Saturday, August 3, 2013

Our Last Minute God

When I was in the Army, a common motto was "hurry up and wait." We were required to appear at a destination immediately, but inevitably waited a long while once we arrived. Of course, this trend was very annoying and, if nothing else, taught us that waiting seems, at best, impractical. Had we made the most of our waiting time, our efforts to arrive early would have been practical and made sense; but since we often did nothing while waiting, we reasoned that we would have been better off arriving at the last possible minute. 

Perhaps it's due to my military experience, but I admittedly struggle with patience. Once I have determined the best course of action in relation to God's revealed will, I work tirelessly to see it through as quickly as possible. This trait may seem admirable to some, but in reality it can be detrimental. 

The life of a believer is marked by struggle and forced patience. When I say "forced," I mean that it is imposed upon us by God, in spite of our personal efforts. It's said that patience is a virtue, and this truth is nowhere more apparent than in the life of every believer. Patience is a necessary virtue because it acknowledges God's perfect timing above our flawed timeline. A lack of patience is rooted in trust of self, while an abundance of patience is rooted in trust of God.

As we examine the Scriptures, we discover that God often waits until the last possible moment to act - especially in times of crisis. To come to grips with patience during trial, we must recognize this characteristic of our Father and keep it ever-present in our minds. Studying God's timing also reveals the reason God tends to postpone action until long after we would expect or desire Him to act. As we review several examples of God's delayed timing, the reason for it becomes abundantly clear.

Remember Abraham and Isaac? God waited until Abraham's knife was raised and ready to plunge into Isaac before He stopped it. When Moses and the Hebrews left Egypt, God waited until Pharaoh and his army were right behind them to part the waters of the Red Sea. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were condemned to the furnace, God waited until they were cast in to deliver them from the flames. When Daniel was sentenced to the lion's den, God waited until he was in the pit to close the lions' mouths. When Samson was engaged in continual battle with the Philistines, God waited until he was bound with his eyes gouged out to defeat them. 

The life of Jesus, Himself, was no different. From infancy through adulthood, God delivered His Son from death right before His would-be murderers arrived, until His appointed time. 

One common denominator exists for every one of these examples and the many more that fill Scripture: God has to wait until the last possible moment in order to be glorified and in order for us to learn to depend on Him. Had God told Abraham to not kill Isaac prior to lifting his knife, Abraham would have learned nothing of value and God would have appeared foolish instead of righteous. Had God parted the sea for the Hebrews prior to the Egyptians arriving, they would not have appreciated His assistance to the same degree. Had Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego never been thrown into the furnace, no one would have witnessed God's saving power. Had Daniel never been with the lions in the den, no one would have witnessed the miracle of their mouths being shut. Finally, had Jesus been delivered from his accusers early, many would have never noticed God's hand in protecting Him till His appointed time and would not have acknowledged Him as the Messiah.

Yet, while God often waits until the last minute, He is never late. As a song I like puts it, He is in time, on time, every time! By waiting until the last moment when we are completely helpless and totally dependent on Him, He forces us to recognize that it is all about Him and not about ourselves. It is as if God is saying, "I have waited until the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour in order to make it clear to you that I am God. You are completely dependent on Me for everything. Trust My ways, not your own. Rest assured and never fear, for I am in control."

When you become impatient and eager to put your own timing above God's, remember that the longer you wait the more mature you will be. Recognize that waiting on God's timing is a blessing, not a curse, and place your full trust completely in the hands of the perfect Timekeeper. 

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Unity Standard

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul 
seems to blatantly contradict himself. Near the
opening of the letter, he writes, "Now I am entreating you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all may be saying the same thing, and there may be no schisms among you, but you may be attuned to the same mind and to the same opinion." Here, Paul entreats fellow believers to be unified - especially with regards to what they say and think. Yet, ten chapters later, in 1 Corinthians 11:19, Paul writes, "For it must be that there are sects also among you, that those also who are qualified may be becoming apparent among you."

At first glance, it seems that Paul is providing opposing instructions. He first instructs believers to be unified to the extent that "there may be no schisms" among them, but then reminds them that "it must be that there are sects" among them to prove who is and isn't qualified. Knowing that Paul did not contradict himself, how can we possibly make sense of what he writes?

To begin, we must realize that Paul was presenting an ideal goal to his brethren. Following his guidance for unity, Paul cites the reason for his instruction. He writes, "For it was made evident to me concerning you, my brethren... that there are strifes among you. Now I am saying this, that each of you is saying, 'I, indeed, am of Paul,' yet 'I of Apollos,' yet 'I of Cephas,' yet 'I of Christ.' Christ is parted!"

The problem in Corinth that led to Paul's call for unity was the lack of recognition of whom they were "of." As members of Christ's body, their lack of firm identity caused the Body to break down to the point where Christ was parted. As a result, Paul called them to unity so that the Body would be whole.

Later, when Paul stated the seemingly contradictory truth that sects are necessary, he did not downplay the importance of striving for unity. Interestingly enough, the necessary sects Paul describes actually promote unity. By making apparent who is and is not qualified, each member is encouraged to function with his or her God-given strengths so that the Body functions just as it should. This "weeding out" process went so far as to even "give up" certain ones to Satan "for the extermination of the flesh" (1 Cor. 5:5). In giving up these members who harmed the Body, the Body became more unified.

If we are to imitate Paul as he instructs, we must recognize what it means to continually strive for unity. As unity is naturally achieved when all members are in agreement, we would do well to focus on how to deal with one another when we disagree. We must have a clear understanding of which sins are worthy of giving another up, if necessary, and which ones require a less severe approach. Far too often, we place any and every sin in the "worthy of giving another up" category. As a result, our judgments lead to Christ being parted rather than unified, just as with the Corinthians. We forget that faith is given to each in measure (Rom. 12:3).

Fortunately, Paul gives us some clear guidance for knowing which standard to use when confronting and, in rare cases, giving up others. The majority of this guidance appears in Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus - two leaders in the Body. To Timothy, Paul said, "Herald the word. Stand by it, opportunely, inopportunely, expose, rebuke, entreat, with all patience and teaching" (2 Tim. 4:2). To Titus, Paul said that a "supervisor" must be "unimpeachable" so that "he may be able to entreat with sound teaching as well as to expose those who contradict" (Titus 1:6-9).

What does Paul mean, though, by "those who contradict?" Following verse 9 in Titus, he gives the answer to this question: "For many are insubordinate, vain praters and imposters, especially those of the Circumcision, who must be gagged, who are subverting whole households, teaching what they must not, on behalf of sordid gain" (Titus 1:10-11). In verse 13, he reiterates this by charging Titus to "be exposing them severely, that they may be sound in the faith, not heeding Jewish myths and precepts of men who are turning from the truth."

Clearly, the biggest culprit in Paul's mind was anyone who taught a message contrary to his evangel of grace - and, in particular, a Jewish, works-based evangel. This is further proven in Paul's words to the Galatians: "If anyone is bringing you an evangel beside that which you accepted, let him be anathema" (Gal. 1:9)! What false evangel did the Galatians accept? A works-based evangel from members of the Circumcision! For trusting this false message, Paul called the Galatians "foolish" and "bewitched" (Gal. 3:1)!

Today, most members of the Body consider all sins to be egregious. Indeed, many members have not studied the Scriptures thoroughly enough to develop a concrete understanding of what even constitutes "sin;" thus, they are not qualified to rebuke another brother, let alone give him up.

When we consider the words of Paul, our apostle, without personal bias or presuppositions, we discover that 1) we should strive for unity to the greatest extent possible, 2) we should recognize that sects are necessary for that unity to occur, 3) we must study the Word thoroughly to know, without a doubt, which sins are worthy of rebuke and possibly giving one up to Satan, and 4) the most detrimental problem is a member teaching a works-based evangel.

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Rules for Husbands

I am writing this article to my fellow and future husbands of the Body of Christ. Before I begin with the "how-to" portion of the article, I would like to take a moment to share my personal experience as a husband.

My wife, Amy, and I were married at a young age. A hopeless romantic, I made it a point to continually surprise her when we were dating and to show her love in every way I could. After only five months of dating, I proposed to her on her birthday with what many who know us consider to be the most grand proposal they have ever witnessed. I had a friend who owned a small airplane, and, along with my mother-in-law and father, we arranged for about 150 family members and friends to be present for the event. The morning of the proposal, my father, a friend and I went to the airport to plot points with white spray paint in the grass. That evening, Amy and I boarded the plane for what she thought was a surprise birthday present, and while we were in the air our friends and family members arrived and lined up along the plotted points on the ground. When the pilot's wife informed him via radio that everyone was ready, he flew over the group, tilted the plane, and asked Amy to look out her window. What she saw was "Marry Me" spelled by 150 people. The proposal made the front page of the local paper. Thus, our engagement began.

As the wedding planning got underway, tension started to arise. Shortly after the proposal, I left for Army basic training and was gone for six months. When I returned home, things had changed - to say the least. The dynamic between my wife (fiancee at the time) and mother-in-law was sharp, and her frustration with the situation inevitably carried over into our relationship. Things got so bad that the pastor who led our pre-marital counseling told us he thought we would be making a big mistake to get married. We had quickly gone from being the picture perfect couple to being advised to not even marry!

Still, we knew we loved each other and were confident we could make our marriage work. We had already been through a lot; what more could we possibly face? Contrary to the pastor's advice, we got married as planned.

Little did we know that not only would things get worse after our marriage - they would get a lot worse. My wife was working at the time and I was attending college, so she bore the burden of providing for us both. We took financial risks, including purchasing rental properties, which proved to be devastating. Amidst all this hardship, my wife became pregnant with our first child only five months into our marriage. Emotions were high and stresses were great, and constant arguing became the norm. A mere eight months into our marriage, we were both strongly considering divorce.

Around that time, a friend of mine challenged some of my beliefs regarding God's sovereignty and, unable to dispute his claims, I changed my entire set of beliefs. My wife and I were both brought up in Baptist churches, and she was not exactly thrilled with my newfound beliefs. This added even more tension - especially with regards to how we would raise our unborn daughter. 

Feeling completely hopeless, I eventually began what many would deem an "emotional affair" with another woman. Though not physical, the relationship was certainly more intimate than it should have been. Finding happiness and no stress with the other woman, my intentions were to leave my wife for her. By this time, our daughter was over a year old and my wife was pregnant with our son, but I justified my intention with the reasoning that it would be better for our children to grow up with us divorced than together and constantly arguing. 

Thanks to God, the affair was short-lived. The same friend who had originally convinced me of God's sovereignty, shared some material that would change my life for good. I was introduced to God's truths and committed from that point forward to living faithfully. The relationship with the other woman abruptly ended, and I recommitted myself to my marriage.

Needless to say, my wife was not eager to "welcome me back" with open arms. Over several years, tension was still thick and we did not get along. I could not forget the pain she had caused me, and though she admitted she didn't blame me for seeking comfort elsewhere after how she acted, she couldn't forgive my mistake.

Finally, after years of reasoning to myself that I was the head of my family and had changed for the better and that my wife needed to follow me in spite of our past, I lay in bed one night and realized that I had been selfish and had never put myself in my wife's shoes. I realized that I couldn't control what she felt and did, but I could control what I did regardless of how I felt. I committed to acting in love toward my wife no matter how she treated me.

As my faith grew, my wife's didn't. In fact, if anything, it only got worse. She could not accept that what she had been taught for years growing up was completely wrong, and she accused me of being arrogant for stating that I knew more truth than the credentialed pastors she was so fond of. As frustrated and angry as I was, I stuck to my commitment to love her at all costs. 

In time, my wife has come around and her faith has steadily progressed. Just recently, she told me that the driving force for her change was her recognition of the fact that I led by example in love. More than any words, my actions demonstrated to her what it means for husbands and wives to love one another.

I tell you this, dear reader, so you know that I am not writing with no experience. I feel it's safe to say that my wife and I have been through more than most couples may ever endure, and over a shorter period of time. By following God's model, we have overcome extraordinary odds and I am in a unique position to share with you the recipe for success. As we men like things to be kept simple, I have decided to list a number of Scriptural "rules," or best practices, for husbands to follow. If you are currently struggling in your marriage or are a single person who may face martial problems in the future, I implore you to take what you are about to read to heart and to commit to acting it out.

Rule #1: Headship is not a license to dictate or degrade. As men, we are prone to emphasize our masculinity and headship by "laying down the law" with our wives. When we feel disrespected and like our rightful position is being challenged, we quickly resort to the "authority card" and demand that our wives submit! It doesn't take a genius to figure out that this method is totally ineffective. What woman in her right mind would respond well to a man who acts like a dictator? We must lead by example, not force! Often, we feel that our wives are too emotional and illogical. They vent to us about their fears and insecurities because they simply want us to listen; but unable to understand how someone could complain without desiring an immediate solution, we quickly offer a solution and make them feel as though we don't listen, understand or care. Angered that we do care but are being accused otherwise, we give up or respond defensively. To deal appropriately with our wives, we have to accept the fact that they are different from us and have been designed differently by God. They are our complement, not our clone. Whether their thought process makes sense logically or not, they feel how they feel! When our wives tell us they feel a certain way, they are right! We may think their feelings are unfounded or foolish, but the feelings are there nonetheless. It is what it is, and any attempt on our part to "fix" how they feel will inevitably result in failure. Just as Paul became all things to all men, we too must meet our wives at the point of their need and never degrade them. We must give our wives what they need rather than what we need.

Rule #2: Love through action. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul defines love for us. Here, we see that love is not so much a feeling as it is an action. Someone who is loving acts out the virtues Paul lays out to the Corinthians - namely: patience, kindness, forgiveness, and rejoicing with the truth, while rejecting jealousy, arrogance, indecency, selfishness and anger. Also included in love's attributes is the virtue of enduring all! What does this teach us about how we should love our wives? It's really quite simple (although not easy)! Loving our wives means enduring everything we encounter with them, always being patient with them,  kind toward them, and forgiving. It means not acting in jealousy, arrogance, indecency, selfishness, or anger. Countless husbands feel that this is an impossible task. They feel as though their marriage is entirely one-sided if they are to live out the virtues of love toward their wives with no hope of getting anything in return. What they fail to realize is that acting in love is the only chance they have of getting anything in return because it is the only way a wife will respond as she is designed to! Our primary motivation should be to follow God in faith, and we can trust that there is blessing in doing so. If you feel your wife is undeserving of love, consider the greatest example of love - Christ. Romans 5:9 reminds us that "God is commending this love of His to us, seeing that, while we are still sinners, Christ died for our sakes." In other words, we are completely undeserving of God's love and He shows us that love by saving us in spite of having no reason to feel anything for us in our wretched state. So, if your wife screams at you and calls you names, buy her flowers. If she hits you and degrades you, tell her how beautiful she is and how blessed you are to have her in your life. If she refuses to submit to your headship or to follow you in faith, be continually patient with her. If she is cruel to you, be kind to her. Commit to being a Christ-like husband above all else, and when you don't think you can continue one moment longer, recommit again! If, in the end, your wife leaves, you will not be at fault.

Rule #3: View your wife as your own body. In Ephesians 5, Paul gives us a wonderful analogy for marriage. He says, "Husbands... ought to be loving their own wives as their own bodies. He who is loving his own wife is loving himself. For no one at any time hates his own flesh, but is nurturing and cherishing it, according as Christ also the ecclesia." The significance of Paul's analogy is that husbands and wives are so unified that they can be seen as one single entity. When a husband wrongs his wife, he is harming himself, not just her! Furthermore, a man cannot cast away part of himself. To do so would be to destroy himself! Thus, husbands must view harming their wives as harming themselves and casting away their wives as casting away part of themselves. When we recognize this truth, the importance of cherishing and caring for our wives takes on a whole new meaning.

Rule #4: Submit to Christ, not your wife. The previous rules discussed what to do, but this rule describes what not to do. This rule is especially difficult to follow because it often seems to contradict the other rules. Yet, loving our wives through action with the virtues of 1 Corinthians 13 does not require giving into to their desires when they contradict Christ. We can still be patient, kind, selfless, and so on with our wives while, at the same time, submitting to Christ's will above theirs. This is not to say that we do not take their concerns, thoughts, and feelings into account. Our wives should be free to express whatever they wish with regards to any decision, but if their will is opposed to Christ's, it is Christ's will that must prevail.  It may seem that putting Christ above our wives will make them feel less loved and set a bad example of love; but, on the contrary, they will respect us all the more for doing what they know to really be right.

Rule #5: Serve and sacrifice for your wife. Our example as husbands for how to treat our wives is exemplified in how Christ treats His Body, the ecclesia. Paul tells us that Christ's example is best seen through the lens of service and sacrifice. Following in Christ's footsteps, we must center our leadership around these fundamentals, rooted in love. Our service to our wives should not be limited to minor acts, but should include major acts of servitude and hard work. We must be diligent in providing for our wives and protecting them. This often requires a great deal of sacrifice, even to the point of dying for our wives if need be!

I am living proof that the biblical model I have provided here works! God has graciously granted me the blessing of experiencing immense trial in my marriage so that I can proclaim the effectiveness of His ideal to my brothers. If you are experiencing difficulty in your marriage or know someone who is, these biblical principles are the best tools for fixing what seems hopelessly broken. Commit to putting them into practice at all cost. Be the man God calls you to be!

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

Sunday, May 5, 2013

God's Chain of Command

For six years, I served in the Army National Guard. If there's one thing of value I learned firsthand during my service, it's that organization works and disorganization doesn't. This seems obvious enough, but much of the world hasn't yet caught onto this simple truth. Rather than accept and fulfill their proper roles, people fight to obtain what they consider to be a superior role. As a result, the system cannot function and inevitably breaks down. Nowhere is this truth more apparent than with the family structure in modern America.

Every organization has a chain of command. Companies have a Chief Executive Officer, or CEO, at the top of the chain who functions singularly as the highest point of authority. Beneath the CEO is a collective of a few other key leaders, such as a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and Chief Operations Officer (COO), who manage those beneath them but answer to the CEO. Beneath these leaders is a larger management team composed of managers who manage large departments or teams within the corporation. The chain, then, exists as a pyramid; the bottom of the pyramid, or company, is the largest segment, composed of the most workers. As the chain moves up, it gets increasingly smaller until its singular top - the President or CEO. The higher individuals are in the chain of command, the more responsibility they have, and the more they are compensated for that responsibility. At each stage of the pyramid, or chain, lower ranking members submit and answer to those immediately above them in the chain. Since each leader takes direction from a higher authority, disobedience to an immediate supervisor is considered disobedience to a higher one. If each member of the corporation accepts and fulfills his unique role, the system runs like a well-oiled machine; if not, it falls apart.

In the military, the chain of command functions no differently. The base of the pyramid consists of hundreds of thousands of enlisted soldiers who answer to a smaller segment of non-commissioned officers, who in turn answer to an even smaller segment of commissioned officers, who answer to a handful of Joint Chiefs, and finally to the singular President of the country - the "Commander in Chief."

As one of the majority of enlisted soldiers, I frequently lamented the fact that I was at the bottom of the chain. I was confident that I could do a better job than many of the sergeants I answered to and many of their superior officers as well. Had I acted above my rank or disobeyed orders, though, I would have hindered the singular purpose that had been passed down throughout the chain of command. It was crystal clear that in order for the the mission to succeed, I had to know my role and act accordingly, regardless of how I felt.

 We often associate the chain of command structure with the secular world, but when we examine Scripture we discover that this is God's model, not man's. Throughout the eons, God has organized His structure as a pyramid consisting of many at the bottom and one at the top. This is true for Israel, the Body of Christ, and, on a smaller scale, the family unit. Each of these three demands a discussion all on its own, but for our purposes here I will focus on the family structure alone.

God's chain of command for the family is as follows (from top to bottom): God Himself - Christ - Husband - Wife or Wives - Children. Paul lays out this model clearly in Ephesians 5 and 6 where he instructs, "Let the wives be subject to their own husbands, as to the Lord, for the husband is head of the wife even as Christ is Head of the ecclesia, and He is the Saviour of the body. Nevertheless, as the ecclesia is subject to Christ, thus are the wives also to their husbands in everything" (Eph. 5:22-24). Paul then moves further down the chain and says, "Children, be obeying your parents, in the Lord, for this is just. 'Honor your father and mother' (which is the first precept with a promise), that it may be becoming well with you, and you should be a long time on the earth" (6:1-3).

God's purpose for this model in the family is to ensure that His will for the family is passed down and carried out effectively. Wives are instructed to submit to their husbands because their husbands are instructed to submit to Christ. In the same way, children are instructed to obey their parents because both parents are to obey Christ. Christ Himself, then, submits to the Father.

Many argue that God's model for the family is, in reality, often ineffective because husbands are imperfect and do not always submit to Christ. As a result, wives attempt to usurp their husbands and take on the husband's God-given role. In the same sense, husbands, overwhelmed with their increased responsibility and eager to avoid arguing, often allow their wives to take on the role of husband via role reversal. In either case, the family cannot function as intended.

Without a doubt, women are justified in their claim that most men today do not live in submission to Christ. What is the answer to this dilemma, if not to take on the husband's role?

As a soldier, I was required to obey every order I was given, unless the order was clearly unlawful. If I obeyed an unlawful order, I was subject to correction just as if I had disobeyed a lawful order. Many orders were somewhat questionable, but very few were clearly unlawful. In fact, in my entire career as a soldier, I was never once given an obvious unlawful order. Thus, ninety-nine percent of the time, obedience is required and right.

The same is true for marriage with a faithful husband. When the husband earnestly seeks God's will in submission to Christ, the wife will rarely (if ever) be justified in not submitting. To do so would be to refuse submission to Christ. On the other hand, if a husband lives in constant rejection of God's ideal for his family, the wife finds herself in a tough spot. In such a case, she may be obeying an "unlawful" order if she submits. Should she refuse to submit, take on the husband's role, both or neither?

When we understand the chain of command, questions like this become much easier to answer. The husband, wife, and children of a family all have God-given roles that do not change as long as the family remains intact. If a wife is unable to submit to an unfaithful husband, she is able to still fulfill her role as a wife and mother. In the absence of a believing husband, she can still submit to Christ herself and lead her subordinate children in godliness. In doing so, she is not ruling over her husband, but is instead fulfilling her own role as she should.

The feminist movement has swept the nation in recent decades due to the feeling of inferiority women have toward their husbands and men in general. They feel that a lower position on the chain equates to a position of less importance.

The pyramid structure seems to support this notion. After all, the CEO of a company earns the most money in a corporation, and God gets the most glory in the family structure. What most fail to realize, though, is that in order for the organization to function efficiently, the higher ranking members must take care of the lower ranking members. A CEO won't last long in his position if he doesn't take care of the many workers who are in the field every day working hard to manufacture, market, and sell the company's products. Likewise, the family will not function if its immediate head, the husband, doesn't take care of his family. This is why Paul instructs husbands to love their wives as their own bodies (Eph. 5:28) and says that a husband who does not provide for his family has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8).

If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that it's much easier to be happy with less responsibility. As a child, I hated being under my parents' authority and longed for the day I would become an adult, free to make my own decisions. When I became an adult, I quickly realized how foolish that desire was and wished I could be a kid again, under my parents' authority but with less responsibility and more freedom to have fun. No doubt, many wives feel the same way in regards to their husbands.

It's true that "with great power comes great responsibility." Headship is indeed a position of honor, but it is a position most would gladly give up to avoid its burden. Once a husband recognizes his responsibility to submit to Christ and his wife recognizes that her position is only different - not inferior - to her husband's, the marriage can thrive as God intended.

If you struggle with accepting your God-given role as a husband or wife, consider the chain of command. Forsake the faulty view that your role is less important, and commit to fulfilling your role as God intended. If you are a husband, commit to leading your family with a fixed commitment to submit to Christ in all things. If you are a wife, submit to your husband in everything, for in doing so you are submitting to Christ.

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

Friday, May 3, 2013

Taking the Lord's Name in Vain - Oh, My God!

Our adversary is very clever. For millennia, he has been working tirelessly to cloud the minds of
humanity by means of underhanded, subtle trickery. Challenge to obvious truth is too risky, but stirring confusion with what is already confusing is an inevitable recipe for success.

The examples of Satan's brilliance in this area are nearly endless. Christendom as a whole has bought into his many lies, hook line and sinker. Satan wants Christians to deny the literal death of Christ; what bettter way to accomplish his task than to introduce a concept like the trinity, which denies Christ's death while at the same time proclaiming His majesty as "God?" Our enemy thrives on Christians rejecting God's sovereignty. Is there a better way to convince them that they are more powerful than their Maker than by introducing the false doctrine of free will, which makes God seem generous but at the same time powerless?

Christendom is littered with popular vignettes that seem, on their surface, to line up with Scripture, but in reality oppose it. Here are a few examples: "All sins are equal in the eyes of God," "God helps those who help themselves," "Jesus is my copilot," "Christians must go to church," and "prayer changes things."

One of these more subtle lies is the notion that taking the Lord's name in vain means saying "Oh, my God" or "God, damn it." When asked, most Christians claim that these phrases take the Lord's name in vain by using His name in an "empty" or "meaningless" way. After all - they reason - God's name should not be used flippantly or disrespectfully.

When we read through the Law of Moses and discover that God forbade taking His name in vain as one of the ten commandments to the Hebrews, we should pause to consider whether something as trifle as saying "Oh my God" really constitutes taking the Lord's name in vain. Among the commandments, we find that God's ideal includes not murdering, stealing, or committing adultery. Can a simple three-word phrase really measure up to those sins? Is an everyday phrase on the same level? Can we picture God squirming in anguish when His name is used by someone who is merely reacting in surprise?

To anyone with a brain, it should be crystal clear that taking the Lord's name in vain does not mean saying "Oh my God" or "God damn it!" What, then, does it mean?

Let's first examine the two notorious phrases. What are we saying when we say "Oh, my God?" For one, we are calling out to God! We are acknowledging His existence, and in our surprise, we are actually acknowledging His sovereignty in a sense. Granted, those who frequently use the phrase do not think of this when they say it, but the phrase implies this nonetheless. What about the phrase "God damn it?" This undoubtedly seems far worse to most because it includes the word "damn." Surely this must be an example of taking the Lord's name in vain!

But is it? What are we really saying when we say "God, damn it?" In frustration, we are asking God to "damn," or "curse" the things that caused us frustration. In the original text, to "damn" meant to "down-judge." We might as well say, "God, curse this!" Is there any harm in asking God to curse something that's harmful?

If taking the Lord's name in vain doesn't mean what most think it means, we should attempt to determine what it does mean. As with most dilemmas, we should consult an accurate translation of Scripture to arrive at the truth. When we do (such as the Concordant), we discover that taking the Lord's name in vain means using His name in a futile, or useless way, with no practical result.

God is not concerned with people referencing Him as part of a common phrase. What He is concerned about is people taking up His name for no purpose or for falsity. If I make a false and detrimental claim in the name of God, I have taken His name in vain because I have ascribed His name to something He never decreed. I have "forged His signature," in a sense. To "take" God's name is to use His name. Using His name falsely is taking His name in vain.

A while back, my daughter said "Oh, my God." A while back, Benny Hinn said, "In the name of God I cast out your demon." Which of the two took the Lord's name in vain?

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Are We ALL God's Children?

The children of the flesh, not these are the children of God, but the children of the promise is He 
reckoning for the seed.                 -Romans 9:8

One of Christendom's most popular phrases is "we are all the children of God." Christians habitually use this phrase in an effort to demonstrate God's love while at the same time hypocritically believing He delights in tormenting nearly all of His children without end. Popes have frequently used the phrase when addressing large crowds from around the world in an effort to promote unity and ecumenism, and church billboards bear the phrase along highways at every turn. 

The claim that all people are God's children appears to promote God's loving nature and providence. It seems on its surface to be harmless and immune to speculation. Yet, as is the case with most of Christendom's most popular idioms, the notion that all people are God's children is unbiblical and misleading. 

In the passage above, Paul plainly informs the Romans that only the children of the promise bear the right to be called "God's children." In Colossians 1:16, though, Paul points out that everyone is created by God, which seems to indicate that we are all, by nature, His children. In order to understand Paul, we must recognize what, exactly, is meant by the term "child of God." 

The term "child" is just that - a term. It is a title which, like all titles, takes on a particular meaning in relation to the context in which it is used. This fact is true of all titles in all languages. A good example of this fact can be seen with the title "god." In 2 Corinthians 4:4, Satan is referred to as the "god of this eon." This seems shocking until we recognize that "god" is a title which derives its meaning from context. A "god," by definition, is a subjector - one who, by authority, subjects others beneath himself. It is fitting, then, that Satan be labeled a god, but not in the same sense as the Almighty God (with a capital "G"). 

Deciphering titles is extremely important as we attempt to uncover truth. By referring to Christ as "God," we may mean that He is in every way coequal with the Father, or that He is a subjector. If we mean the former, we make a grave error and ultimately deny the literal death of Christ; if we mean the latter, we recognize the truth. It is crucial to always narrowly define titles.

When we apply this rule to the term "children," it becomes clear that we must distinguish between the various meanings of the title "child" in the Scriptures. We are all God's children in the sense that we are all His creation and under His sovereign control, but we are not all His children in terms of our sonship

We tend to define what it means to be a child in biological terms. I refer to myself as the child of my parents because I am their biological offspring. In relation to God, though, no one except Christ has ever been biologically fathered by God. To be God's child, then, is not defined in biological terms, but in spiritual terms. How is one, according to Scripture then, a child of God?

In John 1:12-13, we read, "Yet whoever obtained Him, to them He gives the right to become children of God, to those who are believing in His name, who were begotten, not of bloods, neither of the will of the flesh, neither of the will of a man, but of God." Likewise, 1 John 3:1 states, "Perceive what manner of love the Father has given us, that we may be called children of God! And we are! Therefore the world does not know us, for it did not know Him."

Writing to Israel, John, like Paul, makes it clear that believers bear the unique right to be called the children of God. He makes the distinction between believers and those of the world who "did not know" God. In John 8:42-44, we witness Jesus rebuking the Pharisees, saying, "If God were your Father, you would have loved Me" and, "You are of your father, the Adversary."

Were the Pharisees created by God and in His image? Yes. Did Jesus refer to them as the children of God? No. He did the complete opposite by calling them children of the Adversary! 

As believers, we have been given the glorious privilege to be called the children of God! Through faith, we have been adopted as sons (Rom. 8:14-16, Gal. 3:26 & 4:5-6, Eph. 1:5). As God's adopted children, we are "especially saved" (1 Tim. 4:10) and graciously granted eonian life.

Yet, as the Creator of all, God will eventually show Himself to be the Father of all! Though unbelievers do not recognize God's fatherhood now, they one day will when He draws all men to Himself (John 12:32, 1 Cor. 15:28). They will be separated from their present father, the Adversary, and adopted by their loving Father Who, through His only begotten Son, has redeemed them. For now, believers alone bear the right to be called God's children, but in due time everyone will learn to cry "Abba, Father!"

© 2013 by Stephen Hill 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Servant or a Slave?

I recently watched a short video of a Bible translation committee debating how to translate a particular Greek word. In an effort to be consistent, the committee members agreed from the outset that once they determined how to translate the word, they would translate it the same way in every passage it appears. The word they debated was the Greek word doulos.

The KJV translates doulos consistently as "servant" (as do most versions), and a handful of versions (including the Concordant Version) translate it as "slave." The committee in the video debated over which of these two English words would most appropriately communicate the meaning of the original Greek. Nearly every member of the committee agreed that "slave" is, in fact, the accurate transliteration of the Greek doulos. However, the majority felt that "slave" possesses too negative a connotation and that modern readers would be misled by the true translation or too disgusted to appreciate the text. In the end, the committee concluded, by majority vote, to translate doulos as "servant" in spite of its inaccuracy.

This tragic and all too common occurrence serves as an example of how poorly most Bible translations are produced. Rather than trusting in God's ability to communicate His truth in the most effective way, translators feel the need to help God by making His message more palatable. In doing so, countless readers are misled.

In this article, I will attempt to demonstrate just how detrimental the error of this translation committee is and why we who seek truth should care. Rather than attempt to "help" God and make this subject easier to swallow, I will present His Word, just as it is, and trust in its ability to communicate truth to the reader.

Strong's defines doulos as "a slave... in a qualified sense of subjection or subservience." The word is derived from the Greek deo, meaning "to bind... in bonds, knit, tie, etc." A doulos, then, is a slave or bondsman, literally bound in service.

To most, the distinction between a slave and a servant is not a matter of vital importance. The two terms seem to be more or less interchangeable. A slave certainly serves, and many servants may feel like slaves. Yet there is, in fact, a significant difference between these two terms - namely, that a servant acts voluntarily and is hired by his master, whereas a slave's action is often involuntary and he is owned by his master. In addition, a slave is bound while a servant is unbound. 

The committee members I discussed were certainly correct in their assessment that slavery bears an intensely negative connotation in our modern age. As Americans, we recall the brutal treatment of many slaves leading up to the Civil War, and this imagery is so imbedded in our minds that we can hardly escape associating the term with tragedy. To fully appreciate Paul's meaning when he uses the term, we must attempt to view slavery in light of what our apostle meant and not what our minds conjure up.

Understanding that we are slaves of God and Christ and not mere servants causes us to see our sonship in a new light. It causes us to recognize that we are owned by our Maker as Christ has paid a price for us. We are bound to God as sons, not commissioned as strangers.

Paul confidently identified himself as a "slave of Christ Jesus" (Rom. 1:1, Gal. 1:10, Phil. 1:1) and a "slave of God" (Tit. 1:1). This title is not something to be ashamed of in Paul's view, but is rather a glorious position to hold! As imitators of our apostle, we should strive to view our slavery to God and Christ in the same way. Yet how is this possible when slavery seems to possess no benefits? How is it that we are "free in Christ" (Rom. 8:2, Gal. 5:1) but also His slaves?

Paul explains this paradox in 1 Corinthians 7 where he states, "In the Lord, he who is being called a slave, is the Lord's freedman. Likewise, he who is being called, being free, is a slave of Christ. With a price are you bought" (1 Cor. 7:22).

So, according to Paul, our slavery to Christ makes us free. Free from what, though? Fortunately, Paul also answers this question. In Romans 8:2, we read that "the spirit's law of life in Christ Jesus frees you from the law of sin and death" and in verse 21 that we "shall be freed from the slavery of corruption."

As we are no longer slaves to sin and death, we are now sons; and as sons, enjoyers of an "allotment from God, through Christ" (Gal. 4:7). We are bound as slaves to God - not in the worldly sense as loathsome, despised creatures - but as cherished sons. Unlike worldly slave masters who were cruel and abusive, our Father - the perfect "Slave Master" - is perfect and loving. Our slavery to God and Christ is, in every sense, the opposite of our previous slavery to sin and death!

In conclusion, Paul's depiction of our dual slavery and freedom in God and Christ is this: We are slaves, bought and owned by our Master, Who is the perfect and loving Caregiver. Our slavery, which we cannot voluntarily enter or leave, provides us with freedom from the bondage of sin and death and binds us, instead, to life and glory. We are no longer slaves to sin and death, but are slaves now to God and Christ, making us sons and enjoyers of the allotment.

Thank God that we are His slaves, not merely His servants!

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Irony of Spiritual Maturity

When we hear the term "maturity," we tend to equate it with good behavior and adulthood. To the world - and, in fact, most believers - maturity is best defined in terms of age and conduct. We may refer to a teenager as "mature" because he is going through puberty. In this sense, maturity bears a physical definition. Then again, we may refer to a much younger child as "mature" because she acts much older than her age. In this case, maturity is defined in terms of conduct rather than age or physical characteristics. To the world, maturity, in every sense, revolves around adulthood. To be mature in the world's eyes, we must be an adult, act like an adult, or both.

Considering how opposite the world's ways are to God's, it will do us well to consult the Scriptures in search of God's definition for what it means to be mature as a believer, and in particular, what it means to be spiritually mature. When we do, we find (not surprisingly) that the world's definition of maturity leaves much to be desired.

The loftiest goal of every believer should be to come into a greater realization of God and His Son. God desires to be known, and the more we understand Who He is, the better we know Him. It stands to reason, then, that knowledge should be one of our primary endeavors. Paul continually confirms this in his epistles. To the Corinthians, Paul upheld knowledge as a spiritual gift (1 Cor. 12:8). To the Colossians, he shared his prayer that they would be "filled full with the realization of [God's] will, in all wisdom and spiritual understanding... growing in the realization of God" (Col. 1:9-10). To the Ephesians, he stressed "the realization of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature of the complement of the Christ, that we may by no means still be minors" (Eph. 4:13-14).

Yet in spite of Paul's emphasis on knowledge, we also witness him telling the Corinthians that "knowledge puffs up, yet love builds up" (1 Cor. 8:1). Paul's words here may be better understood with the phrasing "knowledge inflates pride, but love edifies." Growing in knowledge, therefore, requires a great deal of humility. We must be careful to always keep our ego at bay as increasing in knowledge has the potential to give us a feeling of superiority.

Paul often preached a different message to the nations than Jesus preached to Israel, but in this case we find what it means to be spiritually mature in Jesus' words as well as Paul's. Contrary to the popular worldview that maturity revolves around adulthood, Jesus informed the Jews that "who, then, will be humbling himself as [a] little child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens" (Matt. 18:4, Lu. 18:17). What exactly does Jesus' statement mean? If we are to endeavor to increase in our knowledge, how can we also be like little children who are greatly lacking in knowledge?

This is the irony of spiritual maturity. To be mature, we must increase in knowledge while, at the same time, becoming more child-like. As adults, we have experienced the realities and hardships of life and tend to be more skeptical, cynical, and pessimistic. We also tend to be more arrogant because of our increased knowledge. Children, on the other hand are, by their very nature, humble because they rely on their parents and other adults to care for them and to teach them everything. They believe all things, endure all things, and hope for all things. Because of their humility, children are much more apt to live out faith and love. They are more trusting, and that trust is a key to maturity.

To the world, being more "adult" means being independent and untrusting. Behaving like an adult means adhering to societally accepted norms. For the believer, rooted in true knowledge of God and strong faith, we strive for the exact opposite. As we grow in faith, we become increasingly more dependent on our Father, more trusting of Him, and more eager to follow His ways than the world's. In doing so, we experience persecution from others who view us as ignorant and foolish (i.e., more child-like).

It is important to note that when Jesus upheld children as a model He was not promoting a childish lack of knowledge or poor behavior. He was very specific in the child-like quality He praised, which is humility. The Pharisees possessed knowledge coupled with a great deal of pride, and Jesus stressed their need for humility to be mature. In saying "we see" their sin remained.

In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul refers to the Corinthians as "minors in Christ" to whom he gave milk to drink rather than solid food to eat (spiritually speaking). The reason, according to Paul, is that they were "still fleshly... walking according to man." The issue among the ecclesia at Corinth was not a lack of knowledge; it was their lack of humility which caused them to act inappropriately. They knew the message Paul had preached to them, but they reacted in a worldly (fleshly) way by letting their knowledge inflate their pride, whereas a humble response would have caused them to react in a godly (spiritual) way.

Thus, Paul's use of the term "minors" is not a contradiction of Jesus' words on children. The Corinthians Paul addressed were "minors" in the sense that they possessed knowledge of the truth but had fallen into the trap of putting their knowledge above love for one another. Like the Pharisees, they made the mistake of being too prideful because of their knowledge. Had they been mature, they would have put love above all. In this sense, they would have actually been more child-like.

From the examples of Jesus and Paul, we see that spiritual maturity requires grown-up knowledge coupled with child-like humility. If either is missing, we will remain minors in Christ. The good news is that the more we come into a true knowledge and understanding of our Father, the more child-like we will become! The more we know of God's goodness, the more we will trust Him as a child trusts his parents. The more we recognize His perfection, the more we will believe His promises as a child believes. The more we understand the wonders of grace, the more humble we will become.

In short, spiritual maturity is an ironic equation. Adult-like knowledge, plus child-like humility, equals spiritual maturity. To the world, an increase in knowledge leads to a decrease in faith; but to those who believe, the opposite is true. The more we know our Father, the more we trust Him and yearn to be His faithful children.

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Learning to Cry "Daddy!"

Throughout His Word, God refers to Himself by many different titles. Each of these titles possesses a specific meaning which is intended to convey a unique characteristic of God's holiness, might, and provision. In light of this fact, it is no surprise that God first revealed many of His titles to Israel in order to provide His people with a fuller and more intimate understanding of His nature.

When we confine our search for titles to the epistles of our apostle, Paul, we find an interesting trend. Unlike the Hebrew Scriptures which emphasize an endless array of God's characteristics, Paul confines His depiction of God almost exclusively to one title - that of Father.

Of course, Paul often refers to God simply as "God," but even in those cases He often includes the title "Father" along with "God." In fact, in every single one of his epistles, Paul begins with a brief self-acknowledgement followed by the greeting, "Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ." The only exceptions to this rule are his letters to Timothy in which he includes "mercy" with his greeting: "Grace, mercy, peace, from God, our Father, and Christ Jesus, our Lord." 

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul extends his greeting by referring to God as the "Father of pities and God of all consolation." Then, in Ephesians 1:17, he calls Him the "Father of glory."

Clearly, Paul made it a point to emphasize God's nature as our Father above the many other titles He possesses. As imitators of Paul and members of His evangel, we would do well to take this fact to heart as we come into a greater realization of God's relationship to us. We are privileged to view God in a much more intimate way than Israel previously had been allowed. Having the spirit of sonship, we can cry "Abba, Father!" (Rom. 8:15) and call God not only by the title Father, but by the affectionate, warm title, "Daddy!"

When we fully grasp this amazing and heart warming truth, all our fears subside. For, what child fears a loving father? When we recognize the comforting closeness of our Dad, it is impossible to not trust Him. For, what son or daughter refuses to trust completely in their daddy when they know he is working all out for their good (Rom. 8:28)? 

No matter what we face, we know that it is part of our Father's perfect plan for our lives and that it is for our good! We have, literally, nothing to fear!

In John 13, we see a beautiful image of what our relationship to our Daddy looks like. In this passage, the beloved disciple John is "lying back in the bosom of Jesus." As the visible image of the invisible Father, we can look to Jesus to see what our relationship with the Father looks like in tangible form. We can picture ourselves, like John, resting against our Daddy in complete comfort and peace.

If you have not come to view God as your perfect, loving, and comforting Father, turn to Paul's epistles. Do not hold yourself hostage by a false, fearful view of God as a tyrant or the view Israel had prior to Christ's death and resurrection. Be a son or daughter as you are a son or daughter. Be at peace as you picture yourself resting in your comforting Daddy's loving arms. 

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Learning to Walk the Talk

A man had two sons; and coming to the first, he said, "Son, go work today in my vineyard." He answered, "I will, sir," but went not. And coming to the second, he said the same. And he answering, said, "I will not;" but afterwards repenting, he went. Which of the two performed the father's will? They say, "The latter."            

-Matthew 21:28-31, Emphatic Diaglott

This passage from Matthew is one of the lesser-known of Jesus' ministry. This may be due, in part, to the fact that it is shorter than the majority of Jesus' parables. While less known and shorter, however, it is no less meaningful.

In this parable, Jesus paints the picture of two sons who react in opposing ways to their father's request. The first son states that he will do what his father requests but does not keep his word, while the second initially refuses and then changes his mind. Jesus asks, "Which of the two performed the father's will?" The correct answer, as indicated in the text, is the son who actually does his father's will in spite of initially saying he wouldn't.

How often do you say "no" to God when initially confronted with His will? Each and every one of us can identify with one of the two brothers in this parable with nearly every major decision in our lives. We tend to either say "yes" but not act upon our word, or say "no" and eventually do what is right.

We've all heard the slogan, "You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?" Unlike the majority of Christendom's mantras, this one is actually valid. In His parable of the two sons, Jesus depicts one son who merely says (talks), while another actually does (walks). The son who "walks" is given credit as the one who does his father's will, in spite of his initial refusal.

This parable teaches us two important lessons. First: we do no not have to say "yes" from the outset to do God's will. What's important is that we eventually do it! Second: our actions are more important than our words. What we actually do is more meaningful than what we merely say we will do.

Throughout my life, I have, at times, said that I would do certain things and have delayed doing them or, even, never done them. In each instance where I have neglected to act, the results have not been favorable. On the other hand, I have occasionally refused to act at first but have decided to act at a later date. In those cases, the results have been favorable.

In Jesus' story, the son who said "yes" would have been viewed more favorably by his father for his initial obedience. Without hesitation, he agreed to do what his father asked. On the contrary, the other son whose heart seemed, at first, to be rebellious, would have been viewed less favorably by his father. When all was said and done and the father knew what each son had done, he would have viewed each son in an opposite light. The one son's words mean nothing when he doesn't act; the other son's eventual action means everything in spite of his negative words.

I meet many people who struggle with doing, at first, what they know to be right. These people allow their fears to prevent them from being unquestionably obedient to God. This makes sense, of course, given the fact that a life of faith is filled with trial and suffering which nobody welcomes with open arms. In Jesus' story about the two sons, neither son wanted to work in the father's vineyard; neither welcomed the idea of manual labor in the hot sun. Their willingness to work or not work was dependent on their desire to obey their father and trust in his judgment. The same can be said of us. When confronted with God's will in our personal lives, we will rarely want to do it. It will seem in nearly every case to be the harder road. Faithfulness, then, demands trust in God's promises which leads us to obey.

Jesus taught this story to demonstrate to the self-righteous Pharisees that it was not enough for them to merely say "yes" to God. Their words made them appear obedient, but their actions proved that they were disobedient. No doubt, this hypocritical paradigm is every bit as common among the religious elite today.

In Jesus' example of the two sons, neither son is entirely in the right; neither is completely mature. While the righteous son does eventually do his father's will, his initial response was not what it should have been. Rather than say "no" and eventually do his father's will, he should have said "yes" and immediately done it. The more we mature in our faith, the more we will say "yes" like the one son and do as God instructs like the other. We should strive to both say and do what is right.

Ask yourself which son you tend to align with. Do you say "yes" to God but never act accordingly, or do you say "no" and eventually overcome your fears? If your actions don't line up with your words, understand that it is not enough to merely say "yes." Your words are meaningless when they are not supported with action. On the other hand, if you tend to be defiant out of fear but eventually do what is right, make a commitment to be bold in your faith. Recognize that while following God may mean more trial at first, it means more blessing in the long run. Let your words and your deeds demonstrate a life of faithful obedience. Let your "walk" always match your "talk."

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The ABSOLUTE Sovereignty of God

"Now at [Christ's] already drawing near to the descent of the mount of Olives, the entire multitude of the disciples begins rejoicing, praising God with a loud voice concerning all the powerful deeds which they perceived, saying, 'Blessed be the King coming in the name of the Lord! In heaven peace, and glory among the highest!' And some of the Pharisees from the throng say to Him, 'Teacher, rebuke your disciples!' And answering, He said to them, 'I am saying to you that, if ever these will be silent, the stones will be crying.'"                        
- Luke 19:37-40

For me, this passage in Luke is one of the most moving in all of Scripture. Imagine Jesus walking amidst a quiet crowd and the inanimate stones on the ground suddenly coming to life, crying out in praise! Imagine being one of the Pharisees He addressed with such a humbling, powerful claim.

More than anything, this passage serves to prove the absolute sovereignty of God. It is important that we include "absolute" or a similarly all-encompassing term when we describe God's sovereignty because, unlike the sovereignty of earthly rulers, God's sovereignty is not limited in any way. He is in complete control over everything in His creation, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

Nearly all professing Christians uphold God's sovereignty on the surface; but dig beneath the surface and you will soon discover many underlying layers which prove that they really view God as anything but sovereign. The God of Christendom is one of great power but shocking inability. He has the desire and power to save all humanity, but man's authority overpowers His will. He intends for the world to be perfect, but man's continual failure forces Him to, instead, spend all of His time putting out fires. In short, the God of Christendom is not the RulER of men; He is the RulED of men.

The greatest assault on the sovereignty of God is the false doctrine of man's free will. In order for man's will to be "free," God must relinquish His authority. Many make the claim that God sovereignly chooses to give man free will. In this way, God appears to retain His control when He has actually given it up. Few claims defy logic as much as this one.

"Sovereign" is a title which is upheld by a set of specific qualities. When the qualities that define the title are absent, the title is no longer valid. Thus, for God to be called "sovereign," He must be sovereign! He cannot give up the characteristics that define His title and still retain the title. According to the doctrine of man's free will, it is man, not God, who is - by definition - sovereign.

Fortunately, Christendom's assault on God's sovereignty is, itself, under God's sovereign control. God has planned man's ignorance and every other wicked occurrence (Is. 45:7) in order to fulfill His purpose. He "locks up all together in stubbornness, that He should be merciful to all" (Rom. 11:32). Man's failure was not a surprise to God - it was planned by Him! Every moment of every life has been penned before it's begun by the Great Author Who has our every hair numbered (Ma. 10:30). No particle of dust, gust of wind, blade of grass or grain of sand moves along its course apart from the Almighty Creator's command. The sun, moon and stars radiate their light and heat at their Maker's direction. All things - great or small, vast or microscopic - are created, sustained and directed at every second by the hand of Almighty God.

It is impossible for us in our current mortal state to come even close to grasping the awesomeness of God. We can hardly do two things at once, let alone control every atom in existence! God spoke creation into existence. (Please read the prior sentence again.) Questioning God's power is entirely out of the question. 

Because of man's inability to fathom the level of God's control, many view Him as more of a general manager Who controls the "big" things but doesn't bother with the "small" things. I recently had lunch with a former coworker who is on the board for a seminary in Ohio, and we discussed the sovereignty of God during our time together. He was quite taken aback by my claim that God manages even the most seemingly insignificant details of creation, and in response he said, "Well, I believe God controls the big things but not every minor detail. For example, I believe that He orchestrated us both coming to work for the same company, but not that He orchestrated us having lunch together today."

This attitude toward God's sovereignty is, without a doubt, the norm. Yet, where do we draw the line? Is it any easier for God to manage the trillions of "big" things in life than the big and small? If any of the "small" things that are not under God's control happen to cause a problem, what is the result? Clearly, if God is sovereign over all creation, there is nothing left to chance and nothing He regards as unimportant.

Proverbs 16:33 says, "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord." The casting of lots was an ancient custom for randomly choosing the winner of a prize. We see the casting of lots several times in Scripture, including among the Roman soldiers at Christ's crucifixion and when the disciples chose Matthias to replace Judas. Small bits of stone, wood or other materials (the lots) were thrown (cast) into a garment (lap), and each lot was assigned to one person. The one whose lot fell out first won the prize. 

No doubt, most people view this type of activity as entirely random (one of the "small" things God doesn't bother managing); but this passage in Proverbs informs us that what's random to us isn't random at all to God. The decision of the lot - its direction - is ordained by God. 

The more we come into a realization of God's sovereignty, the more humble and at peace we become. When we see dust particles shimmering in a beam of light and realize that each of their courses is plotted by God, we are able to do nothing but fall to our knees in awe. When we recognize that every action and event is not only allowed by God but commanded by Him, we can rest assured, knowing that nothing is left to chance and that all will turn out just as it should. Most importantly, when we realize that it is God's will, not ours, that is free, we can experience the joy that comes from knowing that our Father sent His Son to save all without giving anyone the "freedom" to reject Him.

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Dangers of Censorship

Close your eyes, cover your ears, shut your mouth, and keep your hands in your pockets. This is the essence of Christian censorship. Logically, censorship seems to make perfect sense. It stands to reason that the best way to combat sin is to avoid all temptation. As a result, parents forbid their children from watching movies with a rating higher than "G;" teenagers are forbidden from dancing out of fear that this "debaucherous" activity will lead to wild promiscuity; and books like Every Man's Battle encourage men to not so much as glance at a beautiful woman.

How can we describe the outcome of censorship? In a word: failure. Contrary to what logic suggests, censorship accomplishes exactly the opposite of what it is intended to accomplish. The failure of censorship is so extreme that it has become comical. The rebellious nature of many pastors' kids, for example, has become so commonplace that they are now jokingly referred to as "PK"s. 

But why is censorship so unsuccessful? How can complete avoidance of what's wrong lead to a life completely filled with wrongdoing? In order to answer this question, we must first understand one foundational truth: it is impossible to accept that Christ has freed us (Gal. 5:1) and to be at peace when we place ourselves in self-made bondage. 

The old adage, "Curiosity killed the cat," doesn't apply to felines only. When people are entirely forbidden from something, they become obsessed with it. Look no further than the beginning of creation to find a perfect example of this fact. Adam and Eve were given permission to eat the fruit of every tree in the Garden of Eden except that of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They were given an endless array of choices which provided more than enough options to satisfy their needs, but they obsessed over the one tree that was deemed off-limits. Ultimately, their obsession led to disobedience of what should have been a simple rule and the entrance of death into the world! Logically, one would conclude that Adam and Eve should have easily been able to follow one simple rule when they were free to partake in so much else; but reality defied logic and the results were devastating.

David is another great biblical example of how forbiddance leads to obsession and wrongdoing. David's obsession with Bathsheba was due not only to her beauty, but to the fact that she already belonged to another man. Unlike David's existing wives and many of the other beautiful women in the kingdom, Bathsheba was off-limits. Obsessed with having what he couldn't have, David used his authority as king to ensure the death of Bathsheba's husband, Uriah, in battle. Like Adam and Eve, David should have been content with the endless supply of women God had given him, but his obsession with Bathsheba as an unattainable prize led him to commit murder!

In addition to biblical evidence, we see the outcome of strict prohibition in our daily lives. The beginning of each year is marked by resolutions to eat better, exercise more and lead a healthier lifestyle. Numerous studies have shown that the people who completely forbid themselves from eating their favorite foods tend to give up on their diets much earlier than those who limit their favorite foods but don't forbid them entirely. The woman who refuses to eat any chocolate becomes so obsessed with it that she gives up after a few days and eats an entire bag. On the other hand, her friend who commits to eating one small piece of chocolate a day remains content with her decreased allowance and sticks to her plan. When we commit to dieting, we immediately obsess over the foods we can't have, to the point where we can think of hardly anything else. Just thinking of the word "diet" induces panic. We sink into a state of perpetual worry and stress and soon realize that the only way to end our worry is to overindulge in what was previously not allowed.

When I was a teenager, two brothers from the church my family attended stayed the night at our home. The parents of these brothers were incredibly strict and forbid their sons from all forms of worldly pleasure which they deemed inappropriate. While watching a movie, a brief scene came on the screen in which a woman was dancing topless on a bar. The brothers (who were in their mid-teens at the time) said that the brief, three second clip was "the most they had ever seen." I will spare the reader the details, but suffice it to say, what happened next was shocking. Had these boys been taught to appreciate the beauty of the female form as God's crowning creative achievement, they would certainly not have responded to a brief movie scene in such an animalistic fashion. Their instinctive reaction was the inevitable result of being told their entire lives that sexuality and female beauty were evil and to be avoided.

Many Christian spouses - especially wives - have a very difficult time viewing marital sex as a God-given blessing that is to be enjoyed. After being told their entire lives that sex is dirty and evil, it is almost impossible for them to recognize that making love to their spouse is anything but wrong. As a result, a large percentage of divorces that occur in the first few years of marriage are due to sexual frustration.

Ultimately, the dangers of censorship are rooted in a lack of knowledge. While Adam and David serve as good models for how forbiddance leads to obsession and sin, these men were not prohibited from understanding the consequences of their actions. When parents prohibit their children from even knowing about the things they view as harmful, their children will experience obsession to a much greater degree when they become acquainted with those things down the road. This is why children who are strictly sheltered tend to be very rebellious when they get older. The best parenting model, therefore, is one that exposes a child to all things but teaches him what is expedient versus harmful.

It is a shame that most Christians miss out entirely on the many blessings God provides. Christ died to free us, not to keep us in bondage. The effort to avoid sin through censorship may seem logical, but in reality it only causes us to obsess over what we view as forbidden and to increase the likelihood that we will do the opposite of what we should. If you don't want your husband to obsess over other women, allow him to admire the beauty of other women. If you want to lose weight, allow yourself to occasionally eat your favorite foods. If you don't want your children reacting wildly to a three-second movie scene or to have marital problems in the future, teach them about sexuality.

Knowledge of all things is necessary for righteous living. Censorship, which prevents knowledge of what is supposedly wrong, accomplishes the exact opposite of what its adherents hope it will. Forsake censorship and commit, instead, to knowing all things so that you may determine what is expedient and what is detrimental.

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Virtual Veil

A friend of mine recently announced that he was deleting his Facebook account. Among the reasons he cited was a desire to avoid continual arguments (often with complete strangers). I commend him for his wise and mature decision. If you participate in Facebook and similar forms of social media, you have most likely been engaged in several heated debates, and many may have turned rather ugly. The protection provided by the virtual world allows us to act very differently online than we ever would in person. The country music artist, Brad Paisley, sings a song titled "Online" that pokes fun at the ridiculous false identities people often attempt to live out on the internet. The song is intended to be comical, but its accuracy makes it more scary than humorous.

I joined Facebook almost entirely for the purpose of participating in faith related groups. It is simply the easiest way in our modern age to quickly communicate with like-minded believers and to participate in discussions with people from around the world in an effort to mutually grow. Yet, if you have participated in these groups, you know that quarreling is nearly as commonplace (if not more so at times) than the edifying growth we seek. This is undoubtedly due to the effects of the virtual realm, which shields us from direct confrontation. 

I am confident that when believers debate online, most do not initially intend to stir up a heated fight. On the contrary, the goal is to defend the truth and to help others who disagree come to a realization of it. Almost inevitably, however, the debates evolve into accusations, name calling and other petty insults. Many are even accused of not being believers for stating their disagreement, and I know people who have left groups altogether because of how they were treated.

If you are reading this article, there is a good chance that you have written things online that you came to later regret. I am certainly no exception. In order to combat the virtual veil, we must keep Scripture close to heart and commit to acting no differently online than we would face to face. 

Speaking to Timothy, Paul advised, "Now stupid and crude questionings refuse, being aware that they are generating fightings. Now a salve of the Lord must not be fighting, but be gentle toward all, apt to teach, bearing with evil, with meekness training those who are antagonizing" (2 Tim. 2:23-24). Likewise, Paul told the Romans to pursue "that which makes for peace and that which is for the edification of one another" (Rom. 14:19) and "to no one render evil for evil" (Rom. 12:17). 

Several passages, in addition to those of Paul's letters, reinforce the great importance of avoiding quarrel and taming our tongues. Proverbs 29:22 states, "An angry man stirs up strife, and a furious man abounds in transgression." Writing to the Jews, James reminded that "the wisdom from above is first, indeed, pure, thereupon peaceable, lenient, compliant, bulging with mercy and good fruits, undiscriminating, unfeigned" (James 3:17).

Make no mistake that our written words are every bit as powerful as our spoken words. Granted, written words do not carry inflection of the voice and other elements that may intensify their spoken delivery, but the affects on the recipient are every bit as significant. In fact, on several occasions I've found out after speaking with people that I interpreted their written words more harshly than they intended. 

Ideally, we would be able to speak with one another in person at all times; but since this is unfortunately not possible, we are left with learning to appropriately deal with one another in less personal forms. How, then, can we accomplish this important goal?

For starters, we can commit to not repaying evil with evil. If someone online calls us a name, we should not repay him by calling him a name also. Rather, we should be patient and gentle, refusing to involve ourselves in an argument that will be fruitless. We would do well to follow Paul's advice to completely avoid stupid questions, knowing they only lead to harm. In reality, we have no need to defend ourselves against personal attacks. Our defense should always center around God alone! This is why Paul told the Corinthians that it was "the least trifle" that he may be examined by men.

Second, we must understand that, contrary to popular belief, defense of the truth does not require an aggressive approach. It does require aggressiveness in terms of conviction, but not in terms of antagonism. Paul advises us to be bold, but meek; strong, but gentle. We must recognize that each and every person is not the way they are - misled or not - out of choice. They are in exactly the place God wants them to be at that particular time and according to His purpose. Others are not "stupid" because they don't understand certain truths. They are merely ignorant at the time by God's design. 

After spending enough time in discussion forums, it is apparent that many people have come to actually love debate. They ignite a fight with an antagonistic comment and attempt to beat their opponent at all costs. This mindset is most often rooted in pride and a desire to prove their knowledge, not a pure desire to uphold the truth. For such people, toning down the harsh rhetoric is all but easy. The love of debate is intoxicating and online discussion forums are like a drug of which they yearn to get their daily dose. Do you think these people would act anywhere near the way they do online if they were to debate with others in person?

If you struggle with acting differently on the internet than you would in person, commit to altering your approach. Be gentle, patient and kind toward others, and ask yourself if what you are about to write is something you would say to the person while looking him or her in the eye. Refuse to respond to foolish questions and antagonizing comments, knowing your response will only lead to an argument from which neither party will benefit. Remember that those who disagree with us at times are not our enemies, but our brothers and sisters in Christ. If after attempting to alter your habits you are unsuccessful, consider deleting your online account. It is better to remove the temptation to argue than to fight a losing battle. For, a servant of the Lord must not be fighting, but be gentle toward all, bearing with evil those who are antagonizing.

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Resurrection: God's Harvest

For even as, in Adam, all are dying, thus also, in Christ, shall all be vivified. Yet each in his own class: the Firstfruit, Christ; thereupon those who are Christ's in His presence; thereafter the consummation whenever He may be giving up the kingdom to His God and Father, whenever He should be nullifying all sovereignty and all authority and power.    -1 Corinthians 15:22-24

Here, the apostle Paul reveals some insight that would startle nearly every modern churchgoer who would take the time to carefully read his words. These short two verses disprove several orthodox doctrines that are accepted without question by nearly all Christians. The first sentence proves the salvation of all, and the second disproves the orthodox view of death as well as the trinity. Each of these topics could easily be discussed at great length on its own, but in this article I will focus exclusively on one topic of this passage: the order of resurrection.

The order Paul gives of resurrection is as follows: the Firstfruit, Christ, then those who are Christ's in His presence, and, finally, those who remain at the consummation. In order to understand this order, it helps to understand several other key truths. First, we must understand what resurrection is. The common definition of resurrection is "being brought back to life," but Christ was, in fact, not the first person to have ever been brought back to life. In fact, the Bible recounts several people who were raised from the dead prior to Jesus. Elijah raised the son of Zarephath's widow (1 Kings 17), Elisha raised Shunamite's son (2 Kings 4), an unnamed man was brought back to life after his body touched Elisha's corpse, and Jesus Himself raised Jairus's daughter (Mark 5), the son of Nain's widow (Luke 7), and Lazarus (John 11).

For Christ to be the first in the resurrection order, the definition of resurrection has to consist of more than being brought back to life alone. What, then, sets Jesus apart as the first to be truly resurrected? The answer: each other person who was raised from the dead died yet again and is still dead. Resurrection, therefore, involves being raised from the dead and being made immortal. Indeed, all who remain at the consummation will be held accountable at the Great White Throne judgment and cast into the Lake of Fire as the "second death" (Rev. 20:14); but they too will eventually enjoy immortality as death is destroyed as the last enemy (1 Cor. 15:26) and God reconciles all things in creation back to Himself (1 Cor. 15:28).

In order to understand Jesus' title as the "Firstfruit," we must refer to the law in the Old Testament. The law established seven annual feasts, which the nation of Israel was required to follow every year. Each of these feasts pointed to and celebrated the future glory of Christ. The third of these feasts, which took place shortly after Passover, was Firstfruits. Leviticus 23:9-10 provides the instructions for this feast: "And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, 'Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When Ye be come into the land which I give unto you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then ye shall bring a sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest unto the priest: And he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, to be accepted for you.'" Further instruction is set forth in Leviticus 19:9-10 where we read, "And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not reap wholly the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest... thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger."

The feast of Firstfruits contained three phases for harvesting. A single sheaf (bundle) was gathered just before the barley was fully ready to be harvested and was then given to the priest who would offer it to God on behalf of the people. Next, the good crop was harvested, and, finally, the outer corners of the field were left for those in need to be harvested at a later date. These three phases, then, coincide with the order of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. Christ, as the "Firstfruit" is resurrected before the rest of the crop (believers and unbelievers) are ready to be harvested (resurrected), followed by the faithful (main crop), and lastly the unfaithful (outer corners).

In Matthew 13, Jesus likens the kingdom of the heavens unto a man who went forth to sow seeds for harvest, and in Luke 10 He references evangelism as a type of harvest. The agricultural process begins with the planting of the seeds for a crop. The second phase involves great care as the crop grows to maturity. Once ready, the crop is harvested and used for its ultimate purpose. Thus, the comparison of resurrection to a harvest is a perfect analogy. God begins with creation (planting), then lovingly shapes us as we grow to maturity, and finally harvests (resurrects) us to be used for our ultimate purpose.

If Jesus is the first in the order and unbelievers are the last, then believers clearly make up the second phase. Paul refers to believers as "those who are Christ's in His presence." These believers consist of members of the Body of Christ as well as the faithful of Israel. Members of the Body are resurrected first (1 Thess. 4:16), followed by the faithful of Israel at the former resurrection (Rev. 20:5). The second phase of resurrection, therefore, contains two phases itself: one for the Body and another for the saints of Israel.

Many who recognize Paul's comparison of resurrection to the Feast of Firstfruits understand the third phase of outer corners to consist of the faithful of Israel. They believe that Christ is the Firstfruit, the members of the Body make up the second, and the faithful of Israel make up the third. This chronology conveniently allows for the distinction between the resurrection of the Body members and the later resurrection of the saints of Israel. This understanding prohibits the eventual resurrection of unbelievers and, thus, fits their flawed theology. We need go no further than Paul's words in the passage to recognize that the third and final group consists of the unfaithful, not the faithful of Israel as many assume. When describing the timing of the third phase, Paul explicitly states, "Thereafter the consummation." The resurrection of the saints of Israel (the "former resurrection") occurs long before the consummation, leaving unbelievers as the only possible group to which Paul can be referring.

Unlike the phases of the Firstfruits feast, the phases of resurrection take a great deal of time. Days or weeks separated the feast phases, but the resurrection phases are separated by thousands of years. Just as the time from Christ's resurrection to the resurrection of believers will at least be over 2,000 years, so too the resurrection of unbelievers will not take place until long after the saints have been resurrected. The unfaithful will not be resurrected until after the saints have enjoyed their allotment of eonian life in the coming eons.

A key distinction between the first two harvests and the third (last) is that the first two belonged exclusively to Israel while the third belonged to strangers. Ultimately, the third group was harvested as well, but not in the peak season and not for the same purpose as the first two. In the same way, unbelievers of the last resurrection are not part of the faithful who will enjoy their allotment in the peak season. Rather, they will be harvested (resurrected) after the peak season (eonian life) is complete.

When we understand the order of resurrection, we understand the beauty of God's resurrection plan. He is the great Cultivator Who plants us all, the Caretaker Who nourishes our growth, and the Harvester Who gathers us at completion. The great Harvester has already gathered His Son, Christ, as the Firstfruit of the harvest and the acceptable offering on behalf of all creation. He will soon gather His faithful for the main harvest in the peak season. Ultimately, He will complete His work by harvesting the outer corners of His crop when He resurrects the unfaithful. Once the harvest is complete, He will become All in all, and all will experience the inevitable result of their resurrection - immortality.

© 2013 by Stephen Hill