The Ground Swallowed Them Up

Today I would like to write a simple blog post about a connection in the Bible I had never seen before. Maybe it will get your neurons firing. Maybe it will encourage you. Maybe you’ll see a side of 2 Timothy you haven’t seen before. 2 Timothy 2:17-19 reads, 17 Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some. 19 Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.” If you look at verse 19, you will see that there are two quotes. These are from Numbers 16:1-5 and 26-32. The Numbers story is basically this: Moses was opposed by the sons of Korah. The sons of Korah clearly had selfish motivation, to gain power where God had not given it. So Moses arranged a showdown of sorts, and proclaimed that they will be swallowed up by the ground. And then we read, in Numbers 16:31, “31 As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart 32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them…” I have read 2 Timothy many times in my life, but I have always skipped this OT allusion. What’s the point? We learn that some of the trials Timothy was facing were from inside the church. Not only that, but we know what happens when there is selfish opposition to God’s leaders. The ground swallowing up the sons of Korah is an OT way of saying there will be a final judgment and separation of the righteous and wicked, as Jesus pointed out many times (Matthew 25:31-46). In the Numbers story, God’s people were called to depart physically from the false teachers, a wise move for anyone seeking to learn and follow God day in and day out. We learn that God will be with us as we follow his call, and will defend us in our ministry as he did Moses. There will be a terrible and fearful judgment for those that oppose God. Let’s just say that last week I was reminded of how rich a seemingly boring passage like 2 Timothy 2:17-19 could be. We find that a simple passage on false teachers, which most of us would read through quickly to get to the “good stuff,” is filled with a very vivid illustration which instructs us and should be taken quite seriously. A prayer: Lord Jesus, please help us to pay attention to all of Scripture, even its mundane details – for it is breathed out by you, and useful for teaching, rebuking, correction, and training in righteousness, so that we may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Amen.


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Only One Way to Heaven?

               There may be no part of Christianity that is more offensive to people, both today and throughout history, than the Christian conviction that only faith in Jesus will get you to heaven. Jesus made this clear in John 14:6, when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The disciples echoed his words when they said, “There is no name under heaven or on earth by which people can be saved, other than that of Christ Jesus.” Jesus’ unique claim, which is offensive to modern ears, was offensive to those in the past as well. Whereas polytheism was the norm in the Roman world in which early Christianity spread, the Christians claimed that only Jesus was Lord. Their refusal to participate in pagan rituals was deeply offensive, and was even seen as a seditious threat to the stability of society and the empire. People are offended by Jesus’ claim today as well. I have two wonderful Jewish neighbors next to my home. I know that my belief in Jesus is not what they hold to. I have very strong neighborly relationships with them, but broaching the subject with them would be uneasy to say the least. It would appear an affront to their culture and ancestry, and would be to others as well. Before I go on, it must be said that Christians haven’t always acted in accordance with the brotherly love and kindness toward their unbelieving neighbors that the Bible asks for. And if some of you reading this have been burned in some way, then as an ambassador of Jesus I have to say sorry on behalf of the church. Even though Christians hold to an exclusive view of salvation, that should never be an excuse to do anything other than love and serve all types of different people. Jesus commanded that to his disciples and lived it by example in his love for those who were even his enemies. Even though the exclusiveness of Jesus’ claims are offensive to people, there are many examples of how exclusivity in some circumstances is socially accepted. Dr. Zack Eswine gave the example of a wedding. What would people think if during a wedding ceremony, after the vows were said and the rings exchanged, the officiant looked at the husband-to-be and said “You may kiss a bride?” We all know that a husband is called to an exclusive relationship with the wife. Exclusivity is fine there.  What if your daughter was diagnosed with a life threatening illness, and there was only one doctor in the country that could fix it. Would you say, “This is unfair! Any doctor should be able to treat this illness!” No, you would quickly accept that there is only one path to healing and pursue it as quickly as possible. If exclusiveness is OK in some situations, then why should it have to be different with God? There are at least two reasons Jesus is the only way to heaven. First, he is the only one who died for the sins of the world. Moses, Buddha, Mohammed – no other great moral teacher or religious leader claimed to die for the sins of the world. This separates Jesus into a unique category. Second, Jesus was raised from the dead. His physical resurrection can be studied logically and historically. There are excellent reasons to believe that he did, and this was vindication of his teaching and claims of divinity. By the way, if this upsets you, you will be tempted to go to google and type in “why Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead” and read all the skeptical articles. That’s fine. But make sure you read the other side of the story too. Doubt your doubts before you make a decision. Jesus once looked at his followers and said, “Who do you say I am?” That is the most relevant question you will ever encounter. Feel free to comment and inquire more about the claims that Jesus made.


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Changing Culture, Changing Church

Changes for the Church in America I need to start by tipping my hat to Tim Keller as I write this blog entry. He has been my intellectual mentor for years, not that I know him personally. He has been writing his blog about the unique challenges and opportunities for the Christian church in the next generation. I don’t know many Christian leaders who, in their 60s, have so accurately put their finger on the issues of the day. Simply put, American culture is changing away from Christianity. Do you remember how in the 90s, when Bill Clinton was elected president, it was beneficial for him to claim ties to the Southern Baptist denomination? Compare that with the election cycles in 2008, 2012, and 2016. Obama’s Christian credentials were not a concern for most of the electorate. McCain made passing reference to Christ, Mitt Romney is a Mormon, Donald Trump has no church affiliation, and Hillary Clinton was a Methodist but kept it quiet. Simply put, in the past 20 years, the public’s perception of the Christian has shifted for the worse. It’s no longer advantageous to be a Christian in public. The reasons for the shift are many. On the one hand, there are the many failings and sins of the church, as it has been lukewarm in living out its calling. In my life-time the church has often been defensive, overly political, and even angry at its detractors. We have to own that, repent, ask forgiveness, and move on. On the other hand, the church faces powerful enemies who are actively seeking its demise in the culture. The church is portrayed consistently in a negative life on TV, in the media and news stories, while rarely receiving even a nod for the massive good they do in the communities and world at large. So what is the path forward for the church, that it would show the world the great power and beauty of the Christian faith? Let me channel Pastor Keller…

  1. A Personal, Love Relationship with God. First and foremost, Christianity offers a personal relationship with God that other religions do not offer. Whereas Jesus saves us by grace, every other religion is based on works. Even the “spiritual but not religious” crowd misses out on the God who is Father, and Son, and Spirit, who has bound himself in covenant love to his people.
  2. Most religions are based loosely around some ethnicity. Not so the Christian church. Our unity is based on Christ, not birth! I love that in St. Paul’s youth group, we are 45% non-white. And nobody is thinking about it, either.
  3. Concern for the poor. If the church is a country-club for Christians, it will disappear in the next 50 years. If it is a mission-based community seeking to show God’s love to the world, it will slowly but surely counteract the cultural objections its opponents raise against it. Care for the poor will be a primary venue for us to show that love.
  4. Being a sexual counterculture. In the ancient Roman world, it was accepted for men to have sex with their wives, mistresses, slaves, and children. The church maintained that heterosexual monogamy within marriage was the only appropriate expression of sex. Eventually the church won the argument, and women flocked to the church because they found protection and stability. The next 100 years will show the benefit of heterosexual, monogamous marriage again to a world that has embraced an “if you like it, do it” way of thinking. Giving in to the culture on this point is a sure-fire way of removing the distinctiveness of the faith required for it to thrive. People come to church because they find something different there.
  5. Intellectually robust thinking. Our world is postmodern, scientific, technological, skeptical, and secular. Therefore people will not gravitate toward God automatically, and when they embrace God they will be pulled away unless they are given a fully orbed worldview that understands the current way of thinking, its errors, and why Christianity makes more sense of the world. This is a difficult but necessary task if we are to make disciples that can weather the storm. (1 Peter 3:15)
  6. Non-violence and non-retaliation. The church must learn not to return evil for evil or insult for insult. Today, even small attacks on the church are met with vitriol from some corners of Christianity, and they always get the most press. The church must remain principled in its discourse to the world, rooted in the issues and uncompromising in its principles of loving engagement.

Do you agree with the list? Is there something you would add? I’d love to see your comments.  


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What Happened to Not Legislating Morality?

More than once I have had conversations about “legislating morality.” When people use the term, they mean that religious ideas about what is right and wrong have no place being written into law. After all, doesn’t this seem like common sense in a pluralistic culture that emphasizes freedom and minority rights?  But I am curious what will happen when those who used to be a minority become the new majority. Will they practice what they preached, or will they use their newfound power to legislate their morality in a way that intrudes upon those they disagree with? The context of America’s history shapes the way we interpret the phrase. Because of America’s religious history, many Christian laws were written into the legal code (laws about engaging in commerce on Sundays, sodomy laws, etc.). At the time those laws were written they weren’t even controversial. Basically everyone, or at least a very strong majority, believed those laws were right. But times and opinions have been changing, and as that consensus dwindled, those laws were interpreted as religious people trying to force their beliefs on others with the power of the government behind them. Anyone should be able to understand how that could be threatening to those who don’t share the same religious convictions! Yet at the same time, well-meaning religious people advocated those laws remain for the good of society. We are on the verge of having a new majority in town, and the new majority does not embrace the teachings of the Bible as the bedrock of society’s ethical and moral foundation. So far, I am finding that this new majority which once screamed “don’t legislate your morality on me!” is more than happy to use the government to legislate their morality on others who disagree. There are numerous examples. In our area, the Parkway School District adopted a health education curriculum that teaches a new morality of sexual freedom, experimentation, and expression that is developmentally age inappropriate. Eighth graders are taught that consent is “a voluntary agreement or permission to cross a boundary” and “consent is an option that you have a right to give.” It teaches that gender is a person being male, female, or a combination of both. It instructs children to navigate medical appointments without their parents’ knowledge. Most significant is what it does not teach, such as the value of a stable marriage and that casual sex leads to much higher levels of anxiety and depression, especially in girls. There are distinct moral positions that undergird the way these sensitive topics are being handled, and they are not the moral positions that I hold, nor that I want my children to be taught. Someone else’s morality is being legislated on me! Some may say it is simply poetic justice that the oppressive religious people are now on the other end of the stick. But could we find a better way? We live in an ideologically divided country. I am sorry that Christians clung to their political power, in the past, to control behavior. At the same time, I hope that the new majority recognizes their power and is true to their conviction to not legislate morality. It goes both ways.


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