Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

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WOODSTOCK: THE DEATH OF A CIVILIZATION

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Joe Cocker at Woodstock

This weekend marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Woodstock rock festival, a significant turning point in American culture.  In many ways it represented the collapse of what was left of Western Civilization in America.

The festival took place on a farm near the little town of Bethel, NY in the Catskill Mountain region.  The organizers of the event aimed simply at putting on a rock concert highlighting some of the biggest names of the day – Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, The Grateful Dead, and Creedance Clearwater Revival, among others.  They expected maybe 50,000 people or so would show up.  Instead, nearly 400,000 arrived.  Facilities were overwhelmed and it was a logistical nightmare.

The local police were unprepared, and so a spontaneous community was created.  It was a Hippie love-in, a Counter-Culture “happening” on an unprecedented scale, and traditional norms were thrown to the wind.  It was a celebration of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.

What caused such an extraordinary event?  There were several factors that led up to it.  The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and early ‘60’s demonstrated the presence of racial injustice in America.  And then came the Viet Nam War, an ill-conceived foreign adventure that sparked massive protest demonstrations back home.  All of this gave “the Movement,” the New Left, with a program of radical social reform.

Political tensions reached a boiling point during the summer of 1968.  That August the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago.  The incumbent President, Lyndon B. Johnson, had decided not to run for reelection, and his heir-apparent was Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey.  He, in turn, was challenged by Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, but Kennedy was assassinated in June of that year.  The anti-war movement rallied behind McCarthy.  Nevertheless Humphrey won the nomination and was then defeated in the general election by Richard M. Nixon.

A profound sense of disillusionment set in.  Many young people became convinced that the “Establishment” and the “System” were hopelessly corrupt and beyond reform.  The only alternative, as far as they could see, was to “drop out” and pursue a vision of one’s own personal freedom and happiness.  It all came to a head the following summer at Woodstock.

There were undoubtedly serious problems in American society that needed to be addressed.  America was not a perfect nation, and never was – the Civil War was a lasting monument to that fact.  But by the 1960’s America had become much more secular in its outlook.  Earlier protests movements – the Abolitionist Movement of the mid-Nineteenth Century, the Progressive Movement of the early Twentieth – saw themselves as operating within a more-or-less Christian framework, and often used religious rhetoric to promote their causes.  (“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . .”

But America in the 1960’s was different.  Prayer and Bible reading had been removed from the public schools, unprecedented numbers of college-age people were attending thoroughly secularized state universities, and even the mainline Protestant denominations had ceased to accept the authority of Scripture unconditionally.  And the New Left had been at least partially influenced by Marxism.

But this meant that there was no clearly defined moral framework in which to discuss the issues.  On the one hand the “Establishment” had difficulty producing a rational defense of traditional norms and values; and, on the other hand, the “Movement” had no clear sense of moral direction either. Young people simply rebelled against the standards and norms of their elders, but without having a clearly defined alternative.  It became a matter of experimentation – if it feels good, do it.  It was long hair, free love, acid trips and communal living.

In the end the “Movement” led to tragedy.  There were drug overdoses and violence.  Women felt that they had been sexually abused, and dangerous cult leaders emerged.  As the Viet Nam War wound down and college graduates were faced with the challenge of earning a living, the Hippie movement largely faded away.  Many Hippies became Yuppies – Young Upwardly Mobile Professionals.

But the legacy of the Counter-Culture did not entirely disappear.  The Sexual Revolution permanent changed the way many Americans think about sex.  Radical Feminism has made a major impact on American society.  Public discourse had degenerated into identity politics, and in intellectual circles there is widespread skepticism then universal truths and moral absolutes even exist.

The underlying cause of all of this is secularism, the refusal to acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being whose moral law is normative.  In the end it became impossible to establish firm, binding moral norms, and social chaos was the result.  Life became a matter of power politics – might makes right, and to the victor go the spoils.

What has disappeared is Western Civilization, an advanced human society founded on certain core principles – the belief that we live in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being, and that there are certain universal standards of justice, compassion and humanity that are binding on all.

The Counter Culture of the late ‘60’s threw all of this overboard and essentially had nothing coherent to replace it.

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JUDAS

 

          While Jesus was in the process of washing the disciples’ feet He made an ominous comment to Peter: “. . . and you are clean, but not all of you” (John 13:10; NKJV), and then John went to explain in his narrative, “For He knew who would betray Him; therefore He said, ‘You are not all clean’” (v. 11).

Jesus Himself went on immediately to make it clear.  Having urged His disciples to follow His example, He then said, “I do not speak concerning all of you.  I know whom I have chosen; but that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who eats bread with Me has lifted up his heel against Me” (v. 18).  And then He said, “Now I tell you before it comes, that when it does come to pass, you may believe that I am He” (v. 19).  The quotation is from Psalm 41:9, in which David tells of being betrayed by His close friend.

What was about to happen in Jesus’ case was that Judas Iscariot would soon depart from the meal to betray Jesus.  Jesus, for His part, was saying that He knew this in advance, and that this was a fulfillment of prophecy.  And by telling His disciples this before it actually happened they would be able to believe that Jesus really was who He said He was.  A charlatan generally does not know in advance what would happen to him, and his own plans eventually come to naught.  And in Jesus’ case the idea of the Messiah being crucified by the Romans would have been unthinkable to most Jews.  Surely Jesus’ betrayal and arrest would have suggested to them that He was not the Messiah.  But by predicting it in advance and pointing out that it had at least been alluded to in the Old Testament He was able to demonstrate that He really had been sent from God and was about to fulfill Messianic prophecy.  As the 19th Century Scottish theologian John Brown pointed out, here Jesus was “manifesting an obviously miraculous knowledge of the thoughts and feelings of another – thoughts and feelings unexpressed in actions, in words, or even in gestures, — and of a future event, in itself highly improbable, and plainly undiscoverable by any process competent to the most sagacious human mind . . .” (Discourses and Sayings of Our Lord, Vol. 2, p. 367).  It is a powerful testimony to the fact that Jesus was no ordinary human being; He had indeed come from God.

Jesus went on to say, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who receives whomever I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me” (v. 20).  At first this seems disjointed from what immediately went before it, but on closer inspection it follows logically from what He had just said.  He was speaking to His disciples; all but one of them would become apostles, “sent ones” or emissaries.   So the implication was that if they came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, they in turn would proclaim the message to the world.  And if people respond positively to the message they are not just responding positively to the apostles, the missionary or evangelist; they are receiving Christ.  And if they receive Christ they are also receiving God the Father.

John then goes on to say that Jesus was “troubled in spirit,” and said, directly, “Most assuredly, I say to you, one of you will betray Me” (v. 21).  This invoked consternation among the disciples, who naturally wondered which one of them it could be.  Finally Peter motioned to John, who was positioned next to Jesus to ask Him who it was.  Jesus replied to John that it would be the one to whom He would give a piece of bread that had been dipped.  The “piece of bread,” as the NKJV translates it (the NASV had “morsel”), was very likely a piece of the Passover lamb, a piece of unleavened bread and some bitter herbs dipped in a mixture of nuts, fruit and vinegar to mitigate the bitter taste of the herbs (cf. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. II, p. 506).  Jesus dipped the morsel and handed it to Judas.  And then, John tells us, Satan entered Judas, and Jesus said to him, “What you do, do quickly” (v. 27).  The other disciples were not sure what exactly Jesus meant by this, but Judas apparently knew, and left immediately.

Jesus then explained the significance of what had just happened.  “Now the Son of man is glorified, and God is glorified in Him.  If God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and glorify Him immediately” (vv. 31,32).  One might wonder how this might be, coming, as it were, at the most difficult moment in Jesus’ earthly ministry.  It is most likely a reference back to a Messianic prophecy contained in Dan. 7:13,14, in which  “One like the Son of Man” is presented to “the Ancient of Days,” and “to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, / That all peoples, nations and languages should serve Him . ..”  And yet, ironically, in order for that to happen an atonement had to be made for the sins of men.  And what Jesus was conscious of at that moment in time was that that was what He was about to do.  The turning point in human history had arrived – but it would require His death on a cross.

And yet the text in Daniel specifically states that “to Him was given . . . glory.”  Here we can see the paradox of Divine Providence.  What was about to happen to Jesus was truly horrible – the arrest, the trial, the excruciating death on the cross as a condemned criminal.  And yet God had a larger purpose in it all – the redemption of fallen sinners.  And how is Christ glorified in this?  Because He is the Savior who died to save us from our sins, and thus to Him we owe our eternal salvation.  And how is God glorified in Him?  Because in addition to His holiness and justice we can also see wisdom, grace and mercy, and victory over the powers of sin and hell.  What a glorious God we have!

And what are the practical implications for ourselves?  First of all, the example of Judas should show us how it is possible to be nominally a Christian and yet totally lost at the same time.  Outwardly we may do the same things as genuine Christians – Judas had dwelled with Jesus, heard Him preach, watched Him perform miracles, and possibly even preached to others about Christ.  Yet inwardly he was a cesspool of selfishness and greed.  No sooner had Jesus demonstrated humble servanthood to him than he went out to betray his Master for a sum of money.  How each one of us ought to take heed of where we really stand with Christ today.

But secondly, the example of Christ should show us how that God has a larger purpose in the trials and difficulties that come our way.  We may suffer financial hardship or experience serious health problems.  Friends may betray us.  Acquaintances may reject us.  And eventually, if we are fortunate enough to live that long, we become old and infirm.  In such trials we may be tempted to ask “why?”  And yet God has a larger purpose in it all.  What that might be will vary from circumstance to circumstance.  It may be to some others something form our own example.  It may be simply to teach us something that we need to know about patience, humility, and gentleness towards others.  And in the end if we suffer with Christ now, if we endure, we will reign with Him later forever (II Tim. 2:12).  Sometimes it is hard to see all of that when we are going through the trial or difficulty, but we are called to walk by faith, not by sight (II Cor. 5:7).  To God be the glory forever!

JESUS WASHES THE DISCIPLES’ FEET

 

As we noted earlier, John chapters 13 through 16 contain an account of the discussion that Jesus had with His disciples during His last Passover meal, just prior to His arrest and crucifixion.  The discussion began, however, with a striking gesture on Jesus’ part – the washing of the disciples’ feet.

John introduces the incident by telling us that “. . . the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper . . .” (John 13:2-4; NKJV).  Here again John tells us that Jesus was conscious of certain things as he undertook to do what H was about to do.  Jesus knew that He had come from God the Father and was about to return to Him.  He knew that the Father “had given all things into His hands.”  Thus Jesus knew that He was in a position of preeminent authority over all things.  But He also know that Judas had already decided to betray Him.  If anyone deserved honor and respect, it was Jesus.  And if anyone contempt and disgrace, it was the wretched human being who was about to betray Him.

In light of all that what Jesus did next was most remarkable.  He “rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself” (v. 4).  He then proceeded to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel.  It would be difficult to imagine a human being doing such a thing, let alone the eternal Son of God, the Lord of the universe!  And yet that is exactly what He did.

Apparently most the disciples watched in stunned silence, not quite comprehending what was happening.  And the Jesus came to Peter who, being his usual impulsive self, blurted out, “Lord, are You washing my feet?” (v. 6).  The word order in the Greek emphasizes the contrast between “You” and “my.”  Peter was struck by the anomaly of the situation – “Lord, are You washing my feet?”  And Jesus’ answer must have totally mystified him: “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this” (v. 7).

Peter protested.  “You shall never wash my feet!” (v. 8a), to which Jesus replied with a cryptic comment, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (v. 8b).  Well, thought Peter, that being the case, let us go all the way: “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” (v. 9).  Jesus’ reply to that must have been even more mystifying: “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean: and you [plural] are clean, but not all of you” (v. 10).

What Jesus was driving at, but what the disciples probably did not comprehend, was that His action in washing their feet was symbolic of something greater, of something that He was about to do – cleanse them spiritually by atoning for their sins on the cross.  He was about to make the supreme sacrifice on their behalf.  But it was a necessary sacrifice if their sins were ever to be forgiven.  Then they would receive the Holy Spirit who would renew them inwardly, transforming them from fallen sinners to children of light.  Without this cleansing no relationship with Christ is possible.  “You have no part with Me.”

But what did Jesus mean when He said, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean”?  The implication is that when we are saved and born again, we are completely forgiven and inwardly transformed – we are “bathed,” as it were.  But we may still fall into sin from time to time, and need to have those sins forgiven and be completely restored to full fellowship with Christ.  And so as we walk thought the filth of this world we need to have our spiritual “feet” periodically washed, as it were.  “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).

But then Jesus added an ominous note: “You are clean, but not all of you”; and John explains, “For He knew who would betray Him . . .” (v. 11).  Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion were not due to unforeseen events or circumstances beyond d His control.  Jesus was conscious that this was all part of God’s redemptive plan and that this was an ordeal which He must undergo.

Jesus then undertook to drive home the practical lesson.  “You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (vv. 13-15).  This does not necessarily mean that we must perform the physical rite of footwashing, as is done in some churches (the practice does not appear again in the Book of Acts or the Epistles).  But rather it means that we must imitate Jesus’ example of humble service to our fellow believers.

There was a sense in which Peter’s astonishment at what Jesus had done was well taken.  There was something odd about the eternal Son of God, the Lord of glory, taking on the role of a servant and performing a menial task.  But if Jesus was willing to do that for us, how much more should we be willing humbly to serve each other?  We have no excuse for not following His example.

But alas!   How very often is it different in our churches today!  As fallen human beings we crave attention.  We want to be respected and admired by others.  We strive to excel so that we can gain honor and respect.  And all too often in church life our actions are driven by ego rather than a desire to please God and serve others.  But everything we do should be marked by a humble servant attitude.  If Christ could die on the cross for us, what excuse do we have nor not serving each other?

THE HUMAN TRAGEDY OF SIN

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Frans Hals: Young Man with a Skull

“There is a way that seems right to a man,

But its end is the way of way of death.”

(Prov. 14:12; 16:25; NKJV)

 

King Solomon was a man who had seen a lot during his lifetime, and writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, his collected wisdom is found in the Book of Proverbs.  And the proverb before us encapsulates a pertinent observation about human behavior.  “There is a way that seems right to a man.”  The “way” is the path of life in life down which we choose to go.  And for many of us there is a particular path that “seems right” – it looks like just the thing we want.  It looks enticing and advantageous.  It appeals to our sense of self-interest.  “But its end {final outcome] is the way of death.”  It eventually leads to destruction and death.  What started out looking very promising turned out in the end to be a disaster.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the course of modern Western history.  The ‘60’s were a time of radical experimentation and change.  The Viet Nam War had provoked a widespread revolt against “the Establishment” which came to a head during the Chicago riots of 1968.  Disillusioned many turned to “sex and drugs and rock-n-roll,” culminating in the Woodstock Festival of 1969.  President Nixon managed to get us out of the war by 1973, and the anti-war protests died down.  The hippies of the late ‘60’s graduated from college and became the “Yuppies” of the ‘70’s – young, upwardly mobile professionals  seeking to climb the corporate ladder.

But in many ways the legacy of the ‘60’s remains today.  The sexual revolution and radical feminism changed the way Americans looked at sex, gender roles and marriage.  In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in a decisive break with Judeo-Christian morality.  And the Stonewall Riot of 1969 marked the beginning of the Gay Rights movement.

But where has all of this led us?  Today 40% of all live births in America are to unmarried women (in 1970 it was 10.7%), and 23% of all children are living in households headed by a single female parent.  The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan could cite studies that showed that children from single parent families were far more likely to do poorly in school, live in poverty, and become involved in crime (Family and Nation, 1986).  We have created social dysfunction on a massive scale.

The underlying problem lies in the philosophical assumptions of the Cultural Revolution of the ‘60’s.  Unlike prior reform movements such as the Abolitionism of 1830’s – 50’s or the Progressive Movement of the early 20th Century, the young rebels of the ‘60’s basically took a secular approach to social reform.  There was no clear-cut, unifying ideology, but there were several influences at work.  One of them was Neo-Marxism.  Karl Marx had predicted a social revolution based on an economic class conflict.  But by the 1950’s his predictions had largely turned out to be false.  The Proletariat had not risen up and overthrown the Bourgeoisie in a violent revolution.  Marx’s theory was then redefined in terms of social and cultural conflict.  People are oppressed and dehumanized by the “bourgeois” values of middle class America.  This set the stage for identity politics: one disadvantaged group after another felt oppressed by the white, patriarchal, Eurocentric Establishment.

Another major influence at work in the ‘60’s was Existentialism.  Here the emphasis was on the radical autonomy of the individual.  Concrete human existence precedes any defining essence.  There is no divinely established order to the universe, and therefore we should be free to define ourselves as we please.  The Existential influence was especially felt in the Feminist Movement through the writing of Simone de Beauvoir.  Gender roles are artificial and oppressive and should be discarded.  This eventually led to the LGBT movement and the idea that we should be allowed to choose our own gender.

And behind all of this lies the legacy of the Romantic Movement with its emphasis on individual freedom and self-expression.  And it undoubtedly had a special appeal to Americans with our heritage of freedom, democracy and free-market Capitalism.  It suited the consumer mentality of a generation that grew up in the prosperity of the ‘50’s and could take a comfortable middle-class lifestyle for granted.

The problem with all of this, however, was its secularism.  Both Neo-Marxism and Existentialism were atheistic.  In our sin and rebellion we refuse to acknowledge God as our Creator and Lord.  We want social justice, but refuse to accept God as the source of morality.  But on a secular basis it is virtually impossible to establish any kind of spiritual reality that would allow us to escape from the materialism of modern industrial society.  We wound up replacing the materialistic “bourgeois” values of our parents with “sex and drugs and rock-n-roll.”  We replaced materialism with outright hedonism. It was hardly the triumph of idealism.

But we are still human beings created in the image of God, and we are still accountable to Him.  In the end sin never benefits anyone.  At first it holds out the prospect of freedom and pleasure.  But in the end there is a long trail of broken relationships, ruined health and wrecked finances, and eventually eternal destruction.  We live in a universe created by God; and when we ignore His laws and go our own ways, we invite disaster.  That was the tragedy of the ‘60’s, and that is the tragedy today.  Calling sin “sin” is not being hateful or bigoted – it is simply giving an honest diagnosis in hope of a cure.

“There is a way that seems right to a man,

But its way is the way of death.”

 

KEEPING HIS COMMANDMENTS

 

Having promised to answer prayer Jesus then goes on to add a qualifier: “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15; NKJV).  It is brief, simple, and of the utmost importance.

The first thing to be noted here is that Jesus has, in fact, given us “commandments.”  A commandment is a directive or order given by someone in a position of authority.  The commandment, then, is given to someone who is under that person’s authority, and who is obligated to obey it.  Jesus is in such a position of authority over us.  He is our Lord and Master; we are His servants.  He has given us explicit directives on how to live our lives, and we are obligated to obey Him.

This is a hard concept for modern Christians to grasp.  We naturally assume our own freedom and autonomy.  If Jesus loves us, we reason, He will look out for our personal well-being, which, we assume, means that He will do what we want Him to do.  But we have it all backwards.  He is the Lord; we are His servants.  We are here on earth to do His will and good pleasure.

Jesus said that we were to “keep” His commandments.  The Greek word that John used (and presumably the underlying Aramaic word that Jesus would have used), means “to guard” or “to keep,” and by extension “to keep watchful care.”  The idea here is that we are to give careful attention to what Jesus has commanded, and to be careful to obey all of His commandments.

But it is specifically His commandments that we are to keep, not some human tradition or social custom.  The importance of this cannot be overestimated.  Jesus is God; Jesus is the Supreme Authority.  And if we are Christians we are His disciples – we are followers of Him.  That means that we must go what He has said in all things.

On the one hand this requires non-conformity to the world.  As human beings we are social creatures, and crave social acceptance.  We must live and function in civil society.  But the human race is fallen and in a state of sinful rebellion against God.  It imposes standards of right and wrong that are often at variance with God’s moral law.  In such cases “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  This principle will become increasingly critical as Western society continues to move in an anti-Christian direction.  But we must never forget that Jesus Christ is Lord and King, and He is the One who we at all times must obey.  And, ironically as it may seem, in so doing we are acting in he the best interests of society.  Humanity never benefits from sexual license, drunken debauchery, economic exploitation, or violence against others.  We may be hated and persecuted in the short run, but we will be proven right in the long run.   Let us take a clear, uncompromising stand for truth, justice, compassion and morality.

But in our churches we must also be careful not to follow blindly a human tradition instead of the commands of Christ.  It is easy to follow customary practices and a set of denominational distinctives.  But are they really biblical, and do they really honor Christ?  Christ is supposed to be the Head of the church, and the question should always be, what does He want?  The different denominations cannot all possibly be right; almost all of them have to be wrong at some point.  And too often we have developed an institutionalized form of church life that departs for the New Testament model of a Spirit-filled brotherhood of committed disciples.  We must make it our first order of business to seek Christ’s will for our lives as individuals and as churches, and seek to please Him in all that we do.  Only then can we expect to receive a blessing from Him.

But Jesus challenges His disciples to examine their own hearts.  “If you love Me,” He says, “keep My commandments.”  The question is, do we really love Him?  What does it mean to love Christ, in the first place?  Can we say that we genuinely understand ad appreciate all that He is, and all that He has done for us?  When we sing in church, do we really praise Him with heartfelt devotion?  Or are we simply enjoying the music?*  Is a genuine love for Christ reflected in our private devotions and public worship?

And what is our motive in getting involved in church activities?  Is it to glorify Christ and serve the brethren in love and humility?  Or is it to gain recognition for ourselves?  Do we consciously strive to please Christ in all that we do?  Do we really, honestly, sincerely love Him at all?

If we are honest with ourselves we will probably have to admit that we are too much like the lukewarm church in Laodicea: ”I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I could wish you were cold or hot” (Rev. 3:15).  And tells them (the church, mind you, not unbelievers), “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (v. 20).

This, then, in just a few words, is what the Christian life should look like: “If you love Me, keep My commandments.”

 

*St. Augustine confessed to being torn between listening to the psalms being chanted in church for the content of the words and purely for the enjoyment of the music.  His decided preference was for the performance style advocated by St. Athanasius – as plain and simple as possible, closer to speech rather than song.  (Confessions, X.xxxiii)

JUST WAR? – I

 

In 1971, at the ripe old age of 21, I found myself serving in the U.S. Army in Viet Nam.  I was well aware that the war was controversial back home.  I was fortunate in that I saw very little actual combat while I was there (I was a field radio repairman, and happened to be in “Nam” during a lull in the war), but I had plenty of time to think about what would happen if combat did come my way.  Would I actually be able to pull the trigger and kill a fellow human being?  The answer to that question, in turn, would depend on the morality of war itself.  What did God think about the Viet Nam war?

I was poorly prepared to face such a huge moral dilemma.  I had been raised in a Christian home and had spent two years in Bible college.  Yet neither pastors nor professors had spent much time discussing the morality of war.  The sad fact of the matter is that most evangelical Protestant theologians in modern times have not done very well at explaining the elements of what constitutes a just war.

As we have already noted, the word in the Sixth Commandment translated “murder” (NKJV) signifies the taking of human life by a private individual.  But the Bible specifically mandates capital punishment for the crime of murder, as well as for a variety of other offenses.  Moreover the nation of Israel was directly ordered by God to go to war against the Canaanites, among others.

But then when we come to the New Testament we read such passages as these: “But I tell you not to resist an evil person.  But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. . . I say to you, lover your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you . . .” (Matt. 5:39; NKJV).  It was passages like these that led many Anabaptists at the time of the Reformation to espouse the doctrine of Non-Resistance.  Many of them held that a Christian could not serve in the military without violating the commandments of Christ.

One of the chief difficulties with this position is that the Bible represents the civil government as an institution ordained by God himself.  “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Rom. 13:1).  The passage even goes on to say that “he is God’s minister to you for good.  But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (v. 4).

Some Anabaptists tried to escape this difficulty by arguing that “The sword in ordained by God outside the perfection of Christ.”  As Christians we must follow the example of Christ, and He did not go to war (Schleitheim Confession, Article VI).  In one sense, the Anabaptists were certainly right.  Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a “Christian country” or a “Christian government,” if by that we mean a government that is based on Christian moral and ethical principles.  The various countries of the world are largely made up of lost sinners, and the governments they form are often founded on less than idealistic principles.  They exist to advance the interests of society, which are not always God’s interests.  And yet they are still “appointed by God” for the purpose of maintaining order in society.  Nevertheless a civil government is quite distinct from the Kingdom of Christ.  “You know that the Gentiles lord it over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be you servant . . .” (Matt. 20:25,26).

And yet the function of civil government itself is perfectly legitimate, as long as it is honest and administers justice fairly.  The mere fact that it punishes evildoers does not make it, ipso facto, evil.  In that sense it is merely imitating what God himself will do at the Last Judgment.

Part of the problem with the Anabaptist position is that it would involve God in a double standard.  It would have God condoning something in the Old Testament but condemning it in the New; ordaining something for civil magistrates but forbidding it for Christians.  But either it is morally right or it is morally wrong.  It cannot be both moral and immoral at the same time.

The answer, I think, is that a magistrate acting in his official capacity is not acting out of personal malice or a desire for personal revenge.  His desire is to see order maintained and justice established, and with it the peace and security of the entire community.  At the bottom of it he operates (we hope!) from a humanitarian impulse, and not from personal malice.  Under those circumstances a Christian should be able to serve in a civil government, and even its military.

 

Next week, Lord, willing, we will take a closer look at what makes a war just or unjust.

AND LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION

pope-francis[1]About a year ago Pope Francis caused a bit of a stir when he suggested in a TV interview that the clause in the Lord’s Prayer that reads “and lead us not into temptation” was not a good translation, “because it speaks of a God who induces temptation.”  He argued “a father won’t do that.  A father will immediately help you pull yourself up.  Satan’s the one leading you into temptation.  That’s Satan’s work.”  Since then the Italian Episcopal Conference has been working on an alternative rendering, and has recommended replacing the traditional phrasing with “abandon us not when in temptation.”  The Lord’s Prayer (Pater Noster – Our Father) is recited as part of the mass.

But is the revision a legitimate translation of the text?  Can “lead me not into temptation” be accurately rendered “abandon us not when in temptation”? The Greek original uses the verb “eisenenkes” which literally means “to bring into.”  The Latin Vulgate, however, uses the word “inducas” which could mean “to move, excite, persuade, induce, or seduce.”  “Induce us not to sin,” then, obviously would not be a good translation, and Pope Francis is correct: God does not induce us to sin.

But the standard English translation, “and lead us not into temptation,” does in fact accurately reflect the force of the Greek.  Translation experts will sometimes argue that a good translation would be “idea-for-idea” and not necessarily “word-for-word.”  This is commonly referred to as “dynamic equivalence.”  But in this case is “abandon us not when in temptation” really the dynamic equivalent of “lead us not into temptation”?  What did Jesus mean when He said these words?  And then there is the underlying theological problem: In what sense can it be said that God “leads us into temptation”?

Part of the answer lies in the meaning of the word “temptation.”  Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “temptation” as “the act of tempting or the state of being tempted, esp. to evil,” and defines the word “tempt” as “to entice to do wrong by promise of pleasure or gain: allure into evil: SEDUCE.”  But the Greek word peirasmos means “a trial, of ethical purpose and effect, whether good or evil” (Abbott-Smith).  In other words, it is a test or trial to determine the genuineness of something.  And that gives us a better idea of what it means to “lead us not into temptation.”

We can see a concrete example of how this actually works by looking at the temptation of Jesus.  We are told, just a few chapters earlier, that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1; NKJV).  Here it is the Spirit who leads Jesus into the place of temptation, but it is the devil who does the actual tempting.  Jesus had fasted forty days and forty nights, and “afterward He was hungry (v. 2).  The tempter then comes to Him and says “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread” (v. 3).  Jesus refused, quoting Scripture instead.  Two more temptations followed, and again Jesus responded by quoting Scripture.  The passage then concludes by saying “Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him” (v. 11).

James makes it clear that “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.  But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (Jas. 1:13,14).  And yet the Bible also makes it clear that God is ultimately in control of the overall circumstances of our lives, and that He allows various trials and tribulations into our lives for several different reasons.  Part of it is to test the genuineness of our faith, and this, in turn, gives us the assurance of salvation (Jas. 1:2-4, 12; I Pet. 1:6-9).  And part of it is to increase our sanctification.  Trials serve to give us humility (II Cor. 12:7-10), patience ((Rom. 5:3,4), and the ability to comfort others (II Cor. 1:3-7).  But in it all genuine Christians are “kept by the power of God through faith” (I Pet. 1:5), and God has promised us that “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (I Cor. 10:13).

To change the wording, then, of the Lord’s Prayer from “lead us not into temptation” to “abandon us not when in temptation” probably does undue violence to the original.  It is one thing to explain the meaning of a difficult passage of Scripture; it is another thing to change the wording to reflect our own thinking on the subject.  While Pope Francis is correct in saying that the passage is easily misunderstood, he does want to put himself in the position of rewording what Jesus actually said!

 

THE DREAM ISAIAH SAW

4.2.7

Edward Hicks, “The Peaceable Kingdom”

 

The composer Glenn Rudolph tells us that he was writing his choral piece “The Dream Isaiah Saw” in 2001 and that he was still in the process of writing it when the 911 terrorist attack occurred.  The words are based on Thomas H. Troeger’s  poem “Lion and Oxen Will Sleep in the Hay,” which in turn is based on a prophecy by Isaiah found in Isa. 11:6-9 which says, among other things, that

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb . . .

And the lion shall eat straw like the ox . . .”

(NKJV).

In his poem Mr. Troeger goes on to say,

“God will transfigure the violence concealed

deep in the heart and in systems of gain,

ripe for the judgment the Lord will ordain . . .”

Isaiah’s prophecy was written 2,700 years ago, and yet, as Mr. Rudolph noted, the problem it addresses still exists today.  Civil wars have torn apart Syria and Yemen, the Islamic State has come and gone, and crime and corruption have driven thousands from their homes in Central America.  And here at home we have seen a poisoned political atmosphere, accompanied by mass shootings and bomb threats.  Is there any real hope for peace in the world?

Isaiah paints an extraordinary picture of the wolf dwelling with the lamb and the leopard lying down with the young goat.  It is hard to know how far to take the imagery.  Wolves, leopards, lions and bears are all carnivorous animals, and it is hard to imagine bears grazing and lions eating straw, as is mentioned in verse 7 of the text.  But Romans 8:19-22 in the New Testament does tell us that “the creation was subjected to futility” but that at some point “the creation itself also will be from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”  And we are told elsewhere that in the future God “will cause wild beasts to cease from the land, and they [i.e. God’s people] will dwell safely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods” (Ezek. 34:25-30).  Apparently there will no longer be any wild animals.

Mr. Troeger, in his poem, says that

“God will transfigure the violence concealed

deep in the heart and systems of gain,

ripe for the judgment the Lord will ordain.”

But the question remains, how will this take place?  Is it a realistic expectation at all?  Isaiah’s text goes on to say,

“They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,

For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord

As the waters cover the sea” (v. 9).

The immediate context is Isaiah’s prophecy in Isa. 11:1-5 about the coming of the Messiah.  In keeping with the promises made to King David one of David’s descendants would someday occupy his throne.  “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, / And a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (v. 1 – the word translated “Rod” might better be rendered “shoot” – NASV, NRSV, ESV, NIV; Jesse was David’s father).

Isaiah then goes on to describe how this king will reign: “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him ,” a Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel and might.  In other words the Messiah will possess all the attributes necessary in a ruler if he is to be good and effective.

But ultimately that wisdom and knowledge must be grounded in “the fear of the Lord” (v. 2).  “His delight is in the fear of the Lord” (v. 3a).  In order to understand things aright one must understand them as God intended them to be.  God is the Creator; we live in a universe that was ordered and structured by Him.  In order to understand things properly we must understand His creative will and purpose.  And while we may have a natural human tendency to assert our independence and think in terms of our own individual self-interest, God is concerned that we acknowledge Him and do what is just and right and true.

The end result of Messiah’s reign is that “with righteousness He shall judge the poor, / And decide with equity for the meek of the earth . . .” (v. 4a).  In almost any human civilization – one that has achieved any degree of prosperity – there will be a tendency for the rich and powerful to take advantage of the weak and poor.  This sometimes results in the outright corruption of the judicial system, with judges that would “justify the wicked for a bribe, / And take away justice from the righteous man’ (Isa. 5:23).  In this sense Mr. Troeger is correct in condemning the “systems of gain.”  And he is correct in thinking that such systems are “ripe for the judgment the Lord will ordain.”  The rulings of the Messiah, Isaiah tells us, will be in strict conformity with the law and the facts of the case.

And how will all of this come about?  There is one sense in which the Messiah’s kingdom is already here on earth, in the hearts of believers; and another sense in which it will not be fully manifested until the Second Coming of Christ.  In the Parable of the Tares and the Wheat (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43) Jesus said that the tares of the wheat grow together until the end of the age, when “The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness . . . Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (vv. 41,43).

Isaiah goes on to say, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, / For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord / As the waters cover the sea” (v. 9).  The key to world peace is for the world to know God – to know His will, intents and purposes, to live according to His will.  And what He intended for us is not that we should lie, cheat and steal, much less kill each other in war; but rather that we should “love the Lord with all your heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Dt. 6:5; Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:34-40).  When we as human beings lose sight of the divine and eternal, when we forget that we are ultimately accountable to a Supreme Being, our Creator, for our actions, human life degenerates into an endless conflict of warring factions and “identity politics,” and that is where we are today.

Mr. Troeger, in his poem, says, “Little Child, whose bed is straw / take new lodging in my heart.”  Jesus told Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).  In the short run we can find peace and happiness by repenting of our sin, going to Christ in faith, and being reconciled to God.  But peace on earth as a whole awaits the Second Coming of Christ.  Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

FOR UNTO US A CHILD IS BORN

4.2.7

Lorenzo di Credi, “The “Annunciation”

 

One of the questions Jesus had to confront during His earthly ministry was whether or not He really was He claimed to be – the promised Messiah.  For that matter we face the same question today: how do we know that He was the Son of God, the Messiah?  And part of the answer to that question lies in the prophecies that were made centuries earlier concerning the Messiah.  And some of the most important of these prophecies were made by Isaiah.

Isaiah’s prophecies came during a particularly difficult time in ancient Israel’s history.  The nation at that time was divided between two competing states, the kingdom of Israel in the north (also called Ephraim or Samaria), and the kingdom of Judah in the south.  Worried about the growing power of Assyria in the north, the northern kingdom Israel formed an alliance with neighboring Syria (Damascus), and together they threatened Judah which had refused to join the alliance.  The newly crowned king of Judah, Ahaz, appealed to the Assyrians for help, and the Assyrians in 734 B.C. invaded Palestine.  The northern and northeastern parts of Israel were annexed to the Assyrian Empire.

But the Jews were God’s chosen people.  How could all of this have happened to them?  Isaiah makes it clear that this was a judgment from God on a nation that had grown worldly and corrupt.  While the external forms of worship had been maintained, idolatry was widespread, as well as political corruption.  And God made it clear what He expected from them:

“Learn to do good;

Seek justice,

Rebuke the oppressor,

Defend the fatherless,

Plead for the widow.”

(Isa. 1:17; NKJV)

It was for their failure to live up to God’s standards of morality that war and devastation had come upon them, and eventually captivity.

It was in this context, then, that Isaiah’s remarkable prophecies came.  Isaiah describes the deep gloom that would fall upon the country as it would be invaded by the Assyrians: “Then they will look to the earth, see trouble and darkness, gloom of anguish; and they will be driven into darkness” (Isa. 8:22).  But in wrath God remembers mercy, and Israel is still God’s chosen people.  And so, in the midst of this dire prophecy comes a remarkable promise: “Nevertheless the gloom will not be upon her who is distressed” (9:1) – or, as we might better understand it “But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish” – NASV.  And then, referring specifically to two tribes in the north of Israel, Zebulon and Naphtali, it says,

“The people who walked in darkness

Have seen a great light;

Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,

Upon them a light has shined.”

(9:2)

But how was this prophecy fulfilled?  And when?  The specific area mentioned (“Galilee of the Gentiles”) was part of the northern kingdom that was annexed to Assyria in approximately 733 B.C.  The next several verses speak of God having broken the rod of the oppressor, “For every warrior’s sandal from the noisy battle, / And garments rolled in blood,/ Will be used for burning and fuel of fire” (9:5).  But war would continue to be a fact of life in that area for many centuries to come.

But the text goes on to explain:

“For unto a Child is born,

Unto us a Son is given;

And the government will be upon His shoulder . . .”

(9:6)

In other words, the prophecy looks forward to nothing less than the birth of Christ.  And remarkably, when the Messiah, Jesus, did come, He began His public ministry, not in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious life, but in the north, in Galilee.  He grew up in Nazareth, located in the former territory of Zebulon, and His first miracle was performed in nearby Cana.  And much of His subsequent ministry was centered in Capernaum, located on the Sea of Galilee in what had been the territory of Naphtali.  It was a direct fulfillment of this prophecy.

But in what sense could it be said that “The people who walked in darkness / Have seen a great light” and “Upon them a light has shined” (9:2)?  Jesus would say that “I am the light of the world.  He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12), and “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness” (John 12:46).  The darkness, then, is not just the gloom of war and turmoil, and it does not just affect the people of ancient Galilee.  It is deeper and more pervasive than that.  It is the spiritual darkness that has engulfed the entire human race.  It is our self-centeredness, and our inability to see beyond our own immediate self-interest, that keeps us from acting as we ought.  This is the underlying cause of the crime, corruption, poverty and war that afflicts human society.  And into this sin-cursed world came the Son of God, bringing truth and salvation.  He is the light of the world.

And how will this light come into the world?

“For unto us a Child is born,

Unto us a Son is given . . .”

The Messiah would come into the world in the form of human child.  But, as we shall see, He was no ordinary human being.

The fact that the Messiah would come into the world and spend much of His ministry in Galilee is a remarkable testimony to the grace of God toward miserable sinners.  Israel had brought its troubles upon itself.  It fully deserved divine punishment.  But in wrath God remembered mercy (Hab. 3:2) and sent His Son to that very part of the country that had born the brunt of His wrath.

But it is even more true of all of those of us who have been saved by grace.  We were all lost sinners, all on our way to hell.   We were in spiritual darkness, and cared not for the things of God.  And yet in one way or another God brought us undeserving sinners to Christ to receive the forgiveness of our sins and changed lives.  We are now heirs of heaven.  Praise be to His holy name!

 

WHY GIVE THANKS?

robert_walter_weir_-_embarkation_of_the_pilgrims_-_google_art_project

 

Thanksgiving is, of course, a major national holiday.  But like many major holidays its meaning has largely been lost.  Why celebrate Thanksgiving?  The original purpose was to give thanks to God for His blessings during the previous year, and especially for a bountiful harvest.   But in an increasingly secularized society fewer and fewer people can see any reasons to “give thanks.”  Thanks to Whom?  For what?  Most people today have no idea.

The apostle Paul in the New Testament, however, gives us the underlying rationale.  In Romans 11:36 he says, “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever.  Amen.” (NKJV).  The first thing he says is that all things are “of Him” or “from Him.”  God is the Creator.  Apart from Him nothing would exist at all.  Everything else in the universe, the earth, the stars and planets, the mountains, the seas, plant and animal life, even we ourselves, owes its existence solely to God.  Without Him we would not exist at all.

But secondly, Paul says that all things are “through Him.”  It was common, during the Eighteenth Century, to view creation as something that ran more or less mechanically.  God was the divine Watchmaker, and having set the machinery in motion it ran on its own.  But as Paul told the Athenians, God “gives to all life, breath and all things” and “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:25,28).  And in Col. 1:17 he said “And he is before all things, and in Him all things consist”; and in Heb. 1:3 we read that Christ is “upholding all things by the word of His power.”  Even scientists are forced to admit that nature does not work in a strictly mechanical fashion, at least not at the subatomic level (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle).  And even in normal cause and effect relationships God can so control the forces of nature that He is the One who ultimately determines the success or failure of a harvest.

“Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;

Sing praises on the harp to our God,

Who covers the heavens with clouds,

Who prepares rain for the earth,

Who makes grass grow on the mountains.

He gives to the beast its food,

And to the young ravens that cry.”

(Psalm 147:7-9)

But then Paul says that all things are “to Him,” or “unto Him.”  If all things are created and sustained by God there must be an ultimate meaning and purpose to it.  God created everything for His own purposes, and He wants us, as His creatures, to love Him and worship Him for all that He has done for us.  Again, as Paul told the Athenians, God created “every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth . . .so that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:25,27).  God is a personal Being, and He wants us to relate to Him in a personal way.

And so it is that Paul concludes by saying, “to whom be glory forever. Amen.”  If we owe everything we have to God, including our very existence, then we should acknowledge the fact and praise Him accordingly.  And that means that we should make a conscious effort to praise and worship Him.  We should frequent a house of worship on a regular basis.

“Praise the Lord!

Sing to the Lord a new song,

And His praise in the assembly of the saints.”

(Psalm 149:1)

But then especially on a day like Thanksgiving we should take the time to honor Him for all the blessings of the past year.

“Oh come, let us sing to the Lord!

Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.

Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving;

Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.

For the Lord is the great God,

And the great King above all gods.”

(Ps. 95:1-3)