Romans 11:33-36

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Monday, March 29, 2010

God's Self-Revelation

That God has revealed Himself in historical circumstances comes as no surprise considering the Bible is steeped in history. The Bible opens with a historical account of the origin of the universe, man, and sin. Those who attempt to accommodate faulty science and archaeology yet want to keep the Bible for its ethical teachings claim the Bible is not a history book. They are mistaken because the Bible is a history book. It is the history of God with regard to the way He deals with man. God reveals Himself to us in a unique way through that history. Immediately after the first Passover, Moses commanded the people to “remember this day in which you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the LORD brought you out of this place.” A few verses later, after Moses laid out the guidance for performing the Feast of Unleavened Bread, he told them why it was important: “And you shall tell your son in that day, saying, ‘This is done because of what the LORD did for me when I came up from Egypt.’ It shall be as a sign to you on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the LORD’s law may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand the LORD has brought you out of Egypt. You shall therefore keep this ordinance in its season from year to year.” Throughout the Pentateuch, God commanded His people to teach their children about the things He has done in the past. History is crucial to knowing God for who He is. Using historical events He demonstrates His faithfulness. God was faithful to Abraham by making him a great nation. He was faithful to Moses when He used him to deliver the children of Israel from Pharaoh’s clutches. He was faithful to Daniel when He delivered him from the mouth of the lions. He was faithful to Peter when He made him a fisher of men and faithful to Paul by making him know how to be content in all circumstances. I can know God is faithful because He has over 5000 years of proven, historical track record. Because of His past faithfulness, I can rest assured He will make all things work together for my good. I can know that He is faithful to seal me until the day of redemption. I can also know that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

God has blessed us by not only revealing Himself in history, He reveals Himself in natural phenomena. The first example is the greatest example – that of creation by fiat. Man has tried to remove God from creation throughout history, but every instance has shown his futility. In his refusal to see God as He reveals Himself in nature, man has concocted theories as diverse and bizarre as evolution and quantum physics. Modern “tolerant” man always speaks of having an open mind. Unfortunately, the only thing modern man opens his mind to is sin, degradation, blasphemy, and perversion. If man truly had an open mind, he could not help but see God’s natural revelation. Romans 1:20 states this clearly: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” Not only is God seen in nature as a whole, there is historical precedence of God revealing Himself through the use of natural phenomena. God revealed Himself to Noah in a rainbow, Hagar in the desert heat, and Joseph in a famine. God revealed Himself to Moses in a burning bush, a cloud, and a pillar of fire. A famine led Elimelech to Moab where his son married Ruth. God used fire in a furnace to reveal His protection of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He used a whale to get His point across to Jonah. God unmistakably revealed Himself to Korah, Dathan, and Abiram when He opened up the earth and swallowed them whole. Although God has sometimes chosen to reveal Himself in natural phenomena, we must caution against believing that all phenomena are examples of revelation. God pointed this out to Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11-12. “Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” While God has revealed Himself in historical circumstances and using natural phenomena, His definitive revelation is His Word: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds.”

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Names of God

One of the ways God chose to reveal His character to man was through the use of different names. Several names for God are recorded in Scripture, each one identifying an aspect of His nature and character. In Hebrew, God’s names generally fall into two groupings. The first is the El group. El is the Hebrew word for God that signifies His strength and faithfulness. His promises and covenantal relationship are grounded by the fact that God refers to Himself as El. The second is the Yahweh or Jehovah group. This group originated with God’s revelation of His name to Moses at the burning bush. The Hebrew word translated “I AM” is YHWH. Translators sometimes transliterated the word into either Yahweh or more commonly Jehovah. In most English translations it is translated as LORD. The two groupings are further broken down into several hyphenated names, each describing a particular aspect of God’s personality. For the purpose of this essay I will concentrate on only five.

The first name is El Shaddai. Most of the time, English Bible translators render it “God Almighty”. It signifies God’s all-sufficiency. Some scholars say Shaddai means “rest or nourisher” coming from a root word that means “breast or strength given or sustainer”. Others say it originated with “the God of the mountain”. Regardless of the etymology, it conveys the notion of God’s sufficiency. It is known as the covenant name of God. It is how He revealed Himself to Abram as he changed his name to Abraham, gave him the promise of land and seed, and sealed it with the sign of circumcision. By using El Shaddai, God was telling Abraham that He is sufficient to fulfill the promise He was making.

The next name is El Elyon. This name for God is rendered in our English translations as “the Most High God”. Some scholars have stated that this name is mostly used to identify God to polytheistic Gentiles. I don’t know as I totally agree. It is used more times in Psalms, the hymnal of Israel, than any other place in the Old Testament. In Genesis 14, the mysterious Melchizedek to whom righteous Abraham gave a tithe, was identified as priest to El Elyon. Later in Israel’s history, David recorded what we know as Psalm 21. Therein he offered “thanks to the LORD according to His righteousness and will sing praise to the name of El Elyon.”

Next is the name, El Roi. This name literally means, “the God who sees”. It is used only one time in Scripture. In the wilderness after Hagar and Ishmael were sent off from Abraham, Hagar responded to God’s promise to her: “Then she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, You-Are- the-God-Who-Sees (El Roi); for she said, “Have I also here seen Him who sees me?” Therefore the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; observe, it is between Kadesh and Bered.” This name is an awesome acknowledgement of what the Psalmist declared in Psalm 139 when he said, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?”

Another name is Yahweh Sabaoth. This name emphasizes the power and glory of God. It is translated as the “LORD of Hosts”. The term “hosts” refers to vast numbers of angelic beings. In Isaiah’s vision, the angels who stand above God’s throne use this name in their shouts of acclamation: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts (Yahweh Sabaoth); The whole earth is full of His glory!” This name was exemplified when Elisha’s servant’s eyes were opened to the sight of the adjacent mountain filled with God’s horses and chariots of fire surrounding Elisha. Yahweh Sabaoth is the God who allows us, like Elisha to not fear, “for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

The final name we will consider is my favorite – Yahweh Jireh. When God stayed Abraham’s hand as it was poised to sacrifice his son Isaac, He displayed His goodness, compassion, justice, righteousness, love, and faithfulness. Moments later, He displayed His provision when He provided a ram as a substitute sacrifice for Isaac. In an infinitely greater way, Yahweh Jireh demonstrated His provision for us when He sent His Son to die as a substitutionary atonement for us.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Knowing God by Name

How can an infinite being make Himself known to His finite creatures? How can finite man even begin to have a relationship with a being unless he has an idea of the type of person he is? God has chosen to reveal His characteristics in His names. In American society we have a hard time relating to the importance of a name. When a new acquaintance calls me “Jim”, he still has no idea about my personality traits. In ancient days however, personal names reflected the characteristics of the bearer. When Laban first dealt with Jacob, he could assess his character not only based on familial knowledge, but also on the basis of his name. Likewise, we can begin to peek into the character of God by looking at His names. In the Bible, God used many names to convey what He is like to man. The many names He has revealed are characterized three ways – they are personal, anthropic, and analogical.

God’s names are personal in that they give insight into His very being. They don’t just describe things about Him, they point out intimate aspects that are interwoven into the very warp and woof of who He is. For example when Moses asked God to tell him who he should tell the Egyptians was sending him, God identified Himself as YHWH – I AM. At first glance, that name sounds rather ambiguous. It is simple – four Hebrew letters translated into three English letters. Despite its simplicity, it is one of the most profound statements of God’s existence. By introducing Himself in this way, He is giving personal insight into his eternality. When the linear mind flows along the currents of time, at each point along the way, God is. We can say that Adam was created the first man, Abraham was God’s friend, Mary was impregnated as a virgin, Augustine was the Bishop of Hippo, Columbus was the discoverer of the New World, Washington was the first president, and Reagan was the leader who ended the Cold War. I can say that I am writing this essay, but when you read it, that present tense will have to be changed to the past – I was the one who wrote this essay. God, by revealing Himself with the name I AM, showed His eternality. At every point in history – even before and after the existence of time – God currently is. This was a tremendous personal revelation to Moses and subsequently to those who read the Pentateuch. Not only are God’s names personal, they are anthropic.

God’s names are anthropic in that they are given in categories of human thought. In other words, they are compatible with our way of thinking. God has said in His Word that His thoughts are not our thoughts. That would make it impossible for Him to have a relationship with us if He hadn’t revealed Himself in propositional terms our finite thought patterns can comprehend. God would be as incomprehensible as the chaotic gods of the pagans had He chosen not to reveal Himself in “bite-sized pieces”. For example, when God revealed Himself to Abraham as Jehovah-Jireh, He was not limiting Himself to the characteristic of provider. In an anthropic sense, He revealed one of His characteristics is that He provides for the needs of His people. The way that He does this is, as Paul said, “exceedingly abundantly above all we ask or think.” God makes Himself known in categories that can be understood by our finite minds. However, that does not limit Him to finitude. The description is limited, not the trait. Finally, God’s names are analogical.

The analogical nature of God’s names fit them midway between being univocal and equivocal. Were God’s names equivocal, they would be completely different from the regular sense of the word. To use the previous example of Jehovah-Jirah, the sense that God is our provider would have no meaning because, when referring to God, the term “provider” has no similarity to the human meaning of the word. Conversely, if God’s names were univocal in nature, they would be a specific word that could only be used in one way. The recent open theism controversy involves self-proclaimed evangelicals who deny the omniscience of God. Millard Erickson points out in his book What Does God Know and When Does He Know It, open theists argue their point by misstating some of God’s characteristics as univocal. He quotes Pinnock and others as attempting to make the case that God’s statement of grief and repentance recorded in Genesis 6:6 is on the same plane as man’s experiences of grief and repentance. In other words, when a man expresses sorrow, it is usually over something he had no control over or could have avoided had he known the consequences ahead of time. Because this is the nature of sorrow and repentance in man, the open theists say, it must be the same in God. When God’s names are properly viewed as analogical, this heresy is avoided.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Small Church Life, Part 1

Several years ago, while I was still serving in the Air Force, my family and I moved to Asheville, NC. As a young couple with three young children, we intentionally set out to find a larger church with lots of activities and programs for children. For some unknown reason, the Lord led us away from the dozens of large Southern Baptist Churches that would have fit our original criteria. Instead, he led us to a small, country church that didn’t even make our original “cut list”. Old, brick, white steeple, cemetery, piano and organ, and at the most, 75 people. According to all of my church growth classes, that church was a failure. Even by Annual Church Profile standards, that church was a failure. During the entire 3 ½ year time we were members there, there were only two baptisms—my youngest daughter and my son. The most people I ever remember seeing in the sanctuary were 125—and that was probably for Easter or Homecoming.

But the ACP doesn’t show everything. God’s work cannot always be neatly quantified or displayed on one of Dr. Ed Stetzer’s graphs. First, from a completely subjective standpoint, the pastor of that church influenced me and shaped my thinking more than anyone has, before or since. He taught me how to ask questions, how to think critically, how to witness effectively and how to really love Jesus. He didn’t do any of that through a program or a formal plan—it just happened through the daily workings of the Holy Spirit within the interactive context of the local church. It was through those interactions that God began to call me into the pastorate.

During the 3 ½ years I was a member of that church, even though it would have been considered an abject statistical failure, the following fruit was borne:
1. God began to call me to the pastorate. I began my first of five degrees while I was there, and today I serve as pastor of a small church in southern West Virginia.
2. One of the young men went on to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, earned a PhD, and to my knowledge is still serving as the Worship Leader in a large church. He also teaches classes on the side.
3. One couple planted a church in New York City.
4. Another young man pastors a church in Florida.
5. Shortly after we left, the church licensed a man who is now serving as their youth pastor.
6. Two couples in the church have developed long-term mission relationships with a group of churches in Nicaragua. They return there periodically for short-term mission trips. I imagine that one of the couples will return much more often now that their daughter is living there (with her new local husband).
7. Prior to their relationship with Nicaragua, one of the couples had a long-term medical mission relationship with some pastors in India.
8. And last, but certainly not least—two of my children were saved and baptized there. Both are fine, godly young people with a passion for the Gospel. Who knows what the Lord has in store for them!

Of course, that is not nearly all of the Kingdom work that grew out of the small 3 ½ year snapshot of that country church. The music was traditional, the décor was dated and the national recognition was nonexistent. But the story of that small, insignificant country church will continue for generations—regardless of what their next ACP might say.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Small Church Life

Over the past several years, I have heard a very one-sided diatribe against small churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. In some of my seminary classes I heard professors urging students to avoid “taking” established churches, and instead seek to plant new ones. “Established churches are full of a bunch of old people who are set in their ways—it’s a whole lot easier to build a new church the way you want it than have to deal with a bunch of stodgy old ladies.”—not a direct quote, but a continual refrain nonetheless. This is a more direct quote: “Most of those old churches just need to die anyway.”

While I would not accuse anyone in the current leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention of holding to those disparaging views, I will say that there is a tremendous bias toward the historical anomaly of mega-churches. Whether intentional or not, much denominational communication (including the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force Interim Report) leaves the impression that a handful of “significant” churches must rescue our convention from the malaise left to us by small churches. The common caricature of the small church is this: old, dead, unwilling to change, antiquated, ingrown, self-centered and unevangelistic. I want to use the next few posts to paint a different picture.

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Monday, March 8, 2010

Deep Riches: The Offensive God

Is God offensive? Go over to Deep Riches to find out.

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The Offensive God

Concerning the Old Testament representation of God, the two significant offenses to the modern mind are the first and second commandments. “You shall have no other gods before me” has been violated by man since the Garden of Eden. This, the first commandment, is God’s commandment against worshipping false gods. Eve was the first to violate this command when she wanted to elevate herself to the place of God by partaking of the forbidden fruit. Satan tempted her on this level when he said, “you will be like God.” Today’s man has the same problem – Solomon was right when he said that there is nothing new under the sun.

The concept of God is not the offensive part. Throughout the ages most people have believed in a supreme being. Man believes because he cannot help but recognize the fact that something greater than himself exists. I cannot make a tree grow or stop a hurricane so there has to be something bigger than me “out there”. Things begin to become offensive to the human mind when the notion of a supreme entity begins to take shape and become defined. A benign entity that laid things out as they are and then left them (and me) alone is not offensive because it does not impinge upon my autonomy.

That is the crux of the problem – man’s selfish desire for complete autonomy. The notion of a personal God is significantly more offensive because if God is a person, He is superior to me and I don’t like the notion of anyone being my superior. I can, however tolerate the situation if we follow the mantra of the 1970s and “live and let live”. If He stays in his realm and I stay in mine, I don’t have to deal with His superiority. We can just be tolerant of one another and both be autonomous. The problem is, the God of the Bible is not a tolerant God – He identifies Himself as a jealous God. In the first commandment He states that He will not tolerate anyone or anything in His place. God alone is autonomous which in turn makes Him sovereign. The idea of God’s sovereignty demands man’s submission which is offensive. Evangelical controversy over gender roles is a microcosm of the offensive nature of submission. God’s first commandment declares His sovereignty and demands our submission.

The second commandment is equally offensive, but on a different level. After declaring His sovereignty, God had the audacity to place rules on how he will be recognized: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” When man acknowledges God and only pays lip service to His sovereignty, he wants to place limits on Him. It is offensive to man’s sinful nature to conceive of a God he cannot place limits upon. Limitation opens the door to control. When Aaron molded the golden calf and told the Israelites to worship it, he attempted to make God able to be manipulated by him. Another example was how the Israelites turned the Ark of the Covenant into a charm or idol that would guarantee their victory over the Philistines. They were devastated in the battle because God refused to be an object that could be manipulated. Any image of God is an insufficient picture of who He is. At best, man-made representations of God can only be finite caricatures of certain aspects of His attributes. This could explain why there are no God-breathed pictures of Jesus. If we knew what He looked like, we would tend toward the fetish-like relic worship of the middle-ages. Musings on this subject lead me to question the appropriateness of movies such as The Passion of Christ. I am not prepared to dogmatically declare the movie a violation of the second commandment, but it certainly has the potential to fit in the mold of Aaron’s calf. Regardless of the debatable acceptability of that movie, it is clear that God will not be limited within a man-made construct.

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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

GCR Report Impressions, Part 8

It has been several days since I began posting on the GCR Interim Report. I have elaborated on my opinion of five of the six components of the report.

Component #6 raises many of the same questions I have already asked concerning funding and the Cooperative Program. As the report says, it is more symbolic than substantive. It cannot be fully addressed outside the context of the completed budget presentation.

Despite this passage of time, I still have many concerns and questions. Once again, I will say that I have been and will continue to be a proponent of SBC self-examination and restructure for the purpose of working to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission. Because all things trend toward decay, all organizations must continually assess and evaluate their processes to insure they are effectively and efficiently accomplishing their mission. Our convention is no different.

My purpose in these posts does not come from the position of one who is resistant to change. I welcome and encourage necessary change. My intent in these posts has been to learn, and hopefully teach, by questioning. Certain philosophical underpinnings have been claimed in the report that I whole-heartedly affirm (denominational humility, decentralization, local church priority, effective stewardship, necessity of cooperation, urgency of the lostness of our nation and world). My concern stems from the fact that certain elements of the individual components do not appear to match the purported philosophy of the report. For example, direct appointment of associational missionaries by NAMB does not seem to be decentralization. The creation of a “Leadership Center of North America” to assess and equip church planters seems very far removed from personally accountable mentoring relationships within the local church.

Do not mistake my questions as blind defenses of the status quo. Personally, I do not hold any denominational institution as sacrosanct. Scripture never declares Christ’s love for State Conventions, Local Associations, NAMB, IMB, ERLC, any of our seminaries or the Executive Committee—but the Bible clearly declares Jesus’ love for the local church. The mission of the Great Commission is the mission of the local church. Insofar as Southern Baptist denominational institutions and entities facilitate and assist that mission, they are extremely beneficial. On the other hand, whenever they circumvent or attempt to replace local churches in accomplishing that mission, they are counterproductive, wasteful and potentially destructive.

It is my sincere desire that the questions I have raised in these posts will be answered and the concerns assuaged in the coming months. I am a Southern Baptist by conviction, not by convenience or regional default. I love and admire the work of the people who have ably served on the GCR Task Force and have led my church in praying for them regularly. I know that they have a heart for the Gospel and a love for the lost. It is my prayer that in the coming months, rhetorical battle lines will not be drawn, fiefs will not be barricaded and vocational territory will not be protected. It is my prayer that honest questions will be asked and answered, inconsistencies clarified and decisions, even though they may be difficult, will be harmoniously reached. We know that Jesus loves His local church. We know He has given her a mission. And we know that mission will never be accomplished by confusion, discord or strife. With that, I am looking forward to the final report on Monday, May 3rd, and the Convention in June. I agree with the Task Force when they said, “We believe this could be one of the most critical moments in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

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GCR Report Impressions, Part 7

While I applaud the reaffirmation of the Cooperative Program stated in the fifth component of the report, previous elements seem to undermine it. Eliminating cooperative agreements between NAMB and State Conventions will garner the unintended consequence of dramatically reducing CP dollars being sent from the states. They will be forced to choose between total NAMB control of staff hires or internally funding the positions. Make no mistake about it—CP dollars from the State Conventions will shrink long before control is ceded. That is not meant to impugn character, it is simply acknowledging the fact that all people see their position as essential and will protect it to the best of their ability. There are some positions within our convention that I do not see as essential—maybe even counterproductive—to accomplishing our mission. But I can guarantee that each of the individuals in those positions can ably justify their existence. When forced to choose between funding a position one personally sees as essential and a distant, national, organizational pool of funds, the choice is a foregone conclusion. To see things otherwise is naïve at best.

Concerning designated gifts “counting” as CP giving, this seems to be a non-issue for a rural, small-church pastor like me. The fact that my church’s contributions to a local food bank, a crisis pregnancy center and a Bible in the Schools program don’t “count” toward our 15% CP giving bears no impact on the furtherance of the Gospel. The only context in which I have heard this issue raised was during the election of our previous president. While I freely admit ignorance as to the importance of the need for “credit”, it does seem petty and trivial. Even if there is some unknown Gospel importance to this accounting change, it certainly does not seem to rise to the level of the importance of the other components.

The next post will complete my impressions of the GCR Interim Report.

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