Do We Need the Old Testament to Practice the Christian Faith?

This week I heard a sermon on YouTube from one of America’s most popular megachurch pastors. He contended that today’s church needs to “unhitch” from the Old Testament and live by the simpler ways of the New Testament. The Old Testament is too old, bloody, and complex for believers, he said.

One can appreciate the passion to bring the Gospel more simply to today’s public, but is completely disconnecting the Old Testament from church life the way to achieve the goal?

The sermon claimed that New Testament writers — Peter, James, Paul and others — had themselves disconnected from the Old Testament in the early days of the Christian church. He said they too wanted to make the faith simpler for those who sought after God.

But did Jesus not say the following? Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (Matthew 5:17,18).

Jesus came not to annul or even simplify the Old Testament but to embody its positive truths in living form. He came to save sinners, and the moral law as lodged in the Old Testament had a specific function in this saving ministry.

It was to awaken them to their sinful condition and bring them to the Savior. As Paul wrote to the Galatians: the law was like a strict guardian in charge of us until we went to the school of Christ and learned to be justified by faith in him (Galatians 3:24).

Contrary to the megachurch pastor’s sermon, New Testament writers did not  abandon Old Testament Scriptures. For example, Paul’s letter to the Romans spells out clearly the way to salvation by faith in Christ and is clear about the Old Testament’s function in that process.

He wrote: … I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law (Romans 7:7). The searchings of the law awaken us to our sin and our need for the Gospel.

It is true that the Old Testament is ancient and has content that can shock modern sensibilities. And many of its ceremonial rituals are no longer relevant. But the moral law revealed in these writings and contended for by the prophets is timeless.

Without the Old Testament what would we substitute for the hymn to creation in Genesis chapter 1? Or the story of God’s miraculous deliverance of his chosen people out of slavery in Egypt?

What would we substitute for the warnings and promises of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah? And how would we replace the treasures of the Psalms as aids to worship?

To abandon the Old Testament would also require major editing of the New Testament. Paul wrote to Timothy: All Scripture is God-breathed and is suitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16).

We dare not forget that the Old Testament was the only inspired text at hand when Paul said this. The New Testament had not yet been gathered as a sacred document. If we were we to decouple Old from New Testament, would we not be declaring that the Old Testament is no longer God-breathed?

Luke tells us that when Jesus was a 12-year-old boy, he lingered in the temple courts with the teachers of the law listening and asking questions. Onlookers were astonished at what he grasped and the questions he asked. What more powerful affirmation of that ancient text could we ask for?

With this memorable moment on record, we dare not unhitch law and prophets from their place in the whole sweep of both Testaments. God has given both to the historic church to direct us.

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Image info: Travis Wise (via flickr.com)

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We Can Become Wise and Avoid Folly

Whereas the Gospel points us toward the life to come, the Proverbs instruct us about the life we are now living. These sayings were addressed especially to young men who stood on the threshold of adulthood because success in this life matters to God. The sayings have 3000 years of history on them so they are time-tested.

The issue of wisdom for God’s people is so important that his holy word contains five books that are called wisdom literature plus numerous references elsewhere to wisdom for life in both Testaments. Most popular among the five books is the Proverbs, many of them attributed to King Solomon.

The collection of proverbs was not unique to Israel. Surrounding nations had proverbs too. But the Hebrew proverbs are different in that they are grounded in “the fear of the Lord.” We regard the Old Testament as divinely inspired so these proverbs are sacred scriptures for the church of all ages.

As such, we do not view the wisdom of the proverbs as merely man-made; through human agency they are given to those who fear God. To fear God means more than to respect God in a general sense or to be terrified of God in a time of crisis. John W. Wevers writes that fearing God “is a technical term for those who live a godly life.” Wisdom calls us to embrace godly living.

The Book of Proverbs begins with an urgent seven-verse entreaty that ends with the summary statement: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).

How can such pointed insights as are found in the Proverbs be made to stick? Not by lectures or lengthy exhortations or even drama.

A proverb is instead a short and memorable sentence to tell us something important about living the wise and ordered life and avoiding folly. They express simple truths in simple words. For example, practice makes perfect.

Our English language is rich in proverbs. Some we know well: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Actions speak louder than words. Beggars can’t be choosers. Birds of a feather flock together; and on and on.

Solomon’s proverbs are a bit different in that they are written in the form of Hebrew poetry in which a thought is presented and then repeated in different words that agree, or add to, or state a contrast, completing the thought. For example: The prospect of the righteous is joy, / but the hope of the wicked comes to nothing (Proverbs 10:28).

Solomon’s first proverb after his introductory entreaty is: Listen my son to your father’s instruction / and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. He adds, They are a garland to grace your head / and a chain to adorn your neck (Proverbs 1:8,9). In other words, listening to parents, with respect, will add beauty to your life.

If Solomon were alive in our conflicted and even chaotic society, he might start by saying: Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12). Even to the present there is a connection between domestic order in society and civic stability.

Solomon’s second proverb begins, My son, if sinful men entice you do not give in to them (Proverbs 1:10). Few decisions have greater bearing on a young person’s future than the companions chosen in the early years. This advice is so important that it is followed by a brief essay telling what entreaties to be aware of and the consequences of ignoring them (Proverbs 1:11-19).

A teenager I befriended half a century ago wrote to me from the penitentiary a few months back. I had been a father figure to him when his own father abandoned his  large family. David explained that his bad end had originated from bad choices and wrong companions with whom he went astray after his time in the armed forces. To all of us, wisdom says: Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm (Proverbs 13:20).

And so the 31 chapters of Proverbs move from one counsel to the next always in the form of a proverb: The Lord detests dishonest scales, / but accurate weights find favor with him (Proverbs 11:1). Or, Laziness brings on deep sleep, / and the shiftless go hungry. (Proverbs 19:15) Or, Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid (Proverbs 12:1).

It is worth repeating that we treat these proverbs as God’s holy word. To the young of today living centuries after they were written, they continue to point the way to wisdom and to caution against folly. They say, Listen for I have trustworthy things to say; / I open my lips to speak what is right (Proverbs 8:6). To all of us they cry out: Seek wisdom and live.

Photo credit: Janes Gallerie (via flickr.com)

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Do I Have a Love That Can Suffer and Persevere?

Christ on the Mount of Olives by Josef Untersberger. Public Domain.

Love is often portrayed in our culture as an overwhelming fascination attended by a romantic glow. It’s largely rooted in the feelings.

Indeed, human love can activate such emotions, but genuine love can also be costly: A mother cares without complaint for a disabled child month after month to the point of exhaustion. That is noble, suffering love.

During Holy Week, we celebrate love, but in this case God’s love — a love for his fallen creatures of such imponderable magnitude that his Son, Jesus, was willing to suffer and die on our behalf.

God’s Son came to earth in human form for that very purpose. So while Jesus healed the afflicted, fed the hungry, and blessed the children, he came for more than to express compassion and comfort.

A deeper look into the Gospel accounts shows that the Incarnate Christ knew that his love would lead him into suffering. The willingness to suffer would be one way of showing love.

I became aware of this insight many years ago when Luke 9:51 seemed to stand out from the page. It says, As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.

Resolutely. That was the word that held my attention. Could it mean he didn’t want to go but knew he must do so to carry out a divine plan?

Back then I was also surprised by how early in Luke’s account the sentence appears. The Gospel according to Luke is divided into 24 chapters, but already in chapter nine Luke reported that Jesus knew what was ahead and that he anticipated suffering.

Jesus had not come merely to heal the afflicted, and teach the masses about his kingdom. He had come to suffer a death that would be for others.

He must have known that the religious rulers in Jerusalem would plot his death, the throngs for Passover would be easily turned against him, his own followers would flee, and Roman soldiers would be called upon to hang him on a cross to torture him in his dying. Yet he went forward resolutely.

Much happened as Jesus made that determined journey toward Jerusalem. It was after he fed the five thousand miraculously that Peter declared him “The Christ of God.” (Luke 9:18-20).

Jesus follows Peter’s confession with clear words to his disciples about what was ahead: The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (Luke 9:22).

Could anything have been clearer? Still, his disciples failed to understand that for this great teacher and miracle worker love would mean suffering and that would require deep resolve.

During the same period of time he must have felt the need to bring the matter up to his disciples again because on another occasion he said: Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men (Luke 9:44).

There is a sobering and maturing word in all this. We too, as Christians, may fall into the trap of thinking of the love we profess only in brighter and more airy terms. It’s great to be a Christian!

And so it is. But Holy Week should remind us we are also called to be resolute in facing the tests, the adversities and the unexpected surprises of the journey. We are called to be true to our commitments even when our situation is adverse and undeserved.

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If Jesus Was Really Human — So What?

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, by William Holman Hunt, 1859

Christians believe that Jesus was both divine and human, expressing the one without diminishing the other. The reality of Jesus humanness is affirmed in four key markers of healthy human development, as follows:

Wisdom is a word having many applications: it means good judgment; prudence; the ability to foresee consequences and the self-discipline to respond appropriately; even prompting when to speak and when to remain silent; etc.

Stature in this case has to do with physical development. Normal children have a passion to grow up. I remember when I was a young lad I would back up to the kitchen door jam and ask mother to make a pencil mark to show my growth from time to time.

I had a driving goal to grow up to the full stature of manhood. God had put the passion there. It was so also with Jesus in his humanness — Luke notes that he grew physically toward manhood.

In favor with God : Here, Jesus’ earthly parents led the way. Their concern was that their son develop well spiritually. This was evident when, at twelve years of age, they traveled with him a five-day walk from Nazareth to the temple in Jerusalem for Passover.

In favor with man:  As an expression of his human nature Jesus developed socially. The Gospels show this to be so in abundance by the essence of his teachings, his wise response to opposition, his attractiveness to humble people, and in his obedience to his parents (Luke 2:51).

Some might fault Luke’s account for telling us so little about his childhood, saying a good biography deserves full details about the subject’s earliest years.

But Luke’s account is not a biography; it is a Gospel, requiring a different form. The Gospel puts together the story of how and why Jesus came, and the achievements of his time on earth, majoring on the purpose of it all. Thus Luke gives little about his childhood, but devotes five of twenty-four chapters to cover the events of a little more than one week — telling of his crucifixion and resurrection

With all that in mind, Luke’s simple four-point description of Jesus’ human development explodes with meaning. Jesus was not a phantom, an angel in disguise, or a failed prophet. He was fully God and fully man — God in human form.

As an ancient creed says: he was as much man as though he had never been God and as much God as though he had never been man. The New Testament glories in this conviction.

Jesus mentored his disciples across three years and, by means of his miracles and his teachings, revealed himself to them as authentically human. As they grew to understand the deeper truth of incarnation they saw him as the Son of God the Father who humbled himself and came in human form.

But they had seen more. When called to answer Jesus’ question ‘Who do you say I am?’ St. Peter answered, You are the Messiah of God (Luke 9:20) Still later, Thomas blurted out in conviction, My Lord and My God! (John:20:28).

That’s how we should worship Our Lord this Advent. He is God Incarnate! The Gospel is clear and convincing. But this Incarnate God is also fully human and thus our brother. He comes near us in our times of need as our high priest (Hebrews 2:17).

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Children May Tell Bible Stories with a Fresh Twist

A great way to check our effectiveness as communicators is to ask children what they heard after we tell them Bible stories.

Ten years ago our friend, Pastor Ken Kennedy, then an active pastor in Ontario, sent me samples of what some children had remembered after one year of Bible stories in junior church.

About Creation, one child wrote, In the beginning, which occurred near the start, there was nothing but God, darkness and some gas.

Another wrote: The Bible says ‘The Lord thy God is one,’ But I think he must be a lot older than that. Anyway, God said, ‘Give me a light!’ and someone did. Then God made the world.

How about the following child’s imaginative retelling of the story of Adam and Eve?

God split the Adam and made Eve. Adam and Eve were naked but they weren’t embarrassed because mirrors hadn’t been invented yet. Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating one bad apple, so they were driven from the Garden of Eden. Not sure what they were driven in though because they didn’t have cars.

Or how about this child’s mixing up of words that sound the same but have different meanings: Adam and Eve had a son, Cain, who hated his brother as long as he was Abel.

And here’s a thoughtful boy’s reflection: After Joshua came David. He got to be king by killing a giant with a slingshot. He had a son named Solomon who had about three hundred wives and 500 porcupines. My teacher says he was wise but that doesn’t sound very wise to me.

I chuckle, as you do. Little children so often give us a fresh view of the sacred and an unexpected surprise over how what we say has come through to them.

But I see promise in the efforts of these congregations to teach children the Bible and the effort these children put forth to understand and retell what they learned.

Then I grow solemn. I honor this grand Book – centuries old, the world’s best seller for generation after generation, a collection of divinely revealed laws, gathered human wisdom and ancient history.

Particularly in this beloved book we have the story of God’s self-revelation, unveiled in the coming to earth of his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

The Bible must be central to our understanding of what we teach about God and about human life, whether we are children or adults. The quirks children may add in early stages can be corrected as the children grow older.

Let us breathe a prayer for the saving influence of the Christian Scriptures on children our lives touch, whether at church on a Sunday morning, in our homes during the week, or even when we pass little children on the street.

Re-post: The Scourge of Injustice

During our prayers this morning Kathleen and I discussed the subject of injustice — what happens when the lawful rights of a person or a group are violated by those in power who have unlawful goals. Injustice can deaden a marriage, divide a home, rend a state, or even taint a church.

Christians around the world these days are reading about injustice — the story of a whole series of towering legal offenses committed against our Lord which led to his brutal death on a Roman cross.

The Gospels tell the story.

The religious authorities — the chief priests, elders and other religious leaders — agreed among themselves that Jesus had to be arrested. The high priest, Caiaphas, went a step further: he suggested he must die. But it all had to be planned and carried out by stealth, without stirring up the crowds streaming into Jerusalem for Passover.

From that point on, the religious leaders ignored their laws because their intentions were sinister. Even Pilate, the Roman governor, saw through their plots. He knew that justice was not their issue; he knew they were motivated by sheer “envy.”

Judas, the traitor, helped them, and the temple guards arrested and bound Jesus in Gethsemane, outside the city. They and their accomplices had come armed with weapons in case they had to subdue him, or torches if he should hide and they had to search for him. They marched him to the high priest’s palace and there the nation’s highest religious leaders began breaking Jewish laws with abandon.

William Barclay lists some of the laws they broke — laws which should have protected an innocent man.

1. Criminal cases had to be tried during daylight hours and on the final day must be completed before darkness fell.

2. Criminal cases may not be tried during Passover.

3. Only if the verdict is “not guilty” may a case be completed during the same day it begins. Otherwise, a night must elapse before the verdict is decided, to give mercy time to arise.

4. A judgment by the Sanhedrin, the ruling court of Jerusalem, must not be rendered unless the body is convened in its normal place of meeting – the Hall of Hewn Stone in the precincts of the temple. (There was to be no “offhand curbside justice.”)

5. All evidence must be given by at least two witnesses who are permitted no contact with each other and who are examined separately.

6. In capital cases, the giving of false witness may be punishable by death.

Between the middle of that night before the high Priest and Sanhedrin and the forenoon of the next day when Jesus was nailed to his cross, every one of these laws was broken. Our Lord not only was falsely accused, he was then struck and spit upon by members of the court.

These hasty and lawless procedures amounted to one of the most glaring abuses of law on human record. It was a travesty of justice and it all led to the brutal killing of an innocent man — the world’s Redeemer.

Jesus subjected himself to this injustice for a reason. When Peter attempted to protect him with a clumsy swing of his sword, Jesus said to Peter, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Matt. 26:53). But he did not call. He made himself vulnerable to the worst injustice in order to fulfill the Scriptures.

We have to immerse ourselves in the story again and again, detail after detail, to awaken our dull hearts to the price paid for our salvation. The undeserved physical abuse was horrific at the hands of evil men. And the spiritual anguish even worse which made him cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1). He was indeed “led like a lamb to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7b).

As the truth sinks in and our sense of gratitude is awakened afresh, we also ask that God make us alert to injustice in our world or even in our marriages or families or church, helping us to avoid the indifference to injustice that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day showed.

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Re-post: How to Raise Your Happiness Levels

A lot of material that comes at me from the Internet gets a glance and then I press the delete button, but one recent item caught and held my attention.

It offered five ways to improve one’s happiness. These were not merely some psychologist’s suggestions, or points from some pastor’s “how to” sermon. They were strategies brought to light by recent research. That is, each point was backed up by information gained from studies involving large groupings of people.

Upon reading these five points, I saw immediately how fundamental they are to one’s being a happy Christian. Here they are, with my comments.

1. Be Grateful.

If one person in a wheel chair with crippling arthritis can be grateful for his blessings while another with a million dollars in the bank and a boat at the marina can find things to be grumpy about, that can only mean that gratefulness is a matter of “selective perception.” It has to do with what we choose to highlight in our living.

In one of his moments of worshipful exuberance King David exhorted himself to “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” As an antidote to forgetting, he then listed several — forgiveness, health, rescue from disaster, God’s love and compassion, even the satisfaction of one’s holy desires and the renewal of one’s youth. Lest we forget, we all should make our lists from time to time.

2. Be Optimistic.

Perhaps our genes regulate in some measure how inclined we are to be either optimistic or pessimistic. And for this reason, some may never reach the levels of Browning’s maiden who sang, “God’s in his heavens, all’s right with the world.” Christians with biblical understandings are realists, so we know that all is not right with a fallen world. But faith in God’s sovereignty helps us face every day, saying “God’s in his heavens.” This is the basis for our unforced optimism.

3. Count Your Blessings.

When I was 13 year of age, on Sunday afternoons I sometimes attended a Salvation Army Sunday School a block from our home. The Salvationists sang exuberantly to the accompaniment of horns and tambourines, and sometimes they revised their choruses imaginatively. For example, the chorus, “Count your blessings, name them one by one” became, “Count your blessings, name them ton by ton.” Whether we measure our blessings by the tons or not, it’s good to take time daily to identify blessings that permeate our lives. They are beyond numbering, and reviewing them expands our happiness.

4. Use Your Strengths.

We all have both strengths and weaknesses. It is a simple principle of Christian effectiveness to build on our strengths while at the same time monitoring our weaknesses. I recall Alma, a Sunday School teacher assigned to teach a high school class. Her effort was a disaster. While she attempted to teach, the boys climbed in and out of a first floor classroom window and otherwise disrupted the class.

The wise Sunday School superintendent reassigned her to a small class of nine-year-old girls. It was an immediate fit. The class flourished and grew and Alma was happy with her assignment. She had a strength that matched the needs of those nine-year-olds. We do ourselves no favor if we fail to find and build upon our strengths.

5. Commit Acts of Kindness.

Paul’s advice to the Galatian church during a time of severe conflict can be a tip to us all. He wrote, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10). Upon retiring from school teaching, Lila asked me for a list of shut-ins to whom she could take Sunday School papers each Monday. She developed a weekly ministry, even in some cases taking elderly folks to the store to do their grocery shopping. Happiness and service are close cousins.

We Christians know that happiness is not life’s primary goal. But we also know that when our spirits are joyful and our countenances bright our faith tends to be more contagious. So we’ll take all the help we can get to tone up our happiness.

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Photo credit: Ivana Jurcic (via flickr.com)