The Gates Are Open

theology

Reading the Bible in the Spirit – Part 4

Posted on March 31, 2017

Read Part 1 here:

Part 2:

Part 3:

If a respected teacher and leader warned you about something twelve times in two separate emails, would you get the impression he needs you to pay attention? This is what the Apostle Paul does with his disciple Timothy in the two letters he writes him.

Twelve times, he warns this young missionary/pastor to avoid endless disputes over words, quarreling over the meaning of Scripture and fights over doctrine. Twelve times, he lays out a mentor’s course change for his young disciple. I hope Timothy got the message. I hope we do as well.

The Flesh loves to get its own way, and nothing feels more satisfying than using the Bible to beat another person. Though I can see the value in playing games with kids and the Bible—such as Sword Drills where kids compete in who can look up a reference the fastest, and Bible Quizzing where teens memorize Scripture and then jump off electronic seats to answer questions about those verses—perhaps we are creating little Flesh warriors who use the Bible as their weapon.

We are not wise to use the metaphor of the Bible as a sword too often.

Though it is legitimate to stand up against heretics and swindlers who want to use the Bible to make money or enslave people, most disputes over the Bible are really not about that at all. Speaking as one who has over-used the Bible to destroy other people, I can tell you the real goal is the glee of being right, not correcting error.

Years ago, I had two members of a group most people call a cult come into my home to discuss the Bible. They did not know of my background in Theology, or that I had received high honors for that degree. I could debate the original Greek and Hebrew, and I suspected I knew their doctrine better than they did. I was right. They didn’t stand a chance against my blistering barrage of Bible, doctrine and logic. After a while, they couldn’t even look me in the eye, for I had countered everything they tried to tell me and made it look ridiculous.

At one point, I stopped and said, “Why don’t you just leave these foolish errors and join us? Why would you want to even stay with such a laughable group who believes these things?”

One gal looked up with a fierce gaze and said, “Because they show me love all the time – and all you did today was make me feel stupid.” There it was; Even though I had proven their doctrine was false and their way was wrong, my actions lacked the basic ingredient of love, and this disqualified me.

There is a difference between using the Bible to correct, to train and to guide people, and using it to skewer them and win an argument. It is the difference between the surgeon’s scalpel and the switchblade. It is the difference between the ambulance driver and the drag racers on the Quarter Mile.

It is the difference between Flesh and Spirit.

On Monday, I will finish this series of articles by laying out the three principles we should follow if we truly want to read the Bible by the power and leading of the Spirit of God. As a way of introduction to this, the Bible shows us how to read it by giving us these three ideas:

  1. The Bible is like the Manna of the Old Testament
  2. The Bible is full of examples of spiritual living – both negative and positive
  3. The Bible points us to Jesus, our starting and ending.

 

Join me on Monday as I lay these three principles out.

Pondering the Death of the Emerging Church

In 2006, I wrote six articles on why I was not a part of the Emerging Church. Here is the final one, and all you have to do is read backward to find the rest. At that time, I predicted that the Emerging Church movement would fall apart and cease to exist in the years to come. I didn’t say that out of animosity or a desire to curse them. Unfortunately, the Emerging church movement was decontructionist in nature, and thus subject to the same inertia of all deconstructionist movements: They fall down with their own tendency to self-criticize.

In other words, once you start throwing stones as a group, you inevitably start throwing stones at each other. Decontructionist movements always devolve into bickering.

A few years ago Dan Kimball–who wrote the book “The Emerging Church“– wrote an article where he admitted the movement had splintered and was no longer a viable entity. Others such as Scot McKnight and Andrew Jones (a.k.a The Tall Skinny Kiwi) also have lamented and written about the fragmentation of the movement.

But all three men have one thing in common: They still believe in the principles of the Emerging Church even if they no longer believe the movement is viable. The problem is, every one of them recognizes a significantly different set of principles that embody their view of the Emerging church. Perhaps this is another reason it has come to an end.

But since I was a bellringer for this movement’s demise, perhaps it is time to admit some of the things I learned from reading, meditating and participating with some of the leaders of this movement. This is not an homage to something I didn’t believe in–I’m not Cassius Brutus or his kin–but rather this springs from my desire to acknowledge the good things the Emerging church was trying to do.

1. The Evangelical Church Has Become Shallow: As with any retrospective, my analysis of all things related to churches will be painting with a broad brush. Not all evangelical churches are shallow. But there is a pattern which goes back over twenty years in prominent Evangelical churches of emphasizing style over content. Let me just give a few examples:

  • Dominance of bass boosters, fog machines, expensive lighting systems, electronic keypads etc. in large megachurches.
  • Pastors buying the sermon series of other preachers instead of digging into the Word on their own (thank you Rick Warren for that egregious error).
  • Christian bestsellers are all penned by superstar pastors since these pastors can guarantee that their congregations will buy the first 50,000 copies. Therefore, most Christian books are ghost-written and designed for marketing instead of teaching..
  • Worship services are designed to sound like concerts instead of providing a place for the congregation to have communion with the Holy Spirit.
  • Tendency to mirror conservative political buzz instead of being a prophetic voice.

The Emerging Church desired to have more intimate gatherings of people instead of the consumerist approach we buy into. In this, they are correct. As I wrote in this series on the Walmartization of the church, this trend will not stop as long as people desire little commitment to a local church. I am sorry the Emerging Church was not able to make more of an impact on these practices.

2. Social Justice: If you look back ten years to the messages preached from Evangelical pulpits, you didn’t hear much talk about climate change, recycling, feeding the poor, sex trafficking, backyard gardens, gender equity, GMO proliferation etc. The Emerging Church dedicated themselves to social justice and their voices convinced many in the Evangelical world that this was true and undefiled religion. Now you can hear them being preached everywhere. I am concerned that as the Emerging Church loses its soapbox, we may forget these critical emphases.

3. Narrative Theology has one great result: Narrative preaching seeks to understand where each book of the Bible can be found in the larger  story of God. That is to say, all Scripture was penned as a partnership between God, the writer and the culture to whom he was writing. Evangelical preachers have sought to understand what God was saying in each passage, keeping in mind the human elements of the writers while not really paying much credence to their personality. For instance, we recognize the difference between the Gospel written by Doctor Luke and the one that comes from the mouth of the peasant John. Their language is different as is their focus. But that’s as far as we go. We rarely, if ever, parse the cultures to whom books were written. This is a serious error and I thank the Emerging church and their emphasis on reading the original culture as well as reading the original language. It helps to know that culture’s views on poverty, slavery, sex, women, homosexuality, marriage, divorce, church leadership etc. before we finish up our study. Evangelicals are too inclined to only look what God might be saying and not enough to the ideas of the author and the contextual culture. I suspect that as the Emerging Church disappears, we may go back to only one side of the Scriptural partnership. Hopefully writers like Tom Wright and Roger Olson can help us stay on a good interpretive track.

4. People Are Leaving Church Because We Are too Institutional: Three years ago, well-known writers such as Rachel Held Evans and Donald Miller admitted they rarely go to church. CNN ran a series of articles suggesting that children who grew up in Evangelical churches are leaving those same churches when they hit their twenties. Everyone has proposed a different reason for this, but I think the Emerging Church identified the reason better than all the rest: The Millennial Generation doesn’t perceive real community in their home church and this is what they yearn for more than anything else.

Recently, I asked a group of Millennials what they value about church? The answer was consistent and overwhelming: People join churches because of its sense of genuine community. We actually know each other. We are involved in each other’s lives.

Today’s Evangelical church  must come to grips with the movement of young people away from the “Show” and the “Celebrity Pastor”. If we are not intimate, genuine, relational and humble, our churches will die just as surely as the Emerging church.

10 Mistakes People Make When Reading the Bible

Posted on January 6, 2017

Donita had started reading the Bible two years before. She read it a lot and made copious notes of her impressions while reading. I later learned no one had actually shown her how to read the Bible or what dangers she might run into while reading. That is like telling someone food can be found on the other side of six-lane freeway and then putting a blindfold on them and pointing them in the right direction. They might make it okay, but it’s not likely.

She was frantic on the phone. “Pastor Mike, I am just sick about something. I guess I’m supposed to know how to fold the Holy Spirit, but I really don’t”. Yes, she said “how to fold the Holy Spirit”. I couldn’t believe it either.

“What are you talking about Donita?”

“In Revelation. I was reading along and several times I read about the Seven-fold Spirit of God. I don’t know how this folding works? Do I do it or does someone else?”

I rushed over to her house for what ended up being an enlightening 20 minutes for her. There is no such thing as ‘folding the Spirit’. The phrase ‘seven-fold Spirit’ means there are seven aspects or characteristics of the Holy Spirit regarding His work in our lives. When I explained this to her, she wanted to know what they were. I explained that in the first century, Greek philosophers liked to catalog the various characteristics of the gods of Olympus. The community of John who wrote Revelation had ideas about the various works of the Spirit in our lives. They mention most of these in Revelation. I went through the ones I knew and encouraged her to read the book in light of that understanding.

For several weeks after, I did a short teaching with her on how to read the Bible correctly. To this day, she regards that season as when she really began to appreciate what God gave us through the many authors of the Bible. She was appreciative.

I find people still make the same mistakes with the Bible as they were making a half century ago. There truly is nothing new under the sun. There may be many more than just 10 mistakes, but these cover a lot of the most common ones.

  1. Applying All Bible Promises to Your Life: There is a book called “All the Promises in the Bible” and it catalogs 7400 different promises God made in the Bible to various people. The author of this book has taken all of these promises and listed them under different headings. They have titles like “Promises of Rescue”, “Promises Regarding Healing”, “Promises about Money”, etc. All a person has to do, according to this writer, is look up your need, find out what God has promised, and claim that promise for yourself.There are several things wrong about this approach. First, it ignores the possibility of situational promises. In the Bible, God made promises to people which very clearly apply to the situation there were in. In Acts, Paul promises the Philippian jailer that he and HIS WHOLE FAMILY would be saved. Does this mean that every head of a family who believes will result in their whole family following God? I have heard a number of people claim exactly that. In the book of Joel, the Lord promised Israel after an attack of locusts that every one of the crops would start growing again in great amounts. Does this mean God is promising every farmer that bad crops will be followed by bountiful crops? Does this mean God promises everyone who goes through dark seasons that good times are just around the corner? I know many people who apply this exact situational promise to their lives. It is nothing more than wishful thinking at times.Many times these are conditional promises. For instance, in 2 Chronicles 7:14, God promises that “if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray, seek my face,  turn from their wicked ways and follow me, then I will come and heal their land.” This may be the most quoted promise from the Bible. But it is a conditional promise. God will not heal a land where the people do not pray, or do not turn from their wicked ways, or do not humble themselves. In Romans 8:28 it says “for we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love him, who are called according to His purpose.” People read that and see a shorthand version of it: “We know God works all things together for good.” Or, we shorten it even further, “Good is going to come out of this.” But that is not necessarily true. There are many evil things in this world which God cannot do anything with. The key to the verse is this idea: “To those who are called according to his purpose” This means, God will orchestrate things when, and only when, a person is lining up with God’s will and obeying the next thing God shows them to do. God does this because helping these people also helps God’s plans.

    When reading a promise in the Bible, ask yourself these two questions:  Who was this promise given to?  and Is there a condition attached to this?

  2. Relying on Only One Translation:  Unless you are reading the Bible in the original languages (i.e. Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) you are reading a translation. All translations have been done with meticulous care. And though every translator sought to keep their version free of theological and cultural bias, no one can do that perfectly. This is not to say there aren’t better translations than others. Each of us who teach the Bible have our favorite translations for various reasons. But any time you translate a word from one language to another, you will lose some of the inherent meaning. So how can an English reader get the most out of the Scriptures without losing the meaning?The best way is to have two or three translations open when reading. I find it helpful to have one translation which focuses on the common way of saying things (eg. The Message, The Living Bible, The NET Bible) one which focuses on textual accuracy (eg. The New American Standard Bible) and one which seeks to translate idioms best (eg. The New International Version, New Living Translation). You could add an interlinear Bible (the Greek and the Hebrew are right beside the English) or any number of other bibles which have versions in parallel with each other.

    At the very least, if you’re studying the Bible for understanding, have a few different translations to get a fuller flavor of the original words.

  3. Not Asking Holy Spirit to Help You:  Even highly trained people can make mistakes reading the Bible. I think it is best for a Christ-follower to ask the indwelling Holy Spirit for guidance. He inspired the Bible to be written, and He understands what it means. I believe if you start any time of reading the Bible with a short prayer asking Holy Spirit to give you understanding, your time with the Bible will be rich and more fulfilling.
  4. Reading the Bible Only in Small Amounts:  Here is a pattern I am seeing more often in this busy world. People are reading no more than 2 or 3 verses in the Bible at a time. Or they may read one Psalm, a few proverbs and a small portion out of the New Testament. Though that certainly isn’t a bad way to start, especially if you find it hard to fit Bible reading into your life right now, there is a mistake inherent in this. With the exception of Psalms and Proverbs, the rest of the books of the Bible were meant to be read in one sitting. They were not meant to be chopped up into little pieces. The only reason there are chapters and verses is to make it easier to find where you left off your reading. They do the same thing with Chaucer’s works and Shakespeare’s plays.I advise people to have at least one or two times a week where they practice “chunk reading”. During this time, you read entire books of the Bible or very long sections. Rather than having a time limit, keep reading so you get a bigger picture. Though the majority of Christ-followers have never read through the Bible even once (yes, you read that correctly), even those who have do it over such a long period of time they often lose the sense of the bigger picture. The Bible actually does have a unified theme, which is hard to see if you only read little chunks. Even a relatively slow reader (i.e. 200 words a minute) can read the entire bible straight through in about a month if reading 2 hours a day. Give chunk reading a try and see if it doesn’t open up a broader understanding of the Scriptures. More about this in a moment.
  5.  Over-Reliance on Tradition When Reading:  Most cult leaders tell their people, “Don’t read the Bible for yourself. Instead, rely on my interpretation of it.” That insistence on listening only to one viewpoint is a hallmark of all cults. However, many churches, denominations and church traditions can do the same thing. This is one reason I’m not a fan of so-called “Study Bibles”. These are bibles which have commentary at the bottom or on the side of every page. If you rely upon those notes too much, you will only see one theological point of view as you read. This can be true of those who grew up with certain creedal traditions, who rely on certain liturgies to understand the Bible or who follow certain commentaries when reading the Bible. 1 John 2:26,27 is pretty clear we should not rely on any man to teach us the Bible. This means, we should  not lean too heavily on one point of view when reading the Bible.
  6. Under-Reliance on Tradition When Reading: The opposite is also true. When you read the Bible and rely solely on your own understanding, you will probably come up with very novel and interesting interpretations. This can be helpful occasionally, but often leads people into very dangerous territory. This is the mistake Donita made when she was worried about “folding the Spirit”. When you are reading the Bible and you see something which seems to teach something very radical or dangerous, you should rely on tradition to help you. This is what commentaries and other bible teachers are for. If you’re the only person in the world who has a particular interpretation of the Bible, you ought to be careful of walking it out in real life. I remember a guy who called me and asked about the verse in the Sermon on the Mount regarding sexual temptation, where it talks about “cutting off your right hand”. He thought this literally meant disfiguring himself. I had him come by my office and we talked at length about figures of speech like hyperbole and why we need to understand the purpose of them. He left my office and to this day has two  hands (I think).
  7. Errors in Applying what you read:   The best teachers of the Bible have said there are three steps to studying the Bible:   a) Observation (what does it say; b) Interpretation (what does it mean); and c) Application (what do I do with it). There are many people who read the Bible who don’t do anything with it. For them, the Bible is a magical book which makes them feel better just for reading it. This is not enough. The Bible was written so we can observe what is written, understand what it means and then live it out in our lives. But the application must be built on careful study beforehand. You don’t just read a verse and then jump out and start living it a few seconds later. As opposed to a self-help book, the Bible needs to be meditated upon and prayed through before leaping.I remember a young man who read in the Bible how a rich ruler was told by Jesus to go sell all he had and come follow him. This man owned several parcels of land. He believed he needed to follow this advice and do the same. He came in one day and wanted to give all the money to the church. As the pastor, I was quite willing to take the money. After all, we had a number of projects we were working on which would be much more easily financed through this money. But I asked him what led him to do this and he told me about the Bible verse. I asked him if he and his wife had prayed about it. He didn’t even tell his wife what he was doing. I had a little talk about how to stay alive in marriage and sent him on his way. A few weeks later, he made a gift to the church–a much smaller gift than before. He did talk to his wife and he did scale back some of his enthusiasm. This was wisdom.
  8. Treating the Bible as an Academic Book:  My undergraduate degree is in Theology. I took over 60 credit hours in studying various books of the Bible. I took four different theology courses. In the final course, one of my professors, Dr. John Dahms warned us at the beginning of one class: “Be careful young bible scholars you don’t misconstrue the intention of the Bible. It wasn’t compiled and inspired by God to be studied like a textbook. It is a living thing. God moved men to write it, God moved people to translate it and he moves you to study it. But it is all about God and man. In this, you should end up finding God. In this, you should end up finding yourself. Don’t miss God and don’t miss yourself here as you parse verbs and argue over predestination.”Those are wise words. It is not the intelligent who inherit the earth; it is the meek. The meek are those who know they don’t know it all, and keep searching to learn true meaning to things. If you seek God as you read the Bible, then you will find him if you search with all your heart.
  9. Failing to Recognize the Cultures to Which it was Written: There are many, many things mentioned in the Bible that only mean something when you consider the background of the culture. This is not easy to do, but it is so necessary. Almost every book in the Bible contains references to practices, beliefs, and reference points which are foreign to us. This is the value of not jumping to conclusions when you read the Bible. When you look at issues like slavery, place and roles of women, role of government, idol-worship, demons, head-coverings, sinful practices, etc. it is necessary to know what the people of that day believed and how God was trying to guide them. Then, when you have seen that, look for a universal principle to apply.One very common example should help. In the city of Corinth at the very southern tip of Greece, they practiced many, many strange sexual acts. The temples of that city were devoted to prostitution. Those prositutes, know as the Melissae, were experts at certain types of sex. They were the only women in Corinth who went around town with their  heads uncovered. For the most part, women in Corinth did not leave their homes because they didn’t want to be accosted. That’s how many prostitutes were in that city. If they did go out, they wore full head coverings, similar to the burkas worn today in some cultures. If a woman went out without one, she was declaring herself to be a prostitute. For some reason, some women in the church in Corinth taught that since they were free in Christ, they could go to church with their heads uncovered. Therefore, Paul told them to cover their heads when they went to church. Otherwise, they would bring great shame on their families.

    This is a strange teaching to apply today. Certainly, there are cultures which still require women to wear head covering, and other cultures which attach specific meaning to head coverings. The dominant culture in North America of course, is not one of those. We have other standards which we could apply here. We have both male and female expectations regarding clothing, jewelry, perfume/cologne etc. which may be violated by Christ-followers. The key when translating truth from one culture to another is to learn what a Scripture passage meant to the culture. Once you have done that, then strip away the culture from the Scripture and see what the universal truth may be. Ask God how you might apply that universal culture to your life.

  10. Failing to Read the Bible as One Story:  As I mentioned earlier, the story of the Bible is one story. When you only read your favorite parts, or only read small little sections, the bigger story is not clear. In a nutshell, here are the Cliff notes for the Bible. You only get this when you have read it all through in a short period of time.

    God created everything. God, being perfect, wanted to create a being who could choose to know Him and love Him. In order to make this choice a real choice, he gave mankind the ability to choose freely. This choice God gave them was to follow what God directed them to do, or do it their own way. The first humans, when they became aware of what God wanted, chose to do it their way. They walked away from God. And every generation of their children has been selfish, godless and destructive. God spends centuries looking for individuals who would seek after Him. He found one. A man named Abram. That man trusted God and followed as best he could in faith. God decided to use his family and descendants as a people-group to introduce God to the rest of the world. But Abram’s family went back to being conceited, violent and godless. Occasionally, there were members of that tribe who followed God and obeyed God. He used some of these people to write down truths. Eventually, through that family, God decided to be born as a human being. His name was Yeshua, a variant of Joshua. We today call Him Jesus. He lived as a human, even though he is God. Many people followed him and believed in him. In the 33rd year of his life, he gave his life as a sacrifice. He was killed by some of the selfish children of Abram because he claimed to be God–which He was and is. Then, He rose from the dead a few days after dying. Because of this, He is able to pay for all the selfishness all humans have done or will ever do. God allowed the punishment that Jesus suffered to be enough for humans. For this to be effective, each person has to accept this death and resurrection as real and want forgiveness. Many people did that and became a new family of God. That family included many from Abram’s family and many from other tribes. From that day until today, the followers of Jesus in the Christ family have been spreading the news that anyone can be in a good relationship and standing with God. Then, at the end of the book, God tells us how things are all going to end. Selfishness will battle the Family of Jesus and then Jesus will return to start a new age.

 

—The End—

 

Donald Trump and an Accurate Interpretation of Romans 13:1-2

 

Recently, I had a friend tell me that not only did God ordain that Donald Trump be elected, but that God always ordains every person in power, no matter who they are. Because of this, all Christians must submit to all governing authorities, no matter who they are.

I asked him the inevitable question: “Do you mean a person in North Korea is to submit to Kim Jong Un?” “Yes, of course” was the answer. “Hitler?” I ventured. My friend hesitated and eventually said, “I am pretty sure. Yes.” “How about Nebuchadnezzar, if he is telling you to bow down to a statue of himself he had made? Do you have to submit to him as well?” My friend, though not a strong Christian, knew the Bible enough to realize he better stop while he was confused. He thanked me for the lunch and left the restaurant looking dazed.

I was not sorry I had done it. I am weary of explaining Romans 13:1-2 to friends, antagonists, and Calvinists. If Romans 13:1-2 does not immediately jump into your mind, here it is in the New International Version:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

I use the NIV here because it is rife with translation ambiguities which encourage people to jump to spurious conclusions. After we examine it closely here, I hope you will agree with me that:

  1. We do not have to agree with or support all governing authorities
  2. There is a legitimate place for public protest
  3. God does not set up most political leaders and endorse them
  4. We do not have to be agreeable and supportive of any political leader. We can disagree with them, stand against them, and even advocate their overthrow.

 

Allow me to use historic bible interpretation techniques to show why I draw these conclusions from Romans 13:1-2

Contextual Background

The practices of good bible interpretation are called Hermeneutics.  In Hermeneutics, the first step in the proper interpretation of a bible passage is to discover the context. Context relates to three things

  1. What cultural ideas would the original readers be aware of?
  2. What do the chapters before and after this one talk about?
  3. What does the rest of the Bible reveal about the subjects covered in these verses?

 

We call these the Cultural Context, the Textual Context, and the Theological Context. These three contexts will provide a better understanding of what the Apostle Paul was emphasizing.

  1. Cultural Context: At the time of the writing of Romans, the Roman government had been in power for over 100 years. They had effectively conquered the Greek, Persian and Egyptian Empires as well as less powerful Median, Ethiopian, Gaulish and Germanic kingdoms. Caesar was the head of the nation and could act with impunity. Though citizens of Rome could vote, the conquered people could not. They had little say over how their lives were lived. The Roman laws were absolute, and they could not violate them without severe penalties.The Roman Empire was autocratic and absolute. Unless you were Caesar or a Senator, you had virtually no power over your own life.This was the political climate Paul was writing into. It resembles modern-day North Korea. The China of Mao’s communists, Stalin’s communists, Castro’s communists, the farcical “democracies” of Venezuela, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Angola have all shown elements in common with the Roman Empire.But there was a positive side to all this autocracy. The Roman legions kept the peace and prevented warring tribes and nation-states fighting against each other. They quelled local rebellions and kept roads and waterways in good repair. The so-called “Pax Romana” was truly a  time of world-wide prosperity and relative peace.But peace came with a price: Freedom.When Paul is speaking to people about the governing authorities, he is referring to a government under which they had no vote and few choices. In this sense, their situation is very different than ours in the Western democracies. One of my theology professors, Dr. James Cheung, used to tell us that the people of China understand better than Americans what it would mean to live in the world of the Romans. He said Paul wrote this book to people who had no way to change their government other than total rebellion and anarchy. That contextual understanding affects what Paul says in these verses.
  2. Textual Context: In Romans 12 Paul examines the value and beauty of a life in surrender to God. Verses 1 and 2 may be the most sublime expression of what it means to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit and to stay away from sin’s grasp.

    From that, Paul logically applies this spirit-led life to a practical application. He advises each person seek to be used by the Spirit in service to others in the body of Christ. The focal point of living in the Spirit is not to meet our own needs or improve our image. It is to serve. We submit to God and He fills us with his Spirit. The Spirit flows out of us to serve others. We might show kindness, hospitality or respect out of this spirit-led love. Or we might exercise a supernatural gift of the Spirit. From this base, Paul then applies this loving attitude toward two other groups of people. First, he addresses how the spirit-led person will act toward those who persecute them. Then, he follows this up with the approach to be taken in conflict. We are to be at peace—as far as it depends on us—with everyone.

    This is the chapter context leading into chapter 13 of Romans. Paul is not thinking particularly about politics. He is not as concerned about world leaders and political ideologies. Rather, Paul wants to apply the basic principle of being “transformed by the renewing of the mind” (Romans 12:2) to every difficult situation in life. Fellow church members, enemies, interpersonal conflicts, and the oppressive governments of that day immediately came to his mind.

    There are some who feel Paul makes an abrupt change of topic in chapter 13. But I disagree. If you read the rest of the chapter after the first seven verses, you see that Paul returns to this topic of walking in the Holy Spirit with an attitude of love. Verse 8 says

    Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law“.

    Therefore, good contextual hermeneutics suggests we read Paul’s teaching on our attitude toward government in the light of love and walking in the Spirit. This is not his treatise on government systems, God’s sovereignty, or man’s response to oppression. This is Paul’s way of applying the concept of love to down-to-earth difficult situations.

  3. Theological Context: Since many people approach Romans 13:1-2 as if Paul is addressing the Christian’s viewpoint on government systems, let’s see how the rest of the Bible approaches that issue for comparison. Since these verses seem to suggest we are to believe God establishes every government, and that we are simply to obey the governing powers and not rebel against them, does the rest of the Bible support this?Actually, it doesn’t. Even a cursory glance at the Bible nets a completely different result. Israel did not submit to Pharaoh, but rather fought against his rule. They blatantly disobeyed when he ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill the newborns. They plundered the Egyptian leaders and lied to them when they left captivity. Later in Israel’s history, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down to a statue of Nebuchadnezzar. They refused to do as the leader of the country ordered. A few years later, Daniel also refused to obey the government and was thrown into the lion’s den as a punishment.David disobeyed Saul, though passively.Most of the prophets disobeyed their kings, especially the evil ones. Nathan the prophet chastised David the King to his face. In Israel’s post-exilic history, the nation fought against every ruling authority which took over their land. The Maccabees were especially rebellious. At no time after the exile did the people of Israel respect or obey those who ruled them.Even when the Herods came to power, the people were constantly rebelling against them. John the Baptist spent much of his ministry rebelling and fomenting rebellion against the Herods. The rulers of Jesus’ Israel, besides the Romans and the Herods, were the Sanhedrin. Jesus constantly confronted them and their interests. He called them a bunch of snakes, flouted their rules, and mocked their disciples.

    Jesus criticized publicly most of their decisions and even went as far as to overthrow the money-changers tables in direct rebellion against temple rules. Few people in this world went out of their way as much as Jesus did to tweak the nose of the ruling establishment.

    What about after Jesus died and rose again? His disciples carried on in his footsteps. After being ordered by the government to stop preaching and to stop teaching about Jesus, they steadfastly refused and rebelled by doing the very thing they were ordered to stop doing. They were not respectful of the government and followed only the laws which suited them. They schemed to hide from the government officials who sought to arrest them. Paul even pitted one government against another when he appealed to Caesar during his second trial. When thrown in the Philippian jail, Paul felt no obligation to stay there even though ordered to jail by an appointed official. He not only escaped jail, but befriended his jailer along the way.

    There is one other theological context to address. How deep does the influence of God go in terms of elections and appointment of rulers? Since the main reason people refer to Romans 13:1-2 is to support the idea that God establishes all human rulers, does this make theological or logical sense? I contend it does not.This teaching is firmly ensconced in the idea of God’s sovereignty and determinism. This is a slippery slope doctrine and most people who believe it will agree.

    It is remarkably easy to take it too far. The problem is, if you are going to believe in the full doctrine of God’s sovereignty then the only way for it to be consistent is to take it too far. Here is what I mean.Logically, if you say God has control over all things, then all things are under God’s control. If all things are under God’s control, then God wills that all things happen as they do. Nothing happens unless God wills it. At this point, the believer in God’s absolute sovereignty wants to hedge their belief. They will say there is a difference between what God allows and what God wills. But logically, that makes no sense. If God allows something, God wills it.

    If I am able to stop my child hitting me, I have control over that. I can no longer blame the child for hitting me if I do nothing to stop it. If you say God is in control of all things, then God wills all things. This is what led a famous modern Calvinist to remark on the death of children in a schoolhouse massacre: “God desired that each of those children be killed, or it would not have happened.” At least this teacher is honest with his belief system.If you say that God’s allowance of an event is different than willing that event, then I have one thing to say. We both believe there are limitations on God being in control of everything. I just have more things I don’t think God is in control of than you.

    If God truly wanted Donald Trump to be President, there is only one way to do it. God had to force every person to vote exactly as they did. And God had to prevent people from voting if their vote would have affected the outcome. Unless God affects them all, the outcome is indeterminate. So, when you say God wanted Donald Trump to be President, you are saying there was no other way it could have happened. This eliminates the choice any person would make in an election.

    This also makes God out to be a monster and a puppet-master. This is not how God has revealed Himself to be. There must be limits on God’s sovereignty or else God is responsible for everything, including sin. Since we believe God is all-powerful—and I do believe that by the definition of God as Creator—then how is God to be limited?

    The Arminian teaching is that God is self-limiting. No person can limit God, but God can limit Himself. God cannot sin for instance; that is a limit God places upon himself. God will not violate human choice unless God wants to accomplish something. That is another limit God places on Himself. This is what is shown in Romans 9 with Pharaoh. God can overrule human choice, but He chooses to do so infrequently.

    For the most part, our sin and violence has mangled the beauty God created. Evil rulers have taken power whom God did not choose or ordain. What then is Romans 13:1-2 talking about if it is not addressing God’s overarching sovereignty? To answer this, we must look more carefully at the text itself.

Examination of the Text Itself

To fully understand what Paul says here, let’s note the key words and phrases in these two verses. Then, when we have finished that, we will put it together into a logical process. I will then note two alternate translations which show the full nature of what we find here.

  1. The first phrase is a command. The command “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities” means to recognize there are higher powers and authorities than yourself. The purpose of writing this is to counter the idea that anarchy is God-ordained. There were many in Paul’s day who advocated overthrowing all human authority and simply falling under God’s authority. The best translation of this verse has this idea: Every soul in this world must continually recognize there are higher authorities than themselves. You are not in charge of the world.
  2. Now we come to the crucial misunderstanding and ambiguity of this verse in the original Greek language. The NIV translates it this way: “For there is no authority, except which God establishes“. Going through the Greek words and the simple grammar, it would sound like this: “For there is no authority, except under God.” There are literally three ways this could be legitimately translated:
    1. There is no authority except those God establishes
    2. There is no authority that doesn’t come under God’s authority
    3. There is no authority except God’s authority.
  3. I personally think the second translation is the best one. Every government pales in comparison with God’s government. So even though we recognize that humans can seize control and rule over others, this rule will always be temporary in both time and extent. God’s rule is more powerful. God allows humans to be kings and rulers. God allows us to vote in whomever we want. And even though God doesn’t often interfere with what human rulers do, God is always the ultimate authority.Though the Third Reich killed six million people there were miracles which happened to prevent this holocaust from spreading to the rest of the world. I have no idea why God didn’t intervene earlier or cause Hitler to die earlier, but He didn’t. But there is a reason there is no Third Reich in the world today. God used people to overthrow Hitler and his regime. But if no people had been willing to do so, Hitler would have hurt many more. We humans must come under God’s authority and serve Him for anything to change.
  4. The next phrase “the authorities which exist have all been established by God” has the same translation difficulty as the last phrase. To be consistent then, the best translation is “All existing authorities come under God’s authority ultimately.”
  5. Putting together all these thoughts into one verse would sound like this: “Every soul must recognize there are higher authorities than themselves. For there are no authorities who do not come under God, for all existing authorities ultimately come under God’s authority.”
  6. The next phrase flows logically out of the verse before it. The phrase starts with the word “therefore” which implies what comes after is the application of the truth. The truth is that God is the one who allows humans to govern. If you have trouble with the concept of other people ruling your life, you have a problem with God. All attitudes of anarchy and rebellion are attitudes against God. Therefore, King David did not want to overthrow King Saul but rather to protect him, even when Saul was trying to kill David. David recognized that he didn’t want to come against the King out of his respect for God.Most legitimate rebellion means to stand up against what a ruler does and says, not against their right to be rulers. The concept of authority is something God allows people to have. This is an interesting theological conundrum. When Israel originally approached Samuel the prophet and asked him to question God about this idea of having a king like the other nations around, here is God’s answer to Samuel:10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

    19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
    21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. 22 The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”God warns them if they seek after a human ruler it won’t always go well with them. The ruler will expect tributes and money and power. And when they complain to God, God is going to ignore their complaints. But to rebel against this idea of any ruler and to want anarchy is to rebel against God. This is the point of the first part of verse 2 of Romans 13.

    Therefore, we may do all we can to change our leaders, and even our form of government (a la the American Revolution), but we must not discard the idea of others having some authority over us. That is anarchy and God does not sanction it.

  7. The final part of verse 2 lets us know the consequence of rebelling against all authority. If you fight the concept of authority over your life completely, you will find you keep getting judged over and over. You will find that rulers keep hurting you. The person who sneers at the police wonders why the police pick on them. The sports star who calls the referees names wonder why they get called for so many fouls. The anarchist organization who fights the government at every turn wonders why the government fights back. The person who says “no one is allowed to tell me what to do” will force everyone to tell them what to do.

Application of These Verses

What can we conclude from all this? Paul, writing with the idea of applying the love and power of the Holy Spirit to every part of life, warns us we cannot walk in the Spirit and keep believing no one should tell us what to do. We recognize the right of leaders and governing authorities to exist because God allows them to. This doesn’t mean God set every leader up or endorses all they do. It means that God allows human authorities to call the shots for a while. We do well to honor that.

However, God allows us to disagree with ruling authorities. They have a right to exist, but we have a right to vociferously demand they change their ways if they are evil or misguided. In the culture Paul wrote to, Christians could not make changes in their governments. Paul basically tells them not to waste a lot of time on it. We face much different realities in the Western cultures. We can and do make our voices heard. We can march, write, speak out, defy and even be jailed for our beliefs. These all fall under the aegis of this chapter’s teaching. At the same time, if we act as if we are the final authority in life, we will find that existing authorities want to hurt us. And God will allow that.

The attitude of rebellion is a wasting disease, and God wants the spirit-led Christian to stay away from it.

This implies God did not determine Donald Trump would be the winner of the election. Neither did God want Hilary to be the President. Or Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. God allowed us to have whomever we wanted. But we must live with our choice. We may biblically protest, criticize, engage, applaud, impeach, march against, yell at, and satirize our leaders. But let us not invalidate the concept of leadership. That invalidates God and his ordinances.

Here are the other two translations I mentioned so you can compare them to the translation I put together:

The Message:

Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible.

New Living Translation:

Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished.

Types of Theologians

Posted on August 10, 2016

The university founders and leaders in the high middle ages considered Theology to be the “Queen of the Sciences.” They borrowed this phrase from Thomas Aquinas, but they were applying it accurately. A science was defined then as a legitimate study of any subject involving human existence. Because they had not bought into the Enlightenment separation of the physical and spirit realms, they saw any endeavor to understand something as a science.

Theologians were elevated to a high place in those years. They were given places of honor and privilege at universities and every institution had chairs of theology. The oldest of our world’s schools still have chairs of Theology: Oxford, Tubingen, Bologna, Paris, Cambridge, they all recognize the value of theology.

If you vaguely know what theology is, the name is pretty simple: It is the Study of God and all things to do with God. That sounds accessible and simple, doesn’t it?

Theologians are some of the most brilliant and influential people in the history of the world. You know many of their names, but probably didn’t connect them with theology. They became known for starting churches, changing nations, launching quests and ruining the plans of oligarchies. We need the theologians, even if we don’t like them. They challenge us, settle us, ground us, unsettle us, explain us and leave some things unexplained for now.

But there are more than one kind of theologian. There are, in fact, seven different kinds of theologians. For those who love theology, see if you can recognize the value of each of these. At the end, I am going to propose the need for a type of theologian not often seen.

The “Heretic” Theologian

This is the one who looks at it all a new way and says it in a new way. Sometimes this person actually is a heretic in terms of the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Sometimes they are not, but they push the boundaries of what we believe to be true. Martin Luther, Pelagius, Samuel Rutherford, Meister Eckart are all examples of this kind of theologian. In contemporary church circles, we have too many to count. But we need them so when we think we have God all nailed down, these ones push the envelope beyond our comfort zones.

The Systematic Theologian

They lay it down systematically so that generations later, other people can see what was said and believed. Without this theologian our creeds would be a mess, our churches would be struggling to survive and we would have no way of being able to say “here’s where we’ve been”.  Examples of this theologian: Berkhof, Chafer, Calvin, Hodge, Scofield, and Grudem.  They all have a slant to their systematic theologies, but they at least have a system and a coherence. They help us with a launching pad we can shoot off of into other discoveries.

The One-Note Theologian:

They see one point of theology that has either been overlooked or under-appreciated and they keep hitting this note with clarity and vision. Without this theologian, we would count all theology as equally important and miss what Holy Spirit is saying to today’s church. Examples of this person: Finney on Revivals, A. B. Simpson on healing, E. M. Bounds on prayer, Wesley on the Holy Spirit, Warfield on the Millennium, etc. Every generation needs a couple of these. Our generation has spawned several, but we will wait for history to tell us which were most important.

The Academic Theologian:

This theologian takes the works of many and drills down into their works to see the implications, the nuances, the potential pitfalls and the connections between one theologian and another. These theologians see the broader gamut of what has been taught and published and can put all of theology into its categories. Unlike the systematic theologian, they aren’t looking for a system that works together. They are looking for all the varieties of theology that make up the variegated Truth of God. Examples of these: Karl Barth, Carl F.H. Henry, N. T. Wright, Roger Olson, R. C. Sproule. These are the classic theologians we are used to in university circles. Often, these are the theologians everyone reads. I have many Calvinist friends who read Sproule but have never read Calvin. That is often the way.

The Pastoral Theologian:

They are always looking at how theology can be explained simply and practically to those who need to know. They care as much about the non-academic as the academic. They do not want anyone to go away shaking their heads in confusion. They will use a parable instead of a treatise, a story instead of attributions. They are just as solid as any of the other theologians, but they are looking to communicate truth in a way that even the least-educated person will understand. We are so thankful for theologians such as Aimee Semple McPherson, G. Campbell Morgan, William Lane, Greg Boyd, Crysostom, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jeanne Guyon, John Piper, George Whitfield, Kay Arthur, the Apostle Paul, etc. They explain the deepest concepts in the simplest terms and we get it.

The Watchman Theologian:

These recognize there will always be those who carry their own little heresies too far, seeking to devour followers. These theologians are the “watchmen on the wall” that the prophets tell us about. They guard the orthodoxy of the faith so that any “new” revelations will have to pass the test of scrutiny. The danger of being this kind of theologian, is you run the risk of becoming a permanent skeptic. But some have done it successfully. Walter Martin, Ravi Zacharias, Donald Barnhouse, and Hank Hannegraaf are a few people who do this today. Of course, the Inquisition was full of them as well. This is a potentially dangerous group of theologians, but necessary at one level.

The Practical Theologian:

This theologian cannot stand to see Academia take charge of truth. They do not consider theology to be worth talking about unless it can be lived in the real world. They defend the widow and the orphan, feed the hungry, defend the downtrodden, fast to loosen the chains, preach only to change an evil world, and they study the Bible only to live it. Today’s church is seeing more and more of these. They are tired of people who just study the Word and not do it. Shane Claiborne, David Platt, Rachel Held Evans, James Dobson, Oral Roberts, Bill Johnson, Mother Teresa, Jim Cymbala and many others are in this group. They tend to be the most popular of the theologians and many times are not even thought of as theologians since they don’t really care for sitting around discussing theology for hours. They prefer to just get ‘er done.

But there is one more theologian needed in this group. In today’s church, this person is needed more than ever, because there are so many theologians around and all are speaking their own language.

I refer to…

The Bridge-Builder Theologian:

I believe what is missing in this collection of wise people is the theologian that knows how to talk the language of all these theologians. They are the rarest of theological breeds. They help each of these different groups talk to one another and share what they have learned with the rest in a way in which it will be understood. There are a few of these, and even though few people will agree with what they personally believe, their job is not to develop theology, but help each of these different types of theologians to understand each other. They have the true gift of interpretation. They explain what the others are saying in a way we get it. They may go too far and start advocating for these, but they know how to get the point of someone else across well. In the lingo of Malcolm Gladwell, these are the Information Maven Connectors. Examples of these:  Donald Carson, Rick Joyner, Francis Chan, Jack Hayford, Lisa and John Bevere, Donald Miller, George Otis Jr., Leonard Sweet, Rick Warren, and Brian McLaren. They don’t develop new theology, they just explain it so we can understand. May their tribe increase.

God’s Judgment and Circumstances

Posted on August 18, 2015

Eugene Villines of Greeley, Colorado was driving home from his job at a local Army National Guard post on his motorcycle. That’s when he was hit by lightning. Not only that, but it sent his bike into an uncontrolled skid and he crashed. Here is a video of his interview.


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Villines has been interviewed many times and in one of those interviews he claims that God saved him and protected him in this bizarre accident. I found that statement curious, since it seems to ignore one other fact here.

It is very rare to get hit by lightning when you’re driving a motorcycle. There are people who might even say that getting hit by lightning “out of the blue” is more reminiscent of God’s judgment than God’s salvation. So which part involved God–the lightning or the protection in the skid?

As we continue to look at the Judgment of God, we move into decidedly New Testament territory when we seek to interpret events and circumstances. Which crises are God’s judgment? Are any of them the judgment of God? You may want to review what we’ve said so far about judgment in order to follow the conclusion that Jesus will help us come to this time.

In Luke 13, we read this curious teaching from Jesus:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Historically, we know nothing about either of these two incidents. But that really doesn’t matter, since these two types of disasters are as common in our world today as they were in Jesus’ day. The Galileans suffered at the hands of a vindictive local governor named Pilate. Pilate obviously killed some of them and then, to emphasize his authority over them, mixed their blood with their religious sacrifices. This is yet another example of man’s inhumanity to man.

The second type of disaster seems less unjust, but no less confusing. 18 people are killed when a tower near the town of Siloam fell on them. This represents the many, many accidents that happen in our world. Whether the accident is part of nature (such as the man hit by lightning) or man-made (such as the tower) it is the same thing.

Jesus who is God come to earth, asks them the most poignant question: Were these Galileans worse sinners because they suffered this way? That is, he is asking the crowd if they believed these guys were getting what was coming to them. This is not much different from the base belief associated with the Hindu idea of Karma: That all of the bad things that happen to us are payback for bad things we have done. The big difference between the Hindu idea of payback and the Hebrew idea of it is when the sin happened. The Jews felt we get payback for things we have just done and the Hindus believe the sin happened in a past life.

But Jesus draws a different conclusion. He answers the question he asks with a resounding “No!”

No man’s sin caused these things to happen to them. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Except for situations we looked at in the last article–where God intervened to judge quickly and decisively–it is wrong to try and ascribe God’s judgment to disaster of any kind. Why?

These disasters were not caused by the sin of the victims. We cannot tell the good from the bad by how well their lives go. We should not even bring the concept of judgment into any discussion on the meaning of a disaster. But then he adds another thought: “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” In this teaching, Jesus brings us higher up and further in to the full teaching on judgment. First, he uses the future tense when he speaks of this moment of perishing. All who will not repent now will perish later.

Judgment is not now. Judgment is later. Therefore, the events of today, the disasters that seem to assail us left and right, are not judgment at all. So what are they?

They are occasions for all of us to see the relative insecurity of this life. They are consequences that befall a world where every person only wants their own way. Disasters sometimes are the result of very human things like greed, lust, envy, control, regret, jealousy, hatred and selfishness.

Take the news this week. Someone blew up a town square in Thailand, killing 18. Is that the judgment of God? No, it cannot be. it is the decision of a person who wanted to kill people to make a point. There are squirrels in Yosemite National Park with the Plague. Is this the judgment of God? People used to say the Black Plague was God’s purging of evil. That is, until it happened in their towns. But then, they also thought it was caused by rats. So they burned the rats, not realizing it was spread by the fleas on the rats. When the rats burned, the fleas jumped to humans and spread the disease faster.

Are these things the judgment of God? Circumstances may be a consequence, but they are not the judgment of God. This is not the age for God’s judgment; that is held over until the future age. As we will see in the next article, all judgment has been given over to Jesus. And because of that, this world in which we live will face only one judgment in this life: the consequences of the evil we do to each other and the effects our evils have had on this planet.

In our first article, I asked whether God would judge the nation for gay marriage, abortion and immoral living. My answer is simple: Eventually, yes. Right now, no. There is a judgment on sin, but it is one that is brought by the consequences of our sins as a nation. Take abortion as an example. We callously disregarded the value of an unborn life. We redefined abortion as disposing of a “fetus”. Even though evidence is overwhelming that an unborn child has all of the functions we associate with a living being, our nation has willfully disregarded that evidence.

Let’s look at another example. Starting in the 1950s, divorce became way more common than it ever was before in American history. The effect of this is that a third of all children were raised with parents that were no longer together in the same household. Single-parent households account for a much higher percentage of problems for children than dual-parent households.

What is the consequence of rising rates of abortion and divorce? We gave birth to several generations who no longer want to get married and who are not really interested in having babies. We have a negative birth rate in our country.

Russia and China are even worse. Both of those countries have higher rates of divorce and abortion, and they continue to see rapidly dropping marriage and birth rates. (Yes, I know China has a policy where each couple can only have one child. But they are actually thinking of ending that policy because they have a rapidly aging population). In addition, China has a curious problem. Because they allowed abortion on demand, most couples who could only have one child wanted a boy. When these couples found out through ultrasound they were having a girl, they aborted those babies. Under the age of 35 in China, 70% of this population are male. Do you realize what that has done? Where are the brides for these men? Do you know what happens to a culture with this kind of gender unbalance? Violence grows at a rapid pace.

Violence, lack of children, absence of marriage. These are the judgments against abortion and divorce in China. But God has nothing to do with those judgments. We bring them on ourselves. The same could be said for dramatic changes in the climate of the planet, rising cancer rates and the preponderance of new diseases and drug-resistant infections. We brought these things on ourselves.

So what will the Judgment of God look like? In the next article, we will listen as Jesus lays out the full expanse of God’s plan of Judgment.

 

Quick Divine Judgment–What it Means and What it Doesn’t

Posted on August 11, 2015

Uzzah was a nice guy. Everyone said so. Whenever someone needed to move, Uzzah got his 3/4 ton donkey and helped out. He was just one of those guys who was always looking for a way to be supportive and useful.

So when his dad asked if he and his brother would help move the contents of the big box that had been left in their back yard, he didn’t think anything of it. He had been willing even to help lift it onto the big cart they would be using to haul it to Jerusalem, but his dad had a worried look on his face and told him not to touch it. That day, a bunch of Levites showed up to load it onto Uzzah’s cart. Uzzah had a beer while he watched the other guys work. He had no trouble taking a break when there was nothing to do.

Dad told him to walk beside the cart  and make sure the oxen didn’t take off into the fields. Right before they left, Dad explained that this was the Ark of the Covenant, one of the most important items in Israel’s history. Uzzah heard the words, but they meant nothing to him. He just liked to help.

About 4 miles up the road, one of the oxen slipped on a smooth rock and stumbled. Uzzah was walking by one side of the cart and saw the Ark begin to slip off the side. He quickly reached out to steady it.

The second his skin touched the Ark, he was dead. He will forever live as the poster-boy for the Quick Judgment of God.

In the last article, we saw that God is slow to anger and abounding in loving kindness. Except when He isn’t. There are some notable examples of God very quickly enacting Judgment. Let me mention just a couple:

  • In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of land and brought it to the care of the Apostles. They told Peter they sold the land for a lot less than they actually did and kept back some of the money for themselves. As soon as Ananias lied to Peter about the amount of money, he dropped over dead. When his wife came in later, Peter asked her the same question and she concurred with her husband’s account. She too died immediately.
  • A sorcerer named Elymas or Bar-Jesus opposed the Apostle Paul when he was preaching. He immediately became blind until Paul touched him and prayed for him.
  • King Herod stood up to give a speech one day. The crowds were trying to butter him up for a favor they were going to ask, so they kept calling him a “god”. He didn’t refute this. Immediately, the book of Acts tells us, he dropped over dead because worms ate his insides.
  • The ten plagues that God struck Egypt with came in rapid succession. However, in this case, God gave lots of warning and even took away the plagues when Pharoah begged him to.
  • In 2 Kings 2, Elisha the Prophet is walking up to Jerusalem when a bunch of street kids starting taunting him about his bald head. He curses them in the name of the Lord. Immediately two bears rush out of the woods and mangle 42 of them.

There are other instances of this, but these suffice to make the point. Sometimes, the God of the Bible does enact judgment quickly. There are several things to note about all these scenes.

1. For the most part, when God enacts quick judgment, people die. .

2. When God judges quickly, he rarely uses a human intermediary for the judgment.

3. Quick Judgments never get repeated in the same way. This is a crucial point I want to explore. It will tell us a lot about what quick judgments mean.

Let’s go back to Uzzah. Nowhere in the story do we see the heart condition of Uzzah. He was just this guy. The Ark of the Covenant was a visible reminder of the sublime relationship between Israel and Jehovah God. 20 years earlier, the Philistines captured the Ark, and kept in their land. But the presence of the ark caused rats and cancerous tumors for the people living where the Ark was. So they begged Israel to take the Ark back. Israel took it back but no one wanted it. They were all afraid. So the leaders of Israel asked Uzzah’s father (or clan leader) to care for it at Kiriath-Jearim. While it was there for 20 years, God richly blessed that town. King David noticed this blessing and thought to himself, “I should bring the Ark back to Jerusalem, the center of the Kingdom”. So he arranged for some Levites to bring it back. According to the Law of Moses, only a Levite could work with the Ark.

Uzzah was not a Levite. As I speculated above, he was there to help out with the oxen. So why did he die?

As far as I can tell, it was because he touched the Ark which was against the Law. If you also think this was a pretty harsh punishment for such a small infraction, join the team with me. In fact, it so presents a different view of Jehovah from the rest of the Bible, that many people have doubted whether this story is true. But consider a few points.

First, this is not about Uzzah. This is about the Ark. The Ark was the resident symbol of God’s abiding presence with the nation of Israel, a covenant people. They had not taken God seriously for many years. This journey of the Ark from Kiriath-Jearim to Jerusalem is a significant one. It marks a moment when the covenant people were returning back to God.

Significant moments are key to rapid judgment. Ananias and Sapphira were trying to lie to the Holy Spirit at a moment when the church was in its infancy. If they had achieved their deception, people would have heard about it and a general cynicism about the Holy Spirit would have grown rapidly. In the case of Elymas, Paul was bringing the Gospel to a new place. They arrived on Cyprus and the proconsul had asked to speak to Paul. The church in Cyprus was about to be born. And Elymas, a sorcerer stood in its way.

Believe it or not, God doesn’t work miracles or heal or intervene in human endeavors simply because He loves us. God loves us even when he doesn’t heal us. He loves us even if we suffer. No, God intervenes with His Power when it best suits the purposes He has in history. And that doesn’t happen as often as you think.

The same principle applies with Quick Judgment. When God acts quickly it is because it is a crucial moment in history. There are malevolent spirits in this universe. They oppose the work of God and often inspire people to do so. When this power encounter happens, often God needs to intervene to protect His work in this world.

Ed Silvoso, in his book “That None Should Perish”  tells of a moment in Argentina’s history that underscores this principle. He and several prayer warriors were praying over the city of La Resistencia, a hotbed of witchcraft and the occult. They could not figure out how to break the power of the enemy in that town. So, instead of fighting the enemy, they began to pray for church leaders, that God would bring unity among them. They also prayed that God himself would intervene and break the power of the occult in that town.

God moved quickly. And as often happens, it was deadly.

The news spread fast. A woman known as the high priestess of a particular occult group in town had burst into flames in her bedroom and was consumed in seconds. No other part of the house was burned. This shook the witchcraft leaders to their core. Great fear seized everyone. This is similar to what happened after Uzzah, Ananias and Sapphira and Herod all died. God had made his point. La Resistencia is now a great place of God’s work.

With Rapid Judgment, God is usually making a point, not stamping out a pattern.

During the Scottish Reformation, several people who opposed the work of God died suddenly. This was also true in Burma during the early 1800s. We could cite case after case from Church History of instances where God did intervene with a miracle–even a miracle of judgment–and the work of God went forward.

I instruct people however, never to pray this way. This is not our concern. The most we can ask God is to “take care of this however you want to.” I know people who pray God will judge others and rain down plagues upon them. Don’t pray that way; this is Witchcraft praying. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his followers to pray blessings on those who oppose them. But if God wants to judge them quickly, that is God’s job.

There is one other thing to notice. Pharaoh and Herod. Both of them died suddenly and at the hand of God. In neither case did it really help the cause of God’s Kingdom. Both of them could have gone on living and it wouldn’t have affected God’s plan.

Paul, in Romans 9, tells us that God had been patient with Pharaoh for a long time. He allowed Pharaoh to live because it suited God’s purposes. When that purpose was done, Pharaoh was dead. We all need to remember that we still live because God allows it. God holds the power of Life and Death in His hands.

I think we can conclude the same thing about Herod. God had enough of that dastardly guy. Allowing himself to be deified by the crowd was one step too far. God may be slow to anger and abounding in loving kindness, but there is a moment when God has had enough.

Remember when your mother used to say “I have had enough of this”. When my mom said it, I cleared out fast.

You don’t want to hear God say it.

Why is Judgment Delayed?

Posted on August 4, 2015

My friend asked if he could meet with me to do a Bible study. He had been a leader in our church community for several years. I wanted to honor him even though I struggled with the way he was living his life at that moment. He had become violent with his wife and had gone back to some old ways; drinking and smoking pot among them.

That day, he wanted to study Psalm 73 together with me. At the time, I had only a passing acquaintance with that particular psalm, so I quickly read it through before he came to see me.  The first verses started out well and were very encouraging:

Surely God is good to Israel,
    to those who are pure in heart.

But then the meditations of the psalmist get worse from there. In verses 2-12 the psalm takes a dark turn.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
    I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
    when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

They have no struggles;
    their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens;
    they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
    they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
    their evil imaginations have no limits.
They scoff, and speak with malice;
    with arrogance they threaten oppression.
Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
    and their tongues take possession of the earth.
10 Therefore their people turn to them
    and drink up waters in abundance.
11 They say, “How would God know?
    Does the Most High know anything?”

12 This is what the wicked are like—
    always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

My friend pointed out verse 11 to me. “God doesn’t punish sin apparently. I know some pretty raunchy people who are never judged, who never have to face the consequences of what they’ve done. I spent years trying to live right and my life has gone down the toilet over and over again. I finally decided to change my tune.” I looked at him curiously. His facial expression told me he really meant these words.

Together, we read verses 13 and 14.

Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.

He continued to tell me that this is the reality of those who serve God. If God isn’t going to judge sins immediately, then there is no point being righteous. He then spent several minutes explaining how he would do things if he was God. He likened it to his own children. “The longer I wait to discipline my children when they make a mistake, the less effective my punishment is” he claimed. At this point in our bible study, he informed me he was planning on living any way he wanted to and asked me not to be concerned for him. He no longer believed in God’s judgment for sin. He believed that God was the equivalent of a tottering old man who can’t accomplish anything of purpose in life.

I didn’t talk to my friend for 8 years. The next time I spoke to him, he had a totally different interpretation of Psalm 73. But we’ll get to that at the end of the article.

The writer of Psalm 73 is certainly correct. It does seem that God is slow in enacting judgment. This has been the experience of so many people, starting with Adam and Eve and continuing to the present day. Not only that, but the Bible tells us in many places that God is deliberate in sparing humans from immediate judgment for transgressions.

In hundreds of places in the Bible, we see a variation on this theme. In the Old Testament especially, we are told that God is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in loving kindness”. The words “loving kindness” can also be translated “mercy” or “covenant love”. They are the translation of the Hebrew word “chesed” which speaks of the obligation someone has when they enter into a covenant with another person.

Chesed is the love that a father has for a child, a wife has for a husband, Christ has for his church, and the Creator has for His creation. It is not based primarily on reactionary emotion. Chesed is a decision to do the gracious and compassionate thing for the object of our chesed.

God’s nature is a compassionate nature. God is not eager to judge and punish. We are told that Jesus is the fullness of God in bodily form. When Jesus says “Father, forgive them” this was the heart of the Father as well. But why is this the case? Since God is a righteous judge, why does he wait so long to punish and bring judgment?

I think the Bible provides us with three clear answers for why God delays judgment, sometimes for generations.

1.  God Desires Full Repentance:  In 2 Peter 3:9 we read

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” 

This was what my friend struggled with. He couldn’t see how a God of justice would wait to reward or punish based on a person’s actions. Why wait? That just confuses the issue.

But Peter tells us that God is not really slow at all. God always has the long view of everything. God is like a good coach of a sporting team. Even if things are not going well at the beginning, He does not panic and go outside of his plan. This is often why we see disasters, wars, famine, earthquakes and we see God allowing them. All of these things can happen and yet have nothing to do with judgment.

God’s purpose in delaying is that it gives people a chance to change their minds. The word “repentance” is the Greek word “metanoia” which means to change one’s mind. Human beings need time to change the mind. We are stubborn, pig-headed and opinionated. We do what we want, when we want. And God allows this. If God were to bring immediate judgment for sin, there would be no repentance. All we would know is the fear of judgment. We would never change our minds. Rather, we would be looking over our shoulder for God in the same manner as we look for police officers on the freeway when we want to speed.

I remember the story of the little girl in the classroom. She had the wiggles and didn’t want to sit down. The teacher got more and more upset that she wouldn’t take her seat. Finally, she threatened her with a detention if she didn’t take her seat. So the girl sat down. 30 seconds later she raised her hand. The teacher gave her permission to speak. “Teacher, I may be sitting down on the outside, but inside me I’m standing straight up.”

God could exert his power and force us to do what is right. But our hearts would not be changed. And God values the change of heart before he values the change in behavior. We need to change our minds in order for the fullness of repentance to take place. This means God has to hold back his full judgment so we can see how foolish our actions are. God still allows consequences of our actions, but he delays his punishment.

2. God’s Character Demands Patience in Judgment:  The elements of God’s character do not change. He is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).  As God reveals aspects of his character, it is not possible for God to lay them aside. They must be integrated with every other aspect of his character.

In Joel 2:13, we read:

Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
    and he relents from sending calamity.

Joel is a book all about God’s judgment through a natural disaster. Swarms of locusts have ravaged the land of Israel and left no crops and no food anywhere. Joel pictures the locusts as the army of God swooping down to devour and judge. That is why it is curious that we read verse 13. God is not sometimes gracious and compassionate. He always is. God never takes delight in punishing and bringing judgment. He never does. He will do so reluctantly, but he delays it as long as possible. This underscores the big difference between judgment and consequences. If a person gets drunk continually, they will have problems with their liver and may die because of it. Those are not actions of judgment. They are simply what we have coming to us for our actions. But God’s judgment is a punishment that goes beyond the consequences. As we saw in the last article, this is the drought brought about by Saul killing some Gibeonites. Judgment is the death of all the first-born in Egypt. Judgment is Jehioachin being taken into captivity by Babylon even though his father and grandfather were much more evil.

However, Joel shows us the true nature of God: “He relents from sending calamity”. Even while the judgment is happening, God’s heart is not in it. He would rather not bring punishment. The second a person repents, God will work on their behalf.

Later in chapter two of Joel, it states:

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—
    the great locust and the young locust,
    the other locusts and the locust swarm—
my great army that I sent among you.
26 You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
    and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.
27 Then you will know that I am in Israel,
    that I am the Lord your God,
    and that there is no other;
never again will my people be shamed.

There are many who assume that Judgment is the highest priority on God’s heart. But this is not the biblical record. God will judge because He cannot overlook anything. But he would rather forgive. It is his nature to do so.

3. God’s Judgment Requires Warnings:  There is a third reason God delays his judgment. He wants to make room for his servants to announce that people need to change their ways. Sometimes, this takes a number of generations before this can take place. And it isn’t always prophets that do the preaching. The ending of slavery meant a brave president had to be used by God. In England, William Wilberforce was God’s mouthpiece. Mother Teresa got more changed in Mumbai than most preachers have ever accomplished.

Samuel Rutherford preached one time in Edinburgh and was escorted out of the city by the order of the Catholic Cardinal. As he was leaving, he warned them: “This action to remove me will only serve to bring disaster on this city. When this happens, invite me back to preach and all will be well.” When Rutherford left the city, the Bubonic Plague, which had not been seen for a hundred years in Scotland, struck the city. Within weeks, they invited Rutherford back to preach.

I think of the reluctant prophet Jonah. God wanted him to go and preach in the city of Nineveh, the home of one of history’s most notorious and evil armies. They did unspeakable things to their victims, including Jonah’s people. Jonah didn’t want to preach in Nineveh. Why?

Because he knew God was gracious and compassionate and would forgive the people of Nineveh if he preached. Which is exactly why Jonah was being sent. Which is why Jonah ran the other direction and had to be brought back by a fishy water taxi. When Jonah announced that God would judge the city of Nineveh in 40 days, all the people changed their minds and changed their ways. They even put sackcloth and ashes on the cattle.

And Jonah was angry about this. In Jonah 4, the prophet accuses God:

Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah wanted God to judge the people of Nineveh. He didn’t care if innocent children and the mentally handicapped faced the same retribution. He wanted them wiped off the face of the earth. And God didn’t do it immediately. He sent Jonah to preach so they could change their ways; and they did.

God left you and I on this earth to warn people about the coming judgment, not to tell them it is happening now. If we’re being sent to preach, it is likely that judgment hasn’t happened yet. At least not the kind of judgment that God is part of.

8 years later, my friend returned to me. He had just got out of jail and asked if he could meet with me. In the first half hour we met, he explained how his life had deteriorated. He explained why alcoholism and violence had brought about. It was a sad story and I wept in hearing it. He had been my friend. But at the end of his story of decay, he told me God had him read Psalm 73 again. He told me he wished he had read further in the text. Here’s what he pointed out:

When I tried to understand all this,
    it troubled me deeply
17 till I entered the sanctuary of God;
    then I understood their final destiny.

18 Surely you place them on slippery ground;
    you cast them down to ruin.
19 How suddenly are they destroyed,
    completely swept away by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes;
    when you arise, Lord,
    you will despise them as fantasies.

21 When my heart was grieved
    and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and ignorant;
    I was a brute beast before you.

23 Yet I am always with you;
    you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

The psalmist realized the only way to understand the righteous and the wicked is to take the long view. God will never forget good works or bad works. And God is slow to anger because this is his purpose and his nature. The key is to do what is right and to come into relationship with God continually. That day, my friend came back to the Lord and left behind his sin. He has never been sorry he did.

So, when you consider that God doesn’t judge right away, thank Him that judgment is not his highest priority.

But sometimes, judgment is right around the corner; when we least expect it. The next article, I will lay out God’s plan for us when judgment does come down.

Is God About To Judge America? (Part 2)

Posted on July 23, 2015

November 1, 1755 was a day so many people were looking forward to in the City of Lisbon, Portugal. It was All-Saints Day in the Catholic calendar, and as such, was a day of feasting, celebrations and a parade.

But it was going to be the worst day in that city’s history. Some believe it was the turning point in modern history.

At 9:30 a.m., buildings began to shake, the water in the harbor began to recede out to sea, streets collapsed and heaved, and half of the city’s churches literally disappeared. As the next few minutes collided, the shaking got more intense and people began to die by the thousands. The receding harbor would be re-filled in a half hour by the largest Tsunami to ever hit a European city. In the end, when all the carnage was totaled, 60,000 people were dead.

1755 marked a time when the Enlightenment was nearing its first height of popularity. People were walking away from God into deism, humanism and atheism. At first, theologians rose up and declared that the Lisbon Earthquake was the judgment of God against the teachings of the Enlightenment. Their voices cried out for Europe to repent of leaving God.

But there was a problem with this theory. When Lisbon’s city’s planners went through the rubble to determine which buildings had been destroyed and which had been spared, they came upon a curious truth. Every single church in the city had been shaken to rubble, and almost every brothel and drinking establishment had been spared.

People then began to question: How can this qualify as the Judgment of God if all the churches were annihilated? This, of course, became further fuel for Enlightenment fires. Non-theists mocked Christian scholars. Voltaire, long a believer in God and champion against the inroads of the New Thought proponents, finally gave up and declared that he was an agnostic.

There had been a judgment all right, but perhaps it was not the Judgment of God.

I believe the problem with the pronouncements of the theologians was their quickness to analyze. As I am going to show in a moment from a look at the beginnings of mankind’s history, it is always a bad idea to jump too quickly to announce Judgment. Judgment is a slow formula, arrived at through patience and decided by careful deliberation. This is true of human courts and perhaps even more so in God’s court.

The American Church in recent years has been inundated with outliers who find it delightful to cry “judgment” every time there is a disaster. From Westboro Baptist Church proclaiming God’s judgment at military funerals, to Pat Robertson calling for repentance after a hurricane. From Oral Roberts saying that AIDS was a judgment against homosexuality to a Los Angeles preacher claiming that Rick Warren’s son’s suicide was proof God was judging Saddleback Church because they had grown too big.

What is the problem with these knee-jerk pronouncements? They aren’t biblical for one. And they misconstrue the character of God for another.

In Genesis chapter three, the Bible recounts how sin entered this world. God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Satan, disguised as a serpent, tricked Eve into trying out the fruit. Adam, who was not deceived, watched to see what would happen. God had told him if they ate the fruit they would die. Adam wanted to see if his wife would live or die by her action. He allowed her to be the world’s first food-taster.

In this study on the world’s first sin, we see the Principle of Delayed Consequences. In order to understand this principle, notice the following details from the story:

  1. Adam is fooled by noticing Eve didn’t die. God never said they would die right away. Until that moment, they were going to be living forever. When they ate the fruit, death came into the world. But because Eve did not die right away, Adam concluded the fruit was safe. He didn’t realize that the consequences for our actions are not always swift and immediate.
  2. Adam and Eve hid from God because they expected immediate Judgment. Though God would explain the consequences of their sin, God did not judge them right away. And, in running away from God, they put a barrier between themselves and God. This would later become the pattern for mankind. We don’t seek the God we are afraid of.
  3. Death did not happen for a long time. Adam and Eve lived for almost 1,000 years. This is a longer time than anyone would have expected God’s judgment to be delayed.
  4. Both the physical and spirit realms are changed because of their actions. Death enters the world. The plants change their DNA. The animals are in hostility. Their bodies change and are no longer as healthy as they were. But, the biggest change is in the spirit realm. They are cut off from the tree of Life and from the direct presence of God. Since God is spirit (John 4:24), they, as spirit beings, do not have the complete access to God they once enjoyed. Both realms are changed irrevocably because of sin. The first part of judgment is always having to face the direct consequences of our actions.
  5. God makes promises even in the midst of explaining consequences. As we will see in later articles in this series, God almost always shows what can happen as God works to correct the mistakes we make. In this Genesis 3 story, Eve will give birth to a line of men from which will come the Savior. Adam will work the soil and through hard work will achieve great things. The devil will be destroyed by Eve’s offspring. Adam and Eve will have conflict, but they will also have God to help them with the conflict.

 

With all the talk about God’s judgment, there is so little discussion on the Principle of Delayed Consequences. There are so many examples of these an entire book could be written about biblical examples where judgment was meted out slowly. But let no one be deluded into thinking that some sins have no consequences.

All sin has a consequence to it. Some of them are just more subtle than others. And this is especially true when there is a huge delay.

In 2 Samuel chapter 21 we see a perfect example of this. Israel had been inundated by famine for several years. King David sends the prophet to ask God why this is happening. I imagine David, like most people of his day, believed the cause was recent and immediate.

He could not have been prepared for the answer God gave him. “It is because Saul killed the Gibeonites”. What? Who in the heck are the Gibeonites?

I’m not surprised if you don’t know. They only show up in one small scene in the book of Joshua. When Joshua’s forces had defeated Jericho and then the little town of Ai, the people of Gibeon knew they were next. So, they pretended to be from a far-away country, put dust on their faces and told the Israelites that they had come from a long distance. They begged Joshua to allow them to be the slaves of the Jews. Without checking with God, Joshua made a vow to them.

That’s when they discovered this group of people had pulled a fast one on them. They wanted to kill the Gibeonites, but God takes a dim view toward breaking vows. So God made the people of Israel take in the Gibeonites as servants. They served the leaders of the nation for several centuries.

We don’t know when it happened. We don’t know why it happened. But 2 Samuel 21 tells us that when Saul was king before David, he had a number of Gibeonites killed. It never says what they did wrong; in all likelihood he killed them because they were Gibeonites. In true Saul-like fashion, he probably thought he was cleaning up one of God’s messes. He liked to do that.

David asked God if this is why there was famine in the land. God told him it was indeed the reason. Broken vows have huge results in the spirit realm. The enemy of our souls loves to torture our lives and bring ruin when we do this. (Note: This should be a sobering thought as we realize how many treaties the American government has broken with its native peoples).

But this is many years after Saul did the killing. How can there be judgment now? This is the Principle of Delayed Judgment at work. You can be lulled into thinking you don’t have to make amends or change your ways because there doesn’t seem to be any consequences right away. Saul was already dead. David was nearing the end of his reign. We don’t know why the judgment had this timing, but it highlights the big problem with trying to discern judgment. We don’t know which consequence goes with which sin sometimes.

The same problem can be seen when people do the right thing and don’t see rewards right away. In Jeremiah 44:16-19 we read:

16 “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! 17 We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. 18 But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.”

19 The women added, “When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were making cakes impressed with her image and pouring out drink offerings to her?”

This is when the Israelites escaped to Egypt to avoid being taken into Babylonian Captivity. Jeremiah had been telling them to stop sinning and get their lives together. They had been worshiping other gods and God almighty told them to stop. The logic in their answer is intriguing. They want Jeremiah to know a simple formula they figured out:

  1. When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven, we had everything we wanted.
  2.  When we stopped, everything went wrong.

 

Therefore, by that formula, they were going to keep burning incense to the Queen of Heaven. These are people who believe that immediate reward and punishment are the way to tell if you’re doing right or wrong.

This is just as dangerous a formula to use when examining disasters like the Lisbon Earthquake or AIDS or Tsunamis or even the death of a loved one. The enemy to our souls loves to whisper in our ear that this is judgment for our bad actions. But he is a liar and seeks to deceive us into burying ourselves deeper in sin.

So why is Judgment delayed? That is the subject of the next article.

 

Is America About to Be Judged? (Part 1)

Posted on July 15, 2015

I admit it: I gave this a sensational title, but not for the obvious reasons. I didn’t do it to attract more readers or to present a unique and controversial approach to our current emotional state as a nation.

I ask the question to introduce the concept of God’s judgment and how we can wrestle with the implications of it. I don’t think many people know what the word “judgment” means and how God intends to apply it. (And yes, I can hear the words of Inigo Montoya from Princess Bride saying “I don’t think that word means what you think it means”).

As is always helpful, allow me to present my personal beliefs about God’s Judgment before delving into my question:

  1. I believe God is a righteous judge 
  2. I believe God will judge every man for the good and evil each has done
  3. I believe the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ provides enough grace to eliminate Judgment for anyone who believes in him and entrusts themselves to His mercy.

 

With those theological underpinnings, I want to present the real difficulties behind answering the above question. To do that, let me show you an important meme that came out right after the Supreme Court ruling legalizing Gay marriage.

I believe the composer of this meme is addressing a common theme in the past few decades: as America legalizes and normalizes actions which most conservative Christians consider sinful and unbiblical –abortion and gay marriage–we should expect to see God judge us as a nation. I am not exaggerating when I say I have read or heard that sentiment expressed several hundred times in the past few months.

The above meme takes a clever and poignant approach to questioning this concept. The writer notes that many Christians believe we are about to be judged for abortion and gay marriage; but apparently America was not judged for attempted genocide against native Americans, horrific slavery, rampant selfishness and greed and many other atrocities. Without asking the question, with sly sarcasm, the writer is suggesting that if those actions did not provoke God’s judgment, then recent activity won’t either.

I realize that both sides of this particular debate may have misunderstood how judgment works. Because of this, both sides are partially wrong in their conclusions. Abortion and Gay Marriage are not going to bring God’s Judgment the way people think they will. But neither did America escape judgment for all the other sins we committed.

 

First, let’s determine what the word “judgment” means. Most people who hear the word think it means to enact punishment upon someone for their actions.  When we think of “judgment,” our minds might picture the words of  the civil war hymn:

“My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, He is trampling out the vintage where his Grapes of Wrath are stored.”

But is that what the word Judgment means? Partially. To determine what the biblical word judgment implies we should look to the original idea behind the Hebrew and Greek words.

Hebrew: Mishphat. There are three different Hebrew words for judgment. But this is by far the most common one. And the others have a similar meaning. Mishphat refers to the process of deciding the merits of a case. The final verdict is not as critical as the process. It is what the judge does as he seeks to decide the truth of a matter to render the verdict.

Greek: Krina.  This word, and all its variations, means almost exactly the same as the Hebrew word. It is the word that Jesus uses when he says “Judge not or you will be judged”. A person who spends most of their days trying to decide what everyone else is doing wrong will find the rest of the world does that back to them. It is a “live by the sword, die by the sword” idea.  Krina almost always focuses on the process of determining blame or fault. To judge someone is to examine their life to determine if they are guilty or innocent.

Here is the main point.  The word is almost always followed by a proclamation of the findings of the judge. The period of judgment is not over until the judge both declares the verdict and announces the consequences. Judgment thus involves three stages:

  1. Presentation of the facts of the case.
  2. Declaration of the verdict.
  3. Carrying out of the sentence.

 

The Christians of the modern era perhaps believe God has finished the Judgment process–or at least the first two stages. Based on that belief, one could say that the execution of judgment is about to begin.

Here is how it sounds among Evangelicals. The bible is clear about abortion and homosexuality. And since the Bible tells us that abortion and homosexuality are always wrong, anyone who admits to doing either is already convicted on the facts. The declaration of the verdict has already been made, and we are just waiting for the carrying out of the sentence.

But there are serious problems with this. Let’s use abortion as an example.

First, does this mean that if a nation has any abortions that nation is about to be sentenced to retribution? How many abortions would result in Judgment? Or do the leaders of the nation have to endorse an act for the sentence to be carried out? And can we say that Roe v. Wade represented the wishes of this nation’s leaders at the time, or the general population? Or are the decisions of nine people–the Supreme Court–enough to trigger an attack from God? Are all nations going to be judged the same for their practice of abortion?

The answers are not easily forthcoming. And what if the abortion rates start to fall dramatically; does that mean that God will partially commute the sentence? 

I am not going to suggest answers to those questions in this first article. But the questions show that the presentation of the “facts” of the case may not be done yet. In the case of gay marriage, is it marriage that God will judge or acts of homosexuality? Does it matter what percentage of the population takes part in this? And since the Bible never imagined a nation would legalize gay marriage, can we assume legalizing gay relationships and calling it marriage is worse than the acts of homosexuality in God’s eyes.

These are also questions that have to be answered. I am not going to attempt those answers here.

But let’s assume that God has already decided that abortion and homosexuality in America are acts of guilt and must be punished. There are some huge questions to ask. Among them are these:

  • What will that punishment look like?
  • When will it happen? How long does God delay?
  • Have previous national sins been declared sinful? If they were, did God execute his judgment on them already? If he did not, why?
  • What other current sinful acts will God also declare worthy of punishment? Adultery, divorce, greed, taking advantage of developing countries, enslavement of youth for sex, not paying of tithes, violence against children, sexual abuse, prescription drug abuse, alcoholism (a right guaranteed by the 21st amendment), unwillingness to care for homeless, mentally handicapped, injured soldiers, ignoring the needs of soldiers with PTSD….on and on.
  • How long will the punishment last? Is there a chance for reprieve?
  • If there are 50 righteous people in a city, will God enact punishment (actually we know the answer to this one. Abraham prayed to God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if there were fifty righteous people. Actually, God was willing to spare that city from destruction if there were ten righteous people).
  • Has judgment already started? Would we know what it looks like if we saw it?

In the remainder of the articles, we will break down the answers to these questions and deal with some of the specifics of both the Old and New Testament teaching about Judgment.

 

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