Orphans, Widows, the Poor … and Justice

God wants His people to live a certain way. To act a certain way. To have certain honest motivations. He wants His people to love one another, and to prove it by their actions.

The fruit of real salvation is moral and spiritual reformation, because you love God. You don’t “clean yourself up” to gain favor with God; that’s not possible. Instead, because God has already changed your heart and mind and given you spiritual life, you reform your life with His help. Part of that means you love your fellow believers.

Well-meaning Christians often cite Biblical commands to care for the poor, the widows and orphans, and try to apply these in a vague, amorphous way to mercy ministries. Douglas Moo, a conservative commentator, is representative of this trend when he applies one of these passages (James 1:27) in a vague, generic way to society at large. He implies James is issuing a call to mercy ministries in the context of evangelism:

Christians whose religion is pure will imitate their Father by intervening to help the helpless. Those who suffer from want in the third world, in the inner city; those who are unemployed and penniless; those who are inadequately represented in government or in law—these are the people who should see abundant evidence of Christians’ ‘pure religion’.

Douglas J. Moo, James, vol. 16, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 90.

This is all true, but it isn’t what James meant. That passage, and others like it, don’t teach this, at all. Instead, they teach Christians to care for one another, to love one another, to watch out for one another. To be sure, it’s a wonderful evangelistic strategy to couple mercy ministries with Gospel proclamation. You can win a hearing for the Gospel by helping people. But, that’s not what these passages are about.

Who’s the audience?

When Jesus summarized the entire thrust of the Old Covenant law (Mk 12:28-34), He said it had two foundations:

  1. to love God with everything you had (Deut 6:4-5), and
  2. to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself (Lev 19:18).

If you look at both these citations, who was the audience? They were both addressed to Old Covenant members. They weren’t for unbelievers. They were for believers.

Regarding the first citation (Deut 6:4-5), Moses preached the Book of Deuteronomy to explain the Old Covenant to the people, as they prepared to invade the Promised Land (“Moses undertook to explain this law …” Deut 1:5). As for the second, many Christians haven’t read Leviticus. Clearly, it was written for believers! But, beyond that, take a look at the context around the citation to love your neighbor. It tells us quite a bit:

  • Israelites had to leave some of their harvest from vineyards and crops for the poor and needy in their covenant community; their believing community (Lev 19:9-10)
  • They couldn’t steal or lie to one another. They also couldn’t bear false witness against one another (Lev 19:11-12)
  • They couldn’t oppress or rob one another; that is, they had to compensate one another fairly. They had to pay wages on time. They couldn’t take advantage of the blind or deaf. Why? Because Yahweh is Lord, and they should fear His wrath for disobedience (Lev 19:13)
  • They had to uphold justice and righteousness in legal matters (Lev 19:15)
  • They couldn’t slander one another (Lev 19:16)
  • They had to settle disputes among themselves, rather than let hate simmer in their hearts. There was no room for grudges or plots of vengeance; rather, they had to love one another (Lev 19:17-18).

What’s behind all this? What’s the concept undergirding all these commands? Simple; God’s people ought to love each other. They ought to care about each other. They should want to prove it by their actions. God expects His people to live His way, and part of that is to love fellow believers.

If you can understand this, then you can understand the references in the Bible to the widow, the orphan and the poor. You can understand who those commands are directed to.

Proving the point

The rest is pretty easy. Here are some representative examples from Scripture:

When Moses said this:

You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns.

Deuteronomy 24:14

He was referring to fellow covenant members; either native born Israelites or proselytes who had joined the community. He was referring to how God’s people should interact with each other. This echoes the commands from Leviticus 19.

Moses meant the same thing when he continued, and wrote this:

You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.

Deuteronomy 24:17-18

This speaks for itself, and so does the audience.

One of the condemnations the prophet Ezekiel brought against Judah was their moral wickedness; specifically, the way they mistreated one another. Ezekiel wrote:

Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you.

Ezekiel 22:7

Read the entire paragraph for context, but his point here is very clear. Part of their sin is their mistreatment of one another, especially those who deserve special respect – parents, proselytes who have joined the community, and the most vulnerable in the covenant society.

This is the same sentiment the Apostle John had when he wrote, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth,” (1 Jn 3:18). His observation was borne out of the same worldview that Ezekiel had, that Moses had, that Jesus had. God’s people should love one another, and show it.

In Zechariah’s day, as he and Haggai struggled to encourage the returned exiles to rebuild the temple, he reminded them of their father’s mistakes:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” But they refused to pay attention hand turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear.

Zechariah 7:8-11

Before the Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians, before the Babylonians crushed Judah, God was angry with His people for how they mistreated one another.

Even Amos, who wrote during the secular glory days of the Northern Kingdom, had the same message:

Thus says the Lord:

“For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals—

Amos 2:6

What does this mean? It’s difficult to nail down precisely, but it’s clear the rich and powerful in Israelite society were oppressing the vulnerable. You get the picture of them accepting bribes to sell out the righteous for silver, or for material possessions. He continued:

those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
    and turn aside the way of the afflicted

Amos 2:7

You get the image of those in power smashing the faces of the poor into the dirt, and turning away those who are afflicted and helpless. This is a perversion of the society God commanded the Israelites to model.

And, finally, we come to James:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

James 1:27

James is talking to Christians about what their faith should look like. The fruit it ought to bear. What is the mark of a true Christian, of true religion? Well, simple! This command is really an inversion of Jesus’ summary. James says we must (1) love fellow believers, and (2) keep ourselves free from this evil world, which really means an all-consuming love for God.

What about the parable of the good Samaritan?

This is a good question. Why did Jesus give the parable? What prompted Him to employ it? He had a reason, didn’t He? Here’s the context:

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

Luke 10:25

The 72 disciples have just returned, and given an ecstatic report of their ministry success (“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven …” Lk 10:18). Jesus rejoiced with them; “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” (Lk 10:23). He is glad God has revealed His plan to these simple men.

And, on the heels of this great event, the lawyer stands up and asks Jesus the question. He isn’t sincere; he wants to “put him to the test.” Jesus asks the man about the Old Covenant law, and he correctly responds by summarizing it the same way Jesus has done (Lk 10:26-28).

But, the man wants more. He’s “desiring to justify himself,” (Lk 10:29). He wants to limit his responsibilities as much as possible. He responds just like a stereotypical lawyer. Define “love.” Define “neighbor.” If he can narrow his target as much as possible, it’ll make his obligations so much easier to meet!

Think about it; would your spouse accept this kind of logic? What would you think if, at the altar on your wedding day, your husband halted the ceremony and said, “Now, I agree with all the lovey stuff, in theory. But, let’s clarify a few things. Define ‘until death.’ Define ‘love.’ Define ‘cherish.’ Let’s get this down on paper before we go any further!”

Are these the actions of a loving, would-be husband? I don’t think so! This is a guy who’s not serious. A guy who’s looking to do as little as possible. It’s the same with the lawyer. Jesus knows this; it’s why he tells the parable.

The Samaritan was a “good neighbor” because he didn’t care about legalistic qualifications, or legal definitions, or his strict scope of responsibilities. He saw a need, and he met it. That man is the good neighbor. That man fulfills the intent of the Old Covenant law, because he showed mercy.

What’s the point? The point is that a good neighbor is someone who shows mercy, not someone who seeks to do as little as possible in order to justify himself in his own mind. That’s why Jesus told the parable.

Wrapping up

The Old and New Covenant commands to care for widows, orphans and the poor are to believers, and their primary application is to widows, orphans and the poor within the believing community. True faith and Christian religion won’t seek to minimize this responsibility or shirk it; it will prove itself by genuine mercy and kindness to fellow believers in need.  

Mercy ministries to the general public are outstanding vehicles for evangelism. They just aren’t what these “justice” passages are talking about.

What Does it Mean to Follow Jesus?

This article is adapted from a sermon I preached on 13 January 2019, entitled “Following the Leader.” Video and audio may be found here.

Peter has just made an important confession; that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One (Mk 8:27-33). How do you sum up what this office means?[1] It’s common to see Christ as the prophet, priest and king. Millard Erickson shifts the emphasis from office to function, and presents Jesus as the revealer, ruler and reconciler.[2]

Because Jesus does these things; because He reveals God’s message, will rule over all creation and reconciles any and everyone who comes to God through Him, how should you follow Jesus? That’s what this passage (Mk 8:34 – 9:1) is all about.

Then, after Jesus summoned the crowd, along with His disciples, He said to them, (Mk 8:34).

Jesus’ lessons on discipleship aren’t just for “super Christians.” Jesus invited apostles and the crowd to listen. If you’re a Christian, this message is for you!

If someone wishes to be following me, he must deny himself, then pick up his cross, then keep on following me (Mk 8:34).

If you’re a Christian, what does Jesus say a faithful life looks like? What do you have to do to be the kind of Christian Jesus can smile at?

Here it is:

  • Deny yourself
  • Pick up your cross
  • Keep on following Jesus; don’t turn back!

What do these mean!?

Deny yourself

This mean God is on the throne in your life; not you. It means you aren’t in charge of your life, God is. Your life isn’t your own (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19-20). If you’re a Christian, then Christ is your Lord (Rom 14:8-9); do you live like it? The issue is motivation and drive; what gives your life meaning and purpose – your status in union with Christ, or something else?

Christ died so that “those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised,” (2 Cor 5:15). Do you live your life in service to Jesus? The point is that your purpose in life isn’t to please yourself, or to pursue your own goals – it’s to please God!

Does that mean that, in order to be a faithful Christian, you have to sell everything you have and move to Antarctica and preach the Gospel to penguins? Or, does it mean you have to live on top of a mountain alone, with your wi-fi, so you can be close to God?

No! You don’t need to become a monk; you just need to view your life in the proper perspective. What give your life purpose and meaning? This is a question that goes to motivation, and only you and God know what motivates and energizes your life. If you’re a Christian, it ought to be God. If you’re a Christian, your overriding drive should be to please Him, and serve Him with your life – wherever He’s put you. You aren’t your own, He bought you with a price – do you live for yourself, or for the One who for your sake died and was raised?

Does this mean your job is pointless? No! It just means you need to have the proper perspective about your job. There’s honor in working hard to provide for your family, and God gave you the gifts to do the job you do – it’s not an accident you have the job you do, or that you’ll get the next job you’ll get! It just means your job isn’t your life; it doesn’t define you – your relationship with Jesus Christ defines you (1 Pet 2:9-10). That’s the inspired blueprint for how you ought to think of yourself, if you’re a Christian. You’re a priest for God, saved so you can show and tell the message of the Gospel to the people God has put you around.

Who is on the throne in your life?

You must pick up your cross

This was the cruelest, worst form of capitol punishment in the Roman world. People took hours to die. They were often left to die on their crosses along the roadsides, as a warning to others, where birds and dogs would eat and pick at them as they died! So, what did Jesus mean by this?

He meant you had to be ready to be considered the worst of the worst by the same people who would kill Him (Jn 15:18-19). Condemned prisoners were made to carry the cross-beam of their own crucifixion cross to the execution site (Mk 15:21); Jesus meant you had to be willing to figuratively pick up your cross and march to your own death, if need be (1 Pet 4:12-13).

The Roman Emperor Nero infamously blamed Christians for a massive fire in the city of Rome. Contemporary accounts tell us Nero crucified and burnt Christians alive in Rome. These are the same people Mark probably wrote his Gospel to.

Real faith means that, if necessary, you’re willing to suffer and die for your Savior, for the sake of the Gospel. That means Jesus and His Gospel ought to be the most important things; everything else (including your life) fades far into the background (Phil 3:8).

Who is on the throne in your life?

You must keep on following Jesus!

The Christian faith isn’t a once and done event; it’s not something that stops. A faith that isn’t living, active, and bearing fruit is a faith that’s either in serious trouble, or non-existent (read 1 John). You need to keep on denying yourself. You need to keep on carrying your cross

Why does Jesus say all this?

Because, if he keeps desiring to save his life, he’ll lose it. But, if a person would lose his life for my sake and the Gospel’s, he’ll save it (Mk 8:35).

If a person keeps trying to “save his life,” it means Jesus and the Gospel aren’t the most important things in his life. If that’s you, it means your own desires are more important. You’d rather save your life, then potentially lose it by following Jesus. It means everything about the “here and now” is more serious and more important than the great God and Savior, Jesus Christ

If that’s you, then you’re actually losing your life. You have no spiritual resurrection, the wrath of God abides on you (Jn 3:36), and one day your chance for salvation is gone. One psalmist asked, “what man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol,” (Ps 89:48)?

The answer is that God can, through Jesus, and you frittered it away because you valued the things of this world over the things of eternity; the temporary over the permanent, the fleeting over the transcendent.

Is this you? Do you desire to save your life? Solomon said everything in this world is transitory, momentary, fleeting, impermeant – there’s of lasting significance there to hold onto! Wisdom, great possessions, sex, money, living for pleasure, your work and career – all of them are fleeting and transitory. Whatever you’re hold onto instead of Jesus, whatever you’re not willing to let go of for Jesus, that thing will not be there for you in the end.

The only way you can save your soul is to be willing to lose it for Jesus and His Good News. If you’re a Christian, this means your rescue from sin your reconciliation with God, Jesus’ perfect, substitutionary life and death, His miraculous resurrection, your adoption into God’s family from the kingdom of darkness, your status as a brother or sister whom Jesus is not ashamed to call by name – all of these should be the most important things in the world to you. How can wisdom, sex, possessions, money, living for pleasure, or the idol of a career compare to these things?

Whose stamp do you bear and what’re you going to do about it?[3] Is your faith the driving, motivating factor in your life, the thing that gives you purpose and fuels you? Or, is it an add-on; something affixed to the tail-end of your life with dollar store scotch-tape?

Who is on the throne in your life?

For, how does it benefit a man to be gaining the whole world and be losing his life!? (Mk 8:36)

It doesn’t!

After all, what would a man give in exchange for his life (Mk 8:37)?

Everything! Anything! The moon! So, have you? Have you made the decision to deny yourself? Have you made the decision that Jesus and the Gospel are worth picking up your cross for? Have you made the decision to keep on following Jesus, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year?

These aren’t things you do to get salvation; they’re things a genuine Christian will want to do because of salvation; they’re the fruit of spiritual life. Apple tree produce apples. Orange tree produce oranges. Mexican restaurants produce nachos. A Christian likewise ought to do the things Jesus said

Now, Jesus backs up and lays it all out for us:

This is what I mean – if someone is embarrassed about me and my words in this adulterous and sinful age, then the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in the Father’s glory, [and] with the holy angels,” (Mk 8:38).

What does this mean? Here’s what it means:

  • If you won’t deny yourself for Jesus,
  • If you won’t take up your figurative cross and be prepared to suffer and die for His sake and the Gospel’s sake,
  • If you won’t keep on following Him, or at least have the honest desire to keep on following Him for the remainder of your life  

Then Jesus looks at you and says:

  • This guy is embarrassed about me!
  • This guy is ashamed of me!
  • This guy is embarrassed about my message, about what I said!
  • This guy is ashamed about my message and what I said!

It means Jesus looks at you and says:

  • This guy isn’t ashamed about his greed, but he is ashamed about me!
  • This guy isn’t ashamed about his loving his career more than anything in the world, but he is embarrassed about how nobody comes to the Father, but through me
  • This guy isn’t ashamed of the Gospel, as long as it stays a secret part of his life

If that’s you:

  • Jesus says, “I’ll be ashamed of you when I come back, full of power and glory, along with the holy angels, to set everything right”
  • He’ll look at you and say, “I never knew you!”
  • He’ll look at you and say, “I don’t know who you are!”
  • He’ll look at you and think, “This is sinful guy; a criminal!”
  • He’ll look at you and think, “This guy is unfaithful to the God who created him, just like so many other people – he’s a spiritual adulterer!”
  • He’ll look at you and say, “I’m embarrassed that you claim to belong to me!”
  • He’ll look at you and think, “I’m ashamed of this guy!”

Consider the contrast. A life lived for yourself, for your own ends, for your own transitory dreams, all so it can go into the trashcan at the end of your life? Or, a life lived in service to God through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, using and channeling your gifts and abilities for His glory, having (perhaps) that same career, but with the right motivations, having (perhaps) the same money, but with the proper perspective, willing to suffer loss and perhaps die for the sake of the Gospel, and seeing Jesus return in power, glory and honor, and welcoming you with open arms and a great smile, by saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master,” (Mt 25:21).

Jesus will return one day, with power and glory, accompanied by the holy angels – and what value will “whatever else” be for you, then?

Then Jesus said to them, “I’m telling you the solemn truth, that there are some people standing here who will not taste death until they see God’s kingdom coming in power,” (Mk 9:1).

As a way to encourage His disciples to take the longer view, to have the proper perspective, to see Him as he really is and (thus) to count everything as loss compared to Him, Jesus will lift the curtain a bit and show them a taste of His glory, power and honor … in the next passage (Mk 9:2-8)!

If Christian churches expected people to follow Jesus with the same passion and fervor He told us to have, then churches would be smaller, and the people left would be more zealous for Christ and the Gospel. If you’re a Christian, you need to follow Jesus with the same all-consuming passion He said you must have!

Who is on the throne in your life?

Choose to follow Jesus. Choose to put Him on the throne in your life. Choose to keep on following Him, just like He said


Notes

[1] I addressed this issue in a sermon from Mark 8:27-33, preached on 30 December 2018, entitled “Jesus is the Christ, But What Does That Mean?” You can find the audio, video and sermon notes at https://bit.ly/2R0IZt0

[2] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 780ff. 

[3] See Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, 5:1-5. 

The Obligation of Marriage

adams.jpgJay Adams is known as the father of the Christian counseling movement. When people think of “counseling,” they may have images of a contemplative psychologist, pen at the ready, and a comfy couch.

No.

Biblical counseling sounds stuffy, but its really about applying the bible (and its worldview) to real Christian people, with real problems, in real life, in the real world. You can read more about the principles behind this biblical approach here. This is the presuppositional approach Jay Adams brought to the mainstream in 1970, when he published his landmark book Competent to CounselThis is also the approach many conservative Christian universities and seminaries teach their students to use in pastoral ministry. My own alma mater, Maranatha Baptist Seminary, uses this method. So does The Masters College.

Here, in this excerpt from his outstanding book Solving Marriage ProblemsJay Adams discusses the overriding obligation that comes with marriage:

When a couple takes marriage vows, whether they realize it or not (and often they do not), they are vowing to provide companionship for one another for the rest of their lives; that is what their views amount to. Notice, they do not vow to receive companionship, but to provide it for one another. Marriage itself is an act of love in which one person vows to meet another’s need for life, no strings attached.

That means that when a husband or a wife complains,

“I am not getting what I want out of marriage,”

his or her statement is nonsensical. And you must reply,

“You did not enter marriage in order to get something for yourself. You vowed to give something to your partner. Marriage is not a bargain in which each partner says, ‘I will give so much in return for so much.’ Each vows to give all that is necessary to meet his or her spouse’s need for companionship, whether or not he or she receives anything in return. Therefore, the only question for you is, ‘Are you fulfilling your vows?'”

Many marry for what they can get out of the marriage; but that is lust, not love, and is biblically untenable.

Ouch.

A Pastor Must Follow the Bible

bibleRead the series so far.

What on earth should a congregation look for in a Pastor? A hip haircut? A charismatic personality? A minimum number of FaceBook followers? A guy who posts cliched Instagram pictures of his open Bible and a cup of coffee, just like this one? A man who looks “relevant” and “edgy,” like this guy? A man who’s “woke,” as they say?

Is that what we need in our churches? A “woke,” hip, relevant man-child, aged 50-ish, who dresses like this guy (yes, that man is a pastor – no joke)? A guy like Ignatius, the awesome Youth Pastor?

No.

Let’s return to reality for a moment or two; a safe space where the bistro table pulpits are donated to Goodwill, the pathetic posturing is dropped, the virtue signaling ends, and the weird, hipster clothes are burned in a pyre, just like Darth Vader.

Let’s return to the real world, where we need real Pastors who provide real leadership to real people who face real problems, in the real world.

Let’s do the most un-“woke” thing possible to answer this question. Let’s go to the Bible …

Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 1:13)

Paul taught Timothy everything he knows, with a bit of help from his mother and grandmother along the way. He told Timothy to follow his example about “sound words.” Now, brace yourselves, but Paul is dead.

Yes, it’s true.

He didn’t leave any YouTube videos or mp3 recordings behind for us to find, and Nero deleted Paul’s FaceBook page once he had him executed. This means the only place we’ll find Paul’s words, so we can follow them, is in the preserved Word of God – the Bible

The Bible was written by over 40 men, over the course of 1500 years, and we believe God moved each of those men to record and write exactly what He wanted them to write. As one Baptist confession puts it:

We believe that the Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction; that it has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture of error for its matter; that it reveals the principles by which God will judge us; and therefore is, and shall remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried (1833 NHCF, Article 1)

God then preserved these books (through the thousands of copies and their mass distribution, and the reverence God’s people have always had for them) down through the centuries so we could have them on our laps, phones, or tablets today.

So, Paul is telling us a Pastor has to be a guy who’s completely committed to following what the Bible says. This might seem obvious, but it isn’t so obvious. Just consider the four “big questions” I mentioned in the last article; how can you answer any of these questions unless you’re committed to interpreting and following God’s Word, in God’s way?

Creation: how did we get here?

Were Adam and Eve real people, or just story figures created by a writer to make a point? Are men and women really the highest of all God’s creations, and made in His image, with all the implications for human dignity, value and worth this implies? Did God actually create the world, or did it somehow come into being out of nothing? Is our world designed by an intelligent Creator, or the product of random chance?

There are people who claim to be Christian today who deny every one of these things, and some of them even claim to be conservative!

If you believe God’s Word speaks today, and is relevant, then you’ll be laughed at by the world – if a man can’t handle that, and isn’t prepared to have a conversation about why God’s right and the scoffers are wrong (more on that in a moment!), then he can’t be a Pastor

Fall: why are things the way they are? Why do bad things happen?

Does Satan actually exist? Does God have laws, rules, and the power, authority and jurisdiction to hold His creatures accountable for them? Are men and women really ruined by sin, born as children of wrath who are under the power and control of Satan, whom Paul calls the prince of the power of the air? Hurricanes, floods, famines, tsunamis, murders, rapes, domestic abuse, child abuse, robbery, death itself – is all this the way God made the world? Is this what He desires for the world?

There are people who call themselves Christians today, who claim to love and follow God’s Word, who couldn’t answer those questions in a straightforward way

Redemption: how can things be fixed? How can they be set right?

Did Jesus actually exist? For over 100 years, some alleged Christians have argued that we don’t know who the “real Jesus” actually is[1]. Did God really send Jesus to willingly and voluntarily die in our place, as our divine substitute, for God’s wrath to be satisfied, to atone and pay for sins, and to reconcile us to Him?

Some Christians hate the idea of substitutionary atonement, calling it “divine child sacrifice.” Did Jesus really obey God’s law perfectly, because we can’t? Did Jesus really rise from the dead, to destroy Satan’s power over men and women, “and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage,” (Heb 2:15)?

Was He really seen by hundreds of eyewitnesses, and then ascend back to the Father’s side in heaven, to intercede and be the eternal advocate and High Priest for everyone who repents and believes in His message of eternal forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation?

Some “Christians” believe the miracles in the Bible are just “stories,”

Restoration: will things ever be fixed?

Is Jesus coming back to defeat Satan and set things right? Will there be an eternal state, where Satan is in hell, everything is made new and “good” again, and Father and Son rule and reign together, and there is peace on earth? Will there be a final judgment, where everyone will stand before Jesus Christ, Lord of Lords, and give an account for whether He’s obeyed or rejected the command to repent and believe the Gospel?

Implications

So, when Paul says “follow the pattern of sound words,” he means Timothy has to commit himself to preaching and teaching the same message Jesus taught, and Jesus’ message is grounded in the Old Testament and all the precious promises it contains!

The Pastor can’t be a slave to church traditions that are unbiblical. He also can’t be an innovator who wants to “update” the Gospel for today’s culture, because we allegedly “know more” than Paul, Peter, John and Jesus did.

Instead, he must be committed to follow the pattern of sound words we find in the Bible:

  1. A Creation that was made perfect in the beginning, to glorify and honor God;
  2. The rebellion that ruined everything in the world, including us;
  3. God’s plan to redeem and remake Creation, and to save some of us from ourselves along the way by way of His eternal son, who lived a perfect life for us in our place and willingly died for our sins, in our place, as our substitute, and rose from the dead to defeat Satan and the curses of sin and death;
  4. And, he must be committed to and believe the promise that Jesus is coming back one day to defeat all enemies, establish His kingdom, and rule over a new and better creation, and all of us who repent and believe in the Good News will be there with Him, to worship and serve Him for eternity.

In short, the Pastor has to be committed to following the Bible!

This series is based on three sermons I recently preached. The audio is below. Here are the sermon notes for Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Audio Part 1 – 

Audio Part 2 – 

Audio Part 3 – 

Notes

[1] The various quests for the “historical Jesus” are complicated. I commend folks who spend their scholarly careers interacting with these revisionists, but I don’t feel the need to offer a “nuanced” view of this controversy here.

A Pastor Must be a Leader, Not a Coward

lionRead the rest of the series.

Paul tells Timothy something very important, and it’s so obvious and so clear that we sometimes take it for granted – a pastor must be a leader, not a coward. In 2 Timothy 1:1-7, Paul reminds Timothy to “rekindle” the pastoral gifts he had, which God had given him through the Holy Spirit. In other words, don’t be depressed. Don’t despair. Don’t give up your fight for the Gospel. Don’t give in to laziness. Let your love of Christ and His Gospel burst into “flames” of enthusiasm, and serve the Lord with passion!

Why was this reminder even necessary? Why did Paul tell this to Timothy? Because it’s natural for a guy to become timid, to slink back, to tuck his head into his shell like a timid little turtle, to start treading lightly as the storm clouds of persecution began to crash out against Christians in the Roman Empire. Remember the apostles immediately after Jesus’ execution!

But, the point here is that God didn’t give Timothy (or any Christian) a spirit of timidity, of cowardice, of fearful fright. Instead, he gave him power. The power of the Spirit, to aid us when we’re afraid. The power of direct access to the Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord, the captain of our salvation who blazed that trail for us, right through the compartments of tabernacle, past that torn and obsolete curtain, right to the very throne of grace.

God gave Timothy love. This means love for one another, love for the Gospel, love for the Father, love for His eternal Son Jesus Christ, and love for the Spirit who gives us spiritual life and draws us to salvation.

He also gave us discipline or self-control. The self-control to do what’s right, no matter what pressures are brought to bear by the Accuser. The discipline to lead a congregation to follow and worship the Lord in spirit and truth, no matter what the culture says.

Paul continues …

Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control (2 Tim 1:6-7)

Let me be as plain as vanilla ice cream right now, and tell you straight-out:

  • A Pastor can’t be a coward!
  • A Pastor can’t be timid!
  • A Pastor can’t be afraid to stand for the truth!
  • A Pastor can’t be afraid of people, including Christians!

This is what Paul told Timothy. These are critical times for Christians, and we need leaders in our churches who:

  • care about the Gospel,
  • and have the spirit of power,
  • and have a love for God
  • and the discipline to be fearless, persuasive, winsome and passionate ambassadors for the Good News of Jesus Christ

You can’t do that if you’re terrified about what people think about you or the Gospel. If you love God, you’ll want to defend Him and proclaim Him to the world. Make no mistake, organizations across this entire land (secular and Christian) are filled with so-called leaders who are cowards. You’ve worked for some in the past. You may even work for some right now. You know what I’m talking about. Christians can be very skilled at spiritualizing incompetence, because we want to be loving and kind.

  • A man might not be able to teach his way out of a wet paper bag,
  • might not know Augustine from Anselm,
  • might have a spine as stiff as a soggy spaghetti noodle,
  • but if he’s a nice guy who loves the Lord, some congregations are willing to make him their Pastor

Don’t do it – a Pastor can’t be a coward, not with the pressures and challenges he faces every day. He must be a leader. That’s exactly what Paul turns to next:

Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel in the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago, and now has manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, and therefore I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me (2 Tim 1:8-12)

Folks, a Pastor can’t be a wilting flower of a guy. He must be mentally tough. He needs to be willing to never be ashamed of the Gospel, and its implications for every single facet of your life.

The Christian life is a worldview, an inter-related network of beliefs and convictions that combine together to inform how we view this world – the Christian faith is a picture and story that interprets reality; that explains “the way things are:”[1]

  1. Creation: how did we get here?
  2. Fall: why are things the way they are? Why do bad things happen?
  3. Redemption: how can this be fixed? How can things be set right?
  4. Restoration: will things ever be fixed?

Every worldview, every religion (yes, atheism and scientific naturalism is a religion; I’m also tempted to believe politics are a religion for some people, too! 😊) has a set of beliefs that seek to explain these four, most basic concepts and, together, they form the skeleton you use to interpret and understand the world around you.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ answers each of these four “big questions” in a way no others can (because it’s the only truth😊), and this message has implications that should echo and reverberate throughout every nook, cranny, corner and closet of your life. If your local church doesn’t have a leader who is willing to understand that, and can’t lead your congregation individually and corporately to impact your community, friends, family, neighbors, co-workers and enemies with this picture of reality (the only true picture of reality), then he’s not fit to be a leader of a Christian church.

The Pastor must be a leader – his job is too important.

I preached two sermons on these and eight other “marks of a good pastor.” The notes are here (Part 1) and here (Part 2), and the audio is below:

Audio – Part 1

Audio – Part 2 

Notes

[1] These days, there are plenty of books which discuss the idea of a Christian worldview. One of the most helpful, I believe, is Gregory Koukl’s book The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How it Ends, and Everything Important that Happens in Between (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017). His book is really a description of the Christian “story” for seekers; that is, unbelievers who are interested in finding out what Christianity is about. It’s a wonderful book to give to someone who fits this description.

My description of the Christian worldview as a “picture” or “story of reality,” along with the four “big questions,” are taken from his book. Again, I’ve heard and read this all before, but Koukl did a masterful job of distilling these concepts here.

A Pastor Needs to be Competent, Not Brilliant

performanceEvery Pastor grows depressed when he reads books about “how to be a better Pastor.” I believe that, if you took five popular “how to be a Pastor” books by conservative authors, and compiled a list of everything these books said, you’d be one depressed guy. Of course, not all of these lists are credible.

For example, one well-known Christian leader posted, just today, that one “warning sign” of a bad pastor is that has a “poor social media witness.” No, I’m not joking. Somehow, I must have missed that requirement in the Bible. Yes, now that I think on it … I’m almost certain the Apostle Paul mentioned a weekly quota for FaceBook, Twitter and Instgram posts.

Competence, not brilliance

But, that madness aside, these lists can be depressing. No doubt about it. But, I want to offer a small ray of sunshine. When it comes to pastoral requirements, I don’t believe God requires a guy to be perfect at everything. He asks for competence, not brilliance; along with a willingness to get better and learn over time.

Let me use a sports analogy. In baseball, the “ideal” athlete is known as a “five-tool player.” This means a guy who can (1) hit for power, (2) hit for a good average, (3) has good base-running skills and speed, (4) can throw, and (5) can field. Most guys aren’t “five-tool players.” Most baseball players can do one or more of these things very well, and are competent at the rest. A superstar is generally someone who can do all five (e.g. Ken Griffey, Jr.).

Some Pastors are “five-tool” guys. They can do everything very, very well. Most guys can’t do that. And, I don’t think God asks for brilliance. But, I think He does expect competence.

Unfortunately, many congregations don’t even ask for that much. Christians are generally very, very good at spiritualizing incompetence, because we want to be “loving” and “nice.” A man might not be able to teach his way out of a wet paper bag, might not know Augustine from Anselm, might have a spine as stiff as a soggy spaghetti noodle, but if he’s a nice guy who loves the Lord, some congregations are willing to make him their Pastor. That is a terrible mistake.

The list …

I believe the Bible teaches a Pastor must meet certain qualifications. I also believe that God gives every believer certain talents, gifts and abilities, and molds and shapes all His children into the people He wants them to be. We can look at the Bible to find these Pastoral qualifications. Most Christians instinctively turn to 1 Timothy 3, or Titus 1, to find these. But, those largely moral requirements. What about performance requirements? What about the skill sets, the competences that allow a Pastor to actually do his job?

I think the book of 2 Timothy has something for us, on that score. At my church, as we prepare the congregation to consider a new Pastoral candidate, I’m walking through 2 Timothy 1-2 and picking out some “marks of a good Pastor.” Here is the list I’m working from:

  1. He must be a leader, not a coward
  2. He must be committed to the Bible
  3. He must be educated, competent and capable – so he can guard the faith
  4. He must train new leaders
  5. He must be totally committed to the Gospel ministry
  6. He must not preach a cheap Gospel, and encourage self-examination
  7. He must be theologically balanced and mature
  8. He must be spiritually and emotionally mature
  9. He must be able to teach

I could have found more, but this is enough. Remember, God asks for competence, not brilliance. We can’t all be superstars. But, we can all be competent. If a guy can’t meet these core competencies, then he isn’t qualified to lead a congregation.

End of story.

In the rest of this series, I’ll briefly elaborate on each of these “marks of a good Pastor.”

The Curious Case of the Christian Cake Baker

cake
Jack Philipps, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop

This article is a short summary of the oral arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd.  v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on December 5, 2017. For those who’ve been following the news, this is the “Christian cake baker case.” Oral arguments are an opportunity for both sides to defend their legal positions in person, and answer any questions the Justices have. The Supreme Court will rule on this case sometime in 2018.

In the article, I provide a few bits of commentary. But, this is primarily a summary.[1] Hopefully, it can spur each of on to consider the issue of soul liberty in the public square in these troubled times.

Baker’s Response (Kristen Waggoner, Alliance Defending Freedom)

Philipps’ objection is not with the people who want the cake, his attorney argued. Instead, the objection is the message it communicates. “The First Amendment prohibits the government from forcing people to express messages that their violate religious convictions,” (4:12-19). The back and forth centered on this point. What is “speech?” How do you separate the identity of the customer from the message the product communicates?

Ginsburg opened by asking about off the shelf products; would Philipps provide these to a same-sex couple (4:21-5:4; 10:9-19)? Absolutely, Waggoner said, a pre-made item wasn’t compelled speech (5:5-8). The crux of the issue is intent. When Phillips puts a pre-made product on display “in the stream of commerce in a public accommodation setting, his speech has been completed,” (6:1-4). However, when you consider custom designed cakes, it’s a whole new ballgame (6:7-10). Thus it is with Phillips; “we are drawing the line prior to the compulsion — there can be no compulsion of speech,” (6:4-6). And, this is about more than putting “words and symbols” onto the cake – it’s the act of custom making the product itself (8:8-19).

So, where is the line? Who can claim an artistic exemption on the basis of compelled speech? The justices hammered away on this line. Can a florist (11:9-13)? Yes, Wagonner said (11:14-17). What about a wedding invitation designer (11:18-21)? Of course (11:22). What about hair stylists (12:8) or makeup artists (12:17)?

  • “Absolutely not,” Waggoner says (12:9).
  • Justice Kagan is aghast; “Why is there no speech in — in creating a wonderful hairdo,” (12:12-13)?

Waggoner provided a legal answer, but not a particularly logical one. A tailor, a chef, a hairstylist and a makeup artist don’t produce “speech” because they (1) aren’t communicating a message with their product, and (2) their product isn’t analogous to other forms of protected speech (12:9-11; 12:23-13:5; 14:16-21).

This prompted Justice Sotomayor to ask how the Court could protect Phillips’ cake as a medium for public expression, when its primary purpose is to be eaten (15:21-25)!? Simple, Waggoner replied.

“[I]in the wedding context, Mr. Phillips is painting on a blank canvas. He is creating a painting on that canvas that expresses messages, and including words and symbols in those messages,” (16:9-14).

Well, what about sandwich artists (16:24-17:3)? The difference, Waggoner says, is the message being conveyed:

… when we have someone that is sketching and sculpting and hand designing something, that is creating a temporary sculpture that serves as the centerpiece of what they believe to be a religious wedding celebration, that cake expresses a message (17:4-10).

This distinction is the heart of the issue, according to Waggoner. If the very nature of the product is communicative, then you have “speech,” and this speech cannot be compelled. For example, this is why architecture is not “speech,” because “buildings are functional, not communicative,” (17:20-23).

Justice Breyer weighed in:

So, in other words, Mies or Michelangelo or someone is not protected when he creates the Laurentian steps, but this cake baker is protected when he creates the cake without any message on it for a wedding? Now, that — that really does baffle me, I have to say (18:4-10).

So, where on earth is the line (19:1-11)? What should we do? The answer, Waggoner says, is simple: “Is the individual who’s being compelled to speak objecting to the message that’s contained in that speech or the person? And that’s usually a very obvious inquiry,” (20:7-11). This is why Waggoner believes the issue of public accommodation laws related to race are completely different; “we know that that objection would be based to who the person is, rather than what the message is,” (23:3-6).

Here is the dividing line, and it isn’t something a secular Court can decide. Is sexual identity a legitimate category at all, from a Christian perspective? You can’t set theology aside here, because it informs how you answer the question. Everybody has a foundation for his worldview, and the Christian worldview (based on the Scriptures) proclaims that all sexual thoughts, intents and actions outside a monogamous, male and female sexual relationship in the context of a marriage covenant is deviant. To the Christian, “sexual identity” is not a legitimate category, because it isn’t part of the original, “good” created order. Race is, sexual identity is not.[2]

Waggoner, of course, didn’t go there. She simply continued to push the distinction between the racial public accommodation laws (which were about who the person is) and the Phillips case which, she insisted, is about the message, not the people. It’s unclear whether she (and her client) actually believe this, or if it’s merely a convenient legal peg to hang their case on.

How can the State fairly decide whether this message vs. identity distinction isn’t just a smokescreen? This was Justice Gorsuch’s question (24:18-21), and he didn’t receive a satisfactory answer.

Solicitor General’s Response on Behalf of Baker (from Noel Francisco)

Francisco insisted there must be “breathing space” for free speech protections for business owners, so they aren’t compelled to engage in “speech” for an event they disagree with (26:1-8). Dignity interests cut both ways, he argued (28:1-8).

What about a situation in a rural context, where only very limited services are available (28:10-29:11)? Leave that to the individual states, Francisco said (29:12-17).

Where is “the line?” You figure that out, he answered, by applying a two-fold test:

  1. can the “art” in question be analogized to traditional art in a legitimate way, and
  2. “is it predominantly art or predominantly utilitarian,” (41:1-3)?

In Phillips’ case, Francisco observed, “people pay very high prices for these highly sculpted cakes, not because they taste good, but because of their artistic qualities,” (41:3-6).

The goal is the intent of the purchaser. Is it merely a cake to be eaten? Why not go to Safeway? No, they clearly sought out Phillips so he could create, sculpt and fashion a special cake which is analogous to a traditional sculpture “except for the medium used,” (40:18-20). Is the creation’s purpose and effect intended to be (1) artistic, or (2) utilitarian? That is the key to answering the question (42:2-24).

In Phillips’ case, they sought him out for artistic purposes, to create an artistic and aesthetic effect on the wedding guests. Thus, they asked him to “speak” through the medium of the cake, and his “speech” must be protected. Francisco closed with a “slippery-slope” argument:

… if you were to disagree with our basic principle, putting aside the line about whether a cake falls on speech or non-speech side of the line, you really are envisioning a situation in which you could force, for example, a gay opera singer to perform at the Westboro Baptist Church just because that opera singer would be willing to perform at the National Cathedral (46:13-21).

State of Colorado (from Frederick Yarger)

Colorado’s position is simple (47:12-22):

  1. if you are a retail establishment, then
  2. you’re subject to anti-discrimination laws, and
  3. “you cannot turn away from your storefront if you’re a retail store,” (65:21-23).

It really is that simple and, if you’re a retail establishment, the State can require you to serve a customer (50:11-19).

What about, say, a same-sex couple who went to Catholic Legal Services and demanded to be given legal service related to their marriage? Would Colorado force them to provide service (50:21-51:23)? Yes, Yarger says, if Catholic Legal Services were operating in a retail context, “then Colorado would have the ability to regulate them,” (52:3).

Justice Kennedy brought up an interesting point. Colorado’s opinion read, in part, that “freedom of religion used to justify discrimination is a despicable piece of rhetoric,” (52:14-16). Why shouldn’t the Court assume Colorado is prejudiced against religion, and act accordingly? Kennedy asked Yarger three times if he disavowed the statement, and Yarger tap-danced mightily to avoid answering (52:17-53:15). If there were a bias on Colorado’s part, he claimed, of course there would be the problem (54:12-16). But, such was not the case (55:15-23).

Colorado’s issue, Yarger said, is that Philipps’ actions were based on the identity of the customer. Phillips may claim the message is the problem but, Yarger argued, the message here is linked with the customer’s identity, so the argument lacks merit. “[T]he message in this case, Your Honor, depended entirely on the identity of the customer who was ordering the cake,” (62:15-18). So, if the baker chooses to refuse service, he is being discriminatory (63:16-21).

Justice Kennedy, once again, chimed in with some stern words (64:3-8):

Counselor, tolerance is essential in a free society. And tolerance is most meaningful when it’s mutual. It seems to me that the state in its position here has been neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’s religious beliefs.

Yarger disagreed, and his position hinges on granting the idea that “sexual identity” is a valid category, on par with race and sex (64:14-65:3). They’re protected by public accommodation laws, so “sexual identity” must be, too.

Attorney for Homosexual Couple (from David Cole)

Cole traveled over much of the same ground Yarger did. Beware the slippery slope; “to accept his argument leads to unacceptable consequences,” (74:20-21). Sexual identity is a valid category, along with race and sex (75:9-16).

Cole dismissed Francisco’s “artistic purpose and effect” argument. If a mom buys a cake for a child’s birthday party, “no one thinks that the baker is wishing happy birthday to the four-year-old. It’s the mom,” (78:1-3). The issue isn’t some alleged “message,” it’s the identity of the homosexual couple. “Because in this case, again, the only thing the baker knew about these customers was that they were gay. And, as a result, he refused to sell them any wedding cake,” (79:4-8).

For Colorado, if you’re in retail, your private beliefs do not allow you to discriminate against a protected class (92:6-10), and sexual identity is a protected class (87:13-19; 89:7-10). Justice Kennedy retorted, “your identity thing is just too facile,” (89:23-24).

Conclusion

The legal arguments hinge on whether the act of making a cake is “speech,” and whether that “speech” can be compelled by the State. Both sides presented valid “slippery-slope” arguments in support of their own positions. On balance, it is doubtful whether you can logically separate the identity of a homosexual couple from the message their wedding cake is meant to convey.

Aside from the legal arguments, there is a more profound question for the Christian – where is the dividing line between one’s right to soul liberty, and the opportunity to share the Gospel in all sorts of negative contexts? Could Philipps have baked the cake, and still made a positive opportunity out of this? Have his actions served to “maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation,” (1 Pet 2:12)?

Should we allow everyone do what they want, according to their own consciences? Is this the best solution? Os Guinness wrote a book advocating a sophisticated version of this approach, and remarked,

Soul freedom for all was once attacked as naive and utopian, and it is still resisted as subversive. Yet it is not only a shining ideal but a dire necessity today and an eminently practical solution to the predicaments of our time. Truly it is the golden key to a troublesome situation in which the darker angels must not be allowed to dominate.”[3]

But, when it gets down to brass tacks, how do we actually do this? This case is about that question. How do you allow people to express their sincere beliefs, yet crack down on genuine bigotry and hatred? How do you carve out these exceptions, and where does it end?

Guinness remarked that, in the end, soul freedom depends on people thinking and acting like adults, and taking their civic responsibilities seriously. “Reciprocity, mutuality and universality are the key principles of this vision of a civil public square. In this sense a civil public square is the political embodiment of the Golden Rule.”[4] In this day and age, these are not virtues that totalitarians (on either side) are anxious to model. Instead, activists seek to force their views on the public by force of law, not by persuasion and discussion in the public square:

“The constant pursuit of rights through law alone rather than the habits of the heart has caught Americans in the toils of ever-spreading law. On the one hand, it has led to a strengthening of the law at the expense of the habits of the heart, of litigation at the expense of both civic education and the role of parents and schools, and of the lawyers and the lawyer class at the expense of other public servants.[5]

This case is the fruit of this particularly poisonous tree. The Court has been made the arbitrator of morality. How can the Court fulfill this mission? How can it draw the line this homosexual couple wants it to draw? In a moment of candor, Justice Breyer admitted, “I can’t think of a way to do it,” (59:11-12).

Notes

[1] I make no attempt to summarize or even reference the various briefs filed by the Petitioners or Respondents. Here is the question before the Supreme Court. If you’re interested, you can find them. Throughout this article, I’m referencing the official transcript of oral arguments. The citation format in the article is page number : line number.

[2] Of course, in the end, the only category distinctions which have eternal significance are (1) believer or (2) non-believer. Or, as the Didache puts it, “there are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways,” (Didache 1:1).

[3] Os Guinness, The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), 14.

[4] Guinness (Global Public Square, 181).

[5] Guinness (Global Public Square, 149).