Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Saul's Conversion (with conflicts!)

 Now as he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told to you what you must do.” The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. (Acts 9:3-7, NASB) 

If I never knew what Calvinism was, then reading the account of Paul’s conversion would have led me inexorably to some primordial form.


Paul was not seeking the Lord.

Paul was not being divinely wooed to come to Christ.

Paul was not being proselytized.


No, Paul experienced literally what most of us experience metaphorically: We are knocked to the ground; we are dragged and compelled. Any feeling that we had something to do with our conversion is simply an attempt at after-the-fact rationalization. It's illusory. It's our effort to drape a worldly context on what amounts to a supernatural intervention, a miracle if you will. We contribute naught but our sin.


In the case at hand, the utterance of the Lord begins with the object's name repeated: Saul, Saul. This is a common feature when God deigns to speak audibly to a creature. Saul recognizes the divine authority of the voice but not the specifics, as he asks: “Who are you, Lord?” He received an answer that he could not have possibly expected (or wanted). We would all love to hear the first part: “I am Jesus.” We would rather not have to hear the rest: “whom you are persecuting.” Yikes. I'd be expecting something unpleasant at that point. But then again, this is Jesus we are talking about.


The account does not tell us that Saul saw Jesus. That's not a conflict, just a factoid. That particular detail is added later, first by Ananias in 9:17, and then by Barnabas in 9:17, and again later by Paul’s retelling (e.g., 1 Cor 9:1). 


There are some conflicts perhaps worth mentioning. In 9:7 we are told a) Saul’s companions stood speechless and b) they heard the voice.  The first is superficially in conflict with Paul’s retelling in Acts 26:14

And when we all had fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me 

The second is in apparent conflict with, again, Paul’s own words, this time from Acts 22:9

And those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me.

The first conflict is usually explained by the possibility that while Saul remained on the ground his companions, somewhat stunned by the light, went to the ground, but not being the target of the act of divine sovereignty were less affected, and so they quickly recovered and got up. So they were sort of down and not down (Schrödinger companions.) That is, by the time we get to v7 of the primary account, the companions have already stood up.

The second conflict is often explained away with the argument that the companions heard something but unlike Saul what reached their ears was not discernable, it was just thunderous noise.


That works for me. These are not important (apparent) discrepancies.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

How could they see and not believe?

We often ask the question: how could those ancient people witness the miracles of Jesus and not believe? It seems incomprehensible. 

It is incomprehensible for good reason. Because they did believe. But their belief was not a faith reckoned to them as righteousness. We see this in several passages. Most clearly, I would say, at the end of John 2:
23 Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. 24 But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, 25 and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man. (John 2:23-25, NKJV)
Here we have a group who are observing Jesus’ wonderous signs, and scripture does not tell us “and amazingly they did not believe! Nope, they believed, but it was not the right kind of belief. 

The text doesn’t say how they were deficient, but I’m willing to speculate they merely had an intellectual assent that Jesus was a sort of holy man  or prophet capable of miracles. Maybe at the level of Moses or Elijah. But not the Son of God who came to die and take away the sins of the world. Like Nicodemus, they knew something, but they were not (at least yet) born again. Jesus did not commit himself to them. At least at that time. 

We also see this in Simon the Magician of Acts 8, who (seeing wonderous deeds done in Samaria in the name of Jesus) believed and was even baptized, only later to be excommunicated. He believed, but he didn’t understand. 

We even see the same pattern with his close disciples. In Mark 8, Jesus reminds them that they had witnessed the miraculous feeding of thousands, but yet he felt compelled to ask: “How is it that you do not understand?” They had seen. They believed. But they did not understand. And Jesus did not commit himself to them. That is, until they did (imperfectly) understood, when Peter, speaking for the group, answers the direct question with “you are the Christ.” Then they believed and (somewhat) understood, and only then did Jesus commit himself and reveal the greatest mystery, that he must suffer and die. 

So when a skeptic says that he would believe if God rearranged the stars to spell out “Hello World!” in ten languages, he is telling the truth. He would believe, but it wouldn’t be enough.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Peter before Paul: the small p pentecost of the Gentiles

Paul is the "apostle to the Gentiles" but it was Peter who blazed the trail. While Paul was, as far as we know, languishing in obscurity back in Tarsus, Peter had the privilege of leading a second Pentecost of sorts, this time to the Gentiles. Let's call it the small-p pentecost: 

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. 45 And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46 For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, 47 “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days. (Acts 10:44-48, NKJV) 
If we compare this to the Pentecost, we find something interesting: a different ordering of events. Of the Pentecost of Jews in Jerusalem we read: 
38 Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39, NKJV) 
So the ordering for those in attendance in Jerusalem at the official launch of the New Testament church was: 1) repent 2) receive water baptism, and only then 3) receive the Holy Spirit. The pentecost of the Gentiles was much more like the pregame-pentecost of the apostles themselves, with the Holy Spirit leading the show, complete with visible supernatural manifestations: 
1When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4, NKJV) 
In both cases, visible manifestations of the Spirit play an important role. In the Pentecost it certainly made Peter’s sermon more effective and the listeners more attentive. [1] And in the pentecost for the Gentiles it made it quite clear to the Jewish witnesses that the unthinkable had happened, the Spirit of God had indeed descended upon the race about whom association was more or less forbidden, just as it had on the chosen race. [2] Their world changed in an instant, and without the supernatural expressions they quite possibly would not have taken Peter at his word that the conversion of the Gentiles was real, and Peter’s later defense in Jerusalem would have been much more likely to fail. 

Instead, Peter asks if anyone can find a reason why baptism should not be permitted, and nothing but crickets could offer an answer. 

Of course, in many modern evangelical churches none these baptisms, either at Pentecost or the Gentile pentecost would be accepted as valid. The apostles (bad Peter, bad Paul! ) had a terrible habit of baptizing in the name of Jesus, rather than in the name of the triune God. And many modern evangelical churches understand that unless you say it in a prescribed manner, like a chant or incantation, God has to sit on his hands. He cannot dispense sacramental grace unless we humans say the right words to free his hands. We are so important!

[1] Read Peter's sermon, arguably the most inportant sermon offered by a human in history. It doesn't take 45 minutes. Modern sermons are too long. Pastors: we love you but there is much zoning out in the pews. Less is more. Redirect some of that sermon time to what is often missing: fellowship. 

[2] We understandably tend to dwell on the effect of this event on the Gentiles, but really just as important was the effect on the Jews.

Saturday, May 01, 2021

There is no call to Christian Jihad

Then He said to them, “But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one. (Luke 22:36, NKJV) 
In my opinion it is easier to understand what this passage isn’t whether than what it is. What it is not is a call to violence or a call to armed rebellion. 

Look at the response of the disciples and Jesus’ telling retort: 
So they said, “Lord, look, here are two swords. And He said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:38, NKJV) 
Jesus’ response “It is enough” has been taken two ways. The first that two swords will suffice, the second (more probable I would say ) is that the disciples' unthinking banter is enough, because they had missed the boat on what he was saying, which was not meant to be taken literally. 

In either case, the interpretation that this is a divine call to violence or arms is on shaky ground. The disciples have, in their armory, two swords. Two! That is nowhere near enough to stand against any force that could be and would be arrayed against them. If Jesus’ “It is enough” means that two swords would suffice militarily against their future foes, he must have envisioned a war against a small, pacifist cub-scout troop. The disciples, a ragtag group of militarily untrained laborers, with a total of two swords, would not scare or resist anyone. (At least not with their literal metal swords. Their non-literal two-edged swords would turn out to be very effective.)

The nail in the coffin of the view that Jesus authorizes some sort of Christian jihad comes just hours later at the time of His arrest, when a sword (very likely one of these two swords) was put into action. Jesus instructs the sword to be put away and heals the injury it caused. 

Jesus’ “It is enough” response is better understood as a somewhat reluctant acknowledgment that they had altogether missed the meaning of his word picture. 

Perhaps Jesus was telling his disciples something like this:  

Remember earlier in my ministry when I sent you out to the towns, and told you to take no food, no money, no anything? That was in recognition of the fact that while you would not be universally welcomed, you be welcomed by more than enough who would be happy to meet your needs. But those days are about to end. Now you will be unwelcome everywhere, and you need to be prepared to meet your own needs. 

We see this, I believe, in the verse in between the two I already quoted: 
For I say to you that this which is written must still be [accomplished in Me: ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors.’ For the things concerning Me have an end.” (Luke 22:37, NKJV) 
He will be numbered with the transgressors. Those who share a cross with him at Calvary, and those who carry on his ministry.

Everything in this blog related to theology is "in my opinion" only. Don’t trust anything I write.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Let the dead bury the dead?

Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:70, NKJV) 

At first blush, this is not a particularly easy saying. 

Jesus had just spoken to the man, telling him to “follow me.” The man is agreeable to the proposition, with every indication sincerely so. However, he makes what appears to be a reasonable request, which both honors his parents as the commandment requires and is consistent with Jewish cultural practices: first he would bury his recently dead father and then he would gladly join Jesus as a disciple. 

Jesus rejects this request. Why? 

There have been many explanations designed to soften Jesus’ meaning, most along the lines that Jesus actually meant something like “there are professional undertakers—let them handle that dirty job” 

I don’t think so. 

I think it has exactly its seemingly hard meaning: Let those who are (spiritually) dead bury those who are truly dead. 

Note it is no reflection on the man’s father, who may have been saved. We don’t know. But it is a reflection on who should handle this particular burial. Those who have no business in a matter at hand, a matter of extreme urgency. The kingdom is at hand. 

Jesus is not giving us a prescription for all time, that from this point forward the burial of dead parents is to be considered a trivial matter, best left to infidels. No, Jesus is saying this: my ministry is entering a phase of cosmic importance and under these unique circumstances it is best to delegate that task and follow me. 

We can see this in the context of this statement. Earlier in the same chapter Jesus elicits from Peter the great confession whereby Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Christ. And then he “springs” on His followers the great surprise and shocker that though he is the Messiah he is not the one they are expecting—He is going to die, and die soon, without achieving any political victory. In the parallel passage in Mark, Peter is severely rebuked for boldly telling Jesus that such a tragedy will not occur on his watch. To top it off, Jesus tells them that they likely face a similar fate, and they will have to pick up their cross and walk their own death-walk to complete their role in inaugurating the kingdom. 

The kids' stuff is over; it is time for the big boys to come out and play.

This is the context in which Jesus tells the man to allow the dead to bury his father. All of redemptive history is about to reach its apex. There are more important tasks at hand than to bury this father—in fact the man is given a chance to participate in something that, if successful, is the only way for the man to have any hope that someday his dead father would not remain dead, he would be raised.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Pastors: training people for baptism is not in your job jar

Pastors worry about whether or not a person requesting baptism is ready. They shouldn’t. 

Scripture does not tell you to train extensively those seeking baptism. 


Scripture does not hold you responsible for “mistakenly” baptizing unbelievers. 


If you want to worry about something, you should worry about declining to baptize a believer who doesn’t measure up to your standards! I’d seriously worry about answering to that mistake before God.


Despite it being assumed without question (as “common sense”), there are no data indicating that your accuracy rate (which is unknowable anyway) is improved by requiring extensive training prior to baptism. You actually have no way of discerning whether someone is a believer or an imposter, at least not with any certainty.


There are no data that indicate the dreaded “false assurance rate” is better (i.e. reduced) if you train longer. 


“Bad” baptisms, such as we find in scripture (Simon the Magician, presumably the adulterer in Corinth, etc.) are not held up as examples as to how we must be more discerning in whom we baptize. The message is much more along the lines of: “Okay, time to move on.”


Think about this sobering truth: Most modern evangelical churches would not perform any of the baptisms in the New Testament. In all the scriptural examples we have, all that was required was a simple statement of belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and He is the source of salvation. Churches I have been a member of would not have (in the same timely manner) baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, Lydia and her family, the Philippian jailer and his family, the multitudes at Pentecost or any of the other baptisms described in Acts, because those receiving baptism had not been thoroughly trained and tested. 


On this matter, pastors and elders need to get over themselves. You job is to teach and shepherd (don’t forget to shepherd-- you guys often neglect the shepherding) and to baptize those professing simple belief who seek baptism. Your job is not and never has been (as far as scripture is concerned) to do the impossible, i.e., determine the sincerity of their profession. Your job is not and never has been (as far as scripture is concerned) to impose a standard on the level of theological knowledge possessed prior to being baptized. Are you so self-centered that you imagine that the weight is on your shoulders? It’s not. Thankfully God did not deem to give you that responsibility, and yet you act as if he did. The weight of a bad baptism is squarely on those seeking baptism, not on those administering it.

Friday, April 02, 2021

The Fall was a Good Thing

The Fall was a good thing. Such is the demonstrable conclusion based on two facts that any Christian should accept, viz., 

1. God is sovereign. 

2. It's that wonderful (yet most insensitively quoted) verse in all of scripture, Romans 8:28.

Congregant: The tornado destroyed my home, my car, my begonias, and Aunt Ethyl appears not to be in Kansas anymore.


Pastor: Very sorry that happened, but don’t forget: All things work together for good to those who love God…

The Sovereignty of God finds a good expression in the great Protestant confessions, e.g.  

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (WCF 3.1)

Some (like one out of the five who read this blog) may be surprised to see me quote a capital C Confession, but in truth I love them. I am just appaled when people forget they are fallible. Or when they outrageously extrapolate from them, as in claiming that the confession’s statement that God is without “passions” (which nobody would dispute) implies anything remotely like the modern monstrosity that is taught involving extreme views on Impassibility, Immutability, Impeccability, and Simplicity. Views that render God as a Star-Trek-like impersonal and stoic universal life force, and bestows upon the Holy Spirit, for the gazillion times he inspired writings attributing emotions to God, the title of  “incompetent inspirer of the Word.”


But I digress.


WCF 3.1 is one of the (in my opinion) minority paragraphs in the confession where the proof texts are actually satisfying. But you can judge for yourself. It tells us of course that nothing happens outside of God’s purview; at a bare minimum he at least permits everything that happens to happen, even if (as is often the case) he doesn’t condone or endorse it. He certainly allows us to sin, but the sin is on us. There is a tension here, a tension not free of mystery. If you take ordain to be a precise synonym of decree, then it becomes difficult to attribute moral culpability. “Ordain” is something slightly weaker and more nuanced than “And God Said…” decrees, something allowing for moral free agency and yet not so weak that there is a possibility that any of God’s plans or promises could be thwarted.

God is not a puppet master, and yet what he ordains happens. It is actually quite awesome.


I once heard RC Sproul talk about the four permutations (with repeats) of Good and Bad as it relates to evil. From highly fallible memory:

  1. Good-Good
  2. Bad-Good
  3. Bad-Bad
  4. Good-Bad

Good-Good is unavailable to fallen humans. It is untainted good done for a good purpose. It is the domain of God.


Bad Good is possible for humans. Humans can do good, but the motives are always tainted by our selfishness and self-aggrandizement.


Bad-Bad is what it sounds like. Evil stuff done for evil purposes. This is something that we can do but God can’t, but of course nobody should take any comfort in that.


Good-Bad is, somewhat surprising, also in God’s hands. The classic example is that of Joseph and his brothers. But the Fall is also an example. The sin precipitating the Fall was bad, but God used it for good. How else could God use it?

The Fall was good. QED.


If the Fall was good, can we conclude it was necessary? Probably. 


And if it was necessary, why was it necessary?


Nobody can answer that, at least on this side of glory. And if they do, make sure you get them to admit that are engaging in speculation—which is fine as long as it is acknowledged as such.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Don't avoid the appearance of evil. You may miss out.

 The KJV does a terrible job when translating 1Th 5:22, rendering it:

Abstain from all appearance of evil (1Th 5:22, KJV)

This is so bad, virtually every other translation, even the NKJV, corrects the mistake and renders the verse something like:

Abstain from every form of evil. (1Th 5:22, NKJV)


The King James Version is so ingrained in our cultural psyche, that many probably assume that’s what they would find if they opened their bible, independent of the translation. 


The KJV rendering has the aroma of greater piety. After all, it must be that encouraging the believer to avoid even the appearance of evil is an upgrade over mererly avoiding actual evil, is it not? In math we would say it’s a super set. If the set is good, the super set has to be an improvement.


Not so. We have to remember that the bible also warns against calling what is calling good, evil. And that is the risk that inheres with the overzealous application of the erroneous KJV version.


This usually shows up when a man, typically a pastor, refuses to be alone, either professionally or socially (innocently), with a woman who is not his wife. If they were to be seen having a coffee together, it would be scandalous! It is somewhat admirable, and perhaps justified on practical, legal, and safety considerations, but it is not biblical. 


The bottom line is that any two people who are alone can engage in evil, regardless of their sexes. If you are a Christian and certain situations are too much of a temptation, avoid them. If they are not, and if something good and productive can come from it, such as much needed shepherding or theological clarification or just helpful listening (in either or both directions), there is no need for avoidance. To do so is to deny the truth that he who is in you is stronger than he who is in the world.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Why the Transfiguration?

The Transfiguration is a mysterious event. It sort of just pops out of nowhere, suddenly and unanticipated. 

Usually it is discussed in terms of what. That is, we get descriptions of the bursting forth Christ’s glory, which up to then was, in some mysterious way, contained (at least metaphorically) by his human form. Suddenly his glory is displayed in all its radiant brilliance (at least all that Peter, John, and James could bear), an emitted brilliance that must have been infinitely more spectacular than the “mere” reflected glory that was displayed by Moses. I cannot resist the obvious SAT analogy: 

 Jesus:Moses :: Sun:Moon 

At the Transfiguration we have the Prophets, in the person of Elijah, who was taken up, but now with his feet back on terra firma. And we have the Law, in the person and Moses, who after a rather lengthy delay is finally kicking dust in the Holy Land. And we have the voice of God signifying a paradigm shift: we are not to listen to either of these giants of the faith any longer, that is in any authoritative sense. From now on we are to listen to his Son. 

 But why? Why the Transfiguration? For that we need some medias res

Six Days Earlier 

Six days earlier we have the initiation of the long journey from the vicinity of Mt. Tabor through Samaria into Judea and finally to its terminus at Jerusalem, a journey that will climax in the death of Jesus. In Mark’s gospel we read: 
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31) 
This is the start of the end game of Jesus' ministry. In my opinion, the primary why of the Transfiguration is not to show the three disciples a glorious triumvirate of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus—although that was partly the reason—otherwise they wouldn’t be there. No, the why is this: Jesus, the man, needed encouragement. He was a dead man walking. He was about to experience the worst death in history. Not because it was the most painful—although we know crucifixion was brutal and horrifically agonizing, but because he would be regarded by the Father as having committed the all sins of all the elect, which would include innumerable quantities of the worst sins imaginable. 

Although I can’t find the reference, I have been told that Luther said: “no man ever feared death as much as Jesus.” If he didn't really say it-- well whoever said it was correct. And this is not questioning Jesus’ courage, it is acknowledging the unique awfulness that Jesus had to endure. 

The accounts of the Transfiguration tell us that at the Elijah, Moses, and Jesus were huddled together, talking. I believe what was happening, and what was the real purpose of the Transfiguration, is that Elijah and Moses, who (unlike the disciples) knew and accepted what was coming, were giving Jesus encouragement. The Transfiguration was for Jesus’ benefit. The benefit to us is secondary.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Uzzah, Ananias, and Sapphira: they were not punished

In 2 Sam. 6, we have the famous story of Uzzah, who in doing what any of us would have done, died after touching the ark as it was about to fall while being transported, under David’s direction, to Jerusalem. In Acts 5 we have a similar although less sympathetic account of the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira after they, in another “could have been any of us” slip, selfishly withheld money from the nascent church. 

In neither of these stories should we, in my opinion, conclude that the dead were summarily executed as punishment for their crimes. If capital punishment were meted out for crimes such as these, the planet would have no human inhabitants. Instead what we have here is a reminder that God is an awesome God and that especially at critical moments in redemptive history (in these cases the initiations of the Davidic Kingdom and the New Testament church, respectively) he demonstrated that while he is a deeply personal God,  his patience should not be abused to erroneously narrow the gap between creature and creator. He will remind us at opportune times that the moral gulf between God and mankind cannot be overestimated. Uzzah, Ananias, and Sapphira were not punished by death for their crimes; they died as a warning, and to remind us of our crimes, and specifically the crime of adopting a cavalier approach to the holiness and “otherness” of God.


I also think we diminish God when, through misplaced intellectual arrogance, we believe we can understand him more than has actually been revealed in scripture. Instead of humbly accepting that the true doctrine of God is one that our finiteness demands will necessarily contain deep mystery, we assume that our superior brains permit us to extrapolate from scripture and arrive at a highly detailed model of God for which there is no textual support. In doing so we are reducing God by declaring that he cannot be so great and so unfathomable that our philosophies cannot comprehend the nuances of his nature. We simply refuse to accept that there are mysteries beyond our intellectual reach.


Thus we take things that we know about God from scripture: that he is unchanging, that he is slow to anger, that there is a mysterious trinity, that there was a union between a true human and a true God, that Christ was truly tempted yet sinless, that the atonement for sin requires blood, that the death of Christ achieved salvation for the elect, that there are unilaterally decreed covenants between God and man, we take these and arrogantly extrapolate them into a multifaceted and totally unwarranted “Doctrine of God” that is doomed to be both incorrect and to err in the wrong direction. Because in arriving at a god that we "fully understand," we are arriving at a fictional represntation that is far less than the true God.