Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Category Archives: Faith and life

Faith vs Entertainment

There once was a day when people were able to listen to, or read, lengthy discourses on problems of the day. They understood what was being said or written and knew the difference between statements that were logical and coherent and those that were self-contradictory. Most people in North America have lost that capability.

Today we are bombarded with sound bites and visual images, most of which have no relevance to our lives. News has become entertainment, giving us the impression of being informed without giving us any useful information. Events in distant corners of the world are made known to us as soon as they happen, but no context is given to understand why or what it may mean. Local events are reported with the same lack of context or coherence, leaving us more and more estranged from our neighbours.

This is the thesis of Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. It was first published in 1985 and is still as illuminating as it was then.

Something similar has happened in Christian circles. Many people take a hop, skip and jump approach to Bible reading, trying to get to all the interesting bits without bothering to have to figure out the context. Reference Bibles reinforce that approach, making it easier for people to find those interesting bits. Most of them subtly offer their own analysis of what those bits mean, which is often not quite what you will find if you actually read the whole book.

Bible Story books for children do much the same thing, picking out the events that make the best stories. The lessons they draw from those stories don’t always coincide with what you will discover if you read the whole story in the Bible.

Expository preaching seems to have largely fallen out of favour, people’s attention spans having grown shorter than they used to be.

What can be done? May I suggest that we abandon all the so-called helps and go back to reading the Bible, the whole Bible. I realize that to most people that may seem like a recommendation to tedious drudgery. But people in past generations found the Bible interesting, engrossing, hard to put down.

Some of us still do. So, I guess our task is to talk about the Bible and how interesting and meaningful we find it to be.

Approaches to the Bible

All those who call themselves Christians say that their faith is built solely on Jesus Christ the solid rock and that they depend on the Bible for spiritual truth and for instruction in living a life that is pleasing to their Saviour. But how is it really?

Some folks base their faith on a set of proof texts garnered from here and there in the Bible and are endeavouring to build a Christian life using this material. They may be very earnest in expounding on these texts, but often don’t know the context in which these verses are found. In reality, they did not discover these proof texts for themselves, but learned them from various books, preachers and teachers. They were probably convinced of a particular interpretation of Scripture, then given verses to back up a view they had already been persuaded to accept as truth. This is not Bible-based faith and the assurance derived from the certainty of knowing the proof texts is often a false assurance. Such a second-hand belief system does not equip people to counter the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil.

Others begin with a desire to learn from the Bible, but as time goes on they begin to trust their imagination to interpret what the Bible is saying. This is often because they find a plain interpretation of the Bible too constraining. Perhaps they had a remarkable experience or two that was genuinely from the Lord, and begin to think that God has a special role for them in life. They search for confirmation of this in the Bible and begin to interpret all the events of their life in the light of what they imagine to be their special calling. By this time they are no longer searching the Bible to find God’s truth, but searching it to validate their remarkable new insights. They still claim to have a Bible-based faith, but are far from the heaven bound narrow way.

There are a few who hold up their thoughts, desires, imaginations and experiences to the light of the Bible and allow God to prove what is genuine and what is useless baggage. They will be blessed in reading the Bible. They will find direction for their lives, strength for the daily battles with the forces of evil, and assurance that God is leading. There is peace and rest when they have nothing to prove, but are willing to let God prove their inner thoughts and desires through His Word and the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Robotic Christians?

Am I nothing more than a robot? Is every detail of my life preplanned and manipulated by an unseen hand, right down to the moment and circumstances of the end of my life?

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That made sense to Zeno the Stoic, to Augustine, to Mohammed, to Buddha and to John Calvin. Some people find it comforting to think that God is in control of everything, but is that really so comforting?

Paul writes about predestination in Romans and Ephesians. However, if we read the complete letters, we find that he is not using the word the same way the Stoics used it. He is saying that God had planned, predestined, before the world began, that salvation would be offered to all mankind.

There are those who believe Paul is speaking of individual predestination – that only some are predestined to be saved and others to be lost. What shall we do then with verses such as 1 Timothy 2:3-4: “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”?

What Paul is saying is that all mankind is predestined to be saved, not only the Hebrews. This was not clearly understood in previous times, but was revealed by the Gospel. Salvation is now offered to all people on th basis of faith.

“What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone; as it is written, behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed” (Romans 9:30-33).

We live in a chaotic world. Forces were unleashed by the disobedience of our first parents in the Garden of Eden that make life unpredictable and dangerous. Those chaotic forces disrupt and distort everything.

God is not in control. He could intervene to control the actions of every person, and every event, in this world. If we choose to believe that He has done that, we make Him responsible for every atrocity, war, genocide and murder that has ever been. Would you trust your life into the hands of a God like that?

There is a god like that. He promises wonderful things if we will trust him and reach for the bait he offers us. That god is a liar. He gives us brief tastes of things that feel good, then torments us. He promises greater pleasures, and the result is greater torment. Finally he tells us that there is no good thing to expect from life. Everything is against us, why not just put an end to it.

We are responsible for allowing this chaos and evil into the world. God allows it to continue to show us the consequences of our disobedience. When we face that reality, then God reveals His grace, the blood of Jesus Christ to cover our guilt and the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome temptation. We can be happy, free and have a pure conscience.

The spirits of evil and chaos are still active around us and we are not immune to their influence on other people and the effects of their influence. People are not our enemies; our enemies are the evil spirits who egg them on into reacting with bitterness, anger and hatred.

The true God, our Creator, can give us inner peace and quietness in the midst of the chaos of this world. One day the chaos in our world will be transferred to a place where there never will be a hint of God’s grace and we who trust in God will live in a world where even the memory of the chaos will be gone.

We are not robots; the choice of our destination will not be made for us by the invisible hand of a God we hardly know. Now, while we have the opportunity, is the time to choose which world will be our final destination.

Blood lines

I received my DNA test results yesterday, then signed up for a 14 day free trial  with ancestry.ca. I spent the rest of the day filling in the gaps in my family tree with the information they already have on file from kinfolk near and far.

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It’s a fascinating exercise. I am a mix of English, French, Dutch and German, which the DNA test corroborates, but doesn’t quite know how to differentiate. They peg my background as 61% England, Wales and Northwestern Europe, 36% Germanic Europe, 2% French and 1% Baltic states. The map shows considerable overlap of the first three groups. In fact, the circle that they identify as the source of French ancestry does not include northern and western France at all, but the next two groups do. My great-great-grandfather came from Lorraine in the north of France.

My Dad thought he was part Scottish, but I have found that the Kelloggs came from the county of Kent, just below the Scottish border. The name was given to a pig butcher: “kill hog” morphed into Kellogg. Really romantic that, eh?

My great-great-grandfather was a swordsman in Napoleon’s army. Does that sound romantic? He didn’t seem to think so. Almost 200 years ago he and his children left France and settled in upstate New York, not far from some people named Goodnough. In the course of time there was a wedding which is how he got into my family tree.

This is all quite interesting, but not very significant. Mostly it’s interesting to me and my daughter.  I don’t plan to put other people to sleep by expounding on my ancestry at the Sunday dinner table.

There are extensive genealogical records in the Bible. Some people find them boring, but they are there for a reason. First of all, they show that the Bible is talking about real people, who lived, married, begat children and eventually died. Secondly, and most importantly, they show God’s faithfulness in fulfilling the promises He made.

The New Testament has only two genealogical records, both leading to the birth of Jesus Christ, the long-promised son of David, the Messiah.

The record in Matthew begins with Abraham, the father of all faithful, to whom the promise was made that in his seed all nations would be blessed. Matthew’s gospel was written for Jewish believers to record the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. He includes four women in his genealogy of Jesus, three were Gentiles and are named. The fourth was Bathsheba, an Israelite, who is not named but her first husband, a Gentile, is named. It would seem that Matthew wanted to make it clear that Jesus belonged to all people, not just one small ethnic group.

Matthew’s genealogy traces the lineage of Joseph, who was the earthly father of the heavenly child. It shows his descent from David to whom the promise of the Messiah was first made. It is generally accepted that Luke’s genealogy shows the lineage of Mary, to establish that she was also an heir of David. The two lines diverge after David, to Solomon in Joseph’s line and Nathan in Mary’s line. Both were sons of David and Bathsheba, but Solomon was king.

They come together again with Zerubabbel, who was of the kingly line and governor of Judah after the return from Babylon. Then they diverge again.

These are the last genealogies that are of any real importance. They establish that Jesus was the promised seed of Abraham and the son of David who would rule forever over spiritual Israel.

After the time of Jesus there is still a blood line that identifies those who are heirs of Abraham, having the promise of the eternal mansions. That is the blood of Jesus, not something we can inherit from our earthly fathers and mothers, but only from Jesus Himself, through the new birth.

The church as the most important family

There are serious consequences of losing a sense of family within the church. . . We assume that the nuclear family can meet this need, and yet some of the loneliest, most isolated people in our communities are married with children, often so frenetically busy with child rearing and/or caring for aging parents that they have lost touch with old friends and no longer know how to make new ones.

The church is not a collection of families. The church is family. We are not “family friendly” ; we are family. We learn the skills within the church to be godly sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, husbands or wives, fathers or mothers, and the reverse is also true. . .

God wanted to make Israel distinct, not just morally but also through the signs of the covenant and through the prohibition against their intermarrying with the nations around them. In order to bless the nations, Israel could not be absorbed into the other nations and cease to exist.

The Storm-Tossed Family, by Russell Moore, pages 60 & 61; © Russell Moore, 2018, published by B & H Publishing Group, Nashville, Tennessee.

Doesn’t everybody want to change their life?

Jim walked into the small town grocery store, a bundle of tracts in his hand. He looked around, found the tract rack and saw it was almost empty. He dropped the tracts in his had on the counter and went out to his car to get more.

The clerk was reading one of the tracts when he returned. “Don’t read that!” he said. “Unless you want to change your life.”

She looked up at him, smiling. “Doesn’t everybody want to change their life?”

I’ve pondered that for a long time. I don’t think we do. We want our life to be different, but it’s other people and the circumstances of my life that need to change. I am not the problem here, my life will never change unless someone else makes some changes in the way they treat me.

It’s like banging my head against a brick wall. I get a headache, the wall is just the same, has no idea why anyone would expect it to change.

One day God says “You are the problem. You need to change.”

That’s ridiculous. I’m doing the best anyone could hope to do when he has to live and work around all these turkeys.

God persists. I begin to see little things where I might have said things differently, done things differently. But what would that really help? The turkeys are the real problem.

One day things go really badly, and I know that I caused this problem. A light goes on. “OK God, I don’t know how to get out of this mess I’ve made. Please help me.”

Nothing great happens, except I’m a little calmer, now. After a few days I realize that the turkeys don’t seem much like turkeys anymore; they’re pretty much the same as me. I even start to like them. I don’t often see them making mistakes any more but my own mistakes are becoming painfully obvious. I find myself saying “I’m sorry” quite often. I never used to do that. 

One morning I realize that I am looking forward to the day, the little interactions that I might have with all those interesting people around me. Something has changed, and it’s not them. I am different, but it is God who has made the difference in me. I didn’t have a clue where to begin.

Do you want to change the world?

So does God.

He wants to begin with you.

Two tabernacles

When Moses was up in the mountain communing with God during the Exodus, God gave him detailed directions for the structure that should be the centre of the people’s worship. He was to build a long tent, or tabernacle. The inside was of gold and beautiful tapestry, the outside was a drab, waterproof covering.

At one end, separated from the rest by a thick woven curtain, was the ark of the covenant with the mercy seat above it. To an onlooker, the tent would not have been particularly noteworthy, except for the Shekinah, the glory of God in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that always stood above the mercy seat.

This tabernacle was of central importance to the people during their time in the wilderness, during the conquest of Canaan and throughout the time of the judges.

Then came the time when the ark was removed from the tabernacle and taken into battle against the Philistines. The Philistines were victorious in the battle, to the point of capturing the ark. Eli, the high priest and spiritual leader of the Israelites, died upon hearing this news. At this point the worship of the Israelite people took a turn for which no recorded instruction had ever been given.

Eli’s place as spiritual leader was taken by Samuel, who was not of the priestly lineage. The ark was returned to Israel, but never put back in place in the tabernacle. Samuel went from place to place throughout the land to offer sacrifices and teach the people.

Samuel was a true prophet and spiritual leader, but as he grew old and had no obvious successor, the people began to call for a king. God granted their wish and Saul became king. Things soon went bad with Saul and God sent Samuel to anoint David to be king.

When David became king over all Israel and had conquered mount Zion, he decided to build a new tabernacle. He brought the ark and placed it in the tabernacle he had built, with no curtain to separate it from the people. The first time David tried to bring the ark to his new tabernacle, God smote Uzzah for trying to steady the ark, showing that the ark still denoted the presence of God. The second time was successful. David put on priestly garments of linen and an ephod and offered sacrifices to sanctify the tabernacle.

This is the only time that sacrifices were offered at the tabernacle of David. Thereafter it was a place of worship, where prayers were made, psalms sung and possibly the Word of God was read. Jehoshaphat is called the recorder, a word whose meaning might also mean one who causes to remember.

Here we see David acting as prophet, priest and king. Many of the Psalms are prophetic, he is called a prophet in Acts 2:30. We read in 1 Chronicles 16:39-40 that the tabernacle of Moses still stood at this time, located at Gibeon, and Zadok the high priest was still offering the sacrifices called for in the law. But since the mercy seat was no longer in the tabernacle of Moses, they were just going through the motions. The mercy seat was in the tabernacle of David.

This strange anomaly in the Israelite worship came to an end when Solomon built the temple and installed the ark in the holy of holies in the temple.

In later years prophets reminded the people of the tabernacle of David. Isaiah 16:5 says: “And in mercy shall the throne be established: and he shall sit upon it in truth in the tabernacle of David, judging, and seeking judgment, and hasting righteousness.” Chapter 32:20 says: “ Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities: thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down; not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken.” Amos 9:11-12 says: “ In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old: that they may possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen, which are called by my name, saith the LORD that doeth this.”

We can interpret the references to Zion as referring to Jerusalem and the temple mount, and the references to the tabernacle of David as prophesying the restoration of the Davidic kingdom in Christ. Many people do.

But the parallels are too striking. David as prophet, priest and king sanctified the tabernacle with a one time sacrifice. A new form of worship, completely separate from the tabernacle of Moses. Access to the mercy seat without a veil between it and the worshippers.

Isn’t this what the leaders of the early church recognized at the meeting in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15? James quoted the passage from Amos and recognized it as a prophecy of what was then happening. The tabernacle of David had been restored, a place where all people, including the Gentiles, could freely worship God without having to approach Him by means of the Jewish form. Just as the tabernacle of Moses was empty in the time of David, the worship in the Jerusalem temple was now empty after the one time sacrifice made by Jesus, the true son of David and our eternal prophet, priest and king.

Discipleship

The messengers of Jesus will be hated to the end of time. They will be blamed for all the division which rend cities and homes. Jesus and his disciples will be condemned on all sides for undermining family life, and for leading the nation astray; they will be called crazy fanatics and disturbers of the peace. The disciples will be sorely tempted to desert their Lord. But the end is also near, and they must hold on and persevere until it comes. Only he will be blessed who remains loyal to Jesus and his word until the end.
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The affliction of Joseph

Judah and Ephraim were the two largest tribes of Israel. Joshua was of the tribe of Ephraim; perhaps the Ephraimites carried from that some sense of entitlement that they should play more of a leadership role. When Jeroboam of the tribe of Ephraim rebelled against King Rehoboam, Mannasseh and all the other northern tribes followed his lead.

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From that point on the prophets referred to the whole rebellious northern kingdom and Joseph, or Ephraim, just as all the tribes united in the southern kingdom were called Judah. And Joseph was now once more separated from his brethren. That is the affliction of Joseph the prophet Amos was referring to in Amos 6:1-6.

Elijah and Elisha were both natives of the northern kingdom, used of God to warn the people and call them to return unto the true worship of the Lord. Hosea and Amos were from Judah and called of God to call the people of the northern kingdom to repentance.

Jonah was also of the northern kingdom. The only mention of him, beside the book which carries his name, is found in 2 Kings 14:25. This is the account of Jeroboam II retaking the northern part of Israel from the Syrians, as prophesied by Jonah.

2 Chronicles 21:12-15 records the letter sent to King Jehoram of Judah by Elijah: “Thus saith the LORD God of David thy father, Because thou hast not walked in the ways of Jehoshaphat thy father, nor in the ways of Asa king of Judah, but hast walked in the way of the kings of Israel, and hast made Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to go a whoring, like to the whoredoms of the house of Ahab, and also hast slain thy brethren of thy father’s house, which were better than thyself: behold, with a great plague will the LORD smite thy people, and thy children, and thy wives, and all thy goods: and thou shalt have great sickness by disease of thy bowels, until thy bowels fall out by reason of the sickness day by day.”

The only other connection of Elijah to Judah is that when he felt his life threatened by Jezebel he crossed into Judah, left his servant there and continued on to Mount Horeb.

There is a revealing incident in the life of Elisha when King Jehoram of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah were preparing for battle and called on Elsha to enquire of the Lord on their behalf. Elisha replied to the king of Israel: “As the LORD of hosts liveth, before whom I stand, surely, were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would not look toward thee, nor see thee” (2 Kings 3:14).

All of this is pretty conclusive evidence that the prophets regarded Judah as the people of God and Israel, led by Ephraim, to be apostate. Yet God had called them to minister to the people of apostate Israel to draw them back into full fellowship with His people.

Hosea spoke of a time when the two houses of Israel would be reunited. During the Babylonian captivity the prophet Ezekiel bemoans the unfaithfulness of the shepherds in chapter 34. Verse 11says: “For thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out.”

The sending of the 70 by Jesus to seek out the lost sheep of the house of Israel should be seen as part of the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s prophecy. Note that he is referring to sheep, that is children of God. The lost condition referred to means that they had no shepherd, not that they were spiritually lost. When the Bible speaks of the saved and the lost it refers to them as sheep and goats. The sheep will enter heaven, the goats will be turned away.

There are multitudes of people in the world today who are unsaved and need to hear the gospel and see it being lived out in the lives of true children of God. But there are also the lost sheep, the children of God who wander through the wilderness of the world because they do not have a shepherd. They are also a mission field. Jesus said: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” (John 10:16).

Two kingdoms, two churches

Reuben was the firstborn of Jacob and should have been in every way the leader of the tribes of Israel. He was a man who meant well, but seemed more apt to follow his carnal lusts than his good intentions. His father described him as “unstable as water.” The double portion of his father’s inheritance which by right was Reuben’s, went instead to Joseph, his second youngest brother. The headship of the tribes went to Judah and the spiritual leadership to Levi. Reuben was a loser on all counts.

Before he died Jacob prophesied that Judah should be the ruler of the tribes of Israel, “until Shiloh comes” which we understand to mean the Messiah. He also foretold that Simeon and Levi would not inherit with their brethren. Many years later, when Joshua divided the land, he allotted to Simeon lands that were within the boundaries of the inheritance of Judah. The Levites by this time had become the priests and they were given cities scattered through all the tribes. They were able to have gardens and goats for milk, but the bilk of their livelihood would come from the tithes given to the tabernacle, and later the temple.

Later yet, David, of the tribe of Judah, became king and God promised an everlasting throne for his sons. The kingdom of God of the Old Testament was both a political kingdom and a spiritual kingdom. This kingdom reached its highest point during the reign of Solomon. He reigned over all the land that had been promised to Israel and his reign was peaceful and glorious. He built the temple, the place which was God’s earthly habitation, to which all the peoples of the earth could come to worship and be blessed.

This glorious kingdom of the son of David was just a foretaste of what God had planned for His people. Such an earthly kingdom could not last among people who were for the most part only natural descendents of Abraham and not spiritual descendents. God foretold that the kingdom would be split in two after the death of Solomon.

The division of the kingdom was God’s plan. His perfect will would have been for all the tribes of Israel to continue to worship at Jerusalem, even though they were divided in their earthly citizenship. But Jeroboam, the first king of the breakaway kingdom feared that such an arrangement would undermine his political authority. He built a new temple at Bethel and another one in the north on his kingdom and appointed a new priesthood. It was for this division of the church of God that Jeroboam is forever after referred to as “Jeroboam the son of Neat who made Israel to sin.”

Thereupon all the Levites living among the northern tribes moved south to the kingdom of Judah. People often speak of the “ten lost tribes.” That does not add up. The southern kingdom now included Judah, Simeon, Benjamin and Levi, leaving nine tribes in the north (counting Joseph as two tribes: Ephraim and Manasseh).

Immediately, God began sending missionaries to the northern kingdom. The entire ministry of both Elijah and Elisha was to the people of the apostate northern kingdom of Israel. The ministry of Hosea and Amos was also exclusively to the people of Israel. We read of the schools of the prophets, some are explicitly linked to Elisha, probably they all were under his leadership. Thus men were continually being trained and sent out to preach the Word of God to the people in this apostate setting.

What were the results of this great mission effort? Even after Jezebel had made the worship in the temple at Bethel openly idolatrous, God told Elijah that there were still 7,000 people, “even in Israel” who had not bowed down to Baal. Seven is a complete number, a symbolic number, it could well mean many thousands.

It is recorded in 2 Chronicles 11 that after Jeroboam set up new temples in Israel people from all the tribes came to Jerusalem to sacrifice unto God and they strengthened the kingdom of Rehoboam. Chapter 15 tells that during the reign of Asa there were some from Ephraim and Manasseh who came to Jerusalem to worship and renew their covenant with God. Much later, both Hezekiah and Josiah sent invitations to the tribes of Israel to come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.

It would seem that by the time of the Babylonian captivity the kingdom of Judah included a godly remnant from all the tribes. We tend to assume that all those from the northern tribes had vanished by the time of Jesus. We read much about the Levites, Joseph and Mary were of the tribe of Judah, Paul of the tribe of Benjamin, but where were the others? Just when we think we have it all figured out, we discover that the Bible has dropped a little hint that our assumptions may not be true. Luke 2:36 tells us that Anna the prophetess was of the tribe of Asher. If there was one person who could be identified as coming from one of the formerly apostate tribes might there not have been many more?

The New Testament speaks of the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Who were they? It is evident that God’s heart yearned after those who were of the natural seed of Abraham, but were separated from the true worship of God. Before the captivity that meant all those from the northern kingdom where the only form of worship available was in the apostate temples. Yet even in such a situation there were many whose heart was still attached to God and not turned away to idolatry. By Jesus’ time it would seem that all those in Judea and Galilee were considered lost sheep, since the worship in the temple at Jerusalem had descended into mere form and pharisaism.

Who are the lost sheep today? Wouldn’t they be those who are the true spiritual children of Abraham, born-again children of God, alone in their faith or worshipping in a setting where some are true Christians, others are not, and most are unable to tell the difference? There are some who do see. Years ago a minster told me he thought there were seven or eight real Christians in his congregation. Someone told me recently of a minister who thought that perhaps 20% of his congregation were born-again. There are many kinds of mission fields, is this one that we are missing?

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