply dissolving the tension between those who talk to their personal friend Jesus and those who think that’s kind of stupid.

Though I agree with Thorngate’s take, I can’t help but think that the evangelical stereotype works because there’s enough truth in it. Judging by the recent Pew study (see Shane Rosenthal’s post), meeting non-Christians “in the gauzy common ground of vaguely spiritual friendship” is pretty much the norm. In that study, atheists and agnostics knew the Bible and Christian doctrine better than evangelical Christians. (Jews and Mormons came in second, evangelical Protestants came in third, and mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics were neck-and-neck with people identified as “no religion.”)

Is pop culture doing another number on us? Or is it just mirroring back to us the shallow sub-culture that we’ve created?

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Sneak Peak

Always ReformedYesterday, I alerted you to the new book of essays honoring W. Robert Godfrey, president and professor of church history at Westminster Seminary California. Have you ordered your copy, yet? Today, I want to give you a sneak peak at the book. Here is the Table of Contents. How many MR and WHI people can you recognize?

Preface: Our Man Godfrey—R. Scott Clark

I. Historical

1. Christology and Pneumatology: John Calvin, the Theologian of the Holy Spirit—Sinclair B. Ferguson

2. Make War No More? The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of J. Gresham Machen’s Warrior Children—D. G. Hart

3. God as Absolute and Relative, Necessary, Free, and Contingent: the Ad Intra-Ad Extra Movement of Seventeenth-Century Reformed Language About God—Richard A. Muller

4. “Magic and Noise:” Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America—R. Scott Clark

5. Karl Barth and Modern Protestantism: The Radical Impulse—Ryan Glomsrud

II. Theological

6. Reformed and Always Reforming—Michael S. Horton

7.  Calvin, Kuyper, and “Christian Culture”—David VanDrunen

8. History and Exegesis: The Interpretation of Romans 7:14–25 from Erasmus to Arminius—Joel E. Kim

9. John Updike’s Christian America—John R. Muether

III. Ecclesiastical

10. The Reformation, Luther, and the Modern Struggle for the Gospel—R. C. Sproul

11. The Reformation of the Supper—Kim Riddlebarger

12. Preaching the Doctrine of Regeneration in a Christian Congregation— Hywel R. Jones

13. Integration, Disintegration, and Reintegration: A Preliminary History of the United Reformed Churches in North America—Cornelis P. Venema

14. Epilogue: The Whole Counsel of God: Courageous Calvinism for a New Century—W. Robert Godfrey

You can also hear the editors of the volume, Scott Clark and Joel Kim, talk about the book in the most recent edition of the podcast from Westminster Seminary, Office Hours.

You can see some pictures from the morning the seminary presented the book to Dr. Godfrey here.

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A Great Book for a Great Man

Always ReformedThe Rev. Dr. W. Robert Godfrey is president and professor of church history at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), where Mike Horton teaches apologetics and systematic theology. This week, the faculty and friends of the seminary honored Dr. Godfrey with a collection of essays presented to him on his sixty-fifth birthday. That book, Always Reformed, is now available exclusively through the Westminster California bookstore.

We commend the book to you for a variety of reasons: First, you will find in it accessible and learned essays from theologians, historians, and churchmen who have written for Modern Reformation and who have appeared as guests on the White Horse Inn. Like Dr. Godfrey, the contributors to this volume have provided the theological foundation for much of our work as an organization.

Second, the book provides an overview of this “Reformed moment”: because of his leadership in the Dutch Reformed churches and because of his teaching at both Westminster in Philadelphia and Westminster in Escondido, Dr. Godfrey has been on the inside of much of the Reformed resurgence. The results aren’t always what he would have hoped for, I’m sure, but in God’s providence, Dr. Godfrey has been a leader in a movement that continues to bear significant fruit through multiple denominations, such that even Time magazine can call it a significant cultural force!

Third, this book gives you a sense of the kind of man Dr. Godfrey is. Seminary presidents have to be so many things to so many people that upon achieving the position, they often lose the qualities that commended them for the position in the first place. Such is not the case for Dr. Godfrey. These essays–even though they don’t explicitly take up Dr. Godfrey’s work as a historian, seminary president, or churchman–give us a glimpse into the kinds of passions and heartfelt convictions that have made Dr. Godfrey a force beyond the quiet suburb of Escondido, California.

One of the great evenings of my life was spent dining with Dr. Godfrey and another young pastor, a seminary classmate who like me was about to launch into public ministry. For hours we enjoyed good food, good drink, and good conversation with “Bob” (as he insisted we call him, but which I cannot still). We said goodnight knowing that we had been enriched, filled not just with food and drink but with the kind of encouragement that has made Dr. Godfrey a valued member of the Reformed community.

He is a historian, a pastor, a seminary president, a professor, a member of the Ligonier board, a council member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, a frequent speaker at conferences around the world. We’re proud that for nearly twenty years, we’ve been honored to feature his voice in the pages of Modern Reformation and on the White Horse Inn broadcast. Order the book today. And while you wait for it to arrive, check out these articles from the Modern Reformation archive.

“Creed without Chaos: Exploring Theology in the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers” by Laura K. Simmons (Book Review) – Jan./Feb. 2006 Vol: 15 Num: 1

A Reformed Dream (Sidebar) – Sept./Oct. 2005 Vol: 14 Num: 5

Calvin on the Eucharist – May/June 1997 Vol: 6 Num: 3

Christ In the Heidelberg Catechism – March/April 1993 Vol: 2 Num: 2

Finding True Peace with God – March/April 2002 Vol: 11 Num: 2

Music Acceptable to God: An Argument for Greater Use of the Psalms – Nov./Dec. 1999 Vol: 8 Num: 6

Neither Individualism Nor Statism: Kuyper on Christian Concern for Laborers – May/June 1999 Vol: 8 Num: 3

Point of Contact: “The Peculiar Life of Sundays” by Stephen Miller (Book Review) – July/August 2009 Vol: 18 Num: 4

Reflections on John Updike (1932-2009) – July/August 2009 Vol: 18 Num: 4

The Myth of Influence – Sept./Oct. 1998 Vol: 7 Num: 5

TV Church – Nov./Dec. 1993 Vol: 2 Num: 6

What Does It Mean to Praise?: A Look at Psalm 150 – Jan./Feb. 1996 Vol: 5 Num: 1

What is the Future of Evangelicalism?: On Evangelicalism – Nov./Dec. 2008 Vol: 17 Num: 6

Who Was Arminius? – May/June 1992 Vol: 1 Num: 3

Why Baptism? – May/June 1997 Vol: 6 Num: 3

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Looking Down [A Few Verses] Might Be Good

The theme running throughout the White Horse Inn broadcasts and Modern Reformation issues this year has been “Recovering Scripture.” Such a recovery is needed in many areas of our doctrine of Scripture as has been pointed out many times this year already. However, under-girding all of these discussions is a desire to have Scripture properly interpreted. There are many directions one could go in a discussion about “hermeneutics” (the interpretation of Scripture), but the most basic is that a passage needs to be read in context. To isolate (a.k.a. rip, tear, wrench) a particular text from its context may mean that the interpretation that one arrives at can be severely flawed and damage can be done to the clear meaning of Scripture not to mention the application that is drawn for the hearers/readers of such an interpretation.

One of the easiest contexts to look at is the immediate context–what does the rest of the chapter, section, or book say that can give insight into a particular passage? Now this may seem obvious to many of you, but yet it isn’t always done in the church today.

I subscribe to a daily devotional from a very popular pastor today. The body of the e-mail contains a Scripture passage (rarely does this ever span more than one verse), the devotional itself (containing a brief explanation of the passage and then application), and finally a prayer (I rarely can stomach getting this far). Every morning I cringe at what I am about to read. Most often the text is totally misinterpreted in a “word of faith/name-it-claim-it” direction which is to be expected from this pastor, but there are times when this pastor has so blatantly missed the immediate context of the passage he is looking at that it needs to be called out.

Do All That is in Your Heart

Scripture

“Then Nathan said to David, Do all that is in your heart, for God is with you” (I Chronicles 17:2).

Today’s Word from ____

What is in your heart today? What are the dreams and desires deep on the inside of you? Maybe you want to start a business, or ministry, or go back to school. Whatever is in your heart, ask the Lord to confirm it to you. God leads us by desires, but we have to first submit our desires to Him. Sometimes we have to allow Him to change our desires, but know that He is always out for your good. It says in the book of Psalms that God gives us the desires of our heart. That means He places desires within us then brings them to pass so that we can live a fulfilled life here on earth. I believe David did this very thing. He was known as a man after God’s own heart. He submitted His heart to the Lord, and then Nathan came along and said, “Yes. Do what is in your heart. God is with you.” Whatever is in your heart today, submit it to the Lord. Trust that He is out for your good and working behind the scenes on your behalf. As you put your faith and trust in Him, He will guide you in the life of victory He has in store for you! (emphasis added)

If you aren’t familiar with 1 Chronicles 17, here are the first four verses:

1 Now when David lived in his house, David said to Nathan the prophet, “Behold, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of the covenant of the LORD is under a tent.” 2 And Nathan said to David, “Do all that is in your heart, for God is with you.” 3 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan, 4 “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: It is not you who will build me a house to dwell in.’ (1 Chronicles 17:1-4 ESV).

So David wanted to build a house for the Lord, and he mentioned it to Nathan. Nathan said go ahead and do it (as this “devotional” pointed out). However, Nathan was wrong!! Even though he was a prophet of the Lord, he merely assumed that this would please the Lord. God came to Nathan that night and told him that the desires of David’s heart WERE NOT God’s desires and that in this matter God WAS NOT with David as this pastor requires to make his message sound in accord with Scripture. Later in 1 Chronicles chapter 17, Nathan tells David all the words of the Lord (v 15) which leads to a beautiful prayer of David recognizing that God is going to build a house for David not David building a house for the Lord (vv 16-27). Taken out of its immediate (the next two verses are pretty immediate!) context this passage can be used–no, twisted–to justify doing whatever our hearts desire because it must be from the Lord.

I hope it is clear from the example above that seeing the immediate context helps prevent us from making a determination about a particular text that is clearly not what the text has to say to us, let alone the original audience. However, not looking at the immediate context actually give more work to the interpreter. There are places in Scripture where one text is expressly explained by another text. This can be seen most clearly in some of the parables of Christ given in the Gospels. (Note: the WHI will be doing a six-part series on the parables from October 10-31.) All of the Synoptic Gospels include Jesus’ own explanation of the “Parable of the Sower” (see Matt 13:18-23; Mark 4:13-20; Luke 8:11-15) which is a great benefit to us as a guide to how the parables themselves are to be interpreted.

When you are looking at the parables one of the things that an interpreter needs to do is determine what the characters and the items in the parable represent. Doing this task has led many to wrongly interpret the parables, but at times these people do way more work than they have to.

Here is our second example of missing the context:

When Weeds Spring Up

Scripture

“Jesus told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away’” (Matthew 13:24, NIV).

Today’s Word from _____

Jesus is telling a parable in Matthew 13 about a man who went out to his field and planted wheat in the ground. He sowed good seed. This represents that he was doing the right thing, honoring God with his life, and being good to others. But while he slept, an enemy came in and planted weeds. The man didn’t know what had happened. He was expecting to have a great harvest; after all, he did all the right things. But the weeds sprang up among his wheat.

Sometimes, things happen in life. Weeds spring up that we didn’t have anything to do with. The key is to keep the right attitude and keep focusing on the goodness of God. When these unexpected challenges happen, we can say, “It’s just another weed. I didn’t sow it. I don’t have to reap it.” Then we can keep the door open for God to move on our behalf.

Today, don’t let the weeds take root. Don’t let discouragement creep in. Instead, lift up your eyes of faith to what your father God can do for you. Keep believing, keep praying, and keep hoping because your harvest is on the way! (emphasis added)

The passage cited comes from the “Parable of the Weeds” in Matthew 13:24-30. This interpreter did the hard work and came up with his own identifications in the parable. We are the man, what we plant are our “good deeds,” and the weeds are “unexpected challenges.” Once I read this I opened my Bible and turned to Matthew 13. My eyes skimmed over the headings and I found “The Parable of the Weeds Explained” just five verses later!! Again the immediate context was missed. Let’s see a more authoritative interpretation of this parable:

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear (Matthew 13:36-43).

Wow!! Instead of a “parable” focusing totally on man and what we are doing, Christ says this parable is about himself, the kingdom of God, and the close of the age. What a total contrast from what the devotional said this parable is about! The “application” we are to draw from this parable is completely different as well.

Devotional – “Today, don’t let the weeds take root. Don’t let discouragement creep in. Instead, lift up your eyes of faith to what your father God can do for you. Keep believing, keep praying, and keep hoping because your harvest is on the way!”

Christ – “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.”

One talks about a harvest of personal blessing today, whereas the other tells about a harvest that will come at the end of time with eternal significance. If you happen to feel blessed now, then you don’t need the interpretation of the devotional. However, Christ’s interpretation of this parable needs to be heard by all men and women everywhere and in every time because “law-breakers” are liable to the fire of God’s wrath. But the good news is that in Christ God’s people have been planted as children of the kingdom, are counted righteous, and will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

So what are we to do? God’s Word is the final authority and everything that is preached “in the name of the Lord” needs to conform to Scripture. This is one of the roles that elders are to have in the church-to maintain the purity of the preached Word. However, laypeople too can do this. Listen to what Acts 17:11 says, “Now these Jews [from Berea] were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”

You might be thinking that what I have presented here is a worst case scenario picking out two specific devotionals. I really do hope and pray that this is the case; however, my wife heard a sermon while visiting a large Evangelical mega-church where the pastor stopped his Scripture reading one verse short. By doing so all he preached on was man’s duty (law) instead of what God has done through Christ (the Gospel).

James 3:1 gives some very humbling (and scary) words concerning teachers of God’s people, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” The pastor who wrote this devotional and who millions of people hear every week will be held accountable for these blatantly false interpretations of Scripture and he will be judged with a greater strictness. Paul tells the young minister Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). This is the goal of anybody who steps into a pulpit (I guess now days it “steps behind a pulpit” if there is one in the first place): we are not to be ashamed because we rightly handled the word of truth. The same cannot be said for the examples given here.

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Glenn Beck’s Jesus

Glen Beck is quickly becoming the Oprah of the Right, at least when it comes to books he mentions and approves: they experience a meteoric rise from obscurity to the bestseller list. As part of Beck’s continuing (and cringe-inducing) God-talk, he mentioned a book recently titled, The Greatest Words Ever Spoken: Everything Jesus Said About You, Your Life, and Everything Else by Steven K. Scott. Steven K. Scott is also the author of several other similar sounding books: The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: King Solomon’s Secrets to Success, Wealth, and Happiness and The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived: Secrets for Unparalleled Success and Unshakeable Happiness from the Life of Jesus.

Just writing the titles is enough to make you gag.

What’s wrong with these kinds of books? Not least is that they make Jesus a philosopher, a guidance counselor, and a life-coach, when he really is Lord and Redeemer. In many ways, Scott and others like him stand in the stead of Thomas Jefferson who created his own Bible, filled with the teachings of Jesus but devoid of the miracles of Jesus. Jefferson considered Jesus a great moral example but had no time for the rest of the Bible’s teaching on sin, judgment, grace, and recreation.

It’s not surprising that Beck would endorse such a book. It fits perfectly with his emphases on moral revival and self-help patriotism. This is the kind of Jesus that Beck’s “Black Robe Brigade” can get behind.  After all, even rabbis and imams can recognize and appreciate a Jesus filled with common sense wisdom about morality, success, and wisdom. Such a Jesus isn’t offensive, but thankfully such a Jesus never walked the earth.

There’s a darker side to all of this. What happens when one attempts to live by the Law, even if it’s dressed up with promises of success rather than threats of judgment? Consider this comment from an Amazon.com reviewer:

Wouldn’t recommend the book. Seller was excellent tho. Lost faith in God and will probably put this book up to resell. Seems like it repeats a lot. Maybe I just read the gospels and many events are recounted each time. If you are a Christian I think you would like having this, I personally have felt like Job much too long and have given up on God’s “favor and blessing”. Better luck to whoever reads this.

God’s favor and blessing aren’t found in unparalleled success and unshakeable happiness, but in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Any attempts to find God’s blessings or general wisdom for living outside of that historical reality will only lead to failure and condemnation.

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The Myth of Neutrality

Christopher Hitchens is dying of cancer.  You know Hitchens, of course, as one of our era’s most infamous atheists. He is the author of God Is Not Great and makes frequent appearances in the pages of Vanity Fair and Atlantic Monthly. Hitchens was recently interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper about his battle with cancer. He told Cooper that despite facing death, he still doesn’t pray and he will not pray. So, he said, we shouldn’t believe any reports about a deathbed conversion; he is secure in his nonbelief.  When asked about the reports of groups of Christians who are praying for his health, Hitchens expressed gratitude for their kind thoughts but said that they shouldn’t waste their breath praying to a God who does not exist.

Hitchens, a former socialist turned conservative commentator, has spent the better part of the last ten years as an advocate for what has become known as the “New Atheism.” The so-called “New Atheists” are not just blandly agnostic or politely atheistic. They are militantly atheistic, relentlessly in-your-face with their rejection not just of Christianity but any form of theism.  They present a special challenge to American Christians who have long enjoyed a place of privilege: even where Christianity was rejected, it has been given a place of honor among competing religious philosophies. It has had a sort of first among equals approach that has lifted Christianity above the fray and removed it from the kind of criticism that it must now bear.

With the rise of the New Atheism and the willingness of writers like Christopher Hitchens to actively and relentlessly criticize Christianity, we have entered into a new era. I, for one, welcome it: not least because the New Atheists have done us all a significant favor by deconstructing the myth of neutrality.  By the myth of neutrality I mean that belief that asserts religion is a personal matter, that it doesn’t matter if you are religious or not, and that being religious or nonreligious makes no real difference in one’s life.  The New Atheists have not been satisfied with saying that religion is banal or meaningless. They believe that religion is a menace. Because of this belief, it is not enough for them to not be religious themselves. They work hard to convince others not just of the foolishness of religion but also of its danger.

Unfortunately as our interview with Kenda Creasy Dean revealed, the church is facing an epidemic of unbelief and apostasy among its teens and young adults. As a pastor, I see evidence of this trend first hand: teens flirting with unbelief, thinking about rejecting Christianity because they wonder if it really matters what they believe. When I ask, “why are you considering walking away from what you once professed?”, the response is usually an apathetic shrug. “It just doesn’t matter,” people say. “It doesn’t matter if Christianity is true. I just want to live my life my way without reference to God.”

And this is why we must be forever grateful to the New Atheists. They say, it does matter: it’s a matter of life and death. According to writers like Christopher Hitchens, religion (Christianity, even) is hateful, violent, and dangerous. It is not enough in their view to be apathetic toward it, you must actively resist and reject it; you cannot be neutral.

This is what the Bible says, too. There is no neutrality when it comes to God.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.  For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23)

According to the Bible everyone, everywhere has an innate knowledge of God. Everyone knows something about God (specifically, his eternal power and divine nature). That knowledge, however, is suppressed. Humankind attempts to bury that knowledge beneath a sea of false worship.  This means that apathetic agnostics and atheists old and new are not merely ignorant of God, they are actively resisting and defying what they know to be true.

I’ve been thinking about this as I work through the Book of Exodus with my congregation. Specifically, I think that this truth gives us insight to how Pharaoh answers Moses in Exodus 5:2. In Exodus 5, Moses and Aaron are making their first appearance before Pharaoh, requesting time for Israel to travel into the wilderness to worship the Lord. In response, Pharaoh asks, “Who is the Lord?”  What sort of question is this? Is it a reflection of Pharaoh’s ignorance of his Hebrew slaves’ religion? No, this isn’t ignorance. Pharaoh is defiantly rejecting God. He not only claims to not know the Lord, he refuses to obey his voice and asserts his own authority in response to the prophet’s message from God.  Although the original Hebrew lacks emoticons, it’s not too difficult for us to hear Pharaoh sneer as he asks, “Who is the Lord?”

Pharaoh is a clear example for us of those who not only refuse to acknowledge God but actively resist him. Pharaoh’s unbelief is an expression of rebellion against the God that he innately knows.  But Pharaoh doesn’t just reject the natural revelation that he can observe in the creation and that is written on his conscience.  Pharaoh is also rejecting special revelation from Moses and Aaron.  The prophet of God has spoken, giving Pharaoh a direct and personal message. But Pharaoh compounds his guilt by rejecting not just the shadow of knowledge he has of God, but even the clear knowledge.

This defiance of God leads to the brutal oppression that Pharaoh unleashes against Israel. It isn’t enough for Pharaoh to dismiss two crazed prophets of a deity he doesn’t know. He must also persecute and torment the people who did profess to know this God. In so doing, Pharaoh shows us how the “myth of neutrality” gives way to the tragic trajectory of unbelief: Unbelief cannot stop at a mere intellectual rejection of God. Since such intellectual rejection isn’t neutral, you must fill in the vacuum with something to worship. In Pharaoh’s case, he had plenty of idols to worship, but more than anything was his own enthronement of self-determination: rejecting God’s voice and directive he asserts his own authority, and he unleashes his power in defiance of God.  That final act of aggression is the end result of intellectual rejection.

If you are toying with belief in God, thinking about rejecting him in order to determine your own life, know that in the end you will not be mildly opposed to Christianity or even apathetic toward it. The path of rejection leads to oppression and persecution. Unable to quiet the persistent testimony of nature and conscience, those who reject God must unleash their rage against God and his people. This is why Christians are persecuted around the world. This is why you are mocked and made fun of by your nonChristian friends. Those who lash out against God and his people are demonstrating how Exodus 5 is still relevant to us today: there is no neutrality with God.

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