Archive for the ‘Bible Study’ Category

InChristsNameWhen we first moved back to the States from Germany, I was scrambling around doing any work that I could find to bridge the months until my new salary at Oklahoma Christian would start.  One of the most interesting jobs I took was to translate for a graduate student who needed it for his thesis a 19th century German theological book, considered one of the definitive works of its time, on the Name of God.

I don’t know how helpful it was to him, but I came away with a totally different view of His Name–a greater sense of its reality and presence–and power, one that it probably more spiritual and a great deal less rational than I had believed to that point in my life.

Not everyone in the world understands names or uses names like Americans do!  We pay some slight attention to the fact that royalty in other countries–especially England–carefully choose the names of their children. Some who inherit the throne unexpectedly actually rule under a different name than the one they used from birth.  King George VI of England, the one of The King’s Speech was known as Prince Albert, Duke of York, his entire life prior to his unexpected ascension and more informally in the family as “Bertie.”  He chose to reign as George, however, to emphasize continuity and stability within the monarchy.

In Germany, even the language–especially the form of address–distinguishes between people who have a relationship with you and those who don’t.  You never call a stranger by their first name; you always address them as Frau Schmidt or Herr Lange–nor would they tell you their first name anyway.  People may work together for years and not know the person’s first name who sits next to them.  You must be specifically invited to a new level of familiarity in order to address a person by their first name.

Other countries also have very different customs regarding whether children take the father’s or the mother’s last name.  Some cultures always include the day of birth as part of the name (Monday, Tuesday, etc.).  Many Catholic countries see most children named with the patron saint’s name of their birth day.  Other countries have an official list of names and spellings from which parents may choose to name their children–none of this making up your own name and spelling it creatively like Americans do.

It may be this casual attitude toward names that has caused American Christians to lack appreciation for the powerful holiness inherent in “the Name” of God, whether it is part of the Old Testament revelation of God or central to the message of the Son of God in the New Testament.

For too many of us, “in Jesus’ Name, Amen” are just the words we were taught to use to close prayers.  In reaction to the empty ritual it has become, others consciously avoid these words. We are a little better with the Trinitarian formula “In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” especially at baptism, but even there we do not think of the words carrying either holiness or power. They are… just words.

Dr. Greg Pruett, President of Pioneer Bible Translators, has written a powerful book entitled Extreme Prayer: The Impossible Prayers God Promises to Answer.  One of the most instructive chapters in his book is “Chapter Two–Name Power: God Answers Prayers in Jesus’ Name.”

Here is the paragraph where Dr. Pruett reveals what for many may be a transformative bit of information about prayer “in the Name of Jesus” :

               What is the significance of praying in Jesus’ name?  In the Bible, a person’s name represents his or her nature.  Praying in Jesus’ name doesn’t mean asking for a Ferrari and tacking on the magic words “in Jesus’ name.”  It means presenting requests that resonate with Jesus’ character, praying “for his name’s sake” prayers that advance his plans for the earth–in other words, proclaiming Kingdom of God-oriented prayers.

He goes on to explain:

Jesus’ name comes from the Hebrew root word meaning ‘to save.’  Praying in Jesus’ name literally means praying about obeying Jesus’ command to bring his salvation to each person and to the ends of the earth. Prayers in Jesus’ name center on the desire to see people far from God coming to know, love, follow, and obey Jesus.” (p.20)

And his thesis is that it is these prayers in Jesus’ name that God has promised to “do whatever you ask”–not just any prayer.

In a workshop with the Let’s Start Talking staff, Dr. Pruett made a distinction between prayers that are based on “our story” and prayers that are based “in God’s story.”  And it is not that God doesn’t hear the prayers in our story–quite the contrary; He is certainly the God who knows when every sparrow falls from the sky. However, the promises of “whatever you ask” are not specifically linked to the prayers for our story, but rather to God’s story, to those prayers that are about His kingdom coming, His Will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

At LST, our prayers have changed because of this teaching.  As a ministry, we continue to pray for our families and pray for the sick–but we are now consciously praying in Jesus’ Name, asking for the people we could send and the funds with which to send them in order to share the Name of Jesus in places and to hearts where the Name does not live.

And we are learning–still learning–to believe that God will do whatever we ask in Jesus’ Name.

This is not the last time we will talk about this.

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God has always encouraged collaboration!

MustardSeed_1Just think about the plurality of the Creator himself: “Let us make man in our own image” (Genesis 1:26), or his opinion of the first male of creation: It’s not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18).

Noah was the only righteous person, but his whole family gets to build the ark; Abram is called, but for what?  To be “a great nation” Gen. 12:2), which required Sarah and Isaac and a whole history of descendents. Jacob is renamed Israel but needed twelve sons to become the Israel that left Egypt as God’s people. And God sent His only Son who immediately gathered twelve close disciples and told them to go into all the world.  The twelve, empowered by the Holy Spirit, immediately became three thousand who turned the world upside down.

All of human history is God’s collaborative working to bring the nations to the Tree of Life (Revelation 22:2).

In contrast, one of the most frightening and condemning verses in all of Holy Scripture is the description of Israel during the time of the judges: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

What keeps God’s churches from being more collaborative?

  • An over-zealous understanding of congregational autonomy! I just addressed that topic specifically, so I’ll not repeat myself. Here’s the link to the previous posting “Is Your Church Too Autonomous?”
  • Fear of slipping into a hierarchy?  If we could ever really understand that “all authority” has been given to Jesus as head of the church, then we could see that God assumed that His Church on earth could function quite satisfactorily without usurping the authority of Christ or competing with Jesus for the throne.  The fear of hierarchy is legitimate to the extent that we men seem to consistently grab power and authority, but the fear of sin should not cause us to bury our talent and fail to multiply what God has given us.
  • We American Christians live in a time and culture that has exalted individualism and a Christian libertarianism. Notice the individualism in the most common words of every evangelical preacher: “Accept Jesus as your personal Savior!”  Notice the tendency towards independent churches, which I wrote about in “Are We Satisfied With Denominationalism?”

Does this not seem like a tendency towards everyone doing what is right in their own eyes?


So what would a different spirit of fellowship, cooperation, and collaboration look like?

OK, this is what I have been writing about for the last month. That’s why I keep referring back to other posts. Those earlier posts were the groundwork for this final brief set of conclusions and suggestions.  Go back and read the post “Movement Networks—A Challenge For Churches.”

  • If we could think as a fellowship, we might start addressing the bigger questions about going into the whole world—instead of each small gathering just addressing what a single congregation can do.
  • If we could cooperate in true unity, then Christians could become known for the love we have for each other and for others, instead of being known to be factious and exclusive.
  • If we could collaborate as brothers and sisters of the same family, we might be able to use ALL of the spiritual gifts that God has given to His people collectively.
  • If we could work together with mutual respect instead of the need to control, we could begin to address what God has prepared in advance for us to do.
  • If we could truly pray that God will forgive us—as we forgive others—then we would not break nor avoid fellowship with other Christians just because we do not agree. We would understand that God has forgiven us for what He knows are our failings and He has continued to walk with us; can we not only forgive others their failings, but love them and walk with them as well?

Movements do not start large; they start with a tiny mustard seed. But Jesus said that mustard seeds grow into the largest garden plant with huge branches for all the birds of the air (Mark 4:30-32).

  • If you will find another Christian to do something bigger than you could do by yourself, then you are too a mustard seed.
  • If you will lead your congregation to collaborate with one other congregation to do something bigger than you can do by yourself, then the mustard seed has grown!
  • If you will call churches together and challenge them to love each other enough to work together with a vision for the world, then birds will start looking for the branches!!

What can you do?   No, that’s the wrong question!!

What can we do? 

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dont tread on meHow can you be too autonomous?  Isn’t being autonomous just like being pregnant—either you are or you aren’t!

No, I don’t think so.  I think there are degrees of autonomy and that we have defined it in a completely untenable way, a way that diminishes our ability to enjoy community, to fellowship, to partner in the gospel, perhaps even to extend grace to the whole Body of Christ.

Restoration Movement churches, all branches, practice congregational autonomy, meaning that each congregation is self-governing.  Restoration churches are not the only autonomous churches.  Baptist churches are also autonomous, as are some Lutheran churches, Presbyterian churches, and many in the independent church movement from the evangelical world.

While the more biblically conservative of these groups would base their doctrine of congregational autonomy on Scripture texts, these arguments are based primarily on the silence of the New Testament about church organization and on assumptions that instructions given to one set of church leaders like those in Acts 20:28 to “keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” were restricted to one congregation—even though these instructions were given to elders of the church for the city of Ephesus.

To make this apostolic directive work in our modern practice, we have to assume a single, autonomous “congregation” of the church in Ephesus where Paul spent two years preaching and teaching, and where it was said he had converted “large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia” (Acts 19:26). I think it is difficult to imagine one autonomous congregation for all of Ephesus, a city with perhaps as many as 200,000 people, as well as the whole province of Asia, at least as we practice congregational autonomy in 2014.

Honestly, those among us who argue for one “church” with the potential for many gatherings in a single city seem to me to have more biblical examples to which to appeal. Do we really think that each “house church” of the first century (Romans 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15) was organized autonomously?

Speaking of “house churches,” one of my favorite litmus tests to apply when I’m trying to figure out if something is really truth or tradition is to ask whether it works for missionaries in different cultures.  For instance, take the situation with the current flourish of New Testament Christianity in China, a place where Christians gather mostly in groups of 30 or less in small apartments throughout their cities.  Are each of these small gatherings a “congregation” or what? Does each house need elders and deacons to be a true church?  If you are having trouble answering that question at all, then wouldn’t you agree that their situation is more similar to the first century church than our current American organizational structure?

Another phenomenon that is going to challenge the belief that autonomous congregations is the only biblical model is the rapid expansion of multi-site churches here in the United States. 

Leadership Network recently reported more than 8,000 multi-site churches in the United States. A multi-site church has either planted new outpost congregations or has agreed to assume the oversight of a struggling or failing congregation but leaves them in their own building. In every case, the leadership of the original congregation continues to operate as the leaders of all of the new campuses (a newer word than congregation but it means the same thing!). If you are inclined to fear slippery slopes, you have already imagined one set of church leaders over a “diocese” of city churches or regional churches or who knows where that could lead…..if you are inclined to slippery slopes.

To these people I would ask, what makes one group of people part of another group of people?  Is it proximity? Is it what building they meet in?  (That can’t be right because many of our autonomous congregations have other autonomous congregations meeting in their building—often just because they are of another language!) Do groups vote on it? What about that group of college students that meets out in the campus ministry building instead of with the regular congregation? What about that new church plant that won’t have mature leaders for five years? Are they autonomous?

Autonomy is getting harder and harder to really define, isn’t it!

You may not have this impression from what I’ve said so far, but I personally really think that congregational autonomy is really a wonderful form of church polity, but perhaps we have fallen into the same trap that the Jews fell into in trying to define working on the Sabbath. How many steps could one take? Can you get your sheep out of the ditch? Can you pick ears of corn on the Sabbath? Can you eat the holy bread in the tabernacle like David did?

Jesus answered this question for the Jews in Mark 2:27:   Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

What do you think this response means in light of dealing with issues of church autonomy?  Jesus did not demean or diminish the command to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, but He did not let the Jews define it in particular. He is the Lord of the Sabbath—and of autonomy.


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handsBoth Jesus and Stephen were attacked by religious leaders for threatening to destroy the temple just as some are attacked for trying to destroy the church! Both Jesus and Stephen defended themselves with the same argument, an argument that can help us sort through some of the difficult questions surrounding our attitudes toward church.

Jesus declared that the temple was made with human hands, and this would be destroyed.  But, in three days, he would build another temple not made with hands.

Similarly, Stephen argued to the point of death that  “. . . the Most High does not live in houses made by human handsHe quoted then the prophet Isaiah speaking the word of the Lord:

 Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
  Has not my hand made all these things? (66:1)

Both Jesus and Stephen make a big distinction between those things made with human hands and the things God makes with his own hands.  The Jews were already familiar with the context for these phrases—which was why they tore their clothes and gnashed their teeth!  Look at these OT passages and you will see easily what the Jews had for centuries described as made with human hands:

            Deuteronomy 4:28There you will serve gods made by human hands, gods of wood and stone, gods that cannot see or hear, eat or smell.”

        2 King 19:18:  They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands.”

            Psalm 115:4:  “But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.”

Idols—false gods–were made by human hands, so when both Jesus and Stephen used these very words about the holy temple, the Jewish religious leaders were horrified!

While he was holding the coat of those throwing stones, Saul probably didn’t understand why Stephen would use those blasphemous words, but later as Paul, he would make the same argument in Athens.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.. . .

The church of Christ, the one Jesus declared He would build,  is not made with human handsThe prophet Daniel was among the first to know this. Look at his interpretation of the dream of Nebuchadnezzar:

 “Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue—an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. 32 The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. 34 While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.

44 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces. (Chapter 2)

The kingdom not made with human hands is big and powerful and eternal and everywhere!  The Jews thought the temple represented this eternal kingdom, but they were very wrong.  That temple would be broken down stone by stone as Jesus said.

In contrast, the temple Jesus promised to build was “his body” (John 2:21).  Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17  

Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? 17 God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

And this is the only temple where God dwells, one not made with human hands; rather, in “you together” (translating a plural pronoun). And “you together” are his body, the church, his temple that he is building with his own hands—and this is where God is present!

Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,  in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.  In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph. 2:21).


We can judge better what is from God by looking at who made it.  If people are the creators, originators, or founders, then we should be clear that whatever it is, it is not the equivalent of that which is made by the hand of God.

Now, don’t knee-jerk and jump to a very false conclusion.  Not everything man-made is evil per se. The temple in Jerusalem was not evil per se. Jesus worshipped there, taught there, healed there, and prayed there. The early Christians did the same.

The problem was that at least these religious leaders had turned the temple into an idol!  They owned it, they were proud of their workmanship, they worshipped the temple and defended it to the point of putting the Son of God to death for reminding them that God’s kingdom was not made with human hands.

Some Christians own their church! Some are totally proud of their workmanship!  They worship their worship. They heroically defend their brand—to the point of putting those to death who would remind them that God’s kingdom is not made with human hands and that God does not dwell in churches made with human hands.

Stephen died for reminding the Jews that even the ground around a burning bush could be as holy as the temple. God could not be contained in Jerusalem. Stephen’s God was bigger than theirs. Theirs was so small, he was contained in a building of brick and stone—just like an idol.

We dare not believe that we can contain God in our buildings or behind our signs or within any traditions or fellowships that we might have created ourselves.

An even greater challenge is to step out of buildings that are made with our human hands and be willing to take off our shoes because God is there, and we are on his holy ground.

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Holy BibleWhat could be holier than the Bible?  After all, that’s its title Holy Bible!  I looked up “holy books” in Wikipedia and was shocked to find literally hundreds listed. Of course, the Bible was included—but even what I assume is The Bible is murky.  Apparently Protestants have 66 books, but Catholics have 73 and two more in the appendix. The Eastern Orthodox church adds three more to the Catholic canon, and the Georgian Orthodox still one more.  The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Church include still more books, including 4 Esdras, the Book of Jubilees1 Enoch4 Baruch, and 1, 2, and 3 Meqabyan (no relation to the Books of Maccabees), and some Syrian Orthodox churches accept the Book of Baruch as holy scripture.

I was watching an episode of Homeland a couple of weeks ago, and it portrayed one of the main characters ritually burying his copy of the Koran because it had been thrown on the floor and defiled.  Afghanistan, Somalia, and Pakistan have had laws making desecration of the Koran punishable by life imprisonment or death.

That’s really holy!  That is much holier than most of us consider our Bibles.

In fact, have you noticed a trend in trying to make The Bible not quite so holy—mostly for commercial reasons, I suspect.  In almost any Christian bookstore, you can find now myriad special versions of the Bible, such as NIV Boys Backpack Bible, NIV Faithgirlz Bible, Adventure Bible, NIV Revolution: The Bible for Teen Guys, Sequin Bible, NIV Green Camo Backpack Bible, God’s Little Princess Devotional Bible—shall I go on?

Yesterday at lunch after church, while munching on chips and salsa, three young dads and I got into a conversation about Bibles. One father raised the question of whether we should be instilling in our children the love and practice of using and carrying a printed Bible, or should we “lower our standards” and allow Bible apps and electronic book versions of the Bible on whatever device they carry, i.e., for most of their kids, their smartphones?

This is a very tech-savvy guy who raised the question, not a Ludite. I quickly realized this is not an anti-technology question, but rather a question about our personal relationship to our personal Bibles.

Intellectually, we all agreed that electronic devices and screens are here to stay and that printed books are going the way of 78 rpm records. But this answer did not seem entirely satisfying for several reasons:

  • Our printed Bibles have been part of our testimony.  You left it on your desk at work or on the coffee table at home as a declaration of faith.
  • Our printed Bibles have contained our history, not only family history, but often our spiritual history as we underline, highlight, and take notes.
  • Our printed Bibles have measured our spiritual growth. The more worn our Bible, the more obvious to us and others that it is well used.
  • Printed Bibles have been personalized gifts. I received a beautiful leather Bible as a gift from our local preacher for my first sermon preached when I was 15 years old. We give little Bibles to babies, white Bibles for wedding gifts, and inscribed Bibles for graduations and baptisms.

Our relationship to our Bibles has been very personal–and inevitably that will change in the digital age.

I do see, however, the potential for learning an important lesson with the impending change; that is, we will either learn or remember that not the book itself, nor our relationship with our book, nor how we use that book, nor what we invest in that book is holy; rather, the Word of God is holy.

The Koran is not so different from the Bible, but is very different from the Word of God. The holiness of the Chaitanya Bhagavata (Krishna-karnamrita) is created and imposed upon it by religious teachers; the holiness of God’s words is created by the holiness of God.

Our Bible is not holy. God is holy.

Neither the form nor the title nor the translation, nor the color of the book that we own brings holiness into our lives and our homes, but rather the breath (inspiration) of God, spoken into our lives, yes and absolutely through the written word, but only if that written word is the living Word.  The living Word in us!

The Holy Word fills us, dwells in us, then we too become holy.

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little leaguerFor weeks now we have been listening to the almost vicious rhetoric of Washington politicos as well as their radio and TV surrogates, attacking the other party, predicting catastrophe, twisting truth to their own advantage, and leveraging the economic welfare of the entire country for the sake of their political ideology.

Even after the last-minute aversion of going over the brink, the pundits were talking about the visceral “hate” directed toward the President and/or toward the Tea Party. No pejorative, no twisted truth, no ad hominem seemed to be off-limits.

Today all of the morning shows are highlighting the very sad case of Rebecca Sedwick, a twelve-year-old girl who jumped to her death from a tower as the result of being bullied by girls at school. The bullying took the form not only of verbal insults across a variety of social media, but also words like “You should kill yourself,” and “You should die.”

The conclusion on the morning shows is that mean girls are getting meaner.

Does anyone else see a correlation between this adult hate-mongering and our children doing the same thing with their peers?

When I was in high school at a private Christian school, we started a music club for the high achievers in the school’s music program. Certain standards were set for membership: a high grade average, a certain number of performances, etc.  But we also included a “blackball” rule.  It only took one member’s “No” vote to keep someone out of this school-sponsored club.

In today’s world, this sounds pretty bad, but I’m just remembering all the country clubs, sororities and fraternities, and other social groups which had similar rules at that time.  We kids were mirroring in our immaturity the behavior we knew to be common in the “best” circles.

Is it possible that our children are simply mirroring the aggression that they hear at the dinner table or on the ball field or on the car radio as we drive to church?

Try these questions and see if they make a difference:

  • Would you use the same descriptive words about your spouse or best friend with whom you disagree as you use on those who offend you politically?
  • Do you really want to expose yourself AND your children to the ratings-oriented rantings of radio talk shows?
  • Do you want your children talking to teachers and school authorities like you talk to referees, umpires, and opposing coaches?
  • Do you really want to teach your children that a person’s relationship to God hinges on whether they approve of universal healthcare or not?

Are these verses still in our New Testaments?

 All of you must yield to the government rulers. No one rules unless God has given him the power to rule, and no one rules now without that power from God. So those who are against the government are really against what God has commanded. And they will bring punishment on themselves. . . . This is also why you pay taxes. Rulers are working for God and give their time to their work. Pay everyone, then, what you owe. If you owe any kind of tax, pay it. Show respect and honor to them all. Romans 13

Yes, I know that in a democracy we participate in government and, in fact, ARE the government, if you buy into “of the people, for the people, by the people,” but I don’t think that fact gives permission and certainly doesn’t require citizens to be mean-spirited or aggressively disparaging towards those with whom they disagree.

If anything, I think it suggests that we Christians have a greater obligation to be “peacemakers,” to “honor the king,” and to “do good to all men.”

And if not for our ourselves and our country, surely we agree that we should not teach our children to be mean!

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Who Built Your House?

builder“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builder labors in vain” (Psalm 127:1) I love this verse because it expresses absolute dependence on the Almighty while acknowledging that we are not meant to be automatons.

There is, however, a tension there with which we must wrestle!

First, there are two builders in this verse: the Lord and “the builder.” So, who is building the house?  Sherrylee and I once built a house in Oklahoma—that’s the way we talk about it anyway, but the truth is that neither of us poured one cubic foot of concrete, neither of us hammered one nail or laid one shingle on the roof.  So did we really build the house?

Some unknown architect conceived the layout of our house and drew up very detailed plans.  I heard once of a group of church members who were building their own church. They got the walls up about half way when they realized that they had not built a door into the church.  Pretty good metaphor, isn’t it, for what happens when people try to build a church and don’t have a plan made by an architect.

Sherrylee and I hired a general contractor to build our house. Again, he never drove a nail himself, but he hired all the people who did.  He also organized the order of activity because it is totally backwards to have the painters come before the framers have built the walls.  Some people I know have attempted to be their own general contractor in order to save money. I would never do that because I wouldn’t begin to know where to get someone to raise the walls or whether the plumber or the electricians need to come first.

And when our house was finished, we were so proud!  We had chosen the brick, the colors of the rooms, the carpeting, the door knobs, the drawer pulls. We had even made the decision not to put in a half-wall that was in the original plans in order to open up the rooms a little bit more.  I suppose I could argue that the house could have been finished without our input, but we would not have liked it as much.

So who built “our” house?  The architect, the contractor, the carpenters, or did we?

We all played a part—but our roles were not all equal!

Within boundaries, we could change the architect’s plans to fit our taste; within boundaries we could ask the carpenters to adjust walls or doors; within boundaries we could express our own personalities with colors and carpet. But there were boundaries in every direction which we as the “builders” could not change once we had committed to build this house.

Back to our verse:  There is no doubt that God put us here to be builders—but if we think that we are the Builder, then we commit the sin of Babel. They wanted to build a city and a tower to the heavens to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11).

Motivation and purpose seem to be key here.  The men of Babel were building for themselves, building to the heavens to show that they were like God! Creators, Builders!!

Yes, we can—and should build, BUT what is our motivation and what is our purpose?

Those should be easy questions for Christians to answer because we have only a single purpose and motivation in life. Remember Solomon said, 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.

Remembering this singleness of motivation and purpose, let’s rephrase David’s psalm to make it even more applicable:

  • Unless the Lord builds the church, those who build it labor in vain.
  • Unless the Lord builds the family, those who build it labor in vain.
  • Unless the Lord builds the business, those who build it labor in vain.
  • Unless the Lord builds the ministry, those who build it labor in vain.
  • Unless the Lord builds the nation, those who build it labor in vain.

I must build, but I must never forget that the Lord is the Builder!

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gethsemaneBut God doesn’t tempt us to do evil. That’s the Devil who does that!  Isn’t that what the Bible says?

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. (James 1:13-14)

Why did Jesus teach his disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation?” 

The newer translations certainly try to mitigate the impact of Jesus’ teaching. The NLT says “And don’t let us yield to temptation,” while The Message loosely interprets the text as, “Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.”  The ERV says simply, “And don’t let us be tempted.”  Is such a smorgasbord helpful?

Here are a couple of bits of information that might help us sort it out.

First, the word temptation can certainly be translated trial or test, in the sense of some situation that challenges us to choose our will or God’s will.  An Old Testament example of this is in Genesis 22 where the KJV says that God tempted Abraham, the RSV says God tested Abraham, and the ASV says God proved Abraham by asking him to take the son of promise Isaac and sacrifice him.

The origin of the test is probably what is important here.  Jesus was also tempted or tested in the wilderness. We are quite comfortable with this event being described as temptation because it originated with the Devil and was designed for evil.

Second, the last half of the prayer sentence probably should not be separated from the first, i.e., “but deliver us from Evil (or the Evil One).  The contrasting clauses are supposed to suggest opposite ideas—or at least strongly opposing ideas. It seems easier to understand God delivering or rescuing us from Evil, so maybe that will illuminate the first part of the prayer

Putting these ideas together, it seems to me that Jesus is teaching his disciples to pray to be protected from the trials, tests, temptations that the Devil puts in front of us, just as he tempted Jesus.  We might paraphrase it something like this:

And, Lord, you know me, you know where I am weakest and where I am stronger. Don’t allow the Devil to tempt me in the areas where I am the weakest and might fail. And when I must face temptation, Father, deliver me from it.

If this is the meaning in the text, then what does it mean for me?  How do I pray this prayer in the middle of my world?

Here are a couple of my thoughts:

With these words,  Jesus teaches us to acknowledge the sovereignty of God in our lives.  God has released Satan into this world for a time, but Satan is not omnipotent or omniscient. Even though God allowed Job to be tempted or tested, God knew Job, so the outcome was certain!  Job may not have known the outcome, the Devil certainly did not know the outcome, but God knew what Job could bear and did not allow him to be tested (tempted) beyond what he would survive.

God has made us the same explicit promise. He is fully in control!

The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

I’ve wondered many times if Jesus prayed the essence of these very words in Gethsemane: 

“Father, must I really go through this test? Is there any other way to do this? You know it is not just the horrible physical pain that is coming towards me to test my flesh, but the mental temptation because I know even those who have been following me not only will abandon me, deny me, even betray me—but they are just clueless about what is really happening and why. They have hardly understood anything yet! Don’t let me doubt what I have done with them and left in their hands.

But the worst of all, Father—what I fear most—is the punishment for Sin—how can I stand to see you turn away from me?  Can I bear, Father, to be in the dark?

Oh, Abba, please deliver me from the Evil One. Do not let me waver, not in my flesh, nor in my mind, and especially not in my soul.

Not my will, but Your will be done, Father.”

And so we who are His disciples still pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from Evil!”  And we know He will because He loved us enough to give His only Son!

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Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio

Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio

“Christian convert from Islam shot dead in Kashmir.”  “Christians live in fear of death squads.”  These are real headlines about real Christians in our own times. Such persecution makes our complaining about discrimination towards Christians in America seem a little whiny to me!

Could it come to death squads in America or Christians in Guantanamo?  That hardly seems likely, but then it was probably just as impossible an idea for the people of Germany in 1932 as well, the year before they brought the National Socialist German Workers Party into the government.

The privileged political status that Christianity has enjoyed throughout American history seems to be coming to an end.  Changing attitudes toward Christians by large numbers of other Americans has begun to make us afraid that someday it might not be that we can’t pray in public schools, but that anyone caught praying could be thrown into the lions’ den.

How are Christians to respond in the face of suffering or persecution?  This may become the most pressing conversation we can have in the next century.

Graciously, God used His Spirit to guide his servant Peter to write a little short letter to Christians who were facing some suffering, and in this first letter Peter elaborated perfectly God’s Way with suffering as a Christian.  Here are a few of the instructions that we American Christians may need to know someday!

  1. Why should Christians ever expect to suffer?  “  . . . you have had to suffer various trials so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed..” 1:7
  2.  How do Christians prepare for this time of suffering?  Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.. . . purify your souls “by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.”1:22
  3. How do Christians live among those who would persecute them?  Conduct yourselves honorably among the pagans, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge. 2:12
  4. What should your attitude be toward a government that oppresses Christians?  For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, 14 or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. 16 As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. 17 Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor. 2:13-17
  5. What should Christians do about employers who discriminate against them because of their faith? Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 2:18,19
  6. What should Christian wives do who suffer at the hands of their non-Christian husbands?  Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.3:1-2
  7. What does it look like when a Christian woman accepts the authority of her non-Christian husband? . . .  they [husbands] see the purity and reverence of your lives.  . . .  let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight.” 3:2-4
  8. What about husbands who might suffer with non-Christian wives?  In the same way, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. 3:7
  9. What about unmarried Christians, in fact, all Christians?  . . .  have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing.3:8,9

Peter encourages these first century Christians then, not with the promise of release from suffering, but with a framework for it:

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. 3:13-15a

It’s not that Christians can’t defend themselves; Peter says to be ready to defend yourself . . . but pay attention to what that means to him:

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 3:15b-17

I suspect these are hard words for American Christians—but were they any easier for those first century Christians in the middle of their persecution and suffering. Are we supposed to be more protected from suffering?

Peter’s conclusions drive this point home clearly!  The Word should speak into our hearts as well as it did theirs!

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker.16 Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name. . . . 19 Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.

Did you know that traditionally Peter was crucified head-down for his faith?

When the world gets so upside down that God’s people suffer and die for doing good, no army, no vote, no march, no legislation, no petition, no guns, no talk shows are going to make things right again. 

No, Peter’s final word to us today tells us that only God can stop suffering—and He will!

Resist the Evil One, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.


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josephWe just finished a series on Joseph, son of Jacob, at church. Such a familiar story full of dreams, threats, seduction, rise from ashes to power, surprise revelations—all the elements of great drama! I’m surprised it has not been the subject of more movies.

I learned something completely new to me this time through the old story.  Let’s start with a little back story review for those of you who have not read Genesis in a long time!

In Genesis 12, God calls Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees to go to Canaan. He promises to make of Abram a great nation. In verse 7, God also promises Abram, “To your offspring I will give this land.”

For many years, Abram is pretty nomadic, even going down to Egypt to escape a famine in Canaan, but he eventually returns to the place where he first pitched his tent and where God made him the promise of land, between Bethel and Ai for those of you with Bible maps.

But Abraham owned no land until he purchased a site near Hebron (Mamre) to bury Sarah, the cave and field of Machpelah (Genesis 23).  Two chapters later, his sons Isaac and Ishmael bury him in the same cave.

The family of promise owned so little, but God didn’t want them to forget his promise of the whole land, so when another famine came in the time of Isaac, the Lord told Isaac NOT to go to Egypt:  “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham (Gen. 26).

Isaac’s son Jacob flees the revenge of his brother Esau and must leave the promised land, but before he gets beyond its borders, God appears to him in a dream and says, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying (Gen.28).  Only then does God allow Jacob to continue to the “lands of the eastern peoples.”

After accumulating wives, sons, and wealth, God sends him back: “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land (Gen. 31).’”

Upon arrival in Canaan, Jacob does purchase a plot of land near Shechem, but God keeps moving him southerly towards Bethel, where the promise of land was given to him, and where he buries his father Isaac in Mamre (Hebron) in the cave with Abraham.

So, interestingly enough, the story of Joseph starts in Genesis 37 with the words: “Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan.”

You remember that as a very young man Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt!  The son of promise is taken forcibly from the land of promise, but it is all the design of God. Almost 25 years later, the whole family comes to Egypt to be rescued by Joseph from the terrible seven-year famine.  They are given the land of Goshen in which to settle and they thrive and multiply there. “God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives,” Joseph tells his brothers (Gen. 50).

But Egypt was not the Promised Land, so Jacob gathers his children to his deathbed and says, “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite. 31 There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried, and there I buried Leah. 32 The field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites (Gen 49).”

Joseph learned something from Jacob. When it was his turn to die, this man who had lived almost a century in Egypt, who had lived the best life an Egyptian could have—once he got out of prison—and who had children and grandchildren born and raised in Egypt, this man’s final words were, “I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” And Joseph made the Israelites swear an oath and said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.”

So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. And after they embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.

Maybe 400 years later, Moses and the people of Israel carry Joseph’s bones with them as they exit Egypt (Exodus 13)! 

So, does it make a difference where you are buried?  It certainly did to the children of Abraham.  It made a difference because they did not want to forget the promise!  And it made a difference because they wanted their children to remember the promise!

And—this is the cool part—what do you think they did with Joseph’s coffin for 400 years???  It was probably honored royally for awhile—until a Pharaoh came along who did not know Joseph—and then it was just another coffin.

But not to the emerging Hebrew nation. To them, his bones were the reminder that Egypt was not their home and that they had been promised another land.  For 400 years, kids asked their parents who was in the coffin, and they got to tell the story of Joseph and that someday his bones would go back to Canaan to rest beside his fathers in the land of promise.

Here are the takeaways:

  • Generations may pass with no resolution of the Promise, but each generation is responsible for holding on to the promise of God and bringing the next generation a little closer to its fulfillment .
  • Don’t go places that take you away from the Promise, and if you must—get home as soon as you can.
  • This world is not our Home, so don’t get too comfortable in Egypt.
  • Use the opportunity of your death and dying for your children!  Tell your children and grandchildren where you are going when you die!  Make them promise never to forget where their Home is.  Make a plan for all of you to be there!

Thank you, Lord, for the story of Joseph’s bones!

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