These Signs

Christ tells us supernatural signs will follow believers. (Mk 16:17-18) Does this mean we should all be healing the sick, casting out demons, babbling in foreign languages we haven’t learned, and handling deadly vipers without harm? That if we aren’t walking in the sensational then we’re carnal, or worse?

No; we don’t each have all the gifts, and this is by design. (1Co 12:29-30) Christ is speaking here about the body of believers as a whole over time; the supernatural has indeed been observed among the saints through the ages, but each believer has unique gifts based on the needs of Christ’s local body at any given time and place. (1Co 12:18)

The intent of God’s gifts is evidently not to entertain, or to inflate our egos, or make us appear super spiritual. The greatest mere man who ever lived (Mt 11:11) never performed a miracle (Jn 10:41); the Corinthians pursued supernatural gifts (1Co 14:12), yet remained carnal, babes in Christ. (1Co 3:1) Pursuing the supernatural for ungodly motives gets us nothing. (1Ti 1:5-6)

God gives gifts to help the church become more like Christ (1Co 14:26), to know Him as He is. (Eph 4:11-13) He also bears witness with evangelists (He 2:4) to enable them to proclaim the gospel to those who are seeking Him. (Ac 8:6) In themselves, even the best miracles don’t move those who aren’t seeking God. (Jn 12:37)

In a world full of churches little different from the world, and bibles seldom read, at least in 1st and 2nd world countries, where is the miraculous needed? (Mt 16:4) Can’t those who’re seeking God today find Him without signs and wonders? I, for one, didn’t need them, at least the kind most are seeking.

The miracles I experience enable me to navigate a perilous world without getting all tangled up in it; they help me live as I ought, facing an incessant stream of spiritual enmity. (Ep 6:12) It isn’t glamorous; no one can see it but me, but it’s what I need to live for Him.

As we seek God, wherever we are, and gifts from Him to help ourselves and others find Him, know Him and walk with Him, He will empower and enable us us as He wills. In any case, to be safe in our pursuit of the supernatural, we must ever be seeking the Giver Himself, and not merely His gifts.

articles    blog

He Hardeneth

Scripture teaches God controls us all, even deciding our eternal fate, having mercy on a few of us and hardening the rest. (Ro 9:18) Is God then unfair to condemn us, since He controls us? (Ro 9:19)

This seems so obviously wrong, even asking the question is embarrassing. But obviousness is often the enemy of correctness; in the end, how can any complaint against the goodness of God be rational? (Ro 9:14) Perhaps an illustration will help.

Single block ice sculpture, World Ice Art Championship, Fairbanks AK

Suppose we dwell in a frigid climate where we enjoy three things: lounging in a hot tub under crisp, starlit heavens; ice water bathing; and competing in the annual ice sculpture festival. Being thrifty and innovative, we design special panels we can assemble into water-tight tubs of various shapes and sizes. When we want a steamy evening outside, we put one together, fill it with water and drop in a heating element. When we want our ice bath, we back off the heat to just above freezing and take the plunge; and at sculpture time we pull the heater, let it freeze, pull the panels and put our genius to work.

With a reliable water heater we can control the state of the water in our tub as we please, from steamy to frozen solid, by precisely controlling the heat we supply. In making ice we could say we’re “hardening” the water, but we’re really just withdrawing heat and leaving the water alone; where we live, water hardens naturally all by itself, and very predictably.

In the same way, God controls us by resisting our fallen, sinful nature (Ps 19:13), either reining in our depravity (De 18:14) (i.e. heating the water), or giving us up to pursue our own evil ways as He sees fit (Ps 81:12) (i.e. letting the water freeze). God never actively causes anyone to sin (Ja 1:13-14), or forcefully hardens anyone; we do that all on our own whenever He lets us.

God’s hardening is passive, simply letting us go our own way (Pr 1:31), not forcing us; when left to ourselves, we obey the law of sin operating within us (Ro 7:23), so we’re as predictable as the law of gravity. God knows exactly what we’ll do in every circumstance if He withdraws His grace from us.  Just as we can control an object‘s elevation by only pushing it upward, never causing it to fall, God can precisely control us by restraining our evil nature without causing us to sin. (Pr 16:9)

God isn’t unjust or unloving in letting us sin; it’s the essence of free will; and we’re no less guilty because we always want to sin as much as He will allow us to. (Ro 3:19) Neither is God ever unjust or unloving in restraining us, some much more than others: it’s all His mercy. (Ro 9:23)

God’s purpose in all this is ultimately to glorify Himself by revealing His amazing nature. (Ro 9:22) He could do it all differently and save everyone from themselves, but the end result would evidently not be as glorious. He’s doing it all perfectly.

The key to resolving one of the deepest spiritual mysteries, reconciling God’s sovereignty with Man’s free will, evidently lies in the depravity of Man, the puzzle piece most of us overlook. God isn’t unloving or unjust to let us do our own thing, and nothing obligates Him to override everyone’s natural will. His choice to intervene and only quicken and transform some of us isn’t unfair, it’s pure mercy. (Ro 9:16) Fairness is letting us all go to Hell.

God has an awesome plan in allowing sin (Mt 11:25-26), and He’s always in perfect control of it. (Ep 1:11) Exactly what it will all look like in the end remains to be seen, but I expect it will be amazing, like everything else He does. In seeing all of life from God’s perspective, we can give thanks always for all things with joy(Ep 5:20)

articles    blog

Grafted In

God’s kingdom isn’t divided into factions (Mk 3:24); it’s a holistic, integrated organism(Jn 17:20) What comprises this kingdom? What does it look like?

We all start out with a bad father, children of the wicked one. (Ep 2:3) But when God quickens us, from being dead in our sin, becoming our sin and giving us His resurrection life (Ep 2:5), everything changes: we’re transformed and adopted into His family (Ep 1:5), such that we become part of Him (Ep 5:30), and He becomes part of us. (Jn 17:23)

To illustrate, God uses the grafting of an olive branch into an olive tree. (Ro 11:17) He cuts us off from our original trunk, makes a deep slit in the host tree to expose its vascular system, fixes us into this new host and stabilizes our connection until the two of us begin to grow into and out from each other, becoming one life together.

In this allegory, it’s easy to mistake the root, the olive tree that we’re grafted into, for Israel, God’s chosen people. Consequently, many think redeemed Gentiles should somehow emulate the Jewish people, and adopt Jewish language, traditions and rituals into their worship and obedience. However, God says Israelites are natural branches of the olive tree (Ro 11:24): Gentiles aren’t grafted into branches, but into the tree trunk. (Ro 11:18) If Jews are natural branches, they aren’t the tree.

So, what does the olive tree itself represent? God says Gentiles partake of the root and fatness of the olive tree, along with the Jews, the natural branches. (Ro 11:17) Christ Himself is the One we partake of (He 3:14); He’s the vine, we’re branches. (Jn 15:5) We’re not partakers of Israel, but of the divine nature (2Pe 1:4), partakers of the Holy Spirit. (He 6:4)

God’s kingdom doesn’t necessarily look Jewish, or eastern or western, or anything in particular. It’s distinctive is not in its likeness to any particular race or culture, but in it’s amazing cultural diversity, all blended within a single family, comprised of souls from every race and culture. (Re 5:9) The commonality lies in conformity to God’s law, which doesn’t prescribe or forbid any particular culture; it even protects culture by forbidding the imposition of extra-biblical tradition. (De 4:2)

Israel isn’t the divine nature, nor its wellspring; she is in fact, for the most part, entirely void of divine life (Ro 10:1); though beloved of God, she is still His enemy. (Ro 11:28) She does not honor the Son; she has persistently (Ro 10:21) and flagrantly dishonored Him (Jn 8:49), so her worship cannot glorify either the Father or the Son. (Jn 5:23) Only a remnant will ever know Him (Ro 9:27), so why emulate her ways, or pattern our worship after hers, especially in her liturgy? How can this, in itself, be pleasing to the Godhead? (Ps 2:12)

Salvation is of the Jews (Jn 4:22), in the sense that God’s revealing Himself and His salvation to the world through them (Re 21:12): the adoption, the covenants, the giving of the Torah, and the promises all pertain to them. (Ro 9:4-5) But it isn’t all just for them (Ro 9:17): there is one law for us all. In no sense do we become part of physical Israel in salvation, nor do we obtain salvation through them. We come to salvation just like Israelites always have (Jn 3:7), and we become part of God, just like they do. (2Co 6:17-18) There’s no difference between Jew and Greek here (Ro 10:12); in this, neither circumcision helps, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature(Ga 6:15)

The Jews certainly have an advantage in that they’re custodians of God’s Word, so it’s embedded more deeply in their culture, and as a rule they’re much more familiar with it. (Ro 3:1-2) We can certainly learn much from them, and it’s not necessarily wrong to adopt parts of their tradition that aren’t inconsistent with God, but hoping this will bring us closer to God is a mistake: they’ve actually missed God Himself. (Mt 8:12) Supporting them and praying for them as God’s chosen nation (Ro 11:29), we must filter everything they say and do through the lens of Scripture, staying as true to the Word as we can.

articles    blog

I Can Do All Things

In our culture of “be all you can be,” it’s tempting to take scripture out of context to support temporal dreams. I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me is true (Php 4:13), but it’s unwise to expect Him to enable me beyond His design and gifting within me. (1Co 12:18) Just because I passionately want to achieve something, pray for His help and try my best, this isn’t necessarily a recipe for success. (Ja 4:3)

The context of this particular promise is not pursuing a career, but learning how to be content in any circumstance of life. (Php 4:11-12) Do we know both how to fail and how to succeed, do we thrive in both the struggle and in smooth sailing? This is the kind of grace we should be seeking in Christ: freedom to rejoice in the Lord, no matter what the world throws at us.

God promises to bless all the works of our hands as we obey Him (De 16:15), such that whatever we do will prosper (Ps 1:3), yet this blessing may look much different than what we might expect.

We each have a unique design, with unique potential and limitation; it’s wisdom to discover our calling through His design. (Ps 139:14) In the end, it’s reward enough to hear God say, “Well Done!” (Mt_25:23) As we do all in the name of Christ (Col 3:17), He will guide us (Ps 119:33), and this will be our end. (Ps 73:24)

articles    blog

Corrupting the Word

At 19 years old I “felt called” to the ministry, and bailed on a prestigious military career to pursue full-time Christian service. But marrying a contentious, angry woman (Pr 21:19) immediately disqualified me (1Ti 3:11), and so my struggle to serve began.

Looking back, I see providence in my suffering; my supposed “call” was inconsistent with scripture: there’s no office of pastor in God’s church, and somehow I’ve always known being paid to teach God’s Word is unhealthy at best. Once our wallet is tied to our teaching, it’s impossible to be unbiased.

Scripture agrees, forbidding anyone tasked with objectivity to receive a gift of any kind. (De 16:19) Only God knows the human heart: even in the best of us, the prospect of gain or loss corrupts our motives and blinds us. (Ex 23:8) We can’t be objective while being rewarded for bias.

Violating this principle enables reprobates to use religion to manipulate others for personal gain (2Pe 2:3), corrupting spiritual instruction (2Co 2:17) and fostering pernicious, broken religious institutions, tempting us to speak evil of the way of truth (2Pe 2:2); God never intended His kingdom to work like this.

In God’s economy, no one’s motivated to use religion to promote themselves. (1Pe 5:2) In God’s temple system, Levites comprise a priestly supreme civil court (De 17:8-9), supported by obligatory tithes and offerings, sharing among themselves what comes in. (De 18:8) They have no choice in their role (De 18:1), no legislative or executive powers, and ultimately depend on God’s people being blessed in obeying God’s Law from the heart. The design makes priests economically vulnerable when people aren’t genuinely righteous, motivating religious leaders to humbly teach the whole counsel of God, and to encourage all to obey it. (De 17:11)

Similarly in the church, as God designed it, there’s no dependence on paid clergy for spiritual health. Instead, brothers check each other’s teaching (1Co 14:29-31) as equals in God (1Co 11:3), and believers come together to edify one another as we pursue Christ together. No elite, educated group is the gatekeeper of truth (1Ti 3:15); no one’s income depends on tickling itching ears (2Ti 4:3), and no one has any spiritual control over another. (Mt 23:8)

God’s not arbitrary in His design, and it’s always good (Ps 119:10-11); it’s ultimately fatal to depart from it (Pr 21:16), and life to find Him in it. (Jn 10:10)

articles    blog

The Peace of God

Peace, part of the fruit of the Spirit (Ga 5:22), is so basic to spiritual health (Ro 14:17) God consistently begins with it. (Ro 1:71Co 1:3, 2Co 1:2Ga 1:3Ep 1:2Php 1:2Col 1:21Th 1:12Th 1:21Ti 1:22Ti 1:2Tit 1:4Phm 1:31Pe 1:2, 2Pe 1:2, 2Jn 1:3, Jud 1:2, Re 1:4)

It’s evidently not a lesser form of joy, for then God filling us with both joy and peace would be redundant. (Ro 15:13) Neither is it the absence of conflict and trouble; we may lose peace simply in fearing discomfort. Yet in Christ we may have peace in the midst of suffering and trial. (Jn 16:33)

Peace is the state of being undisturbed, calm, tranquil, unafraid, untroubled. (Jn 14:27) The opposite is anxiety, worry, and fear. Peace is Jesus asleep in the midst of a violent storm, as His disciples are freaking out. (Mt 8:23-27) It’s Elisha surrounded by an entire army that’s come to take him, knowing they’re no match for God. (2Ki 6:15-17)

Peace is being able to see afar off, from God’s perspective (Ps 119:165), keeping the whole of the eternal plan in mind in the midst of conflict. (He 11:13) As we abide in Christ (1Jn 2:28), knowing He is infinitely sovereign, good and faithful, Christ offers us His perspective, and along with this His peace, the peace that passes all understanding. (Php 4:6-7)

articles    blog

Rightly Dividing

Some claim we can prove anything from Scripture, but God tells us to rightly divide the word of truth (2Ti 2:15), implying there’s a wrong, deceitful way to handle it. (2Co 4:2)

If all scripture is God’s Word, given by inspiration (2Ti 3:16), then we can’t pick and choose proof texts to prove a point while contradicting other verses; if our thesis is inconsistent with any portion of the Word of God, we haven’t proved anything.

The nature of language is that it is often imprecise; words have different connotations in different contexts, so we must carefully consider both the local and global context of Scripture when wrestling with any particular text. God generally says things in many different ways, so when looking at one context on a topic, compare scripture with scripture and look carefully at related contexts, counter examples and proof texts. In theology, a text out of context is a pretext. Just because a word can mean a certain thing, doesn’t mean it does mean this in a given context.

We must also learn to reason correctly, to derive insight and wisdom from truth, leading us to more truth. (Lk 12:28) This is a learned skill, and not so common among us. We tend to feel more than we think, leaving our theology — our knowledge and beliefs about God — shallow and fragile.

I find wholesome theology a rare thing; I’ve never yet read a doctrinal statement which did not, in my view, evidently violate some portion of the Word of God. I could certainly be wrong, most likely am somewhere, and would love to know where so I could correct it. But I’m not surprised at finding so little understanding of God in religion. So few seek to know Him as He is. (Php 2:21)

articles    blog

The Voice of Strangers

God’s people hear His voice and follow Him (Jn 10:27), but do we also hear other voices which are not of God? If so, how do we tell the difference?

Hose Head Nebula, Hubble

To be clear, we aren’t referring to an audible voice, but to an inner sense or witness in our spirit that God’s trying to guide us or teach us something. Thinking the enemy can’t try to imitate God like this underestimates him, and implies any kind of impression or leading we receive must be from God.

But Jesus taught that other spiritual beings will also be speaking to us, trying to get us to follow them, and that we’ll know the difference instinctively. (Jn 10:5) But if we’re desperate to hear a “word from God,” we might override our instincts and fall pray to the enemy’s leading.

So, how do we know?

Simple, just like Jesus explained: if we don’t instinctively know God is speaking with us, then He isn’t. If we’re able to wonder if it might not be God, or ask, “Who are you?” then we don’t know it’s God and we should flee: ignore the impression, or voice, or leading, or whatever it is. We don’t need it, and we shouldn’t be looking for it.

If we need clear direction from God we should ask in faith for wisdom (Ja 1:5); seeking counsel from others and the Word, and then walk it out using all the wisdom we have, trusting He’s working out His will in us. (Php 2:13)

If we need direct revelation, God will speak to us clearly, and there will be no doubt about it. Satan comes as an angel of light to deceive (2Co 11:14), but the voice of God is unmistakable, let’s not settle for a counterfeit.

articles    blog

Asleep in Christ

What happens when we die? Do we go directly to Heaven or Hell, or do we fall asleep and lie unconscious in our bodies until the resurrection? This latter view, called “soul sleep,” might appear scriptural (Da 12:2), and is commonly taught by Christians, but there are problems with it.

For example, as Christ was being crucified He said to one of the thieves, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23:43) Evidently, a better place awaits those who die in Christ, which we enjoy before we’re raised from the dead.

Similarly, Christ describes how Lazarus, a poor beggar, and an unnamed rich man, are both transported from their bodies at death; Lazarus is carried by the angels to meet Abraham (Lk 16:22a) and the rich man appears in hell. (Lk 16:22b-23) Both men are conscious in death, interacting with others in visible, tangible bodies. The rich man recognizes Abraham, who’s been dead for hundreds of years, and pleads with Him to send Lazarus to fetch some water to ease his suffering. (Lk 16:24) As Abraham refuses, he pleads to have Lazarus sent back to warn his brothers to live for God so they won’t suffer the same fate. (Lk 16:28) Abraham’s final words, closing the narrative, are indeed profoundly thought provoking. (Lk 16:31)

The details of this amazing story are entirely inconsistent with soul sleep, contradicting it at every turn. If this is merely metaphorical, and soul sleep is true, then why does Christ use proper names, focus on a prominent historical figure like Abraham, and misrepresent reality so profoundly? Nothing in the narrative indicates it’s a parable; it cannot be thoughtfully dismissed.

On the mount of Transfiguration, before the resurrection, Moses and Elijah discuss the redemption plan with Christ, so Moses isn’t asleep or with the physical remains of his body. (Lk 9:30-31) Yet Moses has a body, and interacts with both Christ and Elijah, prior to either of them dying.

Paul, nearing death, spoke of his imminent departure (2Ti 4:6), after which he planned to be with Christ. (Php 1:23) Yet this was a struggle for Him, which to choose: serving Christ longer on Earth or going on to be with Him. If Paul believes in soul sleep there can be no struggle, he only adds value by staying here to serve.

Paul tells us that God will continue to transform us beyond death, up until the day of Christ (Php 1:6), which is problematic if we’re unconscious most of that time, in the long expanse between our death and resurrection.

Enoch’s prophesy, when God comes to execute judgement on the living, before the final resurrection, is that He will bring many saints with Him (Jud 1:14-15), confirming Paul’s view of the 2nd coming of Christ (1Th 3:13), that His elect will already be with Him when He comes to judge the world. (1Th 4:14)

In Revelation, John sees under the altar of God many souls slain for their testimony, appealing to God to avenge their blood on those still living on Earth. (Re 6:9-10) This is evidently well before the resurrection and judgement, since God tells them to wait until the rest of their brothers are also killed. (Re 6:11)

The problems with soul sleep abound, and appear insurmountable; we could list many more. How do we reconcile them with the texts used to teach soul sleep? (Ps 115:17) An honest approach looks at the whole of Scripture, for a way to reconcile all of it into one, coherent, unified view which does no injustice to any text. This is our challenge.

The only way I can see to reconcile the whole is to understand the passages referring to sleep and inactivity in the grave to be merely from the physical perspective, how it appears to us who are still alive on Earth: the dead look like they are asleep and inactive. It is not an unreasonable way to understand these texts; it does them no real injustice, in my opinion, given all the evidence of soul and spirit activity between death and resurrection. There are many texts which we must take poetically in order retain our integrity (Is 55:12), why not these?

articles    blog

Choose the Fear

As an instinct, fear can be a good thing, keeping us out of harm’s way. It helps us avoid things like, well, provoking gangsters and thugs – fearing what they might do to us encourages a basic kind of wisdom.

Christ reasons, by way of contrast, that there’s only one to be afraid of: God. (Lk 12:4-5) God is capable of inflicting so much damage and harm, truly an infinite amount of pain and suffering, that all other fears should pale in comparison; the very thought of offending Him should move us to trembling (Php 2:12), even as we’re rejoicing in Him. (Ps 2:11)

Many prefer to focus on respect or reverence rather than fear, perhaps to encourage us to be more comfortable with God. But that’s like telling us to relax when our clothes might be catching fire.

The potential danger we’re all in with God is incredibly real, and there’s no point in playing it down: He’s a consuming fire (He 12:29), and most of us are chaff. (Mt 3:12) Even for the best of us, it’s a fearful thing to fall into His hands (He 10:31), and all of us will: evading Him isn’t an option. The slightest uncertainty here should terrify us. (2Co 5:11)

Firstly, a healthy fear of God keeps us from presumptuous sin, from carelessly offending Him (Pr 16:6), and that’s just plain smart – like not poking a gorilla in the eye, even if he seems friendly.

Godly fear also motivates us to ensure our election (2Pe 1:10)striving to enter the narrow gate (Lk 13:24) and pass fully into His rest. (He 4:11) In light of the second death, living for even a moment without absolute assurance of eternal life is unthinkable. (2Co 13:5)

Fear in itself, rational fear of any kind, would never encourage us to run or hide from God: thinking we can avoid omnipresence is like trying to escape from space and time itself; the thought is unintelligent at best. Only an insane dislike, a relentless distaste for the divine, would seek to escape from One who inhabits eternity.

Perhaps this is partly why “the fear of JEHOVAH is the beginning of wisdom.” (Pr 9:10) Try to fathom a soul with any sense of propriety or understanding that willfully chooses to neglect or offend omnipotence. How can anyone with a grain of sense not “kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and ye perish from the way when His wrath is kindled but a little?” (Ps 2:12)

A lack of reverence for God, any willingness to sin against Him deliberately, on purpose, not choosing to fear Him in every healthy sense of the word (Pr 1:29), is essentially a failure to grasp the fundamental nature of God; it’s either rank unbelief in who God says He is, or exceedingly irrational.

The fear of God is our friend (Ps 19:9a): choose it and be wise. Learn to fear Him rightly (Ps 34:11)God’s children don’t take Him lightly, casually; we fear Him unto joy. All else is unbelief, enmity, no matter how we slice it.

articles    blog