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.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Leper and the Lord: Mark 1:40-45

Do you know what it is like to be shunned by someone? To be outcast by a group of people? Well, whatever social exclusion you and I might have faced at some point is no comparison to what lepers in ancient times experienced.

Leprosy was widespread in the ancient Near East. We have record in the Scriptures of Jesus encountering several lepers, and the ancient Jewish writings contain many instructions relating to those with the disease. Leviticus 13-14 contain laws relating to leprosy, but the Hebrew word used there for leprosy included other skin disorders as well as what we know refer to technically as leprosy. The Jewish scribes counted 72 different afflictions under the heading of leprosy.[1] Luke, whom we recall was a physician by training, refers to this man in his account as being full of leprosy. The word leprosy comes from a Greek word lepein which means to scale or peel off. And this is how the disease affected the body. It might begin with discolored nodules on the skin which proceed to ulcerate with foul smelling discharge. Accompanying this would be a loss of sensation in the surrounding areas where the disease attacked the nervous system. The muscles would begin to atrophy. The eyebrows would fall out. Tendons would contract, leaving the fingers drawn like claws. The eyes begin to set in a blank stare. The vocal chords are affected causing the person to wheeze with every breath or spoken word. Eventually the decay might become so thorough that a hand or foot would drop off the body. It might go on like this for nine years or more, ending in mental decay, coma, and eventually death. Barclay referred to it as “a terrible progressive death in which a man dies by inches.”[2]

Added to all the physical affliction of leprosy was the social ostracism. In Leviticus 13:45-46, the Law stated, “As for the leper who has the infection, his clothes shall be torn, and the hair of his head shall be uncovered, and he shall cover his mustache and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” More than an illness, leprosy was a living death sentence. Josephus says that lepers were treated “as if they were, in effect, dead men.”[3] They were cut off from comforts of family, from the company of friends, and from the community of faith. They were required to always keep a distance of fifty paces from other people. In Luke 17, we read about a group of ten lepers who “stood at a distance” crying out to Jesus.

The leper Mark tells us about had reached a state of such desperation that he disregarded all social custom came directly into the presence of Jesus. And we are struck in the narrative by the Leper’s Request and the Lord’s Response.

I. The Leper’s Request (v40)

Notice in the first half of the verse,

A. The attitude of his request (v40a)

He came to Christ in desperation. He was beseeching Jesus, or as the NIV has begging. He realized that he had no other hope. If what he had heard about Jesus was true, then he knew Jesus could help him. If Jesus couldn’t help him, then no one could. So he came desperately begging. But he also came in an attitude of humble reverence. He was falling on his knees before Him. This is a posture of worship. In fact, Matthew uses a different word here, proskunein – a word that is never used in any other way except to describe worship.

Jews believed that leprosy was a judgment from God, and as such, they believed only God could cleanse it. So this man came to the One whom He believed was God and he approached Him as we all must – in an attitude of worship, of reverence, of desperate hope in Him alone. I wonder today, when you approach Jesus, what is your attitude? Perhaps we should all learn from this leper something about the attitude we should adopt as we come into His presence to make our requests known.

Then notice secondly …

B. The articulation of his request (v40b)

As we see the words that this leper used in making his plea to the Lord, we notice first, a recognition of divine sovereignty. He says, “If you are willing … .” The leper knows that there is no demanding our way with God. God is God – He doesn’t get His marching orders from us. We come to Him acknowledging that He is sovereign. That means that His will is absolute. He is not subject to the dictates of another.[4] There are many today who say that we have the authority to come into God’s presence and claim by faith that He WILL do whatever it is we ask of Him. A friend gave me a little pamphlet a few years back called How to Write Your Own Ticket With God.[5] The author claims that Jesus appeared to him in a vision saying, "If anybody, anywhere will follow these four steps they will receive anything they want from God." Listen, we don’t even want to write our own ticket with God. What do we know about what we need or what is best for us? We want to submit ourselves to the sovereign will of the infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful God, just as this leper did. There is nothing wrong with making a request. We are invited, even commanded, to do so. But we must do so with a recognition of divine sovereignty that says, “If you are willing.”

In addition to the recognition of divine sovereignty, the leper speaks with a declaration of great faith. He says, “You can make me clean.” There is no doubt in his mind that Jesus Christ is the answer to his pressing need. He understands that Christ stands before him as the omnipotent God of the universe, and there is no problem He cannot handle, no disease He cannot cure, no need He cannot meet. Sometimes we may pray reluctantly about a concern, hiding some measure of doubt in God’s ability to do anything about it. But the leper knows there is no limit to His ability, and he boldly declares his faith in the power of God to help him. The only question is whether or not it is God’s will.

So in the leper’s request, we can learn some important lessons about how we should come into God’s presence making our requests known to Him. We should come humbly, reverently, in desperate hope and faith in Him alone to meet our needs, and accepting His will as a gracious provision for our lives. Following the leper’s request, we find …

II. The Lord’s Response (vv41-45)

Anyone present would have recoiled at the sight of this leper, and the disciples probably wanted to scurry him away from the presence of Christ. But Jesus didn’t respond with rebuke or condemnation. Instead, He responded to the leper’s request with …

A. Powerful Compassion (vv41-42)

The text says that Jesus was moved with compassion. To have compassion with someone is to identify with their sufferings. The Greek word has at its root the inner organs of the body, and the idea is that Jesus was touched at the deepest core of emotion, and that compassion was demonstrated in His works and His words.

1. Compassionate Works

Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him. You don’t touch lepers. Touch them and you become one of them. They were required by law to keep their distance from people so as not to contaminate anyone else. One rabbi boasted that whenever he came near a leper, he flung stones at them to keep them away.[6] But Jesus didn’t throw stones. He reached out His hand and did something for this man that no one had been willing to do for years. Who knows how long it had been since he had felt the touch of another hand upon him? His own family did not even dare touch him. But Jesus is not afraid to contract what the leper had. Instead, He desired for the leper to become infected with His contagious compassion. He touched him.

2. Compassionate Words

I am willing; be cleansed. Now you understand that the Word of God is authoritative. By His spoken word, all that exists was created. Hebrews tells us that He upholds all things by the Word of His power. He didn’t have to touch the leper. These compassionate words were sufficient to effect his healing. But often times our words must be accompanied by works which demonstrate our compassion to those in need. Jesus touched him to demonstrate that. But He also spoke the divine decree for the leper to be cleansed. He assured him of His willingness, and then declared that the miracle be done. And with that powerfully compassionate word of healing, Mark tells us Immediately, the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. Even disease must submit to the authority of Christ.

Combined with His powerful compassion, Jesus spoke to this newly cleansed leper …

B. Perplexing Commands (vv43-45)

You have heard of show and tell. Here Jesus commands the leper to show, and not tell. He said, “See to it that you say nothing to anyone.” Why would He say such a thing? Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus admonished people to secrecy about His person and work. Three times He commands the silence of the demons. Four times following miracles, He orders secrecy. Twice He requires it of the disciples. Didn’t He want people to know who He was and what He could do? Actually, yes; but just not yet. He did not want to be pursued out of premature and false understanding – as if He was a circus performer out to do great magic tricks. He had just escaped Capernaum to get away from the miracle-seeking mob, declaring in verse 38 that the priority of His mission was the proclamation of His message. He was not looking to draw a crowd of self-interested sign-seekers or create an uprising of heresy hunters out to put a premature stop to His mission before it was completed at the cross. So He commanded the leper to be silent about it.

But Jesus did give Him an explicit command to take action as a testimony to what had been done for him. He said, “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” Jesus did not come to invalidate the Old Testament. Here we see His own submission to the demands of the Law.

Leviticus 14 details exactly what those who have been cleansed of leprosy are to do. It is long and complicated, but I will try to summarize it as succinctly as I can. He is to go to the priest, and the priest will accompany him outside the camp – that is, to the outlying area away from the walls of the city. Then the priest will inspect him, and if the priest agrees that the leprosy has been healed, there is to be a sacrifice. The priest is to take two live clean birds, cedar wood, a scarlet string, and hyssop. He is to slay one of the birds in an earthen vessel over running water as a guilt offering. He is then to take the hyssop, dip it in the blood and sprinkle the healed leper seven times with the blood and declare him to be clean. He is to take the living bird, and dip it into the blood of the dead bird, and release it to fly away. The cedar wood and scarlet string are to be dipped in the blood as well. Then the man is to go and cleanse himself, and come back in seven days. When he returns to the priest, he is to shave his head and face of all hair, wash his clothes and body, and offer two male lambs and a yearling ewe together with flour and oil as a sin offering. The priest will take the blood from the sacrifice and apply it to the cleansed leper’s right ear lobe, right thumb, and right big toe. Then he will take the oil and do the same, followed by pouring the remainder of the oil over the cleansed leper’s head. The Law also makes provision for those who cannot afford all these sacrificial supplies.

Now, these are the instructions Jesus told the man to observe as a testimony. I want you to imagine for a moment that you are the priest on duty that day. How many times in the centuries since the Law had been issued to Moses do you think they had ever had to perform this leper-cleansing ceremony? I would venture to say it had been a rare occasion. So here comes this fellow, probably pushing a wheelbarrow with a plank of cedar, a hyssop branch, a scarlet cord and a cage with two live birds in it. The priest probably had to go to the books to find out what to do with all this stuff. This was covered on one of those days he probably had daydreamed his way through seminary class thinking, “I will never need to know all this stuff!”

Jesus said this would be a testimony. How so? Look at the picture that the priest will see as he carries out the instructions of the law with this newly cleansed leper. Together they go outside the camp – to the area where three years later, Christ would go to die for sin on the cross. The bird is slain in an earthen vessel over running water. Jesus Christ was incarnate as a man – he took upon Himself this earthen vessel of human flesh, and was anointed by the Spirit of God in the form of a dove at His baptism in the running water of the Jordan. Cleansing water is often used to symbolize the Word of God. So here we see a picture of the sacrifice of the body of Christ according to the prophecies of the Scriptures. Then the blood of the imperfect sacrifice is sprinkled seven times, the number of perfection, as a picture of Christ the Perfect Sacrifice whose blood would cleanse us all from sin. Then the live bird, dipped in the blood of death, would fly away, showing how Christ would rise from the dead and ascend back into heaven. As the cleansed leper washed his clothes, he demonstrates how in Christ we put off the old sinful life and put on the righteousness of Christ. After this, the former leper can come back into the camp. Ephesians says that in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

When the man returns, he offers a more costly sacrifice – the lambs. He offered the birds as a guilt offering, the lambs as a sin offering. This speaks to our need of a double-cure. We need cleansing because we are sinners by nature, and because we sin in practice. The blood of Christ is our double-cure, cleansing us of the guilt of our fallenness and forgiving us of the sins we commit. The blood of the lamb is applied to the ear lobe, a picture of our ability in Christ to receive the word of God. It is applied to the right thumb, indicating our new ability to do the work of God. Then it is applied to the toe, symbolizing our freedom to walk in the ways of God. And then the blood is sealed with the oil, an indication of the Spirit’s enabling us to do all of this for the glory of God. Then the oil is poured over his head, a picture of the need for us to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

What a powerful testimony this ceremony is to the life-changing power of Christ! What a vivid picture for us, not only of what He could do for the leper, but what He has come to do for all of us sinners by being our ultimate sacrifice for reconciliation with God. Now, we do not know if the formerly-leprous man did all of this as Jesus commanded. We know that he did disobey Christ in that v45 says he went out and began to proclaim it freely, with the result that Jesus could no longer publicly enter a city. But that didn’t stop those who were desperately seeking the hope Christ offers from coming to Him. Even though He remained out in the unpopulated areas, the people were coming to Him from everywhere.

I find it interesting that in that day, Jesus commanded silence, but almost always there was disobedience in that those people went and told it anyway. Christ is no loner commanding silence. The Great Commission has ordered us to go and make disciples of all nations, to preach the gospel to all creation, to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins, and to be Christ’s witnesses. But even though the command has changed, the result has not. We are still guilty of disobeying it. When Christ ordered silence, the people spoke. Now He commands us to speak, and we are silent. But the world is full of those who need to hear: those who are afflicted, not with the leprosy of the skin but the leprosy of the soul. Just as this man’s disorder was decaying his body from the inside out, so sin has radically affected all of humanity. It is destroying lives as it produces its death radiating outwardly from the core of our being. But Christ has been moved with compassion in response to our condition. He has reached out to touch us in our leprous state by taking on human flesh, identifying Himself with our own condition, and carrying our sins to Calvary to die in our place. And he is risen from the dead proclaiming complete cleansing for all who will come to him in humble reverence and in desperate hope and faith recognizing that He alone can satisfy our greatest need—that of deliverance from the bondage of sin. He alone can save us, and promises to do so if we turn to Him in faith and repentance.

[1] James R. Edwards, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 68.

[2] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Volume 1, Revised Edition), Philadelphia: Westminster, 295.

[3] Cited in Ibid.

[4] Personal class notes, Dr. Bruce Little, The Problem of Evil, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, NC. April 12, 2005.

[5] Kenneth Hagin, How to Write Your Own Ticket With God, Tulsa, Okla.: Rhema/Faith Library Publications, 1997.

[6] Barclay, 296.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

C. S. Lewis: Of Other Worlds

I have just completed C. S. Lewis's Of Other Worlds. It is a delightful treatment of stories as a medium for conveying a message. The first portion of the book contains essays on storytelling, particularly related to the genres of fantasy and science fiction. These essays contain surprising treats as Lewis reveals some of the processes leading to the writing of some of his most beloved stories. He also wrestles with those who read into his stories meanings he never intended for them to have.

Part II of the book contains four short stories (one incomplete) written by Lewis which embody much of the skill he has written about in Part I. By far my favorite of these stories is "The Shoddy Lands." At the risk of ruining the story for some, I will summarize it here for those who may never read it. It is my hope that this summary will cause you to want to read it.

Lewis is in his quarters at the University when former student Durward phones and says he would like to come by for a visit. He does not tell Lewis that he is bringing his fiancee Peggy along. Lewis's rumination about this is humorous and warrants reading in itself. At any rate, in the midst of shallow conversation, Lewis finds himself mysteriously translated to a "shoddy" land. The atmosphere is a dull grey. The trees are obscure -- like lamposts (interesting Lewisian inclusion here) with green blobs stuck on top of them. The grass and flowers are just as shoddy. Except the daffodils -- they have remarkable detail and seem extremely well-defined and beautiful. There is a light at the center of this place, and en route to find the source of it, Lewis encounters the "walking things." They are equally nondescript, with only well-groomed male faces and fine women's clothing being distiguishable. When Lewis finds the source of the light, it is coming from the window of a jewelry shop, where all the jewels are remarkably "real." One shop window after another is full of detailed and defined items of womens clothing. But then Lewis notices that at the center of it all is a gargantuan human figure, a scantily clad woman. It is Peggy, only Peggy-improved. She gazes at her own naked form in a mirror, seemingly liking what she sees. Meanwhile, Lewis hears the faint sound of two knockings. Accompanying the one is the voice of Durward, begging to be let in. Accompanying the other is a more distant voice, calling out, "Child, child, child, let me in before the night comes." At this, Lewis finds himself back in his quarters with Durward and the old Peggy.

Lewis hypothesizes what happened, suggesting that somehow he had been teleported into the mind of Peggy. There an enlarged and improved view of herself is the center of her attention, and the only things that have definition are the things that interest her -- flowers, fine clothing, jewelry, and handsome men. She has locked out most of humanity, all of nature except that which can be cut, vased and presented to her as a gift, her own fiance, and God Himself. Lewis confesses the whole expereince to be rather disquieting -- not the least because of the pity he feels for Durward, but moreso because of concern that this sort of experience might become common. The story ends thus: "And how if, some other time, I were not the explorer but the explored?"

WOW! What a punch! What if somehow in a conversation the other party was enabled to take a tour of my own thought life? Who would wish this on himself or anyone else? But in this story, Lewis weaves marvelous detail (detail of a detail-less world!-- genius!) into his predictable dry wit and uses the story to pull a punch in the end that he could have not accomplished with such effectiveness through any other medium.

I lament that I am not a storyteller. I have neither skill nor interest in the act at all. But, I am not immune to the impact of a good story for conveying a powerful message. In my mind, no one ever did it better than C. S. Lewis, and in Of Other Worlds, he provides brilliant instruction, defense, and example of the artform. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and highly recommend it.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Two Posts Worth Reading

Today, as I perused the blogosphere, I came across two posts that would be worth your time reading.

First, Tom Ascol laments drawing to a close his 73 message series in Jeremiah. He identifies emotions to which I can certainly relate as I preach prolonged series in Bible books as well (and all Immanuel's people said ...). My question: How did he limit it to 73? Read Tom's post here:

Second, Dan Phillips has posted an excellent and humbly honest piece on dealing with difficult texts at the Pyromaniacs blog. Check it out here:

Monday, November 06, 2006

2000 Hits!

I want to thank the blogosphere for 2000 hits! I realize that is less than some of you receive in an hour, but I am humbled that 2000 people have come to read what I have to say. To God be the glory. Please leave comments so we can know who you are. Especially you, Ottawa, who hits the blog once a week at least by searching for my name! WHO ARE YOU?

Keeping Your Focus: Mark 1:32-39

As I studied this passage before, during, and in the days following my vacation, I have been encouraged and struck by two important points here that I want to elaborate on today. These truths have edified and encouraged me, and I believe that they need to be understood by others as well.

Let me remind us up front of the nature of the person at the center of this narrative. We are talking about Jesus here. Let there be no mistaking of identities. Who is Jesus? He is the eternal God of the universe, incarnate as a man. We call Him the “Son of God,” indicating that His nature is identical to that of God the Father, but by no means implying that Jesus is inferior or subordinate to God. He is God. I emphasize this because I am always alarmed at the number of people who identify themselves as Christians but who misunderstand this aspect of who Jesus is. The whole of the New Testament is a testimony to the fact that God came to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He wrapped Himself in a human body to come and dwell among us and to reconcile sinful humanity to Himself.

When Jesus spoke and when Jesus acted, those who saw and heard Him were understandably struck by His authority. It was unfamiliar to them, for though they regularly encountered those who were godly, in Jesus Christ, they encountered God Himself. More than a good man, more than a godly man, Jesus is the God-man. Therefore, when He spoke, He spoke divine truth with all the authority of His divine nature. When He acted, He operated without limitation being both the creator and sustainer of all that exists. We have seen in this gospel how the people were amazed at the authority of His teaching. We have seen how that authority was validated through His miraculous acts of healing and casting out demons. On a single Sabbath day, the people heard Him teach in the synagogue and saw Him deliver a man from demonic bondage. A small group of witnesses observed Him restore the health of an ailing woman in her home. And as word began to spread throughout the city, more and more people were coming to Him to seek His aid for their needs.

Mark says in vv32-33 that once the Sabbath restrictions ended, the whole city gathered at the door of Peter’s house, bringing to Him all who were ill and those who were demon-possessed. He had earned a reputation already as being the one who could meet their needs. Many in this room can give testimony to the ability of Christ to meet our deepest need – that of salvation from sin – in addition to other needs that we have encountered in life. There are many others who find themselves often in the need-meeting capacity. I can honestly say that I don’t know of many churches where the members have given so selflessly of their time, their energy, and their resources to help those in need than Immanuel. Some of you have earned reputations of being need-meeters. That is a good thing – you are a lot like Jesus if that is the case. However, if this is the case, then you know all too well how easy it is for you to lose your focus in the midst of meeting the many needs that surround you. Now, if Jesus, the infinite God incarnate, took certain measures to make sure He kept His focus, then it is all the more necessary for us to do the same. So, how do you keep your focus as you serve the Lord? Let’s look at two points in these verses.

I. To keep your focus, recognize that what is good can be a distraction from what is best.

Jesus healed people, but He was not in the healing business. They brought to Him all who were ill and demon-possessed, and He healed many and cast out many demons, but not all. There was more He could have done, but He didn’t. Why? Because He had not come to be a Healer. He came as a Savior proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom and announcing salvation to those would receive Him. Jesus never went out looking for sick people to heal. He went out preaching and teaching. And in the course of it, sick people came to Him or else people brought them to Him, and because of His love and compassion for humanity, and to authenticate His claims, He exercised His divine authority and healed many of them. In Mark’s Gospel, we will read specific examples of His healing: We saw him heal a woman with a great fever; we will read about Him healing those with leprosy, paralysis, a withered hand, a flow of blood, a man who is deaf and mute, and two blind men. We will see Him cast out demons and even raise a girl from the dead. But His mission was not a healing campaign.

If Jesus had been on a healing campaign, there would have been no end to His work. Because of sin’s effect on humanity, there will always be sickness and suffering everywhere in the world. Healing is good, but it is not why He came. He came to satisfy the demands of the law, and then die in the place of sinners. And when He had done all of this, He was able to say on the cross, “It is finished.” The work of healing will never be finished until our bodies are transformed at the resurrection. But the work of redemption was accomplished perfectly and permanently at the cross. This was the mission He came to fulfill.

Because of Jesus’ work of healing, He had become the talk of the town, and all the attention was becoming a distraction to His primary mission of proclaiming God’s salvation. This hits home to us in a couple of ways. First, as I have already mentioned, many of you find yourselves in a position of helping others frequently. That is wonderful. I don’t know when we are more like Jesus than when we are helping someone in need. But, as followers of Jesus, we must keep in mind that the main thing is our mission to make disciples. That does not mean that we turn a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a cold heart to those who are in need. Jesus certainly did not do that. But it does mean that our efforts to help those in need must be kept in the context of our task of evangelism and missions, otherwise we lose our focus. There are many worthwhile causes for you to be involved in, and I hope each of you is involved in some way with helping those in need. If you are interested in feeding the hungry, for instance, you realize that your resources are limited and you can never feed them all. And you realize that if you feed that person today, they will be hungry again tomorrow. However, you have something you can give that person which will satisfy their greatest need and their deepest longing which will satisfy them permanently. That is the gospel. In John 4, Jesus pointed to Jacob’s well and said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”

When Jesus said in John 14:12 that the ones who believe in Him would do even greater works than He did, He meant that we have the ability to proclaim His gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation. We can point people to His finished work at the cross as the satisfaction for their sins, and lead them to experience the forgiveness and eternal life that He offers. If we busy ourselves with much good activity, we risk being distracted from the best thing we can do – the “even greater works” that He spoke of – namely, sharing Christ with a lost world. We will have exhausted ourselves doing good, and forfeited what is best. So, I am not saying, “Don’t be involved in good and benevolent work,” but I am saying, keep the main thing the main thing. And the main thing is to make Christ known among the nations.

This is not only true in our lives as individuals, but also in our work here in the church. Every day, we have the opportunity to do much good, and we could do more than we do often times. But, as a church, we must prioritize the ministry of evangelism and discipleship. We can’t feed every hungry person in Greensboro and we can’t pay everyone’s power bill for them. But we can help them to know Christ, and in doing so we have helped them to understand and satisfy their greatest need. But what of their temporal felt need? When we can meet that need in the context of our greater ministry of the gospel, then we should. But we should not be ashamed to recommend to that person that they contact those secular agencies which specialize in those needs, but who can do nothing for that person’s soul. The government and charitable organizations can do much for those in need. They cannot lead the person to salvation in Christ. That is our mission. Our sole (S-O-L-E) business is the soul (S-O-U-L) business, and we must keep that as our focus in all that we do. If we are to keep our focus, as a church, and as individual followers of Christ, we must not allow that which is good to distract us from that which is best.

Now, I want to chase a rabbit before I get into the second point here on keeping our focus, but it is an indirectly related rabbit. Let’s say it is a cousin to this point about distraction. We have to deal with the mysterious statement of v34 which says that Jesus “was not permitting the demons to speak, because they knew who He was.” Why did Jesus silence the demons? Because they knew who He was. It was not because they would say something wrong about Him. After all, when the demon spoke in v24, it said, “Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are – the Holy One of God.” These are true statements. He is the Holy One of God and He had come to destroy the work of Satan, as we read in 1 John 3:8 – “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” But Jesus did not let the demons speak. This in itself speaks to His authority in that He can restrict the work of Satan and his demons.

But it also says something about the character and the content of their testimony to Him.

First of all, Jesus refused their testimony because of their character, their nature. He was not going to let demons, whose characteristic activity is stealing, killing, and destroying, give testimony to Him as the Son of God. Satan is a liar and the father of all lies. If he and his demons begin speaking about Jesus, then will it not be assumed that this would be a lie as well? It will discredit all that He has come to do and say. And then also, He silences them because of the content of their testimony. They would like nothing more than to popularize Jesus as a healer and worker of miracles, because this would distract from His message of salvation. And if they stir up curiosity and interest in Jesus, then opposition will arise that will disrupt His mission of redemption prior to His completion of His work on the cross. So Jesus silences the demons to prohibit them from distracting from His message and disrupting His mission.

We come now to the second point …

II. To keep your focus, you must diligently maintain your priorities (vv35-39)

Under a cloak of early morning darkness following this flurry of activity, Jesus disappeared from the crowds. He withdrew to a secluded place. Apparently it was not secluded enough – Peter and the others (presumably, Andrew, James and John) found Him there and said, “Everyone is looking for you.” Of course they were. There were more sick to heal, more needs to meet. But in the seclusion of solitude, Jesus was able to concentrate on His priorities.

A. The Priority of Personal Spiritual Intimacy (v35)

What was Jesus doing when they found Him? He was praying. Now, this is an enigma in a sense. Remember who He is – He is God. So who is He praying to? He is praying to God. Here the mystery of the Trinity is encountered in a full sense. God is the Father, God is the Son, God is the Spirit. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God. But there are not three Gods. There is one God in three persons. The Father is neither the Son nor the Spirit, the Son is neither the Father nor the Spirit, and the Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. But all are God: One God in three Persons. And, as One God, the three persons of the Trinity work in divine cooperation.

But we must not forget that combined with the mystery of the Trinity is the mystery of the incarnation. Christ was fully God, but He was also fully man. Not half-and-half, not some proportional split, but 100% God and 100% man. And as man, He was dependent on prayer as a means of cultivating intimacy with the Father. J. Oswald Sanders wrote, “Though truly divine, His deity in no way affected the reality of His human nature. His prayers were as real and intense as any ever offered. His prayer life bore eloquent testimony to this. So completely did He renounce the independent exercise of His divine powers and prerogatives, that, like the weakest of His followers, He became dependent on His Father for all. As we do, so He received His daily and hourly needs through the medium of prayer.”[1]

Annie Johnson Flint put it poetically:

Since Christ was God, why must He pray?

By Him all things were known and made,

Omniscient and omnipotent,

Why need He ever ask for aid?

Ah! but He put His glory by,

Forgot a while His power great,

Humbled Himself, took human form

And stripped Himself of royal state.

For Christ was also Man; to feel

Man’s strongest tempting, and to know

His utmost weakness, He became

Like other men and suffered so.

And touched with our infirmities,

For those few years like us to be,

He still remembers we are dust,

Since He was tempted like as we.

But well He knew the source of help,

Whence comes all power, strength and peace,

In blest communion with His God,

Care and perplexity would cease.

When all earth’s sorrow and its sin

Too heavy on His spirit weighted,

Quiet and solitude He sought

And to His Father prayed.[2]

Now here’s a question for you: If Christ, being God in the flesh, must take time away to cultivate the intimacy of His soul with the Father through prayer, then how much more so must we? If we fail to keep our focus, the activity of life and work in good things will demote prayer and our devotional life to a place of second stature, when it absolutely MUST remain a priority.

B. The Priority of Pursuing a Calling

With all of Capernaum looking for Him, Jesus surprised His disciples by saying to them, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby. Why would He want to leave when His popularity is at such a peak, and the demand for His miracles so great? He gives the reason: “So that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for.” He had not come to heal as many people as possible but to confront humanity with the promises, claims, and challenges of the gospel of salvation. He did not come to deliver men from sickness but from sin. He knew His mission, and He pursued it diligently as a priority. So they left, and verse 39 says that He went to synagogues all throughout Galilee preaching. As He did so, He encountered demons just as He did in Capernaum, and He cast them out. As we will see in the verses that follow, He also encountered sickness, and He healed them. But His calling was to preach the gospel of salvation to reconcile mankind to God, and this He pursued as a calling over all other activity.

As you follow Christ, you will be faced with many opportunities to do all sorts of things, many of them good and noble. But unless you know what it is that God has called you to do, then you will never be able to operate with focus, and you will see little impact made as you expend energies on all the other activities. Get alone with God in prayer like Jesus did. Ask Him to clarify the sense of calling He has placed on your life. Know what it is He wants you to do for Him, and do it with all your might, and with determination and diligence. It is not about how many things you can do, but how well you can do that to which He has called you. If you are His, then He has called you. He has called you unto salvation, and He has called you unto service. That is an undeniable biblical truth. It is your task to determine how He desires to use you, and then to pursue that as a priority in your life, cultivating your spiritual intimacy with Him as you do it. That is how Jesus kept His focus in the face of a flood of demands, and it is how you and I must keep our focus as well.

[1] J. Oswald Sanders, The Incomparable Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1971), 121.

[2] Cited in Ibid, 121.