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Several weeks ago we received a question on our Ask Anything page about marijuana use and the Christian. More and more states are legalizing the use of cannabis for various purposes, and Minnesota is currently considering the question as well, and it will only be a matter of time before legal recreational marijuana use becomes a reality. Therefore, it seems wise for Christians to think biblically about this question. But to do so, I think we need to break it down into two categories.

Medicinal Use
When it comes to using marijuana for medicinal purposes, Christians should whole-heartedly support its use. God has given us a multitude of substances and chemicals that treat diseases and alleviate pain. To the extent that marijuana can be used to these ends, by all means. We should invest time, energy, and money into studying how marijuana can be used to serve humanity in these ways. There are already a myriad of studies and testimonials of people who have used marijuana effectively as a medicinal agent.

As with all substances, however, we should give careful time and attention to how it is dispensed and utilized for medicinal purposes. Numerous medications are controlled substances that must only be used under supervision and dispensed in a controlled manner. As long as medical marijuana can be supervised and controlled, Christians should rejoice that elements of God’s creation are being used to alleviate human suffering.

Recreational Use
All of creation is God’s good gift to us (Genesis 1.29-30). There is nothing that he has created that is inherently sinful or wrong. It is only when we use God’s creation for purposes outside of his intention that our use of them becomes sinful (see Romans 1.22-23). Such is the case with marijuana. Like anything else, God created it good, and it can serve a good and beneficial function when used rightly. But when used wrongly it leads to intoxication and sin.

There is only one purpose for recreational marijuana use: intoxication. Whereas the Bible instructs us to keep our minds focused and ready for action (1 Peter 4.1), marijuana slows our minds down and clouds our thinking.. Paul says that one of the effects of living in the Spirit of God is that he gives us a “sound mind” (2 Timothy 1.7), whereas marijuana use diminishes our capacity for clarity of thought and righteous decision-making. Why would we knowingly resist the Spirit’s work of giving us a sound mind by clouding it up with marijuana smoke? Marijuana is an intoxicating drug, and there is no way to use it recreationally without becoming intoxicated (in fact, that is its only purpose when used recreationally). When we become intoxicated (by any substance) we are less prepared to fight sin, ward off temptation, make God-honoring decisions, etc. When our minds are clouded over by drugs, we are more inclined to give into temptation, to make decisions we might otherwise regret, and so on. It seems to me that the Bible would have us preserve the soundness of our minds and not willfully cloud them over with something like recreational marijuana use. It’s hard to fight the fight of faith in a haze. Everyday we face new temptations and the devil throws challenges are way. We would be wise to address those head on, with a clear mind.

To be sure, alcohol can have these same affects on the mind when used and abused. To this extent, a Christian should regard marijuana and alcohol similarly. Any substance that clouds our thinking and inhibits our decision-making should be avoided. There is a significant difference between alcohol and marijuana, however, in that alcohol can be used without feeling its intoxicating effects. We see this pattern in scripture as well, as many in the Bible (including Jesus) imbibed during celebrations and festivities. But God forbids drunkenness. Marijuana, however, can’t be used apart from its intoxicating effects.

The issue is not so much the substance, but rather the purpose of its use. It’s possible to use alcohol without becoming intoxicated. It’s not possible to use marijuana without becoming intoxicated. Because of the intoxicating nature of substances like cannabis and alcohol, my advice to Christians would be to use alcohol only after a good deal of thought and introspection, and for Christians to not use marijuana for any recreational reason.

Also, no matter what Christians do, whether enjoying a beer after a long day or smoking a joint to relax, we should ask ourselves why we are doing the things we do, and what impact they have on our Christian testimony. What messages is sent (if any) to the world about my faith if I need a beer in order to relax? What does it say about my faith if I need to get high in order to have a good time? We should learn to temper our actions through introspection.

Paul says that all things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial (1 Corinthians 10.23). Marijuana use for medicinal purposes is clearly good and right, but for recreational purposes it is far from beneficial.

Visual Theology

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I read a lot of books. Some of the books are for pleasure, and most are for study, in conjunction with my work as a pastor. For the past three years I have published a “Top 10” list of the books I read each year. You can check out those lists here, here, and here. Although we’re still relatively early in 2019, I think I’ve already read the book that will be number one on my list for this year.

A couple of months ago I pre-ordered a copy of A Visual Theology Guide to the Bible by Tim Challies and Josh Byers. I was excited to get the book for two reasons: 1) I read Tim Challies’ blog regularly and really like his writing, and 2) I love infographics! I received the book last week and have already read it through, which is not something I usually do.

Let me be to the point: you need to get a copy of this book. If you only purchase one book this year, it should be this book (unless you need a new Bible, then definitely go with the new Bible).

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This book is unique in a variety of ways. I guarantee that you have never read another book like this one. It’s almost something you need to see to believe. Each page of the book contains written information, but there is also at least one graphic design that accompanies the block of text, visually communicating what was written in the text. And on many pages, the text is the graphic. Don’t confuse it for a picture book. The graphics in this book speak in ways that text by itself simply can’t. It’s a fascinating and first of its kind (as far as I know) approach to writing and communicating in book form.

The book is broken down into three parts: 1. Trusting the Bible, 2. Studying the Bible, and 3. Seeing the Bible. The first part is a defense of how and why the Bible exists. It covers issues such as textual criticism, numbers of biblical manuscripts, languages of the Bible, dates of writings, how the canon was formed, the accuracy and reliability of scripture, and so much more.

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The second part covers things like how to read the Bible, looking at different genres, memorizing scripture, methods for studying the Bible, and so on. But remember: it doesn’t just communicate these things by the use of text, but also (and primarily) graphically. You will spend as much, if not more, time looking as you do reading.

The third section of the book tells the overarching story of the Bible, and shows how the whole thing is pointing to Christ and his work in and through the gospel. But I guarantee that it does so in a way that you’ve never seen before. You’ll see infographics on Asbraham’s travels, the conquest of Canaan, the cycle of the Judges, a layout of the Tabernacle, the prophecies of Christ’s coming, Jesus’ miracles, a defense of the factual nature of Jesus’ resurrection, and so much more. My personal favorite graphic from this section is the one on the book of Psalms.

Not only is this book well written and beautifully designed, but perhaps the best feature about it is its utility. That is, this book is incredibly useful. Christians would do well to read this book in tandem with their regular Bible reading. It will compliment your study of scripture incredibly, and it will do so in a unique, engaging and, dare I say, entertaining way. You will benefit from your Bible reading by reading this book. And you will enjoy reading the Bible more if you read this book. That may sound like an overstatement, but that’s how wonderfully done this book is.

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There are few other books that I would recommend for non-believers more than this book. Although it is primarily about the Bible, this book has a distinct apologetic flavor to it. Not only does it teach the Bible, but it also defends the Bible, and it does so in a way that will not be off-putting to unbelievers. Sometimes I feel like Christian publications come with a certain “cheese ball” factor that a reader or consumer has to “get over” in order to actually receive the message. Not so with this book. The medium is the message, and the medium of this book presents the message in an absolutely engaging way that pretty much anybody - believer or unbeliever - will be pulled into. If you have an unbelieving friend, or a family member who has ever asked questions about the Bible, its reliability, or its message, this is the book that you should give to them.

Seriously: if you can, get yourself a copy of this book. Or check it out from Riverview’s library.

The Normal Christian Life

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This past Sunday I preached a message on the story of David and Goliath from 1 Samuel 17 titled “The Normal Christian Life.” One of my goals for the message was to communicate that David didn’t really do anything spectacular in defeating Goliath. He didn’t have any special weaponry, armor, or fighting skills. Instead, he simply did four things that are central and common to the life of anyone seeking to walk by faith:

  1. David viewed his circumstances through a spiritual filter. In other words, David saw the spiritual reality behind the physical circumstances of his life. The rest of Israel looked at Goliath and saw a more than nine and a half foot tall invincible enemy. David looked at Goliath and saw a man who was not stronger than God. Like David, Christians live their lives by interpreting their circumstances through a spiritual lens.

  2. David made decisions according to God’s faithfulness to his promises. Since David was looking at his life through spiritual eyes, he made decisions based on his knowledge of God’s faithfulness to his promises. This led him to tell King Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine. Your servant will go and fight him.” The only reason David made this decision was because of his spiritual knowledge and his trust that God would keep his word. This practice should be a normal part of how Christians live their lives. We make decisions based upon our knowledge of God’s faithfulness to his promises.

  3. David believed in his own weakness and in God’s strength. In order to fight Goliath, David first had to realize that he was utterly incapable of defeating the giant. No weapons, armor, or skill that he had in and of himself could ever hope to bring Goliath down. In order to defeat the giant, David had to not only realize this but embrace the truth that he was utterly weak. But it turns out that this is a fine place to be, because God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. Part of the normal Christian life is embracing our inadequacies and thereby experiencing God’s limitless strength.

  4. The motivation for David’s obedience was a commitment to God’s glory. The fuel for David’s battle against Goliath was his desire for the glory of God to be known by all who would see the giant fall. David knew that Goliath would only fall if God did something. In other words, in Goliath’s defeat, everyone who saw the battle would know that God had acted mightily - not David. Part of living the Christian life is a desire to live in such a way that people are able to see God’s glory through you (1 Samuel 17.46).

As I have written about before, there’s no such thing as “Bible heroes.” There are only weak men who reckoned upon God’s being with them, David included. David didn’t wake up that morning expecting to slay a giant. But he did wake up that day intending to something very normal: trust God and walk by faith.

We balk at the notion that David didn’t do anything spectacular or extraordinary in his battle against Goliath. Surely there must be something special about him in order for him to defeat Goliath! Doesn’t David deserve some credit for slaying the giant? I don’t think so. Instead, David simply did what any follower of God wants to do: trust in God and make decisions accordingly. It’s certainly true that God did something remarkable with David’s faith and obedience, but there was nothing David did that you and I can’t duplicate in our own lives.

By saying this I am meaning to differentiate between what David did, and what God did. For David’s part, he essentially did the four things listed above: see the spiritual reality of his physical circumstances, act according to God’s promises, embrace his own weakness and God’s strength, and obey for the glory of God. These are all very human and very attainable things for any follower of God. For God’s part, on the other hand, he used David’s faith and obedience to do something remarkable: take down the invincible giant.

I don’t mean to over-simplify the Christian life, but perhaps we too often over-complicate it. It’s easy to get caught up in the ifs, hows, whens, and whys that we never even take a step of faith. David’s experience is “normal” to the extent that he simply trusted and followed where God led. This is the same opportunity available to you and I. We can likewise share in this normal Christian life that David lived. And we serve the same God as David did. In David’s case, his “normal Christian life” found him on a battlefield with a dead giant at his feet. It may be that God will use your “normal Christian life” to slay giants as well. Or not. That’s not up to you and I. Our job is to trust and obey, and to leave the results up to God, knowing that whatever we do - and whatever God does - it will be for our good and ultimately for his glory.

Sometimes the story of David and Goliath is taught as an encouragement that, if you just believe enough, anyone can topple the giants in their life. Don’t believe that for a minute. The giants in your life will kill you; they will chew you up and spit you out. You are utterly unprepared to face them on the field of battle. But the giants of your life can’t kill your God. In fact, they are nothing compared to him, and he reigns over them as Lord. And he calls you to face your giants. But not under your own power. Instead, walk by faith, act according to God’s promises, and commit yourself to displaying his glory with your life, and leave the results up to him. This is what it means to live the “normal Christian life.”

A Harmful Spirit from the Lord

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Last week I wrote about some difficult parts of 1 Samuel 15. Well, chapter 16 has some interesting bits as well, so today we’ll take a closer look. I often don’t get a chance to look at these difficult passages in a sermon because most of the time fleshing out interesting tidbits is beyond the scope of a traditional message. That being said, I enjoy “digging deeper” into these potentially confusing parts of scripture, and if you do too, read on.

The tricky bit of 1 Samuel 16 comes in verse 14: “Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him.” Even on the surface, this verse rubs us the wrong way, because the thought of God sending a harmful spirit on anyone is rather off-putting. Why would God send a harmful spirit on a person? And where does God get these harmful spirits from? How can a harmful spirit come from a good God?

First of all, what is a harmful spirit? Unfortunately, the text doesn’t help us much. The older NIV translation says the spirit was “injurious” rather than harmful, and the most recent NIV translation goes even further to say that the spirit was actually “evil.” The ESV translates the word as “harmful.” Was it a demon? Possibly.

Some have sought to reason away the perceived problem by stating that the “harmful spirit” that came upon Saul was not a demonic figure, but was actually some sort of illness, perhaps even a mental illness. This is why Saul could be soothed simply by hearing some calming music from his personal minstrel, David (1 Samuel 16.18-23). For instance, if the harmful spirit were an affliction of anxiety, it’s certainly possible that some calming music would do much to help with Saul’s battered mental state. The same would be true if the “harmful spirit” were some sort of physical malady that could be treated with music therapy.

Regardless of the form of the spirit’s manifestation in Saul, one thing is certain: the “harmful spirit” had a divine origin that was observable even by Saul’s servants: “And Saul’s servants said to him, ‘Behold now, a harmful spirit from God is tormenting you’” (1 Samuel 16.15). Whatever was happening, it was clear to everyone who saw it that God was involved.

But that just brings us back to our initial question: how can a good God send “harmful spirits?”

No matter how off-putting you and I might find the notion of God sending a harmful spirit upon Saul, we should note one thing: it doesn’t bother the author of first Samuel. We know this because he offers us no justification or reasoning in the text. He simply states it as a fact, as though such things were regular occurrences. To him, the idea of God sending a harmful spirit was not off-putting and did not cause him to question his faith. It was simply a fact of life.

The reason for this, I believe, is that the author of 1 Samuel had a robust understanding of God’s sovereignty, and especially his sovereignty over evil. To the author of 1 Samuel, it’s perfectly natural for God to send a harmful spirit upon Saul, because God is the Lord - even the Lord over evil.

James 2 says that demons believe in God, and they shudder at the thought of him. Why do they shudder? Because they are subject to his authority. In other words, God is Lord even over the demons. In Luke 8 Jesus is confronted by a man inhabited by many demons. These demons recognize Jesus’ authority and beg him not to send them into the abyss. Rather, they suggest, allow them to inhabit a herd of pigs. Luke 8.32 says that Jesus “gave them permission.” Jesus didn’t force them to go into the pigs or into the abyss. Instead, he used his authority to give the “harmful spirits” of Luke 8 permission to do what they suggested. If the “harmful spirit” that Saul had was a demon, it was only afflicting him by God’s allowance, according to God’s authority.

Likewise, if the harmful spirit that afflicted Saul was a physical or mental malady, this is also a result of God’s permission. “‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?’” (Exodus 4.11) Similarly, God either allowed or afflicted numerous people with ailments throughout scripture for his sovereign purposes.

Whether God intentionally afflicted Saul with a harmful spirit (such as in Exodus 4.11), or whether he allowed the harmful spirit to torment him (such as in Luke 8.32), the end result is the same: the harmful spirit came from God. And for whatever reason (and there was a good reason, even if we don’t know it in full), God either caused or allowed some evil, harmful spirit to attack Saul.

But this should not cause us to despair, or to question God’s goodness. For we are sure that although God is the Lord over evil, he is not the author of evil. God uses sin sinlessly. That is, he can remain Lord over sin and use it for his purposes without sinning.

In the case of Saul, God used the “harmful spirit” to introduce David onto the scene and prepare him for his future reign, as well as to ignite the bitter strife between Saul and David that would go on into the future. Perhaps God used this harmful spirit to further enflame Saul against David, making his condemnation all the more just.

Regardless, as we stated earlier, the notion of the harmful spirit coming from God did not concern the author of 1 Samuel, and nor should it concern us. We should be encouraged that even “harmful spirits” come from God. They don’t run amok of their own accord, doing whatever they please. No, they have a Lord; they have a Master. And that Master uses all things - even harmful spirits! - for his glory and our good.

Sanitized Scripture

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1 Samuel 15 is a hard chapter of the Bible to read.  Not because it's difficult to understand, but because some of what is described therein seems to be so brutal and barbaric that it's hard to think that God condoned what took place. 

But he did.  

In this chapter of scripture, God gives King Saul a mission: go and completely obliterate the Amalekites - man, woman, child, and animal.  This Saul does, albeit not completely.  He saves some of the choicest animals and he also saves Agag, the king of the Amalekites, presumably to show him off as a trophy of his victory.  

But this is not what God has commanded.  Instead, God commanded the complete annihilation of the Amalekites, including their animals, and including their king.  In response to what Saul left undone, Samuel himself finishes the job, so to speak: "And Samuel said [to Agag], 'As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.'  And Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord in Gilgal." (1 Samuel 16.33, ESV, emphasis added)  

I don't know about you, but hearing that anyone was "hacked to pieces" is enough to make me wince, let alone hearing that it was done "before the Lord."  It's a description that is mean to illicit a visceral reaction from us, the readers, and I think it's safe to say it succeeds in doing so.  

As I was studying to preach this text recently, I read the same passage in the NIV, and was surprised to find this translation of the same verse: "But Samuel said [to Agag], 'As your sword has made women childless, so will your mother be childless among women.'  And Samuel put Agag to death before the Lord at Gilgal." (1 Samuel 16.33, NIV, emphasis added)  

You'll notice that the description of Agag's death in the NIV is much more palatable.  It's a lot easier to read that someone was "put to death" rather than "hacked to pieces."  

The most literal translation of the original Hebrew follows more closely with the ESV rendering of "hacked to pieces."  Why then does the NIV translate the same verse as Agag simply being "put to death"?  Clearly this rendering takes our modern sensibilities into account.  We don't like to hear about a human being having been "hacked to pieces."  It's easier and less messy and creates fewer questions to hear about them being simply "put to death."  

But as difficult as it is for us to read, I think we need to retain the language of Agag being hacked to pieces.  Is it brutal?  Yes.  Is it graphically violent?  Yes.  Does it illicit reactions of shock and disgust?  Yes. 

And that's the point.  

We bristle when we think that God told Saul to wipe out the Amalekites completely, man, woman, child, and animal (1 Samuel 15.3).  We put up our defenses, based mostly on our 21st century sensibilities, and we accuse God of over-reacting.  Certainly it's not necessary to kill everyone and everything in the nation of Amalek, is it?  Even the children?  Even the animals?  What did they do?

Not long after being released from slavery in Egypt, and right after crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites were attacked by the Amalekites (Exodus 17).  And not only that, but when the Amalekites attacked, they purposely attacked the weakest people in Israel: the women, children, elderly, and ill (Deuteronomy 25).  Like a schoolyard bully picks out the weakest kid on the playground to pick on him, knowing that he won't fight back, so the Amalekites chose the weak, under-nourished, untrained Israelites to pick on right after leaving 400 years of slavery.  As a result, God declares holy war upon the Amalekites and promises their destruction (See Exodus 17.14 and Deuteronomy 25.19).  

By the time of King Saul, the Amalekites had continued to be a thorn in Israel's side for centuries, and, put simply, their cup of wrath had filled up to the brim.  God was merciful to not destroy them outright at the very beginning.  Instead he was patient and long-suffering, giving them hundreds of years to repent and turn to him, but they never did.  So now the time has come for their sin to be dealt with.  And the means of dealing with them that God has chosen is to send in Saul and the Israelites to utterly wipe them out - man, woman, child, and beast.  

This is why, I think, it is important to know that Agag, king of the Amalekites was "hacked to pieces" and not simply "put to death."  God cannot allow sin to go unpunished, and his punishment must be severe - severe enough to satisfy the justice of a perfectly holy, perfectly righteous God.  What does that kind of justice look like?  It looks like the total decimation of the Amalekites, and the hacking to pieces of their king.  God's justice is more than just a "put to death" kind of justice.  It's a "hacked to pieces" kind of justice.  Although it might seem harsh and brutal to us, it is just.  It is a picture of how grievous sin is to a holy God, and how desperate our need is to be made right with him.  

But in actuality, the destruction of the Amalekites and the grisly death of their king is but a shadow of the divine justice of God.  It is nothing compared to his wrath upon sin that will be poured out for all eternity in hell.  As severe as the punishment of the Amalekites was, and as much as we recoil in horror at the thought of Agag being hacked to pieces, both of these pale in comparison to God's eternal vengeance toward sin, in a place where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched (Mark 9.48).  

I don't say these things for their shock value, but rather to magnify the glory of the cross.  Because you and I are just like the Amalekites.  We have spurned God at every possible opportunity, and we deserve the same fate as the Amalekites and that of King Agag.  Actually, if we're honest, we deserve worse.  

But God did the unfathomable: he sent his Son into the world to suffer that fate for you.  Jesus Christ willingly offered himself to be decimated and "hacked to pieces" in my place, himself suffering the eternal vengeance of a holy God on my behalf.  "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2.4-7).

This is why I appreciate the ESV translation of 1 Samuel 15.33, hard as it might be to digest.  When the consequences of sin are magnified (like being hacked to pieces), the glorious grace of God in the gospel is likewise magnified.  

Time had run out for the Amalekites.  Their cup of wrath was full and it was time for justice to be served.  But there is still time for you.  You don't have to share their fate.  You don't have to live in the fear and regret of offending a holy God, because that same God sacrificed his Son to save you from destruction if you will call out to him.