Category Archives: Scripture

Can You Believe?

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16

102113This Bible verse, John 3:16, is one of the most well known passages of scripture in the Bible. Children throughout Sunday School’s memorized this verse and it was a favorite of preachers in many revivals, such as Billy Graham preaching to a stadium. Even those who never read the Bible may remember people holding up signs that read “John 3:16” at various sporting events such as seen in the picture above.

Yes, that is how popular John 3:16 has been. The passage has been a source of debate. Is it really true that we simply must believe in Jesus to receive the promise of eternal life? Well, that is what the passage says. Ok, then. But what about repentance and baptism? Doesn’t Jesus call people to repentance and re not those who respond to the gospel message in the book of Acts called to be baptized? And, of course, the answer to all of these questions is an easy “Yes!”

But these questions also seem more like a big adventure in missing the point because they are not the questions John is answering when he wrote John 3:16.

This might make more sense if we first recognize that John 3:16 is not the words of Jesus, but the commentary of John in response to a conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus. That conversation is about being born again and seeing the kingdom of God. Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3:5-8:

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

While some interpreters see water and Spirit as a reference to baptism, these terms have more to do with life. For example, the vision in Ezekiel 36:25-27 suggests “a new begetting, a new birth that cleanses and renews, the eschatological cleansing and renewal promised by the Old Testament prophets” (Carson, The Gospel According to John, 195). Such newness of life comes from God alone and that is Jesus’ point to Nicodemus.

Keep in mind that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and as such, he believes that God will restore the kingdom when Israel returns to a strict observance of the Law and its traditions. While Jesus is not anti-Law, he is correcting the misunderstanding of Nicodemus. Seeing and entering the kingdom of God depends on the work of God but Nicodemus doesn’t get this and asks how this is possible (v. 9). So Jesus says in vv. 14-15, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believesmay have eternal life in him.” Alluding to his own pending crucifixion and resurrection (Slovan, John, 46), Jesus is telling Nicodemus that this is how God is ushering in the kingdom and this is what he must believe.

The point is simple but important: whoever wants to participate in the kingdom then  must believe that God is at work in Jesus Christ. This is what it means to believe in Jesus and why John sums up the conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus by saying in v. 16-17, “…God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

This is gospel or good news to us. It’s good news for fundamentalists and legalists but such people may have the hardest time accepting this good news. Those who are trapped in fundamentalist and legalism often believe they must “get themselves right with God” so to speak. In my own experience, participating in the eternal kingdom of God required “sound doctrine” and attending the “right” church. For others it might have to do with not watching any movies, using the KJV Bible only, and so forth. Now don’t misunderstand me, I am not trying to suggest that doctrine doesn’t matter or that moral relativism is ok. The point is this: we will only see the kingdom of God by believing that it is possible because of what God has done in the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ.

Anything else is doomed to failure and we know this because we know we are sinners. Even if we give an A+ effort, we still come up with the results of B or C or… Yes, sometimes we even get an F. The good news is that we’re no longer burned with the task of trying to get a good enough grade, because God loves us and has given his only Son, Jesus Christ, for us so that we too might see the kingdom of God and thus share in eternal life with God.

This I believe!

Can you believe?

On Violence and Sacrifice: The Cross of Jesus and the Eucharist

René Girard, in his book Violence and the Sacred, which was published in 1972 and then translated into English in 1977, explores how violence is endemic among all people of every society. When blood is shed, there must be an avenging of that blood in order to bring about justice. Of course, attempting to bring about justice by means of blood for blood… blow for blow, establishes a perpetual and escalating cycle of violence to the peril of everyone. One only needs to read about wars to understand, as nobody really wins in a war since everyone pays a massive toll in the loss of human life.

If a society has a means of sacrifice, a surrogate victim who will suffer the cost of avenging the violence committed by others, the cycle of violence is disrupted. Throughout history societies have turned to religious rituals as the means of sacrifice. However, as Girard observes, the loss of such rituals so that they lose their meaning as they become increasingly banal leads “…to the outbreak of a new sacrificial crisis” (p. 125). This crisis is one of violence, as society turns inwardly and casts its need for retribution on each other.

As a human society, we need not seek to destroy one another for the evil we have done. For we do have a means of sacrifice, a surrogate victim (if you will), who atones for our evil. His name is Jesus, the Messiah. On the cross in which Jesus is crucified, he absorbs our sin… all the hatred, envy, selfish and lustful desires that often lead to violence, as well as our violence too. When we peer into the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross, we see the evil of our sin. However, as we peer into the mystery of the cross, we also see the grace of God, his love and mercy by which we find forgiveness of our sins. By peering into the mystery of the cross, we learn how to let go of our sin and extend such grace to other sinners rather than lashing out with violence upon them. But what happens if we lose sight of this sacrifice in which God offers up his begotten Son as the surrogate victim who absorbs our sin?

“For as we partake of the bread and wine, we remember the words Jesus spoke as he broke the bread and took the cup saying, ‘This is my body broken for you… This is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins…'”

For some time, the Christian faith has been in decline among North America. This decline is not something that has happened to us. It is something we, many of whom professed to be Christian, allowed to happen. Somewhere along the way, the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross became banal. Our ritual of peering into this mystery where we gather together in local congregations as the body of Christ to share in the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) gradually became more and more meaningless. It became a rote tradition we did at Christmas and Easter or, if you grew up in my Christian tribe, something done weekly merely to obey the command “Do this in remembrance of me!” which was inscribed on the communion table.

All the while, violence is escalating among us. Our society has become tolerant of violence and sometimes even seems to have an appetite for violence when it is taken out on an enemy. We Christians will acknowledge that Jesus teaches us to love our enemies (cf. Matt 5:44) but… we’ll find someway to dismiss what Jesus has said because our need for avenging evil is greater than our desire to extend the grace of God by showing love and mercy. Now the violence is turning inward, seen in the outbreaking of more violent protests and violent rhetoric aimed at cutting each other down. How does it all end?

As a committed Christian, one who believes in Jesus and seeks to follow him, I crisis begins to dissipate as we again learn to peer into the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross. This is why I love that my church shares in the body and blood of Jesus every Sunday as we gather together by partaking of the bread and wine. This is not just some empty ritual we do to check off a box that says we’ve now obey Jesus. No! This ritual, this act of worship, has much meaning. For as we partake of the bread and wine, we remember the words Jesus spoke as he broke the bread and took the cup saying, “This is my body broken for you… This is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins…” And so when we share together in the body and blood of Jesus, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).

What are we doing when we gather together to peer into the mystery of the cross by sharing in the Eucharist? We see our sin and realize how terrible and horrific it is. We recognize how much we have hurt ourselves and others, and in doing so, hurt God who is the Creator of us all. But we are not burden with this weight of sin that we cannot bear. For as we share in the body and blood of Jesus, we also see our forgiveness. We see that “God has shed his grace on thee” and we see that God loves us more than we can even begin to fathom. As we see the grace of God for us in the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross, we learn to extend that grace to others. It’s not always easy to do but just as God has loved us and forgiven us, so we understand and desire to love others and forgive them of their wrongs too. No longer do we wish them ill, do we seek to avenge their wrong with violence of any kind, for the love of God compels us to love one another… to love our neighbors and even our enemies.

And that, my friends, is how the crisis of perpetual violence is broken and the future of God’s kingdom breaks into our present day!

And Who Is My Neighbor?

Most people have heard the story Jesus told in Luke 10 commonly referred to as The Parable of The Good Samaritan. You can read the story here if you would like to reacquaint yourself with the story, which I would highly recommend. Why? Because despite the casual familiarity society has with this story, which has undoubtedly served as the inspiration for the names of numerous “Good Samaritan” hospitals and other “Samaritan” charities, this story really isn’t about a Samaritan.

Yes, you read that correctly! The Parable of the Good Samaritan really isn’t about the Samaritan whom, by the way, is never described as good (or bad) in the actual text. So while we may derive a side point about the virtuous character of the Samaritan, it’s not the main point of the story.

The story is actually about a conversation between a Jewish lawyer and Jesus. The lawyer approached Jesus wanting to “test” him by asking him a question about how he may inherit eternal life (v. 25). Wisely, Jesus turns the tables on his little religious test and asks him about what the Law says. More importantly, Jesus asks this lawyer about how he reads the Law (v. 26). It’s sort of analogous to saying “What does the Bible say about inheriting eternal life? How do you read the Bible?” That’s important because in becomes clear as the story unfolds that Jesus and this lawyer don’t read the Law exactly the same. Their hermeneutic for understanding what is necessary for inheriting eternal life is different. It begs the question of us, as we read the story, as to whether our hermeneutic differs with Jesus.

The lawyer responds by reciting what we commonly refer to as the greatest commands: 1) love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and 2) love your neighbor as yourself (v. 27) (see also Matt 22:36-40; Mk 12:28-31). If this lawyer was simply taking a test, he would have passed because he is right that about loving God and neighbor. The problem is his understanding of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. He doesn’t want to really love every neighbor as himself and so to justify himself, he asks Jesus just who his neighbor really is (v. 29).

In turn, Jesus responds by telling him a story… Well you know the story. But the shocking part of the story is that of all the characters Jesus could have chosen to play the role of hero in the story, Jesus chose a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans hated each other with an enmity that was full of mutual distrust, discrimination, and animosity. And yes, Jesus knew this and that’s the point. Because Jesus is saying to this Jewish lawyer is that the Samaritans, whom he hates, are his neighbor too and if he wants to have a place in the kingdom of God then he must learn to love the Samaritans as his neighbor and that looks something like how the hero Samaritan of the story loved the man who was viciously assaulted along the roadside.

“…we may never realize just how much we attempt to justify ourselves, just like the Jewish lawyer, so that we don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

So where do we find ourselves in this story? Who are we more like? The Samaritan or the Jewish lawyer? Of course, we want to become like Jesus but to do that we first need to ask if we’re not more like the Jewish lawyer than we realize. If we don’t discern that question then we may never realize just how much we attempt to justify ourselves, just like the Jewish lawyer, so that we don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves.

When Jesus made the hero of his story a Samaritan, he was saying that our neighbors include those we regard as enemies, those we may fear, and even those we may discriminate against in one fashion or another. Had it been a White American evangelical Christian approaching Jesus like this Jewish lawyer, who would have been the hero of the story Jesus told? I think the hero of the story would have been a Muslim father from Pakistan, Egypt, etc… Or a LBGTQ Feminist girl attending college at Harvard, Stanford, etc… or a young Black male living in Chicago, Baltimore, etc… Or a Latino woman originally from Honduras, Mexico, etc… Or a… The list can go on and on and on.

The point is that our neighbors are also Muslims, LBGTQ people, Blacks and Latinos, and whoever else we think of as different from us. Jesus told the Jewish lawyer to go do as the Samaritan did and extend mercy to our neighbors. We don’t have to agree with our neighbor, share their same religious and political views, or even like their way of life but we must love them as ourselves by showing them mercy − doing acts of mercy as we have the opportunity. In fact, we’ll never see the kingdom of God unless we can learn to show mercy and be their neighbor by loving them.

“Until we learn to love these neighbors are ourselves, we are the Jewish lawyer!”

I’ll push this even farther because it is time we get the point. The currency of our gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is that we love God by loving others… we love one another but we also love our neighbors and even our enemy neighbors. It doesn’t matter what we preach and teach if we cannot love our neighbors as ourselves! To paraphrase Paul somewhat, if we cannot love our neighbors then we are as useless as a noisy gong.

Let’s be more than a useless noisy gong. We believe that we are called to be witnesses of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God to the world. Very good! But remember that begins by loving our neighbors and the best place to begin is right in our own neighborhoods with the people living next door or just a few doors down no matter what skin color they have, what sort of lifestyle they live, what their nationality of origin is, or what their religious and political beliefs are. Until we learn to love these neighbors are ourselves, we are the Jewish lawyer!

With Thanksgiving… An Advent Message

Sunday, November 27th, was the beginning of the New Year per the Christian Calendar. It was also the First Sunday of Advent. Below is the video of the Advent sermon I preached at the Westside Church of Christ from Psalm 100 which is called “With Thanksgiving.”

Now That The 2016 Election Is Over…

The 2016 American Presidential Election is over. Donald Trump will most likely be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States of America. Some people are elated, while others are angry. Other people might feel a sense of relief, though others will become even more anxious. I will be none of the above because I believe that Jesus of Nazareth, the one whom was crucified but then raised from death, is now and forevermore the exalted King of Kings, Lord of Lords.

If you are a Christian then you share this profound conviction that Jesus is Lord with me. Our shared confession of Jesus changes how we respond to the results of what has been a very vitriolic and polarizing political season for Americans. Now we have an opportunity, because of what God has accomplished in Jesus, to display what living hope looks like in real time.

The apostle Peter reminds us that as God’s chosen people, his royal priesthood and holy nation and as such, we are also foreigners and exiles among society (1 Pet 2:9, 11). This is also a call for living good lives reflective our identity as God’s chosen people, as his royal priesthood and holy nation. If we read the letter of 1 Peter, we’ll quickly see that this call includes how we relate to the governing authorities. We may criticize their policies and decisions at times but we dare not mock them or insult them, as we are to show respect for everyone and that includes those who are elected to political offices (1 Pet 2:17).

Doing good matters because it is an essential part of our Christian witness. It matters little for us to confess that Jesus is Lord, if we turn around and live like everyone else and subject our doing good to certain qualifications like doing good only when it’s convenient and cost us little. As Christians, doing good is not determined by undertaking a cost-benefit analysis or risk assessment first. That may be acceptable in the world of which we are foreigners of, but not in the kingdom of God which we live in. This is why the apostle Peter exhorts Christians to keep doing good.

With 2017 around the corner, we live among a society that is very fragmented. All around we see seed of anger and hostility sown, where hatred and violence only seems on the rise. What an opportunity for us Christians! What an opportunity by simply doing good to one another, a neighbor or co-worker, even a stranger!

Proleptic Vision: Christians, America, and the Upcoming Presidential Election

How should Christians, people who profess to believe in and follow Jesus Christ, live? In one sense that seems like a simple question to answer: Christians must become like Jesus Christ. That’s why the Apostle Paul says, “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). However, this opens other important questions such as how such life formation shapes the way we act towards the poor, the way we live in marriage, the way we love our enemies, and so on.

Though it has not always been the cast, most of these other questions are a no-brainer. Of course, the life Jesus lived should shape the way we act as husbands or wives, the way we love our enemies (even if we don’t agree on what all that entails). Yet there is one aspect in which Jesus doesn’t seem to have a lot of influence these days and that is how Christians relate to earthly nations in light of history.

The fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is a well known passage of scripture for its proclamation of the gospel, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise of salvation this gospel offers to those who believe. Consider though, the historical implications of the gospel. Because of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul says in vv. 20-24:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.

What a huge historical claim this passage makes about the future and end or goal (telos) of history. As Jürgen Moltmann notes, the future and hope is already present to Christians in Christ (Theology of Hope, p. 161). This makes history proleptic whereby the future of history is already known to those who believe, giving the church a proleptic vision. All dominion, authority, and power is and will surrender to the reign of Jesus, who will then hand over the kingdom to God the father.

…Christians must regard all nations and history in light of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ along with that appointed time when the kingdom of God is handed to God the Father and all other kingdoms are destroyed.

Right now, America is engaged in a vitriolic and contentious political campaign that will culminate in the election of a new President of the United States. In varying degrees, Christians in America are for the most part also engaged in this political campaign. Some Christians would even suggest, as one article does, that the future of America is at stake with this election. Should Christians have such a concern? Remember what the passage above from 1 Corinthians already implies for believers: the future of America and every other earthly nation is already known. Whatever claims of sovereignty America and other earthly nations make, Jesus Christ has already defeated such sovereignty which will surrender no later then when the end (telos) of history dawns.

This must change the way Christians live historically in relation to the nations and that includes America. Sine Jesus Christ is already victorious over all dominion and authority, including America and every other earthly nation, then the work of Christians in every local church is the proclamation of this victory (cf. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, p. 147). Just as I suggest that Christians should read the Bible through the hermeneutical lenses of christology and eschatology, the Christian life and ministry must be christologically-centered and eschatologically-oriented. The doctrines of christology and eschatology should shape the proleptic vision of the church, changing the way Christians should relate to all earthly nations and history. That is, Christians must regard all nations and history in light of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ along with that appointed time when the kingdom of God is handed to God the Father and all other kingdoms are destroyed. The Christian witness then involves letting the world know of this victory. All earthly nations, including America, must know that they are neither eternal nor sovereign because God has already established his eternal kingdom through the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Lest I be misunderstood or even falsely accused, I do not hate America. Problems notwithstanding, America has and will most likely continue to be a good nation to live among. So please, if you’ve read this far, do not think of me as an anti-American hater, because I’m not. I just believe that Jesus is Lord and that my allegiance is therefore due to Jesus and his kingdom.

So how should Christians in America relate to earthly nations in light of history, particularly as it pertains to the upcoming election? As November 8th approaches, it does seem that Christians have good reason for concern (though neither fear nor anxiety). Whoever is elected as the next President of the United States or whoever becomes a Mayor among any number of American cities does matter. Those holding such such offices should be people who will serve by seeking the relative good of all people. However, Christians must not be misled into thinking that the future of America is really what matters. What matters is that Jesus Christ is the crucified and resurrected Lord! What a failure it is for Christians to become so entangled in the business of who wins an election that the gospel takes a back seat, resulting in a diminished and compromised Christian witness.

For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, let them see and hear!

A Christian Hermeneutic: Until Christ Is Formed In You

Anyone can pick up a Bible, read it and quote it. But that doesn’t mean they’ll read it right and begin living the life the Bible points to, revealed to us by Jesus. In fact, remember when Jesus was led into the wilderness and tested by the devil? Well, the devil even quoted scripture and I’m quite sure his use of scripture was not what God had in mind.

I’ve been busy finishing a thesis proposal for my Doctor of Ministry degree in Contextual Theology at Northern Seminary. My interest and the focus of my research is on missional hermeneutics and how a church reads the Bible in order to live as participants in the mission of God. It’s an important issue as churches navigate new challenges brought on by rapid changes in their local communities. It’s also an important issue because not every Christian/church reads the Bible well. Reading the Bible to simply protect the status quo of tradition in your church, to legitimize the American way of life, to promote the  “name it, claim it” prosperity gospel, and so on. Bad reading!

How we read our Bible matters also as we are faced with new moral and ethical challenges. With great advances in technology, new discoveries in science, the availability of a plethora of information at the click of a mouse, and the onset of globalization, we have reason to inquire about what is right and wrong or how we should act and respond to this or that issue. Racism, homosexuality, gun violence and terrorism, abortion, marriage and divorce, materialism and charity… to name a few of the issues.

Some of the issues may seem to have an easy answer where it seems clear as to what the will of God is and therefore how Christians should believe and act. For some Christians it is but for others it’s not as clear cut. In fact, there are Christians, who love Jesus and desire to follow him as much as you, who have come to some different conclusions than you. Whose right and whose wrong isn’t the point. What matters is that we recognize that facing the difficult challenges and finding answers to the questions they raise, if that’s possible since that is not always the case, is more than just a matter of asking what does the Bible say?

I don’t want to be misunderstood though. Asking what the Bible says is a good question but it is always a matter of interpretation and our interpretation is always based on a hermeneutic. Everyone has a hermeneutic whether they know it or not, the real question is whether it is a good hermeneutic or a bad hermeneutic. One person’s hermeneutic might be happiness and so long as it makes a person happy or brings them joy, then nothings wrong. Another person’s hermeneutic might be the virtue of “do no harm” and so an action permissible as long as it doesn’t result in injury to anyone else.

For Christians and churches, our hermeneutic is anchored in Jesus Christ. In a blog post, there is only say so much that one can say which may (hopefully) raise more questions than it answers and that is my hope here. But let me try explaining what I mean by Jesus Christ as our hermeneutic by quoting one passage of scripture from the Apostle Paul:

“My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you (Gal 4:19)

This is one of the classic passages when talking about spiritual formation and it seems clear that Paul ministry sought to form the church in the way of Jesus Christ. How Jesus lived, becoming a crucified servant, and the purpose for which he lived, the kingdom of God, must become our way and purpose for how we live. This is the hermeneutic we must read the Bible through, which I believe is shaped by the dual lenses of christology (the life Jesus lived) and eschatology (the goal for which Jesus lived).

To describe this Christian hermeneutic another way, this hermeneutic is christologically-centered and eschatologically oriented. Reading the Bible through this hermeneutical lens is not likely to make the challenging issues and questions faced by churches any easier in addressing. However, it provides a beginning point that for determine right and wrong not based on happiness or lacking any injury but on whether our actions are Christ likeness in perspective and direction.

And if the church, the Christian life, isn’t Christ likeness… Well, you know!