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“Imagine God speaking to you right now…”

I mentioned this passage from John Frame’s book The Doctrine of the Word of God (which I also posted last year) during the study on Monday night. Here it is…

God’s speech to man is real speech. It is very much like one person speaking to another. God speaks so that we can understand him and respond appropriately. Appropriate responses are of many kinds: belief, obedience, affection, repentance, laughter, pain, sadness, and so on. God’s speech is often propositional: God’s conveying information to us. But it is far more than that. It includes all the features, functions, beauty, and richness of language that we see in human communication, and more.

…God’s word, in all its qualities and aspects, is a personal communication from him to us.

Imagine God speaking to you right now, as realistically as you can imagine, perhaps standing at the foot of your bed at night.

He speaks to you like your best friend, your parents, or your spouse.

There is no question in your mind as to who he is: he is God. In the Bible, God often spoke to people in this way: to Adam and Eve in the garden; to Noah; to Abraham; to Moses.

For some reason, these were all fully persuaded that the speaker was God, even when the speaker told them to do things they didn’t understand. Had God asked me to take my son up a mountain to burn him as a sacrifice, as he asked of Abraham in Genesis 22, I would have decided that it wasn’t God and could not be God, because God could never command such a thing.

But somehow Abraham didn’t raise that question.

He knew, somehow, that God had spoken to him, and he knew what God expected him to do.

We question Abraham at this point… But if God is God, if God is who he claims to be, isn’t it likely that he is able to persuade Abraham that the speaker is really he? Isn’t he able to unambiguously identify himself to Abraham’s mind? Now imagine that when God speaks to you personally, he gives you some information, or commands you to do something. Will you then be inclined to argue with him? Will you criticize what he says? Will you find something inadequate in his knowledge or in the rightness of his commands?

I hope not. For that is the path to disaster. When God speaks, our role is to believe, obey, delight, repent, mourn—whatever he wants us to do. Our response should be without reservation, from the heart. Once we understand (and of course we often misunderstand), we must not hesitate. We may at times find occasion to criticize one another’s words, but God’s
words are not the subject of criticism.

Scripture is plain that this is the very nature of the Christian life: having God’s word and doing it. Jesus said, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21). Everything we know about God we know because he has told us, through his personal speech. All our duties to God are from his commands. All the promises of salvation through the grace of Christ are God’s promises, from his own mouth. What other source could there possibly be, for a salvation message that so contradicts our own feelings of self-worth, our own ideas of how to earn God’s favor?

Now, to be sure, there are questions about where we can find God’s personal words today, for he does not normally speak to us now as he did to Abraham… And there are questions about how we can come to understand God’s words, given our distance from the culture in which they were given… I will address these questions in due course. But the answer cannot be that God’s personal words are unavailable to us, or unintelligible to us. If we say either of those things, then we lose all touch with the biblical gospel.

The idea that God communicates with human beings in personal words pervades all of Scripture, and it is central to every doctrine of Scripture. If God has, in fact, not spoken to us personally, then we lose any basis for believing in salvation by grace, in judgment, in Christ’s atonement—indeed, for believing in the biblical God at all. Indeed, if God has not spoken to us personally, then everything important in Christianity is human speculation and fantasy.

Yet it should be evident to anyone who has studied the recent history of theology that the mainstream liberal and neoorthodox traditions have in fact denied that such personal words have occurred, even that they can occur. Others have said that although God’s personal words may have occurred in the past, they are no longer available to us as personal words because of the problems of hermeneutics and canon.

If those theologies are true, all is lost.

The book this passage is from is so good. I really recommend that everyone read it. In fact, here’s a long excerpt for free to whet your appetite.

“Every place is present to Him.”

The other night I read something that I would call truly mind-stretching. It’s good to do once in a while. The quote is from an ancient teacher named Boethius (who lived in the fifth and sixth centuries), and it is quoted in this book. In this paragraph, Boethius is trying to explain a helpful way to think about what we call the omnipresence of God–the fact that we can’t ever run away from his presence (as Jacob found out so viscerally). But instead of just saying “God is everywhere,” Boethius starts from a totally different place, and ends up saying it in a very different way. Here is the first part of the quote:

When “God is everywhere” is said, it does not mean that he is in every place (for he cannot be in any place at all), but that every place is present to him to be seized by him, though he himself is received by no place, and therefore is said to be nowhere in a place, since He is everywhere but in no place.

This is fascinating. By starting with God, Boethius ends up with a picture of God’s omnipresence less like God being spread out throughout all the universe and more like that of all of creation and history laid out in front of God. And since God knows and sees every molecule and moment, he is able to work, speak, and appear at any point in that reality–wherever, whenever he wants, with no limitation. He sees and knows it all perfectly, and therefore can be anywhere he wants at any time he wants, with no limitation. So…if you ask, “Where is God?” maybe Boethius would say something like, “Well, where are we? We’re right in front of him, and totally exposed to him, and totally at his mercy, always.” He cannot be contained in the universe (1 Kings 8:27, Isaiah 66:1, Acts 17:24), so in that sense, Boethius says, “he cannot be in any place at all.” But of course, our experience is of this uncontained God being everywhere, and so, David wrote Psalm 139–God is everywhere, to us.

Boethius says that we can helpfully think of time in the same way:

Time is truly predicated in the same way, as when it is said concerning a man, “he came yesterday”; concerning God, “he is always.” Here also something is said to be as if it were said concerning yesterday’s coming, but is predicated to it according to the time he will come. What is truly said of God, “he is always”, signifies a single thing, as though he would have been in all the past, is also in all the present in the way that he is, and will be in all the future.

Gavin Ortlund, the author of the book with these quotes, points out that what Boethius is doing is defining both God’s eternity (God is outside of time) and God’s omnipresence (God is everywhere) actively instead of passively. It is not that God simply exists everywhere. It is that he is actively seeing, working and speaking everywhere.

Maybe that feels a little “out there”–I mean, it is. But still, don’t you love the fact that God can never get old to us, because there are always new ways for us to learn about who he is and deeper ways for us to relate to him?  And I have to say, in my experience, the one of the best antidotes to having my thoughts overcome by the anxious energy of the world is to really let the Bible lead me to new and deeper thoughts of God. Further up and further in!

Three thoughts on death

Three thoughts on death, from Thomas Oden:

The prudent person is always prepared for death.

Those who live well have no fear to die.

Believers do not fear death, but sin.

Ecclesiastes 9:10, Psalm 90:12, Revelation 22:1

 

Worshipping, Walking, Working

Tonight we’ll gather at the church building again, and we’ll take another look at what the stories in Hebrews 11 show us about faith. Here are the notes form the last time we gathered:

Thoughts on what Abel’s story shows us, from Hebrews 11:4:

Faith makes you righteous, like it made Abel righteous. And that’s because faith leads you to do things that are the kinds of things that God wants done, especially in the way you worship God—it makes you take action that pleases God, and so you offer the kind of worship God puts his stamp of approval on.

What is faith? It’s actively worshiping God in the ways that please him. That’s what it looks like. That’s how it comes out. Maybe part of this is that faith includes caring enough to listen and learn and find out what pleases God, because you believe he really is God, and really made everything, and that therefore, you’re really appreciative of that, of existence, and the chance to know him, and so you want to please him. You want to be close to him, and have things be good between you and him. You think it’s worth it, and so you want to actively do the things that are part of that good relationship.

This might kind of underwhelm us at first, since it’s not “changing the world” or anything right? But then—it’s the only thing on this list that got someone killed. “Offering worship that pleases God” sounds pretty safe, but evidently, the kind of worship that God’s puts his stamp of approval on is often offensive to the world. It is something they oppose.  People who don’t have faith can be offended by the worship of people who do. It can even enrage them. And that’s important to know. Just because someone gets mad at you, it doesn’t mean you’re not walking by faith. It doesn’t mean you’re not righteous—that you’re out of step with God. The anger of those who refuse to worship God in faith might in fact be the evidence that my faith is legit.

Thoughts on what Enoch’s story shows us, from Hebrews 11:5-5:

What is faith? You know you have it when your worship, and your whole life, pleases God. You know you’re living by faith when you’re in rhythm with God—walking with God moment by moment. This “conviction” that God is, and that he rewards those who seek him, diligently makes you live like Enoch, and be ripe for the taking.

That’s how you defeat death. Believe that no matter what, God will come through; It will be worth it. That’s how faith feels about living for God—it’ll be worth it. Whether they kill me, or God takes me, it’s worth it. Maybe Abel died young. That’s the impression we’re given. But Enoch lived more than three centuries—that’s a long time. Faith is pleasing God when you’re young and your own family hates you for it. Faith is pleasing God daily for a long, long time, even when everyone around you isn’t. You can live like Abel and Enoch when you remember and trust in the fact that God will make it all worth it. Verse six tell us that Faith doesn’t say things like, “Well, pain is good just because.” Nope. Faith says, “This is really hard, but one day soon life is going to be awesome, no matter what, because God promised it will be—so I’m not going to stop worshipping him and walking with him.”

And verse six means that if someone won’t trust god like that, if the difficulty in life makes it seem not worth it, or the time it takes to see God’s promises come true makes it seem like God can’t be trusted, and you give up—that’s the opposite of faith. That’s what not having faith looks like. And then that person can’t be like Abel or Enoch. They can’t please God.

Thoughts on what Noah’s story shows us, from Hebrews 11:7:

What is faith? Noah’s experience shows us that faith is what makes you build what God wants built, when he tells you to act in response to what he’s about to do. Noah built the ark. Based on what God was about to do in the world, God told Noah to build a wooden boat, because God wanted Noah to survive the flood. Hebrews is written to Christians. We live a long time after that flood, and we know that God promised to never use water to destroy the earth like that again. But here is Noah, held up as a picture of Faith for us, in 2020. Noah built a boat, but that’s not what faith will make us build. We haven’t been told a flood is coming, we’ve been told that the wrath of God is coming on the whole earth, and it will end history and destroy everything that ignores God. And, we’ve been told that Jesus Christ will come back soon and deliver everyone who trusts him from God’s wrath. We haven’t been told to build a physical structure to survive God’s judgement, because nothing will this time. In fact we’re specifically told that the judgement in Noah’s day was water, so a wooden boat was perfect, but the coming judgement is by fire, so that won’t work this time around.

So we’re not building boats, but we’ve been told, in response to the fact that Jesus is coming soon, to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8), to go everywhere telling people what Jesus did (Lk 24:47), and what he taught (Mt 28:18-20). The house God wants built is a family of people that comes from every nation (2 Peter 2:5). Like Noah, if we have faith, we will continue spreading the message, despite opposition. And that’s because, like verse 7 says, faith is moved by godly fear. When someone trusts God, they stop fearing other things, because they realize that God is the weightiest thing they have to deal with. The fact that he is—that he really is there, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him, and also a punisher of those who refuse to acknowledge him—that fact means more to the man or woman who has faith than anyone or anything else that use to make them afraid. And so no matter what anyone else says, they fear God, and they press on and build what he wants built. The public testimony of that boat exposed that the world was condemned, and should be condemned, and it displayed that Noah was righteous. Noah’s faith pleased God.

Faith is not believing in something that may or may not exist, like Santa or the Matrix. Faith is knowing God to the point that you trust his description of how your world came into existence, and therefore you do things that bring him glory, and you spend day after day close to him, and you actively work at doing what he wants done in the world, even when it’s hard, and even when everyone opposes you, and you’re the only one in your family, or the only one in the whole world, but you don’t stop…even if it takes three hundred years.

Words, like swords.

More wisdom about our words from the Proverbs:

Proverbs 11:9 says: “With his mouth, the godless man would destroy his neighbor.”

Here is a practical key: It is not a mark of wisdom, but godlessness, to use words that weaken or undermine, or press down your neighbor. This is very easy to fall into, right? How easy it is to subtly use words to belittle someone, to point out their flaws or failings. But if I do this, I am using my tongue for the opposite of what God exhorts me to.

Proverbs 10:21 says, The lips of the righteous feed many…”  But if I use my words to destroy my neighbor, my words can not be food and water—they will be poison. They will be like the piercings of a sword,
but the tongue of the wise promotes health.” (Proverbs 12:18)

“With it we bless God, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” (James 3:9)

You don’t need very many.

Proverbs 10:19 is pretty famous in Christians circles, and for good reason: it’s very practical. It reads:

In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, But he who restrains his lips is wise.

Other translations have it:

When words are many, sin is not lacking.
When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable.
Those who talk a lot are likely to sin. 

It’s almost as if, just by percentages, the more you speak, the more sin becomes inevitable.

“But he who retrains his lips is prudent.”

Therefore:

The lips of the righteous feed many.” (Proverbs 10:21)

…but not by being “many” words. It is their quality which feeds many, not their quantity. A few rich, dense words, weighty with God’s weight, will do God’s sustaining work, more than many words light with the weightlessness of my own heart.

This is why “the tongue of the learned” knows how to speak:

  • “a word” – just a word!
  • “in season” – at the perfect time
  • “to him who is weary” – to the right audience

Few words, which find their mark at the perfect time.

As Isaiah said:

The Lord GOD has given Me
The tongue of the learned,
That I should know how to speak
A word in season to him who is weary.
He awakens Me morning by morning,
He awakens My ear To hear as the learned. 

The deep usefulness of the Old Testament stories

Tonight we’re meeting in homes throughout the area, but during our regular Monday night meetings, we’re studying through Hebrews 11. Here are the notes for the first study, from a few Monday nights ago.

We’re reading Hebrews 11 because we want help for our journey through a difficult world. Life is difficult. Hebrews tells us that what we need to make it through is faith.

For instance:

Hebrews 4:1-2 Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.

There is something up ahead of us called “God’s rest.” You can fail to enter it. We have examples in the scriptures, stories of people who did not get there. They were consumed by the pain and grief and stress of this world, and failed to get to God’s rest, because they did not hear God’s words with faith. Can you relate to this?

The counter-example is in Hebrews 6…

Hebrews 6:10-15  For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself,  saying, “Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.”  And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise.

You can get tired in your life of service to God. (v.11) Notice: they shouldn’t be sluggish in what? (v.10)  It can become hard to imagine continuing to believe and persevere through all the opposition for your whole life. But (v.12) we are supposed to know the stories of those who’ve gone before us. Abraham is an example. (v.13) He actually got what God had promised him after…what? (v.15). So…when God wants to help us endure, one of the things he does is to remind us of all the people who’ve gone before us, and how they’ve endured. You could call verses 11 and 12 the theme verses for our whole study of Hebrews 11. What’s the point of doing this? That we would imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. We’re going to zero in on faith in particular, because that’s what Chapter 11 does. And I wonder if Faith is the reason that people endure…I think it is, so if you zero in on faith, you’ll wind up with the fruit of endurance. Those in Chapter 4 did not have it. Abraham, here in chapter 6, did.

Hebrews 10:19-23    Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.

What do you need to really have closeness with God? Look at verse 22. Look at the central place faith occupies in our ability to draw close to God. And verse 23 is the idea of endurance again.

Hebrews 10:35-37  Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: “For yet a little while, And He who is coming will come and will not tarry.

Here it is again… what do we need? We need the ability to endure. How does someone endure? Look at the next verse…

Hebrews 10:38-39   Now the just shall live by faith; But if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.

Those who endure, those who are able to press on, those who are able to continue actively doing the things God wants done in the world no matter how discouraging life gets, are those who live by faith. And then, at the end, they inherit the promises. And if we say… honestly, that just seems like it’s going to be so… hard… Hebrews says, well, it can be done. Remember the lives of all the people who’ve already done it. What you need to have is faith. And when you read on and hit chapter 11 verse 1, it’s almost like the writer of Hebrews imagines an objection something like, “Ok, but what does that even mean? What is faith? Telling myself things I can’t see are real? How can it really help me in my actual daily life?”

And so you get something that sounds like a definition:

Hebrews 11:1   Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

So this is partly a definition. What does it mean? “Substance” has the idea of “that which stands under” something—we could say, “the ultimate reality” which kind of is hard to understand, so some people have opted to read this word to mean “guarantee” (ESV = “assurance”) “of things hoped for” So faith is in some way the guarantee or reality of what we hope for. “evidence…of things not seen” kind of means the same thing. Is it saying faith connects us to those things we haven’t see yet? Or is it saying that faith itself is the evidence—having faith shows that these things are true.  It’s kind of vague. Maybe it’s kind of vague because we’re supposed to…feel pressure just to to keep reading into Hebrews 11 in order to really get it…

If “we need faith to make it through this difficult world,” then what we see as we keep reading into chapter 11 is that the best way to learn about what faith is, is to actually watch it in action—to see all the ways that people have lived by faith, and what it’s meant in their lives. Maybe the rest of the chapter is the fullest definition of what verse 1 means. And I think, in my life, one of the things God has used the Bible for, time and time again, is to basically say to me: “Slow down, Brian. Slow down. The urgency you think you feel, the energy the world is buzzing with right now, all this angst and worry and fury—it’s nothing new to God. He knows what you need. What you need is endurance. And what you need to be able endure, is faith.” And then, over and over again, what God does is, invite us to stop, sit down at his feet, and listen to the stories he wants to tell.

Maybe it’s such a familiar thing that you haven’t noticed how unexpected it really is. What if every time you had a plumbing problem you called your plumber and he told you stories about his old plumbing exploits…? You ever turned to the bible and get frustrated by stories that seem to have nothing to do with your life? Why is Hebrews 11 a bunch of stories? Why is the bible a bunch of stories? Why not just give us information—facts about God? Why tell the stories? The bible gives two reasons for this. First: John 5:39 — “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.

The bible tells us about Jesus—that’s the most important thing it does, so we can know who he is and how to trust in him. But there’s another thing these stories do… First, look at Romans 15:4

 For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.

The stories in the bible were written to help us have “endurance” so we could keep hoping. Now look at 1 Corinthians 10.

1 Corinthians 10:1-11
Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, 2 all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. 5 But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. 6 Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. 7 And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” 8 Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell; 9 nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; 10 nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.

Notice verse 1 and verse 6 and verse 10. Verse1 says we need to be “aware of”…two lists of stories in between v.6 and 10. The events in this list are “examples” for us… (see language map at end). In other words, in addition to pointing us to Jesus as the only hope for the whole world, the stories in the Bible, especially the old testament, serve to educate us about all kinds of important things. Verse six here gives us just one to those things—the stories can help us, when we’re feeling tempted by sin. The stories in the Bible, even all those old Testament stories, can help you defeat temptation. Now that’s just one thing they can do, but it’s a huge, important thing.

And if we stop and think about how they can actually help us defeat temptation, we get a blueprint for how God uses the historical stories collected in the scriptures to grow us spiritually. The example of that in 1 Corinthians 10 is, if we are getting tempted, and we know the stories referred to in verses one through ten, we can remember what happened to the people who gave into temptation—all the heart break and misery and alienation from god that spun out of their cravings and their indulgence of their wants…and if we then look back at our own lives there’s a good chance we’ll see patterns that match what happened to those people back then, and we can realize that we’re facing the same kinds of situations, and God will use those stories to say something like: “Remember Kibroth Hattaavah?” And we’ll be like, “Oh yeah God, totally, thank you for reminding me about Kibroth Hataavah, because of Kibroth Hataavah, I am totally not giving in to that temptation.” Do those words mean anything to you, Kibroth Hataavah? God wants them to. How are you going to defeat temptation if you don’t know the history of things like…what happened when the children of Israel got really dissatisfied with all the good things God had done for them and decided that the one thing they didn’t have, which was fresh meat to eat, meant more to them than everything they did have, and they started feeling like, if they didn’t get that, life wasn’t worth living?

God has filled his word with stories—events, battles, journeys, drama, and people—good people, shifty people, people whose lives were mixed bags, dangerous people, all kinds of characters and things that happened, so that we will have mental patterns, which, as we move through life, God can apply to all the situations we face.

You meet someone at work, and you can get to know him, and God can help you notice things about him, and you can call to mind a story from 1 Samuel, and you can think… “That guy’s like Doeg. I need to watch out for him.” You can find yourself in a stressful situation, you can think, “Why me?” and then the Holy Spirit can bring to mind the story of Esther, and you can think, “Oh yeah. She didn’t shrink from her time. I can’t shrink from mine.” You can ask older people what they think about some issue, and you can get an answer you don’t like, and get tempted to write them off and just listen to younger people who “get it,” and the Holy Spirit can say to you… “remember Rehoboam and his father’s counselors.” And on and on it goes.

I have become convinced that God wants to populate our minds with the stories and characters of the Old Testament, and the New, and he wants us to read our world through them. They provide the patterns we need to understand our lives, and to grow in faith. (The word for “examples” in the 1 Corinthians passage, in the original language, has the idea of something that leaves an impression, or a pattern to follow.)

We live in a time when competing sources of information are vying for our allegiance. And there are all these competing narratives about where the world has come from and where it’s headed. And so we have a desperate need to remember the one trustworthy source of information, God’s word, and the one grand narrative that God tells—What is the true story of the world? And where is the world actually headed? And what about right now? What are we supposed to be doing while we wait for Jesus to come? The answer is, we’re supposed to walk by faith.

“What do we do if everything starts to fall apart?”  The Book of Hebrews comes to us and says: live by faith. Endure. “But what if we can’t even figure out what’s really going on in the world? What if it’s hard to know what’s really happening and who to really believe? Walk by faith? How do we do that?” Hebrews 11 says well, you do it like Abraham. And you do it like Abel. Enoch. Noah. Sarah. Like all the people before you who lived in confusing, unstable times. They walked by faith, and you can too. And here’s how. That’s the eleventh chapter of Hebrews.

So… “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Does that mean that faith “stands under” what we hope for, and “guarantees” that what we don’t see yet will happen? Well, remember Abel, and the way he offered the true sacrifice, even though right next to him, his brother Cain was following a totally different course? That’s what it means. Remember how Noah built that huge boat? All that time and labor in a hostile world? That’s what it means.

And over the next few weeks, we’re going to see what each story teaches us specifically about how a person can live by faith. So that we can show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, so that that we do not become sluggish, but instead persevere in imitating those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

Hope Transcends Despair

It isn’t news to say that right now there are a lot of people who are offering solutions for everything wrong with the world. Christians, of course, have their own prescriptions–what needs to change, what needs to happen. And, if you haven’t noticed, those solutions (which all involve Jesus fixing everything, and in the mean time, everyone learning to follow him and getting on board with his plan) aren’t very in style these days.

With so much at stake, with so many people so worried about the direction things are headed, there’s a lot of pressure on followers of Jesus to change their outlook, and get on board with everyone else’s plans. But leaving Jesus out and ignoring his promises can’t be a good option. I’ve been thinking about all of this, and so, I was glad to run into this passage from Thomas Oden’s Classic Christianity which explores the reason why:

“The Gospel Transcends Despair Over the Human Future”

Why not limit our imperfect energies to political change and economic development? Too often, in despair, the modern world has reduced the vision of the human future to political regulation or economic interest or social planning or ecological anguish.

Even supposing that a wonderful future society might actually emerge from coordinated political effort, what could incontestably guarantee its permanence? Would the best conceivable society last for more than a generation? Wouldn’t the proneness to sin find a way to undermine it? Suppose that such a utopian society, if now impossible, is even achieved in a fourth or fifth millennium—that gives little comfort to those who have already suffered in previous millennia. If the payoff of future hope is a this-worldly society yet to come for others, how does this hope impinge morally upon our present suffering and sacrifice to help it come about? Throughout such probing, classic Christian teaching remains realistic about the capacity of humanity for sin such as might destroy the planet. Yet that realism is set in the context of hope that God’s purpose will be fulfilled even under the worst scenarios of human folly. The worst modern fantasies are hardly more horrible than those of ancient apocalyptic imagination.

Christian teaching about the future does not have to do merely with human wish projections, philosophical speculations, rational arguments, or humanistic hopes. Rather it speaks of a future that has already met us in Jesus Christ. It was an expectation planted long before New Testament times that God is acting throughout the whole of human history so as to reveal how the divine promises were in due time to be fulfilled.

What a great line in that heading: The gospel transcends despair over the human future.

The Gospel transcends despair. So does God. He transcends everything. So, his plan, and the news about his plan, transcends our worries—he does not need our efforts, or our raw materials, to construct the new, eternal world he’s creating. He does not need our ingenuity and experience to found his kingdom. While he will fix (to the last sinew) every broken human life which comes to him, while he will be closely involved in taking care of every lost soul who wants to follow after him, his work transcends our culture’s anxieties. To come to him, we must drop them, and all our plans, and all our hopes to build a world that endures without him.

Christian hope lives in realism. The message of Jesus makes us clear-eyed about people, and our world, and where human efforts are taking us. Realistic. But not cynical. Not depressed. Because the good news which has found us promises a solution—a king—which is coming, no mater what, very soon.

Making Humility Concrete Again

Dr. Dominick Hernandez is our speaker this year at the Philly Young Adults Conference, and I wanted to recommend his recent book, Proverbs: Pathways to Wisdom.  I have several commentaries on Proverbs, but have never really ran across a book like this before. What Dr. Hernandez has done is to give you a short, very readable introduction to the book of Proverbs, which is basically a guide for how to read Proverbs yourself.  A lot of us know the Proverbs is a place to turn for immediately relevant wisdom and insight into life, but it can also be a little confusing to read at times. Why is it written the way it is? Why do some of its directions feel obscure?   This book will give you the “lay of the land” and you can use it kind of like a road map–if you get the basic principles for reading Proverbs (which Dr. Hernandez explains) down, you’ll be able to read Proverbs yourself wisely, and with a ton of benefit. For instance, here is an excerpt, where Dr. Hernandez is discussing how the idea of “humility” is discussed in Proverbs:

Humility is anything but abstract in Proverbs. The book provides plenty of practical advice dedicated to how to be a humble person. Contrary to familiar perceptions, humility is not a characteristic of weak people who mope around as if they were nobodies. Humility in Proverbs emerges from maturity in wisdom, which prevents the wise from thinking too highly of themselves. Humble people who refrain from exalting themselves to unmerited positions and thus seeking their own glory. Proverbs 25:6-7 gives a practical illustration of what it looks like to be humble:

“Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

The wise recognize the inherent problem with the self-exaltation: it eventually leads to creating expectations regarding how you desire to be treated that are not always matched by how you are actually treated.

In practical terms for out day and age, those who want to put themselves in positions of honor have a decent chance at being humiliated in front of others. Sometimes, we can exalt ourselves to “royal status” in our minds within contexts of our homes, among our colleagues, and even with our friends, causing us to have unrealistic hopes of being favored in accordance with our imagined status. Whether we actually desire to sit with royalty or consider ourselves some sort of “royalty” in our minds, Proverbs’ message is that self-exaltation is unwise and will eventually lead to disappointment and disgrace (11:2). Those who persist in self-exaltation potentially face “the fall” – the eventual consequences of striving to elevate themselves. As Proverbs 16:18-19 instructs,

“Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is better be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.”

Yet, Proverbs is quick to present humility as the characteristics that not only prevents one’s downfall, but also is what brings about proper recognition: “Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty, / but humility comes before honor” (Provers 18:12; see also 29:23).

Those who are eventually honored are, in fact, recognized for their humility (see Luke 14:7-11). Recognizing that humility comes before honor is a distinct characteristic of those who fear the Lord – our constant posture of obedience stemming from our love of God – facilitates a realistic view of who we are and prevents false expectations concerning how we should be treated by others.

In this sense, humility prevents anger.

As we strive to be humble people, let us be considerate of others and resist imposing upon them expectations relating to how we suppose we deserve to be treated. We are compelled to take all of the practical steps we can in order to stray away from overly admiring ourselves and, thereby, falling into self-praise. Let us be wise and humble people who attract the right type of praise, which is ironically noticed as a result of our humility (12:8). Irrespective of whether or not we receive accolades, or even the respect we think we deserve from others, let us prefer to remain quiet without “hand in our mouth” in humility rather than exalting ourselves in pride (30:32)

That Pinch of Incense

You may have heard that, in the years when the New Testament was being written, and beyond, one of the issues Christians faced was the requirement, by the government of Rome, to offer a pinch of incense on an altar dedicated to the deity of the Roman emperor. From one way of looking at it, this was a way to say “I acknowledge the emperor is a god,” but from another way of looking at it, it was a way to say, “I am willing to acknowledge the legal authority of the government.” There was a third thing that act meant culturally, and it was something more like, “I will say publicly the emperor is a god, because I care about national prosperity and security, and I think this act is a way to secure the favor of whatever gods there are, and ensure the good fortune of our empire.” You can see at once what a dilemma this presented to the first Christians. Of course, they were willing to acknowledge the legal authority of the Roman government, and the emperor as the head of that government, and they wanted to do their civic part to work for the prosperity and security of their neighbors. However, they could not say the emperor was a god, or offer any kind of worship to him, however small it may be. The difficult thing was that, when they refused to call Caesar a god, they were accused of jeopardizing national security, and of hating their neighbors–because, can’t you love people enough to just offer a pinch of incense? It is a situation like this that Jesus seems to be referring to in the letter to the church in Smyrna, in Revelation chapter 2:

I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich)…
Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer.
Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days.

In his commentary on the book of Revelation, James Allen gives some fascinating historical background to the situation of the church in Smyrna at that time, a situation which seems to have a lot to say to many Christians around the world in 2020…

Beyond the nominal adherence to the usual deities of paganism, the city subscribed enthusiastically to the cult of Emperor worship. As early as 196 BC an altar had been erected to Dea Roma. This goddess was the deification of the spirit of Rome. Over a century later an altar was built to Tiberius Caesar. As [F.A.] Tatford points out, “The worship of the Emperor was compulsory. Each year a Roman citizen had to burn a pinch of incense on the alter and to acknowledge publicly that Caesar was supreme Lord”.

Under Domitian (81-96 AD) in the time of this letter, emperor worship was compulsory for every Roman citizen. The burning of the pinch of incense was rewarded by a certificate which had to be renewed annually. Failure to produce a certificate meant being branded as Christian and this opened the way, if the magistrates so decided, for the death penalty on the ground of treason.

Admittedly the burning of the incense was more an act of political loyalty than a religious observance, since the citizen was the free to worship whatever other god or gods he chose. Nevertheless no believer loyal to Christ could do this (see Luke 14:26). Many, like Polycarp, perished at the stake or were torn apart by the beasts in the arena because they refused this test of allegiance to Caesar.

I’ve never thought of something as modern-sounding as a government-issued certificate being a source of trouble for ancient Christians. But there it is. And as he dictated his letter to this church, Jesus said:

Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.

He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death. 

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