Archive for the ‘Personal’ 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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Links our overlords don’t like

Saturday, October 30th, 2021

Posts with links to external web sites don’t always get posted on Facebook. I created this page to avoid telling FB what I’d like you to read.

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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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O frabjous day!*

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

The Curmudgeon is back! And someone has produced an open source version of the defunct Windows Live Writer, my favorite tool for writing blog posts. And it’s Spring! I’m sure I’ll have something important to say soon….

*"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish boy! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

— Lewis Carrol, The Jabberwocky

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Why I don’t hate Jesus’ religion

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

I started to write a response to the video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” shortly after it appeared, but never got around to posting it. The video turned up on my Facebook timeline this morning, so I guess it’s still getting views. That being the case, I decided to freshen up the post and belatedly publish my thoughts. My comments are based on a transcript since I grew up reading, not watching videos.

This video – the work of a man named Jeff Bethke – has had more than 27 million views on YouTube. As a Christian (that is, an adherent of the Christian religion), I find his love of Jesus admirable. Beyond that, I’m not quite sure what he’s trying to say. I know I don’t understand the title of his video. Maybe it was just meant to be catchy – a title that might send a video viral and get a lot of attention. It worked.

A catchy title is one thing, but I don’t understand the content either. To be clear, I know who Jesus is and why Jeff might love him. It’s the hatred of religion, including, apparently, the Christian religion, that I can’t quite fathom. Perhaps a starting point would be to define what it is that he hates. Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd Edition (in my and many others’ opinions the best paper dictionary) gives us a good working definition:

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.

If Jeff has made up his own definition of religion to rail against, then there’s no point in responding. But I assume he understands the word to mean something like the definition above.

I’d like to answer some of the questions Jeff asks and challenge a couple of his claims.

Jeff: What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?

Grumpy: I’d ask you where you got the notion that Jesus came to abolish “the service and adoration of God” and “obedience to divine commands … in pursuit of a way of life regarded as incumbent on true believers.” My Bible says Jesus came to encourage those things, not abolish them.

Jeff: What if I told you voting Republican really wasn’t his mission?

Grumpy: I’d wonder if maybe you were under the mistaken impression that voting Democrat (or Green or Whig, or some other party) was his mission.

Jeff: What if I told you “Republican” doesn’t automatically mean “Christian”?

Grumpy: I’d remind you that "Democrat", "minister", "poet", "wife", “student”, and "cowboy" don’t automatically mean “Christian” either; then I’d ask why you’re obsessed with Republicans.

Jeff: And just because you call some people “blind” doesn’t automatically give you vision?

Grumpy: Neither does it mean the blind have vision. I assume you’re talking about spiritual blindness. Are you promoting blindness? Or discouraging the recognition of it in either ourselves or others? The Bible doesn’t encourage spiritual blindness and it doesn’t direct us to either ignore or affirm spiritual blindness.

Jeff: I mean, if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars?

Grumpy: Jeff, you have fallen for a secular myth; the reality is that religion has played only a minor role in starting wars. If you think about it, religion can’t really do anything. Only people – sometimes acting as they believe their religion directs them [see definition above] – can do things like start wars. If that’s what you mean, I’d ask you, if religion is so bad, why did adherents of the Christian religion abolish the slave trade in England? Why did Christian religious organizations establish countless medical missions in Africa? Why are they so quick to respond with help in places like Haiti or Japan or the Gulf Coast or Joplin, Missouri, or Indonesia?

Maybe some religions promote war while others promote peace. Maybe some religions spread through murder and conquest while others spread through martyrdom and sacrifice.

Jeff: Why does it build huge churches but fails to feed the poor?

Grumpy: Another good question and here’s yet another – why does it sometimes build modest buildings or none at all and feed the poor, the homeless, the displaced, and the refugee? Why do you think it’s a zero-sum game? Don’t you believe God’s resources are sufficient to build dedicated houses of worship that express his grandeur and feed the poor?

Jeff: Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever had a divorce?

Grumpy: Or welcome them and their children and provide help, support, and encouragement? Do you honestly mean to say that you’ve never seen anyone who embraces the Christian religion do these things? If you haven’t, you need to get out more.

Jeff: But in the Old Testament God actually calls religious people “whores”. Religion might preach grace, but another thing they practice.

Grumpy: You’ve discovered hypocrites. Congratulations. You’ve doubtless found them in churches. You’ll find them on street corners and all over the internet; you’ll find them on YouTube. You’ll even find them among the most ardent lovers and followers of Jesus.

Jeff: Now back to the point: One thing is vital to mention, how Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums. See, one’s the work of God, but one’s a man-made invention

Grumpy: A “man-made invention”? 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. At least that’s what my Bible says.

Jeff, you say you love the Church. But you hate the structure that Jesus left behind to preserve, guide, and grow it. You exhibit a trendy cynicism about “organized religion” that seems to arise from an inability to separate the structure from the jars of clay Jesus entrusted it to.

Jeff: See this was me, too, but no one seemed to be on to me, actin’ like church kid while addicted to pornography. See, on Sunday I’d go to church, but Saturday gettin’ faded, actin’ as if I was simply created to just have sex and get wasted. See, I spent my whole life buildin’ this façade of neatness.

Grumpy: This seems to be an indictment of your own hypocrisy – passing as a “church kid” while denying in your life everything the Church stands for – not the religion of Jesus Christ. Do you actually hold that religion responsible for your sins? Still, it couldn’t have been a complete failure – that religion introduced you to Jesus.

A final note: I doubt this video did anything to reform those parts of the Church that need reforming, but it may have misled some Christians into believing that the Church is Jesus’ enemy. I’m pretty sure Satan enjoys the idea that the religion Jesus created – the service and adoration of God as expressed in forms of worship, in obedience to divine commands, esp. as found in the Bible – should be scorned by his followers. And the video seems to have launched a career in social media and YouTube consulting for Jeff. I was going to read some of his blog posts, but they turned out to be videos too.

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