Friday, November 30, 2012

Is lying always wrong?

Deception in the Bible: Is Lying Always Wrong?

(July 2000; revised March 2010)
This document is available as a pdf here

When we deal with ethical questions—what is right as opposed to what is wrong—we prefer clarity to ambiguity. We want a firm distinction between what a person should do and what he should not do. We get that clarity when God unequivocally condemns certain behavior, acts such as...1
  • Pagan idolatry, 
  • Premeditated murder, 
  • Sexual immorality. 
These issues brook no exception. They are always wrong. The Bible also condemns deceit.2 God says in...
Lev 19:11b-c Do not lie. Do not deceive one another.
Can we also make the same assertion that—like idolatry, murder, and immorality— deceit "is always condemned in Scripture" (italics added; so Barker 1975:84)?3

We all agree that our Lord is "the God of truth" (Ps 31:5b), who values truth and speaks the truth.4 He denounces lying, especially the kind that turns people away from Him.5 Satan's rebellion can make headway only through deceptive means, which is why he is "the father of lies" (John 8:44).6 Truth is characteristic of the godly, whereas falsehood is characteristic of the ungodly.7 Moreover, God punishes those who lie, sometimes severely,8 and those who persist in such behavior disqualify themselves from entering His presence.9 This does not deny that "[s]ometimes even good men [can] become enmeshed in lies" (Foster 1975:926), as when Peter denied Jesus, nor does it excuse such behavior,10 but "it [is] the exception rather then the pattern of their lives" (ibid.). What is troubling and confusing to us are the examples of deception in the Bible that have God's approval. How are we to understand them in light of His repeated prohibition against lying?

Is lying always wrong, or does God seem to allow it under certain circumstances? Most of the relevant passages fall into one of three groups, so we will examine each group in turn to see what light they shed on this subject.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sermon: John 10:22-39, "Light on the Messiah"

Light on the Messiah

December 24, 2011
 A pdf of this sermon, with endnotes, can be found here.
If I asked you to repeat Luke's account of the Christmas story, you could probably reproduce most of it, although you might miss some small details. 
A NY journalist was in a small Alabama town to write a Christmas report. As he entered the town square, he saw a Nativity scene with figures of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and the three wise men. One thing puzzled him though... the wise men were all wearing firemen's hats. He went back to the motel and asked the girl at the front desk if she knew why the wise men were wearing firemen's hats. "City folk," she replied, "Ya think ya know ever'thang, don't ya? Y'all ain't nuthin' but city folk who don't read the Bible!" "Pardon me," he replied, "but I do read the Bible, and there is nothing in it about firemen's hats!" Muttering under her breath, she pulled out a well-worn Bible from under the desk, flipped it open, and said, "Looky right here. It says... 'They came from afar'!"
Details are important, some more than others. Our story this morning also underscores the importance of paying attention to details and of what people miss by not doing so when God sheds Light on the Messiah.

In 175 BC, King Antiochus of Syria attempted to dominate Israel by abolishing the religion of its inhabitants. He outlawed the observance of Torah in all sectors of Jewish life:
  • The nation could not offer sacrifices in Jerusalem,
  • Local communities could not keep the Sabbath, and
  • Parents could not circumcise their new born sons.
Antiochus even went so far as to profane the temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and by sacrificing a pig there. Eventually, under the leadership of Judah Maccabee, Jews revolted against this foreign oppressor. In 165 BC, they defeated Antiochus's army and regained control of the temple. The people saw their deliverance as evidence of God's presence in their midst, and the first book of Maccabees records their primary concern after winning their independence.
1 Macc 4:36 Then said Judas and his brothers, "Behold, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it." ...44 They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. 45 And they thought it best to tear it down.. .for the Gentiles had defiled it. So they tore down the altar... 47 . . .and built a new altar like the former one.... 50 Then they.. .lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these gave light in the temple.... 56 . . .they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness....
The Hebrew word for dedication is hanukkah, which became the name of an annual holiday commemorating this deliverance from gentile oppression?1 According to tradition, God also performed a miracle at that time...

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Baptism: Its Function and Its Form

May 1987 (Revised August 1999)
This document is available as a pdf here.


The issue of baptism has engaged the interest of church theologians for centuries. Differences over the reason for baptism and the particular way that baptism should be performed often serve, in part, to distinguish one denomination from another. Although there are other areas of baptism than its purpose and manner that may interest the Christian (e.g., the so-called "baptism in the Spirit"), a discussion of these two aspects is particularly important for understanding the Baptist position. As the SDB statement of belief reads, "baptism of believers by immersion is a witness to the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and is a symbol of death to sin, a pledge to a new life in Christ" (American Sabbath Tract Society 1981:3).

This statement contains two assertions and makes several important distinctions. First, the function of baptism is as part of an initiatory rite performed by believers. It is an ordinance as opposed to a sacrament in that it serves as an external sign of one's new relationship to God and conveys no divine grace to the recipient. Furthermore, it is intended for one who has decided to commit his life to the messiah. It is not, therefore, for infants, who can make no such decision. Second, the form of baptism is immersion in water. Sprinkling and pouring are both unacceptable methods (except, perhaps, in life-threatening circumstances). Support for these assertions rests on evidence from three sources.

The form and function of baptism according to the Jewish tradition

By far the most important source for understanding NT baptism is its place in Jewish tradition, which attests both baptism's form and function. According to one Church historian, "for the interpretation of early Christian belief and practice in regard to Baptism we need look no further than contemporary Rabbinic Judaism" (Gavin 1928:58). During the Second Temple Period, baptism held a dual function, especially for converts to Judaism and even for converts within Judaism (e.g., to the Essene sect; Simon 1967:75-76, 88; Cross 1961:95). The act symbolized purification from a sinful past and marked initiation into (and commitment to) the covenantal community (Bamberger 1939:44). Because conversion required deliberation (Hebrew, kavanah) , baptism was limited to adults (twelve or thirteen years and older). Moreover, the only acceptable method of proselyte baptism was immersion (Posner 1972 2:82-83). It is this same rite that the reader of the NT encounters.

The function of baptism according to the New Testament

John, Jesus, and the early church—the second source for understanding NT baptism—were all part of the Jewish community of their day,1 and there is no indication that they altered the traditional function or form of the Jewish practice. Those who came to John easily accepted his use of baptism to demonstrate repentance, even when they doubted his message.2 Jesus, by his baptism, identified with John's work and maintained the tradition with his disciples, instructing them to make the practice an integral part of their ministry.3 Accordingly, baptism for new converts in the early church continued to symbolize purification from a sinful past and to mark initiation into the believing community.4 As with John's baptism, the requirement of repentance and faith limited participation to adults.'

The form of baptism according to the Greek word

The third source for understanding NT baptism is the meaning of the Greek word translated, "baptize." The standard lexicons are in agreement that the definition of the verb, baptizo (as well as of the noun, baptismos, and its variations), is "to dip" or "to immerse" (Windisch 1964 1:529, 545; Arndt and Gingrich 1957:131), the same meaning also attested outside the NT (Moulton and Milligan 1930:102-103). This definition accords with the Jewish practice, and it agrees with NT accounts such as Acts 8:38-39, where Luke says that the Ethiopian eunuch "went into the water...and came out of it," implying that the mode of his baptism was immersion.6

The form and function of baptism according to the alternative views

Among those who do not subscribe to the position on baptism outlined above, there are two major alternative views. Some advocate infant (paedo) baptism, and others consider baptism a sacrament (imparting divine grace).7 Both groups reject, to some extent, the continuity of Jesus and his followers with the Jewish community. In an attempt to find something that will elevate Christian baptism above its Jewish antecedent, supporters of these views stress NT passages that the writers intended illustratively and neglect other passages that inform the issue. In so doing, they fail to account for the teaching of the Bible as a whole and make an unwarranted disjunction between the Jewish community of Jesus' day and the early church.

Proponents of infant baptism assert that NT baptism replaced circumcision (Berkhof 1941:633-634), basing this assumption primarily on Paul's discussion.
Col 2:11 In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
For them, baptism assumes the significance of circumcision in that it is applied to infants as a sign of the (new) covenant. Given the young age at which they initiate members into the believing community, they reject immersion as the proper mode of baptism in favor of pouring (effusion) or sprinkling (aspersion). In this letter to the Colossians, however, the apostle employs both circumcision and baptism in a figurative sense to illustrate the spiritual advantages of a believer's new position in Christ. (It should be noted that this figurative use of circumcision is not unique to Paul.8) Although Paul states that the rite is not required for salvation, he takes great pains to affirm the abiding validity of circumcision.9 To do otherwise would have violated the divinely ordained permanence of circumcision for the Jewish people (whether followers of Jesus or not)10 and would have negated its distinction from other rites.11 Without this substitution of baptism for circumcision, paedo-baptists cannot sustain their position, for there is neither an instance of nor any instruction for infant baptism in the NT.

Proponents of the sacramental efficacy of baptism (Mueller 1955:488-496) also appeal to passages that highlight the spiritual benefits to which the act points.12 Their opinion on the mode of baptism varies, but their understanding of its import is singular: Baptism is not merely an initiatory rite that depicts a person's separation from a sinful past and his identification with Jesus, it is the medium through which God works to regenerate the individual.13 The problem with this position is that it takes literally what the NT writers intended figuratively. Baptism itself no more cleanses the believer from sin than it inters him in the tomb with Jesus.14 Moreover, the passages that allegedly support most strongly the sacramental position on water baptism actually have another baptism in view. In Titus 3:5, Paul specifies the washing he has in mind as that done "by the Holy Spirit" rather than by water. As if to preclude any misunderstanding, Peter states that "the baptism that now saves you" is not water baptism ("the removal of dirt from the body"), "but the pledge of a good conscience toward God" (1 Pet 3:21); again, the baptism of the Holy Spirit." Sacramentalists thus attach to water baptism a mystical element foreign (except in an illustrative sense) both to Judaism and to the early church. Therefore, the references they cite should be considered in the same light as similar expressions found elsewhere in the NT (e.g., Rom 6) and in other Jewish literature (Kotlar 1972 11:1535), as figurative of what baptism signifies and not as literal of what baptism accomplishes.


Considered together, the practice of the rite within Judaism, the continuation of that tradition by Jesus and the NT church, and the meaning of the Greek word all support an understanding of Christian baptism that accords with the position traditionally held by most Baptists and, in particular, by Seventh-Day Baptists. The function of baptism is to demonstrate (not to actualize) the believer's separation from a sinful past and his devotion to a new Lord. It is intended for those who have already experienced the regeneration of the Holy Spirit and, therefore, is limited to disciples.16 Moreover, the form of baptism is immersion, which symbolizes the thoroughness of this commitment.


  • American Sabbath Tract Society, 1981, "Statement of Belief of Seventh Day Baptists." Janesville, WI.
  • Arndt, William F., and Gingrich, F. Wilbur, 1957, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 4th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Bamberger, Bernard J., 1939, Proselytism in the Talmudic Period. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press.
  • Berkhof, Louis, 1941, Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  • Cross, Frank Moore Jr., 1961, The Ancient Library of Qumran & Modern Biblical Studies. Rev. ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
  • Gavin, F., 1928 The Jewish Antecedents of the Christian Sacraments. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
  • Kotlar, David, 1972, "Mikvah." Encyclopaedia Judaica. 11:1534-1544. Edited by Cecil Roth. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House.
  • Moulton, James Hope, and Milligan, George., 1930, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  • Mueller, John Theodore, 1955, Christian Dogmatics. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
  • Posner, Raphael, 1972, "Ablution." Encyclopaedia Judaica. 2:81-86. Edited by Cecil Roth., Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House.
  • Simon, Marcel, 1967, Jewish Sects in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
  • Windisch, Hans, 1964, "bapto, baptizo, baptismos, baptisma, baptistes." Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 1:529-546. Edited by Gerhard Kittel. Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.


(1) Relevant passages include: 
Matt 15:24 He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel."
Acts 21:17 When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. 18 The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. 19 Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: "You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, 23 so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. 24 Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. 25 As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality." 26 The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.
(2) Relevant passages include:
  • Accepted
Mark 1:4 And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
  • Doubted
Matt 3:7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 
(3) Relevant passages include:
  • Maintained
John 3:22 After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. 23 Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were constantly coming to be baptized. John 4:1 The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.
  • Instructed
Matt 28:19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
(4) Relevant passages include:
  • Purification
Acts 22:16 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.'
Rom 6:4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
  • Initiation 
Matt 28:19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 
Acts 2:41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
(5) Relevant passages include:
Acts 8:12 But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.
Acts 18:8 Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized.
(6) Other passages include:
Mark 1:10 As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.
John 3:23 Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were constantly coming to be baptized. 'Some also argue for a combination of the two.
(8) Relevant passages include:
Deut 10:16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.
Dept 30:6 The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
Jer 4:4 Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done - burn with no one to quench it.
Jer 9:25 "The days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh-26 Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab and all who live in the desert in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israelis uncircumcised in heart."
(9) Relevant passages include:
  • Not salvific
Gal 2:3 Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.
Gal 2:15 "We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' 16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
Acts 15:5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses." 6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: "Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are."
  • Still valid
Acts 21:20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: "You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, 23 so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. 24 Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.
Rom 2:25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.
Rom 3:1 What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? 2 Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.
(10) Relevant passages include:
Gen 17:13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.
Acts 21:21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs.
(11) In Judaism, circumcision—as well as the redemption of the first born—was always a separate rite from ablution; they were never confused. 
  • Circumcision
Luke 2:21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.
Gen 17:9 Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner - those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."
  • Redemption
Luke 2:22 When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord"), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: "a pair of doves or two young pigeons."
Exod 13:11 "After the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites and gives it to you, as he promised on oath to you and your forefathers, 12 you are to give over to the LORD the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the LORD. 13 Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons. 14 "In days to come, when your son asks you, 'What does this mean?' say to him, 'With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal. This is why I sacrifice to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.' 16 And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the LORD brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand."
  • Ablution
Luke 3:21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened
(12) Relevant passages include:
Acts 2:38 Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 22:16 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.'
Eph 5:26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,
(13) Relevant passages include:
Titus 3:5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
1 Pet 3:21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also - not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
(14) Relevant passages include:
Rom 6:4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 5 If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin-
(15) Relevant passages include:
Rom 8:9 You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. 12 Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, 14 because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
(16) Relevant passages include:
Matt 28:19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Sermon: Romans 12:1-16, "Living Sacrifices," Part 2

Living Sacrifices, Part 2

"Living Sacrifices," Part 1

A pdf of this sermon, with end notes and bibliography, can be found here.

We are social creatures and, as such, we establish relationships of various kinds and in various settings—relationships at work, relationships at school, and relationships at home.
One day, Sam commented on his wife's recent weight gain. When she protested, he said, "Honey, isn't our relationship based on honesty?"—Husbands, you should know you're in trouble when you try to go there.—"No," she retorted. "Our relationship is based on flattery... and it's rapidly going downhill."
We are social creatures and, we establish relationships of various kinds and in various settings—relationships at home, and relationships at church, as Paul describes in our further look at Living Sacrifices.

Writing to believers in Rome, Paul addresses several topics—sin, salvation, sanctification, sovereignty, and service—all subjects he regards as important for the Christian to understand. In the opening verses of chap 12, the apostle focuses on various areas of service, which is the proper response to the great mercy of a God willing to save those who were once disobedient. It is advice he would give to all believers, including you. First, he says that...
  • Your responsibility to the Lord is to be completely devoted to Him as well as constantly transformed by Him (vv. 1-2). In...
Rom 12:1 .. .1 urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.
Second, he says that...
  • Your role in the Church is to be honest in assessing your gift as well as diligent in applying your gift (vv. 3-8). In...
Rom 12:3b Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.... 6a We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.
These are two areas of service God expects from all believers, including you.

As I said last time, the list of gifts in vv. 6-8 is illustrative—prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading, showing mercy—so your gift may not be included. Keep in mind the difference between the gifts of the Spirit, like those Paul mentions here, and the fruit of the Spirit, which he lists in his letter to the Galatians.
Gal 5:22 [T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23a gentleness and self-control.
Gifts determine a believer's ministry and are for the benefit of the church as a whole. Fruit reflect a believer's character and pertain to the ways he relates to individuals inside (and outside) the congregation. (The renewing process Paul mentions in v. 2 contributes toward your producing the fruit of the Spirit.) Each believer has a limited number of spiritual gifts, perhaps only one, and that is fine; but God expects each believer to manifest all the fruit of the Spirit. It is the first fruit (love) to which Paul turns next as he describes a third area of service...

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sermon: Romans 12:1-16, "Living Sacrifices," Part 1

Living Sacrifices, Part 1

Living Sacrifices: Part 2

A pdf of this sermon, with end notes, can be found here.

The requirement to enter heaven is simple, so simple that even a child can understand it.
Linda was testing the children in her SS class to see if they understood the concept of getting to heaven. She asked them, "If I sold my house and my car, had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into heaven?" "NO!" came a loud and confident chorus. "If I cleaned the church, mowed the yard, and kept everything neat and tidy, would that get me into heaven?" Again, the answer was a resounding "NO!" By now she was starting to smile. This was fun! "Well, then, if I was kind to animals and gave candy to all the children, and loved my husband, would that get me into heaven?" Yet again, they all answered, "NO!" Linda was bursting with pride for them. "Well," she continued, "how can I get into heaven?" A five-year-old boy shouted the answer... "You gotta be dead."
The requirement to enter heaven is simple, so simple that even a child can understand it... although there is no guarantee he will. Before a person crosses that threshold, though, it is necessary to make adequate preparations, which includes becoming one of the Living Sacrifices Paul describes in Romans 12.

Paul has just finished extolling the great mercy of a God willing (and able, i.e., sovereign) to save those who were once disobedient, whether Jews or gentiles. Then, in chapter 12, he explains the appropriate response to that mercy, which is understanding your responsibility to the Lord as well as your role in the Church. It was Paul's hope for the church in Rome and should be our hope for this congregation. He begins by explaining...

I. Your Responsibility to the Lord (vv. 1-2)

Rom 12:1 ...1 urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Paul exhorts his readers to make themselves "living sacrifices" (an oxymoron),1 which conjures up a vivid and uncomfortable picture. An animal chosen as an offering to God was always killed first and then placed on the altar. Yet here, Paul changes the image; besides making his readers the animal, he omits the initial step that puts an end to both volition and pain for the sacrifice. He calls on them to do what no animal could or would do, to jump willingly into the flame and to remain there. Moreover, he says this is the kind of devotion God expects; it is the Christian's responsibility. ... Some would call this fanaticism. It is, of course, a figure, but the shock value surely gets their attention, as it should yours. If you are a Christian, you must...

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Understanding what God has said

"Be diligent to present yourself approved to God 
as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, 
accurately handling the word of truth." 
(2 Tim. 2:15 NASB)

In this admonition from Paul, the apostle indicates that there is a right way and a wrong way to deal with what God has revealed, and that the right way is not necessarily easy. In fact, it may require considerable effort—"Be diligent"—to grasp the meaning of a passage.

At first, the task of interpreting Scripture may seem daunting. We live hundreds of years after the people who originally received these documents. We come from a different culture and speak a different language. Perhaps we have had little or no religious training and find the Bible a maze of confusing stories that talk about people with unpronounceable names.

How can we even begin to make sense of what we read in these ancient documents?

Despite the obstacles, understanding Scripture may not be as difficult as it sometimes seems. While there are, indeed, challenges that arise with the passage of time as well as with changes in culture and language, it is possible to overcome many of those hindrances.

The most important skill to develop is simply the ability to read carefully—to pay attention to detail and to be alert for potential problems or for areas that need further study.

The main principle to keep in mind is that "context controls meaning."

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Preference, principle, or precept?

Just as you must be prepared to defer to the sensitivities of other believers, so you must recognize your own sensitivities and distinguish what is truly significant from what is simply trivial. In others words, you must be careful about assuming a stance that is unequivocally confident (dogmatic). You must recognize that there are different degrees of assertiveness for the positions you hold, and you must be able to gauge (and identify) the strength of your convictions appropriately.

I do not
eat peas
I do not
drink wine
I do not
worship idols
 (Eccl. 8:15) (Prov. 20:1)  (Exod. 20:5)

Although I do none of these (i.e., peas, wine, idols), I do not avoid them with the same degree of conviction.
  • If someone invites me to dinner and serves peas, I will probably eat some to be polite. But I would decline a second helping, because that is my personal preference.
  • If my host offers me a glass of wine, I will decline, because I do not drink wine as a general principle. But if I am taking communion in a church that uses wine, I may accept, because my conviction is not based on a scriptural prohibition against it.
  • If a Hindu acquaintance invites me to offer incense to Krishna, I will decline, because my conviction is based on a biblical precept. To violate that precept would damage my relationship with God. 
Likewise, if you do not make such distinctions, if you accord all your convictions the same status (whether or not they have the same support of Scripture), you will either feel unnecessarily guilty when you fail to keep them or you will impose an unwarranted expectation on others to keep them.
  • If you accord an issue less status than Scripture gives it (e.g., permitting idolatry), you will fall short of the mark. You will not be holy, as the Bible prescribes.
  • If you accord an issue more status than Scripture gives it (e.g., prohibiting wine), you will overshoot the mark. You will be holier than the Bible prescribes.
As you formulate your convictions or evaluate them, assess their relative strength. Is the stand you take on a particular issue a matter of preference, principle, or precept?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Essential attitudes about worship

Erroneous Assumptions and Essential Attitudes about Worship

[a pdf of this entry is linked here]

My wife and I have different views on breakfast preparation. She does not like soggy cereal and waits until the very last moment to add the milk. I, on the other hand, am not nearly as fussy and do not mind if the cereal has lost a little of its crunch. Hence, whenever I offer to fix a bowl for her, she declines with visible disgust. Because cereal is one of my two culinary specialties (the other being PB&J), I take every opportunity to offer her the benefit of my expertise. Alas, her response is always the same: "Yuck!"

As you might imagine, such persistent rejection eventually takes its toll on an already fragile self-image. One day, after yet another rebuff, I asked her, "How can you turn down something that I prepare for you with such loving care? What difference does it make if it's a little soggy?" Wholly unmoved by my emotional plea, she callously replied, "If you loved and cared, you'd do a better job."

Sometimes…often, people's approach to worship is like my approach to cereal preparation. They put something together, such as a service or an anthem, and assume that as long as they present it in love, it does not matter that the hymns and scripture have little connection or that two of the choir's voices have never really gotten their parts right. "What difference does it make if it's a little soggy?" What we fail to hear is God's reply: "If you loved and cared, you'd do a better job."

There are two common assumptions that shape (and distort) people's view of worship. The first assumption many Christians have is that…

Pleasing God

From "The Soul Set Free" in the Sabbath Recorder, Oct 2006 (pdf):
When Paul says, “Love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10), he does not mean that love is a substitute for obeying the law, as if God replaced the specific precepts with this general principle. Rather, love is the stimulus for obeying the law.

Love motivates us to please God by heeding what God says will please Him, rather than what we think will please Him or, more often, what will please us. Without the anchor of God’s law, love drifts into “situation ethics,” the notion that love—as we understand it—dictates how we should act in any given circumstance. That sounds good until we encounter a situation that comes in conflict with God’s law. 

For example, a woman confides in a male coworker that her husband neglects her. He is not abusive, just disinterested. He sits on the couch, night after night, watching TV, and has no desire to spend time with her. 

The coworker, who happens to find the woman attractive, is sympathetic to her plight. If he is not to transgress the law’s prohibition against adultery, he must maintain a certain distance in their relationship. Since, in his mind, the law is no longer relevant, he decides to apply Jesus’ admonition—“love your neighbor as yourself”—by giving her the attention and affection her husband is not. 

If, in the words of John Lennon, “Love is all you need,” and if love is a substitute for obeying God’s law, there is nothing wrong with this man’s decision. Is that what Paul means when he says, “Love is the fulfillment of the law”?… 

It is not. Love is not a substitute for obeying the law; love is a stimulus for obeying the law. It is what motivates us to please God, which we do by obeying God. And we know what God expects—what pleases Him—because He has revealed that in His law.

The Sabbath

Why Do Seventh Day Baptists Observe the Sabbath?

[a pdf of this entry is linked here]

Seventh Day Baptists keep a day for worship different from that of most other Christians. Instead of gathering on the first day of the week, Seventh Day Baptists meet on the seventh day of the week, the biblical Sabbath. Why would they choose to separate themselves in this way? What scriptural reasons are there for worshiping and resting on the seventh day rather than on the first day? Seventh Day Baptists keep the Sabbath because…

1. They note God's example, for He observed it at creation. 
By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. [Gen 2:2]
For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth…and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy. [Exod 20:11]
2. They recall God's deliverance, for He instituted it after the exodus.
See, the Lord has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day. [Exod 16:29]
You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day. [Deut 5:15]
3. They obey God's precept, for He commanded it on Sinai.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. [Exod 20:8]
Observe the sabbath day to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. [Deut 5:12]

Why do the righteous suffer?

[a pdf of this entry, including extensive footnotes not included below, can be found here]

If God is both sovereign and loving, why does He allow people, especially His people, believers, to suffer? This is a question relevant to everyone because, like it or not, sooner or later, we all face this issue: Suffering is part of life. It may be a debilitating disease, a financial crisis, a failed relationship, a natural disaster, or a premature death. Whatever the calamity, we inevitably ask, “Why? Why did this happen?”
  • Sometimes the question has a tinge of guilt: “What did I do to deserve this?”
  • Sometimes the question has a tone of accusation: “Why did God do this to me?”
However we pose the question, there is an assumption that God is responsible or involved in some way.

Indeed, underlying any understanding of suffering is some presupposition of God’s character, specifically His goodness and His power. Many who have wrestled with this question have opted for one of two extremes.
  • For some, the problem lies with God: “It’s His fault; He is deficient.” (Wenham 1974:42-49)
    Either He is not good and, thus, derives sadistic pleasure from human suffering, 
    Or He is not omnipotent and, thus, is unable to prevent human suffering.
  • For others, the problem lies with us: “It’s our fault; we are deficient.”
We are simply incapable of comprehending the mind of God in this matter; the reason for suffering is beyond our knowing, hidden in God’s providence and outside human understanding.
Both extremes are wrong…and for the same reason, because the Bible teaches us otherwise.


God's Forgiving Us and Our Forgiving Others
[a pdf of this entry can be found here]

There is a common and unqualified assumption in Christian circles that the proper response to all personal offenses is to “forgive and forget” (“let bygones be bygones”), and that not to do so places one at risk of divine condemnation. As Jesus warned the disciples,
Matt 6:15 … if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
The immediate difficulty with such an assumption is that it holds the believer, who, Jesus says, must forgive all, to a higher standard than it holds God, who needs not forgive all. Several New Testament passages link or condition God’s forgiveness of the believer with the believer’s forgiveness of others, but is forgiveness completely one-sided and open-ended? Are there restrictions on what the believer can and should forgive? For the answer, we must look to more explicit passages. First, it is necessary to understand the definition of the term “forgive.” The Hebrew and Greek words mean to release a person from guilt or punishment. Forgiveness is a legal (judicial) designation that eliminates the indebtedness of one party to another and, thereby, alters the status of their relationship. It includes both a remission of guilt and a restoration of fellowship.
Forgiveness is the wiping out of an offense from memory; it can be effected only by the one affronted. Once eradicated, the offense no longer conditions the relationship between the offender and the one affronted, and harmony is restored between the two.
I. God’s Forgiveness in the Old Testament

God and the biblical authors make clear that, despite man’s sin, God is willing and able to forgive.
Exod 34:6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7a maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.