Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Is the Virgin Birth Necessary?

In 2006, Rob Bell, the controversial pastor of Mars Hill Church, wrote and published his famous book, “Velvet Elvis.” The book was embraced by many Christians as a fresh perspective on faith. Even though many of the claims in this book directly contradict the Bible, it remains popular in Christian circles still today. Consider for example, this excerpt concerning Jesus’ virgin birth: “What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus has a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births?” How would you respond to this from a pastor?

We are in the Christmas season, in which we celebrate the incarnation (God taking on flesh) of Jesus Christ in a lowly Bethlehem manger approximately 2,000 years ago. But, we are not only celebrating the coming of Jesus. We are also celebrating how He came. Borrowing from questions implied by Bell's book, how important is it that Jesus was born of a virgin? Does the Bible truly teach that Jesus was virgin born? Was this only taught by the Gospel writers? What if Jesus is not virgin born? Does it make a difference?

In short, the virgin birth of Jesus is as central to the Gospel of Jesus as peanut butter is to a PB&J sandwich. Allow me to explain. If Jesus is not virgin born, then He is not eternal ... then He is not God ... then He is not Immanuel (God with us) ... then His Gospel is worthless. The fact that Jesus is God is absolutely central to the Christian faith and the Bible on which it boldly and accurately stands. I will illustrate this even further a little later. But first, allow me to critically question Bell’s strange assertion regarding “Larry”:
  • If Jesus has a biological father that can be proven from the bones of “Larry,” then that would also mean that we have the bones of Jesus with which to compare DNA. That would imply that Jesus was not resurrected. Denying the resurrection of Jesus is the equivalent of denying His Gospel. How can Bell claim His Gospel as truth while centrally denying it?
  • Contrary to Bell's assertion, the virgin birth was not first introduced in the Gospels, but in Old Testament prophecy. How can Bell dismiss the prophecies written hundreds of years before Bethlehem that Immanuel would be virgin born?
  •  How can Bell begin to use the word “myth” to even remotely describe Jesus’ Gospel as he did?
  • How can Bell claim Jesus was, is and always will be God if he asserts that His biological father could have been a man?
  • As a pastor, does Bell care to take this assertion back?
John 3:16 and many other passages make it perfectly clear that Jesus is the one and only Son of God. In order for this to be true, His DNA is not directly derived from an earthly man. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. This is recorded in the first Gospel account in Matthew 1:18-25, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.” That is pretty clear. This is even further elaborated upon in Luke 1:26-38.

On a side note, the “prophet” that Matthew was directly quoting was Isaiah and his prophecy recorded in Isaiah 7:14, "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel." Isaiah was written over 700 years before the Advent in Bethlehem and the Gospel accounts. And, from then all the way through Matthew, the Messiah was required to be virgin born. This was necessary in order for God to take on flesh. Before Jesus took on his name (Yeshua) in Bethlehem, He had a name even before the creation of the world. That name was “The Word” (John 1). And, it was through The Word that all things were created. It was through Jesus that all things were created. And, we celebrate at Christmas the incarnation of our Creator into the creation that man might be reconciled to God. Jesus is eternal. He never had a beginning and He will never have an end. He is God. And, when He took on flesh He was conceived not by man, but by the Holy Spirit (God). To gut the Gospel of this truth is to gut the doctrine of the Christian faith. Our faith boldly stands upon the testimony of the prophets and Jesus Himself that Jesus is God.

To that end, let’s briefly examine the testimony of Jesus. When confronted by the Pharisees in John 8, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” Jesus claims the name ("I AM") reserved for God alone. Jesus is also declaring that He existed before Abraham and refers to that past existence in the present tense. Jesus is declaring Himself to be the one and only eternal Son of God. And, later when Peter also declared this, Jesus affirmed that this truth is the rock upon which He will build His Kingdom (Matthew 16:18).

Lastly, we have the testimony of the virgin, herself. Mary was the mother of Jesus and probably loved Him more than any other human being. Mary was also keenly aware of the precise reason Jesus was executed. It was the High Priest Caiaphas himself who led the crowds in the charge recorded in John 19:7, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” Jesus was executed because He made Himself to be the Son of God, which is only effective by claiming to be virgin born. Mary knew this charge. And, yet she silently followed Jesus through His trial, through His march to Golgotha, and even silently stood just feet away from the cross to watch her son be brutally executed for this charge. She knew the truth. She could have easily stopped the whole thing by admitting Joseph was His father ... if that were true. She could have even stopped it by claiming a pre-marital affair with Larry ... if that were true. If He was not virgin born, surely she, just as any mother, would step forward to rescue her son. But, she knew the truth. She knew He was virgin born. She was that virgin. And, for this, she had to watch Him be tried and executed without interruption. Is not a mother’s heart yet another piece of evidence backing up this claim of Jesus, the prophets and the Gospel?

The virgin birth is central to the doctrine of Jesus’ Gospel. But, what is also central is that He wishes to be incarnate in you and me as well. This Christmas season, make Jesus your Immanuel.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Quest for Significance

“‘Tis the Season” ... and “the most wonderful time of the year.” And, as a movie fanatic, my favorite Christmas movie has to be “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The film stars James Stewart as the character George Bailey. Bailey is a man who has repeatedly given up his dreams of traveling the world in order to help others in his family and town. Later in life, when his world comes crashing down during Christmas, he contemplates suicide. Upon the intervention of the angel, Clarence, Bailey confesses that he wishes he had never been born. Clarence proceeds to show Bailey what his town and family would have been like if that were true. His eyes are opened to the far-reaching impact of his existence and he begs for his life back. I believe that the reason this movie is so loved by most is that it speaks to the vast majority of us. We all battle in our minds with the perception that we should be doing something more significant. We all live with dreams unfulfilled. But, for some Christians our eyes are later opened to realize that our perceptions were deceiving.

I believe we all possess the inner desire to do something significant. It is the natural pursuit of every human to realize some meaningful purpose with our lives. However, like George Bailey, we too often fall into the trap of comparing ourselves with others and drawing the wrong conclusions. In most cases, to compare is to despair. And, this dynamic can often times be just as problematic in the church. How many times do you feel the conviction that you should be doing something more, or doing something more significant? This can be healthy and it can also be dangerous. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with wanting to do big things for God. But, when we realize that He is the One doing the big things, it should be sufficient for us to simply join Him in whatever capacity He has asked us to join. In that context, our contribution is never significant, because the real contribution is His.

For example, consider “spiritual gifts.” We tend to highly value spiritual gifts that result in signs and wonders, at the expense of discounting other spiritual gifts. But, are the other spiritual gifts any less miraculous? Is the gift of healing any more effective than the gift of hospitality? If your strength is actively using the gift of hospitality in building God’s Kingdom, you should never discount this work of God in your life. If you are serving in your local church, you are doing something significant. Don’t diminish the value of that by placing disproportionate value on signs and wonders through others.

We also should not diminish the significance of signs and wonders. Signs and wonders do accompany the body of Christ (Mark 16:17-18). But, all manifestations of the Holy Spirit accompany the body of Christ, not just signs and wonders. And, not everyone is called to perform signs and wonders. In fact, many great characters in the Bible never performed and/or never saw signs and wonders.

Consider Galatians 5:22-23 which says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” These are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. The gifts are only the means to the fruit. The fruit is the goal, not the signs. In that light, is the retired woman who volunteers in the role of hospitably greeting everyone in the church lobby any less effective than he who walks the streets and prays for healing over the sick? The answer is “no.”

Paul elaborates even further regarding the importance of all gifts in 1 Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 12:1-4 says, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”

And, Paul closes this chapter in verses 27-31 as follows, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” The “more excellent way” to which Paul was referring is “love.” This was Paul’s introduction to the famous love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13. Love outweighs them all. In fact, all spiritual gifts will pass away and love will remain eternal.

Lastly, notice how Paul ranks the spiritual gifts in that passage. First is apostles, followed by prophets, followed by teachers, and then miracles. So, why do we often seem to value miracles over teaching? I don’t highlight Paul’s ranking to diminish the importance of miracles. Rather, I highlight this to magnify the importance of all the other gifts that have been inappropriately diminished by so many of us in the church at large.

The second way in which we lose sight of what God is doing through us is by discounting how God uses us locally when we compare ourselves to those dangerously serving abroad. The truth is that God calls different people to both. Which is more important, the lady who every week faithfully leads an elderly-appropriate worship service for those forgotten residents inside her local retirement home, or the couple building an orphanage in Indonesia for children so handicapped that nobody will adopt them? This is a trick question because neither is more important. They are equally important because God is doing them both.

By comparing differently gifted members of God’s family are we guilty of yet another form of idolatry? When we make such comparisons we are worshipping a more significant form of self in our own minds. We then diminish what God is doing and seek the path that more exalts ourselves.

It is healthy to seek God’s role for you in building His Kingdom. But, if He has already given you a role that you faithfully execute, you are already doing the most significant thing. The philosopher, William James, once said, “Act as if what you do makes a difference.  It does.” Mother Teresa added to this by paraphrasing Paul, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” Loving those whom God places in your path is the manifestation of a wonderful and significant life.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

When Facts Oppose Opinion

There is an ancient proverb that goes, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Since this proverb dates back to at least the 1600s, its usage has evolved over time. Today, many use it as if to mean that if you are hunting for birds, and have caught one in your hand, it is better to settle with that, than to let it go in order to chase two other birds that you have not already caught. However, this is not the original meaning of the proverb. In fact, the proverb refers back to medieval falconry. In medieval falconry, a bird in the hand (the falcon) is a valuable asset that is certainly worth more than two birds in the bush (falcon's prey). In other words, the falcon can catch many birds for you while two small birds that are prey for the falcon are only worth two birds. Interestingly, some even believe that this proverb is actually a variation of an earlier proverb from Ecclesiastes 9:4, “a living dog is better than a dead lion.” Either way, the point remains the same: Something is better than nothing. But, such obvious wisdom is ignored today in the public discourse concerning science and philosophy.

For example, consider two unrelated articles published within months of each other earlier this year. One article was published in September highlighting the finding of King Solomon’s famous mines. The other article was published in July heralding the scientific declaration that humans may have emerged from the mating between pigs and chimpanzees. Which article sounds more like the falcon and which article sounds more like elusive birds? And, guess which article receives more credibility and was valued more highly? For your own benefit, let’s examine each article in order to answer these questions for yourself.

The original archaeological discovery of Solomon’s mines in the Timna Valley dates back as far as the 1930s by archaeologist, Nelson Glueck. However, this discovery was quickly shrouded in doubt by the discovery of an Egyptian temple in the center of the valley. Such doubt was removed when recent excavations in the Timna Valley turned up artifacts that have been dated to the 10th Century B.C., when the Bible faithfully recorded King Solomon’s rule. This was further supported by Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University. His findings are in line with the chronology that he and other researchers put forth last year in the journal, “American Schools of Oriental Research.” In short, this article is conclusively announcing the archaeological finding that supports a confirming aspect of the historical account of King Solomon from the Bible.

Now, let’s move to the other article. In July, Dr. Eugene McCarthy announced his findings that “The tentative scenario that I picture is that human beings came into being via hybridization between a pig, whose best modern representative is Sus scrofa, and an ape, best represented today by the pygmy chimpanzee, Pan paniscus.” McCarthy, a geneticist at the University of Georgia, is noted as one of the world’s leading authorities on genetics. His findings are based solely upon comparisons between the anatomy and genetic sequences in the DNA of humans, chimpanzees and pigs. However, did his research prove its conclusions? Did they actually mate a pig with a chimpanzee? Did they artificially cross-inseminate either species with the other to see if it would work? Have we observed anything even remotely similar to such a radical cross-species hybridization? Of course, the answers to all of these questions are “No,” “No,” “No,” and “No.”

With that background, which article is given credibility and considered worthy of having been proven? In the broader circles of human influence, that would be the pig-ape article. However, going back to our opening proverb, which article/finding is more analogous to the falcon and which is more analogous to elusive birds? I submit to you that archaeological facts are the falcon and radical, unsubstantiated opinions are the two small birds, if that. Facts always trump opinion. In this case, the two articles do not relate to each other. But, the value that our philosophical and scientific communities place on them is relevant. The broader observation is that these communities at large commonly dismiss actual facts that support the Bible, while heralding wild and unsupported opinions that oppose it. There is a growing theme of ignoring actual data from archaeology while heralding opinion as scientific evidence. This is foolish practice for both philosophy and science. And, it also happens to be foolish in the arena of common sense.

Romans 1:24-25 says, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” Isn’t having faith in the unsupported opinion that we are the result of mating pigs and chimps just another form of worshiping the creation over the Creator? Were we caused by unusually promiscuous chimps and pigs? Or, were we wonderfully created by God? More importantly, don’t we have a falcon in the hand with archaeology? So, why are we continuing to foolishly chase worthless birds in the bush?

True Christians align their faith with facts, not opinions. True thinkers do the same.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Are You Feeling Thankful or Entitled?

I heard a story about a rich man who sent his son on a trip to the country in order to educate him on how poor people live. Upon the son’s return, his father asked him about the trip. The son offered, “It was great Dad.” The father then inquired, “Did you see how poor people live? What did you learn?” The son responded, “Well, I learned that we have one dog, and they have four. We have a pool that reaches to the middle of our garden and they have a creek that has no end. We have lanterns in our garden and they can see all the stars at night. Our patio reaches to the front of our yard and they have the whole horizon. We have a small piece of land to live on and they have fields that go beyond our sight. We have to buy our food and they grow their own freely.” The boy’s father was speechless. Then his son added, “Thanks Dad for showing me how poor we are!” Among other things, this story illustrates how the difference between being thankful and not, is simply perspective.

Being thankful is a diminishing mindset in our present culture. In its place, we are fostering a culture that conditions us to feel entitled. An entitled mindset is the exact opposite of a thankful mindset. What made America great was God and our thankfulness for His providence. Likewise, what will tear this country apart is the opposite sentiment. When we take our eyes off of God and all that He freely provides, we target others that we perceive as more fortunate than ourselves and demand that they give us what they earned. This might be expected of those who have lost sight of God. But, this mindset is misaligned for those who claim the mind of Christ. Jesus does not foster an entitlement mindset because He paid the ultimate price to give the world the only thing it most desperately needed … Himself (Philippians 2). His grace is sufficient for us. And, what the world needs from Christians is for us to proclaim His gospel as our only need until He returns. The gospel promises the free and eternal gift of reconciliation with God and all His many gifts that come with that, including immortality, God’s constant presence and a royal eternity. When someone truly grasps that, they surrender any thread of entitlement in the here and now. And, they certainly don’t align themselves with those who peddle it. To whatever extent someone feels entitled, it is to that extent that they are ungrateful.

This entitlement conditioning ultimately fosters laziness and a covetous greed. This is clearly displayed in Jesus’ parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25. Jesus also implores the appropriate mindset in the parable of The Dutiful Servant in Luke 17. And, Paul was quite direct when he said in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” In addition to that guidance there are also many verses imploring God’s children to rejoice in all things and to be constantly content and grateful. My favorite is 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” By the way, “all” in that verse means all in every translation and every language.

Therefore, I will reserve this post to declare my thankfulness for certain things for which we should all be thankful:

·        I am thankful for the gift of life.
·        I am thankful for the immeasurable gifts that God has poured into my life, none of which I deserved.
·        I am thankful that when I ultimately lose my life, God will raise it anew.
·        I am thankful for spiritual life; that I am not just flesh and blood.
·        I am thankful that God has already raised me to spiritual new life out of my spiritual death.
·        I am thankful for God not giving up on my pitiful fallen condition.
·        I am thankful that God came in flesh and blood in order to share in my pain and pay for my wrongs.
·        I am thankful that God suffered with me and for me.
·        I am thankful that God offers me total and eternal forgiveness in exchange for nothing.
·        I am thankful that God adopts me as His own son.
·        I am thankful that God makes me a co-heir to His own Kingdom.
·        I am thankful that God provides my every need at every moment of every day.
·        I am thankful that God is present with me even when I ignore Him.
·        I am thankful that God calls me righteous, even when others see that my flesh is not.
·        I am thankful for Jesus!

I realize that some Christians today align with fostering the entitlement mindset out of genuine belief that life is not fair. There is a kernel of truth in that. That kernel is that life truly is not fair. But the fact that life is not fair is not an invitation to demand from our fellow man by force of law. Rather, life not being fair is an invitation to thank God. Christians, I implore you to thank God that life is not fair. If life were fair, we would get what we deserve. And, I for one, deserve Hell right now. And, so do you. But, God is not fair as He radically gives us every good gift that we don’t deserve. “For God so loved the world that He gave.” We have been given Jesus. We need nothing more! Thank you, Lord!