A blog about everything about teaching the Bible. "And still I will show you a more excellent way..." (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Is Cremation Right?

I was recently asked if it’s right for Christians to elect to be cremated after their bodies die. The questioner mentioned a couple of possibilities brought up in a discussion: “Some say since the soul has left the body, what's left is of no Biblical concern and can be cremated. Another opinion is that, because all the deaths we read about in the Bible discuss being buried, we are adding-to if we decide to be cremated.” By “adding-to,” the commenter meant “not sticking to what’s authorized by the Scriptures.” This is an excellent question. 

Let’s think practically. A buried body decays. If left entombed long enough it will crumble to dust. “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Eccles.12:7). Can God raise the dead from mere dust? Considering it’s what he used to make Adam in the beginning, we can safely trust him to do so on resurrection day. Burning a body simply speeds up the process. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” If burial is what really matters, couldn’t we cremate a body then bury the ashes? If not, why not? We know it cannot be that a body must be more or less intact when Jesus comes back, because I assure you, there is likely nothing left of Abraham’s body but dust, and the bodies of the saints who lived before him have surely crumbled away by now. Is it the tomb itself that matters? If so, what about those lost at sea? Over time their bodies are dissolved into the waters and dissipated, yet the Bible says “the sea gave up the dead who were in it” (Revelation 20:13). Ashes scattered in the wind are no different than bodies dissolved into the sea. God can raise them both on Judgment Day. The condition of a corpse cannot thwart God’s power to raise the dead. All the dead will be raised (1Cor.15:52), those buried, lost at sea, devoured by wild animals, and those whose bodies were burned.

We see cremation poses no problem for God’s power to raise the dead, but we still need to know if it’s morally right. There’s no doubt traditional burial is normal in the Bible, even commanded in one case (Deut. 21:22-23). We also read of cases in which burning a body was seen as dishonorable (Josh.7:15, 25; 2Kings 23:20). However, Paul recognized someone may “deliver up [his] body to be burned” as an act of love (i.e. being persecuted to a fiery death for one’s faith), and it be a means of spiritual gain, so we must conclude it isn’t inherently sinful for one’s body to be burned. Among Bible believers there’s a tendency to associate cremation with heathen practices, or to shy away from it, because it makes us think about hell, but there’s no command against cremation in Scripture. The bottom line is it’s been left to spiritual liberty. Each believer must decide for himself. For me, I prefer Jesus comes first, but if he delays until my death, and if I have any say in it, it will be traditional burial for me, but if you opt for cremation you haven’t sinned. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Terms of God's Love

God has revealed a lot about himself in the way he talks about the church. The apostle John wrote, “God is love” (1John 4:8). Those are beautiful words, and the truth they represent is both wonderful and comforting. Love is more than just an abstract concept or feeling, though. It’s a state of mind and being, and a force for good that manifests itself in tangible ways. Probably the most obvious of love’s many tangible manifestations is relationships. We’ve given those relationships names that describe the type or degree of love involved. It’s heartwarming to consider the relationship names God uses when he speaks of his church. These terms of God’s love reveal not only a lot about himself, but about us.

God calls the church his family. God calls us his children and rejoices to be our heavenly Father. God made us all, but there are a lot of rebellious and illegitimate children. To be accepted as part of God’s legitimate family is the greatest privilege I can think of! (See 1Timothy 3:15; Ephesians 3:15)

God calls the church his Son’s bride. We might say the church is God’s bride considering Jesus is God, the Son. If we speak of this from the standpoint of the Father, then we might say she’s his daughter. (See Ephesians 5:25-32; Revelation 21:2)

God calls the church his son. It is the “body of Christ,” the “fullness” of his Son (Ephesians 1:22-23). The church is “spiritual Israel,” which God called his “son” (Hosea 11:1). Jesus is God’s “one of a kind son” (John 3:16), and we in the church are all his sons through faith. (See Romans 8:14-15)

How great it is to be thought of so highly by God! Though some may not esteem the church so highly, God says “my family,” “my daughter,” “my sons,” “my bride.” Those are terms we can all understand. Family, that’s acceptance and support. Daughters and sons, that’s legitimacy, provision, protection, inheritance. Bride, that’s intimate love and oneness. So, what do you think about these terms of God’s love? What do they make you think of the church? What do they make you think about God?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Can You Love Jesus and Hate His Church (Pt.2)

I promised more after the earlier post this week by Matt Wilber (fellow minister at Highland) and me. I’m working at home for now today and so these thoughts (including any of their insufficiencies) are mine alone. I have three things I consider especially pressing to write in further response to Bethke’s poetry. 
First, following an interview in which the young poet was asked for clarification regarding the heart behind the now well-known poem (which you can read here), I feel the need to say something about the importance of our words. Bethke says his definition of “religion” is the one commonly used in the Mars Hill Church (a large contemporary mega-church) he attends. “Organized religion” has become a byword among some today. Some have simplified their dislike to the word “religion” itself. It seems the Mars Hill folks have adopted that rhetoric, and I would suppose, not having actually asked them, it’s because it appeals to a large number of people who think they want Jesus, but don’t think they want religion. This whole concept is based on misdefining the word and attaching things to it that never belonged there to begin with. True religion is the only purely good thing in this world, and with Christ as its all in all, is the deepest need of every man, woman, and child alive. For a preacher to latch on to the erroneous and disrespectful use of the word by its opponents in pop-culture, and thus to deny being what he actually is (i.e. religious) sounds to me like worldly compromise. The enemies of Jesus’ disciples seem to be the ones who created the label “Christian,” and probably not as a compliment, but Peter wrote, “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1Peter 4:16 ESV). Malign the “religious” if that makes you feel exalted or wise in some way, but I will glorify God as a deeply religious man! Say what you mean and mean what you say. Be careful to define your terms lest you become unwittingly deceptive and divisive as the seemingly well-meaning young poet did. 
Second, at the heart of these criticisms against “organized religion” are age-old claims of hypocrisy: "The church ought to be a hospital for sinners, but we’ve made it a museum for the righteous... We’re focusing on matters of abstract theology and mere ecclesiastical concerns while the man in the pew languishes unaided in various forms of addicting sin... We’ve wed Christianity to politics..." The accusations are nearly endless. While no one can reasonably deny there are hypocrites in the church, my question is where else would they be? If they weren’t in the church they wouldn’t be hypocrites! Faithful church members are seldom any more pleased with the character of hypocrites among us than those outside the church are. That said, no group of people on the planet have started or labored in more benevolent or rehabilitative community service efforts than have religious people, especially Christians. Examine the last two millennia honestly and you’ll realize most of the humane changes that have affected the peace, comfort, stability, and general good-will of society have been the results of the lives and works of Christians. Of course, the work is never done and we need to advance in it. Some of our churches need to wake up and renew engaging the communities around them with the love and mercy of Christ for sure, but it’s unfair, maybe even dishonest to say the church is the problem. Folks leaving the church is a far greater problem. I could respond to all the criticisms, but I don’t want to write about this all day, so this will have to suffice. 

"The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones." So true, so true. The last thing I want to address is the tendency for each generation to exhibit arrogance toward those upon whose shoulders they’re blessed to stand. Bethke's brashness, and the way he explained himself in the interview show me a very well-meaning young man who loves Jesus, but who didn't think things through very well before opening his mouth. I sometimes (all too often, honestly) do the same thing. Young people aren’t always foolish, and certainly don’t have to be (Ecclesiastes 4:13; 1Timothy 4:12). However, it’s still true, “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days” (Job 12:12 ESV). To question our elders as we age, weigh their decisions, practices, and beliefs critically, comparing them to the unchanging standard of God’s word, all the while continuing to respect their fading guidance is wise, wise indeed. To think those of previous generations are out of touch, hopelessly compromised by tradition, and that the new generation has finally figured this old world out is just so naive. In my humble opinion, that's as much what all this Jesus vs. Religion controversy is about as anything! Because they’ve noticed a little ineffectiveness, maybe even hypocrisy in some cases in their parents and grandparents, some young people (and not a few old ones) want to sink the whole ship. Well, its unsinkable (Matthew 16:18), but we sure can knock holes in it if we're so inclined. Let’s respect the good things we’ve inherited and continue to look for holes in the hull we can repair so we can leave things better than we found them for those sweet little critics we’re raising up to believe they know better than we do, and that they’ve finally figured this old world out once and for all. And if we simply must be critics, let's try to be sweet ones! Our religion is never perfect, but Christ's religion is absolutely perfect in every way!
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless” (James 1:26 ESV).

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Can You Love Jesus and Hate His Church? (Pt.1)

A spoken word poem, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” has become popular lately. As we write, the video on YouTube has had 13,564,045 views. There are numerous responses, a great many favorable. The young poet, Jefferson Bethke, is giving voice to opinions prevalent among postmoderns whose worldview is often characterized by mistrust of social institutions including the church. Wilber and I discussed points the poem attempts to make and offer this response. We trust our brethren will know with what spirit we offer it. Anticipating some who share the poet’s views may read this and be tempted to dismiss it without consideration as the voice of organized religion they despise, all we ask for is courtesy and intellectual honesty and to consider what we say with an open mind.

The poet’s website where you can find the complete poem is http://rapgenius.com/Jefferson-bethke-why-i-hate-religion-but-love-jesus-spoken-word-lyrics. The poem begins, “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion…?” Well, we’d listen patiently as you explained yourself, but ultimately respond, “You’ve mis-defined the word religion and so made a gross over-generalization.” The word religion comes from Latin and originally either meant to “read again,” as in to make reverent consideration, or to “bind again,” that is to “re-align.” Augustine emphasized the latter and so the word has carried the concept of truth, law, and ceremony that “binds man back to God” ever since. I can’t find anything in any definition of the word that supports the negative connotations espoused by Bethke in his poem. His negative view of religion doesn’t come from anything in the word or from anything historically accurate, and certainly not from its biblical use, but from the misuse of the word by certain pop-culture figures in recent years. In fact, the relationship with Jesus Bethke talks about favorably in the poem fits the definition of religion! We’ve no doubt the young poet means well, and there are some points in the poem with which we agree, but overall he understands just enough to be dangerous, and this highlights the devastating spiritual results of not knowing the Bible.

 The poem continues to criticize those who politicize Christianity as synonymous with “Republican.” We don’t disagree with Bethke on that, but wish he would have been fair enough to say it isn’t “Democrat” either. He says, “Just because you call some people blind doesn’t automatically give you vision.” We reply, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” Here is a summary of his main criticisms of religion: It’s started wars; builds huge buildings but fails to feed the poor; abuses divorced single moms; in the Old Testament God calls religious people whores; failure to practice what’s preached; just emptily following rules; creates museums for “good people” rather than hospitals for the broken; and so on. He sums up his criticisms by saying, “Now back to the point, one thing is vital to mention, how Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums. see one’s the work of God, but one’s a man made invention. See, one is the cure, but the other’s the infection.” The Bible says, “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.” Sounds like the cure Bethke’s actually looking for if you ask me.

By: Joshua Pappas & Matt Wilber

More later in the week. Feel free to discuss...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What Makes A Good Preacher?

A man asked several of his fellow church members, “What makes a good preacher?” A middle-aged lady replied, “He needs to preach ‘hell-fire and brimstone’ sermons.” An elder said, “He’s got to stick to the fundamentals.” A young M.B.A. interjected, “He needs to be well-educated and deliver meaty messages.” A couple whose parents suffered long-term ailments thought it was more important he get out and visit the members regularly, especially the sick and shut-ins.

I recently enrolled in a Master’s program of study and it got me thinking about this question. What makes a good preacher? Is it his education? His manner of speaking? His “people skills”? Is it how much of a balance he strikes between his various duties? Ultimately it’s God’s view that matters and we have to accept the Bible definition. 

According to 2Timothy 4:2 and 5, the preacher’s job-description is pretty clear: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching... always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (ESV). Right after warning about the danger of being deceived the apostle also wrote, “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed” (1Timothy 4:6 ESV).

The main thing God wants out of a good preacher is faithfulness to him and to preaching the truth. A good preacher must study the Bible diligently and boldly teach it when it’s popular, and when it’s not. He should get out and make visits for a variety of reasons, not because it’s specifically his job, but because it’s a duty that belongs to all Christians, but it is an opportunity for the preacher to set a good example and show his concern for those who listen to him (Titus 2:10).

What about education? Do more degrees make a better man of God? Certainly not! Bro. Marshall Keeble baptized thousands and thousands and never got past the seventh grade! But, it wouldn’t be right to say he wasn’t educated. He just wasn’t formally educated. Formal education is one path to better knowledge, but it’s not the only one. That said, I ask your prayers over my studies. What makes a good preacher? There are lots of answers to that question. Feel free to share your thoughts.