Friday, April 24, 2009

What About Inter-racial Marriage?

Do the Scriptures mention anything about interracial marriages, or is this a prejudice which has been passed on from generation to generation? How should we as Christians react towards mixed marriages?

Interracial marriage per se is not forbidden in Scripture. It’s true that the Israelites were strictly forbidden to marry people from other racial or ethnic groups, as we read for instance in Deuteronomy 7:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites…etc., and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them… You shall make no covenant with them… You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons…” (Deut. 7:1-3)
God strictly prohibited his people from marrying outside of Israel—marrying people of other racial or ethnic backgrounds. But the command was not grounded so much upon race but upon faith. That is to say, God was not concerned with racial purity but with religious purity. The people of Israel were forbidden to marry outside the faith, which at that time happened to be largely confined to their own race. They were not to marry someone who was not a worshipper of the one true God and incorporated into the covenant community of Israel.

Now if someone was from a foreign nation, and a worshipper of a pagan deity, but came to believe in the one true God, the God of Israel, and was formally incorporated into Israel, then he or she was permitted to marry an Israelite.

We have an example of this in Rahab, the harlot from Jericho, who was converted from paganism and became a worshipper of Jehovah. (See her confession of faith in the God of Israel at Josh. 2:11.) And because she was converted, she was eligible to be married to an Israelite, notwithstanding the fact that she was not herself an Israelite by birth. In fact, we discover that she did indeed marry an Israelite—a man named Salmon—and as a result of that union and the children that she gave birth to, she became an ancestor of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:5).

We have other Biblical examples as well, the most well known perhaps being Ruth, a Moabite, who converted and eventually married a godly Israelite named Boaz, and she also became an ancestor of Christ (Matt. 1:5).

Moses also married a non-Israelite, since it is said he married a “Cushite woman” (Num. 12:1). “Cushite” was the ancient term for Ethiopian, so that Moses apparently married a black woman. She was likely one of the mixed multitude that came out of Egypt with Israel (Ex. 12:38), and although coming from a pagan background she had become a worshipper of the true God.

In all of these examples we see that faith takes precedence over ethnicity. Or to say it another way, the issue is not race but grace.

I should add that the issue is just the same for Christians today. Believers are not prohibited from marrying someone of a different race, but they are prohibited from marrying someone of a different faith (or of no faith at all). I must stress this: Christians are not to marry non-Christians. They are not to marry people who unfaithful to the Lord. This is a command of God. In 1 Corinthians 7:39 Paul says that Christians are to marry “only in the Lord,” meaning they are to marry only another faithful Christian. In 2 Corinthians 6:14 he says that we are not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers.

But if a man and a woman are both faithful Christians, it doesn’t matter what their respective races might be. It doesn’t matter, that is, in the eyes of God. And it shouldn’t matter to us either. After all, we are all descended from one man. God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26).

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What Happens When We Die?

The "Ask the Pastor" question for this week is, "What Happens When We Die?"

The Bible doesn’t go into a lot of detail on this subject, but there’s enough information in Scripture on the one hand to comfort and encourage believers, and on the other to terrify unbelievers.

There is also enough information to dispel a number of common misconceptions about what happens at death. For instance, people who are secular in their thinking believe that when you die…that’s it. When you’re dead, you’re dead. There is no soul or spirit in man that survives the death of the body and has an ongoing, continuous, conscious existence; nor will there ever be any resurrection. Man is simply a physical being, and when his body dies that’s the end of him. When you’re dead, you’re gone…forever.

A view common among pagan peoples is that after death the soul or spirit of man roams the earth. It doesn’t go to heaven or hell, but leads a kind of shadowy, spooky existence, just hanging out, as it were, near the place where the person died, or where he was buried, or perhaps visiting the places he used to live. This is some people get the idea of ghosts. But this is a pagan notion, not a Christian view of things.

A misconception which is commonly found among Christians is that when a believer dies, he becomes an angel. But there’s absolutely no warrant in Scripture for this belief. The belief seems to have arisen from something Jesus said in answer to a question posed to him by the Sadducees about marriage after the resurrection. He said, “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30). But notice that he says they are like angels in heaven, not they become angels. Big difference! They are like angels. Like them how? Like them in the point in which Jesus is making the comparison. Like them in the point of marriage. The angels neither marry nor are given in marriage because there is no need for them to procreate. And the same will be true of human beings in the resurrection. God’s purpose for human procreation will have ended and so there will be no more purpose for marriage.

So what does happen to you when you die? This depends upon whether or not you’re a Christian. In the 16th chapter of Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells a story of two men. One is a poor, but faithful and humble believer. The other is rich; but he is a sinner. And Jesus says, “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.” That is, he was taken to paradise, a place of comfort and peace. And Jesus says, “The rich man also died and was buried” and went to Hades and was in torment in flames (Luke 16:19-31).

It’s a frightful end for those who don’t know God and don’t love the Lord Jesus Christ. They go to hell, where they will suffer eternal torment.

Things are very different, however, for the righteous. And by the righteous the Bible means those who by faith are united to Jesus Christ and seek to live a godly live. When they die, their soul or spirit is taken to heaven while their body is laid in the grave to await the resurrection.

Paul speaks of these things in a number of his epistles. In Second Corinthians, for instance, he speaks of the Christian being taken to heaven when he dies. He says,

For we know that if the tent, which is our earthly home, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (2 Cor. 5:1).
And then he adds that this is a far more preferable thing than living in this world. He says,

We are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord… and we would rather be away from the body and at home
with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6, 8)
He says this in an even more powerful way in the first chapter of Philippians. He says,
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better (Phil. 1:21-23)
So the picture that emerges is that at death, the body is laid in the grave, while the soul or spirit of the person is taken either to heaven or to hell, to receive either the reward of the righteous or the punishment of the wicked.

But Paul also tells us that it is not desirable, nor is it God’s intention, that we should remain disembodied spirits forever (cf. 2 Cor. 5:2-4). At death, our bodies are laid in the grave awaiting the resurrection when Christ comes again. In his testimony before the Roman governor Felix, he said, “There will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15). And in his first letter to the Corinthians he says (specifically with respect to believers),

Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ (1 Cor. 15:20-23)
Jesus also spoke of this when he said in John 5,
An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment (Jn. 5:28-29)
All the dead will be raised up again on the last day, both the righteous and the wicked. Their souls shall be reunited with the bodies. The righteous will enjoy eternal blessedness in both body and soul, and the wicked will be eternally punished in both body and soul.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Ask the Pastor: The Death Pentalty

A couple of questions have been submitted concerning the death penalty.

When a man kills another man, shouldn’t the killer get a death sentence?

The Catholic Church believes the death penalty is anti-Christian. What do you think?

The Bible actually has a great deal to say about the matter of jurisprudence, that is, about the matter of crime and punishment. Many people seem to think that the Bible only deals with matters of personal salvation—how they may be made right with God, how they may have their sins forgiven and find acceptance in God’s eyes, and so go to heaven when they die. Not at all an insignificant question! But it’s not the only question the Bible addresses.

The Bible actually has a great deal to say about how nations are to be governed. When God rescued Israel out of Egypt and took them to Mt. Sinai in the wilderness, he gave them a law to observe. And much of this law relates to the role of the civil magistrate and how he is to administer justice on God's behalf. God gave Moses a body of "case-law" in order to guide the judges in their legal decisions.

Let me give you an example of a case law from Exodus 21:33-34.

“When a man opens a pit, or when a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restoration. He shall give money to its owner, and the dead beast shall become his.”
Here the Lord is supposing a case of criminal negligence. A man digs a pit and fails to cover it or put a fence around it. His neighbor’s ox or donkey falls into it and is killed. The law shows that the man who dug the pit is to be held responsible for his neighbor’s loss because he has not taken a reasonable precaution to guard against his neighbor’s animal from falling into it. He is liable for damages. He must give the owner a new animal in place of the one that was lost.

Now this particular law doesn’t just concern digging pits and losing animals. It gives us general principles of legal responsibility and criminal negligence that can be applied rather broadly to other cases with similar circumstances. This is the purpose of case law—to provide general principles to guide judges in their legal rulings. And there are a number of case laws in the Bible (concentrated in Exodus 21-23) that give guidance for judges in ruling on such matters as personal injury, property damage, theft, and so on. There is a great deal of wisdom in these laws. When you read them, you think, “Yes, that’s right! That’s what ought to be done in such cases.” The decisions given in these case laws resonate with our innate (God-given) sense of justice. The assigned penalty fits the crime.

Several things need to be said about these case laws. First, in each instance, the assigned penalty is the maximum penalty which God allows. One important aspect of justice is that a person is not to be punished more than what is due—for instance, being executed for stealing ten dollars. That’s an unjust penalty because it doesn’t fit the crime. The penalties God assigns in the case laws of the Bible are the maximum penalties he allows for the specified crimes in order to guard against an injustice being done to the criminal by punishing him with a penalty greater than what his offense deserves.

Second, it’s important to note that there are a number of case laws that deal with crimes for which the assigned penalty is death. So we have no less an authority than God himself telling us that for certain crimes (e.g., rape, kidnapping, and murder) it is appropriate to inflict a capital sentence.

Third, in nearly every case, a lesser penalty may be substituted for the one assigned in the law. The judges are allowed some discretion. Also, much depends upon the wishes of the victim. The victim may press for the maximum penalty, a lesser penalty, or no penalty at all. That is, the victim may choose to absorb the loss and forgive the offender. That’s his right.

Fourth, there is one crime for which no lesser penalty is allowed than the one which is assigned in the law. And that's the crime of murder. "Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death" (Ex. 21:12). How do we know that no lesser penalty may be substituted? Because God tells us so in Numbers 35:31.

You shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death.
A “ransom” or “redemption money” in this context is a lesser penalty, as we learn by way of analogy from Exodus 21:28-30.
“When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable” (v. 28)
The owner is not punished in this case because animals are by nature unpredictable. Even otherwise tractable animals can unexpectedly become violent.
But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death (v. 29)
If the owner knows the ox has a tendency to be violent, he has a responsibility to restrain it. If he does not, and the animal kills someone, he is guilty of criminal negligence, and is subject to the death penalty.

If a ransom is imposed on him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is imposed on him (v. 30)
Since it was a case of negligence and not of willful, premeditated murder, some discretion is allowed to the judges and to the victim’s family to substitute a lesser penalty, say a monetary payment to the victim’s family. Of course no amount of money can make up for the loss of a human life, but the payment is intended to compensate for the loss of income the family suffers as a result of the death.

So in this case, and presumably in the other case laws as well, a lesser penalty may be substituted for the one assigned in the law.

But not in the case of murder.

Again, God says, “You shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death” (Num. 35:31). God says, “No ransom allowed. You must put the murderer to death.” In fact, he goes on to say that the shedding of innocent blood pollutes the land, and that no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it (Num. 35:33-34).

Not only so, but he tells us that even if a murderer should seek to find refuge in the house of God, he should still be put to death. "If a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die" (Ex. 21:14). It was a custom among pagan nations in the ancient world for people to seek shelter, to seek immunity from punishment, by going to live in a temple. But the Lord says, "If a murderer seeks to do this in my temple, if he seeks to escape justice, take him even from my altar and put him to death."

But it’s not just in the case laws that we find death penalty required for murder. Immediately after the flood, God told Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6). The flood was sent because “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:9). God’s remedy for this after the flood was the institution of civil government for the suppression of evil, including the execution of the murderer.

A person is sinning when he murders his neighbor, but the State sinning when it fails to execute the murderer.

But things change when we come to the New Testament, right? Not at all. Paul assumes the legitimacy of the death penalty when he says the civil magistrate does not bear the sword in vain (Rom. 13:4). The sword is a symbol of the magistrate's authority to inflict a capital sentence. In the same passage Paul calls the governing authorities who bear the sword, servants of God, avengers who carry out God's wrath on wrongdoers.

Let me summarize, the Bible clearly teaches that some crimes are deserving of the death penalty. In all but one, a lesser penalty may be substituted according to the victim’s wishes and the judges’ discretion. In the case of murder, however, nothing but execution is permitted.

Plastic Jesus

How many Legos does it take to make a life-size statue of Jesus?

Never thought it about before?

Me either.

Turns out it takes nearly 30,000. You can read about it here.

In art, the medium is a part of the message. It used to be that the medium was thought to testify to the subject's worth. A Lego Mickey Mouse, maybe. But a Lego Jesus? Doesn't inspire much reverence...or confidence. If Christ is precious to believers (1 Pet. 2:4-6) it seems gold or silver or bronze would be more appropriate. Or since Christ is the cornerstone and foundation of the church (1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 2:20). How about a marble, or better yet, a granite Jesus?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Ask the Pastor

As many of you know, I've begun a new weekly radio program called Ask the Pastor, which airs Friday mornings at 8:20 a.m. on KREJ 101.7 FM. I'll be posting the questions and answers here, as well. Here's the first one from last week:

Question: If the Holy Spirit indwells and guides us into all truth, why are there so many different interpretations of the Bible?

Answer: The passage which the questioner seems to be alluding to is John 16:12, in which Jesus tells the disciples:
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…”
The question is, if this is true, why are there so many differences of opinion about the Bible’s meaning?

I have a couple of things to say about this. First, it’s important, when we read the Bible, to consider to whom the passage in question is addressed.

In this particular passage, Jesus is speaking to the twelve disciples, and we have to ask ourselves the question, “Is he speaking to them merely as believers or is he speaking to them in their unique capacity as apostles?” because there’s a big difference.

Some of the things Jesus says to his disciples he says to them as believers—and those things can be broadly applied to believers in general. But there are other things he says to them as apostles that apply uniquely to them. This is one of those passages. He is telling them that as his apostles, who were charged with the work of laying the foundation of the Church through the preaching of the gospel, they were to be specially gifted with the Holy Spirit, who would guide them into all truth. He’s referring to the special revelations God would give them through the Spirit—much like what Paul mentions in Ephesians 3, when he speaks of the mystery of the gospel which in previous generations had not been known, “but which now,” he says, “has been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:5).

It’s a promise of infallible guidance through divine inspiration—a promise Jesus made, not to all believers, but only to the apostles. And the promise, I should say, bears directly upon the confidence we may have in the New Testament.

Let me say, secondly, with regard to the many different interpretations of the Bible, that it’s inevitable that it should be so. Some differences are intentional perversions or twisting of the Scriptures. But even among honest people who are sincerely seeking to know the truth, it’s inevitable that there will be differences. Honest, but fallible human-beings will have honest differences of opinion. We all approach the Scriptures with different biases, different life-experiences, different backgrounds, and all these things influence how we go about interpreting the Bible.

This should cause us to be somewhat patient and humble with people we disagree with. We ought to hold fast to the essential articles of the Christian faith, but there is considerable room for differences of opinion on secondary issues. If there is an obvious love of Christ and a commitment to grow in grace and a desire to submit to the authority of Scripture, then we ought not allow secondary issues to divide us by causing us to have hard feelings toward one another. Paul tells us that we ought to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).

Thursday, April 2, 2009

There is always someone who can be offended

More from David Wells on "Self", chapter five of his book, The Courage to Be Protestant.
As it turns out, we are a nation, frankly, in which we are all underappreciated. Even worse, we have all been victimized by someone. And worse yet, we are all about to collapse unless we get in touch with our feelings by getting entirely naked. Or, as those in the know say, by becoming “vulnerable.” Beneath the surface of normality, you see, is a car wreck about to happen. Everywhere. In everyone. That is what we are all assuming. And that is how we are now looking at every aspect of life...

Quite a few public schools have banned competitive games because they dent the self-esteem of those who do not win. Most schools have so elevated self-esteem over performance, feeling good over doing well, that we have produced a nation of children whose estimate of themselves is sky-high but whose academic performance lags ever further behind that in many other nations...

America has become a very sensitive nation. There is always someone here who can be offended, if not by what is said, then by what is not said. Or by what could potentially be intended in what was said. Or by what could be read into what was not said.