Monday, July 6, 2015

This story has it all

Courage. Faith. Politics. Betrayal. Genocidal plots. A beauty pageant. Gallows. Irony. Even humor. The story of Esther has it all. It’s more important than Jurassic World because it’s true. It’s relevant to us today because not much has changed. The world is still a dangerous place for Jews, and becoming increasingly so for followers of Christ.

The story takes place in Susa, when the Persians had their 200-year shot at ruling the world. Archaeological findings confirm what the book of Esther teaches.

There are four main characters in the story, and many who played smaller roles. There is King Ahasuerus. He is the central figure in the kingdom, but is not the central figure in the story. In fact, though he reigns over the known world, he is the weakest of the four main characters. I can’t help but cast Nicholas Cage in the part of the king. We are introduced to Mordecai in chapter 2: “Now there was a Jew in Susa the citadel named Mordecai.” I love this guy, as he plays the part of the voice of truth and the man of God in the story. I’m going to pick Dustin Hoffman for this pivotal role. Mordecai has been forced from his home in Jerusalem and is living in this foreign land, and has raised his much younger cousin there. That’s Esther. She is the heroine of the story, and some who heard me preach an introduction to this story last week suggested I cast Jennifer Lawrence in the role, though I like Keisha Castle-Hughes better. There’s no evidence that Esther was any good with the bow and arrow, but she was definitely clever, courageous and humble. I think of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, when Malvolio said, “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” The irony in this story is the one who most aspired to greatness, Haman, is the one from whom greatness is snatched away. The least likely woman in the whole empire to have greatness thrust upon her was Esther, a Jewess living in exile. That brings us to the last character, the evil Haman. Some suggest Tom Hardy for this role, although I like David Strathairn as the presumptuous antagonist. Haman is promoted above all the other officials and essentially becomes the King’s right hand man. He hates Mordecai because Mordecai will not bow and scrape before Haman like the rest of Susa does. Haman finds out that Mordecai is a Jew and hatches his plot to have Mordecai and every Jew in the kingdom slaughtered on a given day. The King signs the genocidal decree into law, and the law of the Persians cannot be revoked. What Haman doesn’t know, and what the king doesn’t know, is that Esther is a Jew, so the king has signed his wife’s death warrant. What will happen? Will Mordecai be able to escape the gallows Haman has built for him? Will Esther keep silent about her heritage and faith, even while her cousin and all the rest of the Jews perish? Or will she come up with a plan to not only save herself but save her people as well? Read the story in the Bible and see for yourself.

By the way, this book almost did not make it into the 66 books of the canon because there is no mention of God anywhere in it. His fingerprints are all over it, however, and we learn that even when we think God is absent, He is not.

This story has it all.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Christians, practice what you preach

I want to follow what I wrote last week about marriage for the Opinion page with this encouragement and admonishment to the church. Because if we who call for the sanctity of marriage to be defended are assaulting it with our own sin, why should anyone listen? Matt Walsh sat down to write a scathing rant about how marriage is under attack in our culture, “But then I remembered a sign I saw on the side of the road that said, “Divorce for sale! Only 129 dollars!” Then, I remembered an article I read about the new phenomenon of divorce parties. “Divorce is the new single,” the divorce party planner tells us. Then, I remembered that there is one divorce every 13 seconds, or over 46,000 divorces a week in this country. And then I remembered no-fault divorce. I remembered that marriage is the only legal contract a person can break without the other party’s consent and without facing any legal repercussions.

Sobering words. Words that should cause the church to look at itself in the mirror. Wait, that’s one step removed. These words should cause you and me to look in the mirror. Marriage, like politics, is local. Your marriage and mine affects the culture by strengthening or weakening the fabric of the institution that God created. We defend marriage best when we defend it first in our own homes. That’s why the Bible says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.”

If marriage is to be held in honor by all, then I would also admonish the church in three more ways. First to the young men in our churches: marry somebody. Don’t rush it, but don’t substitute trivial pursuits like “Call of Duty” for it, either. “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord.” I will be so bold as to say that if you are in a position to provide for a wife, spiritually, financially and emotionally, then you should be pursuing one.

Second, to the young married couples in the church: have children. Space does not permit the full measure of arguments why godly marriages should be producing and raising godly children. But I can show you at least seven reasons why and invite you to come and meet them sometime. The biggest and best reason is that “children are a heritage from the Lord.” Why would followers of Christ say “No, thank you” to one of His greatest gifts?

Third, to all in the church: We need to repent of our thoughts, words or actions that have made the Gospel a stench to others. This is my last admonishment, but it may the first in importance. Let’s be very careful not to adopt an “Us versus Them” mindset with those in the culture who have different ideas about marriage. Let’s also be very careful how we speak about this subject. Crude joking or harsh words do not represent Christ, do not qualify us as ambassadors of reconciliation, and do not tear down walls or create bridges.

We must stand for the truth. We must not compromise our convictions. We must not cave to the culture. But we also must not vilify those with whom we disagree, even when we have biblical grounds upon which we base our disagreement.

Jesus was not a friend of the Pharisees, the religious blowhards who held themselves up as examples to follow when they were nothing but hypocrites. Instead, Jesus was a friend of sinners, those who needed Him and knew they did.

We must follow His example.

Monday, June 22, 2015

And God created marriage

God created marriage.

When Jesus was questioned by the religious rulers of His day about divorce, which is the dissolution of something He created, He took them back to the beginning, because He was there. “He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” As we wait for the Supreme Court to tell us the definition of marriage, I would suggest we see what Jesus says on the subject. You can find it in Matthew 19.

Marriage is between a man and a woman. A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife.

Marriage is oriented toward procreation. “So they are no longer two but one flesh.” That does not speak to emotional oneness only but to physical oneness primarily, which we know is the only biological process that can produce children. We know that some couples cannot have children, and that doesn’t make them any less married. But the normative truth of Scripture is that God designed marriage to produce future generations.

Marriage is before God and for a lifetime. Whenever I officiate a wedding I like to remind the couple that though there are many human witnesses seated behind them, the most important witness is the one in the room who did not receive an invitation and who needs no seat. He attends every wedding He ordains. God is the one who brings us together in holy matrimony and God is the one who will keep us together. “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Marriage is a creation of God for all people, not just for Christians. Governments did not create this first and most basic institution. Marriage was created by God and defined by God. That means that no matter what the Supreme Court rules in the next few weeks, the Supreme Creator and judge has already spoken. He has defined marriage. He sustained marriage after the fall and with sinful human beings throughout all of human history. It became much harder after sin entered the equation, but it did not become any less God’s design and purpose for men and women for whom He has chosen marriage. Let me add that this does not minimize the importance of singles and children and widows and others who are not married. They too are image bearers and called by God to represent Him and His Word to all people.

Finally, marriage is a picture of the Gospel. We know this from what Paul wrote in Ephesians 5, when he repeated what Jesus said in Matthew 19 and what God said in Genesis 2, that a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. Then Paul adds, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” In the sacrificial love of a husband for his wife and a wife for her husband, God puts the Gospel on display. The reverse is true as well, of course. A marriage that is falling apart is a poor picture of what Christ has done for His bride. A husband engaged in an extra-marital affair (either with a real woman or with an image on his computer) is a hypocrite and brings shame to the institution of marriage.

Nonetheless, imperfect and broken marriages between a man and a woman do not make an argument for changing the very definition of marriage. God has not left that open to us.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A special milestone

Several years ago, after waiting for me to cross the finish line after yet another race, Cindy decided to lace up her sneakers and join me. This was not an easy or quick decision, for just like me, she was not a runner as a child. Neither one of us ran cross-country in high school. I think my fastest time in the mile, when we were forced to run it in gym class, was probably in the 9-minute range. I probably would have sported one of those 0.0 bumper stickers, or joked that if you ever saw me running it was only because I was being chased. Like many people, I associated running with punishment. I remember hearing many times in the two unfortunate years that I pretended to play football, “You missed another tackle, Fox. Take a lap!”

Not any more. Though running always will involve pain, Cindy and I look past that to the prize. Not that we ever win anything. The prize is the satisfaction of pushing our bodies past what is comfortable. The prize is the joy we feel in trying to stay ahead of old age as long as we can. The prize is applying the verse, “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” to disciplining our bodies. And for the last few years, the prize for me has gotten sweeter as my lovely bride has become a runner girl.

She has run several races, but none more than 5 miles. Until last Saturday, when we ran a half marathon together in Raleigh. Cindy had been training for months, following the Hal Higdon plan for novices. Six weeks ago we decided that this was it. Training is good, but unless you have a goal you are straining to reach, then what’s the pain for? As Dale Carnegie said years ago, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.” We paid the money to run the race and to experience the pain. That reminds me of a sign we saw near the finish line that some spectators were holding up. It said, “You paid all that money and went through all that pain . . . for a banana?” Not funny.

It was a sunny day, with temperatures in the high 60s when we started. The humidity was over 90 percent at 7 a.m. when we started running, and may have plummeted to 80 percent by the time we finished. As we ran along together with thousands of strangers, we quickly became close through our suffering. Strangers turned into friends, especially in the first seven or eight miles, when we had enough breath to actually speak. As we neared the 8-mile mark, Cindy was starting to experience leg pain and overall fatigue, so she asked me if I could recite some Scripture that I have been memorizing. I did, and that accomplished two things. It helped two miles pass with our minds concentrated on something besides our pain. And it got us some strange looks from people passing us by.

The race planners in Raleigh have a cruel streak. The last half-mile, Lassiter hill, is brutal. We walked up most of it, and when we crested the hill and saw the finish line ahead, I grabbed Cindy’s hand and we started running. We crossed the line together, smiling, rejoicing that we had finished and that we had not signed up for a marathon.

Monday, June 8, 2015

We cannot remain silent about this

When I was a teenager in Winston-Salem, someone laced chunks of meat with poison and threw them to some of my neighbors’ dogs. The dogs died and the owners cried and the rest of us were shocked. Who would commit such a senseless act? What had those dogs done to deserve death? That was 40 years ago, and I hadn’t thought about that incident since then.


Until last week, when I heard an interview of Johnnie Moore, who wrote a book I will tell you about in a moment. But first, he was talking about meeting a nun in Iraq recently who is taking care of thousands of Christian refugees, people who have had to flee their homes and their businesses because of the Islamic State (ISIS). She said to Moore, “I lived in America. You are wonderful people. I have an education from an American college; I love America. But I don’t understand why you won’t help your Christian brothers and sisters. You take such good care of your pets. Why won’t you take care of us?”


That’s when I remembered the poisoned dogs. It was a horrible act of cruelty, and the owners were angry and then saddened by their loss. But life moved on and we all forgot about it. The nun is right. For the most part, Americans are really good about taking care of their pets. And mistreating an animal can land you in prison; just ask Michael Vick.


So, why is it that as a nation we are not shocked and outraged by what is happening Iraq and Syria, not to pit bulls but to human beings? In February, ISIS militants released a video titled “A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” It showed the executions of 21 members of the Coptic Orthodox Church on a beach in Egypt, and many of the victims cried out to Jesus before they were beheaded. Their blood flowed into the Mediterranean Sea, and their severed heads were discarded. Last year we learned that jihadists were identifying Iraqi homes where Christians live, and marking them with the Arabic letter for “N.” That let the ISIS soldiers know that Christians (or Nazarenes, as in “Jesus the Nazarene”) lived there. The Christians were forced to flee, leaving behind their homes. If they stayed, they were forced to renounce Christ and convert to Islam, or be beheaded.


The latest estimate is that more than 14 million people have been displaced by the Islamic State. Tens of thousands have been killed. Thousands of Christian artifacts have been destroyed. Last July, NBC reported that the last remaining Christian was forced out of Mosul, a city in Iraq that has boasted a Christian community for nearly 2,000 years.


This why Johnnie Moore wrote the book, “Defying ISIS.” He wants to let people like you and me know about the atrocities that are being committed against our brothers and sisters in Christ. He believes the words of Martin Luther King Jr. were prophetic not just for his day but for ours as well, when he said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Today in the war on Christians, the silence of friends speaks volumes.


The Bible says we are to “Remember those who are in prison (for the sake of their faith), as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.”


We cannot remain silent. We must speak for those who have no voice.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Clearing the Roadblocks: Can We Trust the Bible? (Part 1)

Challenge: Everybody knows the Bible has been translated and re-translated so many times that we have no idea what the original authors actually wrote. And obviously there were urban legends and personal agendas that crept into these translations over the years too. The historical records have been so contaminated, how can you believe anything the Bible says?

Sometimes this question is asked in a very aggressive and pointed manner by skeptics, a sort of indirect attack on Christianity. (After all, if we can't be certain about any of the historical details of Jesus' life, Christianity crumbles.) But other times it's asked in more timid and even fearful tones by believers, afraid that if they dig too deeply, the entire foundation of their faith will be shaken.

As one YouTube skeptic put it, the Bible is just the world's biggest game of "Telephone", and we're all working from the last link in a long chain of transmissions. But is this actually the case?

I felt this was such an important issue that I didn't want to try and tackle it in just one post, so today what I want to do is simply set the stage and lay the groundwork for what I hope to do in the next three posts.

Arguing From Jesus

 Typically, the argument for the reliability and inspiration of the Bible goes something like this: "If you look at the cumulative evidence of the Bible's fulfilled prophecies, historical accuracy, scientific accuracy, unique consistency over 66 books from 40 different authors, and unique impact on humanity, then the cumulative evidence would point to this book as having a divine author". [1] Still others might make the argument that we know by "the internal testimony of the Spirit", and while I can attest to that very thing in my own life and experience, it sounds way too much like the Mormon idea of a "burning in the bosom" for me to want use that argument with skeptics or uncertain believers.

So instead, I'm going to take my own advice. Recently, I was answering some challenges and objections in a high school group that I lead at my church. And as I was answering their questions, I said this:
"Any time you can answer a challenge or a question with 'Jesus', it's a win."
 So how do we answer the question of the reliability of the Bible with Jesus? Here's how I would do it:
  1. If we can prove that the four gospels are historically reliable (note: not even inspired or infallible, just historically faithful reportage), then Jesus emerges as something more than just some guy, more than just a spiritually enlightened teacher. If they are really faithful historical accounts, Jesus is shown to be God.
  2. If Jesus really was who he said he was and did what he said he came to do, then as God he confirmed that the whole Old Testament was His word. In the same way and with the same authority, Jesus promised that His Spirit would guide the apostles after he left to recall and teach faithfully what he had taught them. So Jesus becomes the lynchpin for the reliability, trustworthiness, and inspiration of the whole Bible. 
In short, if Jesus was who he said he was and if he did what he said he came to do, then we can trust the Bible as God's very words. 

As I see it, there are three important questions that we still need to answer, three questions that follow the chain of transmission all the way up to the Bible you read today:
  1. Did the gospel writers give us historically faithful reportage (Did they get Jesus right)?
  2. Were the copyists faithful to the original manuscripts (Did they get the gospels right)?
  3. Are our modern translations accurate representations of those original documents (Do they get Jesus and the gospels right)?
It will be to these questions that we turn next in this series...


[1.] For a compelling argument of this sort, read Greg Koukl's article, "Ancient Words, Ever True". http://www.str.org/publications/ancient-words-ever-true#.VW3TYOcjii5

Other posts in the Clearing the Roadblocks series:
The Resurrection
Does God Care About Our Government?