Read the Bible With Me in 2017

Can I suggest a New Year’s resolution for you?  Make the commitment to read through the Bible with me in 2017.  At Munger, 2017 is our Year of the Bible, and we’re launching something called The Bible Project.  Here are 3 reasons why I hope you’ll join me in reading through the Bible in 2017.

 

The Bible is Difficult to Read Alone

Lots of folks struggle to understand the Bible, which shouldn’t be surprising: the Bible is a collection of ancient documents, written by strange people in strange languages–of course it’s difficult to read and understand all by yourself.  Through the Bible Project (we’ve taken the name from some folks in Portland with whom we’re partnering), however, we’ll be updating our blog every day with explanatory notes, videos, charts, etc.  To give you an example of the kind of resources available, check out this great intro video to the Book of Genesis:

The Bible is difficult to read alone–so don’t.  Read along with me.

The Last Time You Tried It, You Quit in February

Many of you have probably tried to read through the Bible in a year, only to abandon your resolution in February when you got to Leviticus (if you made it that far).  You’re much more likely to complete marathon training in a group, and in the same way you’re much more likely to read through the Bible along with other people.  I’m preaching through the Bible in 2017, we’ll have a weekly Bible study, a daily blog, podcasts, etc.  All these resources are to help you persevere.  Good things come to those who persevere.

Nothing Has More Potential to Change Your Life

I guarantee you that 2017 holds unexpected challenges for you.  How will you prepare?  There is nothing you can do that will have greater potential to change your life and prepare you for the future than the daily discipline of spending time in silence and scripture.

So, Here’s What to Do

If you are a Mungarian, pick up one of the free One Year Bibles we’re handing out at church; if you don’t live in Dallas, get one of these from Amazon.  (We’re using the ESV translation, but they are currently out of print.)  You could also use the Bible app on your smart phone and pick the One Year Bible reading plan, but I recommend using the hard copy.

Follow along with our blog: bibleproject.mungerplace.org.

Watch my sermons: http://www.mungerplace.org/sermon-library/.

Start on Sunday morning.

Of all the New Year’s resolutions you could make, reading through the Bible is the most important.

So, are you in?

 

The fox knows many things;
The hedgehog knows one big thing.
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I Cried When I Saw This Happen

I saw this happen this past Sunday morning as we celebrated our 6th birthday as a congregation at Munger Place Church.  I know these people; I know their stories; they are my friends.  As I watched them share their cardboard testimonies, I couldn’t help it: tears ran down my face.  (And I’m not a crier.)

2016 Munger Cardboard Testimonies [VIDEO]

As I watched these people share their stories, I kept thinking, “I am so grateful, God, that I get to be a part of this.”

2016 Munger Cardboard Testimonies from HPUMC on Vimeo.

 

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The Hard Questions Have Already Been Asked

As I wrote on Wednesday, I believe strongly that Christians do not need to be afraid of hard, honest questions about the Faith.  One reason is because the hardest questions have already been asked, by Christian theologians themselves.  Often, in fact, the people asking those questions were the theologians of the ancient church, people like Origen and Augustine.  (Origen, to cite one example, took on the opening chapters of Genesis and wondered–15 centuries before Darwin–whether the biblical account was meant to be taken literally.)  There are many good, hard questions that you and I haven’t ever considered, but I guarantee you that someone else has considered them.  So the next time someone asks you a hard question about faith, don’t panic, but say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”  Then, hit the library and find out what the ancient church had to sat about the matter.

 

 

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A Faith Unafraid of the Hard Questions

I believe very strongly that the Christian faith has nothing to fear from hard questions.  If what we believe is True, then it can withstand even the most intense cross-examination.  In fact, I think we ought to welcome hard questions, because hard, honest questions are often used by God to bring people to faith.  This was certainly the belief of the great missionary and evangelist E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973), friend to Gandhi and missionary to India.  In his missionary work Jones often fearlessly debated with people who were hostile to Christianity, and in his most famous book he explains how he came to be unafraid of even the hardest questions about faith.  Facts, he realized, are faith’s friends.

 

In his best-selling book The Christ of the Indian Road (1925), Jones writes:

“I have found a good many nervous Christians since coming home who are afraid that this whole thing of Christianity might fall to pieces if someone should get too critical, or if science should get too scientific. Many of the saints are now painfully nervous. They remind me of a lady missionary with whom I walked home one night after a very tense meeting in a Hindu theater. She said, ‘Mr. Jones, I am physically exhausted from that meeting tonight.’ When I asked her the reason she said, ‘Well, I didn’t know what they were going to ask you next, and I didn’t know what you were going to answer, so I’ve been siting up there in the gallery holding on to the bench with all my might for two hours, and I’m physically exhausted!’ There are many like our sister who are metaphorically holding to their seats with all their might lest Christianity fall to pieces under criticism!

I have a great deal of sympathy with them, for I felt myself in the same position for a long time after I went to India. The whole atmosphere was acid with criticism. I could feel the acid eat into my very soul every time I picked up a non-Christian paper. Then there came the time when I inwardly let go. I became willing to turn Jesus over to the facts of the universe. I began to see that there was only one refuge in life and that was in reality, in the facts. If Jesus couldn’t stand the shock of the criticism of the facts discovered anywhere, if he wasn’t reality, the sooner I found out about it the better. My willingness to surrender Christ to the facts was almost as great an epoch in my life as my willingness to surrender to him…. I saw that [Jesus] was not a hothouse plant that would wither under the touch of criticism, but he was rooted in reality, was the very living expression of our moral and spiritual universe—he was reality itself….

The only way to kill Christianity is to take it out of life and protect it. The way to make it shine and show its genius is to put it down in life and let it speak directly to life itself. Jesus is his own witness….

I am therefore not afraid of the question hour, for I believe that Jesus underlies our moral and spiritual universe deeper than the force of gravity underlies our material universe.”

from The Christ of the Indian Road, by E. Stanley Jones

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Is God Tolerant?

Tolerance is not just what we need to live peaceably together in an increasingly diverse society (though that’s true): tolerance is much more important than that.  In fact, I think it’s fair to say that life itself depends on tolerance, as does the fate of the entire world.

 

False Tolerance

Tolerance is not, despite how the word is often employed, a vague sense that all beliefs and all religions are basically the same.  This is a false idea, and this is a false definition of tolerance.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite of what tolerance actually implies.

True Tolerance

Tolerance is about recognizing that all beliefs and all religions are not basically the same.  In fact, tolerance recognizes that many beliefs and religions are inherently contradictory, and no amount of hand-holding and attendance at diversity seminars will make inherently contradictory beliefs the same.

Rather, tolerance is about making space for irreconcilable differences.  Tolerance is not about agreement, but about tolerating viewpoints with which you vehemently disagree.

Limits of Tolerance

It should be said that the one thing that we cannot tolerate is violence (which is not the same thing as speech, however ugly and hateful that speech might be), because violence makes tolerance itself impossible.  But, with the exception of violence, tolerance makes room for all other actions and choices and beliefs.

A Theology of Tolerance

One of the main expressions of tolerance in the American Constitution is in our First Amendment: our right to religious freedom.   (The First Amendment literally says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”)  But religious freedom is not just a nice idea, codified into law.  Rather, religious freedom is a principle built on the bedrock of reality, because it’s a principle that is obviously true: all people are free to believe whatever they want to believe.  You cannot force anyone to believe anything.  God created us as completely free creatures, and we can use that freedom in whatever way we want.  We are even free to believe ugly things and free to act in ugly ways, free even to reject God himself.  And God permits this freedom.

God, you might say, is tolerant.

In fact, I think that the Lord is far more tolerant than I would be, were I in his place: I’d never have allowed that evil man to massacre all those people in that Orlando nightclub.

But then again, neither would I have so loved the world that I would have given my only son for the world, knowing that the world (which I created) would reject and kill him.  God’s tolerance, you might say, made the Crucifixion possible.

Which means God’s tolerance also made the Resurrection possible.

Which means that tolerance is part of God’s plan to save the world.

 

 

 

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My Friend’s Orlando Thoughts

I haven’t yet come up with anything interesting or helpful to say about the murders in Orlando, so I haven’t written anything.  But I read something my friend Jacob Sahms wrote that struck me, and I share it below.

 

Reading and hearing the responses to the violence in Orlando, I’m struck by the outrage – and the way fingers start pointing at anyone but ourselves. If we’re going to be the peacemakers who are called the children of God, then the solutions all start with us.

Do we talk and act peacefully? (Yes, that includes driving.) Do we recognize that we’re all children of God, even the people we don’t agree with/like? Do our dollars and our votes endorse peace? Do we teach our children peace and love for all? We can pray all we want for peace, but if we’re not part of being peace, then “thy kingdom come” isn’t actually something we’re part of.

Jacob Sahms

He’s totally right: “the way fingers start pointing at anyone but ourselves.”  Certainly true about me, and I don’t like it.

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace….

Does Old Testament Law Apply to Christians?

Does Old Testament law apply to Christians?  A large portion of the first 5 books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is dedicated to laws governing how Israel was to live, eat, and worship.  Should Christians follow those laws?

The Old Testament is Obsolete, Right?

I’ve heard and read something like the following argument countless times:

No sane person thinks that there is any problem wearing clothes made of different fabrics [Leviticus 19:19], nor would any sane person think capital punishment appropriate for a child who curses his parents [Leviticus 20:9].  Since we don’t abide by these or many other Old Testament laws any more, isn’t it clear that modern Christians shouldn’t abide by ANY Old Testament laws?

Unfortunately it’s not that simple.  Here’s the problem:

The Old Testament, while containing some laws that no longer apply to Christians, also contains the Ten Commandments and other components of the ethical foundation of the teachings of Jesus.  For example, Leviticus, the book everyone loves to ridicule, contains beautiful ethical teachings:

Did you know that “Love your neighbor as yourself” comes from Leviticus? (Leviticus 19:18.)

Rather than being obsolete, the Old Testament contains much that is more relevant than ever for the people of God.  But, it also contains elements that no longer apply.  Which is which?  How do we know which parts of the Old Testament law we should follow, and which are no longer binding on God’s people?

The Epic of Eden

Sandra Richter, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, has an excellent book on the Old Testament called The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the Old Testament.  In the epilogue to the book she includes some Frequently Asked Questions, one of which is What Role Does the Law of Moses Play in the Christian’s Life?  (pp. 225-229)  I found her answer so helpful that I publish it below, with permission from her publisher.  I’ve added my own remarks throughout.

What Role Does the Law of Moses Play in the Christian’s Life?

Most everyone recognizes that simply abolishing the entire Mosaic law contradicts the New Testament (what do you do with the Ten Commandments?).  Most equally recognize that imposing the law in its entirety on the Christian also contradicts the New Testament (what of God’s instructions to Peter in Acts 10 to embrace unclean foods as clean?).  So most have concluded that there must a middle-of-the-road position.  The most enduring approach to defining this middle-of-the-road position has been the attempt to somehow delineate the law according to “moral” versus “civil” (or “ethical” versus “ritual”) categories.  The claim is typically that the moral/ethical features of the law are still in force for the Christian, but the civil/ritual features are obsolete and can be put safely aside.  For example, some would claim that the Ten Commandments can be cataloged as “moral” and are therefore still binding, but the law requiring tassels on the four corners of a person’s garment is to be catalogued as “civil/ritual” and is not (Num 15:38-39).  The problem with this sort of delineation, however, is that in Israel’s world, there was no distinction between the civil/ritual and moral/ethical aspects of the law.  All of these laws were deemed as the imperatives of God’s divine will.  Moreover, to “honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12) was both a moral expectation and the civil requirement of a patriarchal society to provide for the elderly of one’s clan.  And proper worship in a theocracy was an expression of both a moral/ethical and civil/ritual expectation.  So what to do? [Emphasis mine.  One of the mistakes we make in reading the Bible is to put our own categories on top of it.  As Professor Richter points out, unlike us the ancient Israelites did not divide the world into the sacred and the secular, the religious and the legal: it was all one.  –AF]  In the end, most assume that the Mosaic law is generally annulled as regards the Christian but hold onto those aspects of the law that are either reiterated by Christ (a good idea) or those that generally just seem “right” (obviously not a satisfactory response to the question).  [We see this all the time: people decide what’s right beforehand and bring that decision to the Bible.  Here’s the problem, though–Where and how do we decide what’s right?  What are the sources we use to decide what’s right?  Aren’t we in danger of just blessing whatever feels good to us, or whatever the dominant culture tells us is right?  The reason for the Mosaic Law in the first place was to give Israel a way of knowing right and wrong that was distinct from the surrounding pagan Canaanite cultures.  –AF]  Although I cannot offer a complete solution to the conundrum, let me at least contribute to an answer.

First, it is important to realize that as covenantal administrations change, so do the stipulations of those covenants.  So, yes, the rules can and do change.  And they change according to the will of the suzerain.  [The suzerain is the king making the covenant, as she explains earlier in the book.  For the Israelites, their king was the Lord.  –AF]  Hence, the first question we want to ask is, how does Jesus (our suzerain and mediator) change the rules with the new covenant?  We find the answer to that question as we read through the Gospels.  Here Jesus regularly calls his audience back to the intent of the Mosaic law.  Was the sabbath created for man, or man for the sabbath (Mt 12:10)?  Is adultery the problem or unbridled lust (Mt 7:27)?  Is it more important that a person keep themselves ritually clean, or serve a neighbor in need (Lk 10:30-37)?  So one thing Jesus tells his audience is to look beyond a legalistic adherence to particulars and see the goal of the law.  This is clearly articulated in interactions like Matthew 22:36-40:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  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.’  This is the great and foremost commandment.  The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments depends the whole Law and the Prophets.”

Galatians 5:14 says the same: “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Thus, whereas the detailed message of the Mosaic law embodied the love of neighbor and God in concrete, time- and culture-bound expressions, Jesus finds a way to articulate the transcultural and all-embracing message of that same law to a new audience.  [Emphasis mine.  I think this is a perceptive analysis of the ethical teaching of Jesus.  –AF]  Moreover, he makes it clear that this message is still binding upon us new covenant adherents as well.

We also read that Jesus redefines the major institutions of Israel’s theocracy: the temple and the theocratic government.  The temple is first re-defined as Jesus’own body, and then as the individual believer and the church (Jn 2:19-21; Eph 2:19-22).  Jesus is identified as the final sacrifice (Heb 9:24-26) and as the church’s new high priest (Heb 2:17).  Thus, with the new covenant we learn that Israel’s temple cultus is obsolete.  [A “cultus” is a system of worship.  –AF]  And if this theocratic institution is obsolete, I believe it is safe to conclude that the complex processes dictated by the Mosaic law that directed the function of this institution (e.g. the design and décor of the building, the cleanness of priest and worshipper, sacrifice, mediation and the calendar of cultic celebration) are now obsolete as well.  This means that in the new covenant the specific Mosaic regulations regarding these issues are annulled: our buildings of worship are no longer required to bring sacrifice, the laws of “clean and unclean” are abrogated, the mediation of human priests is unnecessary, and the holidays of Israel’s cult have become “a mere shadow of what is to come” (Col 2:16-17).  [Emphasis mine.  Did you get that?  Because the Temple is obsolete for Christians (the entire book of Hebrews is essentially about this topic), then it follows that all the Old Testament laws pertaining to Temple worship are also obsolete.  –AF]

And what of Israel’s theocratic government?  Keep clearly in your mind that Israel was a nation that was directly ruled by God.  Yahweh was enthroned in the temple in Jerusalem, “between the cherubim,” and carried out his ordinances by means of his officers, the prophet, the priest and king.  Israel was a political entity with national territory.  Its citizenry were, exclusively, the people of God.  Foreign oppression, drought and famine were God’s communiqués that his people had somehow broken covenant; national prosperity was the sign that they had kept covenant.  Thus the nation of Israel could justly go to war in the name of Yahweh, slaying Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites to defend the national boundaries of God’s kingdom.  But Jesus makes it clear that his only throne will be in heaven (Mk 16:19; Heb 8:1; etc.).  And as we’ve seen, the new citizenry of his kingdom will come from every tongue, tribe and nation.  As opposed to the land of Canaan being the Promised Land, now all of the recreated earth is.  Thus, in the new covenant there is no longer any single nation that can lay claim to being “the people of God” nor any single piece of real estate that is promised to them. [Emphasis mine.  This is HUGE.  Whereas before Jesus you had to be a member of Israel to be part of the people of God, now the church–the new Israel–is open to people of all ages, nations, and races.  –AF]  There are new officers for this new kingdom too.  Even a cursory glance at Ephesians 4:11, 1 Corinthians 12:28 or 1 Timothy 3 lets us know that apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, deacons and teachers have replaced the prophet, priest and king of the Mosaic covenant.  The only title that survives into the new covenant is that of “prophet,” but even this office is substantially transformed. Thus the very literal political realities of Israel’s theocracy are abrogated by the new covenant, and I believe we can safely say that the complex list of laws and regulations that governed the theocracy are abrogated as well.  [Update: This is why capital punishments for crimes such as blasphemy and sorcery, etc., no longer apply: those rules were part of the Old Covenant theocracy.  The offenses themselves are still sinful, but now that we live under the New Covenant of grace and no longer under the Israelite theocracy, the way the people of God deal with those offenses has changed.  –AF] 

Then, of course, there are those aspects of the Mosaic law that the writers of the New Testament specifically address as being changed or terminated.  A few examples would be the necessity of circumcision (1 Cor 7:19), the regulations of kashrut (Acts 10:15), the rabbinic restrictions regarding the sabbath (Mt 12:1-9) and even divorce (Mt 19:3-9).

In sum, I think we can identify at least three categories of Mosaic law which, in their specific expectations, no longer apply to the Christian: those involving the regulations of Israel’s government, those involving the regulation of Israel’s temple, and those laws that the New Testament specifically repeals or changes.  I would still argue that the values that shaped these regulations express the character of God and therefore must be attended to by the Christian, but the specifics of their application are no longer our responsibility.  Thus my contribution to the conundrum named above is that rather than attempting to delineate the law of Moses based on categories foreign to that law itself (“more/ethical” and “civil/ritual”), perhaps we should address the question through a lens that is more native to both Old and New Testaments—Jesus’ redefinition of certain major institutions of the Mosaic covenant.  And for all the Mosaic law, be it superseded or not, we need to recognize that we can (and must) still learn a great deal about the character of God through these laws, even if we can no longer directly apply them to ourselves in this new covenant.  [Emphasis mine.  Rather than being irrelevant to the church today, even those Old Testament laws that have been abrogated by the New Covenant have much to teach us about the Lord.  –AF]  So rather than thinking in terms of the Mosaic law as being obsolete except for what Jesus maintains (as has been the predominant view), perhaps we should begin to thing in terms of the law being in force except for what Jesus repeals.

Taken from The Epic of Eden by Sandra L. Richter. Copyright (c) 2008 by Sandra L. Richter. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com.

 

 

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A Framework for Understanding the Bible

I’ll be the first to admit that the Bible is a difficult book.  One of the reasons it’s difficult is that it’s not really even one book, but rather a collection of books.  (That’s what “bible” actually means: a collection of books.)  Over and over again people will say to me, “I’d like to read the Bible, but I just don’t understand it.”  I hope the following simple framework helps you get a little more clarity and understanding.

All of History in 3 Acts

The Bible tells the story of the great drama of History in 3 acts, with a prologue at the beginning and an epilogue at the end.

Prologue

Subject: Beginnings.  Adam to Abraham.  The Prologue tells us why the world is the way it is.  After a beautiful beginning (“And there was light….”)  the story quickly becomes a story of blood and betrayal: Cain kills Abel, and we’ve been killing our brothers ever since.

Scripture: Genesis 1-11

Act 1

Subject: Israel.  The Lord’s plan to save all of humanity begins with one man–Abraham–and it culminates in one of Abraham’s descendant’s: Jesus of Nazareth.  Act 1 is about God’s chosen people Israel, and Israel’s slavery, exodus, kingdom, exile, and return.

Scripture: Genesis 12-Malachi

Act 2

Subject: Jesus.  Act 2 is all about Jesus, from his birth to his death to his Resurrection.

Scripture: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

Act 3

Subject: The Church.  Act 3 is about how the church is God’s means to redeem the world.  It begins with a small group of disciples in Jerusalem on Pentecost Sunday and it’s still going, right up to and including the present.  We are living in Act 3.

Scripture: Acts-Revelation 20

Epilogue

Subject: Forever and Ever Amen.  The Epilogue is about History’s culmination, when Jesus returns and all the bad things come untrue and evil is finally ended.

Scripture: Revelation 21-22

Conclusion

I realize that the above doesn’t answer most of our good questions about the difficult parts of scripture, but it does give us a framework within which we can at least get our bearings when reading scripture.  Keep reading–it’s worth it.

 

 

 

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Saturday

What happened on Saturday?

Jesus was crucified on Friday, and he was raised on Sunday.

But what happened on Saturday?

Nothing.

Nothing happened on Saturday.

In many ways, we live in a Saturday world.  Saturday is about waiting.  Saturday is about the promise of a better future that hasn’t yet come.  Saturday is about the hope that God will do something, but still not seeing it.

We live in a Saturday world.

But Sunday is coming.

 

 

 

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My Thoughts on “Spotlight”

I went to see the movie Spotlight on Friday afternoon.  Here are some quick thoughts.

Every now and then I’ll go to the movies by myself on Fridays.  I tend to do a lot of my sermon preparation on Fridays, and from time to time I’ll go to a movie for sermon research.  (I’m not kidding.)  I’m preaching on Judas this Sunday, and it struck me that the movie Spotlight might give me some insight into the idea of betrayal.

Spotlight, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture on Sunday, is about the investigative reporting the Boston Globe did in 2001 that blew the clergy sex abuse scandal wide open.  It is a serious, earnest movie that thankfully avoids the self-importance and self-regard in which these sorts of “Important” Hollywood films sometimes indulge.

At one point in the film, one of the reporters, for whom reporting on the story has been an emotional ordeal, shouts: “They knew and they let it happen…to kids.”  That line really struck me, and I just started crying quietly, in the dark.

How could you betray that trust?

But that’s the way it always is, isn’t it?  Spotlight does a good job of showing how the real scandal was not that hundreds of priests preyed on the vulnerable, but that thousands of people let it happen, covered it up.  As one of the characters says, “It takes a village to molest a child.”

The movie very clearly takes on the Roman Catholic Church, but I don’t think Spotlight is either anti-Christian or anti-clerical.  There was never a point while watching the movie that made me say, “I don’t think you are being fair.”  Rather, I found the film to be a spotlight on the inevitable tendency of the strong to hurt the weak, and the invariable human tendency to knuckle-under, close ranks, and deny ever seeing anything.

I can’t compare Spotlight to any of the other Best Picture nominees since I haven’t seen any of them, but it is exactly the sort of movie that is worthy of that designation: tautly constructed, about an important topic, and a moving story.

Recommended.