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Mirrors of the Soul

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Mirrors have come a long way. In ancient times, mirrors were composed of bronze, not glass. The metal would be polished to be as reflective as possible, but never would it yield a clear reflection like we can see in modern mirrors today. This explains Paul’s comment on life in the miraculous age: “For now we see in a mirror dimly…” (1 Cor. 13:12). “Dimly” comes from the Greek word from which we get our word enigma, which describes a riddle requiring interpretation. When the ancients looked into their mirrors, it was like solving a puzzle—“Are those bags under my eyes, or did someone punch me in my sleep?” Today we say, “The mirror doesn’t lie.” Back then, that saying would not have made much sense.

James was a master of metaphors, and in one passage he draws a helpful analogy to the mirror to teach us something about the nature of the word of God. He does this by describing two men, both who are looking into mirrors.

Of the first man he says,

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. (Jas. 1:22-24)

Notice that he says that the man looking in the mirror “looks intently.” Some have made the mistake of accusing this first man of only “glancing” at himself (Moffatt) or “catching” a glimpse (Phillips) in the mirror. Remember what we said about ancient mirrors. A quick glance gave you nothing. These mirrors required a careful gaze at the very least.

The mistake that this first man made was not changing anything about his appearance after the mirror reflected a few flaws. Maybe he needed a shave, or perhaps there were a few stray hairs that needed combing. Whatever the case may have been, the man walked away without doing anything to improve his appearance. This is like the person who studies God’s word, understands it, and learns that he needs to repent, only to walk away from it unchanged.

Contrast this case with a second man. James describes him, saying,

But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (Jas. 1:25)

James is still thinking about mirrors. This second man “looked into the perfect law,” just like the first man did. The difference is that the second man “persevered”; that is, he put down his New Testament and made corrections in his life according to what he had just read.

Bibles are like mirrors in that they point out our flaws. Hebrews 4:12 reads, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Sometimes God’s piercing sword can be uncomfortable. Surgery is always painful, but sometimes it is the only option. And when we recover from the procedure, we are better than we were before.

The poet John Kendrick Bangs wrote,

Be sure to keep a mirror always nigh
In some convenient, handy sort of place,
And now and then look squarely in thine eye,
And with thyself keep ever face to face.

Keep God’s word handy. Use it as a mirror for the soul. You may find some flaws, but who wants to go out not knowing that he has blemishes on his face? Better yet, who wants to go before God in judgment, not knowing about the sins that will separate him from his Father for an eternity?

The Hardest Lock to Pick

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

LockWilliam G. Patterson tells a good story about the time Harry Houdini finally faced a lock he couldn’t pick. Houdini issued a challenge wherever he went that he could set himself free from any jail cell in the country. He had freed himself from dozens of cells until one time something went wrong. He entered the jail in his street clothes, as he always did, and took from his belt a concealed piece of metal, strong and flexible. He set to work immediately, but something seemed unusual about this lock. Thirty minutes passed with no result, then an hour. After two hours, he was bathed in sweat and panting in exasperation, but he still could not pick the lock. Exhausted, he collapsed against the door—and it swung open! It was never locked in the first place. But in Houdini’s mind it was locked, and that was all it took to keep him from opening the door and walking out.

Prison doors are not the only challenges faced by locked minds. A locked mind can keep a person from heaven. Because they have closed their minds, some people will try everything except the clear way out of the prison of sin.

Some try to escape by staying busy, thinking they will escape their guilt by distraction. Paul spoke of some who were “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). It is possible to work hard and make zero progress because you are hammering at the wrong nail.

Some try to escape by seeking comfort. The Laodiceans were comfortable, but Christ spit them out of his mouth (Rev. 3:15-17). Only Christ can offer true rest, but before he can save us, we must confront our sins with repentance. That is why James said, “Be wretched and mourn and weep” (Jas. 4:9).

Some try to escape by putting up a front. The Pharisees wore masks of piety, but inside they were corrupt and sinful. Jesus said they cleaned the outside of “the cup and the plate,” but inside they were full of greed and self-indulgence. He compared them to “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Mt. 23:25-28).

Some try to escape by blaming others. That was Adam’s tactic (Gen. 3:12), Saul’s too (1 Sam. 15:21). Others may have a share in your failed spiritual condition, but on Judgment Day, God is going to look at our lives on a case-by-case basis (2 Cor. 5:10). Excuses will not get you into heaven, only Christ.

There are souls who are imprisoned by sin simply because they won’t open the door. They are trying various keys, picking the lock, lighting explosives to blow out the walls, attempting every means except the most sensible one—opening the door.

Jesus said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). You don’t have to be an escape artist to be delivered from sin. Just open your heart to the gospel, put your faith in Christ, and follow him (Rom. 10:9-10; Acts 2:38).

Can Hypocrisy Hurt the Pro-Life Cause?

Friday, June 5th, 2009

george_tiller_croppedIt may be a little late for a post on the slaying of Dr. George Tiller, seeing as how thousands of blogs have posted their observations, but I have a few things on my mind that I want to get out there, particularly with respect to the way the media has handled the murder.

An inexcusable, horrific act was committed when Dr. Tiller was gunned down in at the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita last Sunday. Despite the differences one may have with the victim, every person who respects life condemns this criminal act.  Murder at any stage of life is wrong.

With that said, I want to turn to the way Tiller has been depicted by the media in the aftermath of his murder.

In a memorial service held in Dr. Tiller’s honor, Katherine Ragsdale, president of Harvard’s Episcopal Divinity School, called him “a man who was a saint and a martyr.”  She said, “He was a prayerful man who put his life at risk to protect others and died for it.”  This is the same woman, by the way, who gave a speech here in Birmingham in 2007 calling abortion a “blessing.”

Colleen Raezler has done a superb job of assembling a number of statements that paint Tiller as a martyr who died for a virtuous cause.  One example she cites gives a fair representation of how the news organizations are reporting on the controversial doctor’s life:

On ABC’s “Good Morning America,” host Diane Sawyer gave Lee Thompson, another Tiller lawyer, the same opportunity to portray him as a misunderstood servant of women. She asked, “Given the controversy and given the danger, why was he committed to doing this? What was it exactly that he wanted to make sure that he was accomplishing?” Thompson replied, “The fact that he is one of, if not the only one of too very few doctors who perform these services speaks to his dedication and his courage throughout his life.”

These comments and others like them are a transparent attempt to stifle the opposition to abortion in this country.  According to the latest numbers, that opposition appears to be taking an effect, as for the first time a majority of Americans identify themselves as “pro-life.”  Liberal proponents of abortion, however, hope they can manipulate Tiller’s murder into an effective tool to use against the pro-life camp.  If they can blame everyone who opposes abortion for the isolated act of a madman, they might be able to turn the tide back towards their agenda.

The charge of hypocrisy works in the opinion polls, it is true, but it is meaningless.  Just because one pro-lifer was a hypocrite, that doesn’t mean his message was wrong.  All the charge of hypocrisy does is cue others in on the fact that one particular person doesn’t really practice what he preaches.

The facts are that Dr. Tiller’s life’s work is an embarrassment to pro-choice advocates who claim that the abortion debate is about women’s rights.  Tiller became a multi-millionaire by killing 60,000 unborn children in his clinic.  He was one of only three doctors in the country who would perform partial-birth abortion, a practice so gruesome that most Americans object to it.

It is hard not to be intimidated by media organizations and influential spokesmen who try to discredit the pro-life movement through subterfuge and deceit.  But clarity is restored to the abortion debate every time the facts are examined.  Don’t forget the facts.  They are, as John Adams said, “stubborn things.”

John 3:16…and 17 and 18

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Without question, the best-known verse in the Bible is John 3:16. Martin Luther called it the Bible in miniature, and some even go so far as to say that if the Bible were lost except for John 3:16, we would have all the Scripture we need in order to be saved. Here is how the Golden Text reads: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Guy N. Woods outlined John 3:16, saying,

In it we are told of the greatest giver (God), of the greatest gift (his only begotten Son), of the greatest measure (the world) and the greatest future blessing (eternal life). It is a refutation of Atheism (it begins with God); of agnosticism (it reveals God), of Calvinism (it extends God’s provisions to all the world, and not to an arbitrarily selected few), of Unitarianism (it establishes the deity of Jesus and shows him to be of the same nature as God), of Oneness Pentecostalism (it demonstrates God and Christ to be separate and distinct persons), of Universalism (it reveals that men will perish who refuse the way of escape) and the doctrine of denominational creeds which allege that Jesus died that God might love us whereas this teaches that Jesus came to the earth and made salvation possible because God loved us. (John, 66-67)

Is John 3:16 all we need? Jesus didn’t think so. John 3:16 is just one verse in a lengthy conversation with Nicodemus. And when we look at the whole picture, we are better able to flesh out what Jesus meant to summarize in this verse.

John 3:16 has often been cited to support the idea that a person can be saved by faith alone. In other words, it has been argued that since John 3:16 does not mention baptism or other commands, belief without any corresponding action is all that is necessary for salvation. Those who make this claim have not carefully studied the whole chapter.

The following information gives context to what Jesus proclaimed in John 3:16:

  • Near the beginning of his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5). “Water” is clearly a reference to baptism. Later in the narrative we read of Jesus and John baptizing in the Jordan River (Jn. 3:22-23; 4:1-2).
  • In the two verses prior to John 3:16, Jesus alluded to the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness as a symbol of the crucifixion. In consulting the original account of that event, it is evident that the case of the bronze serpent was one of obedient faith: those who were bitten by the fiery serpents were not healed by merely believing in the bronze serpent; they had to look upon it to live (Num. 21:9).
  • In the verses following John 3:16, Jesus explains what he means by “believe” in terms of “coming to the light.” In verse 21 he says, “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” What is meant by “does what is true” and “works” in this statement? Do these terms not apply to the conditions for salvation described in verse 5? If not, then the only alternative is to apply them to the meritorious works of the Law of Moses, which is powerless to save, according to the gospel (Rom. 3:27-28; Eph. 2:8-9).
  • Finally, the last verse of John 3 reads, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” The close observer will notice that John the Baptist, who is speaking here, uses the terms “believes” and “obey” interchangeably. The faith of John 3 is like the faith throughout the New Testament—an obedient faith.

John 3:16 will remain the favorite text of Christians. But if we are not careful, we will damage a priceless piece of revelation with reckless interpretation. We must be careful in our excavations not to separate the Golden Text from its context.

Cheap Humility

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

lebronLeBron James has been named the NBA’s 2008-09 Most Valuable Player.  The Cleveland Cavaliers forward had an outstanding season, leading his team to an NBA and franchise-best 66-16 (.805) record. He averaged 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.69 steals and a career-best 1.15 blocks in 37.7 minutes per game.

Upon receiving the reward, James responded with a well-worn cliche: “I’m humbled.”

Humbled?  He was just named Most Valuable Player!  Cameras are flashing in his face.  Coaches and sports journalists are slapping him on the back.  How is this teaching him humility?  I know James was just trying to be modest, but I am weary of celebrated multi-millionaires looking into cameras and broadcasting their humility to the world.  When LeBron James was awarded the MVP, he was exalted. If he wants a taste of humility, I would suggest that he take the ACT.

Jesus taught us to aim for humility, but he meant for us to do more than mouth the word.  One of his most familiar axioms reads, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt. 23:11).  He wasn’t talking about waiting until you are exalted and then saying you are humbled.  Far from it.  His point was that the accolades of men really do not matter.  True exaltation comes from God, who respects the quality of humility.  Humble yourself through service, and God will lift you up.  “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility towards one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’  Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Pet. 5:5-6).

During Jesus’ trials and crucifixion, he was stripped naked no less than four times.  First, he was stripped for scourging.  After they scourged him, they clothed him again, only to strip him a second time to clothe him in a scarlet robe so they could mock him.  They stripped him a third time, so they could put his own garments back on him, and stripped him a fourth time for the crucifixion.  This time, he would not get his clothes back; the soldiers cast lots for them at the foot of the cross.  If violence were all there was to Roman crucifixion, that would be enough.  But it was more than violence.  The victim was made a public spectacle.  His accusers would gather around him to laugh.  After death occurred, the body was customarily left on the cross as food for the crows.  Thankfully, Joseph of Aramathea spared Jesus this last humiliation by burying him in his own tomb.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to receive an award.  I just have a problem with cheapening the concept of humility by attaching it to glory.  The Bible teaches us to “give honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:17; cf. 1 Pet. 2:17).  But we are also taught to humble ourselves by serving one another (Mt. 20:26-28; Gal. 5:13).  Only then will we receive the greatest reward in heaven.

Update (5-26-09): Judge Sonya Sotomayor after Barack Obama announced her as his pick for the Supreme Court: “Thank you, Mr. President, for the most humbling honor of my life.”  Sports stars are not the only ones confused about the meaning of humility.

Abigail’s Answer

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

How a Woman Saved David from Himself

Before David became king of Israel, his life was chaotic. Saul wanted his head on a platter, and survival for David depended on staying one step ahead of Saul, keeping his men on the move, and hiding out in caves.

While in hiding, David came to the Wilderness of Paran, near the territory of a wealthy man named Nabal (1 Samuel 25). Nabal may have had business sense, but his character left much to be desired. The Bible describes him as “harsh and badly behaved” (v. 3). Twice, people who were close to him called him “worthless” (vv. 17, 25). He is also called a “Calebite” (v. 3), which may be a reference to his clan, but it seems more likely that this description has to do with the literal meaning of the name “Caleb,” which is “dog.” His own name, Nabal, meant “fool.” If we were to judge this man by the names he was called, our estimation of him would not be good: he was a dog and a fool.

David, on the other hand, had been gracious to Nabal without ever having met him. While he and his men camped in Nabal’s territory, they had protected his shepherds from raiders and anything else that would seek to harm them. They had been as a “wall” of protection to Nabal (v. 16). The time for shearing sheep was at hand, a time for feasting and celebration, and David and his men asked Nabal to provide them with food and drink for the celebrations. This would not have been an unusual request in those days, but Nabal was furious. He refused, saying, “Who is David? …Shall I take my bread and my water and my meat that I have killed for my shearers and give it to men who come form I do not know where?” (vv. 10-11).

David was the anointed successor to the throne in Israel. He was not accustomed to this kind of treatment, especially since it came from a man who owed him so much. He drew his sword and prepared his men for battle.

But Nabal had a wife named Abigail. She was “discerning and beautiful” (v. 3). Abigail brought gifts to David and convinced him not to seek revenge against her husband and her people. There is much wisdom in her words. She explained that God would seek vengeance against her husband for what he had done to David. And then, she explained to David, “my lord shall have no cause of grief or pangs of conscience for having shed blood without cause or for my lord taking vengeance himself” (v. 31).

Abigail’s words convinced David to show mercy. And about ten days later, the Lord struck Nabal dead, and Abigail became David’s wife (vv. 38, 42).

The story of Nabal is a familiar one. All of us have felt mistreated and wanted revenge. Perhaps some of us went as far as getting revenge, only to feel the “pangs of conscience” for heaping more sin on top of the wrongs that were done to us. The counsel of Abigail is wise. If we look closely, we can find at least three lessons regarding vengeance:

1. The seeds of our good works take time to germinate. Solomon said, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days” (Ecclesiastes 11:1, emphasis added). Likewise, Paul encouraged us not to grow weary of doing good, saying, “for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). God promises to reward our good works, but there is no guarantee that these rewards will come soon, or even in this lifetime (cf. Matthew 5:11-12).

2. Only God is in a position to exact vengeance. If David had gotten even, he would have only added his own bloodguilt to Nabal’s evil (1 Samuel 25:33). God, on the other hand, is righteous and was able to return the evil of Nabal on his own head (v. 39). We are not in a position to bring justice to the world. Therefore, we are advised, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leaeve it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengenance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19).

3. Since we cannot bring justice, our only response to evil is to “overcome evil with good.” Paul continues his discussion of revenge, saying, “To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:20-21).

Revenge can be tempting, but in the end it only leads to regret. Let God make things right, and be patient as you wait for him to act. In the meantime, combat evil with good. After all, the best way to defeat an enemy is to make him your friend.

Reflections on Easter Sunday

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Last Sunday was Easter, a time for the ushers of the church to be on guard.  Easter Sunday, along with Christmas, is one of the few days of the year that much of the American population shows up at church.  Not that I’m complaining.  I’m happy to welcome these once-a-year guests in their bright spring clothing.  Maybe something moved them enough this year to produce a return visit.  It’s quite possible that an old tradition like Easter could be what triggers someone into faithful service.  You never know.

We had about sixty visitors last Sunday, and the auditorium was filled to capacity.  As usual, I worked the resurrection into my sermon.  It’s not that I believe Easter is a part of New Testament Christianity–the early Christians celebrated the resurrection on the first day of every week, not just one day a year.  But since much of the world is focusing on Christ’s resurrection anyway, Easter is a good opportunity to turn empty tradition into true devotion.

This year I reflected on the fact that history does not make sense without the resurrection.  How else can you explain more than 2 billion people gathering to their respective places of worship to celebrate Easter?  Is it possible that a myth created out of whole cloth evolved into this?

Rituals and movements are based on something.  For instance, I believe that in the sixth century B.C. a Hindu prince named Siddartha Gautama became dissatisfied with his religion’s way of dealing with the problem of suffering and developed the Eightfold Path of Buddhism.

I believe that around this time a child named Confucius was raised by a single mother in China.  He became a cabinet official of the Duke of Lu, only to resign at the age of fifty-five and become a respected teacher.

I believe that a thousand years later a man named Muhammad denounced the polytheism of his people and demanded that they follow Allah.  He claimed to be a prophet, and his teachings were recorded in the Qu’ran.  Under the banner of a new religion called Islam, he was able to unite the Arab peoples like no one before him.

There is no doubt in my mind that Moses led the descendants of Abraham out of Egypt in about 1445 B.C.  In the wilderness he received the Law from God and a group of people, now known as Jews, developed from that heavenly doctrine.

I believe all these things because, if it were otherwise, history would not make sense.  To challenge these basic facts is to leave the present picture of our world and its cultures unexplained.  Granted, religion has its share of myths, but even these are based in fact.  The ancient Japanese people in some dark quadrant of history discovered they were on a series of islands and imagined that Izanagi had dipped his spear into the ocean and formed those mountainous regions with the drops that fell from it when he removed it from the sea.  Many eastern cultures worshiped ancestors, for although they glimpsed a life beyond this one, the truth had not been revealed to them.  Homer, knowing nothing of the God of Moses, made his gods in the image of man.  Aside from these, religion can be condensed down into actual events, without which the entire human history cannot stand.

At the time of Christ’s birth the Jews had already been persecuted for 700 years by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and now the Greeks and Romans.  Despite this, while other ancient civilizations vanished, the Jews persisted.  The Hittites, Ammonites, Persians, and Babylonians have long been relegated to the ash heap of time, but even today the Jews persist.  Through numerous captivities, persecutions, and dispersions, they have survived.

The explanation behind the Jews’ tenacity is the social structures that are so important to them–the things that make Jews, Jews.  These they reinforced by passing them down to their children, teaching in the synagogue, and reinforcement through ritual.

Now, enter Christ: a thirty-year-old man from an insignificant town in Galilee, a carpenter’s son.  He preaches for three years, gains a following of low- to middle-class believers, and is crucified by the religious establishment, something that wasn’t all that unusual in a time when the Roman Empire crucified as many as 30,000 Jewish males.

But two months later, 10,000 Jews are calling Jesus the Son of God and putting their faith in his ability to save them from their sins.  Not only that, but they have given up those social structures that gave them their national identity, such as animal sacrifices, worship on the Sabbath, and the priesthood.  What explains this willingness to jettison beliefs that kept the Jews intact for so many centuries?

The only thing that can explain the origin of the Christian faith from Jerusalem is the resurrection of Christ.  Thousands of Jews began to profess faith in him in the days following his resurrection because there were over 500 credible witnesses who could attest that he had risen from the dead.  No legend could have erupted this quickly.  A dead Savior would not have produced this big of a following.

Easter is one of the earliest Christian traditions that does not originate from the New Testament.  It has held on for almost 2,000 years because of the substantial event that is behind it.

Let the skeptics keep digging for Jesus’ bones.  They’ll never find them.  Christ left his tomb a long time ago.  Everyone has his useless pasttime.  Some of us go fishing, some collect stamps.  And the deniers of the resurrection are with the children, shovel in hand, digging in the backyard for buried treasure.

Why Poetry Matters

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

My recent post on line breaks in the Bible didn’t draw much attention.  I’m not surprised.  Most people run from poetry as if it had the ability to free itself from the book binding and chase people around the room.

Notwithstanding this public distaste for verse, the fact remains that a third of the Bible is poetry.  Why would God choose such a complex form of communication for something so important as revealing his will to mankind?

Maybe the answer lies in understanding what poetry is.  W.H. Auden said, “Poetry must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective.”  More than anything else–more than rhyme and meter, metaphor and simile, assonance and enjambment, or any other poetical devices–I think it’s the “unique perspective” that frustrates people the most.

Poetry skews the familiar just enough to get us to meditate upon it.  This is what makes it valuable.

After I read the following lines from Ted Kooser, I have never looked at a wheelchair the same way again.

“A Rainy Morning”

A young woman in a wheelchair,
wearing a black nylon poncho spattered with rain,
is pushing herself through the morning.
You have seen how pianists
sometimes bend forward to strike the keys,
then lift their hands, draw back to rest,
then lean again to strike just as the chord fades.
Such is the way this woman
strikes at the wheels, then lifts her long white fingers,
letting them float, then bends again to strike
just as the chair slows, as if into a silence.
So expertly she plays the chords
of this difficult music she has mastered,
her wet face beautiful in its concentration,
while the wind turns the pages of rain.

One of the problems with modern translations that approach the text through dynamic equivalence (attempting to translate the thoughts of the writers rather than the words) is that by simplifying the language, they destroy the poetry.

Take, for example, the ESV’s translation of Psalm 78:33: “So he made their days vanish like a breath” (ESV).  Compare this rendering with the NIV: “So he ended their days in futility”; or the New Living Translation: “So he ended their lives in failure.”  The more abstract passages have deprived us of the imagery afforded by the idea of “breath.”  Not only do we lose the original wording, but we lose the poetry as well.

Consider a lengthier example from Psalm 73.  The ESV reads:

For they have no pangs until death;
their bodies are fat and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out through fatness,
their hearts overflow with follies.  (Ps. 73:4-7)

Now read the bland attempt of another translation that takes it upon itself to make the meaning “clearer”:

They seem to live such a painless life;
their bodies are so health and strong.
They aren’t troubled like other people
or plagued with problems like everyone else.
They wear pride like a jeweled necklace,
and their clothing is woven of cruelty.
These fat cats have everything
their hearts could ever wish for! (NLT)

It’s hard not to blush when you get to the fourth couplet and read “fat cats.”  If we didn’t know better, we would think Asaph listened to jazz and had a closet full of zoot suits.

A common statement about easy-to-read translations is, “I can understand God’s word when I read this!”  But the truth is, you may not be reading God’s word.  Comprehension is an important goal, but updated idioms and a watered-down vocabulary do not always help us reach that goal.  When it comes to poetry, the twists and strange perspective improve our understanding.  Only when we get comfortable with them will we really be making comprehension our goal.

Relational Evangelism

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

God wants people to obey the gospel from the heart. Even though he has unlimited power, he exercises incredible restraint to wait for us to respond to the costly gift of his Son Jesus, who died on the cross. We see this restraint in 1 Timothy 2:4, which tells us God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Despite the fact that his desire is for all to be saved, he gives humanity a choice by revealing the truth and leaving it up to us to decide whether or not to obey it.

Because conversion cannot be forced, Paul expresses gratitude for those who had obeyed the gospel in Rome: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Rom. 6:17, emphasis added). This is real obedience. Their response was a genuine belief in the gospel’s power to save.

When a person is coerced into obedience, he will not remain faithful. There is no love for God in his heart, only a feeling produced by pressure applied by another person. Either he will recognize the insincerity of his heart, or the other person will tire and withdraw the pressure, and he will fall away.

Despite what we know about the ineffectiveness of coerced responses to the gospel, we have a tendency to fall back on this strategy to bring the lost to Christ. Our tactics are sometimes not all that different from an intervention staged by family and friends to confront an addict. After years of saying nothing, we blitz the prospect with scare tactics and arguments, hoping one frantic conversation will undo years of sin and false information.

Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head. That’s assault, not leadership.” Before you can teach someone the gospel, you must win his heart. After all, teaching, if it is done right, penetrates the heart. Solomon said “wisdom will come into your heart” (Prov. 2:10). As in the Parable of the Sower, evangelism is not unlike farming. First the ground must be properly cultivated, then you can sow, expecting a crop.

Start working on your relationships with those whom you want to reach with the gospel. You must win a heart before you can turn it to Christ. Evangelism requires effort. Jesus described the soul-winner as a “laborer” (Mt. 9:37-38). There are no shortcuts to evangelism. Labor for lost souls. Your work will not be in vain.

Line Breaks in the Bible

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

One-third of the Bible is written in poetry.  It would follow, then, that a devoted student of the Bible would study carefully the nature of biblical prosody in order to mine every possible nuance of divine truth from the rich caverns of God’s word.  But the reality is that few Christians even realize they are reading poetry when they approach, say, the book of Psalms, let alone make the time to understand its devices.

Biblical poetry is a deep and complicated study, one that would take several articles to explore.  For now, I would like to limit this discussion to the fundamental question of line breaks in the Bible.

One disadvantage of the King James Version is that it does not make a distinction between the prose and poetry of the text.  The Revised Version (NT: 1881, OT: 1885), known in the U.S. as the American Standard Version, was the first English Bible to typeset biblical poetry in indented poetic lines.  This precedent has been followed by most modern translations in recent years.

It should be pointed out that, as far as we know, line breaks did not exist in the original Hebrew manuscripts.  However, as Robert Lowth argued in his monumental work, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1753), there is a definite balancing of thought in Hebrew poetry.  This “sense rhythm,” as it is sometimes called, is reflected in the Masoretic text on which most modern translations of the Old Testament are based.

Furthermore, the inspired writers of biblical poetry wrote with great passion, and, as Merril Unger has pointed out, unconsciously produced the phenomena which later developed into more definite ideas of meter.  Just because these writers predated the study of formal meter in poetry, that doesn’t mean we should not seek out the natural rhythms that flowed from the expressions of their emotions.

Perhaps the reason most Bible readers ignore line breaks in their Bibles is because they can be pretty confusing.  Most of us like to have as many tools as possible in our Bibles–chain references, two column formats, footnotes, page numbers, chapter and verse divisions, headings, etc.  All of this crowds the page, which is bad for poetry.  To compensate for this, translations that give attention to poetic lines use a system of indentation and line breaks that is somewhat complicated and, as I have discovered, never explained in the preface to their versions.

The majority of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, the balancing of thought in verse so that one line is an echo of another.  Deeper meaning occurs to the reader as he meditates upon the relationship of the lines.  As Lowth pointed out, parallelism takes three basic forms: synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic.  Psalm 19:1 is an excellent example of synonymous parallelism:

     The heavens declare the glory of God,
       and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. (ESV)

The second part (also called the second colon) repeats what is said in the first colon, only in different wording that provokes the reader’s meditation.  This is an example of a bicolon (parallelism with two cola, or parts).  Sometimes tricola appear in which the verse occurs in three parts (cf. Ps. 18:35).  It is important to understand this before trying to dicipher all those line breaks and indentations in your Bible.

As a rule, each verse, or thought, begins with one indentation.  A line with two indentations signifies the second colon.  This is plain in the example cited above.  However, three indentations occur in many examples, such as in the following bicola from Psalm 137.

     If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
        let my right hand forget its
     Let my tongue stick to the roof of
           my mouth,
        if I do not remember you,
     if I do not set Jerusalem
        above my highest joy! (ESV)

In the first bicolon, “let my right hand” begins the second part of the verse.  “Skill” is indented three times because it is merely the rest of the second line, not a new colon.  The same thing happens with “my mouth” in the second bicolon.  All of this is necessary because of cramped space on the page.

Here is what it would look like if the translators did not have to work around two columns and a chain-reference down the middle of the page:

     If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
        let my right hand forget its skill!
     Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
        if I do not remember you,
     if I do not set Jerusalem
        above my highest joy!

Now the reader can plainly see the three bicola. The meaning is clearer, but the format would never work in a two column Bible.

Here’s another example from Habbakuk 3:17-18:

     Though the fig tree should not
        nor fruit be on the vines,
     the produce of the olive fail
        and the fields yield no food,
     the flock be cut off from the fold
        and there be no herd in the stalls,
     yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
        I will take joy in the God of my
           salvation. (ESV)

If it were not for the three indentations in line two, the reader would think “blossom” was the second part of the verse.  The same goes for “salvation” in the last line.

This discussion may seem overly technical, but I believe it is very important to the understanding of the poetry of God’s word.  The Lord would not have couched his will in poetry unless he regarded it as an essential and effective way of communicating it to us.  That places a burden upon me as a believer to learn how the poetry of the Bible works.  Discussions of imagery, rhythm, and parallelism are important to this, but all of it begins with a basic understanding of the line breaks in our Bibles.