Thank God for the Old Testament

Icon HabakkukHabakkuk opens with a question, “O LORD, how long shall I cry out for help and you will not hear?” But I imagine many people were asking another question as we started a three part preaching series in the book: “Why Habakkuk?” This was certainly the opinion of one older man in my church, proving that grey hairs are not synonymous with wisdom or maturity. But if you look at your Bible side on and split it at the page between the Old and New Testaments you will notice that the Old accounts for more than three quarters of God’s Word. Either God is a prodigious abuser of words and trees or he wants us to read all of Scripture.

Sadly, today many churches and those in them consider the Old Testament to be outdated, irrelevant, and too confusing to be of any real worth for living and following after our Lord Jesus Christ. This has lead to the call for the 21st century church to unhitch from the Old Testament. Others are less bold, expressing their low view of the Old Testament more subtly as a preference for the New Testament. This was clearly illustrated to me recently when someone thanked me for choosing to study James in our home groups after a trudging term in Amos. Unfortunately these attitudes are out of whack with Christ himself, who said in Luke 24 that the law, prophets, and writings (the Old Testament) testify to him. Very briefly, by looking at two New Testament passages and making two linked points, I hope to convince you of the God-given value possessed by the Old Testament, from Amos to Zechariah.

1. The Old Testament testifies to Jesus Christ

The apostle Peter writes in his first epistle, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:10-11). The Old Testament speaks of Christ, both in anticipation and even by explaining aspects of his life, death, and resurrection. When we read the Old Testament one of the questions we should be asking is: ‘How is this fulfilled in Christ?’ or ‘How does this point to him?’ Peter goes on,  “It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel” (1 Peter 1:12). Therefore, in God’s wisdom the Old Testament given to the nation of Israel is also for his church today, which brings us to our second point.

2. The Old Testament was written for Christians

Listen to 2 Peter 1:19, “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Here Peter calls the prophetic message of the Old Testament as something we should pay attention to. At best, most Christians are happy to consider the Old Testament reliable, because what was promised about the future has reached a partial culmination in Christ. But that is to wrongly limit three quarters of the Bible to foretelling Christ, stripping it of any importance or relevance today, for the Christian church. This is a huge mistake, tantamount to confusing Nahum (an Old Testament minor prophet) with Nostradamus. We must not lose sight of the prophets as a light shining in the present to which we must look, which is how Peter describes them. It is for this reason that Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that the Old Testament is profitable or useful in teaching and equipping us how to live.

In conclusion, the entire Old Testament is inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). That explains the anticipation and promise of Christ but also impresses on us that it is for God’s people today. So let’s read it in order to have our faith in Christ enriched and learn how to live for Christ while we wait for his return.

Can I be Friends with Girls?

Let me start this post with two short anecdotes. Firstly, a couple of years ago I was rebuked by an older Christian man in my church after he saw me sharing a plate of eats with a female friend. His wife also chastised my friend, at another time. Why? Sharing a plate of food was something only a husband and wife could do and who knows how people might have perceived our breaking of bread. Secondly, two years ago I heard the testimony of a visiting pastor. Discussing his conversion he repeatedly mentioned a close friend who the Lord used extensively in bringing him to faith. They would meet up, go for coffees, and chat regularly over the phone. But after becoming a Christian, this pastor called his faithful friend up and said they could no longer be friends. Why? Because this friend was a woman and their close relationship posed a threat to his marriage.

Man and womanThis post is titled with a question: ‘Can I be friends with girls?’ But the more general question or issue I hope to begin answering is this: can we share an intimate friendship with someone that we might grow romantically attracted to? In my case, that is women. Returning to my two anecdotes, the first is little more than laughable legalism and I treated it as such. However the second is more in touch with reality and genuine Christian concerns about adultery or sexual sin. While that pastor shared this aspect of his testimony I felt that his decision was commendable but nothing to celebrate. For example, I struggle with anger on the soccer field and because of it I have periodically refrained from playing. But that is never where I want to stay, on the sidelines, for I desire to glorify God on the soccer field and not simply by avoiding it.

This brings us back to the question of this post, which I am writing as an extension of its predecessor: Six Obstacles to Friendship. After preaching on friendship recently (you can read a summary of that here) I was asked about mixed-sex friendships. And that was not the first time I have been asked the question. I also recently learnt that the question is not unique to our time and has tended towards legalism in the church. In Reading with the Reformers Timothy George paraphrases Martin Luther, “There are legalists who have so tightened the meaning of Jesus’ words against lustful gazing that they forbid all companionship between men and women…But Jesus did not call for such sequestration. He distinguished looking and lusting.” Luther went on: Jesus allowed “talking, laughing, and having a good time” with women. To George and Luther’s points I would add the fact that Jesus certainly had close female friends (John 11:5; Luke 8:1-3). Personally, I am with Jesus and – on most points – Luther.

Freudian mythI do understand the caution against intimate and vulnerable friendships between men and women, where one or both are married or even in the case that neither are. It is possible to become sexually attracted to a friend, but then it is also possible I will lust while walking through the local shopping mall. Yet I still go. Gerald Bray notes in God is Love that because Western culture is obsessed with sex there is a suspicion towards close relationships, “It is now much harder than it used to be to maintain friendships, not only between members of the opposite sex (which has always been difficult) but among those of the same sex as well.” In Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill goes further and challenges Christians who adopt what we might call the Freudian Myth, “The belief that sex wholly explains the depths of our most profound relationships.” Sex is not the ultimate destination, or trajectory, of love-filled and close relationships, intimate friendships or affectionate companionship. In other words, sexual intimacy is not the aim or outcome of all intimacy.

There is much more I hope to write on this question, because it seems to be one many people are unsure about. In conclusion, let me say again that avoiding deep and vulnerable friendship is a wisdom issue, not a matter of law. When pressed to the extent that I have encountered it among conservative Christians it becomes legalism. The idea that sexual attraction is the inevitable end of intimate friendship between a man and a woman is not a biblical one. Likewise, the desire for close relationships with women who are not my wife is not born from sexual desire. In the church God has created a wonderfully diverse community whereby the differences of its members are a blessing to one another. We should embrace that, with both delight and discernment.

The Wickedness of Word of Faith

We have written about evil, darkness, and sin at Rekindle, but last week I encountered first hand an evil that both broke my heart and enraged me. A friend in our church who is facing a far from optimistic cancer prognosis was urged to pray using Jesus’ name and his own authority as a believer (see previous post). This increasingly popular teaching says that God does not want us to ask for things according to his will, rather we must use the power of Jesus’ name to rid our lives of sickness and whatever else ails us. In other words, “You’re sick because you do not have enough faith or because you haven’t prayed using a specific formula.” Quite frankly, to say that to a Christian – with faith and the fruits that evince it – is not merely unloving; it is wicked. It is evil. In this post I will highlight a small selection of the innumerable biblical responses to this false teaching.

Jesus’ faith

Jesus at Mount of OlivesI touched on this in my previous post. But it is too important to skip over. When you state, “Don’t pray: your will be done,” because it is too submissive and weak, remember that that is exactly how Jesus prayed (Matthew 26:39). So you must either rebuke the Son of God or desist from your folly. When Peter calls on Christians to follow Christ’s example in his first epistle we should note that he remembers Jesus’ suffering, death, and that he trusted the Father without wavering (1 Peter 2:13-25). Jesus’ faith is not shown in him demanding a better reality from his Father but in submitting to the Father despite unanswered prayers.

Jesus’ teaching

Following on from the previous point, we turn to the manner in which Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). Correct: the very phrase scorned by those in the word of faith movement is one Jesus encouraged his disciples to use. I am astounded that Jesus got it so wrong. I guess if he had taught his disciples to pray properly they might have avoided persecution and martyrdom. Silly Jesus. If only the apostle John had access to the teaching of Andrew Wommack or Benny Hinn he could have avoided being exiled to Patmos (Revelation 1:9). Choose today whom you will follow.

Paul’s suffering

Since we are on the topic of Jesus’ apostles, I shudder to think about how paltry Paul’s prayer life must have been: imprisoned (Ephesians 3:1); abandoned by his friends, left alone and cold (2 Timothy 4:9-18); shipwrecked (Acts 27:39-44); and unable to pray away the thorn in his side (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). In fact, just read 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10. For in the first century the Lord certainly chose weak vessels, akin to jars of clay, which showed the power of the gospel and gave all glory to God. Luckily for us today we have super-apostles who boast much greater ministries than the embarrassment that was Paul’s. If only a copy of Joel Osteen’s I Declare was mixed in with the parchments he requested from Troas.

Prayer is made into a mantra

CandlesReturning to the my introduction, telling someone that God has not answered their prayer because they failed to append “I claim this in the name of Jesus,” is highly problematic. Firstly, notwithstanding what I have written above, it reduces God to a parent withholding something from their child because they have not said the magic word. Imagine God saying to his child, “I would have healed your cancer, if only you had asked me properly.” Secondly, it also reduces God to a vending machine: put in the right amount and click the right buttons and you will be blessed. The power of prayer is reduced to how we ask and not who we are asking: our heavenly Father. I do believe that God invites us to boldly approach him in prayer, but to claim that our wording or specific invocations will force God’s hand is witchcraft, blasphemous, and self-deifying. God hates these things.

The inevitability of death

Lastly, though much more could and must be said against this alarmingly popular heresy, we turn to the matter of death. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief opens with, “You are going to die,” and he is right. For we read of only a few names in the Bible who did not, and they are marked exceptions. Two years ago Jan Crouch, the co-founder of TBN, died during TBN’s healing month. To add satire to irony, The Babylon Bee wrote, “Baffled prosperity gospel preachers have begun offering theories Tuesday on how Crouch could possibly have passed away, given her overabundance of faith, her supernatural ability to name and claim health and wealth at will, and her decades of collecting donations while promising that God’s will is for everybody to be wealthy and healthy.” Why, if we have inherited all of this power, and need only claim wellness or chide sickness, do we succumb to it in death? Because the word of faith movement is a lie; an evil lie that robs people of faith.

Admittedly I wrote this post while emotional and incensed, though I do not think the heat is without light. The word of faith movement is wicked not because it promises things that God does not. It is wicked because when the things it promises do not materialise faith itself is brought into question. Telling someone that God wants them well when they are dying could be the difference between them persevering in the faith and falling away because their mantras have failed them. So I want to address any readers who have said the sorts of things critiqued in this post. If you speak these wicked words you need to repent. You need to humble yourself before the God of mercies and turn from this evil. And you need to pray for those people you have deceived.

Doodle: Constantine, the Caesars, and Jesus Christ

Bavaria Faith Religion Head StoneLast week I posted an article on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I argued that the birth of the early Christian church is more than a historical peculiarity, for it demands that we answer why despairing disciples became daring heralds of their crucified lord. Jews living in the Roman Empire saw many messiahs publicly killed, and every futile revolution left those who believed in it with a decision: seek out a new messiah or surrender any sort of hope. But those who followed Jesus did neither. Rather, as Paul Barnett writes in The Logic of History, “The early rise of Christianity as a movement close in time to Jesus is a fact of history. Someone gave impulse to the rise of that movement in the immediately preceding weeks and months”. Thus I argued that if we apply logic – and avoid sceptical presuppositions, or poor historical explanations – the resurrection of Jesus provides us with both a satisfactory and startling answer.

When I preached on Christ’s resurrection over Easter I joked that most of us only know who Julius Caesar is because we were forced to read Shakespeare at school. Furthermore almost none of us know his nephew, Augustus Caesar. Yet these men were considered gods. I mention Julius and Augustus because the latter was a contemporary of Jesus, and both were considered divine. Classicist Mary Beard writes in SPQR, “There were priests and temples, sacrifices carried out to them, not on their behalf, and some wonderful surviving images that literally put the imperial gods in the Olympian heavens.” But none of them are broadly remembered today, and they are certainly no longer worshipped. Strangely, on the other hand, the Jewish peasant who was publicly executed by the Romans has stubbornly endured.

Enter The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, faux historical research, Wikipedia, and conspiracy theories that make employees at Area 51 incredulous, to rescue us from believing Christianity was a significant presence in the Roman Empire before Constantine. These reputable sources have indubitably proven that prior to Constantine’s conversion Christianity was hardly worth mentioning. Upon gaining state support it, however, enjoyed meteoric success and growth. But that is to be a poor student of history, not to mention a gullible consumer of popular fiction. In his insightful work, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark writes, “Constantine’s conversion would better be seen as a response to the massive exponential wave in progress, not its cause.” This agrees with actual historians, not potboilers. A notable Christian sect must have existed in the Roman Empire in the 4th century C.E. Constantine did not venture into the religious marketplace in search of an obscure faith; he could not ignore the influence of a faith that was sweeping through his empire.

Those who would claim that Constantine is the reason for the season must explain what happened to Julius Caesar, supposed descendant of Aeneas, and his nephew Augustus, those first Roman emperors who had ascended, becoming imperial gods. Constantine’s state sponsorship of Christianity is thrown around as if it was the first occurrence in history. It is also ignorantly supposed that Constantine’s support of Christianity enforced exclusivity in the Empire. The reality is that a contemporary of Jesus enjoyed state support – of varying degrees – for over 300 years until Constantine’s conversion experience. Where are the imperial gods now? Condemned to the fading memory of history. Those who supposedly ascended to Mount Olympus and took their place amongst the pantheon of classical gods are all but forgotten today.

CaesarThe one truth we might draw out of this meandering post is the ephemeral nature of state sponsored religion, or perhaps just the shallowness of such faith. Christianity was almost certainly already a significant Jewish sect long before the 4th century. It held its own in that religious marketplace not because it had state backing, such as the worship of Caesar Augustus, but because Christians from the 1st century were convinced something incredible had happened. As Marilynne Robinson writes in Wondrous Love, explaining what gives the cross and resurrection such lasting power, “They tell us that there is a great love that has intervened in history, making itself known in terms that are startlingly, and inexhaustibly, palpable to us as human beings. So, as Gamaliel said about some of the disciples who were preaching Christ’s death and resurrection, ‘Keep away from these men for if this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them” (Acts 5:38-39).

How the Early Church Proves the Resurrection

In her most recent novel, Lila, Marilynne Robinson draws back the curtain on a character who, though present in her previous two novels, Gilead and Home, has remained fairly mysterious. She is the young wife of John Ames and Lila recounts her austere life as a migrant worker, dominated by loneliness and loss. But one day Lila finds herself in a church service, when she was only looking for shelter from the rain, “She was thinking how strange it was for them to be there singing songs to somebody who had lived and died like anybody.” Very few historians would dispute that there was a historical man named Jesus, who was remarkable at most but died nonetheless. And this means Lila’s bemusement is more than bare wonder, but a question we must all answer: how do we explain two millennia of singing?

A historical note

CrucifixionFirstly, because without it the resurrection makes little sense, we must look at the death of Jesus. “Crucifixion,” David Seccombe writes, “was designed to inflict as much pain as possible for as long as possible, in a manner that brought about the complete public humiliation of the victim…This was Rome’s way of exposing the foolishness of anyone with political pretensions. There was no honour or heroism in such a death” (The King of God’s Kingdom). For Jesus’ disciples, his death signalled a miserable failure and a familiar pattern. Jewish messiahs would gather devoted followings, appealing to the oppressed people with promises of God’s powerful liberation. None succeeded. Jesus fits this category: supposed Jewish messiah executed by the Romans. In dying Jesus was painfully ordinary, even predictable. He was not exceptionable and arguably not even the most popular messiah of his day. This was what happened. And, in addition to the Jewish people’s familiarity with disappointment, they did not expect their messiah to die and be resurrected (a point very well made by N. T. Wright). Therefore, historically, the Jesus story is very similar to the lesser-known stories about other failed Jewish messiahs. Strangely, Jesus’ story is remembered.

An improbable hypothesis

That brings us to our next point, the quite incredible historical reconstruction put forward by sceptics. This popular explanation of the resurrection requires, in my opinion, a greater suspension of logic than the kind Christians are often accused of. For it says that a bunch of despondent and utterly disappointed followers, whose messiah was recently put to death, went about proclaiming his resurrection. Their teacher had just been horrendously executed and before that, as he was being arrested and tried, they were climbing over each other to dissociate themselves from him. Jesus was dead, going the way of every other messiah. So they decided to proclaim that he had been resurrected. Even though it had not happened. Indeed, no one expected it to, probably not even Jesus’ disciples. But in the midst of overwhelming disappointment and guaranteed ridicule as well persecution for proclaiming it, they go about preaching Christ’s resurrection. Again, the sceptic must face up to the difficulty that logic presents. What could possibly propel the disciples into the Empire that had recently killed their messiah, declaring that he was alive?

An unpopular explanation

ResurrectionFormer Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams proposes the incredible but altogether logical explanation, “Jesus appeared to people whose confidence in him had crumbled, not to believers. It was the resurrection that created the Church and its faith, not the Church that created the resurrection.” He makes two points: the first has been lightly touched on already, we might paraphrase Williams in saying that Jesus appeared to sceptics. In the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel we encounter two former followers of Jesus, pouring out their heavy hearts in the wake of Jesus’ apparent failure, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Now whether you consider the Gospels historically reliable or not, it is safe to assume that those two men accurately illustrate how Jesus’ disciples would have felt after his death. As Williams correctly says, their confidence in him was shattered and he would be assigned a place with all the other failed messiahs. But that did not happen, as Williams’ second point suggests; a new faith was born, which is hard to account for apart from Jesus’ resurrection. Their faith, their eschatological hope and longing for liberation, did not anticipate the resurrection of a single man. The resurrection created the church, for their fractured faith would not have created a resurrection.

A resurrection shaped hole in history

That unpopular, though logically credible, and in my opinion more probable, explanation answers the question we started with, the strange fact that people are still singing songs to Jesus. The answer goes beyond curiosity, to ask us what we make of Jesus, his resurrection, and the early church. American pastor Timothy Keller comments in The Reason for God that the first Christians knew that if the resurrection was true then they could no longer live their lives however they wanted to. He goes on, “If it happened, it changes our lives completely.” What will you do? How else do you suggest to expain the faith of the early church? Let me close with the now famous lines from C. F. D. Moule, in The Phenomenon of the New Testament, ‘If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes rips a great hole in history, a hole the size of the and shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with?’

What Easter Teaches Us About Prayer

Timothy Keller muses, in Prayer, “It is remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances. It is certain that they lived in the midst of many dangers and hardships. They faced persecution, death from disease, oppression by powerful forces, and separation from loved ones. Their existence was far less secure than ours is today. Yet in these prayers you see not one petition for a better emperor, for protection from marauding armies, or even for bread for the next meal. Paul does not pray for the goods we usually would have near the top of our lists of requests.”

Giotto - Kiss of JudasThe point, as Keller goes on to develop, is not that we should never appeal to our heavenly Father for change or respite during hardship and suffering, but that we must take care that our prayers are neither limited to nor led by these requests. As Paul writes in a verse most readers will be familiar with, “In every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). Paul then provides the antidote for anxiety, “The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). Prayer is entrusting ourselves in faith to God, not necessarily receiving our petitions, but knowing his peace. But what does that have to do with Easter?

In Gethsemane, Jesus models prayer that is submissive to the Father’s will despite remaining unanswered. As Mark Jones puts it in Knowing Christ, “He knew his hour had come; but this ‘hour’ would be his most difficult hour, and he would need strength from God to undergo the massive trial that was yet before him.” As I wrote in another post, Jesus is neither valiant nor stoical as he prepares himself for the task at hand. He pleads with the Father. He begs, “Let this cup pass from me.” His soul was deeply pained (Mark 14:34) and he experienced agony as he prayed (Luke 22:44). The disciples had not seen their master looking more pitiable and pained. Jesus looks weak. However, his faith is strong as he prays, “Not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus’ faith is not challenged by unanswered prayer; it is evident through it.

Giotto - CrucifixionIn his short prayer, offered up three times, Jesus boldly entreats his Father yet is ultimately resigned to the Father’s will. And it is striking that as his enemies approach to arrest him, Jesus’ resignation turns to resolve, to fortified trust his God and Father. When the band of soldiers call for Jesus, he confidently answers, “I am he” (John 18:5). That shift takes place so quickly that we rarely appreciate what has happened. Prayer has emboldened Jesus’ faith despite being denied what he asked for. Prayer was Jesus’ means of entrusting himself to the Father’s will. Despite the God forsakenness that Jesus anticipates beyond his arrest and trial, having pleaded with the Father to take the cup from him, Jesus’ prayers ground his trust in the Father’s purposes.

Reflecting on Jesus’ prayers should cause us to reflect on and even change our own, both how we pray and what we pray for. The content of our prayers should not be entirely shaped by our circumstances. Our faithfulness in prayer should not depend on God answering us. As Jesus asked in Luke 18, “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Many today would measure faith by the outcomes of prayer, when in Jesus’ life we see that faith is wholehearted trust in God despite its results.