Thursday, April 28, 2011

Judge Not

"Judge not lest you be judged.'' There are few Bible verses (perhaps John 3:16, Psalms 23, or Matthew 6:9-13) so well known to the public at large as Matthew 7:1. Nor is there any other verse so totally misunderstood. It is commonly taken to mean it is wrong to make any kind of determination as to what is right and what is wrong. If it means that, it not only flies in the face not only of almost everything the Bible says but of what Jesus Himself says in the rest of the sermon (Matthew 5:17-48; 6:1-24; 7:15-27). Now in the context, this verse is followed by the illustration of the man who notices the speck in his neighbor's eye and misses the beam in his own. He is informed he should first remove the beam from his own eye and then he will be able to see to remove the speck from his neighbor's eye. Now note what Jesus does not say. He does not say, "Leave the beam in your eye, leave the beam in your neighbor's eye, and form a society protesting those hateful, narrow people who are opposed to specks and beams." What this passage is against is hypocrisy. However, before we say, "I'm not a hypocrite; I'm a good person, so it is all right for me to judge," we need to note one thing. Nowhere in this passage is there an exception clause. It does not say, "Do not judge if you have a beam in your eye, but otherwise you are safe." It seems to take for granted the judge does have a beam in his eye.

There is a similar statement in Romans 2:1. This verse is in the context of an argument starting in Romans 1:18 and going to 3:20, whose conclusion can best be summed up in Romans 3:23: "for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." So then, in 2:1 when Paul says that those who judge are inexcusable, he is basing it on the fact we are all sinners and therefore cannot claim we are better than those we judge. Rather, we all need to be forgiven by the grace of God (Romans 3:24-26; 4:4,5; Ephesians 2:8,9).

But we are commanded to stand for God's truth and to correct sin (2 Timothy 2:24-26; Galatians 6:1; 1 Peter 3:15). We are even required to employ church discipline in the case of those who claim to be believers (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 2 Thessalonians 3:14,15). But we are not to render an ultimate, categorical judgment of others. The difference here is one of attitude. Are we doing this in a spirit of gentleness, with a desire to put people on the right path so they will live for God, or  looking down on people because we think we are better than them? So while we should not twist Matthew 7:1 to condone sin, we should examine our own heart before dealing with the transgressions of another.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Has the New Testament Been Corrupted?

What do we know about the New Testament books, when did they begin to be regarded as authoritative, and have they been corrupted over time? 1 Timothy 5:18 quotes a saying from the gospels as Scripture. 2 Peter 3:15,16 characterizes Paul's writings as Scripture. Now I realize the authorship of these books has been questioned, but it represents the understanding of the early church. Clement of Rome appeals to and quotes Paul's letter to the Corinthians as given under the inspiration of the Spirit. Polycarp mentions Paul's writing to the Philippians with special wisdom and quotes him as Scripture. Justin Martyr mentions the memoirs of the apostles, called gospels, and frequently quotes them. Irenaeus states there are four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and says there can be no more and no less and gives passages from them. He also references the letters of Paul. Also, Papias is quoted by Eusebius as attesting to the four gospels and their authors. The Muratorian Canon, though damaged, lists the bulk of the New Testament books. Also, we have large numbers of manuscript copies of the New Testament, many very early, and many early translations, along with multitudes of quotes in the early church fathers.

While there were controversies over whether some books belonged in the New Testament and there were church councils that later put out official degrees as to what should be included, the basic content of the New Testament was never up for grabs. As for the contents, the preservation of the New Testament is remarkably better than any book of even remotely comparable antiquity. While there is a certain degree of textual corruption, it is peripheral and the substance of the text is very clearly preserved. But does the New Testament really reflect the beliefs of the early Christians? Given the early attestation of the books, are we to believe Christians for some reason changed their beliefs, beliefs they were quite early willing to die for? Also, from quite early, Christianity had critics. Could Christians have changed what they believed without them noticing it? Could someone have deliberately changed the New Testament? The most common suspect for this is Constantine the Great. But we have manuscripts with large portions of the New Testament from before Constantine and all of the books very soon after. Also, all the authors mentioned above were before Constantine. Constance had no chance to alter the New Testament. Also, it is difficult to see who before Constantine would have been able to do so. The church was scattered and persecuted, and we have large numbers of manuscripts over a wide geographic area. It is unclear how a person could have managed to change them all and suppress the older versions. Now I realize this does not  prove Christianity is true. Rather, it is an attempt to show the New Testament is an accurate record of Christian claims and beliefs. They need to be accepted or rejected on that basis.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On the Resurrection from the Dead

Sometimes we, as Christians, can emphasize the cross to the point we forget about the resurrection. Now I do not want to minimize the importance of the cross, where Christ paid the price for our sins (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians  2:13-15; Ephesians 1:7). But this is validated by the resurrection. First, it demonstrates that Christ is who He claimed to be (Romans 1:4; John 2:18-22; Matthew 12:39,40). It shows that salvation has indeed been accomplished (1 Corinthians 15:1-19; Romans 4:24,25; 1 Peter 1:3). It is the basis of our own hope of resurrection (Romans 8:11; John 14:19; Colossians 3:3,4). Further, having died with Christ to our former life, we are raised with Him that we might live for Him (Romans 6:4-11; 7:4-6; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15).

There are, of course, many different responses to it by sceptics. There is the idea that Jesus or the disciples came up with some kind of plot where Jesus did not really die or that the disciples stole the body. I think the best answer to this is from Chuck Colson, who was involved in the Watergate scandal. He asks how, if a group of men with all the power of the presidency could not keep Watergate under wraps, do we expect a group of powerless fishermen could have pulled off such a conspiracy that still has not been exposed. Or it could be explained as some sort of mistake; they went to the wrong tomb or suffered from joint hallucinations.  But if so, it is strange none of their critics found the mistake. Or it could be they were merely describing a mystical experience. But none of the accounts seem to bear this out.

But the most common idea is that it is a legend that grew up slowly over time. But the resurrection is the heart of Christian teaching (1 Corinthians 19:1-19); without it there is nothing for Christianity to be about. They had plenty of moral philosophers and rabbinical scholars at the time; without the resurrection, Jesus would have disappeared into the crowd.  And if the resurrection is some tacked-on extra, it is difficult to see how the Christian message could have been totally changed in that short of period of time. Especially since in, at most, only about thirty years after its founding, Christianity was considered something worth dying for, and by at least that point had critics who would have been delighted to explain how Christians had changed their story, if they had.

So the resurrection is the heart of Christianity, and based on it sin and death and hell are overcome. And based on it we have a faith worth living and dying for. Now those who are determined to reject on principle the idea of the miraculous will not believe it, no matter what the evidence. But we should always remember that our faith is not based on some vague philosophy, but a historical event. One empty tomb in Palestine makes all the difference.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

How to Tell People About Hell

Hell is not a pleasant subject to talk about, but is a Scriptural reality. The arguments against it are not so much a matter of what the Bible teaches but the fact we do not like the idea. Now I cannot say I like the idea of hell, but it is hard to get around the clear teaching of Scripture. Hell is pictured as eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Mark 9:43-48), as unending torment (Revelation 14:11; 20:10; Luke 16:19-31).  Nor do we see any Scriptural basis for a second chance after death (Hebrews 9:27; Luke 16:19-31; 2 Corinthians 6:1-2).

Over against that is our strong desire not to believe in it. While this is certainly natural, as it is not a pleasant doctrine, there are certain reasons why it is particularly opposed in our present age. Our age does not believe in a God who enforces justice (Romans 1:18; James 5:1-6; Revelation 20:11-15) or even in justice itself. Also, our culture holds that human beings are basically good rather than being sinners (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9) and that everything wrong with us is the fault of society and our upbringing. It is not surprising that an individual in this frame of mind will reject the idea of hell.

How, then, do we approach telling people about this doctrine? We must not evade or sugarcoat it. We are in a position similar to that of a doctor who must tell a patient he has cancer. It is not something the patient will want to hear. But it is absolutely necessary for them to know so they can seek treatment. The doctor is not doing them any favors hiding it from them. Sin, death, and hell are one hundred percent curable if treated by the right Physician (Matthew 9:12,13; John 14:6; Acts 4:12). But they are eternally fatal if not treated. But we  also, like the doctor, need to approach the situation with care and compassion, not in self-righteousness or anger (1 Peter 3:15; Colossians 4:6; 2 Timothy 2:23-26). We must avoid giving the impression that we are saved because we are not sinners (Ephesians 2:1-10; Colossians 2:13-15; 1:21,22) or that we can make any claim to have been saved by our own goodness (Titus 3:5,6; Romans 4:4,5; 11:6). But unlike the doctor, we will have to convince them the danger is real. This involves convincing them that Christianity is true, which is beyond the scope of this post. But it will be useful to undermine their specific objections. We need to show them that they are sinners. I have found pointing them to Scriptures that put forth God's real requirements to be helpful (for example Matthew 5-7). Also, we need to help them to see the implications of a world without justice and where no one is responsible for their actions. Talking about hell is never an easy thing. It should be approached with caution, but it cannot be avoided.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What Is the Church?

What is the Christian church? The church is not primarily an institution or organization, but the assembly of all genuine believers. The church is the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22,23; Colossians 1:18). All believers are members of that body, including those whose function is characterized as being considered less honorable (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:3-8; Ephesians 4:4-7). This body is identified with those who Christ has redeemed (Ephesians 5:23-30; 2:14-19, Acts 20:28). "Church" is also used to describe the local assemblies of the broader church, but the emphasis here is again on the people who are assembled (1 Corinthians 1:2; 14:23-33; Acts 20:17). It is this church which Christ will build and which is the pillar and support of the truth (Matthew 16:18; 1 Timothy 3:15; Colossians 2:19). Now leaders are God's gift to the church (Ephesians 4:11-16; 2:20-22; Acts 14:23), and they are to be appropriately honored (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Timothy 5:17-22; Titus 1:5). But they should also be tested as to whether they are in accord with the truth of God (Acts 17:11; 1 John 4:1-6; Galatians 2:11-16). Ultimately, it is those who have the faith of Peter who have the authority of Peter (Matthew 16:13-20; 18:15-20; John 1:12).

Therefore, the organization or institution is the outward expression of the body of Christ, which is His people,  who carry out His will in the world (Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:28,29; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6). It is not to be despised, but it is also not to be made into the ultimate standard. Now it should be our goal to make the outward expression of the church correspond as closely as possible with what God is actually doing. But in a fallen world, the correspondence will always be imperfect. There will always be people in leadership who should not be there. And probably people who should be in leadership who are not. There will be obscure German monks who start reformations by teaching justification by faith and obscure Baptist pastors who start missionary movements by affirming that the command to take the gospel to those who have not heard lasts to the end of the age. Now I do not want in any way to claim we should not learn from those who God has raised up as leaders in the past and the present. But I do want to suggest that we should be careful of tying down the truth of God to one organization or institution. Now I would firmly state that God's truth is God's truth and it should not be changed or adulterated (Galatians 1:8,9; John 14:6; Isaiah 43:10,11). But we should avoid confusing the treasure with the vessels that contain it. And we should not confuse the church of God, a powerful army that extends down the ages, with any particular expression of it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Grace and Growth

I would maintain that growth in Christ is a process that takes place through all of life (Philippians 1:6; 3:11-14; Colossians 2:19). Scripture also pictures this as a process of discipline (1 Timothy 4:7,8; Hebrews 5:13,14; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). But this does not conflict with the fact it is God who is at work in us to accomplish these things (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29) and apart from His work in us we can do nothing (John 15:5; Romans 8:8; 7:18). Nonetheless, while God is at work in every believer, we need to respond to this working rather than oppose it (Galatians 5:16; Colossians 2:6,7; Romans 12:1,2). Now all of this takes place within the context of grace (Romans 5:1,2; Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:11-14), motivated by God's love for us (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Luke 7:36-50).

Does this then mean we can excuse disobedience on the grounds we have not grown that far yet? The standard has  always been the righteousness of God and we are required to stop at nothing less (Matthew 5:48; Romans 8:29; 1 John 3:2). Now there is a careful balance here. We are sinners (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9) who have been forgiven by the blood of Jesus (Ephesians 1:7; Romans 3:24-26; Colossians 2:13-14). But we are required not to rest until we have put to death those things in us which are contrary to God's commands (Colossians 3:5-11; Ephesians 4:17-24; Matthew 5:29,30). A helpful passage is 2 Corinthians 7:10, which speaks of sorrow for sin and says that godly sorrow leads to repentance and putting our sins behind us and going on with God.

Now we need to avoid either being satisfied by where we are spiritually or being devastated by our current imperfection. But it is generally the attempts to shorten the process that end up lowering the bar. If we want to believe we can attain to some high level of spirituality immediately, we will either convince ourselves we have obtained it or become discouraged that we will ever attain to it. This can lead to either complacency or giving up. Both of these can be roadblocks to continued growth in Christ. Rather, it is better to have the attitude that we are on the way but not there yet. Now there can be, and frequently are, major turning-points along the way of growth, where we decide to get serious with God or to trust Him rather than ourselves or simply to deal with that particular thing we need to deal with in our lives. But this should be seen as a stage in the journey and not the final destination.  Therefore, we should not be comfortable anywhere except conformed to the righteousness of Christ. But we must trust in God working in us (Proverbs 3;5,6; Psalms 127:1,2; Hebrews 11:6) and that His grace forgives our past sins (Romans 8:33,34; John 3:18; Hebrews 8:12) to avoid pride or discouragement .

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

It Was an Experience

There is a temptation to base one's faith on subjective experience. It seems to put it beyond refutation. But ultimately it puts it beyond real proof. For the basic response is that any faith can claim some sort of experience, and who is to say which experience is better than any other. I have charismatic leanings and have had some fairly powerful experiences. But how am I to prove my experience is better then the next guy's? And in the realm of the purely subjective, how do I tell if I am encountering God, the devil, my own psychological quirks, or the pepperoni pizza I ate last night? We need to ground our faith in the objective, which comes back to Scripture and the events recorded in Scripture.

It is here we meet a second problem. There are those who are convinced that all that is involved in Christianity is a subjective experience and who want to read this back into the Scriptural events. But does this fit with the evidence? Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, does not seem to be describing an experience but a historical event. The natural line for someone who has had an experience is, "I had this experience, and you can have it too." Rather, Paul appeals to a specific set of witnesses who he claimed saw the event and could be checked with to confirm it. If it was a subjective experience, Paul should have desired for them to have the experience themselves. Also, the stress on the idea of a physical resurrection makes no sense if we are talking about an experience. Who cares whether they experienced Christ  as physically raised or spiritually raised if it was only an experience. Nor is there anywhere else in the New Testament where it is presented as a experience. Also, it is not clear why they would have changed, and that quite early, an experience (which is, after all, incontestable) for  an objective fact, which could be falsified. Further, Christianity was faced from the very beginning with opposition. Could the Christians have totally changed their story without someone catching them? Now part of what is happening in this regard is people are reading back the modern neo-orthodox concept of relative truth and what is true for me being different than what is true for you, in spite of the fact that there is no historical evidence for this philosophy existing before modern historical times. This is, of course, viciously circular.

Therefore, basing a belief purely on the subjective, and particularly reading it back into the past, has no basis in Scripture or reason. I am not against experience, but experience must be interpreted and supported by objective fact, not the other way round.