Friday, November 23, 2012

The Bible is the Best Commentary on Itself

During several public and private discussions lately over “literal Biblical womanhood,” I realized anew how the issue of understanding Scripture continues to plague the church. A decade ago, an assistant pastor at my old church told me the greatest piece of wisdom I have ever received on understanding Scripture—the Bible is the best commentary on itself. Since then, when I have read a New Testament verse that has the little footnote that links it to an Old Testament verse, I stop and flip to the Old Testament verse. This is Scripture telling me something about itself, linking important concepts in itself, and EXPLAINING ITSELF. My experience personally is that if you stop reading other books on interpreting the Bible and stop listening to other teachers on interpreting the Bible, and then listen for a bit to the BIBLE interpreting the Bible, a lot clears up.

Here is what the Bible has taught me about itself.

At times, God wrote out His revelation of Himself to us in the form of stories. Sometimes, He used clear commands and instructions. Within even those clear commands and instructions, God gave universal truths for all cultures and all times along with instructions that played a specific role for a finite period of time. The question then is how does Scripture reveal what parts were for a particular time and what parts transcend time or culture?

Most believers agree that not all parts of Scripture should be literally followed today, as evidenced by the fact that no modern Christian group offers animal sacrifices. However, beyond animal sacrifices, there are divergent perspectives within the larger evangelical movement on how we know what is required for today, especially in terms of application to women. The most important insight the Bible gives us for understanding itself is that Jesus' life and death fulfilled the Old Testament Law. Jesus says clearly in Luke 24 that all of the Law and Prophets pointed to Him. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus also teaches something specifically about the Old Testament Law, which says some very odd things to women that we may be tempted to write off simply due to their weirdness. He says, 
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
He states this previous to His death and reinforces an impossible standard, that we need to keep the Law better than the Pharisees. After His death, Paul teaches that Jesus alone was the only one who could keep the Law as God intended, and His death marked the great exchange where our sins were contributed to Christ's account and His righteousness was attributed to ours.
2 Corinthians 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
We are now counted as having kept the Law as Jesus did! Paul says in Romans 10:4 that Christ is the end point of the Law for all who believe in Him.

The Law served several purposes. First, it served to show civilization what God values. We value the dignity of human life, care of the poor, fidelity in marriage, fairness in business dealings, rest, and worship because God first showed us through the Law that He cared about such things. Second, the Law showed from multiple different angles both our need for a Savior and what He would look like when He comes.

Some Christian groups distinguish between categories of the Law such as ceremonial, sacrificial, and moral law. But the Bible does not make such distinctions, and I find those distinctions confusing rather than helpful. There are many wrong ways to think about Old Testament laws. They should not be written off, ignored, or abolished. Instead, Jesus fulfilled them. He brought them to completion, and their purpose is concluded. The entire books of Galatians and Hebrews are spent exploring this point.
Galatians 3 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian,
The author of Hebrews, quoting Jeremiah, says that the Law is now written on our hearts (Hebrews 10:16). What God did externally through His Law, He now does internally through the Holy Spirit. 

Not only did Jesus fulfill the Law, He boiled it all down for us so that we could continue living in the essence of what the Law was meant to convey to us about God's character and His desires for His children. Jesus summed this up with the Golden Rule and Greatest Command.
Matthew 7 12“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.  
Matthew 22 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
After studying portions of the Old Testament Law over the years, I have a new appreciation for God's purposes and protections to His children by way of them. There was no government but God at the time. His instructions through the law encompassed much more than simple morality as we perceive it today. There was no FDA or OSHA. God gave this law at the dawn of civilization, and at that point, civilization was not very civilized. What kind of instructions were needed for people dealing with the most basic of dietary and sanitary needs? For instance, it makes sense that God would instruct His people in Leviticus 11 not to eat bottom dwelling shellfish, the scavengers of the ocean. Even today, despite modern refrigeration and testing for bacteria, people often get sick from eating them. How much greater the risk for God's children who had no refrigeration and no ability to test for bacteria.

That instruction is a fairly easy one to understand. There are others that are not. Some instructions simply seem odd. Others seem downright brutal. We do not know God's exact reason for each, but understanding that God was giving basic instructions at the dawn of civilization to people with no government, police, or medical help gives insight into their general purpose.

Not only is the Old Testament Law fulfilled in Jesus, there is another helpful principle for understanding Scripture. Bible story is not the same as Bible instruction. Some Scripture passages describe what happened while others prescribe what we are to do. Just because the Bible tells a story does not mean we are to emulate the details of that story.

The book of Judges is helpful in demonstrating the difference. There, God describes ugly things in Israel's history, and He does it without much discussion of whether the things described are good or evil. At the end of this story, He writes, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” The description in Judges serves to show the need of God's children for the true King of Kings who would save them from their depravity.

Combining these principles for reading Scripture together, we start to get a clearer picture of how to receive Scripture on any subject, especially the topic of “Biblical womanhood.” We start in Genesis 1 and 2 where God states in perfection that every woman is an image bearer of God reflecting especially His strong help and advocacy for His children. From there, I recommend studying Ephesians, where Paul lays out our spiritual inheritance via the gospel as the key to once again being the imitators of God (Eph. 5:1) that He created us to be in Genesis 2. In between, the Old Testament Law pointed toward Christ and was fulfilled in Him. Proverbs 31 gives insight, wisdom, and understanding (not law), which is best received under the press of the Holy Spirit who helps us apply it in ways that are actually wise in our own lives as opposed to the conclusions some may espouse when they try to convict us in place of the Spirit. The New Testament reaffirms the summary moral code of the Ten Commandments. Jesus even intensifies it in His Sermon on the Mount. The essence is summed up in the Greatest Command and Golden Rule. Much of the epistles then flesh out what such love looks like in the New Covenant, and we can trust those instructions even as we wrestle with the Holy Spirit to understand and apply them.

The Bible really is the best commentary on itself.

* Adapted from Chapter 8 of The Gospel-Centered Woman.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Equipped by the Gospel for a Habakkuk 3 Kind of Thanksgiving

I wrote last year on A Habakkuk 3 Kind of Thanksgiving.
17 Though the fig tree should not blossom, 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, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD;  I will take joy in the God of my salvation. 19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.
Many dear friends of mine are approaching the holidays in the midst of such a season. Divorce. Estrangement from children. Financial crisis. Physical suffering. Death of precious loved ones. One friend recounted leaving a church service at Thanksgiving because he just couldn't put up with everyone's thankful testimonies when so much was going wrong in his life. Thanksgiving became a catalyst for his crisis of faith. He's emerged from that season, praise God. But I heard him clearly. When you are hurting, American Thanksgiving in conservative Christian culture can be salt on an open wound.

God preserved Habakkuk 3 in His living, active Word to us. Though written in a different time and culture, Habakkuk's words of faith in his barren wasteland are words of faith to us today whatever our circumstances. Instead of wrestling with God over why He has allowed such devastation to take place, Habakkuk takes joy in God. When I think about it in its literal sense, I love the idea of taking joy in God. God is the author of this joy. Habakkuk takes it first from God and then takes it into God. There are all kind of mental pictures this provokes in my head. The main thing I get from this imagery is that such joy exists close to the throne room. It's in God, from God, by God, and to God. It is joy that is accessed in my quiet chair with the Bible in my hand, and joy that is best renewed by returning to that Bible and kneeling beside it in prayer.

Why do such quiet moments with a Bible in prayer make a difference? When Jesus died for us, the veil was torn between us and the Holy of Holies. Now, we have access to God's Throne of Grace. We can boldly and confidently come to Him and receive the grace and mercy we need to face our own barren wastelands. He does not leave us as orphans to navigate this. If you struggle to access this joy, I encourage you to preach the gospel to yourself anew. Here are some meditations on the gospel that may be helpful.

If you are in the barren wasteland asking where God is, He answers you from Habakkuk 3. “I am here, child. I am here in my Word, communicating to you that you are not the first of my children to spend extended time in the wasteland. You are not alone. And as Habakkuk found me in the wasteland, I am here for you too. There is still joy to be had in Me. Take it! Even in the barren wasteland, I give you My strength. I will make you graceful like a deer in this awful season, standing firm in treacherous places.”

Jobs come, and jobs go. Fig trees blossom. Fig trees die. Loved ones grow in faith. Loved ones walk away. But God is transcendent. And we really do, even in the wasteland, have something for which to be very, very thankful. God has not left you as an orphan in this wasteland. He knows where you are at, and He has met you in His Word. Take the joy this day that He freely offers you in Him through His word.

Hebrews 4:16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. 
2 Corinthians 9:8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The War Within over Conflicting Obligations

I have felt torn for a while between two conflicting spiritual obligations. In the last two weeks, this particular conflict has reconciled, and today I am meditating on both the struggle and God's reconciliation of it. Have you ever felt torn between obedience to two conflicting Biblical obligations? What should we do when Scripture gives two sets of instructions that seem to tug us in opposite directions? The answer for me wasn't particularly profound or unusual, yet it was counterintuitive to the way my gut was calling me to act.

My gut wanted me to figure it out. The Christian walk shouldn't be so complicated, I thought. It didn't feel fair that I was in that situation, and I wanted to take the bull by the horns and wrestle this problem to the ground. But such bulls don't wrestle to the ground easily, and my attempts in the past to take such bulls by the horns usually just ended up creating new bulls, bigger than the old ones.

Also, I have long since learned it's not helpful to ask others for advice. Actually, that's not completely fair. I do have several friends who give me the most needed peer pressure – to endure for the long haul without giving up hope for someone. But more often, when I share such a burden, people just want to fix it, and they pressure me to fix it too. They pressure me toward the obligation THEY think is more important, often not recognizing that BOTH obligations are important. I find that type of pressure about as palpable as fingernails on a chalkboard. Actually, I prefer the fingernails.

I find conflicts between mutually important spiritual obligations to be very frustrating. But I have learned (the hard way) the importance of taking these type of frustrations straight to God in prayer. So I prayed. “God, Your Word instructs me to do THIS. And Your Word instructs me to do THAT. But THIS conflicts with THAT, and I can't figure out for the life of me how to obey both. So what do you want me to do?!” And then I waited. Then I prayed it again. Then I waited. Then I prayed it again. Then I waited … 

You get the picture. Thinking about it didn't help. I'd try to forget for a while, but the unresolved conflict kept popping back up in my mind. However, true to His word, God ministered a weird peace to me. I call it weird, because as the verse says, it defies our ability to understand it.
Phil. 4:6-7  Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
His peace guarded my heart and kept me from foolish choices. Foolish choices are those choices I make in an attempt to work things out myself because waiting seems too hard. As God guarded my heart, He whispered in my head reminders that He was sovereign and this was His responsibility to resolve, not mine. He is God. I am not.

After some amount of time, I realized there were no bulls to take by the horns and wrestle to the ground anymore. They just evaporated. I looked up one day and realized that while I had been bracing for months against this perceived problem, it had at some point simply dissolved in the mist. God did that, not me. If I had tried to wrestle the problem to the ground and figure it out on my own, there would have been serious casualties. God said wait, and He worked it out in His good time.

My favorite word used to describe our God in Scripture is inscrutable. He's mysterious. He's enigmatic. He can't be figured out. But He is trustworthy and compassionate. And He's sovereign. All those traits come together into this one amazing Person. The older I get, the more I realize that at crazy moments of conflict that I can't figure out on my own, I have an option—to stop, turn to God, and stare in His face, waiting on Him, not me, to move. He welcomes such a stance, and He is trustworthy in those moments. To the praise of His glorious grace.
Romans 11:33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Gospel Centered Woman

I have been working on my latest book since publishing the last one in early 2010. I really like plowing straight through a book of the Bible, and after the Ephesians study, I didn't think I'd do another topical Bible study. Yet, it has become clear that there is a topic in evangelical Christianity that needs to be addressed, and it is a topic for which the clamor is growing. Biblical womanhood!!!

I have a love/hate relationship with this topic. I hate the idea of Biblical womanhood as I've often heard it presented by conservative Christians and as it is then caricatured among those reacting against those branches of conservative Christians. But I love the Bible. And I am a woman. Biblical womanhood is a relevant topic to me. Here's the blurb from the back cover.
The Gospel Centered Woman: Understanding Biblical Womanhood through the Lens of the Gospel 
Many Christian books written to women claim to present God's good instructions for their lives. Some expound on the value of marriage and children. Many extol the virtues of the Proverbs 31 woman. A good number teach the value of love, submission, and respect in Christian marriages. Though this book deals with these topics, The Gospel-Centered Woman addresses women from an entirely different perspective. The most important part of the Bible's instructions to women center around the gospel. Jesus' life, death, and resurrection brought about a seismic shift in our understanding of Scripture. After His resurrection, His disciples understood words written thousands of years with a clarity they never had before. The good news of Christ illuminates all other Scripture, including instructions to women. 
You are invited in this book to explore what God created women to be as image bearers of Himself and how Christ has made a way for us to embrace anew our legacy as daughters of God.
Things have come together the last two months, and I can say that this book will now be published in the New Year. The plan is to make it available in time for winter Bible studies starting in January. It is not a long book. I don't like reading long books, and I like writing them even less. This book is eleven chapters in a workbook format similar to By His Wounds You are Healed. I like to interact with books I read and therefore want people to be able to do it easily with those I write.

This topic is in the forefront of the minds of Christians and non-Christians alike right now. Yet, my book was not written as a reaction against A Year of Biblical Womanhood though, for some reason, the timing coincides. I've been burdened for this topic for years. And not because of things I have read on blogs. This is about and for my friends and sisters in Christ who have exposed me to the real issues in their hearts and the inadequate ways we historically have addressed them in the church.

Thank you, readers, for your many private and public encouragements to me on this project. God has used you to impress on me the importance of this topic.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Post-Election Ruminations

When you mix religion and politics, you just get politics. Ed Stetzer
The discussion in late October on literal Biblical womanhood led me to study anew how the Bible presents its instructions. What is wisdom? What is law? What law was fulfilled in Christ and is no longer to constrain us today? What commands does God give us that transcend culture or time?

The Bible clearly presents that Old Testament Law was fulfilled in Christ. Jesus could have remained on earth an earthly King, which is what His followers wanted at the time, but Jesus changed much in terms of theocracy when He declared the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, not the Kingdom of Earth. In the Gospels, even as Jesus declares the Law fulfilled, He still instructs us in God's ultimate purposes in the Law. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes through the moral code of the Ten Commandments. Instead of minimizing them, He actually intensifies them.
Matthew 5 21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. … 
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Jesus eventually boils it all down in Matthew 22 by reiterating what God first said in Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19.
Matthew 22:36-40 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
When this story is recounted in Luke, Jesus gives the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate what He meant by loving your neighbor. We understand that our neighbor really is simply whomever needs our help, even grown men we don't know. Finally, in Matthew 25, Jesus speaks in very practical terms.
Matthew 25:31-46 31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
I agree with Ed Stetzer that when you mix religion and politics, you tend to only get politics. So I waited until after the election to put forth some principles that transcend politics but nevertheless have potential application to them. I live in a very diverse and liberal city, and most of my friends voted democratic though I did not this election. Many of my CHRISTIAN friends voted democratic. It would benefit us all for a moment to give the benefit of the doubt (that long lost aspect of Biblical love that Paul clearly establishes in I Corinthians 13) and actually listen for a moment to those who vote differently than us.

Among my Christian friends who voted democratic, they have a pro-life commitment, but that commitment extends past the single issue of abortion. (By the way, did you know there is a pro-life, anti-abortion caucus in the Democratic Party?) Pro-life commitment for them includes caring for life well after birth, providing basic health care, food, and education to children in particular. It includes concern for the life of those in other countries as well, including the lives of children considered collateral damage in a war whose need now seems murky. These friends have a strong sense of mutual responsibility to people who are less fortunate, and they see government as one of the avenues for this mutual responsibility. Mutual responsibility for the poor and sick is firmly a Christian value. God is definitely the first one to propose this value, and He instituted a government which was supposed to do this very thing. Of course, we are no longer under the theocratic government which God set up in the Old Testament. Our US government is set up under very different principles. But if we were obeying OT principles of debt, every 7 years every person's debt would be forgiven them. God instituted practices (that Israel doesn't seem to have ever obeyed) that would have repeatedly reset the playing field (Leviticus 25). It's interesting to think of how His desire to level debt should impact our principles today.

As Jesus first declared in Matthew 3, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. In God's kingdom, His children provide for the poor, the immigrant, the sick, and the prisoner. Whether we do it by way of government or not is worthy of debate, but the need to provide for the marginalized is not.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Value of Quiet Husbands

I have sometimes felt on the outside looking in when I read Christian books or listen to sermon series on marriage. They often talk of godly masculine leadership with imagery that leaves me thinking that all godly husbands will be out front publicly leading their family. Of course, these sermons are usually given by men who are comfortable standing in front of hundreds or thousands of people at a time. No wonder most of their illustrations reflect men out front in public settings.

Frankly, many more people know me in the larger Body of Christ than know my husband. I am sensitive at times – people are going to think that I “wear the pants in the family,” that I set the agenda in our family, that my husband is marginalized in a corner of our home while I pull the strings. No one who knows us personally thinks that, but I did hear once that a church staff member gossiped that we had moved on to a different church because my husband “lost control” of his wife. That seriously ticked me off. First, it was blatantly untrue in terms of the circumstances that caused us to move on. But second, who uses that kind of terminology?! The idea of Biblical submission is starkly different than control. Does anyone in the conservative church actually advocate that husbands “control” their wives? Ugh. I certainly hope not. Nevertheless, there seems to be a large segment of the Christian population that has little understanding of the value of quiet men in the Christian home, and I am grieved over the pressure they put on homes consisting of extrovert wives and introvert husbands.

There's a new book that I appreciate called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.
At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking, reading to partying; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over brainstorming in teams. Although they are often labeled "quiet," it is to introverts that we owe many of the great contributions to society--from van Gogh’s sunflowers to the invention of the personal computer. 
Passionately argued, impressively researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet shows how dramatically we undervalue introverts, and how much we lose in doing so. Taking the reader on a journey from Dale Carnegie’s birthplace to Harvard Business School, from a Tony Robbins seminar to an evangelical megachurch, Susan Cain charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal in the twentieth century and explores its far-reaching effects. She talks to Asian-American students who feel alienated from the brash, backslapping atmosphere of American schools. She questions the dominant values of American business culture, where forced collaboration can stand in the way of innovation, and where the leadership potential of introverts is often overlooked. And she draws on cutting-edge research in psychology and neuroscience to reveal the surprising differences between extroverts and introverts....”
It is nice to see a larger movement afoot toward valuing the quiet person. But no one has ever had to talk me into valuing my husband. My dad was a man who did not say much, but what he did say was worth hearing. I recognized that quality in my husband very early on in our relationship. As someone who does say a lot, his ability to sit back, observe, and boil down a boat load of wisdom in one sentence attracted me even before our first date. I have only become increasingly in awe of his discernment as we have grown older together. In all avenues of life, he is a quiet man of influence. He also respects me and values my opinion. Because I well respect him, his respect of me means that much more to me.

It's too bad that the larger evangelical movement seems to value loud, upfront leadership as a more masculine trait. I'm concerned that the result is that strong women who want a godly husband may not recognize the power and wisdom of the quiet guy observing the group from the sidelines. We mistakenly think he is not a player, not recognizing the God-given qualities that make him, not a player, but the more dignified role of a coach or referee. In a world of noise and a church of noise, it is good to value quiet men (and women) who observe well before they speak, and speak few words when they are ready to contribute. The church is wise to listen to their input.
Proverbs 10:19 When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.