Looking for a good book?

I had big plans to write this a month and a half ago, as a “My favorite books I read in 2019” post.  Then life happened.  So here you go…the best books I’ve read in the past year.

Fearfully and Wonderfully, by Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand.  Yancey is my favorite Christian writer, a former journalist who walked away from God as a young man, then came back.  Brand was an orthopedic surgeon who did pioneering work with Hansen’s disease (commonly known as leprosy) in India, then in Carville, Louisiana.  The two men wrote two bestselling books together in the 1980s about how the intricacies of the human body tell us about our God.  This is a combining and updating of those two books for a new generation of readers.

Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brian.   Both these men served overseas on the mission field, which helped them see things in the Bible that we tend to miss or misunderstand.

Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell.  Gladwell is a terrific storyteller.  This book, abut the dangers of trying to communicate with someone we’ve never met before, uses  stories ripped from the headlines or the history books as its examples.  In many cases, I thought I knew what had happened, only to learn something new.  This book inspired me to rethink the assumptions I make when I am talking to someone I don’t know well.

Meet Generation Z, James Emery White.  His previous book, Rise of the Nones, helped me understand the growing number of Americans who choose “none” as their religious preference.  This book helped me better understand the children, teens and young adults of today, the post-millennials who are the most irreligious generation in American history.  White’s church is reaching them for Christ, and he has good insights.

Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others without Sacrificing Conviction, Caleb Kaltenbach.  The title is attention-grabbing enough.  This memoir is written more for regular Christians than for pastors and scholars.

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson.  Peterson died last year, so I thought it was finally time to read his much-loved series of essays on the Psalms of Ascent.  It was well worth my time.  The man could write so lyrically, and inspired so much love for our Father.

Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson.  This one is now a movie, starring Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx.  I haven’t seen the movie, but the book is well worth your time.  Be warned: It will shake you up.  It’s the story of Stevenson, a Christian attorney who chose to devote his life to representing criminals on death row, focusing on one man who was unjustly convicted.

Bruchko, Bruce Olson.  People hand me books all the time.  I hate to admit, I just can’t read them all.  But two different friends loaned me this one, and months later, I finally took the time.  This is a story that seems unbelievable.  Olson, only 19 years old, decided to travel to South America without training, resources or backing, to reach people who had never heard the name of Jesus.  His story is harrowing at times, and too real to be made up (not everything that happens in this book is happy), but ultimately miraculous and inspiring.

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott.  Yep,  I read it.  Originally, I read this one because I knew a movie version was coming out and I thought it would be good to take my wife and daughter to see it.  We still haven’t made it to the theater, but I enjoyed this book far more than I thought I would.  And I am secure enough in my masculinity to admit it!


Tough Questions: Why Did God Curse Children?

At another church, we tried a Wednesday night visitation program for a few years.  We never got a lot of participation, and we found that most people didn’t like being visited in their homes.  One night, there were about four of us there, and we were dividing up visiting assignments.  I read out the name and address of a man who had visited our church and filled out a visitor’s card.  Immediately, one of the guys there, named John, said, “Oh, I can’t go see him.”  The other three men in the room looked at him for a few awkward seconds, then John sheepishly said, “I beat him up once.  It was a long time ago, before I got saved, but yeah, I beat him up.”  Right then, Dale spoke up, “What was the guy’s name again?”  Dale was the human resource guy for one of the refineries in town.  When I told him the name, he smiled and shook his head.  “You fired him, didn’t you?” I asked.  “Yes,” he answered.  “Well, actually, he sorta fired himself.”  John piped in at that point, “Well, he sorta beat himself up, too.”

That story was funny precisely because it was so unexpected.  We were in church, after all, where people usually pretend to be nicer than they really are.  It’s a little bit shocking when some of the raw truth comes out.  One thing about the Bible: It’s not afraid of the raw truth.  Today, we’ll talk about a very raw story, from 2 Kings 2:23-25.  This one shows us a side of God we would rather not even acknowledge.  In fact, we rarely mention stories like this in church these days.  But hiding from this doesn’t make it true.


23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. “Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.

So does this story mean that it’s a sin to make fun of bald-headed men?  Or that people who don’t respect preachers will meet a bad end?  (Actually, I sort of like that second one).  No, I think both of these stories say something fundamental about who our God is…and it’s something that doesn’t get talked about in our sermons or sung about in our songs.  It doesn’t fit with our common conception of God as a doting, approving Grandpa in the sky.  He is a God of holy, righteous wrath.

This event took place during a time of spiritual crisis in Israel. The King was a man named Ahab.  1 Kings 16:30 says, Ahab…did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him.  What did he do that was so bad?  Well, first he married a woman named Jezebel.  Jezebel was one of the true villains of the Bible, as we shall see.  Jezebel came to Israel with the express goal of converting the Jews to the worship of false god named Baal. It makes sense:  She was the daughter of Ethbaal, the king of Sidon in the land of Phonecia.  Ethbaal’s name meant “Baal exists.”  One of her first actions was to round up all the prophets of the Lord and have them killed.  If not for the courageous action of a man named Obadiah, who risked his life to hide 100 prophets, they all would have been massacred.  Then she persuaded her husband to build a massive temple for Baal worship in Samaria, the capitol of the Northern Kingdom, and also a statue of Asherah, mother of Baal (apparently Baal needed his mommy nearby).  So Israel, which had been for centuries a nation that was unfaithful to God, now became a people who were outright opposed to Him.  Their idolatry led them into terrible injustice.  1 Kings 21 tells the story of Ahab and Jezebel conspiring to have a man named Naboth executed under false charges just so that they could take possession of his land.

Into this terrible time, God sent Elijah, a hard-nosed prophet with the kind of power that hadn’t been seen since the days of Moses.  Elijah did things like stopping the rainfall, and calling down fire from Heaven, to show the Israelites that God’s judgment was coming on His people if they didn’t repent.  He boldly stood up to Ahab and Jezebel, even at the risk of his life.  Then one day, God took Elijah away in a whirlwind. Along with Enoch in Genesis 5, he is one of only two humans we know of who never died.  That left Elisha, a man who had left great wealth to follow Elijah.  For years, he had been doing that; now it was up to him to stand up for God in a land that had still not been spiritually revived.  This story takes place right after Elisha begins this new ministry.  As Elisha travels back to Bethel, 42 young men come out to mock him.  It’s not clear exactly how old these boys are.  The King James Version calls them “little children,” while some other versions call them “youths,” which is more indicative of teenagers.  The Hebrew term is used in both ways in other parts of the Bible.

Some scholars believe when they called him “baldhead,” it was because Elisha had shaved all or some of his hair as a sign of his new role as a prophet, like a monk’s tonsure.  Some also believe that in saying “Go on up,” they were making fun of the idea of Elijah going up to Heaven.  In essence, they were saying, “Why don’t you go on up there too?”  We don’t know for sure if either of those interpretations are true or not.  But scholars agree that the punishment from God came because they attacked Elisha’s authority as a prophet.  Elijah had been around for years, and pagans in Israel had learned to fear him.  Now he was gone, and these young men felt free to mock his assistant.  They didn’t realize the power came from God, not Elijah, and God hadn’t gone anywhere.

There are other stories in Scripture where the wrath of God comes down in sudden and shocking fashion.  In Numbers 16, Korah, Dathan and Abiram tried to convince the Israelites to stop following Moses, and instead go back to Egypt with them.  The earth opened up beneath them and swallowed them whole.  In 2 Samuel 6, Uzzah was one of two brothers who were transporting the Ark of the Covenant on an oxcart.  The Ark was the object that symbolized God’s presence, and it had been in the possession of the Philistines for years.  Now it was finally going home to Jerusalem.  What should have been a joyful day turned to tragedy when an ox stumbled, and Uzzah instinctively reached out his hand to steady the Ark.  He was struck dead on the spot.  And then in Acts 5, a Christian couple named Ananias and Sapphira, sold a piece of land, kept part of the money for themselves, but told their church they were giving all of it.  When Peter confronted them separately with their lie, they each dropped dead.  When we study these stories, we see some common threads.  What do they tell us about God?

He is a God of absolute righteousness.  God’s wrath is a function of His righteousness.  In other words, God becomes angry when His righteousness is offended.  In short, God hates sin.  God’s wrath is not like human anger.  It is not self-centered, cruel or vindictive.  It is always righteous and just.  Our anger changes us; we make stupid decisions when we are mad.  God’s wrath does not change His character in the slightest.  God can be angry with us, and still love us just as much as He always does.  My own behavior as a parent illustrates the difference between God’s righteous wrath and my petty anger.  If I get angry with my son because he wants to watch a movie and I want to watch football, and in the course of my anger I throw his movie away, that is selfish, cruel and vindictive.  That does not make me a good father, and it doesn’t help Will become a better child.  On the other hand, if I don’t allow him to watch the movie because it has content that would be harmful to him, or because that is the best discipline I can think of to teach him an important lesson, then that is wrath that is motivated by love and a concern for righteousness.  That is the wrath of God.  It is always motivated by righteousness.  It is always redemptive.

When we look at these stories through the lens of God’s righteousness, it helps us see them in a different light.  So for instance, when Korah, Dathan and Abiram went against Moses, they were trying to persuade the people to go against God.  Remember, Moses had proof that God was leading Him.  When Uzzah touched the Ark and died, he was explicitly disobeying the instructions God had given the Israelites for how the Ark should be transported.  It was supposed to be handled in a religiously appropriate way, not treated like a common load.  In the same way, these boys weren’t just mocking a baldheaded man.  They were mocking God’s authority in their lives.

You might say, “But God should have been more merciful.  These stories make Him sound like a short-tempered monster.”  I have three things to say to that.  First, we’ve mentioned four stories out of 66 bibilical books and several thousand years of history.  Examples of God’s sudden, deadly wrath are extremely rare.  Second, if God is who the Bible says He is, a God whose thoughts and ways are higher than our own, isn’t it possible He could have a morally defensible reason for doing something that we can’t possibly understand?  Third, we act as though dying is the worst possible thing that could happen to a person.  What if God’s taking of these people’s lives was an act of mercy?  What if He was stopping them from heading down an even darker path, and leading others in that direction as well?  You  may say, “Well, that’s giving God an awful big benefit of the doubt.” Yes it is, but I think that’s appropriate.  I’ll tell you why in just a minute.

His wrath comes when we don’t take His righteousness seriously.  In the stories I told earlier about the people who caught the bad end of the wrath of God, those people had one thing in common: They all claimed to be people of God.  Even though the young boys who mocked Elisha were probably idol-worshippers (like most of Israel in those days), they surely considered themselves part of the chosen people.  We should see these stories as warnings; God will bring our hidden sins into the light.  Hypocrisy never wins in the end.  The Bible scholar and preacher D A Carson once befriended a man from French West Africa.  Carson grew up in Canada speaking French fluently, so they hit it off, and would often eat together.  Eventually, Carson found out that his friend often visited prostitutes.  Carson knew the man was married, and that his wife was studying at a medical school in London.  He asked, “How would you feel if you found out your wife was doing the same thing you’re doing?”  The man said, “I’d kill her.”  Carson said, “Don’t you think that’s a bit of a double standard?”  The man responded, “In my country, it’s expected that a husband will have many women, but wives are expected to be faithful.”  Carson said, “You were raised in a missionary school.  You know how God feels about adultery.  How can you do this?”  The man smiled and said, “Ah, God is good.  He is bound to forgive me.  That’s His job.”

Probably no one here would be so blithe about adultery, but what about the sins we struggle with?  Don’t we rationalize them, minimize them, and take for granted the mercy of God?  Isn’t all sin reprehensible in His sight?  I am not trying to be dramatic, and I certainly hope no one here goes home today and drops dead.  I just want us to be aware that God’s wrath is real and if we call ourselves God’s people while unrepentantly sinning, we could find out personally how real it is.

We are supposed to fear Him.  Now that term has always bothered me a little.  The Bible often says we should fear the Lord.  And that term means more than just respect, no matter what people tell you.  It bothers me because I was raised with the belief that God loved me with an everlasting love, that I was the apple of His eye, and that He longed to have a personal relationship with me just like a daddy with his child.  And all of that is absolutely true.  But think about that relationship I just mentioned.  A father and his child may love each other, but that love does not make them equals.  If the father is a good one, and the son is obedient, there will always be an element of fear.  It won’t be a trembling, cringing sort of fear, because that would mean the father was an abuser.  But even with the most loving dad, the son will be afraid to cross certain boundaries.  Otherwise, the son is making himself equal to his dad, and that is not the way God created family relationships.  In the same way, we should love the Lord.  We should pray to Him personally.  We should consider Him our most intimate and warmest friend.  But we are not His equal.  We should continue to acknowledge that there is mystery and holiness about God that we cannot understand this side of heaven.  Otherwise, the relationship is not what it should be.

This is not a comfortable topic to talk about, or to hear about.  How can we possibly approach a God of such awesome righteousness, when we are all so full of sin?  Believe it or not, God faced the same dilemma with us.  He looked down on these people He had created, His children, the apples of His eye.  He saw that we were full of sin and unable to come to Him, when coming to Him was life to us.  In His righteousness, He couldn’t write off our sin…couldn’t simply say, “It doesn’t matter.”  But in His love for us, He couldn’t let us die.  And so He came.  He became a man named Jesus who lived for the express purpose of dying.  Here is how Romans 3:25-26 puts it: 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood… 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.  At the cross, both aspects of God’s holy character were perfectly represented.  At the cross we see His incredible wrath against sin; so awesome and fierce, Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus at that moment wasn’t just suffering the physical pain of crucifixion.  He was bearing the accumulated wrath of God against the sins of billions of people. We cannot comprehend that kind of suffering.  At the same time, we see in the cross God’s amazing love for us.  Jesus became our atoning sacrifice.  The literal Greek term means, “propitiation.”  That’s an old word that means, “that which turns away wrath.”  It’s the picture of a man who pushes us out of the way of an oncoming truck and takes the hit Himself.  That is what God did for us at the cross in the form of Jesus.  God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.

So earlier when I acknowledged that I am giving God a huge benefit of the doubt in all these stories, that’s why.  If you were a young woman, and your new boyfriend stood you up on a date, you might assume he didn’t really care about you.  Perhaps he was even with some other woman.  But if instead of a new boyfriend, it was a husband who had spent years proving his love to you, your assumptions would be different.  You would say, “Something must have happened.  Maybe there was an emergency at work, and his phone’s battery was dead.  I know him too well to think that he’s done this on purpose.”  We can give God the benefit of the doubt because the cross proves His love is true.  We can read stories like the ones we talked about today and say, “I don’t know exactly what happened and why, but I am choosing to believe that God’s love is real, because of what He did for me at the cross.  Therefore there’s an explanation for this story that I will understand in the right time.”  The cross changes everything.

Our Ten-Year Vision

Note: I shared this with our church on Sunday morning, January 12.  It’s the result of discussions among the ministry staff during our retreat in October, after years of prayer for God’s direction.  First, a couple of disclaimers: First, I don’t know the future anymore than you do.  I believe, as James 4:15 says, we should be humble when we talk about our plans, but I also believe, as Proverbs teaches us over and over again, that we should plan as best we know how.

Second, I realize that you may not like what I will say over the next thirty minutes.  You may think to yourself, “That’s not the vision I have for this church.”  That is your right.   I am the pastor; I am not Jesus Christ, the head of the church.  So let me say this: Whether you jump in feet-first to this vision and do everything you can, praying and working and seeking opportunities to advance this vision, or you just keep on doing what you’ve always done, completely ignoring what I say today, either way, it won’t change the love God has for you.  It won’t change the way that I or anyone on staff here treat you.  We are a family because God brought us together.  But I believe He has given us a tremendous opportunity right now and in the coming years. In the 23 years I have served as a pastor, I have never seen a church that is more positioned to make a powerful impact on its community than this one is right now.  And I believe that the vision our ministry staff has is God-honoring and will lead us into amazing things.  I’d love it if you’d join in.

Where we are as a church.  2019 was a very eventful year for our church.  In the past year, we added 124 new members.  That has led to growth in both of our worship services as well.  You don’t need for me to tell you statistics; you can look around and see.  Many of our long-time members have commented that they see so many new faces, it almost feels like a new church.  I am glad to say that the members who tell me this see it as a good thing.  It’s been a good year financially, as well.  Heading into last year, we had to make cuts to our budget.  But coming into this year, we were able to make some modest increases. Just as significantly, our debt has been sharply reduced.  Two years ago, we started the For the Mission Campaign. We were seeking to raise a little over $2 million.  Some of that was to fund a new sound system and other upgrades for our sanctuary.  Those have been a huge blessing.  But $1.7 million of it was to eliminate debt from a previous renovation.  Today, that number is around $300,000.  If people give to For the Mission this year the way they did last year, the debt will be eliminated before the year is through. Think about what that means: We will have over $12,000 a month to use in ministry that has been going to debt service.

Then there are the things that you can’t measure in numbers: This continues to be a loving, warm, welcoming church.  The unity here is wonderful.  People are growing in Christ.  And we continue to increase our outreach to the community around us.  This past year, 80 people a week learned English as a second language through Literacy First. Last Fall we began a partnership with Sam Houston Elementary School, just two blocks from us.  We furnished school supplies and extra funds, served a back-to-school lunch for the teachers, and best of all, sent 15 mentors onto that campus to invest in the lives of students.  Members of this church took the Gospel to places like New Orleans, Vancouver, Costa Rica, Colombia, and England.

But in the midst of all these good things, I need to remind you of something: We’re still not fully fulfilling our purpose.  Of the 124 people who joined our church, only 22 did so by baptism.  Most of those were brand-new believers. We had many others who moved into our area and joined our church.  We rejoice at that. But many of our new members left another church in our area to come here. If you’re one of them, please know, we are so glad to have you. You’ve already made our church better.  But our gain is another church’s loss, and that’s not how we want to grow in the future.  My prayer is that someday soon, we’re not just rejoicing at bringing new members to our church, but that most of those new members are also new Christians.

Our community.  If you’ve lived here for long, you don’t need me to tell you this area is growing.  A little over a decade ago, a Houston Chronicle reporter called Conroe a “sleepy, semi-rural area.”  But between 2010 and today, the population increased from 36,000 to over 87,000.  For the three years 2015 to 2018, Conroe was the fastest-growing city in America.  By 2040, the population of Montgomery County is projected to double, to over 1 million people.  They move out here for the good life; better schools for their kids, more house for their money, a slower pace.  But look beneath the surface, and you’ll see that the good life isn’t as simple as buying a house on the lake or posting family pictures on Instagram.  Beneath the carefully crafted exterior of these lives, there is chaos.  Families are being torn apart by divorce.  Many marriages are hanging on by a thread; the love has gone out of them long ago. Parents are doing their best to provide their kids with more than they could possibly need, but have no idea what to do when those kids still struggle with bullying, crippling anxiety, depression and hopelessness.  Everywhere, loneliness is epidemic.  In all the chaos, some work harder to make life even better, but that’s just a case of trying the same thing, hoping for different results.  Others devolve into addictive behaviors, and still others seek to end their own lives.  We had a man shoot himself just a few feet away from our church building a month ago.  How many of our own neighbors, friends, family members are just one step away from such a tragic choice?

God’s heart and our mission.  I’ve been using the word “chaos” to describe life in our community. The definition of chaos is “a state of extreme confusion and disorder.”  It comes from a Greek word that means “chasm” or “void.”  Interestingly, the Bible itself starts with the story of the Spirit of God hovering over a formless void. We’ll talk more about this in two weeks, but Genesis 1 is all about God bringing order to that chaos.  With only His spoken words, He turned confusion and disorder into trees, mountains, rivers, oceans, and life itself.   That is what God does.  He turns chaos into peace.  He takes what seems to be total destruction, and turns it into something beautiful beyond comprehension.  This past Christmas season, we studied John 1, and saw that when God saw the chaos of this world, The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  In other words, God didn’t take up a collection in Heaven and send down a care package; He came to live with us Himself.  He addressed the problem personally.  He ultimately invested Himself in us in the most profound way possible, by giving up His own life for our salvation.  2 Corinthians 3:18 says, And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.  Once we come to know Jesus, the more time we spend in His presence, the more like Him we become.  The more like Him we become, the more of His peace and joy come into our lives.  But we can’t keep that peace and joy to ourselves.  We have to follow Jesus’ example, leaving our comfort zone and investing ourselves personally in the lives of the people around us.  As the people around us see His glory reflected in us, they are drawn to Him, too.  That’s how He brings peace to the chaos, by rescuing and redeeming one heart, one family at a time.  That’s what He wants to do in the lives of all our neighbors, and in the lives of the thousands who will move here over the next ten years.

Think about where we are located.  Many churches choose to build in the new, growing areas of a city.  Some pick up and move to where the new homes are being built.  But we’re right here in the heart of Conroe, the heart of Montgomery County, and we have no plans to move.  That means we’re not the church of Woodland Hills, or Greystone, or Grand Central, or Woodforest.  This city and county are our mission field.  And what do we have to offer them?  Yes, we’ve been blessed with some great facilities, and I think our programs are high quality, but that doesn’t really matter to the people who aren’t here.  Do you think a person whose life is chaotic is looking for a comfy pew and a nice sermon?  They need to experience transformation.  The main thing we have to offer is a large number of people who have spent a lot of time in the presence of Jesus.

Let’s do a quick survey: Raise your hand if you’ve been following Jesus for twenty years or more.  That’s our treasure.  We have hundreds of people who for decades have been slowly transformed from who they were into the image of Jesus, with all the peace and joy He brings, and a community full of people trapped in chaos who need what we have. Spiritually speaking, our community is starving and thirsting to death, and we have a warehouse full of the Bread and Water of life. Once they get a taste, they will never go hungry again.  Once they take a drink, the water will bubble up inside them and never go away.  I’m not talking about old-school door-to-door evangelism.  We live in a time when people aren’t curious about what the Bible says regarding salvation.  They don’t accept Scripture’s authority, and they certainly don’t respond well to people who come to their door unannounced with a canned presentation.  The Gospel hasn’t changed, but our mission field has.  I’m talking about getting FBC members invested in the lives of people around us who are struggling in confusion and disorder, and by the power of God in these transforming relationships, bringing them peace and joy.

Our vision.  Over the next ten years, the people of FBC Conroe will be involved in 10,000 transforming relationships, watching God use us to bring peace to the chaos, one heart, one family at a time.  Let’s define what I mean by “transforming relationships.”  I don’t simply mean, “I have three family members, four guys I play golf with, two guys at work that I eat lunch with, and eight neighbors I talk to once in a while, so that’s 17.”  A transforming relationship is intentional, meaning you choose to get invested in someone you wouldn’t otherwise spend time with, or you take an existing relationship in an intentional direction. A transforming relationship is also focused on a need.  So, for instance, you start inviting your elderly neighbor over to dinner once a week, since you’ve observed that she never gets out of the house and rarely has visitors.  You help your young coworker set a budget and get out of debt.  You visit a prisoner on a regular basis, praying with him that the Lord would prepare him for life on the outside once he’s paroled.  You meet for coffee with a single mother, and you let her vent, and pray for her.  In all of these things, you’re helping someone with a need, and you’re doing it in Jesus’ name.  If they aren’t a Christian when that process begins, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll have the opportunity to share the Gospel with them at some point, because people just don’t take the time to invest in others like that.  And if they’re already a Christian, you’re helping bring peace to their chaos, so they can more fully reflect the light of the glory of Christ to someone else.

Can you imagine the impact if those kinds of relationships happen ten thousand times over the next ten years?  I can.  I imagine thousands of lives being changed, thousands of families being restored, the Gospel being shared thousands of times, and scores of people coming to faith.  I imagine our local leaders saying to themselves, “Whenever there’s a problem, we definitely need to get First Baptist involved.  They bring peace to chaos.”  I imagine even unbelievers saying things like, “I still don’t agree with their beliefs, but I have to admit those First Baptist people sure do care about us.  They make this a better place to live.”

How will we accomplish this?  First of all, we’re going to talk about it…a lot.  We want this to become embedded in our church’s culture, so that when you think about yourself as a member of First Baptist Church, your first thought isn’t, “I’m a member of this Life Group,” or “I serve in this ministry,” or “I prefer this worship service over the other one.”  Instead, your first thought is, “Here are the transforming relationships I am involved in right now.”  Next, we need to create openings for these kinds of relationships.  For instance, someday soon, we may have mentor couples in this church who meet with people who are engaged, newly married, or just struggling to stay married.  We have plans to build a leadership pipeline, so that young Christians train under people who have been serving for years, to prepare them to lead our church in the future.  We could create a mentor discipleship model, in which Christians are given the tools to sit down and discuss Christian truth with non-believers in a gentle, respectful way over a period of time.  We have already committed to start some form of outreach to our local city government this year; that may have a mentoring component.  Perhaps we’ll each have the opportunity to adopt a city employee, praying for him and his family.  We could give you tools to use in witnessing to the non-Christians in your life, like a book you could study along with them.  These are all ideas at this point, you understand.  Don’t volunteer for them yet, but be listening as they come up.

Third, we need to figure out a way to keep track of these transforming relationships, so we know how we’re doing.  Some of these kinds of relationships are already going on.  We have many members involved in mentoring relationships at Sam Houston Elementary and other schools in our community.  You can volunteer for that ministry today; there is a huge need for mentors.  We have mentor Moms serving in Mothers of Preschoolers.  And I have no idea how many transforming relationships are already taking place without any kind of official church program, just one member investing in the life of his neighbor, her coworker, their son-in-law or friend.

What happens next?  This year, our theme is “His story, your story.”  I’m going to be preaching all year about how God brings peace to the chaos around us.  The sermons will be primarily stories of how God uses ordinary people to bring this about.  Meanwhile, you’ll hear a lot of stories about FBC members engaging in these kinds of transforming relationships, too.  The hope is that, as you hear all these stories, you’ll think about the people who’ve invested in you, and you’ll be praying for opportunities for you to do the same for others.  Meanwhile, we’ll be doing what I said earlier: Talking about the vision, creating openings for these transforming relationships to take place, and finding a way to keep track of what God is doing.  And we’ll be preparing for the future.  If we become this kind of church, we’ll see more people want to join our church family, including many new believers.  We’re already getting crowded, so we’re working through the details of starting a third worship service and a second Life Group hour within the year.  I know just saying that opens a huge can of worms, and you want details, but just trust me…we’re working on it, and we’ll let you know when we know. Here’s what I know: The year 2030 sounds far away, but it’s not. If Jesus doesn’t come back first, that year will be here soon. More importantly, our community can’t wait for us to get our act together.  We need to become a church of people who invest in our neighbors as soon as possible.  The people of this community need to know that the heart of Jesus is at the heart of this community, and He loves them.

Here’s something else I know: If your life is full of chaos, confusion and disorder, there is good news.  All of us were lost in that chaos.  It was like there was a vast chasm filled with churning death separating us from the joy and peace we hoped for.  But Jesus loved us enough to die for us.  He threw Himself into that chasm, and became the bridge so we could walk to the Promised Land.  He did that for you.  He can bring peace and joy into your confusion and disorder, if you’ll let Him.  That’s the ultimate transforming relationship.  Come to Him today.

Tough Questions: Why Does the Virgin Birth Matter?

Once upon a time, God’s people had an evil king named Ahaz.  His father and grandfather had been noble, godly kings, and his son Hezekiah would grow up to be Judah’s greatest king after David, but Ahaz was different.  He was so totally given over to idolatry, he burned one of his own children in a fire of sacrifice to his false gods.  So by and by, two armies, both much larger than Ahaz’s tiny force, started marching toward Jerusalem.  And Ahaz was quaking in his boots, offering to pay any price to a nation who would come and help defend him against these aggressors.  And God decided at that point to give Ahaz a second chance.  He sent the prophet Isaiah, who had advised Ahaz’s father and grandfather, to say to the young king, “Don’t be afraid of these armies.  God has them in the palm of His hand.  Just come back to Him.  Just try Him.  See if He won’t give you a great sign of His power, and defeat these two kings who want to destroy you.”  But Ahaz refused.  And so Isaiah said these famous words: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.


Isaiah might have been pointing to a young woman in the court that day, saying, “By the time this girl gets pregnant and has a baby, these two nations will be off your radar screen.”  But like so many prophecies in the Old Testament, this one had a dual meaning.  Essentially, Isaiah said, “Here is what God can do.  Someday, when you are long gone from the earth, and the two kings who oppose you are dead and forgotten, the Lord will show His power in an unexpected way.  He will bring into the world a man who is truly God.  And that man will be born in a way that has been impossible until now, of a virgin.”  Some 700 years later, the Bible teaches us that Isaiah’s prophecy came true in the birth of Jesus, the son of Mary of Nazareth in Bethlehem.  Now that makes for a wonderful story and a quaint manger scene, but does it matter today?  There are a great many people today who think the virgin birth of Jesus is a ridiculous legend.  They can’t understand how we can take such a claim seriously.  In this series, I’ve already talked about why we believe the Bible is a reliable information source, and we can take its words literally when we read them in their proper context.  Besides, if there is a God who created the entire world, as most people believe, would it be so difficult for Him to make one more person in an extraordinary way?  The question is not “Did it happen?”  The question is “Why?”  What relevance could there possibly be in a strange event 2000 years ago, in a tiny corner of the world?  How does that help the single person trying to survive another Christmas alone?  What could that possibly mean to the cancer patient who is pretty sure this is her last Christmas?  Does it really make any difference to the guy whose marriage is breaking up, at Christmas time, of all the times?

I say to you that the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is not only true, it is one of the most important facts in human history.  And I will tell you why.

Jesus knows your pain.  Do you remember the “God” billboards?  They started in Florida, where an anonymous, very wealthy Christian paid to have them staked out on the freeways.  Then they have spread across the country.  They were simple black billboards with a small message in white lettering that is supposedly from God.  They said clever things like, “Meet me at my house before the game.”  “Loved the wedding.  How about inviting me to the marriage?”  And then there’s my personal favorite: “Don’t make me come down there.”  Actually, God already did come down here, and that is what Christmas is about.  You and I and the rest of the human race were condemned.  The world needed fixing, and God was the only one who could do the job.  And so He came down.  Now, if you work a blue-collar job, imagine the CEO coming down from his high rise downtown to tour the plant.  Imagine he puts on a jumpsuit, steel-toed boots and a hard hat.  He has the outfit down, but does that make him one of the guys?  Does that mean he will understand what your life is like, what your concerns are?  An hour or so, and he’s back in his air-conditioned office.  We’ve all seen the spectacle of celebrities who visit our troops.   Inevitably, someone will hand them some piece of a military uniform, and they’ll put it on, posing for the camera in their soldier costume.  Does that make them a soldier?  Of course not.

Jesus could have taken the same route.  He could have put on a human costume and made an appearance.  It would have cost Him little to nothing.  But He didn’t.  The mere statement “He was born” says that God chose to become a tiny baby, to spend 9 months in the womb of a woman, to go through the painful and—especially back then—dangerous process of labor.  And then to come into the world so helpless, so weak and vulnerable.  Even at that, Jesus could have chosen to be born into a safe, comfortable life.  The son of a princess, perhaps, or a rich merchant’s wife.  He could have been attended by doctors at His birth, toasted by noblemen and celebrities.  He could have lived in luxury all His days—then the sacrifice wouldn’t have been so tough.  But Jesus was born of a virgin.  A young girl, probably a teenager.  An inexperienced child who had no husband.  A poor girl with a poor fiance, the subject of so many whispers and rumors He had to be born in a little town far from home.  So poor His first clothes were rags and His first bed was a feed trough and His first visitors walked on four legs.

So what does that mean?  It means He has been there.  Whatever pain you experience, Jesus understands.  Are you lonely?  He was despised and rejected.  In the key moment of His life, His 12 best friends abandoned Him.  Are you dealing with loss?  He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.  Do you feel dirty and worthless?  At the cross, the sin of the whole world was poured out on Him.  Do you wonder how that made Him feel?  Wonder no longer.  Among His last words were, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?  Jesus understands what you are going through.  And He alone has the power to get you through it.  He stands and says to all of us, Come to me, all who are weary and burdened down, and I will give you rest.

Jesus can do anything.  When Isaiah the prophet came to Ahaz the wicked king, he brought good news: “Just trust in me, Ahaz.  Turn over a new leaf.  See how I can take care of your enemies.”  But Ahaz couldn’t trust in a God he had never known.  700 years later, the angel Gabriel went to young Mary and told her she would give birth to the Messiah.  She said, “Um, but I am a virgin.  How can I have a baby?”  And Gabriel said, “Nothing is impossible with God.”  The tender young girl had faith where the mighty king had none.  She said, “Alright, if God says it, I believe it.  I’ll sign on with His plan.” Her exact words were, “Be it unto me according to your word, o Lord.” And God kept His promise.  He did the impossible.  He bypassed biology to make a baby in a way no baby had ever been made before.  He wanted Mary and Joseph, and you and I, to know that nothing is impossible with God.

I read once about a man in Australia named Peter Bunton who taught high school art class for decades.  Mr. Bunton was a Christian who happened to teach at a particularly rough school, and he felt very burdened for those kids.  He knew the answer to their problems was Jesus, but he also knew that if he tried to share the gospel with them in any verbal way, he would lose his job.  And so he determined to pray for them.  Every day, while they worked on their projects, Mr. Bunton prayed for those kids by name.  And at the end of every year, they would be gone, and a new crop of rough, spiritually lost kids would come.  Mr. Bunton never saw any real results, but he knew teaching was where God wanted him, and praying was all he knew to do, so he kept it up.  Years went by, and Mr. Bunton was retired and in his seventies when a pastor named Brian Roennfeldt came to see him.  Brian shared that his wife, Angie had been one of Mr. Bunton’s students.  Years later, she had accepted Christ, and she and Brian were now serving the Lord in a church.  And they knew of literally dozens of other students who had become believers after taking Mr. Bunton’s class.  Many of them were pastors and missionaries.  And Mr. Bunton was stunned and choked with emotion; all he had done was pray for them.  He had no idea what God was doing as a result of his prayers.

I would imagine many of you feel somewhat like Mr. Bunton about some area of your life.  Maybe someone precious to you is not a believer, and you want so desperately for them to know Christ.  Maybe you or someone you know is struggling and in poor health.  Maybe you have a sin problem, an addiction or a terrible old habit that keeps you from being all you can be.  No matter what the problem is, just remember the words of Gabriel to Mary: Nothing is impossible with God.  You don’t know what God is going to do, but I do know this: You’ll never see His power until you pray.  You will never experience a miracle until you take your burden and lay it at His feet.  The virgin birth reminds us that God can do anything.  Anything that stands against us belongs in His hands.

Jesus is more than a man.  The most important question in the world 2000 years ago is still the most important question in the world today: Who do you say that Jesus is?  Most people have an opinion on that question.  Many will say that He was a very good man, maybe the best man ever.  They’ll talk about the wonderful lessons He taught, how He came to bring peace on the earth and teach us to love our enemies, and how, if we would just try to live by His words and His example, the world would be a much better place.

But is that all Jesus is?  The virgin birth says no.  The virgin birth says that Jesus was born of a woman just like the rest of us, and so He was fully human.  He had a body like ours, that got tired, that caught the flu, that got hungry, that wore out.  He had emotions like ours, and felt things like anger and frustration and discouragement and temptation.  But at the same time, the virgin birth says He was more than a man.  Because no earthly man was His father.  He was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  God Himself placed that child inside Mary’s womb, and that is what makes Him unique.  It proves He was no mere man.  And so I ask you, do you believe it?  Who do you say that Jesus is?  If you believe this story about a virgin birth, that changes everything.  You can’t just go on with life as usual anymore.  You must cast aside everything to follow Him.  I think that’s why the virgin birth has been such a controversial doctrine.  If Jesus’ birth was normal, we could convince ourselves that He was just an extraordinary man, and nothing more.  We could relegate Him to the list of amazing heroes that we talk about and admire, like Lincoln, Gandhi, and King.  But He was so much more than that.

One Christmas Eve, a man named Jim slipped into the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.  It was a few minutes before the Christmas Eve service, and all around him, Jim could see the signs of Christmas cheer.  The greenery and lights were strung all over that vast auditorium. Children were running through the aisles, their eyes wide with expectation, since Christmas morning was only hours away. Men and women greeted each other with cheerful voices, dressed in their holiday best.  But Jim didn’t feel cheerful; he was a recovering alcoholic, six months sober.  This was his first Christmas without his family.  As he looked at the happy families all around him, his heart just broke.  He had to have a drink.  The service still hadn’t started yet, and Jim got up to leave.  But the pastor, Thomas Tewell, met him in the lobby.  Pastor Tewell had counseled with Jim before, even though he wasn’t a church member, so he knew about Jim’s alcoholism.  “Jim, where are you going?”  Jim was at least honest, “Oh, to go get a scotch.” “Jim, you can’t do that,” the pastor responded. “Is your sponsor available?”  Jim replied, “It’s Christmas Eve. My sponsor is in Minnesota. There’s nobody who can help me. I just came tonight for a word of hope, and I ended up sitting behind this family. If I had my life together, I’d be here with my wife and kids too.”

The pastor brought one of his associates over to talk with Jim for a moment, while he prayed about what to do.  The service was starting, but he knew he couldn’t ignore this man.  So as he stood up to welcome the people, he was also praying for wisdom.  He spoke these words, “I have one final announcement before we begin.  If anyone here is a friend of Bill Wilson, could you meet me in the back of the church?”  Bill Wilson is the name of the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous; “a friend of Bill W.” is sort of a code word for a recovering alcoholic.  All over that auditorium, people began to stand up and file out of the church while the congregation started singing carols.  Pastor Tewell got up a few moments later and preached a sermon about the incarnation, how God became man in Jesus, but as he says, “while I was preaching, the Word was becoming flesh out there in the vestry.”  What Jim learned that night was that Jesus had been there and understood His pain.  He found out that Jesus could do anything, even keep Him sober on a difficult Christmas Eve.  He found that Jesus was more than a man; He was the one and only Savior of the world.  What old wicked king Ahaz wouldn’t admit, couldn’t accept in the 7th century BC, Jim learned and experienced that Christmas Eve night.  Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, is the answer.  Is He your answer today?

Tough Questions: Why Don’t Christians Follow All the Bible’s Rules?

In 2007, the journalist AJ Jacobs wrote a book called The Year of Living Biblically.  It was the story of a year in his life, in which he devoted himself to living out every command in Scripture with complete obedience.  Jacobs described himself as a secular Jew (his exact quote is “I’m a Jew in the same sense that Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant”) and an agnostic, who wanted to get in touch with his spiritual side.  So he let his beard grow out, since Leviticus says men should not trim the edges of their beards.  He blew a shofar at the start of every month.  He tithed ten percent of his income.  He even stoned an adulterer, although the stones he used were only pebbles, and the adulterer, a man in his seventies, almost beat him up for it.  The book became a best seller.  CBS even made a sitcom about it, which only ran 13 episodes and was apparently terrible.  But it raises an important question: Why don’t I look like AJ Jacobs right now, with a long, unkempt beard, fringes on the edges of my garments, and the Law literally tied to my wrist and forehead?  Why don’t I sacrifice a bull on God’s altar when I sin or when I want to say thank you to God for His blessings?  For that matter, why do I mow my yard on Saturdays, when I’m commanded to rest from all my labors on that day?

This is a serious issue that every Christian must deal with.  When I was growing up, I was vaguely aware that there were some laws in the Old Testament that we as Christians didn’t follow.  I tried not to think about it.  After all, if I’m supposed to give up shrimp and bacon, I’d rather not know that.  I reached a crisis point when I began interacting with people online who knew that I was a Christian minister.  They would say things like this: “You Christians are inconsistent.  You’ll use the Bible to bash people whose sexuality is different than yours, but you ignore when it says you should avoid wearing garments of mixed fibers, or to stone a rebellious son to death.  You’re just picking and choosing the parts of the Bible that fit your agenda.”  Some would go on to say, “Of course you can’t live by the Bible like you claim to do.  The whole thing is ridiculous.  So you might as well admit it, instead of playing this charade and trying to force us to live like you want us to.”  So you and I, as Christians, have a bit of a double quandary: Are we indeed being inconsistent, as some unbelievers say?  And if so, does that mean that God is not pleased with us for failing to following the whole counsel of His Word?

The answer begins by defining the Bible’s true purpose.  It is not simply a book of rules, or “an instruction manual for life” as some call it.  It is a story, told over thousands of years, through dozens of individual writers, that can only be fully understood when read through the lens of Jesus’s life and redeeming work.  Here’s what I mean: A huge part of the first five books of the Bible is taken up with God establishing His Law.  That’s where we get the Ten Commandments, but also more bizarre rules like, You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.  In the Law, given to Moses atop Mt Sinai, God also established an intricate system of sacrifices, festivals and fasts.  The Law served three purposes: First, it was a constant reminder of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.  We can’t approach Him casually, as if we have a right to be in His presence.  We have to take care.  We have to eat the right foods and avoid the wrong ones.  We have to wear the right clothes.  We have make sure we haven’t had contact with anything unclean.  And we have to do the right sacrifices at the right time in the right way.  Second, it helped keep God’s people separate from their pagan neighbors.  God knew that if Israel followed the path of the other people in the land, it would lead to their downfall.  So He instituted rules that would remind them constantly that they weren’t like other nations.

The third purpose of the Law was to prepare the way for something else, something better.  We see hints of that in the Old Testament, such as when Samuel tells Saul in 1 Samuel 15:22 that
God doesn’t want sacrifices, He wants obedience.  Or in Hosea 6:6, when the prophet says that God desires mercy, not sacrifice.  Clearly, just following the rules was not enough in God’s eyes.  So what did that leave?  Jesus came along, and seemed to have a very strange relationship to the Law of God.  In Matthew 5:19, He said, Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  He then went on to say that not only are the Laws of the Old Testament still in force, they are much more comprehensive than we thought.  When it says do not murder, for instance, we aren’t even allowed to hate a brother in our heart.  When it says we shouldn’t commit adultery, we can’t even look upon a woman lustfully.  So Jesus didn’t do away with the commands of the Old Testament; He intensified them.

But He also said in Mark 7:19 that all foods were now clean.  Just like that, He did away with a huge chunk of the Old Testament Law and reversed centuries of tradition.  He would touch dead bodies, or menstruating women, or lepers, all of which made Him ritually unclean according to the Law.  What was He doing?  It certainly seemed like He was doing away with the Law; that’s the way His enemies interpreted His actions.  But He said in Matthew 5:17 that He had not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.  What did He mean?  How could a human being fulfill the Law of God?

The Book of Hebrews gives us the answer.  It says that all of the Law, including the sacrifices, feasts and rules, points ultimately to Jesus.  He is our once-and-for-all sacrifice.  He is our one and only High Priest.  He is the one who lived out the Law so we don’t have to.  When He died, the veil in the Temple was torn in two; so from now on, we get to God through Jesus, not through the Law.  When I was just out of college, I worked for a man who attended a church which believed the Law of God still applied.  They refused to celebrate Christmas, but kept days like Passover and the feast of Tabernacles.  They stuck to the Jewish dietary system, and he used to grumble at me about eating “unclean meats.”  But based on the New Testament, living by that Law makes about as much sense as lighting my home with whale-oil lamps, ignoring the fact that we’ve had electricity for a hundred years.  If an unbeliever asks why you don’t keep the Old Testament Laws, tell them that to do so would be to deny your Lord, who died to fulfill all of that for us.

Right now, I imagine some of you are thinking, “Come on Preacher.  Quit talking in circles.  All I want to know is, which rules do we still have to follow?”  And, with respect, that’s our problem.  We want to reduce our faith to a list of rules and rituals.  That’s so much easier than actually having a real relationship with God, actually following Jesus, actually living by the Spirit. When Jesus spoke out against the scribes and Pharisees, as He often did, people were shocked.  After all, those men kept the Law better than anyone.  How could Jesus, who claimed to be Israel’s Messiah, attack such wonderful, godly men?  Well, think about it this way: Imagine a man is newly married, and he comes to his young bride and says, “Alright, I need to know what is required of me.  How much time do I need to spend listening to you talk every day?  How often do I need to say ‘I love you?’  Can I save that for birthdays and anniversaries, or is it an every day requirement?  And tell me about your affection expectations.  How often will you need a nice, soothing hug?  I need to factor all of this into my busy schedule, you know.  Speaking of which, I have golf, hunting, fishing and football games to attend.  How often can I be gone without you throwing a hissy-fit?”  Would you say that relationship is off to a good start?  Of course not!  That’s not how you love someone.  Instead, you love them by living with them, learning what their needs are, what their love language is (thank you, Gary Chapman, for that term), and you grow in your ability to love them.

For example, I learned early in my marriage that my wife needs to live in a house that is clean.  If clutter starts to build up, it physically hurts her to see it.  She’s kind and patient and sweet, so she doesn’t blow up at me or the kids, but I can see the stress in her eyes (her twitching eyes, in fact).  On the other hand, I learned that she doesn’t really desire grand public displays of affection.  If I stood up in front of an entire restaurant full of people and loudly extolled her beauty, virtue and intelligence, she would be more embarrassed than encouraged.  That’s a shame, because I can do that.  In fact, I am much better at that than I am at cleaning up around the house.  But if I love her, I will put my shoes up when I take them off.  I will take the dirty coffee cups, books and magazines off the end table before I go to bed.  I will remind the kids to put their stuff where it goes.  If I love her, I won’t say, “Tell me how often I need to pick up my stuff?”  I will just do it.  It took years and a lot of false steps to gain this understanding of my wife.  Truth be told, I still miss the mark quite often; thank God she loves me anyway.  If we are honest, our desire to simply know which rules in the Bible still apply comes from a yearning to control God.  We don’t want to do the hard work of having a real relationship.  Our attitude is: “Just tell me what I need to do, so I can do it and be on my way.” So the first step to understanding God’s Word is to repent of this simplistic concept of faith.

But having said that, the question still stands.  There are hundreds of commands in the Old Testament; why do we follow some today but not all?  The theologian John Calvin said that when you look at the Law, you see three different kinds of rules, civil, ceremonial, and moral.  Civil laws were given by God so that the people of Israel could form a nation.  They needed a foundation on which to build their society.  These laws functioned for Old Testament Israel the way our constitution does for us.  But that version of Israel is now gone.  The current nation of Israel is a secular nation, not a theocracy like it was in the Old Testament era.  So those laws no longer apply.  For example, in Leviticus 18, a person who committed incest was to be executed.  But in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul talks about a man in the Corinthian church who is sleeping with his own mother-in-law.  He tells the Corinthians to expel this man from their church, not to stone him to death.  What changed?  Why didn’t Paul follow Leviticus?  Because it was a civil law intended for a nation that no longer exists.  From Paul’s time to now, what matters most is not the laws of nations, but the behavior of God’s people, the church.  God wants His people to live in a way distinct from the world, so that’s what Paul emphasized.

Ceremonial laws included the sacrifices, festivals and the cleanliness rules, including the dietary laws.  All of these were intended to make the Israelites pure enough to stand in His presence.  But now that Jesus has come, He’s fulfilled those requirements.  We can boldly approach God’s throne of grace because His righteous standing has been transferred to us through His death on the cross.  We don’t need to circumcise our male children anymore, because the change the Holy Spirit makes in our hearts is better than an outward sign.  We don’t need to keep the Sabbath holy anymore, which is why Christians began worshipping instead on the first day of the week, the day Christ rose again.  Yet those ceremonial laws teach us important principles about God and life.  The Sabbath is a good example.  It’s a reminder that our lives work better when we take a day of the week off from work and life as usual, to refresh our souls and bodies in the presence of God and His people.

The moral laws are the ones that show us how to live a good life.  These still apply.  If you want to know which is which, ask, “Is this reaffirmed in the New Testament?”  For example, the eighth commandment (Exodus 20:15) says, “You shall not steal.”  This is a moral law, having to do with how we treat others.  Ephesians 4:28 affirms it: Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.  Notice that: Paul says it’s not just about not stealing.  We should work hard, so we have to opportunity to give to others, instead of taking from them.

So let’s return to the metaphor of marriage.  Jesus said the entire Law is summed up in two commands: Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.  If we want to live a God-pleasing life, we will build our lives around those two commands.  They will guide us in every decision, every priority.  The commands in Scripture, then become instructions for us to follow as we learn who God is and how best to love Him.  It’s like Him saying, “I don’t need for you to shout your love for me from the rooftops.  Just pick up your stuff at the end of the day.  I don’t need for you to buy me diamonds once a week.  Just listen to me when I’m speaking.”  In God’s case, He says, “Don’t steal your neighbor’s stuff.  Instead, work hard enough to share your stuff with Him.  When you do that, it’s like you’ve given it to me personally.”  If you center your life around loving God and loving your neighbor, you can’t help but grow in righteousness and joy; you will live the life you were meant to live.

Finding Jesus: Loving People Isn’t Easy

Note: this is an excerpt from my new book, Finding Jesus.  Available at this link 


A few years ago, Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, died.  Phelps and his church of about forty people—mostly family members—in Topeka, Kansas, specialized in publicity stunts.  They protested at the funerals of fallen American service people, holding up signs that named the people they believed God hates.  Even the name of their website is hateful: Godhatesfags.com (please don’t visit it).  I read that when he died, Phelps had been excommunicated from the church he founded.  I find that so ironic, and yet so fitting.  This man founded a church based on hate, and ended up being chewed up and spit out by the same hateful machinery that he himself constructed.

It’s easy for me to judge someone like Fred Phelps.  Truth is, the world doesn’t think of the love of Christ when they think of us, either.  We have no excuse.  A large portion of American evangelical Christianity has somehow decided that feeling anger and disgust over the sins of other people is the same thing as righteousness, and that denouncing unbelievers is the same thing as being a bold witness.  Let’s be clear about something: The Bible never commands us to tell anyone that God hates them.  We are not commanded to point out the sins of people who aren’t believers.  We never see Jesus in the Gospels railing on the sinfulness of pagans, or Paul standing outside Greek theaters or bathhouses, telling them how foolish their choices are.  Sometimes I see my Christian friends getting into intense arguments over morality with unbelievers.  I find that baffling.  Why are we getting angry when people who don’t believe the Bible act like people who don’t believe the Bible?   Would we rather they pretend to share our values, even though they don’t know our Savior?  What we ARE commanded to do, over and over again, is make disciples of Jesus Christ.

How do we do that?  The same way Jesus did: By getting out of our pews and off our high-horses and investing ourselves in the lives of the people around us who don’t know Him.  I read recently that here in America, 1 in 5 non-Christians doesn’t even know a single Christian.  That ought to make us weep.  So this week, write an encouraging note to someone.  Invite someone to lunch.  Ask someone if you can pray for them.  And here’s a tip: Just because you assume that someone doesn’t need friends doesn’t make it so.  In my experience in ministry, I have learned that some of the loneliest people are those who look like they have everything life can offer.


Finding Jesus cover

Finding Jesus: Introduction

Note: My new book, Finding Jesus, is now available on Amazon.  You can find it by clicking the link  here. I will also have copies available at First Baptist the next few Sundays.  Here’s the introduction to the book:

Lieutenant Dan Taylor: “Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?” 

Forrest Gump: “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for Him, sir.” 


Why should you read this book?  I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is different from other great men and women of history.  Studying the lives of figures like Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, or Mother Theresa can be inspiring.  But when people strive to know Jesus, it changes their lives for the better.  The very act of seeking Him improves the seeker; I can’t think of anyone else, alive or dead, like that.  If you are already a follower of Jesus, I hope this book can help you know Him more fully.  What I think the Church needs today more than anything else is to dig beneath all the petty social issues and political struggles we find ourselves consumed with and simply get to know Jesus as He truly is: Who was He?  Why did He come?  Why did He do the things He did?  What does it mean to follow Him today?  I am hoping this book will enable you to see aspects of His character you’ve never considered before.  If you choose, this book can be read as a year-long daily devotional guide.  Within the twelve chapters are three hundred sixty-five readings, each containing a Scripture reference and a paragraph or two of commentary.  The readings are undated, so you can start any time of year.  You can also read this a chapter at a time, like any other book; it’s completely up to you.    As you read, pray for God to help you know Jesus better than you ever have before.  Keep a journal of any new insights you gain.  And consider passing the book along to a friend who needs to know Jesus, too…or even reading it along with them.

I wrote this book with non-Christians in mind, as well.  In the movie Forrest Gump, Lieutenant Dan, having lost both legs in combat, has no use for a God who seems either unaware of his problems, or impotent to help.  He especially resents the pat answers and manipulative language of religion, with its promises that He can “walk with Jesus in the Kingdom of Heaven.”  (Of course, Lieutenant Dan later makes peace with God…and he does walk again.)  Perhaps you’ve experienced the same frustration with religion.  Maybe your experience with Christians can be summed up by words like “Hateful,” “Self-righteous,” “Overly political,” “Homophobic,” “Anti-Science.”  The goal of this book isn’t to make you any of those things.  In fact, if you get to know Jesus, you’ll find that He wasn’t any of those things, either.  Could it be that the impressions you have of Jesus are based on false assumptions?  Wouldn’t you like to know what He was really like?

Or perhaps looking for Jesus has never really occurred to you.  You’re not particularly religious, and you can’t think of any good reason to change that.  Somehow this book has landed in your hands (Maybe one of your pushy religious friends gave it to you).  Do me a favor: Read the first chapter, and see why I believe Jesus is the most important and influential person in human history, whether you believe the Church’s claims about Him or not.  Then consider the fact that this man– a man so influential history is literally divided into everything that happened before Him, and everything that has happened since–this man didn’t claim to know truth, He said He WAS Truth.  He didn’t come to teach us new facts about God; He said He WAS God.  Either this was the most successful con artist ever…or the key to life as we know it.  Shouldn’t you make an informed decision about such a person, just in case?  Wouldn’t that be the most responsible thing to do?

One thing to note: I believe we can’t truly know Jesus without studying the Bible; In other words, I assume that the Jesus of Scripture is the Jesus of history.  There have been many books written about Jesus over the years, all claiming to reveal the “true” story.  But I believe the true story of Jesus was completed 2000 years ago.  This book is simply my attempt to guide you through that story.  Please don’t skip the Scriptures I reference; take time to read them carefully.

So come along on a journey with me.  No matter who you are, I pray you’ll find Him.  I’m confident you will.  After all, He said it Himself:  Everyone who seeks, finds (Matthew 7:8).

Tough Questions: Why Should We Believe the Bible?

Last week, we said the question, “Can We Trust the Bible?” is really two questions: The first is, “Is the Bible authentic?”  In other words, do we have the words of the original authors, or something cobbled together for political reasons?  That’s what we talked about last week.  The second question, which we will discuss today, is: “Is the Bible true?”  The late Chuck Colson once told the story of a British army officer sending a telegram to London from Dunkirk, where the Allied forces were trapped between the English Channel and the German army.  They needed to be evacuated, or they would be decimated, World War II would be over and Nazism would reign supreme over Europe.  The message the officer sent was only three words: “But if not.”  It’s a quote from the King James Version of Daniel 3:18.  The context is that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were ordered to bow before an idol, on threat of certain death.  They told the King of Babylon that their God was able to save them from his hand, But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.  In other words, even if we have to die, we will not bow.  The officer took it for granted that British citizens in 1940 had heard those words often enough, they would get the message: “Even if you don’t rescue us, we will not surrender.”  Those inspiring words galvanized ordinary Brits to cross the English channel in sailboats, tugboats and fishing boats, braving the strafing of enemy fighters, to accomplish the most amazing evacuation in history and—in a very real sense—save Western civilization.

It goes without saying that most Western people would not recognize those words today, seventy years later.  But even more so, most of us don’t recognize their authority.  It’s common now when Christians discuss our beliefs with others, to hear them respond, “I can’t believe you still base your life on that book.”  It certainly changes the way we interact with unbelievers; people my age and older were taught to lead people through the Roman Road of salvation, or other methods of showing people what the Bible says about how to be saved and have eternal life.  Today, many of our neighbors would wonder why we’re quoting to them passages out of a book they don’t accept as true.  It shakes our faith as well; could they be right?  Are we basing our lives on a book whose teachings are out of date?  Let’s consider three questions: Should we take the Bible literally?  Isn’t the Bible outdated?  And how should we respond to people who reject the Bible’s authority?

Should we take the Bible literally?  One pastor says when people ask him, “Do you take the Bible literally?” He says no.  He can see them relax, as if they’re thinking, “Good, so you’re not one of THOSE nutjobs.”  He then says, “But I believe every word in it is true.”  What does he mean?  The Bible is not meant to be taken strictly literally.  First of all, there are figures of speech: When Jesus tells us we must eat His flesh and drink His blood in John 6, He is not advocating cannibalism or telling us to become vampires.  There is hyperbole: When Mark 1 says all the land of Judea was being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan, it doesn’t mean literally every Jew in Southern Israel was baptized.  It’s meant to show how popular John’s ministry had become.  And there are different ways of reading different genres in the Bible.  For instance, when Revelation 5 describes Christ as a lamb who looked like He had been slain, we’re not supposed to believe that Jesus morphed into a baby sheep with blood oozing from its neck.  Because Revelation is written in an apocalyptic style, we know that images are supposed to convey a larger meaning.  Whereas, when we read in Matthew 8 that Jesus stilled a storm, we know that Matthew wants us to believe that actually happened, since he is writing a historical account.

Here’s another example: Skeptics will sometimes point out that Deuteronomy teaches that a rebellious child should be stoned to death.  They’ll say, “You don’t obey that command.  So why do you pick and choose the stuff you want to believe now?”  For many, this is a convincing argument that the Bible can be disregarded.  But the answer is simple: Deuteronomy is part of the Law of Moses.  Both Jesus and Paul said clearly that we are no longer under that Law.  In a couple weeks, we’ll delve more closely into what the Law of Moses was and why we no longer follow it.  But for now, just know that the Bible has an internal logic.  You can’t just read every part of it the same.  2 Timothy 2:15 tells us we should be people who rightly handle the Word of truth.  In other words, we have to do the hard work of asking, “What did this mean to the people who first read it,” and “How does God want me to apply this truth to my life today?”

If you’re a Christian, please don’t let that last sentence discourage you into thinking, “I guess I’d better just leave Bible study to the professionals.”  Hogwash.  My Grandpa was a dairy farmer with a  high school education.  Aside from a brief stint in the Navy, he never lived anywhere but the little unincorporated community where his family had been for generations.  Yet he knew the Bible as well as anyone I’ve ever known, and it transformed him into a person I long to emulate.  If you can read, you can read the Bible.  Even if you’re illiterate, someone can read it to you.  Just make sure you read it in these four ways:

In confidence: There are so many concepts in Scripture that are difficult to understand.  But the most important ideas in it are simple enough that a child can grasp them.  Every time you read the Word, your understanding grows.  But you will never come to the point where you have wrapped your mind around it all.  Someone has said the Bible is like a pool which, at one end, is deep enough for elephants to swim, and at the other end, is shallow enough for children to wade.

In context: In Philippians 4:13, Paul writes, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  If you saw that quote ripped out of context, you might think it’s a promise that God gives us power to do whatever we want.  Is that what Scripture teaches?  Should I be able to ace my math test without studying because Christ gives me strength?  No.  Read Philippians 4, and you find that Paul is talking about contentment, specifically his ability to be happy and joyful even though he is locked in prison.  Don’t settle for short quotes from devotional books.  Read the Word in its context.

In community: The Bible was meant to be read alongside other believers.  If the way you interpret the text is different from your entire Life Group, that should make you reconsider your interpretation.  If it’s different from scholars and theologians throughout the history of the church, you’d better really reconsider.  As we discuss the Bible with other believers, we will often disagree.  That’s actually a healthy thing.  It’s how we grow.  But only if we follow this last step…

In humility: Once I was listening to a famous preacher’s radio show.  His co-host was gushing over him, “Dr. Preacherman, one of the things I admire about you is that as I listen to tapes of your sermons from thirty years ago, you’re still saying the exact same things now that you said then.”  And he responded, “Well, Chuck, that’s what happens when you do your homework before you preach.”  My thought was, “So you haven’t learned anything new about the Bible in thirty years?”  Don’t get me wrong: The foundational truths of the faith, the things that the Bible is clear about, are non-negotiable.  Every believer, much less every preacher, should stay consistent on those.  But I believe we understand Scripture best when we listen to other believers’ perspectives, checking to see if perhaps they have understood a particular passage or teaching better than we have.  And we must always be willing to admit there are some parts of the Bible we just don’t understand fully yet.

Isn’t the Bible outdated?  Tim Keller pastored a church in Manhattan for years.  He would often meet people who had visited his church and were surprised at how seriously he took the Bible.  He said when he first planted the church, in the 1980s, they rejected the Bible because they thought it was unscientific or historically unreliable.  We’ve already considered those questions earlier in this series.  In more recent years, their objections changed.  Now, they didn’t like the teachings of Scripture.  “The Bible is culturally regressive.  It is pro-slavery, anti-woman, and homophobic.  If we don’t leave these old concepts behind, we’ll never advance as a society.”  To their way of thinking, the Bible has some good lessons, but we need to pick those out and reject the stuff that our modern understanding had exposed as outdated.  Keller responded to these statements with two arguments.

First, a lot of these ideas are based on a misunderstanding of Scripture.  For instance, the Bible is not pro-slavery.  Slavery in the New Testament world was very different than slavery in this country.  It wasn’t racially based, it wasn’t for life, and slaves could buy their way to freedom.  Slaves in the First Century lived pretty much like most free people.  So for Paul to tell slaves to submit to their masters was like a pastor today telling his church members, “If you work for someone else, be the best employee they have.  Make their job as your supervisor easier.”  The same thing is true of gender roles.  Ephesians 5 says that a man is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the Church.  That doesn’t mean that the man is the King of his house, and his wife must do his bidding (although admittedly, some Christian men act like that’s what it means).  Paul says Christ died for His Church, and so men must lay down their lives for their wives.  In other words, biblical headship is not a privileged position, it’s a responsibility.  A Christian man will give an accounting to his God if his wife is not flourishing, if his kids aren’t well-cared for.  He will consistently put his wife ahead of himself.  In order to lead his family well, he will respect her skills and wisdom enough to defer to her on decisions where she knows best.  Marriage won’t be a competition, but a partnership that is founded on love; that starts when a husband chooses to identify with Jesus in His marriage.

Second, he says that just because you disagree with something God says, it doesn’t make it untrue.  He would point out that every generation has a kind of cultural arrogance.  We look back at people in the past and think, “How could they have thought that way?”  We pretend that the way we think is “progressive, enlightened,” and the way others thought is primitive.  We act as though we have perfect clarity, and no blind spots at all.  But our great grandchildren will look back on us and ask the same questions.  That’s a humbling thought, no?  He points out that if you took a person who lived a thousand years ago and taught them the Scriptures, they would be in full agreement with the idea of God’s Judgement of all sinners.  But the idea of forgiving one’s enemies would be hard for them to accept.  If you take an average modern person, they would respond to those two concepts exactly opposite: Love and forgiveness would sound enlightened, while judgement would be offensive.     Who is right?  Actually, we both are.  Whoever you are, whatever time period you live in, some part of the Bible will always punch you in the mouth.  As Keller says, if you aren’t willing to let someone disagree with you, then you don’t have a real relationship. That’s true in marriage or friendship.  How much more true is it with an eternal, all-knowing God?  So if the Bible says things you find hard to accept, that doesn’t mean it’s untrue; it means God knows more than you do.  I don’t know about you, but I’m glad He does!

How should we respond to people who reject the Bible’s authority?  Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:15, Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.  The word “answer” is apologia, from which we get our word, “apologetics.”  It means “defending the faith.”  When we meet someone who rejects the Bible’s authority, we often feel we need to defend our faith.  That is a worthy motive, but notice that Peter says we should do it “with gentleness and respect.”  Paul wrote something similar to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:24-25, And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.  There’s that word, “gentleness,” again.  When we meet people who think differently than we do, it tends to make us angry.  When we get angry, we want to argue with them.  We project motives and thought patterns onto them that may not be true: “He doesn’t want to believe the Bible, because he wants to be able to follow his own sinful desires.”  We use straw-man arguments: “So you think you’re smarter than God?  How arrogant is that?”  Speaking to them with gentleness and respect means considering their feelings.  It means listening to them, finding out the specific reasons why they don’t believe in the Bible, and answering them in a congenial way.

Note also that according to Paul’s words to Timothy, our motive, our hope, is that their lives would be changed, and they would become believers.  I have never met anyone who was argued into belief in Christ.  But I have met many people who once thought faith in Jesus was foolishness, and now can’t imagine living without Him.  It didn’t happen because some Christian got angry and insulted them.  It didn’t even happen because they met a Christian who was smarter and more articulate than they were. It happened because they met Jesus-followers who responded to their ridicule and slander with gentleness and respect.  We all have countless neighbors who are asking the question: Why should we believe the Bible?  Let’s live in such a way that we are the answer.

Tough Questions: Can We Trust the Bible?

When I was a senior in high school, an adult I highly respected said something devastating to me: “Someday, you’re going to realize how the Bible was put together, and that it can’t possibly be the Word of God.  You’re going to realize how deceived you’ve been.”  I wasn’t a new Christian at that time.  But I had recently made a decision that Jesus wasn’t just the Savior of my soul, He was Lord of my life.  I didn’t just want to go to Heaven when I died; I wanted to live for Him.  In my youthful idealism, I scoffed at her words and thought, “We’ll see about that.”  Over the three-plus decades since then, I have heard and seen lots of arguments that reinforce what she said.  Was she right after all?  This is no minor question.  As evangelical believers, we say that the Bible is our source for knowing what is true and what isn’t.  When contemporary culture changes its views on a matter, we stay with what the Bible says, even if it makes us unpopular.  If a gifted preacher says something that doesn’t square with Scripture, we reject his teachings.  Ultimately, what we know about God, morality, and truth is not determined by what we hear on the news, or what our church tells us, or even what sounds right in our own eyes; it is determined by this book.  But what if we’re wrong?  What if we’re staking our belief system on a book that is not worthy of our trust?

This is really two questions: One, should we really base our lives on words written thousands of years ago, a book that depicts miraculous events unlike anything we’ve seen, especially since we know there are many other supposedly holy books that have been written in human history?  We’ll explore that question next week in our Tough Question: Why Should we Believe the Bible?  The second question, and the one we’ll consider today, is this: How do we know the Bible we have today is authentic?  That’s what my adult friend was really questioning all those years ago.  She had heard that the Bible was corrupted over the years by different people adding their own perspectives, so we don’t even know what the original authors actually wrote down.  It’s sort of like the telephone game.  Remember that when we were kids?  My most memorable instance of the telephone game came when I was a young adult in college, and we played the game as part of a training session at my job.  One of my co-workers was an Indian student named Haroon.  Our boss whispered something innocuous in the ear of the person at the front of the line, like, “Haroon goes grocery shopping on Fridays.”  By the time it reached the end of the line, that simple statement had morphed into, “Haroon goes ‘va-room’ in the bedroom.”  We died laughing, and Haroon turned purple.  But it stands to reason that the same thing happened to the words of the Bible.  As I got older, I was surprised to learn that we don’t have an actual copy of any of the original manuscripts of Scripture.  I just assumed that, somewhere in a museum was the first Bible.  But it wasn’t so.  The books of the Bible were hand-copied for centuries, until the invention of the printing press 1500 years after Jesus.  Surely mistakes were made, right?

And besides that, there was another reason to doubt the trustworthiness of the Bible.  These books weren’t the only ones written about Jesus and Christian doctrine in the early days of the church.  By some estimates, as many as 3000 books existed.  Who decided on the 27 we consider Scripture today?  Why wasn’t the Gospel of Thomas included?  Or the Epistle of Barnabas, or the Apocalypse of Peter, for instance?  A common belief is that the bishops of the Church, some four hundred years after Jesus, chose books that fit a narrative they wanted to promote, and banned the rest.  In the blockbuster best-selling novel, The Davinci Code, a character explains that Jesus’s followers saw Him as a prophet, but otherwise a mere man.  But the Roman emperor Constantine had Him declared divine so that his power would be unchallengeable.  He published the biblical books that emphasized Jesus’ divine nature and banned the ones that showed Him as more human.  Yes, that was a work of fiction, but it parroted a common conspiracy theory.

So let’s look at both of those reasons to doubt the Bible’s trustworthiness.

Do our current Bibles contain the words of the original authors?  The analogy of the telephone game would seem to make that unlikely.  But that actually isn’t a good analogy at all.  In the telephone game, a person in the line hears a whispered message—only once!—and has to pass it along with another whisper.  But the books of the Bible were hand-copied, not whispered.  Scribes in the ancient world took their work very seriously.  Not only that, but there were multiple streams, not just one line of transmission.  To make the analogy more accurate, imagine there had been sixteen different lines of people passing along the message, “Haroon goes grocery shopping on Fridays.”  The first person would write the message down and give it to the next person in line.  He would then write it on another piece of paper, and pass that along to the third guy.  If one person in the line wasn’t sure what the message said, he could ask the person to re-send, or even check it against the other lines.  Mistakes are much harder to make in that scenario.  That is more like how the Bible was transmitted.

Is it still possible that mistakes were made?  Absolutely…and they were!  That’s why there’s an entire field of study known as textual criticism.  So imagine a translator is working through a manuscript of Luke 11:2 that has just been found.  It says, Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.  He notices that the other Greek manuscripts he has read slightly differently.  They say, Father, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come.  So which is the right one?  His textual critical training tells him that the more accurate manuscript is likely to be older, and shorter.  So he looks at his new manuscript, which is newer and longer, and assumes that the scribe must have mixed up Luke 11:2 with Matthew 6:9-10, which is the start of the Lord’s Prayer.  But just in case, in his translation he puts a little footnote so that the reader is aware that some manuscripts read a little differently.  You can probably see it in your English translation. There are dozens of those…the work of textual critics who devote their lives to making sure the Bibles we have are completely accurate.  If you decide to carefully read all of those footnotes, what you will find is that not a single major doctrine of our faith is in question.  They are all minor quibbles about wording.

I said a little earlier that the telephone game would work better if you had sixteen different lines of transmission, not one, so they could be checked against one another.  So how many different manuscripts of the Bible do we have?  Just to limit things, let’s consider the New Testament.  We currently possess over 5800 Greek New Testament manuscripts.  There are also another 20,000 ancient copies in other languages such as Latin or Syrian.  And there are over a million quotations from the New Testament in the writings of early Church leaders.  That’s a lot of streams of transmission, and plenty of opportunity for scholars to be certain of what the original message said.  By comparison, other ancient documents that we study in our history classes have between 100 and 200 ancient manuscripts, yet virtually no one questions their authenticity. In other words, we can be absolutely certain the words of our modern Bibles are the words of their original authors.

So let’s look at the other issue.  How were these books chosen to be in the Bible? As I mentioned, conspiracy theorists point to political decisions made by church councils in the Fourth Century.  But for the real answer, we have to go much further back.  The first and second generation of Christians had a very different form of worship from us.  They would gather together in homes on Sunday, the first day of the week, probably in the evening when everyone was off work.  They would share a meal, sing some songs, and someone would read a text from the Old Testament—the only Bible they had—and teach about what the Scripture said or share some prophetic thoughts from the Holy Spirit.  If there happened to be an apostle in the area, they would set everything else aside and let him speak instead.  An apostle, by the way, was someone who had known Jesus personally and been commissioned by Him to be His representative.  Some of these apostles starting writing letters to churches when they couldn’t be there in person.  A trusted friend would bring the letter to the church, and it would be read aloud to the entire congregation on the next Sunday.  We know that the people believed these were more than letters—they were the inspired words of God through those apostles. See 2 Peter 3:16, And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.  I used to laugh at that passage, imaging blue-collar Peter struggling to understand the educated, erudite Paul.  Then I noticed: Peter was calling Paul’s letters Scripture!

People in those churches would copy the letters and share them with other churches.  That’s how the Scriptures first were circulated.  Over time, churches would gather all the letters and Gospels into a single volume or scroll.  It is absolutely true that lots of other people were writing letters to churches and stories about Jesus in those days.  Some of them were even written in the name of an apostle.  Church leaders would compare notes to see if what they had was true or not.  As best we can tell from reading their letters to one another, they used four criteria to determine what was true Scripture and what wasn’t:

One: Scripture comes from an apostle.  Luke and Mark weren’t apostles, but the early church believed they got their sources from eyewitnesses.  Mark was said to have interviewed Peter for his Gospel.

Two: Scripture is confirmed by God’s power.  Reading the letter or Gospel should produce life change in the reader if it is truly the word of God.

Three: Scripture is true.  In one of the stories of Jesus written in those times, Jesus as a boy acts like a spoiled wizard.  He makes clay birds, then brings them to life. He strikes another little boy dead for bumping into him, and when the parents complain, he turns them blind.  The early church rejected these stories, because they weren’t consistent with what the Bible said about Jesus.

Four: Scripture is accepted by God’s people.  Several years ago, books were written claiming that the Gospel of Thomas should be considered Scripture.  But the Gospel of Thomas was rejected by the people two thousand years ago, because it taught an ancient heresy known as Gnosticism.

It is true that Constantine convened several Church councils in the fourth century AD, and at those councils, bishops discussed what would be considered official church doctrine. This occurred because there were heretical movements cropping up, and Constantine wanted to keep this from disturbing the peace of his kingdom.  And yes, at one of these conferences, the Council of Carthage in 397, a vote was taken to officially decide on the canon of Scripture.  But the true decision was made in most churches centuries before that.

Christians and others sometimes ask me about certain books that Catholics have in their Bibles, that we and other Protestants don’t.  These 14 books are commonly known as the Apocrypha.  Here’s the story: The last of the books of our current Old Testament were completed four hundred years before the birth of Christ. But when the Old Testament was translated into Greek—a translation known as the Septuagint—the rabbis included fourteen extra books that had not been in the Hebrew Bible.  Centuries later, when Martin Luther and other leaders of the Reformation were finally translating the Bible into the languages people actually spoke—such as German, English, French, etc—they put these fourteen books into a special section in between the two testaments, or left them out entirely.  Here’s the important point: The Reformers didn’t consider these books heresy.  They said they were fine to read, but didn’t rise to the level of Scripture.  These books do not contain anything that disagrees with Christian doctrine.

I think back on that day when my adult friend told me that someday I would discover the truth about the Bible.  She was right, but not in the way she thought. The more I have learned about how God’s Word came to us, the more amazed I am at His incredible love for us.  It took the work of thousands of scribes, the courage of martyrs, and most of all, the wisdom of a God who wants us to know Him, to bring us this book we hold in our hands. And the more I study it, the more I grow into the person God made me to be…and the more convinced I am that this is the true Word of God.

What About People Who Don’t Know Jesus?

I can remember as a very small child wondering about people who never even hear the name of Jesus.  It didn’t seem fair that some little boy on the other side of the world who didn’t have the good fortune to be born in a Christian home would go to Hell, while I went to Heaven.  Much later, when I was working at UH one summer as an orientation guide, one of my co-workers was venting to us about one of her Christian friends.  She explained that she herself had been raised a Christian, but was starting to have doubts about what she really believed.  It all came to a head when she was talking to this Christian friend about who goes to Heaven.  Somehow, they started talking about Ghandi, and whether he was in Heaven now.  The friend said no, because he was a Hindu and never accepted Christ as his Savior.  My co-worker was furious about this.  “If you’re telling me that Christianity teaches that one of the greatest, most courageous people who ever lived isn’t in Heaven because he was of the wrong religion, then that’s not a religion I want to be a part of anymore.”  I must confess to you that I sat there mute, not knowing what to say or how to answer her.  I was awfully glad when someone changed the subject.

So what would’ve been the right answer?  This is one of the most important questions of all.  It’s something we all want to know.  Missiologists estimate that as much as 1/3 of humanity hasn’t even heard the name of Jesus.  At least 4 billion people don’t identify themselves as Christians.  On a national level, the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christians has decreased by 11 percent in this past generation.  The fastest growing religious group in America today are those who claim no religious affiliation.  But for most of us, this is a more personal issue than all of that.  I want you to think about the people who mean the most to you.  Look at their pictures in your wallet, purse or phone, or envision them in your mind.  There’s probably at least one of those people who you are concerned about today.  You know they are headed in the wrong direction.  Ultimately, you’re not sure what would happen to them if their life ended today.  It’s okay to admit it…the billions of lost people bother you, but you are most concerned with that one person; that son, that granddaughter, that sister, that dad, that friend.  What happens to people who don’t believe in Jesus?  For that matter, what about people who have done some outwardly religious stuff, but their present life is headed in the wrong direction?  What does the Bible say?  Would a loving God really send people to Hell?

Some people try to solve this problem by saying that Hell is a ridiculous, obsolete concept.  Who still believes in a Day of Judgment and a literal Hell?  Well, Jesus did, for one.  He spoke about it 15 times in the Gospels.  The most common image He used to describe it was Gehenna, a real place in Jesus’ time.  It was a valley just outside Jerusalem where the garbage, including the bodies of dead animals and human criminals, were burned in a fire that never went out.  That, Jesus said, was what Hell was like.  Scholars debate whether the images of fire are intended to be literal or figurative (I lean on the figurative side), but the point is clear: Hell is real, and it is a terrible place, far from God and anything good.

I have to admit to you, this bothers me.  A part of me would love to agree with those who say there’s no Hell, that God lets all of His children into Heaven.  But the idea of Hell and God’s judgment didn’t seem to bother the Jews in the time the Bible was being written.  I think that’s because of the oppression that was so common in their daily lives.  They knew that a God who truly loved them would not let the awful evils of this world go unpunished.  Maybe doubting God’s judgment is a peculiar luxury of the prosperous.  For instance, I doubt that Christians whose churches are being bombed in other countries have much trouble believing in the reality of Hell.  I doubt that the men and women who have been sexually violated by clergymen in their childhood feel squeamish about the idea of God’s judgment.  When we get right down to it, we feel the same way:  Do you believe the 9-11 terrorists went to a place of paradise when they died?  What would that say about God if they did?  There’s a great line in a British mystery novel of a several years ago.  A woman is mocking religion and says, “I don’t go in for all this emphasis on sin, suffering and judgment. If I had a god I’d like Him to be intelligent, cheerful and amusing.”  Her friend, who is Jewish, replies, “I doubt whether you’d find him much of a comfort when they herded you into the gas chambers. You might prefer a god of vengeance.”

Others solve this problem by saying, “Obviously, the bad people go to Hell, but good people go to Heaven.”  Or they rely on the dominant view of this age: “All religions lead to the same place, as long as you’re true to your beliefs and tolerant to others.”  Again, these would be attractive solutions, but Jesus clearly didn’t believe that way.  In John 3, we read about Jesus encountering a man named Nicodemus.  This man was a religious leader among the Jews, which meant he was exceptionally devoted to His religion (which was, let’s remember, the same religion Jesus was raised in and practiced).  Everything we read about Him indicates he was also a sincerely good man.  He tried to defend Jesus when the other religious leaders were determined to kill him (Jn. 7).  Later, after the crucifixion, he personally helped prepare the body of our Lord for His burial (Jn. 19).  Both of these actions showed incredible courage, integrity and compassion.  But Jesus told this good, devout man, “Unless you’re born again, you can’t see the Kingdom of God.”  It’s not about goodness or religious devotion at all.  If it were, then Ghandi would definitely get in ahead of me.  But the person we are cannot stand in the presence of God.  Our sin keeps us out.  Jesus would later say in John 14:6, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  In Acts 4:12, Peter, standing before the same Sanhedrin that conspired to kill Jesus, said, there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.  I haven’t even started on Paul’s writings in Romans and Ephesians.  If people can get to Heaven by being good or by being devoted to their religion, Jesus and those who followed Him certainly didn’t seem to know it.

So what did Jesus believe about the fate of unbelievers?  Luke 13:1-5 sheds some light on the question.  There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”  Some people come to Jesus, asking His opinion about a current event.  The Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate—known for his cruel anti-Semitism—had ordered some Galileans executed while they were sacrificing at the temple.  This would have been big news, and perhaps they just wanted to know what the young Rabbi had to say about it.  But notice the words “at that time.”  Luke wants us to know that this event was brought up right after Jesus foretold the return of the Son of Man and the Day of Judgment (see Luke 12).  I think these people were saying, “Well, I guess those people were getting some of that Judgment you were talking about, right?  After all, God wouldn’t have let that happen to them if they hadn’t been pretty bad sinners.”  In essence, they were getting some of the heat off of themselves by speculating on the state of some recently deceased people.  But Jesus will have none of it.  His response is, “Don’t worry about the state of those poor Galileans.  Don’t worry about the 18 people who were crushed by that tower that fell the other day, either.  It’s not your job to decide who the bigger sinner is.  You better focus on getting yourself right with God.  God will handle the rest.”

Obviously, the ultimate point of this is that we had all better make sure we’re right with God before we face our own death.  As we’ve already said, that’s not a matter of being really, really good, or really, really religious.  It’s a free gift Jesus bought for us all at the cross.  His death takes the heat for our sins, if we’ll accept it.  But what Jesus says here also goes back to our question for the day: How do we know about whether or not someone else is truly saved?  Jesus’ answer is consistent with the rest of what Scripture says—and doesn’t say.  Three points:

  1. It’s not our job to decide anyone else’s eternal fate. I cannot tell you how many times I have had conversations with another Christian where we discussed some version of the question, “So, do you think so-and-so is saved?” Sometimes it would be a certain celebrity, or an acquaintance, or someone we read about in the news.  Sometimes it was a denominational question: “That church believes some stuff we don’t.  Can they really be saved?”  But now I truly believe each of those conversations was a waste of time.  It’s not our job to determine those things, and the one whose job it is doesn’t need our help.  I don’t know any Scripture where we find Jesus, the apostles or the prophets asking such questions.

Nor do we find, anywhere in Scripture that I know of, a concrete list of criteria that we can use to determine whether someone is going to Heaven or not.  We see characteristics that should be in our lives if we’re following Jesus, and beliefs that we should hold onto, but these are always presented as things we  should aspire to in our own lives, not tools we use to judge others.  Just to make our point, let’s play that little parlor game I spoke of earlier: is he saved or not?  What would you say about a president who was personally courageous, who knew Scripture and quoted it often, but never made any public commitment to Christ and was never a member of any church?  Saved or not?  What about a famous clergyman who held many beliefs which would get him run out of a typical Baptist Sunday school class?  Saved or not saved?  What about a man who was a political and religious leader, who wrote religious literature that has been read by millions, but who secretly got the wife of a colleague pregnant, then had the man killed to cover up his crime?  Saved or not saved?  Well, I don’t know if Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther, and King David are in Heaven or not, but I wouldn’t bet against them.  It is not our job to determine anyone’s eternal fate.

Some of our more fiery brethren might say, “But we’re called to preach judgment on the lost! That’s the only way to get people saved…scare ‘em out of Hell.”  I don’t see anyone in Scripture doing that, either.  When judgment is preached, by the prophets, Jesus or the apostles, it’s almost always directed toward the religious people, not the unreligious.  Jesus had the harshest words for the self-righteous Pharisees and the affluent fat-cat Sadducees, because they should’ve known better.  But we have no record of Jesus ever accusing a Roman centurion of being a fascist pawn of an idolatrous, sexually immoral nation…and He had plenty of opportunity to do so.  In the same way, Paul was not afraid to confront hypocrites and false teachers within the Church.  But when he had a chance to speak to the pagan philosophers at Athens, he didn’t say, “All you idol-worshipping boy-lovers are gonna burn in Hell if you don’t repent!”  Instead, he reasoned with them calmly and persuasively, trying his best to prove that Christ was the risen Lord.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t speak about sin, judgment, and Hell when we talk to unbelievers.  But the example of Jesus and Paul shows us that we’re supposed to use the method that’s most likely to produce life change.

  1. We can trust God with the souls of others. I have done a lot of studying the Scripture on this issue, and one thing that I find consistently astonishing is that there is so little information about whether this person or that person went to Heaven or not. For example, what about the great men and women of the Old Testament?  They lived long before Jesus, so they certainly couldn’t accept Him as Lord. Are they shut out of Heaven?  Hebrews 11 and 12 name several of these heroes and clearly indicates they are in Heaven, but what about the rest?  And how did God get them in without them ever knowing Jesus personally?  I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer to that question.  The Old Testament almost never mentions the intermediate state. There’s plenty of information about the Day of the Lord, and other passages that are foretelling the New Earth, but when it comes to what happened to those people when they died, it’s as if God says, “Don’t worry about it.  I’ve got it covered.”

We face a similar dilemma when we think about small children who die.  Pastors will point to the fact that Jesus said you have to be like a little child to enter Heaven, but did He mean 12, 8, 5 or 5 months?  We don’t know.  I’ve heard many people say there’s an “age of accountability” before which God doesn’t judge us.  But try finding that in the Bible (hint: it’s not there).  So here’s what we’re left with: We know God loves little children.  We also know God is fair.  With what we know of God, we know He wouldn’t shut out of Heaven little children who never really had a chance to know Him.  We know He’ll do the right thing, and so Christians who’ve lost children, either in the womb or in their childhood, look forward to seeing them someday, and rightly so.  Now consider this:  God’s love and fairness are true for all people, not just children.  That doesn’t mean everyone goes to Heaven.  But it does mean we can trust Him to do the right thing.  Ezekiel 18:32 says, For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.  Peter 3:9 says, He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  He backed up His words at the cross.  At the cross, God said, “I won’t force you to accept my love, but if you choose to go to Hell, it will be over my dead body.”  Don’t you think a God who loves every person that much will do the fair thing?

  1. Our job is to bring as many people to Jesus as possible. In spite of what we’ve said up to now, God’s attitude is not, “Don’t worry about the eternal fate of anyone else. Just make sure you’re getting in.”  True, Jesus didn’t tell us how to determine whether or not someone else was going to Heaven.  But He did leave us with a mission: Go into the all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I commanded you.  I like the answer Jim Denison gave when someone asked him about people who never hear the Gospel: “The Bible doesn’t equip us to solve that problem with our theology, but we are called to solve it with our witness.”  He then points out an astonishing fact—and I haven’t checked his math, but I’m going to trust him on this.  He says that if every Christian in the world brought just one person to Christ per year, and that person led another person to Christ per year, and the process continued, the entire world would be saved in 34 years.    

Here’s what it comes down to.  Think back to those loved ones in your life who are headed in the wrong direction.  What if there was someone in their life who earned your loved one’s respect by living an authentically, courageously Christian life, who showed intentional love to them, prayed for them, and shared their testimony of faith in Christ.  If that person could convince your loved one to turn their life around and start following Jesus, how grateful would you be?  Is there any amount of money you could give this person to express your gratitude?

Everyone of us knows someone, a friend, neighbor or co-worker, who’s headed in the wrong direction.  Most of us know several “someones.”  Each of those people is somebody’s loved one…somebody’s mom, little boy, granddaughter, brother, spouse.  Someone, somewhere is hoping and praying that God will send a special person to help him or her turn their life around.  You might say, “Well, how do I know if they’re saved or not?”  You might say, “I can’t save anybody.  I’m just an ordinary person.”  It doesn’t matter.  If we make sure everyone we know knows that we love Jesus and knows we love them, through both words and an authentic, compassionate lifestyle, God will take care of the rest.  And as we are used by God to turn people’s lives around, can you imagine the gratitude on the part of their Heavenly Father, who loves them more than life itself, who actually CAN repay us for what we’ve done for His special child?  That is why we are here.