Teaching Forgetable Bible Classes and Redefining Success

The world throws so much data at us that we now forget more than the average person consumed 10-20 years ago. This has a direct impact on our teaching. How many Bible classes do you specifically remember over the last 5-10 years? If your answer is, not very many, it shows us that the goal of Bible class cannot be purely the retaining of data. I don’t think the answer is ever going to be that 100% of what we teach is retained. That is just not possible. I do believe that it is easy to frame this issue in an unrealistic manner and then come to some invalid conclusions. It is impossible to remember everything you have been taught. I studied for hundreds and hundreds of tests in college that I memorized thousands of pages of information for. Ask me questions from my notes and I doubt my % of recall would be all that high. That is not all bad. That is to be expected. The question is, what did that information do to me? If it helped me grow, mature, handle tougher challenges, etc then it was useful.

If we are teaching information for the sake of those in class retaining all of it we will fail. But if we teach toward transformation and spiritual growth, even when the specific details of the information have faded, the effect is still there. So while you don’t remember all the classes you have been a part of in a given congregation there is no doubt that some of those classes have had a profound impact on the way you live, the way you see the world, the way you serve, the way you treat others, etc. It is imperative that the goal of our teaching is not information retention. That is a losing game. But if our goal is transforming the lives of those present one step at a time, success is just that much more attainable.

Toward the end of the Gospel of John, John tells us why he recorded all those events,

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” – John 20:30-31

John says that he wants the reader to understand the information but that is not the end game. He wants that understanding to have a profound impact on the life of the reader by bringing them true life through Jesus Christ. That is transformation. So when you prepare a Bible class, sermon, or small group lesson ask yourself this, “When this lesson is over how will it lead toward one small or large piece of transformation in the lives of those present?” When we start thinking and creating things through that filter we will have more success.

More on information vs. transformation here – The Information to Transformation Shift


Review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins (Part 4)

Chapter 2: Here is the New There

This chapter had a lot more going for it than chapter one. There were a lot more moments I was in total agreement with him than I had been in the preface and in chapter one. I really like the point he was making that heaven really isn’t about pie in the sky by and by when we die but has a lot more to it than that,

“Are there other ways to think about heaven, other than as that perfect floating shiny city hanging suspended there in the air above that ominous red and black realm with all that smoke and steam and hissing fire?” I say yes, there are. (26)”

I agree. That is a vision of heaven worthy of deconstruction. It is not really the picture of heaven we find in scripture nor does it represent the purpose of heaven as outlined in scripture very well either. I particularly like the way he made the point that if we view eternal life correctly that it will improve our ethics. I needed that reminder. If you have kept up with N.T. Wright and others some of these points were really review but I thought he communicated that there is more to heaven than we have given credit in the past.

He starts the chapter with a smattering of things people think are important about heaven. He doesn’t offer any real commentary here other than make the point that what people are curious about heaven is varied. He talks about heaven from the perspective of where it is (p.23-24) to who will or won’t be there (again…no answer here yet, just saying this is what people are curious about – p.25), and from who to what do we have to do take part (p.28) and last from what to when does this take place (p.30). These are all narratives people have that give meaning to or take meaning away from what they think heaven or eternal life will be like. This book is about having the right narrative and the central narrative in this chapter is from Matthew 19/Luke 18 about the rich young man who asked Jesus what he needed to do to receive eternal life (aionios in Greek). Before he tackles that question with what Jesus did answer he takes a little potshot at the typical Christian response to that question by examining what we might expect Jesus to say, as Christians, but was not actually said by Jesus. But here he makes a category mistake. He writes,

“He’ll show the man how eternal life isn’t something he has to earn or work for; it’s a free gift of grace. Then he’ll invite the man to confess, repent, trust, accept and believe that Jesus has made a way for him to have a relationship with God. Like any good Christian would.” (p.27).

The difficult I have with this is you have Jesus, a Jew, teaching another Jew, who is under the Law, what living as God intended is all about. Rather than read it and interpret it in its historical, cultural or religious context he takes opportunity to blast what mainstream Christians believes the Bible teaches about salvation.

Now, I do agree with Bell’s assessment that what Jesus was doing was changing the man’s heart so he could embrace that kind of life. That is because we aren’t waiting to die to begin experiencing eternal life. The thing we are waiting for, as Christians, is for God’s kingdom to fully break in and God to redeem us but new life has already begun (2 Cor 5:17). Bell highlights the Greek word found in Luke 18:30 “Aion” that is often translated as “eternity.” He says it can mean one of two things: 1) a definitive period of time that has a beginning and an end (p. 32) or an “intensity of experience that transcends time” (p.57). It is possible to translate that word as an “age” which is a set period of time with a beginning and an end. That is not the primary definition but it is one possible definition. The primary definition according to BDAG (one of the best lexicons out there) is “a long period of time without reference to beginning or end” (BDAG, p.32).I cannot find any reference material that says anything close to his second definition. It appears to me that in an effort to swing the pendulum back to the fact that eternal life should really impact us here and now that Bell twists a few things here to fit his presuppositions (the old Procrustean bed approach). So he pushes for the second definition and leaves out what linguists and Greek scholars have deemed the primary definition of the word entirely to emphasize a point that may not really be in the text at all.

Also, he seems to confuse (or at least mix together carelessly) aion and aionios (a word that has to do with a long period of time, basically eternity and is often modified by the word zoe, which means life = eternal or everlasting life). The example he uses from Matt 19/Luke 18 to make his point about aion doesn’t use that word at all in 18:18. It only uses it in 18:30. 18:18 is the word aionios. So he is picking these things apart and is fine tuning definitions of words that aren’t really core to the verses he is choosing to illuminate those words. He would make a fine statistician but that doesn’t make for good theology. It is important that we get this right because eternity and eternal life are important concepts. Why else right a book about it. So we have to be accurate and fair with these things. I hope I am being fair with him on this. If someone sees this different who knows the languages better than I do feel free to correct me on this.

Next he tackles heaven. He defines heaven as meaning one of three things: 1) a word used in place of God’s name for the Jews, 2) the “future coming together of heaven and earth” (p.58) or 3) our “present, eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come.” (p.58-59). I am not certain what verses he would cite in favor of #3. I think he is reading that into the text in Luke 18 that it is what Jesus is calling this man to. The man didn’t ask for what he needed to do to have more joy or peace or love…those things do characterize eternal life but they are not the definition of what heaven is.

The Bible and Bell are clear that there is an “already but not yet” component of eschatology (study of end times). I agree. I think Bell is trying to swing the pendulum here a bit. In the church we tend to give a ton of emphasis to the “not yet” part of eternal life – living with God, no more tears or death, etc. But we don’t always do a good job of connecting that to the “already” components of eternal life 0 “all spiritual blessing” (Eph 1:3), God working all things out for the good, fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5), etc. We need both. I think he is trying to make a corrective here to help us understand eternal life is not just about waiting to die and go to heaven but that it should have a real impact here and now. I agree but I think in his corrective he overshoots a bit and it almost sounds like it is almost all about now and very little about later. I also agree with Bell that there is more continuity to eternal life than we often talk about. But there is still a separation that is very real. Why else would God’s kingdom need to break in here someday if there was 100% continuity between here and there and why would Jesus need to pray for God’s will to be done here as it is there if the two were basically the same? Why else have two aions? (p.32).

Last, I want to point out the difficulty this book has with keeping things in context. He makes a lot of points about how the prophets talked about God reigning on the earth and the earthly implications of the messianic reign.The point made in the prophets was that God was up to something and the big climax of history was going to be God making things right with the world or the “entire universe” (p.32). He goes on to quote from Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Amos to show that God was interested in all people and that what God was ushering in was on the earth. As Rex has pointed out on his blog Bell is really good at pulling scripture from its context and pointing it any number of directions except where the author seemed to intend based on careful study and interpretation. I am not saying Bell hasn’t studied these things careful. It just feels like he is not presenting them with as much care (in my opinion).

For instance, on pages 32-33 he cites a bunch of verses from the prophets. He doesn’t mention much of these words had to do with the exile and returning (although I do get dual fulfillment and believe that is a possibility here). He also doesn’t tell you that in all these verses about God reigning and people being blessed here on the earth that at the same time there is judgment and destruction right there in the context. He is stressing the inclusivity of God’s reign as the prophets used phrases like “all people’s” and “everybody”. But on some people God says he will bring disaster (Isa 3:9-11), the wicked will be slain (Isa 11:2) and slay those who oppressed his people (Isa 10:10-16). In the same verses that talk about the salvation of people (Isa 25:7-9) are verses that talk about God crushing other people (vs. 10) but he stops a verse short. I am only including chapters that he cited in the book here and didn’t cite any verses way off somewhere else in these prophets. So which is it? Will all people, everywhere, be blessed? Sounds like some receive judgment and destruction. There are many other examples of this but I will stop here.

But that brings up the point of God’s judgment in scripture. Bell deals with that some on pages 37-39. Basically what he says is that God will not stand for injustice. He will bring judgment upon that. So judgment is real. He says, “God acts, Decisively. On behalf of everybody who’s ever been stepped on by the machine, exploited, abused, forgotten or mistreated. God puts an end to it. God says, “enough” (p.38-39). I agree but how often are we, ourselves, the one doing the stomping? How often do we take advantage of people? How often do we sin and rebel? Sin is not just about powerful organizations or evil systemic machines. It touches all of us. Some choose to partner with God in his redemptive acts (p.36) while others continue to destroy and rape and kill others. Is there room for both or is God’s wrath, destruction and slaying a slap on the wrist?

Last on context, he tells the story of the rich young man but doesn’t address Jesus concern for the ability of the rich to enter the kingdom (Matt 19:23-24). He alludes to the parable of the banquet and the surprising action of the host to invite those least expected to attend. But he doesn’t tell you about those the master got angry with and said they would never have room at the table for them (Luke 14:24). Why not tell the whole story? Instead, Bell is focused on everyone being at the table but the Bible is clear that the opposite is true (at least that is how I read this chapter…anyone disagree?).

So we have three things going on here if you boil it all down: You have eternal life that we aren’t waiting for because it begins when God renews and restores us as Christians and continues on after we die. We have talk about God’s kingdom and how it will break into this world and begin a new age. And we have heaven and how it fits into space and time. At the end of it all there were some good take away points about kingdom living and whether or not we are living lives that actually embrace God’s calling on us here and now. But in swinging the pendulum so hard it seems the pendulum knocked over several other biblical concepts and ignored many contexts, that seemed to be teaching the opposite of the points he made, along the way. It is hard to find balance when someone writes a book in reaction to theology/views they disagree with.

Review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins (Part 3)

Chapter 1: What About the Flat Tire?

It seems to me the purpose of this chapter is to deconstruct as many things as possible and leave the reader pretty discombobulated. Maybe that is because that is where many people already are and he is trying to resonate with people who have some of these same serious questions but don’t know how to come to solid conclusions. Or maybe there is another reason (see the last few sentences of this post for my guess on that one). The gist of his questions in this chapter goes something like this:

  • How is one “saved”?
  • Why some people and not others?
  • Can a loving God send billions of people to hell?
  • Is my salvation dependent on someone other than myself (If I depend on someone to preach it to me, etc)?
  • What happens to someone who dies the day after they turn whatever age God has defined as the “age of accountability”? Would it have been different if they had died the day before? (His question assumes this is a fixed point in time and not a process)
  • What happens to non-Christians who act more like Christians than some Christians?
  • Which Jesus are we supposed to believe in and…
  • What if the Jesus someone gets presented does not accurately reflect the one we find in scripture? Is that their fault for not believing in Jesus if his followers don’t portray him properly?
  • How is one saved…by faith or works or grace or a prayer or baptism?
  • “What if the missionary gets a flat tire?”

There are many more but that pretty much hits the root of it all. What all this boils down to, in my opinion, is whether salvation is up to us or if it is up to God? Bell sure knows how to ask the questions that will lead you the direction he wants you to go. In some cases that is a good thing. Some places I appreciated his questions and it really got me examining things and trying to expand my own view of God’s grace. But in other places it was ill-conceived and showed a gross misunderstanding of what sin and salvation are all about as a whole.

Here are two examples that fit in the ill conceived category for me. I would balance this with a few of his better questions but I would rather just be critical and judgmental of the book. Just kidding! On page 3 he tells the story about a young woman who was killed in  an accident. A Christian asks if she was a Christian. When they learn she was an atheist the Christian’s response is, “So there’s no hope.” From that statement Bell responds, “No hope? Is that the Christian message? No hope? Is that what Jesus offers the world? Is the sacred calling of Christians-to announce that there’s no hope?” (p.3-4). Bell’s point is that there should be hope for all. This young lady did have hope. She had Jesus dying for her sins. She had God pulling for her to put her faith in Him. She had all kinds of hope if she would just recognize it. There is no line between saying she died and has no hope and saying that she never had hope at all.

Bell is all about choosing his stories wisely and which stories from life and scripture to include or exclude. To be fair we all do this. I can’t help but wonder how comfortable Bell would be with inserting the story of the rich man and Lazarus right about here in his book and then see how he unpacks it. He is all about honest inquiry and tough questions. So what if we brought up another narrative? How would he deal with what Jesus taught in Luke 16 that everyone has hope while alive on earth. The Christian message is a message of hope. But if one dies in rebellion to God Jesus taught that there is no more hope. That is not my opinion. That is what Jesus taught. Bell is saying that to agree that there is such a thing as hell and judgment is to say that anyone who ends up there never had any hope. He is then making the connection that if that is the case then our mission as Christians would be to preach a hopeless message. I can’t help but wonder if he has totally disconnected himself from what the New Testament teaches about salvation at all. It it not either all have hope for all eternity or none have hope ever. There is a third option and that option is a biblical one. But he doesn’t touch that because, although it is scriptural and a point Jesus made, it doesn’t advance his thesis. That is upsetting but it is even more upsetting because he is the one who said we need to be open an open and honest discussion about these matters and be challenged in them but finds no room to take on these stories that challenge his main points. Maybe he does that later and I am not there yet but I haven’t seen it yet. And I don’t expect an author to tackle every opposing point of view along the way. That is not reasonable. But what I am trying to do here is take Bell’s point of choosing the right stories to tell and show that if you do that it can actually point away from what he is trying to communicate rather than forward his main points. I guess I am deconstructing his deconstruction.

Let me give you another example. Bell totally misses or at least drives right by the whole interplay in scripture between grace, faith and works. He writes, “If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him – a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works or good deeds – and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren’t those verbs? And aren’t verbs actions?…Does that mean, then that going to heaven is dependent on something I do? How is any of that grace? How is that a gift? How is that good news?” (p.11)

It all makes me wonder, and I ask this carefully because I am not far enough in the book to really address this fairly, but if God is going to win everyone over by love…won’t that mean that ultimately every single person who ever lived would accept God, confess God, and believe in the end? I ask that carefully because that is where I hear Bell is going with this but I haven’t read far enough to see it for my own eyes. In other words, it seems to me like his own explanation for the alternative he is pushing would result in all of these things he seems to be saying just don’t fit the gospel or what salvation is all about.

What he seems to be missing is that in no way does belief or confession or baptism or any of the rest of it warrant or earn Jesus on the cross or an empty tomb. God didn’t look down on us and say, “Well they are going to believe this is for real so that means they earned you going son, get to it.” Our confession didn’t twist God’s arm or force God’s hand into saving us. It is all a gift. These actions are reactions. They are re-sponses to what God has already done. Surely he knows that. He goes on to write,

“Isn’t that what Christians have always claimed set their religion apart…that you don’t have to do anything, because God has already done it through Jesus Christ.” (p.11)

I don’t mean to sound harsh here but I just don’t know what version of the New Testament he is studying from. Has he read the Sermon on the Mount? I am trying really hard to not be defensive. I know how annoying that can be when you are reading a review and I don’t want you to hear me that way. There is a difference between doing acts of righteousness to earn our salvation and the things God calls us to do as followers of Jesus Christ. Discipleship is about following, doing, loving, etc…right? Didn’t God call us to lots of actions? What Jesus has already done is to defeat sin and Satan and death…we don’t do that on our own through belief or baptism. God does it. So I am thrown off by his remark that somehow Christians want to teach we don’t have to do anything but then teach a list of to do’s as earners of anything.

Then Bell writes something that nearly made me laugh out loud,

“At this point another voice enters the discussion – the reasoned, wise voice of the one who reminds us that it is, after all, a story. Just read the story, because a good story has a powerful way of rescuing us from abstract theological discussions that can tie us up in knots for years. Excellent point.” (p.12).

Who is this well reasoned, wise voice making an excellent point? Are we to assume this is Rob or God or Ghandi or who? Sorry if that sounds obnoxious. I am trying really, really hard not to do that. I just can’t believe he actually put that in the book. So let me deconstruct that a bit. Just read which story? Read the one about the rich man and Lazarus where the rich man is in eternal torment and cannot be reached and has no hope (Luke 16)? Read the story where Jesus teaches that if you struggle with lust you better pluck out your eye before you end up in hell due to your rebellion and sin (Mtt 5:29)? Or maybe he is referring to the story about Jesus sending out the twelve and he tells them it is possible for both your body and soul to be destroyed in hell (Mtt 10:28). Would he have us read the story about God’s judgment of the dead in Revelation 20:11-15? If anyone is an expert at abstract theological discussions that can tie us up for years I think we know at this point that Bell is a master at that.

Last, he turns to a dozen or so stories from the New Testament that show how different people responded and asks what God is really after in our lives. He comes to the point of saying maybe we are to just believe. But then believe what? Believe who Jesus is? Well, who did they think Jesus was? So he points to different conclusions people had about who Jesus was in order to say maybe even that was confusing when Jesus was right there for them to see and hear in the flesh. The problem is, people really did get Jesus. They got him loud and clear. Were the 3000 at Pentecost confused? Were the apostles confused? There was some confusion sometimes but not everyone was confused all the time. Jesus revealed who he was in a very clear and real way.

Rather than point to the clarity of the Gospel, over and over again Bell likes to move to the murky spots and the confusing spots. If you land on solid ground it is hard to say you are some place else. But if you can keep things murky, unclear and deconstructed, you can more easily point things another direction and have people agree with where you are headed.

Our Need for Downtime

I have been working on some lessons on rest over the last week or so and one of the things that hit me was how messed up our view of rest is. Rest is punishment. When you are a kid and don’t do your chores you get grounded. When you are an adult and do poorly at work you get fired. If you commit a crime you go to jail. Rest is punishment. It is important that we don’t let our culture poison the importance of rest.

One of the points scripture makes about Sabbath rest is that it reflects an underlying reliance on God. If we trust God will take care of us we don’t have to work ourselves to death in the rat race of life. Rest also gets our priorities in line and allows us to enjoy some things that are hard to enjoy when you are working (family, time with God, etc). Rest can also be taken to an extreme but I doubt too many of us suffer from that problem. We need downtime. We need the recognition that not everything in life is dependent upon our abilities to get it done.

How to Make Bible Study Practical – Perspective Issues 1

It is important, whether young or old, that we continue to tool and equip ourselves to study the Bible. So what I have to offer here on studying the Bible may be old news to some of you but hopefully there will be something for everyone. One of the driving forces in my Bible study has been the ongoing responsibility of producing curriculum for our small groups. When you are constantly writing material to be used in small groups there is a tremendous burden for it to be biblically sound and applicable. This is studying the Bible for the benefit of someone else and comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility (James 3:1). The reason I start by bringing that up is that I believe there are a few things that has taught me about studying the Bible that would be beneficial to share with anyone out there who is still reading this blog. You can’t study the Bible to help someone else grow without it profoundly (and firstly) helping you grow.

When we study the Bible we aren’t studying for information‘s sake although that is the first level we take in God’s Word. When you read the Bible you aren’t reading it to make bullet point lists to fit nicely on the page. You should be reading the Bible for the sake of transformation. The two (information and transformation) have to go hand in hand. You should never have one without the other. We aren’t studying a self-help book here. We are studying the Word of God. What we have between the covers of this book is what God thought would be important enough to reveal to us and have written down so that we could have faith in Him and live changed lives. So before we talk how to’s it is important to talk perspective.

Now for a little more on information leading to transformation…what we believe absolutely impacts how we live. Let’s say you don’t believe in God. You don’t believe in eternal life. When you die, you are dead. Forever. Would that drastically change the way you are currently living your life? Would it change your morality and ethics? If you change the guiding principles of someone’s life you will ultimately change their behavior. That is because what we believe impacts what we do. Information leads to transformation.

All those guys with letters after their names would say it like this – the indicative drives, or leads to, the imperative. Indicatives are just statements. God is love. Jesus is Lord. We are saved by grace. Those are indicatives. Imperatives are commands and in scripture they typically follow after indicatives. The reason for that is God usually gives us the reason why he wants us to live a particular way. Let me give two often cited examples of this.

Example #1 – The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20)
If you learned or memorized the ten commandments as a child you learned that they started at Exodus 20:3. But if you back up a verse, before God tells them anything about how to live or what commands (imperatives) to follow, he gives them this indicative as the basis for their obedience, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery…You shall have no other gods before me” (command #1). God understands the natural progression of how we think about things and what leads to us living them out. That only makes sense because He made us to be like that. I am glad he didn’t just give us a bunch of lists of truths or rules and expect us to get it. Instead he has delicately interlaced the two together in His Word and ultimately lived it out through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Example #2 – Ephesians
I first heard this from Dr. Oster at Harding Graduate School. The book of Ephesians is split very purposefully into two halves: Chapters 1-3 & 4-6. The first half is full of indicatives, truths about God, Christ, and our relationship with them. There is only 1 imperative/command in the first half of Ephesians and that one is a command to “remember” what God has done for us. So even the lone command is a command pointing us back to the indicatives. There are something like 41 imperatives in the last three chapters of Ephesians. What’s the point? Before Paul gives them all the commands they first have to understand something about God.

Let me bring this back to Bible study. When we study the Bible the end game is our hope that studying this book will result in a changed, more Christ-like life. That means we are studying for application/transformation. God wants scripture to change our lives. We should want that too. In order to have the basis for understanding and living out those transformative principles we must first have the information/indicative that gives us the background for why these things are important so that our actions and attitudes can be informed by the truth.

Let me end this post with one practical “how to” lesson on what all this means for how we study the Bible. I have said this on the blog before but here it goes again. If we want to apply scripture to our lives we have to know what it says. If we are going to know what it says we have to read or hear what it says. That means that before any of these things even matter we have to act. We have to make the move. We must pick up our Bibles, ask God to guide us and transform us, and study.

What Are We Most Upset About and What Does that Say?

There are days I am more upset that the guy in front of me is driving too slow than I am that most likely he is lost spiritually. My lack of perspective is far more damaging in a real world perspective than his driving slow could ever be. I have seen people get more upset over which direction communion is passed than they were about their own lack of personal involvement in ministry. That is not to say all Christians are guilty of that but some are and sometimes that “some” includes me.

If someone is seeking God and walks into your church, your elders/ministers meeting, or your household what would they say you are most passionate about? How could they tell? They could tell based on the things you get the happiest and the maddest about. What would that list include? Would it draw them closer to God or further? If all they see is bickering over how we pass trays, the order or worship, or song selection they have every right to never want to go back to that congregation again. But if they see us getting worked up over the “scripturally workupables”, then they will see we are serious about serious matters. I think they will want to be a part of something that they can clearly see is set to make a difference.

I don’t know about you but I have a few things that still get to me that really don’t matter. And if I am honest with myself the reason those things are there is all the same. It is because there are times I put myself at the center of all that is important. When you do that you first have to take the most important things and set them aside by ignoring them at best or discounting them at worst (the two really go hand in hand). Once you accomplish that you are then able to replace significant things with insignificant things like self.

What insignificant things still upset you? How do you see self playing a role in that happening?

Blessed by Blogging Disagreements

There have been several posts in the last week that several people have had disagreements with. I am really happy about that. The reason is not because I like disagreement but because people have been so kind. Usually when people on blogs or websites disagree there is this kind of slow-motion shouting match that takes place. It would be really awkward in real life but somehow people think it is alright online toward someone you don’t know or will never meet. Imagine disagreeing with someone in person where you shout something at them. They wait a few hours and shout something back. Slowly the shouting match unfolds. Online disagreements usually happen that way and I don’t ever read them and walk away feeling better about things.

So thanks to Dave, Hank, Nick and Theophilus who have been in dialog on several recent posts in the most respectful and caring way. Thank you for your desire to please God. Thank you for your respect for scripture. Thank you for caring enough to try to help me see the light! That means a lot to me. I hope I haven’t said anything in any of it that was taken in any way except with love and respect because that is what I try to do here. Thanks again for blessing me.

The Problem With Culturally Defined Truth

A few things that were once considered culturally acceptable by various groups:

  • Slavery
  • The Crusades
  • Killing infants by exposure (leaving them to die)
  • Murdering Jews
  • Segregation

The list could go a lot further than that but the point is, at some point in time there were large groups of people found these things socially and morally acceptable. If you are going to take moral relativism to its ultimate end you would have to contend that all these things, even though they are detestable behaviors to us, were perfectly morally acceptable to them because what is true for us may not have been true for them. At the end of the day subjective truth fails. It is possible to be fully convinced of something and be wrong. That is easier to see in others from past decades and centuries than it is to see in ourselves.

We have our own list of things today that are viewed as socially acceptable, “our truth”, that hopefully one day people will look back on and see as barbaric practices. Abortion is #1 on that list. Can you imagine some kid 200 years from now asking his dad if Americans really did kill 45 million of their own babies (dwarfing the 11-17 million killed in the holocaust). Not just murderous, hate-filled people…but every day folks just like you and I giving permission for their babies to be killed before they were born. But if moral relativism prevails we just continue to delude ourselves into thinking bad is good and good is bad.

Culturally defined, subjective truth, just doesn’t work out in the real world. I understand why people find it so appealing but the reality is in the end it will fail to do a better job than the objective truth it set out to replace.

God’s 53 Questions

I am sure you remember the story well. Job was an upright man. Satan thought Job only worshipped God because he had it made. So God allowed all Job had to be taken away in order to find out if man would serve God only because of God’s blessing or because God is God. Job wanted answers. Why had all these bad things happened to him? He subpoened God to court. Witnesses were called, the time arranged, and God showed up! But it wasn’t Job who got to ask the questions. It was God who did the asking. Job took the stand and God rattled off his questions. Unlike a court of law, these questions were not intended to learn what Job knew but to teach Job something about God. God began his series of 53 questions with this (Job 38:2-5),

“2Who is this that darkens my counsel
with words without knowledge?

3 Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.

5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?

And my personal favorite…

19 “What is the way to the abode of light?
And where does darkness reside?

20 Can you take them to their places?
Do you know the paths to their dwellings?

21 Surely you know, for you were already born!
You have lived so many years!

The focus of these questions is on who is sovereign. The obvious conclusion is God is and Job is not. The point God is making here with Job is that even though things get rough, trust is key. Satan likes for us to focus on ourselves when things get tough. We can get so self-focused and self-centered in bad times that we stop looking at the only one who really is sovereign and that is God. We aren’t like him. We can’t compete with him. We don’t know what he knows and can’t do what he can do. When it is all said and done we have to trust him in good times and bad. When things get tough one of the best things we can do is ask ourselves this question, “Who really understands what is going on here?” The answer is God. Or, “Who is able to fix this broken and miserable mess?” The answer is God. Instead of getting down and depressed that we can’t fix it, why not turn to the one who can? I think that is what God was trying to get Job to see and I think that is what God wants us to see as well.

In Job 38-39 God asks Job 53 questions that give Job perspective to remember who is really in charge.

The Significance of Ceremony – Joshua 24

In Joshua 24 you have a renewal of Israel’s covenant with God just prior to Joshua’s death. Some covenants in the ancient world were done in a very specific way. We see that pattern reflected in Joshua 24. The Hittites (who are mentioned in the chapter) had a form of covenant called the Suzerain-Vassal treaty (sounds like some kind of dread disease). The treaties followed this order:

  • Preamble – Included the names the parties involved, invoking the names of their gods  (24:2)
  • Historical prologue – lists the benevolent actions of the suzerain on behalf of the vassal (24:2-13)
  • Stipulations – Listed the obligations of each party, especially the vassal (24:14-15 & 22-23)
  • Deposit – Instructions for the recording of the treaty, a schedule of how often it should be read, and where it was to be deposited (24:25-26)
  • Witnesses called – These witnesses might be the gods or might be a third party (24:26)
  • Blessings and curses – What the results of obeying or disobeying the treaty included (24:19-20)

These agreements were surrounded in ceremony. Ceremony is important in culture because it shows just how important something is. Ceremony shows significance. What is more, each of these elements provide leverage for the parties involved to have motivation to keep their end of the deal. While it is not intended we read this into the text, I do think it is interesting that these same elements are still present in modern weddings:

  • Preamble – We see this in the vows – “I _________ take you _________ to be my wife.”
  • Historical prologue – We typically here this when the minister tells what he knows about the story of the couple he is marrying or any special stories or background he has with them or they have with each other.
  • Stipulations – We see this in the vows, “for better or for worse…richer or poorer…sickness and health.”
  • Deposit – Wedding rings serve this role. The deposit of the record of the covenant in the ancient world was to serve as a reminder of what had been agreed to. It was to be present and visible to the parties involved in the covenant. Maybe a couple keeps around their unity candle as a reminder or has the dress in a special place.
  • Witnesses – weddings are full of witnesses. Covenants are community events and community agreements. When we hear things like, “Before God and these witnesses” at a wedding, that is a very ancient practice of invoking the witnesses of divinity in order to highlight the necessity of maintaining faithfulness to the covenant agreement.
  • Blessings and curses – Wouldn’t that be exciting to see this section on the order of events handed out at the next wedding you attend, “Next the father of the bride will present the couple with their formal blessings and curses” Most weddings don’t include the formal “blessings and curses” section.

Couples today could just say, “I do” and “I do”, husband and wife, kiss the bride and be married. But most people don’t do that. Most people want something they will remember. People value ceremony. It is important we really make ceremony meaningful so that the real underlying meaning of what is happening is not missed.

Do you think ceremony is still valued today or have certain ceremonies, like weddings, become such a tradition that most people don’t even realize the significance of it all?