Friday, June 23, 2006

Some Thoughts on "Freedom"

Last summer, with the Fourth of July quickly approaching, I wanted to throw out a few reflections on the subject of freedom. I didn't do it at the time. Then the holiday came and went and I got a little frustrated with myself.

So if this seems a little early, it is. But I don't want to wait another year before getting these thoughts out of my head and onto my blog. . . .

If you've read much of the Bible, then you've noticed already. Those distinctively-American concepts about freedom are very different from what Scripture assumes and emphasizes.

For the most part, the Bible ignores the idea of political freedom. For example, nowhere does it teach that every person is inherently free and should be treated as such by the political state. Instead, it assumes that people, in their "natural" state, are not free. Rather, they are enslaved by two things that keep them from living the lives that God intends for them; namely, sin and what seems to be a kind of matrix for sin. In Greek, Paul calls it sarx. In English, we call it "the flesh" (KJV) or "the sinful nature" (NIV).

According to the Bible, the central problem is that this primordial network has caught us all. It's power is such that it can use even the law of God, coupled with the best of human intentions, to bring about incredible ruin. Not only are people destroyed; the entire cosmos, which started out as "very good," is subjected to its corruption (see Romans 1:18-8:21).

The Good News is, because of his unique authority as the Son of God, Jesus Christ also has the unique capacity to liberate people (John 8:35-36). When we open our lives to him, we are not only forgiven, we're also empowered by God's Spirit who comes to live within us (Romans 8:11). And wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17).

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Starting a New Class

Tonight, I get to start a short series of lessons that are supposed to introduce and overview the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. I have only a few weeks (from now till the end of August) so my main challenge is to provide coverage without superficiality.  Hard to do.

Here’s how we’re starting out . . .

Because they tell the story of the one true God, the two testaments of the Christian Bible are closely related to one another.  Over 250 times, the New Testament explicitly quotes or cites what we call the Old Testament.  In some instances, knowledge of the Old is expected in the New.  Jesus once said, “Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32).   Paul speaks of “Christ, our Passover lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7).

But in addition to serving as “background reading,” for the New, the Old Testament reveals the eternal character and nature of God.  And several New Testament passages address the question of the place of the Old in the life of the church:

2 Timothy 3:16-17

All Scripture, including the Old Testament (in fact, the referent in this passage) is the inspired Word of God and is, therefore useful for Christians.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Some stories of the Old Testament serve as warnings for God’s people today.

Romans 15:1-4

The encouragement that grows out of the Old Testament story provides Christians with hope.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Hoping for the End of Hope

I want to eventually do one more post about hope: "A New Heaven and a New Earth." But first, I'd like to spend a little more time with the important passages.

People who say, "Not that" are obliged to answer the question, "Then what?" If, for the biblical picture, we reject the ancient idea of the immortality of the soul, then it falls to one to say what the biblical picture is. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, one next-to-last word about hope: Christians are people who hope for a time when their hope disappears. That's because hope always involves an expectation that has not been met. When what is expected arrives, hope vanishes. In the words of Paul, "hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?" (Romans 8:24). As an expression of hope, Carrie Breck wrote:

Only faintly now I see Him
With the darkling veil between
But a blessed day is coming
When his glory shall be seen.

Face to face shall I behold Him,
Far beyond the starry sky,
Face to face in all His glory,
I shall see Him by and by.

Christians would much rather see the Lord than hope for him. In the Book of Revelation, the last words of Christ to his people are, "Yes, I am coming soon."

The immediate response: "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus." When he does, Christian faith will become sight. And as it's rewarded, patient hope will disappear.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Our Hope: "We Shall Be Like Him"

Becoming a Christian means making a commitment.  Among other things, the person pledges to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

When someone does that, he winds up being changed into the likeness of Jesus himself “with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).  As time goes on--and with a few exceptional set backs that Paul doesn’t mention there--the Christian actually becomes more like Christ.

The best part of all the process of Christian growth is that, on the last day, it will be complete.  In the words of 1 John 3:2, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.  But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as his is.”  (For a long time now, I’ve been intrigued by the last part of that verse.  What is the connection between becoming like him and seeing him as he is?  I’m not sure I understand that part and would welcome reflections on it).

In the next verse, John adds, “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.”  Wherever Christian hope is real, people change for the better, knowing that someday they will become just like their Lord, with both a body and a spirit like His.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Our Hope: "We Will All Be Changed"

“I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’.” --1 Corinthians 15:50-54

The passage points to another vital part of Christian hope. When Jesus Christ returns and the dead are resurrected, those who inherit eternal life will be changed. We will be clothed with what is imperishable and immortal.

People always want to know: What will that look like and be like? The best answers can be found in those verses at the end of the Gospels that report the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Because it is the precursor to what Christians will become, I want to say a few things about Christ’s resurrection.

First, when Christians say that Jesus was raised from the dead—that we serve a risen savior—we are not talking about the survival of a memory about Jesus. Nor are we referring to the growth of his influence in the world. I mention these views, not because they have any merit in light of the witness of Scripture, but only because they have become fairly popular among believers whose worldview precludes the supernatural. Such interpretations are clearly out of sync with the assertions of the New Testament and should be rejected.

Second, to speak of the resurrection of Jesus is not a reference to his resuscitation. This is where Christians should make an important distinction that is sometimes overlooked. To take two biblical examples, what happened to the widow’s son in Luke 7, and what happened to Lazarus in John 11, is altogether different from what happened to Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion.

Strictly speaking, none of the biblical accounts of someone besides Jesus coming back to life should be thought of as resurrection stories. In those cases, divine power brought an individual back to this life, but not to new and unending life. To put it simply, Lazarus and company were resuscitated, only Jesus was resurrected. (There’s a quaint passage somewhere in the writings of C.S. Lewis where he remarks that being raised must have been hard for Lazarus and the others. Knowing the experience of death, they eventually had to do their dying all over again).

In contrast to misrepresentations and misunderstandings about the resurrection, the New Testament tells us that when Jesus was raised, God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit transformed Jesus’ body into a never-decaying (incorruptible) never-dying (imperishable) body, the sort of body that makes eternal life with God a possibility for someone who was once human.

From the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, I gather that such a body could, at times, be difficult to recognize, even by those who were close friends with the person before the radical change. The mysterious character of the resurrection body also shows up in John 20:26, where Jesus suddenly appears in a room where the disciples were holed up; and also in Luke 24:42 where the resurrected Christ eats broiled fish.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s main point is not that resurrection happened to Jesus; it is, rather, that the specific event of Jesus’ resurrection is the first occurrence, and therefore the promise, of what will occur for all of God’s people when Christ comes again:

“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” --1 Corinthians 15:20-23

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Our Hope: The Resurrection of the Dead

The Bible clearly teaches that people who die before the Second Coming of Christ live on. Read Luke 16:19-31 and Philippians 1:20-24, for example. 

But their condition—separate from the body—is only temporary. As Jesus said it, “A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-29).

Evidently, this part of Christian expectation was central to the earliest believers. When Paul defended himself, he explained that he was on trial because of his hope in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6; 26:6-8).

Christians do not merely hope for the immaterial part of themselves to live on. Instead, what we hope for is the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23). 

It’s interesting. People find it difficult, even distasteful, to imagine life without a body. At the same time, what psychology and the physical sciences keep showing us is that all notions of a strict division between body and soul are misguided. The two are undeniably connected in ways that we do not fully understand. We do not have bodies. We are bodies.

The Christian hope includes being with the Lord when we die. But more than that, our hope is in the resurrection of the dead, the re-incorporation of ourselves, when the curtain of history comes down.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Our Hope: The Return of Jesus Christ

Before his crucifixion, Jesus told his closest followers that he would soon leave them and go to his Father’s house. “I am going there,” he told them, “to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-3).

Just after the resurrected Christ was taken up into heaven, the Apostles were looking up into the sky, “when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.  ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10-11).

From that time until now, a fundamental Christian teaching has been that Jesus Christ will return. The one who was crucified for our sins, raised for our justification, and taken up in glory, will some day come again.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Our Hope

The Swiss theologian Emil Brunner once said, “What oxygen is for the lungs, such is hope for the meaning of life.”

You can live several weeks without food. You can live a few days without water. But you cannot live life without hope.

No wonder, then, that the word “hope” occurs well over 100 times in the Bible. Hope is essential to real living.

As vital as hope is, by its very nature, it must have a basis. We cannot build on hope itself. Instead, genuine hope needs someone or something else to provide a foundation. If it doesn’t have something on which to stand, hope soon evaporates into wishful thinking.

According to the Bible, Christian hope does not speak of mere desire, but of real expectation.  Christians are not merely hopeful people in a general sense. Instead, they hope for--anticipate and expect--certain things.

But what exactly are those things? For what do Christians hope? I want to talk about that next week.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Yes, Sir!

We're winding up our Vacation Bible School at the San Jacinto Church of Christ. Classes were Monday through Wednesday of this week. Parent's night and the grand finale are tonight.

It's been some time since the San Jacinto congregation had a VBS. I'm thankful that Leonard Harper, our new preacher, provided the leadership that made this one happen.

I got to lead the songs, including "I'm in the Lord's Army," a true Christian classic, and the song of the photo if you hadn't already guessed. (Many thanks to Fred Cox, our VBS photographer).
This year's theme was, "A Time for Jesus." We focused on Him as a teacher, a servant and miracle worker, and as a sacrifice.

I'm ever the fan of traditional Vacation Bible Schools, complete with singing, skits and/or puppets, colorful decorations, plenty of teaching time, meaningful crafts, and of course homemade cookies.

VBS was my first taste of the kind of experience I would later have at Christian summer camp (mine was Quartz Mountain Christian Camp in SW Oklahoma) and eventually Christian college (Freed-Hardeman).

There's simply no substitute for extended times spent with other people who want to hear the written Word and to see and know the living Word to which the Bible so faithfully points. That's VBS at its best, and that's why I love it so much.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Wondering about World Religions

In less than three months, the fall semester will begin at Amarillo College.  That sounds a little strange since it isn’t officially summer yet, although it feels like it here.

Anyway, when the time comes, teaching a course in “World Religions” will be among my new responsibilities.  I’m looking forward to it.  But I know I’ll have to do a lot of work between now and then.

It’s hard to describe a religion that you haven’t really met.  Sometimes it’s hard to characterize a religious tradition you supposedly know very well.  

When you are yourself a religious person, you realize that if someone from the other side of the planet (or even next door) were to define your religion, they’d likely not speak for you.  For example, in many parts of the world the only expression of Christianity known to the locals is Roman Catholicism.  So if a non-Christian in one of those places were to describe Christianity, my first reaction would be, “No, that’s not me.”

So I have to assume that knowledge I gain from a textbook or first-hand doesn’t necessarily mean that I can adequately speak about a certain religion.

I think that a World Religions course will have to include a lot of statements like, “Among many Buddists . . .” and “One traditional Jewish understanding is that . . .”   I also think that one of the best approaches is to read the texts that reflect the heart of a given tradition, and let them speak for themselves.  Obviously, that includes some selection, and some introduction or commentary too.

At this point, I’m not convinced that the classic textbook approach to a World Religions course is the best way to go.  I suppose I could read a book called, “All the Fish in the Gulf of Mexico.”  Or I could take a boat ten miles off the coast of Pensacola and drop a line.