Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?

pumpkins

When I was very young, my sisters and I got to choose what we wanted to be for Halloween.  One year I was a witch.  I had the pointy black hat, a big rubber nose with a gnarly mole on the side and a black tunic.  My younger sister was a ghost.  We were allowed to wear our costumes to preschool and then again for Trick-or-Treating, and it was a blast.  Then something happened which we as children did not fully understand.  The big nose remained in the toy box for a while, but the next year when we were choosing our characters, we were no longer allowed to be characters associated with witchcraft, evil or sorcery.  We could be fun characters, however, and we embraced that!  One year my older sister decided to be an order of french fries, so my mom made a carton out of paper mache!  Then, as the years progressed, we started attending the church fall festivals, and we got to dress up like Bible characters!  I was the lame man whom the Good Samaritan helped, and my younger sister was the rock from which Moses drew water.  Yes, my mom again came through with the paper mache, forming a large rock in which she cut a hole from which she shot water with her water gun!  Then we moved halfway across the country and lived out in the country, and the whole event of Halloween sort of died off.  It is difficult to go trick or treating when your neighbors are spaced miles apart!

But as I grew older I began to hear the rumblings and disputes that we all know well.  “Halloween is a holiday of the occult”.  “All Hallow’s Eve is wicked and good Christians would never recognize or celebrate it.”  “Celebrating Halloween is fine, as long as we keep it without celebrating witchcraft.”  Or, “What’s the big deal anyway?”

I would ague that the issue is not as cut and dry as some like to make it.  God has made us each uniquely with a variety of convictions and personalities.  There are some among us who love history and study the heritage behind our traditions.  They like to celebrate the passover, they dig into ancestry, they study their family lineages, they like to understand why things work and find meaning in the roots.  Such people, who follow Jesus, might struggle with the fact that we have a holiday so marked by evil and pagan practices.  Such people, however, might also embrace the Catholic roots of Allhallowtide – remembering and praying for the dead.

There are others among us who pay little regard to history and think of Halloween as a fun fall event, to dress up as a neutral character (or even Bible character), and to engage the community in the practice of asking for and giving our candy to local children.

As with all issues and decisions that we make, we must remember to ask the question:  What does the Bible say about it?  If you look up “Halloween” or even “Alllhallowtide” in your concordance, you will not find the term.  What you will find, however, is Paul’s teaching on eating meat sacrificed to idols.  If we cannot find the exact cultural issue addressed in Scripture, then we must seek out its teaching on a related topic.  Here, we must ask ourselves:  Can we or should we partake in a cultural or even religious event that is not based on our religion?

In the days of the early church, there were many religions present.  There was an array of gods and idols that were worshipped and there were many holidays and events around these religions.  As the Christians were scattered and as the Church was established amongst these people, there were an abundance of questions as to what was allowable and what was right.  For example, the Old Covenant taught clearly that there were types of meat that were never to be eaten, and any allowable meat that had been sacrificed to a foreign god was forbidden.  But Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial law and in doing so He declared all meat clean.  You can read more about that here.  Yet people struggled with eating meat sacrificed to other gods, and understandably so!  This was Paul’s teaching on the topic:

Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one.  For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.  However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.  But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat.  But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.  For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols?  For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died.  And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.  Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.

– 1 Cor 8.4-13

Paul’s argument is simple:  God is the only god.  Meat that was sacrificed to an idol or false god has no intrinsic evil or wickedness associated with it, and it will cause us no hindrance nor offer us any benefit before God in eating it.  We should be conscientious, however, of the fact that there are some who were raised with the rituals so ingrained in them that they cannot eat the meat in good conscience, and it can cause them to stumble if they see us eating the meat.  It is our responsibility as the body of Christ to protect the minds and hearts of our brothers by our actions.

Scripture teaches us plainly that if our conscience will not allow us to do something, then for us it is sin.  Even if God does not define the action as sin, such as eating meat.  If our conscience condemns us for eating meat, for instance, it is sin to us:

I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.  For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died.  Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.  So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.  Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense.  It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.  The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.  But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.

– Rom 14.14-23

Whatever is not from faith is sin.  My grandmother’s generation considered it a sin to play with playing cards because they are used for gambling.  We must avoid the appearance of sin and not even touch cards.  They also would not go to movies or even eat in a restaurant that served alcohol.  These cultural matters have all but died – and you only run into them today in very small circles.  My parent’s generation would eat in restaurants that served alcohol, but would never touch it.  Dances and choir that used choreography were forbidden.  And when I moved to Denver two years ago, I attended a church that used wine for communion and a small group that had alcohol at Bible study, and a monthly event at a brewery.

I like to play card games.  Euchre, namely, is my favorite.  But I would never take them to my grandmother’s house or ask her play with me, as that would cause her to stumble.  Paul clearly says here that alcohol is clean (as long as one does not get drunk – Eph 5.18), but many were raised with the mindset that it is intrinsically evil and their conscience will not allow them to drink it.  There are also many who have a history of abusing alcohol, or saw it abused in their home and cannot drink it in good conscience.  These people might very well stumble seeing others drinking.  Paul simply states that if you cannot drink wine or play cards in faith, then to you it is sin.  Anything that is not from faith is sin.

Therefore, if your conscience convicts you because of your disposition, your affinity for history, or your past experience to celebrate Halloween, then you should not celebrate Halloween.  Do not burden your conscience, do not allow yourself to sin by participating in something you cannot do by faith.

But Scripture is clear that a pagan ritual – even a worship service complete with a sacrifice – has no moral weight in and of itself because God is the only true God.  If you can receive meat offered to an idol in clean conscience and infiltrate the community by doing so, then Paul affirms it – as long as you do not cause your Christian brother to stumble.  Thus, if you can celebrate Halloween to glory and honor of God, if you can do it in good conscience and by faith, then by all means celebrate!

How, then, do we not offend our brother?  We cannot live our lives based on every random conviction that other Christians have.  There are many Christians who require women to wear dark dresses, prayer bonnets and no makeup.  Must we all practice this in order to not offend?  There are many Christians who believe instruments are evil.  Does that mean every church should remove them from the building in order to not offend?

I do not believe that Paul is teaching us to walk on egg shells.  I believe Paul is teaching unity.  We must be unified in the body, in mission (to reach the lost), in heart (to glorify God), and in community.  Jesus and all of Scripture teach this plainly by admonishing us to consider one another better than and before ourselves.  For instance, suppose an alcoholic joins your church.  If you drink wine – without getting drunk – over a meal, you might cause an alcoholic to stumble.  But the best method of walking through this matter is to talk about it.  Do not assume about him, and do not let him assume about you.  Have an open dialogue and come to a conclusion about how you will act together.  Suppose you have a Muslim woman join your small group.  To her, modesty is covering her hair and she feels naked without her head scarf – even after trusting Jesus as savior.  Talk about it!  There should be mutual respect for various understanding of modesty!  The same would go for a Hindi woman who regularly wears abdomen-revealing saris!  In her culture this is commonplace.

Now, suppose you have a Wiccan witch come to faith and join your church.  She might have celebrated Halloween in a vastly different way than you, and she might have to remove herself completely from the remembrance of the day.  But you, on the other hand, recognize that this is the only day of the year when nearly every one of your neighbors will come out of their house and knock on your door.  You might hand out tracts with the candy, you might host a meal on your front yard and ask lonely neighbors to join.  You might begin the first conversation with a stranger that leads to a friendship and ultimately their salvation.  To you, Halloween and trick or treating might be an outreach event.  Instead of mutually judging one another, the ex-Wiccan might respect your efforts, and you might understand and respect her need to abstain.  Thus you both honor your conscience and you both respect one another.

So, should Christians celebrate Halloween?  All Christians should seek to live by faith.  Anything that we do that is not of faith is sin – and that means anything we do with neutrality, selfishness, or “just because”.  Our actions should be intentional, they should be God-honoring, and they should be free.  Are you claiming Halloween as a time to reach out to your neighbors?  Are you glorifying God in the costume you choose and the candy you distribute?  If so, then by all means celebrate!  If your conscience convicts you for the celebration, if you have baggage or a belief system that condones it, then by all means honor your conscience and refrain.  And if you have mixed convictions in your small group or church, talk about it.  Understand one another.  Do not allow a root of bitterness or judgment to be established, but respect and love one another.

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God Did Not Create Us For Comfort Zones: The Danger and Beauty of Spiritual Gift Inventories

comfort zone

“Do you know what your Spiritual gift is?”  This is a pretty normal question in Christian circles.  Scripture lists a variety of ways that people can be gifted and so we have developed tests that help people understand how they are wired and inventory their gifting.  It is a churchey personality test, in many ways.  Some churches require would-be members to take a test to determine each person’s gift in order to help plug them into ministry quickly.  Some small groups take the inventory test to help each other get to know one another and develop roles.  Some people are curious and take a test just to find out.

These tests can be extremely beneficial or detrimentally harmful.

There are three predominant passages that people turn to when discussing Spiritual gifts:

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.  And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord.  There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.  But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues.  But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.”

 – 1 Cor 12.4-11

“For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.  For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.  Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.”

 – Rom 12.3-8

“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”

 – Eph 4.11-13

These are the gits derived from these passages:

  • Prophecy
  • Serving
  • Teaching
  • Exhortation
  • Giving
  • Leadership
  • Mercy
  • Word of wisdom
  • Word of knowledge
  • Faith
  • Gifts of healings
  • Miracles
  • Prophecy
  • Distinguishing between spirits
  • Tongues
  • Interpretation of tongues
  • Apostle
  • Prophet
  • Teacher
  • Miracles
  • Kinds of healings
  • Helps
  • Administration
  • Tongues
  • Apostle
  • Prophet
  • Evangelist
  • Pastor
  • Teacher

Being the logical and methodical people that we are, we desire to itemize these gifts and identify them in one another so that we can plug people into ministry and service.  This is a very good thing!  If a person is new to the faith, or new to a church, he may not yet know what his strengths and passions are, and he may be lost as to where best he can be used.  Our methodology is similar to a guidance counselor helping a student choose what to study in college, or a placement officer helping someone find a job and career that meets his skill set and strengths.

It is clear when reading through this list that there are some gifts that are not for everyone, too.  Not everyone is an apostle, for example.  In fact, we understand that apostles – in the fullest sense – were those twelve who were chosen and appointed by Jesus.  The office of apostle is no longer filled, as there are no longer any living who walked with Jesus and were sent out by Him.  The term apostle, however, literally translates as “sent out one”, and we do indeed send people out to the mission field and to plant churches.  Not everyone will be sent out.  Not every one will be a teacher.  Not everyone will have the gift of speaking in tongues.  Thus it is helpful to discern our giftings and abilities so that we can serve the body.

But the danger in the Spiritual gift inventory is threefold.  Firstly, it encourages complacency.  Imagine if someone had asked you what you wanted to be or given you a test to determine your personality and strengths when you were eight years old.  As a third grader, they determined that you are not a leader or teacher but that you had a scientific mind and thus determined that you should pursue science, possibly medicine.  You then were locked into that destiny and had no option to change.  But what happens when you get halfway through med school and realize this is not what you want for your life at all?  China has such a system and while some flourish, being considered valuable either in academics, athletics, or a specialized training, others are determined to be of little use and are sent to schools that will only land them a job to survive.  There is no chance, for such a one, to grow or be successful.

Much in the same way, when we are at any point in our Spiritual walk or development, we might have a particular strength or gifting of the Spirit that is useful at the moment, but the Spirit gifts us for the service of the Church.  Our giftings and abilities are not given for our own personal benefit but to minister to the body and believers around us.  Notice in all three passages that theme:

1 Corinthians:
But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Romans:
        For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

Ephesians:
        And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.

It goes without saying that the needs of the body are fluid.  The needs of your local church will be different one year form now than they are right now.  But if we have identified ourselves and our “gifts” rigidly, then we will be incapable of adjusting and observing the current needs of our body.  One will be pigeonholed and oblivious, thinking, “I am a teacher.  I teach Sunday School.  That is my gift and that is what I do.”  While there might be a need for prayer support, serving the widows or reaching out to the community.  Situations change, people change, and God changes us accordingly.

Secondly it neglects the responsibility of every believer by allowing people to justify the lack of presence of a gift.  Some of the gifts of the Spirit are gifts that we should all have.  Faith, for example, is that by which we are saved.  Some people will be given an extra measure of faith – and God will give all of us the amount of faith we need for each situation we encounter.  Romans teaches us that God has given to every believer a measure of faith – this implies that some get more than others.  But we all have some.  It is by faith we are saved, and the saving faith that we have is a gift from God (Eph 2.8-9).  One might be tempted to think, however, that if his Spiritual gift is service than a lack of faith is understandable and justifiable, because that simply is not his Spiritual gift.  And thus, his growth is stunted.  As believers, we are called to die to ourselves, to trust God fully, and to live lives of faith.  But when we rest in our identity as defined by a Spiritual gift inventory, we will be tempted not to push ourselves and let God change us and use us in ways we never imagined.

Lastly, it pushes God out of the picture.  All Spiritual gifts are from God.  He gives them to us to serve the body, and He gives them to us according to the needs of the body.  But when we inventory ourselves and consider this our Spiritual personality test, then we are left with a black and white dotted line to sign, and we get busy about using the gift we have instead of pursuing God to see where He wants to use us.  There will be times when a need arises that we do not particularly desire to meet.  There will be times when we have to get out of our comfort zones to help or serve.  But plugging people into ministry according to their gifts fosters the exact opposite mindset:  go where it is comfortable and do what you know.

God’s will for us is our sanctification:  becoming more like Jesus (1 Thess 4.3).  This is a continual life of change:  dying to sin, abiding in Jesus, growing in Spiritual maturity, and strengthening the Church.  If the very nature of our salvation is change, then we can expect that our Spiritual giftings and inclinations will change.  Every believer is called to faith, is called to show mercy, is called to love, is called to give, is called to teach (either children, or making disciples one-on-one, or teaching a class or the entire church).  Some will be uniquely gifted to do these things on a grander scale than others, and all of us will be given measures of grace to do these things as they are needed.  The Holy Spirit is not stagnant and He will enable us and use us in a variety of ways throughout our Spiritual lives.  As we grow to be more like Jesus and as we remain in Him, we will develop a dependence on the Spirit.  We will learn to hear His voice and follow His leading.  If we seek Him once to find out what our gifts are, and then isolate ourselves in that one ministry, we will stop growing and we will serve in our own strength.  Thus, it is wise to examine ourselves and where we are with the Lord regularly and ask Him what gifts we have been given, but we must continually be in the presence of Jesus and asking what it is that He has for us to do today.  Because it might not be comfortable.  It might not be our norm.  It might not be what we consider to be our strength.  But God likes to use our weaknesses to glorify Himself, and He will push us on to maturity.

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

 – 1 Cor 12.9

“For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.”

– 1 Cor 12.12

When they don’t apologize

community

God has created us to live in community.  He gave us spouses in marriage, He gave us children in family units, He gave us neighbors to serve, He gave us the Church to love, and He gave us Himself from whom we draw all strength.  We all function in a variety of relationships, and when two sinners are in community there will be conflict, misunderstanding and hurt at some point.  Sometimes the offense is gross and must be dealt with through the normal means of confrontation, confession and forgiveness.  But what about those little things?  What about a miscommunication?  Must everything be addresses formally?

Scripture is exceedingly clear:  We, as spouses, as families, as community and as the Church must strive to live together in peace.  Our primary goal within the body is unity and peace.

“Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.”

– Phil 2.1-2

“To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.”

– 1 Peter 3.8-9

“Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.”

– 1 Cor 1.10

And if someone has sinned, we are commanded to call him to repentance for the sake of His soul.

“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.”

– Gal 6.1

“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.  But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

– Matt 18.15-17

But what about that person who has not sinned, but has hurt our feelings?  What about when two people with good motives have a miscommunication?  What about those things that are merely preference or relational?

If our goal is peace and unity, then there will certainly be times that we must confront one another, even over relational issues.  But there will also be times that we simply let it go.  Scripture teaches us that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matt 22.39).  Some of us have hyper-sensitive consciences and beat ourselves up over every little word that we say.  But for the most part we are experts of excuses.  We can overlook our idiosyncrasies masterfully and often are blind to them.  Do you love your spouse that much?  To overlook his quirks that annoy you or step on your toes?  Scripture also teaches us that we should strive to outdo one another in showing honor (Rom 12.10).  If your brother, friend or fellow church member unknowingly offended you or said something in an abrasive manner, is it your heart’s response to seek to honor him all the more?  Are you in competition with him to see who can love and respect the other better?

Paul sums it up beautifully:

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

– Eph 4.1-3

So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

– Col 3.12-13

In these two letters, Paul encourages the believers to show tolerance for one another in love, and to bear with one another.  These commands are separate and unique from forgiving one another, as he defines in his letter to the Colossians – that forgiveness requires a complaint against one another – assuming an offense associated with sin.  We ought not, for the sake of our souls, sweep sin under the rug.  If someone has sinned and we bore it witness, then we must call one another to repentance.  The Holy Spirit has been given to us for the purpose of recognizing sin:

“And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment…”

– John 16.8

The Holy Spirit within us will convict us of our own sin, but also the sins of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  I might have a blind spot in my life that I need my spouse or small group to point out, and if it is our goal as believers to be more Christlike, then this is a glorious and beautiful part of our community:  pushing one another on to holiness.

But there will also be times that I will rub someone the wrong way.  We have cultural microcosms within the greater culture of the United States, and northerners are known to be more direct and blunt while southerners are known to be more soft and relational.  These two cultures will undoubtedly misunderstand one another relationally and professionally when forced to interact.  Thus we are commanded to “bear with one another” and “show tolerance for one another in love”.  Most of these offenses will be completely one sided.  Since there is not sin factor at play, one party in relationship might find another annoying, or misunderstand the meaning or intention of another, but these are the types of quirks that can be overlooked or tolerated.

So what do we do?  How do we ford these relational waters?  In the spirit of unity and peace, we must consider one another better than ourselves and humbly examine the situation:

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”

– Phil 2.3-4

When we die to ourselves and consider the other person, we ask these kinds of questions:  What happened?  Why am I hurt or upset?  Did he intend to offend me?  What is going on in his life that caused him to do or say what he did?  Did I offend him?

If we conclude that there is no sin that needs to be addressed in the situation, then we must ask ourselves, “Can I get over this?  Or do I need to talk it out?”  Some people need to talk things out to have resolution and closure.  Some people can bear with one another by extending a measure of grace and letting it go.  This is where we must know ourselves.  If you will become embittered against someone’s personality, then approach your brother in Christ and discuss what happened.  Do not let the spirit of bitterness take root in your life:

“See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled…”

– Heb 12.15

Let us seek, therefore, to put one another first; to consider their needs, their personalities, their life circumstances.  Let us seek to grow in maturity and understand our own personalities:  do I need to talk through day-to-day miscommunications?  Or am I able to let things go without growing bitter?  Let us remember the command of Christ to die to ourselves, to be humble, to love our neighbor in the same manner that we love ourselves, and to outdo one another in showing honor.  Make it a friendly competition – in sincerity and love!  Challenge yourself!  How can I honor so-and-so today?  How can I push my spouse on to holiness?  How can I love my community in such a way that is selfless?  What quirks do I need to bear and tolerate?  And what quirks do we need to address for the sake of unity?

We do not always have to formally address every situation.  Sometimes we just love someone for who they are, and give them the benefit of the doubt.

We shall see Jesus

rapture

I love many of the hymns and Gospel songs because they declare the full Gospel, and point us to Jesus and His return.  “We Shall See Jesus” is one such song, and perhaps one of the greatest songs ever written:

Once on a hillside, people were gathered
Hoping to see Him, as thousands were fed
He touched the blind eyes, healed broken spirits
He moved with compassion, while He raised up the dead

Once on a hillside, people were gathered
Watching as Jesus was crucified
No one showed mercy, to the one who had healed them
Yet, Jesus loved them, as He suffered and died

Once on a hillside, people were gathered
For Jesus had risen and soon would ascend
Then, as He blessed them, He rose to the heavens
And gave them His promise to come back again

We shall see Jesus, just as they saw Him
There is no greater promise than this
When He returns in power and glory
We shall see Jesus, we shall see Jesus, just as He is.

Jesus is coming back.  He is coming to get us and to take us home.  And one day soon, we are going to see Him!  We will be face to face with our creator, with our savior, with our Lord, and our peace and joy will be made full and complete.  Are you ready?

The state of utmost bliss.

bliss

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 – Matt 5.3-12

Jesus began His most famous sermon with this interesting list of blessings.  It has often been called the beatitudes, and as a child and young person, I assumed that “beatitude” was a fancy way of saying “attitude” – and therefore I perceived the focus to be on the first half of the declaration of each phrase.  The term beatitude, however, means “supreme blessedness” or “a state of utmost bliss”.  The beatitudes, therefore, by their title – and more importantly for our instruction – are the blessings that are granted.  It is the highest blessing to receive the Kingdom of Heaven, to be comforted by God, to inherit the Earth, to be satisfied by God, to receive mercy, to see God, to be called a son of God, to be given the Kingdom of Heaven and to receive a great reward in Heaven!

Throughout His Earthly ministry, Jesus regularly exhorted the disciples and hearers of His sermons to focus on eternity.  He spoke much of Heaven, He spoke more of Hell, and He encouraged believers to remember that while God does meet our Earthly needs, it is of more benefit to earn treasures that will last throughout eternity than here on the Earth.  In short, it is better to use the finances that God has given us on Earth to meet the needs of the poor and be rewarded in eternity than to buy a toy that will rust, rot or cannot be taken into eternity.  It is better for us to invest our time in making disciples and reap a great harvest that will enter into God’s presence forever than to entertain ourselves or work ourselves into the ground to make money.  It is better for us to keep sober about Heaven and Hell than to numb our minds and forget what is coming.

And thus we understand the beatitudes.  Those who are poor in spirit are those who have the kingdom of Heaven.  What does it mean to be poor in spirit?  In short, it is to be humble.  Understanding the Gospel necessitates that one recognize his sinfulness and inability to save Himself, and thus turn to Jesus. He who understands that it is God alone who saved by grace alone through faith alone can never be proud.  And it is he who will enter into God’s rest eternally.

Much has been said about “mourning” that will receive the comfort of God.  Does it mean mourning over one’s sin?  Mourning over the loss of a loved one?  We know that everyone mourns at one time or another, and not everyone receives the comfort of God.  We also know that death has lost its sting by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross (1 Cor 15.55).  But we can be confident that all who are in Christ and mourn will be comforted by God.  He is the God of comfort (2 Cor 1.3).  And we also know that we will not mourn as those without hope (1 Thess 4.13), but yet we mourn over our sin and breaking the heart of God.  As Christians, we should mourn – especially over our sin and the lost – and God will comfort us.

Blessed are the gentle.  Films made about Jesus often portray Him as a pansy and effeminate.  He is portrayed as so “gentle” and sensitive that He gives the impression of being weak.  But Jesus is not weak.  He is the Son of God who created the world and who will destroy it in the end.  He had the power to do anything He wanted, and He often performed miracles that blew the minds of onlookers.  Not only that, but His anger was exemplified at times – such as when He bound a whip and chased the vendors out of the temple – throwing over tables at the same time.  But yet He restrained Himself.  He came with a purpose and everything He did was intentionally serving that purpose:  saving the lost.  He knew what was required to accomplish that goal, and it required Him restraining His power.  Thus, it has been said, that meekness or gentleness can be defined as “restrained power”.  We are not glorified for being pansies and push-overs, we are glorified for putting other people before ourselves and serving one another vigorously.  When we do so, we will inherit the Earth.

The merciful will receive mercy.  I have written much on this topic, but Jesus ominously warns us that those who do not forgive their brother will not be forgiven (Matt 6.15).  We do not earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving other people, but rather the one who has been forgiven by God cannot help but forgive his brother.  It is the natural overflowing of grace poured into one’s life that he pours grace out into other’s lives.  You cannot receive God’s grace and not be a stream of life and grace flowing to others.  That is simply how it works.  Thus, we can test our salvation and our hearts by the simple observation:  Am I forgiving others?  Is grace and life flowing out of me into others?  If not, you should examine your own salvation carefully.  You can read more about that here.

Peacemakers will be called the children of God.  God is love (1 John 4.8).  He is also the God of peace (Heb 13.20).  God sent Jesus to the Earth to appease His wrath for our sins and to make peace between us.  He gives us inexplicable peace and rest through salvation (1 Peter 1.8, Matt 11.28).  Similarly to forgiveness and mercy being the natural outpouring for those who are saved, we are also peacemakers.  It is our highest calling and ultimate goal to be peacemakers between people and God:  to preach the gospel and make disciples.  But it is also an outpouring of our faith and identity in God to help make peace between people.  We reveal our identity as Christians by firstly helping people make peace with God and secondly to make peace with one another:

“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

– 2 Cor 5.20

Lastly, we are most gloriously blessed when we are persecuted for the sake of righteousness and the sake of Christ.  Often times we deceive ourselves to believe that God’s blessing on our lives is a nice house, a good job, and a comfortable life.  Scripture teaches quite the opposite, however:  that those who desire to live godly lives will be persecuted and that we should seek to walk after the manner of Christ, dying to ourselves and not accruing comfortable lifestyles here on the Earth (2 Tim 3.12).  We also know that it is the will of God that we suffer, and that we suffer for doing what is right in order that our faith will be purified and strengthened (1 Peter 3).

The highest blessings of God, and our utmost bliss or peace comes when we humble ourselves, when we mourn over our sin and over the lost, when we submit ourselves to one another and are gentle, when we pursue God and die to our sin, and when we suffer for doing what is right.  The God of peace, comfort and hope will establish our hearts and reward us as we mature in those characteristics.  We will be children of God, we will be comforted, we will inherit the Earth and the Kingdom of Heaven.

The tongue…set on fire by Hell.

gossip

Most of us learned a little rhyme when we were young to help us cope with the mean things other children would say.  “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me” was the sing-song response of the playground when one child insulted another.  And while words alone may not actually break our bones, we all have learned the power of the tongue as we have grown older.

James gives us a solemn overview of the tongue:

“For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.  Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well.  Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires.  So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.  For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race.  But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.”

– James 2-8

The tongue, in and of itself, is just a muscle.  But it is the muscle by which we communicate the things that are going on in our hearts and minds.  The other parts of our bodies can be used for evil as well:  the hands can steal things, the feet can kick or hurt someone and the sexual organs can be used to have affairs.  But the tongue is the method by which we communicate.  And it is through our communication that the intention of our hearts and nature are known.

The life of the Christian is the process of sanctification – becoming more like Jesus.  When we come to God for salvation we realize that we are wicked and sinners, in and of ourselves, and we need a Savior to forgive us from our sins and also to empower us to change.  As we are walking down that path of change and dying to sin we fall along the way.  And the tongue is most often the method by which we stumble.  James sees that reality to the degree that he calls our tongue a fire set ablaze by Hell, a restless evil and full of deadly poison.

This is exemplified not only by lying, but by gossip, by rumors, by choosing not to say what needs to be said and by discouraging others.  Sometimes we talk flippantly and do not consider who is around and hearing what we say, sometimes we are just foolish and goofy, or thoughtless about our audience.  Truthful things, or generalizations can hurt a specific audience if said in the wrong way.

Thus the tongue, run by our flesh and sinful nature, can cause infinite problems.  And it is that by which we cause most of our problems.  We set a forest on fire with one small word.  We drive the entire ship with one breath.  We guide the horse with one small bit.  And James reveals that this will be a lifelong battle – as the one who can tame is tongue and does not stumble in what he says is a perfect man.

The tongue is extremely difficult to restrain, and we should all ask God for wisdom in doing so.  You might have conquered the battle of profanity and cursing, but perhaps you still gossip.  You might be disciplined to not gossip, but perhaps you have racial tendencies and offend people of other ethnic backgrounds.  Perhaps you are tempted to lie, or to exaggerate the truth to make your story sound a little better.  Perhaps you are just too blunt and hurt people’s feelings – or perhaps you offer insincere platitudes to make people like you!  Perhaps you never talk about Jesus.

We all have room to grow in regards to our tongue, the things we say and the things we communicate.  Let us seek to put out the fires instead of start them.  Let us seek to honor God, and not let anything that dishonors him breech our lips.

Can I Believe the Bible?

bible

Is the Bible true?
How do I know I can believe the Bible?
How much stock should I put in what the Bible says?

These are all extremely important questions that we will and must ask as we consider where to put our faith and hope.  Our culture values critical thinking, scientific testing, and educated decisions, and much of our educational system is built around teaching people to doubt and question everything.  While we have consequentially seen a decline in Church attendance and overall spirituality in our culture, this trend is actually a benefit to the health of the Church.  Why?  Because we are loosing those who would claim Christianity simply out of tradition.  People are more willing to find their own route instead of continuing in the habits of their parents, which forces people to truly examine the faith for themselves.  In short, cultural Christianity is dying.  Yes, there are still many – particularly in the deep south, the “Bible belt”, who go to Church on Sunday morning because “that’s just what you do”.  There are many who would still claim to be a Christian if asked, yet have never darkened the doorway of a Church or attend for Christmas and Easter.  But these people are fewer as farther between as it becomes more acceptable to define one’s identity apart from his family of origin.

We, as Christians, should be excited about this trend in culture.  Yes, our attendance might be less, but we can have great confidence that the people who are coming through our doors and engage us in every day conversation are interested to hear the logic and proof that we have for our faith.  We have been trained to be skeptical and analytical.

Christianity is built upon the Bible.  It is our holy Scripture and it is our authority.  Various denominations attribute different levels of authority to the Bible, and we will get to that later – but it is, in general, a unifying fact that Christians believe the Bible.  But how can we be sure that the Bible is true?  How do we know that we can place our trust in it.

Some would argue that to believe the Bible is intellectual suicide.  I would argue the exact opposite, however.  When scholars, researchers and archaeologists study antiquity, there are a few factors they consider.  Firstly, the study the dating of the records and books that have been preserved.  How close to the events documented did the writings actually occur?  For years many sought to discredit the Scriptures by saying that the earliest writings of the New Testament came in the second century – too long after Christ lived to be accurate.  This argument was made popular by the German critic Ferdinand Christian Bauer.  Two New Testament manuscripts were found in the 20th century, however, that bridged that gap:  the John Rylands manuscript, dated AD 130 and the Chester Beatty Papyri dated AD 155.  By comparing the ancient language used and the number of copies present, William F. Albright – considered the world’s foremost Biblical archaeologist wrote:

“We can already say emphatically that there is no longer and solid basis for dating any book of the New Testament after about AD 80, two full generations before the date between 130 and 150 given by the more radical New Testament critics of today.”

In terms of scholarly study, the historical evidence is there to prove that the books were written by those who claim to have written them, the very eyewitnesses of Jesus.

The second level of observation is the number of copies.  Many would doubt the reliability of the Bible because it “has been changed” over the years.  We know, however, that it was pupil’s strategy when sitting under a Rabbi to memorize, word for word, the teaching of the Rabbi.  The writing of the New Testament occurred by those first pupils, so we can attribute accuracy to the first writings as much as we attribute accuracy to any historical document found.  As for the preservation of this accuracy, we must consider its transmission throughout the years.

The history of Thucydides (460-400 BC) is preserved in only eight manuscripts – the earliest of which dates roughly AD 900.  This is nearly thirteen hundred years after he wrote.  The history of Herodotus are similarly late and scarce.  No scholar of antiquity, however, doubt their authenticity and reliability.  Aristotle lived and wrote around 343 BC – but the earliest copy of his writing is dated at AD 1100, and only forty nine copies exist of his writings.  This gap is roughly fourteen hundred years!  Yet we all studied Aristotle and no one doubts the authenticity of his writings.  The examples are endless of historical documents on which we base our entire understanding of history.

Bruce Metzger, who is a scholar and prolific writer on the manuscript authority of the New Testament, makes this statement:

“The quantity of New Testament material is almost embarrassing in comparison with other works of antiquity”.

To date, there are more than twenty thousand Greek manuscripts of the New Testament from antiquity available.  The second most copied and available work from antiquity is the Iliad, an ancient Greek epic poem written by Homer.  There are only 643 manuscript copies available of this work.  In short, if you would trust any writing and history derived from antiquity, you must trust the reliability of Scripture in terms of dating and accuracy.

Internal variations within the original manuscripts are another issue some will raise.  Seventy five percent of the variations within the manuscripts, however, are spelling differences.  For example, the name John – in Greek – may be spelled with one or two n’s.  The second largest number of variations are the interchanging of synonyms.  One might replace a proper name with “he” for example.  There are roughly 1% of variations that could be questioned, none of which – however – would change the meaning of the text.

Once you reach the conclusion that the work of the New Testament is historically and academically preserved better than any other work from antiquity, you must test what it says internally.  Do I believe what it actually claims?  The New Testament writers often claim the fact that they were eyewitnesses of the events unfolding:

“For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.”

– 2 Peter 1.16

“And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.”

– John 19.35

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.”

– Luke 1.1-4

Eye witness account is what we demand in a court of Law, and the New Testament claims to be just that.  There are no other writings from antiquity that discredit any claims of the New Testament, rather there are many that prove it’s validity!  To read more on this, I highly recommend an easy read by Josh McDowell, “More Than a Carpenter”.

So, we have realized that the New Testament is the most highly trustworthy document from antiquity, in terms of the basic tests we would ask any ancient text.  Then we must look inside.  What does the Bible actually say, in terms of its own authority?  Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, makes a profound claim:

“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

– 2 Tim 3.16-17

Paul, obviously, is writing specifically about the Old Testament.  He was a Pharisee before he came to saving faith in Jesus and he knew the Old Testament well.  His claim is simply that every work in the Old Testament was literally “breathed by God”.

Peter declares that the Scriptures, the Old Testament, and every prophecy and writing contained therein, does not come from man, but directly from God:

“For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.  For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”— and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.  So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.  But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

– 2 Peter 1.16-18

What then about the New Testament?  Are these writings also Scripture, and therefore God-breathed?

Paul, again in his letter to Timothy, quoted Scripture, and named his quotation as Scripture.  Here, however, he quoted both the Old Testament and the New Testament and defined them both as Scripture:

For the Scripture says, “YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”

– 1 Tim 5.18

Here he defines Deuteronomy and the writings of Luke – quoting Jesus – as Scripture.  Paul wrote more than half of the New Testament, and Peter defines Paul’s writings as Scripture:

“Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.”

– 2 Peter 3.14-16

Thus we have affirmation that the New Testament and included in the Scriptures, those words that are breathed out by God through His messengers.  All Scripture is the Word of God.  Some of it are direct quotes from when God exhorted His people, while other parts are history, poetry, and prophetic work.  But it is all the Word of God, it is all profitable for teaching and training, and it is without error.

It is not intellectual suicide to believe the Bible.  In fact, it is intellectual suicide to write it off.  All scholars who study antiquity and ancient writings agree that in terms of historical accuracy and reliability it is the greatest work in existence.  And if you trust it at face value in terms of events and documentation, then it would be wise to trust its claims to truth.  Skeptics have attempted to disprove it and discredit it since its writing, and none have been able to do so.

And if we choose to believe part of Scripture, then we must believe all of it.  To pick and choose the parts we like makes the reader the ultimate authority and not the God who breathed the Scriptures.  And the moment we discredit any part of Scripture in its truth claim, we are left to doubt every other part – because we are standing on our own logic and not God’s.

Can I intellectually believe the Bible?  Yes.  In fact you should.  If you choose not to follow Jesus, at least do so knowing that the historical evidence, external and internal proof of the Bible is more weighty than any other document in existence.  If you choose not to make the Bible the authority over your life, at least do so recognizing the fact that it has stood for centuries in the face of doubters, skeptics and those who would seek to discredit and disprove it to no avail.  But when you finally recognize the reliability of Scripture, understand that you must submit to all of it.  You cannot pick and choose the parts you like.  God gave us a book full of truth and hope, intending for us to know it, believe it and obey it all.