Monday, January 30, 2017

Winning and Losing: America and the Kingdom of God

I hate losing. I really do. Just ask my wife or anyone who’s played board games or sports with me. The competitive monster reared its ugly head again recently when a couple ministry buddies and I were playing NBA Jam on Super Nintendo. I woke up my friend’s baby screaming about losing on a buzzer-beating, game-winning, underhanded full-court shot.

I know. I have a problem. But maybe I’m just a product of my culture. Americans are obsessed with winning. It’s one of the main reasons why athletes inject illegal substances into their bodies and parents lose their minds when their kids do poorly in church recreation leagues. It was also a driving force behind countless Americans’ decision to either vote for Trump or Clinton, even though they found many of both candidates' character traits reprehensible.

During President Trump’s God and country-laden inauguration, he confidently declared, “America will start winning again, winning like never before.” To many, this proclamation was like music to the ears. However, it’s imperative that we analyze Trump’s ‘winning’ strategy through a biblical lens before getting swept away in the Christianish momentum like so many believers did in the early fourth century with Constantine.

Though there are many statements from his speech I could draw from, I’m going to examine three that I consider particularly striking.

“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it's going to be only America first — America first. … We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world. But we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow.”

What President Trump said sounds good for citizens of a country who feel their taxes and resources have been unjustly and unnecessarily used to lift up other people groups instead of blessing the citizens and infrastructures here at home. But how do the values of the kingdom of God compare or contrast to his statements?  

They came to Capernaum; and when He was in the house, He began to question them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest. Sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” – Mark 9:33-35

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 2:3-5

There’s quite a distinction between the two views, wouldn’t you say? Let’s move on to the second statement from Trump’s address.

“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.”

Metaphorically speaking, a ‘bedrock’ refers to the fundamental principles on which something is based. Therefore, Trump said that everything he is planning to do in office is going to be established through complete and total loyalty and allegiance to the USA. Not 50%, not 80%, absolute allegiance. And only through total allegiance to the USA can we truly become loyal to each other. What does King Jesus have to say about that?

Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. – Matthew 10:34-38

One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” – Mark 12:28-31

Jesus is not okay with coming in second place to your wife, job or country. Being the Lord of heaven and earth, He rightly demands absolute allegiance. And, King Jesus says that only by being totally devoted to Him can we begin to love one another as ourselves.

Finally, let’s look at the third, and perhaps most egregious statement from President Trump’s inauguration speech.

“Our country will thrive and prosper again. We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow. A new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions.”

Um… who is supposed to usher in a new millennial age and then completely eradicate disease forever? Oh yeah, I remember reading about that in Revelation and it’s not a US President. It’s God Almighty. Someone is coming dangerously close to sounding like a blaspheming Führer.

Though you may not think so, I’m not interested in bashing the President. We should pray for him. I’m interested in advancing the kingdom of God and watching over His sheep.

Satan is crafty, and we should be mindful of the fact that the biggest threats that he has posed to the Church have not come from outside, but inside our ranks. The persecutions that Emperors Nero, Domitian and Valerian inflicted upon the faithful actually served to spread the gospel like wildfire.

The greatest threat to Christianity in the first three hundred years was Gnosticism… a group that claimed to be Christian, yet often lived quite licentious lifestyles without feeling the need to repent. Go to heaven and live like a heathen? Their philosophy tickled the ears of countless shallow believers, and Satan’s ruse ravaged the Church.

We must stay vigilant and filter all things through Jesus’ life and words. We must neither let a lust of winning nor a fear of losing in worldly matters govern our decisions. We need to be more like the faithful early Christians who gave everything to win the prize that really matters. So may we be inspired by their allegiance to the kingdom of God and run the race marked out for us with enduring loyalty to the true King!

The tortured stood more brave than the torturers; and the limbs, beaten and torn as they were, overcame the hooks that bent and tore them. The scourge, often repeated with all its rage, could not conquer invincible faith, even although the membrane which enclosed the entrails were broken, and it was no longer the limbs but the wounds of the servants of God that were tortured. … How great, how acceptable to the eyes of God in the allegiance and devotion of His soldiers! As it is written in the Psalms, when the Holy Spirit at once speaks to us and warns us: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” … This is the struggle of our faith in which we engage, in which we conquer, in which we are crowned. This is the struggle which the blessed Apostle Paul has shown to us, in which it behooves us to run and to attain the crown of glory. “Do you not know,” he says, “that they which run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? So run that you may win.” – Cyprian 250CE, Volume 5, p. 511-512 [CD-ROM] 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Unlikely Apostle Pt. 10: “From Faith to Faith”

One of the most famous scenes from the Indiana Jones series (other than that crazy witch doctor ripping some poor man’s heart out) was when Indy took a great step of faith into a vast chasm in search for the Holy Grail. It was a picturesque example of the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.

Similarly, from beginning to end, a life of following Jesus will include countless faith-filled, potentially scary steps. Paul hits on this truth at the beginning of his letter to the Christians in Rome.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” – Romans 1:16-17

In the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. But what does that mean? One way of looking at it is that the gospel reveals both the faith-filled righteousness that gets us into the kingdom of God, and the faith-filled righteous way of the kingdom of God.

Clement of Alexandria, who was basically in charge of the new members classes in the church of Alexandria, Egypt, explains Romans 1:17 this way: 

“The righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” The apostle, then, manifestly announces a twofold faith, or rather one which admits of growth and perfection; for the common faith lies beneath as a foundation. To those, therefore, who desire to be healed, and are moved by faith, He added, “Your faith has saved you.” But that which is excellently built upon is consummated in the believer, and is again perfected by the faith which results from instruction and the word, in order to the performance of the commandments. Such were the apostles, in whose case it is said that “faith removed mountains and transplanted trees.” Whence, perceiving the greatness of its power, they asked “that faith might be added to them;” a faith which benefits the soil and “like a grain of mustard,” grows magnificently in it. – Clement of Alexandria 195CE, Volume 2, p. 732 [CD-ROM]

According to Clement of Alexandria, it is faith in Jesus’ righteousness that initially saves and brings us into the kingdom. However, continued faithful adherence to the righteous words and way of Jesus grows us spiritually and matures our faith.

Scripture demonstrate these two stages of faith and righteousness working together in the life of Abraham.

For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” … Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. … Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. – Romans 4:3, 9-10, 23-24

In Romans 4, Paul references  Genesis 15, where God confirms His promise of an heir to an 80-something-year-old Abraham. Despite having one foot in the grave and his wife being well past the age of childbearing, Abraham took the Lord God at His word. He was fully convinced that the Lord’s ability, and because of Abraham’s faith, God declared him to be in right standing and entered into a covenant with him.

However, another New Testament author cites the same passage in Genesis 15, yet takes quite a different approach to it than Paul.

But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. – James 2:20-23

The righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. Yes, Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness when he believed the Lord would fulfill His promises to him. Yet, we see Abraham’s faith in God promise brought to full maturity decades later when he is willing to sacrifice the son of the promise, Isaac, believing that God could raise him from the dead.

It’s no wonder Abraham is called the father of the faithful. If there was ever a person other than Jesus who demonstrates how to depend on God while taking leaps of faith out into the unseen, it is Abraham.

So how is God calling you to step out on faith this week? What seemingly insurmountable challenges has He set before you to walk through while depending on His strength and provision? Just Indy finally found his footing when he stepped out into the chasm, may you find our heavenly Father more than enough as you courageously follow Jesus from faith to faith. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Unlikely Apostle Pt. 9: “We Look Not at Things Which Are Seen”

Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, is one of the many characters in the Bible who served as a shadow of Jesus… a type of Christ. Early on, both Joseph and Jesus knew they were called to rule over their families, and the families of both Joseph and Jesus did not take kindly to the knowledge of their high callings.

Joseph was betrayed and sold into slavery for 20 shekels of silver, and Jesus was betrayed and arrested for 30 pieces of silver (the price of a slave). Just as Joseph was sent down into prison because of the sins of another, Jesus was murdered and then descended into Hades because of the sins of the world. However, similarly to the way Joseph was brought up out of prison and exalted to second in command to Pharaoh, Jesus was raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God the Father.

Last week, I noticed another area of Joseph’s life that points to Jesus. Once Joseph became second in command, he instructed the people to begin prepping for a famine. He called them to work extra hard and focus on storing food away for a future time. He called them not to worry, but to live for what was unseen rather than what was seen.  

Jesus calls us to be spiritual preppers: to live for what is unseen and build up storehouses for a future time in heaven.  

Do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not keep worrying. For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things. But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys. – Luke 12:29-33

The apostle Paul echoes the heavenly perspective of Jesus’ words as he writes in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, “We do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

You must understand, when Paul writes of Christians’, “momentary, light affliction,” he’s not simply referring to a headache or a cold. This is a verse that shows the importance of reading Scripture in context. Earlier in the chapter Paul, tells us exactly what’s been troubling him and his companions. He writes that they are afflicted in every way, perplexed, struck down and constantly being given over to death for Jesus’ sake.

Why in the world would Paul refer to such troubling circumstances as 'light and momentary'? He was aware of eternity. He had a heavenly perspective. He knew that a lifetime of hell on earth can’t compare to an hour in Paradise with Jesus. Paul believed more in what is unseen than what is seen.

Ignatius, who wrote his epistle to the Romans just before being executed for Christ, was a man who faithfully and bravely embodied both Jesus and Paul’s instructions to live for what lasts rather than what is passing away.

“For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” … Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ. … All the pleasures of the world, and all the kingdoms of this earth, shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die in behalf of Jesus Christ, than to reign over all the ends of the earth. “For what shall a man be profited, if he gain the whole world, but lose his own soul?” Him I seek, who died for us: Him I desire, who rose again for our sake. This is the gain which is laid up for me. – Ignatius 105CE, Vol. 1, p. 123, 125-126 [CD-ROM]

It’s so encouraging to read the accounts of the early Christians. I’m inspired by the way these normal followers of Jesus possessed such hopeful, fearless outlooks when facing imminent torture and death. Just like Joseph’s life pointed to Christ, by walking as Jesus walked they still direct our gaze heavenward, and motivate us prepare not for what is seen, but what is unseen.