Category Archives: Christianity

Should Christians Fast?

The gospels tell an interesting story that calls into question the practice of fasting for modern day Christians. In the story, the Pharisees come to Jesus and ask why Jesus’ disciples aren’t fasting. Here is Jesus’ response:

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, on that day they will fast.” (Mark 2:19-20)

Just as it would be inappropriate to fast at a wedding, during a time of celebration, so it would be inappropriate for Jesus’ disciples to fast while in his presence. Now is a time of celebration. Those who fast do so with mourning and sorrow.

Jesus acknowledges that a time is coming when his disciples will fast, on the “day” that he has been taken from them.

Here’s the question: During what time period is it inappropriate for Jesus’ followers to fast? There are two possible answers:

1.       There was a short period of time when Jesus’ disciples could fast, either between the crucifixion and the resurrection or, more broadly, between the crucifixion and the coming of the Spirit.

2.       It is appropriate for Christians to fast any time after the crucifixion.

In defense of the first option, Christians can say with confidence that Jesus is with his people through the Holy Spirit today. The Spirit indwells individuals and the church corporately. We are a resurrection people. Post resurrection, post Pentecost, we are in a time of celebration. We only await the consummation of the celebration, the final wedding feast. As a resurrection people, enjoying the presence of Jesus through the Spirit, it would be inappropriate for us to fast.

There are a few problems with this argument, though. The first problem is historical. The practice of fasting has continued unabated since the founding of the church. That’s a lot of historical evidence to overturn. You might reject the value of such historical study but you still have to deal with the biblical evidence that the practice of fasting continued in the early church. The church set apart Paul and Barnabas through a process that included fasting (Acts 13:2). Then Paul and Barnabas set aside elders through the same process (Acts 14:23). Finally, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against the fasting of the Pharisees but, in doing so, assumed that his followers would continue the practice. His issue wasn’t with fasting itself but with the way in which it had been warped.

It is true that we are a resurrection people and that we can enjoy the presence of Jesus now through the Spirit, but we also live in an in-between time. We are just as much a people of the cross, a people waiting, a people in the wilderness of temptation. There’s still a gap between where we are and where we are going. That gap leads us to godly sorrow and confusion. In this place of godly sorrow, either coming from the injustice we see around us or the injustice we see within us, fasting remains an appropriate response for those seeking God.

Is it inappropriate for Christians to fast? No. There are times and places where it will be an appropriate act of worship.   
Advertisements

Heaven has a wall?

There’s a meme floating out there that states “Heaven has a wall and strict immigration policies. Hell has open border policies.”2dxqfh

I don’t address all memes out there (especially political ones!), but because I have seen this one shared numerous times, and because it is potentially damaging to our understanding of the gospel, I thought it was worth a comment.

Some truth?

First of all, like most pithy sayings, there’s an element of truth here. That’s what makes it compelling to Christians. The most obvious Scriptural reference to heaven having a wall is in Revelation 21:9-27. Here, the New Jerusalem is presented as a great city with a wall and twelve gates. The gates are always open, though nothing impure can enter the city, nor those who are shameful or deceitful. The only people who enter are those whose names are written in the book of life.

Perhaps the author of this meme didn’t have John’s vision in mind. Perhaps he was thinking more generally. Heaven really is restricted to those who have been saved by Jesus, a gift we receive by faith in Jesus. There’s an exclusivity to the gospel that makes many of us uncomfortable, but which is undeniably taught in Scripture.

And so, the logic goes, if heaven has a wall and entry criteria, then so should America. That is the logic of the metaphor. It is true that borders, in principal, are okay (think skin, the walls of a house, the membrane of a cell, etc.), and I’ll grant that level of logic to the meme.

Nevertheless, there are two major problems with this metaphor.

Problem #1: What else this implies about America.

Metaphors tend to carry a lot of weight, intended or not, and this one does too. The metaphor compares America to heaven and ends up implying quite a bit: In the America is heaven metaphor American citizens are heavenly citizens. Non-citizens are the heathens who have to pass some test. The government is God, which has the right to do “extreme vetting” however it sees fit. Etc. All of these fit into the nationalist idolatry prevalent in our culture today. Perhaps those who share this want to keep the metaphor limited to the wall. That’s fine, but it’s not all that gets communicated.

Problem #2: What else this implies about Heaven.

What’s worse is the way in which this metaphor works backwards. If America is like heaven then heaven (and its immigration policies) is like America. That’s a comparison that strikes at the heart of the gospel. Let’s think about how this works.

Heaven, as understood through strict nationalistic immigration policy, is primarily concerned about security. Those who want to enter must wait outside and show themselves worthy to enter. They must prove they are not dangerous and they must show how they can contribute. Citizens of heaven (Christians), on the other hand, are either in by birthright or because they have already gone through extreme vetting and have shown themselves worthy.

That vision of heaven is about as far from the gospel as you can get.  When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven it is both uncomfortably exclusive (“no one comes to the Father except through me”) and radically inclusive “whoever believes in me will have eternal life”).

The Pharisees and teachers of the law, the ones who imagined themselves citizens by birthright, the ones who were worthy and had something to offer, the ones who passed the “extreme vetting” were offended that Jesus came to invite the prostitutes and sinners into that same kingdom. But they had it backwards: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). He goes on to excoriate the Pharisees: “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces! You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13).

According to the gospel, when it comes to entrance into the kingdom of God, we’re all unworthy asylum seekers. We come with nothing to offer. We come without credentials. We come, even, as enemies of God. It is only by God’s radical grace that comes to us and invites us in that we could gain entrance. And then, having been forgiven much, we share that same goodness with the world – a welcoming and hopeful vision of heaven.

This isn’t really a post about immigration. I’ve written a more systematic post about that here. Instead, I’m concerned about two things:

(1) Are we misusing Scripture to make a political point? I think this meme does just that.

(2) Are we allowing an earthly political vision to impact the way we view or express heaven? Again, this post does just that. Even if we manage to understand this meme in a very narrowly defined way, when we share it we are sure to present a picture of heaven that is inconsistent with the gospel of grace, expressed in the mercy of Jesus.

What is a Christian vision of Authority?

I have recorded and published a new podcast in my “What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?” series. This one takes on the topic of authority.

Here are a few of the highlights:

Introduction:

  1. Christianity uses the language of authority. For example: God is sovereign, Jesus speaks with authority. Jesus is the King. Christians are servants, of Christ.
  2. As a culture we have become uncomfortable with authority. It feels oppressive. Freedom comes when we throw off authority. In fact, a lot of good has come from throwing off oppressive authorities.
  3. There have been many abuses of human authority in the realms of government and religion. We misuse authority when it becomes merely a tool of the powerful against the weak as a way of securing self-interest.

A Christian vision of Authority:

  1. Jesus came as a King, but did not act like the people thought a king should act (with power, coercion, military strength).
  2. Instead Jesus came in humility. He taught an “upside down kingdom”. He died on the cross.
  3. Nevertheless, his death (and subsequent resurrection) was an act of victorious power over our most vicious enemies: Sin and Death.
  4. The pattern of Jesus’s life and death undermines the human vision of authority of the powerful over the weak and gives a truly Christ-centered vision of authority that serves instead of demanding service.
  5. Finally, God has authority as Creator that humans can never have. Abuse of human authority comes when we reject Jesus’s pattern or try to take God’s authority for ourselves.

You can listen to the podcast here. You can also subscribe through any number of podcasting Apps.

If comfort is your god… (Sermon brief on Jeremiah 1)

Tomorrow I will be preaching on Jeremiah 1, looking specifically at the patterns in Jeremiah’s call. Here I have attempted to crystallize one of the ‘big ideas’ of the text:

If comfort is your god, you will never do what the LORD calls you to do when it threatens your comfort.

If happiness is your god, you will never do what the LORD calls you do do when it threatens your happiness.

If the approval of others is your god, you will never do what the LORD calls you to do when His approval is all you can expect to receive.

God will not only ask you to do things which promote your comfort, happiness, and approval of others. He will ask you to do hard things that threaten them.

Those who follow the pattern of Jeremiah follow the LORD simply because the LORD is their God, and they are not free to disown Him.

Do I need to forgive someone right away?

“Do I need to forgive someone right away?”

This question came up during our church’s Q&A after the sermon that Pastor John has been holding. I decided it might be interesting to expand on this in a podcast. Here it is.

Can’t listen to the podcast right away? Here’s the basic outline:

  • We use the term “forgive” in two senses: (1) Stop feeling angry/resentful toward the person who hurt you and (2) Restore the relationship with the person who hurt you.
  • In the first sense, it is possible to immediately give up the right to judge to God, but it may take a while for resentful feelings to go away (and that’s OK).
  • In the second sense, full restoration might not be possible, and even then, the nature of the relationship may need to change.
  • Biblical forgiveness aims towards reconciliation, but it’s possible to live at peace even when new boundaries need to be put up.
  • You can (and should) decide immediately to give up vengeance to God. But, emotional and relational healing take time.

This is obviously just a partial answer, I would love to hear other responses.

New Podcast: Super fast survey of the Old Testament

My latest podcast is up.

Today is the day after the 2018 mid-terms. For the next few days we’re going to hear a lot of narratives, or stories, about what happened and about what is happening in our country, maybe even more broadly. In fact, we tell stories about our world to help us make sense out of our lives and give them meaning.

In the Bible, God is telling us a (true) story, and it’s the story of God’s rescue. This episode looks at how the Old Testament fits into that broad story.

How did we get here?

Jeremiah the prophet wrote during a time of national, political, and religious catastrophe. His nation was in ruins. His people had abandoned God and God, at least for a time, had abandoned his people. During this course of events the people would have asked, “how did we get here?” The author of Kings wants us to know the answer and this Sunday I explored that question further.

For this post, though, I want to dive into one of the main themes, that compromise with evil, leads to an embrace of evil, which leads to judgment and death:

After Joash’s reforms, Israel’s southern kingdom, Judah, had a series of compromised kings, followed by a series of evil kings, followed by a series of kings that were captured, enslaved, and killed. There were a couple of good kings in that mix but, while they were able to defer God’s judgment, they couldn’t stop the inevitable. In the end, Judah persisted in her sin and was sent into exile in Babylon.

I see this same pattern in James 1:13-15:

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

Notice the progression of sin: Desire – the juicy worm on the end of the hook – is conceived. Sin is born. It grows up. It gives birth to death. This is the nature of sin. If we let it linger, it becomes stronger and stronger until it kills us. Israel’s kings who compromised by letting the high places remain, who accepted a small amount of false worship, were setting up later generations for failure. When we compromise with the “little sins” we swallow the worm with the hook.

A misdiagnosed illness

Jeremiah condemned Israel’s false prophets who misdiagnosed Judah’s problems: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious” (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11). This is in contrast to God’s description of Judah’s condition: “Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing” (Jeremiah 30:12).

We’re tempted to view our own sins as nothing serious, as a cold or a small cut. But the principle of Israel’s exile should tell us something different. Sin is more like a cancer or an infected wound. It needs drastic treatment. The tumor must be cut out.

The progression

Paul tells us in Ephesians, in the context of anger, “do not give the devil a foothold” (Eph 4:27). What’s his point? If we keep anger around it grows into bitterness and hatred. Hatred, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.

Or consider King David’s lust for Bathsheba. It led to adultery, deception, and murder.

I heard the story of a young woman who struggled with self-harm. At times she would swear off that behavior and throw away all her razor blades… except for one. I don’t know where she is now, but it’s hard to imagine that she has made much progress in this area.

Sin is like an addiction, it traps and enslaves.

Not your experience

But maybe this isn’t your experience. After all, there are plenty of people with their pet sins whose lives aren’t in ruins. They are happy and successful. Their little sins aren’t out of control. They haven’t given birth to death. Maybe that’s even you.

The prophets struggled with this, too. Why, they thought, did Israel suffer for her sins but the nations around them, just as wicked, walk about in peace? God’s answer was always pretty simple: It’s coming. In the end, it’s coming. Sin is, in the final analysis, self-harm. God is, in the end, just. Almost all the compromised kings fell because of pride. Their outward success led to a belief that they were beyond the consequences of sin and that pride was their downfall.

Paul, in Galatians, puts it like this: “A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction” (Galatians 6:7-8).

An incurable disease

The story of the kings would leave us hopeless if it weren’t for the rest of Scripture. Jeremiah hears from God that Israel’s wound is, indeed, incurable. The progression from compromise, to outright rebellion, to judgment and exile, is a force that will overrun Jerusalem and its people. But there is another force at work, the grace of God. “I will restore your health and heal your wounds” (Jeremiah 30:17), says the Lord through Jeremiah. Why? Because of God’s faithfulness, his grace, his mercy.

Alongside the spiral of sin James sets the progression of God’s grace expressed in his word: “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (James 1:18). What, then, are we to do? “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (James 1:21).

The spiral of sin and judgment can be transformed into a virtuous cycle – but only through the grace of God expressed in Jesus.