The Bible talks a lot about "hope." If you read the English translations, we "hope" in Jesus Christ, we "hope" for a time to be in heaven. The problem is that in America at least the word hope is hopelessly weak. We use the word "hope" in common speech to mean something that you wish would happen but probably will not happen. For instance, we might say:
- I hope it rains today. (I’d like it to rain, but I doubt it will.)
- I hope he gets here on time. (I want him to be here on time but he is almost always late.)
- I hope I do well on the test. (I want to get a good grade, but I am scared I might fail.)
When we "hope" in Jesus Christ we are not talking about something we want to be true but are pretty sure is false. Hope in the Biblical sense is a very strong word and it means something slightly different than what we mean by the world. To "hope" in Christ is to mean that we are sure of the truth of our faith–we are positive–but that we realize we cannot see it yet, at least not fully. When we hope in Christ, we know that Christ will triumph and we will be victorious although we are not victorious today. When we hope in Christ, we know that we are going to heaven–we are totally sure–but we are not there yet and cannot even clearly imagine heaven.
The hope we have is that Jesus is who He said He was: the Son of God. Jesus told Pontius Pilate before His Crucifixion why He came to earth. He said plainly to Pilate that He came to earth for one reason. You may not know what it is. (You can find it in the Gospel of John in the part where Jesus has a conversation, one on one, with the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, the highest-ranking person Jesus ever talked to on earth.) Jesus said He came here to "testify to the Truth." Jesus came here to be a witness for the Truth.
What is the Truth? Jesus said He was the Way, the Truth,and the Life. The Truth is that there is only one way to heaven and that is through Jesus Christ. Our hope is in Jesus. This doesn’t mean we are wishing Jesus was telling the truth. It means knowing He was write, but not totally seeing everything clearly yet. Our hope is in Christ.
If you live in the United States, you have surely heard of Amanda Knox. She is the pretty young student who traveled to Italy and got mixed up in a murder trial. We know certain facts about her: she shared a house with three other students, one of whom, Meredith Kercher, was brutally raped and murdered. She was interrogated as a person of interest in the case and gave conflicting accounts and accused an innocent man of committing the crime. Amanda Knox stood trial for murder in Italy and was acquitted, although her case may be reopened soon. Whether or not she was involved in the murder is an open question and one of not particular relevance here. The point is that Amanda Knox was an American who ran afoul of the legal system in another country.
Amanda Knox got tons of media coverage. She became front page news here and in Europe during her trial and even now. She is supposed to be writing a book about her life which is no doubt going to make her very rich. The media loves her.
So why doesn’t it love Pastor Saeed Abedini as much? He too is an American. He is a young, good-looking, foreign-born naturalized U.S. citizen with a wife and two kids. He pastored a church in the United States and traveled frequently to the land where he was born–Iran. He traveled legally. He got arrested in Iran and is being detained in Evin Prison where he has been tortured and mistreated. He is bleeding internally and in need of medical attention. Iranian officials said they would take him to get care but when he was brought to the hospital, he was not given treatment and made to return to prison without any care. The officials said the reason for this strange "outing" was that the specialist who was to care for him was not available at the time. Abedini may be in urgent need of medical care, but his captors will not let him out.
So why is Abedini not the subject of much media attention? True, Secretary of State John Kerry has made some overtures and there are organizations working diligently to free Abedini, but the fact is, the media is ignoring him. The same media that treated us to moment-by-moment details of Amanda Knox’s imprisonment (and she may have been guilty of murder) ignores the life-and-death struggle of an American pastor in an Iranian jail. Abedini got a trial–but he was not allowed to attend all of it. He was sentenced in a prison where beatings and torture are routine. And the media ignores him.
And that brings me to Pastor Benhamin Irani. He is Iranian and never left his native land. He is a pastor, like Abedini, and he converted to Christianity, like Abedini. His imprisonment also came with torture and beatings to the point that Irani for a while could not walk and was thought to be near death. Like Abedini, he was denied medical care. We understand from reports through Christian organizations that Irani may be recovering somewhat–praise God for that! But why is the American and European media so silent about Irani?
Irani is a prisoner of conscience. He is in jail because of his faith. He is mistreated almost to the point of death. And yet the media is more interested in the trial of a woman who was–at the very least–at least somewhat guilty in the chain of events associated with the murder of Meredith Kercher (and by that I mean by lying to authorities that she saw another man kill Kercher … something she later recanted).
Why are we so silent? Pastors Irani and Abedini are being persecuted for their faith. I pray for their health, strength, boldness, deepening of faith, and their release. I pray that they will be able to completely forgive their captors and persecutors … and the media, that so disowned them.
Christians who repent of their sins and put their total trust in Jesus Christ of the Bible are saved and have stepped out of darkness into what Peter so beautifully describes as "marvelous light." How did this happen? Grace. We are saved by grace through faith. We have faith and God’s grace allows us to be born again.
It’s supernatural stuff.
How much grace do you deserve? None. God is under no obligation to forgive us of our sins, any more than you are obliged to forgive sins. But God is so rich in mercy that He forgives us a lifetime’s worth of sin and lavishes on us riches beyond what anybody on earth can even imagine.
Do you have the picture? You don’t deserve anything–you can’t "force" anybody to give you anything–and yet God pours out wealth beyond measure on you.
That’s grace, and I don’t know about you, but I live on it.
I so love grace that I try to live it out in small ways. I overpay people who do small jobs for me. When the neighborhood Girl Scout came around to sell cookies, I bought five boxes and then gave them away (I have a slight problem eating Girl Scout cookies called overindulgence). I overtip.
I don’t just tip too much.
I purposefully, deliberately, and joyfully plunk down too much money.
I am not wealthy, not by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m not an heiress. To tell you the truth, I’m a little concerned that I don’t have enough money socked away for retirement. But I still overtip.
It’s an example of grace.
I once ate in a Mexican restaurant in Houston, Texas. I was with another Christian lady and the service was abysmal. Our waitress was without doubt one of the worst I’ve ever had. I can still picture her. She was not only incompetent, she was rude besides and served up the tacos with an extra side of attitude.
We tipped her 25%. Maybe it was even more than that.
It made us so joyful, you can’t imagine. To this day, I don’t think I ever had a better restaurant experience. In a small, silly way, I got to dole out grace to her. She wasn’t good to us and she didn’t deserve any tip at all, and we gave her a nice fat tip and thanked her as we left.
Illustrated here are a couple of radical terrorist Lutheran ladies catching up on their crochet bombs.
The Army–that’s the U.S. one–has decided that both Evangelical Christians and Catholics belong on this watch list. Check out the story about the U.S. Army making Evangelicals into terrorists.
This comes from our friend Robert Spencer over at Jihad Watch.
It’s easy to see how you could confuse Evangelical Christians and Al-Qaeda. Remember the time the Baptists commandeered a plane and crashed into the World Trade Center back in 2001? Oh, wait … that was Al-Qaeda. Well, how about the Presbyterians who harass Israelis? Oh, whoops, that’s Hamas. Maybe I’m thinking about the Catholics in Afghanistan who refused to let little school girls run out of a school without their burkas … even though the school was on fire and they all perished. Oh, that’s the Taliban. I always get them mixed up.
May God protect us from the U.S. Army.
This couple was born in Iran but are now American citizens living in Idaho. Saeed Abedini converted from the Muslim religion to Christianity in 2000 at around age 20. His wife, Naghmeh, was born in Iran but moved to the U.S. as a child; she became an American citizen and converted to Christianity. The couple have two children and travel frequently to Iran. In fact, Saeed and Naghmeh met in Iran where he was planting house churches. He is called pastor from his work there; he is not a pastor at his current church. Saeed and Naghmeh married in 2004 and they have two children.
Believe it or not, it is not illegal to establish, run, or attend a house church in Iran. However, Iran views such efforts with suspicion. In 2009, Pastor Abedini reached an agreement with the Iranian government; he would stop building out his network of house churches and focus on establishing an orphanage in Tehran. He traveled eight times to Tehran since 2009 for work on the orphanage.
In September 2012, he was arrested, but charges were not made known until recently. That’s not unusual in Iran. The case against him is not what you would think; he is not in trouble over planting churches. The main accusations break down into these items:
· He converted to Christianity in 2000 (that’s illegal)
· He persuaded other Muslims to convert to Christianity (that’s very illegal)
· His efforts in establishing a network of house churches was actually an attempt to undermine Iranian national security (that’s a death penalty crime)
During his incarceration, he is known to have been beaten and abused. He was being held in Evin Prison in Tehran but once his family went to visit him and was informed he was not there. It is suspected he was receiving medical treatment following some abuse.
He is going to go before Judge Pir-Abassi, a notoriously strict judge. His trial started on January 21. On the first day, his attorney was able to present a case in front of the Revolutionary Guard Court in Tehran. The next day, both Abedini and the lawyer were banned from the court room. While this was a surprise (and it means Abedini’s chance to defend himself is over), it is not illegal in Tehran to run a court this way.
The U.S. has been strangely silent in this matter, although Abedini is an American. The U.S. does not have diplomatic ties to Iran, which makes it complicated for our Secretary of State to act. he U.S. National Security Council has spoken out in his defense.
What can we do?
- · Please pray that Pastor Abedini and has family will be strong in this difficult time and that they will have the courage and boldness to go through this persecution.
- · Please pray that Judge Pir-Abassi will be saved through this event.
- · Sign a petition to free him at aclj.org.
Voice of the Martyrs will soon be carrying updates about this situation.
It’s been a while since I’ve blogged here–thanks for those who kept reading even if I was remiss.
About 200 million Christians around the world were persecuted for their faith last year. That’s more than the global population of people who have cancer (all types) and HIV/AIDS … combined.
Persecution takes many forms, but think of these:
- A pastor of a church is taken to prison because he is running a church (which is against the law in some countries) … and he is detained for several years, subjected even to torture, and the authorities do not inform his family where he is or what has happened to him
- A young girl converts to Christianity and is thrown out by her Muslim family … and then is arrested on trumped-up charges that she defiled a holy book. She winds up in prison for a year, awaiting trial, with the possibility that this could be a death-penalty offense. Her family joins the accusers.
- People in a legal church in Nigeria are gunned down in the middle of services. The attackers also bring machetes and several people, including children, lose arms and legs in the attack.
- A 30-year-old mother of two in Pakistan tells some of her coworkers about Jesus and winds up in jail. She’s been there for going on four years and has not seen her children. She is facing the death penalty for blasphemy.
- About a quarter of the Christians in North Korea are detained in concentration camps at hard labor.
- A lawyer interested in human rights for Chinese Christians has been detained for many years, tortured, and is often held at remote and undisclosed locations.
These are all actual stories. And for every Christian who goes to prison, there are many more left behind … wives and husbands left to raise families as single parents, churches left without pastors or leadership, and families hit hard by legal costs as they attempt to deal with the court systems.
In some parts of the world, coming to Christ means giving up all chances at a good job … or any job at all. It may mean expulsion from school. It can mean getting harassed in the community. Police and medical services may be unavailable for Christians in parts of the world where Christianity is either illegal or discouraged.
God’s plan for the church has always included persecution. It’s how the church grows. In China–a nation with many Christians behind bars or suffering other forms of persecution–about 12,000 souls are born again every single day.
Iran–a hotbed of persecution for Christians–is seeing unprecedented growth in salvations right now.
And North Korea, possibly the darkest spot on the planet with zero tolerance for Christians has about 400,000 Christians willing to risk life and limb (and the lives of their families in that Korea often arrests family members with the offender) to worship Christ and evangelize and make disciples in His name.
These people are our brothers and sisters. The Bible tells us that we have fellowship with those who are in Christ. These people may not look like us or speak the same language or wear the same clothing … but they are more family to us than many people in our biological families (if you, like me, live in a family that includes many unsaved people).
Please consider visiting Voice of the Martyrs (it’s a very detailed website, check out all the options) and learning more about our brothers and sisters in chains. Do what you can for them. Remember, Jesus said whatever we do for the least of our brothers … that we do for Him. Brothers here does not mean any guy on the street. It means the other souls who are in Christ.
By now a lot of the dust has settled over a strange news story in which an elderly parishoner in Spain tried to restore a damaged fresco of Jesus Christ in her church. She was not properly trained in art restoration, in fact, she was not trained in art at all. Her efforts likely sprang from good intentions, but the end result of her work is so shocking that the botched restoration is now a tourist attraction in its own right. However, there is much to be learned about the triptych above showing the original fresco (far left), the fresco after years of wear (middle), and her restoration (right).
This made me think of how in the United States, we, too, botch the image of Christ by trying to create a Jesus that is suited to our liking. Jesus is accurately and adequately presented in the Scriptures. We have a correct image of Him in the Bible. That’s the left-hand image. But through neglect of the Bible and lack of sound teaching, that image gets worn and faded. We forget His excellencies. We demean Him. We do not exalt Him as we should. He gets battered. That’s the center image.
And then along comes somebody who is going to "re-introduce" us to this Jesus, to make Him fresh and new and relevant and more suited to modern life. This art restorer is very much like so many of our false teachers today. Here’s how:
- She lacks the credentials or training to restore an image of Christ, but she does so anyway, assuming her gifts outweigh her educational deficits.
- She had "good intentions" which are supposed to outweigh her bad results.
- She omitted the Crown of Thorns, leaving a key piece of the Crucifixion out of her presentation.
- She created a bottom scroll that wasn’t in the original, adding her own embellishments to the presentation.
- She failed to show us anything even remotely like the original in the face–no beauty, no pathos, no nuance, not even all the features are there!
False teachers use Scripture to present a message that is just as ugly and distorted. They omit certain things, add others, and in the end obscure to us the most magnificent story ever told and the most astounding person we could ever hope to encounter. The beauty, compassion, pathos, wisdom is all gone in favor of brighter new colors.
While the art restorer may deserve our pity and compassion for being too befuddled to know what she was doing, false teachers lead people to hell. All the old woman who messed with this painting did was destroy a work of art. But even a single soul is of greater value.
American Christians are often insular. Maybe Christians in other nations are as well. Christianity transcends borders. Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ, even if we live in different cultures and in different corners of the world. Here are some surprising things you may not know about some of your family in Christ.
- In North Korea, about 25% of the nation’s estimated 400,000 believers are in prison.
- In Saudi Arabia, non-Muslim public worship is a criminal offense.
- In Afghanistan, there is not one single church building.
- The largest underground church in Somalia has five believers.
- In Iran, it is illegal to print a Bible.
- In the Maldive Islands (south of India), citizens are required by law to be Muslim and may not legally convert to any other religion.
- In Yemen (and other countries), it is illegal for Christians to evangelize.
- In Eritrea, being an evangelical Christian is a criminal offense.
- In Brunei (near the Philippines), any native-born citizen who converts to any religion from Islam is sent to a "re-education camp."
- In Tajikistan, the Parental Responsibility Law prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from attending any religious activity (Christian or other) with the exception of funerals. If a parent allows a child under 18 to attend such a religious activity, the parent has committed a crime punishable by up to eight years of prison.
Michael Horton offers some great insight into a question we ought to be asking more: what is "the Gospel"?
You hear the term all of the time, but it is theologically important that we understand what it is and what it is not. The Gospel is not a lifestyle; it’s nothing we do. But many of us confuse the law with the Gospel, and that leads to works-righteousness. Works-righteousness is the subtle belief that we somehow in some way can contribute a least a little bit to our own salvation. By doing this, Horton points out, you are in danger of becoming your own Savior.
Check out the Michael Horton video on YouTube (it’s short, just 3 minutes).
By the way, this does not mean there is nothing to do as Christians. Christians should be about the business of doing things–but not as an extension of the Gospel.
Jesus spent the last week of His life on earth in and near Jerusalem, as the Passover was approaching and observant Jews of that era tried to be in Jerusalem at the Temple for the Passover celebration. He arranged with His disciples to eat the traditional Passover meal, the seder, in a rented room. The seder requires specific foods to be eaten which take on important symbolic meanings as Jews remembered the first Passover when the angel of death was unleashed on Egypt and killed the first-born, but Jews who sacrificed a lamb and smeared the lamb’s blood on their doorposts were spared. The holiday in English takes its name from that–the angel of death would "pass over" the houses with the lamb’s blood on the door posts.
Passover was a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ and His ministry. There will one day come judgment for all of us, whether you die today or you are on earth when Jesus returns. Those protected by the blood of the lamb–literal for Moses, symbolic for modern Christians–will be spared or "passed over."
As part of the Passover meal, bread and wine is taken (along with lamb, bitter herbs dipped in salt water, and an egg). In fact, the Jewish tradition called for four glasses of wine and four toasts as part of the celebration.These four cups of wine are known as the cups of redemption, because they speak of God’s redeeming power for His people. The first cup symbolizes how God delivered His people out of Egypt. The second cup symbolizes how God delivered His people from slavery. Both of those were well-known historical events even back in the first century. The third cup symbolizes that God will redeem His people with a demonstration of His power. In fact, the third cup is the cup of redemption. The fourth cup symbolizes the fact that God will make His people His nation. The third cup is the wine that is taken with the bread, so when Jesus held up the bread and wine, most interpreters agree that it was the third cup He drank.
But Jesus did not speak the traditional Jewish words over this cup of wine and piece of bread. Instead, He said that the bread was His body and the wine was His blood, which would be given up for us. He also told us to repeat this toast–this ceremony–"in memory of Me."
It is often lost on Christians that the Lord’s Supper harks back to the Old Testament Passover and borrows from the Jewish tradition of drinking a cup of redemption with some bread to honor the fact that God will redeem His people. Jesus knew what it meant, and His disciples understood that He was talking about redemption, even if nobody really knew why Jesus called the elements His body and His blood. This statement reflects the fact that in order for the redemption of God to occur, Jesus was going to have to allow His body to be broken and His blood to be spilled. He was not talking about a magical transformation, He was explaining the symbols. Just as a sip of wine and a bite of bread were to remind Jews that God would redeem them one day, Jesus was, in effect, saying, "I am going to redeem you and it is My body that will be broken and My blood that will be shed to do it."
Then Jesus said something even more curious. He told the disciples to keep up this tradition but to do it in the future "in remembrance of me." Observant Jews in the days of Jesus and even today keep the Passover and eat the seder and maintain the traditions specifically to remember the important things that God did for them. They toast the deliverance up out of Egypt (cup one) and out of slavery (cup two). They toast the redemption and the fact that one day God will establish His nation on earth. For observant Jews in the days of Jesus, cups one and two were things to remember and cups three and four were things to anticipate in the future.
But Jesus took the cup and bread and instructed His followers that the next time they did this, it was to be done in His memory. He was saying that He would be the fulfillment of the cup of redemption. None of the disciples could have anticipated how quickly that would occur–at the point He says this, Jesus was within hours of His trial and His crucifixion.
How could the disciples remember something that had not yet even happened? Jesus was borrowing from the Passover theme of remembrance and since His death, burial, and resurrection would happen within the week, He was asking them to remember His words as they sat down to the Passover meal together.
And how can we, modern believers, remember something we did not experience? Jesus has not been on the earth for two thousand years. How can we remember His resurrection? For us, it is not so much a remembering of a literal event as the recollection of what Jesus did.
The Bible is full of admonitions to remember what God has done. The Lord’s Supper is a means of grace established for us to remember what Jesus has done. Many churches are getting away from the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, particularly the big mega-churches where the logistics make it difficult to serve communion. If a church is too big for communion on a regular basis, it’s too big. Jesus called us to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and to do as an act of remembrance. Providing one approaches it reverently and sincerely, there is probably no way you can take the Lord’s Supper too frequently. But we are called by Jesus Himself not just to read our Bible or go to church but to take the cup and the bread and do it, in remembrance of Him.
I once went to a church for over five years and never knew that the pastor was an "old earther." It just never came up, and that’s the trouble. Creation is one of those topics in so many modern churches that "doesn’t come up." You can find sermons on budgeting, exercise, and your sex life, but you won’t hear a pastor open the Bible to the first chapters of Genesis.
In case you have never heard the term, an old earther is a person who believes that the earth is millions of years old. Now just about every atheist and non-religious person in the West is an old earther. The term "millions of years old" is so common, we almost do not even register it. A geologist finds a rock and pronounces it "millions of years old." An anthropologist digs up a bone and decides, it must be "millions of years old." Fossils are routinely declared millions of years old, as is the earth–if you are an old earther.
Young earthers are people who believe that creation took place in six literal days. And since the sixth day involved the creation of Adam and Eve, Bible detectives can start to date the genealogies from Adam and Eve right down to today. Believe it or not, the Bible provides that genealogy–who begat whom and how old people were. Granted, it is hard to do this exactly down to the year, but those who have done the research arrive at a number of around 6,000 years. Add some wiggle room to that and you have six to 10 thousand years–and a young earther will tell you the earth is around 6,000 to 10,000 years old, period.
That means no rock, no star, no fossil is more than a six to 10,000 years old, probably a lot less.
You would think that Christians who call themselves Bible believers would all be young earthers, but the fact is, most are old earthers. Why? Because they are brainwashed into what the culture teaches. We think it is "science."
So let the debunking begin.
- First of all, the age of the earth is not science, it’s natural history. Here’s why. Science by definition has to be observable and reproducible. In other words, a scientific experiment or a scientific proof has to be something you can see or experience–and you have to be able to replicate it in another lab with other scientists. Pour vinegar on baking soda and you get a chemical reaction. That’s science–you can observe it and you can replicate the test. The creation of the world was not observed by anyone on earth, nor can anyone on earth duplicate it. Ergo, it’s not science. (You might think I’m splitting hairs but so many people in our culture have a reverence for science, we need to be sure we know that this is natural history.) There is no scientific proof for either old earth or young earth creation.
- Sometimes people think that the old-earth people have all the evidence. Actually, we all share the evidence. It’s a matter of how you interpret it. The fact is that all of the fossilized animals we have appear to come from roughly the same time period. Everyone agrees to that. The old-earth people call it the "Cambrian Explosion" and just say that’s the way it worked out. The young-earth people say, "Ever heard of Noah and the Ark? Those are all of the animals and plants destroyed in a world-wide flood that happened at one point in history."
- There are lots of arguments against an old earth, you’ll just never hear them (I will bring up some more in future posts). But let’s talk about one: comets. If the earth is millions or billions of years old, all of the comets should be gone. The old-earthers have a theory that there is an area in the universe that makes new comets. This is a theory–there is no evidence for it at all except that we have comets.
- If you believe in the Bible, then you know in the Garden of Eden, Eve was tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit and she gave some to Adam, who ate of it. This is the fall of man, the first sin. The Bible says with that event, death entered the world. In other words, before the fall, there was no death. If that’s true and the earth is billions of years old and there were tons of animals on the earth … that means that they did not die. The planet would have been overrun by insects, dinosaurs, fish, and all other animals, reproducing but not dying for century upon century upon century. Just think how many puppies two stray dogs can produce and imagine no animal died … for billions of years. What happened to all of those animals?
- OK, you can be an old-earth person and say that, no, those early animals did die. Then you have a theological problem. If death came before the fall, what was the fall about? And is God a liar making up not just a creation story but also telling us He invented death in response to the fall when, in fact, it had been around for billions of years? The Bible says the wages of sin is death–but if death was here before sin, that does not make any sense.
- And if there were billions of years worth of animals–where are the bones? Forget about when they died … we know they would have died after the fall no matter what. Where are the bones?
- The Bible presents the creation story clearly. It just happens to be at odds with what our modern culture teaches. So when you dismiss it, you are essentially saying that some of the Bible is true, some is not, and you get to decide which is which based on what the world says.
Creation is too important a topic to neglect. Over and over in Scripture, God describes Himself as Creator. It is part of His identity and how He describes Himself to us.
The Bible does not talk about race the way we do. In fact, the Bible pretty much acts like racial lines between blacks and whites or Asians and Inuits do not exist. As far as the Bible is concerned, in the Old Testament there were only two races: Jew and Gentile. We do not typically think of Jews as a race (unless we classify them into the broader racial group of Semitic people). Gentiles are everybody else (non-Jews) and includes black, white, brown, tan, yellow people and everybody else who isn’t Jewish. The Gentiles are frequently just called in Scripture "the nations." It includes all the nations outside of Israel.
Medical science is catching up to the Bible, in that medicine is starting to recognize that race as we once thought of it in the world doesn’t exist. Black people share certain physical similarities as do all genetically interrelated people, but there is no "black race" per se. There are just lots of people who have certain physical similarities. Same as Asians and Hispanics and Indians. And it is perfectly possible to blend races, something we see more and more frequently in the modern world. And while there are racial characteristics that go beyond appearance, including tendencies toward certain diseases or physical conditions, there is nothing that makes a white person different from a black person except the same genetic stuff that makes you different from your in-laws.
So what do we make of race? The Jews are called a chosen people and they are recognized as a race, but it is perhaps not a medical or biological race but rather the fact that the Old Testament singles them out. In the New Testament, God talks about the saved and unsaved, and the fact that the Gentiles are "grafted in" with the Jews. So the issue of distinctions between Jew and Gentile are overwhelmed by the grace of Christ.
So what does the Bible say about race? Not much!
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
Paul wrote it to his friend and protégé, Timothy, as Paul approached the end of a very eventful life. This was not a mission statement, but a pronouncement of accomplishment. Paul did not boast in himself, except that he did what was expected of him. He fought, he finished, he kept the faith.
I was going to an American church of the silliness denomination. I was a new Christian so I had no idea that some churches were money laundering operations while others attempted to preach the word of Christ. In this particular silly church, we sometimes read the Bible and we learned these action-packed verses. But when it got time to stand up and leave church, there was nowhere to go. Fight? What fight?
You see, in the silliness denomination, people spend all of the money from the church on themselves. Did you know that 96% of the funds collected by American churches never leave U.S. soil? This particular silly church had a seniors ministry which consisted of going out to eat once a month. Wow, what a ministry! And they had other ministries where people went to the movies together or went to the mall. There were makeover ministries where women could mourn over failed hairstyles and motivate each other to get pedicures. Any time there was a local festival or a new restaurant opened, our church was there. Look at Facebook and American Christians and see what they talk about: food, fun, frivolity. Back when I was in the church of silliness, we sure had lots of parties and everybody constantly went shopping and visiting. The idea was that if you were a Christian, you had to enjoy yourself.
I remember once sitting in a meeting for a children’s ministry program where the silly-church leader said her goal was to show kids that Christians can party just as hard as the world. No, I’m not making that up. I think I raised my hand and I know I said, we can’t party as hard as the world, because they have sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. If our main objective at this church is to party hardy, then we should just go back to the world or, better yet, buy tickets to Las Vegas and spend all of the church funds there. Of course, a discussion ensued and somehow I am no longer at that church.
So where do we get the silly idea that church is a nonstop party aimed at helping me think more of me more of the time?
Part of the problem is that the American church is American first, last, foremost, and through and through, to the point that there is no room left for Christ unless he can put on a stars-and-stripes top hat and sing Yankee Doodle. I have startling news for you, America. America is not mentioned in the Bible, not even once. Jesus is not American nor did He ever speak specifically to America or about America.
Here’s something they ought to teach in seminary. There are no Americans in heaven. That’s because heaven is filled with Christians and Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God. We are Christ-followers; that is our real nationality. Paul said we are to be ambassadors of Christ, not ambassadors of the United States. And when Jesus said we are to be in the world but not of the world, that means for Americans that we are to be in America, but not of America. Being a Christian means being something that transcends your nationality. As a Christian, I have more in common with persecuted Nigerian believers than I do with the clowns who make movies in Hollywood. Yet at the church of silliness we spent more time and money making Hollywood stars and directors rich than helping brothers and sisters in Christ around the world rebuild their burned-out churches.Ask anybody at the church of silliness who Paul is and you won’t get much of an answer, but if you ask who played Batman in the latest movie … and you’ll get lots of right answers.
I was frustrated in church, frustrated because I was filled with the Holy Spirit and full of verses from Scripture exhorting me to run and make disciples and preach and share and fight. And yet at silly church, wespent just about every nickel of the $20,000 we took in every week (and it was a small church) on programs to amuse ourselves. For example, the pastor and staff went out to eat religiously (it was the only thing they ever did religiously) every Thursday for a meeting. Never mind that we, the congregants, a.k.a., money-givers, paid for them to have a nice building with nice office space and tables and chairs and computers and all the rest. They couldn’t meet there! They needed somebody to wait on them and get free food! The rest of the money went to gifts to staff, a budget line item that bought themselves tires for their cars or repaired their homes. And what was left over went to furnishing the offices and the buildings and building more building. We also had $300 blenders to make the fancy Starbucks coffee drinks.
By the way, Mr. Pastor, did you know that Starbucks supports abortion and donates money to keep abortion legal? My pastor countered with the fact that Starbucks is good! People want Starbucks, because it’s so gooood.
Which brings us back to Scripture: woe to those who call evil good, and good evil.
We had so much money that could have supported the persecuted church and we used it to make the local restaurant owners rich and ourselves fat. Don’t tell me, "The persecuted will always be with you." Jesus told us that the poor would always be with us, but He didn’t say for that reason, spend every dime you ever get on yourselves and only yourselves. Persecution is not a financial issue, but some of the money we were showering on ourselves and our own good worldly time could have gone to our brothers and sisters in chains.
Most churches are so oblivious to the mission statement of the church—to make disciples of all nations—and to the persecuted church (the guys who are doing this in places where it is not a safe or easy thing to do). And that means when Paul tells us to run the raise, the church has nowhere to go. The church turns back in on itself. With no race to run and no fight to fight, the church figures Jesus saved us because we are so special … so the point of it all is to serve ourselves!
Why does this happen? First of all, it occurs because the church is filled with nonbelievers. Why a nonbeliever would come to church is beyond me, but the church is filled top to bottom (and pulpits too) with people who are no more Christian than my cat. And nonbelievers can easily play church because it’s safe. If persecution ever hit in the United States—I mean real persecution, not this chicken-sandwich persecution—the biggest real estate deals in the country will be church land because all of the churches would empty out like a factory at quitting time. So with nonbelievers filling the pews and pulpits, nobody is reading Scripture or caring about Scripture—and that means our main focus is ourselves. Look at Joel Osteen. He sounds like Tony Robbins, except, of course, not quite as Christian.
Second, it happens because here and there, lone and frustrated believers sit and wonder why the church doesn’t do something—I mean besides have the harvest festival and the puppet show and the singles dinner-and-a-movie night and the trip to the Greek festival and a celebration of Gail’s birthday. As a new believer, I knew the Bible was true and there was a fight somewhere … I just couldn’t figure out where. I knew I was called to action and a high purpose, but I didn’t know what to do.
Believers, there are two things to do and they are really just two aspects of the same thing. We are to make disciples of all nations. That means wherever you are, you are to share the Good News. Whether you hand out tracts, street preach, open-air preach, do one-on-one sessions, teach Sunday school, run a Bible study, or write a blog, you are to spread the Good News. And because we are Christians, we are to support other Christians doing the same thing. This doesn’t mean just going with your best friend to help cut out craft projects when she teaches at Vacation Bible School or helping the local evangelist team buy tracts to hand out. It means realizing that just as we are doing our thing in our hometowns, there are others doing things where Christianity is not accepted. There are places in the world where it is illegal to own a Bible. There are places where attendance at an unauthorized (non-government-run) church is illegal. There are places where you cannot convert to be a Christian without breaking the law. These laws are real—and people who break them sometimes wind up in jails and may even be physically abused. Christian believers can be incarcerated, forced into hard labor, starved, drugged, raped, or tortured. Some are killed. Their families are left behind to manage as best they can—moms and babies without a father in a hostile community or babies without a mother. In some parts of the world, people vandalize the homes of Christians or beat them up in the street—and the Christians cannot get help from the police, much less the local physicians. When a Christian pastor goes to jail, the local authorities are usually eager to watch his family starve to death by denying them opportunities to work, earn money, or get help of any kind.
There are places where it is scary to preach the Gospel. There are believers who meet for church in the forest and who get baptized in secret in the shower because these simple acts would mean fines, imprisonment, and suffering for themselves and their family. This is the Underground Church. The Underground Church exists at the very point where light collides with darkness.
Look at North Korea. They imprison people in brutal prison camps and they have a three-generation rule. Become a Christian and you, your kids, and your parents can all get a one-way ticket to a concentration camp. It’s illegal to be a Christian there. So who would take up a Bible and start to preach? Some do. Some get caught, others continue the work.
Where’s the fight? It is not in my backyard, it’s somewhere else. We can go or we can send supplies. That’s the race. The race to make disciples. Here is what you can do:
- Go online and look for sites like Voice of the Martyrs or search persecuted church. Learn all you can and tell somebody what you’ve learned
- Pray for your brothers and sisters in chains. Pray regularly.
- Send letters to persecuted prisoners–this lets authorities in those countries know that somebody is watching and that Christians have support. Forget boycotting restaurants and worrying who says Merry Christmas versus Season’s Greetings. Fight the real fight. Be an advocate for your brothers and sisters in chains. (You can do this through Voice of the Martyrs, they make it very easy.)
- If you go to a silly church, find a church that teaches the Bible–all of it–rightly and emphasizes evangelism, discipleship, missions, and support of the persecuted.
Jesus Christ frequently taught in parables. In fact, at a relatively early point in His earthly ministry, He ceased addressing the general public in sermons or plain-language teachings and resorted to parables. He still addressed His disciples in ordinary ways, but when He spoke to the masses, He used parables. A parable is a story made up to prove a point. You don’t get super-deep theology in a parable–you get a slap in the face. By using familiar people, places, and everyday events, Jesus could link the familiar to the spiritual in a way that challenged our assumptions.
The reason Jesus switched from sermons and conventional teachings to parables in His public appearances is simple. He even provides the answers, if you look hard enough in Scripture. Jesus taught in parables in order to reveal truth to those who sought it. And the parables, at the same time, were perfect to conceal truth from those who weren’t interested or could not be bothered to thing and dlg a little.
Some parables in Scripture are very short–maybe a verse or two. Few are complicated. But many of them require some study and a good commentary to really reveal the message Jesus intended. Here is a short course on how to study the parables.
- Lean on a good commentary. I personally like John MacArthur’s study Bibles and I can also recommend the website to his ministry, Grace to You. If you know the passage of Scripture (for example, Matthew 20), use the website to find Dr. MacArthur’s sermons. They may be located under Resources or Free Resources. The sermons can be searched by Scripture references–and there are 20 years of sermons to search. You can download a PDF or get the audio. Without making this a commercial for Grace to You, I can say that you need a clear and sound commentary to delve into the Scriptures. Jesus’s disciples asked Him after a parable what the parable meant. Do not be afraid to look up sound commentary on the parables to improve your understanding.
- Don’t overanalyze the parables. Most parables have one character who represents God. They sometimes have other characters who may represent a right and/or a wrong way of relating to God. The truth of the parable is in that nugget. The rest of the parable may be details that are not important or not accurate. For example, in the story of Lazarus who goes to heaven while the rich man goes to hell, don’t assume from this parable that people in hell can talk to people in heaven. That is a literary device that was used to make the parable work. Jesus was not sharing this parable to give us the floor plan to hell or to tell us that people in heaven and hell communicate freely with each other–it was aimed at teaching that people who go to hell are surprised they’re in hell and surprised who is in heaven. Moreover, it was aimed at telling us why the rich man went to hell. He went to hell because he did not know the Law and the Prophets, which was slang in his day for the Bible (the Old Testament). He actually did know the Bible in the sense that he was educated in it, but he never really understood it or embraced it. He wound up in hell. That’s the point of the story, not the chasm over which people in hell can talk to people in heaven. Or here’s another one. In the parable of the soils, Jesus points out that only seed scattered in good ground flourishes, but seed on stony ground, on ground with bedrock underneath, or in the weeds does not. That does not mean that three-quarters of the world will not be saved. Do not get overly literal. Focus on the slap-in-the-face truth, not digging out some detail.
- Many parables take as their theme the fact that religious people do not meet a good end. The parables tell us that many people who think they have a right relationship with God do not. Many people who wind up in hell are surprised. Many folks who think they are great are really doomed. If you ever wonder if false converts are real or just some myth made up by Ray Comfort to sell books, read the parables. Over and over, they warn people that many who think they’ve impressed God are going to wind up surprised and in hell one day.
- Understand the parables in context. As much as possible, find a reference point for the parable you’re reading. Who was Jesus speaking to? Who was in the audience? Where was He? What had just happened? In the parable of the tenants (sometimes called the "wicked vinedressers") Jesus had made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem and had been greeted with Hosannas and quotations from Psalm 118 by the crowd, who expected Jesus to kick the Romans out of Jerusalem. Just a couple of days before His last supper with His disciples, Jesus told the Pharisees, onlookers, the crowds (probably many who had cheered Him into town), and His disciples that He would be killed and, as a result, God would remove the kingdom from Israel and give it to another nation. Jesus used the cornerstone reference–also from Psalm 118. Understanding these things adds extra power to the message.
It is hard to say how many parables are in Scripture, since experts sometimes quibble about what constitutes a parable. For example, some say Lazarus going to heaven cannot be a parable because Jesus names a character and no other parable has a character with a name. I disagree with this and consider the Lazarus-in-heaven story to be a parable. Lazarus has a name in this parable not because he is a literal human being–but because it is important to the parable. In the parable, the rich man lived a life of luxury while a beggar named Lazarus was dumped at his front gate every morning. Lazarus was disabled, sick, covered in sores, poor, and so hungry that all he dreamed of were eating the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. When they both died, Lazarus went to heaven, but the rich man went to hell. The rich man could see into heaven and when he saw Lazarus, he called him by name. That’s important to the parable. Why? Think about it. If the rich man knew Lazarus by name, it meant that he knew the poor wretched man dumped at his front gate. He knew who he was. He not only had seen him, he knew him. The rich man could not claim that he didn’t know Lazarus was starving at his front door. He did know him!
Some parables are short, like the woman who has 10 coins, loses one, and searches for it. We can all understand that. We can understand her emotions, her desires, and her urgency. And the parable concludes that when she finds the coin, she rejoices. We can relate to that as well. She isn’t actually any richer than she was before, but she had regained something she thought had lost for good. This parable is about God (yes, God is a woman in this parable) and not just that He searches for lost souls, but that He rejoices when one is found.
Some parables are more complex, like the parable of the corrupt merchant who loses his job but–right before walking out the door–uses his ability to "cook the books" of his master to buy some influential friends. Jesus seems to praise this man, but He does not. The crooked manager is always referred to as corrupt. But Jesus points out in the parable that even this wicked thief of a man knew enough to use the resources he had at hand to win friends for himself. He points out that believers should use the resources they have at hand to win friends for the kingdom. This does not mean we should steal things. But it means that if you have resources–time, money, expertise, talent, position, favor, rank–anything like that, you can put it in the service of winning souls. No, we don’t buy believers. But if you have disposable income, dispose of some of it in tracts. Help those you can and use it to open the door to share the Gospel.
Some parables seems strange, like the persistent widow who pestered a corrupt judge into settling a legal case in her favor. This is one of those "how much more…" kind of parables. There is no character in this story that represents God accurately, but Jesus is trying to say that if even a miserable, rotten, corrupt judge could be persuaded by persistent claims of a poor person, how much more will the just and righteous God of Heaven listen to His people? Even he … had to give up and finally accede to the widow’s request. How much more will God hear our prayers!
Scriptures are full of parables and parables are full of truth wrapped up in a fictional story. Parables are fiction, but they are truth.