Why Christians Should Stand for Traditional Marriage

Why do conservative Christians stand firm for traditional marriage — one man and one woman for life? Is it because they fear change, or are bigots, or simply lack imagination?

Or is it that they believe the Bible is the Christian’s authority on the subject and it speaks to the question very clearly?

The book of Genesis alone reveals the mind of God on the matter of marriage. He is Creator over all and, as Creator, he declares marriage, as you will see, to be the union of one man and one woman for life.

Genesis begins with the account of creation, concluding with these words: So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27). This declaration, repeated three times, presents who may be participants in a marriage — one man and one woman.

Chapter two of Genesis then introduces us to the timeless story of Adam and Eve, teaching that God instituted marriage as a unique human union. It leaves open no other options, ending with this summary word: For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). 

In chapter 3 the picture of humanity darkens. Adam and Eve are disobedient to God and the consequences are dire. They feel estranged from their Maker and at odds with one another. Their descendants must live under the shadow of their disobedience. Marriage as God intended is scarred by sin but not dissolved.

Conditions deteriorate further in chapter 4. Lamech, the descendant of Adam and Eve, married two women. This veers from God’s revealed plan, and bigamy represents a further distortion of marriage in ancient culture.

Even Abraham, the father of the faithful, had children by two women — his wife Sarah and her servant, Hagar (Genesis 16). Abraham’s union with Hagar was arranged by Sarah, according to the cultural practices of the times. But, as we see, an arrangement such as this, so contrary to God’s declaration, created great domestic stress among Sarah, Abraham and Hagar from the very start of Hagar’s pregnancy.

And in another accommodation to the culture of the times, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, was tricked into marrying two sisters and eventually had children by them and their two maidservants (Genesis 29:31-30:23). This too was not in accordance with God’s creative declaration, and the story that follows shows the distressing consequences — family strife, jealousy and bargaining for sleeping rights.

All the while, here and there in Genesis a flag is raised in favor of “one man and one woman for life.” For example, consider Pharaoh, the pagan king of Egypt. He did not belong to the chosen people and had not been exposed to divinely revealed laws, but the account shows that he was aware how wrong it would be to invade the sanctity of Abraham’s marriage (Genesis 12:10-20).

It was so also with Abimelech, a heathen ruler in the southern regions of Philistia where Abraham and his retinue settled for a period of time (Genesis 20). Abimelech too reflects the fear of violating the union between Abraham and Sarah.

Later, in the story of Sodom, the book of Genesis speaks against homosexual practice. In Genesis 19, men in large numbers sought sexual satisfaction with men — and were violent in their pursuit. This deviation from the created order eventually brought about the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19:1-28).

Genesis closes with the story of Joseph, a Hebrew alien in Egypt. He had no family there to support him and no faith community to guide him. His Egyptian master’s wife tried repeatedly to draw him into sexual sin. He steadfastly refused, asking his temptress, How then could I do such a thing and sin against God? (Genesis 39:6-20)

Thus, this opening book of the Bible consistently sets forth as God’s intention the vision of marital intimacy between one man and one woman. This remains clear in spite of the distorting influence of sin which brought into the general picture polygamy, adultery, incest, promiscuity and homosexuality to corrode his design.

Did the coming of Jesus many centuries later amend God’s initial design in any way? How did he speak to the issue?

We know that among the Pharisees of Jesus’ day there were two schools of thought about marriage and divorce. The liberal view said divorce was permissible for almost any cause. The other view said only adultery was grounds for divorce. These differences circulated around the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-5.

On one occasion the disputants sought to entangle Jesus in this debate. They asked him which interpretation was correct. Refusing to be trapped, he went deeper than the law of Moses, calling the disputants back to the initial teaching of the early portions of Genesis.

Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matthew 19:4-6).

The possibility and fruitfulness of a marriage between one man and one woman are gifts flowing from creation. That should settle the question. If Jesus, the most compassionate man who ever walked on earth, would not amend the law of marriage as presented in Genesis, we must not either.

Admittedly, this understanding of God’s design for marriage is received in pain by many who have experienced the marital brokenness of our times. What can the church do? It must first sound forth the message as God has given it — to the young, to any contemplating marriage, to the newly married and the traumatized or forsaken. At the same time, God gives his people resources for bringing support and healing to the wounded.

With regard to marriage and human sexuality, in taking both responsibilities seriously — to uphold the created order, and to aid the suffering and desolate — we fulfill Jesus’ declaration: You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14).

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Photo credit: Nick Kenrick (via flickr.com)

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Why Must Perfect Justice Wait?

Of Jesus’ 37 recorded parables, more than half concern issues of final judgment and life’s two alternate destinies.

Jesus’ stories are called parables because the lessons they teach arise out of concrete human experience to make a spiritual point, assuming that what is true in the physical world is also true in the spiritual world.

Here’s one of his stories, retold from Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43.

A farmer sowed wheat in his field and then he and his household went to bed. But while they slept an enemy crept into the field and over-seeded it with weeds.

The next morning, the field appeared unchanged. But weeks later, when the wheat sprouted and began forming heads, the farmer’s servants noted that weeds were threatening to crowd out the wheat.

The servants were baffled. They asked the farmer where the weeds had come from.

The farmer’s reply was that an “enemy” had done this. No more than that is said because Jesus’ lesson is not on the origin of evil. Rather, it is about the final accounting of good and evil.

Although the two often appear to be intermixed in this world they will eventually be dealt with separately and with finality.

The farmer’s servants wanted to act immediately. They offered to go out and pull up the weeds but the farmer said no, because in doing so they would pull up the wheat also.

Let them grow together until harvest, he told them, adding, “I will then tell the harvesters to collect and tie the weeds into bundles to be burned, whereas the wheat will be gathered into my barns.” One plant would be treasured, the other destroyed.

Later, when his disciples were alone with Jesus in the house and still baffled by his story, they asked him to explain.

He broke the story down by telling them the sower was the Son of Man (Jesus); the field was the world; the good seed represented the people of his kingdom; the weeds were the people of the evil one; the enemy was the devil; the harvest was the end of the age; the harvesters were the angels.

The parable helps us understand that wherever Christ’s kingdom is sown and growing in the world, the weeds of evil will be found. This may be true in a Christian youth group, a megachurch, a Christian home, or in a country like China, where the Gospel is advancing while at the same time being mercilessly resisted and persecuted by the state.

In the eyes of the servants, an immediate clean-up appeared to be the right thing to do, but the farmer knew that the clear and complete separation of wheat from the weeds must await the day of harvest.

Similarly, where the Gospel is operating and manifest in this life, evil often appears intermixed and deeply rooted. In such cases, we are sometimes called to be patient, being assured that evil and righteousness will be thoroughly dealt with in a final judgment.

Deep reflection on this parable and the reality it explains helps us to bravely endure wrongdoing that we are powerless to resist or “root out.” We know that all things in this life will be put right when Christ reappears to judge the living and the dead.

With this story before us, how can we escape the urgency of the Apostle Paul who wrote that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Photo credit: Sleepy Claus (via flickr.com).

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Why Should We Fear God?

A couple of days ago I found a site on YouTube that arrested my attention. SermonIndex.net contained portions from the sermons of six preachers whose ministry together spanned more than half a century in different locations.

Whatever their geographic locations, their sermons had a common theme. With one voice, they contended that there was a lack of genuine “fear of God” among Christians in their era and they pled for repentance.

What does it mean to fear the Lord? It is an unusual and even perplexing expression. Is not our God the very essence of love? Why then not speak of loving the Lord or trusting Him? Why fear him?

The answer begins by noting that the word “fear” used in this sense does not mean to be terrified of God; it means to respect God deeply and humbly so as not to offend him. But is this definition adequate?

Let’s test its adequacy against the words of instruction spoken to Israel by Moses before the Israelites entered the Promised Land at the crossing of the Jordan:

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the LORD Your God; to walk in obedience to him; to love him; to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul; and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). 

Nothing here suggests the need to be in terror or to cower. The lead command in this exhortation — fear the Lord your God — calls for our respect, reverence, awe, love and obedience.

We might have twinges of human apprehension if introduced to a world-renowned person such as the queen of England. But the kind of fear Moses called his people to exercise was not fear toward a mere human, however elevated, but toward God who is our Creator.

This kind of fear, as you can see from Moses’ exhortation, has deeply felt love at its core but unshakeable respect, honor, and commitment to God as its sheath.

For true believers, such fear of the Lord may be tested in life’s desperate moments. For example, when the pagan king of Egypt ordered the Israelite midwives to kill male babies at birth as a form of controlling Israel’s male population the midwives refused to obey at the peril of their lives. Why did they refuse so bravely?

The account in Exodus 1:17 tells us: The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Today there are many Christians in jail or worse in other lands for no other reason than that they fear God more than they fear the godless rulers who have put them there.

The God we are called upon to fear is more than a human potentate. He is the Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, the Creator and Sustainer of all things.

As humans, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). That is, he is the source of each moment of our mortal existence. It is with his power, majesty and holiness before us that we bow down to love and fear him with joy.

Some may respond that this is really just Old Testament talk and we need to get into the love and grace moods of the New Testament. Quite to the contrary; while being assured of God’s love and grace in the New Testament we are called several times to fear the Lord as followers of Jesus Christ.

To believers who had been ejected from their homes and scattered for their faith, St. Peter exhorted …live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear (1 Peter 1:17). The Apostle Paul called the Christians in Philippi to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).

How then can we disregard the Apostle Paul when he exhorts the Corinthians and us as follows: Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord (2 Corinthians 7:1).

Photo credit: PlusLexia.com (via flickr.com)


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The Second Coming: What Do You Expect?

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo (Public Domain).

The late Billy Graham made a statement long ago, the essence of which has stayed with me through the years. He said: “Every morning when I rise I say, ‘This may be the day!’”

His statement arrested attention, but is the doctrine to which he referred — the Second Coming of Christ — central to the gospel or merely a sidebar to it?

It is mentioned in the New Testament 218 times — eight times more than his first coming. Jesus referred to his own promised return twenty-one times. The letter to the Hebrews shows the importance of the Second Coming very clearly: So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Hebrews 9:28).

Consider three effects this promise of a Second Coming should have on our lives as believers.

First, our Lord’s promised Second Coming prompts us to keep our lives morally and spiritually undefiled. The Apostle Paul wrote to Titus: For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11-13).

In our fallen world, “ungodliness and worldly passions” make their constant appeal. They may entice through salacious magazines and books, seductive television and movies, gambling, pornography, illicit drugs, unhealthy companionships and even cheap and defiling talk.

Prompted by the hope of the Second Coming and with trust in the power of the Holy Spirit we are to purge ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit (2 Corinthians 7:1).

Second, our belief in the Second Coming prompts us to carry out our Christian assignments with diligence — always with the promise of Christ’s return. Consider a story Jesus told that reflects this point (Matthew 24:45-51). It represents a summons to faithful duty.

In a wealthy man’s estate there were many servants. The owner planned to be away for an unspecified length of time, so he assigned his most trusted servant to make sure all the workers were adequately fed and cared for during his absence.

The worker had two options: If his master returned to find him carrying out his assigned duties faithfully he would promote him, trusting him with a much larger responsibility. But if the servant should wickedly shun his duties, beating the other servants and drinking with neighborhood drunkards, the master’s return would bring severe punishment.

As it turned out, in Jesus’ story the master returned unexpectedly. The servant had failed his test. The punishment was severe. So will it be at the Second Coming of Christ: the faithful and the unfaithful will be identified and rewarded or judged.

Third, in the light of the promised Second Coming we are to live creatively as believers, making the most of the resources entrusted to us for kingdom purposes. The Parable of the Talents, in Matthew 25:14-30, represents the joy of service and the challenge of taking risks in the life of faith.

A wealthy man who had to go on a long journey did not know exactly when he would return. So he called his three servants together and distributed his wealth among them — to one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags of gold and to yet another one bag of gold. He dispersed the quantities according to each servant’s abilities.

The first two servants received the bags of gold with excitement. They immediately headed for the business district to invest their contents. They wanted to gain as much profit as possible for their master’s sake before his return. When the master returned, the five bags of gold had been increased to ten, the two had become four. To each of these servants the master said, Well done, good and faithful servant.

But the servant who received only one bag of gold had a different story. The trust the master had shown him had been a burden. He had dug a hole, buried the gold and forgotten about his assignment. When his master appeared the one-bag man returned exactly what had been entrusted to him. It had gained nothing.

He tried to blame his master for his failure. The master addressed him with two words: You wicked and lazy servant. He was thrown into outer darkness. As believers, our faith energies are to be joyfully productive.

The Scriptures’ exhortation to moral and spiritual purity plus Jesus’ two stories foreshadow a promised return of Christ. We are called to live with this awareness.

There is no scriptural suggestion here that by such means we could work our way into heaven. That is a grace issue. But there is the suggestion that whether we actually care about the things Christ cares about — that we live upright, holy lives, and live true to Kingdom purposes — will be revealed when the Second Coming breaks upon the world and leads us all towards great reward or divine judgment.

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Belief That Will Get Us into Heaven

Point to a saucer of milk you have put down for your kitten and the kitten may simply play with your pointing finger. The kitty doesn’t understand your sign. But point a six-year-old child in the direction of his lost ball and he will run immediately to retrieve it. He takes the pointing finger as a sign.

That’s how John uses the word, sign, when he refers to Jesus’ miracles. They point to something beyond themselves. When, for example, Jesus feeds the 5000 men miraculously from a lad’s five barley loaves and two sardine-sized fish he is pointing to something more.

The crowd experienced the wonder of the miracle but didn’t understand what it pointed to. Their scheme in response to the free meal was to capture and make Jesus their king. They must have thought: free meals for life!

They were so serious about their scheme that his life was in danger. Jesus slipped away to a nearby mountain, and when night came he walked on water and the next morning was with the disciples in Capernaum.

When the crowds discovered that both Jesus and his disciples had disappeared from the northeastern shore of Galilee they took boats to Capernaum on the western shore. They hoped to see more miraculous deeds and perhaps experience another miracle meal.

When they found him, Jesus challenged their motives: I tell you truly, you are looking for me not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill (John 6:26). Then he led the discussion in the direction of a food that  will endure to eternal life.

When the men asked, What must we do to do the works God requires? Jesus answered, The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent (John 6:28,29). The rest of the chapter deals with the sign and the conflict his words awakened. They were in no mood to believe.

In this chapter John used the word “to believe” nine times. At the outset, Jesus said to them: The work of God is this: “to believe” in the one he has sent (John 6:29). The word, believe, used in this way was to be taken seriously.

The men suggested that Jesus repeat the miracle of manna given miraculously to their forefathers in the wilderness. Jesus’ corrected them and in doing so moved them one step closer to understanding the sign he intended the feeding of 5000 to be: For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives light to the world (John 6:33)

He was referring to himself, an immeasurably better gift than manna. Their obtuseness in the presence of our Lord was remarkable. They argued back. They asked questions filled with doubt.

He even put his finger directly on their unbelief when he said: But as I have told you, you have seen me and still do not believe (John 6:36).

The picture is enlarged. God the Father was deeply engaged in this gift of eternal life for his creatures. Jesus said: all those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away (John 6:37). But he added, For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day (John 6:40). The two promises belong together.

Jesus’ strongest and most arresting statement during this exchange was this: Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you have no life in you, whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day (John 6:54).

This was Jesus metaphoric way of saying that believing in him involved more than a surface confession — the tipping of a hat or the signing of a pledge. He was the bread of life. Believing in Jesus involved their receiving him, the taking of him into their very beings by faith to live there.

When the gospel is simply given and a small child is asked: Would you like to invite Jesus into your heart, they usually have an instinct for answering. Believing in Jesus at any age involves bidding him to enter and live within us in the power of the Holy Spirit.

On this occasion his teaching proved to be too exacting for the timid and shrunken souls of some of them. They grumbled at his imagery. Even a goodly number of his disciples said his teaching was too hard to accept. The crowds thinned out.

Then Jesus put this question to his twelve disciples: You do not want to leave me too, do you? Peter responded: Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life (John 6:68). It was a golden moment for Peter. He momentarily understood what was behind Jesus’ miracles and words. He understood the sign — Jesus, the bread of life for time and eternity.

O for a faith that will not shrink
though pressed by many a foe,
That will not tremble on the brink
of poverty or woe.

Lord give me such a faith as this,
and then whate’er may come
I’ll taste e’en here the hallowed bliss
of an eternal home.

William Bathurst, 1831.

 

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Preparing Our Hearts and Minds for Easter

Leading up to Easter, April 21, I intend to spend part of each day in the Gospel of John and I invite you to join me. Yesterday I read all but the last two chapters. Today I’ll finish my read-through and begin my reflections, one passage at a time.

Why spend time each day on this? Easter is a high point of the church year and I want to renew my faith in anticipation of that great Gospel celebration. The Apostle Paul gives me an additional reason when he says, Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17).

Sometimes, due to the “grind” of life, we continue to believe but the vitality of our faith fades. A common reason may be that we have become slack in turning regularly to the source of our faith — the Scripture, and especially the sections that recount the Gospel story.

Faith is not like a permanent substance injected into our veins. It is more a God-enabled affirmation we give regularly — daily is best — to the truth as it is in Jesus.

And, looking intentionally through the Gospel of John toward the Easter celebration of our Lord’s passion at Calvary, and his subsequent resurrection, may be an especially meaningful exercise to refresh our faith.

John’s chosen device in presenting the Gospel is a remarkable prologue, the first 18 verses of chapter 1.

A prologue is a literary device at the beginning to help the reader make sense of the main body of the text that follows. It’s been suggested that a prologue is like a short story set down to give us helpful details before the full story follows.

John’s prologue is preparatory theology, set down in simple language to be pondered. It says: In the beginning was the Word. That is, whenever the beginning of the universe came to be, the Word already was. But why does he present Jesus at first as the Word?

Tradition holds that John spent his senior years in Ephesus, a city near the Aegean Sea with a strong Greek influence. For several centuries some Greek thinkers had posited that an unseen principle or source was in being from which all that existed had come. This they often referred to as the Word.

A Jewish presence was also strong in Ephesus and thoughts about God also prominently featured the concept of Word. God created the heavens and the earth by his Word let there be (Genesis 1). And the worshipers in Israel often sang in temple worship such lines as, By the word of the Lord the heavens were made (Psalm 33:6). For them, the Word was God at work.

John appears to pull all this together and in doing so takes our understanding a giant step forward by telling his readers that the Word was not merely an influence or force, but a person he had seen, heard, even touched with his own hand (1 John 1:1).

So John begins the Gospel account with the astounding announcement that in the beginning was the Word — Jesus! That is, even before the creation of the universe, the Word — Jesus — already “was.”  Moreover, this Word was with God, and more astounding still, this Word was God.

Professor Google assures me that our universe is 13.8 billion years old. I cannot verify the number but I respect scientific efforts to make an estimate. However, I am assured from another source that whenever that massive beginning was, Christ our Lord was already there, the alpha and omega of creation.

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Image info: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Follow (via flickr.com)

How to Cultivate a Christian Mind III

If you were under house arrest in ancient Rome as the Apostle Paul was late in his life, what would you be thinking about? How to escape? How to win an earlier hearing from the Emperor? How to get on the good side of your guards?

None of these were Paul’s first concerns. Instead, from his confinement, he was thinking about a church he had planted and loved deeply at Philippi, in Macedonia, seven hundred miles away. The letter he wrote to that church became the Epistle to the Philippians in the New Testament.

Always on the alert to advance the Gospel, his final point in this letter is an exhortation to young believers to nurture their thought lives to become ever more consistent with their faith in Christ.

In Philippians 4:8 his counsel about their private thoughts is captured in six important words. Here they are:

Truth. This word fits and affirms that which corresponds to reality. Two plus two equals four. (Jesus) is the way, and the truth and the life (John 14:6).

Nobility. Let your thoughts be elevated, worthy, honest.

Right. Stand fearlessly for what you know to be right. Be righteous in all your dealings.

Pure. Avoid moral defilement. Be inwardly pure. God is present at every moment of your life; nothing is hidden from Him.

Beautiful. The reference is to winsomeness. There is no need to be unpleasant in order to model serious faith. The Christian mind, says William Barclay, is set on the lovely things like kindness, sympathy, forbearance.

Admirable. Be alert to what is fine in the world and be free to admire whatever is deserving. See the handiwork of God and admire the wonders of his world.

As I read this passage it appears to me that the Apostle doesn’t want to leave out any important words from his list so he adds — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy…. He appears to say, If there is anything I’ve forgotten, add those words also to the list for meditation and practice.

In the above list of words, the Apostle sets a foundation for morally wholesome thoughts and healthy relationships. The words seem to share a sense of firmness.

They are strong words, binding together ideas rooted deep in reality. To adopt and practice them seriously is to develop staunch character.

Paul’s teaching is apt for our age. Our culture’s saturation with relativism makes many people think truth is flexible, according to whim, and a moveable target: my truth, your truth…

Nobility of thought and behavior has fallen too often to coarseness of expression; righteousness, or right judgment and action, is now replaced with winning by the exertion of naked power; and purity and its subset chastity are too often reduced to vulgarity.

Not so for the Apostle Paul. His conviction is that moral excellence is to flow naturally from the embrace of the gospel. He dares to invite the young believers of Philippi to follow his example in whatever they have learned, received, heard or seen in him. He exhorts them to practice the above list of virtues, at the prompting of God’s Spirit assuring them that as a result the God of peace will be with them.

Paul’s urging to “think on these things” is appropriate because the human mind is like an electronic device that is always processing its environment. It continues even when its owner is not paying attention.

That is why Paul’s advice is so important. As believers, we are to monitor and assume responsibility for what our minds take in and doing so is a Christian discipline.

Christian minds need to be re-educated away from worldly values and enticements, and often some dark and hurtful thought patterns of anger, envy, resentment, greed, lust and such.

God wants us to be selective in our thought lives, searching within our day-to-day environment for thought content that is lovely and admirable.

The payoff is a buoyant and truly Christian mind as the Apostle Paul demonstrates. He was giving his counsel from confinement in Rome. He reports he was in chains. His future was uncertain. Yet the spirit of his letter is firm and upbeat. This shines throughout the whole piece and in that letter he uses the words joy and rejoicing sixteen times.

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Image info: Saint Paul in Prison, Rembrandt, 1627 (Public Domain)