The Fullness of Time

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Have you ever wondered why Jesus came 2,000 years ago instead of some more recent time in history?  Why didn't God wait to send his Son after the invention of the printing press?  Imagine how easy it would have been to print his words on a press rather than copying them by hand.  Or, why didn't Jesus come some time after the advent of the internet, or after smart phones became common?  Imagine if we could take videos of Jesus' sermons on our smartphones, or document his miracles on video and share them on our Facebook pages.  Wouldn't that have been more efficient (and convincing to unbelievers) than having Jesus come during a time when there weren't even still images or newspapers to spread the word?  In a lot of ways, it seems like Jesus came into the world too early. 

But rather than coming too early, the Bible says that Jesus came at just the right time.  Galatians 4.4 says, "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law..."  What this verse is saying is that God had predetermined a date that Jesus would come into the world to solve the sin problem.  No, the date almost certainly was not December 25, 0 B.C., but there indeed was a date that God had determined would be perfect.  And when that perfect date arrived ("when the fullness of time had come"), God sent his Son into the world.  It was exactly at just the right time, right according to schedule.  God didn't make a mistake by sending Jesus 2,000 years before the 21st century.  It was the perfect time for him to come. 

2,000 years ago, for the first time in history, the known world was unified and enjoyed relative peace under the "Pax Romana," or the peace of Rome.  The Roman empire had gone out to virtually every known inhabited nation and had built roads that centralized commerce and communication.  For the first time in human history, messengers could travel by road safely, and sea travel had advanced to the point that it was common and relatively safe.  As Jesus' disciples would take the message of his life and death across the world, they would use these new roads by land and sea to bring their news.  And since Rome ruled the known world, there were no impenetrable borders or places that were off limits to the gospel. 

Moreover, since Rome ruled most of the known world, their language also dominated almost every culture.  Practically everyone spoke the predominant language of the time: Greek - a language that is more articulate than even modern English.  This made it easy for essentially all people of the known world to hear and understand the message of the gospel.  No Bible translators were necessary because, in addition to their native languages, almost the whole world knew Greek. 

God foresaw this time in human history, and he determined that this was the perfect time into which he would send his Son to solve the sin problem, once and for all. 

But from our perspective, the time doesn't seem so right.  Forget about the Roman roads and dangerous sea voyages - we have air travel!  We can fly to the other side of the word in relative safety with the message of the gospel in less than a day.  And for all for he technological and cultural advancements initiated by the Roman empire, the 21st century and all of the technological advancements that we alluded to earlier (smart phones, the internet, television, etc.) would be much more ideal time for the message of Jesus to spread to the whole world.  Wouldn't it? 

No, not really, for at least three reasons:

1. Technology becomes irrelevant and obsolete over time.  We think of the technology of the Roman empire as irrelevant and obsolete because we have made amazing advancements over the past centuries.  But at the time, the ancient advancements mentioned earlier were cutting edge.  Similarly, the cutting edge technology we have today will be irrelevant and obsolete 100 years from now (if not sooner).  If Jesus came today, in 100 years people would be lamenting that he came to early, given the technological advancements that will have been made in the next 100 years.  If we judge the appropriate time for Jesus' advent according to humanity's technological advancement, then no matter when Jesus comes, it will have been too early, because technology will always be better at some later date. 

2. Additionally, regardless of whatever means there are to propagate the message of the gospel - and no matter how convincing you can make it or how widely you can spread it - people will always find reasons to not believe.  For instance, if Jesus were performing miracles on the earth today and those miracles were captured with a smart phone camera, providing video evidence of his divinity, someone would find a reason to doubt that the video was genuine.  They'd say the footage was doctored, or that the testimony of the witnesses was unreliable.  People will find any number of reasons not to believe the truth.  Furthermore, no matter how clear the evidence might be, it is very possible for two distinct people to examine the same evidence and come away with different conclusions. 

Jesus came 2,000 years ago and proved his divinity in a variety of ways.  And despite the witnesses and the wide reports of his power, people did not believe.  They looked the evidence square in the face and refused to believe.  The same thing would happen if a video of Jesus' miracles was the most-viewed video on Facebook.  Technological advancement does not produce faith.  Only God can do that.  Moreover, the scriptures testify to the faithfulness of God's word and the accounts therein that testify to the divinity of Jesus and to the veracity of the story of his life, death, and resurrection, yet people refuse to believe it.  If they don't believe the Bible, why would they believe a Facebook video? 

3. In Luke 16 Jesus tells a story about a rich man who dies and goes to hell.  In hell, he asks Abraham, who is in heaven, to resurrect a poor man named Lazarus who had also died, so that Lazarus may go and preach to the rich man's brothers so that they might not suffer a similar fate.  The rich man is convinced that if a dead man goes and preaches to them, then his brothers will surely believe such a miraculous sign.  But Abraham says that the rich man's brothers already have Moses and the prophets preaching to them from God's word, and if they won't believe Moses and the prophets, then they wouldn't believe even a dead man who came back to life.  The same is true of our world today: if people won't believe Moses and the prophets, they also wouldn't believe a miracle caught on camera.  Jesus came when he came.  His life, death, and resurrection were meticulously recorded and preserved to serve as a testimony to all people who came after him about what he has done.  This testimony is enough.  It is sufficient. 

The bottom line is that God knew the exact right time to send Jesus into the world, and that's when he came.  God had been waiting thousands of years for the right time to come, and it came roughly 2,000 years ago.  At Christmas we celebrate not only that Jesus came into the world, but also God's perfect timing in sending the Savior.

Digging Deeper: Only 3 Kinds of Christians

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Each Monday I try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper."  The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I preached the previous Sunday.  It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together.  Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor.  For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.

In the first book of the Bible, Genesis 12.1-3 kicks off the story of a rescue mission that is initiated by God himself.  Through Abraham and his descendants, God promised to send One who would repair the breech created by man's willful sin against God and thereby bless "all the families of the earth."  God's rescue mission would be an all-encompassing, world-wide mission.  God would send his Son into the world to live a perfect life, die a perfect death, and then defeat death through his resurrection. 

And then, in the last book of the Bible, Revelation 7.9-10 shows us a future time which has not yet come to pass, in which people from "every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" are "standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'"  Clearly, God's world-wide rescue mission is destined for success. 

Although the Bible tells us that God's world-wide rescue mission is indeed destined to be successful, it is not yet complete.  We have not yet reached the Revelation 7 reality of people from every corner of the earth worshipping the Lamb because there are people of the earth who are still yet unreached.  In his wisdom, God has chosen people to be the vehicle by which this blessing to the nations and all the families of the earth would be spread.  God doesn't just snap his fingers and cause all people of the world to come to him for salvation.  He could, but he doesn't.  Instead, he uses his people to bring the blessing of Christ to the nations.  A tremendous blessing has been give to the nations, and God calls each one of us to be his ambassadors and to bring that good news to all the families of the earth. 

The question is, what are you doing to be a part of God's world-wide rescue mission?

John Piper has famously said, "There are only three kinds of Christians: those who send, those who go, and those who are disobedient."  God has called you to be either a goer or a sender - or both. 

Those Who Send
At Riverview, we value the work of international missions and missionaries - people who have dedicated their lives to going to other lands to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the families of the earth so that they might hear and be blessed.  So we partner with several missions organizations and missionaries to do this work.  Just last week, Bible translators Steve and Carol Jean Gallagher reported that they recently celebrated the five year anniversary of the translation of the scriptures into the Bariai language of the people of Papua New Guinea.  Before their translation work, God's word did not exist in their language.  As recently as last week, Steve and Carol Jean ran out of Bibles to give to people who requested them.  God has a plan to bless the Bariai people, and it is our privilege to partner with Steve and Carol Jean to bring this blessing to them.  Our part in God's blessing of the nations has been realized by sending people - from our own church - to the nations to declare the good news of Jesus Christ.  In fact, Riverview has been privileged to send out several missionaries from our doors overseas, even to places where Christ has never been named. 

Those Who Go
But the work of God is not limited to international missions.  There are many here in our own nation who do not know God, who are still at odds with him, and who need to be blessed through the gospel.  Every eight weeks a team of faithful people from Riverview travel to the Dakota County Jail to minister to the inmates there.  The gospel is declared faithfully and clearly, as our own people go to be ambassadors of Jesus even in our own community.  To be one who goes, you don't necessarily need to go overseas.  You simply need to go across the street. 

This is the call of every follower of Jesus: to send others to the nations by equipping and resourcing them for the task ahead, and to go into our own communities - our own families, even - to preach the good news of the gospel.  God has a desire to bless the people living in the deepest, darkest jungles where Christ has never been named, and he also wants to bless the people in your social sphere, living in 21st century modern America.  And he has called you to bring his blessing to the nations, across your street, into your community, into your workplace, into your school, and into your family.  This is what Christians do.  They act as agents of God right where they are, and by extension through sending others in their stead. 

Those Who Are Disobedient
This is God's mission, but he has called us to be a part of it.  To not participate is to be disobedient.  Your job is to figure out how you will be obedient to partner with God in his world-wide rescue mission.  Maybe you can't go overseas, but you can send others with your resources.  Or maybe you can't go overseas, but you can go across the street. 

Which Kind Are You?
As we come upon the Christmas season, we remember the most significant part of God's rescue mission: the sending of his Son into the world to save sinners.  As you reflect on that marvelous miracle, reflect also on how God is calling you to be a part of what he is doing in the world.

Digging Deeper: The Toilet Bowl of the Bible

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Each Monday I try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper."  The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I preached the previous Sunday.  It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together.  Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor.  For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.

Some commentators have described Judges 19 as the "toilet bowl of the Bible."  While that may seem to you to be a rather crass description, it is accurate in the sense that the events described therein are utterly disgusting and vile: gang rape, murder, and mutilation are only the tip of the iceberg of depravity described in Judges 19.  

So then, why is it in the Bible at all?  As you can probably guess, many critics of the Bible believe that Judges 19 essentially disqualifies the entire Bible from believability.  Why does God allow these horrible actions to transpire?  Does he approve of this?  Why didn't he stop it?  Why should we believe and follow him if he allows something like this to happen?  How are we to understand Judges 19 and the brutality it describes? 

Over the years there have been several attempts to answer these questions and to either justify God or the characters in the story.  This has been particularly evident in more modern biblical scholarship, as some have interpreted this text from a feminist point of view, and also from a pro-homosexual viewpoint.  For instance, the feminist readings of Judges 19 have focused on the plight of the women in the story, and condemned the patriarchal society in which the events unfolded (and by implication and even explicit statement, God himself).  Homosexual readings of Judges 19 have determined that the primary sin of the men of Gibeah was not homosexuality, per se, but was instead a lack of hospitality towards strangers.  Each of these readings, however, force modern (and subjective and personal) sensibilities onto the text.  Instead, as interpreters, it is our job to remove as much of ourselves as possible when we interpret the text, and let it speak for itself.  We should not feel it necessary to attempt to justify God or anyone else as we read the Bible, and we should be very hesitant to force our own personal, cultural, or societal sensibilities onto the text - even when our sensibilities are righteous and good.

One of the most important things we need to remember when reading scripture - and especially hard parts like Judges 19 - is the genre of the literature we are reading.  The book of Judges is an historical narrative, and so the author of the book writes as a dutiful historian: just the facts, with very little - if any - personal commentary.  This is particularly true of the book of Judges.  Throughout its pages, you will find very few moral judgments made by the author.  That is, the author very rarely ever pauses to interject his own feelings about the morality of a given scenario.  For instance, when Samson marries a Philistine woman, the author does not say that it was the wrong thing to do - even though it was.  Later, when Samson visits a prostitute, he is not condemned by the author - even though he could have been.  The reason for this is that the author's primary purpose is to relay historical facts, and not necessarily to comment on the morality of a given situation.  We know, however, that the morality of the book of Judges is in the gutter because we know God.  We allow our knowledge of scripture and the character and nature of God interpret the events of the book of Judges.  Not what we think is right or wrong, but what God thinks is right and wrong.  

This is also true of Judges 19, and more generally, of Judges 17-21.  These chapters are filled with historical events of a dubious moral nature and, for the most part, the author remains silent about the morality of the events he describes.  For instance, there are only two moral judgments made by the author (that I can find, at least).  First, he calls the men of the town of Gibeah "worthless fellows."  Second, he says that the moral and spiritual climate of Israel at the time was one that could be characterized by the reality that "there was no king in Israel..."  Both earlier and later in this book, the moral and spiritual climate of Israel is more succinctly described as "everyone did what was right in their own eyes."  Aside from these somewhat abstract moral judgments, the author's main purpose is to record and communicate historical facts.  Most moral judgments that we make regarding the events described in this book come from outside of the actual text.  And as we've seen, we need to be careful about forcing our own sensibilities onto the text.  

Since the author is writing an historical account, we also need to remember that neither the human author - nor the spiritual author - necessarily condone what is being described.  We often make the mistake of thinking that God approves of the history that is recorded in the Bible.  In many cases, he does not.  Although the events are recorded for us to read, that doesn't mean that God approves of what unfolded.  We also should remember that just because the Bible records historical events, that doesn't mean that we should seek to duplicate or recreate those historical events.  History is history - not a direct command for us to obey.  Think of reading a history text book when you were in high school: you didn't interpret your history text book as being a direct command for your to follow or an event for you to recreate for yourself.  History describes things that have happened in the past - it doesn't prescribe things that should happen in the present or future.  The same is true of the Bible: it records history, and sometimes that history is brutal, unforgiving, and even barbaric.  

Then how should we read difficult texts like Judges 19?  We should read it for what it is: an historical narrative about a group of people at the depths of their depravity, doing wicked, vile, and evil things.  And we can make those judgments because we the rest of the testimony of scripture: we know that the character and nature of God is contrary to the events described in Judges 19.  God did not approve of it, nor desire for it to happen.  

But also, we know from the rest of scripture that even though mankind is at his most depraved in Judges 19, he has not moved so far away from God as to be unredeemable.  Yes, the events of this chapter are horrific and demand our condemnation and swift justice and punishment.  Indeed, God will see that justice is done for the nameless concubine who is horrifically raped, murdered, and mutilated.  Justice will be served for those responsible, either through an eternity of punishment in hell, or through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ.  Judges 19 is a picture of just how sinful we all truly are.  No, you may have never committed acts like those described in this chapter, but you certainly have fallen - and far - from God's grace, perhaps through murder of the heart by hating your brothers, or perhaps through sexually violating someone in the secret thoughts of your heart and mind.  Nevertheless, you are not too far away to be redeemed.  The scandal of grace - and the message of the book of Judges - is that God can even redeem rapists and murderers - even you.

Digging Deeper: What Do We Do With Samson?

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Each Monday I try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper."  The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I preached the previous Sunday.  It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together.  Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor.  For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.  

Samson: childhood Sunday School hero, strongman, womanizer, sleaze ball, Judge of Israel, avenger, warrior, fornicator, Nazarite.  The list of descriptors for the man whose story we read about in Judges 13-16 could go on and on.  One thing is for sure: Samson was a man whose life was a big hot mess, and almost always not in a good way.  

So what do we do with Samson?  Many have undertaken the difficult task of attempting to find some kind of redeeming element in the story of Samson, but any way you look at it, the guy's life was a shambles of disobedience, apathy, and selfishness.  It's hard to find something redeemable about someone so scummy.  Is there anything about this guy that is worthy of admiration or emulation?  No.  At least not from the account of him that we read about in Judges. 

The answer changes, however, when we read Hebrews 11.32-34: "And what more shall I say?  For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets - who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight."  

It's interesting: when you read the account of Samson's life in Judges 13-16, the author never commends any of Samson's actions as being faithful.  That is, the author never explicitly says that Samson performed any of his mighty deeds because of his faith.  In fact, the opposite is true: the overwhelming circumstantial evidence of Samson's actions points us to the conclusion that he instead performed his mighty deeds out of selfish ambition field by sinful desire.  The author of Hebrews, however, reveals that Samson's mighty deeds were, in fact, fueled by faith.  Although these faith-fueled deeds are not at the exclusion of all of the rotten things he did too.  

For instance, of the qualifiers that are listed in Hebrews 11.32-34, Samson fits at least five of them.  In Samson's story we read about him 1) stopping the mouth of lions; 2) escaping the edge of the sword; 3) being made strong out of weakness; 4) becoming mighty in war; and 5) putting foreign armies to flight.  All of these, the author of Hebrews implies, Samson did with resolute faith in God, albeit with significant personal failings mixed in along the way.  Nevertheless, Samson was a man of faith. 

It took faith for Samson to believe that God would give him the strength to overpower the lion; it took faith for Samson to believe that God would allow him to escape from the many enemies that wanted to kill him; it took faith for Samson to believe that God would make him strong in spite of his physical weakness; it took faith for Samson to believe that God would make him mighty in war, and faith to believe that God would use him to put the foreign army of the Philistines to flight.  Samson knew - at least at some level - that it was God who was empowering him and working through him to achieve God's purposes.  

It is also true, however, that nearly all of the great things Samson did and victories he won were born out of the sins of pride and selfishness.  As I've stated previously, praise God that he can even work through our impure motives and desires - and even our sin - in order to achieve his purposes.  Even Samson's major-league-level bungling of every situation he was in couldn't stop God from achieving his intended ends.  

So what do we do with Samson?  How does such a rotten guy end up being mentioned in the "Hall of Fame of Faith" (Hebrews 11)?  The answer is, as I've said before, there's no such thing as "Bible Heroes."  Everyone that we read about in scripture - including those mentioned in Hebrews 11 - were depraved sinners, saved by grace.  And if we will see them as such, God's grace in their lives will be all the more magnified.  

Moreover, we need to understand that faith is a gift of God and does not come from us, but from him.  As such, God can do anything he wants with our faith, regardless of how large or small we might deem it to be.  As linear human beings, we have a tendency to gauge or categorize or evaluate the size of "faith" based on some man-centered objective.  God's categorization of faith, however, works on a different plane that we will never understand.  To us, Samson's faith appears small because he was such a lout during his life.  But what did Jesus say?  "If you have faith like a grain of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you'" (Matt. 17.20).  From our perspective, Samson's faith was small - smaller even than "a grain of mustard seed."  From God's perspective, however, Samson's faith was just the right size to accomplish what God wanted to accomplish.  

To this extent, we can aspire to have a faith like Samson: that in the day when I am attacked by a lion, I will believe that God will give me the power to stop his mouth.  And if and when I am called on to put "foreign armies to flight," I will believe that God will make me "strong out of weakness."  This is what Samson believed, and this is what God did.  

At the same time, we can and should aspire to avoid the mistakes that Samson made.  He serves us as an example of the damage that can be done when we are only looking to fulfill our own desires and serve our sinful passions - even in the midst of actively believing God.  

What do we do with Samson?  We take the good and leave out the bad; eat the meat and spit out the bones; see the great things that he did in faith, and mourn the incredible damage caused by his sin; aspire to believe God like Samson, and desire to master the sin that he didn't.

Semper Reformanda

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On October 31, 2017, the Protestant Church will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the doors of the Wittenberg church.  This event is commonly marked in history as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, although the seeds of the Reformation were planted years before.  Nevertheless, we intend to mark this momentous occasion at Riverview with a celebration this coming Tuesday, October 31 from 6:00-7:30 with our "Reformation Celebration." 

While many great reforms were made to the church as a part of the Reformation, the most commonly known are the "Five Solas of the Reformation," Latin phrases that succinctly delineate the doctrine of salvation: Sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, sola scriptura, soli Deo gloria.  Translated into English these phrases state that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, according to scripture alone, for the glory of God alone. 

Another Latin phrase that came from the Reformation is: "Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda."  Translated to English, this means, "The church reformed, always reforming."  When we think about the Reformation, we tend to think of historical events, such as Luther nailing his 95 Theses, or historical people, such as Luther and Calvin and Zwingli and many others.  But the spirit of the Reformation, I think, is encapsulated nicely in this latin phrase: Semper reformanda.

Semper Reformanda ("always reforming") reminds us that reformation is not an historical event - it is a continual process that never ends.  That is, we always need reformation.  The need for us to reform our thinking by submitting to the authority of the word of God and living and serving in God's grace is one that is continuous for Christians.  Indeed, we will be "reforming" until the day we die. 

Our continual need for reformation has been brought to bear recently by way of a Christianity Today article, in which a Pew Research study recently revealed that 52% (!) of American Protestants believe that faith in God and good deeds are necessary for entrance into heaven.  52% also believe that scripture alone is not enough to know God - one must also have the traditions and teachings of the church.  Across the ocean in Europe (the birthplace of the Reformation), the numbers are similar amongst European Protestants.  For many protestants across the globe, the Reformation (and distinctly Protestant) doctrines of sola fide (faith alone) and sola scripture (scripture alone) have gone by the wayside

Not only do these percentages (and many more listed in the CT article) reveal that the majority of Protestants have no grasp on their Protestant heritage and history, but even more concerning is that these statistics reveal that the majority of Protestants have fallen into wrong thinking about the Bible and the gospel.  If 52% of American Protestants believe that faith and good deeds are necessary for salvation, then 52% of American Protestants aren't believing the biblical gospel. 

Put simply, the majority of Protestants in America and Europe have stopped reforming.

As Christians, we are in a daily battle against the flesh and against spiritual forces to sin, doubt, and rethink our relationship with God through Christ.  We try to add to what he has done by keeping a tally of our good works, hoping that we can earn God's favor.  Or we are tempted to listen to spiritual gurus (or even pastors), or other man-centered spiritual wisdom as our authority on spiritual matters, instead of the Bible.  Our daily battle against these temptations to continually submit ourselves to the authority of scripture and rest in God's grace through faith - not through any merit of our own - is at the heart of semper reformanda. 

We need to continually reform our thinking to know that we are saved by God's grace, and not by works.  We need to continually reform our thinking to know that salvation comes through faith, and not through any other means.  We need to continually reform our thinking to hold that faith in Christ is the only way of salvation.  We need to continually reform our submission to God's word as the only authority in all matters of life.  We need to continually reform our belief that God alone is sovereign, and that his glory is the chief end of man. 

If and when we stop reforming, we fall into error.  If and when we stop reforming, we will be believing something less than the biblical gospel. 

The battle for a pure and biblical faith and Christian life is a continuing one.  Although the Protestant Reformation is recognized to have started on October 31, 1517, it is not over.  We must continue to always reform our thinking, our churches, and our faith to come into line with what scripture teaches.  The moment we stop reforming, we begin to fall away from the truth of God's word and the biblical gospel. 

Although we are celebrating an historical event on October 31, we are also celebrating the Reformation that is happening today in our churches and in our hearts, as we continue to submit ourselves to God and his word. 

"Semper reformanda.  Soli Deo gloria."