What If It’s True — A Thought on Exclusivity

People are often surprised when a Christian is honest enough to declare that Jesus is the only way of salvation. You can see it in their faces and hear it in their tones. They ask incredulously, “Are you saying that, unless I believe what you believe, I’m going to hell?” For many, the offense is not in whether or not Christianity is true, but whether a Christian would have the audacity to suggest that someone outside the faith could be lost. Many treat Christians as if we delight in demanding that others adopt our own ideas or else.

The thing that we need to consider as we look at the exclusive claims of Christianity is this: Is it true? Of course it is offensive for a person to look at you, say you are wrong, and say that your beliefs and commitments are damning. Nobody wants to hear that. If a person says to you that their beliefs are better than your beliefs, it is hurtful and frustrating. But the bigger question is whether or not your beliefs, my beliefs, or another’s beliefs are true. The bigger question is whether or not our beliefs have truth as their foundation.

Consider this passage in Isaiah:

Isaiah 43:10-11

10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.
11 I, I am the Lord,
and besides me there is no savior.
The Lord here makes a simple claim. It is not a claim of opinion, but of pure fact. And the world changes based on whether or not it is true. If these words are false, then all that Christianity claims must be false too. If this claim is true, regardless of how offensive the claims of Christians may be, they are true.

What does the Lord claim? There is no god before him. There will be no god after him. There is only one true God. And as the one true God, there is only one way of salvation.

Can you stop for a moment and think about this without emotion? Stop and consider the repercussions of this claim if it is true. What if there really is only one God? What if that God is clear that no sinful human being is rescued apart from him, his way, his standards, his plan? What if no other god exists before him or after him? Is it really an offense for a person to say that all must come to that God according to his word in order to be saved?

Imagine a house with only one door. Also imagine that it is about to rain. I tell you that you should get in out of the rain, or you will get wet. I tell you that the only way for you to get in out of the rain is to enter through the one door of the house. Have I belittled you? Have I been cruel? Or have I simply offered you the truth. There is one door and one dry place. I cannot change that, no matter how much you want for there to be other doors, other houses, or other circumstances.

The reason a claim of exclusive salvation by grace through faith in Christ is offensive to people has to do with the fact that it is in opposition to a primary worldview doctrine of our modern society. Many pride themselves on the belief that there are many ways to spiritual goodness, whatever that means. Many have, as a core belief, that no one religious road is better than another. These same folks fail to acknowledge the contradiction at the core of their beliefs. They demand that all belief systems are equally right. They are upset, however, by a belief system that says that all are not equally right. But one cannot be consistent, claim all views to be equally acceptable, and then be offended by another belief system because it disagrees.

Even more important than the logical inconsistency here is the question of truth. Is God telling us the truth? If he is not, then he does not matter, and we should not concern ourselves with his claims. If he is telling the truth, then he is the only one that matters, and our entire existence is for him.

There is one God. He has made one way of salvation. That way of salvation is provided by the one, true, holy, triune God. The way of salvation is that our sins must be forgiven in Jesus. We must come to Jesus in faith and repentance to be saved.

No, I am not smug in that claim of exclusivity. I do not claim to be better than anyone. Nor do I claim to be smarter than anyone. I am simply in agreement with the claim brought to all by holy Scripture.

Is Micah Calling for Social Justice?

We live in quite a broken society. I think we all know this already. Even among believers, there is great conflict regarding issues of racial

tensions, past wrongs, social injustice, etc.

Because such conflicts are prominent, I cannot help but have my ears perk up when justice is a topic of discussion in Scripture. Consider this well-known passage:

Micah 6:6-8

6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8 is one of those regularly cited verses. It is beautiful. It is poetic. And, if not handled properly, it can be a tool used by folks to bludgeon others into social justice submission.

How can you argue with Micah 6:8. Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God. Amen! Obviously then, some would argue, the focus of the church has to be the restoration of justice for those who have been previously oppressed.

But stop and look at the verse in its context. Honestly, we need to grab more than I cited above, but I fear folks would not read it all. Micah chapter 6 begins with a case between God and his people. The Lord called on his people to remember the way that he led them up out of Egypt and the way that he protected them in the wilderness from the curses of Balak. At the same time, God brought to the minds of his people the way that they, after Balaam could not curse them at Balak’s request, still found a way to rebel against the Lord.

Then God begins with the questions we see in verses 6-7. What should I do to please God? The idea is that of radical offering. The person seeing the tremendous guilt of Israel would wonder what they must do to get right with God. And God points out that some would suggest all sorts of radical things. Should they offer their children as offerings? Should they give mountains of grain and thousands of animal sacrifices? What do they need to do as a people to please the Lord?

And while verse 8 is beautiful and poetic, it also could have been said in a single word: repent. The point that the Lord is making is that these people need to turn from their sins. They had been an unjust nation, as we see in the next verses. People were cheating one another. People were brutalizing one another. People were refusing to obey God’s command to love God and love neighbor. And God tells them that if they want to please him, it is not through going above and beyond in their animal sacrifices. They will please him when they love him enough to obey his commands including his command to love your neighbor as yourself.

God does not want his people to make some sort of man-made, self-imposed radical gesture toward the sins of their past. God is not asking them to hold vigils in which they repeatedly rehash what was wrong in years gone by. God is not asking for them to invert the pyramid and put the formerly oppressed on the top and react to the former oppressors by oppressing them or their children. All the sacrifices that are suggested in verses 6-7 are examples of man’s best idea of how to deal with his sin. But in the end, God tells the people that obeying him now, from today forward, is the best way to go. Repent of your past by treating each other with righteous respect, justice, and equity today.

Now, is God in verse 8 telling the people that no sacrifice is needed for their sins? Is God saying that an individual can live justly enough on his own to not need his sin covered? Of course he is not. We know that from all of the rest of Scripture. But God is saying that the people cannot come up with some sort of extra self-punishing set of ceremonies that will make everything be alright. God just wants the people who are called by his name to follow his word and live in accord with the standards he has given them. He wants his people to love their neighbors and treat them with biblical justice. He wants them to turn to him in faith, obedient to his word, and get under the grace that he offers through the blood of a perfect sacrifice.

Micah is not calling for social justice, at least not in the way that we are defining it today. In fact, the opposite is true. Verses 6-7 would better parallel modern man’s attempt to somehow make things right through acts that God does not command. Modern social justice imposes all sorts of restrictions and punishments that God does not impose. Modern social justice brings in more and more division as mankind finds newer intersections of oppression to develop greater and greater victim statuses. But in the end, God calls his people to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with him. God calls his people not to make up new punishments and restrictions, but to do what he has always commanded. Today, treat people with biblical justice. Today, be kind and merciful to all. Today, walk with the Lord in simple faith and obedience.

Too Light a Thing

Over the past several weeks in our church, we have been working through the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians. This book is lovely in so many ways. In Ephesians, we see gospel all over the place. We see the individual side of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. We also see the way that God reconciles peoples to himself, as the gospel unites Jews and gentiles into one people.

The creation of a new nation in Christ is something that Paul refers to as a mystery. What he means by this is that the truth of God’s ultimate plan was present in the Old Testament, but it was not something that people understood until God brought it to pass and explained it through his Spirit. As Paul tells us, “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:4-5).

It was interesting to me, working through my daily reading, to run across a place where the mystery is hidden in the Old Testament. Take a look at this from Isaiah and see the mystery of God’s eternal plan.

Isaiah 49:5-6

5 And now the Lord says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
6 he says:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

How is this the mystery? How is the plan present but concealed here? Isaiah knew that God had created him and tasked him with communicating his word and truth to the nation of Israel. Isaiah was to watch as Judah continued to refuse to be faithful to the Lord and marched toward Babylonian captivity. But Isaiah also had a job to preach to the people the coming restoration of Israel. God would not keep Judah captive in Babylon forever. God would not leave the nation without hope. And we know that, after 70 years of captivity, God returned the people of Judah to their land.

When thinking of the mystery of God hidden in the Old Testament, peek again at verse 6: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” God says that it is too light, too small or little a thing for him to use Isaiah to preach only to the descendants of Israel. Yes, the restoration of Judah to the land will be glorious. Yes, the restoration of Jerusalem is a wonderful thing. Yes, it is glorious that God is continuing to preserve his promise to Abraham. But there is something greater. Isaiah will not merely preach to and about Israel, he will be a light to the nations. God wants Isaiah to preach things that will communicate salvation to the ends of the earth.

This is a great example of the mystery present in the Old Testament. Imagine that you were a Jew living a few hundred years after it was spoken. You would know that God had kept his promise to restore Judah to the land. You would know that Isaiah was a part of preaching the true plan of God for Israel. And you would see that last line. You would see that God says this is something about being a light to the nations. You would know that this was a true thing God would do. But you might not know how God would bring salvation to the nations. You would know Israel was involved. You would know that this is global and not local. And yet, the plan, the how, the nuts and bolts of what God is up to would have escaped you.

Paul tells us in Ephesians that he now gets to preach this mystery. The salvation for the nations that comes out of Israel is Jesus. The mystery hinted at by Isaiah but unclear to the Old Testament saints is that there is one salvation to preach to all nations. That salvation does not involve becoming a part of physical Israel. That salvation does not include getting under Old Testament temple worship. The mystery now revealed is that there is salvation by grace through faith in Jesus alone. The mystery is that the same salvation is available in exactly the same way for the Jew and for the gentile. And the mystery is that, in Christ, the Jew and the gentile become part of one new nation, one new family, one new spiritual temple of the Lord.

To Isaiah and the folks of the Old Testament, the idea of God preserving Israel and returning the Jews to the land would have been huge. In the mysterious plan of God, preaching only that is too light a thing. There is something greater, the ultimate plan of God. God was sending Christ through Israel to make for himself one new people, one nation of the redeemed, from every people on the planet. Anything less than seeing the people of God as a new people, a new nation, a new family is too small a picture of the plan of God.

Who Taught Him?

If you are paying much attention in Christian conversation these days, you will know that people are asking some interesting questions. Today, people are starting to call into question the goodness of God for his standards in a variety of areas. Some question God’s standards for gender and sexuality. Some question his standards for marriage. Some question God’s standards for social justice. Some just question God’s goodness in the Old Testament law.

In many of these instances, the questions about the goodness of God boil down to a simple thought. We believe that we understand justice, goodness, and righteousness better than God. We wonder how God can be perfectly right and put forward standards that we, in our modern and enlightened minds, find quite uncomfortable. The alternative, of course, is to say that Scripture is flawed and can only give us the best understanding of flawed men from centuries earlier.

You might say, Christian, that you do not face these temptations. You do not want to compromise the word of God. You would never consider yourself better at justice or righteousness than God. But, consider how easy it is for you to feel ashamed of God’s standards when they do not match the common, cultural expectation.

Let’s see just one simple point from Isaiah 40 that might help us as we look at the goodness and perfection of God in comparison to cultural expectation. I believe that keeping this in mind will give us a far better starting point for thinking through the things of God.

Isaiah 40:12-14

12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
13 Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
or what man shows him his counsel?
14 Whom did he consult,
and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?

In this little section, Isaiah asks some questions. And those questions have an obvious answer. Who can scoop up the entire ocean and hold it in the palm of his hand? Obviously, no person can do this other than the God who made the world. Who can measure the universe by stretching out his hand? Obviously, again, the answer is that nobody but God can do this.

Next, Isaiah takes his questions to questions of wisdom and counsel. The prophet showed us with his first question that no human being even comes close to being able to compare with the Lord. And he wants us to keep those thoughts in mind as we consider the goodness and the justice of the Lord. Think again about these questions that end verse 14, “Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?” What is the answer? Nobody taught God these things. Why? Nobody could. Justice and knowledge and righteousness are not things apart from God. God himself determines what is just, what is right, and what is perfect.

Draw the comparison so as not to miss the point. Can you pick up an entire ocean in one hand? No, that is ridiculous. Can you teach God anything about justice or about how things ought to go? No, that is ridiculous, just as ridiculous as thinking you could pick up an ocean. Do you get this? You and I have as much ability to question the ways of God about marriage, sexuality, gender, the church, worship, the law, or any of his ways as we have to pick up the ocean. We cannot come close. The concept is ridiculous.

When you see that you cannot question or teach the Lord, it should humble you. When you remember that God defines justice, it should make you turn to him to learn it rather than attempting to justify his ways to a lost world. When you recall the greatness of God here, you should turn to the word, listen to God speak for himself, and surrender to the perfect ways of the Holy One.

The sweet thing here is that God has revealed himself and his ways in his holy word. The more we study his word, the more he will allow us to understand the reasons why he has commanded the things he has commanded. WE are, of course, to obey God regardless of whether we understand his rationale for his standards. But it is glorious to know that, as we learn the word of God, we can begin to understand him, learn his ways, and find the beauty in all he has told us.

What Jesus Reveals

It’s the Christmas season, or close to it. It certainly is the time of year when you start hearing songs that match the season. In most cases, of course, they are winter and Santa songs that folks enjoy so much. But, if you are listening, you will still find glorious pieces of music that actually focus on Jesus. And, if you are really in a good spot at the right time, you’ll start hearing pieces from “The Messiah.”

I cannot open Isaiah 40 without having a song come rushing to my mind. Does it do the same for you?

Isaiah 40:3-5

3 A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

While this passage gives me musical memories, it is also a passage that rings out in the ears of the New Testament reader. After all, this passage is on the lips of John the Baptist quite early in the gospels.

Matthew 3:3 – For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.’ ”

It makes sense that this text would be on John’s lips, as he was sent by God to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus. John came to call Israel to repent, to be ready, to set things in order for the arrival of their promised King. And, while many came to John in repentance, many were unwilling to change anything in their actual lives or in their society.

What caught my attention as I read through Isaiah 40 was not the call for one to prepare the way of the Lord. Instead, it was what we see in verse 5. Remember that, in many cases in the New Testament, a prophecy cited may be a place marker to tell hearers that they need to find the answer to their question in and around that prophecy. So, though Matthew only gives us Isaiah 40:3, the whole section here applies to John and the Messiah to come.

What would happen when the way was prepared? That is what gets my attention. Once John calls the people to be ready, what would come? Isaiah tells us that the glory of the Lord will be revealed. What a wonderful statement this is. John would prepare the way. The people would be called to repent. And then, at just the right time, we do not simply see that Messiah will come. WE also see that, in the coming of the Messiah, the glory of the Lord will be revealed.

What is God’s glory? The glory of God, in the Old Testament, was often discussed in the context of the brilliant light of glory that filled the tabernacle or temple. The word glory has connections to the value, the weight, the importance of the Lord. So just consider how important it is that, with the arrival of Jesus on the scene, the glory of the Lord is revealed.

What has my attention may make better sense with a contrast. If I were to walk into a room, I do not think you are likely to declare, “The glory of the Lord has been revealed!” While God is glorified in his people, created in his image, rescued by his Son; I do not think anybody is likely to mistake my person for the glory of the Lord. But, when Jesus strides onto the scene, John the Baptist and Matthew in telling the story point us to this prophecy of Isaiah. John came to prepare the way. Jesus, when he steps onto the stage, reveals the glory of the Lord.

So, what I’m getting at is that Jesus, in revealing the glory of the Lord, is something absolutely wonderful. Jesus is the Lord. Only the arriving Lord can truly and fully reveal the glory of the Lord. And this is what our Savior did. Jesus revealed to us the power, the love, the grace, the justice, the will, the ways, the glory of the Lord. Jesus showed us God, because he is God in the flesh.

Christians, worship Jesus. Jesus is not just a good man who connects us to God. Jesus is the God to whom we come for life. Jesus is our picture of the glory of the Lord.

God Restores

Real people who live real lives have experienced real pain. There are pains that we face that feel to us as though we can never be whole again. The loss of a loved one, the experience of abuse, the humiliation of a failure, all these can leave a person feeling irreparably broken and hopeless.

In the days of the prophet Joel, the people of Judah may well have felt broken beyond repair. The southern kingdom had sinned against the Lord and experienced his judgment. They faced crop failure, locust plague, and enemy armies. Their land was desolate. Their hope seemed dashed.

But God called the nation to return to him. He invited confession and repentance. And God promised restoration. This is beautiful; don’t miss it.

Joel 2:25-27

25 I will restore to you the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent among you.
26 “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.

God promised to restore the years that the locusts had eaten. Sense the beauty there. The people were damaged. They were damaged from their own sin against the Lord. They were damaged by the cruel actions of others who hurt them. But God says that he will restore.

Can he? Of course God can. The Lord can heal a land. The Lord can grow crops where crops had failed. The Lord can bring a harvest that goes beyond the loss of the years. And the Lord can help the people worship him again.

The Lord also promises the people a future. Notice that twice in verses 26-27, God says that they will not experience this shame any longer. God not only can fix the land, he can bear away the shame from the people.

This is lovely in the context of Old Testament Judah. It is infinitely more lovely in the work of Jesus Christ. We, like Judah, have sinned against God. We, like Judah, have been sinned against by evil people and a hostile world. We have been hurt. We have experienced shame. We have lost days, months, even years.

But God can restore. He can take from us our guilt and shame. This is part of what Jesus came to do. Jesus bore the shame of the cross in order to cover our shame in his perfection. Jesus took the wrath of God for sin so that we could have our sins covered by his righteousness. Jesus rose from the grave to show us that there is life after shame, life after guilt, life after death in his perfect grace.

Perhaps you have hurt. Perhaps you have guilt and shame. Perhaps you have done wrong. Perhaps you have wronged others. Run to Jesus. He is your only hope. He covers the guilt of those who come to him. He bears away the shame of those who come to him. He understands your pain more than you could ever imagine. He can heal. He can bring new growth. Jesus can restore the years the locusts have eaten.

Hardship and Worship

In the book of Joel, the people of Judah are suffering. The prophet blends into his telling of the nation’s hardships a few different images. There has been a locust plague that has laid waste to the land. There has been drought and food shortage. And, there is also the horror of the army from the north who are threatening the survival of the nation.

As I was reading through this text, something struck me. It has to do with one of the first problems that the Lord lists as a result of the destruction faced in the land.

Joel 1:9 and 13

9 The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off
from the house of the Lord.
The priests mourn,
the ministers of the Lord.
13 Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests;
wail, O ministers of the altar.
Go in, pass the night in sackcloth,
O ministers of my God!
Because grain offering and drink offering
are withheld from the house of your God.

The land is desolate. The people are suffering. On the one hand, Joel calls on the drunkards of Judah to weep at their loss of wine. But on the other, what stands out to me, is that Joel calls on the priests to mourn over the lack of offerings available to give to the worship of God.

Then, in chapter 2, God calls the nation to repentance. In that call, God suggests that, if they repent, he will restore them. And in that restoration, we again see that restoring their ability to worship him is at the center. The healing of the land will lead to the people’s ability of again offering to the Lord their produce.

Joel 2:12-14

12 “Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord your God?

I wonder, when we hurt, do we consider more than our own physical loss? Do we see that the worship of our God is still of utmost priority? Would we, were we to lose all our physical resources and financial stability mourn, not merely what we personally lack, but what we cannot give to the glory of God?

I do not have a great deal of clear, particular, concrete application here. But I think it is worth noticing that the Lord, in his explanation of what is wrong in Judah, points out that the judgment that they have brought upon themselves has robbed them of the ability to worship the Lord as he should be worshipped. The hardship that the people face is not simply personal or even national. The hardship they face impacts their response to God.

Here, I think, we can give thanks to God for the gospel. Christ has fulfilled all righteousness for us. No grain offering is necessary for us to please the Lord. Our ability to worship is not impacted by our material wealth.

At the same time, we should have hearts that are so God-focused that, when we lack in life, we think about how even this is connected to our spiritual lives. We should not become so self-minded that we forget that all that we have and all that we are belongs to the Lord our God.