December 19, 2013

God with Us

by Nathan Busenitz

It is only 6 days until Christmas.

Visit your local coffee shop, take a trip to the mall, or just drive through your neighborhood at night, and it’s easy to see that the so-called “Christmas spirit” is alive and well in American culture.

Some of the ironies of our culture’s fascination with Christmas are especially evident where I live in Southern California.

• It hasn’t snowed in Los Angeles in years, but snowflake decorations are everywhere.

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It’s that time of year when culture warriors take up arms to keep worldly and pagan ideas from encroaching on the spiritual and biblical reason for the season. So Sarah Palin fired a salvo against the “war on Christmas” by “revisionists” who’re turning it into a “winter solstice” celebration. (This is to prepare us for her new book, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas, ostensibly on the same theme).

But what if the pagans aren’t the “revisionists” and the late December celebrations are indeed rooted in the winter solstice? That would explain some of the odd accoutrements to celebrations of Jesus’ birth. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to make out what evergreen trees, lights, and egg-nog have to do with the little town of Bethlehem. Without being too much of a Grinch, it might be worth asking whether the real “revisionist” is actually Mrs. Palin. Though to her credit, she stands in a long, long line of revising this holiday.   Continue Reading…

Christian Fasting: it’s one of those “fringe” things in Christian belief that people are somewhat aware of but not a lot of people are clear about.  I’ve never actually heard any teaching on fasting from any church I’ve attended, and I suspect that’s a fairly typical experience for others too.  Due to the lack of instruction on the subject, the ideas of fasting range from “something that happened in Jesus’ day that we don’t need to worry about” to “the secret to spiritual break through.”

fasting breakthrough

Both of these cannot be true.  If fasting is irrelevant, it’s not the secret to spiritual break through.  If it is the secret to spiritual break through, it’s hardly irrelevant! Continue Reading…

I’m no Scrooge. I don’t object to draping tinsel, jetting off Christmas e-cards, or singing inane jingles about jingling bells. I trust that my family understands that–pagan roots aside–the plastic conifer in our living room is not a subtle mark of our allegiance to the forces of darkness. It’s just a (model of a) tree.

We do, however, prefer singing “Hark the Herald Angel Sings” over the misdirected praise of “Oh Christmas Tree,” though I’m not even fanatic about enforcing that.

We tolerate the poetic inaccuracy of “We three kings of Orient are” because it rolls off the tongue better than “We indeterminable number of Gentile scholars of Persia are.”

But… I am nervous about the potential confusion which may cloud a four-year-old’s faith in my honesty. 

Angels on high, a pregnant virgin, God in a manger, a guiding star… are impossibilities. Yet, “all things are possible with God.” [Yes, you need to believe in the virgin birth to be a ChristianWe ask our children to trust us on these claims, with their lives. Then we add a fictitious, omniscient fat guy with a red-nosed reindeer to the mix. At a certain age we matter-of-factly disclose that we were just kidding about the chimney intrusion, the Elven workshop, and the works-based naughty-or-nice judgment. “Those parts are make-believe, the rest is gospel truth. Trust me, son.”

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yoke1The “L” word. It’s one of the ugliest of all words: legalism. Defined as the idea that we can earn right standing with God, it does violence to the glorious gospel of Christ. It says, “No, sorry, it’s not enough,” to the substitutionary atoning work of Christ. It confuses the way to forgiveness, it tarnishes the gospel of grace, it lays up heavy burdens that no one can carry, it crushes hope, and fuels despair. It declares that man possesses finesse to propitiate the just wrath of God due our sin. For that, legalism is deadly and must be opposed at every level. Paul called it another gospel whose proponents are condemned (Gal 1:8-9).

Consequently, labeling something/one legalistic ought to be done with caution. To bring the charge is to say that this thing or person is in danger of propagating an unsavable system and trampling the cross of Christ. So if we label something legalistic, we better thoroughly understand the gospel, the definition of legalism, and what exactly is happening with what we are labeling as legalistic. Otherwise, we are sinning by erroneously labeling something in opposition to the cross of Jesus Christ.

Even so, the legalism card often gets overplayed. More and more I’ve interacted with Christians humbly and faithfully working out their salvation with fear and trembling, only to have the legalism card slapped on them. As such, they’re being fallaciously warned about legalism boogeymen. There are many I’ve heard of lurking in Christendom.

Looking Under BedHere are 5 all-too-common legalism boogeymen we need to shoo away:

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With several new books out on the subject of the authorship of Hebrews, we thought it would be helpful to blog on the topic. Yesterday Josiah argued that the authorship of Hebrews is unknown, and that Christians err when they ascribe it to others (like Paul or Luke). Today, Jesse argues that Paul wrote Hebrews, and we should give credit where credit is due. Please note that no counter-arguments are given since the articles were written independently of each other.

When I was in seminary, I tried to buy into the standard text-book arguments about the unknown authorship of Hebrews—I really did. I enumerated them, I memorized them, and then on my New Testament Introduction final I reproduced them for my professor. But I couldn’t resist—even then I understood that the arguments against Pauline authorship were so vague, and that the characteristics of the supposed anonymous author so broad, that it could be anyone. So I turned my NTI blue book into a treatise about how the author must certainly either be Paul, or Barnabas’ wife. My professor, the venerable and much feared Dr. Thomas, simply scrawled in the margin “NOT AMUSED.”

Amusement notwithstanding, the arguments for Pauline authorship of Hebrews are impressive. Here are four reasons I hold that the Apostle Paul was the author of Hebrews:   Continue Reading…

With several new books out on the subject of the authorship of Hebrews, we thought it would be helpful to blog on the topic. Today, Josiah will argue that the authorship of Hebrews is unknown, and that Christians err when they ascribe it to others (like Paul or Luke). Tomorrow, Jesse will argue that Paul wrote Hebrews, and we should give credit where credit is due. Please note that no counter-arguments are given since the articles were written independently of each other.

There are four reasons why I think Hebrews should be left in anonymity:

  1. No one signed it.

Paul begins all thirteen of his letters with the same word — “Paul.” Every time. Without exception.

Hebrews is the exception you say? This is possible, but I find it even more noteworthy that Paul explicitly states that he wrote all of his letters in the same way, so as to weed out any impostors (2 Thes. 3:17). If Paul wrote Hebrews, it seems likely that the evidence from the early church would be as overwhelming as it is for his other letters, but alas, it is not. In fact, some argue that Pauline authorship was only ascribed to Hebrews to make sure it was included in the canon of Scripture (It was not included in the Muratorion canon, 170 A.D.). Continue Reading…

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) died on Thursday, at 95 years old. Today the world will talk of how his politics molded history. There will be documentaries about his presidential legacy and movies telling his remarkable story. But I doubt any of that will capture the impact he had on people like me. I was a racist and a detractor. I was ignorant and brainwashed. I was a pessimist and a cynic. But Mandela changed my mind. B&W Nelson Mandela

I grew up in the dystopia of Apartheid. As an English speaking White child in the 1980’s I had no idea that the country I lived in was not a democracy—my parents voted, and one day I would too.

I was vaguely aware of banned books, censorship, and protest poetry, but none of that affected my life. I hadn’t an inkling that Whites were a minority, and that Blacks outnumbered us nine-to-one. I lived in a city, which meant that Blacks were only allowed there temporarily and if they had permission papers. They were there to do the dirty jobs. At night they slunk back to their distant and disgusting shanty towns. It never occurred to me that those hodgepodge shacks, built from our rubbish, housed 30 million real people.

I harbored no antipathy toward the Blacks who mowed our lawn and cleaned our home. They were good-humored and friendly folks. They were compliant and submissive, calling my dad Boss, my mom Madam, and I was Kleinbaas (little-boss). We were taught to respect them. When our full time domestic servant—“the maid”—babysat me, she was in charge and was to be respected. I once met with a memorable lesson from Dad’s belt when I accused the lady of stealing sugar. (As it turned out, it was a different pilferer I had overheard my mother complaining about.)

I appreciated the Blacks I knew. But I also knew about the others.

The other Blacks—the Terrorists—were the ones to fear. I learned about them from the news and elementary school history lessons. They lived in the bush, were trained in Angola by Soviet Communists, and were responsible for the paranoia woven into our lives. They were the reason we practiced military drills in school and why every male over eighteen was drafted into the army. My parents owned a store in central Pretoria. My mom was there alone the weekend my dad took us hiking, when the Terrorists bombed the nearby Navy admin headquarters. She was showered in shards of window glass, but thankfully escaped the casualty statistics that day. 

Mandela and boy On my third grade classroom wall was a poster with plastic models of various limpet mines, letter bombs, grenades, and other devices the Terrorists used, so we could report any we saw in malls or stadiums. Our school rehearsed bomb drills and escape evacuation protocols; some were in response to actual threats, others just a welcome escape from math class. We saw sniffer dogs patrol occasionally, and our headmaster had code words that, if used over the PA system, meant the following instructions were being issued under duress.

Fear of the Terrorists was a way of life. Welcome to Africa. But if you needed a person to blame, his name was Nelson Mandela.

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“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.”
– Philippians 3:20–21 –

Citizens of Heaven_T_NVPaul has been exhorting the Philippians to follow his example (Phil 3:17) in pressing on in the race of pursuing sanctification (Phil 3:12–14). In these verses, he gives two reasons, or motivations, that the believer in Jesus should be pressing on with all our might in our fight for holiness.

Our Present Position

The word “our” in that opening phrase is thrown all the way to the very front of the sentence in the original in order to show an emphatic contrast. Sensuality, shamelessness, and worldliness characterize the enemies of the cross (Phil 3:18–19). But as for us, Paul says, our citizenship is in heaven. And because of our present position as citizens, enrolled on the register of the Heavenly Kingdom, our lives must be ruled and governed by the laws of that blessed realm.

And the Philippians would have understood this imagery of “citizenship” immediately. According to Acts 16:12, Philippi was a Roman colony. And the historical sources tell us that Philippi enjoyed an elite status in the Roman empire called the ius Italicum—which is to say that it was governed as if it was on Italian soil. Philippians enjoyed the full rights and privileges of Roman citizenship as if they had been born there themselves. And they were proud of that status. They spoke the Romans’ language, they copied the Romans’ architecture, and they even adopted the way the Romans dressed. Everything about their way of life was governed by a kingdom which they were citizens of but were not presently living in.

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There are a lot of Santa Claus stories floating around this time of year. Almost all of them are completely based in fantasy. Flying reindeer; a sleigh full of gifts; precarious chimney climbing; a fluffy red suit — all of that is total fiction.

But when my kids used to ask me, “Dad, is Santa Claus real?” I didn’t say “No.” In fact, I answered in the affirmative.

(Pause for dramatic effect.)

Santa_Claus

Like any good student of church history, I explained that Santa Claus was actually a fourth-century pastor named Nicholas of Myra who was later considered a saint by the medieval Roman Catholic Church. He was a favorite of Dutch sailors who called him, “Sinter Klaas” (or “Saint Nicholas”) which then came into English as “Santa Claus.”

Of course, I was careful to point out that the modern American version of Saint Nicholas bears absolutely no resemblance to the fourth-century pastor from Asia Minor. The real Nicholas did not live in the North Pole. He was not Scandinavian. He did not drive a team of magical caribou. He did not work with elves. Nor did he travel the world every Christmas Eve exchanging presents for milk and cookies. Continue Reading…