Monthly Archives: February 2010

Why does the Bible seem to teach opposing doctrines?

We all are well aware of the negative effects of tension. It causes headaches,  called tension headaches, because of the sensation of a ‘tight band’ squeezing around the crown of the head. We try to avoid tension in relationships and, generally speaking, in most areas of life. Except of course where tension is necessary, such as a tension bridge. Remove the tension there and disaster will follow. But there is another area in which tension is good and necessary, and that is in the doctrines of the Biblical revelation.

Tension is inherently ‘tense’, and therefore requires our careful attention. Theologically (a convenient way to refer to the study of God), tension is a key element that holds together some of the core Biblical doctrines, while at the same time leaves us scratching our heads in wonder. And for those of us who are Bible teachers, we need to take what we first of all learn as students (a true Bible teacher is a lifelong Bible student), and present it to our listeners in a way that they can digest it.

But this is no small task when dealing with the subject of an infinite God and a finite creation. Why is this so challenging? When two natures, such as God’s and man’s, coexist throughout the written pages of Biblical revelation, you will inevitably face what I call a Biblical dichotomy, the tension between two seemingly incompatible truths. This tension is at the core of major Biblical themes and is absolutely God’s design.

Take for instance God’s sovereignty (Rom 9:15-23; 1 Tim 6:15-16; Rev 4:11) and man’s free will (John 3:14-18; Matt 11:28). We see both in these and many other verses, whether implicitly or explicitly, therefore we must accept both and we had better teach both. How they work together, I do not know. But God does know and we don’t have to understand exactly how they coexist. The fact that they do compels us to be humble before God and responsible for our actions. We accept both truths with all the tension that accompanies them. Hold a preference towards either direction of God’s sovereignty or man’s freewill, and our view will be become imbalanced biblically. The theological bridge will collapse.

Or  how about Christ’s two natures in one person? He was human, having entered our time-space continuum at a certain point in history, (Luke 1:30-31) yet he also existed prior as the eternally divine Son (John 1:1-4; John 17:5). Scripture clearly declares both. This is a great mystery indeed, and has been the subject of debate and the catalyst for many heretical movements. The movements themselves were the result of man’s attempt to remove the tension from one side or the other. So much so that the council at Chalcedon (AD 451) had to address and clarify the church’s position on Christ’s nature and person. And even though the creed that was established at that council continues today to help us talk about Jesus correctly, it does not demystify the incarnation in any way. We are still perplexed in our finite intellect and understanding. Here again, we can only concur with the apostle Paul when he said,

And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness:

God was manifested in the flesh,

Justified in the Spirit,

Seen by angels,

Preached among the Gentiles,

Believed on in the world,

Received up in glory.” (1Tim. 3:16 NKJV)

One final example of this dichotomy is found in the subject of the kingdom of heaven. It is both present spiritually, and yet to come physically (Matt 16:28; Matt 26:29). The kingdom consists of God’s people now, all true believers everywhere in whom Christ dwells and rules as King (Luke 17:20-21; Col 1:27), but a time also will come when he will establish his kingdom on earth, bringing with him in his glory those very same believers (Matt 24:30; 2 Peter 3:13, 1 Thess 4:15-17).

There are many other examples of seemingly incompatible truths, and in such cases we do our best with the help of the Holy Spirit and the reasoning faculties of our God-given minds. But when still we fail intellectually to reconcile two truths, we must steer away from the temptation to downsize one or overrun the other. For doing so will be to forfeit the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), and weaken the tension which God has purposefully given in the Biblical accounts (2 Peter 3:15-18) .

At the end of the day, let’s remember we are finite creatures that have received a revelation of, and from, our infinite creator. Some things just need to be left in a balanced tension. The dichotomy cannot be eliminated so long as we have two perspectives and two natures throughout the revelation of the Scripture, God’s and man’s. Indeed, the author of Hebrews seems to acknowledge the presence of this dual-natured fact when he says,

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12 ESV)

Do you notice there is a dividing that takes place as the Word of God cuts into the whole of our being, distinguishing between the physical and spiritual aspects? Therefore, we must be content to lay aside our intellectual pride and put on humility in the garment of faith. With this I do not mean that some revelation goes against reason and therefore we blindly acknowledge it by faith at the cost of reason, but rather that some things transcend reason. And transcending is a different story altogether.

Paul the apostle was perhaps the most generously inspired biblical writer when it comes to giving us the mysteries of God. He himself said,

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

(1Cor. 13:12 ESV)

If Paul, the messenger of the mysteries, only knew in part, I think we ought to concede that we also only know in part. And until we are in glory, this wont change. Lastly, John the apostle similarly acknowledged his limited knowledge regarding our glorified state when he said,

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1John 3:2 ESV)

In summary, God, who is Spirit, has revealed certain truths to mankind, who is physical. And he has done so the only way we possibly could understand that revelation: through man in human language. Therefore, we need to be careful and resist the temptation of squeezing our theology into a neat system that appeals to our finite intellect alone. We must remember that God and his revelation will by nature transcend our best thinking.

And along these lines, we need to avoid division among the body of Christ over the nonessentials. Countless well-intended men and women have tried to ‘figure it all out’, and consequently been divided over their intellectual conclusions. As a result today, we have many many denominations that take varying positions on certain Biblical doctrines. And worse still, an ever-increasing number of cults. Their very presence is testimony of our inability to package God’s Word in such an airtight system that there is no longer any dispute over any one particular subject. Although this really isn’t the topic of this post, it does help illustration the point I want to make.

Scripture, while its primary message can be aprehended by a child, will always leave the best of scholars standing dumbfounded halfway across the theological ‘tension’ bridge. I don’t know about you, but when I find myself there, rather than trying to take down the bridge, I prefer to stop and enjoy the view.

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Who do you say Jesus was, and why should it matter anyway?

Let’s face it, Jesus was not a peace activist. On the contrary, he brought division and conflict. This was not his intention, but it was inevitable. In Matthew 10:34 he said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

He didn’t mean he came to cause war, though many have fought them mistakenly in the name of Christ. Clearly, Jesus spoke metaphorically in the verse above. The very nature of his person and his PURPOSE in coming, is what would cut and divide, like a sword. His words were often sharp, and they cut to the heart, bringing pain and exposing the deeper issues of life. That is how truth is, is it not? As the saying goes, “The truth hurts.” Sometimes it cuts when we are trying to avoid it. But the truth about Jesus hurts even more, because it cuts in order to confront the problem of mankind, a problem most would rather pretend is not there. That problem is our sin and unwillingness to be accountable to God for our lives. Now, if my mentioning the word ‘sin’ has jolted you, then I rest my case. The truth hurts, and it even cuts.

What you think of Jesus will most definitely cut like a sword. Either it will cut you off from him, or it will cut you off from those who reject him. Make no mistake about it, the sword will cut and divide. The subject of Jesus simply arouses deep emotions in people. Even if you try to avoid the issue, you can’t. There is no ‘neutral’ ground. You either acknowledge who Jesus is and what he has done, or you don’t. To have no opinion at all about Jesus really is still an opinion. In essence it says, “I don’t think Jesus is important enough to warrant my time or energy to investigate.” Perhaps your view says that what one believes in life really doesn’t matter, as long as one is sincere. I’d like to talk about that view in future posts, and most certainly will bring it up. But for now, let’s get back to the words of Jesus.

In Matthew 16:13, Jesus asked a question to his disciples, “Who do people say that I, the son of man, am? To paraphrase, what are people saying about me? Who do they think I am? Do any have it right, that I am the promised messiah?

The disciples’ response in Matthew 16:14 is very interesting and revealing, “John the Baptist; and others say Elijah; but others, one of the prophets.” First, notice how there were various views about Jesus. At that time, much like today, peoples’ opinions were at conflict with one another. And certainly they all could not have been true. On the contrary, according to Jesus (who had every right to correct false ideas pertaining to himself), all three of these particular ‘ideas’ were wrong. How do we know this? Well, the first obvious reason is that his name was not John or Elijah, but Jesus. And we also know that Jesus did not acknowledge the view that he was just another prophet. But the biggest clue comes to us from Jesus, who asked yet one more question in the next verse, Matthew 16:15, “But who do you say that I am?”

Do you notice how Jesus now makes the question very personal to the disciples? It was not enough to let others have opinions while they carried on with indifference. Settling for the fact that people are divided over the person of Jesus never relinquishes anyone from the need to take a position about him. The disciples had to make a decision for themselves. What did they think of Jesus?

Friend, this is the question we all need to answer. You don’t have to agree with my view, or anyone else’s for that matter, but you do have to agree with your own. What I mean here is that you owe it to yourself to at least have a view. One that is based on fact, and has been formed after careful, personal investigation. If what Jesus said and did is true, then he is the messiah and you need to make a decision as to what you will do with that information. If Jesus was a phony, or a loony, then none of it matters and you can just continue with life as before. But certainly, Jesus made some radical claims, into which we must at the very least investigate.

Notice how the apostle Peter answered the question in Matthew 16:16, “You are the Christ.” With this, Jesus rejoiced. He said in Matthew 16:17, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.

Did you notice that Jesus acknowledged Peter’s answer, as accurate? Therefore, Jesus claims to be the Christ, or messiah. In future posts, I’ll be sharing more about the messiahship of Jesus. In the mean time, think about and try to answer the question that Jesus asked. Answer it honestly. In spite of what others might be saying, who do you say Jesus is?

Though Jesus mentions the sword in the opening verse of this post, he also spoke of peace and promised it to his followers. But this peace had nothing to do with world peace from military ceasefires and everything to do with mankind and his creator. It is inherently dependent on one’s view of Jesus, for one must come to him for it.

Times have changed, and so have the tools available for Bible study

Have you ever had to use a concordance to find that Bible verse you wanted to reference? Then, you looked for it but couldn’t find it because your reconstruction of the verse as you recalled it didn’t match the word order or the ‘words’ themselves in the concordance index? Unless you are like my wife who has a nearly photographic memory (she can tell you what I wore at Christmas time in 2002), the answer is yes. Finding your way around the Bible at times can be difficult, and finding a certain verse can be like finding a needle in a hay stack. Enter electronic Bibles and Bible study software.

In today’s era of technological advancement, Bible study and word or verse searching can be done at lightning fast speed. Even if you enter words out of the correct order or you can’t even remember more than one, it’s likely you’ll still find what you are looking for when using software. Although I still read and reference paper-based books, and have no intentions of giving up printed Bibles, I no longer own a printed concordance. In fact, my primary reference tools are digital and the ones I use daily reside right on my computer in my favorite Bible software, Accordance. Accordance is made for the Mac, but it can be run on a Windows platform with a free emulator. And on my iPod touch, I use Bible Reader, by Olivetree, available in several mobile platforms such as Palm Pilot, Blackberry and others. With these applications, I always find what I need and I find it fast.

I have heard some people say that using a computer to study the Bible is cheating. But that is hardly true. If doing things the old-fashioned way means being more spiritual, let’s all go back to clay or stone tablets. Or how about unrolling a scroll at church service to follow along during the message. Or…well, I think you get the point. Perhaps the naysayers are under the impression that you enter a verse and the computer does all the work for you, even generates a sermon. The truth is, Bible study on the computer does nothing more than accelerate the process you would normally employ to study with print books. You still need to think, follow a line of thought, research, read and, we hope, hear from the Lord.  The machine simply makes your tools so accessible that flipping through hundreds of pages for research is no longer necessary. In one word, convenience.

Bible study software for me has not replaced the joy and intimacy of holding and writing in my print Bible, and it never will. I also still love to sit back with a good book in hand. And let’s face it, for extended reading the backlit screen of any electronic reader (other than say, the Kindle or similar device) is rather unfriendly to the eyes. But for shorter sprints of reading and reference work, computer-based Bible study is the way to go. Anyone who owns a computer and enjoys digging into the Scriptures wont regret the digital approach, it can’t be beat

From the new believer to the seasoned saint, there is a world of reference works available at your finger tips. Potentially, you could do such things as simultaneously compare multiple translations of the Bible (NIV, KJV, NASB etc.), look up a word’s definition in English, or consult the biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic). You could reference commentary or get statistical information, such as how many times the word ‘love’ is used in 1, 2 and 3 John. By the way, the answer to that is 42 times. See the screen shot below from my word search in Accordance that took all of about 0.2 seconds. The hits are highlighted in bold red. Click on it to enlarge.


In print, you would have to physically read all three books of 1, 2 and 3 John, and take note of each occurrence. With software, it takes less than a second. If you have maps, you can find any location named in the entire Bible, or even read a dictionary’s article on it. The screen shot here is from my Accordance atlas in which I located Ephesus instantly by just selecting the word in Acts 18:19 and then clicking on the atlas icon. Again, locating this in paper format would require at least a couple of minutes, if not more. Click the image to enlarge it.

The possibilities are endless. Personally, I love to study the Bible and absolutely am thrilled to be able to do it in the way that software allows me to. Any tool that helps you to cover more ground – especially such precious grounds as Scripture – more thoroughly, should be employed.

For ultra portability, I use Bible Reader by Olivetree. It offers its reader for free, along with a few Bible translations and other resources. But they also sell an extensive selection of basic to even the most advanced form of Bible study tools. Having Bible Reader on my iPod is indispensable while away from my Mac and can’t access Accordance. I can do simple to complex word searches, reference commentary, view maps and practice reading the original Greek. Twenty years ago we would have had to carry around a bunch of books. Well, times have changed, and so has the form of tools for Bible study. Whether you go the digital route or not, I just hope you’ll study the Bible. But if you are reading this post it’s likely you own a personal computer of some kind, so why not give the electronic way a try? Imagine, the world of the Bible at your fingertips…what more could you ask for? To see more about approaching Bible study, see “Pad, Pen and Prayer; Slowing Down for Bible Study.

Seminary or Cemetery?

Academically inspired death

A pastoral thought to my fellow servant leaders in ministry. In the past I have often heard (and even poked fun myself), the play on words between seminary and cemetery. This is as if to say that seminaries are nothing more than breeding ground for dead orthodoxy, whose occupants cannot be but lifeless theologians. But can we fairly criticize anyone for committing ones life to deeper study of Scripture, and more effective ministry? Unfortunately, we belittle them while simultaneously contradicting ourselves and becoming hypocritical in our practice. Before you become pharisaical and seek to stone me for my words, read on.

I can understand why we might have an aversion towards the academic world. After all, many liberal theologians, and indeed secular institutions, have done great damage to the hearts and minds of countless believers. With the undue emphasis in some denominations on formal education, and their criteria for ministry, even some of the first-church Apostles would be disqualified for ministry. This couldn’t be more erroneous.

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. For here is an enigma that I feel compelled to bring up. Although we often ridicule those in the academic field of theology, whether tongue-in-cheek or veraciously, time and time again we turn to their written works. Resources such as dictionaries, commentaries, lexicons, atlases, archeological journals and so on, become our friends and helpers to aid us in our study. So while we criticize the approach of today’s theologians and their predecessors, we at the same time by our actions acknowledge their work and the benefit they have brought to the body of Christ. Their diligent efforts of study in a specialized area of Christianity occupy the majority of real estate on our bookshelves, and for some of us, in our Bible software.

So then, are we not being unfair, and dare I say, hypocritical if we let them do the hard work for us, while we reap the rewards of their labor and then call them theological corpses? To help shed some light on what I mean, take a look at this truncated list of theologically educated saints who, through their speaking and writing ministries, have helped myriads of believers “grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18). It is likely that you also turn frequently to these for Biblical insights:

• H.A. Ironside • William MacDonald • John F. Walvoord • Roy B. Zuck • D. A. Carson • R. Kent Hughes • James Montgomery Boice • Griffith Thomas • M. R. DeHaan • Irving Jensen • Warran Wiersbe • J. Vernon McGee

These are just a handful from my shelf, for this blog would be unnecessarily long otherwise. And the list is miles-long in the history of Christendom.

Now, we don’t have to agree with everything coming out of seminaries. Surely, I don’t! But personally, I am grateful to the Lord and to his servants who continue to make it possible to access invaluable information that would have otherwise taken me a lifetime to gather. In the end, we Bible students, and especially Bible teachers, are better for it.

I view seminarians, those who are genuine brothers and sisters in Christ, differently now. They are a part of the body without whom we pastors, teachers and leaders, would be hard-pressed to function well. Do I think that seminary is required for ministry? Definitely not! But can it help us in our service to God and his people? Well, just take a look at some of the fruit residing on your bookshelves. Mine is full of men and women God has used to bless me, to enrich my walk with Christ, and to help equip me for the ministry to which I have been called.

In closing, this might be a good time to recognize the roles some seminaries and their students have played in the church as an invaluable part of the body. And instead of despising them, to thank God that he has put them in the body. I think Paul sums up the godly attitude we seek after, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'” (1 Cor 12:21)

Mind Mapping

For those of you who have never heard of  NovaMind Express Mind Mapping Software, it is a great way to take and create notes efficiently. I’ve been using the technique for several months now, and I find it rather liberating for certain tasks, rather than following a linear approach to note taking and generating outlines for teaching purposes. Mind mapping is a clean, nimble and aesthetically attractive way to recall your material and even to make presentations if you like.

This morning, in response to a request by a dear sister from our midweek Bible Study, I sent a few mind maps to her so she could see what she had missed in a previous study two weeks ago, as well as review yesterday evening’s lesson. While it was fresh on my mind, I thought I would post a couple here as well. By no means am I an expert in this practice, and these maps in particular mostly will be meaningful only to me, since they were not made for presentation but rather to aid me in memory recall. And only I know the purpose behind the triggers along the map, but still they will give you an idea of the technique and some of them are indeed self explanatory. I hope you’ll find mind mapping as helpful as I have and useful in your study and/or organization of just about anything you do in ministry or daily life. I made the below samples using NovaMind and you can click  to check out their site and download a free trial. This application is my favorite of the bunch!

Right now we’re in James on Wednesdays, and much of the content present in these is in question form. This is because I run the group as an interactive study where others need to come prepared, think and participate. By the way, mind maps are read clockwise, so you begin at the upper right at 1:00 o’clock and follow the branches around to, in these examples, the 10:00 o’clock position. So here they are, click on them to enlarge. 

Information Intravenously

Whether you like it or not, whether or not you have asked to be there or never even defined your position for yourself, rest assured that YOU occupy a seat somewhere in the marketplace of ideas. My desire here is for us all to discover where that seat is, and then to decide whether or not we really want to be sitting in it.

In spite of today’s bombardment of intravenously-fed information and media-driven morality, we need to stop accepting and promoting what seems most convenient before truly considering its validity or correctness. Too many of us have been taught to ingest but not to digest, or process, the information we receive. This is tantamount to an injection of opinions shot into our system so skillfully as to not feel the pinch. What’s worse is that we then allow it to run its course, circulate within us until it permeates our very thinking. This is tragic.

Folks, we need to ask questions about what we see and hear. Have you asked why public opinion says ‘this’ is right, or ‘that’ is wrong? Better still, who is the public? Do you know what drives certain political decisions? Do the terms ‘religious fanaticism’ or ‘fundamentalism’ strike fear or anger in you? Why? What are ‘hate crimes’? Do ‘love’ crimes exist? Why do ‘you’ exist? Are there any absolutes in our reality or is everything relative? These terms are served to us daily from various media and in various arenas, each time with a particular spin. If the spin is good enough, no one sees it coming.

But contemplating these and many other such topics may just wake us up enough to feel the pinch. If you have read this far on the site, it may be because you have already felt it, and perhaps recognize the need to understand and take YOUR position on issues that comprise the fabric of our society.

Remember, you are what you think!