Friday, 2 November 2018

Bible Study Is a Bit Like Meteorology, but....

Evening news weather forecasts have changed a lot over the years. In my youth, the weatherman told me whether it might rain and the high and low temperature. More recently, however, weather forecasters educate viewers on how they arrive at a given forecast. Many viewers find this highly interesting and pay close attention. My wife, nephew, and brother-in-law, as arm-chair meteorologists, have all learned enough that they first analyze the raw data and satellite radar before reading the actual forecast.

For me, I just want the forecast. When I ask Angie if it is supposed to rain, she’ll take a few minutes to analyze the data. She’ll say, “Well…there’s nothing on the radar, but oh…the forecast says we’ll have rain this afternoon.” And then she tries to figure out why the professional meteorologists forecast rain. In the process, I get a little impatient and tell her, “Just tell me the bottom line: what’s the forecast.”

As important as weather forecasting is, it is not nearly as important studying the Bible. Bible students should learn how to read the Bible for themselves, much like people learn how to forecast weather. While we might well depend entirely on expert meteorologists for the forecast, we should not rely entirely on the expert Bible teacher or preacher. We should all be personally committed to acquiring the skills for reading the Bible for all its worth.

While it is true that a person can get the gist of the Bible without any specialized knowledge at all, Bible students miss a lot if they never bother to acquire specialized Bible study skills. The more reading skills a person acquires, the more the person gets out of the Bible. Many a bad interpretation of a given text arises simply because the reader doesn’t know the cultural context, or the author’s rhetorical devices, or how to see interpretive clues in the words of the biblical text. Impoverished are those who rely solely on the pastor or teacher to interpret the Bible for them.

For this reason, your pastor deems it wise and appropriate to teach principles and skills of biblical interpretation. Some might prefer the pastor to skip those kinds of lessons, especially those lessons that require more critical thinking and patience. We are not, however, dealing with something inconsequential such as weather forecasting; we are dealing with God’s Word, and this calls for special effort in learning how to get the most out of our Bible reading.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Pastor's Page: The Light of the World Is Jesus

Last week, as we reviewed how the four Gospels grappled to explain the person and significance of Jesus, we read John’s assertion that Jesus is co-eternal with God and that he was God (John 1:1). John then supplemented this briefest of explanations of Jesus’s identity through Jesus’s own “I am…” statements:

  • Bread: “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger.” John 6:35
  • Light: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12 
  • Gate: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.” John 10:9
  • Good Shepherd: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.” John 10:11
  • Resurrection and Life: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies.” John 11:25
  • Way, Truth, Life: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” John 14:6
  • True vine: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.” John 15:1 

 Much more might be added, but John chose these seven since the number seven was viewed to convey completeness. It was his way of saying, “Jesus is my all in all.”

Hot on the heels of such a grandiose statement, John makes yet another astonishing assertion about Jesus: Jesus is the light of the world. Light was and remains a common metaphor. The contrast between light and darkness conveys a titanic positive/negative contrast: Good and evil; Knowledge and Ignorance; Hope and Despair; Safety and Danger; Confidence and Fear; and Life and death. In appealing to this common metaphor, John conveys that our relationship with Jesus puts us into one category or the other. We live in darkness until we believe in Jesus who brings us into his light.

At the end of his gospel, John explains that he wrote his book to convince people that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing they may have life in his name (20:31). We moderns may be struck by John’s efforts to explain this Jesus—this Jesus who really was a man, yet is co-eternal with God and who is God, who formed the worlds and called the very elements into existence and into perfect obedience, who exists in heavenly transcendence but condescends to bend his knee to form man from the clay of the earth and to breathe the breath of life into his body. Yes, we moderns struggle to believe all this about Jesus, but those of us who have believed, we have found Jesus to be our all in all. Truly, in him is life, and that life is the light of all mankind (John 1:4).

Friday, 17 August 2018

Pastor's Page: In the Beginning...Jesus

Those first century men and women who personally encountered Jesus in his lifetime, who became his disciples, and experienced the power of his resurrection and his indwelling Spirit, had to struggle mightily to find the words to explain who he really was. He was a man—no doubt about that, but he was more than a man, even more than an extraordinary man. He was more than just a great prophet or rabbi. He was more than an anointed healer, more than a king, more than an apostle sent by God.

Jesus’s identity confounded people all his days. Many scoffed, “He’s just a man from Nazareth.” His followers, however, made great professions of faith. Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of the living God. The Apostle Thomas declared of him, “My Lord and My God.” 
It took some time for Christians to hammer out the doctrine of the Trinity, even though all the elements necessary for Trinitarianism were already in place in the New Testament. For us, we confidently identify Jesus as God the Son, but we come to such a conclusion only in the aftermath of centuries of debates and theologizing. The earliest Jewish Christians, however, struggled to explain Jesus’s identity without violating their fierce monotheism forged by the divine words, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God” (Isa 45:5).
We see the struggle to give the right place to Jesus in the four Gospels, especially in their respective introductions. Mark explains Jesus by linking him to John the Baptist and depicting the Baptist as the Isaianic forerunner to the Lord’s Messiah, in fulfillment of all the scriptures. Matthew affirms Mark’s portrait but adds that Jesus fulfills the Abrahamic covenant to bless all the nations through the Jewish king. By tracing Jesus’s genealogy back to Adam, Luke makes an even more extraordinary claim about Jesus—the New Man Jesus overturns the failure of the Old Man Adam and reverses the curses.
In introducing Jesus, John the Evangelist outdoes the other three gospel writers. Yes, John agrees with Matthew, Mark and Luke, but John dares to make an even higher claim for Jesus. He depicts Jesus’s identity as centered in God: “In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God. The Word was God” (John 1:1). More specifically, Jesus is co-eternal with God, and ever-present with God from the beginning. Still, even such striking alignment with God is not yet adequate to explain Jesus. John takes it a step further and identifies Jesus himself as God himself: “The Word was God.”
This Jesus, who is the light of the world, who created all things, is the source of everything we need. He is the bread. He is the Light. He is the Gate. He is the Good Shepherd. He is the Resurrection and the Life. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the True Vine. He is. He is.

Pastor Jim

Friday, 20 July 2018

Pastor's Page: Sin in the Camp (Josh 7)

Human encounters with God are frequently detailed in scripture. They all assume the holiness of God, often with dramatic emphasis, and occasionally with fire and fury to demonstrate God’s zeal for holiness and his fierce hatred of sin. When Adam and Eve first sinned, they hid themselves from God’s fierce anger as they heard him approaching in a storm (this is the meaning of the traditional translation “cool of the day”). When Moses encountered God in the burning bush, he was told to remove his sandals from his feet, for the ground is holy; Joshua had a similar experience just before the battle of Jericho (Josh 5:15). When the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai on their journey from Egypt to Canaan, they encounter God on a mountain blazing with fire, in darkness, gloom and storm, to a site so fearful that Moses himself exclaimed, “I am trembling with fear (Heb 12:18-21). When Isaiah saw his vision of God high and exalted, seated on a throne and surrounded by seraphim, he despaired of life itself, crying, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isa 6:5).
The ferocity of God’s holiness is often downplayed in our world and even in our churches today. We tolerate sin within the church too easily, often in the name of not hurting someone’s feelings. Of course, one should be circumspect and respectful in our interpersonal relationships, but our first concern should be God’s holiness and the holiness of his people, the Church. Peter wrote, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”
Because of the world’s concerted effort to ignore sin and to redefine it to make holiness irrelevant, many Christians have lost the sense of urgency in pursuing holiness. Not only do we fail to search our hearts for unconfessed sin, but we often embrace sin, as if we think there are no consequences to living in sin.
The story of Achan lurches us back to reality. God is holy, and his holiness is a consuming fire that does not tolerate sin. True, the plunder of Jericho that was to be dedicated to God was vast, and in the grand scheme of things, the few items that Achan stole may have seemed inconsequential. Yet God calls for his people to be serious about keeping his commands without compromise. He calls us to wash our hands and purify our hearts, and to share his holy hatred for sin. Let us then be earnest and “touch not the unclean thing” (2 Cor 6:17).

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Pastor's Page: Spies Like Us

Pastor’s Take-away*
Spies Like Us:
How God Transforms Bunglers into Competent Kingdom Agents

The mission to spy out Jericho was dubious, at best. Why invest in intel and put lives at risk when God had already and in no uncertain terms assured them that the mission was his to win? Accordingly, the decision to send spies to Jericho was an indicator of their lack of trust in God and their presumption of their own competency: “Let’s help God give us this gift!” We might recall that the last spy mission achieved nothing but an extra forty years of wandering in the wilderness. We’re not surprised then, despite the emphasis on secrecy, to read that the king learned exactly where to find the spies the very day they entered the city gates. The mission was in jeopardy from the get-go.
The spies found themselves in a precarious situation with the king’s men busting in on them at the prostitute’s house. No doubt the spies recognized Rahab’s house as a strategic location for garnering intel, not only because it was built into the city wall, but also because secrets tend to be spilt there. With the doors bursting open, the spies had little recourse but to trust the prostitute Rahab’s urging to hide themselves on the roof under the flax.
Not willing to trust God to begin with, the spies’ faith would now be especially tested, for they had to put their lives in the hands of one of their enemies—a Canaanite. Well, worse than that, a Canaanite woman. While Israelite women, such as Miriam, Deborah, Esther, Susanna, and Judith were depicted as wise and competent, trusting a Canaanite woman must have been particularly humiliating for them. And this was no ordinary Canaanite woman, but a prostitute—someone who was at the bottom of Canaanite social order. They must truly have feared the worst for their lives.
This was just the beginning of the spies’ bungling. They had been told to be very careful to keep everything written in the book of the law, but to save themselves, the prostitute had to lie for them, breaking the ninth commandment. Not only so, but the spies brokered an exception to God’s mandate that all the inhabitants of Jericho were to be killed, compromising God’s command in exchange for their own lives.
They walked into Jericho full of self-confidence but had to scamper out with tails tucked. They learned nothing of strategic import—nothing about weaknesses in the wall or troop strength, etc. They returned home reporting that they were found out immediately, they were rescued by a Canaanite prostitute, and that they pledged in God’s name not to kill Rahab’s family.
The one thing they learned was that Jericho was all in great fear of the Israelites and their God. The spies also learned in the coming days that God is faithful and God is competent. The walls of Jericho came tumbling down when God’s people trusted in him.

*This weekly blog is designed for the Sunday Bulletin. If you need filler for your newsletter or bulletin, feel free to take it, with due attribution.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Why We Do Vacation Bible School

Why We Do Vacation Bible School

No, not because there’s nothing else to do in the summer! VBS is crazy hard work. It drains our physical and emotional stamina. It leaves us wrung out like a wet paper towel. We neglect healthy eating, exercise, house cleaning and yard work, job responsibilities, and a dozen other obligations during VBS week and even before VBS gets started. What is so compelling that we give up so much to make our VBS awesome?
VBS, perhaps more than any other church ministry, recognizes that kids live in a fallen world that constantly puts them at risk. We see kids who bear burdens that even adults can hardly bear. They have their own kinds of griefs. They experience all kinds of serious disappointments. They cry and act out over little things often because of larger troubling issues that are crushing them. They suffer physical and mental health disorders. On top of this, they themselves must cope with a sense of guilt over their sin and lostness. In short, if the song is true that “people need the Lord,” so do kids, even in the tenderness of their youth.
In VBS, we dare tell our kids that Jesus rescues us from this present evil age and the dominion of darkness. We don’t use those theological words, but we explain that even in our darkest, hardest days, Jesus loves us, that he is powerful, and that he will sustain those who put their trust in him. Most importantly, we tell them that those who put their trust in Jesus will never be disappointed.
Against everything that the world might teach kids, we tell them that the Bible answers the inescapable questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? Is there a God? If so, how can I know him? Is there such a thing as right and wrong? What is my purpose in life? Is there life after death? Is there a heaven and a hell? If so, how can I go to one and avoid the other? What can I do about these feelings of guilt? How then shall I live?
Kids need to hear this message. Our message often gets drowned out by those who scream the wrong answers at them. Instead of hearing answers from God’s Word, they are often told that there is no God, that they should be their own gods, that they should live to make themselves happy, and that there is no right and wrong. They hear wrong answers from the entertainment industry, from cultural thinkers, from some of our politicians, and even from their own school teachers. For this reason, we put our minds and energies into thinking about how to amplify the message that Jesus rescues so that our kids will not lose hope.
VBS is but one week a year. We hope to make a big impact on kids’ lives, but to make a real difference we urge parents to bring their kids to church worship every Sunday, to Sunday School, and to our Wednesday children’s activities. Youth ministry is best done in the context of family ministry.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Pastor's Page: Faithful to the End

Pastor’s Take-Away

Faithful to the End
Josh 23:14

One thing is certain, from first to last, God is ever faithful--faithful to the end.   God assures us, “My word will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11). This assurance is trustworthy because it arises from the steadfast character of God.

God is a “person”—that is, he is a personal being that relates to humans in personal relationships. An important aspect of this God-human relationship is learning to trust in God’s character and his eternal promises. When Israel was suffering under Egyptian bondage, Moses anticipated the Israelites’ query, “What is your name so I may tell them who you are?” or, more to the point, “Who is this God that we should trust him?” So it was that through the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea and deliverance from Egypt, and the divine guidance through 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites learned who God is as he revealed his trustworthy character.

Learning to trust God is an enterprise for every generation. With Moses’s death, Joshua’s generation faced new challenges, but never without the divine assurance, “I am with you, even to the end of the age!” God was present at the crossing of the Jordan, at the fall of Jericho, and in the extraordinary conquest of Canaan. Wherever Joshua’s footsteps, fell God was with him. To be sure, there were plenty of those, “Why God?” moments when God’s presence seemed far removed, or when God chose to hide his presence. On such occasions, one wise old man’s pithy saying on a rainy day rings true: the sun is shining, but you just can’t see it.

Joshua learned to trust God through adversity and through boon. His trust was such that he urged his fellow Israelites to do the same, to stake their allegiance in him. In his old age, after a lifetime of trusting in God, Joshua reminded all Israel of God’s faithfulness. He said, ““Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.”

But personal relationships is a two-way street. It will not do for one person to be faithful and the other feckless. Thus, Joshua’s testimony of God’s faithfulness was meant to spur the Israelites to reciprocal faithfulness. Following his tremendous and comforting assertions that God keeps all his promises, Joshua issued dire warnings to those who would betray their allegiance to God. Because God is faithful to the end, we too must be faithful to the end.

Joshua’s testimony anticipates the Pauline declaration that whatsoever promises God has ever made, they are all “yes” in Christ (2 Cor 1:20). Accordingly, we confess, “Jesus, Jesus! How I trust him, How I’ve proved him o’er and o’er. Jesus, Jesus, Precious Jesus! O for grace to trust him more.”

Pastor Jim