Monday, November 30, 2009

Authority and the Kingdom of God

Today I'm going to talk about what the Bible says about authority. This teaching is one of the central Christian teachings. Sadly, often times Christians fail to understand and correctly apply this teaching.

Along the way, I will begin to answer a question I posed awhile back, namely, What is the Kingdom of God?

First though, let me talk about what we usually mean when we say authority. The first definition in that link is the one I have in mind. It reads "The power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine or judge." In other words, authority is the power to govern.

In our screwed-up world authority is a results driven business. For every nation on the planet, their authority, their ability to govern, is backed by force or by the threat of force. Military force is used to guard the borders and prevent revolution, and police forces are used to enforce the laws. This isn't because every nation is evil, though some certainly are. This is because force is an effective means of controlling people and, as I've already said, authority is a results driven business.

Keeping that in mind, the Biblical definition of authority is strange and deeply counter intuitive. The Bible teaches us that the real way to exercise authority is by loving people selflessly. We wield authority when we take care of other people's needs without considering our own.

I'll give you a moment to let that sink in.

One reason why this definition seems so strange is because it is fundamentally backwards. Normally, the whole point of having authority is so that I can get other people to do what I want. Under this strange new definition, authority means the opposite of what we think it should.

Secondly, this definition is strange because it isn't especially results driven to say the least. You could love someone selflessly for their whole life without seeing any results. Love isn't an effective means of persuasion, because, among many other reasons, humans are terribly ungrateful.

Nevertheless this is how the Bible teaches us to rule. Love is the basis for God's authority in the Old Testament. Abraham first follows God because God promises to bless him. Later God leads his people out of Egypt because He had compassion on them. When God gives the Israelites the Law He expects them to obey because He rescued them from Egypt.

Throughout the Old Testament God is always promising to love and care for his people. We tend to assume that the God of the Old Testament is full of judgment and wrath. Indeed there are many times in the Old Testament where God does punish his people, but that is not how he typically reacts. In the Old Testament we see again and again that God is slow to anger and rich in love. God only brings judgment as a last resort.

In Jesus we see the loving kindness of God at its full measure. Jesus comes to Earth and ultimately gives up His life for our sake. In doing this, not only does Jesus give us peace with the Father, he also gives us an example to follow. He gives a model of what real authority looks like. He shows us what His Kingdom looks like.

Perhaps the passage where we see most clearly how the role of servant and king come together in John 13. In that passage we see that even though Jesus humbled Himself to serve them, He was still their king. Indeed he was a king because of his humble service, not in spite of it.

This teaching has a lot of implications for how Christians aught to live. It is one of the most important teachings in all of scripture. Indeed, this teaching helps to clarify a lot of what is said elsewhere in the Bible. It also serves as a powerful illustration of what the Christian way of life really is.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Evolution and the Beginning

Today I'm going to be talking about the first three chapters of Genesis. I'll be talking about what it means and why I don't think it contradicts the theory of evolution.

The first three chapters of Genesis are about God and his relationship with nature and his relationship with humanity. The core message of these chapters is that there is only one God who created everything. He created everything that we perceive with our senses. He made people to rule the earth and they lived with God in paradise. But a deceiver tricked humanity into rebelling against God. As punishment, humanity was banished from paradise, but God promised that humanity would one day have victory over the deceiver.

The rest of the scripture follows from here. It is the story of God working through humanity to give us victory over evil and brings us back into paradise and back into relationship with Him. I know I'm only talking about Genesis 1-3, but I want to emphasize that this scripture is a vital part of God's message for humanity.

People who read this scripture often get hung up on the many details that seem implausible to us. Some people use them as an excuse to disregard the message of the bible altogether. Others insist that we must believe that creation unfolded exactly as Genesis describes, no matter how unlikely it seems. I believe that so long as we understand the core message of scripture, whether we believe that creation took seven days or several billion years isn't terribly important.

A lot of Christians will insist that it's important that we read these early chapters of Genesis literally. What most people don't realize is that ever since the beginning Christians have been interpreting these passages figuratively. For example, most Christians agree that the serpent in Genesis 3 is actually Satan in disguise (hence the reference in Revelation to "That ancient serpent".) A merely literal reading of Genesis 1-3 provides no evidence for that conclusion, yet it is a pivotal element of Christian theology. To give another example, the opening verses in the Gospel of John are a figurative reinterpretation of Genesis 1. John equates the "light" in Genesis 1 with the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Having said that, I'd like to address the question I posed at the beginning. Can Genesis 1-3 be reconciled with the theory of evolution? The main issue, as I see it, is the claim that people, plants and animals were made by God. However, this claim is not a problem if we believe that God worked through natural means, like evolution, to form each of these things. This idea isn't contrary to scripture in any way. Indeed God tells Jeshurun that He made him and formed him in his mothers womb. Here we see that God can work through completely natural means to bring about His desired end and I personally believe that that is what he did when he made Adam and Eve.

Why do I interpret the Bible this way? There are two reasons. The first reason is because I believe that God is not a deceiver. When we try to understand the natural world we should go where the evidence takes us. If it appears as though all life has a common ancestor, then either all life has a common ancestor or God is playing a practical joke on us. I chose to believe the former.

The second reason has to do with my view on the nature of scripture. I believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, but I also believe that that divinely inspired message was written for people of a particular time and place. As such it was written in terms that they would understand and accept. All of the strange details of early Genesis that confuse us are things that made perfect sense to the people that the book was originally written for. God was gracious to give them the message in terms that they could understand, and I believe that we have the right to interpret the scriptures and apply its message in terms that we can understand.

I hope you found my explanation satisfying or at least interesting. Feel free to comment and let me know what you think. I welcome any criticism or compliments you may have.

Monday, November 16, 2009

When is the Kingdom Coming?

This post is influenced by The Gospel of the Kingdom by George Ladd. If you find this post interesting and you want to know more I would recommend reading it. I don't agree with everything he says, but I definitely think that the book is worth reading.

I've already talked about what the Kingdom of God is and why the Kingdom of God is important. Today I'll be talking about an even more challenging issue. When is the Kingdom coming?

Perhaps the most common view is that God's Kingdom will come in the future. According to this view we only truly enter the Kingdom of God when Christ returns or when we die.

If we look at scripture we will find some support for this view. Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God as an inheritance which we will receive in the future. Also, the book of Revelation speaks of the day when the kingdoms of this world shall become the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.

However, if we continue to look at scripture we will see many instances where Jesus seems to be saying that the Kingdom is about to arrive or that it is already here. He talks about people entering the Kingdom of God now and he tells people that the Kingdom of God has come upon them.

After reading all these passages it can seem a little confusing. In some it seems as though the Kingdom has already come. In others it seems as though it won't come
until Christ returns.

How do we make sense of all this? Amid the sea of seemingly contradictory statements that the Bible makes about the Kingdom of God, there are two parables that Jesus uses to describe God's Kingdom that will help us to understand what is going on.

Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like a tiny seed or like a small bit of yeast. The tiny seed grows into a bush so big that the birds of the air can build their nests in it. The small bit of yeast is eventually works through an enormous batch of dough so that the whole thing rises.

The Bible makes it clear that the Kingdom of God is here among us right now. Jesus brought it with him when he came to earth as a small, seemingly insignificant baby. Through the ministry of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit God's Kingdom has come to earth.

At the same time the Kingdom of God isn't fully here. The Kingdom of God still needs to grow and expand and do its work. In the meantime we wait for the day when we can say that, at last, God's Kingdom has come.

So to answer the question I started with, the Kingdom of God has already come, it is coming right now, and it will come in the future. I hope that clears things up for you.

Monday, November 9, 2009

(Dis)Unity and the Church

I wrote this post after this post on Interetmonk got me thinking about Christian unity. Today I'm going to talk about the brokenness of the American church and reflect on how we got here.

One of the major teachings in the New Testament is that Christians should be united. In John 17 Jesus prays that all who believe in Him should be one. Likewise, Christian unity is a major theme in Paul's letters. Paul's letters to the Romans, Ephesians and his first letter to the Corinthians all address the issue of unity in the church.

I want to talk about how these words are lived out. I would like to talk about how Jesus' prayer has been answered. I would like to talk about how Paul's instructions are being lived out by the church. I would like to talk about these things, but I can't, because the sad truth is that the church is very deeply divided.

I should know. I'm part of the American Evangelical church. As a group, we're some of the least united and most divisive Christians around. We might talk about unity among believers, but all too often we fail to live it out, even in our local church. Even though we may say that we value unity our actions reveal a different picture.

It's not surprising that we evangelicals have a hard time with unity when you consider our history. First of all, Evangelical churches are part of the Protestant tradition, which means that we're separated from the Roman Catholic church. And ever since the Council of Trent, when the Catholic/Protestant split became official, Protestants have tried, and failed, to present a unified front against Roman Catholicism.

Very quickly, different groups of Protestants began to separate themselves, not only from Rome, but also from each other. Over time these different groups of Protestants formed many different denominations that are still with us today.

When Protestantism came to America new groups and new denominations began to form even more rapidly. You see, unlike most of Europe, America has a long history of freedom of religion. This makes it easier for new denominations and new church groups to form because the Government isn't trying to impose a single religion on its populace.

Today not only do we have hundreds of different denominations of Christianity, but we also have an increasing number of nondenominational churches. In one sense nondenominational churches can be seen as a less divisive, since they don't make the problem worse by forming a new division. The problem is that these churches are typically independent, not only from denominations, but also from each other. As a consequence, these days the American Evangelical church is broken up into thousands of tiny pieces.

In such an environment it's easy to see why people feel apathetic about unity in the church. With American Evangelicals broken fellowships are the rule rather than the exception.

Disunity in the church is a problem we have inherited, but that doesn't mean that we have to accept it. I believe that with God's help that we can reunite the broken fellowships and bring unity back to the church. In future posts I will be talking about how unity among Christians happens and how we can pursue it.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Testing the God Hypothesis

As I've said before, I believe that God works miracles. The reason why I have that belief is simple; I've seen God work miracles in my life and in the lives of my friends. I've heard arguments to convince people that God exists and that he performs miracles, but I don't find them especially convincing. I think it's something that people need to see for themselves.

To that end, I offer the following advice to anyone who may be wondering whether or not God actually exists. You should try asking God to reveal himself to you. First ask for a sign that God exists or perhaps for some small miracle. Then keep your eyes open and see what happens.

Something might happen right away, but in my experience these things often take time. If you feel like nothing's happening, you can try again. If you feel like maybe something's happening, but you're not sure, try asking God to be more clear.

Some people might think that asking God for a sign like this is putting God to the test. But, so long as you're honestly seeking God, merely asking for a sign isn't putting God to the test.

To understand why, we need to look at why that command was given. God gave Israel this command after an incident in Exodus 17. Reading the passage we see that the Israelites demanded that Moses give them water to drink. Some people jump to the conclusion that they put God to the test by demanding that God perform a sign, but that's not all that's going on here.

In the text it says that they tested God by asking, "Is God with us or not?" This passage comes after God sends plagues on Egypt. It comes after the Israelites are rescued out of Egypt. It comes after they've passed through the Red Sea. It even comes after God has sent Mana to feed them. The real reason why they're putting God to the test is that, after seeing all of that, they still doubt that God is with them. They test God because they don't believe in his goodness even after all that he has done for them.

In fact, as we look through the Bible we see that in some cases, not asking for a sign can get you in trouble. In Isaiah 7, God tells King Ahaz to ask for a sign, anything he wants. King Ahaz politely declines, saying that he doesn't want to put God to the test. Isaiah takes issue with his response, and with good reason.

The whole point of God offering King Ahaz a sign is that God knows that King Ahaz is in a tough spot and is about to make a bad decision. Two neighboring kingdoms have made an alliance against Judah (Ahaz's Kingdom) and are preparing to attack. God tells Ahaz not to worry and, since he knows that King Ahaz has little faith, he offers to give King Ahaz a sign. King Ahaz refuses God and asks Assyria to help instead.

The common thread in both of those stories is that they refuse to trust God. In the former case they refuse to trust God despite everything that God has done for them. In the later case the King refuses to trust God even though God offers to perform a great miracle for him.

The last example that I want to give comes from the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 4 Satan tempts Jesus by suggesting that he jump from the roof of the temple and count on God to save him. Jesus refuses to put God to the test. This is because Jesus does trust God, and he doesn't need some dramatic, supernatural rescue to prove that God is good.

That's why I think it's okay to ask God for a sign. For people who don't believe in God it can even be a good thing. It gives God an opportunity to reveal himself, and it gives you a chance to learn that God is good and that he can be trusted.

So, does anyone feel up for trying it? Leave a comment and let me know how it goes.