Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: June, 2016

THE WOMAN AT THE WELL

4.2.7

Jan Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring

 

In John Chapter 4, verses 1-26, we have the account of a conversation that Jesus had with a woman of Samaria.  It is a fascinating exchange, and it gives us insight into the nature of true religion.

Jesus and His disciples were on their way back to Galilee following their trip to Jerusalem, and they took the direct route which led through Samaria.  The Samaritans, at least to the Jews’ way of thinking, practiced a debased form of Judaism, and hence weren’t really Jews.  And a Jewish man ordinarily would not be seen talking to a woman in public, least of all a Samaritan woman.  But here Jesus found Himself, weary from His journey, sitting on a well in Samaria, when lo, a Samaritan woman came by to draw water from the well.  Jesus, thirsty, asked her for some.  The woman was surprised that a Jewish rabbi would make such a request of her, and the remarkable conversation began.

Jesus replied to her surprise by saying, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (v. 10; NKJV).  The woman, of course, had been thinking in terms of normal social relations: Jews normally did not have anything to do with Samaritans.  What she did not realize at this point is that she was not dealing with an ordinary Jewish man.  She was, in fact, dealing with the Messiah Himself.  And what He had to offer her far surpassed what she had to offer Him.

But what did He have to offer?  He says that He could give her “living water.”  She, of course, had no idea of what He was talking about.  Just a minute earlier He had been asking her for water.  He obviously did not have any means of drawing any water Himself from the well.  And so Jesus goes on: whoever drinks from the water in the well will eventually get thirsty again.  “. . . but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst.  But the water that shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (v. 14).  Here Jesus is evidently not talking about literal, physical water, but rather of something inside of a person that leads to everlasting life.  As John makes clear later in his gospel (John 7:39) Jesus was, in fact, speaking of the Holy Spirit, whom He compared on the later occasion with “rivers of living water” (7:38).  Jesus is using vivid imagery drawn from the real life experience of people who live in dry, arid climates: a river of water brings life to the soil it touches.  Without water the land becomes a barren desert.

There is an important spiritual truth here.  We are directly dependent upon God for whatever spiritual life we have.  In and of ourselves, in our natural condition, we are spiritually dead, devoid of spiritual life.  Our only source of spiritual life is God Himself: He must impart it to us, and this He does through the agency of the Holy Spirit.  In the process of conversion the Holy Spirit convicts us, enlightens us, and finally indwells us.  It is an inward spiritual renovation accomplished by the power of God, and it leaves us changed persons – alive to God and to spiritual reality.

But the conversation with the Samaritan woman does not end there.  The woman does not quite understand what Jesus is telling her – she still thinks that Jesus is talking about literal, physical water, and she asks for some of it, “that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw” (v. 15).  But then Jesus does something unexpected: He tells her to get her husband.  She says that she does not have one.  “Right you are,” Jesus says in effect.  “For you have had five husbands, and you’re not married to the man you’re living with now” (v. 18, paraphrased).  The poor woman was probably floored.  How could He have possibly known such a thing?  But, as it turns out, He was right, and she began to realize that there was something special about Jesus.  “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet” (v. 19).

This led her to ask Him a question.  The Jews worshiped in the temple in Jerusalem; the Samaritans worshiped on Mt. Gerizim.  Who was right?

What Jesus tells her is nothing less than astonishing: “. . .the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father” (v. 21).  He goes on to explain: “But the hour is coming and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (v. 23)

Here Jesus is making an important statement about the nature of true worship.  True worship.  True worship is not tied to physical surroundings because it is essentially a spiritual activity.  “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him much worship in spirit and truth” (v. 24).  God Himself is Spirit – He is not a corporeal being, and hence is not tied to a physical space, and He does not have any physical needs. Therefore He can be worshiped anywhere and everywhere.

But if worship is not tied to a physical location, how do we worship?  How do you worship God when you are not in a “house of worship”?  The answer is, you worship Him in your spirit.  As human beings we are both flesh and spirit.  But the real “you,” your real personality, resides in your spirit, your non-corporeal self.  And that is the part that can have communion with God.  And so that is the part of you that God wants to have worship Him.

Unfortunately it is all too easy for us as human beings to go through the outward motions of worship and not worship God at all.  We can sit in the pew, sing the songs, put money in the offering plate, and listen to the sermon.  But if the heart is not engaged, if we do not feel a genuine love for God and joy in what He has done for us, our “worship” is all sham and pretense.  It is not worship at all.  It is sheer hypocrisy.  And God can see right through it; He is not impressed at all.

What is needed then, in the modern church, is genuine spiritual life and genuine worship.  For too long we have been content merely to “go through the motions.”  The real question is, what kind of spiritual life do we have when we are not sitting inside of a church building?  This is not to say that God wants us to forsake His public worship.  But true spiritual life does not cease the moment we exit the building.  If it is the real thing, it grows and thrives throughout the week.  It is evident to others.  It is “a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”

 

THEOLOGY: ATHENS OR JERUSALEM?

Princeton_Theological_Seminary[1]

Princeton  Theological Seminary in the 19th Century

One of the most serious problems facing the church today is the quality of preaching we hear.  Too often sermons are dull, lifeless, and often boring.  The exegesis is often poor, the delivery flat, and the practical application trivial.  And the result, sadly, are congregations that are biblically illiterate and spiritually immature.

The problem can at least partially be traced back to the way our pastors are trained.  Most pastors today receive an academic training in a seminary or Bible college.  “The professor walks into the classroom, delivers his lecture, and leaves.  If the course happens to be systematic theology, the professor will state definitions, marshal proof texts, and attack opposing points of view.  The students take notes, hopefully pass the final, and that is the end of it.  Then when the pastor finally arrives in the pulpit of a local church he is not quite sure of what to do with what he had been taught in the classroom.  If he has an intellectual bent of mind, he might try to repeat what he had heard in the classroom.  The congregation struggles to stay awake through the sermon in dreary anticipation of the closing hymn.  Or if the pastor is more practically minded he might decide that what he had been taught in the classroom was irrelevant – no one is interested in dry, abstruse points of theology.  And so he moves on to something more practical and relevant – marriage, child-rearing, or personal finance.  But the congregation comes away knowing little about God.

Part of the problem, I say, is the way theology is taught in the classroom.  It is an academic approach.  And I use the word “academic” purposefully, for this approach can be traced back to an institution by that name, the “Academy” in ancient Athens founded by the Greek philosopher Plato.  Plato was a seminal figure in the history of Western thought, and his approach to knowledge has very much influenced the way educational institutions operate, even today.

What set the Greeks apart from other ancient peoples is that the Greeks were struck by the rational order of the universe.  They struggled to explain, however, what the source of that rational order was.  Plato’s attempted solution to the problem was to posit the existence of an abstract world of ideas, of which the physical world is an imperfect copy.  Thus the true philosopher was to turn his attention from the constantly changing physical world to the eternal world of abstract ideas.

But that eternal world of abstract ideas was impersonal.  One could form a mental conception of it, and even be devoted to it as a matter of principle; but one could never form a personal relationship with it.  It is, at the bottom of it, lifeless and inanimate.

Greek thought, however, was far in advance of anything else in the ancient world.  The Romans soon came to admire and emulate it, and from there is came to have a profound influence on Western thought.  To one extent or other it came to represent the educational ideal of colleges, universities and seminaries ever since.

Unfortunately it came to have an influence, not altogether good, on Christian theology as well.  Charles Hodge, for example, the famous 19th Century Princeton theologian, begins his monumental Systematic Theology by asserting that theology is a science in which the task of the theologian is to collect the facts of Scripture and arrange them in logical order.  He does allow that “The Scriptures teach not only the truth, but what are the effects of the truth on the heart and conscience, when applied with saving power by the Holy Ghost” (Vol. I, p. 11).  But in the remaining 2,249 pages of his opus magnum he scarcely mentions these “effects of the truth on the heart and conscience” at all.*

When we turn to the Scriptures themselves, however, a whole different view of things emerges.  In Psalm 139, for example, when David contemplates God’s omniscience and omnipresence, he does not just define the terms and attack opposing points of view.  Rather, the psalm takes the form of a prayer addressed to God himself, and David states the issue in strikingly personal terms:

“O Lord, You have searched me and known me.”

(Ps. 139:1; NKJV).

And in the end the discussion comes down to moral and practical concerns:

“Try me, and know my anxieties;

And see if there is any wicked way in me,

And lead me in the way everlasting.”

(vv. 23,24).

The difference between Athens and Jerusalem, then, comes down to our view of ultimate reality, our worldview.  For Plato it was the “form” (idea) of the good.  For David it was the true and living God, who is both personal and infinite.  And the world that God created has a real, concrete existence.  Ideas we can contemplate with cold objectivity; but we are personally accountable to the living God.

We are called in Scripture to love God, to worship Him and obey Him.  Thus any theology that does not lead us to do that misses the whole point of what is revealed to us in Scripture.  And any academic institution that fails in this regard is worse than useless – it is downright criminal.

The academic world typically lays stress on objectivity.  And truth, real truth, is indeed objective.  But it is also subjective as well.   We are not just merely to contemplate the bare fact of God’s existence; we are to respond to it personally.  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4,5).  This does not mean that we are free to create our own “personal truth.”  Man does not create reality; he must adapt to the reality created for him by God.  But we must appropriate the truth as our own and act upon it.  God is neither pleased nor honored with dead orthodoxy.  What He wants is a genuine, heart-felt piety!

 

*At Princeton Seminary the limitations of the classroom instruction were partially offset by the famous “Sabbath Afternoon Conference,” a weekly discussion about the practical aspects of religion.  It was that which typically left the deepest impression upon the students.

WHICH RESTROOM?

DSCN1039

Here we are, in the midst of a presidential election cycle, and what should become one of the most hotly debated issues of the day, but who should be allowed to use which restroom?  The State of North Carolina recently passed a law requiring individuals to use the public restroom that corresponds to the gender listed on their birth certificates.  The Obama administration responded by threatening to cut off all federal aid to North Carolina.  At the same time the administration sent out a directive to school districts all over the country on how to avoid discrimination against transgender people.

It should be noted that the policy adopted by North Carolina is perfectly reasonable.  If we understand things correctly, individuals in North Carolina who undergo sex reassignment surgery can have their birth certificates changed to reflect their new gender identities.  And in the case of a public restroom there has to be a means of identifying a person’s gender.  To allow anyone to use any restroom he pleases is to defeat the whole purpose of having separate restrooms.  It especially puts women at risk of becoming victims of voyeurism.

Contrary to the way the issue is often portrayed in the press, it is not a simple matter of some people identifying with one gender or the other.  Gender Identity Disorder is just one in a whole range of sexual behaviors.  Some people are homosexuals; some are bisexual.  Some are transvestites; some engage in sadomasochism.  There are even some persons who identify as “trans” who are still attracted to the opposite biological sex.  How, then, does one identify a person as one gender or the other?  Where does one draw the line?

There is, of course, a formal psychological definition of “Gender Identity Disorder.”  But once the diagnosis has been made what is the most appropriate treatment?  Logically one could go either one of two ways: either change the body to conform to the mind or change the mind to conform to the body.  The approach favored by the LGBT community is the former: undergo hormone treatment or even sex reassignment surgery to make the body conform more closely to the person’s psychological identity.  But surgery cannot make the person a perfect specimen of the opposite sex: some of the old features are bound to remain.  This puts the transgender person in an even more awkward position: he does not conform entirely to either gender.  He is neither truly male nor female.

But an even deeper problem remains: what caused the gender identity disorder in the first place?  There is no hard evidence that the underlying cause is biological or hereditary.  Rather the available evidence seems to suggest problems in early childhood socialization.  And if that is the case surgery is unlikely to cure the underlying problem, and will leave the “trans” as frustrated as ever.  Is this really a wise or humane way to handle the situation?

Why, then, would we attempt surgery?  Part of the problem is that modern secular psychology does not have a clearly defined value system, and thus has difficulty defining social norms.  Psychiatrists are inclined to think in terms of the patient’s own inward sense of well-being.  Since most people do not want to change the way they think, the therapists tries to find a way to change or cope with circumstances.  In the case of a “trans” person that means transitioning to the opposite sex, enabling the person to live out his fantasy.

But most likely there is a philosophical agenda here as well – the idea, borrowed from Existentialism, that we exist as autonomous individuals and that we should be free to define our own “essence” or identity (“existence precedes essence”).  Seen from that perspective social norms are artificial and oppressive.  This perspective was taken up by the Feminist movement and from there spread to the LGBT community.  It is no longer a matter of “fitting in”; rather it is a matter of “being accepted.”  Hence the calls for “diversity” and “inclusiveness.”

The underlying premise is atheism – that there is no such thing as Intelligent Design, that we live in a meaningless, purposeless universe, and thus are free to define ourselves any way we please.  But this creates a huge problem for society as a whole.  If each individual is free to define himself any way he wishes, and should not be required to any particular gender role, who will assume the duties and responsibilities of marriage and parenthood?  Marriage, by its very nature, is confining and demands self-sacrifice.  And marriage is the very foundation of society.  Without it there is no stable environment in which children can grow and mature.  Human society as a whole depends on the interaction between the sexes, and society simply cannot function in the absence of standards and norms of some kind.

“So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27; NKJV).  We do not, in fact, live in a meaningless, purposeless universe – it was created by an intelligent Supreme Being.  Try as we might we cannot escape God’s created order.  We ignore God and His purposes for us at our own peril.

Are we witnessing the collapse of Western civilization?

THE MESSAGE OF GENESIS 1

4.2.7

Albert Bierstadt, Yosemite Valley

 

The Bible opens with a direct challenge to the thinking of sinful, rebellious man: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1; NKJV).  Fallen humanity tries to deny this basic fact, for fallen man does not want to see himself accountable to a single, all-powerful Supreme Being.  And yet the only way to make sense of reality is to see it for what it really is: the result of intelligent design, the creation of God.

This point cannot be emphasized too strongly.  It is the whole difference between secular and Christian thought.  The creation narrative in Gen. 1:1-2:3 pictures God as systematically structuring reality so that it functions as a harmonious whole.  Human civilization depends on our discerning the rationale that is behind it all.  Science, government and the arts all presuppose a rational order in the universe, a logical structure to reality.  But where does this structure and order originate?  The ancient Greeks struggled with this question; but the revelation vouchsafed to ancient Israel was clear and unequivocal: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  It is this alone that makes human life possible and purposeful.

As we work our way through the narrative we see God systematically ordering creation.  At each step of the way we are told, “And God saw that it was good” (vv. 4,10,12,18,21,25), and in the end it says “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good” (v. 31).  The universe was not created in a haphazard, helter-skelter sort of way – it was purposefully structured to function harmoniously.  The practical implication of this is far-reaching.  Everything in life has purpose and meaning – it was designed to function a certain way, and can achieve fulfillment only as it functions the way it was intended.  This carries with it moral implications as well.  We have mandate to make things work the way they are supposed to work, which means that it is morally wrong to misuse or abuse, to hurt or to harm others.

The culmination of creation is man himself.  Once the environment has been carefully structured and prepared, God created man to inhabit it.  And since man’s relationship with God is the central theme of the Bible, our text goes into some detail about what is expected of humans.

First of all, we are told that man was created “in the image of God’ (vv. 26,27).  This is what sets man apart from all the rest of creation – this is what makes him unique among all created things.  Only man has the mental and moral capacity to create civilization, and no theory of evolution can account for this.  In the Bible there is a fundamental difference between man and beast.

Moreover we are told that “male and female He created them” (v. 27), and “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply . . .’” (v. 28).  In other words, gender differences are God-ordained.  The text does not elaborate on what these differences may be, and it is very easy to fall into stereotypes.  Nevertheless there are undeniably physical and psychological differences between the sexes, and they were largely put there by God Himself.  Human society was meant to function on a male / female dynamic, and we only create problems for ourselves when we attempt to ignore or override it.

And then God says, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (v. 28).  This is what is sometimes referred to as “the cultural mandate” – the idea that man is not just simply to live a hunter / gatherer existence, but to engage in agriculture and industry.  God created us to be workers and managers, to make improvements on our environment, and to create prosperity for our communities while preserving our resources for our posterity.

Here then is the difference between the Bible and both ancient pagan thought and modern secular thought.  According to the Bible the universe was created by God, and as a result everything has meaning and purpose.  Our goal in life should be to fulfill God’s purpose for us, to live our lives the way He intended us to.  Modern man, however, wants to declare His independence, to live his life his own way, to decide for himself what is the best course of action to take.  But try as he might to ignore God’s will he must still live in a universe created by Him.  When we begin denying the existence of moral absolutes and even of universal truths, we have destroyed the foundations of civilization itself.  To deny God is to render human society dysfunctional.  In the end reality is inescapable, and we only hurt ourselves when we refuse to do things God’s way.