Understanding “The Law”

Hi friends, I got the following email this morning from someone and I thought it asked some great questions. There seems to be a lot of talk right now in Christian circles about the Law, the Gospel, Grace and how those things all fit together. I thought I’d chime in with my thoughts. First, the email:

Morning Ben-
I am reading Luke Chapter 5 and the man with leprosy was healed by Jesus and He tells him to present an offerring for his purification. Why don’t we do that now? I know that was part of the law, right? But when in the Bible does this become something we as Christians don’t practice.  Does that make sense? I am really trying to understand these details better. 

What is “the Law”?

Whenever Christians/theologians talk about the Law (capital “L”) they are talking about the first five books of the Bible, otherwise known as “the Torah” or “the books of Moses.” The first five books of the Bible were written by Moses during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. They describe the story of God making covenant with the Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and, finally, the people of Israel. “The Law” refers to the commands that God gave to the Israelites as part of his covenental agreement. The Law was supposed to distinguish the Jewish people from every other people on the face of the Earth and consisted of 3 types of commands: ceremonial laws, moral laws and religious observances. There were 613 different laws that a Jew needed to abide by in order to live under the covenental blessing of God. To break one of them was to be guilty of breaking them all. In order to try and protect the (illiterate) people from breaking one of God’s laws, the priests/levites/rabbis/scribes created additional laws called “the hedge.” These are the “rules taught by men” that Jesus so strongly criticized.

An example of “the hedge” is found in Genesis. In Genesis 2:16, God said to Adam, “You are free to eat of any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…” However, just one chapter later, the serpent quizzes Eve about God’s commands, her response? “The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees of the garden, but God did say, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it…”” Genesis 3:2-3.

God didn’t say they couldn’t touch the tree, Adam did. Adam was trying to protect his wife from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and breaking God’s command, so he told her to not even touch it or else she would die. Well, that was an easy door for Satan to exploit. Eve only needed to touch the tree (which was perfectly permissable) and not die, then she was easy pickings. She broke a man made rule which then gave her confidence to break a God made rule – not good.

By the time Jesus enters the scene, many of the Jews had stopped trying to obey the Law. God’s rules and man’s rules were so confused and conflated that many people just gave up trying. Jesus reinterprets many of the Laws and totally ignored others. He gave people hope that they too could live a life pleasing to God.

The 3 categories of Law 

As I mentioned before, there were 3 categories of Law: ceremonial law, moral law and religious observances. 

Ceremonial law dealt with the issues of being clean or unclean. One needed to be ceremonially clean in order to worship at the Temple. Ceremonial, or cleanliness, laws included kosher dietary laws, what to do with certain types of illnesses, infections and molds, how to interact with women on their periods, what to do about dead bodies and many other kinds of things. Being “clean” or “unclean” was a HUGE issue for the Jewish people. To be “unclean” was to be excluded from worship, family and community life and there were involved rituals and sacrifices needed in order to “get clean” and be reinstated to the community.

Moral law dealt with how the people should behave as God’s covenental people. I use “moral” in this sense to mean “accurately reflecting the character and nature of God” not in the sense of “good/bad”. Laws that represent the Moral law category would be, “Don’t bear false witness. Don’t covet. Don’t steal.” God doesn’t do any of those things, so the people who bear his image shouldn’t do them either. Moral law is an interesting category because it requires an intense study of the character of God and how we live in the tension of being called to be like him, yet still falling short this side of the Resurrection.

The final category, what I call Religious Observances, are the Laws given by God specifically to the Jews to make them unique from any other people. Some Jewish dietary laws fall under this category, as does the Sabbath, the Jubilee and various other Feast days. The most famous of these Laws is the prohibition to the Jews of worshipping any god than YHWH. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, religious observances are what caused the Jews the most amount of persecution when they followed them.

How Jesus interacted with the various categories of Law

As Christians, it is vitally important to understand what ended with Jesus and the Cross, what changed and what carried through virtually intact. It is also essential to understand the the Old Covenant is fulfilled in the New and that the New Covenant interprets the Old. Basically, this means that if you are reading through the Old Testament and come across a Law, then you must go to the New Testament to study how Jesus and the authors of the New Testament dealt with that particular subject. The New Testament understanding of the Law supersedes the Old Testament understanding.

Jesus and Ceremonial Law

Jesus demolished ceremonial Law with his understanding and teaching of sonship and intimacy with the Father. Jesus was so in love with God, so filled with the Spirit, that he was undefileable. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could make Jesus unclean or unworthy to be in God’s Presence because he was and is God’s Beloved Son. In the Old Covenant, if a leper touched you, you became unclean. With Jesus, when lepers touched him they got healed! Jesus’s radical understanding of Grace and the Love of God allowed him to effectively set aside the requirements of ceremonial law. As Christians, our lives are hidden in Christ, we are filled with his Spirit and the power of Jesus’s resurrection flows in our veins – we are God’s beloved sons and daughters and nothing, absolutely nothing, makes us unfit to be in God’s Presence. We can come with confidence before the Throne of Grace because of Jesus’s sacrifice on our behalf.

Jesus and Moral Law

Jesus was and is the fulfillment of moral law – he is the perfect representation of the Father. Every moral law in the Old Covenant finds its fulfillment in Jesus. Jesus is our model and standard in terms of character and, while he set the standard high, it isn’t beyond our ability to duplicate by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

In many ways, Jesus intensified the demands of moral law. In the Old Covenant, as long as you didn’t actually have sex with a woman who wasn’t your wife, you could oogle her all day and be just fine. But Jesus says that to look at a woman lustfully is the same as having comitted adultery with her. Similarly, in the Old Covenant, as long as you didn’t physically assalt and kill someone you could despise them in your heart all you wanted, but in the New Covenant, simply cussing someone out internally puts you in danger of the fires of Hell – why? Because free will doesn’t go away in eternity.

Think about it, in the beginning, God created everything and everyone absolutely PERFECT. How, then, did  Lucifer fall?  Lucifer had free will and used it poorly. He indulged in internal fantasies of what it would feel like to be the one worshipped, rather than the one worshipping. Satan wasn’t created evil – he became evil as he used his free will to create a wicked fantasy of himself sitting in God’s place. Jesus set the standard of moral law so high so that we would have to engage in a lifelong pursuit of being conformed to his character and bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Jesus gives us ample opportunity in this life (and in the Millenial Kingdom) to learn to distinguish Good and Godly thoughts from carnal and sinful desires. We are being trained to live in ABSOLUTE FREEDOM for eternity as we obediently respond to Holy Spirit convicting us of sin and less-than-pure motives.

Jesus and Religious Observances

Jesus embraced his Jewish roots and identity, but on his own terms. Jesus did observe certain rituals and feast days, but other things, like the Sabbath, he reinterpreted  so that they would be more life-giving. 

In the book of Acts, we see the Church wrestling with Jewish culture and religious observances. As the Gospel spread like wildfire across the Roman Empire and thousands upon thousands of Gentiles (non Jews) entered into God’s family and eternal life, the question arose “what do we do with them?”  Some people wanted “Christian” and “observant Jew” to be one and the same thing. They wanted to circumcise the Gentiles and make them live like Jews. Others, notably the Apostles Peter and Paul,  argued that God’s Spirit was given to the Gentiles, and to the whole Church, as a gift, not because they had been faithful to obey the Law. The compromise was to create some distinctly “Christian laws” that would differentiate the Christian church from other Gentile religions and protect the intent of the Law to set apart a people holy to the Lord. The four laws the Jerusalem Council agreed upon in Acts 15 were: 1) To abstain from eating food sacrificed to idols, 2) from blood (presumably from eating food with blood in it, but some have argued that it means from violence or “shedding blood”),  3) from the meat of strangled animals  and, 4) from sexual immorality. Paul seems to have theological disagreements with numbers 1, 2 and 3 later on, arguing that all food is clean if it is received with thanksgiving, but he vigorously upholds number 4. 

Ultimately, it appears that if you were a Gentile when you became a Christian, you should remain a Gentile and if you were a Jew, then you should remain a Jew (culturally speaking of course). And in instances where Jews and Gentiles are part of the same congregation, they need to be gracious to one another and try to do whatever they can to minimize offense and celebrate freedom. They must trust that each person is doing what they feel God is asking them to do and to not quarrel over “disputable matters.” 

How Grace and Law Interact 

Depending on which category of Law you are referring to, Grace means different things.

No Christian need concern themselves with ceremonial law. We are forever clean because of Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross. We never have to try to be “good enough” to get into God’s Presence or righteous enough for him to hear our prayers. In fact, we are the Temple, for God’s Spirit lives in us – so we can never be excluded from his Presence. We are undefilable, able to walk into the messiest circumstances and set people free. Grace means we never have to work for God’s acceptance or favor, it is a free gift given to us at salvation because of Jesus’s obedience and sacrifice. It means that we are God’s Beloved Sons and Daughters and that nothing can ever change that.

Every Christian needs to concern themselves with obeying God’s moral law. Grace, in this instance, is God given ability to bear the fruit of the Spirit and be conformed to the character of Christ. Grace is God giving us the mind of Christ, infilling us with the Holy Spirit and giving us a heart that longs to love him and serve him. Obeying God’s moral law is the process of sanctification – it requires effort and results in doing righteouss deeds, but should never be confused with salvation. We do good works BECAUSE we’re born again, not so that we CAN be born again. Grace empowers us to obey God’s moral commands and to represent him accurately, it doesn’t excuse us from being sanctified

Gentile Christians do not need to be concerned with religious observances. If you want to follow some of them, like the Sabbath or the tithe, then I think that is great. But please, don’t get silly about things. Unless you were raised in an ethically Jewish home you have no business pretending to be something you are not. It isn’t a small thing in God’s sight to be Jewish. Don’t mess around with something you dont understand because you think it it “cool” or “biblical”. Grace, in this instance, allows for people from a wide variety of backgrounds to do life together. It allows us  to humbly love, serve and honor those who are different than us and recognize that God’s family is large and diverse and that we are just one small part of it. Grace allows us to live out the weightiest matters of the Law, to love God with all that we are and to love others with the same type of sacrifical love with which Jesus love us.

Closing Thoughts

I realize I worked through this complicated issue quickly and using broad strokes. My intent was not to do a detailed analysis of every Law in the Bible. Rather, I wanted to give you a mental paradigm to go about researching these things for yourself. You must be absolutely convinced from responsible use of Scripture of your own opinions about the Law, the Gospel and Grace. You can’t take my word for it or anyone else’s. 

Good luck in your study my friends!

Ben

Recovering your sight

Mark 6:39-44

Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men. Emphasis mine.

The passage above, from Mark 6, is the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 men plus women and children with five loaves of bread and 2 fish. It is a tremendous miracle, one I find myself returning to often. I’d like to discuss one more dimension of this miracle in this post – the idea of “looking up to heaven.” The Greek word translated “to look up” is also the word that means “to recover sight,” as when Jesus healed someone of blindness. That particular piece of information caused me to approach this passage in a different light. 

Jesus was surrounded by a huge crowd of people. They had been with him for some time and now they were hungry. Rather than send them away to fend for themselves, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, wanted to feed them. Jesus shared his intentions with the Disciples and they responded just like you or I would have – “Jesus, there are thousands of people here. We don’t have enough money to cater a lunch for this many people. You have to send them away.” Jesus was insistent, “No, you feed them.”

The disciples did a quick search and found five loaves of bread and two fish. They brought them to Jesus. “Jesus, here is what we have… enough to feed one, maybe to people. What about everyone else?” 

Jesus responded by taking the loaves and fish and then directed the people to sit down and ready themselves for a meal. What great faith – both in Jesus and in the crowd. The people had no clue what was going on except that the Teacher said they were going to have dinner. I can imagine more than a few people mumering under their breath, “I wonder how that is going to happen.”

In the midst of the murmering and noise of the crowd, Jesus took the loaves and looked up to heaven. Jesus refused to be blinded by what was in front of him. Instead, he recovered his sight, he cured his own spiritual blindness by looking to heaven and seeing Father for who he truly is. In the midst of tremendous human need and an even greater lack of resources, Jesus began speaking to our Father. ‘Daddy, there are so many hungry people here and I want to feed them. I want to reveal to them that you are the God who Provides. I want them to understand that I am the bread from Heaven by giving them bread from heaven. But there is so little bread and so little of me…’ Faith has no problem acknowledging the facts. Faith is grounded in reality, not fantasy. Faith also refuses to leave God out of the equation. ‘…but you are Good. You are generous and kind. You sustained your people for 40 years in the wildnerness and you have brought us to this point. It was your idea to do this, you want to reveal yourself to these people. You want to show that you are trustworthy and you want to take away any excuses they have for not believing you care about them.’ 

Looking up to heaven and seeing God for who he truly is allowed Jesus to act in faith. He began blessing the bread, multiplying it before his very eyes as he broke it and gave it to his disciples to distribute. The miracle continued as the disciples broke the bread and gave it away and it continued further as the crowd broke the bread and gave it to one another. By the end of the meal there was more left over than what they had started with! Everyone ate and was satisfied. What a wonderful picture of God’s love, mercy and grace – the more we give it away the more we have, in fact, we end up with more than what we started with. In God’s Kingdom, things grow as they are given away and shrink as they are hoarded.

What Jesus models for us is a profound understanding of faith. As Bill Johnson says, “If you ever look at a problem and feel hopeless you need to redo the math and factor in God’s faithfulness and ability.” Faith is so much more than belieiving God can do something – it is believing he wants to and will because we asked. Faith isn’t presumptuous, we aren’t entitled to a miracle and God doesn’t owe us anything, rather, it rests on the promise of God’s word. God really is a good Father, he really does love us, he really does delight in us and longs to partner with us to release His Kingdom on the earth. 

Many of us will never need to feed 5,000 people fish sandwiches for dinner, but we will need to look to heaven for answers to our marriages, our difficulties with our kids, our problems at work and countless other things. The temptation in each of those situations is to be blinded by the facts and to operate from a place of lack. The challenge for us is to “recover our sight” by looking to heaven and factoring in the goodness of our Heavenly Father. Then we will probably have to give up or give away the things we’ve been holding onto, even hoarding, for this miracle manifests in brokenness. It won’t be easy, it may or may not be fun, and it will certainly be worth it.

I try to never ask people to do what I have been unwilling to do myself, so I’ll close with this story:

Several years ago, my wife and I were both working full time trying to pay off our student loans. I felt God calling me to give up my full time job with benefits and to go into ministry in the House of Prayer, which meant fundraising my entire salary. Quitting my job and asking other people to pay my debts absolutely rankeled my soul, yet God was insistent. So I quit my job and spent one month simply sharing with my family and friends what I believed God was calling me into. Now, to be totally honest, I have AMAZING and generous family and friends, but their response totally blew me away. Without even asking, my family and friends honored the call of God on my life and ended up supporting me with more money than what I was making working a full time job.

God is faithful. 

I hope my story inspires you to step out in faith. You will never build a satisfying and compelling history with God by playing it safe. Don’t be foolish, but don’t be afraid to take risks. You never know when you might end up walking on water.

Ben

Busting Some Myths About LGBT People

This is the second installment of my thinking relating to how I believe Christians should think about and interact with the LGBT community. Yesterday’s post laid out the foundational concepts I use to think through and process this issue. Today is going to focus more specifically on breaking down myths and stereotypes some Christians have about LGBT people. For many LGBT people reading this it is going to seem archaic and possibly silly to hear a pastor talking about these things, so I appreciate your patience. I’m trying to start from Ground Zero and build up from there.

Response to Yesterday’s Post
Thank you to everyone who read and commented yesterday. The response was, frankly, overwhelming. I’m thankful you take the time to read what I write and benefit from it.

One friend posted this video in the comments section of my Facebook page. The video itself introduces us to various members of the Body of Christ who also identify as LGBT. I thought Huff Post’s title of the section was wonderful – “LGBT Christians aren’t an ‘issue,’ they are ‘the Church’.” That sums up what I was trying to say yesterday in much fewer words. :)

Overcoming Prejudice
I argued yesterday that prejudice is the driving force behind many Christian’s beliefs, attitudes and actions towards the LGBT community. Prejudice is when one group of people with certain defining characteristics elicits a fear response in another group, usually the group in power. The group in power then seeks to dominate and control the first group in order to feel safe. Prejudice allows fear to masquerade as wisdom and control to be mistaken for love.

Fear clouds our judgement and makes us act irrationally. My hope in this post is to dial down any anxiety you may have about LGBT Christians and expose some myths the Christian community has about some people. I’m certainly not the best person to do this, but hey, its my blog. :)

Truth Telling
1) LGBT Christians are not “an issue,” they are “the Church.”
The Body of Christ encompasses a large number of people from all sorts of backgrounds and life experiences. Part of the beauty of the Gospel is that, in Christ, God reconciled humanity to Himself. God’s family is large and diverse – we need to remember that. The Glory of the Church is the ability to take people from all walks of life, love them and teach them to obey all Christ commanded. In the midst of that we see God at work, changing and transforming hopeless sinners into the beautiful Bride of Christ. Where we are when we start our journey with Jesus is largely irrelevant for we are all called to press on in faith-filled obedience.

2) It is totally possible to love Jesus and be LGBT.
Being gay and being Christian are not mutually exclusive. I’ve had the privilege to know a few members of the Body who self identify as LGBT or with those tendencies and they love Jesus whole heartedly. Of the people I’ve interacted with, all of them share the view that actively pursuing a homosexual lifestyle is a sin, so they talk about being LGBT using the word “struggle.” Since I share that view, I will probably use the word “struggle” from time to time, but I also acknowledge that some LGBT Christians don’t feel any struggle with their sexuality and are at peace with where they are.

3) LGBT people are not better or worse parents than heterosexual people.
There is a myth perpetuated in some Christian circles that gay or lesbian parents are unfit to raise children due to their issues. I disagree that being an LGBT person is something that disqualifies you as a good parent – there might be other issues that do, but being LGBT isn’t one of them. While I don’t personally know or interact with LGBT couples that have children, I imagine that they are as loving, kind, gentle and stern as any other parents. I believe they are concerned with raising their kids right and that they will succeed and fail in that as well as heterosexual parents.

Bad parenting is bad parenting, no matter who you are. And good parenting is good parenting, wether it comes from a lesbian, gay, straight or transgendered person. Prejudice is what makes us think a gay or lesbian couple can’t raise a child because we believe they are so deeply flawed in their moral, ethical and spiritual faculties that they cannot possibly function in society, let alone raise a well adjusted child. Well, some do. And others don’t. Just like the rest of us.

4) Homosexuality is not a communicable disease.
Some people don’t want to be around LGBT people because they are afraid that being gay will “rub off.” This is especially true of straight parents who have never interacted with LGBT people. These parents don’t want their children to be taught or tutored by LGBT people because they don’t want their children to grow up to be gay. (This is one of those instances where fear looks like wisdom.)

Do you worry about your child’s teacher being fat because you don’t want your kid to grow up to be fat? Do you worry about your child’s teacher being divorced because you don’t want your child to grow up and be divorced? If not, and you are worried about an LGBT person teaching your child, then you have just discovered prejudice in your heart and it is time to repent.

5) LGBT people are not predators.
LGBT is not pedophile. LGBT people have the same revulsion to predation as you and I do. We have two unrelated adults in our Sunday School classrooms at all times to ensure that our kids are safe from pedophiles, not gays.

By no means is this an exhaustive list, but I think it covers several main concerns I’ve heard voiced within the Christian communities I’m a part of.

As always, thank you for reading and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Ben

Sin, Sexuality and Sanctification

Several weeks ago, I was asked to voice my opinion on how Christians should think about and interact with the LGBT community. It has taken me a long time to sift through my various thoughts, and what I present here simply represents the best of my current thinking. While I feel satisfied with my position, I reserve the right to change it as experience and insight dictate.

I initially thought I could address this topic in a single post – I was wrong. This first installment lays out my theological framework for thinking about the issues of sexuality and sin. Later installments will address more practical issues of loving LGBT persons and pastoring a community where LGBT persons are loved and welcome.

Also, for the record, this is my opinion, not the official stance of my denomination. As bizarre as I think it is to need a position paper on this topic, you can find it here.

With the disclaimers out of the way, we’ll move on…

My Goal
I want to love the LGBT community as radically and passionately as Jesus loves me. I want to love them in such a way that they set their hearts to love and follow Jesus for themselves. I trust that God, who is the Perfect Leader, will address any issues that need addressing in their lives at the right and perfect time. The Holy Spirit is the one who convicts us of sin (John 16:8), I don’t really see that as my job.

We’re All Sinners
I believe the Bible’s assertion that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We’re all in the same boat, which is great, because Jesus came as the atoning sacrifice for sinners. No matter how Sin manifests in your life, Jesus died to take away the guilt, shame and punishment associated with it. Even more, through the waters of baptism we believe that our old Sin-filled self died and the life of Christ was planted inside of us. We now live as Christ Incarnate – His life and character permeating and saturating our being in increasing measure until, one day, we will think, act and speak just like Him.

Please notice that, in the above paragraph, there is only ONE category – sinners. There are not heterosexual sinners and homosexual sinners as though the two were fundamentally different camps, requiring different sacrifices. Your sexuality is not your identity, therefore, Jesus only died once, and He died for all.

Sin and sins
When I talk about big “s” Sin, I am talking about the disposition of the human heart to disobedience and rebellion against God. Sin manifests in many different ways, small “s” sins. Small “s” sins don’t concern me as much as big “s” Sin for the same reason that dandelion flowers don’t concern me as much as dandelion roots – cut of the flower and it grows back, dig out the root and the flowers are gone for good.

The thing is, most Christians focus on individual sins, the least important part of the whole deal. When someone else’s sins look different than ours, we are quick to judge, punish and shame. Conversely, when someone’s sins look similar to our own, we tend to overlook and excuse them to protect ourselves from shame or punishment.

When we get hung up on the sins of others we reveal superficial thinking, fear and prejudice. When church leaders get hung up on the sins of others we have a tendency to put people on sin-management programs. We try to tire people out with cutting off flowers hoping that weariness will wither the root. It doesn’t work and we have cut people off from the Gospel – the good news that the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead in Glory is now at work in us who believe.

Holiness and Sanctification
Holiness (righteousness, perfection, conformity to the character of God) is Father’s main goal for His children. To paraphrase what Paul says in Ephesians 5:25-27, “Christ died to make us holy, cleansing us by washing us with water through the word. Christ died to present us to himself as a radiant church, a Bride without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish. Christ died to make us holy and blameless.” That promise will be and is being fulfilled – partially in this Age and fully in the Age that is coming.

In this life, we grow increasingly in holiness, a process called “sanctification.” Sanctification means that we start in one place and end up in another, “glory to glory” is the Biblical phrase. This is why I believe Center Set thinking is so essential for understanding Christian faith and discipleship. Yes – we may believe in God, be baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit – but we still have a long road ahead of us as we walk out what those things really mean. The road ahead likely has twists, turns and setbacks we can’t anticipate right now.

As we progress in righteousness, Holy Spirit peels back the layers of our hearts, exposing attitudes and sins we were previously unaware of, but that He knew were there all along. This is why we must trust in God’s leadership and timing! God promises us in the Bible that He WILL deal with our Sin and sins. However, we often want Him to deal with things we aren’t really ready for yet. It is like trying to run a marathon when you can’t walk around the block without getting winded – sure you can try, but you’ll likely faint along the way and do yourself more damage in the long haul in addition to feeling like a failure. Our Good Shepherd really is Good, and good at His job. You can trust Him to lead you into battle when you are equipped to win and to keep you from the ones you aren’t ready for yet.

Each of us is in process as we follow Jesus. Hopefully, the sins we are overcoming now aren’t the same ones we were dealing with decades ago when we first started following Jesus, but if they are – oh well. We just continue following Jesus to the best of our ability day in and day out. As long as we aren’t intentionally rebelling against His work in us, then we trust He will complete it at the right time. Righteousness is the inevitable result of obedience – the life of Christ within us compels us to that end.

Many Christians want to segregate LGBT persons into their own group, as though LGBT people are some special class of sinners to whom Father’s love, Jesus’s sacrifice, Holy Spirit’s leadership and the process of sanctification do not apply. That is nonsense. An LGBT person is no more beyond the reach of Father’s Love than a heterosexual person.

Is homosexuality a sin?
Yes, performing sexual acts with someone of the same gender (homosexuality) is a sin and a manifestation of Sin. The temptation to preform sexual acts with someone of the same gender is not a sin, it is a temptation to let Sin manifest in a particular way.

Now that we have clarified that homosexuality is a sin – the big question is, so what? So is divorce, gluttony, pride, lust, cowardice, lying, anger, envy and unbelief. I don’t want to dismiss the severity of sin, but I do want to show that homosexuality is just one sin among many. Why, then, do we make such a big deal of it? Why do we treat people who manifest Sin as homosexuality differently than we treat people who manifest Sin as divorce, or lust, or gluttony? I think the simple answer is prejudice. We think Sin manifesting as homosexuality is disgusting and dirty, and we don’t want to be around it.

But Jesus does.

Jesus loves sinners and He isn’t disgusted by sin. He doesn’t get hung up on the superficial manifestations of Sin, but goes for the root. When Jesus touches sinners, He doesn’t get dirty, sinners get clean. The love and life of Christ are simply undefileable. As Christians, we are called to be the same.

We can do much better at showing love to the LGBT community. But that has to start with us overcoming our fear and prejudice. LGBT people aren’t dirty or disgusting, they certainly aren’t a special class of sinners that we need to control or protect ourselves from. They are people in need of Love and salvation. They aren’t any different than us.

My next installment in this series will cover some common pastoral issues/concerns that arise as a leader of a congregation. Looking forward to sharing with you soon, Ben.

Center Set Thinking

In recent weeks I’ve stumbled back upon the notion of “Center Set Thinking.” It came as I was reading an article on the Blue Oceans website, you can find it here. The information I found pertinent is below:

Bounded Set VS Center Set Models

IMG_0135

Bounded sets are best pictured as circles. You’re either inside of them or outside of them. Centered sets are best pictured with a big dot on a page with lots of smaller dots. The issue there isn’t being inside or outside of anything. It’s motion. The big dot represents what holds the set together and the little dots are you, me, and everyone else. Are we moving towards the big dot or away from it?

As applied to following Jesus, the Bounded Set model is very dogmatic. You are in or out based on a certain set of behaviors. For instance, you become a Christian and are saved when you believe, say the Sinners Pray, and are baptized. Once you perform those behaviors, you cross over the line and are “in”. This certainty of being “in” is amazing comforting and stablizing. The downside is that it can lead to complacency because you are no longer concern with following Jesus because you assume he hasn’t moved.

In the Center Set Model, the only thing that matters is motion – are you moving towards Jesus or away from him? If you have attended a congregation for any length of time you have encountered people who are Christians according to the Bounded Set Model, but whose lives indicate that the direction of their hearts are pointed away from God. This is why repentance is such a huge deal. We must be constantly repenting, making course corrections, so that Jesus remains our goal.

I love the Center Set Model because it allows me to love and pastor people (without an agenda) who aren’t “Christians” but ARE Christ followers. The Center Set Model allows me to walk with impunity into the messiest circumstances and bring the Light and Love of Christ to bear. It doesn’t matter what sin is currently dominating someone’s life, if they turn their heart to follow Jesus then they are closer to him than someone sitting in church, but whose heart is disengaged or disinterested.

We have a few people who worship with us regularly who freely confess that they are not Christians and that they have doubts. I love that! I pray more people like that will join us, because even though they haven’t yet submitted their lives to Christ, they ARE following him. They want to know. They want to connect. And they are. God is working in each of their lives in tremendous ways, in large part, I think, because of their honesty.

Center Set thinking allows people to be in process. It allows people to be human, fragile, bold and courageous. It allows for freedom, doubt and miracles. A Center Set environment allows Holy Spirit to take a gangly group of sinners and transform them into little Christs, sons and daughters of God, through the power of Love. For the Word of the Lord is clear – He will wash us, He will cleanse us, He will present us to Himself radiant and spotless. Our job is to keep pursuing Him so that He can do His work and not keep running away because we think we’ve “made it.”

A word on belief and baptism
In no way to I mean to imply that belief and baptism are unimportant in our lives – they are essential ingredients in salvation. They are also just steps along the way of following Jesus, not hoops to jump through to get in the club. Getting baptized, confessing Jesus as Lord, and then living a life of rebellion will not save you, even though you fulfilled the “requirements”.

The idea of being “once saved, always saved” has done untold damage in the Church. It is totally possible to lose your salvation. It is totally possible to walk away from Jesus, even after having tasted of the Age to Come. For the Center Set mindset, this is no problem, because the issue isn’t “being in” so much as it is “getting close to Jesus”. Bounded Set people have real issues with the idea of losing salvation because they are looking for works to save them, not Jesus. If your aim is to passionately follow Jesus every day of your life you are in no danger of Hell, but if your aim is to do as little as possible and still make the cut, you are lost already, for you haven’t understood what Jesus came to do.

Being a Christian (following Christ) is about giving up everything that hinders us from loving Jesus fully and obeying him completely. It is about loving him and trusting that HE is the One who will save us, not our works or our theology. Amen.

Healing the Whole Person

As a Christian who grew up with a dualistic, Western mindset I needed training in the Biblical Worldview. I have found (and continue to find) Alexander Venter’s book Doing Healing to be an excellent resource in equipping Christians with an accurate theology and practice of healing. I’m rereading Venter’s book and wanted to share a portion of it, but first…

You are one piece
I lift weights and read a lot about weightlifting. Even so, I’ve never been able to buy into the bodybuilding notion of training different body parts. Why? Because you are one piece.

Imagine bench pressing a heavy weight to “work your chest and arms”. Now I come along and jab a fork into your thigh. What is going to happen to the weight? It’s going to crack your ribs unless you had a spotter. Why? Because you are one piece, not a collection of body parts. Even though your leg was hurt, it affected how your chest and arms functioned. There is no such thing as an “isolation” excercise.

This is true of your whole self – spirit, soul, body and relationships. Wounding any one of those areas will naturally affect the other parts. This is why sin (spiritual wounding) often manifests in bodily disease. It is also why broken relationships with people affect our health and/or our relationship with God. You are one piece.

Venter’s Diagram

IMG_0138

You are the sum total of your spirit, soul (mind, will and emotions), body, relationships and more. The Judeo-Christian mindset seeks to integrate these different realities into a unified whole, what the Hebrews call shalom. The Western mindset seeks to dis-integrate these various capacities and talk about them individually. Thus, as healing is concerned, the West has come up with specialist doctors – one kind for each of the different parts of your body, several other kinds for your mind, etc. These compartmentalized specialists only seek to fix the problem, not heal the person. While this has allowed us to make remarkable breakthroughs in physical science, it hasn’t made us a healthy or integrated society.

A Wholistic Perspective on Healing
As Christians, we should focus on healing the whole person. This is often a lengthy process because we don’t just address the manifesting symptoms, we try to treat the root cause and disease. It requires patience and compassion. Often our best and truest work is done in places people can’t see.

I believe in a wholistic approach to health and healing that addresses every aspect of our humanity. Nutrition, rest, right relationships with God and others, meaningful work, mental health, chemical/hormonal balance, soundness in the body – all of these and more are part of health and healing. Messing with any of them can make us sick or dis-eased. I think long standing, chronic issues often require addressing many different fronts before complete healing takes place.

I’ll probably post more of Venter’s work in the future, I just found this idea of integration and being one piece particularly helpful. Thanks for reading friends.

Luke 2:1-20 Sermon Notes

I’m preaching through the Gospel of Luke this year. For anyone who wants to follow along with our study, I will be posting my sermon notes and the link to each message. Thanks for joining us in our study of Luke!

Sermon Outline for Jan. 25, 2015

1. Text: Luke 2:1-20

2. Context/Theology:
Where are we in redemptive history?
* Jesus has just been born.

* The Kingdom of God (the Age to Come) has just broken into This Present Evil Age.

* The Messiah, in fulfillment of the Prophetic Scriptures, has come.

What do we need to know to understand this passage?
* With the huge influx of people to register for the census, there weren’t any guest rooms available, even for a pregnant, laboring woman.

* Mary gave birth in a barn, surrounded by traveling animals and livestock – perhaps the most humiliating place for a woman to give birth. Fitting then, that Mary gave birth to the Lamb of God.

* The strips of cloth (or swaddling clothes) Mary wrapped Jesus in are much debated.
– One theory is that this was just a normal word for diapers.
– Another theory contests that these were clothes own only by wealthy families and that they link Jesus with Solomon, the Son of David. It would have been unusual to see a baby wrapped in such fine cloths lying in a feeding trough surrounded by livestock.
– Yet another theory, the one I personally buy into, is that these strips of cloth would be the same or similar to what would be wrapped around a dead body (see John 11:44). The sign, then, was that Jesus was the only person ever born who was supposed to die. Even at Christmas we see the prelude to Easter.
– Regardless of what these strips of cloth signified, they were the sign that identified Jesus as the Messiah to the shepherds.

What principles or theological truths do we encounter in this passage?
God can and does intervene in human history.
* Mary and Joseph were living in Nazareth when Gabriel announced that Mary would become pregnant and give birth to the Messiah.

* However, even after such an amazing pronouncement, they didn’t move to Bethlehem which is where the Messiah was supposed to be born.

* So God had Caesar call a census. This made Joseph and Mary move.

* We could have a very interesting conversation about acting on prophetic words at this point. Mary may not have had to give birth in a barn if they had moved earlier. Regardless, the point is that God can and does intervene in human history to bring about the fulfillment of His Word.

Inaugurated Eschatology
* This phrase comes from George Eldon Ladd’s theological masterpiece “The Gospel of the Kingdom.”

* Inaugurated eschatology is the belief in Christian theology that the end times were inaugurated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and thus there are both “already” and “not yet” aspects to the Kingdom of God.

* We live in this time between the times. God’s Kingdom has broken in to this Present Evil Age, but it isn’t yet here in its fullness. Jesus hasn’t fully “taken over.” While Satan and his regime still exercise significant control over world events, their rule is passing away.

* This is similar to D-Day and VE-Day in World War 2.
– D-Day is seen as the decisive turning point in the war, when the Allies gained the upper hand and the end of Hitler’s reign was apparent.
– However, the final victory took almost another year.
– The Nazi’s didn’t just surrender, they tried to do as much damage as they could until they were defeated.
– So it is now. Satan knows his time is short and he wants to do as much damage to humanity as he can until he is finally overcome at Jesus’s return.
– Even though Satan rages, we don’t have to stand back and watch. We can and should resist.

* As Christians, we have the privilege of partnering with Jesus to see the Kingdom of Heaven come to earth. We can press in and lay hold of the Kingdom, living in Kingdom Reality now, even though it technically isn’t time. This is what spiritual violence is all about.

* Jesus’s birth was the ultimate act of warfare on Satan’s reign of terror. Is it any wonder that the armies of heaven filled the sky over Bethlehem?

The Gospel is that God came to rescue us.
* Speaking to the shepherds, the angel announces to them “the most joyous news the world has ever heard! Today, in Bethlehem, a rescuer was born for you” (v. 10)

* This is Good News only if we believe we are in need of rescue, which the Bible repeatedly stresses we are.

* The Bible’s stance is that humans are hopelessly enslaved to sin – a lifestyle of rebellion and defiance against God. Because we can never submit to God, serve Him or love Him of our own accord we were unfit to live in His Kingdom and the punishment for our treason was Hell.

* HOWEVER, even though we didn’t love God, He loved us. Erasing Hell was not an option, but redeeming us was. Therefore, God sent His son to take on flesh and be born of a woman. God’s son, Jesus, would live as a man, enduring every temptation without sin and bearing every burden without complaint. He suffered in his body the just punishment of sin so that God could extend mercy to us in his name.

* Jesus rescued us from sin, he posted our bail, he died in our place. He did what no one else could do – that is why the angel says this is Good News.

3. Worship:
How does this text reveal God’s true character and destroy lies we’ve believed?
* Some view God as distant and/or unconcerned with our lives here on earth. Nothing could be further from the Truth! God is primarily concerned with us.
– This doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen. We are still living in the Present Evil Age, waiting for the Kingdom of God to come in its fullness.
– Until Jesus comes back to establish the Kingdom, evil will continue to get worse.
– However, we don’t need to embrace this in a fatalistic way. God’s Kingdom has broken into this world, death is defeated and the Holy Spirit has been made available to us. The question is, “What are we doing with it?”

*God chooses to work through the cooperation of His people. Occasionally God intervenes in history in a completely Sovereign way, but most of the time He governs through partnership with those that love Him.

*God is Supremely Humble. He could have made sure Jesus was born in a palace, surrounded by luxury and the most influential people. Instead, God chooses to identify with the poor, the lonely and the mistreated. He chose to have His son grow up with the social stigma of being a bastard child. None of that mattered. Jesus didn’t come for the smug and self-satisfied, he came to help those who couldn’t help themselves. Jesus is a King who came to redeem us AND establish his Kingdom on the Earth.

4. Praxis:
How does this revelation of God’s character call us to live differently?
* We are living in the time when the old order of things is passing away and God’s Kingdom Reality is beginning to manifest. We can either partner with this new Reality or not. It is my belief that, as followers of King Jesus, our responsibility is to transform out society even as we are transformed individually. Learning how to partner with Holy Spirit to advance God’s Kingdom is our top priority.

* We must learn to live in the tension of the “now and not yet”. In many ways, God’s superior Reality is available if we will learn to partner with Him to release it. Yet it is still our experience that God’s Kingdom is not yet here in its fullness and we need to learn how to wisely and compassionately deal with sin, sickness, disease and death until those enemies are completely destroyed.

Are there any practical skills we need to teach or resources we need to make available?
* Partnering with Holy Spirit to release the Kingdom of God can take any number of forms. What we primarily see in the life of Jesus is him triumphing over the work of the devil through physical, emotional, and spiritual healing.

* Alexander Venter’s book “Doing Healing” is the most powerful book I’ve ever read in learning how to minister the healing power of God.

* The 5 step prayer model
Step 1 – Contact
Someone has either asked you for prayer or it is someone you approach because you want to pray for them.

Step 2 – Interview
What is the problem? What do they want God to do for them?

Step 3 – Pray
Keep your eyes open – it allows you to remain focused on the person
Lay your hands on them if it is appropriate – God’s Holy Spirit is in you. Our hands serve as a contact point where we become a conduit of God’s presence and power.
Dial up the risk – move from general prayers to specific prayers. Take risk, be bold.
Dial down the hype – Remember that the volume of your voice is not a gauge of authority and you don’t need to use “special” language to be heard by God. Also, don’t forget, you are practicing. If you hear something that doesn’t resonate with the person, no big deal.

Step 4 – Asses (and pray again if necessary)
How are they feeling? If their pain/disease was a 10 before, where is it now? Did they have any thoughts or feelings during the prayer time?
If they aren’t completely healed, pray again. If Jesus had to pray for a blind person twice, we get at least 30 shots at it.

Step 5 – Closure
Care for them and encourage them with the Truths of Scripture, especially if they didn’t subjectively feel anything. Our senses are not always accurate indicators of God’s presence or work in our lives. If you have any wisdom or instructions for going ahead, share them at this time. It is absolutely essential that people walk away feeling loved and cared for. We don’t control if someone gets healed. We do control how we interact with them.

5. Ministry Time:
How is God calling us to respond RIGHT NOW?
* If you feel like God is uninterested in you or doesn’t hear you, I’d like our ministry team to be able to pray for you, bless you and speak into your life. God sees you, hears you and is interested in you – those are things we believe and receive by faith. But sometimes we need a reminder, and that is what we’re going to ask God for this morning – a little reminder that He sees us, hears us and knows us.

What does God want to give us to help us live this out?
* I believe God has two things for us this morning: an additional measure of faith and passion to see His Kingdom come. The faith is to believe that He does see us, know us and love us and the passion is to live our daily lives in a more focused way – looking for opportunities to partner with Holy Spirit to love, serve, heal and share the Gospel.

Burning Bright

Many of you joined with me last year in praying for peace and salvation for the men and women of Northern Iraq. We did a 6 week Prayer Trigger, Prayer Target challenge asking God to break through in power in the Islamic State.

Since that time, IS has continued to expand. The Church is responding. Please take a few minutes to read through the link below. It is nice to see the Church being mobilized in such a powerful way.

http://www.burn24-7.com/articles/operation-light-a-candle#.VMEgV4m9LCR

Could you help me out?

Hi friends, a short one for you today.

Yesterday’s post generated a lot of traffic, like 3x what I normally get on a daily basis. I got a few Facebook comments and text messages letting me know you all liked the post (which I love to hear btw), but it got me to wondering. Would you mind taking a minute to answer a couple questions in the comments below? It benefits me as a writer and pastor to know what is helpful for you in your daily walk with Jesus. Thanks!

Some questions for you

* What did you find helpful about yesterday’s post (or any of the posts you read here)?

* What kinds of issues or topics are you interested in reading about?

* Why do you choose to visit my blog and read what I write as opposed to going somewhere else?

Thanks in advance for taking a few minutes to respond to those questions. I know you make a choice to come here and read what I write and I want you to know that I appreciate that. I also want to offer you material that is useful and applicable to your life, so any help you can give me in that regard would be excellent.

Thanks for reading friends!

Dealing with wolves

Every so often, a Wolf wanders through the doors of my church. At first, they look a lot like Sheep. They talk like Sheep, they act like Sheep, but they aren’t Sheep.

My first indication that this “sheep” is not what it appears is when they want to talk with me about my sermon – on their first visit. Now, I love talking to guests, and if they want to talk about the sermon, fine. But when a first time guest approaches me to talk about my sermon, my Pastoral Spider Sense goes off. Then, when they want to nit-pick Bible verses and try to convince me that we should still be following the Law, I know I’ve got a live one.

Characteristics of Wolves
Wolves feast on freedom – they want to kill it and devour it wherever its found. For that reason, Wolves love the Law. Wolves can quote all kinds of Scripture, far more than me, but it is largely Old Covenant. For people who claim to follow Jesus, they know very little of what HE said, but they’ll go all day with Moses or the few commands that Paul gives to the Church.

Wolves also tend to have a pet doctrine – keeping the Sabbath on a particular day, eating Kosher, obeying the 10 Commandments, following the Jewish Feast Days, etc. In all honesty, God has probably given them legitimate insight into the importance of those things, but their Old way of thinking steals all the joy out of it. Sabbath is supposed to be a joy. Kosher is a great way to eat healthy and honor life. The 10 Commandments (or, as the Jews understand them, the 5 relational principles) are tremendously important and save us from all kinds of trouble. But to make these things requirements to pleasing God? No. Wolves miss the whole point of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. We humans can’t keep the Law – for if we break one part of it we are guilty of breaking the whole of it. If you choose to live under the Law, you can’t pick and choose which parts of it you want to follow. It is an all or nothing deal.

Wolves are also very evangelistic about their pet doctrine. I’d have to say, some of the most passionate, energetic and charismatic communicators I know are Wolves. They are absolutely convinced that their particular insight is what is needed to change the Church, please God, or bring about the Lord’s return. If someone isn’t well grounded in the Realities of the New Covenant, it is easy for them to fall prey to these messages, for the Wolves’s passion is quite convincing.

How I deal with Wolves
For this reason, I like to handle Wolves personally. And I will freely confess, I’ve not always done it well – sometimes very poorly! The apologist in me freaks out on heretics who belittle the Cross of Christ. I rarely lose my temper, but when I do it is usually talking to a Wolf.

What I’d like to do is what Paul counsels Timothy to do with the false teachers in Ephesus.

“Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguements, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone [Jesus help me!], able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” 2 Timothy 2:23-26

A few thoughts:

1) I’m dealing with a captive.
Somehow, in some way that I don’t comprehend, the devil has ensnared the mind of my brother. They now see the world, God and the Bible through Satan’s eyes, not Jesus’s, so it isn’t any wonder that they see the Law as a good thing and Grace as something scary or uncertain. Therefore, I have to enter the conversation with the hope of setting them free and the intent to love them, for they really don’t know what they are doing.

2) Don’t engage in stupid or foolish arguements.
Don’t engage their pet doctrine. Instead, be interested in them. Ask about their story. Try to be sincerely interested in them as a person. Most likely, they are there with an agenda and will try to turn every statement or question to their pet doctrine – don’t rise to the bait. Redirect the conversation to where you want it to go (this is super hard for me by the way). If they get frustrated, that is their deal.

We have to realize that we aren’t going to change their mind on this issue by a logical presentation of facts. If they are truly under Satan’s influence, they are incapable of rational thought. We aren’t going to “win” by going toe-to-toe with them in a Scripture verse battle. We are going to win by bringing them into an encounter with the Living God and that is impossible to do unless we focus on loving them well.

3) Gently instruct them
This is an art more than a science. It requires me to be in a place of love – not frustration, anxiety or impatience – and that is challenging in these conversations. It also requires me to sum up the heart of God for them in a nutshell, because they can’t listen to me instruct them line upon line. So Holy Spirit has to help me find a time bomb, a phrase that will bypass their initial defenses and impact them later. I don’t always get one, but I hunger for the kinds of words and phrases Jesus used – questions and comments that struck at the heart of the matter and exposed everyone’s motivations and intentions.

Closing Thoughts
I don’t go out of my way to pastor Wolves, I’m far more interested in talking to unbelievers who don’t have that sort of religious baggage. However, in writing this, I realize that there is a huge need for someone to minister to them. So, if that is you, I bless you! And please let me know how you do it.

In my experience, Wolves don’t tend to stick around long if they sense resistance in the leadership. But I want to do more than just endure them, I want to find some way to win them back, to set them free. If any of you have some ideas I’d love to hear them.

As always, thanks for reading.