Government, Viruses, and On-Line Gathering

I recently saw a post in which a person asked if March 22, 2020 was the strangest Sunday in modern church history. If it is not, it is surely up there. When have there been so many believers all over the globe unable to meet together in person while at the same time able to communicate via another means? This sort of Sunday would have been unimaginable in even the fairly recent past.

With the outbreak of COVID-19 and our strong desire not to spread the disease but to, as many are saying, flatten the curve, many churches all across the United States did not hold services in their buildings. Instead, we know that many watched a live stream of prayer, music, and the teaching of the word.

I want to share a couple of thoughts on what we are doing right now, as I think keeping a biblical perspective here is crucial.

I affirm that Christians are to live in peaceful submission to our governmental authorities so long as those authorities do not call on us to violate God’s higher commands.

Romans 13:1-2 – 1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

The Bible calls on all people to obey their governmental leaders. We want to live peaceably and respectfully in our community. We want to be the best citizens we can be. We should try as best we can to follow our leaders’ good-faith efforts to keep people safe.

However, we also want to be clear to say that obedience to governmental authorities is not absolute. God’s word is clear that we obey our leaders as much as is possible, but we do not obey our leaders if their orders or laws call for us to violate the word of God. The Lord and his word is our highest authority. And no earthly government has the right to supersede the Lord.

Acts 5:29 – But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”

So, while our church may not have physically gathered on Sunday, I deny that this is due to a governmental mandate. Why do I deny this? I deny that the government has the authority to command the church not to meet. After all, physically meeting together is part of God’s command for the church’s regular practice.

Hebrews 10:24–25 – 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

So, while I affirm that we obey the laws of our land as much as we can, I deny that any human government has the right to demand that the church disobey the Lord. Since meeting together is a command of the Lord, I deny that the government has the right to command the church not to meet.

Am I suggesting that our church should have met together this last Sunday? Should we have defied the request of the government? No, I do not believe so. But this is not because of the government’s authority. There is another principle at work.

Matthew 22:37–40 – 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

I believe that the call to love your neighbor as yourself, the second greatest command in the law, is the working principle that kept us from physically meeting as a church this last week. Our desire is to love the Lord well and worship him as he has commanded. However, in the current state of our community, I do not believe that meeting together and risking the spread of the COVID-19 virus would have been the most loving choice we could have made for our neighbors. Even if many of our people are not at high risk of severe illness due to the virus, we want to prevent our people from spreading the virus to others who may be at higher risk.

Let me also be clear. I do not believe that our on-line gathering is the same as a church gathered together for worship. I believe we are doing our best with the technology that we have been given. But, I know that there is something glorious and special in the gathered community of the saints. And, were there no providential hindrance to gathering, I would not affirm that meeting together on-line is a legitimate substitute for physical gathering.

I heard a person recently suggest that we should view our meetings like a Thanksgiving meal. Perhaps a family could all eat a meal at the same time from separate locations while video chatting on Skype. However, no loving family would think that this is in any way a suitable replacement for being around the same table together. If the family was providentially hindered from being around the same table, they would embrace the technology and thank God for it. But, if the family had the opportunity to be under the same roof, that is far better.

Friends, our church is doing all we can. We are trying to love our Lord and Love our neighbors. And right now, out of a desire to love the Lord, we are not meeting in person in a large group. And we are thankful for the technology we have to do what we are doing. But, the moment we believe that we can safely meet together in the same place, we will do so as we know that to meet together is far better and is a more faithful obedience to the Lord’s command.

Why My Kids Do Not Believe in Santa

My children do not believe in Santa Claus. To some, this is an obvious move. To others, this is a shock. What’s the deal? Am I some sort of anti-holiday Scrooge? Am I some sort of overzealous fundamentalist? Why in the world would I not have my little ones believe in Santa?

I am probably asked every year about what our family has decided to do about Santa at Christmas time. And, every year, I share a version of this post to try to explain the process that my wife and I went through in deciding our answer to the big question: To Santa or not to Santa.

Since you know the answer already, let me very briefly tell you the reasoning that made the no Santa policy in my home. Then, I will share with you a bit of how we deal with Santa.

Christmas is a holiday that has been highly over-commercialized in the US for years. People focus on winter, on trees, on lights, on gifts, and not on Jesus. And you know what, none of those are the reasons why my family did not tell my children that Santa was real.

Here is my bottom line reasoning: If I tell my children to believe in a figure that they cannot see, that he watches them from afar, that he judges their motives and actions, that he has supernatural powers, and that he will visit them with gifts every Christmas, they will eventually find out that I have intentionally told them to believe in something that is not true. This fact will not do much for my credibility in telling them true things about God, who is invisible to them, who watches over them though they cannot sense it, who judges their thoughts and actions, and who will bless them with eternal blessings if they will follow Christ. So, simply put, my wife and I have determined that we will never tell our children that something is true when it is not, because it is far too important that they be able to believe us when we tell them some things are true that they cannot see.

How do we deal with Santa and Santa stuff? It’s quite simple. Ever since Abigail was tiny, we have worked to distinguish the difference between true stories and pretend ones. In our house, if a story begins with “A long time ago…,” it is a true story. If a story begins with, “Once upon a time…,” it is a pretend story. The kids have done surprisingly well making those distinctions. They can still enjoy the stories that they know are not real just as any children can.

Since my children have no trouble enjoying that which they know not to be real, my wife and I do not get all crabby when a family member wraps a Christmas gift and puts “From: Santa” on the label. We do not find ourselves upset when they want a musical Rudolph toy from Wal-Mart (well, no more upset than we are when they want any noise-making toy). We do not get bent out of shape when a Santa ornament makes its way onto a tree near us. We don’t even mind taking snapshots of them sitting on the knee of a portly, bearded guy in a red, fuzzy suit once a year.

I think that you can tell from what I’ve already written, but just in case it is not clear, Mitzi and I do not look at our decision about Santa as the only possible one. This is a matter of conscience and preference. There is not Scripture that states, “Thou shalt not ho, ho, ho.” I grew up believing in Santa, and it really didn’t harm my worldview that much (so far as I can tell). But, for me and my house, we have simply made a decision that we want our children to know that Mommy and Daddy will always tell them the truth, and that trumps our desires to have beaming little people listening for sleigh bells on Christmas Eve.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, we also try our best to keep our children from being the ones who spoil it for others. All of them have been told in no uncertain terms that they are not to make it their mission to correct the Santaology of other children. They have answered truthfully when asked by other little ones, but they, to my knowledge, have never tried to be anti-Santa evangelists. So far, so good.

Hear my heart as I wrap up this post. I am not here attempting to change any family’s plans for how to handle Christmas. Nor am I asking any person not to do Santa things with my little ones. Nor am I suggesting that, if you have just watched a Claymation special with your kids that you have ruined their spiritual chances for the future. So, please, no cranky comments defending your traditions. Santa stuff is a lot of fun. I love fun stories and the joy of imagination. (We even watch Harry Potter every year around the Christmas season simply because the music feels Christmassy to us; so obviously we are not the strict, non-fiction parents that you might be imagining.) But, since many ask, here is the answer: we have made a choice to be able to tell our children that, when mom and dad say something is real, we fully believe it to be real.

Being A Good Guy Does Not Equal Being Correct

Everywhere the Lord has ever allowed me to serve has been a blessing. A few years ago, I served as a pastor in a church in rural Illinois. I learned a great deal and hopefully brought the word of God faithfully to our congregation.

One experience while I was there recently was brought to mind. An older gentleman in the church had been given a book by a friend. It was a book that is highly encouraging, but which has theological problems. As a young pastor, I always tried to speak with care to older men in the church when warning of dangers they might be walking into, and this instance was no different. I tried to graciously warn this man that there are some genuine concerns to watch out for when looking through this popular book.

The response of this man to my warning was surprisingly heated. After all, he was not a person I often saw display moments of temper or unwillingness to learn. But in this instance, he let me know that he was not at all open to hearing my concerns. Why? The gentleman I was cautioning against the book said to me that the person who recommended that book to him is a good man, and he would not hear anyone questioning something he had recommended.

I wish I could say that this is an isolated incident for people in ministry, but it really is not. Quite often pastors and teachers will run into an argument for a person’s position that consists of, “But he’s a good man.” This happens on the local level and the national stage. It happens in small churches and big pastors’ conferences. And it can be quite dangerous.

So, let’s see if we can say something that needs to be said. Just because a man is a good man does not make his doctrine sound. Just because a person loves Jesus or prays a lot does not mean that he has interpreted a passage of Scripture correctly. Just because a person is a solid guy on many things does not make him correct in all things.

Galatians 2:11-16 – 11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

Consider what we see in Galatians 2. In a passage I have heard affectionately referenced as “the ham sandwich incident,” Peter compromised. For the sake of public opinion, Peter began to give into a form of legalism. And Paul lets us know that, in that instance, He opposed Peter openly because the gospel was at stake.

But stop and think. Was Peter not a good guy? Of course he was. Was Peter not a pillar of the early church? Of course he was. Had Peter not been a major voice at the Jerusalem counsel to point people to the fact that the gentiles were saved by grace through faith without adoption of Jewish laws? Of course he had. But when Paul saw Peter acting and perhaps teaching in a dangerous way, Paul spoke up. Being a good guy did not make Peter right in Galatia.

Christians, we need to be careful to be sure that we are viewing all things through the lens of Holy Scripture. Just because I like a particular person in almost every avenue of life does not make his doctrine correct. Just because I find someone else troubling in many areas does not make every statement they make incorrect. Just because someone is part of my particular tribe does not make their words accurate. Just because a person is connected to a group that is not mine does not make all they say false. WE must be such a biblically minded people that we do not allow ourselves to fall for the argument that a person must be correct, “Because he’s a good guy.”

Revisiting the Fear of God

Exodus 1:21 – And because the midwives feared God…

Peeking at a commentary on Exodus 1, I ran across a brief description of the topic of fearing God. The midwives feared God. Since trying to explain that topic has been a part of my preaching of Malachi, I thought to share this helpful tidbit.

But what does it mean to fear God? We have already suggested that fearing God is “to be honest, faithful, trustworthy, upright, and, above all, religious.” In short, “fearing God” is commonly in Scripture a virtual abbreviation for “believing in God, and therefore fearing the consequence of not pleasing him, thus being a person of moral conviction and righteous actions”—although in Hebrew it is surely not per se an abbreviation but an idiom.*

Thinking about this explanation, I find myself adding to how I would define the fear of God. Previously, I have described the fear of God as containing two main elements. Of course fear includes genuinely what we call fear, being frightened, the emotion that makes you want to run from someone or something. Fear also includes reverence and awe, the trembling and bowing rightly associated with God when you are amazed at his glory.

In general, we would say that the first kind of fear is not applicable to the believer, as we are now in a state of peace with God and should not wish to run from or hide from him. For the one in rebellion against God, the one never under his grace, the first fear is wholly reasonable, though to run from God only earns more judgment. The enemy of God should repent, believe, and come to Jesus to be saved.

The second kind of fear, the fear of God that is tied to reverence, respect, and awe, that fear is wholly proper for the Christian. The elders in Revelation 4 falling down before God’s throne in worship express proper and holy fear. Thomas bowing before Jesus and declaring, “My Lord and my God,” properly expresses fear.

But the commentary explanation above adds another simple dimension to my explanation of the idiom to fear God. Fearing God is wrapped up in what it means to genuinely believe in him. Often times we will discuss with people the difference in having a head knowledge of God and having a knowledge of God that goes to the heart, that changes your life, that is transformative. Fear of God is that deeper belief.

See if this illustration helps. Consider the diet of an unhealthy man. He may know, in his head, that what he is eating could lead to heart disease. But that knowledge does not lead him to change. He likes his food too much. But after the first heart attack, after death stares him in the face, all the sudden his aversion to healthy eating may melt away. One might say that this man believed in heart disease before, but only fearing heart disease changes his diet.

While that is admittedly a sloppy illustration, I think it adds to the picture that we need to have when discussing the fear of God. A God-fearer is different than one who claims, in general, to believe in a god.

So, I think I want to add to my explanation of what it means to fear God that genuine fear of God is belief in God that is transformative, that leads to worship, that leads to obedience.

* Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, Vol. 2, The New American Commentary ( Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), Exodus 1:21.

An Example of Mishandling Scripture to Preach Critical Theory and Social Justice

What happens when we preach on social justice without using the Scripture as the definition of what is just? We find ourselves tempted to take from Scripture, twist truth, and then draw applications that make our point look strong.

In this video, Dr. Moore declares that Israel’s temptation to worship Baal was similar to southern American Christians’ support of Jim Crow laws. How in the world does he do this? Dr. Moore suggest that the worship of Baal was an acceptance of the status quo, an embrace of the current system of power. Even worse, the Israelites called their service to Baal service to the Lord. And, similarly, American Christians who fought for Jim Crow laws accepted the present system, and even renamed it as faithfulness to the Lord.

Let’s be clear. Dr. Moore is not saying this, I do not believe, out of any evil intent to do harm to the church or to Scripture. He wants to help Christians see the evils and the lasting impact of racism. That is good. Dr., Moore understands that racism is an evil to be repented of. That is good and biblical. Dr. Moore understands that people are often willing to baptize the current form of immorality as biblical if they think it will profit their platform. He is right—more right than I think he would admit. (we’ll come back to that).

But, in order to make his point, Dr. Moore is mangling the truth. Baal worship was not simply an embrace of a present system of power politics. It was the bowing to a false god. It was The participation in perverse sexual rituals in order to bring the harvest. It was the indulging of human depravity as the people bowed to a demon rather than to the Lord who made the earth. It was pure evil, not merely a systemic failure. It was the rejection of the clear word of God.

The problem here is that Dr. Moore is so passionate about presenting critical theory, so passionate about making us see that we must oppose what he understands as systemic racism, that he is willing to read systemic racism and critical theory back three millennia into the Old Testament. There is simply not a hint from the Lord that Baal worship is a failure to recognize the insights of critical theory and oppose the presenting power structure. Baal worship was about, get this, Baal worship. The sin to repent of was Baal worship. The sin to repent of was not a power structure sin.

The ironic thing here is that critical theory is becoming so popular that to preach it is no longer to oppose the current power structure. To preach critical theory, to stand opposed to systemic racism—however you define it—is to virtue signal that you are on the side of the loudest voices of the day. Earlier I suggested that Dr. Moore understands that people are often willing to baptize the current form of immorality as biblical if they think it will profit their platform. Is it not then fascinating to watch believers baptize intersectionality and critical race theory, allying themselves with many who have no grasp of the gospel or respect for the word, and then read back into Scripture notions from said theory with no biblical warrant?

Sadly, in order to speak to the charges that are raised against anyone who speaks about this issue, I must say, with clarity, that racism is evil. To hate or hurt any person because of their color of skin is a violation of the word of God. To build a society in such a way that you intentionally disadvantage people because of their skin color is wrong. To side with anyone toward injustice—siding with the rich against the poor or the poor against the rich, siding with the seemingly advantaged against the seemingly disadvantaged or the seemingly disadvantaged against the seemingly advantaged—is a violation of the principle of biblical justice. Oh, and to pluck an some folks’ pet peeves, I do not see skin color. Seriously, get to know me—I can prove it.

The bottom line, Christians, is that we must not read into Scripture what God did not put there. When we attempt to help the Lord by adding to his word principles he did not prescribe, we behave as did the Scribes and Pharisees who hated and opposed Jesus. God’s word is sufficient. God’s word tells us that we must not do anybody injustice. And God’s word tells us what justice looks like. God’s word shows us that pre-judging any person, of any color, or of any social status, outside of their actions and the attitudes of the heart is wrong. God shows us that punishing children for the sins of their parents is wrong. And God’s word tells us that, when we come to faith in Christ, we become new creations in a new family where there is no distinction in our identities based on nation of origin, language, or color of skin.

God’s word, if we would follow it, is clear enough. WE need not baptize secular critical theory to make a biblical point. And we surely need not somehow pretend that Baal worship and Jim Crow are twin brothers. Yes, both are evil, but they are not the same thing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwfrzlAYUiw

What I Did not Steal Must I Now Restore?

Watch the words of David here, and see if you do not find something sadly familiar with modern hot-button talking points.

Psalm 69:4-6

4 More in number than the hairs of my head
are those who hate me without cause;
mighty are those who would destroy me,
those who attack me with lies.
What I did not steal
must I now restore?
5 O God, you know my folly;
the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.
6 Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me,
O Lord God of hosts;
let not those who seek you be brought to dishonor through me,
O God of Israel.

David is being attacked by harsh and evil men. Yet David has not wronged these men. David is no fool. He knows that he is not personally perfect. We see that in verse 5. David pleads with the Lord that his own failure not cause others to dishonor the Lord. Yet, even with his own admission of his own imperfection, David grasps that there is an injustice being done in his direction.

In verse 4, we see the question, “What I did not steal must I now restore?” That is the question that grabbed my attention today. David is clearly asking if he must pay back a thing that he, himself, did not steal. This is David clearly indicating that such a thing would be David being wronged. Biblically David should be forced to repay anything he stole, with interest. But David should not be forced to repay anything he did not steal.

Can you see the application for the modern day? Right now, as social justice is such a prominent issue among believers, there are those who would claim that many should be forced to pay for the sins of others in the past. There are many who would claim that those who have not acted wrongly should be shamed for the sins of their forefathers. There are those that believe that financial payments should be made, or that those in positions of leadership should be forced to vacate those offices to make room for others based on things that were done years ago and how those sins of the past shaped society in the present.

But the Bible does not promote such a supposed justice. David knew that he should not be forced to repay what he did not steal. Even when David knew that he was not perfect in all areas, even though David knew of failures in his life, he knew that it would not be just for men who opposed him to force him to pay for things he did not do. There would be no justice in making David a victim of injustice.

As we attempt to navigate the difficult waters of a society brimming full with social justice advocacy, formal shamings, intersectionality, and critical theory, let us not lose sight of the fact that it is not just to force one to repay what she has not stolen. It is not just to punish a child for the sins of his father. Like David, let us all be honest enough to admit our own sins and failures (verse 5). Let us ask the Lord to help us never shine a negative light on his glory (verse 6). Let us do all we can to be a just people, never repaying evil for good, never condemning people for crimes they did not commit, never judging any person based on ethnicity. Let us be careful to see to it that voices speaking truth are not silenced, regardless of the look of the faces behind those voices.

A Quick Response to an Accusation of Contradiction in the Gospels

In my preparation for a message on Matthew 26:17-30, the text that includes the Lord’s Supper, I was reminded that there are those who would suggest that there is a discrepancy between John’s gospel and the synoptics—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—regarding exactly when Jesus ate the Last Supper and on what day Jesus died. The synoptics are clear that Jesus celebrated the Passover on Thursday and then died on Friday. John seems to indicate that the death of Jesus took place on the Passover, perhaps even at the very moment when the Passover lambs were being killed. And some would use this seeming discrepancy to suggest that the Bible contains an error, a contradiction. How, after all, could Jesus both eat the Passover meal one day and then die on the next day when the Passover lambs are being slaughtered?

All we need, however, to deal with this is a single, plausible, explanation for what we see in Matthew and John. I have read a few that would work. John tells us that the chief priests did not go into Pilate’s house because they wanted to be ceremonially clean so they could eat the Passover. Perhaps they were delayed in eating that meal on Thursday evening, but still planned to do so before sunset of Friday. Or, more likely in my opinion, they were not referencing the formal Passover meal only but the entirety of the sacred events of the combined Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread. They wanted to be ceremonially clean for the week to follow with all its celebrations. Thus, when John calls the day of the crucifixion “the day of preparation of the Passover,” he could be telling us that, while Thursday evening was the Passover meal, Friday was the day of preparation for the special Sabbath observance that fell in the week that included Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Another explanation is that there was a bit of variation in how different Jews understood their yearly calendar. We are aware that the sect at Qumran used a calendar that was a day off from that used by the priests. So, if Matthew and John were speaking from different calendars, there would be no discrepancy.

A third explanation comes not from the calendar but from the reckoning of when a day began and ended. John MacArthur explains it this way:

***

The answer lies in a difference among the Jews in the way they reckoned the beginning and ending of days. From Josephus, the Mishna, and other ancient Jewish sources we learn that the Jews in northern Palestine calculated days from sunrise to sunrise. That area included the region of Galilee, where Jesus and all the disciples except Judas had grown up. Apparently most, if not all, of the Pharisees used that system of reckoning. But Jews in the southern part, which centered in Jerusalem, calculated days from sunset to sunset. Because all the priests necessarily lived in or near Jerusalem, as did most of the Sadducees, those groups followed the southern scheme.

That variation doubtlessly caused confusion at times, but it also had some practical benefits. During Passover time, for instance, it allowed for the feast to be celebrated legitimately on two adjoining days, thereby permitting the Temple sacrifices to be made over a total period of four hours rather than two. That separation of days may also have had the effect of reducing both regional and religious clashes between the two groups.

On that basis the seeming contradictions in the gospel accounts are easily explained. Being Galileans, Jesus and the disciples considered Passover day to have started at sunrise on Thursday and to end at sunrise on Friday. The Jewish leaders who arrested and tried Jesus, being mostly priests and Sadducees, considered Passover day to begin at sunset on Thursday and end at sunset on Friday. By that variation, predetermined by God’s sovereign provision, Jesus could thereby legitimately celebrate the last Passover meal with His disciples and yet still be sacrificed on Passover day (MacArthur, Matthew 26:17-19).

***

There are, of course, other potential explanations out there for how Matthew and John could both be speaking the truth and not actually contradicting each other. And a thorough argument regarding those points is well beyond the purpose of this post. I simply want to make you aware that, if you hear someone suggest that this is a contradiction in the Bible, you know that people have done the work and the thinking to show us how it is not. And I would guess that the right answer is either the first or last ones mentioned above.