Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

My plans for you

Saturday, May 6th, 2023


Many of you are familiar with this verse. If you aren’t familiar with it, you just haven’t been paying attention.


For example, you might see it as a Facebook meme.


Or an abbreviated version on the wall of a Christian coffee shop or bookstore.


This version would make a nice refrigerator magnet.


You might see this page in a grown-up coloring book


Here’s an edgier version.


How about one suitable for framing?

My personal favorite includes an image of the prophet himself….


I have nothing against the Muppets, daily companions for ten years or so. But did God really mean for Elmo to deliver his message? Has this message been appropriated and taken out of context? Was it intended to be meaningful to Christians?

There are thoughtful Christians who think not. They firmly believe this is the most misused verse in the Bible. They point to the context of this passage – which we’ll examine in some detail – and suggest that the people and conditions it addresses couldn’t be much further from the circumstances of Christians in the 21st Century. So, the thinking goes, as hopeful as it sounds. the promise isn’t relevant today.

Whatever we may think of this view, it points to a potential problem with Scripture memorization. There’s a strong case to be made for memorizing passages from the Bible, Psalm 119:11 for example – “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” But when we memorize a passage and recall it again and again, does it eventually become detached from its context? Is there a danger of transforming it into nothing more than an encouraging slogan devoid of real substance? I think it’s important to guard against that – we don’t want God’s Word to become a bumper sticker!

Let me illustrate this problem with another, less well-known promise.

“I’ll get you a sewing machine” is a promise I made to someone. But who? You can’t tell. What are the circumstances of this promise? You can’t tell. Am I going to buy a broken-down old machine or a brand new one? Does the recipient have any say in what I buy? What did the promise actually mean? You can’t tell.

My daughter knows the answers to all those questions because I made the promise to her. She had spent a lot of time helping me clear out and reorganize my workshop. To thank her for her hard work, I told her I’d take her to buy a new machine to replace her old one. She’s quite happy with the brand new machine that she picked out. Now that you know its context, you know the promise was made and kept. The promise itself – unlike the sewing machine – has no further meaning or significance; it is no longer binding on me. Is this the case with v.11? Is it a promise made and kept, end of story?

Just like my promise to my daughter, the answer lies in the verse’s context. Some insight into that will enable us to decide whether this too is a promise made and kept, its meaning and significance used up 2600 years ago.

We’ll start by looking at the circumstances of the people who received the promise. We’ll look at this in some detail in order to understand what the promise would have meant to them. Then we can decide if it means anything to us.

It’s said that the three most important things in real estate are location, location, and location. It’s also said that the three most important things in interpreting a Bible passage are context, context, and context. (1) Look at the surrounding verses. (2) Look at the whole chapter. (3) Look at the book’s historical context and its relationship to the Bible as a whole.

Historically, Israel had a history of disobeying God – when they thought of him at all. The nation of Israel only had three kings before God got fed up with them and split the country in two. The northern portion retained the name Israel and made Samaria its capitol. The southern part, which included Jerusalem, was named Judah and retained Jerusalem as its capitol.

There were interludes of faithfulness in both parts of the divided kingdom, but far fewer in Israel/Samaria. Judah did better, but eventually ran afoul of Moses’ warning in Deuteronomy 30:17-18:

… if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

It’s not as though God hadn’t continued to remind the Israelites in both kingdoms of the consequences of disobedience. The coming doom was often prophesied and largely ignored. One of those prophets was Jeremiah who acted as God’s messenger in Judah from about 627 to 582 BC. Much of his message was a reminder that if they didn’t repent, they would be expelled from the Promised Land, just as Moses had warned them. But his prophecy included both their exile to Babylon and – after 70 years – the return to Jerusalem of those who remained (25:11-12):

This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. “But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,” declares the LORD, “and will make it desolate forever.

When Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem in 597 BC, he took captive the cream of the crop and led them back to Babylon. He installed his own king in Jerusalem to rule over the beaten and impoverished remnant left behind. Jeremiah wrote this letter to the exiles in Babylon: Jeremiah 29:1,4-14

Our task is to see how readers in the 21st Century AD might best make sense of this scripture written in the 6th Century BC.

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about studying the Bible is some advice from a long-forgotten writer: Be attentive to both the primary audience and the secondary audience. Who was the text originally meant for? For example, Paul’s letters were written to churches or individual church leaders. Jeremiah’s letter was written to the exiles in Babylon.

The secondary audience is everybody else. Today it’s us. God ensured the preservation of the Bible for a reason. We should ask, why was this book or passage preserved even as other writings or letters have been lost? Why was Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles preserved? What is its message to contemporary readers at our particular time or place? Interpreting God’s Word requires some understanding of both audiences.

Ignoring the primary audience and purpose pulls the foundation from under the passage. It can lead to misunderstanding and idle speculation about things such as when Jesus will return. Ignoring the secondary audience consigns the Bible to dusty bookshelves. It becomes a thing to be studied by scholars who may not attach any eternal significance to its words. It’s of little real use.

The idea that Scripture is written for two audiences is confirmed in Scripture itself. For example, 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

And Romans 15:4:

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

My favorite example of the application of Scripture to two different audiences was shown to me by Dr. Marion Soards in a short course at Second Presbyterian Church down in Indy. As you will see, it is particularly appropriate at Christmastime. It starts with a promise made and kept in Isaiah 7:11-16:

“Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.” Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.

Isaiah’s primary audience was King Ahaz of Judah who was facing a war brought by the kings of Syria and Israel. In v. 14, Isaiah assures Ahaz that he will win, but Ahaz is still frightened, so God promises Ahaz a sign, a child to be born to a virgin. He will be named Immanuel to signify God’s presence in the coming battle. To be a sign to Ahaz, this boy must be born in time to encourage him, that is, before the war even begins.

Immanuel, of course, means “God with us”. The boy Immanuel is not God himself accompanying Ahaz; he is a symbol of God’s promise to be with Ahaz and bring the victory to Judah.

This prophecy reappears in the very familiar passage in Matthew 1:20-23:

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”

In this case, the boy will be named Jesus, which means “savior”. Jesus himself will be the savior. Like Immanuel, he signifies God’ presence with us; but unlike Immanuel, he isn’t a symbol of God’s presence, he is God present with us. As Dr. Soards said, Immanuel was a partial fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy – temporary and symbolic – while Jesus was the perfect fulfillment – eternal God himself.

God took the promise made to Ahaz and recycled it. Matthew says as much in vv. 22-23: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet.

Incidentally, Bible scholars believe that the young mother-to-be in Isaiah was not a virgin at the time she conceived. Rather she represented purity and pre-figured the Virgin Mary. Again, the prophecy was partially fulfilled the first time and perfectly fulfilled the second time.

Is God recycling Jeremiah 29:4-14 for us today? Or are those well-intentioned critics correct when they say v.11 is a promise made and kept and finished? Although I once agreed with them, I no longer do. There are at least three reasons to believe the critics have missed the point.

First, consider the original audience. They were God’s people, enduring exile in a hostile place. We too are God’s people, enduring our own exile in a hostile world. Peter wrote to fellow Christians in 1 Peter 2:10-11:

Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.

We are told in many places in the New Testament to make the best of our exile, never forgetting that it is temporary. And like those earlier exiles, God has promised to redeem us and return us to our true home. Remember in v.10, God says I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.

Note the striking similarity to John 14:2-3:

In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there 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.

And where is that place? It’s Jerusalem (Revelation 21:1-4):

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Second, look at the Babylonian exile in the context of the whole Bible. In one sense, the Bible is a story that begins In Eden, a place without sin or death where God could be found, and ends in the new Jerusalem, a place without sin or death where God can be found. In between, God kicked his first chosen people, Adam and Eve, out of the Garden and sent them – and us – to live in a world that is in permanent rebellion against him. That long exile will end when he welcomes all of his chosen people home to the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:22-24):

I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.

Third, think about what we know about God’s character as revealed in the whole of Scripture.

Among other things, he is faithful, merciful, and provident, loving all his exiled children and wanting only what he knows is best for them. This is the God who promised Adam and Eve that their offspring would crush the serpent’s head. This is the God who promised Abraham that he would father nations. This is the God who promised to end the Babylonian exile. This is the God who promised to come get us and end our exile.

To be sure, there are some big differences, just as there are differences between the baby Immanuel, and the baby Jesus. When a prophecy gets recycled, it seems to me that it grows in magnitude as well as in perfection. For example, crushing the serpent’s head is one thing, conquering death itself is a whole lot bigger. So here are four quick differences:

First, our own exile didn’t begin with Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem. It began in Eden.

Second our exile spans not just seventy years but the entire history of humanity from God’s creation to his making all things new at the end of history. The Babylonian exile is just a short fragment within this universal exile.

Third, our guarantee is better. We know who will take us by the hand and bring us home – Jesus himself – and he’s given us some idea of how it will happen.

Fourth, our return will not be a step back to the old Jerusalem but a step forward into the new Jerusalem.

I think the conclusion is clear – this letter was written to two audiences, the one Jeremiah knew about, and us today, the audience that only God knew about. I will suggest at least five takeaways from seeing Jeremiah’s letter in its full context.

First, it does indeed give us a memory verse – v.11 – which the Holy Spirit can call to mind when we are grieving or in doubt or scared. Just remember the context! It’s not a bumper sticker!

Second, v.13 promises that You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. There are times when this is the only way we will see him working for our welfare, giving us hope, and preparing a future for us. There are times – this year of COVID is a pretty good example – when that isn’t exactly obvious.

Third, it serves as a reminder that God does keep his promises and that his promise-keeping together with Jesus’ death and resurrection are the only foundation for the hope we have.

Fourth, it reminds us that God’s view of our existence is different from the world’s – and sometimes our own. He takes the long view; he knows that our lives don’t end when we die. The exiles to whom Jeremiah wrote must have had a sense of this. 70 years meant that they were going to die in Babylon and most of their children would too.

But the Israelites were familiar with God’s perspective. They had suffered 400 years in Egypt before there was any movement toward the land God had promised Abraham. And then they endured another 40 years in the wilderness when their faith in God failed. Patient endurance was part of their DNA; it should be part of ours too.

Fifth, v.11 reminds us that, no matter what we’re experiencing, God never, ever wishes us harm. To be sure, we suffer when choices – ours or others’ – produce bad consequences in our lives. We suffer when things like disease or natural disasters bear directly on us or those we love. That brings us to another good memory verse (and its context), Romans 8:28:

… we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Great! Who doesn’t want everything that happens to them to be turned into good? But v.29 gives us the context for this promise:

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

The good that God has in mind is to bring us to be more and more like Jesus; this isn’t necessarily the same good we might be hoping for. We have to trust that God knows and desires our best good. Even so, when bad seems to be winning out over God’s promised good, we might turn again to the promise, you will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.

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Liberals’ chief disability

Wednesday, April 24th, 2019

All modern liberals (actually, illiberals) share a common disability: They are unable to be constrained by the wisdom of those who preceded them. They believe that, as a rule, new ideas are superior old ones and that the new ideas they personally embrace are so obviously superior that no debate is possible and no defense is necessary. The superiority of these new ideas, of course, confers on the liberals who advocate them the right to exercise power and influence.

Nowhere is this disconnect between old ideas and new more glaring than among liberals whose claim to legitimacy derives from a foundational document comprised entirely of old ideas. This disability is most conspicuous among liberal politicians and liberal Christians (leaving aside J. Gresham Machen’s well-argued assertion that Christianity and Liberalism are two entirely different religions, rendering “liberal Christian” something of an oxymoron).

Undermining the Foundations

Ultimately, all American politicians derive their power from the Constitution. It created our nation, defines its governmental structures, specifies the constraints under which the government must operate, and provides the framework for sharing power with the various United States. Liberal politicians chafe under the structure and limits imposed by the Constitution’s old ideas. They look for ways to circumvent them so they can institute a new form of virtually unlimited government – which would, coincidentally, enable them to compel the evolution of a new social order.

Christians’ foundational document is, of course, the Bible. Lacking the power of politicians, liberal Christians and their leaders nonetheless have significant impact. Sometimes they influence government (elections, legislation, and court cases) directly. More often, they shape the church’s messages to Christians and to society. Like liberal politicians, they suffer under the yoke of the Bible’s ancient ideas. They seek to create a new faith and a new church that generally mirrors the social vision of liberal politicians.

Sharing a common disregard for their respective foundational documents they employ similar means of getting around them. Here are three of them:

The One Ring Strategy

In the Lord of the Rings, there is One Ring that has power to rule all the other magic rings (all originally meant for good). It can twist the intended purposes of the other rings and use them for evil ends. The inscription inside this ring reads

One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them.

Liberals often identify a single provision of the Constitution or a single verse in the Bible that serves a similar purpose – their One Text. The chosen text is certainly authoritative in its context, but liberals claim that the One Text is superior to its context, more authoritative than the document as a whole. The rest of the document becomes subservient to the One Text and must be interpreted only through its lens. By elevating the One Text in this way, they impose a method of interpretation that rules and overrides the original meaning of the entire document.

For example, liberal politicians (and Supreme Court Justices) often argue that Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution is the One Text. It begins “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States….[my emphasis]” This One Text is said to overrule, among other provisions, the last section of the Bill of Rights: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” (It’s hard to imagine why, if the Framers wanted a One Text and intended “general Welfare” to mean “virtually everything that happens in the United States”, they didn’t write a Constitution that said so. It certainly would have been less work for them and much less reading for anyone curious about what it says.)

For liberal Christians, the One Text is usually found in 1 John 4 (v. 8 or 16), “God is love”. They claim that the One Text overrules countless commands to be obedient – this despite the fact that, for example, Jesus himself himself gave several in John 14:18-14. It also overrules all commands to be holy such as Hebrews 12:14 and 1 Peter 1:14-16. The liberal – and unbiblical – understanding of love is that loving someone consists mainly of wanting them to feel happy. So the One Text rules because calling someone to obedience or holiness may make them unhappy. Even churches and pastors who would not ordinarily consider themselves liberal in the political sense often exhibit this misguided behavior. 

[Note: Although the 1984 NIV is my go-to Bible, online links are to the ESV, not the readily-available 2011 NIV, for reasons given here.]

The Living Document Strategy

Liberals’ contempt for old ideas requires them to find a way to placate both fans and critics who believe that foundational documents matter. Both liberal politicians and liberal Christians often resort to the same dodge; they claim that the document from which they derive their legitimacy is a “living” document.

The argument starts with the assertion that the original document with its old ideas could not have anticipated the modern world. It follows that a “living” document with its old ideas entitles modern people liberals to derive the new ideas necessary to cope with this new, unexpected world. That the new ideas are often in direct opposition to the old ones is not surprising. After all, the whole purpose is meant to reverse an old idea that gets in the way of a liberal objective.

The long-range purpose, however, is much more grand than mere piecemeal, as-needed reversal of old ideas. The goal is to strip the foundational document of all authority, leaving everything in the hands of whoever is in charge today. Nearly all liberals believe they are or soon will be in charge. They believe that history is a force in itself, that it is marching onward toward some ideal condition, and that it will steamroll anyone who gets in its way. Since they are “on the right side of history,” the power and influence they exercise today in service of that inevitable future must be free of ideas from the old, dead past.

For example, liberal politicians and judges determined that when the 4th and 14th Amendments were written (in the 18th and 19th centuries respectively), no one had anticipated the small but politically-charged demand for abortion on demand that would appear in the 20th Century. So it was necessary for liberals to infuse the old document with new, “living” ideas to bring it up to date and enable the novel result in Roe v. Wade.

Liberal Christians often claim that “sexual orientation” was unknown to either Moses and Paul when they recorded God’s condemnation of homosexual practice. To overcome this difficulty, the One Text noted above is sometimes applied to bring the Bible’s old ideas in line with this new idea. This is necessary because the One Text assures us that God wants everyone to be happy doing what they’re doing.

Another application of this strategy applies only to the Bible. According to this argument, the Bible was written by men who were just reflecting the prejudices of their time. in this view, the obvious fact that God knew about sexual orientation is irrelevant, as proven by the One Text.

Just Do It

The previous strategies are mostly employed by thinking liberals, both politicians and Christians, who fear their respective foundational documents may be important to the people they want to control or influence (or in the case of the Supreme Court, when it is necessary to find some sort of Constitutional justification for what they have decided is the Right Thing To Do).

But not all liberals think about such things. It is much quicker to just ignore the old ideas and forge ahead with whatever plan they have concocted to implement whatever new ideas they find appealing. This can be a very successful approach if the people they are trying to control or influence are ignorant of the foundational documents that are being corrupted – or for that matter, if the target audience doesn’t think much either.

Other Opponents of Old Ideas

There is another group that is showing signs of becoming similarly disabled. While there are no true documents to constrain them, some (perhaps many) scientists operate as though the foundations of their own enterprise – the scientific method and the necessity of reproducible results – no longer matter. This usually happens when the traditional practice of science produces alarming results that threaten their political objectives.

And there are the many celebrities who share the liberal contempt for old ideas. But the celebrity industry has no foundational principles at all and no inherent claim to wisdom, so their opinions are significant only in a culture enamored of entertainment and fame. Such a culture demands no real basis for claiming power and influence and most celebrities offer none.

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Why tithe? Why not?

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

Disclaimer: Although pastors may find my conclusion agreeable, none were consulted in the writing of this blog post. Nor am I trying to curry favor. The Senior Pastor of my church – with whom I have joyfully served and sometimes disagreed for nearly a decade – would surely absolve me of any charge of pandering. Smile 

[Note: While I quote from the 1984 edition of the NIV, links to Bible passages go to Biblegateway’s ESV, for reasons I give here.]

Tithing seems to be an endless debate among Christians – should we? Must we? I think the question is too narrow. The real question is “are Christians obliged to do anything?” If the answer is “Yes”, then we must ask whether tithing is one of the things Christians are obliged to do. There are Christians who take the most extreme position and, to the first question, simply answer “No”. End of discussion. Honestly, I think this answer – often given with the excuse that we have freedom in Christ – is nonsense that spans the entire unholy territory between license and cheap grace.

A more charitable explanation for answering “No” might be that it is meant to emphasize the stunning truth of grace without intending to cheapen it or equate it with license. Grace is arguably the greatest single distinctive of the Christian religion, but it doesn’t mean that Christians are without obligations. It means that we are forgiven when we fail to meet them. In fact, the words “obey”, “obedience”, and “obedient” appear 69 times in the New Testament (NIV 1984), with the majority calling for obedience to commands given by Jesus himself. You can see 5 of these instances in John 14:15-15:20.

[Note: The NIV 1984 renders the Greek word tēreō as “obey” while many other versions render it as “keep” or “observe”. I’m no scholar of ancient Greek, but since tēreō is so often used in conjunction with the word “commandment” – rather than, say, “suggestion” or “recommendation” – I think its meaning is clear enough for a layperson to proceed.]

Obedience to … what?

Obedience does not imply legalism. Legalism requires obedience to a specific set of rules, a list of do’s and don’ts. Legalism leaves no room for grace – follow the relevant rules and win God’s favor; break a rule intentionally or not and earn God’s wrath. But believers have been justified by God’s unmerited grace, so what does obedience mean to the Christian?

Obedience is not compulsory. To compel is “to force or drive, especially to a course of action” ( God never forces us to do anything.

We might soften the blow by reframing the question “what are Christians obliged to do?” and ask instead “what ought Christians to do?” But that’s really not much help: “ought; auxiliary verb meaning ‘used to express duty or moral obligation’”. ( Besides, such hair-splitting seems to be in the spirit of “what can I get by with?” rather than “how can I best live out my imperfect obedience to the sovereign Creator of the entire universe?”.

It has been said that “life is a sum of all your choices.” How do Christians make choices that reflect our relationship with God through Jesus? Christians are called to love God (e.g. Mark, Romans, and 1 Corinthians); we are admonished to “be holy” (e.g. Ephesians and 1 Peter). So we are called to make God-loving, holy choices.

We can trust the Holy Spirit to guide us in choosing, but need help recognizing his voice; the Bible is the standard for helping us distinguish the Spirit’s leading from the leading of spirits that would lead us astray. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the greatest value of studying the Bible is not so much to learn what to do in this situation or that, but to learn about God himself – who he is, what he has done, his character, his expectations, what is consistent with his character and what isn’t – i.e. to learn about what it means to be holy (and why we should try to be). Though our knowledge is imperfect, it enables us to make the best choices we can (or, in our rebellion, the best are willing to make) in circumstances the Bible never specifically addresses.

It seems to me that the Pharisees did not read their scriptures this way, that they didn’t approach them with the goal of understanding what the Law and Prophets told them about God himself. Rather, they read the scriptures as a bunch of do’s and don’ts and relied on human wisdom to puzzle out rules to cover behaviors that were outside the scope of the scriptures. Scripture’s scope isn’t a problem if you approach it with the purpose of knowing God because nothing in Creation is outside the range of his character and interest. Because the entire Bible reveals one Father God, the thoughtful follower must seek God’s character in both the Old and New Testaments. So what does tithing say about God?

You might be thinking that I have the question backward, that we should consult the Bible to see what God says about tithing. My answer is that looking for “must tithe” or “may tithe” or “mustn’t tithe” simply repeats the Pharisees’ error. Instead, let’s see what the Bible’s mentions of tithing tell us about God’s character. I suggest that from what those passages reveal, we can infer an attitude toward tithing that will help us make a Godly choice.

A working definition of “tithe”

Before we continue, we need to look at what the word “tithe” means. In both the Old and New Testaments, it is nearly synonymous with “one tenth”. So to tithe means for God’s people to set aside 10% for God’s use by whatever person or organization he has designated. In the Old Testament, it was the Levitical priesthood; in the New Testament, it is the Church Universal and its surrogates – local congregations and possibly denominations (see the first two paragraphs in this post about the PCUSA) and parachurch organizations.

That brings up the question “10% of what?”. A reasonable answer often heard is “to give 10% of one’s increase.” Unlike the Israelites, most Western Christians’ increase is in the form of monetary income, so we’ll use the common meaning of giving a tenth of one’s income to the church (I’ll leave it to others to figure out if that’s before or after taxes). Tithes are different from freewill gifts and offerings, a distinction found throughout the Bible – the former pastor of a little non-denominational church I attend when vacationing used to highlight the difference when he introduced the Offertory by inviting the ushers to collect “the Lord’s tithes and our gifts”.

On to the second question …

… is tithing is one of the things Christians are obliged to do?

Tithing by God’s people is obviously consistent with God’s character, so what reasons might there be to declare that tithing is excluded from our obligations – from our ought-tos, our duties, our obedience – to God? Why might we excuse ourselves from a form of submission that obviously pleases God?

Tithing is a remnant of the Mosaic Law which Jesus fulfilled on our behalf

That statement is true as far as it goes, except that tithing predates the Law of Moses:

After Abram [Abraham] returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand." Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14:17-20)

Melchizedek, though little is known about him, is especially noteworthy as a priestly representative of God Most High. He was the priest/king of Salem (Jerusalem); his name means “my king is righteous” or “king of righteousness” To bless Abram, he brought out what are essentially the elements of the Last Supper and of Communion, bread and wine. Further evidence of his worthiness to receive Abram’s tithe is that fact Jesus himself “has become a high priest forever, in [after] the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 6:20, also Psalm 110:4 and Hebrews 5:5-6)

It seems clear that in the Bible’s numerous references to bringing a tithe or tenth, God is telling us that 10% is an acceptable – and even expected – response to his providence and grace.

“God loves a cheerful giver”

Paul tells the Corinthians and us that “each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

The idea seems to be that as long as you’re happy with what you decide to give, God’s happy too. But let’s look at it in context. Paul is anticipating a “generous [and voluntary] gift” from the churches in Macedonia: “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (2 Corinthians 8:2):

So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to visit you in advance and finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given. Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:5-8)

This passage with its pleasant reference to the “cheerful giver” says nothing about tithing. It definitely doesn’t say that if the thought of giving God 10% of your increase makes you sad, angry, or frightened, you are entitled to find some other amount that makes you cheerful. We are free to “decide in [our] heart” what to give and we can decide in our heart whether to tithe. But that heart is not meant to be a selfish or greedy heart but a heart transformed by the Holy Spirit into a grateful and generous heart. God has equipped us – and continues to equip us – with not only a transformed heart but a renewed mind (Romans 12:2) so that we may grow spiritually and make decisions that are more God-loving and holy, “not reluctantly or under compulsion” but out of obedience and gratitude.

For all these reasons, I have come to believe that tithing – even for a Christian living under grace – is a God-loving, holy, and obedient choice.

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NIV 2011? No.

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

As a new forty-something Christian in 1989, I was introduced to the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, published in 1984. Our Senior Pastor recommended it, so when I went out to buy a Bible, I picked the NIV Study Bible. I found it readable and understandable. I didn’t get too hung up on whether it was a translation or a paraphrase or something in between. As a layman, I wasn’t qualified to evaluate the scholarship behind the various versions, so I consulted other versions, commentaries, and trusted Christian friends to guide my understanding of what I read in the NIV. In the intervening years, I’ve spent enough time reading, studying, discussing, and teaching the Bible that I have confidence in the usefulness and reliability of the 1984 NIV.

Not all of my reading and study time is spent with a print Bible. Over the years I have come to depend more on electronic forms, either online (e.g. or software installed on various devices, primarily E-Sword (Windows), AcroBible (Android), and PocketBible (most desktop and portable platforms). So when the 2011 edition of the NIV appeared online and as an option in my study apps, my curiosity was aroused.

As I read familiar passages in the 2011 edition, I noticed a very different tone. Part of it was unnecessary inclusive language that interfered with the literary flow of the text. Much of this language is just plain awkward, e.g. using they and their as singular pronouns. Such wording calls attention to itself instead of to the meaning of the text; it is the triumph of syntax over semantics.  But at least such foolishness doesn’t alter the fundamental meaning of the passage. Then I came across Matthew 15:25-28 in the 2011 edition. Here is how three older versions render the passage (emphasis added):

The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. He replied, "It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs." "Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table."  [NIV 1984]

Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” [NKJV]

Then the woman came back to Jesus, went to her knees, and begged. “Master, help me.” He said, “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.” She was quick: “You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table.” [The Message]

Then there’s this from the 2011 edition of the NIV (emphasis added):

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” [NIV 2011]

In the first three versions, the woman agrees with Jesus, accepts his analogy, and carries it a step further to explain her confidence that he could help her and might yet agree to do so. But in the 2011 edition, she directly contradicts Jesus and asserts that, as a matter of fact, it is right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.

This viewpoint rang a bell, reminding me of something I had seen a few years before in some PCUSA publication or web page. In her book Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels (2004), Frances Gench, feminist theologian and Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, quotes another writer, Susan Ringe: "In this story, however, [in contrast to Jesus’ usual exchanges with hostile questioners] it is Jesus who provides the hostile saying and the woman whose retort trips him up and corrects him." Gench adds (you can almost hear her chortle) "in other words, she delivers the punch line and trumps him!"

Seven years later, the new edition of the NIV provided a rendering of the passage that fits the feminist interpretation suggested by Gench and Ringe. Did the editors read Gench’s book? It’s impossible to believe they didn’t. Were they influenced by it? Obviously. No thanks; I’ll keep using the 1984 edition.

Thankfully, I had bought the NIV 1984 for all of the software I use, so I’ve been able to keep it on all my devices. Biblegateway offered the NIV 1984 as an option for a while, but now you can only read the NIV in the 2011 version. I don’t bother; if a link sends me to a passage on their site, I read the ESV instead. Fortunately, print versions of the 1984 are available at I don’t think software vendors are allowed to sell the NIV 1984 any longer.

Note: After writing this, I spent a little time Googling. Suffice to say, I’m not the first to find problems with Zondervan/Biblica’s politically correct cash cow.

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“Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship.”

Friday, March 23rd, 2018

This slogan has been bugging me lately. It didn’t come from the Bible. Yet it’s an idea that is often expressed by sincere, well-meaning Christians who (I think) intend to convey the centrality of a saving relationship with Jesus. But both halves of this statement are deeply flawed. Christianity is more than the requisite relationship; it’s a religion.

[Note: I’ve included Scripture links here, not to prooftext or portray myself as an expert (I’m not), but for the benefit of any who might not recognize the source of the Biblical terms or ideas presented here. The sources presented are mostly just samples and are by no means exhaustive.]


A saving relationship with Jesus is certainly the only path to salvation (John 14:6), but we – and new believers in particular – need to clearly understand what that relationship is, how it comes about, and what it means once we enter into it.

First, let’s look at a more familiar human relationship, marriage: One person initiates contact with another, names and phone numbers are exchanged, invitations for coffee or a movie or a royal ball ensue, romance blossoms, a proposal is made and accepted, plans are made, and the two are joined in marriage. What’s important to see is that by getting married, they enter into a covenant that, once entered, produces a change of state from single to married; There is no in-between – they are in either the single state or the married state. Having entered it, the couple remain in the married state until death or divorce ends the marriage.

The formation of a saving relationship with Jesus is similar but also very different. All of the actions are undertaken (Romans 5:8) and brought to completion by God, not humans (John 19:30). God makes the initial contact and God “proposes” to us. God consummates the relationship by his grace and we are born again (Ephesians 2:8-9, 1 Peter 1:23, Titus 3:5). At that moment, Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to us, an event called justification. We enter at once into a covenant that produces a change of state from cursed to justified (2 Corinthians 5:21). We are no longer God’s enemies, we are now his children. There’s no in-between – we are in either the cursed state or the justified state. Having entered into the justified state, not even death or divorce can send us back to our previous cursed state (Romans 8:38-39). It is finished.

But being in a relationship means much more than entering into a new state; our lives should reflect our changed state. Married people don’t go on living as if they were still single – at least not if they want a healthy marriage. And the Bible tells us very clearly that justified people shouldn’t go on living as if they were still cursed. Jesus wants us to abide (“remain”) in him (John 15:4), to go beyond the moment of justification to actively participate in an ongoing process of sanctification, by which the Holy Spirit works within us to conform us to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29). Being a Christian – being a disciple of Jesus – begins when God brings us into that relationship with Jesus, but it doesn’t end there. To be effective ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), we need religion.


Somehow, the idea that Jesus hates religion has been working its way through the Church like the yeast of the Pharisees. An early proponent of this extraordinary claim was an Internet sensation named Jeff Bethke. He posted a video rap entitled “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus”. It was mostly nonsense but contained enough harmful ideas that I was moved to comment on it here. In that post, I explained why, if the word religion has any standard, generally-accepted meaning* (and is not merely a convenient straw man invented to launch an Internet career), Christianity is most definitely a religion. If the reader will pardon the vanity of quoting myself, I wrote that

Jesus selected and taught the apostles. He picked his own theologian (Saul), renamed him Paul, personally trained him, sent him out to plant churches, and inspired him to write letters explaining the Christian religion to them. Paul wrote about both doctrine (grace, salvation, the sacraments, and much more) and such practicalities as accountability, church governance, and the qualifications of elders and deacons. I don’t understand why Jesus thought those were good things if religion is a bad thing. When he ascended into Heaven, Jesus left behind an organization complete with a mission statement.

Since that post, I’ve thought more about ways that Christianity looks suspiciously like a religion:

But why do we need a Christian religion? After all, when we are saved, the Holy Spirit takes up permanent residence to begin the work of sanctification (Romans 8:11). The Holy Spirit knows everything there is to know about how we should live, so can’t we just let the Spirit lead us and do what we feel led to do? Do we really need all that other stuff? For that matter, do we really need Scripture? The answer, of course, is a resounding Yes! (Romans 7:21-23) Why? Because we are led by lots of spirits in many directions, and we just aren’t wise or holy enough to always recognize the leading of the one true Spirit. To “feel led” carries the risk of being led by emotions, not by God’s will. Jesus knew that; he knew our tendency to go astray; he knew our true nature. So he gave us a religion to help us live out our new life in him.

Good milk, bad milk

No one would claim that the existence of milk that has been adulterated with arsenic justifies a condemnation of all milk. Yet the most common defense of this slogan is that Jesus spoke against the religion of the Pharisees. Another is that the Old Testament contains many condemnations of Israel’s religious practices following the Exodus and the giving of the Law. But in neither case was the sincere desire to practice the Law ever condemned. The religion was never the problem; it was how people practiced it that was the problem. Just as a mother provides pure milk for the health, growth, and wellbeing of her child, it was pure religion – both the Law and the religion that Jesus entrusted to the Church – that was given to the Jews and to us for our spiritual health, growth, and wellbeing.

And, of course, Jesus was never critical of his own religious legacy outlined above.


* “The service and adoration of God or a god as expressed in forms of worship, in obedience to divine commands, esp. as found in accepted sacred writings or as declared by recognized teachers and in pursuit of a way of life regarded as incumbent on true believers.” (Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd Edition)

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Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015

Update: A related view from Daniel O. Conkle, professor, Indiana University Maurer School of Law

The Indiana legislature has passed the Religious Freedom Restoration act, producing the expected mass hysteria among Democrats and other anti-religious progressives. The bill is substantially the same as the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), signed into law in 1993 by that well-known conservative Republican bigot, Bill Clinton. It is worth noting that the Republic has endured and gay activism has flourished in the 21 years since the federal law was enacted.

What the law prohibits

Except as provided in subsection (b) [next paragraph], a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.

(b) A governmental entity may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if the governmental entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest

In short, governmental entities in Indiana are now compelled to conform to the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion. Indiana courts must now apply the same legal test required in the RFRA, providing essentially the same protection at the state level.

It’s interesting – but hardly surprising – that the same people who attack state definitions of “marriage” in federal courts think states should be empowered to deny related rights guaranteed by the same federal courts.

A “disgusting” law

I was recently told by a friend that this law is “disgusting”. This got me thinking about the mindset of the law’s emotional but not especially reasonable opponents. Why is the guarantee of a cherished right – one that predated the Constitution and is embodied in it – so offensive?

From what I’ve observed in discussions with such people – including my disgusted friend – they seem to be mostly agnostics, atheists, Wiccans, or people with vague Oprah-like spiritual urges. Some have a loose association with orthodox Christianity or another religious tradition which they neither believe in nor practice. Still others identify with a religion but practice only the agreeable parts – usually the parts that don’t get in the way of sexual license or other earthly pleasures.

Whatever ones philosophical framework or world view, we all possess some sort of ethical structure based on it. That ethical structure provides motivation, justification, and evaluative criteria for the choices we make and the things we do or decline to do.

It’s obvious that opponents’ ethical structures do not include respect for the needs and motivations of people with deeply held, systematic religious belief or a moral system derived from that belief. It clearly does not include space to allow religious people to exercise their faith when to do so appears in opposition to the opinions or principles of the opponents.

They also seem to have no systematic approach to balancing compelling public needs and private rights. Or if they do, they are just biased in favor of public needs that don’t bother them personally and don’t interfere what they think are their rights.

This is nothing new, of course. This tension has existed throughout human history, sometimes worse on one side, sometimes worse on the other. The problem was well-known when the Constitution was being written. The First Amendment exists because its authors understood both the tyranny of the King and the tyranny of the majority.

In short, they saw a need to protect people like me from people like the law’s opponents.

The purpose of constitutions 

The Constitution’s writers attempted to solve the problem by differentiating between the public person – that sphere of each citizen’s life subject to the coercive force of government, and the private person – protected from that coercive force administered on behalf of an electoral majority. [This idea was originally articulated by John Schaar.] Constitutions exist for the purpose of delineating the public person, leaving the remainder – whatever it may consist of – to the control of the private person.

Indeed, one of the original objections to the Bill of Rights was that it attempted to specify parts of this remainder that must be reserved for the private person. The fear was that proponents of a powerful national government would claim that a right not specified in the Constitution was not protected and could be trampled at will. But that’s not a problem here where the free exercise of religion is specifically named in the first article of the Bill of Rights.

Our Constitution could be said to do nothing more than to establish a political system with sufficient power to preserve the nation – the sum of all the public persons – while paradoxically guarding the sovereignty and natural rights of each private person. As noted, it explicitly places the free exercise of religion in the realm of the private person. Its authors intended – and, until recently, courts have agreed – that the diminution of the private person is permissible only if it can be shown that leaving the private person intact would impose a heavy and unreasonable burden on the public (i.e., a hardship on the majority of public persons); that is the essence of this disgusting new law’s legal test.

The Constitutional crisis of the past 70 years or so has resulted from the national government’s insatiable lust to expand the public person and correspondingly shrink the private person. The Framers anticipated this force and took what steps they could to frustrate it. They were naive enough to believe that future generations would grasp the nature and purposes of the Constitution’s protections and would demand their preservation. They did not anticipate the fatal combination of voters who neither know nor value what they have been given and the collusion of well-educated cynics who see the political tide flowing their way and are prepared to toss away permanently any barriers to that temporary flow.

The Constitution has great value, both to the religious and the non-religious, and even to the militantly anti-religious. It created a remarkable country, a nation that despite its flaws and errors has been a beacon of freedom to the entire world for most of its existence. But the light is fading, being slowly snuffed out by the ignorance, pragmatism, and selfishness of its citizens and by the cancerous growth of the government they have chosen to have rule them

A Christian’s temptation

Naturally, there is a part of me that would like to see an orthodox Christian President, Congress, and Supreme Court running the national government with all its newly-acquired power, running it as passionately and ruthlessly as those who usurped that power do now. There is a part of me that would enjoy the squealing of people suddenly feeling the unfamiliar weight of the over-bearing government they had created. There is a part of me that would smirk while they appealed to a Constitution they had rendered impotent, hoping that it could now somehow restore the lost private person and relieve the pain of being the public person the government suddenly requires them to be.

But that part of me is the very part that Jesus wants to root out and destroy. The vengeance of such a government – and the schadenfreude of a Christian who reveled in it – would destroy the best of what he wants of his disciples, not the worst. Jesus ran no government, coerced no one, levied no taxes, sought no earthly kingdom. All he did was die for everyone who would accept his authority over all earthly powers – including themselves.

In the long run, Christians don’t require political protections, including this law. Christianity flourishes where it is most ruthlessly oppressed, whether in ancient Rome or modern China. It offers freedom that no government can guarantee, no matter how liberal (in the classic sense) or well-intended it may have been.

No, the value of this law is not that it may occasionally protect Christians who choose obedience to their consciences. The value is that protects a fundamental right that ultimately profits every citizen.

Yes, it offends me that opponents of this law often endorse – and practice – political and social bullying of Christians and other people of faith. It occasionally surprises me that the bullies can be so lacking in self-awareness that they can’t see the hypocrisy of demanding tolerance while refusing to extend it. But what offends me most is our society’s willingness to abandon its heritage and leave its children to the whim of whatever party comes to power or to the boundless ambition of the next charismatic leader who promises to singlehandedly “transform America”.

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Prayer request: Islamic butchers of ISIS

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

I received this prayer request this morning; I’ve redacted names lest anyone be placed in even greater danger.

Prayer Request from [redacted] missionaries who are in the areas that are being attacked by ISIS are asking to be showered in prayer. ISIS has taken over the town they are in today. He said ISIS is systematically going house to house to all the Christians and asking the children to denounce Jesus. He said so far not one child has. And so far all have consequently been killed. But not the parents. The UN has withdrawn and the missionaries are on their own. They are determined to stick it out for the sake of the families – even if it means their own deaths. They are very afraid, have no idea how to even begin ministering to these families who have had seen their children martyred. Yet he says he knows God has called them for some reason to be His voice and hands at this place at this time. Even so, they are begging for prayers for courage to live out their vocation in such dire circumstances. And like the children, accept martyrdom if they are called to do so.  These brave parents instilled such a fervent faith in their children that they chose martyrdom. Please surround them in their loss with your prayers for hope and perseverance.

One missionary was able to talk to her brother briefly by phone. She didn’t say it, but I believe she believes it will be their last conversation. Pray for her too. She said he just kept asking her to help him know what to do and do it. She told him to tell the families we ARE praying for them and they are not alone or forgotten — no matter what.  Please keep them all in your prayers.
This came this morning… [source redacted] "We lost the city of Queragosh (Qaraqosh). It fell to ISIS and they are beheading children systematically. … ISIS has pushed back Peshmerga (Kurdish forces) and is within 10 minutes of [redacted]. Thousands more fled into the city of Erbil last night. The UN evacuated its staff in Erbil. Our team is unmoved and will stay. Prayer cover needed!" Please pray sincerely for the deliverance of the people of Northern Iraq from the terrible advancement of ISIS and its extreme Islamic goals for mass conversion or death for Christians across this region.

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