Thursday, April 30, 2009
I'm back in Canada after a great time at the John Bunyan Conference in Lewisburg, PA. I will report on the conference in an upcoming blog so stay tuned. Tomorrow, Friday May 1st, is graduation at Toronto Baptist Seminary. And as previously mentioned we are looking forward to the ministry of my brother, Dr. Stephen Wellum from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. The graduation exercises begin at 8:00 PM and everyone is invited to join in the celebration at Jarvis Street Baptist Church in downtown Toronto. Please check out our website if you want more information: www.tbs.edu.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Today I want to return to my posts on the Old Testament book of Daniel. In chapter 4 after Nebuchadnezzar has told Daniel his dream, Daniel was greatly perplexed and his thoughts terrified him. From the look on Daniel's face it was evident to the king that the dream was ominous and he encouraged Daniel to tell him its meaning. In language typical of New Eastern courts, Daniel wishes the dream on someone else, and then he explains its meaning to the king. In his interpretation Daniel recounts the greatness of Nebuchadnezzar and then tells how God has pronounced judgment on him for his arrogant pride. We should not think that God is not picking on Nebuchadnezzar because his judgments are always just and righteous. Nebuchadnezzar could have been cut off instantly without warning, but God deals with him in grace and mercy. God confronts him again and again and gives him many opportunities to repent. And even in pronouncing judgment there is a promise of restoration, so that even in his judgments God is gracious. In fact, it is very gracious of God to show anyone his sovereign lordship over the kingdoms of earth even though many never respond appropriately to this revelation.
Notice how this section comes to a close in verse 27 with Daniel urging the king to repent. "Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue" (4:27). Daniel's words reveal the heart of God when it comes to sinful human beings. In Ezekiel 18:23 he tells us that he does not take any pleasure in the death of the wicked, rather, he is pleased when they turn from their ways and live. And in Matthew 23:37 we see the same sentiment expressed by Jesus when he says, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing."
This suggests that if Nebuchadnezzar humbled himself in repentance judgment might be averted. Daniel's "advice" is a wonderful example of biblical preaching and exhortation. It is never too late. There is a mysterious tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility and we must not presume to know what God will do in advance if we heed his warnings and respond to the convicting work of his Spirit. Daniel did not glory in the king's troubles like a jealous captive longing for the downfall of his overlord, but he pleads with him to renounce his sins and his wickedness and to throw himself on the Lord's mercy. We need to do the same both as sinners who need to repent and as proclaimers of God's words of judgment and mercy.
Friday, April 24, 2009
Here is an interesting audio piece on "Selling God," by Terry O'Reilly, produced for CBC Radio. What makes it interesting from my perspective is that the "world" can see what Christian and religious marketers seem to miss no matter how orthodox their theological convictions.
In a day of bigger and better churches and conferences and multi-media presentations that have given birth to a whole new generation of religious stars I cannot help but wonder if we are missing something vital and in the process inadvertently distorting new covenant Christianity.
Eventually I hope that many will reject the glitter of the mega-church and the superstar pastor-scholars who tell everyone what to do and to think. For all the talk of launching and planting and building churches my experience is that most are more concerned with plugging people into programs that facilitate the growth the organization and the renown of the leaders at the top.
This is not how it should be and I think that deep down inside everyone knows that. People need to be told the truth in a way they can understand and in a way that relates to their lives. They need community and relationships that are meaningful and they need to be involved in the world around them and not just plugged into support groups, fellowship groups and Bible studies.
Whatever you think about these issues, O'Reilly's report is worth listening to and thinking about. And the key word is thinking -- today, as never before, people need to think about who is saying what, why they are saying it, where they are coming from and most importantly, is it really true!
Thursday, April 23, 2009
There are terrible tragedies that take place in our world everyday but in my mind one of the worst is the abduction of children. Whenever I hear that a child has gone missing or has been abducted my heart sinks and I try to imagine what that must be like for the parents, not to mention the missing child. Such an event changes everything. It is life and world altering. In a moment schedules are turned upside down and inside out. Families and individuals are torn apart. There are no easy answers as to why this happens. I am not saying there are no answers, only that there are no easy ones. Unfortunately there are many things about this life that are painful and discouraging, there are many frustrations and disappointments. We should all pray that lost children will be found and that broken families might be restored, and quickly, if that is possible. And not only should we pray but we should do whatever we can to protect those who cannot stick up for themselves and work to give them relief from their oppressors.
Christian theology based on the Bible longs for a better day. This longing should not make us useless while we wait for the dawning of that day but should instead fill us with energy to work for substantial change here and now. Even though we cannot bring in the final kingdom by our efforts, the fact that there will be a renewal and transformation of all things stirs our imaginations and liberates our creativity. The message of the gospel is freedom for the prisoners and the recovery of sight for the blind, it is to set the oppressed free and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (cf. Luke 4:18-19). This gospel freedom is based on the work of the Christ, the Messiah, who sets at liberty those who call on him. He is able to do so because he died in our place and by so doing paid the price of our sins. His death broke the shackles of demonic darkness that held our minds and hearts. The success of his work is what we celebrate at Easter when we remember his resurrection from the dead and his triumphal ascension forty days later. Because of Jesus, Christians believe that a better day is coming when the tears and sorrows of this life will be gone forever for those who know and love the Lord. Until that day comes, may we do what we can to make a difference in a world that can be so sad. This is the least we can do as those whose own personal freedom was purchased at so great a cost.
Monday, April 20, 2009
This week I'm returning to Daniel and some thoughts based on the experience of Nebuchadnezzar in chapter 4. In one sense what is related in chapter 4 is intensely personal -- the living God confronts King Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful man in the world at that time. But in another sense the story has something to say to everyone because Nebuchadnezzar is a kind of ultimate man -- the epitome of what it means to be a human in rebellion against God. In the king's encounter with God we see what happens when God and man go one-on-one. And we learn that it is a mistake to worship anyone or anything other than God. He alone is worthy of our adoration because he has given us everything that we enjoy and without him we are nothing no matter how great we may appear to be in the eyes of others. Reflection will reveal that these are valuable lessons indeed.
Daniel 4 is a three part play. It begins with Nebuchadnezzar's dream which he does not understand, then it moves to Daniel's interpretation of the dream and his words of warning to the king, and then it concludes with a record of fulfillment with everything taking place as God revealed it to Daniel. It is important to note that all that transpires in the chapter is sandwiched between opening and closing words of praise in which the king confesses the ultimate supremacy of the God of heaven. Nebuchadnezzar had to learn the hard way that the Lord, he is God.
In his dream Nebuchadnezzar saw a large tree in the middle of the earth, an alternative 'tree of life,' that grew very tall and strong and reached into the heavens for all the world to see. It had fresh green leaves, and it was loaded with fruit for all to eat. It provided shade for the wild animals, and birds nested in its branches. All the world was fed from this tree. But in his dream Nebuchadnezzar hears the command of heaven to fell the tree. It must come down until he (not it) has learned that "the Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world and that he gives them to anyone he chooses -- even to the lowliest of people." What a valuable lesson. God is not a local, tribal deity but calls all men and nations to account. And those who rule and exercise authority do so by permission, he calls the shots, and in the end they are accountable to him. There is only room for one God in the universe and in our lives and he will not tolerate rivals. And though he is patient and does not always demonstrate his sovereignty as dramatically as he did in the case of Nebuchadnezzar, what happened to the ancient king should lead everyone to think more soberly about themselves and their accomplishments.
To be continued... next Daniel's interpretation.
Friday, April 17, 2009
Without wanting to unnecessarily prolong the discussion about propitiation I received an email from a pastor friend of mine who recently surveyed his congregation in order to better understand their grasp of the Bible and theology. After reading Monday's post on propitiation he related the results of his survey on that particular word and gave me permission to share it here. He found that only a small percentage connected with word with God's wrath. An equally small percentage had no idea what it means. The majority connected it generally with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and the payment of our sins. Not everyone in the church turned in the take home survey.
In terms of context, I should mention that this is a congregation that has been very well instructed over the years and I know their current pastor is an excellent preacher who takes Bible exposition seriously, hence the survey in the first place! But in spite of all the instruction the word "propitiation" is not that well known or understood. If this is true within a church like this then it is easy to see why the word is incomprehensible to most English speaking people today, not to mention those for whom English is a second or third language. To me this is reason enough to look for other ways to get at the vital theological truths that were subsumed under the older, now completely archaic word. The concept of Jesus removing God's wrath and providing forgiveness for our sins is non-negotiable, but an old word that no longer communicates anything is not.
My friend also wrote: "Maybe it's worth considering that pastors and teachers are completely out of touch with how much people learn from them, when it comes to defining big theological words." I think he is right. Just because our words are orthodox doesn't mean people understand them. In my experience it is easy to confuse people with big words but it is much more difficult to explain profound and important concepts in a way that they can understand and apply to their lives. This is the real challenge of preaching and teaching in the 21st century, as I suspect is has always been throughout the gospel age. I think the take away lesson is this: that we must work hard to get our doctrine right, and then we must work twice as hard to communicate what really matters to others in a way that they can understand.
Monday, April 13, 2009
Here is a thought provoking post by Rick Mansfield on the use of the word "propitiation" in English Bibles. Today some people judge the accuracy and usefulness of Bible versions based on the presence or absence of this unusual English word. Without a doubt is it very important to understand and to explain to modern audiences the meaning of the Greek word ἱλαστήριον but the oft repeated mantra that the word "propitiation" must be used in the English Bible to accurately represent what God is doing in Christ is perhaps overblown. Whichever way you look at it many words are required to explain the Gospel properly. And today it is not enough to simply parrot what others have said about the necessary use of "propitiation" as if the word itself explains the text. Theology should open up the text not obscure it with fancy words that only pastor-scholars can understand.
Yesterday at Grace Church Don Mills, I spoke about something that happened in the afternoon of the first resurrection Sunday. According to Luke's gospel, Cleopas and his companion were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus when they were joined by Jesus, even though they did not know it was him at first.
The story is one that fires the imagination of every Christian because all of us would love to have heard the greatest Easter sermon ever preached and that by none other than the risen Christ. It is not surprising that the hearts of Cleopas and his companion burned within them while Jesus talked with them on the road and opened the Scriptures to them. What an exposition that would have been as he began with Moses and then took them through all of the Prophets and explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself! Truly awesome!
But beyond chronicling the historical event as further proof that Jesus was alive Luke's story teaches us other lessons. For instance, it speaks to us of the benefits of spiritual conversation. Jesus drew near to two men who were talking about the "things of God." Sometimes when Christians gather they talk about anything but the "things of God." But when we do we miss out on the spiritual encouragement that only God can give.
The account also shows us that ignorance and grace can exist simultaneously in God's people. There were unique reasons for the ignorance of these two men, and yet, Jesus says that they were "foolish and slow to believe all that the prophets have written." Though we live on the new covenant side of the cross we are not yet glorified. We continue to see through a glass darkly until we see Jesus face to face. We need to be patient with ourselves and with other Christians as we strive together to grasp the sweep of biblical revelation.
We also see that some of God's greatest blessings are reserved for those who ask. As the trio approached Emmaus Jesus acted as if he were going further. But they urged him strongly to say with them because it was evening and the day was almost over. He relented and their subsequent time around the table was a blessing to them and to all who read the account of what happened to this day. God delights to give gifts to his children. But he wants us to ask for them in faith. It is good for us and it brings him glory.
Finally, those who have seen the risen Christ cannot keep silent or remain inactive. After Jesus revealed himself to them and he disappear out of their sight they did not call it a night! In the dark they retraced the 7 miles from Emmaus to Jerusalem, they found the Eleven and those with them and they told how they had seen Jesus and how he was recognized by them when he broke the bread. So it should be with us even though we have not seen Jesus with our physical eyes. To know him is to love him and to want others to love him too.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Yesterday at Trinity Baptist Church, my friend and fellow blogger Pastor Paul Martin from Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto spoke to us about the love of God demonstrated in the death of Jesus on the cross. He reminded us that Easter is a time when Christians remember the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and the salvation that is made freely available to all who come to God through him. As gory as the death of Jesus was, this is a time of celebration and hope for Christian believers because what Jesus did on the cross brings freedom and forgiveness in the present and it assures us that the best is yet to come.
After relating the tragedy of the fall and God's determination to rescue Adam's fallen race the message of the Bible is that God saves sinners. All three words are significant. First, it is God who saves. We cannot save ourselves. There is nothing that we can do to restore our broken relationship with God. Without his intervention we are not even interested in being "saved." He did not have to save us, but when he determined to do so, there was no turning back and his plan will not fail. Second, saves speaks of our precarious situation apart from divine grace. We were lost, enslaved and heading for destruction when God went after us. Even though God's work in Christ educates, it is more than just education. And though it rehabilitates it is more than rehabilitation. God's work in Christ is salvation. He has come to our aid when we needed it most. Third, sinners magnifies his grace and love. God did not save us because we were delightful or lovable or irresistible. He saves us for his own glory. He is the God of the surprise and the unexpected. The God of a man like Jacob who was a scoundrel and schemer before God subdued his wandering heart. God saves sinners.
At the end of Daniel 3, King Nebuchadnezzar, one of the great kings of Babylon, speaks of God's prowess to save. After Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were rescued from his furnace of fire in such a way that they did not even smell of smoke, Nebuchadnezzar was left with no option but to acknowledge the supremacy of God. Earlier when threatening the three Hebrews with death he had said "and what god will be able to rescue you from my hand!" In the narrative that followed God showed the arrogant monarch that there is one God, the only and only true God, and he is able to rescue his servants from the wrath and fury of the most powerful man on earth.
But the event is more impressive than Nebuchadnezzar realized because not only in this particular instance is God able to save like no other - but he is able to save from a greater fire to come, a fire that is justly kindled against sin and sinners by God himself. That's right, there is a fire greater than Nebuchadnezzar's! And it is God's own fire. The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews actually says that "our God is a consuming fire" (12:29). And the wonder of the Easter Gospel is that God saves his people from his own fire. He delivers us from the fire of his holiness.
Easter also reminds us that this deliverance - this salvation - was very costly. God is able to save because the fire of his wrath fell on his Son who came among us and he quenched the heat of the flames. So this Easter, as we think about the death and resurrection of Jesus, we should be humbled and thankful at the same time. Humbled because we need saving. Thankful because God is saving us from our sins. The great foundation of our salvation has been laid, his work in our lives continues through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and will one day it will be complete when we see Jesus, our risen Lord, face to face.
Thursday, April 09, 2009
What are we to think of Christian leaders who have time to tell us about the minutia of their lives? I'm not referring to the use of new technology like Facebook and Twitter to post something worth reading, but I am talking about those who write stuff like this: "I worked out this morning, had my devotions, read a book, had lunch with so-in-so, spent some time with my wife, met with the misguided souls who follow me around and hang on my every word, I'm clearing my desk, I'm thinking about life, I'm taking my medication," and on and on ad nauseum. Why don't they go all the way and tell us what they ate for breakfast, which leg they first insert into their pants, and their body fat ratio! Hasn't this nonsense got out of hand?
Don't these fellows, and some of them are pretty famous, or at least legends in their own minds, have anything better to do? Maybe this is why they need so many salaried assistants. Have they never heard of getting out of the way so that Jesus Christ might be clearly seen by a world that is completely turn off by and unimpressed by "servants" who seem more enamoured with themselves, their names and their market share than anything else? Please, we don't need any more foolishness or gimmicks like "first person preaching" which is often just a "one person show" or to draw attention to ourselves and our "ministries."
Rather what we need are self-deprecating men who understand that it is not about them but about the Lord Jesus Christ and his willingness and ability to save those who need saving. The sad reality is that many Christian leaders do not have a clue how to talk to the world around them. Having spent too much time breathing the rarefied air of their own sheltered environments they think that if they can talk with great applause to churchy people they can talk to anyone. What they don't realize is that churchy folk invariably let them off the hook far too easily and rarely press them to give anything more than superficial answers. This Easter what we need is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that will result in less Facebooking and Twittering etc., and more real labor in the kingdom of God.
Saturday, April 04, 2009
Returning again to Daniel 3, a third lesson we learn is that religious ceremony is not enough and sometimes serves as a cover for hypocrisy. In one sense, Nebuchadnezzar knew how to conduct a "worship service" or "worship experience." He understood the value of ritual and knew how to give everything an aura of significance. What a sight his enormous statue must have been! What magnificent aesthetic appeal! An image of gold 90 feet high and 9 feet wide. Officials and dignitaries from across the kingdom. A herald, like a ring announcer or a master of ceremonies, musicians and many different kinds of instruments. And then there were the crowds of people -- the nations were represented and people of every language.
Daniel wants us to put ourselves there, in the crowd. He wants us to take it all in, to see it and hear it and feel it. The glory and power and excitement of the throng. Then see his three Hebrew friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the captives from Jerusalem, refusing to bow before the golden statue. They were willing to defy the king no matter what the consequences. That took 'guts' and more than that -- it took faith in God. By refusing to bow they were saying that as believers in the one true God their worship must be consistent with what he has revealed about himself. They were not permitted to worship any way they saw fit even though everyone around them felt no such responsibility and were willing to do whatever the king required.
We hear a lot about 'worship' and 'worship wars' today. Much of the talk and debate is just plain silly and is the result of people mistaking their preferences for God's requirements. It is a good thing that we will be gloriously transformed when Christ returns otherwise the variety and flexibility of worship in the new heavens and earth will be a bit of a shock to those whose staid routines or superficial praise are standard fare here on earth. But one thing that is non-negotiable is truth. We must worship in Spirit and truth. And our worship must spill over into our lives as we offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, for this is true worship (Romans 12:2).
Before we leave this point notice that Nebuchadnezzar uses religious ceremony to advance his own cause. In verse 15 he says: "Then what god will deliver you from my hand?" which shows, I think, that he saw religion and religious ceremony as a means to an end. For him it was another way to consolidate power and to unify the kingdom of Babylon around himself. He is not the first, nor the last political figure to think more highly of himself than God. Nor is he the last to use religion to further his own ends. While it seems to work in the short-term, down the road of God's purposes he will learn that there is an infinite gap between men and God.
Friday, April 03, 2009
Money is not the answer to everything and some people are better parents than others even though they may have little of this world's resources. How refreshing to see that there are some people in the little impoverished African country of Malawi who understand this and are willing to say 'no' to a highly visible symbol of western decadence and the warped entertainment system that puts so much money in the hands of someone like Madonna.
Returning to Daniel 3, we see how easy it is for people to misinterpret God's dealings with them. We saw in chapter 2 how God in grace made known to Nebuchadnezzar what would happen in the future. But it seems that the king became obsessed with himself and went to idolatrous lengths to consolidate his power. Maybe he imagined that his preeminence as "the king of kings and the head of gold" (cf. 2:36, 38) justified the image and the ceremony. But if this is what he thought, he was wrong.
Given Nebuchadnezzar's egotistical actions in spite of God's gracious revelation to him we should not be surprised when human beings take the word of God and twist it to suit their own agendas, imaginations and desires. And it should not confound us when they put the strangest interpretations on the events of their lives and God's providential dealings with them. This is what we all do until we are subdued by grace and enrolled in the school of the Spirit. Nebuchadnezzar shows us that it is not more revelation or information that we need but the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit who teaches us how to interpret the facts of God's word and our lives.
I know people who justify the unjustifiable by their skewed interpretations of scripture. By taking verses out of context they imagine they have biblical authority for their wild ideas and actions. Or they misread what may be interpreted as "open doors" or "providential circumstances" because they make the unwarranted assumption that an "open door" or "circumstance" is an infallible indicator of God's will or blessing. When it might just as easily be a trial or test of their faith, or a Satanic "red herring" to distract them from more important things. Our spiritual forefathers were often much more discerning in these matters.
Take for example the "blessing" of wealth. It may well be a blessing and stewardship from God. But it might also be a test to see where our loyalty lies, and it may even be a curse and precursor of inevitable judgment. Careful and sober reflection on a variety of factors is necessary in order to discern the will of God. Nebuchadnezzar is an example of a man who did not look deep enough and consequently did not learn the lessons that were open right there before him. May we not repeat his mistakes.
Wednesday, April 01, 2009
It's hard to believe but true... Toronto Baptist Seminary's 2009 Graduation Exercises are only a month away. That's right, Friday, May 1st at 8:00 PM at Jarvis Street Baptist Church, we will be celebrating the goodness of God that has seen us through another year as well as the many accomplishments of our students.
You are invited to join with us on this happy occasion. Our special speaker for the evening will be Dr. Stephen Wellum, the Associate Professor of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Toronto Baptist Seminary and Bible College are located at 130 Gerrard Street East in Toronto. Please check out our website (www.tbs.edu) or call 416-925-3263 if you would like more information.
We are excited about what God is doing at the school in these days. He has blessed us with a top-notch team of instructors and an enthusiastic and hard working group of students from many different countries and churches.
The renovation of our student residences is well underway and we are looking forward to upgrading our facilities further as the Lord enables us. Please pray that this years graduates will serve faithfully wherever God calls them.
Hope to see you Friday evening May 1st!