Friday, August 31, 2018

The Gospel in a Nutshell

Sometimes we make things much more complicated than they need to be. Entire books have been written to explain the gospel, but here is how the Apostle Paul summed it up in four sentences:

"Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." 1 Corinthians 15: 1-4 (NIV)

No definition captures the true essence of the "good news" better, and nothing I can add will make it any clearer than Paul did two thousand years ago.

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Jesus Prayer: 14 Powerful Words

Do you ever wish there was a short, succinct prayer that not only put you in the proper frame of mind to approach God but also summed up why we need Christ as our Savior? There is, and it’s even helpfully named. It’s called the Jesus Prayer:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The prayer is based on a verse from Luke’s Gospel. Here is the entire passage in context:

[Jesus] then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

While this is the passage that most aligns with the Jesus prayer, we see examples of the truth it expresses in other places in the New Testament. After the miraculous catch of fish soon after meeting Jesus, Peter says to him “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). When the centurion sends messengers to Jesus asking him to heal his servant, he recognizes his sinful state when he says “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8).

The tax collector, Peter, and the centurion all acknowledged what we know but too often refuse to admit. We do not just commit sins; we are sinners. Only when we face this truth and go to Jesus for forgiveness and mercy can we be restored to a right relationship with God.

The Jesus Prayer is most often associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church, where it has been prayed since the 4th century. Priests, monks, and laymen typically recite it using a knotted prayer rope (much like a Rosary), repeating the prayer as a means of meditation and to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Many in the West were introduced to the prayer through the book “The Way of the Pilgrim,” a 19th century tale recounting an unnamed narrator’s pilgrimage across Russia reciting the Jesus Prayer.

While better known in the East, the Jesus Prayer is certainly not confined to our Orthodox brothers and sisters. The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically mentions the prayer and its benefits (CCC 2667-2668). Any and all Christians can benefit from this brief but powerful prayer. Try incorporating it into your own prayer life; these may be the most transformative 14 words you’ve ever said.



Wednesday, August 22, 2018

We All Fall Down

The apostle Peter is a virtual case study in both what to do and what not to do in both ministry and life. He is emblematic of how we all fall down; the difference between him and many of us is that Peter always got back up, and it is in that area that we may be able to learn the most from his life.

There are numerous examples of Peter's strengths and weaknesses, and it is the recording of these failings that makes me even more certain that the Biblical record is accurate; propaganda never shows its leaders' flaws, only a true recounting does. And it is easy to see how Peter succeeds and then fails (or fails and then succeeds) because in most cases they happen almost in tandem. Here are some key instances:

1. One of the best-known of Peter's failings (and little-acknowledged successes) occurred during a storm on a lake:

"Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. 'It's a ghost,' they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: 'Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid.'

'Lord, if it's you,' Peter replied, 'tell me to come to you on the water.'

'Come,' he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.

But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, 'Lord, save me!'

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. 'You of little faith,' he said, 'why did you doubt?'" (Matthew 14:22-31 NIV)

For 2000 years people have focused on the fact that Peter took his eyes off Jesus, looked at the storm around him and started to sink. This is obviously true, and even Jesus asks why he doubted. But we tend to overlook what led up to this: Peter got out of the boat. Of all the disciples, only he had the audacity to even ask to be able to do it, and as a result he is the only one besides Jesus in the entire Bible to have walked on water. We should learn a lesson from his taking his focus off Jesus, but we should also learn a positive lesson from his boldness and willingness to take a risky step of faith.

2. Later we see Peter go from great heights to the depths in almost an instant. The height came in what is known as his Confession of Christ:

"Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, 'Who do people say I am?'

They replied, 'Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.'

'But what about you?' he asked. 'Who do you say I am?'

Peter answered, 'You are the Christ.'

Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him." (Mark 8:27-30 NIV)

Peter is the first of Jesus' disciples to both recognize and acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. In Matthew's Gospel it is during this exchange that Jesus says that Peter is the "rock" on which Christ will build His church. Yet Peter stumbles almost immediately:

"[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. 'Get behind me, Satan!' he said. 'You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.'" (Mark 8:31-33 NIV)

This is one of the strongest rebukes we see during Jesus' ministry, perhaps because Peter should have known better given the previous exchange. Peter has shown flashes of the ability to lead; here he loses sight of Jesus and His mission, mainly because he neither likes nor understands what Jesus is saying about his upcoming death. We need to be prepared to accept whatever leading we receive from the Lord, whether we like it or even understand it.

3. Peter is also well-known for his denial of Jesus after Jesus is taken away to be tried before the crucifixion. There can be no doubt that this is his greatest failure, made even worse by the fact that Jesus had earlier predicted it would happen:

"Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest's courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the girl on duty there and brought Peter in.

'You are not one of his disciples, are you?' the girl at the door asked Peter.
He replied, 'I am not.'

It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself.

As Simon Peter stood warming himself, he was asked, 'You are not one of his disciples, are you?'

He denied it, saying, 'I am not.'

One of the high priest's servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, 'Didn't I see you with him in the olive grove?' Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow." (John 18:15-18, 25-27 NIV)

Many consider Peter's return to Jesus to have occurred when he went out and wept bitterly after his denial (see Luke 22:62). This was certainly a sign of his repentance, as was the fact that Peter ran to the empty tomb as soon as the women reported that Jesus was not there (see Luke 24:8-12). But even more encouraging to believers today is the way Jesus dealt with Peter following the Resurrection.

The first sign came on the day of the Resurrection, when the women were confronted by an angel at the empty tomb:

"'Don't be alarmed,' he said. ’You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' " (Mark 16:6-7 NIV)

Peter is the only one of the eleven remaining apostles who is mentioned by name here; he alone is singled out by the angel. Even after his three denials, Jesus wanted Peter to know that he mattered, that he was important, and that he was forgiven. When we feel at our lowest point, when we feel like there is no way God could ever forgive us, we need only look at what happened here with Peter.

But Peter's restoration went beyond forgiveness to reinstatement. Shortly before he returned to Heaven, Jesus appeared to the disciples at the Sea of Galilee, and he had this conversation with Peter:

"When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?'

'Yes, Lord,' he said, 'you know that I love you.'

Jesus said, 'Feed my lambs.'

Again Jesus said, 'Simon son of John, do you truly love me?'

He answered, 'Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.'

Jesus said, 'Take care of my sheep.'

The third time he said to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?'

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, 'Do you love me?' He said, 'Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.'

Jesus said, 'Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.' Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, 'Follow me!'" (John 21:15-19 NIV)

So not only did Jesus forgive Peter, he restored him to his former position as the head of the apostles, something that Peter could certainly never have dreamed was possible. If after his repentance even Peter could still be used by God in service to the Kingdom, then any of us can. I believe this is precisely the reason that the Bible records both Peter's failures and successes: they show us in no uncertain terms that although we will all fall down, the important thing is that we keep getting up.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Springsteen and the Scriptures

In my first post I jokingly referenced two Bruce Springsteen songs; in the second I encouraged you to read the Bible more. Today I thought I’d take a look at how reading the Bible more can help you catch references in Springsteen’s songs that you would otherwise miss. What can I say…I make strange connections on Monday mornings before that second cup of coffee.

In that post about the Bible I said that not knowing anything at all about the Bible makes it impossible to fully understand Shakespeare, Dante, or Michelangelo (to name only a few) since all three owe the Bible a debt for their content. The same is true of some of Springsteen’s best songs. Consider these examples:

Adam, Cain, and Abel:
Adam Raised a Cain
“In the Bible Cain slew Abel
and East of Eden he was cast
You’re born into this life paying
for the sins of somebody else’s past
Adam raised a Cain”

The Price You Pay
“Little girl down on the strand
With that pretty little baby in your hands
Do you remember the story of the promised land
How he crossed the desert sands
And could not enter the chosen land
On the banks of the river he stayed
To face the price you pay”

Swallowed Up (In the Belly of a Whale)
“I fell asleep on a dark and starlit sea
With nothing but the cloak of God’s mercy over me
I come upon strange earth and a great black cave
I dreamt I awoke as if buried in my grave
We’ve been swallowed up”

Jesus, Gideon, Saul, and Abraham:
Heaven’s Wall
There was a woman waiting at the well
Drawing water ‘neath the desert sky blue
She said, “He’ll heal the blind, raise the dead, cure the sickness out of you”
Come on men of Gideon
Come on men of Saul
Come on sons of Abraham
Waiting outside heaven’s wall

Noah and Jesus:
Rocky Ground
“Forty days and nights of rain washed this land
Jesus said the money changers, in this temple will not stand”

Jesus, Mary, and David:
Jesus Was An Only Son
“Jesus was an only son
As he walked up Calvary Hill
His mother Mary walking beside him
In the path where his blood spilled
Jesus was an only son
In the hills of Nazareth
As he lay reading the Psalms of David
At his mother’s feet
In the garden at Gethsemane
He prayed for the life he’d never live,
He beseeched his Heavenly Father to remove
The cup of death from his lips”

That’s a fair number of references spanning a 45-year career, and there are more. But I want to make one thing clear: I am not saying Bruce is evangelizing here. His most famous album was not called “Born Again in the USA.” Still, he clearly knows at least something of the Bible, or these references would never have made their way into his songs. So if you won’t take my advice on reading the Bible, then take it from Bruce. He is the Boss, after all (even if he does think that Eve actually tempted Adam with a Pink Cadillac).

Note: Just in case you would like to look these references up for yourself, I have included the passage or Bible book where you can find them below:

Adam Raised a Cain:  Genesis chapter 4, verses 8-16
The Price You Pay: Numbers chapter 20, verses 1-12 and Deuteronomy chapter 34, verses 1-5
Swallowed Up (In the Belly of a Whale): Jonah, chapters 1 and 2
Heaven’s Wall: John chapter 4, verses 1-30. The stories of Gideon, Saul, and Abraham are found in Judges chapters 6-8, 1st Samuel chapters 9-31, and Genesis chapters 11-25 respectively
Rocky Ground: Genesis chapters 6-9 (the Flood) and John chapter 2, verses 13-17
Jesus Was An Only Son:  Matthew chapters 26-27, Mark chapters 14-15, Luke chapters 22-23, John chapter 19, Psalms

Friday, August 17, 2018

One Way

In the classic book Mere ChristianityC.S. Lewis writes what is often referred to as the “poached egg” passage. If you have never read the book, the specific passage is below:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Lewis wrote this during in the mid-1940s, and what I find troubling is not that people 70 years ago rejected Jesus’ claim to both be God and the only way to salvation (many have rejected that since his days on earth), but that so many today go even further, maintaining that he never really made such claims for himself in the first place. A few years ago, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a major study on religious beliefs in the United States. It found that 70 percent of all Americans believe that many religions can lead to eternal life, including 65 percent of all Christians. Shockingly, 56 percent of people who consider themselves Evangelical Christians said that there are many paths other than faith in Christ that lead to God and eternal life.

I understand that this is a popular and “tolerant” point of view. However, it stands in direct contradiction to the words of Jesus himself. Consider the following passages:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.” John 14:6-7

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son…. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:27

“Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this; to believe in the one he has sent.'” John 6:29

“For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” John 6:40

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” John 10:28-30

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.'” John 11:25-26

None of these statements of Jesus are in any way vague or ambiguous, and for that very reason many people, even self-professing Christians, simply avoid them altogether. But to call yourself a Christian while rejecting the very words of Christ himself is disingenuous at best and self-delusion at worst. As C.S Lewis said, “He has not left that option open to us. He did not intend to.”

Monday, August 13, 2018

Choosing the Right Bible for You

Men like William Tyndale and John Wycliffe devoted their lives (and sometimes even sacrificed them) to bring us the English translation of the Bible. While they would likely be pleased to see how far their initial work has come in making the Bible available to all English speakers, they would also be confused by the sheer number and variations of translations and types available now. Walk into any Christian bookstore, or any other bookstore for that matter, and you will be faced with so many options that you may long for the days when the King James Version was the only one available.
Choosing the right Bible for you is no longer a simple task, but it can be made easier with a little work before you buy. The first and often most difficult choice is which translation is best for you. There are stalwarts out there who still insist that The King James Version is the only true translation, even if many of the words haven't been in use for nearly 200 years. If you are one of these people your choice is easy, at least as far as translation. For everyone else, let's take a look at the plethora of translations available.

When translating the Bible from the original languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic) there are two basic methods: word-for-word or thought-for-thought. In reality, all versions use some combination of this process, because many Greek and Hebrew words don't have an exact English equivalent and the word order doesn't match up exactly either. A true word-for-word translation would be virtually unreadable. And while thought-for-thought translations better convey the original meaning, even they translate Greek and Hebrew words exactly wherever possible. A third method is the paraphrase, but these versions allow for current slang and idioms and are outdated almost as soon as they are printed.
The ultimate goal is making the Bible relevant and understandable to us today without everyone having to learn Greek or Hebrew. My recommendation is to stay to the thought-for-thought side without slipping all the way to a paraphrase. Another consideration is the reading level required for each version. The translations on the word-for-word end of the spectrum will require a higher reading level (12th grade for the King James Version, for example) while the thought-for-thought versions will require a lower reading level (4th grade for the New Century Version). Below is a list of widely available versions, the translations type, and reading level:

King James Version (KJV): Word-for-word, 12th grade.
New American Standard Bible (NASB): Word-for-word, 11th grade.

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): Balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought, 10th Grade.

New King James Version (NKJV): More verse-for-verse than word-for-word, 9th Grade.
English Standard Version (ESV): Word-for-word, 8th Grade.

New International Version (NIV): Balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought, 7th Grade.
New Living Translation (NLT): Thought-for-thought, 6th Grade.

Contemporary English Version (CEV): Thought-for-thought, 5th Grade.
New Century Version (CNV): Thought-for-thought, 4th Grade.

Beyond reading level and translation method, there are a few other important choices that must be made when selecting a Bible, things like font, print size, cost (which is related to the binding method) and type of Bible. Cost can vary widely, but generally speaking you get what you pay for. A particular study Bible may come in soft cover for $19.99, hardback for $29.99, bonded leather for $39.99, and genuine leather for $49.99 and up. While more expensive, a genuine leather Bible should last for a lifetime, while a soft cover may wear out in two years or less. In the long run, it's better to pay more now.
When speaking of the type of Bible, I am referring to another phenomenon that is fairly recent: the specialty Bible. For centuries Bibles had only the sacred text, some maps, and perhaps a brief concordance. Today the choices are enough to make a person dizzy. Type in "Study Bible" on Amazon and you will get hundreds of results. A few include: The ESV Study Bible, The Life Application Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Seeker's Bible, The NIV Study Bible, The McArthur Study Bible, The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, The Women's Study Bible, The Recovery Study Bible, The Men's Devotional Bible, and the list goes on and on.

Almost anyone can find a study Bible that suits his or her particular need at a given moment in time. All are filled with helpful notes, articles, diagrams, concordances, maps, and application tips that can be very useful. But one word of caution: it is very easy to get so caught up reading the notes and articles that you're not actually reading the Bible itself. The notes should always be used in addition to, not in place of, the actual Biblical text.
As for my own personal recommendation, especially if this is the first Bible you've purchased in some time (or ever), I would suggest the NIV Life Application Study Bible. The NIV is the world's best selling translation and is very readable. In addition, the notes in the Life Application Study Bible are easy to understand without a seminary degree, which is not true of every study Bible out there.  For deeper study, perhaps the best available right now is the ESV Study Bible, as evidenced by the fact that it is used by ministers across all denominations.

Regardless of which version and type you choose, the best Bible version for you is the one you'll actually read. It will only be of use to you if you're reading it daily, not simply letting it sit on the shelf gathering dust. Start with 5 minutes a day; it will change your life.