Preachers Teach, the Spirit Applies, Right?

screen-shot-2017-02-06-at-12-37-43-pmPreachers with little application in their sermons may give the following justification: “It is the Spirit’s task to apply, not mine.” That is, it’s their task to explain “children obey your parents”, not apply by giving practical ways by which to do this. Preachers do the former, the Spirit the latter.

Here are four reasons I find this rationale unconvincing.

First, the greatest preachers in Scripture didn’t teach and then expect their hearers to sort out the application on their own. Jesus warned his disciples about anger without cause (Mt. 5:22). Then he told them what “anger without a cause” looks like practically (e.g. “You’re stupid!”, v. 22). John didn’t urge his hearers to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” and then leave it to the Spirit to apply it (Lk. 3:8). He chopped up this meaty doctrine into four bite-size applications, like “give one of your shirts to the poor” (v. 11), “share your lunch” (v. 11), and “don’t cheat on your tax returns” (v. 13). Continue reading

The Secret Place: A Reflection of Moses

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-5-19-17-amHe that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. – Psalm 91:1

Face to face, this man God knew

In cherished ways, though known by few

With gaudy epochs long since passed

‘Ere this old man, to God had asked—

“Your face, pure glory, let me see

In ways, hid from humanity.

Bushes burned and seas split wide

Stony water from its side

Such miracles, I’ve seen them all

And none compel my soul to call

Upon this latent God He be

As could a glimpse of glory see.”

Then God, so vicious, yet benign

Chock full in glory, light Divine

Stooped low—He placed this fallen man

Into a rocky cleft to stand. Continue reading

The Woman at the Well (part 1)

The outcast came at noon. The time

When noses high and looks sublime

Shaped the sneering maiden faces

Who, deep down, with hidden traces

Knew this shameful wretch was no worse

Than they. The husbands they would curse

At home could vouch: “If only walls

Could talk”, they’d tell the sins—the calls—

Of scorn and disregard they’d spew

At the harlot, thrice wed, plus two.

All this to shield their crimes and doubt

“Will my own transgressions come out?”


It’s noon. She’s all alone—though eyes

Piercing a dozen drapes—belies

Her movements at the village well

Are concealed. “Drink, please.” The words fell

From the Man who reached the spring just

As she—learning later He must

Have been there at just that moment,

For Providence guides the One sent

To bestow living water to

Thirsty souls. “How can you, a Jew,

Solicit me for anything,

And risk the shame that this would bring?”

(John 4:1-9)

Is Polygamy Adultery?

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 4.21.10 PM

The first wife looks the least happy.

Groucho Marx once said: “I find television very educational. Every time someone turns it on, I go in the other room and read a book.”

When it comes to polygamy, I resonate with Marx. Every time someone talks about this matter, it forces me to dig into books, namely my Bible.

Phil Hunt is a friend and fellow missionary church planter up in Zambia. Recently he forwarded me a doctoral dissertation by Honoré Afolabi on polygamy. Having written a similar paper on the subject, I was anxious to read Afolabi’s work. I was not disappointed. The paper was excellent.

Afolabi took the majority of his time to show that polygamy is sinful and contrary to God’s plan. With this I wholeheartedly agree. We differ, however, on two basic questions: (1) Is polygamy adultery and (2) should active, converted polygamists be barred from church membership? Afolabi denies both; I affirm both. Here, I would like to address only the former. Continue reading

Should Parents Discipline Their Children When Angry?

I once heard a pastor say: “All displays of anger are sinful.” It’s also been said that parents should never discipline their children in anger. Is that true? When Johnny foments discord, or hits his sister, or disrespects his mother, is it ever valid for his father to show anger in voice or mannerisms? Consider this.

First, there are a number of causes for anger, some good and some bad. Some evil roots would be rejection (Gen. 4:5), a lack of love (1 Cor. 13:5) and the desire to repay evil for evil (1 Pt. 3:9). Men no doubt battle the sin of anger more than women do (1 Tim. 2:8). Some positive causes of anger would be Spirit-filling (1 Sam. 11:6) and seeing the hardheartedness of others (Ps. 7:11, Neh. 5:6-7).

Second, Christians are encouraged by precept and example to be angry but in control. In Ephesians 4:26, Paul gives an imperative: “Be angry and do not sin.” The Greek verb behind this command is used often in the LXX, both of man’s anger and God’s. The examples are laden with emotion, as when Jacob berates his father-in-law for pestering his family (Gen. 31:36) and Moses is irate at Israel’s idolatry (Ex. 32:19).

Third, we cannot say that anger is intrinsically evil, since God often expresses His fury. God is said to “burn” with wrath (Ex. 22:24) everyday (Ps. 7:11), this often toward his covenant people (Jdg. 2:14). God, however, always controls His anger—never sinning in the process.

Fourth, human anger should be emotional. Are we really to believe that Jesus internalized all of His wrath, biting His lip as wickedness abounded around Him? In Mark 3:5, Jesus is “angry”, this word followed by “grieved” to show the strong emotional aspect of Jesus’ wrath. Jesus was even aggressive in His anger (Mt. 21:12).

Fifth, and this is where we answer the question about parents, the Bible is loaded with qualifiers regarding anger. Christians should control their anger (Pr. 14:29), confront people directly (Mt. 5:21-22), avoid befriending angry people (Pr. 22:24-25), use soft words (Pr. 15:1), and learn to assuage people’s anger by de-emphasizing their own accomplishments (Jdg. 7:24-8:3). But never are people, and parents specifically, told to avoid anger altogether. It is true that Ephesians 4:31 tells us to put away “wrath”, but this is certainly an anger that is malicious in nature.

Moreover, all emotions, just like words, communicate something. When Suzie excels, we affirm with words and all the smiles and clapping motions. When our ten year-old is in a moment of rebellion, why should we feel more godly when we say with a stoic face and measured tone: “Son, sassing your mother was not the best thing to do. Please go to your room”? Jay Adams observes: “Anger in administering disciplinary codes must be thought of as within the code. Modern advice that parents should never administer discipline when angry is not biblical. Because anger is not wrong, one apologizes not for anger, but only, for instance, for losing one’s temper in the discipline of children.”

If anger should be emotionless, how are our children to tell which things angers father the most? Is it when the football team loses, when he hammers his thumb, or when his children disrespect authority? In most homes, the former two come with high emotion. Parents would do best to move that emotion to the latter, being sure to accompany this anger with all of the Scripture’s qualifiers.

Why the Old Testament Doesn’t Rebuke Polygamy

One of the arguments people use to minimize the sinfulness of modern-day polygamy—especially in Africa—is the apparent blind eye God has towards it in the Old Testament. John Reisinger writes: “There is no instance in the Old Testament Scripture that suggests, in any way, that polygamy was a sin. This does not prove that polygamy was not a sin, but it does prove that God never treated it as a sin.” John Mbiti is even more direct:

Christians who uphold monogamy as the only acceptable form of marriage before God, tell us that this is what the Bible teaches. They go on to tell us that polygamy is a sin. I have searched the Bible carefully and one of the staggering things concerning marriage is that the Bible does not treat marriage in terms of either monogamy or polygamy.

Whether or not Scripture explicitly forbids polygamy is fodder for another day’s war. The issue here is whether God’s relative silence about the patriarch’s polygamy implies tacit approval. I say no. Here are some sins in Genesis by righteous people.

1)    Noah gets drunk (Gen. 9:21) – No rebuke from God.

2)    Abraham lies (12:10-20) – No rebuke. In fact, God punishes Pharaoh.

3)    Lot impregnates his daughters (19:30-38) – No rebuke

4)    Abraham lies again (20) – Abraham not rebuked…but Abimelech is!

5)    Jacob deceives his brother (25:31-33) – No rebuke

6)    Isaac lies (26:6-11) – No rebuke, but more blessings! (12)

7)    Jacob deceives father (27) – No rebuke, just more blessing (23)

8)    Jacob tricks Laban (31:20) – No rebuke

Assuming no one would use these stories to support drunkenness, incest, or dishonesty, why then polygamy? Surveying the other 38 books in the OT would bring endless more examples. The point is that God’s disapproval of polygamy in the OT is clear. It shouts at us, but not in propositional form. Rather, the narrative paints for us the ugly picture of family squabbles, marital tension, painful neglect, discarded children, broken promises and unquenched jealousy.

After all, we are never explicitly told that the prodigal son was wrong for squandering his wealth. Just look at the consequences.

A Parent’s Persistent Prayer

bp30The Canaanite’s daughter was wasting away, but when the Mother heard that the Healer was in town, she pounced on him like a dog on a flung stick.

Her story in Matthew 15 is full of emotional upheaval, packed tightly with passionate appeal and near embarrassing groveling. Mom cries (v. 22). Jesus flat ignores her (v. 23). Mom follows the Healer’s friends, only for the disciples to beg Jesus to “send her away” (v. 23). Mom then ignores an apparent racist comment (v. 24). Mom kneels and pleads again (v. 25).

Jesus then says he came to help another race of people. Talk about racial discrimination. But Jesus was testing her faith.

With brazen chutzpah, the Mom pleads again: “Help me” (v. 25). Jesus continues to examine her motives, and as often the case with us, the child is right in the middle of it. Finally, as Spurgeon observed, “The Lord of glory surrenders to the faith of the woman.” Presto. Daughter healed.

Parents must emulate this woman’s dogged prayer. An outsider with so little light had so great faith. John Flavel said: “What mercy was it to us to have parents that prayed for us before they had us, as well as in our infancy when we could not pray for ourselves!” When our children rebel, and suffer, and disobey, and falter, let us remember the “dog’s” tireless prayer from Matthew 15.

Let us pray with unfettered audacity: “Father, give my child a new heart.” With relentless appeals: “Lord, preserve my daughter from a life of rebellion.” With unstinting pleas: “May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown, our daughters like corner pillars cut for the structure of a palace” (Ps. 144:12).

What is the Central Gospel Passage on Divorce?

Matthew 19:3-12:

3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

The motive behind the Pharisees’ question to Jesus about divorce and remarriage was to “test” him (Gk. peirazō, the same word used for Jesus’ temptation by the devil in John 4:1). This alone should serve to warn Matthew’s readers that a comprehensive treatment of marriage and divorce is not forthcoming. Perhaps the Pharisees had in mind John the Baptist’s reaction to Herod’s divorce and remarriage, a reply that eventually led to the prophet’s execution (Matt. 14:1-12). Perhaps they thought the same fate awaited Jesus if he misspoke. Regardless, Jesus’ intent seems to have been to address enough of the issue to avoid their trap.

In v. 3, the phrase “for any cause” (absent from the lengthy Markan account) warns the reader that the notorious debate between the great first-century rabbis Hillel and Shammai was on the table, a dispute that centered on the meaning of “some indecency” in Deuteronomy 24:1. The followers of Shammai allowed divorce only for overt “indecency”, while Hillel’s disciples allowed it “for any cause” the husband might deem legitimate, indicating that the questioners in v. 3 were probing Jesus regarding his reaction to Hillel’s perspective.

Jesus answers their question with a question in order to reframe the debate. The Pharisees’ emphasis, as reflected in the rabbinic debate, is on grounds for divorce, when God’s intent is permanence in marriage. Jesus rejected the categories of their questions, and did not allow them to use the OT law as an easy escape from God’s purpose for marriage. In so doing, Jesus goes back to Genesis 2 and the creation ordinance of marriage to remind them of God’s original plan. Jesus affirms in v. 5 that marriage is defined by serious commitment (“leave” and “hold fast”) and sexual consummation (“one flesh”). Contrary to the view claiming that infidelity automatically ends the marriage bond, sexual infidelity breaks the union only if it is accompanied by a formal decision to end the divorce.

Even though “separate” (Gk. chorizō) in v. 6 is a different word than “divorce” (Gk. apoluō) in v. 3, it must still refer to divorce because that is the question at hand. Further, Jesus will reuse apoluō later in vv. 8 and 9. Some use v. 6 to argue that marriage is unbreakable, but to say marriage is indissoluble is to interpret Jesus as saying: “Do not divorce (even though in reality this is not even possible).” Rather, Jesus teaches that divorce is undesirable, not that marriage is unbreakable.

Prior to v. 7, Jesus has only affirmed that marriage should be permanent. Now the Pharisees responded again, asking why Moses commanded a bill of divorcement (v. 7) if there can be no divorce. Though Jesus grants that divorce was allowed due to Israel’s stubborn unwillingness to be faithful to the marriage covenant, it is simply not true that Moses “commanded” divorce. Rather, Moses (Gen. 2:24) and Jesus (Matt. 19:5-6) commanded permanence in marriage.

Verse 9 is crucial as it is the only single verse in the NT referencing grounds for divorce and remarriage. We will discuss this exception clause below as we deal with the synoptic parallels to this passage in Mark and Luke.

Was Judas Converted?

Here’s an incredible quote from John Nolland in his NIGTC commentary on Matthew regarding Judas’ suicide in 27:5.

The Christian tradition has been fiercely against suicide, and not without good reason. The present text has been a major impetus to the negative moral evaluation of suicide, and it may be responsible for some of the more regrettable features of the historic Christian abhorrence of suicide. But is Judas’s suicide presented in a totally negative light here? As responsible for Jesus’ death, Judas recognizes that he too should face death. But he cannot get the Jewish leaders to take his confession seriously. So as a desperate man he takes the law into his own hands and sees to the execution of the sentence on himself. There is a fitting correspondence between Jesus’ words in 26:24, ‘it would be better for him if that person had not been born’, and Judas’s termination of his own life: he had no hand in his birth, but he can take measures to ensure that the life that has caused such wrong continues no longer. Not strictly in the sense intended, but nonetheless in a profound sense, Judas is the first disciple to ‘lose his life for [Jesus’] sake’ (16:25).

When it is all put together, I think it is extremely difficult to deny the Matthean Judas genuine repentance. His change of heart cannot be judged as less authentic than that of Peter in 26:75; it is certainly much more dramatic in its practical effects, and it is spelt out in much greater detail by Matthew. Judas is not restored in life as are Peter and the other disciples, but, more than likely, Matthew fully expected him to be restored beyond life.

So Nolland concludes that Judas was more than likely converted. I agree that Judas appears to have had a change of heart after his betrayal of Christ. He acknowledged that he had “sinned” (v. 4). Further, nowhere in the Bible does it say that suicide is the unpardonable sin. All sin is forgivable for those who humbly repent and confess their sin before Christ. But… Continue reading

What is the Central OT Passage on Divorce?

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is vital not only because it is the only OT law specifically dealing with divorce but also because it forms the background of Jesus’ discussion on the same topic with the Pharisees. The text contains three elements: the protasis (the “when” part—describes the conditions), the apodosis (the “then” part—the main clause giving a command) and the justification. It reads:

1 When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.

The protasis (vv. 1-3) gives the grounds and procedure for divorce. The husband no longer approves of his wife because he has found “some indecency in her” (Heb. ’erwat dābār). The word ’erwat often refers to nakedness and the exposure of the private parts. Though the meaning of this phrase is hotly contested, there are at least two reasons to define ’erwat dābār as some kind of indecent or shameful offense that falls short of illicit sexual intercourse (i.e. adultery). First, the only other usage of this phrase in the OT is one chapter earlier in 23:14, where it clearly refers to excrement. Second, Moses said just two chapters earlier that the punishment for adultery is death (Deut. 22:22; cf. Lev. 20:10-18), so it would be odd for him to describe a different practice here.

The procedure for the divorce is twofold. The man gives a “certificate of divorce,” which legally breaks the marriage covenant and declares that the woman was not guilty of adultery. Next, he “sends her out of his house”—making the divorce final. The next two verses describe a situation where she remarries and her remarriage is followed by another divorce or the death of her second husband. The apodosis (24:4a) gives the punch line—the command. “When” the things in vv. 1-3 happen, “then” this is what must follow. The wife may not remarry her first husband. Continue reading