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Through the British Museum with the Bible

December 19, 2009

On our return from Sweden, we spent a couple of days in the UK. We devoted one inspiring but exhausting day to the British Museum. Our hosts in the UK provided us with a guide titled “Through the British Museum with the Bible”. With this guide in hand, we entered the museum and were taken back thousands of years.

There was so much to see! We saw relics from Ur of the Chaldeans (Gen 11:28-31, approximately 2600 BC, four or five hundred years before Abraham). We saw a clay tablet in cuneiform telling a pagan corruption of the flood account, with remarkable similarities to the biblical account (including a man instructed by a god to build a boat, to load his family and all types of animals on it; and sending out birds to see if land has emerged.)

We even saw the Rosetta Stone — one of the most important archaeological finds of all time, enabling scholars to break the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

We saw a statue of Tuthmosis III, possibly the Pharaoh during part of Israel’s slavery in Egypt, and another even more impressive one of Rameses II, who possibly was the Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus. (From the look of his statute, he certainly was overly impressed with himself!)

There were documents referring to Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar. There were artifacts from Greece, Rome, and Ephesus — more than can be recounted in a blog post.

But what affected me the most was the vast array of carvings from the Assyrian empire, recounting the conquests and the barbaric treatment of those they conquered.

These carvings, which once adorned the walls of the Sennacherib, king of Assyria, tell their history as the king wanted it to be told. Shown above is an Assyrian soldier beheading a conquered enemy soldier (far left), while other soldiers march on waving the heads of other victims. Other carvings shown in the book (which we did not find) show the Assyrians cutting off the hands and feet of the conquered soldiers and impailing their victims on a wall. Another wall-sized series of carvings showed in great detail the Assyrian siege and conquest of Lachish (2 Chron 32; Isa 36) and the brutal treatment of the conquered (including, apparently, skinning some of them alive. Since I have no picture I will refer you to this link).

No wonder Hezekiah tore his robes, put on sackcloth, and poured out his pleas to the Lord in the temple! No wonder the people were terrified! And no wonder Jonah did not want to go to Ninevah! What a dreadful fate, to be conquered by the Assyrians! And that is what happened to Israel.

Also in the museum is the Taylor Prism, containing Sennacherib’s own account of his seige of Jerusalem. Although he had always conquered and destroyed all the other cities he attacked, in the case of Jerusalem he curiously states only that he shut up Hezekiah in the city “like a caged bird,” with no explanation for why he did not conquer that city also. (2 Kings 19:35-36)

I wish I had found the book a few weeks before our visit. There is so much in the museum that I would love to have seen, and perhaps I could have seen more if I had been better prepared. But what I did see was faith-building and inspiring. There is just something about seeing these actual physical pieces of evidence corroborating the biblical account, that gives a sense of strength and confidence. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend that you visit the British Museum and see the evidence God has preserved for us. It was an experience I will not forget.



December 9, 2009

This past weekend my wife and I returned from a business trip to Stockholm, Sweden. While there we had a wonderful opportunity to sit down and talk with the leaders of a local church of Christ (yes, there is at least one!) The couple (Americans) had been part of a mission team that started the church over 20 years ago, and had returned to lead the congregation again in recent years. They were eager for conversation with American Christians, and were more than gracious to drive over to our hotel for a short visit.

It was fascinating to listen to them, to hear their experiences and struggles. I was struck by how different things are for them in Stockholm compared to our situation in the Bible Belt of America.

1) By far most of the people in Stockholm are atheists. The approach for reaching out to them is therefore much different our approach in the American South. Their discussions focus on things like philosophy, ethics, the origin of the universe, the origin of life, etc. I would love to spend hours listening to them talk about the different approaches they have used in attempts to persuade people to consider Christ, and to bring them to maturity from such a remote starting point.

2) Their culture is very feminist — characterized by strong women and passive men. That creates lots of issues even in the church.

3) In Sweden it is illegal to spank your children (and it has been so for 30 years). Children can report their own parents as abusers by dialing a simple three digit phone number… and that can lead to the child being taken from the parents. As a result, parents are fearful of disciplining their children. Naturally, children grow up without proper respect for authority. This is a real challenge for the church, as they try to carry out their mission to the next generation.

I am reminded of a few things:
1) The need to pray for our brothers and sisters in places like Stockholm.
2) How blessed we are in America, though we admittedly have our own challenges!
3) The need for mature Christian leaders to travel to these young congregations to give advice and to share experiences. This couple genuinely appreciated our short visit. Longer would have been better. Not that I feel like my input is all that special — but they were eager for every thought I offered.

This couple were eager for our input on questions related to raising children — including how to know when a child is ready for baptism. There is such a shortage of people with that kind of experience. Here is yet one more reason for mature American Christians to visit mission congregations. Perhaps that would be a great way to spend retirement.

Meanwhile, please pray for our brothers and sisters in places like Stockholm.


Three New Topics

August 17, 2009

I try to post an article on this blog at least once a week. That is easier some weeks than others. Sometimes it is hard to find the time, due to other pressing issues. At other times, writers’ block gets in the way, as I struggle to think of new and relevant material.

Today, writers’ block is not a problem. Right now I have three topics screaming at me to write.

1) A group in the ICOC has developed a new, much shorter Cooperation Plan proposal. Long time readers will remember that I objected to the original Plan For United Cooperation. The new proposal is much shorter (one page rather than twelve) and appears to have eliminated some of the more objectionable aspects. I will be studying this and discussing with the other leaders in my congregation. Once I have done that, I intend to write an article with my observations about the proposal.

2) This past weekend I attended a seminar produced by Douglas Jacoby and Steve Staten, titled “WHY DO THE NATIONS RAGE? Gospel Solutions to Prejudice and Separation.” This seminar directly confronted the racial issues facing our churches today. These important issues are clearly relevant to our Lord’s plea for unity among Christians.

3) In a few weeks I will begin teaching a four-week series on the book of 1 Peter. As is my custom, I will be blogging on the topic as I prepare for the classes. Due to the fact that I have an actual deadline to be ready for this class, the other topics may have to wait. But I’ll try to work them in.


Doing What I Hate

July 27, 2009

Romans 7:15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do

Why do we keep doing what we hate?

Churches of Christ have a long history of quarrelling and dividing over virtually any disagreement. Disagreements have been with us throughout history, but division over those disagreements came to churches of Christ in a big way in 1889, at Sand Creek. The issues of that day included instrumental music, choirs, missionary societies, preaching colleges, hired preacher-pastors, and church fund raisers. Since then, further divisions have occurred over communion cups, Sunday Schools, premillennialism, the Holy Spirit, church organization, qualifications for elders, marriage / divorce / remarriage, the role of women in the church, discipling practices, and more.

Churches of Christ continue to repeat the mistakes of our forefathers. The spirit of Sand Creek is alive and well. We keep doing what we hate — which the Lord also hates:

Proverbs 6:16-19
16 There are six things the LORD hates,
seven that are detestable to him:
17 haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
18 a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
19 a false witness who pours out lies
and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.

I am writing this because I recently heard a report that one of the former ICOC congregations was “blacklisted” by leaders at another congregation. Having personal knowledge of the supposedly blacklisted congregation, I find that appalling. What kind of mindset would conclude that it is right to make such a judgment about a church they have not visited, about leaders they have not approached, about a group of penitent baptized believers who have made Jesus their Lord? What scripture gives anyone that right?

Divisiveness is deep in our DNA. It permeates our history, and we have so far failed to learn from that history. If we fear God, we would be wise to learn those lessons. The judgment we use on others will be applied to ourselves as well. Those who create divisions in the church do so at their own peril.


Leaders Need One Another

July 13, 2009

I am registered to attend the 2009 International Leadership Conference in Denver on September 3-6. This will be my third time attending (having also attended in Chicago in 2004 and Los Angeles in 2007). These conferences bring together ministers, elders, and others from ICOC congregations for fellowship and inspiration. As one who is committed to pursuing unity with other Christians, I am glad to be able to attend this year and am hopeful that the time will lead toward greater unity among these churches.

A few days ago I received an emailed article promoting the event, titled “Leaders Need One Another.” The article reminded us of our responsibility to counsel one another (Rom 15:14) . It spoke of how much we need each other, as different parts of the same body (1 Cor 12:21-26). The writer then said,

Boy, do we need one another. We need one another for the encouragement to persevere in an increasingly lost world. We need each other for direction and perspective when the work of ministering gets heavy and disorienting. We need each other for counsel and advice. And perhaps most important, we need each other as reminders of God’s miraculous devotion to the salvation of souls, including our own! We need to be together.

I heartily “amen” all of that. We need more communication, not less. We need to show the world that believers in Christ can be united, so the world will believe (John 17:20-23). We need the love and support of other believers. To the extent that we isolate ourselves from other parts of the body of Christ, we deprive ourselves of the benefits God intended for us to share.

But I wish that the organizers of this event didn’t stop there. This event is focused only on the congregations tracing their roots back to the International Churches of Christ. What about our brothers and sisters in the traditional churches of Christ? What about the independent Christian churches? What about others who have made Jesus Lord and have been baptized into Christ (Gal 3:26-29)? Are we not therefore one in Christ? Do we not need them, and do they not need us? We desperately need those brothers and sisters. And now more than ever, I think we might have something to offer to them also.

In the Chicago ILC of 2004, we had a guest speaker from Abilene Christian University who was the highlight of the conference in my opinion. There have been other interactions between the ICOC and ACU, but I don’t hear much about that any more. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest in those things. With the approaching 200th anniversary of the Declaration and Address, the ICOC should re-examine its roots, and reconcile with the rest of the family.


A Witness Between Us

July 4, 2009

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

The Israelites had taken possession of the Promised Land. Two-and-a-half tribes inherited land on the east side of the Jordan, and the remaining tribes inherited on the west side. By prior arrangement, the fighting men from the “trans-Jordan tribes” — those on the east — crossed over to the west side to help their brothers defeat the inhabitants of the land before returning to their families on the east.

After returning to their inheritance, the trans-Jordan tribes set up an altar as a reminder to future generations that living on the other side of the Jordan did not make them any less a part of God’s people. But the remaining tribes reacted angrily to the building of the altar:

Jos 22:11-12 And when the Israelites heard that they had built the altar on the border of Canaan at Geliloth near the Jordan on the Israelite side, the whole assembly of Israel gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them.

The Israelites presumed that the trans-Jordan tribes would offer sacrifices on the altar in violation of the Law. The Israelites were prepared to go to war, and surely to destroy the trans-Jordan brothers over this matter. Fortunately, before starting a war they sent a delegation to talk things over:

Jos 22:13-14 So the Israelites sent Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, to the land of Gilead–to Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh. With him they sent ten of the chief men, one for each of the tribes of Israel, each the head of a family division among the Israelite clans.

The trans-Jordan tribes indignantly denied that they had built an altar for sacrifices in violation of the Law, insisting that they built the altar as a memorial, not as a place to make burnt offerings:

Jos 22:26-27 “That is why we said, ‘Let us get ready and build an altar–but not for burnt offerings or sacrifices.’ On the contrary, it is to be a witness between us and you and the generations that follow, that we will worship the LORD at his sanctuary with our burnt offerings, sacrifices and fellowship offerings. Then in the future your descendants will not be able to say to ours, ‘You have no share in the LORD.’

After understanding better what their brothers had done, the Israelites were pleased:

Jos 22:30-31 When Phinehas the priest and the leaders of the community–the heads of the clans of the Israelites–heard what Reuben, Gad and Manasseh had to say, they were pleased. And Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, said to Reuben, Gad and Manasseh, “Today we know that the LORD is with us, because you have not acted unfaithfully toward the LORD in this matter. Now you have rescued the Israelites from the LORD’s hand.”

Had they failed to talk things over first, the Israelites would have incurred the wrath of God for destroying the trans-Jordan tribes. They were rescued from that fate by a few days of communication.

Maybe we could benefit in similar ways by communicating more.

I’m not aware of any congregations in our area who are prepared to go to war with each other. But the longer we go without communicating, the more distant we become; the more likely we become to mistrust one another; the more likely that rumors, gossip, and slander will create divisions in the church. Communication can stop those things. By communicating we can gain a better understanding of the challenges our brothers face and the motives for their decisions. We can put unfounded rumors to rest. We can learn how much we have in common. We can come to realize how much we could learn from each other. We can build trust.

So our congregation’s leadership is embarking on an experiment. We are planning a Saturday meeting between our elders, ministers, along with our wives. and those of another local congregation. We plan to have some structured discussion and some unstructured, just to share what each congregation is doing, how we are doing it, what is working well and what is not. We will share a meal or two together. We hope to give and to receive some practical advice, to build deeper relationships, and to grow in our trust and love for one another.

We did something similar with a congregation in NC about three years ago, but have never done this locally. The NC experience was a delightful time and one that has definitely helped us feel more connected with a church in another state. Now we want to do the same thing in our own area. If this first round goes well, we hope to schedule a similar event with other congregations, maybe one each quarter. And we hope to inspire these other congregations to do likewise.

This probably won’t bring world peace or cure cancer. But it’s not complicated. Anyone can do it. We hope it will have visible and lasting benefits to the church.


Fear of the LORD

June 24, 2009

Pro 1:7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and discipline.

Fear of God is one of the most frequently encountered concepts in the scriptures. From the time Abraham was commended for his fear of God (Gen 22:12) until the multitudes in heaven are commended for their fear of God (Rev 19:5), the theme is repeated over and over. Solomon stated that fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, the very foundation on which understanding is built. It seems that, in the view of Solomon, a person who does not fear God cannot credibly claim even to know God. Fear of God could be called a central theme of the Old Testament.

But, has the fear of the LORD become obsolete?

Many people who self-identify as Christians would say that Jesus brought an end to the need for God’s people to fear him. For them, God seems to have changed. They acknowledge that God in the Old Testament demonstrated his wrath, smiting people with wars, disease, and death. But they see God in the New Testament quite differently. Some go so far that they teach God will forgive everyone in the end. Perhaps this is the kind of teaching Paul had in mind when he spoke of people having itching ears. So, believing those myths, those folks see no reason for fearing God.

It is true that John wrote “perfect love drives out fear.” But until we reach a state where we sin no more, we cannot help but fear the one who has the power to condemn. Perhaps that is why God’s Word repeatedly admonishes us to fear God.

We find it difficult to understand how God’s love, grace, and mercy can coexist with his righteous wrath. Every person we know leans toward one side or the other — either toward generous grace and mercy, or toward strict judgment. We naturally visualize God being like people we’ve known (often, like our own earthly fathers.) But God is not like anyone you or I ever met. His love and his righteous wrath both exist, and both exceed anything we can imagine. We can’t predict what God will do based on what some human might or might not be inclined to do. God will do whatever he pleases. As the prophet Isaiah wrote,

Isa 46:9 Remember the former things, those of long ago;
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.
Isa 46:10 I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say: My purpose will stand,
and I will do all that I please.

Throughout the Old Testament, we learn that fear of God is intended to motivate us to obey and to avoid sin. A few examples:

Lev 19:11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another.
Lev 19:12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.
Lev 19:13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning.
Lev 19:14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

Lev 19:32 “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

Lev 25:17 You shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God, for I am the LORD your God.

The Israelites were commanded to fear God, and to teach their children to do so. (Deut 6:1-2; 6:24, 10:12-21, 31:12-13). Jehoshaphat appointed judges and commanded them to judge justly, out of fear the LORD. A lack of fear of God led the Israelites to turn away from God. (Jer 5:21-24). That is just a small sampling of the Old Testament cases showing how fear of God led to obedience and blessings, while failure to fear God led to sin and destruction.

But someone will say that Jesus changed all that. Notably, Jesus himself addressed the subject:

Luk 12:5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

Jesus apparently anticipated that some would object to the notion of fearing God. To overcome that objection, Jesus reminded us that God has the power to “throw you into hell” — just about the most frightening prospect that could be mentioned. He was talking about “real” fear, not an unemotional respect.

The early church demonstrated and taught that instruction from Jesus. Acts 9:31, 10:34-35, 2 Cor 7:1, Heb 10:30-31, 1 Pet 2:17.

Paul feared the LORD, and therefore devoted his life to persuading others (2 Cor 5:11).

When we don’t fear God, we tend to take sin lightly. We sin knowingly, anticipating that it will be forgiven. We don’t see God immediately punishing sinners, so we are more inclined to sin.

Ecc 8:11 When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong.
Ecc 8:12 Although a wicked man commits a hundred crimes and still lives a long time, I know that it will go better with God-fearing men, who are reverent before God.
Ecc 8:13 Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow.

Isa 57:11 “Whom have you so dreaded and feared
that you have been false to me,
and have neither remembered me
nor pondered this in your hearts?
Is it not because I have long been silent
that you do not fear me?

Fear of God is actually a gift of the Holy Spirit:

Isa 11:2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD
Isa 11:3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;

Perhaps there is no other topic in scripture associated with more blessings than is the fear of the LORD. A few examples of the blessings promised to those who fear God: (Isa 33:5-6; Psa 34:7-9; Psa 112:1-3; Psa 103:11-17) And then there is the 128th Psalm:

Psa 128:1 Blessed are all who fear the LORD,
who walk in his ways.
Psa 128:2 You will eat the fruit of your labor;
blessings and prosperity will be yours.
Psa 128:3 Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your sons will be like olive shoots
around your table.
Psa 128:4 Thus is the man blessed
who fears the LORD.
Psa 128:5 May the LORD bless you from Zion
all the days of your life;
may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem,
Psa 128:6 and may you live to see your children’s children.
Peace be upon Israel.

Fear of God is the beginning of knowledge, and is the source of many blessings. Failure to fear God is the cause of much sin and destruction.

Do we really fear God? If so, I think we would be zealous to get sin out of our lives. We would create wide boundaries for ourselves to keep ourselves as far as possible from committing sin. We would certainly study our Bibles to learn what God has commanded. We would be zealous to obey. We would be concerned for the lost. We would pray humble prayers. We would serve the poor. We would speak up for the cause of the weak and helpless. We would arrive at church on time. We would pay attention to the words in the songs we sing. We would listen attentively to the message preached from the Bible. We would absolutely give rapt attention to the reading of God’s Word. We would not quickly forget what was said and done when we returned home from worship. If we fear God, we would not try to justify ourselves. If we fear God, we would not be people-pleasers. If we fear God, we would not speak evil of our brother. If we really fear God, we will not fit in very well in a world where those around us do not fear God.

If we really fear God, we will be greatly blessed. The fear of the LORD is the key to this treasure.

Heb 12:28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe,
Heb 12:29 for our God is a consuming fire.

Ecc 12:13 Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.