Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Questions to ponder

When does scripture mean exactly what it says and when does it REALLY mean what we prefer it to say?

To what extent will our answer to the question above affect our understanding and knowledge of God and His ways?

Friday, February 19, 2010

If you seek him, he will be found by you.

Many people seek God but do so on their own terms and make their search conditional upon what they want God to be like.

Many want God to be an all-loving, all singing and dancing being who is so desperate for a following that he will do anything to please those who accept him.
Others seek a God who is like an impersonal fashion accessory that makes no personal demands. Such a God can be brought out in public occasionally and be thanked for helping in our achievements - making a show of our "humility" in thanking him, no matter how puerile our achievement may have been (think of Grammy award acceptance speeches here).
Others seek a God who will promote their own self esteem and make them feel good about themselves, one who will commend them for being such good people compared to the rest of the world.

I could go on...

How many genuinely attempt to seek God according to HIS terms?

I saw the following question and statement on another blog: "Do Jews or Muslims or Baha'is search for God? Obviously the answer is yes."

The implication here is that they have sought God and found one who is different to the Christian God, so who was to say which “god” was the right one, if any?
But how many of those people are actually searching for something other than God, something more selfish? How many are really interested in a genuine encounter with the creator of the universe? Are they genuinely looking for the one who has the ultimate authority over what He created whether we like it or not?

"the LORD searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever."

Returning to the blogger’s question :

“Do Jews or Muslims or Baha'is search for God?

I said that many seek God but on their own terms. This can be seen in the case of the Muslim and Baha'i. Both of these accept the reality of Jesus and recognise Him as a prophet and/or teacher – as do MOST other religions. But they only pay lip-service to those parts of His teaching that appeal to what they want to believe. They ignore His claim that HE exclusively is the way to God. They ignore His teaching on hell. They ignore the reason for and the significance of His crucifixion and resurrection. In other words they seek His teaching ONLY when it conforms to their own desires.

The Jews are a little different. They recognise the one true God, the very same God worshipped by the Christian. The significant difference is their failure to recognise that Jesus is the Messiah they have been waiting for. They do not recognise that Jesus’ life death and resurrection were the fulfilment of the word of their prophets because Jesus did not bring about the deliverance of Israel from the oppression of Rome. They fail to see that the prophesied glorious future for Israel that their Messiah will bring will come about when Jesus returns as foretold in the New Testament.
While the Jews currently reject Jesus, the bible predicts a time when they WILL recognise Him as the King they have been waiting for.

Looking at the matter openly, the very fact that the Jews are still around today, and that Israel is once again on the map, is a very convincing reason to recognise the reality of the God of Israel who is also the God of Jesus Christ.

What other ethnic group has remained recognisably intact after 2000 years of exile from their land - and has returned to that same land as a powerful and influential nation.
Of course it must be coincidence (not!) that the long exile and the return from nations around the world was predicted by their prophets hundreds of years before that exile took place.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How to approach the Bible (a personal account)

Part one: How NOT to approach the bible.

In my early days as a Christian, the Bible tended to be experienced through the handful of verses quoted by a preacher in church during his sermon. When I was feeling diligent and more “spiritual” than other occasions I would even go home and read over those verses again to make sure the preacher had really been quoting scripture. If the verses were there I was satisfied that the preaching had been “scriptural”.

Some times I would recognise that I needed to study scripture more for myself. So I bought myself a study bible and found myself studying the notes in the margin more than I actually read the text of scripture.

Eventually I started to notice a bit of a discrepancy between the Christian life being promoted by the preachers in church and the actual Christian life being lived and demonstrated within the church and of course by myself. Something was definitely missing between professed faith and experienced/demonstrated faith.

Friends of mine came up with the answer, shared it with me and eventually my eyes opened to the truth of what they had been sharing. Christians did not REALLY believe the word of God. We were swayed by everything around us, by experience by emotion by circumstances even when those things contradicted what God had revealed in His word.

I suppose part of this problem stemmed from the fact that most of us had never really understood what God’s word was saying because we had neglected it. All we knew was what we were being taught in church and it was clear that the church had no more insight than we had.
My friends started to lend me tapes of sermons that concentrated on the importance of knowing God’s word and believing it. The teaching was revolutionary and exciting. It all made complete sense and I could see that a diligent application would help me experience the same dynamic Christian experience recorded in the book of Acts.
I soaked up the teaching and studied the many scriptures I was learning through the teaching, memorising what I could and “confessing” them regularly.
I became very adept at having a “scripture” for every occasion and situation. If I started feeling unwell I knew that “By His stripes I was healed” and that illness was subject to the truth of God’s word. What would I believe – the evidence of my flesh or the word of God Himself?

But again it should be noted that my relationship with scripture was mainly second-hand, coming to me selected and interpreted by the people whose teaching I found appealing. I knew a lot of scripture, but my knowledge didn’t include its intended SCRIPTURAL context. My knowledge and understanding came from the context it was given by the teacher.

I’ve written elsewhere how this house built on sand came crashing down and how it took over 15 years to recover so I won’t repeat that here. I’ll just move on next to what I have learned since then and how my understanding and approach to scripture has changed.

Part 2 Starting With Foundations

Firstly I refrained from any attempt to STUDY scripture. In the past, when I had taken the time to turn to the scriptures for myself it was usually to study a particular topic or a selected portion of scripture. But in doing that I had no idea of how that topic or that portion related to the Bible as a whole. I came to realise that I didn’t understand the very basics of how the different parts of scripture fitted together, how one part related to another.
How did the books of law, the books of history, the prophets, the psalms and the other miscellaneous writings of the Old Testament all come together?

How could I expect to understand what I was studying if I had no overall foundation to build upon? Before I could get anything of value from studying PARTS of scripture I needed to get the overview. The only way of getting that was to read scripture without getting distracted by things I didn’t understand. I needed to see THAT things fitted together and HOW instead of trying to make a piece from here join up with a piece from over there whether they ought to be joined or not.
I also couldn’t expect to understand everything on my first reading. I had to be willing to put some things aside and move on.

Scripture was written in whole books and not in convenient sound bites. Our ideas of “study” tend to make us concentrate on little bits of information rather than the big picture. Often “study” is little more than a demonstration of our impatience. We want answers NOW and so dig into the targeted area to find out as much as possible as soon as possible.
The problem with this is that we may not be ready to understand that issue. Sometimes we may be lacking a more foundational area of understanding and that lack will hinder out ability to correctly comprehend the subject of our study

I use the example of mathematics. We will not understand advanced concepts of algebra if we have never learned the basic truths of arithmetic. And yet, as Christians we try to rush ahead to understand the complex before we’ve grasped the basics of faith. This is why so often we turn to the teaching of others and so easily we get caught up in man’s ideas at the expense of the truth we need to learn.

Reading rather than study helps us to build up those foundational basics. We pick things up as we go along – those things that we are ready to understand instead of trying to force ourselves to pick up things that we are not ready for. This is why subsequent readings often bring new light. Each reading will add to our foundations and will make us ready to add more. I experienced this recently while reading Zechariah. Some things made much more sense this time than previously – in fact it was like reading a new book. This was because my reading elsewhere in the prophets had added a layer of understanding that helped me to see things in Zechariah that I’d missed before.

Part 3. Practical issues.

One of the most valuable bible reading aids that I’ve come across is a volume called “The Books of the Bible”. No it isn’t some kind of commentary; it’s an edition of the Bible without Chapter and verse divisions. It is also presented more or less in chronological order. For example, all of Paul’s letters appear in the order they were written instead of according to length (as in the more familiar order of other Bibles). The Old Testament is also re-ordered so that the prophets also come in chronological sequence. Other books are grouped to match the order of the Hebrew Scriptures.

It is hard to describe what a difference it makes to avoid the distractions of chapter and verse numbers. Those manmade divisions have made it very easy to pull sections from their context and apply them incorrectly. They also cause unnatural breaks in the flow of the text. Some of the chapter divisions occur on the most inappropriate places.

Another useful aid I have is a dramatised bible on CD. After reading a book through for myself I find it helpful to read along while listening to the recording. However, not all audio bibles are of the same quality. I’ve heard some from readers who seem to have no understanding of what they are reading. Their emphasis and intonation is all wrong and it becomes a hindrance rather than a help. The particular version I have is excellent.

Many people try to devote a little time each day to reading a portion of scripture. My personal preference is to devote a larger block of time to reading, even if it’s not possible to do so every day. That larger block of time makes it easier to keep things in context and with some of shorter to medium length books it allows the reading of a whole book in one sitting. This of course is rarely practical for the longer books. While on some days there may not always be the opportunity for those longer reading periods, I regularly spend time thinking over and discussing what I’ve read and how it fits together with the rest of scripture.
And remember, the Psalms are ideal to read when time is more limited.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

God's Future for Israel

Some disagreements in doctrine are understandable. None of us have perfect knowledge or understanding of scripture and there are some parts of scripture that are ambiguous enough for us to come up with vastly different interpretations until further understanding is gained.

However, some truths could not be made clearer and I don’t know how wide sections of the Christian community can dismiss them.

One of these relates to Israel’s place in God’s purposes and in particular their future.

I don’t have to the time to go through all of the evidence, but scripture could not be more clear about the issue.

One day in the future Israel as a nation will recognise that Jesus is their Messiah and they will be saved under the new covenant in the same way that every other believer becomes saved under the new covenant.

When the future of Israel is revealed in prophecy, scripture is not referring to a “spiritual” Israel – meaning the church, as replacement theology insists.
Those prophecies are referring to NATIONAL Israel, physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to whom the physical land of Israel was promised.

If there was no other prophecy in scripture related to this matter, Ezekiel 36 should establish this truth once and for all.

This portion makes it absolutely clear of whom the Lord is referring.

“24 " 'For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God. 29 I will save you from all your uncleanness.

He is referring to a people who have been scattered among the nations and whose forefathers had been given a land. They will be returned to that land and live in it. And they will be cleansed and given a new heart and a new spirit. This clearly refers to the new birth – a fact recognised even by the replacement theologians who apply those references to themselves but ignore the fact that the context here in Ezekiel is specifically and CLEARLY referring to Israel.

Paul also makes Israel’s ultimate future clear when he writes in Romans 11:

26 And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
"The deliverer will come from Zion;
he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
27 And this is my covenant with them
when I take away their sins."

“But”, say the replacement theologians, “Paul has already said that ‘not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.’” As if this statement is enough to deny that ANY descended from Israel are Israel and that the statement overturns all prophecy that promises Israel a future with God.

What does that statement mean? I think it is explained towards the end of Amos (chapter 9):

9 For I will give the command,
and I will shake the house of Israel
among all the nations
as grain is shaken in a sieve,
and not a pebble will reach the ground.
10 All the sinners among my people
will die by the sword,
all those who say,
'Disaster will not overtake or meet us.'
11 "In that day I will restore
David's fallen tent.
I will repair its broken places,
restore its ruins,
and build it as it used to be,
12 so that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations that bear my name, "
declares the LORD, who will do these things.
13 "The days are coming," declares the LORD,
"when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman
and the planter by the one treading grapes.
New wine will drip from the mountains
and flow from all the hills.
14 I will bring back my exiled people Israel;
they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them.
They will plant vineyards and drink their wine;
they will make gardens and eat their fruit.
15 I will plant Israel in their own land,
never again to be uprooted
from the land I have given them,"
says the LORD your God.

This section of scripture echo Ezekiel’s prophecy about Israel being returned to the land and adds NEVER AGAIN TO BE UPROOTED* (obviously referring to a time AFTER the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersal and exile of Jews from the land for almost 2000 years).
It also gives us a hint of who God considers to be the true Israel. Firstly taking into account OT prophecy there should be no doubt that Israel is ALWAYS national Israel because of the references to the land of their forefathers. Secondly we take into account Paul’s statement that not all descended from Israel are Israel. Thirdly we see in Amos that a shaking of Israel will take place in which sinners among God’s people of Israel will not survive. Therefore it will be the remnant of national Israel who will survive the shaking who will be that “All Israel” who will be saved in the end times.

It is probably not surprising that those who reject Israel’s future place in God’s plans, also deny the literal millennial reign of Jesus from Jerusalem. And to deny that its necessary to ignore or distort what is clearly revealed throughout the majority of scripture, in particular the Old Testament prophets and the writings of the apostles.

* I think it would be a mistake to assume that the establishment of Israel as a nation in 1948 HAS to be the return being prophesied in scripture. It could well be - but personally I wouldn't take it for granted. I see the possibility of a further exile (possibly short term) in which Israel is again subjected to extreme persecution (possibly the sifting mentioned by Amos) after which the final and permanent return occurs.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Who has God elected or chosen to save?

This is a link to the second part of a series examining the foundational doctrines of Calvinism from an Arminian point of view.
Its author, William Birch, is a former Calvinist.


An excerpt from the article.

Who has God elected or chosen to save? It is explicitly and overwhelmingly clear from Scripture that God has chosen to save anyone who will believe in His Son Jesus Christ (Mk. 1:15; John 1:7, 12; 4:42; 6:29; 11:27; 12:42; 14:1; 16:30-31; 17:20; Acts 8:37; 15:11; 16:31; Rom. 3:22; 4:11; 10:9; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 1:19; 1 Tim. 4:10) -- the most explicit passage being, "God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe" (1 Cor. 1:21 NASB).

This being the truth of Scripture then election must be viewed as conditional: it is conditioned upon faith in Christ. Thus Arminians believe in the doctrine of Conditional Election; but only in the sense that sinners become elect upon faith in and union with Christ Jesus, and not beforehand. We believe it is erroneous to say that God has unconditionally elected to save or unconditionally saves anyone, since faith is the condition to being justified, regenerated and thus saved.


The first part of the series can be found here:
Examination of tulip