Category Archives: Theology Thoughts

Embracing the Victory

A look through the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, reveals a lot of passages about the victory that comes through the new life in the kingdom. We become new people with a new family built upon love, grace, mercy and forgiveness. No matter what pain or sorrow we have experienced before, we now have a chance at a new life. The old is gone; behold the new.

Sadly, a lot of people fail to embrace fully the victory of Jesus in their lives. The scars of the past are so deep and numerous that it is hard to trust again. What happens if I open up my heart and Jesus fails me? What if I try to fight the chemical, emotional or spiritual addictions in my life and I fail? Perhaps it is just safer not to dream of victory; instead I will just push on through this life, hanging onto the promise of healing in the next life at the resurrection of the dead. As it has been said, the pain that I know is better than the pain that I don’t know.

Not wanting victory may sound crazy to some people, but there are a lot more of us out there who are afraid of change than those who embrace the change of life that comes with Jesus. I’m reminded of the time when Jesus went to the pool of Bethesda, which was a sort of hospital and healing spa (John 5:1-15). Walking among the sick and hurting, Jesus stopped next to a gentleman who had been sick for 38 years and asked him the most important question of all: “Do you want to get well?” One would think that the gentleman would emphatically say “Yes!” as he was talking to a known miracle worker. Yet, instead of answering in the positive, the man launches into a sad tale of how it was impossible for him to get healed because of this or that problem. The 38-years of pain had sucked his hope, faith and vision of the future to the point that he failed to see the victory right in front of him.

A lot of Jesus followers have been conditioned by our culture, world, church, family, friends, or even ourselves, to accept our addictions, pain and defeat. Perhaps there was a time when we cried out for victory, but, when it didn’t come, we gave up hope. We became like the gentleman sitting next to a pool of healing with no hope of victory. Instead of embracing the new life in Jesus and the destruction of sin that comes with following him, we become content with simply managing our sin. Sin management is where we become comfortable with certain sins, habits and/or addictions. We all excuse certain things in our lives that we know are not healthy and do not glorify God. Instead of trying to fight these actions or thoughts, we just manage them. We keep them under lock and key, perhaps indulge them a bit here and there, not enough to cause any problems, but just enough to take the edge off things.

As a pastor there were times when people would inform me that they were an alcoholic, twenty years dry. While I applaud the fact that they have acknowledged their addiction, I would get concerned about their sense of identity. It was almost as if their past addiction had defined them forever. It didn’t matter that they had not taken a drink of alcohol or gotten drunk in over a decade, they were still an alcoholic. Followers of Jesus fall into this same trap when they constantly define themselves as a sinner. Yes, I know we all sin, but the moment we bow our knees to Jesus and confess him as our Lord and King, we become a new creation. We are no longer sinners but saints! Our old identity has been removed and we are now part of a new family. To stop short of fully embracing the victory of the King is to slap him in the face. It is a huge dishonor to turn down the gift of the King and Creator of the universe.

Does this mean that we will be free from every bad thought, addictions or habit? Perhaps, perhaps not. It is not up to me to know the mind of God. What I do know is that Paul lived with a thorn in his side that was not taken away. Perhaps some of you reading this will have things in your lives that won’t go away. To you I say, fight and fight and never stop fighting! We live deep within enemy territory and have been called to advance the rule and reign of God into every area of this planet. To stop fighting is to give up on God and his mission. He is a trustworthy General who is leading an army in the invasion of this present evil age. We, his daughters and sons, have been trusted with the mission of fighting on the front lines. Let us never forget this: let us always continue to fight for the victory we know we have as daughters and sons of the Creator King.

Remember our gentleman at the pool of Bethesda? Jesus didn’t let him get away with all the excuses as to why he couldn’t get healed. Instead of turning around and walking away to someone else, perhaps someone with a bit more faith, Jesus simply says, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” He knew that God wanted to bring victory in the midst of the pain and he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Isn’t it wonderful that God doesn’t always listen to our excuses? Jesus wants us embrace the victory that come into the world through his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

Embracing the victory of God is to declare him the King over our circumstances. It is a war cry to the world around us that we will not settle for less than complete restoration of creation itself. We are the people of God who know without a doubt that our King will win, no matter what circumstances we may be in,. It was this mindset that caused the early believers to stand strong in the face of death itself, refusing to deny Jesus despite pain of torture or death by wild animals. And when the plagues came, the followers of Jesus refused to run away, choosing instead to care for the sick and the dying while knowing that staying most likely meant death. These believers understood that the victory belonged to King Jesus and no matter what the circumstances were, he was still the King of Kings.

It is now our turn to walk boldly in the victory of Jesus. We get the privilege of telling people that there is a new way to live and that there is victory from the pain of life. True, some people may push us away as they like living in their pain and darkness. That is okay, as they did that same thing to Jesus. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to draw them to Jesus, not yours! Our job is to proclaim that the kingdom of God is here! Go back and look at the command of Jesus: it was to proclaim that the day of the Lord, the new age of life had broken into human history. That is our message. We are saints who live in the tension of the here and not yet of the kingdom, embracing both the suffering and the victory that comes with pledging our lives to the Creator King.

The above post is an excerpt from my book, The Here and Not Yet (pages 92-94)

Embracing the suffering

It may sound crazy to say that we have to embrace the suffering this life throws at us. The thing is that if we ignore the pain or claim that we have victory over every pain, sorrow, or fiery dart from hell, then we have set ourselves up for even more pain. The reality is that there is a lot of pain and sorrow in the world today – rape, sickness, heartache, poverty, death, betrayal, bullying, addictions, and more. If we are going to live in this world, as we do, then we must know how to process the suffering and how to help others walk through it.

When I was in college someone told me that the reason that people got sick was because they had sinned against God. If they fully obeyed God, then they would never get sick. This person then backed up this claim by declaring that their good health was due to their standing before the Lord. As I stood there listening to this bold claim, I couldn’t help but think of Job.

The book of Job is perhaps the oldest book in the Bible and tells the story of Job who lived around the same time as Abraham. The story itself is a bit depressing as it details how Job, a follower of the Creator King, is attacked by the evil one and in a very short amount of time loses his children, wife, house, land, wealth and health. His friends show up and tell Job that all his problems are due to his sinful actions against God. Job refuses to accept this logic and cries out to God in an effort to find out what is happening. At the end of the book, God shows up and destroys the argument of Job’s friends. Then he turns to Job and instead of explaining everything, he asks Job where he was when the earth was formed and the seas were created. In other words, God is telling Job to stop trying to figure out the cause and effects of everything and start trusting Him.

This may sound like a cop-out to us in the modern age. We want everything to be logical and have a reason. We don’t like unsolved mysteries or cryptic statements of trust. Yet, if we think back to the very beginning, the Scriptures are clear that we are to trust the Creator King. This doesn’t mean – and please hear me loud and clear here – that God causes pain and suffering in our lives. Far from it! God is not the author of evil, suffering, pain or heartache. Everything negative and painful in our lives comes from three places: from our own poor decisions, attacks from the evil one or from effects of living in the present evil age. What the Creator King does, is to take all the pain and suffering we experience and transform it through the cross into something else. Something, dare I say, restorative and beautiful albeit scarred and wounded, like the nail scarred hands of Jesus.

Remember how I mentioned that my wife and I had experienced two miscarriages? Those miscarriages caused us considerable pain and heartache. We even started to doubt God and began to lose trust in him. Yet, through all the pain he taught us that people, even unborn babies, are worth loving even if the ending is full of pain. The lessons that my wife and I learned through the pain of the miscarriages helped us open up our hearts to our adopted son and to the child whom we had for only eleven days. Was the miscarriages part of God’s plan? I don’t think so! I think they were the results of frail bodies and fiery darts from the evil one. However, God took the pain of our lives and transformed it into something wholesome.

When I talk about embracing the suffering of living in the tension, this is what I mean: we have to let God take the sorrow of our lives and transform it into good. If we always focus on the victory passages of the Scriptures then we would never know how to live through the tough times. Similarly, if we only focused on the suffering portions, we would become depressed and miss seeing his mighty hand at work. We have to learn to live in the tension between both aspects of the Scriptures, trusting the Creator King who loves us more than we can ever know.

Another aspect of embracing suffering can be found in the life of Jesus. Philippians 2 talks about how Jesus freely emptied himself to become like us in every way. As such, he experienced a lot of pain and suffering that he did not have to. I’m not just talking about the cross and the physical pain that it bought. I’m talking about his stepdad dying, working long hard days to support his mother and young siblings, sweating under the hot sun, walking for miles upon miles across the desert, and sleeping on the ground. His brothers and sisters thought he was crazy, his friend betrayed him unto death and all his other friends abandoned him in his hour of need. On top of all this, Jesus had hundreds, if not thousands, of people trying to get his attention all the time, leaving him with very little time for himself. As a pastor, I can vouch for the emotional, spiritual and physical drain that comes with having people constantly coming up and looking for something from you! Yet Jesus embraced all this suffering as he knew that it was through the suffering that the reign and rule of God would break into human history.

When my wife and I were in our mid-twenties, we were invited to join a team of folks who were planning to start a new church in Sweet, Idaho, an hour’s drive north of Boise. At first we were just going to help out on Sunday evenings for about six months while the church got up and running. God, however, had different plans. One thing led to another and soon we were selling our house and moving to Sweet, to work with the church and love the community. The next nine years were full of joy, happiness, sorrow and heartache. It was hard giving up one lifestyle to embrace another.  To go from riding a bicycle to work, to driving an hour each way; to go from a vibrant social life in the big city to embracing a slower pace of life among a predominantly retired community. Then there were the hours of volunteer work with the church, setting things up for the service, tearing it down, week in and week out, planning different events, etc.

I lost count of the times my wife and I sat in our living room, crying. The toil of starting a new church took its toll on us, stretching us to our limits and beyond. More than once we wanted to quit and run away. The only reason why we didn’t was because we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God had asked us to go to Sweet. And, since he was our King, we had to obey him until he released us from our job. This is suffering. This is the pain of the here and not yet of the kingdom of God. The pain that comes with obeying the Creator King and proclaiming his word to a world that does not want to listen.

Matthew 11:12 is a cryptic verse in which Jesus says, “From the time of John to Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been forcing its way in – and the men of force are trying to grab it!” (TKNT) We are in a battle between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light. The moment you start proclaiming Jesus to the world, you had better watch out as you have just painted a target on your back. All hell is going to try to stop you from obeying the Creator King because the evil one does not want to let go of his territory. Yet, we have been called to fight the fight, to proclaim the kingdom of God into every nook and cranny of this world, regardless of the cost!

To embrace the suffering of the kingdom is to know that starting a church, loving the unlovable, working with the poor, helping those with addictions, or simply telling your neighbor about Jesus, all come with pain. There will be push back and, at times, negative consequences that come from obeying Jesus. You might experience sleepless nights, long days, emotionally-draining meetings, spiritual attacks, strained relationships, emotional and/or physical isolation, loss of income, and, perhaps even death. I am reminded of the calling of the prophet Jeremiah, who was told by God that the people of Israel would “fight against” him should he obey what God was telling him to do (Jeremiah 1:19). And the apostle Paul, who was shown by God “how many things he is going to have to suffer for the sake of [his] name” at the time he bowed his knees to the King (Acts 9:16).

We have to be willing to embrace the pain that comes with joining God on his mission. We have to be willing to step out and take a risk, to choose to love even though we know that we may be hurt. Too many followers of Jesus have hardened their hearts toward people because they have been hurt too much. They still serve but it is out of duty rather than love. We must keep a soft heart and remember that the pain is worth it. And in order to do that we must embrace the suffering of Jesus as our own.

The above post is an excerpt from my book, The Here and Not Yet (pages 90-92)

A “Perfect” God or a “Good” God?

The concept that “God is perfect” was borrowed by the church from Greek philosophy in the 2nd and 3rd centuries as the number of non-Jewish background believers increased. During this time the followers of the Jesus were subject to various persecutions by the officials of the Roman Empire. Church leaders sought to defend the Christian faith from those who persecuted them by using the same philosophical tools their enemies were using. Hence these church leaders adopted and built upon some of concept first promoted by Plato, Aristotle and others.

The idea that the divine has to be perfect comes from Plato who argued since the gods were the best in virtue and beauty, they could not change as changing would mean that they were not the best or perfect. A few church leaders picked upon Plato’s concepts of divine perfection and connected it to the God of the Scriptures. (As a side note, it is worth noting that Plato was responding to Heraclitus who thought that everything was in a constant state of change.)

The crazy thing is that the Hebrew Old Testament does not present the Creator as being perfect and unchanging, but rather good. God is good and it is his goodness that shines through in his interactions with humanity. The Psalms are full of statements along these lines (e.g. Psalm 100:5, Psalm 86:5). 1 Chronicles 16:34 is a famous example of the goodness of God: “O give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting.”

The only verse that states that God is perfect is Matthew 5:48 where Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The context of this verse and the root meaning of the Greek word (τέλειος) translated as “perfect” allows for one to read this verse as, “You therefore must be mature, complete in moral character, as your heavenly Father is mature.”

If anything is perfect it is the ways of God (e.g. 2 Samuel 22:31, Psalm 18:30, Deuteronomy 32:4). It must be pointed out at this point that the Hebrew (תָּמִים) word translated as “perfect” in English can also mean “complete” or “whole.” Hence one could say that God’s ways are “whole, complete, blameless, without blemish.”

The focus on God’s goodness allowed the Old Testament writers to talk about the times when God changed his mind (e.g. Jeremiah 26:3, Exodus 32:14). Accordingly, under this mindset we see a good God who is willing to work with humanity in fulfilling his mission to redeem all of creation.

In saying that God changes his mind, folks will normally point to Malachi 3:6 (“I am Jehovah; I do not change”) and James 1:17 (“[God] does not vary or change like the shifting shadows.” My response would be to say that the nature of who God is does not change. He is good, he is loving, he is kind, he is merciful, and he will fulfill his promises. We do not need to worry about him giving up on us or throwing us to the side as a piece of trash as so many humans do to others.

Within Christianity there are streams of theology that are built upon the philosophical concept that God is “perfect” and “unchanging.” These traditions tend to focus on the holiness of God and how he has to keep his distance from the sinful and less-than perfect humans. To have or to be near a blemish is to have one’s perfectionism questioned, which cannot be allowed to happen because God is unchanging, holy, perfect, etc.

Other traditions use the goodness of God as their foundation. These traditions tend to see a Creator God who passionately pursues humanity even into the depths of sin so that he might redeem them. Though God is holy and blameless, he is not afraid of walking into the valley of death as he knows that sin and evil must flee from his presence.

Both groups, by the way, agree that the only way humanity is to be restored in relationship with God is through Jesus the Messiah. This is an open-handed issue that does not affect one’s position before God. Rather this is philosophical question about how we see and understand God. There have been great thinkers and awesome Jesus followers on both sides of the question of God being perfect or good.

Personally I fall on the side of focusing on the goodness of God as that is the God that I most readily see revealed in the person of Jesus. It also seems to be overwhelming view of God at display in the Old Testament. But there are those who disagree with me on this focus, and that is okay. 🙂

“Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.” (Psalms 34:8, NIV)

Normal Christian Living

Growing up on a farm with cows, dogs, chickens and goats, my brother and I were hard on our shoes, forcing my father to take us shoe shopping every few months. And every time he always reminded us of his one rule: no white shoes as they would be quickly destroyed. One day, though, I was able to talk him into allowing me to buy a pair of white tennis shoes. I promised him that I would take good care of them and make sure they stayed white. This was a lofty promise as keeping a pair of white shoes white was like keeping the sun from rising! Yet my dad, most surely out of love as he knew that I would never be able to keep my promise, bought them for me.

Sure enough, it didn’t take very long before the shoes were covered with a layer of manure and mud. Going over to the water hose, I proceeded to spray the shoes down trying to find a patch of white in the midst of the brown dirt. After what seemed like hours, I finally had a pair of white tennis shoes! Rejoicing, I went into the house where in the bright lights I realized that the shoes were still more brown than white. Sighing deeply, I went into the bathroom and grabbed an old toothbrush. Sitting down beside the bathtub, I begin to scrub each of the seams with the toothbrush, trying to recover that original whiteness. There would be times when I thought I was through only to turn the shoe over and see a piece of mud stuck in a seam or a smear of brown gunk. It took forever – or at least it seemed like forever – to clean those shoes!

The Christian walk is like that.

The Creator God made us in his image as living declarations of his rule and reign. Living in the fallen world of evil, we quickly get covered in the mud and manure of life through our own actions, the actions of others or just because we happened to be there. No matter why, Jesus climbs down into the mud with us and picks us up, washing off the mud and restoring our relationship with him. At that point we are no longer the same people we once were.

After a while, we think that we are doing pretty well – I mean, we are no longer covered in mud. Then Jesus takes us inside the house and shows us all the mud and manure stuck to the seams of our lives. These are the heart issues, the things that no one else can see. Yet, the Creator King isn’t content with only cleaning the outside, he wants to clean every area of our lives so that we can truly live. As we allow him to do this, things start getting better. No more big pieces of mud; no more lying, stealing and drunkenness. At the same time, things are also getting harder. The cleaner we get, the more we realize how far we are from perfection. Our hearts break at things that we used to ignore. In the past, it was normal to bark out a harsh comment from time to time, or allow our minds to dwell on the physical appearance of someone of the opposite sex. Now our hearts break when we so much as think about such things.

To be faithful to our King and the Scriptures, we must fully embrace both the suffering and the victory of this life. We must not break this tension no matter how hard one side or the other will pull us. On the days that we are depressed and nothing is going right, we must remind ourselves that we are new joint heirs with Jesus and new creations under the new age of life. On the days when we are tempted to think that we have conquered all of our sins and addictions, let us remind ourselves that we are in process, that the light of Jesus can, and will, reveal to us the hidden faults tucked away in our inner hearts.

When we embrace both the here and the not yet of the kingdom of God, we enter a new place of life. We gain the freedom to confess our current sins and struggles to those around us, instead of hiding behind a façade of victory passages and promises. Neither do we have to wallow in the muck of depression trying to endure the pain of this world. We have the freedom to be real. If we mess up, then we admit it and move on. As a people living between the ages, we must learn to embrace the tension of the victory and suffering, the here and not yet. In doing so, we gain the freedom to be the people of God.

An excerpt from my book, The Here and Not YetPhysical book and e-book versions available at Amazon, iTunes, and other online bookstores.

What if Jesus had implemented a system of financial accountability?

Judas Iscariot

I was reading through the Gospel According to John when the following verse jumped out at me. (sadly this is a common event for books in the Unseen University library; hence the need for quick reflexes and a sharp knife – some of the books have claws after all!)

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (John 12:4-6, NIV)

Perhaps it was because of an earlier conversation with a new church planter about the need for financial accountability or just because of the way the clouds aligned that day, but I couldn’t stop a nagging thought from moving to the forefront of my mind:

What would happened if Jesus, the Man himself, had implemented a system of financial accountability within his traveling preaching group? Why, for example, didn’t he have Matthew, a former tax collector, double check the income and expense books? Why did he full financial authority to just one man?

Close behind these questions came another group of forbidden questions:

If Jesus had set up a system of financial checks and balances, would Judas have betrayed him? As in, did Judas – whom Jesus obviously trusted – start walking towards the dark side after he found himself in a position to skim a little money without anyone knowing? Or did his conversation to the dark side happen beforehand?

If history has taught us anything, it has taught us that even the most trustworthy person can be tempted by the dark side when put into a compromising position…. Hence my thought that Judas’ journey toward betrayal started with the simple act of taking a bit of coin on the side. 😕

Though we will never know the answer to these questions, we can learn from Jesus’ mistake and create a system of financial accountability. No matter how trustworthy a person is, it is never good to have one person in total control over the groups money. Let us, therefore, use some wisdom and make sure we keep the books clean and balanced (after all The Librarian likes his books well cared for – well that and bananas).

 

Update: Sigh… it seems that the internet doesn’t like my comment that we can “learn from Jesus’ mistake.” This post isn’t an attack on Jesus’ divinity or anything like that. Making a “mistake” doesn’t mean Jesus sinned; it just means that Jesus was like us – as the author of Hebrew says – and lived through all the things that we did. I’m sure Jesus as a child make some mistakes while working in the shop with Joseph or helping his mother. Making a mistake does not mean he is any less of who he is just like me making a mistake doesn’t change who I am.

I’m sure Jesus had a reason for giving Judas full control of the money; it may have even been something that was culturally appropriate at the time. I don’t know. All I know is that in reading the text, it seems that Jesus placed his trust in the wrong person and got betrayed for that choice. God turned a bad situation into something good – as he has a tendency to do. Jesus would have been betrayed by someone at some point as John 17:12 tells us that someone was “doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.”

Regardless of all this, I do believe that we can learn from what happened – hence this post. So please do not to turn this into something it is not. Thanks.

 

 

The Forgotten Story of Palestinian Christians

There are times when things that we should know about are lost in the avalanche of information that surrounds us each day. The stories of what happened to – and what is happening to – the Palestinian Christians is something that we should know more about. Sadly most of American Protestant Christianity has bought into a theological system that rejects these followers of Jesus while embracing the secular state of Israel.

Though it may not be a popular stance, I firmly believe that followers of Jesus MUST stand up for each other no matter what our ethnicity or race. As such while I don’t have a problem with existences of the nation of Israel, I do have a problem with the way they treat the Palestinian Christians – not to mention Palestinians in general.

And, yes, I understand that there are Palestinian groups who are actively fighting against Israel. And yes, I know this causes security issue. So why I’m not smart enough to know how to solve the political situation, I do know that Jesus of Nazareth said to love and bless EVERYONE – even those who are trying to kill you. As such I feel that American followers of Jesus must learn how to shift through the noise to hear the voices of our Palestinian brothers and sisters who are following Jesus.

The book Blood Brothers: The Dramatic Story of a Palestinian Christian Working for Peace in Israel by Archbishop Emeritus Dr. Elias Chacour of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church is a good starting point in learning about the history of Palestinian Christians.

Published in 1984, the book starts off with Chacour’s family getting ready to celebrate the return of the Jews in 1947 to the land. As Melkite Christians, they often prayed for their Jewish “blood brothers” and were glad to have them return to the land. Sadly the military machine of the new nation didn’t like having a group of Palestinians living near the Lebanese border, so they forcefully removed Chacour’s family and all the people of Kafr Bir’im. Later on the military will destroy all the buildings in the village in an effort to keep the people from returning. Despite losing everything, Chacour’s father modeled the forgiveness of Jesus while teaching his children what it meant to be a peacemaker.

As the book goes on, the reader learns more about Chacour’s journey with Jesus and how he became a priest. Woven throughout the book is the theme of forgiveness and understanding. This is not a book that seeks to slander the nation of Israel or the Jews who were returning to the land after War World Two. Rather it looks at the historic facts while bring to light that not all the Jews who returned to the land wanted to drive out the Palestinians. Sadly the voices of peace and love were crushed under the war machine of anger and hate.

The people of Jesus are to be peacemakers. And to be a peacemaker you have to know the history of those with whom you are trying to make peace. Hence I would recommendation reading Elias Chacour’s Blood Brothers. Read it as a history lesson from a group of people hidden from American church culture and then let the message of forgiveness and peace pour out to those around you.

No Simple Answers

Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller

There is a myth that is so pervasive and widespread that most of us believe its lies without thinking. What, you may ask, is this myth? It is the myth of common sense. Or, to use different words, it is the belief that people everywhere have the ability, wisdom, and understanding to come to the same conclusion as we would or do the same thing that we would do in a given situation. After all, some things are just plain common sense. Or so the argument goes.

The problem with this chain of thought is that everyone on the planet has a different way of seeing the world. We are all unique beings with our own experiences, abilities, thoughts, and actions. Taken together, it means that there is no such thing as “common sense” as we all have our own sense of the world around us.

True, as some might say, there are some shared cultural events, precepts and beliefs. After all, societies work specifically because of shared cultural norms (i.e. attitudes and behaviors that are considered normal with a culture, such as how one is to greet each other). However I would argue that just because we might agree on broad cultural norms, this doesn’t necessarily equate to having a common sense that is shared among humanity.  The world is too large and too multifaceted for such a phenomenon.

I highlight this myth because it shows how strongly the desire is within us for simple answers. We want a simple world with simple answers to simple questions.  We desperately desire a world that is easy to understand and easy to move around in with folks who see things the same way as we do. Reality, however, isn’t so simple or nice. As C.S. Lewis once remarked, “Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect…Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed.”[1]

So what should we do? If reality really is complex and strange, as it seems to be, then how do we approach things? How do we move forward through the darkness of the unknown while surrounded by paradoxes and oddities? To quote C.S. Lewis once again, the answer is to “leave behind all these boys’ philosophies – these over-simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simpler either.”[2]

Accordingly let us stop trying to reduce the complexity of this world into simple answers. Let us be honest with ourselves and others and acknowledge the complexity of the world in which we live.  And in doing so, let us also recognize the complexity and mysterious wonder of the Creator. He is not a simple being who can be described in simple terms or made to dance to the tune of our thoughts and desires. The focus of Christianity, Bishop Kallistos Ware reminds us, is not to “provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”[3]

God is God. He is beyond our thinking and understanding (e.g. Ecclesiastes 11:5, Isaiah 55:8-9, Psalm 145:3, 1 Corinthians 2:11). Try as we might, our words and simple descriptions of him will always fall short of fully capturing the wonder of who he really is. Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century church father, put it this way: “Anyone who tries to describe the ineffable Light in language is truly a liar – not because he hates the truth, but because of the inadequacy of this description.”[4]

 

Footnotes:

[1]C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 48.

[2]C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity, 48.

[3] Kallistos Ware. The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 14.

[4] Gregory of Nyssa. On Virginity, quoted in Kallistos Ware. The Orthodox Way, 24.

Symbols of the Confederacy or Jesus?

There is a lot of talk these days about the symbols of the Confederacy. As a southern born and raised follower of Jesus, I thought I would add my voice to the conversation. As dangerous as that might be…

When talking about symbols of any kind, we must understand two very important things about them. The first is that understanding that symbols are more than the material used to create them. They bring to the surface a full range of emotions because of what they represent. As I write in my recent book, The Here and Not Yet:

Symbols are powerful. They can bring a tear to an eye, give hope to the hopeless and inspire people to go beyond themselves. They can also summon up anger, grief and rage in a blink of an eye. Symbols in and of themselves are nothing; hardly worth the cloth or paper they are made on. Yet to us humans, the right symbol could cause us to do things that we would never do on our own. Just think about the soldiers who risked their lives to raise the United States flag on Iwo Jima during War World II. On the surface their actions were crazy and not worth the blood and sweat that it took. Yet, because they raised a symbol and not just a piece of cloth, their blood and sweat was worth it.

Or to use another example, think about the symbol of two pieces of wood laid on top of each other in the shape of the letter “t”. The cross. In some parts of the world, the simple act of drawing a cross would mean certain death. Why? Is there something magical about two lines crossing each other in a certain pattern? No! The lines themselves are not the problem; the problem is in what those two lines represent. In drawing a cross, the artist is declaring that their loyalty, heart, soul, mind, and body belong to King Jesus and no one else. That cross, however simple it is drawn, tells the story about a Creator who entered into his creation so that those made in his image could be free from all evil. That is why the cross is feared in certain parts of the world. (pages 167-168)

The second thing to remember about symbols is that they mean different things to different people. And the meaning constantly changes over time. The cross, for example, started out as a symbol of the military might of the Roman Empire before becoming a symbol of Christianity. Its meaning changed yet again when Constantine painted the symbol on the shields of his army before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. And so forth and so forth.

The point of all this is that when we talk about symbols we need to keep in mind that the meaning of a symbol change depending on the culture of the viewer, the time during which the symbol is used, and the location of the symbol. An American flag, for example, flying over a public school building in Idaho will have a different meaning than the same flag flying cover a military unit in Iraq. The emotions that come to the surface while viewing that flag will also change depending on one’s culture, background, and geographical location. A school kid in Idaho looking at that flag will have a different range of emotions than a USA soldier or an Iraqi citizen.

While it is tempting to try to assign a value to the emotions experienced by each of these people (i.e. to say that the soldier’s emotions is good while the Iraqi’s emotions are bad), the followers of Jesus must resist that urge. To follow King Jesus is to give up one’s national, personal, and religious symbols in exchange for his symbols and his meanings.

This is why Paul the Apostle fought so hard against the symbols of Judaism (e.g. circumcision, the temple, kosher meals, and a physical presence in the land of Israel) some wish to imposed on the Gentile church members. To a 1st century follower of Judaism, these were the symbols that marked who was and was not a member of the people of God. They had fought and died over for years for the right to keep those symbols.

Paul, in following the way of Jesus, recognized that these symbols had to undergo a metamorphosis if the church was to truly be the people of God. The changes championed by Paul caused a lot of problems in the early church as people did not want give up their symbols, as noted in the Acts and some of Paul’s letters. Yet ultimately the Jewish followers of Jesus realized that they had to let go of their hard-fought symbols so that God could use them to change the world.

We are in a similar position.

We can hang on tight to the symbols of our youth and culture (e.g. Confederate flag, Civil War monuments, etc.) while denying the pain of our fellow sisters and brothers who experience a different set of emotions when viewing those same symbols. Or we can follow the path of humanity as modeled by Jesus, Paul, and the early church in letting go of the symbols of our youth so that we can fully embrace our sisters and brothers as a new community born out of a love for Jesus.

Pride or humility.

It really is that simple.

Kingdom Theology and the End of the End

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Though I wrote a book about eschatology, I didn’t actually address the end of the end. I did this on purpose as I believe it is more important to focus on how we are to live life rather than speculating about the end of the end. However, with that said, I do realize that the manner in which one feels the end of the end is going to come does affect how one views life right now. Accordingly I have decided to briefly summarize the four major end of the end viewpoints along with how they fit or don’t fit with the enacted inaugurated eschatology of Kingdom Theology.

However before we get into the different views, I would like to underscore the fact that the Scriptures are largely silent about how the end of the end is going to happen. In fact, the four views we will be looking at shortly are largely the result of a debate about one (1) verse in Revelation 20:2!!! That is right, one verse in the most cryptic and obscured book in the Bible – a book that was largely, I must state, ignored in the early church and almost didn’t make it into the canon.

I call these facts out ahead of time as I want everyone to know that they will find God-fearing Jesus loving bible scholars on all sides of this issues holding a sundry of Scriptures to support their view. How one views Revelation 20:2 depends a lot on where you start your journey from. Hence tread lightly and ponder not only the end time view but how you got there and the results of said position.

The Four Major Views in Historical Order

  • Amillennialism – started in 1st century
  • Classic Premillennialism – started in 1st century
  • Postmillennialism  – earliest date is in the mid-17th century
  • Dispensational Premillennialism – created by John Darby in the 1830s

A Brief Summary of Each View

Amillennialism

Summary

Amillennialism is the belief that Jesus’ rule and reign began with is death, resurrection, and ascension with the strong man (i.e. satan) being bound at that time. As such, there isn’t a separate 1,000 year reign or “kingdom” that is to come sometime in the future.

History

This view is one of the oldest views of the end of the end along with classic premillennialism (see below). The Second Ecumenical Council in 381 AD declared amillennialism as the official view of the church with the line “whose kingdom shall have no end” being added to the Nicene Creed. Hence to believe in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is to believe in amillennialism; though a lot of Protestant will say they follow the creed without realizing the history of this line. The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches all hold to this view. Dr. Sam Storms’ (a Charismatic Calvinist theologian and pastor) book Kingdom Come is a good resource on the topic.

Kingdom Theology

Amillennialism fits perfectly with Kingdom Theology as both agree that good and bad will coexists in the world until Jesus comes back. This view, by the way, doesn’t require a tribulation as premillennialism does in both its forms (classic and dispensational). This allows proponents to work towards fighting injustice right now with the goal of having a better tomorrow.


Classic Premillennialism

Summary

This view believes that after Jesus comes back he will rule the earth for 1,000 years before having one last knock out fight with satan. The renewal of the heaven and earth will follow this earthly rule. Classic premillennialism also tends to include a period of tribulation before Jesus’ coming with the rapture happening at the same time as Jesus’ return.

History

This view grew up in the early church with amillennialism before being declared a heresy in 381 AD at the Second Ecumenical Council (see amillennialism above). The Protestant reformation’s deny of the church creeds and councils allowed it to come back in vogue.  A lot of the older Protestant churches still hold to this view of the end of the end. George E. Ladd, who influence on Kingdom Theology cannot be understated, was a big proponent of classic premillennialism.

Kingdom Theology

Inaugurated eschatology fits okay with classic premillennialism as long as the proponent allows for God’s rule and reign to break into this current age. If they say that Jesus’ rule and reign is limited to the 1,000 year millennialism, then there’s a breakdown of compatibility.  Classic premillennialism can (but not always) lead to a ‘it’s all going to burn’ mindset which can cause problems with folks fighting injustice and sin in the here and now.


Postmillennialism

Summary

Postmillennialism holds that Jesus tasked the church with fighting injustice. As such, it is the church’s job to set things right (sometimes with Jesus help and sometimes without). Once the majority (or all) of the world’s population have decided to follow Jesus, then he will come back and establish his rule and reign on earth. Since the church must complete their task before Jesus can return, proponents are dedicated to spreading the good news of Jesus and fighting injustice.

History

The first record of this view point can be found in the Savoy Declaration of 1658 in Protestant England (i.e. it is a modification of the Westminster Confession of Faith). The Age of Enlightenment helped spread the viewpoint as people thought that science, technology, and logic would solve all the world’s problems. While the great wars of the 20th century diminished this viewpoint, it is still out there. Dr. Jonathan Welton, for example, is a modern day Pentecostal/Charismatic teacher who promotes the concept through is books about the “ever advancing kingdom.”

Kingdom Theology

Postmillennialism does not fit well with Kingdom Theology as it relies on a realized eschatology foundation that is at odds with the inaugurated eschatology of Kingdom Theology.  Realized eschatology, for those who don’t know, is the belief that all the promises of the kingdom of God are available to believers today. All that is needed is for the believer to step out in faith, prayer, or some other action and take domination back from the evil one. Because the church has full access to things of the new age, the church can complete their mission – or so this mindset goes. Kingdom Theology, on the other hand, see the church as working with Jesus on his mission while good and bad coexists together until the end of the end with Jesus sets things right.


Dispensational Premillennialism

Summary

Dispensational premillennialism is similar to classic premillennialism with some very important changes. Namely, dispensationalism draws a hard line between the people of Israel (i.e. ethnic Jews) and the primarily non-Jewish church of the modern era. At the end of the end, the Lord will remove the church (sometimes just the non-Jewish followers, sometimes all believes at the time) via the rapture before kicking off a seven year end time period. During this seven years, the Jewish temple will be restored with animal sacrifices, priests, etc. as the fulfillment of various Old Testament promises. Jesus will return after this seven year time period and set up a 1,000 reign on earth with the last judgment happening after this millennial kingdom.

History

This is the youngest of the four major views with a start date in the 1830’s. John Darby, a Plymouth Brethren pastor in Ireland, is credited with starting dispensational premillennialism though it was made popular in the USA by Cyrus Scofield and Dwight Moody. Dispensationalism is currently the most popular end time view among USA Protestants as seen by the success of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind series and the influence of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Plant Earth.

Kingdom Theology

Kingdom Theology and dispensational premillennialism are at odds with each other on a lot of major theological issues. Kingdom Theology, for example, states that there is only, and has always been, just one people of God who are joined to God through grace and faith and not ethnicity. The various dispensations or ages proposed by dispensational proponent also do not fit well with Kingdom Theology (i.e. historically dispensationalism lent itself to cessationism, though this view has been dropped by more recent progressive dispensationalists).

My Current Understanding

In the absence of clear Scriptural evidence I tend to look backwards to history when considering theological positions. As in, what has the church through the ages thought about the issue at hand? Does that viewpoint draw people to Jesus? Does it promote grace, love, peace, and the other fruits of the spirit? Does it help me make sense of this current world and my experiences therein?

Based upon those questions I have largely adopted amillennialism though there are days when I flirt with classic premillennialism. My adoption of amillennialism represents a huge shift in my thinking as my youth and early adult years was spent learning dispensational premillennialism. However the more I studied the issue the more I released that I could no longer support that position…hence my shift towards amillennialism.

This, like I mentioned at the beginning, does not mean that I’m “correct” and other people are “wrong.” Rather it just means that we approach things differently. At the end of the day I’m a firm believer in the fact that Jesus has followers in many different theological camps. We are to follow the example of Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector in laying down our personal views and support each other in following Jesus.

Blessings on your journey with Jesus.

Learning to Embrace Doubt

Barna Group released a study yesterday stating that the majority of Christians have either doubted their faith or are currently doubting their faith.  40% said they worked through doubt at some point in their journey while 26% of those surveyed said they still experience doubt. Only 35% said they never doubted the faith.

The authors of the study went on to explore what happens to those who doubt (i.e. who do they talk to, what do they do, etc.) before coming to the conclusion that “doubt is a catalyst to spiritual growth.” Hence their suggestion for “lead pastors and spiritual mentors to view seasons of spiritual doubt in their constituents as fertile soil—not as dangerous ground.”

I would have to agree with this conclusion as I feel that followers of Jesus should learn how to embrace doubt and unanswered questions rather than seeking to move past them. To quote a previous post:

It may sound strange in a society of answers, but not knowing can actually do more to free your soul than all the answers in the world. Learning to be conformable with unanswered questions means living a life of trust. We trust Jesus with our concerns and questions. We trust the Holy Spirit to guide and direct ourselves and those around us. We trust the Father with the future and what might or might not happen.

Trusting Jesus. What a novel concept… yet it something we in the Western world don’t do very good. Rather than trusting an invisible, perhaps-distance spirit who may or may not be real, we like trusting in our understanding of the Scriptures. The Scriptures, after all, can be touched, read, seen, and studied.

Even those who focus on experiencing God fail to truly trust him with unanswered questions as they bounce from spiritual high to spiritual high. If I can only experience him then my doubt will be gone… or so the thinking goes.

So, you may ask, how do we learn to live with unanswered questions?

In my newest book, The Mystery, the Way, and the Journey: Embracing the tension of the unknown (currently in process), I talk about rediscovering three fence posts that point us forward into the darkness of the unknown:

  • The written Scriptures as viewed through the incarnation of Jesus (i.e. Jesus is true God of true God so let us look to him when reading the Old and New Testaments.)
  • The community of believers who have followed Jesus throughout the ages (i.e. not only those around us today, but those who have gone on ahead of us)
  • The Holy Spirit who is the corner post holding everything together (i.e. when all else is lost, the Spirit remains)

Following these fences posts into the darkness while embracing doubt and unanswered questions is to be honest with ourselves in acknowledging the complexity of the world in which we live.  And in doing so, we are also recognizing the complexity and mysterious wonder of the Creator God.

He is not a simple being who can be described in simple terms or made to dance to the tune of our thoughts and desires. The focus of Christianity, Bishop Kallistos Ware reminds us, is not to “provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder” (The Orthodox Way)

Dionysius the Areopagite said it best in the 5th or 6th century:

Unto this Darkness which is beyond Light we pray that we may come, and may attain unto vision through the loss of sight and knowledge, and that in ceasing thus to see or to know we may learn to know that which is beyond all perception and understanding.