Thursday, January 19, 2012

It's not about Esther

Have you ever taken the time to read through the book of Esther? I don't mean do you know the story of Esther...have you read it? Sometimes we discover that stories we have grown up hearing aren't always exactly in Scripture the way we heard them. Case in point, the story of Esther. Did you know that the book of Esther is the only book of the Bible that makes no direct reference to God? Seriously, there is no mention of God in the entire book! On top of that, there is no mention of prayer either.

But I would argue that the book/story of Esther is about God, not the winner of the beauty pageant. While the book doesn't mention God by name, His presence is evident everywhere you turn in the story. Ultimately, the story is about how God sovereignly directs every detail to ensure the continued existence of his people Israel. Remember, Haman is seeking to destroy the Jews because he hates Mordecai. But if Haman succeeds in destroying the Jews, then the Abrahamic Covenant is violated and there is no Messiah.

Instead, we see God faithfully keep His covenant to His people as he works every detail of the story for His glory. Here are some examples.

It's not coincidence or by accident that...

1. Queen Vashti has her crown removed. God needed a vacancy in the palace and He made sure there was one.

2. Esther was chosen out of possibly hundreds of girls. For whatever reason, the king picked her, whether it was her beauty, personality, etc. All those things would have been given to her by God. He made sure she would be the one picked.

3. The King found favor with Esther when she approached his presence. He hadn't seen her in a month, he could have easily been having a bad day and gotten rid of her just like he did with Vashti. But he didn't.

4. The king can't sleep one night and has his servants read to him the records of the palace, only to find out that Mordecai had recently saved his life. He finds this information out right before Haman wants to ask to hang Mordecai, thus stopping the wicked plans of Haman.

Oh, I'm sure some would chalk these events up to luck, but even Mordecai recognized that Esther had been positioned perfectly for "such a time as this." The book never mentions God. But it is indisputable that God is the one behind this entire story. We may call it the "Story of Esther" but trust me, it's a story about God. It's about His faithfulness to a covenant He established. A covenant that promises a Messiah who comes to save both Jew and Gentile. This story is good news for us. Praise God He keeps His covenant!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Does Jesus Hate Religion? Ask the Greek

Jefferson Bethke's video on YouTube continues to gain much attention, both on YouTube and on the blogosphere, examples here and here. Much of the backlash he has received centers on his perspective of "religion". Did Jesus truly hate religion, and if so, why?

I, for one, found the video thought provoking. But, as is often the case, when thoughts and feelings are communicated through poetry, much of the content is left for the hearer to interpret on their own. And this interpretation is usually the result of our context in hearing it. A poem is meant to communicate something, often feelings, emotions, ideas, thoughts and perspectives. Often full explanation is not divulged, instead the hearer is often left to draw some of their own conclusions and applications from what was heard.

Because of this, poems can be both dangerous and damaging. And in the case of dealing with what God's Word communicates, the responsibility is great. Bethke undertook a big task in addressing the topic of "religion" through poetry. Undoubtedly his poem was heard and understood in different ways, as a result of different contexts. This is why some would label his work as an attack on any organized religion, while others would see it as a call to true religion. But perhaps there is a third group, like me, that is left asking the question, "What is religion?"

The poem, liked or hated, rests on how one defines the word "religion". At first this seems easy, but the word is used differently so often today. A few ways I've found myself using it the past include...
1. Different ways of getting to God - we use the term "religion" when dealing with other groups of people who believe they are on a journey to God, in a different way than we believe. "False Religions" or "World Religions" is a way of defining clear, distinct belief systems of appeasing God and enjoying the afterlife. It can also be used for "our religion" for how we understand God's revelation. For Christians, we would understand both the Old Testament system and the New Covenant as "our religion".
2. Rules for getting to God - in our own Christian faith, often times the word is used in relation to a false mindset of "working our way to heaven". The better term perhaps is legalism. Basically, it's the idea of condensing the call to holiness down to a manageable (at least its perceived that way) list of tasks to be accomplished to ensure that God is pleased. At times the Old Testament Jewish system produced those who were guilty of this. These are the ones that Jesus addressed so sternly, and caused him so much anger. The Sermon on the Mount was Jesus declaration against this hypocrisy. It's "our religion" gone wrong.
3. Taking care of orphans and widows - a lot of times, when we want to use the term "religion" positively, we turn to James 1:27, where in some translations we are told that pure and undefiled religion is to care for the helpless. Sometimes forgotten, we are also told it means to remain unstained from the world.
4. Organized religion - sometimes the word is used as a reference to organized religion in and of itself, i.e. the local church, the call to holiness, the ordinances of baptism and Lord's Supper, the responsibility to meet with other believers and submit to godly leadership, etc.

I'm sure there are others, but those are probably the most common uses I am aware of in my context. How Bethke's poem is heard and responded to will greatly depend on how the word "religion" is defined by you. I heard his poem in the context of an attack on the legalistic mindset of working for God's favor and priding oneself on religious accomplishments. Perhaps, because I am currently studying that topic for myself. The gospel frees us from work. In fact, its the very idea of not working or ceasing to work that leads to our salvation. (Rom. 4:5) If Bethke's purpose was to attack the good works mentality that won't be abolished until Jesus returns, then I wholeheartedly endorse that message. If he is attacking the "our religion gone wrong" mindset, then I say "Amen!" Others perhaps heard a more wide sweeping attack on religion to include both the organized church as a whole. If his message is to call us to a more spiritual approach to life, absent from the "religious" responsibilities of aligning ourselves to an organized body of believers, that regularly participate in the activities the Word calls us to, then his message is destructive. I'm convinced he wasn't trying to communicate that at all based on what I know about him from his other works.

But what does God's Word say? Did Jesus hate religion? I guess it depends on not so much the definition, but the word we are using. The trouble we are experiencing in answering this question lies in the fact that we are having this discussion in English, when the New Testament is written in Greek. Why is that problematic? Kevin DeYoung rightly stated in his article that the word "religion" appears five times in the English Standard Version. Were you to do a word search in another version, it would appear more or less. But I think it's a mistake to then base our understanding of the word on such a search. Most who want to say that Jesus did not hate religion, will turn to James 1:26-27. Here, as we've already said, we are given a picture of true religion or right religion. But is the word "religion" being used the same way here as it is in the other four passages in the ESV word search? Did you know that the Greek word for "religion" in James 1:26-27 is only used in two other passages of the New Testament? And it's only used in one of those passages that results from a word search in the ESV? Let's look at both...
1. Acts 26:5 -They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee.
2. Colossians 2:18 - Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,

Those are the only two uses of James word for "religion" anywhere in Scripture, when you do a Greek word search. Notice in the second usage of the same word from James, the translators of the EVS use the word "worship" instead of religion. Again, this is the only two times the Greek word in James is used elswhere in the Bible.

What's my point? That I don't think we can clearly define Jesus' views on "religion" if we are trying to make religion mean one thing. The word doesn't have one clear definition or usage as revealed in Scripture. On top of that, it is an English word that is being applied to Greek words. And as we just saw, sometimes the word religion isn't even applied consistently to the same Greek word. I think Kevin DeYoung makes a mistake when he says, "Religion is all law and no gospel. If that’s religion, then Jesus is certainly against it.But that’s not what religion is. We can say that’s what is has become for some people or what we understand it to be. But words still matter and we shouldn’t just define them however we want." Because that is exactly what he does. He defines it differently that what he perceives in the poem because he understands it differently. The fact is that word "religion" does mean different things. It is used differently based on what we are trying to communicate at the time. And on top of that, I can't think of anyone who wants to be known as "religious", which means no matter how much we wish that word didn't have negative connotations, it so often does. Jesus often rebuked those who thought they were "religious" but the Scripture is so silent on affirming people who were "rightly religious". Meaning the N.T. writers never praise churches for being "religious". Instead they use words such as "faithful", "called", "child" and "loved".

Bethke's poem is certainly not perfect, nor is it absent from things I personally would have said differently. Bethke perhaps could have done a better job of defining what he meant and didn't mean. I think the important thing to clarify is that whether you liked the video or not, everyone I talk to agrees on the same things. We hate false religion and we embrace "right religion" whether we call it that or not. We love Jesus, we hate the damning message of Satan that says "good works will get you to Jesus" and we all embrace the call to love the church of Jesus and serve this world faithfully until Jesus returns.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Learn about Hebrews

My friend Rob Conti from Snowbird is starting a series on the book of Hebrews for the Snowbird blog. I would encourage you all to follow along. The big of Hebrews is deep (meaning it's hard to understand) and rich (meaning it's worth the effort to understand) and I know Rob will do a great job of passing a long tid bits of truth from this wonderful, Christ-exalting book.

Did you know that when the New Testament canon was being finalized that the book of Hebrews was up for debate because no one new who wrote it? Ultimately though it was determined that the book was so Christ exalting that it had to be written from God.

Follow along with Rob's blog on the side bar under our Recommended Blogs. You won't be disappointed.

Another 24 Books Complete!

At the beginning of last year I made the commitment to once again read two books a month. By God's grace I was able to find the time to complete 24 books for the year. I've listed the books I completed below and would encourage you to pick up any one of them this year to read. I was encouraged greatly by all of them. Let me know if you would like a specific review on a title. As always, use caution and discernment as you read as these men are not inspired.

1. Basic Christianity by John Stott
3. The Prayer of Jesus by Hank Hanegraaff
4. A Life of Prayer by Paul Cedar
5. Alone with God by John MacArthur
6. A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller
7. Don't Waste Your Life by John Piper
8. Why We Love the Church by Kevin DeYoung
9. Crazy Love by Francis Chan
10. Radical Together by David Platt
11. Money: God or Gift by Jamie Munson
12. The Christian Atheist by Craig Groeschel
13. Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung
14. Doctrine by Mark Driscoll
15. Christian Beliefs by Elliot Grudem
16. Bible Doctrine by Wayne Grudem
17. Money, Possessions and Eternity by Randy Alcorn
18. The Treasure Principle by Randy Alcorn
21. Christ and the Future by Cornelis P. Venema
22. Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer
23. Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
24. Letters to a Young Calvinist by James K.A. Smith