Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Christmas With an Edge

One of my favorite movie scenes is in the film Talledega Nights, the otherwise raunchy comedy about a redneck race car driver, played by comedian Will Ferrell. He and his family are gathered around a "bountiful harvest" of Domino's, KFC, and the "always delicious" Taco Bell. Ferrell's character Ricky Bobby is saying grace, directing his prayers to an, "8 pound, 6 ounce, newborn infant Jesus," wearing a golden diaper. After several "baby Jesus" references, Ricky's wife has finally had enough, and stops the prayer to remind Ricky that Jesus did grow up, and he shouldn't direct his prayers to a baby. He responds with this rejoinder:

"I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I'm saying grace. When you say grace, you can say it to the grown-up Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus, or whoever you want."

You may wonder why I like this scene so much. You may even consider it sacrilegious. What you're really seeing though, is biting social commentary about Bible Belt religiosity, cloaked in Christianity, but stripped of it's offensiveness. It's cuddly Christianity, created by man to make us feel good about ourselves. It is far from the Christianity of the Bible. And I think many of us are prone to fall prey to the temptation of this kind of faith, especially around Christmas time.

There is much talk these days about keeping Christ in Christmas, and that is important, as far as it goes. But I'm afraid the Christ that many people are talking about this time of year is closer to Ricky Bobby's Jesus than it is the real one. When we think about Jesus at Christmas, it is the cuddly baby in the manger, awakened by lowing cattle, but too omnipotent to cry, as if he alerted his mother that he was hungry by simply clearing his throat. The fact is, there was no "Silent Night." We see angels and wise men and sheep, and we forget about blood and afterbirth and manure. But Christmas has an edge to it, a sharp edge that will cut deeply when it is truly understood for what it is, when we look past the postcard nativity paintings and more deeply into what is behind them.

The point is this; we are far too prone to sanitize Christianity, the same way we sanitize Christmas. You see, there was never a time in Jesus' life, even when he was a newborn baby, when everything was simply nice and peaceful, when he was not a lightning rod for controversy, when the specter of conflict and death did not hang over his head. Matthew 2:3 says when King Herod heard about Jesus' birth, "he was deeply disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him." He immediately set out to have him killed. And with good reason. He saw Jesus for who he truly was; a threat to his kingdom. He's a threat to the kingdoms you have built too. Jesus' birth foreshadowed something big, and quite frankly frightening, for most of the world. God has come. He has come to set things right. The king has arrived. He has come to save, no doubt. But he has also come to judge. From now on, the dividing line between whether a man is on the side of God or not will be what he does with this baby in a manger.

As we celebrate the birth of Jesus this year, we Christians can do so with great happiness. We who follow Jesus can completely understand the "tidings of comfort and joy," that he brings with him.  But we cannot expect everyone to see it that way. This Jesus who came as a babe, and grew to be a man, who died on a cross and was raised from the grave, is no milquetoast Savior. He demands our allegiance. He demands our lives. He demands that we follow him, no matter the cost. And he tells us that is the only way to save our selves. This message has never been non-controversial. It never will be. It's not a message you can keep wrapped in swaddling clothes, nor is it one that will stay dressed in funeral garments.

Friday, August 17, 2012

To Judge or not to Judge?

“Who are you to judge? You’re a Christian, don’t you know one of the main commands you have is not to judge?” If you have been a Christian for any length of time, it is likely that you have heard something along these lines. Statements like this are especially common when Christians talk about things they think are right and wrong; especially when it’s about controversial things. And there’s a very real sense in which the people who make these statements are correct. Jesus did tell us not to judge. But far too often, I don’t think the people saying this understand what Jesus really meant by this. Quite frankly, far too often, many Christians don’t really understand what Jesus meant when he said this.

So what’s going on here? Are Christians to judge? Are they not to judge? How do we reconcile Jesus’ commands not to judge, with all the other commands we see in the Bible about what is right and wrong? Are we never to judge another person's actions or choices? Should we just sit back as people do things we know are wrong, and support them anyway? Is that what the Bible teaches us to do?

The answers to these questions can be found in the Bible, though if we’re going to get the sweet spot of what Jesus means, or what the Bible as a whole teaches, about judgment and judgmentalism, then we’re going to have to dig pretty deep. The Bible certainly goes deeper than one command, ripped out of its context, on this issue. The fact of the matter is this; judgment is not given a blanket condemnation by scripture, it is encouraged and necessary at times. Let me show you what I mean. Every single one of us judge, every single day. The question is whether or not we are judging in the right kinds of ways.

First of all, common sense tells us that we must make some judgments in life. When I look in the refrigerator and pull out those leftovers, I must make a judgment as to whether or not they are still fit to eat. It does no good to say, “Jesus has told me not to judge, so I’ll just ignore the green stuff growing on that casserole.” Furthermore, common sense tells me that I must make some judgments, not just about inanimate objects, but about other people. If you are a young lady, and the schizophrenic drug addict on the street asks you to marry him as you walk by, it’s probably best that you judge him as not fit husband material. Finally, we all must make some moral judgments. All of us agree that murder is wrong and should not be committed, or that child molestation is a horrible act. To not judge those things as wrong would be not only to misunderstand Jesus’ commands and misuse common sense, but to go against the basic moral compass that each of us have.

Secondly, scripture itself, and Jesus himself, tell us that it is right and good to make certain kinds of judgments, of both actions and people. Let’s take a little bit closer look at the passage in which Jesus utters those famous words, “Do not judge.”

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Now notice this first of all. Jesus very clearly says, “Judge not.” And he says it for a reason. Do not judge, unless you want to be judged yourself. The way you judge other people will be the way that you will be judged. That’s the basic message of the first part of this passage. Now, let’s go a bit further. “Why do you not notice the speck in your brother’s eye, but not notice the log in your own eye?” (Verse 3) This verse is the key to understanding this passage. It gives us a distinction between making right judgments, and being judgmental. And judgmentalism is wrong. Jesus basically says this: “You are so quick to notice the sins in others, and so blind to your own sins. Worry about yourself first, and then come back and worry about what your brother is doing.” And this is important for Christians to understand. If you are constantly pointing out the sins of others, and you’re doing so in a way that ignores the depth of your own depravity, then you are simply disobeying Jesus.

This is where so many people who confess the name Jesus find themselves. They bark about the sins of others, and the sins of society, and they ignore their own. They show no repentance over their multitude of transgressions, but are quick to condemn the sins of others. There is no other way to describe this except that it is wrong, and is completely contrary to a direct command of Jesus.

But be careful before you throw away your judgment completely. Because notice what Jesus says next. In essence, he says, “Go take the log out of your own eye, and then you can help your brother get the speck out of his.” What does Jesus mean by this? He’s simply saying that we need to address our own sins first; see ourselves for who we really are, and then we can go back to our brother, and help them with their sins. Now, if we truly begin to address our own sins, and truly begin to see ourselves for who we are, we’re going to have a completely different attitude when we go back to our brother. We will be more humble. We will have no attitude of moral superiority. We will recognize ourselves as just as desperately in need of the grace of Jesus as the person with whom we are talking. And we might just be able to get somewhere with that person because of that attitude change.

So the real thing we need to on guard for is not judgment, but judgmentalism. What Jesus is describing here is not every day judgments we make about what is right and wrong, but our attitude toward people who are sinning. It’s important for us to get the distinction. Let me give you some ideas to think about.

-        It is not judgmentalism to believe something is wrong, based on what the Bible says.
-        It is judgmentalism to believe you are morally superior to someone who has a different sin than you.

-        It is not judgmentalism to tell a person what they are doing as sin, after you have examined your own life and repented of anything you are doing that is also sin.
-        It is judgmentalism to ignore your own sin, and then go after every sin you see in other people.

-        It is not judgmentalism to believe that you should not be involved in certain things, even if it is the Bible does not clearly condemn them.
-        It is judgmentalism to believe that everyone should live up to the standards you have set for yourself, even when the Bible is not clear that your way is the right way.

Let me end with this thought. If you are a Christian, this kind of judgment that confronts specific sins is mainly meant for other Christians. Listen to what Paul says as he talks about sexual sin in the church. “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13) What is Paul saying? I think he simply means this: those on the outside of the church need to hear two things: they are great sinners, and Christ is a great Savior. It does no good to try to morally reform them without a Jesus-wrought change of heart brought about by repentance and faith. Once a person comes into the family of God, then humble, love-filled truth can be spoken about specific sins, and the need to turn from them.

So I hope you’ll keep these things in mind as you think about right and wrong kinds of judgment. It’s mainly about your attitude and your heart when you deal with these things. And take Jesus' warning seriously; you will be given the same kind of judgment you dish out to other people. How do you want to be judged? That is how you must judge others.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Parents, Teach Your Children to Hate Stuff

I think my generation may end up being known as the Wal-Mart generation. There are a lot of things that define us, but at the end of the day, the growth of Wal-Mart might end up being the one thing. Now, this will not be a rant against Wal-Mart. I shop there, often. I did last night actually. But I think the explosion of Wal-Mart over the last 20 years says something about our society, and particularly our generation, that is frankly, quite disturbing.

We have become the most consumerist society in history. Getting stuff has become, for many people, the most important thing in the world. And none of us are immune to it. We in America have more money, more things and more time to do what we want with them that any place in the world, or any time in history of the world. Most of us have more stuff in our closet collecting dust than the average person in the world actually has. The desire for more and bigger and better stuff has captured almost everyone in our society. Our commercials tempt us with stuff. Our friends praise us for our stuff. Society honors those who have the most stuff. But it never satisfies. It never gives us what we want. Still, all too often, we Christians have both literally and figuratively bought society’s lie; hook, line and sinker.

I’m not sure how this ever happened. The Bible is full of warnings about the deadly dangers of stuff. Jesus told us we could not serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24) Paul was even more explicit in his instructions to Timothy. Read what he says here, and tell me this does not describe our society today:

“But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (1st Timothy 6:9-10)

In verse 8, the verse directly preceding this passage, Paul says that if we have food and clothing, we should be content. So that’s the baseline. Then he goes into the dangers of wanting for more and more and more. Notice what he says. Those who desire to be rich fall into a temptation, a snare. He doesn’t say some of the people who want to be rich fall into this temptation. He says those, all of those, who desire to be rich, fall into this temptation and snare. What kind of temptation, what kind of snare is this? It’s the trap of “senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” These are strong words. They are meant to convey strong meaning. So if we had no more than that, we would understand that desiring to be rich is a dangerous desire, a desire that is not worth the trouble. But Paul goes on further. It is this desire to have more and more and more that has led many people to wander away from the faith.

So what is Paul getting at here? I think it’s simple. The desire to be rich is the first step in a journey away from Jesus; a journey that, if not checked, will eventually lead to destruction and death and eternal punishment. This is the fear we should have of the desire for riches, the desire for more and more stuff; that they would turn us away from Jesus. Now notice, everyone who wants to be rich falls into a snare. Some of those who want to be rich walk away from the faith. So the desire to be rich doesn’t automatically lead to a rejection of the faith, but it could very well lead to such a thing.

Now, let me step back for a moment before I go on. The Bible does not condemn being rich. But it speaks over and over again about the danger of the love of money, the danger of wanting more and more. In other words, money is not inherently evil, but it inherently dangerous. It’s like fire. Used correctly, it can do great good. But if it gets out of control, it will destroy. And frankly, that’s where too many of us, including myself sometimes, find ourselves. We are eaten up with the desire for more and more money, and more and more of the stuff that money can buy. And these things will never ultimately satisfy us. Money makes a terrible God.

So what’s the solution? Is it too late for our generation? I think the answer to that is yes and no. It’s never too late for us to repent of our materialism and greed and Mammon-worship. But I fear that, because of the society we live in, and because of the depth of the trap that we have fallen into, for most of us, this temptation to have more stuff is one that will stay with us for all our lives. We may make progress toward defeating it, but the temptation will never go away. At best, we’ll be like the alcoholic who gives up drinking, but never goes a day without wanting a can or a bottle or a glass in his hand.

But here is what we can do. We can teach our children differently. We must begin now letting our children see the dangers of money and stuff, and showing them how to properly use it, and how to avoid using it. We can let them see us fighting against materialism every single day, battling the temptation of stuff-collection, however imperfectly. And we can not give in to their every demand, not think that they must have everything that we did not have, not believe that to love our kids, we must give them more stuff. More importantly, we can show them a better way. We can show them and teach them that life with Jesus, the Jesus who died on the Cross for their sins so that they could have relationship with him, is infinitely better than anything money can buy, and is worth giving up everything we have to possess. It is the treasure in the field that the man sold all his possessions for. It is the pearl of great worth for which the jeweler pawned off all his worldly goods to get.

The question is this: do we really believe this? Are we really willing to do this? Or do we want to raise another generation that just falls deeper into Mammon’s pit? Do we really want to see our children gain the whole world, and lose their souls? If you don’t answer that question now, your children will likely answer it later.  

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Karma vs. Gospel

“It’s not fair!” If you have a child over the age of about 5, then you have probably heard this more times than you care to think about. My 6, soon to be, 7-year old says it about three times a day. Kids have an inherent sense that things should go their way, and when they don’t, it makes them upset. Come to think of it, kids aren’t the only ones who think that way, are they? We all pretty much want things to go our way, and it’s very easy to hold ourselves a pity party when we don’t, isn’t it?

Now, there is something that is very good and right about this. We should desire right to overcome wrong. We have ingrained in us a sense of justice, that there are some things in the world that are not as they should be, and those things should be fixed. We should work for justice in our homes and in our workplaces and in our world. This is a good and important goal.

There is only one problem with this. We do not live in a just world. This world is not “fair.” Things don’t always go as we would hope. Our lives get messed up, dinged up, banged up and torn up. And when this happens, it is very easy for us to look up to God, and scream, “It’s not fair!” How many times have you had something go wrong and thought, “Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?” It’s the same question the 6-year old is asking, in a different form.

The problem with this question is that it is based on a wrong premise. We assume that the world is basically okay, and that things basically work out for people if they just act right and live right. Good behavior is rewarded. Bad behavior is punished. What comes around goes around. You get what you deserve. The problem with this line of thinking, especially for those who claim to be Christians, is that it is antithetical to the Gospel. It’s not just that this is not a Christian way of thinking. It is that it is opposed to the right Christian way of thinking.

Let me show you what I mean. The idea that what comes around goes around, and that people get what they deserve, is basically a Hindu or Buddhist idea. It’s called Karma. And I’ve heard many, many professing Christians talk about Karma coming back to bite someone. It drives me crazy; makes me want to hurl myself out of a window somewhere. You see, Karma is the opposite of the Gospel. Karma says you get what you deserve. The Gospel says if you got what you deserved, then you would be dead and in Hell at this very moment. Instead, the Gospel says that Jesus got what you deserved. You deserved death. You deserved punishment. Because you aren’t as good as you think you are. As a matter of fact, you’re pretty messed up. So Jesus came and he took that punishment you deserved upon himself.

And because this is true, it totally flips the questions when it comes to our suffering and difficulties. Because at the root of the “What did I do to deserve this,” question lies a bigger question. “If God is a God of love, then how could this happen to me?” And Jesus answered that question at the Cross. Jesus did everything he needed to do to show you how much he loved you, by dying in your place on the Cross. That’s the answer to the question, “Does God love me?” Of course he does; he died for you. That act of supreme and most valuable love is all the evidence you need of his love. Now, that act comes with a promise that all wrongs will be righted eventually. Don’t doubt; every wrong will be righted. Justice will eventually be done. There is not a single sin that will go unpunished. Every sin will get it’s just desserts, either through eternal punishment in Hell, or through the punishment Jesus took on the Cross. And righteous living will be rewarded. We will have an eternity of no troubles, ever again.

So this changes the equation immensely. For those of us who have accepted this love, and who have turned to the Jesus who died for us, we don’t have to ask these questions when difficulties come. We know God loves us. We are certain that he is for us. And since we are certain of this, when trouble comes, we begin to ask different questions, like “What is the purpose of this difficulty? What is God trying to show me through this? How can I glorify the God who saved me through this?” We can do this because we are secure in God’s love, certain that justice will eventually be done, and understanding that God is working a much bigger plan through everything that happens in our lives, a plan that involves him glorifying himself, and a plan that we will see in the long run, is for our good.

So reject Karma. Embrace the Gospel. Understand life is not fair, at least not yet. And hold onto the fact that God has demonstrated his love for us in this, “that when we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Don't Fear Theology

Tuesday I attended the Baptist 21 panel discussion at the Southern Baptist Convention. It was a very interesting discussion about scripture and mission in the SBC, with a great deal of talk about theology. Afterward, I overheard someone say something along the lines of, “Why do we need to worry about all these big words and theological study? We just need to go win people to Jesus!” Now, a part of me certainly resonates with that. It’s important that we are driven by the Great Commission. We don’t want to turn into dry academics, who sit behind their desks all day, never sharing the Gospel with anyone. But there’s another sense in which I think this idea is not just a wrong one, but a dangerous one. I see a real hostility to theology among some people in our churches and in our convention, and among evangelical Christianity in general. It’s not just apathy toward it; some people seem to be very certain its study is a bad thing, or that it is only for a select few, or that it gets in the way of doing what God really wants us to do. For many people, the word theology brings to mind pictures of 16th century old men in funny hats with scowls on their faces.

But it needn’t be so. I really believe that all Christians, of every age, stripe and background, are called to theological study. Some people will be able to spend more time and effort and resources on this study than others. Some will be called to do it as a vocation. But we all must invest our time in the study of God. And more specifically, we must invest our time in the study of the God of the Bible. While it is quite true that there are some inherent dangers in studying theology, there are dangers in everything we do as fallen humans. The reasons to study it far outweigh the reasons not to do so. So below, I’ve outlined some of the reasons we should do this, and then some of the dangers inherent in doing so.

Reasons to Study Theology

-        Theology, simply put, is the study of God - If we are to know who God is, we must learn that from the Bible. We must learn it by studying. We are called to love God with all our minds (Luke 10:27) There are no spiritual dummies in the kingdom. We’ve all been given renewed minds that are able to understand spiritual things. If we do not use those minds, then we are neglecting a gift God has given us, and we are not loving God the way we are called to love him. When we love God with all our minds, then that will help us to better love him with all of our heart and soul and strength.

-        Studying theology filters our experiences to make sure they are truly of God - I really believe that relationship with God involves experiencing God. If God is living inside us, then we should be able to feel him and understand him leading us. But we must filter everything that we think we hear from the Spirit through the lens of scripture. Far too often, “spiritual experiences” have very little to do with God, and are really more about a person’s emotions, or something worse. The study of theology acts as a buffer on those experiences.

-        Right practices come from right theology - Our theology drives our practice. It’s all well and good to talk about just loving Jesus, and going on God’s mission, but how are we to do that correctly unless we correctly understand what God has called us to do? Ignoring theological study will ultimately lead to methods that are unbiblical, and ultimately, ineffective. They may “work” in the short run, but they will have no eternal benefits.

-        We have been called not to simply win converts, but to make disciples - The Great Commission tells us that we are to teach disciples of Jesus everything that he commanded of us. (Matthew 28:18-20) Inherent in that commission is the idea that we should be making disciples, who are growing in their knowledge and understanding of God, and who are leading others to a growing knowledge and understanding of God.

Dangers of studying theology

-        Knowing about God instead of knowing God - This is a major concern. It’s very easy to learn “facts” about God, and not have them sink into your soul, not allow them to change who you are. The right kind of theological study will cause you to love God and experience God in new and different and better ways. If we study God correctly, our souls will be renewed. But there’s a grave danger in becoming a white-washed tomb, who knows lots of things about God, but does not really know God. Knowing about God without knowing God will dry up the soul.

-        Pride - “Knowledge puffs up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1) – This is what happens when we try to fill our minds with knowledge about God instead of knowing God by loving him with all of our minds. And this is especially a danger for those who love theology. If we are not careful, we will begin to think ourselves somehow superior to those who do not have the knowledge we have. This is an especially grave danger among young people like me. We have a tendency to look down on others, especially older adults, who don’t have the same theological interests or knowledge that we have. This is, to put it simply, sin. We must repent of it.

-        Thinking about God instead of being on God’s mission – People who love theology must be very careful to be “doers of the Word, not hearers only.” (James 1:22) If you are someone who is naturally inclined to bookishness, like me, then it can become very easy to think that thinking about God is good enough. It is not. If our “knowledge” doesn’t lead us onto God’s mission, then it is simply knowledge, and not wisdom. And wisdom is what we are ultimately looking for through our theological studies.

The fact of the matter is this; we are all theologians. We all have ideas about God. The question is this: are you going to be a good theologian or a bad theologian? The first step toward being a good one is recognizing the importance of the practice in the first place. Here’s praying that you will do just that!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Preparing to Teach

I need a little help, especially if you are a Bible teacher or preacher, or for that matter, a learner. First, for those of you who don’t know, I teach a young adults Sunday School class at Northcrest Baptist Church. I’ve been doing it for about seven years. We began with six people, grew to about 50, split into two classes, and now have about 30-35 people. It’s a great class, and is a lot of fun. This week, we will finish up a year-long study of the book of John that has been incredibly challenging and satisfying. We’re about to begin a shorter, three month survey of some Old Testament history books. So I think this transition time is a good time for me to start thinking about some changes in my preparation and presentation style. I think I’ve fallen into a bit of a rut in my preparation, and I might not be using my time the best possible way I can, and I’m looking for some ways to improve that. So I’m just going to share with you my weekly preparation schedule and goals, and see if any of you have some hints that might help me improve.

I usually work all week on my lesson for the coming week; a little bit every day. I start on Sunday, and wrap up that next Saturday. I put a lot of work into it, but I wonder if I could be better using that time by changing up some of my study and preparation habits.

I look over the passage I’ll be teaching for the coming week, and try to get a feel for it. I begin thinking that day about what the major themes of the passage are, and start brainstorming how I can present them.

I really begin studying. I have a couple of commentaries I use, an ESV and HCSB Study Bible, several other books of theology to consult as needed, and some online resources, as I really try to unravel what the passage is all about. I’m looking for the Biblical and  historical context, along with difficult to understand phrases, words and sentences. By this time, I hope I have a feel for the main thrust of the passage, and a general idea of what the application of the passage will be. On Monday morning, I try to write out a brief introduction.

I spend the next four days working on an outline. And I think this is where I often get bogged down. My outline used to be 3-4 pages long. Now it is 7-8 pages long. In many ways, the outline is just a way to help me think through the passage. I use it when I teach, but only to kind of help me keep my place, and to help me remember the 3-4 main themes I want to talk about. It also helps me to remember if there is something specific from an application standpoint I want to use, or if there is some specific phrasing I want to use at a particular point. During this time, I try to work through the particulars of the main themes. I try to develop those main themes into more specific ideas, and show how it all fits together coherently. I will regularly re-consult the my commentaries, books and online resources as I’m doing this. I usually about 45 minutes per day doing this. It’s amazing how pretty much every week this ends with an outline that is 7 pages, plus one paragraph long. It’s uncanny.

I spend just a few minutes reviewing my notes, remembering my main points, trying to clarify in my mind anything that doesn’t seem to make sense. I’ll usually go to sleep Saturday night thinking about what I’ll say Sunday morning.

Let me also say that I spend a good deal of time during the week thinking about what I’ll be teaching. Many of the ideas that I’ll sketch out in my mind during my morning study come to me as I’m thinking through them at some other point in the week. Here’s where I think my real weakness lies. I think I’ve become to attached to my outline. It feels sometimes like as long as I have my 7 pages plus 1 paragraph, then I’ve done what I need to do. I’m not sure that’s always the case.

Let me say something about my general presentation also. I usually take our class through a 3-step process: tell the story, interpret the story, apply the story. Now, not every passage we study is a story, but it still works the same way. If it’s not an actual story, we simply discuss the context of the passage, then interpret it, and finally apply it to our lives. I try to mix in a fair amount of questions and discussion time as I lead the class through the passage. Some weeks I do better than others. Some weeks I talk too much. But that is my general process, and certainly my goal each week. I think I often fall short in the application phase. There’s a real danger here, I think. Sometimes you can under-apply something, and other times you can over-apply it. In other words, you can be so short on application that nobody understands what the passage is supposed to mean for their lives tomorrow. But you can also be so specific on application that you rule out other ways it can be applied, and people miss out on applying it themselves. So I lean toward under-application I think. I don’t want the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction, but I would like to do a little better on that end.

So that’s me. How about you? If you are a teacher or preacher, what does your preparation and presentation look like? Do you see any ways I can improve? Is there anything specific you do that you think might help me do a better job? Any questions about the way I do it that might be a help to you? If you are a member of a Bible study class, is there anything in particular you hope to hear or experience during your group study that you think I’m leaving out? I want to know!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bible Versions

I've had a couple of conversations with people lately on the subject of Bible translations, so I thought it might be profitable to share some of my thoughts on the different translations, and which I think are the best ones. I know this is a sticky subject, and I'm going to try to be as charitable to all sides as I possibly can. In my Sunday School class and church, we have probably a half dozen translations on an average Sunday. I don't see anything wrong at all with this; in fact, in some cases, I think it can be very good to help understand a passage better. So I'm going to lay out some of the issues I see with Bible translations, and some of the things that might be good for you to think about if you're considering buying another Bible.
There are two major issues to think about when you get ready to buy a new Bible: accuracy and readability. The best Bible translations are a combination of highly readable and highly accurate, and I think there are several translations that fit that bill.

There are several things to think about when you're looking for the most accurate translation of the Bible. One is how the Bible was translated, and the other is from which texts the Bible was translated. The King James Version and the New King James Versions of the Bible, along with most of the versions that are more than a couple of hundred years old, were translated mainly from the Latin Vulgate Bible. At the time of their translation, these were the best texts of the Bible we had, and they are still very good. But since that time, older versions of particular texts have been discovered. These newly discovered, older texts, are remarkably similar to the ones we had before, but here and there, you will find some textual differences. Most of them can be accounted for through transcription errors (we didn't have copying machines back then), but some of them appear to be things that might have actually been added later, after the apostles wrote them. In most of those cases, they appear to have been added to help add to the understanding of a particular passage.  Nevertheless, in some of the newer versions of the Bible, you will find verses or parts of verses missing that were in older versions like the KJV. That's because they just can't be found in the older manuscripts.

Now, before we go any further, understand that very few of these "missing verses," actually change the meaning of the particular texts. And none of them take away any major doctrines from the Bible itself. If they've been taken from one place, don't worry. You can find them somewhere else. Whether you read a King James or an NIV, all of the doctrines of the faith are in there.

So the first thing you need to decide when you're looking for a Bible is whether or not you would prefer something translated from the Vulgate Bible, or something that was translated from the more newly-discovered, older texts. I believe that is a question that is up to each particular person to answer, based on your comfort level. If you grew up on the King James, and feel comfortable with that, and are uncomfortable with some of those parts of the KJV being missing from newer translations, you probably want to stick with the KJV, or if you want something more readable, the New King James Version.

If however, you believe that the older texts probably provide the most accurate rendering of what the apostles originally wrote, then you can begin looking at some of the newer translations. But there are several things to think about when you begin to do that. Specifically, how were these newer versions actually translated? There are two ways to do it:

1 - Word for Word - in this situation, the translators did their very best to capture what the original Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew texts were saying, by being as literal as possible with their translations. The upside to this it is more likely to be an accurate rendering of what the originals actually said. The downside is that sometimes things get lost in the translation, because languages don't always translate perfectly word for word. Here's a non-biblical example. In French, the phrase "com ci, com ca," literally means "like this, like that." But if you took French, you know that it doesn't mean that at all. If you ask me how I am, and I say "com ci, com ca," I don't mean, "like this, like that." I mean, "I'm doing ok."
Word for word translations include the King James, New King James, New American Standard, English Standard Version, and Holman Christian Standard Bible.

2 - Thought for thought - in this situation, the translators do their best to capture exactly what the originals meant, even if it doesn't perfectly capture what they said. The upside is, generally speaking, these translations are much more readable. The downside is, depending on how far you go with this process, it can become highly interpretive, and instead of saying what the originals say, the translators say what they think the originals were trying to say. Thought for thought translations include the NIV and TNIV, the New Living Translation and Living Translation, and the Message. Now, the NIV is much more literal than is the Message, so there is some variation on just how "thought for thought" a translation can be. The NIV is true "thought for thought." The Message is basically a paraphrase, based on what the author thinks.
I’ve separated these Bibles into two categories, but it’s probably better to put them on a continuum, from most literal to least literal. Here’s a graphic from Zondervan that does just that! (click to enlarge)

So now you have to decide which of these ways of translating the Bible the best way is. I can see arguments for both sides, but at the end of the day, I choose what I believe is the accuracy of word-for-word translation over the readability of thought-for-though translations. But that doesn't mean I think you need to throw out your NIV Bibles. There is plenty of room for weighing all of the factors here and coming to a conclusion that one of any number of translations might be best for you. For example, based on all of the factors listed above, here are my favorites.

Group A - English Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, and Holman Christian Standard Bible

I personally use the
ESV. I’ve been using it for several years now, and really like it. I find it to be the best combination of accuracy and readability that I’ve found. But I also really like the HCSB. If I hadn’t been using the ESV for several years, and was looking for a new Bible translation, I would seriously consider it. The NASB is also a very good, literal translation, that might be slightly more difficult than the ESV or the HCSB. The ESV and HCSB also have excellent study Bibles, the two best I’ve seen.

Group B - King James Version, New King James Version
I will go as far as saying that the King James might be the greatest Bible translation of all time. It’s stood the test of 400 years of time, and has been used greatly by God during that time. The text of the KJV is highly accurate, using the texts that it uses. I find it to be a very difficult read though, because it was written in the language of its time and place, which of course is 17th century
England. The New King James is much easier, but is still retains some of the clunkier King James sentence structure. I also believe there are some places where newly discovered, older manuscripts improve upon the KJV manuscripts. If you are looking for a new Bible, I wouldn’t recommend the King James, for those reasons. If you already own a King James, and like it, I also wouldn’t recommend changing, especially since that is what you will hear from the pulpit in our church. I know it helps some people to be able to keep up with the pastor that way.

Group C - NIV and New Living Translation

Both of these translations are very readable translations, but I have some concerns about the thought for thought translation process. Nevertheless, I think both can be highly profitable for study. I used the NIV for years, and it was very helpful to me. Reed's first Bible was a New Living Transation, and I found it to be very readable. Let me also note that the NIV was revised last year, and the translators used more “gender inclusive” language. Here’s an example: where the original texts say “brothers,” the NIV now says “brothers and sisters.” When “brothers” was referred to in this way during the time of the Bible, it included women too, so the purpose of this is to help people understand that. But there are a lot of concerns, which I share, about the idea of adding things to the original word. If you are looking for a new Bible, I might not recommend the NIV, but if you already have one, I don’t think it’s worth changing over, either.

Group D - The Message

You will find people who absolutely love The Message, because it is very readable and engaging, and in many places, brings out the meaning of passages very well. However, there are places where you have to understand that the translator, Eugene Peterson, is really giving his thoughts on what he believes the passage means. It's much more subjective than any of the other translations you would find. I would use it only as a supplemental Bible, as a help when you come upon more difficult passages in other versions.

In an average week, I will probably study out of 6 or 7 of these translations, comparing them to one another to try to get a better idea of what the passage is saying, and which of the translations gets it most right. I use the more literal translation for my primary study, and use the more thought for thought translations when I need to understand a passage better. A great place to do this is www.biblegateway.com.

This was not an attempt to cover every issue of Bible translation, so I'm sure there are something I left out. If you'd like to ask questions, feel free. Otherwise, take what you need from this, and discard the rest. I hope this helps you the next time you go to buy a Bible.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Jesus and Tim Tebow, Recap

I couldn't have anticipated just how much interest there would be in my Tim Tebow series. Thanks to everyone who read and commented on it! The final part yesterday was especially popular. It was the busiest day in the history of my little blog.  If you didn't get to read all of them, but would like to, links are below.

Jesus and Tim Tebow, Part 1 - "Tebowing" vs. Private Prayer 

Jesus and Tim Tebow, Part 2 - What Did You Expect?

Jesus and Tim Tebow, Part 3 - Quarterbacking and Vocation

Jesus and Tim Tebow, Part 4 - God is For Tebow!

If you haven't already read them, take a look. Enjoy, and let me know what you think!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Jesus and Tim Tebow Part 4

This is the last in my series of posts on Tim Tebow, faith, and football. I’ve been trying to answer some questions that I think have been coming up as the Tebow phenomenon has steamed through the NFL season.
This final post, I think, could be the most important one in terms of understanding how God relates to us as Christians.

Another week, another miracle win for Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos. By now, the extraordinary seems to have become routine. This Sunday, during a playoff game against the heavily favored Pittsburg Steelers, Tebow threw an 80 yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime to win the game for the Broncos. It was the longest game winning overtime touchdown pass in NFL history. Tebow set several other records in the game, while passing for 316 yards in the win. Get it? 316 yards? 3:16? Like John 3:16? Yep, seems like another miracle in a series of them for the well known Christian quarterback. Again and again this season, there have been so many coincidences and so many “miracles" for Tebow that a lot of people, including non-Christians, are beginning to wonder if God really is on Tim Tebow’s side, if there is some kind of “Angels in the Outfield” thing going on here.

This case presents us with several really important questions. Does God really care who wins football games? Is that something he really gets involved in? If he does, how do we explain all the times believers lose? What if there are the same amount of believers on both teams? Do good things happen to good people? Is that how it works? Is Tebow’s performance a reward for his exemplary Christian life?

I think all of these questions have a single over-arching theme to them. If there is a God, and that God is to be found in Christianity, and Christianity is about good behavior, then shouldn’t good behavior be rewarded? Either God is involved, and he is helping everything to turn out well in the world for Christians, or he’s not involved, and he’s leaving them to fend for themselves in certain times and places. So either football is a place where God involved, and he’s helping the best Christians to win, or he is not involved, and he’s just letting the people decide the outcomes. I think this theme is based on a lot of false assumptions.

First, let me say this very clearly. God cares about the outcome of football games. God is ultimately paying attention to who wins every single game that is played, from pee-wee all the way up to the NFL. And he cares about the outcome of baseball games and hockey games and golf tournaments and boxing matches and curling contests. I’m not as sure about soccer. (Just kidding) How can I say such a thing? Does this sound possible? Is God really a fan of all these sports? Here is what I mean. God cares about the outcome of games, because he cares about everything. Listen to what Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke.

“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:6-7 ESV)

What is the point of Jesus here? There’s a specific point about the fact that Christians need not fear anyone, because God is ultimately in control of their destinies. But there is a more general point here too, I think, and that’s that God has his eye on every detail of what is happening in the world. If he cares about how many hairs I have on my head, then he cares about whether or not Tim Tebow’s team wins football games. Let me push this point a little bit further. Not only does God care about the outcome of football games, but he is using their outcome for his ultimate purposes. How do I know this? Because “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28 ESV) All things, Paul says. Every single thing that happens in the universe, from the flapping of a butterfly's wings to the business between you and your boss at work, to that stomach ache you had last night, to the outcome of this Sunday’s Broncos/Patriots game, is being worked together for good to accomplish God’s purposes. I simply take “all things,” to mean all things.

Let me even go one step further. Not only is God working all things together for good, he is ultimately sovereign over all things, the final arbiter of what happens and what does not happen. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” (Proverbs 16:33) In other words, even things that seem to be mere chance are not. There is nothing in the world that happens that is not either ordained or allowed by God. He can cause anything to happen, and he can prevent anything from happening. If it happens, it is because God has allowed it to happen. This includes the outcome of football games.

Now, before we go any further, we need to slow down a bit. Before I can get to my ultimate point, my most important point, I want to make this point. Just because God is ordaining everything that comes to pass, that does not mean that God is miraculously intervening to make Tim Tebow win football games, despite his circumstance and ability. God’s normal way of doing things is not through the miraculous. It is through the ordinary. The means by which God has ordained that the Broncos win their games is by giving Tim Tebow and his teammates particular athletic abilities, that they have honed over the years, by giving them coaches who have taught them the game, by giving them minds to understand what they need to do, and by giving them personalities that can work together in a particular way. This is the same way for you. It is God’s providential hand that gets you back and forth from work every day. But that doesn’t make it miraculous. God is using ordinary means to accomplish his ultimate purposes. This doesn’t deny that he doesn’t sometimes use extraordinary, miraculous means. It’s just not how he normally does it.

So that brings us to our final question. Is Tim Tebow winning football games because of his faith in God? And I think the answer is yes and no. What do I mean? God is working everything together for Tim Tebow’s good. That means all the wins that have happened this year have been part of that plan. But if Tim Tebow never leads a team to another victory, it doesn’t mean that God has abandoned him. The Christians on all the losing teams this year have not been abandoned by God. In the same way, if you are a Christian going through a difficult season in life, God has not abandoned you. But God’s plans are higher than the simple, “If I’m good, God will be good to me.” We make a mistake when we say that we will be guaranteed health and wealth and prosperity if we just have enough faith. We have not been promised that. We have actually been promised just the opposite. Jesus told us that in this world we would have trouble, and that if we follow him, we would have difficulty. So a loss in a football game, or the loss of a loved one, or the loss of money or home or status, is not sign of God’s disfavor. It could be a sign of just the opposite actually.

Here’s the bottom line: if you are a Christian, if you have followed Jesus, if you are trusting Jesus as your only hope for right relationship with God, then God is 100% for you, no matter what your circumstance might be. No matter what happens in your life, whether you “win” or “lose,” God is on your side. God’s favor toward you is not earned by anything you do, nor is it demonstrated by anything that happens to you. God demonstrated how much he loved you, and how much he is for you, when he sent his Son to die in your place. You deserved eternal death, but you get eternal life. If you believe that, then you can also believe that is all you need! Whether or not your team wins or loses, or whether or not your family turns out ok, or whether or not you get to keep your job in this recession, or whether or not you have friends or riches or comfort is not the ultimate sign that God’s favor rests with you. The ultimate sign is the fact that Jesus died for you!

So is God on Tim Tebow’s side? You betcha! And if you are a believer, he’s on your side too! He is for you. And if he is for you, nothing can be against you. He is working through all of Tim Tebow’s circumstances, win and losses; and he’s working through all of your circumstances, the wins and the losses, to see your ultimate good and his ultimate glory brought about. Embrace this and live in this and let it change you.