Archive for the ‘Judaism’ Category

A Heart of Stone

Heart of Stone

Political discourse in America today has become vitriolic — constant lying, name-calling, bickering, accusations and spewing pent up anger. Indeed it has gotten so bad that even the president has joined the fray.  Social media outlets like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook only serve to exacerbate the situation, as they have become bully pulpits for angry politicians and journalists.  It’s gotten to the point where I dread looking at social media or reading/listening to the news, as there is a paucity of objective discussion and reporting everywhere. Personal civility and decorum in America is rapidly declining, particularly in the political realm.  

           Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.                                           –Proverbs 16:24*

 Words are like bullets—once they’re let fly there’s no taking them back. The Epistle of James calls the tongue “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).  By using this  strong comparison, James emphasizes that Christians must be mindful of the colossal power of what proceeds from their mouths.  The epistle goes on to note the inconsistency of praising God with one breath and cursing people made in God’s image with the next (vv. 9–10). Words can demean and destroy.

When you have learned to walk in the light of the Lord, bitterness and contention are impossible.”  —Oswald Chambers

This leads me to ask the question, “How radically would America change if suddenly all the politicians who profess to be Christians started behaving like Christ followers, becoming beacons of light in the dark political landscape?”

In January 2017, the New York Times reported that 91 percent of the new Congress identified as Christian.1 The Times went on to say that this figure was only slightly less than the 95 percent reported in 1961. Allmost all US presidents, including President Trump, have been Christians according to Pew Research.2

Christianity isn’t a label or tag; it’s a life, guided by the Holy Spirit, where an individual endeavors to be Christ-like in thoughts, words and deeds.  Inevitably, all Christians transgress and fall short of the glory of God along the way, but striving towards the ultimate goal of Christ-likeness remains a constant.

Restoration and transformation are two recurring themes in the Book of Ezekiel. Restoration is displayed in God saving the people of Israel from bad shepherds, giving them societal safety, reuniting tribes, and God’s children being restored to a right relationship with Him.  God’s ultimate restoration of his people is exemplified by Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. 

On the other hand, Ezekiel describes transformation as a personal, spiritual experience. To the ancient Hebrews, the heart was the locus of a person’s being, their mental processes, emotions and personal will. The Miriam Webster Dictionary defines hard-hearted as, “having or showing no kindness or sympathy for other people.”  In the passage from Ezekiel 36 below, evidence of spiritual transformation in God’s children is the softening of their hearts. 

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.  —Ezekiel 36:26-27

One of those laws referred to in the Ezekiel passage is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus quotes this verse in Mark 30:5, after being asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” In the next verse, Mark 30:6, Jesus adds to this, “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”   

This brings me back to politics.  Christians who also happen to be politicians don’t get a free pass when it comes to loving their neighbors.  Christian politicians contributing to the Capitol Hill vitriol need to take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves whether their actions glorify God. Are they being patient, humble, pure and obedient to God?

In Colossians 3:8, Paul tells us to put away anger, wrath, and malice; instead, he says in verse 12, we must, “…put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering.”  This is the model Christ gave his followers through many examples in his own life; it’s the model all Christians should strive to adhere to in their actions towards believers and nonbelievers alike.

Christian politicians should display a Christ-like heart—Ezekiel’s “heart of flesh.”  Christians behaving like Christ can bring real healing transformation. Around 312 A.D, during the reign of Emperor Constantine, Rome recognized Christianity as a legal religion.   This remarkable feat, going from persecuted underground church to a legal religion, recognized by the Empire, was accomplished not by violent revolution, but through years of adhering to the tenets of the faith while suffering terrible persecution.

It was not political or military power that ultimately convinced Rome to accept Christianity, but the perseverance and faithfulness to Christ’s teachings by the early Christians. The tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, and longsuffering displayed by Christians prevailed over Roman cruelty and oppression. American politicians could achieve a lot by following their example.

 Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.  —from an Anglican Prayer of Confession

 1 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/03/us/politics/congress-religion-christians.html

2 https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/20/almost-all-presidents-have-been-christians/

* All Bible quotes are taken from the NIV Bible.

 

Transformed not Conformed

Parthenon

The Parthenon (Temple of Athena) Athens, Greece

The lines between right and wrong are growing increasingly blurry in American society today.  Modern culture encourages us to be more accepting and inclusive. Our elected officials have passed many laws at the national, state and local levels that conflict with a Christian world view. Americans are bombarded with modern culture images, messages and social mores in the broadcast, cable, print and web news sites, as well as on the ever-increasing social media and other Internet websites.   

Despite the rapid social changes and pressures to conform, for matters of Christian faith and living the deciding question remains “what does the Bible say?”  When the Apostle Paul and Silas visited the city of Berea on a missionary journey, Paul preached the Gospel in the local synagogue, where it was received with great enthusiasm. Acts 17: 11 (NIV) says that the Berean Jews “…received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” The Bereans recognized the authority of the Scriptures. Acts 17 goes on to tell us that as a result of Paul’s preaching there, many Berean Jews believed, as well as many prominent Greek women and men.

My wife and I are currently participating in a small group study examining the collision of Christian, Jewish, Roman and Hellenistic cultures during the ministry of the Apostle Paul.  Hellenistic culture was the pervasive Greek culture that influenced the entire Mediterranean region during Paul’s time.

Paul’s journeys led him to Corinth, a flourishing, modern Roman colony that Julius Caesar had intentionally populated with second rate Roman citizens, most of whom had failed in life while living in Rome. In Paul’s day, the city was wicked and corrupt, filled with prostitutes, crooks, swindlers and lowlifes. Corinth had a Jewish synagogue and Paul was eager to share the Gospel there.

Paul arrived in Corinth with only the possessions he was carrying.  Shortly after arriving, he met a Jewish, Christian married couple named Priscilla and Aquila. Like Paul, they were tentmakers by trade and they owned a business in Corinth.  They took Paul into their business and invited him to live in their home, where Corinth’s first house church was established. 

Paul frequented the synagogue in Corinth, but met with much resistance from the Jewish leaders.  Growing weary of Paul’s message, these leaders eventually drug him before the local Roman proconsul Gallio in AD 51 and brought a series of charges against him. When Gallio learned that the dispute was about Jewish law and that Paul had not violated any Roman laws, he refused to judge the case and told the Jewish leaders to settle the matter themselves. Paul’s attempt to convert the Corinthian Jews failed.

After this, Paul turned away from the Jews in Corinth and took his message to the local gentiles.  Subsequently, many converted to the faith.  These converts included a high-level Corinthian leader named Erastus. The NIV translation of Paul’s epistle to the Romans refers to him as the “Director of Public Work” in Corinth. After Paul’s eventual departure from Corinth, he wrote to the Corinthian church, telling them that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). What a concept for people surrounded by pagan shrines and magnificent Greek and Roman temples!

Paul also journeyed to Athens hoping to spread the Gospel.  Athens was the center of Hellenistic culture, a city full of temples and idols.  There Paul had the opportunity to preach to the Areopagite Council (or Areopagus), a powerful, court-like body made up of Athenian aristocrats.  Despite Paul’s immense knowledge of the Scriptures and his skills in persuasive speaking, he failed to persuade the Areopagus. Paul failed to establish a church in Athens and departed the city in disappointment. 

Like Paul, Christians today will not always succeed against the tide of negative cultural change and influences, but they can remain steadfast in their beliefs without succumbing to cultural pressures. Paul succeeded in forming churches in some places and failed in others, but his approach was always based upon the same foundation—a deep knowledge of the scriptures; reliance upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit; and living in a manner that glorified Christ.

As Christians living in modern American society, we can learn a lot from Paul. We live in a culture filled with idols—people or objects we value more than God.  We may not literally bow down to these idols, but we worship them all the same.  Rather than existing as statues and shrines, today’s idols are more likely to adorn the covers of gossip and fashion magazines, make movies, play professional sports, or work in politics, i.e. modern cults of personality.  Some people idolize inanimate objects like money, expensive cars, exquisite homes, extravagant vacations, or their jobs. Others make idols of wealth, drugs, alcohol, cell phones, social media or Internet porn. I shudder to think what negative effects the advent of the sex robots will have on our culture. 

Today, in a world that’s filled with idols, Paul’s warning to the church in Rome is more relevant than ever:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good,  pleasing and perfect will.  Romans 12:2 (NIV)

J.B. Phillips’s, author of the bestselling book Your God is Too Small, paraphrases Romans 12:2 like this: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity”

Christians must let God’s spirit shape their lives, not the influences of modern culture. Let Colossians 3:12 (NIV) be your guide:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved,  clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

Christians in the early Church influenced the culture around them because they loved one another and cared for the sick, the homeless, orphans, widows, lepers and other disenfranchised members of society.  The conversion of Rome to Christianity didn’t occur through power and intimidation, but through weakness and self-sacrifice. Think about these words from Paul:

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults,in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10 (NIV)

Christians in America cannot stem the tide of the negative cultural influences that constantly collide with our lives and Christian world view, but we can focus on the presence of God’s Holy Spirit to shape our hearts and minds. In this politically charged era, we still have certain obligations to our laws and government that we must adhere to as the price for living in this great nation; but as  Jesus said, we must “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.”  We must obey the laws of the land and work to change those laws when necessary, but we must not allow our Christian beliefs to be conformed to modern culture. In every situation, remember to ask, “What does the Bible say?”

 

 

What do you believe?

Martin Luther by Ferdinand Pauwels

Martin Luther by Ferdinand Pauwels

Tomorrow much of the world will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses, when a brave Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed a revolutionary document to the church door in Wittenburg, Germany (see http://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html).   The document, consisting of 95 parts, denounced his church’s practice of selling “indulgences” to absolve sin, which ran contrary to Luther’s Bible-based belief that that salvation could be attained through faith and by God’s grace alone.  I call him brave, because Luther’s act put him at risk of excommunication and possibly even death.

When called before the Catholic Council (Reichstag) in the city of Worms and ordered to renounce the document, Luther refused, saying  the famous words, “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann kein anders.” (Here I stand.  I cannot do otherwise).   Rather than renouncing his 95 Theses,  Luther eventually renounced his monastic vows and married a former nun. His act of faith rocked the Catholic church and ultimately spawned what today is known as the Protestant Reformation.

What would you do if your Christian faith were challenged?  What if someone asked you about your Christian beliefs?  How would you reply? I’d like to think I’d be as brave as Luther, but in reality I probably wouldn’t. How many people are willing to risk everything for Christ? Recently, we’ve heard stories of Christians in Iraq and Syria identifying themselves to ISIS terrorists and being executed, rather than hide their Christian faith. How would you respond?

Have you ever really thought about what your Christian faith means to you?  Sure, you might recite the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed at church every week, but did you ever really stop to think what those words mean?   I’m an Anglican.  My denomination, the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), subscribes to three creeds:  the Nicene, Apostle’s, and Athanasian.  Unless you’re a relatively new Christian, you’re probably familiar with the first two, which are worded very similarly.  The Athanasian Creed is a bit harder to digest, as it  clearly discuss the three persons comprising the Holy Trinity, one of the most controversial tenets of the Christian faith.  It is accepted by many Western churches and often read at Trinity Sunday worship services in lieu of the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed.

I challenge you to set aside some quiet time and seriously consider the question, “What do I believe?” I can assure you that of the three great world religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the average Christians is the least well-equipped to answer this question.  Islam and Judaism emphasize reading and memorizing scriptures much more than does Christianity.

Here are a few things to consider if you accept the challenge.

  • The Holy Trinity (Matthew 28:19) – Do the words of the Bible or the Athanasian Creed’s take on the Trinity cause you to question your own beliefs?
  • Your Body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) – Do you treat your body as if it is the Temple of the Holy Spirit? (Think about what you put into it).
  • Divorce (Matthew 19) – Do you accept Jesus teaching on divorce? He opposes it.
  • Abortion (Psalm 139:13-16; Jeremiah 1:5) – What are your beliefs about the early stages of life?
  • Gay Marriage (Romans 1) – What are your beliefs on gay marriage?
  • Love the Lord your God with all your heart (Mark 12:28-34) – Do you love God above everything else, or is something (addiction, idolatry) getting in the way?
  • Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-34) – Are you at peace with your neighbor?
  • Sin (Romans 7:14-25) – What is sin? Are you a sinner?                   

This is a tough challenge—not something you can think through in a few minutes. Matthew 9 tells the story of a man who is imploring Jesus to heal his young son, who has an unclean spirit (demon) plaguing him.  Jesus says to the man (ESV), “If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.”  Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I submit that most Christians who take the challenge will find themselves crying, “Help my unbelief!”

 “Today, many churches are taking God’s laws and saying, ‘These no longer are in effect.’ In Luther’s time the Church said, ‘You need to buy indulgences to be forgiven of your sin.’ Today, more than one church says, ‘Sin? What is sin?’” 

                                                                  Ken Klaus, Pastor Emeritus, The Lutheran Hour 

Back to Scripture: The Protestant Reformation and the Five Solas   https://www.christianheadlines.com/slideshows/back-to-scripture-the-protestant-reformation-and-the-five-solas.html