Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Archive for the ‘Contend for the Gospel’ Category

Impeaching Dead Presidents

APOTHEOSIS OF GEORGE

Mood swings are part of the human condition.  So it’s no surprise that the history of the human race is also marked by wild, irrational tides sweeping in extreme directions. Back in 1863, Americans wanted to honor George Washington prominently in the newly completed US Capitol building.  A renowned artist was commissioned to paint a fresco on the underside of the capitol dome.  Today you can still marvel at The Apotheosis of George Washington that depicts the first president elevated to the status of a god and seated among divine beings in the heavens.  Don’t miss the point: he’s seated in Heaven as a god, not a saint!

It’s a majestic fresco, but I’ve always hated it.  There’s only one God and his name is not George.  Indeed, Mr. Washington was a modest man who would never have tolerated such an irreverent comparison during his lifetime.  But by the 1860’s the country was emotionally charged, war drums were already pounding, and the impeccable character of the late first president was one of few things everyone could agree on.

So it’s painful to see angry mobs running toward the other extreme today.  We all agree that slavery is the darkest blot on the history of our nation, and it’s on the record that George Washington was one of many who owned slaves in the colonies.  Amazingly, even some well-educated Americans have actually been caught up in the delusion that this sin outweighs everything else the man ever did.  It matters not that he fought to win our liberty, or served as a unifying first president, or even that he refused to be crowned king for life! The rumbling has already begun that statues must come down; schools and institutions must be renamed.  To some, George Washington is nothing more than a despised human trafficker and a disgrace.

As Christians, you and I appreciate the simple principle that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Even saints have sinned.  The only reason any of us can ever stand before God hopeful and unashamed is that someone has carried our condemnation for us.  Christ has exchanged his righteousness for our fetid rags of guilt and shame. That’s why Scripture never conceals the fact that David committed adultery with the wife of one of his oldest and most loyal generals.  Worse still, he finally ordered the death of that trusted friend in order to conceal the illicit pregnancy and claim the woman for himself.  How can it be that God is a holy God and yet David can be described as a man after His own heart?  Grace is messy.

So it’s actually ungodly to demand that capable leaders must also be morally flawless in order to serve their country.  Nobody is.  That explains why a woman caught in adultery walked away unharmed after Jesus concurred with her death sentence, but insisted the first stone should be cast by someone who had never sinned.

It’s also outrageous and irrational to judge historical figures by present day standards that evolved in a different environment decades later.  Many of us in 2017 are offended by President Roosevelt’s order that Japanese-Americans should be rounded up and relocated at the onset of World War II, but we have the advantage of knowing how everything turned out.  He made that call in different circumstances under unimaginable pressure. We cringe when we read about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but President Truman had to sign that order back in 1945 having been advised that the military invasion of Japan could result in another 4 million casualties and 800,000 additional deaths among US fighting forces.  Wouldn’t it be grand if you and I could delay all our hard choices fifty years until we could confirm how everything had turned out?

The desire to erase painful national history is rooted in ignorance and immaturity. History is dead and gone, for better or worse.  Bad history doesn’t enslave and destroy people, but bad memory can.  There’s a reason we build Holocaust Museums.  We say “Never Forget,” so that it will never be tolerated again.  The same should be true of slavery.  Let’s not deceive ourselves with the illusion that great people are not capable of serious mistakes.  We all are.

The irony here is so rich.  Matthew 7 doesn’t actually command us not to judge other people, as is commonly suggested.  In context, it reminds us not to judge unfairly; not to hold others to unrealistic standards we could never meet in our own lives.  Christ’s warning is that people who judge unfairly will be held to the same unjust standards.  So the angry idealists assailing Washington and Jefferson are doing precisely what the Bible warns against.   Witch hunts can feel unifying and even satisfying in the moment.  They invariably lead to painful history, easier to prevent than erase.

And lift up the Cross!

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Starry Eyed for Islam

STARRY EYED FOR ISLAM

Why does the American Left feel so much affection for Islam?  It’s a question often raised but seldom answered.  It seems impossible to explain the passionate bond that has been forged between US liberals who demand sexual freedom and a religion that compels women to wear burkas and condemns homosexuals.  Where is the common ground between irreligious leftists who demonstrate for world peace and a religion founded by a military leader whose armies waged wars of conquest for centuries?

Twenty years ago, the Left was horrified by Christian men who attended Promise Keepers rallies. The idea of a married woman voluntarily respecting the leadership of her loving husband was an affront to the core ideals of the American left even then.  Two decades later, the same feminists who still denounce Evangelicals as “woman haters” remain strangely silent about the segregation of Muslim women from public events, or the ban against their voting or even driving in some Islamic nations.  Reasonable people might ask, “What gives?”

There’s a simple answer.  Western intellectuals are determined they will not be distracted by a secondary issue like Islam when they are finally poised to vanquish their historic foe, the Christian Faith, once and for all.  It has taken a generation to sexualize and secularize the entertainment industry that once made epics like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments the standard for great entertainment.  It was a monumental struggle to gradually remove all references to God or the Bible from public schools and the public square.  The activists of the secular left have paid their dues in the culture war against God for decades. Then just when it seemed like Christendom was ready to collapse, some unwitting Muslim extremists hijacked four commercial jets and Islam came crashing into the national debate!

How do you maintain the outrage when you spend decades warning about Christian intolerance, only to have another religious group suddenly steal the headlines by hacking off the heads of infidels and blowing up innocents?  You blame it on the Crusades.  One can hardly fault those poor young men from Saudi Arabia for striking back when sadistic Christians started it all 1,000 years ago. (The first Crusaders were deployed to defend pilgrims to Jerusalem from attacks and hostage taking at the hands of people who revered Mohammed. But let’s not be distracted by details.)

Secular progressives are apparently determined to drive their final stake in the heart of Christianity and seal that historic tomb once and for all.  This is no time to be distracted by Islamic extremists suddenly arriving on the scene.  In fact, Jihadis don’t like Christians either, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend. That’s how the religious Pharisees and the decadent Herodians bridged their mutual disgust in the First Century: Jesus was a threat to them all.

It’s tolerance with an expiration date, of course.  I believe the lords of Western culture are convinced that once they have  annihilated the Christian Faith and its ethical system, they can make short work of those poor, benighted fanatics from the Middle East.  If values-free education won’t do it, they’ll convince them that abortion is the most effective way to fight poverty.  There will be more momentum for all of that once that unsinkable Church of Jesus Christ is sunk once and for all.

This is no cause for hand wringing or a pity party among American believers.  Saints in China and India are suffering fiery persecution. Here is the West, we’ve been gored by our own golden calf.  We wanted the bling.  We were willing to be seduced by the siren call of Success. While the activists on the left went after hearts and minds, we were too busy with work and church to win anybody to Christ. We traded away our birthright for a sequined pot of designer stew, and now the world refuses to give it all back.  In fact, they wish we’d just drop dead, and they’re willing to help.

But the Gospel is about resurrection!  You and I must honor God and rediscover how the salt of the earth can change the flavor of the culture. For this reason, we love our enemies tirelessly.  We pray for those who persecute us.  One thing hasn’t changed: the Gospel still resonates in the broken human heart, and there are broken hearts scattered all across our secular wasteland.  So don’t be filled with resentment: be filled with the Spirit.

And lift up the Cross!

That Bloody Grace

 

DUNKIRK BOAT

The motion picture Dunkirk recaptures the story of how grace transformed a colossal military blunder during World War II into a historic rescue of epic proportions.  It appeared to be a moment that would cost Britain the war. More than 300,000 British and French soldiers and sailors found themselves trapped on a beach at Dunkirk, encircled by a tightening noose of Nazi troops and tank brigades intent on slaughtering them all.

An opening caption from the movie explains they were waiting for deliverance; hoping for a miracle. Their answered prayer would arrive in the form of some 700 small, privately owned boats shuttling warriors away from imminent disaster over a few days and nights.  It was a costly miracle; unarmed fishermen, merchants, and school teachers risking everything- and some losing it all– for the warriors who had marched off to war to save them in the first place.

That dimension of grace- the ominous, terrifying part– explains why we who call ourselves Evangelicals can seem so false, so inauthentic, to a skeptical world. With a wink and a smile, we sometimes reduce the extravagant gift of God to a free toy in a box of cereal. We are quick to argue that our salvation is better than recreational drugs, more thrilling than immoral sex, more satisfying than a meal at a five-star restaurant.  And God has tossed it into the box for free if you’ll say a prayer and come to church.  Open up the box, find your free gift inside, and you’ll be hap-hap-happy forevermore.

If that doesn’t sound very convincing to thoughtful people, it’s no wonder.  It’s not even persuasive to religious types who sometimes prefer not to think.

I once participated in a popular ministry that trained believers for evangelism.  It was organized around a simple outline that explained the wonder of grace, the sacrifice of Christ, and the urgency of repentance and faith.  In case a listener should confess Christ, there was a simple prayer of faith.  That was followed immediately by a brief recap of the Gospel along with directives to read the Bible and watch out for Satan.

I once heard a trainee ask a leader, “Why are the attacks by Satan not mentioned until after the personal commitment?”  The leader replied, “Well, we don’t want to discourage people.”  Maybe that’s why they become disillusioned and drop out later.  Where is all that uninterrupted peace and joy, anyhow?

I suspect skeptical Millennials and Generation Z will demand full disclosure. The gospel delivers followers of Jesus Christ to a higher quality of life, but not a perpetual Happy Hour.  Faith is not a Safe Zone; it’s never far from danger. Christians live as though something is at stake because it is.  Something very important is on the line.  Worship is a celebration, but godly living happens on a spiritual battlefield.  It’s messy.  We are compelled by love to get our hands dirty. Ask any parent: real love really hurts.

If the saga of Dunkirk remains deeply fascinating today, it’s not because the boats were so small or so numerous.  Most of those vessels had traveled the Channel before. Dunkirk captures the imagination and inspires us today because a profound catastrophe on a massive scale was about to explode on that beach in France; and because so many who could have looked away were willing, instead, to choose love over safety.  Amazing grace is always about someone who has chosen love over safety.

The battlefield where Jesus Christ won the day for us was splattered with his blood. It followed years of rejection, inconvenience, and sacrifice.  Christ even warned his disciples that very soon they, too, would be arrested, hounded, threatened, and put to death (Matthew 24:9.)  It hardly sounds like a Carribean cruise, does it?

The Lord practiced transparency: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

The grace of God is deep and awesome.  It reaches us in our darkest moments of despair.  It transports us to a life of purpose, satisfaction, celebration, friendship, and adoration. But the moments in the mountains are particularly delightful because the months in the valleys test our faith to the limits. Ultimately our saving faith is like gold, which can only be refined by fire, but which becomes more precious after it is purified.  And one day we arrive in Heaven!

So give ’em the whole gospel!  Let them see that those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. And lift up the Cross!

 

CSI: Naked and Afraid

NAKED AND AFRAID

It could be just another crime scene.  There’s a naked man, unconscious and bleeding, lying there alongside a mountain pass. Apparently, he was the victim of a robbery so there is no identification.  In Christ’s haunting saga of the Good Samaritan, the mystery is not what happened, but what happens next.  The most important clue, the detail commonly overlooked by people on the case, is one unpleasant but revealing word.

Stripped.  The Bible specifically says the robbery victim left for dead along the Jericho Road was naked.  His attackers had “stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10:30)  Gone was his prayer shawl, the tallit men of the region always wore. For Hebrew males, there was a tzitzit on each corner, a tassel that denoted reverence for God.  The Law required that Jewish men have a dark blue thread woven into the tzitzit. The Samaritans, their despised cousins, would have have been identified by a white thread in their tzitzit or perhaps light blue.  Without their traditional robes and clothing, the Jews and Samaritans looked just alike.

So the Jewish priest and the Levite did not step around the poor man, leaving him to die, because they were too busy to help a neighbor.  They couldn’t tell if the man was their neighbor or not!  Despite their calling from God to love their neighbors as themselves, their definition of “neighbor” was just too narrow to afford a stranger the benefit of the doubt.

What makes this parable so helpful and so compelling is the singular detail it does not divulge. The priest and Levite were Hebrews, and the Samaritan was obviously not Jewish. But the identity of the robbery victim is as mysterious to you and me as it was to the Samaritan arriving on the scene. Yet seeing a helpless human being in desperate need of assistance, this man from Samaria was moved with basic human kindness. We’re not even told he was a religious guy.  But here’s the bottom line: he didn’t have to rise above any feelings of resentment for an enemy.  He didn’t see an adversary.  All he could see was another man whose skin and features were mostly like his.

Love isn’t blind.  It just doesn’t need a formal introduction to act.

Writers and preachers tend to mock the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite who walk on by, but that dilutes the message.  In his telling of the story, Jesus allows us all to see the enemy, and it is us!  We have all failed at one time or another to look beyond the cultural disguises others affect in order to see the human heart that beats deep inside.  Skin-deep compassion must be a common condition.

For instance, historians tell us that young Mohammed reached out to both Christians and Jews around Mecca when he was trying to find his own spiritual bearings.  Sadly, both groups frowned upon pagans in their hometown as savages to be avoided; not neighbors to be loved and cared for.  Sadly, we know what happened next.  Even today, many of us are so agitated over Islamic extremism and open borders that we’d not only leave a Muslim-looking victim lying in the road, but we might kick him while walking past.

It’s easy to be condescending toward competitors, especially when they seem so angry. But false religion is not always a form of competition: more often it’s just a way to be connected to something instead of nothing.  And rage is frequently an expression of fear and desperation.  Of course, Islamist extremists are not seething with fury because they live in poverty; many don’t. They’re angry because they’re empty.  That spiritual hunger leaves them vulnerable to political players with personal ambitions.  They are dangerous, but they’re not really monsters.  They’re just people.

According to Jesus, loving God by loving my neighbors is the key to my faith. It’s also the key to their’s, being loved unconditionally by a fellow human being who knows Christ. As the Samaritan generously offered mercy to a fellow human being in need, let’s you and I go and do likewise.  We can take our frustrations to prayer closets and ballot boxes. Let’s take our love to the streets.

And lift up the Cross!

Jesus in the Lion’s Den

 

dreamstime_m_20815583

We were camping on the veldt in Tsavo National Park in Kenya.  Our long line of tents was set up facing an elephant watering hole about fifty yards away.  As we turned in for the night, a sentry armed with a rifle paced between the campfires burning to ward off the animals.

After 11:00 PM a solitary male lion approached our camp on his way to the waterhole. We were an unexpected barrier blocking his access; the fires and the sight of the guard all very intimidating.  So the big cat began to roar as he skulked along the rear line of our tents, first one direction and then the other, back and forth. I fell asleep to the distinctive lullaby of a snarling lion, the king of beasts expressing his violent displeasure.

It called to mind 1 Peter 5:8, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”  And it struck me, lions don’t roar when they’re hunting.  They roar when they’re angry or threatened.   When Peter warns us to be alert because Satan is like a roaring lion, he’s also tipping us off: all that racket means our adversary is angry and frustrated. It doesn’t sound like a successful hunt, does it?

That’s why we in the Kingdom continue to hear the same old snarling cliches and tired slogans recycled from Hell again and again. Don’t the enemies of Christ ever come up with new material?  If it doesn’t work the first time, then roar louder the next time, right?

Just this morning, a friend asked how to answer an insult hurled endlessly in print and conversation.  How can Christians be offended by Islamist terrorism when we did the very same things during the Crusades?  I just smiled.  In the first place, the Crusades happened a thousand years ago. How is it that people who cannot remember 9/11/01 have such vivid memories of 1095 AD?  But more importantly, the Crusades were launched as a defensive measure to resist the unrelenting slaughter and kidnapping of peaceful pilgrims hoping to visit the Holy Land and walk where Jesus walked.  The motivation was never about claiming new nations for Christ or forcing anyone to convert. The Crusaders were always a last ditch response to foreign aggression. Quite notably, the Christian pilgrims were not being killed and kidnapped by offended atheists.  (For details, read God’s Battalions, Rodney Stark’s highly acclaimed defense of the Crusades.)

Earlier this week, I found myself offering encouragement to a frustrated professional who came by my office. He had fallen away from another church years ago and was attempting to explain his rationale for rejecting the faith.  Along the way he assured me that all religions are the same: “Islamic extremists kill people but so do all those Christians who bomb abortion clinics.” I didn’t lose my smile, but I did politely interrupt.

“Which evangelical abortion clinic bombers do you have in mind?” I asked.  Abortion clinic bombings are so incredibly rare that death by falling into vats of chocolate must surely be more numerous.  And just because we know a bomber hated abortionists, doesn’t mean we know he loved Jesus.  In fact, killing innocent people is compelling evidence he didn’t know Jesus Christ and was simply deranged or just mean.  That’s a far cry from the armies of suicide bombers and masked executioners who carry the Koran and shout “Allahu Akbar,” as they wage bloody war on civilians.  The man in my office sighed as he conceded the point.

With all due respect to the sincerity of Islamic State killers and Boko Haram rapists, you don’t have to be a sociologist to recognize those kinds of activities are ghastly and unthinkable to followers of Jesus Christ! There are no Christian majority nations where angry mobs stand in the streets chanting for death to any other nation or even another religious group. Nothing could be more unlike Jesus.

Angry, snarling pagans are still trying to toss Jesus into the lions’ den.  But their arguments are toothless.  Their facts are just fake news.  And even a spoonful of Truth seasoned with gentleness and respect can often shut the mouths of the lions- or at least enlighten the spectators watching from the gallery.  Don’t be ashamed of the Gospel, and don’t let mindless slogans and bogus history lessons lie there unanswered.  But speak the truth in love, with all gentleness and respect.

And lift up the Cross!

 

Don’t Look Now, But…

 

ISIS CRUCIFIXION

When 22 people died outside a concert hall in Manchester, England, the media coverage was wall to wall.  The cry went up that something must be done! Journalists followed the investigation.  Press briefings were scheduled regularly. With broken hearts, we pored over color photographs of the victims, many of them only children, and we listened to bystanders describe their horror.  The world grieved as the story unfolded for a week.

Five days later, 29 Christians in Egypt died when terrorists attacked their bus. Forty-two others were seriously injured and the assassins got away.  That story vanished in less than 48 hours.  No color photos.  No interviews with authorities. No tragic details.

Here’s what you probably never heard.  The Christian group of parents, grandparents, and children were traveling in two buses to pray at a monastery. Their vehicles were stopped by terrorists outside the town of Minya.  After the buses were surrounded by killers, passengers on one of the buses were forced to exit the bus one by one.  As each reached the door to face masked gunmen, they were asked, “Are you Muslim?” None of them were. Each was then given a chance to renounce Jesus Christ and convert to Islam.

As each passenger confessed Christ and refused to convert, he was dragged a few feet away to be killed by either a shot in the head or a slit throat.  One at a time, nineteen adults, and ten children were ordered to become Muslims or die.  One by one they were instantly murdered.  The criminals then fired on the group in the second bus, injuring 42, before speeding away to safety.

Why are tragedies like the one in Manchester more interesting or important than massacres like the one in Minya, Egypt?  I suppose it could be racism.  Or maybe we only care about tragedies that involve celebrities and beautiful people.  But I seriously believe two reasons are more likely.

The media run away from Christian martyrs because they are a powerful witness to the Christian faith.  When random concert-goers fall prey to terror, in the wrong place at the wrong time, it makes the rest of us feel sad but lucky.  But when Christians die because they refuse to renounce their faith, it speaks to the power and the freedom ordinary people discover in Christ.  No sane person willingly dies for something he knows is a lie. Historically, seeing the deaths of Christian martyrs has inspired others to follow the Savior as well.  The secular media wants no part of anything like that!  So a vague headline about people dying in a bus attack manages to cover the bad news without accentuating the Good News.

Christians in America turn their backs as well because stories about martyrs in other lands reflect poorly on the quality our faith here in the West.  In persecution lands, believers risk their lives and the safety of their children to attend worship services and even public prayer times. They worship Christ in the open, fully aware that churches and Christian gatherings are soft targets. But in the Land of the Free, we casually skip worship on Sundays to take our kids to soccer practice or recover from a mild headache.  Just imagine, if youth sports leagues existed in Minya, Egypt, those unfortunate children could have saved their lives by skipping church and going to play soccer instead!

In America, churches report that “regular worship attendance” is now defined as twice a month.  Think about it: when worshipers in Egypt and China become as committed to Christ as we are, the rate of martyrdom could be slashed by half!

The most difficult question facing the American church today is not “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  We already know the answer to that question: character, faith and the purposes of God.  The harder question is this one: What is a Christian, anyway?

Jesus said no one can come after him without first being willing to deny self, pick up a cross, and follow.  In the religious ghetto of American life, that particular Bible verse is just about as welcome as stories of Egyptian children who are willing to die violently before disappointing Jesus.

To hear the companion message, click Waging Peace

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

 

Never Die

DEAD MAN WALKING

“We will make death optional.”  That’s the promise of some trendy research scientists who met in Silicon Valley not long ago.  The New Yorker described the chatter at a cocktail party where millions of dollars were being raised to fund the effort.  “We can end aging forever.”

It turns out that writer wasn’t hopeful we’ll ever actually see the God Pill that has generated such hype.  It would necessarily be produced by the pharmaceutical industry.  And the only way Big Pharma makes the big bucks is through healing diseases.  It defies logic and human nature that they might create a pill that would send them all out of business!  Let not your heart be troubled.

Think about this: the longer you stay on the Earth, the longer you’re away from Heaven.  I mean, I’m happy to do my duty here and put in my time: maybe 80  years or possibly 100.  But I’ve got bigger plans.

Last week at a neighborhood market, our checkout line was delayed endlessly by a customer with coupons, and a handwritten check, and lots of questions about prices.  As I finally reached the cashier, she shrugged and said, “I’m sorry you had to wait so long.”

I smiled and replied, “It’s okay.  I’m going to live forever.”  And I wasn’t being sarcastic.

That’s the ultimate fulfillment of the Christian Faith, is not?  We’re not here to learn how to have glam relationships or make tons of money.  We weren’t sent here to party or maintain tanned hardbodies.  Even pagans can do all those things without a mustard seed of faith or even a molecule of worship!  We’re here on TDY, to represent the Kingdom until we get to go home.

What was it Jesus told his grieving friend Martha? “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”  Call me crazy: I believe it. (John 11: 25 – 26) 

Eternal Life is not some spiritualized myth wrapped up in a paradox to calm our anxieties. It’s why the first century Christians were willing to die at the hands of angry Jews and corrupt Romans.  They didn’t forfeit anything: they were trading up for something better.

  • It’s why you and I can turn the other cheek, pray for those who persecute us, give to any who ask, and confess Christ even in the face of execution.
  • It’s why we don’t mind walking away from privileges, pleasures or property here: because God will overcompensate us there.

The way some church people suppress all mention of Heaven and the great hereafter makes you wonder what they seriously believe.  There’s no doubt what Paul believed.  “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15: 17 – 19)

I’m not going to hold my breath until Silicon Valley delivers the God Pill.  By the grace of God, I’ve gotten to know the God-Man.  When life finally gives me its worst, the LORD is prepared to offer me His Best.  There’s no greater confidence than that.

So don’t be ashamed to let your neighbors and co-workers know what gives you so much confidence and joy.  It’s not because you go to church.  It’s because of what you’ve been promised by the guy who started The Church. (The One who made Sunday famous!)

You can listen to the companion message that inspired this blog.  Click Never Die.

Lift up the Cross!

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