The Gates Are Open

July 2014

Reading the Old Testament for Benefit – Part 1

Posted on July 25, 2014

For years, both in Canada and United States, I have served as a reader and examiner for men and women who want to be ordained. The ordination process can be a grueling exercise where would-be missionaries, pastors, professors and chaplains push themselves to understand the nuances and depth of both theology and practical Christian work with people.

At the end of several years’ worth of work, they are asked to submit to an oral exam lasting two hours or more.

One young man went through his oral exam easily and less than halfway through I knew he would pass. Often, when a person comes in with great expertise and knowledge, I  feel inclined to push them to see how “deep the well goes” concerning their knowledge. His “well” of knowledge was deep indeed.

At the end of the interview, I asked if there was anything theologically he struggled with. He hesitated; but I assured him we wouldn’t fail him because of struggles. So he admitted the one he had:. “I struggle to believe the Old Testament is from God.” That shocked me. In every way, he had seemed orthodox in his answers. He certainly knew his Bible thoroughly. So how could he come out with this? I asked him to explain.

Simply, he looked at Jesus and the God of the Old Testament and concluded that no matter how you sliced it, they were not the same. And because they were not the same, one of them had to be false. We talked for awhile about his doubts, and I helped him to realize he had probably misinterpreted some key doctrine. He looked relieved to know he didn’t have to jettison his faith because of some doubts.

So we scheduled some time for he and I to look into this matter together. Over the months we met, I went over principles that would help him appreciate the first 2/3rds of the Bible. In an earlier blog entry, I gave an overview on how to read the Old Testament with more accuracy. But now I want to point out some of the ways we can appreciate this part of God’s Word.

One element which always bothered me when reading the stories of the Old Testament is how badly Israel’s leaders lived their lives. If you read through the historical books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles, you will quickly realize that every one of Israel’s kings messed up big time. None of them lived an entire life of faithfulness to God. Even some of the best of them–such as David and Solomon–had egregious mistakes that tainted their legacy.

David committed adultery with his friend’s wife and then covered it up with a conspiracy to murder. Later in his life, he allowed his children to commit murder, incest, rape, and treason and failed utterly in disciplining them. His son Solomon, even though he started well, ended very poorly. He married over 300 wives and had 600 concubines. God had given him more wisdom than any other man, yet he squandered his life near the end on sexual pleasure and idol worship. Hezekiah was used by God to bring revival to the country, but pride caused him to make political mistakes which resulted in the Babylonians taking over his country.

I could keep going for a long time. After reading about all these failures, I began to despair about God and His plan.

Then something occurred to me. There was one king that didn’t blow it. Jesus, the King of the Jews. And I realized that was the point of all these stories. Only Jesus can live the kind of life that pleases God. If we have surrendered our lives to follow Christ, inviting his Holy Spirit to live within us, we can truly change to look like him. We now have the promise that the end of our lives can be better than the beginning or the middle. Every day we have the opportunity to live successfully, even if yesterday was a disaster and a loss.

This is the first point I want to make about appreciating the Old Testament. Keep the example of Jesus firmly in your mind. When you see humans fail all through the books, you can realize that this is just what happens with humans. It is only with God’s help that we can rise above all of that.

That really helps me appreciate the people in the Old Testament. Just knowing their lives are not supposed to be good examples all the time, knowing that they are just like all of us, and have as many failures as successes; this causes me to thank God even more for Jesus.

When I read about Moses, that humble man who communed with God as if face-to-face, and see he also made huge errors in his life, I am encouraged. When Moses struck the rock with the staff and poured out his anger on the people of God, I realize my anger at members of God’s church is not something unusual. However, I don’t use Moses’ example as a rationale to excuse my own behavior. I use it to bring me back to the central tenet of Christianity: That without the power of Jesus flowing in me by the Holy Spirit, I am going to fail regularly in life. And, when I do fail, there is a God of grace who will not leave me, forsake me or reject me.

Even though Moses lost his privilege to enter the Promised Land because of his angry outbursts, he was still able to say at the end of his life (Deuteronomy 32:46-47):

“Set your hearts on all the words which I testify among you today, which you shall command your children to be careful to observe—all the words of this law. 47 For it is not a futile thing for you, because it is your life, and by this word you shall prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to possess.”

God stayed with him even through his failures. How much more can we stand in victory if Christ is the strength of our lives? This is the value of the Old Testament. We see humanity in its rawest form and we can anticipate the power of God to change us because of Jesus.

Next article, we will look into Appreciating the Initiative of God.

I Do Not Represent Christians, I Represent Christ

Posted on July 22, 2014

hobby-lobbyA couple of weeks ago, I met my regular golf partner at one of the local courses. We expected to play our usual quick round of golf; and we would have – except that day they paired us with two other golfers, thus slowing us down. In reality, they turned out to be better golfers than us, so I’m not sure who did the slowing.

As usually happens, we asked each other what we did for a living. Most readers of this blog know that my answer is always complicated. I am a pastor, but I’m also a writer, a counselor and a public speaker. In addition, I do employee assessments for small businesses and even interpersonal training for people in helping professions. Normally, I just tell people “counselor” and they get back to golf.

For some reason, I told the two guys I was a pastor. I don’t know what made me say that. I almost never do. It makes people nervous as they mentally review whether or not they have been using profanity during the round of golf.

A few holes later, one of the guys started making small talk as we waited for our turn to hit. With one simple question, our conversation got weird and since that time, it has bothered me

Here’s how he started: “So you must be happy today huh?”

“Why?”

“Your side won this morning.”

“My side?”

“Sure, you know…the religious side…in the Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about” I told him. And I really didn’t know what was happening. I had not read the news much the week previous because my counseling load was so heavy and I had a lot of evening appointments. I had never even heard of Hobby Lobby. I told him that and he looked amazed.

“I thought every Christian in the country was praying for the outcome of this case” he said.

“Apparently you’re wrong” I retorted. “Not only do I know nothing about this case, even if I did, I would have to spend a lot of hours looking into it before I could form an opinion on it.” I thought this statement would correct his false conclusion.

You see, he had come to believe that all Christians stand together on political issues. Perhaps he also believed we are all guilty if one of us is guilty. Maybe he believed that we all secretly hold to the same viewpoints on all cultural memes, regularly attending meetings where we decide as a group how to vote, where to protest, whom to exclude and how to let our displeasure known to the masses. If there are such meetings, I have never been invited, and I’m sure I wouldn’t attend.

Here was my final word to him: “I do not represent Christians, I represent Christ. I know what Jesus stands for, what he teaches, how he loves me. As for Christians, we are a mixed bag and must be treated individually.”

This blew him away, and he kept returning to the subject for the rest of the golf game.

I want all readers of this blog to know that I don’t represent you and you don’t represent me. Neither does Focus on the Family, the Billy Graham Association, the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today Magazine or the National Day of Prayer.

I don’t represent your political views and you don’t represent mine. It never impresses me when the President, a Governor, Senator or Congressman announces they are a Christian. I have no idea if that statement is supposed to convince me I’m on their side or they’re on mine, but we’re not.

I don’t represent your moral values and you don’t represent mine. When a priest molests a child, don’t hold that to my account. When a stupid church decides to picket gay funerals, don’t look at me. I am dreadfully sorry for what they’re doing. When someone bombs an abortion clinic, I am not cheering. When a pastor in town has multiple affairs and is publicly humiliated, I am not pleased in any way at his failure; but I should not be tarred with his brush. When a Christian 15 years ago treated you badly and dragged your name through the mud, don’t think that gives you a right to drag mine through the mud today.

I support no Christian agendas.

I support no Christian parties or politicians

I don’t think watching a Christian movie or listening to Christian music proves whether I’m a follower of Christ.

I represent Christ and that is it. If you look at my life and I do not live according to the principles that I profess, then criticize and challenge me. If another Christian does not live up to what they profess to believe, talk to them.

What it comes down to is this. Christians have only one thing that makes us similar to each other. If we are following Christ, our goal is to eventually look like him. In that process, we don’t have to look like each other. We don’t have to sound like each other. We don’t have to vote like each other.

That’s all I have to say about that.

 

How To Read the Old Testament

Posted on July 3, 2014

BibleOften, people who are new to the Bible come to me and look exasperated. They have been reading the Old Testament of the Bible and they struggle with two things. First, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to them. Second, it seems to teach things about God that contrast with what the New Testament teaches.

I then go into a simple outline of how to read the Old Testament. Here are the six things I suggest for all of us as we read this inspired Scripture section.

  1. Many of the promises God makes in the Old Testament are for the nation of Israel. Not many of them are for today’s Christ-follower. The ones that are for today are either reiterated in the New Testament or they refer to promises fulfilled by the life of Christ. Resist the temptation to apply an Old Testament promise to your life unless there is good New Testament reason for doing so. (Note: I admit when I first wrote this, I suspected it would not sit well with most people. We all have those verses that Holy Spirit has used to shape us from the Old Testament. The problem is, if we go back and study many of them in context, they don’t mean to us what we hoped they meant. No matter: Holy Spirit can take a verse and apply it to an individual in a way that would not work if applied to other people. That’s why we have more than just a Bible, we have God’s Spirit in us and with us).

Example: In Joel 2:25, it says that God will repay Israel for the years the locusts have eaten. Many people interpret that to mean that when bad things happen to us, when others take advantage of us and hurt us, when we have lost our prosperity and health due to the actions of others, we can claim that God will restore all of those things to us. This is not true. Many fine believers have suffered greatly and never received in this life a just recompense for what they have given up.

  1. Narrative Portions of the Old Testament are intended to be examples of how humans try to relate to God, sin and others. They are not meant to be instructive teaching portions. Much of the Old Testament is narrative. A narrative is the telling of a story. The following books are almost completely narrative:

Genesis,  Joshua,  Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 

1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, 

Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Jonah, and Haggai

The following books are mostly narrative with a few teaching and poetic passages thrown in:

Exodus, Numbers, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Job

Why is this important? Simply because some people use the stories in the narrative portions to justify how we are to act today. They read how God’s people entered into the Promised Land and killed as many of the inhabitants as they could. Then they use this as vindication for violence and xenophobic actions.

Here is where the real dilemma in interpretation occurs. Can something be accurate and still wrong? Of course it can. Aaron lifted up the idol in the desert and said “This is Elohim who brought you out of Egypt”. The quotation is accurate, but the sentiment is false. King Saul may truly have believed that God told him to wipe out an entire nation–and he chose to wipe out those people he didn’t have any use for–this may be accurate as to what happened and how he understood thing, but still not be right. Jesus reveals a God who loves all people. There is no way to adequately reconcile that with a God who counsels his people to commit genocide. But this does not diminish the accuracy of the Bible account. It simply calls into question the accuracy and rightness of the people in the narrative.

There is an exception to this. (Thanks to two friends who pointed this out to me). When God brought judgment on the world through the Flood and on Sodom and Gomorrah, he was righteous to judge the wicked. He never had man do that. God is the God who said “You shall not kill”. But He is also the God who says “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay”. That last verse is an Old Testament verse but repeated in the New Testament to show its timeless nature.

God is the God who did not validate Moses killing the Egyptian. But God did send Moses to declare God’s wrath in the plagues. I believe the best New Testament lens to look at the Old Testament is to separate what God does unilaterally from what man does. God and the angels are righteous judges. Mankind is never a righteous judge.

I understand this is hard to interpret. It seems to suggest that some of the viewpoints we have about God in the Old Testament are wrong. But remember, God was just beginning to reveal Himself to the world. Like a parent disciplines a toddler physically, so God used physical means to do so. But in Christ, the Holy Spirit comes to live inside the believers. Followers of Christ are now those who bring God’s word to the world. We are quite literally his Body on earth. Jesus represented God to us. We now share that Truth with the world. It is not appropriate any longer for Christ-followers to emulate the Jews whose understanding of God was very elementary.

3. The Names given to certain Old Testament books aren’t necessarily who wrote those books: For several hundred years, there have been debates over who wrote which book of the Old Testament and when they wrote it. Entire colleges were formed to support one theory over another. For the most part, this is both a waste of time and energy. It doesn’t matter who wrote which book. The point is what we learn about God and man through the stories. The Old Testament is the story of mankind before God became a human being. Mankind was in a lot of trouble without a Savior.  It also doesn’t matter if the Traditional author was indeed the author. Since we believe that God inspired the writers of Scripture, it matters little who they were and when they wrote the books.

Example: The first five books of the Old Testament are believed to have been written by Moses. We know there are parts of the book he didn’t write because it speaks of events that happened after he died. Also, there are three completely different literary styles in the five books, suggesting that this was either a document composed by one person and then edited by two others or a document created by a community of people. Either way, the Old Testament gives us a good picture of how God began to work with the human race after we had strayed away from Him.

Job is almost certainly an epic poem about a man who lived hundreds of years before the book was actually written. Joshua is so close in form to 1 Samuel and Ruth that it is likely Samuel (or another prophet) wrote all these books. There is a good chance that Isaiah was written by three different people and they compiled it into one book.

Jeremiah however probably wrote the entire book that was his. If you’ve read it you realize no one but the poor guy who went through all of that could have written his story.

4. The Old Testament (and the Bible as a whole) was never meant to be a science textbook: This is not to say that the Bible is inaccurate, but there may be scientific details it leaves out completely. There are some people who believe that the earth was created in six days because that is what the book of Genesis says. But perhaps the word “day” is a descriptive word rather than a scientifically accurate word. I am not saying you should decide one way or another on that, but it would be helpful if you didn’t get hung up on whether the Bible is scientifically detailed enough to satisfy modern scrutiny. I believe it is, but it doesn’t matter. The Bible is dealing with spiritual themes of sin, righteousness, God, evil, human nature and redemption. None of these things can be verified through Science anyway.

5. Many portions of the Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon and Proverbs use Poetic language which is not meant to be a foundation for doctrine.  In seven of the Psalms the Psalm-writer says that he wishes God would take the children of his enemies and dash their heads against a rock. We are not supposed to understand from this that God’s will is that children should be punished for their parents. In Ezekiel we are explicitly told that the fathers will not be held liable for the sins of the children, nor the children for the sins of the fathers. No, these poetical books are there to show the emotions and heart-longings of every person; especially of those who seek to follow after God. When we read in Psalm 42 that the writer’s heart pants for the living God, we can identify. When in Psalm 73, we hear the psalmist say it is useless to serve God because the wicked prosper, we can identify with that as well. We read that if we train up a child in the way they should go and when they’re old they won’t depart from it, we need to see that as a generality and not a promise. Generally, children raised with good moral foundations will return to those foundations later in life. But not every one of them will. Be careful with the poetical books. They are emotional, dramatic and often use hyperbole to state something. But occasionally, they do shed a powerful light on the human condition. And occasionally, they make reference to Jesus in prophetic form (see Psalm 22).

6. Finally, the most powerful images found in the Old Testament are those which prophesy about the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. Almost every book in the Bible has a prediction about the Savior. These ones are worth studying. Many reference books and online resources can help you find these. They remind us that the story of mankind from beginning to end is the story of the second member of the Trinity, the Son of God/Son of Man who came to set us free from the yoke of slavery we were held in by our sin and by the Devil. Marvel at how men and women 1000 years before the Messiah anticipated his coming. It will bring you to a new sense of wonder at the God who planned for your redemption even before the first person sinned.

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