A brief word on politics and Christianity

For the most part, I want this blog to be a chance for me to encourage people to fix their eyes on Jesus. For that reason, most of my posts will be exclusively biblical or theological in nature. But for this post, I am going to say something political. Here it is:

The Christian church and the United States of America are two different things.

I know that may sound obvious, but I have noticed a general tendency for people to blur the distinction. I am both a Christian and an American; as such, my duties as both a Christian and an American are distinct. What I briefly offer below are a few reminders and admonitions to both groups with whom I share an affinity.  You may notice that each of the following sets are contrasting in some way; that is intentional.

Fellow Americans, we participate in a representative democracy.
Fellow Christians, we are subjects of a spiritual theocracy.

Fellow Americans, our government must protect the natural rights of every citizen and execute justice on law-breakers.
Fellow Christians, we must recognize that we are all sinners before God, yet His mercy is open to any who repent and believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and the atoning sacrifice who took our sins upon Himself.

Fellow Americans, it is for our good that we tolerate those among us who believe differently than ourselves.
Fellow Christians, it is for our good that we love those among us who vote differently than ourselves.

Fellow Americans, let us be slow to believe whatever latest news story merely because it confirms our worst fears about “the other.”
Fellow Christians, let us be quick to believe all that God has proclaimed in His holy, true, clear, authoritative, and sufficient Word.

Fellow Americans, let us be open to investigating which (if any!) of the available political options would be most beneficial for our nation.
Fellow Christians, let us always trust that the Spirit of Truth promised by Jesus will guide us to know the truth for ourselves, to obey our Heavenly Master, and to love our fellow believers.

Fellow Americans, it is for our good that our nation elects different leaders—mayors and governors, congresspersons and presidents—on a regular basis.
Fellow Christians, it is for our good that our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Messiah, will never, ever, EVER be dethroned.

Fellow Americans, it may behoove us to realize humbly that not all of our problems are political.
Fellow Christians, it befits us to proclaim boldly the gospel of Jesus Christ as the healing balm to every painful situation and every broken heart.

Fellow Americans, let us never try to remake our country into a theocracy; when we try to do so, trouble always follows.
Fellow Christians, let us never try to remake the church into a democracy; when we try to do so, trouble always follows.

Lastly, the church and the USA should be contrasted in one more important way: only one of them is eternal.

“To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.”

Revelation 5:13b, NASB


All My #BibleMonth Summaries

If you follow me on Twitter or are my friend on Facebook, you might have seen me do something strange last month. I decided (somewhat impulsively) to piggyback on the hashtag #BibleMonth—used by the SiriusXM CCM station The Message during the month of March—and summarize each book of the Bible in 140 characters or fewer.

As with any work of creativity, or any attempt at Biblical commentary, I am not completely satisfied with all the results. I produced each of these one at a time, though in some respects I wish I had composed all of them prior to posting. Some entries are better than others, and the style from one entry to the next is at times inconsistent. However, each one was produced with the intent that it would be as accessible and accurate as possible in the condensing of the content or the distillation of the themes of the book.

Without further ado, I present the content of all 63 summaries (I recombined the books of 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles), minus the repeated closing hashtag #BibleMonth.

  • Genesis: God creates the world; man rebels against God, curses ensue; God promises blessing to/through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
  • Exodus: God appoints Moses to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt, establishes His law-covenant to distinguish His people
  • Leviticus: God sets laws for Israel’s holiness to mirror His own re: offerings, priesthood, feasts, and community life
  • Numbers: God readies Israel to enter Promised Land; Israel balks, forced to wander 40 years until next generation can enter
  • Deuteronomy: God through Moses reminds Israel of His law-covenant wherein obedience leads to life, disobedience to death
  • Joshua: God leads Israel through Joshua to conquer and settle in the Promised Land; Joshua warns about future disobedience
  • Judges: God punishes Israel through its enemies, sets up judges to rescue for a time; without a king, Israel spirals down
  • Ruth: God provides for an Israelite widow and her Moabite daughter-in-law, makes them part of the lineage of King David
  • 1-2 Samuel: God appoints faithful prophet Samuel, rejects sinful King Saul, blesses faithful King David but allows family drama
  • 1-2 Kings: God grants wisdom to King Solomon; Israel secedes from Judah; idolatry leads to downfall of both kingdoms
  • 1-2 Chronicles: God gives King David a dynasty and Levitical priests a temple; in exile Israel is given hope of restoration
  • Ezra: God brings Israel back out of exile to rebuild His temple; priest Ezra still finds lingering moral problems
  • Nehemiah: God inspires Nehemiah to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem; Nehemiah’s moral reforms have limited effect
  • Esther: God elevates a Jewish orphan to be queen of Persia so she may rescue her people from genocide; new festival Purim
  • Job: God permits Satan to afflict Job; Job and his friends argue about God’s power and goodness; God Himself sets Job straight
  • Psalms: God listens to His people in their praises, laments, requests, and other expressions of trust in His sovereign rule
  • Proverbs: God has ordered His creation according to the principles of wisdom, which are knowable to those who fear Him
  • Ecclesiastes: God frustrates human attempts to find meaning or satisfaction apart from fearing Him and keeping His commandments
  • Song of Songs: God ordains sexual love to be a special blessing for marriage as seen through the eyes of a newlywed couple
  • Isaiah: God rules over all, will judge all rebellion, and will establish His perfect rule over His people through His Servant
  • Jeremiah: God judges His people for their breaking His law-covenant, hinting at a future new covenant and a renewed people
  • Lamentations: God loves His people with an unending love even in the midst of His righteous judgment of their sin
  • Ezekiel: God condemns all sin yet graciously promises to restore His people so all may know that He is the LORD
  • Daniel: God proves His superiority by preserving His people in a hostile land and revealing His future perfect rule(r)
  • Hosea: God chooses His people fully aware that they will be faithless, pledges to restore them out of idolatry
  • Joel: God announces a “day of the LORD” when He will both devastate and deliver, blessing His people and judging their enemies
  • Amos: God holds all people accountable for their sin, pledges to destroy all sinfulness yet somehow also preserve His people
  • Obadiah: God pronounces judgment on the enemies of His people in contrast to the glorious future His people will enjoy
  • Jonah: God relents from judgment on those who repent and turn to Him, whether a pagan nation or a wayward prophet
  • Micah: God decries the flagrant sins of idolatry and injustice found in His people, ensures a King who will remove these evils
  • Nahum: God authorizes the destruction of the enemies of His people because they remain opposed to Him and His rule
  • Habakkuk: God uses wicked nations to His own purposes without excusing them from their wickedness; His people can still trust
  • Zephaniah: God declares the day of the LORD will wipe out all traces of rebellion against Himself; only humble worshipers left
  • Haggai: God rebukes His people for neglecting His temple, then promises an even greater sign of His presence among them
  • Zechariah: God foreshadows cataclysms and resistance that will precede the establishment of His appointed King-Priest
  • Malachi: God denounces all false piety in His people, admonishes them to ready themselves for the day of His coming
  • Matthew: Jesus confirms he is the promised Messianic King of Israel who supersedes the OT experts and the law-covenant
  • Mark: Jesus works miracles, teaches to prove his authority; rejected by some but filling his followers with awe
  • Luke: Jesus proves his greatness through his miracles and teaching on his journey to Jerusalem; the humble trust in him
  • John: Jesus performs 7 signs and makes 7 “I am” statements to prove He is the Christ, the Son of God in whom we may believe
  • Acts: Jesus sends his disciples to be his witnesses; Word of God spreads from Jerusalem to Rome via Peter and Paul
  • Romans: Jesus offers salvation through faith in himself to Jews and Gentiles; justification -> sanctification -> unity
  • 1 Corinthians: Jesus calls for unity in the church through shared faith in himself and shared obedience to himself
  • 2 Corinthians: Jesus certifies Paul as an apostle through his ministry and suffering; true Christians listen to his message
  • Galatians: Jesus rejects all attempts to reinstate Israel’s law-covenant which he has overridden by his new covenant
  • Ephesians: Jesus reconciles believers with God and unifies them through the gospel; church must uphold right preaching/living
  • Philippians: Jesus enables Christians to endure suffering with joy since he modeled humility and will complete his good work
  • Colossians: Jesus reigns supreme over all things, foremost the church; Christians submit to him, not earthly philosophies
  • 1 Thessalonians: Jesus orders his church by his word and the promise of his return; Christians live in a worthy manner till then
  • 2 Thessalonians: Jesus forbids misunderstandings of his return as excuses for idleness; Christians must speak and work well
  • 1 Timothy: Jesus appoints pastors over churches to guard the doctrine and guide the people; Christians imitate faithful elders
  • 2 Timothy: Jesus emboldens his messengers to trust in his word and speak despite opposition; Christians need faithful preaching
  • Titus: Jesus installs elders to teach sound doctrine and live holy lives so that believers may be equipped to do good deeds
  • Philemon: Jesus reorients relationships between Christians so that even a master and slave may fellowship as brothers
  • Hebrews: Jesus surpasses the OT messengers, priesthood, and sacrifices; Christians persevere in faith that he is better
  • James: Jesus grants wisdom to any who ask so that we may not only see our sin but also humble ourselves enough to obey
  • 1 Peter: Jesus sets his people apart from the rest of the world; Christians can endure suffering through their hope in him
  • 2 Peter: Jesus protects Christians from false teachers by reminding them of the Bible’s promises, especially re His return
  • 1 John: Jesus assures his people of salvation through negative examples and positive exhortations to believe, obey, and love
  • 2 John: Jesus distinguishes his people by their knowledge of truth and love for one another; Christians reject false teachers
  • 3 John: Jesus commends his people who show hospitality to faithful messengers of the gospel, proving they believe the message
  • Jude: Jesus keeps his people from apostasy by showing how self-destructive it has always been; Christians contend for the faith
  • Revelation: Jesus reveals he will conquer every foe and fulfill every Biblical promise at his return; Christians say, Amen, Come

And there you have it. I may revisit these at some later date and tweak them more to my perfectionist liking, but that will have to do for now. In the meantime, why not start thinking through how you would explain the Bible?

Who are the “Least of These?”

Matthew 25:40 NIV
Then the King will reply, “Truly I say to you, whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”

I have seen many internet articles just on this one passage (Matthew 25:31-46). Unfortunately, such articles tend to be written by someone telling Christians that they are not acting like good Christians, chastising them for failing to live in accordance with this verse. They share an underlying indictment: “How dare you claim to care about people’s spiritual condition if you won’t take care of their physical needs?”

On its surface, this passage looks like it means that one’s eternal salvation is determined by one’s acts of compassion. Whenever we help the disenfranchised and the downtrodden of society, our entrance into heaven is all the more assured. On the other hand, as I heard one famous teacher describe it, Jesus will turn away at the final judgment from self-identifying Christians who failed to help the poor during their lifetime, saying, “I don’t want to hear it!”

You, dear reader, may currently hold this view. So did I. You may not even be aware that there might be a better way to understand Jesus’ words. Neither did I. (And, neither do some commentaries!)

We will almost always misapply what we misinterpret, and we will always misinterpret when we ignore literary context. There are several problems with the view described above, but I will only highlight what I think should be most obvious—this view ignores the very next words that Jesus says.

Jesus doesn’t just say, “the least of these” (yes, He just says “the least of these” in v 45, but He clearly has in mind the same people about whom He spoke in v 40); He says, “the least of these brothers of mine” (or “brothers and sisters of mine,” as in the translation above). Jesus doesn’t just throw out the term “the least of these” as a poetic catch-all for every disadvantaged person in existence. It seems to me that He has a particular subset of disadvantaged people in mind.

Question: Whom does Jesus consider “brothers and sisters?” Answer: His disciples in particular, and by extension all Christians in general*.

Matthew 12:46-50 ESV
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus most closely identifies Himself with His closest followers (Matthew 10:40-42), those who “[do] the will of [His] Father in heaven,” which means they believe that He is indeed the One the Father has sent (John 6:28, 40). Jesus has already foretold that those who follow Him will be rejected and even suffer overt persecution on account of their faith in Jesus and their proclamation of the gospel (Matthew 5:10-12, 10:16-25). These persecutors, along with those who passively approve of their actions, are the goats Jesus describes.

Conversely, those who helped the disciples with their physical needs counteracted against the persecution and ostracism the disciples suffered. Their acts of compassion were also acts of solidarity; they outwardly showed that they inwardly accepted the disciples’ message. These sympathizers are the sheep Jesus describes. Thus, in accordance with the rest of Scripture, this passage teaches that entrance into Jesus’ eternal kingdom is contingent on accepting the message of the gospel in all its fullness and acting in accordance with its implications. Faith that works, and all that (James 2:14-17).

In short, this particular passage is NOT about charity in general nor what is called “social justice.” I do not write this to denigrate or discourage you if your current practice is based on what I consider a flawed interpretation. This is not a call to exclusivity but a reminder of priority, not turning a blind eye but having a biblical perspective. I am not suggesting that we never do anything to help people in general who have serious need unless they pass some sort of spiritual litmus test, but that we make sure we are doing the most important things first. I cannot tell you what you should do about the guy on the street corner, but I will encourage you to pay more attention to Christians who are suffering as a direct result of their faith in Jesus. It happens, even today, even here.

Those who stand against Christians, stand against Christ; those who stand with Christ, stand with Christians. Christians who are not currently being persecuted are to support those who are. Because whatever we do for a Christian—even the least important Christian you know—who is suffering for the sake of Christ, we do for Christ Himself, the Lord of all Christians.

* I would argue that whenever the word “brother” is used in the Bible, if it does not clearly mean “male sibling,” then it means either “fellow Israelite” (God’s Old Testament people) or “fellow Christian” (God’s New Testament people). Go ahead, try that definition in Leviticus 25 or I John 3:10-18.

EDIT: Since this particular passage has gained a lot of attention in recent days, I am including links to some other posts that also come to similar conclusions, approximately in order from earliest to most recent.

Election 2016

Not that anyone asked, but here are my thoughts on Election 2016. They originally appeared as a “Tweetstorm” and remain largely unchanged.
1) Hillary Clinton is unqualified for the presidency. I refuse to support her.
2) Donald Trump is unqualified for the presidency. I refuse to support him.
3) One of these two will be the president.
4) My vote will not be the deciding vote that makes the difference between either candidate (and neither will yours).
5) Clinton and Trump are not the only two candidates running for president.
6) Not voting is an option (though not one I would recommend).
7) The presidency, while important, is not the only office/issue on the ballot.
8) Bold prediction: the world will not end on November 9. You will still have to live with people who voted differently than you.
9) Character matters. A vote for a candidate is an endorsement of that candidate’s trustworthiness.
10) For Christians, we must show with our vote that our trust is ultimately not in the occupant of the White House for the next 4 years.
11) If you want to know for whom I will be voting and why, ask me.
12) Matthew J. Franck said it well: “Vote as if your ballot determines nothing whatsoever—except the shape of your own character.”
One final word: Come quickly, Lord Jesus; and keep us faithful until that day.

The Defiant Officer

[Note: this is an updated version of something that I wrote a few months back before I had a blog. It is much more political than I tend to be in general; I publish this to communicate spiritual truths and not to alienate those with whom I would disagree on political matters. It also may not be as timely as it used to be, but I think it still holds up.]

The government has issued an order that, while it is not far removed from the social conventions of the day, signals a dramatic change in public policy. The government insists that this new ruling will not intrude on people’s privately-held beliefs; all that is required is compliance. However, there is someone who refuses to comply on religious grounds, and that someone happens to work for the government. The government offers the officer two options: submit to the ruling, or suffer the consequences. The officer instead chooses a third option: stand firm.

Of course, I’m talking about Kim Davis, the controversial county clerk from Kentucky who, because of her conscientious objection to same-sex marriage, refused to issue marriage licenses and consequently was given jail time. (And, in truth, much has already been written regarding whether Ms. Davis’ actions were a violation of the so-called “separation of church and state” or whether the First Amendment was drafted specifically for such occasions.)

But the outlines of the story above do not apply exclusively to Ms. Davis. I am also talking about Daniel (Daniel 6), and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego (Daniel 3).

To be certain, these cases are not identical. Ms. Davis did halt issuing marriage licenses, but also requested an adjustment be made to the form itself so that her signature would not be required; Daniel and his friends requested no such religious accommodation. Ms. Davis was imprisoned for what turned out to be five days; Daniel and his friends were sentenced to death. As a result of Ms. Davis’ actions, the law of the state of Kentucky has been amended, though the ruling of the Supreme Court still stands; for Daniel and his friends, after seeing God deliver his people from certain death, both Nebuchadnezzar and Darius turned to God (however temporarily) and rescinded their previous orders.

But in all three cases, the act of defiance was borne not out of animosity toward anyone, but out of devotion to a higher authority. For these believers, to obey the government would be tantamount to disobeying the King of Kings.

In his ruling on Ms. Davis’ case, Judge Bunning said, “The idea of natural law superseding this court’s authority would be a dangerous precedent indeed” (cited here). In the case of Shadrach et al, Nebuchadnezzar said something similar (Daniel 3:15 NET): “Now, who is that god who can rescue you from my power?” It is hubris, plain and simple, that would elevate the dictates of the state over the commands of the Creator. Conversely, it is humility in its purest form that allows the believer to look the ruler du jour in the eye and say, “I must not bow.”

Fellow Christians, we have already surrendered to Christ, so it would be improper—rather, impossible—to surrender to anyone or anything else.

Let us with one voice proclaim the name of Jesus as Savior, Lord, King.

Let us understand the case of Kim Davis as prototypical—she is merely the first of many who will suffer similarly due to the Supreme Court’s ruling, barring political action on our part (which is of limited usefulness) and divine intervention on God’s.

Let us pray for our American brothers and sisters in the days ahead, when the faith of many will be tested by the trials of the prevailing culture, primarily in the temptation to capitulate.

Let us pray even more for our brothers and sisters around the world who are currently suffering far worse for remaining faithful to Jesus.

Let us love our unbelieving neighbors enough to oppose that which would ultimately cause harm to themselves, no matter how vocal their support.

Let us petition the Lord to humble those arrogant Nebuchadnezzars and Belshazzars who would exalt themselves over and against our God.

Let us remember the cases of Daniel and his friends as exemplary—we must demonstrate allegiance to the one true God, though it cost us our lives.

Let us truly believe that Jesus is Lord and Christ, not just inwardly with all our hearts, but also outwardly in all our vocations, saying with Peter and the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

And let us look forward to the day when the stone of Daniel 2 becomes an immovable mountain that fills the whole earth, and the Son of Man of Daniel 7 takes his rightful place on the throne as King of All.

What’s the difference?

When I was younger, I thought a lot about the story of the Passover. After all, I was the firstborn son in my family, so I thought, If I had lived back then, my life could have been in jeopardy. But I was also a little horrified by the story itself. All those innocent Egyptian boys! How could God do that?

At the time, I wondered whether any Egyptians put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts and thus escaped the terrible plague. I suppose my thinking was not too far fetched; in Exodus 9:20-21 it shows that some Egyptians believed that God would make good on His threat to send devastating hail and prepared accordingly. Still, it was a speculation based on the silence of the text.

I have come to realize that the answer to my question is in the silence. The Bible only talks about the Israelites putting the blood of the lamb on their doorposts, which means only the Israelites performed this ritual. The reason only the Israelites did this is because the ritual was explained only to the Israelites. God expressly told only the Israelites how to avoid the tragedy that would soon befall the Egyptians.

Why? Because God wanted to save the Israelites. They were already His; He just gave them a visible sign of that spiritual reality. They in turn believed that He was going to do what He promised and responded in obedience.

God distinguished Israel from Egypt back then through the Passover, and God distinguishes Christians from everyone else now through Jesus Christ.

The Bible declares that Christians are spiritually distinct from unbelievers and delineates ways in which Christians should be practically distinct from unbelievers. The imperatives of Christianity directly flow from the indicatives of Christianity.

We Christians are different; therefore, we ought to be different. Or, alternately: our Christian activity is determined by our Christian identity. (Either sentence would be an acceptable Tweet.)

There are a myriad of interpretations and a million more applications that have been drawn from Jesus’ parable about the sower and the seed falling on different soils. Here is what I understand as the main takeaway—only the seed that fell on good soil produces fruit. That is, only Christians can be Christ-like. This is not to deny that a Christian will sin, but to affirm that a Christian is no longer a slave to sin (cf. Romans 6:1-14).

We who are truly Christians will show ourselves as such. We are already His; He has graciously given us ways to demonstrate that spiritual reality. We in turn trust that He will do what He has promised and respond in obedience.

And why did God decide to save us who trust in Jesus? “[It was] not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (II Timothy 1:9). God saved us so that we would acknowledge the Lamb that was slain on our behalf and worship Him as the worthy King.

Christ Jesus makes all the difference in the world—and in us.

On “Being Right”

My wife will tell you—I’m a bit of a know-it-all.

She’s right. And I love it.

How much do I love being right? I love being right so much that I will hold on to a “Scene It?” trivia board game for years, just waiting for the right unsuspecting victim to come along and foolishly attempt to prove they know more about movies than I do. (True story.) I love being right so much that, if I hear a conversation about Star Wars or superheroes, but it’s clear that the participants themselves are not nearly as into it as I am, I will engage in every non-verbal cue in my arsenal until they invite me into the conversation. (Also true.)

So I love being right. But, at times, I also hate it.

When do I hate being right? When Christians get theology wrong.

I hate being right when a friend on Facebook presents a “cutting-edge” idea about Christianity, but which has dire implications if taken to its logical extension, regardless of how many “likes” it garners. I hate being right when an author or celebrity with a broad audience tells others his opinions of what God is like, as though personal speculation were superior to biblical revelation. I especially hate when a pastor fails in his duty to present the Word of God as anything less than the clear, true, authoritative, and sufficient Word that it is, or to present Jesus as anything lower than the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Son of David, the King of the Jews, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Judge of the whole earth, the One who is and was and is to come.

Tragically, however, I have loved “being right” more than I have loved the person in error. How? I tended to keep the truth to myself. Rather than engage in a conversation about issues that have eternal consequences, I have seethed to myself and satisfied myself with the smug consolation: I’m right and they’re wrong.

Or, occasionally, I have failed in the opposite direction. I have interpreted their theological error as a character defect, and I have let them know as much. This is a rarer occurrence, but usually by this time I have built up a lot of animus and vitriol compounded with confirmation bias, and heaven forbid I should let this “righteous indignation” go to waste. I will not only definitively show you everything wrong with what you have said/done, but how this further proves that you are a terrible person.

By withholding the truth, I have not loved my brother in Christ. And by ascribing evil to the one in error, I have not loved my brother in Christ. And if I do not love my fellow Christian, I am disobeying Jesus (John 13:34-35).

Paul famously wrote about Christians “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) in the context of members of a church growing together in spiritual maturity. Well, in my mind, I’ve got the “truth” part down, but that still leaves “love” and “speaking.”

So here is my resolution going forward. If I hear a fellow Christian teaching something that seems off-base, I will pray that Jesus would give me the opportunity and the words to speak in response, whether they are words of seeking clarification, of offering a perspective that he/she perhaps had not considered, or even of rebuke (if it directly contradicts the gospel) and entreating this brother/sister to return to the good news “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

And I ask that you, my fellow Christians, would do the same for me.

Because, in the end, it does not matter how “right” I am; what matters is that we all come to grow in our knowledge of the Truth Himself (John 14:6).