Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Archive for the ‘The Bible’ Category

Lethal Injection and Legal Crucifixion

BEHIND BARS

I lost my enthusiasm for capital punishment just about a decade ago.  For most of my life, I had assumed the death penalty must be okay because it has the Old Testament stamp of approval.  Then as I was doing some research for a Bible Study on John 8, Christ’s defense of the woman caught in adultery struck a nerve.

Don’t misunderstand: Christ never condemns capital punishment.  He came to fulfill the Old Covenant, not abandon it.  But when a “lynch mob” approaches the Lord asking for his verdict on a woman they’ve just caught in adultery, he apparently notices the injustice the narrative makes so clear.  If the woman is guilty because she was actually caught in the act of adultery, where is the man who was obviously in bed with her?

Jesus seems to affirm capital punishment when he suggests it’s okay to follow through and stone her.  But he adds that telling caveat, “But let one of you who has never sinned cast the first stone.” (John 8:7)  This underscores the problem of selective condemnation; a practice he denounces on other occasions as well.

  • Don’t condemn others for sinful behavior you practice as well.
  • Don’t destroy someone else for an offense you have often committed in your heart.
  • And of course, the clear implication here is that we shouldn’t execute a woman caught in adultery if we allow her partner in sin to walk away in freedom.

To borrow a phrase from American liberalism, capital punishment should be legal but rare.  (I feel the same way about war.) It should be rare because compelling DNA evidence and reliable eye witnesses are frequently not available.  Because of faulty memories, political pressures, and lingering racism, it’s apparently not so hard for an innocent man to find himself locked away on in an American prison.  It’s bad enough to lose twenty years of your life for a crime you didn’t commit; worse still to be rushed off into eternity with no chance to ever correct that injustice.

Of all people, Christians should be most sensitive to the possibility of an innocent victim being wrongly convicted and sentenced to lethal injection or a firing squad or a cross.  It happened to Jesus.  What’s more, in recent years groups like the Innocence Project have seen dozens of wrongfully accused men and women finally set free from prisons- some from death row.

I suppose extreme measures could still be legal for profound cruelty that goes beyond the pale.  A civilized society might decide to execute serial killers or terrorists who brutally murder scores of innocent victims.  A nation does have divine authority to wage war and execute justice in defense of its citizens.  One might draw a bright clear line in the sand, but the standards for imposing capital punishment should be more bullet proof than those for sending someone to prison. The evidence should leave no doubt the defendant is absolutely the one.

So I’m troubled by the news from Arkansas that eight inmates are about to be executed in 11 days before the state’s supply of potassium chloride expires.  The governor says it’s necessary; that many of these men have occupied death row cells for more than twenty years.  Perhaps, but it looks like a celebration of death by government. It naturally arouses the dread that destroying eight human lives with a hasty deadline in mind must surely increase the odds that a wrongly accused man gets the ax.

Okay, maybe that’s emotional, but I get emotional about unborn babies as well. We’re talking about human life here. And it seems to me that the sanctity of human life relates to more than the issue of who is responsible for what happens to a human in a womb. Being pro-life means I also care about what happens to a human being in a death row holding cell. If there is a chance he’s an innocent man, it’s unjust and irreverent to impose a penalty that could never be corrected.

Lift up the Cross!

Lights Out!

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Have you ever awakened from a nightmare so jarring that your heart continued to race even after you opened your eyes?  What now?  Like most people, you probably reached over and switched on the lamp.  Within two seconds, those clarifying beams of light had cast out the darkness and vaporized those lingering gremlins.

Jesus called his followers the light of the world.  “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden,” he explained.  “Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (Matthew 5: 14 – 15)

The Lord has a simple point: don’t conceal your power.  And yet we do.  For instance:

I bury the light of Christ when I suppose unbelievers need to be reassured I’m just like them.  Where did I get this deadly idea that being transparent means I show off my sin nature?  I struggle to be completely inoffensive by laughing off self-destructive behavior, winking at temptations, and self-censoring every honest word that might possibly reveal how differently I see life!

  • The problem here is that unchurched people don’t really fear that Christians aren’t like them.
  • They are actually convinced we are just like them- except that we pretend to believe quirky, obscure religious ideas that make us strangely nervous when we talk about them. Nobody takes that stuff seriously.

My witness is more compelling when neighbors and co-workers realize I care about them even though I am quite different from them.  Because I believe the most important assets in life are spiritual and supernatural, I reject materialism.  I am completely convinced that I’m going to live forever- just like Jesus promised those who live in him.  I believe that God has high expectations for me, so I make demands of myself even as I show grace to everybody else.  I can smile through my tears because God is in control.

My unchurched neighbors don’t really believe Christians are never sad: they just think we’re hypocrites with synthetic smiles.  It’s harder to dismiss my story when it’s apparent that I sometimes experience sadness or frustration: I just refuse to be ruled by misguided emotions.

No wonder multitudes aren’t streaming into American churches for answers: they don’t have any questions!  We in the Church have convinced ourselves that the only way to get close to lost people is to turn off the light!  “They don’t know Jesus! Hurry! Lights out!” I dare not let them see that I’m different!  Put a bag on it!

That’s why lost people assume we’re just like them- except that we go to churches on Sunday mornings to talk about religious ideas we don’t honestly believe. Why would they possibly aspire to change anything to become more like us?  In our hearts, it’s painfully clear we’re already just like them.

Let’s you and I do something radical and unsettling for Easter.  Tell someone you care about that you’re going to live forever!  Smile and trust God’s promises even when your heart is broken. Define what holy really means and then explain why it hurts so good. Let your transparent life raise questions in the hearts and minds of the clueless.

Turn on the Light and leave ’em wondering!

Lift up the Cross!

Wishful Blindness

SAD GIRLShe could be your daughter. Perhaps she’s one of your friends.  She’s an extraordinary girl in many ways, but there are girls like her everywhere. She believes she is a liberated woman.  You can see she’s trapped.

She’s like a lot of other girls, a victim of her own wishful blindness. She is entangled in the spell of an angry young man.  On occasional Friday nights, he seems like the strong, masculine presence who can cradle her in feelings of safety and belonging.  But most times he’s only selfish, tense, distant, distracted, and ungrateful.

She insists they’re not ready for marriage, all the obligations and burdens you accept in exchange for something that’s just a piece of paper.  Yeah, except she’s ready.  It’s why she waits for him to come home at night, does his laundry, straightens the apartment, and helps pay his bills.  If she weren’t ready for commitment, she would have already given up on him.

Her wishful blindness came to mind last week as I read through John 12.  Jesus laments that he’d give anything to rescue the trapped, self-destructive Israelites crowding the streets of the city all around him.  “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.” (John 12:40)

Anybody can see the power of God and the glory of eternity in this one of a kind rabbi named Jesus; anybody except all his wishfully blind countrymen who are so afraid of change that they continue to give a dead end avenue one more chance- and another, and another. This kind of blindness is sometimes confused with fearlessness, but in fact it’s nothing more than undiluted dread, the terror of coming up empty.

Unbelievably, there is none so blind as he who will not see.

Lift up the cross!

 

God Likes Millennials

millennialsMillennials are truly the generation that gets no respect.  Everyone seems to agree they are entitled, cynical, and obsessed with their image on social media.  What’s more, they do strange things with their hair, run away from commitment, and are confused about sexual ethics. (They also like selfies too much, but don’t pretend you don’t.)

So I could assert that God loves them, but critics would reply, “Sure, but God loves everybody.  Duh!”  So let’s put it this way: God likes Millennials.  And there are wonderful qualities we should all appreciate in their generation.

For instance, Millennials know that God doesn’t live in a building.  You might demur, noting “We all know that.”  But in fact, quite a few of us in previous generations have behaved as though God does live in church buildings and waits for us to drop in on Sundays.  Until recently, most churches have ministered out of a fortress mentality: “everything that matters happens here in this building.” And saints have retreated to the holy bunker not only to worship; but to pray, to plan, to eat together, even to celebrate uninspired Christmas parties. Didn’t Jesus say something about a lamp hidden under a bushel?

We’re changing now because Millennials asked, “What’s so special about this stuffy old building?  God is out there… and so are the neighbors we’re supposed to love and care for!”

Paul tried to alert us to this reality centuries ago. Speaking to the pagan intellectuals on Mars Hill, he explained, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.” (Acts 17:24) Rather, he pointed out that even some of their own Greek poets had rightfully supposed the Creator God is all around us in the cosmos he fashioned, and that it is “in him we live and move and have our very being.”

That long-suppressed truth completely demolishes the false construct practiced by so many believers: that life is segmented into church life, family life, career life, recreational life, and consumer living.  On one hand, it means we should get over the myth that spiritual things only happen at church.  And on the other hand, we must embrace the fact that God is out there working all around us, and if we really love him, we must join him.  He’s at work in your office on Capitol Hill.  He’s on the scene in your classroom.  He is involved in the truck stop when you pull your rig off the road for dinner.  No more church life versus my life: it’s all God’s life.  Am I in or out?

I long ago stopped complaining about how liberal the Millennials are:  we were all lefties when we were their age.  “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re older, you don’t have a brain.”  Time and faith bring profound changes.  So I’m confident we’re going to see some spiritual giants rise among this disrespected generation. They won’t be perfect, but they will rescue the church from hypocritical attitudes we tolerated too long.  There’s a lot to like.

For the companion message from Acts 17, click:No Interruptions, Only Invitations

And lift up the Cross!

Learning to Live in the Mystery

living-in-the-mysteryPredestination may be the most offensive word in the Bible.  I know what you’re thinking: the Bible is full of words that offend one faction or another. What about incest, submission for wives, or the use of abomination to describe sexual activities now accepted by law?  The difference is that the mere mention of predestination can instantly create emotional rancor among saints who otherwise agree on nearly every other scriptural idea. For some reason, it can get church people riled up. It can send otherwise serene pastors into denunciation mode.

You don’t have to be a Calvinist (I’m not,) to recognize the idea that God selects some people in advance is clearly taught in Scripture.  “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined…” That is the clear teaching of Romans 8:29. There’s no question about God sealing some in advance.  The real debate centers on what is meant by “those he foreknew.”

  • Some suppose it means God knew them in an exclusive way.   That is, God knew some with a familiarity or a preference he did not express for others. Reformed theologians support this with verses like Romans 9:13, “Esau  I hated, but Jacob I loved.”
  • Others understand that an omniscient God can know in advance who will someday trust him, so he predestines those people- the ones already on track to someday choose him. Advocates of this viewpoint point to  John 3:16, the promise that God loves the whole world so much that Jesus came to die for them all.

It’s important for the saints to remember that there are serious men and women of great faith and integrity on both sides of the issue.  There are no ulterior motives on either side; no one attempting to distort clear teaching in order to water down the truth or justify some old sin now in fashion again.  The recognized voices in both camps root their convictions entirely in scripture.

I happen to be one of those who believe that God knows in advance who will eventually trust him, and that he somehow seals them ahead of time.  But I have huge respect for Christian thinkers who don’t agree: there’s absolutely no doubt that John MacArthur and John Piper and David Platt are godly warriors who would love to see the whole world saved. In fact, some of the most outstanding leaders of the Great Awakening could be called Calvinists. The celebrated sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, was preached by Jonathan Edwards, an evangelist who was convinced God selects some and deselects others.  He preached to everyone he could get to listen because he had no idea who was elect and who was not.

At Providence, we’re halfway through a series of 12 messages called “Fire and Spirit.”  The main point is that the God of the New Testament is not ashamed of the Old Testament. There are profound mysteries at the heart of our faith.  We can’t boil it down to an outline or a pithy slogan or a tidy formula: the mind of God is too vast for you or me to understand.  That’s why it’s so important that you and I learn to trust God at all times and be comfortable with mystery: the things we can’t comprehend yet.

And when I find that other holy men and women read a particular Bible verse in a way that differs slightly from the way I read it, my first response must not be “What’s wrong with you?”  The central ideas of Jesus Christ and His Gospel are so clearly expressed and so broadly accepted, it’s okay if you and I don’t completely agree on every mysterious idea that awaits us in God’s Word.

No matter what you or I believe about the Elect, only God knows who they are. Neither proponents of Calvin nor advocates or free will can detect them in advance: only after the fact. What’s important for now is that we all cooperate to get the Gospel to every creature. We all agree on that.  Let’s begin there.

To hear Pastor Cole’s companion message on Living in the Mystery, “click here.

Lift up the Cross!

1 Minute After You Die

SOUL COMES ALIVE

“What happens to me when I die?  Do I go straight to Heaven, or does my soul sleep in the grave for a while?”  It’s a question that comes up every month, even more often after the death of a beloved friend.  The Bible doesn’t define the process precisely, but when you put all the relevant verses together you come away with a pretty clear picture.

Imagine a guy named Max, a devout follower of Jesus, and let’s use him to illustrate my take on the question. As it is for everyone, death is a process for Max; not actually a moment.  His organs begin to shut down and finally his heart stops beating.  Momentarily or even ten minutes later, his brain calls it a day.  At some point in this process, his soul evacuates his body, which is no longer viable for life.

Max’s body is not fitted for eternity: flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 15:50)  For the moment it’s in the way, so Max’s family will have a mortuary make the body more manageable, either through embalming and burial, or through cremation.  But the Bible teaches resurrection– not simply the immortality of the soul- so this is not the last chapter for that inconvenient body once called Max.

The soul that belongs to God is immediately translated into God’s presence in Eternity. Some have wondered about limbo or purgatory, a kind of temporary storage facility, but the Bible says nothing about that.  Places like that may belong to Roman Catholic tradition, but are not taught in scripture.

Rather, Jesus promises the repentant thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  (Luke 23:43)  Some have argued that Jesus did not ascend to heaven until days after his death; would not have been there that Friday.  That’s debatable, but there’s no question that  Jesus is God.  And God was always in Heaven.  And on the day that former thief passed away, he was with God in Heaven. Elsewhere in Revelation 6:9, we also read a description of souls already in heaven. The martyrs who have just been executed, presumably by the Romans, are huddled by the altar asking God, “How long will the bloodshed continue?”  The Father assures them there is a appointed time and He is still in control. They are curious because their souls have just escaped the fiery persecution, and they are alive in the comforting presence of God.

But let’s return to Max.  His soul, his life force, has now been ushered into Heaven by the angels.  His body has been buried and has already begun to decay.  That’s okay: no one is trapped there.  Nobody’s home at all.  In 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, Paul explains that as long as he survives on the earth, he is at home in the body but away from the Lord.  He goes on to exclaim he would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  In the same text, he compares his body to an aging and deteriorating tent: “while we’re still in the tent we groan and are burdened.”  Like Max, Paul escaped those burdens when he was executed and his soul departed from that bleeding, lifeless mound of flesh in favor of Eternity.

Which brings us to the resurrection.  In 1 Corinthians 15:51 we are assured, “Behold! I tell you a mystery.  We shall not all sleep [die,] but we will all be changed; in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” The word sleep is the same euphemism Jesus used for Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:52) who was quite dead and required a miracle to recover. God promises we will not all die, but we will all be changed- instantly.

The second resurrection happens on the day when Christ returns in judgment to the Earth. Here’s how it is described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17  “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

When Christ returns, the bodies/bones/ashes of the saints will instantly be changed!  Like the resurrected Christ walking through a locked door, these resurrected bodies will rise through the Earth to be instantly reunited with their souls.  Resurrection means that we live again body and soul!  The Day of the Lord begins with a very personal kind of reunion or reintegration for the saints!

Some have scoffed, “Come on, doesn’t that sound outrageous to you?  In one moment, you have all these restored bodies emerging from the ground, and living souls descending out of heaven; and they are all finding their way to each other? Really?”  I suppose that might have presented a practical, intellectual problem fifty years ago.  But today, UPS is able to track millions of packages of all sizes as they travel all around the world.  At any moment, the man in brown can instantly tell me whether my package is shipped, or has departed the terminal, or is waiting in Topeka, Kansas, or is in a local vehicle en route to my house!  If UPS can track millions of packages accurately and instantly, I have no worries about God’s ability to have invisible chips in every body in order to guide souls instantly to the correct address!

So be comforted.  If you belong to Jesus Christ, you will never be consciously or unconsciously sleeping in the ground.  (Good news for claustrophobic believers everywhere!) Your soul will be with God only moments after you check out here, and your body will remain disconnected and inactive until it can be fitted for life in eternity, body and soul.  Don’t grieve like others who have no hope.

And lift up the Cross!

 

Inside Out in a World Upside Down

INSIDE OUT

How do you describe Inside Out, the latest project from the animators at Pixar?  It’s the story of a little girl named Riley who learns to live with the five major emotions competing for acceptance in her mind.  Like everybody else, I found the movie to be hilarious and original.  But I also thought it was insightful and laden with questions only theology could answer.

Did you ever wonder why people living the American Dream of freedom and affluence also suffer depression at epidemic rates?  When consumers enjoy just about any privilege or purchase their hearts might desire, why do they still require 150 forms of self-medication for melancholia and despair?

The problem is those nagging emotions fighting for acceptance in our heads.  In the movie they are called Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear.  Like everyone watching from the audience, little Riley has trouble making good decisions because each life situation results in 5 powerful emotions shouting to explain everything from contrasting points of view. According to the movie, maturity is about learning that each emotion has a valuable role on certain occasions, so all five are actually beneficial. Yeah, but they are still constantly at war.

Many Americans turn to Zoloft and Prozac and stress relief and sleeping meds because it’s so exhausting when your universe is a tiny, heart-shaped gymnasium where all your energy is burned off trying to referee and separate competing emotions.  It’s like spending every day with five brats who never sleep or learn self-control: you have to play parent in every decision. There’s no rest or escape: only stress and distraction.  Like wild zebras, raw emotions refuse to be trained.  So what’s the healthy alternative?

The answer: just say No to them all.

For most of history across most of the planet, most nations have taught that it’s unhealthy, impolite, and even destructive to focus on yourself and your own accomplishments.  But today traditional virtues like humility and deferred gratification have been utterly abandoned by a Now Generation in search of self-esteem and instant gratification.  Quite suddenly we find the ancients were right: it is unhealthy and destructive to surrender to your ego and insist on always having it your way.  It can be downright depressing!  When you can constantly have anything you want, warring emotions make it hard to settle on exactly what that is.  You’re a lion tamer in a ring with five or more untamed lions and tigers.

Paging through your Bible, it can seem annoying when Jesus Christ says things like this: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  We tend to stumble over this idea as well as similar comments like the one about hating father and mother and brother and sister in order to love him.  It’s confusing for us not only because we have been brainwashed with self-esteem psychology, but because we don’t understand the ancient Hebrew way of speaking.

Old Testament men and women tended to draw stark comparisons.  If you favored one person over another in a particular situation, in that moment you were practicing love for one person and rejection (“hatred”) for the other.  We have no evidence that Jacob actually harbored animosity towards Leah, the woman he was tricked into marrying.  But because he favored his first love Rachel, scripture describes his disfavor towards Leah as “hatred.” Despite the fact that God loves the whole world, we are told on at least two occasions that He loved Jacob and hated Esau. There is no doubt the Almighty cared for Esau and family too, but when He favored the descendants of Jacob, he showed disfavor for Esau and his tribe.

Loving Jesus more than yourself doesn’t literally demand hostility towards Self.  It simply means you are able to choose on pivotal occasions to favor the call of Christ over the demands of your flesh; to favor charity and compassion over self-fulfillment and self-indulgence.  Holiness is the discipline of shutting out all the voices of Self to hear the Spirit of God.

What secular cartoons cannot depict and secular Americans cannot fathom is the liberating power of learning to say No to yourself.  Rather than enduring the constant assault of raging impulses, we allow faith to usher us out of the emotional war room and lock the door.  Self-indulgence doesn’t satisfy for long because it merely conditions the voices to scream louder. Self-forgetfulness is the road to peace because it allows us to overlook the demands of self-fulfillment. It’s a by-product of the cross. It is the path to peace.

Take a break from your bratty emotions: say No to them all.

And lift up the Cross!

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