Thinking About Racism

Of all the various “issue-based” conversations current in the broader evangelical church in America today, it seems that race, racism, and racial equality remain front-and-center.  For instance, this year’s Evangelical Free Church in America (EFCA) Theology Conference had much to say about these issues.  To the degree that I’ve observed, listened to, or participated in the conversation surrounding race, I’ve found it difficult to engage well.  Beyond the fact that I certainly wrestle with my own sin, human-finitude, and blind-spots, I also wrestle with frustration over the way in which discussion often proceeds.  I won’t try to unpack here all of what I mean by “frustration.”  If you’re curious, let’s talk in person.  Instead, what I’d like to do is point you to a very helpful summary article by Kevin DeYoung, posted this morning on the Gospel Coalition website: “Racial Reconciliation: What We (Mostly, Almost) All Agree On, and What We (Likely) Still Don’t Agree On.”  I really appreciate how DeYoung reviews and frames the multiple issues and questions at stake.  His approach helps me to better articulate some of my frustration for the way in which the conversation seems to flow at times.  It also encourages me that my concerns and questions are not mine alone.  Finally, DeYoung does an excellent job of reminding me that questions of race, racism, racial equality, and racial reconciliation are real, important, and pertinent to the church at this moment in history.  I wonder what Jesus is doing by leading us, his flock, into this conversation at this point in time.  What is he preparing us for?  How do we need to strengthen relationships, tear down walls, and build bridges for work that lies ahead?

 

 

Jesus in Ancient History

Among the early extra-biblical historical sources that mention Jesus Christ, a particularly fascinating example is a reference in the writings of the 1st century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (Note: Josephus was a hesitant leader in the A.D. 66-70 Jewish uprising against Roman rule.  In A.D. 67, the Romans defeated forces under Josephus in Galilee, whereupon this former military man wisely changed careers.  He eventually became a historian sympathetic to his captors.  The work I reference below is my source for all the biographical details in this post):

“Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works – a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.  He drew over to him many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles.  He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.” [Antiquities 18.3.3, in William Whiston, trans., The Works of Josephus (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 480.]

This one paragraph provides a stunning account of what Josephus (who was not a Christian) knew concerning Jesus.  Consider this:

  1. Josephus knew the bare facts of the Gospel – Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus lived again.

 

  1. Josephus, by recording the basic storyline in an uncontested manner, confirms the historical context that we read in the Gospels – 1) Jesus undertook a public ministry that gathered Jews and Gentiles alike; 2) Pontius Pilate crucified Jesus at the instigation of the Jewish leaders.

 

  1. Josephus understood the Christian witness of Jesus as God’s Messiah and the fulfiller of Old Testament prophecy.

 

  1. Josephus apparently knew that Jesus’ followers believed him to be more than a mere man (Note: Observe this historian’s caveat, “if it be lawful to call him a man”). Notice how a non-Christian reflects the Christian belief concerning Jesus’ divinity long before the Nicene Creeds of A.D. 325 and A.D. 383.

 

  1. Josephus knew of accounts concerning Jesus’ miracles.

 

  1. Josephus attests to the fact that Jesus’ message was not exclusive to Jews only. Indeed, the transcultural applicability of the Gospel is a prominent theme in the New Testament (see the Gospel of Luke for instance).

 

In other words, Josephus knew much of Christian truth even before, or right as, the New Testament coalesced into its eventual canonical form.  This suggests acute awareness by Josephus both of Christian oral tradition, and Christian writings.  Perhaps the fact that he lived his writing days in Rome gave Josephus (who died circa A.D. 100) access to much of what became the finalized Bible.  Certainly, he learned a great deal from the witness of Christians in the Roman church.

Regardless of how he learned what he learned, this one paragraph from Josephus is a remarkable witness to what the Christian church believed about Jesus from its very beginning!

He is risen!  He is risen indeed!

To Fear God Is…

Have you ever wondered what it means to “fear” God?  I have.  Even when I can give an answer, and perhaps a good one, I still wonder, “What exactly does it mean to fear God?  What does such fear feel like?”  Lately, during a study of Luke 4:1-13, I came across an answer to this question that seems to me quite helpful.

In Luke 4:1-13, Jesus encounters Satan in the wilderness.  This is the famous temptation scene.  During one of the three times he rebuffs Satan’s assault, Jesus says the following: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve” (Luke 4:8; English Standard Version).  In the Greek, this statement is a slightly edited quotation from the Septuagint’s rendering of Deuteronomy 6:13 – “It is the Lord your God you shall fear.  Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear.”  Don’t forget, the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX) is the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament).

Even in the English, perhaps you can see the interesting change that Jesus makes.  The word fear from Deuteronomy 6:13 becomes worship in Luke 4:8.  In the Greek, this is a change from φοβεω (to fear) to προσκυνεω (to worship).  The Hebrew word that underlies φοβεω is ירא, which generally means, “to fear.”  But, as noted in Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, “Used of a person in an exalted position, [ירא] connotes ‘standing in awe.’  This is not simple fear, but reverence, whereby an individual recognizes the power and position of the individual revered and renders him proper respect.”  We move then, from ירא (Deuteronomy 6:13 in the Hebrew), to φοβεω (Deuteronomy 6:13 in the LXX), to προσκυνεω (Luke 4:8).  Along the way, the real meaning doesn’t change at all.  That said, I find Jesus’ word choice strikingly helpful.  In short, even as Jesus quotes the text (namely Deuteronomy 6:13), he also explains (or exegetes) its meaning.

All of this boils down to a simple point.  To fear God is to worship him.  If you worship God from a heart that is genuinely surrendered to him, then you, by definition, fear him.  Of course, for the moment our fear is imperfect, even as our worship is imperfect.  But, we know that God is at work to change this reality in us.  The work won’t be done until we see Jesus face-to-face, unhindered by sin.  Nonetheless, as we grow in our heart-centered understanding of what it is to worship God, we will also grow in our thrilling, heart-centered fear of him.

We truly fear God when we truly worship him; when our whole lives rise up before him as a song of praise and a testament of his goodness and glory.

(Note: Just by way of truth in advertising, I am not enough of a Greek and Hebrew scholar to do this kind of thing on my own.  I use resources!  In addition to the one mentioned above, my resources for this post include:

Logos Bible Software (Version 7)

Biola University’s Unbound Bible program

A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd Ed.)

A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament)

Fascinating Archeology of the Bible

Today’s post notes three compelling points from biblical archeology:

To begin, I highly encourage you to spend 12 minutes of your day watching this YouTube video regarding the prophet Isaiah: “Archeological Proof of the Prophet Isaiah?”  In short, it seems highly likely that excavators in Jerusalem uncovered archeological evidence of Isaiah and his role during the reign of King Hezekiah.

Second, last Sunday I had the chance to preach from Luke 3:1-6.  If you’d like, you can listen to the sermon here.  Interestingly, in verses 1-2a of chapter 3, Luke gives his readers a substantive list of historical figures.  Two of those mentioned are Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect (or governor) of Judea at the time of Jesus’ public ministry, and Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest during the same period.  I find it fascinating that both figures appear in the archeological record outside of the Bible itself:

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Figure 1: This first image is a replica of a stone fragment found in Caesarea Maritima (the capital of Judea during the days of Pilate) that mentions Pilate’s name.  The original is on display in the Israel Museum.  The caption may have read: “Pontius Pilatus, the prefect of Judaea, erected a building dedicated to the emperor Tiberias”.
Picture1
Figure 2: This second picture (which comes courtesy of Todd Bolen and the Photo Companion to the Bible collection, available at Bibleplaces.com) is the apparent ossuary of Caiaphas.  The inscription on the box reads: “Joseph son of Caiaphas.”  According to the Photo Companion to the Bible, this name “…corresponds with the known name of the high priest at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.”

Hollywood, Repentance & “From Now On”

Every so often, the music and the lyrics of a song combine to make it truly powerful.  Every so often, Hollywood comes up with something that is truly remarkable.  Lately, I think both have happened…

Though I haven’t seen the movie (and don’t really want to), I’ve been profoundly struck by the song “From Now On,” part of the current film, The Greatest Showman.  Regardless of what you think about the movie (assuming you’ve seen it), the song has a merit all its own.  Perhaps without realizing it, “From Now On” reflects deep, life-changing truth.  In fact, it’s a song of repentance.  Let me see if I can demonstrate what I mean by walking through the lyrics, combined with a bit of commentary:

___________________________________

I saw the sun begin to dim, and felt that winter wind blow cold

A man learns who is there for him when the glitter fades and the walls won’t hold

Cause from then, rubble, what remains can only be what’s true

If all was lost, there’s more I gained, cause it led me back to you

(Here’s a man faced with the apparent ruins of his life.  And yet, amidst the crumbled edifice of worldly success, there’s something still standing…something worth far more than everything he thinks he has lost…and it’s a person.)

 

From now on, these eyes will not be blinded by the light

From now on, what’s waited till tomorrow starts tonight…tonight

Let this promise in me start like an anthem from in my heart

From now on…from now on

(Faced with truth, our singer responds with new resolve.  In fact, he responds with repentance.  Repentance means to turn around – to turn away from one orientation, from one goal, from one way of life, from a false god – and to head in the opposite direction.  Notice how pressing this repentance feels to our singer.  It can’t wait until tomorrow.  Repentance starts right now.  This is what we call a moment of conversion.  Notice also, this repentance can’t be merely superficial.  In order to be real, it must begin from the heart.)

 

I drink champagne with kings and queens, the politicians praise my name

But those were someone else’s dreams, the pitfalls of a man I became

For years and years, I chased their cheers, the crazy speed of always needing more

But when I stop and see you here, I remember who all this was for

(With this stanza, we hear more about the false gods who previously dominated our singer’s life.  It all looked good for the moment, but hob-knobbing with royalty and powerbrokers proved hollow and fruitless.  In fact, this man realizes that the life he so longed for was nothing but a pitfall, even a deadly addiction.  What a stunning moment of realization!)   

 

And from now on, these eyes will not be blinded by the light

From now on, what’s waited till tomorrow starts tonight…it starts tonight

And let this promise in me start like an anthem in my heart

From now on…from now on…from now on

(Once again, we hear an expression of commitment, a resolve to walk anew from this moment forward.  It is, if anything, an even stronger expression of newness than the first time around.)

 

[Joined by the choir]

And we will come back home

And we will come back home

Home, again

(As our singer repents, his heart swells, such that his voice alone can no longer give full expression to what’s inside.  Rather, he needs an entire choir to join him.  As they together sing, the theme moves from repentance itself to the beautiful end of repentance, namely home). 

 

From now on…Yes

___________________________________

Hugh Jackman and an accompanying group of singers repeat and revisit these lyrics, beautifully melding them together, all the while carried through on the wings of wonderful music.  I highly recommend paying the $1.99 it will cost you to purchase “From Now On” via I-Tunes.  Additionally, take six minutes and watch this YouTube account of a practice session during the song’s making.  I can’t help but think that the life, the vibrancy, the joy you see in the video reflects people whose hearts are responding to a vision of repentance; to the God-given joy of repentance…even if they don’t know it…even if they see it from a distance.  They’re tasting a little of the freedom that lies on the other side of repentance, and it’s infectiously intoxicating.

Now, of course this song isn’t perfect…it’s still far too “me” centric – “A man learns who is there for him when the glitter fades…”  But, nonetheless, this work of art goes a long way down the road of biblical truth.  It paints the majestic picture of a man awakening to his real need, responding in repentance, and looking forward to the peace of home.  If you are familiar with the Bible’s grand narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, then you’ll know why such a storyline in song rings so powerfully.  What this song encapsulates – albeit in a shadow-like fashion – is the beginnings of the Gospel.  There’s one key figure missing, and that’s God himself.  God the Father, who ordains a moment of utter brokenness in order to awaken his child to their sin and need; God the Son, whose life, death on the cross, and resurrection makes forgiveness of sin and repentance possible; God the Holy Spirit, who brings us to the point of singing such an anthem as this; God, who in his Triune unity, even now prepares a final home for those who, by grace through faith, follow Jesus Christ.

I don’t know if Hollywood understood what it was doing with such a song, but “From Now On” is a wonderful invitation.  It’s a wonderful invitation to come and discover the truth at which the song so powerfully hints.  Perhaps in this season of Lent (a season often associated with repentance) you might accept the invitation, repent of the cheers you chase, and discover in God’s Word the person who remains standing amid the rubble of your life…his name is Jesus.

Cede Nothing to the Enemy of Men’s Souls

One of the blogs I subscribe to recently included a post that quoted this excerpt from an article in Crux (a Catholic magazine that you can find here):

Fourth, the Vatican also understands that China is rich with missionary potential, though it sometimes seems to struggle to know what to do about it.

Many experts regard China as the world’s last truly competitive spiritual marketplace. No matter what happens, Christianity in some form almost certainly will remain the majority faith in Europe and North America, Hinduism will be the majority in India, Islam the majority in the Middle East, and Africa will be divided between Islam and Christianity with significant pockets of indigenous religious practice. [Note: The original article does not bold this last sentence.  That is my doing.]

Now, to be fair, I understand (I think) what the author means by his last sentence.  And yet, still I want to stand up and shout, “No!”  Are we really ready to surrender Europe and North America to the half-baked, Gospel-less “Christianity” that too often passes as the “majority faith.”  Are we ready to turn over India to Hinduism (or its close cousin, Buddhism), the Middle East to Islam, and large swaths of Africa to a mix of Islam, animism, and the ridiculous “Prosperity Gospel.”  Regardless of one’s view concerning eschatology, the true Gospel imperative expressed in passages like Matthew 28:18-20 is clear, and it is militant (in the best of senses).  We are to make disciples of Jesus from those of every nation (i.e. people group).  There is no part of the world that we can, or should, cede to the ravages of Satan.  While I can be charitable as to the larger intent of this author, I find his manner of expression wonderfully provoking.  God forbid that we, Jesus’ church, should ever conclude that anything other than total surrender to Christ will ever finally characterize a portion of this globe.

One final thought.  I’m encouraged in my response to the excerpt above by this realization: In God’s providence, the false religions that seem so dominant now may someday, even before Jesus returns, become only relics of history.  Where are the once dominant gods of the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, or the Canaanite peoples of present day Israel?  They’re now nothing more than artifacts, buried in the sand for archaeologists to discover, or languishing in ancient texts for anthropologists or philologists to study (and yes, such study can be a very good undertaking).  Indeed, you can travel to any number of museums around the world and look with interest at the worthless idols that once held such sway over the hearts and minds of human beings like you and me.

Why would we assume that Islam, or Hinduism, or Buddhism, or any other “ism” will not one day walk the same road as these derelict religious systems?  Remember, prior to about 500 B.C., there was no such thing as Buddhism.  Muhammad didn’t come along until the 600’s A.D.  Even the amorphous Hinduism, despite a long oral tradition, didn’t exist in any written form until probably the third century B.C. at the earliest.1   My point is this: The false religious systems raised up against the knowledge of God that we contend with now did not always exist.  They are only the latest manifestation of humanity’s response to Satan’s age-old deceitful temptation: “Did God really say…”

 

  1. I’m helped on the point concerning Hinduism by a quick look at the much maligned (as an academic source) Wikipedia entry on the Rig Veda, and, somewhat more “appropriately,” by Bradley K. Hawkins’ Asian Religions: An Illustrated Introduction.

 

 

A Helpful Aussie Writing on Men and Women

Working toward the establishment of a team of elders is one of the major endeavors of my home church, Felton Bible Church, during 2018.  As we’ve begun to discuss this step of faith, we have been (and will be) talking about God’s roles for men and women in the body of Christ (and in life generally).  Some of you may recognize the terms “complementarian” and “egalitarian.”  For better or worse, these are shorthand ways of describing a person’s belief about gender roles in God’s design.  Speaking far too simply, complementarians generally affirm two beliefs: 1) God has created men and women equal; 2) For his glory and our joy, God has endowed men and women with distinct roles and responsibilities, both within the family and within the body of Christ.  In short, complementarianism is “equality with distinction.”  Conversely, egalitarians articulate a different manner of thinking: 1) God has created men and women equal; 2) Equality means that there is little-to-no distinction between men and women with respect to roles and responsibilities, both in the family and in the church.  Such, in a limited sense, are the distinctive points of each position.

Insomuch as labels are helpful, I am complementarian.  Why?  Because Scripture is very clear regarding the utter equality of men and women before God…and…regarding the important distinctions between men and women in the God-given economy of the family and the church.  When we set such distinctions aside, we run counter to God’s plan and purpose.

My point for saying all of the above is really to recommend the following article, written by Mark Thompson (the “Principle” of Australia’s Moore Theological College, and “a canon of St. Andrews Cathedral, Sydney”): “Is There a Place for Women on a Theological College Faculty.”  In this article, Thompson responds to a recent opinion voiced by John Piper regarding women serving as seminary faculty (you can find Piper’s opinion here: “Ask Pastor John: Is There a Place for Female Professors at Seminary”).  You may or may not be interested in the views of each individual with respect to the question at hand…but that’s really not my point.  Rather, I recommend Thompson’s article because, on the way to answering Piper, Thompson does a beautiful job voicing the complementarian position.  He does so in a markedly winsome manner, especially as he articulates gender roles with respect to the local church.  I hope you’ll take the time to read Thompson’s relatively short article.

(Note: For clarity’s sake, I tend to side with Thompson on this issue, even as I am quite sympathetic to Piper’s overall point.  It is possible for a seminary to completely miss the boat with respect to seeing and affirming God’s good purpose for men and women in terms of their faculty selection and assignments.  That said, I don’t think that what is binding on the local church translates, “whole hog,” into the context of the seminary.  There is a larger conversation here about the role of seminaries, the role of specific programs and classes within a seminary program, and the corresponding needs with respect to men and women professors serving in a seminary.)