Reflections (articles from R.Bowman)
Vol.XXVI March 16, 2011 No.6
association without adaptation
The days leading up to the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus must have been terribly confusing for His apostles. On the first day of that week, they had walked among the throngs of people who were parading before and after the Lord, paving the road with branches from trees, and openly welcoming Him to Jerusalem as their long-awaited Messiah. The twelve watched as He drove out of the temple those who were engaged in commercial enterprise; stood in wonder as He gave sight to the blind and strength of limb to the lame; listened to the cries of the children echoing the words of their parents - “Hosana to the Son of David!”. They were present as the Pharisees and Sadducees and chief priests and elders confronted Him with questions and challenges and it must have thrilled them and inflamed their own Messianic hopes as He refuted every effort to undermine His teaching and power. They saw the fig tree dried up by its roots only one day after their Master had cursed it. And they must have felt the rising tide of expectation in the city as the multitudes embraced Jesus as their King. But, at the same time, Jesus warned them of great tribulation - the very stones of the Temple would be cast down; they would be pursued as objects of hatred and persecution. He told them, at least twice in these few short days, that He was about to die. Furthermore, He predicted that they would forsake Him, and one of them would betray Him. How could they process all of these conflicting scenes? It’s no wonder that Peter could be so bold in his affirmation of loyalty - “Even if all are made to stumble because of you, I will never be made to stumble!” Even when Jesus specified the details of his denial, Peter resolutely avowed, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” I find it impressive that, in the garden of betrayal, surrounded by an armed crowd, Peter was the one who drew his sword and attacked those who threatened his Master. Clearly, at that moment, he was willing to die in faithfulness to his word.
But Jesus told him to put his sword away. And He allowed Himself to be taken without resistance. And Peter’s world - his expectations and dreams and hopes and illusions - came crashing down. Dejected, he ran. Confused, he turned back and followed. He secreted his way into the courtyard of the high priest to see what would happen to Jesus. He found himself surrounded, not by the hopeful crowds, but by the murderous opposition. In a dim courtyard, illuminated by a small fire, a couple of servant girls caught a glimpse of his face in the flickering light. “Weren’t you with Him?” Panic. “No.” Someone else, “But I saw you with Him. I saw you in the garden!” “I don’t know the man.” Others began to look more closely - “You’re one of His disciples - you’re a Galilean; your speech betrays you.” Cursing, swearing, sweating in the cold, fearing for his life, Peter’s great assurance is gone. “I don’t know what you’re saying!” A rooster crows in the distance. Jesus, across the courtyard, turns and looks as His friend. Peter remembers. But the denial is done.
God’s record is replete with anecdotal warnings about the power of influence. Lot moved toward Sodom where the men were “exceedingly wicked and sinful” (Gen.13; 19). He saw some of his daughters die at Sodom; lost his wife in her disobedience; in his weakness fathered children by the two immoral daughters that survived. Would his life have been different in the absence of Sodom’s influence? A generation of people lost their lives in the wilderness because of the influence of ten men who didn’t trust in God’s power to deliver Canaan into the hands of Israel (Num.13). Solomon dishonored the throne of Israel in allowing his foreign wives to turn his heart away from God (I Kings 11). Herod beheaded John the Baptist due to the influence of a woman he loved, a woman after which he lusted, and the godless influence of a room full of party guests (Mt.14). Pilate condemned the Son of God to crucifixion because he feared the angry cries of a crowd, in spite of the military might which he commanded (Mt.27:24). Peter was strong until surrounded by the enemy in the absence of the Lord.
Influence is a double-edged sword. As disciples of Christ, we are commanded to exercise it (Mt.5:13f; I Pet.2:9f). One of the great difficulties of loyal service is to stand up for God when we are almost always in the minority, and even more so when there are clearly painful consequences to follow. But it is our task, and we must be conscious of that obligation in our homes, at our jobs, in our schools, in our social circumstances. In I Pet.4 we are encouraged to brace ourselves as we “do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation” (v.4) and then “do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you” (v.12f). Stand up, and you will certainly stand out. But the other side of the sword is the danger of allowing those we are trying to influence to hold sway over us. God told the Israelites, “You shall not follow a crowd to do evil” (Ex.23:2). Proverbs is full of warnings about the danger of ungodly influences. Paul echoes the sentiment regarding doctrinal dangers - “Do not be deceived: Evil company corrupts good habits” (I Cor.15:33). Over and over we stand warned about allowing the world to dictate our convictions, our standards, our affections. But we can never be about the business of saving souls unless we are existing in the world and among those given to rebellion. Perhaps we could cloister ourselves from society with its wicked influences and find it easier to remain unmoved. But how would we ever move anyone else? Therein lies the dilemma.
So what’s the solution? Association without adaptation. We can be in the world without being of the world (Jn.17:14f). We can interact with people in our daily course of living without embracing the world’s ungodliness. But we must make sure of our commitment. We must be singularly devoted to Christ. If I am not dedicated, I will be drawn away. I must sacrifice myself (Rom.12:1f; Mt.16:24). No thing nor no one must ever take precedence over that determination. And, I must refrain from intimacy with anyone or anything that would lead me away from God. Contact may be unavoidable. But intimacy is my choice. Why would I give myself in thought, in affection, in priority, in body to someone who is not concerned for my soul? Perhaps that’s the practical key. Influence others because you care for their soul. But don’t be swayed by those who do not care for yours.
Vol.XXVI March 2, 2011 No.5
Letting God be God
In our daily bible reading, we have spent the last couple of weeks in the book of Leviticus. It is an interesting study, and at the same time it contains some of the most tedious reading in all of the Bible. The degree of detail throughout the book is exhausting - the various sacrifices, the designations concerning what is clean or unclean, the problem of leprosy, moral instruction, Sabbath regulations, etc. I cannot envision living under a system of worship, or life for that matter, that would be so demanding and fastidious. How could those people remember it all? Did they not live in constant fear of missing a detail? And interspersed throughout the book are warnings or examples of punishment that accentuate God’s personal holiness and justice. In Lev.10:1f, Nadab and Abihu offer “profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them” and God strikes them dead. Again, in Lev.24:10f, a young man engaged in a fight “blasphemed the name of the LORD and cursed” and God commanded the people to take him outside the camp and stone him to death. And such examples of severity only serve to amplify the many demands of God for extreme measures of discipline. Capital punishment alone was demanded for everything from improper entry into the Most Holy Place to idolatry to cursing one’s parents to sexual immorality/perversion to witchcraft. Add to this the overwhelming attention given to the consideration of sin and sacrifice; holiness and ceremonial cleanness; feast days and Sabbath laws; inheritance and redemption. It is in many ways, a frightening and confounding part of God’s revelation.
That being said, I enjoy preaching out of Leviticus, because there are some wonderful insights into the mind of God therein. It seems to me that the concepts of justice and holiness are intended to make an impression upon us. And while there is clearly a great emphasis upon the mercy of God as He provided forgiveness/atonement through a system of animal sacrifices, there are few other books in the bible that offer such a singular glimpse at the uncompromising demands of our God. And that, in and of itself, is instructive, for the requirements of much of this book would have clearly tested the faith of individuals who lived under the Mosaic covenant. How many farmers would let their land lie fallow every seventh year, trusting that God would provide enough in the sixth year to not only live on for three years, but to have enough seed left to replant after the Sabbath year (Lev.25)? How many people would actually participate in the stoning of a child who cursed his parents? How many masters would release their slaves or return purchased property in the year of Jubilee (Lev.25)? How many people would only offer as sacrifices the very best animals that they had, knowing that the sacrifice of such would insure that what was left for breeding stock was inferior (Lev.22:17f)? How many people who developed some suspicious skin ailment would subject themselves to a priest’s examination, knowing that they might well be cut off from society (Lev.13f)? How many of the Israelites, when no one else was around to witness the matter, would conform themselves to the tedium of Leviticus?
In all of its details, all of its demands, all of its distinctions, all of its punishments, the book of Leviticus would test in Israel whether or not the people would be willing to let God be God. And isn’t that the great challenge that people have always faced when it comes to religious considerations? You have to think that those folks would have objected to some of God’s demands, or at the very least found some of them to be either distasteful, or subject to modification. I don’t know exactly what Nadab and Abihu did that constituted the fire in their censers to be “profane”, but the very term that describes it means that it was foreign or adulterous - that their activity was a violation of their covenant with God. It must have seemed to them either insignificant or indifferent in some way. But it was not so with God. And what about all of those little details involving the sacrifices? What if the priest sprinkled the blood of the sin offering on the veil of the tabernacle only six times instead of seven? If you consider carefully the language, then the forgiveness offered in those sacrifices was conditioned upon the proper offering of them (Lev.4:20,26,35). We often tend of view such details as minute aspects of service that simply cannot be that important. But in so doing, are we not assuming the role of God Himself?
One of the great downfalls of modern “Christianity” is the almost absolute neglect of authority for religious activity and doctrine. Most everyone gives lip service to the idea that God is God and that He has given all authority to Jesus Christ (Mt.28:18f). But how many folks really measure what we believe and do by what we can find in the bible? The only apparent standard upon which decisions are made by religious entities these days is whether or not the matter seems to be capable of attracting a crowd. Worship is obviously entertainment-driven. Doctrine is subjected to the dogma of inclusiveness and political correction. Even modern standards of morality are as determined by social acceptance as they are by God’s revelation. Don’t believe me? Just look at the immodest attire in the average worship service or the number of those unscripturally divorced and remarried within almost any given religious body or the percentage of single “Christians” who are sexually active. Does anyone care much anymore about what God says? Do we examine our grand ideas with the question, “Does God authorize this?”
Many times I’ve heard people make distinctions in religious matters between what they consider “salvation issues” and “non-salvation issues”, and I can appreciate that there are questions that I do not have to have answered in order to obey God. But are we trying to consider His Word from His perspective? Am I playing God by deciding what is important and what isn’t? Isn’t part of true faith accepting and obeying God’s demands even though they may not suit my own preferences or traditions or understandings? And is it my right to decry, alter, or ignore His revelation and still expect Him to save me? I’m really glad that the covenant to which Leviticus is attached is not the covenant under which I live. But, regardless of the covenant or the demand, we absolutely must let God be God.
Vol.XXVI February 16, 2011 No.4
Human beings love a good story. For whatever psychological reason, we are attracted by the dramatic and fantastic. Thus, most “best sellers” are fictional works, and the most successful and popular movies tend to be those that transcend reality. And, while many people enjoy history or biography or other types of literature/media that are grounded in fact and reality, we all, to some degree, appreciate a compelling tale, artfully woven. For the most part, my casual reading tends toward the fictional. I like Louis L’Amour and I used to enjoy Tom Clancy (until he opted for a more “realistic” vulgarity in his tales). I go back fairly regularly and read again Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and “The Count of Monte Cristo” remains one of my all time favorite books. These stories appeal to me for the same reason that fiction tends to appeal to everyone. Fiction allows the writer to control the outcome, and to do so with as much drama and spectacle as he/she chooses. While real life does sometimes imitate art and truth is sometimes “stranger than fiction,” such is not the norm. Fiction captivates our minds because of its grandeur, it’s adventure, it’s fantasy, it’s carefully crafted twists and turns and surprises. And, generally, because fiction turns out the way we want it to. The good guys in the white hats nearly always win.
I offer these considerations because the religious world that considers itself “christian” has for the most part adopted whole-heartedly a doctrine that is essentially fiction. Most protestant organizations in our day are zealous in their promotion of the concept of “millennialism.” In short, this teaching proposes that Jesus Christ will accomplish the final activities of redemption in several stages, eventually establishing a physical kingdom upon the earth, over which He will reign for 1000 years. Understand that there are myriad variations upon this idea, but the fundamental storyline is fairly-well established. The story goes that God had long intended to establish His kingdom upon the earth and that He had revealed an essential time line for the fulfillment of such by means of certain Old Testament prophecies (especially featuring Daniel 9:24f). However, instead of ascending to the throne of David in Jerusalem, Jesus was rejected by the Jews and crucified. Thwarted in His plans, God then “suspended” prophetic time and inserted a parenthetic age known as the “church age.” Jesus Christ was preached as the Son
of God and Savior of man and salvation has been offered to the Gentiles until the time of His return is accomplished. At some point, prophetic time will restart, Jesus will invisibly “rapture” the faithful and there will begin a seven year period of great tribulation upon the earth, wherein the Antichrist will appear and lead a great consortium of nations in warfare against the Jews, who will be converted to Christ and who will begin to re-establish the nation of Israel. This hostility will culminate in the battle of Armageddon, when Jesus will reappear with the “church” from heaven. They will return to the earth, win victory at Armageddon, and establish the kingdom of God (Israel) upon the earth and reign for 1000 years. After this, God will proceed with final judgment which will result in the eternal destiny of heaven or hell. Of course, as this fascinating tale is woven, there are great dramatic events which captivate our sense of the fantastic - the rapture; the post-rapture world; the identification and rise of the Antichrist; the conversion of the Jews and rebuilding of the temple; the amassing of evil forces; the “mother of all wars” - Armageddon; the spectacle of Jesus descending to accomplish victory; the world purged of sin; etc. It’s a compelling tale, and it does appeal to our affection for the spectacular. But there is one predominant problem with millennial teaching - it’s fiction.
Oh, I understand the difficulties of OT prophecy, and the challenges of properly understanding passages such as Matt.24, II Thes.1, and the book of Revelation. I don’t have every answer that I would like to have regarding those sections of scripture. And, the imagery which God employs in those passages and others is arresting. Without doubt, apocalyptic literature is dramatic and fantastic. And hard. And were the issue of millennial doctrine simply a matter of accepting that God will establish an earthly kingdom for 1000 years prior to final judgment, I’d be unwilling to argue against it. The problem is that God’s Word, in several ways, denies millennial doctrine. The Bible clearly reveals that God’s kingdom is spiritual in nature, not physical (Lk.17:20-21; Jn.18:36). The Bible clearly reveals that the church (God’s saved people) was God’s intended aim from the outset (Eph.3:8-11). And the crucifixion of Jesus as a sacrifice for all mankind was a part of God’s eternal purpose (I Cor.1:18-24; 2:7-9). Millennialism essentially denies all of these.
But there is one problem with this fictional fabrication that transcends all others. If millennialism is true, then God is not God at all. If He originally intended to establish a physical kingdom with Jesus sitting upon the throne of David in Jerusalem, and man rejected Jesus and crucified Him in opposition to God’s will, then God has shown His inability to rule in this world. According to millennialism, man thwarted God. How am I supposed to believe that Jesus will be successful the next time He returns, if He couldn’t accomplish His task the first time? I don’t believe in a God Who is not omnipotent and is incapable of accomplishing His will and defeating Satan and his forces. But that is precisely the God of millennialism. The Bible does not portray such a God.
Don’t buy into the fiction just because it is fantastic. “Star Wars” is fantastic too, but that doesn’t make it real.