A Simple Way to Share Your Faith


The hardest part of sharing the gospel (for me) is starting the conversation. Like most Christians, I love to talk about Jesus and the truth of the Scriptures, but it is hard to get the conversation going. So, I’ve tried to identify easy “connections” between the Bible and everyday life. One of the most natural connections to everyday life is found in John 3:16.

Share Christ Christian Evangelism Salvation PersecutionJohn 3:16 is a great place for starting gospel conversations because it is easily remembered. Most Christians memorize John 3:16 early in their Christian walk. More than a few pastors, scholars, and teachers have recognized how clearly the gospel is present in this simple verse:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

To begin with, John 3:16 gets immediately to the heart of the human problem: Perishing. From birth, we are perishing apart from the life-giving, resurrection power of Jesus Christ. This concept of perishing operates as a great connector from the mundane world of human existence to the heavenly glories of Christ and His kingdom. Here’s how to make that connection plain.

Have you ever heard your friends talk about their problems? Have you ever had family members dump their emotions on you, venting about their frustrations? Have you ever heard your colleagues bemoaning some injustice in the world? Yes, yes, yes! Of course, you have. Each of these experiences exists on account of the Fall of humankind from peace with God.

In other words, all problems are ultimately rooted in the singular problem of our being at odds with God: the Fall. Because of the Fall, we are all mired in sin, stuck in a web of deceit, sinfulness, and death. The problem, ultimately, is that we are perishing. We are in the darkness and hating the light because of our own evil deeds (John 3:19-20).  We are living as human beings in the world, but we are under the curse of death. That is our problem. We are perishing.

God’s provisionto remedy the curse and reconcile us to Himself, giving us life instead of death, is nothing less than Jesus Christ. God so loved…that He gave Christ to be a payment for our sins. The problem is that we are perishing under the curse. The Provision from God is Christ Himself, who came to satisfy the payment price for our sins and purchase for us the remedy for death.

The problem is that we are perishing in our sin under the curse of death. The provision is Christ who came to pay the price for us. And now there is a promisefrom God. The promise is eternal life. God so loved that He gave with the purpose and intent that whoever believes will NOT perish, but HAVE eternal life. Christ remedies the curse of death with the sure, purchased promise of eternal life in His name.

In this simple way, this one common verse is able to move you from a perennial problem (sin, death) to an eternal solution (eternal life in Jesus’s name). You are likely already familiar with John 3:16 so there is no need to get anxious about “what should I say” or “how should I start”? Just start with John 3:16 and cover the problem (perishing); God’s provision (Christ); and the promise of a new life (eternal life).  Problem, Provision, Promise. There’s the gospel from John 3:16. Now, let’s go share it!

The Real Life Narrow Way Pictured


I’ve been off the grid for a bit, partly because of spending a week at the NorCal Pastor’s Retreat. This retreat, by design, was retreat from everything resembling a normal, daily routine, including cell phones, text messages, internet service, television, indoor plumbing, private bathrooms, etc.

For me, the retreat also served as a kind of metaphor for the Christian faith. On the drive in to this mountainous area of northern California, I was struck by how precisely the drive mirrored the Christian’s pilgrimage through life.

Jesus Christian Life narrow way persecution pastorsThe driving portion of the trip began with a very crowded arrival at San Francisco International Airport. I proceeded from there to a crowded train which took me to a very crowded rental car area. Apparently, a large number of folks desire to fly into San Francisco. (Are there tourist attractions or something?)

Not only are there a great many folks visiting San Francisco, but there are also tons of people living there. So, I drove north toward the mountains on a crowded U.S. 101.  The further north I drove, the less crowded the roads became. Still, U.S. 101 is a freeway in California. Therefore, it was still crowded with residents and visitors heading into and out of the beautiful wine country of Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties.

Once I left the freeway, however, the crowds diminished severely. The road from U.S. 101 to Potter Valley, CA, is as unpopulated as, say, the road from Dry Prong to Tioga in the rural center of Louisiana. As it turns out, not all of California is crowded. Anyway, leaving the freeway focused more sharply the lesson this trip offered for Christian living.

First, the retreat was accessible only to the determined. It was not located in a place which one might “happen” to see. A sign at the last intersection before heading up the hill made the point plain: “No Outlet.” As Christ taught is disciples that the kingdom life is one in which both hands would be fixed to a plow looking forward (Lk 9:62), so, too, this sign made clear that one need not hope to simply wander through or pass by this retreat setting. There was no way out.

Those who say they “tried Christianity, but it didn’t work,” prove only that they were never on the kingdom way. They prove, as John says, that they went out from us because they were not of us (1 Jn 2:19). Maybe in our discipleship, we ought to tell would-be Christians that the road begins with a sign that says, “No Outlet.” One is either “in Christ” and “on the way,” or he is not.

Second, as the road continued further toward its end at our retreat setting, another sign appeared. This time, the sign had an even more Jesus Christian life narrow way pastors persecution preachingunmistakable Christian message: “Road Narrows.” That sounds a lot like Jesus Himself:

13 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. 14 For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

The beginning of the journey in the sought-after Bay area of San Francisco ended in this remote, desolate wilderness with no one around. The road was already small and unoccupied, and, yet, it was still getting smaller, and more narrow, and less traveled. Christians need not wonder that they often feel alone. They are on the narrow way of life. As the road narrows, the crowds shrink.

Finally, the road itself not only narrowed but became rough and more difficult to traverse. There were potholes and washouts along the shoulders. Eventually, the patchy asphalt gave way to gravel and dirt. By the end of the journey, the road simply disintegrated into the retreat setting, a quaint, rustic Bible camp complete with outhouses and dinner bells to ring in campers three times a day for a hearty meal.

The illustration here is obvious. There are times when Christians mingle with the masses and live in the world. Yet, the more prevailing reality for Christian living is that—even when we are in the world, we are not of it. We are always on the narrow way that leads to life. Our life is promised to be (1) one way, from earth to the heavenly presence of Christ; (2) more narrow—and thus often more lonely—than the way most in the world travel through their time on earth; and (3) often difficult. As Paul told the Christians in Antioch (Acts 14:22),

Jesus Christian life narrow way pastors persecution preachingthrough many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.

Should We Pray for the Persecuted?


It is a curious thing that the New Testament does not command us to pray for the persecuted church. Before asking for food, shelter, safety, deliverance, or even a copy of the Scriptures, most persecuted believers ask first for prayer. Praying for those suffering persecution is as natural to the Christian as praying for loved ones as they are heading into surgery. We really don’t have to be taught to do it. We just know that it’s right.

Christian persecution pray for the persecutedWe do need to be commanded to pray for our enemies, however. As Jesus points out in the Sermon on the Mount, we have already heard that we should love our neighbors and hate our enemies. What we need to hear by way of divine command is “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Isn’t this strange?

We are not commanded to pray for the persecuted in the Sermon on the Mount. We are told to pray for the persecutors! What is Jesus thinking? What could possibly be the reason for such a seemingly impossible command?

We might think the reason would be to pray for the conversion of the persecutor. That way, a double victory is won, both with a victory for the persecutor in moving from an anti-Christian rebel, headed for destruction, to becoming a saint with all the privileges of a child of God, including eternal life. The double victory portion would be found in the fact that the converted persecutor would stop persecuting—it’s a win-win. And a win-win would be good, right?

Maybe such an outcome would be terrific for all involved, but it is not the reason Jesus gives for praying for the persecutors. Why pray for the persecutors?  Jesus gives the reason in Matthew 5:45,

so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

The idea found in Matthew 5:45 is simply this: Reflect the glory of God with your life. God pours out love on us who are naturally unloving and unlovable. So, why would we refuse to offer it to others? Because we have the spirit of Christ, we, too, can reflect the glory of God by showing His love to our enemies. Show the world the grace God has bestowed upon you. We are to be like God, extending love aggressively in the face of hostility.

Now let’s step back to our original dilemma. We are commanded to do the difficult (almost impossible) task of praying for those who persecute us, but we are not commanded to pray for the persecuted—even though they are asking for us to pray for them. How do we make sense of this biblically? We turn to Paul and 2 Corinthians 1:8-11,

For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, Christians Praying for the Persecutedbeyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; 10 who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us, 11 you also joining in helping us through your prayers, so that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many.

Notice, first, how desperate the situation was for Paul and his companions. Second, notice the role of prayers in Paul’s deliverance. And, third, notice the reason Paul thinks God will deliver him and his persecuted companions through the prayers of other saints.

Paul reached his physical and emotional limits. But God helped him and saved him through it all. The prayers of other saints were crucial in this process according to Paul. The situation was so bad that only God could provide deliverance. And God did so in accordance with the way the saints were praying. The reason God orchestrated the events of Paul’s severe persecution the way He did was so that the whole church could celebrate the goodness and power of God when God provided a miraculous deliverance in accordance with the prayers of the saints.

Today, when we pray for our brothers and sisters in need, we, too, become instruments through whom God is bringing deliverance to His people. Part of our reward is celebrating in the Thanksgiving of answered prayers offered to the Father on behalf of Christ’s people. We don’t have to be commanded to do what we know God wants us to do. We know more than God’s commands. We know God Himself. And we know how He works in and through His people.

Shall We Give Them What They Want?


Shortly after Thanksgiving a few years ago, my wife and I were in the yard with a dear, dear brother. His name before he was converted was simply “Mad Dog.” As he says, “when I was a pagan, I meant it with all my heart.” (He is just as sincere now that he is a believer.)

Dog Desires John 6 JesusAnyway, our dog, Tess, had found the post-holiday turkey carcass and was in full delight tearing at the bones like the hungriest of wolves. For Tess, the random meat portions she found along the way were better than music to her ears.

My friend noticed both how delighted the animal was and, yet, how dangerous were the turkey bones. Turkey bones are notoriously damaging to dogs because of the way the little bones splinter in digestion. So, my friend said, “You can’t let her have that.” – He really loves dogs. My wife replied, “But she’s enjoying it so much. We can’t take it away from her.”

At this point, the wisdom of conversion overcame our friend. Fired with conviction and unafraid in his love both for us and our animal, he replied, “Well I used to love marijuana, too, but it doesn’t mean it was good for me.” His point was simply made, and profoundly true.

But his is a lesson easily forgotten. When our children cry for ice cream and cookies instead of carrots and peas, when our bodies crave sleep or stimulation instead of sermons and truth, or when our lusts crave riches and ease rather than conversions and faith—we, too, demonstrate the animal-like tendencies of a dog eating turkey bones. We want what we want, with little regard for truth beyond our immediate appetites.

Jesus once pointed out this human tendency to a very large crowd of onlookers. In John 6:26, Jesus said to a large crowd of followers:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”

Notice the Spirit of Jesus here was the same spirit exhibited by my friend toward Tess: Don’t go after that which ends—sooner or later—in death. Rather, seek that which gives life. Life comes from one source: the living God. And Jesus Christ has made Him known. So hunger and thirst for Jesus. Feed on Jesus Christ, who has been raised from the dead to give eternal life to all who believe and follow Him.

Sadly, if you know the rest of the story of John 6, then you know that the vast majority of those assembled found no use for Jesus and His instruction. They truly were following Him only to feast on his baskets of bread.

This Easter season, we should remember that we follow Christ not because He can give bread, but because He alone is life. The story in John 6 ends with almost the entire crowd turning away from Jesus. Listen to Peter’s response and offer your own “Amen!”

67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” 68 Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. 69 We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”

Persecution for Every Christian: Why it is important to identify with the persecuted church


I seem to have a recurring disagreement with fellow Christians. I don’t like disagreements. I try to avoid them, but, when it comes to the persecuted church, I keep having them.

All Christians Face Persecution The conversation typically goes something like this: We are engaged in talking about some current event related to Christian persecution. The brother or sister in Christ then says, “they have it so bad over there. It really costs them to be a Christian.” –Which of course is true.

Then I usually say, well, we are all persecuted if we follow Christ. We share the same kind of persecution—even if it is not to the same degree. That line—we share the same kind of persecution—usually provokes an almost hostile response, and I am not sure why (feel free to explain below). Rather than attempting to probe deeply into the spiritual psyche of those who revile my position, I think I’d rather lay out 5 reasons it is important to understand persecution as something which impacts all Christians–including American Christians.

First, the plain teaching of Jesus and the New Testament favors (a) calling all persecution by the same name, and (b) expects all Christians to suffer it. In other words, the New Testament promises that everyone who desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Granted, this little promise does not make its way into the “The Book of Bible Promises” available at your local Wal-Mart, but it is clearly stated in 2 Timothy 3:12:

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.

Christians in the New Testament are promised persecution. Jesus explains the reason for this persecution in Matthew 5:10-12. Basically, the persecution happens because Christ is present with His people (“on account of me” in Matthew 5:11). Just as the world hated Christ then, the world will hate him (via his people) even now (see also John 15). Whether the persecution is imprisonment (as in Acts 5) or being falsely accused (Matthew 5) or being mocked (Acts 17) or being executed by the sword (Acts 12)—in each instance, there is Christian persecution—a hostile, retaliatory action against the presence of Christ. Both Jesus and the New Testament make this point clearly.

Second, those who wish to make a distinction between torture and name-calling are correct in so doing with regard to the severity of the crime. Who could doubt that it is worse to be lacerated with an electrical cable than to be laughed at during a family meal? Nevertheless, as was just pointed out above, the difference is in degree of persecution–not in whether or not persecution was suffered.

Many, hoping to maintain the distance between “real” persecution and the “light” afflictions we suffer in America, sadly end up injecting an artificial distance between Christians in America and Christians in the rest of the world. The priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17 works against such a bifurcation within the body of Christ. It is our Lord’s desire for us to be one—even as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one.

In trying to maintain the distance between the suffering of American Christians and the suffering of brothers and sisters in Nigeria, for example, some leaders speak of persecution as though it is worthy of the name only if it is of a particularly fantastic variety: prison, torture, beatings, death.  Persecution ends up being a pertinent category only for “those” Christians over “there” in other parts of the world. This, it seems to me, artificially divides the body of Christ. Indeed, we are commanded in Hebrews 13:3 to remember the persecuted as though we are in prison with them since we ourselves are one in body with them. The New Testament calls for us to close the gap in the body of Christ by identifying in united fashion with the persecuted. We can’t do that if we separate ourselves into “those over there” who suffer persecution and “us over here” who do not. That is an artificial, unbiblical distinction.

… There are 3 more reasons to go… stay tuned

Don’t Read This …Unless You’re Ready to Count the Cost of Discipleship


Since my friend Don Whitney posted a Tweet about this incident in Somalia, I have been unable to stop thinking about the sober reality of Christian faith. The world hated Jesus Christ when He ministered among men. And the world hates him still.

Persecution Cost of DiscipleshipThere is a robust theological heritage in Christianity which asserts that humans are sinful by nature. According to John 3, men love the darkness and hate the light. Paul says human beings actively suppress God’s truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1). And Moses, long before either Paul or John lived, said that our hearts are full of evil, continuously, even from our youth (Gn 8:21).

Somewhere along the line, Christians forgot the reality of the sinfulness of sin. I once preached a 35 week series on the sinfulness of sin. A visitor one day asked my wife politely, “Does he ever preach on topics other than sin?” I may have been guilty of overstating the case… maybe. But the situation with the persecuted church today makes me think I could never overstate the awfulness of sin.

The incident in Somalia is a sober reminder to us all of the fact that the world hated Jesus, and the world still hates those who love Him. Jesus is present with His people (Matthew 28; Acts 9; Hebrews 13). The presence of Jesus is odious to unbelieving nostrils. As Paul says, it is the aroma of death to death to some.

Sadly, a group of non-believing Muslims in Somalia sensed the presence of Jesus in the lives of two women, Sadia Ali Omar and Osman Mohamoud Moge. They were cousins. Omar had two daughters, ages 8 and 15. These two girls watched as the Muslim men brought their mother to the middle of town and there beheaded her.

Why were these women beheaded in the town square in Barawa? As with John the Baptist, so it was with these two women: They walked in the way of righteousness. The presence of Christ was with them, and that was unbearable to the Islamic militants of Barawa:

 “We know these two people are Christians who recently came back from Kenya – we want to wipe out any underground Christian living inside of mujahidin [jihadists’] area…”

The mere fact that these were Christians was enough of a crime to justify their being beheaded.  The incident was not about the global war on terror. It was not a political event. It was not about “Muslim-Christian” tensions. It was not extremism—well, it was, but that is really not the point.

The point is simple. As Jesus stated, “You will be hated by all on account of me” (Matthew 10:22).  If you are a believer in Christ, you will be hated. Most likely, neither you nor I will face the severe cruelty of a public beheading in front of our children. But we will be hated by some. Like Jesus, we will love others, but they will sometimes return that love with hate, slander, and persecution.

May our Lord God have mercy on these two girls and the rest of the family members grieving the loss of these two saints martyred in Somalia. Surely, Omar and Moge are absent in the body, but now present with the Lord. Perhaps they, too, are gathered around the Lord’s throne, crying, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”

An Ugly, Unattractive Jesus


Jesus

Jesus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy once proclaimed, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.”[1] Americans in particular have a fascinating attraction to beauty (or, more accurately, to the beautiful). Consider this simple factoid: Vogue magazine has nearly three times the readership of Sports Illustrated—and Sports Illustrated’s most successful issue is the annual swimsuit edition! Beautiful women get our attention.

 

The quest for beauty is not lost on the church in America. Sanctuaries and lobbies are often decorated by women with a feminine perspective of beauty: flowers and pastels rule the day.  Not long ago, I visited a church which was intentionally “masculine” in its décor: rocks, stones, steel, and brown. Mundane. Bland. Yet very sturdy and forceful was the building. Which is the more biblical approach to building décor? That is a great question to which I do not know the answer. I do know, however, that we have a problem when it comes to communicating Jesus.

 

The biblical record is quite plain: Jesus isn’t pretty. Jesus is ugly. We tend to feminize Jesus—painting Him in accord with our lobbies—in pastels and flowers. He is rarely forceful. And never ugly.  Yet, in the Bible, He is unattractive. Consider the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53:

 

…He has no stately form or majesty
That we should look upon Him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.
 He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

 

Contrast the passage above, which the New Testament affirms is fulfilled in Jesus Christ,[2] with the popular presentation of Jesus in our churches. Typically, Jesus is promoted as the antidote to whatever is your Kryptonite. Are you weak and in need of power to perform? Get Jesus. Are you depressed and in need of a super-sized, pick-me-up? Get Jesus. Are you suffering from a rotten life and in need of a better life now? Get Jesus. Does your marriage suck? Get Jesus. Financial woes? Jesus. No matter what brings you down, Jesus lifts you up.

 

Jesus has been tamed into a prophetic panacea, a Self-help Savior. He is no more threatening than “Mr. Rogers with a beard.”[3] And he is typically portrayed as being at least as attractive as Brad Pitt—but even more popular. The musical group Down Here gets to the point in their song “The Real Jesus:”

 

Jesus on the radio, Jesus on a late night show

 

Jesus in a dream, looking all serene

 

Jesus on a steeple, Jesus in the Gallup poll

 

Jesus has His very own brand of rock and roll

 

Watched Him on the silver screen

 

Bought the action figurine

 

But Jesus is the only name that makes you flinch

 

Oh, can anybody show me the real Jesus?

 

Oh, let Your love unveil the mystery of the real Jesus

 

The real Jesus has scars. He is cursed by God, hanged on a tree. He is forsaken by men who mock him, ridicule him, and slander him falsely. So

 

Leo Tolstoy 1848

Leo Tolstoy 1848 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

hideous were his final hours that his closest companions denied they ever knew him. When he died, he had no crowd. Even after his post-Resurrection appearances, Jesus had only 120 following him (Acts 1:15). His ministry would not be lauded by anyone taking score with any human measure of efficiency.  Jesus proved not to be much of a leader (by our typical leadership measures).

 

There was nothing in His appearance to draw us to Him. In fact, He had the kind of life—and the kind of appearance—that would make us turn away from Him.  The real Jesus turns out to be ugly, unattractive, and downright distasteful. He proves to be the kind of man rejected by almost everyone.

 

So, why would anyone follow such a man? The real ugly truth about Jesus is that His ugly appearance reveals our own sinful nature. He condemns publicly the sin that ruins us privately. He reveals to us the life that swallows our own deserved death. He reveals the purity that washes away our vanity. But vanity, sin, and death are not easily dismissed. The remedy for such horrendous maladies is unapproachable apart from suffering. And suffering God’s curse is an ugly affair. Christ came as a suffering servant for us.

 

If we see our own sin as ugly before the holiness of God, then we might begin to see the loveliness of a suffering Savior. The one reason to follow Jesus is to be reconciled to God forever. And, for us who are being saved, ugly has never been as lovely as it is in Jesus Christ.

 


[1] Leo Tolstoy, Kreutzer Sonata.

[2] See Acts 8:34-35; Matthew 8:17.

[3] Phrase used by John Eldrige in Wild at Heart.

 

 

Focus and Faithfulness


God has orchestrated many unexpected and painful changes in my life this past year. As a result, I have felt what St. Thomas Aquinas learned long ago—that “all that I have written is straw.” As Job learned through his time of suffering to shut his mouth and sit patiently, I have learned this year to be very quiet and very still. I have not spoken much in 2013 (as you who follow this blog will undoubtedly have noticed).

Now that I have arrived in California and am essentially alone, I have been able to look back and see that God has given my life clearer focus. InDesert Image addition to focusing my attention on my wife, family, and church, the Lord (I believe) wants me to focus my attention on Christian pastors and persecution. So, the blog will become much more narrowly focused on pastors and persecution. My life will be spent encouraging pastors, training pastors, and explaining Christian persecution. I will speak more on these topics later.

For now, I want to share a personal episode which demonstrates God’s steadfast love.

Through tears, I left my Kentucky home and my Kentucky family behind, venturing with my oldest daughter westward on a quest through the grain-laden fields of Kansas; through the winding, rocky terrain of Colorado; and to the spectacular beauty of Utah, a state so rich with splendor that it ought to be required travel for every American citizen.  We finally arrived in California—our destination state.

California did not leave a good first impression, which is really saying something considering we had been driving for hours through the Nevada desert before crossing its border. Oppressed by the heat and exhausted by the unrelenting isolation of the Mojave Desert, I broke into tears.

Everything in front of me seemed hopeless, barren–deserted. Behind me, there were green trees, literally and figuratively. Every fruitful harvest of my life seemed far behind. I had left my family—my precious wife and all but one of my beloved children.

My wife loves the Lord. My children believe. And I left them 2,000 miles behind. I left a God-glorifying family bearing good fruit—all behind me.

Kentucky

Kentucky (Photo credit: davebarger)

Behind me was a congregation of people at Cedar Grove who bear witness that Jesus is the Christ. Spiritual fruit was behind me in the lives of the people who fed upon my preaching and teaching—those delightful sheep who shared gospel life with me. God had prospered me in Kentucky.  Why did I ever leave that place, that flock, or my family?

For this? For a desert?

It was just at the moment my heart was breaking (along with the water pools forming beneath my eyes) that I heard God’s unexpected voice. –I know it was not literally God’s voice. The voice belonged to Philip Phillips, winner of American Idol (Season 11). But God used this young man’s voice to give me hope and remind me that my Lord promised never to leave nor forsake me.

Here is what God said,

Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone
Cause I’m going to make this place your home

Are Christians Extinct in the Middle East?


Western Asia in most contexts. Possible extens...

Middle East (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Violently (yet relatively quietly) Christians are dying out in Bible lands. In the place where Paul was converted and in the location of the church that first sent an offering to help needy Christians—in these ancient Bible lands, Christians are dying at an alarming rate. Actually, the more accurate way of saying it is that Christians are being exterminated throughout the lands of the Old and New Testament narratives. In Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria—and all over the Middle East, Christians are severely persecuted.

 

Not too long ago, I posted about a controversy brewing in Germany with Chancellor Merkel. She made the claim that Christians were persecuted more severely than any other group.  Now, a new study affirms the statement made by Chancellor Merkel. Christians are nearly gone in the Middle East.

 

The Telegraph headline reads: Christianity Close to Extinction in the Middle East. Several telling quotes will give you the overall flavor of the article:

 

“The study warns that Christians suffer greater hostility across the world than any other religious group.”

 

“Exposing and combating the problem ought in my view to be political priorities across large areas of the world. That this is not the case tells us much about a questionable hierarchy of victimhood,” says the author, Rupert Shortt, a journalist and visiting fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.

He adds: “The blind spot displayed by governments and other influential players is causing them to squander a broader opportunity. Religious freedom is the canary in the mine for human rights generally.”

 

Christ is no longer welcome in the Middle East. Ostensibly, the problem is militant Islam. As the article states,

 

The “lion’s share” of persecution faced by Christians arises in countries where Islam is the dominant faith, the report says, quoting estimates that between a half and two-thirds of Christians in the Middle East have left the region or been killed in the past century.

 

As Christians, we ought to pray much for Christians suffering persecution throughout the Middle East. We should also remember that persecution happens where Christ is present. He is present with His people in these oppressive places. The enemy senses a weakness in the body of Christ right now, so he is striking there particularly hard.

 

There are many instances in Scripture (such as John 8) in which enemies wished to kill Jesus, but they could not. Even on the night of His arrest, enemies fell to the ground under the influence of Jesus’s divinity (John 18). Yet, when Jesus was arrested and bound, the mocking, spitting, cursing, and ridiculing began. Jesus was not simply executed on a cross; he was tormented and persecuted all along the way. As then, so now, when the body of Christ is weak, the enemy will strike hard.

 

Yet now, as then, the greatest redemption occurs after the worse persecution. Christ is present with His people in the Middle East (regardless of how few of them are left). If we were of a sound spiritual mind, we, too, would be present in Spirit with our body suffering in the Middle East.

 

While praying for God to strengthen the saints suffering in terrible places, also pray for us to be awakened from our celebrity stupor of vanity Christianity so we might remember those who are ill-treated, since we ourselves are in the body.

 

 

Is it Evil to Say God Has Purpose for Evil in Connecticut?


To my post Did God Cause Kids to Die in Connecticut, some objected that it did not go far enough. Some believed that it was necessary to say that God actually caused the school shooting for the purpose of judging Americans for kicking God out of our schools. Yesterday, I demonstrated why that position is inaccurate. Today, I look to a different objection, one that says my original post went too far.

The original post argued that Adam Lanza was the immediate cause for the evil. As such, God would hold him accountable for God and Evil School Shootinghis sins. In addition, I argued that God was also active throughout the event, causing it to work together for His ultimate good. In all events, there is both a temporal (immediate) and eternal (ultimate) purpose.  Some disagree, stating that this theological idea goes too far.

Specifically, some say that viewing God as having a purpose to accomplish through evil makes God evil. Some even say it would be cruel to tell a child that God has a cause to accomplish through the school shooting in Connecticut.  So, I ask, Is it evil to say God orders evil for His ultimate purposes? I don’t think so for at least two reasons.

First, if God does not order evil for His ultimately good purposes, who does? If evil exists independently—apart from God’s authority over it—then there is a force (or being) outside of God’s control. If this is true, then God is diminished—He is not omnipotent. God is omnipotent only if he has the power to accomplish all of His will.  If there is a force (like Satan or human free will) which operates independently of God’s ultimate control, then God may not be able to accomplish all of His will (because there would be a force opposing His will which He does not control).  If that is true, then whatever else God may be, he could not be called sovereign or omnipotent. He could not guarantee that His ultimate will would be done. He could only guarantee that He would do His very best to accomplish His will.

Of course, there is the possibility that no one orders evil. That evil is some chaotic, non-directed force inherent in the universe without regard to an ordered will such as God’s (or Satan’s). But, again, I would say that an all-powerful God could not coexist with a force outside of His control. One could argue for a system of gods who are at war to establish good and evil (and authority and power), but one is not able to pretend that God is somehow sovereign but also not sovereign over free will or over evil. That would be like saying you are an unmarried man but you are not a bachelor. Either God is sovereign, or he is not.

Second, if there is no God, or if God is not sovereign over evil–using it to accomplish His purposes–then there would be no purpose for suffering and no hope in times of loss.  It might seem insensitive to tell young people that God has an ultimate purpose for this loss of life. It might seem harsh to suppose that God’s will somehow mysteriously encompasses the loss of twenty children in a Connecticut school around Christmastime. But as harsh as that might seem, it is nowhere near as harsh as saying that the children were lost with no purpose or meaning at all. It would be even worse to say that they were lost to the purposes of evil.

God does not work some things out according to the purpose of His inscrutable will. He works all things according to the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11).  It is not cruel to admit that glorious fact in the face of suffering; it is helpful and hopeful. What would be cruel would be to leave people without the hope of redemption. In this world, there will be the heartache of deep loss. Jesus was never unclear about that point.

It does not go too far to say what Jesus says (and what the Scripture teaches): God is sovereign, and now all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20).  God is sovereign over evil. It is under His control—even if for a season we do not understand how that dynamic works. We can trust the ultimate hand of God to accomplish a good purpose through all of man’s evil (so Acts 4:28).  And in this world of tragedy, sin, and loss, we have the Word of God to instruct us:

“These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, nasb).

 

Was Connecticut Shooting God’s Judgment?


Thank you for the responses to the post, Did God Cause the Connecticut Shootings. The responses came mostly through Facebook and other media.  Some thought the article didn’t go far enough. Others thought it went too far. So, let’s consider the objections in these two directions.  First we will consider the objection which says my view did not go far enough.

Basically, my argument is that the immediate cause of the deaths is rightly placed upon Adam Lanza, who alone was God's Judgment School Shooting Newtown Conn Sandy Hookresponsible for killing more than two dozen people in Newtown, Connecticut.  He will be held accountable by God for his sinful, murderous actions. However, God was not absent from the horror. Ultimately, God—secretly and mysteriously—was (and is) causing it all to work together for a greater, eternal good.

Objection one says that this argument does not go far enough. Instead, the argument should state not only that God was present, but that He was also present specifically to enact His judgment.  In other words, God caused the event to happen to exact His judgment against America and, especially, America’s schools.

So, the question becomes, was this an action of God’s judgment on American schools for rejecting Him and removing prayer?  No, I don’t think it was.

Here’s why I say “no.” I have no hesitation stating that God exacts His perfect justice against sins.  God punishes the wicked.  He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, but He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished (see Exodus 34:6-7).  Every evil action, thought, and deed will face the bar of perfect justice, and our God is a consuming fire! He will, in fact, cast souls into Hell (Luke 12:5), and He will ultimately usher in a new heaven and a new earth for all who believe. Thus, it is always a fitting word to say,

“See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven” (Hebrews 12:25).

Nevertheless, God’s judgment is better directed than the bullets at Sandy Hook. God’s judgment is precise and exact—even down to the thoughts and intentions of the individual heart.  So, what evidence is there which suggests these particular kids were guilty of the particular sins God supposedly judged on this occasion? The kids weren’t responsible for prayer being removed from their schools.  They probably had no knowledge of any of the lawsuits which led to the excising of God from student classrooms. Yes, God judges—but not haphazardly!

Consider Christ’s teaching in this regard from Luke 13:1-5,

Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

The Tower of Siloam

The Tower of Siloam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Notice that there were people who wanted to ascribe a slaughter to the judgment of God.  Jesus quickly corrected those justice-mongers who hoped to tie the tragic events of his day directly to the hand of God.  No one knows for sure what event is being spoken of here in Luke 13, but the point is plainly stated. Jesus turns the situation into a rhetorical question of great significance: Do you really think these people died because of their particular sins? No, there was no way to tie their deaths to any immediate sin committed by them. Thus, the deaths could not be ascribed to the judgment of God in any particular sense.

The same is true for the tower of Siloam.  A dozen and a half victims unexpectedly perished in an instant, when the tower fell upon them. Was that the hand of God’s judgment against them? Jesus says, no. Whether slaughter (the Galilean example) or accident (the Tower of Siloam incident)—the lesson from mass tragedies is NOT to point the finger and say, “Those people must be great sinners, for God has judged them.” Rather, the point is for every survivor to point to himself and say, “God have mercy on ME, a sinner.”

Tragedies–whether tsunamis or school shootings–are reminders of the fixed reality of God’s ultimate judgment over humanity.  All are under the curse of sin and death. Thus, any could die at any given moment.  And we all need to seek the remedy God gives us in Christ.

Objection Two moves in the opposite direction and says, “God had nothing to do with Connecticut, and it is unhelpful, if not downright hateful, to suggest that he did.” The answer to this objection is next… stay tuned.

What About Christmas Persecution?


Andy Williams famously sang of December as “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”  With the smooth, mellifluous tenor that also floated our emotions down “Moon River,” Andy Williams made December special, calling friends and family to unite around the gift-giving spirit ushered in originally by God Himself.  Nowadays, Williams has passed on, and God has become a problem.

 

While it is true that Democrats booed God when he was mentioned at their convention this year, it is also true that the booing

 

The Andy Williams Christmas Album

The Andy Williams Christmas Album (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Democrats are not alone in wishing God weren’t really alive. More and more, Americans seem to have a problem with God.

 

Because Christmas is a recognition of the love of God for us, it, too, must go. As David Limbaugh wrote, “Ho, Ho, Ho, Christmas Must Go.” Christmas is growing less welcomed in America.

 

Andy Williams’s song says,

 

There’ll be parties for hosting 
Marshmallows for toasting 
And caroling out in the snow 
There’ll be scary ghost stories 
And tales of the glories of 
Christmases long, long ago

 

Sadly, people can no longer tell tales in America of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.  The U.S. Navy is one of the latest groups to join the cancel Christmas parade.  They banned the nativity scene on naval bases in Bahrain this year.  Closer to home, Santa Monica, CA, once called “The City of the Christmas Story” because of its elaborate Christmas displays, now has abandoned the public display of the traditional Christmas Nativity.

 

As Christians, we are saddened by this loss of tradition and discouraged by the rejection of everything good about this Christian celebration; however, we must not be surprised. While it is true that the shepherds rejoiced at the arrival of Christ, it is also true that the king grimaced and plotted the child’s demise.  There is more the spirit of Herod and less that of the shepherds in America these days.

 

Yet, just as the jealous King Herod could neither accomplish his own diabolical will nor thwart the righteous will of God, so, too, will it prove true in America that Christ and His church will ultimately reign victorious. The kingdom will advance despite those who marshal their forces against the Lord’s bride.

 

When Christ came to his meager throne in a borrowed manger on that first Christmas morn, he came not to ask permission or even to make salvation possible:  He came to make salvation certain. His resurrection and ascension sealed the certainty of God’s accomplished will. The kingdom has, in fact, come, and God’s will WILL be done on earth as it is in heaven.

 

Therefore, even if nativity scenes are against this nation’s law, and even if the babe in the manger is a forbidden danger which the self-righteous, politically polite insist we must avoid—still, there will be a few aliens and strangers to the world who will delight in telling the tale of the glory of that first Christmas long, long ago.  It’s okay for us to be of good cheer at this happiest time of the year.

 

 

Why Aren’t Christians Persecuted?


Christian symbol: This symbol was used primari...

The fish symbol was used by Christians in the early church to identify themselves secretly. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

I have been thinking through the section of my upcoming book on Christian persecution, and I am cataloging the different reasons which might explain why Christians in America are not suffering persecution.  Here’s the deal.  Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:12, do not be deceived, anyone who attempts to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

 

There is a clear promise in Scripture that persecution belongs to all Christians. But Christians are not typically persecuted in America.  So, is it because they are not desiring to live godly lives? I am working through several different responses, but I wonder what others might be thinking about persecution in America (and the lack thereof).

 

Feel free to comment below. I will have a fuller post in the coming days which might help us collect our thoughts.

 

 

Why Jesus Cares for the Persecuted (and we should, too) – Video


When we began Project 13:3 as a ministry to the persecuted church, we ran the idea by some friends to get their input.

Below is a video of a conversation I had with a very good friend of mine, Jeff Mooney. Dr. Mooney is a Professor of Old Testament at California Baptist University. The video below is Part 1 in a series of videos which discuss what the Bible teaches about persecution.  The videos also explain the need for a ministry like Project 13:3.

I would love to get more input from some of you. I will post more videos in the future, and I will pass along your criticisms and comments to our video editors for future work we are planning to do. Please let us know if the videos are helpful and what could make them better. Thanks!

Does the Bible Condemn Abortion?


I hear a common refrain from those who favor abortion. It usually goes something like, “The Bible is silent on abortion,” or “the Bible never condemns abortion.” Is this true? Is it true that the Bible does not speak to abortion?

On the surface it appears true that the bible does not condemn abortion. There is no text which says, “Thou shalt not commit

Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments...

Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, painting by Rembrandt (1659) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

abortion.” However, on those literal terms, there is no text which says, “Thou shalt not initiate a nuclear holocaust.” Yet, we somehow think that would be a bad thing and probably not something God wants us to do. Must we have a verse which explicitly says, “Do not put Jewish people in a gas chamber” in order to know that it’s wrong to do it?  It’s a bit simplistic to say the Bible does not condemn abortion. It certainly does.

In the 10 Commandments, we read, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).  The word murder (in the original Hebrew) refers not to killing in general, but to the specific, determined effort to end a human life.  Often, it is translated “manslayer.”  This command does not forbid all human killing. It does not forbid killing in war or conducting executions for the sake of justice.  But the question is whether or not it forbids killing a life in the womb. I think it does, and I will share with you the two reasons why.

First, Moses (who wrote Exodus) does speak to the issue of abortion in the very next chapter after writing the “You shall not murder” commandment. In Exodus 21:22-25, Moses writes the famous “eye for an eye” passage (called the Lex Talionis, or the law of retaliation). The point of that passage is not to encourage blood-thirsty people to seek vengeance. Rather, the point is to keep the punishment in proper relation to the crime. If a foot is injured, you cannot gouge out a person’s eyeballs in return.

What is almost always missed when this passage is read or quoted is the fact that it is spoken in the context of a pregnant woman being accidentally struck by men who are in a fight. “If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth… yet there is no further injury… “(Exodus 21:22)–then the result is to pay a  fine in accordance with the demands of the woman’s husband. But if there is further injury (to the woman or the child?) then the law of retaliation holds: life for life.

While it is not certain what further injury is in view in this passage, the principle holds either way: Do not fight near a woman who is pregnant because you may do harm, and, if you do, you will bear the full weight of guilt in accordance with the injury you cause. In modern legal jargon, the fitting term here is negligent homicide–a form of murder which took place because you acted recklessly and caused another person to die.

The Exodus 21 passage stringently forbids reckless behavior when men are around an expectant mother in order to prevent injury. This principle is something we still recognize with animals, but we exempt ourselves from its reasonableness when it comes to human life.  According to Title 16, Chapter 5A, Subchapter II, Paragraph 668 (a), of the United States Code, if one disturbs an eagle’s nest and, thus, causes an eagle’s egg to crack, then he can be fined $5,000 and sentenced to prison. The reason is clear. An eagle’s nest incubates an eagle’s egg which is the home of an eaglet struggling to be born alive. Along the same reasonable lines of thought, the Bible protects the nest of babies struggling to be born alive.  The hypocrisy of our laws is inexcusable.

On the second reason I think the Bible does condemn abortion: God is pro-life in the most exceptional sense of that term. Jesus on two occasions in John’s gospel called himself “Life” (see John 11:25 and John 14:6).  Practically every verse in the Bible after Genesis 1:26-27 affirms the value of every human life and, thus, negates abortion–which inherently devalues human life.  Genesis 9:6–the passage of Scripture which demands execution for murderers–does so on the premise that human life images forth God and, thus, is the property of God. No person has the right to determine in accordance with his whims or desires that one of God’s image-bearers should be killed.

We must not destroy the image of God. Indeed, Genesis 9:7–the very next verse–reaffirms the God-given command to be fruitful and multiply human beings upon the earth–that is the opposite of the spirit of abortion. So, it appears to me that the Bible is not silent after all on the issue of abortion.

Saying there is no commandment in the Bible against abortion is almost like saying there’s nothing in a grocery store that says you have to eat.  While it may be technically true, it is ridiculously off the mark.  Everything about a grocery store says, “Food, Eat.”  And everything in the Bible says, “Life.”

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