Saturday, November 5, 2016

What Jesus’ First Coming Should Teach Us about His Second

This is an excerpt from Faith: In Your Own Handwriting.

As the name implies, we are waiting for Jesus’ Second Coming. Well, did you ever notice that when Jesus came the first time, no one was expecting Him, even though a) every Jew was hoping for Messiah to come soon, and b) they knew the Old Testament and its prophecies even better than we do? (It wouldn’t be uncommon for a rabbi to have the whole Old Testament memorized, and almost all would have memorized the first five books.)

Which should lead to a simple question: Why were they so surprised?

In trying to answer that question, I realized that Jesus’ First Coming fulfilled four different types of prophecies.

The first were Clear Prophecies. Micah 5:2 is one of these. It says the Messiah will come from Bethlehem. The scholars of Jesus’ day got this one right.[1] They expected the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem.

It gets more complicated from there, because the next type are Hidden Prophecies. Psalm 22 is an amazing example. If you read the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, then read Psalm 22, you will see that it describes the event in amazing detail. And it was written 500 or so years ahead of time.

But here’s the thing. Up until Jesus quoted the first line of it from the cross, no one knew it was about Him. And there were lots of hidden prophecies, verses that talked about Jesus’ First Coming without giving clear evidence in advance to help readers understand that they were prophetic.

Then we come to the Picture Prophecies, stories like Genesis 22 where Abraham is called to sacrifice his own son. (God stops him at the last second.) No Christian can read that story without seeing that it pictures God sending His own Son to die for us. And when God stops Abraham, and we remember that Abraham had already said, "God will provide a lamb,” we can’t help but be reminded that Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”[2]

It’s an amazing prophetic image, but once again, there are no clues in this or any other of these Old Testament pictures that let readers know ahead of time that they were prophecies.

And if you thought those were challenging, we’ll now look at Dual-Fulfillment Prophecies. These are predictions in the Old Testament that had already been fulfilled before Jesus came, and were then “re-fulfilled” in a deeper way by Jesus.

A great example of this is Isaiah 7. “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.[3] Super prediction about the Virgin Birth.

But here’s the thing. The prophecy in Isaiah 7 had already been fulfilled once, not in the sense of a literal virgin giving birth, but in the sense of a young maiden going through the normal process, as you can see if you read all of Isaiah 7:10-16.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.[4]

The prophecy specifically mentions the land of two kings[5] being laid waste, and the nation of Assyria invading instead (verse 17). All of this took place well before Jesus. Matter of fact, it happened within the time frame Isaiah mentions, the time necessary for a young woman to conceive, give birth to, and begin raising a child.

Matthew reapplied this prophecy and clearly taught that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born. But let’s say there was a scholar living prior to Jesus’ birth who compiled a list of all the prophecies found in the Old Testament. After finishing the list, he then split the list into prophecies that had already been fulfilled and those that had yet to be fulfilled. On which list would he have put this prophecy?

Yep, on the “fulfilled” list. And there is basically no way to tell from the prophecy itself that it was also talking about Jesus and Mary.

There are many, many more prophecies that fit into the “less-clear” categories. Jesus even spent much of His time after the Resurrection showing to His followers all the passages from the Old Testament they didn’t know were about Him.[6]

Which leaves us with four types of prophecy and a huge question. If Jesus’ Second Coming is like His first, how can we be confident that we have identified all the Clear Prophecies, Hidden Prophecies, Picture Prophecies, and Dual-Fulfillment Prophecies necessary to get everything right?

That question should lead us back to a closer examination of what Jesus actually said about His return, and the primary purpose of prophecy.

What Jesus Said about His Second Coming

Jesus had risen from the dead, and His disciples had lots of questions. Just before He went back to the Father, they asked one of their most pressing: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” [7]

Are you going to restore the Kingdom now, and if not, when? In other words, teach us about the end times.

Jesus’ response is telling. We’ll look at it in two sections. First, the direct answer: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.[8]

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like they asked when He was coming back, and He politely said, “It’s none of your business.”

And if you think that was pointed, look at the second part of His answer:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[9]

So, to put the whole thing together, the disciples asked Jesus to tell them the details about the end times. Jesus replied, “That’s none of your business. Instead of worrying about that, get to work telling people about me, which, by the way, is your business.”

Which fits very neatly into why God gives us prophecy in the Bible to begin with (and it’s probably not what you think).

The Purpose of Prophecy

A lot of people seem to think that God put prophecy in the Bible to tell us the future. But He didn’t. See, God’s just not that into giving people facts. If He was we might know how tall Jesus was, whether He was left or right handed, and which Tuesday in June Jesus is returning. But we don’t.

Obviously, God has other purposes in mind than giving us information so we can pass some sort of Bible trivia test.

So what is God looking for when He speaks?

Well, in the verses we just looked at, He wants us to spread the good news about Jesus. (The word Gospel, by the way, means “good news.”) The Old Testament prophetic book of Micah talks about how God isn’t that crazy about sacrifices, then says:

What does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.[10]

And in the New Testament book of James, we’re told:

“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.[11]

Throughout the Bible, God’s desire is to draw us closer to Himself in relationship, and to change our attitudes and actions. This is especially true in the prophetic books (everything from Isaiah to the last book in the Old Testament, Malachi). God’s desire is to get people to live into His will. That is the primary purpose of prophecy.

The Book of Jonah is an excellent example. Jonah, the racist prophet,[12] is sent to Nineveh. There he preaches to a people whom he doesn’t like, gleefully telling them that God is going to annihilate them. He’s obviously predicting the future. But the thing is, even though it annoys Jonah, the people of Nineveh accept his teaching, reform their behavior, and turn to God. Because God’s goal for Jonah’s prophecy wasn’t the destruction of Nineveh, but rather the restoration of these people to Himself, God doesn’t destroy Nineveh,[13] much to Jonah’s disappointment.

Prophecy had two components: foretelling, predicting the future, and “forth-telling”, instructing the listeners to change their ways. And the foretelling was always just a tool for the forth-telling. So, when Jesus and the rest of the New Testament tell us that Jesus is coming, the point isn’t to get us to draw up charts and hold End-time conferences. 

The point is for us to get busy doing the things He told us to do, like telling others about Jesus, and living out God’s principles of love, mercy, and justice.

[1] Matthew 2:3-6
[2] John 1:29
[3] Isaiah 7:14 (ESV)
[4] Isaiah 7:14-16 (NIV)
[5] The Kingdom of Aram and the Northern Kingdom of Israel
[6] Luke 24:25-27
[7] Acts 1:6 (NIV)
[8] Acts 1:7 (NIV)
[9] Acts 1:8 (NIV)
[10] Micah 6:8 (NIV)
[11] James 1:27 (NLT)
[12] Seriously. Not a prophet to promote racism, but rather a racist who God used pretty much against his will.
[13] Yet. Their revival isn’t permanent, and they do eventually face a judgment of literally Biblical proportions.

Monday, July 25, 2016


Is God in control or not?

That’s really the question.

Every time I read someone’s explanation of why I must choose between two immensely flawed candidates, there is an underlying assumption. If we vote wrong, God loses. God cannot possibly overcome the wrong person being elected to the White House.

New justices will be nominated to the Supreme Court, important laws about religious liberty may be passed. This is a crucial time in our nation’s history.*

Therefore, I must compromise. I must support a person who stands against almost everything I stand for.

Well, I think God is bigger than one election. I think His principles and standards are eternal, and not to be ignored in the name of pragmatism or expediency. My job is not to make sure the government of the United States moves in a certain direction. My calling is to help people see Jesus and move toward Him. And I don’t see how I can attract people to God while denying His nature.

Come January 2017, another new individual will be sworn in as temporary President of the United States. But the same God will still be on the throne of the universe, and His Kingdom will stand.

It seems to me that denying that reality when I step into the voting booth is just me proclaiming loudly that I don’t really believe God is in control.

* When was the last time we weren't being told "this election is crucial?"

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

We’re Called to Stand

It’s a lousy time to teach through Jeremiah.

Often called the weeping prophet, in reality he was the losing prophet. When he started his ministry, God gave him an immense challenge. “You must go wherever I send you and say whatever I tell you.” (1)

That was followed by the least encouraging pep talk of all time:
“Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them. Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land. They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD. (2) 

In other words, God says, “I am calling you to stand against your people, your political power brokers, and even your religious leaders. And know ahead of time, they’re not going to listen. Just remember, you don’t answer to them, you answer to me.”

So, Jeremiah began his ministry. He went to the Temple and proclaimed the message. Over and over again for forty-some years. And just like God foretold, the people fought him. They beat him, imprisoned him, dropped him into an almost-empty cistern, and eventually kidnapped him and took him to Egypt, the place God was telling them not to go. 

They did almost everything to him imaginable, except for one thing: listen. In one instance the king even made a great show of cutting up and burning Jeremiah’s messages. 

Jeremiah was, by almost any rational analysis, a loser.

Except for one thing. He wasn’t called to win. 

He wasn’t called to convince everyone that he was right. He wasn’t called to form a coalition with Egypt and save the nation of Judah. (3)

He was called to stand. 

In the midst of a nation that was moving in the wrong direction, a nation that was ignoring God’s standards, Jeremiah wasn’t called to save them. His job was to stand for God’s principles and proclaim that the only hope the nation had was God, not coalitions. So he stood, and he was persecuted, and he died looking an awful lot like a loser.

Years later, another Prophet came to the Temple in the middle of chaotic times. He, too, could have formed a coalition. He could have compromised. He could have come up with a political strategy, and convinced His followers that to stand against both the Romans and the Jewish leadership was to choose to lose. 

Instead, He walked to the Temple and quoted Jeremiah. “ ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” (4)

So, they killed Him.

And three days later, God won.

In this election cycle, we’re being told we need to choose a side. That not voting for one of the two establishment candidates is choosing to lose, and therefore not allowed. 

I’m told I must either support the candidate who doesn’t seem to have any personal convictions except gaining power and making abortion easier, or the one who brags about his serial adultery (and his penis size), and who firmly believes the best way to attain power is to take advantage of the weak.

Now I’m watching as good Christians begin to talk themselves into this dubious “truth.”

Well, I can’t. 

I can’t vote for someone who encourages the continued destruction of the unborn (5). And as a Christian who encourages his friends to choose a life path that encourages purity, selflessness, and care for the weaker members of society, I can’t drive around with a bumper sticker on my car supporting a candidate who stands against every one of those ideals.

I can’t, and I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to.

It’s not my job to see how many of my principles I can compromise in order to form a coalition that could save our country through some political process. It’s my job to hold tightly to and proclaim the principles that can lead God to rescue our nation.

Winning at all cost may be a pragmatic approach, but it’s not a Christian one. 

So, I’m choosing to let God be in charge of winning and losing.

Because I’m not called to win; I’m called to stand.

(1) Jeremiah 1:7, NLT
(2) Jeremiah 1:17-19, NIV
(3) That was the number one suggestion from the nation’s leaders on how to solve the Babylonian problem.
(4) Matthew 21:13 NIV. The den of robbers line is from Jeremiah’s speech at the Temple. The quote about the house of prayer is from Isaiah 56:7. When God called Isaiah, God told him that he was to speak to people who would not hear what he said, and that it would all end with the people being taken into exile. (Isaiah 6:8-13)
(5) Interestingly, Jeremiah’s call contains one of the strongest Bible verses on the value of the unborn. (Jeremiah 1:5)

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Faith: In Your Own Handwriting Available in Paperback, eBook.

Faith: In Your Own Handwriting is available just in time for Cyber Monday.
I think there are five groups of people who could find this book very helpful.
  • Young adults who want to transition from their parents' faith to one they can call their own,
  • People who are curious about Christianity and would like to know what it really means to be a Christian,
  • People who have been turned off by one form of Christianity or another, but are still interested in Jesus,
  • New believers who are wanting to get a good start in living their faith, and
  • Anyone who feels they are at a spiritual transition point. 
The paperback can be purchased here, while the Kindle ebook is available here. (The paperback will be available at Amazon in a few days.)

Friday, November 20, 2015

Faith has launched!

It's AVAILABLE!. Faith: In Your Own Handwriting is now available on Amazon.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Book Excerpt: Choosing a Church

The new book, Faith: In Your Own Handwriting is inching closer to publication. This is one of three appendices, and I thought I'd go ahead and share it. Might give you a little taste of the book as whole, and be useful as well. 

Choosing a Church

Among the most important decisions you’ll make is which church you’ll connect with. If you’re still making your initial faith decision, the wrong church can push you to a wrong decision. If you’re a new believer or seeking to re-write your childhood faith in your own handwriting, the church you choose will be a major force in shaping (or re-shaping) your faith. And even for more experienced Christians, a church can stunt your growth or help you move to a greater faith than you’d dreamed possible. 

And remember, this decision is personal. God has made you unique, and your church choice should enhance that uniqueness, not conform you to some human pattern. Your focus should be on pleasing God and finding His will for you. 

In my immediate family, one of my sisters is comfortable in the same style church she grew up in, while the other worships and serves in a totally different environment. The church I pastor is radically different from both, and I think my baby brother is still working out his fit. Your job is still to find your own God-designed path, not focus on the approval of anyone else. 

When it comes to your church decision, I think there are five things to consider: worship focus, worship style, church calling, church doctrine, and your connection.

We discussed worship focus earlier in the book. You may remember the concepts of God’s Immanence (God is near.) and His Transcendence (God is other.). As we mentioned, these strongly influence worship. Do you most easily worship in surroundings that point to God’s majesty or His proximity? Do incense and stained glass draw you to worship, or do less formal settings make you feel closer to God?

Worship style is different from focus. Do you worship best with upbeat, contemporary music or with pipe organs and traditional hymns? Acoustic or electric guitars? Dresses and suits, or jeans and t-shirts? I believe people can worship God in all these diverse styles, but that doesn’t mean you personally can. Some styles will help you worship, some won’t. Some could even discourage you from worship. While I think this is probably the least important of the five considerations, it is real. 

The one consideration that I think most people don’t even recognize is church calling, but I think it might be the most important. 

In his book Blind Spots: Becoming a Courageous, Compassionate, and Commissioned Church, Collin Hansen defines three types of churches based on their calling. Courageous churches take stands. Whether it’s a cultural issue or a doctrinal dispute, courageous churches relish speaking truth into a situation.
Compassionate churches seek out the downtrodden. They feed the poor, love the unlovable, and try their best to be the healing hands of Jesus toward anyone who is hurting.

Commissioned churches focus on the Great Commission. They are all about helping unbelievers find their way to Jesus, and are always on the lookout for the best methods of communicating the Good News. 

Obviously, Jesus calls every church to do all three, but churches tend to migrate toward their strength. While I doubt any church member would say their church ignores one of these, it doesn’t take long to tell which of these three each church considers its calling. Our church has a real heart for compassion, and does its best to stand for truth, but if you cut us we bleed the Great Commission. 

Here’s the thing. As you develop your faith, you will probably find yourself drawn more toward one of these callings than the other. For you to fully live into what God wants to do in your life, your church has to support your calling. Our church makes a concerted effort to wed Commission and Compassion. We think advancing the Gospel includes transforming cultures to better reflect God’s values. We have plenty of members who have a primary calling toward compassion and they fit in well with our church’s mission and vision.

The same can’t be said about people who are called to the Courageous church. Our almost-overwhelming passion to reach people and advance God’s Kingdom means we don’t take public stands on as many issues as the purely courageous like. People with this calling tend to leave our church eventually. Hopefully, they can find a Courageous church where they can more fully write their faith.

One key thing to remember about calling is that the only wrong answer is the one that doesn’t match you. The world needs Courageous, Compassionate, and Commissioned churches. And all three need each other. Without the Courageous churches watching our doctrinal backsides, the Compassionate and Commissioned churches can wander into serious error. Without the prodding of the Compassionate churches, the other two can become cold and uncaring. And without the passionate pushing of the Commissioned churches, the other churches can become inwardly focused. 

The key isn’t which one is right. The key is which one (or which combination) is right for you. 

A fourth consideration, and one that is directly tied to how far along you are in your spiritual development process is church doctrine. If you’re just getting started, you probably don’t have strongly developed beliefs on any of the secondary (or tertiary) doctrinal issues. While you hopefully understand the importance of the Deity of Christ, you may have no opinion whatsoever on, for instance, the “proper” method of baptism. Rest assured, the church you connect with will have an opinion. Before you connect, make sure you have at least some peace about the church’s doctrinal stands. If you feel misgivings here, that could be God nudging you in a different direction.

If you have been a Christian for a while, you may well have strong opinions on certain theological issues. Make sure your views are compatible (not necessarily identical, but compatible) with the church you’re considering. You can write this down. You’re not going to change their mind, and they’re going to try to change yours, intentionally or not. Joining a church with the idea of changing them is just as bad an idea as getting married with a plan to change your prospective spouse.

The final consideration is Your Connection. Can you see yourself belonging here? While the church’s job isn’t to make you comfortable, a certain level of comfort with the people of a church and its culture is vital. If you are considering a church but can’t see yourself working in and with the people of that church, if you don’t see yourself confidently giving your money or your time, or if you can’t imagine inviting people to that church, keep looking. 

Of course, there is one more thing to consider. Churches come in lots of flavors. Perfect is not one of them. Churches are composed of screwed up people (like you), so they are all imperfect. Usually massively so (again, like you). Perfection and connection are not the same thing. 

What if you can’t find a good church fit in your area? Pick the one that comes closest and try to make it work. You need other believers to truly thrive, even if the match is far from perfect, and quite often that imperfect fit works out better than you’d expect. 

You can also look online for a church that broadcasts its services. An online church service might make up for what’s lacking in a local church. And if you just can’t connect, pray that God sends someone to your area to start a brand new church where you can serve and grow.