What Did Mary Know?

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For a while it was the darling of Christmas songs. Now, over the last couple years, I’ve noticed a lot of backlash over the popular song, “Mary, Did You Know?” It’s become a Santa’s sleigh-sized target for rebuttals, jokes and internet memes insisting that yes, Mary did know all those things about Jesus, and the song is silly (if not heretical) for suggesting otherwise.

So what’s the deal? Is the song a beautiful Christmas masterpiece, or a hoaky piece of theological nonsense? A couple things have come to mind as I’ve contemplated that this week.

On one hand, the Gospel of Luke reveals that she did know quite a lot about Jesus beforehand:

  • That He would save His people from their sins (1:31; compare with Mt. 1:21).
  • That He would be the Son of God (1:32, 35).
  • That He would reign on the Messianic throne of David (1:32).
  • That His kingdom would be eternal (1:33).
  • That He would be conceived of the Holy Spirit (1:35).
  • That He would be holy (1:35).
  • That He would be the Lord (1:43).
  • That He would be the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Israel (1:54-55).
  • That He was worthy of worship from both men and angels (2:10-20).
  • That He would be a light to the Gentiles (2:32).

In addition, after Jesus was a grown man but before He had done any miracles, Mary told the servants at Cana to “do whatever [Jesus] tells you” (Jn. 2:5). These all show an explicit awareness of Christ’s identity and a trust in His person.

On the other hand, Scripture seems to imply that there were aspects of Christ’s mission and ministry that Mary didn’t grasp. In Luke 2, Mary questioned young Jesus for staying in the temple and “did not understand” what He was saying (2:50). In Mark 3, “His family…went out to seize Him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’ ” (3:21), and so “His mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to Him and called Him” (3:31).

Despite everything that Mary knew about her son, and despite having received divine revelation from angels and prophets, Mary’s humanity still got in the way. She didn’t always have a detailed, theological understanding of Christ’s mission, and at times she didn’t seem to agree with the way He was going about His quest. Mark 3 even seems to suggest that she struggled with a bit of doubt.

That’s where lovers and skeptics of the song need to be careful. We shouldn’t think that Mary was oblivious to the identity of her child, but neither should we think she had all the answers, either. And besides, I don’t believe the main point of the song is so much Mary’s insight as it is comparing Christ’s divinity and humanity. I think it’s meant to contrast that He was both delivered and Deliverer, helpless and Helper, infant and Infinite. That’s a truth we should all know a little better.

So what did Mary know? Quite a lot, actually. But not everything. She certainly didn’t grasp all the specifics, at least not right away. Like us, Mary had to take certain things on faith. But she knew that the Son of God, the fulfillment of God’s promises, had come to save her from her sins. And even when human doubt got in the way, that was more than enough.

Give Thanks…to Whom?

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“The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.” – G.K Chesterton

What are you thankful for?

That’s the question to ask this time of year. Last Friday night we had our youth group write what they were thankful for on a big dry erase board at the church. On Thanksgiving day, some families pass around a basket, drop in a kernel of corn, and share what they’re thankful for. Indeed, these are good and vital practices of reflection, especially in today’s fast-paced, consumer-crazed culture. “What are you thankful for?” is an important question we must continually ask ourselves.

But there is a bigger, more important question at stake here: WHO are you thankful TO?

If a box of chocolates is left on our desk, we want to find out who the giver is in order to thank them. If we receive a heart transplant, we might enshrine the person whose heart we received by hanging their picture above the mantel or reaching out to their family. There’s a desire, a compulsion, to do so. Because we naturally feel thankfulness when we benefit from something good, and we need to direct that thankfulness somewhere.

Most people, at some point or another, recognize the good things in their life like the company of loved ones, the pleasure and sustenance of food and drink, the beauty of art, the provision of a good job, or even the thrill of just being alive. We look at all these things and know that our possession of them does not rest solely within our own power or accomplishment. We feel an intrinsic sense of indebtedness.

But to whom?

For the atheist, this burning sensation of the heart has no explanation. Their good fortune is the result of nothing but coincidence. The same coincidence that caused everything to come from nothing. The same coincidence that caused life to randomly appear. Within the giant, random void of the universe, my microscopic life just so happens to feature a few enjoyable things along the way to dull the insignificance of my existence.

The outlook isn’t much better for the agnostic or the deist. Sure, there’s a higher power out there somewhere, but it’s not actively involved in the world. Certainly not in my world. There might be a vague force that has had some impact on my life, like “fortune” or “providence”, but it’s not an intimate, personal involvement. I wasn’t given my home, my health or my family—something can only be given when one party actively and intentionally bestows it to another—I was just lucky enough to have fate, or whatever power controls things, swing my way.

In these worldviews, thankfulness cannot exist because there was no benevolence or generosity for which you can be appreciative. The good things in your life are nothing more than cold, dumb luck.

Even for the polytheists of old, one’s thanks was divided among the gods. You had to give one portion of thanks to the god of the sun, and another portion of thanks to the god of the rain, and another to the god of the harvest. There was not one source of harmonious blessings, but a plethora of deities competing with one another. Polytheism produced segments of thankfulness here and there, but not the full, rich gratitude we feel for all that we have at once.

For the theist, that intrinsic thankfulness has a real and singular outlet. There is a God who made us, who sustains us, and who has blessed us with everything that we have. There is someone on whom we can bestow the undeniable and overpowering gratitude that grips out hearts every time we look into the faces of our loved ones, lay our head on a soft pillow, or take another breath of life. We realize that what we have is a gift, and we have a living, personal source to thank for it.

But for the Christian, thankfulness goes even deeper. Indeed, the gospel of Jesus Christ provides the greatest cause for thanksgiving. We worship a God who not only made everything and provides everything, but who gave the fullness of Himself in order to provide us with the ultimate blessing. Not only does He bless us with the common grace of the rain and the harvest, but He personally paid the highest price to bless us with the crop of special, saving grace. Not only are we given bread, but the Bread of Life. Not only are we given drink, but streams of Living Water. Not only are we given life, but eternal life, and the life of Jesus Himself, who is Life.

Giving thanks without faith in an involved, personal God is like wanting to sing but having no voice or wanting to run but having no legs. The deep, sensational urge within you has no channel. The grand appreciation you feel has no source. But for the Christian, thanksgiving makes sense. What could be more natural than to look at our life, see its beauty, and praise the God from whom all blessings flow?

Enduring Election Exhaustion

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I admit, this election season has exhausted me. Pastorally, socially, ethically, politically, theologically, and mentally. I’m exhausted.

Every four years brings the tough battle of conservatives sparring against liberals, but this election has produced a whole new kind of battle that’s way closer to home: conservatives against conservatives.

The candidacy of Donald Trump has caused some of the sharpest controversy I’ve personally experienced in my own circles. Trump’s Republican supporters say those who will not vote for him are handing Hillary Clinton the White House, thereby compromising their conservative values. The Republicans who will not vote for Trump say that his supporters are justifying a historical Democrat with a perverted sexual history, thereby compromising their conservative values. This has not been a simple matter of agreeing to disagree—it’s become a take-no-prisoners bloodbath.

I’ve experienced this tension in my friend groups, on social media, and even in our church (where it’s been the hardest for me). These have been difficult waters to wade through. Not just because of the wrestling I’ve done with others as we try to navigate this moral dilemma, but because of the wrestling I’ve done with myself. What is the right thing to do? How big of a deal should I make this? How tough of a stance should I take? Is this a gray area, or is it an essential matter of church purity? How do I engage the issue with that Christ-like balance of grace and truth?

Last night, as I was poring over the strongly-worded election-eve opinions of my Facebook friends, I came to a weary realization: I’m ready for this to be done.

I found myself fed up with politics. Fed up with Christians turning on each other. Fed up with asking the tough questions. Fed up with trying to answer them. I found myself ready to disengage from the whole process and just get back to Jesus. I was all prepared to write a piece today about how God is still on the throne regardless of who wins and the truly important thing is the gospel. After all, isn’t that all that matters?

Ultimately, yes. God is sovereign. The gospel of Christ is central. May we never forget that. Never. But as I dreamed of escaping the moral and political complications of the 2016 election, another thought flooded my senses: We aren’t called to escape the world, but to engage it. We aren’t called to sit back and wait for the kingdom, we’re called to advance it. We aren’t called to remove ourselves from the system, but to impact and change the system for the glory of God.

Isn’t that the nature of life itself? Isn’t it easy to get frustrated with the fallen systems of a fallen world? When school gets challenging, we want to drop out. When our jobs get tough, we want to quit. When our marriage gets difficult, we want a divorce. When church gets rocky, we seek a new local body or even a privatized spirituality free of establishment. There is no area of life untouched by the Fall, no area where Easy Street does not beckon us to retreat into the monastery of our own private world.

The same is true of politics, of culture, of morality, and even of those issues that we Christians just cannot seem to agree on. Don’t throw your sucker in the dirt and storm off the playground. It may sound super spiritual to say “It’s all about Jesus!” and ignore everything else, but that can quickly digress into spiritual laziness and escapism if we’re not careful. Of course it’s all about Jesus. But that doesn’t mean we sit back and disengage ourselves from the world He created and the world He’s made us stewards over.

Of course we always want to watch our conduct to ensure we’re acting in humility rather than pride, and exhibiting grace rather than self-righteousness. But that doesn’t mean we never approach the issues. We’re supposed to wrestle with the tough questions. We’re supposed to wrestle with the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the true and the false.

Yes, I’m tired. And I’m sure you are, too. But to stop caring or participating is the wrong choice because our task is not yet finished, and our Sabbath rest is not yet here. Until that Day arrives, let us keep thinking, asking, wrestling, and striving to actively and lovingly engage the issues of this fallen world. Let us seek to advance our true Ruler’s kingdom as faithfully as we can.

It’s not always easy. But of all the options voters might face today, that choice is always the right one.

3 Things More Demonic than Halloween

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In my last post I mentioned predestination and Donald Trump as areas of contest between Christians. I suppose you could go ahead and add Halloween to that list as well. Every year when the Jack-O-Lanterns and fake cobwebs come out, believers are confronted with the same questions: Should we celebrate Halloween? How much? How little? Is it a harmless neighborhood costume party, or is it a satanic participation in the occult?

The concern of many, with which I sympathize, is over the extent to which light-bearing Christians share in a day devoted to the darkness of death, magic and evil. To many Christians this is the very thing Paul warned about when he said, “I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Cor. 10:20).

The Word of God deals quite frequently with the demonic and it often comes in the form of possessed madmen or pagan witchcraft. But not always. For as dark as ghouls and ghosts can be, there is a deeper darkness that perhaps we overlook. The face of evil is not always so easy to spot. Satan himself, the master deceiver, often lures us incognito as “an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). We must be on our guard against darkness in disguise, for that is the evil that truly grips and corrupts our hearts without us even realizing it.

Here are three kinds of demonic activities that you won’t see on the Halloween costume rack, but they’re perhaps more deadly than all the vampires and werewolves put together:

1. False teaching.

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” (1 Timothy 4:1)

Theology is not a petty issue. A correct understanding of Christ, the gospel, and the nature of God are at the heartbeat of the Christian faith. To miss the truth of God is to miss the person of God, the crux of our salvation, and the very source of our spiritual life.

In typical “angel of light” fashion, bad doctrine is rarely obvious. Some heresies can be smelled from a mile away but most are small and subtle, wrapped in just enough truth to sound convincing. That’s what makes them so dangerous, like poison in a glass of champagne. This is why Peter warned against “false teachers…who will secretly bring in destructive heresies” (2 Pet. 2:1).

Paul told Timothy that the spirits behind these heresies are “deceitful”. That is, they rope people along into thinking something is true when the reality is that they’re headed down a broad road of destruction. Just like Satan “deceived” Eve in the garden (2 Cor. 11:3).

If we care about protecting our churches, our families and ourselves from the demonic, we must care about doctrine. We must study the Scriptures with great care, we must be cautious about which pastors and preachers we expose our families to, and we must pay close attention to what kind of “Christian” music is playing on our radios. If you care about the decorations that adorn the front of your home, I plead with you to care even more about the kind of teaching that fills the inside.

2. Selfishness.

“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” (James 3:14-15)

We all admire the success of others. We all have personal goals we want to reach. But when these are taken to their ugly, distorted extremes we end up with pride, bitterness, envy, and arrogance. We become saturated with ourselves and this infestation usually causes us to mistreat and misuse others.

When this happens we have fallen under “wisdom” that is not only “earthly” and “unspiritual” but straight up “demonic.” This love of self was at the core of Satan’s pre-creation fall, and those who fell with him now spread that same toxin.

To safeguard ourselves from true spiritual evil, let’s stop pining for what we don’t have and start giving more thanks for what we do have. Let’s stop gossiping and slandering, especially in our congregations. Let’s stop placing our own impulses and emotions in the spotlight and instead focus on serving one another with the loving humility of Jesus.

3. Carnality.

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast. For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.” (Revelation 18:1-3)

The identity of “Babylon” in the book of Revelation is up for debate. Some scholars say it represents apostate Israel. Some say first-century Rome. Some say it’s a future, literal Babylon restored to prominence. Others say it represents the corrupt world systems throughout history. Whatever the case, the point is the same: this kingdom is a haven of “demons” and “every unclean spirit.”

What is the manifestation of this demonic influence? Drunkenness, sexual immorality, riches, power, and luxury. Indulgences of the flesh. This describes a place that is hell-bent (literally) on fulfilling every carnal craving imaginable. It’s a place where sensuality is unrestrained, money is king, and comfort takes precedence over morality.

Is our career driven by the love of money? Do we watch movies or TV shows that border on the pornographic? Do we substitute the standards of Scripture for our own subjective appetites and desires? Do we participate in—or even defend and justify—that which God calls abominable? We may never step foot in a graveyard or haunted house, but we must be careful to not create a demon-haunted Babylon right where we are.

Some evil is easy to spot. But if we’re not careful it can be little more than a decoy to distract us from the truly demonic activity in our hearts and lives. Sometimes the scariest monster is the one within. Watch your doctrine. Watch your pride. Watch your lust. Unmask the devil’s phony charade and recognize darkness where it does the worst damage, and expose it with the glorious light of Christ.

“Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:8-16)

To my fellow Christians who support Trump: Seek first the kingdom.

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Eternal security. Predestination. Speaking in tongues. Donald Trump.

So goes the list of things that cut a hostile, fiery divide between Christians. With the 2016 Presidential Election fast approaching, American evangelicals are facing a moral dilemma unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time: what on earth do we do with Donald Trump?

This is a man whose reputation more than precedes him, from his Olympian ego to his claim that he could get away with murder. Some might dismiss such examples as nothing more than a big personality, while others could call it troubling arrogance. What’s even more concerning is his derogatory sexism and his objectification of women. But what’s truly alarming is the fact that he’s bragged about bedding married women; that over the course of three marriages he’s cheated and enjoyed it; and of course the hot topic this week is the leaked video of his lewd and crude comments about trying to seduce (or perhaps “assault” is a better word) multiple women, including grabbing their genitalia.

Here is a man who functions according to one overarching principle, and that principle is himself. He is vulgar, insensitive, and claims he doesn’t need God’s forgiveness for any of it. Yet here he is, the Republican nominee for President of the United States of America.

Some Christians have taken up arms with the #NeverTrump movement and either refuse to vote or will write in a third-party. Some will vote for him, but begrudgingly, and only to keep Hillary Clinton out of office. Others parade him as the savior of the Republican Party and shamelessly excuse his every move. Still others who previously endorsed him have since recanted.

Now, of course I would never vote for Hillary Clinton, but as it stands right now I have no intention of voting for Donald Trump, either. Yet I have many, many Christian friends who not only say they’re voting for him, but become confused or angry when they hear that I am not.

Some of their concerns are legitimate. The Supreme Court has a large, empty seat that needs filling, religious liberty has never been more endangered, and the abortion issue still casts a dark, bloody shadow over the land. For many Christians, a failure to vote for Trump means conceding these issues to the liberals. It means giving Hillary Clinton the keys to the country.

I get that, I really do. It’s a tough call to make. And I hope as much as anyone to see our land return to conservative principles and practices. But it’s precisely my belief in principles that keeps me from supporting Trump, and I hope to encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ to consider the same.

It seems to me that many Christians are supporting Trump out of fear. Fear of ISIS. Fear of illegal immigration. Fear of losing party unity. Fear of losing seats in the Supreme Court. Fear of losing cultural influence. Fear of losing religious freedom. With so much on the line, it’s no wonder that conservatives are standing by the Donald regardless of whatever comes out of his mouth. They’re terrified to do otherwise. He represents their only bastion of survival.

So the stakes are simple: get on board with a man who boastfully defies all standards of Christian character and conduct, or risk a dark future of liberals, socialism and terrorists. Never mind that Donald Trump is the poster boy for all the sexual perversion Christians have long stood against. Never mind that Donald Trump is the poster boy for crudity, egotism, and dishonesty. So long as he promises to protect us we’ll let him be our poster boy, too.

Yet as I consider these issues, a passage of Scripture keeps popping into my head that I think we would do well to remember in times such as these, from the very mouth of our incarnate Lord:

“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt. 6:31-33)

Jesus is addressing fear. He’s addressing how easy it is for us to slip into anxiety over the many troubles of this world, and how easy it is for our actions to be dominated by the constant need for security. But that sort of fear, He says, is for the godless. The heathen feels the need to secure his own provision and protection because he has no other source of hope. Since he paves his own destiny, he alone is responsible for ensuring its safety.

But the believer, according to Jesus, has a very different mindset. We “seek first”, before anything else in this world including political platforms, to be faithful to Christ’s kingdom and the pure “righteousness” of God. Our top priority must be to walk in integrity before Him. We must applaud that which is good and denounce that which is evil (Rom. 12:9, 21) We must call sin for what it is, we must never excuse or endorse it, and we must never go along with men who glory in such things (Ps. 1:1; Prov. 1:10).

We must not let fear distract us from faithfulness to God’s kingdom and God’s righteous ways. The kingdom of God is not just a distant, eschatological hope, but a current reality. We participate in and advance that kingdom every day. Our churches, families, neighborhoods, books, movies, and yes, even our politics, must all be built on the foundation of the fact that Jesus reigns. His kingdom is advanced not by who’s in the White House or who’s on the Supreme Court, but by His people faithfully obeying Him without compromise: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).

Believe it or not, our top goal as American evangelicals should not simply be to stop the Democrats at all costs. Gun rights, strong borders, and personal freedom are all good things to pursue. But since they have become what we “seek first” we now find ourselves ready to follow a shamelessly immoral man who promises them to us if only we’ll give him our loyalty in return. That’s not faithfulness to the kingdom of God. When millions of Christians are giving their pledge to a lying, hot-headed, name-calling, womanizing bully, that’s not faithfulness to the righteousness of God.

Our goal must be Christ’s glory in our every choice and association. And if “all these things”—like safety and liberty—end up being added to us later, then great. But that part is not ours to worry about.

That’s why Jesus told us to not be anxious. He was not saying that material things—food, clothing, housing, or even politics and laws of the land—don’t matter. Christ’s primary concern in this passage is what we make our primary concern in this life. Instead of operating out of constant worry for the unknown, our business must be to honor God with the choices we make right here and right now and trust the outcome to His sovereignty. We don’t compromise the means to achieve the ends; we’re faithful with the means, and leave the ends to God. As my old youth pastor used to say, “You worry about God’s kingdom and let Him worry about yours.”

You might think that sounds like a cop-out. I hope not. I’m not saying Christians should sit on their hands and then blame their laziness on God’s will. That’s not what I’m talking about at all. I’m talking about actively doing the morally right thing—seeking God’s righteousness—in every situation, even when it seems futile, and trusting Him to take care of the rest.

We should care about politics. We should vote. We should be involved in the issues of the day. But that cannot be done at the expense of forgetting which kingdom we’re truly fighting for. We must not abandon the principles of God’s kingdom in order to secure the political platforms of our own. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 warns that those who are “sexually immoral”, “adulterers,” “greedy,” “revilers,” and “swindlers…will not inherit the kingdom of God.” It’s hard to claim that we’re putting God’s kingdom first when we’re so blatantly supporting a man who exhibits these exact traits.

I am shocked and saddened at how many times I’ve heard Christians telling other Christians to “get off their moral high horse” and vote for Trump. Get off our moral high horse? Do we hear ourselves? Isn’t that what liberals have been telling us for years? Must we identify ourselves with a man who has built his empire on the very things we’re told to flee?  Isn’t our commitment to holiness supposed to be the very thing that sets us apart? Are we really supposed to shove our identity in Christ to the back burner for the greater good of winning an election? I’m sorry, but no.

Many have also claimed that by not voting for Trump we’re “throwing away” our vote. But that depends on our goal. If our goal is simply to stop Hillary Clinton, then yes, I suppose that might be considered a throw away. But if our goal is greater than that—if our goal is the holy integrity of Christ’s kingdom, and if we remember than we will be held accountable for our endorsements long after America is dust—then we will not be throwing anything away. In that case, throwing away our vote would be to compromise morals for worldly security. Doing the right thing before our Lord is never a waste. Even when the alternative seems scary.

So before you gaggle over Donald Trump, make excuses for him, or before you cast a vote for him in November, I beg you to consider: Is your decision motivated by fear? Does anxiety for the future have you throwing in your lot with a man who defies all standards of God and His righteousness?

Get involved, Christian. But when you do, consider which kingdom you’re seeking first.

Five Reasons Why the New ‘Jungle Book’ is Profound

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Like most people, I grew up watching Disney’s 1967 animated classic, The Jungle Book. It was one of my favorites. I’m also incredibly skeptical of all the remakes/reboots/spin-offs/sequels/prequels/everything-elsequels that have bombarded moviegoers the last couple of years (which aren’t stopping anytime soon), and a skeptic of excessive CGI. Imagine my horror, then, when one year ago Disney released the trailer for their live-action, CGI-soaked Jungle Book remake. I admit, I died a little inside.

But this week we watched it with our youth group at church and I’ve had a metanoeō, a change of heart. It’s good. Shockingly good. Not just good in the sense that it’s well-done filmmaking or creative entertainment, although it’s certainly both those things. The CGI is beautiful, the scale is breath-taking, and the voice actors are perfect. But what surprised me the most is its Judeo-Christian worldview on the nature of man and his role in creation.

I can’t speak on behalf of the filmmakers or their intent, but the implications are hard to miss. These implications were not minor points or subtle references, but the heartbeat of the film itself. This is a film that deserves to be watched and discussed for five Jungle-sized reasons.

#1. The uniqueness, ingenuity, and authority of man over creation.

Most false religions fall into one of two camps: they either make too much of man or too little. Either they equate man with God, give man the authority of God, or promise man he can become like God; or they minimize man as an insignificant part of nature where he either shares a spiritual brotherhood with the plants or animals or he evolved from slime and is no better than monkeys. Either way, man’s relationship to the divine is confused.

The Jungle Book rightly nails the balance. On one hand, man is a part of creation. Mowgli is flesh and blood and bone and interacts with the rest of nature as a fellow created being. Man is not God. This Creator-creature distinction is one of the fundamental doctrines of biblical Christianity (Ps. 8:3-4).

Yet at the same time, man stands apart from the rest of creation (Ps. 8:5-8). He is different.  Although Mowgli tries to act like a wolf, there is no denying his humanness. At one point Bagheera even tells Mowgli, “The elephants created this jungle…but they did not make you.” This is not just a biological difference, as though man were simply another breed of animal, but an ontological one. Man is neither pure beast nor pure spirit, but as theologian Michael Horton puts it, “…we are created as psychosomatic (soul-body) whole, as persons. Our bodies (including our brain) and souls are not separate compartments, but interactive aspects of our personal existence and activity.”

Echoing the words of Genesis 1:28, Mowgli is also endowed with the ability to subdue and cultivate creation like no one else. Bagheera constantly chides him for his “tricks”—inventions that seem like magic to the other creatures. King Louie, wanting more power, goes to Mowgli to learn man’s secret. Shere Khan hates man precisely because he knows what mankind is capable of. All nature recognizes the power, intelligence, ingenuity, and otherness of Mowgli. I almost stood up and cheered when, at the movie’s climax, Mowgli tells Bagheera he wants to fight Shere Khan like a wolf, to which Bagheera responds, “Fight him like a man.”

The Jungle Book, then, is the anti-Brother Bear (“the story of a boy who became a man, by becoming a bear”) or Tarzan (“We’re exactly the same”). Yes, man is mortal. But he is also a living soul made in the image of God, and he is invested with authority as God’s viceroy on earth.

#2. Man’s unique position can be used for great evil or for great good.

One of the coolest things about The Jungle Book is its treatment of fire. What was a convenient plot device in the cartoon takes center stage in this adaption, as the “red flower” represents all the good or evil that mankind is capable of.  When used wrongly, his position enables him to kill, abuse, and destroy.

But it also gives him the ability to think, build, creative, cultivate, and help. Mowgli’s “tricks” are used to collect food and water, save a baby elephant, and defeat a foe. Man’s authority does not need to be a bad thing. It can be utilized to improve, enhance and even protect the world of which he has been made a steward.

This is very different from most nature-loving Disney films, which often portray men as the villains who mess everything up. It also avoids any sort of environmentalist overtones or save-the-planet propaganda. In the end, Mowgli’s “tricks” are just as capable of good as they are of evil.

Certainly man’s abuse of the world has led to city slums, worldwide war, and even nuclear threats. But man’s rightful utilization has led to beautiful art, helpful inventions, stunning cities, life-saving medicine, and prosperous societies. Man’s prominence in creation, and his cultivation of it, is not an evil—it is designed to be something beneficial.

Ultimately, a happy ending does not come from Mowgli ceasing to be man or becoming more one with nature, but embracing his special role as a man and using it for good.

#3. Man faces temptation from the serpent who promises pleasure but delivers only death.

One of the film’s most frightening and delightful scenes is when Mowgli encounters Kaa, the ginormous python. As our human hero pursues fruit to eat, the serpent slinks out of the shadows and soothingly sympathizes with all the supposed injustice inflicted upon the man by his authority figure. Then the serpent lures the man into a false sense of trust by promising all the comforts and pleasures of his heart’s desire, if only he’ll trust in the serpent…not realizing that the coils of death are actually closing in around him. Sound familiar?

The similarities to Genesis 3 are too strong to miss.

Some reviewers disliked the use of Scarlett Johansson’s soft, seductive voice in the role of Kaa, but I loved it for the same reason that I loved Mel Gibson’s decision to have a woman play Satan in The Passion of the Christ: sin does not always appear as a raging, roaring tiger (or a lion, to borrow a biblical example), but often tempts us with the beautiful allure of an adulteress. Evil has appeal to it. Yet behind the superficial beauty lies an enemy more powerful and more deadly than we often realize. Just ask Adam and Eve.

#4. Even a beautiful, breathtaking world is fallen and corrupt and needs saving.

It’s hard to tell what parts of The Jungle Book ’s cinematography are real and which are CGI, but either way they’re stunning. As someone who loves the great outdoors, I was breathless on more than one occasion at the magnitude and majesty of the jungle’s terrain. Our Father’s world is truly a grand place.

Yet for all that, the world is still fallen. For all the wonders of nature, there is always danger and death lurking around every corner. The Disney studio who put out movies like Pocahontas, Tarzan, and Brother Bear would have you believe that nature is a perfect, blissful Eden all on its own, were it not for the meddling destruction of mankind. But this Jungle Book, from that same Disney studio, holds no such view. Predators. Stampedes. Avalanches. Weather. Injury.  Nature, left to its own devices, is hardly a peaceful utopia. Yes, it is beautiful and captivating, and yet even without man’s interference it is also harsh and cruel, and in need of redemption.

The late Michael Crichton, an outspoken opponent of environmentalism, put it so well: “In short, the romantic view of the natural world as a blissful Eden is only held by people who have no actual experience of nature…Take a trek through the jungles of Borneo, and in short order you will have festering sores on your skin, you’ll have bugs all over your body, biting in your hair, crawling up your nose and into your ears, you’ll have infections and sickness and if you’re not with somebody who knows what they’re doing, you’ll quickly starve to death…It is a harsh, powerful, and unforgiving world, that most urban westerners have never experienced.”

The apostle Paul would agree with that: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:20-22). All creation has been affected by sin, and all creation is waiting for renewal.

#5. Creation’s savior is a man who overcomes the failures of all men before him.

As we’ve already discussed, man is capable of great evil or great good, and it’s implied throughout the movie that the animals have encountered man’s evil in the past. Mowgli, as the hero of the film, faces the same possibility of corruption. He is susceptible to the weaknesses of the men who came before him. Yet he succeeds where others have failed. He resists the temptation to abuse power. He does in the flesh what his forefathers could not do.

It was through a man that sin entered the world. But it would also be through a man that the world would be redeemed. As Aslan said in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, “A force of evil has already entered [the world]; waked and brought hither by this Son of Adam…And as Adam’s race has done the harm, Adam’s race shall help to heal it.”

This ultimate victory is found, of course, in the incarnate Son of God. Jesus Christ became fully man and faced all the same temptations that every man before Him had faced, yet by His active obedience He kept God’s law on our behalf and was victorious where all others had been defeated. He accomplished what Adam, and all Adam’s offspring, could not. He is humanity’s champion and the sovereign Ruler of all creation.

In the end, this Hero throws the roaring jungle cat into the flames, crushes the head of the seductive serpent, restores life to those He loves, and establishes an incorruptible peace across the redeemed realm of creation.

Now that’s a story worth retelling again and again.

A Million Little Popes

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One of the great tragedies of medieval Roman Catholicism is that it claimed the church was the true interpreter of Scripture. Individuals didn’t need to read the Bible because they would probably misunderstand it and get the whole thing wrong. No, no, better to leave it to the clergy and let them dictate the Bible’s meaning to the laity.

But the Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, and even the pre-Reformers such as John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, challenged this doctrine. They believed that Scripture was meant to be read and understood by all Christ’s people, not just the ecclesiastical elite.

As Tyndale famously said, “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he dost.” And according to Luther, “A simple man with Scripture has more authority than the Pope or a council.”

Now, almost 500 years later, most of us would consider that a given. The Bible is the best-selling book in the world. New English translations come out every year. You can find a Bible in every hotel room and in almost every home. Bible apps on our phone allow us to carry the entire canon around in our pocket. Within Christian circles we constantly highlight the importance of “quiet time” when we, all by ourselves, free of distraction, open the pages of Scripture and read. The Bible is more available than it’s ever been, and we, for the most part, understand the importance of personally taking the time to study it.

Praise God.

And yet, for all that, we’ve reverted back to Rome.

What do I mean? Catholicism said the church possessed the authority to decipher Scripture without challenge. And although we’ve seemingly gotten away from that error we’ve fallen into a similar trap, for now the individual possesses that same unquestioned authority. We now treat the Bible as a subjective document in which the individual determines its meaning. If I think or feel that a passage means something in particular, surely it must be so!

We see this on display when people talk about “what this verse is saying to me”, or through the countless Bible devotions I’ve seen that ask questions like, “What does this verse mean to you?”  I remember a Bible study some years ago where one of the ladies attending became quite emotional because I suggested that perhaps she was misunderstanding one of Christ’s parables. “I know this is what it means!” she insisted. “It just speaks to me so much!”

In other words, we’ve made self the new Pope. Instead of Rome, the meaning of Scripture is determined by the papal authority of me.

That’s not what the Reformers had in mind. They didn’t envision a million Christians coming up with a million interpretations of the Bible. They believed that God has objectively spoken through Scripture and each reader has the blessed and individual opportunity to understand that truth. It’s not that each person has the authority to interpret Scripture, but that each individual has the ability to understand Scripture. It’s not that we subject Scripture to our opinions, but that we subject our opinions before the clarity of Scripture.

That’s not to say the personal application of Scripture is always the same. Different people in different phases of life may be convicted or encouraged by different things. Application may vary, but meaning–the doctrine behind the application–is always concrete.

I was recently discussing a piece of literature with a lady at work when she made the comment, “I think one meaning you could get from it is…” I can’t help but fundamentally disagree with that approach to any piece of writing. The written word is not meant to be a vague canvas splattered with paint, prone to the privies of its beholder. Words mean something. The question is not, “What do I think this means?” but “But what did the author intend this to mean?” What does it actually mean?

We have to ask the same question when approaching the Bible. Personal devotion is not the time to formulate what we think the Bible says but rather what God intends the Bible to say. The Pope does not have the authority to interpret Scripture because he’s the supposed Vicar of Christ, nor does the plow boy have the authority to interpret Scripture based on his subjective feelings. All may interpret Scripture because God has revealed it, God has a meaning behind it, and God has made that meaning understandable. The authority of Scripture does not rest in any church councils or individual opinions, but in God Himself.

How do we counteract this tendency in ourselves? Here’s a few helpful ways:

  • Read the passages in context. Instead of taking an isolated verse on its own, read the verses before and after to gain a better understanding of the author’s intention.
  • Cross-reference. If a passage seems difficult to understand, interpret Scripture with Scripture by studying other clearer passages that deal with the same topic.
  • Read both old and new commentaries. There is so much treasure to be gleaned from the research and wisdom of pastors and theologians. Of course their opinions are not divinely inspired, but they can be profound and helpful.
  • Pray. Pray again. Then pray some more. Ask Jesus to open your eyes to the truth of Scripture by the illumination of the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 24:45; 1 Cor. 2:11-13).

Despite how far we’ve come from medieval Roman Catholicism, perhaps we’re repeating many of the same mistakes. The Pope is not our authority, but neither is our own self-understanding. The Word of God stands on its own two feet, and our job is not to decide what it says but learn what it says and submit to it.

The King Will Have His Glory

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Luke 19:28-40

Imagine the lowly son of a carpenter, riding into 1st-century Jerusalem on a donkey, very much resembling the words of a certain Zechariah 9:9. He is the embodiment of Old Testament prophecy—an insignificant figure from an insignificant town riding an insignificant animal, yet welcomed as a king.

As He passes into the city, swarms of people throw down their coats to grace His pathway and wave palm branches like royal banners, shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!  Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” The servant is finally being served. The son of man is finally recognized as the Son of God. Although He has lived thirty-somewhat years in anonymity, He is finally getting the worship He deserves.

Naturally, the Pharisees aren’t very thrilled. Their stewardship is threatened by the arrival of the rightful king, and their religious stranglehold seems suddenly quite flimsy. They refuse to accept Him for who He claims to be. He cannot be the Son of God. Therefore, in their eyes, His worship from the people falls nothing short of blasphemy.

“Teacher,” they say to Him—acknowledging Him as Rabbi but not as Lord—“rebuke your disciples!” Okay, they say, this has gone too far. We’ve put up with your healings and sermons these three years. But being worshiped? Accepting the praise and reverence and glory that belongs to God alone? We’re putting our foot down.

His response? “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” You can do what you want to try to pull the plug on My worshipers. Shut them out, shut them up, shut them down, whatever. But even if for some reason every human tongue in the world were silenced, the rocks would start singing. Nature would bellow My praises.

In other words, Jesus will have His glory.

How often we are guilty of thinking Christ cannot clench His scepter unless we give it to Him! We regard Him as a freelance King, hoping to get hired by whoever will open their door. We flatter ourselves into thinking that without us His mission would fail. So we run His church, we sing His praise, we preach His gospel, then pat ourselves on the back and say, “Good job. Where would Jesus be without you?”

But with those words to the Pharisees Jesus put the “triumph” in “triumphal entry.” He announced His own victory regardless of who was on board. He is King with or without the disciples, with or without the Pharisees, and with or without you and me. There is no physical or spiritual force in this universe that can prevent Him receiving the glory He is due.

That sounds egotistical, you say. Not at all the sappy, teary-eyed Jesus we’re used to hearing about. But it’s precisely that dominance and power that make His love so incredible. Think about it: a King who doesn’t need anyone’s worship, anyone’s affection, or anyone in general, who died because He wants us to participate in His love, His joy, His life. He wants us to find fulfillment by delighting in His sovereign glory.

I remember the time a contestant actually won a million dollars on the game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” He was on the final question, and chose to use the phone-a-friend lifeline (sorry if you’re too young to get the reference) to call his dad. But instead of asking for his father’s help he simply said, “Dad, I already know the answer to this question. I just wanted to call and let you know that I’m about to win a million dollars.”

He accomplished it all on his own. But he wanted the person he loved most to share the glory of the moment with him.

That’s what Jesus does.

Despite the world’s Pharisaical protests, this King will have His glory. Instead of a donkey, there’s a throne. Instead of cloaks and palm leaves laid before Him, there are hosts of angels bowed low. And even if no one else would speak up, nature itself would break into symphony over this King and His glory. That’s how unstoppable and undeniable He is.

And this King, dependent on no one, has graciously called us to join in His triumphant parade. He’s given us the privilege of singing along with creation’s chorus.

The rocks cry out. May we do the same.

The Church, the State, and the crumbling concept of religious liberty.

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On September 1, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination issued its Gender Identity Guidance to define what is considered “discrimination” against “the rights of LGBT individuals” and “to describe what evidence may be submitted to support a claim of gender identity discrimination.”

In other words, here’s what you better not do unless you want to get sued.

Most of it is what you would expect: employers, banks, restaurants, etc. cannot treat someone different or deny them service because of their gender identity, nor can businesses prevent them from using whatever restroom or locker room they want. But then under section D. Places of Public Accommodation, you come to this plot twist:

“Even a church could be seen as a place of public accommodation if it holds a secular event, such as a spaghetti supper, that is open to the general public. All persons, regardless of gender identity, shall have the right to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of any place of public accommodation.”

Read that again. If a church holds a public event other than its normal worship service, it must fully comply with the LGBT. The commission goes on to clarify that this includes letting them use whatever bathroom they want, calling them the gender pronoun of their choice, and not displaying anything that might disagree with their lifestyle (so make sure no Bibles are opened to Romans 1!).

The significance of those three little words, “even a church,” cannot be overstated. Although the left has long claimed that Christians are hyperventilating over nothing, and that we’re still free to practice whatever religion we want (Hey, didn’t Obama say something similar about our insurance providers? Ah, I digress.), this new terminology says otherwise.

As it is, churches in Massachusetts may now be subject to LGBT discrimination lawsuits within their own walls. As I’ve mulled over this shocking (but not surprising) development the last few days, here’s a few thoughts that came to mind:

#1. This will not stop at Massachusetts.

Most bad ideas seem to originate in Massachusetts or California but rarely stay there. Whatever new legislation passes becomes the new gold standard for tolerance and the LGBT agenda, and so naturally there will be no rest until all other states have followed suit. And if individual states don’t comply, well, as Obergefell v. Hodges showed us, the Supreme Court will simply step in. Rest assured, it’s only a matter of time before this is a national issue. As Eugene Volokh said over at the Washington Post, “…this is where these rules are headed, at least in places like Massachusetts but likely elsewhere as well.”

#2. What happened to separation of church and state?

It’s funny that liberals have been so quick to cry “Separation of church and state!” when they want to keep religion out of politics, because they apparently don’t believe that the same principle applies the other way around. The church should never dictate the laws of the state…but I guess it’s okay for the state to dictate the laws of the church? Such a separation is meant to protect religious groups just as much as it’s meant to protect the government, for instances exactly like this one. Such measures are a gross violation of the church’s religious liberty.

#3. Everything a church does is ministry. You cannot separate the sacred and the secular.

These new “guidelines” are based on the supposed distinction between a church’s worship service and a church’s public outreach. A worship service is for its religious adherents, but an outreach event (like a “spaghetti dinner”) is considered “secular” and “a place of public accommodation.” Therefore, the logic goes, a private worship service can enforce its own guidelines but as soon as you open the door to the public you’re on the government’s terms.

These new guidelines limit a church’s free of exercise of religion to within Sunday morning parameters, which sounds frighteningly similar to Russia’s recent legislation that Christians aren’t allowed to share their faith outside of church services.

There are two massive problems here. For one, worship services are also “public” in that anyone can sit in. So you can bet your bottom-tithe-dollar that it will only be a matter of time before these services would also be required to submit to such “anti-discriminitory” standards.

Secondly, everything a church does is a part of its ministry. You cannot call worship services sacred and every other event secular. Whether a church is singing hymns, listening to a sermon, running a soup kitchen, or hosting a community yard sale, it’s all a part of their religious exercise and it’s all based on their religious theology.

#4. If you don’t like a church’s doctrine…don’t go. No one’s forcing you.

One of the great tragedies in our culture of self-entitlement is the idea that if I willingly go into a place, and that place advocates something I disagree with, my rights have somehow been violated. This is another prime example.

If transgender individuals don’t agree with Christian doctrine and Christian practice, then don’t go through the doors of a Christian church. No one is making them.

That’s freedom, and freedom of religion, at its finest. Person #1 can say what they want, but no one is forcing Person #2 to listen. I don’t agree with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Muslims, or Buddhists. So I don’t attend their services and I don’t attend their events where certain beliefs might be endorsed. For me to do so, and then legally demand that Catholics stop baptizing babies or that Muslims stop facing east to pray, would be as silly as going into my neighbor’s house and then demanding they change the color of their walls.

The left is quick to point this out whenever Christian groups protest a movie’s sexual or blasphemous content. If Christians don’t like it, the argument goes, then they don’t have to go see the film. I agree. So it baffles me as to why the same rules wouldn’t apply here.

If an LGBT person feels uncomfortable around Christians and their moral opinions then there’s a very simple solution: don’t go to their church events. No one is forcing them to.

#5. What should Christians do?

So how should the church respond? On one hand, we should not be afraid to stand up for the religious liberties provided to us by the laws of the land. Although some Christians make it seem like the more holy endeavor is to just shut up and stand down, this certainly wasn’t the apostle Paul’s philosophy when his legal rights were infringed upon (Acts 16:35-39; 22:22-29).

On the other hand, we must remain humble and remember that our reason for desiring such religious liberty is not to win a political battle, but to worship Christ and minister His gospel to a dying world. We must not abuse this freedom by resorting to insults, nastiness, or reducing the kingdom of God to the kingdom of Republicans or Democrats (1 Pet. 3:14-17; Jn. 18:36).

And although these religious liberties are certainly a good thing, we must also remember that the success of the gospel is not dependent upon them. If these freedoms are ever taken away from us, we take it with graciousness, we take it with rejoicing, and we take it with perseverance. Despite whatever threats we face, we must also hold unswervingly the truth of Scripture and remember the determination of the apostles: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

 

Theology of the Tunes

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I recently heard a song on the Christian radio station that made me squirm in my seat. I admit I’m critical of most contemporary Christian music anyway, with its watered-down, self-focused messages, but this song was particularly unsettling:

It’s gotta be
More like falling in love
Than something to believe in
More like losing my heart
Than giving my allegiance

According to this musician’s diagnosis, doctrine takes a back seat to passion and emotion. Christianity is not so much about a specific set of beliefs as it is warm, fuzzy feelings. Such thinking is unfortunately all too common in mainstream Christianity. Theology is denounced as divisive, legalistic religion, and is replaced by a “relationship” that’s little more than romantically strolling down the beach with Jesus.

In a humorous twist, the very next song on the radio went a little something like this:

We believe in God the Father
We believe in Jesus Christ
We believe in the Holy Spirit
And He’s given us new life
We believe in the crucifixion
We believe that He conquered death
We believe in the resurrection
And He’s coming back again, we believe

I don’t know if that was an intentional counterbalance by the station DJ or just plain old irony, but I can’t think of two more opposite songs. While the first criticizes doctrine, the second highlights it as the core of all we say and do.

It affirms the triune nature of God, the death and resurrection of Jesus, the new life of a believer, and the future return and reign of Christ. It features the distinct doctrines that have made up Christianity for the past two-thousand years.

Ir reminds me of one of the great creeds of old such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, proclaiming the truths of Scripture. It’s right in line with a church history that is brimming with beautiful statements of faith. Even the early church affirmed its teaching through confessions such as those quoted in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Philippians 2:6-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16.

Those beliefs are not petty issues or hindrances to our walk with God. In fact, they are its heartbeat. Although passion is important, Scripture makes it clear that what we believe shapes who we are and what we do. Our passion must spring from our doctrine, not the other way around.

Paul actually warned against passion without doctrine when he said the unbelieving Jews “have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). All the fervor in the world was worthless when not rooted in a proper set of beliefs concerning God, the Messiah, or salvation. A concern for theology does not have to mean an absence of intimate communion with God. Love and belief do not need to be opposing factors, as the first song implied. The two are not meant to be separate spheres of Christian living, but one.

Christianity is more than a feeling. It’s more than “falling in love”, more than “losing [your] heart.” It is something to believe in, or rather, someone to believe in. Doctrine testifies to the glorious hope of just who He is, what He’s done, and how that affects us.