Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas Blog Posts Worth Reading

Catching up today on emails, phone messages, and blog posts, I have run across three Christmas posts worth your time in reading.

First is John Huss's 600 year old Christmas letter found at the Founders Ministries Blog.

Second is Dan Phillips' treatment of "The Day God Tabernacled" at the Pyromaniacs Blog.

Third is Al Mohler's answer to the question: "Can a Christian Deny the Virgin Birth?"
After reading this one, I would recommend, if you haven't already, reading my post below, containing my December 24 sermon, "A Case for the Virgin Birth."

A Case for the Virgin Birth

This week on his blog, Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, reported that the continuing secularization of Great Britain has manifested itself in an unusual way here at Christmastime. It seems that a study was done which analyzed 5,500 Christmas cards and found that only 70 of them make any reference at all to the birth of Jesus. Certainly we would find that the statistics would be similar in America as well. At least this is the case with the cards we have received at our home. All of this, I believe, is due to two factors that are somewhat related. First, the dominance of naturalism over the past century and a half has caused most people to dismiss as myth or fiction any notion of the supernatural. Second, the twin trends of religious pluralism and political correctness have combined forces to rid the world of any specific religious message, and left us instead with the generic niceties of holiday well-wishing. However, we must ask this question – what if the story is true? What if Jesus Christ is really the virgin-born incarnation of God? What if He is who He says He is, and what if He really did come to do what He claimed – namely to save us from sin? My message this morning will seek to reinforce your confidence that the Christmas story as we have it in the Scriptures is in fact truth, and it is a truth of the utmost importance 365 days a year, but never more relevant than today.

Now, to some of you, this will sound familiar, because I shared this on a Wednesday evening a year ago. But as with most of what is discussed on Wednesday evenings, it will be brand new to the majority of you. I have to begin by stating some assumptions that I hope are shared by all of you. They are assumptions, not because they cannot be demonstrated with reasonable argumentation, but because you want to at least have time to eat lunch before you come back at 5:00 tonight. So, for time’s sake, I am assuming the belief in absolute truth, the existence of God, and the possibility of miracles. Most if not all of you would have no problem with these assumptions, but many in our culture today would balk at all three of them. Yet, without truth, intelligent discussion is meaningless. Without God, the virgin birth is not only impossible, but it is unnecessary. And once we grant the existence of God, it is no far stretch to grant that this God is capable of performing miracles. So, we are not trying to beg the question of the virgin birth, only trying to work from a least common denominator.

Many well-intentioned religious people, many calling themselves “Christians,” have given up the effort of defending the doctrine of the virgin birth. They have gone so far as to say that the Bible doesn’t even teach such a thing, therefore why should we make it a hill on which to die? Some English translations of the Bible have been influenced by this thinking and changed the wording of “virgin” to “young woman” or something similar. But does the Bible clearly teach that Jesus was born of a virgin or not? I would hope that you know me well enough to know that I am going to say without hesitation or apology that it does.

We have read the passage from Matthew 1 already which presents the dilemma of Joseph who is wrestling with the fact that his betrothed wife has turned up pregnant, and Joseph knows only that the child is not his. But an angel appeared to Joseph and confirmed to him that this child was conceived by the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that a virgin would be with child, and that child would be Immanuel – God with us. And notice in verse 25, that Joseph kept her a virgin until that child was born. After they were fully married and had the opportunity to physically consummate the marriage, Joseph did not become physically intimate with his wife until this child was born lest there be any speculation that he had fathered the child. Notice as well how carefully Matthew records the genealogy at verse 16: Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. He makes it very clear that Joseph was not the father of Jesus, but was married to the mother of Jesus.

Additionally, we could look at Luke 1:26-35, where the beloved physician Luke records the events from Mary’s perspective. The angel Gabriel announced to her that she would conceive and bear a son, but Mary marveled and questioned the angel, saying, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel told her that the Holy Spirit would accomplish it in her. And Luke is also careful in recording the genealogy in 3:23 to say that Jesus was supposed to be the son of Joseph. He does not say that He was the son of Joseph, only that people supposed Him to be.

Some who do not uphold the integrity of the Scriptures ask, “But what about the silence of John, Mark, and Paul concerning the virgin birth?” The Gospel of Mark, as you are aware, begins with the baptism and beginnings of the earthly ministry of Jesus, and gives no space at all to any events preceding this. John begins his gospel with a discourse concerning the eternal activity of God in sending the redeemer into the world, saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But John does include an argument between Jesus and His detractors in Chapter 8 which speaks to the mysterious nature of His birth.

In John 8:18, Jesus says, “I am He who testifies about Myself, and the Father who sent Me testifies about Me.” But they say to him, “Where is your father?” And after insisting on their Abrahamic heritage, Jesus challenges them suggesting that their father is the devil because they are bent on destroying Him. The opponents say to Jesus in John 8:41, “We were not born of fornication (implied, like You were).” In verse 48 they say, “Do we not rightly say that You are a Samaritan?” The Jews looked down on the Samaritans because they traced their origins back to a cross-breeding of Jews and Assyrians. So they are accusing Jesus of being an illegitimate half-breed. This entire discussion would be a waste of space in the Gospel of John if there were not stories circulating in that day about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus.

As for Paul, we must bear in mind that he was not setting out to write a narrative account of the life of Christ, but rather to set forth Christian doctrine and practice and to answer specific questions for the new churches that were started during his missionary journeys. Yet he does not leave the matter of the virgin birth untouched, for he says plainly in Galatians 4:4, “When the fullness of the time came, God sent for His Son, born of a woman.” Jesus is the Son of God, born of a woman. Inherent in this statement is a reference back to that first promise of redemption that God gave to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15, when He said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” Nowhere else in Scripture do we read of someone being born the seed of a woman. The seed is by definition of the man. But this Jesus was born without earthly seed – He was born by the Holy Spirit, through the woman. So Paul is not as silent on the issue as some would have us believe.

As we have already seen, Matthew’s account makes reference back to a specific prophecy from Isaiah 7:14, given 700 years prior to the birth of Christ. There, the prophet Isaiah announces to King Ahaz, “The Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” The Hebrew word translated “virgin” in this prophecy is almah. It occurs in the text with the definite article, making it a reference to a specific virgin – The Virgin. But some Hebrew scholars have rightly pointed out that this word almah does not always refer to a virgin. It can mean simply a young woman. However, it can, and often does mean virgin.

There are seven occurrences of the term almah in the Old Testament. Write them down to look up later, for we do not have time to look at each one. Genesis 24:43; Exodus 2:8; Psalm 68:25; Proverbs 30:19; Song of Solomon 1:3; 6:8; and here in Isaiah 7:14. Of these passages, J. Gresham Machen has stated, “There is no place among the seven occurrences of ‘almah in the Old Testament where the word is clearly used of a woman who was not a virgin.” Willis Beecher adds, “In Biblical usage, the word denotes a virgin in every case where its meaning can be determined.” And when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in third and second centuries before Christ, the most able Hebrew scholars of the day chose the Greek word parthenos to render almah in Isaiah 7:14 – a Greek word which means only and exclusively a virgin. We cannot accuse them of reading the Christmas story back into the Isaiah text, as some accuse us of today, for the Christmas event would not take place for another couple of hundred years when they chose this wording! This is the word Matthew used in his gospel as well, showing not only his understanding of what happened at Bethlehem, but also his reliance on the scholars who had preceded him in the work of Biblical scholarship.

In addition, we must remember that Isaiah said that this birth would be a sign to Ahaz. By nature, a sign is something out of the ordinary that draws attention, not only to itself, but to a truth beyond itself. We have to wonder, if Isaiah had intended that a young woman would give birth to a son, what would be so unusual about that? It happens every day all over the world. But this would be a special case, in which God would assure His people that He had not rejected them or cancelled His promises, but would fulfill His mission to save and deliver them. And do not miss the significance of the promised name – “God with us.” Now, I have known people to choose some unusual names for their children. We have had many people scratch their heads about the names of our children. But I don’t know anyone who says, “I think we’ll call him God.” This would be a special child – God with us – born in a special way – to a virgin – for a special purpose – as a sign of God’s faithfulness and love to His people.

And so Machen says, “It is perfectly clear that the New Testament teaches the virgin birth of Christ; about that there can be no manner of doubt. There is no serious question as to the interpretation of the Bible at this point. … The only question is whether in making that representation the Bible is true or false.” This is the pressing question of our day. We know what the Bible says. We are even able to agree in large part on what it means. But the question remains, “Is it true?” While we could take up arguments concerning the entirety of Scripture and demonstrate in a reasonable way that we are confident that God has inspired the Scriptures and they are infallible and inerrant from cover to cover, we want to narrow that discussion to this one element: Is the Bible true when it says that Jesus was born of a virgin?

If it is not, then we have no other option than to believe that Matthew and Luke made up the story, or else passed it on to us from someone else who made it up – maybe even Mary herself. Now in order to establish that the story is made up, there has to be a motive. Stories about Jesus were quick to circulate during the first century, but why would someone make up this part of the story. Does it make the story more believable? We would have to confess that it does not. It makes the story harder to believe. So that cannot be their reason.

Some have suggested that they invented the virgin birth story to parallel pagan myths about the divine origins of certain people with special powers. These were the demigods – those born to one divine parent and one human parent. I am currently reading Homer’s Iliad, and though I am only half-way through the book, I have lost count of the number of them in that story alone. However, we must remember that the gospel accounts were written to distinguish Christianity from false religious beliefs, not to assimilate it with them. And in fact, you may be surprised to learn that there are no pagan stories of a virgin birth. The pagan stories about the births of the demigods involve a phenomenon that has come to be known as “divine rape,” meaning that the god actually had sexual relations with the human cohort, making her no longer a virgin. In more than a handful of these pagan accounts, the activity took place against the will of the human. Often in pagan accounts we find a double paternity: one human father (in some cases a king) and divine father. The demigod's mother will in these cases lie with both in the same night or else be visited secretly by the god, and the seed of the two fathers is mixed in her womb. The Gospel narratives of the birth of Christ could not be further from this! There is no hint of sexual intercourse between God and Mary, contrary to the Islamic caricatures of our beliefs and contrary to Mormon doctrine. There is no hint of “dual paternity” as both Matthew and Luke are clear to indicate that Joseph was in no way involved in the conception of Jesus. And remember that Joseph is no man of stature – he is a mere carpenter. And there is no hint of “divine rape,” since Mary sings in response to the revelation given to her, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior … For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is His name.” One could scarcely imagine a pious young virgin saying this about one who had assaulted her. Rather, she said to the angel, “May it be done to me according to your word.”

The fact of the matter is that no God-fearing Jewish person would invent a story like this, because it would be the height of blasphemy – an arch-heresy of the highest degree. Winfred Corduan says it this way: “If the virgin birth did not happen, we have no plausible explanation for why it was ever recorded. …No pious Jew would have invented such a story. They could not have borrowed the idea from pagan parallels because there are no true parallels. Thus, the most likely explanation was that a virgin birth was recorded because a virgin birth occurred.”

Not satisfied with this explanation, many have said that the virgin birth story was added generations later to deify Christ. This is at the root of many popular accounts circulating in our day, most notably The DaVinci Code, and others who have piggy-backed on its popularity. However, the truth of the matter is that the story of Christ’s virgin birth was well-known by Christians from the earliest writings of the church. It would take generations for a story of this magnitude to circulate widely, and even longer for it to gain universal acceptance. Yet we have the statement of Ignatius in 105 AD saying plainly, “He was truly born of a virgin.” By 150 AD, we find reference to the virgin birth in creeds and confessions used by Christians in Rome, North Africa, and Asia Minor. These early creeds became the basis for the “Apostles’ Creed.”

So, we have established that the Bible teaches that Christ was born of a virgin. There is no apparent motive for inventing such a story. There are no pre-Christian parallels to the story. There is not enough time elapsed for a post-apostolic legend to spread as far as it did in the infancy of Christianity. Therefore we are left with the very reasonable and intelligent conclusion that the virgin birth did take place exactly as the Bible records it. But we are left with one further question: So what?

Several years ago, when asked who in history he would most like to interview, Larry King said that he would choose Jesus Christ. Asked what he would talk about with Him, King said, “I would like to ask Him if He was indeed virgin-born. The answer to that question would define history for me.” In fact the ramifications of the virgin birth are far-reaching. It does define history for all of us.

The virgin birth establishes Christ’s unique character. All humans naturally born have a sin-nature. Paul says in Romans 3 that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. John says in 1 John 1:8, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Yet Christ claimed to have no sin. In John 8:46 He said, “Which one of you convicts Me of sin?” By not having that sin nature, He is uniquely qualified to atone for our sins through His death on the cross. B. B. Warfield, the great theologian of Princeton’s glory days, said, “Assuredly no one, himself under the curse of sin, could atone for the sin of others; no one owing the law its extreme penalty for himself could pay this penalty for others. … It was imperatively necessary that He should become incarnate after a fashion which would leave Him standing … outside that fatal entail of sin in which the whole natural race of Adam is involved. And that is as much as to say that the redemptive work of the Son of God depends upon His supernatural birth.”

The virgin birth also bears on the divinity of Christ. No person naturally born can have pre-existence. No naturally born man or woman can become a god. Yet Jesus claimed both for Himself. In John 8:58, He shocked his audience by saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” They understood that He was not just using poor grammar, but was taking upon Himself that divine and unspeakable name, “I AM,” and therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him believing Him to be a blasphemer. The central message of the early Christian church is that Jesus Christ is God, and this fact cannot be established apart from His virgin birth.

Just as important is the bearing of the virgin birth upon the humanity of Jesus. We do not proclaim that He is half-God, half-man, but that He is fully God, and He became fully man. He experienced fatigue, hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, and joy, all of which are very human.

How else could He identify with mankind and bear our sins for us unless He became one of us? How else would God become a man besides through a miraculous birth such as this?

We would also note that the doctrine of the virgin birth has implications on the reliability of Scripture. We have established that the Bible clearly teaches a virgin birth. If we discount this portion of Scripture, what other portion will we discard with it? James Orr said, “Rejection of the Virgin Birth seldom, if ever, goes by itself.” And this raises the question of who has the authority or the special insight to declare which parts of Scripture are true and which are not, if it is not all true?

So, you can see, it is a doctrine of the utmost importance for us today. Is it an optional belief for Christians? Does a person have to believe in the virgin birth to be saved? Well, we confess that Paul does not include it in 1 Corinthians 15 as an essential element of “the gospel,” and in Romans 10:9-10, he does not specify the virgin birth as he does the resurrection as a necessary belief to be saved. Jesus did not preach about His virgin birth in evangelistic encounters, nor is it included in the sermons of the book of Acts. We might even say that it is possible for a person to be saved without ever even knowing about the virgin birth. HOWEVER, it does seem improbable that a person who comes to Jesus by faith, believing that He has the ability to atone for sin at the cross and that He has conquered death in the resurrection, would persist in denying the virgin birth once it became known to him or her. And it seems that it would be necessary for anyone claiming to believe the Bible to be God’s word that he or she also believe that the virgin birth is a true account. And, after all, if a person does not believe the Bible, we have to wonder why on earth they would want to be a Christian anyway? If we believe part of it to be untrue, why should we choose to hold on to the parts which describe salvation in Christ?

So, it was most appropriate for those in the early decades of the twentieth century who were fighting against the influence of liberalism in the church to articulate a list of “fundamentals,” and to include the virgin birth as one of the fundamental doctrines of biblical Christianity. Those fundamentals were the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and His bodily resurrection and second coming. So Loraine Boettner said concerning the virgin birth, “No statement of the Christian system which ignores or denies it can be considered consistent or complete.”

So what do we believe about the virgin birth? We believe that Christ was conceived supernaturally by the efficient cause of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary while she remained in a state of virginity until after the birth of Jesus. And thereby we reject false notions of the virgin birth, such as: A) That there were actual sexual relations between God and Mary (as Mormons believe); B) That Mary herself was conceived in a divine way (as taught in the Catholic doctrine of Immaculate Conception); C) That Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life (the Catholic doctrine of perpetual virginity fails to explain how the Scriptures record Jesus having other brothers and sisters – were they virgin born too?).

We join in affirmation of the doctrine of the virgin birth, and say Amen to the voices of the early church like Tertullian, who said in 197 AD: “The ray of God, then, as it was always foretold in ancient times, descended into a certain virgin. And He was made flesh in her womb. So, in His birth, God and man were united.” Again, in 207 AD, he said, “Whoever wishes to see Jesus, the Son of David, must believe in Him through the virgin’s birth. He who will not believe this will not hear from Him the commendation, ‘Your faith has saved you.’”

Remember what that angel said to Joseph: Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, "BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD, AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL," which translated means, "GOD WITH US.” Truly, nothing is impossible with God, and we see afresh how it is that we can sing with such enthusiasm at Christmastime, “Joy to the World, the Lord has come!”


This was composed based on an outline I have been using for three years now, so I am unable to pinpoint precisely specific quotes. However, I know that I made use of the following sources to some degree:

Winfried Corduan, No Doubt About It

Bruce Demarest and Gordon Lewis, Integrative Theology

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology

Josh McDowell, New Evidence that Demands a Verdict

Wikipedia on "demigod"

Friday, December 22, 2006

Just Say Yes to Mess

Suddenly I feel much better about myself ...

Click Here to read an article from NY Times on saying yes to mess.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Lottie's Letters

In John 20:21, Jesus said, "As the Father sent Me, so send I you." No one in Baptist life typifies faithfulness to this command more than Lottie Moon. Jesus left the glory of heaven to come into hostile territory to lay down His life for sinners so that we might be saved. Lottie Moon left the comfortable surroundings of Richmond and went to China in 1873, and there she lay down her life as well, that sinners might be saved. How grateful we ought to be for the saints of the bygone days who put pen to paper to leave us such a rich heritage of wisdom and inspiration. Lottie Moon was a letter writer. As some have postulated, if she was on the mission field today, she would probably be a blogger. And thank God that someone here in the U.S. had the foresight to preserve so much of what she wrote for the benefit of future generations. What a debt we Southern Baptists owe to one of our own -- Dr. Keith Harper of Southeastern Seminary for compiling those letters in his 2002 publication, Send the Light. Dr. Harper was my Baptist History professor, and a real gem of a guy, but more than anything, I thank him for the labor of love he poured into this book.

Last night, rather than giving my congregation one more sermon or devotional thought, I shared with them from a few of the letters of Lottie Moon found in this book. I will share a few exerpts here. You really should get the book for yourself and your church libraries to get the full effect, but these quotes will demonstrate why Southern Baptists collect an offering in her name every year at this time.

What we need in China are more workers. The harvest is very great, the laborers, oh! so few. Why does the Southern Baptist church lag behind in this great work?

A young man should ask himself not if it is his duty to go to the heathen, but if he may dare stay at home. The cammond is so plain: "Go."

Oh! that we had many active and zealous men who would go far and wide scattering books and tracts and preaching the word to the vast multitudes of this land. ... Why does our church lag so slowly on? Where we send one man, other churches send scores. ... I earnestly long for the time to come when the women of our Southern Baptist churches shall fully awaken to the great work of sending the gospel to the heathen women. Oh! that Woman's Mission to Woman might take hold of the affections of our sisters at home and that many more representatives might be sent to China and elsewhere. ... I believe that nowhere at home can a devoted woman accomplish more for God than here.

I know that the Board cannot send men & women until the churches furnish the money, & I fully agree with Dr. Yates that more should not be sent until the churches meet promptly their obligations to those already in the field. But is there no way to arouse the churches on this subject? ... Let not these heathen sink down into eternal death without one opportunity to hear that blessed Gospel which is to you the source of all joy & comfort. The work that constantly presses upon us is greater than time or strength permit us to do. ... I know that the Board would gladly reinforce us at once, but that they are powerless without the hearty cooperation of the churches. I have the most abounding confidence in the Southern Baptist churches if they only see their duty. The question is how to make them see it. I confess I know not how to answer that question.

On and on, I could cite more from her wonderful letters. But I fast forward to the end of her life. With near famine conditions surrounding her, Lottie Moon began to give of her own money and food to those around her. She developed a severe carbuncle on the back of her neck that grew to be greatly infected. Her mind began to fail her, causing her so much embarrassment that she feared facing even her closest friends. Arrangements were made for her return to the States via steamer ship, and she was to spend perhaps the remainder of her earthly days in the Sheppard-Pratt hospital, an institution for the mentally ill in Baltimore (actually more properly, Towson). I have visited that hospital, having pastored a church about 45 minutes north at Conowingo, Maryland for five years. But God, in His gracious providence, did not allow this dear saint to expire in those conditions. She boarded that steamer ship in China, with a missionary nurse by the name of Cynthia Miller at her side. In her final hours, at the harbor of Kobe, Japan, Cynthia Miller said that she "would look around and smile and work her lips as though trying to speak, then with great effort she would raise her hands and put her fists together as the Chines do to greet anyone and act as though she were greeting someone. Christmas Eve at one o'clock in the afternoon she fell asleep just before we sailed from Kobe." She was cremated at Yokohama, and her remains transported back via Miss Miller, where they were buried near her home at Richmond.

Southern Baptists, today, we have 5,500 missionaries walking in the footsteps of Lottie Moon -- giving themselves away selflessly for the salvation of those who have never heard the gospel. In the midst of our Christmas excesses, we must not fail to be faithful to provide for their support. I am glad to say, to the glory of God, that in nine years of pastoral ministry, the three congregations where I have served have never failed to meet our goal for the Lottie Moon Offering. In just two Sundays, we are within $800 of meeting it this year. So let us all continue to give, and continue to pray for the work that goes on. The sun never sets on the work of our International Mission Board personnel, and it must never set on our responsibility to hold the ropes of support for them. But is this all we can do? Can we only give and pray? Hard as those things may be for us, can we not do more? I remind you of Miss Lottie's words:
A young man should ask himself not if it is his duty to go to the heathen, but if he may dare stay at home. The cammond is so plain: "Go."

Can we not go? For a short term trip to labor along side of our mission personnel, or to go as career missionaries -- can we not go? Do we dare stay at home? Millions grope in darkness, hungering for Thy Word, so set our souls on fire Lord, set our souls on fire!

The Reason for the Season?

A week or so ago, I drove past a Unitarian church in Winston-Salem who had a message on their sign: "Solstice is the Reason for the Season." Others who had seen the sign expressed their outrage to me about it, but I had to confess that in one sense they are right. Christians only embarrass themselves in the eyes of the secular world by ignoring the origins of what we call "Christmas" today. Most of the traditions and symbols of Christmas have their origins in the ancient pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice called Saturnalia. In fact, it was the fifth century before Christians began to claim "Christmas" as their own holiday. Why did it take 400 years for Christians to begin to celebrate the birth of Christ? Well, on one hand it didn't -- Christians celebrated the unified reality of incarnation, atonement, and resurrection daily and weekly as they gathered together to worship the Lord Jesus Christ. On the other hand, dedicating a particular day to observe Christmas was a matter of convenience rather than conviction for the early empires of "Christendom." The word "Christendom" refers to the uneasy marriage of church and state that began to occur during and following the reign of Constantine. Most of the embarrasing moments of church history flow from this union that God never intended.

As Christian "empires" began to expand into territories dominated by pagans, the rulers of those earthly powers deemed it expedient to allow the pagans to continue their practices and found ways to "baptize" them with Christian vocabulary. Thus, Saturnalia became Christmas, and legends and stories began to arise shifting the pagan symbolism to have Christian significance. But this was not always the case for the early church. No one was more outspoken about the need for Christians to distance themselves from these pagan celebrations than the Church Father Tertullian, who wrote most of his works in the latter second and early third centuries.

Tertullian's comments about the winter celebrations of the pagans are very instructive for us in this day and time. Addressing the pagans, Tertullian wrote in 197 AD:
"On your day of gladness, we [Christians] neither cover our doorposts with wreaths, nor intrude upon the day with lamps. At the call of public festivity, you consider it a proper thing to decorate your house like some new brothel. ... We are accused of a lower sacrilege because we do not celebrate along with you the holidays of the Caesars in a manner forbidden alike by modesty, decency, and purity."

Writing to Christians in 200 AD, he said:
We must now address the subject of holidays and other extraordinary festivities. We sometimes excuse these to our wantonness, sometimes to our timidity--in opposition to the common faith and discipline. The first point, indeed, on which I will join issue is this: whether a servant of God should share with the very nations themselves in matters of this kind--either in dress, food, or in any other kind of festivity. ... "There is no communion between light and darkness," between life and death. Or else, we should rescind what has been written, "The world will rejoice, but you will grieve" [John 16:20]. ... When the world rejoices, let us grieve. And when the world afterward grieves, we will rejoice. ... There are certain gift days, by which some adjust the claim of honor; or with others, the debt of wages. ... If men have consecrated for themselves this custom from superstition, why do you ... participate in festivities consecrated to idols? As for you, there is no law about a day (short of the observance of a particular day) to prevent your paying or receiving what you owe a man, or what is owed you by a man.

He goes on:
The Saturnalia, New Year, Midwinter festivals, and Matronalia are frequented by us! THere are New Year's gifts! Games join their noise! Banquets join their din! The pagans are more faithful to their own sect. ... For, even if they had known them, they would not have shared the Lord's Day or Pentecost with us. For they would fear lest they would appear to be Christians. Yet, we are not apprehensive that we might appear to be pagans! ... Nowadays, you will find more doors of heathens without lamps and laurel wreaths than Christians. ... If it is for an idol's honor, without doubt an idol's honor is idolatry. Yet, even if it is for a man's sake, ... let us again consider that all idolatry is worship done to men.

I know that it sounds awfully Scroogish of me to be bringing these thoughts to mind here just a few days before we will celebrate Christmas, but this year I have not been able to escape these thoughts. We claim to offer to Christ a celebration that He never instituted, and the Apostles never encouraged, and the Fathers absolutely shunned. And then we complain that the world is taking Christ out of Christmas, when the historical fact of the matter is that the church of Christendom shoved Christ into Saturnalia, and perverted the customs of the pagans in order to Christianize them.

We talk of redeeming Christmas, but can it be redeemed? Redemption is possible for something that God created for His own purpose. Thus, we can speak of redeeming humanity, redeeming the created order of the physical world, redeeming the arts, redeeming sexuality, etc. All of these were created by God for His purpose and were corrupted by the depravity of man. But that which originates in the depraved mind of man apart from the purposes of God cannot be redeemed, but instead must be rejected, shunned, and discarded.

But there is much to fear. We fear other Christians who would oppose our efforts to purify Christian traditions because Christmas is "special" to them. This would no doubt lead to many a church split and many a pastor's termination (and at the holidays, even!). We fear offending family members who make much over the holidays. But do we fear men more than God? A casual glance at Church History would indicate that indeed we have for centuries.

Now, I will offer a disclaimer in effort to keep the peace, and perhaps as my own subconscious submission to the fear of man. Is a Christian wrong for celebrating Christmas? Is it wrong to celebrate the birth of Christ? No, but what are we celebrating? There is a difference between celebrating Christmas and celebrating Christ. What do iPods, Barbies, Wiis and PS3s have to do with the incarnation? The only tree Christ adorned was the one on which He hung to die. He was the ornamentation, His blood the crimson garland that flowed down, His love the only light that trimmed that horrid scene. If we celebrate His birth, why is it that we make ourselves debtors to the consumer industry in order to give everyone but HIM fine gifts? If we do it as a cultural celebration, then let us call it a cultural celebration, but if we do it for Christ, then let it be for Christ and for Him alone.

I do not write this to judge the traditions and celebrations of other Christians. In fact, you would be happy to know that my Christmas celebrations are much like those of your family and the unchurched up and down my street. I don't like it, I wish I could do something differently, but perhaps it is that fear of man thing snaring me once again. So, no I am not writing out of a hypocritical, Pharisaical, judgmental spirit. And it is not just me being a Bah-Humbug Scrooge. I confess I am that, but I don't want to be. I really do want this to be a joyous time of the year for myself, my family, and my church. But I can't escape these realities. I can't stick my head in the sand and pretend they don't exist. I can't tolerate Christian revisionism any more than I can tolerate it from the secular perspective. I guess what I am trying to say is that I am burdened. I am burdened over the need for Christians to change the way we observe this season, and left without any notion of how to do it. But I know this -- we cannot expect to see real change in our churches, in our own spiritual discipline, and then as a result in our communities, until we are willing, as God's people, to purge the pleasant paganisms that we tolerate in our own lives, our holidays, and our traditional celebrations. Maybe it is too high a cost for us to pay, but I pray that in my lifetime we will see a change in how Christians approach this time of year.

God help us!

The quotations from Tertullian above were taken from a wonderful resource: David Bercot, ed., A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Tertullian's works, and the rest of the Church Fathers, can be read in their entirety online for free at

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Word of God in Washington?

In October, while vacationing in our Nation's Capital City, Washington, D.C., my family accidentally happened upon one of the richest blessings we have experienced in recent memory. While walking along the mall, we were trying to decide which Smithsonian building to visit first. The first one we came to was the Freer Gallery. In all of my visits to Washington, I have never been inside this museum. A sign out front caught our attention because it mentioned ancient Egyptian artifacts. We are currently homeschooling our son in the classical tradition, and on this approach to education, studies of history progress chronologically from the ancient to modern times. We have spent many Fridays discussing the wonders of ancient Egypt. So we decided to go in and have a look. Let me not underestimate the impressiveness of Freer's artifacts. We were astounded at the collection of items from Egypt and Asia, as well as the many Whistler pieces, not least of which the enigmatic Peacock Room. However, what blew us away was the exhibit advertised on a small paper fan handed to our children as we entered the museum. The exhibit was called "In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000." We were pointed down stairways and corridors to the subterranean Sackler annex to the Freer Gallery. There we encountered the most impressive display I have ever seen in my life. The exhibit is on display until January 7, 2007, and if you have the opportunity to get to D.C. to see it, you will not regret it. What follows is my account of some of the most impressive pieces, with a debt of gratitude to several sources cited at the end of the column.

Walking into the exhibit, the first item on display is a tea-chest containing unconserved fragments from the Cairo Genizah. A life size enlargement of the famous picture of Solomon Schechter combing over manuscripts found in they Ben Ezra Synagogue serves as the backdrop for what appears to the naked eye to be a box of rags and scraps. But those who have studied textual criticism understand the significance of the finds at the Cairo Genizah. A genizah is a storage chamber for old, corrupted, damaged, or otherwise unused or unusable manuscripts where they are kept until they can be disposed of properly. Jewish law prohibited texts bearing the name of God from being destoryed, even if they were corrupted. The Cairo Genizah had been walled off for many years prior to its rediscovery near the end of the nineteenth century. There, Solomon Schechter found nearly 200,000 text fragments (some 10,000 of which are biblical), including manuscripts in Hebrew and Aramaic dating to the fifth century A.D. These fragments have helped to shed light on work of the Masoretes who began to standardize the Hebrew Bible in around the seventh century A. D. Here in the Cairo Genizah, we have a pre-Masoretic witness to the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. Perhaps apart from only the Dead Sea Scrolls, the manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah are the most significant Old Testament discovery of modern times. Cambridge houses 137,000 conserved documents from the Genizah; Jewish Theological Seminary in New York holds 40,000 of them, and the Freer Gallery is home to about 52. The unconserved fragments on display in this exhibit are on loan from Cambridge, and consist mostly of fragments of paper, parchment, and vellum with no visible text or nearly illegible text.

Also on display is a sizeable fragment of a sixth or seventh century A.D. Genesis scroll (T-S NS 4.3) from the Genizah. The Hebrew text lacks Masoretic pointing (vowels, punctuation, etc.). It contains portions of three columns of text from Genesis 4:14-17, 5:10-18, and 5:32-6:7. If this fragment is from a complete Pentateuch, it would be the earliest manuscript of such by several centuries. Another Genesis fragment is also on display from the Cairo Genizah, dating from a similar time period. It contains portions of Genesis 13-17. Both Genesis fragments are parchment. A Nehemiah fragment from the Genizah collection is also on display, the colophon of which bears reference to a date of 903-904 AD. This makes the fragment the oldest dated medieval Hebrew manuscript.

Turning 180 degrees from the unconserved Genizah fragments, a tattered, time-darkened vellum fragment comes into view. But don't let looks deceive you -- this is one of the most impressive pieces of the collection. It is an Isaiah fragment (IQIsa b) from the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran in 1946-1947. It dates to no later than 73 A.D., but many scholars believe it to date prior to the time of Christ. This piece contains portions of four columns of unpointed Hebrew text from Isaiah 52:7 to 61:2. A complete copy of Isaiah was found at Qumran (IQIsa a), but this one demonstrates a more remarkable similarity to the Masoretic text. The Isaiah portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been a remarkable witness to the careful transmission of the Biblical text over the history of Christianity, assuring us that the Bibles we hold in our hands today reflect the Word of God as it was originally recorded many centuries ago.

The Aleppo Codex dates to the 900s A.D. The Hebrew text is written by Solomon Ben-Buya'a (also spelled Shelomo ben-Baya'a or Shlomo …). A colophon in the text indicates that the vowel pointings were penned by the famed Moses ben Asher (Aaron ben Moshe ben Ahser). He is without question the most famed Masorete. The Aleppo Codex was not permitted to be copied for a long time, and has been the subject of much mystery. Early in its lifetime, it was reported to have been destroyed, it has been stolen and smuggled on more than one occasion, and in 1947, it was lost in the midst of a riot. It resurfaced in 1958 bearing the wounds of battle. Only 193 of 487 pages survived. The leaf on exhibit is from 2 Chronicles 35-36, and it is on loan from the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. It is parchment. Among Masoretic manuscipts, the Aleppo is considered premier. Maimonides (1138-1204) regarded it as authoritative. Surviving portions have been photographed and have become the foundation for a new scholarly edition of the Hebrew Bible. A portion of the St. Petersburg Pentateuch dating to the same time period and written by the same scribe is also on display, on loan from the National Library of Russia. It is believed to have been found in the Cairo Genizah.

Charles Lang Freer, the namesake of the Freer Gallery, personally owned several important manuscripts which are on display as well. One of the most impressive pieces is a Greek codex on papyrus containing the text of the Minor Prophets dating to the second half of the third century A.D. It is one of the oldest Greek copies of the Minor Prophets. Hosea is incomplete, but every page of the remaining Minor Prophets survives in part or whole. Indications in the text and margins indicate that it was directly translated from Hebrew, making it a witness to a Hebrew Vorlage (an underlying source) which predates any extant Hebrew manuscripts. Coptic glosses on the manuscript indicate the rapid spread of Christianity in its earliest centuries. A portion of the Psalms dating to the fifth century, also owned by Freer, is on display. Dating from the same time period are Freer's manuscript portions of the Pauline Epistles, the Gospels, Deuteronomy and Joshua on display.

What appeared to me as a rather insignificant piece on my first visit to the exhibit has, upon further reflection, become a true highlight. Three tiny portions of Matthew 26 date to no later than 200 A.D., and likely earlier. This makes them one of the oldest witnesses to the Synoptic Gospels. What makes them more precious to me is that these tiny fragments survived two widespread efforts on the part of Decius and Diocletian to destroy biblical manuscripts.

The Chester Beatty Papyri are well known to New Testament scholars. Eleven codices comprise the largest single collection of early Christian manuscripts. They are very early and contain portions of most of the New Testament. A portion of P45 is on display which contains a section from Mark 8-9. The museum dates it to 250 A.D., but many scholars estimate its date to be perhaps a hundred years older, to the middle of the second century. A portion of Beatty's Greek Codex from Numbers and Deuteronomy is also on exhibit, dating to perhaps 150 A.D. The portion contains Deuteronomy 4:6-23. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this Codex was regarded as the oldest extant manuscript of any biblical literature. Internal evidence points to a Christian origin for this Codex, making it an early witness to the Christian esteem of the Old Testament writings.

Around 170 AD, a disciple of Justin Martyr named Tatian composed the first "harmony of the gospels" which Eusebius refers to as the Diatessaron. Drawing from the four Canonical Gospels (and ONLY those four), Tatian composed one flowing narrative of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. This became widely popular, and was used in many communities and churches as a substitute for the four gospels. Eventually, Tatian came to be regarded as a heretic when, after Justin's death, he founded an ascetic movement known as the Encratites. By the fifth century, the Diatessaron was suppressed and copies were destroyed. Rabbula, fifth century bishop of Edessa, ordered that the Diatessaron be replaced by the complete text of the four gospels in every church. Today there is no surviving copy of the Diatessaron, but it is alluded to or cited in numerous early Christian texts. One of the most important is a commentary written in the fourth century by Ephrem of Edessa. Approximately 80 percent of a late fifth century Syriac copy of Ephrem's commentary has come into the possession of the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin (home also to the Beatty Papyri). One portion of it is on display in Washington. For all of his faults that we may point to, Tatian provides Christian orthodoxy with a very early witness to the canonicity of the four gospels.

The Syriac Peshitta was the official translation of the Scriptures in Syriac churches. A portion of the Pentateuch from a fifth century Peshitta codex (the oldest dated biblical codex) is on display. It is believed that the New Testament of this same codex was written by Rabbula. This portion of the Pentateuch was written by the deacon John at Amida. This Syriac Pentateuch is on loan from the British Library, along with a page from the Syriac Pauline Epistles dating to the seventh century.

For me, there are two crown jewels in this exhibit. The first is the Dead Sea Isaiah fragment, and the second is the portion of Codex Sinaiticus on loan from the St. Catherine Monastery at Sinai. What is on display are the two best-preserved leaves of the dozen still held there. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of Codex Sinaiticus for biblical scholarship. Because of its age, accuracy, and completeness, it is considered the most important extant manuscript for Bible translation. It is a fourth-century parchment codex that originally contained the entire Bible plus the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas, all in Greek. Portions of the Old Testament have been lost, but the entire New Testament is extant. Interstingly, it lacks Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11. It is the oldest surviving complete Greek New Testament by five centuries, and the only complete uncial (uppercase, square-type Greek letters characteristic of manuscripts from third to ninth centuries) New Testament manuscript. The page on display features Numbers 20:2-13.

I will mention one final exhibited manuscript, though I could go on to describe dozens more. A leaf from the Old English Genesis, known also as the Junius or Caedmon manuscript, is on loan from the Bodleian at Oxford dating to c. 1000 A.D. Its significance lies in the fact that it is a copy of the first Biblical text to appear in English (late seventh century A.D.). Originally, it contained portions of paraphrased passages from both testaments. The chronology of the English Bible begins with Caedmon, and this illustrated manuscript dating three to four centuries later is a remarkable testimony to the debt we English speakers owe to him.

Well, I have chronicled but a few of the seventy-four exhibits on display. If you have the opportunity to visit the Freer-Sackler gallery before January 7, 2007, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It truly is a once in a lifetime (or twice in my case thanks to a providential accident in October) opportunity to see priceless treasures of scriptural heritage. Seeing the texts reinforces our gratitude to God for inspiring His word and preserving it through centuries of transmission. We have full confidence that when we open our Bibles today, we have an accurate copy of the Word of God, and can trust it as a reliable, inerrant and infallible guide to His nature and will.


Michelle P. Brown, ed., In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000. Washington: Freer and Sackler Galleries, 2006.

Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, Revised and Expanded. Chicago: Moody, 1986.

Philip Comfort, ed. The Origin of the Bible. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 2003.

David Alan Black, New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994.

Arthur G. Patzia and Anthony J. Petrotta, Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2002.

F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments. London: Revell, 1955.

Bruce M. Metzger, The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001.

J. D. Douglas and Earle E. Cairns, eds., The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Elmer E. Flack, Bruce M. Metzger, et al., The Text, Canon, and Principle Versions of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956.

Walter C. Kaiser Jr., The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2001.

Leland Ryken, The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2002.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Mark 2:13-17: Why Christ Came

Paolo Veronese (1528-88), The Feast at the House of Levi, Accademia, Venice, Italy

As the calendar page is turned and December dawns, our thoughts are preoccupied with Christmas. Everywhere we look, we see imagery that reminds us that Christ has come. Even though Christmas, rightly understood, is a distinctively Christian celebration, the popularity of Christmas is near-universal. I read an article a few weeks ago in the Winston-Salem Journal written by a Hindu who talked about how important Christmas is to her. After all, no one would deny that a person named Jesus was born, though they may not all agree on the nature or the significance of His birth. And so this time of year, everyone decks the halls and prepares for celebration. What many people, if not most, fail to understand is that Christmas is not only a celebration of a historical fact – it is a celebration of a theological truth of which a vast percentage of the world’s population remains ignorant. That truth is discovered when we move past the historical fact that Jesus came to the underlying reason for His coming.

Contrary to cultural sentiments, Christ did not come so we could get a few days off school and work. He did not come to boost the economy. He did not come so we could plunge ourselves into debt to buy gifts for a bunch people we like and not a few we don’t. He didn’t come to give us an excuse to overindulge. So why did He come? In the passage before us today, He tells us why He came: I did not come to call the righteous but sinners. In that statement are two facts of Christmas that I want to expand upon today as we examine these verses.

I. Christ Came to Call Sinners

This was His mission. This was why He came. And in the context of the passage we see how He did this.

A. Who He Called

In v14, Jesus approaches a tax-collector called Levi, elsewhere in the New Testament called Matthew. It is likely that his post (literally, perhaps, a toll-gate) was situated on the caravan route that passed through Capernaum. It was the main road from Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea, and here Levi could collect taxes from all who were passing through importing and exporting goods. Passing by Levi, Jesus called to him, “Follow Me!” This singular encounter tells us much about who He called.

He had already called a few fishermen to follow Him. No problem. Most of the people in that region were involved in the fishing industry. They were decent folk in the eyes of most in Capernaum – surprising candidates for religious work, but decent folk nonetheless. But this fellow was a tax-collector. Nobody liked them. Now, we aren’t crazy about the IRS today, but these guys were much worse. People hated them because they regularly associated with Gentiles, whom the Jews considered to be unclean. They were considered traitors because they took money from the Jews for the benefit of the oppressive Roman government. They were considered dishonest, because they could demand whatever they wanted from taxpayers, and keep large percentages of it for themselves. Sometimes they even resorted to intimidation or force to get money from the people. We don’t know how much of this Levi had done, but we know that as a tax-collector, he fell into one of the most despised groups of people in all Israel. In the eyes of most people, they were as bad as you could get.

This ought to be of great encouragement for us today. The fact that Jesus came calling sinners, even the likes of despised tax-collectors, means that there is hope for all of us. It doesn’t matter what you have done, if you are a sinner, Christ came for you.

B. How He Calls

It seems that everywhere Jesus went, crowds came to Him. But they came for various reasons. Some came out of curiosity, others were coming for selfish reasons – to receive a healing or a miracle, or just to observe it. Others came to criticize. But in v13, as usual, Jesus taught everyone who came. But, though this is the way He taught, it was not the way He called. In calling, Jesus takes the initiative. He goes to Levi – He doesn’t wait for Levi to come to Him. This is a microscopic portrait of what He has done for all of us. He came to us while we were yet sinners. He did not wait for us to clean ourselves up or to develop a religious hankering before He came. He came to us that first Christmas on His own initiative. Out of divine love and grace, He stepped into this world to call sinners.

And when He calls, He issues a directive – “Follow Me.” He does not call us to perform a ritual or observe a regulation, but to enter a relationship. Follow Me. To follow Him means to recognize ourselves as walking in the wrong direction in life, and to recognize His way as the right way. And then we turn in repentance from our sins, and place our faith and trust in Him, and commit ourselves to walk with Him from that point forward. And this is exactly what Levi did.

Like the fishermen before him, Levi did not take time to deliberate about it, or to get his affairs in order first. According to v14, “he got up and followed Him.” Leaving behind a lucrative career to follow Jesus would have raised many eyebrows in the eyes of his peers. But, so radically was he affected by the call of Christ that he called together his friends – fellow tax-collectors and other sinners – and he threw a party for Jesus at his home. Some commentators have suggested that this was a farewell meal, where he would part company with those from his former way of life. Maybe, but certainly it was more than that. When you follow Jesus, you want others to follow Him too. And you do whatever it takes to bring them together. Levi opened his home for what probably amounted to an evangelistic crusade, to give his friends an opportunity to meet Jesus so they could follow Him too. He was following Jesus by going to the lost with the gospel.

Jesus said to Simon and Andrew in Mark 1:17, “Follow Me and I will make you become fishers of men.” He said that because they were fishermen. Perhaps to Levi, He would say, “Follow Me, and rather than collecting taxes, I will make you a collector of souls.” And this is what He did. He followed, and He shared the good news that changed his life with others. According to v15, many of the tax-collectors and sinners were following Him too. After all, that is why He came. That’s good news for you and me. If you are a sinner, Jesus came for you.

II. Christ Did Not Come to Call the Righteous.

If you aren’t a sinner, Jesus didn’t come for you. He wasn’t interested in calling the righteous. But here’s the catch – there is none righteous. That is what Paul said in Romans 3:10. We are all sinners. None of us can stand before God claiming a righteousness of our own. The prophet Isaiah said our righteousness is but filthy rags in the sight of God. Every single one of us is a sinner, both by nature and by practice. We aren’t sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners. We inherited from Adam a fallen nature that inherently desires that which is beyond the boundaries of God’s standards. We crave to pursue our own desires rather than the glory of God, and we act the way we do because of our sinful nature. So radically are we affected by sin that we cannot climb into God’s presence on our own efforts. But in Christ, God came to save those who rightly recognize that they are sinners.

Even though there are none righteous, there are many who claim a self-righteousness. The scribes and Pharisees were among these. The group Mark describes here are the scribes of the Pharisees. Not all scribes were Pharisees, not all Pharisees were scribes. The Pharisees were a group of Jewish lay-people who devoted themselves to the observance of the Law as it was interpreted through their oral traditions. Their name means “separated ones,” for they believed that they were elite in their spirituality, set apart from the common, unclean folk. They believed that their rituals and their regulations, which were far more rigid and many times in contradiction with the written Word of God, would make them righteous. They would not admit that they were sinners in need of a Savior. And therefore, Christ could offer them no help in that state.

This speaks to us today because, while the Pharisees disappeared long ago, their legacy endures in those who believe that they will be counted righteous because of what they do and don’t do. When asked what their basis for entry into the Kingdom of God will be, these people will produce a checklist and say, “I don’t do this, and I don’t do this, and I do this and that.” And I truly believe that Christian churches are full of people today who do not understand the gospel and believe that they will go to heaven because they have been baptized, they have attended church, and they have stayed away from the really bad stuff in the world. But beneath this veneer of self-righteous are hearts which are just as sinful and souls just as lost as the vilest offender imaginable. Apart from the grace of God in Jesus Christ, all of us are separated from God by our sins. Unless we come to Him in faith and repentance, there is no offer of forgiveness and no hope for eternal life. If we pretend to be righteous on our own merits, we are cut off from God. But if we own up to our sins, and acknowledge our true condition, there is hope for us, because sinners are who Jesus came to save.

Jesus said in v17 that the healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. Many people are dying spiritually because of their sin-sickness, and rather than turning to the Great Physician for healing, they pretend to be well, and walk proudly into an eternal separation from God in hell. Warren Wiersbe says, “There are three kinds of ‘patients’ whom Jesus cannot heal of their sin sickness.”[1] The first are those who do not know about Him. That is why this time of year it is of the utmost importance for us to remember the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering which supports our more than 5,000 Southern Baptist missionaries who are taking the message of Christ to those who have never heard of Him. Secondly, Wiersbe says Christ cannot heal those who know about Him but refuse to trust Him. A person who acknowledges Jesus in a historical or sentimental way, but refuses to turn to Him in full faith and repentance for salvation has yet to comprehend why He came, and prefers to cherish those aspects of Christ which appeal to them, while rejecting the rest. Third, Wiersbe says are those who will not admit they need Him. These are the self-righteous ones who think they are going to make it to heaven on the basis of their own works. There will be no greater disappointment in all eternity than when these hear the Lord say those tragic words found in Matthew 7 – “Depart from Me, I never knew you.” Christ came to call sinners to follow Him, and those who refuse to acknowledge that they are sinners will neither hear nor heed His call.

Listen to the words of C. S. Lewis, writing in his classic work Miracles:

In the Christian story, God descends to re-ascend. … One may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through the green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the death-like region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping precious thing that he went down to recover.

My friend, what this image of the diver says to us is that Christ stripped Himself of His heavenly glory to step into this world in human flesh – entering into this life as the Christmas baby, and then going deeper, encountering sin at its depths, willingly facing death for us out of His great love, and rising again clutching the thing precious to Him which He came down to redeem. And what is that precious thing? It is the sinner. If you are a sinner, then He has come to save you, to take you back to the place of real life and real existence above the plane of this world and into His kingdom. Refuse Him if you will. Resist Him if you dare. Say to Him that you have no need of Him, and that you will be just fine on your own, trusting your own merits instead of His grace – and you will perish in the depths of darkness. But say to Him, “I am a sinner in need of saving,” and to you He will say, “For this reason I came.”

Perhaps here today there are those who have been trusting in the checklist of their own good deeds. Today, you can receive God’s Christmas Gift of Grace – the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior. Acknowledge your need for Him today – admit to God the sin in your life and be saved. Whether you have heard the call a million times before, or if today is the first, it does not matter. What matters is that He says to you now, “Sinner, follow Me. Receive My grace. Be forgiven and saved and enter my Kingdom.” It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, how vile you have been. You have not gone so far as to exhaust the limitations of God’s love, and you can receive it today in your life if you turn to Him repenting and believing and follow Him.

Maybe today there are those who are following Him, and like Levi, the desire of your heart is to bring others to Him. Perhaps this holiday season, you will have the opportunity to do just that. Commit it to God today and ask Him to lead you, and you follow, bringing others to Him as you go.

[1] Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Diligent (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1987), 25.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

"The Nativity Story" -- In Season and On Message

"The Nativity Story" -- In Season and On Message

Several people have asked my take on the new film, "The Nativity Story." Being ignorant, I have chosen to remain silent. Fortunately for us all, Al Mohler is neither ignorant nor silent. Read his excellent review on what appears to be a pleasant holiday surprise.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Mark 2:1-12: A Miraculous Controvery, Or A Controversial Miracle

Here we find that Jesus has returned to Capernaum. Near the end of Mark 1, Jesus found Himself surrounded by crowds of people in Capernaum. They were flocking to Him due to the upsurge in His popularity as a healer and worker of miracles. But He surprised His disciples by saying that the time had come for Him to “go somewhere else to the towns nearby,” so that He could preach there. He said, “For this is what I came for.” So, He went out into the neighboring regions throughout Galilee preaching the gospel. But now He has returned. Mark calls it “home” in 2:1, probably referring to the home of Peter, where Jesus likely stayed much of the time. And word got out that He had returned. Not surprisingly, the crowds returned.

In this account, there are three distinct “scenes.” From these scenes, we learn see three important truths about Jesus, namely His characteristic activity, His controversial announcement, and His confirmed authority.

I. Christ’s Characteristic Activity (vv1-2)

When word got out about Jesus being back in town, crowds of people gathered around the house where He was staying. No doubt, they hoped He had returned to do more of the same that they had seen Him do before. More healing, more casting out demons, more of the miraculous. But Jesus had declared in Mark 1:38 to His disciples that these things were not the reason for His coming. He had come to proclaim a message. Imagine the disappointment of this multitude when they gathered so densely that they filled the house and flowed out the door when all He began to do was “speak the word to them.”

In the first 10 chapters of Mark’s Gospel, he makes reference to the crowds that gathered around Jesus forty times. But they are no indication of the success of Jesus in fulfilling His mission. Rather they are a distraction to it. They hear Him preaching, they observe and receive the benefits of His compassion, but never do we read of great crowds of people turning in faith and repentance to respond to His gospel message of salvation. It is one thing to be a part of the crowd that gathers around Jesus. It is quite another thing to follow Him.

There is much going on today in the name of Christ which amounts to little more than drawing crowds. We could put on a fancy show, or hire a rock-and-roll band to take the stage, or prop up our programs with all sorts of entertainment value and word would get out, and the crowds would come. Its being done all over town this very day. But we are unashamedly committed to the characteristic activity of Jesus – we are speaking the Word.

The church where I was ordained was well-known in Winston-Salem for its excellent music ministry. I would venture to say that many people came to that church just to hear the music. But my pastor, Dr. Mark Corts, used to tell us that if we heard anyone say that they were there for the music, to assume that they were lost and take immediate opportunity to share the gospel of Christ with them. Church is not a place for entertainment. If it is entertainment a person is seeking, there are plenty of places to find it. But the Church of Jesus Christ is a place foremost for edification where lives are built up in the faith, and for evangelism where souls are saved. Though we may desire to draw a crowd hear the Word, we must never make drawing the crowd the goal of efforts. Otherwise, we may find that the situation has become not unlike the one in this passage – the crowd has obstructed access to Jesus, and those who understand their real need for Him have a hard time getting to Him because of the crowd. Crowds gather to observe, to be amused, to analyze and critique. But Christ is not seeking a crowd of spectators. He is seeking individuals who will respond to His message of salvation in faith and repentance to follow and serve Him.

This holiday season, we will see some of the crowd. They come and go at Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day. They come to feel good about themselves that they have taken part in religious activity. Perhaps there are some today who fit that description. But we have lost the focus of our mission if we fail to challenge those in the crowd to take the next step of commitment and service to Christ. So, if you are just a face in the crowd today, we speak Christ’s word to you today, calling you as He did in Mark 1:15 to repent and believe in the gospel, and like the woman in Mark 1:31 to take action in serving Him. His characteristic activity was proclaiming the Word, and it must be ours as well.

But notice in the text that the scene of His characteristic activity becomes a scene for …
II. Christ’s Controversial Announcement (vv3-7)

The crowd was so thick that four men carrying a paralytic friend could not get him to Jesus. They were hindered by the overflowing mass of spectators. So, they climbed the outer stairs to the roof of the house and began to tear the place apart.

First-century homes in the near east used their rooftops the way we use porches and patios today. They were flat spaces where people would retreat for rest, for fresh-air, to dry their laundry, to eat, to pray, to meditate or otherwise find solitude. The roof would be supported by beams that rested on the house’s exterior walls, and those beams would be cross-hatched by smaller poles and sticks and covered with thatch. Over the thatched roof would be a layer of sun-dried mud.

In the midst of Jesus’ teaching, a faint scratching sound might have been heard as the four friends began to dig through the layer of mud. Soon, clumps of the hardened mud would begin falling down upon the occupants of the house. Then, pieces of straw and splinters and chunks of wood would begin falling, possibly even becoming hazardous to those on the inside. And then when the hole was opened, the paralytic man was lowered into the presence of Jesus.

Now most of those present would have found this highly offensive. They would have objected to what they would have assumed was an act of vandalism, impropriety, and rude interruption. But notice that this was not the response of Jesus. Verse 5 says that He saw their faith.

A. His recognition of faith (v5a)

Though Jesus had been calling for faith since His first public announcement in Mark 1:15, this is the first time we read of anyone responding with it. It is of interest to me that the same Greek word is employed in both verses: pisteuo, the verbal form in 1:15; pistis, the noun form here in 2:5. Now, we are not told exactly what these men believe about Jesus, but we know this: They have come to believe strongly that Jesus Christ holds the answer to this man’s problems. So they stop at nothing to get their friend to Him.

Notice that the text does not say Jesus “knew of their faith,” or that He “assumed they had faith.” It says He saw their faith. Faith takes action. This is the point of that perplexing passage, James 2:24, which says, “You see that a man is justified (that is, that he is saved) by works and not by faith alone.” James is not saying, contrary to the opinion of many including Martin Luther, that the man is justified by works. The Bible is explicitly clear that we are only justified by FAITH! But James is saying that you cannot see that a person is justified unless their faith produces action that proves that their faith is authentic. You cannot see faith unless it is manifested in action! Jesus could see the faith of these men because it prompted them to rip the roof off of Peter’s house. I would venture to say that Peter was not nearly as impressed by it as Jesus was.

I am going to assume that each of you knows someone who has not met Jesus. Do you believe that Jesus can satisfy the deepest need of that friend? Can that person see your faith in action? Or do your actions contradict that faith? Does Jesus see your faith? To what lengths are you willing to go to get your friend to Jesus? Would you enlist the help of others? Would you climb to a rooftop? Would you tear off a roof? The actions of these men demonstrated great faith in Jesus, and great love for their friend. And Jesus recognized their faith. So, we see …

B. His response of forgiveness (5b)

It may very well be that these men never thought of the man’s sins. They were concerned about his sickness – the fact that he was paralyzed. But Jesus sees through the man’s temporal felt need to the abiding and greater need on his heart. Physical infirmities have an expiration date – upon our deaths we will be relieved of them. But there is a more pressing, more eternal, if you will, need which must be met in this life, lest it produce an infinite weight of suffering in the next life. Though not all of us share the gravity of this man’s sickness, each of us shares his burden of sin. And it is that need to which Jesus speaks.

He says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” No matter what state a person may be in today, that individual has no greater need than to hear these words of grace spoken from the mouth of Christ. He may have to suffer physically for the rest of his days on earth, but the assurance of the forgiveness of sins means that he can look forward to a day when he will never be touched by pain or grief again. He will be welcomed into the gates of Heaven with full pardon of all that He has done. The Word of God promises in Revelation 21:4 that in that place there will be no more tears, no more death, no more mourning, or crying or pain. Songwriter Jim Hill put it this way in a familiar gospel song:
There is coming a day when no heartaches shall come, no more clouds in the sky, no more tears to dim the eye. All is peace forever more on that happy golden shore. What a day, glorious day that will be!
There’ll be no sorrow there, no more burdens to bear, no more sickness, no pain, no more parting over there. And forever I will be with the One who died for me. What a day, glorious day that will be!
What a day that will be when my Jesus I shall see, and I look upon His face—the One who saved me by His grace. When He takes me by the hand and leads me through the Promised Land; What a day, glorious day that will be!

But our only hope for that day is that we know in this day that we have come to Jesus and received this pronouncement of His grace – “Your sins are forgiven.” This is controversial in our day. We live in a day where the prevailing opinion is that there is no such thing as sin. But my friends, if there is no such thing as sin, then how do we explain the need for a Savior? How do we explain Christmas? Christmas is about sin. That is what Matthew 1:21 says – “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Every tinseled tree, every packaged present, every red and green trapping is a testimony to the fact that we are sinners, and God loves us so much that He does not desire for us to perish eternally in our sins. Rather, He came to us in the person of Jesus Christ so that we could be forgiven and have eternal life with Him. And apart from Him, there is NO OTHER HOPE of Heaven.

As controversial as it is in our day, it was just as controversial in First Century Capernaum. Notice that in vv6-7, the scribes in attendance begin to reason, “Why does this man speak this way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?” That is pretty good reasoning. It is deductive logic: Only God can forgive sins. This man claims to forgive sins. Therefore this man claims that He is God. Therefore He blasphemes.

Even though they are reasoning in their hearts, Jesus is aware of it. Do you realize that He knows how you reason in your heart? You don’t have to say it out loud – Romans 2:16 says that God will judge the secrets of men, and Hebrews 4:13 says that all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do. I imagine that the scribes were quite shocked when Jesus began to address the secret reasoning of their hearts. I imagine we would be as well. But notice that He does not take issue with the content of their reasoning. In point of fact, they are correct in their premises, but it leads them to the wrong conclusion. Only God can forgive sin. Jesus does claim to forgive sins. Therefore, this is tantamount to His claiming to be God. However this is only blasphemy if it is not true. If He is God, then He does not blaspheme. But He has to demonstrate the validity of that claim. And He does so as we move to the scene of …

III. His Confirmed Authority (vv8-12)

Jesus puts a question to the scribes – “Which is easier, to say to paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’; or to say, ‘Get up and pick up your pallet and walk’?” After all, if He says to the man, “Your sins are forgiven,” then who is to say whether they have been or not? That is hard to prove. But if He says to him, “Get up and pick up your pallet and walk,” well, that is something altogether different. Now there would have to be proof in the pudding, so to say. If the guy couldn’t get up, then Jesus is a fraud. But Jesus says in not so many words, “I will play by your rules, then.” And then He tells them that He will prove that He has the authority to forgive sins.

Verse 10 marks the first time Jesus uses the title “Son of Man.” It occurs 14 times in Mark, and each time it is a title that Jesus applies to Himself. He uses it three times with reference to the apocalypse, when He will come in judgment. He uses it two times with reference to His authority, to both forgive sins and supersede their manmade traditions. But He uses it nine times with reference to His atonement – that the Son of Man would suffer and die for the redemption of humanity from sin. In Mark 10:45 He says, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” The title is a reference back to Daniel 7:13-14, which says, “I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, That all the peoples, nations and men of every language Might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion Which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one Which will not be destroyed.” This Son of Man which Daniel prophesied was the One to whom all the authority of God would be given, the One whom all mankind should serve, the One who would reign forever and ever.

And Jesus says, “To prove to you that I am that one, that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” He turns to the paralytic and says, “I say to you, get up, pick up your pallet and go home.” And he did. It wasn’t done in secret, or in private. The eyes of everyone present saw it. And once again, we read now for the third time that the people were amazed at His authority, and were glorifying God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” Indeed they hadn’t. The scribes did not have this kind of authority, nor did the priests or anyone else who had ever claimed to speak for God.

This act of healing was a marvelous demonstration that Jesus is who He said He was, and could do all that He claimed to do. He is the One who can forgive sin – controversial as it was in His day, controversial as it is in ours – we insist that He is the only One who can. He is God in the flesh who came to this earth as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He healed the paralytic as proof of His identity.

The same Lord offers to forgive the sins of anyone who will turn to Him in repentance and faith today. Someone may say, “Well, what miracle will He use to convince me?” But Jesus said in Matthew 12, Matthew 16, and Luke 11, that an evil and adulterous generation seeks out signs, but no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah: “just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” He rose from the dead on the third day following His death on the cross as our substitute, bearing our sins in our place, and that miracle is fully sufficient to convince all who long to experience the forgiveness of sins that He offers. He has fully demonstrated His divine authority to save, and will forgive anyone who turns to Him seeking salvation. You have no greater need in this life or the next, and no other hope outside of Him.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Critical realism

Critical Realism, according to Alister McGrath in The Science of God:

"I have found the form of critical realism associated with Roy Bhaskar to be a particularly congenial dialogue partner in formulating a scientific theology. ... I had long been dissatisfied with certain realist accounts of pure 'objectivity' which seemed to fail to take account of either the observer's involvement in the process of knowing, or the observer's location within history and hence at least partial conditioning by the contingencies and particularities of that location. ... A perfectly reasonable objection to the theological use of Bhaskar's ideas might be stated like this: Does not the use of philosophical notions such as these run the risk of making theology dependent upon such a philosophy? Is not what is being proposed tantamount to the enslavement of theology to a philosophy -- a development that Karl Barth and others so vigorously opposed? I respond with three points.

1. Bhaskar's critical realism is not being adopted as an a priori foundation for theology, which would be to determin its foundation and norms in advance.
2. Bhaskar's critical realism is being used in an ancillary, not a foundational role.
3. Bhaskar's critical realism is grounded a posteriori, in that its central ideas rest on a sustained engagement with the social and natural structures of the world, rather than a dogmatic a priori determination of what those structures should be, and consequently how they should be investigated.
... Bhaskar sets out the 'basic principle of a realist philosophy of science' as the belief 'that perception gives us access to things and experimental activity access to structures to exist independently of us.' ... A helpful way of beginning to clarify the concept of critical realism is to compare it with two alternative approaches, as follows:

Naive Realism: Reality impacts directly upon the human mind, without any reflection on the part of the human knower. The resulting knowledge is directly determined by an objective reality within the world.

Critical realism: Reality is apprehended by the human mind, which attempts to express and accommodate that reality as best it can with the tools at its disposal -- such as mathematical formulae or mental models.

Postmodern anti-realism: The human mind freely constructs its ideas without any reference to an alleged external world.

... Against postmodernism, critical realism affirms that there is a reality, which may be known, and which we are under a moral and intellectual obligation to investigate and represent as best we can. Against certain types of modernism, critical realism affirms that the human knower is involved in the process of knowing, thus raising immediately the possibility of the use of 'constructions' -- such as analogies, models, and more specifically social constructs -- as suitably adapted means for representing what is encountered.

... N. T. Wright ... describes critical realism as: a way of describing the process of 'knowing' that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence 'realism'), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence 'critical'). This path leads to critical reflection on the products of our enquiry into 'reality', so that our assertions about 'reality' acknowledge their own provisionality. Knowledge, in other words, although in principle concerning realities independent of the knower, is never itself independent of the knower."

-- end quote --

I could go on, but this lenghty quotation is enough to show that this is very interesting and may prove helpful for religious epistemology in coming discussions with our culture. A growing number of scholars in academia recognizes the bankruptcy of postmodernism, but there is nothing coming around popularly to replace it. I think this could be it.