Sunday, February 26, 2017

Fake News and the Gospel

There’s a new cliché that been sweeping our nation. “Fake news” can be heard from the lips of presidents, news anchors, protestors and even parents. Yeah, there was a time I called “fake news” after being accused of taking some of my daughter’s candy. Maybe that wasn’t fake news, though. It’s hard to know who to trust these days.

For the disciples of Jesus, it was also difficult to determine reality in the days following His crucifixion. Matthew records that just after Jesus rose from the dead, the Jewish authorities conspired together with the soldiers guarding the tomb to disseminate fake news among the people. They instructed the soldiers, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble (Matthew 28:13-14).”

The possibility of fake news reeked havoc in the mind of one of Jesus’ disciples that same resurrection Sunday.

Even though John and Peter had seen the stone rolled away and Jesus’ burial cloths folded in the tomb, even though Mary Magdalene reported to the disciples that she had seen, spoken with and hugged the risen Lord, the disciples huddled together in an upper room in unbelief. Then suddenly, Jesus stood in their midst and showed them the scars from His hands and side. They all rejoiced together and received the Holy Spirit. All of them, that is, except Thomas.

The Gospel of John records that Thomas happened to be out and about at the time Jesus arrived, and when he finally made it back to the upper room, Jesus had vanished. Can you imagine the emotional roller coaster he must have been on when he heard the news? It all seemed to good to be true, so Thomas called “fake news”.

He said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe (John 20:25).”

Exactly one week later, though, Jesus again returned to the upper room, this time when Thomas was with the others.

Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed (John 20:27-29).”

It seemed unbelievable to Thomas that real, death-defeating power could spring forth from his Lord being marred beyond all recognition and savagely murdered. But with the resurrected Jesus starring him in the face, Thomas could live in denial no longer. Belief in the gospel transformed Thomas. According to Church history he courageously took that life-changing message to Parthia and India where he was eventually martyred.

The good news of the way, life, death and resurrection of Jesus quickly began to spread all over the known world by believers like Thomas. Soon, thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions of people throughout the Roman Empire were renouncing their hope in the Pax Romana for gospel of the kingdom of God.

Justin Martyr was one of several early Christians who wrote about the drastic shift that occurred in the lives of those who dared to take Jesus at His word.

We who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies, and endeavor to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, to the end that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope of a reward from God the ruler of all. … We who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons - our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into implements of tillage - and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith, and hope, which we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified. – Justin Martyr 160CE, Volume 1, pg. 167, 254 [CD-ROM]

How do you feel about Justin’s testimony? Does it make you want to call “fake news”? Justin Martyr proclaimed that throughout the entire world, the eschatological prophecies of Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 were already coming true in the followers of Jesus.

How powerful do you believe the gospel is? Do you believe it’s not only powerful enough to transform enemies of God into His friends, but your enemies into your friends as well?

There is much propaganda and fake news floating around in our world, it’s true. But the timeless truth of the gospel will continue to regenerate and transform those like Thomas who will humbly and simply give their lives fully over to Jesus and His kingdom. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Jeffress Vs. Jesus

Dr. Robert Jeffress is the pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas, TX, and a strong supporter of Donald Trump. Evidently, the admiration is reciprocal, because President Trump had Jeffress preach a special sermon for him the night before his inauguration.

A few weeks before the election, Pastor Jeffress was interviewed on National Public Radio about his unabashed support for Trump. Toward the end of the conversation, Jeffress was asked how he felt about one of Max Lucado’s election-themed blog posts, in which he called Christians to restore each other's humanity and stop being mean.

This was Jeffress’ reply:

Well, first of all, I see a lot of common ground with Max Lucado. I love Max Lucado. And, you know, I've disagreed with his point of view. When I'm looking for a leader who's going to fight ISIS and keep this nation secure, I don't want some meek and mild leader or somebody who's going to turn the other cheek. I've said I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation. And so that's why Trump's tone doesn't bother me. But having said that, I do agree with Max Lucado. There needs to be unity, especially in the body of Christ.

When I first read those words, several questions came to my mind such as: What should the body of Christ be looking for in a leader? Shouldn’t the head of the body of Christ, Jesus, be the leader of the Church? What should be the unifying principle that binds the body of Christ together? Shouldn’t we be unified around the cross?

I don't want to insinuate that he is not a Christian, but what seems to be going on with Pastor Jeffress is an example of 1 Corinthians 1:18, 27-28 playing itself out in our culture.

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. …  God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are.

On the cross, Jesus died for His enemies in order to reconcile them to God. On the cross, Jesus looked foolish. On the cross, Jesus looked weak. On the cross, it looked like Jesus had lost and evil had won. Yet, on the cross, Jesus displayed the great power of God.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of 1 Corinthians 1:18 playing itself out in the New Testament happens in Matthew 16.

In the latter days of His ministry, Jesus asks the disciples who they and the crowds say that He is. It’s a good question we need to ask ourselves from time to time. Is Jesus just a good teacher? Is He just a kind fellow who shows us a nice and fanciful ideal? Or, is He God? Is He the Lord of our lives? Is He the leader whose example we must follow?

After Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus proceeds to tell the disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes. He says that He must be killed and raised back up on the third day. 

Peter can’t fathom the Messiah losing like that so he says, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” But Jesus immediately looked back at Peter and said, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” 

In Matthew 16, Peter views the cross as foolishness and weakness. Peter views the cross as losing because he was being deceived by the devil.

However, Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil, so He begins to reveal to Peter and the other disciples the way to overcome Satan, the way to live in victory and achieve spiritual prosperity. “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it."

Jesus elucidated to the disciples and to us the manner in which the great power of God is unleashed. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage and eventual martyr for Christ, echoed his Lord’s words in one of his many works during the third century.

The kingdom of God is not in the wisdom of the world, nor in eloquence, but in the faith of the cross. … In the first Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: “Christ sent me to preach, not in wisdom of discourse, lest the cross of Christ should become of no effect. For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who perish; but to those who are saved it is the power of God. – Cypran 250CE, Volume 5, p. 980-981

I believe that Pastor Jeffress is attracted to Trump’s tone and approach toward evil because it appears to be powerful. However, from a kingdom of God perspective, it is weak and foolish because it is completely antithetical to the cross. Is it possible that Pastor Jeffress does not have in mind the thoughts of God, but rather is unintentionally promoting the agenda of the god of this world?

As Paul, the writer of 1 Corinthians proves in his testimony, it is the cross, not a mean SOB, that truly has the power to transform evil into good in the world. It is the cross that turns hate-filled terrorists into love-driven missionaries. And I realize that may sound like nonsense to some, but it is the wisdom and power of God. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

An American Boogeyman

When the first plane collided into the World Trade Center, I was at my parents’ house getting ready to leave for my Koine Greek class at Houston Baptist University. I couldn’t believe what was happening, and rage began to flood my heart. The anger only intensified when I learned my professor hadn’t cancelled class.

We were soon told that Islamic terrorists were to blame and I can remember telling my dad, “We need to blow those Middle Eastern folks off the face of the earth.” That’s not the kind of talk that should come out of a Christianity major’s mouth, but in that moment, I wasn’t thinking like a Christian. I was thinking like an American. 

America loves war. It’s been documented that as long as the USA has existed, there have only been a total of 21 years when we haven’t been fighting with someone somewhere.

Because America loves war, America needs a boogeyman. A boogeyman is anything or anyone we are told is a threat to our God-given right to experiencing the American dream. America not only needs boogeymen, but loves them because they give us a reason to actualize the violence we fantasize about. They give us a reason to come together. Boogeymen give us a reason to believe in the cause of America again and make sacrifices for the State, whom we view as our practical provider and protector.

Various boogeymen throughout America’s history have included the Native Americans, the British, African Americans, Fascists, Communists, drug dealers, Democrats and Republicans. Over the last decade-and-a-half, the main boogeyman that has supposedly been threatening the freedoms of America has been radical Islam.

Newly elected President Donald Trump reignited Americans’ fear and hatred of radical Muslims in his inaugural address. 

"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 for everyone to follow. We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones -- and unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth."

President Trump is clearly seeking to annihilate the people who believe in radical Islam. When you try to destroy an ideology by destroying the people who adhere to that ideology, history proves that these endeavors generally fail. Attempting to destroy a philosophy or an ideal through violence releases the seeds of martyrdom, which only causes that movement to spread.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Like all belief systems that set themselves up against the gospel of the kingdom of God, I do not think that Islam is a good or even neutral thing. It needs to be confronted. However, according to the Scriptures, the way Christians fight against evil is diametrically opposed to the methods of worldly warfare. It is also exceedingly more effective.

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. – 2 Corinthians 10:3-4

Before you neuter these divinely inspired words or think Paul to be naïve, take a moment to read this account of the way Christians powerfully fought against terrorism in the third century.

The adversary had leapt forth to disturb the camp of Christ with violent terror; but, with the same impetuosity with which he had come, he was beaten back and conquered. … But when beaten back … he perceived that the soldiers of Christ are now watching, and stand sober and armed for the battle; that they cannot be conquered, but that they can die; and that by this very fact they are invincible, that they do not fear death; that they do not in turn assail their assailants, since it is not lawful for the innocent even to kill the guilty; but that they readily deliver up both their lives and their blood. … Let us be urgent, with constant groanings and frequent prayers. For these are our heavenly arms, which make us to stand fast and bravely to persevere. These are the spiritual defenses and divine weapons which defend us. – Cyprian 250CE, Volume 5, p. 622-623 [CD-ROM]

I don’t think it’s fair to call the Christians of the first three centuries pacifists. They were fearless and passionate warriors. However, because they belonged to a kingdom that is not of this world, the method of their warfare was otherworldly. Instead of firing arrows at their assailants, they called upon the name of the Lord. Instead of attacking and killing their enemies, they blessed and loved them into friends. Instead of mirroring evil with evil, they overcame evil with good and destroyed the works of the devil.

The early Christians were not naïve. They knew exactly what they were doing. And by the end of the third century, despite Christianity being an illegal religion, 1/10th of the people in the Roman Empire followed the kingdom way of Jesus Christ. They radically changed the religious landscape of the world by loving their enemies without any qualifications, just like their Lord did on the cross.

So please, fellow Christian, do not be deceived. Radical Islam is not the boogeyman. President Trump is not the boogeyman. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are the boogeyman.

When we pause to think like Christians, we remember that Satan is the real boogeyman; he is our adversary. Satan is the ruler of all the kingdoms of this world, the father of lies who deceives the whole world, and he delights in the destruction of the image of God. But those who follow Jesus will overcome him by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony, for they will not love their lives even when faced with death.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Five “We Wills”

Early in my childhood, my parents took our family to the circus. I had a great time, but the thing that impressed me the most was seeing performers stand on the seats of moving bicycles.

Of course, the next day I pulled out my trusty BMX and gave it a shot. Peddling up some momentum, in a crouched position I cautiously put one foot on the seat, and then the other. Surprised I had made it that far, I decided to stand up and shout, “I’m the king of the world!”

Face… meet concrete. Thank goodness the dentist was able to fit me into his schedule and give me a new front tooth.

Whenever I tell that story, people always quote the same Bible verse to me, “Pride goes before a fall.” It’s true, though. Pride does serve as a forerunner to destruction because the Bible says that God Himself opposes the proud.

“God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” … Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. – James 4:6, 13-16

The word ‘opposed’ is an ancient military term, which pictures an army assuming a specific battle-array position to attack an enemy force. James says that God is not messing around about pride. When He sees it, He gets ready to throw down, and God never loses a fight.

A classic example of this God versus pride dynamic is found in Isaiah 14, a passage known as the five ‘I wills’ of Lucifer.

Take up this taunt against the king of Babylon, and say … “How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the earth, you who have weakened the nations! But you said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of assembly in the recesses of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ Nevertheless you will be thrust down to Sheol, to the recesses of the pit.” – Isaiah 14:12-15

In Isaiah 14, the king of Babylon is described as being analogous to the devil. And just as the divine rebel was cast down and humiliated because of his treacherous pride, Isaiah declares that the same fate will befall the pompous king of Babylon.

When the President of the United States of America ended his inauguration speech, he did so in an eerily similar fashion as the king of Babylon’s boast against God. President Trump, however, used five ‘we wills’. Some have argued that the use of the word ‘we’ is a clear mark of humility, but the mere usage of a first person plural pronoun means nothing. What matters is what he said ‘we’ can and will do.

Please read his closing remarks from the speech:

When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. … No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America. … 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. … Your voice, your hopes, and your dreams, will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way. Together, We Will Make America Strong Again. We Will Make America Wealthy Again. We Will Make America Proud Again. We Will Make America Safe Again. And, Yes, together, We Will Make America Great Again. Thank you, God Bless You, And God Bless America.

The spirit of America? The Bible tells us to not readily accept every spirit, but rather to test them since not every spirit comes from God. And before you totally write me off, claiming that it’s absurd to insinuate that there is an actual spirit of America, pause with me and reflect on what the Scriptures might have to say on the matter.

Knowing that the book of Daniel says there were angelic principalities called the Prince of Persia and the Prince of Greece, I wonder what it was that drove thousands of Ephesians to shout in unison for two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” If it’s possible that there was a territorial angelic spirit over the area of Ephesus that led people to be hostile to the simple words of Christ, isn’t it possible the same dynamic is happening here?

So, let’s briefly test this spirit of America using the words we just read from President Trump’s speech.

Is America truly unstoppable and all-powerful? Is America what ushers in the New Millennium? Is America able to rid the world all disease forever? Who or what does the spirit of America tell us to put our confidence in? Does the spirit of America glorify the Lord God Jesus Christ, or the god of us?

We Will. We Will. We Will. We Will. We Will.

What ever happened to God’s will? There’s not much room left for God when we’re so full of ourselves.

Beating our chests with shouts of our grandiosity won’t open the floodgates of heaven, but it will lead to spectacularly painful face-plants. God doesn’t bless pride; He never has and never will. God blesses humility.

We need to rediscover our roots. We need to go back to a time when Christianity was truly great… when it couldn’t care less about the affairs of the State, but would relinquish anything for the kingdom of God. We need to get on our knees in repentance of our pride, and plead not for America to be great again (whatever that means), but for the glory of God to be great in the Church again.

Let us do all those things which pertain to holiness, avoiding all evil-speaking, all abominable and impure embraces, together with all drunkenness ... all abominable lusts, detestable adultery, and repulsive pride. “For God,” says [the Scripture], “resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” … Let our praise be in God and not of ourselves; for God hates those that commend themselves. Let testimony to our good deeds be borne by others. … Arrogance, and audacity belong to those that are accursed of God; but moderation, humility, and meekness to such as are blessed by Him. – Clement of Rome 95CE, Volume 1, p. 25-26 [CD-ROM]