Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Did John the Baptist and Jesus make up baptism?

In the last two days I got asked this question twice in close succession: "Where did John the Baptist and Jesus come up with the practice of baptism?" 

A simple word search for "baptism" in the Old Testament turns up no matches. However by the time John the Baptist shows up on the scene and starts dunking people "for forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4) people seem to already have an understanding of what baptism is.

It seems there were actually others performing baptisms during and even prior to John and Jesus. In fact, nobody seems be too concerned about the act itself -- as if it was a well understood practice already. The question that continually comes up instead is "by whose authority?" (Matthew 21:25, Mark 11:30, Luke 7:29, Luke 20:4) So what is the context into which Jesus and John's baptisms began?

Torah (Old Testament)

The Law of Moses required ablutions (washings) on the part of priests following certain sacrifices and on certain individuals who were unclean because of an infectious disease (Num. 19:1-22; Lev 14,15, 16:24-28). The natural method of cleansing the body by washing and bathing in water was always customary in Israel. The washing of their clothes was an important means of sanctification imposed on the Israelites even before the law was given a Mt. Sinai (Ex 19:10). The use of water for cleansing was used symbolically as well in such passages as Ezekiel 36:25 where God says, "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities . . ."

Intertestamental period (between Old Testament and New Testament)

Along with the purposes already mentioned in the Torah, another use of symbolic purification by water became part of early Jewish tradition. This was immersion or baptism for Gentile converts to Judaism. Though the only Biblical requirement for entrance into the covenant was circumcision, baptism became an added requisite. No one knows exactly when or by whom the requirements were changed to include baptism, but it was before the time of Jesus. We know this because debates on the subject of proselyte baptism are recorded between rabbinic schools. To this day, Gentiles who would embrace Judaism must undergo baptism in a mikveh ritual. The purpose of this ceremonial immersion is to portray spiritual cleansing.

Not just baptism

So John and Jesus basically borrowed and repurposed a practice that was already commonplace in first-century Judaism and simply imbued it with new and deeper spiritual meaning. Not that this should surprise us. Jesus did the same thing with the Passover meal (Matt 26:17-29) when he instituted communion and presented himself as the true Passover lamb (1st Cor. 5:7).

But lest you think Christianity is getting all the holey hand-me-downs from Judaism with a little Jesus-patch sewn to the knees, the reality is quite the opposite. In the Passover and in the Old Testament types of baptism, we see rituals that had to be endlessly repeated (quite literally, "wash, rinse, repeat"). But now we understand that these were just foreshadowings of the perfect Passover lamb—and the perfect baptism—in Christ that would be once and for all.

Monday, January 26, 2015

You can thank God for tomorrow

I love the story about the father who was planning an exciting trip to take his son on the next day. “What are we going to do, Dad?” the boy asked. The father said, “I’m not going to tell you now; it will be a surprise.” The boy was very excited because he knew three things for sure. He knew his father would never lie to him. He knew that whatever they did the next day didn’t matter; what was most exciting was that he would be doing it with his dad. And he knew that the father would keep him safe, whatever they did and wherever they went. So that evening, as the father was putting his son to bed, the boy hugged his father’s neck and said, “Daddy, thank you for tomorrow.”

I am just starting to preach through the book of Titus, one of Paul’s letters to a young pastor whom he had left on the island of Crete. In Paul’s greeting to Titus, he spoke of the “hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began, and at the proper time, manifested in His word.”

I see three important things we can learn from this passage about eternal life. First, it was promised by God before the ages began. This means we have to look at eternal life only through God’s Word, not through the imaginations of men. We know “heaven is a real place” because of what God has chosen to reveal to us in His Word. The rest is mystery, and will only be revealed when one who knows God, through Jesus Christ, dies and enters its fullness. Second, we know the God who promised eternal life to His own never lies. He cannot. A Sunday School teacher told his class he would give each of them a piece of gum if they could tell him something God can do. A 10-year-old boy piped up and said, “I’ll give you a whole pack of gum if you tell me something God can’t do!” Well, God cannot lie, and that is great news for us. Third, eternal life was manifested, or revealed, brought into the open, at the proper time. Everything happens in God’s time, including our salvation.

Last week, we spent an hour with Jaime, a Bocachican fisherman with whom we have developed a relationship over several trips to the island off the coast of Cartagena. He told me several years ago that he would become a Christian when he turned 50. I told him he might not make it to 50. He smiled and responded that he would make it, and he would then become a Christian. He is now 52. As we have done before, we pleaded with Jaime to be reconciled with God, to receive the redemption for sins that is available only through Jesus’ blood. He wouldn’t. Does that mean he never will? It might. We cannot say, “Oh, it’s just a matter of time and God will save Jaime.” I have been guilty of saying that myself, something like, “Oh, that young man has a godly grandmother praying for him; he doesn’t stand a chance.” We don’t know that. But what we do know is that God is sovereign, and if Jaime is to be saved, God will save him at the proper time.

How about you? Do you have the hope of eternal life through a relationship with Jesus Christ? If you do, you are able to say every day to God, “Daddy, thank you for tomorrow!”

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

God, Don't Bless America

Last night President Obama gave his annual State of the Union Address. The occasion undoubtedly aroused political gurus and, well, everyone on social media to parse the speech whilst sharing their thoughts. There is always a torrent of talking points, but there is one line that is included in every State of the Union Speech that I think deserves more attention than anything else–the last line, “God bless America.”

President Obama has invoked the line in every single one of his State of the Union speeches:
“Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.” -B. Obama, 2010 State of the Union Address

“Thank you. God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.” -B. Obama, 2011 State of the Union Address

“Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.” -B. Obama, 2012 State of the Union Address

“Thank you. God bless you, and God bless these United States of America.” -B. Obama, 2013 State of the Union Address

“God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.” -B. Obama, 2014 State of the Union Address

“Thank you, God bless you, and God bless this country we love.” -B. Obama, 2015 State of the Union Address
One might think that a Southern Baptist Pastor would be delighted to hear a President implore God’s blessing on America, but in my assessment this was the speech’s most disparaging line because of all the things that came before it.

Biblically speaking, our Union is in no state to be blessed by God. I can cite at least two considerable reasons why from last night’s speech alone. The first concerns abortion. Obama said,
“We still may not agree on a woman’s right to choose, but surely we can agree it’s a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows …” -B. Obama, 2015 State of the Union Address
While it’s true that I can agree that “it’s a good thing that abortions are nearing all-time lows,” the fact is that this has nothing to do with any kind of pro-life policy. In 2014 the Center for Disease Control, our United States’ government public health institution, said that this trend had to do more with the recession than anything else.
“Since 2008, as the recession took hold, women revealed to researchers they were determined to avoid unwanted pregnancies because of worries over the cost of raising children. The ensuing collapse in the housing and job markets persuaded many women to be extra vigilant about using safe and reliable birth control methods, analysts said.” -sacbee.com
So the fact that abortions are hitting all-time lows has nothing to do with pro-life policies. In fact, if Obama’s policies were uninhibited by the recession, I don’t believe that he would have been able to say what he said last night. The fact that he chose to say, “We still may not agree on a woman’s right to choose” presupposes his mindset that unborn babies are not lives, but mere tissue that a woman can choose to carve out of her body if she well pleases.

God cannot and will not bless a Union that unapologetically murders its most innocent citizens, and that is precisely what we have done since 1973, when our Union’s Supreme Court approved such a thing.
“You wove me in my mother’s womb.” King David, Psalm 139:13
A second matter from last night’s speech concerns our Union’s view of homosexuality. Obama said,
“I want future generations to know that we are a people who see our differences as a great gift, that we are a people who value the dignity and worth of every citizen – man and woman, young and old, black and white, Latino and Asian, immigrant and Native American, gay and straight …” -B. Obama, 2015 State of the Union Address
I think it’s important for me to note that I agree with the President’s statement that we ought to “respect human dignity,” and that I, too, “want future generations to know that we are a people who see our differences as a great gift, that we are a people who value the dignity and worth of every citizen.” I think we would, however, disagree with the definitions of words like “respect” and “dignity.” You see, I think it’s quite possible to disagree with a homosexual lifestyle and yet still show a homosexual respect and dignity. I don’t think a person has to accept someone’s lifestyle in order to demonstrate respect and dignity.

Also, homosexuality is a far different issue than someone’s gender, age, skin color, or ethnicity. Obama doesn’t seem to think so, incorporating the terms “gay and straight” in his list of the types of differences people have that serve as a “great gift.”

The Bible doesn’t consider homosexuality a “great gift,” though. It considers it quite the opposite. Paul says that the affirmation of it is a sign that God has removed his blessing from whatever entity is basking in it. That is, the acceptance of homosexual behavior isn’t a sign that a person or a Union is on its way away from God’s blessing. It’s a sign that it has already lost it:
“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.” Romans 1:26-27
If these two issues–murder and sexual immorality–aren’t considerable enough, Obama was not shy in claiming what he considers the most challenging threat to our Union–heat. That’s right. According to Obama, the greatest threat to our Union isn’t the murder of innocent citizens or the wrath of God upon immorality, but really hot summers.
And no challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change. -B. Obama, 2015 State of the Union Address
Obama claims that his administration’s focus on being green is a “pillar to our leadership” and an “example of our values.”

Unfortunately, I can’t agree more. Our Union’s values cannot be more evident.

I don’t think it will be long–perhaps in my own lifetime–that we will have a President who fails to include the traditional “God bless America” line in his presidential speeches. In my estimation, this might, lamentably, be a more virtuous act than asking God to bless what our Union has become.

I’m afraid to say that God will not and cannot bless our Union in its current state. It’s against his very nature. A better closing line might be, "Thank you, God help you, and God help us all."

Picture Credit

Monday, January 19, 2015

Remembering the main thing

Perhaps you have heard the old story of the pastor who was asked by a friend visiting from out of town, “How is your church doing?” The pastor said, “Oh, poorly. Very poorly. But, praise the Lord, none of the other churches in the area are doing any better than we are!”

It is sad but true that there is often a competitive spirit among churches. Sometimes even marketing strategies are employed in an attempt to lure members away from one fellowship and into another. Part of that can be explained as old-fashioned, selfish greed. If the culture buys the lie that says, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” then the church can buy into it as well, and just substitute pew-sitters for toys. But the danger is that in the midst of trying to build a huge enterprise, we can easily lose sight of what the church is really supposed to be. A huge church can fail just like a small church can fail: by losing its vision and sense of purpose. A tiny church can be a booming success by keeping the main thing the main thing: God and His glory.

Oh, dear people, you must remember this: the church is not a business venture. It has purposes that go way beyond widgets and sales charts and daily averages. The church is not a college. It boasts of results that the greatest college president in the world cannot even dream of attaining. The church is not here today and gone tomorrow, like Bear Stearns or Circuit City. The church is not in danger of losing its relevance to the culture, like those who built gramophones or who designed eight-track tape technology.

Despite the Richard Dawkins delusions and those of other modern atheists, the church is here to stay because its builder is from everlasting to everlasting. Which begs the question: how can anyone who knows Christ have convinced himself that a Christian doesn’t need the church? As if the body and the head can be separated, and that’s ok?

The amazing truth from Scripture, which we are to take literally, says it plainly: the church is the body of Christ, “the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” No business, no college, no political party, no institution of any kind can make that claim. Christ is the head of the church. And the church displays the fullness of Christ to the earth. We cheapen the purpose and the calling of the church when we market it. We bring dishonor to the name of Christ when we compete with one another or when we run the latest gimmick to try to fill the church. God fills it. I don’t know about you, but I am not interested in trying to do something only God can do. In the first place, it is foolish because I simply cannot build the church. In the second place, it is deadly for anyone to think that he can and to say something like, “Excuse me, Lord, but I need to help you with your church. Step aside and watch this, God.”

How is the church doing? It seems like we are losing the battle. It looks like we need to resort to gimmicks and marketing in order to draw a crowd. It appears that the church is irrelevant and needs to give in and give up. That’s only because we are looking around or looking down. Look up! Look at the head of the church, Jesus Christ, and be encouraged. He has already won.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Heaven is fo' rizzle

I am not usually comfortable being snarky and cynical, but I've always felt that all of these books about visits to heaven were just a bit too...Oprah-y. (I know, it's not an adjective, but you all know what I mean, don't you?) There's no requirements for entrance, everybody gets in, everything glows, smells good, and angels are singing. Congrats, partially-dead kid, you and Jesus are walking around Yankee Candle.

So when a confession/retraction like the one released yesterday goes public, it does my heart good. Not only because my cynicism is rewarded, but because the sufficiency of the Scriptures is confirmed.

 Source: Christianity Today

In case you need a palate cleanser from my cynicism, here David Platt addresses these books in a proper pastoral tone:

And in case you wanted just a bit more cynicism, here's this:

Source: Adam4d

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Anorexic and Obese Christianity

So an anorexic and an insomniac walk into a bar...

"I don't like Bible reading plans. They feel so legalistic. I feel like I am just reading to check the box."

This sentiment was shared by a classmate of mine back in my Christian university days. If I had been quicker on my feet, I had always wished I'd responded more like this (rather than the stunned silence that was my actual response):

"That's so interesting! I feel the same way. I don't like having three square meals for the same reason. It feels legalistic. And I've stopped sleeping at night, too. It always felt like I was just checking a box."

They don't call that freedom from legalism, they call that anorexia and insomnia. And in the same way, when we rationalize our lack of time in the Bible, we are really just making excuses for spiritual anorexia. Churching it up might make you sound super-spiritual, but all you're really doing is starving yourself of the very things your heart and soul need to function.

What Would Jesus Eat?

Jesus, on the other hand, gives us an entirely different picture of one's relationship with the Word of God. When Jesus was challenged, he responded with Scripture (Mark 12:28-34). When Jesus was tempted, he fought back with Scripture (Luke 4). When he was pierced, he bled Scripture (Matt. 27:46). There can be no doubt that Jesus was a consumer of the Scriptures.

But he didn't stop there. Jesus was not just a consumer of the Word. Taking in the Word was only the first step in Jesus' meal. Consider this:
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work."
(John 4:31-34 ESV)
Jesus feeding on the Scriptures consisted of him both taking in the Word and then working out the Word. He said explicitly his food was "to do the will" of the Father. Jesus didn't just feed on bare information about the will of God. Jesus fed on obedience to the will of God.

Avoiding anorexic and obese Christianity

An anorexic Christian (like the friend I mentioned at the beginning) is someone who is starving themselves of the very thing that our spirits need to be healthy and functioning as Christians. An obese Christian, on the other hand, is one who takes in all the Bible "calories" with lots of reading and study, but puts none of it into practice. Both are unhealthy.

So I am not saying you have to start some death-defying "Through The Bible In A Week" reading plan. But this is the beginning of the year. This is a time for resolutions. This is a perfect time to find a rhythm and routine that works for you. Find a plan that gets you a regular meal on the Word in portions that you can digest. And we must follow Jesus' example and not stop with mere consumption. We must carry it through to application.

This isn't about being legalistic. This is about feeding, working, and living.

Feedback: What is your diet of Scripture like? What changes should you make in 2015? What are some practical safeguards in your life that keep you from simply being an "obese Christian", all consumption, no application?

Monday, January 12, 2015

When Steve McQueen started to live

“They said he could act with the back of his head. No dialogue or frills required — his mere presence loomed larger than life in every shot. Put him next to some of the finest actors in the business, and he would undercut every one of them simply by being in the frame.

Everyone had a Steve McQueen story.

His superior officers in the Marines could have told you how he spent 41 days in the brig for resisting arrest when caught AWOL. The young men at the Boys’ Republic where Steve had spent some of his teenage years could tell you how he regularly came back and visited the school after becoming famous, personally responding to every boy’s letters and financially supporting the school until his death. “The Magnificent Seven” co-star Yul Brynner could tell you how McQueen stole scene after scene by deliberately throwing in extra, distracting bits of business. Bruce Lee could have told you about a hair-raising ride in Steve’s Porsche that had Lee cowering in the foot-well (and threatening to kill Steve when they stopped, causing a fearful McQueen to hit the gas again and refuse to slow down until Lee promised not to hurt him). He was known to say that he lived for himself and answered to no one. Asked once if he believed in God, the actor brazenly replied, ‘I believe in me. God will be number one as long as I’m number one.’” (Esther O’Reilly)

When McQueen’s health started to fail and his career started to wane, he took up flying. His instructor was an older man named Sammy Mason, and the actor was so impressed with Mason that he finally said, “What makes you different?” Mason sat down with him and said, “Steve, it’s not what. It’s who. I am different because of Jesus Christ.” McQueen started going to church with Mason and several months later he asked the pastor if they could meet. After several hours of questions, McQueen walked out of the church convinced that he was a new man in Christ. A large part of his struggle to believe was that McQueen had been, in his own words, lost on the “dark, ugly road” of sin his whole life. He had lived for himself, gained a deserved reputation as a hard man to work with, and hurt a lot of people along the way. When he believed “the hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began,” McQueen’s life changed as radically as anybody’s ever could. He had already been a generous man, but now he started to give and serve, not to try and win God’s favor, but because of what God had done for him through Jesus’s sacrifice. One friend, John Daly, said that he had expected his hammer or his saw to be converted before Steve McQueen ever came close to believing. He was blown away at the change. Afterward, McQueen could often be found reading and studying his Bible.

Just before McQueen died, as he was preparing for cancer surgery, he met Billy Graham. He had expressed a desire to talk to the evangelist, and Graham arranged his schedule to come and spent time with McQueen. The actor talked about his life and his conversion to Christianity, and somewhere in the conversation, he mentioned he’d misplaced his Bible. Billy Graham gave him his own, inscribing it for McQueen. He died after surgery four days later, with the evangelist’s Bible on his chest.

Faith became sight that day for McQueen, as he fully and finally received the hope of eternal life.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Pursue the Lord!

A famous preacher visited a nursing home and greeted the people who were very glad to see him. Many recognized him and called him by name. One lady did not, and seemed unimpressed with the man. He smiled at her warmly and asked, “Do you know who I am?” She patted his hand and said, “No, honey, but if you go to the Front Desk, they can tell you who you are.”

I share that story because I want to tell you three things I learned this year in my studies. And though these may be familiar to you, let’s be honest with ourselves: Our memories are not getting stronger with age. We need constant reminders.

Be strong and courageous.

That’s the word I heard God speak to my heart last Jan. 12 as I prepared to preach in a church in Bocachica, Colombia. I knew that was from Joshua 1, so I turned there and read this: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” I was prepared to challenge the men that morning to take the God-given initiative to disciple their children, but at the moment I was having all kinds of doubts and fears. ‘Is this the right message?’ That’s what was whirling around in my mind until God cut through it all with the Sword of the Spirit and said, “Be strong and courageous.” As I pondered that word, I believe He was saying to me, “This is the message that I have been and will be speaking through you to men.” I got up in the strength of that encouragement and preached the message of Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” When I finished the message I gave an invitation to all who wanted to be ‘Ephesians 6 men’ to come forward for a time of prayer. By God’s grace, the front of the church was filled with those who responded.

Power comes from God.

On March 7 this year, we lost power at our house, along with about 50,000 others in Alamance County. I was thankful for a generator that kept the lights and the freezer on for the

60 hours the power was off. But mostly I was thankful for Daisy Pace and her strong encouragement from the Lord. This 7-year-old marched right up to me that Sunday morning, when we were still waiting for power, and said, “Papa said we didn’t lose power. That comes from God. We just lost electricity.” Her wise Papa taught her that, and then she taught it to me.

Pursue the Lord.

Oswald Chambers said, “A life of intimacy with God is characterized by joy.” Not having much joy? Check your closeness to God. Not sure why you don’t feel close to Him? J. Oswald Sanders wrote, “We are at this moment as close to God as we really choose to be. Both Scripture and experience teach that it is we, not God, who determines the degree of intimacy with Him that we enjoy.” The Lord reminded me that the means of grace He has given us to pursue Him include reading the Bible, prayer, and loving the body of Christ in a local church. Most of all, we are to pursue Him the way we first pursued our wives, or our husbands.

I pray these reminders fill you with encouragement as you enter 2015!