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Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Long Reach Of God - Romans 11:16-32

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Romans 11:16-21 "If the first piece of dough is holy, the lump is also; and if the root is holy, the branches are too.
17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; 21 for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. 

Introduction:

I can recall as a child the many games of kickball that my sister and I would play. We would occasionally kick the ball high in the air, resulting in it becoming lodged in a tree. We could call upon my dad to come out and helps us get the ball. He would take a long board or pole and tap the ball to get it down on the ground for us to resume our game. As a child, I marveled at how my dad could do such things, it seemed nothing was to distant or too difficult for him to reach. 

As we turn to Paul's analogy of the olive tree in Romans 11:16-32, we are introduced to His redemptive program to save all kinds of people out of the nations and Israel. Olive trees were valuable in Israel. They came to signify Israel and its land (Judges 9:8-9; 2 Kings 18:32; Psalm 52:8; Psalm 128:3; Isaiah 24:13; Jeremiah 11:16; Hosea 14:6; Zechariah 4:11-12). Jesus preached on a Mountain side known as the "Mount of Olives" due to its copious amount of these trees (Matthew 24:3; Mark 13:3; Luke 9:29,37; 21:37). 

Olive leaves are first mentioned in Genesis 8:11 to refer to the dove that brought back an olive branch in its beak to Noah. The bringing of this olive branch signified that God's wrath was done. The ark of safety designed by God had protected Noah, his family and the animals. Henceforth olives would come to represent God's favor, redemption and grace. It is no wonder that the olive was cultivate for its uses in ceremonial anointing of priests, prophets kings; oil for lamps; baking and a host of other uses. 

Whenever olive trees became unfruitful, the people came to discover that by cutting off branches from wild olives trees and grafting them onto cultivated trees, the wild branches would help the cultivated tree become fruitful again. Once the sap from the cultivated tree worked its way through the branches, both branches and tree functioned together. It is this imagery and backdrop that Paul uses in conveying how God's redemptive program is working to redeem the distant and difficult to reach. Let's briefly consider what we find in Romans 11:16-32.

God can reach the most distant.   Rom 11:16-21

Let’s play a game of: “who am I”. In this game, I will mention a pre-conversion testimony from the Bible and see if you the reader can guess the identity of the person in question.

1).  I was a pagan that lived over half my life in a very secular city, committed to the darkness, until God found me. 

2). I was wanted for 1st degree murder and went into hiding, lived a double life, nearly forgotten, until God found me and changed my life. 

So who are these two mystery people? The first was Abraham, who originally a gentile, was called by God out of ancient Babylonia and then became circumcised. He became the patriarch of the Jewish nation (Joshua 24:2-3) Now what about the second mystery person?  If you guessed Moses, you were right. Moses was raised in Pharaoh's household. Though Jewish by birth he was raised to be Egyptian in thought. God would call him to deliver his people from slavery in Egypt  (Exodus 2:11-15; 3:1-6).

Now to put this on a personal level: Do you have a son, daughter, relative that is far away from God? As long as they have life within them, they are still prime candidates for being reached by God. If God can reach people who were seemingly distant like Abraham and Moses, He can reach anyone. God is reaching out to the nations. But now notice secondly....

God can reach the most difficult.   Rom 11:22-29

Let's try one more round of "who am I". 

1). I endorsed the sacrificial killing of my own son and became addicted to murder, detested God and engaged in the occult. I became a powerful man, and then was found out, locked in prison and hit rock-bottom. I should had died, but God found me. This first mystery person was none other than Manassah, a Jewish King, in 2 Chronicles 33.

2). I was a troubled soul, possessed by seven demons. The day was no different than night to me, then He called my name and turned my life around. Believe it or not, this is the testimony of Mary Magdalene, the first person to see Jesus post-resurrection.  (Mary, Lk 8:2).

3). I was most devoted to my religion, and yet made it my life’s purpose to wipe out Christianity. I was a cynical and skeptical. Then Jesus came to me and turned my life inside out. If you guest the Apostle Paul, you were right! (Acts 9). 

As we summarize Paul's point in these verses, we find it in Romans 11:22, 25-26  For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; 26 and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.”
27 “This is My covenant with them,
When I take away their sins.”

When we look at Israel today, though some are converting to Jesus the Messiah, it seems that, by-and-large, there are very few Jewish people coming to the Lord. Yet scripture testifies again and again that God will save the multitude of Jewish people at the end of this age. Take for instance a glimpse of this truth in Revelation 7:4 "And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel." The consequence of this world-wide evangelistic effort during the Great Tribulation will be the conversion of many people. We read on in Revelation 7:9 "After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands." In this prophetic vision captures only a small portion of Jewish people whom God will touch by His grace at the end of history. At the end of this tribulation period, Christ will return to earth and many more multitudes of the Jewish nation will become converted (see Romans 11:25-26). 

What do we glean from these verses?  The application is this: never judge ability to save a person tomorrow by seemingly impossible circumstances today. So now notice the closing thought of today's post...

God can reach you. Your response?  Rom 11:30-32 

In Romans 11:30-32, God reminds us through the pen of Paul that His calling to His people Israel as the chosen nation of his inheritance has not been revoked. God doesn't lie (Titus 1:2) nor break promises. It is then in Romans 11:32 we find two classes of people: believers and unbelievers. Those who by God's gracious call have responded versus those who have freely and knowing rejected God's well-meant-offer of forgiveness. This same sort of arrangement is found in Romans 5:18 "So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men."

These verses are not speaking of some crass universalism in which all men will be saved. Instead, this refers to all those who willingly reject Christ of their own accord because they loved darkness rather than light (John 3:17; 3:36) and all of those who, because of God's grace calling them, freely respond to the Gospel (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 10:9). God's long reach extends to the most distant and difficult. If you but trust in Him who is reaching out to you, you too can be graved into that wondrous tree, that vine, the Lord Jesus Christ (see John 15).  

Monday, October 16, 2017

A Better Way To Define Miracles - Building An Argument For God's Existence From Consideration Of Christ's Resurrection And Miracles

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Acts 1:3 To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. 

Introduction:

In the last couple of posts, we have considered an improved definition of miracles over against the standard definition of: "violation of nature's laws". We have proposed two traits for the miraculous thus far:

1. Infrequently or irregular events done  by God

2. Such events are naturally impossible, which is to say, they cannot be brought about by natural processes inherent within themselves. 

In today's posting we are going to offer a third important piece to our definition: the religio-historical context. This third element is crucial in our attempt to improve upon the standard definition of miracles. Skeptics (thinking of philosophers such as David Hume) will often charge that even if miracles are possible in our world, we nevertheless cannot hope to know when such things occur. 

Context is key in determining whether a given event or phenomena is a miracle or a simple anomaly not yet explained by current scientific theory. Philosopher and theologian Dr. William Lane Craig has written extensively on this subject of miracles and the need for a religio-historical context. In using Dr. Craig's discussions on miracles and their place in the course of naturally occurring events, as well as some other observations, we can propose a sample argument for God's existence that involves our discussion on miracles.

What is meant by "religio-historical" context? Why is this crucial in defining the miraculous?

When we talk about a "religio-historical" context, we refer to the particular spiritual ideas that inform a given people group and their given historical situation in which such ideas and practices occur. When we talk about the person and work of Jesus, we are dealing with a first-century historical context that includes the lives and practices of Jews involved in 2nd Temple, Palestinian Judaism. Jesus was a Jewish male that interacted with Jews, as well as Greeks and Romans. The given beliefs of both his contemporary Jews (with their various sects) and the Greco-Roman thought and government of the first century must be included when talking about the historical context of the Four Gospels. 

Jewish beliefs about the after-life, including the belief that the resurrection would not take place until the end of history, were deep convictions. A survey of the Jewish literature outside the Old Testament (such as the Apocrypha, Pseudapigrapha, Josephus "Antiquities of the Jews") as well as the Old Testament books themselves will yield this observation's accuracy. 

Furthermore, a survey the New Testament books (particular the four gospels) will reveal that none of Jesus' disciples were expecting their Messiah to rise from the dead. 

The strong religious context and historical situation of Jesus' day reinforced these expectations. Yet despite every expectation to the contrary, the disciples came to the conclusion that Jesus raised from the dead. This begs the question: "what prompted the disciples to affirm Jesus' resurrection from the dead"? Unless Jesus physically raised from the dead and appeared to His disciples in a physical, bodily manner - then there is no adequate naturalistic explanation for the facts. What are those facts? the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances and the disciple's sudden switch from skepticism to robust faith. 

As Dr. Craig has noted on more than one occasion, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead befits His remarkable life and unprecedented sense of Divine authority which He carried in His words, His actions and His life. This is but a sample of what we mean when we talk about a given "religio-historical context". By knowing such things, we are prepared to better identify a miracle when it occurs.

Applying what we have learned thus far about miracles to the subject of Jesus' resurrection

We once more consider Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Known physical laws and processes describe for us a physical reality in which we should not expect dead men to rise from the dead. Having identified a miracle as an "infrequent act of God", certainly the claim of resurrection would qualify. With respect to this miracle being a naturally impossible event, again, the key assumption behind Christ's resurrection is that "God raised Jesus from the dead". 

Now what about the religio-historical context? In having already discussed what the disciples would had been expecting, given the background information of their Jewish beliefs, what is the probability of them proclaiming Jesus as resurrected if in fact He did not raise from the dead? The answer: nearly zero or zero period. How one explains this sudden switch of the disciples from skepticism to robust faith over this matter is a burden that no skeptical, naturalistic hypothesis on the empty tomb can fully bear. Given the religio-historical context of the resurrection event, it makes the most sense to conclude that this greatest of all miracles did occur. 

Offering an argument for God's existence from what we have discussed about miracles

Thus in noting the historical reality of Jesus' resurrection, we can only conclude that it is a miracle that did occur. Furthermore, in being a miracle, a non-natural, albeit a "Supernatural" cause is behind Jesus' resurrection- namely God Himself. In using the tools of historical inquiry and our proposed definition of miracle in establishing Jesus' resurrection from the dead, we can construct a theistic argument for God's existence based on miracles. The logic for this line of thinking may go something like this:

#1 Miracles are infrequent events done by God that are naturally impossible and identified within a particular religio-historical context.

#2 History's task is to explore all events that occur and give the most probable explanation (including frequent naturally-possible events, infrequent-naturally-possible events & infrequent- naturally-impossible events)

#3 History's task is to explore and interpret the contexts of all events that occur (whether the context is religiously significant or religiously benign).

#4 The Gospel records are taken (even by the majority of skeptical historians) as, primary source documents that deliver first-hand information about the life and ministry of Jesus, hence making them historical documents.

#5 The facts of Jesus resurrection agreed upon by the majority of historians (empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, switch from skepticism to faith by the disciple's) are best explained by the hypothesis: "God raised Jesus from the dead". Such a hypothesis entails God's existence.

#6 Jesus' resurrection was an infrequent, naturally impossible event that occurred in a religio-historic context, thus making it possible to identify it as a Divine miracle. This entails the activity of God as the Direct Agent behind the resurrection

#7  Therefore, God exists




Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Better Way To Define Miracles - Irregular Acts Done By God That Are Naturally Impossible

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Acts 10:38-40 "You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. 39 We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. 40 God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible."
Introduction:

In our last post we began considering a better way of defining miracles. Much of the objections raised against the miracles upon which Christianity is based attempt to shut-down apologetic attempts to defend and communicate the Christian faith. 

The opening passage above summarizes the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. To exclude miracles from any discussion of Jesus Christ is to miss out on rightly identifying the Jesus of History Who is the Christ of Faith. Objections to the reality of miracles as proper subjects of study and conversation have been handled by able Christian thinkers. This author would contend that such objections are far from conversation stoppers. Much of their weakness lies in the standard definition of "miracles" as "violations of nature's laws". This definition is simply inadequate.  

What exactly are natural laws?

Whenever scientists study the physical world, the cause/effect relationships between forces and the objects upon which they act are noted. Certain physical constants (such as the force of gravity or the speed of light) are factored into what one sees in the physical world. Other arbitrary quantities such as the amount of decline of usable energy in a given system (called "entropy" or the second law of thermodynamics) are also includes in the scientific description of the world. 

Scientists express such descriptions in terms of mathematical equations. We won't list those here, however, we will observe that in describing the regular patterns we observe in the physical world, we call such descriptions "natural laws". 

Natural laws do not "prescribe" how things ought to be, but instead "describe" how things are. For example, if I have a baseball dropped from my hand, the "law of gravity" describes the rate at which that ball will fall and its end result. Such a "law" describes the course of things apart from an intervening agent. Whenever we talk about physical laws of nature, we will use the phrase "all things being equal" to describe the state of affairs that cause and effect events happen without the intervention of an agent. 

But what happens whenever an agent or intervening force alters the processes of nature? Case in point: if I play catch with someone, and that person catches the ball - has the entire course of nature been disrupted? Not at all. Rather, the altering of the ball's trajectory can easily be described as the intervention of an agent (in this case, a catcher). 

So what about miracles? Miracles can be said to explain the course of our physical world acted upon by an invisible, maximally great, omni-powerful, all-good God. God's normal method of maintaining our world by way of nature's constants and quantities is what we call His "ordinary providence". Whenever God chooses to directly act upon a physical part of His creation, we call such activities "miracles" or "extraordinary providence". 

Miracles then describe what occurs when God chooses to directly act in our world 

We noted in our last post how one component for effectively defining a miracle is in its relative infrequency or rarity. Such a trait is an important starting point, since natural laws "describe" and than "prescribe" what are typical state of affairs in the absence of intervening forces such as intelligent agents. Today we look once again to building onto improving our understanding of what constitutes a miracle.

Adding To Our Improved Definition Of Miracle: A Miracle Rarely Occurs And Is A Naturally Impossible Event

Christian apologist, Dr. William Lane Craig, refers to miracles as "naturally impossible events", meaning that no natural processes can bring about what is otherwise a miracle. On Craig's discussion of miracles, the natural laws and processes that are observed in the natural world contain inherent properties that cause certain effects. 

As we mentioned in the last post, a miracle is an extremely irregular event. Dr. Craig's definition specifies the source of miracles - namely an event that cannot be explained by naturalistic methods and thus can only be of supernatural origin. His definition of miracles being "naturally impossible" events identifies the source of the said miracle. 

Therefore, we have strengthened our new and improved definition of miracles over against the old definition that defined miracles as: "naturally impossible events". We can now define miracles as "infrequent naturally impossible events". This additional description describes for us what we ought to expect when suspecting a miracle (namely, it's infrequency) and its source ("naturally impossible" or "supernatural" - i.e Divine).  

Closing thoughts

As we close out today's post, we can evaluate what we have concluded on the subject of miracles. First, we have defined a miracle as an event that "infrequently occurs". Secondly, per arguments marshaled by authors such as Dr. William Lane Craig, we can express the source of a miracle as "naturally impossible" whenever naturalistic explanations are less improbable than the notion that God is acting in the event. 

In the next post we will add one final component to our attempt to offer a better definition of the miraculous. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Better Way To Define Miracles - Irregular Events Worked By God

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Hebrews 2:3-4 "how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will."

Introduction:

How do we define the word "miracle"? The subject of miracles becomes relevant when talking to skeptics and opponents of Christianity. Whenever one considers major Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter, the apologetic discussion of miracles is appropriate. Why? Both Christmas and Easter celebrate two of the three most important miracles recorded in the Bible: the incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus and His resurrection from the dead (the other most important miracle being creation). 

Rethinking the typical definition of "miracles" 

In an age where we hear so many people rejecting the possibility of miracles due to perceived advances in science or the so-called triumph of reason over religion - should miracles factor into modern discussions of Christianity? This author will submit that much of the problem is in the typical definition of miracle that is commonplace in both the culture and the church. 

I recall one-time talking to a devout Christian about the subject of miracles. When I asked her what she thought a miracle was, her response was: "a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature". Such a popular definition  derives from the writings of 18th century skeptics like David Hume. Hume penned a series of essays called: "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion". 

The purpose of this particular book was to show how miracles violate nature's laws and that such events could not be identified. Hume's overall conclusion was that given the natural courses of events, the likelihood of miracles or their identity was highly improbable. 

As noted philosopher Timothy McGrew of Western Michigan State University has noted: Hume's argument against miracles ends up being a circular argument, which in the end defeats itself. Why? To say that miracles are violations of nature's laws and are impossible in nature due to the fact that they violate nature's laws is a viciously circular argument - proving nothing. Unfortunately, we have inherited this standard definition of a miracle from what has been the increasing secularization of our Western world for the last two and one-half centuries. 

What if we offer a better definition of a miracle? If one can be offered and grounded upon firm footings, then the subject of miracles can have a definite place in contemporary discussion.

Miracles are irregular events, worked forth by God

Christian theism looks to the Bible when it comes to expressing its understanding of the miraculous. The study of well-reasoned arguments from natural theology (systematic reflections on God's general revelation in creation or the conscience) provides another source for offering valid reasons for including the miraculous in contemporary discussion. Each source, though distinct, can work together in providing a well-grounded Christian account of miracles.

In the opening verse of today's post, we find that the message of salvation testified to by the writer of Hebrews is a message that had built-in evidence of confirmation by what is described by three kinds of miracles: miracles (that is, "workings"), signs and wonders. The author of Hebrews describes how miracles functioned to confirm the message of the Gospel and those who preached it in the first century. But before we go any further, what does the Bible have to teach us about the meaning of the word "miracle"?

When we search the Old Testament's teaching on miracles, we find the main Hebrew word translated "miracle" in some 70 places. Further word studies describe the Old Testament word for "miracle" as that which is difficult to do, beyond one's ability or treated as a distinguished and separate activity. We could summarize this idea of "miracle" by noting that it is an extremely irregular event. Another way of translating this word "miracle" would be "workings" or more simply: "work". Thus, a miracle, in the proper sense of the term, is an irregular event that is worked forth by God.

Whenever we survey the remainder of scripture, we find that miraculous events cluster around strategic points in history. In the Old Testament we see many of the miraculous events situated around the ministries of Moses/Joshua (1445-1375b.c); Samuel (1100 b.c); and Elijah/Elisha (roughly 900b.c). 

In the New Testament we find Jesus and the Apostles being the main agents through whom miracles occur. The writer of Hebrews uses three main Greek words associated with miracles in the New Testament: workings of God (miracles proper); "signs" (or visible miracles) and "wonders" (or miracles associated with changes in the physical environment). 

These observations serve to show that in approaching a definition of the miraculous, one needs to think first of the event being "extremely irregular" in terms of infrequency of occurrence or the event being unusual in comparison to regular events. Apologist Dr. Norman Geisler notes in his "Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics", page 472: 

"a true miracle also produces results; always bring glory to God, bring good to the natural world" and "true miracles never fail." 

So then, when defining a miracle - whether we talk about creation, something like the virgin birth or the resurrection of Jesus - the relative infrequency of the event must be included in our description. Other important components must also be considered, which will be looked at in future postings. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Path To Christian Spiritual Growth Requires Active Obedience - Matthew 28


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Matthew 28:6-8 "He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. 7 Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you. 8 And they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples."

Introduction:

When it comes to the path to Christian spiritual growth, we undoubtedly need to know God's purpose. In our last post we defined God's purpose as: "God's designated destination". Purpose gives the overall direction to which I am to live my life. Jesus Christ, the Captain of my soul, sets the course. A closely related concept, "vision", is defined as God's preferred future that is clear and compelling in moving God's people towards what He wants them to do. 

We also saw in the last post how Jesus had a purpose for His disciples: "get to the mountain in Galilee, where I will meet with you." When God is wanting to work forth His purposes in our lives, He not only considers the destination, but the process. 

The goal is to attain a greater level of illumination of God's character and identity as revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ. The disciples needed to interact with the post-resurrection Jesus. They had known Jesus as He had ministered and as they saw him on the cross. However, the manifestation of Christ physically in the flesh as the post-resurrection Jesus had not yet been experienced by them. Once they reached this intended purpose, they could say like Job in Job 42:1-5 

Then Job answered the Lord and said,

2 “I know that You can do all things,
And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. 3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 ‘Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me. 5 “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You." 

The path of spiritual growth requires our active obedience

So with God's purpose in view, what else is needed for Christian spiritual growth? Active obedience. We turn again to Matthew 28. Why this text? Matthew 28, particularly verses 18-20, comprise what is known as the "Great Commission". Those verses are Jesus' final instructions to His Apostles and ultimately to His church concerning the overall mission that is to be carried forth until the close of this present age with His second coming. 

In order for the Great Commission to be carried forth, the apostles needed to be present and positioned to receive it. Furthermore, they needed to be in the mode of active obedience if they were to carry out the Great Commission and encourage others to do the same. When we consider the nature of the active obedience found in Matthew 28, we can note the following characteristics and cross references....

1. Active obedience must be quick obedience. 

Notice how quick the women were to obey the angel's instructions in Matthew 28:6-7  "Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you. 8 And they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples." Or again, Matthew 28:11a "Now while they were on their way....". We have a saying in our home: "slow obedience is no obedience". The active obedience we need for effective Christian growth must be quick. When God called Abraham in Genesis 12 to go to a country that he had never visited, Abraham never hesitated. He left Ur of the Chaldees. Hebrews 11:8 reminds us: "By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going." 

Think of the godly king Josiah in 2 Kings 23. As soon as he heard the book of God's law read concerning where the nation ought to be spiritually, he wasted no time. Josiah's reforms and revival was the most dramatic move of God in Israel's history during the reigns of the kings. Or how about the Apostle Paul's testimony in Acts 26:19 to King Agrippa of how he followed through after his encounter with the post-resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. His obedience was quick.

But now notice a second trait of active obedience for growing in the path to spiritual growth, namely, consistency.

2. Active Obedience must be consistent obedience. 

As one compares the disciple's response of active obedience, we find it being consistent. There is no wavering. God's power and presence (the definition of blessing) attends us when we are consistent in our obedience. Notice what God says of Abraham in Genesis 22:18 "In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” Sometimes the best way to see a truth in God's Word is to consider its opposite. In Matthew 28:11-15, we find consistency among the enemies of God's people who were being disobedient to God. They followed their leadership to the letter. They emulated the character of those leading them. Their aim of course was completely different, with a contrasting message and opposing heart. But the trait of consistency ran through the plots of the opposing forces conspiring against the disciples. This trait of consistency ought to characterize the obedience of God's people who look to Jesus as their King. 

3. Active obedience must be complete obedience 

We have seen how active obedience is necessary for proceeding forward on the path to spiritual growth. It needs to be quick and consistent. But notice a third truth: it needs to be complete. When the disciples arrived at the mountain Jesus had designated, they "worshiped Him". The whole point of this exercise was to see their Lord and then to worship Him. True obedience to God is only complete when we are worshiping Him in Spirit and in truth. 

Going through the mechanics of church life and the Christian life may look like obedience, but in reality, its mere outward conformity. Only when we have attained a heart of worship will our obedience be complete. I find it interesting that the text doesn't go into detail as to how long they worshiped, whether they sang to Jesus or remained silent or if anything was said by them. The Greek verb translated "worship" speaks of "bowing down". It is a word that is meant to convey a closeness, a proximity to Christ that is tantamount in terms of tenderness and intensity like when a bride and groom kiss for the first time. 

Closing thoughts:

Just as God saved Israel from Egypt to go into the desert to commune with Him in worship at the mountain, so too did Jesus provide salvation and raise from the dead so that His followers could worship Him at the mountain we see in Matthew 28. Active obedience is so crucial to progressing on the path to Christian spiritual growth. Active obedience must be quick, consistent and completed in worship. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Path To Christian Spiritual Growth Requires God's Purpose and Vision

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Matthew 28:16-20 "But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. 17 When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. 18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Introduction:

The path to spiritual growth includes the important "p" of purpose. God's purpose is defined as God's designated destination. Just as Jesus had the disciples meet Him at the designate mountain in Galilee in Matthew 28, God has a designated destination for every Christ-follower. If the Christian can understand God's purpose for their life as revealed in God's Word - the Bible - the path to spiritual growth will proceed. Today we want to explore further on this important subject by noting the relationship between God's purpose and vision. 

Distinguishing purpose and vision

When it comes to God's purposes in the path to spiritual growth, such purposes will incorporate the ability to discern His vision for my life. A vision is a distinct impression of God's preferred future as gleaned from His word. I read the Bible, meditate on it, pray on it, live it out and discover the overall direction which my life is to take. Vision and purpose are closely related. Vision speaks of the drive, the impulse that is being used of God to pull me in the direction He has laid out for me, while purpose is that designated designation I'm aware of at the present time. 

God's purposes will involve a spiritual battle to keep hold of them

As we pursue the spiritual path of growth in Jesus Christ, we mustn't forget the spiritual battle that ever wages against the Christ-follower. Jesus told His followers in Matthew 28:10 to "not be afraid". Why would Jesus remind them of such things? Because fear, trouble and discouragement will dog us as we strive to grow in our faith. As a matter of fact, while the disciples where on their way to meet up with Jesus to receive greater insights, a parallel plotting against them was underway in Matthew 28:11-15

"Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” 15 And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day."

The news of Jesus' resurrection was no doubt the most important truth delivered in the Bible. There was excitement. Fervor. Zeal. God's purpose for His people was being made manifest in the lives of His people. The path of spiritual growth is rooted in the resurrection power of Jesus Christ (see Romans 8:11; Philippians 3:7-10; Colossians 1:27). But mark this: it is one thing to receive new-found illumination from God, it's quite another matter to walk it out and to retain it. 

So was there any affect on any of Jesus' followers that developed from the spiritual battles? We know that those who gathered at the mountain to behold Jesus were among those 500 witnesses that saw Jesus all at once (1 Corinthians 15:6). But then we read of others in Matthew 28:17 "When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful." The underlined verb in verse 17 refers to "hesitating or wavering". There is only one other place where this verb is found in the entire New Testament, the familiar scene of Peter walking on the water. Notice Matthew 14:31, where Jesus says to Peter: "Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Was the nature of this doubt the type that led to final and decisive unbelief? Not in Peter's case. The presence of overwhelming circumstances challenged what He was seeing. His faith flickered as a flame in the wind, however, the flame was not extinguished. Jesus took hold of Peter, pulled him up and brought him into the boat. 

Whenever we see the witnesses present at Jesus' post-resurrection appearance, what are we to make of those that "doubted"? Did they defect? Did they walk away? I would draw similar conclusions about the people in Matthew 28:17 as with what we just observed about Peter and his flickering faith in Matthew 14. Noted commentator Matthew Henry confirms this conclusion:

"But some doubted, some of those that were then present. Note, Even among those that worship there are some that doubt. The faith of those that are sincere, may yet be very weak and wavering. They doubted, they hung in suspense, as the scales of a balance, when it is hard to say which preponderates. These doubts were afterward removed, and their faith drew up to a full assurance, and it tended much to the honor of Christ, that the disciples doubted before they believed."

Henry then concludes:

"for they first questioned, and proved all things, and then held fast that which was true, and which they found to be so."

God's purpose in our path to spiritual growth must be a conviction if we are to make progress

As we close out today's post, God's purpose was defined as being: "God's designated destination". His purpose in the Christian life cannot remain a preference - instead, it must become a conviction. The only way for a preference to become a conviction is when we are faced with the prospect of what we claim we believe as not being true. The disciples were tested. There was already some alternative explanation spun out by the enemies of the Christian faith. Yet, God's people came to that mountain desiring to see their risen Lord and came away with the type of faith that could not be shaken. This purpose set them on a path to spiritual growth that would set the stage for the emergence of the early church. 

Coupled with the power of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts, the early Christians had a God-given purpose to grow spiritually in Christ. Christians today have these same exact conditions and components. Whenever we grab hold of God's purpose in the path of spiritual growth, nothing will be able to stop the forward momentum.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Evaluating The Roman Catholic Church's Teaching On Mary In Light Of The New Testament

Image result for Mary and Roman Catholicism
Matthew 1:18-25 "Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. 20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” 24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, 25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus."

Introduction:

The above opening passage from Matthew's Gospel represents the first mention of Mary in the New Testament. In today's post we want to compare what the New Testament has to say about Mary to that of the Roman Catholic Church's teaching about her. The standard reference work for understanding the Roman Catholic Church's positions on various doctrines is the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" (from hereon abbreviated "CCC"). This document can be found online at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM

The purpose of this post is to simply compare what the Roman Catholic Church teaches in light of the New Testament. In as much as the Roman Catholic Church has much to say on Mary (much of which, as will be seen, differs from the New Testament), the one thing that can be said of non-Catholic Christian groups is that too-little is taught about Mary. It is hoped that in noting the various New Testament texts on Mary, both extremes (saying too much or saying too little) might be corrected and clarified.

Evaluating The Roman Catholic Church's Teaching On Mary In Light Of The New Testament

The CCC (Catechism of The Catholic Church) states the following about Mary in paragraph 971: "All generations will call me blessed"

"The Church's devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship." The Church rightly honors "the Blessed Virgin with special devotion. From the most ancient times the Blessed Virgin has been honored with the title of 'Mother of God,' to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs.... This very special devotion ... differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration." The liturgical feasts dedicated to the Mother of God and Marian prayer, such as the rosary, an "epitome of the whole Gospel," express this devotion to the Virgin Mary.” CCC paragraph 971.

Does the Roman Catholic view match with the New Testament? Without a doubt Mary does play a special role in God's overall plan to bring His Son into the world. However, when it comes to feasts, prayers to Mary and the high devotion offered to her by devout Roman Catholics, what do we find the New Testament saying to such matters?

Matthew 1:18-25, which we saw at the beginning of this post, asserts Mary as being the recipient of the angelic proclamation of the Savior's incarnation. The parallel passage in Luke's Gospel mentions Mary as well in Luke 1-3. As important as Mary is, we see no mention of such Roman Catholic doctrines as Mary's perpetual virginity, immaculate conception or any reference to her somehow functioning in a co-redeemer role. If anything, Mary, like other believers and non-believers for that matter, needed a Savior. 

In John 2:1-11 we see Mary appearing at the Wedding of Cana - the scene of Jesus first public miracle. It is in John's account of this first miracle that we find Mary receding into the background. Other passages involving Jesus' public ministry such as Matthew 12:46 and Mark 3:21,32 present Mary playing an ever diminishing role in comparison to Jesus. By the time we arrive at the crucifixion scene in John 19:25, we find Mary standing with the Apostle John at the feet of Jesus. Just like everyone else, Mary is beholding Jesus as the Savior. We never see any sense in which Mary is made an object of devotion, a co-sharer in Christ's redemptive work nor receiving prayers. 

The final time we see Mary is in Acts 1:14. Out of all the places the New Testament would have a chance to elevate Mary, surely it would be in the Book of Acts. Yet, Mary is mentioned but in passing and we never see mention of her again in the events of the early church reported in the Book of Acts.  

Whenever Roman Catholics practice the use of "Rosary Beads", in their prayers we find the following statement made about Mary:

"Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee (you). Blessed art thou (are you) among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy (your) womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen."

Such a statement developed over centuries of post-biblical church tradition. In Roman Catholic teaching, the church and its traditions are viewed as equal in authority to the Old and New Testament scriptures. Such practices as the Rosary are considered appropriate - on the Roman Catholic view. Yet, whenever we look at the practices of the early Christians within the New Testament (as observed in the texts above), we find consistent devotion to only one Person - the Lord Jesus Christ, and His equality to the Father. There are all sorts of statements regarding worship and praise to One God revealed in the three Persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, we do not find any such statements with respect to Mary. 

In summary then, whenever we survey the Bible, we discover the following about Mary:

A. Mary was never an exalted figure, but was shown respect due to her carrying the humanity of the Lord. 

B. Second, despite her special role, Mary's influence diminishes with every appearance in the Biblical record. 

C. Third, Mary passes off the Biblical record in quiet obscurity. 


D. Fourthly, the Apostles and early church leaders never sanctioned feasts, celebrations or devotion to Mary. 

Closing Thoughts:

Thus, when compared to Roman Catholicism, the Bible paints a different picture from the teaching and theology espoused by the Roman Catholic Church. In the quotations from Roman Catholic sources concerning Mary, we find a highly venerate woman, receiving prayers and occupying a central role in Roman Catholic devotion and practice. 

Mary's role certainly was important in God's plan of redemption, since she was the vessel through which the humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ would be conceived by way of the virginal conception by miracle of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, Mary was also in need of a Savior, just as much as all other human beings. We must be sure not to say too little about Mary, nor say too much and exalt her to a level that is inappropriate nor detracting from the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. May we focus on Jesus and seek to know Him (Hebrews 12:1-2).