The last book of the Bible was written 1,900 years ago. In that time, empires have risen and fallen: Rome is gone; Charlemagne’s empire has vanished; mighty Britannia has given her children their freedom. Major wars have been fought. New philosophies have come into vogue and have declined. Electronic technology has improved and become common place. In light of all this, the Bible may seem like a quaint but archaic book, good only for gathering dust on the shelf or for analyzing in a classroom.
What could the Bible possibly have to say that would be relevant to us and our particular needs in the Twenty-first Century? Surprisingly, it has a lot to say! This is partly because fundamental human needs haven’t changed at all in 2,000 years and partly because God inspired scripture to speak to people in every age. So, the Bible we have today continues to answer the basic questions people are asking. You can look up the scripture references yourself and see what you think. For example:
- Is there a God, and if so, what is He like? (See Psalm 14:1, Romans 1:19-20, John 3:16, etc).
- How did the universe come into being? (See Hebrews 11:3, Genesis chapters 1 and 2, etc.)
- Why do humans have a strong tendency to hurt others, break widely accepted rules and live for themselves? Is there some basic flaw in us? (See Genesis chapter 3, Romans 1: 18ff, 3:9-18, etc.)
- Is there some way to correct this flaw and have acceptance with God? (See John 14:6, Romans 3:22-23, Galatians 5:24).
- Is there any basis for real brotherhood among people? (See Genesis 1:27-28, 10:32, Romans 10:12, etc.)
- Does life have any meaning or purpose? (See John 10:10, John 17:3).
- Is there life after death? (See Revelation 20:11-15, Luke 23:40-43, John 14:2, Revelation 7:9).
These questions and many others are answered in the book of books, known as the Bible. I challenge you to search for its answers yourself. You might just be delighted by what you find!
An Appeal to Those Who Prize Tolerance
It has occurred to me as a Christian that, in some ways, secular people don’t really “get” us. When I refer to “secular” people I include both those who have no use for religion at all as well as those who may have private religious beliefs, but who feel that such beliefs have no place in the public forum. To the secular mindset, God and religion are often seen as irrelevant to the routines of everyday life and inappropriate for public discourse. With such an outlook, it is no surprise that these folks don’t understand those of us whose lives are focused on God and his will as we understand these things.
I have often heard people say words to this effect: “You Christians are totally free to believe and practice your faith as you please, just keep it to yourselves.” They are uncomfortable when followers of Jesus speak out on social issues or apply their faith in the arena of politics. They bristle at the least hint that religion as practiced and acted on by others, might infringe on their lives in the slightest way. Their attitude toward Christians who bring their faith with them into the public sphere ranges from puzzlement to outrage.
Secular people may be confused when Christians make an issue out of something which seems to them to have already been decided through some legal ruling or political maneuvering in the past. They are puzzled when we don’t just “lighten up” and go with the flow of our times. They cannot visualize why anyone would care about ideas and values which come from an ancient book, representing the teachings of a religion which they consider to be fit only as an item in a museum or a topic for historical discussion.
When these religious ideas become the motivation for actions which actually affect business decisions, political choices or personal relationships, the confusion can turn to anger on the part of secularists. The question is often asked, “Why should your religious views affect the rest of us?”. On the surface this sounds like a valid concern. After all, why should religious people be allowed to make choices which affect others? A little further thinking will show the fallacy of this objection. The public sphere of life is, by definition, the very place where decisions are made by all sorts of people, impacting all sorts of other people.
In the public arena, a decision might be made to expand or close down a business. As a consequence, jobs are created or lost and people’s lives are affected. Laws can be made by elected officials who may clearly have a particular agenda in mind affecting religious people and secular people alike. Such laws will inevitably determine whether people are free to make one choice or another. The opportunity for any group of people to exert influence over others is what makes a pluralistic society what it is. It is part of the give-and-take which, when accompanied by a sense of fairness and mutual respect, ensures that all groups may live out their beliefs with a certain reasonable measure of freedom.
It is disappointing and counter-productive when a lack of understanding toward religious points of view is followed by demands that a certain segment of the citizenry be excluded from the debate and blocked from any opportunities to affect society. It is even worse when it degenerates into mere name-calling. In my own involvements where my religious views have been expressed in public, I have occasionally been called “bigot”, “dinosaur”, “naïve”, “narrow-minded” (and a few worse things) by offended secularists. I understand that sometimes it has been Christians who have hurled the insults. That is regrettable. Our job is to confidently and graciously speak the truth as we see it, not insult people out of fear and hatred. Insulting people only reveals the smallness of the one making the comments.
But this is also true for the secularist who may claim to have a more enlightened point of view just as much as for the Christian who is supposedly stuck in the confines of an outmoded superstition. Surely an angry secularist who accuses Christian believers of all sorts of preposterous motives and attitudes, shows that they are bigoted, narrow-minded and backward as well, since they disdain us without bothering to really understand us. Given the current social climate, it is a wonder that people who slur followers of Jesus so frequently are not held legally accountable. No other racial or religious group in the country would stand for such slander.
So what is it that really motivates Christians? It is simply our faith in Jesus and our commitment to the Bible as God’s revelation. We believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God himself. We believe the New Testament when it says that the purpose for God taking on humanity was to suffer on the behalf of those who have offended him. We believe that the gospels are recording true happenings when they assert Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead. We look forward to the time when he will return to judge and rule the earth. Because of these things, we owe him our very beings. Life now is lived differently because of him. Jesus for us and in us, means new eyes to see reality and new power to live as we may have always wished to. It means new values, new attitudes, new loyalties and new relationships.
It is very simply, Jesus. Not conservative politics; not the traditional values of our society; not religious experiences, spiritual encounters or strong feelings. It is just Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Son, who has come into the world to save us and make us new. It is his almost unbelievable love which compels us to live differently and to invite others to a new and better life. It is Jesus we live to honor and whose pleasure we look for when the end of all things comes. Perhaps these insights into the motivation behind the bulk of those who call themselves Christians will enlighten those who put such emphasis on enlightenment, empathy and tolerance.
Have you ever had the experience of going through a very difficult time in your life and after struggling through that period you began to wonder whether God was really there at all? Maybe you may have had very few doubts about your faith before this time of uncertainty. Although your relationship to God has been secure in your mind for years, during this trial, you have begun to wonder, “Is God really there? Am I still OK with Him? Have I somehow gotten off-track in my Christian life?” If that is or recently has been your experience, then you can take some comfort in the fact that you are in good company. Practically every Christian goes through something of this kind at one time or another. But how should you deal with these feelings? Allow me suggest a couple of possibilities:
First, this may be a good opportunity to do some serious spiritual self-evaluation. It is possible that there really may be something amiss in your faith. For example, sin which has not been repented of always blocks fellowship with God, and should be taken care of immediately. Prayerful examination of your life in light of scripture will reveal whether this is the case.
It could also be that the problem is more far-reaching. Perhaps you have never really turned from a self-oriented life and trusted completely in Jesus Christ. In that case, in order to be right with God there must first be that basic step of faith in Christ. This is neither as mysterious nor as complicated as you might think. All God is asking is that you admit your need for him (“Lord, I am a sinner who has lost my way.”) and put your fundamental trust in him to save you from yourself and the judgment for your wrongdoings. Then you make up your mind to allow him to teach you through the Bible how to live for him in this new life you have chosen.
Another possibility is that you may not be out of fellowship with God at all. You may be quite sure of your faith in Christ and there may be no known sin to turn away from. What then? The problem most likely is in your feelings. Feelings sometimes are not related to reality. For example, in a marriage affectionate feelings may come and go with surprising regularity. However, this usually has little to do with the actual love given by both partners, based on their commitment to one another. As in a marriage, a relationship with God is based on a commitment, rather than on feelings which can change due to temporary circumstances.
The fact is that dark times of doubt and despair may come upon us for a variety of reasons, some of which may be beyond our control. They can be an annoyance or even a trial in the lives of very strong believers. When these periods occur, we need to remember the words of David in Psalm 23 when he says, “…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil because you are with me…”. No matter what you may be facing or how you are feeling at the moment, you can trust that God is actually walking with you through these things. So, don’t rely on your feelings for your sense of what is real or true. Instead, trust the Lord and his sure promises to those who through belong to him through faith.
A Remedy for Routine Prayer
Is anyone besides me tired of the standard prayers typically prayed by Christians? Perhaps you can relate to what I am talking about: “Dear God, please bless so-and-so with (health, a job, salvation, a renewed spiritual interest, an easier life, etc).” Not that there is anything particularly wrong with these things. They may indeed be legitimate matters for prayer. It does strike me, though, that we Christians often settle for so little when we make requests of God.
Maybe the problem is that we don’t really understand what is permissible to ask God for. Maybe we just get caught up in responding to the urgent felt-needs of those around us. Maybe we have become creatures of habit, falling into the set patterns of our particular circle of friends and church associates. Whatever the reason, I sometimes find typical evangelical prayer sessions to be insipid and all-too predictable: the same categories of prayer; the same focus on immediate physical and material needs; the same salvation requests.
Prayer sessions can easily be dominated by two or three people who don’t mind being either the center of attention or the perpetually needy ones. Maybe you can relate to feeling like this at a prayer gathering, “Here we go again. Brother Sam has been feeling upset again this week. He is requesting that God will remove the source of his frustration. Beside him, brother Ned needs a job for the third time in the past six months. Sister Sue is asking for her son’s salvation just as she has since we have first known her. Another sister has urgent health issues and can hardly function in her daily routines. (But, if so, how is she well enough to come to this prayer-gathering?) Across the circle, sister Mary is sharing another compelling story she came across on the internet this week. She wants prayer for an individual a continent away who has been “on her heart” for days but whom none of us has ever met. So we bow our heads and ask God to intervene.
Let me be clear: I am not condemning such prayers or the people who pray them. In my experience, the motives of those who make these kinds of requests are usually good. They care about people and they want God to bless them. Yet I have become increasingly discontent with prayer requests which go no further than this. It is entirely possible that, as a pastor, I am simply jaded by attending many dozens of these prayer sessions. Maybe I am also frustrated by the lack of discernible growth in these dear folks whose prayers seem to be on the same level year after year. It could be argued that these types of prayers simply reflect poor biblical teaching on the part of their leaders, including me. What I do know is that we ought to be asking God for much more than this.
So, I have put together a collection of prayer requests, which I believe are more in line with those modeled in scripture. I am urging that, along with praying for jobs and protection and the solving of various problems (all of which may be valid) that my fellow believers should consider praying “outside the routine box”. But what does a biblical, yet edgy prayer request look like? Let me give some examples. Try praying that people:
- Develop a deep love for God
- Have thoughts, words and actions controlled by the Holy Spirit
- Become willing to accept a life-changing direction from God
- Experience a sacrificial attitude in marriages, families and other relationships
- Come to genuine repentance
- Be a voice for Christ’s Kingdom when one is needed
- Develop the mental commitment and toughness to resist temptation
- Become competent in applying the truths of scripture to their own lives
- Desire personal excellence as a visible result of honoring God in all they do
- Be known as models of tolerance in situations in which tolerance pleases God
- Model godly family living
- Face their own blind spots
- Decide to be content with what cannot be changed
- Develop consistency and skill in their work
- Respond to conflict with truth, righteousness and mercy
- Acquire the ability to persevere through hardship and failure
- Learn true forgiveness
- Grow in their ability to speak about their faith in ways which ring true with the unchurched and unbelieving people around them
- Discover joy in giving to others
- Commit themselves to basic spiritual disciplines
- Develop healthy eating and exercise routines
- Stop judging others’ motives
- Learn the difference between explicit biblical teachings and their own inferences based on certain verses of scripture
- Become amazed at God’s care and provision in their lives
- Find God to be the beauty and acceptance they have been looking for
- Find God to be tougher and smarter than themselves
- Desire to become more than they have dreamed possible for God’s glory
- Find deep enjoyment in the life God has blessed them with
- At all times show themselves as models of the grace of God
I could add many more requests, which seem biblically true and yet relevant to the society we are currently living in. It could be that if we consistently prayed for ourselves and others like this, we might indeed turn the world upside down!
I have it on good authority that it is more fulfilling to give a gift than it is to receive one. Do you believe that this is true? According to Jesus it is. He is recorded as saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).” So why is it that many of us find it difficult to give at times, especially when that giving is in the form of offerings given to religious organizations?
According to some data I saw recently, giving among American church attenders has declined steadily over the past several decades from 4.5 percent to around 2.5 percent. During the same period, income has actually risen a bit. This leads to the question, why is it so difficult to give? Though there may be several factors at work, there is a fairly easy one which can be taken care of immediately: ignorance of what the Bible says on the subject. Here is a brief summary.
Giving is a vital act of worship. As far back as Genesis 14 (that’s around 2000 BC) the giving of a tithe (10%) was seen as an act of worship. Abraham and the patriarchs of Israel (Isaac, Jacob, etc.) gave a tithe of their income to the Lord as a sign of their gratitude and devotion. Likewise today, when we give money for God’s glory we are saying, “Thank you for your many blessings in my life. All I have comes from you, Lord, and I am giving you back a token of what is really yours anyway.”
Giving is something required of God’s people. For one thing, it was commanded in the Law of Moses (Leviticus 27:30, Numbers 18:21, etc). In reality, the Law given through Moses mandated that Israel give much more than ten percent annually. The first tithe was to be given each year to the Levites, whose job it was to instruct Israel in the Law and lead its worship. A second tithe was to be set aside by each family to provide the resources necessary for them to attend the religious festivals which God appointed for them. A third tithe was collected every three years to care for the poor. So, according to my calculations, this amounts to 23 1/3 percent each year to be set aside for the Lord’s use.
In the gospels of the New Testament, Jesus affirmed that people should uphold these laws about giving. You may recall the story in Luke 21:1-3 in which Jesus commended the poor widow for her sacrificial obedience in giving. Likewise, the New Testament church was urged to give sacrificially to the Lord’s work and to the needs of those around them (1 Corinthians 9: 3-12; 2 Corinthians 8:1-13).
Giving is God’s way of helping us to love him more. In Matthew 6:21, Jesus taught that wherever we put our treasure is where our hearts will be. If we place primary value on material things, our hearts will inevitable follow. If on the other hand, we place the highest value on God’s glory and invest in that, then our dearest love will be found in those things as well. I have sometimes heard people complain of being spiritually dry and unresponsive. There may be many reasons for a situation like this, but according to Jesus, one of them is that a person may have no spiritual passion because they have given nothing for God’s sake. Giving with an attitude of faith can rekindle spiritual passion.
Not only does the Bible tell us what giving is all about, it tells us how to give as well. For instance, God’s people are to give sacrificially (1 Chronicles 21:24), quietly (Matthew 6:3-4), regularly (1 Corinthians 16:2), purposefully and cheerfully (2 Corinthians 9:7).
Some might argue that all of this was given to people hundreds of years ago in cultures much different from our own. Let me see if I can apply these truths about giving to our current situation.
- Include regular giving in your family budget. If ancient farmers, merchants and livestock owners could set aside resources for God’s use, so can those of us who live and work in the Twenty-first Century. You will never give significantly if you don’t plan to do so. Add this as an item in your family’s spending plan and patterns. Make it a matter for prayer. Don’t forget to teach this to your children as you train them in financial matters.
- Use the ten percent as a general guideline. The New Testament makes it clear that believers in Jesus are not under the regulations of the Law of Moses, but under a new law of grace. This however does not mean that we are not expected to give substantially. Certainly giving 10% of income marks the lower limits of what most people would call substantial giving. Begin where you can. Perhaps if you were to begin with the current average of around 3 percent, you could make it a goal to work toward 5 percent within a few months and then to match the 10% tithe within a year to eighteen months. Just begin somewhere and aim high.
- Though some say they cannot afford to give, the truth is that we can’t afford not to. I have personally travelled to some of the poorest countries in the world over the past decade of my life. As an American, it has surprised and humbled me that people whose earnings are in no way comparable to my own modest income often give regularly to support God’s work. They do this, not only for that which is going on among them, but for the advancement of the Kingdom in places very far removed from their own countries. Seeing this has caused me to rethink this objection quite radically. All of us have something to give—if not money, then other resources or services we possess.
- What types of things and organizations should we give to? For Christians, the vast majority of ministry takes place through bodies of believers known as local churches. Therefore, it would seem right that a high percentage of our giving would be channeled to and through the churches of which we are a part. Ministry costs money, and though most local churches are extremely frugal, there is still a bottom line. Such basic ministry budgets deserve to be funded, especially when those budgets have been drawn up with due representation from the people and placed before the congregation for approval. There are also ample opportunities for special offerings and ongoing projects outside the local church. All such appeals should be personally screened for integrity, efficiency and long-term gospel effectiveness.
- The Bible is very clear that God’s people remember the legitimate needs of the poor (Galatians 2:10). This can take the form of contributing to a local church benevolence fund or to organizations which specialize in helping people not only survive, but become contributing members of society as their circumstances allow. You may want to also consider helping people personally in some thoughtful, tactful and respectful manner.
- Finally, we each ought to maintain the discipline of giving as an ongoing expression of love for God and gratitude for his care for us. In other words, giving should be a deliberate and cultivated habit. It should be something we come to be known for as individuals and as those who carry the name of Christian.
Well, there you have it: a basic overview of what the Bible says about giving. It really isn’t very complicated. If you love God, you will give back to him some of what you have been given, so that the things which matter to him can take place. So now that you know what the Bible teaches, the real issue is how your giving will change and what you will do to make sure it does!
I Thought It Was All About Jesus
It has become my personal belief that there is something very wrong with aspects of Christianity these days. The problem, as I see it, goes beyond the periodic scandals involving unethical or immoral behavior by clergy or high profile Christians. The problem is deeper even than the fact that, in Western countries, Christianity is either plateaued or declining in numbers. It seems to me that we Western Christians are in danger of being like the man who attended the inauguration of one of the U.S. presidents: he enjoyed the band, the flags and the pomp and circumstance, but when asked afterward, he couldn’t remember who it had all been for. In a word, we are in danger of missing the point in all our Christian talk and activity.
In actual fact, the point is a person. His name is Jesus Christ. He is the one we are called to honor, trust and follow. He alone offers eternal life, cleansing from sin, inner peace and a life with purpose. Jesus is the crux and focal point of the Christian faith; it is absolutely meaningless without him. All our church attendance, preaching, Bible study, worship, missions and service activities are about Jesus. If we lose sight of this, these things are nothing.
Why do we sometimes miss the point? For one thing, we can easily overlook Jesus in all of our activities because the things we are doing are good and often successful. We are running programs which help people on one level or another. We enjoy the success which accompanies effective programs and we want that success to continue. Successful programs and ministries generate a certain excitement, which stimulates growth in numbers, finances and facilities. So it isn’t hard to see that what began as a genuine effort to serve Christ and minister to people, can become something with its own agenda and goals. Unchecked, these things can eventually take on a life of their own.
Another reason we may miss Christ in our Christianity is that we get stuck in the details of our faith. Let me be very careful how I say this so that I am not misunderstood. I have spent a good portion of my life either in receiving or imparting theological training. I believe strongly in being as precise and accurate in study and teaching of the Bible as I can possibly be. As I have served with various organizations over the years, I have put my signature at the bottom of some very evangelically orthodox statements of faith. So my credentials in the area of biblical knowledge and doctrine are solid. Yet I do believe that, at times, the details of our doctrine obscure what should be its focal point, namely Jesus and our faith in him.
Certainly we must accurately understand Jesus as the Bible reveals him. It is also true that other key doctrines play a huge role in the correct understanding of the Christian faith. But what is all that worth if we never get around to worshiping Jesus out of awe and gratitude for his sacrifice? What does all that precise doctrine amount to if we bludgeon one another over hairsplitting doctrinal or stylistic nuances? What does it mean if we do not bless people? Why would outsiders be impressed with our message when they see us stressing over things that ultimately accomplish nothing? I cannot help but be reminded of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats in which Jesus condemns seemingly religious folks because they never fed the hungry or clothed the naked or visited the prisoners. Jesus’ point is that, in neglecting these people whom he died for, they revealed their true attitude of disdain for him.
A third reason we may miss Jesus in our practice of Christianity is because we assume that what we do is for our own benefit. A popular recent study program correctly reminded the church that its not really about us. How refreshing. If my Christianity is for my benefit alone, then I have indeed missed the point.
Now I am going to take a chance and say something else risky: In my observation, I see a very significant segment of the church practicing Christianity as a means of self-protection. Regardless of how some of us began our Christian faith, it has become a tool for keeping ourselves and those we care about safe from the outside world. We have come to believe that almost everything outside our own circles is, if not outright evil, at least gravely sinister.
Maybe it began as a genuine desire to remain true to our faith and uncorrupted by the world, but as time has gone by we have steadily built a fortress for ourselves. Stone by stone, gate by gate, bastion by bastion, we have worked to make our position impregnable. Ironically, the higher our walls and the more strongly our gates are defended, the less secure we have felt. Whatever happened to, “..go into all the world and make disciples..”? We have come a long way from our Lord who was often criticized for associating with the riffraff of his society and for being a drinker and a glutton because of his association with them. Truth is, many of us hardly know anyone outside our safe evangelical circles well enough to have any kind of a meaningful conversation.
Our Christianity will never be right until we snap out of the delusion that programs, success, doctrinal precision, or self-protection–valid as they may be–are in any sense the point. Only knowledge of and devotion to Christ himself makes any eternal difference. If I read the holy scriptures correctly, that is precisely their point.
How Convictions Affect Your Life-Outcomes
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Even though it has been many years since my high school graduation, I still remember certain things very clearly. I can recall how I felt: excited about the future, yet somewhat apprehensive about what lay ahead. Like most young people, I was full of ideas about how to make my future a good one. My goals involved making and spending some money during the coming summer and then off to college in the fall. But at the time of my graduation, the future was still a big blank. Would I do well in college? Would I have to go to Viet Nam like some of my older friends? Would I be getting married? Would I like the job or career that I chose? Would I have any fun?
All members of graduating classes think similar kinds of things about the future. There is a generous mixture of excitement and sorrow; hope and fear. In pondering about life in general over the past few years, it seems to me that life tends to progress through three stages after high school is completed. At each stage, there are some perks and some uncertainties. How we do in each of the stages is directly influenced by what we fundamentally believe. As I see it, the three stages of adult life are as follows: 1) Getting Started; 2) Mid Life; and 3) The Downhill Slide. I offer the insights I have gained in the first two stages of my adult life as a gift to those just beginning the journey.
Before I outline the stages of adult life as I have observed them, I must explain what I mean by fundamental beliefs. At any point in life’s journey, we operate from the basis of certain rock-solid conclusions we have come to about the way reality is. Obviously, personality and early training will have already shaped those deeply-held convictions. Religious commitments will also have contributed to the formation of how you see the world.
But along with these shapers of a person’s world view, are certain key choices all of us have made as we have encountered the mixed experiences of our lives. For example, we have chosen to believe that the outlook for our lives is basically hopeful or basically dark; that people can be trusted (more or less) or that they probably cannot be. We have chosen to believe that there is a God who is good and caring and wise or that whatever beings or forces there may be are not particularly interested in our welfare. We have also chosen either to follow along with what we have been told by others about these matters, or to think for ourselves. All of this is what I mean by fundamental beliefs. These beliefs will act as a compass as we navigate the uncharted seas we must cross into the future.
Getting Started. Your fundamental beliefs determine how you will face the uncertainty and the challenges of beginning your adult life. In the first five-to-fifteen years you will begin a life that is very different from the one you have known in your teen years. Some will begin to pursue higher education. Others will enlist in the military. Still others will enter some sort of employment. For a significant percentage of high school graduates, marriage and family will accompany these things somewhere along the line. You will find yourself stretched and challenged on levels you may not even imagine at the moment.
Along with the thrill of these new experiences come certain questions: Who am I now? Can I survive the new set of expectations placed on me? How can I prepare myself to succeed? Am I enjoying life in this phase? Are my relationships working as I want them to? At the time, there are no answers to those questions: only time and the choices you make will provide them. What you profoundly believe about the nature of things will directly determine the choices you make and the manner in which you react to the circumstances you will face. Your fundamental beliefs will make all the difference between success and failure in how you start out. They will color the way in which you define success and failure.
The Mid Life. What you profoundly believe to be true will determine how you survive the inevitable disillusionments of middle life. After fifteen or twenty years, the bulk of the new beginnings will have been made. You will probably have completed your education. The aspect of marriage and family will have at least been attempted. Careers will be proceeding along their course. You may find that you are doing very well. But watch out for this: you will probably wake up one day to realize that you are forty years old (much to your dismay) and, amazed, you will ask yourself how this could have possibly happened.
Then life gets busy again and you find that you are approaching that huge milestone of your fiftieth year. It will seem impossible that so much time has passed. Somewhere in there, you may experience what has been called a mid-life crisis. Besides feeling the effects of getting older, certain questions you have not been willing to face now must be answered, such as: Have I spent the past couple of decades wisely? Am I making any significant impact on those around me? Have I been a contributor to the world or a merely taker of what the world has to offer? Have my choices made me happy? Can I afford to make a significant change at this point in my journey?
It may be that you will find yourself in a job or career that is very frustrating and you can’t see yourself going on with things as they are. Maybe your family life is falling apart and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to stop it. You might experience health problems or the loss of someone very near and dear. You may have failed in some area of your life to which you have devoted much of your energy and ego. When things like this happen, many people ask, “Is this what life is all about? Is this what I must accept as the result of all my preparation, plans and effort.” The middle phase of your life allows you to truly experience life in its reality. It is also in this phase that you realize that some of your youthful dreams will never come to fruition.
The Downhill Slide. Again, what you believe will guide you through the your final years. OK, so you get through the midlife eventually, finishing your career and raising your family. The open road before you now is nearing its end. As you savor your accomplishments and rewards, you are beginning to evaluate your journey. Here is a typical scenario: For the most part, the younger generation will not bother to come to you for your advice or expertise. It is very likely that health problems will suddenly increase. More and more of your friends and loved ones will die, leaving you feeling very much alone. In some ways, the sadness you may have experienced periodically before this will become a much more prevalent theme.
As you realize these things, a new set of questions rises in your mind with some urgency: Have I spent my life well? Did I truly love anyone? Of the things I regret, are there ways I can still make some of them right? What comes next (if anything)? If you are a believer in God, you will also wonder whether he is pleased with you.
Obviously, what you firmly believe about the way life is, makes a huge difference in how you answer those questions. It can make the difference between an embittered old age, or finishing your productive years as a blessing to those around you. Your convictions can either take away the fear of death or leave you looking at the end of your life as just that—the end.
So, what are the options? In a society like ours, where we are free to choose, the options are many. I can’t begin to even mention them all, nor would I particularly want to. My own choices have included the decision to believe that God is good and that whatever has befallen me has been within his loving plan. That means that I believe my life has a purpose, which I may choose to fulfill or not. For me, it has meant that loving as God loves (expressed in Christ) is among the supreme virtues, that success in life is defined very differently from the definitions of others, and that I can have a sense of contentment not available to those whose beliefs may be different from mine.
Basic beliefs do matter. They make all the difference in how you face things; how you go about dealing with things. Beliefs make a difference in the goals you set and how you fulfill them. They make a difference in how you evaluate your life at the end. No one would expect an eighteen-year old to have a fully-formed set of convictions. The process of forming convictions may continue for some time into adulthood. Certainly your beliefs as a young adult will be sharpened and perhaps modified through the ups and downs of your future. But now is a good time to take stock of what you do believe, at least so far. There is always time to adjust, adapt and learn as time carries you forward. It is never too late to decide to trust a benevolent God, despite what the circumstances of your life may be saying at the moment.
My wish is that your life may be full of joy and goodness and love. I hope you have some fun along the way. I urge you to make a positive difference in someone’s life. Don’t forget your family and friends. The years will get away from you before you realize it, so at least settle your basic beliefs now. Yes, we can set goals and, to some degree, influence the course of our lives. But there is a side of life that cannot be planned or directed by anything we may choose. In some ways, life will just happen to each of us. When it does, the only choice that remains is how we will think about these circumstances and how we will behave as a result. In those times, what you deeply believe makes all the difference!
This essay was originally given as the speech at my eldest daughter Andrea’s baccalaureate service as a part of graduation week at Lemoore (California) High School, June, 1999.
For many, the person and ministry of Jesus has become a very comfortable part of life– so comfortable in fact that we can almost function on automatic when it comes to thinking and talking about him. One of my tried and true remedies against taking Jesus for granted has been to read the gospels more closely. When I have done this, I have found a depiction of Christ, which at times, has both startled and troubled me. Here are some examples of what I mean.
Jesus, the Friend of Outcasts. The religious establishment of the day regularly criticized Jesus for associating with the wrong people. He spoke with, ate with and spent time with a variety of those labeled as “undesirable” by the religious establishment, including swindling tax collectors, prostitutes, the severely diseased, Roman officials, and Jews lapsed from religious practice. Understood properly, this might disturb our view of Jesus for a couple of reasons:
First, it challenges the typical comfort zone of middle class people (like me) because we rarely come in contact with these types of people. Many of us have been raised in a circle which largely excludes people whose lifestyles are considered unsavory or improper in some way. We have come to consider ourselves as somehow a cut above those people and immune from their situations. The fact that Jesus would deliberately invite Levi the tax collector (otherwise known as Matthew) to be one of his inner- circle disciples, is so outside of the way we choose associates that it almost seems incomprehensible.
Then there is the very mindset from which Jesus befriended these social misfits. He cared about them, but he also expected that they would not remain in a lifestyle of selfishness, immorality, victimization or self-destruction. It is noteworthy that though Jesus did not condemn the woman taken in adultery, he gave her permission to become something new by commanding her to “…go and sin no more.” (John chapter 8). Change was both possible and required as proof of her repentance and faith.
It would seem in my own experience as one raised in the steady, consistent, hard-working and respectable middle class, that we are often willing to have compassion on outcasts as long as it costs us little. When we are involved with those in what would seem to be destructive lifestyles, we expect very little from them in terms of the ability to be other than what they are. A dishonest person is basically stuck in their dishonesty. The same goes for an immoral or physically disabled person. To many of us, a person who has a mindset of dependency will always be that way simply because they aren’t up to making the cut into our class—the respectable, stable, competent people. Jesus’ treatment of people turns these notions upside down.
The Jesus Who Loves His Church. During his ministry, Jesus gathered a group of followers and forged them into a community which was to be sacrificially devoted to one another. Upon his departure from the earth, this community became the Church. The book of Acts records the fact that as new people heard the good news about Jesus and believed, they became members of the community. Jesus taught them that his good news would only be demonstrated powerfully as the truth when his people are devoted to one another: “People will be convinced that you are my disciples through your love for one another.” This was no social club, no casual fraternity. This was a profound change of allegiance.
Many people in the Twenty-first Century are highly individualistic. Such a sacrificial community doesn’t suit either our personal sensibilities or our cultural patterns. Even when we do belong to a congregation of Christians, many of us are almost as likely to change our affiliations as we are to seek different employment. We complain about how the church doesn’t meet our needs. We seldom volunteer to help in any meaningful way. We are unconcerned when fellow Christians suffer. It is little wonder that outsiders aren’t terribly excited about the Christian faith. Why would they be intrigued about Christ’s Church when they see us behaving with such apathy towards something Jesus loves?
The Non-Materialistic Jesus. It has been correctly said that Jesus had more to say about money and possessions than about heaven and hell combined. He once advised a wealthy and very religious young man to sell everything he had and give the proceeds to the poor before being eligible for entrance into the Kingdom of God. He warned that it is impossible to serve both God and material wealth because one will always win out over the other. There isn’t enough room in a person’s heart for devotion to both.
Jesus was known personally as one who frequently had nowhere to lay his head at night. He was supported during much of his ministry through the generosity of wealthy patrons. At the end of his life he literally was left with the clothes on his back, and even these were confiscated by his executioners.
How do we square all this with our obsession over money, possessions, comfort and even luxury? Obviously some people are going to end up wealthy because of hard work, smart investments or fortunate birth, but never does the New Testament condemn wealth or possessions themselves. It is, however, decidedly against the kind of devotion to these things which makes them the central focus of one’s life and the keeping of them at all costs. Need I explain how uncomfortable this makes most of us?
The Non-Political Jesus. Everyone likes to find in Jesus an ally for their particular political and social views. Marxist guerillas in Latin America claim Jesus as a fellow revolutionary and liberator of the poor. Capitalists claim Jesus as a friend of free enterprise. Homosexual activists point out that Jesus never married and theorize a gay Christ in an effort to support their social agenda. Yet it is dangerous to read such foreign concepts into the Jesus of the New Testament.
If Jesus is examined impartially in the gospels, his teachings are strictly non-political. When asked if Jews should pay taxes imposed by their Roman conquerors, Jesus’ enigmatic reply was , “..give Caesar what is due him, but be sure you give God what is rightfully his.” Jesus was careful to pay his own tax to the Romans, yet he refused to acknowledge Rome’s ultimate authority over his life when facing Pontius Pilate.
This is not to say that his teachings have no political implications: they most certainly do. However, Jesus’ goal was never to transform governments or the social order, but to transform people from the inside out. Jesus acknowledged that he was indeed a king (in fact, rightful heir to the throne of David) yet he stated clearly that his kingdom was not of this world. It was something that people brought into their lives by choosing allegiance to him. It would spread from life to life until all nations would be represented and then it would come fully on earth. No armies would bring it by conquest; no governing bodies would enact it by law; no violent revolution would establish it by force. Although at times, Christians have attempted all of these methods to establish or enhance Christ’s Kingdom, in every case the result has been less than satisfactory.
It is an inner kingdom. It is a kingdom taking form through a brotherhood, a sisterhood, a family of faith. It is a kingdom growing despite (or even because of) persecution and hardship. Christ’s kingdom is coming with such certainty that no army, no law, no natural disaster can postpone it by a single minute. This is a radically foreign idea to most modern people.
Jesus as a First Century Jew. Twenty-first Century people can easily forget that, like the rest of us, Jesus was born and raised in a particular ethnic context. Like all Jewish boys throughout history, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day according to the commandment in Moses’ Law. At age thirteen, he became a son of the covenant (bar mitzvah). He attended synagogue, kept the sabbath, ate kosher and observed the numerous laws of Torah. The gospels show Jesus as very careful to make the journey to Jerusalem to attend mandatory feasts and participate in temple rites. Even his humor is Jewish (“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven.”)
For those outside Judaism, there is much in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life which can seem puzzling or culturally unintelligible. It is not unheard of, on the other hand, for Jews to investigate the gospels and find immediate common ground with Jesus, even after twenty centuries of Jewish adaptation and cultural change! So it should be no surprise that Jesus’ way of interacting with people, his concerns and his teachings are all very Jewish in character. A bit of reading up on Jewish custom and religious practice can make a huge improvement in one’s comprehension and insight into the story of Jesus as told in the gospel accounts.
But as a Jew, Jesus’ most severe criticism was aimed, not at Gentiles or even at Jews who weren’t taking seriously their obligations to the Law of Moses. He reserved his condemnation for the religious elites of the day, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Why? Because Jesus saw them as missing the point of the very scriptures they claimed to live by. He saw them obsessing over the minutia of the religious code, using it to elevate themselves in relation to others and manipulating people through guilt and intimidation. That is why his message to those oppressed by the power of the religious elite and despairing of any share in God’s Kingdom, was such truly good news.
The More-Than-Human Jesus. Certainly Jesus was born in a particular time and place (during the reign of Caesar Augustus in Bethlehem). He was entirely human as is shown in his human traits (hunger, thirst, anger, sorrow, death). But then there is that other side of Jesus, which may make us uncomfortable, such as his claim to be the Messiah of Israel. The New Testament spends a great deal of space showing how this claim is validated by the many prophecies concerning Messiah in the Old Testament (Micah 5:2, Isaiah 7:14, etc.) Yet the scriptural experts of his day couldn’t believe that a carpenter’s son, the circumstances of whose birth was dubious to say the least, from a backwater town like Nazareth, who had never attended any of the respectable rabbinic academies, could possibly be God’s answer to centuries of prophetic utterance.
More than this, Jesus claimed to be God in human form. In John chapter 8, we encounter Jesus saying to these very religious leaders that Abraham, some two thousand years before, had personally acknowledged him and had forseen his day coming. Jesus claimed that to see him, was in fact to see God. He claimed that he and God the Father were one: that is, somehow unified in nature and being. So incensed were the religious elites by all these claims that they plotted to kill him. Even today these claims, if taken seriously, must surely shake the conventional viewpoints of many.
The Living Jesus. The gospels assert that Jesus is literally, physically alive. Contrast this with the notion that Jesus was simply a tragic figure whose life was cut short before his calling was fulfilled. His disciples then were so lost without his magnetic personality that they began to talk about him as though he were still living. So after several generations, the belief that the deceased teacher from Nazareth was still alive somehow became solidified as Christian doctrine.
Of course, this line of thinking is pure nonsense. From what the gospels record about the circumstances of the resurrection it just doesn’t add up. Neither can this “wishful thinking view” possibly be right when the incredible spread of the early Christian message is considered realistically. The early Christians proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection from a very confident factual position. The location of Jesus’ tomb was common knowledge. No one could deny that it was empty. The likelihood of Jesus being mistakenly buried before he was actually dead makes no sense since the Romans were experts at the process of crucifixion. Even if that could be believed, the idea that a severely wounded Jesus could revive, roll away the huge stone and then escape the detection of those who were determined to eliminate him, is far fetched (to say the least).
More likely would be a conspiracy by his friends to steal the body and fake a resurrection. Yet even this doesn’t add up. The disciples were as sure as anyone that Jesus was dead. They were demoralized and afraid. Even if they had planned such a daring theft of Jesus’ body, they had proved their incompetence in such a mission when some of them unsuccessfully attacked a group of soldiers only days before at Jesus’ arrest. So the body-snatching theory falls apart as well. No, the best explanation, given the facts, is that Jesus rose bodily from the grave.
Conclusion: My advice is that if you think you know all there is to know about Jesus, maybe a serious and informed look at the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) might upset your comfortable views. Jesus isn’t someone you can easily categorize and put on a shelf. He still has the ability after all these centuries and across cultures, to make people squirm a bit. He also has the ability to call forth our deepest admiration and even devotion, just as he did twenty centuries ago. If you are content with some kind of dumbed-down Jesus, then you needn’t read the gospels with any kind of searching eye. But if you are brave enough to do so, brace yourself for some discomfort and perhaps a whole new life!
A Basic Explanation of English Bible Versions
One of the most frequently asked questions among Christians these days is, “Which version of the Bible should I use?”. The wide variety of English Bible translations have indeed been a great blessing in many ways; but at times they have also been a source of confusion. The person hearing a sermon or attending a Bible class may be at a loss because the version they are using reads slightly differently from the one being used by the leader. So how did the English speaking church go from the time in the early Twentieth Century when the King James Version (also known as the Authorized Version) was nearly universal among Protestants, to our situation today with easily a dozen widely used translations?
Before we go into a brief history of the English Bible, we should remember that neither the Old or New Testaments were originally written in English. In fact, the English language (as we would recognize it) was non-existent during the period of time in which these documents were being composed. The books of the Old Testament were written over approximately 1000 years, beginning around 1400 BC, with the majority written in ancient Hebrew, while a few of the later ones were penned in the related language of Aramaic. The New Testament was composed in a type of ancient Greek known as Koine (common or trade Greek) during the second half of the First Century AD.
When these biblical languages could not be understood by a significant number of God’s people, there were attempts to translate the scriptures into the languages spoken by them. For instance, in the book of Ezra, Ezra the priest had the Hebrew scriptures translated into Aramaic for the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon and could no longer speak the native language of their ancestors. Several centuries later, in around 200 BC, other Jewish scholars did the same thing for Jews living in Greek-speaking lands. The New Testament was translated in the first several centuries AD into Latin, Ethiopic, Syriac and other languages of early Christians.
The English-speaking people did not officially convert to Christianity until the 600s AD. Along with the rest of the Western Europe, they used the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible in worship. Consequently few people had access to the Bible in its original languages. Due to the Roman Catholic policy of using a uniform version of the Bible among its people and closely guarding those scriptures from misuse by untrained people, centuries went by without any serious attempt to translate the scriptures into English. The first successful effort to do so was by the priest, John Wycliffe in the 1370s. He used the Latin Vulgate as the basis for his work, rather than Greek or Hebrew manuscripts. Though Wycliffe’s translation was second-hand at best, its major contribution was to create in the common people a hunger for the Bible in their native English.
The first attempt to use the original languages for translation was by William Tyndale in the 1520s. His excellent work was supplemented in the years that followed by other versions, such as the Coverdale Bible, the Geneva Bible and the Bishops’ Bible, which were the first English Bibles to be used for public worship. With the growing influence of Puritanism in the late 1500s and the inheritance of the English throne by King James I, there was a renewed desire for a standard English Bible to be used in all the Protestant churches. King James commissioned this project in 1607at the Hampton Court Conference, with a panel of 50 scholars who worked on the translation for four years. This Authorized Version was published for use in 1611 and became the standard for English use for the next 350 years. It is a remarkable combination of quality translation (given the manuscripts available at the time) and an elegant English style.
Toward the end of the 1800s a number of Bible scholars and clergy began to sense that the Authorized Version was no longer adequate for several reasons. More recent discoveries of ancient manuscripts had added to the knowledge of the original language texts. Along with this, English had changed dramatically since 1611, so that the English itself needed updating as well. These concerns led to the Revised Standard Version of the 1880s, which was updated again in 1952. The Twentieth Century saw an explosion of Bible translations. The New American Standard Bible in 1971 was an attempt to translate the Bible into a distinctively American English. While the English style has been accused of being awkward, it is actually one of the most precise translations in the English language.
New theories of translation in the late Twentieth Century added to the mix of versions available. Rather than a closely literal approach, many opted for what can be described as either a paraphrase or a thought-for-thought translation. Among these are the Living Bible (1962), which is a paraphrase, originally designed for children, the Good News Bible (1966) which is another paraphrase designed for people in the counter-culture, and the New International Version (1978) a thought-for thought translation aimed at the entire English-speaking world. The NIV has become one of the most widely-used versions because of its simple, generic English and its accuracy of translation. All of these translation efforts have used the reconstructed original language manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments.
There have also been some recent revisions of older translations. The New King James modernizes the English of the Authorized Version, while at the same time, adjusting the translation from updated manuscript data. The New Revised Standard Version is a gender –neutral update of the older Revised Standard Version. Other popular versions of the Bible include the Phillips expanded paraphrase, the Message, which is a more recent paraphrase, and the Roman Catholic New Jerusalem and New American Bibles.
So, which Bible is best for you? Many people like to use a paraphrase or a thought-for thought version for reading, while relying on a more literal version for study. Try sampling a few to find out which suits your needs. Stay away from off-beat, inaccurate and agenda-driven translations, such as the New World Translation of the Watchtower Society. Otherwise, find a Bible you will use regularly and use it!
At some point in life, everyone gets hurt. Maybe a friend has wronged you by saying something negative behind your back. It could be that you have been cheated in business, or in some way treated unfairly by a neighbor or family member. Inside, there are feelings of frustration and anger. You may go through a period of feeling as though your heart could break. You desire retaliation; justice.
Although such feelings are common, they are not the best way to respond. In fact, the Bible says much about how to react when you are wronged. Let’s examine scripture in light of some very common approaches to being wronged.
Some people suffer in silence. Instead of doing anything at all, they just stew in frustration. Before long, unresolved frustration and hurt can turn into bitterness. When this happens, it is usually the bitter person who is hurt most. Proverbs 19:11 speaks to this approach, saying, “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is his glory to overlook an offense.” If you can simply forgive and forget a wrong, it is to your credit and can prevent much self-inflicted heartache later.
Another approach to being wronged is to complain to a third party. Hurt feelings desire sympathy. An offended sense of justice seeks allies. Often people justify involving other people because they feel the need for someone to talk to. Sometimes there may indeed be a need for godly advice. However, when a third party is brought in only to reinforce your side of things and share your anger, the outcome is unproductive. Proverbs 17:9 says this: “He who covers an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.” It is not a wise course of action to involve people in a matter which does not directly affect them.
Other people desire retribution. They seek justice as they conceive it applying to their particular case. If they have been hurt, they desire the offender to suffer as well. If they have lost something valuable, the one who caused its loss should be punished. This may go well beyond a sense of fairness, becoming vengeance, in which punishment is beyond what is normally called for and results in severe damage to the offender.
Jesus said in Matthew 5:38-42 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” In Jesus’ profound understanding of God’s will, love trumps justice. Reconciliation is better than vengeance.
None of these responses really achieves either the purposes of God or the very best for the person who has been wronged. These things are achieved through following Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 18:15. “If your brother sins against you go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” In other words, God’s way of bringing blessing to both parties is for the offended person to seek out the offender in order to work toward reconciliation. Here are some of the amazing results of such a course of action:
- It prevents a relatively small issue from developing into something very serious.
- It keeps the situation from involving those who are not directly related to its resolution.
- It can begin the healing of major hurts and begin the resolution of serious damages.
- It may lay the foundation for a new and deep relationship with the offender.
- It always results in a clear conscience for the one who genuinely seeks to honor God and be a source of reconciliation.
As long as I am making lists, here is some further biblical advice for when you seek resolution.
- Go in humility. Remember, there may be a point of view to the situation you have not yet considered.
- Go determined to seek true justice. If you have been a party to the wrong, admit it and ask for forgiveness. If restitution needs to be made, do your best to make it.
- Go in love. That is, never go to the person with the sole idea of setting them straight or giving them a piece of your mind. Certainly never seek the humiliation of others. Rather seek the wholeness and welfare of all concerned. If you do, you will be like God because that is how he deals with us.
One more issue remains to be mentioned: what if your efforts are not well-received? If you truly have made the effort to seek peace and reconciliation, then the problem is not yours. You cannot force others either to forgive you or to admit their wrong. Pray for them and continue to be open for reconciliation should circumstances and attitudes change. You will have one very precious thing regardless: the deep satisfaction which comes from having done things God’s way.