Death Be Not Proud

21 10 2009

My friend Lewis died this month. Early in the morning, while studying, I received one of those dreaded phone calls telling me that Lewis had died in the early morning hours. As I drove to his home, I found myself praying for the extended family, for the girls (two precious girls of 11 and 18), and for his steadfast and unwavering wife of twenty years.  I asked the Lord for grace, peace, and faith over each person.  I asked the Lord for wisdom in what to say and how to say it.  None of us knows the right way to discuss death. 

Death, whenever it comes up in a conversation, is the show stopper.  No one wants to talk about death.  The topic has a unique way of sneaking up and surprising you.  Just when everyone is enjoying each other, someone mentions that that person just died or this person was killed in a car accident, whatever it might be, and no one can talk after that. From that point, everything else is, might I say, trivial. The jokes aren’t as funny, the story about the trip, not as interesting.  Death trumps everyone, everything, everytime.  It’s the grim reaper in the room.

Death is the specter in the night, dressed up as a kind of dark hooded medieval monk, appearing and then disappearing in the dark trees of our mind.  It is often the dreaded nightmare of fear, darkness, and aloneness.  We fear death don’t we?  Admit it.  We all have a deep dark secret…we fear dying.  We fear our loved one’s dying even more.

Death seems to be the end of everything, so conclusive, so, so, final.  Because of our finiteness and our own mental limitations we just can’t fully grasp death.  All we know is what we’ve experienced here on earth.  All we understand is what we’ve been taught, here in the three dimensional world.  Comparisons and abstract thoughts blend into the stories we’ve heard about death and dying.  What will it feel like?  Who will be there?  Is it true that there are angels in heaven? Is St. Peter really the main greeter at those pearly gates?  Are there really gates?

There is the story of Billy Graham, standing by the bedside of his maternal grandmother, who had been in and out of consciousness, when suddenly in a surprising moment of clarity, sat up and exclaimed, “I see them, they’re all there, and the angels, so beautiful…” and then she died.  What was that?  Was it one of those many supernatural moments that God gives to remind us that everything he’s been saying about eternity is true?  Could it be that God cares enough that he would want Billy Graham, arguably the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, to have a firsthand witness of the eternity he so boldly preached about? 

I think God knows that we can’t fully grasp death.  We can feel love, feel friendship, feel forgiveness, but whoever heard of feeling death? Death is not easy to understand.  It’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma.  I believe that God in His created order, never intended death for His creation.  Death wasn’t the perfect plan in the creation of Adam and Eve.  Death is not natural. Our hearts and minds were never created to fully comprehend death.

Life was the original purpose and plan. We get life.  Our minds and hearts enjoy thinking about life.  We love talking about it, experiencing it, reveling in it.  Life is cool to talk about.  Life is all about running, laughing, joking, falling in love, and friendships.  Life is three dimensional and fun.

Jesus taught us about life.  He even said, “I came that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly.” (John 10:10b)  Jesus, with consummate insight, is offering wild possibilities in His invitation.  Jesus wants to give us life, His brand of life, His way of living.  He wants us to really live.  Jesus is all about living.

On another occasion Jesus also said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6)  Jesus seems to be saying that “the way,” and “the truth,” and “the life” are all somehow wrapped in the same package.  Could it be that Jesus has given us a “way” of living?  Could it be that Jesus has given us the “truth” about life?

Jesus understands our questions, our false hopes, our fears about death.  And he has placed himself as the ultimate anecdote for fear.  He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. (John 11:25)  No grand teaching on fear.  No expansive sermon on dying.  Just a simple statement about faith and trust.  Jesus is placing himself as the answer to the sum of all our fears.  Not a theory, not an explanation, not a formula.  Jesus wants us to know that He is the resurrection from death.  He is the life. 

Do you see it?  Death has nothing to be proud of.  Death has no sting, no power, and no allure (1 Cor 15:55).  Jesus has conquered death with life (Romans 6:9-10).  Jesus is the life and he has defeated death on his terms. Jesus died on the cross, went down into hell, took the keys of death and the fear of death away from satan and has secured life (Hebrews 2:15; Ephesians 4:9).  Life is secure because Jesus secured it.

For the Jesus follower, death is now swallowed up with life!  Death means life.  Death cannot be proud for life has overtaken it.  We have nothing to fear.  Fear is ravaged by the hope of life.  Life rules in our minds if Jesus reigns in our hearts.

My friend Lewis isn’t dead.  Lewis is alive.  Lewis passed from the three dimensional world into the fourth dimension of life the way I want to pass someday.  He passed from this life in his sleep, in his bedroom, with his family nearby. Lewis passed with faith, with joy, with a purpose.  Lewis is healed of his brain tumor.  Right now Lewis is living the most active, joyful, productive life he has ever lived.  C.S. Lewis once said that death is just passing from one room to the next; from one reality to another.  My good friend Lewis got up out of his bed at 4am yesterday and walked into another room and met Jesus face to face.  Now that’s a great life!





India 2009 – An Adventure to Remember

17 08 2009

Entering into the sultry heat of Mumbai, India never prepared us for the adventure God had laid out for our team.  Over a brief five day ministry trip, the Holy Spirit gave us a full course taste of India that will be difficult to erase from our memories.  From the lecture hall of the Master’s College where we taught on church leadership four to five times daily to feeding homeless lepers in the slums at 2 am, no one had much time for rest and relaxation.

Our first night in India was the beginning of the adventure.  We exited the hotel to the screams of every taxi driver, hotel owner, and rickshaw driver in Mumbai.  Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration—but not by much.  But praise the Lord, we had prepaid hotel rooms…right?  Right.  We soon learned that nothing is guaranteed in India.  I called the hotel only to find out that our dates were off by one day and we had no rooms.   Wonderful. 

With no hotel lined up we had to negotiate, barter, and bluff our way through a people who have honed those skills way past our civilized western protocol.  I felt a little bit like Crocodile Dundee in the city as I tried a combination of kindness, “Hey I’m the dumbest guy ever” routine, and common sense (which is not as common in certain parts of the world) to figure out where we could sleep.  As we were given rides by a family of Indians who called everyone they knew to get our business, we found ourselves debating the price for our rooms in the Mumbai slums as everyone was falling asleep through sheer exhaustion.  We secured five rooms and God gave us grace and sleep after 25 hours of travel.

Each day began with Randy Welch, Rick Rupert, and myself teaching over 200 Indian church planters and 50 Bible School students at the Masters Home, College and Seminary in Vizag on such topics as leadership, discipleship, and building strong churches.  Randy is a former pastor and businessman in our church.  Rick is an old friend from California who is now serving as a missionary in Malaysia.  Each one of us taught on different topics; it was truly amazing to watch as the Holy Spirit caused our messages to weave a beautiful tapestry of themes that were powerful and used of God.

The rest of our team led a VBS to the orphanage children each day.  Nicole, Hannah, Josh, Daniel, Tawnie, Joyanne, Ian, Allison, and Naomi ministered through songs, Bible stories, and games to the children of the Master’s School.  The joy and laughter of the children was a testimony to the impact they made.  Twelve children indicated they prayed to receive Christ during the VBS.  On the final day there was a special assembly, Josh spoke to several hundred combined schools and dozens raised their hands to receive Christ.

In the midst of our 12 hour days of ministry, Rick, the radical Malaysian Missionary in our group, kept coming up with new and novel methods for evangelism in the city.  Rick, who I might add has a propensity for hip shooting, storytelling, last minute, no plan, no sleep, middle of the night ideas, kept everyone guessing…and excited.

One night as we headed back to our hotel we came across thousands of people involved in a local Hindu festival.  Stages were set up and hundreds were gathered at each stage watching dancers and singers perform.  Rick came up with the idea of a kind of Kingdom raid on the festival.  At the hotel we dressed up in our blue shirts (every mission trip at MSC has to have a free T-shirt and we were no exception), Josh grabbed his guitar, and we practiced the worship song “Rain Down,” and were ready. 

Upon crashing the party in downtown Vizag, the crowd suddenly went wild and pushed us to the stage!  We were rock stars in five minutes. And with all the skill of 11 Americans who can’t speak the language, don’t have a clue about the culture, and can barely sing one worship song, we looked really cool (?).  After a few cheesy dance moves, they realized we weren’t exactly Bruce Springsteen or Brittany Spears, and we were politely escorted off the stage.

But the adventure wasn’t over.  In the crowd, there was one India wannabe promoter who could see the latent talent and opportunity in this motley crew, and we were practically dragged, pushed, and shoved to another stage.  God opened the door and we were able to sing “Rain Down” to a crowd of several hundred.  Our prayer was that maybe just maybe, our short message of God’s love to the Indian people, might have touched a few hearts. It was fun to be His instrument.    

Our group had the opportunity to visit a Compassion Project and minister in a widow’s home and saw firsthand the ravages of poverty but the hope of the Gospel.  It was exciting to see the impact Jesus and the church can make in some of the most depressing, humiliating, and hopeless situations of our world.  All of us counted it rare privilege to show the love of Jesus in practical ways at these and other places.

One night Rick and the group came up with an idea of going into the slums and ministering to the homeless and the lepers of Vizag.  So, at 10pm the group entered some of the darkest parts of the city with food and compassion.  They encountered old men to little children who were abandoned by society and their families.  Our group moved through the abandoned apartments and alleyways giving away food, praying for people, and sharing the gospel as God opened up opportunities.

There were so many more adventures I could share: like the night several of our group stayed up till 3am sharing the gospel with a beautiful young Hindu woman who, in the end, with tears running down her face, gave her heart to Jesus.  Or, when we had the opportunity to pray over 25 Tribal Indian pastors who are literally risking their lives to preach the gospel in the remote hill country of eastern India.  Or, the countless chances we all had to share our story of Jesus to people we met in the hotel, in the airport, and on the plane.  Or, our narrow escape through armed guards in Mumbai who would not let us leave the airport.  Or, the food!  Yes the curry, curry, and more curry, and rice!  But we loved every part and won’t forget all that God did.

Thanks so much for the hundreds of people who prayed for us.  Your prayers made this a joyful, challenging, and visionary trip that none of us will forget. It was most definitely an adventure to remember. 

Carpe Diem Gloriae Dei,

Pastor Steve





Is the Bible Trustworthy? Part 2

10 06 2009

Ever since Satan challenged God’s promises and Eve succumbed (Gen. 3:1-7), the enemy of our souls has been attacking God’s Word with his own version of what God means.  As soon as Jesus made His first move toward His mission, Lucifer was ready to challenge His every word.  During Jesus’ time of fasting and prayer for forty days, Satan came to contradict the words of Jesus with his own interpretation of Scripture.  And as a result, for thousands of years, men have been tempted to distrust, doubt, and deny the validity of God’s holy Word. 

As a missionary and pastor I have heard just about every conceivable question and interpretation of the Bible that man has to offer.  While some of them have bordered on the ridiculous, many comments are simply based out of ignorance and are sincerely asked in a search for truth.  It is with such people in mind, and the many at Mountain Springs who regularly ask me thought-provoking questions, that I write this article.

I would refer any reader to my sermon in the doctrine series, The Bible: God Speaks, given April 24th, 2009, for further elaboration on the topic of the Bible in general.

This is part two in my blog on Bible translations.  If you would like to understand the context of the last blog, let me encourage you to read part one first.

God’s Publishing Process

How did we get our current Bible? Is the English translation that you are using reliable?  Can you have confidence that the Bible you are holding is anything like the manuscripts written by the first authors?  These are excellent questions.  The Bible purports to have divine qualities.  But does it really?  And if so, how were these qualities passed down through the generations to make up our English version of the Bible?

There is a divine process that has been used by God to give us our current Bible.  This process can be summed up in a five part process:  Revelationà Inspirationà Canonicityà Preservation à Transmission. In part one, we concerned ourselves with revelation and inspiration.  In part two, we will continue our look at God’s publishing process.

Canonicity

John MacArthur writes, “We must understand that the Bible is actually one book with one Divine Author, though it was written over a period of 1,500 years through the pens of 40 human writers.  The Bible began with the creation account of Genesis 1, 2 written by Moses about 1405 B.C., and extends to the eternity future account of Revelation 21, 22, written by the Apostle John about A.D. 95.  During this time, God progressively revealed Himself and His purposes in the inspired Scriptures.” (Study Bible p. xiv)

This raises a significant question: “How did the church know which books ought to be recognized as canonical or authoritative?  Which writings should be included and excluded?”  We find three ways that the early church fathers determined the authenticity of a book for the Bible.

  1. Conformity to “the rule of faith.” Did the book in question conform with orthodoxy?  Christian truth recognized as normative in the churches?
  2. Apostolicity. Was the writer of the book an apostle or did the writer of the book have immediate contact with the apostles? For example, Mark’s gospel was tied to Peter and Luke’s to Paul.
  3. Catholicity. For a document to be considered canonical it must have had widespread and continuous acceptance and usage by churches everywhere.

Thus, when the various councils in church history met to determine the authenticity of a book, they did not vote for canonicity, rather they recognized what the churches had come to determine as authoritative.  Much like ordination in our church, we are not ordaining anyone but simply publically recognizing someone who God is already ordaining through the life they live and witness of their ministry.  In a similar way, the church fathers and theologians who came together recognized the twenty-seven books that became the New Testament as being authoritative based on the criteria above and the consensus of the church.  In simplistic form, the church already believed these books to be the canon of Scripture and the councils confirmed what was already common knowledge.

In regard to the Old Testament, MacArthur writes, “With regard to the Old Testament, by the time of Christ, all of the Old Testament had been written and accepted in the Jewish community.  The last book, Malachi, had been completed about 430 B.C.  Not only does the Old Testament canon conform to the Old Testament which has since been used throughout the centuries, but it does not contain the uninspired and spurious Apocrypha, that group of 14 rogue writings which were written after Malachi and attached to the Old Testament about 200-150 B.C. in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament called the Septuagint (LXX), appearing to the very day in some versions of the Bible.  However, not one passage from the Apocrypha is cited by any New Testament writer, nor did Jesus affirm any of it as He recognized the Old Testament canon of His era (cf. Luke 24:27,44).” (ibid, p. xv)

Carson and Moo write, “The fact that substantially the whole church came to recognize the same twenty-seven books as canonical is remarkable when it is remembered that the result was not contrived. All that the several churches throughout the Empire could do was to witness to their own experience with the documents and share whatever knowledge they might have about their origin and character. When consideration is given to the diversity in cultural backgrounds and in orientation to the essentials of the Christian faith within the churches, their common agreement about which books belonged to the New Testament serves to suggest that this final decision did not originate solely at the human level.” (Barker, Lane, and Michaels, The New Testament Speaks, p. 29; qtd. in Carson, Moo, and Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 736).

The completed Bible was formulated early in the history of the church.  By the end of the second century all but seven books (Hebrews, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude, James, and Revelation) were recognized as apostolic, and by the end of the fourth century all twenty-seven books in our present canon were recognized by all the churches of the West.

F. F. Bruce writes: “One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect. The first ecclesiastical councils to classify the canonical books were both held in North Africa—at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397—but what these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of these communities” (F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, p. 27).


Preservation

How do we know for sure that the Bible that was first written down by the original authors has been preserved and handed down to us accurately?  How do we know for sure that the Bible you are holding is truly the inspired, written Word of God?

Critics of the accuracy of the Bible routinely claim that it is in fact a series of fables and legends that have developed over hundreds of years because there are not enough copies of ancient manuscripts to alleviate their skepticism. However, a simple shepherd boy dealt a death blow to their criticisms in 1947. He wandered into a cave in the Middle East and discovered large pottery jars filled with leather scrolls that had been wrapped in linen cloth.

Amazingly, the ancient copies of the books of the Bible were in good condition despite their age and the harsh climate.  This was due to the fact that they had been well sealed for nearly nineteen hundred years. What are now known as “The Dead Sea Scrolls” are made up of some forty thousand inscribed ancient fragments.  From these fragments, more than five hundred books have been reconstructed, including some Old Testament books such as a complete copy of Isaiah.

I have visited on several occasions the Dead Sea Museum and viewed for myself the entire book of Isaiah.  The amazing thing is that the fragments found, the book of Isaiah in particular, are word for word the same as the Old Testament that we use today.

If someone seeks to eliminate the trustworthiness of the New Testament, then to be consistent they would also have to dismiss virtually the entire canon of Western literature and pull everything from Homer to Plato to Aristotle off of bookstore shelves and out of classroom discussions. The transmission process of Scripture is, by God’s providential grace, without peer.

The Bible says thus about itself in Isaiah 40:8, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.”   With increased archeological discoveries, the truth of this statement become more and more clear.

So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.  (Isaiah 55:11)

Transmission

The Bible has been translated into over 3000 languages.  How can we be sure that these translations are accurate?  How can we be confident that our English Bible reads the same as the original autographs written by Paul and Peter?  Let’s look now at transmission through the centuries. 

Transmission occurred when the autographa was carefully copied by trained scribes so that other copies could be made available for people to read. While these handwritten copies have the occasional minor error (e.g., spelling or punctuation):

  • They were accepted as accurate and authoritative by God’s people (e.g., Deuteronomy 17:18 cf. 1 Kings 2:3; Ezra 7:14; Nehemiah 8:8). For example, the apostles, who were the senior leaders in the early church, taught from copies of the books of the Bible. (Acts 17:2; 18:8)
  • The early church tested all teachings against the existing scrolls. (Acts 17:11)
  • Furthermore, Jesus Himself taught from copies of the books, not the autographa, and treated them as authoritative. (e.g., Matthew 12:3–5; 21:16, 42; Luke 4:16–21; 10:26)
  • In conclusion, God’s people have always relied on manuscripts, and these writings have proven to be accurate and trustworthy. Jesus’ own perfect example assures us of their trustworthiness.

Tragically, opponents of Scripture have attacked the Bible’s trustworthiness by falsely stating that our current English translations are built upon poorly transmitted copies. However, the bibliographical test of Scripture flatly refutes this false argument. The bibliographical test seeks to determine the historicity of an ancient text by analyzing the quantity and quality of copied manuscripts, as well as how far removed they are from the time of the originals.

The quantity of New Testament manuscripts is unparalleled in ancient literature. There are more than five thousand Greek manuscripts, about eight thousand Latin manuscripts, and another one thousand manuscripts in other languages (Syriac, Coptic, etc.). Both the number of transmitted manuscripts we possess of Scripture and their proximity in date to the autographa are astounding and unparalleled in the canon of Western literature. Moreover, the Scripture quoted in the works of the early Christian writers (mostly AD 95–150) are so extensive that virtually the entire New Testament can be reconstructed, except for eleven verses, mostly from 2 and 3 John.

Our English Bible

The translation of a full English Bible began with John Wycliffe (ca. A.D. 1330-1384), who made the first translation of the whole of Scripture (Old and New Testament).  Later, William Tyndale was associated with the first New Testament translation of the Bible in A.D. 1526.  Myles Coverdale followed in A.D. 1535, by delivering the first complete Bible printed in English.  In 1611, the King James Version (KJV) had been completed.  Since then, there have been many translations printed from the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures.  In my next blog we will look at each of the major translations and analyze their strengths and weaknesses.

Carpe Diem Gloriae Dei,

Steve





Inklings on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Interview of Me

9 09 2008

Several weeks ago I was interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for a national TV special on the upcoming presidential election in America.  The program centered around the shifting trends among the religious right away from just voting a one party ticket, especially as it related to the upcoming presidential election.  I was specifically asked questions related to the religious faith of Barack Obama and John McCain and how this might impact the upcoming presidential election.  I answered as truthfully as I could at the time.  Though the interview took over three hours, only a few minutes were used for the broadcast. 

I have just viewed the telecast that aired a few days ago in Australia.  After reviewing the program, I felt it necessary to prepare a few of my inklings and thoughts to more fully share my position as it relates to faith and politics.

Though I still do not know about John McCain’s faith, which I clearly stated in the interview, be assured that I do know about his political convictions, which was not the question.  In 30 years of voting, I have never voted in an election based largely on a candidates personal faith in God.  I vote to elect a politician who holds my viewpoints on political issues.  Romans 13 is very clear that God raises up “ministers” (mentioned 3 times) in the civil/political realm as much as He raises up ministers in the spiritual realm.  In the Romans 13 passage, the Greek word, diakonos is used, which can be translated “minister.”  But what is interesting is that Paul never indicates that this civil minister has any need for personal faith in God, but rather that God has personally placed him in that position for God’s purposes.  Indeed when Paul was writing, Nero, one of the most deranged emperors of all time, was in power in Rome.  So personal faith in God is not nearly as important to me as whether the candidate will legislate, vote, and work for laws that uphold my convictions.  As Martin Luther, the father of the reformation, once said, “I would rather vote for a good pagan than a bad Christian.”

As a minister in the spiritual realm, I look for “ministers” in the political realm who will uphold, vote for, and legislate what I believe, in my understanding of the Bible and my worship of God, to be the most consistent with the Holy Scriptures. I believe that the stark difference between the candidates (Obama and McCain) on such issues as the right to life for the unborn and marriage, which are clearly spelled out in the Scriptures, makes the decision for president a very easy one.  The contrasts could not be more stark nor more clear.

So, the issue before every thoughtful follower of Christ in America is not what John McCain or Barak Obama personally believes about God, that is his personal faith question between him and God, but rather, how will John McCain or Barak Obama, lead our country through the laws and ordinances that his administration will promote.  The Bible is certainly not clear on many political issues, and thus each believer must seek the Lord and develop his or her own political convictions, but, and I do mean but—the Bible is very clear on some issues.  Namely that life begins at conception (Ps 139; Jeremiah 1, etc.) and that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman (Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 5:22-33, etc.).  The two candidates stand as polar opposites on legislation on just these two issues alone.  So, as an addendum to the ABC program, let me be very clear that though I don’t consider the personal faith of a candidate as primary  in my decision of how to vote, my personal faith in what the Bible teaches does play a vital part in how I would vote for a candidate.

I hope this is helpful in relation to those who have seen the program and have further questions related to my personal convictions as they relate to religion and politics in our upcoming election. 

Pastor Steve Holt