Below you will find short interactions with classic theological literature to help introduce you to some of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. There will also be irregular posts formed out of sermons, Bible studies, or coffee after 5:00pm.
Some people have a problem called "glossitis." This is when the tongue swells as a symptom of other conditions. Sometimes it's hardly noticeable, and other times it can hardly fit in the mouth. The good news is that it's treatable.
All people have a problem where our tongue works before our minds. If we're not mindful of what we say and the tone with which we say it, we can cause tremendous damage. The good news is that this is treatable, as well.
The book of James has quite a bit to say about the power of our words. Like glossitis, our words are often just a symptom of an underlying condition, in this case, sin's ever-crouching presence.
James 2:1-12 says, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
“How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”
James is concerned with Christians having the right kind of speech toward other believers and the impact of the wrong kind of speech. Many would agree that speech is the most difficult aspect of life to control, for a variety of reasons. But James’s main point is that the person who claims to be a part of Christ’s church should not be identified with cursing but with building each other up. In other words, the tongue can be destructive and difficult to control, but the Christian can master it.
James begins by saying that very few should take on the role of teacher. This is not just a suggestion, but more of a prohibition. As a teacher, you’re by nature a public person with at least minor influence. Early Christians held the teacher in a high esteem, so that alone made many people want to seek out the position, many of whom were unfit. We read all about the dangers of imprecise doctrine, immaturity in leadership, and the threat of false teachers in the church.
Jesus even warned his disciples about the danger the Pharisees were in, the self-made teachers of the law, because of their hypocritical life (Matthew 23:1-5).
So why be strict about teachers? Because they’ll be judged more severely. They’re held to a greater account. When addressing those who teach just so they’ll be held in high esteem, Jesus says, “They will receive greater condemnation” (Mark 12:40).
Teachers have to be, out of necessity, precise in their speech. Without thinking, teachers who are lax in the way they present doctrine can cause others to stumble. “Stumble” is a word often used to describe sin. Sin trips us up and causes us to walk in ways country to God’s divine will. The speech of a careless teacher runs the risk of sinning himself and causing others to do the same. This is why they run the risk of a greater condemnation.
But this isn’t only a good word for teachers. James says “we all” stumble in many ways, especially in our words and thoughts. Look at these Proverbs.
“Death and life are in the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (Prov. 18:21).
“Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent. Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered” (Prov. 11:12-13).
“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the heart of the wicked is of little worth” (Prov. 10:19-20).
To have mastery over what comes out of our mouths makes us “perfect.” That’s not a term for sinlessness, but a state of maturity and of high character. So to stand before others and teach the truths of God carries with it great responsibility. Teachers must be more disciplined in what they say because of the position they hold.
James then uses two images to describe the disproportionate impact of our words.
First, we all know that small things have large effects. A new baby in the home might weigh a measly 7 pounds, but he or she completely reshapes the entirety of the lives of the parents. The same is true of our words.
The bit a rider puts in a horse’s mouth gives the rider control of the horse. The last time I rode a horse, I was outmatched. The glassy-eyed dinosaur upon which I was perched started to do its own thing, which included running at an ever-increasing tempo. But, as “The Sound of Silence” played in my mind as I envisaged my looming mortality, with a simple pull of the reigns, I was able to gain mastery over this 2-ton equine beast. Within a few seconds we were back an acceptable gallop.
When you’re out on the waters in a boat, you control the direction you go with a simple rudder. Even in wind and rain, the rudder gives you some control of where you’re headed.
A child can hold a bit in his hands. Anyone can steer a boat with a well-built rudder. But both the bridle and the rudder have an inordinate impact relative to their size. And James teaches us that the same goes for the tongue.
Without a bridle on your tongue, you are promised that it is impossible to have any semblance of control over yourself. It at starts with your words, whether what you say or what you don’t say.
We may think that if we have a healthy body weight or if we plan our meals down to the carbohydrate, then we have ourselves under control. But Scripture says relatively little about bodily health as evidence of self-control.
But our words—that’s where the proof is. Our way of life and our ability to sin or not to sin with our words are inextricably linked in every possible way. For many of us, our spiritual growth is stilted because we have not learned to keep our words under the control of the Spirit.
“I said, ‘I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle, so long as the wicked are in my presence’” (Psalm 39:1).
Next week, we’ll look at the other image James uses, but in the context of the effect of our words: a wildfire.
If you talk about the inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures with those who don’t confess any kind of Christianity or are only loosely affiliated, a lot of times their eyes will glaze over. A lot of people don’t necessarily actively hate the Bible, but the idea that it is inerrant and inspired and has authority over their life isn’t of any real importance. It’d be like someone trying to explain to me the importance of the various ways paint is made and the different properties of paint. All that matters to me is that it sticks to drywall. That’s how a lot of people view the Bible. It has some good qualities, but what’s the bottom line?
The questions that people are asking about the Bible in our post-truth, secular age aren’t really anything new. People have always asked versions of these questions. But we also know that there are always questions behind the questions. Sometimes we mask the real question so we get to ask it without really asking it. Or we have an agenda and we want to make a point by asking loaded questions. And then, sometimes we just ask honest questions. We sincerely want to know.
We’re going to look at three common questions that we’re all confronted with, in one form or another. These are honest questions, not questions made up to spin a yarn in favor of the Bible or to find some confirmation bias. These are honest questions we’ve all asked in one way or another.
Question 1: Isn't it best just to spiritualize the Bible since it's full of contradictions and therefore can't be true by modern standards?
What are we assuming when we ask this question? The Bible is full of errors. It's inherently untrustworthy. But it's human nature to try to spiritualize things to get out of accountability for your knowledge. It’s even a Biblical idea. In the book of James, Jesus’ cousin, he writes, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and does not to do it, to him it is sin (4:17).” We want to spiritualize everything. By spiritualizing the Bible, you're essentially dumb-ing down hundreds and hundreds of years of Holy Spirit-inspired revelation to a pop-psychology book, because the Bible claims to be Holy Spirit-inspired, not pop-psychology.
The question behind the question is, "What is true?" And the assumption is that you know what's true already and what's not. You are the self-appointed filter through which you sift everything you read in Scripture. You are the final authority. In Psalm 119, it says, “You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently (v. 4).” How can I say this? Never in the history of civilization has there been such a paradox like we have now in the West, especially in America. We want total independence, but we want democracy. We want to decide what is best for ourselves, but we want it provided for us. Doesn't that make us god? We're independent because our decisions and what we believe shouldn't be impacted by anyone despite who they impact. But we're democratic, in a sense, because if something good happens to one person, it should happen to me. We've all been jealous of that person because they praise God for something that is good, and we're mad at God for not giving us one, too. We have placed ourselves firmly in the center of the judge's seat. We decide what's true, and no one else, especially God, gets to weight in.
We like to pretend we know what truth is on our own. Now that’s not to say that there isn’t a spiritual sense to the Bible. From the earliest Christian teachers of the Bible, they looked for a spiritual sense to whatever they read. But they never did so because they thought it was littered with errors.
Question 2: Isn't the Bible just another sacred book, like the Qur’an?
This is a very Western/First-World idea. The assumption behind this question is that all these books are morally equivalent. Therefore, you are obligated to respect all these books in the same way. Islam has the Qur'an. Hinduism has the Vedas and other holy texts. Buddhism has very loose definitions of what constitute holy scriptures. What this question forces you to do is to make your faith a private matter. You choose to believe one of these books or all of them. It's a matter of choice.
The question behind the question is asking, "What makes the Bible stand out?" That's a fair question, and Scripture addresses this very issue. In Romans 10, Paul is talking about how through Jesus, salvation is offered to all people in every nation. In doing so, he quotes some OT passages from the book of Isaiah. What he quotes is a question, asking, "Lord, who has believed our message? (Rm. 10:16)" He's saying that the gospel message will go out to all the world. He goes on and from Isaiah's question, Paul deduces that, "Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. (Rm. 10:17)"
So what makes the Bible stand out? Only these texts have the words of Christ, who is God. Nowhere else does any text even claim to have the words of Christ. It's a very simple idea, but it's one that's often overlooked. It's often assumed that all religions point to the same god. And some religions even teach that. But only Christianity teaches that salvation comes from hearing and hearing the words of Christ alone.
The biblical authors, every one of them, was adamant that the entire Bible contained signposts pointing to Christ. Basically, the idea is that Christ did not suddenly appear in the New Testament. Christ was at the creation of the universe and he'll be there when it's all made new. In 1 Corinthians, Paul even places Christ in places we may not have noticed him in the Old Testament. He says in chapter 10, that the Israelites drank from the spiritual rock, and that rock was Christ. If you read the text he's quoting, you may not read Jesus in there, but Paul reassures us that Christ is found in every word of the Bible.
Question 3: Doesn't the Bible teach a lot of things that we wouldn't stand for today and therefore is barbaric?
This is how a lot of us get away with simply dismissing the Bible completely. Many read the Old Testament especially and see all the patriarchs with multiple wives, having slaves, and playing favorites with their children. Their conclusion is that the Bible condones such behaviors. This is a superficial reading that is on par with believing Mark Twain condoned overt racism because he wrote Huckleberry Finn. No one believes that because they've read the story with an eye toward the context.
When you read about Solomon having concubines, God "giving" King David several wives, and Abraham having slaves, you also read about the terrible wrath they endured for their behavior. The Bible constantly upsets the cultural defaults. The cultural default of the day was to have many wives, own slaves, and favor the eldest child. God, manifesting his power through the Bible, upsets man's wisdom. To read those stories and come to the conclusion that the Bible is an outdated manual for barbarism is to come to the text with an agenda and not let the Bible speak for itself. In a word, it’s lazy.
It's true that there have always been groups of people who used the Bible for their own glory and not God's. People have used texts out of their context to condone racial slavery, even in America's history. But when people point that out and use it to show how the Bible shouldn't be applied to our enlightened, postmodern lives, they ignore the cold hard facts that a vast majority of people have never used the Bible to do that. In fact, before the Civil War, bishops and pastors in Britain were writing to pastors in America in support of their efforts to abolish slavery.
One of the things that often hangs people up is the notion that God commanded genocide of thousands of people at various points in the Old Testament. A lot of this stems from cherry-picking a few verses here and there to make a point. Even early in the Old Testament, in the book of Genesis we’re told that God wanted the Israelites to “drive out” the Canaanites from the Promised Land. It’s well-accepted by many scholars of the ancient Near East today that the Canaanites practiced what we don’t allow even today—things like infant sacrifice, bestiality, incest, and stealing a person’s humanity by forcing ritual prostitution (or do we?). One of the traits that stems from God’s love and justice is that he limits evil. A careful reading of the text shows that it’s not just that God is going to give the Israelites the Promised Land. He doesn’t allow evil to run rampant. Also, God waited 400 years before he commanded Israel to drive them out.
Sometimes language trips us up. We are told that God wants Israel to utterly destroy and leave nothing alive when they drive the Canaanites out. We know from other ancient Near Eastern war texts that this was common hyperbole—not that different from us wanting the Colts to destroy their opponent. We’re even told later by Joshua that there were remnants of the Canaanites still there, and he warns the people about marrying them and getting involved in idol worship again.
You don’t need to be a scholar to find all of this out. All of this is right there in the Biblical text itself. Of course, there are parts that need a good level of interpretation, but a basic tenant of Bible study is that “it was meant to be understood.” All too often, we come to the Bible without acknowledging our confirmation bias. We already know that God is a monster who killed thousands of people, and then we read what the text actually says and make it fit. Then we’re left to either make the Bible subject to our own ideas, or we’re left to swallow our pride and allow the text to speak for itself.
There are a thousand different questions people have about the Bible. These are a small selection. If the Bible can’t stand up to scrutiny, then it’s really not worth believing in. At the end of the day, the inescapable truth is that the answer the Bible gives about why it exists is to point you to Christ. In this way, like Paul tells Timothy, we are made complete. There is room to question it, there is room to study it, but there is no room to deny it.
As the cultural pressure to be known as a Christian wanes, people are leaving the church. While it saddens us, we also must be sober-minded about this. The apostle John wrote, "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us" (1 John 2:19, ESV). In every era of the church age, there were reasons people left the church. Every age has its own complexities, but the principle stands. Some will leave the church, stop worshiping and being discipled, and it will be the final proof that their allegiance was never to Christ.
Equally as obvious is the cultural change in how accepting of Christian ethics people are, especially the historic Christian sexual ethic. As God shakes the world around us, we recognize the need for both clarity and firmness in Christian teaching. We simply can't assume any longer that any of us have a strong grasp of the essence of what makes our faith "Christian." Do we understand the Ten Commandments? The Lord's Prayer? The story arc of both testaments? Key doctrines, like the Trinity and the authority of Scripture? Why does any of this matter?
So one of the short-term goals for Mt. Pisgah is to form a catechism that teaches us the basics of the Christian faith, gives us a Christian "grammar" or language and vocabulary, and builds a robust understanding of Scripture. In this post, I want to help us define what a catechism is and how we'll use it.
In short, a catechism is a relatively short manual of instruction, often in the form of questions and answers. For example, one well-known and respected catechism is the Westminster Catechism (there is a "Longer" and "Shorter" version if you're familiar with it). It takes a question-and-answer form. The first question is, "What is the chief end of man?" The answer that is supplied is, "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." This pattern goes on for 107 questions.
The catechism is not just meant to be a reference, though it definitely is that. It's also meant to be memorized over time. You may not memorize all 107 questions of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, but many of them you will.
The simpler question-and-answer format is also meant to be suitable for teaching children. The questions are all single sentences, and most of the answers are, as well. We should be teaching our children the deep things of God "diligently to [our] children, and [you] shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise" (Deuteronomy 6:7). These catechisms are meant to be simple, accessible guides for parents or caretakers to teach the essentials of the Christian faith in summary fashion in obedience to Scriptural commands to do so.
But a catechism is not just for children. Every Christian should be able to give an answer to the question, "What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection?" Or, "What is baptism?" And, "To whom is baptism to be administered?"
Catechisms also give a summary teaching of the weightier matters of Scripture. All Christians would agree that these would be the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, the greatest commandments, along with perhaps a few others. Some catechism also include a short section on the historic Christian creeds with explanations.
If you happen to take the time to peruse the Westminster Catechism, you would quickly come to realize that it is a Presbyterian document that reflects Presbyterian theological particulars, such as paedobaptism. While we love our Presbyterian brothers and sisters and believe them to be a true church, we disagree on matters such as baptism and church government. But why? It would behoove us to explain ourselves, perhaps in a catechism.
For some people, when they hear "catechism," they think of the Catholic Catechism. That conjures up all kinds of thoughts. Shouldn't we distance ourselves from that stuff?
Catechisms, though, have a long history in the church. And the Catholic Catechism proper dates all the way back to...1992. Baptists and Presbyterians were way ahead of the game.
The early church used catechisms for many of the same reasons we do today. Christianity wasn't the dominant cultural power. People had to take social risks to be a Christian. So new believers needed answers to their questions. People needed a defense of their faith.
This blog won't be the catechism, and we'll move on to other topics here. But it's important for us to see the need for clarity and relevance.
Isaiah 46:9b-10, “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done.”
We know that the end of the age, as many disagreements about the “train schedule” as there are, is not a mystery to the Lord our God. We may fail to understand, even as we do our best to read the Bible naturally, with all of the historical and literary context we can. But even in our failure to grasp the finer details, to keep all of the progressive revelation straight which covers multiple books and hundreds of years, we can trust God. I still have questions after watching “Tenet” and reading multiple blog posts about it, so I also don’t claim to have every moment of the culmination of world history pegged, either. But I must affirm every passage of Scripture and teach what I believe it says.
Keeping that in mind, I want to look at two Old Testament books. All I really want to do is show you the passages that deal with the end of the age and give a short summary. Some give revelation on the order of events, some focus on the nation of Israel, and some speak to the resurrection(s). Either way, we could spend the next six months parsing out all of the passages that in some way speak to the same truth: the Father is sending the Son again, but this time he comes to gather all that is his.
So the purpose of this post is to give a sense of the enormity of Old Testament passages that do actually inform our understanding of the coming kingdom of God. At different times in the future, we’ll return to specific passages. Many of the Old Testament passages are longer prophecies or narratives, so they would each require their own studies. But there is a lot still to gain simply from knowing where to turn.
First, Daniel 10-12. This is the fourth vision Daniel receives. It involves battles between two kings with Israel stuck in the middle. This period of tribulation ends with the promise of resurrection. While it seems as though this passage may point to one resurrection, the natural reading can be harmonized with the two-resurrection interpretation of Revelation 20. Even Daniel 12 mentions two destinies: some to everlasting life and some to everlasting contempt.
Second, Ezekiel 20. God promises to restore Israel in the future through judgment, just as he did with the Israelites in the wilderness after the exodus. Many take this as a reference to the coming kingdom and not the return from the seventy years of exile because even after exile, Israel was not reunited and was still under foreign oppression. They would still be considered Persians, then Greeks, then Romans.
Third, Ezekiel 40-48. This is a massive description of a newly-built temple. In chapter 43, the glory of the Lord again enters the temple as it did in the first temple. Once the Lord enters, he says he will never leave. Israel will never again defile the temple with false worship. This has to be a totally future event, not just for Ezekiel, but for us, as well.
Fourth, Zechariah 8. God speaks of a time when he will return to Zion and there will be peace. Old men and women will be respected in the city, and young boys and girls will play in the street. God will regather the nation of Israel to the land. God says he will deal with his people as he did at the time they rebuilt the temple, but he will make them prosper himself. Fasting will be replaced with joyful times. The nations will come to Jerusalem because they have heard of the good things of God.
Fifth, Zechariah 14. Instead of the peace of chapter 8, there is battle. God will bring the nations to wage war on Jerusalem, and terrible things will take place because of it. But, God will fight that battle and win. The Lord will be king, not just over Jerusalem, but all the world. Jerusalem will never again be destroyed. Those from the nations who survive will worship in Jerusalem every year. Dissenters will not receive any rain on their land. This seems to coincide with the millennial kingdom of Revelation 20.
Both testaments ensure that we know that God has a plan for the end of the age. It involves complete restoration for creation and judgment on those who reject the mercy of God. God’s plan involves both Israel and Gentiles being restored to right worship.
With all of the passages that have a direct link to the end of then age, it’s clearly been important to all of God’s people throughout time. The idea of an earthly kingdom established before the eternal state is not a foreign thought to the Old Testament. The New Testament simply establishes more revelation concerning the same truth.
We’re going to move on from the millennial kingdom for now, but it’s worth more study in the future.
Next week we’ll move on to more theological topics. I’d like to develop a teaching device, or a catechism, for the church. We need more resources like this, particular to Mt. Pisgah, that we can use to teach our families, young and old alike. So in the next several weeks, we’ll be developing the nuggets that will turn into this kind of resource. It will include several pieces, like commentary on the 10 commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, Old and New Testament overviews, questions and answers, a paragraph on key doctrines, and more.
Until then, we pray with the apostle John and all Christians since, “Come, Lord Jesus!”