A Key to Understanding Difficult Bible Passages

As one ages, the constant trickle of time grows into a torrent. The past nips at the heels of the present, always threatening to devour it. A. W. Tozer says, “Those who are in Christ share with him all the riches of limitless time and endless years. Only to know this is to quiet our spirits and relax our nerves.” But, he continues, “For those outside Christ, time is a devouring beast.”

The relationship to time – both ours and God’s – is fascinating. Prior to Einstein, it was assumed that time was simply there. Today’s scientific orthodoxy denies that, claiming that time itself came into being with the “Big Bang.” But St. Augustine beat scientists to the punch. 1500 years earlier, he argued that time has not always existed: God created it. He is not within it, but it is within him. As Tozer put it, “Eternal years lie in his heart. For him, time does not pass, it remains; God never hurries. There are no deadlines against which he must work.”

If God is not in time, but rather is outside it, visiting it when and where he will, then he is present not only in all places but in all times. The respective theological terms are “omnipresent” (present everywhere) and “eternal” (present every time). Something like this lies behind Jesus’s promise to be with his disciples always. The Greek word for “always” is made up of two roots: “every” and “when” – “everywhen.” God, the theologians tell us, is present everywhere and everywhen.

This idea sheds light on a variety of important biblical texts. Passages that seem paradoxical or mere legal fictions begin to make sense when seen in the light of God’s eternity. The author of Hebrews, for example, writes that “by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” This seems, at first blush, to be self-contradicting. If someone is made perfect forever, how can it be that he is yet being made holy? Being made holy is a process while being made perfect forever is an accomplished fact. A person who has been made perfect forever has no need to be made holy.

The confusion clears before the truth of God’s eternity. He is not in time. He is with all those who belong to him in such a way (or at such a time) as to see them perfect forever. Surprisingly, “being made holy” turns out to be the most convincing evidence that one has been “made perfect forever.”

Other troubling enigmas begin to clear in the light of God’s relationship to time. Consider the Apostle Paul’s claim that “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” I don’t feel raised up and seated with Christ. If it has happened, why can I not see it? Or is it true in a metaphorical, but not in a literal, sense? We must choose one or the other – unless we recall God’s eternity. He knows that I have been, quite literally, raised with Christ and seated in heavenly places. He is with me there – but I am not consciously with him now. I take it by faith (which is not blind at all but sees reality through the corrective lens of God’s greatness).

So with many other passages that we often think sound nice but lack practical significance. “You died with Christ and your life is hid with him in God.” That’s a nice way to look at it, we think. But God, who transcends our timeline, knows it is more than nice; it is true. The repeated assertion, “You died to sin” is another example. It is a reality, not a legal fiction, but we must take it, for the time being, by faith.

The time will come when the times will be full. When we enter into that confluence of time, God will bring “all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” Then the old order of things will pass away and we will hear the words, “Behold, I make all things new.” Even now the echo of those words reaches the one “who has ears to hear.”

First published by Gatehouse Media, 2/23/2019

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The Old Suitcase

Onderwijsgek [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

I have a very old suitcase in the attic, stuffed with pictures. In one of those pictures, taken around 1902, I find my grandfather – my dad’s dad – at thirteen-years-old, sitting on a horse. In another, I find my mother at twenty-three, posing in front of a palm tree in a skimpy (for 1950) bathing suit. Then there are pictures of my brother and me in our infancy and childhood. There are also pictures of people I have never met and whose names I don’t know. The photographs are in no discernible order. Some are from a hundred years ago, some are much more recent.

Many people come to the Bible the way I go to that suitcase. They rummage through it, looking for anything interesting or anyone they might recognize. They see no order in it, no connecting links. They treat the Bible like a jumble of unrelated snapshots – one theological, one moral, another liturgical. But the Bible is much more like a 360-degree, long-exposure shot that provides a unified picture of God as he pursues his purposes in the world.

When we explore the Scriptures with a wide-angle lens, we discover that the Bible – from Genesis to Revelation – tells one story. Its pages unfold to reveal various aspects of an enormous panorama, too large to take in at a single setting – or a hundred settings. Whenever we open the book and turn the pages, we find that the picture extends further than we had imagined, from Creation to New Creation, from the Beginning to an Ending that never ends.

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I have a picture from 1917 or ’18 of my grandfather’s army company. It’s a panoramic photo that, because of the limits of the technology of the time, was taken in numerous exposures then seamlessly joined together in the darkroom at a later time. Because of the way these pictures were taken, it was possible for a man on one end of that long row of soldiers to sprint to the other end and have his picture taken a second time. So, in some of these old photos, you will find the same soldier on both ends of a row at what looks to be the same time. I suppose it would be possible to find the same soldier in one of these panoramic pictures on both ends and in the middle.

It’s like that when we take a panoramic look at the Scriptures. We look to the beginning, to creation, and then turn our gaze to the end, to the judgment and beyond, and at both the beginning and the end, we find the same figure. In the middle, we find him again. In fact, he’s everywhere we look! Throughout the great story that runs through the Scriptures, we find Jesus Christ. He is “the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” And he is there in the middle, too.

God’s story is as seamless as one of those old panoramic pictures, and everywhere we look we find His Son. Sometimes, when we’re reading the Scriptures, we get the idea that God’s story has been interrupted, started, and stopped, or that the theme has changed. It’s not so. It is one story from beginning to end. It is the story of what God has done and is doing, how he rights what has been wronged in his creation. It is the story of his love and faithfulness or, as the Scripture often puts it, his righteousness.

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Love a Spouse Can Trust

Love is from God (1 John 4:7)

The radio and television host Larry King was asked in an interview about his marriages. He has been married eight times to seven different women. So he must be an expert, right?

King answered, “Questions about my marriages and divorces always take me to the same place. I once asked Stephen Hawking, the smartest guy in the world, what he didn’t understand. He said, ‘Women.’ If the smartest guy in the world couldn’t understand them, what do you expect from me?”

Then King said, “The three greatest words in the English language are not: ‘I love you.’ That’s second. The first are: ‘Leave me alone.’”

No wonder he’s been married eight times. Larry King didn’t need wives. He needed tropical fish. He needed something pretty that didn’t talk back, didn’t demand his attention.

One doesn’t need to be the smartest guy in the world to understand that a wife needs to trust her husband’s love. She needs to know that he would give his life for her. That makes us think of giving up one’s seat on the lifeboat or giving away the last sip of water in the canteen while lost in the desert. But instead of sharks and deserts, we’d do better to think of giving up one’s preferred way of doing things, or even of giving up the remote control. People rarely go from giving up nothing to giving up everything. They start by giving up their time, their attention, their diversions. A husband who won’t sacrifice a diversion for his wife certainly won’t sacrifice himself.

The kind of love a wife needs looks remarkably like the kind Jesus gave, as St. Paul described it. There’s good reason for that: Jesus knew how to help people learn to love. This is what so many people don’t understand. The kind of marriage the Bible suggests is possible – rich, extravagantly loving, daringly vulnerable – is not just the result of two compatible personalities finding one another; it is a religious experience.

The beautiful marriage the Bible describes is never just between two people; it always involves three. A braid of hair provides an analogy. To look at it, one would think there are only two strands wrapped around each other, but two strands won’t hold together; there must be at least three.

In the beautiful marriage the Bible pictures, one first sees a husband and a wife wrapped around each other. But between them there is always a third person present, tying them together. He lives within the marriage, and the marriage is about him, which is why, near the heart of the Bible’s longest passage on spiritual life in marriage, the apostle unexpectedly says, “but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church.”

St. Paul urges husbands to be like Christ and give up their lives for their wives. He understood that there is no love without sacrifice. Many husbands are like the guy who says he would die for his wife and means it: he’d wrestle a shark for her, give his life in one great sacrifice. He’s ready to die for her but not to live for her. He would give her everything, he just won’t give her anything that requires day by day sacrifices.

But that is precisely what sacrifice looks like in marriage. It looks like going to the family reunion rather than having the guys over to watch the hockey finals. It looks like doing dishes rather than sitting in front of the TV. It looks like listening rather than tuning out. These are not gigantic sacrifices. They are little things; daily things. But that is what real love looks like in daily life.

Jesus was up front about all this: he told his followers they would lose their lives but, in that loss, would find their true selves. What is lost, usually slowly and incrementally, is selfishness, which must be lost to make possible the experience of joy. Marriage provides an extended opportunity to practice being, in St. Paul’s vivid expression, “a living sacrifice.” Marriage is a school – one of many, but surely one of the best – in which people can learn to live and love the Jesus way.

First published by Gatehouse Media, 2/16/2019

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Slow to Anger (James 1:19-21)

Is anger negatively impacting your life? This 26-minute sermon may help. Just click and listen. http://clovermedia.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/store/79806b0d-0c80-4d63-83ea-040d8666d19a/5830061f93/audio.mp3

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Wide Angle

On the plains of Peru there is a network of strange lines made by an ancient people known as the Nazea. Some of these lines cover as many as ten square miles. For years archeologists assumed that the lines were what remained of ancient irrigation ditches.

Then in 1939, Dr. Paul Kosok of Long Island University, discovered what they really were. He flew over those plains and, from an aerial view he could see that the ancient lines that seemed so random at ground level were in fact enormous drawings – like pictographs – of birds and animals and insects.

Just so, from one perspective, the stories of the Bible seem detached and unrelated. But as we survey them from a wider angle, we suddenly see how one line leads to another to form one great picture of God’s redemptive purpose – from Genesis to the Revelation. And while there are many great men and women in the Bible, we discover that there really is only one protagonist, the lead actor throughout, and that is the Lord God himself.  

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A Horror Story

If we could see what God sees, we could follow the lineage of each sin back to the first sin in its line. We would see how it branched out into a family tree of sin that quickly became a forest. We could see how a sin committed in Philadelphia yesterday was already the fifth generation of a sin committed in L.A. the week before. Saint Paul put it this way (1Timothy 5:24): “The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them.” What a nightmare it would be to see the sins you have done and the sins that were birthed because of it, waiting for you at the judgment, or following in a long line behind you! If we could see that, we wouldn’t sleep at night.

But sin not only follows us; it follows us with a hatchet. Sin commits patricide and matricide: it kills the people who brought it into existence. So James writes (ominously) that “sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” It is a horror story, and the horror is the greater because it is our story: the story of the monsters we engender and the destruction they cause.

But Jesus is the monster-slayer. God, the Bible teaches, sent his son Jesus Christ to save us “from our sins.” When we begin to see what that means, we will be awestruck. Jesus saves us. He makes things right, will make things new, and has already made it possible for us to get out of this horror story and into a “happily ever after” story.

In the “happily ever after” story, our good deeds give birth to good deeds, and they follow us to the judgment, not to kill us but to testify that we belong to Jesus. So, St. Paul says: “In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not cannot be hidden” (1 Timothy 5:25). The humble, obedient Christian will one day be as astounded as anyone – more astounded – to see the good that God accomplished through him, and it will redound to his unbounded joy and God’s unending glory.

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Is it Wrong for Christians to Evangelize?

A friend and I were sitting across the table from two Muslim men, talking about faith. The conversation was amicable, the atmosphere friendly. At one point, one of the Muslim men interrupted himself to reassure us, “We’re not trying to convert you.”

I responded candidly: “Well, we’d love to see you become Christ-followers,” then went on to say that such a decision was theirs alone. Coercion can never produce real faith.

I really do not understand how someone who believes he has been let in on the truth – truth that would benefit others and improve their lives – would not want others to believe it too. Jesus’s people are to be ready to share the reason for their hope. St. Peter wrote, “…always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess.”

Yet, this week the Barna Group reported that nearly half of practicing Christian Millennials agree that it is at least somewhat “wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.” Paradoxically, those same Millennial Christians are more likely to consider themselves capable of answering questions about the faith than any other generational group. Yet they remain silent.

This may reflect, in part, an unthinking acceptance of a worldview that holds religion to be a principal cause of conflict. But I suspect there is more to it than that. Millennials are articulating a concern that Christians of all generations share but are too embarrassed to discuss: a concern about the appropriateness of the way evangelism is routinely practiced.

The word “evangelism” is derived from a biblical term for telling the good news. But evangelism as it is often practiced looks a whole lot more like selling the good news. Non-Christians are viewed as “sales leads,” and sales tactics are routinely employed. One of my mentors – a good and loving man, who was also a salesman by profession – taught me to ask people, “Is there any reason why you should not accept Christ today?” because, he said. it is always easier for people in a sales encounter to answer no than yes.

“Evangelism Explosion,” an influential evangelism training program that was developed in the 1970s, taught evangelists the same kind of techniques that door-to-door vacuum sweeper salespeople employ. The goal was to get the “contact” – the church would furnish a list of prospects – to “sign on the dotted line” by praying to receive Christ. Following the evening campaign, the evangelists met together to debrief and to celebrate successes.

The denomination in which I was ordained expected pastors to practice this kind of evangelism, which left me feeling uncomfortable. I believed I had a calling to serve Christ but knew I lacked the ability to succeed in sales, which was regarded as a prerequisite of the calling.

I have come to think of this approach to evangelism as misguided. Christ’s spokesmen are not salespeople, trying to talk folks into doing something they would rather not do. They are not door-to-door salesmen, “peddling the gospel,” as St. Paul scornfully put it. A salesman may be able to manipulate people into buying a product against their will, but no one ever came to Christ against their will.

As “witnesses to Christ,” which Jesus clearly expected his followers to be, a person brings knowledge, gained by experience, to others. He or she shares the good news, not because it’s expected but because it is exciting. This is quite different from making a gospel sale.

Dallas Willard, lamenting what “witnessing” has become, wrote: “Witnessing is not thought of as bringing knowledge, but as attempts to convince people to do things … Witnessing has turned into a kind of process of bothering people, and very few people witness because of this.”

Who wants to bother people?

The best thing church leaders can do to encourage people to share the good news of Christ is to help them experience the life Jesus envisioned for, and makes available to, them. As people live the Jesus-way and experience its superiority, evangelism is the natural outcome. Instead of pushing people to share the good news, church leaders must help them live the good life.

First published in Gatehouse Media

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Something’s Missing

When I was growing up, people frequently used insensitive language when referring to someone who was intellectually impaired or mentally ill. They said – we said – “He’s not all there.”

As insensitive as it was, it was not inaccurate; but it was too narrow. We could have said that about any and all of us. I’m not all there. You’re not all there. It is the human condition. Do you ever feel like something’s missing? There is a reason for that. Something is missing: you!

If we don’t understand this, we will look for what’s missing in all the wrong places. The entertainment media will convince us that what is missing is romance, or a different sexual orientation, or the freedom to follow our desires. Advertisers will convince us that what is missing is a new car, a new look, a new house, or a new medicine. If we don’t know better, we’ll believe them.

But you won’t find what you need in any of those places because what you need is you fulfilled – filled full. It’s what your whole being craves. What we need, as St. James’s once put it, is to “be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

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New Feature: Broken Pieces

The Way Home will now feature short pieces I’m calling Broken Pieces. (Read Mark 6:34-43 and John 6:12 to find the background for the title.) I hope these brief, Bible-based readings will encourage your faith and inspire your thinking. Check in often, or follow The Way Home (the Follow button is at the bottom right of this page) and receive emails alerting you to each new post.

The Giving God
You return a purchase to the store for a refund and, a half-hour, three clerks, and one manager later, get your refund, but are informed they were under no obligation to give it to you because you didn’t have a receipt and are warned that next time you’d better bring one.

Some people think God is like the management at that store. He doesn’t really want to give us anything. He has to be coaxed into it and, even then, will only help after he lets us know how disappointed he is in us. That is not the God James knew, the God to whom Jesus introduced him. He is – this is a very literal translation of James 1:5 – “the giving God.”

This is the God Jesus knew. He is a giver. He loves to give and he gives because he loves. This is the God who so loved he gave. He knows what you need before you ask, and he is ready to give when you asks. If you know how to give good gifts, Jesus once said to people, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). He is the God who “graciously” – not grudgingly – will “give us all things” (Romans 8:32). He is the Father who is “pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12: 32). This is good news about God!

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