When is a prophet a prophet?

A couple of days ago I was reading in Ezekiel chapter 13 which includes the following words: “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are not prophesying … who prophesy out of their own imagination…. Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing. … They say, “The Lord declares,” when the Lord has not sent … though I have not spoken.”

Whether it is Ellen G. White of the 7th-day Adventists, Mohammed of Islam or Thomas S. Monson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all of which their followers affirm to be prophets, how do you know when one claiming to be a prophet really is one?

Some will encourage us to search our feelings (Book of Mormon, Moroni 10:4) but that’s Star Wars, never the Bible. Instead, God asks us to verify. Gideon in Judges chapter 6 laid out a fleece and asked that it be wet when the morning ground was dry, and then just to be sure, asked again that the fleece be dry when the ground was wet. King Hezekia in 2 Kings chapter 20, when assured by a prophet that he would recover from his illness, asked that the shadow on the sun dial move back ten steps, and it did.

For us today we have two tests of a prophet laid down in Deuteronomy chapters 13 & 18: (1) Does the prophet proclaim the same teachings as previous prophets of God and (2) if the prophet predicts a future event, does it happen? When Joseph Smith, in his First Vision, claimed to see the Father and the Son as separate Gods, he and others after him should have reflected on the words of Deuteronomy 6:4 that affirm one and only one God; a teaching often repeated. That should have been sufficient warning.

Instead Joseph Smith made thousands of changes to the Bible (and also to the Book of Mormon) to adjust their scriptures to fit their church’s evolving theology. When Joseph Smith prophesied that they would sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon in Canada (and it didn’t happen) his explanation was “Some prophecies are of man, some are of God and some are of the devil.” Again, it should have been clear that there was a problem.

The same goes for churches today. Our foundation is to be the Bible and the Bible alone (“sola scriptura”) since the Bible warns us (in 1 Corinthians 4:6) “not to go beyond what is written” (in Scripture).

Yes, I realize that people accuse those who believe in following scripture alone as looking to a “dead letter.” They say we need to trust in the Spirit. On this eve of our commemoration of the Lutheran Reformation on October 31, 1517 (498 years ago) we might respond as Martin Luther did, that some have “swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all” but we will trust what God has written. The Bible is not a dead letter, but living and active and powerful. In works in human hearts. Amen. May we always “read, mark, and inwardly digest” the words of God’s living word, the Bible.

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Jesus “Great Commission” … Is it for today?

A friend was leading worship at a town here in North Carolina and preached a sermon on Jesus’ Great Commission: “Going therefore, make disciples of all nations (by) baptizing … and (by) teaching them to pay close attention to all-what-so-ever I have commanded you. For I am with you until the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) After the worship service one of the church’s members came up to him and asked him a question: “Are you saying that the Great Commission wasn’t only for the first century?” My pastor friend was taken by surprise. Where had this man heard such a thing? Jesus suffered, bled, died and rose again for all people of all time, not only for those of the first century. God has only given us two ways to bring this salvation to people of “all nations,” (1) by baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and (2) by bringing this teaching to people in every place and time. Jesus died for the sins of all people but it is through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9) that a person receives this precious gift. Even faith is a gift, created by the Holy Spirit through the message (Romans 10:17) that Jesus has taken our sins upon himself, suffered and died in our place, and freely absolves (forgives) us, not because of anything we have done (Romans 4:5) but freely by grace (an undeserved gift). This message of forgiveness is entrusted to each one of us, not only to pastors. It is for each of us to “go” bring this message to all people, not only in the first century but also in our own time. Some who haven’t heard this gospel message live in far away nations and “going” may take considerable time and effort. Others here in America live in places where the gospel is rare. We need not travel great distances, but only do as the Apostle Peter encouraged us in 1 Peter 3:15 – “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and respect.” As you have freely received the gift of life with God, so also freely pass this gift on to others, that they too may have forgiveness and life with God, for it was not only something for first century believers to do, but also for you and me and all Christians until the day when our good and merciful Savior and Shepherd returns, to gather his sheep into his presence forever.

In the Hour of Death

It is the elephant in the living room. It is the thing we never want to talk or think about. It happens to all of us. For my family it has happened three times in the past six months and twice in the past two months. Death. First my mother-in-law Margaret on December 12th, then my father Elmer on May 3rd and finally my mother Phyllis on June 16th. I have never before done a funeral for a close relative and now in rapid succession I’ve done three.

This has altered my perspective and honestly I’m still recovering. I will be recovering for some time. I feel like I’ve been I’ve been hit by a car. Yes, I believe that these three are in heaven with Jesus, but they’re gone and I won’t ever see them again here. Later after the Lord’s return or after I myself have departed from this life, yes, I will see them again, but not again in this world. Until then, I will miss them.

This – once again – impacts my perspective. I’m so very thankful that 44 years ago a friend named Tony encouraged me to read the Bible. A year later I did so and it changed my life. I’m thankful that likewise my recent dearly departed heard and believed. But I come from the Northwest. Though 60% self-identify as “Christian,” only 5-8% of Oregon and Washington residents attend church. In Washington state, nearly 50,000 people die every year. That’s about 134 every day, 5 1/2 every hour, one every 70 minutes. How many of them have NEVER heard, understood and believed the gospel?

Having formerly lived and served as a pastor in Utah for fifteen years, nearly 15,000 people die there every year. That’s about 40 every day or one person every 35 minutes. In Utah County (the greater Provo area) almost 2,000 die per year, 5 per day, one every 44 minutes. Though Utah is one of the most highly “churched” states in our nation, only about 18% of Utah residents self-identify as Christian and 78% as non-Christian, if “Christian” is defined as belief in the biblical teachings summarized in the historic creeds (Apostles’ – early 2nd century A.D., Nicene – early 4th century A.D., Athanasian – circa 500 A.D.) Based on such numbers, in Utah one person dies without a true faith in Christ every 35 minutes. In Utah County, one person dies without a true faith in Christ every six hours, four people every day, nearly thirty every week, 125 every month…. Many of these people have Christian neighbors who could share the gospel with them. One of those people who could do so may be you.

Death puts everything in perspective. It’s permanent. This side of heaven or Christ’s second coming, we won’t see them again. Once death has happened, the time is up. The opportunity to share the most precious gift is gone. Christ died for the sins of all people. But this gift is only received by those who believe.

Study & Go

In an interesting and informative book by Philip L. Barlow entitled “Mormons and the Bible” (xxxvii-xxxviii) the author quotes a religious knowledge study (“U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey,” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, September 28, 1010, http://www.pewforum.org/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey-Who-Knows-What-About-Religion.aspx, May 11, 2012.)

The results weren’t encouraging. The church that scored highest on Bible knowledge was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly called “Mormons”). Two other groups also scored near the top: atheists and Jews.

Some of this makes sense. Latter-day Saints gather weekly for three hours in contrast to the one or two hours by Protestants. They also send their teens for four years of release-time classes, totaling about 600 hours.

Confirmation in the early church took three years and roughly 300 hours. In contrast, today’s Protestant churches take teens through a double digit number of class hours and for adults this is reduced to perhaps ten or twenty. Perhaps twenty or thirty percent of church members read the Bible even occasionally and it is the exception that braves a confirmation refresher course or who frequents a Sunday morning Bible class.

Luther, in his Large Catechism, responded that people who study the Catechism once and then consider it’s pages unworthy of a repeat visit “should be pelted with dung.” I appreciate Luther’s knack for pungent memorable phrases. The Mormon Church is growing rapidly while most Lutheran Churches are not growing at all. This is not only due to the LDS army of over 80,000 missionaries, though we would do well to emulate their zeal for outreach.

The growth of the early church and the church of the Reformation was built upon a knowledge of scripture. From study of scripture comes conviction and from a failure to study God’s Word comes nothing but apathy and spiritual lethargy.

The current year of 2015 is still young. The Bible is the most marvelous of books containing vivid details about our gracious God who does not treat us as our sins deserve but according to his mercy. Why not read it cover-to-cover this year (just three or four pages per day)? Why not attend classes at church? Then renewed by God’s Word, let’s go and bring the message of the good news out beyond our churches’ walls to people everywhere, starting in our own neighborhoods.

I recall a man living in a house not more than 200 feet from the front door of the church I served in Denver. When I knocked on his door, he didn’t even know what kind of church it was! Faith comes by hearing the Word (Romans 10:17) but how will they hear if we don’t study the word and then go out and bring it to them?

The Boy Who Didn’t Came Back from Heaven

Back in Kansas they say “the shirt’s in there Mabel.” In other words, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. A New York Times bestseller by the name of – The Boy Who Came Back from Heavena true story – has been flying off the shelves since Tyndale published it four and a half years ago. Now it’s being pulled from book stores because the author has admitted that the whole story was just made up. This isn’t surprising. A booklet that criticized the book for violating basic Biblical teachings was published a year later but was vehemantly criticized. I have not read either book but I have another on my shelves that was recommended by a hospital chaplain. It records stories from hundreds of people about messages from the grave that provide hope to grieving loved ones. According to this book and another that I read about near death experiences, it doesn’t really matter what you believe. The message is that clearly all of the world’s religions are mistaken.

Why are people so eager to believe every and all spiritual messages, as long as they are not from the BIble? People want a religion where no one fails to get to heaven and nobody is in error. In college I visited a church where all religions were thought to contain some truth but where theirs was more true than the others. They had great red zinger tea. But I didn’t join.

There is a reason that Martin Luther concluded that “scripture alone” is to be the basis for what we believe. He read many other books where spiritual experiences or human philosophy lead to a maze of contradictions. Only one book, the Bible, tells the truth about God and salvation all of the time. Jesus said “I am THE way THE truth and THE life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” What we believe matters, eternally. Jesus told a story about a rich man who was in torment and a poor man named Lazarus who was in heaven. The rich man asked that Lazarus be sent back to warn his living relatives. He was told that that couldn’t happen, because there was a chasm that prevented such a journey.

Being aware of that story should have been sufficient to demonstrate that The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven wasn’t a true story. The Bible isn’t only true for those who believe it’s words. The Bible will one day be found to be true also by all of those who never believed it. It is the only book that God himself has written, through apostles and prophets. If you want to know about how to get to heaven and be with God one day, read his book. In it you will find one great exception to the adage that things that sound too good to be true probably aren’t. The exception is the gospel, for the greatest of gifts (life with Christ forever) isn’t something that we earn or deserve. It is an undeserved gift paid for by Jesus and received by all who trust that they are forgiven, because of Christ, rather than by anything they could claim to have done.

Though the Bible is a best-seller, most people – including people who go to church – have never read it all the way through. Why not make 2015 the year for reading the greatest of books? The truth and mercy that you find there will give you hope.

Lent

This week marks the beginning of a season in the church year called “Lent” (from the Anglo-Saxon word for “spring,” when it takes place). The first holy day  (from which we get “holiday”) in the early church was Sunday as a commemoration of the resurrection of Christ. Before long there was also a commemoration on March 25th of Jesus’ conception, birth, death and resurrection. When a separate day for the birth of Christ was later added, Christmas was commemorated on December 25th (nine months after March 25th). In the Western church, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (in two days) and continues for forty days until Easter, not including Sundays. In the Eastern (Orthodox) church, Lent begins on Clean Monday (today) and continues until the Friday before Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter), including Sundays. The number “40” has special significance in the Bible as a time of pilgrimage, such as the Israelites’ 40-years in the wilderness, Moses’ 40-days on Mount Sinai and Jesus fasting in the wilderness for 40 days.  For Christian it is a time to remember our sins and our need for God’s forgiveness in anticipation of Jesus’ suffering and death upon the cross on our behalf on Good (God’s) Friday. In the western church, Ash Wednesday can be any time from February 4th ago March 10th, so it comes fairly late this year. Easter can come any time between March 22nd and April 25th (this year it comes on April 20th). Originally  Ash Wednesday was a time when penitents who had strayed from the church were readmitted and their repentance was signified by ashes applied to their foreheads in the shape of a cross. Later, since all of us are sinners in need of God’s mercy, the custom was expanded to include others who wanted ashes upon their foreheads, and is common in many kinds of Christian churches today. Historically, Lent also served another purpose. In the early church it took three years as a “catechumen” (student) to become a member of the Christian church, a journey of some three hundred hours of preparatory instruction. The final 120 class hours took place for three hours each morning during Lent, after which the catechumens who had not yet been baptized received baptism on the night before Easter (Holy Saturday or Easter Eve) or if their instruction was not quite complete, on Pentecost Eve. This is a good reminder for each of us as believers in Christ to especially make use of this Lenten season to pick up those dusty Bibles and spend spend extra time reading God’s Word, and to make use of the extra opportunities for worship that are provided.

Something We Don’t Like To Talk About

I recall an awkward conversation at the door of an elderly woman in central Florida some years ago. I was canvasing her neighborhood as part of starting a new congregation in her area and was sharing the the good news of what Christ has done for us. But part of the message that people need to hear is something people don’t like to talk about. Before the gospel (literally “good news”) of Jesus can be meaningful and we can appreciate that he died for us, we need to know why that was needed. If we were all really good people, he wouldn’t have needed to come at all. To know that there’s something wrong with the world, all we need to do is to read or listen to the daily news: people dying in Syria, people protesting out in the cold in Ukraine, children being shot is schools. There’s a problem, and the Bible calls this problem “sin.” I was talking with that lady at her door about sin and she responded, “well, I’m not a sinner.” I probably said something like “we’re all sinners.” Well, she didn’t want to talk about that at all. But you know, we need to talk about that. The Bible teaches that God is real, and that he is our Creator. In the Bible, in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and elsewhere he shares with us his expectations for how we are to live our lives. As our Creator, it is reasonable for him to have expectations about how his creation should live. When we live differently than what he asks of us, the Bible calls that “sin.” The problem is that sin doesn’t just go away. There really are no victimless crimes. When I made my omelet this morning, some of it stuck to the plate. Similarly, our sin sticks to us and unlike my omelet there’s no way that we can wash it off ourselves. In the book of James in the New Testament (chapter 2, verse 10) God tells us that even one sin makes us guilty in the sight of God. In the book of Isaiah (chapter 59, verse 2) God teaches us that our sin separates us from God. That may be something that we don’t like to talk about, but it’s something we (all of us) need to hear. The good news of what Jesus came to do for us is only good news if we realize that we have a problem that only Jesus could solve. The good news is that he has done so.

The Impression of Authority

I’ve been reading about end notes and their use.  These are interesting because they give a research paper or book the appearance of authority without actually making the information readily available.  An author can make a claim, followed by an end note, and though we likely won’t take the time to turn to the end of the chapter or book to look at what the note says, it gives the impression of authority.  We think: “Clearly, he knows what he’s talking about.”  Or does he?  A couple of years ago I was reading a particularly unpleasant book that questioned the reliability of ancient New Testament manuscripts.  At one point it asserted that most textual errors that involved doctrine were deliberate, and then inserted one of those end notes.  At that time I was beginning to look at all of the end notes in this book (which is not convenient) to see what evidence he was providing for the problems with Bible manuscripts that he was claiming, so that I could try and prepare a response.  I was expecting a citation from an authoritative book, or other evidence.  But that’s not what I found.  Instead, there was just a note, explaining that what he had just written was just an opinion.  How cleaver.  If it had been a footnote, I could have quickly glanced at the bottom of the page and seen that what he affirmed at the top of the page had been cancelled out by what was confessed at the bottom.  But no, it was an end note, and double checking took time and effort.  I’m not saying that he did this deliberately.  But if he had confessed to not knowing right after stating his opinion, the impact would have been greatly reduced.  This has made a fundamental change in my reading habits.  When I read a confident claim, I turn back to the end note to double check.

I remember many years ago talking with a young couple in Salt Lake City about the topic of baptism.  I had dropped off a Bible study on the topic, and since they were also talking with another church about the same topic, they had also dropped off a Bible study on baptism.  The conclusions in that Bible study clearly contradicted just about everything I was saying.  How could that be?  Both had many Bible references, giving the impression of Biblical authority.  But then I started to look up the references in the other Bible study.  Oddly, only a couple of the passages had anything to do with baptism.  Again, a lesson to be learned.  If we look to Bible passages that are not actually on topic, we won’t get reliable answers.  It’s important not to be impressed by end notes or Bible references that don’t actually back up what’s being said.  When people play such “smoke and mirrors” games with us, we should speak up and say “Well, you haven’t actually given me any reason to agree with you.  Is there something else you can show me?”  An impression of authority just isn’t enough.  When it comes to doctrine, there needs to be answers from clear and sufficient scripture or we have no reason to agree with what’s being said.

The Importance of Definitions

People don’t like to be labeled.  But some labels are good.  I once bought a can of generic peas.  They were inexpensive and I figured that a pea was a pea.  Right?  Well they weren’t the small crisp tasty peas that mother used to cook.  No, these were big, wrinkled and tough.  They may have been peas, technically, but I never bought generic peas again.

So labels can be good.  This is especially true with religion.  For example, if someone believes that Muhammed is a prophet, prays five times a day, believes the Quran (Koran) to be scripture, believes that he should make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in his lifetime (etc.), it seems fair to say that this person is a Muslim and not a Christian.  If a person centers his spiritual life around the teachings of of Buddha, he is likely a Buddhist.  If, on the other hand, a person believes that Jesus is God, that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons who are one essence/substance (one God), that Jesus died for the sins of the world and he is our source of salvation and heaven, it should be clear that we are speaking of a Christian.  Authentic Christianity involves believing at least the most essential truths about who God is and how we get to heaven, according to the Bible.

The problem is that Muslims believe that everybody really ought to be a Muslim and Christians believe that everybody really ought to be a Christian.  Muslims believe that Muhammed is the last and greatest prophet.  Though they believe that Jesus was a prophet, they don’t believe everything that the New Testament says about him.  Especially, they don’t believe that Jesus is God or that he is one of three Persons in the godhead.  As the Quran says it, they don’t believe that God has a son or that God is three.  Instead, according to Muslims such beliefs are blasphemy and result in going to hell.  We can look this up in the Quran, if you’d like.  In the same way, Christians don’t believe that Muhammed is a prophet or that the Quran is scripture.

You see, part of the function of a religious definition, is that it tells us what a person believes and it also tells us what a person doesn’t believe.  Being a member of one religion necessitates not being a member of another religion.  There is nothing wrong with having strong convictions about what things we believe or don’t believe.  What is wrong, is deciding that it is ok to hate someone because of what they believe.  It’s not ok to hate anybody.  Jesus said that we even ought to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  This is simply a matter of tolerance.  Tolerance doesn’t mean that we don’t stand for anything.  It means that even though we should take our beliefs seriously, we shouldn’t hate anybody who believes differently.  We should love everybody.  And if there can be an atmosphere of mutual love and respect, we can talk about our differences and grow in our understanding of what we agree on and what we disagree on.

Muslims and Christians agree that there is one and only one God.  (Christians don’t believe that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three Gods.  If someone says that they are a Christian and they believe in more than one God, then they are attempting to change the definition of what Christians have believed according to the Bible and throughout history.)  Christians and Muslims also agree that God is merciful.  The Quran says that many times, as does the BIble.  We differ on how we receive that mercy.  I recall, many years ago, a Sufi from Pakistan told me “God does not need a reason to be merciful.  He has oceans of mercy.”  I then asked him if he knew for sure that he would go to heaven.  He said, “No, you can never know if you have done enough.”  A Christian can know that he or she will go to heaven, because we believe that getting to heaven isn’t a matter of what we do, but a matter of what Jesus Christ has already done for us and all people on the cross.  On this, Muslims and Christians disagree.  May those of the various world religions be able to disagree without being disagreeable.

Ancient New Testament Manuscripts

You may have noticed that recently I posted a picture of a page from an ancient New Testament manuscript.  It’s called “Codex Sinaiticus.”  “Codex” is another word for “book” (as distinct from scroll).  The name “Sinaiticus” reminds us that it was discovered at St. Catherine’s monastery on Mt. Sinai.  This is the oldest complete New Testament manuscript.  It also contains a large portion of the Old Testament in Greek.  The page that I posted includes John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have everlasting life.” Good news.

Last night I finished reading another book that questions Christian teachings.  The book was “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan.  Born in Iran, his family moved to the USA and he came to faith in Christ as a teen.  He later returned to the religion of his homeland and now looks at Christianity as misunderstanding who Jesus is and why he came.  He actually finds little support for his current perspective from the New Testament.  It is all really very sad.  To believe and have hope in Christ, and then to later lose that hope for no good reason.

Manuscripts like Sinaiticus remind us that our faith in Christ is built on the firm foundation of Scripture, and that contrary to people who claim that the Bible has been tampered with, we have many early manuscripts that provide the same message as the Bibles we have today.  As of 350-375 A.D. (only 25-50 years after the Council of Nicaea), when Sinaitius was made, we have all of the New Testament.  Prior to that, we have many ancient manuscripts and fragments from before the Nicaea council.  The number catalogued is now approaching 6,000, though most are rather fragmentary.  In fact, prior to Nicaea, only about 58% of New Testament verses are represented.  That may not sound like a lot, but it is really quite reassuring.  Where portions are missing from these manuscripts, we can compare what is missing with is present in other Greek manuscripts using stichometry.  “Stichometry” (standardized numbers of characters and lines that were printed on a page) lets us estimate whether these gaps in some manuscripts “fit” what we have in other manuscripts.  Not even one Christian doctrine is in doubt because of differences between ancient manuscripts.

We can also compare various ancient translations of the New Testament.  Long ago, a monk traveling through Spain and visiting monastery libraries estimated that we have over 30,000 ancient copies of the Latin Vulgate (translated by St. Jerome in about 400 A.D.).  Nearly two thousand years after Jesus died for our sins and rose again, we can still confidently affirm that  because of Christ, we are forgiven and bound for heaven.  We know this, but that’s what God wrote in the Bible.