Straining Gnats and Siding with Pharaoh Over the Midwives

midwives-1024x563I’d like to quickly conduct a little experiment in our responses as moral readers. Bear with me as I set the stage, though, as this is going somewhere.

Exodus opens with the story of the oppression of God’s people in Egypt. Years after Joseph lead Jacob’s sons into the land to escape the famine, they grew prosperous and multiplied–so much so that the Egyptians began to fear them. So one of the later Pharaohs actually enslaved the populace in order to subjugate and suppress them. In the end, though, the oppression only caused them to expand further. So Pharaoh took it into his head to handle the population crisis in another fashion:

Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. (Exodus 1:15-21 ESV)

So there you have it. Pharaoh’s plan was a limited genocide, but it was initially thwarted by the efforts of two Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah–named slaves against a nameless king.

Here’s my question: who’s the hero of the story? Or, rather, who’s the villain? What’s your instinctive answer? In your gut, who provokes your anger? Who do you judge to be of dubious character? Who is being wronged here? Well, obviously, everyone would agree that the Hebrews, in general, were.

But what about the Pharaoh? Are you kind of tempted to see him as a victim? I mean, didn’t the midwives lie to him? Didn’t they deceive him? Weren’t they unethical in the way they misled him about their intention to follow his commands? They actively spread falsehoods about the heartiness of Hebrew women in the birthing process. That’s not just a little fib, now is it? And on top of that, you have to consider that for Pharaoh, slave labor was great for infrastructure. And it’s not like it was the only thing he did, or he was enslaving them just to enslave people.  No, I mean, it probably allowed him to provide grain and other services to the general populace and advance Egyptian society as a whole, right? Beyond that, he was entirely within his legal rights as the Pharaoh. His word was the law of the land.

But none of that really changes the way you read the story, does it? The lying Ziphrah and Puah are clearly the heroes–so much so that God blesses them for their actions. Their mild deception was in the service of life, in the service of justice, of protecting the defenseless and so the God of Israel honors them.

I bring all this up in light of the recent videos surrounding Planned Parenthood’s (PP) alleged sale of “fetal tissue”–the hearts, eyes, livers, and lungs of the unborn and aborted–to medical research facilities. These undercover videos show PP officials discussing these sales with representatives of a dummy corporation set up by the investigative organization looking to expose the practice. The videos range from simple conversations of “less crunchy” techniques of procuring tissue (over lunch), to hearing practitioners admitting that at times infants make it out of the womb intact and are still used to harvest tissue, to hearing one doctor in the middle of a procedure exclaim, “it’s another boy!” It’s truly horrifying stuff that even has presidential candidate Hilary Clinton saying the videos are disturbing.

Of course, the reactions are mixed. Die-hard Planned Parenthood advocates look to defend it as misrepresentation of an entirely legal practice*, pro-lifers are incensed calling to defund the organization**, but in the middle of all of these predictable reactions, though, there is this third group that puzzles me most: the Christian/Evangelical purist. I’ve seen it a number of times now, but you get this middling response where someone will say, “Guys, I don’t like abortion either, but we really shouldn’t have to lie about stuff like these fanatics. We’re Christians, guys. I mean, lying to Planned Parenthood representatives is kind of low.”

And here’s where I just want to say, if your first instinct when you want or read about these videos is to think, “Geez, are you telling me they lied to get the footage of these people sorting through these fetal parts, or discussing prices non-chalantly over lunch? Woof. That’s a bridge too far”, then you’re reading the story wrong.

I don’t know what’s motivating it in various cases. Maybe it’s a desire for some progressives to not be identified with those pro-lifers. If that’s the case, then maybe your identity as a not-your-parents-kind-of-Evangelical is just a little too important to you. Or, maybe it is a genuine discomfort with the act of lying. If that’s the case, then I’d urge you to consider the fact that Scripture does give different moral weight to issues in the Law.

When Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees’ hardness of heart, he denounced them as blind guides:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)

He launches into them for being so particular about smaller matters–which are fine to care about–but in their case it was at the coast of missing the broader issues of the justice of the Law. Let me put it this way: watching these videos and being more uncomfortable with the investigators and quick to denounce them than PP is like watching a police video of a man being beaten mercilessly by an out-of-line officer and asking, “Well, did he jay-walk or not?”

Be careful that you’re not swallowing moral camels in your attempt to strain the gnats.

And finally, for those of you nodding you head vigorously to all this on the more conservative side–watch your own heart on other issues where gnat-straining becomes a temptation. None of us–and I definitely include myself in this–is above this danger. Pray for humility toward your brothers and sisters. But most of all, in this time, pray for justice and clarity for the American people so that we may come one day closer to the day when the phrase “it’s another boy” is only uttered in the delivery room, not the Planned Parenthood office.

Soli Deo Gloria

*Accepting money for the tissues to cover cost does appear to be an entirely legal practice. That said, killing fetus/babies who are born intact, as the fourth video seems to admit, or possibly performing partial birth abortions, and so forth, is not. That, at least, merits investigation. Beyond that, there is serious evidence pointing to possible profit on the part of many PP affiliates that, again, at least merits investigation.

**I know that the organization does other services that can be helpful for certain communities, so I do think there needs to be conversations about replacing its infrastructures, or simply repurposing the organization. Christians need to be–and I think many are–prepared to not only expose evil but be part of the loving solution to the systemic and social structures that make it seem tragically necessary to so many poor souls.

The Big Questions of the Gospel in a Five-Verse Nutshell


questions
I’m a big fan of serious study of the Bible. That often involves learning languages, delving into the historical background of the text, and studying what church teachers in history have said about the subject. But it usually starts with reading slowly and asking a series of basic questions. Nothing has reinforced this for me as much as my small group study this year at church.

At our very last study a couple of weeks ago, we were wrapping up our study in the letter of Paul to Titus when we came to this stunning little passage:

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

(Titus 3:3-7)

This is one of the best nutshells of the gospel I’ve ever seen. It answers briefly and powerfully all the key questions you might want to ask about the message of salvation.

1. What are we being saved from? Well, Paul says that we were wandering in foolish disobedience. We were slaves to passions and pleasures, unable to give ourselves to anything but our own lesser wants and desires. We were lost, having drifted from true North as we turned from worshipping God to the things God made. Not only that, we were caught up in malice and envy, as idolatry usually sets you at odds with other idolaters. Lack of peace with God leads to war with others.

2. Who saves us? In a phrase, “God our Savior.” Make note of that–God is the author of our salvation, no one else. Salvation is an absolutely theocentric reality, and, looking at the sweep of the text, a trinitarian one. God the Father, the Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all at work in the one sending, appearing, and renewing work of the one God.

3. When did he save us? When his goodness and loving kindness appeared. But what does that mean? I’d gloss that phrase indicating the reality of the incarnation of the Son–the appearing of the kindness of God. It is in the Christ-event–the life, death, and resurrection of the Godman–that God became our Savior. (Indeed, it’s important to note the way that Paul gives both God and Christ the title “our Savior.”)

4. Why did he save us? Here we come to the question of “why”, not in the sense of goal, but in the sense of basis or grounds. Well, Paul is very clear that it wasn’t because of our own works done by us out of our goodness. We didn’t have any of those. There’s no thought of meriting or earning God’s kindness allowed here. No, the sole grounds of our salvation is not found in the creature, but in God himself, because of his own mercy. Salvation is God’s idea, not ours. It’s an act of “grace”–a gift to those who can’t procure it for themselves by their own efforts.

5. How did he save us? Okay, so this raise the question of “how”? How did the Triune One save us? Well, that answer requires the whole NT witness to expound, but here Paul tells us that it’s by the regenerating (rebirthing) work of God in us through the Holy Spirit who cleanses us. The Holy Spirit remakes us, cleanses our sin, our consciences, and creates in us a new heart in communion with God. It’s important to note, though, that we have this Spirit because he was poured out in our lives through Jesus Christ. And I’d argue that the rest of Paul’s theology tells us that’s because of Jesus legal work in his death for sin and his authority to pour out the Spirit he was give in the resurrection and ascension. We are “justified by his grace.”

6. What did he save us for? Finally, we come to the question of purpose. What’s the point? What’s the goal? Where is all this amazing work headed? Paul is very clear: God saved us so that we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. We were saved so that we might become “heirs”, sons and daughters in God’s household who can expect the riches of his kingdom now and forever. What’s more, as heirs, he created us for holiness and glory. Heirs not only receive gifts, but the call (and in this case the guarantee) to carry on the family name–the bear the name of God well. This happens as we receive the Spirit who conforms us to the Image of the Son who brings glory to the Father in all that he does. It is his image that we will finally bear upon that last day.

And this, in a nutshell, is Paul’s answer to the key questions of salvation. All in about five verses. It is passages like this that make me marvel, not only at the great salvation of our God, but the marvelous saving revelation of God we have in the Scriptures.

Soli Deo Gloria

Understanding the Execution of the Rebellious Son

StoningThere are a number of laws in the Torah that, when you just look at them cold, strike us as rather outlandish, harsh, and even bizarre. You know, the kind that usually get trotted out in the middle of apologetic debates about the morality of the Bible, or the Old Testament law. For instance, that bit in Numbers 15 about stoning someone for moving a few sticks on the Sabbath. That strikes us initially rather harsh and it is, but as I’ve written before, I think there are some significant considerations at the contextual, historical, and theological level that can shed some light on the text.

I was reminded of another such text this last week when my pastor was preaching out of Hosea, in a passage referring to Israel as a rebellious son. He chose to highlight and contrast that with the Torah’s prescription for dealing with rebellious son:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard. ‘ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

Now at this point, the usual response is, “Really? I’m supposed to believe that God wants me to take little Joey outside and stone him for talking back and not taking out the trash when I tell him to? That’s a bit of an over-reaction, don’t you think?” Well, yes, taken baldly, it does seem like a bit of an extreme regime of parental discipline. But once again, I think there are a number of factors that, when taken into account, mitigate some of the seemingly inexplicable barbarism of the text.

Contextual Keys

So what are these factors?

Instruction. Well, first of all, a number of commentators note that there is no record of this punishment ever having been administered in Ancient Israel. In fact, OT scholar Duane Christensen draws attention to the explicit logic of the law as being handed down so that if it ever came to it, “all Israel shall hear, and fear.” In other words, the point of the law was “pedagogical” or educational, but not so much featuring a scenario likely to be put into practice very much, if at all.

A Son, but a Man. Second, pushing beyond that, we need to get it out of our heads that we’re dealing with some aggressive form of childhood punishment. The “son” in question is not a boy, or even just a teenager who is going through a rebellious phase, experimenting with heavy music and so forth. This is a presumably a young man, yet a still man who is of an accountable age before the Law. He stands accused by his parents of being a hardened delinquent, a “drunkard” and a “glutton.” What does that mean? Well, scholar Paul Copan says the scenario involved was something like this:

The son, probably a firstborn,  would inevitably squander his inheritance when his father died; he would likely bring ruin to his present and future family. He was like a compulsive gambler who bets away his home and life savings right out from under his family’s feet. –Is God a Moral Monster, pg. 91

More than that, drunkenness and gluttony lead to and represent a wholesale departure from the Law. You can easily imagine this including a tendency to criminal debt, familial violence, and other profligacy. This is a man, then, whose choices not only threaten his own safety but who shows every sign of being on course to destroy his family.

Families and Social Authority. What’s more, he is a repeat offender. He is someone who has rejected all counsel, all rebuke, even that of both of his parents, which was a significant rejection of all social and moral restraint in Ancient Israel. Why is this significant? Modern Westerners have trouble thinking along these lines, but in Ancient Israel, the foundation of the social fabric in terms of political authority and social peace in the clans and subgroups was the family. When the family falls apart, society falls apart. We must not forget that honoring father and mother is one of the 10 foundational commands that form the charter for Ancient Israel’s relationship with God as a nation. Historically, commentators have found in this command not only the foundations of familial relations, but the structure of human political authority in general.

Again, Christensen comments:

Respect for and obedience to parents were of vital importance in ancient Israel. In the Book of the Covenant, a son who strikes his father or mother, or who curses them, “shall be put to death” (Exod 21:15, 17; cf. also Lev 20:9); and the covenant curses of Deut 27:16 include “anyone who dishonors father or mother.”

So, this man’s rebellion was a threat at multiple levels. First, he was threatening his family, next the social order, and finally, his rebellion was an assault on the whole nation’s covenant with the Lord. Scripture, especially in the OT, doesn’t deal with us as purely independent, autonomous units. Israelites were members of Israel as a whole and it is with Israel that the Lord deals. So the whole community is implicated in this man’s rebellion and sin against God as long as it persists. One man’s disobedience is a threat to everyone.

Community Justice. Which brings us to a next point. It is important to note that it is not actually the parents who condemn or stone in the man, nor even the father alone. No, we are told that both mother and father, who have presumably reached their wit’s end, are to bring it to the leaders of the community at the gate (the court of the local village), in order for the community as a whole to evaluate and render judgment about the situation. It also bears noting that the mother’s inclusion in the process serves as something of a surprising disruption of our expectations of a patriarchal society. This is not the pure patria potestas of the Romans. This wasn’t, then, some hasty act of parental vindictiveness, but one of justice administered by the proper civil authorities.

The Obedient Son Replacing Insubordinate Israel on the Cross

One final note, though, to round out our consideration of the text. As Christians, we cannot claim to have fully examined it unless we set it in the broader context of Jesus’ own story. Remember, Israel had been created and called by God to be his faithful firstborn son (Exod. 4:22), who served him and represented him among the nations. But Israel proved false, a drunkard and a glutton, worse, an idolater and a murderer who had spurned God’s fatherly hand, rejecting his rebuke, and returning all of his good with vile ingratitude (Hos. 11).

Now, along comes Jesus, the pure, perfectly obedient True Son bringing the Kingdom of God, playing his role as the New Israel and what do they accuse him of being? A “glutton and an drunk” and a friend of tax collectors and sinner (Matt. 11:19). And what happens to him? The execution the law prescribes for the disobedient Son, death outside the gates.

In fact, it’s even worse. Paul reminds us that:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:13)

The text Paul quotes comes in the section in Deuteronomy right after the text on the disobedient son:

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” (21:22-24)

In effect, we see that Jesus, the faithful Son, bears the curse and punishment of God that the unfaithful son Israel deserved, in its place. He does so that in “Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14).

Rounding it Out

Now, after all this, you still might find the law harsh, and that’s quite understandable. I do think there’s been some historical progression from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, certainly a radical shift in implementation (I’m not a theonomist by a long shot), and the impact of Christian social thought on our moral sensibilities in the administration of criminal justice.

That said, I think with considerations like these in place, we can begin to understand the moral core to even this initially shocking text in its own Ancient Near Eastern context. What’s more, along with the concerns I outlined in the case of Numbers 15, we begin to see the way it provides some of the dark backdrop against which we understand the bright light of the gospel of the faithful Son who goes to the cross in place of a rebellious people, so they might receive the Spirit who makes them true sons. As Paul says again,

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal. 4:4-7)

Soli Deo Gloria

He Who Has Ears Let Him Hear (A Parable for Preachers)

Jesus talkingEvery preacher who’s been at it long enough knows that there are some sermons, or even series as a whole, that end up showing more fruit in your own life than that of your hearers. It’s as if God set you up to preach this to bless your people, mostly indirectly, through its effects in your own life than the particular lessons they learn from you in that time. I don’t know if that was exactly what was going on, but the first summer I preached through the parables, it certainly felt that way.

I had been at my job for about a year at that point, had maybe sixty or so sermons under my belt, a cycle of seasons, and the first taste of ministry growth I’d ever seen. We’d had bit of a spurt throughout the spring and with summer beginning we had old students coming home, new students showing up, and everything was shaping up to be a smoother summer. Two hitches, though.

First, we did this odd thing where we would run our mid-week program in the park all summer so we could BBQ, play frisbee, and take advantage of the weather. The downside is that I had to preach open-air with a ton of random distractions (dogs, babies, random flocks of–no joke–squawking parrots).

Second, I was still struggling with the fact I just couldn’t seem to get through to some students. I mean, some understood, they were growing, plugging in, maturing, but others just couldn’t get a handle on what I was preaching. It didn’t matter whether I’d grab coffee with them, prayed a ton for them by name all week, tailor my talks to hit at specific issues they were struggling with, or whatever, if I looked at their corner during my sermon, it would just turn up blank stares, distracted giggles, and an apparently total lack of fruit throughout the rest of the week. I mean, it’s not even just that they weren’t listening. It’s that in the conversations I had with them later, it was clear that many of them simply didn’t understand what I was saying week in and week out. I was pitching gospel and they were still catching law–or something else entirely.

That’s when God sent me the parable of the sower or the four soils (Mark 4:1-20).

Fairly rigorous young man that I was, I picked the beginning of my series carefully. I figured I’d open up with the parable about how to understand the parables, as Jesus speaks to the crowds about his own mission to re-sow the people of Israel through the preaching of the Word, the seed. Of course,  interpreting the parable can be difficult and possibly discouraging. We need to understand that the varying responses of the four soils are not intended as an example of Christ-centered statistics (Barna Headline: Only 1 in 4 Hearers will Positively Respond to the Gospel!). In fact, it’s something of an invitation on the part of Jesus to “be careful how you hear”–take these things with an open and honest heart so that you might bear fruit (Luke 8:15).

All the same, as a young preacher struggling with my understanding of the power of the Word, my own ability to preach it, immaturity, self-condemnation, and, likely, sinful impatience, I needed to reflect on Jesus’ words, “He who has ears let him hear.” Really?

I mean, this was Jesus. The Messiah. The Son of God. Easily the greatest preacher to ever walk the plane. Author and deliverer of the most famous sermon of all time (Matt. 5-7). Not merely a bringer of the word of God, but the Word of God made flesh, proclaimed to the world in concreto. There’s no possibility about the “lack of unction” for the one who brought forth in the womb by the power of the Spirit, or the lack of “prayer life of the preacher” in the one who possessed an eternal communion with the Father.  And here he is talking about people missing it. People whose hearts are so hard the seed never penetrates. People who show quick signs of life, but then quickly fade away. People who seem to have real faith, but who allow themselves to get choked by the cares of the world.

And this was their response to Jesus?

And that was when I had to take a breath, step back, and put my own ministry in context. Whether because of youthful arrogance, or that early (or later) tendency to try to justify your own existence through your preaching and pastoring, I realized I was treating the things of God as something fundamentally within my power. I was operating under the unspoken assumption that it was my words which would open the eyes of the blind, unstop the ears of the deaf, and give hearts of flesh to those with rocks in their chest. And if it wasn’t happening, it was just clearly something wrong with me and my ministry.

But that’s simply false. If Jesus himself said there was going to be a mixed response to his preaching, why was I under the impression that I was going to have a better batting average than the Son of God? It was ludicrous.

Please don’t hear this as a deterministic shut-down of preachers who endeavor to preach with skill, prayer, and energy. No doubt there was serious room for improvement in my preparation, prayer, and ministry practice at the time (as there still is). Pastors, you can get better, preach clearer, pray deeper, and hope for greater grace in your ministry. Certainly it’s foolish to avoid those things. Still, for all that, there is a place for remembering that, though we do speak as one who preaches “the very words of God” (1 Pet. 4:11), it is God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:7).

For myself, that summer I learned a couple of lessons I had to continually dwell on from there-on out. First, there is a comfort in those words for preachers to understand that not every hard heart in the pews remains so because of your failure as a pastor. Not every blank stare is reflection of your powers as an orator. Not every patch of dirt stays dry because you’re no good as a sower. If you believe that, you’re just setting yourself up for discouragement and self-doubt, both qualities which, ironically enough, will rob you of power in the pulpit.

Second, flowing from this, it gave me confidence to just preach regardless of the “perceived” effects. Of course you have to be aware of your people. Good preachers are students of the Word and students of their people. Still, looking at Jesus’ parable, you can’t gauge these things week by week anyways. There are plenty of false positives as well as slow growing seeds for your to be measuring your efficacy that way. the more I learn(ed) to stop judging my sermons by the reactions I thought could or couldn’t see, the more I focused on simply trusting God to do his work with the best I had to offer up every week. As I did that, my confidence in God’s backing grew as did my own clarity.

As always, there’s more to say, but I’ll leave wind things down here. I pray other young preachers might take encouragement from these reflections as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

Can We Be Angry at Prodigals? The Frustrated Compassion of Jesus (TGC)

Recently, while reading Luke 15 and the parable of the prodigal son, I began to reflect on the character of the father. Preaching on this parable tends to highlight the father’s loving welcome, his compassion and grace upon both sons, his willingness to come out to greet both sons at great cost in terms of social shame and dishonor, and his great joy at receiving the lost son. This is right and good. But I think it’s worth considering Luke 15:20:

And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.

We often focus on the fact the son was a long way off when the father saw him. The father was sitting there, waiting, hoping for his wandering son to come home. The welcoming heart precedes the prodigal’s repentance. Long before you ever thought to come back, God was there, waiting to run to you. So with our own prodigals, we wait with open arms, ready to receive with joy all who come in repentance seeking grace.

But what is the father allowed to feel in the meantime? There’s danger in reading too much into a parable beyond the plot as it’s developed, or delving deeply into the psyches of characters whose existence spans about 20 verses. Still, it says in the text the father saw him and then he “felt compassion,” moved to action.

What did the father feel before he saw the son coming home? Can we imagine him frustrated and angry? Are we to suppose during the months, or even years, the prodigal is away the father is only and solely feeling a mild, welcoming compassion? Is there no place for a holy frustration at destructive choices he sees his beloved child making? Is there no place for hurt, for grief at the pain of rejection in the midst of his unrelenting love and mercy? Are these feelings allowed for gracious Christians?

You can read the rest of my article at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Torrey on the Trustworthy Temple of Scripture

torreyFred Sanders put together a nifty little collection of evangelist, expositor, Bible college dean, and pastor R.A. Torrey’s sermons entitled How God Used. R.A. Torrey. Sanders introduces the work with a little bio, then adds brief introductory commentary before 13 representative sermons and addresses by Torrey. I’ve been reading it for a couple of days between other works and it’s been a fun little work so far. The preaching is dynamic, personal, and spiritually compelling. Also, as a preacher, it’s just interesting to see how much the game has changed, so to speak, since Torrey was calling people back to faith.

One address I enjoyed, in particular, was his famous “10 Reasons Why I Believe the Bible is the Word of God.” Torrey, of course, famously edited the collection of essays in defense of orthodoxy known as The Fundamentals at the height of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversies, so it’s unsurprising he dedicated significant preaching to the subject of the trustworthiness of the Scriptures.

Well, the whole sermon holds up remarkably well 100 years later on, but the section I enjoyed most was his argument about “the unity of the book”:

This is an old argument, but a very satisfactory one. The Bible consists of sixty-six books, written by more than thirty different men, extending in the period of its composition over more than fifteen hundred years; written in three different languages, in many different countries, and by men on every plane of social life, from the herdman and fisherman and cheap politician up to the king upon his throne; written under all sorts of circumstances; yet in all this wonderful conglomeration we find an absolute unity of thought.

A wonderful thing about it is that this unity does not lie on the surface. On the surface there is oftentimes apparent contradiction, and the unity only comes out after deep and protracted study.

More wonderful yet is the organic character of this unity, beginning in the first book and growing till you come to its culmination in the last book of the Bible. We have first the seed, then the plant, then the bud, then the blossom, then the ripened fruit.

Suppose a vast building were to be erected, the stones for which were brought from the quarries in Rutland, Vermont; Berea, Ohio; Kasota, Minnesota, and Middletown, Connecticut. Each stone was hewn into final shape in the quarry from which it was brought. These stones were of all varieties of shape and size, cubical, rectangular, cylindrical, etc., but when they were brought together every stone fitted into its place, and when put together there rose before you a temple absolutely perfect in every outline, with its domes, sidewalls, buttresses, arches, transepts–not a gap or a flaw anywhere. How would you account for it? You would say:

“Back of these individual workers in the quarries was the master-mind of the architect who planned it all, and gave to each individual worker his specifications for the work.”

So in this marvelous temple of God’s truth which we call the Bible, whose stones have been quarried at periods of time and in places so remote from one another, but where every smallest part fits each other part, we are forced to say that back of the human hands that wrought was the Master-mind that thought.

How God Used R.A. Torrey, pp. 23-24

I have to tell you, this “argument” isn’t one that you just trot out in the middle of an apologetic dispute, especially with someone predisposed to disbelieve or be hostile to Scripture. Still, year after year, this insight into the unity of Scripture–it’s ability to consistently point to Christ through Law, Prophets, and Gospels, across various genres, generations, authors, and centuries is a continuous marvel. This is especially the case when you take off the modernist blinders and begin to pour over the various narratival and typological continuities.

The Scriptures truly are a marvelous Temple of God’s truth. But Torrey is right–it’s not a unity that just lies there on the surface. It’s the kind of thing that you come to see once you give it the sustained attention and care that it deserves. But once you see it, much as Moses face coming down from Sinai, it shines with the reflected glory of God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Protecting Pigs At the Cost of the Liberating the Oppressed

pigsThere’s often an economic cost to the freedom Jesus brings and the World typically doesn’t like that. I was struck by that reality against as I reflected on the story of the Demoniac Jesus encounters in Gerasa in the area of the Decapolis in Mark 5. In this case, the cost is a side-product of the liberation. For years, this man has been bound and filled with demons who have dehumanized him to the point that he’s living out in by the tombs, talking gibberish, away from his family, normal human community, and alienated from his own mind. When Jesus casts the demons out, they flee into a nearby herd of pigs, driving them mad, and causing them to leap off a cliff and be drowned in the lake.

Of course, various commentators assign different significance to the drowning of the pigs and the fact that the demons identify themselves as “Legion.” Some see an anti-imperial undercurrent, with Jesus posing a threat to the political principalities, drowning them in the sea, much as God drowned the armies of Pharaoh. Others have connected the pigs as a challenge to the gods of Greece–I can’t remember how it worked at this point. Whatever the undercurrent, at the end of the day the herd pigs drown in the sea and apparently this is all the village people can focus on because, instead of rejoicing the grand miracle God had wrought in setting this man free, they beg Jesus to leave the area of the Decapolis.

The Kingdom of God breaks in, disrupts the economic peace of the World, and the World insists the Kingdom see itself out the door again.

Another story that comes to mind is Paul’s liberation of the pythoness in Acts 16. After a couple of days of harassment in the streets by this young women possessed of a demonic spirit, Paul casts out the demon and sets her free. This lands Paul in hot water because the young girls’ slave owners used to make a lot of money through her ability to predict fortunes and so forth. Her bondage and slavery to the demonic powers was a source of material income. Her liberation means they’re out of a meal-ticket. And so they call on the Roman authorities to deal with these disturbers of the peace, have them beaten, and thrown into prison. Again, instead of rejoicing at the newfound freedom of this woman, the loss of economic gain provokes a hostile response to the messengers of the Kingdom of God.

Or once more, when Christianity spreads to the whole city of Ephesus, we read that the idol-makers become worried about the drop in sales (Acts 19). There are so many new worshippers of Jesus who aren’t buying their shiny new, late model gods, that it’s become really bad for business. Under the pretense of piety–worry for the great name of Artemis–the idol-makers stir up a mob and accuse Paul and his companions of slandering the goddess with their preaching of Christ. As people turn from the worship of false idols, without any explicit political or economic organizing, the economic and social order become upset.

Of course, it takes little more than a few seconds thought to think of a half-dozen ways that same dynamic is at work in the world today. Aside from situations of explicit oppression and bondage–situations which are devastatingly all too common–much of our consumeristic culture is dependent on people remaining in various levels of spiritual slavery and bondage.

In other words, somebody is making money off of a generation captive to the idea that personal identity can be achieved or reinforced by getting your hands on the newest, shiniest toys, accessories, iPads, designer jeans, and so forth. Our persistent dissatisfaction with our level of material comfort, our fear of falling behind the Joneses, and our loss of any sense for the virtue of simplicity and the vice of material excess, means someone is getting rich.  (Can we say, “Apple Watch”? Oh, but it’s okay, Christians don’t need to worry about frivolous purchases because now I can use the better version of the Bible app on it.)

Or again, a generation of porn addicts, convinced that the good life is to be found between the sheets of that next sexual conquest, is going to be an easy target for any advertiser who promises you their product will get you there. A large segment of the economy is invested in keeping us sexually aroused, so we will buy what they’re selling. A population that is spiritually bound is economically lucrative. Not to sound like some sort of Marxist theorist, but I think it’s worth asking questions about who stands to gain financially from the currently regnant sexual ideologies presented to us as the liberation of desire from shackles of prudery and repression.

And these are just two examples.

Hear me here: business is not inherently evil, nor do I believe that capitalism as an economic system is either. But the demonic forces at work in the world and in the human heart will inevitably take them (and every other economic structure). corrupt them, and leverage them in such a way that it is in people’s financial interest to see their neighbors, their brothers and sisters, captive to desires and ideologies that do not promote human flourishing. We have an interest in protecting pigs at the cost of liberating the oppressed.

And this is just one more reason that the gospel of Jesus is often opposed so fiercely by the powers that be. When the Kingdom of God breaks in, it liberates us from the idolatries that keep much of the current, sinful structures of economic (and political) reality propped up. When your identity is firmly caught up in Christ’s, and your chief desire is to seek the righteousness of the Kingdom of God, it’s that much harder to make you a shill for or sucker of the kingdoms of this world.

That will make people angry. As people hear the good news of Jesus, walk away from their idols and stop buying into the system, there will rise opposition. There will be fear. There will be slander. There will be accusations. We should count on it.

And yet, there will also be opportunities for witness. I think back to the Demoniac. Though his town asked Jesus to leave the area, the man who had been restored to his senses was set free and given the call to witness to that freedom among his old neighbors–the same ones who were frustrated and scared of Christ. What happened to him?

Well, Mark 7 and 8 records Jesus returning to the Decapolis, only this time, we see that crowds gather for him to heal the sick, the lame, and for him to cast out demons. The crowd is so great that he even has to perform another feeding miracle–the feeding of the 4,000. I don’t want to veer into unbiblical speculation, but it seems possible that as the shock of the loss wore off, and the beauty of the liberation Christ brought into his life was known, the people of the Decapolis began to see something different. Maybe they were that much more prepared to receive with great joy the costly, challenging liberation of Christ.

It may be that in our own day, as more and more of us opt out of idolatries of our neighbors, as church communities live in ways that point to the economy of the Kingdom of God, so to speak, we begin to live concrete lives of witness that not only challenge, but invite our neighbors to discover the King who sets us free.

Soli Deo Gloria