Picking a Mid-Level Bible

I recently encouraged parents to select a Bible written in terms their child can understand.  Early in a child's growth, this may be something like the Jesus Storybook Bible.  This is not a stretch; parents tend to be excited about buying a child her first Bible; but then there's a disconnect between her first picture-book (or over-simplified Bible) and the adult translation she'll own later.  At some point, children need a full Bible they can read, understand, and enjoy.

There are a couple ways a parent can go.  The first option is to get a para-phrased Bible like The Message.  A para-phrased translation takes the general ideas behind giant amounts of text and writes a giant amount of text in English.  Para-phrased translations sometimes get a bum wrap because they are not the best option for study, but they are a good option for general reading and sometimes even devotional reading.  Eugene Peterson, author/translator of The Message, says in his preface,
"The Message is a reading Bible.  It is not intended to replace the excellent study Bibles that are available.  My intent here (as it was earlier in my congregation and community) is simply to get people reading who don't know that the Bible is read-able at all, at least by them, and to get people who long ago lost interest in the Bible to read it again. [...] So at some point along the way, soon or late, it will be important to get a standard study Bible to facilitate further study" (NavPress, 2002, page 8).    
The different theories behind translating the Bible are many, as are the different purposes behind the translations.  It's important to understand the theory and approach of the different translations in order to understand which translation is right for the task at hand.  Often however, the theory and purpose is less concerned with the vocabulary and reading level of children.  Even Peterson's simplified The Message is focused on adult readers.

The second (and better option) is to find a Bible that was translated with children in mind.  There are not nearly as many full Bible translations with children in mind as there are picture-Bibles, but I've found one that seems good.  The New International Readers Version (NiRV) was specifically translated with children in mind.  Their goal was to produce an English translation of the Bible at an overall grade-reading level of 3.5 (3rd year, 5th month); but in the end thay managed to get it down to a 2.9 grade level. 

The NiRV translation team consisted of both Greek and Hebrew language scholars, children's literature experts, and editors who would keep a keen eye on readability and vocabulary levels.  Using the NIV84 as their base text, they set to their task.  As they encountered larger words, longer sentences, or more difficult sentence construction, they would return to the original languages and try to translate them at a lower reading level and child-capable vocabulary.  (On a side note: It's my prayer that they DO NOT attempt to make the same theological changes to the NiRV that were made to the NIV84, resulting in the less-than quality translation called the NIV11.)

Let's compare some different translations with reading level in mind.

I'll use the Flesch-Kincaid readability formulas to compare readability.  Up front I need to say the Flesch-Kincaid is not perfect, but it is a helpful tool for comparison purposes.  These formulas use the number of words, number of sentences, and number of syllables to provide reading ease and a grade level.  They do not however compare vocabulary or theological concepts, and different test engines may provide slightly different results.  For the sake of my tests, I'm using the readability tool provided with Word for Mac 2011.

The Flesch-Kincaid is reported in two ways.  The first is readability.  It is reported on a scale from 0 to 100 with 100 being the most readable.  For example, a score of 90 should be readable by the average 11-year old, scores between 60 and 70 should be readable by a teenager between 13 and 15 years old, and a scores below 30 are probably best understood by university graduate students.  

The second Flesch-Kincaid formula measures grade level.  With ever-changing educational standards, this is not truly representative of what's happening in schools today nor is it any kind of guarantee (so please don't compare your children to these numbers!)  The grade-level provides a number that attempts to represent the grade level in years and months.  For example, a 3.9 would mean the 3rd year, ninth month.  In this post, I'll simply post the readability followed by the grade level.  (Up to this point, this post ranks at  53.5/10.1.)

Neither of these two numbers are as useful when looking at a single translation as when used to compare translation against translation (NiRV, NIV84, ESV, NASB, and the KJV).  Therefore, we'll look at a few translations using 5 selected verses (which just so happen to be taken from my children's Bible memory verses this month).  Each verse will include the readability and grade-level.  Remember, these numbers only measure so much, so there's real value in the human factor.  Just read the verses and think about how a child in the 2nd Grade may understand the verse.

James 4:10
NiRV - Bow down to the Lord. He will lift you up. (100/0.0)

NIV84 - Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (87.9/3.7)

ESV - Humble yourself before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (78.2/4.8)

NASB - Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you. (83.0/4.9)

KJV - Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up. (79.5/6.1)

Luke 19:10
NiRV - The Son of Man came to look for the lost and save them. (100/1.2)

NIV84 - For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. (100/1.6)

ESV - For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost. (100/0.8)

NASB - For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost. (100/2.4)

KJV - For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost. (85.1/5.8)

Romans 5:8
NiRV - But here is how God has shown his love for us. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (100/0.6)

NIV84 - But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (89.5/5.4)

ESV - But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (99.2/3.8)

NASB - But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (85.1/6.1)

KJV - But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (72.3/8.1)

John 3:16
NiRV - God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son. Anyone who believes in him will not die but have eternal life. (92.7/3.5)

NIV84 - For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (76.3/9.0)

ESV - For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (76.7/8.5)

NASB - For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. (69.7/9.7)

KJV - For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (50.9/12.0)

Ecclesiastes 7:20
NiRV - There isn’t anyone on earth who does only what is right and never sins. (89.8/4.1)

NIV84 - There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins. (90.1/4.6)

ESV - Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. (84.4/5.2)

NASB - Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins. (70.1/7.6)

KJV - For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not. (70.1/7.6)

Hopefully this small sample has helped shape your thinking a bit about translation.  It's also my hope and prayer that this post will help you, the parent, find a good mid-level Bible for your children. And by the way, when running these tests with all 5 verses together, the NiRV scored a 100/1.5, the NIV84 is 90.0/4.9, ESV is 90.1/4.6, NASB is 82.3/6.2, and the KJV 86.1/5.6.  It may also be helpful to run more samples and include other translations such as the NLT, HCSB, and the NKJV.  

*I have no connection to any of the listed translations, material or otherwise.

A Conversation with James

One of the enjoyable things about the biblical epistles is the occasional conversation that almost reads as if the reader’s inter-monologue is involved and necessary for the epistle to move forward. The writer is thinking in advance of what the hearer/reader may say next and then addresses that matter right in step with a moving conversation. James has sections of his Epistle of the same name that read like just such a conversation.

As James moves toward the conclusion of his letter to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion, he shifts his attention to division among the Body, specifically things that divide and cause disorder among the local church (James 3:16). He opens the next section of his letter—which was later numbered as chapter 4—with a question. In what follows, you almost get the feeling that James is anticipating the conversation that would play out if he were having this discussion with his audience in person. And what is fun about James 4:1-12 is that we easily slip into this conversation if we allow ourselves to do so.

By taking the text and inserting our lines, we get a more complete picture. But please remember, our lines are not authoritative or inspired. We may be wrong as we think about James’ epistle. But it may also help us to see James’ argument with a little more clarity. (The biblical text will be bold for this exercise and my dialogue will be italicized. James's lines are taken from the ESV.)

James: What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? (4:1a)

Reader: Well, I think some of our fighting in church has to do with some minor theological differences. Some of us are Calvinists and some are Armenians and we have trouble getting along.  And then there are some who see the Spiritual gifts as operative today and some that just don't.  Some think seminary is necessary for the ministry and others argue against it.  Some think learning the biblical languages is helpful and some say it's a waste of time.  Oh, and we fight over how involved to be with our denomination.   And some among our church think church is about fun and activities while others want to learn and spend more time in study and meditation.  We have arguments about music choice, hymns versus contemporary music, and especially volume.  And do we do missions for reasons of justice, mercy, or the proliferation of the gospel?  We argue about that.  We also argue about the purpose of community groups.  And what really gets me is that it seems some of our church body is more about consuming while we have a small group that's doing everything.  Oh, and commitment levels; don't get me started with commitment levels. . . . 

James, (Cutting the person off after listening for a while): Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? (4:1b)

Reader:   What? What do you mean?  

James:   You desire and do not have, so you murder.  You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.  (4:2a)

Reader: That's a little extreme, don't you think.  I mean, it's not like we're murdering anybody.  But you might be right about some of our quarrels.  It would be nice if we had more resources and maybe if we did, we wouldn't fight as much. 

James: You do not have because you do not ask. (4:2b)

Reader: No, that's not it because I pray all the time.  I'm always asking God for the things I want. 

James: You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (4:3)

Reader, (Wrestling with James' hard indictment): Well. . . . Doesn't God want to bless the Church?  And I would think God would want me to have some good things in this life.  I mean, if he really loves us wouldn't he want us to be wealthy and in good health, and wouldn't that would help us spread the gospel.  We should be able to enjoy life like our neighbors, right? How is that asking wrongly? And when we do get to do the things our neighbors do, we get to know them and can tell them about Jesus.  Seriously, I ask for more money so I can be generous.  That doesn't seem so bad.  If I just had more money, I could be generous and serve Jesus better.  And maybe if we had a nicer church and a better softball team, more people would come and hear about God.  I know if God would give us more money for our youth program we'd have lots of people at our church because people make choices based on how happy their teen-agers are.  What's wrong with asking for that?  Why wouldn't God want to give us more money so we can do more?  How is this praying wrongly?  Isn't this what God desires for me and the church I attend?  

James: You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.  (4:4)

Reader: An enemy of God? Why, because we want God and we want our passions fulfilled?  What? How is that unreasonable? Doesn't God want me to be happy?

James, (Picking up intensity): Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, "He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us?" But he gives more grace.  Therefore it says "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble." (4:5-6a)

Reader: I know, God loves me and has a plan for me--I hear it all the time.  But what you're saying is that I'm cheating on God with the world but God wants all of me and I can't have what I want?  What next, I should repent, right?  You believe that will make me okay with God?  And then that will make me happy. . . is that what you're saying?

James: Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  (4:7-8)

Reader (Smiling):   Sure, I can do that.  I'll repent.  Piece of cake.  And then I'll be happy and have what I want?

James: Be wrenched and mourn and weep.  Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (4:9-10)

Reader: Okay, I get it.  I'll take this more seriously.  This is what I need to do, and our church too?  And that's it?  You think this will cause less quarrels and fighting?  If we repent and turn from our own passions and idolatry, we'll have more unity? 

James: Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.  The one who speaks against a brother of judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law.  But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. (4:11)

Reader: Oh, there's more?  But now that you mention it, gossip is a big part of our disunity. But I don't understand how this is judging the law? 

James:  There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy.  But who are you to judge your neighbor?  

* Photo by Tracy Byrnes. Register under a Creative Commons license. 

Failing to Consult God

Joshua 9 contains a fascinating narrative about the a ploy hatched by the inhabitants of Gibeon to fool Joshua into a a peace treaty.  After the ambassadors of Gibeon arrive looking as if they had traveled from a great distance, they convince the people of Israel (to include Joshua) that they were not in fact people of the promised land.   Joshua was waring against those living in the promised land under the orders of God, but these people played themselves off as potential neighbors.  The problem however, is that they started out with bad provisions and worn out sandals in an attempt to fool Joshua and it worked.

Verse 14 contains the lesson of this narrative.  It reads, "So the men took some of their provisions, but did not ask counsel from the LORD" (Joshua 9:14, ESV).  It looks as if the Israelites sampled some of this bad bread from themselves and were convinced.  Some commentators content that they may have even shared a meal with the bad provisions as a part of this pact.  Using the false provisions provides a parallel for the poor agreement but more significantly is the second part of this sentence, "but [they] did not ask counsel from the LORD."  They did this under their own power without praying about this serious decision.  

It is a good picture for us today.  We should be consulting with God, that we would work and act in accordance with his will rather than our own.  James writes that we should ask for wisdom (James 1:5), something that was clearly lacking in the Joshua account.

Community in Prayer

Prayer is amazing in how much it shapes our lives and communities. Prayer in fact, has an aspect of community built into it by God's design.  It's called intercession.  As we interceded for others in prayer, we grow toward our attitude toward others.

As we see that Moses stood in the gap for others in Psalm 106, we get a picture of just how important praying for others really can be; but throughout the New Testament, we see how natural this is within Christian community.  James 5 actually gives us a command to ask for prayer, pray for others, and pray together.

Community is found as one aspect of our prayers.  

Prayer is Relational

The Bible is full of prayers. Herbert Lockyer says, "Exclusive of the Psalms, which form a prayer-book on their own, the Bible records no fewer than 650 definite prayers, of which no less than 450 have recorded answers."[1] As early as Genesis 4:26 we read that "people began to call upon the name of the LORD." Recorded prayers allow the student of the Bible a glimpse of the prayers of others, at times providing the specific words and at other times only demonstrating that the individual engaged in prayer of some sort. Even communication between the Godhead—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is made available to us in the written Word. Biblical instructions include praying often (without ceasing in fact), with faithfulness and hope, for others and ourselves, in line with God's will, with and without words, and by divine help. We're given specifics for which to pray. The prayers of the Pharisees are condemned, and we hear warnings about wrongful prayer. We even read about disciples learning directly from our Savior specifically about how to pray. Yet in a book loaded with prayers, there is no clear and obvious definition of what prayer actually is.

For centuries theologians have attempted to define prayer. They diligently examine the various prayers contained within the Canon as well as the instruction and teaching on prayer. Through their findings, they've come to an understanding of prayer and attempt a definition. For example, Wayne Grudem says, "Prayer is personal communication with God."[2] Millard Erickson argues that "Prayer is in large part, a matter of creating in ourselves a right attitude with respect to God’s will."[3] Appealing to Psalm 27:8, John Mueller suggests the definition is, "the communion of a believing heart with God."[4] And John Calvin, while not providing a clear definition of prayer, still says it is, "a kind of intercourse between God and men."[5] As varied as all of these definitions are, they all seem to get at the same thing: a relationship between God and man.

God desires to be in relationship with his creation. Nothing in the Bible could be clearer. In fact, the Bible itself—God's Word—is a merciful revelation intended as a mechanism of communication that draws us into a relationship with its divine Author. God is reaching out to us, calling us into a relationship with himself. Prayer is an important aspect of this relationship.

Jesus teaching was purposed to draw all men into a salvific relationship with the Trinity. Notice that Jesus proclaims, "Your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Matthew 6:8); but James 4:2 says, "You do not have, because you do not ask" and 1 Thessalonians 5:17 instructs that we should "pray without ceasing." Is this some kind of contradiction? Why would God want us to pray if he already knows our needs? Because he wants a relationship with us! Jesus paints a beautiful picture of this relationship in Luke 11:9-13:
"And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
Do you see the relational factors in Jesus' plea? “Ask!” he says, as if almost begging. And look at the question and answer that follows. Father, children, good gifts. Jesus desperately wants his disciples to enter into this relationship and he wants them to pray.

Prayer is about a relationship with God.

1. Herbert Lockyer, All the Prayers of the Bible: A Devotional and Expositional Classic (Grand Rapids: Mich, Zondervan, 1959), Publisher’s Forward.  
2. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Mich, Zondervan, 1994), 376. 
3. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Mich, Baker Academics, 1998), 431.
4. John Theodore Mueller, Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Miss, Concordia, 1934), 428-429.
5. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody: Mass, Hendrickson, 2008), 564.

Prayer is Partnering with God

God asks us to ask him for the things we need, yet he already knows what we need before we ask him. (James 4:2, Matthew 6:8 for example.)  This seems paradoxical.  Yet, God's desire is for us to partner with him; not because he needs us, but because we need him. 

When we pray, we are partnering with God. Prayer helps us join in God's mission and will. We see this in Genesis with guys like Noah, Abraham, and others.  How about the partnership with Moses in Exodus? Nehemiah? The disciples in the Acts?  God brought his people into his plan for their own good even though he did not need to.  Even today, God brings you into his plans as a partnership for your good. But it is important to remember that this is the most unequal partnership we could imagine.  We bring nothing to the table and God brings everything.  It's almost shocking that we hesitate to partner with God.  

Prayer is entering into a partnership with God. Be praying!

Kick-Starting Your Prayers

Prayer is a necessary part of the joyous and full Christian life.  Jesus taught his disciples how to pray (Matthew 6:5-13) and we see Jesus praying often--maybe most intensely in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It is the act of talking with God and the Bible records many men and women praying.  (Some of those prayers are even written down.)

God wants us to talk with him often, always in fact (Luke 18:1, Acts 10:2, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, and 1 Timothy 2:8 for example). Yet, many Christians find themselves in seasons where it is difficult to pray.  As surprising as that may sound, it might be a result of unresolved spiritual conviction but it could also be due to a lack to a strong understanding of prayer or a lifestyle of habitual prayer.  The best way to work through spiritual conviction, especially that of unconfessed or hidden sin, is to pray!  And the best way to develop a better understanding of prayer comes through studying the Bible and engaging in a regular routine of prayer.  Regular prayer is about a submissive attitude, faith, and habit and there are seasons where these things don't come easy. 

One tool I've found to help me in my prayer time is a prayer book.  No, this is not a journal, nor is it a Puritan book of pre-written prayers, although both of these things are good.  (When it comes to journaling,  I've often struggled to write my down prayers, and I would almost never look back to review my prayers at a later date.  This is not to say that journaling is bad, it's just not something I personally do well or find as useful.)    

Instead, I have a prayer book that serves as a kick-starter for my prayers.  It's a reminder and makes it easy to pray in dry seasons (and when I haven't yet fully woken up with a good cup of coffee).  Here's how I've organized my prayer book, but if you're going to use a prayer book, your book really aught to be customized to your needs and preferences.  You really need to make it your own.

On the opening page of my book, I've written 2 Corinthians 10:4, as a personal reminder of the importance of prayer.  There are many passages that could serve as a reminder, but this one was on my mind when I made my most recent prayer book.

The first section of my prayer book is a list of lost people who I pray for often.  My list has grown ever sense reading Concentric Circles of Concern by Dr. Oscar Thompson so I typically pray for 10 to 15 people by name each day.  The list however, helps me remember lost people to pray for and keeps them in front of me and on my heart.  It is also a place where I can add the names of new people I meet who are in desperate need of Christ.  (At it's thrilling when I can cross a person's name off on this list because they become found!)  I've also written some scriptures in this section that serve as an encouragement to me.  They remind me that God cares more than I do and they help shape my thinking about the importance of praying for the lost, which is why they are penned in the first section of my book.

The next section is pages of scriptural passages that I like and often pray through.  Many of them serve as an encouragement but some are the prayers of others written in the Bible that I have found  particular significant in my own life.  Many are from the Psalms, but not all.

The next section opens with some Scripture that moves me, followed by some simple one-line prayers that I could (and should) pray for the rest of my life.  They are prayers of thanksgiving, praise, worship, and life-long petitions such as a request for wisdom as outlined in James 1:5.

The final section in my prayer book is a list of all the praises, thanksgiving, and petitions that are more timely.  These include the many intersessions for my family, church, and many others.  I have the names of our church's community group leaders, lists of friends, other pastors laboring all around the world for the gospel, special projects, and the specific requests made by others.  I also have many of my own prayer needs and praises written in this section.  I put a date by all the listings.  When I cross them off, I date them again and write a brief explanation of why I'm crossing the item off.  For example, I'm praying regularly for a young woman who has embarked on a year-long mission trip around the world.  When she returns safely, I'll cross off that prayer item and praise God for his provisions.

My book has pages and pages of people, praises, petitions, Scriptures, thoughts, and other things I can be talking with God about.  It also has lots of blank pages for more to be added.  I don't have to pray for everything in the book but it's nice to have the tool to prime the pump when I feel like I'm praying on empty.  It's interesting just how quickly my prayers start flowing without the book only a short time after I get started by using the book.  It's also worth noting that this book has greatly helped me form a more regular habit of personal prayer.

Here's a short video with a little more info about my little prayer book and how one may help you in your prayer life:

If you'd like to start a prayer book, it's easy.  All you need to get started is some kind of notebook and a pen. Then start praying!

*'Child at Prayer' by Eastman Johnson, circa 1873 is in the public domain. 

When I Teach Heresy

I co-teach an adult class on Sunday mornings that is presently dealing with the Synoptic Gospels from an exegetical perspective.  I'd like to think it's a good class, and both myself and the other teacher work hard to challenge the students while also rightly teaching the Word of God.  But I would be grossly fooling myself if I believed that I always get it right.

On this particular Sunday, I was given Matthew 10:17-42 and the subsequent parallel passages found in the Synoptics.  This text is larger than the selections we typically teach in the 30 to 40 minutes we have for class, depending on how fast the students trickle in.   Throughout the week, I had been reading and re-reading the passage, as well as looking at it in the Greek.  My Greek skills are certainly not fantastic, so this large text was a lot of work.  And I had prayed for illumination and understanding. 

On Saturday morning, sitting before my computer, books and Bibles open on the desk, I started feeling the magnitude of teaching God's Word.  Visions of standing before God to give an account of my teaching often weigh heavily upon me as I prepare to teach.  I think about verses like Hebrews 13:17 and James 3:1.  It was even worse on this day because there was just so much material; therefore, I opted to deal with the passage in themes.  

Approaching the text thematically, rather than working through it line by line would help me with the limited time but it would also mean that some of the verses that did not greatly impact the themes would get far less attention.  Even still, I carefully read through each verse and paragraph seeking to understand. Again, I prayed for guidance and understanding.  Occasionally I would deal with a word study as specific questions came up.  And then I examined some commentaries to see if I was on track or if maybe I had missed the mark.  (I go here last, but this often means I return to my study for more and then another return to the commentaries.)  I tried to prepare for potential questions that might be asked, especially considering there are a variety of study Bibles used by the students ranging from the NIV Study Bible to the ESV Study Bible to the Ryrie Study Bible, and these always seem to bring up a wide range of questions and comments.  But as it turns out, I did not prepare well for the questions that came at me about Matthew 10:28.

When I looked at verse 28 during my preparation, I noticed that Jesus was saying to fear 'him' (or 'the one'; ton, transliterated from the Greek) who is able to destroy the body and soul in gehenna.  I made a note that in this specific passage the ton does not seem to be clearly identified.  There seems to be some ambiguity.  I questioned if this was God who the Twelve (Jesus' specific audience at the time) should fear because he has the ability to kill and then destroy the soul, or if it was the devil.  Then I wondered how either of these ideas worked in light of the next few sentences about God placing such a high value on his children, even knowing the number of hairs on their head (Matthew 10:29-31).  I was thinking about 1 Peter 5:8 which reads, "Be sober-minded; be watchful.  Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (ESV).  Looking at just verse 28, it seemed that the ambiguity might be pointing to the adversary.

But having already spent a few hours on this lesson and still having much to do, I decided to move on.  I wish I hadn't because a systematic study as well as additional work with the specific passage may have yielded different ideas.  Then, to make matters more complicated, I misread the commentary I was looking at when taking my ideas to the scholars.  Yes, Carson's discussion has something about Satan, but in rereading it, I now see that while Satan is powerful, only God can ultimately destroy souls (understood from a systematic approach and clearly outlined by Carson).  It is clear now that I was skimming through the commentary on the passages that were not the primary focus of the class. For the texts I wanted to deal with in class, I was consulting multiple commentaries.  And I was using four different translations.  For those verses, I was putting in the work; for the others, it is apparent I didn't give them proper attention.

One of the students using the NIV quickly pointed out that this translation reads, "the One," with the One (ton) being capitalized.  The NIV--notorious for removing any ambiguity and filling in the gaps--might have actually better prepared me had I noticed the capitalized One as I was looking at the passage in a parallel format with other translations.  But I missed it, likely pressing on toward other verses.  And during class, I couldn't remember the extent of the ambiguity.  Then I heard, "My study Bible says. . . ."  Sadly, I grew defensive.  Over eight hours of study and work for the 30-minute lesson suddenly went down the drain as the class shutdown. 

The lesson I take away from this experience (and hope others may learn from my mistake) is this:  All teachers are heretics on some level.  We are never going to get it right every time.  I once had a professor that would end most of his classes by saying, "Well, that's probably enough heresy for today."  But this is not an excuse to try less.  We should not hide behind the reality that we will fumble the ball.  If anything, it should push us teachers of God's Word to work even harder and pray all the more.  We are obligated to teach God's word well.  It is my prayer that God will fill me even more so my teaching will actually not be from me, but instead from his outpouring to his class.

And that's probably enough heresy for one blog post.

*Painting, "Jun Hus at the Stake" is in the public domain.

Love Wins by Rob Bell (Chapter 3)

[This review is a review in parts.  If you are just joining this review, start with "Love Wins by Rob Bell (Prolegomena)."] 

Rob Bell explores his thoughts about hell in the third chapter of his book, Love Wins.  With a part of this chapter he challenges the traditional Christian view of a place of punishment, sorrow, and anguish, and it also seems that he is laying the ground work for a future argument about the everlasting aspects of the biblical hell.  But Bell also uses this chapter to present an idea of hell on earth, maybe something like his ideas of heaven on earth. However, this twisted idea of hell that Bell shares speaks against the Gospel of Christ and against the biblical idea of hell; it is a heretical argument and a tragic concept with the potential for epic devastation, a message which no Christian preacher should ever suggest, preach, or teach.

Bell argues that hell on earth is for victims. 

How can this be good news?

(At this point, I realize that readers who love and support Bell and his book will be tempted to stop reading this review, and that's okay.  But it is my hope that those readers remember arguments that they themselves might have made.  "Don't pass judgment," they might have argued, "and don't form an opinion until you've read the book."  Some also argued that I would have to get to the end of the book to see the entire picture.  So if this is you, I hope you continue reading this review.  I hope you are willing to see it through to the end. I invite comments and questions via e-mail or in person.  Please feel free to contact me. And I realize I have just leveled some serious claims about Bell's ideas; so Mr. Bell, I invite you to contact me to discuss your ideas so I can better understand. Come out to Salt Lake so we can discuss this over a cup of coffee.)

In this chapter, Bell shares some of his observations and experiences he has had as a pastor--a trip to Rwanda, a time sitting with a rape victim, a question from a boy about his father who had just committed suicide, the look of a cocaine addict, the ripples of a marital affair, and a cruel dead man.

When Bell was in Rwanda, he witnessed many teenagers missing hands and legs.  They were victims of brutal treatment, forced upon them by no fault of their own. Bell says this was a tactic of a person's enemy.  Cutting off your enemy's hand or leg leaves a brutal reminder of what you did to him.  He is reminded of you every time he looks at his child.  To this, Bells says, "Do I believe in a literal hell?  Of course. Those aren't metaphorical missing arms and legs" (71).

Bell also asks if his readers have ever sat with a woman as she described what it was like when she was raped.  In another question he asks, "How does a person describe what it's like to hear a five-year-old boy whose father has just committed suicide ask, 'When is daddy coming home?'" (71).   

But here's the problem with these examples.  In the common vernacular, one might suggest that a hot stone massage is "heavenly" or maybe it's a piece of chocolate cake the warrants such a high description.  I even remember once buying a honey-baked ham from a company called Heavenly Ham, but I really don't think I bought a ham from heaven, not even heaven on earth.  This is metaphorical hyperbole.  Heaven is the greatest thing one can think of so we use it to describe great things, as if to say there is nothing better.  But in reality, the biblical heaven is not a hot stone massage or a piece of cake or a ham or even the commercial building where I bought the ham.  That's not what these kinds of statements are attempting to say.  We use the word and idea of hell in much the same way.  Hell is the worst thing we can think of so we make statements like, "War is hell."  We want to dramatically declare that it just doesn't get any worse than this.  So in that usage, armless, legless boys and rape victims and mothers who hear very difficult questions could easily say, "This is hell;" but that would not be the hell described in the bible.

What these horrific examples demonstrate is sin, or rather, the effects of sin.  See, the teens in Rwanda and the raped woman are the victims of sinful acts thrust upon them.  These are examples of sin in motion, the sin of humans; it's sin in the fallen world in which we live.  However, in the model Bell gives us, Abel would have been in hell during the few moments while Cain was murdering him (Genesis 4).  Stephen would have been in hell as he was being stoned to death, despite that the Bible says that he saw the heavens opened, and the Son of Man was standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7).  In this model, it seems that the early Saints were passing into a hell on earth while Saul was ravishing the Church (Acts 8).

And let us take a look at a parable Jesus shared about a rich man who died and was in Hades. (Bell also examines this parable, but for a much different reason.)  Luke 16:19-31 tells us a parable of this unnamed rich man and a poor begger named Lazarus.  Lazarus sat out side the rich man's gates starving.  Dogs licked Lazurus' sores, while the rich man did nothing for him.  In the parable, Lazarus ends up in heaven while the rich man ends up in hell.  There is a chasm between the two that does not allow anyone to pass from one place to the other (Luke 16:26).  But looking through the paradigm Rob Bell is giving us, it seems that before the two died, Lazarus was in hell, not the rich man.

In this parable, the dead rich man calls out to Abraham (who is with Lazarus) for mercy, but Abraham reminds the suffering man, "Child, remember that you in your lifetime received the good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish" (Luke 16:25, ESV).  And even later, the rich man begs that his brothers be warned so that they may repent (Luke 16:30) and avoid this . . . this what?  The rich man says "agony." Agony for what?  Could it be punishment?  But punishment for what?  His sin.  Maybe for neglecting the poor; maybe neglecting Jesus as Jesus discussed in Matthew 25 (another passage Bell examines for entirely different purposes in the previous chapter about heaven).  Doesn't this make sense in light of Romans 6:23 which states that the wages of sin is death?  Doesn't this make the gospel, that is, that Christ created a bridge across this chasm, seem like amazing news!  The painting that was so frightful to Bell is the bridge, and the reason it is a cross is because that is how Jesus made the bridge.

As I thought about those Rwandan teens, I couldn't help but think about the people inflicting "hell" upon these children.  They may have actually lived rather well, like the rich man.  And what about the rapist? And what about the religious people who stoned Stephen to death?  What about Saul?  It doesn't seem that there was a punishment or agonizing hell on earth for them.  Bell's hell on earth seems only to be agony and suffering for the victims.  Does the Bible really teach that the victims suffer hell on earth, a biblical hell, for the sins committed against them?  Or as with the rich man, does it seem that this judgment and punishment comes in the afterlife?

And what about the feelings and experiences of a cocaine addict or how the suffering a man might feel after he has sinned by having a marital affair?  Has God cast any of these living people in to hell, or at least a hell on earth? (And again, we can't say Mahatma Gandhi is in hell but it's okay to declare that these living people could be in hell?)  The answer is no, God has not cast these living people into hell on earth.  For the victims, we might think of this suffering in light of 2 Corinthians 1:1-11 and Romans 8:28.  These victims are not cast away from God.  And for the perpetrators who are suffering as a result of their own sin, we might call this conviction in some cases, or it may be that the law is acting like a schoolmaster (Galatians 3), all for the benefit of their salvation.  God may feel distant to them, but only because they have pushed him away, done as an act of their own self punishment.  But God has not cast them to the burning trash heap of hell, not yet anyway.  God is not neglecting them; he loves them and desires good things for them.

It may seem that the Bible only talks of hell as a garbage dump as Bell tries to present it.  (He says that the only mention of hell is the Greek word gehenna. But even staying on the surface of semantics, this argument neglects 2 Peter 2:4's use of the word tartaroō.)  And of course it would seem that there are very little mentions of hell or any kind of punishment if we only look for the word gehenna.  And if we neglect Jesus' parables and much of the symbolic hints of punishment and reward, and even much of the direct statements about a punishment for sin after death, we might think that hell is not that big of a deal.  We could falsely draw the conclusion that Jesus wasn't that concerned about hell.  But that would be a mistake.  Before you incorrectly draw that conclusion, read some passages in the Bible again, without anybody's commentary.  Here are just a few examples; there are many more: Genesis 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; Numbers 16:30, 33; Deuteronomy 32:22; 1 Samuel 2:6; 2 Samuel 22:6; 1 Kings 2:6, 9; Job 7:9; 11:8; 14:13; 17:13, 16; 21:13; 24:19; 26:6; Psalms 6:5; 9:17; Matthew 3:12; 5:22, 29–30; 7:23; 10:28; 11:23; 13:24-30, 42-43, 47-50; 16:18; 18:9; 23:15, 33; 25:32-33; Mark 9:43–47; Luke 3:17; 10:15; 12:5; 16:23; John 15:6; Acts 2:27, 31; James 3:6; 2 Peter 2:4; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 9:2; 14:9-11; 18:8; 19:20; and 20:13–15

And I propose that if we are to look for any example of hell on earth we must look to the specific moment while Christ was on the cross as a propitiation for our sins; that is, taking on the sins of the world which were laid upon him (Isaiah 53:4-6; Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10).  In that moment, when it appeared that Jesus was isolated from the Father, he cried out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34).  In that moment, Jesus was making a way for us.  And if anything were going to make an argument for hell on earth, it must be this moment.

Next up, "Love Wins by Rob Bell (Chapter 4)."

* I have no material connection to Rob Bell or his book, Love Wins.
** Photo of "The Poor Lazarus at the Rich Man's Door" by James Joseph Jacques Tissot is used with permission from the Brooklyn Museum.

What is the Kingdom of God?

I once taught a class where the kingdom of God was of chief interest.  For the sake of time, we didn't read all of the Scriptures listed below, but I did print this material as a handout to the class and I felt it would be worth posting here.  The question at hand is, what is the Bible referring to when it mentions the kingdom of God? 

A Systematic View

The kingdom of God (nearly interchangeable with kingdom of heaven, kingdom of Christ, kingdom of our Lord, and sometimes just the kingdom) is discussed often throughout the Bible. It can seem complex, because it is inside creation, outside creation, and above creation. Like the Trinity of God, there is no earthy analogy to adequately describe it. Presently, we only see it in bits and pieces but our understanding of it comes through faith.

“[The kingdom of God] is simply the reign of God in human hearts wherever obedience to God is found.”1

The Kingdom of God is not the Church. “The Kingdom is primarily the dynamic reign or kingly rule of God, and, derivatively, the sphere in which the rule is experienced. In the biblical idiom, the Kingdom is not identified with its subjects. They are the people of God’s rule who enter it, live under it, and are governed by it. The church is the community of the Kingdom but never the Kingdom itself. Jesus’ disciples belong to the Kingdom as the Kingdom belongs to them; but they are not the Kingdom. The Kingdom is the rule of God; the church is a society of men.”2

The kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven) is not strictly speaking of the afterlife or future place or future existence. It has an “already/not yet” aspect about it present in many of the discussions about it throughout the Bible.

The kingdom of God should not be mistaken with the sovereignty or rule of God. God is sovereign over all of creation. However, presently, one can be inside or outside of the kingdom of God. And we do not truly, positively experience it until we are within the kingdom of God.

There are 66 uses of “kingdom of God” in the New Testament. There is no Hebrew use of this term that translates into English as “kingdom of God.” (Matt 6:33; 12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43; Mark 1:15; 4:11, 26, 30; 9:1, 47; 10:14–15, 23–25; 12:34; 14:25; 15:43; Luke 4:43; 6:20; 7:28; 8:1, 10; 9:2, 11, 27, 60, 62; 10:9, 11; 11:20; 13:18, 20, 28–29; 14:15; 16:16; 17:20–21; 18:16–17, 24–25, 29; 19:11; 21:31; 22:16, 18; 23:51; John 3:3, 5; Acts 1:3; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 28:23, 31; Rom 14:17; 1 Cor 4:20; 6:9–10; 15:50; Gal 5:21; Col 4:11; 2 Th 1:5.)

There are 32 uses of “kingdom of heaven” in the New Testament. There is no Hebrew use of this term that translates into English as “kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 3:2; 4:17; 5:3, 10, 19–20; 7:21; 8:11; 10:7; 11:11–12; 13:11, 24, 31, 33, 44–45, 47, 52; 16:19; 18:1, 3–4, 23; 19:12, 14, 23; 20:1; 22:2; 23:13; 25:1.)

There are 2 uses of “kingdom of our Lord” in the New Testament. (2 Pet 1:11; Rev 11:15.) There is no Hebrew use of this term that translates into English as “kingdom of our Lord.”

There are 3 uses of “gospel of the kingdom” in the New Testament, and all of which are found in Matthew. (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14). There is no Hebrew use of this term that translates into English as “gospel of the kingdom.” Matthew also uses the “word of the kingdom” in Matt 13:19.

There is 1 use of “The kingdom of Christ and God” and it’s found in Eph 5:5.

Not every use for kingdom without the various above qualifiers in the New Testament is referring to the kingdom of God, but many do. (There are 55 uses of kingdom not followed by either "of God" or "of heaven.") Significant examples include Matt 4:23; 6:10; 8:12; 9:35; 13:19, 38, 41, 43; 16:28; 20:21; 24:14; 25:34; 26:29; Mark 11:10; Luke 1:33; 11:2; 12:31–32; 22:29–30; 23:42; John 18:36; Acts 20:25; 1 Cor 15:24; Col 1:13; 2 Tim 4:18; Heb 1:8; 12:28; James 2:5; 2 Pet 1:11; Rev 1:6; 5:10; and 12:10.

The Hebrew word for kingdom is used though the Old Testament mostly for earthly kingdoms but there are references to the Kingdom of God. Examples include: Ex 19:6 (Kingdom of Priests), 2 Sam 7:10–16 & 1 Chr 17:9–14 (near/far picture of Kingdom), Psa 45:6; 103:19; 145:11–13 (Blurred lines between Sovereign rule and the Kingdom of God), Dan 4:3 (everlasting Kingdom), and Dan 7:18, 22 (future view of the Kingdom).

1 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 1998), 1163.
2 George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament; quoted by Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1994), 863.

* Photo by Niall McAuley is registered under a creative commons license.

Church Government

Which form of church government appears to have the most warrant from a biblical perspective?

It is rather difficult to find clear support for one form of church government over another in the Bible, mostly because the authors and original readers were already in that government. A governmental system was assumed and did not need explaining. We only see glimpses of how it was done. On the other hand, we do see qualifications for elders and deacons. This does not clearly lay out the structure of either offce, but it does clearly tell us the type of people (or men) they should be. We also see the expected duties of the deacons in Acts when the selection of deacons was being made.

While some will disagree, Jesus did not appoint one leader over the Church—he set a plurality of leaders. His appointed twelve did have members that seemed more influential, but in the mater of the Church, they were equals. In Galatians, Paul is able to rebuke Peter, which would not seem reasonable if Peter was the single appointed archbishop of the Church. Collectively, these men were leaders lead by the Holy Spirit and were appointed for life; and it seems as if this group was able to be added to—accounting for Paul and James. First Timothy 4:14 shows that Paul was sent by a council of elders, suggesting a council rather than a single leader. We also see in James 5:14 that a sick person should call for the elders, plural; and it is unreasonable to think this meant the single pastor/elder in the local church and the single pastor/elder from the next town over.

It is also worth noting that in Acts 15, we see apostles and elders and the “whole church” making the decision to send Paul and Barnabas to Antioch. And regarding something as is seen in some churches where a bishop or archbishop is somehow more holy, we must remember Hebrews 4:16.

I am of the idea that because God did not clearly outline how a church is to be governed, there is no absolute right or wrong way so long as it is a church submitted under the authority of Christ as revealed in Scripture, and guided and led by the Holy Spirit. In this regard, Acts and the New Testament seems more descriptive; however, if I were to say which of the three models is the most “biblical” I lean, only slightly, more toward presbyterian than congregationalism and lastly episcopal (although in the early church went quickly to this model or always was this model which should be taken into consideration).

Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2001.

When the Hype Lets You Down

Salt Lake City recently had a national blizzard warning.  This warning was a big deal because these warnings rarely, if ever happen.  Early on, the Salt Lake media started their "blizzard watch" around-the-clock news coverage.

Residents were warned to stock up on batteries, water, blankets and other supplies.  We were told that this blizzard was massing power and intensity and would shut down Salt Lake City.  It had the potential of being the worst storm to hit the area in fifty years, they said.  The news was even breaking into regularly scheduled programing to provide updates hours before the storm arrived.  A scrolling banner was constantly moving across the bottom of the television screen to alert residents of emergency Red Cross locations. They hype was reaching overwhelming proportions.

But when the storm arrived, it didn't seem like anything out of the ordinary for Salt Lake.  There was very little wind and about 2 inches of cold, dry snow.  A week before, enough heavy snow came down to cause my neighbor's old tree to collapse in my driveway.   The week after the "blizzard," Salt Lake was covered in two feet of snow.  (It took me nearly three hours to shovel my driveway and sidewalks.)

The new outlets however, were not about to allow the hype (which they created) to fall short.  As the supposed blizzard started, they had reporters outside doing live broadcasts.  These reporters would say things like, "As you can see, nobody is outside because it's so dangerous."  Had they been in that same location on any other day, there still wouldn't have been anybody out, but not because of any blizzard danger.  At one point, the news put up images from a highway video camera.  In the shot, one could see about 3/4 a mile down the highway.  It was dark and there was a light snowfall.  Cars seemed to be traveling 30 or 35 miles per hour.  But the report stated that it was "whiteout conditions" and visibility was "zero."  "Cars were at a standstill" he said. 

After the storm, the news outlets in the Salt Lake area lost all credibility.  Not only was the storm nothing significant (showing the meteorologists' inability to accurately predict the weather), we also witnessed the reporters' inability to accurately report the news.  The next morning as the city was realizing that the blizzard was anything but, the news was still reporting that were lucky to be alive.

It seems that Christians do this from time to time when they share Christianity with those who do not know Jesus.  Intentional or not, there can sometimes be an unrealistic picture presented of what a life walking with Jesus looks like.  "Before I knew Jesus, I was a drug addict with lots of problems, but after I met Jesus, my life was great and I never faced any problems at all."  The prosperity gospel the worst culprit.  "I was poor before I new Jesus, but now look, I drive a Lexis and have lots of money."  But the truth is, life with Christ is not free of problems.  In fact, the Bible teaches that Christians will face trials.  (For examples, see James 1:2, Matthew 13:21, Mark 4:17, Luke 22:28-32, 1 Peter 1:6-7, Romans 8:35-39.)  We cannot expect that God will keep promises he never made to us.  At other times, Christians over-report the wonders of Christ's influence in their lives.  Emotion runs high and the hype grows to overwhelming proportions.  (I'm sure I've been guilty of this.)

So the best thing Christians can do is report the gospel accurately.  The gospel is life changing; no hype is necessary.  However, if we, like the news, create too much hype or incorrectly present the picture, we will lose all credibility and the gospel will be the victim.  And if we lose credibility, people will change the channel or read a different news paper.  Looking at America today, it is not hard to see many people changing the station because they do not see the Church as credible anymore.  It is important we remain honest and accurate if we are to be good ambassadors of the Kingdom.  Nobody should be left shoveling an inch of snow and three feet of cow manure because a Christian was more concerned about ratings than the truth of the gospel itself. 

*The photograph is in the public domain.

Will Work for a Toilet?

Early each Thursday morning I have coffee with a small group of guys.  Presently, our meeting spot is a spiffy little coffee joint located inside a locally owned bookstore.  I typically order a large cup of the medium blend, and they usually fill the cup so full that not only can I not put in any cream, the act of carrying the cup to the table makes coffee spill over the side onto the saucer.  But it's a good cup of coffee and the place makes a nice meeting spot for us.

Not too long ago, I had a hefty glass of orange juice before heading out to meet the guys.  Then when I got there, I ordered my usual.  The conversation was good so when my brain received the warning from my bladder, I figured I still had a few minutes.  You know, I hit the snooze button.  When the alarm went off again I excused myself from the group and headed to the bathroom toward the back of the bookstore.

It was locked.

"No bro," said the barista-beatnik from behind espresso machine, "we don't have a key for the bookstore toilets; do you really think they'd let us have one."  The alarm went off again. 

Out the door I went.

Hitting Main Street, I figured there would be a good number of restrooms for my use.  The first one had a sign reading "For building residents only."  Ignoring the sign, I grabbed for the doorknob.  Locked; no light on under the door.  The next place had a key code on the door and the doorman wouldn't give me the numbers to unlock the room.  Another place had one of these key code entry systems too; maybe made by the same manufacture and maybe with the same code.

The alarm went off again and by this time I was three large blocks away from the coffee shop where I started.  Dancing the pee-pee dance into a business building I noticed an older man working a small coffee cart.  Behind him and slightly to the left was a men's restroom and yet there was another key coded door.  In my business shirt, tie, and slacks, I begged him to let me use the restroom.  I might have been holding my crotch like a three-year-old.  I don't remember.  Not understanding my urgency, he explained that the codes were to keep transient people from using the bathrooms.  "If you don't give me the code the to bathroom," I pleaded with the man, "I'm going to be forced to urinate in your planter box."  He gave me the code and I shouted a thank you as I ran into the bathroom.  (I considered buying a cup of coffee from him in appreciation, but my still pulsating bladder argued me out of it.)

But this is more than a story about a dude and the verge of wetting his khakis.  This is a story of understanding needs.

Living in America, with a job and a house and cable TV, it becomes easy to forget that people have needs, real needs.  For many, the idea of need is having to replace your iPhone headphones before getting on the evening train.  Just the thought of not being able to listen to music, being forced to sit in silence or strike up a conversation with the stranger in the next seat is enough of a need to motivate you to get over to the Apple store on your lunch break.  You need to replace your headphones, right?  I am just as guilty, if not a little more.  But there's something about the fear of peeing your pants, standing outside a locked, empty bathroom that brings the idea of need into crisp focus.

Now, imagine not having eaten for a day or two and sitting right outside Starbucks.  You see people casually reading a paper, nibbling on a seven-dollar pastry, sipping a twelve-dollar cup of chocolate soy foam.  They get up to leave and toss the remaining half of the pastry in the trash; $3.50, right in the garbage.  Imagine you haven't bathed in nine days.  Imagine it was 37 degrees last night and you slept on a metal bus bench with only two windbreakers and a bath towel to serve as blankets and a pillow.  You have no warm water, no internet, no car.  You don't have a cell phone in your pocket and you will not be having that dinner party this Friday night.  Do you think you might have needs?

The Bible talks about caring for the less fortunate.  (Here's an example.)  But this post is not about getting you to run down and serve at the Rescue Mission or buy a lunch for Elmer, the guy living on the bus bench outside your office.  No.  These are good things, but as you're reading this on your phone or at work, it is my hope that you think about what you really need and what you covet.  I'm working through this daily and it is not easy.  While living in America is a great blessing, it can be a black curse to correct thinking.

In a letter Paul wrote to the Philippians, likely from imprisonment, Paul says,
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:10-13, ESV). 
It is my hope and prayer for you and for me, that we might learn, as Paul did, to be content in the highs and lows, plenty and hunger, and in abundance and need.  But please realize that I am not arguing that we should do nothing to meet our actual needs; because if that were true, I would've saved myself the time and trouble and just peed my pants.  Instead, I am encouraging you to think about the difference between need and good old-fashioned American want. . . . There is a difference, really.

* "Toilet" Photo is registered under a creative commons license:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/lonelycamera/ / CC BY 2.0; "Will Work for Food photo is registered under a creative commons license: http://www.flickr.com/photos/twicepix/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

An Interview with Tom Davis

[The following conversation between me and Tom Davis was originally published by Burnside Writer's Collective, on September 29, 2009.]

I met Tom Davis a few years ago at K2 Church in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was there to check out the cool warehouse-church with the beach sandal billboard; Tom was there to tell the church about suffering orphans, young girls entering the sex-trade, and a generation decimated by HIV/Aids. Three minutes into Tom’s story, the billboard became insignificant.

Tom Davis is the author of Red Letters: Living a Faith That Bleeds, Fields of the Fatherless: Discover the Joy of Compassionate Living, Confessions of a Good Christian Guy: The Secrets Men Keep and the Grace that Saves Them, and his latest book is a work of fiction titled, Scared: A Novel on the Edge of the World. He’s the CEO of Children’s HopeChest, encourages us all to drink Saint’s Coffee, and daily lives James 1:27.

Bryan: Tom, you went from a post-modern church planter in Texas to an advocate for orphans all over the world. What sparked the change?

Tom: In the mid-’90s I started making trips to Russian orphanages. The kids I met in those places changed my life forever. These orphans stopped being statistics and became human beings. They were beautiful kids filled with hopes and dreams for their futures but without help, there was no way to fulfill them. Most of them were forced to leave the orphanage at fifteen to sixteen years of age. 15% of those kids would end up committing suicide in two years, 70% of the girls would end up as prostitutes and 80% of the boys would end up on the streets or in jail. Those statistics shot an arrow through my heart. I couldn’t walk away and do nothing.

Bryan: What has been the most rewarding moment of your ministry?

Tom: Only one?! I met this little girl named Valya in Russia. She had a terrible story about being severely abused by her father who was later killed. Her mother was an alcoholic and blamed her for her father’s death. She was so upset with her she beat her incessantly until one day she couldn’t stand to look at her anymore and dropped her off at an orphanage. Valya never heard from her mother again.

This little girl was so amazing. Talent and beauty radiated from her life. Her dream was to enter college and play the flute. This was impossible because she could never afford it. We were able to buy her a flute, help her with her education, and take her to St. Petersburg to see the symphony and a ballet!

Bryan: What do you find most challenging about your ministry for orphans?

Tom: The need is always greater than our ability to meet it. We go into villages in Uganda and people are eating cow dung and boiling grass to survive. That kind of desperation is overwhelming. With the help of our partners, we meet those needs only to find out there are fifty villages within a few hundred miles just like it. We keep going, by God’s grace, helping as many as we can.

Bryan: It has been said that America is becoming more homogenized, often influenced by our media and entertainment outlets rather than the circumstances of our neighbors. If you think this might be true, what does it mean for orphans around the world? Has this hurt or helped? (What are the effects of say, Bono’s One Campaign or the movie, “Orphan”—no matter how bizarre the twisted ending might be?)

Tom: I hate making blanket statements, so forgive me in advance. Media has numbed most of us into thinking that people starving in Africa and girls in the sex-trade industry are just stories made up in Hollywood. The sensory overload causes people to shut down because they hear it all the time and many people think others are handling the issues.

Every single Christ-follower, has a biblical obligation to get involved in helping the poor. There are over two thousand versus in the Bible talking about poverty and many are commands for us to help those in need.

Bryan: Where do your see your ministry for the orphans in five years? Ten? Twenty?

Tom: I’ll do this the rest of my life. The goal I’ve set for myself and Children’s HopeChest is to care for one million orphans over the next thirty years. There are over one hundred and fifty million orphans in the world and trying to reach them is a daunting task. But if we can reach a million, a generation, then that generation will reach themselves. One million will reach one hundred and fifty million.

Bryan: When given the opportunity, what do you tell the churches you visit?

Tom: I tell them about how passionate God is about them caring for widows and orphans. If “pure and undefiled religion is caring for widows and orphans,” (James 1:27), then every single church on the planet must to be involved in orphan ministry.

Bryan: What lessons do you feel the American Church should learn from your ministry and experiences overseas working with orphans?

Tom: Every time I go overseas I fool myself into thinking it’s about me helping them. Although that’s true, I end up receiving way more from them then I’m able to give. Being with the poor is one of the greatest activities on earth. As Mother Theresa said, “When I’m with the poor, I’m with Jesus.”

Bryan: In what ways can someone get involved, from the lowest level to the highest?

Tom: Contact me at tdavis@hopechest.org or check out the Children’s HopeChest webpage at www.hopechest.org. We’re all about involvement. We’ll take you overseas, get you connected with orphans and entire orphan villages. We’ll even show you how you can help a child for the rest of their life, for less than you spend on coffee each month. You can even buy coffee that fights poverty at www.saintscoffee.com. For every pound you buy, you feed an orphan for a month.

Bryan: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Tom: Helping the poor, the widow, or the orphan changes your life forever. There isn’t a better way to connect with the heart of God. In Matthew 25 Jesus talked about how significant these acts are in the kingdom of heaven. God turns to the righteous in eternity and says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was naked and you clothed me, sick and you came to me, in prison and you visited me.” Those are the words I want to hear.

Twitter users, follow Tom Davis @cthomasdavis.

*I have no material connection to the books mentioned in this interview. 

An Analysis of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—whose members are commonly called Mormons—is one of, if not the fastest growing religion in the world.[1]  In 2007, the LDS church claimed nearly 13 million members.[2]  Mormons are gaining a mainstream foothold in common culture, having active members in all levels of politics, entertainment, authorship, and academia.  Therefore, this post will attempt to examine the LDS religion; first offering a brief overview of the religion and its early history, then an analysis, followed by one approach for Christians to share their beliefs with Mormons.  This author resides in Salt Lake City, Utah—the headquarters of the LDS church—so in addition to the sources provided here, some insight will come from personal observation.

A Brief Overview of the Mormon Religion
A Religion is Born: Its Early History.  Generally, the accounts of the early beginnings of the Mormon church start in 1820 with a fourteen-year-old boy struggling to decide which Christian denomination to join, mainly of the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists.[3]  After reading James 1:5, Smith heads into a grove of trees and prays about these religions.[4]  Both God the Father and Jesus both appear together and in bodily form.  As James Walker explains,
Smith later reported that Christ warned him to join none of the churches because they were all wrong, their creeds were an abomination in God’s sight, and those who profess these religions are all corrupt. Smith said that he later discovered that there had been a “total apostasy” shortly after the death of the original apostles in the first century. Thus, there had been no true Christianity on the earth for 1,700 years. No church had the true authority to act for God or perform essential, sacred ordinances. Rather than joining any of these apostate churches, Joseph Smith believed that he must restore true Christianity to the earth.[5]
However, Fawn Brodie argues that court records and newspaper accounts suggest that Smith was already gravitating to the “revival hysteria and channeled into a life of mysticism and exhortation.”[6]  She further reminds her readers of the vast amounts of biographical data on Smith and the early birth of the LDS Church, “for Joseph Smith dared to found a new religion in the age of printing.”[7]
            On September 21, 1823, after years of “suffering severe persecution” for his vision, Smith received another vision from an angel named Moroni.  Moroni showed Smith where to dig up the golden plates that contained the stories of two nations of people in the Americas and Jesus’ appearing to them.[8]  Smith translated these plates into what is known as The Book of Mormon.  Smith’s revelations as the Prophet for the church were written down, as were the revelations of subsequent Prophet-heads of the church, into a document called the Doctrine and Covenants, with the most recent addition on September 30, 1978.[9]  The Pearl of Great Price and the King James Version of the Bible make up their cannon.  (Concerning the Bible, the eighth Article of faith states that the Bible is acceptable “as far as it is translated correctly.”[10])  The cannon remains open for the addition of further revelation.  The LDS Church is headed by a Prophet, a council of apostles (two advisers and the Prophet make up the “First Presidency,” and 12 elder men for the “Quorum of the Twelve”), and the “Quorum of the Seventy” (all elder men).  This group of leaders oversee local leaders of various jurisdictions down to the local level called the ward.  The ward is lead by a Bishop.  Mormons believe this is the exact structure originally installed by Jesus when he was on the earth.
            Basic Doctrines and Tenants.[11]  While many volumes are available on Mormon Doctrine—produced by both Mormons and non-Mormons—this post will not even scratch the surface.  In the simplest of overviews, Mormons do not hold to a Trinitarian view of God, but instead believe that God was once a man, just as we are today, who worked to become a god and then had many spirit children with “Heavenly Mother.”  Jesus and Lucifer (who later became Satan) were among these spirit children.  Both Jesus and Lucifer suggested a plan of salvation to the Father, who selected Jesus’ plan.  Lucifer rebelled and was cast out of heaven along with 1/3 of the other spirit children who supported his rebellion.  Incidentally, the spirit children are synonymous with angels and demons. 

            There are three levels of heaven, with the third level containing an additional three levels.  The best of these levels allows those accepted to become gods and repeat the entire process on another world of their creation.  However, in order to enter any heavenly level, a spirit child must first come to earth to obtain a physical body and work through various ordinances, including entering one of more than 120 Mormon temples to perform baptisms for the dead, be sealed to a spouse and family for all time and eternity, and receive the right to wear special undergarments.  In order to enter the temple, Mormons must be “worthy, which includes among other practices, abstaining from coffee, tea, tobacco, and sex prior to marriage.  Mormons must also give a “full tithe” or 10% of their total gross income.”[12]  The temple is closed to all but fully practicing, “temple worthy” members.  Mormons hold that salvation comes through grace, only “after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23).  They practice sacrementalism and subsequently, sacerdotalism.  In addition, the LDS church has many other minor doctrines, including the more infamous that deal with matters of polygamy and the priesthood (which will be addressed in the next section of this post).  

Analysis of the Mormon Religion
            A Shaky Foundation: Inconsistency of Doctrine.  To an outside observer, it would seem that an open cannon has allowed for convenient changes to doctrines and practices.  For example, Brodie chronicles many incidents of Smith’s behavior with other women prior to his 1831 ‘revelation’ authorizing the practice of polygamy, recorded in Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1843.[13]  It might also appear that this revelation helped solved the problem of remarriage after the death of a wife to which a man was already married and sealed.  Ironically, Parley Pratt, a close friend to Smith, just so happened to be dealing with this problem.  Through revelation, polygamy was allowed and practiced in the Mormon church.  However, in 1890, facing political pressure, the inability for Utah to obtain statehood, and even the possibility of criminal charges, the Prophet Wilford Woodruff received a timely revelation’ that the practice was to stop.[14]  In a similar situation, facing political pressure, Spencer Kimball received a revelation allowing Blacks to receive the priesthood, thus, giving them the ability to enter the temple to perform temple ordinances to potentially become gods, something they were prohibited from obtaining prior to September 30, 1978[15].  Before 1978, it was thought that colored skin was the mark of unrepentant sin.  In hindsight, one outside the LDS Church might suggest this ‘revelation’ would not have come had it not been for the Civil Rights Acts.

            But the open cannon is not the only mechanism allowing for shifting doctrine.  A Prophet might teach a doctrine that a subsequent Prophet can reverse or allow to fall out of practice.  The “Adam-God Doctrine” is one such example.  Walker states, “Young [the Prophet at the time] preached from the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City that the first man, Adam, ‘is our father and god the only god with whom we have to do’ (Journal of Discourses, vol. I, p. 50).”[16]  Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner also provide a number of photographed journal entries, articles, and printed statements by Young that demonstrate many other instances when Young taught this doctrine.[17]  However, “this doctrine was quickly repudiated by the LDS church after Young’s death.”[18]

And in addition to subsequent Prophets changing doctrine, the Book of Mormon has been changed 3,913 times as documented by Tanner and Tanner.[19]  This should cause one to ask, If Joseph was given the tools to correctly translate the golden plates (the autograph), why the need for the changes?  Could it be that English words have already shifted in their meaning?  Maybe.  However, this cannot account for many of the documented changes.  For example, early printings of 2 Nephi 30:6 indicate that if a dark skinned person were to repent, he would be turned “white and delightsome,” but later printings state “pure and delightsome.”[20]

            The Name Game: Christians who Reject Christian Doctrine?  This author has noticed in recent years, a tremendous effort by members of the LDS church to identify themselves as “Christians.”  Stephen Robinson provides Mormons with a ready-made argument to the question, “Are Mormons Christian?” on the LDS website; “Why would anyone say otherwise” writes Robinson.[21]  And there seems to be a strong desire to connect with Evangelical Christians in the voting booth.  Even the LDS Church logo was changed before the 2002 Winter Olympics, making the name of Jesus Christ much larger.  When challenged, Mormons will resort to saying, “What’s the name of our church?  See if it’s in our name, then we are Christian.”  First, the name might be the same but it is not the same Jesus.  To this, Walker writes,
Evangelicals should be aware, however, that the LDS have a “different gospel” and a different Jesus than theirs (2 Corinthians 11:3-4). In 1998, the Mormon prophet Gordon B. Hinckley confessed that he believed in a different Jesus than the “traditional Christ” worshiped by those outside of the LDS Church.[22]
Second, one should ask, Why do Mormons want to be included under the Christian umbrella when their doctrine states that there was a great apostasy and no true Christianity in the world, that no churches were right when Smith was seeking one?  Or could it be that the Mormons simply want to redefine the term, “Christianity” and then claim it exclusively as their own?

How Should Christians Share Their Beliefs With Mormons?
            In his book, I Love Mormons, Dr. Rowe, a former professor at Salt Lake Theological Seminary writes, “My prayer, my dream, is that you, the reader, would come to understand Latter-day Saints and their culture and wed this understanding to a profound love and respect for them that they will sense as you relate to them.  This is how bridges for the biblical gospel will be built into their world, their lives, and even their worldwide church.”[23]  The key idea, as it might be in all apologetics and evangelism, is to build a bridge.  Historically, Mormons have suffered persecution and they tend to be somewhat sensitive about any criticism of their faith.  Therefore, going on the offensive, or even pointing out flaws in their religion might cause them to raise their guard.  (Admittedly, this post will likely produce this result.)  But in every case this author is aware of, people who left Mormonism did so after a season of questioning their own religion.  Being a safe source for answers is possibly the best way to build the bridge Dr. Rowe mentions.

            However, if one desires to approach an active Mormon in an effort to present the gospel, there are some basic tips of which to be mindful.  First, do not dance around the idea that there are some serious differences between Mormon and Christian doctrine.  These differences are real; address them honestly and respectfully.  Second, Mormons are strong supporters of a “personal testimony” so present the gospel from your personal perspective, using a positive approach rather than trying to "chip away" at their beliefs.  Present a positive example of God’s love and grace.  Of course, use Scripture, but remember that the Mormon can always fall back on his or her belief that the Bible is not correctly translated.  Often, a “correct” translation of a passage cannot be provided because this is simply a defense against biblical truth.  Understand that Mormonism is an all-encompassing lifestyle, so a person, if he or she were to convert to Christianity, is not just leaving a religion, but an entire culture.  Try to avoid bashing on that culture.  If you do feel the need to point the Mormon to specific Mormon material, use material he or she might be (or should be familiar with as a typical Mormon) instead of some obscure quote from fifty or one-hundred years ago.  (I admit that I have resorted to a long forgotten doctrine when discussing shifting doctrine; however, it was by choice that I did not use a present doctrine as an example.)  Often, the best source for LDS material is the Doctrine and Covenants; but again, only if you feel you absolutely must.  This will do far more to start the season of questioning than quoting an unknown sermon by say, Brigham Young. (It is easy to fall back on historical quotes, even has this post has done, but this is not often the most effective way to discuss the differences in Mormonism and Christianity when chatting with a member of the LDS faith.)  Try to ask many questions but do not demand an answer on the spot; allow the questions to work in the person’s mind so the Holy Spirit might drive the answers deep into the Mormon’s heart.  And above all, pray continually for the Mormon.  Pray.      

Brodie, Fawn McKay. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Baker reference library. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2001.
Hindson, Edward E., and Ergun Mehmet Caner. The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics. Eugene, Or: Harvest House Publishers, 2008.
Rowe, David L. I Love Mormons: A New Way to Share Christ with Latter-Day Saints. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2005.
Smith, Joseph. The Pearl of Great Price. Extracts from the History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet. History of the Church, Vol. 1, Chapters 1-5. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter –day Saints, 1981.
Tanner, Jerald and Sandra Tanner. Mormonsim: Shadow or Reality?. Utah Lighthouse Ministry, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1987.

     [1] Walter Elwell. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker reference library, Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2001), 792.
     [2] Edward E. Hindson and Ergun Mehmet Caner, The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Eugene, Or: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), 360.
     [3] Joseph Smith, The Peal of Great Price, Extracts from the History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, History of the Church, Vol. 1, Chapters 1-5 (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter –day Saints, 1981), 47, 1:5.
     [4] Smith, 48, 1:11-15.
     [5] Hindson, 358.
     [6] Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 16.
     [7] Brodie, vii.
     [8] Smith, 51-55, 1:27-55.
     [9] Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter –day Saints, 1981) 294, Declaration 2.
     [10] Smith, 60, The Articles of Faith 8.
     [11] This entire section comes from both personal observation and Hindson, 360-361.
     [12] Hindson, 360-361.
     [13] Brodie, 297-308, 334-347.  The Doctrine and Covenants introduction to Section 132 seems to suggest that Brodie may be correct, including, “Although the revelation was recorded in 1843, it is evident from the historical records that the doctrines and principles involved in this revelation had been known by the Prophet since 1831” 266.
     [14] Declaration 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants, added on October 6, 1890, records Woodruff’s statements on this matter.
     [15] Declaration 2 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
     [16] Hindson, 359.
     [17] Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner, Mormonsim: Shadow or Reality? 5th ed. (Utah Lighthouse Ministry, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1987), 174-178D
     [18] Hindson, 359.
     [19] Tanner, 89.
     [20] Hindson, 360.
     [21] Stephen E. Robinson, “Are Mormons Christians?” LDS.org, http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=024644f8f206c010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=e0710e2cbc3fb010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____&hideNav=1 [Accessed December 6, 2009].
     [22] Hindson, 362.
     [23] David L. Rowe, I Love Mormons: A New Way to Share Christ with Latter-Day Saints (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2005), 9. 

*This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.  I have no material connection to the books recommended in this post. 
** Photo of Statue is registered under a Creative Commons License:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/ilmungo/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Photo of  Street Preacher is registered under a Creative Commons License:http://www.flickr.com/photos/dianaschnuth/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

James 1:27

James 1:27.  Preached by Bryan Catherman. 

It's generally understood that James the Just authored the book called James, found in the New Testament of our Bibles.  James was the half-brother of Jesus (Matt 13:55), and, as is seen in Acts 15, is the leader of the church in Jerusalem.  From his book, we can see that James was all about walking the walk.  He believed that living out our faith means that we should be doers, not just hearers, and especially not just big talkers.  It's important to realize that James is not saying that salvation comes from doing, but that doing is a way in which the believer develops and grows.  It's an outward sign of our inward believe.

At a time when my ministry to aid and pray with the homeless in Salt Lake City was really picking up, I was given an assignment to preach on James 1:27.  (The passage truly starts with verse 26, but the assignment only called for 1:27.)  If social justice is your thing, this text is your battle cry.
(26) If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless.  (27) Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. [James 1:26-27, ESV]
Part 1:
(To meet YouTube time restrictions, the prayers were cut from these videos.)

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

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