Friday, September 27, 2013

Thoughts on James 5: Rich and Poor

James, in characteristic fashion, chews out the rich.  It is tempting to say he chews out the rich for being rich, but a closer reading of the text indicates that he is chewing them out for how they became rich and what they do with their riches.  They became rich by abusing their employees and now that they are rich, they don't do any good with their riches.  This leads me to believe that it is possible to be  both rich and godly.  It also leads me to believe that the vast majority of the rich aren't godly.  It is simple economics.  To accumulate money, you need to sell more than it costs you to produce what you are selling.  In a competitive marketplace there is the additional pressure to have lower costs in order to sell more of your product.  One of the easiest ways to lower costs is to reduce the cost of labor--that is, pay your employees less.  If you don't do this, depending on your specific market, you are likely to not make much money and not become rich in the first place.  So, it is far easier to become rich if you behave in a fashion that James objects to.  It isn't impossible, but it is much harder. 

So, what does one do in a capitalistic society as a Christian?  I guess we shouldn't focus on getting rich.  If God blesses us with wealth through our ethical behavior, then we should continue our ethical behavior and do good with that blessing. 

But the reality is that most Christians who live according to Christian principles will not be wealthy.  Most of us will be abused by our employers and suffer from unjust social structures.  (This is more true in the non-western world.)  For believers in those circumstances, James encourages us to keep our mind on the end game.  Earth isn't our home and it isn't where we will be rewarded.  Grumbling about the current world, especially against fellow believers, won't actually do any good.  There are ways to appropriately fight injustice, but that isn't the same as grumbling. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Thoughts on James 4: When to call others out

James is blunt.  He does not mince words. 
  • If you vacillate between your love of God and love of the world, you are an adulterer.  
  • Weep in repentance for being double-minded.  
  • Your life is nothing but a puff of smoke.  
  • If you don't know do what you know the good thing is, you sin.
It is interesting that the same author who warns his readers about guarding their tongues is so forthright in his admonitions.  Apparently guarding ones tongue does not necessarily mean refraining from offending others.  James surely offended some of his readers.  But then in v.11 he admonishes not to speak against other believers.  So perhaps the conclusion here is that one can state principles bluntly, but not call individuals out on those principles?  Perhaps calling out individuals (in public, private is okay--see 5:19-20) is where one crosses the line because tearing someone down in public stems from personal internal passions (v.1)? I'm really not sure.

 What I do know is that James wants our focus to be on internal issues.  When we see pride in ourselves, we ought to "grieve, mourn, and weep" in humbling ourselves before God.  God, then, can lift us up.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Thoughts on James 3: Not many should be teachers

For the past 23 years I have been a teacher in some capacity or another.  The past few months I think is the longest stretch where I haven't taught since I was a teenager.  So, every time I read James 3:1, it makes me cringe a little.  I don't cringe because I don't want to believe it.  I cringe because I know just how true it is.  You not only face the daunting task of taming your tongue, but everything you say is magnified due to a forced audience.

I get queasy every time I think about the various improper things I have said in front of my students.  I regret a lot and am often on the verge of despising myself for all of my many mistakes. 

And yet, as I write this, I also know that I am actually a pretty good teacher.  I do have a gift for explaining complex things in ways that others find easier to understand.  But, I also know that I don't want to teach right now.  I don't think I am in a place mentally or spiritually where I can adequately guard my tongue.  I think this is the point of James 3:1.  As a teacher, all the normal damage that can be done with your tongue is amplified. 

So, what should be coming out of our mouth?  I think the attributes of wisdom that James expresses in vv. 13-18 is a good start.  I want to attain that kind of wisdom before I get back in front of a class of any kind.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Thoughts on James 2: Showing favortism in the church

I have far too many thoughts for the amount of time I have to write today.  In fact, I am in the early stages of writing a book based on vv. 1-9.  So, yes, I have a lot of thoughts.

Many of these thoughts were triggered by my first experience being at a church where I wasn't known by the credentials of my father and grandfather (both pastors).  I grew up doing ministry.  For me, that was always what it meant to be part of a church.  I couldn't really envision being a part of a church without being active in ministry.  Then I started going to a church while attending graduate school.  I was treated as a second-hand citizen, probably due to a combination of being single and being socially awkward.  I received snide remarks from members.  Even the well-intentioned ones acted in ways that belittled me.  This church wanted to start a new ministry in an area where I had experience starting and running a similar one.  I offered my services.  The pastors rejected them. This left a mark on me and it still hurts to think about it.

Upon thinking about it further over the years, I have been on both sides of the favoritism scale in churches.  I grew up being the favorite and receiving special treatment.  I never realized this until I was on the other side. 

I our churches, we need to be very careful about these things.  It is hard enough for a stranger to walk into a church.  How much harder is it for the stranger to be on the losing end of blatant favoritism?  Will that person enter back into those doors?  What type of long-term damage will be done?  Are we hindering people from entering the Kingdom?  For now, these are just some thoughts.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Thoughts on James 1: Looking in the mirror

James is a very dense book.  Dense in that there are several take-away points in every chapter.  The first chapter is no exception.  A few years ago, when I was attending a small church, the pastor went on a brief sabbatical and I filled in for five weeks behind the pulpit.  I pulled five sermons out of the first chapter of James, and I could have easily done more than that.

Right now I am going to focus on vv. 19-27 (and will probably do the rest of the chapter in future years as I hopefully remain faithful to this blog and continue to revise my chapter-by-chapter thoughts), mostly because those are the verses most applicable to my own life at the moment. 

One of the primary reasons I made the commitment to write thoughts several days a week on a chapter of the Bible was that I found myself slacking in my own study.  I would do the reading, but it wouldn't seep in.  I was looking in the mirror and then forgetting what I looked like.  It was affecting my life.  I was becoming bitter with my life circumstances.  Since I started this practice, I do recognize a shift in my mindset.  While I can't say that I'm joyful with my life circumstances yet, I'm not bitter now either.  It has significantly helped my marriage.

Perhaps the biggest struggle for me was guarding my tongue.  As James points out in v. 26, my religion became futile.  Considering that most of my human interaction since my wife and I moved is with my Hindu in-laws, this was a problem.  I generally reserve speaking about living with Asperger's to my other blog, but I think this verse is particularly important with those of us who profess Christ living on the autism spectrum.  Neurologically, we have a propensity to not hold our tongue.  We tend to speak whatever is on our mind and offend people while doing it.  We then use our neurological framework as an excuse.  That isn't what God wants.  We are as responsible for holding our tongues as anyone else is.  Just because it is harder for us, doesn't mean we shouldn't do it.  Those not on the spectrum generally have a harder time neurologically following rules than we do, but that doesn't mean that they don't have to follow rules.  Holding our tongue is the hard part for us, but we are still responsible for doing it. 

We all need to take an honest look at ourselves in the mirror and, in the light of Scripture, evaluate where we are and where we need to be.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Thoughts on III John: What a good pastor should look like

III John seems to have two basic messages:
  1. Support missionaries
  2. Watch out for dangerous pastors
I'll focus briefly on the second.  It appears that Diophrenes was a leader in a local congregation in that he had the ability to force out members.  He was arrogant and did not recognize apostolic authority.

Unfortunately, this is not a completely rare circumstance.  I have known my fair share of arrogant people who were attracted to full-time ministry (especially youth ministry).  If you think about it, it makes sense.  How many other jobs are there where people will automatically look up to you just because of the position you hold?  How much of a rush is it to have a room full of people listening to you give a talk every week?  And of the jobs where it is possible to do this, becoming a pastor probably has the fewest hurdles.  (This is coming from a former college professor.  I had people looking up to me and they literally got tested on how well they paid attention to what I said.  I saw many of my colleagues let that get to their heads.  But it is a lot harder to become a professor than a pastor.  Sorry to all you seminary grads out there, but my Ph.D. program was significantly more difficult than your seminary courses.  I was sitting in on seminary courses when I was in high school.) 

In my view, it is important for seminaries and churches to do a better job weeding out people like this before being given a place of authority.  (If your church needs help with an issue like this, I have a friend who does some church/ministry consulting who is really good at spotting and figuring out how to deal with such individuals.)

So, what should you look for in a pastor?  In my view (and it is only my view), the best pastors are those who didn't necessarily see themselves as a pastor because they don't particularly like the limelight.  They are aware of their own failings and therefore don't feel comfortable being the spiritual leader of others.  These individuals are generally not charismatic, but have a preaching style that is more like a teacher.  They understand people and have a humility in navigating interpersonal relationships.  These are the people I think we should encourage to go to seminary.  We should encourage them because too often they do not think they would be good pastors.

If we change the model of what a good pastor looks like, then we might avoid more Diophrenes.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Thoughts on II John: What to do with false teachers

In many respects, II John seems like a summary of I John, but with greater emphasis on false teachers.  You have the theme of loving God by obeying His commands.  You have warnings about falling away from the faith.  But the instructions on false teachers seems to be more emphatic.  Perhaps this is simply because it is a shorter letter (a total of 13 verses).

John refers to false teachers in this letter as "antichrists" and advises to not let them into your homes or even to acknowledge them in public.  I've always wondered about about how literally to take this.  Take, for example, Jehoveh's Witnesses.  I think they would qualify under John's descritpion of false teachers.  When they knock on your door, should you refuse to answer it, not allow them to enter the threshold, or something else?  How can we share the truth with them if we cannot acknowledge them in public?  Or was in the case that the false teachers John is talking about had actually infiltrated the established church (rather than creating a new one) and were therefore somehow more insidius?  I don't have answers to these questions, but I do think they are worth asking.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Thoughts on I John 5: the circle of obedience

Chapter 5 is another dense passage and my semi-random thoughts will certainly not do it justice.  The first few verses reiterate one of John's primary themes: We are children of God who can show our love to Him by obeying His commandments.

John then does something I don't think I ever noticed before doing my reading today--he starts using the language of a warfare.  Jesus, who came by "water and blood", conquered the world.  This seems out of place given the overwhelming themes in the rest of the book of love and obedience.  But it does make sense upon further thought.  Not only did Jesus conquer the world, so does our faith in him.  If we go back to chapter 2, we see the world defined as, "...the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the arrogance produced by material possessions..."  Our faith in Christ can conquer these things. 

So what we seem to have is a circle of faith/obedience that might seem odd.  Christ is God's son.  Those of us who have faith in Christ are God's adopted children.  The faith that makes us adopted children also empowers us to obey the Heavenly Father.  This obedience is one key way to show our love to God.  So God, through the gift of His son, empowered us to join His family and to love Him.  

The rest of the chapter gets into some of the complicated themes that we touched on in chapter 3, but I do not feel adequate to tackle them at this time.  Maybe in future years as I continue my study and think about these things.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Thoughts on I John 4: read it for its deep simplicity

I once heard a Bible teacher refer to I John as "The Book of Love".  Reading chapter 4, it is hard to dispute that description.  This chapter is all about love: God's love for us, and the appropriate response of loving God back as well as our spiritual sisters and brothers.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time right now (perhaps more in future readings through the Bible) going through this rich chapter, because I think this one is clear and stands on its own in its simplicity.  I just want to encourage anyone who might be reading this blog to read I John 4 for yourself, slowly, and let its richness seep into your heart.

Thoughts on I John 3: Sin in the Christian life

The third chapter of I John is perhaps one of the more challenging in the Bible, both from an interpretive and an applicative standpoint.

I'll deal with the interpretive issue first.  Verse 6 says, "Everyone who resides in him [Jesus] does not sin; everyone who sins has neither seen him nor known him."  Yikes.  From an interpretive standpoint, this gets even more complex because at the beginning of I John 2, the author makes very clear that Christians do sin.  I'm going to be honest and tell you that I'm not quite sure what to make of this passage.  My best educated guess is that it is referring to "living a life of sin"--that is, living a life in which committing sin is the norm and there is no guilt for it.  Here is a much better analysis of I John 3:6.

If this interpretation is correct, it still leads to a very difficult application.  I grew up in a church that essentially taught what is sometimes referred to as "easy believism".  Too often I hear something to the effect of, "If you ask Jesus into your heart, then you will go to heaven.  It doesn't matter what happens from here on out, you can be sure of your salvation."  Or, to put it differently, "Pray a prayer and you get your guaranteed ticket." (For the record, my church would have never actually stated the second version, but I have heard a more blunt pastor put it that way once.)  The problem is that I don't see any way for this theological position to square with today's passage or many other places in the Bible.  To read a much more thorough (yet still incomplete) analysis, check out John MacArthur's controversial The Gospel According to Jesus: What Is Authentic Faith?.

This is a very dense chapter, but I want to bring out one final point.  (I have a feeling this post will be edited and added to quite a bit in the future.)  At the end of the chapter John summarizes what it means to  be righteous before God.  He says, "Now this is his commandment: that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he gave us the commandment."  My analysis of what "believe" means in the New Testament will have to wait for another day.  But, righteousness is summarized as having true faith in Christ and loving each other.  Very simple, but also very hard.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Thoughts on I John 2: The life of obedience

Something that strikes me as I read I John is the emphasis that John places on obedience to God.  To him, that is one of the core features of being a Christian.  If you don't believe me, just read verses 3-6.

So what does this life of obedience look like?  One component is that a Christian ought to love his "brother" (or, as I believe the NET translation correctly extrapolates it "fellow Christian").  Hating ones brother is akin to walking in darkness, which we know from the first chapter is a reference to being out of fellowship with God.  In other words, you cannot be in fellowship with God if you are not in Fellowship with his other followers.

What else does it mean to live a life of obedience?  Verses 15-17 talk about not loving the world.  What is meant by "the world"? "...the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the arrogance produced by material possessions..." (verse 16, NET). We aren't to love these things if we are to have fellowship with God.  These things take away our attention from God and God's family.

I tend to think of these as new problems in Western culture.  They aren't new.  John is talking about them in the 1st century, apparently because there were false teachers (verses 18-27) presenting these things as being the true way to God.  We still have these false teachers today, but I'm not sure there was ever a point in Church history where we didn't have them.  The problems are old, but the are still relevant and we need to keep our focus on continued fellowship with God to counteract these false desires.

Thoughts on I John 1: Turning darkness to light

For many of us who grew up in the Church, we memorized I John 1:9, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."  While it is a very good verse to learn, we might be missing part of it's meaning without the context.

Verse 3 makes reference to our fellowship with the Father and Son.  Verse 5 points out that the Father is light and in him is no darkness.  Verses 6, 8, and 10 point out that we do have darkness--we sin.  So verse 9 is the key that enables us, who have darkness, to still have fellowship with the Father who has no darkness.  He gave us a way to have our darkness cleansed (or "turned to light" if you are bothered by the mixed metaphor).

I would say that this is a powerful message about salvation, except that I'm not convinced that it's actually about salvation (at least not completely).  If you read the text completely, it is actually about continued fellowship.  The "confess" in verse 9 isn't the initial act of repentance in becoming a Christian, but rather a continual act of repentance to maintain fellowship with the Father.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Thoughts on Hebrews 13: Immitating our leaders

In the closing statements, the author of Hebrews throws out a lot of quick admonitions.  The two that stick out at me today while I am writing this are: 1) Help those in need, and 2) Obey your leaders/imitate them.

The list of those in need aren't necessarily those we might think of today.  Show hospitality.  Remember those in prison and who are otherwise being tormented.  Bear the abuse Christ suffered. Share what you have (while being content with what you have).  I've said this before, but I think Christians in the West today are spoiled.  We never have to interact with those in prison (or recognize they are there).  We don't personally encounter the tormented (at least that we know of). I'm not sure we have any concept of what it means to bear the abuse Christ suffered.  We're generally not content with what we have and not willing to share what we have with others.

The other thing that might sound odd to our modern Western ears is that we are to obey and imitate our leaders.  From the context I am fairly certain this references spiritual leaders (although Peter and Paul in their writings certainly make it clear that we are not exempt from obeying political leaders).  Even outside Protestant circles, Western Christians tend to have a post-Reformation mindset.  We pay so much attention to the malfeasance of a few bad leaders that we fail to recognize the good in most of them.  If we don't recognize that good, it becomes very hard to both obey and imitate.

But I think there is a secondary problem as well.  In our post-Reformation mindset, we want to choose our own leaders.  As someone with a Ph.D. in Government, I can safely say that popularly choosing leaders is not always a good thing.  People tend to choose the most charismatic leaders, not those whose lives should be imitated.  A look at history shows the damage this can inflict (Hitler was popularly elected).  Why would we do this in the Church?  And we do we get up and find someplace else to worship if the leaders say something that makes us uncomfortable?

Again, these are just a few thoughts.  Take them for what they are.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Thoughts on Hebrews 12: God punishes us in love

It is entirely possible that I have written and taught more on this passage than any other passage in the Bible.  Having said that, I'm not sure my thoughts here are all that profound.  I think it's far more that this is a difficult passage to read and stomach.

When I was in college, I somehow was given the responsibility of writing a weekly devotional for the campus newspaper (it was a small, Christian college).  Every week I was supposed to meet with the chaplain to clear the devotional with him.  Things went fine until I wrote up a few thoughts on Hebrews 12.  He read what I wrote and wouldn't accept it, not because anything I said was wrong, but that "it might be too hard for college students to accept."  (I broke the rules and published it anyway.  I then didn't clear any others with him either.)

What makes this passage so hard?  Is it that we don't like to think about God punishing us?  Is it that punishment somehow is diametrically opposed to the concept of love in our minds?  Is it that we try to disavow a wrathful God from being part of the New Testament?

I think Hebrews 12 exposes us to some characteristics of God that don't match our sometimes "warm fuzzy" picture of Him.  We don't like to think of God as someone who still punishes.  "Didn't that all end with Christ's death on the cross?" we might like to think.  We tend to ignore that God is still holy.  That is one of the key themes throughout the book of Hebrews. He is completely set apart from sin and cannot stand to be in its presence.  We must come to Him on His terms.  He offered us a path.  The path won't be easy as He will still punish us as His children.  He won't accept us if we reject Him (thus violating the path He created).    Even when we follow the path, the path will be hard.

Maybe this is why so many of us have so much trouble with this passage.  We want the version of Christianity we might have heard as  a child, "God loves you and all you need is to accept Jesus into your heart and you can go to heaven."  While the words are true, the way they are presented might be misleading.  The "all you need to do" implies a simple, easy journey.  It isn't.  It is a hard, perilous journey.  This is why the author of Hebrews repeatedly warns his readers against falling away.  The warning is there because we need to hear it.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Thoughts on Hebrews 11: What does a faithful person look like in God's eyes?

Hebrews 11 has always been a humbling chapter for me to read.  This is for two reasons.  The first is the obvious that I look at the faith of some of the greats from the Old Testament and wonder if I could ever be like one of them.  This is particularly difficult for me over the past couple years as I've felt like I've been walking blind and the goals I thought God had laid out for me I don't see any path to achieving.  Looking at Noah and Abraham in particular is particularly humbling in this light.

The second reason that this chapter is always humbling to me is that I realize some of the things I focus on are not exactly God's.  I consider myself a "good person".  I authentically live a very clean life and don't commit the big, obvious sins that most people do.  This chapter reminds me that I should not be proud of that.  Take a look at the list of people applauded for their faith, especially in vv. 31-32.  Included in this list we have a prostitute, an adulterer, a murderer, someone led to do really stupid things by his sex drive, and someone who sacrificed his daughter after making a stupid vow.  That's a list of people who commit some sin whoppers that we should avoid.  Yet they got into the "Hall of Faith".  This shows me that God does not emphasize the same things that I do, and that I need to watch my attitude.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Thoughts on Hebrews 10: Living in repsonse to proper theology

Today, rather than writing more on the shadow of the old covenant in contrast with the reality of the new, I want to focus on the Christian response to these things, as highlighted in verses 19 to the end of the chapter.

The author of Hebrews is very concerned with living in response to proper theology (something I think most of us should probably do a better job with--either on the living side or on the proper theology side).  As a result of Christ as the high priest of the new covenant, we are able to draw near to God (v. 22) which at least partially happens through meeting together with other believers (vv. 24-25).  And why should we continue meeting together?  To prevent the warnings in verses 26-31.  In other words, we meet together to encourage each other from falling away so that we will be able to take advantage of the access granted to us through Christ's sacrifice.

In the modern West, not attending church tends to be an issue driven by laziness more than anything else.  However, the end of chapter 10 indicates that was not the problem for these readers.  They were being actively persecuted for meeting together and thereby identifying themselves as Christ followers.  For them, meeting together was a very serious matter.  Yet they were encouraged to meet together.  How much more so for us today when our biggest obstacles are sleeping in or catching the football game?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Thoughts on Hebrews 9: New covenant is superior to the old

In this chapter, the author of Hebrews really puts a lot of emphasis on the idea of the "new covenant" as being superior to the old and making the old covenant obsolete.  There is a lot of theological controversy over how far "obsolete" extends (is the OT still relevant in matters of law and morals, should signs of the new covenant mirror the signs of the old, etc).  We won't be getting into those.

What I do want to note is the superiority of the new covenant over the old.  The author of Hebrews briefly described the rarity and difficulty of entering the Most Holy Place, even if you were a priest.  That most holy place was designed as a mere copy of the throne room of God.  Priests had a hard time entering the copy of God's sanctuary.  Jesus stands in the real thing, mediating on our behalf.

Beyond this, we don't have a lot of clues as to what makes this new covenant better.  We do get a brief mention of it being enacted on "better promises".  We don't know exactly what these better promises are, but one thing that jumps out at me is the promise in the old covenant of a promised land vs. the promise in the new covenant of heaven.  I'd say that was a step up.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Thoughts on Hebrews 8: Christ is the superior mediator

Christ is the superior mediator (compared with earthly priests) because he has immediate access to God. The sacrificial system was a mere shadow of the reality of Christ's mediation.

I confess that this isn't something I've thought much about.  This is probably due to my privileged status of being able to just assume this is always the case, and therefore something I take for granted.  But, this really is a very big deal.

Think about it this way.  We are stained with sin, so we cannot enter the very presence of a holy God.  God could not bare it.  There was an impenetrable barrier between us and God.  Christ broke down the barrier, stands in the very presence of God himself, and intercedes on our behalf.  That's a big deal and something I should take more seriously.

I'll discuss more on the new covenant discussion that shows up at the end of chapter 8 while discussing other chapters.