Friday, December 21, 2012

Was Christ Created?

In John 3:16, the most popular verse of the Bible, we read that Jesus is the only "begotten" Son of God. Most people have this verse memorized, but few stop to consider what this word begotten means. When we consult a dictionary, we discover that the term "begotten" is defined as "brought forth through procreation as biological offspring." When we understand this definition, it is clear what Jesus means when he labels Himself the "only-begotten" Son of God. Unlike all other humans who have been created by God but brought forth as the offspring of a man and a woman, Jesus is the only person to have ever been brought forth biologically by a woman and God. We see, then, that Jesus was born as a human and created as such by God the Father; but did Jesus exist prior to His human birth or was His birth in Bethlehem His beginning?

Most Christians hold a trinitarian view that recognizes Jesus as coequal in every way with the Father. They reason from this assumption that Jesus, like the Father, has always existed. Contrary to this popular view, however, Scripture tells us something different. In 1 Colossians 1:15, Paul refers to Jesus as "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation." This verse provides us with two valuable insights regarding Christ and His Father. First, we see that Jesus is visible while the Father is in-visible. The Father and Son are distinctly different in this way. Second, we learn that Jesus is the "firstborn of all creation," meaning that He was created by the Father, but that He was the first creation of the Father. This fact is upheld in verse 17 of the same passage where Paul states that Christ was "before all things" and in Revelation 3:14 where Jesus is referred to as "the Original of God's creation."

We learn why the Father created Jesus before all other things in verse 16 of the passage where we read, "For by Him [Jesus] all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things have been created by Him and for Him."

Thus, God's divine order consisted of creating His Son, Jesus, first, and then delegating authority to Jesus to create everything else. Ultimately, Jesus left His position in Heaven to come to earth in order to fulfill the Father's plan. In Philippians 2, we read that Jesus made Himself of no reputation by taking on the form of man and becoming a servant, obedient unto death. Clearly, for Jesus to "make," "take on" or "become" something, He had to have existed before it. 

Because of Jesus' obedience, the Father exalts Him with a name that is above every name, to which all creation will one day bow. This event, however, will be "to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:11). All Jesus does is for the glory of His Father, which He will prove when He subjects Himself entirely to the Father at the consummation so that the Father may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). 

When we examine Christ and creation in the Bible, we discover that trinitarians and many nontrinitarians are mistaken regarding the pre-existence of Christ. Scripture teaches that Christ did not always exist as the Father, but that His birth in Bethlehem was also not His beginning. He existed "from the beginning" as the firstborn of the Father's creation, but He was, in fact, created by the Father along with all that is ultimately out of the Father (2 Cor. 5:18). In spite of the fact that Jesus did not always exist, He is still worthy of all honor and praise for the status given Him by the Father for His obedience unto death, His nature as the firstborn of all things, and His masterful creation. He is our Lord and Savior, given all authority for the time by the Father, until the consummation when He will subject Himself and all creation to the Father.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Purpose of Prayer

In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Paul advises saints to "pray without ceasing." Prayer, like Scripture study and fellowship, is a pillar in the life of every believer. The Concordant Version uses the term "unintermittingly" instead of "without ceasing," which reflects Paul's emphasis on the need to avoid routineness with prayer. Rather than pray only at designated times such as before meals and bed, we should be praying spontaneously throughout the day.

The Bible's emphasis on prayer couldn't be stronger, yet many of us have struggled with prayer to the point where our prayer lives have become almost non-existent. When we realize that God is completely sovereign and that our prayers will never succeed in changing His mind, the inevitable question is, "Why pray?"

What purpose does prayer serve if not to sway God's hand? In Philippians 4:7, Paul tells us to "let [our] requests be made known to God," but what is the point of making our requests known if our Father who already knows our needs and what is best for us will never be persuaded by our pleadings? If we are thankful and God already knows our hearts, what is the purpose of voicing our thankfulness in prayer? If we recognize God's goodness in the midst of suffering, what good does it do to pray when we suffer? If we pray for others but God is going to treat them no differently than if we hadn't prayed, what has our prayer accomplished? If God's will is always done, why do we need to pray that it will be done?

These are logical questions which lead many to ultimately view prayer as a meaningless waste of time. In fact, I have noticed that the majority of believers I know who understand many of the truths of God's Word struggle more with prayer than almost anything. It seems that for many, the more they recognize God's sovereignty the less they pray. I would be so bold as to say that if you are reading this article, there is a good chance that you can relate to this dilemma.

For those of us who have struggled with prayer, we realize that prayer is important and should be a priority, but we have a difficult time recognizing the value in prayer in light of the above questions. We understand that Paul (who understood God's sovereignty better than any of us) prayed regularly, but we can't make sense of why Paul prayed so often when he knew his prayers would not alter God's course one bit. We read of the many times Jesus prayed to His Father, but we can't see the need for the very Son of God to pray at all. The examples of Christ and Paul (and several others) demonstrate the great importance of prayer, but in order for us to emulate them we must recognize the real purpose of prayer in our lives.

Most Bible verses on prayer consist of instructions for how to pray or what to pray for, but do not cite a specific reason or purpose for prayer. One verse, however, does. After instructing believers to make their requests known to God in Philippians 4:7, Paul goes on to say, "...and the peace of God, that is superior to every frame of mind, shall be garrisoning your hearts and your apprehensions in Christ Jesus." 

Here, we finally have a crystal clear purpose for prayer. We learn, first of all, that prayer exists for us more than for God. After all, God is not in need of us for anything, but we are in complete need of Him for everything. Paul assures us that more than anything, prayer gives us peace. It provides us with contentment, reassurance, and a strength that garrisons our hearts and removes our fears. This mindset is not a minor phenomenon either; it is "superior to every frame of mind," meaning it has the power to literally alter our perceptions, mood and emotions, regardless of how we feel when we begin to pray.

This is why in 1 Peter 5:7, Peter tells us to "toss our entire worry on Him." When we bring our burdens in prayer to the One who has complete control over them, we are conscious of His control over them all and are brought into a peaceful frame of mind which removes our worries and enables us to continue the day with confidence and hope.

In addition to an overwhelming sense of peace, regular prayer helps us to appreciate our relationship with God. It is difficult (if not impossible) to have a relationship with someone you never speak with. When we talk to God directly via prayer, we are fully aware of how real our relationship with Him is and we feel much closer to Him as our loving Father.

When we pray for others, we are consciously aware of their needs and their value in God's eyes and are mentally committed to bearing their burdens and helping them in any way we can. The psychological power of prayer is immensely powerful, whether for ourselves or for others, and the peace it brings enables us to act as we should, free from worry.

Even the secular world understands the psychological importance of casting away our burdens to be at peace. One of the most basic tenets of secular psychology is the need for burdened people to discuss their worries with others. The mantra is, "The first step to healing is talking about the problem." Many people even keep a journal in which they "vent" by writing down all the things that bother them to "get them out" of their heads. Who better to "vent" to than God? Who better to cast our burdens on than the One who controls them all?

When we understand that God has designed prayer for us as a means of giving us peace and awareness of our relationship with Him, the questions I raised earlier make perfect sense. We make our requests known in prayer because doing so causes us to recognize God's control over them. We give thanks in prayer because by doing so we are conscious of God's goodness. We prayerfully acknowledge God in the midst of trial because doing so reminds us of His providence and mercy. We pray for others because it causes us to keep them in our thoughts and to commit to helping them. Ultimately, we pray for God's will to be done because doing so reassures us of the comforting fact that His will is always done.

If you are one of the many who struggle with prayer, I hope that this article has helped you to understand the real purpose of prayer and the importance of praying unintermittingly. Commit to praying often and without routine, and you will begin to experience a life-changing sense of peace and a strength that will enable you to trust in God and endure life's trials. The more you pray, the more you will appreciate your relationship and closeness with your loving Father. Pray for others as well, as your prayers will help you to focus on their needs in addition to your own. Recognize that your prayers don't change God, but they do change you by garrisoning your heart with the peace of God that is superior to every frame of mind.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Will Christ Return Soon?

For decades, men have been attempting to predict the date of the Rapture and/or Second Coming of Christ. As believers, we echo the words of John at the close of Revelation: "Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!" We eagerly anticipate our removal from this sinful world as we are taken to our true home, and we yearn for the event to occur during our own lifetime.

To date, the vast majority of men who have predicted a date for Christ's return have been proven wrong as their predicated dates have come and gone. Often, these men were motivated more by the desire to witness the event in their own lifetimes than by a desire to search the Scriptures for an approximate date. If we are to predict Christ's return with any level of accuracy, we must abandon all personal motives and commit to basing our prediction on God's Word alone.

While it is futile to claim one hundred percent certainty regarding the exact date of Christ's return, it is a good practice to study the many prophecies related to the event and to examine the signs of the times in order to develop an understanding of an approximate date to look forward to. In Matthew 24:44, Mark 13:32-37 and Luke 21:36, Jesus encouraged His followers to keep watch and be ready for His return. In Hebrews 10:25, we read of the importance of not forsaking assembling "and so much rather as [we] are observing the day drawing near." Being prepared for the day would be difficult without having at least a general timeframe with which to work.

In this article, I will review what I believe to be the most accurate theory regarding the date of Christ's return. Please understand that I am not stating with any certainty that this prediction is correct and I may very well be wrong. Rather, I am providing you, the reader, with a timeframe and a biblically based prediction in order to highlight the urgency of this matter and encourage you to study it further on your own. If the date I discuss is accurate, the Rapture could take place literally any second, and we would be foolish to ignore one of the most significant issues of our time. If, on the other hand, the date turns out to be inaccurate, then we will have at least been mindful and watchful and will be equally thrilled when Christ does finally call us home.

As you study prophecy on your own, you will come across many different theories pertaining to the Rapture and Second Coming. Preterists do not even recognize these as future events, as they mistakingly believe these prophecies have already been fulfilled in a figurative sense. As this view negligently disregards the promised literal fulfillment of prophecy, I will not lend it any credibility or address it here. Of those who recognize that prophecy will be literally fulfilled as promised, some view both the Rapture and Second Coming as one and the same instead of understanding the Rapture to be one of Paul's uniquely revealed mysteries. For my purposes, I will consider them to be separate events. Among those who believe the events are separate, there are those who believe the Rapture will occur prior to the seven-year Tribulation (Pretribulationism) and others who believe it will occur in the middle of the seven-year Tribulation (Mid-tribulationism). I will be taking the Pretribulationism view here. These theories are extremely in-depth topics on their own, so if you desire to learn more about each position, I encourage you to study your Bible and to submit questions.

Once we establish that the Rapture and Second Coming are separate events and that the Rapture occurs prior to the seven-year Tribulation, we can examine prophecy to see if we can arrive at some sort of time frame for when these events might take place. Keep in mind that Jesus does not know the date of the Rapture, but will know the date of His Second Coming as there are prior signs (like the abomination of desolation in the middle of the Tribulation) which provide a mathematical starting point for calculating the date of the Second Coming.

As I have studied prophecy, I have come to believe that one theory stands above the rest in predicting the date of the Second Coming because it is the only theory that seems to leave nothing out and to adhere consistently to Scripture. This theory is known as the "seven day week theory."

The number 7 is extremely significant in Scripture and begins with the seven days of creation. Interestingly, the number 7 is significant even in nature. When passed through a prism, light reveals seven colors; music is composed primarily of seven major notes; the elements contain seven levels of periodicity; there are seven crystal systems for the formation of minerals. In short, the number 7 is the key number of creation and is repeatedly depicted as such in God's revelation.

When we read the beginning of Genesis, we read that God "rested" on the seventh day of creation. He created the first six days and "rested" the seventh day. This is interesting, indeed, considering that the Almighty Creator Who spoke creation into being does not need rest. What does this really mean? We discover the answer when we see how God treated the seventh day when He gave the law to the Hebrews. Just as the seventh day was a day of rest during creation, it is a day of rest for God's people. Six periods of hard work and trial are always followed by one period of rest and peace.

If we apply this formula to the timeline of history and prophecy, we will inevitably have six periods of work and trial followed by one period of rest. The question, then, is how long are those periods?

In Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8, we are told to not be ignorant of the fact that to the LORD a day is as a thousand years. Could it be that we are instructed to not be ignorant of this fact because it reveals God's purpose and plan? By equating the seven days to seven periods of a thousand years, we discover that we are incredibly close to the end of the sixth "day," or thousand year period. We know that Christ's millennial reign on earth is a thousand years in length (Rev. 20) and would appropriately represent the seventh day "rest" period when He rules in perfection and binds Satan to prevent him from causing harm.

According to historians, Christ most likely died in the year 32 AD, 4,004 years after the creation of Adam and Eve. His baptism most likely occurred in the year 28 AD when He was thirty years old, 4,000 years after creation. This, then, marks the end of the fourth "day," or thousand year period. The sixth "day" would then end 2,000 years later in the year 2028 AD. Might this be the date of Christ's Second Coming?

Matthew 24 includes the parable of the fig tree, which describes the timing of Jesus' Second Coming. Jesus tells His disciples, "Verily, I am saying to you that by no means may this generation be passing by till all these things should be occurring." None of the men Jesus addressed lived to see the event; in fact, more than 2,000 years have passed since Jesus said this! Jesus could have only been referring to a generation of Israel in the future, once Israel regained possession of the land. This occurred in 1948 when Israel regained its statehood after over 1900 years of being scattered abroad throughout the world. In Psalm 90:10, we read that a generation equals 70 or 80 years, and using 1948 as a starting point, we arrive at 2018 or 2028 for the possible date of the Second Coming. If it were 2018, the Tribulation would have begun in 2011 and the Rapture prior to that. Since that time has come and gone, we know that of these two possibilities, 2028 is the only option.

Now that I have reviewed the theory, let me state again that I am not arguing that 2028 AD is, without a doubt, the year that Christ will return to establish His earthly kingdom. After all, the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God (1 Cor. 1:20) and many intelligent and well-studied men have gotten this wrong. If, however, Christ will return in 2028, then the Rapture will take place before the year 2021 - sometime in the next eight years! The signs of the times are more evident now than ever before. The nations of the world (including the United States) are becoming increasingly hostile to Israel, nations and families are fighting amongst themselves more than ever, and the world is moving politically into a system of one-world government. As my friend Martin Zender says, "The other men who have predicted the Second Coming have been confident but wrong, but we are the first to be right!" Let us remain watchful and alert, knowing that Christ's return is fast approaching, eager to proclaim, "Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!"

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Where Wages are Due

If you are reading this article, there is a good chance you are either not part of an institutional church or are considering leaving the one you currently attend. The closer we get to truth, the farther we get from organized religion. It goes without saying that many things change when we leave the religious system; but while the majority of those changes are for the better, some have the potential to be the opposite.

This article will focus on one of the habits common to organized religion that believers often neglect after leaving their "churches." That habit is the practice of paying teachers. It's no surprise that after engaging in the unscriptural practice of tithing for years, paying a high salary to a pastor who's taught lies, and having little to no say in where their money goes, people are not thrilled with the idea of giving any of their money to faith related pursuits. The notion of paying individual men is especially off-putting as men often have a tendency to be wasteful or unwise with the money they are given. While these concerns are certainly understandable, they do not absolve us from financially supporting those who are worthy of their calling, teaching truth in full commitment to the evangel.

In 1 Timothy 5:17-18, Paul writes, "Let elders who have presided ideally be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who are toiling in word and teaching, for the scripture is saying: 'A threshing ox you shall not be muzzling,' and 'Worthy is the worker of his wages.'"

Paul gives special emphasis in this passage to paying (and honoring) those who teach. Fortunately, many of the expenses that eat up money in institutional churches (massive building loans, utilities, insurance premiums, fancy sound and lighting equipment, etc.) are non-existent to us when we leave; but teaching is still every bit as prevalent and necessary. When Paul wrote to Timothy, the church members throughout the various regions managed their funds very differently (and much more responsibly) than the churchgoers of today. They met in homes instead of expensive buildings and provided for others' needs instead of securing fancy material possessions. They focused on growing in faith above growing in number. In short, their methods enabled them to spend their money on the priorities that really matter, and Paul made it a point to stress the payment of teachers as one of those priorities.

So we know that paying the teachers God has blessed us with is still important when we are no longer part of an institutional church.  Just how important is it, though? Should faithful laborers be paid a small amount for their work, or should they be paid more? Should they make enough money to be able to make their living entirely from teaching, or should they make only enough to help supplement another income?

Fortunately, Paul gives us the answer to this question as well. In 1 Corinthians 9:14, he says, "The Lord has commanded that those who preach the evangel should receive their living from the evangel." It doesn't get much clearer than that. Teachers should earn enough from those they teach to make a living. Why? Because this allows them to dedicate themselves fully to their teaching, thus leading more people into a greater knowledge and deeper understanding of God.

Of course, God has placed us all in different financial situations and we all make different amounts of money. One person may be able to comfortably contribute $100 a month, while another may be able to give only $10. Paul does not advise us on a set amount to give, and teachers are paid by members of the Body collectively rather than by one person alone. The expectation, then, is not for anyone to give beyond his or her means, but to provide as much as they are able to support those who herald the evangel for their benefit. When everyone contributes some, the total contribution should be sufficient for the recipient.

Paul addresses varying capacities for giving in 2 Corinthians 8:13-15. He writes, "For it is not, that, to others ease, yet to you affliction, but by an equality, in the current occasion, your superabundance is for their want, that their superabundance also may be coming to be for your want, so that there may be coming to be an equality, according as it is written: the one with much increases not, and the one with few lessons not."

In other words, the structure for giving produces an equality of care within the body of Christ. Paul is saying that we should not give so much to someone else that we can no longer meet our own needs, but that the goal is for those who don't need more to ensure that those who do need more are taken care of. He points out that while we may be helping others less fortunate for the time being, it may be them helping us later if we fall on hard times. The question, then, is: How much can we give to those in need (such as teachers) without placing ourselves in need?

When asking this question, it's important that we distinguish between what we need and what we want. With every expense, we should determine if what we are spending money on is justified. To that end, what expense could be more justified than aiding the proclamation of the evangel? When placed against other costs, the evangel clearly wins. It is more important than a new television, a new pair of shoes, eating out, vacations, an xbox, movies, jewelry, and a new computer or tablet (to name a few). This true, we should prioritize paying teachers above paying for these things. If we refuse to sacrifice other expenses to fund the heralding of the evangel, it is the evangel we are sacrificing.

Payment does not always have to be in the form of cash, either (although cash typically provides the most immediate help). If a teacher has written books, produced audio recordings, or done something else in a tangible form, purchasing the material for personal use or for distribution to others is a great way to support the teacher's ministry and to further the message. After all, teachers don't produce useable material for it to not be used.

If you saw my recent announcement for my new book, Making the Most of the Bible: Lessons on Understanding God's Word, you will remember my statement that I do not keep the money from my books for personal use. I make my living in another profession and am not currently engaged in ministry on a full-time basis. In other words, this article is not an encouragement to pay me. It is, however, a charge to pay the men who are currently engaged in heralding the evangel on a full-time basis - men like Martin Zender and Clyde Pilkington, for example. These teachers, and others like them, make their living proclaiming the evangel and are in great need of our continued support (and well deserving of it). Please DO buy Making the Most of the Bible, however, for yourself or for anyone else you know may benefit from reading it.

If you currently donate money to certain teachers, rest assured that you are fulfilling a vital role in promoting the evangel. If you are able to give more than you currently are, make it a priority even if it means sacrificing other luxuries or non-essentials. When you are faced with the decision to spend money on an unnecessary luxury or a faithful teacher, be sure to put the teacher first. If you benefit from the teaching of several people, be sure to give to all of them as they all need financial support to continue their ministries on a full-time basis. Consider committing to a number to donate each month and make it part of your budget, if need be, just as you would any other expense. It is, after all, worthy of being deemed a "need," not merely a "want."

Let's all follow Paul's advice by paying our workmen their due wages so they can continue their important work. The reward for ourselves and others is worth far more than the cost.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Food for Thought

There is an old adage which says, "Fellowship begins with 'F' and ends with 'O-O-D.'" When we meet with family and friends during the holidays, food is a common denominator. We gather around the table to break bread together, and something special takes place. In that moment, there is no place on earth we would rather be.

No one would deny the importance of food for physical well-being, but how often do we neglect to recognize the significance of food in terms of our spiritual well-being? A close examination of food in the Scriptures reveals that God has given us food not only for our bodily nourishment, but for our spiritual nourishment as well.

Food itself is not spiritual, as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 8:8, but the act of sharing meals does play a role in spiritual growth - especially fellowship. Meals are noted for spiritual significance from the very beginning of the Bible. The Garden of Eden is depicted as a paradise not only because of its beauty, but also because of its endless food supply. God's one rule for man pertained to food, and man's failure to obey that rule had physical and spiritual consequences. Esau gave up his birthright in exchange for one meal, which also led to spiritual consequences as his brother, Jacob, became a Patriarch in his place. Joseph's power in Egypt revolved around his authority to control the food supply, which led to an encounter of spiritual significance with his wicked brothers. In each case, the significance of food proved to go far beyond the physical element alone. 

In dealing with the Hebrews, God continually emphasized food in connection with His providence and promises. He instituted the Passover meal to mark their deliverance from bondage and fed them manna in the desert on their way to a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. The law He gave them detailed which foods they could and could not eat as well as dietary restrictions during certain periods. Fasting - the act of abstaining from food - was often practiced by faithful men for spiritual enlightenment. In the Psalms, David praised God for preparing a feast in the presence of his enemies.

While on earth, Jesus constantly emphasized the spiritual impact of food. His first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana. He later fed the multitude of 5,000 with another food-related miracle. In the parable of the prodigal son, He cited a feast with a fatted calf as the celebratory event upon the son's return home. In several other parables, He used food images such as seeds, sowing, working in fields, attending banquets, and storing grain to communicate a spiritual message. At the end of His earthly life, He shared a meal with His disciples in which He used bread and wine as symbols for His own body and blood, and He broke bread with those He encountered immediately after His resurrection.

In nearly every case, the spiritual significance of food is directly linked to fellowship. Partaking in meals together promotes unity, friendship, and celebration. Following Pentecost, the faithful were "continuing stedfastly in the teaching of the apostles, and the fellowship, and the breaking of bread, and the prayers (Acts 2:42)." Eating together was one of four foundational practices they engaged in on a regular basis for spiritual growth. Is it any wonder God has planned the marriage supper of the Lamb as a grand future event?

Understanding the spiritual relevance of food and its relation to fellowship directly impacts our daily lives. God has given us food not only as a means of sustenance, but as a tool to strengthen unity and friendship. There is no better place to gather than around a table for a shared meal. Whenever possible, families should eat together. As often as friends are able, they should share meals. We should take advantage of our Father's wonderful gift of food for its physical and spiritual benefits as we fellowship with one another in unity and love.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Thursday, November 22, 2012

What's in a Name?

At the end of his gripping performance in the film adaptation of Arthur Miller's famous play The Crucible, actor Daniel Day-Lewis reminds us of the significance of one's name. Playing the character John Proctor - an historical figure accused of witchcraft during the infamous Salem Witch Trials - he refuses to sign his name to a false confession. The clergy, frustrated that Proctor would be willing to speak a confession but not sign his name to it, demand his signature and question his unwillingness to sign. In response, he screams, "Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life... How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!"

If you have seen The Crucible, you will recall how intensely dramatic this scene is. If you haven't, I recommend you watch it. No doubt, many who see the film or play do not understand John Proctor's concern for his name. They would likely reason that it is the man himself, not his name, which defines him. 

In reality, we all take names for granted. We view them more as mere titles for identification than embodiments of important meaning. When people name their children, they often scour baby name books in search of names that are cute or "sound good" rather than names which possess significant meaning. Others choose names based on how popular they are in the hopes that their children will be accepted as "normal." It's no surprise that the same male and female names rank at the top of the popularity lists every year.

When we search the Scriptures, we discover just how important names really are to God. The Hebrews named their children with careful and thoughtful consideration, often based on future aspirations or something related to the child's birth. When Abraham and Sarah named their son "Isaac," which means "laughter," they did so because Sarah laughed when God said she would conceive in her old age. Likewise, Jacob was given his name, which means "supplanter," because he was holding his brother, Esau's, heel when they were born. Unlike many today, the believers of the past did not spend countless hours deciding on names that may not be appropriate; they named their children with appropriate and significant meaning.

The Bible is full of references to the name of God, and we are instructed to praise His name. Why would God care about us praising His name, though, when a name in itself seems to be nothing more than a title to signify what it represents? The answer: a name is the embodiment of what it represents and signifies one's identity.

We praise the name of Jesus Christ because of what the name represents - the fact that Jesus, the anointed Son of God, saves the world. Mary was instructed to name Him Jesus because the name identified Him as the Messiah. We follow Paul as our apostle and his name, which means "humble" or "small," reminds us (as it did Paul) of our evangel of grace. It humbles us, as it did Paul, to know God saves us when we are completely unworthy.

God is especially concerned with His own name. His ineffable name is Yehovah (Jehovah), meaning "My God," and God adds qualifying titles to His name at times to express His attributes. When He wanted to demonstrate His provision, He referred to Himself as "Jehovah-Jireh" ("My God, the Provider"). When He wanted to express His care, He referred to Himself as "Jehovah-Ropheca" ("My God, the Healer"). When He wanted to prove His might and protective power, He referred to Himself as "Jehovah-Nissi" ("My God, the Conqueror"). In each case, God used His name to convey His identity to His people.

There is perhaps no better proof for the significance of names than the many instances in which God changed His servants' names upon a major transformation in their lives that made them entirely different people. Abram's name meant "high father," and when God changed Abram's life in a radical way by making him the father of many nations for his faith, He gave Abram the new name, Abraham, which means "father of many nations." Abraham was literally given an entirely new identity and, as such, was an entirely new person, as signified by his new name. 

Likewise, Jacob was given a new name after wrestling with an angel. His name Jacob, meaning "supplanter," was appropriately changed to "Israel," meaning "God contended." Jacob's new identity bore incredible significance as not only the name of himself, but that of an entire nation. Centuries later, Jesus changed the name of His disciple Simon (meaning "God has heard") to Peter ("rock") after Peter confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah.

In each instance in which God or Christ changed someone's name, they did so because names are incredibly important as markers of identity. At times, Jesus referred to Peter by his old name, Simon, in order to remind Peter that he was acting more like his former self than the new man whose identity had been rooted in his Savior.

Interestingly, name changes (even legally) are very common today. The majority of the time, women adopt the last name of their husbands when they marry in order to identify themselves with the husband's name and to signify the couple's oneness. Marriage is a sacred covenant, and the tradition of wives adopting their husbands' name is not an accident; it is of God.

God's habit of renaming His servants is not merely a thing of the past. Revelation 2:17 describes the new names that will be given to the faithful in the future when their new identities are fully realized. We would do well to keep this in mind as we attempt to understand the great importance of our names and our new identities in Christ.

I often think of what believers' lives would be like if our names were to be changed after coming to a realization of the evangel. Would we feel like entirely different people if we had different names? Would our actions reflect what our new names would signify? Our identities are connected with our names, and the important thing to remember is that our new identity is in Christ!

At the very least, we should learn to appreciate the importance of names and not take them for granted. Upon studying God's treatment of names in the Bible, we should come to a place of humility in which we praise the Father in thanks for the gift of faith and our wonderful new identity in His Son. We should be thoughtful in our approach to naming things - especially our children - focusing more on significance and meaning than on accepted norms. When we ask the old question "what's in a name?," we discover that the biblical answer is "an awful lot!"

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wisdom, Defined

Robert Frost's famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," is a poem about wisdom. The poem depicts a man who comes to a fork in a road attempting to decide which of the two roads to take. The poem famously ends with: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

When you hear the word "wisdom," what, exactly, comes to mind? Wisdom, like many qualities, is an ambiguous and near unattainable virtue in the minds of most people. Some think of intelligence when contemplating wisdom, while others associate it with old age. Others would define wisdom as good judgment or a commitment to act morally. You have likely known several people you would consider wise, and if you were asked to label the characteristics you deem wise about them, what would they be?

As believers, we are called and empowered to be wise. It is crucial, then, that we properly define and understand what it really means to be wise.

Wisdom is defined as "the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment." Our wisdom, then, is apparent by our judgment, and our judgment is ultimately dependent upon our experience and knowledge. Proverbs 2:6 reiterates this fact by equating wisdom, in part, to knowledge and understanding.

While experience varies greatly from one person to the next, all of us learn from our experiences in the same way. One person may experience financial hardship after amassing debt while another may experience money related trials from living a lifestyle they can barely afford. In both cases, the lesson learned is to prioritize saving above spending and to live below your means. Likewise, one person might have few friends because she treats them badly, while another is lonely because she refuses to get close to anyone out of fear that she will be hurt. Again, in both cases, the realization is the same: it is necessary to maintain healthy relationships.

While our experiences vary, they all serve to teach us the same lessons. None of us can claim that we do not possess the ability to be wise because of our past. 

The other contributing factor, then, is knowledge. Just as we all have different experiences, we all possess different God-given levels of capacity for retaining information. Fortunately, as believers, though, we have God's Word which we can continually reference as the embodiment of all worthwhile knowledge. We are, therefore, without excuse when it comes to our knowledge.  

The Bible figure most known for wisdom is King Solomon. The third chapter of I Kings depicts Solomon's prayer for wisdom and God's response. In his request, Solomon asks specifically for "an understanding heart to judge [God's] people, that [he] may discern between good and bad." God defines Solomon's request more succinctly as "discernment in administering justice."

We see from this passage that wisdom involves discernment - especially between what's right and wrong - and that it leads to justice. We do not rule nations as Solomon did, but our wise choices still have a significant impact on ourselves and others. As a husband and father, I am responsible for leading my family, and that responsibility is similar to Solomon's, albeit on a much smaller scale. My desire for wisdom should be every bit as strong.

Of course, none of us wants to be unwise, but wisdom is a daunting task in a sinful world in which the evangel is deemed foolishness. Believers possess the ability to discern right from wrong, but few could be readily labeled as "wise." Why is this?

One of the primary culprits that prevents us from acting wisely is emotion. We tend to allow our emotions to overpower logic, reason, and truth. Strong emotions like anger, jealously and fear are especially powerful in blocking our better judgment. Jeremiah 17:9 says the heart is "deceitful above all things." Basing our decisions on how we feel is often a recipe for disaster because our feelings are fleeting and tend to cloud the truth. When you have an argument with someone, you may feel like hurting that person or writing him out of your life, but truth and reason demand the opposite. If you act on your feelings the relationship may be ruined, but if you put your feelings aside in light of what's right, the relationship will flourish. It's no surprise that one of the most frequently cited characteristics of wise people is calmness and a demeanor which is slow to anger. One of the first steps toward wisdom is committing to doing what's right, regardless of how you feel.

Another deterrent to wisdom is the lack of foresight. Most people base their decision on the "here and now" and what will bring them immediate gratification. Because they do not plan with an eye on the future, they continually set themselves up for surprising disappointment. Wisdom requires the ability to always be forward-thinking - to responsibly plan for whatever may occur down the road.

Most importantly, wisdom is rooted in love. God is love, and if we are to be successful imitators, we must prioritize love above all else. Love is the foundation of Godly wisdom.

We see, then, that a wise person is someone who knows and understands God's ways, prioritizes love, plans accordingly, heeds life's lessons, and always acts in accord with what's right and true instead of how he or she feels. In short, wisdom is doing the opposite of what the world deems wise. Let us pray that God will grant us all the ability to be wise according to His standards, not the world's - to take the road less traveled by, as Robert Frost's poem so beautifully conveys.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Suicide & The Bible

Have you known anyone who has committed suicide? Have you contemplated it yourself? Statistically, you would be in the minority if your answer to either of these questions is "no."

In North America, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young adults fifteen to twenty-five years old. Most of these commit suicide either during college or upon facing sexual confusion such as homosexuality. Still more shocking is the data for youth. Even among children between only five and fourteen years of age, suicide is the sixth leading cause of death! On average, an American commits suicide every seventeen minutes, bringing the annual total in the United States to over five hundred thousand.

Without a doubt, far more people contemplate suicide than actually commit it. Suicidal ideation is associated with nearly every psychological disorder, including depression. When we account for the fact that depression is the most commonly diagnosed disorder throughout the world, it is clear that nearly all people have at least contemplated taking their own life at one time or another.

The Christian response to suicide has always been the same. Suicide is labeled a mortal (condemning) sin by the Catholic Church, and an "unpardonable" sin by nearly all mainstream Christian denominations. At the very least, it is said to only be committed or pondered by people who are not truly saved.

As with most issues, Christendom has taken the "fear is the best motivator" approach with suicide. This logic supposes that the more people fear committing suicide, the less likely they will be to do it. Regardless of their circumstances, no amount of suffering is said to be worthy of taking one's own life.

Now, before I continue I must state that this article is certainly not a condonation of suicide. On the contrary, it is an effort to shed light on the failed system that only serves to exacerbate the tragedy and a call to action for preventing it.

As always, we would do well to consult the Scriptures to see what they teach us in regards to suicide. When we do, we discover some interesting facts. 

There are six biblical accounts of suicide. They are Abimelech (Judges 9), Samson (Judges 16), King Saul (1 Samuel 31), Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17), Zimri (1 Kings 16), and Judas (Matthew 27). In addition, there are several other cases of men asking God to take their life or begging another to take it. In Numbers 11, Moses, in despair, said to God, "Kill me here and now." In 1 Kings 19:4, Elijah pleaded with God to "take away [his] life" for his shame. Likewise, Jonah asked God to take his life after His change of heart toward Nineveh. 

Moses, Elijah and Jonah - all great prophets and men of God - asked the LORD to kill them. True, they did not ultimately take their own lives as several others did, but they wished for it and even requested it. No doubt, if God would have acted on their request, they would have willingly endured it. If the common Christian argument that a true believer can't even think of suicide is true, then these great servants of God would certainly have some explaining to do.

Ironically, the dominant catalyst which led most of these men to kill themselves - or at least wish for death - was shame, not merely despair. They viewed suicide more as the just punishment for their sin than as a convenient way out of their problems. After all, is there a greater acknowledgement of personal failing or a more devoted way of paying restitution for it than to take your own life?

Today, we place so much emphasis on the notion that all people who commit suicide do it out of hopelessness, despair and hatred toward the world. While this may be true much of the time, is it possible that we are missing something? Could it be that people who commit suicide are often so ashamed, self-loathing, and guilt-ridden that they view ending their lives as an atoning form of righteous self-punishment? 

Whatever the answer, one thing is certain: rather than deter people from suicide via fear, we should take the time to genuinely listen to their struggles and bear their burdens. Rather than make them feel even more ashamed than they already feel for their thoughts, we should remind them of the glorious fact that Christ renders them completely guilt-free. If we view suicide and even suicidal ideation as cardinal sins, how can we help anyone struggling with these fears? Help demands compassion, and compassion must be free of judgment.

If you know anyone who is in despair and contemplating suicide, do not follow the common Christian model of warning them that suicide is an unpardonable sin that will eternally damn them. Not only is this not true; it is likely to make the person's resolve to kill himself even stronger by crushing his hope. Take the time to listen, bear people's burdens, and remind them of their identity in Christ. Encourage them with Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 10:13 that no trial is ultimately too difficult for them to endure. Remind them that every trial they encounter is given to them by God, out of love, for their ultimate good, knowing they can look forward to unspeakable happiness in the future.

If you have considered - or are considering - taking your own life, heed these same words. Know that in Christ you are free of guilt! No shortcoming on your part can separate you from your Father's unfailing love. Recognize that your thoughts are not necessarily indicative of a shameful lack of faith, but may actually be a sign of your desire to make restitution for your shortcomings, similar to Moses, Elijah and Jonah. The good news is that Christ has already accomplished that goal for you!

If you or someone you know is suffering so much that God seems distant or uncaring, think again. Christ's sacrifice - the most noble act ever committed - provides us with every hope and ability to overcome any struggle. When words mean little amidst the struggles of this life, think of what Christ has been through. No problems we face can begin to compare to what He has endured for our sake. Run the race with the prize always in full focus and with the realization that God's promises are every bit as real as the hardships you're currently enduring in this wicked world. No hurt you experience is beyond what the Son of God has personally known. Trust that no matter how bad things get, they will get better. In every struggle, whether someone else's or your own, conquer fear with love and despair with hope, keeping your eyes fixed upon Christ!

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ecumenism: An Enticing Lie

In recent decades, efforts to unify Christians and believers of all religions throughout the world have been on the rise. Among Christians, this movement is referred to as "ecumenism," whereas the movement to unify people of all religions is known as "interfaith pluralism."

At first glance, these movements - especially the ecumenical movement - seem like long overdue answers to a growing problem of religious division and intolerance. Adherents of ecumenism aim to focus more on the common ground between people of different beliefs than on the differences that divide them. They promote their agenda by encouraging unity on the beliefs they label as "important," "significant," or "central to faith," and dismissiveness on the issues they label as "minor" or "insignificant." Their mantra is essentially "agree to disagree" in order to find common ground, arrive at a compromise and move forward together.

While this mentality seems logical and appealing, it is actually very dangerous and is yet another clever way the adversary has discovered to deceive believers. When we consider the "important" and "significant" doctrinal issues "central to faith" on which ecumenism claims all Christians should agree, we find that many of them are anything but easy to agree on. These are primarily the trinity, eternal damnation of unbelievers, water baptism (in some form), and the existence of one gospel, among others. The varying beliefs held on these topics are deemed "divisive" and not worth arguing over. One person believes in paedo (infant) baptism while another believes in credo (believer) baptism, and ecumenism says, "Rather than focus on when baptism should be done, find common ground in the fact that you both believe in water baptism and don't get caught up in the petty details."

Could this supposedly unifying method sound any more appealing? Putting aside our differences, we make friends and find peace... or so it seems.

In reality, neither side is challenged on what it believes which prohibits either from coming to true knowledge, understanding, or maturity. In Ephesians 1:17, Paul reminds us that our greatest need as believers is "the spirit of wisdom and understanding in the knowledge of [God]." Ecumenism exists as a giant roadblock that stands in the way of truth.

That isn't the only threat it poses, though. The drive to "unify" believers acts as a gateway drug of sorts which leads to worse problems. Its appeal is intoxicating for those who buy into its message of tolerance and oneness. This euphoric mindset ultimately causes many in the ecumenical movement to take their unification message beyond the scope of fellow Christians in an effort to unify people of other religions, citing their "spiritual unity" because of their belief in a higher power. Pope John Paul II famously invited Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious leaders to the Vatican for a major event promoting spiritual unity. He was praised by the world for this seemingly mature and wise gesture. 

The real question is: should believers be ecumenical or stand firm in truth? Clearly, the latter is the answer, although many find this hard to accept. Throughout all history, God has called out a small few to know and herald the truth. When we adopt an ecumenical attitude, the boundaries of truth disappear and we become increasingly lost. We begin labeling anyone who claims to believe in God a true believer, regardless of what they believe. We start viewing all our beliefs as petty and unimportant when the supposedly greater goal is unity.

Indeed, unity should be our goal, but only among true believers and not at the expense of truth. How, then, do we recognize true believers? The answer: by what they believe!

Put simply, a believer is defined by his or her belief. To say you believe in the God of the Bible but to believe nothing that's true about Him is like saying you believe in America while describing China. To claim you understand the evangel when you possess an understanding contrary to it is like claiming to understand calculus while describing algebra. If much of what you believe about something isn't true, then your belief is in a lie and is false. Period. This doesn't seem fair and is certainly not politically correct, but God has purposed it this way in accordance with His plan and has chosen to reveal His truths to few in this age. We should count ourselves fortunate to be part of that few and avoid the enticing urge to unify with false believers. This, of course, does not mean never associating with them, but it does mean not appeasing them.

The alternative to standing firm in our faith is a denial of our faith. When we blindly tolerate and accept the false beliefs of anyone who claims to be a believer, we discredit the truth and dishonor God. If someone claims to be a believer but believes in eternal torment, free will, the trinity, and that he has to attend an institutional church every Sunday to keep favor with God, then he is, by definition, not a true believer because he believes in a false God. This statement is not judgmental, unloving or prejudice - it is factual. In reality, the truly unloving thing would be to show approval of this man's beliefs so that he continues believing a lie.

The more you believe and share the truth, the lonelier you will be. For myself, this post may even serve as proof of that fact as it may anger many readers. Accept that truth requires division in order to be made apparent (1 Cor. 11:19) and resist any urge to dismiss the truth in the name of unity with those who profess faith but believe a lie. Promote unity, but only among like-minded, true believers, knowing that the ecumenical movement is yet another clever satanic ploy.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Thursday, November 8, 2012

New Book!

I am using tonight's post to announce my new book, Making the Most of the Bible: Lessons on Understanding God's Word. The book is being published by Bible Student's Press (Clyde Pilkington & Sons) and will be available for purchase in the near future. Once it is available, I will post again on this blog and provide instructions for ordering.

Have you personally struggled with understanding the Bible, or do you know anyone who has?  I first announced this book at the recent Seneca Falls conference, and began by asking this same question.  Not surprisingly, every hand in the room went up.  This is because (from the book's synopsis)...

"To say most Christians have a difficult time understanding the Bible would be the understatement of the century. From the revered King James Version with its many 'thee's, 'thy's and 'thou's, to paraphrase versions like the Living Bible and The Message, coming to grips with the truths of God's Word seems like an exercise in futility. Frustrated and hopeless, countless believers give up entirely on trying to understand the Bible and rely instead on the teachings of others they view as more educated and credible. The end result is mass confusion and spiritual immaturity."

Even within the Concordant movement where truth is heralded, many end up relying on the teachings of leaders like A. E. Knoch, Bullinger, and Charles Welch instead of searching the Scriptures for themselves. Granted, this is far better than alternative options, but we can never recognize and fully appreciate the truths of God's Word for ourselves without knowing how to accomplish that task. The Bible is a tool - a roadmap of sorts - which guides us to truth, and our ability to read the map is a foundational skill in the life of every believer. Without that ability, we are literally lost.

Making the Most of the Bible is a practical guide which teaches that crucial skill. It is a short, step-by-step, easy-to-understand instruction manual of sorts for every serious Bible student who is eager to do just what the title says - "make the most of the Bible." 

So many of the truths we understand rely on a recognition of proper translation and sound methods for approaching the text of Scripture. Before we can begin to share these truths with people who have spent their whole lives in mainstream denominations, we have to help them understand how to approach the Bible. This book does just that.

The book's chapters review the Bible's history and organization, the common translation methods used in Bible translation, the importance of language, context and figures of speech, which versions are best for study, and dispensations.  In addition, several chapters deal with common pitfalls readers frequently fall into and how to avoid them. Taking all this into account, it provides a step-by-step practical guide for approaching Bible study in the most effective way, even in terms of details like writing in your Bible, deciding which version(s) to use, determining how much to read at a time, and knowing what to have at your desk for reference when you study.

Making the Most of the Bible is a "must have" for every serious Bible student and will make the perfect gift for the upcoming Christmas season. Even if you feel confident in your own method for study, you likely know several people who are greatly in need of this book.

I currently have no need for the money my books bring in, so I do not keep it for personal use. Your contribution will be for the person or people you buy the book for and, of course, the support of the Bible Student's Press.

Please reply to this post with any questions about the book and spread the word to all who may benefit from it!

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Sovereignty Excuse

Have you ever heard someone excuse a lack of action with the justification that actions don't make a difference because God is sovereign? Perhaps you've even done this yourself a time or two.

I heard a joke a while back that deals with this very issue. You may have heard it, but I'll tell it now in case you haven't.

There was a man standing on the roof of his home after a devastating flood turned his yard and street into a river. The waters continued to rise as rescuers went from house to house in boats, picking up stranded citizens and carrying them to safety. While everyone else called to the boats and got in them right away, this one Christian man sat on his roof and refused every boat that came by, telling the rescuers in confidence that he didn't need rescuing because God would provide an escape.

Eventually the waters rose too high, and the man, having denied every opportunity for help, drowned. Once in Heaven, the man asked God, "Why didn't you help me in the flood? I trusted you to save me and you never did!" In response, God asked, "What did you think all those boats were?"

As believers, we recognize the awesomeness of God's sovereignty. Every particle of dust and grain of sand is under His complete control. Nothing in the universe happens apart from God's will. This being true, it is easy to sit back, relax, and rest in the comforting knowledge that everything is progressing exactly as it should be.

Unfortunately, this comforting mindset can also produce an attitude of laziness. After all, if God's will is going to be done regardless, do our actions really matter?  

Indeed, God's plan will unfold regardless of circumstances that seem to contradict His will, because God Himself is dictating every action; but our Father never allows us to use His sovereignty as an excuse to not live up to our high calling. As ambassadors of Christ, we are charged with doing things related to our faith, not merely knowing about them. God uses us as instruments to accomplish His purpose, and that use requires action on our part. In this sense, God's will doesn't unfold "in spite of" human action; it unfolds, in many ways, because of it. We, the clay, cannot escape the Potter's hand.

Read every verse of Scripture, and you won't find a single passage where God says or implies that it's acceptable to sit back, relax and do nothing because He is in control. On the contrary, He commands us to do things, as does Paul, our apostle. Trusting in His control gives us peace of mind, security and hope, but neglecting to act in light of God's control is a mockery of the charge God has graciously granted us.

I often hear Christians cite God's sovereignty as an excuse for their lack of action in pretty surprising ways. They get diagnosed with cancer and refuse treatment because "God will cure their cancer without human medicine." They refuse to help someone in need because "God will help that person somehow if He wants them to be helped." They neglect to discuss their faith with anyone because "If God wants that person to believe, He will put it on that person's heart to believe at some point." Never mind that God instructs us to help those in need and to share our faith unashamedly.

It's ironic how easily foolishness can be disguised as faithfulness. When we witness someone refusing to look for a job because he has faith that God will miraculously provide one, we may initially stand in awe at that man's level of "faith." In reality, though, his motives are anything but faithful. They are foolish and indicative of a complete lack of faith. Paul told the Thessalonians that a man who will not work should not be allowed to eat (2 Thes. 3:10). "Working" would certainly include the effort to obtain work for someone who is unemployed.  

We are slaves to Christ, charged with obeying our Lord, and ambassadors, required to act on His behalf. An ambassador, by definition, is "an official representative of another who promotes a specific message or activity." When we neglect to act and hide behind God's sovereignty as an excuse, we do the opposite of what our ambassadorship demands. In 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul reminds us that our duty as ambassadors of Christ is "beseeching for Christ's sake, 'Be conciliated to God!'"

In reality, people who foolishly excuse themselves from acting on their faith do so more out of fear or laziness than a belief in God's sovereignty. They are scared to approach others, so they pass the buck to God and hide behind a deceitful excuse. They would rather continue driving to their destination than take time to stop and help a stranger stranded on the road. They would rather sit at home collecting a free check from the government than work for their own money. All of these disgraceful habits are easily defended with the deceitful claim of faith in God's sovereignty.     

When Paul instructs us to carry our salvation into effect with "fear and trembling" in Philippians 2:12, he reminds us that a life devoted to following Christ is anything but easy. For, to us "it is graciously granted, for Christ's sake, not only to be believing on Him, but to be suffering for His sale also (Phil. 1:29)." As a general rule, the harder our lives are, the more we can be confident that we are living faithfully.

If you are one of the many who has neglected to act and hid behind God's sovereignty as an excuse, commit to forsaking that deceitful mindset in the future. God is, indeed, in control, and this article may be an instrument God is using to remind you of your purpose as one of His chosen ambassadors. Take comfort in God's control, but be active in your high calling as an ambassador for our Lord. Never use God's sovereignty as an excuse for a faithless lack of action.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Lies About Lying

Have you ever lied to spare someone's feelings? Have you omitted details to avoid causing someone unnecessary worry? Have you exaggerated a compliment to boost someone's self-esteem?

If you have, then you are guilty of lying.  Any alteration of the whole truth is, by definition, a lie.  But when God commands us to not lie, what does He really mean?  Is all lying bad, regardless of the circumstance?

Interestingly, the commandment "Thou shalt not lie" does not exist among the Ten Commandments.  The ninth commandment, which prohibits bearing false witness against one's neighbor, certainly prohibits lying, but in the specific context, against one's neighbor.

On several occasions, we read of God intentionally deceiving people in the Bible. Exodus 4:21, 1 Kings 22:23, Jeremiah 4:10, Ezekiel 14:9, Romans 11:7-10, and 2 Thessalonians 2:11 are a few good examples.  This is a surprising fact, considering that Satan - God's opposition - is labeled the "father of liars" (John 8:44).  How is God's deception different from Satan's?  We will examine the answer to this question shortly.

Of course, no believer would argue that lying is an honorable practice.  On the contrary, lying is generally anything but honorable.  Lies spoken in betrayal force a lack of trust, which, in turn, causes bitterness, resentment, and a slew of other problems that violate love and tear apart relationships.

Other times, however, lying seems to accomplish the opposite.  On a near daily basis, we may find ourselves confronted with instances where not telling the whole truth would actually prevent the destructive effects lies often cause.  

For example, wives frequently ask their husbands how they look in an outfit.  They tend to be specific in their questioning, asking something like, "Honey, do you think this dress makes me look more chubby?"  If her husband thinks the dress does, in fact, make her look bigger, he would be a fool to answer her honestly.  By saying, "Well dear, I'm sorry, but honestly I do think it makes you look chubby," he will be causing far more harm to her than he would by lying about his true thoughts.  In this case (which is extremely common among married couples), honesty is not "the best policy."  A completely honest response by the husband would not only hurt his wife's feelings; it could potentially make her feel unattractive and undesirable for the rest of her marriage.  In all likelihood, the husband wouldn't be less attracted to his wife, even if he does think the dress makes her look heavier, and by lying out of love he saves her feelings and encourages her.

Likewise, if a husband feels sexually inadequate and asks his wife if his fears are valid, the wife would be cruel to confirm her husband's fears, even if they are founded.  The honesty of the wife would effectively emasculate the husband and cause irreparable damage. 

If an intruder broke into my house, held me at gunpoint, and asked if there was anyone else home, would it be wrong to lie and say "no" if my wife and children were hiding?  By telling the truth I would risk their lives, but by lying I may save them.

Countless examples like these exist, but they should be sufficient to make the point that all lying is not evil.  With so many temptations to tell "little white lies" on a near daily basis, how can we discern when to bend the truth and when to be completely honest?

The answer to this question (and many more like it regarding God's commandments) is found in the reality that the entire law is fulfilled in the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Gal. 5:14). God is love (1 John 4:8) and love is the greatest virtue (1 Co. 13:13).  

By filtering everything through love, we can easily discern the best course of action in any circumstance.  As a general rule we should avoid lying, but when the whole truth will violate love by causing harm to another, we find an exception to the rule.  If following the letter of the law violates love, we must do the opposite.  Ironically, in such cases, breaking the law actually upholds what's righteous.  Whether it's lying or any other issue, the right answer is always found in the law of love, not the written letter.

This is precisely how God managed deception in every historical instance.  Every time God deceived, it was for the purpose of fulfilling His plan and accomplishing the greater good.  God's deception was always done out of love.  On the contrary, Satan's many deceptions are all done in an effort to harm others and prevent God's plan.  

Recognizing the truth about lying is vital because if you hold to the philosophy that "honesty is always the best policy," you will likely violate the law of love on a fairly regular basis.  You may hurt someone's feelings, tear them down, or weaken their confidence all in the name of "truth," when withholding the complete truth would serve the greater purpose of upholding love and building them up.  When you understand that love fulfills the law and begin to filter everything through that standard, your motto will change to "honesty is the best policy except when it violates the greatest law of love."  

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Allowed vs. Expedient

A prevailing belief among Christians is that all forms of pleasure are wicked and must be avoided.  Scripture is loaded with seemingly strict regulations for believers.  The Law of Moses contains 613 mitzvot (commands) which seem to deny Israel of all pleasurable experiences.  Restrictions exist for food, clothing, time, appearance, rituals, sacrifices, and virtually every other area of life.  It's no wonder no one except Jesus could live up to every requirement of God's law.

The apostle Paul, speaking to Gentile believers not acquainted with the law, urged the nations to not concern themselves with many of the law's strict requirements.  Contrary to the Jews, Paul urged his Gentile friends, "Let no one, then, be judging you in food or in drink or in the particulars of a festival, or of a new moon, or of sabbaths, which are a shadow of those things which are impending" (Col. 2:16-17).  For members of Paul's evangel, "All is allowed...but not all is expedient" (1 Co. 10:23).

For Israel, however, the same could not be said.  Having been given the law and expected to follow it, the Jews could not claim that "all is allowed" them.  On the contrary, an awful lot was not allowed them.  As members of Paul's evangel, we bask in our freedom in Christ, thankful to not be held to the same strict standards as the Jews.

Yet a large portion of even Paul's epistles are dedicated to instructing Gentile believers on how to live righteously.  The majority of Paul's letters begin with a greeting, followed by a reminder of the greatness of his evangel, and then a virtual how-to guide for living.  Contrary to the opinion of many, Paul does not encourage debauchery when he reminds us that all is allowed.  He immediately follows that statement with the warning "but not all is expedient."  Our freedom, resulting from grace, frees us from the rigid requirements of the law, but Paul warns that we err when we act on that freedom in a way that is detrimental to our physical or spiritual health.  

Clearly, the biblical answer to our glorious freedom in Christ lies in the appropriate balance between what is allowed and what is expedient (or beneficial).  We are free to murder, but if we wrongfully kill someone we will likely endure misery, guilt, and a life-long sentence on death row.  We are free to be lazy at work, but we will likely end up losing the job which could lead to financial burdens, stress, and, in many cases, divorce.  We are free to act selfishly, but when we do we will face a life with few or no friends.  Discerning what is wise is an absolute necessity for every believer.

Fortunately, few true believers take their freedom in Christ to the extent of committing terrible crimes; but far too many believers live at the opposite end of the spectrum by forsaking their freedom and imposing strict requirements on themselves in an effort to "play it safe" and appease God.  In doing so, they tragically miss out on the many pleasures God has so graciously offered.  Often times, these self-imposed rules are not even biblical.

I've met countless Christians who believe food is for nourishment only and should not be enjoyed as a "sinful pleasure."  They, therefore, eat only foods they don't like too well and eat quickly in order to prevent themselves from enjoying their meals.  Likewise, they refuse to ever drink one drop of alcohol, viewing it as a cardinal sin.  Those same people view marital sex as an act meant only for procreation, so they limit their sex life to one position and don't engage in what they consider to be "inappropriate acts."  Women wear only dresses, often made of a weighty material, and endure extreme discomfort almost daily.  They do all of this in an effort to live up to a perceived code of conduct and to be "right with God."

Ironically, the attempt to "play it safe" is just as foolish as playing it too unsafe, if not more!  It denies the work of Christ in freeing us from the law and pridefully attempts to perfect oneself by personal means.  The married couple who inhibits their sex life should read Song of Solomon!  The woman who is concerned with her diet or clothing should read Matthew 6, in which Jesus Himself says to not be concerned with what one will eat, drink, or wear.  

Paul discouraged drunkenness, but encouraged Timothy to drink wine for optimal health (1 Ti. 5:23).  For Israel, the law of Moses prohibited certain foods but allowed a myriad of others for nourishment.  Song of Solomon depicts a wonderful sexual relationship between Solomon and one of his wives, but in several passages Paul warns against taking sexual desire to the extreme of sexual immorality.

In conclusion, the key in discerning what is allowed and expedient lies in the balance between the two.  Have a glass or two of wine or beer but not to the level of extreme intoxication.  Enjoy sex with your spouse, but don't allow your sexual desires to cause you to be immoral outside your marriage.  Eat what you like, but not so much that you become unhealthy.

While all believers recognize that freedom in Christ is not an approval of endless sin, many defy their freedom in equal foolishness.  As members of Paul's evangel, our mantra should be, "All is allowed me, but I will only partake in what is expedient!" 

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Gospel Parenting

Within minutes after my first child was born, I knew that parenting would be one of the most challenging endeavors of my life.  I looked at my newborn daughter (and 17 months later, my son) and realized they knew nothing apart from the instinctive urge to feed.  My wife and I would be responsible for teaching them everything.  The sudden realization was overwhelming, to say the least.  No task could be as important (or difficult) as raising a child in a sinful world, and it is a task we parents simply can't afford to neglect.

Parenting has existed on earth since Adam and Eve, and one may expect to obtain valuable insight from examining their record.  When we do, the results are not as appealing as we might expect.  On the contrary, the first parents have a dismal record with one of their sons killing his own brother.  

But maybe the failure of the first parents is due to nothing more than their lack of experience.  Maybe humanity has discovered more effective ways to parent over the many centuries since Adam and Eve.  After all, this only seems logical. 

However, when we look at parenting over the entire course of history, we discover that it has not improved overall and, if anything, has only gotten worse.  The parenting problem is so widespread that even the world has attempted to solve it.  Countless studies have been done to determine the most effective ways to raise respectful, law-abiding children who will contribute to society as adults.  As with every issue, the world claims to have all the answers when it comes to parenting; but the world's answers are continually proven wrong when the results leave much to be desired.

So what is the answer?  How can believing parents fulfill the weighty obligation of raising their children in godliness in the midst of so much sin and worldly pressure?  

The answer:  We can begin in the Bible.

In John 1:14-17, John refers to Jesus as "the Word" Who "became flesh...full of grace and truth."  He goes on to say that "the law through Moses was given; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."

Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the epitome of grace and truth.  John contrasts the strict requirements of the law of Moses with the grace provided through Christ.  In short, the New Covenant made possible by Christ, has brought a radical transformation.  For us now, everything can be examined through the lens of grace and truth, and God's Spirit equips us with both the ability to decipher the truth and the power to act upon it.

While parenting is never easy, the ability to filter our parenting decisions through the standards of grace and truth as the foundations of our evangel arms us with a priceless advantage.  There is no dilemma for which we cannot find an answer in God's Word.  Even when the Bible doesn't seem to provide a crystal clear answer, we can generally arrive at the solution by looking at the world's answer and doing the opposite.  

When a child is bullied, the world's answer is, "Don't you ever start a fight son, but if someone else starts it you be sure to finish it!"  The gospel answer, based in grace and truth, is, "Love your enemies and turn the other cheek."  When a child is a victim of theft, the world's answer is, "Steal it back because it's rightfully yours!"  The gospel answer is "give them more."  When a child is severely wronged, the world's answer is, "You don't need to love that person if he hates you."  The gospel answer is, "Don't claim credit if you only love those who love you in return."  When a child doesn't fit in with the popular crowd, the world's answer is, "Let's change your image with new clothes and hair so you'll be accepted."  The gospel answer is, "Find your identity in Christ, not the world."

Of course, even when raising our children in grace and truth, they will inevitably require discipline.  Sadly, one of the biggest mistakes parents make is neglecting to discipline their children.  Parents fear that their children will become rebellious or view them as mean if they correct them when they "miss the mark."  In reality, there is no greater mistake a parent can make.  God - the perfect Father - frequently disciplines His children and He doesn't do it to be cruel.  Rather, He disciplines us all in order to train us in righteousness (Heb. 12:11).  The key with discipline is to act out of love instead of frustration.  Paul instructs us to not vex our children (Eph. 6:4) because when they feel unloved they will not respond with openness and trust to our guidance.  

Parenting is never easy, but the perfect Father has provided us with an invaluable tool to greatly simplify the process.  By filtering every decision in raising our children through the standards of grace and truth, opposing the world's ways, and lovingly disciplining our children when necessary, we can be confident as parents.  Commit to gospel parenting and rest assured that your children will grow up following God rather than the world.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

True Contentment

In the fourth chapter of Philippians, Paul pens some words of wisdom we should all take to heart.  He writes: "I learned to be content in that in which I am.  I am aware what it is to be humbled as well as aware what it is to be super-abounding.  In everything and among all am I initiated, to be satisfied as well as to be hungering, to be super-abounding as well as to be in want.  For all am I strong in Him Who is invigorating me - Christ!"

The thrust of Paul's message is the essence of what it means to be content as a believer as a sojourner in a sinful world.  Paul endured more hardship than anyone could imagine, and his contentment was undoubtedly shaken countless times after being commissioned by Christ.  Paul endured prison, betrayal, persecution, harsh weather and living conditions, and an array of other sufferings most of us can't even fathom, all for the sake of his evangel.  None of our trials can even compare to those of Paul or the One who commissioned him.

How is it possible that Paul found contentment when nothing about his life should have produced contentment?  His words to the Philippians provide us with the answer.

When Paul says he has learned to be content in that in which he is, he provides us with two crucial insights.  First, becoming content is a learned process, not a natural one.  Paul didn't possess an innate ability to be content, even after the risen Lord appeared to Him.  As a man, no different than any of us, Paul's instinctive reaction to hardship was not abounding joy.  He had to train himself over time to be content as a follower of Christ.  Even Christ struggled to find contentment in the midst of suffering and pleaded with the Father to remove the cup from Him in the Garden of Gethsemane.  If the perfect Son of God cannot turn off the effects of misery, there is no way we humans possess the ability.

Second, we learn that Paul was content in who he was - in who God created him to be.  Paul likely wished at times that God would have created him with more strengths and fewer weaknesses, but he learned to accept himself as God created him rather than focusing on fruitless "if only..." wishes.

How often do we waste time wishing God had created us differently?  "If only my hair wasn't so thin;"   "if only I was a better communicator;" "if only I was more attractive;" "if only I had more talents;" "if only I were smarter;" "if only I had a nicer house;" "if only I had more friends;" "if only I were taller..."

The list is endless.  We can waste a lot of time wishing we were different, but in the end we can't change a single thing God has created in us.  Wishing we were different is literally a complete waste of time and only causes us unnecessary grief.  The first step in the race to contentment is recognizing you can't change what God has created you to be.  The Potter has formed you, the clay, for a unique and particular purpose.  What you view as loss, He sees as gain.

We might more easily understand the word "contentment" as "being at peace."  When we are content with the clay God has molded us to be, we find an overwhelming sense of peace rooted in trust for our Maker.  In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul reminds us that we are all part of the body of Christ and that the members who seem insignificant are, in fact, the most precious.  He writes, "Yet now there are, indeed, many members, yet one body.  Yet the eye can not say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' or, again, the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'  Nay, much rather, those members of the body supposed to be inherently weaker are necessary, and which we suppose to be a more dishonored part of the body, these we are investing with more exceeding respectability.  Now our respectable members have no need, but God blends the body together, giving to that which is deficient more exceeding honor" (1 Cor. 12:20-25).

The divine design places the first last and the last first.  How awesome are God's ways!  When you feel useless and deem yourself unworthy to play a role in God's plan, pause to remember this miraculous truth.  Don't waste your time wishing God had created you differently; rather, be thankful for the strengths and weaknesses your Creator has given to you and understand that the characteristics you see as weaknesses, He sees as vital parts of the whole.

In the Philippians passage, Paul recognizes that his ability to be content comes, in large part, from his experience with contrast.  God caused Paul to know both hardship and joy, hunger and nourishment, friendship and persecution.  We often feel that we would be far happier if God would not include the negative side of experience in our lives.  In our flawed human logic, we reason that we could be just as mature and content without any hardship as we are with it.  But our wisdom is foolishness to the One who is perfect and knows every truth (1 Cor. 3:19), and our Father has given us contrast to make the truth more apparent.

Why do we appreciate the vacations we rarely get to take from work?  The contrast of the relaxing vacation, juxtaposed against the burden of work, causes us to appreciate the vacation to a greater degree.  Without the contrast of a hard job, the vacation wouldn't seem special at all.  In fact, we wouldn't even label it a "vacation" as to us it would be normal.

Paul concludes the contentment portion of his letter by declaring that his strength ultimately lies in Christ as the One who is "invigorating" him.  What, exactly, does he mean, though?  How does Christ "invigorate" Paul (and other believers)?  Paul was not physically stronger for his faith, nor was his life made easier to aid him in his ministry.  On the contrary, God allowed Paul to endure immense suffering, making it harder for him to fulfill his task.  On several occasions, Paul prayed for God to remove a splinter that was causing him pain and preventing him from being as mobile as he wanted to be.  What, then, does Paul mean when he says his strength is rooted in Christ?

For one, Paul knew that every step he took was divinely orchestrated by God.  Knowing God cannot fail, he ultimately had no reason to fear anything.  In addition, Paul recognized that while he could plant the seed, only God could cause it to grow (1 Cor. 3:6).

Stop wasting precious time wishing God had created you differently.  Accept yourself as you are - just as the Maker molded you.  Understand that the qualities about yourself that you view as weaknesses, God views as strengths.  Stop re-hashing the "only if"s and be content with who God has made you to be.  Only then will you be truly at peace like Paul.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill